This is the first of three chapters today.

"So, how does it feel?" Max asked. "This time around, I mean?"

Ash frowned for a moment, then realized what Max meant. "Oh, right – the turning fourteen thing?"

He shrugged. "Well… it doesn't feel like a very unusual day, really. I mean, after last time I had a birthday it involved Latios and Latias and stuff..."

"By comparison, a cake is frankly boring," Lucario agreed. "Still, at least this time there won't be a Fossil Apocalypse."

There was a thump as Max dove for cover.

When the Fossil Apocalypse in question duly failed to materialize, he got back up again.

"Are you sure that was wise?" Lucario asked.

"You tempted fate," Max pointed out, brushing grass off his knees.

"He's right, you know," Pikachu volunteered. "You did."

Lucario shrugged.

" old is our trainer, actually?" he asked Pikachu. "What definition would you use?"

Pikachu pondered that.

"I… think he might be nineteen by the amount of time he's experienced?" the Electric-type ventured. "Almost? It's hard to tell because of all the time travel."

"Now there's a problem that not many people have had," Lucario agreed.

He looked over to his trainer. "Ash? Okay?"

"Sorry," Ash apologized. "Just thinking about… well, how glad I am to share this all with you."

Pikachu shot him a grin, then jumped onto his shoulder. "Hey, Ash, don't be like that – I need someone to carry me around, right?"

Ash laughed.

"You'd better not have too much cake," he teased. "Or I might decide to pull you along in a cart instead."

"I like that idea," Lucario said.

Pikachu stuck his tongue out.

"You know, you're almost exactly a year younger than me!" Mawile told Aron. "What do you think of that?"

Aron looked up at her, tilting his head.

"...not sure," he admitted.

"That's okay," Mawile assured him, patting him on the head with a tink sound.

She looked up at Sceptile, sitting there with an amused look on his face. "Do you know how some of this goes?"

"Meganium and I are sort of learning as we go along," Sceptile replied. "Chikorita's being quite a handful… or a vineful, for Meganium."

"I guess that makes sense," Mawile agreed. "Every Pokémon is different, so you have to handle them in different ways."

"That's it exactly," Sceptile agreed. "And in some ways it's easier for us – we were both raised wild first, so we know a bit of how parents take care of young Pokémon. For Pokémon like Glaceon that would be different."

Mawile nodded, absorbing that.

Across the clearing, May was checking a list.

"Okay, so… I've got a present, Brock's got a present, and Max has a present," she said to herself. "That's good… and then we're meeting everyone else at Pallet Town later today."

"Checking the plans?" Brock asked. "Any last minute problems?"

"Don't think so," May replied with a shrug.

She checked the timings again. "It's kind of a pity that a lot of Ash's Pokémon are busy for the first part of the day."

"I don't mind, myself," Brock said, chuckling. "It means I'm not doing the cooking for the main meal."

Zorua pouted.

"That doesn't mean you won't have something to enjoy," Brock told her with a smile. "Marshtomp's had Delia's cooking before, he can tell you what it's like."

The Water-type nodded.

"It's not as sophisticated as Brock does," he judged, waving a watery paw. "But it's very tasty, hearty food."

"See?" Brock asked. "Told you."

They fell into a companionable silence for a bit, waiting for Ash to arrive from his morning walk.

Meanwhile, in Pallet Town, several Pokémon were all crowded around a large mixing bowl.

"Okay, so the next step..." Ivysaur began, looking down at the cookbook. "We need to add the eggs."

"Right!" Squirtle agreed. "I'll handle that!"

He posed. "Because whether it's cooking or combat, the almighty Squirtle is unbeatable!"

Absol bent down to say something to Ivysaur, using a paw to keep her chef's hat on as she did so.

"And that means that I can beat anything else – and that includes cake batter!" Squirtle went on. "So I'll-"

Ivysaur's vines snatched him off the countertop.

"Sorry," Ivysaur explained. "But I'm pretty sure that if you did that you'd end up ruining the cake."

"And what makes you think that?" Squirtle asked, picking himself up.

"Absol said so," Ivysaur countered, pointing at the Dark-type as she directed Primeape and Totodile. "And she should know."

Squirtle crossed his arms. "Well, I think she's just jealous. Hmph!"

Ivysaur nudged his friend. "And how badass is that?"

