Chapter 121: Precedes
Blaine’s gym is nestled in the volcanic mountain that dominates Cinnabar’s skyline, facing the city so that it’s easy to see from anywhere in it. The roads there wind back and forth across the mountain’s base, and cablecars leave from various skyscrapers every five minutes, constantly shuttling people back and forth to the different facilities, including a small pokemart, two dorms, a trainer house, and a dedicated pokecenter separate from the smaller ones in various buildings.
But the quickest way to get there, outside of teleporting, is to fly, and most trainers who come to Cinnabar have at least one pokemon big enough to carry them up to the gym. Blue watches from Zephyr’s back as the white splotches in the mountain face resolve into individual structures, each with multiple roads and walkways crisscrossing between them.
It’s been nearly a week since they found the mansion, and so far they’re still in “holding mode.” Red said Looker put a team on it, but they’re moving so… damn… slow. Apparently they’re still on the research and planning phase, only recently having sent a someone to survey the area and figure out the safest way to get into the ruins of the lab.
Blue understands that time is on their side, so long as they move carefully and don’t tip their hand. But that’s only true if the people who ran the lab aren’t off somewhere creating more hybrids, or if there’s no reason for them to worry about the hybrid itself… which he’s not betting on.
Meanwhile they’ve continued canvassing the island for ditto nests, and finally found one small enough to tag and monitor, after having to wipe out a few nests too big to safely leave. On the plus side, they each managed to catch a ditto of their own, which might be useful if they ever end up trainable.
Blue was also surprised by how deftly Leaf used her new magmar against the ditto nests, given how averse she’s been to using lethal pokemon in battles. The first time, with the smell of burning purple goo filling the grotto they found them in, she hurried out and tore off her mask to start heaving into some bushes, which left Blue feeling mildly useless. He just awkwardly stood there, patting her back and saying some vaguely encouraging things until Wendy took over.
Leaf said she was alright, after, and though she looked a bit sickly for the rest of the day, insisted she would be back to search for more nests the next. Which she did, and seemed a bit better off, though that might have been helped by the rapidash she caught. Blue half expects she mostly wanted to return to keep an eye on the mansion, but he respects the hell out of her grit either way, and said as much.
Both she and Red have changed so much from when they started this journey. But he still feels a gnawing in his stomach when he thinks of what they said about the hybrid, and finds himself wishing again that it turns out to be a piece of fiction after all.
Now is a bad time for another civilization-ending threat to pop up. And sure, Blue might have said the same the last few times that happened, but that doesn’t make it less true.
The bottom line is that the closer he is to Champion, the closer he’ll be to having power to root out any rot in the League.
And he’d definitely prefer not having to potentially confront Blaine about the lab on his island while he still needs to get Cinnabar’s badge.
Blue lands on one of the jutting rooftops, then dismounts and jogs to catch an elevator called by someone who just teleported in. The woman steps off at one of the training rooms, but Blue keeps going down to the bottom floor the elevator will reach, then takes the stairs down another level.
Blaine isn’t a Leader who spends much time in his Gym, let alone his office. Normally if Blue wants a private talk he has to content himself with calls, which always feel limiting… particularly since the Leader doesn’t even tend to use video. The lack of tone or body language makes Blaine’s already blunt way of speaking feel… valueless. Blue didn’t realize how much info he got from just talking to people, even if things didn’t go his way.
Which means if he wants to even try to, he has to keep an eye on Blaine’s schedule and intercept him in the brief times where he’s moving between things. Thankfully, Blaine’s Third has become something like a friend, and is willing to share things like the Leader’s schedule so long as Blue doesn’t make himself a nuisance.
A new training wing is being built, and Blaine is supposed to be meeting with the builders to make some adjustments to their blueprints. Blue arrives six minutes before the meeting is supposed to end, and paces the hall in front of the closed off section of the gym, checking messages and drafting a status update summarizing his day.
Each new level of fame Blue has rises to makes him feel the pressure to share more about his life more often. He noticed it early on, how good it felt getting the influx of validation, thousands of pluses and hearts and hundreds of supportive comments, each a shot of extra confidence and reassurance that he has people in his corner. People who like him, and who, if he needs them, might respond to a call for action.
