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 Once the rest are withdrawn, he brings out a zubat.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—”
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.
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.
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.
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?”
“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.
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.