Squirtle studiously ignored him in favour of more muttering. "Besides, a true badass leader doesn't cook – instead they're the only person who enjoys the cooking of their comrades!"

"Then on your birthday we'll have Muk cook," Ivysaur countered.

Squirtle would later deny that he ever turned green.

"Ivysaur?" Absol called. "I think it's yoghurt next?"

Ivysaur checked the recipe to confirm, then used his vines to pass over a jar of yoghurt they'd measured out ahead of time.

"How does it seem so far?" he asked.

"Well, we've avoided a Disaster Cake so far..." Absol replied, then caught her hat as it was about to slip into the cake again. "Though admittedly maybe that's just because we've got enough time to make more than one?"

Back to the north of Dark City, Ash's friends – and all their on-hand Pokémon – crowded around in a circle.

"Okay, Ash," Brock said, passing the trainer a wrapped package. "Here's my present."

Ash took the package and began to open it. "Thanks, Brock."

"Don't say that until you see what's in it," Brock warned with a chuckle.

"Knowing your speciality-" Lucario began.

"No, it's not a trick," Brock said. "I was just trying to think of something that would be good for Ash on his travels."

Pulling the paper off, Ash saw – a field guide, to Pokémon of Kanto, Johto, Hoenn and Sinnoh.

Isn't that a bit like saying you want to replace me? Dexter asked, sounding offended.

"No, this is different," Brock told him. "Have a look."

Puzzled, Ash opened it, and paged through to the section on Pikachu.

Then he started to snigger.

"What is it?" May asked. "I didn't see this."

Pikachu peered over Ash's shoulder.

"That doesn't seem fair!" he protested. "I'm not a Fat Mouse Pokémon!"

He looked closer. "And I certainly don't electrocute people just because I'm bored… wait."

He used his tail to flip back a couple of pages – finding the entry on Fearow, which described it as 'basically a big flying bundle of feathers that found a spear'.

"Are they all like this?" he asked.

Brock nodded his confirmation. "That's right – it's a parody field guide," he elaborated. "I'm pretty sure they're all silly."

Lucario raised a paw to his chin. "I wonder what it says for Lucario."

"I checked that one," Brock replied. "Apparently you've all seen far too many wire fu movies."

"That's a pretty fun gift, Brock," Ash said, putting it down. "I guess it might take a while to read through, though..."

"That's fine," Brock assured him. "Take as long as you want."

Max was next. "Well..." he began, awkwardly. "I wasn't quite sure what I should get you, Ash – so I just figured I should get you something that'll be helpful on the road."

"You did?" Ash asked. "What is it?"

Max handed over the wrapped package, and Ash opened this one as well.

Inside was a blanket-like sheet.

"I… guess that's good?" Ash asked, unfolding it. "I mean, it's nice, but..."

Max chuckled, not offended by Ash's reaction. "It's made of some special new material – it's supposed to repel water, sand and dirt, so you can use it as a groundsheet or something to sit on no matter where you are."

"Huh!" Ash said, much more impressed now. "Okay, that's pretty useful – thanks, Max!"

Max waved his hand. "That's fine – hey, it means we'll be able to camp out more easily in Kanto, too, I got a big one."

"Does that count as a gift?" May asked.

"Ash is the one who can take it somewhere else," Max replied.

Ash chuckled. "Thanks, Max," he repeated.

May held out her present. "And this one's from me, Ash."

Ash paused, then started trying to get the blanket folded up again. It wasn't easy, as there was so much of it.

"I'll take it for him for now," Lucario said, taking the present, and they watched as Ash nearly disappeared underneath the dark blue blanket.

"The legendary Guardian of Aura, everyone," Pikachu sighed.

Some minutes later, the blanket had been tamed, and Ash tore the paper off May's gift.

"...okay..." he said, a little uncertain. "It's a Pokéball?"

He pressed the button, and it opened up with a click. Inside were two digital displays – the top one showing the time, in hours, minutes and seconds, while the bottom one showed a frozen time set at 8 AM.

"It's an alarm clock," May explained. "It can handle several different times, and you can give it some pretty complex rules for when it goes off."

She smiled sweetly. "And it's tough enough that it won't break if you throw it at the wall!"

Ash had to laugh at that, blushing at the same time. "Where did you hear about that?"

"I've been giving away your secrets," Pikachu said, deadpan.

