Turo curled into a fetal position, trying to grasp his shoulders, but his fingers found nothing solid to grasp. The last few moments he could remember replayed again and again in his mind. He was talking to the children, yes. Expressing regret for his failures as a parent. As an adult who should have protected them. But he was also speaking with a voice in his head.
“…it all happened so long ago…but let me tell you…why I decided to rob the king.”
Turo had thought at first it was Arven or his friend speaking. But the voice didn’t sound like either of them. And there was an ethereal quality to it, something that spoke from a world beyond this one.
“My brother and I lived alone. Our farm was small. The soil wasn’t good. He was physically stronger than me, louder than me, commanded the herd and harvested the crops better than me…I just wanted to bring in equal value.”
Turo had no clue who the voice belonged to. And yet he had never felt so connected to another person before.
“When I saw the king’s treasure stores on display, I’m afraid I quite lost my mind. So much value. So little effort on his part to acquire it. My desire to be an equal provider turned to uncontrollable jealousy.”
“I understand,” Turo had said to the voice in his mind. Because he did understand. It had been the same with Sada. They seemed equals at first. But step by step, she got farther ahead of him. And ultimately, she left him in the dust. Sometimes, it felt like she was born to succeed. The more he worked to lessen the gap between them, the more he failed.
“My attempt ended in disaster. Not only did the king have me executed, my spirit couldn’t even move on–trapped by the Ruinous One so it could feed on my envy. In all these long centuries, I have never failed to satiate it. I always have more to provide.”
For the briefest moment, Turo had tuned the voice out. Took one more look at the situation in front of him. The wall of ice needed to be broken. Chi-Yu could break it…if Turo could only put himself in a position to command it.
“If it’s jealousy this Pokémon needs…” he had whispered to the ghost. “I have plenty.”
He heard himself saying his good-byes to Arven before the scene looped again. Turo wondered how many times he’d see it before he lost himself to Chi-Yu completely.
“Take that passion and use it to create something new! That’s the Ortie I know!”
Ortega had barely been aware of Eri speaking. But her words became like an anchor to him. Of course he was passionate. He had so many things he cared about. His friends. His Pokémon. It made him so angry when he failed them. Angrier still when people expected him to fail.
And yet there he’d stood with another failure. Because he thought he could handle Chien-Pao, and he couldn’t.
But right when the rage was about to overwhelm him, Eri’s voice had redirected it. And in the process, it had allowed Ortega to redirect Chien-Pao, too.
“My friends are right,” he whispered to the creature in his mind. He’d seen it with an icy feline body in illustrations. And when it appeared in the darkness the first time, it didn’t look much different. But as he spoke to the creature now, its shape changed–shifting into a mound of snow.
“I can’t…we can’t fix anything when we’re like this,” he said. “You can feed off my emotions if you have to…but let’s find healthier ones. For both of us.”
The mound of snow didn’t say anything in response, exactly. But Ortega felt a connection with the Pokémon he hadn’t before. Before this moment, ensnaring a human mind had been its only method of survival. Now it began to ponder…could this human and itself…be partners?
As Chien-Pao solidified its connection with this strange new object–also broken in two as its old one had been, the mound of snow changed shape. Ortega stood facing an icy sculpture of himself. The snowy figure smiled and gave him a nod. Then Ortega had woken up crying in Penny’s arms.
When everyone began to move again, Ortega was quick to dry his eyes. Which seemed a bit ridiculous from Penny’s perspective. But if acting like he had no emotional reaction to nearly losing both his life and his humanity got him through the day…well, who was she to argue?
As far her, well…her legs were quivering so much, she was impressed she could stand up. She couldn’t believe that Raifort wanted what she’d just experienced. There was power to be had in the Ruinous Pokémon, true, but the danger it had put everyone else in? No, she was more than happy to have her power limited to her hacking skills and her VeeVee team’s overwhelming cuteness.
They re-entered the lab, and Arven walked straight over to Ai. Penny noted that his eyes, while red with recent tears, had also been hastily wiped dry.
“Well, we kept your stupid lab safe,” he said. “Along with all of Paldea, I might had. So how about you use your machine to answer a little a question?” His voice cracked a bit on the last word. “Are we all back to normal?”
