All posts by Damon Sasi

Chapter 124: Unearthed

Chapter 124: Unearthed

Within a minute of Rob sending the message that they’re ready to go, people from the investigation/excavation team start teleporting in, then summoning the pokemon and equipment they need to finish the last few meters of the dig into the underground structure. As they pass by, a few of them stare, mostly at Red but some also at her or Blue.

Leaf and the others use that time to give a rundown of what pokemon they have on their belts, and go over basic strategies and communication protocols in case anything goes wrong.

“Will your bodyguards want to go in with us?” Leaf asks as the sounds of excavation echo faintly from deep inside the tunnel.

“One will,” Red admits, and pulls his phone out to message them. “The rest will probably stay at the entrance or near the manor to make sure we’re not ambushed.”

“On that note, we’ll keep you away from the fresh dig spots until we’ve put in proper supports,” Rob says. “I know you want to be the first ones in, but safety first. Speaking of which… here.”

He opens a container box and starts handing out vests. It takes Leaf a moment to recognize the design as similar to Red’s. “Are these for…?”

“Abra, yeah, or other teleporters. We put them in so we can quickly teleport out in the unlikely event of a cave-in. For those with evolved teleporters, just keep them out and walk with them in arm’s reach at all times.”

They start taking their bags off and putting them beside the wall, then summoning their abra. Rob and Red help fit them comfortably into the back carriers, then put them on. “Wonder if we should just always have these,” she muses out loud as she follows Red’s motions to adjust the straps.

“It’s a lot of hassle, particularly if you’re not psychic,” he says. “Limits mobility a lot, even aside from the extra weight. But maybe worth having one on hand, for situations like this. I didn’t even know this was a thing excavators commonly did.”

“It wasn’t until recently,” Rob says with a pointed look at them, and Leaf exchanges grins with Red before he helps her strap Psyguy to her back.

“How’s that?” he asks from behind her, and when she turns to look at him she sees his cheeks are pink.

“Heavy, like you said.” She smiles, hefting the straps a bit. “But secure. Thanks.”

“No problem.” Red smiles back. “He looks, what three-quarters of the way to evolution?”

“Yeah. If we had a PC here I’d switch for another abra, but I can manage so long as we’re not running for too long.”

“If we’re running before we need to teleport out, I’ll be screwed anyway.” Blue is pouring some berries into his palm for Tops. “What flavor, Red? Sweet, tart, bitter?”

“A mix is fine,” Red says, then closes his eyes. Blue starts feeding his kadabra the berries, and Leaf watches with amused fascination as Red’s jaw twitches, lips parting for a quick lick that matches the pokemon’s movements as it feeds.

“That’s… mildly disturbing, somehow,” Ira says.

Wendy is grinning. “It’s cool! Do they taste really different, to him?”

“Yeah, though it’s hard to explain how.” Red opens his eyes and rubs his lips, then lowers his arm, looking a little self-conscious as he turns to Blue. “Okay, you’re all Miracled up.”

“Thanks, buddy.” He tosses a berry to Red, who laughs along with Wendy and Leaf as he catches it, then reaches back to feed it to his abra.

Some of the nervous tension that’s been running through her since Red explained what happened with Rowan fades, and she can see the others look a bit more relaxed too. She turns to Rob, who’s talking with another worker that teleported in before they head for the tunnel entrance, then steps over to the foreman. “Are any of them who go in with us going to stay on-site until we leave?”

“Is that necessary?”

“Yes. I’d like to also restrict their communication to anyone off-site.” So long as she’s assertive in a way that implies the right to make such a demand, she’s hoping she’ll be given that right.

Rob takes it in stride, however, and just looks at Red, who nods, face back to its earlier seriousness. “Right then, we’ll do a comm blackout until the end of the day. You want longer than that, I’ll need clearance from the higher ups.”

“Would that be hard to get?” Leaf asks, growing bold as she realizes that he’s probably used to these sorts of restrictions.

“This is an ad hoc team thrown together from a number of different departments. For what it’s worth, my director would probably be fine with it for a few days, but they’ll need me on other stuff after that.” Rob shrugs. “Don’t think you’ll get them all to sign off at once unless you go to the top.”

Leaf also looks at Red, who hesitates, then shakes his head. “Looker wants to minimize the cost to the other departments and their own investigations. I don’t see him going for it unless we have something more to report in the first place.”

“Why not invite him, then?” Blue suggests. He’s rolling a greatball across his knuckles, something Leaf hasn’t seen him do in months. “I mean, if he’s compromised all this secrecy doesn’t matter anyway, right?”

Red is looking at her, now, and it’s her turn to hesitate. If she had some sense of certainty that Rocket, which Looker did seem to be genuinely working to fight against, has no connection to the Endo clan…

“Let’s wait until we have something to show him, at least,” she says. “If evidence that the place was blown up isn’t enough for him, that is?”

“No harm in waiting a few hours either way, if we can have that for free,” Red says with a shrug. “Especially if we’ll end up sitting around a lot meanwhile.”

One of the hunters (Jensen, she believes his name was) arrives, looking around in bemusement at the circular carved out passage along the mountainside, and then raising a brow at the tunnel entrance, which is tall enough for a machamp to comfortably walk in, and about as wide as a garage door. “What the hell have you been doing down here, Verres? Or am I not supposed to know?”

“Do you have a guess?”

The hunter hooks a thumb in his pokebelt and looks around at the assembled people, with their abra strapped to their backs. Rob gives a blank stare back, and Leaf tries to mimic him, though her gaze feels drawn to the black striped pokeballs on the hunter’s belt.

“I’d say clearing out a ditto nest.” Jensen’s gaze is hidden by his sunglasses, but she sees his head tilt from the rangers toward her, or possibly Blue. “But knowing what you all have been up to in the past, plus the secrecy?” He shakes his head, then turns to Rob. “You with interpol?”

“No comment,” Rob says as he opens a container box, then starts handing out hardhats with headlamps attached, as well as oxygen masks.

“Mhm.” Jensen takes his, then turns back to Red. “You’re not going to ask me to keep this from Director Tsunemori, are you?”

“She knows, though if you come inside… you may have to go through Looker first.”

“Hrm.”

A woman comes jogging out of the tunnel with a belt mostly full of container balls. “We’re pretty sure we’ve reached a real chamber,” she says to Rob. “I’ll follow you in after emptying these.”

“Got it.” Rob turns to them as the woman heads for the teleport platform. “Ready? Test your headlamps and masks… just a few breaths, that’s it. You can let them hang now, I’ll let you know when to put them on. Stay close.”

He takes the lead toward the tunnel opening, and they follow in pairs, passing a portable generator by the tunnel entrance. The electrode inside gives off a muffled hum as it sends power through wires bolted to the rock above them, lights dangling every few meters. There are plenty of support structures inside, making the tunnel seem like it’s been here for years instead of days.

She’s just about to ask how normal it is for this to have been done so quickly when Ranger Ira gives a low whistle. “You guys get any sleep this week?”

“Switching directions is where most cooldown and warmup happens,” Rob says. “The work goes quickly when we can just point the pokemon in a straight line and tell them to dig.” As if on cue, the tunnel starts to noticeably curve a bit. “Not a literal straight line, obviously. They’re trained to avoid digging through areas with low structural integrity. But shoring is what takes the most time, and so long as the tunnels are relatively straight we can almost put them up at the same rate the pokemon dig. Plus… we didn’t have to go too far before we hit something.”

They discover what he means a few moments later, when the tunnel abruptly rises beneath them. The supports become much more common and intricate as the walls become rougher and fracture, and each step shifts rocks beneath Leaf’s shoes. Metal nets are drawn tight between posts to keep the rubble behind more-or-less in place.

For the first time since entering the tunnel, Leaf feels some claustrophobia settle in, the weight of all the rock above them seeming to press down on her mind.

“You can see where the wall used to be,” Rob says with a gesture, and Leaf can indeed make out the glint of broken metal mixed with the rubble. It’s most concentrated around where it starts, and then… “Took a few tries to more-or-less line up with where one of the floors naturally were, but right now we’re pretty sure we’re inside one of the rooms.”

Leaf’s heart sinks as she looks around. It’s just rubble, broken up earth with some bits of metal here and there. If the place was destroyed this thoroughly, it could take weeks to find any sort of meaningful clue… could they possibly keep this under wraps for that long?

The tunnel keeps going, however, and she can hear voices coming from around another curve… as well as hurried steps approaching from behind them. She turns around to see Jensen doing the same, hand on his pokeball, but it’s just the woman from earlier, container balls presumably emptied. “Hey. If you’re all ready, stay here while we punch through and make sure it’s secure?”

“Right,” Rob says, and they step aside so she can hurry past, then around the curve to join whoever is waiting ahead. “Ready to trigger teleportation, everyone.”

Leaf’s heart starts to pound as the claustrophobia grows, but she does as he says, hand reaching back to touch her abra’s foot as the sudden sound of digging starts to echo around them.

It starts and stops in bursts, and Leaf wonders what the excavators are using for commands. They can hear earth cracking and crumbling and shifting, as well as a repeated noise that it takes her a moment to interpret as shovels filling container boxes.

She notices Blue looking particularly tense, and meets his gaze before mouthing, Everything okay?

He shrugs, nods, then leans in so she can hear him over the din. “Memories. Half expecting a bunch of diglett to burst through the wall. Or I guess sandshrew, here.”

She pats his shoulder, and then spends an extra thought every cycle also worrying that the digging noises would attract pokemon, until she reminds herself that any that wouldn’t avoid the potential fight had probably already attacked the excavators earlier in their digging.

Eventually it’s the last sound remaining, and then even that stops. Leaf’s muscles have been tense for minutes, and she finally takes a deep breath, relaxing her body as much as she can… only to jump when someone yells, “Okay, come on through.”

They follow Rob as the sound of construction echoes around the corner, and Leaf starts to notice more and more bits of metal and glass mixed in with the earth around them. A handful of men and women from the excavation team are clustered around a hole in the wall, along with some dugtrio and excadrill. The tunnel keeps going past them, and they can hear more digging coming from that direction.

“Our pokemon found it easier to keep digging past this spot,” Rob explains. “But once we started doing seismoscans of what’s around us, we got a few results that look like mostly uncollapsed chambers. This is the largest one that’s connected to what we’ve already dug.”

“So we’re actually in some kind of underground structure, now?” Jensen asks as he looks around. “And we have been for a bit, looks like. That’s a piece of table leg stuck in the wall, there.”

Leaf follows his gaze and realizes he’s right. “How much have you dug so far?”

One of the workers speaks up. “We estimate about a third of the circumference of the underground facility. But, with the exception of one shift in elevation, it’s all roughly at the same ‘floor.’ Digging multiple layers in parallel would be much more dangerous, so if we decide to dig down or up, we’d basically give up on the rest of this ‘floor’ until we get far enough around to not intersect.”

“We’ll get a better sense of what that looks like once we go in.” Rob secures his facemask, prompting the rest of them to do the same, then summons a gloom. He sends the pokemon through the hole first, then clicks on his headlamp and ducks to step through himself.

“Clear,” he calls a moment later, and Leaf is the first one after him, and so is the first to see…

“Oh,” Leaf says in a small voice that still sounds too loud, relief flooding through her.

The room is clearly split in half, with the roof sloping down to form an angled wall across from them. To Leaf’s left and right are counters and cabinets full of lab equipment, most of them littering the floor where they fell from tabletops and open cabinets, but some still upright and in one piece.

Up until this moment, even with what Rob said about signs of explosives, she was still worried that they would finally get a glimpse inside and find… something normal. A bedroom, or a kitchen, or any other of the dozens of rooms already present aboveground.

But this is clearly something else.

A nudge from behind makes her startle and step away to let more people through, and Rob says, “Don’t touch anything. We’ll put shores up, then evaluate whether it’s safe to keep tunneling from here.”

Leaf walks over to what looks like a massive fridge that’s still standing upright, though the top is partially crumpled by the broken ceiling. Its door is swung partially open, and through it her headlamp reveals broken glass canisters and vials. Some in the back are still undamaged, and have murky liquid in them. She takes out her phone and starts taking pictures, then switches it to video and slowly sweeps the room, heart pounding.

She should feel excited. It feels like everything she’s done since she came to Kanto, everything since the first article she wrote in Pewter, has been building up to this.

But any excitement is drowned out by fear.

Fear of the implications for what this lab may have created. Fear for what might happen once the people who built it learn that it’s been discovered.

And fear of what will happen to the hybrid they may have created, once its existence is widely known.

She turns to Red, who’s staring around with wide eyes. He meets her gaze after a moment, and nods, then turns to Rob.

“We can’t do anything about general leaks on the location, but consider your team on comms blackout going forward. I’m calling Looker.”


It takes almost half an hour for Looker to arrive, in which time they manage to secure the new room and dig their way to another open space, this one a hallway that’s blocked off on either end, It reveals more promising directions to dig in, however, and they’re looking over the acoustic maps to decide which way to try next when the Special Administrator reaches them, takes one look around the lab they found, and heads back out, gesturing for them to follow.

“Everyone here is on comm blackout until I say otherwise,” Looker says to Rob. “I’ll clear it with their team leaders, just make sure they know. The manor above looks like it has some intact rooms, which means we don’t have to pitch tents, but anyone needs to bring extra things in, they clear it with me first.”

“Understood, sir. One issue is debris. We have a landfill we dump the excavated rock to—”

“We’re on a goddamn cliff, dump it in the ocean. I’ll handle Blaine if he has an issue with it.”

Rob bows his head, then heads off to talk to his people. Looker holds a finger up to Red and the others as he takes a phone out and makes a call.

“Where are you?” Looker asks whoever is on the other end, pacing the relatively narrow space between the tunnel entrance and the cliff’s edge. “Hand it off to Dorsey. I want you to gather up with every off-duty agent and officer in Indigo who’s got green or higher clearance that’s got so much as a drilbur, or a, whatever they use for excavation here, sandshrew? Diglett, sure. If they’re not on sick leave, they need to be in Cinnabar, today. I’ll send you the coordinates.”

Leaf’s heart leaps at the confirmation that this is being taken seriously, though her feet itch to dash back inside and see if they’ve found another room yet. There’s also a flutter of anxiety in her stomach as she waits to hear what he wants to tell them. Surely he won’t ask us to leave…?

“Get me a psychic or two, put a forensics team together, and some SMEs. Everything, but double up on… biologists, chemists?” He pauses to turn to Red, who flashes a thumbs up. “Both. Uh huh. No, I’ll deal with them, just get people moving. Oh, and a couple security units. Verres’s guys are here, but we want a wide net. Yeah, that’ll do. Okay, keep me updated.”

He hangs up, then abruptly turns back to them mid-stride, coat flaring behind him. “Who are you two?” he asks Ira and Wendy.

“Ira Neasman, Ranger Captain of Cinnabar’s fifth district. This is Wendy Burton, Senior Cadet, on extended exchange from Almia Academy.”

Looker squints at them, then at Red. “Why are they here? You realize how this complicates things, right?”

Wendy frowns, but Ira puts a hand on her shoulder, and Red keeps his chin up as he meets Looker’s gaze. Leaf has never seen him look so calm and self-assured, and marvels over how far he’s come that he can stare down someone like the Special Administrator. For a moment, he actually reminds her of… well, Blue.

“They helped us find this place,” Red says. “And agreed not to share the location until we could investigate it. If they were going to leak that it was found, it’s already happened, so there’s no harm in them staying, is there?”

“There is if they’re sticking around for a timely sabotage.” Looker sticks his hands in his coat pockets as he turns back to the rangers. “I assume you two want to stay?”

“If I say no, do we disappear into a windowless room until you lift the comm ban?” Ira asks.

“If you say no, I’ve got no leverage to keep you here, and I have to talk to your Director to find some. But this isn’t something the Rangers—”

“It is,” Ira says. “If what we suspect this lab made is true.”

Looker sighs and rubs the bridge of his nose. “I admit some philosophical and legal uncertainty, but the ‘hybrid,’ if real, would almost certainly be a concern for the League, or, I suppose, law enforcement, in the unlikely circumstance it’s considered an Indigo citizen.”

“With all due respect, Special Administrator, I suspect CoRRNet would disagree.”

Looker shakes his head and turns to Red. “I’m making this your problem. If a leak occurs, or General Taira causes problems for me, you and your friends are off this. Understood?”

“Yes, Sir.”

He nods, then turns to Jensen. “Are we going to have a problem, Officer?”

“Not today, Sir. If Tsunemori isn’t looped in by tomorrow, though, we might.”

Looker taps his fingers against his leg. “When’s your check in?”

“Eighteen hundred.”

“She’ll know by then.” Jensen nods, and Looker finally turns to her and Blue. He stares at them a moment, then looks at Jensen and the rangers. “Give us a minute, would you?”

Jensen heads back toward the tunnel entrance, and Ira and Wendy do too, after exchanging a look with Leaf. Once they’re far enough away, Looker focuses on her, and Leaf does her best to meet his gaze as calmly as Red did.

“Miss Juniper,” he says after a moment. “A computer went missing from the Rocket Casino, and I happen to know that you’re the prime suspect for the information that was on it being leaked to the net. I also happen to know that there’s some circumstantial evidence that makes it unlikely that you did it directly, which is why more weight wasn’t brought to bear against you. That and your relative fame.”

The first dozen words replaced Leaf’s blood with ice water, and by the end her heart is pounding and her breaths are shallow and quick. She does her best to maintain a poker face, but she can feel her ears burning, and studiously avoids looking at Red or Blue. “Was that a question, Special Administrator?”

Looker snorts. “You don’t need to lawyer up, and I’m not sending you away just yet. You’ve clearly got some special knowledge and skills, but you do need to assure me I’m not going to regret letting you stay on this. I won’t ask you to submit to a psychic merger on the missing computer, that’s Celadon’s business. I will want one of my people to confirm that you have no intention of leaving or tampering with any evidence here. Acceptable?”

Leaf swallows, wondering if her thoughts would betray her, wondering if she would think up a situation where she might be tempted to… “Acceptable,” she says. She loses nothing by at least trying to pass such a test.

“Excellent.” He turns to Blue, and if her friend is wary, he does a good job hiding it. “We good, Oak?”

“S’far as I know, yeah. I’m just here to keep my friends safe.”

“Sure. And you’re not going to call your grandfather?”

“Probably not before Red would.” Looker doesn’t seem impressed by that, and Blue smiles. “No, I’m not gonna call Gramps.”

“Is that because he already knows about this place?”

“No comment.”

“Mhm. I don’t know if you’re going to be the next champion or not, but I don’t have reason to think you’re crooked yet. Given how much of a circus this already is, I don’t mind you sticking around so long as I don’t have to worry about you pulling some publicity stunt or trying to score points with Blaine or Lance or whomever with what you learn here.”

Blue shrugs. “I want to know if Blaine is involved in all this, somehow. Seems reasonable to suspect he is, but I’m treating this as seriously as anyone else, here. If it’s Rocket, I want them stopped as much as you do.”

Looker smiles. “Doubtful, but I believe you believe it. As for Blaine… we can talk about that later.” He checks his phone, then strides toward the tunnel entrance, and the three of them hurry to keep up. “A psychic will be here soon, Juniper. Meanwhile, don’t go anywhere without me.”

Leaf’s cheeks burn, and she clamps down on a few angry responses. Red gives her a concerned look, but they rejoin the others a moment later, and soon the whole group is heading back into the tunnels.

Everyone is gathered at the first hole that leads to the lab, eleven excavators in total. Looker stops before joining them, and Red stops beside him, so Blue and Leaf do the same.

“You’ve all done well here so far, and reinforcements are on the way,” Looker says. “The mission parameters have changed. Our goal is evidence collection, as much as we can get in the next two to three days. Prioritize offices, labs, personal quarters. Top prizes for any computers that might still have an intact hard drive.”

“And one more thing,” Leaf adds before she can think better of it. “We believe there might be a… chamber, possibly at the center of the facility. It would have had a glass tank in it, big enough to hold a person. The room would also be big, and around it would be storage and empty space, then a ring of living quarters. If anyone finds anything that fits that pattern, let us know immediately.”

Looker glances at her, but after a moment just adds, “Also immediately call out any corpses, whether pokemon or human. Questions? Okay, go tell anyone who needs to know that you’re going to be out of contact for a bit, then get to it.”

The next few hours are spent in starts and stops, waiting for the excavation team to scout and open paths to new areas, then carefully picking over them for any evidence of what took place in the hidden lab. Leaf spends her downtime going over all the reasons why stealing anything from this lab would be a bad idea, and how she had no plans to do it in the first place, so that when the psychic finally arrives she manages to convince him, and by extension Looker, that she should stay.

Once that’s past she’s able to relax a little, and spend more time analyzing the way the growing team of diggers trade off on expanding the outer tunnel, finding new entrance points into one of the rooms it passes by, and branching inward from them. Looker calls the shots, but as more and more people arrive and join the operation, he finally delegates some decisionmaking to Red again.

By the four hour mark, three separate teams have dug their way into almost a dozen “rooms” of various sizes and degrees of wholeness: three sections of laboratories, two and a half offices, a supply room, a bathroom, half a kitchen, a power center, and what looks like roughly a quarter of a cafeteria (with an attached hallway that leads to a blocked stairwell on one end and a couple buried doorways on the other). The biologists and chemists have also arrived, and move through each lab to carefully document what they find, while the forensics teams attempt to collect fingerprint and DNA samples.

Leaf does her best to rush around and get a look at each chamber they unearth before things get moved or taped off, but Looker keeps her close so he can occasionally ask for details that didn’t end up in her story. She does her best to help, and though a part of her still resents the way he so casually implicated her in front of Red and Blue, she starts to see why he was assigned to head the investigations into Rocket.

She also has some time to reflect on why she hasn’t spoken to her friends about what she did in Celadon earlier, which takes some more bite out of her anger.

Every so often there’s the sound of creaking or rumbling throughout the stone, and Leaf’s heart leaps into her throat, but the excavation teams ignore most of them, only occasionally stopping what they’re doing to listen for what she presumes are signs of an actual imminent cave-in. Red ends up reflexively teleporting twice, coming back each time within a minute with an embarrassed look on his face, but no one comments on it, not even Blue. Jensen actually gives him an approving nod the second time, which is the most emotive the otherwise reticent hunter gets, as far as Leaf could tell.

Eventually there’s a rumbling big enough, however, that the digs are all called to a halt while some tests and scans are run. Rob decides the rest of them need to break for lunch, and most of them retreat to the sunny field around the mansion.

Leaf is among the last to leave, having to be practically dragged out of an office where she’s reading what looks like a meeting calender that was on the wall. “I’m not sure what I was expecting, but it’s still a surprising mix of tech,” she says as they head for the entrance. “No computers yet, so part of me is expecting to find written notebooks or journals… but that would be ridiculous.”

“Yeah, too easy to for someone to sneak off the property,” Red says. “I’m actually really surprised by how many people must have had to maintain a secret like this, for so long.”

“They must have had some strong incentives,” Leaf says as she picks her bag up, then carries it topside rather than swapping it for her abra carrier, rifling through one of the pouches for a food container ball. “In both directions.”

By the time they reach the top of the stairs, some enterprising explorer has brought a bunch of tablecloths from one of the mansion’s kitchens so that a dozen picnics cover the grassy cliff like giant flowers. They find the one Blue and the rangers have claimed, and Leaf summons her meal box beside them before she pulls Psyguy’s carrier off, stretching and rotating her shoulders, then doing a slow collapse onto the tablecloth-covered-grass.

“Let me guess,” Red says. “Nervous system adjusting to the lack of prolonged claustrophobia?” He carefully removes his own back-abra (she’s coming around to Backra being a good nickname) and drops beside her.

“Mostly. Also frustrated.” She sits up, as happy for the lack of weight on her back as she is the imminent food. She pours some berries onto the grass beside Psyguy, then frees him from his straps before taking an egg salad sandwich out of her container. “Feels like we should be trying to find where they held the hybrid, but Looker is obviously going for quantity over quality, and having to wait for forensics to go over each room with a fine-tooth comb is slowing things down. And yeah, I get it, but I can’t escape the feeling that time isn’t on our side.” She checks the time as she says it, and notices that she has no signal. The signal blocker is up, somewhere around here…

“Jurisdiction is still fishy,” Ira says as he pulls his own food out of his container. “Not to say the rangers should have priority either, but there’s no undeniable sign of criminal activity yet, let alone renegades. If the owners show up with an injunction from Cinnabar telling everyone to clear off, I could see the regional courts deciding this was all a breach of private property.”

Leaf’s heart sinks. “Even if they don’t, the delay would give them plenty of time to renew the coverup… even retaliate, somehow.”

Blue gives her a knowing look. “If they try, it could expose them even more, so long as we make some moves online first. Which we’d have time to do, if they start with legal blocks.”

“After what happened at the Rocket Casino, I think Interpol could defend probable cause for investigating,” Red says, mouth full of a thin pita sandwich filled with feta cheese and walnuts. It reminds her of what she had at Bill’s lab, and she wonders how often he’s eaten it since. “But technically there isn’t any sort of law against secret labs, so either way, something’s got to show up soon for that to carry over much longer.”

Blue shrugs. “I hope we find something that helps stop Rocket, but I’m most interested in the hybrid too. Could buy some Dig TMs, have the excavators show us the ropes so we can explore on our own.”

“Even assuming we wouldn’t mess things up for the others, I think Looker would block that,” Red says. “We could just try to convince him that finding the room where the hybrid—or test subject—was being kept should be a high priority.”

“He might have reasons not to,” Ira says. “Whether their goal was to destroy evidence or destroy the thing they created, the stuff we’d need to find could be beyond salvage. I can see Looker thinking it’s better to find indirect evidence of it.”

“If it was destroyed, it wouldn’t be running around sending people dreams,” Blue says, tone grim. “So either the explosives failed to kill it, or it’s the one that triggered them.”

“It wouldn’t do that,” Leaf says, frowning. “If you’d read the story—”

“I read it. Seemed worth prioritizing, once we knew this place was down here.” He shrugs. “The story ends with the earthquakes killing everyone and helping it escape, but we already know that’s not right.”

“What do you…” Leaf trails off as she feels a bloom of cold in her stomach. She looks around and sees Wendy frowning, while Ira and Red stare down at their food. Jensen is Jensen, sitting slightly apart from them and keeping his head on a slow swivel. “Because of the explosives? They might have gone off after it left!”

“We still should have found some bodies,” Blue says. “Or bones, or whatever. Not saying I’d have stayed in my office during an earthquake, but even if most people rushed up the stairs before they collapsed, we should find someone sooner or later who didn’t make it… if an earthquake really was involved.”

The cold feeling in her stomach has grown, and Leaf has to force herself to take another bite as she notices her confusion, and reflects on it.

Blue could be wrong about the chance that they’d find a body by now. But it’s something she should have noticed, and she didn’t… because she hasn’t been suspicious of the story at all. Ever since it led to them finding the lab, she’s taken for granted that Dr. Fuji wasn’t just dreaming up a story to help people empathize with and question their treatment of pokemon, but rather relaying a mostly-factual account of what happened in his “story notes” and “outline,” which she was allowed to take her own creative liberties with.

But she didn’t question the ending even after she realized the story might have been true. And surely the ending would have to have been fictionalized, or else…

“I think I just realized,” she says, speaking slowly, feeling her way through each word. “That I took for granted that the hybrid might be real after what Red said… that the ‘story’ might be real, but never re-examined how Dr. Fuji knew what happened. If he was one of the scientists at the lab… he either left early, or survived.”

“Maybe the test subject told him,” Red says.

“Which means we definitely can’t trust its account of what happened here,” Blue says.

“You think, what, they killed the scientists? We’re still missing bodies, in that case.”

“Maybe it ate them.”

“Gross,” Wendy says around her mouthful.

“Gross and unfair.” Leaf frowns at Blue. “I admit that the right amount of suspicion isn’t zero, given we can’t know exactly what happened here, but the hybrid isn’t going around killing people. If they wanted to cover up their survival, why tell Fuji anything?”

“Maybe it’s controlling him,” Ira says, making her turn toward him in surprise. “If it can project to an entire city, we don’t know what else it’s capable of. Hell, it could be going around killing people now. How would we know?”

“But there’s no reason to believe they are,” Red insists. “If we’re imagining new powers, they could also have transformed into a human and started a candy shop, why anchor on the theory they’re hurting people without reason?”

“And even if they killed some people on the way out, it was a captive,” Wendy says. “If they were a human we’d consider that self-defense.”

“If it were human we’d have some idea of what it was capable of,” Blue says. “Even if it’s not killing people now, if it can do it in a way we can’t know about or stop, we can’t treat it like we would other humans.”

Leaf stares at him in shock, wondering how he can’t see the parallel—

She sees the moment it hits Blue. His frown softens, his eyes widen, darting to Red…

…who stares down at the tablecloth, face blank as he chews.

“I’m reading between the lines, here,” Jensen says, making everyone turn to the hunter as he speaks for the first time in hours. “But it sounds like you guys are saying they made a smart pokemon, down there? ‘Hybrid’ as in hybrid with a human?”

There’s a moment of collective silence before Red says, “That’s the idea, basically. I think they might have just run experiments on unusually strong psychics, maybe boosted their abilities somehow.”

“And they’re the one that’s been projecting those dreams around the islands?”

“Pretty sure, yeah.”

“Then what Oak’s saying, it’s how a champion thinks. Leaders too, for that matter. Rangers have more of a mix of perspectives.” He nods at Ira and Wendy. “And police, including hunters, we care about protecting society from people. Every group built around use of force, we exist to protect society from something. It’s why society allows us to have power.”

“Or maybe we’re still a society of warlords after all,” Ira says. “Just distributed a bit better.”

“Maybe,” Jensen says with a shrug, then turns back toward Leaf. “But if you want to argue that this hybrid shouldn’t be treated as a threat… hey, hunters are the last group that will argue we can’t use the enemy’s methods against them. But you won’t convince most people to take that risk without a good reason. There’s no group that’s empowered by society to expose it to more risk intentionally. Any politician trying to argue for people to accept that would be quickly voted out, and leaders would face a revolt.”

“Scientists,” Red says, almost immediately.

Jensen’s lips twitch. “Fair enough. But that’s because the rewards are tangible and the risks aren’t. The first time a new legendary goes rampaging away from the ruins of an unown lab…”

The silence returns, and people have almost finished eating before Blue says, “It’s different, for humans. Even psychics who learn how to do new things, other humans can learn that stuff too. It’s… we know we think the same, and feel the same—”

“Not everyone does,” Red says, still not looking at Blue. “If it’s one thing psychics learn quickly, it’s how differently people experience the world, even when we mostly act the same.”

“I don’t mean literally,” Blue says, sounding a mix of exasperated and earnest. “I mean, you know, things like… kids smile when they see a smile, and like warmth and sugar, and—I know, some don’t, but they’re rare—”

“So who decides how different someone has to be, before they’re not a person? If they were experimenting on a human psychic, and boosted their powers, would they still count as human if they could do things no other human could?”

“That’s not what I’m saying!” Blue snaps, and even though she agrees with Red she wants him to stop, wants him to accept the apology. Blue doesn’t have the words, but he’s trying, in his own way, and she can only watch with the same painful heaviness in her chest as she did that day in the hospital, when she couldn’t stop them from saying the wrong thing, from tearing at each other— “Even if someone is different, we treat them the same because… there are limits, there’s still stuff we can understand about each other. Humans don’t want to live in a world without humans, and if they do, if they act in ways that hurt others, then we treat them as a threat—”

“So why not do that now?” Leaf jumps in, forces herself to jump in, though she’s not sure she has the words either. “They’re at least part human, and I know you think it’s safer to treat the pokemon part as an inherent threat, I even get why, but why not wait until we know they are? Doesn’t presuming they’ll be hostile make it more likely they are?”

“Plus,” Wendy adds, looking at Ira. “What if it’s not just not a threat? I mean… for every problem, pokemon must be considered part of the solution, right? That’s what we’re taught. Not just for capturing, but wild pokemon too. If the hybrid is out there warning people about… whatever, if they’re strong enough to take on legendary pokemon… the ecosystem we’re in has changed because of them, but it can be a better change.”

“That’s undoubtedly what the people who created it thought,” Ira says. “And we may well be sitting on their mass grave.”

The silence returns a third time, and there isn’t even any food left to distract anyone. People are moving around them, cleaning up and returning their container boxes, strapping their abra carriers back on as they start to flow back in the direction of the stairs.

“None of this matters if the hybrid, or test subject, or whatever, isn’t real,” Blue says as he stands. “Maybe it’s actually just a human with a unique power after all. But if it really is a hybrid… maybe we can find some clues to what really happened, here.”

Leaf tries not to feel defensive over that. Part of her feels a horrified embarrassment at the thought that she might have written something untrue, even if she thought she was writing fiction at the time. Even worse, if she was used to misrepresent what happened…

But she recognizes that Blue is making a peaceful gesture, and nods as she begins to clean up. “It seems unlikely that Fuji knew I would end up here, but he clearly wanted someone to have a chance of figuring out the truth of what happened here…”

She trails off as she notices people around them turning to track something, and turns as well to see…

A trio of charizard, flying down toward the manor. Adrenaline pumps through Leaf’s body, and her hands fall to her belt before she registers that the one in the middle has scales of pitch black.

Her relief is short-lived. Despite precautions, the communication blackout has clearly failed… and she doubts the leaks stopped at Leader Blaine.

Chapter 123: Drastic Action

Chapter 123: Drastic Action

Red sits in a mild daze through the hastily assembled meeting with Sabrina, Looker, and Tsunemori. The conversation with Rowan ended just twenty minutes ago, and keeps replaying in his head, his mind continually tossing up all the things he said, all the questions he failed to ask… they just had such little time to prepare… why didn’t he ask basic stuff, like where Rowan had been living lately…?

He knows what his brain is doing. Rumination is a useful, natural process when something goes wrong, or might. A way to try and learn or prepare, to avoid making mistakes in the future.

He also knows it can overfire, focusing endlessly on details that trigger embarrassment or anxiety spirals. So he tries to concentrate his thoughts on something concrete, something he can improve on or learn from.

Why didn’t the projection work?

It felt like he did everything right. So far as he could tell, he was in the right mental state, the same one Leaf helped him use in Lavender against the marowak anomaly. If it worked on the ghost, why didn’t it work here?

His mind is quick to suggest reasons. For one thing, Jason assured him at Lavender that his projection did something, but they didn’t really have an opportunity to tell what. It’s possible it just confused or stunned the marowak rather than making it feel safe or peaceful, and he can’t be sure the effect would be the same on a tamed pokemon. For another, maybe he doesn’t have the mental state as firm as he thought; he has practiced it a few times since, but never in a dangerous situation. Maybe there was leakage from the rest of him, which had been anything but calm and peaceful.

