On the sixth day after leaving Pewter, Mount Moon goes from a feature of the landscape to part of the terrain. Red thought he was in good shape when he set out on his journey, and did his best to keep up his training regimen in the city, but by the time the ground is regularly sloping from five to ten degrees, he’s starting to regret the decision to climb the mountain rather than go through it.
They pass entrances to the mountain here and there as they travel, all marked by pokemon centers. The only other buildings on the mountain are the occasional Ranger Outposts and supply stores, most of which are located near each other. Hikers and other trainers occasionally cross their path, some with tips or advice on the route choices ahead.
When they begin to move southward around the mountain, Dania and Naoko say their goodbyes at the next Pokemon Center. The two plan on traveling inside of Mount Moon to reach its smaller northern neighbors. Blue and Leaf exchange numbers with them, and Red does too to avoid any awkwardness. He doesn’t expect he’ll be keeping in contact with them, but it can’t hurt.
Red never had a huge host of friends or acquaintances, and so far the only people he’s added since leaving Pewter are Amy and Donovan, Psychics Narud and Ranna, and Dr. Brenner. His list of contacts is still mostly made up of people from Pallet Labs, and Red wonders if he should be trying harder to get acquainted with all the people they meet in their travels. Forming relationships is a big part of a trainer’s journey, as it helps create bonds that can last months or even years later, where unexpected circumstances might bring old friends together again. Fortuitous chance meetings are such a trope in trainer fiction that the unofficial tradition of exchanging contact info with anyone that you’ve been in a battle with has become an interregional norm.
“Are you guys keeping up with a lot of the people we’ve met?” Red asks as they leave the pokemon center.
“Meh. A couple.” Blue shrugs. “I’ve been following Donovan here and there to see if he’s reached Indigo Plateau yet, and a couple of the good trainers at the Gym. Got friendly with some of the Center staff at Pewter too.”
Leaf nods. “I made some friends while writing the article, mostly in the museum. I used to be into social media a lot more when I was younger, but right now I don’t really feel like I have much to share. Not that’s worth sharing, anyway.”
“Oh, I’ve got plenty to share,” Blue says. “I’ll consider it a major failing if I don’t have a million followers by the time I hit the Elite Four. I got my first spike after I beat Brock of course, but I haven’t hit the triple digits yet.”
Red checks his phone and sees that it’s true: Blue’s trainer profile has 74 followers. His last post was some advice on training pidgey based on his experience with Zephyr. “I get how this will be useful to you, Blue,” he says. “But aren’t you interested in an online persona, Leaf? If more people know who you are, then more of them will pay attention to your books or articles.”
“Yeah, I know it’s important. I’ve just been focusing more on my article than networking for its own sake lately.”
“You should talk to gramps sometime,” Blue says. “He’s a wiz at crafting a public image.”
Leaf cocks her head. “I’m pretty sure he doesn’t need to craft an image after all the impressive things he’s done.”
“Well he’s an amazing trainer, sure—”
“—and the greatest researcher of our age,” Red mutters.
“—and whatever, a good researcher, yeah,” Blue says, ignoring Red’s sputtering incredulity. “But what really makes him influential is how he makes himself seem like someone that deserves respect, deserves influence, beyond what others with his skills have. People like Giovanni and Lance are the same. Great feats aren’t enough: there are over a dozen Indigo Champions still alive today, but only a few still matter, because they make themselves matter.”
“I get leveraging your story and image to be influential. I want to be judged primarily on what I do, though, and so far it doesn’t feel like I’ve accomplished much.”
“That matches how I feel a bit more too,” Red says. “But maybe it doesn’t have to be all or nothing? Giovanni’s public outreach is a big deal, but his blog also helps him stay relevant to the Region in a way most other Gym Leaders and ex-Champions aren’t.”
“You know Bill, right?” Blue asks Leaf.
“Sonezaki? Of course. He was a big deal in Unova for a while when we updated to his latest generation of storage systems.”
“Right, well he’s notoriously camera shy. Hates doing interviews or putting his foot in the public arena at all.”
“You met him, didn’t you?” Red asks.
“Yeah, once. Gramps took me on a visit when I was a kid.”
