“Welcome!” Sada–or rather, AI Sada–said the moment they stepped out of the teleporter. Arven was last to exit, which probably meant they had all been waiting on him. He ignored the greeting and set down his bag, taking the time to look around.
The lab wasn’t as large as he expected, though he did notice a corridor along the back wall leading off somewhere. So maybe there was more to the place than they saw.
It was another octagonal metal room, similar to the research stations. At least half a dozen movable whiteboards stood side-by-side. Scrawled notes and faded photos plastered their surfaces. Large pipes and canisters occupied half the walls, while an array of flashing panels lined the others. In front of one of these panels, a circle glowed on the floor with a soft yellow light. Arven might have mistaken it for another teleporter at first…if not for a note on the nearest whiteboard. Written in thick black ink with an arrow pointing to the floor, it read, “NOT a teleporter!” From the smell of Sharpie in the room, Arven suspected this was a recent addition.
An elevator stood in one of the corners, a small bed in another. Unlike the station beds, it was smooth and well-kept. Almost too perfect. And the papers had been taped to the whiteboards at a clean, even distance from each other. As if someone had been working to keep this place as picturesque as possible rather than make use of anything in it. Turo sat on the bed’s corner, his weight creating the only creases in its thin, olive-green blanket.
“Finally,” he said, standing. The mattress creaked in relief. “Now we can get some answers.”
“Indeed,” said Sada, who waited beside the whiteboard-turned-warning-sign. She pointed first to Penny, then to the glowing yellow floor circle. “Since we have the least information on you, Penny, I suggest we perform a scan on you first.”
When Penny didn’t move, she added on, “This will allow me to determine whether or not you are still grounded in this time and reality. Afterwards, I will run an identical scan on Ortega and compare the data.”
Arven sighed. Of course that was the info they wanted. At least it confirmed they hadn’t been listening in on the conversation in the final research lab. They’d say something about Penny and Arven’s revelation on the fake, robotic Sada if they had. Wouldn’t they?
Then again, maybe they wouldn’t. “Hey, what about me?” Arven said, moving in front of Penny.
“I can get a reading on you as well, if you like,” AI Sada said. “My information is a bit dated, and an update would be helpful. You were originally scanned once after your first interaction with the machine and again a year later.”
He rubbed his head. Vague memories stirred of his mother bringing him to the lab, asking him to stand here or there and not move…breathe in and out… It had all been under the pretext of making sure the machine didn’t hurt him in some way. Leave it to Sada to treat him like her test subject first and her son second.
Penny walked around Arven and stood on the circle where Sada indicated. It didn’t seem like the brightest idea to him, but then, maybe she had a plan? Or maybe her curiosity about all this overpowered her sense of self-preservation. She wouldn’t be the first person in this room if it did, Arven thought as he watched Turo come up beside Sada.
The two of them flipped switches, adjusted knobs, and scanned both the Scarlet and Violet books. A small screen lit up on one of the panels with a yes-or-no prompt. “It is imperative that you hold still throughout the process,” said Sada. “Do you understand?”
Penny swallowed hard and nodded. Then Sada tapped “yes” on the screen. The machine hummed, and the circular pad performed much the same way as the teleporter: rings of light rose up and down around Penny. She flinched every time one got near her face. But she kept her word and stiffened her muscles until the process was over.
“Very good,” Sada said, scrolling through a block of text that had now appeared on the screen. “I need a moment to analyze this. But Turo can get you started next.” She pointed directly at Ortega without lifting her head.
With some encouragement from Penny, he stepped onto the circle and Turo ran through the whole process again. Then he ran through it a third time with Arven.
Should I say something? Arven thought as the rings of light passed over his face. He kept his eyes closed, trying to picture himself on an elevator, the shafts of sunlight moving across his eyelids. A normal thing in a normal world where the worst he had to worry about was if he could graduate on time.
Of course, with his eyes shut, he didn’t notice the process was over until the machine stopped humming. Turo shooed him off the pad, and he sheepishly stood alongside everyone else.
