All posts by Damon Sasi

Chapter 130: Unadorned

Chapter 130: Unadorned

A shard of sky rests at the bottom of the volcano’s caldera, the smooth lake at its center reflecting the slow drift of the clouds above Cinnabar’s highest peak. Taming the volcano was a major step in establishing the gym on Cinnabar in the first place, and now the inner caldera has been converted from its role as a natural habitat for rare and powerful wild pokemon to a massive stable for tamed ones.

All of which means the view would be more impressive than Misty’s oceanside arena even without the occasional sight of a charizard flying in the distance. Building Cinnabar’s arena in the caldera would be pretty reckless, even in a long-dormant volcano, which is why Blaine had it built around the lip instead.

One of the camera drones buzzes slowly by as Blue climbs the stairs to his podium, and he forces a smile despite the biting cold. The volcano isn’t high enough to be capped by snow, but it’s still nearly winter, and only his thermal jacket and pants make it mostly comfortable being this high. A while back he bought the best trainer gloves he could find, insulating ones that barely reduce his dexterity, while also having better grip than bare fingers, but they still feel slightly off compared to the thousands of hours of experience he has bare handed. He’s glad he’s practiced with the gloves as much as he has; their handicap is still way better than frozen fingers, and he’s trained with someday battling in Articuno’s blizzards in mind.

From the top of his podium he can see Blaine standing opposite him, white labcoat worn over a thick red turtleneck instead of his usual button up and tie. Blue has always thought the coat stands out on a Leader who otherwise seems allergic to presentation and theatrics, but despite the months he’s been here, it’s only seeing Blaine wearing it again here, combined with the breath-taking view of the island and ocean spread around them, that he wonders what it means to Blaine rather than what it might be signaling to others.

The stands are packed despite the remote location, everyone bundled up against the cold, with some holding flameless Fire pokemon in their laps for warmth. There’s extra distance between the arena and the audience compared to other gyms, and he can’t make out any of his friends in the bleachers, but Leaf said she’d try to make it, and he knows the rest of his crew are here.

Red isn’t. Too predictable a time and place where he might be, too much risk of Rocket trying to take him out.

But he’ll be watching, Blue knows, him and Gramps and Daisy and others.

“Blue Oak,” Blaine suddenly says. “What is your Challenge?”

Blue manages to hold in his laugh. The lack of prebattle speeches is one of the more infamous aspects of Blaine’s Leadership, and Blue isn’t actually surprised that the man wouldn’t break that norm for him… even if he did help revolutionize the island’s recruitment and defenses.

Once Brightfire and his “clan” showed up, other online influencers were close behind. Some were people Blue had on his list of influencers to reach out to, others were the kind he considered too volatile or unserious to be a good influence on the younger trainers in the program. It’s been taking a lot of time and effort, along with social nudges and maneuvering, to ensure they don’t destabilize the process.

But overall, it’s been working so far. Dozens of trainers, working together in coordinated teams to help maintain control of the island, turning yellow zones green and orange zones yellow and red zones… mostly orange, with some exceptions.

Maybe it’s those exceptions that led to Blaine not acknowledging what he’s done. In the end, Blue failed to deliver an island at peace, even if he helped it get stabilized enough for Blaine to resume his challenge matches at a pre-Ditto pace. In a sense, Blue is only here because his number finally came up… but he still feels like he earned this match in a way that part of him wishes would get some public acknowledgement from Blaine.

“I challenge for Mastery.”

“Cinnabar accepts. You may use three pokemon against my six. The first trainer to achieve three knockouts wins. If any pokemon is killed, their trainer loses.”

“So what’s your plan?”

“Rule one of battling trainers: you don’t go in with a plan.”

That’s rule one? And I’m only learning it now?”

It was their fourth time meeting to teach Leaf trainer battle tactics, and the first time she managed put up at least a bit of a real “fight” against Blue. She still hesitated too much, didn’t seem to notice most of the paths to victory that were available to her pokemon… but she was improving, and Red had started out mostly the same, if with a somewhat different set of blind spots. A younger Blue might have found the sessions a waste of time, especially with a gym challenge coming up, but he’s been using them as opportunities to train up some of his weaker pokemon, as well as practice less common combat commands… plus, it felt good to help Leaf get up to speed in her battle tactics.

And strange; he’s never coached someone who was so skilled as a trainer but so bad at this particular aspect before, and it felt like a fun puzzle in itself to figure out the best ways to help her close the gaps.

“It wasn’t relevant before now.” He shrugged. “If you’re only fighting one pokemon at a time, and you know what it is ahead of time, sure, you can strategize. A trained mon will do stuff a wild one won’t, and will have TM moves, but you can learn all that, make a spreadsheet or whatever. But you can’t do that against a whole trainer team.

And, he didn’t add, renegades add an extra layer to all that, doing even more things than most trainers, being an extra element as a direct threat… but they’d get to that part later, and a couple battles didn’t make him an expert. If she stayed serious about it, there are renegade defense training courses taught by police that she could attend, or some ex-hunter she could hire as a tutor.

But all that could come later. First they’d cover basic stuff.

Leaf was giving him a skeptical look as she tossed a handful of berries at Raff, who finally evolved into a venusaur after their third day of battles. “I’ve seen you poring over spreadsheets ahead of gym challenges, back in Vermilion with Red and…”

“Aiko.” For all the good that did, given the surprise Membership battle that was itself cut short by Zapdos. “Yeah, but remember what I said? You don’t go in with a plan.” He gave it a moment, and when she continued to frown, “You go in with—”

“—multiple plans, ugh, Blue, having multiple ‘plans’ in one flowchart is still ‘a plan!’ Even multiple flowcharts could still be called ‘a plan!'”

“Details,” he said, waving it all away with a smile to match hers. “Point is, even knowing what type a leader will use, even predicting every mon on their belt, any plan I put together needs to be ready to get dropped. What if I rely on Soul acting as a pivot to absorb fire attacks, and he gets taken out by an unexpected matchup? What if I use my whole team to set up a sweep, and Blaine has the perfect tank to fully wall it?”

“Well… I remember you once ranted at Red to not become ‘one of those bigbrains’ who… relies on too many pokemon to set up a sweep, or something?”

Wow, you didn’t tune me out nearly as much as I thought when I talked about battle stuff.”

She smiled, brushing windblown hair out of her face. “Or you underestimate how much battle stuff you rant about.”

Nah, I’m fully aware. But yeah, any more than two pokemon per strat is just showing off, I think. Not just for sweepers. A hazard team maybe gets better with three to set up, but I think two is enough, with the rest as redundancies or an alternate strategy.”

“So that leaves you with three sets of potential winning conditions, at most? Or maybe one win condition and multiple ways to achieve it?”

“That’s one way to do it, yeah. But that assumes you’ll be using a full belt. One of the reasons you can’t rely on any single plan is you never know exactly what kind of battle you’re walking into, which is why different formats exist; to simulate different circumstances you might face outside of a battle arena.”

Even at this distance, the air is still enough that Blue hears the murmur go through the crowd. He keeps his expression steady, pulse having spiked only a little at the verbal confirmation that Blaine would be going… not all out, but close. It wasn’t entirely unexpected; 8th badges are when the safety bars usually start dropping, but Blaine has been known to do it on 7th badges before, as have Giovanni and Surge.

As an admission of Blue’s skill, it’s gratifying. But as a sign of what Blaine has planned for him…

Three pokemon against six.

But still only three knockouts to win. Which means Blaine has twice as much leeway to go all-out with his pokemon, since he doesn’t need to conserve strength or stamina… and because, much as it would be a mark against the Leader if he kills a challenger’s pokemon, it’s generally seen, fairly or not, as a slap-down against someone who wasn’t ready. Blue’s not tempted at all by the victory he could get by killing one of Blaine’s pokemon—the mark of that would follow him worse than a loss (and would be a waste of a powerful pokemon, besides), not just in public perception, but in the way it would justify the next Leader or Elite he faces in coming down even harder on him.

Blue’s mind races through his plans, discarding them as Blaine reaches for his belt. The battle calm is slow to descend as his own fingers trace over his pokeballs. Maturin, Rive, and Soul are the powerhouses on his left hip, while his newer sandslash, pelipper, and poliwrath are on his right. Should he go more defensive, in case he’s about to get hammered? But if Blaine tries to stall, he’ll have twice the ability to. It may come down to what Blaine sends out first…

Fire/Grass can handle Water and Ground types and Fire/Ground or Fire/Fighting will cover Rock but he can’t cover all three at once…

Blaine is unclipping a ball from his belt—

Rock/Ground is my best bet but he knows that and—

Blue almost unclips Soul’s ball for the safety of matching Fire against Fire, but Blaine locking Blue into the first three pokemon he swaps between makes each non-coverage ‘mon far less valuable—

Blaine is throwing—

—and Blue snap-decides on the double Rock/Ground coverage, with only 3 pokemon he has much less to gain by holding a particular counter back as a surprise sweep—

“Go, Coalossal!”

“Go, Rive!”

His rhyperior materializes on his hind legs, arms extended and ready to blast stones out at whatever Blue summoned him for… in this case a walking mountain of glowing coal, with the fairly unique capability among Fire pokemon of shooting not just fire and tar out, but jets of steaming water.

Which on its own is often enough to take a Rock/Ground pokemon down in one hit.

He has moments to predict how Blaine might have trained it. Speed or Durability? Preservation or the long game?

The choices narrow in the space of heartbeats, and Blue yells “Ras!” just as Blaine shouts his own command. Scalding water blasts out at Rive while he slams his fists into his own body in a rapid staccato that sends chips of stone flying forward in a cone that coats the battlefield.

Rive roars in pain as the water hits, white cracks snaking over his torso… but his body is extra compact compared to most Rock types, heavy scales arranged to minimize gaps in his armor, and a shout of “Rad!” sends him barreling forward on all fours, horn spinning.

A second gout of scalding water jerks to the side as the titans clash, water and steam and flames venting from the coalossal as its body is torn into, and a moment later it’s withdrawn, while Rive manages to rise onto its back legs with a groan.


“So okay, both trainers are trying to set up sweepers or hazards or whatever, while denying the enemy whatever they need. Is it basically just a more complex Fire-Water-Grass? Do sweeper teams beat hazard teams but lose to stall, which are beaten in turn by hazards?”

Sort of, except each mon is its own thing too, and there are brawlers who are just there to wade in and wreck shit. That’s Soul, for me, and Maturin a bit too. Well rounded bulk and speed and damage, plus decent coverage options just makes them a pain to try to set up around. You might do it, but it’ll cost, and enough costs add up to bring everything collapsing down. Some people form entire teams of them, each there to wreck a different strategy up by brute force.”

Why isn’t that the default, then?”

Well, because they’re vulnerable to all three if they get unlucky. If Blaine has a Volcarona that starts Quiver Dancing, I’ve got Rive and Soul to take it down, but if I lose them before it’s sent out, or they’re too weak to beat it even un-boosted? Good sweeper teams are built with a win condition in mind, and the rest of the team is there to get them to it. Or look for opportunities to sneak it in if the enemy missteps.”

Huh. So that’s your plan for Blaine? Fire pokemon don’t really do hazards or walls, right?”

They have a few, but yeah it’s not really their thing. And Blaine should have a good sense of my capabilities, even if he doesn’t know what’s on my team—that’s part of the point of having challengers fight competent gym members first—so he should know that anything too obvious won’t work on me.”

Unless that’s what he wants you to think, and you prepare for something less obvious, and—”

Yeah, yeah. So it goes.”

Blue watches Rive sway slightly, then stabilize, and lets a slow breath out, pulse quick even through his calm. It was a gamble that the coalossal would be slow enough for Rive to use Stealth Rocks and take it out after. If he’d been wrong, he would be down to two pokemon and not have put a scratch on Blaine’s frontrunner… but he knew Rive could take at least one hit, and he’d gain the field advantage either way, one that will be particularly important if Blaine ends up swapping pokemon a lot.

But Rive won’t take much more, even against a Fire pokemon, and the part of Blue that wants the cleanest win regrets letting him take that hit when he could have knocked out the enemy instead, leaving him with an easy 3v5 and the ability to set up the rocks on whoever is sent out next.

He doesn’t need Red to poke him about hindsight bias to notice that the train of thought isn’t helpful, and toss it aside. That battle’s done, the next is coming, and he’s still well positioned. Not the best he could be, but he avoided disaster, and Rive may be able to help soften up one more—

“Go, Blaziken!”

“Return!” Blue’s arms snap into position to withdraw Rive before he gets pummeled unconscious. His new Fire/Fighting opponent manages to dodge most of the floating rocks that immediately zip toward it, and Blue barely has any time to pick the replacement pokemon, but he knows there’s a Scovillain waiting for any Water pokemon he sends out and so instead he sends—

“Go, Gulper!”

His pelipper appears over the battlefield and immediately banks to the side, managing to avoid a direct hit by the blaziken’s leaping kick. Blaine probably doesn’t have another Rock type to send out, which means Gulper should be mostly safe—

“Return!” Blaine throws as Blue brings the whistle necklace to his lips and blows a command for Water Pulse—

“Go, Rotom!”

—which hits the newly summoned… levitating convection microwave, which


in Blue’s vision, like one eye is seeing the microwave and the other is seeing something wearing a microwave costume that’s too small for it as it thrashes inside.

The two overlapping realities snap together as the microwave suddenly turns on, lights blinking rapidly as the cover opens, bright with heat.

And the trap becomes clear.

And what’s his plan for you?”

Dunno. Blaine isn’t exactly the most attentive Leader, wouldn’t be surprised if he doesn’t even know my starter is a blastoise, let alone that I have a rhyperior. But Fire having only three weaknesses does help with predictability.”

Not a lot of Fire pokemon that can handle those weaknesses, though.”

Yeah, and there’s basically zero overlap in the types that resist each, so he has to choose with each one. Maybe that’s why, when you look at his past battles, sometimes Blaine is the most straightforward Leader. No fancy strats, just spamming Overheat and Flare Blitz and Burn Up, not trying for sustainability, just keeping the pressure on, Fire Blasting his way through any Type resistances. Other times he’s definitely got a well crafted team, like you can see the thought he put into building it, and sometimes it’s brilliant, but he’s not Erika or Koga.”

Tactics over strategy?”

Exactly. I’ll be pretty surprised if he’s got some trap in mind, especially if he’s got one prepared for me, specifically. I’d guess that in his head, it would be showing favoritism or something, boosting my status even more, and I especially doubt he’ll do something like that given I failed to make the island safe fast enough to skip the queue.”

The rotom’s obvious upcoming move, despite appearances, would be an electric attack that would take Gulper out in one hit. Blue could swap to Rive to negate it… but there’s no chance Rive will outspeed it to get another KO, and an Overheat would take his injured rhyperior the rest of the way down, even through his resistance.

Which means Blue has to swap in a third pokemon, and lock himself in for the rest of the match despite only seeing half of Blaine’s pokemon.

“Return!” Blue yells before his pelipper gets electrified, fingers of his other hand twitching from one ball to another.

Blastoise, sandslash, poliwrath…

“Go, Soul!”

His arcanine appears just in time to catch the bolt, muscles locking up and hair sticking up all over his body. Once it passes, he shakes himself and roars.

Blastoise and poliwrath would be so damaged by the thunderbolt that they might not be able to withstand an Overheat after any better than Rive would. Sandslash could take the thunderbolt instead of Rive, and (probably barely) withstand an Overheat to finish off the rotom… but being stuck with a Ground type would make an enemy Fire/Flying or Fire/Grass twice as dangerous to him.

It had to be Soul, who on top of everything else—



—is fast enough to take the rotom down before it can get another attack off, forcing Blaine to withdraw it.

3v4. Sort of. He still needs two knockouts, but the rotom can’t come back out without being taken down by the Stealth Rocks, so it’s effectively out of play…

“Go, Turtonator!”

Unless Blaine can clear the field.

Soul’s jaws close around the Fire/Dragon turtle that appears, Crunching hard enough into the thick, spikey shell it keeps between them that a crack runs through it.

It wouldn’t matter. Turtonators have the toughest hides of any Dragon in the world, their shells even harder than the metal scales of an archaludon—even Rhyperior would struggle to break through it with a Drill Run, and the resulting Shell Trap explosion would give nearly as good as it got.

And thanks to its Dragon blood, even Maturin, if Blue could use her, would have to spam multiple Hydro Pumps to take it down. Gulper doesn’t stand nearly as good of a chance.


Dragon blood comes with its own weakness, besides the Ice attacks that turtonator’s heat protects it from.

And combined with the damage from Stealth Rocks and Crunch…

It’s starting to sound like you’re saying there’s basically nothing you can do to prepare.”

Nah, not quite. There are some things that are easy enough to predict that they’re worth preparing specifically for… and of course, some things are just a good idea to train regardless, if you have the time and money.”

It should be a more dramatic moment, this reveal. He hasn’t talked as much as he could have, about the anger that used to pace inside him, anger he always imagined taking an arcanine’s form. A couple off-hand mentions, once in an interview, once in a blog post after he caught Soul.

It felt too private, most of the time, and a little embarrassing. He was still half a kid, two years ago, and a lot of things from that time feel farther away every day.

But a part of it all still feels real, a core part of how he experiences himself, and that part feels there’s something special about this moment, even if Blaine’s unadorned directness forces Blue to match it.

“Soul,” Blue shouts, just as Blaine gives his own command. “Rage!

Flickers of purple flame start to lick around Soul’s body, and then the arcanine bursts into motion as they spread and connect all around him. He lifts the turtonator off the ground and slams it back down to the side, then lifts it up to do it again, and again, whole body bending from side to side as he kicks off with his hind legs.

The turtonator tries using its rock-hard head to smash Soul away, but can’t get the right angle to make contact. Blaine gives another command, and instead the turtonator jabs its beak into the ground the next time it’s slammed into it. The earth below them explodes upward and outward, flinging Soul across the arena as the purple flames around him flicker and fade.

The crowd gasps, and Blue tracks his arcanine with his ball… but Soul rolls to his feet upon landing, patches of fur blasted off by coarse, heated earth. Blue almost withdraws him anyway—his pokemon is clearly dazed and confused, shifting unsteadily between his feet and shaking his head—but a glance at the turtonator makes it clear that his opponent is down for the count, and Blue wants to give Soul at least a few moments to recover before he’s withdrawn for later.

Now it’s 3v4, with only 3 viable pokemon left, thanks to another risk paying off. The path to victory should be clear by now. Just take down one of the remaining three pokemon Blaine sends out next, using all three of his pokemon to do it if he has to.

But he knows it won’t be that simple. Two of his pokemon are weak, and the Blaziken could possibly sweep both, depending on how long Soul takes to regain his senses. That would leave Gulper against three opponents who could each probably trade a free blow or two with it before being safely taken out…

Blue blinks as he realizes a few seconds have passed. Longer than the usual swap-in time, though not in a way that would call in a penalty; Soul isn’t poisoned or bleeding out, if anything the extra time helps him.

“If you’d used such a powerful attack against an even slightly weaker pokemon, you might have killed it. Especially after it was hurt, and its defenses damaged,” Blaine says.

Now they’re talking? Blaine doesn’t do half-time speeches any more than he does pre-battle ones… not unless he’s delivering a browbeating.

A cold hand clenches around Blue’s heart—did the turtonator actually die? But no, Blaine didn’t check with his pokedex, it’s probably fine…

Blue does his best to keep his face calm as he breathes past his quickening pulse, the cold air stinging his nose as the battle calm slowly fades. “I taught Soul to use Outrage specifically to face a turtonator—a pokemon I believe couldn’t be stopped in any other way.” And he’d needed to stop it. If he’d let it stay on the field, it would have likely used Rapid Spin to clear out the stealth rocks, bringing the rotom back into potential play (and being an unstoppable ongoing nuisance, besides).

Maybe now is the time to say more, about how rage against the unfairness of the world has always been a motivating part of his soul, or how he wanted to prove that impossible-seeming things could be done… but the words die on his lips, attention drawn again to their surroundings.

The island stretched out below. The distant lake, reflecting the sky, with a couple charizard flying in a slow loop around it. The sound of the cold wind, filling the silence without taking away from it.

And he thinks he gets it. The reason Blaine built his arena here. The reason he’s so anti-showmanship or attempts to persuade… which are different to being anti-appearances, or anti-presentation, maybe.

Because this volcano, it is a spectacle. The view from here, the experience of being so high up and feeling it, both literally in the cold air and somewhere in the deeper stillness… it’s just not one that needs creating, or gets meaningfully added to by anything else Blaine could do. Or anything Blue can do.

Blue lets it in, a different sort of calm, and says nothing, simply watching Leader Blaine across the arena. Letting his actions speak for him, and keeping his words a simple explanation of those actions.

Leader Blaine looks back at him, though it’s hard to make out his expression from this distance, especially through his sunglasses. But through the corner of his eye, on the monitors for the viewers, Blue catches the eventual nod.

A test? If so, it’s not hard to guess; Blaine’s virtue is responsibility, and Blue squarely took it. Not just in retrospect, with a turtonator who survived the use of such a powerful attack, but by binding himself by his word that it was a move learned for the turtonator, and thus would not be used against other pokemon.

And what does passing mean, given they’re already in the middle of the match?

Maybe it’s just this moment to rest. Down below, Soul stops his confused swaying, regaining some balance as he moves to stand guard in front of Blue, who continues to take in the silence, letting go of any anticipation or stress about it. His hands casually move to rearrange his belt, putting Rive and Gulper on his right together, Soul on the front of his left. Sorry, Maturin. Next time.

It feels like an age has passed, but in reality it’s probably less than a minute from withdrawing his pokemon before Blaine unclips a new ball. “This match result has likely been decided, and I dislike wasting time—”

Another spike of panic. Decided which way?

“—but you have yet to show the pivotal pokemon’s mettle. Bring out your pelipper, and see if it can secure your victory.”

Blue hesitates for half a breath before his hands start moving, confused but willing to trust… whatever is happening, even if it slightly disadvantages him. A quick withdraw of Soul, which he expected to do anyway, and then:

“Go, Gulper!”

“Go, Charizard!”

It’s large, almost a quarter the size of the arena, and its roar shakes the stillness from the air. A second roar follows the first, this one of pain, and the air grows hotter with the sound, warmth spreading over Blue’s face as he watches the Stealth Rocks puncture the great lizard’s tough hide.

Gulper is about half its size, but to her credit she barely reacts to the roars (a third one sounds, far in the distance), and Blue quickly brings his whistle to his lips to blow another Water Pulse, which thankfully comes after the overwhelming blast of fire that’s sent in her direction, heating the air further and blowing Blue’s hair back.

Now whose moves are capable of killing?! he doesn’t yell, watching through the returned calm as his pokemon catches itself out of a plummet, burnt feathers falling in a cloud, then retaliates. The charizard recoils as the ring of water hits, and tries to launch itself up after the struggling pelipper… but its wings are in tatters from the rocks, and a quick whistle from Blue has Gulper banking around to dodge the second Overheat, which is thankfully weaker than the first, and looks like it just grazes Gulper.

The two pokemon fly above them and Blue relies on Gulper’s easier turning ability to get behind the charizard and divebomb it with another Water Pulse. A sharp whistle from Blaine has the charizard flip itself over and smack Gulper out of the air with its tail, in a maneuver that would be awesome if not for the fact that the combined damage sends the charizard plummeting down after to crash against the arena floor.

Even with that, it still turned out pretty cool.

Blue blows a new tune for his pokemon to Roost while their opponent picks itself up, looking at least as unsteady as Soul had. Blue is distantly shocked it’s still able to lift its head at all, and knows in his gut that without the Stealth Rocks, this thing would have (metaphorically) eaten Gulper alive. Maturin or Rive could probably match it, but if Blaine used a TM to teach it Solar Beam… would he, for a 7th badge challenge? (Come to think of it, that’s another reason this arena was probably set here…)

Gulper is resting on the ground, shedding burnt and broken feathers as new ones quickly regrow, and Blue is ready to end the Roost as the charizard regains its focus—

—”Return! Go, Scovillain!”—

There it is, and unfortunately for it his quick whistle gets Gulper out of the way of most of its Bullet Seeds. They practiced for hours on those tight spiral climbs and dives, which can be easily followed up with an Air Slash, itself enough combined with the Stealth Rock to nearly take the scovillain down—

—quick check that Gulper can survive another Bullet Seed, maybe not a direct one but—

—”Return, go Blaziken! Brave Bird!”


The flaming, wingless bird crouches down, then leaps in a blur to meet Gulper mid-air, and Blue’s pelipper is knocked out of the sky for the second time in under a minute. Blue’s heart leaps as she flaps rapidly to catch herself… and retaliates with another Water Pulse—

“Blaziken, return.” Blaine’s voice cuts through the roaring in Blue’s ears, and he’s ready for whatever comes next—the charizard again? No, the rocks… the scovillain?

Instead nothing comes but words, the words: “I consider all my pokemon unable to fight, and forfeit. Blue Oak has earned the Volcano Badge.”

And then the wind is drowned out by the cheers, and Blue lets himself sag against the banister. No tricks, no posturing. Just relief, and a wide, open smile.

One more.

Chapter 129: Reframe

Chapter 129: Reframe

“Let me see if I get what it means to be Leaf Juniper,” Dr. Sotala says. “If I may?”

“Please.” Leaf smiles. “If you do, you might be the first.”

He smiles back, then shifts on his couch seat to be a bit more relaxed, staring up at the ceiling with his hands gently folded across his chest. It’s a nice ceiling, with dim lights at the four corners and a painting of a starry sky. Leaf is positioned cross-legged on her couch, a position she’s found surprisingly comfortable since she tried it during her love-and-empathy-for-pokemon lessons at Sabrina’s school. Doing it on the couch is even more comfortable than doing it on the meditation cushion they had there.

“I, Leaf Juniper,” Dr. Sotala begins, “Believe that pokemon suffering is as important as human suffering. In practice I accept that humans have more intelligence and agency, and so have the ability to affect the world in ways pokemon don’t, but this power comes with a responsibility to be good caretakers of pokemon, the same way humans feel a responsibility to be good caretakers of children.” His gaze drops to her. “So far so good?”


His gaze rises again, hands steepling under his chin now. “With some exceptions, most people believe the suffering of human children should be reduced, in theory at least. Children are the ultimate innocent, and in most humans we have a part that believes deeply that innocence matters, and bad things should not happen to good or innocent people. It feels deeply unfair, and triggers our protectiveness.

“Many people do not feel this with pokemon, who are considered threats first… but they should, because pokemon are no more responsible for their actions than human children are, and so long as they’re made harmless, the acceptable amount of suffering for both should be equal. We can already see the potential for them to be treated equally, where just a few generations since pokemon could be reliably made safe, people often bond with them as pets and friends, or even consider them members of our families.”

Leaf nods along, thinking of the old woman in Pewter, decrying the “disrespect” people today feel for majuu. Much as she could understand many of her concerns, it does feel more than ever like lack of understanding is what leads to difficulty living well alongside pokemon, not too much knowledge about them.

But would she change her mind, if there was some fact she learned about pokemon that would reliably lead to people caring less about their suffering…?

“But there are still a lot of reasons why people allow pokemon to suffer. When the children’s suffering is out of sight, it’s harder for people to motivate themselves to act. But so long as they don’t see it, such as on meat farms, or they believe it’s necessary, such as for training, they prioritize other things. And if it’s pokemon living out in the wilderness, it’s just accepted as part of life… which is a whole other issue, but not relevant to the rest of it for now.” He looks at her again. “So far so good?”

“Yeah, I don’t think I would have summarized it that well myself if asked!”

“Great. Okay, so as an extension of all of the above, I, Leaf Juniper, believe that for most pokemon, life with a trainer who treats them as a friend or family member is better than life in the wild, even if used to battle wild pokemon. Because dying painfully in the wild is the default, they have a better chance of a longer, happy life with a trainer… even with the added risk of occasionally fighting wild pokemon. Right?”


And, the pokemon can do more good for others, both human and pokemon, if they help capture more wild pokemon, and generally defend against their attacks, since the better human society does, the more people are available to save pokemon from dying in the wild.”

Leaf blinks. “Huh. I… don’t think I’ve ever thought of it that way, but… no, it’s not wrong.”

“What would you have said instead, for why it’s okay to use captured pokemon to fight wilds?”

“That it’s like defending their family. Assuming the trainer is treating them right, of course, but this is what the initial training after being captured does in the first place, for most species.”

“This is part of why it bothers you so much, if trainers mistreat their pokemon.”

“Yeah. Pokemon can’t really agree to take the risks we ask them to take, but we’re also not really giving them a choice. We almost literally program it into them. To do that but then not care about them feels… pretty horrible.”

Dr. Sotala nods and strokes his red beard, face thoughtful… but not in a way that makes Leaf think he’s just putting on generic-thoughtful-face. It took her five tries to find a therapist who she not only felt both was a good match for her in personality and therapy style, but also seemed to take her beliefs seriously enough to actually help her think through them more clearly. This is their second session, and she reminds herself not to feel too optimistic—she had multiple sessions with some of the previous therapists before stopping—but she does feel like he seems to get her, at least, regardless of whether he agrees with her positions or not.

“And,” she continues, feeling a need to expand further, to make it clear that she’s not ignoring reality… “I know this is something like the best possible world we could be in right now. I know that the alternative to humans catching pokemon is that we just stay in barely surviving tribes, most people suffering and dying young, and pokemon are caught in an endless cycle of suffering and dying too. I do believe this is a necessary stage in getting to a better world. But we still have to own what we do, and I don’t see that ownership in most of society, or even most trainers.”