It’s more than enough to make up for the negative comments that come up no matter what he says, but something did change after Miracle Eye. The conspiracy theorists got a little louder, or more focused, or something. Once in a while some belligerent questions will get thrown at him concerning people or events he’s never even heard of, his lack of answer taken as a sign of guilt. He learned not to engage with that stuff, but he still skims them on occasion, just to get some sense of what people are saying about him.
More usefully, it can be helpful to avoid sticking his foot in his mouth by saying something that gives them more ammunition, though his assistant helps with that too; along with filtering his incoming messages, he forwards everything he might post first so she can let him know if he’s about to stick his foot in his mouth by saying something really dumb, or piss off some group or the other that’s not tracking.
He’s not going to mention anything about the mansion, of course, but he wants to say something that works as a temperature check, or sets the stage for more specific comments about pokemon experimentation. He feels like there’s a line between the unown research and what the secret lab did to create the hybrid, if they did… and if people are reading Leaf’s story and getting sympathy for something that dangerous, he’s already behind on setting a more sane narrative.
He’ll have to talk to Leaf about it, sooner or later. Maybe after he has some spare time to actually read her story.
The door opens, and Blue looks up from his phone to see Blaine striding out, white coat billowing behind him. “Leader,” Blue nods, putting his phone away as he turns to walk with the man.
“What do you want?” Blaine asks as heads for the stairs. Blue does his best, as always, not to read too much into his impatience, since that’s the Leader’s default mode as far as Blue can tell.
Of course, that doesn’t mean he’s not impatient, or even that he’s not impatient with Blue in particular. But he’s also not necessarily feeling hostility toward Blue just because he’s not slowing down at all. Despite the occasional ways it’s thrown off his balance and reflexes, Blue is quite pleased with how much he’s been growing over the past few months, but he still has to nearly jog to keep up with the tall leader as Blaine strides down the halls.
“I’m ready for my challenge match.”
“I think I’ve 80/20’d my impact here, and—”
“Is this a test? You want to see if I really will slap the Erika out of you?”
“No.” That threat, delivered after Blue’s first private meeting with Blaine, had him immediately try cutting his sentences down to get as short and to the point as the Leader himself was when he spoke. It was a rebuke he should have anticipated, but he thought he’d adapted quickly and well, particularly given how much he, in principle, appreciates this way of talking too.
“Then stop dancing and get to the point.”
Blue doesn’t bother asking him why Blaine thinks he’s “dancing,” since it’s true enough. “Something came up and I need to shorten my timelines.”
“Not saying more.”
“Can’t say more.”
“Still denied. MAS.”
Minimizing attack surfaces. Blue should have seen that coming; part of the reason Blaine is the way he is is just his personality, but another part is a deliberate effort to reduce people’s ability to persuade, cajole, or otherwise manipulate him… to keep people from even trying, as that would waste their time and his.
The frustrating thing is Blue isn’t even sure if this qualifies. He’s not trying to manipulate Blaine, he thinks, but he’s also not able to divulge everything he knows… which maybe means he is trying to be persuasive, which Blaine dislikes almost as much as being manipulated. Either way, he hoped his efforts in Cinnabar might have earned him a little trust.
He doesn’t say that, of course, since that would be an obvious effort to persuade. He recalls what Blaine told him early on about “how communication should go”: just the facts. He can share information, he can request information to narrow down what info Blaine might benefit from knowing, but he can’t directly try to change how Blaine feels about anything.
“What if I don’t want to jump the line, just get back in it?” Blue asks as they start up the stairs.
“Your choice, but you’ve seen the state this island’s in.”
Blue has, and Blaine has never been shy about his priorities. Leaders like Sabrina and Giovanni often have occasional backlogs of challengers to get through, but Blaine gets so many fewer challengers that it’s not usually an issue when he focuses on some island emergency over dispensing badges.
He wants to argue that he’s done more than nearly any other gym member to help get things back on track, but he knows that’s leaning back toward emotional persuasion instead of sharing new information. “Got no intention of leaving it this way. Teleportation means I can be in Viridian and keep working here at the same time.”
They reach the elevator, and Blue follows Blaine in as the Leader hits the button for the roof. “Giovanni’s mostly hands off, thought you would jump at the chance to shake things up there.”
