Penny’s first thought was to duck out of view. Not a practical solution. There wasn’t much to duck behind, other than the building itself, and Nemona was rounding the corner now. From up on the hillside, their only real advantage had been that no one had any reason to glance up here. Atticus retreated to a more shadowy area, but even with all his skills, there wasn’t much he could do on featureless green slope while wearing his bright pink ninja garb.
Nemona shielded her eyes as she searched in every direction.
“I told them to meet here,” she said to Geeta.
Whatever Geeta said in response didn’t carry far enough to be heard.
Nemona scanned the area again and glanced up this time. Her eyes lit up. “Oo, there they are!” she shouted, pointing right at Juliana. “Hey, guys! Down here!”
Mela and Penny both winced. “Well, Big Boss,” Mela said. “What do you want to do?”
“I…it worries me to say so, but we’ll have to trust Nemona and assume it’s safe,” said Penny. “The girl’s tactless, but she’s not stupid.”
“Don’t worry!” Nemona yelled again. “It’s very safe! Trust me!”
Penny sighed. Well, they weren’t going to get a clearer invitation than that. And if they ran now, they’d lose whatever goodwill Nemona had earned them.
Penny worked her way carefully down the grassy slope. The turf was slick–probably from a recent rainfall. Unlike at home in Galar, the weather here could change in the literal blink of a eye. The last thing she wanted to do was slide down the hill and knock over the Elite Four members like a cluster of bowling pins.
Eri, Mela, and Atticus jogged down, their footsteps steady and confident. The rest of the group mimicked Penny’s cautious approach–Arven with his massive bag most of all. Once they reached ground level, Penny thought she heard some kind of music playing from inside the League building. The sound was muffled but it sent vibrations through the ground like one of Giacomo’s full volume bass tracks.
“So good of you to join us,” Hassel said, folding his arms. He was not smiling. No one in the group was. “I daresay not one of you has attended a class of mine in recent memory.” He narrowed his eyes at Arven. “And you being in the Humanities track to boot. For shame!”
Penny’s friends all glanced at one another in confusion. Hassel was talking like they’d been slacking in their dorms this whole time. (Okay, Penny had holed herself up in her dorm for several months, but not out of laziness.) Sweat formed on her palms. She gave the line of looming authority figures a glance-over, hoping one of them would be better informed. Clavell was stuttering something to Geeta. Rika seemed bored. Larry was…well, Larry.
“Now, now, Hassel, don’t jump to conclusions,” Rika said, holding her hand up. “We didn’t even hear them out yet. And I know a promising candidate when I see one.” She rubbed her chin and stepped up to Juliana, her long ponytail swinging elegantly behind her. “Tell me, what school do you attend?”
“Uh…Naranja Academy?” Juliana said, confused.
Rika nodded. “I see. Very good. And what brings you to the Pokémon League today?”
Seriously. Did no one tell them what we’re doing? Penny thought.
“Gee, I dunno,” Juliana said with a frustrated sigh. “Just for fun, I guess.”
Rika’s eye twitched like Juliana had spat upon the graves of all her ancestors. This was not going well. But as Penny desperately looked back to the Elite Four, she realized they were short a member. She’d assumed Poppy was hidden behind Geeta or Rika, but there was no preschool prodigy anywhere to be seen.
“Excuse me, but where’s, um…the little one?” she asked.
Before Rika could answer, the door to the League building slid open. The muffled music came out clear and loud–an electronic staccato melody in a minor key. It sounded like the opening bars to some do-or-die battle soundtrack. But it never got farther than that. The same few measures repeated themselves in a matter of seconds.
Poppy sprinted out of the building as fast as her uncoordinated little legs would take her. The decorative key around her neck swung wildly until the thin cord snapped. The key fell to the ground, and Poppy kept running. She kept her hands clamped over her ears and screamed almost as loud as the music. The kid’s face was bright red as she slammed into Geeta’s side and latched onto her leg.
“Every-ting’s over!” she wailed. “It’s the end of the world!”
“Oh, dear,” Clavell said with a shake of his head. “Now, now…don’t cry. Please?” It did not help. Clavell, it seemed, related worse to four-year-olds than he did to teenagers.
