“What?” the group exclaimed all at once. Some louder than others, but there was no denying that collectively, they made quite the noise.
And Donphan, regardless of what time period they hailed from, had excellent hearing. The two Pokémon had just collided with dual headbutts and rolled back from the impact, so they stood a decent distance away from each other for now. Penny tried to shush everyone, but the damage was done. She could only watch through her camera lens to see what happened next.
The Donphan, once aimed at each other, now turned in the direction of the loud humans. And they charged.
Penny couldn’t think. Couldn’t process anything beyond her lack of options. The group of them were up against a cliffside with both Donphan coming at them from slightly different angles. Their best escape route was the path to the next station. It felt so close a moment ago, but now it looked impossibly far away.
Nemona readied a Poké Ball, but Arven grabbed her arm. “Those aren’t normal Pokémon. You can’t fight them.”
“Yeah? Watch me.” She yanked herself from Arven’s grip and threw it anyway. Her Goodra appeared with a fierce roar. “Muddy Water! Aim at the ground!”
The slime-coated dragon lowered its head and spewed out a gush of water. It cascaded over the grass, turning the dirt into a swampy sludge. Instead of throwing the two Donphan off-kilter, however, they both curled up and spun right through it. Even faster than before.
“¿En serio?” Nemona snapped.
Arven shook with fury. “You want Goodra to end up hurt like Mabosstiff? I’m telling you–”
His words cut off as he vanished right in the middle of his sentence.
Then his voice called out again, this time from behind Penny. “–to…run?” She looked back to find him far ahead, right in front of the research station. He sounded disoriented and confused, but he wasn’t complaining about his sudden distance from the danger, either.
Penny sprinted alongside the cliff, hoping to join him as fast as possible. Most everyone else did the same. But there was no way Penny saw them all getting to safety in time. They were running through broad daylight. The ancient Donphan had already spotted them and shifted its course. What if all they’d worked for got trampled because nobody–Penny included–could keep their mouths shut?
Goodra sent out another Muddy Water, then retreated to Nemona’s Poké Ball as she finally took Arven’s advice. She sprinted at first, catching up to the back of the line with Mela and Penny within seconds. Then her stamina waned, and the distance between them widened. Mela glanced over her shoulder. “Hey, you okay back–?” She lost her footing and toppled to the ground. Nemona stopped short to help her up. The ancient Donphan uncurled itself and ran on all fours, nearly on top of them. The massive creature reached out its trunk, ready to grab Mela and toss her like a football.
Smack! The Pokémon’s trunk flew backwards.
Mela grabbed Nemona’s hand and yanked herself up, so hard it almost pulled Nemona to the ground. The robotic Donphan had now caught up to its counterpart, but it too was slammed back like it had hit a wall of unbreakable glass.
“D-did your Pokémon save us?” Mela gasped.
Nemona shook her head. “No. None of them can make a barrier like that. I don’t know where it came from.”
The two of them hurried to catch up, but the group’s panic eased now that no one was getting crushed. They all paused outside the research station for one last glance at the spectacle of the two trapped Donphan. It was one thing to hear Sada talk about time machines. It was another to see a creature from a different era attack.
Penny examined the small metal building. Dings and scratches peppered its walls, but otherwise, it stood in good shape. The place could clearly take a hit when needed. “Could be the station’s security system saved us…though that’s an impressive distance for an electronic barrier to stretch.” She turned to Arven. “Now that we’re safe, care to explain how you pulled that teleporting stunt before?”
“You think I know?” he said. “I was just happy I didn’t re-appear in that monster’s mouth!”
Penny shook her head. “Whatever. Let’s get inside, push a button, and get to the next station.” She reached for the door handle. Then, thinking of the strange mirages from last time, she had Arven go first. As nice at it would be to see a shiny Sylveon standing in the middle of any room she entered, she preferred the next one she saw to be the real deal.
