When Penny imagined finally speaking to her friends in person, she didn’t imagine it would go like this. To start with, the helmet didn’t come off as easily as she expected. It was one of those things that seemed like it should be intuitive but wasn’t. So instead of smoothly removing it to reveal her face to Ortega, she got stuck tugging it in several different directions. When she finally did figure it out, she had jostled her phone around so much, it started flashing at her.
“Why is changing accessories so difficult?” she muttered, checking the screen where she’d inadvertently opened the Pokédex app, the map app, and marked several locations she didn’t actually want to go to. A long sigh escaped her lips as she closed everything and turned the screen off. Having a chaotic phone during a crisis was tantamount to cutting a finger off and telling her to act okay with it. By the time she’d finished, her glasses had fogged with condensation from the sweat on her face. Thankfully Ortega had the patience of a Gimmighoul coin hunter. He waited until she had cleaned the lenses and turned to face him in earnest. There was no playful teasing about her clumsiness, like her family would have done. Just a grateful smile. “Nice to meet you, big boss,” he said.
“Nice to meet you, too,” she said, her voice more confident than she expected. I’m the leader, aren’t I? And I’m the one who thinks I can actually save Paldea from whatever’s happening. I should act like it. Even if I don’t feel it. “And it’s Penny.”
“Penny, then,” Ortega said and picked up his Poké Ball staff from where he’d stashed it behind his desk. “Giacomo should be monitoring our, um…visitor from the Cortondo Gym. Is it okay if he comes in to see you, too?”
Penny rubbed her forehead, feeling where the helmet’s padding had left a few marks. “Oh…um…”
“Because that’s fine if you don’t want him to,” Ortega went on. “If you went through that much trouble to avoid talking face-to-face, it’s obviously something you’re uncomfortable with, and dragging the other Team Star bosses in here without even asking how you feel about it would be really rude. I mean, the absolute rudest.”
“No, no, it’s okay,” Penny said. “Honest.” Ortega gave a satisfied nod and walked outside the tent to find the Segin Squad leader. It was almost sweet how protective he was of her. Then Penny remembered that there wasn’t a Segin Squad anymore, thanks to Operation Starfall. Her chest tightened. Maybe I could stand to be a little more protective of my friends in return.
Juliana entered the gate without too much issue. Several of the grunts had their Poké Balls at the ready, but when she explained to them that she was with Jenny and Arven, they backed off and let her through. One of them even helpfully pointed out Arven’s location. Not that he was difficult to find. The guy was stomping up the path, headed straight for her.
Relief flooded through her as she jogged to meet him. “Glad I finally found you,” she said, then promptly pulled him away from the Team Star grunts to whisper up against a corner of the fence. He seemed kind of flustered–probably from being left in the base without her all this time. “Listen. I just got some important intel. I don’t think Team Star is out to help you like they said.”
“Really?” Arven said with more than a hint of sarcasm. “And did this ‘intel’ come from that creepy guy in the grass?”
“He’s not creepy. It’s just the school director dressed up as this student named Clive following us around and watching what we do.”
Arven did not need to reply to this. His deadpan expression said enough.
“Look, it’s important he stays undercover,” Juliana explained. “He’s pretty sure Team Star is behind all this weird stuff going on.”
“I see,” Arven replied. His tone had softened to one less caustic and more…well, sad. “And what do you think about them?”
It seemed like a genuine question, which made Juliana divert her gaze in debate. She wasn’t used to people actually hearing her opinion and changing their actions based on what she said. Usually she nodded and went along with people just because they left her little choice in the matter. “I mean, Clive said they’re bad. And he’s pretty trustworthy, so they’re probably bad, right?” She crossed her arms, tilted her head slightly, and tapped her foot on the ground. She’d seen Arven do it a bunch of times, and it seemed to help him think. Unfortunately, it failed to have the same enlightening effect on her. “Then again, I guess believing whatever he said without proof just as bad as believing whatever Team Star says without proof?”
“No, they’re bad,” Arven assured her. “Stuck-up, irredeemable jerks we should not be talking to. Glad we’re on the same page there. So let’s go.”
He started for the gate again, but Juliana grabbed the end of his backpack and pulled, halting his progress. “Hold on. If they’re really the cause of all these problems, we need to help stop them.”
