Descending into Area Zero didn’t take nearly as long as Penny expected. The wind currents within the crater were strange, to say the least. Juliana found that if she guided Koraidon slightly left, then right, then commanded it to drop its wings for a brief free-fall, then had it extend its wings again…somehow this process got the ancient bike lizard moving at phenomenal speeds.
She dropped off Arven, Nemona, Eri, and Atticus first, then returned for the rest of them. Penny had hoped the sight of Koraidon’s safe landing and return would reassure her that this wasn’t a jump to their deaths.
She found the reassurance effect minimal.
For the brief moments Koraidon glided in a straight line, the ride was pleasant. But those were gone in a flash as Koraidon yanked them back and forth through gusty winds. And the drops? It was like being on a roller coaster with every obstacle shoved into a ten-second window. Penny tried to hold onto Juliana without disrupting with her driving, but it proved difficult.
Ortega clung to Penny tight enough to squeeze some lunch out of her stomach. “We are so–ugh!–going to crash if we–oof!–don’t snap our necks first! Oww!”
I think I’ve died once or twice already, Penny thought.
Juliana kept a confident smile as she steered Koraidon faster and faster. “Don’t worry! There’s no–whoa now, ‘Raidon–noneed to be scared if we’re all together!”
“How does that logic work?” Penny yelled.
“I-I don’t know! Nemona said it on the way down, and it sounded really good!”
“Anything sounds good when she says it that confidently!”
Juliana stopped her attempts to lift Penny’s spirits after that. Instead she allowed her less courageous passengers to shout and scream about their impending doom as much as they liked throughout their descent.
Despite all the doomsaying on the way down, Juliana kept her promise. The friends landed safely inside Area Zero; Penny and Ortega couldn’t get off Koraidon fast enough. Mela at least paused to thank the ride Pokémon for its help. But instead of accepting the offered chin-scratches, Koraidon lowered its head and cowered. Something about this place spooked it, but what exactly could scare a creature like Koraidon was anyone’s guess.
The rest of the group waited nearby, though they looked a bit lethargic as Penny approached. For Eri and Atticus, that was almost unheard of.
“Everything all right?” Penny asked, jogging up to them. She was surprised how much energy she had, but the solid ground did wonders for her mental state.
“Nay, m’lady,” said Atticus. “Not all of our company is accounted for.”
“Huh?” Penny scanned the group but couldn’t pinpoint who Atticus meant. All five of the Team Star leaders were together…Arven and Juliana stood nearby…
“I swear we only turned our backs on her for a second!” said Arven.
“He means that student council girl,” said Eri. “She’s gone.”
“Wait. What do you mean ‘she’s gone’?” Penny asked, feeling like she wanted to throw up all over again. It was hard enough keeping Team Star safe. How was she supposed to keep track of Nemona, too? “You don’t think she…?”
“Calm down,” Juliana said. “Come on. You guys know Nemona. She probably wandered off to see all the strong Pokémon around here.”
“Y-yeah,” Arven said as he adjusted his bag. “That makes the most sense. I bet any minute now, she’ll round the corner and yell out something like, ‘Everyone! You have to see this! Area Zero is AMAZING!'” He raised his pitch until it sounded awful, but Penny had to admit, he did capture the essence of Nemona. She scanned the area in an attempt to get her bearings. It was much brighter here than she expected. Sunlight blazed over the grass, giving the whole place a hazy effect. Koraidon had dropped them off in a tiny alcove, surrounded on three sides by sheer cliffside. If Nemona had wandered ahead, she had only one direction to go.
So the group started off in search of the research stations. The hope that Nemona would meet them en route hung heavy and unspoken around them.
The group walked in silence for several minutes with zero luck. No Nemona, no research station, no message from Sada. Not that she had any reason to call them–the group had their assignment, after all. And unlike Zero Gate, there wasn’t a central speaker system out here. At least, none that Penny could see.
