Ash Ketchum peeled himself out of his sleeping bag. He vaguely remembered when the sight of the sunrise over Kanto was still inspiring to him. Now he just thinks of each new stiffness in his joints. Each morning the routine is the same, and each morning he is able to force down any potential self reflection. Force it deep down and seal it in the master ball of his guts. Today, for the first time in awhile, he is unable to keep it suppressed.
“When did I become so jaded?” He asks. He watches a flock of Spearow mob and drive off a Poochyena that had wandered to close to their nesting site. Almost instinctively, he recalls their Pokedex numbers and starts making guesstimates as to their IVs based on the mock battle he’s witnessing. He stops, both as he realizes he has caught more PU tier Pokemon like Spearow and Poochynea than anyone could ever need, and as the familiar loathing begins bubbling up.
There was a time when he saw Pokemon as wondrous creatures, each unique and capable of imparting important lessons to those willing to listen. Maybe it was because back then there were less of them, or more accurately less that people knew about. Maybe its just too much to expect that each new day will feel the same as it did 20 years ago. But Ash’s real fear is that its because of him. Something inside him is broken, and that is why he can’t see the world as anything other than numbers and battle statistics and a binary “caught/not caught.”
Out of habit, he pulled out his Pokedex. Not to pull up data on the common Pokemon playing out their lives in front of him, but to dig through its social media functions. How long had it taken for someone to expand Oak’s old Pokedex into a smart phone? Was it three tournaments ago? Four? Aside from the new captures, it was hard to remember exactly what was different about each past championship. Somewhere along the road the Pokedex just started doing more. Ash was there for the original Pokedex’s unveiling, was the first to completely fill it with data on many regions’ worth of Pokemon, and yet he now can’t recall a time he didn’t primarily use it to stalk people on FacePoke or Twitter.
Professor Gary sets the three empty pokeballs on the table. Today another Pallet Town youth turns 11, and gets to pick their starter. As he logs onto Bill’s server, he wonders why he bothers with the whole ceremony. It will obviously be Charmander of Bulbasaur. No one ever seems to pick Squirtle anymore.
Gary remembers when it was known as “SOMEONE’S PC”. Back then, the whole procedure of Pokemon storage had this air of mystery to it. Bill had wanted it that way, both out of a natural humbleness and a fear of celebrity. He was willing to reveal himself and the extent of his work to any kids interested enough to find him, but was otherwise content to just continue his research on his own. Of course, Bill was gone now. Oak too. You say a lot of goodbyes in 20 years. Without someone to take wandering kids into their confidence anymore, there was no point in keeping it a secret. Bill’s name was revealed and he went from mysterious legend to forgettable immortal.
The server is as it always is. Boxes upon boxes of Pokemon, converted to electronic data and held in simulated environments. Despite all the changes that have taken place, still no one knows exactly what, if anything, the Pokemon think while stored in this electronic stasis. No one bothered to check.
The three Pokemon are downloaded to the standard pokeballs Gary had prepared. A brand new Pokedex is taken from its case and turned on for the first time. Passing by all the superfluous apps, he opens the main encyclopedia function and stares at the cascading collection of empty spaces. He sighs as the well-rehearsed speech automatically replays in his ears. First in his grandfather’s voice, then slowly turning into his own.
“You are about to begin a wondrous journey into the world of Pokemon. I hope you will fill this Pokedex with information of many new Pokemon!”
The professor pinches his nose as if the bitterness is threatening to escape through his sinuses. The Pokedex has been filled for years, he helped fill it! Yet we keep giving these kids empty ones. Why?
He knows the answer, or at least a answer that usually satisfies him. The blank slate allows each new trainer the chance to define their own adventure. The chance to choose for themselves what knowledge to pursue. But in practice, didn’t that only ever lead to what he was seeing now on his computer screen? To boxes upon boxes filled with nothing but level 5 Weedles? Poor, pathetic worms, trapped in perpetual arrested development. Most unnamed and unremembered. A handful labeled with titles like “420WEEDLE” and “GAYWORM”. Did any of these living archives matter to anyone? People had more ways of connecting with Pokemon than ever before, why did it still feel like everyone was so alienated from the natural world?
