Tag Archives: rationalist writing

61 – Subverting Expectations (Guest: Jamie Wahls)

Alex and I attended a writing retreat with some other authors in the rationality community, and while there decided to host an impromptu episode on subverting expectations, joined (primarily) by our Nebula nominated friend, Jamie Wahls. All I had to record with was my laptop, so apologies for the sound quality!

Co-hosted by Alexander Wales

With thanks to Tim Yarbrough for the Intro/Outro music, G.A.T.O Must Be Respected

Links:

http://jamiewahls.com

112: Hunted

The third time Blue thinks of the perfect attack to use, then has to revise to something far less effective due to environmental constraints, a calm and distant part of him swears that he’s going to make teams of pokemon built entirely for fighting indoors and keep half of his belt full of them at all times.

“TB! Hyp!”

“Ah! Ca! Bab!”

The renegade’s pokemon are outnumbered and at a type disadvantage, but they’re also smaller and more nimble than his: Rive’s Hammer Arm is easily dodged by the magneton, and while Soul gets a Crunch off on the hypno, it manages to stay conscious long enough to put the scarred arcanine to sleep.

Thankfully Rive blocked the thunderbolt from hitting Maturin, whose bubblebeam disorients the magneton and keeps it from getting its next attack off before Blue can yell “Sab!” The Body Slam connects and sends it reeling, and Blue has another moment to spare a mental grouse for the fact that his most effective tactic at the moment is to tell a Ground pokemon to use a Normal attack against a goddamn Electric/Steel type before that Electric/Steel type sends a Mirror Shot out to burrow three holes in his pokemon’s rocky hide.

Blue swaps the Awakening he pulled out of his bag to his other hand to spray it on Soul while he withdraws Rive—if that was a Flash Cannon he would be dead, he’s okay unless it hit a critical organ—then leaps behind one of the generators to avoid the next thunderbolt, which he only assumed would go for him instead of Maturin because he was closer. “Bab!” he yells again, and “Ca!” for good measure in case Soul has woken up to finish off the hypno. He might be dead right now if he wasn’t immune to psychic attacks, and has a brief moment to be glad that he didn’t stay Miracle Eyed through all this.

“Go, Gon!” His breloom appears beside him, then dashes toward the fight once he says “Pam!” He’s spent a lot of time tweaking the simulations to reinforce targeting priorities of certain moves against certain pokemon, so he’s fairly sure that Mach-Punch will get aimed at the magneton, but he knows he’ll have to risk a look at the battle soon to get a renewed sense of what’s happening…

Or the sound of another pokemon being sent out could force him to do it now.

Blue does his best to peek around the corner without exposing much of himself, and feels his heart sink at the sight of the magmar.

Three different commands burst out of his throat in a rush, “GonbackMaturinbabSoulsae!” but the renegade just has to give one, and does so while running: “Overheat.”

The magmar’s body begins to glow, turning Maturin’s Bubble Beam to hissing steam as soon as it hits. Soul slams into the renegade pokemon a moment later, but the magmar just keeps glowing brighter—

—Blue sends Maturin into her shell with a “Wa!” as he stretches Gon’s greatball out in one hand as far as it will go—

—until a torrent of flame bursts out of the magmar in every direction.

Blue toggles the return beam at the last possible moment, but his breloom is still too far when the fire washes over it, and he snatches his arm back to avoid the searing heat that radiates out.

The air goes from air conditioned cold to sweltering in a flash, but Blue barely feels it, anger burning white-hot in his core as flashbacks of catching Gon in Viridian Forest and training with him throughout his journey run through his mind. The shroomish was with him nearly as long as his starter, through every gym badge he’s earned, he’s always prepared to lose his pokemon defending people from wild pokemon but he just lost Gon to this nobody, this cowardly murderer

“I’m going to fucking kill you!” Blue yells over the roar of the flames, and knows that the sound swallowed his oath. He seethes fruitlessly as he cowers, sweat beading his face as he waits for the heat to fade…

…and when it finally does, quickly pulls out a burn heal and sprays it all over his prickling face and hands. The very air itself smells burnt to a kind of weird, empty scent-that’s-not-a-scent, but beneath that there’s a whiff of something else that makes his stomach turn. He knows what he’ll see before he even looks, but he has to confirm…

The magmar is on all fours, trembling with exertion, its colors dull. “Ca,” Blue reflexively says, and Soul stumbles to his feet, smoke rising from his fur, and pounces to sinks his fangs into the back of the pokemon’s neck. Maturin is okay, coming out of her shell and sniffing cautiously at the air. While Gon…

Gon is just a smoldering pile of brown fungal flesh. The magneton is a melted triple smear of strange mechanical innards, and the hypno is barely identifiable, making Blue wonder why the renegade didn’t withdraw his pokemon before realizing the underlying mistaken assumption that led to losing his own.

The renegade he fought upstairs ran for it as soon as it seemed like he might lose, and made sure to take his pokemon with him on the way out. This one is willing to sacrifice all his pokemon, maybe even himself.

It looked like he ran and used the magmar to cover his escape. But what if—

Blue whips his head around, hands dropping to his pokebelt… but nothing attacks him. Was he wrong? Did the Renegade actually run?

Well, he’ll just have to find the bastard, wherever he’s hiding. The room seems about as big as the large, open office he fought in upstairs, but much more cluttered, a virtual maze of equipment that is mostly large enough for a man to hide behind. But there’s just one entrance, if he goes there and waits, he’ll catch the renegade eventually if he hasn’t already left, and if he has left he can’t have gone far—

In the corner of his eye Blue sees Maturin suddenly pop back into her shell, and reflexively crouches as he quickly scans the area again, pulse racing. He waits for his battle calm, but…

Nothing. There’s nothing around them, and so he continues just being on edge. What was she reacting to…?

And then he remembers Red’s signal.

Shit. Something’s about to happen, and Blue isn’t in place to take advantage of it or help in any way… he hasn’t even accomplished what he came here for, and the clock is ticking.

He takes one last look around, then rushes to the generators, setting aside the need for revenge. Later he promises his anger, but the burning beast just paces more restlessly, knowing full well that if he doesn’t catch the fucker now, he probably never will.

Focus.

The metal is hot to the touch, but not damaged in any obvious way. It makes sense that they’d ensure it can’t overheat if something goes wrong, but Rive should be able to break it down… assuming his rhydon is still alive.

“Soul, Maturin, guard.” There are corpses taking up too much space now, so he backs up a little to summon his injured pokemon, two hyper potions at the ready. The rocky rhino’s hide has three holes in it, but the dark blood welling out of them makes it hard to see how deep they go. Blue quickly empties his potions into his pokemon, then grabs its lower jaw and pries it open to drop a revive down its throat for good measure.

He keeps his head on a swivel throughout, though his pokemon aren’t reacting to anything nearby. Rive’s blood has formed two small puddles around him, but hope stirs in Blue’s chest as he notices that they don’t seem to be growing.

The rhydon shifts, then opens its eyes as it takes a deeper breath in. “Good job, buddy. You did great.” Blue strokes Rive’s snout a couple times, careful of the spiral horn as his pokemon continues to shift, then steps back as his pokemon pushes himself to his feet. “Now, I need you to wreck some shit.”

Lizzy explained how building generators like this have pokeballs with electrodes in them, ready to release automatically if any fluctuation in the power goes below a certain point. He debates taking the time to remove the electrode greatballs from the generators, but he wouldn’t be able to command them, and they’re the least expensive part of what he’s about to wreck, so he just points to the container that houses them and says, “Rive, Ah.”

Rive moves gingerly to brace on his feet, and Blue almost tells him to stop so he can check for deeper injuries before his pokemon surges forward and slams his forearm down onto the generator.

“Ah,” he says again, and the next Hammer Arm dents the container enough to expose the inside. He’s pretty sure that’s enough to keep the generator from functioning, so he moves on to the next one, heart still racing as he looks around, expecting another attack just when he drops his guard.

It doesn’t come until the second generator is destroyed and he’s led his pokemon to the third. A series of flashes have Blue throwing his back against one of the damaged generator for cover as Soul growls and Maturin’s ears flare out.

Two commands get stuck competing in Blue’s throat. Should he tell Rive to destroy the third generator, or be prepared for battle? There would still be another one after, and even if he destroys all four none of this will matter if he can’t get to the second set of backup generators…

When he hears the thick hisss, it’s immediately obvious what’s coming next, and at last the battle calm descends as one hand flies to his mask straps to ensure they’re tight while the other points to the generator again. “Rive, Ah!”

THUD

“Ah!”

THUD

“Ah!”

CRACK

The smog is visible now, which means he only has a few moments… “Ah!”

There’s rending sound of metal tearing, and then Blue rushes to the last generator, points, and yells “Ah!” again.

Rive hesitates.

“Ah!’

Another hesitation, and Blue grits his teeth as Rive cocks his head from side to side. Blue can barely make out the generator himself, and rhydon have worse eyesight than humans.

Soul coughs, and Blue rushes over to spray an Antidote onto both him and Maturin to buy some time, then rushes back to Rive, unclips his pidgeot’s ball and braces his arm to aim it back the way he came. “Go, Zephyr!” There’s no guarantee that the smog will have somewhere permanent to go, but he just needs a few seconds.

His pokemon appears, but it’s a tight fit. “Gust!” Blue commands, and as soon as the pidgeot starts flapping, screeching in pain as it’s launched up and smacks its head against the ceiling, Blue points to the generator again as the smog thins for a moment. “Rive, Ah!’

THUD

“Ah!”

CRACK

Zephyr has stopped flapping, instead hopping awkwardly on one foot in a daze as he continually tries to keep his balance. Blue returns him to his ball before he hurts himself or anyone else, which is why he spots the muk that’s silently oozing its way toward his pokemon from behind, invisible to Soul’s nose in the smog.

“Soul, alert, Mat—”

“Sludge Wave!”

His pokemon haven’t managed to fully turn before the renegade’s command rings out, and Blue sees Soul’s silhouette get buried in a wave of gunk as the arcanine roars in pain.

He has to stop himself from rushing over, instead yelling “Chaf!” for Soul, “Bab!” for Maturin, and then, hoping Rive can still see enough: “AH!”

CRUNCH

It’ll have to do.

Three pokemon being poisoned at once is too much to manage, so he withdraws Rive rather than risk having him attack blind, then stops himself from rushing to where his other two pokemon are for a second time. Even against a wild pokemon that would be risky, in a situation like this it’s suicidal. The renegade took time to plan this out, if he just blindly reacts (literally) he’ll just get himself killed… plus, he’s pretty sure there were three flashes earlier, which means there’s still a third pokemon lying in wait, maybe creeping up on him right now…

The calm helps him think even through the sounds of a battle he can’t see, but no path to victory appears in his mind. Options. He has tools on his belt for disabling the renegade, but he has to get closer than this to use them…

…which may be the last thing the renegade expects him to do.

If it means letting his pokemon fend for themselves, it’s also the last thing he wants to do. But his opponent already took the strategy he thought of earlier, and with a better twist; he can’t just wait around or else his pokemon are going to succumb to poison. And still, it would be dangerous to assume the renegade will just wait, instead of having a next step that he’s carrying out even now…

Next step. That’s the key, always. Anticipating what the opponent would do with what resources he has.

Blue closes his eyes, which are mostly just showing various shades of light at this point, and breathes deep of the filtered air. What are his opponent’s goals and resources?

He’s here to protect the building’s power sources. So his goals will be to kill me or my pokemon or to stop me from destroying the generators…

which I just destroyed.

What’s he going to do when he realizes that?

He feels his battle calm slipping as he tries to think of what in the room might shield him from a Self Destruct explosion from a weezing, then realizes nothing can. He has to get out of this room, maybe get Rive to break through a wall, even if he can’t see…

No, that wouldn’t put him in a better position. He has to take the renegade out. And that’s probably not just a desire for revenge talking, though if he loses Soul or Maturin too…

Blue crouch-runs to the edge of the room, hands held out to push himself off things he runs into until he finds the wall. It feels a little like being back in Viridian, where the smoke was so thick he could barely see his hand in front of him, and the memory of the shiftry ambush makes him extra cautious as he moves toward the entrance.

The sounds of his pokemon battling continue all the while, and hopes they mask any noise he makes to whatever third pokemon the renegade surely has out, waiting for him to approach…

Blue slows, heart pounding as he imagines the possibilities and realizes he needs another edge. Something to take his opponent off guard…

He takes his shoes off, then brushes his fingers over Ion’s ball. The smog is too thick for it to detect any empty space to summon into, even if there is some. So he walks a blind circle, arms out, then unclips Ion’s ball, hefts it for a moment as he aims… then triggers the manual release.

As soon as his pokemon is out, Blue rushes for the opposite side of the room and yells “Fa!” along the way.

The flash of light isn’t particularly bright through the haze, but he hopes it’s enough to draw attention, while the memory of where his voice was draws them to a second false-location. Meanwhile…

He finds the wall again and sprints with one hand on it and the other ahead of him. His socks make each step practically soundless, and while part of him worries about stepping on something sharp (like a trap set by the renegade, if he has a pokemon to litter spikes at the entrance with), the main thing he’s thinking is that his ability to kick just got a lot less damaging.

He’s about to find out if his lessons at the dojo paid off. It wasn’t all parkour and trampolines and trainer battles, after all.

There are more flashes of light in the smog now, or rather one long illumination that he hopes isn’t Soul burning the last of his life away, and then his outstretched palm hits a body. He immediately grips and tugs as he ducks and steps past and to the side, one leg out to trip the renegade in the direction he just came.

He catches the man totally off guard, sending him down in a sprawl that nearly knocks Blue down with him, and his other hand grabs the man’s mask to tug up. The renegade grips his arm and pulls down to stop him, kicking against the floor to try to regain his feet, and Blue’s other hand brings the stun gun from his belt and presses it against the man’s stomach.

I really hope this doesn’t shock me too is his last thought before he pulls the trigger. The renegade begins to convulse, nearly yanking Blue’s arm out of his socket, but he doesn’t feel anything else, and after counting out ten seconds he releases the trigger.

The man’s grip goes slack, and Blue yanks his mask off, then stumbles to his feet and throws it randomly deeper into the room. A second later he’s taking the cuffs from his belt and yanking the renegade’s arms behind his back to cuff them together.

Finally he unclasps the man’s belt, which he takes with him as he finds the door, opens it, then closes it behind him, leaning against the cool metal and panting to catch his breath.

He feels like shit, but damn is it good to be alive.

The inner counter in his head hits sixty seconds, and now he has a choice to make. If he keeps the door closed, the renegade will die from the poison… but so will his pokemon, who are likely all injured by now. Much as he wants the renegade dead, and much as this would be a justified way to get there, he can’t lose Soul and Ion here too, and Maturin…

Blue takes one last deep breath, then summons Rive. “Guard,” he says, then opens the door and yells, “Soul, back! Maturin, back! Ion, back!”

And waits, as the smog spreads outward into the rest of the hall, to see if his pokemon are well enough to comply and follow the sound of his voice. He doesn’t hear any more sounds of battle, and after counting thirty seconds repeats, “Soul, back! Maturin, back! Ion, ba—”

Ion is the first to arrive, limping and covered in acid burns. Blue gives him a few quick sprays of potion and antidote, then says, “Guard,” and calls out again: “Soul, back! Maturin, back!” He hopes whatever Ion was fighting isn’t still conscious, let alone the muk… but they’re not wild pokemon, they won’t just attack randomly without the renegade’s commands, right? Unless the bastard was crazy enough to order that sort of thing…

He can hear the renegade start coughing, and the smog is thin enough now that he can make out his form on the ground. Blue steps forward and finds the stun gun handle, then presses the trigger again, this time until it auto-stops, which he counts at thirty seconds. He clicks the trigger again a few times, but it probably has some recharge period or safety feature, so he drops it and says, “Ion, come.”

Blue leads quickly through the thinning smog until they find the site of the battle. Soul is lying on his side beside a scorched and smoldering muk, and beside them looms a shape that Blue almost orders Ion to attack…

Until he makes out the two cannons poking up from the round shell, and realizes Maturin has finally evolved.

Blue’s hands don’t shake as they move to return his pokemon, but he does run back to the entrance once they’re back on his belt. The air is mostly clear now, at the cost of the air quality on the rest of the floor, and he hopes whoever else might be here has access to first aid kits.

Still, he doesn’t pause to find his shoes. There’s still the second power room, and unless Red has pulled off another miracle, they’re almost out of time.


Red only has a few moments to decide whether to try to keep picking the searching renegades off, or teleport back to the safety of the security room before the situation changes again: almost all at once, the renegade pokemon vanish from Kadabra’s psychic senses.

Did I win? The hopeful thought is mixed with confusion, but it doesn’t seem impossible that they’d decide to suddenly retreat in the face of the unknown. He should check with the president and see if those renegades with him are gone too…

He hears a crash somewhere on his floor.

Red pulls his mind away from Kadabra’s and settles into his own body again—

—and half-collapses against the office desk he was leaning on as the room wobbles around him.

It takes a moment to realize it’s not literally spinning, then another to recognize the vague ache in his head. Overdid it. It’s been months since he taxed himself beyond his psychic limits, he practically forgot that he could. His thoughts feel sluggish, so it takes him what feels like a minute (but is hopefully just a few seconds) to realize that what’s disorienting him is the lack of extrasensory perceptions. His own body feels strange to him.

Not a great sign. But he hears another crash, and so pushes the concern aside, almost reflexively using amnesia before catching himself and realizing that might actually be a bad idea.

Still, it might not be safe to stay here. The crashing sound is repeating, and seems to be getting closer. Is there a battle happening? And now there’s the unmistakable tone of a command, and—

BANG

Out the door and to his left. He braces himself as best he can, then sends out a psydar pulse, then another, then another. It’s less disorienting than he expected, if anything it makes him feel better, and he has to remind himself of his exhaustion to keep from the sweet surrender of immersing himself back into mergers.

He breathes in deep, grounding himself in the feel of the air in his nose and lungs. He also sends part of his attention down into his feet, to the press of the floor against him, and tightens his hands against the edge of the desks, feeling it bite into his skin as he sends another few pulses out, trying to make sense of the brief glimpses into the constellation of minds around him.

There’s an obvious cluster of sharper “excitation” down the hall compared to elsewhere. It’s hard to tell what emotions are dominant there but fear feels closest to correct… but he doesn’t sense any pokemon…

Another BANG, closer this time, makes him realize he has to risk it. Red takes one more deep breath, then merges with one of the buzzing/fearful minds on his floor…

fear[pokemon(RENEGADE)]pleasenodon’thurt[stay]smallquiethide[body]legsache[RENEGADES(how?!)]pleasesomeonecomesoon

He pulls back into himself and lets his breath out as pieces of the sensorium settle into a snapshot of what the woman was seeing/hearing…

…and abruptly merges with Kadabra to jump to another office as he finishes processing it.

There’s a renegade with a pokemon going from room to room, smashing through doors, clearly looking for something. The woman didn’t get a good look at the pokemon, didn’t recognize what she did see, so he has no idea what it was…

…but it was clearly a dark pokemon, if he can’t sense it. Which doesn’t seem coincidental.

CRASH

Red twitches, then sends his psydar out to scan the new floor he’s on (fifth? sixth?). Once again some minds are more scared than others, and again a quick and disorienting merger with one of them gives him a composite impression of a [RENEGADE] pokemon… no, he knows this one, it’s a scrafty.

He wishes he could delve into the person’s memories, but the woman he merged with isn’t actively thinking about the past—not important, he can extrapolate. The renegades have all switched to dark pokemon, which means some order went out to coordinate them in a way that feels not just deliberate, but prepared.

How did they arrive at this hypothesis so quickly? There should have been other explanations they assumed before jumping to this one, right?

A shiver of disquiet goes through him, and his heart rate redoubles as he realizes there could be a dark renegade with a dark pokemon outside his door right now. He wonders fleetingly if this is how abra feel all the time, then decides their strategy is a good one, and prepares to teleport to another office…

…to his room…

danger(?!)

Red’s breath stutters, and he frowns as he tries to concentrate. Yes, there’s danger here, that’s why he has to go home, where it’s safe…

danger!

room

silph

room

SILPH DANGER

It’s like bouncing off an invisible wall in his mind, and Red reels for a moment until…

…the partitions fall, and he’s back as his full self.

His full self is whimpering.

“Oh shit. Oh shit, oh shit oh shitohshit—”

He can’t teleport. He’s not sure why actually, are his partitions leaking, or has Kadabra just been exposed to his fear too much to trust the—FOCUS, he has to get out of here, he’ll figure out why it’s not working later—no, it IS important now, he has to know if Silph’s office still counts as safe enough to retreat to, or the security room…

Red feels his mind tipping in multiple directions at once, and one of them is the alarmed (and alarming) thought that he might have broken his partitions somehow…

Red you moron, your partitions don’t work if you’re psychically exhausted!

The inner voice sounds remarkably like Blue’s, despite the fact that he’s never really talked about psychic stuff much with Blue. Inner Blue is right, though, and in any other circumstance it would be funny that he forgot about this (and a bit nice, a sign that he’s come so far and it’s been so long since his early days of dealing with depression every night after training, forgetting about that would normally feel like a victory)—

CRASH

Okay that was definitely closer, he needs to focus, and also panic a little, because without his partitions he can’t teleport, and also lots of memories of the past ten minutes(?)twenty(?) are crowding at the same time, and also he can’t shield his secret memories from anyone who might merge with him, but then again he’s kind of revealing most of those right now anyway so he should probably be panicking more about the lack of teleporting.

Well, he should still be able to teleport outside normally, right? But that means running away, and if he does that Blue will get mad at him… well, not necessarily, not if Blue’s dead, like Aiko and his dad…

Tears prickle at Red’s eyes, and it’s a reminder from months ago to center and ground himself. Focus. Breathe. It’s hard to think clearly, and his emotions are now wildly swinging between sadness and panic, but if the renegade going door to door is about to find him, that means he’s about to be in a pokemon battle.

And now, thanks to Blue, he has an app for that.

It takes more time and effort than it should, but once he has each mental anchor in place the next gets easier.

I have a goal.

—a sense of something bright/shining/pulling/crystalline—

I have options.

—an endlessly outward branching—

The enemy has a goal.

—darkness/emptiness/contempt—

Predict their options.

—hemming of branches, cutting and winnowing down until—

Find the path.

—a bright line among the branches, a series of steps up toward the light—

Know victory.

The sense of anticipated completion/satisfaction/glory is fleeting, an echo, but its promise is enough to send calm through Red’s system. He still feels urgency, still feels a tremor of leashed energy in his limbs calling him to fight or flight, but there’s a clarity to the next steps, a sense of flow between what’s happening now and what will happen, and that flow becomes a current that pulls his limbs into movement as soon as he thinks of what he should do, what the right next move is…

holy shit Blue you battle like this all the time?—

But no, Blue’s version of this must be faster, or more efficient. Maybe it’s the mental overexertion, or the leaking partitions, or maybe it’s just because he’s new to this way of thinking, but it feels like he’s taking too long to reach each decision.

Still, it’s useful for not getting stuck on thoughts like that. What he needs to focus on now is the scrafty that’s about to smash open the door at any moment, and how Kadabra won’t be able to hit him, nor sakki affect him, without Miracle Eye, which means Kadabra needs something to buy time.

So Red will buy him time. Simple, right?

His unclips Forretress’s ball and almost summons the Bug/Steel pokemon, but stops himself. The sound would alert the Renegade, who might call for backup. He needs to surprise him.

Also, Forretress would block the doorway, which would get him stuck here, so the Renegade could just bring out a ranged attacker… if he has one that’s dark…

Magneton could Light Screen-electric attacks risky to use-fire pokemon?-kingler could block, but not much reach —

Possibilities spin out before him, but in this state of mind there’s a clarity to them, they don’t overwhelm him, they’re just a series of ideas/obstacles/problems that he checks solutions against. Snorlax and Nidoqueen were far too big for the offices, so other than Kadabra, he decided to focus largely on Bug pokemon that could beat Dark types, which meant bringing Aiko’s venomoth Winter, Ariados, and Forretress, as well as Magneton and Nidorino for wider coverage. His additional resources include his stun gun, flash bomb, sakki…

could flash bomb a ranged pokemon, buy time for Kingler to block until Miracle Eye, then use sakki…

…wait…. Can he project sakki while in this state?

The question feels like it tugs all the possibility strands into a loop. Every strategy he has relies on the ability to defeat a renegade with sakki by turning their pokemon against them, that’s the Path to Victory every tactic aims for, his only other options like the stun gun are temporary. If he can’t reach it without giving up this mental clarity…

The calm starts to fade as unease spreads through his stomach, thoughts still looping on the uncertainty until he hears footsteps approach the door. Red is still holding one arm outstretched, Forretress’s ball aimed forward, and it snaps up as he reflexively summons his pokemon just after the door is smashed open, while the other hand fires his stun gun at the renegade—

—who dodges to the side immediately upon seeing Red, but that buys time for Red to duck away from his own returning shot.

No fair! The fired darts embed in the desk, and Red scrambles away from the crackling wires that connect to them even as he feels the battle calm resettle, focus narrowing to the immediate next steps. The bulky pokemon will buy him some time, and the scary open loop in his victory path is unimportant if he just defeats his opponent’s dark pokemon he can use sakki on their non-dark ones, it won’t matter if he loses this clarity then.

“I found him, fifth floor!” the renegade yells just as Red’s “Bug Bite” sends his Bug/Steel pokemon rolling forward. It opens its metallic shell just enough to clamp hungry fangs on its stout Dark/Fighting opponent, while Red mentally commands Kadabra to use Miracle Eye—

“Fire Punch!”

Shit.

The scrafty rears back a fist that was TM modified to leak combustible fluid, and when it strikes Forretress it sends the otherwise steadfast pokemon rolling away, twitching in pain.