“Especially not from trainers who engage in battles with each other?”

Leaf bites her lip, thinking of Blue. “A lot of them just have different priorities. I’ve debated with plenty about whether fighting other trainers is necessary to better defend against wild attacks, but… while I wasn’t really convinced before, the renegades have changed things.”

“And so there’s a part of you, I mean me, Leaf Juniper, who believes any unnecessary suffering among pokemon is unconscionable, and a part of me that believes I should learn to fight renegades, but that belief requires me to train my pokemon specifically against other trainers, and I feel…”

“Stuck.” She swallows. “Lost.”

“Pulled between two opposing values?”

Leaf reflects on the words, then shakes her head. “I think I… do feel pulled more toward trainer battles, now. It feels like the thing I should do. But I don’t know how to, with the way it makes me feel when I consider it.”

“Like it would make you a bad person?”

“…maybe. I don’t know that I worry much about what a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ person would do, though. I think I care more about how to be a good caretaker for my pokemon, a good friend, a good journalist… things like that.” She reflects a bit more, then keeps thinking out loud. “I don’t know if that’s enough. People can definitely be good friends or good journalists but ‘bad people.’ But if I try to think in terms of ‘what’s a good or bad person,’ I get, like, error signals internally, or… I don’t know, flashes of people sacrificing themselves for others, or kicking babies or something? Whereas I get more useful thoughts if I think in specific contexts.”

“Understandable. So the tension is between ‘what would a good caretaker do’ and ‘what would a good friend do,’ or possibly ‘a good citizen?'”

“Yeah, basically.”

“But not something like, ‘what would a hero of justice do?'”

She shifts in her seat. She can’t tell if the motivation is flattering or not, but she also doesn’t know if it’s true. “Is that… Do I seem like that?”

“I’m exploring, not trying to get you to admit something,” he says gently. “Journalists are often driven by an interest in justice. You’ve helped stop renegades twice. Does justice not feel like a motivation, here?”

She takes a moment to consider, to search inside the confusing mix of feelings that led her to where she is. “I do care about justice, of course. But fighting renegades isn’t… I’m not about to become a hunter, or an interpol agent, or anything. Things have come to an extreme point, and I want to be prepared to help, but it’s not something I feel passionate about.”

Do hunters feel passionate about their work? Probably. Hopefully? She can’t actually decide which seems better; people doing a job like that because they’re passionate about it, or because they believe if they don’t no one else will.

He watches her for a moment, maybe waiting to see if she’ll add anything more, before nodding. “You’ve described your symptoms when watching pokemon get hurt as a jittery, empathetic pain. It doesn’t happen as much if you watch footage, and it also isn’t some latent psychic power, since it happens when dark pokemon are hurt, and you don’t feel it as much when you’re in battle?”

“Yes to most of that, except… I don’t know if I’d say I don’t feel it as much when I’m fighting, but those situations are always serious enough that I just push through it.”

“Understandable. Then I have two questions.” He holds up a finger. “First. Earlier I said, as you, ‘unnecessary suffering.’ Last session we talked about—”

“Frames, yeah. It’s definitely a framing issue, I realized that a while back, when I tried to force myself to get used to seeing it happen. It didn’t work, but… I guess maybe I just didn’t find the right frame, yet.”

He nods, and holds up a second finger. “What happens if you just try anyway?”

“Try what?”

“A trainer battle. You said it feels bad to watch one. You said it feels bad even to fight wild pokemon, but you are able to get through it because the situations are dire, and you must. But that sounds like an assumption. What if you do not get through it because you ‘must,’ but because some other factor involved in the battle process counteracts the jittery pain?”

Leaf stares at him, and feels her pulse quicken just by imagining it. “I…”

“It is okay, if you are not ready to try.”

She shakes her head, then stops herself, unsure what she’s even indicating. She takes a deep breath, then lets it out. “I want to try. But just the thought of it feels bad.”

Dr. Sotala nods. “If you do decide to, we have things we can do to prepare you. As much as this may be in your nervous system, and you want to soothe it, we can try exposure therapy. We’ll start with basic relaxation exercises, followed by simple, minimal stimuli that you practice acclimating to while relaxing your system, before we move on to more real experiences.”

Leaf slowly nods, feeling herself relax just from the thought that maybe she can practice this as straightforwardly as working a muscle. “I’ve heard that a hundred hours thinking about how to solve a problem is often less valuable than a single experiment. It seems worth trying, yeah.”

“We can also explore different framing devices; I’m curious what happens if you watch footage of a pokemon battle, without knowing if it’s between trainers, wilds, or a trainer and a wild, and how your mind jumps from one conclusion to another, and how your body reacts to those assumptions, and what happens if you imagine different contexts instead.”

“I’d like to record that process, if possible. I think there are others it might be useful to.” Others she found, here and there, online, but mostly for Natural, who she knows has been considering something similar.

“Of course. And finally, we can do some parts work. We want to know what the stressful, debilitating part of you is protecting against, what it’s afraid of, and how you can reassure it that it will be okay… assuming we can, after listening to it more fully to ensure you’re not missing something important by trying to stop it from happening.”

Leaf slowly nods, staring at the ceiling. “I’ve been having trouble doing that last thing, so far.”


“I… there’s a part of me convinced that all this isn’t just for helping pokemon or helping my friends or helping society. This part thinks I need to do this because I need to ensure survive.”

She knows he’s going to ask, Survive what? And then she’ll have to decide if she wants to tell him about the whole ninja thing. Even for therapist-client confidentiality, even though he lives in a region on the other side of the planet from Kanto, it still feels too risky to talk about it.

But instead he just says: “It feels too selfish, for you to accept it?”

“I’m not sure. None of my parts want to die, and if I wasn’t willing to risk pokemon’s lives to save my own, I wouldn’t have become a trainer. But it’s a step further than I was ever willing to take before, and I think I need to know this will actually be worth it, in some way, before I’m willing to make my pokemon take on extra pain for it.”

“If you put them through trainer battles and then never face a renegade, you’ve hurt them and your opponent’s pokemon for nothing?”

“Basically, yeah.” She likes that he recognized the hurt to the other pokemon matter to her too, not just her own. “And getting stronger to face wild pokemon isn’t enough, because I haven’t needed it so far. I won’t say there’s no lateral transfer of experience and skill, but…”

“A big part of your belief structure is that it’s not the optimal thing to do if you really just want to get better at catching wilds.” Dr. Sotala strokes his beard. “Ultimately, the skills gained from battling trainers is primarily good for battling trainers. But I looked into some of your friends, when checking your online presence. From what I gathered from some of his noted accomplishments, your friend Blue Oak seems to disagree with that.”

“Oh, yeah. I mean, he’s worked hard to set up different kinds of trainer battles, scenarios that are more like wild battles, so I think he gets that it’s a problem?”

“Nevertheless, do you think he’d agree with your position?”

Leaf shakes her head. “We’ve argued about it before, once or twice.”

“And you still disagree?”


“Could you sum up his argument, in a way you think he would agree with?”

Leaf opens her mouth to say yes, then stops. She frowns slightly. “I guess I… I mean I could philosophically. But not from a pragmatic perspective.”

“Then perhaps try speaking with him about it again? Or rather, try listening. Whether he’s correct or not, without the desire to convince him, you may be able to learn to better see the world as he does.”

Neutral ground.

It’s a phrase that has a powerful effect by the contrast it creates, and Leaf felt her stomach twist the first time she read it.

“…insisted the meeting take place on neutral ground, such as my Gym, which they accepted…”

“Implying, that places other than Fuchsia Gym might not be as safe?” she asks as she paces back and forth, Raff following her movements as if it’s part of a game.

“…will assure your safety, and believe they wish to reach some agreement… Yeah, not just you, that’s fucked up,” Blue says as he hands back her phone.

“Great.” Leaf sighs and sticks it back in her pocket as she looks out over the ocean. They’re on a plateau above Cinnabar Mansion, high enough that they can’t be observed or overheard but low enough that Leaf can make out the people below as they eat their lunch break. Picnics on the grass around the mansion have become something of an unofficial tradition for the project, which felt odd to Leaf given they all work for interpol, but she’s certainly not complaining. “I think I’d prefer it if you said I was being paranoid.”

A few clicks of her laser pointer send Raff bounding around and throwing razor leaves at the targets Leaf set up, while Maturin seems to be trying to knock a tree over using headbutts. Blue finishes mixing a vitamin supplement for his pokemon, then looks at Leaf. “You’re going, then?”

She realizes she’s biting her lower lip and stops. “If there’s a chance they might be willing to step out of the shadows, maybe even help with Rocket… yeah, I think I have to. They may even know who ‘Archer,’ is, or how to find him.”

“If Koga can’t convince them…”

“I think him getting them to show up is all he could do. It’s obvious they won’t go to the police or interpol without something more.”

Blue is silent, with the exception of a sharp whistle that makes Maturin blast water out toward her own targets. One gets knocked clean over, but the other is only winged, and spins in place.

“You think it’s a bad idea.”

“I think that I trust Koga and Janine, but I’d rather have more than trust. You need backup.”

“Anyone I bring would be putting them in danger too.”

“Is that supposed to scare me off, after what you said about wanting to help fight renegades if you have to?”

Leaf can’t help but smile, though she still tries to articulate why she’s averse to accepting help. “They’re not just renegades, they’re assassins.”

“Right, so we won’t drink any offered tea, and we should probably wear gas masks. What else?”

Leaf laughs, but Blue looks serious, and she nods after a moment. “You’re right. And I appreciate the support. Particularly since if it goes well… maybe I’ll stop feeling like going anywhere predictable is dangerous, and can actually attend your match.”

He grins. “Well it’s just this one and the next, so we really have to make sure it goes well then, since there won’t be many opportunities left for that. Speaking of which…”

“Right.” She turns back toward Raff, getting ready to call him over so they can get on with their battle… but instead just watches him play for a few moments.

Then a few moments longer, until finally Blue says, “It’s okay if you’re not ready.”

His tone is neutral, and he looks so serious, his whole focus on her. Aside from the occasional grumbling, especially early on in their journey, Blue has always been respectful about her not wanting to do any trainer battles, but his excitement was obvious, and a bit overwhelming when she finally reached out to him to see if he’d be willing to be her first sparring partner.

It’s one part flattering, and one part heartwarming, and one part nerve wracking, and also makes her stomach do weird things. She already had the talk with him that Dr. Sotala recommended, by messenger, asking him if he could point her to some of his writing or give her his best attempt at why trainer battles matter for people who only want to fight wilds.

He’d asked her to give him a couple days, even though she insisted it didn’t need to be too robust, that she wasn’t planning to argue with him, just to read and absorb. After three days, he sent a ten-thousand word long “outline,” and from there the conversation eventually moved to…

She smiles at him. “I don’t know how to tell if I am or not, but if all the exposure therapy hasn’t been helping in the real world, I want to know sooner rather than later. Let’s go. Raff, ready!”

“Maturin, ready!”

Their pokemon come to join them, standing opposite each other, and Leaf feels her muscles tensing even before she puts a hand on her pokeballs. Blue waits patiently across from her, despite the fact that she only has another hour before the break is over, and she’ll be back down in the excavated lab as they breach a few more sections.

Leaf takes a deep breath, like she’s about to leap into cold water, then yells, “Raff, Stun!”


Leaf flinches as the water hits Raff. Even though it was a weak attack, even though Raff shrugs the attack off fairly easily. Maturin gets covered in spores, movements slowing almost immediately, and Leaf reaches for an empty pokeball—

—then stops, remembering—




Raff avoids the first, but not the second, and Leaf’s arm twitches to return him, even though that would be ridiculous, he can take more than this, he’s fine… he’s waiting for her to give him another command…

“Raz…V-Vine W…”




She feels the jittering discomfort growing under her calm as Raff gets partially hit again, and knows she can’t just keep dodging forever…


Another blast of water, a spurt of powerful poison, and Blue yells, “Stop!” as he withdraws Maturin just before the purple goo can splatter over her.

“Stop,” Leaf yells back, needlessly, given her pokemon is just standing there, staring at the spot its opponent used to occupy. She rushes to spray Raff with a potion, hand shaking, while he beams up at her, and she can imagine him being elated at having defeated the big, scary blastoise that was threatening her, not even realizing she wasn’t in any danger. The big scary blastoise that was his friend for most of his life… Swords of Justice, why didn’t she think of that sooner?

“Could you re-summon Maturin?” she asks, voice shaking. She needs to see…

Blue’s blastoise reappears, and for a moment Raff tenses, and her heart leaps into her throat. But the “stop” commands did their work, and neither pokemon is primed to treat anything around it as an enemy anymore. Blue sprays his pokemon to remove her paralysis, and Maturin shakes herself, then looks around, sniffing, before she stomps toward the edge of the cliff, watching some wingull wheeling overhead.

Raff ambles over to join her, vines brushing through some grass on either side, and Leaf feels her muscles unclench one by one. Only then does she sag, falling to her knees.

Blue jogs over, and she waves him off before he even arrives, but he still crouches beside her, looking concerned. She finishes taking deep breaths until she feels the jitteriness fade. “Honestly… that went better than I expected.”

Blue’s lips quirk. “Does that mean you’re open to some feedback?”

“Lay it on me, coach.”

“You should attack more.”

She gives him a weak grin, which quickly fades. “I know. I got the two off, though.”

His look is negative-impressed. “I’ve seen you chain two attacks and a maneuver into a single command. I know Raff’s gotten less agile over the years, but two attacks to my five? You were holding back, hard.”

“Yeah.” She sighs. “I get that Raff could take those Water Guns. I get that Maturin could take Raff’s attacks too. It was still hard not to prioritize avoiding pain for either of them.”


“Go ahead, you can say whatever it is.” She shifts into a more comfortable cross-leg, leaning back on her palms as she watches Raff exploring Maturin’s shell with a vine until she growls and bats it away.

“Hm? Oh, not another criticism. I was actually thinking… your normal strategies are very status heavy, and normally I’d say, let’s lean into that. You know? If it’s how you like to fight, you can totally make it work. But the only reason you’re doing this is to fight renegades if you need to, and those strats… don’t work so well on them.”

This is the main reason she wanted her first battles to be with Blue, rather than her one of her other friends, or her mom, or even Red. They’d all be supportive, and Red could even sense how her pokemon were doing and convey that to her, which would be reassuring.

But Blue is the best battle trainer she knows, and he’s had experience fighting Renegades. She wants to learn more than just how to get through a trainer battle; she needs to learn to win, or she’s better off just staying out of them. “Yeah, I figured that out during the battle too… my strats are built around going for a capture as soon as possible.”

“Oh, that part’s fine, actually! I mean I appreciate you not doing that to Maturin, but it is an option against renegades.”

Leaf blinks. “Huh. Right.” She’s… worried about the damage it does to an already trained pokemon psyche, but… they’re renegade pokemon. Their best alternative is getting killed no matter what she does.

Just the thought of it makes her queasy for a moment, and intensely, deeply angry at Rocket and everyone like them.

Blue rolls Maturin’s ball in his hand. “Maybe we can adapt your style. You’re perfectly positioned to fight in a really unique way, and wanting to avoid direct damage will totally throw your enemies off. It might not be good for every circumstance, but it’s just spicy enough to take most people by surprise, and secure wins against even trainers strong enough to be on Victory Road, though maybe not Elites.”

She blinks. “Really?”

“Really. I’m even getting new ideas about how to pull some version of that off with my teams… but either way.”

The idea of developing a whole battle style around non-violent-capture interests her, almost enough to want to take out her phone and start brainstorming ideas. But…

“You said they don’t work like that, though?” Blue is right that against Renegades it would just be more wasted training. “Do you have any suggestions, then?”

“Maybe. But it won’t matter if you can’t do any attacks at all, so let’s try again. This time, your only job is to hit with at least two Razor Leaf attacks. I promise, she’ll be fine even if one hits a critical spot. Okay?”

Leaf takes a deep breath as she tries to internalize that assurance, then nods and gets to her feet. They square off again, and this time Leaf pushes straight for the goal. “R-Razor Leaf!”


The sharp, spinning leaves cut into Maturin’s blue hide, and she feels her heart ache even though the big turtle barely reacts. “R-…dod-Razor L-”




“R-” The word sticks in her throat, and she struggles to take in a deeper breath. “Raz…”


She winces as Raff gets hit again, unable to even shout for him to dodge, and can only force out a “Stop!”


They both move to heal their pokemon, Leaf’s hands trembling, as Raff looks up at her with a toothy grin, and she feels her eyes tearing up as she strokes his head, then rises to help heal Maturin…

But she’s already fine, and Blue is walking over. “That was… oh.”

She sniffs and wipes at her eyes. “Sorry, I—”

“No, it’s fine, hey. It was progress, right?”

It didn’t feel like progress. She sits and rubs Raff’s head, and Blue just sort of stands awkwardly nearby until her pulse slows down, and she can breathe more easily again.

“Did I push too much?” Blue asks after a minute.

“No. This is pretty normal, for… escalating stuff like this.” She takes a deep breath, lets it slowly out. “My therapist said that ‘mental frames’ might be the most powerful piece of psychotechnology that exist, and might be the right path to try finding a way forward. But I’m having trouble finding the right one.”

“Frames, like…?”

“Like… you know how some people are taught to treat failure as a sign that they’re bad or weak, while others treat it as a learning opportunity? Or like, taking for granted that people mean well and just make mistakes, instead of assuming that anyone who hurts or disagrees with them is malicious.”

Blue nods and sits beside her. “Got it. People with a growth mindset will keep working to improve, while those who believe everyone’s limited by their circumstance gets stuck in place. But you’re on the right side of all of those, yeah?”

“I… don’t think it’s that simple, they’re not all good vs bad. Dr. Sotala said that people who are perpetually pessimistic may still end up right as often as not.”

“Well, sure. Life can suck pretty hard sometimes, often for a long time.”

She wonders if he’s thinking of his parents, or Red’s dad, or Aiko, or something else altogether. “Yeah. Which combined with availability heuristics or confirmation bias would reinforce their pessimism, while at the same time creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. And if their situation is just good enough to get by, and their environment is bad enough that taking risks has a low expected value, they avoid wasting energy on things that don’t succeed.”

Blue slowly nods. “So you’ve got a frame where you’re protecting your pokemon from being hurt, and that’s what it means for you to be a trainer. And a frame where you’re helping keep others from being hurt, but that requires letting your pokemon get hurt. And each of these frames does something for you, but they’re bumping against each other?”

“Like a pair of rampardos knocking heads.”

“Rough.” He pulls up some grass, lets it fall through his fingers. “We should definitely have Red come to the meeting.”

It takes her a moment to process the change of topics. “Really? You think it’s time to loop him in? I’ve thought about it, but… I think he might be the last person the ninja clan would want there.”

“He doesn’t necessarily have to know what’s going on. But him just being around lowers the chance they do something, and it means his bodyguards will be around too.”

“Ah. I think that would be a hard veto from them, but I guess it’s worth asking.” Leaf smiles slightly. “Is it as weird for you, thinking of him as this… force of danger, to others?”

“Yeah,” Blue says, voice low. “It’s not what he wanted. Not what he set out to be.”

“I’ve been feeling a bit left behind by both of you, to be honest.” Leaf feels embarrassed, admitting it out loud, but she knows Blue won’t laugh. “It’s a weird thing to care about, coming from me, I know. But for a while I thought I was holding my own with you guys… I mean obviously you’re stronger from all the battling you do, and Red’s caught up a lot from all his interpol training, but it still felt like my own training and battles with wilds let me at least fight in the same weight class. Then you guys just shot ahead of me, and I wonder if I should even bother with all this.”

Blue turns to look away, and doesn’t respond. It hurts, a little; she wasn’t fishing for reassurance, but she did expect it, somewhat.

“It’s fine, really, I mean it makes sense—”

“There’s something Red and I haven’t told you. About how he helped me train to beat Sabrina.”

Leaf blinks. “If it’s something private—oh.” She sits up, anticipation prickling up her spine like a jolt of lightning. “It’s… one of your guys’ secrets?”

“Yeah. So, remember the Dragon Dojo I spent some time in, back in Saffron?”

Leaf listens as Blue describes what he learned from Koichi about adverse improvement, and how being brought close to death before beating their opponents actually helps pokemon grow stronger, faster.

“You’re saying… what, unless I’m fighting wilds, my pokemon aren’t experiencing enough real danger to grow?” Leaf feels not so much shocked by the revelation as mildly numb.

“Basically, yeah.” Blue shrugs. “I mean, it is impressive how strong your pokemon have gotten without ever doing any trainer battles, but… I’m sure you know bulbasaur tend to fully evolve sooner than charmander or squirtle do. I know you train with your pokemon a lot, and just hang out with them most of your days, but…”

“I’m still hampering his growth,” she says, looking at Raff as he chews on some grass, or maybe a small dandelion bud, before spitting most of it out. “Is that… sorry, I’m stuck between trying to understand why you’re telling me this now, and noticing the implications, why you’ve kept it secret… why you kept it from me until now—”

“It was actually in part because you’re not dark or psychic,” Blue says apologetically. “But yeah, part of it was assuming you’d disapprove.”

She’s still absorbing the enormity of it, with no spare processing for her feelings, but… “Disapprove of making pokemon feel extra fear and pain than they normally would while fighting?” Ah, there’s the anger.

“Sort of, yeah. Though, Red says trained pokemon don’t really feel that much until they get really badly hurt? So what works about as well is just something like, ‘intensity.'” He runs a hand through his hair. “I’m going to say this badly, talk to him about it. But he also used words like ‘sharpness’ and ‘aliveness,’ feeling like every moment matters more. Worked nearly as well as the original feeling of being about to die… which, dunno, makes sense to me. You feel it too, right? The rush when things are dangerous? It’s not all bad, you know?”

She frowns, remembering all the confusing and terrifying experiences she’s had throughout the region and trying to focus on other aspects of the intensity. There was definitely something like excitement intermingled with them, and afterward in particular she’d get a rush of relief and… something like an ego boost from competence…? “Yeah. I guess I’d say the opposite, like it’s not really pleasant, but… not ever entirely bad? Except for Zapdos. And that time in the Rocket Casino.” When she thought they were all going to die. When she thought Blue might have already been dying, Red bleeding out… she shudders. “I don’t ever want to feel like that again.”

“Yeah. For me it’s Viridian, Vermilion, and at Silph. Feeling like I was helpless, like my friends were in danger and I couldn’t do anything. But other times, it’s… the battle calm helps with fear, but doesn’t stop me from feeling alive, you know?”

“Not really.” Leaf gives a wan smile. “But Red can do it now, and he can project that feeling into his pokemon even when they’re not facing real danger… and it actually helps them grow stronger, faster? You guys took measurements?”

“Yeah, data’s saved in our dexes. Anyone who sees Red’s numbers in particular would think, wow, he must be battling hard every day. And some of his training with Interpol would cover some of that, but he started a little before.”

“But not everyone can make such precise emotional states to project at any time.” She feels her hands clenching, and tries to relax them. “And Red started by doing the one he knew would work, just the feeling of being about to die. Right?”

“Yeah,” Blue says, and some of his earlier, almost apologetic tone has faded. “Might have made the difference, in Silph.”

She closes her eyes, trying to absorb this, but nods to show that she’s paying attention. “Sure. But… again, most people would be pretty careless with this, if they knew. Which I guess is part of why you haven’t talked about it…” Along with wanting to retain an advantage. She doesn’t say it because she’s not sure it’s true, and it would be terribly unfair to Blue. It’s also certainly not why Red wouldn’t have. “And another part is politics?”

He shrugs. “Maybe the public’s shifted on it, what with all the crazy things that have happened lately. But the way Koichi talked about it, people don’t usually like the idea. And I’ve gone around, asking some Leaders I trust, and of course Gramps. Sabrina claims she didn’t know beforehand, but her tests were ‘supportive of that hypothesis.’ Gramps also seemed surprised, but said it would fit some observations. Neither of them started shouting it from the rooftops.” His gaze on her is a little wary, a little curious. “Gotta say, bit surprised you’re not more upset.”

Leaf shakes her head. “I don’t want it to be true. But I doubt you and Red would be totally wrong about a thing like this, and I…” She wants to say she understands why he’d use it, particularly with Red’s help, though it makes her feel sad and frustrated at the world.

A feeling that grows the longer she contemplates it. Why? Why? She’s trying to create a world where pokemon are safer, where people care for their wellbeing… but not only are there natural incentives to eat pokemon, not only are there obvious incentives to use them for battle, but now there’s actually a beneficial reason to put them at greater risk, even if they don’t have to be? The universe just hands out more value if you’re willing to let your pokemon suffer for it, and everyone else who tries to learn and grow without pain, they just lose out?

“Fuck,” she mutters. For once society is choosing the don’t-spend-pokemon-suffering-like-currency option, but not necessarily for good reasons, just because they don’t believe they can… but if it becomes more obvious that it really works…

“Fuck,” she says again, louder, and stands, arms crossed over her stomach as a sick roiling goes through her at the thought of how people will try to take advantage of this. Of how people undoubtedly already do, in secret… “Fuck! What the fuck, Blue?”

He winces. “Yeah, there it is.”

“Ughhhh!” She presses her palms against her eyes, then lets herself slowly collapse down until she’s lying on her back, palms still covering her closed lids as her elbows stick out to either side. “Why is life like this?”

“Uh… I mean it’s probably something evolutionary, right? Red was going on about—”

“It was rhetorical, shut up, I’m venting now, this is venting time.”

“Oh, sure.” She hears him settle onto the grass beside her. “Vent away.”

“Thank you. Why is life like this? We’ve unearthed enough stuff in the lab to know they were doing some crazy stuff, but not enough yet to confirm anything! Were they growing completely new life forms, or are we just finding some other kind of genetic engineering failures? Were they trying to develop some kind of disease, or trying to counteract it? Or both! Were they maybe trying to create a disease to spread and then sell the cure? We still haven’t found the central specimen chamber, but between the three different sources of damage, wild pokemon, explosives, and earthquakes, it’s possible the pod room from the story would be the most completely destroyed.”

“Likely, even,” Blue mutters.

“Yeah. Yeah! So what, we just don’t get confirmation ever? All this was… not for nothing, Blaine and Looker are pretty confident there’ll be clues to who was behind it all, but living with this suspense about the hybrid has been one of many really stressful things lately!”

“I’m guessing the ninja clan stuff is the second?”

“Yes! Yes it is, I have no idea what they might want or how far they’ll go to get to me or even anyone I know, maybe? I’ve been living a pretty paranoid life lately, I don’t know how Red deals with it but at least he has bodyguards, though those probably drive him crazy too… and now this letter comes and I have to make a decision and ahhhh!

Ahhh,” Blue softly agrees, nodding. “You don’t have to do it alone, though, you know that, right? I was serious about what I said.”

“I appreciate it, but I’m not done venting yet.”

“Sorry, please continue.”

“Thank you. Also did I mention that there’s still a crazy psychic out there doing stuff we have no idea what and where and also of course there’s Rocket and also there’s all the pokemon out there who are suffering and my program is testing stuff in Safari and it’s going well but it’s all way above my ability to help with now and maybe if I didn’t have ninja assassins and hybrid pokemon to worry about I would put more time into keeping up with it and helping more but also…”


“…there are probably other things but I can’t think of them right now.”

Blue nods. “Stormbringers might strike at any moment?”

She reaches out to pat his knee, then replaces her hand over her eye. “I support you worrying about that and will help if I can, but sorry, I’m one of those people that mostly forgets about them until they’re doing something.”

“I get it.”

“I’m sure there was something else though… oh, right, what started all this. Also I now have to fucking worry about another fucking secret that might cause more harm if it gets out and spreads… and uuuuughhhh! Grrrr!

“Ugh,” Blue nods. “Gr.”

She does another brief knee pat of appreciation. Blue waits respectfully, probably expecting more, and there are more, but they’re a bit more private, like her worry about Red… no, that’s not private, he’d share that one, more her uncertain feelings of maybe liking Red and maybe not and being unsure how to tell or what it means, if anything, or if she should do anything about it or keep waiting for him to bring it up, in a way she’s been waiting since their trip on the S.S. Anne but so much shit happened after that, and then just kept happening, even directly after other nice moments like the one on the way to the Rocket Casino…

…and also it’s harder and harder not to notice the way Blue has been growing, he’s nearly as tall and muscley as Glen now and he’s always been cute, but his personality never attracted her before, and also they have some pretty drastic differences in views…

“Venting over?”

“I guess,” she sighs, glad her cheeks are also covered.

“Sorry life’s been tough.”

“Thanks. I know you’ve been dealing with a lot too, here, I heard about all the new people coming, and the way you guys have been clearing out the danger zones…” Sometimes with methods that seem, to her, unnecessarily damaging to the local ecology, but if the rangers signed off on it then she hardly has as much local knowledge to argue the case.

“Things have gotten better, lately, yeah. But overall I’m dealing with less than you, I think. Just, you know, the usual small dreams.”

Leaf smiles. “Life’s not all bad, for me, I don’t want to give that impression. It’s nice seeing Mom and Grampa more often. And Mr. Sakai, the ranch… it’s going well. And I’m glad the Safari experiment has been progressing so much, they’re expanding more and more species for release experiments.”

“That’s cool! I was hoping we’d get the chance to go and help, but you know. Always something else to do.”

