Penny’s head was spinning. This couldn’t be right. Everything they’d worked towards was supposed to make Paldea better. Now…what? She’d been dragging two of the anomalies’ biggest catalysts all over the region? And she’d become of them herself? She knew hard work didn’t always pay off, but that didn’t mean it should accomplish the exact opposite.
She stole a glance at Turo and felt a sour feeling in her stomach. Nothing had changed. This mess was still his and Sada’s fault. And if they turned their backs on her for even a second…
Ortega cried out in alarm. “Whoa! You’re doing this stuff, too, boss? How long was I out?!”
Penny looked at her fingers, which had gone translucent. The sight of it make her gasp and pulled her out of her vengeful thoughts. Her hand then returned to normal.
“You’re gonna need to stop doing that,” Arven told her in the same tone one might say, “It’s rainy today; don’t forget your umbrella.”
“I’m not used to this like you two are, all right?” Penny said. Then she winced. Ortie had been conscious for all of a minute, and he’d already gotten quite the shocker from both her and Sada. He didn’t need her snapping at him on top of it. And Penny was usually the last person to do that sort of thing. Seriously, does this weird connection make emotions stronger?
“S-sorry, Ortie,” she said, her gaze on the textured metal floor. “I’m just…really disoriented right now. I didn’t mean to make it sound like you guys have it easy.”
“No worries, but someone seriously needs fill me in here,” Ortega said. He raised his pointer finger and circled it to indicate both the station and its full list of emotional bombshells. “Because so far, you’ve been flickering, and all I heard from Sada was that the sky now has a body with defense appendages that are trying to erase the world.” He massaged his forehead. “Also something about cursed Pokémon powering a device?”
“The second is accurate,” Sada said, taking a step towards them. “The first less so.”
Penny instinctively took a step back from her and smacked her ankle on a computer case. It stung. Also Turo and Sada’s fault.
Sada continued, “I will be happy to correct any misunderstandings or knowledge gaps once we arrive at the Zero Lab.” She motioned to the teleportation circle in front of her. “Now, which one of you is going in first?”
“Considering you think our deaths will save the world, I’m gonna say nobody,” Arven told her. Then, speaking to Ortega, he added, “Oh, yeah, you were asleep for this part, but Turo wants to kill you, and Sada agrees.”
“That is also inaccurate,” Sada said. A simple statement; her tone didn’t raise in volume or pitch.
Penny might not have been a people person, but if someone felt wrongly accused of attempted murder, they should sound upset about it, right? Unless…? “Arven, can we talk a second? Away from these two?”
“I would not advise coming into close proximity with one another,” Sada warned, despite Penny’s attempts to keep her voice low. “But if you wish for Turo and myself to go through the teleporter first and give you some privacy, we will do so.”
“Hold on!” Turo said with a loud, clipped voice. The way a person with objections was supposed to sound. “What’s to stop them from fleeing the station once we leave?”
In lieu of words, Sada waved her hand at the entry threshold. The battered door, which Penny assumed had rusted into on open position, gave a loud squeal as it swung shut. The clank of the bolts locking into place broke whatever confidence their braver group members had.
“That,” Sada said.
Turo huffed and stepped forward onto the teleportation circle. It kicked the glow factor up a notch, flooding the room in green. Several holographic hoops rose up, encompassing Turo, and in the next instant, he was gone.
Nemona reached out her hand before Sada stepped on the circle to follow him. “Wait a sec! So if Paldea doesn’t think Arven and the others are from this reality, where does it think they’re from?”
Sada appeared to genuinely consider this. “A curious question. When we reconvene, I believe my lab equipment can make a determination. We will see you there soon.” She walked onto the circle mid-way through her sentence and barely got out the word “soon” before she vanished.
With the adults gone, the final research lab felt a little less threatening. Which was ironic, considering they were now locked inside it. Juliana and Nemona both went over to try forcing the door open. Even Tinkaton took a literal swing at it, which rung the whole station like a giant bell. The door barely budged, and from between the cracks along the edge, shards of iridescent crystal began to creep onto the hammer. Tinkaton shrieked at the sight and yanked her precious weapon back. Goodra looked intimidated as well. The crystal stopped growing, but neither Pokémon was willing to attack the door again.
