Ortega switched the call over to speaker mode and set the phone down in the middle of the desk. He’d barely gotten in a hello before Eri demanded updates on everything. Her scout had received reports of an assault on the Fairy Crew’s base, and she’d been on edge ever since. Were all the members safe? Did anyone need extra training? Was their research damaged in any way?
Ortega began with a rundown of his battle with Juliana, reassuring everyone that he’d chased her off and the badge was still his. Eri cheered at this news, while Atticus gave a hardy clap.
“‘Tis good tidings, indeed! When the Navi Squad received word that thine encampment was under siege, it required greatest fortitude not to hasten to thine aid.”
Ortega chuckled. “You’re lucky you didn’t show up! What would that have looked like to my crew, you rushing in here like I couldn’t handle myself? Especially when my Pokémon are stronger than yours!”
“Ah. And yet, if memory serves, t’was I who took the victory in our last bout.”
“Because you train poison types, and I train fairy types!” Ortega protested, much to the amusement of all involved. Penny tried to hold on to this happy moment before they moved to more serious matters. It had been so rare to hear Atticus laughing when Team Star first formed. His odd way of speaking had proved a barrier at the start, keeping him at an emotional distance from the others.
But Penny soon grew used to it. She also had her suspicions that distance was exactly his reason for taking up his new speech patterns in the first place. He’d confirmed as much on that fateful night during what she thought would be the last phone call with her friends. It was the one and only time she’d heard him ease up on the centuries-old vernacular:
“To be forthright…I mean…that is to say, I’m afraid I do not keep abreast of today’s trends, even in the world of fashion. I feel like…as if I am always behind. Sometimes it’s like everyone else is speaking a different language. What if I say something and it comes across wrong, due to some new slang or reference I don’t follow? What if someone misreads me and I make them upset or angry, or…” A pause, followed by a slow, meditative inhale and exhale. “…I decided when I came to school that I would lean on my interest in history and simply speak in a way that was not…wasn’t modern to anyone. Words frozen in time with their old definitions, not tied to any current references or hidden meanings. At least…until I got to know someone and could trust they didn’t…would not judge me for my interests.”
It was a moment that had nearly broken Penny’s resolve to disband the group. Nearly being the key word. She’d felt so sure that if she really cared about Atticus as a friend, she’d get him back to school no matter what.
Now she saw things in an entirely new perspective. At the very least, she appreciated that school was not the be-all and end-all of the universe.
“It’s good to hear your voices again,” she said by way of announcing herself.
Several seconds of silence ticked by as Eri and Atticus processed what they’d just heard.
Eri gasped. “W-wait a second! Is that the big boss with you?”
“You mean Penny?” Giacomo said. “Yeah, she’s here.”
“Verily ’tis a joyous occasion!” Atticus said. “But pray tell, what circumstance has necessitated thine re-emergence, Lady Penny?”
Penny flushed, grateful this wasn’t a video call. “P-please don’t call me ‘lady,’ Atticus.”
Penny collected herself and laid out the proposed changes to Team Star’s code. Not changes made out of preference, she emphasized, but made out of necessity. With as important as their work was, they couldn’t afford for some random student to come in and dismantle everything with a few lucky battles. The group had to be permitted to stay together after defeat. Two of their bases going down had already reduced the amount of data coming in. A third squad dispersing would be a disaster. While Eri listened intently with a lot of “Hmm”s and “Okay”s, Atticus remained silent the entire time. Not completely out of character for someone from a family of ninjas, but Penny had noticed over the course of their friendship that the quieter Atticus got about a topic, the less he approved.
“Well?” Penny asked when she had finished. “What do you both think?”
The silence over the phone lingered for several moments. The screen clearly showed the call had not ended, and the signal was clear. Penny could have sworn the tent felt smaller and more suffocating around her.
To her great relief, Eri finally spoke. “I do understand where it’s coming from, but…I sure don’t like it,” she said. “‘Necessary business’ could mean anything. You’re basically writing a rule that says, ‘if we lose, just go on like we didn’t.'”
“Agreed,” Atticus added. “The whole of this proposal reeks with the stench of cowardice. Acceptance would be tantamount to spitting in the noble face of mine heritage.”
“I said I didn’t like it,” Eri said, an edge to her voice. “I didn’t say I’d vote against it.”
Atticus stammered at this. “H-have thine senses taken leave of thee?”
“My senses are right here, Atticus. We have to face facts. Our home is more important than our pride.”
Ortega leaned towards the speaker. “I’m in the same boat as Eri. We have an enemy, and she isn’t backing down. This is our best option.”