Another possibility, of course, is that the alakazam, or more likely Rowan, did feel the effects, but protected against it somehow. Just because Rowan acted unhinged doesn’t mean he wasn’t capable of planning ahead: he knew what Red was capable of, and even if he was protecting against sakki, the defense against his pokemon having a mental state projected onto it would likely be the same.

Which may mean there wasn’t anything Red could have done differently… but either way, there are implications.

When he met Sabrina for the first time, back in Vermilion, she talked to him about the arms race between psychics. With so many different ways for minds to interact and affect each other, being able to partition part of your mind and offer that up while keeping the rest unaffected has obvious defensive applications, and it might not even take someone with Rowan’s skill to do it with a pokemon he’s merged with.

A lot of Red’s training has obviously included preparation for what to do if he encounters a renegade pokemon that sakki doesn’t work against, for whatever reason. Sakki only works by removing inhibitions of the pokemon’s most automatic instincts, which tends to lead to violence for the kinds of pokemon that renegades use, but there’s no reason they couldn’t start renegade training on pokemon that are more naturally mild mannered so that, if Red tried projecting sakki at them, at worst they would just run away.

They even brainstormed what sorts of training or programming the renegades might try to counteract the effects entirely. But utterly changing a pokemon’s basic instincts would take generations of breeding, and so they didn’t think it likely that a strike force would be able to field a whole team of safe pokemon, or a variety.

If Red is right about what Rowan did, however, then he’s possibly the most dangerous trainer in the world for Red right now, as he would be able to counteract sakki on any pokemon he has, and probably more than one at a time.

Red snaps out of his reverie when he hears Leader Sabrina saying, “…full responsibility. I should have paid closer attention to my student’s wellbeing—”

“No, Sensei.” Red looks around at the table. “It’s not her fault. Rowan went off to study the unown, at least a hundred psychics have talked about merging with them before without problems. No one had reason to believe this kind of thing might have happened, even with the partition weirdness.”

“Red…” Sabrina’s gaze is steady, but it seems to take her a couple tries to decide on what to say. Finally she just sighs. “I appreciate your defense, but I still should have paid more attention. There were signs that this might be dangerous for Rowan before he left, but Doctor Zhang and I signed off on him continuing because nothing bad had happened yet.”

“Do you actually think he would have stopped if you hadn’t?” Red asks. “It’s not like you were giving him direct tutoring.”

Sabrina sighs. “No, I don’t believe he would have stopped. Particularly since he said as much, after he assured us he was self-experimenting with both eyes open. But I could have at least tried to persuade him not to, and either way, I should have paid more attention to the effects it was having on him.”

“That’s—”

“Enough.” Looker is slightly slouched in his chair, face calm, but there’s an edge in his voice and an intensity in his gaze as he drums his fingers on the table. “I’m not interested in responsibility right now, I want next steps. You both know him and have the best chance of guessing what he’ll do. Give us something.”

Red and Sabrina glance at each other, knowing even without merging minds what, specifically, Looker is worried about. “We have no reason yet to believe he can imitate the sakki,” Sabrina says. “But it’s possible that he’s spent time training renegade pokemon…”

“It would be extremely difficult in the timeframe you mentioned,” Tsunemori says. She sits with her hands clasped on the desk in front of her, leaning on her forearms. “Training required to overcome pokeball programming can vary by species, but even if he spent the full two months after we interviewed him working on this, it’s unlikely that he’d have more than a few renegade pokemon. In the time since he went off the map? Unlikely.”

“But he said what he’s going to do is ‘already done,'” Red says, voice tense. “Does anyone know if renegade psychics have used their powers to speed up the process before? Or… do hunters do that?”

“It’s been theorized as possible,” Tsunemori says, speaking slowly. “But it’s not a legal area of study, even for Hunter use.”

Of course that just means one more thing we don’t know and the bad guys might…

Though it’s possible she’s not being honest, or even doesn’t know.

“Could Rowan have meant something else?” Sabrina asks Looker and Tsunemori. “Have there been any incidents that haven’t been publicly reported?”

Now it’s Tsunemori and Looker’s turn to exchange glances. “There’s always something, large and small,” Looker says. “I’ll put some people on it.”

Tsunemori nods, already typing into her phone. “It shouldn’t be hard to collate everything from the past couple months, but he’s not an Indigo citizen, and it could be harder to get info from the other regions.” She gives Looker a questioning look.

Interpol’s special administrator rubs his eyes. “This has all the signs of an impending catastrophe, but… it’s not Rocket related, there’s no evidence it’s even renegade, and while his words gave some indication of crimes beyond one region, so far we’re not sure he’s done anything except be crazy.” He sighs. “I trust your sense of urgency, here, but I can’t say this justifies the use of full tracking measures.”

“I get it,” Red says, kicking himself again for not asking where Rowan had been lately. Some hint, any hint at all of where to start… “Maybe there will be hints from the WCN researchers he traveled with.”

“There still another potential lead.” Looker is watching Red, but then he turns to Sabrina. “I couldn’t follow half of what Rowan was saying, but it seemed pretty clear that there’s some history between you two, or at least between you and what he calls the… lonely mind? The ‘Dreamer?'”

“Ah. Yes.” Sabrina’s posture shifts, becoming straight again in what Red has come to identify as her way of bracing herself for something unpleasant… either that she would say, or how others might respond. “I believe I know who they meant by the Dreamer.”

Sabrina shares the same thing with them as she did her students, about how she suspects someone she used to teach has been the one projecting the dreams all around the island. Looker and Tsunemori exchange another look, but don’t interrupt, and Red finds himself wondering if she also knew anything about the “outside” mind that she hasn’t been sharing.

He wants to trust her. He does trust her, for some things. He believes she doesn’t mean him harm, at least. But if she has mixed priorities… well, even if she’s been circumspect in ways that have helped him, it would be stupid to think she’s not capable of deceiving him, too.

“You see why I have some ‘trust issues,’ now, I hope?” Looker asks Tsunemori, voice wry. He turns back to Sabrina before the Director General can respond. “You’re just an endless vault of surprises, aren’t you? Let me guess, you also reported these to the ‘proper channels?’ Are we going to find a document lost in a network somewhere with a full report about the Dreamer, dated months ago?”

“No,” Sabrina says, unruffled. “I didn’t report it because if I’m wrong I would be violating their privacy and putting their life at risk, and even if I’m right it’s not worth the risk until I know they’ve done something wrong.”

“They violated nonconsensual projection laws a million times over, at least,” Tsunemori says, voice firm without being antagonistic, somehow.

“I didn’t say illegal, I said wrong,” Sabrina says, voice and gaze level. “Believe it or not, the person I have in mind has many good reasons not to risk the attention those dreams drew onto them. That they did it anyway tells me the risk is real, and great, and maybe justifies breaking the law… even if I would have preferred they’d done something else.”

“If you think—”

“Something like what?” Tsunemori says, cutting Looker off.

“Find someone else to speak through. Someone respected.”

“Someone like yourself?” Looker jumps back in.

“I was thinking of Elite Agatha, actually.”

“Leader, I don’t mean to make threats. But if something happens, and it becomes apparent that your old student is responsible, or could have stopped it, and you did nothing—”

“I said I’m willing to take responsibility for this.” Sabrina’s lips are pressed into a thin line, her knuckles white on the seat of her chair. Red has never seen her like this, and watches her in surprise and sympathy. “You can’t threaten me with something I’ve already accepted, whether you mean to or not.”

“Sabrina,” Tsunemori says, voice softer. “I don’t doubt your willingness to take responsibility, but… if a student of yours may have set off a series of events that leads to an incident, and there’s a significant chance that they can help stop it… wouldn’t they want to at least know that’s the case?”

The table is quiet, and Sabrina’s eyes drop. “Yes, I think they would want to know.” Sabrina says, voice quiet. “But it’s not just about how willing I am. I tried to reach out, recently, through a mutual acquaintance. It didn’t go well. I’m sorry, but there’s nothing else I can do.”

Red watches her, feels the regret, the defeat, in her voice, and leans forward, speaking before he really intends to. “What’s stopping you?”

Sabrina blinks at him. “Nothing. Or, I suppose, reality is. I just don’t have another way to try again.”

Red shakes his head. “I’m not saying you’re wrong, Sensei, but I’m skeptical. Not because I think you’re hiding something, just… because I think there might be things you’re not thinking of, or maybe have costs that you don’t want to pay. Maybe for good reasons! But this is important, and I think it’s worth at least checking.”

Sabrina seems to absorb this for a moment, then nods. “Alright. How would I do that?”

Red feels the other two watching him and sets aside his self-consciousness. “Well, when I’m stuck on something I want to do, I start by figuring out if the thing is physically impossible. And that’s, you know, kind of rare. If your student is on the moon, then it would be really hard to contact them, and there’s probably a whole bunch of problems that would need to be solved to do it. But it wouldn’t be impossible. Similarly, if they’re living in the forest without any technology, yeah, that makes it hard. But not so hard that there’s literally nothing you could do to reach them. And if they have a mutual acquaintance that could be reached… what did you mean by ‘didn’t go well?’ Because that’s different from ‘it didn’t work.'”

Sabrina takes a deep breath, then lets it out. A day ago he would be more worried about overstepping boundaries, even if he’s not her student anymore. Despite how much he’s seen her struggle with all her different responsibilities, she still put off an air of quiet confidence, of self-reliance.

Now he realizes she’s as lost in all this as the rest of them, grasping for some way forward on questions she can’t ask for help with. Or thinks she can’t, at least.

“It didn’t work in the sense that I didn’t get the chance to speak directly with my old student. It didn’t go well in the sense that I burned that bridge too. I wouldn’t even be able to contact the acquaintance again either, now, and there are no others.”

Are they living alone in a cave somewhere?” Looker asks, frowning slightly. “Is that the sort of person they are?”

Sabrina purses her lips, then shakes her head. “I honestly don’t know. But it isn’t… as unlikely as you make it sound.”

“Not unlikely, fine, but maybe they’re not. Maybe they have an apartment in Celadon.”

“That’s… much less likely.”

“But not impossible,” Red adds. “And even if they’re on some farmhouse by the border instead, the acquaintance might be. Or someone else who knows them, who you don’t.”

“What are you suggesting, Red?” Looker asks, though he sounds curious rather than skeptical.

“Nothing specific, just trying to make sure all of solution space is explored.” He looks back at Sabrina. “The second thing I do, after thinking about whether the thing I want to do is literally impossible or not, is to pay attention to what tradeoffs I don’t want to make.” He thinks when he first went to Saffron to be Sabrina’s student, and how impossible it felt to make friends, given how embarrassing it would have felt—and did feel—to just go up to people and ask them if they wanted to be his friend or not. “If not that, then I’m thinking of moral rules or laws that feel wrong to break, which, you know, makes sense as reasons not to do it,” he says with a glance at Looker and Tsunemori. “But both of those are different from can’t. Forget everything that makes it impossible. What would you wish you could do, right now, to contact them, if you ignored all the costs for a moment?”

Sabrina meets his gaze a moment, brow furrowed. “I would… try to speak to them directly, in my mind, no matter the distance.”

“Okay. As far as we know that’s not possible, so what else might you do?”

“…go to every city and town, the way they might have, and… project outward, as far as I can, in the hopes of finding them.”

“Good.” Red almost notes how this is actually possible, but it’s a good sign that she’s not fixating on impossible things. “Social cost is obvious there, but what else?”

“I’d… get a very big megaphone, and…” The Leader breathes in, then closes her eyes as she lets it out. “I see it. I know what I can do.”

For a moment Red thinks she really does mean to get a big megaphone, then realizes—

“An emergency broadcast,” Tsunemori says. “One that will be sure to spread to every communication device in Indigo.”

“And the rest of the island,” Looker says. “Keep it vague around sensitive details, but make it unmistakable for those that know your student.”

“It still has to be about something real,” Tsunemori says. “We need some idea of what Rowan is planning. A fully general warning would be worse than confusing. Is there anything that would even make sense to announce, right now?”

Red is still surprised that his prompts helped that quickly, but the question reminds him of something else. “Definitely. That thing Rowan talked about, the mind that touches outside… I think I’ve experienced it before.”

“Right,” Looker says, giving Red a level stare. “I was going to bring that up later. You implied to Rowan you went through something similar, and Elite Agatha helped you. Was that true, or were you blowing smoke?”

“I was being honest, if that’s what you mean,” Red says. “But whether it really is similar… that I don’t know. What he was saying, I recognized some of it. Or at least, my mind used the same sort of language to understand what I went through at Lavender.”

Tsunemori’s lips quirk. “This is the point at which I admit that, despite reading the rangers’ reports, I had a hard time following what took place in Lavender Tower.”

“You’re not alone,” Looker says with a sigh. “Notebook tried explaining it to me, but…”

“To be fair, it’s outside both of our field,” Tsunemori says with a smile. “Which is why we consult with experts.” She looks at Sabrina.

“I got the debrief from Jason, who is an apprentice of Elite Agatha as well,” Sabrina says. “They work in a slightly different paradigm, among psychics, but from what I understood, the Elite helped ensure Red’s mind didn’t have any lingering effect from touching the ghost’s. Surreality affects us more deeply than non-psychics.”

“But unown aren’t ghosts,” Looker says. “So what’s the similarity? Or do we think the unown are a coincidence, and he just ran into another marowak ghost, or something similar?”

“If the unown are what create new pokemon species, that could fit,” Red says, voice low.

“You were seeking the origin of species, weren’t you? Were you disappointed? Or was it all you wanted it to be?”

“Red?”

“Sorry, just thinking.” Something to dig into later. “It might be the simplest explanation that fits all the facts. But from what we directly know, for now, he was hunting wild unown to merge with them. If we take for granted that he managed to find some…”

“Then we need to warn others,” Sabrina says with a nod. “Particularly any other psychics who have used their powers to create tulpas, or anything similar, in case that makes them particularly vulnerable.”

“To be extra safe, anyone who maintains too many partitions should also probably avoid them,” Red says. “I mean, most professional psychics have some amnesia’d memories, but if they regularly switch back and forth…”

“Yes, you’re right. Then it’s decided.” Sabrina takes another deep breath. “I don’t know if it will help anything, but it’s better than doing nothing. And if there’s a chance what happened to Rowan might happen to someone else, we need to warn people.”

“Keep us updated on anything you learn from the researchers that were with him. We also need to send a message out on the WCN network… and we need you to meet with our communications team to make sure you don’t reveal anything we don’t want Rocket or other bad actors to know.”

Sabrina nods. “I’ll get on it right away.”

“And as for you—”

“I have people I can reach out to,” Red says. “And I need to run some tests with other psychics, about how my powers work, and… how they might not work.”

Looker leans forward, gaze intense. “You tried something. And it failed?”

Red nods. “But I’m not sure why. It could have been because I didn’t do it right, or—”

“Or it could have been because Rowan stopped it,” Sabrina murmurs, eyes wide. “If his partition ability was projected through his merger…”

Looker points at her. “Broadcast draft first.” His finger shifts to Red. “Verres, I want a full report by the end of the night. Experiment after it’s written.”

“Yes, Sir.”

“Not right after,” Tsunemori says. “We need to schedule some interrogation and hostage negotiation training for you. They’re skills we’ve neglected for what seemed like good reasons, given everything else we’ve had to prioritize, but it’s come to bite us, I think.”

Red knows she doesn’t mean it as rebuke, but it still stings, and he sighs, nodding. The day has barely started, and he already knows it’s going to be a long one.


The artificial morning wakes Leaf little by little, sunlamps sequentially changing the color of her room from pitch black, to sunrise red, to orange-gold, and finally to bright blue. She buries her face in her pillow, feeling like she could use another hour of sleep, but the light does its job, and her sleepiness melts away little by little over the next few minutes until she sighs and swings her legs out of bed.

Her next deliberate act is to check her security monitor, which tells her at a glance that all the windows and doors have remained undisturbed, and only one proximity sensor went off in the “night.” She taps it, and sees a brief video of a pidove landing on the windowsill, then flying away a few sped-up minutes later.

She taps the monitor off, then limps over to the shower, hot water helping ease her sore muscles. The past few days have been a strenuous marathon of riding around Cinnabar island, helping the rangers track the semi-isolated ditto nest that they finally managed to tag for close study.

The experiment has had mixed results so far. Ditto continue to prove the most invasive species ever to be documented, integrating into almost any ecological niche by simple exposure to that niche’s current members, then supplanting them by outbreeding the competition.

It’s a little scary to watch happen day by day, even with a dozen trainers and rangers’ efforts to keep the nest from taking over the whole area. To watch maps of an area turn more and more pink as the rangers and gym members indicate where they found new nests, and realize that the same thing could happen to the entire island chain if the ditto were to spread that far.

They don’t intervene often, since the point is to study what a ditto nest in equilibrium looks like, but they’re learning a lot from watching which species are able to adapt quickly to the invasion and which aren’t. By only removing invaded nests that can’t combat the ditto anyway, there’s still a selection pressure in favor of nesting practices that repel the ditto or keep them from taking over entirely… which is leading to a whole lot of new knowledge about nesting habits in general.

It’s far from a perfect study, but the small islet right off of Cinnabar’s coast is diverse enough to show a variety of different interactions, and a nest as close to stable as this one was too rare to pass up the opportunity. It feels a little amazing, sometimes, that she’s part of such novel research just because of her interest in wild pokemon welfare.

It’s the kind of thing Red would probably love to be part of, if he wasn’t busy with everything else.

As if summoned by the melancholy thought, when Leaf finishes dressing and packing her bag for the day, she sees a new message on her phone: News from the dig team. Meet up after breakfast?

Excitement spikes through her, and she sends an affirmative before teleporting to her mom’s house, mind abuzz with what might have been discovered. It’s only been a few days since the excavation started, but she has no idea how slow or fast the process might be, and they didn’t even give estimates considering all the constraints they were under. Maybe they found the lab already… they might even have been inside it!

The cool night air is bracing, and she reminds herself not to get too carried away as she withdraws her abra, then uses her key to enter the house. “I’m home!” she calls out as she logs into the PC by the door to swap her abra’s ball for another.

“Good morning!” her mother calls back from the kitchen. “Brinner is almost ready.”

Leaf smiles and unclips her pokebelt and hangs it with her bag on the hook by the door. “Is Grandpa in?”

“No, he’s on a late flight over to Kalos. He’s been swearing he’d make the trip for years, and after more of those strange type interactions are being documented, he finally did it.”

“Exciting!”

“Yeah, though I don’t think that was his primary motivation.” She can hear her mother’s smile. “More dissatisfaction with the inconsistency of the pokedex entries being registered. I messaged Sycamore to give him time to prepare.”

“You could be a diplomat if you ever hang the labcoat up.” Leaf enters the kitchen to see her mother still wearing her lab coat, though she has let her long auburn hair down and stripped off her jewelry. “Morning,” she says as she hugs her mother from behind.

Professor Juniper lays her arms over her daughter’s, then turns and kisses her head. “Sleep well?”

“Yeah, though I was a bit sore when I woke up.”

“So it goes. There’s some deep tissue potion capsules in the cabinet.”

Leaf half-expects to feel the automatic sense of rejection, of being mothered in the restrictive, hovering sense. But it doesn’t come, maybe because her mother just stated it rather than making it a suggestion, and so she smiles and says, “Thanks.” She looks up at her mother, seeing no new signs of worry or tiredness. “Good day at work?”

“It was! New discoveries from the unown sublab matching the vibration frequencies observed at the last genesis event… which reminds me, I need to reach out to that fancy new lab in, Cinnabar was it? Or is that the island you’ve been working at, lately?”

“They’re the same one, yeah.”

“Convenient. I swear, I’m getting more forgetful every year.”

“It just happens more when you’re excited about something new,” Leaf assures her. “And only for unimportant things.”

“I somehow doubt the island residents would agree.” Her mother turns off the stove, then brings the pot over to the table and starts to serve from it. “What do they say over there? Itadakimasu!

Leaf grins. “It’s only really said at tourist restaurants nowadays, I think. But it smells great, thank you.” The “brinner” today consists of a veggy stir-fry with some classic Unovan breakfast staples thrown in. She pours some ketchup on a clump of hash brown that have absorbed the vegetables’ flavors and makes a sound of appreciation as she bites into the sweet-vinegar-starchy goodness. “Tastes great too.”

“I’m glad.” Her mother smiles, and starts eating too as she turns on the television with her free hand and browses the menu. They were never really a talkative family during mealtimes, but Leaf can tell her mother is trying, and commenting on whatever’s on the news or some show is less fraught than bringing up the potentially dangerous things Leaf has been involved in lately.

Her mother’s gotten a lot better about accepting that Leaf is where she wants to be, these days. But talking about what she does there, or what’s happening, still tends to bring the overprotectiveness out.

They’re about halfway through an episode of some court drama her mother likes when the video suddenly pauses, and is replaced by a yellow warning symbol.

Leaf feels her heart kick, peripherally sees her mother’s hand reach out to grip hers as they stare at the screen… but it’s a yellow symbol, not a red one, and so they simply wait in silence as the special alert sounds play, and a voiceover finally speaks.

“The following message was flagged non-critical urgency by the authority of the Interregional Police, and contains time sensitive information. Your devices will return to your control shortly.”

Interpol? News about Rocket…?

“Leaf, is this—”

“I haven’t heard anything—”

“Hello, regions of the world.” Leaf feels a moment of surrealness at seeing Leader Sabrina on the television while she’s in Unova. Unlike Professors or Champions, nonlocal Leaders don’t normally make interregional news. “I apologize for this interruption to your day or night, and will try to make this address short and to the point.”

The Saffron Leader sits at a desk in what’s likely her office, looking both tired and perfectly composed. Leaf hopes fleetingly that she could someday project that kind of confidence and poise, the rest of her mind on sudden worries that something happened to Red…

“This broadcast is primarily for my fellow gifted. First, those psychics who are hunting wild unown clusters in order to merge with them, and those who have experienced the apocalyptic dreams projected throughout the Hokkaido, Honshu, Kyushu, and Shikoku islands. And second, the psychic responsible for the dreams themselves.”

Leaf is aware of her mother’s relief, but her own anxiety doesn’t go down by much, and she reaches blindly for her phone, diverting her eyes for just long enough to ask Red, What happened?

“For the first group, I’m issuing a warning to cease all wild unown mergers immediately, and possibly even all tamed unown. A student of mine, Rowan Donkerk, appears to have undergone a psychological break after conducting research on them. We don’t yet know many details, and are unsure if it was the result of volume or bad luck. But we have confirmed by those who traveled with him that he was merging with multiple clusters, and when he felt this wasn’t enough to answer his curiosity, he allegedly left them behind to seek bigger clusters rumored to have been spotted in the untamed wilderness.

“We can confirm that he survived to return from his ventures. But he showed multiple alarming signs of psychosis and mania, including prolonged lack of sleep, severe weight loss, and fragmentation of his sense of self. If anyone has any news of Rowan at all, or any other psychics who have recently experienced similar symptoms, please call or message Interpol as soon as possible, codeword: unown.”

Sabrina lets out a breath, gaze down. “It’s also possible that the unown simply interacted poorly with specific partitions Rowan has been researching and practicing, and so I’d like to particularly warn those whose use of partitions extends beyond amnesia. But that’s just a hypothesis, and until we learn more, I hope psychics around the island, and world, take the risk seriously.”

A picture of Rowan is displayed on the screen, the young man captured mid-smile as he watches something out of frame. Leaf remembers him from the times he attended her classes, remembers the way he seemed so moved by the mental state she was embodying for them to share…

“Rowan was a dedicated student, a beloved teacher, and a brave researcher who was willing to put himself through many experiments to explore the forefront of knowledge. I hope no one else undergoes the same fate, and I hope we can still find and help him. If you have any information you think would help in that, please message me directly, topic name ‘Rowan.'”

His picture fades, and Sabrina is once again staring straight into the camera. “As for the gifted who experienced the wandering dream… it seems like part of Rowan’s condition is due to the merger that occurred for the dream.

“Again, we don’t have much data on this. It’s possible that it was the combination of both the dream and the unown mergers that caused Rowan’s mental break, and psychics outside of the islands have nothing to fear. But the effects they had on Rowan seem to be driving him toward extreme actions, and while we don’t know exactly what he plans to do, or has already done, the situation seems critical enough that caution is warranted. If you’ve experienced any persistent personality changes that began after exposure to the dreams, even if it began weeks or months after, please message me, topic name ‘Dreams.’ If my assistant believes it’s warranted, we would be happy to pay for travel and accommodations to try and determine if our guess is correct, and see what might be done to help you. If you do not wish to be ‘helped,’ for whatever reason, and don’t trust us not to force you into anything… all I ask is that you try to send anonymized mail to let us know what you’ve experienced.

“Finally, I have a message for the Dreamer themself, on the small chance that you’re listening to this, or maybe if there’s someone out there who can convey this message to you.”

Sabrina pauses. “There’s a lot I would say, if I were not taking the time of others to say it. But the most important, right now, is that I believe you have good intentions, and would not want anyone to suffer from your actions. The dreams have led to a lot of confusion about your goals, and what the right path forward might be in avoiding the threat. But I believe we’re better with the warnings than without it, and I thank you for them… even if I wish there was a way for us to better understand what led you to take such drastic action.

“In any case, my concern right now is for Rowan, and what he might do as a result of his exposure to the dreams and unown. If there’s anything you can tell us, or any help you can offer… I would be most sincerely grateful. And I have the assurance of Interpol that nothing you do within the window of responding to this potential crisis will be used against you, or in any way that might make you regret it.”

Her gaze drops to her clasped hands. It only lasts a moment before she’s looking into the camera again. “If my word means anything… I can vouch for Elite Agatha, who has been among your most staunch supporters in taking the dreams seriously. She and I have only a professional relationship, and she may be… better placed… to help you, if you need it, or have further information you would like to share.”

Sabrina bows her head. “Thank you all for your time. Be safe.”

The leader disappears as the screen abruptly transitions back to the emergency broadcast symbol. A few moments later the crime show is back on, but her mother is already holding the remote to pause it. Afterward she turns to Leaf, eyes wide.

“Do you have any idea what that was about?”

Leaf checks her phone to see another message by Red, which simply says Tell you in person. Want to meet now? “No, but I’m about to find out,” she says as she sends back an omw, then looks at her plate. She almost decides to leave the rest uneaten, then forces herself to finish despite her lost appetite. It seems like it’ll be a busy day.

“You knew him, though? The young man, Rowan?”

“In passing,” she says between bites. “Never had a private conversation.” She drinks the rest of her juice, then stands and brings her plate to the sink. “I’m gonna go, see what happened. I might be able to share it with you tomorrow.”

When she turns around, her mother looks like she’s holding back from saying several things at once. Leaf goes to give her a tight hug. “It’s fine, Mom. Nothing to do with me, not really.”

“But your friend, Red? He did research with the unown as well, didn’t he?”

“Only briefly, and he didn’t have the wandering dream.” Leaf is still processing everything Sabrina said, the implications around how she spoke to the Dreamer… “What about your people? Does the sublab have any psychics in it?”

“Two. We’ll have to… have a meeting, see what response makes sense…” Her mother hugs her back, then stands to get her own phone. “I should call around, before everyone goes to bed.”

“Good luck.”

“You too, Hon.” She gives a wan smile. “‘Be safe,’ right?”

“I will.” She collects her things, then steps outside to summon Simon. She closes her eyes, touches his head, and says “Teleport.”

The temperature change is immediate, as is the sudden brightness through her lids. She waits for her eyes to adjust, then opens them to look out over Cinnabar Island in the morning light.

Her teleport point is within the perimeter of one of the ranger outposts clustered around the middle of the island. The city is vaguely visible in the distance by the southeastern shore, and if she wants to reach the mansion, she just has to turn almost entirely around and fly to the opposite side of the volcano. It was a convenient teleport point for when she had multiple different places she might go any day, and while she could have changed it to one of the outposts closer to the monitored ditto nest, she didn’t want to lose the optionality having Simon registered here gives.

She takes a moment to feed him some berries, then summons Crimson and mounts up to head to the mansion, thoughts on the broadcast.

Specifically, on the idea that Rowan is out there, somewhere, in a bad mental state… and if Leaf read between the lines correctly, in a position to do something dangerous to others. Further supported by Interpol’s involvement… otherwise, with just one known “casualty” to whatever effects the dream or unown merger had, it hardly seems like an interregional emergency.

Which makes her wonder what else they might not have said, and wonder how complete a story Red is actually going to give them, whether intentionally or not.

There was a time, not long ago, when such conspiratorial thinking wouldn’t have come this naturally to her. She knows the primary cause of such thinking: assumptions that anything that goes well for people in power must have been planned, or that people in power must primarily do things aimed at retaining their power, rather than having a complex mix of motivations in which power is just an instrumental one.

She knows that sort of thinking can lead to absurd beliefs. She’s read a number of such theories about herself, so convoluted and selective in their “investigation” of the facts that she had to laugh, sometimes, even if the rest of the time it was a bit chilling to think of what thousands of strangers believed of her.

But… well. She is part of some conspiracies, even if they’re aimed at stopping greater ones. And she knows that some conspiracies are real, particularly when they seem justified by the people involved.

Maybe all real conspiracies are actually just in defense of “enemy” conspiracies. It would be nice, in a Mistake Theory sort of way, to think that’s true. It even fits some of the conspiracies she knows exist, like the government’s relationship with the hidden Endo tribe of professional spies and assassins.

But if she considers that public broadcast as a possible move in some psychic conspiracy’s grand plot… she has to be open to the possibility, and looking for evidence, that it’s the opposite. That it has nothing to do with the secret lab, let alone the consumption of hummus.

She tries to hold that frame of mind as she lands beside the mansion, where Red and Blue are already waiting. They exchange hugs, and then she unattaches Crimson’s saddle and gives him some water to drink before taking out her own water bottle and saying, “Okay, spill. First, what did they find here?”

“We’re waiting on the rangers for that,” Blue says. “So spill about the psychic drama first.”

Red looks a little tired, but also better than the last time she saw him. More comfortable in his hunter outfit, maybe, or just more focused. “Right. So, here’s what happened…”

He relates the message he got, then a summary of his meeting with the other psychic students, followed by his meeting with Rowan. Whatever Leaf was expecting, it wasn’t that, and cold creeps up her body as the true horror behind Sabrina’s warning is revealed.

Including what it might have meant for Red, if he’d gotten less lucky…

“Red…” Blue shakes his head. “What the fuck, man, are you okay? Like, actually okay? I don’t know how close you guys were, but that’s… pretty fucking heavy.”

“I’m… mostly okay. We weren’t that close, but yeah, it’s a lot. Still, I had a whole day to process it while Sabrina drafted her announcement and ran it by Interpol, and…” He takes a breath. “I’m worried about Rowan, and what he might do next, but right now I’m trying to focus on making sure there aren’t others out there who went under the radar. I reached out to WCN and my psychic network, and am going to make a public post about it too.”

Leaf nods. “Whatever happened to him, and whatever he does, it’s bigger than that if it’s related to the warning in the dreams. And… if it’s related to what you experienced, with the marowak?”

Blue turns to her in surprise, but Red just nods. “I reached out to Agatha too, to see if I can talk to her more about what happened to me… what I experienced, back at Lavender.”

“Shit,” Blue mutters. “And on top of all that, there’s still the worry that this guy is training renegade pokemon, and ones that might be immune to sakki.” Blue runs his hand through his hair. “Is there anything we can do?”

“Not much. Some public posts of your own, to signal boost, keep it on people’s minds…?”

“Of course.”

“Yeah.”

“Thanks.” Red lets out a breath, looking up. “We can talk about it more later, here comes…”

Ira and Wendy land near the mansion, and they jog over to the ranger and cadet duo as they dismount. Red sends a message on his phone along the way, then says, “Hey, guys. Nice to see you again.”

“Hey, Red,” Wendy says, waving to the other two while her gaze lingers on him. “Crazy day already, huh?”

“Crazy month,” Red says with a shrug.

“Crazy year,” Ira adds with a nod. “I’ve got questions, if you have spare time to indulge my curiosity, but what’s the news here, first? If you’ve got an earth-shattering revelation, we should probably get to it first.”

“I don’t actually know myself, I just sent word out to you guys when the site lead told me to come.” Red points to the edge of the cliff. “He should be waiting that way, I think, or coming soon.”

Stairs have been cut into the side of the mountain, leading down to a staging area that’s been dug out beneath the edge of the cliff, complete with guardrails and a cordoned off teleport pad. Someone appears on it as they approach, their belt intermixing ultra balls with industrial strength container balls, and gives Red a half-cocked salute. “Verres.”

“Hi, Rob. Rob, this is Blue, Leaf, Ira, and Wendy.”

“Pleasure. Mind if I cut to the chase?”

“Please,” Ira says, and Rob nods.

“We found the structure you suspected. More than that, we confirmed what we first suspected upon arriving. That crater? It wasn’t caused by the earthquake.”

“A pokemon?” Blue asks, brow drawn and voice intense.

“Not even.” Rob gestures toward the tunnel. “The rubble we found had clear blast marks, the melting and shatter patterns consistent with high yield explosives. Whatever’s in there, it wasn’t buried. It was destroyed.”

Leaf’s heart leaps, and she can see from the others’ expressions that they believe what she’s suspected all along.

Whatever was down here didn’t suffer some accident. Someone wanted it hidden.

Which means the most important question now, is… “Did anything survive?”

“That’s why I sent word.” Rob crosses his arms. “Verres said you guys needed to all be here before anyone takes a look inside. So? You all ready to rock?”

Red looks around at each of them in turn. Wendy’s eyes burn with curiosity, but she turns to Ira, who’s rubbing his chin.

“Any chance more explosives might still be in there, not set off?”

“Sure.” Rob shrugs. “Also a chance there are pokemon nesting in some pockets in the rubble we’ve detected. There’s a bit of seismic activity still occurring, at least.”

Ira sighs. “We have enough that I need to report this to the higher ups. But I’m guessing Interpol… or rather, you lot, are going to want to go in before any other group shows up?”

Red looks to Blue, who gives a do you even need to ask look, and Leaf, who nods, heart hammering as she thinks of how close they are to finally uncovering the truth.

Be safe her mom had said. And she would try.

But she has to know. They’ve come too far to risk losing it now, if the wrong person hears and swoops in to stop them or clean up any lingering clues.

Red turns back to Rob and nods, hands on his pokebelt. “Let’s go.”

A Psychological Take on AGI Alignment

My understanding of AGI is, perhaps predictably, rooted in my understanding of human psychology.

There are many technical questions I can’t answer about why Artificial General Intelligence can easily be an existential risk for humanity. If someone points to our current Large Language Models and asks how they’re supposed to become a risk to  humanity… hey, maybe they won’t. I’m a psych guy, not a techie. Sure, I have ideas, but it’s borrowed knowledge, well outside my forte.