"How did you hear about it?" Ash went on, turning to the Electric-type.

"Your mom!" Pikachu countered. "Really, she told me once."

"...dang it..." Ash sighed.

As they laughed amongst themselves, Aron tapped Max on the knee.

"Ron?" he asked.

Max looked down, smiling. "Hi, little guy. Sorry, I don't think I've worked out the Aura trick with you yet."

"He's asking about his nickname," Ash supplied. "He heard that your Pokémon all have nicknames."

"Oh, right!" Max said, snapping his fingers. "Sorry, Aron, I forgot about that..."

He frowned. "Well, I did have one idea… how's Ferris?"

Brock snorted.

"Nice one," he complimented Max.

Aron gave Brock a confused look.

"Ferrous is a word that means iron-like," Brock told them all. "So Ferris means you're like iron – it's a good name for a Steel-type."

Aron raised a foreclaw and tapped his forehead, nodding his approval.

"Ferris, then," Max confirmed.

"Nice to have you!" Arc said, giving Ferris a lick.

That just seemed to confuse the hard-skinned Rock-type. Arc didn't look like he'd got the expected result either.

" taste like bicycle."

"Have you been licking May's bicycle?" Max asked.

"He better not have been!"

The reaction to that was cut off by a beep from Dexter.

You have one incoming call.

"Huh," Ash said, as Dexter accepted the call. "Wonder who-"

He broke off, seeing who it was, and smiled. "Professor! Nice to see you!"

"Nice to see you too, Ash," the Pokémon Professor agreed. "And happy fourteenth birthday… or is it nineteenth?"

"Fourteenth!" Ash insisted promptly. "I've lived some of it twice, but it doesn't count for birthdays!"

"Of course not," Professor Oak agreed. "Now, I've had an invitation sent to me by another researcher, Professor Yung. He's very interested in the capabilities of all kinds of Pokémon, and he's apparently just had a breakthrough – so he asked me if I'd be interested in coming to take a look. Naturally I agreed, of course, but he's also said I can bring some guests."

"Does that mean what I think it means?" May said, leaning forwards.

"Of course, my mind went straight to my favourite Pokémon League Champion to accompany. But he's in Sinnoh, so I asked you."

Max snorted, and Lucario tried not to laugh.

"I guess it sounds interesting," Ash admitted. "What kind of research is this? I'm not the best at theory stuff, and I've never heard of a Professor Yung."

"Oh, Professor Yung has always been a practical man," Professor Oak replied. "He's been working on a way of training Pokémon without them needing to battle other real Pokémon, so I'm sure it'll be an interesting diversion."

"Sounds good!" Ash agreed. "Where do we need to go?"

"His lab's about four or five miles southwest of Cerulean," the Professor said. "I'll send you the coordinates, and you can head over there yourselves. Just let him know you're with me – I'll come over on Dragonite."

"Thanks, Professor," Ash smiled, as the call ended. "Let's see… we've got Pidgeot for me, Flygon for Brock, May's got Altaria… Max?"

"I could use Delta," Max said, a bit dubiously. "He still has trouble landing, though – at least on land."

Zorua piped up, flashing out of her Rockruff form and back to her base form. "I could do it!"

"You could?" Brock said, frowning, then snapped his fingers. "Oh, right – of course, if you turn into a Flying-type who flies with their wings then you could carry Max."

"Right!" Zorua confirmed, jumping into the air and transforming into a Pidgeot. "See?"

Max examined her. "I… have reservations about this plan."

"Come on!" Zorua-as-Pidgeot yipped. "It'll be fine!"

Pidgeot flared her wings, beating them once to cancel out her forwards momentum, and she alighted on the lawn as light as thistledown.

"That's always really impressive," Ash said, jumping down from her back and patting her on the neck. "It amazes me how well you just… float over the ground when you're landing."

Pidgeot chirped, glad for the praise.

Next to her, Altaria came down to land. Like the other Flying-type, May's Pokémon was able to land softly enough that he barely left an impression on the grass.

May undid the flight harness, smiling as Altaria hummed his contentment, then they all looked up as Flygon buzzed over.

Unlike the other two, Flygon preferred to hover for his landings. He stopped a little in front of them, then went straight down until his claws touched the grass.

Then Zorua came in.