Penny tried to push Nemona from her mind, but walking through this place made it impossible. It was everything Nemona dreamed about. The tall grasses rustled with powerful and dangerous Pokémon of all kinds. Outside of Tulip’s gym battles, Penny had seen a Farigiraf once, maybe twice. It took a serious psychic-type trainer to work with them. Here they wandered freely as a Tauros. Arven’s Mabosstiff had quite the field day, running ahead and tackling any that would accept its challenge. Several did, and Mabosstiff got a few impressive victories. But just as many made an irritated, deep-throated hum and kicked at the canine Pokémon who nibbled their heels. Mabosstiff whined and returned to Arven’s side. He sprayed some potions on his partner and advised it not to agitate wild Pokémon five times its height.
There were also some strange Pokémon too far in the distance for Penny to identify. She assumed they’d get up close and personal soon whether she liked it or not.
“Maybe we should head back,” Juliana said. “It’s not like Nemona to separate from the group this long.”
As she spoke, a voice cried out ahead. Penny might have passed it off as another annoyed Farigiraf, but Atticus held up his hand for silence. He closed his eyes, putting his finely-tuned skills to work as he focused on the sound.
“‘Tis a distress call from our missing comrade!” Atticus jumped up and pointed down the grassy path. “This way!” He took off running at an insane speed, his arms swept behind him as he darted over roots, rocks, and any other obstacle in his path. Only Eri was able to keep pace with him while everyone else scrambled to keep her in view.
At last, they found Nemona, and it was pretty clear why she hadn’t walked back to them: she couldn’t walk anywhere right now.
The girl wasn’t hurt, but her leg had sunk into a cliffside, not unlike when Tinkaton had been half-buried in the ground. How they would get it out was a puzzle. This wasn’t like the guy from the Cortondo Gym being trapped in a bunch of soft foam. Whatever could destroy the rock would likely destroy Nemona’s leg along with it. The sight of Nemona’s predicament left Penny both relieved and terrified.
“Oh, great,” Giacomo said. “The wall took her.”
Nemona huffed. “Ha-ha. Now hurry up and get me out of–”
A large section of the cliff flickered out of existence, releasing her leg and throwing her off balance. She stumbled backwards and tried to catch herself. Then, to Penny’s horror, the cliff section reappeared. It encased Nemona’s waist and neck, leaving her arms and legs dangling out in mid-fall.
“H-help me!” Nemona gasped before the cliff flickered again. This time, she fell farther back and became even deeper enveloped in the rock. Only her hands stuck out, as did one of her feet, but all they could see of her face were her eyebrows and forehead.
“No!” Juliana cried and ran forward. She grabbed what she could of Nemona’s wrist and yanked full-force, but her friend didn’t budge. “She can’t breathe in there! We have to do something!”
Fear froze Penny’s muscles. No amount of pulling they could do would move a cliff. And if a Pokémon attacked the rock, Nemona would be crushed before they could pull her free.
Not that it stopped Mela. “Armarouge, let’s see if we can break her out!” she cried. Her Pokémon appeared in a flash of red light.
“Wait! Let us try first!” Arven yelled. Then he waved at Ortega. “Come on!”
“What? What am I supposed to do?” He sprinted up to Nemona anyway, with Mela and Armarouge close behind.
“You remember what happened when we both grabbed Juliana at your base?” Arven asked.
“So do that!”
Ortega still looked confused, but he did as Arven said. Each of them grabbed one of Nemona’s hands.
Her arm stiffened and stretched out, nearly bashing Arven’s nose. The layers of rock that trapped Nemona’s face broke apart as her body grew to twice its normal size. She took a loud, desperate gasp and kept growing. The crumbling rocks slid and fell around her enlarged body, landing with a series of loud thumps on the ground. Nemona’s eyes were huge, unnaturally wide and round, like a fish-eye camera filter played out in real life.
The sight of it startled Ortega enough to let go, and Arven jumped back to avoid being smacked. Immediately, Nemona returned to her normal size. A few pieces of rock still crumbled where she had broken free, but she had cleared enough space for Armarouge to sweep in and carry her to safety. The Pokémon set her down in a patch of grass, where she fell to her knees and tried to steady herself. Her mouth gaped open as she heaved in large gulps of air. Sweat trickled down the sides of her face. Her arms quivered so much, she could barely brace herself up.
But she was alive. And grateful for it. “Th-tha…”
“Don’t talk, dummy,” Mela said, kneeling beside her. “Breathe first. Words later.”
