Ortega knew better than to argue with the big boss of Team Star. Unfortunately Arven hadn’t quite gotten that lesson yet. Penny was still using her polite voice, but it had a clipped pitch that meant her patience was wearing thin.
Arven stood beside his bed and continued laying on the dumb questions. “So, wait, what are you doing, again?”
“I told you, analysis,” Penny answered. “Sit, please.”
Arven looked annoyed but sat on the edge of his bed anyway. Penny settled onto the computer-case-turned-ottoman and beckoned over the Porygon she’d gotten from Juliana. The creature looked like something out of an old low-poly video game. It floated alongside her as she pulled her knees up into a typing surface. Her tablet and its attached keyboard sat cradled in her lap, and her fingers moved in a blur across it, lines of commands reflected on her glasses.
Arven locked eyes with his old friend. Then he tilted his head towards Penny like Ortega was supposed to intervene on his behalf. Ortega pretended not to notice.
Which left Arven to fend for himself. “This wasn’t the deal. We agreed you could start after I got the Herba Mystica.”
“Originally, yes. Then we changed the agreement.” Penny glanced up from her typing. “Didn’t Juliana talk to you?”
“Juliana?” Arven glanced over, but Juliana had taken a sudden, deep interest in the fuzzy orange carpet.
“O-oh, yeah,” she said as she rubbed the back of her head. “I needed to convince Penny to do that gym battle with me. So I kind of said you’d let her start analyzing right away.”
“Uh-huh. And how were you planning to convince me?” Arven asked.
“Um…by telling you I said this, so you’d be a pal and bail me out of a super awkward situation?”
Arven’s scowl suggested she might have overestimated his sympathy. But they were so close to getting answers. Ortega couldn’t let Arven’s stubbornness hold them back any longer. “We have to wait for the rest of Team Star to arrive anyway,” he pointed out.
“And we’re pretty sure Penny is trying to save Paldea, not demolish it,” Juliana said.
Arven crossed his arms and let the tense silence sit in the room a moment before he gave his answer. “Ugh…okay, okay. I’ll do it.”
Relief poured over Juliana’s face, and she turned her attention from the carpet to Penny. “See? Not so hard,” she said. “Now when can you do something about these phasing episodes? They’re getting worse. Even I can tell.”
Ortega wasn’t exactly comfortable with hearing her say that. But he couldn’t call her wrong, either. His episodes used to be weeks or even months apart. Now it felt like they were happening every other day. From what he could tell, Arven’s issues were the same.
Penny nodded thoughtfully at Juliana’s comment, even as she still clattered away at the keyboard. “Yeah, but is it getting worse on its own? Or is there a catalyst?”
“A what?” Arven asked. “Did you say a ‘cabbage mist’?”
The group let out a collective groan.
“Y’know,” Ortega said, vindicated at hearing them all as exasperated as he was. “I’m less annoyed and more impressed with how you can mishear literally anything as a culinary term. You’re obsessed.” He leaned over to Juliana. “I told the boss this story already, but when we were kids, he was captivated with the stacked bento boxes I brought over. Gave a full run-down every time of all the amazing subtle flavors, and the–“
Arven’s face went scarlet as Koraidon’s scales. “Because I was hungry, you pampered dumbass!”
The room fell silent–Penny’s typing included, which was straight-up eerie.
Arven looked awkwardly around clearly not wanting to elaborate. Ortega hoped he wouldn’t. Ugh! How could I be so dense? Again and again, he’d assert that he was more than a rich, spoiled brat. Then, like clockwork, he’d blurt out something to prove the opposite.
“This is why no one takes you seriously!” he could still hear Mela yelling. “You say some stupid things, you know that?”
Juliana was leaning in towards Arven so much, she was practically up in his face. Arven shifted farther down the bed. “Will you all quit looking at me like that? I told you my mom sucked as a parent.”
“You didn’t say she starved you!” Juliana exclaimed.
“She didn’t! I mean, there was usually some kind of food in the house. Cereal or snack bars or whatever. Either Mom would bring them or she’d leave me cash to get them myself. I just hadn’t quite mastered food budgeting at age six, is all.”
Ortega was pretty sure Arven hadn’t meant to share all that. But his words filled the heavy silence, so he continued, “The chef at Ortega’s place is amazing. She’d put these delicious meals together. Usually with pretty simple ingredients so they’d travel well. And I’d keep thinking, ‘it’s not fair he gets to eat these all the time and I don’t.’ Then it dawned on me one day that if I made them myself, I could eat them all the time, too. I kept trying to pick out the flavors and discoverwhat kind of ingredients she used and how much.” He glared at Ortega. “And I swear, if you don’t wipe that pitying look off your face, I’ll do it for you.”