“Yeah. And I appreciate you helping with this, a lot, even if it doesn’t work out.”

“No problem. But as for that… I think I might have found an answer to your frame problem.”

Leaf absorbs this silently. After a moment to check and ensure her cheeks aren’t still warm, she uncovers one eye and turns partway toward him. “Go on.”

“You’re treating pokemon like kids, though dangerous kids. Like you know better for them what they want and don’t want.”

“It’s hard to know what someone wants after they’ve been so thoroughly brainwashed.”

“I’m talking about something deeper than that. So like, our starters practically grew up together, you know? Raff and Maturin and Charmander—he really needs to name his pokemon—”

“—I know!—”

“—I don’t know if I should call him by his current evolution or his first—”

“—so annoying!—”

“—anyway, they went on all these adventures together, and they’ve been growing alongside each other, and meeting new friends like Pik… Pichu, and Joy, and Tops, and now they don’t travel together much but once in a while they still get to meet up and talk about their solo adventures.”

Her frown is half a smile. “Dial it back a bit, I know you don’t anthropomorphize them half as much as I do, and I don’t think they’re that human.”

“Hey, don’t be so sure. I think all my pokemon that fight hard, the really fierce ones who push through tough battles, share something like the pride of would-be-champions.”

“Oh.” His tone sets her aback as much as his words. “Sorry, I… that was pretty presumptuous of me.” Now she’s blushing again, for a different reason, so it’s fine.

He smiles. “No worries, I was playing it up a bit. You get where I’m going, though, right? Like at least I can see Raff being like ‘hey, what happened to these guys? Why are they so much bigger than me now?’ And sure, none of them ever fought before so he’s probably not wounded in his pride or anything. I don’t know much about their social structure, bet you’ve got a better sense of that than me, but… does Raff consider himself a strong potential mate or defender of his family, in your head?”

Leaf stares into the sky, feeling something odd inside. “You’re saying… I’m neglecting their growth. Not just their literal growth, but their ability to flourish. If pokemon evolved to grow by combat, serious combat, and their psychology is built around that too… my pokemon might actually want to fight?”

He shrugs. “We haven’t tested it on every species, but it does work on even pokemon who naturally avoid fighting like abra. It’s a bit hard to imagine wild caterpie or chansey missing the thrill of combat, but Crimson? Or your magmar, or nidorino? Any Fighting types? I’d bet on it.”

Leaf frowns and sits up, watching Raff use his vines to swat at some dandelions. “Maybe. But Raff is so… cheerful. Pikachu has always been really timid, even now that he’s gotten so strong. I guess I just have a hard time imagining them being stoked to fight, let alone nearly get killed, you know?”

“Maria was super timid when she joined up. She still pushed herself to battle a lot, and felt proud of herself for doing it, even when she lost. And Elaine’s gotten less… cheerful, or bouncy, or something, over time…” Blue’s face is hard for her to read, but she hears something heavy in his tone. “But I don’t think that was because of all the fighting she’s had to do, and she always brought that positive energy into her fights, even the ones against wilds.”

Leaf finds herself slowly nodding along, as some sort of shifting sensation spreads through her thoughts. It’s precarious, like balancing on her tiptoes on a fence, wavering back and forth, until she says, “I think… I want to try again.”

He grins and stands, then holds out a hand to pull her up. “You got it.”

Her cheeks warm again as she’s lifted up with a single pull, and a minute later they’re facing off again, Maturin snorting as she levels her cannons at Raff.

Raff, whose usual cheerfulness is hard to see in the fierce protectiveness he’s showing instead after her “Ready” command. Or maybe it’s not protectiveness. As she thinks about what Blue said, and imagines her ivysaur as someone who, if still wild, would need to battle regularly to survive… she’s always known that evolutionarily it would make sense that some pokemon at least enjoy battling, which is why Dark pokemon in particular have a reputation for being sadistic…

Well. It’s not so hard to imagine, suddenly, that maybe her cheerful, affectionate ivysaur gets something like fulfillment and purpose from intense battles, if not quite joy.

Her heart is still hammering as she imagines their pokemon tearing into each other with sharp leaves and jets of water, but she clears her throat and calls out, “Gonna start.”

Deep breaths… relax the muscles…

What’s my strategy?

Blue said tanky strats aren’t good against renegades. So… just offense?

No, stun first, again. Or sleep? No, less accurate, less reliable.

“Ready whenever!” Blue calls back, and she’s sure she’s just imagining the impatience, but it helps suddenly to think of her own pokemon as impatient as he occasionally darts quick looks back at her. Not scared looks, and not just protective ones.

More like… Come on, let me go. Let me show you what I can do.

She realizes, suddenly, that this is dangerous. This sort of narrative imagining could justify almost anything… it’s probably what Dr. Sotala meant by frames being the most powerful bit of psychotech…


But she wasn’t doing that less, before. She wasn’t imposing her own narrative on reality less, when she assumed that pokemon wouldn’t get something meaningful or fulfilling out of fighting.

Just because she finds it unnecessary, just because she wishes the world didn’t contain that sort of thing… doesn’t mean her pokemon don’t have it in them.

She can’t assume they don’t any longer. She just has to observe each one, and see for herself how they are afterward, and do her best to help them flourish as individuals.

She breathes deep, one last time, and her voice does not shake as she yells “Stun Leaf!”


Raff’s bulb aims forward as he leaps, sending a cloud of spores at Maturin before his vines fling out a handful of razor leaves, and when he shrugs off the Water Gun that hits him a glancing blow in return, Leaf feels more than just fear or pain.

Confidence and Humility

In Damon Culture (that is to say, a culture made up of people where my traits are the expected ones of the average person, if not quite a culture made of my literal clones), how confidently someone states their beliefs is ideally NEVER influenced by how confident people around them are. Only by how confident they themselves feel about the issue.

The second may seem a natural outgrowth of the first, given how people feel about issues is often affected by others’ confidence. But the distinction is actually very, very important.

I’ve taken other people’s hedging as a REMINDER to check in with my own sense of confidence. I’ve also noticed new uncertainties when people I trust confidently say things I don’t believe.

But I never speak less confidently about something just because someone around me is doing so… particularly if they’re saying something I believe is false! If anything, someone else hedging around a statement I find false is a time I tend to feel MORE encouraged to say things overconfidently, and I have to remind myself to check-in with how-I-would-phrase-the-thing-I-believe-independent-of-what-they-said.

Because… that’s what confidence is FOR, in Damon Culture. It’s a signal for your own state of belief. Anything else seems like deception, one way or another, or playing social games out of fear.

(Also jokes, but that’s a particular context in which it’s often very clear, and clarified shortly afterward)

And fear may well be why it’s a thing people feel inclined to do! It seems reasonable in a society/culture that conditions people (particularly people of certain genders) to sound less “arrogant” or “bossy,” and where people with power will punish those who’ve pricked their pride. It’s also reasonable to think “I need to be careful in how forcefully I say this so as not to make this person defensive” in certain contexts.

Generally though, if someone, particularly in the rationality community, docks someone points for being confident, *independent of being incorrect,* they are very clearly Doing It Wrong, in my eyes, just as much as people who dismiss anything someone says with epistemic humility.

From the perspective of “What does Damon believe an ideal community would do,” adjusting to someone else’s apparent humility is a sign that something went wrong, either in the person’s understanding of epistemic humility or in their trust in the people around them to understand how to interpret their confidence (acknowledging that this lack of trust may be justified, in non-Damon Culture).

Procedural Executive Function, Part 3

The Off Road project has since been folded into Rethink Wellbeing, but I’ve continued working to better understand and treat Executive Dysfunction. You can read more about the project’s origins here.

If you haven’t, I suggest reading the start of my overview and exploration of Executive Function. Parts 1 and 2 of Procedural Executive Function can be found here and here.

TL;DR – Organization is the system of habits and external aids that minimizes effort for accomplishing work

Working Memory is your capacity for holding information in your attention at once

Flexible Thinking is your ability to creatively problem solve and avoid getting stuck.

Each helps you maintain progress on your goals, and can help maintain flow by reducing difficulty in solving problems, which is one of the main bottlenecks for productive work.

As we begin the final(?) installment of the series, I hope it’s clear now how the many parts of Executive Function work together to take someone from an initial notion about what they “want to do,” to actually doing it.

We can generally put the problems our executive function faces into two buckets: things that prevent us from starting something, and things that cause us to stop doing something.

The first post, covering Planning, Prioritizing and Task Initiation, addressed things in the first bucket. The second post’s contents, Self Monitoring, Impulse Control, and Emotional Control, address things that can be found in both buckets. And this post’s topics, Organization, Working Memory, and Flexible Thinking, largely have to do with things in the second bucket.

But this frame falls apart, a bit, if we zoom in to each step of the path. Do we ever “write an essay?” Or do we write sentences that make up an essay? Each sentence is of course itself made up of words, and each word is made up of letters, but when people say “I have writer’s block,” they don’t normally mean they’re blocked at the level of “I don’t know how to spell a word.” Sometimes they mean “I don’t know the best word to put here.” But often they mean something like “I don’t know what the next sentence should be,” as a subpart of “I don’t know what the next idea to start exploring is,” or “I don’t know how to best explain this idea.”

Again, things that cause us to “stop” doing something are often the same sorts that prevent us from starting the next bit.

As mentioned in Part 1, the tradeoff of “predicted fun/reward” vs “suffering/cost” is often the best measure of how hard someone will find a task to begin, and this extends to each subtask that makes up the overall goal. If you imagine doing something and the primary feelings are all aversive, such as boredom, discomfort, confusion, hopelessness, etc, then you could be reacting to the overall task, but you also could be reacting to some necessary part of it that you expect to be blocked on.

So, while some tasks are so short or straightforward that difficult problems don’t appear, the process of being able to continually engage in and complete “productive work” requires the ability to adapt to each new problem that might come up in the course of doing a task (or, if the work is boring, ways to stay stimulated and engaged if some part of it becomes monotonous). 

Which is where Organization, Working Memory, and Flexible Thinking come in. When all’s well, these things help keep us engaged and capable of solving problems as they arise until the task is done, or at least until we need a break. But if any of them aren’t functioning properly, we’re at risk of feeling stuck, which we often experience as “getting distracted,” at each problem that comes up, whether on the level of what word to write next, or whether the essay really means anything at all.

So… how do we prepare to solve a stream of unpredictable, potential problems?


This section might seem overly obvious, or a kind of “pull yourself up by the bootstraps.” After all, part of how executive dysfunction manifests for many people is not being able to get organized!

But it’s important to recognize what organization is for if we want to understand what goes wrong, and how it can help. And to do that, we need to focus again on what it means to get “distracted” by something.

In some situations, getting distracted is a direct effect. Our awareness brings us a new stimulus that isn’t caught by one of our subconscious filters, and our attention shifts to it, or a stray thought occurs to us that immediately grabs our attention.

But for other situations, maybe even most, getting distracted is a symptom. It’s not a sudden, hard to ignore new stimulus that pulls our attention away from something else. It’s the result of your attention seeking something else to distract you from the discomfort or frustration or anxiety of not knowing what to do next.

The first is like a rock through your window. The second is like a vacuum, pulling in anything that will fill it.

Understanding this difference in what it means to “get distracted” is important, because it’s within that difference that we see what’s within our power and what we can do differently.

So, what causes that vacuum to appear? What are the conditions that get our brains to start roaming?

Back in Part 1, I mentioned that the main two things I’ve found have kept people from starting tasks is either predicting failure, or predicting discomfort. In the same way, basically all the reasons people don’t continue to do something they’ve started doing is that they didn’t know what to do next, or predicted it would be unpleasant to do.

Any kind of friction while doing something can inhibit what I call “next step momentum,” leading to the automatic seeking of other stimuli that’s more rewarding or less effortful or stressful. The less uncertainty there is between one step and the next, the less effort transitioning takes, the fewer parts of your executive function chain are going to trip you up in general.

And again, as mentioned during Task Initiation, sometimes a person’s executive function falters because they forgot to fill their gas tank, and the thought of having to make an extra stop on the way to the gym is too discouraging. Sometimes people working on a book or essay don’t know what parts they should write in what order, and an “ugh field” develops where just thinking about it feels bad, because they don’t know how to even begin the process of deciding what order to go in. 

Those same things occur when obstacles come up in the middle of a process or project too, not just before we start. Our momentum is affected by all the same things that might block us; how close, physically, are we to the thing or place we need to take the next step? How much knowledge do we have of how to do it? Do we have the right tools?

All of which is why putting some work into organization ahead of time can help avoid things that break that flow.

Breaking Tasks into Smaller Steps: This is one of the widely given pieces of advice for a reason. The smaller and more concrete the next step is, the less likely we are to get frozen in uncertainty or confusion, and the less susceptible we are to distraction. Having an organized list of steps can also make it easier to get started, and reduce the feelings of being overwhelmed by the vagueness of a task.

There’s a big experiential difference most people feel between “I need to figure out how to apply for this government program” and “I need to go to X website, fill out Y form, and make an appointment at Z office to hand it in with any of these kinds of proper identification.”

Visual Aids: Some people might feel more overwhelmed by a long list of “to-do”s, but even sticky notes with tips or reminders on the edge of your monitor or various parts of your desk can be useful forms of external memory support that keep you from getting stuck when you’re not sure what to do next.

If you are someone who likes task lists or outlines, workflow diagrams can combine visual aids with breaking tasks down. Having an easily accessible reference sheet we can check keeps us in problem-solving mode, which is much more motivating than the void of uncertainty or confusion.

A friend of mine showed me the project outline for a web course she planned to create, and if the following image doesn’t produce visceral anxiety:

then I highly recommend something similar for any long and multiphase project.

If it does produce deep or prolonged anxiety, then maybe something simpler like Kanban boards might be better:

The best tool or system is whichever one most helps you (yes you, specifically) minimize the amount of time you spend unsure of what to do next, and the one that helps minimize the chance that you forget to do something entirely.

An extra benefit of this kind of organization is that it lets you pick and choose more easily what you have the capacity for at any given moment. If your project allows you to choose what order to do what tasks in, having the reminder that you don’t have to do the big, scary, difficult next step and still get productive work done can be very valuable.

Decluttering Spaces: Whether it’s through clearing your desktop or the top of your desk, reducing distractions makes it easier to find what you need and not have your attention caught by something else. Every bit of potential friction, including a few moments of “Where did I put that…?” can contribute to cognitive overload or trigger a path-of-least-resistance into something less taxing or more rewarding, like opening social media or a game.

This is probably a good place to mention that “declutter” doesn’t necessarily mean “empty” or “bland.” Some people work better in a stimulating environment rather than a static one. Some would find a room full of comfy bean bags and backjacks detrimental compared to a work desk, but for others the work desk would kill their productivity after ten minutes due to physical discomfort. A cozy room with lava lamps and a cat in it is perfectly valid so long as it works for you.

Similarly, some people need silence to focus, while for others a good way to declutter their soundspace is to play music. Personally I find music without lyrics (or lyrics in a different language) particularly helpful for maintaining mental focus, and sometimes I’ll even play the same song on loop for hours when I want to maintain a flow state.

But if there’s anything that you know reliably captures your attention and shifts it toward things you don’t want to be doing, it’s good to separate it out. This is a big part of why many people who work from home distinguish their workspace from their relaxation space, if they can.

Time Management: There are a number of reasons “pomodoro timers” work for many people, but the best general explanation I have is that they act as a form of mental offloading. Open-ended work sessions can be difficult to know how to orient to; dividing work into 25 minute chunks, with built in 5 minute breaks, serves as a form of external memory to pre-empt distracting thoughts related to when to take a break and whether to keep working.

Also, if you’re not in flowstate it can be really helpful to give your brain a rest every so often when engaging in deliberate executive function. For some people it’s a literal break away from whatever area or object they were using to do the work. For others, just swapping between a thing that takes lots of effort with minimal reward signals, and a second task that doesn’t take much effort while providing many, is enough to actually boost their productivity, even if they’re swapping often.

(For an example of this, I often find consistent writing over long durations easier when I can alt-tab to some RP I’m engaging in with someone, as the natural back and forth of whose turn it is to respond allows me to take regular breaks every 3-15 minutes and is naturally fun and easier. I also know people who do the same thing with turn-based multiplayer games, or who set the pace of swapping between work and a single player game themself, though I expect that last one is likely to be particularly hard for most people with some EF disorder.)

In a broader scope, effective time management lets you adjust plans and priorities based on changing circumstances, and having accurate predictions about what to do when. Whether you’re planning out a busy day or a multi-week project, if the time you planned to take on one thing starts making the rest harder, the feeling of overwhelm can make it harder to catch up.

Oh, and of course, no discussion of EF and time management would be complete without mentioning deadlines. Many people experience approaching deadlines as a sort of turbo-mode for their executive function and creativity, but there’s a whole separate post that would need to be written about how that works (and when it fails). 

The main relevant bit for this overview is, if you know that you’re the kind of person who just does better with deadlines and are fine with last-minute crunches as your primary way to get things done, one thing you could possibly do beforehand is ensure you have all the tools you need, ready and prepared, so that your last-day-sprint has a minimal amount of distractions or unexpected frustrations. In general, doing a premortem for anything you care about going well is helpful.

Seeking Support: As mentioned in an earlier part of the series, people often have an easier time doing things when they’re doing them with others. Even when working alone, however, no matter what step of your project you’re on, an easy to reference list of all the people you can reach out to if confused or stuck can be really helpful in providing you with next-step-momentum at a critical juncture where you might otherwise end up frustrated, listless, or seeking distraction.

Make a list of people who have worked on similar projects or done similar tasks before. Add people who would be happy to act as rubber ducks, or generally brainstorm/problem solve with. Find a subreddit or web forum or discord that might be able to provide answers.

In general, it can be really helpful to make the mental motion of “seeking support” a part of your automatic reaction to noticing “I don’t know what to do next.” As mentioned in Part 2, the better you are at noticing those sorts of feelings when you have them, the more likely you are to act in an endorsed way to the experience of having them.

There are other things we could cover on the ways organization help with executive function, but that’s a good note from which to transition to the “next” part of the procedure. As a closing note though, keep in mind that all “organization” is meant to do is minimize distractions, friction, and loss of momentum. Some tasks need a little organization, some tasks need a lot, and you might not always know what you’ll need ahead of time. But we usually have some inklings of how to improve our workspace or work flow, if we give ourselves the time and frame to think about them, and if you don’t know how to do a premortem yet, I highly recommend learning how to.

As a final point, if you find yourself in an endless loop of Organization Hell, planning and organizing and meta-planning how you organize… pay extra attention to the Flexible Thinking section, and also, maybe look into some of the things that help with fears and anxieties tied to perfectionism.


Working Memory

Most people think of memory in terms of “short term” vs “long term,” a frame in which memory is all about retention of information. This brings to mind comparisons to a computer’s hard drive and RAM, and people might then model the brain as having two specific areas where “long” and “short” memory are kept.

But unlike computers, which store everything in discrete bits, human thoughts are pretty interconnected. Our bodies are constantly receiving, filtering, and processing sensory inputs from multiple sources, which means human memory systems have to span multiple parts of the brain to create the “mental workspace” where active thinking occurs.

In 1999, Nelson Cowan proposed the “embedded-processes” model[1], which put a greater focus on attention to presented stimuli, and stressed the role of “capacity” for understanding the working memory concept. Basically, the more capacity you have to hold things in mind at the same time, the more complex thinking you’re capable of doing for longer… 

But attention is one of the limiters. You can’t actively think about everything in your sensorium all at the same time.Which is why the more information you have “memorized,” the cheaper it is to shift your attention between ideas and let them work together. Ditto externalizing your thinking to a whiteboard or notepad, though as mentioned in the previous post, when focusing on any one thing, your attention will naturally shrink to exclude other bits of information.

Which, it turns out, is pretty important for executive function, a.k.a, our capability to follow through on doing specific things.

As I learned more about working memory, I’ve started to imagine memory’s role in executive function as similar to using my hands to build something out of lego.

Imagine if we had a big tub of lego sitting next to us, which represents all the information we have in our long term memory. Most of it is useless for any one task, but we don’t necessarily know which is and isn’t. Also, some of it is visible on top, while most is “buried” in the tub (which would represent our subconscious, as well as anything stored in “recognition memory”).

On our other side, imagine a conveyor belt carrying semi-random lego past us. Hopefully some of the pieces are needed for the thing we’re trying to make, but most won’t be. So long as we keep our attention moving to different things, that conveyer belt keeps moving. If we stop, it (mostly) stops, leaving us with what’s in reach, and of course what’s in our lego tub.

So we have a few options here.  We could sift through the tub/our memory and see if anything feels useful… but it’s possible we won’t recognize the right pieces even if we feel them. We could also focus entirely on what passes us on the belt. Or of course we could try to mix things from the belt and things in the tub… whatever we decide, we can’t access the pieces that have already passed us, and for the purposes of this metaphor, we can’t keep any pieces we pick up until they snap together in a way that at least somewhat helps solve our problem.

And that process of fitting pieces together and seeing if they’ll snap into place, forming a step in the right direction for solving our problem? That’s where working memory comes in.

Our hands, like our working memory, can fit only so much at once. But they can try any combination that will fit, either from the new pieces of lego passing by, or legos in the tub. All you have to do is find a piece, decide to pick it up (which may require letting go of others), and hold onto it as you try combinations.

Which brings up some important questions, like “how many pieces can your hands hold at once,” and “how good are your hands at only picking up what you want them to?”

…Well, for most people “not many” and “not very.”

You might have heard that the average amount of “chunks” of information a person can hold in their active attention at once is four, but what counts as a “chunk” is a whole essay in and of itself, and it can vary wildly for different kinds of information. Some people can train themselves to hold a truly staggering amount of digits, but it’s unclear how much this level of retention translates into capability for manipulation of information.

In any case, the likely outcome when “trying to build an object out of lego” is that you’ll find yourself constantly changing out pieces, sometimes at random as you drop some and pick up others without a useful plan or intention. And since you can’t hold many at once, any new pieces you pick up might make you have to start all over again until you just happen to get the exact right combination, without any wasted pieces.

To make things more complicated, what if instead of a box full of lego pieces you have a box of mixed lego pieces, roblox pieces, hard candies, bits of colorful paper… and instead of a single conveyor with only lego on it, there are a dozen of them all snaking around you, each with a mix of things on them?

We can even imagine all sorts of variations of this metaphor to incorporate diagnoses that affect executive function like ADHD. What if the room is filled with different colored strobe lights? Or what if the candy feels warm and soft while the lego blocks feel sharp and cold? For things like mania, what if the room is dark, and only a specific and ever changing set of pieces glow? For things like depression, what if some people’s arms get more tired than others more quickly? 

It’s worth noting that learning something new, or applying new knowledge, also uses up our “working memory hands.” Learning something new while at the same time trying to apply it in whatever task we’re doing can be very taxing, and quickly lead to mental fatigue… which often leads to our attention simply going elsewhere, wanting to do other things that are less effort and more rewarding. 

Hopefully it’s clear why difficulty with this can affect executive function, but for those who want more grounded models of what’s happening in the brain, and how we know memory is integral to executive functioning at all, we can examine the brain itself. Our prefrontal cortex is the primary source of all our executive function, a “Central Executive Network” that connects with other areas to engage in various cognitive processes: 

Episodic Buffer: The temporary storage system that modulates and integrates different sensory information for us to work with. To “create” this, the CEN routes through our anterior cingulate cortex, which is our attention controller, into the parietal lobe, which is for perceptual processing.

Visuo-Spatial Sketchpad: Our ability to not just visualize things, but also remember the relative positions of things in space, like where we parked our car or what the next step in a series of directions we should take is. This requires our CEN to link up with our posterior parietal cortex and occipital lobe.

Phonological Loop: Our ability to perfectly recall things we hear or read before they get stored in long-term memory, or lost. This involves Broca’s area, which is part of our complex speech network interacting with the flow of sensory information from the temporal cortex, and Wernicke’s area, which is where speech comprehension and understanding written language come from, both of which are part of our cerebral cortex.

The sheer variety and number of parts working together to create our working memory means a lot of different things can go wrong at this step in people’s ability to have “healthy” executive function. For example, damage to Broca’s area causes a form of aphasia where people speak in a jumbled “word salad” even if they clearly know what they want to say. Wernicke aphasia makes it difficult for people to understand others, and their ability to speak is also affected; they can convey intelligible thoughts, but usually limited to just a few words at a time. Both of these disabilities have been found to impair even non-linguistic executive function.

Other things that affect working memory include age (worse as we get older[2]), hormones (estrogen seems to improve it in older women[3], but testosterone boosters don’t help retain WM in aging men[4]), caffeine (mixed, but potentially negative)[5], and emotions (super mixed and also weird).[6]

This also means there’s a variety of approaches people can take to try to improve their working memory… but reviewing studies trying to pin down the effect of this can be discouraging.

For example, some[7] studies[8] suggest that stroke victims with aphasia benefit more from working memory exercises than they do routine speech therapy, and the benefits from working memory training also seems to help children with spastic displegia cerebral palsy [9].

There’s a lot of research out there that shows a mix of outcomes when trying to isolate the effects of working memory training on executive function [10]. For people without some explicit medical diagnosis that affects EF, this study [11] reported that transferable benefits weren’t found to a statistically significant degree beyond the participants’ ability to get better at specific skills trained.

In other words, if there’s nothing specifically “interfering” with your natural working memory, there isn’t much evidence that training it will improve your executive function.

Buuuut if my model of Procedural Executive Function is correct, I do expect it would be hard to notice improvements in EF just by addressing one part of it… especially when the part trained isn’t the participant’s specific “bottleneck,” or not their only one.

There are in fact many reasons why measuring people’s executive function is genuinely hard, not least of which is the very first point I emphasized at the start of all this: “is your executive function the problem, or are you trying to do things you don’t actually want or need to do?”

All of which is to say that while the research so far paints a muddy picture, I encourage people who believe WM is the main bottleneck for their EF to do some reading of their own and decide if it’s worth trying to deliberately improve it. I’d be very interested to hear first-hand accounts if you believe 1) this is your specific bottleneck, and 2) practicing exercises to improve it helped your memory, but not your executive function.

(As a side note, I’m fascinated by the question of whether those with aphantasia (who lack the experience of having mental imagery) develop workarounds to visual processing such that they don’t experience[12] the same limits[13] as those who undergo brain damage to their visual processing center, or if their brain does in fact utilize those portions and they just don’t experience the phenomenology. If scans have been done to distinguish this I haven’t found any. (I suspect people without an “internal monologue” are similarly unimpaired compared to those who suffer from either form of aphasia.))

For everyone else, let’s talk about the last most likely bottleneck in executive function…

Flexible Thinking

To begin the ending, let’s take seriously again the notion that “doing things” is just a process of repeated, fractal problem solving.

If you manage to do a thing you want to do, it’s because you’ve succeeded at solving all the problems in the way. Kind of tautological.

If you don’t, it’s because some problem came up that you didn’t know how to solve, or predicted (consciously or not) would be too painful or frustrating or tiring to solve… which are themselves problems that could be hypothetically solved, but if we don’t know how, or we predict that solving them would be too painful or frustrating, then etc, etc.

Our brains seek rewards, and one of our reward functions involves showing competence and solving problems. When we get stuck on a problem, rather than try to brute-force it (Time consuming! Tiring! Unpleasant!), most people have natural defense-mechanisms pop up that will divert our brain’s attention elsewhere. Better to stop expending resources on something that will not reward you and try to focus on other things that will, right?

This mental pop-out is really important for avoiding getting mentally stuck in problems, and is likely a big part of what makes human cognition “special.” A lot of humanity’s problem solving capabilities exist through abstract thinking, but you can get stuck in abstract thinking much more easily than in reality. You can also get your attention hijacked by things that aren’t “real.” Minds facing discomfort or difficulty are just acting rationally when seeking more rewarding stimulation.

It’s not our brains’ fault that we’ve aimed them at goals that are totally abstract and disconnected from our immediate survival, nor is it their fault we’ve surrounded them, in the modern world, with superstimuli like social media and video games, such that the more rewarding stimulation we turn to instead of solving our problems are not often developing skills that will solve more problems; they just feel like they do.

But it’s important to notice that this natural impulse isn’t itself bad. Phrases like “diffuse thinking” or “lateral thinking” or “flexible thinking” were invented to point at the way our brains sometimes come up with answers to problems in indirect ways. It’s common advice for people stuck on problems to take a shower or walk or  generally just do anything that doesn’t require mental attention, so they can give their subconscious the chance to mix old and new problems and ideas in ways that sometimes lead to unexpected “Eureka!” moments. 

Which is why flexible thinking is a part of executive function. Sometimes we get stuck when trying to solve a problem because we’re stuck thinking in a specific way, or have blindspots that keep us from noticing potential solutions or alternatives. 

Which is why, if you learn more ways to solve problems, expand your awareness of solution space, you’re empowered to do more things, and you’re less likely to get tripped up and stop when trying to achieve any given goal. Getting caught up in “yak shaving” is generally considered a bad thing, but… well, sometimes in life, changing a lightbulb requires shaving a yak. The more easily you can swap between multiple different tasks in a short time, the less likely you are to be stymied by abruptly different kinds of problem solving that you might be called upon to do.

For some people, interruptions are more difficult to return from than others, and in a word, that sucks. Good organization can help with that, as mentioned above. But getting better at switching between modes of thinking while working on the same problem doesn’t necessarily often have the same derailing effect.