Nemona gave a shaky nod and did as Mela said. Pawmot came out of its Poké Ball to check on her as well. With gentle steps, it walked over and licked its trainer’s hand. All the while, Mela sat by Nemona’s side until the shaking finally stopped.
Nemona didn’t say much once they got moving again. Penny couldn’t tell if it was embarrassment at being rescued or taking so long to compose herself. Maybe it was neither, and she was still dazed from the gut punch of reality she’d gotten. This trip was no bright adventure out of a video game. Didn’t matter how many arbitrary quests Sada gave them. Every moment down here added up to more risks. For their lives and Paldea as a whole.
Thankfully the walk to the first research station went without incident. Even the groups of Farigiraf eased up, leaving only clusters of Jumpluff that shied away from the human visitors.
The station door proved stubborn and only opened when Eri gave it a good hard pounding. She stepped aside and let Penny take the lead. The inside looked unremarkable at first. But when Penny crossed the threshold, a greenish cloud filled the space. She heard footsteps behind her, but the cloud muffled their sound. It felt like Penny had left everyone else far behind.
A Pokémon stepped forward, pushing some of the fog aside.
Where did this guy come from? The station had been empty when she entered. Penny was sure of it. She rubbed her eyes. The green fog remained, but it had thinned enough for her to make out a Pokémon centered on a glowing green circle. Its face remained obscured as the fog took its time dissipating. But Penny could discern a mammalian creature with tall ears standing on all fours. Ribbons floated around its lean, muscular body. Penny would know that silhouette anywhere. A Sylveon!
But it wasn’t her Sylveon. When the fog faded enough, Penny caught a flash of its eyes–its large, sparkling, pinkeyes.
Her heart skipped a beat. A wild, shiny Sylveon standing here in the station? It went against all logic, but then, so did almost everything they’d seen down here. Penny fumbled for an empty Quick Ball. She had to catch it. She couldn’t let an opportunity like this pass by.
Then something leapt in front of the Sylveon. Nemona’s Pawmot. But where Sylveon had a soft, ethereal presense, Pawmot had a rugged, grounded one. Its fur was ruffled where it had been rolling on the ground, and its fur smelled of earth and grass. The Sylveon didn’t smell like anything. It didn’t even look furry. Its body was too smooth, too perfect, too…generated.
“A battle?” said Nemona. Her voice sounded so far away, even though they had been next to each other walking in. “To decide Top Champion? Why, this is a dream come true, Primera!”
None of this is real! Penny yanked her glasses off, forcing her brain out of the entranced awe that the shiny Sylveon had pulled her into “V-VeeVee!” she shouted, throwing her Poké Ball. “I need an Aqua Jet now! Keep it small!”
Her Vaporeon leaving his ball grounded her even further. The smell of the ocean, the wet plop of the Eeveelution’s tail on the floor–the fake Sylveon didn’t stand a chance. Penny put her glasses back on as the illusory Pokémon vanished when hit with a trickle of Aqua Jet.
V-Vee-Vee turned and quick-fired squirts of water in everyone else’s faces behind her. There were some yelps and choice words, but it got the job done.
Juliana brought out her Oricorio to fan the strange fog out of the station. A thoughtful effort, though a needless one. With everyone coming to their senses, the green cloud faded before Juliana’s Pokémon got a wing flap in. Penny wondered if it had ever been there at all.
Well, at least the room seemed normal now. It wasn’t much to look at–scratched and dinged metal panels for the floor and ceiling, a bed that looked like it hadn’t been touched in ages, a few bulky machines, and a glowing circle where the Sylveon had stood. Probably a teleportation circle back to Zero Gate. It sure looked like the kind gym leaders used so visitors didn’t have to drudge through their weird obstacle courses twice just to leave.
Penny walked up to the box-shaped machines and brushed off a layer of dust. Only one of the devices appeared functional–the one with the convenient large red button. In case any doubt plagued her mind, “LOCK 1” was stenciled on the machine’s side.
Juliana walked up beside Penny and slapped her hand down.
Penny held her breath. True, there were clear labels, this was not a video game, and Juliana was only doing as Sada asked. But something about pounding down on a big red button still terrorized her.