“What’s he like?” Leaf asks.
“Kinda nuts, but stupid-smart. He’s a workaholic with enough money to buy a city, and what does he do? Grabs up all the land north of Cerulean Bay just to avoid any neighbors for his mansion. Not even a mansion really, more like a bedroom and kitchen attached to five labs. Point is, everyone in Kanto and out knows him by his first name, he could be funding political movements and guiding region policy if he wants, but instead he just sticks to his research and no one cares what he thinks.”
Red frowns. “Plenty of people care what he thinks.”
“Yeah, when they want something from him. As long as he’s designing new tech, people are happy to take it, but when he starts going on about his pet projects everyone tunes him out. Everyone that matters,” Blue says before Red can protest again. “Do you see people lining up to fix the problems with human storage? A couple dozen people have signed up, max. If gramps got behind a project like that, people would pay attention.”
“Again, I’m not disagreeing with you,” Leaf says. “I’m just not sure how to build a public image without real accomplishments.”
Blue shrugs. “Suit yourself. But if you never try, you can’t really know.”
The conversation turns to other things after that, but Red notices that Leaf begins checking her phone more often as they make their way around the base of the mountain, and spends more time typing into it during their rest stops.
The sun is at their backs when they crest the last ridge around the excavation site and see it stretched below them, a scar on the mountain’s monotonous landscape. From this distance the portable buildings that were set up to house the diggers and researchers are as small as Red’s thumb, and he finds himself taken aback by how large the whole thing is. Tiny figures are spread all around the site, some huddled in the dirt, others moving to and fro with purpose. As the trio begin to speed up their approach (a partial consequence of going downhill) Red notices the figures on the perimeter, facing outward.
When they get within speaking range, a young man who was standing on one of the nearby buildings’ roofs hops off and walks toward them.
“ACE trainer,” Blue mutters.
“How do you know?” Leaf asks.
“Look at the way he walks. That kind of swagger is hard to teach outside of the academy.”
Leaf covers her grin with one hand as Red says, “That and the uniform’s also a giveaway.”
“Oh, is it red here?” Leaf asks. “Ours wear orange and blue.”
“Ho there!” the trainer says as he gets closer. “Mind routing around the site? We have some digs in progress.”
“Hello!” Leaf steps forward. “We actually got directed here from Dr. Brenner in Pewter. She said she’d be sending word along…”
The man frowns and half-turns back to the rest of the digsite. “Probably did, to someone here…” He unclips a radio from his belt. “Hey Ran, you hear from someone named Brenner lately, over?”
“Don’t recall, over.”
He lowers his radio. “Did she give you a name?”
“Ah, yeah, Ryback?”
The man’s expression softens and he presses the button again. “Hey, mind getting ahold of Ryback? Some kids here say he’s expecting them, over.”
“Will do, gimme five? Over.”
“Thanks, out.” He re-clips his radio. “Should be along shortly. Mind staying out here until he arrives?”
“Sir, yes sir!” Blue says with a salute.
“Appreciate it.” He jogs back to where he was and climbs onto the roof in two quick motions.
Blue stares after him, then turns to the other two. “Think I was too subtle?”
“I think he just doesn’t care about getting sassed by some kid,” Leaf says with a grin.
Blue unclips a ball and begins to spin it along his knuckles. “Bunch of stuck-up pricks. And that’s coming from me.”
“That’s funny, I could swear I remember someone who wanted nothing more than to be in ACE when he was younger… who could it have been?” Red taps his cheek, gaze upward.
“Shut up, I just thought the uniform looked cool. How many ACE Trainers have become Champion? Oh right, zip. All that fancy diploma’s good for is getting hired as security for dirtholes like this.”
“Aww,” Leaf purses her lips. “Did someone not get accepted at the academy?”
Leaf bears only a second of Blue’s glare before she averts her face, palms out. “Ahh, I’m kidding, I’m kidding! Such contempt! It burns!”
Red pulls a Burn Heal out and sprays a tiny amount at her. “It’s no good, he’s still looking at you!”
Leaf collapses to the ground in stages. “Tell my mother… she was right…” she gasps as Red begins to dig furiously through his bag.