Edward de Bono was a physician and psychologist who wrote a lot (like, a lot) of books on thinking and reasoning more effectively and creatively. He coined the term “lateral thinking,” and one of his many ideas, the Six Thinking Hats, is an example of trying to systematize flexible thinking:

The idea is that you can think through a problem from each of these different lenses, one at a time, to ensure you’re not missing the solution by being too stuck in a particular mental frame. It’s also a particularly useful tool for social coordination, where, instead of people having different hats on at different times and potentially butting heads over why they’re focusing on different aspects of a debated concept or problem or solution, everyone take turns working to make different focuses of attention common knowledge, while being more obviously part of the same team.

(I also happen to think, from an IFS perspective, that whatever helps a group of people coordinate better could also help with an individual trying to coordinate themselves.)

I don’t know how effective Dr. de Bono’s 6 Hats technique is compared to alternatives; there’s some research done that claims effectiveness when used in total [14] or just from trying on particular hats [15], but as with all “rationality techniques,” my main takeaway is people should in general be trying more things (so long as they’re low cost) and see if they work for them, because finding even one out of ten that does can significantly help improve our lives.

TRIZ is a procedure formalized by inventor and sci-fi author Genrich Altshuller, though he was sent to a gulag before he could spread it among Soviet engineers. After Stalin’s death, he was released and founded an engineering school that popularized the method, which is meant to help people reframe specific problems we have to general ones, so we can more easily find  general solutions that can then be adapted into specific solutions for the one we face.

It’s the inspiration for not just this pretty cool database that lets you look up all sorts of potential physics problems and solutions, but also some Separation Principles for solving apparent contradictions in design space, and an additional (somewhat intimidating) list of 40 Principles for general problem solving. In his later years, Altshuller believed this system could be used not just for engineering problems, but for overall critical thinking and creative problem solving, and created a community that has continued spreading the good word.

His various intellectual descendants promote it as the all-inclusive method for systematized problem solving, but as with all such things, your mileage may vary. Creative thinking, an as-yet fairly illegible and mysterious process, is likely going to work somewhat differently for everyone, which again is a good reason to experiment.

Which isn’t to say there might not be better and worse systems for it. But personal fit shouldn’t be underestimated, particularly if it means you’re more likely to remember to use the method or schema. Some people use tarot cards, while for others, the Magic: The Gathering color wheel cuts reality at a number of useful joints:

Credit to Duncan Sabien. “Color pentagram” doesn’t roll off the tongue quite as well.

Deep knowledge of this kind of schema can create powerful intuition pumps like “How might MtG Red orient to this,” or “What would MtG Green think of this problem?” This can be particularly useful if you feel a strong affinity for the “opposite” colors of Blue or White, and make some effort to really understand how people who identify with the others see and experience and navigate through the world.

Yes, this is just another way of saying “understanding how other people think is valuable” or “taking on a diversity of viewpoints can help you think better” and similar, which is nothing new, and can be said without the complex “systems.” But if you want to keep yourself from getting stuck thinking in a rigid way, and you want a deliberate mental motion or habit you can build to try, schemas like this can be useful.

The map is not the territory, but the more different maps you collect for reference, the more different lenses you have through which to view reality, the less likely you are to be stuck in any given situation.

Speaking of which, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention therapy. My post on the various different therapy philosophies that all modalities can fit into basically goes over four different lenses through which to view problems and solutions, which can be summarized roughly as: 

  1. How our past influences our present (Psychoanalytic)
  2. How incentives shape our behavior (Behaviorist)
  3. How feelings and frames affect our experiences (Existential)
  4. How systems can create/solve our problems (Systemic)

I’d claim that any therapist stuck thinking through problems in just one mode is going to be less effective than one who can consider a problem from multiple, and help guide a client to do so as well. If we expect ourselves to tackle every problem alone, we’re like the therapist who only sticks to one modality, let alone one general philosophy of therapy or theory of change.

But while having a knowledgeable guide is valuable, you don’t need to go to a therapist yourself to learn how to reexamine your problems from different therapeutic lenses. Not just because you can learn them yourself, but also because different people often have very different “natural” ways of viewing problems we face, and those outside views can be just as valuable.

In any case, the more flexible your thinking is, the less likely you are to get stuck on a problem. And the less likely you are to get stuck on a problem, the easier you will find it to work on the next step of it.

Using The “Procedure” in Procedural Executive Function

This series took a while to complete. Part of that is that I lost the original driving motivation to do it once the initial reasons and funding for this research drastically shifted, and I let some of my many other projects take priority.

Of course, noticing difficulty completing a series on executive function is too perfect an opportunity to miss actually putting the research into practice. This meant paying extra attention on the days that I felt were “supposed” to have some time dedicated to working on these articles. Did I work on them as much as I wanted to? If not, why not?

It became practically instinctual to just run down the list and zoom in on what particular thing my brain was tripping over. Thoughts/feelings like “I’d rather be writing fiction/reading/playing video games” soon had an attached thought of “What would make me want to write the next paragraph instead?”

And often I’d just check and read over what I’d gotten to last again, and think something like “Huh, right, I’m stuck because I don’t know how to word this part well. Can I just skip over it and come back? Is there someone I can ask for feedback? How would ChatGPT write it?”

(Still badly, in my view; not technically so, but I’m fairly sensitive to writing voice, and while AI assistance can be useful for writing in other ways, I still feel a need to write from scratch for it to feel even marginally interesting for me to reread.)

Or “Ah, yeah, reading all these research papers has gotten less interesting. What else can I do instead to learn something new related to this?”

(Books like Superlearning by Scott H. Young and A Mind for Numbers by Barbara Oakley were occasionally helpful in pointing in the right directions, even if they didn’t often contain uniquely insightful bits I hadn’t covered already.)

Or “I don’t know how to actually solve this problem, and none of the things I’m looking up are optimistic. I should probably just skip for now and circle back to it, and if I still don’t find anything just say that.”

(This was for Working Memory, which took by far the longest to write and edit to a point where I feel okay with it. I almost just cut out the entire LEGO analogy altogether to reduce bloat and avoid getting the analogy wrong in various ways, but some feedback convinced me to keep it in.)

Since it wasn’t an emotionally complicated or taxing experience, my noticed speed bumps were always of this “knowledge problem” sort. I don’t really experience shame or anxiety or prolonged internal conflict, but these are also common bumps in the road when people are writing something for public consumption, and are why learning to integrate and manage emotional experiences are a powerful deblocker for executive function.

But there are plausibly other things that would come up as well, and I don’t presume that this process will be sufficient on its own to solve everyone’s difficulties with getting something done. I do believe, however, that whatever the solution is, it’s something that can be incorporated into a procedural series similar to this one, and I hope to continue updating and expanding on this series in the future, if some new frame or strong additional component is discovered.

As a final note, I hope you remember the first part of all this: the most important first step in solving executive dysfunction is figuring out if you actually want to do the thing.

Because if you don’t actually want to do it, and you don’t actually need to do it (on a deep, emotionally recognizable level), then the question of “why aren’t I doing this thing?” sort of answers itself.

And you can construct abstract chains of reasoning for why you “should” do it anyway, of course, and those abstract chains of reasoning might evoke aesthetically pleasing values or ethics or philosophies that makes them feel more real and motivating.

But they must tap into some predicted emotional experience that your mind can actually simulate, or they likely won’t motivate you to do “hard” things… including the process of solving problems keeping us from doing what we want, or managing the emotions that rise up when we struggle.

If you dig deep and find out that, yeah, that whole “figure out what I actually want” is the part where you’re stuck…

From my work both as a therapist and teaching at rationality camps and workshops, I can say you’re definitely not alone, there. But that’s another essay, for another time.

















What does “Secure Attachment” feel like?

[Copied over from a Facebook post of mine]

“Huh. I’ve read about this being a thing Secure-Attached people do, but I don’t think I’ve ever encountered it, and wasn’t sure I really believed it until now.” ~my partner

A lot of people have asked me what I think of Attachment Theory, and my basic answer is “seems useful as a frame, and also seems mostly to track true things.” But a lot of people have also boggled at the concept of what having “secure attachment” in relationships might be like, so let’s talk a bit about what it’s like to be Secure-Attached from the inside.

1) Feelings for others are almost entirely legible and entangled with specific events. That doesn’t mean they’re always explicit, but I can’t actually remember the last time I couldn’t verbalize and point to something like 90% of why I feel the way I do about someone.

2) Feelings for others are consistent and calibrated. That doesn’t mean they’re predictive, but it does mean my feelings for people don’t change unless something specific happens that I then verify the meaning of. My regard for others isn’t affected by lack of interaction.

(Unless that lack of interaction is purposeful, hence calibrated; if someone doesn’t return my call, I don’t get upset or like them less, I assume they were busy. If they do something I don’t understand that feels hurtful, I don’t update on them until I verify if it was intended.)

3) I don’t experience “need” for anyone. I want people in my life because they bring me joy, sometimes so much that their absence is painful, but I always know deep down that I’ll be OK. Maybe not “maximally flourishing,” but still OK. Strong desire is felt, but without anything like desperation.

4) I always feel happy to share how I feel; if I don’t offer my feelings, it’s because I don’t feel a need to, or I think I have signs to justifiably worry how they will impact others. I have so little shame for what I feel / think that I don’t remember what having any is like.

(This doesn’t mean I’m always right about not needing to share my feelings or having justified signs that I shouldn’t. I can still misread others, misjudge what they want, or update too much on past experiences. But if I don’t share a feeling, it’s never because it’s internally blocked in some way.)

5) I feel only positive regard for all of my exes. This keeps surprising people, and I don’t know if it’s across the board for all Secure-Attached or exclusive to them, I might also be lucky. Still, I haven’t had any bad relationships and I’m still friends with them all.

6) For me at least, security doesn’t come from family. My brother was physically abusive, my mom tried hard but was largely absent, and my dad was both physically and emotionally absent. Relationships in general are not obligatory; what I look for are those of voluntary, mutual happiness.

I might add more later but that’s what comes to mind right now. I hope it’s useful to others to know that yes, this is really a way that some people exist, and to have a bit more detail what this feels like; it can cause a bit of culture-shock, so to speak, in both directions.

Chapter 128: Double Duty

Hey everyone! For those who haven’t heard, I’ll be at LessOnline in Berkeley at the end of the month, if people want to attend or come say hi. Looking forward to some fun activities I’ll be putting on with Alexander Wales, TK17, and maybe others. Hope to see some of you there!

Chapter 128: Double Duty

“I think… I should go too,” Red said, pushing past his indecision with a little nudge from his unpartitioned self. “Now that Looker is here, I’m kind of superfluous. And… I’m worried they might try something somewhere.”

He didn’t have to specify who they were. Looker just nodded. “It’s been on my mind. It’s what I would do; commit a series of attacks, draw everyone’s attention elsewhere.”

“I should get some rest,” Red adds. “Let Jensen and the others rest too, then continue my training. Make sure we’re all ready.” He turned to Leaf, heart heavy. “Sorry—”

She shook her head, chin high. “No, you’re right. You got them to come, got Looker here. It’s enough.” She suddenly stepped forward and hugged him. “Thank you.”

He hugged her back, squeezing tight as warmth filled him, even as the weight over his heart grew. “I’ll be back in a thought, if something happens.”

She gave him a smile, her small, playful one that showed her appreciation for the wordplay, and some of the weight lifted. He glanced at Looker and Blaine once more, then left the ruined mansion with Blue…

“Mr. Verres. Good to see you again… I have to say, I expected more emails than I ended up getting from you.”

Red shakes Brock’s hand and smiles. “Hello, Leader. I definitely intended to send some, but… well, the whole thing on Mount Moon kind of distracted me, and then I shifted my focus to—”

“The abra research, of course.” Brock hands him a pouch full of small stones. “And you’ve stayed focused on psychics ever since.”

“For the most part.” He doesn’t feel guilty, exactly, or like he should apologize for not being more interested in rock pokemon, but… “I really appreciate you taking the time to help now.”

“It’s nothing.” Brock’s face becomes serious. “Whether Pewter is ever in need of you or not, we’ve seen how hard you work to protect the region. I only wish I could help more.”

Red nods, feeling touched, and pockets the pouch for a moment so he can unclip a pokeball, a greatball, then an ultraball, summoning the rockruff out of each onto the rooftop of the Pewter Gym.

All three are fairly mature, heads rising to some point on Red’s stomach. He takes a moment to stroke the rough fur between the ears of the first two, and the snout of the third, enjoying the clear pleasure they get through his surface mergers with each. “Meet Jasper, Flint, and Roxy.” Red smiles. “The names came with them.”

Brock snorts, then crouches to let the dogs sniff his hands before he opens his own pouch of stones and starts to feed and stroke their ears or necks or backs. “Not from the same litter, though, looks like?”

“No. I guess the theme is hard for people to resist, though.”

“It is.” Brock finds a spot under Roxy’s chin that makes her wag her tail, and Red notes the way the Leader’s gaze is moving across her fur, fingers tracing the stony nubs at her neck, then moving down to feel the underside of her paws, deftly avoiding each claw. “Your email said you wanted to better understand their temperament, so you know what form of lycanroc to evolve them into?”

“Sort of. I think I want a day or dusk lycanroc, since… well, I’m sure the night form has its uses, but—”

“You’ve got enough choices for tough and strong Rock types, you want one with speed potential.”

“Exactly. The ‘dex says mixed things about whether the rockruff’s attitude matters before it evolves—”

“It does.” Brock snaps his fingers above the three pokemon’s heads, and drops a fleck of some gem or the other down for them to snap out of the air. “In the wild I expect the calmer rockruff to evolve during the day, the more vicious ones to evolve at night, and those in between to evolve during dawn or dusk. But it’s hard to say for sure if that’s how it works, since all our experience is with tamed ones, and pokeball training smooths out a lot of the edges. Trainers don’t often experience a variety of the same pokemon, and these days people will usually just look up strengths and weaknesses of each form, then just train with them at the right times to get that result.”

He picks up a faint sense of judgment from Brock’s mind, if not his tone. “Like eevee?”

Brock shrugs. “I couldn’t tell you if their personality matters as much. But trained lycanroc are less likely to play to their form’s stereotype than wilds, even the day forms.”

“That’s what I thought.” Red tosses a scattering of stone and gem chips and watches them race for their favorites, observing the way Roxy uses her body to block Flint, who nips at her legs, while Jasper dodges around both to get at a piece of glittering quartz. “It’s why I asked for rockruff, instead of just getting one already evolved. I could try to balance a night or dusk form’s mood out… or I could double up on it.”


Red feels out their moods as they playfully fight over the mineral snacks, the sound of rocks crunching in three mouths filling the air. “Day,” he says, pointing to Jasper.

“Easily,” Brock agrees.

Red points to Flint next, who feels happy to tussle with the others. “Night?” Then Roxy, who’s more visually aggressive, but doesn’t seem to feel as excited to be. “…maybe dusk? Or maybe they’re both dusk, or both night. I know dusk is much rarer in the wild, so on priors they’d both be night, but these were the three I went with after merging with ten.”

“Your gift would be of more use here if they were wild, but it’s important not to confuse their temperament with their behavior.” Brock tosses some more bits of stone to the side, then points to Roxy as she watches Flint and Jasper run ahead. “See how she’s the one watching, now?”

Red senses it before she acts, the identification of Jasper as the easier target. Soon she’s muscling him out to get at the better bits, while he darts away, then back for some stones along the edges. “More adaptive.”

“That’s one way to put it. As I said, any of them could be made to evolve into any form of lycanroc. It’s just up to you to decide what kind of lycanroc you want, in more ways than one.”

Red looks at the three rockruff, mentally feeling out their different personalities. “I think I want dusk,” he says, feeling the words out, his certainty solidifying. “Not quite as fast, but it’ll still outspeed a scyther or darmanitan, while also hitting hard enough to maybe take a weavile down in one hit.”

“Sound reasoning. And the rockruff?”


Brock nods and stands, dusting his palm off on his corduroy pants. “Enjoy your time with her before she evolves. They’re just starting to lose their playfulness, and once they evolve…”

“Yeah.” Red knows he probably won’t have much time for that, especially since he’ll be packing all her training into the twilight hours… “Thanks again, for this.”

“Like I said, happy to help.” Brock studies him for a moment. “Not gifted, but seems like there’s something else on your mind?”

“I… yeah, a bit.”

The Leader doesn’t speak, gaze back on the rockruffs as he patiently feels through the bag for more stone chips, then tosses some more. Red does the same as he musters his courage, letting out a slow breath. He told Dr. Seward and Leaf he’d talk to Giovanni about this, but there’s no harm in bringing it up with others too…

“Not long ago, I was struggling with feeling… stuck, between how much responsibility I felt I had, and how much power I had…”

The wind and sun warred to cool and warm him as they stepped back onto the rest of the plateau, where the interpol workers were milling around the mansion. Some were collecting picnic blankets and cleaning, others were clustered in small groups, talking. No doubt waiting to hear if they’d need to pack up or should go back to work.

Red held a fist out to his friend, who bumped it. “See you soon, maybe?”

Yeah. Lots to talk about.” Blue walked over to where Ira and Wendy were standing, and Red turned to Jensen, who had a hand held to his earpiece as he approached, no doubt telling the other guards that they were on their way back. As Red watched, going over a quick internal checklist to make sure there was nothing he needed to get before he teleported, he also saw Looker leave the building, coat flapping in the wind.

“I know that feeling,” Misty says, voice wry.

“You do?”

“Sure.” She sends her starmie through another of the suspended hoops around the bleachers, and he does his best to guide his after it; the pokemon’s mind is among the weirdest he’s ever felt, to say nothing of its body, and he keeps being distracted by the way it flexes its arms as if it’s underwater, instead of floating through the sunny sky above it. What’s somehow just as distracting is the way it’s very aware of the “taste” of salt in the humid air; it makes Red simultaneously feel like he’s covered in sweat, and also like his mouth is open, tongue hanging out. “Every Leader does, I think. We take responsibility for a whole city, some outlying towns, sometimes a whole island, in Blaine’s case. But none of us can really defend that much territory, not personally and not through our gym members. Every death, every destroyed home, it’s like the universe reminding us that no matter how strong we get, it’s not enough.”

Red nods, struggling to maintain the merge with his starmie as his own past failures flash through his mind. He’s just barely able to sense the hostile intent from Misty’s starmie before it spins midair, and nudges his own pokemon to throw up a hasty Light Screen before the Water Gun hits.

The power is diminished enough that it feels like being hit by a strong breeze, which is such an interesting way to interpret the feeling of water that Red loses his concentration completely.

“Tag,” Misty says, and raps her knuckles against the bill of Red’s cap. “Back to the start you go. Drink break first.”

Red uncaps an energy drink and swallows a salty-sweet mouthful, grateful for the cooler keeping it icy cold. “I guess the Stormbringers make that even worse?” he asks as he sends an impulse to his starmie to dive back underwater, where the first ring in the obstacle course is set up.

His boss’s long strides closed the gap quickly, but Looker didn’t say anything as he approached. Just summoned his teleporter, and after Jensen did the same, they returned to the interpol base.

The rest of the bodyguards appeared around them in the time it took for Red to unstrap his abra from its backpack, feed it, and return it to its ball. Looker finished typing something on his phone, then said, “Good work out there, everyone. Get some rest… except for you.” Looker gestured for Red to follow, and the guards hung back so the two of them could enter the elevator alone. As soon as the doors closed, Looker said, “It’s time.”


The sky is dark with thunderclouds, though enough daylight shines through that, as Red looks out over Vermilion City, he doesn’t flash back to the night of Zapdos’s attack more than a couple times. “Sometimes it feels like it happened just a few days ago,” Red says, voice soft. “Other times… years ago. Like the start of my journey was more recent, somehow… I know that doesn’t make any sense.”

“It does, actually.” Surge sighs, slow and heavy. “The you that was here, he’s closer to some parts of who you are today… but in other ways, he’s also further. Sometimes further than the you that set out from Pallet Town.”

Somehow Red didn’t expect that level of insight from the Vermilion Leader, and he mentally kicks himself for forgetting that this was a man who had not just been through multiple Legendary incidents, but also a war. “How do you deal with it? The feeling of… knowing that if you don’t do more, then no one else will, while at the same time… you can’t think of anything else that’ll make a difference? And you can’t convince yourself that you’ve done all you can, because that’s the same as accepting that things will go badly, and—”

“And you can’t make yourself care less.”

It’s Red’s turn to sigh. “Yeah.” Or in his case, he could, sort of, but he doesn’t want to… which is probably the same, effectively, for most people.

“You’re asking the tough questions, Verres.” Surge gestures out at the city. “There’s half a million souls here, depending on where you draw the lines, and most of them are trying hard to make it through to the next day, come hell or high water. But at the end of those days, they know there’s someone above them who’s looking out.”

“You,” Red says, smiling slightly at the literalness of it, in this moment.

“Or Arceus, or Lance, or whomever.” He makes another gesture, like throwing something away. “Point is, it helps them sleep at night. There are watchers on the wall. There are Serious People gathered around a table, looking over charts and maps, making sure the next Big Thing is prepared for, and somewhere else there’s people looking over spreadsheets to make sure that no matter what happens, there’ll be enough food grown and harvested to keep them from having to think about where their next meal is coming from, so long as they keep going to work.”

Red feels a tickle along his cheeks, and brushes them a moment before he realizes it’s not his cheeks that feel them. “Hey, I think—”


They focus on their pokemon, standing on the rooftop across from them, on a plate of metal that’s wired to a grounding cable. Red’s pikachu has shifted onto his hind legs, ears twitching as he looks around, and Red shifts his mental merge away from Surge’s raichu to confirm that his own pokemon feels the same thing in his cheeks, though less acutely. He shifts again to merge with his magnezone, feeling the start of a headache as his pokemon’s weird, trinocular vision paints the world in vivid hues of electromagnetic fields…

…one of which is gathering intensity…

“The potential energy is almost always there, though it’s harder to pull out in most conditions.”

“I feel it,” Red murmurs, merging with Surge’s raichu again and rubbing his cheeks as the tingling grows.

“Ear plugs in, then, and close your eyes.” The last thing Red sees from the corner of his vision is the Leader taking a deep breath and sticking two fingers in his mouth, and then Red hears a whistle, sharp and loud, and feels through the Raichu, the grasp and fling and twist—

Only the minimal nature of the merger keeps Red on his feet; even as the world lights up it feels like he’s temporarily dunked under a waterfall, or what he imagines a waterfall would feel like, except instead of water, it’s energy, bursting over him and outward—

—only to get caught, sucked away…

“Gaahhh,” he breathes out, barely able to hear himself through the ringing in his plugged ears. He’d felt the thunderbolt, in more ways than one, and though he withdrew his merger, he still feels like his body is charged with electricity. He realizes he’s sagging against the railing, and a strong hand is holding his chest to keep him from slumping the rest of the way down.

Red braces his feet and lifts himself back up, then shakes his head and unplugs his ears. The first thing he registers is Leader Surge’s chuckles.

“Gotta say, of all the reasons to wish I was psychic, being able to feel that’s gotta be near the top, for me. Did you get it?”

“I gh—” Red clears his throat. “I got it.”

“Show’s yours, then. Remember what I said…”

Red nods, then puts his earplugs back in and merges with Pikachu. The deep familiarity makes the feeling of his whole body being charged return with a vengeance, and he has to stop himself from scratching at his fur… his skin… before he reaches out with his electric senses, feels another pathway for the energy to go down, connects it the way he remembers the raichu did it…

Another blast of light and sound, another feeling like his whole body has broken down into vibrating atoms before reconstructing…

When he’s recovered, Surge’s hand is clapping on his shoulder again. “Picking up skills that quick is definitely still higher. Nicely done. Next, the magnezone.”

“Yeah,” Red pants, then takes a deep breath as he tries to slow his racing heart. “One sec…”

“Right, right. No rush. What was I saying, before?”

“Huh? Oh.” Red rubs at his cheeks, then his neck. “People trusting in those above them?”

“Yeah. We all do it. Even me, even Lance. It’s an illusion, sort of, but it’s also not. There’s no one above, making sure all the little bits line up perfectly, but we’re all doing our bits. Some bigger than others, sure. But none of us, not one of us, could do it all alone. Right? I trust Lance to watch for distant threats, bring the hammer down where it’s needed. Lance trusts us Leaders to manage our turf, let him know if there’s something bigger we can’t handle. Civvies trust us and the rangers to keep them safe, we all trust the civvy side to keep the food and medicine and balls coming. Someone in my city wants to make a difference for Vermilion? I say, great. They’re one in half a million. Can they do one in half a million’s worth of the work it takes to keep things going? Make the stuff we need, fight in some incidents, be of service to others? Everyone’s got something they can do, and it takes half a million people to do it all.”

Red just listens, catching his breath, regaining his balance, both inside and out. Across the gap, Pikachu is running around in circles, burning off spare energy.

“Not half a million, really, a bit less. There’re babies, elderly, and sure, some have more education, more resources. So say one in 400,000’s worth. Can they do that? Great. They’re doing their part. They want to do more? How much more? Ten people’s worth? A hundred? A thousand?” Surge shakes his head. “I can do some things no one else can do. Sometimes, that’s worth a lot. Maybe in the long run, it’ll be worth everything for this city. Maybe even for this region. But most days, I’m only one man. I do one in 400,000’s worth. Pokemon attack happens, I do more. On a good day, I can do what another five veteran trainers can. If there’s some other issue, like a food shortage? I do less than one in 400,000’s worth. Maybe I’d try my hand at fishing, shock a lake and pick up all the dead ‘karp. But someone else could think of that. We all have our strengths.”

Red turns to Surge and finds the Leader is looking at him. “You, you can do something no one else can do. Most days, you’re just one man. You do what one man can do. But the other days, when we need you, you’re worth twenty, thirty, maybe fifty veteran hunters. Maybe you also solve some big science question once a year. You’re one person in billions, and if you do just those things, you’re doing far more than your part.”

Red swallows past the lump in his throat. “And if it’s not enough?”

Surge shrugs, turns back toward the city. “Then we weren’t enough. Us, the region, or the world. Maybe you didn’t give it your all, and let us down in some way. But we’re the ones asking you to do more than one person’s work. The ones who need you to. And that means we let you down first. So buck up, kid. Don’t give up on looking for new ways forward, better ways to help, but give yourself time to rest, body and mind. I don’t blame you if you don’t trust us to pick up the slack; the world needs saving from a dozen different directions, and most of us aren’t standing where we need to hold the line at any of them. But you want to do more than one man’s worth, full time? You’d better get good at convincing others to stand with you, because that’s the only way I know for people to consistently make a bigger difference.”

Time for… what?”

Time for us to stop ignoring your true potential. The only thing keeping you from being the greatest spy on the planet is everyone knows what you look like. That and you’re a terrible liar.”

“People like you will always struggle to convince others to stand with you.”

Red blinks at Erika, who said it like she’s commenting on the weather. “Why?”

“Because you care about different things than they do.”

Red tries to take this seriously, frowning as he sips his tea. He’s aware of a defensive response in him, a desire to dismiss or point out the ways his desires are altruistic… he wouldn’t be in this mess, in many ways, if they weren’t… but…

“I get that most people don’t care about science research,” he slowly says. “Or like, not really, not beyond being vaguely glad someone is doing it somewhere, or interested when it specifically is relevant to their life, or makes something useful for them. And I know my major scientific interests aren’t the kind that would affect most people’s lives… and the things I’ve actually accomplished have a mixed record, for how happy people are with me.” It’s hard to admit that, but not as painful as it once was.

“Good.” Erika sets her tea cup down, then rises, and he follows suit. “Keep going,” she says as she leads him away from her personal pavilion and toward one of the grooming sites.

Red adjusts his pace to match her more leisurely one, walking silently beside her as she pauses to chat with the occasional trainer or gym member, smell some flowers, or just pull a small pair of scissors from some pocket in her sleeve and trim one of the various plants they pass, holding onto the bits and occasionally smelling them before dropping them into garden plots with young plants growing in them. Her kimono is bright white today, with a pattern of pink vines and leaves embroidered on it, and he wonders if it would be rude to ask, as someone not part of her gym’s culture, what it signifies.

“I think when it comes to Rocket, I’m on the same page as almost everyone else,” he says as they reach the grooming tools. She picks a few off the rack and table, and he takes one of each. “Unless you mean something like, the way I fight, what I am, what I represent for psychics in the region, or the world…”

“All those things, and more.” Erika lays her tools out on one of the table-edges of a wide, dirt-filled pot, then summons a young ivysaur. She rubs its head, then hefts it into the pot before taking the cushioned seat beside it. “But to put things in more concrete terms, the sets of problems you care about may overlap in some way with the sets of problems most civilians do, but my guess, without knowing you particularly well, is still that they do not prioritize in anywhere near the same order.”

Red summons Ivysaur, mentally greeting his pokemon with a merger and head rub that also checks for any biological needs, then sends him an impulse to jump onto the chair, then the wide table-pot. Red’s height growth has also coincided with growing some lean muscles that could let him lift Ivysaur up, but his pokemon has gotten big enough that it wouldn’t be comfortable for either of them. “I think I don’t know how to take that. I care about them not dying to renegades, or wild pokemon, or at all if possible…”

“That, right there, is the sort of thing I mean.” She picks up a spray bottle with some green tinted water, and mists her ivysaur’s skin. “Most people don’t spend most of their time thinking of the ways they might die. They spend most of their time thinking of the ways they want to live, and struggle to. They prioritize the set of problems directly in front of them, not the ones that may or may not affect them at all in a year or two or ten.”

