At first it seems to be a stampede like any other.
The rangers are assembled and outside nineteen seconds after the first wave of assorted forest pokemon trip the proximity alarms, more than enough time to summon their pokemon and watch the approach. Ira and Rashard summon their fliers and take off, Rashard in the direction the pokemon are coming from so he can give advance warning of what else is on the way, Ira straight up and then in a circle around the outpost in case more are moving past it beyond the sensors.
Outpost C17 is situated on one of the plateaus on the side of the volcano facing Cinnabar City, its sensors spread out to the slopes on every side. All the trees and brush within the perimeter have been cleared, but the various paths leading up and down the mountain have more growing beyond them, and it’s from between the dense pines along the western slope that a variety of pokemon are streaming toward them.
Ira looks around to make sure nothing else is surrounding or moving past them and waits for his bird to make a full circle before tapping his headset to swap to Rashard’s private channel. “Swarm coming from the northwest, looks like the front of the wave.”
“There’s some muk and magmar coming,” Rashard responds on the general line, and Ira sees the rangers below start swapping a few pokemon to prepare for them. “Not just a couple, there’s… a whole cluster of magmar moving together!”
Ira frowns even as he gently guides his charizard into a slightly wider circle. Magmar are rare, and territorial; they barely tolerate their own hatchlings sticking around too long. What’s a whole group of them doing moving together in a swarm?
And what caused a swarm of such mixed pokemon? Cinnabar only grew from a town to a city once the island was declared mostly safe from any particularly destructive or temperamental species… they didn’t feel an earthquake, and if a magma pocket is seeping out somewhere the magmar wouldn’t be running…
He shakes off the line of thought; it’s Rashard’s job to figure that out. His is to focus on the area around the outpost, and get the word out.
He sets his earpiece to the local CoRRNet channel. “This is C17 to adjacent posts, we’ve got a possible Tier 1 in progress, anyone else seeing anything?”
“Confirmed C17, stand by… C16’s not picking anything up on proximity.”
“Ditto that for C18.”
“C19 here, we’ll send eyes out just in case. Do you want preliminary support?”
Ira is already completing his first lap now and sees that the fighting has started, tanks in front keeping the front line engaged and turning those that come after against each other while a few others contain those that try to go around… but the next wave coming looks even bigger. “If you guys are clear, we can use the help.”
“You got it, sit tight Ira.”
“Thanks man.” He spots a family of rattata dashing past unchallenged, but doesn’t swoop down until an arcanine leaps around a blast of water from Steven’s blastoise and just keeps running past; if it gets to a more densely wooded area and starts a fire, it would start a whole new wave.
It takes just a few seconds to catch up to the arcanine, but that’s enough time for it to start bounding down a narrow mountain road. As he closes in, Ira considers his options. It’s not advised to fight while mounted on a pokemon unless you don’t have any choice; the weight of the rider tends to disrupt their ability to maneuver and dodge, and of course you might get killed by attacks from the wild pokemon.
Instead he looks ahead until he spots a relatively straight part of the path, then uses his legs to guide his mount into a silent glide as he expands a greatball and holds it out, leaning over as far as his saddle straps will let him. As long as the arcanine doesn’t change directions it’ll be captured in fifty meters… thirty… twenty… ten…
The ping of the lock makes the arcanine’s head jerk around, fire already dripping from its fangs as Ira throws the ball and slaps Brightwing’s back to send them into a dizzying bank and climb. He feels the heat through his boots for just a moment as Brightwing roars, more in challenge than pain; her wings keep flapping smoothly and he judges the damage not too bad. When he twists around to look, the arcanine is gone.
He sees the glint of the greatball bouncing down the path and sends Brightwing into a dive, one hand held up to catch the ball as it rolls off the cliff and into the open air. It lands in his palm with a satisfying smack, and he tucks it into a saddlebag as he guides Brightwing back up toward the plateau, one hand stroking the shoulder bone at the base of her wing. That’s my girl.
As he climbs he continues the sweep around, checking to see if anything else got by while he was distracted. All he spots are more field and forest dwellers, and when he returns to the scene of the battle he sees more rangers are there now, another couple flying in from nearby even as he circles overhead.
But even with the reinforcements, the rangers are being beaten back.
“What the hell…?” Ira cranes his neck for another look at what looked like Steven’s blastoise fighting another blastoise. Where would it have come from? “Rashard, we’ve got a blastoise here.”
“The fuck did that come from?”
“You didn’t see it?” Is it possible it came from somewhere else while he was chasing the arcanine?
“They’re kind of hard to miss, man.”
Renegade attack? No, there’s no one on the ground but rangers.
He changes direction anyway and swoops closer to the sparse trees at the edge of the plateau, but just sees more of the same pokemon coming. When he wheels back around, however, he gets another shock; there are now two araquanid fighting each other.
There are no wild araquanid in Kanto.
“Hey, there’s a wild araquanid here now!”
“Are you shitting me? You sure that’s not David’s?”
“It’s fighting David’s!”
“Well it didn’t come from this direction, all I’m seeing are natives!”
Ira curses and swaps to the general channel, then winces as his ear is assaulted by the frantic voices of those below.
“I’m telling you it changed right in front of me!”
“Must be a zoroark!”
“It’s not reverting!”
“Electric types out, now!”
“Left side is being overwhelmed!”
“Hey, hey, I just saw it, that rattata turned into a raichu!”
“Steven watch out!”
The wild raichu(?!) sends a burst of electricity out in every direction. Steven’s blastoise and the one it was fighting both get shocked, and Ira reins his pokemon into a hover, wings flapping hard to keep them airborne as they watch the chaos unfold below. He can barely believe what he’s seeing even as he watches it happen; about a third of the pokemon brought out to counter the wild opponents swiftly end up facing copies of themselves, seemingly just as strong.
The other wild pokemon are still trying to rush through while attacking everything in their path, and within a few wingbeats, Ira sees the first ranger fall. The sight snaps him out of the shock, and even with the reinforcements still on the way he realizes with a chill that this situation isn’t in their control.
Protocol is clear: they’re facing something completely unknown, and even small surprises can be catastrophic, let alone whatever the fuck this is.
When he finally gives the order his voice is loud and strong, immediately silencing everyone else on the channel.
“Code White! Retreat to Cinnabar City!” He swaps to the local outpost channel. “All points, retreat to Cinnabar City, we have a Code White!”
The rangers below shift to a fighting retreat as they make their way back to the relative shelter of the outpost. Ira sees that the hopefully-only-injured ranger is being carried by two others, then trusts those below to take care of themselves as he swaps back to just Rashard’s channel. “How far out are you?”
“Midway up and they’re still coming. Think I see signs of spread, too, mostly south.”
Ira turns Brightwing that way. “Still nothing unusual?”
“Nothing Code White worthy, just some odd clumps. What are you thinking?”
“Honestly man, I have no idea what I just saw. If it was an illusion it was a damn convincing one, and if not then…” Then what? What did he actually see? “Somehow pokemon are changing into others as they fight. If that’s true…”
“Anything we throw against them, they’ll just turn into. Damn. You know what that means?”
“That we need to keep our strongest pokemon away from them,” he says as the thought occurs, heart sinking into his stomach. Without Blaine and the others at the gym being able to go all-out, there’s no easy end in sight.
“That too, but look… the pokemon we’re seeing below, how many of them have already changed into whatever they fought?”
Ira feels another chill, this one reaching all the way up to the nape of his neck. He looks down to watch a family of rattata race through some undergrowth, far from the outpost and anyone that would stop them.
Or what looks like a family of rattata.
“New plan,” Ira says. “We’re going to search until we find something that’ll help command figure out what’s going on. Rest when you need to; it’s a marathon now, not a sprint.”
“Aye aye, Sir.” Rashard has a few years on him, and ever since they were growing up together has tended to act as an older brother. Even after they moved to Kanto to do the gym circuit together, he’s never taken Ira too seriously, doling out any praise with an ironic or patronizing tone.
Despite that, there’s no irony in his tone now, and for some reason it reminds Ira of a night a few years past, not long after they both stopped chasing badges to start families. His friend, slightly tipsy as they shared drinks on his porch, put an arm around his shoulder and confided that he knew Ira could have reached the top if he kept going. That he’s got the heart and mind of a champion, even if he never has a plaque on Indigo Plateau.