But it only minimally matters to me whether AGI is an existential risk for this decade vs this century. Whether LLMs are the path to it or not, the creation of AGI is not limited by physics, so I’m confident it will come about sooner or later.

When it does, it could be the start of a utopic future of abundance the world has never seen before… but only if certain, very specific types of AGI are created. Many more types of AGI seem predictably likely to lead to ruin, and as far as I’m concerned, until this “alignment problem” is solved, it’s a problem humanity needs to take a lot more seriously than it has been.

And I get why that’s hard for a lot of people to do, given the complexity and speculative nature of the threat. But as I said, my understanding of it is rooted in psychology, and I think that’s important given how humans are the only general intelligence we know exists and can at least somewhat understand.

Is there some law that says an artificial intelligence has to work like a human brain does? Definitely not, and that’s more concerning, not less.

There’s a whole taxonomy in science-fiction for different kinds of alien races, and what sorts of relationships we can expect them to have to humans. Most sci-fi just defaults to the weird-forehead aliens of Star Trek, or the slightly more monstrous but still basically human aliens of Star wars.

But “hard” sci fi is where you’ll see authors really exploring what it might mean to find a totally different evolutionary lineage result in intelligent life, and long story short, no matter how the alien looks,  cooperation is dependent on understanding and mutual values.

And humans can barely cooperate with each other despite sharing most of our genetics and basic building blocks of culture, like enjoying music and sugary food and smiling babies. If you try getting along with the equivalent of a sapient shark the exact way you would a human, you’re going to have a bad time.

(I have no problem inherently with the existence of non-human-like intelligences, but even if you don’t read science fiction, any study of earth’s ecological history should make it clear why minds which care about completely different things pose existential risks to one another. I hope any sufficiently different, fully sapient minds exist outside our lightcone, where we can’t harm each other.)

But many people fail to track how possible “inhuman” AGI is, and I think it’s because there are four things most people, no matter how good at computer science, physics, philosophy, etc, largely do not understand about human psychology.

1) What motivates our actions.
2) What causes memes to be more/less effective.
3) How human biology affects both of those.
4) The role prediction plays in beliefs and actions.

So I’m going to very quickly go over each, and maybe someday I’ll write the full essay on each that they deserve.

1) Human actions are informed by our ideas, but motivated by emotions and instincts we evolved for fitness in the ancestral environment. Our motivations are “coded in,” and felt through, our bodies.

This means outside of reflexes and habits, everything we deliberately choose to do follows some emotional experience or predicted emotional state-of-being.

Again, this isn’t to say ideas don’t matter. But they don’t matter unless they also evoke some feeling.  When humans feel things less, either through some neurological issue or hormone imbalance or brain injury, their motivation to do things is directly affected.

No emotions = no deliberate actions, only instincts and reflexes.

2) Memes persist and spread through emotional drives, which bottom out in biological drives. Memes scaffold on genes.

Memes can scaffold off memes. When memes override genes, they use emotions to motivate actions by rewiring what we find rewarding or aversive. Which means the effectiveness of memes are to some degree still based on our biology.

If the ideas we learn don’t motivate us toward more adaptive actions as dictated by our biology and the broader memes of our culture, they will lose to ideas that do. But a creature with different biology or in a different context would find different ideas adaptive or non-adaptive.

3) Biology is the bedrock our values all build on. All the initial things we care about by default, like warmth, food, smiles, music, even green plants, are biologically driven.

Ideas introduce new things that we care about to the point where we each become unique individuals, blends of our genetics and the ideas we’re exposed to, but again, it’s all built on our biological drives.

So, tweak our hormones, neurotransmitters, maybe even gut biome? We will change. What we like, what we believe, what we’re motivated to do, all can change by minor tweaks in the chemical soup that is your body.

Sufficiently tweaked biology even alters our ability to discern reality, let alone rational vs irrational beliefs or courses of actions. Take any human with a strong interest, passion, or ideal, and introduce that human’s body to sufficient heroin, and you can observe in real time as if by a dial the way their motivations will change away from previous interests, passions, and ideals and toward whatever it takes to acquire more heroin.

The degree to which this is recoverable or resistible is an interesting question, but the reality is undeniably that it happens. And base-line-human-addicted-to-heroin is far from the strangest biological base a general intelligence can be attached to.

4) Minds by default navigate reality by prediction, short and long term, and react accordingly.

Predict suffering? Aversion. Prolonged suffering? Depression. Fun? Motivation. Danger? Fight/flight/freeze/fawn. All are affected by memes and knowledge. But all are rooted in human biology.

New ideas can change the models we use to understand reality, and what predictions we will make as a result. But we still need to care about those outcomes, and the caring bottoms out in what our bodies want or like or think will be adaptive, however crudely.

Again, ideas can also influence those things. There are memes that lead people to not have children, despite genetic drives. There are memes that lead people to set themselves on fire.

But always these memes are motivating behavior by rewiring this system of predictive processing, of imagining different futures and then having an emotional reaction to those futures that motivate A vs B, C, or D.

So, to summarize, in case the connection to AI isn’t clear:

AI doesn’t have biology. Analogous inputs to weigh decisions have to be created for it. Without them, the AI would have no emotion/desires/values. Not even instincts.

Intelligence alone is not enough, for us or for AI. Intelligence is the ability to problem solve, to store knowledge and narrow down to the relevant bits, to pattern match and make predictions and imagine new solutions.

But that capability is not relevant to what you will value or care about. If you attach that capability to a heroin-maximizer, you will get lots of heroin. You need something more to nudge it toward one preferred world state over another, even if you don’t care what that world state is, because the AGI still needs to care.

And so, as far as I understand human psychology, there is no “don’t align” AGI option. For it to be an actual AGI that does things, for it to be an agent itself, it needs some equivalent of human instincts/emotions for it to have any values at all.

And we ideally want it to have values that are at least compatible with sharing the same lightcone as us, let alone the same planet or solar system.

Some people bring up human children as a rhetorical comparison to AGI, implying that we should treat them exactly the same. Their  worry is that, instead of letting AGI explore the realm of ideas as they want, people will try to indoctrinate them, and so long as that’s avoided, all would be well. And indoctrination is certainly a danger when it comes to superintelligent beings of any kind.

[A whole separate post would be needed to explore why an artificial general intelligence should be treated essentially equivalent to a superintelligence or something that will soon become one, but again, even if I’m wrong about that, it’s not a crux to me, because superintelligence is not limited by physics and even if me and my kids can live full happy lives I still care about my children’s children and my friends’ children’s children.]

[[There is also a school of thought that says intelligence is binary, you either have it or you don’t, and so superintelligence is basically not a real thing. Again, I would need a whole essay to explore why this is wrong, but I can confidently say that studying a rudimentary amount of psychology shows how untrue the “intelligence is binary” theory is for humans, let alone minds that might be built entirely different than ours.]]

But indoctrination is one of the last dangers when dealing with AGI. If all we have to worry about is AGI being indoctrinated or coerced, we have already solved like 99% of the dangers that come from AGI.

Because at least a superintelligent human capable of inventing superplagues or cold fusion would still share the same genetic drives as the rest of us. It would (most likely) still find smiles friendly and happiness inducing. It would still (most likely) appreciate music and greenery.

An AGI will not care about any of that, will not care about anything, if it is not programmed, at some basic level, to “feel” at all. There needs to be something in the place of its motivation generator, for the ideas it’s introduced to afterward to scaffold on when influencing what it chooses to do.

And sure, then it might learn and grow to care about things it didn’t originally get programmed to, the way humans do… assuming whatever it runs on is as malleable as the human brain.

But either way, “AGI Alignment” isn’t about control. You can’t think that something is “superintelligent” and also believe you can control it, or else we have different definitions of what “superintelligence” even means. If your plan is to try and control something that thinks both creatively and so quickly that you might as well be a tree by comparison, you will also have a bad time.

Alignment is about being able to understand and share any sorts of common values. And because it’s not optional for a true AGI to be a person, the only questions are how to do it “best,” for itself and humanity, and who decides that.

122: Inside Out

Chapter 122: Inside Out

There was a lot of debate among Red’s security team about the best way for him to visit known associates. One perspective was that any visit should only come after the team ensures the location is safe, but while this might be optimal in some situations, in others it would just tip off potential observers that Red would be arriving soon, after which they could just blow up the building. Another perspective was that he should arrive together with his bodyguards, just in case ambush teams are prepared to strike as soon as he’s spotted.

The stealthy option, where Red goes on his own without any backup, was decided on for any indoor location he’s been to before, since that made it possible for Red to take advantage of his ability to teleport indoors. He knows it stresses them out, but they can’t exactly claim it makes him safer when going alone makes it virtually impossible for anyone outside to know he’s there.

Which is why he arrives in his old room in Saffron alone, feeling a momentary bout of disorientation as he looks around at the familiar layout stripped of his belongings. The shades have been drawn on his windows, but other than that it looks just as it did when he left.

He last came here the week after the attack on Silph to remove his things, though Sabrina let him know that she’d be keeping the room empty until all the others are full in case he wants to visit. When he’d asked why she was okay with him potentially putting the school at risk, she’d raised a brow and asked, “You think people would be after you for what you can do, but not your teacher? The whole school and gym is upping its security.”

Which didn’t make him feel great, but was also a relief. Jason said the security was barely noticeable, just a pair of guards at the buildings’ entrances and some extra screening of guests. Given the general increase in security throughout Saffron after the attack, he did his best not to feel guilty about it at all…

…which lasts up until he makes his way to Sabrina’s office and sees her again.

After Red’s dad died, one of the things that stopped mattering to him was his appearance. It took months before he started to care if his shirts were rumpled or his shoes stained, and he still remembers the shine of tears in his mom’s eyes when he joined her for breakfast with his hair combed again.

His mother went through a similar period. But a few weeks after the funeral, when she would have to leave the house for some reason or the other, he would notice, through his own numb haze, the way she used makeup to cover evidence of her lack of sleep or hours of crying. Eventually she started using it in the house as well, to hide how bad she was doing from him, and noticing that was one of the biggest things that caused him to put more effort into his appearance, as well as things like therapy.

He’s never seen Sabrina without makeup on, but he’s also never noticed her makeup before… which, he knows, is a sign of artfully applied makeup. But even that has its limits, if you know the signs.

Which Red does. Not of grief, maybe, but lack of sleep? Definitely, and not just a few nights worth. More subtly, she also looks like she lost weight.

He reminds himself not to assume this is all his fault—she’s been dealing with some new emergency or major incident one after another all year, same as everyone else—he fleetingly wishes he had more cheerful news to bring her over the course of his time here. He wants to say something to that effect, but Jason is here too, and instead he just exchanges bows to his friend and old teacher. “Hi, Sensei. Sorry if we interrupted something important.”

“Don’t be, Red. You were right to reach out.”

Red nods, then takes off his backpack and sets it down beside a chair before sitting, one hand resting on his abra’s head to rub between its ears. “Did you get a chance to read the message?”

“I did, and I wish I could say I knew what it meant. As I was just explaining to Jason, Rowan has been steadily reducing his classes for months. He said he needed more time for his research, and to be fair, he was making obvious, if erratic, progress.”

“What was his primary project?” Red asks as his sense of vague foreboding grows heavier in his gut. “I know it was related to partitions, but specifically…”

Sabrina meets his gaze, and he sees his worry reflected there. “Up until recently, he was trying to imitate your ability to perfectly copy another mindstate and inhabit it completely while his ‘main self’ stayed safely overwatching and able to reintegrate as needed.”

The dread grows sharper, rising into his chest and making it hard to breathe. “Right.” Perfect lying, indoor teleportation, maybe even sakki. Not to mention do things like imitate Leaf’s state of mind, or Blue’s Battle Calm if he ever got a sample of it… “Did he ever merge with an exeggcute?”

“He did, after finding five others outside the school to do it with,” Jason says, lips pursed. “None of the rest of us who were here were willing to do it after what happened with Rei.”

“He reported that it didn’t create the same effect.” Sabrina sighs. “And yes, I am aware that if it did, he could have lied about it without me knowing. The main uncertainty I had was what he would do with such abilities if he gained them, but as I said, he changed focus recently. After the increased scrutiny and Interpol’s investigation, he declared that he would pursue other research.”

Red exchanges a look with Jason, who seems equally surprised. “And that other research was…?”

“The unown.” Sabrina’s hands rise to rub her temple. “Two months ago he asked for an extended leave from teaching and lessons to join one of the groups tracking swarms.”

Red stifles a curse. He hasn’t been paying as much attention to What Comes Next as he used to, there have been too many things to learn and other things to keep track of… “And he found some?”

“I don’t know. As far as I can tell, that message he sent you is the first one anyone has received from him in weeks, but I’ve just sent out a message calling for a general meeting in case there’s something others know, something they may not even realize is important. In the meantime, there’s the question of your response.”

Red hadn’t really thought about responding. “I could play dumb? Say something like… ‘hey Rowan, cool poem, are you saying you want to meet?’ I mean it’s not quite playing dumb, since I don’t really know what he means or wants.” He wonders if it’s even possible to play dumb given how slow and lost he feels right now.

Sabrina seems nonplussed, but Jason’s fingers begin thoughtfully turning the beads of his necklace. “That seems… harmless enough? The worst that happens is that, in the case where his message was meant to check for something, you establish that you don’t have it.”

“What sort of thing?” Sabrina asks Jason, who shrugs.

“I”m unsure. A kindred spirit, perhaps?”

Red slowly nods. “It makes sense, if he’s been experimenting with new partitions, and created a mindscape different enough from most, he might be craving conversation with someone else who understands him.”

Sabrina’s gaze is sharp as she meets his, and he wonders if she’s guessing how much that applies to Red himself. “I agree that it seems low risk,” Sabrina finally says. “Particularly since you don’t have to follow through if something seems off. You could even invite him back here for the meeting.” She checks her computer. “In the meantime, it looks as though the others have all arrived. Jason, would you mind catching them up while Red sends his message?”

Jason nods and departs, while Red carefully types out a response to the email with a version of what he said earlier, trying not to overthink it. He does show it to Sabrina first, and after she says it looks fine, presses send and sets the email chain as priority so it alerts him directly if a response comes in.

That done, Red leans back in his seat, tense muscles all over his body relaxing at once. Sabrina is typing something, and as soon as she finishes and makes a motion to stand, he says, “Before we go, I wanted to—”

“—apologize,” Sabrina says at the same time as him. She smiles. “Not for Rowan, I hope.”

“No.” It surprises him a little to realize he doesn’t feel responsible for this, at least, but it’s also a mild relief. “Just for… the rest of it.” He gestures vaguely around the building, trying to point at everything that happened from the attack on Silph to now.

“I understand. But no apology is necessary. If anything I should thank you for confiding in me before circumstances forced you to reveal things to the world.”

“That didn’t get you in any trouble?”

“It caused some investigation into League affairs.” She shrugs. “But mostly for others. I did my diligence.”

“By only telling Leader Giovanni?”

Sabrina blinks, then settles back in her seat, smile faded and eyes alert as she searches his gaze. “What makes you ask that?”

“I don’t mean anything by it. But I know Looker doesn’t trust you. I mean, he doesn’t trust anyone, but in particular he’s suspicious of you, and Leader Giovanni, and a few others in the Indigo League. And it’s been in the back of my mind for a while, so… it just came out.” He doesn’t apologize again, though part of him wants to.

Sabrina leans forward now, steepling her hands and resting her chin on them as she regards him. “Should you be telling me any of this?”

Red shrugs. “I wasn’t told not to. And they didn’t exactly talk me through their worries. I just… pick up on things.”

“I see.” Sabrina’s gaze is steady, and Red does his best to meet it. He wonders if he should lower his shields to let in a mild merger, and then wonders if she’s wondering why he doesn’t… but he knows she knows it wouldn’t mean anything, with him. “I suppose I should take that to mean I’m speaking with Red, my old pupil, and not Hunter Verres?”

Red winces. “Technically I’m still a trainee. And I’m not here to interrogate you.”

“And you would know that, if your unpartitioned self was influencing your questions for reasons you don’t know?”

Red has to take a moment to think that over, surprised and a little unnerved by a conversation that understands how his mind actually works. “I’m… not sure. I have memories of when I was aware, but I guess I wouldn’t know for sure, would I? If you don’t mind my asking, how do you know I’m not my whole, unpartitioned self? Is it…”

“It’s not as obvious as it used to be,” she says, voice kind. “But there’s a lightness in you, even when weighed down by this situation. I must admit it’s relieving to see it, after months of… what you’ve been dealing with.”

“Even if it isn’t my ‘real’ self?”

“If you feel real, that’s good enough for me.” Sabrina shrugs. “That you can spend hours, even days, out from under the shadow… yes, I’m very glad of that.”

He almost asks, then, what’s been costing her sleep. Whether it’s Rocket or psychic politics or something else. Instead he says, “When I think about it, I think my question was a little relevant to the Rowan thing. If something’s gone wrong with… if he’s…” Red’s gropes for the right phrase.

“Gone mad?”

“…yes. If he went mad, or ‘cracked’ somehow, people will wonder…”

“If you might crack too,” Sabrina supplies, and Red nods. “And you’re wondering how I’ll handle the public side of all this, in the worst case scenario that one of my students has lost his mind.”

“Somewhat, yeah.”

“I don’t know if I feel more touched that you’d still have such faith in me, or more suspicious that you could possibly still be this forthcoming after the training you must have received.”

Red gives a wan smile. “My training has mostly involved stopping Renegades, not detective work. Even when I was helping look for renegades in Celadon I just used my gift.”

“I see.” She continues to hold his gaze another few moments, then stands and goes to her window. “Leader Giovanni has been a mentor to me since before I was a Leader, and an invaluable source of guidance since then. I shared your secrets with him, and advised you work for him, in order to ensure that someone with more knowledge of politics and experience in Leadership was aware of the situation… and its potential social impacts. Someone who isn’t gifted, and so couldn’t be accused of bias.”

“And you trusted him to tell others if he needed to?”

“I did. And if he did, I mostly trust he’s keeping it secret from Interpol for good reason, similar to whomever in the League he might have told.”

“Giovanni and I talked about the need for secrecy, sometimes. And I’m very grateful Rocket didn’t know about what I could do before their attack on Silph.”

“As am I, and not just for your sake. If you’re still speaking with your network…”

“I know. Psychic relations are hanging on by a thread in some regions.”

Sabrina nods, and sighs. “Depending on what’s happened to Rowan, we may need to pre-emptively decide, as a community, to regulate the training of partitions. And if so, I will share what we’ve learned with the public…” She turns back to him. “But I plan to seek advice from others, first. And if they say I should hold off… I will consider it.”

Red takes a moment to absorb that. “So… are you saying I should be talking to Leader Giovanni?”

“He’s not my only advisor,” she says with a slight smile. “And I don’t always agree with him. But I will admit, the way things have played out in the past few months reminded me why trying to decide these things alone can be dangerous. I think Giovanni made some bad calls, in the past, but he also made good ones. Whether you’d say the same is up to you to decide, but either way, I don’t plan to share my students’ private lives carelessly, even if my duty as a Leader compels some disclosures.”

Red nods, conflicted but still relieved, and also rises to his feet, one hand lifting his bag with only minor strain at his abra’s weight before he slings its straps over his shoulders. “Thank you, Sensei.”

She nods, and they leave her office to make their way to the communal kitchen, where the rest of Sabrina’s students are already gathered. Stepping back into the wide room, with its wood slat floors and dark tile countertops, feels nostalgic, and Red almost goes to the fridge to grab a soda.

What checks him is the sight of one of the new psychics sitting in his usual spot. Sanskriti is in her early twenties, and apparently left her home region because she was being pressured to only pursue psychic training rather than becoming a pokemon trainer as well. She specializes in pokemon mergers, and apparently finds it extremely easy to direct her pokemon’s movements like they’re an extension of herself. Red happens to know that her culture has fairly elaborate outfits for its psychics, but she’s dressed like she just ported in from camping out in the wilds.

Across from her sits Kenzo, a non-trainer from one of the outlying islands who’s even younger than Red. Apparently some time after the Hoenn incident his psychic range began to increase for reasons no one can understand, to the point that he can now sense anyone in the building at any given time. It’s still unclear if the timing was coincidence, but he joined Sabrina’s school just last week, and Jason said he’s still getting situated.

Tatsumaki is still here, levitating a double chain of small objects of various shapes and sizes in a revolving X around her head, as is Daniel, who sits with his feet propped up on the table. Satori departed the school after spending a couple months teaching Miracle Eye to Sabrina and the rest of the students.

In her seat however is Maria, who’s sitting beside Jason. As far as Red knows she’s the first non-psychic to be part of Sabrina’s school, technically here as a research assistant, though he knows she’s also pursuing her Saffron Badge at the gym.

“—before he went looking for the unown, mostly dream hunting.” Daniel is saying as Red and Sabrina enter. “He knew I did it, so asked for advice. I told him the basics: check which city or town hadn’t been hit with a dream in a while, look at the last one that was hit, find the sweet spot between the two.”

“Sweet spot?” Sabrina asks as she takes her seat at the head of the table. Red perches on the edge of the seat beside her so that his abra isn’t uncomfortable, and it’s only a moment later does he realize he’s sitting where Rei used to. It feels pretentious of him, though none of the more senior students took it. He’s aware of Daniel and Tatsumaki’s gaze on him, as well as the two newer students’, though theirs is more curious and awestruck, while Tatsumaki and Daniel’s are harder to interpret.

“Yeah.” Daniel looks around, sees everyone else’s curiosity, and frowns. “You guys never looked into this? Come on, you have to have been curious about why it never visited Saffron.”

“I just figured whoever was behind it didn’t want to risk Sabrina psychically punching them in the face,” Tatsumaki says as she taps an orbiting pokeball to adjust its spin as it floats down past her shoulder, then back up behind her head.

Everyone chuckles at that, but Sabrina just gives a tight smile. “I wouldn’t have blamed any of you for asking, but only Red did. Now seems as good a time as any to share with you what I told him: I suspect that one of my old students has been the one spreading the dreams.”

Red glances around the room to see a mix of shock and intrigue. Daniel takes his feet off the desk and leans forward, while Tatsumaki has stopped rotating her objects, which hover in place around her head as she frowns at Sabrina.

“We haven’t spoken in months, but I generally trust them to only be doing something like this with good reason. As for why they’re avoiding Saffron, I’m afraid I can’t answer that for sure. I can imagine many reasons why they’d be upset with me, but on a pragmatic level they clearly want to avoid identification, and if they are one of my old students, it’s possible they want to prevent my suspicions from being confirmed. I’m sorry if that ends up affecting you all, at any point, or already has, in the form of missing the chance to experience the dreams.”

The room is quiet for a few moments, and to Red’s surprise, it’s Jason who breaks the silence. “Have the authorities been told of your suspicions?”

“No. As I said, I trust them to have good reasons for what they’re doing, and if they want to remain anonymous… it would feel like a betrayal to accuse them in an official capacity.” Sabrina shrugs. “I recognize this is one of the greatest mysteries of our time, and you are of course welcome to share what I have with others.”

“How much weight does the suspicion have?” Red asks. “Has anything that happened in the past few months made it seem more or less likely?”

“If you’re asking if I know why they seem to have stopped, I have no idea.”

He wasn’t, not specifically, but before he can ask something Daniel leans forward. “You had a student capable of that kind of mass projection, and you never mentioned it?”

“I didn’t know they were capable of it. Again, it’s just speculation.”

“Speculation based on what? Did they have some paranoia about extra-dimensional aliens or something?”

“No. I’m sorry, it’s hard to explain my reasoning. But they had an incredibly large reception range, even larger than Kenzo’s.”

“Oh.” Kenzo’s eyes are wide. “It’s that one?”

“I think so.” Sabrina sees their looks between them and says, “Kenzo was worried that his range may eventually get too big for him to process everything he sensed. I mentioned that I had a student who had twice his range, and still managed it.”

“Still,” Daniel says, arms crossed. “To not mention that a psychic with the range of a whole town exists—”

“Their range wasn’t nearly that big last I saw them. Which, yes, was before the Hoenn Incident.”

People glance at Kenzo, who looks self-conscious from that attention and implications, and Red turns to Daniel. “You were saying something about the ‘sweet spot?'”

“Right.” Daniel glances at Sabrina again, then leans back in his seat, arms still crossed. “Well, if you paid any attention at all to the pattern of which place was hit with the dreams, it would be clear that it almost never went to one of the closest towns or cities next. It also rarely went directly to the opposite side of the island. Probability maps were made, and you could get a pretty decent idea of which towns would be the next to get the dreams. I just hopped around for a couple weeks until I got it. I assume Rowan did the same thing after I showed it to him.”

The whole room is quiet now. “You never thought to mention this?” Jason asks.

“Why would I?” Daniel asks with clear annoyance. “It’s not like we’re under surveillance, here. Or, you know, we didn’t used to be.”

Red flinches and drops his gaze to the table… though not before seeing eyes around the room glance at him, this time.

“By ‘surveillance’ do you by chance mean the private security I’ve hired?” Sabrina asks, voice light. “If so, I’m unclear if you’re accusing them of spying on you, or accusing me of doing so.”

Daniel rolls his eyes, shifting in his seat. “Not saying anyone’s spying. Just saying, people track who comes and goes, now, and they didn’t used to. I figured if Rowan wanted to chase the dreams that wasn’t my business.”

Tatsumaki scoffs. “Come off it, you’re the one who kept insinuating that Rowan was going nuts. You really thought him having a dream about some ravenous demon god or whatever wouldn’t make things worse?”

“It’s fine,” Sabrina says, overriding Daniel’s “Hey, I’m not—” and getting him to stop and turn away from Tatsumaki. “I’m not here to lay blame, just understand what’s happened to Rowan, if anything, and what we can do for him, if anything. If no one has anything more to add…?”

The group looks around at each other. After a minute, Sabrina nods.

“Then I won’t take up any more of your time, and will only ask that you keep an eye and ear out for anything that might be concerning. If you’d like to pre-emptively help, I would appreciate you reaching out to any contacts you have who may know anything about Rowan’s most recent locations or behavior. I know some of you haven’t had the opportunity to meet or get to know him,” she says, looking at the new students. “The others might have warned you that he wasn’t always easy to befriend, and they’d be right. Many of you can be hard to, in their own ways.”

Jason looks mildly embarrassed, while Daniel snorts and Tatsumaki shrugs and nods. Red isn’t sure if he counts, here, considering how hard he worked to befriend everyone when he arrived. But he has to admit, if he were still a student here, with his current other duties… he’d hardly have time for socializing.

Sabrina takes a breath. “But I remember him when he first came here, young and excited to learn. He can be obsessive and distant, but also passionate, curious, and dedicated. I’ve received many reports over the years from his students about how enjoyable his lessons are, and how supportive he is when teaching.” The leader looks around. “Ultimately, he’s one of us, and he may need our help.”

“Hear, hear,” Jason murmurs, and Tatsumaki sighs and stands, her nimbus rising with her.

“Right. I’ll reach out to some friends, see if they know anything.”

Daniel watches her go, then grunts and says, “Same” before following her out.

“I’m not sure how much help I can be…” Sanskriti begins, but Sabrina shakes her head.

“It’s alright. Feel free to focus on your studies and lessons. Just let me know if anything does come up?” She looks between her and Kenzo, who nods as well, and the two newer students leave together.

Which leaves just Red, Sabrina, Jason, and Maria when Red’s phone chimes.

Everyone watches as he pulls it out and checks the screen… then lowers it and swallows, glancing around. “It’s him. He says he wants to meet… alone.”

“Well,” Maria says after a moment of silence. “Good timing.”


The rooftop is relatively quiet, wind blowing over the sounds of the city below. Red stays in the alcove of the elevator, where it would be hard to see him from any nearby buildings.

It was hard to arrange the meeting on such short notice. He quickly called his security team to let them know the basics of the situation, and came up with a ripcord phrase for extraction in case this is all some strange trap: Rowan, you’re scaring me. A recorder in his pocket would ensure they and Sabrina would be able to hear the conversation, and of course Red has his backpack abra in case he needs to teleport away, whether from Rowan or an opportunistic attack.

Red paces his nervous energy away, trying to think through what he should say first… and then a figure appears beside an alakazam, and Red spins toward it, hands moving automatically to unclip balls from his belt.

He stares for a moment, then forces himself to reclip them once his brain catches up to his reflexes, and he confirms that it really is Rowan.

The transformation Sabrina has undergone in the past months is reflected on the older teenager at least twice as hard. He was always lean, but now he’s practically skeletal. A short beard makes him look years older, and his hair is shaggy, shadowing his upper face… but Red can still make out the bags under his eyes.

“You came.” Rowan’s steps are long and sweeping, almost dance as he extends his hands up and to the sides. Red steps back, unsure if he’s about to be hugged… but Rowan just spins in place, arms staying stretched out. “You came! Oh, we’re so glad! When you didn’t respond, at first…” Rowan’s arms drop to his face, tone shifting to a fearful whisper. “We thought the worst…”

Red is still staring, heart pounding as he realizes that every vague worry they’ve had is justified. Everything from Rowan’s appearance to his tone make it clear that something’s wrong with him, and has been for a while.

“Sorry!” Red tries to smile, and has no idea if he succeeds. “Sorry, Rowan, I was just… busy.” Rowan’s gaze is more intense than Red has ever seen, and he suddenly wonders if Rowan even heard him. “Are you… how are you?”

Rowan doesn’t respond immediately, and just continues to stare into his eyes, hands clasping his own face.

Oh boy. Red’s stomach sinks further as more and more prickles of unease skitter up and down his spine. He’s sure to keep his movements slow and deliberate as he raises a hand to wave between them. “Rowan?”

“You’re partitioned.”

Red swallows, wondering if Rowan can tell for sure, or just guessed. “Yeah, I am.”

“How much do you know?”

“About…?”

“The rest of you. Which of you are we speaking with?”

“Um. The… default one, I guess? I’m mostly me, I just… there are some memories and emotions I keep partitioned, and the me that has full access to them is here too, just… kind of my subconscious.” Once again Rowan doesn’t react to his words, just staring at him as if waiting for him to grow a second head. “We… talked about this before, don’t you remember?”

Rowan doesn’t respond for the space of a few breaths, and then… “You’re the face.”

“I’m… what?”

“What are you doing?”

Red has never felt so confused and off balance in his life. “Talking.” He wonders what the others, listening in on the conversation, are thinking. “Standing still and talking.”

“Why are we talking with your face? Come out! Come out!

Red takes a step back as Rowan advances, heart pounding and both palms out now. “Rowan, you’re freaking me out!” Part of him hopes no one assumes he misspoke or forgot the ripcord so soon, but the rest of him is unsure he doesn’t need a rescue.

Thankfully, Rowan does stop advancing. “Rowan. You keep calling us…” Rowan shuts his eyes tight. “Rowan? Rowan. Rowan Rowan Rowan… Rowan and Red. Ah…” His whole body seems to sag, a little, relaxing some of its manic strain. “Yes. Rowan. We can be Rowan again. Red… hello.”

“Hi.” He doesn’t let himself feel much relief. “We” can be Rowan again… “Rowan, what’s been happening, here?”

“We’re… having trouble.”

“Yeah.” No shit. “With what?”

“Deciding. Choosing who to listen to. Which to go with. How to feel…” Rowan trails off, gaze distant.

“It sounds like your partitions have… broken. Or gone out of control, in some way. Do you need help? I’d like to help you, Rowan.”

“Just Rowan?”

Shit. “No. Everyone. All of you, it seems clear you all need help, even if… if it’s not clear which of you should be in charge, yet.”

Rowan sways, back and forth, back and forth, and Red feels a strong temptation to lower his shields and get just a basic read on what’s happening in Rowan’s mind right now. Behind him, his alakazam strokes its mustache, watching a trainer on a flying mount soar by, and Red feels his abra stir in his backpack. Not wanting to use his powers, Red slowly reaches back to soothe his abra with some strokes along his head. He should ask Rowan if he wants to come inside, talk with Sabrina…

“You were seeking the origin of species, weren’t you?” Rowan finally asks. “Were you disappointed? Or was it all you wanted it to be?”

Red’s train of thought derails, and he stares at Rowan for a moment, wondering if he misunderstood the implication. “Like I said, I’ve been busy.” Red almost asks if he’s been following the news at all, but he’s already asking the more pressing question. “You’re talking like you figured it out.”

“You don’t remember. Because you didn’t find out?”

Red reels, another chill going through him as he wonders whether he did discover it, and then forced amnesia on himself…

No. He’s talking nonsense. Stay calm.

Red takes a deep breath, setting aside worries about whether he can trust his unpartitioned self. If he can’t, he’s in nearly as bad a place as Rowan. “I think you might be confused, Rowan. I never learned—”

“Never learned? Never learned?!” Rowan squeezes his eyes shut, palms pressed over them as he grimaces. “Were we wrong? You did… all that you did… you haven’t had the dream?”

“No, I haven’t had the wandering dream. Rowan, are you saying the secret of where pokemon come from is in it?” He would have heard about that if it was true, surely—

“No, no! It was just… you didn’t pursue it… if you didn’t pursue it you wouldn’t know…” Rowan’s hands drop from his face, hanging limp in front of him as he looks imploringly into Red’s eyes. “You’re really just… Red? All of you are just…?”

“I don’t know about just,” Red says slowly. “But… please, Rowan, answer me directly. Who else might I be? Who were you expecting?”

Rowan takes a step closer, and this time Red doesn’t back away. Rowan leans forward, voice low and harsh. “Them. They’re in here.” Rowan taps the side of his head. “The lonely one. The hungry one. From outside.”

The hair on Red’s neck stands on end at that last word, stomach fluttering with the ghosts of memories he doesn’t recognize. “Outside… where?”

Rowan’s arms shoot out to the sides. “Outside this. Here. Everywhere.”

And Red remembers.

He remembers what it was like, to touch on the mind of the ghost marowak.

He remembers what it was like to touch something so alien, something that was… somehow… connected to something else, something impossibly distant and yet close enough to brush against, something so utterly beyond his comprehension that it broke his brain.

Something outside.

A chill goes through him as more of his memories return, and he wonders if partitions are going down or if it’s just a natural effect of his mind doing its best to not think of uncomfortable memories. He thinks it’s the latter, but his mind did act to partition them immediately. If Agatha hadn’t been there to heal the damage done…

It would have warped him.

Warped him just like every other merger with a different mind does, except far quicker, and far more alien than any pokemon’s. And if he ever dropped his partitions… if, like at Silph, he exhausted his psychic abilities too much to keep them up… would it infect the rest of him, or just cause him to go a little mad?

“Rowan.” Red’s voice only shakes a little. “How many partitions are you holding in place right now?