Red swaps Forretress out for Nidorino, but a “Zen Headbutt!” makes it clear that his responding “Double Kick” won’t even the playing field. Meanwhile the renegade is unclipping something from his belt, but it doesn’t look like a pokeball—

Red dodges behind the desk just as the second stun gun whips up and fires, and dips back into Kadabra’s mind just enough to tell that his pokemon can now see the Scrafty. He has to either use Psychic on it now and take it down, or…

He closes his eyes, merges with the scrafty, and projects the pure freedom-from-constraints that makes up sakki toward it, along with his focus on the renegade as dangerous enemy…

And then the renegade is screaming in pain as his own pokemon launches at him and shatters his pelvis with a headbutt.

Red withdraws his mind rather than stick around for the killing blow, breaths stuttering as the calm finishes leaving him entirely. “Psych-psychic,” he stammers, and the sounds of the scrafty pummeling the renegade abruptly stop.

Sweat breaks out all over Red’s body as he realizes how close he just came to dying, how much danger he’s still in, he has to get back to the security room, he has to get out of here… but he’s so tired

Nidorino…!

He forces himself to get up and look at his pokemon, who’s lying on his side without moving. Red quickly crawls over and sprays a potion onto him, hand shaking, then realizes he doesn’t have time to wait and withdraws him. More renegades are coming, he has to move…

But he feels the decision paralysis setting in again. Should he try to teleport back to the others, in case it’s “safe” enough? If that fails, would he have time to get there on his own? The renegade said this is the fifth floor, which means he just has to go down one set of stairs to reach the security room. Most of the renegades guarding the stairs and elevators are dead or crippled, so if he moves quickly…

No, if there’s even one person on the fifth or third floor that responded to the warning, Red will either have to fight them in the stairway or on the way there. He has to try teleporting.

Wait, first he should withdraw Kadabra, go to another room, buy himself a bit more time in case a searching renegade sees the body outside…

…unless taking the time to do that is what makes him lose his window of opportunity—

Battle calm, now.

He breathes in deep, head throbbing as he finds the anchors. Goal. Options. Predict enemies. Path to victory.

Okay. Better. He can recognize now that he’s not going to get any new information, and while there’s a sinking feeling in his stomach that he’s missing something, that there are options he’s not thinking of, clever paths to victory he’s not seeing… it doesn’t matter, time is the main limiter, so it’s probably better to just roll the dice with the odds he has rather than wait any longer and have them get any slimmer.

He forces himself to his feet, walks to Kadabra to put a hand on his pokemon’s shoulder, then closes his eyes and starts focusing on the security room, anchoring the experience of being there in his memory and projecting that to Kadabra…

Rapid footsteps in the hall goddammit I was so close—!

“Peter’s down!” someone yells, and Red’s hands fly to return Kadabra and unclip a flashbang from his belt even as he thinks what kind of a renegade is named “Peter?”

A moment later the newcomer runs over to the body in the hall and crouches to check Peter’s pulse, then turns to look inside the room and spots Red just as he throws his flashbang at the renegade’s face.

He has two seconds to turn and cover his eyes with the arm holding Kadabra’s ball, while his now-free hand unclips Ariados and aims it behind him, using his armpit as a brace and waiting until the BANG to trigger the manual release. “Fell Stinger!” he yells through ringing ears.

If the renegade gives a command to his own pokemon Red doesn’t hear it as he crouches and crab-walks behind the desk. Reclip Ariados ball, spray potion in ears, brace arm to resummon Kadabra—

When he peeks over the desk he sees Ariados fighting a mightyena with fire dripping from its fangs as it lunges forward and bites off one of his pokemon’s legs. It takes another jab doing it, but it’s not a lethal wound, and the next bite takes off his Ariados’s head.

Losing the spinarak he caught in Viridian at the start of his journey will probably hurt more, at some point. For now Red is too focused on making sure Kadabra’s Miracle Eye is working so he can turn the mightyena against its master—

—who withdraws it and swaps for a cacturne.

Oh come on Red yells in frustration… except he doesn’t, he didn’t drop the battle calm yet, so he just feels it in some part of him as the rest stays focused on the next step: sending Winter out and trying to predict what TM might give the cacturne coverage against a venomoth. He doesn’t think cacturne can learn any fire or psychic moves, and either way he should be able to take it out quickly with a Signal Beam which he does—

—just as the renegade also summons a golbat, which starts tearing into Winter before Red can switch mental modes and turn it back against its trainer.

Red tries to return the disemboweled venomoth to its ball, arm shaking, but the cacturne is just barely still alive, and hits it with a Dark Pulse first. Red doesn’t have time to check if Winter survived, too busy getting Kadabra to use Miracle Eye on the Cacturne so he can finish it off, then kill the golbat that’s feasting on the renegade.

His memory feels like it’s dropping seconds between events, things are happening too fast for him to track, and on top of everything the mixed smell of various kinds of blood makes Red’s stomach churn. He stays alert for another few moments, body buzzing with adrenaline even while his thoughts feel scattered and slow, but even without the battle calm he knows what his next step has to be.

If he’s right, this won’t take partitions, all he has to do is focus on the fact that it is, in fact, safe at the security room, which isn’t hard because it is safe, it’s in fact the safest he can be while still in this building—

—he could be leaving though, he could go to the top floor and teleport out—

—he can teleport out from the security room too if he needs to, but there are allies there that will keep them safe, now let’s go—

That last burst of projection makes the world twist, and Red is abruptly aware that the smells are different. He opens his eyes to see the others have their pokemon out, no doubt ready for to spring into action at his signal.

They don’t look particularly happy to see him, though maybe that’s more about how he looks. “Shit, kid, you alright?” Valentin asks.

“Fine,” Red says, nearly lightheaded with relief as his whole body seems to unclench. It worked. He’s safe.

“Did something happen?” Sicong asks. “Is the president—”

Like last time, Burrel holds a hand up to quiet the others before simply saying, “Report.”

Red just wants to curl up on the floor and rest for a bit, but he’s not safe yet, not really, no one here is. “The beedrill nest is officially kicked, Sir.” Not what he intended to say, it’s a line from a movie that he barely remembers, but he feels like he’s thinking through molasses and it’s just what came out, so he decides to just roll with it rather than clarify. He spots a cup on the desk and steps over to take a long swallow of whatever is in it… ah right, coffee, that’s what he was smelling, that makes sense. “Sorry,” he says to Valentin, guessing it was his, but a moment later the CHRO is handing him a fresh cup. “Thanks. What did I roll with?”

“What?”

“Sorry.” He takes another deep swallow of his new cup, not even minding that it’s too hot, and way too bitter. Caffeine might help him think more clearly, and sugar, maybe that would help too…

“Verres?”

“Right, yeah.” Focus. Breathe. Keep things simple. “Um. I can’t teleport anymore. Inside the building, I mean.” That’s not relevant. “I’m lucky this worked, I’m just… I mean what I’m trying to say is I think I’ve reached my limits, psychically.” Not untrue, and also less complicated than the full explanation. He’s probably leaking all over Lin, but if so the other psychic is being polite about it. So long as he doesn’t think about secrets, like… He quickly drinks more too-hot-too-bitter coffee. “But I think I got… maybe ten of them?”

“Ten,” Jenson repeats, voice flat. “Arceus wept. And there’s still more?”

“Uh, maybe? Sorry, I kind of lost count. Probably still the ones in the storage room, at least. I can’t tell because they all switched to dark pokemon.” All at once. Red feels another twist of disquiet, but he’ll think about it later, if there is a later. “Also two found me, and I’m down to just two healthy pokemon.”

“You beat two renegades in a pokemon battle?” Stocky asks, and she sounds more incredulous than impressed.

“I cheated. But… I think that’s all I can do on my own. Sorry.” Is he apologizing too much? He drinks more coffee, wishing his stomach would stop churning. He should check if Winter survived, and Nidorino…

“You’ve done more than we could have hoped,” Burrell says. “It’s now or never, but we’ve got a new target.”

“What do you mean?”

“Someone deactivated one of the building’s backup power rooms,” Valentin says. “I doubt it was the renegades. If you guys take out the second one, I can take us off the grid and they won’t be able to turn on a light, let alone get anything out of storage.”

“We were just debating whether to send everyone, or split up to rescue the hostages,” Sicong says.

Even with his fuzzy/scattered thoughts it’s not hard to guess who was on what side of that debate. He drains his cup and puts it down. “What should I do?”

“Nap,” the CHRO says.

“She’s right, Verres, you look on the edge and sound over it,” Stocky says.

“My friend, Blue, he’s probably the one that took the power station out. I have to make sure he’s okay.”

Burrell studies him a moment, then nods. “Won’t say no to the extra help. What pokemon do you have left?”

“Kadabra and… magneton, my others might… hang on.” He takes his pokedex out and checks, heart sinking as Winter’s ball registers no life signs. Sorry, Aiko. His nidorino is dead too. He leaves both balls on the desk, then checks Forretress and feels some tension ease. “Forretress, with some healing.”

Sicong unclips a ball from his belt and says “Catch” as he tosses it to Red.

Red’s hand moves automatically to reclip Forretress and track the ball, which lands solidly in his palm. It’s a diveball, and he looks curiously at the head of security, who has his pokedex out.

“Your reflexes seem fine. Keep out your dex, I’m transferring that lapras to you. Just stay behind us and use Icy Wind on anyone that tries to take us by surprise. Understand? If you see an opportunity to use your powers on the renegades, do it, but other than that just play it safe.”

“Yes, Sir.” Red’s gaze lingers on the ball as he takes his pokedex out and waits for Sicong to transfer ownership. Lapras are rare, and pretty powerful. “Will it, uh, fit? In the halls?”

“It’s young, meant for personal ferry.” Sicong’s smile is wry. “I brought it specifically for indoor battles, in case… well, this.”

“Get your last preparations in order,” Burrell is telling the others. “The renegades said that if we bust that door they’ll kill the hostages, so we’d better hope they were bluffing, or that they’re too distracted by what’s been happening to follow through, because one way or another, we’re ending this now.” The police commissioner glances at Red. “Anything else you want to tell us about your powers, Verres?”

“Uh, I think you have the gist. But I might not be able to use them any more.” Especially since they might endanger the hostages, which is the last thing he wants them to be thinking he might do.

Still, he recognizes the calculating speculation in the two hunters’ gazes, and tries his best to ignore them. The pokedex chimes as it finishes registering the lapras, and Red clips the ball to his belt as it starts the basic training sims. He still feels like he’s thinking through quicksand, but he needs to see this through before he can rest.

And then he’s probably going to have to have a very long talk with the police.

106: Interlude XXII – Tools

Michio’s arms moved in automatic gestures, folding and tucking clothes as fluidly as though he were throwing kunai or pokeballs. It was still not fast enough.

That’s it, then? You’re leaving?”

His mother’s voice was soft, all her anger spent. He expected his father to come, but perhaps they’re not trying to change his mind anymore. The thought was a relief, but he kept his expression blank as he continued packing.

You should have told me.”

We never lied to you.”

You said we were preventing war. Not doing a criminal’s dirty work.”

That criminal’s wealth and connections gives her as much power as any Leader, more. She serves integral functions in the regional government, with full awareness of what she is by a number of politicians. She is just as focused on preventing war, and just as legitimate as we are.”

Michio stopped and turned to his mother. “You don’t believe that.”

No, but in the eyes of society, we are just as criminal as she. That our philosophy is different, that we refrain from holding power, is immaterial.”

Not to me.”

His mother was silent at that, and Michio finished packing his shirts and pants and began emptying his sock drawer by the time she asked, “Where will you go?”

I will stay in Indigo. For now, at least. After that, I am not sure.”

Will you come back at least once, if you decide to leave for good?”

Michio’s hands slowed, for just a moment. “Yes.” He speeds up again. “I’m not doing this with anger in my heart, despite what Father said. I just know I can not stay anymore.”

I understand.” Mother’s voice was low. “You are not the only one who has wished for more say in what we do, how we do it.”

Wished for. But done nothing.”

It is not our way to be both judge and executioner. To wield dark arts and rule would—”

Then I will not wield dark arts, or I will not rule. But in either case, I will at least do something in the world besides further the aims of others. I will not be a tool.”

Oh, Michio.” His mother sat on the side of his bed, and he kept his gaze from the compassion in hers as he finished packing his clothing box and closed the lid, then absorbed it into its container ball. “We are all tools of society, one way or the other. My parents did not force me to kill, any more than we forced you. There were many tools I could have fit in my hands, but none felt as natural, nor as important. Even the most moral of men must keep a hidden blade if their rivals do, and—”

“—’the hidden blade can reach beyond the brandished sword.’ I know, Mother. But if staying concealed means that is all we can be, then it will never feel ‘natural’ to me.” He began to fill the second storage box with the thirteen tools and weapons his parents gifted him on each of his birthdays. He was five before he began training with the first handful, all small, simple things that even a child could kill with. His fingers traced the handles of his small kunai set, then folded the leather into a roll and clipped it to his belt rather than putting them in his box. “The world needs leaders who know what lurks in the shadows, if we are to ever leave them behind.”

Will you go after this woman, then? Try to topple her criminal empire?”

If that’s what needs to be done.”

And the one that comes next? Or the multitude that fill the vacuum that gets left behind?”

If people find out—”

They will raise an outcry, and something will be done to show that the law is the law. But the powerful will continue to do what must be done, and within a year, perhaps two, the attention will fade, and all will return to normal.”

Michio frowned. “I know that I do not know much of how the world works, yet. But I will learn. I will not bury my head just because it is difficult.” His camping gear goes into his third storage box; it will be a long trip from the hidden village to the nearest city, but one he has made many times before. Still, this time he will not have…

His gaze moved to his belt hanging by the wall, and the pokeballs on it. In the rest of society, children are expected to catch and teach their own pokemon, to naturally scale the power they wield to their experience and skill as a trainer. In Kanto, the average age for new trainers to get their license is fifteen, but he was given fully evolved pokemon, and trained in how to command them, from the age of nine.

Still, he could not bring them with him. Though they’ve been his partners for years, they ultimately belong to the village… and were trained to attack humans and pokemon alike. If he were branded a renegade with them the investigations might lead back to the village, and if he chose the traditional path instead, he could not use them for the trainer battles he would be expected to win in his journey for power.

Which means he would be traveling alone.

He zipped his bag closed, slung it over his shoulder, and stepped up to the door. He took the belt off the hook, then pointedly unclipped each ball on it, placing them on his dresser before he clipped it around his waist. Then he reached for the door and began to slide it open.

Michio.”

He paused, and took a slow, centering breath before he turned back toward his mother, expecting one last insistence that he reconsider, or perhaps a final hug goodbye.

Instead the hands she held out to him were cupped under a pokeball. “I believe it is customary to gift a young novice with a pokemon, on the first day of their journey.”

Michio stared at the ball, then met his mother’s gaze, chest tight. There was sadness and worry in her eyes, but also a spark of something humorous, and warm.

He could take this simply as a mother’s desire for her son to be safe. But he knew it was more than that. It was a blessing, perhaps not of his goals, but of his will to achieve them, even if it meant leaving his home and family.

It was more than he dared hope for, and Michio lowered his head in a deep bow as he took the ball from her and clipped it to his belt. “Thank you, Mother.”

Go in peace, my heart. Go find your freedom.”

I go to find more than my own. Someday, I will free us all to be the tools we most wish to be. I swear it.”


Kyo Koga sits in his dojo and studies the kunai laid out in front of him as he waits for his daughter. His hands pass over each tool, and he occasionally takes one out of its sheath to pass the whetstone over it. The motions and sounds are soothing, meditative, and allow him to carefully inspect each as if seeing them for the first time, understanding their unique functionality with full appreciation.

The rightmost one is thin as a needle, and incredibly easy to hide in the sleeve. Another is thicker and leaf-shaped, capable of blocking as well as striking, and weighted for throwing. Another has serrated edges, thick on one side and thin on the other… so many variations on a theme, together creating a suite of tools specialized for a variety of purposes. Each made small enough for a child to wield, yet still able to fit in an adult hand.

These are not the ones he took with him from the hidden village he was raised in. Those he lost in battle, fighting alongside his pokemon in a way that most normal trainers would find wasteful and dangerous. And it’s true; even the most powerful crossbow would barely hurt many pokemon, would be utterly ineffective against entire Types, and those it might seriously wound are often too quick for all but the most expert marksmen to hit at all. The combat techniques his ancestors passed down were created in a time before pokeballs made anything else a human might hold in their hands during battle obsolete.

But they had another purpose too, a purpose that created the hidden villages centuries ago, and kept them relevant. Humans are not tough. Humans are not quick. Pokemon were trained to defend their humans even from other humans in historic times, but they had to recognize a threat to stop it, and a kunai from the shadows could be more deadly than a pokemon.

His gaze is drawn to the wall, where a hanging scroll depicts a tangela and machoke grappling in the forefront, with two katana wielding samurai locked in battle beside them. He was forced to learn many things in his first year leaving his village, transforming himself from Michio of the Endo clan to
“Kyo Koga.” The Koga clan was outed a decade before he was born, and had the size and power to survive the backlash. Now instead of training assassins and spies, it is famous for running historical museums, commercially successful martial arts dojos… and adopting those who leave their still-hidden villages, claiming them as distant family members to provide new, legal identities.

It has not been an unpleasant life, being Kyo. He has done much of what he set out to do, and his failures sting less with each passing year, or are not yet final. He even found a wife, birthed a daughter, raised her to be strong, clever, ambitious. It is something he has often been as proud of as his Gym Leadership, when he allows himself pride.

And he has not killed since he was sixteen. That above all else, he feels pride in. More than he would have expected, when he was young and angry enough to leave the village behind, but not yet sure if he would renounce its methods.

He picks another blade, this one broader, flatter. The first kunai were farming tools, or so he was taught. Simple equipment that could be used for not just cutting and stabbing, but digging or prying. In those days, adaptability held more value than specialization. But as humans began to work together in larger numbers, as technology advanced, a handful of specialists became far more valuable, until new, even narrower specializations continued to branch from the old ones…

…and yet people were still capable of doing more. With technology, everyone can calculate more complex mathematics more easily than most people in his great-grandparents’ age. Everyone can cook as many recipes as a master chef, heal better than the greatest pre-potion physicians.

The role of a ninja was no different. His grandparents were spies and assassins who barely used pokemon, but his parents’ generation could and did incorporate them into nearly every skillset. Thieves and spies became hackers, assassins and scouts became trainers.

If a tool for creation can be reforged into a tool for killing, then he has done his best to prove that the reverse is also true. And if his mother was right, and humans must all be tools of society, the same should apply to them.

The door slides open, and Anzu walks in with the same expression she’s had around him in private since he caught her returning home that night; a mask of neutrality over prepared defiance, and wariness. It hurts every time, to see it on her face, aimed at him. Just as he knows it must hurt her, to see his disappointment.

“Is something wrong, Father?”

“All the usual things.” He gestures, and she steps further inside and closes the door behind her. “Spar with me.”

The frown-line she inherited from her mother appears. “Spar… hand-to-hand?”

“Yes. Like we used to.”

“I’m not… I don’t have time for this.”

“What do you have time for?”

“Ensuring this gym keeps its integrity, as you well know.”

“Tell me anyway.” He stands and tucks his gi, then tightens his belt and moves to the center of the room. “As we spar.”

She sighs, then removes her shoes and joins him. They stand across from each other, bow, and begin to circle one-another.

He allows himself to take in her stance, her balance as she moves, watching for any sign of an impending attack… then meets her gaze and launches his opening salvo. “Do you really care about the changes Oak is making to the gym, or are you just upset that he is the one doing it, and not you?”

Anzu’s face shifts to a mix of surprise and anger, and he steps forward and strikes all in one motion, fist to torso and foot to shin. She backsteps, almost too slow, and he uses the kick to step forward and strike again.

She sidesteps and counters, and for a moment Kyo’s mind is blank, body moving in an automatic flow of strike, block, twist, counterstrike. He has superior reach and strength, but she is quicker, which means normally they can both keep each other from landing solid strikes, but she is still on the backfoot, and within seconds he lands an open palm against her stomach.

She takes it well, falling backward and down, slapping the ground and rolling back to her feet to be ready for his followup. He doesn’t chase, however, instead relaxing to regain his breath so she can too.

“It’s been a while since I fell for that,” she finally says.

“You’ve lost your focus.”

She understands immediately. “I was doing fine until you forced me into a contest.”

Kyo raises his brow. “I must be a powerful hypnotist, to have planted such ambition in Blue Oak’s head.”

“You know what I mean.”

“I do not. He began his journey a year ago, started changing gym cultures by his third badge. Many have wondered how he would affect the ones he had yet to visit, and even how those who journeyed with him would affect those he already had.” Kyo begins circling her again. “Had you been paying attention, you would have seen him coming. Seen this coming.”

Anzu’s body tenses, but he doesn’t attack, and after a moment she visibly takes a breath to center herself before she begins to circle as well. “Excuse me for not spending all my time following each celebrity trainer’s journeys. Besides, I’m handling this just fine. He can’t beat me, and he knows it.”

“I see. So you believe he will soon give up, then, and leave?”

His tone is neutral, but she detects the irony. “Whatever deal you made with him, it’ll become obvious something’s wrong if he doesn’t challenge for his badge soon. He might try to spin it as a victory somehow, say he’s ‘planted the seeds of change’ or whatever, but I still have more students than he does, and more members. I’ve shown what the future of this gym will look like.”

Kyo does not regret the deception he recruited Oak into; that Anzu would fall for it at all is further evidence that she’s not ready. But he does regret the necessity, and wishes that they could be as close as they used to be again, aligned in both means and ends.

Perhaps that’s what makes him say what he does next so bluntly:

“All you’ve shown is that you’re not fit to run it.”

Again the flinch, and again he strikes. She counters seviper with zangoose, then drops into sandile and forces him to hop back a step, turn, kick.

She grabs his foot and wrenches, but he merely spins with it, other leg kicking as he catches himself on his hands and vaults back when she releases him to dodge. She begins to speak, but he’s not done, and two steps puts him back within her guard, keeping her backstepping as he throws strike after strike. His arms soon ache with the force of her blocks, but he’s forced her to the edge of the room, and when she tries to sidestep around him he ducks her strike and sweeps her legs.

She jumps, but not quick enough, and her whole body jerks toward the ground as his leg catches her ankle. Once again she slaps and rolls away, and once again he doesn’t follow.

“What the hell does that mean?” she asks once she catches her breath.

“It means that you’re still not taking this seriously.” He straightens. “I can tell from your movements. You’re still training your body rather than your pokemon, still focused on your crusade rather than securing your position in the gym beyond challenge.”

“I told you, I’ve beaten Oak—”

“Wrong.” Kyo shakes his head. “You are about to be defeated so thoroughly that you cannot even conceive of how, and thus can do nothing to stop it.”

Now he truly has her attention, at last. “What are you talking about? If you’re about to throw blatant endorsement behind him—”

“No, I had no part in what’s coming. I only allowed him to try his ideas here, and yes, even offered him an early challenge if he proved your superior in either leadership or training.”

His daughter stares at him, jaw clenched. “And?”

“I thought he failed, until yesterday, when he came to tell me of his latest breakthrough.” Kyo gives his daughter a small, wry smile, still feeling some awe at what he was told… and what he saw. “He’s going to challenge you tomorrow, Janine, and he’s going to win.”

Kyo isn’t sure how Oak would feel about him sharing this information; when the boy asked permission to use an untested battle technique in his gym, and explained what it was, Kyo asked for a demonstration more out of skepticism than adherence to safety standards. It was, all things considered, a more than considerate request; while accepted practice for experimental or risky techniques, it’s not required to show the Leader themselves any that might grant significant advantage if revealed in combat. Oak could have gone to Kyo’s Second or Third.

Instead he was shown something truly paradigm shifting, something that would change the entire meta of pokemon battles the world over. And yet Oak still shared it because it was new, and… perhaps… as a show of respect. Kyo was right to recognize him as a radical reformist, but was surprised by the show of wisdom of his deference.

Or at least, the wisdom to know that showing deference would be appreciated, which in this case is close enough.

Anzu’s eyes are narrowed, her mind clearly racing over possibilities both feasible and outlandish. “He can’t possibly have closed the gap that much…” Despite her words he can see her doubt growing. “Not unless he’s been hiding his true ability this whole time… If he bought some Elite level pokemon—”

“I will not reveal any more. I’ve told you this much because you are my daughter, and despite everything I still want you to succeed, but I am still acting as I would if I did not know. I cannot put my thumb on the scale by giving you answers. Only advice, if you have the humility to receive it.”

She hesitates, clearly still processing his confidence in her impending loss. He can tell that she is tempted to keep challenging it, perhaps even dismiss it entirely. Instead she takes another breath to center herself, then sits. “Alright. I told you I still value your teachings, and I meant it. What have I missed?”

He folds his legs beneath him, then takes a moment to organize his thoughts for what may be the most important conversation of his life. “First, I wish to better understand something. What are you so afraid will happen, if Oak succeeds in changing this gym?”

Anzu frowns at the new angle of conversation, but after a moment says, “That he’ll turn it into some cheap Ranger school knock-off.” Her jaw sets. “The League is about improving and evaluating the strength of the trainer as an individual, not as a group. That is what I’m fighting to protect, as much as to show I’m worthy of Leadership.”

“Does the League not exist to protect the people? Do its trainers not rely on each other to do that?”

“Of course they do.” She sighs. “I’m not against these ‘group scenarios’ in principle. I just don’t believe it should be what Gyms are for. If Oak were forming his own school or working with the Rangers, I might even support him. Instead he’s leeching off the existing system, the prestige of the gyms he visits, to force his ideas into the mainstream. It’s not right.”

“Spoken with true conviction. And yet this desire is not strong enough for you to commit everything you have to it.”

“I told you, I won’t just stand by while villains act freely in our city. What I’ve uncovered—”

“Has nearly gotten you arrested.” They haven’t spoken about that night in Celadon when she narrowly escaped the police. He’d hoped it would make her more cautious, and it seemed to… for a while, at least. “Or worse.”