“Dammit, where’s that revive capsule?! Don’t you dare die on me, Leaf!”
Blue wanders off muttering to himself as the two are overcome with laughter, and only returns when the man on the building yells out, “Ryback is finishing something up! Says to give him twenty minutes!”
Leaf makes an effort to collect herself, still giggling. “Thanks!” she shouts back, and the man waves an acknowledgement.
“You done?” Blue asks them, and after convincing him they are, the three put their bags down and bring out their new pokemon for field training while they wait.
Leaf summons her wigglytuff, a mound of bouncy pink and white that energetically hops around as soon as it’s released. It examines every rock and shrub with eyes as bright as the sky and a beatific smile that stretches across a face as wide as its body.
“Isn’t she the cutest thing you’ve ever seen?” Leaf asks as she feeds it some berries, then runs her hands over its downy fur to clean off some debris that had accumulated from many romps up the mountain.
“Disgustingly so,” Red cheerfully agrees as he brings out his nidoran. It’s a feisty thing, and he has to be stern with it to avoid its affectionate but dangerous head-butts. After feeding it a few pecha berries to weaken its venom, he begins a close examination to check it for damage. On their way up the mountain it tussled with some mankey that attacked them, and this is its first time out since they left the pokemon center. The spines on its back are strong and unbroken, and other than a notch missing from one ear its fur is glossy.
Red practices switching nidoran from Double Kicks to Horn Attacks and back to cut down the time between actions. He tries not to get distracted by the sight of Leaf’s wigglytuff inflating to twice its size and smacking a small boulder hard enough to send it tumbling up the ridge. Meanwhile Blue brings his shinx out and sends it racing to a far off tree and back, timing it and praising each second it shaves off.
Red grins as his nidoran stops its practice to watch the shinx running to and fro, then begins to hop after it. Its hind legs are so powerful that it actually outstrips the blue and black feline, who turns and hisses at it, teeth crackling with electricity. “Nidoran, stop!”
His pokemon freezes as the shinx returns to its master. “Care for a battle?” Blue asks, rubbing its ear. “Would be a good way to put them through their paces.”
“Nah, I’m okay.”
“Oh come on,” Blue says. “Just a practice match, first strike.”
“With a Poison and Electric pokemon, one strike can be damaging enough.”
“You guys never want to battle,” Blue grumbles. “Feels like I might as well be traveling alone sometimes.”
Red opens his mouth to argue when Leaf says, “How about a race? We all have a rattata now. Let’s see which is fastest.”
Blue grins. “Better than nothing. Let’s say, to that tree and back?”
Red withdraws his nidoran and brings out his rattata. “Sure.”
Red snickers as Blue’s pokemon materializes. “You named your rattata Joey?”
“Yep. Seems a fitting tribute.”
“Go, Scamp!” Leaf scratches her pokemon’s head as she looks back and forth between them. “I feel like I’m missing something.”
“Joey’s a character from an ‘educational video’ used in Johto primary schools like a decade ago. It was super cheesy, and taught kids all the things not to do as a trainer. Don’t travel in unprotected clothing like shorts, don’t boast incessantly about your pokemon, don’t train one pokemon exclusively, stuff like that.”
“Our teacher tried showing it to us in our fourth year,” Red says, voice solemn. “They were not prepared for the memes that have plagued the school ever since.”
“Well, now I’m curious. Send me a link later, and let’s get this race going!”
“Hang on, I’ve got a better idea,” Red says. “Blue, bring out-”
A tremor rumbles through the ground beneath their feet, there and gone in a heartbeat. The three look around expectantly, but another doesn’t come.
“Was that an earthquake, or pokemon?” Leaf asks. “I was hoping to avoid the former while I’m here.”
“If we’re lucky it was pokemon,” Blue says. “I could use some ground types.”
“Yeah, or it’s an onix that’s burrowing way too close to the surface,” Red says.
“No problem there, I bought a heavy ball just on the off chance we need one. So, what were you saying?”
“Huh? Oh, bring out your pokedoll.”
