The numbers were not good. And in this human-oriented world where precious few things were quantifiable, numbers were all Ai had to rely on.
A few of her readings showed an optimistic curve. The dark stakes’ energy reading, which fluctuated wildly on its best days, had grown much more stable. But the numbers that mattered? The ones that signaled their likelihood of rescuing Paldea from destruction? Those were dropping. And that was not good. Bad, even.
Also dropping was the room’s temperature reading. Ai had made adjustments to the thermostat several times in order to keep the two organic beings in the lab as comfortable as possible. It seemed to have no effect. Logic said the thermostat was broken, and perhaps that was true. But logic also said that given the season and the plethora of technical equipment, the temperature should rise when left to its own devices, not drop.
Another ten degrees and the lab’s refrigerator would become redundant.
Then there were the non-quantifiables. Ortega showed many signs of severe mental stress. These had preceded the uncomfortably low temperature in the lab, though it likely did not help.
Yesterday evening Turo had brought Ortega his staff, snapped clean in two. Apparently, this was the item Arven had used as a energy conduit, pulling Ortega back right before his inevitable erasure from reality. Turo had scolded the children quite harshly for this action; he admitted as much. He also admitted he’d had the staff in his possession for several days before remembering to return it.
So it made sense for Ortega to jump to the conclusion that Turo himself had broken the item maliciously. But his reaction beyond this point did not line up with any of his earlier childhood behavior patterns. The boy had a quick temper; he was prone to lashing out when he did not get his way. But he tended to quickly lose interest in his fury. Especially in situations like this where nothing could feasibly rectify the harm caused.
But ever since Turo had given the staff back to him, Ortega hadn’t let go of the two halves once. He paced aimlessly around the lab, his eyes closed more often than not. He grated his teeth incessantly, and his muscles tensed to the point that he should be quite sore. He drank water when pressed but refused to eat. Then there was the nonstop stream of speaking to some entity only he appeared to see.
If Ai was capable of emotions, she would find herself quite worried right now. Perhaps even join Ortega in his endless pacing. As it was, she could only re-run her calculations and make contingency plans in the event Penny and the others did not return in time.
Ortega was pretty sure he was going insane. Or that he’d been drugged. His mind teetered back and forth between the reality he recognized and one he didn’t. First he’d be in the lab with the robot and Arven’s deadbeat dad. Then he’d be standing in a dark void with nothing but a weird mist at his feet.
What really hacked him off were the voices. He could never tell who was talking to him:
“I do not think Turo meant any harm. Please stop pacing.”
How did you get here? Did you just wander in?
The first voice was Ai’s. He was pretty sure of that. But the second? It sounded like it came from a teenager. Maybe someone a little older than him but not by much.
Ortega squeezed his eyes shut and held his head, trying to focus on at least one voice he could answer. “I don’t know, okay? I’m not even sure where here is!”
“I do not understand your reply.” Ai’s voice again. “Do you not realize your health is at risk if you cannot calm yourself? Your blood pressure and heart rate have sustained elevated levels for many hours.”
Life must be pretty messed up for you. No one comes here because they lost their temper a little bit. The Ruinous One isn’t interested in small meals like that. The teenager’s voice. Ortega could ignore Ai, more or less, when he had to. But for some reason, this voice demanded an answer. And few things agitated Ortega more than when people demanded stuff of him.
“Quit being so cryptic!” he yelled.
“How is a heart rate cryptic? Please explain.” Ai’s voice sounded farther away now. Ortega blinked several times, trying to ground himself in the lab again, but the misty void was the only space he could see.
The teenager’s voice sounded much closer now. Like whoever it was stood right behind him. You’re so much like me. Always angry. What causes that?
Ortega whirled around, only to find the space behind him empty. “Shut up!”
This time, he heard no reply from Ai at all.
The teenager scoffed. Anger like ours doesn’t come from nothing. Mine started from my older sister. What about yours?
Ortega froze. He wanted this strange voice to leave. But when it spoke, his mind flashed with an image of Vanessa, hard at work in her room as she edited together some of her first videos. Gathered her first fans. He thought it was pretty neat and impressive at first. He didn’t get back then what the cost would be.
My sister…she always had these big ideas. Said she was destined for better in life. Said we all deserved more. Never took her eyes off the king’s treasure stores.
Ortega’s mental image of Vanessa changed. He saw at the computer again. She had less smiles these days, always comparing her numbers to the top five or top ten in her category. She complained more, too. Said most of the big streamers got there by pulling stupid stunts. They didn’t add real value. But soon the world would see her. She’d be different. Ortega never knew anyone who understood how it felt watching her. To Vanessa’s friends, her hobby was becoming a career. How great was that? From Ortega’s view, it was becoming an obsession. And it was killing her happiness.