That’s what Ira thinks of as he flies Brightwing in the direction his friend went, hoping whatever storm has come to the island is one he and his people are ready for.
At first, the fact that Shaw got to keep his job after Mewtwo’s escape seemed too good to be true. Part of him even wanted to argue with Giovanni, do the honorable thing and resign, but the smarter part told him to shut up and accept it, especially since he did everything he could short of breaking the chain of command to keep the experiment from leaving the island alive.
It was only in the weeks that followed, when he wasn’t assigned another position and the lab repairs remained a low priority, that he considered the idea that keeping this position may be the punishment.
If so, it’s not one Dr. Light shares, though for a while after the escape her position seemed even more perilous than his. By the time Shaw returned from searching for the experiment (or its drowned corpse) her physical injuries had long since been treated, and she was just sitting in the mansion staring ashen-faced into the distance. He knew Giovanni only reserved extreme punishments for failures in character rather than competence, but Shaw imagined she shared his uncertainty over whether the situation counted as one or the other. Sabrina was no help, seeming too shocked and upset over Mewtwo’s escape to care much about what Giovanni’s response would be. Privileges of her station as a fellow Leader, he supposed.
Instead, when the boss finally had the chance to come to the island, he just calmly listened to their reports, gave curt feedback, praised them for doing the best they could in an unforeseeable circumstance, and left with the most basic of instructions: keep the location secure and recover any data left over. Once the latter was done, Dr. Light and her staff, along with most of his, were transferred to other facilities.
That was months ago, and the remaining skeleton crew in the mansion above the ruined lab still hasn’t received news of what they’d be doing next. Giovanni said there aren’t spare resources for a full repair operation, which Shaw took to mean that without Mewtwo there the lab had lost most of its value.
The payments for him and his people are still coming through, however, and they have more free time to visit the city, so it’s not all bad. Sometimes Shaw wonders if they’re just there in case Mewtwo returns, and other than a sense of restlessness and vague ongoing worry, things could have been much worse.
So of course they eventually become much worse.
Giovanni’s voice and expression are as calm and collected as ever. Shaw used to wonder sometimes if the man ever feels anything, but after the experiment escaped, before he came to take their full reports, he saw it on the video call: the anger that made the Leader’s jaw rigid, the futile frustration that had his hands clenching and unclenching. Worst of all was the way one hand kept going up to rub over his short hair; seeing Giovanni Sakaki make such obvious self-soothing gestures was a bit like seeing the Leader without his clothes on.
But the loss of the experiment was (probably) the worst day of Giovanni’s life, and whatever is happening on Cinnabar now doesn’t warrant any of the tics Shaw observed that day. At least, not yet.
“What do you know so far?”
“All that’s reached us is that some new pokemon is creating a threat of unknown proportions. Is it Mewtwo?”
“No, not from what we’ve picked up on the CoRRNet radio chatter; they’re saying pokemon are transforming into other pokemon. Called for a ‘Code White,’ whatever that is, and are evacuating to the city.”
Giovanni’s hands steeple, brow furrowing as he stares down at the table. “Newly formalized protocol following the Lavender incident. Code White means more than just encountering an unknown pokemon; it’s for circumstances that go entirely against any expectation or plan. A blank canvas… which this circumstance would fit. They’ve confirmed the transformations? Multiple eyewitnesses?”
“That’s what they’re saying. So what are the protocols, exactly?”
“The rangers will do everything they can to protect people in the local area without engaging. They’ll call for experts immediately, and formulate a plan with at least one Leader, one Professor, and one Ranger of at least rank 7 or above present.”
Pretty weighty, then. Shaw approves. “Should we assist?”
“If a dozen trainers might tip the balance, yes. Continue to monitor the situation, but your priority is still keeping the mansion and lab secure.”
“Yes Sir, though…” Shaw’s hand below the table counts the pokeballs in his pouch through the leather. He doesn’t try to stop his own nervous tic; whatever’s happening on the island has the feel of something big, and he doesn’t like not knowing what to expect. “The two may be related.”
Giovanni’s surprise is only expressed in a heartbeat of silence. “How?”
“Remember that weird activity Min reported over the past few days?” He doesn’t actually know if Giovanni reads every single report he gets in that short a timespan, but it feels polite to start with that assumption; the seismographer was pretty insistent that her readings were important, so Shaw flagged the report as such. He trusts his people, or they wouldn’t still be on his team, even in potential exile.
“The increased amount of pokemon tunneling?”
“Right. From tracking subterranean movement, her thought was that some sandshrew were using the labs as a nesting site.”
There’s a beat of silence before Giovanni says, “From what I recall she was worried that the more sandshrew dig around the labs, the higher the chance of widening cracks and destabilizing the structure. What’s the connection to the Code White?”
“It’s not the worry I’m second-guessing, it’s the initial hypothesis itself. It was based on the fact that a larger number of pokemon have been recorded tunneling away from the lab than toward it.”
This time Giovanni’s response is immediate. “You think a new pokemon might have appeared in the lab and began transforming into wild sandshrew that they encountered there.”
“We left a lot of blood, tissue, and bone samples down there. I know the experiment never showed any sort of shapeshifting abilities, but… you pay me to be paranoid, Sir.”
“I do.” His boss studies his interlaced fingers for a moment, then looks up. “Have Min review the data again, this time comparing intensity of the vibrations. If a portion are smaller—”
“Already done, Sir.” Shaw knows his boss used to hate being interrupted, but he encourages people to do so if they have a good reason, and only reprimands them if they don’t. “There are smaller readings, so there are at least some newly hatched sandshrew, but there are also more large readings than there should be.”
Giovanni’s fingers squeeze for a few breaths, then relax. “More than just paranoia, then. Which means we need to move to confirm or falsify this quickly. Take a preliminary repair crew down to bring power back online, specifically for the lights and cameras. You have two psychics still there, correct? Take one to scan for danger. Do not bring any pokemon down with you.”
Shaw’s stomach clenches for a moment at the thought of one of his pokemon being turned back against him. “Yes, Sir.”
“Any direct observations would be useful, and if you can capture a specimen then do so, but don’t engage any groups, and retreat at the first casualty.”
“And Shaw… nice work, and be careful. I’ll be awaiting your report.”
“Thank you, Sir.”
Giovanni ends the call, and Shaw quickly relays their new orders to his people, picking those with the most non-pokemon combat skills to form the away team of the 15 people left under his command. Once they’re gearing up and Min has started reviewing the data, he goes to visit the closest thing to a peer he has left at the mansion.
Zach’s room in the mansion is dark, with curtains drawn over all the windows and the only light coming from the monitors. Shaw’s Chief Information Officer was one of those who lived in the lab below, and had to give up a lot of personal equipment when they abandoned it. He spent a lot of time after relocating to the mansion making sure his room was just right, and only recently stopped sending a new request for more computers, furniture, monitors, and various other things every day. The last few times Shaw was here things even seemed to stop subtly moving from one place to another.
When Shaw enters the room/office, the balding young man is walking on a treadmill set beneath his standing desk as he types, gaze moving between four monitors; two horizontal ones flanked by two vertical. Shaw would like to blame their location for the fact that the man is wearing pajamas as he works, but he regularly did so while they were in the lab as well; the one time Shaw brought it up, Zach got (or acted) offended and insisted they were his “work pajamas.”
He’s good enough at his job that Shaw decided not to raise the issue again, particularly since he didn’t have a good answer to Zach asking who, exactly, he was supposed to be trying to impress; they both knew Giovanni wouldn’t care.
“Here about the Code White?” Zach asks with barely a glance. “It’s a mess, isn’t it? Think it’s our fault? Told you we should have burned the whole place out if we weren’t using it. Not because I thought this would happen, but it’s the principle of the thing, you know?”
“I do, but it wasn’t my call.”
“Sure, of course, I get it. Sucks when a higher up won’t let you do what you know is best, right?”
Shaw resists the urge to sigh. “If this is about having everyone switch to your operating system—”
“It’s not mine, it’s open source—”
“—the answer is still no. It would require too much retraining, and meanwhile the loss of efficiency and increased errors aren’t worth the benefits.”
