Penny stood stunned. On one hand she could see how Juliana came to the conclusion that she did. Ortega did grab her only a moment before that horrible series of events occurred. Just watching Juliana’s body stretch and change like that was terrifying. If Penny had been in her position, she’d be looking to blame the nearest person she could, all logic thrown to the wayside.
On the other hand…Ugh!
“Well?” Juliana demanded, still a touch out of breath as she held her Poké Ball aloft. “Do you accept my challenge or not?”
Penny breathed deeply. Fair or not, she had to take charge here. Maybe it was different than directing Team Star from behind the scenes, but she was still their leader. It was her job to guide them through this.
“Of course we accept your challenge,” she said as boldly as she could manage. “Team Star follows its code. But we expect you to stand by our rules as well. You need to face thirty of our members first before Ortega.” And when in doubt about what to do next, stalling’s not a bad option.
Ortega called for the members to regroup, assuring them the giant-student-related danger had passed. Once everyone had huddled together–including Ortega’s tutor–Penny leaned down and whispered, “Listen. We need you all to buy us as much time as you can.” She glanced to Ortega. “Would any of your Pokémon listen to another trainer if you lent them out?”
Ortega didn’t look happy about this, but replied, “Mr. Harrington knows my Dachsbun pretty well. Likes his piano music. But that’ll leave me short a team member.”
“Go ahead and do it,” she said. “I’ll back you up with one of my own team members.”
Ortega frowned at the suggestion but passed his Poké Ball to his tutor all the same. Penny ended with instructions to the scorekeeper to keep her and the others updated on Juliana’s progress. With the group invigorated and ready to fight, Penny pulled the two bosses back towards the tents. Arven’s gaze stayed locked on them the entire time.
Penny never went anywhere without proper equipment. Once inside Ortega’s “office,” she sat down in his swivel chair and laid her Eevee bag on her lap. From there, she extracted a thin, tablet-like collapsable monitor and a tri-fold keyboard. She laid them out across Ortega’s desk, which was quite comfortable to sit at. If she was going to get stuck frantically planning countermeasures to Juliana’s attack, this wasn’t the worst place to do it.
“We need to know everything we can about Juliana and Arven,” she said as she tapped on her phone. It immediately recognized the hardware and connected to it. The keys glowed with a soft blue light, and the monitor lit up with a mirror image of the phone’s screen. “Ortega, start talking, please.”
“You and Arven obviously know each other,” Giamono said. He glanced at his phone. “Also, Juliana’s taken out three members already.”
“We knew each other as kids!” Ortega protested. “That’s it!” When no one bought this excuse, he relented and stepped behind Penny to look over her shoulder as she typed. “Okay, okay. Look, the last time I saw Arven, we were both eight years old. My family provided the angel funding for his mom’s research, so we always had access to her data and prototypes and all that stuff before anybody else did. Sometimes my parents let Arven and I hang out together at her lab. I’d bring this double-stacked bento box with me for lunch, which Arven always thought was the coolest thing ever. One day his mom was extra busy, and we didn’t know where to sit and eat, so I started looking–“
“Not to rush you, but we only have so much time before Juliana takes out our first line of defense,” Penny said. Her fingers itched to put her devices to good use. “I could use the quick version here.”
“Eight members down,” said Giacomo.
“I was getting there!” Ortega huffed. “The quick version is that something in his mom’s lab terrified me that day, and I never wanted to go near her or Arven again afterwards.” He gritted his teeth and faced the corner of the tent. “Arven doesn’t know. He thought I’d suddenly decided he was below me or something.”
“I’m sorry,” Penny said, hoping to strike a balance between sympathetic and can-we-please-hurry-it-up. “What do you know about him now, though? What’s most important to him that might get him over to our side?”
“I don’t know anything about him now,” Ortega said. He pulled out his phone and tapped through to his contact list. “I still have his contact info. But he blocked me a while ago. I blocked him back out of spite at the time, but–hey!”