“I plan to do both. My friends Elaine and Glen are arriving soon, and they can cover trailblazing and organization of the newbies even better than I could.” He’s been getting used to leaving his journey mates behind each time he goes to a new city, to thinking of them more like allies on parallel journeys that occasionally intersect. Used to it, but he never grew to like it. Which may be why it felt deeply gratifying (on some level that he hasn’t had time to think about yet) to see those messages from them.
“People will follow you. Fewer will come here.” Blaine shakes his head. “Let Chase know you’re back on the list, but you still have to choose to wait here or go get Viridian’s badge and come back.”
Blue grimaces. Blaine is a common 8th badge battle for Kanto trainers, but… “I want Giovanni as my final badge.”
Blaine doesn’t even bother responding to that, which is fair enough. The door opens to reveal the open sky, though the looming volcano cuts off half of it once they step out onto the rectangular roof. Blue follows Blaine toward the edge, past which the city spreads out beyond the slope of the mountain as it continues below toward another building.
“I won’t be at my best, with this hanging over me,” Blue says. “I’m not trying to—”
“Sure.” Blaine summons his charizard, whose black wings stretch out nearly twice as far as Red’s, and within a minute it’s saddled and he’s lifting himself onto its back. “But you can handle it.”
And with that he flies off, leaving Blue wondering if he’s ever received such a frustrating compliment.
After a minute of enjoying the breeze and playing the conversation back over, thinking of what else he might have said, Blue sighs and heads back inside to meet with Blaine’s Third, who’s waiting in one of the main arenas.
“Yo.” Chase is wearing shorts and a casual T-shirt instead of his gym uniform and lounging against the wall, looking like he just got back from the beach to work on his tan. In reality he’s probably been out in the water all day, diving to check various pokemon nests to monitor signs of ditto spreading via aquatic pokemon, which thankfully there have been no signs of so far. “How’d it go?”
“No dice. Told him to consider me back in line, but—”
“But that means you’re stuck here another month, at least.” Chase shrugs. “Sucks, but can’t say I’m sorry. You’ve done good work here, and battling you is putting me in arm’s reach of beating Sydney.”
“Do you actually want to be Second?” Blue asks as he goes to the PC against the wall and swaps out some of his pokemon. “Also, did you just admit I’m good enough to actually push a gym’s Third closer to a Second?”
“Hey, the lines are fuzzy, you know that. There are others here who can beat me in a straight fight but don’t want the responsibility. As for being Second, though, I could take it or leave it. Syd and I just have a thing going.”
“A thing like what, a rivalry?”
Chase smirks. “Sure, let’s go with that.”
Blue almost pursues it, then decides to let it go as he climbs onto his platform, battle calm descending as he unclips Maturin’s ball. “On three… two… one…”
Chase sends out a ninetails that uses Confuse Ray on Maturin while nimbly dodging her Bubblebeam, and returns with an Energy Ball that requires a quick swap to Soul, then back to Maturin for a Bubblebeam that Chase’s sends a turtonator in to tank before responding with a Dragon Pulse that shoves the 100 kilo turtle halfway out of the arena before nearly catching Rive with a Solar Beam fakeout.
Blue just barely manages to send Soul back in to take the hit, who then has to swap back out for Sunny for lack of any way to put a dent in the dragon turtle. Unfortunately Chase is happy to capitalize on that with a Dragon Pulse that Sunny would be lucky to survive a second of, and Blue calls time to check if his houndoom is okay.
It all happened in less than a minute, but quick matches are expected with hyper offensive teams, and it’s a rare Fire type that’s good for anything else. Blue’s battle calm is the only thing that kept him from flinching at the near miss of that Solar Beam… but he has to get used to battles with that sort of attack thrown in, now.
At 7th badge challenges the Leaders start to strip off most of the remaining safety handicaps, and Blaine is likely to try at least one trick that puts one of Blue’s pokemon at serious risk of injury, but Blue’s not worried. Thankfully he’s good enough that he rarely kills any challenger’s pokemon, but either way, Blue has to be ready for that sort of battle before he reaches Giovanni, let alone the League.
Which means he needs to get used to high stakes trainer battles, which feel like almost an entirely different meta. Normally he’d say Maturin, Rive, Bob, and Soul could handle most of what Blaine might throw at him, while still hitting back for at least neutral, since most of the types that would help cover a Fire pokemon’s weaknesses just make it more susceptible to others. But the Cinnabar leader hasn’t held onto his position this long without knowing how make fire’s weaknesses less relevant than the challenger might hope.
