“Okay, trainers: first step is to bring out your pokeballs.”
Red, Blue and Leaf all stand at the front of a long room made of grey stone. Speakers and cameras are set in the ceiling behind them so Professor Oak and others can watch and instruct them. Waist high dividers run the length of the room between the three as they face the far end, where target pokedolls shaped like various pokemon stand on mechanical tracks facing them. Empty lanes stretch out to their sides.
Red feels sweat collecting under his hat, and rubs his palm against his pants for the third time, shifting his pokeball around to get a better grip on it. He’s about to meet his pokemon for the first time, and he doesn’t want to make a fool of himself in front of the other two. He wonders how many of the staff from the lab are on break to watch, and has to dry his palms again.
“When you call out its name and give it one of the commands to come out, there will be a two second delay. Throw it forward in as straight a line as you can, red side up, white side down, with a forward spin: the pokeball will open to release onto the ground, and the energy will send the ball in the opposite direction. You can release your pokemon from your hand, but the recoil is rather strong, and you need adequate empty space around you for the ball to open. Begin.”
Silence reigns in the long, empty hall, the only sound Red’s heartbeat in his ears, and then-
“Bulbasaur! I choose you!”
Leaf’s voice thunders through the room without echoing, the walls and ceiling shaped to break up sound. Red watches the ball sail forward in a spinning blur, and then there’s a flash of light. The pokeball shoots back toward Leaf, who shifts her hand a split second too late to catch it: her fingers brush the smooth metal and send it up over her head to clatter against the wall behind her.
In front of her is a four legged, teal reptile with a dark green bulb on its back. It blinks, sniffs, and begins to explore its surroundings.
Blue’s ball flies in a slower, straighter arc, so that when the light flashes out, he’s able to catch it as it sails back toward him.
“Go, Charmander!” Red yells, and throws his ball, aiming for a slow, easy underhand.
A flash of light, and then his ball comes back, faster than he’d thrown it, and at a slight angle. He stretches out his arm, but the ball hits the wall behind him with a crack that makes him wince. He’d never been the best at catching pokeballs in the practice lessons at school, and his nervousness here is undoing all the practice he put in for his journey.
Then all his attention is on the three foot tall orange lizard in front of him, standing on its hind legs with a long tail held behind it for balance. A small flame burns steadily at its tip, barely noticeable under the strong lights.
The lizard turns at the sound of its name, and Red approaches it, kneeling down and letting it sniff his hands. He looks to the side to see Blue and Leaf doing the same with their Pokemon.
“When you and your pokemon feel comfortable with each other, feed them some berries.”
Red pulls a plastic pouch out of the side compartment in his bag and rolls some berries onto his palm. There are a wide variety in it, each with slightly different properties. Most medicine is based on a certain berries and fruit, oran and obon for healing, leppa for energy, but the majority are mundane food or treats for training.
The charmander’s rough, warm tongue snaps out to scoop up the ones it likes, and he runs his fingers over the soft scales of its head as it chews. Bright blue eyes rise to meet his, and Red’s chest tightens as he looks down at his first pokemon. As far back as he can remember he’d dreamed of forming a bond with his very own, a companion for life, something for him to take care of, that would defend him if needed. Together they’d be able to travel the world, like his father had…
Before he joined the Rangers, and got killed by a wild scyther.
Red shakes his head, driving the thought away, then gives the charmander one more scratch between its eyes, and stands. He knows the next part of the drill, he’s done all this and more countless times in the sims, but somehow it’s different in person. Soon the target pokedolls are sliding forward along their rails; the one in front of Red is shaped roughly like a beedrill.
His pokemon goes rigid, and then it spins around. When it catches sight of the pokedoll, it growls, stepping in front of Red. Red feels a bit absurd for a second, being protected by a creature that barely reaches past his knees once it’s on all fours, but a glance at the sharp claws extending from its hands and feet does away with that. A closer glance also shows that the flame at the end of its tail is larger than it was a second ago, too.