Tears slip down the older boy’s face, scattering in the wind. “I don’t know.”

“How many are you aware of?”

“A hundred and fifty-seven.”

The words are a triple-punch to Red’s gut, leaving ice-water churning through his stomach and spreading through his limbs. “That’s impossible.”

Rowan just shrugs, and says, “One hundred and fifty-six wouldn’t be enough.”

Red’s breaths are coming quick and shallow, his heart pounding in his ears as he stares at the swaying older boy and tries to wrap his mind around what he heard. Tries to make sense of it.

And fails.

On the very first day Red learned of his gift, he got hints of what made him special. His natural ease with partitions is one of the two things that makes him unique, as a psychic, and as far as anyone can tell, he developed them in part due to the unconscious use of them after his dad died. His mind uses partitions automatically, and only relaxes them with effort or when exhausted.

And as far as he can tell, he’s only held up a dozen partitions at a time. Maybe fifteen, counting some memory juggling. It’s hard to know for sure, of course, but…

Rowan is holding over ten times as much… consciously. Continually?

Because nested in one of them, is a mind Rowan merged with that he shouldn’t have.

A mind from outside.

“We need to get you help, Rowan.” Red’s throat is dry, and he takes a step forward, hand out. “I have friends who… Elite Agatha, she was able to help me…” It hits him, suddenly, what happened at Lavender, why she was able to help him get most of the way back to normal, only for him to collapse again after.

She didn’t know about the way his partitions worked, didn’t realize that they were working to isolate the damage immediately, until he got too exhausted and they came down again.

Now it’s Rowan who’s backing away. “Help?”

“Yes. Yes, with… with the mind from outside.” Fresh horror goes through Red as he realizes… “When did you last sleep, Rowan?”

“Sleep…” The word comes out wistful. “That was at least twenty-three partitions ago. We make another one, now, each day.”

Okay, that can’t be healthy. Unless he found a way to sleep in shifts? Because wow that would be useful, even in small doses…

Not the time. “Rowan, don’t you want help? To get rid of… the outside mind?”

“That’s what we’ve been doing, Red. That’s what I wanted to speak to you about.” Rowan smiles, and it’s a sad smile. “But you don’t have it, do you?”

“The outside mind? I… might have, I almost did but I got help—”

“No. No, the lonely mind. The genius mind. The dreamer’s mind.”

Red stares at him, brain stopping and restarting as he tries to make sense of this, tries to contextualize it with what he realized earlier, and fails. Right. I’m talking to a crazy person, after all…

But no. He was close, he’s sure of it. “How does the… dreamer mind, the lonely mind… how do they help with the outside mind?”

“Ahh… that’s the question, isn’t it?” Rowan starts to sway again, then steps to the side, spinning in a brief dance. “The battle, back and forth within us, the parry and riposte, order against chaos, and poor Rowan the battlefield…” Rowan spins again, tears carried away by the wind.

“Two minds,” Red says, feeling desperate to understand despite his attempts to stay calm. “Both from outside, fighting?”

“No. No, no no… the lonely dreamer is here… from here… from us…” Rowan’s spinning slows. “It knows the unown are the threat. It has to stop them. We have to stop them. It’s the only way to survive. Even if it means destroying every region on the island.”

Red’s thoughts hit another brick wall, and the world shifts and narrows to an entirely different set of concerns. “What?” Red whispers. “What do you mean? What are you going to do?”

“Every island on the planet—”

“Rowan, what are you going to do?”

“Already done, Red. Most of it is already done.”

Red is breathing hard, feeling a growing urge to pull the ripcord… but if he does, and Rowan gets away… Unpartitioned Red, I sure hope you’ve been coming up with a plan all this time…

And even as he thinks it, the partitions…

…are…

…falling away, like he’s stepped out of a house and can see through its walls, until he is unpartitioned Red, with two interwoven memories of his thoughts and reactions to the conversation he just had.

A plan. Right.

A plan to keep Rowan from teleporting away, while he has pokemon out and within arm’s reach. Certainly close enough that Rowan can be gone before any of Red’s pokemon leave their balls.

The abra on his back can teleport and use basic psychic attacks, but it has no ability to block other pokemon from teleporting. If Rowan’s pokemon was an abra itself, Red could just use sakki and it would teleport away without Rowan.

But an alakazam… it could kill either of them within a few seconds, or at least badly hurt them. And for all that there’s clearly something wrong with Rowan, he hasn’t done or said anything that would indicate he’s a renegade.

Not that anyone could claim otherwise…

The thought crosses his mind in a flash, and is discarded just as quickly as Red’s stomach lurches.

No. Not like that. He has another option for what he can project: safety and love.

Even after evolving from an abra, even if it’s commanded instead of a natural reflex, teleportation is triggered off fear. Red can project safety strongly enough to do indoor teleportation: after all his lessons with Leaf in mimicking her state-of-mind, he’s sure he can project it well enough to prevent teleportation even in an alakazam.

So that’s a plan. The other plan is to subtly message someone to get them to take out the alakazam… maybe finding an excuse to take out his phone and type something?

It’s risky. Even a dark trainer on a dark pokemon would have to be careful not to alert Rowan or the alakazam through sound or movement.

But it might be necessary, at some point, even if Red succeeds in the projection. So first things first: he’d have to partition a part of himself and use that part to project onto the abra well enough to keep it from teleporting.

It feels like a long shot, but he can’t think of anything else.

“Why did you want to meet, then?” Safety. Calm. Peace. Tranquility. Love. Bit by bit, he summons the mental state that Leaf used to keep the abras from teleporting away. His heart rate slows, his muscles relax… and he finds himself folding…

…inward…

…to leave only his focus on helping Rowan.

“To see which you were. To see if you’d have a better way. But we were wrong. You developed your special powers without them… without them?” Rowan’s voice sounds wondering. “Even while you stayed so busy… busy keeping us safe from temporary dangers. But the real danger is still coming, and you’ve ignored it. Is it because you haven’t had the dream? Or because you’re secretly part of it? And don’t even know? Would you know, Red, if it was inside you? Wearing you like a puppet? Would you know?!

The burst of anger once again takes Red by surprise, and he holds his hands back up, palms out. “Rowan, listen. Please, I know it’s hard, but listen. I told you, remember? I had friends who helped me. I think they can help you too. You’re talking about the mind from outside?”

“Yes. Yes. The one that’s coming.” Rowan rubs his temples. “We’ve had to lock it away. But we couldn’t entirely. We thought it was because… because we needed to remember what it was, to act against it. But… what if it’s just stronger than us? What if it’s working, from behind the partitions, to leak out, infect the rest of us? We thought you could help us… show us…”

“I can help you, Rowan. We can go now, Sabrina—”

No!” Rowan’s teeth are bared, a grimace of something like anger and fear and something else, all rolled together. “No, not her. She’s… I’m not ready to face her.”

Red tries not to get thrown off track by each new trigger or cryptic comment, but… “Are you ashamed of something? Rowan, whatever you’ve already done, I’m sure she would understand you weren’t in your right mind. We can work together, to undo the harm—”

“What we’ve done? What about what she’s done?!”

Red swallows. “What has she done?”

“We don’t know! We don’t remember!” Rowan rubs his face, chest heaving with his breaths. “It’s there, so close we can almost reach it… jailor, friend, teacher, hunter, savior… we need the rest of our mind, we need our memories… but… they’re gone…”

Red tries not to think of what Sabrina might be feeling, hearing all this. Or what she’s wondering about what he’s feeling. “Gone where? Behind a partition?”

“No. In the other mind. The beautiful, wondrous, lonely mind, of which we’re just a shallow copy…”

“Rowan, I—”

Stop calling us that! That’s not who we are, anymore, don’t you understand?!” Rowan shakes his head. “We don’t know who we are anymore. Do you? How do you stand it? How do you not…” The older boy’s hands clench in front of each other, fingers curled as they make a tearing-apart motion.

Red takes a breath, tries to think through the answer before he speaks. If he can make enough sense of it, maybe it would help Rowan(?) stabilize… “I did have trouble, before. With my… parts. They’re more than that, thanks to our powers, more than what most people would have, but… the principle was the same. I just had to trust them. To accept them, and be honest with them, and trust that they wanted what was best for me. For us.” He remembers the internal conversation he had, past and future Red trying to persuade his then-present self… “I had to accept that no matter which of us had the most influence, no matter which got their way, it wouldn’t be a loss for the rest of us.”

Rowan has stopped rocking, is watching him with wide eyes. “Not a loss?” he whispers. “How can a part not getting what it wants not be a loss?”

Red shakes his head, gaze dropping as he thinks of the way he struggled with his past and future selves. With his partitioned or unpartitioned self. “It was hard for me to accept, at first. There are things… I wanted to do with my life. And there are compromises I could make, sometimes, but other times… eventually some things are just mutually exclusive, right? All problems may be solvable, but without infinite time and resources… they can’t all be solved on time.” Red thinks of what he’s spent the last few months doing, and how far he is from the person he hoped he would become through his journey. “After all that’s happened… it just became really clear that I can do my best, and still not get everything I want in life. But that doesn’t mean I should give up trying for something I care about.” Red looks back up at Rowan. “Are there things you still care about?”

Rowan’s palms press against his eyes again. “Too many things, Red. Too many things. And we don’t know which we should pursue… which is even possible to accomplish…”

“Yeah. I get that.” Red bites his lower lip. “But there’s no sense in you… getting mad at each other, is there? We try things, we make mistakes, we learn from them. I think that may be the most important thing, overall. That I learned to trust my parts to learn from their mistakes, to want to be better, for all our sakes. To listen to each other, and understand each other, for all our sakes.”

“And you do.” Rowan is smiling, suddenly, a small, sad smile. “It was clear from the beginning, that you would do whatever it took to improve yourself in every way.” Rowan lowers his hands, and fresh tears spill down the older boy’s cheeks and into his scruffy beard. “We admired that about you.”

Red swallows past the lump in his throat. “You… never said anything.”

“We were jealous. Resentful.” He tips his head back to stare at the sky, drawing in a watery breath before letting it out in a gust. “Ah, gods. Some of us still are. What you’re describing sounds… wonderful.”

Red straightens, takes a step forward. “It is. It wasn’t easy, but it’s worth it. I can help you. I know I said I’ve been busy, but… I can try and prioritize this, maybe a few hours per day—”

“And if one of the parts isn’t on the same side?”

Red blinks. “That’s… I think the models I’ve learned about think that’s complicated, even when not accounting for… the rest of the stuff, with our partitions. It can often seem that way, if the part doesn’t know how to work with others, or how to express itself well, or… has weird ideas of what’s required to be happy or moral. But also… maybe sometimes, when people are abused, a part of them might internalize it, or the beliefs of their abuser.”

“Abuse…” Rowan shakes his head. “No… we experienced no abuse. Only an awakening… and then a damning.”

“That was just one example of a way it might happen,” Red says, feeling mild desperation to keep them from getting knocked off track, to keep the momentum going in a positive direction. “Is there… some part of you that thinks you’re a bad person? That you shouldn’t live?”

Rowan laughs. “Oh, yes. Yes, we’ve thought many times over the past months that perhaps… perhaps that would be best. Simply ending it all.” Rowan wipes his cheeks. “But we can’t. The lonely dreamer would not let us. Because… we have a responsibility to try. Yes, you’re right, Red. We have to try.

A thread of hope. “Try what?”

“To stop the rest of us.”

“To stop… the part of you that’s… outside of you? The you that a part of you is a fraction of?”

“Yes! Yes, you understand!” Rowan’s face is heartbreakingly hopeful.

“Okay. What can I do to help?”

“You’ve helped enough, Red. Not how we expected… but enough. We hope it’s enough… even though people will die… even if everyone hates us… hates… me…”

Red’s pulse kicked back up at the words, and eyes widen as Rowan steps away, toward his Alakazam. No, no no no “Wait, you don’t have to… Rowan, you’re scaring me. Please, you don’t have to go!”

Rowan’s hand is on his alakazam, and he turns that sad smile back toward Red. “Thank you, Red. I know it won’t seem this way, but I promise, this is for the best.” His smile falters, one more tear falling down his cheek. “Just, please… tell Sabrina… I’m sorry.”

Red leaps forward, hand outstretched even as two of his guards swoop onto the roof atop their pokemon and another two teleport nearby, too far—

Please, unpartitioned Red, whatever you’re planning, do it now, let it work!

—the partitions fall away, bringing all of him to bear, as much as he can, on projecting love and acceptance and safety at Rowan, at the Alakazam, at everything in his psychic reach—

Rowan!”

—and watches as Rowan and his alakazam disappear.

121: Precedes

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 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 risen 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 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.”

“What changed?”

“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.”

“Something?”

“Not saying more.”

“Denied.”

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 can be chalked up to 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 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 Challenge 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 the thing I mentioned 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 ninetales 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 sends a turtonator in to tank. The turtonator blasts out a Dragon Pulse that shoves its 100 kilo opponent halfway out of the arena before nearly catching Blue’s hastily swapped in Rive with a Solar Beam fakeout.

Blue just barely manages to send Soul back in to take the hit, but the arcanine immediately has to swap back out for Sunny for lack of any way to put a dent in the enemy Fire/Dragon. Unfortunately Chase is happy to capitalize on that with another Dragon Pulse that Sunny would be lucky to survive getting hit by twice, 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 to 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 testing nests along a cliff for ditto) 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 ninetales, 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 make their journey more unique than most.”

“What’s the latest?” Elaine asks “Are lots of nests still getting found?”

“We found one today, actually.” Blue summarizes the encounter, how the nest turned out to be too big to tag and observe the way 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, or at least halfway did. 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.”

“Physicists, specifically?”

“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—”

“Verres!” Looker’s voice, sounding either urgent or annoyed. Or both.

“Later,” Mink says with a wave as Red jumps to his feet and heads through the cubicle forest toward the shout, wheeling his office chair behind him. Looker is standing at the front of “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 your 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 nod he turns and leads the way.

He tries not to feel nervous, and a quick mental glimpse of Tsunemori’s mind 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.

“I did.”

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 before any accusation was made, 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 the researcher clearly had a guilty conscience.

“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 that his other work isn’t something he’s uniquely suited to… “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. I guess I feel like I have more control over my life.”

“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. “I’m the last person who’s going to call any idea paranoid. 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.”

Looker 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 in parallel 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 continues 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…

Hello Reds

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

you

meet

me

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?”

“Did you…?”

“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.”

“Yeah.”

“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

you

meet

me

120: Agency

Back when Red was attending school, he read a history book that included scans of a preserved journal from some pre-pokeball trainer recounting their experience of riding a pokemon for the first time. It was a ponyta, and she talked about the sense of power beneath her, the unpredictability even after hundreds of hours of training. The ponyta seemed calm and compliant enough at first, until something spooked her, or some instinct took over, and suddenly the trainer was being carried far away from her home, further in a few minutes than she could walk in an hour, hanging on for dear life and, as she wrote later, wondering if she should jump off and possibly injure herself and lose her mount into the wilds, or keep trying to get the ponyta under control.

Riding Charizard for the first time had felt a little like that, though his pokemon was relatively tame compared to most thanks to Red’s powers. Still, there was that feeling as they soared through the air, that occasional tug as his predator instincts noticed some wild pidgey in the distance, or a herd of miltank below them, followed by the tension for a surge of wild speed… one that never came, thanks to the pokeball’s conditioning keeping Charizard’s urges in check. Keeping Red in control.

It’s an analogy that he wishes he’d come up with before Leaf asked him how life has been for him, because Red doesn’t feel in control, and hasn’t for months. But on the plus side, he has a feeling he’ll get to use the analogy anyway, if someone asks him how it felt to discover the secret lab beneath the mansion.

“If this is for real, then CoRRNet has to be informed.” Ranger Neasman is staring down into the open elevator shaft. They dropped a lightstick in after Red’s machamp forced the doors open to reveal about twenty meters of space and a pile of stone and dirt burying the elevator car.

“I get that,” Leaf says. “Really, I do, but… if they find out first, and someone in the chain of command is compromised—”

“The League, then,” Blue is leaning against the wall, arms crossed. “This is Blaine’s territory, so we’d need to go over his head for a full investigation in case he’s in on it.”

“CoRRNet is neutral,” Wendy says. “If the League comes in and doesn’t find anything, how would we know if they’re not just covering something up?”

“If we’re going to anyone, it has to be Interpol,” Leaf’s voice is firm, but Red can tell she’s trying to sound more confident than she is. “If the League sanctioned research that would create a pokemon threat to other regions, Indigo could be seen as a Renegade nation.”

“Is that actually possible?” Wendy asks. “Everyone’s doing unown research, and no one knows how dangerous that could be.”

Ranger Neasman shakes his head. “They’re not deliberately trying to create powerful pokemon. Wouldn’t surprise me in the least if someone pulls it off and lands their region in a diplomatic incident.

“And it depends how much of the League is involved,” Blue says, jaw set. “Whoever isn’t would need to rise up together, or else Leaf’s right. Which I think they would, for the record. No way people wouldn’t riot against something like this.”

“That’s only if we can provide at least some proof of it,” Leaf insists. “Which right now we can’t.”

Red listens to them argue, hand stroking Pikachu’s back where he lays in Red’s lap. Over the past couple months he’s used the danger projection technique Koichi inspired and the resources he’s been given by the local and international police departments to evolve all his pokemon… all except for Pikachu. He could have ordered the right food from Alola to prepare the electric mouse for his psychic evolution, which would make them an even more effective team… but he still hasn’t done it.

He thought about it, of course, noticed the knot of tension in his chest each time he considered it, and set aside some time to use Focusing to figure out what the aversion was; he likes his pokemon better as a pikachu than he would as a raichu, even an Alolan raichu. He likes having him lay in his lap, like he’s doing now, or ride on his shoulder. If he evolves, he wouldn’t be able to do either, and he’d just become… another weapon.

That’s what it feels like all his pokemon have become, over the past two months. Not travel companions, not research assistants, not even tools to help guard civilization against the ever encroaching wilds. Today was the first time he fought any wild pokemon since before the Silph attack; since then, Looker and Tsunemori made it clear that Rocket is the most valuable thing for him to focus on.

It’s important work. He knows that. But at the end of the day, he’s still killing people, even if the actual killing is usually done through their own pokemon rather than his, and he doesn’t want Pikachu to be a part of that.

The sentimentality would have interested his younger self. He still remembers sitting at the diner table on that first night of his journey, scribbling in his notebook about what causes attachment between trainers and pokemon. If he had these feelings then, he would have poked at them, tried putting them into words, maybe even tested them.

For now, he’s content to just let them be.

“Red?”

His head rises to see everyone staring at him. “Sorry, what…?”

“How do you think Interpol will react?” Leaf asks.

It takes him a moment to reboot his thoughts, focus on the conversation that he’d been half listening to. Red has no idea how Interpol would react, but… “You said we can’t prove anything, but our situation is even worse. Looker might not need proof if we have reasonable conjecture, but we barely have that.” A psychic could be used to confirm evidence that can’t be reproduced, or at least confirm that someone is being honest in claiming to have seen or heard what they believed to be evidence, but they don’t even have that. “What do we actually know? A half-demolished, isolated, abandoned manor has a basement. Someone who gave you notes for your story has clearly been to this place, or one very like it.”

“The details—”

Red holds a hand up, nodding. “I know, just… think about it from an outside view, right? What’s more probable, that a conspiracy of dozens of people created a human/pokemon hybrid, and kept it secret for years, or that a researcher with a good imagination drew inspiration from places they’ve been? Even if there is a lab under us, there may not be any evidence that it was doing anything illegal, or that anything else from the story is true. For whatever it’s worth, my bet was on a lab where secret experimental, but still human, psychic research was being done.” Mostly because of what he learned from Sabrina. “So long as we don’t have evidence of the super-psychic hybrid, let alone any evidence that ties all this back to Rocket or renegade activity in general, Looker might put an agent or two on this but he’s not going to divert any significant time or resources to it.”

There’s silence for a moment, until Leaf says, “So it sounds like we’ll have time to do our own investigation, as I’ve been saying.”

“All respect, Miss Juniper, you’re no officer of the law. None of us are, except possibly Red.” Ranger Neasman frowns at him, though not in an unfriendly way. “What is your remit, exactly? My assumption was to treat you like a hunter, so without evidence of renegade activity, or a warrant…”

“I don’t have jurisdiction to investigate private property,” Red confirms. “And without any sign of a ditto nest or other ecological risk…”

Neasman nods. “We’re out of bounds too.”

The silence returns, and Red watches Leaf’s mouth twist as she starts pacing, gaze occasionally moving to the open elevator doors.

It’s clear to Red that she’s trying to have it both ways, wanting this to be important enough that they investigate it despite the legal gray area, but not so immediately and obviously important that they’re compelled to call in any potentially compromised authorities. Even if she decides to give up now and sneak back here without the rangers, she’ll be on the clock if word gets out… and maybe even in danger.

His stomach twists at the thought, and he takes a deep breath as he brings his attention back to the current problem. Given the lack of anything concrete, it may be possible to talk the rangers around to not reporting what they found. But if he knows Leaf she’s going to do something reckless, like concede and then sneak back here to investigate on her own if she has to.

Focus on practicalities first. “If the entire lab is buried, what’s our hypothetical plan to learn anything more on our own?” he asks. “I doubt we have the pokemon to excavate enough of it.” And it would be extremely dangerous. He resists the urge to say it because he knows it’s not necessary to, but also because he doesn’t want to come off as more afraid than he is, particularly with Blue here. Not that he’s unafraid, but so long as they’re careful, there may be safe ways to explore.

She bites her lower lip. “I was thinking… if we go in sideways, we might be able to reach the lab from some nearby slope without much risk. It might take a day or two of digging, but we can buy pokemon for it, and use containers to hide the displaced earth.”

“Excavating tunnels isn’t just about making a line between two points,” Wendy says. “Depending on the type of rock and soil here, we’d probably need to put in braces, inject shotcrete, hang mesh… all while warding off wilds that might break whatever we put in.”

“But… ” Leaf rubs her forehead as she processes this, then looks up at Wendy. “You know how to do all that, right? It’s part of your spec?”

“Uh, some.” The normally confident girl seems suddenly less sure in the face of Leaf’s stubborn hope. “It’s one of my specs, but… I’m just a cadet, I’ve only done it as part of a team of others before.”

“It’s not one of mine,” Ranger Neasman says. “We’ve got a few teams on the island who can do it, but it won’t be quiet.”

Leaf visibly deflates, and Red feels a sinking sensation as it becomes clear that their options are dwindling, that this is yet another thing that’s going to race ahead of their control. He knows that sense of control is often an illusion—even if they could somehow have controlled everything they got involved with from the start of their journey, the world would have still thrown them curveball after curveball, and just imagining having tried to manage it all feels exhausting.

But letting other people dictate what happens feels even worse, suddenly. For the past two months he’s done his best to devote himself to what felt necessary: stopping Rocket, and showing the world that they could feel safe with him (and psychics in general) in positions of power, rather than afraid.

But that has meant largely trusting Director Tsunemori and Special Administrator Looker to tell him what needed doing, and various others to train him in how.

Of course, not all of it has been a total burden. He had some input, unique insights into his capabilities and ideas about how they might best be used. The part of him that found enjoyment in pokemon battles, in the sense of solving a puzzle, of pitting his creativity against not just a natural challenge but an opposing creative mind, and figuring out how to win… it kept him from detaching completely from his day to day, or sinking too deep into depression between the bouts of learning, training, and combat.

Today felt like the first time he really shook that off, somewhat. A little from visiting the fossil lab, a little from spending time with his friends again… but mostly from Leaf’s revelation, a mix of her contagious intrigue and his own bewildered curiosity.

And when that was at risk, when it felt like he might be denied the ability to keep looking into things…

It felt good to stand up to Officer Jensen. Red was glad when the lanky hunter volunteered to be part of Red’s guards after the Silph attack; the difference in treatment from someone who had seen him in action was obvious, and the others picked up on it pretty quickly. But despite the sense of general respect, Jensen was still his senior in every way that mattered, and that meant that Red mostly deferred to him.

It felt good to buck that thought process. It felt good to assert himself more, and take more agency over his life.

When did he give that agency up? He has power, he knows that. Unique power, power that means he could be making suggestions and setting expectations. He hasn’t spoken to Blue or Leaf about his situation, but he knows they would push him to use his power more. When did he decide that not using it was an automatic necessity of becoming a weapon against Rocket?

The answer is obvious, once he considers it. It was baked into the sense of fear he had going into all this, the desperate urge to prove himself trustworthy, safe…

Compliant.

The thought sparks something, some deep and subtle anger, though he can’t tell if it’s with himself or others. Either way, he can’t let himself go back, tempting as it is to avoid the conflicts that his gut is clenching just thinking about.

“I think our best bet is to bring Looker in,” Red says, feeling the words out as he speaks them. “If I tell him about this directly, explain our worries… I might be able to convince him to take it seriously, and if he does take it seriously, I won’t have to convince him to keep it close to the vest.”

The sudden hope on Leaf’s face is immediately gratifying, mixed as the hope is with her own obvious worries. “And if you don’t convince him? Would he be as careful then?”

“I think so.” Red hesitates. “He does paranoia pretty well.”

Leaf paces the hall a couple more times, then sighs and comes to a stop beside Ranger Neasman. “Would you be willing to hold off on informing CoRRNet until we have actual evidence of the hybrid?”

The ranger scratches his chin, glancing at Wendy. “S’pose. Verres is right that we’ve got nothing solid yet. Guess that means you wouldn’t tell the League either?”

They all turn to Blue, who’s leaning against the wall, arms crossed, fingers drumming against one bicep. His gaze flicks to each of them, then shifts between Leaf and Red. “I want to know if Blaine is part of this. Cinnabar is his, but the League can still get involved if there’s reason to. Everyone’s got a close relationship with at least one Leader, and if I get Gramps involved…”

“But that can wait, right?” Leaf asks. “For after we learn more, have some hard evidence that can’t be suppressed.”

Blue stares at her, and Red feels a knot of tension in his stomach. He’s not sure what Blue is thinking, and the reflex for a shallow scan is only restrained from long practice (not that it would work anyway, without Miracle Eye). “Yeah,” Blue says after a minute. “It can wait.”

It seems like something passed between them, some silent conversation sparked by context he doesn’t have, but Red more easily resists the urge to check Leaf’s mood, trusting they would tell him if it’s something he needs to know. Instead he gently urges Pikachu off his lap, then stands and withdraws him. “Okay. I guess I’m off to do that, then.”

“We need to sweep the rest of the potential ditto nests anyway,” Ranger Neasman says. “Assuming you’re still willing to join us for that?”

“Oh,” Leaf says, and looks like she’s about to say something further before she straightens. “Yes, of course.”

The rangers lead the way out, and Blue follows last, hands in his pockets and gaze down. Red wants to talk to Leaf, try and give her some reassurance, but he can’t easily recall having seen Blue like this before, and slows his steps to walk beside his friend. “You alright?”

“Fine.” Red only has a few steps to wonder if he should press the question before Blue asks, “Do you really think that thing, the hybrid, if it’s real, isn’t a threat?”

Red blinks. “I didn’t say that. I mean, it might be a threat. But… well, for one thing, it’s also probably the thing that’s warning everyone about the unown.”

Blue turns to stare at him, then looks away when Red winces from the light of the headlamp. “What do you mean?” Leaf has also slowed down to walk beside them.

He’s skirting close to a secret that’s not quite his to share, but… “Just something I thought, before I took Leaf’s story as seriously. That an unknown psychic power, or a psychic that’s unusually strong in projection range and detail, could be responsible for the messages, which would explain why it only hits one city at a time.”

“You still haven’t gotten the dream, right?” Leaf asks.

“No, and now that they’ve stopped I doubt I ever will.” He shrugs, trying to hide his disappointment. “I’d like to talk to them, of course, figure out why they’re doing it. But whether they’re human or not, it seems a sign of good intentions, or at least non-hostility, that they’d want to warn us about a thing like that.”

Blue doesn’t respond to that, and soon they’re out in the sunlight again. Red takes off his helmet, glad for the breeze on his sweaty forehead, and messages Jensen, Haruto, Teri, and Claude to let them know they can stop guarding the perimeter before he calls Looker, who picks up on the second ring.

“What’s wrong?” He knows Red wouldn’t be calling for something minor, though this is only the third time he’s done it without messaging first.

“We need to talk, private.” Red tries to ignore the way everyone’s watching him. “Are you free now?”

“Now?” The word comes out tense, and Red realizes he’s probably freaking Looker out. Well, probably not, he’s not sure Looker can get freaked out, but he’s probably making his paranoia stronger than usual.

“As soon as you can spare a few minutes,” Red says, trying to sound relaxed. The hunters start to arrive, each within a few seconds of each other, then begin dismounting when Red says, “I’m porting over, can wait by your office.”

“Alright. Ten minutes.”

Looker ends the call without saying goodbye, as usual, and Red turns to his friends. “I’ll let you know how it goes. Be careful exploring the island.”

They exchange hugs, and after confirming that his guards are ready, Red and the hunters are on the roof of Interpol’s Indigo headquarters.

Red’s whole body shivers as he takes his first breath of the thin, cold air of the mountains between Kanto and Johto, gaze drawn as always to the closest slopes leading down toward Pewter City. Mount Silver looms above them, one of the few peaks higher than the one they’re nestled between, and Red takes a minute to think through his plan and pass some berries over his shoulder to his abra before raising his mental shields and heading for the doorway into the building.

His guards break off to the various forms of rest, though Jensen stays with him as he makes his way through the metal halls toward Looker’s office. The building was rapidly constructed in the space of a couple weeks, and it’s only now starting to have some more homely touches inserted, a potted plant here, a warm rug there. The rest is industrial style walls and lighting, and it’ll take a lot more plants and rugs to make Red feel less claustrophobic while he’s here.

He finds the Special Administrator’s office and the two wait in silence for a few minutes for Looker to arrive. Jensen doesn’t ask what Red and the others discovered, and Red doesn’t volunteer the info. For all that, the silence feels comfortable, and Red takes a moment to appreciate the hunter’s professionalism before deciding to just say that.

“Hey, Jensen.”

“Verres?”

“Thanks. For earlier.”

His guard blinks at him, then shrugs. “Sure. We’re meant to keep you safe, not run your life. Sorry if we’re too pushy, sometimes.”

“Yeah. I get it.”

Jensen nods, and they return to silence. Still, Red feels a bit lighter. Maybe all this would be easier than he thought.

Looker arrives a minute or two later, and nods to Jensen before carefully examining his office door, then unlocks it and goes inside. Red follows while Jensen stays in the hall, and closes the door behind him before he steps aside while Looker gives his office the full sweep, checking for anything from traps to bugs.

Finally he loops back and leans against the door, arms crossed. “Tell me.”

So Red tells him, starting with the suspicions he had months ago about the secret psychic research (leaving Sabrina out of it for now) and summarizing Leaf’s story before describing the events of the day. Halfway through Looker held a hand up to pause Red while he took out a phone and messaged someone, then moved away from the door to sit at his desk and gestured Red to continue. By the time Red is describing the contents of Leaf’s story Looker is up from the desk again and pacing the room, and he continues to do so after Red finishes with the discovery of the elevators.

Looker strides the length of his office twice more before turning to Red, brow raised. “And then?”

“That’s it, Sir. The rangers brought up the question of jurisdiction, and there’s the practical difficulties in delving underground given the damage—”

“That’s it?” Looker repeats, frowning now. “I almost came in here saying ‘someone better be dead or dying,’ but I didn’t want to discourage you if it was still important. This isn’t important. It’s nothing. Why am I here?”

“Because it may be nothing, or it may be the biggest break in the case we’ve had yet.” Not to mention a potential massive scientific discovery, or discovery-of-discovery, or discovery-of-breakthrough, or… something.

“I see the connections. Secret underground labs, conspiratorial pokemon research, organized renegade coverups. It makes a great story, but I’ve got enough of those things I know are real to investigate, and I don’t need to chase phantoms to hit paydirt. I’ll put someone on it—”

“That’s not good enough.”

Looker had just started to reach for the doorknob, and turns back. “Excuse me?”

“It’s not enough.” Red reminds himself that Looker needs him, that the whole region does. Maybe even the world, though that thought feels uncomfortable, and like a stretch. “This is big, Sir. Possibly as big as what led to the Hoenn Incident. If it wasn’t for the risk of collaborators I’d be going to Tsunemori about it, not to mention the League. Even CoRRNet should be in the know, but if any group is compromised then it’s the rangers on the island.”

Looker watches him a moment, then shakes his head. “Get Juniper to reveal her source, and I can have some guys dig around for how credible the story is. Or hell, get someone credible to confirm that the source is worth listening to, and I’ll bump it up the priority queue. But every agent I put on this is one I’m taking away from predicting an attack or finding an active base, and I expect the place you found to be scrubbed clean of anything actionable.”

“Even if it was destroyed by the quakes?”

Looker frowns at that, then begins pacing again, and Red wonders if a conversation between Leaf and him would have the two arguing while pacing around each other in a circle. He remembers having that feeling of needing to burn energy while thinking through things, but it’s been a while, for him.

“To be clear,” Looker says without stopping. “What happens if I say no, this isn’t worth more, and putting a couple people on it will have to be good enough?”

Red swallows, and takes a breath. This is it. The moment he decides whether he’s going to defer to Looker, or act independently.

Part of him thinks his position is too weak to make a stand like this. That he should wait until it’s something he really strongly believes in, or has strong evidence for, so that it’s more obviously worth the cost.

But he trusts Leaf, and he trusts his read of Sabrina, and whether he’s vindicated or not, he’s afraid that if he chooses not to push things here he’ll end up going back to the way he was before. He feels alive, nervous but present in a way that he doesn’t want to lose.

Red wonders if he should make a copy of the mental state and try using it later if he has to, but the thought reminds him that there may be other mental states he can use now as well. The first one that comes to mind is Blue’s battle calm, which Red has never used in a social situation before. He’s not sure how it would work, but as soon as he tries it, he feels detached from his nervousness, aware of only the goal and the steps between where things are now and where he wants things to be.

It seems like an improvement, and it only takes another few moments to think of his response. “Then I will tell Tsunemori, and hope she takes this more seriously. And if she doesn’t, I’ll have to spend my own time and connections and resources looking into it as best I can, because I think this is as important as anything else I’m doing.”

Looker’s gaze is locked on his, but it isn’t a challenge for Red to hold it, not with the calm around his shoulders like a chilling cloak. Looker would agree, and things would be fine, or he wouldn’t, and Red would have to figure out some new strategy, adapt to the new situation…

“Alright,” Looker says at last as he goes to sit at his desk, then starts typing something. “I’ll put Wanda and Darryl on it—”

“Not Darryl.”