Penny had already snatched the phone out of Ortega’s hand around when he said “blocked him back.” She fumbled around in her bag, pulled out an extra cable, and added Ortega’s phone to her set-up. The monitor showed a split screen, and she enlarged the one displaying Ortega’s data first. After a quick glance at what she had to work with, her fingers flew across the keys, her brain happy to communicate in a language that didn’t have a million different ways the receiver could misinterpret the message.
This model of Rotom Phone didn’t really block new messages. Instead, it stashed messages from unwanted senders in a trash folder, set to be deleted. And even then, phones of all types were horrible at actually deleting data.
“Fourteen members down,” Giacomo said, his normally cool and collected tone waning.
Arven must have decided to unblock at Ortega at some point, because with a little bit of prodding, Penny found several recent messages from him. Ortega looked more and more upset as she scrolled through each one, starting from the last school term: Hey, know we haven’t talked in a while, but Mabosstiff is hurt bad. Or sick, maybe? Potions and centers aren’t helping. Does your family know anyone who could help?
The next message didn’t come until a couple months later: Been doing some research. Have you heard of this stuff called Herba Mysitca? Think the titan Pokémon might be connected to it. I’m gonna go check them out but could use some backup. Please?
Then right as the current term began: Forget it. I’ll find someone else to help. Or go on my own. Have a nice life.
Ortega rubbed at his eyes. “That’s important to him,” he said in as steady a voice as he could manage. “Mabosstiff was always there for Arven when his mom wasn’t. If it’s sick, Arven would do anything, and I mean anything, to help it. I’m kind of shocked he’s with Juliana instead of hunting down one of the titans now.”
“Juliana’s up to twenty wins,” Giacomo said. “Hey, you think maybe she’s helping Arven with this titan thing? She seems strong enough for it.”
“Let’s assume that’s the case for now,” Penny said, then continued her work. In short order, she also recovered some odd spam messages from the supposedly deleted data. She was set to ignore them, but the awkward phrasing caught her eye:
tH3 w0R1D 1S unST4Bl3. O0DS of S4ving AR3… Accompanied by an image file. Finding it clear of any malicious code, Penny previewed it: a photo of a Tandemaus, its two faces blank, a number written across each of its stomachs: “92”
Odds are ninety-two? Okay, that was ominous. But then Penny saw this wasn’t the only such text Ortega had received. Scrolling down she saw two more nearly identical ones, the first was from a week and a half ago, and the second had come in only yesterday.
The messages were the same. But the numbers on the two Tandemaus had changed to 89 and 86.
So according to whoever sent these, the odds of us saving Paldea are…going down? Penny shook her head. It wasn’t like her to waste time on nonsense like this. Especially when there was little of it to waste.
“Any idea what these are?” she said, showing the texts to Ortega.
He shivered. “Ew. Creepy. But no. I haven’t seen anything like that.”
“Doesn’t look like a mass text,” Penny said. “But it could easily be some creep who doesn’t like your family.” She rescued them from the trash bin for further investigation later.
“Mr. Harrington is fighting Juliana for her thirtieth win,” Giacomo announced. “And, uh…this happened.” He turned the phone around to show the group the white glow of a Pokémon in mid-evolution. Juliana had come in here with a Tinkatuff. And now it was a Tinkaton. A very maniacal-looking one at that. On the ground beside it lay Dachsbun, falling into a faint.
“Doesn’t change our plans,” Penny said. “And anyway, it would be rude to embarrass Juliana by beating her too quickly.” Wish I felt a fraction as confident as that sounded. She unplugged the two phones and returned Ortega’s to him, along with Sylveon’s Poké Ball. “She knows Moonblast, Quick Attack, Baby-Doll Eyes, and Shadow Ball,” she told him. When he hesitated to take it, she added on, “It’s only if you get backed into a corner. Now let’s get the Starmobile and show them what Team Star is made of.”
