“…a-and that’s the story of how Team Star was formed! Thank you for listening!” Juliana bowed to the camera as she finished up her spur-of-the-moment monologue. Which was probably more formal and uptight than the Iono Zone’s usual vibe. She couldn’t help it. Her whole body was a bundle of nerves. She also felt more than a little guilty as she stood over Iono’s team. Every last member was frozen in a block of ice. And without her film crew, Iono had to tend to her Pokémon and keep the steam going at the same time.
“Wow! That’s quite a story, friend-o!” she said, waving to the camera as she emptied a revive onto her Wattrel. The bird Pokémon shook itself back to consciousness and surveyed its surroundings with its wide, round eyes. Which, Iono assured her, were perfectly normal eyes for a Wattrel and not the result of any reality-bending shenanigans.
“Thanks–” Juliana began, only to be interrupted by Iono’s dramatic gasp.
“But what’s up with the news about Team Star being chased by the police?” she asked as she handed three more revives to Wattrel. Her Pokémon dutifully flapped around and emptied one over each of its fallen teammates. “I mean, all the weird stuff in Montenevera’s sky–linkie here for my vid on that, Electroweb eyeballers–I heard Team Star is suspected of causing it! Are you saying that’s–” She gasped again. “–untrue?”
“Y-yeah, that’s exactly what I’m saying,” Juliana said with a nervous laugh. “Team Star’s been investigating all these weird events, and that’s why the squad bosses have been seen at them. But, you know, I leaned something very valuable in school about how you can’t assume causation from correlation…”
Okay, that one actually came from her mom, not the school. Because when someone told a twelve-year-old they could either attend class or travel freely across the countryside searching for their own personal definition of a treasure…well, the consequences were self-explanatory. Hmm, maybe the teachers should start bribing the students with special rewards for attending multiple classes.
Nevertheless, a little lie and a dash of flattery here could win some of the teachers over to their side. “In fact, I’ve grown so much at Naranja Academy,” Juliana went on. “And I know none of the staff would ever want to see students wrongfully accused of something so horrible. I’m sure if Team Star has reassurance that they–erm, we won’t be blamed for crimes we didn’t commit, the team bosses will be glad to share any information they can to help solve this mystery.” She stood tall and confident. That didn’t sound half bad.
Of course, it helped to have an Internet celebrity at her side, nodding and agreeing with whatever she said.
With monologues and flattery complete, Iono signaled Rotom to rotate towards her. Juliana glanced at the preview image on Rotom’s screen–she was out of the frame now, and Iono had a picturesque shot of the field behind her with a sliver of the lighthouse in view. “Iono here! Whozawhat-should-you-do-now? I’ll tell ya! All you Team Star members and fans out there! Don’t stay inside bein’ quiet! Get out there and spread the word! Stage some protests and stuff! Make sure everyone in Paldea knows that Team Star is the bestest best crew out there!”
Juliana sweatdropped. She wasn’t sure what she expected Iono to tell everyone, but this might be a tad over the top. Then movement caught the corner of Juliana’s vision. She glanced back to the lighthouse itself, where Penny waved frantically from the entrance. When she saw she had Juliana’s attention, she shook her head and made a nix-it motion, moving four fingers across her throat.
Giacomo mouthed with wide exaggerated movements, “Cut. The. Feed!“
“Oh, gosh! Can you believe the time?” Juliana said, jumping back into view beside Iono. “We’ve really gotta go! Get to our own protests and whatnot. Right?”
“Sure, sure, friend-o!” Iono said. “And remember, watchers, your eyeballs are mine! Caught in my Electroweb! Bye-the-bysies!” With a final wink, she signaled for her Rotom to end the stream.
The instant the screen went dark, Iono whirled on Juliana. “Never,” she said, eyes blazing, “–and I mean ever, tell me when to end my own stream, understand?”
Juliana slunk back and pointed a shaking hand at Penny, who sprinted up with the rest of Team Star in tow. Arven followed behind as best he could with his giant bag.
“We were…all watching the feed from inside,” Penny said, leaning over and gasping for air. “You got the lighthouse in the last shot.”
“Sure did,” Iono said, beaming. “Looked pretty nice, too.”
“Nice!? It showed exactly where we are!” Penny snapped.
Iono rolled her eyes. “You weren’t in the shot. I made sure. Trust me, the police are no wiser than they were before the stream.”
“I’m worried about more than the police,” Penny said. “Your fans all know where you are! And you got them all worked up. This place in going to get swarmed!”
The bosses behind her exchanged worried glances. Juliana could tell Eri and Mela were especially upset. They idolized Iono, and now her carelessness might have landed them all in a lot more trouble.
“Huh.” Iono crossed her arms and scrunched up her face in an exaggerated thinking-hard expression. “Huh. You don’t say.”
“Uh-oh,” said Ortega. “Incoming sarcasm flood.”
Iono inhaled a sharp breath. “Well, golly-gee, friend-o Penny! Even though this is literally my whole job, I gotta say, it never, ever in a bazillion years occurred to me that announcing where I am with a big ol’ call to action might summon a mass of fans!”