“We are failing these kids in a way we can only manage by having been failed ourselves.” Gary thinks.
“Brock, you’re not being realistic.” Over the last few years, the other Kanto gym leaders and members of the elite four had heard Lance say this often. “We have a duty to mandate how Pokemon battling and ranking takes place and insure that trainers are granted the appropriate level of badges. We can’t let politics interfere with that.”
“We already do, we’ve just been ignoring it! How can we separate our Pokemon from the rest of the world? In our pockets we carry beings capable of leveling mountains, powering a city, and tearing a mind to pieces before putting it back together again, and you’re telling me we can’t build a school?”
“We already have a school…” began Erika.
“A REAL school. A place where my brothers and sisters could have gone to learn long division or world history or the scientific method. Not a place where rich-enough kids memorize the type chart to avoid visiting our gyms.”
“Brock, where are we going to get the money-”
“I can go down the street to the tall grass and catch a CAT that VOMITS GOLD COINS! Or I could skip the middle man and take any of the living rock monsters that live at my gym and have them build the foundation, get one of the animals that secrets substances stronger than cement, then grab a handful of balls from my computer full of muscle-bound workers who work for free. Why are we still pretending that money is anything other than an old joke we let our kids use to bet on battles? When was the last time any of us used money to pay for something? When we were teenagers, right? Back before we became adults and realized pokeballs and berries literally grow on trees.”
Sabrina absent-mindedly toyed with her Pokedex for awhile.Brock was right, of course, but she had spent years trying to push forward any number of ideas past the more conservative members of the Kanto leadership before his recent stint as politically aware began. Using Pokemon for anything outside fighting was “controversial” or had to wait for “the right time.” The worst was trying to get research grants. Anything not earmarked for Pokemon storage or battle simulation was guaranteed to get no support. How long had they sat on the “discovery” of fairy-type Pokemon until someone convinced the elite fours of the world that it could help balance the type meta-game? They could discover a “new” type, but they couldn’t explain how foxes hatch from eggs or how new Cubones were born wearing the skulls of their still-living mothers.
Her Pokedex vibrated with the news of a text from Cole. Undoubtedly it would be another photo of her Chimecho doing something cute. Sabrina smiled. No matter how much it felt like things never changed, or how much it felt like they were all endlessly repeating the same beats, she always had Cole to remind her that life did move on, sometimes in wonderfully unexpected ways.
“The traditional method of kids learning through experience still has value today. The Spartan education our children receive on the road prepares them for the workforce in ways a classroom never could.”
“Those that survive, that is.”
Sabrina looked up in surprise. Lance was seething behind his aristocratic smile. You weren’t supposed to acknowledge how giving every preteen a living weapon of mass destruction and saying “hey go wander the woods and fight each other for money” didn’t lead to rapid population growth. Brock was clearly not in possession of any more fucks today.
“Hey I know its been awhile.” Delete
“I kept trying to replace you after you went back home. I never could, and back then I was too young to realize-” Delete
“I still owe you that bike-” Delete
Ash completes his weekly tradition of writing the same collection of messages he will never finish and never send. After staring at the now empty message box for a few minutes, he simply “lkes” Misty’s selfie of her and her new Horsea. As an added measure, he retweets a meme she posted about Meowth-calling without being quite sure what the big deal was.
Back when she was a teenager, another failure on the “grand Pokemon adventure” to Victory Road, Jessie was willing to go along with any number of corny uniforms and dumb plots if it felt like she was giving the finger to everyone she felt let down by. Team Rocket runs on disenfranchised teens. The smart ones learn to eventually get out. The REALLY smart ones learn to move up to management. It was there that Jessie learned the truth about the world, shortly before she would come to secretly run it.
The uniforms, the slogans, the plots that sometimes made no sense whatsoever, the license for bitter, neglected kids to bully other kids just starting down that same road, none of that was Rocket’s real purpose. The only real governing body in the world was concerned only with Pokemon battles, so throwing them an obvious villain kept them appeased and certain they were doing everything right. Meanwhile the CEOs of Team Rocket could run wild over the rest of the world. Giovanni had been a genius. However, he had been a genius with remarkably pedestrian appetites and desires.
