Anima Ex Machina: Twelve
We're all in this together.

Bill could feel his heart pounding. It was the kind of pound that practically shook him with each throb, the kind that thumped against his ribcage and felt like it was going to break something. At the same time, his mind was going through a quick succession of emotions.

First came fear. This stage was fairly natural for several reasons. To begin with, there was the fact that the creature right in front of him was at least twice as large as him, and it was equipped with fangs and claws that could have -- and it should be noted that Bill conveniently forgot about his built-in armor right then -- ripped that throbbing heart right out of his chest. Beyond that, there was the fact that Bill knew all too well what the stories surrounding Raikou were, how it called down massive bolts of lightning from the skies to roast the unworthy where they stood. In Johtonian mythology, the creature was called by several different names relating to this fact, including Lord of Storms, Heaven's Thunder, and a number of other ones that would have easily told Bill he wasn't supposed to be screwing with the thing in front of him.

Second came awe. Bill was most definitely a scientist, and as such, he lacked the sense of caution most normal people had. So, after sitting there in terror for a few seconds, he gradually rose. Rather than run away -- which was what a normal, sane, well-adjusted person would have done -- he stepped closer. As he crept near the raikou, he realized he wasn't just looking at a rare pokémon. He was looking at the Lord of Storms, one of the creatures that inhabited the ancient, war-torn worlds of Johtonian legends. A part of him also realized what kind of frenzy he would stir in the Symposium if he had a chance to study a raikou thoroughly, if only because he was, after all, a scientist.

Third, however, came something more difficult to describe. His eyes found Raikou's, and in his wonder of how magnificent the creature looked, he felt something nag at the back of his mind. Initially, he thought it was just Adam, but it wormed its way to the front of his consciousness in the form of the kind of instinct he had developed through years of research. Something wasn't right about this creature, and he could tell, even if he didn't know exactly how at first.

Starting from the eyes, he noticed that there was something dull and lifeless about them, though they glowed red with an inner light. The way they glistened reminded him more of glass than of something actually wet. Once he noticed that, he listened to the way it was growling at him. Although it would have no doubt fooled anyone else, he had heard enough recordings of pokémon calls to catch the subtle difference in sound quality. It sounded just slightly muffled, as if it was actually coming from deeper inside the creature than it should have. Even if the recording was a high-quality one, what added to the feeling of artificiality was the fact that, as Bill realized right then, the creature's posture was all wrong. It stood up straight and stiffly as it growled instead of crouching and bearing more of its teeth, and its fur was flat instead of on end. No wild pokémon attempting to assert its territory looked that calm, and Bill knew that.

But more importantly than anything else, he was standing in front of the beast for almost a minute, and it didn't so much as spark. If it was growling at him defensively, why wasn't it attacking?

Cracking a grin, Bill reached out and touched the raikou's chest. Squeezing, he felt the plush exterior, and one of his claws wormed its way through the cloth material covering its shoulder. Inside, he felt a little embarrassed. He was used to dealing with artificial pokémon thanks to his costumes, and here, he couldn't even tell the difference between a real raikou and a fake one as soon as he saw it.

"Hey! How'd you know it was fake?"

Yelping, Bill scrambled to turn and run, but in the process, his claws dug deeper into the shoulder of the mechanical beast and ripped a large chunk of it out. Whirling around, Bill stumbled towards the battlefield as his eyes locked onto the newcomer.

Emerging from behind the raikou doll was the same bulky man who led Bill down the streets of Mauville City on a chain, but this time, he wasn't giving Bill a cold glare. Rather, his dark eyes sparkled, and a friendly smile stretched across his round face. He planted his large hands on his wide hips as he stopped just beside the raikou doll.

"You're good!" he exclaimed in a deep, rumbling voice. "Most people don't know this isn't the real deal without being told first! How'd you do that?"

"I..." Bill stepped back.

The man's grin faded slightly. "Huh? Oh! You don't have to be nervous or anything. We got off on the wrong foot, right? You're an all right guy, it turns out, so I won't hurt ya! ...Not that I was going to in the first place, but, uh."

He stopped and glanced at the ceiling for a second. Then, he burst into a loud, booming laughter that echoed off the walls. Bill literally jumped at the sound, and one of his hands flew to his chest. He could feel his heart pounding again, just as much as it had when he first saw Raikou.

"The name's Thomas. Thomas Wattson, but everyone calls me Thom. 'Cept maybe Officer Jenny, but her opinion doesn't count," he said as he extended a hand. "This is my grandpa's gym. His mecha raikou, too, and let me tell you, he would've loved the look on your face when you first saw it!"

