After a less-than-stellar sleep in her dorm room, Juliana rose early the next day. She’d already signed up for classes with Professor Raifort. She wondered at first if it might look suspicious to be selecting classes at three am, but then again, it was hardly the oddest thing she’d done at that hour.
Even though Nemona had already passed all of Raifort’s classes, she was able to come along as well, under the guise of giving feedback to Director Clavell about the coursework’s “freshmen friendliness.” The term had been Arven’s idea.
“He absolutely adores alteration, doesn’t he?” Nemona muttered on their way to class.
Juliana held tight to her notebooks and didn’t comment on the hypocrisy.
Back in Clavell’s private library, Mela, Eri, and Giacomo had resigned themselves to watching video streams of the various courses. Atticus was off perusing the main library for helpful reference books. Mela almost went with him but reconsidered when he pointed out her stealth skills weren’t exactly on par with his own.
She couldn’t call him wrong. So now she got to attend class. Ever since the near-destruction of Paldea when Arven had saved Ortega down in Area Zero, the academy had finally warmed to the idea of virtual courses. Some students felt understandably nervous about venturing out while others had returned home to visit with family after such a terrifying experience. For Team Star, it would hopefully provide insight as to who else they could prod for information besides Raifort. Giacomo put his laptop on a coffee table, and they gathered around it.
“Shame we didn’t get these a year ago,” said Mela as she sat cross-legged with a pillow on her lap and a bowl of honeyed oatmeal at her side. Clavell’s office did not come equipped with a kitchen, but Arven had enlightened them on the shocking amount of things that could be prepared with hot water from a coffee maker. “Team Star coulda carried on without the teachers giving us a hard time.”
“Not very rebellious to hang out taking virtual classes,” Giacomo said, who was sustaining himself on protein bars despite the plethora of hot food options.
“We weren’t trying to be rebellious,” Eri reminded him as she sipped a mug of hot chocolate. “We were trying to make school tolerable.”
“Yeah, well, it won’t be tolerable until we have a full team again,” said Mela.
On this, they could all agree.
The screen changed from the Naranja Academy logo to a wide shot of Professor Hassel’s classroom. And it looked like he had another professor with him.
Mela squinted. “That’s…the…what’s-his-name? The ass who put those fake Poke Balls everywhere and called it art?”
“Gym leader Brassius?” Eri asked.
“Yeah, that’s close enough to what I said.”
“Welcome, everyone!” Hassel said to a mostly room. “Even though most of you are not physically in this space with us, my guest instructor and I shall do our best to enlighten your walk through the world of art.”
“We shall start with a discussion of my latest piece,” Brassius said. He then walked over to the teacher’s desk, where a velvet cloth covered some rectangular object roughly the size of a cereal box. “Is it zoomed in? You need to zoom in!” he snapped while one of the poor students in the back fumbled with the camera to get a close-up shot.
“You students are quite lucky,” Hassel was saying, now off-screen. “This original sculpture has not been revealed anywhere to the public yet.”
“Indeed,” said Brassius. “Now…behold!” He yanked the cloth away. The sculpture underneath was quite nicely made–soldered metal with intricate details. But it didn’t look particularly original. In fact…
“That looks like a train model,” Mela said, her mouth half-full of oatmeal.
“To some of you, this may look merely like a train model!” Brassius said, extending his arms so wide, it almost knocked the thing over. “But to true artists just as Professor Hassel and myself, it represents the relationship between humans and Pokémon. One is the train’s engine–the source, if you will, of its might and power. The other is the conductor of that source, skillfully directing it in the proper fashion!” He belted out a rather maniacal-sounding laugh. “You see, art is not merely about aesthetic creation. It is about connecting with deep human truths!”
Whoever was working the camera tried to zoom out to get Hassel in the shot, too. Instead the camera bumped their arm, and the image shook. For a brief moment, Hassel appeared to be replaced with a block of static. When the image steadied and focused, Hassel appeared normal again. He was even trying to laugh along with Brassius, albeit in the forced tone of someone not in on a joke.
Eri leaned towards Giacomo. “Just to confirm, these are the teachers Clavell didn’t find creepy?”
Giacomo nodded. Hopefully the others were making out better than they were.