Unlike the others, she did not know how to do a perfect landing. She hit the ground a little too fast and hard, and her illusion broke – sending Max sprawling across the grass, though fortunately he didn't hurt himself too badly.

"...oops," Zorua yipped, picking herself up out of a grassy scrape and shaking the bits of vegetation off.

She switched back to Rockruff with a flicker of blue light. "Uh… sorry?"

Max shook his head, picking himself up off the floor and waving off an offer of assistance from Brock. "Next time, we do it the harder way..."

Pidgeot and Altaria vanished into their Pokéballs, and Flygon followed a moment later after Brock retrieved his bag from the Dragon's back.

"So..." Ash began, looking over at the lab building before turning his attention to Brock. "How important is this guy? This is the first I've heard of him."

"Well..." Brock shrugged. "I heard of him once. He was working on a kind of medical scanner, so it was mentioned in my course. I don't know what's different this time..."

"I guess we should ask Professor Oak," Ash agreed. "Wonder when he's getting here?"


They turned at the shout, and saw Misty running towards them.

"Misty!" Ash waved back. "Great to see you!"

"You too, Ash!" Misty agreed. "It's your birthday, right? Sorry I didn't get a present – I didn't think I'd have a chance to see you!"

"That's okay," Ash assured her, then blinked as she passed him a Pokéball.

"Caserin," she explained.

"Right," Ash realized, and his hand flickered blue for a moment.

"We'll explain later, Caserin," Misty added, for the benefit of her Luvdisc. "Anyway, what brings you guys here? Is Max going to challenge my old gym?"

"Not yet," Max said. "Though it is an idea for after Ash's birthday..."

"If it's not that, then what?" Misty asked.

"Professor Oak invited us as guests," Ash explained. "He should be showing up soon."

"Oh, huh..." Misty said, thinking. "That's kind of neat, actually – I should have asked if I could bring a guest, I bet Karen would be interested in this."

There was a whooosh overhead as a Dragonite went past at speed, then turned and slowed down to drop towards them.

"And here he comes," Max pointed out. "Unless that's Lance."

"It's Professor Oak," Ash supplied, shading his eyes.

"...actually, I do wonder why Lance wasn't invited," Misty mused. "Maybe he's busy or something."

"Ah, welcome!" Professor Yung said. "Samuel, I'm glad you could come – and I'm very interested to hear what your guests here have to think."

He stepped back from the door, letting them all into the lab itself.

Surprisingly, most of the laboratory consisted of a single massive room – going all the way to the roof of the building. There were all sorts of paraphernalia along the walls, most of it folded up and out of the way – a set of dozens of small laser projectors in a semicircle, five powerful cameras attached to a frame on a swing arm, and something that looked like a person-shaped suit made out of straps and wires.

The main focus, however, was a computer system against one wall. It had a shelf creaking with notes next to it, and several bright blue lights indicated that it was not only on but doing something.

"This is… pretty big," Ash said.

"Yeah, it reminds me of my old gym," Misty agreed.

She paused, then glanced at Professor Yung. "Actually, are you sure it's safe to bring Ash into a room this size?"

"Misty..." Ash sighed. "I don't do it much any more."

"Actually, he's right," May confirmed. "He didn't break most of the gyms in Hoenn, but Max did a couple. I think he's passed it on."

She put a thumb to her chin. "Though, now I think of it… Ash, you have been wrecking most of the Battle Frontier facilities."

"That's hardly my fault," Ash protested. "Well… apart from the ones that were. I guess we did have the Battle Pike in a tent instead because there was a risk we'd break it."

"There you go," Misty nodded. "If you've got something breakable around Ash, it gets broken."

Yung chuckled. "Well, fortunately, I did prepare for that. My projectors are well armoured, and many of them are out of the way – in places that are hard to reach and damage. But I take your point – none of this is irreplaceable, but a lot of it is expensive."

"Is there anywhere else?" Max asked. "It seems kind of… empty."

"Oh, the lab goes down three floors below ground," Professor Yung explained. "And about a third of the building is smaller workshops and experiment rooms. But this is the main area where a lot of the work is done."

He indicated the devices on the walls. "These are all part of my quest to accurately simulate a Pokémon – their movements, their behaviour, even their moves. And it is with this that I have created the Mirage System."

"Created?" Professor Oak said, noticing that term. "I thought you were working on the bugs even now."