Once her ears stopped ringing, Penny took the time to catch Ortega up on everything. He took it as well as she could expect, though he was clearly upset to learn the rest of Team Star couldn’t come with them. All the while, Penny kept her eye on the teleportation circle Turo and Sada had left from. “I can’t get over how unfair this is. I wanna wring both their necks so bad.”
“Yeah, I can…see that,” Arven said, looking her up and down. Penny had no idea what expression she had or body language she was giving off, but Arven looked concerned. So did the others, now that she glanced around the room. “No offense, but you’re holding a bigger grudge against them than me. And I’m the kid they abandoned.”
“I know,” said Penny, taking a seat on the computer case she’d smacked her foot on before. It was thick and bolted to the floor–even had rounded edges instead of sharp corners. The thing was clearly begging to be reborn as an ottoman. “I don’t know if it’s stress or what. This isn’t like me, but…anytime I remember what they did, it makes me…” Her hands balled into fists.
“Okay, slow breaths, now,” Juliana said.
Penny did so. Arven fished out the Scarlet book and flipped through the pages. “It’s probably more than stress. Sada said we tapped into the Treasures’ energies or something. There’s a bunch of info about them in here, along with the Herba Mystica stuff. Says they were…created by some powerful negative emotions? Yeah, here it is…”
He ran his finger down the page, eyes darting the same way Penny’s did in a code frenzy. “Ting-Lu. A dark and ground type. Created from people’s fear.” He swallowed and turned the page. “Right. Guess that’s my guy, then. Chien-Pao. A dark and ice type. Created from people’s fury.” He and Juliana both glanced over at Ortega.
“Hey, what’s everyone eyeing me for?” Ortega snapped. Almost stomped his foot, too, before he caught himself and crossed his arms with a huff. “Fine. Point noted. Continue.”
Penny thought she fit the bill for that one pretty well herself but held back until Arven could finish reading.
Arven went back to the book. “The other two are Chi-Yu, a dark-fire-type that comes from envy, and Wo-Chien, a dark-grass-type that comes from bitterness.” He flipped the page. “Wo-Chien’s a bit different. The others were all born from a bunch of people’s negative feelings about this really lousy king. But Wo-Chien was created by one person’s grudge.”
“¿En serio? That’s a nasty grudge,” Nemona said.
“Well, I’m not jealous of your parents, that’s for sure,” Penny said. “And the grudge description fits my feelingsbetter than it does Ortie’s…I think?” She met eyes with Ortega, who nodded his agreement.
“So if Turo is the fourth one, he’s connected to Chi-Yu’s energy through envy?” asked Juliana.
“That would make a lot of sense,” Arven said. “Sada talked a lot when I was kid about how jealous he was of her work. Said that was the big reason he left. I don’t know how much is true, but it’s all we’ve got to go on.” He put the book away. The room fell into an awkward silence as everyone took up what Penny could only describe as their thinking poses. Arven crossed his arms, closed his eyes, and tapped his foot; his shoes ding-ed on the metal floor every time. Nemona took up a similar position, though she thankfully didn’t make any sounds with it. Juliana stared at the floor, occasionally swinging her arms back and forth. Ortega couldn’t think at all without something in his hands. He found a length of PVC pipe on the floor and smacked it against his open palm in lieu of his staff.
Penny found herself rubbing her forehead with her thumb knuckle. It helped her focus more than she expected; even tunedout the background noise that Arven and Ortie kicked up. So…if we can sever our connections with these darkPokémon, will everything go back to normal? Or are we in too deep for that?
“Maybe the time machine is the key to stopping this?” she mused aloud. “I don’t know if it can reverse the damage somehow or if we should destroy it. We obviously don’t want to break the thing if it could help.”
“How to break it is a whole different mess,” Arven said. “I don’t imagine it’s sitting out in the open with a self-destruct button or a hammer that says, ‘Use ME to bust up the time machine!'”
Nemona opened her eyes. “Um…I know this is way out of my area of expertise…”
To which Penny really wanted to reply, Yes, it is, so please keep quiet and let me think. But Nemona, Juliana, and Arven were as much a part of her team as any of the Team Star bosses. She’d certainly listen if Mela or Atticus had asuggestion, and neither of them were tech experts by any stretch. Then Penny realized Nemona was waiting for her go-ahead and nodded for her to continue.