Blue raises his brow, then takes out his Container holding his training supplies and materializes the huge box inside it. Red and Leaf help him take the lid off and lift out the foam training dummy, then place it on the ground. Their rattata take a sudden sharp interest in the doll once it’s down, and all three growl at it, tails raised and fur bristling.
“Okay, so the three of us will stand in a triangle around it. We’ll order our rattata to use Quick Attacks on it from our position, and call them back after. Whoever can get the most strikes in after a minute wins.”
They position themselves and set a timer. Blue’s rattata is the largest of the three, while Red and Leaf’s are about equal. Red wonders if its bigger size would slow it down or not. “Ready… set…”
The three rattata dash forward, slashing or biting at the mannequin as they run by.
The three pokemon slow uncertainly for a second before returning to their trainers.
They launch themselves at the mannequin again, tearing and biting with squeals of rage, then past it in a blink.
“Rattataback!” Red yells.
“Back!” Leaf simply yells, and hers trails behind Blue’s rattata in returning, while Red’s mills around briefly first.
The minute passes quickly, and when Red’s phone buzzes the three let their rattata rest, feeding them berries and letting them have a drink as their sides heave for breath.
“Okay, so mine only hit it 17 times. Fairly sure yours got higher.”
“19,” Blue says.
“So Leaf’s is fastest, that was evident quickly, and Blue’s looked like it had a faster reaction time. More importantly, I saw exactly what I was afraid of when I suggested the exercise. Our pokemon don’t know how to work together well. We need to work on coordinating their attacks, especially when using the same pokemon.”
“You should also nickname your pokemon,” Blue says. “Three syllables is a lot.” Leaf nods.
Red frowns. He’s about to point out that “Maturin” and “Kemuri” don’t exactly roll off the tongue, but he knows Blue chooses his pokemon names for more than pure efficiency. For reasons Red can’t really explain, he still hasn’t nicknamed any of his pokemon. He pulls out his notebook to remind himself to put some time into examining why later. “I haven’t really thought of one yet. I’ll think it over. Shall we try again, this time trying for better coordination?”
They practice until their rattata are weaving in and out around the pokedoll with a fair amount of ease, if not quite like a well oiled machine, at least not getting in each other’s way or hesitating as often. They switch to their flying pokemon next, Red’s spearow acting as the main attacker while the two pidgey harass, and by the time they hear footsteps approaching the pokedoll is in rough shape.
They withdraw their pokemon as an older man in a thoroughly dirty pair of jeans and an untucked button up shirt arrives, grey hair tied back in a ponytail.
“Hey, you must be Leaf! I’m Jon Ryback, nice to meet you.” The trio shake his hand and introduce themselves. “Brenner didn’t say when you’d be arriving, so pardon me for not being prepared.”
“No worries, we don’t mean to be a bother,” Leaf says. “We’re just passing through and were curious to see what you’re all doing here. I’ve been writing about the museum’s latest exhibits, and thought something on the fossil collection itself might be a good followup.”
“Sounds good. Why don’t I give you the grand tour first, and you let me know if you have any questions.”
They collect their things and begin to follow him toward the excavation site. More accurately, sites, as they can see multiple digs in progress, each spaced out along the entirety of the small valley between two of the mountain’s ridges. Each has long white rope stretched out over several intervals, with vertical ropes anchored to the ground of the dig site to form a grid. Most have a few figures working in them, but what Red notices most is what he doesn’t see. “No pokemon?”
“For the most part, no. This is extremely delicate work, and only the very best mon can be trusted to do it. Some specifically train their pokemon to help excavate, but for the most part it’s just easier to do it ourselves.” Ryback gestures toward the entirety of the dig sites ahead. “We’ve got almost thirty diggers working seven sites at the moment. Seventeen paleontologists, three geologists, a biologist, some excavators, a few others. Most help out at different digs, but some have intensive projects that they’re committed to.”
“You all don’t work for the museum, then?” Leaf asks. “This is a collaborative effort?” She has her notebook out and jots things down as they walk.
“Oh, yeah. This expedition has a number of backers. The museum’s a big one, but Cinnabar Lab’s got an interest in fossils so they can keep practicing on reviving them, and there are some private backers too.”