“Forgive mine reluctance to join thee in thine hypothetical water-bound vessel.”
Penny hugged herself. Everyone’s voices were getting clipped and agitated. How were they such a cohesive unit before and now when they tried to get down to business, it turned to snapping at each other?
Because that’s what a crisis does, she tried to remind herself. It stresses people out. Me included.
Giacomo, always the peacekeeper, spoke up: “Hey. Seems pretty clear we need to debate this. Let’s meet in person at the Ruchbah Squad’s base.”
“I’m fine with that,” Eri said. “My crew can handle themselves in the meantime.”
Atticus gave a much longer pause before he replied. “The scoundrel who dared bare her fangs at Ortega’s fortress…on what manner of timeline doth she seek to ravage the strongholds of his fellows?”
“We don’t know for sure what she plans to do or when she plans to do it,” Penny replied. “But she seemed pretty frustrated at the loss and only had two Pokémon with her. Our best guess is she’ll be looking to expand her team before she attacks again.”
“Indeed. Then I shall make haste to discuss your proposal face-to-face, Penny.”
Penny winced, both at the curt way he said her name and how he called it “her” proposal, not Giacomo’s. Leave it to Atticus to see right through people.
The call ended, and Giacomo turned to Penny, arms crossed. “You didn’t mention you were the one who sent Juliana after us in the first place.”
“They didn’t ask,” Penny muttered. Which sounded pathetic, even before she voiced it.
“Quit acting like you don’t trust any of us to see the bigger picture like you do,” Giacomo said. “Even if we’re mad about Operation Starfall, we know you and Team Star are Paldea’s best bet right now.”
Penny sat at the desk and pushed Ortega’s phone towards him, making more room for her own set-up. Only for something to do while waiting for Eri and Atticus. Definitely not to distract herself from any difficult conversations.
“I know I should trust you more,” Penny said as the monitor booted up. “I just…I’m scared, all right?”
She stole a glance at Giacomo, who now looked even more insulted. “Yeah? Me too.” He motioned to Ortega. “It freaks the hell out of me when Ortega starts phasing through stuff like he does, and it’s only getting worse. Don’t even get me started on the heart attack I had when I thought Juliana was going to crush us all like Joltiks under her feet!” He grimaced and massaged his temples. “Ugh. I’m sorry, Ortega. I didn’t mean…”
Ortega shrugged. “I appreciate your concern. You’re worried about me disappearing forever. But, really, I’m just worried I’ll suffer the indignity of being merged with a gym test prop.” He gave an exaggerated shudder, which finally lessened the tension.
“How…did everything go with that gym helper, anyway?” Penny asked, opening the folder with the files she’d extracted from Ortega’s phone.
Giacomo shrugged. “We wanted to be careful and make sure cutting the olive wouldn’t hurt them in any way. When we realized they weren’t connected to it and were perfectly intact inside of it, Pawniard got them out quick. Ortega’s crew did an interview before they sent the guy off. Though we didn’t get much. The guy was pretty out of it and still had olive foam in his ears.”
“Should be there in my documents,” Ortega said.
Penny nodded and found the file in short order. The report showed that the gym helper was initially horrified at the wanton olive destruction, begging the grunts to find some way to remove him without destroying one of Cortondo’s most precious treasures. They ignored him, and once he’d been extracted, he did seem relieved to be free. But he also reported that he hadn’t phased into the olive on his own. Someone had bumped into him, and he’d had no other experiences with the anomalies otherwise. So they’d been able to help one person, but information-wise, he’d been a dead end.
Which meant their next best lead for now were the strange texts on Ortega’s phone. “I bet I could get a trace on where these came from,” Penny said, pulling his phone closer right as he was about to take it back. “Erm, if that’s okay with you.”
Ortega nodded. “Go for it. Let’s see what we’ve got.”
Penny plugged the phone in and started a trace on the messages. As the program ran its routine, she rooted through her bag again, hoping she’d packed a pair of headphones. Not to listen to anything, but to reduce the surrounding noise so she could focus. She pulled out a case of SD cards, several different cables, and her copy of “How to Show Your Face to Your Friends.”
Ortega looked at it curiously and she almost shoved it back in before he said, “Oh, hey, my sister has that book. She loves anything Allister writes.”
Penny smiled and laid the book to the side. The program reported back its initial findings–no exact coordinates yet, but it could at least give a rough idea of where the texts had come from. Penny frowned as she perused the results. “This doesn’t make any sense. I’m getting readings that this text was sent from the Great Crater of Paldea. But that can’t be right.” She opened the program’s settings to see if she’d calibrated something incorrectly. Or perhaps the anomalies had affected her system somehow?
