Nemona and Juliana both gasped in almost perfect synchronization. Arven’s stomach sank when he saw Penny’s hand. Unless she had snuck down here and messed around with the same machine he had as a kid…whatever this thing was could spread.
Penny gripped her affected hand with her less luminescent one. Arven could see her fingers quivering, even from a distance. “Wha-what is this?”
No one answered her. Nobody had an answer, for starters. And processing recent events while the adrenaline ebbed from their brains was its own challenge. Had the world nearly ended right in front of them? Seeing the light go dark, the cavern deteriorate…
Arven shuddered. Maybe it was all Penny’s hacking talk, but the memory conjured images in his mind of data corrupting. Or maybe…becoming unreadable? Whatever happened to data when you couldn’t use it anymore.
The only calm one in the space was Turo. He cocked his head at Penny in curiosity, but not a shred of surprise crossed his face. “A new egg, hmm? So that’s how the numbers went back up.” He rubbed at the stubble on his chin. “That does buy us some time. We should proceed to the final research station.”
“With you?” said Nemona. “No gracias.”
Turo ignored her and set off deeper into the cavern, his loafers scuffing against the stony ground. His gait remained confident–as if he fully expected the group of them would ignore his previous actions and follow him without question.
When no one moved, he paused but did not glance back. “There seems to be a misunderstanding. I do not wish you children any harm.”
“Oh, no?” said Arven, his blood boiling. “Then why were you telling us to let Ortie die a minute ago?”
Turo stiffened. “Do you not think I wouldn’t save him if I could? Save you, your friend, and myself as well?”
“I-I…” Arven stuttered. He wanted to yell out a nice, powerful, “Hell, no!” or “Hell, yes!” but Turo’s double-negative phrasing threw his brain for a loop on which one. Plus, what did the man mean by “and myself”? The moment for a good comeback came and went.
“I would never lift a finger to hurt any of you,” Turo went on. “But by the same token, nature must take its course. I can’t bring myself to intervene when I’ve caused so much harm already.”
So you won’t attack us, but you won’t help us, either, Arven thought, his gaze locked on his friends. Their safety came first, no matter what.
Penny kept massaging her hand, trying to take calm breaths. But every word from Turo reignited her tension. Each time the violet light began to fade, Turo would speak, Penny’s grip on her fingers would tighten, and the glow would return.
Nemona hadn’t made a move against the man yet, but she was keeping a sharp eye on him as she petted Goodra on the shoulder. If she suddenly shouted, “Hyper Beam to the face!” Arven wouldn’t be surprised. He’d probably cheer.
Juliana appeared to be the only one who wasn’t teetering on the edge of beating Turo to a pulp. She took a cautious step forward. “If you don’t want to hurt us, can you put down the barrier locking out our friends?” She pointed behind them, where the rest of Team Star was all but losing their minds being separated from their boss and their youngest member.
Turo shook his head. “That isn’t my doing. Paldea is trying to protect itself in whatever way it can. The barriers form and dissipate at unpredictable intervals.”
“Protect itself from what?” Nemona wanted to know.
“Well, myself, for starters,” Turo said. Then he motioned to Arven, Ortega, and Penny. “Along with the two, or perhaps three of you.”
Arven stared at Turo. “I swear, if you give one more vague, cryptic answer…” He didn’t have a good threat prepared. Once again, he came off as a stupid kid who couldn’t even finish sentences, while Turo acted the part of the level-headed adult.
“This is why you should continue to the research station,” Turo said. “Sada was always better at explaining such things.”
“Yeah, but she’s not–” Arven began, then cut himself once again. He’d had some concerns about Sada for a while now. Her strange call at the lighthouse only deepened them. It was one thing to have an idea in his mind, however farfetched. It was another to voice it aloud. Especially to a guy he wanted to beat senseless with a frying pan right now.
Oh. That would have made a great-sounding threat. I should have used it. “She’s not…acting normal,” he finished.
“I should think not,” Turo said. “The situation being what it is, acting ‘normal’ would not be appropriate at all.” He began to descend into the cave once again. “By the way, I do not recommend your friends linger in these caverns. Dangerous Pokémon aside, the place is quite prone to cave-ins.” And with that, he disappeared around the corner he’d emerged from.