They stop at a dig site to watch as people working in it carefully chip at the dirt and brush it away, slowly revealing whatever fossils they find. One of them is measuring the distance from an anchored rope to the bone they’re working on, and mark down the number before continuing to dig it the rest of the way out.
“Must be nice to have so much support, right?” Red asks.
“Ehhh. It’s a bit more complicated than that.” Ryback continues walking. “Not all of us work together normally; we’re sharing a dig site and help each other out for efficiency, but a lot of us are hired by different people to get fossils exclusively for them.”
“What, you mean they’re actually bidding against each other for the fossils?” Blue asks. “Why not just share them?
“Can’t,” Ryback says. “The private funders either want them for their collection, which puts them at odds with the museum, or for their research, which can take years. The museum doesn’t mind buying them second-hand from anyone that doesn’t need them anymore, but they have a strong interest in whole specimens, which means they have to bid aggressively. And whatever the Cinnabar folks do with them, it doesn’t leave much behind, so they’re at odds with everyone.”
“So how many of these fossils can actually get revived?” Blue asks. “We’ve got what, only three from Kanto?”
Ryback grins and rubs his neck. “Well, that’s a question for a different set of folks. They must think they can do more though, because they bid top dollar for them. It’s actually gotten to be something of a problem, since the mountain chain itself belongs to Pewter, Cerulean, and Viridian depending on where the dig sites are. Each one’s been trying to get exclusive rights to diggers on their portion of land, but for now a compromise of third party security and collaboration seems to be working.”
They reach a dig site that has about a dozen people working in it. A wide area is cordoned off to isolate a group of fossils embedded in the earth. “We use hammers and chisels to dig the ground up and find some fossils, and if it’s small, bag it.” Ryback says. “Every so often though we find something big, or in lots of pieces, like this one.”
Red expected to see them digging it free, but instead people are moving around it with rolls of paper towels, unfurling them from one side to the other. Roll by roll the entire area is slowly covered, until the workers pick up long strips of burlap and buckets of what looks like plaster.
“They’re making a mold?” Red asks.
“Not quite. It’s a cast, to protect the fossils and keep them together as we dig them out for transport. For pieces like this, it’s safer to extract them from the surrounding stone and dirt in a lab setting.”
One of the excavators takes out an industrial strength Container and releases a huge metal box from it, easily large enough to fit the slab of earth that contains the fossils. The group moves on up the ridge and past some smaller digs. As they start to ascend, another light tremor shakes the ground beneath them. Red frowns and looks around. No one else in the digs seem bothered by it, though a few also look around for a moment before getting back to work. Whoever’s in charge of security surely has seismographs, and would know if there were unusual pokemon activity beneath them.
“So what kinds of fossils are around here?” Leaf asks.
“Oh, all kinds. This may seem like a small area, but geologically we’re talking about time, not space. Come on up here, I’ll show you…”
He leads them to the top of a ridge so they can see the foothills of the mountains more clearly.
“Ok, so, see those hills down there? The bones there are Triassic, about 200-250 million years ago. The closer ones are early Jurassic… it skews a bit toward late Jurassic in a kind of crescent around there, then all the rest up to where we are is mid-Jurassic, 165 MYA. Each cluster tells a different story, about a different world. It’s a bit like time travel in a literal sense, with distance corresponding to time,” Ryback says.
Red looks down and gently kicks at the earth. “So this mountain wasn’t a mountain 165 million years ago?”
“Oh hell no, you go that far back and none of this is recognizable. See that white hill over there? River channel sandstone. Lots of beautiful bones under there, jet black. Got tumbled a bit so they’re all scattered about. They’re worn smooth in a way that makes them worthless for museum purposes, so they fetch a lower price.”
“What’s the oldest fossils you’ve ever dug up?”
“Oh, that would be stromatolites, easy. Lamiated rocks formed by blue-green algae. We’re talking 3.5 billion years ago.”
Red tries to imagine that stretch of time and fails. Blue seems to be having a similar problem, and looks interested for the first time. “Billion, with a B?”
