Ai programmed the teleporter to take everyone back to Zero Gate. Penny might have called it considerate minus the part where she was holding one of her best friends hostage. The place was still as they’d left it. The lights were low at first, but thanks to Penny’s earlier intervention, they brightened when they sensed the arrivals.
The hatch leading to the outside world was cracked open, and a pounding rainstorm outside provided some oddly soothing white noise. The flying taxi agreed to come with the caveat that it might be more a wait than usual. But their no-pickups-at the-forbidden-crater broke upon hearing a few well-timed sobs and sniffles. And Juliana was making those on her own anyway after leaving Ortega behind.
Nemona had stopped crying soon after they left and instead turned to a fear-filled chant of, “Mela is going to kill us, Mela is going to kill us, Mela is going to kill us.”
“She’s not going to kill you,” Penny said.
Juliana pulled off her glasses to dry her eyes. “No offense, but your phrasing makes it sound like breaking our limbs and beating us senseless are still real possibilities.”
“They’re not, it’s just…” Penny groaned as she debated how to rephrase herself. “Mela and Ortie bickered from day one. She’s scared of losing him like we all are, but she’s terrified on top of it that their last conversation will be an argument. And when Mela’s scared, she tends to, y’know, threaten a lot.”
“I see.” Nemona didn’t look completely settled, but she at least stopped chanting about their imminent demise. “You know, when you phrase that way, it sounds kind of sweet.”
“You and I have different definitions of ‘sweet,'” Juliana muttered as she pushed her glasses back on.
Penny did not put in a vote on the matter. Mela and Nemona both communicated not through words or a screen but through battles. It wasn’t her language of choice, but Team Star was never about people doing everything the same.
“Mela doesn’t have to murder us, anyway,” Arven said. “Because Vanessa will probably do it first.” He shook his head. “Man, it’s gotta be nice having multiple people who would kill to keep you safe. As opposed to having your own parents try to end your life.”
A lump swelled in Penny’s throat. She struggled to focus on Arven, on helping him to feel better, and not on how much any discussion of Turo made her want to punch her hand through a wall.
“That robot down there wasn’t Sada,” Penny said. “It’s a program made to look like her. And your dad sucks.”
Arven gave a harsh laugh. “Aw, come on. You’re just saying that because his presense triggers some psychic bond you’ve made with the ancient embodiment of bitterness.”
This got somewhat of a chuckle from the rest of the group as well. The conversation died down as they watched the falling rain through the open hatch.
After a minute or two, the teleportation circle glowed again.
For a split second, Penny had the unfounded hope Ortega would step out. Maybe even announce that the professor and the AI had seen the error of their ways and were committed to finding another way to save their home. Instead, much to Penny’s dismay, Turo stepped out of the teleporter. He had his hands behind his back like he was there to inspect their posture or something.
“Ai requested I confirm that you have left safely,” he said without anyone asking a question. “When you have fully exited the crater, I will return to the Zero Lab. Also…” He brought his hands forward to reveal Ortega’s staff–broken clean in two. “…I took the longer route via the research station teleporters and found this jammed in one of the doorways. Does it belong to any of you?”
Penny shook with anger as she inspected it more closely. The cut was jagged, though she wasn’t enough of an expert in these things to tell more. The last she remembered Ortie having this, they were running for their lives from a pair of time-traveling Donphan. Although Atticus had certainly fashioned the staff with love and care from solid materials, Penny imagined there wasn’t much his work could do against an ancient monster and a futuristic robot equipped with who knew what.
She knew, logically, the staff had been broken before they even contacted Turo. Correlation, not causation, was pretty much her mantra in science class. But the obvious metaphor eroded the rational part of her brain.
“It’s Ortega’s,” she said through gritted teeth. “You should return it to him, not me.” She took what was meant to be a step backwards and lost her footing. Either a misstep or her foot going temporarily incorporeal, she couldn’t say. She stumbled back several feet before she re-caught her balance and refused to look at anything except the floor.
“Okay, okay, cálmate…” Nemona urged her from behind. She put a hand on Penny’s shoulder and guided her towards the hatch, where the sound of the rain could better drown out Turo’s voice. Penny did her best to direct her attention there. She only half succeeded.
Arven, meanwhile, moved between his father and the rest of the group. Did the man not have any human contact the past decade? It was the only explanation Arven could think of for him being this dense. “Why did you decide to see us off?” he said in a low voice.
Turo cradled both sections of the broken staff in his left arm. “Ai seemed to think her presense would upset you.”
“Yours is worse,” Arven said. “You’re the one who’s supposed to be human.”
Turo rubbed at the growing stubble on his chin with his free hand. “Just because your mother isn’t here doesn’t mean she would behave any different than I. Not to mention, you forget my life is also at stake.” His hand slipped down to his lab coat pocket. His eyebrows rose a bit, as if he’d found something inside he didn’t expect.
