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.”


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.