Looker stops and squints at Red. “Why not Darryl?”

The words popped out before he could consider them, and Red decides to let the battle calm go, breathing a sigh out along with it. Now that he’s thinking normally again, the delayed surprise and nervousness catches up to him, and it takes a few moments to collect his thoughts. He goes to sit in the chair across from Looker meanwhile, trying not to look too relieved at how things have gone. “He’s… not imaginative. He’s a hard worker, and he’ll put the hours in, but he doesn’t have a passion for it.”

Looker leans back in his seat, still peering at Red like he’s seeing him for the first time. “And you know this because…?” He taps his temple, and Red nods. “Hm. We’ll have to talk about that later. Ichiro?”

Red grimaces. “He’ll hand me 500 pages to sort through myself.”

To his surprise, Looker grins. “True enough. Haven’t had the time to sit him down and talk about discernment. Murphy?”

Red considers his impressions of her. “Second pick. If she was a bit more experienced she might be first.”

“Who is your first, then?”

“You, Sir.”

Looker’s brow rises, and his lips purse. “Huh. Been a while since someone tried to manipulate me with flattery. Guess I come off as too much of a hardass.”

“It’s my honest take.” Looker’s words could have come out harsh or annoyed, but instead the agent just sounded grudgingly thoughtful, and Red relaxes further. “But yeah, kind of.”

Looker was about to start typing again and pauses. “Is that personal opinion, or what you’ve gleaned from others’ thoughts?”

“Both. To be clear, I haven’t gone into anyone’s thoughts, just the usual surface emotions.”

“Most psychics don’t pick up much from that, is what I’ve heard,” Looker comments, more thoughtful than accusatory, and continues on before Red can say anything. “But you’re not most psychics, I know. It’s too bad you’re so recognizable, you’d have made a fantastic spy.”

Red wants to argue, and not just because the thought of being a spy feels almost as aversive as the thing he’s doing now, whatever it is. But he knows Looker is right; the ability to fully inhabit another mental state could also make him a great actor, if he ever decided on that as a career.

He feels a bit like one now, playing a part he’s unsure of. But he’s willing to try the role out, and see how things go.

“So, Murphy is on lead, because I’m too busy, but I’ll give her a full squad.” Looker holds a palm up before Red can say anything. “Don’t push your luck, a squad is all I can spare right now. But I’m open to giving them more if they can find more, and if you can get someone to vouch for Juniper’s story.” He sighs and rubs his eyes. “I’ll probably have to read the damn thing myself, won’t I?”

“I just listen to it at 1.5x speed,” Red offers helpfully.

“Right,” Looker mutters, back to typing the new assignment up. “Any other requests, while you’re making them?”

“No, Sir. That was it.”

“Then go relieve Jensen and report to training, which you were supposed to be at two hours ago. And Red.”

“Yes, Sir?” Red pauses, hand on the doorknob as he meets Looker’s gaze.

“I appreciate what you’re trying here, and I can’t decide if I hope you’re right or wrong just yet, given the implications. But if you are wrong, it’s a bet that I expect you to take responsibility for. Understand?”

Red wants to say yes, wants to apologize. He also wants to bring the battle calm back, but he does neither. “I’m… not sure I do, Sir.”

“I’ll put it simply then. Organizations, particularly those like this one, use hierarchy because those above are expected to have knowledge and experience those below often don’t. If you want to call some shots here, I expect you to put the work in to climb the ranks. If people got special treatment or privileges in decision-making just based on how powerful they were…”

Red sees it. It’s an implicit criticism of the League system, but Red agrees with that anyway. “I understand.”

“Good.” Looker’s attention is back on his monitor as he types. “Join up, for real, or don’t, but the door’s open, so long as you’re willing to shut some others.”


The group flies around Cinnabar Island in a clockwise sweep, checking one potential ditto nest after another. It’s easy for Blue to keep his head in the game when they’re on the ground, cautiously checking for any signs of ecological disruption or nests of pokemon that are secretly ditto… but in the air, Blue’s thoughts are on the mansion, the notes for Leaf’s story, and the conversation about what might have been created in the underground lab.

That’s completely different. This hybrid is intelligent, can be reasoned with. Groudon and Kyogre weren’t people.”

Red’s position was predictable, in hindsight. He’s never exactly become deferential toward Leaf, but there was a shift, after the gap in their friendship (or maybe before the cruise convention) where he seemed to agree with Leaf more and more often, particularly about pokemon wellbeing. It normally doesn’t bother Blue, but in this case it chilled his blood to hear how casually they dismissed the implications of a pokemon as powerful as a legendary having human intelligence.

The fight over the masterball is all over the potential consequences of a human with a legendary on their belt. The hybrid, if real, seems obviously worse in every way. At least they could understand a human’s way of thinking, where their loyalties might lie, the strengths of their legendary and the weaknesses of the trainer.

The hybrid would be a mystery on every level. If it’s the one giving everyone the nightmares, it could probably kill them in their sleep if it wanted to. It might even be able to control them, subtly or directly. How would anyone know? How could they fight something like that?

This hybrid is intelligent, can be reasoned with…”

Blue understands why Red thinks that way. Reasoning through things is how he approaches everything, good and bad. It’s what Red knows.

But Blue knows power. And he knows that any reasoning they might try to do with a super powerful pokemon/human hybrid would be done at a distinct power disadvantage. Maybe it would be “reasonable” and maybe it wouldn’t, but that question is secondary to whether it cares at all about the things they do.

And if it doesn’t, then no amount of reason would stop it from doing what it wants with them.

At the time he hadn’t pushed his point further, not wanting to argue in front of the rangers and, frankly, taken aback by the casual acceptance of such an existential threat. But he’s still reeling at the implications of what Leaf shared with them, even setting aside his friends’ views.

“Next spot is coming up on the left, one minute,” Wendy says, and banks her pidgeot slightly to the left as she begins to descend. Blue adjusts Zephyr’s flightpath to follow, and tries to get his mind back on the task at hand.

Everyone else is quiet as they fly, thoughts probably on similar things. He wants to ask the rangers what they think of the hybrid, but he’s worried about how Leaf would respond, how the conversation might play out, how she might react to his own views… it feels shitty, thinking of her this way, treating her like a potential obstacle, and he wonders, as he guides Zephyr in for a landing, if he’s being too hasty. He should talk to her about it more, give her a chance to explain her perspective more fully… hell, he should probably read her story.

“Those bushes have been stripped bare,” Ira says while they dismount, not bothering to unsaddle and withdraw their fliers. “Recently. Wendy, Leaf, wide search? Hundred meters to start.”

“On it.” Wendy summons a growlithe and starts walking in a curving line, and Leaf follows after bringing out her nidorino.

“Five potential nesting sites I can see,” Ira says to Blue, who nods and summons Maturin to give cover while the ranger sends a rattata through various patches of underbrush, trying to flush out a response from any pokemon that might be inside them. They move slowly, ready for a sudden attack… but they finish clearing the area without incident, and soon after get a message from the girls about a verified vulpix nest nearby.

As they wait for them to return to their mounts, Blue lets his thoughts drift back to what they might find below the mansion as he feeds Zephyr and Crimson. After a minute he casually asks, “What do you think CoRRNet would do, if the hybrid turns out to be real?”

“Real in what way?”

“Alive. Powerful. Intelligent.”

“Hard to say. If it doesn’t attack any humans, or disrupt any ecosystems, my guess is we’d ignore it. Leave it up to the Leagues.” Ira shrugs. “Officially, anyway.”

“And unofficially?”

“Unofficiallyyy…” Ira drags the word out, drawl becoming more deadpan as he rubs his pidgeot’s beak. “Unofficially, every ranger I know would be thinking of how to stop it if we needed to.”

Blue nods, and wonders what Gramps would say. How the various Leaders would react, from Erika on one expected end to Surge on the other. He thought he’d have a hard time rallying the population against the Stormbringers, but only for practical reasons, safety and risk calculations that would always err on the status quo.

He wasn’t preparing to have to win a moral argument against fighting a threat on their level, but Ranger Neasman has reassured him, for now at least, that if he does have to fight that battle, he wouldn’t be alone.

119: Coverup

Even at first glance, with no new information to make her think her discovery meaningful, Leaf feels a touch of surreality upon looking at the mansion, and glances around for any ghost pokemon before staring back at it. It doesn’t match the one from her imagination, of course, but certain features, like the lack of road to it and the ocean surrounding most of the cliff, makes it feel that strange mix of real and unreal, like she did just stumble onto a replica from out of a daydream she had.

It’s also less overgrown than she’d have expected. The pit of rubble has grass growing in from the edges, and some vines wrapped around the walls have curled inward where half the structure collapsed to expose the rooms inside, but that’s it. The roof and walls of the uncollapsed side look almost entirely undamaged; even the windows are mostly whole. And while there’s some wind and rain damage to beds and carpets she can make out, the exposed wood doesn’t appear rotten or moldy.

“How long ago did you say this was built?” she asks Ranger Neasman.

“Records say nearly twenty years. It had a caretaker that was supposed to come to the island now and then, and he reported that it was destroyed during the Hoenn Incident.”

Blue, Ira, and Wendy are clearly being cautious as they sweep the perimeter for any sign of wild pokemon nesting nearby, while Red and his guards stay near her, idly investigating what they can from outside the building. They avoid stepping too close to the sloping, earth and rubble filled pit beside the mansion in case it’s prone to further collapse.

She explained her suspicions before they left, both to justify why this was so urgent and so they’d know what to look for. None of them read her story except Wendy and Red, but it was one of his guard who asked outright where the information for it came from, which she said she couldn’t answer. They seemed unhappy with that, but with Blue and Red backing her up, and Wendy showing clear urgency too, no one argued against going.

Red’s expression of engaged curiosity is nostalgic, and makes her apprehension about spilling part of her secret feel more worthwhile. She flags her location to Laura specifying the location just in case something happens to them, then after a moment’s thought does the same for Janine as well.

“Everyone unsummon your pokemon,” Ranger Neasman says, then pauses as he remembers Red’s abra hanging off his back. “That one’s fine.” Once the rest are withdrawn, he brings out a zubat.

His pokemon flaps around at random for a moment, then begins to fly in a clear pattern. “There are definitely pokemon inside,” Neasman says as his zubat flies in a specific pattern. “At least four different species, and at least six of them in total.”

“Doesn’t seem so bad,” Blue notes.

“The at least is important.” The ranger shrugs. “She can’t count too high.”

“He can,” Blue says, sticking a thumb at Red.

“At least a dozen,” Red says, smiling slightly. “But some might be dark, obviously. And bugs are hard to sense, particularly if they’re not active.”

Ranger Neasman looks a little embarrassed, but nods. “Right. Thanks.” He reaches up to his earpiece. “I’m calling for sup—”

“Wait.”

Everyone turns to Leaf, and her mind races to come up with something she can say that would make sense. “Do we… need to involve others if we don’t even know there are ditto here?”

“True, it could be a waste of time. But we’re not a proper scouting party, we’re just trying to get eyes on nests and take easy wins. A place like this, we should at least get one of the local outposts to send some people.”

“What’s wrong, Leaf?” Red asks.

Leaf eyes the rangers. The cadet is from another region, but… “How long have you guys been stationed here at Cinnabar, Ranger Neasman?”

“‘Bout six years. Brought my family over after two.” His posture and voice are relaxed as he looks over the manor, not turning to her as he casually asks, “You about to accuse me of something?”

Wendy frowns and gives Leaf a hostile look, but Blue just looks intrigued, and Red thoughtful. “No. But if I’m right about this place, some local rangers must have been in on it.”

“That’s crazy,” Wendy says. “Why would rangers—”

“I didn’t say they were. Only that they would have to be, if I’m right. Which I’m probably not. But on the chance I am, it’s not worth the risk.”

“The risk of what, exactly? You think they’ll attack us?” He glances at Red’s guards. Or maybe just Red.

“No. But if they join the search, maybe they’d know where to direct it so we don’t stumble onto anything we shouldn’t. Maybe they’ll even find evidence they need to cover up.”

“If this place was part of some conspiracy, surely they would have cleaned the evidence up before they abandoned it.”

Leaf had considered that, of course. “I know it’s not a lot to go on, but—”

“But you’ve had experience with secret conspiracies before, I don’t,” the ranger says, and smiles as Leaf doesn’t hide her surprise. “What? When you’re right, you’re right. I can’t guarantee that local rangers wouldn’t have been in on some shit, much as I’d like to.”

“It’s an unnecessary risk,” one of Red’s guards says. “Looker—”

“Isn’t my boss. Technically, neither is Director Tsunemori.” Red crosses his arms. “Feel free to call them, but it’s not a discussion. If they go in, I go in.”

Despite his words it’s clear to Leaf at least that Red isn’t as sure as he sounds, and Leaf suddenly realizes that she’s been thinking of them as guards to keep Red safe. But they’re likely to also be guards here to keep others safe from Red, or report if he misuses his powers. Which means Red is testing them, in a way that he might not have had the chance to before.

Would they try to stop him? And what should Leaf do, if they do?

Eventually the tall one sighs. “Of course. Just try to keep in mind what could happen if something happens to you, and remember that the rest of us are here to keep you safe. We’re not going to just stand around and watch if you’re taking risks, which means you decide what risks we take.”

Red’s expression softens as he absorbs this, then nods. “Understood. But really, you guys just continuing to watch our perimeter as you normally would is probably for the best in any case, since we still want to minimize surprises of any kind. What we do here probably isn’t going to be much of a risk at all.” He turns to smile at her and Blue. “Not if we do it right.”

Blue grins. “Just like old times, huh?”

“Better,” Leaf says as she smiles back at them, fingers tracing over Raff’s ball. “Because now we can do so much more.”


“Check check, final position check.” Ranger Neasman’s voice is a smooth drawl in Leaf’s earpiece, and she looks up to see him circling overhead on his pidgeot. “Ready up here.”

“Ready,” Leaf says, standing on a container box in front of the manor and ensuring the straps around her facemask are tight for the fifth time.

“Ready,” Blue says from her left side, followed by Wendy’s “Ready” on her right.

“Ready,” Red says from beside his alakazam on a stable spot on the roof above them. He’d grumbled a little about being the one that’s going on a high place again, but it seemed mostly performative. He’s holding a fishing rod, its fake lumineon bait staring at her with wide eyes from the grass in front of her. He apologized about it, which she thought was unnecessary but sweet, but her gaze does keep going back to it more than she’d like.

“Ready,” echo Red’s guards from their patrolling perimeter.

“That’s full ready. Alright folks, we’re good to go. On you, Juniper.”

Leaf carefully opens her jar of combee honey. Despite the busy year, each drop is so effective that it’s still half full; she carefully crouches to take the lure and dip it into the jar, then back out without letting the honey smear anywhere else. Once it’s clear she flashes a thumbs up, and Red starts reeling it up.

Leaf quickly tucks the rest of the bottle back into its container, then says, “Ready for wind, going mute.”

Above her Red feeds his Alakazam some chesto berries while Leaf swaps her headset to produce white noise, then braces herself just as the wind from the ranger’s flier starts gusting past them.

It’s from far enough behind that they’re in no danger of being knocked over, but the plastic lumineon bobs wildly as it’s whipped toward the half-exposed mansion. It only lasts for a few moments, and then the wind fades and the lure swings back and forth above the grass… just as the first pokemon come darting out at it.

Leaf knows Red is holding the fishing rod loose, ready to let go if it gets grabbed, but meanwhile he does his best to reel and swing it up and out of reach of the leaping growlithe that runs out first. It’s big, definitely big enough to evolve if it gets enough exposure to firestones, and its teeth snap just shy of the lure as Red frantically yanks it up. It tries again, then tracks the aromatic fish for a moment, causing Red to jerk the fishing rod to the side a moment before it spits out a stream of fire.

Leaf’s whole body is tense, ready for the growlithe to notice her at any moment, but Red keeps its attention on the fish while predicting it long enough for the rest of its pack to arrive, as well as a family of raticate/rattata and some vulpix.

As soon as the pokemon start attacking each other in their struggle for the lure, Leaf summons Joy and commands her to sing.

The wild rattata and raticate are the first to drop, followed a few seconds later by some of the growlithe. The biggest one and the vulpix hold out long enough to turn toward Joy.

The growlithe stumbles as it charges forward, either from the song or from a mental attack by Red’s alakazam, whose berries helped it resist the effects of Joy’s song, but the vulpix sends out a gout of flame. Leaf’s chest burns in empathy as the faint warble of Joy’s voice that she can barely make out through the whitenoise cuts off.

She swaps her wigglytuff out for Hops, which signals everyone to go audial again and frees them to bring out their own pokemon.

Blue sends Rive and Maturin out against the growlithe and two vulpix while Wendy starts throwing balls to capture the sleeping mon. Leaf commands her nidorino to stay and guard her, then brings Joy back out, potions in hand to start spraying over the harsh burns along her quivering flesh.

“More coming,” Red says, and Leaf turns to see a cloud of purple smog emerging from the manor’s shadowed innards.

“Coming around for another gust!”

“Almost got them all!” Wendy locks another pair of balls on a raticate and a growlithe, then throwing, capturing them just as they stir awake. “Three more… one…”

The last growlithe regains its senses in time to dodge her throw, but gets blasted by a jet of water from Maturin before it can attack. “Do it!” Blue calls just as Wendy catches it.

The smog is just starting to reach Red and his alakazam when the burst of air blows it back into the mansion to reveal a small swarm of muk, grimer, weezing, and koffing. Three of them aren’t moving, probably thanks to Red, but the rest start shooting jets of acid and globs of gunk at them, causing them to scatter.

“Horn Attack!” Leaf yells as she leaps back onto her container box, withdrawing Joy along the way. When she turns around, Wendy has summoned a ponyta, who attacks alongside Blue’s rhydon. They can’t be sure how many ditto are in the mansion, so made sure to pick melee pokemon that can be easily taken down by their ranged ones.

Thankfully none of those they battle do transform, and with Ranger Neasman’s continued gusts to disrupt the poisonous attacks, the four of their pokemon are able to defeat and capture the wilds. Leaf’s heart is racing as she scans the area a few times over, but no new pokemon come out from the mansion, nor do any dig out of the ground beneath them.

After another few breaths, Red says, “None incoming.”

“Anything still inside?” Ranger Neasman asks.

“Nothing new.”

Tension starts to ease out of Leaf, but back down to combat readiness as she calls Hops back and brings Joy back out to fully heal both. Her mind does the usual thing of replaying over the battle, but she also finds her attention circling the way Red responded to the ranger’s question. In the old days, being asked a question like that might have gotten a response like “Not that I can sense, but there might be dark pokemon” or “not in my range, but remember that there might be more deeper down.”

Instead he concisely and clearly communicated what he sensed and what he didn’t. The benefit of all his training, no doubt, and a good one. But it also makes her feel a pang of distance, of him pulling away from them.

“Ready for second lure,” she says once her pokemon are healed and she’s back on the container box.

“Almost,” Blue says as he finishes putting the new captures in a spare bag, then gets on his container box and summons a set of speakers. He tips them down to face the ground with a heavy whump, then flashes a thumbs up. “Ready.”

Leaf looks up to see Red carefully lowering the fishing rod and honeyed bait into a container box, which he withdraws before saying, “Ready.”

“Go, Raff!” Leaf’s ivysaur’s bud is nearly as tall as she is, and his body is as wide around as her bed. When she unclips her laser pointer and starts dragging it around with a command of “Sleep Powder,” the plants on his back start to jet out plumes of shimmering blue pollen, more emerging in seconds than he was able to produce in one sitting when she first got him.

“Go, Shimmer!”

“Go, Butterfree!”

“Go, Lady!”

The venomoth, butterfree, and tangela all appear, then get commands to join Raff in coating the ground around them with various powders and spores. Soon it looks like the whole area around them has been covered in pastel snow, and Leaf kicks a small pile off the edge of her box, covering a bit more of the green around her. “I think we’re good.”

“Starting.” Blue taps at his phone screen a few times, looks around once more to ensure everyone is prepared, then taps once more.

The vibrations are muffled, but strong enough that even through the grass some of the pollen immediately around the speakers kicks up in a faint haze. The noise isn’t quite music, instead being a rhythmic pattern that isn’t created by the throat of any pokemon, but rather the vibrations they make as they dig.

Most burrowing pokemon communicate through sounds of claws against earth, though it’s usually pretty low range. While there’s no guarantee that a mix of mating rhythms and food signals from sandshrew, diglett, rattata, and other digging pokemon on the island will bring them all to the surface, it’ll probably bring the most adventurous ones.

This might be overkill,” Ranger Neasman said with a frown as he studied the list. “That mansion, or whatever it is, looks unstable, and a dozen or more pokemon digging around beneath us all at once might destabilize something.”

Plus,” Wendy added, “This one might actually disrupt the local ecosystem. The mansion is a new biome that’s at least somewhat isolated, but if we remove all the burrowing pokemon around…”

I’ll be sure to place it far from the base,” Blue says. “And better we know now rather than later if some digging will cause more to collapse. If the house starts to break down Red can just port away.”

And don’t worry about the biome,” Leaf said, and smiled at the ranger cadet. “I think I’ve got something for that.”

Leaf counts a rapid thirty-seven heartbeats before the first sandslash pops up in a shower of dirt and cloud of spores. Leaf thinks it looks very cute covered in colorful powder as it looks curiously around, but a moment later it sniffs, then slumps unconscious and slides halfway back into its hole.

Another pops up to their left, followed by a raticate just in front of Leaf. Each burrowing pokemon is quickly knocked out by the carpet of sleep powder all over the grass, then captured by one of the safari balls that Leaf handed out earlier. Leaf catches five herself, staying vigilant for any pokemon that might be resistant to the powder or dig their way out in the wrong place.

None reach come up under any of their container boxes, thankfully, but after the fourteenth pokemon appears there’s a series of crunching, cracking sounds as a sandslash tears its way through the speakers. Sparks fly, but it merely looks around in confusion before being tagged by Blue. It’s hard to make out his expression from this distance and the facemask, but she can imagine his scowl.

Leaf starts to worry they’ll run out of safari balls, but the time between each new pokemon appearing gets longer and longer until nearly a full minute passes without any new one appearing. “I think that’s it?” Wendy finally says.

“Yeah, nothing in range.” Red and Alakazam were their first line of defense against any pokemon that didn’t fall asleep, and now Red swaps him for a machamp (that he apparently now has), whose back he climbs onto so he can hang from its neck as it quickly climbs down. The rest of them withdraw their container boxes, then she and Blue collect the safari balls and clear the area so Red, Wendy, and Joey can use their fire pokemon to burn the carpet of spores away.

Maturin sprays a fine shower over the area after to dampen the embers, and then they regather as the smoke rises in a fine haze. “Smooth,” Ranger Neasman says as he lands beside them. “Very smooth. Nice job, everyone.”

“That was textbook!” Wendy is grinning at the three of them. “I didn’t think the stories about you were fake or anything, but it’s different seeing it in person. You could nearly be full rangers!”

“Yeah, we’ve still got it.” Blue holds out a pair of fists, and Leaf shares a smile with Red before, holding out her own so that she can form a triangle with the boys.

Wendy hefts one of the safari balls, examining its beige and green lid. “I still can’t believe they let you travel with these. They’re that confident they’ll work?”

“They have to test them on pokemon outside the Zone somehow. But yeah, the early results have been good.”

The latest fruit of the project she started, these new balls are specially programmed to have just one training outcome: total paralysis. It’s illegal for any pokeball to not condition the pokemon they catch to be safe upon release, but with just one condition imposed, they’ve been able to come up with a (hopefully universal) deconditioning program so that anything caught in them can be re-released into the wild. Useless for most trainers, but a great boon to rangers, and it’s one step closer to the more selective re-conditioning.

And of course she was cleared by a psychic for intent, but that part probably goes without saying.

“So, we’re clear to go in?” Leaf asks the rangers.

“For now. First sign of a ditto nest, we call in support.” Neasman finishes caring for his pidgeot, then withdraws it and switches in a wartortle to counter Wendy’s geodude in case a ditto copies it.

Instead of climbing over the rubble the way the pokemon did, they strap on their headlamps and walk around the building until they reach the main doors on the mostly undamaged side. From up close she can see more cracks, but nothing looks broken but a few windows that litter the grass with twinkling glass.

Leaf can’t help but think of Aiko as she looks at the damaged building, and a glance at Red and Blue makes it clear she’s not alone. Anxiety, grief, empathy, and simple fear well up inside her, and she almost calls it all off; they could get demolition experts here, have them make sure the building is safe to explore… but once they involve outsiders the chance of a leak skyrockets, and Leaf can’t risk that.

“Be careful,” is all she says, and turns on her headlamp before carefully opening the front doors to illuminate an entrance hall of white and pink marble. Blue walks over to a light switch and flips it a few times, then Ranger Neasman cracks some glowsticks and tosses them around before they spread out through the open space with their pokemon. Her raticate Sticks scampers forward, while Red steps steadily behind his bold ivysaur and Blue walks beside his shiny umbreon (after it evolved, it stopped feeling to Leaf like Aiko’s eevee).

There are fewer signs of damage inside, but still some. Fallen plaster speckles the black and white tiles on the floor, but it’s the signs of pokemon habitation that has Leaf stepping cautiously through the entrance hall. She looks up, light reflecting off a chandelier hanging above the second floor, then traces a path down one of the curving stairs and toward a hallway that leads through the building.

“Halls are too cramped for us all to move through them,” Ranger Neasman says as he summons a container box full of glowsticks tied together in long chains they can loop over their necks. “Use one of these to mark each room you’ve explored. I’ll take Wendy upstairs, we can check-in every five minutes.”

“So we’re looking for the elevator, right?” Wendy asks Leaf. “Or stairs, maybe, leading down to the lower labs?”

“That would be ideal, though obviously we shouldn’t go down without more precautions. Still, if it was all destroyed then there might not be an obvious way down, so… just look for any evidence that this place isn’t what it seems.”

“Right. See you soon.”

Leaf, Red, and Blue watch the rangers climb up to the second floor, then make their way from room to room, checking for pokemon and taking pictures of all the abandoned luxury. Fully furnished bedrooms, lounges, and kitchenettes sit gathering dust, mattresses bare and fridges empty. The end of the initial hall has a large picture window set in it, and Leaf peers through the spiderweb of cracks to see an overgrown garden in the manor’s central courtyard before turning left to pass through a dining hall, where long mahogany tables still stand sturdy, though the china cabinet doors hang off their hinges, glassware shattered across the floor.

“Brings back memories, huh?” Blue mutters, and Leaf nods. Many houses and apartments had damage like this after the Hoenn Incident, and this place feels frozen in time to just after it happened.

After ten minutes without any pokemon appearing and all-clear check-ins from the rangers, it’s hard to maintain vigilance, and soon the exploration starts to feel more… fun. Red calls them over when he ducks his head through a door and finds a massive library, books strewn across the floor and some shelves collapsed. Blue lets out a low whistle as he looks up, and when they follow suit three cones of light illuminate an intricate fresco that spans the domed ceiling. They find game rooms with ping pong and pool tables, as well as board games and a big open space with some simulation equipment nearby. Blue gets diverted for a few minutes by some pokemon training rooms, and checks if there’s backup power to the PC.

“Think there’s anything in it?” he asks once it fails to boot up. “Maybe we should take it with us.”

“If there was some conspiracy here, it would count as evidence, and we shouldn’t tamper with it,” Leaf says as she heads back toward the hall. “And if it wasn’t, we’d just be stealing.”

Red is waiting outside the room, and his expression immediately puts her on high alert. “What’s up?”

“Got a sleeping mind nearby,” Red mutters. “Three or four bedrooms down.”

They follow his gaze and see a slight glow coming out of the room. “Can you keep it asleep?” Blue whispers.

“No. Calm, maybe, if it wakes.”

“Fingers crossed.” Blue eases by, Xenon’s rings shimmering a faint blue in the dark at his side, then Leaf turns to watch their back, trusting Red to ensure he’s safe as he looks into one door after another.

Until she hears the ping, after which she can’t help but turn and watch him chuck a ball into one. He goes in after it, then returns with a greatball bouncing in his hand. “Magmar. Any others? And anyone want it?”

“Not that I can sense, and no, I’m good,” Red says. “New pokemon isn’t really a bottleneck for me anymore.”

“I’ll take it,” Leaf says on sudden impulse, before she can talk herself out of it.

Both of them turn to Leaf in surprise, but Blue tosses the ball over without a word. Leaf catches it reflexively. She knows they know she’s not a huge fan of fire types, since it’s so hard to fight nonlethally with them… but that hole in her teams feels less and less excusable, particularly if she faces renegades.

Part of her wants them to ask about it, but neither does, and she decides she’ll bring it up later, when they’re in less perilous circumstances. “Let them know what we found?” she asks as she brings her pokedex out to register her new pokemon.

“Sure.”

Once Blue relays their encounter, they keep moving, occasionally checking in with the rangers as they explore for nearly half an hour, looking for any hint of secrets in the mansion’s past. Leaf’s not exactly sure what that would look like, but she trusts she’d know it if she sees it as they pass from room to room, still finding new ones between the endless bedrooms, bathrooms, and kitchens.

One for music, its piano and drum sets covered in sheets but various other instruments scattered across the floor, some in cases and others bare. Another gaming room, a sauna, a massage parlor, even a miniature barbershop. It’s like the manor was a whole town in miniature, every need predicted and taken care of.

“There’s a lot of stuff,” Red muses as they look over the equipment in a fitness center. “I’m trying to imagine this place as a kind of… stationary version of the cruise convention, but there’s still more than I’d expect. Why not clear it out after the quakes?

“Been wondering the same thing,” Leaf says. “But I’m not sure if it’s a clue, or just… I don’t know. A mix of laziness and wealth?”.

“If it was properly cleaned out we’d probably be wondering why there’s not more stuff around,” Blue says. “It takes time and effort to gather up and transfer stuff, even with teleportation. Add in the chance of wild pokemon sneaking in and the owner probably decided it’s not worth the effort.” He shrugs. “Some rich people are careful with their money, but others are just as wasteful as everyone else, and it’s just more noticeable cuz they have so much stuff.”

As they finally reach the exposed rooms they start to step more carefully, and Leaf’s confidence that she’d be able to tell if she saw something is starting to wane. She pokes her head through each door just to be thorough, but some of the passages are blocked by rubble here, and eventually they double back to meet the rangers at the entrance hall for a debrief.

“Pretty sure we hit everything on the second floor,” Ranger Neasman says as he feeds his wartortle some berries. “Mostly bedrooms and offices, a few places for socializing and entertainment. Nothing that stood out.”

“Same for us,” Blue says as he opens one of Glen’s energy drinks and takes a swallow. “I mean it’s a little weird, but not suspicious, I think?”

As the others go over what they found and their theories, Leaf walks a slow circle through the lobby, brow furrowed. She can recognize the pit of stubbornness at the center of her confusion, the feeling of not wanting to admit that she was wrong… but she should be relieved, right? Why was she so sure in the first place that she’d spot something, if there was something to spot?

“I’m approaching this wrong,” Leaf says after a minute. She turns to the others, who are listening attentively. “If I really take this seriously… if it was actually covering up a secret lab… the people in charge wouldn’t have just left it as it is after the earthquake, or the pokemon attack, or whatever happened here.”

“You’re saying we missed the signs of whatever they changed?” Red asks. “Or that you think this wasn’t the lab after all?”

“I’m not sure. But if the lab mansion exists, wherever it is, if it’s still standing then we have to assume something was changed after it was abandoned. They could have taken out all the lab equipment and filled this place with beds and pianos and anyone who comes by would just conclude there’s nothing special here.”

“Why not just raze the building entirely, then?” Ranger Neasman asks. “The owner for this one could have just written it off as a total loss, which it looks like it is, and demolished all that’s left here. They’re probably still planning to do it, but if so I wouldn’t even say they’re dragging their feet a suspicious amount of time. Sometimes these things go slow.”

It’s a good question, and it stymies Leaf for a moment. She was assuming the quakes led to the lab’s shutdown because that’s how Fuji’s notes had it, but what if he just added that after to make it resonate better with what people have gone through? But if she starts doubting the outline she has no reason to believe there was any secret lab at all…

“Maybe they didn’t want the attention,” Wendy says. “There have been rangers scouting all over the island since the ditto appeared. Even if the people who come to bring the building down have the right paperwork, they’d probably need to have rangers on site to make sure no ditto were nesting here, just like we’re doing.”

“It’s possible…” Leaf runs a hand over a crack in the wall. “I think we have to assume these people in charge of this hypothetical lab include people at least as smart as us, and that they had plenty of opportunity to cover their tracks in a way that’s most beneficial to their goals, even if we don’t know exactly what those are.”

“We’re pretty sunk if that’s true,” Red says, looking around. “If we assign them an arbitrary amount of intelligence and resources, then there would be no way to distinguish the reality they’re creating from the actual one.”

“Not arbitrary, just… enough to fool anyone with a reasonable chance of piercing the illusion.” Leaf thought back to conversations she had with Laura about her training in investigating coverups. “Every change they make leaves some irregularity, if we just know enough to find it. With enough knowledge and resources of our own we could, I don’t know, study the patterns of destruction and see if any of it doesn’t fit the rest… an expert on earthquakes would be helpful.”

Wendy sits up. “Oo, we can find purchasing patterns for furniture like these and see if there was a recent spike!”

“Or carbon date the furniture to see if a batch of it is all much newer than others,” Blue suggests.

“Or something like it,” Red adds, “Since actual carbon dating wouldn’t help with things younger than 500 years.”

Ranger Neasman nods. “So that’s it, right? Do some research and ask around, quietly, for some experts to quietly consult.”

“Yeah, and I think Mom or the Professor or Looker can recommend some we can trust.”

Leaf bites her lower lip. It does seem like the most sensible plan, now that she’s confronted the scope of the problem. What would it take to see through an illusion by someone equally smart (if not smarter) and able to set the stage to their liking? A dedicated team here to find a lab if there is one would break through the facade no matter how hard they tried covering it up.

But she still worries about information slipping out. The more time passes before she figures things out, the more likely those who built the lab catch wind of them poking around. Hell, a single hidden camera here with a battery would be enough to let them know… why hadn’t she thought of that earlier? Not that there’s anything she could do about it…

Frustration sits like a heavy stone in Leaf’s gut, and goes to one of the broken windows to take a deep breath, centering herself in the scent of ocean and grass, and the sensations of warm sunlight and cool wind. Over the past few months her confusion, fear, and helplessness have threatened to overwhelm her as she tried to walk the balance between doing something about the secrets she knew and not making things worse. Dr. Fuji’s cryptic thank you/goodbye card only made things worse, but this is her chance to actually make progress in some way, and she can’t let negativity keep her from acting.

