For a moment, Juliana stood stunned. She was sort of impressed with herself for not dropping the phone. “S-save the world?” she asked. “You mean, you know how?”
“I have a theory,” Professor Sada began. “But we need to meet in person to be sure. Hence why your first task was to rejuvenate Koraidon.”
Arven and Juliana glanced at each other in confusion. “My…task?” Juliana asked.
“I am perplexed at your slow comprehension. I thought my directions were quite clear from my phone call after your initial bout with a titan.” The professor paused and recited her first conversation with Juliana verbatim, right down to the same inflection on each word: “I detect that Koraidon has regained some of its original power. It seems it will now be able to dash at high speeds while you’re riding upon it. Seek out your own path, using your map and the tools you have at hand. I am relying on you to take good care of Koraidon.”
“But…nothing in there was even remotely specific,” Juliana said. “If anything, it was the opposite.”
“I–” Sada stuttered, an odd shift from her prior confident tone. “My understanding is that people do not like to issued direct orders. But surely taking good care of Koraidon would imply bringing it back to its full power?”
Your ‘understanding’ of people? Juliana thought. Sada’s phrasing was awkward at best. Then again, Juliana had also seen the school director dressed as a student with a hairdo bigger than his head. So there were a lot of odd things adults did that she didn’t get.
“Misunderstandings aside, you ultimately got the job done,” the professor continued. “I am glad I placed Koraidon in your care.”
“You placed it with her?” said Arven. “Funny, I haven’t you anywhere near Koraidon in years.”
“Arven?” Sada’s tone went soft. “That is you, isn’t it? Wonderful. I have been trying to contact you for so long, because–”
“Let me guess. Because you need something?”
“Why, yes,” Sada’s tone brightened. “Precisely. You’re the only one who can get into my lab.”
Arven slapped his forehead. “I’m already at the stupid lab! Now what do you want?”
“Oh!” The call went silent for a moment. Juliana wondered if they’d lost the connection. “Oh!” Sada said again, once again with an identical inflection as the first time. “That does expedite things. Excellent. Go to the monitor, if you please. I will explain what I can.” And with that, the call ended.
Arven did walk inside, but he dragged his feet about it. Juliana assured him they could wait longer if he wanted; his mother sounded infuriating. In fact, if Juliana hadn’t been holding the phone when Sada spoke, she might have slapped herself in the forehead, too.
“It’s okay,” Arven assured her. “I’m actually feeling good. Gave her a piece of my mind for once.” He leaned on the desk and watched his reflection in the blank monitor. “Normally I’d just let her talk, but with all you guys around, I felt…stronger, you know?”
Mela did a fist pump on hearing this. “Sweet! Wait until you punch stuff. That feels even better.”
Arven did not picture himself as the punching type, so he gave her a noncommittal nod on that one. Then he leaned over and felt around the back console for the power switch. It had to be around here somewhere, but it had been ages since he’d turned the thing on himself.
Penny knelt down and pressed a prominent green button on the console’s front instead.
“Uh, thanks,” Arven said and straightened back up. “Y’know, if the great Professor Sada really cared about staying in touch, she’d have left directions for this thing.” Penny nodded, unfazed by the sudden switch from ‘my mom.’ It felt freeing to use Sada’s name. He had stopped calling her ‘Mom’ a long time ago but still fell back on ‘my mom’ when speaking to others. From now on, he decided, it would just be ‘Sada.’
“Well, she wasn’t lying about trying to contact you,” Ortega said, pulling up something on his phone while the system booted up. “At least, if she’s calling from Area Zero, I’m guessing these are from her.” He held the phone at a safe distance but close enough for Arven to see the screen.
Arven glanced at the image of several faceless, number-covered Tandemaus. His stomach twisted with pure revulsion. “Eww, gross! Put that away!”
“I didn’t take them,” Ortega said, though he did as Arven asked anyway. “Penny thinks they’re some sort of weird countdown–a reading of the odds that we’ll save Paldea.”
“Yeah? How about we quit worrying about creepy photos and actually save the place? Then the odds are, like, 1000%.”
“Not how percentages work,” Penny mumbled right as the monitor flickered to the life. The computer’s calling app opened of its own accord and started a video feed. The grainy image showed Sada standing in a different lab, a board full of messy notes and equations behind her.
Ortega slunk back.
“There,” she began. “Now that we’re eye-to-eye, let me explain myself. I am currently at the deepest point of Area Zero, in the Great Crater of Paldea. I have been researching the unique Pokémon here for a very long time.”
“Unique how?” Arven asked. “You mean like Koraidon?”
“I–” Sada began. “Well, Koraidon is indeed unique, but–”
“You know, Nemona told me once she thought Koraidon looked like some distant ancestor of Cyclizar,” Juliana said. “Are there other Pokémon with forms like this?”
Sada diverted her gaze and made no reply.
