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Backwards Thinking

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Cinnabar Labs is usually a busy place to work. Malcolm has been working there since he finished grad school six months ago and he still hasn’t learned the names of all of his coworkers, let alone who all the working pokemon belong to.

Tonight, though, the lab is empty, leaving Malcolm alone with the whirring and rumbling of the machines. The pumps are especially noisy, sucking fresh seawater into the heater. It’s attempt number four at creating survivable conditions for the Kabuto in the tanks, going for a natural environment this time. Sterile hadn’t worked, and neither had trying to artificially recreate ancient seas.

The veteran researchers had already given up on this batch, unwilling to work a second all-nighter just to watch another failure play out. They’ll go over the tank footage tomorrow, take readings, examine the dead, and start over.

Malcolm can’t bring himself to follow their example. He’s asleep on his feet and hasn’t seen Grant in two days, but he just can’t leave while any of their test subjects are clinging to life. At least Mitzi is still here to keep him company; his Meowth snores softly from atop the water heater.

There’s only one Kabuto left now, Subject 26. It’s not the one Malcolm would have pegged as the most hardy of the bunch, given that it was missing a front claw from the moment they revived it. Still, it’s hanging in there, scuttling in a lopsided loop around the tank.

Malcolm watches as it carefully balances itself on its back legs to spear a chunk of food left on the tank floor. It’s a much slower movement than even the more sickly Kabuto he’s seen try to eat. Malcolm wonders if that’s why this one died the first time, getting outcompeted for food.

Wait.

All the pokemon they’re working with are fossil pokemon, which means they died once already. Healthy, fit pokemon don’t usually just drop dead on the seafloor. Of course all the ones they’re reviving are dying right away; the machines are calibrated to alter them as little as possible from their state at the time of fossilization, a time when they were dying.

He scrambles for the phone, attached to the wall near the door, and calls his home number. It rings for a long while before Grant answers, his voice hoarse with sleep.

“Hello?”

“Babe, it’s me, I need you to–”

“Malcolm, it’s two in the morning–”

“Grant, it’s important, I’m bringing a Kabuto home, I need you to start up your prototype right now.”

“Wait, what?”

“They need medical attention, Grant, that’s why they’re dying, I’m not letting this one die too!”

“Okay, okay! I’ll wake K, we’ll be ready when you get here.”

“God, I love you, I’ll be home soon!”

*

Malcolm hangs up without another word, leaving Grant listening to the dial tone. He groans and leans his head against the wall for a moment, takes a deep breath.

Okay. He’s got this. It isn’t like this is the first time Malcolm’s woken him up with an impending disaster. “Crisis” has been Malcolm Garcia’s default setting since they met. Sure, there were never any extinct pokemon dying in their living room, but whatever! He can handle it.

He hangs up the phone and beelines straight for the nest of blankets his Kadabra made their armchair into. Grant keeps offering to get him a real bed, but he’s too territorial about his chair to even consider it.

“K, wake up, we’ve gotta work,” Grant says, nudging the pokemon’s shoulder. K grumbles in protest and curls further into a ball.

Grant sighs. “It’s important, buddy. I’ll toast you some waffles if you get up.”

K opens one eye, glaring at his trainer. He takes a moment to consider the offer, then reluctantly uncurls, psychic power kicking in to untangle him from the blankets. He extracts his spoon from wherever he hides it when he sleeps; Grant has never been able to really figure it out.

One, food. Two, work.

Kadabra only have two fingers and a thumb, so the signs they taught K are a rough approximation rather than real Kanto Sign Language, and full sentences are a bit beyond him, but he communicates well enough.

“Nope, work first. Malcolm’s bringing home one of his living fossils. Apparently they’re sick.”

K gives Grant a skeptical look. Fossil dead. Ghosts.

“Probably closer to zombies than ghosts,” Grant says, leading the way into his workshop. “Ghosts stay dead.”

K replies to that one verbally, an unsettled scratchy sound.

“I feel you, buddy. I feel you.”

Grant’s workshop is a gutted guest bedroom, filled with oversized machines that have half their casing removed. He worked at Silph’s main office until Malcolm got the job offer out here, but arranging a project he could work on remotely wasn’t hard. Silph’s wild success with mass-produced pokeballs four years ago had funded all sorts of other efforts. It’s also drastically changed the competitive training scene, with trainers suddenly having cheap, easy access to what used to be an expensive commissioned tool. Silph has an automated healing device in the works to help Pokemon Centers keep up with demand.