If Blaine brings out something weird like a scovillain, it’ll be up to Zephyr or the pelipper he caught while they searched some bluffs to take it out, while Sunny and his new poliwrath would be useful closers if Blaine throws a curveball and tries some weird defensive strategy… but both might be harder to rely on if the format is more limited, like a 3v3, and Blue expects some hard and fast attacks that bring his pokemon down despite resistances, like Overheat, and a strategic Burn Up could knock out one of Blue’s pokemon and remove Blaine’s weaknesses at the same time.
“Okay,” Blue says after healing Sunny up. “Let’s go again.”
This time Blue goes all out in his offense, trying to land a quick victory with Rive in a way that manages to take out Chase’s ninetails, but knocks the rhydon out too. Their next match pits Zephyr against Chase’s talonflame, whose Heat Waves cause the air conditioner to power on full blast just to keep the room from sweltering.
Blue almost misses the vibration of his phone as he braces against the whipping winds, and lets his whistle drop from his lips to yell “Stop!” as soon as there’s an opening. Zephyr aborts his dive and flies toward Blue, and when Chase calls his talonflame back Blue checks his messages. “They’re here,” he says, and withdraws his pokemon. “Free to meet?”
“Normally I’d pawn it off on some of my lessers,” Chase says as he tosses his talonflame a treat, then withdraws her and follows him. “But for friends of yours, I can take a personal interest.”
“Appreciate it,” Blue says with a smile.
Chase grins back. “You shouldn’t, I’ll be digging for dirt. Anyone who’s traveled with you has to have some stories of you landing on your ass.”
Blue laughs, and they head to the roof together, stopping along the way at the floor housing the gym’s pokemon center. The sun is just starting to set, painting half the sky in gold and pink as Blue searches the sky for his friends. There are a few trainers flying up from the city, but…
Within a minute he spots the swiftly growing black dots high up in the sky. Elaine lands first, her swellow flapping hard and hopping a couple times to shed momentum from its dive. Blue braces himself against the gusts of wind, which die down just as Glen’s pidgeot lands more gently, and he’s followed by a handful of others from the Saffron gym and dojo.
Blue finishes hugging Elaine in time to greet them all, as well as congratulate those that recently got badges before he introduces everyone to Chase. “Appreciate you all coming out,” the Third says. “Been a while since we had as many spare hands as we needed.”
“More are on the way by ferry,” Glen says with a wink. “Not often that a call goes out for newer trainers, and getting Blaine’s badge as their second or third will makes their journey more unique than most.”
“What’s the latest?” Elaine asks “Are big nests still getting found?”
“We found one today, actually.” He summarizes the encounter, how the nest turned out to be too big to tag and observe, as his group is looking for. “We’ll intro you guys to the rangers and gym members in charge of surveying and putting together squads. Within a couple weeks I expect you guys will be doing your own.”
“Damn,” Chase says as they pile into the elevator. “You’re as much of a taskmaster as Blaine. No wonder you two get along so well.”
Blue raises a brow. “We do?”
“Sure. He hasn’t chucked you off the island yet, has he?”
Elaine laughs. “Has he actually done that? I can never tell what are just stories of the guy, and what’s real.”
“He hasn’t physically thrown anyone out of Cinnabar, or even the gym, but he’s told people to leave and come back when they get their head out of their ass or learn to stop wasting his time or whatever.”
“Nice job, Blue,” Elaine says.
“Yeah, it’s nice to see you getting better at this whole taking-over-gyms thing,” Glen adds.
“Hang on,” Blue says. “I’ve never made a previous Leader mad at me.”
Elaine taps her chin. “Didn’t Surge start out thinking you were an egotistical upstart?”
“Oh yeah,” Chase says while Blue rolls his eyes. “That’s the good insider goss. Gimme more.”
The rest of the day passes quickly, with Blue and Chase giving the group a tour while introducing them to the others they’ll be working with. After they break for dinner, Chase says goodbye, and Blue invites Glen and Elaine to his room while the others head down to the city to meet the newer trainers.
As soon as the door is closed, they both turn expectantly to him. “So,” Elaine says. “What have you gotten us into now?”