Fortunately nothing happened.
Juliana frowned. “It didn’t work.”
“Oh, come on,” said Arven. “You thought undoing these locks my mom can’t even work would be as simple as pressing a button?” He turned to Penny. “So are you gonna use your crazy mad hacking skills to get us in?”
Penny wanted to smack both of them. Juliana might have oversimplified the situation, but he was overcomplicating it. Instead she took a page from Iono’s book and turned on the sarcasm faucet. Just a tad. “Hmm…I could do that. But a full hexadecimal analysis of the system’s binomial googology could take as many thirty-seven parsecs. To save time, let’s assume the person who invited us here gave us a key to get in.” She held her hand out. “Can I see the book you brought?”
“Oh. Um, yeah.” Arven rooted through his back and pulled out the Scarlet Book. Its edges were dirty and worn, but the cover’s color remained vibrant. Penny held the book over the button. No reaction. She flipped it around and this time, the machine clicked. A tiny light beside the button changed from orange to green.
Penny invited Juliana to do the button-pressing honors.
With the first lock released, Penny and the others debated if they should rest or hurry out. They reached the consensus that if one station had a bed, the others likely did, too. Not to mention those convenient teleportation circles if they needed to backtrack. They all exited the station and searched for the next one. Mela and Nemona spotted it at the same time–a bit down a slope but not too far away. The group set off towards it with Juliana in the lead. And along the hike, Nemona got talking again. Mostly she chatted about how she’d met Juliana, which got Arven on the same topic as if they were in some Juliana fan club. But it made Penny and her friends smile to see Nemona back to her normal self.
“Oh, yeah, I meant to ask you guys,” Nemona said. “What did the rest of you see in that weird dream fog? Personally, I saw myself battling La Primera for her spot as Top Champion.”
Penny raised her hand. At least this was a topic she could contribute to. “Um, I saw a shiny Sylveon.”
“I saw us getting out of here in one piece,” Giacomo muttered.
“Really?” said Nemona.
“What about everyone else?” Nemona asked the remainder of the group. She didn’t get many answers. Atticus said a ninja kept his secrets. Mela blushed and said that as a non-ninja, she also kept her secrets. Eri nodded in agreement.
But Ortega just looked confused. “Wait. What are you guys talking about? The fog was just–fog to me.”
“Same here,” Arven told them.
“Now, now, you two,” Nemona said. “You don’t have to tell us anything. Dreams are personal things, so it’s okay if you’re embarrassed. But we shouldn’t lie to each other when we’re on such a dangerous trip together.”
“I didn’t lie,” Ortega said, his volume rising. He stepped back and took several deep breaths.
Arven gave it a try instead. “Look, there’s a lot we don’t know about what’s going on in this place. Area Zero is scarier than even the stuff we’ve seen so far. So let’s all give each other the benefit of the–”
Something rumbled in the distance. Arven stopped short.
In a flash, Atticus ducked down behind a tree. Everyone else followed–less flash-speed but as quickly as they could. The group held a collective breath to see if whatever made the sound would come for them next. The rumbling continued for several minutes, but it grew no closer or louder. Nothing charged their way, and the ground stayed solid. Finally, a few of them stole peeks around the bushes and tree trucks they’d taken cover behind.
Up ahead, two Pokémon appeared to be fighting. The same Pokémon Penny had seen in the far distance before. Only now she was close enough to get a better look.
Penny brought out her Rotom phone and zoomed in on the battling Pokémon. She thought at first it was a pair of Donphan. They certainly both had the same shape as the familiar ground-type Pokémon. One of the Donphan seemed smaller than the other, but it moved and spun around at ridiculous speeds. The larger one could only stomp and trumpet in its feeble attempts to subdue its opponent. When the smaller Donphan spun out of its ball and landed back on its feet, Penny spotted glowing red segments on its trunk. It struck her that nothing about the second creature looked organic. More like it was a robot of some kind. And the larger one…that bore a striking resemblance to the ancient-looking earth titan.
She lowered the phone and swallowed hard. “Uh, guys? I think I’m seeing the past fight the future here. And it’s not pretty.”