Zach shakes his head, and the treadmill speeds up as his frustration makes him walk faster. “That attitude is exactly why it’s so important to break the hold Bill has on commercial PCs, not to mention, you know, closing the security risk of using an OS created by one of the world’s best hackers—”
“If Bill wants to screw with us he’d be able to do it in a dozen different ways I know about and probably a hundred more I don’t. And,” he quickly adds as Zach prepares to respond, “This isn’t what I came to talk about. We’re heading into the lab to see if it’s the source of whatever’s out there.”
That slows the CIO’s steps. “Damn. You bringing the power back on?”
“Floor by floor, so I need you to shut things off as we go and give us warning if the cameras pick anything up in rooms besides ours.”
“Right. Yeah, you got it, just give me a minute to prepare.”
“You’ve got ten.”
Zach is already focused on the task, and Shaw leaves him to it so he can finalize his own preparations. The mansion’s armory isn’t too dissimilar from the type you’d find in a ranger outpost, with a wide variety of suppression tools like sleep powder bombs, stun guns, and net launchers, but there are a few more dangerous tools available too.
He picks up a tactical crossbow and tests the string tension. Its 60 kilo draw power might stop a sandshrew with a single broadhead bolt, but not a sandslash… the real reason he’s thinking of bringing it is in case it helps against whatever might be turning into sandslash. Is it just a visual resemblance, or does it perfectly imitate their tough hide?
He puts the crossbow back and picks up a powdergun instead. A dead specimen might still be valuable, but a live one would be their best way to find weaknesses.
Shaw meets his assembled team at the hatch above the stairwell they used to escape the lab: Leon, an ex-ranger who started looking for more lucrative work; Rhea, a renegade from some impoverished region she doesn’t like to talk about; Naoto, a psychic psychologist and police consultant from Hoenn that Shaw used to work with before he got into some trouble with the law; and Kit, the only electrical engineer from the lab that was left behind. Like most of the tech folk, he’s one of those in Giovanni’s employ who joined up because he wanted to be part of something greater than himself.
Lopez and Min are also there, the former to guard the door and close it if anything looks like it’s coming up and the latter to watch the seismometer for them and act as coordinator. Shaw makes sure everyone is ready, though they look practically naked with empty pokebelts. He has Naoto do one last check for any minds below, then sprays his own repel on and tells Kit and Leon to open the hatch.
A pitch black square greets them, and Shaw snaps some glowsticks and tosses them in. As they bounce and roll their way down, Leon heads down alone with a netgun in one hand and an air quality monitor in the other.
“We good?” Shaw asks once he reaches the lowest glowstick.
“Oxygen is a bit low, but still safe to breathe for now.”
“Alright, let us know if it noticeably dips any further so we can re-evaluate. Rhea, watch our back and ceiling. Naoto, maximum spread, call out any changes at all. Same to you, Min. And Lopez…”
Shaw is quiet for long enough that his second raises a brow. “Boss?”
“When any of us come back up… ask us something only we would know.”
“Shit. Tell me that was a joke.”
Shaw looks around at the others and notes the extra signs of fear or nervousness. Other than Kit, whose eyes are wide as pokeballs, the rest are good at hiding theirs, but Shaw has had a lot of experience judging body language, and some are automatic. “There’s no report of them copying humans yet, but I’ve got no reason to think they can’t.”
“Wait, wait,” Naoto says. “You think copying a human would make them sapient?”
“I’d rather be prepared for the possibility.”
“What if they get our memories too?” Rhea asks, voice calm despite her ashen face.
Leon gives a brittle laugh from below, the stairwell making the sound echo slightly. “Then we’d be pretty fucked, wouldn’t we? They could already be impersonating any of us.”
It’s not often that Shaw realizes he hasn’t been paranoid enough. “Clothes. They may not be able to copy that, not without making it part of them. Everyone take off a shoe.”
“So we’re going in with full horror-movie logic?” Kit asks as he sits down to pull a shoe off. Others start to unlace their boots or tug one off while standing, Leon coming back up to join them.
“Right, and we assume whatever can go wrong might go wrong.” Shaw examines each shoe one by one, not really sure what he’s looking for but assuming that the transformed body parts wouldn’t be able to maintain their shape if detached. “My premortem for how we’re most likely to fail are that they’re dark in their natural form, so we won’t detect them until they’re already on us. But we have no idea what they’re capable of, so past the initial encounter any number of things might happen, and we have to be prepared for each.” Shaw finishes running a nail along Lopez’s shoe, watching a faint white line appear in the material. If it’s an exact molecular copy of the object then that doesn’t mean anything, but there’s only so much he can do in that case anyway. He hands it back, then takes his own off for them to pass around. “Any last questions?”
“Priorities?” Leon asks.
“Personal safety, team safety, team member safety, power regeneration. That’s until we find something useful; if we manage to capture something we’ve confirmed is one of them, then getting that ball back up here will become the top priority.”
“Damn. Don’t think I can remember when personal safety took priority.”
“Situations like this, if something goes wrong the chances are it goes very wrong, and one person escaping to report what they saw matters.” He gets his shoe back and laces it on. “Anything else? Let’s move, then.”
They descend, passing from one island of bright white light to the next as Shaw steadily throws a new glowstick down every half a minute. The path gets claustrophobically tight at some points where temporary repairs they made on the way out have eroded over time. Luckily they only need to make it to the first floor before they can leave the stairwell, and once they reach the doorway Shaw cracks two glowsticks at once, then tosses both through as soon as Kit opens the door.
Naoto still hasn’t detected any minds nearby, and so they file through afterward and take their first look around. Everyone is silent, perhaps remembering the entrance to the lab back when they used to travel through it every day or two. A thin layer of dust has settled over everything, and the floor is littered with various objects displaced from the security desks by the quakes.
As they approach the scanners, Shaw sees Kit reflexively start to put his gear onto the non-functional conveyer belt. “Nothing wrong with keeping good habits,” he says to alleviate some of the young man’s embarrassment. “Zach, how’s the signal strength?”
“Fine,” Zach says through his earpiece. “Four by four, maybe four by three?”
“We’re passing by entrance security now, let me know if I drop to two on either.”
A few more glowsticks and the rest of the floor is fully lit. Shaw feels a knot of tension release once they confirm that there’s nothing on the floor with them, and only then do they make their way to the next floor, where the first backup generators can be accessed.
There were a lot of conversations, debates, and arguments about the lab design back when it was being built, and even afterward as it was expanded. While he didn’t quite get what he wanted (an admittedly extremely expensive and space consuming full power station on each floor that could supply energy to the whole lab) he’s glad that Giovanni at least agreed that an independent grid on each floor would come in handy. Using batteries instead of pokemon is a tradeoff in efficiency and longevity, but in a situation like this it turned out to be a lucky break that he’s grateful for.
“Bringing power back on floor one now,” Shaw says as Kit installs the battery. It takes a few seconds for the lights to start turning back on, followed by various appliances and, unfortunately, an alarm—the one for a structural integrity warning.
“Yeah, yeah, most subsystems are booting back up! One more sec… okay!”
The alarm shuts off, leaving merciful silence behind. The others relax, and Leon mutters, “Hope that didn’t spook whatever was below us.”
Shaw looks around until he spots a camera dome. “You have eyes?”
“Just got them, though a few cameras aren’t working. Do a quick tour to make sure nothing’s on fire, would you? Water system’s got nothing, and that alarm went off because of cracks in the foundation; any more damage to the structure might bury you guys in there.”
With that cheerful thought they walk the first floor again, more quickly this time but with a careful eye toward the walls and ceiling. There are cracks, but nothing big enough to signal imminent danger yet.
Once they finish Shaw takes out a container to restock on glow sticks, then leads them to one of the internal stairwells to head down to the next floor. A drop of sweat traces a brow, and he wipes it away knowing that more will follow, both because of the hot, stale air and the ongoing tension. If they make it as far as the main generators it would be a relief to get the climate controls back online, assuming it’s still functional.
The second floor goes much like the first, though there are more cameras broken here and one of the stairways has filled with dirt, the pressure of which was enough to spill through its door to fill a hall. They head back to the one they used and go down to the door that leads to the third floor, which is when Naoto pauses.
“Pokemon are about two floors below us.”
“Inside, or out?”