By the time the foam-clad figure stops a few feet in front of his charmander, Red hears Blue and Leaf give their own pokemon the battle command. All three pokemon stand ready to defend their trainers. Red sees that the bulbasaur has two vines extended from under its bulb, held poised above it at the ready.
Oak’s voice breaks the silence. “Begin.”
In a blink the charmander dashes forward and swipes at the pokedoll. Strips of foam fly off it, and the force of the blow spins it, an arm coming around to hit the charmander from the side.
Red’s pokemon hops back, dodging the counter attack and planting its feet in front at the ready.
Red grins. His pokemon is fast, and clearly well trained. Not that he had a hand in that of course, but it’s still good to know. Now to see what else it can do… He pulls out the sheet of paper Professor Oak had given him with his pokemon’s trained commands on it.
The charmander’s flame doubles in size, and with a growl it spins, tail lashing out. Some of the fire detaches itself and sails onto the pokedoll. Its foam is clearly fire retardant, but the ember still melts into the material a bit before being snuffed out.
The blue turtle rears its head back, then spits a short jet of water at the pokedoll hard enough to spin it around. Leaf’s bulbasaur extends its vines far enough to whip the pokedoll with loud thuds.
“Good,” Oak says. “Most pokemon are smart enough to learn a number of commands, but yours are particularly intelligent. Try teaching them new ones, or experiment with the ones they have, and keep practicing until your pokemon begin to show signs of tiring. Physical attacks tend to be less tiring than their more unique abilities. As their trainers, you will need to learn how to judge your pokemon’s health and withdraw them if they are too hurt or weary. Continue.”
They continued drilling with their pokemon for another couple of minutes, trying out all sorts of different maneuvers: running, guarding, following, dodging, and mixing attacks with all those and a dozen more before Red begins noticing the signs of weariness. The squirtle’s shots of water are smaller and less powerful. Bulbasaur moves slower, and his vines strike with less force. And his charmander…
Red kneels down and rubs the lizard’s head. It looks up at him, pupils dilated, chest rising and falling with its harsh breaths. Red feeds it some more berries, looking at its tail flame with some concern. It’s definitely smaller than it had been before.
Red gets up to approach the target pokedoll, and Charmander growls from behind him. Red looks back and smiles as the lizard moves to stand between him and the pokedoll again. “It’s okay Charmander.” Red goes and retrieves the pokeball from where it hit the wall, and points its lens at his pokemon. “You did great. Return.” A red beam hits the charmander, spreading over it in a flash of light that returns to the pokeball faster than a blink.
Red approaches the pokedoll, fingers feeling the pits and holes where his charmander’s fire had melted the foam. What had his pokemon done, exactly, to use its tail flame as an attack? Fire needs something to burn, like wood or a candle wick. When he and Blue had practiced wilderness survival, they had found some materials better than others for catching fire and burning longer, but while bits of flaming debris sometimes fell off the burning material, the fire itself always clung to what it was on.
Not being able to burn the foam, Charmander’s embers guttered out. But what sustained it in the air along the way?
Fire isn’t something that can be thrown…
Red walks away from the pokedoll and pulls the pokeball back out, pointing it at the floor in front of him. “Charmander, go.”
He almost remembers Professor Oak’s caution about the recoil too late, and braces his arm just before the flash of light that brings Charmander out sends his arm snapping back. Red grimaces and rubs his elbow.
Note to self: work on upper body strength more to at least reach a threshold of summoning pokemon one handed.
Charmander stands waiting, exactly as he had before Red had withdrawn him, flame low and breathing hard. Red kneels beside it and feeds it more berries, then bends his head to examine the fire at the end of its tail.
No matter how hard he strains his eyes, he can’t make out what the fire is burning. It seems to simply flare from the end of its tail, blue at its base, then white and red above that. Red moves his hand above the fire until he feels its heat, then snatches it back.