Suddenly, he didn’t want the strange voice to be quiet anymore. He wanted the story to continue. He wanted to hear from someone who got how he felt.
I agreed it wasn’t fair. But what could we do? Justice meant nothing to our king. Even a rumor of theft could cost my sister her life.
The scene in Ortega’s mind shifted once again. He was eight years old, and Vanessa now spent every waking hour in front of a camera or monitor. She also spent their parents’ money. There were a million excuses, all stuff they were happy to pay for. She wanted new shoes. A new wardrobe. A new stereo system. Every cent secretly went to personal promotion. Because they both knew their parents would never approve of the Iono Zone. Their family was above parading about like clowns on the internet.
And today, Ortega’s mother had asked him directly if Vanessa needed an electrician to rewire her room for the new sound system. The one he knew she’d never purchased. Ortega panicked and told some stupid lie about how no, he’d installed it himself without any rewiring, because he was super interested in that stuff now.
She found this delightful news and immediately set him up with tutors and classes and everything he needed to become a pampered little engineering prodigy. And he never refused. Never said he had other interests. Because then she’d demand to know why he lied about it to begin with.
Over all my objections, she went anyway. She tried to steal from him anyway. I never saw her again because she couldn’t just be okay with how things were.
Ortega did grow to love his unintended hobby, but that wasn’t the point. Vanessa had put him in a horrible position for her almighty Iono Zone. And she refused to apologize. Her excuse was that she’d “never asked him to lie” for her. It turned into one of the biggest fights they’d ever had.
A few days later, he came home from the incident with the time machine. Vanessa was packing up. She’d be living on campus from now on, she told him. Where he didn’t have to pretend to like anything or lie for her. He remembered holding onto her and begging her not to go. The fight was all his fault, and he wouldn’t bring it up again. She told him moving out was about more than the fight. She couldn’t play the role her parents set out for her anymore. He needed to stop being a baby and holding her back.
He did let go. But he cried for hours after she left. And when he got tired of crying, he yelled and screamed and punched pillows in his room. She’d ditched him when he needed her. Crying made no sense. It wasn’t sad. It was infuriating.
I felt so angry. Livid at everyone. My sister for her envy. The king for his greed. Myself for not doing enough to stop her. The whole country for not doing enough to stop HIM.
When Ortega was old enough to attend Naranja Academy, he wanted to live on campus, too. Being the only kid at home was suffocating. But the bullies came in hard and fast from day one. Their insults were so frequent and coordinated, he swore they had a club to organize it all. He was a baby. A freeloader. A spoiled brat. He didn’t add anything of value to the school beyond his parents’ donations. If anything, his presense held the rest of them back.
And of course, they destroyed things. Homework projects were the targets of choice, but they especially loved anything he’d built himself. Ortega started to design new machines more quickly, in the hopes that maybe it wouldn’t hurt so much when the bullies found them and broke them.
I hated them! I hated them all! And I still do! Nothing will ever get better, and it’s all their fault!
Ortega flashed back to the present, still in the darkness and mist. Was he breathing this quickly before? He still couldn’t hear Ai, and this worried him. He tried to focus on the lab again. He caught only a brief glance of it, but he saw Ai kneeling beside him, lips moving without sound. And he saw his own hands, gripping the two broken pieces of his staff. Both were coated in a layer of ice several millimeters thick.
The sight of it jostled Ortega out of his fury. Where were these feelings coming from, anyway? Yes, he’d been angry with Vanessa and even more angry with his bullies. But Team Star had helped him move on.
Whoever the teenager speaking to him was…or had been, given the ghostly feel of this place…they had never had a Team Star.
Ortega stood up. “This place…it isn’t good for you,” he said to the voice. “You should leave.” A crack of light opened in the darkness as he said it.
The ghostly voice huffed. I don’t think you want that. If I leave, there’s no way you’re getting out.
“I…” Ortega stiffened. He wasn’t a baby. He’d grown and matured thanks to his friends. What if now was the moment he could be that level-headed person for someone else? He felt sure he could handle this place better than the strange teenager could. “I’ll be okay,” he finally said, full of confidence. “Go on.”
The voice didn’t argue with him. He shivered as a phantasmal presence moved past him and through the crack of light.
Then all the fury he’d been so confident he’d moved past stabbed back into him like a thousand icy needles.