Bill stared at the hand. After what happened to Officer Jenny -- which, strangely, he wasn't entirely guilty about -- he was hesitant to take this man's hand for fear of what he might accidentally do in the process of just a handshake. Luckily, his companion interrupted him before he had any chance to respond anyway.

"You're not much of a talker, are you?" he asked. "That's all right. Hey, listen, why don't we go back to the pokémon center and get you cleaned up? No offense, but you look like hell."

Blinking, Bill looked at his tail as it curled around his ankles. He had forgotten all about the dried blood, but somehow, it didn't seem to matter anymore. This was probably because Thom decided to cut him off again.

"That was awesome, by the way."

Bill looked up. "I'm sorry?"

"The fight. You know. Between you and those two ixodida. How they jumped you and then POW!" Thom made a fist with one hand and punched the palm of the other. "Both of them are lying in pieces on the ground! Man, we had our doubts about this entire plan. Sorry we tried to use you like that, by the way."

Flicking his tail, Bill realized two things. First, his hunch about how the city was trying to get him killed was correct. Second, they thought of the ixodida as pests. Neither revelation made Bill feel any less awkward than he already had.

"Those were people at one time. Technically, that would make me a murderer," he said quietly.

"Huh?" Thom blinked. "Hey, look. Don't feel too bad. They would've gotten us if you hadn't done something."

"That wasn't the point."

Thom shrugged. "Then what is?"

In response, Bill looked at him with a serious glance. After a beat of hesitation, he replied, "When I transformed into an ixodida, I didn't do it by choice. It was an accident, and I have no doubt it was for the others as well. To make matters even more complicated..."

Stopping, he looked to the side. He had no idea how Thom would react if he told him about Adam. In the ensuing silence, Thom frowned.

"Look, I know that, and I'm sorry." Pausing, he lowered his tone. "But those things? They'll kill us if we don't kill them. There's only a few of us left. Officer Jenny says the city's been reduced to less than ten percent of the population it had before the invasion. They're monsters, you know. They're not like you."

Bill closed his eyes and shuddered. He didn't want to say anything more, but he felt he had to get Thom to understand. "They don't have a choice in what they do, either. There's something inside us that makes us act that way. We're stuck in our own minds whenever it happens; we can't control what our bodies do."

Thom furrowed his eyebrows. "What are you talking about?"

"I'm saying..." Bill looked at Thom as his mind struggled to find the best words. "When you saw me kill those ixodida, that wasn't me. I share my body with the ixodida parasite, and he has the ability to take it over at any time. I can't control what happens when he does." He lowered his head. "We have a deal that allows me to do whatever I'd like, but when that fight occurred, it was the parasite who killed them, not me. I couldn't do anything to stop him. As for the others... they're most likely trapped the way I was all the time."

For a long while, nothing else was said. Bill glanced at Thom with a bit of reluctance, only to find Thom staring at him with curiosity.

"So, let me get this straight," he said. "You're telling me you don't want us to thank you for saving a bunch of innocent people from a couple of ixodida who would have killed us for reasons the researchers can't figure out yet, and this is because you think that the other ixodida are just people who can't control themselves, and that all somehow justifies the fact that they've wiped out most of our city?"

After a beat of hesitation, Bill replied, "If you put it like that, it sounds uncomfortably complicated, but essentially, yes."

Thom sighed. "Guess I don't have much of a choice. Come on."

He turned and motioned for Bill to follow him. In response, Bill shifted his tail but remained where he was.

"Where?" he asked.

"I wanna show you something," Thom answered.

With that, he disappeared down the hallway. Bill watched him for a short while, uncertain of what to do. Then, finally, he started walking.

---

Veronica Jenny, formerly the deputy of Mauville City and more recently its chief of police, felt like she could have used a stiff drink right then. She didn't used to drink, but after monsters appeared from out of nowhere and reduced the population of the entire city to a mere fraction of what it was for no apparent reason, she thought it would be a nice habit to take up. Veronica had no doubt this and her generally less-than-perky attitude was the only thing that set her apart from all her sisters and cousins, but unlike Ellen Joy, she didn't particularly care about that, even before she became a brooding alcoholic.

Then again, Veronica didn't care much about her family at all. The problem with the Jenny clan was that, as far back as anyone could remember and as far back as anyone bothered to trace their family tree, every single female Jenny did two things: protect and serve. There were no exceptions. So, everyone expected Veronica would become a police officer as well, simply because she was born into that single family. In that sense, she felt a strong connection with Ellen Joy: the nurse was born into her calling as well thanks to the Joy family. However, whereas Ellen liked being a nurse and accepted her fate, Veronica was a little less eager to assume her role.