Penny knew what he meant, of course. They might all be looking much more normal than they had a few moments ago. She certainly felt much better.
But until Ai confirmed they were no longer in danger of vanishing due to whatever weird time-universe-displacement her and Turo’s machine had given them, the tension wouldn’t fully leave Penny’s brain.
“You have my thanks for your help. If you’ll wait a moment, I can perform a scan,” Ai said simply. She motioned Arven to one of the circular spaces on the floor. The “not a teleporter” sign had fallen to the crossfire of the battle, but the scanner itself seemed in working order. Ai mentioned for Arven to step inside, which he did so, and Penny held her breath as the rings of light passed over him…once, twice, three times.
Ai’s expression didn’t change at all. Was that a good or bad thing? Why didn’t robots act a little more emotional once in a while?
“Nothing,” Ai said. Which was two parts vague, one part ominous, and five parts extremely annoying.
“Nothing what?” Penny said, trying to keep her cool.
Ai motioned Arven off and shook her head. “No change in the readings from last time. Arven is still a Bad Egg and will cease to exist in this universe soon.”
Arven’s fists tightened, but he said nothing.
Ortega, on the other hand, had plenty to say. “That can’t be right! Not after went we went through! Everything we did!”
“I don’t get the sense reality cares what you did,” Ai said. “I can run scans on the rest of you if you want, but I suspect the results will be the same.” She at least at the courtesy to frown about her horrible news. “Paldea is finally safe, but those who saved it are not. I agree it is an awful shame.”
“H-hold on!” Penny said, desperate for a loop hole in all this. There had to be one. “What about that time Arven was able to…I don’t know what exactly, but it was like he grounded Ortega when he almost flickered away.”
“I’m afraid that was a temporary fix only,” Ai said. “Even if you repeat it, you will only speed up one another’s disappearances.”
“¡Espera!” Nemona said. “You still have that stabilizer thing, don’t you? I know it’s not strong enough to fix the problem by itself. But now that Paldea is safe, maybe we can try to…I dunno…supercharge it or something?”
No one answered her. Arven hung his head, and Penny felt an ache growing in her chest. She was supposed to be the genius. She’d taken on the responsibility of coming up with a solution that didn’t end this way. Had they gone through all of this just for her to fail?
Her mind drifted back to the conversation she’d had with Ai the first time they’d come down here. When the robot had explained the stabilizer’s limitations: because of the vast difference between where Arven was “supposed” to exist and where he currently did exist, it couldn’t do much beyond a temporary effect.
“But if this lab were located, say, a couple thousand years in the past…you’d need a lot less?” Penny had asked. “And if we were all in this other reality you idiots tapped into?”
“In that case,” Ai had replied. “The energy usage would be trivial.”
Penny rubbed her forehead with her knuckles. A signal most everyone took by now to mean she was deep in thought. They weren’t wrong. “Of course,” she said. “Of course. That’s been the solution all along.”
“Come again?” Arven asked.
Penny added a healthy pace around the lab–or at least the still-walkable areas. “Let’s say the time machine worked on Arven, Ortega, and I,” she said to Ai.
“Theoretically. You can handle theoretical, can’t you?”
Ai tilted her head, considering. “To a limited extent, yes. You may continue.”
“Thank you. So in this theoretical world where we can go through the time machine, let’s say we can also carry some version of this stabilizing device with us.”
“As the device is an inanimate object, that is more plausible than your first suggestion.”
“Right. So we each go to a point in time and space closer to where we’re ‘supposed’ to be from. She walked over to the white board, where Ai had a convenient timeline of Paldean history sketched out at the top.
“In Arven’s case, that’s…what? 6,000 years in the past?”
Ai gave a nod, so Penny continued, “So let’s say he goes 5,500 years in the past, uses the stabilizer. Could he come home without fading away then?”
“No. All he would have accomplished is grounding himself in that time period instead.”
“But for very little energy usage, right?”
Ai raised an eyebrow, seeming to follow Penny thoughts. “Correct. Continue.”
“So, next he travels…” Penny finger traced the timeline. “…to 5,000 years in the past. Uses it again.” Her finger raced farther to the right. “Then to 4,500 years. Uses it again.”