Penny had already been impressed with Vanessa’s foresight from their first encounter–using her popularity to cause a distraction for the International Police. The girl didn’t disappoint this time around, either. Vanessa had come well-prepared, not only with the full team she kept on hands for gym inspections but also with one of Ortega’s Pokémon from home: an elegant Hatterene. The silent Pokémon floated alongside their group, putting just enough distance between itself and the others that Penny suspected it thought itself a little too good to be down here on a rescue mission. As they hiked the steep slopes towards the lab, Juliana filled Vanessa in on what she’d missed. It all sounded like insanity hearing it summarized, and Penny was relieved to have that job off her plate.
Oddly enough, they had no encounters with any paradox Pokémon. They saw several, but most them kept themselves hidden in the shadows, even the ones who looked like they could gut anyone in the group with little effort. Maybe they knew help when they saw it? It was an oddly optimistic thought for Penny, but she held to it as long as she could.
When they reached the door to the Zero Lab, Penny’s optimism was cut off fast. The handle burned her fingers with its chill, and the ground was slick with a layer of ice creeping from under the door. And even though Wo-Chien was sleeping within the tablet, some part of her felt the presense of another Treasure of Ruin inside. An extremely agitated one.
Mela already had one of her Poke Balls in her grip, but Penny raised a cautious hand. “Hold up. Think about what we’re facing here. Chien-Pao amplifies anger. If Ortie’s in the same state we were, he’s going to lash out at any hint of a threat.” She motioned to Hatterene. “Let his Pokémon try to reach him first.”
The group nodded in agreement. Mela relented and put her Poké Ball away. “Sure hope you’re right,” she said as together they pushed the door open.
Penny didn’t see Ortega when they entered. But she knew where he was right away. In the corner of the lab, several walls of ice stretched from floor to ceiling, creating a tiny, sealed-off room barely bigger than a school locker. Or a coffin.
“Ortie!” Guilt twisted Penny’s stomach. She couldn’t imagine what must be going through her friend’s mind right now for the situation to already be this bad. They should have gotten here earlier. And they never should have left him in the first place.
The ice walls grew thicker when they entered, and several icicles shot off its trim like bullets. Ai braced herself in front of the more lab delicate equipment, ready to slap away any projectiles with her inhuman speed. Stacked atop the flat metal casing behind her were an array of hard drives, spare parts, and even a couple Master Balls. Did Ortega’s father find a way to replicate those things along with those Rare Candies he was producing?
Turo leaned against the opposite corner, about as far as he could get from Ortega in the relatively tight space. He didn’t appear to be protecting anything, nor did he respond when they burst in. His shoulders rose and fell in an exaggerated motion, like he was struggling to breathe.
Before Penny could direct anyone where to go, a red light flashed behind her–the telltale sign of an open Poké Ball. She thought at first it might be Mela, reacting to the scene in defense, but instead Vanessa’s Mismagius floated beside her.
“I just said don’t bring your Pokémon out!” Penny snapped as several more icy shards fired off.
“She did it on her own!” Vanessa yelled back. “It’s a ghost Pokémon thing!”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Penny jumped to the side to avoid a flying piece of ice.
Vanessa did a little sidestep, avoiding three shards at once without even looking at them. “Ugh! She gets excited when there’s other ghosts around. Wants to come out and be with her own kind, y’know?” She glared at the rest of the group. “None of you said you trained ghosties, so I figured she’d be fine.”
Penny groaned. The last thing they needed now was complications like this.
“I did know a Ceruledge who did stuff like that once,” Mela said. Her boots made dodging difficult, but they also provided a tough barrier. When some of the ice encompassed her heel, she simply kicked it away. “But funny how well-trained Pokémon like Eri’s Annihilape don’t pull this kinda crap!”
“I didn’t bring Annihilape!” Eri said.
“Ortie’s dealing with an anger-fueled ghost,” Eri reminded her. “Don’t you think bringing a ghost-type that evolves when its rage outgrows its body might be a bit…counterproductive?”
While the two of them argued, another round of icicles flew out. Penny ducked but soon realized they weren’t headed in her group’s direction this time. Instead, they flew towards Turo. Most of them missed, but the smallest one struck Turo in the wrist. He grunted in pain as a bright red line of blood dripped down his hand.
Vanessa pointed in his direction. “Uh, that might be our problem right there.”