Of course she liked it at first. She used to get a thrill from chasing down bad guys and busting crime all over the city. For a few brief months after she joined the force, it made her proud to see a criminal in handcuffs. But then, the novelty wore off, and Veronica realized that she was forcing herself to enjoy her work because everyone expected her to be a police officer. The trouble was that if she wasn't an officer, what would she be? The word "Jenny" was synonymous with "justice"; no one in the history of the family ever really questioned that.

This all happened long before the invasion. When that happened and when the ixodida killed most of Mauville's population, that just aggravated a problem that already existed for years. Now, instead of just being dispassionate about her position, she was incompetent, unable to fulfill her duty to protect the population. She had to watch almost all of the city die because she had no idea how to protect it from the ixodida.

In short, she really needed that drink.

Gingerly, she flexed her bandaged hand as she walked back to the pokémon center from the police station a block away. Her other hand rested on her belt, three fingers on the poké balls clipped to the holders attached to it and two on the holster of a gun hanging from its side. She knew that the scouts she had organized reported no other ixodida in the city besides the one who killed the poison-types, and she knew the fact that she was hearing from them at all confirmed this. However, the smooth feel of the spheres on her belt made her feel just a little safer, as did the weight of her handgun in its holster.

The rest of Mauville didn't even need that much. Directly outside of the pokémon center, half of the survivors were gathered. A small group of children were playing with pokémon - mostly oddish, electrike, and zigzagoon. Groups of adults clustered around them, chattering over sandwiches and drinks. Between each group flitted Ellen and her chansey, distributing food and water to whoever wanted them. Looking at her, Veronica noticed an expression on Ellen's face that wasn't there yesterday: a light smile, one that wasn't entirely forced.

That's when Veronica noticed something else about the group: laughter. The children, most of them orphans, hadn't so much as smiled since the ixodida came, but now, they were playing soccer with each other on the street outside of the center. It was their laughter that she noticed first, the screeching sound tingling her ears. The adults, who used to talk in hushed whispers to one another about whether or not another wave would be coming, were now chattering in louder voices, swapping stories with one another and laughing at the occasional joke. Outside of both circles, Veronica stood there and blinked and felt a lot like an astronaut in the middle of an alien city. Not a single one of them seemed to notice her as she watched them. Instead, she was left alone to listen to their noise. Was it a success? Did this mean she wasn't a failure? She couldn't tell.

Suddenly, the adults fell silent, and Veronica caught the sound of low pokémon growls. Snapping out of her meditations, Veronica looked up to notice all of the adults' heads turned towards the street. Glancing in the same direction, she saw Thom standing in the street only a few feet away from her. Next to him was the steel-armored monster, the same one she and the hunting party had found outside of the city and the same one she had watched tear apart two ixodida.

She couldn't figure out why its expression looked so distant to her.

Thom didn't seem to notice the adults, or if he did, he was completely ignoring them. Instead, he smiled broadly and looked directly at the children. The monster was following his gaze, and there it stood, staring at the game.

Eventually, the children began to notice, probably because their pokémon companions were no longer interested in the game. One by one, they stopped, eyes falling on the ixodida with a mixture of fear and curiosity. Thanks to their lack of concentration, the ball they were using was allowed to skirt past one of the goalies and roll towards the two bystanders. The ixodida knelt, reaching down just in time to stop the ball with one of its hands. At the same time, a small child ran past the other children, beyond the hands of the oldest, and straight to the creature. She ignored her friends' harsh whispers to come back and stay away from the thing until she nearly ran into it. Stopping short, she lifted her eyes towards it, and her smile disappeared. The creature looked down at her and blinked.

Drawing in a breath, Veronica stepped forward. Her hand moved to the gun holstered on her hip, but before she drew it, she caught sight of Thom. He was flailing his arms behind the creature almost comically, signaling for her to stop. Although she felt a little hesitant about trusting his judgment -- in part because Thom wasn't normally known for making sound choices -- she still let her hand rest where it was as she watched the creature carefully.

It didn't attack the way she thought it would. Instead, it picked up the ball and looked at it as if it had never seen a soccer ball before then. After a few seconds, it held the ball out for the girl, keeping its claws spread as far as they could go. The girl quickly grabbed the ball, held it to her chest, and bowed.

"Thank you!" she said.

Then, as quickly as it happened, she turned and ran back into the game. The other children closed the gap behind her. Within a few seconds, the sound of the ball being kicked across pavement rang out, and the children went back to shouting and laughing with each other. Taking this as a sign to relax, the adults slowly went back to their own conversations, and the pokémon darted back into the game.

Veronica's hand fell to let her arm rest. Cautiously, she turned towards the children but inched towards the ixodida and Thom. She tried to make it look like she was watching the game with the hopes that it would make the alien and the gym leader's grandson think she wasn't eavesdropping on them.