Everyone looked at each other in debate. Juliana took the only logical step she could, which was to call out Koraidon so it could carry Ortega. It certainly wasn’t pleased with coming out. Its ribbon-like antennae drooped, and it lowered itself to the ground.
While Juliana coaxed it up, Penny and Nemona walked over to Team Star.
Penny placed her normal hand on the barrier, and her friends did the same. “I want to tell all of you to leave and get somewhere safe,” she said.
“We won’t run off and hide like that,” Eri said. “We’ll stay.”
“Verily, we could do little else,” Atticus said.
Nemona crossed her arms. “If you want to do something, you’re better going back than staying here. Clavell told me the Academy has several weak points where these anomalies hit harder. The students are probably in a panic, because none of them know what’s going on. If they have to evacuate, it’ll be chaos.” She placed her hand on the glass behind Penny’s, halfway between Giacomo and Mela’s hands on the opposite side. “I know our school hasn’t treated you well. But they could really use some student leaders right now. If you head out the way we came in, get La Primera or Rika to escort you to the Academy. Clavell offered to shield you guys from the police until we solve this.”
“Riiight,” said Giacomo. “Any suggestions for how we’d get out of the crater? Our Cyclizar don’t fly, remember?”
“Just call a flying taxi,” said Arven. “The fees are waived for trainers in trouble.”
Giacomo huffed. “Last guy who told me that started a battle and refused to send his Pokémon out.”
“Yeah, the drivers can be real pranksters when they’re bored,” said Arven with a sympathetic nod. “You need to cry a lot. Work up a good sob story. That’ll make them cut the crap and come right away.”
The group nodded. Atticus, Giacomo, and Eri dropped their hands and huddled together to discuss the matter. Mela didn’t budge. She locked reddening eyes with Nemona first, then Penny. “Hey, whatever we decide, you guys have to keep Ortie safe, okay?”
“Of course,” said Penny.
“Naturally,” said Nemona. “I mean, you did save my life out there. That’s worth at least a few rounds of me leaping into peril to protect your friend, right?” She gave a chuckle, but neither Penny nor Mela joined in. Mostly they blinked in bewilderment. Nemona’s cheeks turned the non-glowing variety of scarlet. “I-it was supposed to lighten the mood.”
Mela snorted and finally dropped her hand from the wall so she could stifle the sound. “I’ll hold you to it, student council girl,” she said once she’d gathered herself. “And if you’re still in one piece when this is over, come visit my base. The crew and I might have something for you.” She tilted her head toward Juliana, who had finally gotten Koraidon calm. “Tell your friend she can come, too.”
Nemona nodded, still blushing, and Mela went to join the others. Juliana walked Koraidon over to where Ortega still lay sleeping on the ground. Nemona carefully lifted him up and mounted the ancient Pokémon with ease.
Penny came alongside Koraidon and lowered her voice so only Nemona and Juliana could hear her. “I don’t think they’ll leave in front of me, but they might once we head out. We should get moving.”
Juliana nodded and patted Koraidon on the snout, urging it forward through its fear. The Pokémon licked her hands and followed her directions, one hesitant step at a time.
“Hey, Nemona?” said Penny before they could get out of earshot. “Thanks for talking to them. I think…it helped a lot.”
“Sure!” Nemona said with a grin. As if life-saving pep talks were a perfectly normal part of the student council job description. “My pleasure!”
There were plenty of dangerous Pokémon still left in the cavern. But none of them gave the group any trouble during the rest of their descent–their steep, crystal-clear descent. Once they rounded the corner Turo had come from, the cavern opened up to reveal thin paths that pointed sharply down to some large building at the crater’s deepest floor. Even where the patches of walkway had railing, the metal bars were low and thin. More of a tripping hazard than a safety measure.
Any Pokémon that approached the group behaved in the strangest way Penny had ever seen. First they would hurry up, full of excitement, like they had found an old friend. Then, when they got close enough, their eyes would widen. They’d throw themselves into a panic and scurry away. It happened to another young Donphan, along with a Magneton that lumbered around on awkward stilt-like legs–the shadow they’d seen in one of Sada’s photos, no doubt. They were also approached by what Penny had been sure was a cute little Jigglypuff…until it bared Golbat-esque fangs at her and screamed like a hyperactive Loudred.