A green fog did build up inside the station as before, and Penny caught a brief glance of another hallucinatory Sylveon. But knowing what it was this time broke the image quickly. Juliana cleared the air, and Arven used the Scarlet book to activate the machine. Juliana even let him press the big red button. A brilliant display of teamwork all around.
Two down, two to go, Penny thought.
They exited the station to find the Donphan still hadn’t left. They both walked back and forth along the barrier, poking at it in various places. The sight did nothing to ease Penny’s nerves.
“They’re searching for a way in,” Ortega said as he took cover behind Eri.
Arven pushed his hair out of his face to stare intently at the creatures. “Hmm…maybe a distraction will keep them from following us?” He pulled a cluster of Nanab berries from his bag, walked up to the barrier’s edge, and dumped the fruit into the grass.
“Here we go,” he said to the strange Donphan in a soothing voice. “Why don’t you guys keep your eyes on these for a while?” On seeing Arven with the treats, the ancient Donphan relaxed its tense stance. It even lay down in the grass and held up its trunk as if waiting for him to toss it a treat. The robotic-looking Donphan, on the other hand, leapt back, tucked itself into a ball, and rolled far off towards where Eri stood. Again, it tapped the barrier with its mechanical trunk but got no results.
“If it’s from the future, I suppose there might not be much organic matter in its home,” Penny said. “The berries could look closer to a weapon than fuel as far as it knows.”
Eri moved away from the mechanical Donphan, Ortega sticking to her like a shadow. The Pokémon followed Eri’s movements to a point, but when it reached its counterpart, it was unwilling to walk around it. Or go any farther.
“Someone should ensure we are not pursued,” Atticus told the group, holding back as they continued down the path. “Make haste towards our next destination. I shall hide myself and keep an eye on our strange visitors.”
“Hold on. We shouldn’t separate,” Penny said.
Atticus lowered his mask and gave her a warm smile. “Fear not, Lady Penny. Thou hast my word I shall reunite with thee in due time.”
Penny still wasn’t fond of this idea, but telling Atticus not to spy was like telling Nemona not to battle. She instructed him to catch up as soon as he could and encouraged the others to hurry out.
Atticus kept his promise and caught up with the group right when they arrived at the third station. This time the journey gave them no troubles at all. A few wild Venomoth and Dugtrio blocked the path, but nothing out of place. Or time. And Nemona was quite happy to find Pokémon she could battle without any life-or-death stakes attached.
The uneventful walk combined Atticus’s safe return was almost suspicious. He reported that the strange invisible barrier did break down eventually, but by the time it did, the ancient Donphan was more interested in the berries than tracking them down. And the mechanical Donphan wandered off before the barrier dropped.
So when is something going to go wrong again? Penny wondered. Because it has to go wrong, right?
She got her answer when they walked inside. The fog cleared as before, the machine was intact, and Juliana held up the book to unlock the button. Seeing as how it was her turn and all.
The orange light didn’t change. Pushing the button had no effect.
She tried rotating the book. Nothing.
Then she tried flipping it upside down. Still nothing.
Next Arven took the book. He tried shaking it, spinning it, opening it at the middle, then at the first quarter, then at the third quarter, then shaking it some more for good measure.
The button remained unpressable, and now the book was a little worse for the wear. “So what do we do now?” he asked Penny as he handed the book over to her. “What was that, um…full hexing geology you said you could do before?”
Ortega slapped his forehead. “She was being sarcastic, you idiot. She made all those words up.”
“Well, how was I supposed to know that?”
“Hate to say it, but we could use some tech wizardry here,” Giacomo said, stepping between the two before they started another argument. “Otherwise we’re stuck. Any idea how to get around this, B.B?”
Penny never worked well under pressure. So she tried to ignore the way everyone in the room stared at her. They didn’t mean to, of course. They just all expected her to pull a magic solution out of thin air, because, hey, machines were machines, right?