“Both. Sandshrew family for sure, but… a few of them are… strange. Twelve in total.”
“It’s hard to describe. Wild pokemon are all sensations and instincts and emotional reflexes at once, but for these they all seem… layered.”
“Alright, let us know the moment one is heading upward. Weapons ready everyone, and step softly.”
Leon opens the door, and they immediately notice the difference in air quality. “Oxygen’s getting low,” he says, holding the monitor through the gap.
“Masks on.” Leon closes the door and everyone spends a few minutes taking out and equipping personal air masks. Shaw sets a 40 minute timer to give them some warning for when their tanks will start to get low, and Leon, seeming happy to have a hand free, waits for a confirming nod before he opens the door again, more fully this time.
When Shaw tosses the glowsticks through, they immediately see the difference in this part of the lab. Desks and chairs have claw marks on them, some completely broken by whatever roughhousing they were subjected to. There’s scat on the ground and more holes in the walls, as well as the floor now, broken concrete and soil scattered around each.
“Watch your step,” Leon says, voice dry even through the muffle of his mask. Shaw takes care with his next set of glowsticks not to drop any down to the next level, but as they travel further it starts to get difficult to find even footing.
“Running through this would be dangerous,” Rhea notes.
“There’s a supply closet nearby,” Kit says. “Should be mops and brooms in there.”
Leon shakes his head. “If we start cleaning we’ll be down here for hours.”
“It’s a good idea,” Shaw says before a debate begins. “And it doesn’t have to take that long. All we need to do is clear a path for now; we’ll have more people with us if we need to turn this floor into a staging ground.”
So they detour to the supply closet and Shaw, Leon, and Kit begin to sweep while Naoto and Rhea keep their hands free and eyes outward. It should feel ridiculous, or at least surreal, but all Shaw feels is vulnerable; his gaze keeps getting drawn to the holes in the ground, and he gives them as wide a berth as possible, spraying more repel along the floor by each. Even with Naoto on lookout, he can’t help but feel like they know too little about what they’re facing to really be safe.
“Zach, how are the floors above us looking?”
“Zero activity. Which, you know, is why I haven’t said anything.”
Shaw does his best to suppress his annoyance. “I’m making sure we’re still connected.”
“You’re still coming through about four by three.”
I never checked Zach’s clothes. Or the others in the mansion, but now’s not the time to indulge such a tail risk, particularly since he doesn’t even know whether a sapient clone is possible, or whether clothing can’t be copied and separated. He feels the paranoia rising up and focuses it on what he can control right now. “Min?”
“Nothing new yet; a couple small vibrations leaving, one that entered, but all still below you.”
“Any news from Cinnabar?”
“Blaine has mobilized the gym,” Lopez reports. “The island has almost fully evacuated to the city, and some rangers found the origin point for the stampede that started all this. It’s not far from here, near some caverns.”
Shit. “If any sandshrew tunnels connect them to the lab…”
“It’ll be a while before anyone’s ready or willing to explore inside it,” Lopez says. “But yeah, it might be a problem. Is there anything we can do about it right now?”
“No,” Shaw admits after a moment as he rubs a hand over his forehead. One thing at a time. “But let Giovanni know.”
As they sweep a path to the power room they near the cafeteria and start to find empty food bags and cans scattered all around. “This explains why they’re nesting,” Leon says as he sweeps some ramen bags to the side. “There was enough food stored to last us for a month if we got stuck down here.”
“Does that mean they’ll abandon this place when they’ve eaten it all?” Rhea asks.
“Maybe, but we have a bigger problem meanwhile.” Distant and muffled though Naoto’s voice is, the worry in it still makes Shaw tense. “This much available food would put most pokemon in a prolonged breeding mode.”
Shortly after that ominous pronouncement they reach the power room and bring the floor power back online… except this time most of the lights don’t switch on.
“I’m barely getting any cameras either. Some of the lines must have gotten cut.”
“It might be safer to shut it down,” Kit murmurs. “Though we haven’t seen any exposed wires…”
Shaw considers it, but just for a moment. “I’ll take what I can get for now, and the battery won’t last long anyway. Just be careful what you touch, everyone.”
“Still, this changes things,” Rhea says. “Without power this floor isn’t particularly safe as a fallback point, and if the one below it is similar then there’s less reason to go floor by floor.”
“I’d rather confirm that each floor is clear before we go below it.” Shaw’s fingers start counting pokeballs in his pouch again. “Even a few extra cameras might help Zach spot something useful.”
Still, the lack of a secure fallback point would be a problem if they need to run. Shaw starts tossing glowsticks through the holes in the floor as they make their way back along the path they cleared to the stairs, and when they go down and open the door there’s already light waiting for them.
“The ones below us can sense us moving now,” Naoto warns.
“Any coming up?”
“No, but I can faintly sense the ones below them now too… there are a lot, Shaw. Dozens, two or three floors down, maybe in between floors too.”
“Would playing predator sounds keep them away?”
“No,” Leon says. “Not with their nest below and so many of them. It’s more likely to prompt a mass attack.”
He figured as much, but had to make sure. “Alright everyone, keep walking slow and gentle. The glowsticks should keep them away, but we’re going to walk wide around any holes in case some get adventurous, or in case copied versions don’t share the same aversion to light.”
They’re passing through the major labs now, broken glass littering the floor along with more signs of sandshrew habitation. It takes a few extra minutes to sweep a weaving path wide around the various holes in the floor, especially because Naoto keeps pausing, which makes Shaw’s pulse jump as he prepares to order them to flee.
But they make it to the backup generator without incident. Unfortunately once the battery is removed from its container ball and plugged in, they once again only get a handful of lights, along with another alarm.
“Which one is that?” Leon asks, voice barely audible over the din.
“Insecure containment of hazardous materials!” Kit yells back before Shaw can answer. “We should be fine with the masks!”
Shaw leans his broom against the wall, hands itching to hold more useful weapons as he looks to Naoto, whose eyes are closed in concentration. “Zach?”
“I’m working on it!”
The generator room’s light is on, but beyond it is darkness broken only by glowsticks in the hall beyond and some of the rooms they passed through. Shaw watches that darkness until his eyes burn from lack of blinking, only letting his lids drop once the alarm cuts off.
“Got it! The damn thing was—”
“Not now! Naoto?”
“They’re on high alert,” the psychic says, voice strained. “Lots of… vigilance and panic… they’re worried about their eggs and hatchlings…”
“No one move,” Shaw says, wishing for the dozenth time at least that he had a pokemon on his belt, just one… “We wait until they relax.”
If only he could do the same. Every minute that ticks by has his muscles grow more tense rather than less, particularly after Naoto comments, “They’re moving, but not toward us yet.”
“Just… wandering. Restless.”
Another drop of sweat stings his eye. Shaw does his best to blink it away, then checks his oxygen. About half gone, meaning the 28 minutes left on his timer has less of a buffer than he initially wanted it to. “Slow, deep breaths everyone.”
Another five minutes pass before Naoto lets a slow breath out. “I think… they’re starting to relax. But not all of them.”
“We’ll wait another five minutes.”
It only takes two before Min speaks up. “Incoming vibrations on your level.”
“Which side? How many?”
“Northeast, at least two big ones, at least three small, maybe as many as seven in total.”
Not where they are, but close. “If we wait here and they come through, we might get surrounded. We’re making our way back to the stairs. Quick and quiet, let’s move.”
They start to walk, Shaw leading the way from one glowstick to the next as he tosses more of them out. Behind him he hears someone spraying repel along their path, and they reach the stairwell just as they hear the scratching of claws against concrete.
They close the door and spray more repel along the floor, then take a moment to catch their breaths. “See anything, Zach?”
“Yeah, new hole just got dug in the wall not far from the second chemical lab. Four sandshrew, two sandslash.”
“Do they look… normal?”
“So far as I can tell.”
So nothing conclusive yet. He turns to the others. “How much air does everyone have? I’m at 31%.”
They sound off, Kit being the lowest at 27 and Rhea the highest with 35. Shaw resets his timer to fifteen minutes. “Alright, new plan. If they leave we head down one more floor, otherwise we head back up to rest and resupply. Naoto, you said the majority of minds are two below us, on the experiment’s floor?”
“Yes, I think that’s where the nests are, unless there’s more below that.”