Jessie was not pedestrian in any capacity. When Giovanni stepped down and she stepped up, she quickly turned all of that manipulation and pretense towards more elaborate purposes. She sat at her lacquer Exeggutor-wood desk and read over the most recent reports. The smuggled Eevee had been successfully evolved into Glaceon and were already progressing in rebuilding the Arctic ice shelf. A shipment of Corsola were hijacked en route to Celadon Gym and were now rebuilding reefs off of Cinnabar Island. Progress on the Trans Johto-Hoenn Partnership were in chaos following a serious of riots instigated by Silph Co leaks revealing their plans to exploit the agreement to cut benefits for thousands. Leaks uncovered by her agents’ use of Hypno’s ability to psychically explore Silph CEO dreams.
Of course, not all of Team Rocket’s resources were devoted to such altruistic ends. Even these were performed largely in the name of self-preservation. A devastated world is an unprofitable one. The best way Team Rocket could rob the world was by saving it, and without question Jessie had gotten very good at doing both. Jessie took a bite of her Farfetch’d pannini and caught her reflection in the polished Steelix-scale mirror. She looked as amazing now as she ever had, and the sharp Furfou/Cottonelle blend Armani suit and Spoink pearl earrings suited her so much better than the ‘R’ belly-shirt and hot pants she used to have to wear. Giovanni had a hunger for illusionary wealth that Jessie did not, but she could not deny that there was still not a great deal of material perks to being head of Team Rocket, the true heroes of the world. If some kids had to be roped into playing pretend-terrorist for a few years, wasn’t it worth it? Team Rocket was only giving these kids a niche that no one else would. Besides, under Jessie’s control Team Rocket had expanded grunt benefits by 15%, the largest percentage ever.
Even in the midst of self-congratulation, Jessie frowned as remembering her past uniform brought to mind another figure from her past. Despite not having spoken for so long, they were still fresh in her mind. How was it that someone so close could end up so far away? There hadn’t even been a falling out or fight. The real killer of the best friendships wasn’t animosity, it was simply time. Too much time, too much space, and not enough luck. Jessie wished it HAD been over something tangible. Whenever she remembered her old friend and how they hadn’t spoke in so long she wished she could get angry at them about it. She wished that she could just fire off a pithy email, let all her frustration at missing her friend become viable anger, that they could do or say something that would justify her being mad at them rather than at a feeling. But Jessie didn’t become the secret ruler of the world by not being smart enough to see a road that went nowhere. Pushing those thoughts deep down, she went back to the reports her super nerds had put together on the viability of using Rotom to create a new internet.
In between the far-longer-than-text-messaging-warrants texts from Brock about the meeting, Misty scrolled through her news feed. Dawn had a new article bemoaning millennials’ lack of interest in Pokemon Contests. There was an article by Professor Bianca on the possible ecological impact of manifesting physical organisms from the ‘Dream World’ that Misty bookmarked for later. Finally, the Guardian had an article by Professor Cheren covering the growing “New Plasma” movement in the Unova region. Misty only read far enough to see Cheren mention “no-platforming by leftist trainers” before closing the browser.
“Your Golduck can perform its Hydro Pump move five times without resting. That alone produces hundreds of gallons of water. The fact that we allow anyone anywhere on the planet to go without drinking water is ludicrous!”
Misty was starting to regret texting Brock to ask what she missed at the meeting.
“To be fair, Brock, you are then asking people to drink duck spit.”
It was great that Brock had discovered activism and was becoming passionate about it, but it would have been nice if he would have asked her or Sabrina for advice or information first. Or at least not always assume that they required a speech rather than a conversation. Or that someone who ran multiple therapy pokemon programs for lower-income citizens out of the Celadon Gym would have no idea what she was ever talking about.
“Actually, the Psyduck line are platypuses-”
Misty closed her Pokedex.
As a young child, Ash had resented the “hikers” most of all. The Pokemon journey was supposed to be this grand adventure for kids like him, for them to finally stretch their legs and become adults. Then here were these bristley men, already adults, trying to shoehorn their way into a young person’s journey. Preying on the kids with more pocket money than battle sense. As he got older, he started seeing them in a different light. They were heroic figures, refusing to give up their journey for social convenience. They were almost the ideal trainer in that they lived out under the stars with only their wits and their Pokemon to aid them.