She’s smiling, but Blue raises his hands, palms out. “Exactly what it looks like. The gym needs help filling holes the rangers are leaving.”
“But.” Glen’s arms are crossed, but he’s smiling too.
Blue wants to smile back. He can’t quite bring himself to. “I can’t tell you yet. But, yeah, there are things going on that might draw me into another mess.”
“Another renegade mess,” Glen says, not a question, and he’s not smiling anymore.
Neither is Elaine, but they don’t look scared either. “Blue, we’re here. I know you can’t count on us the way you do Red and Leaf—”
“That’s not true.” Blue’s heart is pounding, and he tries to take a breath, tries to summon his battle calm… but this isn’t a battle. These are his friends, and his allies, and… “I called you guys because I can rely on you. In different ways.”
“What do you need us to do?” Glen asks, voice soft. “I won’t lie and say I want to fight renegades again. I don’t. But it sucked, finding out you were fighting them at Silph and not being able to help—”
Blue doesn’t wince, doesn’t let any of his remembered conflict about calling Glen show on his face
“—and if that happens again, I don’t plan to just stand back and watch if I see an opportunity.”
“I wouldn’t ask you to,” Blue mutters.
“To what?” Elaine asks. “Be there, or stay back?”
“Both. Either. But I might not be able to warn you, if that sort of thing is coming. What I need you guys to do is get this island back to its pre-ditto threat rating.”
“So you can get your badge faster.” There’s no accusation or bitterness in Glen’s voice, which some part of Blue did worry about. He also worries about Glen saying more, saying So you can leave us behind again. But instead the older boy just nods, as if expecting a couple mid-journey trainers and their friends to tip scales that already have dozens of rangers and gym members on one side is an obvious thing to do. “Because things got even more serious than before.”
“Yeah. That’s the basic idea.” Blue runs a hand through his hair. “I’ll go for Viridian first if I have to, but wrapping things up here… it’s not just the badge anymore. And I can’t do that stuff and prep for Giovanni and keep training for Blaine. I need some of this stuff off my plate.”
“We’re here,” Elaine says again, voice soft. “But if there is anything else we can do…”
Blue looks at them, staring steadily back at him, and feels himself weighing risk and possibility, hope and dread stirring in his chest as he finally lets himself think of the stuff thats been hovering around his thoughts since that day at the mansion.
Of what a crew of loyal, discreet trainers and gym members on the island could do, with the right instructions.
“There might be something. Might not turn anything up, but while you’re spending time with the locals and getting to know them, there are some things it would be helpful to watch out for… and some questions to ask, if you’re careful about how…”
Indigo’s interpol base feels like it’s something different every day. Some days are sleepy, with a handful of agents in the building working quietly at their computers. Some days are like a kicked combee hive, people rushing every which way and yelling orders and information at each other in response to some new event. Sometimes entire wings of cubicles get split apart, shifted to another area, or restructured under a new task force.
Red never had his own task force before. Or rather, he’s been part of multiple before, one could even say all of them to some degree… though that’s not true, there were some more secretive than others, in buildings he hasn’t visited. But he’s never had one with people in it that answered to him. In a way, it’s a little like he imagined being a pokemon professor might feel…
…if on a totally different set of topics than any professor would normally be focused on.
“So how likely is Rocket to make the same breakthrough?” Red asks. “Being able to store any amount of mass—”
“Not any amount,” Mink quickly corrects. The Silph-pokeball-engineer-turned-interpol-technician is leaning back in his chair, feet up on his desk as he spins his headset around his wrist. “That would be absurd. But an order of magnitude further than a heavyball is what we aimed for, and we got pretty close. As for them replicating it… hard to tell without knowing who they’ve got working for them. Theoretical physicists who can push poketech aren’t exactly growing on trees.”
“Sure. Ever wonder what the hardest part of pokeball tech is, even back when they were big as grapefruits?”
Red has, from time to time, but he never really researched it. “Digital training translating to physical changes in the reconstituted mind?”
“You’re thinking too modern. Think about it; you’re designing the very first tech that can convert mass to energy. What goes wrong?”
Red blinks, wondering if this is a trick question. “Uh. You can’t convert it back?”