“Then we’re going to go down one, find a hole, and take a peek through it before running back up. Giovanni said to be careful, and it doesn’t look like we’re going to be able to catch any by surprise down here.”
No one says anything, but Shaw can tell they’re relieved even through the masks. After a couple minutes Naoto says, “They’re heading down, somewhere in the middle,” and Shaw leads them to the next floor.
“This is it everyone. Weapons ready, prepare for engagement.” Shaw waits for everyone to hold up their weapons, then nods to Leon.
The ex-ranger opens the doors, and Shaw throws twice as many glowsticks through as usual, all four in different directions and distances. They spot a sandshrew right away thanks to the farthest glowstick, and it immediately retreats, scurrying away from the light.
Shaw spots a hole and heads straight for it, sweeping away more broken glass, loose paper, and pokemon droppings. He kicks aside a chair that’s in the way, then drops his broom and steps right up to the hole to drop a glowstick in as the others set up a perimeter around him.
What he sees takes a moment to register, and as his eyes widen and his breath stops, a visceral horror claws up his stomach and out of his throat in a sound of fear and disgust he wouldn’t recognize as coming from him if he didn’t feel the lingering desire to shut his eyes and turn away.
“Incoming!” Naoto yells, snapping Shaw out of his paralysis. “There, there, and there!”
“Move!” Shaw releases a pair of pokedolls, then follows the others back the way they came. A sandslash rushes out of the dark from their side until Leon’s netgun sends it rolling across the ground in a tangled heap, claws slashing at the thin steel chains until they start to snap. Another crawls out of the hole Shaw was looking down and immediately attacks the pokedolls he left behind, while a third starts tunneling out of the floor by the stairs, only to get blasted in the face with sleep powder from Rhea.
“Capture it!” Shaw yells as he stops by the netted sandslash, blasting it with his own sleep spores before holding a greatball out. It’s just pulling free when the powder kicks in, and his greatball snatches it out of the remains of the net.
“Move, Shaw, more coming!” Naoto yells as he tosses his own empty netgun aside and pulls out a pair of stunspore bombs, tossing both down a corridor that looks empty to Shaw.
He snatches his greatball up and runs for the stairway, where Kit releases another pokedoll to give Rhea cover as she captures the sandslash slumped in the new hole.
Once he’s through the door Leon slams it shut, and they’re all racing up the stairs as Min calls out seismic activity warnings.
A minor quake sends them all stumbling to the sides of the stairwell, and sends an ominous groan through the concrete around them. “Up, hands on the railing!” Shaw hooks his weapon to his belt and holds onto the rail beside him as he pumps his shaking legs up the stairs.
Once they get to the top floor, gloriously well lit and relatively free of debris, they start running for the main staircase out. “Vibrations in pursuit, passing through the third floor now!” Min yells.
“Lopez, we’re coming up!” Shaw makes sure everyone is on the stairs before he shuts the lab doors behind him and follows. “Open the hatch!”
For a moment they’re still running in the dim light of the stairwell, and then bright sunlight is shining down around them. Once he’s through he collapses beside the others in the grass, tearing his breath mask off and gulping in lungfuls of clean air.
Lopez bangs the trapdoor closed behind them… then turns on Shaw with a stun gun aimed for his chest. “What’s something only Shaw would know about me?”
Even through his lingering horror and exhaustion, pride and relief are enough to make him grin. “That you… got reprimanded twice… for late reports… during the last Interregional Coordinator Contest.”
Lopez frowns, then lowers the stungun. “Shit, all of the answers are going to embarrass me, aren’t they?”
Leon laughs, and that sets the others off. Still breathing hard, Shaw pushes himself up to face the only one who’s still looking worried, gaze on her screen. “Are they still coming?”
“I think they stopped at the second floor. A couple might have gone up from there, but no more are moving further.”
“I’ve got them on camera,” Zach says. “They’re milling around, but don’t seem to be about to pursue.”
Shaw lets himself relax even more, enjoying the cool air on his sweaty face as Leon asks if Lopez is going to ask the rest of them questions.
“None of us lost sight of each other while we were down there,” Kit says.
“Still, orders are orders.”
Lopez frowns, then holds his stungun up again, aimed at Leon this time.
“Orders rescinded,” Shaw says, and pushes himself up. “Kit’s right, and we need to report in. Anyone injured?”
They shake their heads and start rising too. Rhea’s gaze studies his face as she brushes grass off her pants. “What did you see, Shaw?”
The question brings him back to that moment, and his stomach clenches. “It looked like a sandshrew nest, but… wrong. A second after the glowstick landed, they all started… changing. Melting into some pink and purple goo, even some of the babies. It… or maybe they… were everywhere, surrounding the eggs… inside the eggs, one of them was feeding on the yolk of one while another detached some of itself into one…”
He trails off while the others stare in shock and horror and disgust. “You saw all that in a few seconds?” Leon asks, voice low. He doesn’t sound skeptical.
“I saw it all in a moment. The rest of the time was… processing.” Shaw thought his time working homicides and watching the results of all the failed experiments that came before 3.14 would have kept him from feeling what he’s feeling now, but the queasy disgust only grows the longer he thinks about it, and he starts walking toward the mansion, shaking his head to clear the images away. “Come on. Giovanni needs to… know about this.”
Giovanni needs to do something about this is what Shaw almost said, holding his tongue at the last moment. He trusts his boss with a lot more than his life, but he knows the cold and ruthless pragmatism that drives him. There’s a chance the Gym Leader would see this as an opportunity, but if he orders Shaw to do anything other than destroy what’s down there to the best of his ability, then for the first time in over a decade Shaw would have to disobey.
He hopes the loss of the experiment taught Giovanni some humility, some understanding that he can’t control everything, and for some things shouldn’t even try. He knows Giovanni has to reach further than anyone else dares to do what has to be done.
But after what he saw, and what it might mean for the world if it isn’t stopped, Shaw won’t let him make the wrong call a second time.
Cinnabar City is home to about 90% of the island’s population, and it doesn’t take long for the shelters to fill with the other 10 (or at least, the other 9.999). By the time the rangers have finished corralling people from the various tourist lodges, pokemon centers, farms, and fishing villages around the island, the sun is a few hours away from setting, and Ranger Wendy has had a chance to fully examine the city’s defenses, as well as evaluate its preparation for the first official Code White.
It is, she notes for her report to the Ranger Union, probably one of the best places to have encountered an unknown phenomenon of this scale.
She’s only been stationed in Kanto for a few months as part of her regional exchange training and she’s fairly impressed with the local talent. They’re not as good as Almia’s rangers, of course, but the ones on Cinnabar are a cut above the rest. Being so uniquely isolated means everyone stationed here needs to be more than fairly impressive; when substantial backup is at best a few hours’ flight away, the locals end up handling most things on their own.
Fortunately, it seems they can. Unfortunately, the point of a Code White is they have no idea how to compare what’s happening to “most things.” With wild pokemon transforming into the ones they fight, including full access to their abilities, the usual tactics and strategies go out the window.
But the isolation is probably also what led to Cinnabar Gym’s unique culture; there aren’t many places with a mandatory draft for times of emergencies, but without neighbors to turn to, Leader Blaine asserted decades ago that those who want to live on Cinnabar have to be ready to defend it, and the city’s mayor and population agreed.
“All of which is to say,” Wendy summarizes to her phone as she joins the crowd of rangers, gym members, and others making their way into the meeting hall, “Whatever happens here, I think they’ll have the numbers to deal with it.”
On the screen, Principal Lamont tugs at his beard, brow creased. Normally Wendy would be reporting to her mentor, but with the seriousness of the situation she was transferred directly to the head of Almia’s ranger academy. “That’s assuming numbers end up being what’s needed. Are Oak and Taira there yet?”
“Yeah, he teleported straight in, so we’ll be good to go with whatever plan they’ve got. Honestly though, I’m not sure what they’ll be able to add. Seems obvious that we have to avoid using any strong pokemon, and let the newbies step in on this one.”
“Well, sounds like you’ve got it all figured out. Ditch the uniform and grab a coat, Professor. Unless of course you’re just motivated to show off what you can do?”
Wendy rubs her neck as she feels it grow warm. “I know, I’m just here to help with small stuff and learn from the locals, but this is too big to sit aside on!”