Geeta knelt down and tried her best to smooth the hysterical preschooler. Another person walked out, an elderly man Penny soon recognized as Mr. Harrington. He did not make any declarations of the apocalypse, but he did look relieved to put the building behind him. The doors slid back shut, mostly sealing the creepy music in with them, but the repetitive beat still pounded through the damp earth.
“It’s not the end of the world, kid,” Rika said. “Calm down.” She nodded to Penny, pegging her as the group’s spokesperson. “Sorry. Our sound system’s on the fritz. We can’t make it stop playing whatever…that is.”
“You turned it off!” Poppy wailed. “You un-pugged it from the whole wall! And it didn’t stop! That’s scary and bad and not okay!”
“She’s right,” Penny said. “I mean, kinda. Unless your system’s got its own built-in power supply, unplugging it should have stopped the music straight away.”
Poppy, rather than getting more worked up, sniffled and rubbed at her nose. She walked over and craned her neck at Penny, clear snot smeared on upper lip and glove.
Eww, kids are so gross, Penny thought. But since this gross kid also had a role in the group deciding their fate here, she did not voice that opinion.
Poppy kept her gaze on Penny for nearly a minute before she turned to Geeta. “These people are smart!” she declared. “Not bad!” She put her hands on her hips, and Penny assumed she’d now gotten snot on the waist of her dress, too.
“Not sure if your endorsement counts, kid,” Rika said.
Poppy’s hands balled into fists. “I’m an Elite Four member!” she yelled. “If Mister Larry counts, I count too! More ’cause I’m cute and Miz Geeta likes me!”
Larry showed zero reaction to this. He didn’t even blink. “Geeta does like her,” he said. “She finds me adequately competent, skill-wise. And I get the impression some of my characteristics make her uncomfortable.” He paused to straighten his tie. “Most notably my ability to stare unblinking for inhuman amounts of time.”
“No offense, but that is a bit creepy,” Rika said. She nodded towards the closed doors. “Not as bad as the music in there, but y’know, unnerving.”
“Everyone has a gift,” Larry said.
Geeta cleared her throat. “To the matter at hand,” she told Penny in a tone drenched with authority. “The police informedme you are responsible for our recent data breach along with a host of frightening and unexplainable events around Paldea.” She indicated Nemona and Mr. Harrington. “Then several of my most trusted employees, along with the champion-ranked student council president, tell me that you are the only ones who can stop these events.” She tapped her forehead. More like she had to make a show of deep debate. Penny worried the woman’s mind might already be made up. In that case, she could only hope it was in their favor. “I do hope you comprehend the difficult position this puts me in.”
“Y-yes, ma’am,” Penny said.
“If it’s all right,” Mr. Harrington said. “Might we walk to the Pokémon Center? There is a Pokémon I must return to young Master Ortega, and I would like to use the trading machine to ensure it’s done correctly. Not to mention…” He glanced down at Poppy. “…it may soothe our young Elite Four member to put some distance between herself and the building.”
“That’s a great idea!” Nemona said, clearly anxious to contribute to the conversation.
Poppy nodded emphatically.
As they walked to the Pokémon Center, Mr. Harrington shared briefly what he had already covered with Clavell and the Elite Four before Penny and her friends had arrived. As the former director of the school, he was familiar with Operation Star. He had witnessed the bullying first hand yet he had not done enough to stop it. When Team Star took action on their own, he did not blame them. They made a show of force, and in the end, a show was all it was. None of them did anything to harm anyone. But then the academy’s bullies had begun to drop out one by one. The deputy director saw it as a scandal in the making and erased all related records.
So while there was no denying Penny had manipulated the League Point system, she was in the clear when it came to messing with the school’s database.
Penny cleaned her glasses, stalling while she debated her response. In normal circumstances, she might offer her skills to inspect the school’s equipment. It could help offset the negative view they had of her for the League Point mess. But nothing was normal, and as of now, she couldn’t be in two places at once.