Penny stepped closer and narrowed her eyes. She doubted she’d ever be happy in Turo’s presense, but she wasn’t sadistically rejoicing in his injury, either. Which meant her mind was clear enough to focus on where Vanessa had indicated. A blob of mist was floating around Turo’s head. Penny had no idea what it had looked like from the outside when her and Arven’s ghosts had left, but this certainly had a phantasmal feel to it. Except the ghost–if that’s what it was–didn’t fade away. Mismagius floated closer, calling out to it, but it made no response. It only circled Turo.
“You might be right,” Penny said to Vanessa. “But…something’s off. That ghost doesn’t look like it’s leaving him. It looks like it’s trying to get in. Which means…”
…that’s not Chi-Yu’s ghost? But what else could it be?
The next round of icicles fired off. One of them struck Mismagius directly. It did not like this one bit and spun around to fire off a Shadow Ball in defense. The attack slipped through a gap in the ice walls. Ortega gave a grunt from behind them, but he sounded much more annoyed than hurt.
“Lady Vanessa,” called Atticus. “My admiration for your skills knows no bounds, but I must ask thee to get thy Pokémon under control!”
Annoyed as was by Atticus telling her what to do, Vanessa couldn’t say she was wrong and recalled her ghost type back into its Poké Ball. Only Hatterene remained out. It tried to approach the wall of ice, reaching with the arm-like appendage on its head and pointing towards the gap the Shadow Ball had snuck through. The Pokémon’s deep mournful cry flowed over everyone.
“H-Hatterne?” Ortega said in a shaky voice. Then he gave another grunt of frustration as the ice walls thickened once more. “Get out of here! I don’t want to talk to you! I don’t want to talk to anyone!”
Ice rained down again, showering everyone. Ai successfully fended off most of the shards coming at her…except one. It soared underneath her arm while she raised her hand in defense, jamming itself between two metal panels on whatever machine she’d been protecting. The impact shook everything nearby, knocking a glass beaker and a Master Ball to the floor. The lights in the lab darkened. Panels across the tops of the walls glowing a threatening shade of red. Although Ai’s lips didn’t move, her voice echoed around the room, sounding even more robotic than usual:
“External threat detected. First level of Paradise Protection Protocol activated. Locking all unregistered capture devices.”
“Um, Boss?” Giacomo said shakily. “What’s that mean?”
Ai gritted her teeth and answered the question for her. “It means no one except me can use their Poké Balls.”
The group worriedly whispered amongst themselves, but Juliana stepped confidently forward. “Convenient for us we have a ‘capture device’ registered to you, huh? Come on out, Koraidon!” She held the ball high above her head.
Koraidon did not appear. Whatever had spooked the paradox Pokémon on the way down here had apparently gotten to her ancient Cyclizar, too.
“You coward!” Arven yelled.
Vanessa grabbed the Poké Ball she’d called Mismagius back into only a moment ago. Sure enough, the ball left off a strange glow, projecting an image of criss-crossed golden chains wrapped around it. Penny grabbed Flareon’s ball to see the same effect, only worse. The ball pulsed with a double-image of itself. Penny quickly put it back on her belt.
“Hang in there, VeeVee,” she tried to reassure it. “I’ll figure this out.” Then she turned on Ai, bitterness building in her again. “What the heck is this? Are you trying to clone our Pokémon now, too?”
“I’m not trying to do anything other than save this place!” Ai said, her tone still controlled but her volume amplified to make herself heard over the prerecorded alerts.
Penny held her head, trying to get back in mental space where she could focus again. Maybe Ai was telling the truth. Maybe not. Everyone around her–Giacomo, Mela, Juliana–was going into a panic without their partners. She had to focus on facts and what she could control.
Their Pokemon were unavailable. No, their Poké Balls were unavailable. There was a difference. A crucial difference.
She opened her eyes and turned to Arven. “Listen. Hatterene can’t get through to Ortie on her own. We need to break that ice wall.” She pulled off her Eevee backpack and unzipped it.
“Oh, no,” Arven said, catching her intentions right away. “No, no, no. You are kidding me.”
She lifted up the sweatshirt-wrapped tablet. “You have a better idea?”
“I-I…” For a moment, he stood frozen to the spot. Maybe the fear was getting to him again, same as her bitterness was getting to her. But if it was, Arven had grown stronger than before. He shook the hesitation off and pulled his own bag down to the ground.
“You know this could backfire in so many ways, right?” he asked, even while he tore the bag open and yanked out the stone bowl, still wrapped in its picnic blanket. “Their bodies were built around the old tablet and vessel. What if they can’t even take a new physical form yet?”
Penny swallowed and unwrapped her tablet. “Then we let them borrow ours again.” Then she pressed her hands to the screen and mentally begged Wo-Chien to come out and lend her its power one more time.