When Juliana sat down for class, she suspected Professor Raifort was watching her. By the time class ended, all doubt vanished. There were at least a dozen other students in the room–apparently Professor Raifort didn’t “approve” of virtual classes–and somehow Juliana got called on for every last question. She had to glance at Nemona for help once in a while, but thankfully most of the answers were obvious or they were things Juliana had learned from her impromptu history lessons down in Area Zero.
“Professor?” Juliana said timidly, approaching Raifort’s desk after the bell sounded.
“I do not offer retakes on the mid-terms, nor do I offer additional help in preparation for them,” Raifort said, lifting up an uneven stack of papers and knocking them into alignment against her desk. She glanced pointedly at Juliana, an eager gleam in her eye. “Unless, of course…you wish to discuss something else?”
“I was, uh, hoping for more information about the Paldean emperor you mentioned during your lecture. The one who, um…really liked treasure and stuff?” She was aiming for a balance between eager and oblivious. From the frown on Raifort’s face when she said “and stuff,” she’d stuck a perfect Tauros’ eye.
“I see. Is it because you find this particular point of Paldean history appealing? Or perhaps…” She slipped the now-perfect stack of papers into a binder and tucked the binder inside her shoulderbag. “…you wish to learn the current location of the emperor’s most valuable treasures?”
“I-I…” Juliana had no clue how to answer that one, and she couldn’t shake the feeling that answering wrong would shut this whole lead down. “Both, I guess?”
“You ‘guess’?” Raifort shook her head and sighed. “Well, that is more progress than I have achieved with, shall we say, smaller-minded students.” She swung the bag over her shoulder–it was made of green-tinted leather and was embossed with the outline of a Zarude. Actually, now that Juliana looked more closely, she had quite a few mythical-themed accessories: a hair pin that resembled Marshadow’s face, a necklace of criss-crossed cords that looked like Deoxys arms, and a bracelet with beads in the shape of a Celebi’s wings. She tossed her graying purple hair over her shoulder and walked towards the door. “I will be in the staff room at exactly 12:15 this afternoon. The other instructors will all be at a group lunch, and the room will be conveniently available. If you think you have the dedication to study this topic, come see me then.”
“Y-yes, ma’am,” Nemona said, while Juliana gave a polite bow to Raifort as she left. Then she checked her phone. Less than two hours before the meeting. If they didn’t want their growling stomachs to dominate the conversation, they had better find some lunch for themselves ahead of time.
Nemona left the cafeteria feeling quite satisfied. It had been so long since they’d been at school rather than traveling. She’d almost forgotten how good food could taste when not layered between slices of bread.
Juliana met her outside the staff room at 12:10. Better to be early than late, they both reasoned. But when Juliana tried the door, the handle wouldn’t budge. They both knocked several times but got no results. Either Raifort hadn’t shown up yet or she refused to let them in until exactly the agreed-upon time.
Nemona checked her phone. 12:11. “Guess we just need to wait,” she sighed.
Juliana nodded her agreement. But standing idly in the hallway got pretty infuriating for Nemona in short order. If someone needed a Pokémon battle expert, she was all for it. If they needed a patience expert, she was more or less the last choice.
“Soo….” Juliana said, leaning against the wall. “What’s your verdict? Is Professor Raifort creepy or just really enthusiastic?”
Nemona shrugged her shoulders. It was about as honest an answer as she could give. “Eh. I never talked to her much outside of class before. I don’t remember her being particularly strange before, but–”
The time on Juliana’s phone changed to 12:15. The lock clicked in near perfect synchronization. The girls exchanged a nervous glance, but Nemona refused to be deterred now. She gripped the handle, which now turned fully and pushed the door open.
Their history professor was indeed the only one inside the staff room, and her icy lavender eyes widened as she watched them enter. “So you did come. Excellent. You girls wanted more information on the Treasures of Ruin?”
Juliana gave a nervous nod. Nemona followed suit. If they were going to ham up their interest in these things, now was probably the best time.
“Ah, that’s what they’re called,” Nemona said in her best attempt to match Raifort’s soft but poorly contained enthusiasm. “I feel awful we gave you the impression we weren’t that interested back in class. The truth is, there’s just so little info out there about them.” She lowered her head and inched closer, like she was confiding some huge secret. “I hope I don’t sound juvenile, but all this mystery around the treasures just makes the two of us more and more curious.”