“I know Arven’s parents both studied the crater at some point,” Ortega said. “His mom even discussed building a lab down there. Which I’m pretty sure we weren’t supposed to know about, but…she talked about a lot of things when she thought we weren’t paying attention.”
“Hmm…” Penny left the settings alone and returned to the unsettling photos of the Tandemaus. The background appeared to be a cave of some kind. The Pokémon did not seem in distress, though with their eerie featureless faces, it was difficult to tell. The pictures themselves were clean and well-centered, not tilted or blurry. So whoever took them probably wasn’t in a panic. Or they were a superhuman who could frame a perfect shot of moving Pokémon while in a panic.
“The formatting of these texts is weird, too,” she mused. “All the leet speak? Is the sender trying to be cryptic?” She sighed. “Guess it’s impossible to say without knowing who they are.”
Ortega didn’t respond, seemingly lost in his musings about secret labs that might or might not exist. “We could check out the Poco Path Lighthouse,” he said. “See if Arven’s mom left any notes on the crater there. My dad made a copy of the key, and I’m sure my sister would bring it if I ask nicely.”
“It’s as good a lead as any,” Penny said. “Go ahead, but don’t disconnect the phones until the trace in complete.” Ortega rotated the phone in his direction and dutifully scheduled the text to his sister. Scheduling was key, he insisted. Her phone would get confiscated if it pinged her during class one more time.
As the group of them waited, Penny tapped on her own phone out of habit. For the second time, she wondered if her technology was busted or if whatever was destroying Paldea had a personal vendetta against her devices.
Her screen displayed the Pokémon in her party. She should have had five, with one being in Ortega’s possession. But instead it still showed a full party of six, and one of the icons looked like an egg.
“Wha-what? I’m not carrying an egg!” she exclaimed. “I don’t even like picnics!”
Ortega and Giacomo looked confused, so she turned the screen around to show them. Her hand squeezed the power button by mistake, forcing the phone to reboot. She rolled her eyes as she waited for everything to start up again, but once it did, she quickly tapped the Pokémon monitoring app and held it back for her friends to see again.
“Um…it doesn’t say you have an egg,” Giacomo said, squinting at the screen. “It does say you have a Sprigatitio, though.”
As soon as he said it, the shelf behind Penny mewed. She turned around to see Sprigatito peeking out and taking cautious steps towards the group. A closer inspection of her bag revealed what looked like strands of grass settled at the bottom. She picked one up. More like strands from Sprigatito shedding.
“It must have stowed away in my bag,” Penny said, then beckoned the little Pokémon onto her lap. It leapt up and purred contently as it nuzzled her hand.
“I thought you only trained Eeveeluitions,” said Ortega.
“Sprigatitio’s not mine,” she said. “It appeared in the library, but I haven’t been able to find the owner.” She inspected the screen. “Connecting to your phone might have messed with my apps. I can’t run the trace again, and it thinks I have six Pokémon in my party now.” Though at least it doesn’t think Sprigatitio is an egg anymore.
“So, what? I’m holding onto Slyveon for the time being?” Ortega asked.
“If you don’t mind,” Penny said, lifting the Pokémon up so she could set it somewhere to play and get herself back to work. Except when she picked it up, she saw that the leaf on its chest was a deep, sparkling black like her Umbreon’s fur. And its tummy was a fluffy white instead of a pastel green. “That’s weird. I didn’t notice it had different colors before.”
Then again, she didn’t turn the Pokémon over on its back that much either. Perhaps in her worries about Paldea, she had missed it?
“I heard alt-color Sprigatitio have purple eyes,” Ortega said, and he pointed at the feline’s face. “Those are definitely pink.”
Penny looked again, and even in the poor lighting the tent had, Ortega was right. Were color-changing Pokémon yet another anomaly she should be documenting?
Before she could internally debate about it, a grunt called Ortega from outside the tent, announcing that the bosses had company. The tent flap was pulled back, and in stepped Eri, Atticus, and behind them–
“Mela!” Giacomo exclaimed.
She gave a small smile, but didn’t return his enthusiasm.
Penny stomach twisted. She’d been prepared for how she’d approach Atticus and Eri, but seeing Mela too threw her off balance. It felt like she had only gotten off the phone a few minutes ago. She expected to have more time to mentally prepare. Why did flying taxis have to be so efficient, anyway?