“So where’s this shortcut of yours?” Penny asked, trying to catch her breath without slowing down too much.
Nemona didn’t answer. Not with words, anyway. Instead, she marched them towards to the hill they’d descended to get here. She then proceeded to sprint up said hill like gravity was for losers who didn’t have their Champion-ranked status yet.
Penny sighed and followed. She could have sworn her backpack’s ears went extra droopy to coordinate with her energy level. But at least they were finally on their way. If Sada could help, this could all be over within a few hours. Ortie and Arven would be safe. Paldea would keep existing. Penny could even catch up on all the new anime episodes she’d been missing.
When they reached the top, Nemona extended her hands to the raid crystal. “Here it is! Ta-da!”
“Um…” Giacomo furrowed his eyebrows and pointed. “Am I missin’ something? That looks like the way we came in.”
“Well, it’s still as convenient for travel as when you got here,” Nemona said. She held her palm out towards him and traced her finger from wrist to knuckle, as if drawing out a map. “Now, when you step in, instead of going to the raid, you’re going to find these tunnels. Feel along the edge of the wall long enough and you’ll find a gap in the floor. It’s really cool–you can see the whole sky through it.”
Penny did not like where this was going. Not one bit. “Please tell me we walk carefully around the gap.”
“No, silly,” Nemona giggled. “You just fall right through! You’ll always land in the ocean. And from there, you ride your Cyclizar across the water for a bit, come up and the right spot, and bam!” She raised her arms for the full dramatic effect. “Hello, Zero Gate!”
Too bad Penny was in no mood for drama. “Is there no other way to get there?” she said. “I thought I was going to throw up when we used that path through the tera crystals.”
“You want to face the police line instead?” Mela asked.
Penny shook her head. Leave it to Mela to shove reality in her face when she needed it.
“We don’t know how long we’ll be gone,” Juliana said. She faced the full group with a timid voice but a firm stance. “Last call. Everyone have all the items they need?”
“Got the Scarlet Book,” Arven called out, holding it up.
“Got my staff to smack Arven with if he mentions food,” said Ortega, doing the same.
Atticus shook his head and sighed. “Perchance we should acquire more medicinal supplies?”
“Oh, no worries,” said Arven. “I’ve got that covered.” He knelt down and opened his backpack, which seemed more stuffed than usual. Penny’s eyes widened when she saw a number of containers that looked like round, sparkling yellow stars.
“Are those…” she began.
Arven nodded proudly. “Nice, huh? Last picnic we had, I kept opening the basket to find these Max Revives in there. Figured I’d stash them for an emergency.”
“Yeah. Good call,” Penny said with a smile. It wouldn’t make their trip any easier, but it was nice to know that every once in a while, the anomalies worked in their favor.
Once again, Penny felt herself pulled and shoved through a shaky roller coaster of bent reality.
Even when they reached the ocean, as Nemona had said, Penny did not open her eyes to take in the “amazing view.” Instead she clung to Eri for dear life, riding on the group’s Cyclizar. The toes of her boots dragged through the water, the smell of salt was everywhere, and by all logic, her leggings should have been soaked from all the splashes Cycilzar made as it swam. They stayed completely dry. And not once did they encounter a single water Pokémon, despite riding for what felt like hours.
According to Juliana, you could see all of Paldea from here. If one were to look up, the cities, homes, deserts, and forests were all suspended in the air–dozens of floating islands above their heads. Penny tried not to think of the physics behind that and focused on even breaths until they reached their destination. She took Juliana’s word that it was once in a lifetime experience and all. She also decided her lifetime did not need this experience.
After pedaling through the ocean enough to turn Penny’s stomach several times over, Nemona called the group to a stop. “We jump up here,” she said. “And as a warning, it gets a little weiiiiiiiiirrd!”
There was a sploosh and Nemona’s words stretched out. Her voice carried above their heads growing quieter by the second. Penny cracked one eye open in time to see Nemona flung upwards like a Poké Ball in a trade machine.
Then, whether she liked it or not, the rest of the group followed.
Penny curled into a ball as her body shot upwards. She’d give just about anything to be inside a Poké Ball with her VeeVees right now. A heavy sense of vertigo sank in as space twisted and turned. Penny didn’t slow down, but she got the sudden sensation she was now falling down instead of up. Then something wriggled in her pocket. Her phone yanked itself free and more or less shoved itself into her hands. The device brought her rapid descent down to a crawl and her feet landed softly on…a floor. Somewhere.
Penny opened her eyes, but it didn’t do much. Wherever they were was pitch dark. Hearing the crowd of familiar, though confused, voices around her, she gathered that everyone else had landed safely as well.
Something clanged not far away, and Juliana let out a yelp. “Ow! I bumped into something!”
Sprigatito meowed with frustration, scratching its claws against what sounded like granite.
Penny blinked several times, but she still couldn’t make out much. They were clearly indoors; soft green mechanical lights glowed about them. So, was this a circular room, then? Penny felt around while she waited for her eyes to adjust. The cool metal floor had a checker plate texture, with short raised lines all pointing perpendicular to one another. Light vibrations from the machinery pulsed through the metal plates, and the soft, familiar hum of machinery put Penny a tiny bit at ease.
“Pretty sure this is Zero Gate,” Arven said. “But why’s it so dark?”
“The anomalies must have spread all the way out here, too,” Nemona said. Her voice lacked its normal I-can-face-anything tone, which showed how out of her element she was.
For once, though, Penny didn’t think her fears were warranted. “Lights going off isn’t that weird,” she said. “Not compared to everything else we’ve seen.”