Then she remembered the newest addition to her team. She took out the Poké Ball containing Juliana’s old Porygon. “Y’know, deleted data can usually be recovered if you know what you’re doing,” she said just as the group reached the Pokémon Center. The sun had gone down, and any wandering trainers had set off down the road. No doubt in search of populated areas with more than one building.
Penny tapped the button and let the virtual Pokémon float alongside her. “I need to go to Area Zero with Arven and the others,” she continued. “But Porygon here might be able to help with the retrieval process.”
“That is a very generous offer, Miss Penny,” Clavell said, giving the chairwoman a nod.
“Hmph. I suspect it is a self-serving offer,” Geeta said.
Ortega elbowed Penny’s side. He wasn’t gentle about it, and it kind of hurt. “I also need to get Sylveon back to you,” he said. “We should do a double trade. Mr. Harrington gives you Dachsbun for Porygon, and I give you Sylveon for Dachsbun.”
“That could work,” Penny said.
Mr. Harrington nodded. “In that case, perhaps you would like it to hold this during the trade?” He reached into his coat pocket. At first, he came up with nothing and had to try several more pockets. The drab brown jacket had a surprising number of them. At last, he retrieved what looked like an old CD. It certainly caught Giacomo’s eye. But Penny knew this disc didn’t contain any music.
“An Upgrade?” she asked.
“Only if you and Porygon want it, of course,” he said with a warm smile. Penny could see how this guy worked in education for so many years. And why he was content to take a job as a tutor despite it being a major demotion. The man loved to help students grow. In whatever way he could. Penny could see that passion in Clavell, too. Sometimes. When he was dressed normally and left the Clive get-up and wig out of it.
Rika nodded her approval, and they completed the first trade with no hiccups. Mr. Harrington let out Porygon so Penny could see it evolve while Clavell and Nemona continued talking with Geeta. Poppy clung to the chairwoman’s leg the whole time, and Penny only caught a word here and there. Mostly Poppy saying things like, “Yeah!” and “See?” and “I toldya so!”
Juliana made small talk with Team Star, the group at a bit of a distance from the center proper.
Then the second trade began. Ortega watched nervously as their respective Poké Balls flew into the sky above, switched positions, and slowly made their way back down. “I hope Dachsbun isn’t upset with me for leaving him so long.”
“Don’t worry,” Penny said. “Even though I’ll only have him a few minutes, I promise not to make him vanish in front of you or confuse it with non-orders that sound like orders.”
Something twinkled just above them. Penny and Ortega both held out their hands. The Poké Balls slowly descended and rested on each of their palms.
“You’re not letting me live that tera raid down, are you?” Ortega asked as he let out Dachsbun.
“Nope,” Penny said, calling forth her VeeVee. The Pokémon licked their trainers’ faces over and over. Which, unlike Poppy’s actions, was not gross and totally welcome. Penny’s team felt whole again. That feeling she could do anything bubbled in her chest. From the blissful look on his face, Ortega must have felt the same. She wished this feeling could last forever.
Or at least more than a few minutes. Unfortunately, Geeta held up a hand and cut off whatever Clavell had been saying. Poppy frowned and let go of her leg. Nemona shifted nervously from one foot to the other.
The chairwoman put her hands behind her back and approached Penny. “I believe I have heard enough from others,” she said. “I would like to hear from you, Miss Penny. You don’t deny that you infiltrated the League Point database?”
“N-no, ma’am. But my group is innocent of everything else. We’ve been trying to help, and we don’t know anything about this Team Galactic the police mentioned.”
Giacomo raised his hand. Standing right outside the light cast from the Pokémon Center, Penny almost missed him.
“We do admit our name could be better,” he said. “In retrospect, that is. Ma’am.”
“Oh?” Geeta said. “So if the actual Team Galactic were to be a problem, you would offer assistance?
“Um, if that did happen to be the case…” Penny eyed the rest of the Team Star bosses. Answering for them, if not forbidden by their code, certainly broke the spirit of it.
Everyone nodded or gave a thumbs-up.
“…then, yes,” Penny finished. “Yes, we would.”