“‘If’ is a loaded word.” Arven gave the backpack a tug and loosened it from her grasp. “They’re lousy people, yeah, but I don’t know if they’re capable of something that major. Not without a lot of adult help, which I always thought they were pretty strongly against.”
How does he know so much about them? Juliana wondered. Even Clive didn’t have this level of info. Maybe Arven was a former member who got out early? But if that were the case, he would have told her by now. The guy literally put the task of healing his Pokémon in her hands. If that wasn’t a no-holds-barred level of trust, what was?
While Juliana stood in debate, the grunts had apparently gotten tired of watching them whisper in the corner. A group of them began to approach, accompanied by three people dressed outside the normal school uniform. One of them looked like a DJ, wearing a slick black and white jacket and a hefty set of headphones. This had to be Giacomo–the boss she was supposed to fight back at the Segin Squad base. He carted around a laptop that he was showing to a red-and-blue-haired girl with gray-patterned leggings, though the screen hid most of her face. The third person was shorter than the others and sported a pastel pink and yellow tailcoat that complimented his lavender hair. He also carried a small golden staff and walked with the confident gait of someone who could afford to drag a gold-plated stick through the muddy grass.
“Juliana, I assume?” he asked when he reached her.
She gave a cautious nod, while Arven crossed his arms and looked the other way.
“Excellent. That makes things easier.” The lavender-haired guy tapped the ground with his staff. In a room with tiled flooring, it would have made an authoritative click. Out in the wet grass, it made a much less impressive squelch. “My name is Ortega. I understand you escorted Arven here? Perhaps you can help talk some sense into him.”
“I could have gotten here on my own just fine,” Arven muttered.
Ortega ignored him. “I’ll be blunt. The anomalies around Paldea are getting progressively worse. I’ve experienced the long-term effects myself. We need your help to pinpoint the cause and stop it.”
As he spoke, Giacomo closed his laptop, letting Juliana get a full view of the girl he’d been showing it to.
“Wait a second.” Juliana narrowed her eyes at the newcomer. “Are you…?” The sweatshirt and shiny Eevee backpack looked like they belonged to Jenny. But her face reminded Juliana of the shy girl from school. Never mind that their names were only one letter apart…
“Y-you’re Penny.” Juliana did a face palm. Mostly to hide the scarlet flooding her cheeks. She could understand Director Clavell disguising himself so they could talk on the same level. But when fellow students hid who they were, too? Nothing felt sacred anymore.
“Sorry,” Penny said, lowering her head.
Still flushing, Juliana turned to Arven. “I suppose next you’re going to tell me that you’re Cassiopeia?”
“Actually, um…” Penny took a step forward. “I’m Cassiopeia. Sorry again.”
Juliana had no immediate response to that. Her brain fired through possibilities in a desperate attempt to not humiliate herself again. Penny had come here walking between the Team Star bosses, so that could only mean one of two things–either she was a boss herself or she was here against her will.
Gotta be the first one. No one that quiet runs a team of people this loud. “So. Did Team Star kidnap you? Blackmail you to shut down Operation Starfall?”
“Hey, hey!” Now Giacomo came forward, pushing past Ortega so he stood only inches from Juliana. The whole group of them were going to be pressing their faces together in short order if they kept this up. “She hasn’t been kidnapped. Or blackmailed! Or whatever else you–” His eyebrows rose, and he turned to face Penny. “Hold up. You started Operation Starfall, B.B.? You wanted Team Star to go down?”
“N-no! Penny waved her hands frantically. “I-I mean…yes, I did. At first. To get you back to school so you didn’t expelled. But now there’s bigger problems than school, and we need Team Star to fix them, and…and…” She buried her face in her hands and groaned. “And why is this so complicated?”
Giacomo didn’t raise his voice. He didn’t even look that angry–more hurt than anything else. Hesitantly, he patted Penny on the shoulder in a halfhearted attempt to comfort her.
Ortega stabbed at the ground with his staff again, drawing Juliana’s attention. “Look,” he said. “I don’t know where you got such weird ideas about us, but we want to help Paldea. The same as I assume you do. We just need to study Arven for a while and find out what causes his phasing to activate. With that information, maybe we can stop the anomalies altogether.”