"I am," Yung admitted, striding over to the computer system and inviting them to follow. "But I've managed to simulate Pokémon which are able to battle in the same way as real Pokémon – and strong ones."

He loaded up a program with a few deft button presses, and activated it – and, a moment later, there was a Charmander standing on the floor of the lab.

"Charmander," it stated in a monotone.

"That's… kind of freaky, actually," Ash said, one hand going to his ear.

"What's that?" Yung asked. "Oh – that's right, you're the boy who can talk to Pokémon, Well, speech isn't necessary for battle, so I haven't worked on it yet."

He tapped another control, and the Charmander fired off an Ember – sending the attack splashing over the tile of the lab floor, leaving a few scorch marks.

"That's a real attack?" Professor Oak asked.

"Real enough to do damage," Yung told him. "But I can turn the intensity down without affecting the realistic look of it."

He picked up a bulky tablet, hitting a control on the touchscreen, and the Charmander vanished.

"But that's not what I wanted to show you, Professor Oak – Elite Four Misty," he went on. "If you'll head back outside, I'd like to demonstrate the real breakthrough of the Mirage System."

Once they were all outside, on that nice lawn they'd landed on, Professor Yung tapped a few controls on his tablet.

Without any fanfare, a Pokémon appeared in front of them – a Machoke, standing still and silent.

"This is the Mirage System's true breakthrough," Professor Yung said. "Can one of you send out a Pokémon to battle this Machoke for a demonstration?"

Lucario stepped forwards. "I think I like where this is going," he observed, taking a stance.

"Very good!" Professor Yung smiled. "Now. Beginning demonstration!"

He activated a toggle on his tablet, and the Machoke sprang into action.

Lucario dodged backwards, blocking the first punch with a roundhouse kick, and lunged closer – landing a palm strike against Machoke's body with a crash.

Machoke flashed where the blow had hit, forced backwards by the sheer momentum of Lucario's palm, and Yung raised an eyebrow.

"Impressive," he said, and swiped a control. The flashing light disappeared, and the Machoke stood still again.

"What was that?" Ash asked.

"The Mirage System can register damage that has happened to the Pokémon it's simulating," Yung told him. "In this case, Lucario's blow was enough that it would have either knocked out or stunned the simulated Machoke."

"I'm fairly sure I've battled real Machoke tougher than that..." Lucario mused.

"In that case, let's try this option," Yung suggested.

He hit the control again, and the Machoke started attacking again – throwing a meaty punch at Lucario's forehead.

Lucario ducked aside, then swept his foot up in a snap-kick. This time, the quick shot didn't connect – the Mirage Machoke blocked with his free arm, then counterattacked with a kick of his own.

Ash's Fighting-type sprang into the air, going well above the attack, and formed a sphere out of Aura – one which he threw down with a flicker of blue movement, resulting in a white flash from the Machoke as it registered the damage.

This time, however, the Machoke kept going – the flashing stopped after three blinks, and Machoke launched a Fire Punch at Lucario as he came down. Lucario blocked with an open-palm Force Palm blow, the detonation of which sent him backflipping twice away from his opponent, and skated along the grass to come to a halt.

"This is one of the developments of the Mirage System," Yung said, raising his voice a little so it could be heard over the sound of Lucario's renewed assault. "The damage is just being registered by the system, so it can quickly re-generate the undamaged character model in order to continue the fight."

"So..." Max began, following that. "You mean that it's basically a Pokémon which can't be hurt for more than a few seconds, and that's not really real so it's a great training target."

"Correct," Yung confirmed. "Impressive, isn't it?"

He hit the pause button, freezing Machoke just as it was about to try a two-fisted blow against Lucario – though Lucario kept moving, sliding away and preparing for a counterattack until he noticed what had happened.

"This isn't the only quirk of the Mirage System," the professor explained. "You see-"

He paused, noticing Professor Oak signalling for attention. "Yes, Professor Oak?"

"Well," Oak began. "I was thinking about this just now, and – how does your system handle moves?"

"That's just what I was getting to," Yung told him with a chuckle. "I'm not limited to the moves that a Pokémon can normally learn."

He restarted Machoke back in the basic stance, then tapped a control. The Mirage Pokémon took a breath, then shouted – and as it shouted, it produced a powerful flamethrower.