“How much traveling are you talking about here?” Arven said, who didn’t seem to appreciate being the subject of her thought experiment.
“I don’t know,” Penny said. “But the time machine can clearly pull objects back once it’s dropped them in. So if it can keep doing that, and the stabilizer doesn’t run out of power due to the smaller changes…” She glanced over to Ai. “…he could eventually make his way back here, use the stabilizer one more time, and ground himself in this time and place. Couldn’t he?”
“Yes, what you’ve stated is correct,” said Ai. “If Arven were a teapot or a signpost or any other nonliving thing, this would be an excellent solution to the issue. But I suspect you would not care nearly so much about his well-being in that case.”
Penny rolled her eyes. Apparently pretending Arven was a teapot was how Ai didn’t short-circuit her brain in their theoretical discussion.
“But you can send Poké Balls?” Penny pressed.
Ai nodded. “Indeed.”
“So you can send living things.” Penny halted her trek around the lab to point triumphantly in Ai’s direction.
The robot remained unimpressed. “The Poké Ball is a very special device. In effect, it shields the living Pokémon within. Hides it, if you will.”
“Right.” Penny bit her lip. “So if a Poké Ball can hide the fact that the Pokémon inside it is a living thing…can’t the Ruinous Treasures hide the fact that we’re, y’know, not Pokemon?
She gestured to the Master Balls Ai had retrieved from the floor and placed back on the table. Including the one Vanessa had thrown at Turo after he merged with Chi-Yu. And as far as any of them could tell, the capture had held.
Ortega’s expression turned sour. “Whoa, whoa. Hold on. Y-you are not seriously suggesting we–” He seemed at a loss for words and pointed an accusing finger at Vanessa. “You want her to try that again? On us?”
“Well, it doesn’t have to be Vanessa specifically throwing the ball, does it?” Penny replied. “Although for the purposes of tracking them, it might help if they are registered to the same trainer…” She resumed walking around the room, ignoring Ortega sputtering random syllables of objection behind her. Arven and the others didn’t even get to the sputtering stage. Mostly they just stared slack-jawed at her. “…of course, we’d need to modify the Poké Balls to hold miniature versions of the stabilizing equipment. Or make sure we could send said equipment to the exact spot we sent the Poké Ball to.”
“I feel like you’re not really hearing yourself,” Ortega said. “You’re suggesting we willingly merge with those monsters again, then trap ourselves in Poké Balls, travel through Sada and Turo’s machine to some alternate reality, make dozens of skips along its timeline, all in the hope of eventually finding our way back here in a close-enough state that this stupid stabilizing machine can fix us without short-circuiting itself?”
“And what’s your idea, Ortie? Hmm?” She halted and whirled to face him, which forced him a few steps back. “Because the alternative is we wait here and vanish.”
“I…” He held up one finger like he was about to start a lecture, then dropped his hand and gave a pathetic-sounding chuckle. “You know what? No, I don’t have a better idea. In fact, I’d say your idea is pure genius if it wasn’t also pure insanity.”
“Many a past breakthrough hath been some blend of the two,” Atticus pointed out. Then he lowered his hood and pulled his mask down so Penny could get the full expression of worry on his face. “Nevertheless, I fear greatly for thy travels should this be thy route, m’lady.”
“I fear greatly for our everything if we don’t do this,” Penny said. Then she looked over to Arven, who’d gone surprisingly quiet since his first interrupted. It could have been because he’d struggled to follow the conversation and decided to simply tune it out. But from the way he’d crossed his arms, closed his eyes, and tilted his head a smidge…Penny doubted it. As much as everyone had come to know her thinking face, she’d come to know Arven’s, too.
“Could use a third vote here,” she prompted.
He opened his eyes but kept his arms crossed. “I agree with Atticus that it sounds dangerous. And with Ortie that it sounds nuts. And I can’t say the idea of time-traveling in a Poké Ball appeals to me much.”
The silence that followed was painful.
“Well, of course it doesn’t,” Ortega said. “Standard Poké Balls are far too banal. When I’m traveling anywhere, I go in style.” He held up Hatternne’s Luxury Ball, with its jet black finish and gleaming gold trim. “I’ve got plenty of extras to share, so no worries,” he added as he returned the ball to his belt.