“Yep.” Ryback starts to lead them back down the ridge. “Life was all microbial back then, and that’s where it all began, for us. Prokaryotes to eukaryotes, we’re all branches from the same roots. If I recall correctly, some new research was demonstrating how we can find bacterial DNA in a lot of the human genome. Amazing, isn’t it?”
“It certainly is,” Leaf says as she scribbles, while Blue grunts noncommittally and Red nods, lost in thought. He’s considering the implications of all the current life forms on the planet coming from bacteria. Do new species of pokemon that get discovered still have the same markers in their genome? If not, what would that imply? The abiogenesis theory?
“So why don’t you tell us a bit about how we know how old all this stuff is?” Leaf asks.
“We study the strata they’re found in. See all those segments in the earth once we cut it away? Each one represents a different layer that fell over the one below. The deeper you get, the older it is.”
“But where do the numbers come from? How do you know how old the strata are, rather than just that this one is older than that one?”
“We use radiometric dating. Some isotopes decay over a very, very long half-life, and change into something else.” They pass by another dig, where a man gives them a dirty look. Red startles and is about to ask him what was wrong, but they’re past the site and he thinks he imagined it, or misinterpreted the expression.
Until, of course, Blue mutters, “Man, what was that guy’s problem?”
“You saw that too, huh?” Red whispers back. “Guess some people don’t like outsiders here.”
“Oh, well, I hate to be a bother, might as well get going soon.”
Red grins. “Bored?”
“Out of my mind.”
“Radiometric dating, I’ve heard of that,” Leaf says ahead of them. “It’s when you examine an isotope of an element, measure how long it takes for half the isotope to decay into another kind, and count how much of that isotope is left in what you’re studying, right?”
“That about covers it on the surface, yes.”
Red wonders how much of this is stuff Leaf honestly doesn’t know and how much is her just exercising her newfound journalistic powers. Blue has begun spinning a pokeball on each index finger, and it’s hard to tell how much he’s listening.
“So, I’ve heard of a few criticisms of radiometric dating,” Leaf says. “Mind if I run them by you?”
Ryback grins. “Sure.”
“If you use carbon dating, then how—”
“Oh no, that’s a common mistake. Carbon dating only works for testing the age of once-organic life within the past 60,000 years, give or take. Other isotopes have a far longer half-life. Uranium-lead, samarium-neodymium, potassium-argon, rubidium-strontium, and others.”
Leaf smiles back. “That does answer that question, thanks. Second, how do you know how much of the original element was in what you’re testing? Don’t you need that info to calculate backward and tell how much it had when it formed?”
“We would, if we were only measuring one element. What we do instead is cross-check. One based on uranium-235’s decay to lead-207 with a half-life of about 700 million years, and one based on uranium-238’s decay to lead-206 with a half-life of about 4.5 billion years. Graph them on a Concordia diagram and see where they meet.”
“Huh. Okay, last question on this: new rocks or samples show up that get aged within the last century, let alone the last few years. Doesn’t that demonstrate it’s not useful?”
“Some of the time that’s been reported as happening sure, but always in extreme circumstances, like rocks that form from a volcano eruption. Think about trying to use a thermometer to check for a fever while taking a cold shower. There’s going to be some interference.”
Leaf’s next question is cut off by a sudden rumbling of the ground that makes Red reflexively buckle his knees, just barely managing to avoid falling as the sound of stone crashing on stone echoes around them. The sound of screams spikes his adrenaline, and even as he thinks Earthquake? he has his hands on his pokeballs, as do Blue and Leaf. They’re all looking in different directions, searching for the threat.
“I don’t see anything,” Red says. Don’t be pokemon…
“Oh, no,” Ryback whispers and Red turns to see him staring in the direction of a small dust cloud rising over one of the dig sites. “Paul, what happened?” Ryback yells into his radio as he starts jogging toward it. The three trainers immediately follow him. “Was it a pokemon? Natural cave-in? Was anyone down there? Over!”
Don’t say pokemon…
“Irina and Fareed,” his radio says. “I don’t kn-wait… oh shit-Paul to all points, we have a Tier 1 on site!”
“Talk about good timing,” Blue mutters as they break into a run. “I thought this whole visit would be boring.”
Yeah. Lucky us.