When the Team Star trio reappeared on the field, things weren’t looking great. Grunts were kneeled down beside their fallen Pokémon, feeding them potions and revives, along with every sort of drink the vending machines would spit out.
Mr. Harrington had recalled Ortega’s fainted Dachsbun and sent out a Meowth. Not normally a Pokémon he battled with, Ortega noted to the group; it was more of a companion.
He must be giving this all he has for Ortega’s sake. Penny had her eyes on Tinkaton. It let out a shrill cry and raised its hammer in a showy fashion, but it also looked fatigued. Maybe Ortega wouldn’t even need to use Sylveon.
“Don’t you have any other Pokémon?” Arven asked Juliana. “You can’t use one for everything! It’ll run out of moves.”
“I know that!” she said. “And of course I have another Pokémon. Do I look like the type of person who would lose my Pokémon?”
Well, that sounded aggressively defensive, Penny thought. Maybe Juliana one of the people whose Pokémon had simply vanished in the series of anomalies. Or perhaps had one of them run away from her?
Either way, Juliana did take Arven’s advice, recalled Tinkaton, and sent out another Pokémon…this one in a Premiere Ball. A blast of cold blew across the field, accompanied by a mighty roar and a bulky, white-furred body.
Arven staggered back. “Wh-when did you get a Beartic?”
“Honestly? I stumbled into a tera raid with a bunch of trainers way better than me. It’s been my stronger Pokémon for a while. Especially after I gave it all the experience candy I had. But it usually ignores me. Or attacks at random.” She put her hands on her hips and tapped her foot. “I wonder if it gave those other trainers a hard time, too. Once I terastallized Tinkatuff, they all kind of vanished from the raid.”
“Uh…” Arven did not look comfortable with any of this. Penny wondered if they should evacuate the base before Juliana’s Pokémon decided to freeze it over Team-Plasma style.
“Th-they must have been intimidated by how strong Beartic is,” Juliana said with a weak, uncertain laugh. “But I bet it listens now that I’ve got Larry’s gym badge. Let’s see…” She quickly pulled up her Rotom phone. “Blizzard, Rest, Superpower, and Sheer Cold. I’m not happy with its moveset, but I haven’t really time to change it around much, and–oh! Superpower is a fighting move!” She tucked the phone away and turned her attention back to the battle. “Beartic, use Superpower!”
Beartic roared and charged full-force into Meowth. Penny winced, expecting to see the poor little thing flattened. This Beartic was high-level. Well, not on Sylveon’s level, but it could certainly hold its own against any of Ortega’s team. And that was concerning.
But when the dust settled, the audience let out a collective gasp. Meowth had taken heavy damage, but she was not knocked down.
“My little Meowth does love her focus sash,” Harrington chuckled. “Now, then, let’s see…use Spite!”
Meowth growled and swiped at the air. The shadow of its claws stretched out and formed a gloomy dark-purple haze around Beartic. The massive Pokémon shook it off, but looked confused when it went to raise its paw again.
“Superpower’s been drained!” Juliana groaned. “Beartic, Blizzard! Keep Blizzard-ing until we win!”
“Meowth, Endure! Then use Spite again!” Harrington called out. The pint-sized little cat dug its claws into the ground, bracing itself against freezing chill of the Blizzard attack. She was hardy and determined, even in the face of everything working against her. Actually, it reminded Penny a lot of the Sprigatitio she’d rescued back in her dorm.
Meowth and Beartic seemed to have compatible speed, and this time, Meowth got the upper hand. Spite took out all Beartic’s uses of Blizzard, causing its second move to fail. Harrington ordered a Play Rough next, and Juliana ordered a Sheer Cold. This time, Beartic went first, and Sheer Cold landed. Meowth fainted instantly in the blast, and even from a distance, the Ruchbah Squad members shivered. So much for good luck, Penny thought.