“I’m being more careful now. Working with others, letting them investigate… but after what I’ve learned, I can’t just let it stand. Not just because I’m being challenged, not when I can handle both. And I can. Whatever Oak showed you, I’ll beat it—”

Kyo feels the anger flare up again, and almost snaps at her that this is exactly the arrogance that would get her killed, or bring ruin to the gym—

“—and I’ll take down the renegade conspiracies at the same time, with or without your blessing!”

—and instead blinks, staring back into his daughter’s angry gaze. “What are you talking about? You said you were investigating Silph.”

“And I have been. But Silph was connected to others, and I’ve allied with the people investigating them to learn more. Those renegades under the Celadon casino were just the most public.”

A coldness is spreading through Kyo’s stomach, and despite himself he asks, “What have you learned?”

“Oh, now you’re curious again?”

“Anzu, please. What have you learned?

He’s surprised her again, and he sees uncertainty in her gaze before she looks away, then back. “You said you’d stop me if I went too far. Is that what this is? You’re worried I’ll cross the line to fight an even greater evil than corrupt businessmen?”

The thought occurred to him, but… “That is not my worry at this moment. I swear it.”

His daughter still seems worried, but nods and begins explaining what she’s learned from her new allies. First of Silph’s rivalry in securing access to fossils and the renegade-thief that was murdered before his execution, then of missing and hidden scientists from around the world, and then stolen technology with foreign renegade guards.

Until she finally ends with their tentative conclusion; that Silph, though itself guilty of crimes, appears at times to be in contention with an actual criminal empire.

And so the coldness in Kyo’s stomach has spread, because he recognized these movements, these actions, these strategies. They were altered to be more clever, harder to detect, but also more ambitious… and more protected, if even other gym leaders are potentially involved.

It seems he has run out of time.

“Father?”

Kyo looks up from where his gaze had been staring through the earth into the void beyond, and sees his daughter’s concerned gaze on his. All of her hostility has faded, leaving her angular face appearing softer than he’s seen it in a long time. It may be the first time she’s completely dropped her guard around him in years, and he feels an urge to go to her, draw her into a hug. Not just to protect her, but also to reassure.

She’s not just concerned about what his reaction means for her. Whatever she sees in his face, it concerns her for him.

And so Leader Koga takes a deep breath, centering himself in the feel of the air rushing into his lungs, then back out. He tried running from his past, believing he would be able to, eventually, confront it on his own terms. And yet now that the parallels between himself and his daughter become clear, he smiles a bitter smile at how obvious it now is what he’s been doing wrong.

“I am alright, Janine.”

“I know you are worried for me, but if there’s something else…”

“There is, yes.” Kyo takes another breath, lets it out slowly, and cups his hands over his knees. “First, I must apologize. I was… not at my best, the last time we spoke about this.” The night he put a tracker on her, hoping against hope that he was wrong, that she was not responsible for the rumors of a vigilante in his city… “I was angry. And… frightened for you. But I never fully explained why.”

Her expression shifts back to a wary confusion. She expects him to go back to trying to discourage her. “What I mean is, I never told you why I left my village.”

“You did, when I was young. You had an argument with grandfather…” She trails off, face going blank and weight shifting back onto her ankles. “Was all that a lie?”

“It was not the whole truth. That argument was… long, and bitter, but it wasn’t just a philosophical difference.” He searches for the words, thinking back to who he was two decades ago, dusting the memories off. “I was taught that the life of the ninja was a necessary evil. That every warlord had agents that worked in the shadows, and so every region must have the same, or else fall to the others willing to use such practices. And it’s true that, for most of my young life I saw my family work to do good. What I said about my village tracking spies, hunting renegades, even training legitimate hunters… all that was true. Not everyone in the League and Council knew, but many did, and that was enough for us. So long as someone else told us what was needed to protect our region, we did it, even if others would consider it immoral.”

“And you said you weren’t satisfied with that.”

“I wasn’t. What I’ve told you before, about wanting to make a real change, about feeling like a tool, it was all true. Your grandfather called me selfish, and I… may have compared him to a tamed poochyena.” Anzu snorts, but Kyo still feels the ember of shame flare in his chest, even after all these years. “It… got worse from there, but it was only a part of the problem. What truly led to my departure was learning that those giving us orders… were not all as pure as I thought. Organized crime had its own channels of power and influence, and sometimes our services were sold to them, often for mutual exchanges of favors.”

Anzu stares as if seeing him for the first time, and it’s a struggle to not drop his gaze from hers. “The village did work for criminals? Did you do work for them?”

“Yes.” The word burns on the way out. “Worse, I didn’t leave immediately, when I learned. I was young, only went on missions with others. I trusted my mentor when they said it was rare, but necessary. When I was older, I saw it more and more, realized it was not an occasional exception. And still I stayed, thought there was something we could do about it. But when I began talking seriously about refusing such orders, or even making them public… the village elders insisted it wasn’t our place, your grandfather among them. And that’s when I realized what it truly meant, to view oneself as a tool.”

His daughter listens to his confession in silence, and he sees lingering confusion in her eyes… but also compassion that he’s not sure he deserves. “Why didn’t you tell me any of this?”

“I made an oath, Janine. When I left the village.” His hands are clenched, and he relaxes them with his next breath. “My life and freedom, and in exchange, I would not reveal anything that might cause problems for the village. I didn’t even tell your mother, though she knew there were secrets I had to keep, and said… that they didn’t matter.” Grief claws at his insides, for a moment, as deep and black as the months following her death, but a few breaths later the pain is back to a distant, dull ache. Most of his attention is already wondering if this was a mistake, if Janine will tell someone…

But he has been released from his oath by Janine’s own discoveries. If anything this might reduce the odds that the public becomes aware of the villages. He sighs. “I know it will sound like an excuse, but it was simpler to say that I disagreed with the philosophy. You’ve known what my ambition is. Now you better understand why.”

“But could you stop them, even as Champion? If they have that much influence—”

“It will be difficult, yes. And dangerous. I have made what preparations I can, and plan to make more once I am part of the Elite.” For one thing he’ll have even more influence than he’s gained by being the leader of Fuchsia; all the work he’s done with the stewards of the Safari Zone has won him many friends among the Rangers, which would be key. “And of course, I’ve made you as safe as I could.”

“By teaching me what you learned,” Anzu says, voice low, and now it’s her gaze that wavers, then drops. “Which I then used to put myself, and you, at risk.”

The stir of hope in his chest makes it a little easier to breathe, though it’s tinged with bitterness. His oath would have exacted a greater cost than he expected, if all he had to do to convince his daughter all this time was tell her of this…

But if he had, then she may never have discovered what she did, which means he wouldn’t have learned of it.

“You were doing what you thought was right,” Kyo says, the words strangely hard to say. He’s not sure why, when he believes them. Perhaps it’s just his pride.

“I was.” Anzu stirs, then straightens her spine. “And if anything, this makes it more obvious that these people need to be stopped. If they’re not just using renegades, but hiring ninja, working with council members… did you ever learn who was in charge?”

She’s leaning forward now, the familiar glint back in her eyes, and his hope sinks back into the dark depths. She won’t back down from her path. It was foolish of him to ever think she might.

But that doesn’t mean his concern was misplaced.

“No,” he says honestly. “She was referred to only as The Madame, and her reputation for ruthlessness made her more feared by criminals than the Rangers, League, and Hunters put together.”

Anzu frowns, but not in a way that seems aimed at him. “Alright, I’ll ask around, see what I can learn.”

“Janine—”

“Father, I know you—”

“Wait, please.” He takes a breath, wondering why this feels so hard to say. Perhaps because it would come off as an endorsement, an encouragement of her taking actions that might bring her harm…

He remembers his mother, handing him a pokeball with his starter. He’s always imagined that was something she felt compelled to do, out of love, despite her disagreement with his choice. But perhaps she was as conflicted, handing him that ball and knowing what he would do with it, as he is now, with these words balancing on the tip of his tongue.

“I think you should continue.”

“What?” She blinks, blinks again. “You… really?”

“I have always believed in your conviction, but… I also thought you simply needed something to challenge you. A sign that your efforts were needed somewhere, at a time when the Gym had no challenges left to offer you.”

“And now?” Anzu asks, voice cautious.

“Now I believe you should follow your conscience, wherever it leads you. But my position is the same as it’s ever been; a Leader cannot also be a concealed dagger. My ambition is to end such duplicity and abuse, and even if you disagree, on a practical level I say you cannot commit wholly to your mission and the gym’s demands, and excel at both sufficiently. You know this gym’s virtue. You must choose.”

Anzu seems taken aback, and he sees her hurt and disappointment before her face closes down. “So nothing’s changed, after all.”

“Much has changed,” he disagrees. “But Blue Oak is still here, and has devoted all of what he is to changing this gym and defeating you. That has not changed, and I would not stop it if I could. He has closed the gap on you, fairly, and it is the result of your split focus. Perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps you will defeat him, and show that I am underestimating you. But if not, then remember this conversation. Remember what it means, to hone one weapon at the expense of all else. It can leave you limited, but it can also make you strong, so long as you focus your energy where it is most needed.”


Kyo makes his announcement the next day, before Oak can find Anzu for his challenge.

“When I gave Blue Oak the opportunity to extend what he began in Vermilion, to teach what he and his journeymates developed, I did it knowing this would disrupt the culture of our gym. A culture of personal excellence, of competition and support, of discipline and respect. A culture I am proud to have developed and fostered.. But that was in a different time. A time before the world changed, thrice over. And I knew, sooner or later, we would have to change as well…”

He goes on to explain that, while he still believes in the concept of a gym that trains and evaluates individuals, he has been impressed by what Oak and his journeymates have demonstrated. Similarly, he heaped praise on the way his daughter and other gym members have given more of themselves to training others, sharing techniques and providing guidance above and beyond that which other gyms in the region could boast.

“…value of competition, of challenging our preconceptions, and devoting ourselves to what unique skills and ideas we can develop and spread.” Kyo takes a moment to find Oak in the crowd, then Anzu at the other side of it. “I wish to encourage more competitions like this, to reward more trainers for trying new things. To that end, to ensure no one is discouraged from trying such projects if it delays their Challenge. I am announcing that any trainer who contributed in some meaningful way to the culture of Fuchsia Gym, as judged by any member of the gym leadership, may Challenge for Membership or Mastery without going through the preliminaries.” He’s mostly just building on what Surge has implicitly allowed, but it feels like a turning point in the region to make it an explicit rule. Another ratchet along the path to further incentivize diversity and specialization. “Up until recently, the niche that this gym has filled seemed enough. But the world is changing, and so must we… whether that means using new strategies, or improving on what has served us well thus far.”

Kyo bows his head to his audience, who bow back, all at various degrees, then begin to disperse or talk among themselves. He steps down from the podium and reaches Oak just as the boy is approaching Anzu, who is waiting with her arms crossed. “I know,” she says before either can speak. “Another battle. I accept.”

Oak doesn’t seem particularly surprised, though he does give Kyo a look he cannot interpret. “Alright. Ready when you are.”

“Let’s get it over with.”

“I will act as referee,” Kyo says, and leads the way to the battle arenas before either can object. They draw many curious looks, but only Oak’s friends are bold enough to approach, no doubt also interested in watching the battle, until the boy shakes his head and they fall behind.

“Six on six,” Anzu says as they take the elevator down to one of the private arenas, and Kyo smiles. Without knowing what Oak’s trump card is, she’s giving herself the maximum range to have an answer available for it. “To the faint.”

Oak simply shrugs and nods, and when the doors open both pass by the PC and head straight to their platforms. Kyo takes a moment to deactivate the cameras in the room, then goes to stand at the side of the arena. “Are you both ready?” They nod, hands on their pokeballs. “Set…”

“Go, Mal!” Anzu shouts, again making the safe choice. Her toxapex is her most defensive pokemon, useful to scout out what Oak might do—

“Go, Rive!”

Oak’s newly evolved rhydon drops onto all fours as soon as it appears, which means his “Ras!” command sends it barreling forward within a second, horn tearing up the earth ahead of it as it spins.

“Bunker!”

Mal’s hard shell contracts around her, spines jutting out, but Oak’s pokemon is already slowing as pieces of stone start to break off its own hide, floating lazily around Anzu’s pokemon. Oak is ready for when the Baneful Bunker ends, yelling “Rad!” as Anzu shouts “Scald!”

The Drill Run hits first, and at such close range Mal gets trampled even as she sprays boiling water all over Rive. Kyo is glad to see both trainers withdraw their pokemon at the same time; toxapex are tough enough that Mal would likely be okay, but with such an all-encompassing injury the chance of a critical organ being hit is high enough that it’s better to be safe than sorry.

As for Rive, it’s possible with the right training or items for it to withstand that sort of hit from a toxapex; most of a toxapex’s body is oriented to defense, which means even with TMs they can only expel a little water or poison per attack. But Oak isn’t risking it either, and both send out their next pokemon within a breath.

“Go, Brutus!”

“Go, Nin!”

Anzu’s venusaur gets cut by the stones as soon as it appears, roaring in pain, while Oak’s golbat dives in for a Wing Attack. Anzu quickly swaps Brutus out for her crobat, which takes even more damage from the stones but easily defeats Oak’s lesser evolution before blowing the stones away in a gust of wind.

Normally, this would be the point at which Anzu’s victory would be inevitable. All of Oak’s remaining Ground types would be checked by Anzu’s crobat and venusaur, and while his wartortle may be strong enough to take down the crobat with a well aimed ice beam, it’s ultimately a tossup which would defeat the other, particularly since a single Cross Poison could wear Maturin down even if Oak battled defensively.

Combined with the fact that Anzu still has her tentacruel ready and waiting to further wear the wartortle down, Oak doesn’t have many options. Apparently he had spent time before their last match training his wartortle’s physical combat skills, but the gap between his pokemon and Anzu’s was still too large, particularly since she made sure to train plenty of Fire/Fighting pokemon to break through Steel types her enemies might bring against her.

What Oak has needed, all along, is Poison’s only other weakness; a Psychic type, one strong and fast enough to take down even a blaziken. But even if he somehow managed to train one of his abra enough to evolve and fight well, Anzu’s Drapion would be there to stop it cold.

All this, his daughter knows. And yet she’s still being wary, because he told her Oak would defeat her. He’s not sure what she’s expecting, perhaps a dragonite or tyranitar, but when the kadabra appears she freezes, for a moment, almost long enough for Blue to command his pokemon to attack.

And then she does the obvious thing, and swaps her crobat for her drapion. The purple and black scorpion rears up with a roar, tall as two men and long as three, towering over the kadabra.

“Tops,” Oak says, voice firm. “Eam.”

The kadabra’s eyes suddenly lock onto its opponent as Anzu commands her pokemon to fling toxic spikes all over the arena. She’s still acting defensively, still preparing for some surprise, but she can’t prepare for what comes next. As he warned her, it’s completely outside of her conceptualization space.

“Pa.”

Seeing it a second time still sends frisson down Kyo’s spine; the drapion’s body vibrates like a tuning fork as the invisible wave of psychic force crashes over it, causing it to stagger.

It took a long time for scientists to discover why Psychic attacks do so much damage to Poison pokemon. It was debated for decades, until the leading hypothesis emerged; the unique vibrations that run through a body when hit by psychokinetic force are similar to the vibrations caused by most Ground attacks.

Gas, acid, venom, sludge, whatever the form the “poison” takes in a pokemon’s body, it’s always kept separate from their vital organs. Internal bleeding is harmful to any creature, but combining toxic substances into the blood or surrounding tissue, even in a body resistant to them, causes more damage than would normally be sustained, in essence turning the pokemon’s own weapons against itself.

And so they all watch as the towering Dark/Poison pokemon sways in the aftermath of its first telekinetic attack, body twitching as pain spreads through it. To his pride, Anzu recovers from the unprecedented attack by shouting “Night!” within moments, but the kadabra is faster, and the next wave of force makes the drapion shudder, then topple.

Anzu’s hand darts out to withdraw it, and Kyo watches as his daughter’s limbs twitch to select her next pokemon, then pause, twitch again… then stop. He can only imagine what she’s feeling; confusion, shock, fear. Perhaps even awe.

And what she’s thinking, beyond how did he do that, is that she has no pokemon to respond with. Her crobat is the only thing that could outspeed his kadabra, but he can switch into a magneton, and both his wartortle and kadabra could defeat the blaziken she would send in to defeat that.

It all plays out in Koga’s head, strike and counterstrike, and he knows the same is happening in Anzu’s, and likely Oak’s as well. There is always some chance of surprises, a miss or critical strike, a clever deception or unusual tactic… but in cases like this, among trainers as skilled as they, that chance becomes smaller and smaller.

Oak waits, patient. He knows he’s regained the advantage, but he’s still being cautious as well. If Kyo hadn’t warned his daughter, if she’d treated this like any other match, Oak may have won already against a more reckless strategy… or he could have lost, if she treated his kadabra like it was any other threat.

Either way, he’s not taking his victory for granted. It speaks volumes about his battle philosophy, as well as his general worldview, that he did not start with the kadabra. He was feeling her out as well, making sure he wasn’t walking into any surprises of her own. Anzu did that to herself, in part, by working so hard to keep changing her strategies up. Generally a good thing, but the best opponents will always find a way to adapt, even if the thing they adapt to is unpredictability itself.

Nearly a minute passes before Anzu finally lets her hands drop.

“How?”

It is, perhaps, the most defeated Kyo has ever seen his daughter. And to ask an opponent trainer for their secret, so directly… to ask a rival for it…

Oak glances at Kyo. “I thought you might have told her,” he admits. “Sorry for doubting you.”

“I told her you would defeat her. That is all.”

Oak nods, then turns back to his opponent. “I’m happy to tell you, Janine. Really,” he adds at her clear surprise. “I only did this with the help of others, and they’re not battle trainers. They don’t believe techniques should be kept secret, and in this case I agree. It’s too important.”

“You could have revealed it in your Challenge match,” she says, voice tinged with confusion and wonder. “The whole world would have seen you do the impossible while winning a badge.”

“Oh, I’m definitely still planning to do that,” Oak says with a grin. “I’m not that altruistic. Sure, you can tell people first if you want, but that would just draw a bigger crowd and more hype. The plan right now is for Red and Satori to make an announcement about it in a week or so, since they’re the ones that actually discovered it, and if I show it off first, then great, more hype for them. In any case, I’d have shared it with your father before battling him. Not looking to humiliate anyone, and I’m pretty sure I can beat him even with him knowing.” Oak turns to him again and bows his head. “No disrespect intended.”

“None taken,” Kyo says with a raised brow. “I hadn’t selected my lineup for your mastery challenge yet, but among my fifth badge lineups I tend to prepare for at least a couple psychic pokemon on the challenger’s team, even if they are Dark.”

There’s been some debate over whether it’s fair to adjust a challenge lineup in that way; should leaders aim for a relatively consistent experience across badge levels, or adjust teams to the individual challenger? The Indigo League has no official policy, so some Leaders will use the exact same lineup for each number of badges (replacing them once they grow too strong) while others make minor adjustments based on the trainer’s pokemon, and yet others will tailor their lineups to maximally challenge particular trainer personalities and strategies.

Perhaps it comes from being Dark himself, but Kyo has always believed that challenges are meant for trainers to prove their growth, not just benchmarks to check-off… which means Dark trainers must learn to compensate for their more limited options, rather than expect others to adjust accordingly. Wild pokemon certainly wouldn’t.

Or, in the young Oak’s case, create new options.

“That doesn’t mean you should take the battle as a formality,” Kyo continues. “It may well be, but I find myself excited by the unique puzzle you’ve presented. It will be an honor to be the first Leader to test the new meta.”

Oak grins. “That, and you’ll have to prepare for the changes it will bring to future Challenges.”

“As you say.” Kyo’s own smile feels wry, but it’s still genuine. “Here we have been plotting the future of this Gym, and yet with this discovery, Poison as a type has lost nearly as much as Dark has.”

“No, it’s too early to be so fatalistic. There must be limits.” Anzu turns back to Oak. “It seemed to take your pokemon time to prepare for its attacks. Was it similar to charging a Solar Beam, or more like a Swords Dance…?”

“Neither, actually. In our training, Tops always has to spend some time seeing through the Dark pokemon’s aura first, but once he has, he doesn’t seem to have trouble seeing them until the Dark pokemon is recalled and resummoned.”

“When you say ‘seeing’…”

“Or sensing, whatever. Apparently the eyes are important though. Red and Satori even called it ‘Miracle Eye,’ which seems really dramatic coming from two non-battle trainers.” Oak smiles. “I was actually impressed.”

Anzu is frowning at him. “You’re continuing to show more humility than I expected.”

“How’s that?”

Kyo catches Anzu’s glance. “I believe she means that this seems, so far, like it was not your accomplishment. And if I know my daughter, it feels unfair to her, to be beaten by a trick you did not even help develop… or more accurately, it feels unfair to have her capabilities as a potential leader questioned over such a thing.”

Anzu shifts her weight, and Oak considers this a moment before shrugging. “Alright, well, it was my idea that got them looking into it, if that helps? And there’s another new training technique that I’ve been using which helped make Tops so strong so quick, though I’m not ready to share what that is yet.”

Anzu’s frown deepens, and when she turns to him, Kyo keeps his voice as gentle as he can as he quietly asks, “And what new insights have you inspired in others, in your quest to become the best Leader you could?”

He sees it hit her in stages: confusion, recognition, denial… and then a growing desperation as she tries, and fails, to come up with anything.

Kyo sighs. He’d hoped, still, that there was something he’d missed.

Oak looks back and forth between them, brow furrowed. “I’m missing something.”

“Indeed. Have you figured out the virtue of our Gym yet?”

“I think so, especially after your speech. People online said it was about discipline, focusing on your goal at the exclusion of all else, but once I got here and spent some time with the older gym members, it seemed like that wasn’t quite it.” Oak points his thumb at Anzu. “It’s what you were upset with her about, right? Lack of focus. But that’s a means, and a sloppy one. The real thing is the blend of means and end. Having a niche and leveraging it as hard as you can.”

“I refer to it as ‘specialization.’ When I was young, my father told me a tale of a blacksmith who discovered a forging technique to create a sword that would never break, and would easily shatter other swords… but only against other swords. It would be a weapon for disarming, never killing, as striking any armor or even a bone would irreparably damage the blade. Many samurai thought the man who mastered this sword would forever be at a handicap, unable to end a threat, whether human or pokemon. But for one swordsman, it was elegance itself. A blade that could only ever cut one thing would allow him to truly devote himself to a fighting style that focused on cutting that thing, mind, body and spirit.”

Oak slowly nods, leaning against the railing of his platform. “I get it. So now you decide if your gym is going to specialize in the sort of thing my friends and I have been exploring, or double-down on what it was before, with what Janine’s been doing.”

“No,” Anzu says before he can respond. “Father has already made his decision. I lost. You win.”

She doesn’t sound bitter about it. If anything she sounds… lighter, than she did before. Something between resigned and accepting.

Oak, meanwhile, looks conflicted. Kyo wonders if he’s thinking of admitting that he never intended to lead the gym, but instead he says, “I don’t know what you’ve been so focused on besides all this, but if it’s that important to you… maybe you need to settle it before you can really focus on being a leader.”

She turns back to him. “What are you saying?”

“I mean, I’ll probably need another year or so to become Champion.” Oak makes the utterly audacious claim with a completely straight face, and after what Kyo has seen in the past two days, he finds little skepticism in himself. “Maybe by then you’ll be done with whatever else you’ve been working on, and be kicking so much ass here that I’ll decide to go to another gym instead. Hell, I still haven’t been to Cinnabar. Might be even cooler than Fuchsia. Or maybe by then I’ll change my mind about being a gym leader altogether, especially if they start changing without me having to micromanage.”

“I don’t need your pity,” Anzu says, though she sounds more stoic than angry. “I’ve been arrogant, and that has to have consequences. I may have more support in the gym now, but I can see that you’ll just keep working at that until you find a solution to it too, while I… won’t give up my other project. Can’t.”

Even though it’s what he wanted, it still hurts to hear her say it. To hear the pain, just below the surface of her calm voice. But he’s proud of her, as well, and almost says so when Oak snorts.

“So why not work together? You’re acting like it’s all or nothing, and I don’t get why.” Anzu is silent, but her eyes shift to him, and Oak catches it. “Oh. Well, no disrespect, Leader, but without knowing what you’ve got against whatever else she’s working on, if it’s important enough to get someone like Janine to give up her dream of succeeding you, I’d just as soon make sure I can beat her when she’s not distracted, instead of beating her just because she is.”

Kyo watches Oak, meeting those steady eyes, while in the corner of his vision he sees Anzu… relaxing. Regaining some of her confidence, her poise, and most of all, her hope.

And he decides that the young Oak might be more than a simple tool as well. However much he’s grown to reach where he is today from when he started his journey, he likely has only just started along the path to who he will become.

Someone, perhaps, that Kyo will feel is worthy to follow. Someone who will help expose the corruption, rather than accept it.

“I think,” the leader says, “We should all speak more on this, after our match. There is a story I would like to tell you about my upbringing, and my ambition. And after that, Janine may feel more comfortable sharing her own.”

Anzu is staring at him in open shock, but Oak just raises his brow… then surprises Kyo by sighing and rubbing his eyes.

“Alright, but… first I gotta tell you guys about this thing called ‘meta-honesty’…”

105: Meta-Honesty

“Stop!”

Blue stops, brow raised, as Red sighs and starts rubbing his face, muttering that it’s too early for this. “Uh, okay, I wasn’t expecting that part to be what you had a reaction to…” They’re in a training room beside the one where Satori is currently merging with his abra, where he led Red after Red arrived and Satori explained her discovery. All Blue said once he closed the door behind them was I need to tell you something…

“It’s a secret, isn’t it?” Red asks, voice resigned. “Not like a personal secret, the kind that might get me or others in trouble if I spread it around?”

Blue stares. “…yeah, how did you—” Did Red already figure out how to see into dark minds himself? No, that’s ridiculous, no way he would keep that to himself…

“It’s been that kind of week. Month.” Red frowns. “Season.”