Lucario raised his forepaws in a knife-hand block, sending the streams of flame deflecting away to either side, then spun away from the stream of flame. Rubbing his palms together, he kindled a little red glow between them – then launched a Flamethrower of his own right back at the Machoke.

"That's not very unusual," he said, as the streams of flame dissipated. "I learned how to do this from a Machoke."

"...okay, that's not what I was expecting," Professor Yung admitted.

He busied himself with his tablet again, and the Machoke vanished – replaced by a Swellow, which hovered in place with steady wingbeats.

Lucario's paws shifted a little as he got ready to fight, then he blinked as Blaziken walked in front of him and blocked his view.

"Excuse me?" he asked the Fire-type. "I was here first."

"You've had your turn for now," Blaziken replied. "I'd like a go."

Lucario raised a paw to try to protest, then lowered it and stepped back.

Yung observed the exchange with interest, then ordered Swellow forwards with a tap on the screen.

Swellow plunged downwards, only to get kicked comprehensively in the beak by the Fire-type.

Flashing to indicate the hit had scored, it hit the ground with a thump – then flickered, and was back to normal. It rose back into the air, and flew at Blaziken with greater speed than before.

Completely unperturbed, Blaziken kicked it in the breast hard enough to send it hurtling over the roof of the lab.

"While very impressive," Professor Yung began, "that's not what I was intending to demonstrate..."

"Blaziken is a very fast Pokémon," May said, proud of her starter.

"I can see," Professor Yung shot back, with a smile to defuse the remark a little. "But if you'll excuse me, I think I'll show my point with two Mirage Pokémon."

He recreated the Machoke from before, and spawned in another Swellow as well. The Swellow did a loop, then dove down on Machoke – and Thunderpunched it.

Everyone did a double-take.

"...what?" Misty asked, not quite sure what they'd just seen. "Did that Swellow just punch the Machoke?"

"Yeah, that looked weird," Ash agreed.

Yung chuckled, pleased at the reaction. "Within some limits of implementation, a Mirage Pokémon can have just about any moveset you desire," he stated. "Now, if you'd be so kind, I'm interested in collecting some stress-test data of the system. Are there any requests?"

Ash raised a hand. "How powerful can it get?"

"Very powerful," Yung answered. "I didn't want that to be a major concern, so there's a high density power reactor in the basement."

Professor Oak did a double-take, then looked back at the lab. "I… don't see a blow-off roof," he noted. "Is that safe?"

"A what?" Ash asked.

"It's a way of generating huge amounts of power," Max told him. "Like a fusion plant. But it's really unstable, too – if they're damaged, they explode."

"My one is built to a new design," Yung said. "There is no danger of containment loss during normal operation – just be careful where your attacks go."

"Are you sure this is a good idea?" Crobat asked.

Marshtomp shrugged.

"No, seriously," Crobat stressed. "If you decide to go along with it, that's one thing. But do think about it first."

Marshtomp paused, giving it the thought that his friend requested.

"I think it is," he said, eventually. "So I'm going to go ahead and do it."

He stepped forwards, and took a stance.

"Ready?" Professor Yung asked.

Marshtomp nodded, and then dodged to one side as the other Pokémon – a big, bulky Regirock – slammed a fist into the ground where he'd been standing.

Spinning, Marshtomp braced himself and lashed out with a punch of his own – one which hit Regirock with a thwack, but didn't seem to have much effect.

Unperturbed, Marshtomp lashed out with another punch. This one met Regirock's descending fist with a wham, and drove him two inches into the grass.

Sceptile backed past them, exchanging Leaf Blade attacks with a Doublade, and Crobat watched in some confusion.

"...why are you doing that?" he asked.

"It's good to get in some proper fencing practice," Sceptile replied. "Lucario's usually with Ash, Keldeo lives in Unova, and fighting Absol isn't like fighting anyone else."

He locked blades with the ghostly Steel-type, and forced it back a step – then brought his tail whipping around to add an extra hit to the combination. That broke the blade-lock, and he knocked one away from the other for long enough to land a Night Slash.

There was the little flash of a registered hit, and Sceptile nodded to himself.

As the boxing match continued, Professor Yung initiated the next request. A Delphox appeared without much fanfare, and Blaziken stepped forwards – ready to try conclusions with the magical Mirage Pokémon.

Delphox' wand flicked up almost immediately, with flames coming out of it in a rush before forming into the shapes of an array of snarling fire-foxes. They surged forwards, rushing around Blaziken's first kick, and one of them bit his ankle before the rest piled in.