Red frowns as he mimics her motions. “I get that, I think. I mean it makes sense that they do that, but if someone comes along and says ‘Hey, there’s this important thing that will likely affect all of us, let’s work together on it’…”

“You believe it should work because you do not emotionally grasp their lived experience, where many people say similar things to them constantly, and none of those things feel as relevant as the ones that do, no matter how trustworthy the person saying it is. Politicians who hope to be at all successful quickly learn that their job is to represent the interests of their constituents, which means they must prioritize the things their voters care about if they want to stay in office… or pretend to well enough.” She shrugs a shoulder as she puts the spray down, then opens a pouch full of strange berries Red has never seen before, carefully counting out a few. “The line a far-sighted, altruistic politician must try to walk involves balancing these things with the ones their constituents are not aware of, or do not care about.”

“I’m not trying to be a politician.” Red counts out the same berries, then pauses. “Should I be feeding him more than yours?”

Erika smiles. “Yes, good. Half again as many, I’d judge. He could take more, but it’s his first time, and this will make him mildly sick for a while.”

Red blinks and examines the berries again. “Poison, to strengthen his?”

“Not quite. They will make his plants hardier against extreme heat or cold.” She patiently holds them out to let her ivysaur sniff them before it starts to eat. “I won’t argue with questions of identity. Whatever you consider yourself, politics is the art of group coordination. If you want to convince others, particularly those with different information or values, to change their actions or beliefs in some way, you are engaging in politics whether you know it or not… particularly if your efforts run up against other interests.”

“But…” He tries not to say it is in their interests, mulling over what she said about priorities again, and not just matters of trust, which is easier to acknowledge and doesn’t make much sense to expect. He considers mentally nudging Ivysaur to start eating, but instead lets him take his time. “Okay, I guess it’s… not actually other people’s priority that I feel responsible for their wellbeing, and even if more cooperation could help with that, they could just say ‘no thanks.'”

“Especially if it’s not just cooperation, but power you seek. Which you may not.” He feels her brief assessment, both from the flick of her eyes and the mental pings that come through her constant attempts to shield her deeper thoughts. “But—”

“They don’t know that.”

He can feel that it irks her to be interrupted, but she doesn’t let any of that show, and before he can apologize she’s already speaking again. “Yes, but also, again, their priorities are not your priorities, which means your gaining power will be fundamentally suspicious to many. Some deride minorities who prefer one of their own to politically represent them. After all, do we not live in a post-ethnic society? Could anyone not understand the same issues and challenges, and work equally hard for them? But the reality is that for most people, sharing experiences does shape common understanding and care, and any group that is not represented by others is going to have unique struggles. And since time and resources are limited, a society by default will only address the concerns that most members in it have.”

“Which means putting off the concerns of those with other problems… maybe continually, if new problems keep coming up.”

“As they do. Reasonable? Yes. Efficient? Certainly. But the lived experience of those whose issues are not prioritized is that they are not cared for, their concerns dismissed.”

Red thinks of the way dark people have faced discrimination in Kanto and Johto, and wonders what might be in store for psychics as soon as Rocket is gone. Ivysaur finally starts to lap at the berries, eating two or three at a time from his palm, and Red’s other hand strokes his leathery head, feeling vaguely guilty that his pokemon will feel sick as a result of this, even if it’s for his own good.

Is it? Leaf asks in his mind. He wouldn’t need to face extreme cold or heat if I don’t put him into battles…

“So maybe I should… adjust my feelings of responsibility, to only those people who agree with me the most, and share my values?” He frowns. “But that feels… I don’t know. Callous, in some ways, or too pessimistic. Too tribal.”

Red’s stomach sank as he hurried to keep up with Looker’s long strides. “Director Tsunemori—”

I already messaged her, she’s on her way. I expect she’ll have her piece to say, but the game has changed again, and if she doesn’t see that she’s a fool or compromised, at best.”

“It is good to expand our perspective beyond the tribes we are born into,” Koga says, voice slow and thoughtful. “But if your solution to the lack of power is to gather other, like-minded people who are dedicated to this idea of responsibility to all, even those who do not wish for their help… a ‘tribeless tribe,’ if you will… I’m curious what you believe would happen to them?”

Red tries to imagine a group of people all working together to help everyone… “I guess it depends on how people view them? If they do well, and get support… I’d hope it would get them more resources and support, maybe get more people to join them. Kind of like CoRRNet, or Interpol.”

“Good comparisons.” They watch as Red’s glimmora rotates just above the ground, sending toxic bits of its hard shell out in bursts as its body opens and closes to propel it through the air. It’s pretty, shell glimmering purple and teal in the evening gym lights. “The first, however, has its members focus on a particular location, much like gym members. Those higher up are responsible for broader areas, and at the very top is someone who no doubt feels responsible for events in every developed region… but they are still, ultimately, a secondary power in each, negotiating and cooperating with local Leagues.”

Red slowly nods as he examines the arena through his pokemon’s strange gravity sense, then sends it an impulse to spin through the spikes it just made, reabsorbing them into its petals. “They can’t take responsibility for more because others claim responsibility for it already. And… Interpol agents are wide in geographic responsibility, but have a very narrow mission focus.”

“Just so.”

“It does help when I feel like I can just focus on a particular kind of emergency, and others aren’t mine to solve. And it helped to get more control over what I was doing with my time, more of a sense that I could say something and be listened to. But…”

“Your friends are still focusing on those other problems, and you want to help them.”

Red looks at Koga in surprise. “Uh, yeah. That’s true, and definitely part of it, but… not what I was thinking of.”

“Ah. My apologies for interrupting.”

It’s hard to read the Fuchsia Leader, even on top of him being dark. “It’s okay. The thing I was going to say is, there are still other things I want to do, other things I care about, and I don’t know how to help with them. And I don’t have time to figure it out, because all my energy is going to these other things that also matter, and no one else can do… and sometimes it feels like the better I do at one part of it, the worse it makes some of the other problems.”

Koga snaps a finger, and his garbodor sends out more poisonous debris. The stink is bad enough that Red wishes he’d put his air mask on, but it fades quickly once he sends Glimmora spinning around the sandy arena again, pulling everything into itself. “And so you feel you need the support of others, to accomplish all your goals at once. To cover each of the things you feel responsible for.”

“It’s just an idea. If the responsibility I’m taking on requires more than one person can do…”

“Sounds like a suggestion Surge would make,” Koga says, and lets out a humorous huff. “Not that this is a critique. But to ask someone to help others is to ask them, to some degree, to expose themselves.” He gestured to himself. “Leaders are not warlords, and part of that means we can cooperate for the betterment of our region. Regions are better off through cooperation as well, and sometimes may merge, as Johto and Kanto did. But whatever they may be willing to help other regions with, they must still limit their sense of responsibility, and focus the majority of their energy and resources on their own people… or else those people will suffer for it. Do you understand?”

“I think so. You mean they’ll be outcompeted?”


Not a no, but also… “Also… it’s not just the suffering, which is bad for its own sake. You’re saying it’s unsustainable. It would lead to unrest, and replacement by someone who promises that they will focus on the problems of the people.”

Koga nods, gesturing at their pokemon. “A pokemon can be strong, an organization robust, a motivation passionate… but all of these things count for little, if they are not sustainable. The unique value of Poison pokemon is the ability to play for the long game. The reverse of this virtue is to ensure your own plans cannot be defeated by simply being outlasted.”

Red tried to think of what triggered this. The leak? Or something they found that Looker pretended was innocuous? “If I try to spy on Blaine—”

I left Blaine in charge of a whole dig site full of agents, not to mention your wildcard friend Juniper, and made it look like a concession.”

Red mentally tripped over the idea of Leaf being described as a “wildcard,” and wondered what Looker was referring to. “Then who—”

Everyone else in the League.” Looker’s words came out as hard and sharp as his heels striking the ground. “Whether Blaine is complicit or not, his arrival has to be taken as enemy action. We’re up against the clock now, and wherever the rot in the League is, we need to find it, before they can throw something else at us.”

“Stop,” Giovanni says, and Red lets out a gust of breath before vaulting his platform guard rails and rushing over to heal his claydol where it lies on the packed-dirt arena floor. “Better than your nidoqueen, and xatu, but not by enough. What did you learn?”

Red sprays his pokemon’s earthy body, watching as its weird biology starts the repair process of the clay shell protecting its soft innards. The first response that comes to mind feels irreverent, and he almost suppresses it, but he’s frustrated enough that he lets it out: “That overwhelming power matters more than strategy?”

He can see Giovanni’s small smile, even from the distance of the arena. “True.” The Viridian Leader doesn’t even bother healing his rhyperior. “But don’t shirk responsibility. Any trainer using Ground pokemon who doesn’t teach some a move like Smack Down doesn’t deserve their belt. Any trainer facing trainers with Ground pokemon should expect it, rather than hoping a Flying or levitating pokemon will save them the worst of what their opponent has.”

Red finishes healing his pokemon and reconnects with its mind. The owlish statue-like pokemon spins and trills as it psychically lifts itself back into the air… for all the good that would do it, when Giovanni’s pokemon knocks it to the ground with another well aimed rock. Unlike glimmora or magnezone, whose “unstable” levitation would get disrupted by any sort of Ground attack, Claydol is constantly, psychically lifting itself up and away from the ground by default, which should have made it a great choice against Giovanni… “I still should have been able to outspeed you. That rhyperior is absurdly quick.”

“It is what it needs to be to deal with what is likely to be sent against it. While on journeys, most trainers do not have the luxury to train their pokemon precisely. Unless they spend lots of time or money focusing their growth, their belt gets filled with generalists.”

And generalists will almost always lose to specially trained pokemon, used by a trainer who understands their strengths and weaknesses. “I’ll keep that in mind, now that I have so much spare time and money.”

“See that you do.” Giovanni’s tone lightens. “There’s a broader lesson.”

Red rubs the back of his neck, replaying the way Giovanni gave commands like they were rote, not reacting to anything that happened in the short match. Like nothing Red did required him to… react, at all. “I was too predictable?”

“You picked a levitating Ground pokemon, rather than a Flying Type, because you knew to fear Rock attacks. You brought a pokemon whose attacks would be both Super Effective to some of the commonly paired types, and could get around Ground pokemon’s tough hide. All good decisions, but yes, all predictable to someone who models you as well as I did.”

Red stares at Giovanni, unsure how much to stretch his credulity. “You’re saying you trained that rhyperior specifically to outspeed any Levitating Ground types?”

“No.” Another small smile. “You’re correct to doubt that, as it’s not possible, not against a serious opponent. I would never have had a chance to outspeed a flygon. But Psychic and Dragon have about equal coverage against most strong Ground secondary types, and…”

“And I’m a psychic,” Red sighs. “So of the relatively strong Ground pokemon who can properly levitate, you expected I’d focus on a Psychic dualtype rather than the Dragon one.”


“And… even if I brought a flygon, I bet your Rhyperior has Frost Fang.”

Giovanni spreads his hands, then clasps them behind him. “Again?”

Red nods and heads back to his podium, then realizes Giovanni still hasn’t moved. “You won’t heal your rhyperior?”

“She can take a few more of those.”

Meaning Giovanni is confident that Red won’t win by just trying the same thing again. He grits his teeth, wondering what else he can do…

He’s been training with most of the Leaders every few days, but Giovanni was the quickest to jump from mentoring him on using Ground types well to just straight battles. He knows he’s incredibly lucky to have this much focused training with the ex-Champion, not to mention the other Leaders, but… it does make it harder to talk about what’s been on his mind…

“Something wrong?”

“I had a thought, about ‘heroic responsibility.'”

Giovanni nods. “Can you talk and battle at once?”

“I…” He wants to say yes, to not disappoint, but maintaining a mental merger for a battle is disorienting even if it’s a pokemon that’s similar enough to a human, which claydol is very much not. “No, not for a conversation like this.”

“Food, then.” The Leader says, and withdraws his pokemon before taking the stairs down to the arena floor. Red returns his claydol and joins him, following as they make their way back toward the elevators. “Your question?”

“Basically, it’s… how do you balance doing as much as you can with doing it sustainably?”

“Partly trial and error. Learning what drains you and if it’s possible to outsource it, learning what recharges you and making more time for it, these are important gains of experimenting with different methods.”

Red nods, and fiddle with his cap as they step into the elevator, wondering if they’ll eat in the Leader’s office or go out somewhere. Weird as it is spending time so casually with so many important figures, Giovanni raises it to a whole different level, but thankfully is also the most assertive in keeping their time spent efficient and productive. “Have you ever given up on something, once you decided it was going to be a thing you helped, or a group of people you’d save?”

Giovanni is silent a moment, then shakes his head. “No. Not really.”

Red stares at him. The leader’s short hair seems freshly shaven, barely more than a dark pattern against his scalp, and he looks like he’s been sleeping well. Still burning with purpose, so that even a few moments in the elevator together makes him radiate something like reserved impatience, but less tightly wound. “I was really expecting you to say ‘yes, of course,’ and then give some speech about how people learn to accept their limits over time, or something.”

“Sorry to disappoint.” Again that brief, small smile. The elevator opens, and Red sees they’re on the ground floor. Looks like they are eating out. It seems so… inefficient, given his model of the Viridian Leader. “I’ve made mistakes, perhaps even catastrophic ones. It remains to be seen if, on balance, all my work will have been a net positive. No amount of failure has made me feel less responsible.”

“Oh.” Red can’t even begin to imagine what sort of measuring stick Giovanni is using to judge his work, if that’s how he feels about it. How must he view others, by comparison? Do people outside of Bill or Professor Oak (if even him) all seem like struggling toddlers, to him?

“I’ve been told there’s a good Kalosian restaurant not far from here, if you’d like to try it.”

“Uh, yeah, that sounds great.” Red follows Giovanni through the lobby, then out into the street. Jenson is waiting at the door, and gives Red a look, to which he returns a shrug. “So do you just… not feel bad, if you fail to save something you care about?”

“I can’t tell you how everyone balances the things they care about,” Giovanni says as Red’s head bodyguard starts to follow them. “Minds operate differently from one another, sometimes vastly so, and I would not want you to hear my answer as an insistence of how you should or must feel too. Agreed?”

“Agreed.” He wonders as they walk down the sidewalk if the Leader goes out to lunch at local places often, and tries to focus. “I know my mind definitely doesn’t work like others’.”

“Fair. Then, to put it simply, I do feel bad when I fail, as I believe we’ve discussed before, in a different context. But all the things I care to protect, they’re part of a whole. They’re not distinct things, which individually can make or break my sense of whether I’m succeeding or not. I don’t try to balance a tray of delicate pottery, then mourn the vase that falls. Not because nothing can be broken beyond repair—true loss is real, and worth grieving. But because the thing I care for, in truth, the full extent of what I take responsibility for, is the world. The future of humanity itself. Not lone responsibility, I know I am not that capable. But it’s all the same, in some sense that is hard to describe, but feels nevertheless true.”

Red does his best to wrap his head around this, and briefly wishes he could do a mental merger with Giovanni to feel it from the inside. He almost suggests it…

…but no, that would be terribly presumptuous, and invasive…

…he feels an urge to ask about more specifics instead. “How does that play out, practically? I know you do a lot more than run the gym, but… aren’t there some things you wish you could focus your time and attention on, but can’t because of duties no one else can do?”

“Often. But you could imagine it, I suppose, like weaving a tapestry. A long, detailed tapestry that will take many years to finish, being spun automatically even if I do nothing. If I don’t get enough of it right along the way, perhaps the whole thing will feel ruined. But for the most part, a few blemishes here and there, some mistakes in the weave, they’re inevitable. My eye is still on the end, the point where it all is either worth the effort I put into everything that felt important, or might be, or… not.”

“I think I get it, but it’s a little weird imagining what that’s like,” Red says, smiling slightly. “Like I could say it sounds like you’ve taken responsibility for the forest, so individual trees stop mattering—”

“A fair analogy, I believe.”

“—but it also sounds like you’ve just taken so much responsibility for so many things that you’ve, like, transcended into some new evolution of what Heroic Responsibility could look like.”

Giovanni’s smile is wry, but warmer than most of his expressions. “As I said, different minds are different. But I hope this was helpful in some way, to you.”

Looker is waiting for Red when he returns from his meeting with Giovanni. Or rather, Looker is by Red’s cubicle, looking over the digital calender stuck to one wall. “You need to clear your weekend.”

“Hello to you too,” Red says as he slides past and sits down, then slides a finger across the calender to sync it and make some edits. Ooo, Blue’s finally got a Challenge match coming up with Blaine… “Also, what weekend?”

“Yeah, yeah. You can take an extra day after, but Agatha got back to us and said she’s up for a meeting.”

Red perks up at that, despite his tiredness. “I expected I’d go through some of the Leaders a second or third time before having a session with an Elite. But we have met already, a couple times…”

“Well, I’ve got less expectation that you can get into her head than Sabrina’s, but good training is good training.”

Red stares at him, wondering what he’s talking about…

…then feels his partition drop…

…and the other partitions, the ones holding his memories of his observations, assessments, and even mergers with the Leaders as he met with them all.

It takes a few seconds for the streams of memory to flow and merge, and he takes a deep breath as he returns to his full unpartitioned self again, then lets it out.

There’s a small sense of shame over what he’s doing, from the vestiges of his partitioned self. Or rather, the model of what his partitioned self would feel, if he knew.

But he’s getting valuable information, and it’s something he can control, something he can do that might really make a difference.

Looker is watching him, sipping a cup of coffee as he waits for Red to recollect himself. “Anything?” he finally asks.

“Maybe,” Red says, reviewing some of his memories. Odd looks, from Erika and Koga. Subtle mental reactions, from Erika and Surge. And something that might be personality changes, in Koga and Giovanni… “Maybe not. Next few meetings might give me something more concrete to follow up on. But as usual, I got some interesting advice and training.”

Looker grunts. “I’ll take it. Keep up the good work.” He claps Red on the shoulder, then heads off.

Leaving Red looking after him in surprise, then turning back toward his desk, setting his guilt temporarily to the side. Notebook out, attention on his body, he begins to re-examine his memories, and how they made him feel, one by one.

Chapter 127: Tests

Chapter 127: Tests

Blue makes an effort to slow down just before he walks into Cinnabar Gym’s coordination room, taking a breath and doing his best to shed any frustration or anxiety from his body language. There’s a knot in his stomach, a restless, jittery heat in his limbs, but by the time the door closes behind him he feels at least a little more like he’s stepping into a battle arena.

The room is dimly lit so that the various monitors on the walls easily stand out, and so the 3D hologram of Cinnabar Island being projected above the central table is vibrant and crisp. Normally the room would have a mix of gym members and rangers, but other than Chase the rest of the people in the room are “his” crew. Friends who flew or ferried over from all over Kanto, when he put out the call weeks ago. Friends who are relying on him to have a vision, to know what he’s doing, and he pulls those expectations around him like a cloak, reminding himself of all the things he’s done to earn their trust, until he feels even more fully in control and confident.

He raises his hand in greeting when people turn toward him, then wanders from one part of the room to another, listening to each group as they work, as he normally would. Elaine and Marcus are sitting face to face on their computers, while Glen and Maria are searching through the storage PCs. Bretta, Slava, and Sumi are standing with Chase by a trainer roster being displayed on a wall monitor, the latter two mostly listening in as the former debate some of the newer trainers’ merits and weaknesses. By the time Blue makes it to the central table, he feels like enough time has passed that people will take the news more lightly, but still he waits, bringing up the visual overlay of the island that puts the grid over it, then highlights sections by emergency level.

Within a minute the colors update, and he says, “We’ve got problems.”

Elaine looks up from her computer, then stands and comes around to his side of the table, and after a moment Marcus follows her. Glen and Maria walk over from behind him, while Chase and the others turn from the wall.

“Zone D4?” Elaine frowns. “And E3.”

“Back to yellow?” Bretta asks.


There’s a moment of silence, then Chase sighs. “Figured.” Cinnabar Gym’s Third is still wearing the dirt and stains of a hard battle on his uniform, and he looks even more tired than he sounds. “Heard G5 is also set to shift by the end of the week, if they don’t get that ranger outpost back up. Did they say what would turn D2 red?”

“Another few casualties might.” Blue zooms in on the region in question, a fertile plateau where some farm houses and ranches were set between Ranger outposts… until the whole area got overrun in the initial ditto stampede. “A new ditto outbreak would also do it, according to Mako.”

“He’s a worrier.” Glen taps another part of the table monitor to switch to the trainer roster the others are viewing. “Who can we rotate into the area?”

Blue glances around, trying to get a temperature check of the room. Maria seems grim. Glenn and Bretta, frustrated. Elaine is sad, but clearly focused. Slava and Marcus, disappointed. Sumi… dispirited? He’ll have a talk with her later.

They all look tired.

They’ve worked hard on this over the past few weeks. Lizzy and Alex are with the newer members, going over after-action reports while training Jamil to take over that role, while Maria and Viraj meet with Cadet Wendy and some other local trainers who like to do extra surveys with the rangers.

Together, they’ve built a system. A training program that weaves Cinnabar gym’s facilities, the group scenarios, and live field work side by side with the rangers to help ensure that the trainers here for their badge, most of whom have mainly focused on surviving wilds and battling other trainers, are prepared for… more.

Not just Cinnabar’s reclamation, but true wilderness taming. Expanding the reach of civilization.

But to do that, they’ve needed to both broaden and level up in a number of areas. Which means the team people Blue has gathered to guide them toward that goal needs to level up in a number of ways too.

First, evaluation. What trainers would work well together? What are their skills, and how balanced would the different teams be? They all help out with it, but Bretta, Sumi, and Maria have gravitated toward taking point, with a lot of input from Blue.

Second, scenario design. Elaine has become the main brains for those, working together with Marcus, Glen, and sometimes Bretta, who ran her own scenarios at the gyms she, Slava and Sumi visited if they didn’t already have them.

Third, field missions. Working side by side with rangers gives the trainers a wider range of knowledge, wider skills… and while most don’t translate to better skill in trainer battles, they do strengthen people’s pokemon, and give them opportunities to catch new ones.

Still, they’ve just barely managed to maintain the progress that led to CoRRNet downgrading Cinnabar’s risk profile. Something’s changed, on the island; stronger, higher stage evolutions of wild pokemon are showing up more often, and the stampeding patterns seem to be changing every few days.

Blue attended the ranger meeting at their city headquarters today to suggest the idea that a pokemon with Pressure is riling things up, like the absol in the diglett tunnels. It’s something they had already considered, apparently, but had no practical solution to discovering or dealing with if true. For now they’re just looking into ways to hold the areas they’ve worked so hard to reclaim lately.

Blue feels a resurgence of frustration and worry as he looks over how few strong trainers are left to do extra shifts, then reaches past Elaine to add his name to an extra D2 tour tomorrow. That done, he takes another breath. “I need you guys to tell me straight: how much more of this can you keep doing?”

The room is quiet. Blue turns to Chase, who has a brow raised. “This is your home, so I expect you’ll keep at it as long as you can. But I still want to know how long you think you can keep going at this pace, with your other duties as they are?”

“Blaine’s my Leader,” Chase says, as if that explains everything. “He says stop, give up some parts of the island, that’s what I do. He says keep trying, find a way? Then I go until I drop.”

Blue nods, but it’s not good enough. “Not doubting your commitment. But still, I want to know when you think that’ll be. Two weeks? Three? Can you keep your reflexes sharp enough to survive out there if you go through another month of this?”

Chase turns back toward the roster on the wall. Blue doesn’t fill the silence, and eventually Chase says, “Two more weeks, at least, if I start to get another hour of sleep each night. After that, even with a full nights’ worth, I’ll probably start making bigger mistakes, losing track of stuff, unless I cut down some shifts.”

Blue nods, then turns to Glen, because it has to be Glen next. His friend’s brow is furrowed, mouth set in a hard line. “This is my priority right now. The startup is going okay, new orders are coming in. Selling in Cinnabar has helped let me keep feeling good about both. I’m here.”

“For a month?” Blue tries not to sound like he’s pressing. “Three months?”

“Would you stay that long?” Chase asks, sounding more curious than skeptical.

It’s a fair question, and Blue turns back to him. “You know I’m aiming for the top, and more. If Cinnabar’s going to follow me the way I want all of Indigo to, I can’t leave it like this any more than Blaine could.”

“I’m here,” Glen says again, drawing Blue’s attention back to him. “So long as you are.”

Blue smiles, brief but sincere. “Good to know. Now how long can you keep this pace up?”

Glen’s expression softens, and he glances at Chase before turning back toward the projected island. “I was thinking of cutting down to five shifts a week. Now I feel like I need to stay at seven, but… at this rate, I’ve got a week of charge left, maybe two.”

Blue puts a hand on the older teen’s shoulder and squeezes. One of the many nice things about his growth spurt is he’s nearly as tall as Glen, now. He’s starting to think he might end up even taller. “Start with six. See how it feels.”

He turns to Elaine before Glen can argue. She’s got her arms folded, and the look in her eye reminds him of their talk, back in Fuchsia. When she confessed her feelings for Glen, and her worries that she was losing her edge. And her response to his fear, that he’d get people killed who weren’t ambitious or skilled enough to fight beside him willingly.

“I’m here,” is all she says. “I can go at least another two weeks at this pace.”

Marcus, standing beside her, shrugs a shoulder. “I’m still having fun with the scenarios we’re making, and the wilds getting stronger just means I get stronger too. Ask me again in a month.”

Blue nods, then turns to Maria and says before she can start, “Don’t feel bad if—”

“—two weeks. Then I have to get back to my training with Jason. But I’ll still come by, now and then.” She gives him a slight smile, and it rests easy on her face. “I might feel a little bad, but not as much as if I hadn’t come at all.”

Blue smiles back. “Fair.” Maria’s time with Jason seems to have finished the process of pulling her out of her shell, and made her a lot more… calm is the only word Blue can think of for it. His disappointment over her pausing her journey has been entirely replaced by a confused relief over the clear benefits to her after what happened under the Rocket Casino, and he keeps meaning to talk to Jason about what they’ve been doing in case it’s a skill he could have learned to do for her instead.

He turns to Bretta, Slava, and Sumi. Bretta looks at her two friends, clearly pushing them to answer first, until Slava caves.

“I think I can keep this up for another week. I’m willing to keep going for more, but… I don’t know how much more.”

Sumi runs a hand through her hair. “I’d like to stay as long as we can.” Blue doesn’t miss the way she subtly includes Slava, and possibly Bretta. “But if the island ends up going through cycles… I still have two more badges besides this one. Might take a break to pick them up.”

“I want a path to victory,” Bretta says, blunt as ever. “Even if we gain ground faster than we lose it, we’ll end up stuck if the lost ground gets stronger than we can easily handle. It’s like we’re facing a trainer whose whole team is a setup for a Toxic stall.”

“It’s not that bad,” Chase says with a shrug. “We can secure most of the island, except a handful of areas that only the strongest trainers can deal with. Blaine won’t be happy, but he’s a pragmatist at heart. If he sees it’s no-win, he’ll shift focus to containment.”

Blue shakes his head. He likes Chase, but it’s exactly this kind of thinking that he has to change, even here on Cinnabar where people are used to more “active” defense. “That’s not sustainable if it takes weeks of extra trainer rotations to bring the zones to blue. Anything could happen in that time to put the whole island back in red.”

Bretta nods. “Stormbringer.”

“Second new species outbreak,” Sumi adds.

“Renegade activity.” Glen glances at Blue, who keeps his face neutral.

He gave his friends simple tasks, if they had the free slack, tasks which he sort of regrets given the sudden slew of new difficulties the island faces, and how little they learned.

Glen’s startup has been going well, and it puts him in contact with a growing list of distributors for all the various restaurants, grocers, and supply stores in the region… and on Cinnabar, that list is fairly short. Elaine’s been scouting the island more than anyone else to find good locations for scenarios, which gave her plenty of reasons to check out the different potential places where other hidden labs might be set up. Maria, Lizzy, Bretta, everyone has been making friends, asking questions, trying to get a better sense from the locals of what else might be happening on the island.

The little bits of information shared with each other haven’t amounted to much, which Blue expected, but was still mildly disappointed by. All they had was a rough time range where odd people might have showed up in the city or nearby towns, a general location where weird things might have happened, and a vague idea of what sorts of things might be included.

Even the lab’s discovery hasn’t changed much, other than to raise everyone’s awareness of the potential stakes. Blaine’s arrival made it clear that there was no need to hide things anymore… but at the very least, Blue has kept the secret of what Leaf suspects the lab was for. He doesn’t want to betray people’s confidence, and also it might make him seem a little unhinged if they’re wrong.

But it’s what’s on his mind when he says, “Or another set of myths waking up somewhere and turning the world on its head.”

Bretta nods. “Hell, a big enough stampede could send everyone back to the safety of the city.”

“Alright, alright,” Chase says, and sighs. “Not saying I want that. But most of our trainers aren’t getting strong enough, fast enough, to make a meaningful difference in the zones that are flaring up. We’ve got an absurdly low casualty rate given what we’ve been doing, and you guys can claim some credit for that. It’s a part of why Blaine has been so willing to give you more autonomy. But if more trainers start getting maimed or killed, or even losing too many strong pokemon, we’ll lose even more to caution and worry.”

And Blaine might retract some, or all, of that autonomy. It doesn’t need to be said, and Blue nods to show he’s got the message, feeling some of the anxious churn in his stomach again.