Now it was Ortega’s turn to flush. “Y-you can’t tell a story like that and then tell me not to have a pitying look!”
Juliana backed up, no doubt expecting another argument.
Penny broke the tension when she called out Espeon to sit beside her as she worked. “Drop it, both of you,” she instructed without lifting her eyes from the screen. “We’ve got enough issues as it is. You said you can start this thing on purpose, Arven?”
“Y-yeah,” he said, gripping the bed’s edge. “Usually goes off when I get scared, but…” He swallowed and gave an uneasy glance around the room. “…I can make it happen easy enough.”
Penny nodded but gave no further directions.
As they all waited for whatever the Team Star boss would do next, Ortega stood and stretched his arms. Juliana took a seat on the floor and drummed her fingers on her knees. “So…what feeling starts it for you?” she said.
Ortega thought this was a pretty stupid question, since Arven had just answered it. Then he realized Juliana was looking at him. His palms sweated inside his gloves. “Nothing we can tell. It’s random with me. That’s why studying the effect on Arven is so important.”
“Oh,” Juliana put a finger to her chin. “You sure it’s not anger or something? Because every time I’ve seen it happen, you’ve been stomping your foot.”
“What? I have not!”
Much to his embarrassment, Ortega’s foot came down hard as he defended himself. And like Juliana had predicted, it phased right through the wooden floorboards. He quickly yanked it back out, and a hiss escaped his lips. Would the effect ripple through his body again? Screw up his breathing? He tensed and waited, but at least this time, the anomaly cut him some slack. His foot rested solid on the floor, and his breathing remained normal.
Only his dignity had taken a fatal hit.
“Huh. Interesting,” Penny mused, staring at him over the edge of her screen. “When I’m done with Arven, I want you over here next, Ortie.”
Ortega hung his head. No point in arguing. “Yes, boss.”
“So what kind of analysis are you doing anyway?” Arven asked, looking thoroughly pleased that whatever Penny planned to put him through, his frienemy would have to deal with the same. “You got some sort of brain scanner on your phone?”
Penny rolled her eyes. “No. It’s just that Pokémon exist.” She pointed to Espeon. “And they can do things like read minds or auras or energy signatures. Some of them…” She now motioned to her new Porygon. “…can then transform those readings into data for a computer to interpret.” She lowered her head and went back to typing. “I thought I’d have to run home to Galar for a Porygon, but Juliana made this much easier. Ironically without meaning to.”
“Um…thanks, I think?” Juliana said.
Penny didn’t reply. Maybe Ortega hadn’t known her in-person for long, but he could tell the hyperfocus had set in. When the boss got absorbed in her work, nothing and no one could pull her out of it. She got up a few times, nabbing some experimental items for Arven to phase his hand into–a book, a plate, and the empty mayo jar he stashed his keys in. He succeeded with each try and was even able to float the objects around a bit before Penny told him to stop so she could recalibrate something.
“Hey, you know what would fill the time here?” Arven said after she’d gone a good ten minutes without asking him for anything. “Somebody telling me why they haven’t been to this lighthouse in…what was it? Oh, right. Six years.”
He didn’t have to throw Ortega any knowing glares to make his meaning clear.
“I guess I did promise to explain that,” Ortega said, head slumped. “But do I have to tell it with the boss and Juliana here?”
Arven shrugged. “If you don’t, Juliana’s going to bug me until I repeat it for her,” he said. “And then she’ll get the version with, like, three or four key words replaced with food items.”
“Hmph, fine,” Ortega huffed. He rolled the office chair a little closer to the group. He’d tell the story, but he wasn’t shouting it across the room. And he was telling it to Arven. The others could listen, but this wasn’t aimed at them. “Yes, it’s been six years since I last visited, all right? But we didn’t play in the lighthouse that day. Your mom took us to her lab by the crater.”
Arven nodded. “It’s a research station now. She built a much bigger lab inside the crater later on.” His gaze fell to the floor. “Pretty much lived there.”
“R-right. Anyway, she had this machine there. I don’t know what it did, exactly. She called it some kind of prototype.Then she got a phone call and stepped outside to get better reception. Told us to wait for her.” He closed his eyes, pulling back on the memories of the day. Not memories he cared to dwell on, but since he’d waited this long to give Arven an explanation, he wanted to tell it right.
“Will you look at this!” an energetic, eight-year-old Arven squealed, arms stretched up high. His fingertips barely reached the machine’s middle. This was way bigger than anything Ortega had seen in the lighthouse–as tall as the ceiling and wide as the whole wall. The sides glittered with screens and glowing knobs and all sorts of things they absolutely should not touch.
And Arven, being Arven, wanted to try them all. “My mom made it all herself!” he gushed. “Isn’t she the absolute coolest?”