“Wait, what other secrets do you—”

“Hush! Before we talk about this we need to work out meta-honesty rules.”

“Seriously? I just drop the biggest psychic discovery of our lifetime on your lap, and you want to—why are you giggling?”

It takes a moment for Red to stop, still grinning as he shakes his head. “Ask me again later. You’re right, part of me really wants to ask Satori a million questions and get to testing dark aura stuff out, but… if that’s not considered a secret but whatever you were about to tell me is, then it’s really important we talk about how to talk about it.”

Blue doesn’t expect the dark aura stuff to be kept secret forever exactly, but that doesn’t mean he wouldn’t like it kept under wraps for a bit. The same goes for Koichi’s theory, if it turns out to be true. Blue sighs and leans against the Fuchsia training room wall, settling in for a lecture. “Alright, go ahead. What’s meta-honesty?”

“Hang on, we should get Leaf here too, we were talking about this just a few days ago…” Red takes out his phone and starts typing.

“Wait! Uh, I’m not sure…” Blue can’t imagine Leaf being okay with the idea of making pokemon fear for their lives, even artificially, and suddenly feels unsure about whether he should tell Red after all; if he’s not willing to keep it from Leaf, then… “Okay I think I get why talking about how to talk about secret stuff is important.”

“If you don’t want Leaf to know I probably won’t tell her, but…” Red puts his phone away. “Yeah, that’s part of what we should go over. I’ve been reading about this online and it turns out there’s a whole lot of disagreement about what makes for a good policy on what amount of honesty is the right amount.”

“Doesn’t that just depend on how many secrets someone has, and why they keep them?” Blue shrugs. “It’s that thing you said once about trust, right? You either trust someone to not lie, or you trust them to have a good reason to lie, or you don’t trust them at all.”

“But what if two people disagree about what a good reason to lie is? They might think they trust each other in the deep way, but then find out that the other person lied about something they wouldn’t have thought. The best outcome is they understand why there was that confusion and don’t hate each other, but they might still think they’re on the same page but not be. If I think we’d both share any info about each other that someone tells us, and you don’t think that, I would take you not telling me stuff meant no one said anything to you, while you would think people might be telling me stuff that I’m just not telling you.”

“Sure, so we talk about it… okay it would be hard to talk about every situation…”

“Or what if there are competing vows of secrecy? If my mom tells me something about you, and she doesn’t know I tell you everything anyone says about you—”

“That’s something you’d say before she tells you though, right? If she doesn’t say it’s supposed to be a secret first, that’s on her.”

“But she can’t tell me what the secret is about first without revealing information that I might share if I say no! She might ask ‘Can I tell you a secret you won’t share?’ But then what, I’m supposed to say ‘Yes, but only if it doesn’t put someone’s life in danger, or if it’s not about Blue, or if it’s not something I think the scientific community should know, or if it doesn’t interfere with this secret project I have…’ You see?”

Blue does, and it’s getting harder to ignore the obvious implications. “How many secrets have you been keeping, exactly?” Red just looks at him until Blue holds his hands up in surrender. “Fine, don’t tell me, but if Leaf has a bunch too I’m going to end up feeling left out.”

Red rolls his eyes and starts pacing. “We can also think of it in terms of tiers. Like, there are some people who you’d have no secrets from, usually someone’s spouse, so it’s expected that if someone tells one something the other will hear about it. The next tier is close friends, where you’d expect someone to tell them something that they’d want to know. But then there’s also tiers for who secrets get told to. If you know me as someone who always holds on to secrets no matter what, then you might tell me a secret that someone else told you, breaking their trust, because you trust it won’t go further. So a meta-honesty strategy might be to say ‘I don’t tell your secrets to anyone of a lower tier than you,’ and then you have to explain what sorts of people or specific people that excludes—”

“Which itself might give stuff away, yeah, got it. But really, the thing I’m telling you isn’t even a secret, it’s just… it might be sens… if it’s even tr… stop that.” Red stops singing and uncovers his ears, and Blue sighs and rubs his eyes. “Okay, I give up, just tell me what to do.”

“What?” Red seems genuinely horrified. “Blue, it doesn’t work like that, I can’t just—”

“You can if I trust you, right? Like the real trust.”

The look on Red’s face makes Blue waver, for a moment, wondering how bad a secret Red can possibly be keeping… if he knows a renegade or…

And then he remembers, and mentally kicks himself..

They never really talked about Aiko again, or that whole situation. Not that they’ve been avoiding it or anything, it just hasn’t come up… they haven’t battled in the same incident since Lavender, and Red did great there, and he’s been active in helping at incidents…

But no, bravery was never the problem. He knows what Red would say; it’s about calculating risk, and if Blue’s being honest he has wondered, now and then, how Red decided on which incidents to go to, and who he was fighting alongside at them, and what lengths he’d go to to save them if they were in trouble.

Okay, so maybe he doesn’t trust Red completely. Blue shifts his weight, then sighs. “Look, that’s a different thing.”

“What is?” Red asks, voice cautious.

“The thing about… the burning building. It’s not about who you are, it’s… I mean it is about who you are, but not like…” Blue trails off, realizing as he says it that he might actually be wrong.

What if it is the same thing? What if Red kept or spilled a secret that was the equivalent of not running into a burning building to save a friend?

Blue tries to imagine what that would be, and immediately comes up with the reverse of the secret he was about to share. If Red discovered something about Dark types that would hurt Blue, but felt compelled to share it anyway… no, that’s not quite right. If Red knew a secret that had a small chance of saving someone but would, say, ruin his scientific career if it was wrong… no, that’s not fair, it’s just hard to imagine a secret that would put his life at risk.

Red is just watching him, expression hard to read. Anxious? Wary? Blue sighs and runs a hand through his hair. They should probably have talked about this again at some point, but it just seemed… easier, not to. “I can’t imagine you doing something with secrets that would break that trust, is what I’m trying to say.”

Red is quiet for a moment, then sighs. “But there are things I could do that you can’t imagine, that would break the trust. Which means it’s not the second layer, it’s not trust in me, it’s trust in your models of me.”

“Well shit, Red, no one’s perfect,” Blue says, starting to get annoyed. Here he is trying to tell Red how much he… no, wait, he gets it. “I mean, I’m not either, so okay, say you’re hiding a secret that I can’t even imagine you hiding and it totally changes who I think you are. I’d still know you were doing what you thought was best, even if I disagreed.”

That seems to surprise Red, for a moment. “So… you wouldn’t regret it? Trusting me?”

“That… come on, how am I supposed to know that? If you fuse all the Stormbringers into some crazy three headed mega-Legendary that destroys all of Indigo, yeah, I’ll probably regret trusting you a little bit!

Red stares at him a moment, then cracks a smile. Soon it’s a grin, and Blue finds himself grinning back as Red begins to giggle. “That’s stupid. How would that even work, fusing pokemon together?”

don’t know, I’m just saying—”

“Would it have six wings?”

“Of course it would have six wings, and three tails—”

“No, one tail, but it’s like, all their tails blended together—”

“And six legs—”

“What? No, that’s dumb—”

“Oh sure, that’s dumb. It’s my idea you know—”

“Yeah well I’m the scientist, and it’s my hypothetical mad-scientist creation. What would it even need six legs for?”

“For its long body!”

“Long body!” Red laughs. “Like a caterpie!”

“Not like a caterpie you idiot, like a bird body, just long! Where else would the six wings go?”

“I don’t know, the same joint?”

“So says the scientist. You are picturing each head on its own neck though, right?”

“Of course, like a dodrio.”

“Alright, at least we’re on the same page there.”

Silence descends, broken by the occasional chuckle, and eventually Blue shakes his head and sighs. “What were we arguing about again?”

“Were we arguing?” Red shrugs, smile fading. “I’m glad, for what you said. I just… I don’t know. I guess I’m afraid you’ll…”

“Yeah,” Blue says, voice soft, and clears his throat. “I get it. I just don’t know if, like, I should apologize, or—”

“No, it’s okay. It would be unfair of me to ask for that level of trust. We were always on different pages, I think, we just never had reason to know it.” Red grimaces. “Actually, that’s not… totally true.”

“What do you mean?”

“When we started our journey, I was thinking we weren’t ready for a Stormbringer attack. I… haven’t thought of this in a long time, but I’m embarrassed to admit that I thought about ways to keep us from one before we were ready.”

Blue stares at Red, anger and indignation rising up… then fading as he lets his breath out. “Yeah, well. That was shitty of you, not telling me how you really felt. But I’d be a hypocrite if I thought less of you for feeling that way at all, given that I—” The words get stuck in his throat, and he clears it. “After Vermilion, I changed my mind about going to every Stormbringer battle. It wasn’t what I thought it would be like, and we…”

We might have died.

Even after they lost Aiko, he feels rejection of that in his core. It’s possible, sure, but he doesn’t really believe it. Not if they stuck together…

Meanwhile Red is looking surprised, and relieved. “We would have been even less prepared.”

“Right. So we might not have been on the same page then, but we could be, someday, right?”

He’s not sure what he’s asking, really. He’s not sure what he’d do if Red says no. But he still feels conflicted and confused about how much he trusts Red, and how much he should. On the one hand he needs Red to be okay with hearing about Koichi’s theory if he’s going to get his help.

Not a great reason to share such a dangerous secret, really. And maybe he doesn’t need Red’s help, but it would take longer without it, and meanwhile he’s losing the soul of the gym, splitting it in two factions instead of making it a unified, stronger whole.

“We could be, yeah,” Red says, and his voice is soft too before he seems to shake himself. “And this is a good first step, I think. Talking about what honesty means for us.”

“Right. So, okay.” Blue sits on the ground, hands on his knees, and after a moment Red mirrors him, legs crossed. “How do we figure this out?”

“Well… first off, as a baseline, I think this quote makes for a really good starting point, though the person who wrote it might be really horrified by what we’re trying to do here… ‘Don’t lie when a normal highly honest person wouldn’t, and furthermore, be honest when somebody asks you which hypothetical circumstances would cause you to lie or mislead—absolutely honest, if they ask under this code. However, questions about meta-honesty should be careful not to probe object-level information.'”

“How the hell is anyone supposed to know what a ‘normal highly honest person’ would say? What if someone straight up asks if you know an embarrassing secret about your friend?”

“Well, there’s something called glomarization. ‘I can neither confirm nor deny that.'”

“I’m going to feel like an asshole if I go around saying that all the time.”

Red rolls his eyes. “You can also just say ‘no comment.'”

“And sound like a slimy politician?”

“Add whatever charm you want to it, the point is that you can set a policy of what sorts of things you won’t answer specifics to, and as long as you stick to it you won’t leak info or lie.”

“Right, but I can’t just start saying that if I have something to hide. Like if someone asks what I did last night, and I was in a secret meeting, if I say ‘the usual’ or ‘nothing special’ that implies I was training or hanging out with friends.”

“Yeah, that is a problem.” Red shrugs. “You could say ‘either I did the usual, or I don’t want to tell you what I did.” This time it’s Blue’s turn to stare at Red until he gives in. “Look, I’m not saying this is easy. But if you set an expectation—”

“Red, if you just say that at the end of everything you’ve reinvented lying with extra steps. Of course people might not want to tell someone what they did! That’s taken for granted in ‘nothing much!'”

“Privacy is different from… hm. I guess if it’s ambiguous and they’re just assuming… alright we’ll come back to that one as a general principle, but between the two of us at least, we’re on the same page about it, right? Our idea of two honest people talking will assume ‘or I don’t want to tell you’ is attached to the end of statements, and won’t get mad about jumping to conclusions?”

“Sure, I guess. Social convenience can’t answer everything though, right? What about white lies?”

Red shrugs. “My model of a ‘highly honest person’ doesn’t directly lie about something non-private for anything short of someone’s life being at risk.”

“Yeah. Okay, so… we both agree that a highly honest person doesn’t do white lies.”

“And that we know ourselves to want to be that honest, and know each other to be?”

Blue thinks about it for a moment. “I can’t actually remember the last time I said one.”

Red laughs. “Yeah, me neither.”

“I came close, with Glen. Not sure if it counts, when you’re really not sure what you feel but want to support someone… anyway, he wouldn’t have it.”

“I think if you’re unsure, and you don’t mention that you’re unsure, it’s still a white lie. I mean, no one can be absolutely sure, of course, but…” Red trails off, looking thoughtful. “I guess people can start including probability estimates—”

“Absolutely not. No one’s going to do that.”

“I—”

“Try it, Red, you’ll get sick of it in a week, and look like a total weirdo to everyone. And most people aren’t going to take it well if they ask if you believe in them and you say ‘I’m 87.34219—'”

Red’s glare is ruined by his twitching lips. “A number that high should be reassuring.”

“‘—12173% sure that you will, in most cases and circumstances—'”

“Okay, okay! So it’s unrealistic to be precise about reassurance. But still, I don’t think it’s a white lie if you’re reasonably sure and just say yes? Like if you’d bet 3:1 odds on it? Can we commit to that baseline?”

“Sure, but we can’t make a public commitment like that, right? Everyone’s going to assume we’re hiding things already.” Blue studies his friend, wondering again what secrets he’s been holding on to. Was he told something, or did he discover something new with his psychic research? It would be ironic if it turned out to be the same thing Koichi did. He’s not sure Red would have the social awareness to keep that secret, though. He may have… no, he definitely would have told Leaf, who would have even more to say about not spreading the news.

Red also could have told Sabrina, of course, and she would be perfectly positioned to explain it to him. Blue tries to replay his conversation with her about all this, but is distracted by Red’s sigh.

“I know. Someone online named Raymond even suggested a meta-honesty holiday where everyone posts their rules about metahonesty at the same time so there’s no reason to think that posting your rules about it indicates you’re hiding something. But for now at least, we can talk about ours.”

“We still haven’t talked about keeping secrets.”

“In what sense?”

“Does a highly honest person keep secrets for others if they know they’ll have to lie about it if asked?”

“Probably not. They’d probably let everyone know, or at least their close friends and family, that if a secret is shared with them they might glomarize but they won’t directly lie. And if there are some exceptions to that, depending on the situation, they should say that too.”

Blue considers this. “Should we invite anyone else to this? There are things I’d keep from Glen and Elaine, even Gramps and Daisy, but not a lot.”

“Okay, see, that’s good info. Uh, I’m not sure how to check this without getting object-level information…”

“No, none of them know the secret, mostly because they’re not dark or psychic. That’s another reason I’m not sure Leaf should know.”

Red groans and slaps his forehead. “Blue! I assumed that was why you weren’t sure she should come in the first place, now that I know that’s an extra reason, I can pretty well guess what this is about!”

Oops. Still… “Doubt it, unless you already know somehow.”

“Well I won’t try guesses out loud so I don’t get any extra info. Also, I think I’m still going to invite Leaf. Even if she doesn’t end up hearing the secret, it’s the perfect time to coordinate the meta-honest conversation, and each of us already knows why we might have secrets of some kind that having this conversation won’t trigger any extra suspicion.”

Blue considers this. “So, obviously you could be holding a secret about someone’s research that you helped with, and you’ve already worked with a couple Leaders, one about Renegade stuff, so it makes sense that you might have learned some things you can’t share while helping hunt for them in Celadon.”

“Right, and you might be keeping science related secrets for your grandfather, or secrets from the Leaders you’ve been talking in private with. Leaf might be keeping science related secrets for her family too, plus she’s done some journalism, so if she says she can’t reveal something people might just assume that it’s from a source for a story.”

“Huh.” Blue considers his journeymates and wonders if any of them could use him as an excuse. Probably not. “That sucks for normal people.”

“What, not having plausible deniability that people would take for granted?”

“Yeah.” Blue frowns. “I kind of want to bring the whole gang in, now. Seems important, in case…”

“Yeah, I should probably pull Jason in too, and Satori…”

Twenty minutes later they’ve sent out messages, dragged a protesting Satori away from the training hall, and holed themselves up in Blue’s room, which has just enough space for everyone, but not really enough space for everyone and their pokemon. Which means there are a lot of them on people’s laps or shoulders, which helps keep the chaos down a little, though Leaf’s buneary keeps hopping away from her to play with Satori’s torracat whenever Leaf lets her petting lapse.

“Alright, everyone, settle down,” Blue says. His two newest journeymates from Saffron, Jamil and Viraj, are the first to sit up and focus. It’s been interesting watching the way his fame has affected new people who join his group; both are really eager to prove themselves, and he expects they’ll settle down and relax by the time he finishes in Fuchsia and maybe picks up some new newbies. “We’ve got a scenario in a couple hours, and this might take a while.”

“Just to be clear,” Red says once everyone’s (mostly) paying more attention to him than their pokemon. “We’re not here to exchange secrets. Everyone got that?”

The group glances at each other, then nods.

“We’re just here to talk about how to be honest with each other, even if we sometimes have things we can’t share. And, if we have secrets that we feel morally compelled to share, at some point, how do we do that ethically.”

“Which you may not!” Leaf adds. “Either have them or ever feel it’s okay to share them. But just in case, this can be useful to do.”

Blue still sees some expressions that might be nervous, or skeptical. “If anyone wants to not be part of this, you don’t have to. You won’t lose points with me, and again, we’re not sharing any juicy gossip or anything so you’re not missing out.”

No one moves.

“Right,” Leaf adds. “This might just be boring for people who have no secrets, and irrelevant to people who have no intention of ever sharing them. So it makes sense for either sort of person to leave.”

The room is silent again, until one of Blue’s newer journeymates raises a hand. “But… if we’re not here, we won’t get secrets shared with us, if someone decides to share them, right?” Jamil looks around. “Because we won’t know the code, or whatever? Etiquette?”

Red looks pained. “That’s not…”

“It’s a fair question.” Leaf shrugs. “I can only speak for myself, but if I ever have secrets that I don’t want to lie about, or if I have to share information in a way that does its best not to violate trust put in me, it would be easier if I know someone’s meta-honesty norms and they know mine.”

“Same,” Glen says. “And it makes sense to me that someone would say that whether they have some major secret or not, since I feel the same way and don’t.”

Lizzy frowns. “Well I also don’t mph—!”

“Please hush,” Maria says, hand over her friend’s mouth. “It will reduce plausible deniability for everyone else who does not also say it.”

The others start looking around too. Some look suspicious, others look confused, and others, like Maria, look distinctly nervous. Then again, it’s Maria, so that doesn’t really tell Blue much…

But Jason is giving her concerned looks, and she’s been spending a lot of time with the psychic… medium… whatever.

Red sighs. “Trying to guess who here has a secret and who doesn’t isn’t really in the spirit of this. And yes, avoid saying anything that would pressure everyone else into saying the same thing to avoid suspicion. We’re here to find ways to talk about this stuff without having to say things like that without lying.”

“Sorry,” Glen says sheepishly.

Blue pushes his own curiosity aside and nudges Red. “Just get started, huh?”

“Right, so to recap what Leaf, Blue and I talked about already…”

Blue listens as Red goes over everything again, including stuff from a conversation he had with Leaf (who reveals she’s made a simple script for showing the higher number of multiple anonymously entered), the questions they asked each other and what they were unsure of. He’s actually getting better at lecturing, Blue has to admit. Maybe it’s because the topic is so juicy, or maybe it’s all the teaching he’s been doing in Saffron.

In any case, the room is rapt, and once Red finishes and asks for questions so far, practically everyone raises their hand.

“Society has some things we accept people keeping secrets about, right?” Elaine asks when pointed to. “Like, there’s stuff we consider personal and private, that everyone has a right to.”

“Yeah, good point. There’s also, like therapists and priests, who are expected to keep secrets for others even if it seems bad to do so, unless it crosses some specific lines…”

“Private companies keep projects secret, governments keep security risks secret,” Glen adds.

“Family,” Satori says, a cup of strong tea in her hands. “Spouses. Expecting one spouse to keep secrets from another would be difficult, unless they had already discussed this.”

Red nods. “There’s a few things everyone just sort of accepts are okay secrets for people to keep, and part of what makes them okay is that people know, more or less, what sorts of secrets will be kept by whom.” He shrugs. “It seems like that’s outward facing, at least?”

“But would it be okay if, say, a therapist said ‘I can’t tell you about that, therapy stuff,’ if it’s not?”

“No,” Red says, shaking his head. “Also depending on the question, saying that even if it is therapy stuff would probably be revealing information they shouldn’t.”

“But then, going back to that thing you guys weren’t sure about as a general principle… is it okay to not say why you can’t tell someone something, and let them assume it’s therapy stuff?”

Red hesitates. “I… think so?”

“The alternative would be bad,” Leaf says. “If being maximally honest includes having to correct people’s misconceptions, it would be easy for a bad actor to exploit that.”

“Right.” Red looks around. “Jason, think you had your hand up next? Different question?”

“The numbers,” Jason asks, turning to Leaf. “If the consequences of not keeping things secret seems too high, why not check with the one who originally shared it first?”

“It would be good to, for sure. But that might not be possible, if it’s time sensitive.” Leaf worries her lower lip. “Also, sometimes just telling someone if it’s okay to share a secret with someone, in enough detail to check if they’re okay with it, could break the trust of the one who told you the secret.”

There are some looks around the room that show clear skepticism, or maybe intrigue, but Jason just nods. The next few questions go over how people should evaluate their priorities, which is pretty personal and hard to make rules for, and how to balance different kinds of responsibilities to different people.

“Sharing secrets can also be dangerous for the listener,” Elaine says, and something about how forcefully neutral her tone is makes Blue suddenly wonder if Elaine of all people is holding some big one. Aiko used to tease her for how expressive her face is, how eager she is to talk about any ideas she has… “How do you warn someone just how bad the danger might be, without giving some stuff away?”

“That’s a good question,” Red says, and then lapses into silence, glancing at Leaf, who’s focused on her buneary, frowning thoughtfully. Blue has no idea what to say either, so he looks at the rest of the room, which is mostly silent.

“Maybe we should have invited someone who keeps secrets for a living?” Lizzy asks, and looks at Red. “Your mom’s probably kept a lot of secrets for her job, right?”

“Yeah, but… well…”

Leaf sighs. “It’s fine, Red, let’s just call her.”

Blue thought Red was just embarrassed to bring his mom into things, but it seems Leaf knows something he doesn’t. Probably related to the secrets talk they already had… he wonders if they’ll tell him what it was about, and if not, what made them able to talk to each other about it but not him.

Red dials his mom, then puts his phone on speaker. “Good morning, Sweetie. To what do I owe the early pleasure?”

“Hi Mom, you’re on speaker phone with, uh, a lot of people. Are you free for a bit?”

“Sure, I can chat. Who, exactly…?”

“Blue—”

“Hey, Aunty.”

“—Leaf—”

“Hi, Laura!”

“—guys, this’ll take too long if you all… Glen, Elaine, Maria, Lizzy, Jason, Satori, and, uh, sorry—”

“Jamil.”

“Viraj.”

“—Jamil and Viraj, new friends of Blue’s, are all here too.”

The phone is silent for a moment before Aunt Laura speaks again, voice cautious. “Hello, everyone. What can I do for you all today?”

“Okay, so… we’ve all just been talking about some stuff.” Leaf covers her face, and Red nudges her with his elbow, which causes her to nudge him back until he holds his palms up in surrender. “Uh, meta-honesty stuff, basically, like, how to be honest without lying when there are some secrets you’ve got to keep, right?”

“O…kay…”

“And anyway a question came up, if you had to tell someone a secret, but the secret is dangerous for them to know, how do you make sure they know how dangerous it is before agreeing to hear it?”

The whole room is silent, until Lizzy’s flaafy lets out a baa.

“What was that?” Aunt Laura asks.

“Uh, our pokemon are here too.”

“Oh. Red, are you… should we…”

“No, I’m not in trouble. We could talk in private first, but honestly, this is just a question we were wondering and thought you’d know. No one is about to reveal any dangerous secrets.” Leaf elbows him again, and he elbows her back. “I’ll let you know first if I plan to.”

“…okay. So. No information given but the risk profile, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Alright, so… infohazards come in a number of forms, but I want to dispel the myth that probably just popped up in your heads, which are sometimes called cognitohazards. As far as I know, there aren’t any so bad that just learning them will cause the one who knows it permanent harm. Obviously I might say that even if not true to keep overly curious people, like my son, from going looking to test this.”

The room chuckles, and Red looks like he wants to object before he stops himself, looking torn.

“But in this case I can say, under the umbrella of meta-honesty, that I don’t know of any that act like that. I could be wrong, but the closest things to cognitohazards I’ve encountered are spoilers for movies and gross pictures.” Glen snorts, and Blue can hear the slight smile in Aunt Laura’s voice. “And minds can get used to even really gross things, over time. Still, it’s true that some ideas can lead to people having a few sleepless nights, maybe some existential dread now and then. On top of that, some people might turn down a lucrative job or stop being friends with someone if they learn of secret immoral behavior. I think considering that ‘harm’ is debatable, they still have a choice in the matter and by that standard any unpleasant knowledge would be considered a cognitohazard, but it’s still worth flagging as a concern.

“Next are infohazards related to behavior, and those can be further split into active vs passive. Some information is dangerous to share because it would allow bad people to actively do bad things more easily. Think of some technique for training renegade pokemon more easily, or an easy to recreate combination of household chemicals that would make a clear, odorless, lethal gas.

“A passive infohazard isn’t risky because of what people might do with the information, but just from having it. This seems to be more the sort of thing you all are talking about, since the danger is to the person being told the secret.”

They hear the sound of water bubbling, and after a few moments it fades before liquid is poured. Blue feels a nudge as Eevee settles up against his leg, and pets her as he glances around to see everyone else staring as intently at the phone as he was. The pokemon are picking up on their trainers’ moods, becoming more wary and protective.

“So, that danger itself can come in two major forms, which I call social and targeted.

“Social infohazards are secrets that, if people knew you had it, would cause problems for you. This usually arises from expectations that the information puts on you if you don’t act; for example, if you’re told that a friend is being cheated on, and you don’t tell them, you might be judged for it if it’s found out. This can also include more serious social issues, of course, like being told of renegade activity and not reporting it.