Her old principal chuckles. “And the best way you can think to help is by fighting?”
She bites her lower lip as she heads up the stairs into the meeting hall. Principal Lamont has been teaching rangers since the Union first started; she knows that question was meant to get her to think about what her actual mission is. “Only if there’s no way to coexist with them. So… I should probably be thinking of that, first.”
He smiles. “Good luck, Wendy. I know you’ll make Almia proud.”
“Thank you, Sir. I’ll report back soon.”
“See you then.”
He ends the call, and Wendy tucks her phone away to enter the building. The location doubles as a pokemon contest hall, which means there’s plenty of seats for everyone; she runs up to the balcony level and squeezes through bodies until she reaches one near the front so she can see which big names are already on stage.
Leader Blaine is there, along with Professor Oak and Ranger General Taira. It’s Wendy’s first time seeing the Kanto Ranger General, who stands a little taller than the Professor, and nearly as tall as Blaine, while his shoulders are hunched at least. Her short black hair combined with her black and red uniform makes her an imposing contrast to the two older men.
Particularly Leader Blaine, with his bald head shining in the bright lights and the cane planted between his feet. She’s heard it’s just an affectation, that he can move as quick and limber as the slightly younger Professor. Others say one of his legs was incurably injured and continues to pain him, but that he just powers through it when he needs to. Either way, combined with his white coat and round spectacles, and the knowledge that he was an accomplished researcher before heading Cinnabar Gym, it’s hard not to see him as more of a professor than a gym leader.
Until a few minutes pass, and the seats are nearly full, when he raps his cane against the floor once, twice, three times. By the third, the hall is so silent that Wendy can hear her own breaths.
“Code White protocols have been met,” Blaine says, voice leathery but strong. “There’s new data to share.”
With a gesture behind him, where a dark skinned ranger standing to the side of the stage approaches, greatball in hand. He seems a bit nervous, or maybe just taken aback by the Leader’s abruptness. Wendy certainly is; she heard Blaine didn’t like to waste words, but she expected at least a small introduction or speech.
“Hey everyone, I’m Ira,” the ranger at the front of the stage says. “I was at C17 when—”
“Speak up, man,” Blaine says. “And get to it.”
“Yes, Sir.” Ira takes a breath, then holds up the greatball. “When I threw this ball, it caught an arcanine. Once I got back to the city I had a chance to scan it. It looked like an arcanine in the dex, but there was something wrong. It was classifying it as a new species, with lots of the genetic—” Blaine clears his throat, and Ira glances at him, then shrugs. “Point is, this is what it turned into a few seconds out of the ball.”
He braces his arm and releases the greatball’s contents in a flash. When it clears, there’s… a puddle of purple goo on the stage.
Wendy leans forward, along with half the hall, trying to understand what she’s looking at. A baby grimer? No, it’s too light, more of a pinkish-purple…
A moment later it quivers and swirls, forming a vaguely lumpy blob. There are murmurs throughout the hall now as the blob seems to wag its upper half around, and the cameraman at the foot of the stage steps right up against it to get a closeup.
“For those that can’t make it out, it’s got a pair of small black eyes, something like a mouth, and that’s it. As far as I can tell it has no internal organs, and while it didn’t try to attack me, it doesn’t follow basic commands or do much of anything, really.”
“Technicians are working with another specimen already,” Professor Oak says. “We’re hoping to push a pokedex update by the end of the night so it can identify these things when they’re caught, but the training algorithms might take longer, since we have no idea how its physiology works, let alone the neurology.”
Wendy feels a bit of jealousy that some people have already caught the new pokemon while she’s been sitting in a safe outpost by the coast, but reminds herself of what Principal Lamont said. She’s a ranger, not a trainer; she should be focusing on more than capturing and battling.
If she stops viewing the strange blob as a threat or battle resource, what else could it be? Well, obviously it would be massively valuable scientifically… that company that’s been trying to perfect cloning technology must be pulling their hair out right now.
She’s still thinking of it as a resource though; rangers are supposed to value pokemon for their role in the ecosystem, and ways they can enhance human lives. I guess it’s kind of cute, in a living plush-doll sort of way? She’s not sure what hugging one would feel like, but as long as it’s not cold and slimy…
“Tactical data is limited,” Blaine says. “For now, assume this thing is anywhere on the island. Assume it can get off the island. Any trainer engaging in any battle against a wild pokemon has to be ready to swap to a counter to whatever they send out, then swap to a counter to that, until we know how quickly or often they can change forms.”
“Also,” Professor Oak adds, “To answer the question I imagine is on everyone’s mind… we don’t know yet if they can turn into humans. But from what we’ve studied of the data so far, the transformation is not perfect. It would be a mistake to call it superficial; so far they’ve mimicked every power their targets possessed. At the same time, once injured—or for those who’ve transformed into tougher pokemon, once their hide is pierced—they seem more frail than their targets.”
“That may not be consistent,” Leader Blaine says. “Data is too limited to jump to conclusions.”
Professor Oak holds a conciliatory hand up. “Of course. But combined with the logic that a complete transformation would result in them losing their ability to change further, I’m advising against paranoid speculation. Our next test once we have a new subject is to cut some fur or nails from it before it transforms back to this state, to see if it reacts with pain, or if the removed matter reverts sooner. In addition, the fact that the copied pokemon do not act like their trained counterparts suggests that they copy our pokemon’s instincts, but not their memories.”
“At this point we’re considering a full quarantine for Cinnabar,” General Taira says. Her voice is velvet wrapped around an iron fist, bringing to mind the ancient clan of warriors and leaders she shares a name with. “But less drastic methods are still being debated. In the meantime, all efforts are going to be aimed at city patrols and perimeter defense.”
Wendy is only half-listening. Transforming pokemon that share all their target’s instincts… the transformation isn’t permanent so they aren’t really clones like that company wants to make…
People are talking among themselves all around her while the Ranger General shares instructions on how to form groups and receive orders for local defense, then the tentative plans for moving outward once they’re sure the city is safe.
“One last thing,” Ranger Ira says. “My friend and I tracked the first stampede that we know for sure had these things in it to a series of caverns. We’ve marked it on the map; it may have come from somewhere else and moved there, or came into existence at more than one place at the same time, but we’ve sealed the caverns off by collapsing the entrances and there’s a rotating shift watching it to make sure we know if anything else comes out. If you have a strong flier and want to sign up for that, come find me.”
“Dismissed,” Leader Blaine says, and people start standing and streaming out. Wendy, however, has a sudden thought, and dashes down the stairs and to the stage. Nothing gained by being timid she reminds herself when her worries catch up with her feet, and moves faster against the outflowing tide of bodies.
Oak and Blaine are talking about something while Ira and Taira talk about something else. Neither pair seems to notice her, probably because a lot of others are milling around the stage talking or looking for an opportunity to speak with them. Instead Wendy climbs onto the stage and approaches her fellow Rangers, which gets their attention.
Taira’s gaze is like a pair of legweights, and Wendy falters for a moment before taking a deep breath and soldiering on. “Good evening, Ma’am.” She gives her best salute.
The Ranger General’s response is casual, almost dismissive, but her voice is only curious. “Yes, Cadet?”
“Wendy, Ma’am,” she says, though the Ranger General’s tone didn’t invite details. “From Almia. I had a thought… why are we concerned about these pokemon?”
It’s Ira that answers, tone quizzical, but also serious. “I saw what these things can do against a prepared line of trainers. It might be easier when we know what we’re facing, but unless they have a weakness they’ll always be nearly as strong as anything we send out against them.”
“Yeah, I get that. And, Sir, I’m not trying to minimize how rough that must have been for your people… but these pokemon seem like they’ll naturally adapt to any ecosystem. We don’t know what set off the stampede today, but it might not have been because of them. Is it possible that the best move here is to just… let them be?”
The two are silent for a moment, and Wendy realizes that the Professor and Leader are also watching her, now. She feels her neck grow warm again, but doesn’t lower her gaze.
Eventually Taira’s lips quirk into a slow smile. “Almia, you said? Is Principal Lamont still there?”
“Uh, yes Ma’am, he is.”
“He taught you well, Cadet. It’s certainly something we’ll keep in mind… but first, we need to make sure they aren’t disrupting the ecosystem, and we need to make sure everyone is prepared to face them.”