Blaziken dove forwards into a half-roll, his strong forearms supporting him as he did a handstand, and he spun his legs around to fling the foxes of psionically-controlled flame off. The force of the kick made them all dissipate, and he rolled back upright before lunging towards Delphox once more.

The wizardly Fire-type waved its wand, forming a wall of flame, and Blaziken's first blow against it confirmed that it was solid rather than being simply intended to damage whatever went through it. As such, he crouched – then launched himself into the air, far higher than Delphox had built its wall, and lashed out with a High Jump Kick.

That connected, making Delphox flash once as it registered a damaging hit, and then a pulse of psychic force knocked Blaziken backwards.

This time the Delphox attacked with a burst of magic instead of fire, and Blaziken had to dodge and weave away from the bolts of force. His legs blurred as he kept moving, and he managed to avoid almost all of the attacks – a few of them slipping through to hit him nevertheless.

"How's it going, Blaziken?" May asked.

Blaziken shot her a thumbs-up, then turned back to his fight.

As he was doing that, Roland walked slowly around a Mirage Gallade.

"Hmmm..." he mused, thinking about it, then looked over at the Mirage Gardevoir he'd asked for as well.

"What do you think?" Max asked.

"I think… I probably made the right choice," Roland said, confirming his decision.

"Great!" Max smiled.

"But there's something else I'd like to try," the Kirlia went on. "Can you ask for a Riolu for me to try hand to hand combat with? I want to see how I'm coming along."

Max nodded, and relayed the request.

Professor Yung frowned. "A Riolu?" he repeated. "Hmmm… I'm sorry, I'm afraid the Mirage system can't do them at the moment – both Riolu and Lucario have something about them which the system can't render accurately, and if it tries the whole thing breaks down. I'm working on it, but..."

He spread his hands helplessly.

"That's a pity..." Roland said.

He concentrated, and asked his next question directly – with telepathy. Sorry, I forgot to ask directly… well, what I wanted to say was -is there another Pokémon I can try against?

"Oh!" Professor Yung smiled. "Well, I can certainly try – here, let's try a Mienfoo."

A Mienfoo duly appeared, perfectly still like all the Mirage Pokémon had been until activated.

Roland stood in front of it, and bowed. Then he took his stance.

"Ready?" Yung asked. "Then begin!"

There was a sudden and violent explosion from over where Mega Lucario was having his own sparring match.

"Come back here!" the Steel-type demanded, running past with his paws glowing with brilliant blue Aura.

The Mirage Deoxys he was addressing didn't seem like it particularly wanted to stick around – it was probably a tactical retreat, but it made it look like the Mirage Pokémon was running scared.

"I don't think I'll be using that one in promotional material," Professor Yung chuckled.

Marshtomp slid to one side as the Regirock tried to pancake him into the floor, then grabbed onto its arm.

After so many basic exchanges of punches, the move surprised the Regirock – if the word surprise could be applied to it. It moved the other beefy arm to try and sweep Marshtomp off, but the Water-type knew just what to do.

Pulling arm over arm, he clambered his way up to reach Regirock's shoulder. Swinging around the outside of it, he ducked another swipe which tried to remove him from the golem's body – then slipped into a position just behind the craggy 'peak' that served Regirock as a face.

Bracing himself, he started punching. The first punch made Regirock stumble, and then every second or third punch made it flash with the indication of a strong hit.

"Well, I've got to hand it to you – not bad," Crobat admitted, as Marshtomp broke off from his headpunching to punch away a rocky fist instead.

"It's not about how hard you punch, it's where you punch," Marshtomp confirmed.

"Excuse me, Mr. Professor?"

Professor Yung looked down, and saw a Mawile and a Manaphy standing politely to one side.

"Could we have a very cuddly Pokémon, please?" Manaphy asked him.

Professor Yung smiled, and searched through the files in his system. "Let's see… yes, this looks like it'll work."

Both the young Pokémon waited patiently, and after a few seconds a Stufful appeared.

Manaphy's jaw dropped.

"It's so fluffy!" Mawile announced cheerfully, and swept the Stufful up in a hug. "Come on, Manaphy! The fur is so soft!"

Manaphy joined in, smiling happily. "Thank you, Mr. Professor!"