“That’s what everyone thinks.” Mink says. “And don’t get me wrong, solving that was pretty, you know, central to the whole concept. But the real headache was not letting the mass carry over once it’s energy.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean energy still has mass.” Mink waves a hand at the desk. “Take all the atoms that make this desk up and turn it into light, and it’ll still weigh what a desk weighs.”
“Wait, really? Then how does—”
“Later,” Mink says with a wave as Red jumps to his feet and heads through the cubicle forest toward the shout, dragging his chair with him. Looker is standing at the front of the “Red’s” cluster, arms crossed.
“Verres, when were you going to tell me you’ve got a team of people excavating on Cinnabar?”
“I uh, told you last week?” Red shoves his chair into his own cubicle so that it rolls beside his desk as he continues to walk toward Looker. “During the morning meeting.”
The Special Administrator frowns, then closes his eyes a moment, lids flickering… “You asked permission to requisition more agents for…” Looker sighs and opens his eyes. “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me. Digging into the lab, you said.”
“Right,” Red says, baffled. “What did you think I meant?”
“Metaphorical digging, Verres!”
“Ah.” He knows he shouldn’t, but Red grins at his irate boss, already imagining Leaf’s reaction when she hears. “Well that’s an understandable, one might even say com—”
“Do you have any idea what Blaine will do if he finds out about this?”
“Well, I thought about asking, but once you said it was fine I sort of figured it’d be… fine?” Red’s heart sinks as Looker rubs his eyes. How big did he mess up, exactly? “Is it that bad?”
“We’ll see. Meanwhile, you have a visitor.”
Red blinks. Here? He follows Looker away from the cubicles and past another cluster before he sees…
…Director General Tsunemori. Red smiles, an upwelling of gratitude rushing through him at the sight of the woman who threw him a lifeline the night of the Silph attack.
He doesn’t like to think of that night, of how scared he was, both for himself and for the psychics of the region. But her words, her clear confidence in society, even as she expressed uncertainty… her sincerity was hard not to sense. And once he sensed it, he could experience it himself, feel it in relation to whatever else he was thinking and feeling.
It felt dangerous, in a way. Like potentially lying to himself, ignoring things that might have given him good reason to be afraid in order to retreat into comfort. But it felt genuine enough, and her position unique enough, that he figured she probably had good reason to feel the way she did, and if she was wrong, well, he wasn’t really in a position to do better from the place of dread and panic he did feel at the time.
“Hello, Red.” She reaches out a hand, which he squeezes. “I thought I’d come and see what Interpol is doing digging a hole through Cinnabar. Imagine my surprise when I learned it was your idea.”
“I’m sorry, Director—”
She holds up a hand, still gently smiling. “I’m sure you have your reasons. But it would be helpful if I—and the Special Administrator—knew those reasons, before Cinnabar’s Leader or Mayor ask.”
“Right, of course! Should I, uh… start from the beginning, or…?”
“The team has been sending me reports,” Looker admits, voice only slightly grudging. “I obviously didn’t give them my full attention, but Tsunemori will need an overview.”
“I was only told that you had a source that you trust, pointing you to a crime that’s potentially related to renegade activity.” Her brow is raised. “No offense to Interpol, but I decided to check with you directly in case they’re being… overly cautious on our behalf.”
Red appreciates the discretion, but yeah he’s pretty sure it wasn’t for his or Leaf’s benefit. “Right. Well, that’s basically true… but, here… I can share what we found out?” Red sticks a thumb in the direction of his cubicle, and at Looker’s grudging nod he turns and leads the way.
He tries not to feel nervous, and a quick glimpse of Tsunemori shows she’s mostly curious, maybe a little frustrated or exasperated… but also slightly relieved? He files that away to ask about later.
“Here…” Red leads them over to the white board that makes up an entire wall of his cubicle, where he’s got a series of written words circled, squared, and triangle, with lines between them and post-it notes of various colors stuck on. “So, the first team—”
“Who made this?” Tsunemori asks.
Looker squints at him, then the board. “With whose help?”
“My mom’s. I didn’t tell her anything that would be on it, though! Just asked for help putting pieces of evidence together to see what patterns emerged.”
Looker grunts and waves his hand in a “go ahead,” gestured, so Red starts at the top-right corner.