Sada put her hands behind her back like she was some guest lecturer from the academy. “The results are as predicted.Arven’s reality is registering as approximately six thousand years in an alternate past, while Penny and Ortega’s register at about two thousand years in an alternate future.”
That seems unfair, Arven thought. Which was stupid, but his brain had to grab onto something. Might as well be some unequal numbers.
Sada shook her head. “I’m afraid neither of these are distances our stabilizer can remedy. Not even for a single one of you. Turo’s solution is the only viable one.”
Penny jolted at the word remedy. “Wait. You have a stabilizer!?”
“Do not raise your voice, young lady,” the robotic Sada said. “It is only functional in the lab, with the tera crystals and the amplifying stakes nearby. And it is not strong enough to permanently correct any of your space-time displacements. However…” She twirled a piece of her hair…or whatever passed as her hair…the same way Arven remembered the real Sada doing his whole childhood. “…it can disable your defensive capabilities long enough to let nature take its course.”She locked her gaze on Nemona and Juliana, who had both tensed up for a fight. “The teleporter is the only route out of here, and it was disabled upon Arven’s arrival. I’m afraid it will have to remain so until Paldea’s safety is assured.”
“Wasn’t planning on running,” Nemona said.
Penny’s hands balled into fists. “So that’s your plan? Keep us down here until we just fade away?”
“My plan is to protect Paldea,” Sada said. “I was under the impression this was your goal as well.”
“Yeah, but we wanted to live through it!” said Ortega.
Sada gave him no reply.
Penny went hardcore into her tap-and-rub-forehead mode. Which Arven hoped meant she would come up with an idea. Soon.
“I am sorry not to have better news,” the AI Sada continued. It was strange how she had just enough inflection to get the job done. Like a doctor with a perfectly aqueduct bedside manner. She didn’t rush the news or try to sugar-coat it. Her apologetic tone sounded sincere enough without inviting any deeper discussion.
“Can a robot ‘feel’ sorry?” Arven said.
Turo’s eyes widened. “Wh-what?”
Sada stared at Arven. Unblinking. Mechanical. “How long have you known?” she asked. And just like that, it was out. No more tuning out all those times she didn’t sound quite right. No more pretending the gaps in her speech were due to a bad connection or some other crap. He’d always kept his head down to avoid the truth.
But if they were going to get out of here, Penny needed time and space to think. Arven wasn’t much of a planner. But hecould stir up some great time-filling drama when he wanted.
“So it’s true, then? I can’t believe I didn’t see it before.” Turo’s voice had a low, visceral tone, more like a growl than a mutter. “To think…I bring this technology into our world, and the first thing Sada does is use it for her own benefit.” He shook his head and paced the room, footsteps pounding into the floor. His volume rose with each word. “Of course…of course she would! Why should I have expected anything else from her?!”
Arven made a mental note to follow up on that comment later. For now, he had a better idea to keep these two occupied. And to get answers for himself as well.
“So if you’re a fake Sada, where’s the real one?”
Again, the robot stared at him. Probably running some process through her circuits, determining the answer most likely to work. “Deceased,” she said at last.
Ortega gasped. Arven suspected she might answer that way, but the speed she did it with threw him off. He waited for some overemotional reaction to punch him in the gut. At least he should be crying or something, right? Instead, all he got out was a hollow, “How?”
“An attack by one of the Pokemon brought through the transporter,” the robot replied. Without delay this time. “It became spooked by its new environment, and she was unable to calm it. The specimen fled and has now adjusted to life in Area Zero. I informed her that her injuries were fatal, administered what pain relief I could, and quietly took care of arrangements at her passing. At her request, I took on her identity and removed myself from the public eye.”
Turo didn’t stop pacing, but his footsteps had quieted.
Ortega sniffled and removed one of his fancy gloves to rub his eyes. Which seemed pretty inconsiderate. He hadn’t seen Sada in years. And it wasn’t like she had paid him any more attention as a kid than she paid Arven. So how come he was able to cry and Arven wasn’t?
“Can we call you something besides ‘Sada’?” Ortega asked quietly as he slipped his glove back on. “It feels…really uncomfortable.”