Harrington gave Juliana a polite bow before stepping down and handing the stage over to Ortega. He gave the Starmobile’s engine a good loud rev as he pulled it forward. The billowing pink flag seemed to energize the members watching. Ortega then stood on the seat and announced the start of the match.
Juliana recalled Beartic and sent out Tinkaton as her first Pokémon. The shiny, heavy hammer was enough to strike fear in the heart of any fairy-type enthusiast. It certainly made Penny shudder.
To his credit, Ortega did try to sound cool and confident. It just didn’t quite come out that way.
“Oookay, so…you’re Juliana,” he said. Then he seemed to collect himself a bit, put his foot up on the car’s dashboard and leaned forward. “I-I mean, talk about underwhelming. Took you, what? Nineteen minutes to beat my crew? You almost ran out of time.”
“Your last guy was really hard!” Juliana objected.
Ortega shrugged. “Whatever. Not like I’m gonna lose to you anyway.” He flashed a grin and gave a theatrical twirl before sending Azumarril out to face Tinkaton. “Glad you have enough sense to know fairy types aren’t all about cuteness. But you still made a big mistake challenging me with them. Azumarril, use Charm!”
Azumarril twirled the same way Ortega had, sending a flurry of pink hearts in Tinkaton’s direction.
“Tinkaton, Gigaton Hammer!” Juliana called out.
Her Pokémon charged forward and hit Azumarril with a clang that echoed across the squad base. But loud and powerful as it sounded, Azumarril appeared more or less unfazed. It threw out another Charm attack to weaken Tinkaton’s attack even more. Then Ortega started with the Aqua Tail attacks.
Like Beartic with Blizzard and Superpower, Tinkaton was quickly depleted of its best move, leaving it with Skitter Smack, Play Rough, and Flash Cannon. Penny stood back, watching with pride at Ortega’s success. This is what a team was supposed to feel like.
Struggling with the effects of Tinkaton’s devastated attack power, Juliana switched back to Beartic. “Sheer Cold!” she commanded. Not that Penny or anyone else was worried. After all, what were the odds of–
A blast of icy air burst from Beartic’s mouth and hit Azumarril smack in the center of its bright blue take-all-hits tummy. It swaggered off balance for a moment before it fell over. Fainted.
“Lucky shot!” Ortega growled, pulling back Azumarril and sending out Wigglytuff. “Why don’t you just try that again? I dare you!”
Juliana narrowed her eyes. And she did try again. Penny’s heart sank as Sheer Cold hit its mark for the third time in a row. Hesitant to resort to Penny’s Sylveon, Ortega sent the Starmobile’s Revavroom, only for it to meet the same fate.
Penny shook her head, trying to process what she’d witnessed. Sheer Cold hitting four times in a row? The odds of that were less than one percent. Either Juliana was the luckiest trainer in the world or something else was happening.
Penny thought of the strange photos Ortega had received and swallowed hard. Can the anomalies affect statistics, too? How do we fight them if they can? She forced her eyes to stay on the match. But she barely registered as Ortega sent out her precious Sylveon. The last thing she wanted was to see her own Pokémon taken out in a single logic-defying hit.
Only this time when Beartic released Sheer Cold, it didn’t work.
Or rather, the attack itself worked, but Sylveon seemed to shrug it off. Penny’s heart leapt from the pit of her stomach back into her chest. Sylveon’s at too high of a level to be affected!
And so she was. The pink and blue Eeveelution let out a Moonblast at Ortega’s command. Beartic’s special defense wasn’t as shabby as its speed, but after two hits, it was on the ground.
Giacomo cheered, but Ortega looked like he’d swallowed some extra-bitter Aguav berries. He’d wanted to win but not this way.
Tinkaton came out next and landed a couple of super effective hits on Sylveon with Flash Cannon. But after all the battles she’d had so far, Tinkaton’s uses of Flash Cannon were soon gone, too.
“Let’s finish this!” Ortega said, raising his hand. “Shadow Ball!”