“Of course, Ma’am.” Well, she said her piece. Now all she can do is try to help out. “Um, also, you said for Ensigns and below to report to their direct superior, but I’ve been here on exchange and have just been rotating…”
“I’ll take her, if that’s alright with you, Ma’am.”
Taira nods to Ira, then looks back at Wendy one last time. “Take care, Cadet Wendy.”
Wendy salutes again, then follows Ira off the stage, heart soaring. She did her duty as a ranger, and now she’ll get to see some action; whatever the days ahead have in store, she’ll make Almia proud.
“That was when we decided to retreat and consider our options. Any suggestions as to what we do now would be appreciated, but it’s my assessment that this location is no longer defensible without a coordinated effort to reclaim and rebuild the lab… or, barring that, purge it entirely.”
Naoto listens as Shaw’s pronouncement is met with silence from the various heads of the other departments in the organization. Maybe it’s taking them a moment to absorb what they’ve heard, or maybe they’re waiting for Giovanni to speak first. The teleconference is without video, so none of them have any body language to go off of, but the quality of the silence feels weighty, and Naoto imagines Giovanni staring down at his steepled fingers, brow slightly furrowed.
Or maybe he’s muted himself so he can shout some curses or smash a chair. Surely at some point enough setbacks would provoke a passionate response from their dark leader?
Naoto was a psychologist before he attempted one too many studies that skirted the ethical line. He was fascinated by the way people’s thoughts and feelings changed from little things in their environment, slight differences in tone or expression. Being able to share his subjects’ thoughts and moods gave him unique insights into what they really felt, rather than relying on absurdly noisy self-report surveys, or clumsy and time consuming brain scans.
He’s grateful that he was able to find employment with Giovanni’s organization after his curiosity got the better of him a few too many times. It’s all thanks to Shaw; the security chief vouched for him to the Gym Leader, said they’d worked together before, which they had, and that Naoto would be “invaluable.” After the nightmare of seeing his career and life descending into ruins, the word was like a shot of pure hope through his veins. Getting the job, in the end, was more; a rebirth, in a lot of ways. A change of name, some changed physical features, a new history, a new life.
And not a bad life, for all its limitations. The work has been fascinating, in its own way, even if the constant presence of dark colleagues, not to mention their utterly opaque leader, has been a constant itch that he’s found hard to live with at times. Right now, other than two people on perimeter watch and one to keep an eye on the hatch, the remaining dozen people at the mansion are gathered in the meeting room, all of which are dark. Combined with the lack of visual stimuli, the itch to know what everyone is thinking is nearly unbearable.
But he has borne it, and resisted the urges to return to his previous experiments. After Shaw put his own dependability on the line for him, Naoto knew he couldn’t let him down, nor the Leader they both serve that he’s come to respect as well, in his own way.
“Can we fill the air system with spores?” comes a suggestion at last. Dr. Light, of course, is familiar with the lab.
“Same problem as trying to just burn them out,” Shaw says. “We might catch some, but the rest will retreat into the surrounding earth.”
“Flood it?” comes a voice Naoto doesn’t recognize.
“Might work, if we had a lake we could redirect.”
“What if we use their transformation properties against them?” someone asks. “Send in nothing but voltorb and electrode?”
“A chain reaction?” Giovanni muses. “Risky. Even assuming it works for some, others might survive and escape… not to mention it would probably bring the whole lab down on anyone in there. Perhaps as a last resort.”
“We could drop poisoned food on the lower levels?” Kit asks, voice low, and Shaw nods and repeats the suggestion.
There’s silence for a moment, then Giovanni says, “A good idea if we had more time, and if we already had a sense of what poison wouldn’t be detected by sandshrew while being potent enough to incapacitate whatever these things are for a prolonged period. The one you caught, Rhea, will be thoroughly examined, but in the meantime we need other options that ensure their destruction.”
“So you agree with purging the lab entirely, Sir?” Shaw asks. If Naoto was forced to guess (and he can’t help himself anyway) he’d say Shaw is… relieved.
Not that he blames him. From what Shaw reported seeing, Naoto can’t imagine sleeping soundly in the mansion ever again.
“I do. Regardless of how the battle for the island as a whole turns out, we cannot allow more of these things to breed in secret. There are a number of ways we could potentially contain them, but not quickly and not quietly; with the island on high alert, new construction or renovation below the mansion would be noticed.”
“I agree, Sir,” Shaw says. Yep, definitely relieved. “Which is why I’d like to suggest we use the lab’s failsafe.”
Silence again from the telecom, while everyone in the room goes still. Naoto wonders if they’re finally going to learn what doom was hanging over them all those years…
“Shaw.” It’s Dr. Light, and she sounds… frightened? “Are you sure?”
The chief of security’s lip twitches. “I am, Doctor. What’s down there is… worse than the experiment, I think. Maybe worse than anything else humanity has faced.”
“Can someone explain what they’re talking about?” another voice Naoto doesn’t recognize asks. Not surprising given how segregated their cells are; he wonders how many people are in other research labs, if any, and how many are just on Giovanni’s personal staff or part of the Viridian Gym.
“There’s enough explosive packed into the walls of the lab to utterly demolish it,” Giovanni explains. “And probably collapse the mansion into the ground.”
Silence again, and then, “Okay, seems like a good option. How does that work, exactly?”
“Dr. Light and I both have keys that could trigger it,” Shaw says.
“Then why not just evacuate and… wait. Are you talking about a literal key?”
The call is silent again as Lopez swears under his breath, and Rhea’s hands clench into fists. “Shaw,” Leon mutters, only for their boss to cut him off with a sharp chop of his hand.
“It was meant to stop whatever the lab created from escaping,” Shaw continues after a moment. “This feels like it qualifies.”
“Don’t jump to conclusions, Shaw,” Dr. Light. “We still don’t know for sure what from the lab might have caused it to appear, or if it even originated there at all. If you blow up the lab we may never know!”
“Then maybe we shouldn’t know.”
“That’s the most thickheaded—”
“Doctor.” The word comes out almost tenderly, and if Naoto didn’t know better he’d think there had been something between her and Shaw. “Thank you. But it’s the only way to be sure.”
For his part, Naoto feels an odd tearing in his chest. If Shaw is serious, and he’s understanding the system right, he plans to walk down there and just blow himself up.
The man who gave Naoto a second chance would go to his death to keep the island, and possibly the world, safe. Of course he would; that’s what his job has been all this time.
It’s not fair.
“Before things get any more dramatic,” someone says, voice holding a slight drawl. “It sounds like those things are basically loose on the island at this point. It’s unfortunate for the local ecology, but destroying this ‘nest’ will not stop the spread that has already begun.”
“Just because it won’t eradicate them doesn’t make it worthless,” Shaw says. “It may slow the spread to a manageable level, give the rangers a fighting chance to contain it entirely.”
“I still think—”
“Hey, it doesn’t matter!” Zach explodes, voice definitely loud enough to be picked up on the call. Naoto was so focused on himself that he didn’t realize how much tension the CIO must have been holding in. “Whose dumb idea was it not to make the damn thing remote? Give me an hour and I’ll whip up a way to do it from a distance! No one has to die!”
If anyone else had spoken out of turn, let alone (probably) insulted Shaw or Giovanni, they would probably have been swiftly led out of the room, but Zach can get away with more than most. Probably because he’s still wearing those damn pajamas, and getting mad at him would just feel strange. “It was a tradeoff,” Shaw says. “The risk of external trigger was too high. I don’t want to die, but I would be pretty surprised if you could make this thing work remotely in a week, let alone an hour.”
“Oh please, a little servo to turn a key—”
“Is just the last step. The key has to be turned within seconds of a password being put in, a lever being cranked, and a living-body-temperature handprint being placed on a scanner, along with a voice command and a retinal scan.”
Coming from anyone else, Naoto would think Shaw was exaggerating. Zach practically vibrates with mixed feelings that he would normally be fascinated to try to dissect, but after a moment he just sags back, hand over his eyes.
“You’re sure about this,” Giovanni says in the ensuing silence.
It’s not spoken like a question, but Shaw still nods. “Yes, Sir.”