Now Ash was 31, scratching his uneven beard, leaning against a roadside cliff in wait for a traveler to pass by so that he could battle for enough money to get some antidotes, and wondering which of those two perspectives he now embodied. When did he stop being a kid and start being an adult anyways? Wasn’t a change like that supposed to be sudden, rather than agonizingly gradual?
Was it when he first put Pikachu into a ball?
Was it WHY he first put Pikachu into a ball?
Mewtwo wondered just how many of the humans were are aware of how many Pokemon, most of whom are sentient and many of whom are either humanoid or can directly connect to wifi using some biological means, are on social media. How many of them realized that their dankest memes most likely came from typed from the fingers of a Kadabra or Mr Mime.
He also wondered how weird would it be to accept Mew’s friend request now after it had been sitting in his inbox for a decade or so.
Cole twirled the glass of red wine in her hand as she distracted herself from work with yet another instagram search for cute pictures of Growlithes in cardboard boxes. She knew these wouldn’t cure her writer’s block, but at this point in the day she was less looking for a cure and more looking to a way to make time move by just a little faster until she could convince her brain it was late enough where she didn’t need to try and force anything out. There would be time to finish the next great Kanto novel later, and even more time to feel guilty about not having written another eight of them already.
“Chim chim chimecho!” The familiar cry was soon followed by the tinkling of bells and the feeling of the creature’s long flat tail wrapped around her face in affection. You could always count on Pokemon to provide a distraction from both work and feelings of inadequacy. If such creatures didn’t exist, people would have had to invent them.
As Cole unraveled the creature and playfully scratched its ears, she thought about how much had changed in the past 20 years. Specifically, how much she had changed, and how much unquestionably it had been for the better. Despite that fact, the only ones who hadn’t questioned it had been Pokemon. When Cole didn’t recognize herself, or when things had been at the worst and she felt alienated even from the people she loved most, the Pokemon had always been there. They didn’t require any explanation when she left Team Rocket, or when she changed her name. When it came to beloved Pokemon, she didn’t have to fear the long silences that spring up between beloved people separated by time and space. A Pokemon she hadn’t used since she first became a trainer would be just as excited to see her if she chose it today. There was no neurotic fear or second-guessing with them. They knew who she was, unequivocally. Friendship with Pokemon could never, would never, replace that between people, but it helped.
No matter how easy it was for Cole to get jaded, it was that indistinct quality that Pokemon had deep inside that kept her solid in this world. It didn’t matter how many there were. It didn’t matter if their shared world kept repeating the same stupid stories and mistakes. It didn’t matter if none of them made any sense once you started thinking about them too hard. What mattered was, there was something inside them, something that called out and touched something inside of people. As alienated as people were, that quality was always going to be there, if only as a possibility.
Cole’s Pokedex rang. Sabrina was on her way home, and she was bringing pizza. Arceus bless that woman.
The kid had made eye contact. By law, Ash could now challenge him. The kid was obviously new to the game, and it didn’t require much in the way of battle strategy, but there was still plenty to plan in terms of which of his Pokemon could use the best use the tiny boost of experience. How to best, and most quickly, optimize his team.
Ash instinctively licked his lips as the kid’s last Pokemon, a recently caught Sandshrew, fell easily before his Snorlax. There would be nothing unexpected here. Collecting the kid’s spare change, he opened his Pokedex to check the EV levels of his own newer Pokemon when he say the text message.
“Ash. There’s a new region opening up. Probably at least going to be another hundred new Pokemon. I’m sending you the link. Hope this finally lets you finally hit rock bottom. Smell you later.”
A new region. A new chance to define himself. A chance to do things differently. Or maybe, instead, a chance to walk away. A chance to define himself now, as Ash, here in the present. A chance to avoid the same mistakes and create a new future for himself. Ash looked up at the sky, scanning it for any signs of how he felt when his first journey began. Some clue that either choice would give him what he so desperately wanted to find.
“Oh well,” he thought as he opened the link, “Gotta catch ’em all, I suppose.”