Sylveon glanced back at Penny, who nodded at it encouragingly. Her Pokémon gave a melodic cry, shot a cloudy ball of purple mist in Tinkaton’s direction, and braced itself for the returning attack.
Except it didn’t come. Tinkaton swayed back and forth several times before it dropped its hammer with a deep thunk and fell to the ground.
“W-we won?” asked Giacomo in an awed whisper.
“They won!” Juliana moaned. “How could this happen?” She shoved her two Poké Balls in her pockets and headed for the gates.
Ortega stomped his foot, clearly unhappy with his technically illegal win. If this had been an official match and someone saw him take Penny’s Poké Ball, they’d have declared Juliana the winner by default. Instead of landing with a clang, his foot phased in and out of the Starmobile’s floor, causing him to lose his balance. Penny and Giacomo hurried up to catch him.
“I’m fine,” he said, pushing them off once his feet were on solid ground. “The base is safe, so let’s just get back to work already.”
Penny let go and looked back, expecting to see Arven halfway to the gate alongside his friend. Instead he walked up to Ortega, his eyebrows furrowed in what could have been any number of intense emotions. Penny never claimed to be good at reading people.
“That Sylveon wasn’t yours, was it?” Arven said quietly. “You don’t keep your Pokémon in anything other than Luxury Balls.”
If there was one thing Ortega detested more than winning by cheating, it was getting caught in the act. He held Sylveon’s Poké Ball defensively to his chest. “I’ll have you know this one was a gift!”
Arven crossed his arms. “A gift Pokémon?”
“In a standard, run-of-the-mill, cheap Poké Ball?”
Ortega looked down at the ground, flushing.
“Yeah, thought so,” Arven scoffed with a shake of his head. “Listen, I don’t know what crazy thing that was with Juliana before, but I don’t think you caused it. So I won’t say anything about Sylveon if you answer a question for me.”
“Sure.” Ortega swallowed hard, which gave Penny a sinking feeling what the question might be. “Ask away.”
“Did you ever get my texts?”
“N-not until today.” Even if it was the truth, the shakiness in his voice did Ortega no favors.
“That so?” Arven said, his own voice razor sharp. And why wouldn’t it be? They were asking him to believe his former best friend had missed all his cries for help months ago but had somehow found those messages again in Team Star’s time of need. Quite a convenient coincidence.
“I don’t know why I try with you,” Arven sighed. “Good luck whenever Juliana comes back here, because she’ll probably kick your butt.” He started towards the gate. Penny’s heart sank. Yes, the squad was safe, but what could it actually do now? They were both going to leave–the only person who could control when the anomalies affected him and the person who’d experienced the most extreme anomaly Penny had witnessed thus far. Even worse, they were going to drain Team Star’s resources trying to attack the bases over and over.
“We can help your sick Pokémon!” Penny blurted out.
Arven froze. “What?”
“I-if you’re after this Herba Mystica, we can help you. We have dozens of members across Paldea, and our crew bosses’ skills are top notch.” She had no idea where the offer had come from. She’d entertained it as a last-ditch plan, but it wasn’t like her to propose things without thinking them through.
For once, though, it felt like she could trust her gut. If any member of her team had been hurt like Arven’s Pokémon had, she’d take any path available. She bet he would, too.
“I have someone helping me already,” Arven said. But the doubt had already crept into his voice. He wasn’t after loyalty. He was after results. Heck, even if he did think Team Star was plotting Paldea’s destruction, he might still be in debate over this. But he wouldn’t admit it on the spot. They needed to give him an out for now and pull him in later.
Thankfully Ortega delivered. “Penny fixed my phone so I can’t miss your messages anymore,” he said to Arven. “Think about it at least and call us when you decide.”
Arven nodded and started walking away again, muttering a barely audible “We’ll see” under his breath. It wasn’t the well-calculated type of outcome Penny was used to. But for now it would have to do.