“So the shapes indicate what kind of info it is. Connecting properties are squares, connecting people are triangles, and connecting topics are circles. See, once Murphy and Ichiro finished the initial research they uncovered a ton of potentially connected organizations—”
“I see them.” Most dead end quickly, but the main branch that moves out to unfold over the rest of the board has a green sticky note on it, which Tsunemori points to. “Green means, what, confident?”
“Yeah, and red are basically just wild guesses that we still need to follow up on.” There are a lot of red post-its around the corners of the mass of shapes, particularly in the direction where STAFF is written, though there are some yellows there. “Following up on missing researchers yielded a lot of fruit, and funders got pretty complicated—I still don’t really get why shell companies are legal, but Ben explained that they’re mostly benign and necessary—but the research output is where we really hit it big.”
“Research output,” Tsunemori muses. “You’re saying criminal scientists in secret labs still, what, care about getting their work published in peer reviewed journals?”
“Not exactly; they’d go through intermediaries, labs that could replicate what they’ve already done and present it as original research. When we looked into a few of them and sent some agents out, one broke down within ten minutes of interrogation and admitted that they received the idea in a mail package, with no instructions or claims of credit.” Red’s not sure how he feels about that, but…
“What, they’re secret benefactors now?” Looker sounds half skeptical, half disgusted. “Just tossing out free scientific breakthroughs, no strings attached?”
“Some maybe had strings attached? Maybe some richer labs were asked to donate money or something, and didn’t ask questions about where their ideas were coming from. We can’t know how many we didn’t catch, it would take looking into tens of thousands of papers, maybe even pokedex entries, over decades… but once in a while at least, yeah, they seem to have spread their discoveries out so the wider scientific community could learn from them. Probably not all of them, but… it also wasn’t entirely selfless, since there’s no way they could do all the research they might want to on their own.”
“Spread a discovery, reap the benefits of whatever others discover from it.” Tsunemori is watching Red, and there’s an expression on her face that Red can’t quite place. “How are you feeling, Red?”
“Huh?” Red blinks, trying to switch gears. Was he talking too quickly before? “Fine?” As he says it, he realizes… “Good, actually.”
Looker nods. “You’ve picked up in the past couple weeks. Enjoying detective work?”
“I think so.” Red scratches the back of his neck. He thinks it might be more about the feeling of control he now has over stuff. He’s still spending a lot of time training with the hunters, still feels like he’s being molded into something he doesn’t want to be… but the investigation, it’s like solving a puzzle, and… “I feel like I can contribute something unique, here? Not a lot, but—”
“The research angle was your idea,” Tsunemori says. “And you chose to take it upon yourself to make this visualization, and you’re part of a team.”
“That stuff too, yeah.”
“Well, I’m glad. And yes, I’m seeing the connections.” She points to the lines connecting research to the Cinnabar lab. “How solid are these yellow notes?”
“There’s a few people looking into them now. We can’t know what kind of lab Cinnabar was, but if our guesses are right, it’ll lean heavy into biochemistry.” Red still hasn’t told anyone what Leaf suspects the lab was for. They’ll either independently discover it, or they won’t, and maybe for good reason. “Even a few glimpses of broken equipment could tell us a lot, though.”
Looker grunts, then glances at the wall to Red’s right. “That Silph guy, he paying off?”
“It’s hard to tell for sure yet, but he’ll definitely be useful once we get in the lab.”
“The timeline’s off, though. If they were building their own Masterball months ago… ah. You think maybe they leaked the tech to Silph.”
“Or had some deal with them,” Tsunemori murmurs. “Which would explain how they knew it was being built at all.”
Looker shrugs. “It’s a stretch, but I’ve heard worse. So, are you satisfied?”
“I am.” Tsunemori nods at Red. “Thank you, and well done. I assume you’re going to want to be part of the team that investigates the lab, once the way is open?”
“Yeah, and… uh, there are some others that should probably be there. They already know about it, and would really help in figuring things out.” Well, mostly Leaf and Blue. Red was impressed by the rangers, but he’s mostly including them because he wants to keep on cooperative terms with them.
“I’ll leave that up to the Special Administrator. My own people will also be joining regardless.”
“That’s a conversation,” Looker says with a mild frown.
“Well, let’s have it now then.”