Geeta smiled. “I’m glad to hear that. Of course, the biggest point in your favor in Nemona.” She made a casual wave in Nemona’s direction without breaking Penny’s gaze for a second. “She’s one of the most talented challengers we’ve ever had, and I greatly respect her opinion. As such, her vehement endorsement of you has…” She paused, brows furrowed as she chose her next words. “…convinced me to withhold my judgment of you and your team. For now.”
Penny held her breath. There had to be a catch. A condition. Something.
“My considerable influence is not a gift to be squandered,” Geeta went on. “Which leaves only one more matter unsettled before I can allow you to leave.” This time she turned slightly and pointed to Juliana.
“Nemona says she knows Team Star’s intentions are good because their leader gets along so well with Juliana here.”
“So well” was a stretch as far as Penny was concerned, but far be it for her to object when the argument turned in her favor.
“Therefore,” Nemona said. “To test Juliana’s heart as a trainer and to see if your group is prepared to face the dangers threatening Paldea, I challenge her to a battle!”
The small crowd of them gave a collective gasp.
“Wait–what?” Juliana said.
Penny wanted to scream. Another battle? Now, after everything they’d done so far? Arven’s mom had specifically told them not to get sidetracked. And if this Geeta woman really believed they could help Paldea, why would she delay them and tire out their Pokémon before they left?
Of course, seeing as how Geeta had just agreed to turn a blind eye to Penny’s illegal activities, she couldn’t complain, either.
Larry straightened his tie again and stepped forward. Penny assumed he would be the one to referee the match. Where would they even hold this thing, anyway? The building still seemed off limits. Would they battle beside the Pokémon Center in the middle of the night?
But instead of declaring some arbitrary rules, Larry stood beside Geeta. Right at the edge of her personal bubble. And he starred at her. Unblinking.
“Oh, yes,” he said in his everpresent monotone. “You should certainly have a battle. Go right ahead. I will stand here. Watching. The whole time.”
Geeta frowned, clearly unnerved by Larry’s presense but unwilling to step away and distort the image of that perfect, collected Top Champion.
“Or we could, you know, let them get on with stopping this mess,” Rika said. “If nothing else, it’d be nice to get back inside without the squirt having a breakdown.”
“Time is of the essence,” Clavell said. “I understand they are bound for Area Zero. It would not do to wear them down with such a daunting journey up ahead.” Hassel nodded like he’d heard some great insight. Apparently as long as the director said it, he had.
Geeta stood her ground but swallowed hard. Her gaze darted between each of her allies. The impatience in their stances and expressions spoke volumes more than any words could.
Then, to Penny’s shock, the chairwoman lowered her head. “Very well,” she said as she moved away from Larry. “On reconsideration, I will step down from this battle and send you all on your way.”
Penny was poised to take that declaration and book it with her teammates as fast as they could.
Nemona had other ideas. “Hold on,” she said. “You started the battle, Primera. Officially and everything. So does this mean you forfeit?” She motioned Juliana closer and whispered loud enough for all to hear, “Not a lot of people know this, but it’s up to the chairwoman how many of the Elite Four you take on before she deems you worthy of a battle with her. As long as you have all the badges, you can skip them entirely if she issues a direct challenge to you at the League.”
“That is a fair point,” Larry said. “I suppose she is forfeiting.”
Geeta huffed. “What? I absolutely am not!”
“Yes, you are!” Poppy yelled. Tears welled up in her eyes again. Her lower lip quivered. “I want the world to not end. These nice people are helping. If you stop them, Miz Geeta, then…then…” She sniffed again, which made her nose more runny as she blubbered out, “You are a bad Chair Lady, and I will never, ever, EVER talk to you again!”
Geeta’s confident stance deflated like a fainted Drifloon. She hid her face as she massaged her temples. “Just. Go,” she told the group.
Penny was not waiting another second. She signaled for Team Star and the others to hurry out. They followed Nemona’s lead, headed for whatever shortcut she assured them would lead straight to Area Zero. So far, she’d been a pretty reliable ally.
Larry waved and told Juliana the paperwork confirming her new Championship status would be mailed in six to eight weeks. So, if nothing else, she had to save enough of the world to retain a functioning postal service.