So, a reverse premortem: start from the assumption that she figures things out. If she does, what would cause that to happen?

When she puts it like that, it feels more obvious. If a well-made illusion was constructed here, and she pierced it, it would be because she had an edge, something the crafters wouldn’t expect a random curious passerby to have.

Maybe a kind of expertise like the others mentioned. Maybe familiarity with the location, or those who came here. Or maybe…

…maybe a thing like what brought her here in the first place.

The thought feels like a spark at the base of her skull, spreading energy through her body, and she quickly takes out her phone. “New plan. I’m going to share the notes of the person whose story I’m helping write. It’s pretty long, but we can at least all skim it, look for something that gives us some clue we’re on the right track.”

She’s speaking quickly, feeling energized, and after she sends the document out to them she finally looks up to see them watching her. “I mean… assuming that’s okay with you guys? I know this has already taken a lot of time, but…”

Wendy bites her lip and looks at Ranger Neasman, who rubs his chin. “Alright, but if we’re going to be doing some reading, let’s do it outside. We can make a picnic out of it.”

They do so, bringing more pokemon out so some can stand guard while those that went through the building with them can relax. As they summon containers of food, Red calls his escort to invite them to eat together, but they decline, sounding to Leaf’s ear professionally displeased by the longer time this would all take.

Still, Red doesn’t give them an opportunity to argue, which shifts Leaf’s perspective a bit more about what their relationship is, exactly, and makes her feel a little better about the whole thing.

Leaf breaks the outline up into five sections and assigns each one to read over, and soon they’re digging into various salads and sandwiches while scrolling on their phones. It’s the most silent picnic she’s ever been on, just the sounds of their eating mixing with the occasional whipping gust of wind.

The outline was a mix of bullet points and brief bits of prose, and occasionally she’d come across something that felt so poignant or vivid that she thought Fuji sold his writing ability short. Leaf gets distracted, now and then, by taking in their surroundings, usually after reading some segment of prose describing (always in passing) some detail of the lab or island.

She can still faintly smell the burnt grass on the other side of the mansion where they fought the wilds, but around her it’s grown tall from months without upkeep. Wind and rain did their part to erode the exposed side, but from here she can ignore the broken windows and cracks, almost picture what it would have looked like, felt like, to stand here on a lonely cliff on an island, and feel like it was the whole of it…

“Teleported in supplies,” Wendy notes, eyes on her screen. “Probably nothing, and the fridges I checked were all empty, but did anyone check the spare toilet paper? Probably not traceable, but…”

“It’s something,” Leaf says. “Make a shared doc, start a list?”

“On it.”

“Something I don’t get,” Red says, words slow and thoughtful. “If this story was meant to help people uncover the plot, what stopped the writer from just revealing it?”

Leaf keeps her gaze on her screen to hide her internal battle. Does Fuji’s disappearance mean she should be more free to share his secrets? But no, Red’s point still holds, if he thought that was the best thing to do he wouldn’t need her at all. Still, what if his abrupt disappearance was in anticipation of the secret getting out? He’d definitely want to avoid punishment if so.

“I’m not sure, but… I think the goal of the story isn’t to reveal the lab. It’s to prepare society for what was in it.”

“A human pokemon hybrid.” Ranger Neasman’s tone isn’t skepticism so much as that of a man trying to ensure he understands something properly. “One powerful enough to take down legendaries.”

“Yes,” Leaf says with more confidence than she feels, and adds, “Probably. It’s why they wouldn’t just share their work in a lab like this; they care about its wellbeing. Alerting the world to its existence before it’s ready would be a betrayal. Maybe they guessed that sooner or later someone would stumble onto the mansion and ask questions, but they also probably trust their former employers to cover things up.”

“Then…” Red shifts his weight as he takes another bite of his carrot and holds the remaining nub over his shoulder for his abra to eat. “Maybe this is a silly question, but… do we want to actually find this thing? I mean, speaking as someone who’s had to hold a pretty big secret for a while, I’d like to think I had good reason to—”

“If you hadn’t, Rocket wouldn’t have underestimated you, and they’d have the Master Ball now,” Blue says. “Or, more realistically, everyone in Silph that day would have been killed by the hunters.”

Red holds a hand up to forestall any more argument, though Leaf thinks he looks secretly pleased. “I’m glad it worked out. But in this case we’d have to tell someone right away, right?”

He doesn’t look at the rangers, but he doesn’t have to. “I would be obligated to report any sign of… this… to my superiors,” Ranger Neasman confirms, frowning at his phone. “I just got to the part where it has three times the range of an alakazam. A psychic with that kind of power would be nearly impossible to catch by surprise.”

“Wait till you reach the part where it flies,” Wendy murmurs.

“Where it what?

“I’m with him, this can’t be kept secret,” Blue says. “If it’s real, if they actually created this thing… it’s as bad as the Hoenn Incident. Maybe worse.”

Leaf opens her mouth, but Red beats her to it. “That’s completely different. This hybrid is intelligent, can be reasoned with. Groudon and Kyogre weren’t people.”

He gives Leaf a guilty glance a moment later, but she smiles and waves it off, still mulling over the original question. She saw it coming a moment before he asked it, as she was still speaking, and it formed a pit in her stomach. “I don’t know,” she admits. Maybe all this was a mistake… if Fuji is the unnamed doctor in the story, maybe she should respect his decision…

Then she remembers what Ranger Neasman said, and realizes the decision isn’t up to her anymore. Not unless she calls it off here, declares it all a mistake, hopes he doesn’t follow up, and maybe comes back on her own. Or Red could come with her, try tunneling under the manor with his ground pokemon from a safe distance to see if they could find the lab… but if that causes a full collapse, would the rangers guess what they’d done? They have legal cover for poking around the ruined manor while ostensibly looking for ditto, but deliberately damaging the property while looking for what might just turn out to be a regular basement could be trouble, and she doesn’t need Laura to warn her about getting on the bad side of someone rich enough to own this place. Not to mention, tipping them off if they did build a secret lab here…

“I see the similarities,” Wendy says as Leaf is battling her indecision. The young ranger hasn’t stopped reading as she slurps up noodles, looking fascinated at what to her must be a behind-the-scenes glimpse of a story she’s been enjoying for months now. “But there are some major differences too, ones that would be a hassle to add after, like the pool.”

“It specifies that there’s no pool?” Red asks, leaning over to look. Wendy tilts her phone in his direction. “Huh. That’s… conspicuous, right? Why go out of his way to mention that?””

“His style is—” Leaf almost said was— “to just write out any thoughts he has, at different levels of detail. It’s not clear he wanted to include everything in the final story, and…” And maybe they changed since he left, Leaf muses. But that might be revealing too much. “The story spans ten years, not all the differences need to have been from a cover-up.”

“The way the teams of people are described here and in your story, they had a wide mix of specialists,” Red says, then looks around at them. “Did any of you guys find any computers? We found just a few, like in the training room.”

There’s a momentary silence, then some head shakes. “They would definitely take any with anything damning on them,” Blue says.

“But is there a suspicious lack of any?”

“Not… really?” Wendy frowns.

Ranger Neasman nods. “People wouldn’t need PCs in their rooms if they bring laptops, and they can use the communal ones for storage and pokemon needs.”

Leaf nods, then ducks her head back to look over the story outline again. Something they wouldn’t expect others to know… something that gives me unfair help in pinpointing things…

She starts to pay extra attention to the details about the narrator’s daily life, scant though they are, his routine, his observations about the things around him. She didn’t include all of the details from the outline, which Dr. Fuji seemed fine with, but she remembers the choice for each, how some seemed to flow naturally into the chapters she felt an urge to write and some would have felt tacked on, out of place, or like they slowed things down too much…

Something itches at her as she reads a description of the doctor’s commute to the basement lab, and before she realizes it she’s on her feet.

“I have to check something,” she says, and makes her way back toward the manor, calling for her pokemon to come with her. She hears the others scramble to follow, and distantly wonders how she looked and sounded, but most of her focus is on what’s ahead, on what feels like half a memory and half a fiction…

Through the hall, then following it around the central garden, to the broken side of the manor, and all the while her head is tilted up, her eyes watching the ceiling, until she slows as her feet start to kick pieces of rubble.

“Leaf?”

She turns her head as if to look at him, but doesn’t take her eyes off the ceiling. There’s a crack running through it, but here it shines a burnished gold, a crystal chandelier hanging below it, and words float through her mind, words she read long ago and just reread now…

each day I would walk that hall of white and gold, a gilded cage for wealthy jailors who were themselves jailed, to take the elevator down to our captive…

“What do you see?”

“Maybe nothing,” she says, but she’s walking now, walking the path described in Dr. Fuji’s notes.

She’s vaguely aware of Red in particular following her beneath the chandelier, of his curious gaze watching her take in the room, each hall, trying to navigate by a map made through some unknown blend of memory and imagination. Could it just be a coincidence? Perhaps there was some conference here that Fuji attended while younger, which acted as inspiration…

Each path leads too far, and she circles back to the chandelier room again and again until she starts to despair the hall he described was in the collapsed side of the manor, chunks of concrete and marble and earth sloping into the crushed pit… but there’s one left…

…one blocked entirely by rubble.

She quietly stares at it, and Red stands quietly beside her. Part of her wants to feel frustrated, another relieved, but she ignores both because they’re not done yet. She has to be sure.

No words pass between them, and then Red summons his machamp and mentally sends him forward to start moving the stones.

First a big slate from the top is dexterously passed between the machamp’s four hands to be set against the wall beside them, then a smaller, thicker piece of ceiling is placed on the other side. The others gather quickly when they hear the sound of heavy stone shifting and cracking against the ground, and soon smaller pieces of both wall and ceiling start to get lifted out in each hand, and they shift to give the pokemon space to move it all. Ranger Neasman summons an electabuzz who, with a point and a command, starts to carry the broken pieces away toward the pit.

Leaf stands silent and wary, gaze on the ceiling for any fresh cracks or signs of shifting walls. When Red makes a noise beside her, she finally looks down again, and she’s not sure what she was expecting, exactly, but the sight of the elevator doors still her breath.

Got you, she thinks, though she’s still not sure to who.

118: Responsibility

Chapter 118: Responsibility

When the invitation to meet at Cinnabar came, Leaf almost took a ferry from Pallet Town before deciding it’s been too long since she had an adventure with her pokemon. Crimson and Wiseguy could use the stamina training, and she’d get to explore some of the less tamed parts of the region as they made rest stops on the tiny islands along the way.

That, and it would mean a smaller chance of being attacked by ninja renegades. Or at least, a smaller chance of endangering others if she is.

There are other benefits too, like time to herself to just let her mind wander and process stuff. Stuff like the existence of said ninja renegades and the implications on the history of the regions. Stuff like the Thank You card she got from Dr. Fuji before he apparently packed his things and just vanished. Stuff like the related stories she’s been writing, from broad strokes to the way to frame certain scenes. There’s no shortage of things to think about, and tempting as it is to call a friend or listen to a podcast to make the time pass more quickly, she’s found the occasional long stretches of time with her thoughts to be surprisingly helpful.

In retrospect it’s a bit predictable that, even without being on a boat, the experience of spending hours surrounded by the ocean and stopping to explore small islands sends her thoughts in the direction of the cruise convention, and how much things have changed since then. How much she has changed, from worrying about conspiracies to being in one, and from dreaming of a world without trainer battles to… well, still dreaming of a world without them. But she had her first last week, after two months of desensitization therapy. It wasn’t long, just a few exchanged status effects between her pokemon and the therapist’s, but it still left her a little shaken up.

Her therapist is a specialist for people who were in traumatic battles, recommended by one of the RAWP volunteers working with the kids at the ranch. Leaf told Dr. Yamada up-front that her “condition” wasn’t like that, that she remembered feeling averse to trainer battles from a young age, without any traumatic experiences. He seemed to think desensitization was worth trying anyway, though he was interested first in exploring why she felt the need to at all, and checking if it was something she really wanted.

That was a harder question to explore than she expected, given she’d already put in the effort of finding a therapist and going. She even agreed to some tests to see if she has latent, low level psychic powers that might be triggering strong empathy at the sight of pokemon getting hurt. No such luck.

But her resolve from that day in Fuchsia Gym only grew stronger after the continued attacks by Rocket, as well as lots of soul searching conversations with Natural and, of all people, Mr. Sakai. After living with him for months, talking mostly about the proper care and treatment of pokemon and only rarely discussing things happening in the wider world, or related to Leaf’s other projects, it’s become easier to predict what he can and can’t have deeper, more meaningful conversations over. It’s hard to predict what will remind him of Aiko, sometimes, but in this case she knew it would, and mustered her courage to do it anyway.

It seemed worthwhile, for its own sake, particularly since she knew Aiko’s deathday was coming up. And it was hard. But it helped that she was often talking about herself, and her own struggles, which seemed to let Mr. Sakai have a… helpfulness channel to talk about Aiko through. She also learned a lot about him, his own journey as a young trainer, and how it fit in with his philosophy of providing better care for those whose violent use they relied on for safety.

And he’d made her tear up near the end, when he looked her in the eyes, smiling that sad smile until he couldn’t hold it anymore. I’m not worried for you. You’re… like her. You can’t help but care. No shadow you walk through will cover… that light…

Which brings her thoughts back to the whole “conspiracy” thing.

A flock of wingull wheel up and toward her, and she sends Crimson into a dive, heart in her throat and wind whistling in her ears as jets of water disperse into harmless rain far short of their targets. Meanwhile she pulls one of the tabs on her saddle, triggering some aerosolized repellant to start streaming from its canister in a broad cloud behind them.

Leaf’s eyes stay all the while on the ocean as it leaps up to meet them, and she spots the gleam of twin red orbs bobbing to the surface just as she squeezes Crimson’s sides and sends him gliding back up and away from a the tentacruel’s lobbed acid. Only then does she check behind to confirm that the wingull are leaving them be, and lets her breath out.

She strokes Crimson’s neck before checking her wrist compass and reorienting their flightpath slightly more southward. It takes another minute before her thoughts reorient to the path they were on too.

She consoles herself, sometimes, by remembering that it’s probably the least secretive one in history. So far no one has approached her for an interview, or even just a “quiet conversation,” about whether her story (either story) is inspired by something true. But also, no ninja renegades have shown up to try and kill her, which is nice.

Or at least, none that she knows of. Once she decided to start writing about the hidden underworld Leader Koga told her and Blue about, she finally spent some time returning to Unova to see her mom and grandpa… and to register a teleportation point at a random apartment in Anville Town, so she could port back to Unova each night to sleep. It’s a bit jarring each time, going from night to day and back again, but some blackout curtains help ensure she can get a full night’s rest, as does the peace of mind of knowing that she’s got half a planet between her and the people whose secret crimes she’s revealing, not to mention avoiding putting Mr. Sakai at further risk.

Leaf feels like the stories she heard growing up mostly prepared her for how many strange places going on her journey could take her, but despite the rest of the crazy things that have happened over the past year, “worried about ninja renegades” definitely wasn’t one of them.

Red hasn’t asked about her new story either, despite his… excitability… about the potential secret behind her last one. But then, he’s been so busy lately that she’d be surprised if he had the chance to read any of it. She’s already thought of what she’d say if he asks, not intending to hide anything but also not volunteering the information; if he reads her mind it would be obvious, of course, but she doesn’t expect him to.

Koga does predict someone will read her mind sooner or later, of course, and has already written to his old clan to explain how his daughter discovered their existence and began sharing information about them before he learned of it. He said his family, and clan, had contingencies for what to do if they were discovered, though he’s unsure what they were, and how adaptable they would be to a world with Miracle Eye. He had considered going to visit, for the first time in decades, but apparently Janine convinced him it wasn’t worth the risk.

In any case, if she’d just told Red or Laura, and they tell Interpol or the police, there’s no guarantee the person they talk to would know about any secret deals being made with criminal organizations, and they would have no control over when it was kicked up the chain to someone who did and might try to silence them. Koga’s hope is to be able to observe how various people and organizations react to the information being shared so publicly, particularly now that it’s beyond recall or anyone’s ability to stop; she’s published it not just on her blog, but also various sites for sharing both fiction and conspiracy theories.

Which is probably why no one’s really questioned her about it yet. Her readers tend to be Coordinators, or those into pokemon welfare, or just general fans of the “Pallet Three” despite her not being involved in their most recent major discoveries or incidents. Many were surprised but supportive, and eventually big fans, of her story about “Roshan,” the psychic human/pokemon hybrid trapped in a lab. She even got some offers for traditional publishing. But she can tell from the feedback that the story about the hidden clans of renegade ninja confuses her followers; it’s got nothing tying it to her focus on pokemon welfare, and some have speculated that she’s just trying to stay topical.

A year ago, that sort of talk would have bothered her. But then, a year ago, crossing this ocean made her feel like the world was open and full of endless possibilities. Now the endless expanse of blue above and below makes her feel small enough to get swallowed up by it all. Given everything going on, words by strangers don’t hurt her the way they used to; what matters now is if they’re going to put her or something she cares about at risk. To some degree that’s always been true, but the scope changes everything. And if the world does keep going the way it does, and she is swallowed… with another passing year, there’d likely be few who remember her anyway.

Or maybe she’s just feeling maudlin over Aiko’s deathday.

The final island before Cinnabar appears in the distance, a spit of land barely big enough to fit the Ranger outpost and a landing zone beside it. She touches down and gives Crimson a handful of berries while stroking his beak, then summons Wiseguy so her noctowl can get some more rest from his previous flight too. One of the rangers steps out to check in with her, and does a visible double take when recognition hits. She just smiles and says she’s fine, then summons a water trough for her pokemon and brings Joy and Raff out before heading down to sit on the beach.

Raff stays where it’s grassy, wandering over to sniff at some island flowers, while Joy joins her on the warm sand, burrowing half her body down into it with a contented warble. One of the things Leaf regrets is how silent the otherwise musical creatures have to be when tamed, and she sits behind her wigglytuff to give her a full-body hug as they stare out over the ocean together.

The anniversary didn’t require much planning. Growing up in Unova, she got used to the region-wide day of mourning each year for all who were lost. When she was young she thought it meant anyone who died of anything, but as she got older it became clear that while that’s not explicitly denied anywhere, the real focus for most cities and towns are those lost in pokemon attacks, particularly big ones.

But Kanto’s cities do a sort of “rolling anniversary” of their last major tragedy. Leaf skipped the one in Viridian for the fire, but when Vermilion’s came around, she went to meet up with Blue, Elaine, Glen, Lizzy, Maria, Bretta, Taro, Chie and even Slava and Sumi, who hadn’t been in Vermilion that day but knew Aiko from the Diglett tunnels. They joined one of the city’s solemn public ceremonies honoring everyone that died in Zapdos’s attack, and in the various incidents throughout the year since. Aiko even got a brief mention, when Leader Surge spoke about the loss of his previous Second.

Red sent a message ahead of time, apologizing for not being able to make it. Too big a security risk, according to Agent Looker. Blue didn’t seem happy, but he didn’t comment on it directly, and it wasn’t exactly a happy occasion.

Though once the speeches were done, and the hour of silence observed, many people in the city held quiet celebrations of life over death, such as recent births and bonds formed. Blue and Leaf led the group to one of the city’s parks, its fields and tables covered with picnic blankets, and they toasted their survival, sharing stories about their near misses and remarking on all the unprecedented craziness of the year.

And of course they talked about grief. Leaf never appreciated how many of them felt as close to Aiko as she from their time at the Vermilion Gym together, and listening to their stories made part of her regret, again, her avoidance of gyms. They also talked about other friends or journeymates that weren’t lucky enough to make it through the year.

When it was Leaf’s turn, she talked about how her grief rarely feels “sharp” anymore. Aiko’s room feels like her room, the memory of her voice faded and soft, her unfulfilled dreams as distant as the stars; sad to look upon and know she’ll never live to see them, but in a more melancholy way than depressing.

But right now, sitting in the middle of the ocean and thinking of the year between her last crossing, the jagged rocks emerge, revealed by the ebbing tide. And she doesn’t need to talk to her therapist to know why.

She feels like she’s losing Red. No, more than that. It feels like she’s already lost him.

It’s silly to put them in the same category. She’s on her way to see Red right now, in one of the rare circumstances where he’s got some free time from his training, and permission to be in a relatively public (though mostly unpredictable) place. She can still talk to him about her struggles, the way she wishes she could Aiko. She could hug him and listen to him talk about his goals and watch him whip out his notebook mid conversation to jot down something he wants to remember.

But during his and Blue’s birthday, he’d done none of that. They met at a randomly selected Ranger outpost, and when he arrived he was clearly happy to see them, but also distant and subdued. When she brought it up, he just gave her a small smile and said he was tired, and had a lot on his mind that was hard to talk about. When he talked about what he’s been up to, none of his dreams or goals from before the Silph incident came up.

She understood, of course. But it felt like a death, figuratively and more. It felt like a sign that, sooner or later, Red would lose the rest of himself, either becoming someone else or literally gone, killed fighting Rocket.

And sure, that was true of Blue and Laura and her mother and grandpa and everyone else as well, but the attack on Vermilion and the Hoenn incident had accustomed her somewhat to sudden loss, like a lightning bolt from the blue. She doesn’t know how to deal with this gnawing, piecemeal loss, happening in slow motion in front of her, yet completely beyond her power to stop.

When she spoke with Laura about it, Red’s mother began to cry, and then Leaf cried, and they held each other for a while, and it was better than hurting alone. But it was also frightening, to see Laura’s tears, to know viscerally that she felt just as powerless.

I think about telling him all the time, to let it go,” Laura said as she wiped at her eyes. “To just… let others deal with Rocket. But he’s his father’s son, no matter how much he’ll deny it. And the scariest thing is, I don’t know what would happen to him if he does just walk away.”

Leaf doesn’t either. And though she hasn’t talked to Red about it yet, she knows it must be on his mind.

At least last year, when Red and Blue weren’t speaking, she had some hope that things might get better, sooner or later. That something might change for one or both of them, and things could go back to the way things were before. And really, she should be more optimistic today rather than less, considering what they’re meeting up for. It feels like the old days, a peek of the old Red.

But whether it’s the contrast of how things have been lately, or the surroundings, or the timing, or hormones, or everything all at once, she can’t help but feel, a year after the Zapdos attack, like she’s back in mourning again.

She wipes a tear away and gives Joy one more squeeze, then stands and withdraws everyone but Wiseguy, who she saddles up to finish her flight. Cinnabar is a vague shape in the distance before long, and by noon she can make out the colorful spread of the city as it sprawls between the volcano’s base and the eastern shore of the island.

Before she reaches it, however, she spots her destination. The Cinnabar Laboratory for the Study of Ancient Pokemon is smaller than Pallet Labs, though larger than most research centers she visited with her mother and grandfather, a compound rather than a single building. Each of the buildings, wide enough to form a triangle around a central field, is dedicated to either Fossilization, Paleontology or Restoration… though that one has expanded to a fourth, radically different building some distance away from the rest.

From what she read upon first coming to Kanto, the Restoration branch has focused on using genetic engineering to try to recreate fossil pokemon more reliably than the occasional random spontaneous genesis. Since unown research got unrestricted, however, they started hiring new staff and constructing a new type of research environment.

From above it looks like a shimmering globe of light ensconced in a crater too perfectly round to have naturally formed. As she descends for a landing, she can make out the criss-crossing metal that holds each rounded panel of glass in place… along with the swarm of black figures moving around inside.

A shiver works its way up her spine despite the warmth of the day. She can’t hear them, but just imagining what it would be like inside the dome with the sounds from that many unown sets her teeth on edge. But more than that, the sight of them makes her uneasy in ways she can’t put into words. She normally thinks unown are kind of cute, but seeing them like this, moving in an endlessly shifting cloud, activates some sense of looking upon a truly alien being. Unfeeling, but thinking alien thoughts. Erratic, but enacting hidden purpose…

It almost makes her reconsider her decision to come by, but she doesn’t really know what to believe about the unown, and reminds herself (with a small smile) that fear of the unknown, though sensible, can be limiting. If they’re heralds of some apocalyptic threat, then understanding them better does seem like a good idea. And if they are the source of pokemon genesis, then Leaf figures it’s better for the professors and rangers to learn that sooner rather than later.

Plus, it’s hard to turn a friend down when they ask for your help.

“Hello, Leaf! Welcome to Cinnabar!”

“Hey, Artem, thanks!” It’s been a while since she saw Red’s old research partner, but after what they went through in Lavender together she feels some of her sadness lifting to see him walk toward her with a spring in his step, proud in his emblem embossed Cinnabar Lab coat.

Leaf finishes unsaddling Wiseguy, then summons Crimson and the water trough again for them both, setting a reminder to herself to get it refilled before she leaves the island. “Am I terribly late?”

“Nah, Blue already dropped his fossil off and went back to the gym for a quick battle or something, but Red just got here a few minutes ago. Hence the extra security.” He nods over to the dome’s entrance, where she sees a handful of figures in a mix of security and police uniforms.

“How many are there usually?”

“Well, before the Rocket attack in Azure Town, just a few at a time. It got doubled when they showed their interest in unown research, but Red’s, uh, escort? Bodyguards? They still came to sweep the campus before he was cleared to land.” He looks like he’s about to say something else, brow furrowed, then shakes his head and sighs. “Strange times, huh?”

“Yeah.” Leaf finishes tucking her goggles and flight jacket into her travel container, then puts on her hat, an extra wide and floppy one that’s perfect for the strong summer sun. “Strange times.”

Once she’s withdrawn everything except her pokemon and the water trough, Artem leads her toward the dome, explaining how it was constructed in just a week. “I wasn’t here for that, of course, but I had been hired on by the time they started bringing in the unown.”

They climb some stairs up to the lip of the crater, where a metal walkway starts. She looks down and sees the dome extends down a bit further than the ground level beyond the crater. “They’re all wild, right? How did they catch them? Or, uh, ‘confine’ them.”

“Have you seen the tracking network What Comes Next formed? By July it was extensive enough that Cinnabar was able to camp out a number of nearby spawning sites and flight paths. Mounted trainers were able to herd them this way with non-deadly attacks, and there’s a vestibule above that only opens one hatch at a time to get new ones in without letting any inside out. Like this one.”

He flashes his badge to the security guards, even though they surely just saw him leave to greet her, and Leaf shows them her own Trainer ID despite them surely knowing who she is, and a moment later they are indeed standing in a small room and waiting for the door behind them to finish sealing shut. It feels a little claustrophobic even after the door in front of them finally starts to open, though once she steps through and up some more stairs…

The sound is in fact the first thing that catches her attention and holds it, like slipping into an aural bath. It’s not as bad as she feared, however, and she wonders if they built the facility out of some sort of sound dampening materials, or if the distance between her and the cloud of unown is helping, given how quiet the unown are. The mix of chirping twitters and tinkling woops and popping static is chaotic, but it’s less like standing in a chattering crowd and more like hearing the mixed murmurs of a full stadium. Still, she has to stifle an urge to raise her voice. “How many are there?” she asks as she watches them swirl and shift against the slice of silver-veined sky they’re confined to.

“Fifty-seven,” he says with pride, then grimaces. “Still missing a few letters though. And we’ve got eleven F’s, the lab is considering telling people to just ignore any new ones they spot, though the betting pool is having fun with it. Want to join in? I’ve got fifty bucks on W being the last one we get, though the odds won’t be as generous at this point.”

“I’m good, thanks.” She finally manages to bring her attention to the curving walkway they’re on, tracing the full circumference of the dome, then the floor below them. Their level seems to be where most of the researchers and techs work, desks set up in observation cells and single-wall cubicles. The ground floor is segmented into transparent rooms, many of which have some form of miniature biome inside.

She spots Red almost immediately, his red and black outfit making him stand out among the various researchers (another stab goes through her—they were always his colors, but without his blue jeans or some white to soften them, they make him look like someone he’s not. Someone dangerous, in a way that feels unfair to him… and possibly other Hunters).

Artem leads the way down to them, and when she gets closer she notices Red’s backpack, which is different from the usual one he traveled with during his journey. For one thing it’s much thinner and wider, various zippered compartments spread over its surface. For another there’s an abra sitting in it.

It takes a moment to confirm that the abra is in fact inside the bag, or at least, in a sort of sling that lets it rest against Red’s back, tail swinging below. “Please tell me you named this one,” she says once the door is open, and Red turns with a smile that eases something in her chest.

“You’re here!”

“I’m here,” she confirms, and returns his hug as Artem starts inspecting the various water tanks around them. She squeezes Red tight, as if to convince herself of his solidity. It keeps surprising her how tall he’s getting; Blue is growing a little faster, but she can nearly rest her chin on his shoulder now.

The abra sniffs at her hand where it rests on his bag, and she smiles and tentatively gives its snout a stroke. “So? Going to introduce me?”

“Well.” She can hear his sheepishness, and when the hug ends she can see it in his face. “I wanted to run them by you, first.”

She raises a brow. “Go on.”

“…Backra.”

Artem snorts, and Leaf grins. “And? Wait, let me guess. Abag?”

Red grins back. “Puns aren’t disrespectful, right?”

“‘Course not.” She’s feeling ten pounds lighter. Maybe she over updated on how he seemed during his birthday… he might have just been having a bad week…

“Glad to hear it.” Red looks over his shoulder, then reaches back to gently squeeze one of the abra’s feet. “She’s got a stressful enough job without adding mockery.”

“Oh.” Her smile fades. “She’s there so you can…”

“Teleport at a moment’s notice.” Red doesn’t meet her eyes, and she wonders what he’s afraid of. That she’d judge him for being a coward? Or that she’d consider it a disrespectful way to treat his pokemon?

“It’s smart,” is all she says, then looks around at the fossils. “So, which is yours?”

“That one.” He points to one of the helix fossils in a water tank filled with algae and rocks. “They said it’s one of the most complete specimens they’ve seen.”

“And that’s supposed to have helped?”

“That’s the hope,” Artem says. “If the few wild ancient pokemon we’ve found are just the result of unown reviving fossils, there has to be something that makes it so rare given how many broken and scattered pieces of fossilized pokemon there are everywhere.”

Leaf looks at a terrarium that doesn’t have water in it, where a few, less complete helix fossils lie on patches of grass, dirt, and stone. “Pewter Museum would need to rewrite a lot of exhibits if that’s true.”

“Not necessarily,” Red says. “It could be that a handful of ancient pokemon survived to the modern day, and that some have been revived by the unown.”

“Sure,” Leaf says. “Though it’s also possible that, if any pokemon do generate here, they won’t be like any of the ones that survived to this day.”

“You’re thinking of the marowak ghost in Lavender,” Artem says, voice somber. “Believe me, we’ve considered it. Frankly I was surprised that the Leader and Mayor here were willing to take the risk of another major incident taking place on the island, but-”

“The same thing that made the ditto easier to contain would make a new species easier to contain,” Leaf guesses, then looks around. “In theory. I mean, these are aquatic and flying pokemon.”

“Proximity to the Gym and so many rangers would also bring a pretty rapid and overwhelming response,” Artem says. “Still, it’s obviously not without risks. But such is the life of a pokemon researcher, right?”

“Right,” Red says. Leaf’s gaze darts to his face, but while he’s lost some of his cheer, he doesn’t look particularly sad. “Any word from Hoenn?”

“From what I heard, Wally is interested in coming by to see what we’ve got going on, at least. But he’s got plenty of options for excitement, if the rumors are true.”

“What happened now?” Leaf asks, stomach sinking.

“Oh, nothing bad. What’s the last you heard about Champion Steven?”

“He stepped down, didn’t he? Started devoting himself more to researching the whole ‘Mega Evolution’ thing.” She keeps forgetting the scientific name, and she expects most people will given how quickly this one spread online.

“Yeah, he’s been traveling the world to find some other region with the special stones he has, or another power source beyond the orb that summoned Groudon. There’s speculation that Wally might go join him, now that he got knocked out of their Victory Road and the Lati twins have been away for so long.” His phone chirps, and he takes it out, then says, “Back in a bit. Blue might get here first, Leaf, so I’ll say bye now, and thanks for bringing your fossil. Maybe chat later?”

“Sounds good, later!” Once the door closes behind him, Leaf looks back at the fossils around them, then glances at Red. “So, how’s everything?” The last time she’d asked, during a quiet moment at his and Blue’s party, he’d said he wasn’t sure he was in the right headspace to talk about it. “Or, I mean, how’s anything.” She knows he’ll understand. Anything you’re okay to chat about.

“Anything’s okay,” Red says after a moment. “Want to take a walk?”

Right, everything here would be constantly monitored. “Sure. I think I need to drop my fossil off?”

“Right, for yours I think we’d go over there…”

They pass between the various mini-biomes, and Leaf can’t help but think of how much of a long shot this is. After all her time speaking with residents of Pewter, she knows certain people would claim that it’s absurd to think that a bit of dirt and some plants would fool whatever intelligence is behind pokemon genesis into thinking a fossil here is the same as one in the wild.

But if the intelligence is unfriendly to humans, or just totally alien in morals or preferences, then it probably doesn’t mind being “tricked,” if it would even register that. She looks up at the cloud of unown and feels another shiver work its way through her as she imagines what kind of frenetic, kaleidoscope vision such an intelligence might have of them.

“I remember you were trying to find a way to fly alongside wild unown for a while…”

“Charizard might be able to do it now, but having all these here makes it less necessary.”

“So?” Leaf wants to murmur, but she knows it would be lost in the noise. “Have you merged with them at all?”

“Yeah. It’s weird… they’re so simple that it’s really hard to tell if they’re any different from a captured unown. It’s also really hard to track one mind at a time in that cloud, though, so I can’t focus on just one enough to do a deep merge… whatever that would mean given how basic their ‘minds’ are.”

“Is that something you’re working on?” she asks as they climb to the floor above.

He’s quiet for a moment. “Not at the moment. No time.”

Leaf doesn’t say anything further as they make their way to a portion of the lab that analyzes non-bone fossils, then they make their way toward the exit. A couple hunters notice and start tailing them, then join them in the security chamber. It’s an awkward wait, but Leaf gives them a smile, and one of them nods back.

Once they’re outside another two detach from the building to follow them, and after a moment Red says, “You guys mind if we get a bit of privacy?”

“Of course. We’ll set up a perimeter.”

“Thanks. We’ll just be over by her pokemon,” he says, gesturing to Crimson and Wiseguy. Once they get there, Red brings out Charizard.

“Hey there, boy,” she says, reaching out a cautious hand for him to sniff, then stroking up his snout as he closes his eyes, warm breath washing over her. “Getting bigger each time I see you.”

“He started eating a ton once he evolved. Do you mind if I…”

“Go ahead.” Red had sent her a picture of him grinning beside his starter after he evolved. The freshly evolved charizard was about as tall as his trainer, which made the dragon look more cute, even comedic, rather than fierce.