“Targeted infohazards paint a target on your back. These are secrets that might bring harm if people even just believe you might know it, maybe because they notice your behavior changed, maybe because a psychic senses that the person who told you the secret did so. We have to be really careful of these when investigating organized crime, of course.

“For both of these, the goal is to ensure the person learning the secret is aware of what they’re risking. So you ask them that. You go over all the different risks associated with secrets to make sure they have an idea of what could happen, so they can decide what they’re comfortable with.”

Red is frowning. “But…”

“I know. That’s where my own invention comes in; after you go over the different kinds of hazards, you make a new category. I call it a penalty infohazard. You ask them what the limit they’re willing to pay you in damages is, if the secret were the kind that would cost you money if it got out. Not if they reveal it, just if it got out at all.”

Leaf laughs. “Oh, that’s clever!”

Lizzy nods. “If they say they’re okay with cognitohazards and social infohazards but not targeted ones, and you don’t tell them the secret, they know which it was. But with this extra category that’s an automatic no for them…”

“Right,” Aunt Laura says. “They can’t know if their number just wasn’t high enough, regardless of what kind of secret it is. It’s content-neutral, so it could invalidate their willingness for any of them.”

“For people who know the trick, though,” Maria says. “Would this still work?”

“It’s not a trick, though I understand why you’d say so. There are in fact some secrets that would cause financial loss if they became public knowledge, like, say, a pokemon you have a lot of that’s about to lower drastically in value. Everyone got that?”

Red looks around to see everyone nodding. “We got it. This was great, thanks, Mom!”

“Thanks, Laura!”

“Thank you!”

The rest of the room choruses their appreciation, and Red’s mom is back to sounding a bit apprehensive. “You’re very welcome, I think. Let’s talk soon, alright Red?”

“Sure thing. Have a good day!”

“You too. Love you. Goodbye everyone.”

They say goodbye, and Red ends the call and sits back, looking deep in thought.

“Well,” Leaf says once people start shifting. “I think we’ve got a lot to chew on from all this, and most of you have to go soon, right? And I’ve got some morning chores to get to…”

“Yeah,” Blue stirs, then gets to his feet and stretches. “And I still haven’t had breakfast. Let’s meet at the dining hall, everyone.”

His journeymates start withdrawing their pokemon and say their goodbyes to Leaf and the psychics before heading out the door. “The plan is still on,” he tells Satori. “I just need to talk to Red first. Why don’t you go get some sleep until then?”

The sleepy girl looks like she’s about to argue, but only yawns instead before giving a resigned nod. She follows Jason and Maria out, leaving him with Red and Leaf.

When he turns to them they’re staring at each other, and he gets the feeling again of missing something. They’ve all had their own projects, their own social circles, their own schedules, but ever since the Hoenn incident he’s gotten used to feeling like they’d be on the same page about important stuff again. He knows he’s been particularly focused on his own stuff lately, but… if the two of them were not just holding their own secrets, but also sharing them while excluding him…

Sure, he was about to tell Red a secret that would leave Leaf out. But only until they figured out if it worked.

“Okay guys, what’s been going on with you two?”

“What? Nothing,” Red says, too quickly. “What do you mean?”

Leaf rolls her eyes, though she’s smiling as she glances at Red’s flustered expression. “There’s some stuff Red may have discovered that might be relevant to something I’ve been working on.”

“If it’s important enough that you had to design that number thing, I want in.” If it’s just about the tech Leaf’s been working on to recreate sakki he doesn’t think that would be necessary, and besides he already knows about it. The only other recent big thing that’s been going on are those crazy psychic dreams, but he has no idea what that might have to do with Leaf.

Red frowns. “That’s not… we just had this whole talk—”

“Yeah, yeah, I’m not saying I’ll be pissed if I’m kept out of the loop.” He’d be irritated, maybe a little hurt, if he’s being honest. “I’m just flagging it, you know? If there’s anything I can do to help…”

“Of course,” Leaf rubs her buneary’s ears. “We just have to figure out if there is something first. I’ve sent a message to a certain someone who might shed some light on things, but they haven’t responded yet.”

“And my own research has been inconclusive too,” Red says, tone so careful that Blue can’t help but force a gasp, which makes Red turn to him in panicked surprise.

Blue’s laugh sets Leaf to giggling, and Red’s scowl quickly breaks into chuckles of his own, and Blue feels a little better. Maybe from the sign that they haven’t shared secrets yet, are still figuring out if they even have one to share, or maybe just from the laughter.

“Ah, fuck it.” He’ll take his chances, so long as they’re willing to. “I have to go, but first… let’s do the thing Aunt Laura mentioned. What sorts of secrets are you guys okay with hearing?”

Leaf and Red exchange looks, then look away, expressions growing thoughtful on Red’s part and cautious on Leaf’s. He gets Eevee’s ball and plays fetch with her for a bit while they think, thinking over his own. Being Dark means he doesn’t have to worry about most of the things people hearing secrets do… though come to think of it, given what Satori told him this morning, that might not always be true.

The thought is a strange one, and an exciting one, and a frightening one too. He’s had years to get used to the idea that he’ll never be able to teleport, never be fully trusted by some people. He’s barely had one to start to appreciate the value he’s gotten in return.

But he’s jumping to conclusions. For now, he should take for granted that secrets are safe with him. Which means…

“I’m okay with cognitohazards,” Red says. “I mean, I can just amnesia it if I need to, but even without that.”

“Big surprise there,” Leaf says with a smile, then nods. “Me too. If something is true, I want to know it. I trust myself to deal with the implications of it, and living in blissful ignorance… I mean, if I’m in a really fragile place, emotionally, maybe I’d want to wait a bit. But outside of that, I’m game.”

“Same,” Blue says. “Also fine with the rest of it.”

“Even target hazards?” Red asks, brow raised, at the same time that Leaf asks, “Even Social…?”

Blue chuckles along with them, then shrugs. “Yeah, both. I get it, I’m careful with my image, but… I’d rather know what sorts of social blowups are potentially around me. As for becoming a target… I’m an Oak. I’d like to see who thinks they can get away with putting one on my back. If one of you is in trouble, I’d want to help.”

They’re silent at that, for a moment, then Leaf sets her buneary down and stands to walk over for a hug. He returns it, only feeling a little embarrassed until Red joins them a moment later. He almost tells them not to make such a big deal out of it, but his friend’s expression looks deeply moved, and Blue decides to just shut up and let them hug him for a bit.

Blue’s embarrassment is just starting to grow when Red and Leaf pull away, and he clears his throat. “Uh, money stuff… I guess I’d rather not pay more than ten thousand? Not without some details of how important the secret is, I guess, which maybe those ‘how bad is this’ numbers are helpful for too.”

“Five thousand for me,” Red says. “And, uh… I’m fine with the other kinds of infohazards too.”

“Same,” Leaf says. “Except, don’t tell me active infohazards that might be dangerous in the wrong hands. I don’t trust my mental defenses that well. And, oh, I think I’d be okay with paying more. Let’s say ten thousand too.”

Blue frowns. “Hey, I didn’t mean to—”

“We did this wrong from the beginning,” Red says. “We should have written our answers out, then shared them. But I don’t regret it. Everything you said… these probably aren’t my standards for everyone, but for you guys, yeah. I’d want to know if you were in trouble too.”

“Same,” Leaf says.

Blue can’t help but grin at them. They’re still connected. He shouldn’t have doubted them.

Though now he has a problem. His secret is one Leaf can’t hear, but if he tells her that, she’ll know what kind it is. The number thing doesn’t work, he realizes, if they share them publicly like this and the person not okay with a certain kind of secret gives a higher number than the other.

Red’s right, they did it wrong. But he doesn’t regret it either, and in this case it’s an easy fix, thankfully. He’ll point out the extra flaw to them later.

“Right, I’m off to eat, then. Got a scenario after, so… let’s talk more later?”

“Sure.”

“You got it.”

They collect their pokemon and head out together. Once they’ve teleported away, Blue messages Red and tells him to come back in a few hours.

They’ve got some training to do.


It’s surprisingly hard for Red to remember what fearing for his life is like.

Not impossible, of course. A few situations stand out more than others, and with some concentration he can practically relive the moments of desperation. But the older the memories, the less sharp they are… with two exceptions. The night of the storm, with Pressure beating against his mind like a drum of fear, and the night of the incident, trapped in the casino rubble, desperation filling every moment.

“The real trick is projecting those feelings onto an abra without them teleporting away,” Red explains as he takes a break and Blue sprays some ether onto a berry and feeds it to Tops. “Being indoors helps ensure they can’t, and the pokeball conditioning makes them somewhat less likely to want to… around a normal trainer, at least. Since he can’t sense you, running away is still registering as the best option. Keeping him focused on fighting is difficult, he’s already fighting an instinct that says the best thing to do when in danger is make use of the nearly foolproof defense mechanism he’s had since birth.”

“I get it,” Blue says. “If this is too hard on you—”

“I can do it,” Red insists, and takes a deep breath. They’d only been at it for an hour, and while they can test the theory with another pokemon, abra would show the clearest signs of unusually quick growth. “I just need to find the right balance.”

Hearing about Koichi’s theory was fascinating, and horrifying. Red understands immediately why Blue didn’t tell Leaf; as he’d guessed, it had to do with pokemon welfare, but on top of that, it’s definitely a secret she would regret leaking if some psychic picked it up from her.

The implications, if it is true… well, he’d think about those later, once they have some data.

“Balance,” Blue muses. “Maybe not, if you mean balanced fear. Try a memory of when you were sure death was close, but you fought anyway.”

Red considers this, then sorts through every brush with death in his memory again, from the pikachu swarm in Viridian, to lying injured in the Rocket Casino basement as the renegades approached, to the pack of growlithe that nearly burned him to a crisp during one of the recent attacks near Saffron.

He sinks into those moments as best he can. Fear so strong he could taste it, metallic and suffocating. A trembling in his limbs, tightness in his chest, the urge to move fighting paralysis. He was able to make himself, time and again; he just needs to communicate why in a feeling that abra understands, particularly since fighting back for him involved doing things abra don’t, and abra fighting involves doing things he doesn’t.

If only abra had some killer instinct, but the sakki would be worse than useless here, and Red can’t exactly send his own, since…

“You just realized something.”

“I, uh… may have, yeah. Do you… want to kill pokemon when you fight them? Or hurt them, even?”

Blue furrows his brow, and after a moment shrugs. “Once in a while, after one of my pokemon gets hurt, or killed.”

And now Red remembers…

…”It has lightscreen!” Leaf yelled, and he knew her well enough to hear the way she was pushing past her heartbreak over the pokemon they’d just lost, past the Pressure making her feel guilty for fighting at all…

…”Be ready,” Red said, voice rough as his blood sang with a rage more primal than anything he’d felt before as he/Charmeleon opened their mouths and breathed death at their enemy…

…a time when he wanted his opponent not just disabled or captured, but dead. It wasn’t his feeling, not really, but he felt it as much as he could through his bond with Charmeleon, and maybe that’s enough.

Can abra feel rage? He supposes there’s one way to find out.

But rage wouldn’t be enough, according to this theory; what matters is the genuine fear for his life. Luckily, while being bonded with Charmeleon under the effects of sakki would normally wipe that away, the Pressure ensured he still felt it.

The only problem is he never deliberately created a memory of that mental state, which means he can’t perfectly reproduce and project it. He’d need to find another source of Pressure…

He almost asks Blue if he can reach out to the rangers he helped catch the absol, see if they’d let them run an experiment with it, then realizes it wouldn’t matter; he wouldn’t feel the same way he did in Vermilion, Pressure feels different depending on context and what you’re feeling in that moment. The best he can do is try to project from the memory.

“I’m going again,” Red says, and takes a deep breath before recalling that mental state as best he could… then merges with Tops and projects it onto the abra, who starts to tremble. Red’s own body twitches in sympathy, voice strained as he says, “Go.”

“Tops, Pa!”

Red feels the attack get sent out in a burst of confusing sensations (as always, he can almost feel what a pokemon is doing when it uses kinesis… almost) coupled with fear… and something else, something that’s not quite rage, but it’s enough to keep the abra focused on its opponent.

Red’s Drowzee twitches from the attack, barely hurt… but, for the first time, hurt, while the abra was in a state of mortal fear.

He lets the emotions go with a rush of breath, wiping sweat from his brow and smiling in triumph as he opens his eyes and sees Blue grinning just as wide as he slaps Red on the back. “I knew you could do it. Let’s see how many blasts it can send out like this!”

Red nods, and focuses on the abra again, doing his best to ignore the trembling in abra’s limbs as he remerges their minds. If this actually works, he could train his pokemon faster without putting them in mortal danger.

He can be ready, the next time a friend needs him to be stronger.

32 – Multiple Perspectives (Guest: TK17)

Daystar and Alexander are joined by special guest Duncan Sabien (TK17) to discuss multiple perspectives in fiction, including common pitfalls and benefits.

Co-hosted by Alexander Wales

Special guest: Duncan Sabien, aka TK17, Curriculum Director at CFAR and writer of Animorphs: The Reckoning.

With thanks to Tim Yarbrough for the Intro/Outro music, G.A.T.O Must Be Respected

Time Stamps

1:30 Archetypes vs Whole Characters

5:34 Choosing Who Gets what Scene

14:45 Shifting Focus and Disorientation

25:06 Different Character Dialogue

35:30 Differentiating Characters

Links

Animorphs: The Reckoning by Duncan/TK17

Metropolitan Man by Alexander Wales

Shadows of the Limelight by Alexander Wales

Indian in the Cupboard by Lynne Reid Banks

Magic Color Wheel

Odyssey by Vance Moore

Daystar’s friends as magic cards, circa 2012:

View post on imgur.com

 

60 – Animorphs: The Reckoning (Guest: TK17/Duncan Sabien)

Today we’re joined once again by Duncan Sabien, aka TK17, to discuss his incredible rationalfic, Animorphs: The Reckoning. It was recorded shortly after the story finished and includes questions on not just his writing process, but the various decisions that went into changes made from canon, so spoilers ahead!

Co-hosted by Alexander Wales

With thanks to Tim Yarbrough for the Intro/Outro music, G.A.T.O Must Be Respected

Links:

Duncan’s “How the MTG Color Wheel Explains Humanity”

Animorphs: The Reckoning AMA

Duncan’s Previous Guest Appearance

Chapter 100: Collaboration

All in all, the research community doesn’t take the news well.

“I don’t understand how the Professor can be okay with this!”

Artem paces around Red’s room, more riled up than Red’s ever seen the older researcher. The mood is infectious, and even while keeping his psychic senses to himself Red struggles to stay seated and just let his legs bounce.

“It’s not that he’s okay with it. It’s just that he can’t overturn the Champion on his own, not when it comes to safety from pokemon.”

“Since when did research fall under that?”

Red raises a brow. “Since the research involved potentially creating pokemon.”

Artem pauses in his pacing, opens his mouth, closes it, scowls, and resumes pacing as he mutters, “We were being careful.”

We were, sure. Not that it wasn’t cool to see the idea catch on and spread like that, but once others started doing it, there’s no way everyone was. ”

“So you agree with the decision?”

“Didn’t say that.” Red runs a hand through his hair. “It would be one thing if we knew for sure that unown could create pokemon, but continually fail to understand or replicate it.” It’s not like he hasn’t had plenty of experience with that. “But suspecting without being able to test…”

Red grimaces as the wordless frustration spreads through his chest. Artem sighs and nods before resuming his pacing, and Red tries to focus on what he should do now.

If the origin of pokemon is really just another type of pokemon, Red’s work would be far from over, since the obvious next question would be where unown come from. But at least he’d have a direction to look in; it would make all the other avenues that have been hovering at the back of his thoughts—abiogenesis, natural selection, panspermia—discardable, freeing up thought and research time toward an avenue with an actual expectation of answers somewhere along the path. Figuring out where one creature comes from, no matter how unusual, is a very different thing from figuring out where the thousands of others do.

In truth though, with his partition down Red is more conflicted than he lets on. With full access to all his memories, the news that research would be restricted due to potential danger makes him think of his own secrets. They may not fall as cleanly into the Champion’s purview (the sakki, maybe, but the rest would likely be a civilian matter), but it does show that people like Lance are willing to keep potentially dangerous truths from being known.

It should make him feel better, particularly when he remembers his response to Giovanni that day, after being asked what it would take for Red to hide a discovery on the origin of species:

If someone learned how to make their own pokemon, for example… they might create a legendary, or a dozen…

His own words make it hard not to understand the Champion’s perspective. But Artem doesn’t seem to be in the mood for a real discussion just yet, which is understandable given he spent so much time on the unown experiment just to be told he can’t continue it.

Still, sitting here being gloomy about it won’t help anything. “On the plus side, there’s no ban on experimenting with metamon.”

Artem pauses in his pacing and turns to Red, frown shifting as his lip twitches upward. “You mean ditto.”

“Metamon is the better name,” Red insists. “Ditto already means something.”

“So does farfetched, but context makes it clear what people mean.”

“Well, Professor Oak says metamon.”

Artem rolls his eyes. “I swear if this turns into another barrierd situation—”

“Hey, we’re not Unova.” Sorry Leaf. “And metamon isn’t nearly as bad as ‘Mr. Mime.'”

“I don’t care how bad the name is, I just want it to be consistent.

“I get it, but name quality matters too. If we leave everything to popular preference we’re more likely to get stupid names, like Sirfetch’d.”

“Wait, what would you call it?”

“Absir’d.”

“…Alright, that is better. But metamon isn’t.”

“Is too. And,” he goes on before they get caught in a loop, “The fact that they can transform into any pokemon opens a lot of questions about their biology that might still teach us something about pokemon. It’s hard not to get excited about that.”

“Sure, but we’ll have to wait for those who have one to discover everything.” He eyes Red. “Unless the Professor…?”

Red’s fledgling optimism fades as he shakes his head. “There are only a couple dozen that were captured, and they’re all being very carefully distributed. The lab has one, of course, but…”

Artem sighs and keeps pacing. Red is a little relieved his friend didn’t ask why Red isn’t there already.

It’s been a while since Red felt torn about his decision not to work at Pallet Labs. Now that he’s got some original research under his belt, and more citations than nearly any other first year researcher, the idea of going home feels less unearned (though he still feels annoyed by how that happened even after the churned out correlation studies ended up being a bit useful). He’s been back many times since the day he learned free teleportation, and the more often he goes the more he finds himself missing the clean halls, constant sound of friendly debate in the cafeteria, and easy access to the various experts all working on their own interesting things. He could be satisfied, he thinks, accepting a junior position there and knowing it wouldn’t just be from nepotism.

But it would still be a junior position, helping others in their research. Sure, he’d have a voice at the table, and knows the others there well enough to be fairly confident his thoughts will be respected. In a way it would be a dream come true.

Just not the dream.

And he doesn’t need to be at the lab to send them his ideas, which he’s already done. Instead he has to pursue the ideas that he’s uniquely suited to, create new opportunities in the field that those in the labs can’t.

“You know,” Red says after a moment as he pulls his phone out to check the announcement again. “This says no one’s allowed to experiment with unown creating pokemon. But it doesn’t say we can’t study them at all.”

“What, are you suddenly fascinated by the sounds they make?”

“No, but I’m also not trying to sneak around the ban either. I was just thinking, what would I want to do if we discover that the unown do create pokemon?”

“Right, find out where the unown come from. But what new info do we have to figure that out?”

“Not new info, but the network is still there. We’ve been using them to track unown movements and they took it upon themselves to try monitoring for abiogenesis. I bet they’re as frustrated as we are, but still interested in doing something meaningful if they can. We should give them a new direction before they move on to something else.”

Artem’s pacing slows, face thoughtful. “Something besides tracking them, you mean? We’ve gotten lots of good data from that, but it’s the kind of work that requires hundreds of people all contributing data little by little, nothing active or exciting. And we still don’t have any insights from it yet, other than confirming that they originate and congregate at ruins.”

“Yeah, and we can’t follow them beyond the regions to check if there are others in the wilderness, but we might be able to tell if we find enough psychics willing to camp out at ruins and monitor any that appear.”

“You think, what, they’re the same ones leaving the regions and teleporting back?”

“Either that or the number of unown in the world is rapidly increasing, and has been for years. It’s not absurd to think of, but it would be good to test both ideas if we can.”

“So the psychics monitor memories of the appearing unown, while others go along for recording and protection?” Artem scratches the light stubble growing along his jaw. “Yeah, maybe… we could also—”

Red’s heart jumps into his throat as their phones buzz, the sound impossible to mistake for anything else. Before he can take his out to check the notification, Artem already has his in hand.

“Tier 1 east of Pewter. Some trouble coming down from Mount Moon.” He looks at Red, not needing to ask the question; he knows Red has been there, and so can teleport over.

With so many trainers busy on Cinnabar Island, or recovering from the battles there, the rest of Indigo has rallied to help at the various incidents that have popped up in the days following. Psychic trainers who can freely teleport have been in particularly high demand, as CoRRNet has struggled from the lack of able trainers to spare sending extra to Tier 1s, especially since, with many of the strongest trainers in the region kept busy, the Tier 2s have needed more quantity to make up for the weaker participants.

Which is why in the past week Red has assisted with two different Tier 1 incidents and one Tier 2. He’s mostly been acting as support, but still battled his share of wilds at each.

And saw his share of casualties.

“I should go,” he says, throat dry. Artem nods and hurries to gather his things, and Red pulls up his checklist to make sure he doesn’t forget anything.

“I’ll start scouting for interest.” His friend sounds guilty, and Red knows he’d come if he could. “Maybe see if there’s a few people in WCN who have explored any ruins before.”

“Sounds good.” Energized electronics, crammed canteens, pouch of pokeballs… His travel bag hasn’t seen much use since Lavender, but maybe he should put a battle bag together for sudden incidents. “I’ll make a post about it once I get back.”

“Cool.” Artem is standing by the door, shifting his weight. “I’ll be nearby, probably.”

“See you soon then.”

“Right. Be careful, yeah?”

Red forces a smile. “I’ll try.”

Artem nods, closes the door, and Red is alone.

He closes his eyes, skin flushing hot and cold, and quickly summons his ivysaur before he lets himself drop onto his bed, taking deep breaths as he stares between his feet, anxiety and dread swirling through his stomach and up his chest.

Some days, when his depression is bad enough, it can get hard to remember all the ways he’s improved over the past few months. Other times, however, it’s very clear how much easier it is for him to function without his partition up. He even occasionally thinks he’s close to being truly “healed,” or at least no longer really debilitated by his grief.

Until last week. It was the first time he didn’t have his partition up when an incident alert came, the first time he had to decide whether to go into a dangerous situation or not with the full weight of his memories quickly helping him imagine everything that could go wrong.

The resulting panic attack quickly disabused him of the idea that he’d gotten through the worst of Aiko’s death.

As his Ivysaur walks over and presses against his legs, Red feels himself curling into a ball, whole body drenched in sweat as he forces his breathing to stay a steady, even cycle. He tries to ground himself, first in his body, then in his setting, eyes moving over everything he sees, hears, feels… I’m sitting on my bed, I don’t need to leave, nothing is attacking me…

His ivysaur’s bulb is close to his face, and Red takes a deep breath of the unique scent, using it as yet another grounding point and reminder that he’s safe. One of the first things he did when he got ivysaur and wartortle was spend some time with Blue and Leaf, learning from their experiences with their own pokemon, but before buying them he also researched what unique value he might have access to, both as a psychic and for his own different goals and lifestyle than theirs. His collaboration with the What Comes Next group in Celadon gave him the idea of aromatherapy.

He reaches down to stroke behind his pokemons’ ears, and Ivysaur gurgles happily as it settles against him. He’d like to bring Pikachu out too, but while much more cuddly, the mouse is also more attuned to Red’s stress, and got very twitchy during his last panic attack.

So he just sits with his Ivysaur for a while, waiting until the feeling of safety is more concrete and he can breathe easier. It takes a few minutes before he feels more solid and present in his body, but the ball of anxious dread is still in his stomach, and the thought of getting up to go to the Tier 1 makes it spread, disrupting his breaths for another few cycles.

If it was just a risk of danger, Red’s pretty sure he would be able to talk himself into going. What really keeps him paralyzed is the idea that he might be put in another situation where he has to make an impossible choice. Memories of Aiko running ahead of him, of Leaf’s shock and Blue’s anger, crowd his thoughts, and it’s hard not to just bring his partition back up.

He can get through this if he gives his less traumatized self more control. With the partition up it’s so much easier to be optimistic, to just not think of those possibilities and focus on what he wants or needs to do.

But that’s a solution from his less integrated days. If he gives up control now, his partitioned-self would probably suggest he try working it out anyway unless Red amnesias this whole incident, which he’s not willing to do. Partitioned Red would notice something off anyway; he can hide the emotions, but not his body’s lingering reaction to them..

It’s a relief to be on the same side, even if they still disagree about things. Sometimes partitioned Red will even do things like read guidelines used by firefighters for determining safety levels for burning buildings, or emergency triage protocols, both for the knowledge and because he knows his unpartitioned self cares about it.

More than that; while sometimes it can trigger stressful memories or what-ifs to read about life-and-death scenarios, when his partition is up and he’s just experiencing things through it, the overall experience of reading guidelines the professionals use is actually rather soothing.

It also opened up opportunities, according to Dr. Seward.

Once Red feels a bit more grounded again, he takes his phone out and plays one of the recordings from past him with his partition up.

“Hey Red. If you’re listening to this one it’s probably because you’re feeling stressed about another tough choice you might have to make.” He remembers nudging his partitioned self to keep things vague in case he ever needs to listen to these around others. “Maybe just thinking about what people will think of you, in general. I get it. I mean I don’t get it as much as you do right now, but I remember those feelings too, and they suck.” He hears his past self sigh. “It’s okay to be scared of making the wrong call, or being shunned for whatever choices you make when all the options suck. I can’t promise it’ll be okay, but… just try to remember why we’re doing this, alright? It’s because we can make a difference. We’ve done it before, saved a lot of lives, prevented more cracks in the world. Maybe someday it will make more sense for us to be like Bill, but we’re also learning too much from field work to give it up now. Remember Lavender? That sucked too, but how much further back would we be if we hadn’t been there? Not to mention what might have happened to the others. We developed psydar because we had to during the storm…”

The twisted ball in his stomach relaxes little by little as Red listens to more examples, things that were harder to remember when his mind was crowded by all the potential bad outcomes. He even smiles as his past self mentions that they wouldn’t even know they were psychic if they hadn’t been blasted by their spinarak.

