Penny slipped the last of the supplies she would need into her Eevee backpack. She’d chosen her lighter-colored shiny edition this time, notable for its thicker, studier fabric. It wouldn’t be a long trip. In fact, the flying taxi would take her most of the way to the Ruchbah Squad’s base. But with the situation being what it was, she preferred to have emergency travel gear on hand.
She’d woken up this morning to three more alerts: one good and two bad. Neither of the latter were world-altering just yet. (She’d had the sense to upgrade her alert system, classifying the severity of the alert and playing a corresponding sound so she didn’t panic without reason.)
The first bad news: Six disappearing walls had been reported since Monday–double the number seen last week.
The second bad news: Juliana and Professor Sada’s son, Arven, had come into the Segin Squad’s base and effectively taken it down without Giacomo there. The actual good news: Arven reported experiencing some long-term anomalies. In fact, he could even predict when they would appear. The grunts, by some miracle, had managed to convince both of them to meet up with Giacomo and Ortega. This was exactly the breakthrough the new Team Star needed; an anomaly with a known tigger could be studied. Perhaps the source could even be traced. Ortega had experienced some long-term effects himself, as had a few other citizens they’d managed to recruit, but so far, no one had any idea what set them off.
Yeah, this feels like it’s going way too well, was Penny’s first thought. Naturally she had to go meet Juliana and Arven. But like the emergency travel gear, she preferred to keep a healthy dose of skepticism on hand. Just in case. After all, no one gathering at the Ruchbah Base had seen Penny in person before. She could end up with both Team Star and Team Starfall (as she’d mentally dubbed Arven and Juliana) turning against her for all the lies. Her best hope was that the potential erasure of Paldea from existence would be enough for them to put their anger aside. Her more far-fetched hope was that they forgave her and even wanted to maintain a friendship with her. On an unusually optimistic whim, she’d borrowed a library book covering that exact topic.
The Eevee’s bag fluffy tummy doubled as an extra pocket, so Penny slipped the library book inside to read on the trip. It was called “How to Show Your Face to Your Friends” by G.L. Allister, and so far, she’d found it enlightening. Apparently the author had quite a bit of social anxiety himself. But rather than hide behind a screen, he showed up to events in-person, wearing a mask. Penny couldn’t picture herself doing that, but she did find a motorcycle helmet with a conveniently dark visor at the hat store. Why the dress code permitted students to completely obscure their faces but forbade fuzzy backpacks shaped like Pokémon was beyond her understanding.
She picked up the heavy bag (which now looked like a droopy, overstuffed shiny Eevee) as she recalled the passage she’d read before dozing off last night: Be warned that wearing a mask can cause people to not recognize you when the mask is removed. Especially if the outfit you wear with the mask is different from the one you wear without it. People are surprisingly bad at recognizing voices. See Chapter 8, “The Professor and the Masked Royal: a Case Study,” for more details.
Penny nodded to herself, and before slipping the bag on, she grabbed her navy Ultra Ball sweatshirt instead of her gray Poké Ball one. Time to see if G.L. Allister’s advice held up.
“And…just to be clear, you want sixty-three servings of peanut butter?” the shop clerk asked Juliana, raising a thick, bushy eyebrow. He was a tall, muscular guy, and when he leaned on the little sill of the shop window, the wood creaked in protest. Juliana nodded and offered her phone to scan. Instead, the clerk eyed Arven, who broke eye contact immediately. Not my circus, not my Aipoms, he reminded himself, looking around the scenery. They’d stopped in Medali for some picnic supplies, which had taken a surprising long time to locate. Every time they asked people what kind of ingredients they recommended, the folks would answer in some weird, cryptic way and insist on a battle. Arven and Juliana took a lunch break at the Treasure Eatery for some grilled rice balls–Fire Blast style with lemon, naturally–and somehow this had ended in Juliana walking away with her fifth gym badge. At this point, Arven really just wanted to get their supplies and get moving.