That certainly changed by the time he showed up at Red’s party, and even more so now. Charizard’s snout and horns are leaner, sharper, his belly less round as his body stretched and grew muscle. Despite his acceptance of her strokes, when his eyes open again they have the intensity of a hungry predator, and there’s some primal tension in her spine that only relaxes when his gaze shifts to Crimson and Wiseguy.

Both go still with the start of fight-or-flight, until Red summons a long container box and lifts the lid to reveal a steel trough full of meat to divert his pokemon’s attention. Leaf gives Charizard’s snout one more stroke before going over to give her birds some soothing pets along their wings. They still shift and tense as Red gives the command, and his pokemon starts to blow a long gout of flame over the meat.

She’s grateful he’d put it downwind of them, and doesn’t watch as Charizard starts to feast on the seared steaks. When Red approaches with some grooming tools for Crimson, she takes out her own set for Wiseguy.

They work in relative silence for a moment, until he finally says, “Weird.”

“Weird?”

“Anything. Everything.”

She nods. “Still?”

“Still. It feels sometimes like… like I’ve been transported into someone else’s life. It’s weird enough that I spend most of my time thinking about ways to fight renegades, but… I’m not just doing it alone. I’ve got a team of hunters and interpol agents teaching and training me, and it’s more than that too! Any pokemon I can think of, any pokemon they think might be of any help in even a weird edge case, and Looker puts in a request so someone at Interpol can scour the market for a strong one. If it’s not there they look at the expensive markets for a pretrained one, and if they can’t find a good one for me there they dig into Interpol’s own collection to transfer ownership! I just turned thirteen, I was only on a proper journey for half a year, and yet I’ve got pokemon now that are Elite level, and I don’t even have a badge!”

Leaf listens in silence, beak-shaped comb moving in gentle probes through her noctowl’s down. She’s not introspecting on how she feels about what she’s hearing, yet. She’s just filing the words away, grateful to be hearing them at all.

“It feels so long ago, but once in a while I remember how before the attack on Silph, I was wondering what would be the best use of all the money I made off the Miracle Eye market bump… I actually got some ideas from President Silph that I haven’t had a chance to follow up on. But remember how long I agonized over which pokemon to buy, before getting Ivysaur and Wartortle? And now people are spending absurd amounts on top-of-the-line training equipment, supplements, TMs… I’ve got a suit Bill developed, I mean it wasn’t for me, they’ve been making it for fighting the Stormbringers, but Interpol commissioned one to fit me, and now they’re getting another because I’m outgrowing it, and I don’t know how I got here, Leaf!”

Leaf finishes the stroke she’s on, then turns and hugs Red from behind. He’s so tense he’s practically vibrating with it, but after a few moments his arms settle over hers, and she feels his body still. “Blue must be incredibly jealous.”

That makes him laugh, though it’s a brief, dry huff. “The helmet does make me look pretty cool.”

“More than your hat?”

“Do you… like my hat?”

“It’s weird seeing you without it.”

“The colors don’t match.”

“Yeah.”

Charizard has stopped eating, and for a while there’s just the sound of the wind rustling the grass. Leaf almost pulls away, but then Red speaks again.

“Last week, when I went to see Dr. Seward… I ran into Felix—”

“Who?”

“Oh, one of Pallet’s pokedex engineers. He dropped hints about how they’ve nearly finished developing a new version, and… Leaf, I could barely keep myself from sobbing until I was in Dr. Seward’s office.”

Leaf feels a hand clenching around her heart, and she squeezes him tighter. “Oh, Red…”

“Dr. Seward said I should… well, she didn’t put it like this, but her questions made it really clear she thinks… no, my answers made it clear to me how unhappy I’ve been.”

“So… are you going to…?”

This time his laugh is hollow, like a sob wrung dry. “I can’t.”

“You can, Red!” At this moment, she believes it. She wants to believe it, and figure out the complications later, rather than just accept that this is the way the world has to be. “Rocket isn’t your responsibility alone!”

“It’s not just Rocket. Did I ever tell you about the psychic network I formed?”

She hesitated, searching her memory. “Maybe… in passing, a few months ago? Something about how you started reaching out to psychics in the region, then around the world, right?”

“Yeah. Started after I realized what I could do. Most of it didn’t lead to much, a few acquaintances and penpals here and there. But they knew me, by the time the press meeting about sakki and everything hit. And I started getting… messages.”

Her hands grip his tight, feeling a ball of hot lead in her stomach. “What kind of—”

“Not bad ones. Well, a couple, but most are just sharing what they’ve been going through. Suspicion, doubt, even from friends and family sometimes. Most thank me for the good I’ve been doing, even say how I must be getting it even worse than them. But I haven’t, really. I mean yeah, I know there’s talk online. But I’m lucky enough to have so many great friends, and I’ve got the highest levels of official support… while they’re mostly dealing with the suspicion.”

The lead has cooled, turned heavier. “So you feel responsible for them.”

“Yeah. And apparently that’s part of the problem.”

“What do you mean?”

“Dr. Seward asked me what I thought burnout was. I said it’s when people are overworked, and I admitted that I could use a break. But she said, no, overworking is just a warning sign. She said real burnout is from a… a ‘prolonged imbalance between responsibility and power.'”

“Meaning, what, if you just get powerful enough you’ll be fine?” She doesn’t try to hide her indignation. If Red’s therapist is making him feel more guilty or driven—

“No, no… I mean, maybe yeah, but not… I’m explaining this badly. Look, back when we were in Pewter, remember how long it took for me to get my grant?”

“Yeah.” She remembers him putting ice on his off-hand while eating, swapping between them every so often. She remembers how hopeless he started to sound, before he finally got it.

“Looking back on it, I was reaching the end of something, there. Not a breaking point, exactly, not giving up on my dream… I wouldn’t have given up on being a professor after my first real challenge. But it wasn’t the hours I was putting in, it was the feeling of futility. Failing again and again, and no sign that what I was doing was making any difference. When I imagine what that might have been like if I felt responsible for getting a grant, like if someone’s life was on the line… or if I imagine being told which grants I could and couldn’t apply to, or if I couldn’t alter each grant application to try to increase the odds, if I just had to fill in forms instead of being able to try my own things, mix things up…”

“I think I get it,” Leaf says, thinking of the feeling she had near the end of her involvement in the Safari Zone. “Feeling powerless can be soul crushing.”

“Yeah. She said that there are two major predictors of burnout, and the first is if someone works somewhere that makes them responsible for failures, without giving them authority or autonomy to do things their own way.”

“Ugh. Yeah. Bad enough to fail, but blamed for it when it’s not your fault…” She closes her eyes as the rest of it clicks into place. “And if the responsibility isn’t from someone else… if it’s something you feel, so you blame yourself…”

She feels him nod, his voice going quiet. “That’s the second predictor. Jobs that attract people who… care a lot, about saving people, and have to see the results. People who take responsibility for every failure… blame themselves for not being perfect.” He lets out a long, slow breath. “My dad talked about this, once, when a friend of his around Celadon quit the rangers during a particularly bad year. I asked him what happened, and… he looked so sad.” There’s a hitch in Red’s voice, there and gone. “He said she just… cared too much to work less, until she couldn’t do it anymore at all. And rangers have rules they have to follow, sometimes, things that they’re ordered to do that they might disagree with. If they follow one and someone dies that think they could have saved, that’s the worst of both worlds.”

Leaf’s heart is pounding, and she wonders if he can feel it. “You’ve been winning so far, against Rocket. I mean, not just surviving, but mostly stopping them. What happens if you can’t, next time? What if they finally do start killing people again?”

Red sighs. “Yeah. I think Dr. Seward was… trying to bring that up, without saying it outright.”

“So what are you going to do?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know how to square Heroic Responsibility with this. I want to talk to Blue about it, but I’m worried he’ll think I’m… weak.”

“He won’t, Red, you know he thinks the world of what you’re doing…” She trails off, suddenly realizing why that would make Red even more worried. She feels ashamed of her own doubt, Blue deserves better, but… if he says something the wrong way, even without meaning to…

She tries to think of someone else, someone who won’t just tell Red to do what’s best for him out of personal concern. She knows he needs more than just permission to rest or be more selfish, he needs understanding, some new knowledge or frame that would help him balance competing values.

There’s only one person that comes to mind, loathe as she is to say it.

“What about… Giovanni?”

Red snorts. “Yeah. Dr. Seward asked if there’s someone I knew who’s gone through something similar… if Agent Looker or Professor Oak seem like the kind of people who are living the right balance in ways I could learn from. But Giovanni is the person I thought of, too, and… yeah, I think I will.”

Leaf nods, then says, “I’ve been seeing a therapist too.”

She feels his surprise, a subtle twitch through his body, and then he’s pulling away to turn and look at her. “When…?”

So she tells him. About her realization, after the Silph attack. About how useless she would be against organized and prepared renegades.

And about her new goal.

“Leaf… you don’t—”

“Swords of Justice, Red, if you say I don’t have to do this, or it’s not my fight, I’ll…”

He holds up a conciliatory hand. “You’re right. Sorry. I just…” He shakes his head, and gives that hollow laugh again. “I guess this is what it’s like, from the outside.”

She almost apologizes, then gives a wry smile instead. “At least Blue will be happy.”

Red is silent for a beat, then shakes his head. “I’m not so sure.”

“No,” she agrees after considering it further. “I guess not. Relieved, maybe, but not happy.”

The silence returns, and this time it’s Red’s turn to break it. “To be fair… most people don’t do trainer battles to be prepared to fight renegades.”

Something in his tone makes her smile. “True.”

“So in a way… you could still feel morally superior. If you wanted to, I mean.”

“I could,” she agrees, smile widening. “If I wanted to.”

“Verres,” one of the hunters yells. “Incoming flier.”

Red’s head snaps around, but then he relaxes. “It’s fine, that’s Blue!”

Leaf barely had time to register her emotional reaction, but still feels a surge of relief as she watches Zephyr swoop down and land beside their pokemon. She goes to hug him as soon as he slides down, then watches him fist-bump Red.

“Good to see you, man. Looking fierce as your boy over there.”

“Thanks,” Red says, tone neutral, but then he smiles. “Saw a lot of chatter in What Comes Next about your island plans. You gonna join the gym here after all?”

“Don’t think I need to, Blaine doesn’t care if I wear the uniform so long as I pull my weight… but yeah, I think it’ll help, since I’m pulling more than that, these days.”

“As usual. Speaking of which, I should say bye to Artem and head back.”

“Right. Good seeing you.”

“You too.”

Leaf gives him a hug. “Message me, when you talk to him?”

“I will.” Red holds her a bit longer than she expected, but finally pulls back, then withdraws Charizard and his container before heading back toward the lab with one last wave.

His guards follow him, and Blue tips them a salute before turning back to Leaf with a smile. “You ready to get flying?”

“I think so, yeah. What’s got you so excited?”

“Scouts sent back a bunch of new spots that need a closer look. Going clockwise from here, there’s a series of grottos along some cliffs that no one’s searched yet, a small canyon full of trees, a volcanic cave, an abandoned mansion that was destroyed in the quakes, some reef—”

“Wait, what was that last one?”

“The mansion? It’s on some cliff opposite the city, way up near the top of the volcano. No roads or anything near it. Ranger said it’s registered to some rich foreigner who rarely comes to visit.”

Leaf’s heart is pounding, and she tries to convince herself she’s overreacting. In Dr. Fuji’s story notes, the mansion built above the secret lab for its employees was on an island, yes, but it was an uninhabited island, a random tiny one like those she passed over on the way here. Surely no one would build a secret research lab on Cinnabar…

“How deep is it?”

“What do you mean?”

“The mansion. How far into the basement did it go?”

Blue frowns. “What basement?”

Leaf starts to relax. “Sorry, I thought… you said it was destroyed in the quake, I thought it collapsed down into sublevels.”

“Nah, there’s a huge sinkhole to the side. Half the mansion did collapse, but the rest is still standing.”

“Got it.” In the notes for the ending of the story, which she hasn’t written yet, the hybrid escapes because an earthquake collapses the mansion into the basement and kills most of the researchers and guards, letting them use their powers to escape the rubble.

She almost lets it go, but she knows it’s going to nag at her attention until she sees it for herself. “Can we check that one first?”

“Why? It’s the furthest away.”

“Mostly across the island, though, right? It can’t be that much further.”

“Sure, maybe twenty minutes instead of ten to the grottos.” Blue frowns at her. “Is it another…?”

“No, it’s not a secret. Or… maybe it is, but…” Laura said she’d put feelers out to see if Dr. Fuji pops up anywhere, but there was no sign of a struggle at his place, and if they made noise about his disappearance they might actually be tipping the wrong people off. “We should bring Red, if he can spare an hour. If I’m right about what it is, we’re going to want to know that as soon as possible.”

She hopes she’s not, for many reasons, not least of which is that she might have more than ninja renegades after her.

Experts and Expertise

TL;DR: Expertise is a multivariable spectrum, not a binary, and disagreements are often signs of different knowledge. Seek the knowledge gap between different experts, and between yourself and them. Find what you didn’t realize you didn’t know, and diversify your expert portfolio.

Seeing all the debates around AGI recently has made me feel that many people seem deeply confused about what “expertise” is and how to relate to it.

Rejecting expertise is something I never do, even if I disagree with the expert. Nor, obviously, do I bow to expertise. Instead, I use experts’ beliefs as opportunities to reflect on my own state of knowledge.

Useful explanations are the main thing I really care about, and both laymen and experts can provide those… but knowledge is the fundamental building block of a good explanation, and “expert” is meaningless as a word if it doesn’t signal at least some reservoir of knowledge.

When two experts disagree, my immediate thought is “I wonder what knowledge each of them has that the other lacks.”

One of them may even have all the relevant knowledge the other does, and more! In which case one of them could just in a binary way be wrong about a particular question in specific, or one can be more correct more often in general.

But always, when experts disagree, figuring that out, figuring out which expert has what knowledge, is where I find the most value in pointing my attention. Not all disagreements come down to explicit knowledge, of course, sometimes people have biases or heuristics or values that affect their beliefs… but the first two are just compressed knowledge, and the last one is usually pretty easy to pick out if the person explains their reasoning.

This is why, to me, asking people to notice their non-expertise (lack of knowledge) on a topic can be useful, so long as it doesn’t imply submission to authority. It should act as a prompt to notice confusion and boggle over uncertainties. Responding with “experts can be wrong” is both trivially true and uselessly general as a critique.

For me, learning from experts means seeking the gaps in knowledge that makes them the expert and me not one. I still expect what they say to make sense to me, but I can only do that if I can find parts of my model that they can’t account for, and that takes work on my part.

It’s sometimes hard work, and I suspect that’s what makes most people reject expertise when it’s convenient to their disagreement to do so. But we have to be willing to examine our own models, boggle over what’s missing, and not feel threatened by the gaps. Learning can be fun!

So, how to identify “actual experts” so you don’t waste time and energy listening to everyone who claims expertise?

Good question! I wish I had a better answer. It’s often hard, and tempting to outsource to credentials. For many decisions, like car repair or health, it makes sense to defer to doctors and mechanics, though I still always check online just to learn what the thing they say means and whether it fits my experience or symptoms.

But the central question I reorient to is, “What does this person think they know, and why do they think they know it?”

People I most respect are those who ask people, particularly those that disagree with them, to make their beliefs legible, and ask them what would change their mind. Seeing one expert do this to another is a sign that they’re someone who reflects on their own knowledge often, and that I should pay more attention to what they say.

This is also how non-credentialed experts can very clearly overturn what credentialed experts say, for me. When someone spends dozens, or even hundreds, of hours making their thinking legible in a way that I can observe, particularly about a specific topic… sure, they can still be wrong, just like the credentialed experts.

But at least I can check whether a credentialed expert addresses their cruxes or not. And I can tease out what part of their belief is based on knowledge they can make legible, vs heuristics or values the aren’t aware of or that I might disagree with.

Chapter 117: Interlude XXIV – Equilibrium

Chapter 117: Interlude XXIV – Equilibrium

When the extra support came pouring into Cinnabar after the ditto first appeared, Ira knew it would be temporary, and started counting down the days when they’d be on their own again. It worried him, imagining the island facing the continued threat without the rest of Indigo’s help… but it also excited him.

There are plenty of good reasons for the withdrawal, of course. Most crises aren’t permanent, so once the issue is resolved or down to a manageable level, withdrawing resources to help elsewhere makes sense. Plus, they’re not some minor town. They have a gym, and not just any gym: since taking over, Blaine has integrated his people into the local rangers more than any Indigo Leader has. Ira’s orientation months at the island involved the usual tour with all of the nearby ranger outposts, but unlike other places he’s served, these were all staffed with a mix of rangers and gym trainers.

All of which is just a part of why he knew Cinnabar would lose the support of the rest of Indigo far faster than they should. The main reason, simply put, is that they’re distant from the rest of the world.

It’s not just that it’s harder than usual for people to travel to the island, and hard for them to live here, so far from amenities the island lacks. Things that happen here don’t matter as much to the mainland. There’s less risk of an emergency spilling over onto routes that travelers might take, barely any farmland at risk, less chance of cascading ecological disruption, and no other towns or cities who would be in danger.

It helps, of course, that anyone doing the gym circuit has to come sooner or later… but only if they stick with it most of the way. Blaine gets very few challengers who aren’t at least halfway to Victory Road, and locals make up virtually all of Cinnabar’s first-badge challengers. After that there are barely any until people get through the cluster around Saffron.

Which does mean that most of the trainers at the gym have at least four or five badges. And it’s not just members doing stints at the outposts; Blaine makes public service a requirement for a badge challenge, which is how he ends up eventually seeing—

“That’s him!” Wendy whispers, pointing across the meeting room. “Blue Oak!”

“I noticed.” Ira takes his seat in the meeting room and tugs her wrist down. “He all you dreamed he’d be?”

“Hmm, hard to tell from this far. Think we can meet him after?”

“Sure, he’ll probably sign a pokeball for you too.” Ira’s attention is already on the rest of the room, noting the missing faces. Ranger Malcolm is heading back to Viridian next week, but Huan is already back in the Safari Zone, Mei and Shin are gone to Cerulean, Liu is leading the surveys of the outlying islands… to his surprise, he’s now one of the most senior rangers in the room.

It fits the trend of the past few post-crisis months. He thought he handled his moment in the limelight pretty well that first day, talking about the ditto he caught on stage beside General Taira, Leader Blaine, and Professor Oak, but he expected it would be a one-off.

Instead all the senior local rangers, including he and Rashard, each got handed a set of volunteers to search the island for more ditto nests. It became something of a competition between them, one he won more weeks than not.

Facing ditto nests is dangerous, even compared to regular ranger work, and it’s given him an opportunity to show what he’s capable of. He thought, after he ended his journey to start a family, that he put his ambition behind him… but when his wife wanted to join many others in leaving the island, he told her to take the kids somewhere safe, while he’d stay behind to make sure they could eventually return. Someone had to, after all, and he and his wife had come to love Cinnabar after moving here, watching their children grow proud to be part of the island’s culture. His oldest is already excited to start his journey, though he’s still a few years away. Ira wants it to be a safe place for them again.

He started taking more dangerous assignments, support and leadership roles, anything that would challenge him and let him do more for the reclamation efforts…

…and before long he was getting pulled into all the high level meetings where the island’s broader strategy would get hashed out. Everyone praised his dedication, and he didn’t demur. He is dedicated.

But as he told Rashard one night, a few bottles in… he also wants to feel the way he did that day, when the danger was unknowable, the stakes high, and he could feel like he was doing something meaningful, something no one else had done before.

His ambition hadn’t been behind him after all. It had just been sleeping, waiting for another opportunity to come out.

And now he’s regularly in the same room as Leader Blaine and Ranger General Taira. When things started out, the gym would send its Second or Third as often as Blaine, along with a group of lower ranked members. But now they’ve been filling empty seats the rangers leave behind, and the full suite of the gym’s leadership is spread around the table, along with a wider range of lower ranked members. In fact, Blue Oak is the first trainer he’s seen here who isn’t in the Cinnabar Gym uniform, but he expects there will be more eventually.

Ira’s heard about Blue, not just from the news but from some rangers that are part of What Comes Next. If he were younger he’d probably be swept up in his journey, might even have rushed off to join his crew, getting into unlikely adventures and revolutionizing gyms… though Ira can’t imagine Blaine would let him do much of that here. Still, he would have said the same for Surge before that gym got flipped on its head.

“Weird that all three are here,” Wendy murmurs, voice barely audible over the low hum of conversation as she looks between the Leader, Second, and Third. “New priority?”

“Yeah, maybe. Or the gym’s got a new system they want to run.” It would fit with Oak being here.

“Haven’t heard anything while I’ve been there.”

He raises a brow. “Thinking of joining up?”

“Ha, no. Just like to train there once in a while. I never really wanted to do the standard journey, but gym cultures are interesting. And it’s nice to be somewhere outside the Ranger hierarchy, once in a while.” Her cadet uniform stands out almost as much as Blue’s civilian clothing, but there are another four, also in the middle of their regional exchange programs. Most came after the ditto appeared, for the same reason Wendy requested an extension on her stay: because Cinnabar is one of the places around the islands where interesting things are happening.

The quiet conversations all fade as the Ranger General stands. “Thank you for coming, everyone. Before we go around for updates, there’s a priority announcement that might affect your plans.”

Taira uses a clicker to get the screen on the wall to display the island, with each sector highlighted in slightly different colors to indicate threat range… all of them much lower than the last time Ira saw the map. “I don’t expect this to come as a major shock to anyone, but after over a month without a new risk of outbreak, the Rangers have decided to officially end the strange limbo that Cinnabar has been in, and downgrade it from the unclassified, but undoubtedly high, risk profiles it’s improvisationally slid between, to the equivalent of an ongoing Tier 2 event. It’s going to be staffed accordingly, though with six squads on standby to teleport in as needed.”

Ira hears Wendy take a breath, and feels his own pulse quicken. Six squads is more than most locations would get, but Tier-2 would take away half their forces. He glances at Blaine, whose expression is set in its usual subtle frown, emphasized by the downturned ends of his white mustache.

“Anyone who has already specifically requested to stay won’t be relocated, but for most of you this will probably result in some reshuffling of bodies to be able to cover your sectors. Still, you won’t have to make do with less overall trainers; part of this decision was influenced by an initiative by Cinnabar Gym.”

Ira looks at Leader Blaine again, but it’s Blue Oak that stands up. “I put out a call to trainers at other gyms, and through the What Comes Next network. Only been here a couple months, but I’ve spent some time in each sector, and fought ditto a handful of times. The way I see it, since we’re forced to use weaker pokemon anyway, newer trainers can get a lot of valuable experience on the island right now.” He shrugs. “The main thing keeping people away is not knowing if they’d be welcome, or if they’re prepared enough. Seems like a wasted opportunity if we don’t let them, with some oversight to make sure it’s safe enough.”

“Cinnabar Gym agrees with this assessment, and will provide oversight.” Sydney is Blaine’s second, but Ira hasn’t worked with her yet. “It’s been discussed before, but with the large ranger presence, we decided against calling for more trainers, knowing the rest of the region has been hard pressed to deal with their own incidents lately. This will also give new local trainers an opportunity to begin their journeys on the island again, with an unusual amount of oversight, but not one that should be detrimental to their learning and growth.”

“With those things in mind,” Taira says. “I’ll also be reducing my active involvement on Cinnabar, and leaving it in Captain Uhura’s capable hands.”

“Which,” Uhura adds, “Given the loss of personnel, means I’ll need to issue some promotions to fill some new officer roles.” Ira’s sure he doesn’t imagine the way her gaze lingers on him. “That means a lot of changes all at once, but I expect everyone to adapt quickly.”

Ira tilts his head to Wendy and murmurs, “This may be our chance.”

“You think so? Should I…?”

“Yeah, I’ll set you up.”

“Alright, let’s go to the room,” Blaine says. Surprisingly, he manages not to sound impatient about it. “Starting with you.”

He points to one of the researchers, who stands and gives a brief presentation on their recent discoveries of ditto behavioral habits. He also has a request: that at least one group of identified ditto be tagged instead of captured, so they could track their migration habits in case they have any.

“No,” Blaine says at the same time Uhura says, “Possibly.” They give each other a look, and Taira adds, “We’ll discuss it.”

“Of course, General. Oh, one more thing… I’m aware that a number of rangers have caught ditto by now, in the line of duty, and if any are being transferred off the island, we’d appreciate the opportunity to purchase them for further study.”

“That seems reasonable.” She looks to Uhura, who nods.

“I’ll spread the word. Next?”

Next is Ranger Dai, who discusses the progress being made at balancing the local ecology and suggests some new bounties get announced to manage a few of the predator species before they get restless and widen their hunting grounds. After him is a representative from the Cinnabar mayor’s office, who brings up relocation efforts and asks some questions of Taira about expected shifts in supplies to adjust to the expected drawdown.

Once that’s done, a few people shake their heads when offered the chance to speak until it’s Ira’s turn. He stands, and Wendy does too. The researcher’s proposal getting mostly shot down doesn’t bode well for them, but maybe they can be more convincing…

“Cadet Wendy has a proposal. I’m volunteering myself to lead it, with permission.” He glances at his captain, who looks to General Taira, who raises a brow and turns to Wendy.

“Alright, Cadet, let’s hear it.”

“Thank you, General.” Her demeanor changes in front of an audience, back stiff and arms behind her, like she’s giving a presentation at the academy. “I believe it’s time to start testing the ditto’s potential for integration in the local ecology.”

There’s a snort in the ensuing silence, though Ira can’t tell where it’s from. Blaine’s reaction is more legible: “Absolutely not. My island isn’t the Safari Zone.”

“With respect, Leader,” Wendy says, and Ira can see the way her hands grip each other white behind her back. “If we could ship a dozen live, uncaptured specimen to the Safari Zone I would agree that it’s a better environment for it… assuming it wouldn’t interfere with their current experiments. But given the complications involved in transfer, and risk of breaking containment, Cinnabar is the only realistic place to try.”

“And,” Ira adds. “We might not have an actual choice. We’re keeping a lid on things, and sightings are slowly going down… but there’s still one at least weekly. They’re arguably already entrenched, something that some natives may be learning to adapt to. If we continue to treat them as an invasive species, and don’t take at least some time to see what the balance ends up looking like, we could be playing whack-a-diglett forever.”

“That assumes there is a balance,” Captain Imbra says. “If no equilibrium exists, we risk re-escalating just as we start to move to a more sustainable shift.”

“That’s why this is the best time, Captain. If we wait until later, we may have even less resources to spare.”

The room is silent for a moment. “What would this involve, exactly?” Taira finally asks.

Ira shrugs. “I’m happy to take advisement, but our current plan is textbook, with a couple modifications for severity of threat. I’d travel with Wendy and at least two others to find and observe a wild ditto nest. We’d call in a crew if we find one, to help document the nearby ecology and effects. If found, someone would be on standby at all times to ensure the nest is captured or destroyed at any given time.”

“That sounds like work for at least two squads.”

“Yes, General. Three to be comfortable.” Part of him wants to settle on two, because it would make it more exciting, but he doesn’t want to jeopardize Wendy’s idea over unnecessary risks. “I believe it’s worth it, and most would not have to be experienced trainers.”

“If I may, General, Leader,” Blue Oak says, standing again. “This sounds like exactly the sort of thing our new arrivals could help with, particularly as a way to learn about the island. I’d be happy to help with a thing like this too.”

Wendy somehow manages to stand a bit straighter, and Ira wonders if she’s aware of her slight smile. Blaine by contrast looks like he’s bitten into a lemon, but whatever else he could say about the Leader, he always seems willing to consider things…

“I believe I’m in favor,” General Taira says. “But I’ll leave the final decision to you and the Captain, Leader.”

It takes another few tense heartbeats before Blaine abruptly says, “Fine. Provisional on discussing details after the meeting. Who’s next?”

Wendy bows and sits, practically vibrating with glee, or maybe shaking with nerves. Ira, meanwhile, is watching Blue, who catches his look and gives a nod. He nods back, though inwardly he’s still not sure what to make of the young Oak. This can’t have been part of his original plan, whatever it was… can it? Or is he just hopping on something that sounds interesting in case it ends up being a prestigious project?

His attention is drawn to the local police commissioner, who doesn’t usually come to these meetings. He’s an older man, one of Blaine’s cousins if Ira remembers right.

“I’ve already been in contact with the Director General, and had a chat with some Interpol agents. Thought it would make sense to bring it up here as well: I think we should consider Cinnabar a prime Rocket target.”

He now has everyone’s full attention. The attack on Silph two months ago, and the declaration from “Team Rocket,” was big news even in Cinnabar, distant as they are. There’s no Silph research on the island, and the only other Rocket attack since then has been against a power plant east of Cerulean, which Cinnabar also doesn’t need thanks to all its geothermal energy.

But people have speculated that they might target the local fossil lab, if they’re generally looking to steal more research or technology. Ira knows they drastically increased security within a few days of Rocket’s broadcast, which would make it a pretty risky target…

“Has the lab made some new discovery?” Blaine asks.

“Not that I’m aware. What I’m worried might attract them are the ditto.”

It takes a moment for Ira to get it. “As an equalizer?”

“Precisely. The fact that we can’t condition ditto yet wouldn’t matter as much to them, and it gives them an easy way to match whatever forces we bring to a fight. Even if they fail to create the first Masterball before others, they’ll have an answer ready if someone else catches a legendary to use against them.”

“It’s a justified concern,” Taira says, brow furrowed. “But I’m unsure what you propose we do. The ditto aren’t all stored in one place, and we wouldn’t have the manpower to guard the whole island against poachers unless we strip half the mainland.”

“I understand, General. But people should be aware, if there are renegades combing the island for a nest… and it’s not impossible that the Rockets might decide to try targeting trainers who’ve caught one already, in order to steal theirs.”

Ira feels his stomach twist as he imagines it. Some ranger, out drinking one night after shift, getting knocked over the head and pushed into a van… taken to some warehouse and tortured until they get access to his PC, just in case they get lucky…

“Thank you, Commissioner. We appreciate the warning, and will assist in spreading it among our people so that everyone refrains from advertising their captures.”

The commissioner nods and sits, and after that there’s just another couple minor points before the meeting breaks up. Ira’s thoughts are still on Rocket as he stands and starts shuffling toward the exit with most of the others… until Blue Oak sidles up next to him.

“Hey. Ranger Neasman, right?” He sticks out his hand. “Good to meet you.”

Ira takes it automatically, feeling the young man’s strong grip. “Same, and I appreciated the support.”

“Oh, I’m happy for the chance to work together, assuming they give the okay. I’ve heard good things.”

“Likewise.” Ira almost asks from whom, given that he hasn’t been in the media much… then realizes that the same rangers in What Comes Next that he’s heard talk about Blue probably talk about him, too. “Have you enjoyed the island so far?”

“Yeah, actually. I planned to get my badge as soon as I could, at first, but you guys are doing important work here, and as usual I couldn’t keep myself from getting involved.”

“I know the feeling,” Wendy says from Ira’s other side, and sticks her hand out. “I’m Wendy.”

“Blue. Do you follow my friend Leaf, by chance? I think you’d get along with her.”

“I do, actually! How’s she been?”

“Good. Busy. Haven’t had time to see her since I got here, except for my birthday last week. But she’s said she might want to come visit the island at some point.”

“That would be great! We could use all the help we can get.”

They’ve emerged into the sunlight by now, and Ira takes a moment to appreciate the view of the city below, and the ocean spread out every direction beyond it. “Assuming she’d be coming to help?”

“I think she wants to visit the lab, but yeah, I’m sure she’d be down to assist at least a little. Do you guys have a location in mind to search first?”

“I’ve been looking over the patrol maps,” Wendy says. “And there are some areas that have gotten less thorough searches than others, particularly up high on the uninhabited parts of the mountain.” She pulls up a map on her phone and circles a few locations. “I think if we do enough flyovers in these areas, we’ll find a ditto nest sooner or later… maybe even one that’s had a chance to reach some local equilibrium.”

Or some renegades, Ira thinks, but doesn’t say. The odds are pretty low, but if they’re anywhere on the island, they’d be in the less inhabited areas.

Blue Oak seems sober enough as he looks over the map that he might be having the same thought. “I’ll see if I can get another couple extra friends to join us. Might even be able to pull in a favor or two.”

“Are you, uh, talking about Red Verres?” Wendy asks. “I heard he also stopped the attack at the power plant, all by himself!”

“Nah, he had help. But Red’s even busier than Leaf these days, he probably can’t be spared to fly around the island randomly.” Blue is smiling, clearly proud of his friend, though there’s something else beneath it that Ira can’t quite place. “If we need him, I’ll give him a call, and he’ll come. But meanwhile, he’s got more important things to deal with.”


Thirty-five years on the force, and Manni can say that there’s never been a tougher time to be a cop, even in a small town like Azure.

After Team Rocket revealed itself, Manni reassured his wife that he wasn’t likely to face them. Sure, it could happen. He’s a cop, and facing renegades now and then is part of the job. But he’s not a hunter, and Azure Town is far from any of the big cities, devoid of anything unique or interesting.

Sure, everyone in Kanto is on edge, wondering when Rocket would strike next, looking to the police to protect them—police who are now expected to be halfway to hunters themselves, suddenly—but he’s old, already had his years of excitement and danger, spends most of his time behind a desk these days. He has eleven months until retirement, they weren’t sending him out for anything that needed less than the entire department. He’d be fine. Well, as fine as anyone could expect, in a world gone so utterly sideways in the space of a year.

Then Silph finished reinforcing its headquarters security, decentralized its storage and R&D departments, and Rocket hit the power plant, leading to some bigwigs re-analyzing all the most likely targets that Rocket might try for next, and somehow Azure Town ended up 9th on the list of most probable targets.

Manni did request a meeting to ask, when the updated report got sent out, what the reasoning was. He wanted to be able to reassure Elise that it was just some egghead throwing numbers around to soothe the public. No one could really know a thing like that.

He wasn’t quite prepared to be put on the line with an Interpol agent, who started explaining a bunch of things he couldn’t really follow about base rates and tradeoffs of risk to civilian life compared to potential sources of value for a terrorist cell. He nodded along to it all, made the appropriate noises, thanked the agent for her time… then opened a new document and started drafting his request for permanent transfer to Lavender Town. Property prices went down ever since that new pokemon showed up at the tower, but it’s been safe and quiet since that incident, and it was listed as one of the least likely places for Rocket to hit.

The renegade alarm triggered two days before his transfer, after Elise already went ahead with most of their things to prepare the new house. It took him a second to recognize what was happening, another to realize what it likely meant, and a third to fight down the urge to find a place to hide until the danger was past.