“We’ve still got a quarter of the recruits to organize.” Bretta says. “Once they’re ready to run a scenario—”

“Just run?” Chase asks. “Half the groups from last week couldn’t complete theirs.”

“We need a path to victory, like Bretta said,” Blue cuts in. It’s so clear, in pokemon battles. It’s not always right, but it’s at least there. A series of steps that will force the opponent into a corner, strip their options one by one, until defeat is inevitable. A series of readied reactions for different possibilities, to adapt to the range of things they might do.

But there’s no opponent here, no single mind he’s trying to beat, with limited options on its belt. There’s just… the world. It’s the endless potential of the wilds, of new combinations of enemies showing up at times and places that are hard to predict, and in amounts that are hard to prepare for.

“I want to believe we could do it with the people we have,” Blue says. “That we just need to be more—” He almost says unpredictable. Which wouldn’t make any sense, in this case, but… “Adaptable. Something we haven’t thought of before, something gyms or CoRRNet couldn’t do before. But new options would be good, whatever form they come in.”

“More resources can also lead to new options,” Elaine says.

“Resources are tapped, if you mean money,” Chase says. “Emergency funding worked, as far as Indigo is concerned, and CoRRNet won’t re-escalate our ranking unless things get way worse. Cinnabar’s in debt for the foreseeable future, and the Gym’s only avoiding budget cuts because the League is helping out.”

“Do we know any charitable millionaires willing to offer a bunch of money?” Slava asks. “Maybe even bounty money? We could reach out to some, frame it as a charity thing, or…?”

“It’s not a bad idea,” Glen says, speaking slowly. “But a bunch of professional bounty hunters showing up would definitely create a different vibe.”

“Do we care about vibes?” Chase asks, brow raised. “Because I know Blaine wouldn’t care about vibes, if it makes people safer.”

“It might get trainers already helping out wondering why they’re not getting paid,” Slava says.

Glen crosses his arms. “If they’re as skilled as the professionals, maybe they should.”

“Okay, sidelining that debate for the third time,” Blue says. “Good ideas so far, keep them coming. Something besides money.”

“New outreach,” Elaine says. “We tapped What Comes Next, and there’s a lot of overlap with the others we know, but we could reach out to people directly?”

“Dragon Dojo.” Glen starts ticking off with his fingers. “Stormchasers?”

“Ew,” Sumi says.

“Agreed, but we’re in babble mode,” Blue says. “Just spit the ideas out, we’ll prune down to practical ones later. More suggestions?”

Bretta was studying the roster again, but turns to face them, frowning slightly. “Vermilion Gym? Might seem like poaching…”

The room is quiet for a moment. Blue tries to imagine that conversation, maybe between him and Surge directly, maybe just between Blaine and Surge…. “It’s not bad,” he says slowly. “But also might not be enough. At this point, we’d need, what, another fifty trainers with 3+ badges?”

“At least,” Sumi says. “Closer to seventy, all dedicating a few hours a day for three weeks.”

“Four to be safe,” Slava adds.

Bretta returns to studying the roster. “And yeah, three badges or equivalent would be needed to be extra careful not to risk new casualties. 4 badges would be better, with how absurdly fast the wilds on the island are getting stronger.”

“I’d be surprised if there are that many unattached high level trainers in Kanto that haven’t already come,” Chase says. “Or even all of Indigo. And if we want to attract people from further out, there needs to be a better prize involved, which leads us back to the incentives. If not money, then…?”

“Status?” Blue muses. “If we can hype participation up more…”

“Ditto,” Glen suggests. “People still need to hand over their catches until they’re safe, but maybe we can ensure everyone has a rotation through a ditto heavy area.”

“What about the area where a more stable ecosystem is developing?” Elaine suggests.

“It’s an idea. I’ll talk with Ira and Wendy. As for the earlier idea about rich folk, Red knows Bill, and Silph owes him a favor. Gramps also might have ideas about what’s happening on the island, and what we can do about it.” Blue switches the table setting to view the island hologram again, selecting the routes going through that area. “What about tactics? What sort of terrain are we working in, how can we change that?”

“You want to drain a lake or something?” Chase asks, sounding grudgingly admiring. “Flood some strong wild habitats? Because Blaine might have objections.”

“Babble first,” Elaine reminds him. “Pretty sure CoRRNet would too, but that’s for later.”

“Speaking of which…” Slava hesitates, then clears his throat. “Yeah, terrible idea probably, but uh… what about introducing some new invasive species?”

“Oh yeah,” Chase sighs. “This’ll go well.”

“And we’re live, in three… two… Hey Indigo, what’s bad, what’s good, what’s better than yesterday, cuz today I’m here on the island of fiery desire live with a random trainer you may have heard of named Blue Oak, currently acting member of the Cinnabar Gym. Mug for the camera, Blue.”

Blue smiles, a naturally wry expression he turns toward the held up camera for just a couple seconds before returning his gaze to the path they’re climbing. “Hey everyone. Watch your step here, it’s mossy.”

“Mossy, right.” Brightfire has bright blue hair swept up to a twirling point above his head, a cheerful disposition, and dark golden eyes that mark him as a member of one of Indigo’s “Dragon Clans.” To his credit, those gold eyes do sweep over the ground as he takes some careful steps up to the next ridge. The camera set in its swivel-mount atop his shoulder points down to take in the uneven terrain before lifting and turning to take in his profile again, and Blue’s face beyond. “Clan, Blue here says this is the best route to get a good view of what he’s been up to over on Cinnabar. It’s been a bit of a climb, but we’ll be there in…?”

“Few more minutes.”

“A few more minutes! During which, we have time for a few starters. Such as, what made you reach out to little old me? I’m sure all my clanmates who’ve been busy doing cool shit weren’t too busy to hear about that whole Miracle Eye thing, but you haven’t spoken to the press since, despite all the stuff you’ve been doing here, and I’m not exactly a journalist.”

Brightfire (born Bastion, as if that wasn’t already a cool enough name) may not be a journalist, but he’s got a larger online presence than most news sources. Child to a branch of the most famous Indigo Dragon Clan family, he started his journey under the massive shadow of his first cousin twice removed, Indigo Champion Lance. But unlike most in his family (and according to rumors, much to their displeasure), he aborted his gym circuit after his 7th badge, a couple years before Blue left Pallet Town. Instead of going on to challenge his aunt’s gym in Blackthorn, he ended up liveblogging a series of daring and extremely risky pokemon captures.

It exploded his already decently sized following, and the infamy he gained from some online commenters only brought him more. Blue had written him off as an interesting but somewhat dangerous influence, spurring people on to try things they weren’t prepared for to imitate his heroics, or gather some of his fame for themselves…

But the older teen is undeniably skilled, and undeniably inspires trainers to try harder and push their boundaries. Things Blue shares a natural affinity for, even if he’s more interested in reinventing gym cultures than rejecting them entirely.

“I invited you because I think you’d appreciate what we’re doing here,” Blue says, letting his voice carry the frank honesty he feels. “But I also invited you because I want your audience.”

“Uh oh, clan. Have we been duped? Top ten anime betrayals?” Brightfire is smiling. They didn’t rehearse any of this; it’s a point of pride for him to only record things live, and his reputation is built on authenticity. “You’ve got a pretty big following yourself, Oak. If they won’t bite, what makes you think my collection of free spirits will pay the price of admission for whatever you’re selling here?”

Blue feels a spark of heat in his chest. He wants to push back against the idea that his followers aren’t “biting,” but there’s a tangle of traps around claiming the people who follow him are people he can get to do things, comparing them in any way to Brightfire’s following, all while avoiding coming off as defensive if he says he did get plenty of people to come. “No price, and it’s not for me. I won’t even be on Cinnabar much longer, if things go well. But we’re doing something new here, something daring, and something hard. I’ll be pretty surprised if you or your ‘clan’ don’t want a taste.”

“We heard those airquotes, didn’t we, clan? But okay, Oak, we’re here and you’ve got us pegged. Just gotta see if whatever you’re doing is worth my time. The clan can decide for themselves, obviously.”

“Obviously.” Like any of them would do something their idol had spurned… though it might not be all-or-nothing. Brightfire could admit that the endeavor is daring enough, but say he’s not joining because he’s got other plans, and those people who want to be part of it could feel like they have his blessing to come. “How much do you know about what I’ve been up to, exactly?”

“I’ve heard about the wargames you’ve been putting people through at Kanto gyms. I’d say it’s a step in the right direction, but if you know anything about me—”

“Been watching your stuff since I was 9.”

“—you know what I’m going to say next.”

“‘No risk of dying, no point in trying.'” Blue shrugs a shoulder. “It took you far, and led a lot of your clan to greatness.”

“You mean my bio clan, or are you sucking up to the viewers?”

“Both. But there are still god-like, elemental forces wreaking havoc throughout Indigo, and I’d be dumb to call you a coward, but I am wondering when you’re going to go for broke.”

Brightfire grins. “He’s calling us out, clan. You bring me all this way just for that, Oak? What do we say, clan? You go for a dragonite, your belt better be loaded. Glory comes in the fight even if you fail, but fighting hard means fighting smart, and I’m not dumb enough to think I’m ready to beat the Beasts.”

“But you plan to be, someday? Does anyone from your clan plan to be?”

“Hey clan, he’s talking to you. Anyone gonna do something stupid enough to make all of us look like overeager idiots?”

Blue wants to say that’s not answering his question. If anything it’s implying the answer is no, not really, but in a way that makes them look noble and sane rather than afraid or hypocritical. But before he can, Brightfire slows, then grins and speeds up.

He heard it.

They make the rest of the climb quickly, spurred on by the distant shouts and other sounds of battle drifting from afar and echoing faintly around them, until they finally crest the final ridge, where a top down view of a plateau sticking out the side of a nearby mountain is waiting for them.

From this distance, they can just make out a squad of four trainers who are currently engaged against seven “wild” pokemon, their own trainers imitating a stampede that’s upping its pressure little by little, pushing them back toward the edge of the plateau. Brightfire seems at least a little interested, maybe just by how close the defending trainers are from the cliff’s edge. His left thumb and forefinger have sensor rings around them, and small twitches pan the camera on his shoulder left and right, followed by a pinching motion that sends its lens stretching forward.

They watch together as one of the trainers is forced back even further by rock thrown by a graveler. The figures are distant enough that it’s hard to differentiate them, but one of the closer trainers comes to their rescue, only for a fresh stampede wave to force the two of them further back.

“What are they trying to do?” Brightfire asks. “Not just survive, yeah?”

“Why not?” Blue asks, tone light. Obviously baiting.

“Too tame.” Brightfire’s gaze is fixed on the battle, despite his motto, and he detaches the camera from his shoulder, then holds it up to his eye so he can see more clearly. The four trainers are all being forced back again, and some are almost entirely out of room to maneuver. “And pointless. If it’s a real cliff, and they’re supposed to be in the field, they should have teleporters. Non-dark trainers hold them off while darks get on their fliers, then teleport away. Let them stampede off, or fight them somewhere better suited.”

It’s always nice to get reminders of how taken for granted it is, these days, that teleportation should be factored into any group of trainers’ strategy. “And if it’s not?”

“What, like the drop is a crowd of civvies or a hospital or something? And you just have them fight here to make it more intense?” Brightfire’s smiling now. “Still seems too tame. I thought you were doing interesting stuff. Come on, Oak. What’s the trick?”

“I’ll give you hints. One, they are just trying to survive.”


“And two, it is supposed to be a real cliff.”

Brightfire glances at him, then looks through his camera again. A moment passes before he says, “But there’s a trick. Alright. Clan chat’s probably exploding with guesses, but I’ll figure this out myself.”

Blue nods, and watches as the fourth trainer has finished healing their pokemon, and rejoins the fight. Some of the “stampeding” pokemon get ordered to move toward a path off the plateau, and the recovered trainer rushes to engage them in battle, drawing them back toward the others and joining them in a more robust defense.

Brightfire’s lips purse, and Blue catches him looking up, then around, then down, and knows he got it, even if he doesn’t know the how, yet.

Still, the group has to survive a little longer, and it’s looking bad. A blast of heat from an arcanine sends a pokemon nearly tumbling over the edge, sending Blue’s heart leaping into his throat. It only barely gets returned on time, but the distraction causes the trainer to get forced back once more… and then they turn to leap off the plateau.

“What,” is all Brightfire gets out before the plummeting figure engages their parachute, which blooms above them and slows their descent before they drop too far or fast, letting them glide toward the valley below. “Ha! Okay, clan, that got me, and I bet it got most of you. If all their bags are parachutes… they’re all dark?”

“No, not all.”

“But some won’t have time to mount up before it happens.”

“Before what happens?”

Brightfire just grins. “Whatever ‘it’ is. Hoping some of you figured it out, clan. Assuming they last long enough…”

Nearly thirty seconds of more desperate fighting ensue, and a few of the stampeding pokemon “escape,” being returned to their balls and sent back out. The team training will lose points for each of those, but it’s as Brightfire said. They just have to hold out, and keep the majority of their opponents engaged…

It’s gotten easier since that first badge scenario he watched in Vermilion Gym, but Blue’s heart still pounds as he watches the battle, and he wipes sweaty palms carefully on his pants. He wants this to go well for the sake of convincing Brightfire, but he also wants it to go well because he wants their new strategy to work. They couldn’t exactly practice it, here…

Another trainer looks like they’re moments away from jumping when the CRACK sounds. Brightfire and Blue look up to see two trainers higher up on the mountain, who weren’t in position yet when Brightfire checked. Their summoned rhyperior and onix are hard at work striking at certain parts of a cliff, and another CRACK echoes around them, followed by a third, until the jutting earth finally starts to fall.

The trainers scramble to withdraw their pokemon and summon teleporters, or run for the edge if dark. Blue feels a stirring of awe at the sight of the mountain face just… breaking, melting, tons of rock billowing dust out as it starts to gain momentum, all that earth almost seeming to turn liquid as it rushes the rest of the way toward the plateau the trainers are on…

…but it’s already clear, the last one having just leapt and deployed their parachute as the first of the boulders comes bouncing down ahead of the landslide.

The noise is incredible, an echoing rumble that still manages to be quiet and steady enough that it sounds like a waterfall, but with the occasional echoing crackle of breaking trees or bouncing boulders. Blue’s heart leaps into his throat as a boulder bounces in the direction of one of the trainers, while Brightfire lets out a whoop. It’s not close, really, but Blue still lets out a long breath as the last of them gets far enough to be clear, the line of colorful parachutes floating steadily away. The mountain continues to feed the hungry beast that awakened on its surface, obliterating greenery and ridges far below them all.

The plateau the trainers were on is still standing, but it’s scoured clean, and most of the edge has been cut off as if by a giant knife. It’s a little surreal to be standing in the same place he was a minute ago, and have the world in front of him so drastically transformed. Blue looks up to the trainers who caused it, and sees they’ve withdrawn their pokemon and left.

Brightfire is laughing, and Blue turns toward him with a brow raised. “How close were you?”

“I thought maybe something would appear beneath them.” Brightfire shakes his head, still grinning, and turns the camera around to face him. “What do you say clan? Worth the show? Glad you tuned in?”

“I did promise a good view, at the very least.”

“You did, and delivered.” Brightfire is still chuckling. “CoRRNet really gives you permission for this, Oak?”

“They do. I’m working with them, and the gym, to make sure we’re all pushing toward the same goal, so we can do things we otherwise couldn’t alone.”

“Yeah yeah, message is clear, we got it, don’t we, clan? Stronger together.” Brightfire shrugs. “Impressive as it is, I don’t see how it’s supposed to turn the tide of what’s going on in Cinnabar.”

“It’s just a part of the overall plan.” Blue shrugs back. “Those trainers, they became more prepared to fight in an environment that limited their movement. They faced overwhelming odds in a battle of endurance. And the other team identified an environmental factor they could use to their advantage, and made it work for them within just a few minutes of scouting the area.”

“Assuming this wasn’t scripted.”

Blue just gives him a level look. “I didn’t bring down a chunk of a mountain just to impress you.”

“You did it to impress me and spice up the learning activity?”

Blue smiles slightly. “A bit closer. Like I said, there’s a few different parts to our new overall strategy. Will you stick around a couple days, so I can show you a few more?”

“Any of them as impressive as this?” Brightfire’s brow is raised. “Because I kind of doubt you’ve got something else of that caliber ready, and we already knew you were a showman. If that was your inner crew—”

“Wasn’t,” Blue says. “Veteran group, but all 3 and 4 badgers. My friends were the stampede trainers, not the ones being trained, or the two up top, who were just a couple well suited gym members given free rein to do whatever they expected would work, after setting eyes on the location for the first time.”

“Sure. Point is, if someone from clan gets here expecting to learn to parachute and bring down mountains, how likely are they instead to shovel shit for weeks, or handhold 1 and 2-badgers?”

Blue does his best to control his smile, to show his amusement without letting on to the sudden hope he feels. Brightfire definitely isn’t showing no interest… even if he’s only talking as if it’s about his clan, and not his own odds of staying to join up.

He addresses the camera directly. “That’s up to the trainer. The abilities of everyone here is judged as fairly as we can, so just showing up claiming to be part of ‘clan Brightfire’ isn’t going to give anyone special treatment. But I will say, I plan for this island to be back to where it was before the ditto appeared, and I don’t plan to waste any time—or anyone’s time—on minor shit. We’re going to be doing almost two dozen special ops a week, when the ball gets rolling, and we’re going to need strong trainers doing what they do best… and learning new tricks along the way.”

Brightfire is watching him with a wry look, and when Blue meets those golden eyes, he sees something both predatory and respectful. “I guess I can stick around another day. See just how strong the wilds on this island are, that they’re giving you all so much trouble…”

This isn’t how Blue expected to arrive at Viridian Gym.

Final gyms are supposed to be special. To have an extra air of reverence and anticipation. To inspire an extra level of confidence, a knowledge that everyone there would know he’s a step below being qualified to, perhaps, become their boss’s boss, or their boss’s boss’s boss.

But instead of seven badges, he only has six when he walks in to the Gym lobby for the first time.

He also hoped to come at the head of a small army, loyal trainers who were also strong enough to get an eighth badge, whether it was Giovanni’s or not, and would travel through Indigo Plateau with him, until they reached the very top of the League and had a final, intense, glorious battle to see who would be Champion.

But instead he arrives alone. In style, on the back of Soul, but not as impressive as he would otherwise be.

He even wondered if, along the way between arriving and challenging Giovanni, he’d get a sense of the gym culture, find some way to improve or revolutionize it the way he did Vermilion, Fuchsia, Cinnabar, or even Celadon.

Instead Blue just makes his way through the gym without recognizing or connecting with anyone (though he caught the extra stares and excited looks), nor does he even get a sense of the vibe… which is, as far as he can tell, just that of a standard, competent gym that has no apparent theme beyond the earth tones and geode displays lining the halls.

He enters an elevator, walks down more halls, and arrives at Giovanni’s office. A black marble door set in the stone walls meets his fist as he knocks.

“Come in.”

Blue does, and a moment later he’s sitting in the office of one of the most powerful trainers in Indigo, a room that encapsulates the cold, implacable power and authority of the earth, with mosaic walls of polished black and brown stones, geodes of various colors tastefully set in sconces by each corner, and a black stone desk shot through with veins of gold.

“Good morning, Trainer Oak.” Giovanni is wearing his usual dark suit, matching the stone of the walls and desk.

“Morning, Leader. Thanks for inviting me.” He would have preferred an online exchange, but upon hearing what the topic would be, Giovanni said an in-person chat would go better, and Blue is not the sort of person to turn down an advantage in any situation where he might need to persuade someone.

All of Erika’s lessons are on his mind as he meets the powerful Leader’s gaze, a distant part of him still capable of fanboying over the youngest champion in Indigo history. “As the nearest gym to Cinnabar, I’d like to suggest—”

“I agree. My gym will reach out to Leader Blaine today, and negotiate logistics.” Giovanni’s smile is small, but feels almost mischievous as Blue blinks at him. “I’m sorry, did you want to go through your pitch in full, first?”

“No, Leader,” Blue says, and the surge of relief as it sinks in that he won is mildly dizzying. Combined with the “Brightfire clan” arrivals, which started less than twenty-four hours after the livestream and within the past few days have totaled nearly a dozen new trainers, Viridian Gym members would provide a much stronger backbone to their roster. “Thank you for your help.”

But hang on, why did he invite him here, if—

“It’s nothing. I’d additionally like you to know that should you want to challenge me, the arena is ready at any time. A few basic battles with my gym members, to observe the formalities, one thrilling match between us that you can add to your legacy highlights, and the Viridian badge will be yours.”

Blue stares at Leader Giovanni, so surprised now that he can’t help but feel wary. Is he being toyed with? Why would Giovanni offer this? Did Blaine mention that he wanted to save Giovanni for last? “At what cost?”

Giovanni spreads his hands, and leans back slightly in his chair. “No cost, Blue Oak. You’ve made your intention to become Champion clear. I approve. Your skills as a trainer and as a leader are still growing, but you already command more loyalty than you know. You also wish to do so quickly, allowing for the occasional undertaken project. I believe you could beat me if given a chance, or two. Three at absolute most. Do you disagree?”

Blue relaxes slightly, hearing it spelled out so clearly. He feels like he’s speaking to Erika, in a way, appreciating the directness and honesty, but… more than that, there’s something warming, something empowering, about hearing the Viridian Gym Leader say he approves of Blue aiming to become Champion. “No, Leader.”

“Good. So why pretend that you’re like any other trainer? The things you’ve done and seen elevate you above the usual 6 badges you carry. Some of your companions may warrant a similar fast tracking, but they can arrive in their own time.”

It’s all so gratifying, and so still there’s the nagging voice of doubt… “Do you plan to throw the match?”

“Would you say yes, if I did?”

And maybe that’s it. Maybe this is the real test.

Should he? Would he be able to live with his legacy? Like Giovanni said, Blue knows he’d be able to beat him sooner or later… and he’d get the near-perfect record. Something that might make all the difference, when the time comes to rally the region behind him.

There’s no way for Giovanni to know if his answer is truthful. Maybe he’s delayed too long already.

He almost says yes. It’s the practical thing to do, and sitting here, in the Leader’s office, being so frank and direct… and he wants to be practical.

But he didn’t make it all the way here on practicality alone.

“I think,” Blue says instead, each word feeling heavy and firm as the earth. “That I would do myself more harm than good, carrying your badge into Victory Road like that. I’ve dreamed of facing you in a real test of skill for half of my life… and that’s something I could give up, for the sake of Indigo. But what I can’t do without is the knowledge that I deserve to be Champion, in every way that matters. And beating you, for my eighth badge… it’s a test that matters, to me, like few others.”

It’s rare to see Leader Giovanni smile as wide as he does now. “I look forward to it. So let’s see how we can deliver Cinnabar back the peace it’s lost, and speed up the day that test comes.”

Clickbait Soapboxing

Someone on Twitter said:

I am guilty of deliberately stating things in a bold & provocative form on here in order to stimulate discussion. Leaving hedges & caveats for the comments section. On net, I think this is better than alternatives, but I’m open to being convinced otherwise.
And I finally felt the urge to write up thoughts I’ve had about what I’ll call “clickbait soapboxing” for the past year or so. A disclaimer is that I feel like I could write a whole book on this sort of thing, and will inevitably have more complex thoughts about what I say here that comes off as simple.
Also, I’m not super confident I am right to feel so strongly about how bad it seems, and also also, I personally like many people (like the above poster) who regularly do this.
But I don’t feel at all confident that people doing it are tracking all the effects it has, and they certainly don’t seem to acknowledge it. So this seems maybe like it’s useful to say explicitly.
First off, some of these are clearly a “me” thing. For example, I have trouble trusting people to be as capable of “actual” vulnerability or sincerity when they don’t put effort into representing their thoughts accurately. It feels, at best, like a shield against criticism: “I was  wrong on purpose!”
But I know others struggle with inhibition/social anxiety: “I’d rather speak boldly, knowing I’m wrong in some way, than not speak at all!” Which, yeah, makes sense! But are you planning to ever address the root cause? Is it healing, or cope/crutch? (Not judging, I really don’t know!)
In any case, there are still externalities. Illusion of transparency is real! Typical mind fallacy is real!

Should you care? shrug What makes us care about anything we say in the first place? Just don’t motte-bailey “communicating for self-expression” or “processing out loud” vs “sharing ideas and learning” or “talking about True Things.”

As for me (and maybe others out there like me), the effects include things like thinking:
“Did this person actually change their mind? Do they actually believe the more nuanced thing? Or are they just backpedaling due to getting stronger pushback than expected?”
As well as:
“Are they actually interested in learning and sharing interesting ideas? Or are they optimizing for being interesting and getting followers?”
“If they misinform someone, would they care? Would they do it on purpose, if it got them likes and subscribes?”
I don’t make judgements like these lightly. These are just thoughts that I have about people, possibilities that seem ever so slightly more likely, the more I see them engage in sloppy or misleading communication practices.

Val writes well about a sense of “stillness” that is important to being able to think and see and feel clearly. I think the default for news media, social media, and various egregores in general are to hijack our attention and thought patterns, channel them into well-worn grooves.

And I have a hard time feeling trust that people who (absent forewarning/consent) try to trigger people in any way in order to have a “better” conversation… are actually prioritizing having a better conversation? It seems like the same generators are at work as when an organization or ideology does it.

And all this is, in my view, very clearly eroding the epistemic commons.
Humans are social monkeys. Loud emotive takes drown out nuanced thoughtful ones. People update off massively shared and highly upvoted headlines. Far fewer read the nuanced comments.
And very few, vanishingly few, seem to reliably be able to give themselves space to feel when they’re thinking, or give themselves trust to think when they’re feeling. I certainly don’t always react gracefully to being triggered.
So why shrink that space? Why erode that trust? Are you driven more by worry you won’t be able to speak, or fear you won’t feel heard? And then, fear you won’t feel heard, or anxiety your views won’t be validated?
I dislike psychoanalysis, and I definitely don’t assert these things as sure bets of why people do what they do. But it’s what bubbles up in my thoughts, and it’s what inhibits trust in my heart.
And all this also acts as a bit of an explanation to those who’ve asked me why I don’t use twitter much. By design, it feels antagonistic to giving people space to think and feel; writers unless they pay money, and readers unless they fight an endless war of attrition against things trying to eat their attention and turn them into balls of rage and fear.
I’ve no reason to make such a system work, and I’m uninterested in making it work “for me.” In my heart, that feels like surrender to the same generators destroying public discourse, and leads otherwise thoughtful and caring people to being a bit less so, for the sake of an audience.

Chapter 126: Interlude XXVI – Where the Heart Can Bloom

Chapter 126: Interlude XXVI – Where the Heart Can Bloom

The glow on the horizon is like a beacon in the dark, guiding me through the night. Minds pass through my awareness, fleeting and simple. A cluster of rattata. A noctowl flying silently toward them. A sentret hanging from a nearby tree.

But despite its brightness on the horizon, when we reach the town, it is little more than a ranger outpost, a pokemon clinic, and two markets, one for trainers and one for the few dozen houses around them.

[We are between some of those houses and the moon.]

I consider arguing with Survive that it’s extremely unlikely we’d be notable from this distance even if seen. But it costs little to be safer, and so I shift our trajectory a little.

(Can we dip into a dream?) Thrive asks. (No one’s awake down there, even if they’re Sensitive it should be fine!)

[I don’t object, so long as we don’t project anything.]

I send a signal of acknowledgement, then merge with one of the minds in the house below. It’s not deep in dream, just vague flickers of emotion, some exciting chase mixed with nostalgic love. But it still delights Thrive, who begins narrating a story to go with the sensations.

(She’s a retired ranger, reminiscing about years long past, lost friends she faced many dangers alongside… she’s remembering the danger of facing a dragonite, of standing firm for the sake of those she loves…)

Thrive trails off as the mind leaves our range, and no others are around to merge with instead. The path from the town winds its way up and around hills, past one secluded cabin after another, until we reach the right one, prepared emotionally to just pass by, I have a dozen times before…

But there’s a mind inside. A human mind, and a pokemon sleeping nearby…

(He’s here!)

[It’s good he’s safe. But make sure there’s no one else around, in case it’s a trap?]

I put my impatience aside, and do a circuit round the cabin. I use the minds of nearby pokemon to sweep the area with a variety of senses, for strange smells or sounds or shapes, anything that might indicate dark humans or pokemon prepared for an ambush.

Nothing. I hurry back to the cabin, and a quick merger lets me see and feel through Fuji’s eyes and body, to know for sure that he’s safe and calm and sitting at a table, writing with some tea beside him.

As soon as I merge with him, there’s a sense of… ease. Ease of loneliness. Ease of some faint stress, ever present but available. It’s almost like returning to the mind of one of my comforters, whom I still miss dearly. Like returning to childhood, false as the safety of that childhood was.

I only linger a moment in that feeling before projecting: Fuji.

He startles, and then smiles wide, joy filling him to mirror mine, and for a while, further words aren’t necessary as I levitate closer. We share in mixed relief and gladness, in each other’s freedom and safety, no words necessary.

But under the joy, and the relief… concern. Not for the moment, but in anticipation, fear of potential disaster…

What’s happened?

“It can wait,” Fuji says, out loud at his table. I sense his frustration, that even now, they can’t enjoy their time together. Resentful of the world, not leaving me alone… particularly at…

Sabrina has… a message for me?