A grin spread across Raifort’s face. “Not juvenile at all. Indeed, it is a mature person who is willing to work for information rather than insist it be handed to them.”
“I’m glad to hear that,” Nemona said. “If you’re willing to share what you know, then you’ve got two of the most eager workers in Naranja Academy right here.”
Was she laying it on a bit thick? Maybe. But it got the job done. Raifort’s grin widened enough to border on near-maniacal. “At long last. You have no idea how I’ve eagerly waited for some worthy students to help with my research. Oh, yes! My curiosity cannot be contained!”
Okay, now I definitely remember her freaking me out, Nemona thought. She wanted nothing more than to turn and bolt out the door without so much as an explanation. But that wasn’t what they came here to do.
“Let’s begin, then,” Raifort said. “I will tell you the origin of the four great Treasures. And I will share with you the location for each of their prisons. Bring a Treasure back to me, and I will unveil everything I can about it to you.
She wants us to capture these Pokémon? Nemona swallowed hard. What would that do to the four people who formed a link with them? Would it free them or hurt them? In either case, they couldn’t outright refuse the task, so Nemona nodded eagerly and handed over her phone to record the locations. If playing the part of Raifort’s eager pupil helped keep Paldea and her friends safe, she couldn’t show any reservations. She glanced at Juliana and knew she felt the same.
Back in Clavell’s office, Giacomo and Mela had both sworn off virtual classes the rest of the day. Penny didn’t blame them. So far, they’d sampled courses in Art, Math, Languages, Battle Studies, and Chemistry. Penny didn’t even know the school had a current chemistry course.
“Did thy labors produce any oranges of knowledge?” Atticus asked as he laid a stack of library books on Clavell’s desk.
Eri shook her head. “Nothing concrete. Though the art class lecture made me think about what you said earlier.”
Penny assumed she was referring to something Atticus said, but then she noticed Eri looking right at her. “Sorry. What did I say earlier?”
“About the ‘other universe’ this crazy time machine connects to,” Eri said. “How Pokémon and people live in separate planes there?”
“That’s what Ai described it as,” said Penny. She tapped open her tablet and connected it to a trio of travel-friendly monitors procured from her dorm. “Along with a metric crapton of other assorted info.”
Eri seemed put off by Penny’s clipped tone, but she continued her line of thought all the same. “I guess all Brassius’s talk about the closeness of humans and Pokémon…working together like a conductor on a train…it just made me think about how lucky we are to live in this place and time, you know?”
“Uh-huh,” Penny replied. She felt lousy about passing Eri off. But she couldn’t get over how overwhelming it all felt. She scrolled through her tablet’s “ai stuff” folder, overflowed with spreadsheets, text documents, and voice memos. Penny had been doing her best to sort through all the data Ai had provided to them, but all of it looked so random. How was she supposed to process all this and come up with a solution that had eluded Ai in the next six days?
“Ugh, this is impossible,” Penny groaned. “I can’t even categorize what’s important or not here, because anything could be important. Look–” She tapped open a random text file. “Lab resource list A. Twenty-seven high capacity storage drives. Eight digital monitors, varying sizes. One humanoid robot, active and controlled by Program Codename ‘Ai.’ Two additional humanoid robots, un-programmed and inactive. One canister of powdered coffee, half-full. Expiration date unclear.” She sighed and slumped down in the chair. “This is only the first list out of ten, by the way. And I’m already feeling like that stale insta-coffee is the most important item here.”
It at least earned a chuckle from Eri and the others, which Penny counted as a minor win. She clicked on another file. It wasn’t a text list but a visual graph of the stakes used to fuel the time machine. drew Penny’s gaze, if nothing else because it was more interesting to look at than a block of text. Apparently Ai had been monitoring the stakes’ energy output, and while it had been mostly steady when Sada and Turo started their research, Penny could see more extreme fluctuations as time went on.
Maybe this is a lead? she thought hopefully.
She startled as her phone buzzed. Which of course it had to do right when she was getting focused. The tablet helpfully popped up a text alert from Nemona: Hey! How do you guys feel about checking out some ancient Pokémon prisons with us?
Well, no one was going to say no to that.