Ortega couldn’t walk far. Arven, Juliana, and Nemona stood back to give him more space, but Penny barely got him a few steps before he collapsed again.
Maybe this is the wrong approach? She gnawed at her lip in debate. It was hardly the first time Ortega had an issue like this. If they let him rest for a few minutes here, the episode might pass faster. She knelt against the barrier that separated the two of them from the rest of Team Star. Ortega shifted over beside her. His staff rested on his lap as he braced himself against the invisible wall. Giacomo, Eri, Mela, and Atticus all watched through the wall with tense stances and nervous fidgeting.
“Are you sick again?” Mela asked.
He let out a harsh laugh. “Sick? Sure. I’m sick of running for our lives. I’m sick of the world going to crap with only guesses on how to fix it. And I’m sick of wondering if we’ll escape this stupid crater cave!” He pounded against the barrier. The thick material, whether physical or supernatural, gave a dull thunk. No sign of a budge or a scratch. “I don’t want to be here anymore! I wanna go home!” He pushed against the wall with all his strength, but nothing happened. And with each gasp of effort, Penny could see through him more and more.
“Ortie,” she said. Her voice shook, no matter how she tried to steady it. “You need to calm down. You’re making it worse.”
Ortega didn’t seem to hear her. Or their friends who repeated the same words from behind the barrier. He shoved and pounded, his eyes red, sweat trailing down his face. With each hopeless impact, his body grew more transparent. His voice went raw with his furious sobs.
“I…I wanna go home!” He buried his face in his hands. The staff on his lap fell through his vanishing legs and clattered to the ground. His voice squeaked as his breaths shortened.
No, no, no! His anomalies had never gotten this bad before. What if he couldn’t improve? What if he disappeared for good this time and never came back? Penny braced for a jolt a fear-fueled adrenaline, but instead, she felt a connection with Ortega’s words. He was right. They shouldn’t have to be here. It shouldn’t be their job to risk themselves like this.
No one had asked them to, the logical part of her mind argued. They had come here because they were the best equipped for the job. This situation was nobody’s fault.
And still…as Ortie collapsed onto her, shaking and flickering worse than ever, a well of bitterness rose in Penny. She laid his head on her lap and spoke softly to him. Urged him to quell his fury. To focus on her and all the good things in Team Star’s future. It felt more like trying to convince herself than him.
And she could tell it wasn’t working. Maybe it was his anomaly or an effect of Area Zero, but she could feel an angry aura pulsing in her brain. Her hands burned, and her ears started ringing.
She was failing the both of them. Hard.
Arven paced back and forth, using movement to drive away the panic. The members of Team Star were working themselves into a frenzy–crying, calling their friend’s name over and over…nothing worked. As Ortega rested his head on Penny’s lap, his eyes grew unfocused. Arven wasn’t sure if anyone’s voices got through to him. But it soon became clear they needed more than words.
Arven did a quick turn and paced closer to the barrier. A set of footsteps approached from somewhere behind him. They sounded human, but then again, who knew for sure in this place? And Arven didn’t care who joined them right now. His thoughts were laser-focused on this moment. What he could do. How he could help. He desperately thought back to the lighthouse. Ortega had pulled him back from his own bad episode once–like their two anomalies counteracted each other or something. If he could do the same now…
“Arven?” said an older voice.
Arven couldn’t call it familiar. It was a voice he’d heard before but only in news clips and voice messages on Sada’s phone. Both a long, long time ago. He stole a glance over his shoulder.
A man walked around the corner of the cavern’s next curve. He had a rugged, unshaved face and wore a stained lab coat over what Arven could only describe as a cyber suit stolen from a sci fi convention.
“T-turo?” he said, catching himself before he let “Dad” slip out. If Sada had lost her familial title, Turo had lost it ten times over. Arven only knew the guy’s name because he had asked about it so much as a child. Sada insisted they met when he was too young to remember. All Arven knew was when he came into the picture as a baby, Turo had checked out.
The man flinched at the sound of his name, but he didn’t call back right away. Instead he turned and made a shooing motion behind him. Several strange Pokémon followed in his shadow–a Misdreavus that cast long trails of ghostly smoke like flowing locks of hair, along with an Amoongus that had spikes atop its head and vines obscuring its face. There was even a smaller version of that ancient-looking Donphan…perhaps a younger one, since its tusks were smaller and its legs stubbier. There was also a Tandemaus pair, the two members scampering together. Their faces were visible, thank goodness, but the number 32 glowed eerily on their chests. The Pokémon all walked as close to Turo as they could, nearly getting stepped on, and his attempts to make them leave had little effect. Only the Tademaus scurried away and sat between Juliana and Nemona.
“Arven,” said Turo, giving up on the matter. “It’s been a long time. I do apologize for the circumstances we must meet under.”