So Penny stepped up instead. “I think there may be. While I was waiting for our data to finish compiling, I analyzed the background in those photos on Ortie’s phone.” She pulled out her own phone and made several swipes and taps. The video feed window shrunk slightly, making room for a screen-share from Penny’s device. She brought up a series of images, mostly showing details of the floor where the creepy Tandemaus were standing. Some light and color adjustments revealed unusual shadows there–shadows of a Pokémon unlike anything they’d ever seen. Its body consisted of a trio of spheres supported by stilt-like legs with large tufts of fur on its feet.
“I can’t say for sure what it is, of course,” Penny said. “But it’s got a vague resemblance to Magneton, don’t you think?”
Arven squinted at the screen. “Oh, yeah, I could see that.”
“I-it is not a Magneton,” Sada said.
“Is it the ancient relative of one, then?” Juliana asked. “Or whatever Koraidon’s relation to Cyclizar is?”
“That…that is a complicated question.”
“It’s a yes-or-no,” said Penny. “Not really complicated at all.”
“I-I…” Sada sounded like a looping audio file. “Why are you children talking this much?”
Arven shrugged. “Maybe because you’re not talking enough. You said you’d give us answers, and so far, Penny’s told us more than you.”
“There are…many things I wish to tell you,” Sada said, frowning. “But it was not my intention to say them all at once. I wished for you to first travel to the Zero Gate, then to each of the four research stations in Area Zero, during which time I would gradually explain the history of–”
“You do remember the world is ending, right?” Arven reminded her.
“Y-yes. Of course,” Sada said. “Very well. The short version, then. The Zero Lab, where I am located, contains a time machine which summons ancient Pokémon to this place.”
Arven kept his reaction as neutral as possible. Not as hard as he expected. He should have been shocked at a reveal like time travel, but somehow, with every other insane thing he’d seen, it almost felt mundane. “It is this the same machine that nearly killed me as a kid?” he asked.
Sada stared blankly at him for several moments. She didn’t even blink. “You remember,” she finally said. Not a question, simply a statement.
“Yeah,” he said. “Ortega filled me in. Great baby-sitting job, Sada.” Man, that felt good! Well, it would have felt better if she reacted to it instead of giving him a blank stare, but priorities and all.
“Your experience with the device was…unfortunate,” Sada said. “So does this mean Ortega is also there with you?”
Arven glanced over to where Ortega was hiding behind everyone taller than him. Which was, well, everyone. “No.”
“Why would you attempt to lie?” Sada asked.
The question set Arven on edge. There was too much conviction behind it. He wondered if she enjoyed making him uneasy like this. “How did you–?”
“I have been tracking the location of his phone, since it has been one of my few contact points,” she explained. “Presumably you did not steal it. Ergo its owner is still there.”
“Fine. Whatever. He’s here. So what?”
“I will need both of you to come to the Zero Lab,” she said. “Bring the Scarlet Book as well. Just in case.”
“Why ‘just in case’? And are you forgetting that Mabosstiff, Ortega, and I have all gotten seriously hurt down there?”
“Not at all. I don’t suggest you come alone. In fact, I advise against it. Gather reliable allies before you venture out…” She looked over the group standing in the background. “…which it seems you have already done. I shall wait for you in the deepest part of Area Zero. And Arven?”
“No detours this time.” The call ended.
It was the sort of moment that in any other group would have left the room in an uneasy silence for several minutes.
But this group had Vanessa in it. Or Iono. Or whatever it was she wanted to be called at this particular moment. Off-camera now, so ‘Vanessa,’ I guess.
“Um, details?” she said, turning on her brother. “You gonna tell me what happened with you two and a whoza-what-the-actual-hell time machine?”
“Hey, I didn’t know it was a time machine!” Ortega snapped. Defensive but not angry. Yet.
His sister jabbed a finger at Arven. “He said it nearly killed you!”
“We don’t know what it did, okay?” Ortega took a deep, all-the-calming-thoughts breath and exhaled through his teeth. “It’s been having some weird effects on Arven and me. I need some air.” He walked towards the door, and Vanessa followed behind.
“Yeah? What kind of weird effects?”
“Well, for example–” Ortega placed a foot outside, but instead of landing on the ground, he found himself hoisted several feet into the air. He plummeted, caught from an embarrassing landing by his Rotom phone, which floated out for him to catch. Ortega clung to it and only let go when the dirt confirmed it was okay with him stepping there.
“–things like that,” he told her.
Arven made a mental note to carry his phone around more often. With no desire to snoop, he turned his back on the conversation, but not before he overheard Vanessa ask,
“How about Mom or Dad? Gonna say anything to them before you leave?”
Arven froze and glanced over his shoulder.
“Of course not,” Ortega said. No hesitation.
Vanessa considered his answer, then nodded. “Yeah, I don’t blame ya.”
Arven’s heart sunk. All those years as a kid, he wanted nothing more than for Ortega to get him. To understand how it felt to have a family that ignored him. That always put work above his safety or interests. It never occurred to him that for as oblivious as Ortega could be, Arven had been just as bad. He really didn’t have a clue about Ortega’s home life other than the rich and cushy part.
