The group bolted for the lighthouse as soon as they could. Penny gave the quickest explanation for the texts she could manage–low numbers were bad, and they needed to move fast.
Nemona took the second part very seriously.
Were all of them supposed to have free access via Flying Taxi to wherever they wanted? No. Were they allowed to jump the queue and get two taxis sent their way at a moment’s notice? Also no.
But when the academy’s student council president insisted she had a group of stranded students who needed to be dropped off by Mesagoza’s gates right this second, things got done. Penny had to hand it to Nemona–maybe she couldn’t hack her way out of her own address book, but she brought her own strengths to the group. Not unlike Team Star’s diverse crews.
And once the taxis had dropped them off, Nemona’s Cyclizar and Juliana’s Koraidon whisked the group down the road to the lighthouse within minutes. They passed a few random people trying to chat them up along the way, but the Pokémon moved so fast, the chatty pedestrians were out of view in the time it took Penny to turn her head and look behind them.
Well, at least Penny sincerely hoped they were only out of view. She couldn’t stomach thinking of the alternatives.
All in all, the whole trip almost went a little too well. As everyone clambered off the bulky bike lizards, Penny soon realized there was no one standing outside the lighthouse doors. Either Atticus and the others really had been arrested or Penny and her–What are we? Traveling companions? Friends?–had arrived early. “Guess we have to wait for them,” she said, shoving her hands in her sweatshirt pockets. “Nothing else to do.”
“I still have to trade Porygon for Buddy,” Juliana reminded her.
Penny nodded. As if she would forget she had a Porygon coming her way.
“Mom had a trading machine stashed in the back somewhere,” Arven said. “Might be busted, though. Wouldn’t turn on last time I tried.”
“I’ll make it work,” Penny said confidently. “Just open the door.”
Arven nodded and went digging through his massive bag for the key. He pulled out two different picnic blankets, several jars and peanut butter and wasabi, and a trio of frying pans. “It’s in here somewhere…” he muttered.
Penny sighed and leaned against the lighthouse’s curved, white brick wall.
“Well, now that we’re right outside Mesagoza, maybe I can access the school network,” Nemona said. She pulled out her Rotom phone and began tapping away at the screen.
Which naturally drew Penny’s attention. “What’s on the school network?” she asked, peering over Nemona’s shoulder.
“Like I told Juliana earlier, I remember seeing something about Team Star in the school’s records,” Nemona said. “But the details are a total blank in my head.” She had pulled up a list of files and sorted them by date. Quickly she scrolled past anything for the current year and slowed as she got to the files from roughly eighteen months ago. Although Penny had never seen these files before, it soon became obvious they’d been tampered with. The timestamps all had consistent intervals–a new file roughly every twelve hours. But a year and a half back, three days’ worth of data was missing.
“I don’t understand,” Nemona said. “The records were right here. I’m sure of it.”
“Weird,” Penny said. She glanced over Nemona’s shoulder and double-checked her work. The answer was the same. The school’s records were very consistent, and the dates when Operation Star went down had been completely wiped. Penny tried searching instead for the names of the students who had led the bullying against Team Star’s leaders. Again, nothing. It was like the students had never attended the school at all. She found herself and her friends in the system, but the records were minimal. Attendance and GPA data only.
“Maybe the data’s been made private?” Nemona asked.
Penny shook her head. “I doubt it.” True, Nemona didn’t have the same level of clearance as the staff. Plenty of confidential info would be unavailable to her. But the most basic info that should have been there simply…wasn’t. “It’s kind of impressive, really,” she added. “Whoever got rid of these did a thorough job. I don’t know what info could have been in there that the school would find so interesting.”
“I’m more worried about the info the school thinks they have,” said Nemona.
Before Penny could ask her to elaborate, Arven triumphantly held up a small key. “Ah-ha! That’s where I put it!”
“Who puts a key in an empty mayonnaise jar?” Ortega said.
Arven stood and pushed the key into the lock. “Where was I supposed to put it? Empty yogurt cups don’t have lids.” He pushed the door open. Ortega started to follow, but Juliana cut between the two of them. Just to be safe.
Guess it was too much to hope they’d get along all the time, Penny thought as she followed Ortega and Arven inside. Juliana was in such a rush to get to the trade, she nearly pushed Arven over in her attempts to get in.