“If that’s supposed to make me feel bad for you, I don’t,” Arven said.
Turo didn’t answer him. Whatever was in his pocket, he kept fingering it. Finally, he pulled it out. It was a necklace–beaded with alternating colors of orange and brown and three white diamond-shaped beads, larger than the rest. Identical to the one Sada always wore.
Then it hit Arven. This was the one Sada always wore. The robot was only projecting an image of it.
“You know, we did meet up several years ago. Tried one more time to make it work. In the end, she left this behind. Said I was one part of the past she never wanted to hear about again.” He shook his head and his fingers closed around the necklace. “I was so consumed with envy, I didn’t even notice Ai’s illusory one. If I had, perhaps I would have recognized the program for what it was.”
So, what? He proposed with that necklace instead of a ring? It sounded pretty tacky to Arven. Which meant Sada probably loved it back then.
Turo tucked the jewelry back into his pocket. “Perhaps I only came here to get away from that lab for a time. As my presense seems to trigger your friend’s connection with Wo-Chien, so Ai’s presense triggers mine with Chi-Yu. But I must do what I can to ensure all the paradox beings, myself included, are kept from disrupting the world any further.” He gave a tired sigh and massaged his temples. “I realize how empty this sounds, but I do genuinely hope you and your friends find another solution.”
Arven stared at the man, struggling to process it all. Behind him, raindrops pounded all the harder…only now they were accompanied by powerful wingflaps. The flying taxi had arrived.
Arven turned his back on Turo. “You don’t sound empty. You are empty.” And with that, he walked towards his friends. The past certainly tempted him to dwell on it. But for the moment at least, he kept his focus on the future.
The flying taxi dropped the group off in front of the Naranja Academy library. Nemona had the sense to call ahead, and Director Clavell made sure the entrance was clear of students and staff before they arrived. Not the most difficult feat at three in the morning, but it was nice to enter the doors without fear of the International Police jumping on them the moment they stepped inside.
As Arven predicted, Vanessa was not happy with them when they called to report what had happened from Clavell’s office. She even suggested she might switch the theme of the next Iono Zone to “Iono’s Special Edition Weapons Zone”with them as the “targeted” guests. Arven was only ninety percent sure she was joking.
Much to his relief, the bosses of Team Star were much more forgiving when Penny shared the news. Though her delivery probably helped there.
“I need to emphasize that Ortie volunteered for this,” she said, her Rotom phone floating in front of her in audio-only mode. She stood behind Clavell’s desk, and her fingers trembled despite her authoritative tone. “He saw a way to help, and he took it, which is exactly what Team Star is about. So none of us should be giving anyone a hard time about ‘letting’ him make his own decision. Agreed?”
There was only a bit of murmuring on the other line before Giacomo answered for the group, “Yeah, we’re all agreed, B.B.”
Penny visibly relaxed.
“I mean, we’re still worried sick,” Giacomo went on. “But I guess no one said saving the world was safe, huh?”
“No,” Penny agreed, almost monotone now. It seemed putting on a brave face drained her more than she let on. “No, they sure didn’t.”
“Hey, move over!” said Mela in the background. “I said I’m sleeping there!”
Atticus gave a reply too soft to fully make out, but it had a few choice words about Mela’s respect for her elders.
“You’re barely a year over me!”
“That ain’t an elder!”
This was followed by the sound of several pillows being utilized as weapons.
Penny exhaled with relief. At least her friends had found a secure place they could settle for the night. “Where are you guys, anyway? Is everyone okay?”
“Hey! Atticus, that’s a pocket dictionary, not a throwing star!” Giacomo yelled, followed by some scuffling. Penny could have sworn Giacomo’s voice echoed around the whole office. He sounded out of breath when he returned to the phone. “Yeah, we’re fine. Been hanging out in Clavell’s private library. Where are all of you calling from?”
Penny’s jaw slackened. “Um…we’re in his office.”
At this, the call ended immediately. Footsteps pounded from behind the walls, the sound starting at Clavell’s desk and moving towards the back corner, where a bookshelf swung sideways of its own accord.
It was a door. And out of it came Atticus, Giacomo, Eri, and Mela. They were out of their Team Star gear, mostly sporting sweats and T-shirts. Penny barely recognized Eri and Atticus. Especially since Eri had washed off her makeup and bundled her hair on top of her head.
“Team Star’s official lay-low gear,” Giacomo explained. “Also our sleeping gear. It being the middle of the night and all.”
Eri shoved him aside and proceeded to hug everyone, blubbering about how glad she was to see them safe. Even poor Clavell got a hug of thanks for bringing them here…and several popped joints along with it. Once Eri released him, he backed against the door to give everyone as much space as possible.
Eri’s enthusiasm made the other three a bit awkward. Mela and Giacomo went around and delivered some combo hugs-and-shoulder-pats. Atticus gave each person a deep bow instead.