Nearly all the Pokémon appeared to come from the past, though a few robotic Pokémon were scattered among them. One in particular looked like a Delibird. That one followed Penny for a while, beeping and chirping, until Arven shooed it away. Penny was impressed he could. The other Pokémon generally approached Arven first, only to bolt when they looked over Koraidon.
You’d think they’d enjoy a familiar Pokémon like Koraidon, Penny thought. Then again, maybe it was a fierce predator in their time.
Koraidon sure wasn’t looking predatory now. It still kept its head low and dragged its feet. But at least it was walking. Ortie had stirred a few times, but he remained sound asleep, Nemona’s protective arm holding him steady.
Penny shielded her eyes as they went down a particularly steep chunk of path. Even more of the strange crystals stuck out of the stone here, and their glow was nearly overwhelming. They also gave the air a dry, warm taste–the feeling of standing under a heavy spotlight. If Penny closed her eyes, it was easy to forget they were in a cave at all.
Of course, it wasn’t lost on her that all these strange crystals had the same sheen as a Terastallizing Pokémon. But they had enough worries as it was.
The final research station was nothing like the others. While all four had clearly seen some fights, this one appeared to have lost those fights. The outside walls were much more damaged and partly encased by the crystals. At least the door was accessible. Nemona dismounted from Koraidon, still carrying Ortega, and the ride Pokémon made a quick retreat into Juliana’s Poké Ball.
The place was a wreck indoors as well. Large, dented canisters lined the wall, several over on their sides. There were no defense mechanisms or illusions to discourage intruders. Hunks of crystal protruded from the ceiling. One of them had half-engulfed a fan. And right beside a teleportation circle, which flickered with questionable function, stood Professor Sada.
To no one’s surprise, Turo was already there, too. He had at least had the sense to stand in a corner as far from the entrance as possible. Penny wasn’t sure it helped, but she could at least face Sada without looking at him. That had to count for something.
“I see everyone is here,” Sada said, arms stiff at her sides. “Now, then. Will someone please inform me what happened out there?”
“I could have told you without waiting for these children,” Turo replied. “The final Treasure created a fourth Bad Egg.” Which had to be code for something for all the sense it made. Though if the ‘treasure’ meant one of those sealed Legendary Pokémon…
“Oh?” Sada asked. “Who is it?”
Turo gestured to Penny, who shoved her hand behind her back. It wasn’t glowing so much anymore. The purple was barely visible unless you stared hard at her palm.
“That’s a rude name to call her,” Nemona said. “Penny’s a good person. All she did was get a little upset.”
Penny suspected plotting Turo’s murder counted as more than “a little” upset. But she nodded along with Nemona anyway.
Sada looked confused for a moment, then closed her eyes and muttered briefly to herself. “Ah,” she said when she’d opened them again. “No, no. Not as in a malicious individual. Turo simply means ‘an entity that this reality does not recognize.'”
“And the term for that is a…Bad Egg?” Penny asked.
Sada nodded. “Quite so. The world of extraplanar research has its own unique colloquialisms. Remind me to tell you the tale of Missingno sometime. But as for the matter at hand…” She gestured to Turo, who straightened and reached inside his lab coat.
Everyone in the group tensed.
“It’s only the lock key,” he said, pulling out a worn, purple tome that bore a striking resemblance to Arven’s Scarlet Book. He held it over the lock and when the light glowed green, he pressed the button. The station floor vibrated, and the light on the teleportation circle steadied itself.
“Ah, this is good,” Sada said. “With all the locks open, this can take us straight into the Zero Lab.” She paused and turned to the group. “Although…I suppose you children would like an explanation before we proceed?”
“We wanted one way before that,” Arven snapped. “But we’ll take it now, yeah.”
Sada remained un-phased. “Very well. You are aware that Professor Turo and Pro–and myself…worked together to create a time machine.”
“I knew about your work,” Nemona said. “Your work on Terastallization, I mean. Everyone knows about that. But I’d never heard of time machines or Turo before today.”
The others nodded in agreement. Turo’s expression darkened at this reaction–it seemed Nemona had hit a nerve. Penny allowed herself a smidge of enjoyment at this.
“The time machine was always our biggest dream,” Sada said. “The study of Terastallization functioned as a means of revenue. But ultimately, the dream was never realized.”