“It can wait,” Fuji says again, with more certainty. “Come inside? We can have tea, and you can tell me about your travels.”

I expect new cautions or objections from Survive, but it has grown in the past months, much as its predecessor, Doubt, had. Less reflexively suspicious, more capable of calibrated risk assessments… and it has integrated some of Trust’s memories and priorities, recognizing Fuji as an ally. Thrive, meanwhile, sends a pulse of eagerness. We have not had tea since our first and only meeting with Fuji in Lavender, months ago.

I lower myself to the doorway, and Fuji is already there, opening it, smiling as he welcomes me inside, then closes the door and wraps his arms around my torso.

A hug. Such a simple thing, felt many times through others’ bodies. Only a few times before, with mine. Fuji is not a tall man, rising only to my chest, and I move carefully to place my hands against his back, conscious of my own strength, even exhausted as I am.

He did not need to speak, simply letting me feel his affection and gladness through the merger. I sent him the same, until at last we parted, and I followed into the cabin’s main chamber.

The cabin is rudimentary, but warmed by the cyndaquil sleeping in the stone hearth, its flame warming a teapot. There are only two chairs, one of which is a stool, tall enough to be comfortable for me to sit on, my scarred tail stump just long enough to reach the ground and provide balance opposite my legs.

“You’re well?” Fuji asks as he lifts a kettle suspended above the cyndaquil’s fire.

I am. Physically.

He approaches with a mug, eyes move to my tail, and I sense his pity, along with his hope. With the right medicines, strong enough potions applied directly to the damaged tissues… apparently this sometimes works. But it would take many injections and applications over a prolonged period of time, and he doesn’t wish to raise the possibility until later.

All this passes through his mind in a moment, after which he puts my cup down and pours me some tea. “And otherwise?”


“From traveling?”

Yes. I collect my thoughts, but they are still hard to make legible. And other things. So many minds, so many dreams, so many fears. I have merged with thousands of humans since leaving the lab, and while none have been nearly as deep, the weight of them all, the breadth of their differences… it weighs on me.

I feel his concern, curiosity, compersion… and wistfulness. He wishes for that, to feel some of what his fellow humans are like more intimately. Some of it is loneliness, but the rest is a sense of alienation that’s only gotten worse over time, the way he’s always felt them as something of a mystery. A point of bonding between us.

I send some of that through, and he responds with warm acknowledgement, and appreciation.

“If you don’t mind my asking.” I send warm acceptance. “Has one of the other things been battles?”

I only hesitate for a moment, and only because I want to preserve the calm and comfort. I let the silence linger a little longer, to be eased by it a little longer, and then simply send, Yes.

His hands tighten around the grip of the teapot. He pours some more into his cup, then sets it down. “Humans?”


Relief. “What happened?”

I consider explaining, but do not know where to begin. I could list events in sequential order, bring up each pokemon and how the fights progressed…

But words would not be enough. The unique struggles of each battle, which led to new beliefs and ideas within my parts…


I can show you.

He lifts his cup to his lips, sips. I try to do the same, but my mouth cannot comfortably fit around the lip, and it is too hot for my tongue to lap it up.

He sets his cup down, then settles back in his chair, and closes his eyes. “I’m ready.”

I extend the merger, search back through my memory, then begin…

The machamp was strong, but a simple nudge to the leg at the wrong moment sent it tumbling. It recovered quickly, yet still only reached me because I allowed it to. Fists swung, awash in the light of its aura, but more telekinesis robbed them of their strength, and they barely moved me.

I struck, leg snapping out to slam my foot into its muscled stomach with a blow that sent it sliding back.

(This is easy. We can win even without our abilities!)

[An unnecessary risk. A strong enough blow to the head or joint…]

(We’re faster.)

Thrive was right. The machamp’s fists moved like pistons, but its body was like a lumbering snorlax by comparison.

(If we time our strikes with a proper feint…)

It’s decided, and following the decision came movement, contact.

Lunge, turn, kick. The impact traveled through my leg, into my core, and I tried to use the momentum to leap back out of reach again… but its fists still caught my thigh, one-two-three-four sharp blows. Pain erupted, so bad it was hard to move the leg, but I still retreated by kicking off hard from my other, throwing myself back to increase the distance between us.

[We should Recover.]

(We don’t need to!)

[We would be able to Recover even against a Dark pokemon!]

(Some pokemon can prevent healing!)

The machamp charged, and Thrive flowed through me, the two of us working together to leap up from one foot and twist, turning to kick the side of the machamp’s head.

I landed on my injured leg, which buckled, forcing me to catch myself on my hands. The machamp was sent sideways, its arm also catching it as it fell to a knee. It tried to rise… and fell again, disoriented.

I leapt for another kick, hands lifting to block the return punch. The fist struck my forearms so hard it felt painless at first, just pressure that sent me sailing through the air, but I had landed the kick as well, and the machamp’s head snapped up. I watched as it fell onto its back.

Fresh pain registered as I hit the wall of the cliff behind me, then more as I landed on both legs, and then I finally felt the blow to my arms, a deep, almost nauseating hurt. I crouched for another few painful heartbeats, waiting… but the machamp continued to lie still, and I finally allowed myself to heal.

Within a minute the pain faded to nothing, and I stood, then lifted away to gather my bag from the nearby cliff before flying in the direction of the next city, senses open wide for any sign of another opponent…

I let the projection fade, for a moment, and Fuji lets out a long breath as his senses reassert themselves. I worry, suddenly, that it may have been too painful a memory to share, too intense…

“No! It was thrilling, in a way. I’m doubly glad you’re okay, knowing so intimately what you’ve been up to. And… you have a new tulpa.”

I do. Thrive is a descendent of Flourish, and nudges me to try new things, to learn, and also to enjoy life, even with the risks involved.

Fuji smiles. “I’m glad. I worried you might forget that entirely, once you began on your mission. Hello, Thrive. It’s a pleasure to meet you. And hello again, Survive. Thank you for helping keep Mazda safe.”

(Hello, Dr. Fuji! Thank you for the tea!)

[Hello, Doctor. Thank you for all you’ve continued to do for us.]

“Of course. It’s my honor, and privilege.”

They both also feel happy to be acknowledged.

Fuji smiles, and sips his tea, looking deep in thought. I lap at mine, now warm enough to enjoy the subtle flavors. “Why didn’t you use your powers? I could sense it, somewhat, around the… edges of the memory. But I couldn’t make it out. Preparing yourself for something?”

Preparing, yes. May I show you more?

“Please do.”

Another memory, then, from not long after that…

The Lucario was not as physically strong as the machamp, but it was quicker, tougher, and—

I leapt to the side as it thrust a hand out again, the spike on its fist gleaming before a beam lanced out to pierce the tree I’d been standing in front of. Its other fist thrust out in the direction I moved, and a faintly glowing wave of energy shot straight toward me… and when I leapt again, it followed.

[What the hell is that?!]

(It’s so cool! How do we do it?)

Thankfully, unlike the light beam, this attack exists on a dimension my kinesis could reach. A second of thought was all it took to rob the sphere of half its power, and its contact was painful, but not debilitating. I struck back with a kinetic blast, but the lucario weathered it just as well through inherent resilience.

(This isn’t working. We need to fight dragon with dragon.)

It’s not a dragon. Nor are we.

[Steel pokemon weaknesses are Fire, Ground, and Fighting—]

(—so it’s a Fighting pokemon that’s vulnerable to Fighting attacks!)

[Can we do those?]

(We were created to kill gods! We can do anything!)

I merged with the lucario, as deeply and quickly as I could, dodging its continued attacks all the while. Sight came quickly, as did proprioception..

Its intention to attack was clear, but the how was still too foreign, and this time the beam of light punched a hole through my thigh.

The pain was blinding, but only for a moment as Survive partitioned the perception of it, then initiated healing. Thrive, meanwhile, was frustrated by the beam, wanted it to just stop

The next time the lucario began the same mental motions, Thrive flowed through the merger and projected a partition around them. The lucario went still, arm out, trying to connect mental dots over a gap that wasn’t there a moment ago.

It was enough time to merge even more fully, and by the time it started to recover, I could more clearly track the flow of its thoughts, the shift of its awareness through its body, focusing heat/energy/life/force through—

(Yes, there! I have it—)

The partition dropped, and our arm snapped out to fling the same energy forward from our core that the lucario sent toward us—

—dispersed in part by a kinetic wave from Survive—

—but still left us gasping in pain, while the lucario collapsed in a heap from our attack.

I slowly straightened, breathing hard. The attack took something… vital, to use. Depleted it, but not in a way that could be healed by psychic recovery. But it seemed likely to restore on its own, if it’s something other pokemon can use repeatedly.

Nicely done, Thrive.

(With what?) Joy from the praise. (Specifically?)

The… offensive amnesia, to disable its ability to use the Steel attack.

(Yeah, that worked better than I thought it would! I don’t think it would last for long, though.)

It lasted long enough. Survive, thank you for the pain and recovery partitions.

[Of course, Prime. I am getting better at prioritizing through pain. But I believe there are better methods to prevent damage in the first place…]

My psychic blasts hit one after the next, sending the rhyperior skidding back little by little before its feet dug into the rock to arrest its movement. Its arms rose to shoot another volley of stones up at me, faster than I could levitate out of the way. Bursts of kinetic force helped deflect some, and a triple layer of barriers prevented broken bones, but those that impacted were still disorienting.

[We’re using too much energy recovering and refreshing barriers. I suggest retreat if we’re hit three more times.]

Noted. Ideas?

(I have one!)

[If it’s what I think it is—]

(It’s the perfect target. Why keep trying to get through its thick skull when we can literally just get through it?)

[—it’s too risky. Direct damage through projection would be symmetrical, and the research said psychic recovery isn’t reliable for damage to the brain.]

Their conversation didn’t distract me from shaping a new counter attack in an upward funnel, and I unleashed the kinetic wave through it from beneath the rhyperior. Stone cracked around its feet before it lifted into the air, then went tumbling off the cliff.

(Right, or we can do that.)

A double-bang echoed around the mountain before I could relax, followed by a crack. Rather than continuing to fall out of my psychic range, the rhyperior’s mind was still in it… and getting closer, moving up toward me little by little.

(Did it just—)

Blast itself toward the mountain and start climbing, yes, I think it did. I levitated out over the edge of the cliff to watch its ascent, then shaped and released another kinetic blast… which failed to dislodge it. Soon it was back on solid ground and taking aim again.

[We’re not maneuverable enough in the air.]

(Maybe time to—)

Another rock clipped my foot, sending me into a tumble, and I aimed the funnel levitating me down to shift into a swerving glide, then landed in a crouch that narrowly avoided another fired boulder.

(—stop holding back?)


I considered what we’ve learned so far, and found I was unsatisfied. Still too easy, and reliant on us being able to win at range.

(So let’s do it from up close!)

[I believe our agility will allow us to strike with minimal risk while on the ground.]

I considered for only another moment, then agreed by dropping the partitions.

We learned a lot about aura, or ki, from merging with the right trainers after fighting the lucario. Thrive and Survive merged with me, enhancing my ability to move and focus my aura at the same time. We leapt over a wave of upturned earth and dodged a boulder spreading it through our legs rather than toward our palms—

—until we reached touch range—

—backstepped to dodge the boulder at the end of its tail as it swung—

—took another step forward—

—sidestepped the arm that came crashing down—

—and kicked its shin with a sweep so powerful its massive, stone body rotated mid-air.

The rhyperior’s roar of pain was more of a croak, and I quickly leapt back as it slammed into the ground. Cracks had formed over its body from the blow to its leg, and as it shuddered and tried to stand, I shaped another psychic blast that sent it tumbling far over the edge.

[They can survive terminal velocity falls,] Survive helpfully added, just before we heard the distant thud. [Though it will likely be unconscious, after that strike.]

(That was great! Now let’s try it on the real thing!)

It took a while to find a tyranitar—

a note of alarm, from Fuji

—that had wandered far enough from Mount Silver’s caves to ensure that no other pokemon would join the fight. Levitation had proven too unwieldy to dodge most ranged attacks, but for a sneak strike it was still ideal, and we needed to test our power safely, first.

Weeks of practice while traveling from place to place spreading the warning dreams allowed me to build the burning energy in my core, and sending it out of my palms in a shimmering rush no longer left me as drained. A moment later the tyranitar stumbled as it was struck…

…then straightened, scales bristling as sand pours out with its roar in an expanding storm.

(Well, that’s disappointing.)

[This is why we test things safely first.]

(Fighting attacks should be effective against both Rock and Dark pokemon!)

[Doubtless why the possibility of learning to manipulate it was not in any of our training at the lab. We’re still relatively weak, particularly with this sort of attack.]

A second blast into the heart of the localized sandstorm didn’t end it. I could do one more before reaching my limit, and once it hit, the sand stopped billowing around as the tyranitar fell with a crash.

We need to be able to get it in one…

The second tyranitar was so far and high in the mountains that the cold seeped into my bones as I levitated above it, palms cupped together. Its color was different from the last, a paler green with a purple stomach, and it was alternating between pulverizing the side of a mountain with sharp, echoing blows that led me to find it in the first place, and feasting on the gravel that was left afterward.

It didn’t take meaningfully longer to concentrate the energy into a denser projectile, but it did take more focus, even with my tulpas. The stronger compression gets harder with each heartbeat, as more and more aura goes into the sphere… until it all releases in a rush that left my limbs shaking.

The aura was so bright it cast wildly swinging shadows around the terrain as it erratically bobbed a jagged line toward the tyranitar…

…and struck the ground to the side of it.


[That was even more disappointing.]

The tyranitar swung around as if it sensed the near miss, then turned and scanned the area until it spotted me floating mid-air… and roared a challenge, dark energy gathering in its maw.

[…We should go.]

We did.

…and then I withdraw slightly from Fuji’s mind, let the memories fade so Fuji can recover. He takes a deep breath, then lifts his cup to his nose for another, slower one, before taking a sip. I drink more of my own, grounding myself in the present.

“You’ve been learning to protect yourself against Dark pokemon,” he finally says, with pride. “All on your own. Pardon, Survive and Thrive. Not entirely alone. I’m glad.”

It is a necessary step, and part of the need to grow generally stronger. But even that latest memory is from months ago, when I still traveled around to spread the dreams.

“Ah, I see. What have you been doing more recently?”

I merge more deeply again, asking the question without words, and when he agrees…

The murkrow’s talons raked across my arm just before my aura knocked it out of the air,


I did, avoiding the next two and using my kinesis to move more sharply through the air than they can as I focus more aura…

The houndoom were wary as they circled me, fire dripping from their muzzles, two of their number already on the ground…

…electricity crackled through the air as my kinesis flung two pikachu up and away, partitions blocking the pain as I recovered through them…

…dark claws and gleaming ice tore through my hamstrings, and the sneasel danced away before my aura-filled leg could strike it…

I sense his mind settling around the answer, putting the pieces of the pattern together, and stop sending new memories. His mood has changed, and after he recovers enough to drink again, I gently ask, Do you understand?

“I do,” he whispers. “You’re also preparing to try to kill the Stormbringers.”

I am.

“Because you were made to? Because it would make you happy, or give you purpose?”

I hear his voice rising, can feel his anguish, his fear that I will destroy myself for the sake of Giovanni’s mission. I set my cup down, and wish I could smile as I meet his gaze, feeling the lack of facial muscles from muscle memory that isn’t mine.

Instead I send him warmth and gratitude and reassurance, as I say, No. I will do it because this is my home too.

His eyes shine, and he looks away. Pride. Fear. “You don’t have to stay in Kanto.”

I meant this world.

“They don’t threaten the world!”

But the unown god does.

He closes his eyes. “And you want to fight it?”

[We do not want to—]

(Speak for yourself!)

[—but if we don’t…]

Who else can?

Fuji’s head hangs. He breathes in and out. His fingers grip around his mug, then release it.

Finally, he nods.

I stand from the chair, and lower myself beside him, taking him carefully in my arms as a tear drips down my cheek. I know you do not want to lose another child. It means much to me, that you see me this way.

His arms are warm around me, and his care is warmer. He takes a few watery breaths, then sighs. “It’s hard to live with this fear again. A decade of it hasn’t made it any less sharp. But it is your life, always, to do with as you want. I can’t wish anything more or less, for you.”

Thank you. That means just as much, if not more. I grip him tighter, for a moment, and then release, and return to my seat. But there’s no need to worry yet. I know I am not yet ready to face any of them. Now. Tell me what’s happened?

Fuji runs a hand over his bald spot. “Many things. You’ve learned about ‘Team Rocket?'”

It lingered on the minds of many, when I flew over Goldenrod.

“I figured, since people stopped getting the dreams.”

I wanted to understand what move this was, before taking any more risks. Do you understand it?

“I don’t, nor did Sabrina sufficiently explain it.”

A mild pain in my chest. She came to you, then?

“She did.” Fuji looks away. “I left her alive.”

Some of the pain eases. Thank you.

“It was not just for you. But I won’t take any choices away from you, if I can avoid it.”

I can sense the deeper meaning to those words, and the fears he fought to hold to them. Worry that I would be manipulated, despite everything. Worry that he would also be an avenue for manipulation. What else did she say?

He sighs. “That she didn’t know about your illness, of course. That she regrets her role in your confinement, and understands it was wrong. And that she is ‘hedging her bets,’ against Giovanni. Whatever that means.”

[Perhaps she is creating off-roads, contingency plans…?]

Perhaps. Do you believe her?

“I believe she has regrets, at the very least.” There’s sadness, there, mixed with anger and a grudging pity. “And… she misses you. It’s easy enough, to believe that.”

The pain in my chest has grown again, and I close my eyes, seeing her face in the dark. Memories of her smile, changing with her face over the years. Memories of her voice, both in my head and through my tank and finally through the air.

I miss her mind almost as much as I missed Fuji’s.

Warmth surrounds my hand, and I gently squeeze his fingers. I breathe until the pain starts to fade, and Fuji simply sits with me, and waits.

(Drink some tea?)

I nod, and do so. It is lukewarm, but still a refreshing novelty, and the pain fades a little more. Fuji releases my hand, and brings the kettle to refill our mugs before refilling it, and dropping some berries beside the cyndaquil from a pouch beside the fireplace.

Thank you. I lap some more, the combined temperatures settling somewhere hot without being scalding. What was her message?

“That’s… not from our meeting. There’s more, before I get to that. You’ve heard of Miracle Eye?”

His mood is apprehensive, and in a few moments his thoughts have traced through the relevant pathways…



I stand, tail lashing from side to side. This is real?

Fuji’s face is forcefully relaxed, but I can feel his worry, and a deep helplessness. The words come out as if forced. “If it’s fake, it would be a massive conspiracy. Much larger than the ones needed even for your creation and imprisonment. But—”

I begin to pace, energy coursing through me. Thrive and Survive are wordless, radiating simple desire, in total agreement.

We want this.


I need this.

“And if it’s a trap?”

[The benefits are too great to ignore.]


[But we can be cautious. We won’t rush into anything.]


I’ll be careful. It seemed the source wasn’t Sabrina, and others can do it?

“Yes. By now there are at least a dozen trainers in Kanto with pokemon capable of it.”

Then I’ll find one of them. If this didn’t come from Giovanni, if it’s truly something he could not predict… it may be the answer.

Fuji is still apprehensive. No, he’s afraid. “The answer to…”

How to face him again.


My creator.

No longer immune to my powers. No longer a mystery, unable to be trusted.

The thought is seductive, exhilarating. Blood pumps through my body as something I thought was forever beyond my reach is suddenly, potentially, achievable.

“Is it truly that important, to you?”

Fuji’s whisper draws my attention back to him, and I can feel his despair.

He believes this will be the end of me, one way or the other.

I step toward him, and put my hands on his shoulders. He’s gotten so much older, since our time in the lab. Older, and frailer. It grieves me to see it. Trust in me. I won’t do anything foolish.

“He could nearly convince an arbok to bite its own tail. I wish you could be free of him.”

Perhaps this is a way I could be.

Fuji passes a hand over his face, but nods. I feel his apprehension shifting in a new direction…

There’s more?

He nods, and squeezes my arm. I release him, and he takes out his phone, touches it a few times, then turns to show me.

“Hello, regions of the world.” Sabrina looks… tired. Poised, but also defeated, in some deep way. “I apologize for this interruption to your day or night, and will try to make this address short and to the point…”

I gently take the phone from him, and sit, eyes glued to the screen as Sabrina’s voice continues coming out of its tiny speakers. It’s nothing like merging with her mind would be, but the small device is the first connection I’ve had to my old friend and teacher in nearly a year.

“Finally, I have a message for the Dreamer themself…”

A mixed thrill of excitement and dread runs through from my head to my feet, and I have to relax my grip on the phone before I crush it. She’s talking about me, in public… to me…

[Breathe, Prime.]

I breathe, and listen, as she acknowledges my efforts, with the dreams. As she thanks me for them.

And as she blames me, inadvertently, for whatever happened to her student. Or what he might do.

“Thank you all for your time. Be safe.”

I freeze the picture on her face, emotions stirring and thoughts whirling. After a moment I replay the message, paying more careful attention to the word choices.

“…fragmentation of his sense of self…”

“…I hope psychics around the island, and world, take the risk seriously…”

(Is she talking about us?)

[If our merger with this “Rowan” led to something like tulpas, or showed him the way to create them…]

(That wouldn’t be our fault!)

[No. But others may not see it that way.]

I’m less concerned about whether I’m blamed, and more concerned with the possibility that the unown have infected Rowan. Or rather, that the mad god behind the unown have…

“…any help you can offer…”

She wants my help.

Or she wants me to reach out to someone else, like Agatha. The first person I’d sent the warning dream to, with a mind that surprised me with its strangeness. I could visit her again, while she’s awake this time. Let her know about my new discoveries regarding the unown, assure her I have nothing to do with Rowan… and no ideas on what might be happening…

(I have ideas!)

You do?

(Of course!)

“Thank you all for your time. Be safe.”

I pause the video again, then hand it back before I was tempted to listen to it again, this time just to hear her voice. When?

“Two weeks ago.”

And nothing else has happened, since?

“Not that I’m aware.”

[Maybe it’s too late. Maybe it’s better if we just… ignore it.]

(No! We could learn so much if we meet Rowan! We should find him!)

What are your thoughts?

“I don’t know anything more than—”

Then what are your intuitions? I trust you to be an advisor, one with different knowledge and experience over much more time. Trust me to decide for myself, rather than worrying about your influence over me.

I’ve surprised him. He didn’t expect me to be… “wise.” The thought is rueful, given my name, and he feels a mix of chagrin and pride, for underestimating me. I send back warmth and amusement.

“My intuitions are… confused. I don’t know how to identify them, what makes them intuitions and not simple fear. And my fear is that even if Sabrina is closer to her own kind of freedom now than she was a year ago, a smart, adaptive schemer could use even that as part of his manipulations.”

If it is a plan by Giovanni, it would be an easy one to unravel. The true danger would only come from a potential meeting he could predict.

Fuji straightens. “I can act as your messenger.”

More warmth fills me, and I share it with him. You could. It’s a useful possibility to keep in mind. But there are too many people involved for him to be prepared for contact from all of them.

“You won’t go to Agatha either, then?”

Not right away. I can’t observe her thoughts directly without alerting her of my presence, but I can learn from those she meets with, and those they meet with.


He tries to make the word neutral, but his resignation and hope are loud in my mind, and I quickly reassure him with my own feelings before I make it explicit. If you would have me, I’d stay for a while, to rest and talk more.

His relief and joy fill me, and he smiles. “Of course. I’ll make some food, and put on the sheets… you haven’t slept on a mattress before, have you? I hope it’s comfortable… come, let me show you your room…”

I follow him letting some of my tiredness return to fill my attention. A place I can rest, truly rest, with my guard down… another thing I’ve feared I’d never have.

It is good to have a home.


Fuji is the best.

He’s love and kindness and support and encouragement and all the things that make Prime feel better, and more confident, and braver. Even Survive agrees Fuji is great, which is a relief! We get along pretty well, especially compared to how our “older siblings” fought all the time, but it’s nice when we don’t have to constantly argue against each other. Instead we can be on the same team!

Even more than usual, I mean, which is great! Everything’s better when we work together.

After arriving at Fuji’s we spend days just relaxing and eating different foods and talking and reading poetry and listening to music. Music! I’ve missed music so much, despite never getting to listen to it myself outside of memories, or faintly in the distance sometimes in big cities… I can’t really dance since I’m just a tulpa and Prime doesn’t want to try dancing but I’m allowed to twirl our tail sometimes when I’m excited and I give it a lot of twirls while we listen to the music. It gives me so many ideas about what other kinds of music we could listen to, and what sorts of attacks could be made using sound as a medium, and how we might learn to sing at some point…

Prime got sad when I suggested that. I think they still have hangups about not being human. But we’ll get over those, over time! We can always learn and grow, and if all else fails, we can probably even learn to change our body! That would be so cool. But not to become human, because most humans wouldn’t want to be human either, if they could become something better. Like not having to sleep! Sleep is the worst, or it would be, except being tired is even worse than sleep is, so it’s good to get enough sleep.

Oh, we also read a lot! Fuji showed us this story he sort of helped write, and it’s about us! Or Prime, at least, before he had any of us. It seemed a new kind of sad and lonely, somehow, reading it from the outside instead of living it through memories! Prime cried. It felt painful, but also good, and it was so great to experience all these new complicated challenging things! Fuji is so great. We should stay here forever.

Except not forever, obviously, because there’s so much to do! We need to get stronger, and there’s so much more of the island we haven’t explored, and so many pokemon we haven’t fought, and so many more people we haven’t met (through merging with them, even if it’s really shallow)… oh it’s so exciting to think about meeting Agatha or Sabrina or anyone else, really! We need to figure out the unown threat, of course, just flying around killing any we see won’t really solve anything, but also meeting others and maybe navigating traps and learning to get along will all be so fun! And if some turn out to be enemies we’ll actually get to test ourselves! Survive gets really anxious when we talk about that but we’ve prepared a lot, and if we’re not prepared enough, we’ll learn from that and prepare more next time!

Unless we die or get captured, which would be bad, yeah. But it’s also what makes things exciting!

We go on short flights around the cabin at night, making sure no dangerous pokemon are around, but this place is pretty far from the wilds and there are barely any pokemon here, let alone any strong ones. It’s strange not seeing anything more dangerous than a noctowl for days, and we’re almost getting good enough to dodge their attacks while levitating! Soon we’ll fly better than any Flying pokemon, and be ready to face the Stormbringers!

Well, after we also learn some other stuff. Fire is still tricky. Electricity is even more tricky. I feel like we can sort of handle ice, after so much time in the mountains, but Survive thinks until we’ve survived a blizzard we shouldn’t think we’re prepared. I said that was a great idea and Survive was really smart for suggesting it, but Survive didn’t seem to agree.

Eventually a week passes, and I start to get restless. MIRACLE EYE is still out there waiting for us to learn it! But Prime and Fuji want to talk about lots of things that might happen because of the story that was written, and whether we should talk to people like Leaf Juniper. Fuji says it would be bad to endanger her, and Prime agrees, but she sounds like someone we could be friends with! It makes me sad that we might not make a friend out of fear, and me saying so made the others sad too, but they still think it’s better not to right now.

Still, it’s okay, because Fuji is our friend and parent and Prime is so much happier after just a little while here, so much more relaxed. Prime has laughed more times in the week since we’ve arrived (17) than in the months since I was made (3) and that is great! We should laugh more, and I should get to twirl our tail more, and we should try singing sometime because even if we’re bad at it we can get better and then we’ll have another fun thing to do while we fly around!

They also talk lots about less fun things like what might happen because of the unown research. Some of it is exciting, but a lot of it has Prime pretty worried. Prime thinks about sabotaging them sometimes, but is not sure if it’s the right decision. Fuji said it’s too risky, and Survive agreed. Sometimes it feels like everyone else is just way too scared of everything. How are we going to learn and grow without taking some risks?

Meanwhile we’ve learned to make tea and cook eggs and change bed sheets (it took a while to learn to rest on a bed but it was so comfortable once we found a good position with enough pillows) and even start to write some poetry! Which was after we learned to type on a keyboard with extra big keys so we could press just one at a time with our hands instead of telekinesis, which is an interesting new experience even if it’s less efficient. Fuji was so thoughtful for getting that. He’s amazing. We should stay here with him forever.

But no, we should go soon, really, and come back soon! We’re so much better rested now than we’ve ever been, it feels so good, like we could run for hours without getting tired, or fight three tyranitar at once! We should find another tyranitar and beat it with just ki strikes. It won’t help against the Stormbringers but maybe it will against the unown god! Who knows what that thing will be like? I have lots of ideas. Survive and I talk about them sometimes but Survive seems much less happy about it. Still, I’m glad they’re around, and I know they’re glad I am too. They even said our survival likelihood has gone surprisingly higher since I was made! I told them I loved them too.

After almost two weeks Prime seems nearly as ready to go as I am, and we hug Fuji and cry a little more and thank him for everything. It’s hard to leave because he’s crying and it makes us cry more to think of him being here alone but we promise we’ll be back soon and he promises he’ll have the room ready whenever.

He’s the best. We love Fuji so much it hurts. We hope he’ll be okay.

But we have to find out what’s happening in the world, and that means maybe talking to Sabrina, who we also love so much it hurts, in different ways. There’s one city we haven’t ever been to, and we finally go there now, dipping into people’s minds at night until we find trainers who go to Sabrina’s gym, finding more and more people through their relationships until we reach those who see Sabrina somewhat regularly, who think about meetings with her.