“If this is from some sense of guilt, I want you to know that I am ultimately the one who—”
“No, Sir. With respect, it’s just… the right call. It’s our mess. We need to clean it up, no matter what.”
No one seems to know what to say to that.
“The stampede has spread through a quarter of the island, and will reach the city soon,” Giovanni finally says. “Once all eyes and ears are on it…”
The Gym Leader just trails off. Maybe even he has never asked someone to literally sacrifice themselves before, or had to find the words to accept it. Or maybe he just feels guilty. Naoto’s heard how ruthless Giovanni can be, but he and Shaw go way back, and by all accounts their boss doesn’t like wasting good talent.
Good talent. Like that’s all Shaw is.
“Wait,” Naoto says, throat dry and voice low. Too low for anyone but Rhea beside him to hear, let alone Shaw or Giovanni.
“That will give you time to evacuate the mansion,” Giovanni says. “And perhaps time for us to come up with an alternative—”
“Wait!” This time everyone turns to him. He swallows and takes a deep breath. “Wait, just… hold on a fucking minute, alright? If there are explosives in the walls, why don’t we just… you know, set them off with other explosives?”
“They’re secured against that,” Shaw says, voice patient. No, controlled. He’s hiding what he’s feeling, Naoto knows he can’t be this accepting of his own death, no matter how he’s acting. “The chance of them going off by accident was reduced as much as possible, and even if some of them are set off, the rest will just vaporize rather than explode.”
“How do you even know the explosives will all work, then? Half of the security cameras and lights were down!”
“It can be set off from three different floors, including the third, where damage was just starting to get bad. Ultimately I don’t know for sure, but even if some were damaged I think enough will work.”
“You hope enough will work, so you’re going to bet with your life. Well fuck that! I’ve got a better idea: let me do it.”
Shaw stares at him, neck muscle jumping.
“Weren’t you listening?” Zach asks, voice a mix of bitterness and contempt. “You need a—”
“Yeah, I heard, I need his hand and his eye, right? And some codes or whatever.” He turns back to Shaw. “Fine, so tell me the codes and give up a hand and eye. Not your life, you noble ass. Hell, if I get them back to you fast enough you can probably even get them reattached!”
“This is getting morbid,” someone on the call mutters. “Who is that, anyw—”
Their voice gets cutoff, and a moment later Giovanni says, “Continue, Naoto. I take it from that last remark you’re not talking about trading your life for his?”
“Of course not. I’ll just do what you dark people can’t, and teleport out.”
He almost smiles at the stunned looks on everyone’s faces.
It takes all the ground pokemon they have half an hour to dig a hole straight down into the top floor of the lab. It’s enough time to evacuate the mansion, though they end up leaving much behind, and enough time for their local doctor, with assistance from some others who teleport in, to set up a makeshift hospital nearby and perform some quick surgery.
“Once we remove the hand, put it in this pouch to keep it warm,” one of them explains to Naoto, who’s feeling a little light headed after being handed a small glass jar with his friend’s eye floating in it.
“Right, pouch. Sure.”
“You alright? If you need to throw up, or some medication for lightheadedness, say so now.”
“No, I’m good,” he says, like a fool, then, “Yes, actually, that would be great.”
He says his “goodbyes” once they get word that the city is fighting off the stampede, which mostly comes in the form of everyone wishing him good luck while not saying that there’s a high chance he fucks up and gets himself killed. Rhea hugs him, which comes as a surprise, as does Kit, which doesn’t, as does Leon, which does even more. Zach grabs his hand and shakes it, once, without saying anything, then walks away. At least he changed his clothes.
Finally he’s standing beside Shaw’s bed, fully geared out, ready to run to the trapdoor and down the stairs. “The eyepatch looks pretty cool,” he offers.
“Come here, you idiot.” Shaw pulls him into a hug sitting up from the reclining chair. “Thank you,” he whispers, and Naoto squeezes him harder.
“You bet. See you soon, huh? I’m looking forward to your applause.”
Shaw shakes his head, but he’s grinning as he pulls back. There’s one last minute of waiting as Zach swaps between all the cameras on the first few floors, then says, “You’re clear.”
They’ve numbed Shaw’s arm, so he doesn’t feel it when they cut his hand off. Naoto doesn’t even look, just holds the pouch out until he feels the weight of it inside, seals it, then runs for the square of darkness in the grass below the darkening sky while everyone else rushes away from the plateau the mansion is on.
At first it’s easy; down the main stairs, into the first floor. Through the first floor, no sandshrew or weird blobs in sight, around the big hole in the ground that’s his ticket out of here.
Assuming there’s at least half a second of delay between the key turning and the explosives going off, anyway. No one actually seemed to know, or at least they weren’t saying if they did.
Down the inner stairwell, past the second floor, and into the third, where the air is much clearer thanks to the giant hole in the ceiling that lets in the beautiful colors of the sky above. May be the last time I see it, he uselessly thinks as he follows the directions to where Shaw told him the secret compartment would be.
He’s just approaching it when he feels the two sandshrew and the sandslash approaching, their minds sharp with focus… on him. They heard his rapid, heavy footsteps, and are coming to fend off the intruder.
He releases a pokedoll, then summons his tangela. It was given to him as part of his job, years ago; he’s never been a real trainer, but Giovanni expects nearly everyone in his employ to at least have some capability to defend themselves. Despite his lack of diligence, he’s done his duty with Moss over the years, and feels a sharp pang of regret as he summons her for the last time.
“Defend,” he yells, voice cracking, and then he’s using the key to open the heavy plate guarding the interface to the explosives. Once it’s off and falls with a clang, he sticks the key in the final spot so it’s ready to be turned, summons his abra, and says, “Ready!”
Zach starts reading commands to him, and he types them out into the keyboard embedded in the wall. Once that’s done he carefully takes out the glass jar and turns it so that the eye gets scanned, then starts typing the next part.
It’s around then that the sandslash arrives. He doesn’t look back as he feels the ground tremble and crack beneath his feet, knowing Moss will take care of him, and if she doesn’t they’re both likely dead; more are coming.
He hears the fighting intensify behind him as the two sandshrew arrive, and despite himself looks back as he opens the pouch and takes Shaw’s hand out, trying not to think about how it feels.
Instead he’s greeted with the sight of Moss being savaged by her three attackers, though she’s holding her own all the same, vines keeping them restrained and regrowing almost as fast as they cut and chew.
One of them, however, is rapidly turning pinkishpurple.
Naoto looks away and shoves the hand against the pad, his own fingers holding Shaw’s in place so it gets scanned. Meanwhile his other hand triggers the recording of Shaw’s verbal command from his phone. Once the screen asks for the last command, he shoves the hand and phone into his pouch and starts typing…
…just as a vine wraps around his ankle.
He doesn’t stop, each finger moving slow and steady to make sure he doesn’t mess up as his whole body twitches with adrenaline and fear, distantly wondering if he’d have freaked out by now if not for the drugs.
The final command finishes just as the vine around his ankle loosens and fades away. Naoto grabs the key, puts his hand on his abra’s head, and looks back one last time, unable to help his curiosity.
What he sees makes him scream, twist the key, and send the impulse to teleport to his abra.
His teleport point is close enough that he hears the explosion almost immediately, and it’s the first real sign that he survived.
The next is his gorge rising, causing him to throw up on the grass, eyes shut against the last image he saw. His whole body is shaking, and he lets himself collapse beside his puke, letting himself not care about anything for a while.
The sound of running feet makes him grope for the jar, afraid suddenly that he crushed or forgot it, but there it is, cool and solid. He hands it to someone without looking, feels them take the pouch off his waist, and lets another pair of hands lift him up and wrap a towel around him as he just shakes and breathes.
Some time passes before he feels well enough to notice that he’s surrounded by people who are just sitting with him. Most are staring at the dust cloud, which is mostly invisible in the rapidly darkening sky.
“It worked?” he croaks, and someone hands him water, which he eagerly drinks.
“It worked,” Leon says. “Half the plateau sank in. Mansion’s still standing, somehow, but it’s wrecked to hell.”
“Half the plateau,” Naoto distantly repeats. “Good.”
He prays that will be enough to kill it, but knows he’ll still see the copy of himself in his dreams, staring at him with wide, blank eyes, mouth twisted in a strange, wide smile.