Right now it’s glitchy as all hell, and Grant’s job is figuring out how to fix an issue where it’s compounding Psyduck migraines, making their psychic powers harder to control and leading to a lot of accidents.

There are eight sleeping Psyduck scattered across the workshop, and another two asleep in the treatment tank of the humming healing prototype. All ten are fitted with helmets monitoring their brain waves, labeled with their names and Grant’s contact information.

“K, could you get the Psyduck out of the machine?”

K makes a noise of affirmation and floats over to the prototype. Grant follows him, stepping over a few squeaky pokemon toys. He watches K levitate a Psyduck out of the treatment tank and catch it in his arms like a toddler, but turns his attention to the machine’s control panel instead of watching his Kadabra settle the little water pokemon in with the others.

There are no presets for Kabuto. Of course there aren’t, you know, because it’s extinct. What’s closest? Can’t program a full health guide for a pokemon he’s never seen, especially not on a time crunch; gotta build from similarities. From listening to Malcolm talk about his research, he knows there’s structural similarity to Krabby.

That’ll have to do.

*

Malcolm barrels into the house with Subject 26 in his arms and Mitzi clinging to his shoulder, her claws digging through his clothes. This was not a good day to forget her pokeball at home.

“Grant!” he calls into the dark of the hallway.

Grant nearly immediately opens the door to the lab, light spilling out.

“Malcolm, shhh! Half the Psyduck are still asleep!”

As if on cue, Malcolm hears a chorus of distraught quacking from behind Grant, who groans.

“Never mind, then. Come on, Malcolm, get your zombie pokemon in here.”

“Zombie?” Malcolm asks, but hurries into the lab anyways. It’s always a bit of a mess in here, but there’s real chaos right now. All of the Psyduck but one are now awake and not happy about it, milling about and complaining for breakfast. K is the hero of the day, as usual, herding them away from the prototype with gentle telepathic nudges. Malcolm is pretty sure none of them know why they’re moving. Their lives are lived in a state of perpetual confusion.

“New title. You brought them back from the dead, so they’re zombies now,” Grant says, talking in that overly fast way he does when he’s nervous-rambling. He’s already returned to his prototype, fiddling anxiously with the wiring.

Zombie fish.

“Not you too,” Malcolm says despairingly, but K is looking at the ailing Kabuto in his arms with open suspicion. Malcolm hugs Subject 26 closer, feeling oddly defensive.

“K, aquatic test conditions. Saline, not fresh,” Grant says quickly. K takes action right away, levitating himself up to the ceiling and pulling down some of the hoses hung there, out of reach of the Psyduck. He knows which ones they need without any further instruction, and hooks them up to the treatment tank. Grant flips a switch and the tanks start filling.

“Malcolm, we’re good, put the little guy in,” Grant says, still not looking up from his work. Malcolm follows K’s example and obeys without hesitation. The water is still pouring into the tank and he’s reluctant to put Subject 26 in until it’s settled, but it’s already been out of water for a while and Kabuto are supposed to be only semi-amphibious.

The machine whirrs to life and a faint glow comes from the floor of the treatment tank. Subject 26 scuttles unhappily around, claws slipping on the smooth metal.

“Don’t worry buddy, you’ll feel much better soon,” Malcolm says, reaching into the tank to pet the back of its shell.

K’s psychic pull closes around his wrist and tugs his hand back out of the water.

“Hey!” Malcolm complains.

No touching.

*

K is pouring an entire bottle of syrup onto his waffles. Grant just watches him, all desire to protest drained out of him by a monster stress headache. He feels like one of the damn Psyduck.

On the kitchen floor, a revitalized Subject 26 is making a clumsy attempt to play with Mitzi, while she knocks it away repeatedly with half-hearted paw swipes. Malcolm is watching them with a dazed smile on his face, but Grant has already seen him doze off and startle awake twice.

“What the hell are you going to tell your boss?” Grant asks.

“No idea,” Malcolm admits, dreamily. “Didn’t think that far ahead.”

“Idiot,” Grant says.

He can’t quite keep the fondness out of his voice.