“Indeed,” Atticus agreed. “Though should you require a guiding hand around the area, m’lady, it would please me to assist you. My senses are quite keen, light or no.”
Penny took him up on his offer and soon found her way to a control box along the wall. A tiny glowing thermometer and lightbulb icon suggested this would change the room’s lights and temperature. The system didn’t recognize Penny’s face or fingerprint, but a bit of prodding made it cooperative soon enough.
The lights grew to their full brightness, making Penny squint. Everyone else sighed with relief. Juliana got to her feet and checked to see what she’d tripped on. Apparently yet another one of Brassius’s Poké Ball sculptures had made it in here, too. Her Sprigatito frowned and pawed at the floor-embedded sculpture.
“Buddy, that is not a real Poké Ball,” Juliana sighed. Buddy eventually it took its trainer’s word and returned to its place on her shoulder. A flick of its tail, and the tips of its fur when from green to gray then back again.
Is it me or are these problems getting worse faster? Penny thought. Then Arven caught her attention with one of his dramatic hand waves.
“Hey, how’d you do that?” he asked as he pointed to the ceiling. “Get the lights on, I mean?”
Penny shrugged. “Seems they were in power-saving mode. I hacked into the system controls and overrode the settings.”
“Whoa, awesome,” Nemona said. “You really are a tech whiz, huh?”
Penny stared at her feet. It felt awkward to be the center of attention. But there were also so many things Nemona did better than her. Not the least of which was leave her room on a regular basis and communicate with people face-to-face. Penny didn’t see herself getting any better at those things, but it was nice to get some recognition for the stuff she was good at. In moderation, anyway.
The lights flickered back to their dim settings for a second, then returned to their normal brightness. The machines around them hummed a bit louder.
“Welcome, child,” said a woman’s voice. Rather than coming from a single speaker, it flooded every corner of the octagonal room at once. Ortega flinched at the sound of it.
Everyone else stood still to see what the voice would say next.
After several seconds of silence, Juliana adjusted her glasses and picked a random corner to address. “Umm, excuse me, but–”
“Children,” the voice corrected. “Children. Welcome, children.”
Oh, this is reassuring, Penny thought. We’re getting led into a crater of death by someone who can’t even pluralize their nouns.
Nemona elbowed Arven. “So, that’s Professor Sada…right?”
“Probably,” Arven muttered.
Penny seriously wanted to pin him down and demand to know what he meant by that. She’d had more than her fill of cryptic commentary today. But Sada didn’t give her the chance.
“Ah, I detect the two ba…” A burst of static overrode Sada’s next few words. “…also with you. And you have the Scarlet Book as well, yes?”
“Sorry, missed that middle part,” Penny said.
Sada waited an oddly long time before she replied. “I said, ‘I detect the two…'” Her voice got quiet as she muttered to herself. “…baritones? No. Ballooners? No. Bad…” Her voice raised to its normal volume again. “Badasses. You have brought the two badasses with you. By which I mean Miss Nemona–Student ID 805C001–and Miss Penny–803B121. You should now make your way to me at the Zero Lab, in the deepest part of Area Zero. However, the entrance to the lab is barred by four locks, installed on the exterior, which I cannot unlock. On your way to me, you must visit four research stations that were constructed inside the crater. At each station, you will be able to disable one of the locks. Now please descend without delay.”
“D-did you say ‘badasses?'” Arven said, his eyes wide. Given the rocky relationship with his mother, Penny guessed nothing the woman could say would shake him now.
It seemed she guessed wrong.
Once again, Sada took a long while to answer. “Yes. That is most assuredly the word I used.”
Juliana raised an eyebrow at Arven. “She sounds like you when you said you were only after the Herba Mystica because you loved cooking health food in the great outdoors.”
“Desperate for attention?” Arven asked.
“She sounds like she’s lying, dummy,” Ortega said. “Even I know your mom never talked like that.”
“Also, this whole set-up sounds awful video-gamey,” Nemona said, taking a step forward. Sada voice still came from all around them, but since Juliana had picked this corner to talk to, Nemona followed suit. “Why are there four locks to get in?”
“Because my–that is, because I installed more than three locks and less than five,” Sada answered. “Now please descend without delay.”
“Without delay.” Like before, when Sada repeated a phrase, she recycled the inflection with creepy accuracy.
Something beeped, like a call had been dropped. For a moment, the hum of the machines got a bit softer and the lights grew a little brighter. Then they flickered once again, and a massive hidden latch gave a loud click. The adjoined walls of the Juliana had been talking to cracked open like a laptop. Sunlight and a chill breeze flooded into the space. And Penny soon found herself very out of her element.
The wall-turned-double-doors showed a sky-high view of Area Zero. Far, far below, they could make out a spiraling rocky path, dotted with clusters of trees and glowing iridescent crystals. Juliana brought out Koraidon, though the Pokémon did not seem too impressed. It sort of slunked back by the wall. The braver people in their company moved to the edge to take in the majestic view.
Penny was content to stand back with Ortega, Giacomo, and Arven.
“Heh. Glad we have you on this trip with us,” Arven said with a nervous laugh. “If you needed to hack stuff just to turn the lights on, who knows what kind of high-tech mumbo-gumbo we’ll need to get these locks open?”
Penny appreciated the vote of confidence, but something else bugged her. That was a long trip down for a group of Cyclizars that did not come equipped with wings.
“Hey, Juliana?” Penny called, pointing between Koraidon and the group of nine teenagers trying to descend into Area Zero. Two of which absolutely could not ride together in the interest of a stable reality. “Your guy is good for making two trips, right?”