Penny closed her eyes and tapped her knuckle against her forehead. She leaned into the calm rhythm of the repeated motion. Her sense of a captive audience faded. At least enough to let her thoughts flow freely. In all the other stations, the button was locked, and the book functioned as a key. So if it didn’t work here, that could only mean a few things. Either the lock was busted or this was the wrong key.
“Arven,” she said, opening her eyes. “Did anyone else work on this technology with your mom? Not like her assistant but like a peer who’d have admin privileges?”
Arven rubbed the back of his head. “I think my dad helped at the very start of the project. They were trying to make stuff work, but they just disagreed too much. Even on the tech itself.”
“Classic creative differences, huh?” said Giacomo with a knowing nod. Penny listened to Arven’s words, but she also pulled out her laptop and rested it on the bed, using the stiff mattress as a makeshift desk. If they had the wrong key, it was her job to forge the correct one.
She set her fingers on the keyboard. “What’s your dad’s name?”
“Um, Turo. Why are you asking all this, again?”
Penny had already typed four lines of code before she answered. She tilted her head towards the Scarlet Book she’d set aside. “This book isn’t doing anything special. It’s just giving the lock an access code.”
“Like a password?” Nemona asked.
Penny gave a kinda-sorta motion with one hand while she continued to type with the other. “Eh. Passwords are personal. Access codes get shared across groups of people working together. So it’ll generally be something everyone knows or can remember. In our case–” She brought up the book’s signal data on her screen: sada-praeteritum-p4r4d0x. “–this is the message the book sent to the first two buttons that made them work. I’m guessing it’s some combo of Sada’s name with the passcode. Tells the lock to open while also signaling who’s trying to open it.”
“But it’s…not open,” said Giacomo in an uneasy tone, like he was worried everyone else could see something he couldn’t. Given recent events, it wasn’t an unfounded concern.
“No, it’s not,” Penny agreed. “Which means Sada doesn’t have permissions for this lock. But if I try…”
She typed in turo-praeteritum-p4r4d0x and pressed Enter. With a tiny bit of a flourish.
Which made it extra embarrassing when the light remained orange.
The group let out a collective groan.
“Hey, not everything works on the first try, okay?” Penny said. She looked at the code again. “Maybe different locks are connected to different projects? If this third part is the general passcode, and the first part is the user’s name, maybe the middle section is the name of whatever project they were working on.”
She closed her eyes and tapped her forehead again, but it didn’t help nearly as much as last time. Either she had to break into this highly secure system or she had to guess what an adult who thought time was a good idea would call his little pet project.
The first was doable–she’d hacked the LP system after all–but it was also time-consuming. A commodity they didn’t have much of now.
Nemona walked around and leaned over Penny’s shoulder. “Can I see?”
She didn’t shove Nemona away, but it took some serious willpower. This was Penny’s department, and there was no way Nemona could offer anything beyond a generous amount of space to work.
Nemona pointed to the middle section of the passcode: praeteritum. “Oh, that’s Latin.”
“What?” Penny paused her typing.
“It’s Latin for ‘past.'” Nemona glanced around at her wide-eyed peers. “What? I like Professor Salvator’s classes!”
“So do I, but I don’t actually remember them,” Juliana said in awe.
Interesting. If Sada and Turo disagreed on everything, then maybe… Penny’s fingers got moving again. “So what’s the Latin word for ‘future’?”
“Uh, ‘futurum,’ I think,” Nemona said.
Penny altered the passcode once again–turo-futurum-p4r4d0x and sent the signal to the machine.
The light went green.
Juliana slammed her hand down on the button just in case it changed its mind. The machine whirred like the two others before it and confirmed the lock was open. Only one more to go.
Ortega gave a yelp of surprise as his phone buzzed with a message. He pulled it out and handed it straight to Penny, who read the message aloud:
“Very good. I was worried this station would slow you down, but you have performed admirably. The final station is located deep in a cavern nearby. Be warned that the most dangerous creatures of Area Zero have been convening there. I wish you all luck. Odds of saving entire world remain steady at…” She swallowed and handed the phone back to Ortega. “…thirty-two.”