Penny glanced over her shoulder.
Nemona didn’t look ready to enter at all. Instead she faced the path they’d come down, a look of fierce determination across her face. “You guys go ahead and wait for your Team Star friends,” she said. “I’m going back to school to see Director Clavell.”
Ortega came up beside his boss. “Ooookay. Why?”
“Because I know he has the students’ best interests at heart!” Nemona clasped her hands together. Apparently if she was going to make a speech, it had to be done the right way. Dramatic hand gestures included. “If he found out what Team Star is really like, I’m sure he’d help set the story straight with the police. And maybe he could look into why those records are gone as well.”
“I don’t know…” Penny said. She almost added that Clavell and the Pokémon League had plenty of reasons to think she wasn’t trustworthy. But since no one had come after her for manipulating the LP accounts yet, she had to assume they didn’t know. And Nemona didn’t seem like the type of person she should confess to.
The class president hung her head. “I know it’s sudden. I just…feel like I should be able to help more,” she said. “All I’ve achieved so far is moving everybody around. Let me do what I’m good at here.”
“By being a teacher’s pet?” Penny asked.
Nemona perked up. “Exactly! Thanks for understanding! I’ll catch up with you guys later!” And with that, she took off down the road.
Penny had the trading machine up and running within a few minutes. There wasn’t that much wrong with the device. Arven had been using the platform for the Poké Balls as a place to store extra condiments, and at some point, a jar of jam had cracked and dripped into the crevasses around the power button, stopping it from being pushed all the way in. A little cleaning up, and the device was running smooth as ever.
Juliana bounced on her toes as she placed down her Porygon in the left round indent and Penny placed Buddy’s ball down on the right. The machine hummed, and the screen glowed with a soft blue light. Both her and Juliana’s Poké Balls quivered. The lights overhead flickered a bit, as if the machine was consuming all the energy the lab had to offer.
What’s going on? Penny thought. Why on earth would it need that much pow–
The Poké Balls continued to shake, so much so that they appeared in a blurry double image of themselves.
Penny was about ready to grab both Pokémon off the platform for safety when the balls shot upwards like they’d been fired out of cannons. They blasted right through the roof of the house and into the sky. Bits of wood and debris trickled down as the balls flew into the overhead clouds.
“Oh, yeah,” Arven said as he inspected the ceiling damage. “That’s why Mom turned it off and stashed it away.”
“Where’s Buddy and Porygon?” Juliana asked in horror. Which Penny felt both lousy and relieved about. At least she wasn’t the only one who thought this was insane.
“Chill out. They’ll be back down in a second,” Arven said. “Haven’t you two ever done a trade before?”
“No!” the girls answered at the same time.
“That’s how it works when you do a trade with someone who’s far away,” Ortega explained. “Like at a different Pokémon Center or something.”
“We’re not far away, though!” Penny snapped. “We’re both right here!”
Arven shrugged. “Don’t think the machine cares.”
Penny wanted to smack both the boys until they made some sense. But sure enough, the Poké Balls floated back down to Earth a minute later with nothing more than a few colorful sparkles to show for it. Porygon’s ball rested in front of Penny, while Buddy’s rested in front of Juliana. Penny took the ball with shaking hands, while Juliana snatched hers up, took Buddy out, and drew him into an immediate hug. She then walked off to the corner, whispering to her Pokémon about how she’d never do another trade in her life.
With her nerves calm, Penny brought out Porygon as well. The Pokémon emerged in a burst of light with its digital 8-bit jingle of a cry. It then floated alongside Penny, full of curiosity.
Penny held her hand out. The Porygon’s full body tilted forward like one of those drinking Swanna toys as it inspected Penny’s palm. Warm electric energy pulse of its synthetic body. Its eye shape blinked from neutral to pleased when Penny gave it a cautious pat on the head.
Yes, this little fellow would work quite well.
“Now the real work begins,” Penny said, facing Arven.
Arven swallowed hard. “Um…meaning what exactly?”
“Hmph. It should be obvious.” Penny pushed her glasses farther up the bridge of her nose. The glow of the machine reflected off her lenses, which no doubt made her look like a mad scientist on the verge of a maniacal laugh.