“H-how are you even…?” Arven shook his head. He waved away his father the same way the man had done to the Pokémon trailing him. “You know what? I don’t even care. I’ve got more important things to do now.” He knelt beside Ortega and grasped the sculpted Poke Ball at the end of his fallen staff. The two of them hadn’t made direct contact when this worked before. Instead, they had both touched the same object. And Ortie had seemed pretty calm, so he couldn’t have been that hacked off, despite his power activating.
Arven thought back to the time he was playing with that Gimmeghoul. Letting in just enough fear for his anomaly to activate before it grew out of control. There was no shortage of stuff to fear now. Even with Mabosstiff healthy. His future. Ortega’s future. The future of Paldea.
His body let off a soft scarlet aura. His hand phased partway into the Poké Ball but not fully through. It still felt like he was gripping the center of it somehow. If he could get Ortie to grab the other end…
“Stop,” Turo said. “You can’t save him.”
It took Arven’s full focus to keep hold of the fear and not let his anger burn it away.
“What do you know?” he said, holding his free hand open. Still solid. He could do this. And he wanted everyone else to know it. “When we were in the lighthouse, he did something with his ability that…calmed me down when I was scared. Like he grounded me. I bet I can do the same for him.”
Penny nodded. “Try it, then. And hurry!”
“You miss my meaning, Arven,” said Turo, firmer this time. “For the sake of Paldea, you mustn’t save him.”
Arven froze. “Excuse me?”
Ortega gave a shallow gasp again. Arven couldn’t see his hands or feet at all. “Nemona? Juliana? Can you guys hold Turo off?”
“Oh. Gladly.” Nemona cracked her knuckles. It must have been tough for her, stuck feeling hopeless when Pokémon battles had solved all her problems before. Well, now she had her opportunity to help. Goodra roared and Tinkaton laughed as the girls put a barricade between themselves and Turo. Arven had no idea about the man’s battle skills. But he had confidence in his friends to get the job done.
Arven extended the handle of the staff towards Ortega. “Okay. I need you to hold this, buddy.”
Ortega muttered something but did not make eye contact. His legs faded as well.
Tears welled up in Penny’s eyes. “I promise I’ll never do anything like this again…but I’m ordering you as Team Star’s boss to take it! Please…” She lowered her head, tears falling on the lenses of her glasses.
Arven shook his head. This wasn’t working. They’d been saying the same thing over and over. It probably sounded like background noise by now, even if Ortega could hear it. They needed to get his attention somehow. What was it his sister had called him?
“Hey, Prince Leer!” Arven called.
Ortega’s fingers twitched. He tilted his head towards Arven, though he still didn’t meet his eyes. I have to be careful, Arven thought. I can’t make him any more angry or I’ll lose him.
He swallowed hard. “Grab this, and I swear, I won’t ever talk about food again.” He pushed the staff forward one more time, squeezed his eyes shut, and focused on all the calming thoughts he could.
It turned his stomach. The waiting. The lack of control. All he could do was listen to each slow breath.
Then, for a moment, he felt the faintest bit of resistance at the opposite end.
Ortega’s angry energy began to evaporate to moment he touched the staff. Even Penny could feel it. She glanced over at the Tandemaus. Was the cave growing darker? They seemed more shadowy now; the glowing numbers stood out more.
And they were dropping. Fast. Twenty-nine. Twenty-six. Twenty-four.
“Please!” Turo said. “You must stop!”
Goodra gave him a slap in the mouth with its slimy tail. He gagged and coughed. Arven didn’t so much as twitch.
There was no doubt the light was fading now. Far behind them, at the mouth of the cave, the sun visibly sank. The soft glow from the cave’s crystals flickered. But Ortega was coming back to them. His head had felt light as a Pidove’s down on her lap before. Now his body grew heavier and more solid. His breaths came fuller.
Twenty-two. Nineteen. Sixteen.
The sun flew back into the sky, briefly casting more light in the cavern. All the ancient Pokémon around Turo did nothing to fend off Goodra and Tinkaton’s attacks. They simply clung to Turo’s legs and whined. The man couldn’t go anywhere and flailed his arms to keep his balance.
Good, Penny thought. Let him fall right over and break his arm. Or his neck.
They weren’t the types feelings she normally had. She got annoyed with people, sure, but she rarely held a grudge. Then again, she’d never had a friend dying in her arms with some horrible adult yelling not to save him. It was difficult to hold off grudges in a case like that. The ringing in her ears rose in pitch and volume.
The Tandemaus began to scream, only to go silent as their mouths and eyes faded, leaving only their featureless faces. Fourteen. Eleven.
No light shone from the crystals. The sun began to fall again. Blood-orange rays briefly flooded the cavern through an array of tall gaps in the cave. The rocky walls appeared hollow–paper-thin structures with random, rectangular chunks missing. As if the void inside the tera crystals had spread like a virus across all of Paldea.
