Anima Ex Machina: One
It's a pleasure to meet you.
Polaris Institute existed before Project Stardust, but back then, it mostly centered around technology, rather than the direct study of pokémon. However, when Hoenn succumbed to an infestation of mysterious, pokémon-eating predators, the national government stepped in to take over the most secure and high-tech research centers in its other regions, including Polaris. The best of the best in the Pokémon Symposium, the elite community of pokéologists across the country, were hand-picked by each center to lend their skills to the government in a time of desperation. Hence, Stardust: the project geared towards studying the creature that shut down an entire region.
Ten months had passed since that day when each member of Polaris' team gathered to the circular citadel on Seafoam Island. Not long afterwards, an armored car rolled past the gates, and safely inside that car was a metal box.
The box had since been removed, but the thing that was formerly within it now dwelled in the very heart of the institute, inside a circular building just beyond the rings of the living quarters. Even here, past two other rings with their own complicated systems of locks and gates, security remained absurdly tight. The corridors weaved within the building like a giant, white maze of linoleum and bitter-scented air. Doors were thick, metal beasts with only a small sign next to them to tell them apart. Even then, security cameras -- the most recent feature, actually -- hung above each door with one glass eye staring at the tops of heads with a scrutinizing gaze.
Then, even more annoying was the lock. Key card, thumbprint, iris. Those were the keys to unlock every door in the inner chambers of Polaris Institute. It was of the utmost importance that the thing inside remained completely removed from the outside world -- as opposed to keeping the people outside from getting inside, as most locks tend to do.
Outside one of the doors, a key card slipped through the slot on the side of the lock, and a pale thumb pressed against the silver thumb pad. Lights blinked while the panel above the thumb pad slipped upward to reveal a camera. Hands pulled back green, curly hair as a face leaned forward. A red beam flashed from the lens and trailed down one dark eye before vanishing. After that, the man in front of the scanner straightened, his hands working their way into the pockets of his lab coat as he waited.
A female, computerized voice finally broke the silence of the hallway. "Identity confirmed. Welcome, Professor McKenzie."
The door slid open, and the figure stepped into a room full of machinery.
To much of the Pokémon Symposium, it was strange to think of this young man as a professor, but that was what he was. Born into a family of gifted scientists, Professor William McKenzie burst onto the scene of pokéology only a few years before he came to Polaris, when he wrote a thesis that all but solved one of the greatest mysteries of ancient pokémon behavior to date. He was only a senior in his undergraduate career then.
He was also twelve.
Not long afterwards, he teamed up with a young programmer in Hoenn to develop a device that revolutionized pokémon training itself: the storage system. It, combined with no fewer than six other papers centered around pokémon psychology, guaranteed that the scientific community couldn't ignore him. He and his partner Lanette were inducted into the Symposium the same year the storage system went public. At the time, he was fourteen, effectively making him one of the youngest researchers to receive the honor.
But Professor McKenzie hated titles, and he felt embarrassed when other people flaunted his track record for him. It was too formal for his tastes; it made him feel as if he was expected to act like he was on equal footing with the likes of Professor Rowan of Sinnoh when he knew without a doubt he still had much to learn about his own field.
For this reason, he insisted on being known by a less formal name, a nickname he had acquired in college: Bill.
He had hoped it would make people feel more comfortable around him, but of course, there were still quite a number of people who looked at him strangely. Some researchers felt his method of using costumes to emulate pokémon was a mockery of traditional practices. Others said he was too inexperienced, that his techniques kept him from learning how to work with real pokémon. The controversy nearly caused the Japanese government to skip over him in recruiting researchers for Project Starudst, but luckily for him, he had one powerful backer.
"Good morning, Bill!"
Bill lifted his eyes towards the end of the room, past the rows of humming machines. A window spread across the far side, creating a deep, white indentation in the wall, and by one end of it stood an old man with near-black eyes. Professor Oak's wrinkled face drew into a wide grin as he motioned for Bill to come forward. With a small nod, Bill took a few more steps into the laboratory, but before he could go any further, another voice rose from the side.
"McKenzie!" A woman turned fully from the machinery at the side of the room to address him. "Do you realize what time it is?"