“…end of the day, just focus on what you can decide when you can decide it. Remember what Giovanni said about allowing himself to be human? Whatever you’re struggling with right now, maybe not doing it is the right answer. Maybe doing it is, but in a certain way that some others won’t understand. Whatever the case, as long as you can keep learning from the decisions, that’s what matters most. And… no matter what you decide, you know that some people will always be on your side. Mom, the Professor, Dr. Seward… Leaf, probably…”

Sabrina too, and probably Giovanni. But partitioned Red doesn’t know about why that would be, and it’s enough to be reminded that the category of people exist at all.

“…and me. I may not always understand, because, you know, the amnesia. But whatever we deal with, we’ll do it together. Good luck.”

Red lets out a long breath as the knot finishes unraveling until it’s just a weight in his stomach. He still dreads what’s ahead, but it doesn’t feel like more than he can handle, or like it will automatically end in catastrophe.

Aware that every minute passing is another he could be helping at the incident, Red still takes a moment to gather his thoughts and introspect on whether he wants to respond in some way. Dr. Seward said writing would let him remember things more clearly, voice was the most convenient and added more emotional data, and video was the least convenient but maximized the potential impact. So he starts a video recording and aims the camera at himself, trying to push down his self-consciousness and muster a smile.

“Hey, Red. If you’re listening to this one, you’re, uh, probably wondering if you’ll ever feel better about whatever’s stressing you out right now. I just want you to know, whatever you feel… you probably have a good reason to feel it. It’s okay to be worried. But you’re going to feel better. It just happened to me. It’ll happen to you too. Oh, and partitioned Red, if you’re listening to this to remember what it was like to feel panicked so you can make another recording that might help… the mention of people who will stick by us was really good. There are some others too, so feel free to just say that, ‘and others too,’ as an extra reminder, in case I’m further gone next time. I know that probably feels annoyingly mysterious, but… you get it. Thanks again, for everything.”

Red ends the recording, gives it a name, then takes another deep breath and feeds Ivysaur a poffin before withdrawing him and grabbing his hat on the way out.


Leaf smiles as she sees the dots appear in the distant sky, hand tilting her hat to keep the setting sun out of her eyes. The flying pokemon and their riders quickly grow as she watches, and she waves once they’re close enough for her to make out who’s who. Blue and Elaine are in the front, and wave back before starting their descent to the Trainer House roof.

It’s amazing seeing how big Zephyr has gotten, particularly since he and Crimson used to be the same size. Leaf thinks her pidgeotto is close to evolving after a particularly intense battle south of Fuchsia yesterday, but she’s not sure Crimson will catch up anytime soon unless things get worse around here.

Nearly two weeks after the battle at Cinnabar City, most of the Fuchsia gym members are still helping reclaim the island, which means more and more locals have been called on to help the rangers. She’s in the city too often not to help out when she can, though thankfully that’s only meant a couple battles so far.

Each lost life feels extra harsh, with her project underway, and each day that passes before it finishes feels heavier.

She grips her hat tight as Blue and the others land, waiting for the buffeting wind to fade before she runs over to hug them as they dismount. “Welcome to Fuchsia!”

“You weren’t kidding, the Safari is beautiful.” Elaine looks back out toward the wilderness to the northeast as her hands move automatically to unsaddle her mount. “We saw so many pokemon as we flew over, whole herds of tauros and a family of kangaskhan, and I think I saw a dragonair in one of the far lakes…”

“You said there’s a chance we’ll be able to get admission at some point?” Maria asks. It’s been a while since Leaf saw her without her big floppy hat, but she seems to be trying out sunglasses as a new fashion choice, which, when combined with her dark clothes and flying helmet, makes her look like the world’s youngest (and cutest) member of a biker gang.

“I think it’s especially likely now, assuming the project stays in the sweet spot… well, kind of bitter spot… of needing more support, without losing so many rangers to other duties that it’s put entirely on hold.” Leaf holds her hat again as Glen and a couple of people she doesn’t recognize descend, then gives him a hug once he hops down. “Glad you could make it,” she says, happy as always to see him moving so much more smoothly these days.

“Not getting left behind just yet,” he says with a distractingly charming grin.

“I thought field tests would still be a ways off?” Blue asks as he finishes caring for Zephyr and withdraws him.

“Before, yeah, but our timelines also got thrown up in the air, what with the new pokemon.”

The fact that they turned the second half of her birthday into a tense and frightening night, and caused horrifying amounts of pokemon and human death, didn’t stop part of her from getting excited about the possibilities ditto/metamon might represent.

They copy the pokemon’s natural instincts, but not its conditioning! she texted Natural as the information on them trickled out. Not just one type of pokemon, every pokemon they transform into!

If we can figure out how, maybe we can code it. It was early morning for him, which is normally when he would still be asleep, but he’d been as glued to the news feed as her. We need a copy of its pokeball data from someone that caught one.

They might not release that to the public.

Then we’ll get it another way! Maybe the project will have enough pull to get a copy?

And so it did, a new wing being formed specifically to focus on the new pokemon’s potential application to their goal. It was staffed by an even broader pool of talented programmers who coordinated with various labs and other organizations trying to learn more about them, not to mention figure out how to train them. The Rangers were even able to secure a specimen for the team to examine, on occasion.

Natural in particular went into a frenzy once he got a copy of the ditto’s code, though he wasn’t on that team, being a relative unknown who kept his personal life private. Leaf was uneasy about that, and considered asking him how he got the code, but after what she trusted him with following the incident she’s not sure she’s one to throw stones. In truth she was more worried about the way his sleep schedule seemed to shift later and later each day as he obsessed over the new pokemon, but other than basic check-ins she’s had too many other things on her plate to also start managing how others use their time.

Like her plan to uncover the Fuchsia ninja clan, assuming it exists.

After walking the city and talking to locals didn’t get her anywhere, she decided the best way to find Laura’s informant, or at least someone who might work with them, is to set a trap.

Her reasoning is simple: there’s no way whoever’s been regularly stopping criminal activity in Fuchsia would do so by just randomly wandering the streets and waiting until they spot something. Not unless there really is a whole clan running around the city every night, and that would make it harder to stay unnoticed.

At first she thought they must have someone inside various criminal organizations feeding them info, but that wouldn’t explain the corporate crimes that get stopped too. And it’s not like all major crime gets stopped, and if there’s a pattern to it, it’s not one Leaf or Laura could figure out.

She considered reaching out to some of the gangs herself, maybe just posting on their message boards to see if anyone would be willing to talk off the record about their experiences. Laura talked her out of it, since the gang members would see it as a trap and anyone working with the ninja who might be monitoring their forums would get tipped off that someone’s looking into them.

But there was nothing stopping Leaf from making a few fake accounts and leaving cryptic hints about a planned robbery.

Leading to that idea was the realization that Laura’s informant isn’t primarily motivated to take down Silph; the vendetta was borne out of a desire to protect Fuchsia. Which means they’re probably more likely to react to something that could be a big enough threat to the city.

In practical terms, that means a handful of potential high-value targets; government buildings, pokemon centers, entrances to the safari zone, and of course the gym. Most criminals wouldn’t be crazy enough to hit the latter, and there’s not much value to them in government buildings… well, not unless it’s something much higher level than the sorts of street gangs that were already chased out of the city. The Safari Zone is one option, but that might involve the Rangers, and Leaf doesn’t want to set up a false crime that, if seen by anyone and reported, would waste their already limited time and resources.

That doesn’t leave much; a lot of valuable pokemon might be stolen from a pokemon center, of course, but they have moderately high security. Same with robbing supplies from trainer markets, or any other store that might have lots of high value items…

…but upstream of all of them are the warehouses that goods get shipped to when they enter the city.

So Leaf spends the night with Blue’s group, showing them around the city and getting to know the trainers that Blue picked up in Saffron until the sun sets and it’s time to say goodnight. Instead of teleporting back, however, Leaf makes her way to one of the warehouse districts by the docks, where storage balls containing everything from Silph merchandise to Pokemon Center supplies are being held before distribution.

It only took a bit of footwork to scout out where the best vantage points to intervene in any attempted robberies would be, and after that she just had to find a place she could set herself to watch for anyone that might use those vantage points.

This turns out to be the roof of an apartment building nearby, which only takes a few minutes of fumbling with her bag outside to enter as someone else does. Once settled on the edge of the roof, she lifts her binoculars to watch the warehouse district.

The city is well lit, but not in the places she needs to be watching, and so she reaches up to switch to thermal imaging.

The world immediately darkens as most of the ambient light disappears, leaving a smattering of dots that glow bright white as they move from place to place. Each is a person or pokemon, their silhouettes surprisingly sharp in contrast to their surroundings, though there are a few fire pokemon that give off so much heat she can barely tell their species. There are also far more flying pokemon than she would guess, and for a moment she just stares at them, zipping above the city like shooting stars.

Then she turns back to her target, or at least where she thinks it should be; some buildings are dimly visible, but many are cold dark blocks. It takes another switch back to normal vision to make sure she’s looking in the right places, then she swaps back to thermal to settle in and watch the darkness for anything unusual.

Before long it becomes easier to find landmarks. While street lamps are stationary white pinpricks rather than glowing illuminators for their surroundings, she can still track their positions, and any ventilation in the buildings tends to be hot enough to glow too.

It’s a fascinating alternative way to see the city, and she wonders with a jealous pang if this is the sort of thing Red and other psychics see when they fully merge with pokemon that have different ways of seeing the world than humans.

The thought has her summon Raff to keep her company, and once he’s settled beside her she puts one earphone in to listen to a podcast on aerial coordination maneuvers as she waits.

And waits.

And waits.

And waits, stretching her arms one at a time, then her legs.

And then waits some more.

The next episode (matching poffin flavors to different pokemon tastes) has just started when a mechanical voice behind her says, “Leaf Juniper.”

She yelps and drops the binoculars, rolling onto her back and preparing to command Raff to defend her when she realizes who’s standing right behind where she was perched.

Leaf scrambles to her feet, pulse pounding in her ears, but the figure just stands there, watching from behind their mask. Just a few inches taller than Leaf, and just as Laura described, wearing a dark outfit that makes their silhouette hard to discern.

“Are you… how did you…?” Raff, the useless lump, sniffs curiously at the newcomer, then settles back into place.

“You’re not the only one with binoculars. Also thermal imaging, I’m guessing?” The voice is disguised by the filter, but Leaf can still hear the amusement. “When I saw you up here, just a single white spec sitting perfectly still for half an hour, I thought you might be a cop, or one of Silph’s people. But you’re working for Laura Verres, aren’t you?”

“I…” Claiming not to know who Laura is would be stupid, gods this whole thing was stupid, Laura was right she’s not ready for this sort of thing… “I’m here alone. I mean, on my own. I was… following a tip, about some criminal activity—”

“Liar. You’ve been asking around the city about me. Kind of annoying, given you also caught Silph’s attention with that. Or did you not consider that people who know more than random drunks might take your interest as evidence itself?”

Leaf swallows, not even needing to answer. She hopes her blush isn’t visible through those dark goggles, but if they see infrared then her face is probably burning like a charizard’s tail. “Sorry.”

“You’ll make it up to me,” the figure says with complete confidence. “After all, we have the same enemy, even if you don’t know it yet.”

This utterly fails to set Leaf at ease. “We do?” Oh, right.. Get your head in the game, Leaf. “We do. You want to take Silph down.”

“I want him taken down,” the masked figure corrects. “I don’t care who does it. Thought Laura would, figured legitimate means might do the trick, but he’s got too much power for that.”

“I won’t do anything Laura wouldn’t. Can’t, even.”

“Oh really? Would Laura have stolen data from the lab under the Casino?”

“What are you talking about?” Leaf asks, after what she hopes is a just-long-enough pause. Her heart, which had been starting to slow a little, is kicking in her chest again like an angry ponyta.

“Or maybe Laura had a hand in that too. She was with you at the station, after.”

This is just speculation. Unless… Leaf’s blood turns to ice as she remembers, too late, that the person in front of her might be a psychic. Just because the one that ran from the police in Celadon was dark doesn’t mean this is the same person!

“You don’t have to admit to anything,” the figure says as Leaf considers a number of dramatic options for escaping, including just running past the figure. “I’m just here to let you know, we can work together… if you’re more careful, going forward, than you have been. Or else you’re just likely to cause more problems for me.”

“What do you want me to do?” Leaf asks, focusing as best she can on the exercises Red taught her to throw off psychics.

“For now, nothing. Your investigation in Fuchsia is over. But in exchange, I have a new target for you.”

Leaf hesitates. “Silph?”

“Not quite. That info that got leaked from the Celadon lab put some pieces together; I used to think there were a lot of organizations Silph was working with and against, but now? Now I think they might be mostly all the same one, and the relationship has been souring.”

“What? Why would Silph work with another organization and against it at the same time?”

“That’s what we’re going to figure out. Who, exactly, Silph’s been battling in the shadows… and whether the enemy of our enemy is our friend.”


After his initial meeting with Sabrina, Blue expects Koga’s invitation on his second day in Fuchsia to be a similarly blunt dismissal of any attempt to jump the line or alter his gym culture. From what he’s seen online and heard from others, it’s the most traditional gym in Indigo, and when he arrives on site he gets that impression immediately reinforced.

Even the buildings feel like a piece of ancient culture, each one built in the old style of wood and paper walls that made reconstruction easy after pokemon attacks, with large open spaces between the administrative entrance building and the various classrooms around the compound. Between them are small ponds, rock gardens, and various types of arena. He knows there are modern training facilities underground, but the overall effect is a mix of the utilitarian Vermilion and cultivated Celadon gyms, particularly since the uniform he sees on various gym members is a dark montsuki embroidered with the gym badge.

Though the ambiance is different from either. There are a few distant sounds of battle coming from various directions, but there’s no drill instructors yelling orders, nor pockets of people engaged in quiet conversation. Overall his walk toward the center of the gym feels… peaceful.

The Leader’s building is much like the others, though it’s raised a little higher and looks more detailed and stylized. As he approaches, Blue pauses outside of it to watch as a pair of non-trainer gym employees clean an arena, carefully digging up sections stained with acid or toxic sludge and safely disposing them in a marked canister before replacing the arena floor with fresh soil. Some of the arenas are stone, but those would put ground types at a disadvantage, and this gym no doubt expects to see many of them from people coming prepared to counter the Poison type focus.

Blue’s fingers brush the balls on his belt. If Rive evolves into a rhydon and Tops into a kadabra, he’ll have a solid pair of offensive counters for Koga, and with a magneton or two he’ll have powerful defensive counters…

But it’s Nin that he thinks will really be his ace. If he can get the golbat to evolve into a crobat, it’ll be able to resist Koga’s Poison types while still being able to sweep.

Unfortunately, he hasn’t been training Nin or Rive much since he was preparing to face Sabrina. Such an abrupt switch in focus feels strange without the payoff of having gotten a badge, but her offer was too good to pass up.

He has his suspicions about whether she actually intends to experiment with Koichi’s theories, or if she already knows the outcome and is just putting him to a test before she reveals what she knows. Of course that would only make sense if there’s some truth to it, unless she’s just yanking his chain… but he didn’t get that vibe from her.

Instead she seemed to be assessing him in a way that no other leaders have, including Erika. Whatever she has in mind for him when he returns to her gym, he has a feeling it’s more than just the answer to his question and a Mastery Challenge.

He makes his way inside the Leader’s building and finds himself in an entrance hall with space for boots and coats, along with a small nook with a flowerpot in it. The whole area makes him feel like he’s stepping into someone’s home, not a Leader’s office. What if someone’s in a rush to get from one place to another?

Well, in those cases they probably just ignore it.

Right. Everything’s so peaceful here that he’s having trouble imagining it in a state of emergency, but at the end of the day it is a gym, and a pretty respected one at that. Koga’s held his gym longer than any other Leader in Kanto besides Blaine, and like Blaine is relatively isolated compared to the rest of the Leaders, making the amount of land under his protection larger than most. Fuchsia does have an unusually high concentration of Rangers nearby to help with threats to the city, but most have a primary duty to the Safari Zone rather than nearby incidents, which means it’s up to the Gym Members to form the backbone of any defense of the city and nearby towns.

Koga is a man that not only commands respect, but deserves it. Blue takes a breath, preparing himself to return to the demeanor and perspective he learned in Erika’s gym, turning himself into more of a refined trainer, or at least one who’s able to demonstrate appropriate respect. Not that any Leader is likely to put up with disrespect, but how the respect is shown matters.

Finally he knocks on the wooden portion of the door, then opens it at the “Enter” that comes through to find Koga himself sitting at a low table with his legs folded beneath him, tea set on another table beside him while his attention stays focused on a laptop monitor. No receptionist, no waiting room. Just a large living quarter, and a few other rooms along the walls.

By most metrics of evaluating status, it’s the most humble he’s ever seen a gym leader. But like all the others, something about the man in front of Blue is more than what he appears. The calm strength in his posture, the sense of both focus on his work while being aware of his environment, the simple comforts of his surroundings, all reinforce Blue’s knowledge that he’s walked into the room of a man of power.

He wonders, vaguely, when he’ll start having that effect on people, and then wonders for the first time if he already does to some degree.

“Welcome to Fuchsia, Trainer,” Koga says once Blue has closed the door behind him. “Please sit.”

“Thank you, Leader.” Blue bows his head as he sits, mirroring Koga’s posture and hoping the conversation doesn’t go on too long; seiza hurts his ankles.

“Tea?”

“What kind?”

“Shincha. Fresh, not stored from a previous season.”

As if that matters, since storage puts things in stasis anyway. Still, it’s pricey stuff, and Blue bows his head again to show his thanks. “I would love some.”

Koga pours Blue a small cup, turning away from his computer for the first time since Blue entered. “You’re resting too much weight on your legs.” Once Koga puts the pot down, one hand lifts the cup toward Blue while the other taps his own stomach, eyes meeting his. “Engage your core to hold your weight up.”

Blue straightens as he takes the saucer. “Like this?”

“Less rigid, or your shoulders will soon grow tired. Do not focus on just one part of yourself; let your awareness spread through your body, while holding your goal gently in mind, and you will find a position that feels more natural.” He sips his tea as Blue tries to follow this advice, then nods and turns back to his monitor. “You can also sit zazen, if you would prefer. I know the rumors about me, but I don’t judge people by things as inconsequential as that.”

Blue considers a moment, then says, “I might, if this starts feeling bad. For now I want to try getting this right.”

Koga nods again, takes another sip of tea, then puts it down and types something out on his laptop. Blue blows on his tea as he waits, breathing in occasionally to enjoy the rich scent until the Leader finishes, then closes the laptop and gives Blue his full attention. “So. Are you just here for a Mastery Challenge, or do you have some other interest in my gym?”

Blue smiles as the Leader opens their conversation with a trap he prepared for. He also learned at Celadon how well a cup of tea can help give extra thinking time, and so takes a sip and runs through his prepared response before he sets the cup down.

“I won’t pretend I wasn’t running from one badge to the next when I started my journey. And obviously once I slowed down it was to get more involved in Vermilion and Celadon. But at Saffron I focused on developing myself and my pokemon, and forming new connections. That’s all I want here; if it turns out your gym has more to teach me than others, I’m open to staying longer, and if you’re interested in what I’ve done at previous gyms, I’m of course happy to talk about that anytime.”

Koga’s gaze is as intense as Sabrina’s, and after a moment he asks, “Does that mean you would say no to an early Mastery Challenge?”

Well, shit.

It’s got to be a bluff. There’s no way Koga, of all Gym Leaders, is going to let Blue jump straight to a badge match after just arriving…

“You’re skeptical. Perhaps it will help if I clarify that this is not a free offer; there is a problem I cannot solve myself, and cannot ask anyone from my gym to solve. You are an outsider who may actually possess the traits and skill necessary. What I propose is a straightforward exchange.”

Blue hides his smile behind another sip of tea, fighting to control his excitement before he lowers his cup again. Forget the early badge challenge, there’s no way he’s turning down the chance to solve a problem for a Gym Leader!

“I wouldn’t be opposed in principle,” he says, voice level. “But I’d like to hear more about the problem, first.”

“It’s my daughter. Janine is intelligent, resourceful, strong willed… and arrogant. She acts as though her position as future Leader of Fuchsia is guaranteed, and yet her focus has fractured. She has neglected the duties of a potential Leader for her own priorities of what a Leader ‘should be,’ without yet even experiencing the demands of the position.”

Blue listens in carefully concealed fascination, aware that he’s being confided in and unsure why. Koga doesn’t strike him as the sort of man who’d share personal family drama to just anyone… how desperate is he, exactly?

“Respectfully, Leader, couldn’t you just…”

“Defeat her? For another few years at least, yes. But those are years she is spending unwisely, and eventually she will have an opportunity to ascend to Leadership that I will have no say in.”

“What, you think she’s going to Challenge another Gym Leader?”

“Perhaps, if she grows impatient enough. But we would both prefer she replace me in Fuchsia, assuming she is worthy.” Koga takes another sip of tea, gaze dropping for just a moment before returning to Blue’s. “And my own plans are being delayed, so long as she is not.”

Blue blinks. “You want to retire? No… you plan to ascend. How many powerful pokemon have you been hiding, exactly?” He’s too excited by the even juicier gossip he just got freely handed (which of course he wouldn’t be sharing with anyone, if he wants the positive relationship with Koga that’s clearly being offered) to maintain his respectful calm, thoughts already racing over all the current Elite’s teams. “If you think you have a chance, I’d bet on you over Bruno and Will.” The Johto psychic replaced Karen after her injury against Zapdos, and while he’s strong, Koga probably has some good counters against him. “Maybe Lorelei too. But you’d have to be hiding something really monstrous to beat Agatha or Lance.”

Koga merely watches him, brow slightly raised, and Blue grins and holds a hand up. “Not that I’m actually expecting an answer. Either way, I’m looking forward to the matches.”

“Matches that will happen sooner, if I have reason to believe Janine defeating my Second would be cause for celebration.”

“Right.” Blue straightens his back, feeling a mild ache on his ankles and waist, and does his best to consider the situation from Koga’s perspective. “So if you need me to talk to her… I mean, I’ve got ideas for what gyms should be more like, and would be happy to pitch her on it. But that’s no guarantee, so I’m guessing it’s not what you want. It also doesn’t sound like you expect me to get stronger than her anytime soon, to demoralize her or whatever.”

“If you are capable of becoming her equal, or better, and that demoralizes her, then I won’t consider that a failure on your part.”

Blue would call that cold, but… he gets it. “But you don’t think that’s likely.”

“No. You are a skilled trainer, but I judge Janine will still be your better for a while yet. That doesn’t mean you cannot provide a decent challenge to her, however, and I may be wrong about your potential. What matters is not whether you can, however; it’s whether she thinks you can.” Koga pours himself more tea, then offers it to Blue, who lets him refill his cup. “Especially if I make it clear I expect you to.”

Blue raises a brow, then finally gets it. “You’re going to make it seem like I’m your successor.”

Fuchsia’s gym leader nods. “I expect you to be working hard while here regardless. Combined with my public favor, I suspect she will quickly realize that you can, in fact, surpass her, and hope this will force her to reprioritize the path to Leadership itself. I want her to be so busy training her pokemon and others’, bonding with gym members, studying gym logistics, all the things it takes to become a Leader, that she has no time for anything else. Will you do this?”

“To be clear, you want me to lie about my intentions here? Make it seem like I am considering staying and becoming Leader?”

“Yes,” Koga says, no shame in his voice. “And if Janine focuses on her gym duties again, or you beat Janine in a pokemon battle even once, I will allow you to Challenge… for Mastery, of course, but also Membership, if your time here does change your mind.”

Blue smiles. It’s not quite the agreement and role he forged with Erika, but it’s unique and prestigious in its own way, and he’s got no objection to some deception for a good cause.

Also, this would make three secret agreements with three different Leaders. He may not be able to show them off, but it still feels as good as getting a badge when he repeats what he said to Sabrina: “That sounds perfect, Leader.”

Chapter 99: Interlude XX – Change

Gifted.

It was a concept Natsume carried with her as close as her name for as long as she could remember. There was no “talk” about the gift, no explanation for what it was, what it meant. She learned about it the same way she did how to hold a spoon, by simple observation and gentle guidance. She learned how to bend the spoon the same way, around the time she was learning her letters. In their home, there was barely any talking at all; why use words, when sending and sharing feelings and notions was so much more direct?

Losing them was like losing parts of her mind. Learning to live without them was impossible without relearning how to learn.

She stayed, for a while, with a man who had a kind and perpetually worried face. She could feel that he cared for her, but it was abstract compared to her parents’ love, and laced with worry and grief. He took care of her, tried to encourage her to speak more, but he wasn’t like her. His mind was like a picture; her mental fingers touched it without being touched. It wasn’t what she needed.

Eventually someone came who was, and little by little she regrew around the parts that were missing, felt their absence without suffering their lack… though there was suffering, too, as she was made, little by little, to understand what she’d lost. The kind man, who she later understood was her father’s brother, held her many nights as she cried.

But still she barely spoke, making her wants and needs known through her gift. She pitied those who had to resort to speech for all their communication needs, felt no desire to use it herself. Every word felt like dragging meaning and feelings and thoughts from a deep pit, misshapen and painful. Each time she managed it felt like leaving her parents further behind. No one seemed to understand; even others like her were too immersed in the world of the ungifted, preoccupied by concepts of separation and privacy.

You cannot simply immerse yourself in another’s thoughts without asking,” her sensei explained, the words emphasized by a projected sense of support and patience. This was not their first conversation on the topic, but he never became upset with her. “Even asking is considered rude, and even if they say yes, they will not mean forever. If you keep trying, people will not want to be your friends.”