Penny stared at him. The whole shift in topic was so abrupt and oblivious to the tone of the room, she swore he must have done it on purpose.
“Ugh!” Arven said with a shudder, following Ortega’s lead. “You’ve got to be joking. You seriously want me to do this in one of those overpriced, gaudy–“
“Hey, I’m just pointing out that basic Poké Balls…” Arven held up his hands in defense, then extended his arms dramatically. “… are classics for a reason. They say, ‘The world is open to me. I have no set road. I have no limits.”
Ortega rolled his eyes. “They also say, ‘I have no money.'” He looked over to Penny for some backup, but since her entire team was also kept in plain normal Poké Balls, he was quickly disappointed. She couldn’t believe ball type, of all things, was the controversial topic in her plan. Then again, leave it to Arven and Ortega to lighten the mood with their superficial arguments.
“I do have a few Premiere balls I’ve gotten when I’ve bought Poké Balls in bulk,” she said in an attempt to join in. “I keep saving them for ‘something special.’ If this doesn’t qualify, I don’t know what does.”
“Free is the only thing worse than cheap!” Ortega said, turning to Vanessa now. “Please talk some sense into them!”
She made a show of putting her hands on her hips and hmm-ing loudly before she gave him an answer. “I’m an ‘express-yourself’ kinda girl. You know that,” she said, then tapped a finger to her chin. “Though I’d still go with Luxury Balls in your position. I hear they’re comfy.”
“There, see?” Ortega said. Because apparently if he and his sister agreed on something, that counted as solid proof it was true.
Penny wanted to smile at the scene, but the reality of the situation still hit hard. She couldn’t even put her finger on why. She knew she could handle Wo-Chien, even if she wasn’t comfortable with it just yet. She had no idea how she’d handle being inhuman enough–even temporarily–to fit inside a Poké Ball.
But if Pokémon were equal partners like she always said she believed, it shouldn’t bother her at all…right?
Then Penny realized that in all the moodlifting bickering, Arven hadn’t actually confirmed if he was behind this plan.
Ai stepped forward. “I would hope you would consider all this entails. It could take dozens of trips or more through various periods of time in an alternate universe before you are able to come safely back to the present in this universe. You will likely be treated with suspicion at every point, if not outright hostility. Never mind the cautions you must take to cause minimal damage to that universe’s timelime while you’re there.”
Yeah, leave it to the robot to remind us reality, Penny thought.
“I’m willing to try it,” Arven said.
“And so am I,” Penny said. “Erm, which I guess was kind of obvious since I suggested it to begin with.” She rubbed the back of her head and gave an awkward giggle. Which she was pretty sure sounded like a choking Wattrell. “Do you think you can modify the Poké Balls in time?” she asked Ai.
The robot closed her illusory eyes as she made the calculations. “It will prove difficult. I am fully confident of my ability to make the modification you’re suggesting, but I am less so in regards to the timeline.” She gave an almost human-sounding sigh. “If only there were two of me.”
Penny’s mind flashed back to the inventory lists Ai had given her nearly a week ago. Most of the items on there were a blur in her mind as soon as she read them, but she did recall the first page she looked at. “Aren’t there two extra robotic bodies in the lab?” she said. “What’s stopping you from making two copies of your code and running it on them?”
Ai considered this. “I suppose nothing at all is ‘stopping’ me. Those spares were intended for emergency–in the event my current body is damaged beyond repair.” She looked at Arven, Penny, and Ortega each in turn, and Penny could almost hear the circuits humming in her electronic brain. “I daresay if that is classified as an ’emergency,’ surely the risk of your bodies vanishing qualifies even more. Very well.”
“Ortega and I can help too,” Penny said. “We might not know this futuristic stuff too well, but we’re both pretty tech-savvy, and we learn fast.”
“Plus, it’ll be a good preview of what we’re getting ourselves into,” Ortega added on. He made a motion like he was about to tap his staff against the floor, only to realize it was still split in two and encased in ice on the table. He put his hands to his sides and fingered the edges of his fancy tailcoat instead. “I guess the goods news is we won’t be traveling alone, huh, boss?”