At once, Bill cringed, taking a step back towards the door. He wasn't normally shy around his fellow scientists, but Professor Yvonne Nettle, one of those Symposium members who didn't exactly support him wholeheartedly, had that sort of effect on almost everyone. From behind a pair of oval-framed glasses, her hazel eyes flashed angrily at Bill. Her thin face contracted into a deep frown as she crossed her thin arms. In many ways, her entire being reminded Bill of fragments of glass: the smaller and thinner they were, the more someone had to worry about crossing them.
"Yes, Professor," he finally replied. "Half past ten in the morning."
The long fingers of her right hand began to drum on her left elbow. "When were you scheduled to arrive here?"
Bill paused, swallowing hard. "Half past... ten?"
"Yes." Nettle narrowed her eyes. "And what time is it now?"
Right then, Bill's blood felt cold in his veins. What time? Wasn't it half past ten? Reaching into the pocket of his own lab coat, Bill pulled out a silver pocket watch. He pressed his lips together and found himself trembling slightly as he glanced at its face. The hour hand was almost to eleven, but the minute hand sat comfortably just past the ten. Immediately, the color drained from his cheeks, and he found he couldn't speak. How could he have lost track of that much time?
Nettle, meanwhile, knitted her eyebrows and set her jaw.
"McKenzie," she said. Her voice lowered in volume, but it was still winter-cold. "If you wish to be a fully recognized pokémon researcher, then you should learn that punctuality and professionalism in the laboratory--"
Oak stepped forward. "Excuse me, Professor Nettle."
Immediately, Nettle stopped and looked at her superior. Her eyebrows rose at Oak's sudden interruption.
"Don't be too hard on him," Oak said. "After all, a real researcher is never late."
Nettle's expression softened slightly. "With all due respect, Professor Oak, that's exactly my point. A real researcher is always on time, which is why McKenzie should be taught to arrive promptly, when he promised to arrive."
Oak smiled. "All I mean is that a researcher is never late because he arrives precisely when he means to."
"Given that we're working for the government, surely we should take into consideration a strict schedule..."
"Ah." Oak nodded. "Considering the government, yes, I think we should consider the time he arrived compared to when he was scheduled to work here."
Nettle suppressed a smile as she turned her attention back towards Bill. Her subordinate cringed again. He knew the worst part of his day was just about to begin.
"And in that case, we should consider the fact that Bill was actually on time then too," Oak added.
Nettle turned her head sharply towards Oak. "I'm sorry?"
Even Bill had to send his superiors an odd expression. After all, his watch was in perfect working condition. He made sure of that. It was his mental clock that needed adjusting.
In the meantime, Oak took off his watch and offered it to Nettle with a firm nod. "Absolutely. Check my watch if you'd like."
Without a word, Nettle reached for the leather strap of the watch. Her mouth opened slightly as she examined the face. On it, the hour hand pointed towards the eleven, but the minute hand nestled itself between the six and the seven. If it was correct, then Bill would have arrived just a couple of minutes before 10:30 in order to endure the conversation until the minute hand ticked to 10:32. Realizing this, Nettle handed Oak his watch.
"Maybe your watch is a few minutes fast," Oak said with a shrug as he put his watch back on. "You should be careful about that, Professor Nettle. You know how the other teams feel about interruptions, and I'd hate to break up another argument if you go back to Laboratory F to find the biochemistry team still there, especially when we're getting along so well today."
"Right," Nettle said with a slow nod. "Right then."
She glared at Bill. He still appeared heavily confused, and that expression alone tried Nettle's patience. Nonetheless, she hid that fact well.
"McKenzie, I'll assume you've been briefed about Experiment #22a already. Prepare to record observations."
Leaving it at that, she turned and walked briskly to the other side of the room. Bill watched her lean over someone else to check a computer screen.
"You can relax now," Oak said. "She'll go easy on you for this experiment."
At Oak's consent, Bill exhaled a breath he didn't even realize he was holding. "Professor... thank you. You lied for me."
Oak pulled up his sleeve to examine his watch. With his large fingers, he pulled out the pin in its side and twisted the head to turn the hands back to their original positions.
"Eh, I should've known you would notice. Luckily for you, Nettle didn't." He pushed the pin back in. "Bill, I know you don't mean to do it, but please, for your sake, try not to get Professor Nettle worked up again. I can't keep helping you like this, as much as I want to."
Bill lowered his head. He felt the heat of a blush cross his cheeks. "I understand."
"It's different, working in a team compared to working freelance, especially if the laboratory is government or corporation-owned and operated, and I want you to realize that. As harsh as she may seem to you, Professor Nettle is right. There're certain rules you need to follow in order to work well with the rest of the team."