Red looks to the side to see Leaf smiling at her pokeball. He frowns, rubbing his elbow again. Why wasn’t there any recoil from withdrawing a pokemon like there is in releasing it?
Red looks back at the charmander’s tail flame. One mystery at a time. He pulls his pocket notebook out and tears a sheet out, then holds it over the flame.
Red blinks and looks at the charmander, who’s watching over its shoulder as he burns the paper. Red smiles and rubs its head, and they watch together as he lifts the paper away so it can burn on its own. When it’s burned almost down to his fingers, he blows it out.
“Don’t worry, I’m not gonna do that to you.” Red feels along the burnt edge of the paper.
What else burns?
Wood, paper, cotton, cloth… none of which are at the end of the charmander’s tail. He knows some forms of gas are combustible, but you can’t throw burning gas either. Which leaves…
“Oil.” Red says. “You produce some kind of oil, don’t you Charmander? Maybe as a form of waste?”
Charmander just stares at him. Its breathing is lighter now, its pupils less dilated. It nuzzles his hand, and he scratches the soft scales under its jaw. Red laughs as its eyes slip half closed, and it begins to sway left and right, its tail bobbing in opposite directions.
“Squirtle, return.” A flash of light, and then Blue clips the pokeball to his belt and examines his own target pokedoll, a soaked nidorino.
“Professor Oak,” Leaf calls out. “What gender are our pokemon?”
“Bulbasaur and Charmander are males. Squirtle’s a female.”
“Professor,” Red says. “Is it okay if I perform a quick experiment?”
“You tell me, Red.”
Red runs through the checklist of guidelines for Safe and Ethical Pokemon Experimentation:
1) Will it cause harm to a human?
2) Will it cause permanent harm to a pokemon?
3) Will it damage potential relationships between the pokemon and humans?
4) Does it violate the trainer’s priority in deciding what is best for their pokemon?
As Red was the trainer in question, 4 was fine, and he had no intention of damaging his relationship with his charmander, so 3 was too. It wouldn’t harm the charmander either, so he was clear on 2, and as for 1…
“I might get burned a little, but I’ll be very careful,” Red says. “I’ve got a few burn remedies in my bag.”
“Then you may proceed with caution.”
Red smiles. “Thank you, Professor.” It’s the first time he’s being trusted to perform an experiment on his own. He rethinks what he has in mind to ensure he doesn’t screw it up, aware that not just Professor Oak, but also Red’s supervisor Dr. Madi and the other researchers he’s worked for are probably watching him.
Finally, Red takes his notebook out of his pocket and tears out a handful of paper. He places them on the floor in a pile, then goes over to the pokedoll and digs his fingers into one of the slashed lines in the foam. With a pull that sends a warning pain through his elbow, he rips a section of foam off the pokedoll.
Judging it big enough, he walks a few feet from the paper pile. “Charmander,” he says, and the lizard looks at him. He points to the paper with one finger. “Ember.”
The charmander looks at the paper pile, then back to him. “Rawr?”
“Ember,” he says again, jabbing with his finger.
Charmander looks back at the paper, then spins without warning. Flames lash out onto the paper pile, and Red rushes to slam the foam down on the small blaze.
When he lifts it up, there’s little but charred paper under the foam. He examines them, but feels and sees nothing.
“That proved what, exactly?” Blue asks, leaning on the wall dividing him from Red.
“That I didn’t do it fast enough, I think.”
“Well, hurry it up, then, so we can get going.”
Red takes his notebook out again and this time leaves the entire thing on the floor, then moves away and points at it. “Ember!”
This time Red slams the foam down within a second after the fire hits it. When he lifts it up, the notebook sticks to the foam. He peels it off and sees it still smoldering, the acrid fumes making his nose wrinkle. He dabs at the small flames with the edge of the foam until they go out, but when he runs his finger through the hole, it comes out dry.
“Dammit,” Red mutters.