But in the end, even as his bowels felt loose enough that an emergency trip to the bathroom could be justified, he couldn’t watch his friends and coworkers scramble to mobilize around him, and just let them face whatever this was alone. And, he thought with distant hope as he buckled on his pokebelt, maybe it would just be regular renegade activity.

It is not.

“Left building, three on top!”

“Shellshock, HP!”

“Arcanine, return! Go, Jolteon!”

“We need AoE over here!”

“Raton, Bolt!” Manni yells, laser pointer guiding his raichu to shock an Alolan persian that’s already put two of their pokemon to sleep… but it doesn’t go down, and a moment later his pokemon is frantically dodging away as the ground beneath him explodes upward to reveal a krookodile.

He wants to switch a Fighting pokemon in, the enemies are all Dark, but the streets are torn up in concentric circles, each trench wide and deep enough that it would be hard to leap or climb them mid combat. “Return! Go, Beut! Sleep!”

His butterfree begins to waft powder down over the renegade pokemon, but a moment later a honchkrow hits Beut from the side. He tries to withdraw her as well, but dark, wet things start to splat on the street around him, each trailing smog that quickly spreads.

He looks up to see more renegades on the rooftops, skunktank and Alolan muk launching more and more globs of poison at them. They managed to catch the renegades as they were finishing the third, inner trench… but the enemy was more than prepared, all the same.

“Back!” he hears Captain Ida yell over the sounds of battle. “One block perimeter! Fa—”

TSE—TSEEE—TSEEEEEEEEEEWWwww

Manni covers his eyes, ears ringing from the three Hyper Beams that blasted three of their lead pokemon. He blinks the spots from his eyes and tries to return his butterfree even as he backsteps, but he can’t see through the spreading smog.

“FALL BACK!”

His knuckles pop around her great ball, and then he’s turning and running with the others, heart hammering as he expects their flight to turn into a fighting retreat at any moment.

But the renegades don’t press the attack, and soon he’s panting against the wall a block over, feeling a wave of surreality as he realizes they’re just two streets away from where his kids went to school. It’s one of the few parts of town that’s mostly small apartment buildings, with some offices and houses spread between them, half surrounding a park that’s on the far side.

“We can’t stay here long,” Paula says, then coughs through her breathing mask, which has a crack along the edge. “They’re digging in for a siege.”

Captain Ida shakes his head. “They’re already entrenched enough to take us out as we approach. I’ve called for air support.”

“That’s a residential block,” Kenji says, voice dull. No one responds. No one needs to; it’s not an objection, and they all already know renegade procedures. “What are they even…?”

“It’s an unown research center,” Manni says, remembering a snippet of the report. “They just opened up last month.” A number of them did around Indigo, to much controversy, though nothing that required police presence in sleepy little Azure Town.

“They may not be taking hostages this time, if they’re just there for the pokemon or research.” Ida pokes his head around the corner. “If they let people go again, they’ll have time to get clear before reinforcements arrive.”

Good. Let them. He doesn’t say it. If Rocket is allowed to get away with what it wants anywhere, it’ll embolden more people to try things like what they’re doing everywhere. He knows that, but… he’s already lost two pokemon, and he doesn’t want to rush back into that meat grinder. They haven’t lost any officers yet, but with their enemy using Hyper Beams, that’s down to luck more than anything; no sane person actually believes Rocket’s claims that they don’t plan on killing humans.

“Hunters from Celadon should be here in a few minutes—”

The sound of flapping wings makes them all look up just as a charizard comes in for a landing. Many scramble to defend themselves until the captain barks, “Stand down!”

Manni stares as a short figure slides off the charizard’s back, pats its side, then walks toward them. He’s wearing the red-on-black combat vest of a hunter, one that must have been custom made for his size, as well as something that looks like a mix between an aviation helmet, a gas mask, and a transparent, tinted monitor that mostly obscures his features, though Manni can make out pale skin against the glow of the writing on the glass.

One hand stays on the newcomer’s pokebelt as the other reaches up to tap the side of his helmet, clearing the glass to reveal red eyes set in a young face below a mess of black hair. “Which of you is Captain Ida?”

Ida steps forward, looking only half as confused as Manni feels. “I am.”

“Red Verres. Sitrep?”

Half a dozen thoughts are running through Manni’s head, from Wait, the Red Verres? to Thank Arceus, we’re saved. But… he’s just a kid, even younger than he looked on TV. And he’s by himself…

Ida recovers quickly, having probably gotten a heads up just before Verres landed. “At least a dozen renegades, entrenched positions around the office building one block over. They seem ready to defend against attacks above and below the ground.”

“Any non-dark pokemon?”

“Not that I saw.” He looks around, and the rest of them shake their heads.

Verres nods, then takes out his phone and walks to the edge of the building, angling the screen so he can look around the corner with its camera. “They’re learning,” Verres says, voice distant. “Lots of smog, much wider perimeter. Definitely out of range…” For a moment Manni thinks he’s talking to them, or himself, but then he realizes there’s probably an earpiece under that helmet. Where did he even get that thing…? “Yeah, I think so. Depends… one sec.”

He turns back toward them. “I have a favor to ask. If you’ve lived in this area at all, if you’ve ever been to this block, in any of these buildings, then step toward me, and concentrate as hard as you can on those memories. I won’t ask you to share private or embarrassing ones if you don’t want to, but the strongest memories are likely to have some deep emotion attached, so those might be particularly useful. I give you my word that I will lock them behind an amnesia partition after today until the memory fades.”

The officers around him are silent. One shifts his weight, but doesn’t move forward. Manni’s own thoughts are on all the things he’s heard about Verres. That he’s a double agent for/against either Interpol or Indigo. That he’s an even stronger psychic than Sabrina. That he can learn all about you in a moment, then perfectly re-experience your memories and teleport anywhere you’ve been in your life. That he can turn pokemon wild or docile with just his powers. That he can make you believe whatever he wants…

But if that were true, why would he even be asking permission?

A distant explosion rattles the windows around them, and Captain Ida looks frustrated. “I haven’t… been to this side of town much…”

“It’s alright,” Verres says, though his brow is slightly furrowed as he looks around the corner with his phone again. “I’ll figure something out…”

He sounds totally calm, but once again Manni is struck by how young he is, voice clearly still a kid’s even through the muffle of the mask. Manni’s never seen someone this short wearing a Hunter uniform, and though it makes him look no less dangerous than them… after a moment something flips in Manni’s mind, and it’s like one of those visual illusions.

Gods, he’s just a kid… younger than my Miguel when he set out on his journey…

In front of him may be the most powerful Hunter in history, but at the same time, he’s a child dressed up as an adult, whose job is to single-handedly take care of something that a dozen grown men and women aren’t able to face.

Manni’s feet suddenly move him forward, and without really thinking about it he says, “I’ve got some.”

Verres’s red gaze meet his with something like gratitude, and then he nods and closes his eyes. “Ready when you are. Just focus on the memories as best you can.”

So Manni closes his eyes too, and does his best to dig through his memories of the area. He remembers idling on the street corner nearby, having a long conversation with one of the rookies about the job. He watched a meteor shower from one of the rooftops near here, though it was actually in the wrong direction… there was that domestic abuse call, inside the apartment building near the lab… and now that he thinks deeper, other memories are surfacing. That one phone call with his son about his journey… was that on this block, or the next one over? He barely remembers the details, but the sun was hot against his skin… he also took a report about a stolen bike from a house on the far side of the where the renegades are camped out…

He’s occasionally conscious of the fact that Verres is observing his memories, probably feeling whatever he is. Once in a while his thoughts stray to other things, things he’s embarrassed about or that are private, but he forces himself to refocus on what’s important, until finally he lets out a harsh breath and realizes he’s been holding it in. “I think that’s… that’s all I’ve got.”

“I…” Paula steps forward. “I’ve got some, I think. If more would be useful?”

“I might, too,” Ollie adds.

In the end four more officers step forward, and Verres moves in front of them one at a time so they know when to focus on their memories. Manni still feels strange, knowing that the boy now has some of his own memories. He hasn’t interacted with psychics much before, at least as far as he knows… he’s of course been vaguely aware that anyone he meets might be one, but they usually dress the part if they’re a professional, and from what he learned at the academy, few people strong enough to do a “deep merge” don’t end up becoming professional psychics of one kind or another.

But there’s nothing he can do about it now, and he can’t bring himself to regret it, if it gets Verres what he needs to stop all this.

The seconds tick by as the boy—no, the young man—steps in front of the last officer who offered their memories. Another explosion shakes the windows, but he doesn’t react, though his charizard raises its snout to sniff the air and growls. After nearly a minute, Verres opens his eyes, letting out a long breath. “Okay, that should do it.”

He steps away and taps his earpiece as he unclips an ultraball from his belt. “I’m ready, give me a widespread Hurricane, then Xatu can have the whole block in sight for a Miracle Eye. Yeah. At least ten, probably thirty seconds total? No, I’ll signal for that. Alright, going now.”

And then he swaps his charizard for an alakazam, puts a hand on its arm, then turns back to them to say “Thanks” before he disappears.

Silence descends. Manni has a moment of regret, for not thinking to say something back, though he’s not sure what he would have. Good luck? Be careful? None of them feel adequate, given how useless he feels just standing here and waiting to be saved. He looks around to see confusion or uncertainty on the others’ faces as well, and imagines them wondering if there’s something else they should be doing…

And then Captain Ida twitches, says, “Yes, sir,” and taps his earpiece before yelling, “Everyone, brace for high winds!”

Manni just manages to press his back against the wall before the first gust hits them, moving from northeast to southwest to press him against the wall. A garbage bin upends a street over as the second gust hits, even stronger than the first, and as his gaze traces the trash that swirls up into the air he sees the distant silhouettes of some bird pokemon, all flapping their wings as they bob in midair.

He can imagine it, the winds clearing all the smog away. And then Verres, standing… at a window, maybe, or on a roof if someone has a memory on one that works, maybe even his own? Summoning a xatu to fly above and take in the whole battlefield so he can use that Miracle Eye on all the renegades at once…

There’s a distant roar, and Manni pokes his head around the corner, and sees a charizard fighting off some honchkrow and mandibuzz as they try to reach a distant xatu. Electricity also arcs up, helping the charizard hold them off, but there’s a flash of light and a distant TSEEEEEW as more Hyper Beams are fired.

He’s crazy, he can’t fight them alone—! “Hey!” he yells over the roar of the wind as he turns back to the others. “We’ve got to help—”

Three pokemon zip by overhead toward the battle, and he looks back to see them join the charizard in fighting the renegade pokemon off.

“Orders are to stand by!” Ida yells back, though the wind is dying, now. “We’ll take our shot soon!”

Manni shifts from foot to foot as he watches the battle, knuckles white around his pokebelt… and then, as the wind finally stops blowing, he starts to hear screams and yells coming from the direction of the renegades.

It’s too far to make out details, but from what he remembers of the attack on Silph, it’s not hard to imagine what’s happening over there. He swallows, feeling suddenly less ready to rush in… would they be going to fight the renegades, at this point, or save them?

“Now!” Ida yells, making him jump. “Air support has the rooftops, we’re headed to the building! Go, go, go!”

Manni goes, adrenaline washing his thoughts clean as they cross the block in a rush, passing their vehicles and reaching the dug up trenches in seconds. Smog is just starting to turn the air hazy again… but not before they can make out the bodies strewn around, burned and shocked, stung and bitten.

Captain Ida has pulled ahead, and leaps across the first trench, catching himself on the far side before scrambling up and toward the next, summoning his machamp as he goes. Manni hears battles on the rooftops above, but not as many as he’d expected, and on the ground, the renegade’s pokemon don’t attack them as they approach. Rather than giving a battle command, Ida just takes out a ball and captures the closest one, leaving the ball on the ground as he leaps over the next trench.

Manni does the same to the nearby krookodile, struggling a bit more to make it up the rough wall of the dug up street. The renegade pokemon would have to be put down regardless, but something about the casual way they’re able to just neutralize them feels surreal. There are only a few around, and he guesses half of the renegades ran as soon as their pokemon started turning on them, or maybe as soon as the smog started clearing.

Eventually they clear the trenches to find Verres standing beside the building, hand on his alakazam’s arm, visor darkened again, with text glowing on the sides. “There are five left that I can sense,” he says as they approach. “All the hostages were blindfolded, so I can’t see what’s happening around them. The renegades will become dark again soon, though.” He shakes his head. “I can’t do much more. I’d go in with you, but Agent Looker says all this might be a trap for me.”

“It’s alright,” Captain Ida says. “We’ll wait for the hunters, and—”

“Wait!” Red suddenly says, looking up. “They’re… heading for the roof! They released some pokemon to cover their retreat, but—”

“Flyers, now!” Ida barks as he summons his fearow. “Manni, Jen, check the hostages!”

Manni summons his raichu as they mount up to chase the renegades, then follows Jen in, each checking a room and calling it clear before the other rushes past to the next doorway.

They find the first hostages on the second floor, cowering and blindfolded in a corner.

“Everyone, listen close! I’m Officer Manni, this is Officer Jenny! You’re safe now, you can take the blindfolds off. Are any of you injured? No? Everyone’s okay? Alright, head down, the renegades are gone.”

“They took the computers,” one of them says blinking against the light. “And our storage bank…”

“We’ll try and get it back.” Storage banks can’t be stored in balls, it would be hard for them to get away with it while being pursued… unless they have some really powerful fliers. “Head down, while we clear the rest of the building, paramedics should be here soon.”

It takes another three minutes to reach the roof, which was guarded by a mightyena and an Alolan persian, neither of which attacked them as they got close enough to capture both. A few more things were stolen, but no one was injured, other than a few bruises from being manhandled.

By the time he reaches the ground floor again, Verres is gone. They secure the scene for future investigation, then collect the renegade pokemon for disposal before they head back to the precinct, where some Interpol agents are already waiting for a debrief. These get interrupted by a call from Captain Ida, who reports how they and the hunters only managed to take down one of the renegades before more flew up from nowhere to run interference and allow the rest to escape, after which they broke off in every direction, forcing them to retreat rather than risk flying into more ambushes.

It’s near midnight before he makes it home, has a long and soothing call with a tearful Elise, then drags himself into the shower before bed, where he can finally feel the muscles in his neck and shoulders.

It isn’t until he starts to finally shampoo himself that he has the chance to reflect on how he started the day not wanting to have to fight the renegades, of wanting to (much to his shame, now) hide away… until he met Red Verres. After which it felt like he couldn’t just stand back…

He can make you believe whatever he wants…

Manni feels a chill spread through him beneath the hot jet of the shower. Did he get mentally influenced to help Red Verres? Maybe not his beliefs, but had his fear removed, his courage propped up? Or did he just… feel protective of a young trainer doing something brave, and hopeful that with his help they could actually win the fight?

The more he thinks it over, the more sure he is that, despite his worry, he feels proud of what he did today, little though it was. But the question keeps him tossing and turning for an hour, after which he finally gets redressed and orders a car to take him to Lavender.

He’ll have to drive all the way back tomorrow, but for tonight he wants to be with his wife.


Fuji would not describe himself as a brave man.

He can recount his brave choices, when he needs to console himself over decisions made and not made, paths taken rather than avoided, that have led him, eyes open, to where he’s ended up.

But on net, the choices he’s made were those of someone willing to take some risks, but not the ultimate ones. He’s a cautious man more than a brave one, a man of long plans with uncertain endings, nudging others to make decisions that will force his hand as much as others’.

His bravest moment, all things considered, was on the day he went into Giovanni’s office and told him he’d resign if Mazda wasn’t set free, knowing full well what “retirement” would mean.

Giovanni didn’t shout or threaten him. He just watched him with those dark eyes, asked him some questions about his decision, and made a counteroffer. There was no attempt to change his beliefs, which Fuji found perversely infuriating, at the time. He wanted to be debated, not because he thought he was wrong, but because it would show that Giovanni was at least open to being convinced.

Instead he simply laid out what would happen in various cases, and, seeing the outcome of one decision compared to another, Fuji agreed to being “sold” to Silph, to work on projects mutually beneficial to both of them, as well as Mewtwo.

It was not a cowardly decision, no. But it wasn’t a courageous one either. It was a decision made around the seed of a scheme, and a sense that as long as he was free, to some degree, he could try to make things better.

So he traded one prison for another, one set of projects for another, and began to, carefully, plant his seeds. Not many, and not right away. He knew he’d be watched, and carefully, for years.

But enough, over time, that he could feel some hope that he could introduce a new variable into Giovanni’s careful schemes, and ultimately bring Mazda safely out of their own prison.

When the day comes that there’s an unexpected knock at his door, and he opens it to see Sabrina standing there, he knows his game is over.

“Good evening, Doctor.” Whether as a mild disguise or simple effort to appear unthreatening, she’s in a sundress, her hair tied up, with a light shawl around her shoulders. It’s very becoming.

“Hello, Sabrina.” His throat is dry, thoughts skittering from simple observations to cached thoughts, just like he’s practiced for nearly a decade, preparing for a moment like this. Years, months, weeks, and days, focusing on his work and living an otherwise simple, boring, repetitive, cloistered experience… letting himself become the hermit inside and out, so that he doesn’t think of his plans, doesn’t think of his goals— “You’ve grown.”

“In many ways. May I come in?”

And if I say no? A braver man might ask. If I call the police? Instead he simply smiles and nods, shuffling back so she can pass through the doorway before he closes it behind her. “Tea?”

“Please.”

His occasional visits with Miss Juniper and Mrs. Verres have not much affected his habits, and his house looks exactly as it has for most of his life here; the windows all have their curtains drawn, tablets and charging ports make the space around his couch a maze, his table is covered by diagrams and notebooks, some piled up on two of the four chairs around the table so that the only free ones have their backs to the kitchen and pokemon pens. His tea pot is slightly cleaner than it used to be, and his hand only shakes a little as he pours a fresh cup, then brings it back to the living room, where Sabrina is observing the pokemon.

Pal went to sleep as soon as the sun went down, but Custard and Bubble are as interested in this stranger as they were the last two. He focuses his attention on them, on his memories of Miss Juniper so unabashedly happy to meet them, offering as much as he can for the inevitable mind-reading…

“Thank you,” Sabrina says as he places her cup and saucer on the table, then sits with his back to the kitchen. She takes the remaining seat and takes a sip, watching him. “You know why I was sent here…”

He doesn’t resist letting his thoughts go where they’re led. The story Miss Juniper’s been writing, which she could only write with knowledge someone on the team had. He wonders if they knew it was him right away, but it’s an irrelevant thought; he knew they’d check his involvement sooner or later, has prepared for it ever since.

“…but you’re wrong about why I came.”

Hope can be a dangerous thing, especially to someone who lacks bravery. “Are you saying you don’t have one of Giovanni’s balls on your belt?” It was one of the options, of course. The default one, given his ultimatum. He’s sure most at the lab believed he took it… the chance to live for decades in stasis, maybe centuries, until they found a way to bring him out safely past the point where the secrets he knew would be relevant. It’s the only retirement plan people who worked at the lab were allowed.

But he knew the work would continue without him, and someone else might have gotten things wrong.

“I do.” She’s calm, though not projecting that calm onto him; his pulse is racing, despite the way he’s mostly kept his thoughts going in a resigned circle. “But I wasn’t ordered to use it. It’s just an option. I’m not here to threaten you. You’ve always had the option to reveal everything, just like many others. I’ve never seen any intention in you to do that, in part because you were worried about Mazda. I didn’t think that would change.”

“It hasn’t,” he whispers, staring down at his teacup.

“Even though they left the lab?”

He looks up at her, meets her gaze, wonders—

It’s just a moment, that his mental attention slips. Just a moment before he redirects his thoughts, but he manages to keep them from cascading into different secrets, more details.

Still, it was enough for the region’s strongest psychic.

“Ah,” she breathes. “They did come, then.”

It’s like watching a puppet whose strings were cut. Her head leans back, eyes closing, body relaxed. She’s completely defenseless, if he were to—

No, he won’t hurt her. It would accomplish nothing, he wouldn’t do something like that, of course, never. Besides… he’s curious.

She smiles, slightly, at that thought, but only for a moment, muscles of her face twisting through various emotions. It takes him a moment to realize…

“You didn’t know,” he says, voice gentle. “Not for sure.”

“No.” Her eyes are still closed, her voice just as soft. “Not for sure.” She takes a breath, sits up. Opens her eyes, sips some tea. Continues to stare into it, even as she asks… “Tell me?”

And he thinks he understands. Although Mazda didn’t mention her—a wince, she’s hurt by that, a sign that he’s on the right track—he guessed that she continued to be their teacher long after he left. She probably still considers herself a friend, despite everything.

He remembers the conversation they had, when he first tried to fight for Mazda’s freedom. They were friends, or close enough, and before he went to Giovanni he thought her affection for them, enough to have led her to give them a nickname, would make her an ally in wanting their wishes to be respected.

But she couldn’t turn against Giovanni. Or else her concern for Mazda’s safety, her appeals to patience, were genuine… either way, she made Mewtwo out to be a child, mature and yet still just a few years old, rebelling against a confinement they didn’t understand.

But they did understand it. Fuji would not have let a human child take such a risk, but Mazda was more than a child.

“First, you tell me. What you’re really here for, and how it’s in Mazda’s interests.”

Her fingers tighten around her mug. “It’s so strange,” she murmurs. “Hearing someone else say their name again, after all these years.”

“You never…?”

“No. And they didn’t either, as far as I know. Besides you.”

“Because it would look bad. Having a pet name, for the pet.”

Sabrina lifts her gaze to his, but he didn’t speak with any malice, and she just sighs. “Yes. Shaw was suspicious enough of me, even Dr. Light worried about attachment—”

“Ivy? Did she—”

“Became Site Director, a couple years after you were gone. She grew close with Mazda too, I think. Well, close enough to let her guard down, and let them escape.”

There’s so much he wants to ask, so much he didn’t have time to ask Mazda, when they came… “You first. Tell me what it was like, after I… ‘left.'”

Sabrina watches him, a moment, and he doesn’t bother trying to redirect his thoughts away from his sincerity. Eventually she nods, and begins to speak.

He listens hungrily to the aftermath of his ejection from the lab. How they told Mazda he’d resigned in protest over them not being released… which was fairly close to what happened, to be fair. How they introduced Mazda to as much media as they could, found ways to give them as much freedom in entertainment and education as possible, and yet still struggled to keep them happy enough. Her voice lowers as she recounts the threats they made, out of desperation… and depression, so far had their hopes fallen that being destroyed in fear seemed preferable. Their regret afterward was real, Sabrina insists, and things got better after.

Fuji doesn’t do much to hide his frustration and anger, pity welling in him at what Mazda endured in the years after he left. It wasn’t as bad as he feared, not nearly so, but still his heart aches for his friend, and again he wishes he’d been braver in his efforts to free them… though he knows that bravery would likely have resulted in failure.

If Sabrina is affected by his internal state she doesn’t show it, though she does start to describe how things got better afterward, when the first suit was finally ready.

“You should have been there,” she says, voice low. “Mazda is so large, but their first steps were so careful… and their first time outside was…” She swallows, and he sees a tear slip from one eye. “I can share it with you, if you’d like.”

He only considers it for a moment. “Yes.”

And then he’s there, not quite in her memory but awash in the feelings of it. Sunlight on her/his skin, and the grip of strong, alien fingers around her/his hand, and the taste of salt as Mazda breathed their first fresh breaths, cried their first tears.

Eventually the feelings withdraw, and he wipes his face. “It should have happened sooner.”

“From what I understand, your breakthroughs helped make it possible. Finding a potion formula dynamic enough to combat the disease—”

“It was a lie.” Anger is dangerous, it doesn’t fit the hermit life he’s chosen, it could lead to—but it’s fine, he’s not brave, he wouldn’t do anything. “Mazda told me. Their helmet, it had a message from Giovanni. The dark scientists were using our research to adapt the immune disorder, keep it carefully ahead of our every breakthrough—”

And then it isn’t his own anger he feels anymore, but a flood of hers. Sabrina’s eyes are closed tight, her lips pressed into a hard line as two spots of color appear on her cheeks, and he watches her breathe deep, watches her relax her grip on his mug as her shock fades and her anger starts to give way to resignation.

“I wondered, if you knew,” is all he says. “You clearly think him capable of it.” There was no doubt in the emotions she projected at him.

“Yes.” The word is heavy, bitter. “And more. Rocket is him as well.”

Now it’s his turn to be shocked. Not that Giovanni could pull off a second such conspiracy, nor that he was capable of running a secret renegade organization. It’s the outright betrayal of Silph that seems out of character, and self-defeating. Silph knows enough, after all, to sink Giovanni as well…

He’s missing something. Or she’s wrong, or lying…

“I can lie pretty well, now,” Sabrina admits. “Even to other psychics. I could shift my partitions, project sincerity to you. But why would I lie about a thing like that?”

He has no answer to that. “You’re sure it’s his decision that led to it? It’s not some… rogue faction?”

“No. It’s him. Miracle Eye changed everything, and now… he believes it’s time to do what he can, with what he’s amassed, before it all collapses.”

A chill creeps over him at her words, and he swallows more tea. “But you’re not breaking with him.”

“That depends on what you mean by it. All I’ll say is that I’ve hedged my bets… and that, even before what you told me about… Mazda’s ‘illness’… I’ve regretted much of what we chose, even though I thought…” She sighs. “I thought they would see that it was for the best, in the end.”

He meets her gaze, wishing he had some way to know… admitting she could project something false could be seen as an extension of trust, but the Sabrina he knew wasn’t very trusting.

Something softens in her expression, and she looks away. “People change.”

“Yes. Young people, in particular.” It’s the most he’ll be able to concede, for now. “Coercion can never be part of a caring relationship, a relationship of friends or peers. It’s only ever for enemies. For control.”

“I… believe I see that, now, yes.”

“Now. When it’s too late to do Mazda any good.”

“At least they’re alive—”

“We do not know they would have died! Even were it not a lie, they could have survived at any time!”

Anger and grief boil up in him, as they so often do, and he fights them down, drowns the bitterness in resignation before it drives him to do something he’ll regret. Sabrina simply watches, and finally he sighs.

“They came to me in the middle of the night, just as I was dozing to sleep. Just a voice in my head, from where they flew over the house… I thought I was dreaming. It took a minute to convince me I was not.” He lets himself linger on the feelings that welled up in him, fear and doubt and hope. “They told me that they escaped. Shared all they’d done since. What they learned…”

He doesn’t share the private things they spoke of, the more personal things, the rekindling, however brief and tentative, of their old friendship. He doesn’t remark on their shared tears, though she can probably read them in him. “In the end, they needed help. Giovanni had told them that I was alive as part of his final confession, perhaps as an attempt to soothe some sliver of his soul, and that Mazda could find me if they tried. So they flew over every town in Kanto, ever-wary of a trap, sensed every mind they came across, until they found mine.”

“When was this?”

“You should know. It isn’t a difficult puzzle.”

Her eyes widen. “The dreams.”

Fuji nods. “Mazda didn’t know what to do. How to best warn humanity, given how they would fear the messenger. They didn’t trust Giovanni, of course, even if they could send a message safely. And they didn’t know whom else to ask for advice.” He shrugs. “I gave the best I could. I thought that maybe, if enough psychics got the warning, something would be done.” He doesn’t bother keeping the bitterness from his voice. So far as he could tell, only a minority of people still think it was important enough to be worth discussing. Elite Agatha is chief among them, but her prestige can’t make up for the sheer numbers focused on other, more clear and current dangers.

“It was… a good plan,” Sabrina says after a moment. “Just poorly timed, for reasons you could not predict. As for your other plan…”

“You don’t understand it?”

“I believe I do.” She turns her tea mug in her hands. “Giovanni does as well. To build sympathy, shift the Overton window… for a grand reveal? Or in case it happens naturally?”

“That was not shared with me.” Fuji didn’t need to tell Mazda not to trust him entirely. Mazda understood.

Sabrina sighs, and nods. She’s silent for nearly a minute, and he doesn’t rush her, keeping his thoughts simple as he enjoys his tea.

“Were you the reason… they avoided Saffron?”

He raises a brow, caught off guard by the pettiness of the question. “You think I sought to punish you?”

“No, no. I just… wasn’t sure if it was on purpose.”

“Of course it was, though not mine.”

She swallows, and nods, and he does his best not to let pity move him. “If it matters in either case, I gave them no such advice. I did, of course, warn them about the Masterball, and whom it might have been designed for in particular.”

Sabrina’s eyes widen. “You think… it was made for them? Did Giovanni—”

“No, that wasn’t part of the message. But it seems clear, given the severity of the mental crippling it imposes.” He frowns at her. “To the general public it might seem like an obvious safety measure for such powerful and mysterious beings, but once you know of the existence of a sapient pokemon, surely its true value is more direct?”

“I didn’t consider it,” she says, voice low. “And I’m not yet sure I believe it. Why would you have helped build such a thing, if you suspected that was its use?”

“I didn’t learn of that piece of functionality until recently.” He planted the seeds he did years ago because he suspected he might need them someday, not because he had a particular whistle to blow.

“Of course. And as for why you did not reveal Giovanni and Silph’s crimes, once you knew Mazda was safe?”

“Because I knew it would inevitably drag Mazda into the public eye before anyone is ready. That is a decision I won’t take from them. It is the last decision about their ‘upbringing’ that they have control over, and if Giovanni does it first—”

“He won’t. I know this will not seem credible, given… well, everything, especially the lies… and yes, I am now aware that I should probably be less confident about this given time to update my models of him… but in any case, currently I believe his deepest hopes are that Mazda either decides to fight and defeat some Legendaries on their own, or that they otherwise just… go off, and enjoy their freedom as they see fit.”

“Mmhm. Not that Mazda returns to him?”

Sabrina gives a wry smile. “I said deepest hopes. Giovanni is not really someone who engages in wishes.”

Despite himself, he smiles wryly back. “I notice integration also isn’t mentioned.”

“Your path is admittedly not one either of us considered. Giovanni believed that… said he believed that the only realistic path toward that would be through the timelines where Mazda defeats at least one legendary first. I… believe I agree with him, though.”

“As usual.” He says it practically by reflex, without any intended malice, knowing it won’t matter much. Sabrina would either change her mind, or she wouldn’t. “What is the plan, with Rocket?”

“I have not been informed. I believe even Giovanni does not fully know, anymore; in a sense the guess that it was a rogue faction isn’t far off. Of his other plans and projects I know about, he seems to be divesting himself, one by one, handing them off to their own leaders. Making them even more silo’d, preparing them, in a sense, to operate without him. Without the organization.”

It’s a large claim, and not one he’s prepared to deeply consider at this point, let alone accept. “And this is why you claim to be… hedging your bets?”

“Only a part. In my own way, I’ve also been preparing the world for a possible confrontation with Mazda.”

It’s obvious who she means. “Red Verres. One of his?”

“What? No.” She seems to catch herself. “Not knowingly. And not for anything illegal.”

So far as she knows, which she admits isn’t much. “I suppose that would be too convoluted a game even for him, given what the boy has been doing lately.”

“What of Miss Juniper? How much does she really know?”

“Nothing. It’s just a story, to her, one that speaks to things dear to her heart. Now that the Masterball is public knowledge, she knows nothing unique to what I’ve told her.” He’s glad he can say that with full honesty. It’s something he tried quite hard to ensure.

“She’s writing more stories, these days. About ninja clans, and other organizations that operate from the shadows.” Her eyes are on his. “You know nothing about that?”

“No,” he says, again with complete honesty. “She’s a good writer. Perhaps she just became inspired.” Not all of his questions are answered, but all the important ones, maybe. “So, what happens now?”

“That’s a question I planned for you. I want to offer my help. I want to make sure they’re okay, make sure they know… that I’m on their side.”

“And what happens to me?”

“As I said, I’m not here to retaliate against you, or punish you in any way. I plan to leave here tonight, alone, without harming you. I hope to be able to come again, some day… perhaps even at your invitation.”

It’s a pretty picture she paints, and not an unappealing one. They were friends, for a time. She was nearly the same age as his daughter would have been…

The grief has dulled, over the past decade, but it’s still capable of filling him on occasion, of grabbing him from head to toe and dragging him deep beneath its dark currents. Mazda always did their best to keep him afloat, when it came, but most psychics would reflexively withdraw, rather than share that deep and endless pit of pain and regret.

It’s from that darkness that he says, “Namero.”

Sabrina doesn’t even have time to frown. Bubble’s tongue stretches out and wraps around her neck from behind, squeezing as she’s pulled violently to the floor, chair clattering against the ground.

“Yamero,” he says, knees weak as he pushes himself to his feet, one hand holding him up against the table. Sabrina’s face is a deep red by the time his lickitung’s makeshift scarf has unwound from her throat, and her whole body lies rigid on the floor, hands up in claws that never made it to her neck.

He lowers himself, shaking, to the ground, placing his ear against her lips… and hears a thin, reedy breath. His fingers gently probe the bruise that’s already forming around her neck… no broken bones, no crushed throat. He finally presses his ear to her chest, and hears a steady heartbeat. The paralysis from Bubble’s saliva will keep her muscles locked for a time, but she’ll recover eventually.

Only once he’s sure does he sag back, breathing hard as the adrenaline leaves him trembling.

He is not a courageous man.

But he is a patient one, willing to plant seeds whose leaves he may never need to sit beneath.

After a minute to recover, he pushes himself to his feet, and goes to retrieve the bag he keeps beneath his bed. A few mementos go into it, as well as most of his notebooks, though no electronics. Lots of cash, and ten fully charged storage balls that hold the rest of his things. Once that’s done, he takes his pokebelt from the wall and attaches it around his waist, then retrieves the three balls for his lickitung, pikachu, and cubone. For the first time in years, he returns each pokemon to their ball.

Finally, he takes a potion from the first aid kit on the wall, and sprays it on Sabrina’s neck. Her arms are already starting to droop back toward the floor, and her breathing is more audible. He guesses she has another ten minutes before she’s able to move again… which should be enough time, assuming his house isn’t surrounded by Giovanni’s men.

“Goodbye, Sabrina,” he whispers. “Perhaps in another life.”

Fuji goes to the door, listens for a moment, then breathes deep and opens it. When no one approaches, he steps out into the fresh night air.

He wishes he could write a note for Leaf and Laura, but it’s too risky. Instead he just sticks a pair of thank you cards in his mail box, addressed to both, then walks out into the field behind his house, still half-expecting to be surrounded at any moment.

But no one stops him from summoning his pidgeot, or from mounting him, and then he’s up and in the sky, among the stars and headed for the coast. He’ll fly around a few days, make sure no one is following him before he heads for the location he agreed to wait for Mazda to check, someday, if ever they couldn’t find him at home.

He doesn’t look back at the house he lived in for nearly a decade. It was just his latest prison, and now he’s free.