“It’s kind of creepy-looking,” Ortega said, taking a step away. The machine made a low, rumbling hum and a tinny, high-pitched whine at the same time. He didn’t like it. Every little screen had a bunch of changing numbers, and Ortega couldn’t tell if they meant something good or bad. “Is she gonna be off the phone soon? I wanna go home.”
“What do you think she keeps in here?” Arven said, ignoring Ortega as he pointed to a small metal door near the base of the machine. It wasn’t big enough for a person–though maybe a starter-sized Pokemon would fit.
“Probably grown-up stuff.” It was supposed to sound boring and forbidden so Arven would drop the topic.
Instead his eyes lit up with excitement. “You think so? Like what?”
“I dunno!” Ortega frantically brainstormed the most boring grown-up items he knew. “Junk mail? Taxes? Coffee?”
“I wanna try coffee!” Arven exclaimed and reached for the door. The handle had to be pushed in, then turned, and he struggled to move it the right way. Ortega braced for some kind of defense robot to burst out and shoot them with lasers once Arven got the door open. He didn’t get why his friend was acting this way. When they played at the lighthouse, Arven talked like he hated his mom. How he wished she was cool like Ortega’s parents. Those two ran a whole companytogether! Their designer clothes were everywhere! Did Ortega know they had TV commercials? Arven’s mom, on the other hand, was never even home.
Ortega did think his family was awesome, and he told Arven as much, too. Anytime he got. Was that why Arven wanted to show off this scary machine? To prove his family was just as good?
For a split second, Ortega wondered–if he yelled out that his family was boring and stupid and also never home, would Arven stop?
The latch clicked, and the door flew open.
They were not attacked by robots. And there wasn’t anything stored behind the door. The space inside looked like an empty mini fridge. With one big difference. Ortega was pretty sure mini fridges didn’t glow. This thing’s walls pulsed with light that shifted from red to purple and back again. The low hum got louder whenever the light glowed red, and the high whine did the same when the light changed to purple.
Ortega covered his ears. “It’s scaring me! Close it back up!”
But Arven only stepped closer to the machine. His eyes were wide. His feet shuffled like a sleepwalker’s.
“I wanna go home!” Ortega yelled.
Arven reached his hand out. His face reminded Ortega of Sleeping Beauty about to stab her finger on a giant needle. His fingertips brushed the glowing light as the low hum reached its loudest point.
Everything on the machine reacted at once. Numbers on screens raced up. Smooth lines on charts went all zig-zaggy and crazy. The light stopped pulsing, the red glow locked into place, and the strange compartment pulled Arven forward until the scarlet light swallowed up his whole arm.
Arven snapped out of his daze and burst into tears. He yelled for help, but no one came. However far his mother had wandered from the lab to take her call, it was too far to hear. His desperate eyes fell to Ortega instead.
“Help me!” he cried.
Ortega ran up and grabbed Arven’s other arm. He tugged as hard as he could, but his friend barely budged. Then he remembered what he always saw characters on TV do. He moved his grip so he was holding as close to Arven’s shoulder as possible. Then he braced one foot against the machine’s side, pushing with his leg instead of merely pulling with his arms. This time, he could feel a bit more give from whatever force held Arven down. He sucked in a deep breath and gave one more yank with his full strength.
It worked. Arven’s hand came free, and he stumbled backwards, away from the terrifying machine. But with the sudden release, Ortega was still pushing against the machine’s side. His foot slipped sideways into the same space as the light shifted from red to purple. The machine screeched at such a high pitch, he thought his ears would bleed. He shoved his hands against the sides of his head and screamed for help.
The door to the lab flew open with a bang. “What are you kids doing in–“
Ortega couldn’t see what happened next. A phone clattered to the floor. Strong arms reached around his chest and yanked him free. A foot kicked the door to the machine shut, and the terrifying sounds at last went quiet.
The arms around his chest gently released him and lowered him to the floor. Somewhere in the mess, his shoe had fallen off, and he could see the skin beneath his pristine white socks alight with a soft violet glow. He glanced over to Arven, passed out and laying on his stomach. The hand he’d gotten stuck inside the strange device glowed in a similar way but with a scarlet color.
Professor Sada staggered back, her breaths heavy as she took in the scene. The latch on the machine’s door askew. Her son unconscious on the floor. Both the boys glowing like a pair of Volbeats.
Ortega didn’t care if she was his mom or not. She was an adult, and that meant she could get him out of here. He scrambled up and threw his arms around her waist, burying his face in her worn lab coat. The fabric smelled of sweat and chemicals, but he couldn’t care less.
“I-I wanna go home!” he repeated, tears streaming down his face. He couldn’t make himself stop shaking. “I wanna go home.”