"A lot of them don't have parents anymore, you know," Thom said. "A lot of the people in this city died, either protecting us from ixodida attacks or, you know, getting attacked."

"Is that so?" the ixodida said quietly.

"Mmm. Yeah. It's pretty bad. But you're here now, so we think we'll be all right."

There was a beat before the ixodida replied, "How would my presence make a difference?"

"Oh, that's easy. We've tried everything to keep the ixodida from attacking us. Keeping guards posted at all times, ganging up on them when we saw them -- you name it. When we first caught you, we thought we could use you to bargain with them. You know, a 'don't kill us because we have one of yours and we'll let him go if you leave us alone' kind of thing, right? But then, you actually killed two of them! By yourself! You did what a lot of us died trying to do -- twice!" He paused. "Or, well, you know... that thing did."

"It was a fluke. I told you."

Thom scoffed. "You don't get it, do you? Let me spell this out for you. Over there are a bunch of orphans. Their parents died trying to protect us from aliens that keep attacking us for who-knows-why. You've got the power to help us. You can be a hero to those kids, you know. You already are for some of us."

The ixodida's voice dropped in volume again, almost to the point where Veronica wouldn't have been able to hear it. "I'm not much of a hero, Thom."

Thom growled in frustration. "Bill, I know it sounds like I'm asking you to do a lot, but look at those kids again. What's the first thing that comes to mind when you see them?"

There was a long silence. Veronica turned her head slightly to glance at the ixodida out the corner of her eye. What she saw made her turn her head completely towards him.

Him. She suddenly realized she was thinking of the creature as something more than a monster, but at that point, it just fit. His face looked more human than even some of the survivors'. As he stared at the children, his eyes looked a little misty, and his expression, with the corners of the mouth turned down and the eyes wide open, looked saddened. Veronica felt something twitch inside her, a small pain in her heart. Maybe she was just crazy, but she had a feeling she knew exactly what was going on inside the alien's head.

"The ones to the side over there," he said. "The older ones. How old are they?"

Thom shrugged. "Ten. Eleven. Some of them are trainers who got stuck here 'cause the routes are all closed, and others would've started their journeys a few months ago if the League hadn't frozen Hoenn's circuit."

The ixodida looked down. "I have a sister their age."

"Huh. A sister?" Thom asked. "She's not in Hoenn, is she?"

Bill didn't answer. Instead, he looked towards Thom.

"Okay," he said. "I'll do it."

"Do what?"

Turning towards him, Bill straightened. "Protect them. Protect everyone here. I don't know how well I can fight, but I'll try."

"Are you sure?"

Bill nodded. "I have to. They need someone to help them. If you say I have the power to do it, there's no way I can say no."

Instantly, Thom's face lit up. "Great! Just wait 'til I talk to a few people. We'll get you all set up here with a room of your own and someone to help train you and..."

Thom turned and started walking towards the adults. He hadn't stopped listing off things he would give Bill; he just assumed that the ixodida was following him within earshot. Naturally, he didn't realize that the creature was exactly where he left him, standing on the sidewalk with his tail curling around his feet.

"You heard all that, didn't you, Officer Jenny?" he asked.

Veronica froze. After a few moments, she replied, "How honest are you?"

Bill shook his head. "I'm being completely sincere when I say I want to help you. I don't want to fight, but..." He glanced towards the children.

She sighed. "I'll tell you the truth. I don't trust you, but you haven't tried to kill anything except other ixodida. I can't even begin to understand why. But... we need your help."

"I know that." He closed his eyes. "I know."

His voice was cracking, and his hands, already balled into fists, were shaking at his sides. Inside her own head, Veronica cursed eloquently.

"Nurse Joy's more sympathetic than I am. Sorry," she said. "But I can tell you're scared, and if it helps you at all, I can say one thing."

The creature opened his eyes and looked at her. "What?"

Veronica was taken aback for a second. The expression on his face made him look vulnerable, like he was a puppy that had just been kicked. Yet, she could tell he wasn't making that face at her just to buy her sympathy or manipulate her into letting her guard down. No, there was something there, in the way his mouth looked and the way his eyes glistened, that told her that everything she was seeing was real, and if it was, he was somehow more human than a lot of criminals she had put away before the invasion.

It was this sign of humanity that made her let her guard down just a little. So, she placed a gentle hand on his shoulder and said the most comforting thing she could think of.

"If you fuck up and get the rest of the city wiped out, I'll kill you myself."

Without even looking at the expression on his face, she turned and started for the pokémon center.

"I really need a drink," she muttered.

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