“Y-you…you did it on purpose?” Penny asked.
“Yeah. Obvs I did.” Iono’s face softened, and her tone quieted down. “You knuckleheads need a diversion so ya can get to that crater, right? I just delivered ya the motherlode. So take it and get your butts moving.” She turned to the Team Star bosses and said with all the sugary warmth of a Fidough, “And you guys? I swear if you don’t bring my lil’ Prince Leer back home in one piece, I will have my fanbase rip you limb from limb and feed your remains to my Mismagius.”
Eri clasped her hands together. “Aww, that’s so sweet!”
“Give me one more cutsie royal nickname, and I’ll tell Mom and Dad what your actual day job is,” said Ortega.
“Ugh. A fate worse than death.” Iono shuddered and then held out her hands. “Get in here, you.”
Ortega stepped into his sister’s hug and wrapped his arms around her. Even when her tight squeeze buried half his face in her poofy yellow jacket, he only tightened his grip. The rest of the group stepped back to give them some space. Atticus dabbed at his eyes with his sleeve in much the same way he had when Mabosttiff regained its health. Even Arven’s eyes had a misty look.
As an only child, Juliana would admit some confusion over the sudden change in tone. But she took it as an education opportunity. Yes, exchanging threats of murder must be how healthy siblings told each other, “You mean everything to me” and “My world would not be all-righty without you.“
Penny still wasn’t thrilled with how the Iono Zone’s latest episode put them all in a time crunch. But she had to admit, she was impressed. Ortega’s sister wasn’t nearly as single-minded or self-important as she played online. And she wielded that misconception to her serious advantage. If anything, Penny might do well to take notes.
For now, though, she focused on packing up all the supplies they would need and getting the group moving towards the Great Crater of Paldea. Atticus took the lead, guiding the group off the trail as early as possible and calling on his Skuntank to Mud-slap away their tracks.
“Mine comrades and I developed several discreet passages to ease travel between our stronghold and our fellows’,” he whispered when they’d ventured into the sparse woods that lay northeast of the lighthouse. “Once we have traversed the South Province river, I can guide our company beneath the blockade’s gaze.”
“Aren’t we taking the long way around to reach the crater?” Juliana asked as a branch brushed near her eye. She winced and batted it away.
“Verily so,” Atticus agreed. “Our big boss hath instructed me to prioritize stealth over haste. Ergo, I shall continue thus.”
“My feet are killing me thus,” Mela hissed up ahead. She attempted to step over a tree root, but in rotating her hips, she almost fell flat on her face. Eri rushed up and caught her by the arm. It was her fifth save since they’d entered the woods. Penny bit her lip. It was true she preferred caution to speed. But at this rate, they’d be lucky to make it to the crater at all. They were also taking a huge risk by assuming the crater had multiple entrance points. Arven distinctly remembered a lot of teleportation pads built into the stations throughout the crater. Hopefully some of them extended to the crater’s border, too.
“Let’s take a short break,” Penny said, to which Mela gave a huge sigh of relief. She plopped herself down against a tree and peeled her boots off. Her toes wiggled as her feet soaked in the refreshing open air.
“I…may perchance regret a handful of my previous design choices,” Atticus said.
“You didn’t know we’d have to hike around the Great Crater of Paldea in them,” Arven said, setting his pack down beside Mela. He opened the top flap and began rooting through the contents. Various items clanged and clunked together, and after a few minutes, Arven withdrew his hand and shook his head. “Sorry. Got a lot of supplies, but extra footwear isn’t one of them. Best I can do is a picnic blanket.”
Atticus’s eyes lit up at this, and he hurried over to inspect Arven’s pack.
The rest of the group also began to settle down, and Penny decided she might as well use the time to check her messages. In the interest of not drawing attention to themselves, she had done the nearly unthinkable and put her phone in airplane mode once they left the lighthouse. Not even a flashing screen or a vibration. She eagerly switched it back on, keeping the screen dim and the sound muted.
Once she got a signal, the phone altered her that she had…
“Twenty-seven missed calls?” she said. That got a few heads turning her way. She scrolled through the recent activity list to find that all of the calls had come from one person. “What is Nemona pinging my phone like this for?” she said. “Did the world end and we missed it, or–” Before she could finish, the screen changed to show yet another incoming call. Penny tapped the answer button.
“You guys!” Nemona squealed for all to hear. Penny double-checked to make sure the speaker phone was off. It was. Nemona had a very…powerful voice.
Penny held the phone a healthy distance away. Nemona added video to the call, which was not at all Penny’s thing. It seemed to energize her friends, though. Juliana sat down to listen in, as did Giacomo and Ortega.
“Good to hear from you,” Juliana said, leaning towards the speaker. “How did it go with Director Clavell?”
“Really well. He’s basically on our side now, but that’s not why I’m calling!” Nemona replied.
Penny braced herself to hear the worst. The school had collapsed. Half the population had vanished. Wifi was down.
Instead, Nemona squealed again like a kid at a birthday party. “I saw you on the Iono Zone! You were amazing! And you got to hang out with Iono, too? Super amazing!”