“You won’t be traveling alone,” Arven said.
Penny winced. One could say she’d gotten quite the ear for bitterness in someone’s voice after this ordeal. And Arven was broadcasting his feelings at full volume right now.
Ortega made his best attempt to backtrack, but for the most part, the damage was done. “I-I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it like that.”
“Yeah, well…wouldn’t be first time you forgot not everyone has it as easy as you,” Arven muttered. “But, yeah, whatever. Apology accepted.”
Ai made a throat-clearing sound, which was every bit as nonsensical in execution as it was in concept. “If I may interject? I mentioned once that Sada and Turo were unable to travel to this world’s past or future due to being blocked by various powerful Pokémon. But that doesn’t mean such travel was universally impossible.” She took a seat at the desk in the corner. The monitor blinked out of sleep mode with no visible cue from her. “Among those who found favor with time guardians such as Dialga…Sada was able to detect various moments when several mythical Pokémon–Arceus included–sent people to the past.” She rested her hands on the keyboard, but her fingers did not move on it. Nonetheless, file and folder icons shifted around onscreen at a startling rate. It seemed that with no further need to act human, Ai was able to work a computer exponentially faster.
She pulled up a list of dates and notations from several years ago. Arven inched closer as Penny glanced over his shoulder. The names were written in some shorthand she didn’t get, but the travel dates were clear enough. Humans had certainly time-traveled before. One human in particular–whom Sada had designated as A.K.151–had done so three times. Twice it was only a couple decades. Once it was several centuries.
“The mythical Pokémon do seem more keen on sending people to the past than the future,” Ai mused. “But given Arceus’s involvement in at least one of these incidents, it would not surprise me at all if Arven were to have a traveling companion–even in the past of a different universe–that he simply hasn’t met yet.”
She stood up from the monitor to allow the others to gather around and glance it over as they saw fit. “And, of course, Turo’s destination would be the same as Arven’s…if his mind recovers enough for the journey.” She sadly shook her head. “I don’t know if it’s possible to bring him back from that, but…” She locked her gaze on Arven. “Perhaps you may be able to reach him in a way Sada and I could not.”
Arven sighed and rolled up his sleeves. “Well, as long as Ortie and Penny are helping out with all the tech know-how, I can try talking to him, at least. And making sure the group of you stay well fed.”
This prompted the rest of the crew, who’d all been watching in awkward silence from the side,s to buzz with excitement and suggestions.
“We can all take care of whatever else you need, B.B.”
“Just say the word and we’ll fetch it for ya, Prince Leer.”
Ortega gritted his teeth at the nickname. “If you call me that again, I’ll unfollow your channel the whole time I’m gone!”
“Y-you wouldn’t dare!”
While the two of them bickered in the friendly, cut-throat way that only siblings could, Penny went into her bag and got out the Premiere Balls she’d mentioned earlier. Maybe it wouldn’t be as comfortable as a Luxury Ball, but if they were going to travel this way, she wanted the vehicle to have her personal touch. She placed the balls on the table, careful to keep them a decent distance away from Turo’s Master Ball. “Three should be enough to experiment on and get a working prototype, I think. Guess we need to get to work, then?”
Arven came up beside her and placed three regular Poké Balls beside hers. “Guess so. I’ll start planning the menu. And…” he looked to Sada. “If I can, y’know, help Turo and get him back…well, there’s a lot of messy stuff between us, but I wouldn’t mind knowing someone else on this trip, y’know?”
She looked a bit confused but nodded.
Ortega came up as well. Whether he’d won the argument with Vanessa or just given up, he didn’t say. He did, however, place three Luxury Balls on the table, nestled in with the others. “Just reminding you guys that you have terrible travel taste, but I forgive you.”
The group shared a collective smile, but Ai’s bewildered expression remained. “This is all well and good, but I don’t suppose you could take the Poké balls off the table so I can copy my data to the additional hardware?”
Penny apologized as she gathered the balls up into her Eevee bag. It occurred to her that out of all the conversations they’d had with Ai so far, telling them to clear their stuff from the table was the most mother-like thing she’d said.