She leaned into the image and dropped her voice to a dangerously soft tone. “Team Star dropped all its research for your wild titan chase. My crew nearly got themselves arrested for it. And unless Nemona can work miracles with Director Clavell and the League, they’ll have to stay in hiding for quite some time.” Her chest tightened. She’d been so wrapped up keeping her inner circle safe, she hadn’t thought about what this development meant for the rest of Team Star. I need to get a message out to the lower-tier members, she thought. The guards, the grunts, everyone. Anything they’ve got that’s associated with Team Star needs to be disposed of until this blows over. If it does blow over.
Porygon seemed to sense her distress and nuzzled her cheek, raising the hair on the back of her neck with its static.
Arven kept his eye on her, his stance growing more uneasy the longer she went without answering his question.
“I’m starting my analysis on your anomalies,” Penny finally said. “Then I’m comparing it to what data I’ve been able to gather from Ortie. Then we’re using that data to get to the bottom of this mess and save our home. Now sit.”
Ortega grabbed a swivel chair from near the trading machine and plopped down, even though Penny hadn’t spoken to him.
Arven hesitated–likely because Ortega had taken the most obvious sitting spot–and then backed off towards a bed in the corner. Given the fruit-and-veg pattern on the sheets, she guessed it was his bed. She grabbed an empty computer case and slid it over. Time to get to work.
The pastel-themed Iono Zone logo scrolled across the screen in a sparkling overlay. The livestream had been going for four hours solid–a near record.
Of course, a proper star gave her full energy until the end.
“And that about wraps things up! Whosawhatsit? You’ve been watching the Iono Zone’s totally exclusive take on the cray-cray happenings at the Montenevera Gym! So stay subscribed, stay Iono-ized, and don’t forget–your eyeballs are mine! Caught in my Electroweb! Now adios! Sayōnara! And bye-the-byesies!”
Iono gave the camera one final wink before she cut the feed. A mega sigh of relief escaped her lips as she kicked off her sparkling boots and soaked her heels in the cool snow. She’d bounced on her toes way too much this episode, and her feet were killing her. Iono didn’t normally go for this current event stuff, but it was gym-related, and besides, the sky didn’t go all blinky-blinky every day. What the public wanted, the public got.
“How’re those cameras lookin’?” she asked the head of her equipment crew.
The woman rubbed the back of her head. “Should be okay. Had that drizzle come up and tried to take them under the Pokémon center awning to keep them dry while we did a wide shot. Rain came right through the roof, so we had to scramble for extra large umbrellas instead.”
Iono nodded her approval. “You are good at thinkin’ on the spot,” she said. “Let’s call it a night.”
No one had to ask her to repeat that one. Half her crew began to take down the ring lights, mics, and all the other last-second equipment they’d had to drag in to cover the story. The other half made sure the crowd gave her some space. Not a hard job. Most of the witnesses to the weird event wanted to forget today happened and go home.
Speaking of which… Iono thought. She gazed up the hillside at her family’s winter house, nestled into the mountains right between Glasedo and Montenevera. Maybe she’d stop in there for some hot cocoa before heading back to the bustle of Levincia.
She slipped back into her boots and tapped open her phone. No new messages, even though Ortie said he’d meet up with her hours ago. She’d given up on the idea that he was coming. In fact, the only reason she wasn’t straight-up hacked off at him was that she’d arrived just in time to livestream the crazy sky flickers.
Wish he’d quit using my real name when he texts me, she thought, scrolling through their chat log. Anyone here coulda looked right over my shoulder, and bam! Hidden identity of the biggest streamer in Paldea exposed!
The idea alone made her shudder. When she was out in public, she didn’t just play Iono. She was Iono. Thankfully, no harm had been done. This time.
She tapped out a new message: “hey, yur highness…u forget about me or what?”
Iono giggled to herself as she hit send. If there was any nickname her little brother hated her using (besides the one she’d stolen from his weirdo friends), it was a name that suggested he was a royally pampered baby. She turned the screen off, but the time still glowed on her lockscreen. She had a few hours to kill. If it was the key the lighthouse lab Ortie wanted, then he was probably down at the lighthouse now. She could roast him for ghosting her like this.
In fact, it sounded even better than a hot chocolate.