Inside, Bill felt himself flinch. It was one thing to be scolded by Professor Nettle, who was perpetually in a sour mood, but it was a different thing altogether to be scolded by Professor Samuel Oak. For one, Oak rarely felt the need to reprimand team members, although his typically jovial personality was slowly being replaced by weariness thanks to being Polaris's current director. For another, even without that title, Oak was the foremost figure in the field of pokéology aside from Professor Rowan. To receive praise from Oak was the ultimate affirmation for a pokémon researcher. To receive criticism meant that one had a long way to go.
"Yes, Professor," Bill said after a long pause.
Sensing the youth's discomfort, Oak's stern face cracked into a warm smile. "You'll learn," Oak assured him. "Ah, the innocence of youth. It reminds me of a poem, actually. Would you like--"
Bill couldn't decide whether it was a relief or impending doom that Nettle's voice suddenly interrupted.
"Excuse me, Professor," she said. She stood stiffly a few feet away, and her voice was strained, as if she was struggling to keep the sharpness out of her words. "With all due respect, we need McKenzie at his station now."
Oak's smile grew, and without warning, he tilted back on his feet to laugh. His deep, rumbling voice bubbled over every other noise in the laboratory. A few other scientists even looked up to watch him close his eyes and rub the back of his neck.
"Oh yes! I'm sorry. You're absolutely right." He opened his eyes and glanced towards his protégé. "Well, Bill, go on! Work hard for Hoenn's sake! I don't expect anything less than excellence from you."
Although the director probably didn't realize it, Bill had definitely heard that line of encouragement before, uttered to another researcher who felt the cold, hard snap of the voice of another team leader. Nonetheless, Oak's smile and tone were enough to let Bill ease from humiliation-born anxiety to a slightly more comfortable zone. He responded with his own smile -- albeit a significantly more timid one -- and nodded.
"Right. Thank you, Professor."
He walked briskly to his station in a corner of the laboratory. Oak stood back, smiling as he waited for the experiment to begin, but as a result, he didn't seem to notice Nettle's icy stare at Bill before she focused on the window and what lay beyond it.
Even the other members of the psychology team couldn't quite understand how Nettle became their leader. Granted, she was nearing fifty and had almost as many awards and degrees as she did years on Earth, but it was widely known throughout the complex that she was more than just a little anal. She had previously been a field researcher, known mostly for her endeavors to understand the jynx communication patterns. Bill wasn't the only one who noticed she lacked much in the way of mercy: it was a whispered joke that she could relate more to the ice women than any human being.
"McKenzie?" she said sharply as she looked away from a computer.
Bill recoiled as he settled at his station across the room. The observational deck of Laboratory D was just large enough for the five scientists working on the psychology aspect of Kanto's Project Stardust, yet with Nettle so close by, Bill felt just a little uncomfortable being there, as if the space was smaller than it actually was. He turned towards Nettle and tried to look as professional as possible.
"Yes, Professor Nettle?" he asked.
She eyed him with a serious, nearly suspicious gaze. "Are you ready?"
Turning back to his station, Bill placed his hands on the keyboard of the computer in front of him. With a few quick key strokes, he brought the machine back to life, and a few more let him through its digital security system. The black screen was quickly replaced by a desktop sparsely populated with icons. Bill ignored most of these graphics as he keyed in a few more commands to fill the screen with two boxes. One was a blank document, and the other was a box with a video feed of an open, white room. In the middle of the room were two clear boxes: one of them held a purple and white rat pawing at the sides of its cage, while the other...
He tried not to think about it as he switched to the blank document.
"I'm ready, Professor," he finally said.
Nettle nodded. "Very well." She turned away from him. "Professor Fig, stand by for release. Everyone else, this will be Experiment #22a: Hunting Tactics of XP-650. Are you ready?"
All four of her colleagues promptly replied, "Yes, Professor."
"Good." She nodded. "Open both doors, Professor Fig."
Fig turned his bright blue eyes towards a large console at his work station. His large hand rose and hit the smooth face of a red button with a fleshy palm.
"Doors released," he said as he slowly turned back to his monitor.
Nettle touched her chin as she watched through the window at the far end of the laboratory. Beyond it was the exact same thing Bill was seeing on his computer screen: a large, open room with solid, white walls and a concrete floor. Sitting in the middle of the room were the very same boxes.