“Well, maybe the time machine is a bit of a red Magikarp…”
“All Magikarp are red,” Ortega muttered.
“You know what I mean. A mislead. If the problem is that you’re not ‘from here’–” She made exaggerated finger quotes. Probably to note that she considered them fellow Paldeans, whether the fabric of space-time agreed or not. “–is it possible for you to visit wherever you are ‘from’? Maybe that will make your issues go away, and then afterwards you can come home.”
“I think that just re-creates the original problem,” said Penny. Though it sure is a nice thought.
“What about Professor Sada?” Juliana asked as she broke her staring contest with the metal floor. “Something’s weird with her, right? Her project started this mess, but she doesn’t seem to feel anything about it. She’d not defensive or upset at all.”
“I don’t know if she can get upset,” said Penny. Arven watched her intently but made no other reaction.
“What are you saying?” Ortega asked.
Penny couldn’t bring herself to answer him. It was such an insane suggestion–well, maybe not so insane given the circumstances…but if she was wrong, how would Arven feel?
“She’s saying that wasn’t Professor Sada who talked to us,” Arven said. “And I agree. Which means…the last time I saw her for real was eight years ago.”
Penny expected the next inquiry to be the obvious one: who were they all speaking to, if not Professor Sada?
In an odd moment of sensitivity, Nemona stepped up to Arven and ignored any burning questions. “I’m so sorry. So you think your mom–I mean, you think Sada abandoned you after what happened with the machine?”
Arven shook his head. “She was a lousy parent, but I always got emails from her now and again. And nothing in her last one sounded like she planned to cut off contact.” He pulled out his phone and scrolled through his inbox, even though he didn’t open any messages. “She always sent me one on my birthday. It’d come sometimes at 4am, sometimes at 10pm, but she never missed the actual day.” He tapped the screen off and rubbed at his eyes. “Those emails stopped after I turned eleven. I don’t know what that thing is we’ve been communicating with, but…it’s not her.”
“I think…” Penny quietly began. All eyes turned to her in an instant. The question might have been left unsaid, but everyone still wanted answers. “That is, she talks an awful lot like an AI. They can mimic human speech really well, but they don’t have the reactions for extreme emotions. I mean, for obvious reasons. You don’t want a robot driving recklessly because they just got bad news. Or flipping a table because they’re mad. Also, her sarcasm meter is non-existent. She’s taken everything we say at face value.”
“So Sada’s been replaced with an AI?” Ortega asked. “You realize how insane that sounds?”
Penny stood. The computer case wasn’t as comfortable as expected, and she already felt sore. “Yeah, well, our home is vanishing because we all got emotional while interacting with some space-time-aura juice. I’m just adding to the list at this point.” She stepped up to the teleportation circle, which bathed her Great Ball sweatshirt with its warm, green glow. “I’d say we’ve had enough private time. Let’s get down there and find out how to fix this mess.”
Nemona grinned and punched her fist into her palm. “You’re speaking my language now. ¡Finalmente!”
She stepped up, the green glow now on her face as well, but she didn’t put her foot on the circle yet. Maybe she was waiting to see if Penny wanted to go first? Penny motioned her forward. It seemed like a leader-ly thing to do.
But Nemona still hesitated to leave. “Hey. Weird question, but Mela said I…well, Juliana and I should go to her base when this is over. Any idea what that’s about?”
Penny shrugged. Technically, Mela didn’t have a base anymore. But the fact that she was talking about it meant she had plans to rebuild it. Plans for the future. And Penny would do all she could to make sure her friends had that future. “Team Star bosses do what they want,” she said. “Your guess is as good as mine.”
Nemona nodded. “Right. Here we go, then!” Instead of stepping forward, she took a small jump and landed on the teleportation circle with both feet. The holographic rings rose up around her, and in the blink of an eye, she was gone.
Right, Penny repeated to herself, not feeling nearly as positive as she wanted to. Here’s to making it back out alive. And with that, she held her breath, took a step, and let the light take her.