Penny sweatdropped. In different circumstances, she might have been just as enthusiastic. But then, maybe the end of the world was exactly the time to nerd out with no remorse.
“Yeah,” Juliana agreed. “Got my last badge from her, too!”
“¿En serio? That’s great!” Nemona said. “We’ve been swamped trying to track down whoever got into these school records. It’s a real head-scratcher.”
“Ah,” Ortega piped up. “I bet Mr. Harrington could help you pin down the culprit. He used to be the school director. Actually…” He leaned forward on his staff, determined not to lose it again. “…we need to get in contact with him anyway. He still has my Dachsbun, and I could really use it back.”
“You harass me all the time about my cooking obsession, but you have a Pokémon that looks like food?” Arven muttered.
“Maybe we can set up a conference call here?” Nemona said. She then turned and called over her shoulder, “We can do that, right, Director?”
Clavell, half buried in papers, mumbled something that sounded vaguely affirmative.
“Actually, we need to get moving,” Penny said. “We’re en route to the Zero Gate, but we’re not sure how much police presense is around.”
Nemona nodded. “Understood. If you can’t make it all the way there, maybe you can get to the Elite Four building? I know I shortcut from there we can use.”
“A shortcut?” Penny was pretty skeptical on that point. The Pokémon League hadn’t taken any official stance against Team Star, but she couldn’t imagine them being friendly after learning who hacked them. Nemona’s suggestion was like telling a Mareep to hide in a Pyroar’s den.
Then again, Penny had underestimated the Levencia gym leader, so maybe she should take a lesson from that and trust Nemona here. Then again again, if Nemona was wrong…
“…and done!” Atticus declared. Penny startled and looked over. She had almost forgotten Mela’s footware issue. Atticus’s white sandals were gone, replaced with layered strips of cloth in a cute Deerling-and-Petil pattern. Mela, whose feet were slightly smaller than his, had the same fabric wrapped around her own feet, with small loops going over the sandals’ straps to hold them more firmly in place.
“Oh, that is so much better!” she said as she took a few practice steps. “Thanks, you two!”
Arven sadly repacked the shredded remains of his picnic blanket. “Glad I could help,” he sighed.
Penny brought the phone to her ear. “We’ll aim for Zero Gate like we planned,” she said. “But if we get in a tight spot, we’ll switch directions to the Elite Four building. Okay?”
“Sounds like a plan!” Nemona said. “I’ll get Clavell in touch with Mr. Harrington and meet you there. See you then!” And with that, she hung up.
Penny sighed and pocketed her phone. She turned to tell the group their break time was over, but everyone was already poised to leave. Penny smiled and asked Atticus to lead the way once again.
In a few more minutes, they had neared the edge of the forest. Once they made their exit, it was vital to move quickly towards the river, Atticus explained, as there would be little cover in between.
Giacomo examined the path ahead. “There’s some brush we could clear for a straighter path,” he said. “Hit the ground running, y’know?” He readied what Penny assumed was his Bisharp’s Poké Ball, but Juliana stepped up and released her Tinkaton instead. Giacomo looked a bit disappointed but waved at the two of them to go ahead.
Tinkaton clearly needed the release, and at Juliana’s direction, she swung her massive hammer through the layers of vines and bramble like they were nothing. The path was cleared in seconds, and Tinkaton giggled and hurried on towards the sun-lit field now in view.
“Hold up! Don’t get too far ahead,” Juliana called in a hushed tone. She bolted after it, followed closely by Arven. Penny sighed and tagged after them, instructing the rest of her team to stay hidden until they could be sure the coast was clear.
Tinkaton was fast, Penny would give it credit there. It reached the field within seconds and showed no sign of slowing down. Penny sucked in a breath and sprinted forward, the ears and tail of her Eevee-themed backpack flapping wildly.
All at once, the ground trembled. Several flashes of blue light illuminated the trees around her, like lightning signaling the start of a massive downpour. Is it a storm? she thought. If so, it’s got to be a huge one!
But once Penny stepped out of the trees, she found the weather outside to be perfectly sunny. She glanced behind them. Clear weather inside the forest, too, much to her relief. The flashes had stopped, and the ground was still. So…what had just happened?
Up ahead, Tinkaton gave a roar of frustration. Juliana gasped. Penny whirled back around to see the poor Pokémon embedded in the ground up to its waist. Its signature hammer was half-buried behind it, and little Tinkaton was not happy.
It waved its arms and bellowed at full volume, building up such a fury, Penny suspected it was trying to break itself out through sheer decibels. Arven covered his ears. His arms flickered as he worked himself into a panic. They were going to be found, he moaned. No one was getting to Zero Gate. No one would save their home. He would disappear first, and then Ortega would be next, and then anyone who didn’t disappear would be skewered live on the next Iono Zone.
Juliana did everything she could to calm Tinkaton down, assuring it they would find a way to free it soon, just please-oh-please don’t make so much noise. Then she looked past Tinkaton into the distance. Her face fell. Her posture stiffened. It didn’t take any of Penny’s genius to assess why.
A line of uniformed figures gathered by the riverbank up ahead. And two individuals were now moving towards them.