One side on each respective cube swung outward, and the cautious rattata in the first box was the first to move. He crawled into the open, twitching his long whiskers as he blinked at the strange creature in the other box. The creature clacked its numerous legs to pull itself forward from Plexiglas onto concrete. It had no eyes, yet it seemed to be staring at the rattata. A cold feeling settled in the prey's heart as he crept towards his left with his eyes fixed on the red creature.
Suddenly, the thing leapt at him. With a screech, the rattata lunged towards the open space to the side. His paws scrambled desperately as his small heart beat against his chest in his mad dash for safety. Yet, even with his speed, he felt the searing pain of eight small, sharp needles planting themselves into the flesh of his shoulder. He screamed once again, and his eyes widened at the bulbous creature resting on his body. His legs still pounded in a frantic, tumbling run as something slid under his skin and sucked on his veins. No matter what he did, including bashing his shoulder into the cement, the creature refused to let go.
With the rapid blood loss, the rattata's movements became sluggish, eventually slowing to the point where he could only stumble inch by inch towards his box. Just before the rodent reached the Plexiglas walls again, he collapsed and closed his eyes.
"Dear God," Nettle whispered. "How long was that?"
"Two minutes, forty-seven seconds," Fig recited.
Bill's fingers clacked on the keyboard to record the number. Then, he glanced at the video feed on his monitor again. Curiosity got the best of him, and he tapped his mouse over and clicked a button to zoom in. He had hoped to get a better view of what the parasite was doing, but instead, a strange feeling settled in his stomach. Right away, he felt his face flush. Although he wanted to turn away, he couldn't stop watching the flickering image of the creature consuming the rattata from the inside out. It crawled up the rodent's side, ripping the flesh as it went until the ribs and the slick insides were exposed. Bill had seen a vast number of different things since he became a pokémon researcher, but never had he seen a pokémon consume live prey with such clean efficiency. Not a drop of blood was spilled, and the alien cut through skin with the deftness of a surgeon.
Already feeling lightheaded, Bill covered his mouth with a hand, but he still couldn't tear his eyes away from the creature. Then, when it began to ooze a strange, green gel into the wound, Bill leaned back in his chair and shuddered, catching Oak's attention again.
"Bill?" he murmured.
Taking a breath, Bill pushed away from his station and stood.
"Excuse me for a moment," he said quietly.
Without any further explanation, Bill quickly walked out of the room.
Bill hunched over the sink in a bathroom down the hall. Moving his hands beneath the silver faucet, he watched the red sensor blink and click. Cold water sprayed over his hands and into the granite basin beneath them. Cupping his hands, he caught enough water to splash his face before he straightened. One of his hands grabbed a paper towel from a small pile next to the sink and used it to dry himself. Peering over the towel, he caught sight of his reflection in a mirror that occupied one wall of the room. His face still looked paler than usual.
Sighing, he crumpled the paper towel and tossed it into a garbage can by the door in the corner. Then, he turned back to the mirror and placed his hands on both sides of the sink.
"You're a trained researcher," he said to himself. "You've been studying pokémon for years. Why are you having this reaction now? Is it any different from watching a scyther hunting?"
His mind wandered back to the images he saw on his computer. He thought about the parasite slicing open the rattata, about the sight of the rat's innards, about the green gel oozing into the wound...
A queasy feeling churned his stomach, and he doubled over to gag into the sink. It took a good portion of his will not to throw up. Instead, he coughed and took a few gasps of air. After a few moments of this, he shook his head and looked up to stare at his reflection again.
"All right. Perhaps it is," he murmured. "But haven't you seen worse? How many years have you worked on the field, and why are you reacting like this now?"
He shut his eyes tightly and shook his head for a second time. Gingerly, he straightened his back once more.
"Right. You need to do this, Bill. It's why you're here."
Taking a deep breath, he opened his eyes and looked at his reflection again. Already, color was beginning to come back to his cheeks.
"There. That's it. Just remember, what can possibly go wrong? You're doing this as a scientist. There's no reason to be afraid of it."
Nodding, he smiled at himself and turned towards the door.
"Nearly fainting at a pokémon's hunting behavior. Honestly, Bill, what kind of researcher are you?"
Pulling open the door, he emerged in the hallway, assuming it was completely empty. After all, it was between lab hours. Most personnel were probably occupied in one room or another.
Except, apparently, for the three fairly large lab assistants who suddenly grabbed him.