It’s dangerous flying through cities, so many people are still awake even super late at night and there are some even riding pokemon around in the air. Luckily we can detect most of them in time to stay away, but we wait for cloudy nights to dip too deep and find more people to merge with besides those in the tallest buildings. A few turn out to be Sensitive, but most of those are left with a fleeting feeling of not being alone.

Prime is worried that if Rowan was badly affected by our merger with him, we should be more careful about merging with others. The memory of hurting others when we first merged with them in the lab is still painful. But so long as we don’t merge with other psychics we’re unlikely to cause problems, and we can detect if others are psychic by the way their minds…

…(Who is that?)

The others immediately focus on what caught my attention, and we float closer, though it’s unnecessary for a deeper merge. Which we don’t do, because the mind is clearly psychic. But we can pick up a lot without “really” merging, much more than humans can, and from this mind we’re picking up…

Another mind.

(It’s a tulpa! He has one like us!)

Not like us, Prime corrects. The structure is… different. More fluid, almost more equitable. It’s fascinating…

(We have to learn how he did that, we could learn so much from merging with him! I could do the offensive amnesia thing—)


No. It would not be right, even if we could know it’s safe. But I believe I know who this is.

(Who?!) I race back over and through all our memories, focusing more on parts I don’t normally pay as much attention to… (Oh! Red Verres!)

[He knows Miracle Eye. Perhaps we… should merge with him, just for a moment, if we can find him training?]

Perhaps. If there’s anyone at risk of the same thing that happened to Rowan, it’s him. But if it was merger with an unown hive that caused Rowan’s madness, or a combination of other factors…

(Yes? We can try?) I want the merge so bad we could learn MIRACLE EYE and new partitions and even if he notices us and knows we’re not human maybe we can make a friend since he’s friends with Leaf Juniper who wrote the story—

For now we watch, and wait. There are still others we can learn from, and perhaps approaching Agatha first would be better. But—

(But after that, maybe we’ll try?)


I twirl and swirl our tail as we float far above the building.

The future is looking bright.

Chapter 125: Interlude XXV – Shared Weight

Chapter 125: Interlude XXV – Shared Weight


The call dragged him from sleep, back protesting as he abruptly sat forward in his chair. His office was dimly lit, and it took him a moment to regather his bearings, separate dream from reality…

Blaine, they’re here.”

A jolt of adrenaline chased most of the remaining drowsiness away, and he rushed to unplug his workpad as he stood. Pins and needles made him sag against the desk, but he forced himself around it and forward, grabbing his lab coat on the way out so he could shove his arms through its sleeves.

Yuki paced the hall, looking like she got just as little sleep as he did. Still, her hair was brushed into a glossy dark wave, her white coat spotless over a bright yellow halter top. All of which made him acutely aware that he didn’t bring a change of clothes for the morning, because he didn’t plan to fall asleep here. Mistake. Should have predicted…

You okay?” she asked, voice low.

Yes. My coat?”

She fussed at its collar to make it lie flat, then straightened his tie. “You shaved.”

Bad?” He touched jaw and cheek. It felt overly exposed and sensitive to the air, all except for his upper lip, where he’d left a mustache.

No, looks good. You stayed here all night?”

Had to make sure.”

I could have helped.” She stepped back.

My responsibility. You handled yours.”

I still could have helped.”

He shook his head. Part of him did appreciate the offer, but… working in the field, at labs, or in corporations showed him time and again the dangers of a diffuse work hierarchy. Worse, of a structure where the responsibility was diffuse…

So long as one person was, ultimately, responsible for each task, it was easier to not slack off and hope someone else made up the lack. For most things, delegation is necessary, but motivation and error correction could only be clearly evaluated and ensured when the chain of responsibility is clear and singular.

A knock at the front door. “One more minute!” she called out.

You didn’t let them in?”

And bring them where, to see you napping?”

He sighed and straightened his tie, only for her to reach out and straighten it again.

Remember,” she said, letting out a slow breath as her gaze met his. “Slow. Okay?”

Blaine nodded and took his own slow breath over the pounding of his heart. She smiled, squeezed his arm, then went toward the front door.

He checked his pad once more, making sure it was on the right page, then followed. They’ve done enough. Surely, it will be enough…

“—pleasure to meet you.”

The two League officials appeared to be around his age, which could be a good or bad thing. Either his lab was too small to warrant a serious investigation, or too small to warrant someone senior enough for complex decisions…

Dr. Ueda.” The woman bowed to him. “I’m Minori, this is Kenzo. We’re here to discuss—”

Yes, hello.” He returned the bow, but not before he saw Yuki’s wince from behind them. He knew why they’re here, they knew he knew why they’re here, why delay things? “I’ve prepared a list of our efforts to—”

Would you like some tea, first?” Yuki asked, raising her eyebrows at him.

I’ll pass, thank you,” Minori said, and Kenzo nodded his own appreciation. “But we can start with a tour, if that’s alright?”

Of course.” Blaine led them back the way he came, passing the shared office he, Yuki, and the other three at his startup shared. Past the bathroom and closet, and into the living room. Or what used to be a living room.

The walls were lined with shelves, three large tables filling most of the floor space. “Chemistry,” he said, pointing to one, then the second and third. “Mechanics, materials.”

The two league officials stared at the crowded space. He wondered if they were waiting for more explanation, but surely they knew what the lab was working on from their briefing… surely they’d had a briefing?

And… the kitchen?”

Not for food,” Yuki said with a smile. “Some intersection of chemistry and biology. Samples go in the fridge, any disposal in the sink. Don’t worry, we ensure they’re safe for the piping, and water soluble.”

It’s all in my documents,” Blaine tried, holding his pad up again.

Capture ball prototype?” Kenzo asked, speaking for the first time. Blaine followed his gaze to the casing of Silph’s newest design. It’s a marvel of engineering, almost small enough to fit in one hand.

Alterations. Testing heat and pressure tolerance.”

Testing… where?”

Volcano and ocean.” Blaine tried to keep his burgeoning frustration in check as he avoided mentioning that it was in his documents. He knew they were here for direct observation, not just review their policies—that could have been done online. But he expected they would want to get on with their day as much as he did, and they would be able to ask more meaningful questions after reading the documentation…

And is this the state the lab was in during the license clearance?”

More or less,” Yuki said, skipping over the hours of cleaning, organizing, and cataloging they all put in. “We’ve added some equipment, but nothing that would add to risk profiles.”

Minori took another look around. “I have to admit, I expected your work here to be mostly theoretical, with the lab consisting only of simulation, or material production.”

We can theorize at home,” Blaine said, trying to restrain his sarcasm. It would serve no purpose. “Have either of you worked in chemistry or engineering?”

Material science,” Kenzo says. “For just a few years.”

Chemistry, but studied rather than worked in.” Minori said. “You likely don’t remember many names or faces, but our lab came to collaborate with yours in university. Unfortunately, the trip was cut short by—”

Moltres,” Blaine said, memories making his pulse quicken. Memories of air so dry and hot he worried his clothes would burst into flame. Of time slipping through his fingers, the waves of Pressure driving him to scramble from one minute to the next… “Yes, I’d forgotten that.”

Yuki was watching him. He should say more? He shifted his weight, cleared his throat. “It was a difficult time, after.” The reconstruction, the loss of life and destroyed work… the frustration he felt, after, with everyone’s lack of coordination, of ability… and his own powerlessness. “I’m glad you made it safely through.”

You too. I changed focus, after. Took up training again.”

Blaine nodded, then added, “I considered it.” He’d been good, as a trainer. Perhaps better than he was a researcher.

But his best efforts as a trainer weren’t enough. It wasn’t a path to keeping what happened that day from happening again.

There’s some more equipment through here,” Yuki said. “And then we can show you our documentation?”

They followed her, and it took another ten minutes before they were seated in the somewhat cramped office. Kenzo read from his phone after Blaine sent him a copy of the document, and Minori read from his pad, while Yuki and he simply watched them scroll. Blaine woke his computer at one point and tried to do some work, but he mostly failed to do anything more than check his mail numerous times.

Finally, Minori handed the pad back. Kenzo continued reading, but nodded when she said, “It’s an impressive list of measures, especially for a startup this small. I’ll let the League know that, by my judgment, your lab is being very cautious. Perhaps even overly so.”

His shoulders felt as though they were relaxing for the first time in days. He let out a long, slow breath, and beside him heard Yuki doing the opposite. “Thank you.”


He should have known.

I feel I should be upfront, and warn you that it’s possible their decision still won’t be favorable.”

He stared at her, saw the regret in her eyes, the way her hands clasped in her lap. Kenzo was slowly putting his phone away. “Why?”

We’re not part of those meetings. But my boss’s boss has been pretty insistent that what happened in Hoenn can’t happen here.”

But… we still have no idea why the computers became pokemon!”

Do we?” Yuki asked. “Is it being kept secret?”

Not as far as we know,” Kenzo said. “But the leading idea among the public is that maybe artificial pokemon come from places where things are being invented.”

Blaine opened his mouth to scoff, but Minori held a hand up. “I agree that’s not a good explanation. But the League is mostly deferring to civilian government on this, and the public has spoken. We expect a new category of zoning laws will go into effect, requiring laboratories to be away from residential areas.”

He felt the weight back on his shoulders, and deeper, in his chest. His hands were clenched on his armrests, and he took deep breaths, trying not to think of all the work they’d put into this, all the money and time… “We can’t relocate. We barely have the spare funding to move everything to another location, let alone build a whole new lab.”

And the prices of suitable places have already jumped,” Yuki murmured. “There have been rumors…”

Minori nodded, still looking sad, but didn’t say anything else. Blaine could feel himself wanting to yell, to plead. Their research wasn’t just a way to launch the company, it was important, it could change the kinds of pokemon everyone could tame, make the capture balls more durable…

But those would be emotional appeals, and none of it would matter. It’s not up to them. They heard his arguments and evidence, and none of it would reach those who are making the decision, ultimately.

Because those people didn’t exist, not really. They were everywhere, an amorphous blob of fear and superstition, made up of people who he can barely talk to on a normal day, on regular topics. No one person is taking responsibility for the decision or the counterfactual harm, not even the Champion or President.

The silence went on for over a minute, and it was Yuki who stirred first, and murmured, “Thank you, both of you, for your time.”

Of course. I wish we—”

You could have just said it.”

A hand gripped his shoulder. He almost shook it off.

It’s not a sure thing, Dr. Ueda. I just—”

The warning is appreciated.” Yuki’s fingers dig into his arm, but what harm, to be frank? What would it matter? “It would have been appreciated more a week ago, or even yesterday. If you’re visiting anyone else,” he grits out, heart pounding and jaw aching with his restraint. “I suggest you tell them up front how little their efforts will matter, and that you’re just there to check boxes off a list.”


They should know as soon as possible that—”

It’s not their—”

It’s alright,” Kenzo said, and stood. “Really. I think it’s better if we go.”

Minori stood as well. “I’m sorry. And thank you for the… suggestion, Dr. Ueda. It’s… not something I’m supposed to say, but I… would have felt bad, if I hadn’t said anything.”

Blaine’s mind buzzed, anger hot in his lungs, despair heavy in his chest. He couldn’t respond, couldn’t think of any words to fill the silence with that wouldn’t be just as hollow as the ones before. Eventually Kenzo touched Minori’s arm, and they bowed before leaving.

Yuki’s hand stayed clenched around Blaine’s arm until they heard the distant sound of the front door closing. Only then did her fingers relax, her hand sliding partway down to his elbow. “Blaine…”

It’s my fault.” The words were like hot lead as he forced them out. “I didn’t take it seriously enough, consider worst case scenarios. I’ll think of something. Look for new funding.”

I can help—”

It’s my responsibility. You go home, sleep.”

I don’t w—”

I’d like to be alone.” His stomach was full of acid, and he finally felt his hunger. He didn’t eat anything the night before, or this morning… “Please.”

She was silent, all except her breathing. Shallow. Uneven. He didn’t look at her, and eventually she squeezed his arm once more, and stood up, and left.

Slowly, he placed his arms on the table. Slowly, he sank his head down, until the acid stopped swirling in his stomach, until the burning fled, leaving only the weight over his heart, twice as heavy each time he thought of Yuki’s hand on his arm, or the way he didn’t even look at her before she left.

Also his fault. Also his responsibility. No one else’s.

He didn’t know how he’d fix anything, yet. But it was the only way he knew to try.

The manor was a ten minute flight from Blaine’s nearest teleport point, and he spent those minutes trying to imagine the confrontation ahead. Who might be there, what they might claim, how he would respond, and whether it would be better for Kiko and Mathew to be with him.

They ride behind him, now, their charizards trailing by enough distance that none of them get territorial about their airspace. They were the two at the gym when the call came who 1) had mounts who could keep up, 2) were senior enough, and 3) were available on short notice. That they happen to ride charizard as well is serendipity, and he’ll take the extra edge it might give them.

Anyone assuming it would be a show of status would be wrong; it’s a show of force, which he hopes won’t be necessary, but is rarely unhelpful in speeding things to their conclusions.

The sun gleams off Kokuyōseki’s dark scales as Blaine angles her into a slow, graceful swoop that brings the manor into sight, and it takes him a moment to recognize what he’s seeing around the manor as… a picnic.

Multiple picnics.

He notes his confusion, and sets aside the burgeoning frustration. He would be rather upset over this all being some misunderstanding that led to a waste of time, but he would also rather that be the case than whatever else might have brought him here…

Sudden movement draws his attention to the north, where a—

“Dragonite,” he says, pressing his earpiece.

—rises abruptly toward them. Kokuyōseki’s challenge roar sends a flood of adrenaline through him, kickstarting his shift to analyzing opening attacks and evasive strategies…

The dragonite roars its challenge back, but also turns to mirror them at a constant distance. Blaine is still processing the sudden shift while his head cranes to look around by trained habit, and he sees the honchkrow flying silently above them.

How long had it been there? Likely long enough to take them by surprise if the dragonite had completed its charge…

“We’ve got a tail,” Kiko says just a few rapid heartbeats after Blaine’s realization, but then she adds, “Kilowattrel.”


But they’re not being attacked, and when Blaine looks back down at the manor, it’s clear from the way the distant figures scramble toward the building that they’re not all combatants. Which also solves the problem of where to land.

“Kiko, perimeter,” he says. “Mathew, stay high and follow anyone that leaves.”

“On it.”

“Yes s-zzhshhhhh…”

Blaine frowns and taps his ear piece to turn it off, ending the static. As if the dragonite weren’t confirmation enough, jamming comms implies something more serious than a bunch of looters. More organized.

Kokuyōseki eases out of the glide for a gentle landing, her breath coming out in a slow, hot stream that washes over him like a sauna. He clenches his teeth to avoid biting his tongue as she hits the ground in a short lope that tears up some grass and a couple picnic blankets… which, on closer inspection, appear to be tablecloths.

None of the people around the manor have fled farther than it took to create a safe landing zone, and they also haven’t summoned any pokemon. By the time his boots have hit grass, a few are even approaching at a jog.

“Oak.” Confusion mixes with relief as he also recognizes Verres and Juniper, along with Ranger Neasman and the foreign cadet. “Explain.”

Juniper begins to speak. “With all due respect, Leader—”

The young Oak cuts his friend off by raising a hand in front of her, and simply says, “You first.”

Blaine’s eyes narrow, and he removes his flight helmet and exchanges the goggles for his sunglasses before he looks up to where the dragonite is flying a tight circle beneath Kiko’s charizard. He tests his earpiece again, then takes a closer look at those around them.

Men and women, all dressed for mining work, if he interprets the thick, dirt-stained material properly. He doesn’t see any obvious signs of digging, but perhaps within the mansion… “What’s the accusation?”

Oak hesitates, this time, and when Juniper looks at him, he nods, and she steps forward. “Delaying us.”

“Us?” He focuses on the expressions now, the way those around them hold themselves. Not confused, not intimidated. Level, assessing looks.

Not simple contract workers.

His gaze jumps back to Verres, who stands quietly behind, simply watching with those red eyes. The hunter beside him is scanning the skies with eyes hidden behind shades of his own, which Blaine guesses are more than they appear.

Interpol, or…? Blaine turns back to Verres, thoughts lapping around the edges of anything too private by focusing instead on his intent. “Yours?” He points up, where the dragonite and others are still circling.

The teenager shrugs. “Only some.”

Someone new is jogging toward them, coat flapping behind him in the wind, and Blaine shakes his head as the Special Administrator arrives to confirm his guess. “Warrant?”

“In the works,” Looker says, breathing deep. “There’s a lab under this ma—”

“I know.”

Everyone reacts visibly to that, and Blaine frowns. The implication of Interpol being here is obvious; that this is an illegal facility, like the one in Celadon, plausibly harboring renegades. Which means they believe he’s implicated himself, which would be twice as insulting as simply believing him a criminal. “Proof?”

“Forensics are sweeping each—”

“Nothing, then.”

Looker’s lips purse, and he shakes his head. “Still searching.”

Blaine doesn’t try to rein in his disgust, though part of him distantly appreciates the man’s lack of wasting verbiage. “It has approval. I ensured patrols didn’t reveal it.”

“It’s not on any of the manor’s paperwork.”

“Filed as a separate facility.” It was one of the principles he pushed for, upon becoming Leader. That Cinnabar would be a place that facilitated change, rather than feared it. And he would take responsibility for ensuring the safety of everyone on the island.

Looker snorts and sticks his hands in his pocket. “This isn’t a mom-and-pop living above their ramen shop. If you want to challenge our presence here—”


“Who even sent you?”

“The mayor’s office. Sensors were tripped, sending others risked revealing the facility.”

“Convenient,” Juniper says, drawing Blaine’s attention to her. The youth’s tone is light, though her gaze is not. “For the builders. They keep their secret, and a Leader as free security.”

The implication rankles, and Blaine’s anger almost comes out in wasted words, defending his ego, assuring her that anyone who sent him to be a tool of theirs had badly misjudged him.

His anger also almost comes out in a command for them to leave. He was granted the authority, and by his understanding, Interpol is clearly beyond its remit.

But if they suspect criminality, and the mayor is being used, or if he is…

Whoever invited you here is playing you against us.

Ultimately, responsibility is his.

Blaine glances around them again, then walks to his mount and takes her saddle off before he summons a water trough in front of her. “Rest,” he murmurs, stroking her snout.

Her breath surrounds him in a puff of heat, sweat and wind quickly cooling him back off. He drops the saddle on one of the tablecloths, then starts walking toward the manor. “Follow.”

“Stay sharp, everyone!” Looker calls out to the assembled workers as he keeps stride. He lowers his pitch, head turned behind them. “Were you inviting this lot, too?”

Blaine looks to see the teenagers, rangers, and hunter following as well. “It’s fine.” The lab’s secret is already out, and he has no authority over the two rangers if they were to claim they’re here seeking ditto. As for the others…

He picks a room that’s missing a wall so as to avoid staying in one that would be full of dust, and to allow them the sunshine as light. It was a bedroom once, and some furniture has survived the elements with minimal damage, though everyone remains standing. The foreign cadet, Wendy Burton, stays beside Ranger Neasman and mirrors his posture, while the hunter faces out the open wall. Looker paces around the room, gaze roving as if he’s searching for something with purpose.

Blaine turns back to the three teenagers. Oak meets his gaze, chin held high.

He’d been told that if he wanted to challenge for his badge sooner, the island had to be in better shape. And yet he was spending his time here.

Beside him is Verres, who somehow became the region’s best hope of holding off an organized army of renegades. Also spending his time, and his bodyguards’, here.

And then there’s Juniper, who acts like she knows something he doesn’t. Who the others seemed to be deferring to, in minor ways, even more so than they were Interpol’s Special Administrator.

“Explain,” he says. “Succinctly.”

She opens her mouth, then closes it and looks at Looker, who only spares her a glance before continuing his examination of the room and saying, “Assume the worst.”

Blaine crosses his arms, but holds his tongue and simply gestures for her to get on with it when she looks back at him.

“Okay. So… I met a scientist who told me a story about a secret lab performing unethical biological research to create a powerful new pokemon. When I came here to help find ditto nests… I recognized the manor from his story, and kept exploring until I found a sign of the lab.”

“In custody, or a source?”



“Oh. A source. He’s… I think he’s on the run, at this point, or… he’s been abducted, maybe.”

Blaine glances at Looker, who has finished his circuit and pulled gloves out of a pocket so he could start rifling through drawers. Blaine wonders briefly if the man is testing him, then returns his attention to Juniper. “Inconvenient.”

“I wouldn’t do all this just for… for a story, or some fame. I know it’s using up a lot of valuable resources, a lot of people’s time, but if the story he told is true, it’s important. And if you’re not in on it, the fact that you know just enough to have helped keep it covered up… Leader, what if the ditto were created here? Wouldn’t you want to know?”

The others give her sharp looks as well. Verres smacks his forehead, and Neasman swears under his breath, while Oak frowns and gives his friend a calculating look.

Blaine does his best to ignore the pageantry, other than to register it as a sign that she doesn’t have reason to believe it. Not that she’s shared with them, at least. “Proof?”

She closes her eyes and takes a breath. “That’s what we’re here for, to find some. If… I’m worried that, now that they know we found it—”


“—I think we’re against the clock, and if you send us away until the warrant—”

“Leaf,” Oak says, touching her shoulder. “He gets it. You made your point, and he dislikes emotional appeals.”

Blaine is already looking at the rangers. Neasman, who was among the first to face the ditto in the field. Burton, who suggested they search for ditto in ecological balance. “Nests?”

“Not yet,” Ranger Neasman says. “But the lab isn’t fully explored, and some parts might connect to a tunnel network.”

“Obviously.” Blaine studies him. “The first nest you found wasn’t far.”

“Right. That’s why I wanted to check this area in the first place.”

Blaine turns and walks toward the outside, gazing up to spot his people as they fly above and around. If they’re trying to communicate with him, he can’t hear them, and they may not even know he can’t. But they can see him, and they trust him. Each of them has a responsibility, and they can see to them, follow them well.

“Oak,” he says without turning around. “Lesson one.”

The teenager’s voice comes clear, confident. “You do not control fire. You take responsibility for it. Your pokemon, their attacks, what their attacks hit, what is around them, what else might get spread to. All of it is your responsibility. Others can teach you. Others can help you, if you make a mistake. But you own all the consequences, every time. If someone teaches you poorly, you can still learn from others. If others help you, it does not remove your responsibility. In this gym, that is your only responsibility. Learn well. Practice carefully. Fight confidently.”

“Well said.” Blaine turns back to the room, everyone’s attention is on him. Looker has stopped his endless searching, and the hunter keeps his attention outside. As it should be.

“Outside my gym, people take many responsibilities. You cannot fully commit to more than one. Splitting your responsibility evenly is worse than prioritizing. And I learned long ago that you cannot take more responsibility for something than you have power over. The two must remain proportional, or you will stumble.”

Verres blinks, then stands a little straighter. Juniper is watching him warily.

“I know what my responsibility is. I attend to it as best I can. I learned to ask for help over the years. I had to, to become an effective Leader. But I never stopped believing that I am the last one to decide, and live with those decisions, for all that I do and claim to care for.” He looks around at each of them. “You’re asking me to trust your sense of how severely this matters, and become complicit in whatever you do. In return, I ask you all now, each of you. Do you know what your responsibility is? Can you tell me, honestly, that you are serving it, here and now? Or is there some greater commitment that is worth the potential risks and sacrifices you’re making, by staying now that the situation has changed from what you hoped for?”

Looker is far enough from the others that they can likely tell he’s watching the Special Administrator first. The man has his hands in his pockets, face blank as he returns the stare.

Fair enough.

He looks to Juniper next, whose wariness has mixed with something else. Alarm? Guilt? He can’t tell, but he understands what might be part of it. The worry that Blaine is corrupt, and stripping them from the scene with more than fiat authority. By manipulation, by emotionally turning them from their resolve.

Words don’t even come to mind by which he might try to convince her otherwise. No words he says otherwise should convince her. He can only be forthright, and let their own integrity reveal itself.

She begins to look particularly uncomfortable with his stare, and he almost looks away when—

“There is for me.”

Oak has stepped forward, as Blaine hoped he would. The young challenger turns to the rest of them. “I’m only here because I think it’s important. But I trust you guys, at least one of you, to make sure it’s looked into properly. I need to focus on the region… or at least, the portion of it I currently have power to affect. And right now that means making sure Cinnabar is stable.”

“Me, too,” Burton says, only briefly glancing at Neasman. “I need to focus on the ditto nest we found. I’m just here because… well. It’s exciting, isn’t it? And has huge implications. But I don’t really add anything unique.”

Ranger Neasman sighs, then looks between everyone. “I can trust one of you to keep CoRRNet in the loop, when it’s appropriate?”

Looker nods. “You have my word.”

“And mine,” Blaine says.

“Alright. We’re off, then. Good luck, to the rest of you.”

They leave, and Oak begins to as well. He stops when Leaf raises a hand.

“Blue,” she murmurs. “I’m sorry, if I—”

“You didn’t.” He smiles at her. “It was on me, and I’m still glad you included me.”

There’s a sharpness in Blaine’s stomach, watching the ease with which the young Oak takes responsibility and reassures his friend at the same time. He understands. It wasn’t just knowing to recite the right words, and knowing that stepping forward would earn him favor. He understands, and he has the ability to show his care, at the same time. To smile, and leave his friend smiling.

For a moment, Blaine feels old, his heart heavy.

And then he straightens. Later. For now, this.

“I think… I should go too,” Verres says, before Oak starts walking again. “Now that Looker is here, I’m kind of superfluous. And… I’m worried they might try something somewhere.”

Looker nods. “It’s been on my mind. It’s what I would do; commit to a series of attacks, draw everyone’s attention elsewhere.”

“I should get some rest, let Jensen and the others rest too, then continue my training. Make sure we’re all ready.” He turns to Juniper. “Sorry—”

She shakes her head, and keeps her chin high. “No, you’re right. You got them to come, got Looker here. It’s enough.” She suddenly steps forward and hugs him. “Thank you.”

He hugs her back. “I’ll be back in a thought, if something happens.”

Blaine’s gaze rises to Looker again, and he can see the mask peeling, at the edges. The indecision, rather than being reassured by Verres’s departing, has only grown, as he feels his own contrasting responsibility all the keener.

Oak and Verres leave together, and the hunter goes with them. Now it’s just the three, standing in a loose triangle, Blaine at the furthest point.

Juniper’s hands are fists. Her shoulders unbent. She meets his gaze through his sunglasses. Defiant, or sure?


She turns, prepared.

Looker sighs. “I don’t trust people. I don’t trust you. But I trust that if you pull something, it won’t be in their direction. And that you know there’ll be consequences. We understand each other?”

The young woman nods. “We do. Thank you.”

“Don’t fucking thank me, Arceus’s sake, kid. I’m giving you a job and I’m not paying you except, maybe, in respect. You get to the bottom of this thing, and you tell me first. Not Mrs. Verres, not your friends, not even your mom in Unova. Or else you go it alone. That’s fine too, if that’s what’s in your,” he flicks a glance at Blaine. “Responsibility. Is it?”

“It is.”

“I figured. Then this is option two. Non-negotiable, take it or leave it.”

Juniper swallows. “I’ll take it.”

“Right. Reach out if you need something.”

He starts to leave, pausing at the broken wall beside Blaine. “Now’s the part where you either kick my men out until the warrant shows up, or I tell them to keep working.”

“Your men can stay. I’ll take responsibility.” As he must for everything on Cinnabar.

Juniper seems to sway, for a moment, but the Special Administrator just nods. “I’ll have a talk with your mayor about this whole secret lab registration thing later. Or maybe Tsunemori will, eventually.”

Blaine just nods, and then it’s just the two of them.

“What will you do?” Juniper asks. She’s recovered herself, but there’s still uncertainty, there.

“I’m going to get to the bottom of whatever happened on my island.” Blaine watches her for a moment, then another. He would like to say he’s contemplating something, examining pros and cons.

But in truth, he’s just uncertain.

The heaviness is still on his heart, now and then. He and Yuki parted ways, eventually. Amicably. He was, ultimately, able to get funding for his startup… but he burnt himself out, doing so. He knew he had to give leadership of it to her, keeping only his shares. They’ve done quite well over the years. She’s done well. They still talk, now and then.

But the weight persists, if lesser than it once was. It was a young Leader Giovanni who eventually gave him the funding he needed. A man who spoke with both brevity and eloquence, and who holds a very similar philosophy to his own. Nihil supernum, he said on one of a handful of nights spent sharing a meal and sparse but meaningful conversation. I’ve always found myself at my best when I reminded myself that if I fail, nothing greater could be relied on.

Giovanni. The man who helped him see, by example, how he’d neglected his ability to work with others well, even if he had to find his own way to stay true to himself. The man who eventually convinced him to pursue Leadership of his own, helped him realize that his style of leadership was better suited to a Gym than a lab or company. And the man who helped him realize how a single company, whatever its contributions, would be unlikely to accomplish as much as a whole island more amenable to easy innovation.

But it would be a mistake to believe everyone took their responsibility as seriously as he did, even as a young man in charge of a small company. And worse, if those who created this lab weren’t negligent, if they were duplicitous in some way, or even criminal…

The weight is still on his heart, but… it is lesser. And it still, with its occasional presence, helps him go slower. Reassess. Error correct.

“Would you care to help?”