“I…” Juliana felt a serious headache coming on. She’d come in here so confident, but Team Star seemed genuinely confused by her accusations. Arven was no help, still standing with his arms crossed, refusing to take part in the conversation. What was she supposed to do? Answer for him?
“I don’t know,” she said carefully. “Phasing through stuff over and over again sounds dangerous. Even if what you’re saying is true.”
“What do you mean ‘even if it’s true’?” Giamoco demanded. “You think we’re lying?”
“What would we get out of a lie like that?” Ortega said, pointing the muddy end of his staff in Juliana’s face. “Seriously. How do you think it benefits us to watch Arven sticking his hand through random objects for hours on end?”
“Which I’m not doing,” Arven said. “So you can lay off of my friend already!” He came up alongside Juliana and shoved the staff away. Hard. It knocked Ortega off balance, sending him down on his butt into the mud. Murky rainwater splashed up, covered Penny’s leggings, and drenched Ortega’s fairy-pink suit. Arven’s eyes widened, but instead of apologizing, he crossed his arms and stood over Ortega with a piercing glare. “If the same thing is happening to you, why don’t you be Team Star’s lab Rattata?”
“Because I can’t control it, and you can!” Ortega snapped as he pushed himself into a crouch. He reached for his staff, only for his fingers to move right through it. He growled and stood, leaving his staff in the mud.
Doubt again crossed Arven’s face, but again his angry tone took control. “Oh, so I’m special?”
“Clearly! Gee, I wonder how that happened!”
Juliana bit her lip. Making a sound judgment here was getting trickier by the second. But first she had to keep Arven and Ortega from going staff-to-frying-pan at each other. “Look,” she said, stepping between them. “There’s obviously a lot of tension here, so why don’t we talk things out?” She patted Arven’s arm and gently pushed down on Ortega’s balled-up fist. Mostly to make sure they didn’t take any fury-filled swings.
Suddenly, she lost her footing. Or more accurately, her foot. Juliana looked down to see her leg sunk into the ground up to her knee. She cried out in surprise and pulled her hands back, only to start falling forward. For all their hatred of each other, the boys apparently shared a desire not to see her hit the ground face-first. Arven grabbed her left wrist while Ortega grasped her right.
Then things got really weird. Juliana’s limbs burned with the sensation of someone powerful pulling on them with full strength. At the same time, the upper half of her body felt like it was flying straight up. She tried to squeeze her eyes shut, but her eyelids hit some sort of obstacle. She could only watch in horror as the ground got farther and farther away.
When it stopped, her feet remained planted on the ground. She was standing at roughly the height of a building, her limbs stretched thin like putty. But when she tried to reach her unnaturally long arm forward, she could barely see it from her peripheral vision. Like her eyes had jutted out too far from her body.
Juliana let out a guttural, horrified scream. The sound was echoed by dozens of terrified, normal-sized humans far below. Grunts were scrambling to get away from her. If she moved, she might step on them. Or fall on them. She tried desperately to look around and get her bearings, but with her disconnected vision, any movement turned her stomach and threatened her already precarious balance.
Then, as quickly as it had happened, the entire process worked itself in reverse. Her eyes pulled back, returning to their normal place in her sockets. Her arms shrunk to their normal length, and the ground got closer and closer.
When the whole insane event ended, Juliana collapsed onto the ground.
Despite all the grunts darting away, Arven came running to her side. “Juliana! Are you okay?” He seemed hesitant to touch her, but she reached out and grabbed his wrist, using it to pull herself out of the mud. Nothing happened. Her body remained normal. Of course it had. They’d bumped up against each other plenty of times before arriving here. Whatever freakish process had taken over her body, it wasn’t Arven’s fault. And since only one other person had come in contact with her, the culprit couldn’t be clearer.
“Juliana?” Arven asked again. “Answer me!”
“C-clive was right,” she said in a shaky voice. “Team Star is the cause of everything. We need to stop them.” She scanned the grounds until she saw Ortega, Penny, and Giacomo. They were keeping a healthy distance from her, but they weren’t running, either.
Juliana grabbed Tinkatuff’s Poké Ball and thrust it forward. “Battle me!” she demanded. “And when I win, I want the Rhubarb Squad disbanded. Forever.”