“What’s the problem?” Leaf asks from beside Blue, folded arms hanging down the wall.
Red frowns at the fire on Charmander’s tail. “Are you aware of the scientific method?”
“Sure, grandpa and mom taught me. Ask a question, guess an answer, predict a relationship, test your prediction, analyze the results.”
Red smiles. “I was taught it a bit differently, but that’s the gist, yeah.”
“How did you learn it?”
“First comes the question: how does the charmander sustain the fire at the end of its tail? By asking that question, I’m committed to acquiring data to answer it.
“So that’s step two, which I did earlier: research. The pokedex is no help in this case, but I can observe to gain information too, and what I observed is how it does its ember attack.” Red points to the pokedoll. “The fire went through the air to hit that. Well, fire needs fuel to be sustained: it’s not a physical thing, like a piece of wood.
“Which leads to step three, my hypothesis: the fire is fueled by the steady release of some kind of oil, which it slings forward to hit whatever it wants to burn. But how to prove it without hurting the charmander? The hypothesis needs something I can test, a prediction: I thought if I can put out the fire fast enough, it’ll leave behind some of the oil that it uses to fuel it. This foam will put it out, and the notebook was there to give it something else to burn besides the oil.”
In the silence that follows, Blue, who seemed to have spaced out somewhere around step two, looks at Red. “And?”
Red sighs. “Step four was the test. Step five is to analyze the data and see if it supports the hypothesis…”
“And does it?”
Red looks mournfully at his ruined notebook. “Inconclusive.”
“So ‘no,'” Blue says with a smirk.
Leaf shrugs. “Well maybe the test wasn’t good enough. What if you don’t use the notebook? Have him ember onto the ground. Without something else to burn, the fire might not go through the oil as quickly.”
Red scratches his hair beneath his cap. “Does that make sense?”
“Maybe not, but if the fire jumps to the paper, then there’s more fire, which needs more fuel, right? And the best fuel is the oil. Or maybe the paper is absorbing the oil, so you can’t see it.”
Red nods. “Okay. I’ll try that then.” Red stuffs the notebook in his pocket and points to the ground. “Charmander.” The lizard looks at him. “Em-”
“Wait,” Blue says. Red and the lizard both look at him. “You should tell him to throw it farther.”
Red is about to ask why, then he gets it. “You think more oil will be produced?”
Blue shrugs. “It has to be, to go farther.”
Leaf looks thoughtful. “So Charmander knows how much oil to throw when its target is farther away?”
“Maybe not as a calculated measurement, but on an instinctual level or as a learned behavior, sure.” When Blue notices Red staring at him, he looks defensive. “What? You think only people who spend all day reading can know big words?”
“No, I just… well, you don’t use them normally.” And Red’s a bit impressed that Blue had thought of that. It’s so easy to recognize when Blue’s ignorance of science leads him to bad conclusions that Red often forgets that “ignorant” doesn’t mean “dumb,” even outside of his areas of expertise, like pokemon battling.
Blue rolls his eyes. “When you live with a professor you tend to pick some things up.”
“Right. Well, it’s a good idea.”
“Unfortunately it brings up another problem,” Leaf says. “If Charmander knows just how much oil to release to send his fire as far as he wants it to go, how would there be any substantial amount left where it lands?”
They’re all silent for a moment, then Red grimaces. “Ok, let’s hope I’m better at this than I am catching pokeballs.” He takes a few steps back from his charmander, then points at the pokedoll. “Charmander! Ember!”
The lizard stares at him, then looks at the pokedoll, then back to him. “Rawr!”
“I’ll be fine.” He takes a step to the side, moving farther out of the line of sight. “Go on. Ember!”
Charmander spins, and Red jumps at the flame, trying to hit it with the foam. It flies past him, and his charmander growls.
“Dammit.” Red steps to the side again. “Ember,” he says, pointing at the pokedoll.
His charmander doesn’t move, merely growling again. “Charmander, ember!”