“What are you talking about?” Juliana said. She pointed to the still-open station entrance. “There’s tons of past Pokémon and even a few future Pokémon wandering the caves here.”
“Yes, I suppose that is some measure of success,” Sada agreed. “Yet we envisioned more. We wanted humans to explore different times themselves. Learn from the past…” She glanced back at Turo. “…or the future, depending on one’s view. But we could not create a reliable way to travel to our own past. Or future.” She lifted an eyebrow. “Any action, however slight, that would disrupt history or alter upcoming events broke the connection. It seems the Pokémon who can control such things will viciously defend that proprietorship. So we had to look beyond our timeline.”
“You mean like, in the Distortion World?” Penny asked, not liking the direction of this conversation one bit.
Sada shook her head. “No. I don’t mean another plane in this universe. I’m talking about a different reality altogether. One that does not and cannot co-exist with our own.” Her stretched her two hands out flat, holding one slightly above the other as an illustration. “There are multiple planes in our reality…the aura plane that some Pokémon can see into, for example. And the Distortion World, as you suggested. Not to mention whatever it was Team Galactic tried to create years ago.”
She pulled both her hands apart and balled them into fists instead. “But there is a different reality where humans and Pokémon reside in separate planes and rarely interact. Imagine a universe where the Distortion World is the place all Pokémon live, not simply Giratina.”
“Sounds like a lousy reality,” said Nemona.
“Perhaps to a passionate trainer like yourself, yes,” Sada said. “Nevertheless, that is the universe our device was able to connect to freely. At any point in its timeline we desired. Though even then, only inanimate objects could traverse the barrier. If anything living passed from that universe into our own, it would slowly but surely cease to exist.”
Arven gave an audible gulp. Penny shared the sentiment. Her thoughts drifted to the crystals, how their strange surfaces made her think of a mirror to another world. Maybe the image wasn’t so imaginative after all.
“So you…brought back Pokémon from that other reality?” Juliana said. “How?”
“We brought back Poké Balls containing Pokémon,” Sada corrected. “Our machine stabilizes the Pokémon within the Poké Ball during transport. It was never made to interact directly with organic matter. And even its power can’t protect these creatures forever. Eventually, they will fade from this universe as well.”
As if in response to her ominous words, Ortega stirred in Nemona’s arms.
Sada continued, “I do not know what precisely happened when Arven and Ortega interacted with the device as children. But by any criterion I can measure, their bodies, auras, energy signatures…everything registers as extradimensional. Foreign to this reality.”
“We attempted to create a remedy, of course,” Turo cut in. “Instead, I found myself inflicted with the same symptoms. Now all three of us have started to vanish, the same as any Pokémon from outside this reality would do.”
“H-hold on!” Penny said, desperate for a hole in Sada’s story. Maybe because she didn’t want to believe it. Maybe because she didn’t want to think about what it meant for her and the others. There had to be a contradiction of some kind in there. “It’s not just Ortie and Arven that have been flickering. We’ve seen it happen to Pokémon and objects and buildings…along with a bunch of other weird crap.” She crossed her arms. “You going to tell us the sky over Montenevera also stuck its hand in your stupid machine when it was a kid?”
Ortega stirred again. His eyes blinked open. It took all Penny’s self-restraint not to run over and hug him. If she had anything like what Arven did, touching him would be a really bad idea now.
“I would not tell you that,” Sada said, confused. “Because the sky has neither childhood nor appendages. The phenomenon you describe occur when a Bad Egg connects with one of the Treasures of Ruin.” She locked eyes with Turo first, then Arven, then Penny. Nemona lowered Ortega to the floor and helped him steady himself.
Sada waited until he was standing, then turned and spoke directly to Penny. “My knowledge is quite limited here. I do not even know how your readings would register right now, child. But I understand this much. You, Turo, Arven, and Ortega have each tapped into the energy of these cursed Pokémon that we were foolish enough to power our device with. And for at least some of you, that energy has created a sort of defense mechanism.”
“What do you mean?” Penny asked, her throat dry.
“I mean,” said Sada. “That rather than disappear yourselves, your bodies are trying to erase the world around you.” She lowered her head. The teleportation circle cast an eerie green glow across her face. “And I regret to say, the effort is succeeding.”