Look grunts, nods, then glances back at Red and wags a finger between them. “You and I, we need to work on our communication. My fault for allowing such a sloppy chain of command, but if this kind of misunderstanding happens again, your boyish innocence isn’t going to protect you.”
“Yes, Sir.” Red is a little heartened by Director Tsunemori’s smile, which offsets Looker’s stern expression. “Sorry again.”
“Mhm.” He leaves, and the director nods once more to him before following.
Red collapses onto his seat, relieved and tired. He sends an update to Leaf and Blue, then checks his messages.
One of the odder quirks of his new position in life is that he had to get a new personal assistant, not to replace his old one, but in addition to her, and not just to manage the new volume of incoming messages but also to filter any that might relate to sensitive topics. But that meant his new one had to be well informed of certain things, which means someone from the local police who generally does this sort of thing or officers of higher rank was assigned to him… which brought his total number of PAs to three, the third of which works for Interpol and is the first screener, dividing everything he gets into two broad piles for the others to sort through and then send over.
This means he can generally choose what sorts of messages he wants to read and pick the ones that got through those general piles and sorted into more specific ones. Right now he decides on messages from his social connections, and reads a message from one of his old lab mates about new potential developments in how Dragon types are classified, which he forwards to Blue, and some followups from acquaintances in the psychic network he helped form, which has has continued to go better than he expected.
There are also a few messages from his old peers under Sabrina’s tutelage. Some others have moved on by now, and another two have joined, but most still keep in touch with the occasional well-wish, life update, or question, sometimes posed just to him, other times to the group.
It’s Rowan’s name that catches his attention, and he clicks that email with a feeling of pleasant surprise. He hadn’t heard from Rowan in a while… months, actually…
The message is short. Red blinks as he reads it, then rereads it again, slight smile fading and shifting to a frown as he reads it a third time…
How are you all?
Is it peace?
Is it war?
How do you keep the peace?
How do you win the war?
We’re wondering which side you’re on
Which side you’ll be on
Which sides you’ll be
On the day
Red stares at the message another moment, tingles running up his spine as he swallows and checks the message timestamp.
Over a week ago. His pulse, which had started to pick up, starts to slow a little. He would have heard, if something odd had—
Message Sabrina now. Jason too. Everyone.
The thoughts are strong, urgent, and his fingers are moving to type out short queries again and again. Hey, how are you, have you seen Rowan lately? Hi, hope you’re well, just curious if Rowan still comes around? Heya, quick question, have you heard from…
Red finishes messaging everyone he can think of, then goes back to read over the (poem?) again. He wants to respond… but he’s also afraid to.
Why is he afraid to? And is it coming from him, or something his unpartitioned self knows?
No. Nothing concrete. But…
Red nods to himself. But.
The responses trickle in. Fine. Good. Doing great. No. Nah. Not lately. Now that you mention it…
And from Jason, the extra curious: Why do you ask?
Red swallows against the dryness in his throat, and instead of messaging, calls.
“Hey, Jason. Sorry to bother—”
“It’s no bother. I’m still in Saffron, Red, and I can’t remember seeing Rowan here for at least two weeks. Maybe fleetingly, maybe in passing, but he hasn’t attended classes, or taught any as far as I know. What’s happened?”
“Worry? Yes, but vaguely, and for months now. I didn’t realize how long it’s been until your message. What happened, Red?”
“Nothing, not really. Just… a weird message.” Red looks at it again, then forwards it. “Sending to you now.”
There’s silence as Jason reads, and then he says, “We should talk to Sabrina.”
“I’ll be there soon.” Red hesitates. “Are we… overreacting? You’ve known him longer than I have, even before I left… he was always a bit—”
“Strange, yes. And I know that’s an unfair label, perhaps, for one of us. But I don’t think we’re overreacting. I just hope it’s nothing serious.”
“Me too. Though I’m not really sure what serious would look like, in this case. Something to do with partitions, obviously, but…”
“But whatever it is, it feels off.”
“Except perhaps for Rowan himself, you know more about partitions than anyone else, Red. If this feels off to you, I trust that even more than my own gut, which has felt uneasy about Rowan for a while now.”
“Right. See you soon.”
“See you soon.”
Red ends the call, then straps on his pokebelt and heads for a balcony, gaze drawn to the message again as a fresh chill works through him.
Which sides you’ll be
On the day