I wish I could go on this trip alone, he thought. What if something happens to us down there, and he never has the chance to make up with his family? He looked at everyone else in the room, who were all chatting like they planned to tag along, too. Sada had more or less told them to. What kinds of families would they leave behind if this all went to crap?
Penny inspected the charging cable from Arven’s dresser and folded it into her bag. “So how long will it take to get to the Zero Gate?”
“And what kind of supplies do we need?” Giacomo added on.
Arven ran his hand through his hair, still a bit damp from the shower. “Look, I know you guys mean well, but this is some seriously dangerous stuff.” They all looked at him in confusion. But that only fueled his determination. Sada had already hurt him and his friend. Maybe the whole region of Paldea, if her stupid invention was related to these weird happenings. It stopped here. Today.
Arven stood in the doorway, hands on his hips. It would have made for quite the dramatic effect with the setting sun’s rays at his back, if Ortega and his sister weren’t blocking most of the light. “Okay, I’ve decided. I’m going to Area Zero alone!”
The room was silent enough to hear a Krickitot chirp.
Mela burst into laugher. “Riiight. Sure you are.”
“I-I mean it!” Arven said, his confidence deflated. “I can’t let you guys put yourself at risk.”
“Oh, hooray,” Penny said with a sarcastic clap of her hands. “So now that we’ve had the backstory reveal, we get to the pointless self-sacrifice. What’s next? You sneak off when we’re not looking, get yourself in trouble, and then one of us gets hurt saving you?”
“Uh…” Arven sweatdropped. She’d nailed his backup plan when he’d barely started forming it.
“Sada said I have to go with you anyway,” Ortega pointed out.
“And if you think Ortie’s going without us, you’re slower than a Slowking,” said Giacomo.
Penny crossed her arms and walked up to him. “Listen, you big lunk. You act like you’re the hero of this adventure, but the truth is, all of us here have our own stories. And we won’t put them aside as your say so. You go after your treasure, but don’t keep us from ours.”
Arven stumbled back at her tone. He almost blurted out a “yes, ma’am!” but caught himself. Strange how confident she’d grown on this trip, even in the short time Arven had travelled with her.
“Fine, then!” he said. “If you insist, I won’t stop you. But you have to show me you can handle yourself. Anyone who plans to come along has to have a Pokémon battle with me to see if they’re really ready for Area Zero or not!”
“And why must our company prove itself to thee?” Atticus asked. Arven didn’t miss the way he inspected the blade on his kunai as he spoke. “T’would be more fitting that we demand the inverse.”
“He thinks you should show us that you don’t suck,” Ortega explained. “Can’t say I disagree.”
“How would I do that?” Arven said.
Atticus got a devious gleam in his eyes. “Perchance a tera raid could demonstrate thy skill?”
“Nobody needs to demonstrate their skill,” Penny cut in. “Although…” She rubbed her chin and looked Arven over. “Your team could use some higher-level members. A difficult Tera Raid could fill those gaps quickly.”
“Or our gym leader here could test people’s strengths,” Juliana said jokingly. “I do still need her badge.”
“Huh? Thought you had seven badges,” Arven said. He wanted to kick himself. His one chance to take back control of the conversation, and he tossed it away on a badge question. Who do I think I am? Nemona?
“I do have seven badges,” Juliana said. “Iono’s would be the eighth.”
“Why-the-what?” the gym asked. “I’m, like, the third easiest gym leader to beat. You even beat Tulip?”
Juliana nodded and pulled out her phone. Arven expected a snapshot of a typical trainer victory pose. Probably with Tulip looking all poised and perfect. His eyes widened when he saw the photo Juliana did have. Tulip’s pose was graceful, standing on one leg like a Swanna. Or Flamigo. Or whatever flying type did that. Juliana was clearly trying to mimic the pose, but her leg had twisted around like a Tangela vine. It looked horribly painful.
“My leg didn’t actually do that,” Juliana assured the group. “But it was a freakish photo. I didn’t show it to Tulip. I think she would have forced me to delete it for making her look so undignified.”
Vanessa nodded in agreement just as an electronic chime sounded from the desktop computer. Arven walked over and tried to figure out what on the screen had changed, but it all looked the same to him: a bunch of icons and folders and labels he didn’t care to understand. Penny came up beside him, but instead of pushing some magic button like before, she lifted her phone from the table.
“That was for me,” she said. “If we’re lucky…” She tapped open the screen, her eyes darting over lines of text. “…and we are, my data report on Arven and Ortie’s energy readings is ready.”
The news got everyone gathered around her like a bunch of preschoolers eager for storytime. Most of them plopped down on whatever surface happened to be available. Even Vanessa, who had no reference point for any of this, got it was important and sat beside her brother without question.
Arven shook his head. A bunch of teenagers showing this level of enthusiasm for the phrase “data report”? It had to be Paldea’s strangest anomaly yet.