So? She asked without words, sending back her wariness of such people. Why would she want to be their friend, if she couldn’t understand them and they didn’t trust her?

The next session she was introduced to the empty people. A creature that looked like a man, but with nothing inside; who spoke without thought; who smiled without feelings.

It was all she could do not to run, screaming, from the room.

What kept her rooted in place was the utterly horrifying thought that perhaps the man was, in fact, a real person… and that the fault lay in her own gift. If the man was real and it couldn’t sense what he was feeling or thinking, how could she trust it to tell her what anyone really thought or felt?

How could she trust her memories of her parents’ minds, and what they shared with hers?

She’d pitied non-gifted, for not knowing. For having nothing but hope, some words, some gestures, to believe in their parents’ love. It seemed far sadder than her own losses, to never feel that love directly, know it as true as her own.

Once her own certainty was stripped from her, chaos reigned. Order was all that could save her, and so she threw herself into her gifted lessons, took every idea she was given and turned it around in her thoughts, examined it from every angle, and when her brain felt too small to hold it all she used paper, and when the paper too small she taught herself to type, and from there she had access to the whole of the world’s knowledge, sterile and abstract as it still seemed without a mind behind it.

She had little interest in other subjects, but some of the research involved psychology and history and math, and so she threw herself into learning those too, which involved learning still more things first. It was slow, and difficult, and she realized she needed a sensei for something other than her gift, and so, painfully, began practicing her speech.

Eventually, frustrated in part by the lack of others’ ability to communicate clearly, she developed a more direct way to transfer a concept from one mind to another. Her sensei was surprised, then delighted and proud. No one had done something like this before, apparently, and suddenly the way she was treated changed.

Before she had been considered slow and stupid and broken, because she didn’t talk, because she didn’t want to talk. Now people were interested in her, intrigued, excited. More gifted wanted to meet her, to experience what she could do. She was introduced to psychic pokemon minds, which felt even easier to communicate with, and lauded as a prodigy.

It wasn’t long after that before the man appeared.

He was another empty person, but his dark eyes still seemed to peer into her mind when he met her gaze and asked her what she wanted, and what she would do to get it. She answered honestly, and he told her about a special, private school for the gifted, one of his philanthropic projects that combined cutting edge research with an environment that fostered both personal and psychic growth.

She was only eight, but she agreed immediately, and after a couple conversations, her uncle did too. She said goodbye to her second home and went to her third with eyes forward.

She had to learn everything anyone knew about the gift, everything everyone knew, and if that wasn’t enough she’d learn more. She’d figure out how it works and how accurate it is and in the end she would know that the love her parents felt toward her was real.


Had it not been for the Hoenn incident, the battle for Cinnabar City would be the most frightening in Sabrina’s life.

Part of that is how unknown the stakes are; failing in Hoenn would end civilization on the island, perhaps the world, and while the danger posed by the shapeshifters doesn’t seem quite as obviously large, they still seem likely to change the world if left unchecked.

But that’s abstract, a fear for the lulls and space between breaths. In the moment, her old enemy chaos reigns once again.

Sabrina watches from atop her bronzong as the trainers fight below her, alert for another discrepancy among the minds of the wild pokemon attacking them. She senses one just as a raticate starts to turn into an ivysaur, and sends a psychic blast from Bronzong down on the imposter, keeping it disoriented until a nearby trainer can swap to a magmar and bathe it in flames.

But the distraction costs them when a sandslash, normal to Sabrina’s senses, emerges under the magmar, pulling it underground and out of withdraw reach. Sabrina quickly has her bronzong confuse the wild pokemon long enough for the suffocating magmar to counterattack, the glow visible through the soil for a moment. But even with the sandslash dead it struggles to breathe or dig its way free, and she quickly withdraws her mind rather than feel its suffocation, the trainer too busy fighting another wild to save it.

She sends a pulse of mental comfort and resolve to her, a holding-shared-grief-for-later, and then there are other threats to face. Sabrina sends out attack after attack through her bronzong for another minute, then guides it higher. The bell-shaped pokemon slowly rotates beneath her feet as it ascends, giving her a wider view of the battle.

The stampede is staggered, each wave coming from a different direction and composed of a varying mix of pokemon. The perimeter they’ve set up is between the city’s proximity sensors and the most dense portion of its suburban borders, as tightly knit as they could make it while leaving as few buildings unaccounted for as possible. All have been evacuated, but the property damage would still be substantial.

Luckily, with the whole island turned out and extra assistance from various gyms, there are enough people at hand to keep each other in line of sight. The dark makes it harder to coordinate which parts of the perimeter need extra help, but that’s what watchers like Sabrina are for.

“Another cluster heading east. Reduce to one trainer per ten meters, everyone else head there.”

“Two growlithe heading west, form a wall.”

“Trainers by the grocery store, weaker pokemon out first. If you’re out then rotate with others.”

There’s too much happening at once to stay on top of it all, and she alternates between going high enough to see the pools of light beyond the perimeter and low enough to help with the battles again, trying to keep her attention on the big picture. Every few minutes she wonders how the other sections are doing, if they’ve already broken or let some of the transforming pokemon through, before she pushes those thoughts away with long practice to focus on what’s in front of her.

Trust is hard for you. I understand. I’ll never be able to prove myself with my mind, but neither will most people in the world; there isn’t enough time to merge with them all. So you’ll have to learn to live with that uncertainty, if you want to be part of a society that trusts each other to try and keep everyone safe.”

They fail. Often.”

Yes. At many things. If people didn’t, trust wouldn’t be necessary.”

High again. “Incoming group of magmar, prepare for a few changers among them!”

Low again as a trainer is killed to disorient the group of identical magmar until others can catch them.

High again to scan the line and say, “Another mixed wave, return to standard.”

Back to low, then high, again and again, until her bronzong is moving slower with exhaustion and the trainers are down to their last few healthy pokemon when she finally sees nothing coming in the furthest lights.

“I think we’ve got a breather,” she says as she guides her pokemon down to settle on the roof of a tourist shop. “Rest up and heal, prioritize Water types.”

She hops off her mount, legs a little wobbly, and sprays some ether onto its metal body. The dim light makes it hard to tell how quickly it’s absorbed, but she can sense when Bronzong’s thoughts quicken and clear. Its body is too alien to feel as though it’s her own, but she can still sense the thrum of energy that goes through it, and decides to give it a minute of real rest rather than immediately climbing back up to start patrolling again..

She uses that time to meditate, slipping quickly and neatly into the calm, quiet place that’s always waiting for her inside, when she looks for it. For some it’s a grassy field, for others it’s their bedroom, but for her it will always be a memory more than a place; an immersed and complete sense of love between her parents and her.

Sometimes, particularly when she was younger, she would wonder if she only imagined it. But when she’s reliving it, it feels as real as anything.

Her muscles begin to relax, and her racing heart is just beginning to slow when her phone chimes an alert for a high priority call and kicks it back into high gear. She lets out a frustrated sound and quickly opens a new channel on her earpiece. “Yes?”

“Hey Sabrina. Word from the boss.”

Archer. The last time she spoke to the administrator it had been to browbeat him for the way his subordinates in the Casino started killing civilians who fell into it; Giovanni said he already dressed him down, but she felt that one of her students nearly getting killed also gave her the right, and she didn’t have much sympathy over the fact that he lost a number of people he worked with daily there, and nearly died himself.

Just thinking about what happened that night brings up a flash of anger, but she controls it with long practice. She doesn’t know everything Giovanni has going on around the region and beyond it, but he’d assured her that Tahu was helping weed out the truly dangerous renegades, rather than just those who were unlucky or made mistakes.

She didn’t touch base with Giovanni before coming to the island, but he would know this is where she’s needed, just as she knows he’s likely been busy coordinating his people to learn as much as they could about what’s happening however possible. Having one of his top administrators reach out to her at a time like this is like having him reach out directly, given how busy they both are.

“Is everyone at the mansion safe?”

“For now.” She lets out a breath, but the next words make her suck it in again. “The pokemon can imitate humans, but not clothing, and according to Naoto they don’t get much smarter.”

Sabrina tries to control her expression before remembering that there’s no one around. If Naoto has access to one of the new pokemon, and they’ve already been experimenting with them… “Archer, was this us?”

“Don’t know any more than you. Boss wanted to coordinate letting the secret out ASAP.”

She grits her teeth, then lets another long breath out. Now isn’t the time to pursue this, the priority has to be getting the information out. It wouldn’t be the first time they had to invent a reason for her to know something Giovanni deemed valuable to the public, but it would be tricky in a situation with such a new threat, particularly since all her movements on the island have been fairly public… unless… “There’s a ‘rescue’ planned?”

“Yep, a guy named Kota is riding to your part of the perimeter on a gogoat.”

Sabrina knows Kota; most of the lab workers would only leave the grounds for vacations, but Kota’s a Cinnabar native, and would regularly travel to the island’s various towns or the city on errands. When she first visited the lab a decade ago he was already in his mid-40s, and she’s worried about someone his age pulling a stunt like this.

But after a moment’s thought it’s obvious why they chose him. A ruse like this would shine the spotlight on whoever’s involved for a bit, and they’d want to keep scrutiny off everyone else at the mansion and lab. So she just says “I’m on it” and hops onto her bronzong, hoping another wave doesn’t arrive meanwhile.

Luckily her section of the perimeter is spared, and after a few minutes she spots Kota riding up the main street. She sets down in his path, far enough that they won’t be seen by the defenders on the perimeter, and he slows to a stop beside her.

“Good to see you again, Sabrina,” Kota says with a wan smile as he takes his cap off and scratches his short white hair. “You know the plan?”

They’ve never exchanged more than a dozen words, but the familiarity doesn’t bother her; Kota was never one for formalities or titles, and even acts like Giovanni and he are old friends. “The basic gist. You have one, then?”

He pats a pokeball on his hip. “Rhea caught it. They did what experiments they could on short notice, took samples, all that.”

“What do we know?” How much she’d be able to find a reason to share is a different matter, but it’ll help to learn as much as possible. Plus, she’s curious.

“They can transform once they touch something, and they can transform into people, but they don’t get smarter, just stare and smile and babble a bit. They tried teaching it basic language, but nothing worked, and Naoto said it’s basically still a pokemon.”

“Basically?”

“He said it’s also kind of like a baby, but…” Kota shrugs. “Seemed uncomfortable, didn’t want to talk about it much.”

Kota doesn’t seem uncomfortable, which is interesting given it’s presumably him that it copied, or soon will, but since he’s a deft hand at psychic shielding she can’t tell how much of his calm is a mask. “How long can they hold a form?”

“Not sure. Once this one pulled at its restraints a few times it transformed back into the jelly and slipped out of them. Also, there’s almost no cooldown on switching, a few seconds, maybe.”

“Does it have to switch once it touches something new?”

“Ah, no, they tried forcing them to transform into weaker pokemon. Mostly didn’t take, though the boss said they might be ‘judging by size or something like it,’ which, yeah, we only used stuff like caterpie and rattata. There’s testing, and there’s being stupid, am I right?”

Sabrina absently nods, mind already racing through all she’s learned and what she can do with it. “Let’s keep this simple, then. One breaks through as some kind of flier, dives at you. Transforms, doesn’t seem like a threat right away, gives you time to call it in. Less coincidence of me finding you, and I’ll have an excuse to merge with it while it’s in human shape.”

“Sure thing, just tell me when and where. Oh, and Naoto did say if you plan to merge with it to warn you that it can be, ah, ‘unsettling’ is the word he used. Like I said, he seemed uncomfortable talking about it.”

“And you? Did you get the chance to merge with it?”

“Oh, sure, but I’m not in the same class as you two, you know. All I got was surface stuff.”

She just nods, unsure how to react to Naoto’s warning. On the one hand, she’s had much more experience merging with pokemon than he has. On the other, he knows that, and he warned her anyway. “There are buildings people are using to act as spotters nearby. You have a flier?”

“Nope, scared of heights,” he says matter-of-factly. “The roof of that motel isn’t too high though, and I think I can make it up there from the inside.”

Sabrina follows his gaze, worried about cameras but also feeling an itch to get back to the perimeter before another wave hits. “Make sure there’s no surveillance up there, and if there are then find another place nearby.”

“Not my first mission, girl.” When Sabrina turns back to him in surprise, he just winks. “Don’t you worry about me. I’ll listen in on the chatter, and when the next wave starts to quiet I’ll call out. Work for you?”

She nods, more amused than chastened. “Works for me.”

“Righto. C’mon boy.” He squeezes his thighs and tugs on its reins to guide it toward the motel, and Sabrina guides her bronzong up and toward the perimeter. She looks back in time to see Kota withdraw his gogoat at the motel entrance, then walk inside.

She spends the next few minutes floating along the perimeter, occasionally touching down to check in on trainers and make sure everyone is okay. She trusts most to have called for support if they weren’t, but it also helps improve morale, and she can tell by the intermittent brushes with the many minds below her that tonight morale is in high demand.

She reaches one end of her section before doubling back, listening as new waves hit the other parts of the city perimeter. By the time she reaches the opposite end her people have spread out twice to cover new gaps in other sections. “Command, my line’s looking pretty thin,” she says after switching channels. “We should retreat to close up more.”

“Copy that, Sabrina, we’ll put out the order as soon as the latest wave hitting the western perimeter is over.”

And if we get hit meanwhile? “Understood.” She swaps back to her local frequency and tries to think of ways to plug the gaps, but every alternative to the straight line she considers would have the opposite effect, or leave other parts randomly exposed…

Ten minutes later another alert goes out, and this one is headed between her section and the one to its west, which is being headed by Ariya. Cerulean Gym’s second is already in the thick of it when Sabrina arrives, and the sight of the oncoming pokemon through the pools of light outside the perimeter makes her swear under her breath, heart hammering despite her efforts to focus on deep, steady breaths.

It looks like the whole island is coming at them.

“Command, we need support now. There’s no way my people will be able to keep this wave from breaking through!”

“Local sectors are moving in to reinforce now.”

Sabrina doesn’t respond, already heading off the attack by landing between two trainers and summoning every pokemon on her belt: kadabra, barrierd, xatu, hypno, swoobat. Nothing too strong, nothing that would be disastrous if turned against them, but hopefully enough to buy them some time… particularly with her merging with them all at once.

The experiments with exeggcute that led to Red’s new partition had other effects for her and her people; each time they practiced merging with the exeggcute together, it became easier to do alone, and that in turn made it easier to merge with multiple other pokemon at once.

She links with each mind one at a time, incorporating their thoughts without merging senses, which feels strange to do with so many relatively smart pokemon, like having six sets of awareness without six sets of senses to feed them information. It’s not her preferred way to do battle, but she can’t handle even three full mergers at once, let alone six, and all she needs them to do is synchronise their actions.

Only a few seconds have passed since she summoned her team, but the first pokemon in the wave are nearly in striking range. REFLECT, she sends, and a dome of force propels a leaping raticate back through the air. LIGHT SCREEN, and the pokemon around her team are coated in a shimmer, the closest thing that humans can detect of what Mazda sees.

The rest crash into the barrier, some immediately spilling around while others try to crawl under. She has her bronzong snipe those while leaving the rest to the other trainers, particularly Ariya, whose pokemon surgically focus on taking out the fire types before they get too close.

For the third time today at least, Sabrina wishes she had her strongest pokemon with her. Not just for their power, but for the familiarity of their minds, the ease of impulse and response and reaction that all blends nearly seamlessly together.

But she has to make do with pokemon from her 4-badge teams, and so the barriers start to falter after just a dozen seconds. She disconnects from her kadabra just before he gets attacked, trusting him to defend himself or die trying, and instead focuses on finding the not-right minds, the doubled-instincts that give away the transforming pokemon.

There, and there, and a third under…

She almost misses the one above, a simple pidgey that flies lower to the ground than any normal one would. It’s passed the perimeter and almost out of range before bronzong slaps it down so hard its wings break, and she knows with resigned certainty that others will have made it past where she’s not as close, let alone other parts of the perimeter without powerful gifted.

Trust them, even though some will fail. If you crave certainty so much, then be certain, but certain in different things; that they will fail your trust, that you will fail your trust, but also that you will only ultimately succeed if you trust them anyway. Not individuals who betray you, but the masses who haven’t, yet, and the ones who you think might have.

Words that helped her when she was young and in despair. Words that helped her make sense of Rei’s betrayal, and see past it to continue working with her in some mutually beneficial fashion. Words she hoped would help Mazda, when they felt even more isolated than she ever did.

They were enough for her. Clearly they weren’t for Mazda.

“Pidgey on the ground behind us,” she calls out. “It’s a transformer, capture it before it shifts!” She can already feel its thoughts changing, the second layer of instincts melting away. She needs to go capture it, before it gets away—

Its thoughts suddenly vanish, and she almost turns around in alarm and surprise—did it transform into a Dark pokemon?—before someone calls out, “I got it!” and she realizes no, it was just a dark trainer doing as she asked, keeping her and Ariya free to focus on the battle in front of them.

She’s lost two of her pokemon now, but thankfully she’s been able to single out the transformers enough that none of them got copied. A scream of pain to her far left indicates that not everyone was so lucky, or maybe they’re just breaking through on the strength of the stampede alone; Ariya leaves to attend to it, and Sabrina realizes she’s been down on the ground too long, lost sight of the overall battle.

A few more precious seconds spent stabilizing the area, then she withdraws her pokemon (even the dead ones, in case the enemy can transform from corpses, no one’s tested that yet as far as she knows) and lifts off again. The perimeter seems secure, though it’s thinner where the scream came from, and she urges her bronzong in that direction despite its renewed weariness.

Later, she wordlessly promises through her own growing fatigue. Rest later.

Bronzong’s thrum beneath her is mournful, but it continues on.

Once Ariya’s section is stabilized Sabrina returns to hers, and though it was hit less directly, she ends up losing three more trainers before the wave is done. She only sees one of them fall, the rest just candles in the sea of minds that get snuffed out.

The gaps between each of them have grown to the point that most are exhausted running back and forth to any area new clusters approach, and when she finally feels safe enough to call for rest, a few of the trainers sag into sitting or kneeling positions before they start summoning their pokemon to let them rest and heal too.

Sabrina almost forgets Kota in her own desire to be still a minute, but his voice on the general channel snaps her back to attention. “Hey, I’ve got one here! On the motel roo-SHIT!”

Despite knowing it’s an act, she feels a kick of adrenaline as she commands Bronzong back into the air. “I’m on my way,” she barks on the open channel. “Everyone else hold position!”

Even expecting it, the sight of the extra Kota on the roof beside the real one is disturbing, though she’s not sure if it would be more or less so if he wasn’t naked. Its expression sends a deep unease down her spine to settle in her stomach, and its thoughts are a strange mix of instinctual impulses to search and touch things, and… simply put, arousal, or rather, searching for things that would be mateable.

She doesn’t waste words once she arrives, simply hopping off her bronzong when it gets close enough and unclipping a great ball from her belt before realizing that it wouldn’t work.

She freezes, long enough for the copied Kota to turn to her, eyes wide and mouth flapping open and closed, and she can faintly hear the wet babbling sounds it makes as it takes a step toward her, arms reaching.

Sabrina immediately takes a step back and cuts her mental link from it, almost sending an impulse to her bronzong to attack it before remembering that this wouldn’t work either. We should have thought of this, we were too distracted—

The real Kota suddenly steps up to the copy with a folding chair and slams it over the head with a crack.

Sabrina jumps, and it takes a moment to remind herself that it’s not a person, as evidenced by its reaction; rather than crumple or fall, the copied Kota sways for a moment, skull visibly dented as blood starts pouring down its neck. Its expression goes from a mindless smile to a slack puzzlement, then screws up and puckers until it looks alarmingly close to bursting into tears.

Until Kota smashes the chair down again, and this time it collapses into a pile of purple goo about as high as her knees and wide as a coffee table. Sabrina stares at it, then quickly holds the ball out toward the goo until she hears the ping, and throws.

She half expects the greatball to get stuck in the gelatinous form, but instead it bounces off, sending a ripple through it for the brief moment before it all disappears in a flash.

She looks up at Kota, who’s examining the chair, expression calm. The blood that was on it a moment ago has turned into a cloudy pink stain that’s flaking off even as she watches.

“Was worried I dented it,” he says matter-of-factly as he sets it down. “So, what did it feel like? The inside of its head, I mean.”

She feels her neck grow warm and climbs back onto her bronzong. “I have to get back.” As soon as the bronzong is in the air, she clicks through each channel to get a sense of what’s happening and hears—

“—too big,” Taira says. “Scouts say this is the final wave, but it’ll be bigger than the rest.”

“If they hit us, we’ll collapse,” Misty says, voice frank. “We weren’t prepared to take on the whole island.”

“Us too,” Sabrina adds. “My trainers struggled with the last wave, and I’m sure some have been getting through.”

“Bring the hammer down,”Blaine says.

“Leader, are you sure—”

“Nearly. All points, confirm no sightings of long-range transformation.”

“None,” Sabrina says. “Contact only.”

“Same here”

“And here.”

The confirmations come from every sector, and finally Blaine says, “Good enough.”

“Understood,” Taira says, voice crisp. “Stand by for aerial bombardment.”

Sabrina feels a mix of relief and dread, and switches to the local channel.”Hold fast everyone. Help is on the way.”

They wait together in the dark, the wind swirling her hair around her face as her gaze stays on the distance, straining to make out any sign of movement. If the horde comes first… if the support doesn’t make it in time… everyone below her would likely die. And so would she, if she commits herself to helping.

Trust them anyway.

The first sign are the flashes of light. She turns to see lines of energy illuminating the sky, raining death down in blooms of yellow and orange. More and more of them umbrella up, and before she can register how close they’re getting, a trio of dragonite fly by so fast that they strip leaves from trees.

A moment later the Draco Meteors start to land closer by, the explosions demolishing houses and stores… and pokemon by the dozen. Some of the explosions are in thick enough clusters of pokemon that she can make out the survivors at the edges who scatter in every direction.

A trio of salamence goes by next, and then another three dragonite. By the time the last explosion fades, Sabrina has remembered to breathe, and it’s in relief as much as anything, even as she prepares to fight, because now that no dragonite spontaneously arose from the wilds she knows they’ll be okay.

The remnants of the stampede are far fewer, and less coordinated than before, and are repelled without much difficulty. Once it’s all over, Sabrina informs command that she’s caught one of the new pokemon and will give a debrief soon.

Once that’s done, she uses her secure line to Shaw.

“Something go wrong with Kota?” he asks by way of hello.

His voice sounds rougher than usual, but as he dispensed with pleasantries she decides to get to the point too. “No. What’s going on over there, Shaw?”

He pauses a moment. “You talk to the boss?”

“He’s busy.” Probably. “I’m on my way, just thought I’d ask first.”

“Might not be a good idea.”

“I won’t be missed—”

“No, I mean your teleport point might be over rubble right now.”

Sabrina pauses, surprise mixing with her growing anger. “This was us, then?”

“What? No. Not on purpose, at least.”

She shakes her head. “I’ll teleport elsewhere and fly over.”

He sighs, says “Right,” and ends the call, which surprises Sabrina. Despite her confident words, she’d expected more pushback, and technically Shaw outranks her when it comes to the mansion and lab.

Your teleport point might be over rubble.

She shakes her head, then starts searching for a working PC to refill her belt. She also calls Naoto, hoping her fellow gifted will fill her in along the way.


The first thing she notices at the mansion are the hooded light posts set up around the new, massive, rubble filled hole where most of it used to be.

That’s the second thing she notices.

The posts keep the area illuminated without making a noticeable glare from a distance, allowing those stationed around it to remain vigilant for new signs of the transforming pokemon. There are precious few non-dark, non-psychic people left on-site, but Sabrina can sense the worry threading through their thoughts as she searches for Shaw.

She finds him and the rest of the remaining mansion residents set up in a series of storage structures, each just barely large enough to accomodate the people or things in them.

“Expect a massive hunt over all of Cinnabar,” Zach says. “The Rangers were talking about dividing the island up into square-kilometers for thorough searches of any nests.”

Shaw grimaces, flexing the fingers of one hand in a way that makes it clear it’s the one he temporarily lost. The doctors weren’t able to reattach his eye, apparently, but while the older man isn’t particularly handsome, the eyepatch does add a dashing flair to his strong, square features. Or maybe she’s just looking for bright spots; the news of what happened here tonight still leaves her feeling off-balance, her earlier anger evaporated. “Even pulling strings, there’s a lot of risk someone outside the know will be assigned the land containing the mansion.”

“Depends how they divide things up,” Sabrina says as she steps forward, the others making room for her. “Gym members and rangers will make up most of the search parties. Between Erika, Blaine, Giovanni and I, we can probably get this sector.”

“Probably isn’t good enough, but we’ll hope for that and plan for failure.” He studies her a moment. “Is there something else you needed here, Leader?”

Using her title means he’s pissed with her, or just feeling in need of distance. She can understand, given the night he’s had. “No. I’m just… I wanted to see it.” It sounds so frivolous, said out loud, but she spent ten years traveling back and forth to the island, and it’s hard to wrap her head around it all just being… gone. Not just in disrepair, temporarily vacated, but wiped out, nothing but the ruined remains of the mansion above crushed rock and concrete…

Shaw seems to understand, however, and simply nods. “Don’t worry, we’ll leave someone here for it, just in case it comes back.”

Mazda wasn’t on her mind just then, and she stares at him, unsure what he meant by the comment. She and Shaw were never close; her own familiarity with Mazda saw to that. She understands it, understands his professional opposition and distrust of her, but this seemed almost cruel.

Unless it wasn’t meant to be.

Trust them anyway.

Sabrina forces herself to nod back and step away, walking until she finds herself at the edge of the rubble. Once she’s there, facing the hard reality of what happened and what it means for the future, she realizes that some part of her really held out hope that, somehow, things might go back to the way they were… or maybe, a better way. That she and Mazda could move freely about together, and travel back to the mansion or lab once in a while, for old times’ sake.