The cave plunged into darkness. Only the glow from some nearby black stakes and the Tandemaus’s numbers could still be seen.
Come on, begged Penny. We’re almost there. The more solid Ortega felt, the tighter Penny held onto him. Her ears rung so loudly now, she wouldn’t hear him if he spoke. Turo yelled one more time for them to stop.
Then, in an instant, the danger was over. Penny signaled for Arven to drop the staff. It smacked her leg as it rolled to the side. Whatever angry energy had threatened Ortega flowed away at a rapid pace on its own. It still burned her hands as it left, but that didn’t matter. His chest rose and fell. The flow of energy eased.
He’s…he’s going to be okay.
The sun began to rise again, still quick enough to be tracked, but slower than before. The high-pitched ring in Penny’s ears finally softened. She looked over at the Tandemaus. The beady little eyes had returned to their faces, though they still had no noses or mouths. The numbers had gone up to nine. Then fourteen. They ascended quickly, reaching a peak at around twenty-eight. The walls appeared solid again, too.
But most importantly, Ortega had made a near-complete recovery. With each breath, his body grew more opaque. In a few moments, he had gone back to normal. Aside from a very un-Ortega-like glistening of sweat on his face and neck, no one would have known they almost lost him.
Eri broke into sobs. Atticus cried as well, though he kept it more contained. Mela let out a slew of curses to describe how scared she’d been. Giacomo demonstrated as much by collapsing to his knees.
Penny should have felt relief…huge relief with the rest of them. But she couldn’t. Her mind refused to get over how close they’d come. The idea that their situation was no one’s fault felt naive and childish. This had to be someone’s fault, didn’t it? Things didn’t go this bad this fast with no one to blame at all…did they?
Ortega weakly turned towards Arven. “You…promised,” he whispered. “No more food talk.”
Arven wiped away tears as he laughed. “Y-yeah. I promised.”
Ortega smiled before he closed his eyes and fell asleep. Penny let him rest on her a little bit longer before she stood and gently lowered his head to the ground.
Then she marched up to Turo. Goodra and Tinkaton saw her coming and parted to make room. Their trainers did likewise. Penny must have looked like a raging Tauros if even Tinkaton didn’t want to cross her.
“Are you children pleased with yourselves?” Turo said. He pushed at the strange Amoongus, which teetered as it hobbled away from him. “You do realize you came within seconds of wiping Paldea off the map?”
“Oh. Because we saved our friend?” Penny snapped.
Turo massaged his temples. “See, this is the problem with adolescents. You’re too short-sighted. Too selfish. Did it occur to you for even a moment that your attempts to rescue your one friend could have cost the lives of countless others?”
“How are those things remotely connected?” Juliana asked.
Arven crossed his arms. “I’d guess the time machine him and Sada built plays a part in it.”
“Of course it does,” said Penny. She narrowed her eyes at Turo. “Start talking.”
“It’s too complicated for you, and I don’t have time to–”
“Too complicated?” Penny stepped forward until she was right in his face. First to intimidate him but second because her ears hadn’t fully cleared yet. The man had a height advantage on her, but she’d faced worse. “I’m the ‘kid’ who sliced through the Pokémon League’s digital defenses in one afternoon over a bowl of instant noodles. Try me.”
“Did you now?” The man looked exasperated. “Very well, then. If you insist.” He stepped back, reclaiming his personal bubble, and motioned to the stakes embedded at the bases of three iridescent chunks of rock. Each stake glowed with a different color–one green, one yellow, and one blue. The rocks had regained some of their original luminescence, though they didn’t look at full brightness yet. Then again, it was difficult to tell. “This may shock you to learn, but a time machine requires power. Unprecedented amounts of it. To say modern energy sources proved insufficient for our needs is a gross understatement.”
“So you’re using those stakes, then?” Penny said. “What are they, exactly?”
Turo huffed at the question. “They were originally designed to seal away four dangerous and powerful Pokémon, colloquially known as the Treasures of Ruin.” He paused, eyeing Penny for some sign of recognition. When she made none, he frowned and continued, “Each set of stakes resonates with a specific Treasure. Drains their energy so they cannot break out of their respective prisons. In other words–” A spark lit up his eyes in a way that turned Penny’s stomach. “They are ancient batteries, which have been storing incredible energy for centuries.”
The look of self-importance and greed that flashed across the man’s face decimated the dam on Penny’s emotions. How dare he, was the only thought she could process. How dare he stand there and accuse us of being selfish when his invention almost killed Ortie!
In that moment, it wasn’t enough just for Ortega to be safe. She wanted more. She wanted Turo and Sada and whoever else was involved in this disaster to feel as horrible as she did.
There was someone to blame for all of this. And he stood right in front of her. The high-pitched ring grew to full volume again. She raised her fist to point an accusing finger at him…only to find her hand pulsing with a violet glow.