“Do you even have space for sixty-three servings of peanut butter?” the clerk asked as he relented and took Juliana’s payment.
“Give me one box for now and have the rest sent to my dorm room at Naranja Academy,” Juliana said. The man shrugged and walked away from the window, presumably to fill out the shipping forms.
“Why so much?” Arven asked. “Are you stocking for the apocalypse or something?”
Juliana cocked her head. “You said spicy peanut butter is Mabosstiff’s favorite, right?”
She actually remembered that? “I-I…yes, it is. But you’ve got to mix the wasabi and the peanut butter just right. A little goes a long way.”
“Right,” Juliana said. “So I figured we’ll need a lot of peanut butter to practice with.”
“You’re sweet, but this is expensive.” Arven rubbed the back of his head, chastising himself even as he said it. Juliana’s financial situation wasn’t any of his Combee’s wax. For all he knew, her family could be loaded. But even so… “I don’t feel right letting you buy it.”
“I’ve got a side job,” Juliana assured him, then took a glance at her phone. She frowned when she saw the screen. Arven didn’t hear it ping with any sort of update, so maybe she was checking for something that hadn’t come in yet? Still none of his business, he supposed, though he hated to see her upset after how much she’d been helping him.
“Everything’s fine,” she said as she shoved the phone in her pocket. Then, after a few impatient taps of her foot, she added on, “What’s the hold up, anyway? It shouldn’t take so long to get a few dozen jars of–“
“Oh, blast it!” yelled the clerk, right on cue. “My Machop is stuck in the floor again.”
Arven and Juliana stared at one another. The way their dumbfounded expressions seemed to mirror each other told Arven they’d probably both heard the same thing.
“Um…excuse me?” Juliana asked. She tried to lean through the window to see what the man was talking about, but he rushed over and waved her off.
“Hey, hey!” he said. “You don’t enter a person’s store. It’s rude. You read a list of our fine selection and order outside like dignified folk.”
Juliana apologized, explaining how she’d moved in recently and was still learning the local culture. The clerk nodded in approval. “Now, then, as I was sayin’, I got a Machop that does the heavy lifting for me, but she’s got this quirk that’s been showing up more often lately. Sinks right into the floor like it’s a vat of mayo. Then halfway into sinking, she gets stuck like it’s hardened cement. By the way, that first one makes a fine sandwich topping. Don’t recommend the second.”
“That sounds awful!” Juliana said. “Your Machop must be so scared!”
The clerk let out a chuckle and held up his hands in a what-can-you-do motion. “Scared? Nah. She probably got a new ability or something. Or changed abilities. I’ll bet a customer fed her an Ability Capsule when I wasn’t lookin’. Anyway, we just close up shop and play cards for a while, and eventually the floor spits her back out. But I’m afraid I can’t get you your ingredients until that happens.”
Arven eyed the man’s large, muscular arms. “So…you can’t hand us a box?”
“I could, but it might make Machop feel bad. I gotta be considerate. I’ll get your purchase shipped out as soon as I can. Thanks for patronizing our shop, and have a great day.” And with that, he lowered the security blinds down over the window, waving to Arven and Juliana all the while. Instead of a plain steel gray, the blinds had a warm wooden color with a large emblem that looked like the upper half of a door. A glance at the wall space below the window revealed a corresponding emblem. When the blinds finished moving into place, the image was complete, and the closed shop appeared to have a cute little wooden door that no one could actually open.
Arven shook his head, told Juliana there probably wasn’t much they could do, and suggested they move on. He had enough picnic supplies in his stash if he made the sandwiches himself this time. They could practice more when the shipment came through. With a sad sigh, Juliana agreed.
On their way out of town, Arven scanned every corner for a gift shop or an ice cream stand or some kind of cheering-up place. He came up empty. A wide variety of stores lined the road, but the bulk of them were closed shut the same way as the sandwich shop had been, fake doors included. Were there always so few shops in town open? Now that he thought about it, he hadn’t been able to buy a new T-shirt in forever. Or any groceries that weren’t directly related to sandwiches.