Instead, the lizard walks in front of him, and only then flicks fire at the pokedoll.
“Aww, he doesn’t want to hurt you!” Leaf says. “That’s so sweet.”
Red frowns. “Yeah, great, the pokeball’s safety conditioning is very thorough… so thorough I can’t test my prediction.”
“Oh, move aside.” Blue hoists himself over the divider and takes the foam from him. “At this rate we’ll be as old as gramps by the time we get out of here.”
Red steps back, and Charmander comes with him. Blue, standing safely to the side, lifts the foam, and Red points at the pokedoll from safely behind his pokemon. “Ember!”
Charmander flicks fire through the air, and Blue slaps the foam down on it, quenching it against the ground. “Ha!”
Red rushes forward, and when Blue lifts the foam, he kneels down and sees something glisten on the stone for the space of a heartbeat before it suddenly ignites. Red pumps his uninjured arm in the air with a whoop, and Blue crouches down to look too.
“What happened?” Leaf asks, joining them. The fire burns down to nothing, leaving a small scorch mark on the rock. “You see some oil?”
“Yep,” Red says with a grin. “Just before it burned away. It must catch fire when it gets air. Let’s do it again so you can see!”
“Hey!” Blue says. “I thought we were leaving Pallet sometime today?”
“But we have to see if it’s replicable!”
Professor Oak’s voice comes from behind them rather than the loudspeaker, making everyone jump. “Don’t worry, repeated experiments won’t be necessary.”
“Professor!” Red points at the scorch mark. “They produce oil to make the fire, that’s why it goes out when they die! At least, I think it is,” Red says, suddenly doubtful. “I guess this doesn’t conclusively prove that their lives don’t also rely on keeping their tails lit, but…”
Professor Oak is smiling at him. “I think I can clear that up. That was a very, ah, innovative experiment you pulled off. It took me much longer to isolate the oil, though I didn’t risk immolation to do it. Still, well done, all of you.”
Red blinks, then his heart sinks. “You already knew. That entry in the pokedex… it was one of your tests!”
The professor nods. “I changed the pokedex’s data to match what the rumors about charmander had been when I was your age. I wanted to see if any of you would notice the problem, ask the right questions, and figure it out… though I didn’t expect it to happen quite this quickly. Go ahead and check.”
Red pulls his pokedex out and navigates to charmander’s page, which now begins:
Charmander: The Lizard Pokemon. Charmander prefer rocky, mountainous terrain, and hatch from their eggs when their tails ignite and crack the shell. They secrete an oil from the end of their tail that combusts when exposed to the air. The flame varies in strength and size based on their mood and health: when agitated, they produce more, but when their vitals are low, the oil trickles to a near stop.
Red’s chest feels empty. “So I didn’t discover anything new.” Professor Oak and Red’s other teachers often gives Red incomplete scenarios or bits of data to solve hypothetical problems, but Red never suspected he would mess with the pokedex.
Blue elbows him. “You expected to get your Researcher license before even leaving the building?” he says, not unkindly. “At least give yourself a full twenty-four hours.”
“And it was still an original discovery,” Leaf says with a wry grin. “Just a few decades later than someone else made it.”
“She’s right, Red,” Professor Oak says. “You did a decent job of tackling your first problem scientifically.”
Red smiles. “Well, I had some help.”
“Remember, all of you, that no matter what the pokedex says, it might be wrong. Not a day goes by that we don’t learn something new, or learn that what we think we know is false. That’s why journeys like yours are so important: fresh eyes gathering new data will ensure we constantly update our knowledge and think in new ways. I have every confidence now that your journey will be one full of new discoveries.”
The three stand a bit taller, and Red feels his excited energy mirrored in the other’s expressions. He puts his pokedex away and heads for the door. “Come on, let’s get going. There are a ton of pokemon to study between here and Viridian City!”
Blue tosses the piece of pokedoll padding aside and follows. “Just as long as we actually end up catching some too.”