Conditions met. Executing plan, variant 3.

Force levels required estimated.

Employing overwhelming force.

With a snap-crack of thunder, Pikachu blasted a Mirage Golem until it fell over.

"Hm..." Professor Yung frowned. "Perhaps that does still need tweaking..."

"Actually, no, Pikachu just does that," Misty assured him. "It's kind of bizarre, I know."

"Ah – wonderful," the Professor said. "That's good to know. Thank you all so much for the data you've been providing."

"So what do you do with all this data?" May asked, watching as Misty's Politoed traded blows with a Durant. "Do you just go over it to make sure you've got the right kind of statistics for the Pokémon?"

"Well, that is part of it," Yung told her. "But it's only quite a small part – the key is that by using the battle recordings, I can construct entirely new Pokémon data files. The analysis software involved was very complex, but now all I need to do to accurately simulate a real Pokémon is get enough direct observational data."

"Simulate a real Pokémon?" Ash repeated. "Do you mean intelligent, or..."

"Not intelligent, no," Yung told him. "It's just a matter of bits and bytes."

"So's Dexter."

"His Porygon," Oak explained.

"Ah, you have a Porygon," Yung noted. "Interesting – but no, that's not how it works at all. I specifically avoided using a Porygon for my analysis because I wanted the result to simulate all Pokémon from first principles, but a simulation is all it is."

Oak nodded. "So it's a little like the battle simulators we use in schools, but much more solid. I see."

"Indeed," Yung confirmed. "Observe."

He hit a button on his control pad, and a Mirage Milotic appeared.

Misty took a step back. "That's… so accurate it's actually a little bit uncanny."

Echoing her discomfort, Milotic slithered over and looked askance at her digital double.

"That's actually quite good news for me," Yung chuckled. "Part of my vision for the system is that it will allow people to train against all kinds of Pokémon in terms of skill – from simulated wild Ratatta to Pokémon like Lance's Dragonite."

"Lance's Dragonite is really tough," Ash agreed. "I can see how it'd be good to be able to regularly test yourself against that."

"Well, it depends on whether you can get him cold enough and wet enough," Misty contributed. "He's actually kind of vulnerable to getting cramps, oddly enough."

Ash blinked, a little startled by the reminder that Misty actually did regularly train with Lance.

"Well, anyway," Yung went on. "With this data, it's advanced my research by-"

The Mirage Milotic vanished. So did all the other Mirage Pokémon, which resulted in Manaphy and Mawile banging their heads into one another with a muffled ow.

"Professor?" Max asked. "What just happened?"

"I don't know," Yung said, tapping on the controls of his tablet. "It's frozen, I'm not sure-"

"Look!" Brock called, pointing overhead.

A Dragonite came flying into view, with a cloaked figure riding it.

"That's – that's just like my Dragonite!" Oak said. "Is that a Mirage? Professor, what's going on?"

The cloaked figure gestured, robes billowing, and suddenly there were dozens of Pokémon arrayed around it as it came down to land. Several Magnezone, magnets humming with power – at least three Alakazam – and, most chillingly, an entire army of Pokémon that were exact duplicates of those the friends had with them.

Pikachu stared – specifically, stared at another Pikachu, on the other side of the lawn. One with Raichu-mix cheeks.

"Oh, here we go again..." he sighed. "I hate fighting me."

Urgent warning, Dexter stated. I do not have any signal. There is immense broad-band electromagnetic interference.

"It must be those Magnezone!" Ash realized. "We need to stop them!"

Lucario took three steps forwards, and a perfect duplicate of May's Blaziken kicked him in the nose so hard he did a backflip.

Landing on blue-glowing paws, he scowled.

"If anyone can stop those Magnezone, do so," Professor Oak instructed, taking charge of the situation. "Dragonite, go and get-"

A Mirage copy of Dragonite rammed into Oak's Dragon-type, tackling him off his feet and sending both of them flying off into the distance. Oak's Dragonite recovered, hitting his opponent with a Dragonbreath full in the face, but the Mirage Pokémon barely seemed to notice and just retaliated with the same attack.

Ash grabbed Max and May and pulled them both to the floor as the whole area exploded into real-versus-Mirage battles.


So, yes, this is what I've been doing.

In case it wasn't absolutely clear, the events described here are something which did not happen in the original timeline – it's new to them.

This has... downsides.