Clavell cleared his throat. “I hope I’m not insensitive, but we may be pressing the capacity of this room.”
“Leave if ya want,” Mela told him, either forgetting or ignoring the fact that they were in his office. Then she gave the group a closer look-over and frowned. “Still feels weird. Being short one, I mean.”
“Yeah, I know,” Penny agreed. “Which is why we’re going to figure this out.” She turned to Clavell. “Mind if I use your setup here?”
“Not at all,” he said.
Unless most teacher’s desks, Clavell didn’t have a lot of personal knickknacks: a banker’s lamp–identical to the one in Ortie’s tent at the Ruchbah base–a small potted plant, and a few books lined up neatly. Atticus took the books and added them to the shelf that had swung open. Mela shoved the plant on a windowsill where it only semi-fit.
Penny thanked them and laid her computer tablet and keyboard in the center of the screen. It connected easily enough to the monitor on the wall. She even asked Clavell for the network password instead of showing off that she’d hacked it ages ago, which she felt was pretty considerate.
She shared her screen and brought up a blank note page. Then she gave Team Star–both its official and honorary members–a rundown of everything that had happened down in Area Zero. She made bullet points of the basics as went, except for the more sensitive info. The news of Sada’s death hit Clavell hard, but he covered it quickly and urged Penny to continue.
Penny saved her notes and created two folders in everyone’s view: “ai stuff,” where she moved the notes file, and “naranja stuff,” which she left empty for now. She then laid out their goal in no uncertain terms: They had one week. Seven days to ground herself, Arven, Ortega, and yes, even Turo, in this time and reality. They had a stabilizer with only enough energy for temporary effects. And they had a machine that could send inanimate objects to any time point in an alternate universe.
Mela rolled her eyes. “Well, seeing how none of you four are ‘inanimate objects,’ gonna say those both sound useless.”
“Yeah?” said Giacomo. “Four Starmobiles that couldn’t move sounded useless, too. Until you got your hands on ’em. We make stuff work, remember?”
Penny beamed with pride. No doubt she’d chosen the right person to act as the boss in her absence. “If you’ve got questions, hammer me with them. If I can’t answer, we’ll find someone who can. I’m in contact with Ai, and she’s sending me all the information we have to work with–the type of technology she has available, how much she has available, the technology’s limits and potential power sources, all of it. Basically, we’re getting a bunch of different pieces from random puzzles, and our job is find the ones that actually make a complete picture.”
“Like a treasure hunt!” piped up Clavell, who seemed to struggle with not being the one in charge.
Penny nodded. “Right. Like the Treasure Hunt.” She slid her finger across the screen, and the folder switched from ‘ai stuff’ to ‘naranja stuff.’ “Ai shouldn’t be our only source of information, through. There’s a giant library downstairs. There’s the school professors. The internet. The more places we can gather pieces from, the better.”
Juliana raised her hand. Penny pointed to her, which felt a tad awkward. Then again, she was sitting at the director’s desk.
“We should ask Professor Raifort for help,” she said.
“Who?” asked Arven.
Nemona raised an eyebrow at him. “You really don’t come to class much, do you?”
“Raifort is the history teacher,” Penny said. “If we’re talking about ancient evil Pokémon, she’s a decent place to start.Good call.”
“She’s also one of the few staff who didn’t leave after Operation Star,” Nemona offered.
“I dunno,” Mela said, crossing her arms. “I didn’t like that lady. I haven’t been to school in a year and a half, and I still remember how she creeped me out.”
Clavell cleared his throat. “It, um, seems you have no further need of me, so I shall see myself out,” he said. He stepped up to the desk and laid a card key beside Penny’s tablet. “You are free to come and go as you need. I suggest you all use discretion with your volume and movements around the school. Pillow fights and makeshift ninja stars would be particularly ill-advised.” He shot Atticus a pointed look before turning his attention to Mela. “Miss Meloco was not off-base on one thing. I will admit, Professor Raifort has, erm…creeped me out on occasion as well.”
Nemona’s eyes widened in shock, but it wasn’t at the school director admitting he was scared of a staff member. “Y-your full name is Meloco?”
“Oh, yeah,” Giacomo said, as if he’d completely forgotten it.
Mela gritted her teeth, her face going as red as her hair. “Yeah, it is. And I swear if the next words outta you are ‘that’s so cute’–”
Nemona covered her mouth. “Nope! Not from me!”
Giacomo laughed and elbowed Nemona in the side. “We’ve been calling her Mela or Mellie since we met. Mostly at her insistence. Guess being the school council president doesn’t teach you everything, huh?”
While the group continued in their teasing banter, Penny disconnected her tablet from the monitor and thanked Clavell once again for his help. He turned and walked out, leaving Penny to scroll absently through her folders. It was all well and good to spur everyone to action. Now she had to make sure it got some real results.