As she lets the last of the fear and tension of the night’s battles go, weariness and sadness take their place, and the memories start to wash over her. The first time Mazda flew. The first time they walked out into the sunlight, hand holding hers, and cried, as human as any of them. The first time she named them, and their gratitude and fascination at having a name rather than a label. Their fear and anger and grief, when Dr. Fuji left. Their pain at being stuck for so long in one place, only accessing the wider world through memories and screens.

The first time they spoke together, mind to mind. How thrilled and nervous she was, how in awe of the strange creature that could only communicate through psychic connection.

The kinship she felt, for this being that was so like her younger self.

How much of that was a lie?

She closes her eyes against the tears until the burn fades. She can’t know when Mazda first learned how to hide his true feelings, but she has reasonable guesses. Sometime after his desperate threats, almost certainly. Sometime before their last meeting, obviously, unless he formulated his entire escape plan and decided to go through with it spur-of-the-moment, once the opportunity presented itself.

Why didn’t you trust me?

A stupid question, but one she can’t help thinking time and again. The more she’s relived those final months, the more she thinks Mazda developed the ability to lie around the time they became more optimistic about the future, more positive in general. At the time she thought it was just the increased freedom the suit provided them, the increased time spent outside, the proof that the lab was, little by little, working toward their freedom.

But of course that’s exactly when such a ruse would be most beneficial to begin. She thinks everything that came before was genuine, but she also wants to believe it, and she knows better than to put too much trust into such a pleasant theory. For all she knows, Mazda was never her friend at all.

Trust them anyway…


It takes three days to do a complete, sector by sector sweep of the island. Three days of teleporting to Cinnabar as soon as the sun rises, then back home after a nightly debrief. Once again she suspends all her duties and classes to attend to the emergency, and tries not to think of all the work that’s continuing to pile up without her. At least she has a public excuse this time.

They do manage to have Erika’s gym cover the sector of the mountain with the mansion on it, which the Leader personally oversees and reports finding nothing on. Sabrina could tell Erika had questions about it, but they’re all in the dark about some things.

Two more nests are found, but after the last section of the island is swept and no new outbreaks of the transforming pokemon are found, they feel confident that, for now at least, the situation isn’t about to explode. The island stays on high vigilance, however, and a region-wide League meeting is scheduled to discuss next steps.

They’re rare enough that Sabrina only remembers it happening once in her past six years as the head of Saffron. All eight Gym Leaders are present, along with Champion Lance, Ranger General Taira, and Professors Elm and Oak. The latter looks simultaneously more tired than he did at the Lavender Tower debrief, and more excited. She can sense it more than see it, a buzzing energy that lifts her own spirits and sharpens her focus, but he has a spring in his step as he and Elm set up the computer and projector for his presentation. Without any Seconds, assistants, or other staff in the room it feels almost empty compared to how often each of them has their own people around.

“Hello everyone,” he says once everything is done, and what little chatter there is between Brock, Misty, and Erika fades. “Since it will get annoying to keep referring to the new pokemon without a name, the first order of business is semantic.” He sighs. “As usual, the race began on the net before anyone even fully knew what we were naming, but on the bright side the most popular ones aren’t too bad.” He clicks on the first slide, which shows trendlines for a dozen different words on the net. “As of now the leading three are ‘metamorph,’ ‘metamon,’ and ‘ditto.’ That last one is pulling ahead, so I’m going to abuse my power over this meeting and try to normalize my own preference.”

A light chuckle makes its way around the room as the Professor clicks to the next slide, which is labeled “Metamon Biology.”

“Metamon are, in almost every way, a defiance of classification. Their entire bodies appear to be made up of cells that follow basic instincts: copy, mate, feed, reproduce, and that last part is different from the second. But rather than each cell being independent, they make up individual organisms; one piece of a metamon that gets cut off will wither and die, though we’re not entirely sure why, as they don’t have a circulatory system or consistent organs that would indicate why separation would be deadly.”

“But the reports say they reproduce by separating bits of themselves,” Lance says, brow furrowed. “What makes those bits different?”

“Still unknown. It’s not just lack of organs that make them a mystery; their bodies seem to be made up of stem-cells that they can repurpose at will once they’ve sampled the DNA of another living organism, but that alone is an insufficient explanation for how they can so precisely mimic their targets. When transforming into, say, a blastoise, parts of them simply liquify into something that resembles water as close as their biology will allow, ready to be weaponized through their attacks. This costs them mass, of course, but seems to have no effect on their overall health.”

“Where did they come from?” Giovanni asks. “Not geographically, I know we’re still searching through those caves, but do we have any idea what substance they arose from?”

“None,” the Professor says, and sighs. “Their own DNA is an absurd, impossible, chaotic mess that we’re still trying to understand, with fragments of plant, mammal, reptilian, avian, and even mineral life forms. At first we thought that was just a result of their transformations, but even freshly born metamon are like that… though the parent may be passing the accumulated DNA of its transformations down.”

“The science of all this is fascinating,” Koga says, sounding sincere. “But I hope you will forgive me moving to other matters, such as the likelihood that this pokemon will be trainable.”

The Professor runs a hand through his hair. “We’ve only had a couple days, but what we’ve confirmed is that we’ve found a true nightmare scenario, worse than falinks and even exeggcute. These things have one mind, such as it is, but their copied form introduces an entirely new set of instincts that their original ones get channeled through. There’s little enough for the training programs to build on when they’re in their basic form, and trying to get them to retain it once they transform is going to take a while.”

“But it’s possible,” Sabrina says, not quite a question.

“I’m not ready to declare it impossible, but it would take a major breakthrough to do it anytime soon. Luckily Bill has grown fascinated by the challenge, but he said it’s too soon to give estimates… which, knowing him, means it’s on the order of months at least.”

“Containment,” Blaine says, voice hard. “I want my island back. What do we need to do?”

“Catch them all,” Oak says, face devoid of humor. “A single metamon could potentially start duplicating if it can find a mate, though thankfully not just any mate will do, which is why we have some chance of actually doing it.”

“Meaning?”

“Remember what I said about mating and reproduction being different; from the two small nests we found in the wild, we can confirm that the eggs created by the copied pokemon appear to create normal children of the species the metamon mated with. Their own reproduction only occurs afterward, in a parasitic process of separating a portion of themselves into the eggs to absorb the embryo and grow into a new metamon.”

“So they can only reproduce if they mate with egg-laying species?” Erika asks.

“That’s our current guess, though they can mate with others.” He clears his throat. “In fact, when placed in a contained habitat with a single pokemon, as long as no other pokemon of the opposite gender were around, the metamon first copied the pokemon, then transformed into the opposite gender of the same species.”

The room is silent for a moment before Misty mutters, “The net’s going to have a field day with that one.”

“Say again, Misty?” Lance asks from the other side of the table.

“Just thinking of the possibilities, Champion.”

A chuckle works its way through half the room, and Professor Elm raises a hand. “Just to clarify, they can probably be impregnated or impregnate non-egg-laying species as well. But if so, their transformation almost certainly keeps any children from coming to term, which is why laying fertilized eggs would be their fastest method to duplication.”

Ranger General Taira leans forward, face thoughtful. “There are plenty of those, to be sure. While obviously a threat to the local wildlife, this species represents boundless potential opportunity. The implications for breeding alone… under careful monitoring and observation, the destructive post-mating behavior could be interrupted such that each ditto—sorry, Professor, metamon—doubles our breeding stock for rare pokemon.”

“Good as that is, the real prize would be using these things against legendaries,” Erika says. “They’re equalizers the likes of which we’ve never seen.”

The room is quiet again, but Sabrina doesn’t detect any real surprise this time. No one in the room would be where they are if they weren’t the sort that would already have considered it.

“It would be hard to get one close enough to touch a Stormbringer or Beast,” Misty muses. “But the Titans…”

“Surely they couldn’t become that bi—”

Blaine claps his hands together, and everyone turns back toward him. “Doesn’t matter. Too dangerous without knowing how long they can stay transformed and whether they copy abilities like Pressure.”

“Aren’t they weaker than the copied pokemon, though?” Misty asks. “Can we confirm that yet?”

“We can,” Professor Oak says. “And reasonably predict it. They retain the same mass when they transform, and so copies of smaller pokemon are more likely to be tougher than the original, while larger pokemon are less so, sometimes drastically less. A copied snorlax collapsed after a single hit that barely fazed the original.”

“But they can obviously mimic the properties of other pokemon,” Koga says. “Fire, electricity, claws as sharp as any genuine pokemon. A group, all wielding these metamon, might be able to take a titan down.”

Surge stirs. “If their mass stays the same no matter how big they get, they’ll be able to be returned to their ball, and if the transformations persist… you’ll have trainers with legends on their belts.”

“Leaders and Elites, surely,” Brock says, brow furrowed.

“You think that will matter to their neighbors once those legends are used to expand their borders?”

“Gentlemen,” Erika says before Brock can respond. “While this debate is arguably long overdue, perhaps we should table it until we have a better idea what we’re dealing with. If these metamon can transform into pokemon that powerful, and they can persist in that form for long, then we should definitely have that conversation, but meanwhile there are other things we need to discuss.”

“One in particular,” Blaine says. “Had my people check outposts all over the island, spotters, ranger cams, looked over everything. Unown were spotted flying patterns near the caves a week ago.”

“Shit,” Misty mutters.

“Experiments are still being done in controlled settings,” Professor Oak adds. “But combined with what Wallace reported after Hoenn, at this point the odds of coincidence are shrinking.”

“What experiments? Where?”

“Independent, mostly. The What Comes Next initiative has been bearing fruit, or rather in this case, has grown branches from which fruit can grow. The researcher that assisted in Lavender, Artem, took it upon himself to study an unown Red purchased in isolation with objects for weeks at a time.”

“So far there has been no effect,” Elm says. “But this kickstarted a community effort; people have been collecting different number of unown with a variety of objects to see if any of them result in abiogenesis, and if so how many were required, what sorts of objects, how long it took…”

Blaine frowns. “Even if none do, it would not disprove the hypothesis.”

“Worse,” Giovanni says. “If certain letters are needed, there will be millions of combinations untested. If letters relate to objects, billions. If environments outside the lab are needed—”

“—it’s even worse than that,” Oak interjects, voice wry. “Maybe only wild unown can do it, and even with the right combination of letters and objects we won’t see anything. All that is why no lab could justify such an expensive and time consuming line of research, not while being thorough. But people are doing it anyway, because it’s important, and someone has to, just in case.”

There’s a contemplative silence, and then Erika stirs. “A bounty. Collectively paid by multiple institutions, for the first individual or group that demonstrates it with sufficiently scientific documentation.”

“Hmph.” Blaine shakes his head. “Less a bounty and more a lottery.”

“And yet it will encourage more to try, at no cost if none succeeds.”

“It’s a good idea,” Elm says. “Though we should be cautious not to incentivize it too much, and draw excessive time and effort away from more promising avenues.”

“Something that can be decided later, by those with the knowledge and interest,” Lance says. It’s the first time the Champion speaks besides his question to Misty, and his strong voice always takes Sabrina by surprise for how deep it is. His gaze sweeps the room before he adds, “Assuming it’s allowed at all.”

A third silence, contemplative, approving, surprised, disapproving, a medley of subtle undercurrents combined with each. She can feel Professor Oak struggling to hold himself silent, though his face has gone blank.

No one else speaks, either out of deference or curiosity, and after a moment the Champion continues. “With respect to the Rangers’ ethos,” he nods at Taira, “by my perspective the world has too many pokemon in it already. The ability to purposefully create more could lead to massive destabilization, particularly if any of them lead to the creation of new pokemon as strong as legendaries. Hoenn should stand as a reminder, as Giovanni said afterward, of our fragility.”

The words are delivered well, but underneath it there’s something pained and angry. Sabrina wonders if any of the others suspect just how much their Champion has been struggling with his helplessness in Hoenn. She knows others there that day feel some portion of it too, herself included, but not like Lance.

It cracked something in him. Resulted in something other than change or growth, something destabilizing.

She’s no therapist, but she recognizes it from her own feelings ever since she learned that Mazda left.

For now he’s hiding it as well as she is, however, and so she hasn’t mentioned it. If another few months pass and he doesn’t seem to be improving, she will. Maybe visit Steven and Cynthia, get a sense for how they’ve been.

“I agree with your caution,” Taira says. “While our mission includes the protection of pokemon ecosystems, few rangers are happy when new species arise, as they tend to destabilize habitats until some new equilibrium is reached. That said, knowledge is power, and we don’t like being surprised either, as happened in Lavender Tower. If we knew for sure that wild unown can create new species, it would make sense to put effort and resources into tracking their movements, maybe disrupting swarms.”

“Won’t matter if we disrupt them in the wild while people are churning new pokemon out in labs,” Surge says. “The habitats will be safe, sure; up until a region uses it to expand their territory or something breaks free.”

Sabrina doesn’t look at Giovanni, though she badly wants to know what his expression is. Probably blank, or thoughtful, but she still itches for a glimpse, however misleading, into his true self.

“It’ll make little difference if we disrupt them within our regions if they’re still creating new mons out in the wild,” Misty says. “Assuming the Hoenn incident is what ‘woke’ them, we need to figure out how to put them back to sleep.”

The fourth silence, and this one goes on the longest. Lance’s expression is thoughtful, and when he looks at Professors Oak and Elm, he sighs. “I imagine you have things to say.”

“Only,” Professor Oak begins, then pauses, tone thoughtful. “Only that it would be a mistake to believe that if we do not pursue this knowledge, no one will.”

Professor Elm nods, but Giovanni shakes his head.

“It’s another clock,” he says, voice dull. As always Sabrina isn’t sure how much of what he shows is what he wants to show, but news of Mazda’s escape was the only time she heard his tone hold such… defeat. “Another race against time, and each other. Sam, what if this is it? Not the legendaries, not the myths, not even these new transformers. If unown are the source, or close enough to be the same, and we let that power out into anyone’s hands… it would be a new age, beyond anything we could predict. We haven’t even found the tools to survive this one, and you would have us leap into another before we even know what it would mean?”

Professor Oak has listened with brow furrowed as he watched Giovanni. Now he clasps his hands, staring down at them. “And you propose we study them in secret first? Look before we leap, or slide, into that new age?”

“I propose we not give a power to everyone that is beyond anyone’s ability to predict.”

“Some might have said the same of pokeballs.”

“And for all the lives they’ve saved, uncounted more might never live if we fumble now.”

Sabrina listens quietly, as fascinated as anyone in the room. This is the closest she’s seen Giovanni come to justifying his methods in public, not counting that sufficiently vague What Comes Next video.

“And who would lead this secret research?” Sam asks, sounding genuinely curious.

But Sabrina senses something more.

He knows.

No, he suspects… something. She can’t tell more without a merger, but Misty’s in the room, and she’s not one of theirs.

Giovanni doesn’t need any warning from her, however. “The League. They’re the only ones who are trusted enough by the public, and who might take things slow enough to avoid catastrophe.”

Everyone looks to Lance, whose gaze is distant. She can sense him dipping further into the memory of Hoenn that ever hovers in the back of his mind.

He shakes it off with a shake of his head. “For now, we have to focus on Cinnabar. Further research into the unown will be halted until we have a more firm plan on what it might lead to.”

Various people look disappointed or relieved, but before anyone can say otherwise Lance turns to Blaine. “Let’s go over our plans to secure Cinnabar, and track if any of the new species has left the island…”

Sabrina listens with only half an ear, thoughts on the argument Giovanni made. Keeping dangerous knowledge secret is what he’s worked so hard for, but all the while he’s tried to, carefully, use it for good.

And he has. Inventions through his collaboration with Bill and Silph, secret as those are and rocky as the latter has become lately. Research that’s been leaked from dangerous methods, made clean by independent, “lucky” breakthroughs. Targeted interventions around the region, putting people where they need to be, rehabilitating renegades…

But they’ve also resulted in the deaths beneath the casino, and probably more. She suspects he had some hand in the Hoenn incident, though she knows(?) he also genuinely tried to stop it. And Mazda…

She can’t regret that they exist. And any blame for how things ended were as much to do with her as Giovanni. She should have done more, showed more trust, argued more on their behalf…

Sabrina’s gaze stays on Giovanni as he listens, also seemingly distracted, to the containment plans. Sooner or later they would have to reveal the secrets Red shared with her, and she wouldn’t be able to hide behind the fact that Giovanni told her it was the right thing to do.

She has to be able to believe it herself, argue it herself, and if necessary, reflect back his own words: Trust them anyway.


Once all is said and done on Cinnabar, she heads back to her Gym to see that Tetsuo and Keiji have managed her schedule for her, bless them both. She thanks them sincerely, reminds herself to give both another raise, and goes to her first meeting of the day.

“Good to see you again, Mr. Oak.”

“Good evening, Leader. How was Cinnabar?”

His voice is a mix of sympathetic and fascinated and frustrated, and she smiles despite herself. “I was wondering if you would show up, actually. Riding your arcanine, maybe trailing an army of extra recruits.”

Blue shrugs, looking both embarrassed and pleased. “We were in the middle of celebrating Leaf’s birthday when the alerts went out. Ended up crowding around the TV to watch the battle for the city, spent the night stressing and worrying about what would happen next. Wanted to help, of course, but Zephyr isn’t ready to fly that far, and all the commercial transport was busy.”

She nods. “Well, while the sentiment is appreciated, it wasn’t pleasant. There will be plenty more opportunities for heroism in your future, I’m sure. In any case, what did you want to speak about? I can’t assure you complete confidentiality, of course, but I’ll do my best within what I deem reasonable.”

He’d specified in his request that he had a potentially dangerous question involving training his abra, which had of course intrigued her Second, but the request for confidentiality had made it hard to insist he discuss it with one of those lower in the gym’s hierarchy first. If whatever he’s considering needed to be kept private, he’d of course want to reduce how many people he told it to.

If she hadn’t already invited Blue to speak with her when he arrived in the city she would wonder if he’s just angling for private training lessons or tips, but entitled as he might have become through fame and glory, she doesn’t think that’s his style, and his group has done enough novel things that she immediately took the request as a serious indicator that he might have discovered something new, and dangerous.

Inside, some small part of her protests that she’s holding enough secrets, that one more may just be too many, that the more she takes the higher the chance she lets one slip. A year ago she would have said she was the best psychic in the world at shielding and keeping secrets; even mergers rarely led to glimpses of anything she didn’t want to let out. But Red, Mazda, even Rei were all humbling reminders that there’s always someone more capable. Rei managed to focus her attention so powerfully on what she wanted that Sabrina couldn’t read beyond what seemed obvious, and Red’s empathic reception was so strong that she’s sure he got a glimpse of her feelings toward Mazda when they met, even if he didn’t understand the context… and as for Mazda…

She shakes off the line of thought to dull the stab in her chest. If she can learn to mold her partitions the way they and Red did, she can hold as many secrets as she needs to.

“First I should probably check… do you know that Koichi is in the city?”

Sabrina feels her brow rise, and takes a moment to reorient her thoughts. “I did, yes. Mr. Sabien came to me when considering whether to allow him to teach at the dojo.” It only takes a moment for her to connect the dots. “Ah. He’s tried spreading his ideology again, then? And you’re considering trying it for your abra.”

“Considering is a strong word…”

“I’m sympathetic, Blue, truly. But even if you can get your abra to grow stronger, faster, what’s the point if you’re still struggling to get it to protect you?”

“Well, I was thinking about that, and realized maybe I don’t have to.”

Now she doesn’t try to hide her surprise. “You want to train a pokemon explicitly for trainer battles?” It’s not unheard of, of course, but is frowned upon enough that she doesn’t expect it of someone so high profile. It also can revoke a trainer license, in rare cases where the person’s focus turns more to gaining money or status than becoming a stronger trainer; the League decided long ago not to subsidize those simply trying to game the system.

But it makes sense to do for a particular pokemon, if he doesn’t expect it to easily acknowledge his presence enough to protect him against wilds…

“I think I can get it to follow its own instincts in wild battles well enough.” He sounds a little offended. “I don’t plan on being dead weight.”

“Of course, I apologize for the implication,” she says, and means it. “Even still, you’d never be able to use it to its full potential.”

“You mean as well as a psychic could.”

It’s such a strange thing to say, a redundant thing, that she just raises a brow, waiting for him to elaborate. But he doesn’t break his gaze from hers, and eventually she just sighs. “I’m not here to coddle your ego, Blue. Everything I’ve experienced has shown that psychic pokemon are most effective when used by psychics. What other explanation do you have for why they’re so rare among non-psychic Leaders and Elites?”

“I’m not doubting it’s easier to get a psychic pokemon to its peak fighting power, as a psychic. But if everyone gives up because they’re told to, how much should I really care about what others failed to do?”

She considers this a moment, then nods to acknowledge the point. “It’s not my place to tell you what you can and can’t do. Part of every generation’s journeys is to ascend beyond the expectations of what came before. So long as you abide by the rules of my gym, you can continue to train here on whatever you wish.”

“Is that an answer to my question, then?”

“You never actually asked it.”

Blue frowns, but nods and breathes out. “Is it true? Do pokemon get stronger, faster, when they believe they’re fighting for their life?”

She was wondering if he’d also imply the accusation she’s sure Koichi levelled against her using such methods in her meteoric rise to topple him, but as far as she can tell he sounds simply curious.

She’s not one of those psychics (like Tahu) who will claim to be good at “reading people” even without use of their gift; for her, dark humans have always been an endless enigma, some part of her still insisting there’s nothing inside them but autonomous meat (the thought brings an image of the copied Kota’s empty smile, and she flinches away from the memory of its mind before swiftly hiding it behind amnesia for now). Even Giovanni isn’t an exception; rather, he’s the one person that proves how capable of guile and subterfuge humans can be, the epitome of why dark people are untrustworthy.

Except she does trust him, because she has to. Not to be “good,” but to have things that he cares about, things that he will do anything to pursue, behavioral trends that she can model and predict with some accuracy. That she happens to agree with his goals and not mind his methods is beside the point; she knows he’s a liar, that he’s likely lied even to her. But everyone lies, and most do it for far lesser purpose.

She plans to look afresh on Giovanni’s goals and methods regardless, and wonders suddenly if she should do the same of Blue.

“Do you know how I lost my parents?” she asks, seized by a whim.

Blue’s expression shifts from surprise to caution, and whether that’s sincere or not, she finds herself modeling his reaction as wary. “Only that they were killed by pokemon. Your bios don’t have much info on your childhood other than that you were raised by your uncle, and were a psychic prodigy from before you could even speak.”

Her lip quirks. She’s tried a few times to correct the public record on what she was like as a child, but ironically she’s never been able to find the words. “Not just any pokemon. It was Raikou.”

Blue’s eyes narrow, for a moment. “I’m sorry.”

She simply nods her thanks, as is expected, and wonders, as always, what the tell signified, senses reaching reflexively, uselessly out. “I’ve heard about your goal. Your real goal, beyond becoming Champion.”

The way his body goes still is another tell, but it’s not tension so much as… relaxing, she thinks. “And you understand.”

It’s not a question, though it should be. For all he knows she’s bringing it up because she wants to warn him off a path of vengeance, or caution him against overly ambitious goals. Blue doesn’t spend time with her the way he reportedly did Erika and Surge, and she hasn’t spoken to Red about anything like this.

“I do,” she says, and tries to imagine what Blue Oak would be like in ten years. Or even five.

Strong enough to beat Lance?

Maybe.

Willful enough to keep trying until he does?

Yes. And she wouldn’t be the first to underestimate the young Oak. In five years, the unown question would likely be resolved, one way or another.

But what if he reaches Victory Road in three?

Or two?

Or one?

She’s one of the few things in his way. What if she decided not to be? What would Blue do with the power and prestige of a Champion?

And who as Champion would respond better to the revelations of what Red, and maybe other psychics, can do?

“I’m glad to hear it,” he says, sounding more cautious than anything. “But you still haven’t answered my question.”

“So I haven’t.” She spends a minute studying the young man in front of her, which he seems unbothered by, weighing possible choices, possible futures, before saying “I’m afraid it’s not one I can answer, as I haven’t tested it myself.”

“Ah.” He nods, and dark as he is for once she can understand what he’s feeling as well as if she could see the barrier rise between them. “Of course.”

“But maybe I will, in time.”

He blinks.

“After all, the world is becoming more dangerous. We might need every edge we can get.”

“Yeah. So then—”

“I also want to apologize for not going through my backlog of challenges as quickly as I’d originally estimated.” She feels even more guilt over that now, maybe because of the mention of Koichi. Is she being as neglectful of her duties in Saffron as he was? Putting too much onto her subordinates, rather than not enough?

She’s been spending some of the time she could have been catching up on her backlog searching for Mazda. She’d teleport to various places around the island and fly around, casting her mental senses as wide as they would go in the hopes of finding them.

A hopeless plan, and one that would likely end badly if she found them; it’s not as though they couldn’t find her, if they wanted to.

And still she continued, hoping she’d sense them, even if they fled after. Just to know for sure that they survived. That they’re okay.

No more. She has to come to terms with what happened, even if she never gets closure. “I’ve been busy,” she says, but “How about this. You keep training here, if you’d like, until I finally get through my backlog. Or, you can go down to Fuchsia, and challenge Koga.”

He’s frowning at her, but not, she thinks, in anger. “I guess I could do that.”

“You think you could beat him, I take it.”

“Of course.”

“Then do so. By the time you come back, maybe I’ll have had time to not just work through my backlog, but also try out Koichi’s crazy idea. Sound good?”

And there’s that smile, which she knows as sure as anything her gift has ever shown her is real; not just hungry, but grateful. The smile of someone who has found an ally in their life’s goal. “That sounds perfect, Leader.”

Chapter 98: Interlude XIX – Remnant

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!”

“In Kanto?!”

“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.

“Report.”

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.”

“Understood.”

“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.

“Zach!”

“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.”

“Strange how?”

“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.

“Zach?”

“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.”

“Where?”

“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?”

“I am.”

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.