“Uncomfortable?” The robotic professor considered this. Or at least, she went through the motions of considering it. “I do follow your logic there. Is ‘AI Sada’ sufficient?”
“Not really,” said Arven.
“Just call her ‘Ai,'” Penny muttered, her voice distant and her gaze on the wall. Not the most creative name. Knowing Penny, she probably got it from some old anime or something. But she had more important things to think about right now. And from her distracted tone, she might be close to a breakthrough.
Arven, Ortega, and even Turo reluctantly nodded.
“Very well,” the robot said. “I shall now respond to the name ‘Ai’ and retire the name ‘Sada.'”
Arven breathed an audible sigh of relief. It was nothing of significance to the robot; she would respond however they asked her to. But for him, it felt like closing a chapter of his life he couldn’t stop flipping back to. The tears still wouldn’t come, but maybe with a little time, they could.
“There’s got to be another solution,” Penny said. “Another way to keep Paldea safe. Could this stabilizer of yours be expanded somehow?”
“I have considered all other angles,” Ai assured them. “The stabilizer’s power usage correlates to the distance of the subject’s reality from our own.”
Arven had no idea what that meant–a fact the robot was oblivious to, but their teen genius picked up on straight away.
“In other words,” Penny said. “From here, it would take a huge amount of power to save Arven. More power than you already have.”
“Exponentially more,” Ai agreed.
Penny began tapping her hand against her thigh, keeping her thoughts moving. “But if this lab were located, say, a couple thousand years in the past…you’d need a lot less?”
“2,000 years in our past? We’re still talking about a cross-universe stabilization, so the amount would hardly be trivial. But yes, it would be less.”
“Right. And if we were all in this other reality you idiots tapped into?”
Turo flinched at the insult, but Ai remained impassive. “In that case, the energy usage would be trivial.”
“You forget we don’t have a time machine to our past,” Turo cut in. “Or any past. Because, as I am quite sure we explained to you children before…the machine doesn’t work on living creatures.”
Ai faced Penny. “I do understand your desire to find an alternate solution. But I assure you, there isn’t one. I suggest you children make yourselves as comfortable as possible rather than spend your remaining time in a frustrated search for what does not exist.”
“I for one plan to consume an unhealthy amount of alcohol and hope I vanish before the hangover kicks in,” Turo said.
“Hangovers are generally felt within twelve hours of consumption,” Ai informed him. “According to my latest readings, the earliest you would vanish is a week from today.” Then, to Penny, she added, “For you children…factoring in Arven’s intervention in the cavern…I would place the estimates at roughly three to four weeks.”
Someone stifled a sob. Arven thought it was Ortega again, but when he looked towards the teleporter, Nemona’s face glistened with tears. The dull glow from the inactive teleporter cast her damp face in a greenish tinge. “H-how can you say all these things like it doesn’t matter?”
Penny lowered her head and stopped fidgeting. “Because to her, it doesn’t,” she said, her voice barely audible. She was tired. Broken.
No, no, no! Arven thought. She couldn’t give up now. There was no way a machine could imagine every weird, obscure possibility the way a human could. The way a young person could. Seriously, wasn’t their whole job as teenagers to think of stupid crap that had no chance of working? To try that crap out because they had nothing better to do? Adults across every generation described teens the same: self-absorbed brats who believed they could do anything.
Right now, Arven and Ortega and even Turo–though he didn’t deserve it–needed Penny to believe she could do anything. Screw “real-life” experience and AI analysis and any other obstacle that said otherwise.
Arven had to do something to keep Penny from listening to Ai. Something to spark her brain back to action–to make her remember what she excelled at.
“Hey,” he said to Ai. “Give Penny some space. She’s got stuff to process.” He shot his friend a pointed look. “Right?”
Penny’s reddened eyes met his. He wouldn’t call her charged to action, but she had a spark of energy that wasn’t there before. “R-right.”
Arven faced Ai, his arms crossed. “Why don’t you tell me more about this robot technology? What makes you so much like Sada?” He thought he’d nailed a topic that could get any robot talking for hours.