“Was that guy’s Machop really stuck in the floor?” Arven asked.
Juliana glanced at the grass, still frowning. “I didn’t get a great look, but it seemed that way. He sure made it sound like it’s normal, though.” She turned to face Arven. “I feel silly for asking, but…is it normal?”
“No. The Terastallizing phenomenon has been around here forever, but whatever the guy was talking about…sounds a lot like what’s been happening to me. And even Team Star agrees that’s weird.” Arven shook his head. He still wasn’t sure how he felt about Team Star, but he was determined to spend this trip keeping as open a mind as possible.
“I guess you’re right…oh, hang on. I need to send a text.” Juliana lowered her bag to the ground and pulled out her phone once again. She typed lightning-fast, her eyebrows furrowed in concentration. Whatever it was about must have been important. Arven pulled out his own phone, where the Team Star grunts had sent the coordinates for their meeting place. If whatever was bothering Juliana was relevant to him, she’d share it when she was ready. Hopefully she was ready soon, though. Her frown was starting to look like it was permanently etched on her face.
Penny was almost dozing off to the rhythmic flapping of a surprisingly airworthy mob of Squawkabilly when her phone buzzed with a new message. She adjusted her glasses from where she’d been slouching to read it clearly:
Not sure if you got the alert or not, but I did defeat the Segin Squad, so whenever you’re able to send the LP for that, I’d appreciate it. -Juliana
“Seriously?” Penny hissed, then covered her mouth. Not that the taxi driver was paying her any attention. The winds were so loud up here, it was hard to understand each other even when they shouted. Penny slipped on the helmet she’d brought. It not only cut down on the wind, it sent a clear message of, “I do not want to speak to you.” She liked it.
What she did not like was Juliana asking to be paid for actively undermining the mission. And she detested the fact that she’d told Juliana to do this in the first place. Couldn’t people just figure out what they needed to do without the inconvenience of communication? It would make life so much simpler.
I did get the alert, but I’m traveling right now, and reception is spotty, she typed back to Juliana. The reception was fine, but with the number of lies she’d piled up so far, what was one more? Besides, she needed more time to work up the nerve for the message she’d send once the payment went out. It had to be one action, then the other, so she didn’t have the chance to cower out this time.
Payment sent, she typed into the box, without hitting send yet. But I must tell you this is the last one you’ll get. I’m cancelling Operation Starfall. Thank you for your help. Penny read it over several times with deep breaths. Simple and straightforward. It would go out with the final payment when she reached her destination. Juliana would have to figure out how to deal with the consequences.
The moment the taxi landed, Penny did it. She even took her helmet off to show herself she could face this with her head high. With one app open, she sent the text, and then within a matter of seconds, she flipped to the banking app and sent Juliana’s payment. Relief flooded her, even as the taxi took to the sky behind her, meaning she’d have to face Team Star for the first time in person. The lies were ending here and today. If she got through breaking the news to Juliana, she could get through the rest. And then she could save everybody. It all started with that first ste–
“What? Nooo!” Juliana’s wail echoed across the green oasis of a field that surrounded the Ruchbah Squad’s base.
Penny looked up to see Juliana cresting a grassy hill, which stood in sharp contrast to the icy mountains around it. A young man, most likely Arven, laid a sympathetic hand on her shoulder.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
Juliana collapsed into the grass, sobbing. “I just got fired from my job! I owe almost 20k for peanut butter jars!”
Where and why did she buy 20k worth of… Penny shoved her helmet back on before Juliana or Arven could see her. Facing everybody was a noble goal, but she needed it to be a feasible one, too. Right now, that wasn’t happening. A sinking feeling in her stomach–not unlike eating several dozen jars of peanut butter–said not to get her hopes up for the future, either.
Ugh. I knew this day started too well.