No one responded as she walked back to the door. If there was a pep talk to be had somewhere in here, Penny was not the one to make it.
The cavern wasn’t far, but of course, Sada had already told them that. What she didn’t warn them about was how strange it would look. And not just because of the sharp contrast between the sunlight outside and the dim tunnels within. Penny had not gone far when she saw huge chunks of iridescent crystals sticking out of the ground near the entrance. They caught bits of sunlight from outside and cast a sparkling pattern on the floor. But there was more to it than that. When Penny stepped closer, she could swear she saw shadows in floor patterns too. Shadows of Pokémon.
She looked up at the crystal itself. A Glimmora seemed to dance inside of it.
Of course, there were Glimmora clinging to the walls and ceiling of the cavern, too. The image in the crystal could be an odd reflection. That was the logical explanation. And yet Penny couldn’t shake the vibe of staring through a mirror into some other plane.
“Hey, what do you think these are?” Mela called ahead of her.
Penny shook herself back to reality. Then she looked over to see her fellow Team Star leader beside a similar crystal. But the crystal wasn’t what Mela pointed to. Driven deep into the ground at its base was a black stake. Penny had no idea material it was made of. Unlike iron or steel or any other conventional materials, the stake cast no reflection. It simply absorbed all the light on its surface. And the whole thing pulsed with an ominous purple glow.
“Oh, it’s one of those guys,” Juliana said. As if this was a totally normal object to find sticking out of the ground.
“One of what guys?” Mela asked, annoyed.
Juliana held up her hands and shrugged. “I mean, I don’t quite know what it is, but I’ve seen them around Paldea here and there. Usually in far, out-of-the-way places.” She motioned to the one in front of them. “I tried pulling out a few, because, hey, why not? Nothing happened, though, so I left the others alone.”
Penny could think of dozens of reasons why Juliana should not have done that, but she lacked the energy to list them. If whatever Juliana did turned out to be detrimental to their mission later on, she’d give the girl an earful once Paldea was safe.
The group continued deeper into the cavern, but it wasn’t long before they were interrupted again. And not in a quiet way.
“Hey, what the–?” Giacomo yelled. Thankfully, they had not gone deep enough to draw the attention of whatever dangerous Pokémon had gathered here.
Penny startled and whirled around to see a gap between two sections of the group. She stood deeper in the tunnel with Arven, Juliana, and Ortega, while all the others had fallen back.
From the way Giacomo had his hand up like a Mr. Mime, she had a sinking feeling why they were behind.
“Another barrier?” Ortega walked up to Giacomo. He put his hand up, but their palms couldn’t quite connect. Ortega leaned against this invisible wall and gave it a gentle push. Then a less-gentle-one. Then he ran against it, only to give the impression of running in place on a treadmill. Like the barriers that had kept the time-traveling Donphan from squashing them, this one held fast.
“Okay, we’ll figure a way around this,” Eri said. “You guys should go ahead.”
“What?” Penny said. “There’s no way that’s happening.” It was bad enough when Atticus split off from the group before. At least he had a clear path to reunite with them. This wall had sealed most of Penny’s friends away from her with no off-shoots or alternate paths in sight.
“If it’s like the other barrier, I’m sure it’ll go away eventually,” Giacomo said. “But Eri’s right. We can’t afford to wait. Arven and Ortega are the ones who need to get to the professor.”
Ortega rubbed his head. “I don’t like it, but maybe that’s the best…” He swayed in place a bit and Penny rushed up to steady him.
Giacomo looked way less ready to leave now. “Ortie! You okay there, buddy?”
“Fine. Just…dizzy. It’ll pass. Not used to running so much.”
Penny tried to pull her arm back, but Ortega kept leaning on her. Like he couldn’t support himself at all. It was starting to frighten her. All she could think was that the sooner they got him and Arven to Professor Sada, the safer they would be.
“Come on,” she said in a kind but firm voice as she forced him to his feet. “Let’s move.”