Unfortunately, it was Turo who stepped up to answer. “It’s a fascinating technology, really.” The man sounded exhausted. Like a sleep-deprived parent humoring a child with one more story before bed. Not that this jerk would know what that felt like. “Robotic avatars are quite commonplace in the future. We brought one back while we were still fine-turning the machine. It can project any sort of image with hyperrealistic detail.”
“I get how it looks like her,” Arven said. “I wanna know how this–” He indicated Ai’s robotic body. “–knows what she would say and how she would say it.”
He tried to ignore Turo as much as possible, but the man seemed convinced he was part of this conversation. “Ah. That’s what makes…Sa–erm, Ai here so interesting. The system built into these devices were originally designed to reach a human’s brainwaves. So Ai not only has a wealth of information about Sada’s mannerisms and behavior patterns, she’s developed a way to process all of it. And she sends the results as a signal so similar to a human’s that her robotic body accepts it and behaves as commanded.”
Arven was getting pretty annoyed at how derailed this conversation had become. Then he noticed Ai’s gaze on them. And Penny behind her, back in thinking mode.
Turo sighed and massaged his forehead. “It’s been so long since I’ve discussed things like this. I almost forgot what it feels like.”
“What do you mean?” Juliana asked.
“Yeah,” said Nemona. “Isn’t studying the future your whole job?”
“It was my whole job,” Turo said. “When Sada and I reached a fundamental disagreement on what the machine should be used for, we pressed our employer for a decision.” He lowered his head, but it didn’t do much to hide his seething envy. “They chose her. And they let me go. Like…everything I had done up to that point was only in service to her work. I was given an extremely generous severance package. Didn’t need to work another day if I didn’t care to. Ever since then, the only thing on my mind has been to unravel Sada’s research. To find a flaw that would prove her views wrong.”
A heavy silence hung in the air. If there was any question about which Treasure of Ruin Turo had connected with, he’d answered them in full.
Penny stepped forward. “Y’know, I really can’t think with your pity party going on here.” Her voice was confident once again. Strong. Just what Arven would expect from the leader of Team Star.
She said nothing else to Turo and addressed Ai instead. “Let us go back. Give us a week in our own space to come up with a different solution. If we can’t…” She swallowed hard. “…then we’ll come back here, and we’ll save Paldea your way.”
Turo barked out a laugh. “Right. And how do we know you’ll return at all?”
“Because.” This time it was Ortega who spoke. Arven didn’t like the conviction in his voice. He sounded on the verge of something teenager-ly stupid. “I’m staying behind to make sure they do.”
Yeah. Something like that. Arven, Penny, Juliana, and Nemona all stared at him.
“You can’t do that, Ortie!”
Arven couldn’t even get his words out at first. He never wanted to smack his friend so badly. “Are you insane? With as infuriating as these two are, you’ll vanish in a couple days!”
“You’ll be worse,” Ortega argued. “And you’re a sore subject for Turo. He doesn’t even know me. Besides…” His hands shook as he held his arms stiffly at his sides. “…everyone always says I don’t think of anyone except myself. If we’re gonna vanish in less than a month, I want one thing I do to show they’re wrong.”
It was a passionate sentiment. And it got Nemona crying all over again. This time Juliana joined her. Even Arven’s eyes were burning. All he could think about was what he could say to get Ortega back off and see reason.
Only Penny stood firm. “All of you quit babying Ortie. It pisses him off. He’s got this. And so do we.” She smiled at her friend. “You hold the fort down here, all right? Boss’s orders.”
“We’re Team Star,” he said, smiling back. “I’d say it’s more ‘boss’s strongly-worded suggestion.’ And I will.” He walked over and stood behind Ai, far away from the teleporter. She raised her arm just enough to block him off if he tried to run.
“Y-you can’t all be serious,” Turo said.
Ai’s robotic gaze flickered to each of their faces in turn. Analyzing. Processing. Debating the most likely outcome. “I believe you,” she said. In defiance of Turo’s slackened jaw, she raised her free hand. The teleportation circle brightened. “One week. I will see you then.”