Anima Ex Machina: Thirteen
Fire and gunpowder do not sleep together.

Fact #1: Scotch on the rocks is, by definition, as simple a drink as one would imagine. It involves one glass, half its volume of ice, and half its volume of scotch. The end result is a drink intensely bitter in taste but roughly half as bitter as it would be at room temperature; the cold of the ice dulls the taste of any alcoholic beverage.

Fact #2: All alcohol had been banned from Polaris Institute from the day it opened. It was agreed years ago by the first director that allowing alcohol would distract the resident scientists from the pursuit of progress. Professor Samuel Oak -- who, one must remember, was at the time of Project Stardust the director of Polaris Institute -- agreed with this notion and upheld it whenever possible.

Fact #3: Professor John McKenzie, former leader of the New Bark psychology team, was drinking a scotch on the rocks in front of Professor Samuel Oak.

Oak had nothing to say about the matter. For one, he knew John. The two of them went way back: they were colleagues when they first went into the field of pokémon research together, graduates of the same class at the same school and protégés of the same mentor. Oak already knew about McKenzie and exactly how effective it would be to tell him that the institute had a rule against alcohol. For another, as much as he didn't want to promote favoritism, he actually liked the man. John had a certain charisma about him that made him difficult to handle. No matter how stern Oak wanted to be (not that he would find this easy anyway), that all dissolved because, simply put, John had a way of making people like him. It wasn't just Oak, either. John was simply the kind of person who could sell someone the Brooklyn Bridge and get away with it if he wanted to do it badly enough.

For a third, Oak already felt a sense of guilt. This was because after hours of dodging, of insisting that John get settled and briefed on his new position in Polaris Institute, there was no way around telling him the truth, and to do that, he sat down with the man in an empty break room to explain everything. So, Oak couldn't blame the man for wanting a drink. He was just expecting John to want it after he told him everything. That is, Oak hadn't said a word yet, but there John was with scotch poured from his own canteen in a glass of ice provided by the Institute, as if he already knew it would be a good idea.

Waiting for Oak to say something, John leaned back in his chair with one of his hands on the steel table in front of him and the other on the drink. Oak, still composing the words in his head, held a cup of coffee and kept his eyes steady on his colleague's face.

"So," John finally said in an effort to start the conversation. "William's one of those things now."

Oak nodded. "I'm sorry, Profesor McKenzie. We don't know how it happened."

John waved a hand in the air. "I wouldn't put it past my son to want a closer look at the little bastard. But that isn't the important part right now, is it? When can I see him?"

"You... won't," Oak replied. "There was an accident just before you arrived. Bill and a second XP-650B escaped." He let his shoulders sag a little. "I'm so sorry."

John peered over the edge of his glass. "Any idea where they might have gone?"

"Not yet. We didn't think we'd need to tag either of them with tracking devices, and there haven't been any sightings."

"It's an island. How far could they've gotten?"

Oak shifted in his seat. "Apparently, Abel can fly. You can look at the security footage as soon as you're ready to get started."

"Fly?" John took a sip of his scotch. "Now that's interesting. It could explain why no one's found Pandora either."

"You know about Pandora?"

John nodded. "The Committee's released the video a week ago, and everyone in New Bark has had a look at it already. We've gotten the reports about Abel and William, too."

"I see. In any case, Professor McKenzie, I called you here with the hopes that you'd be taking Bill's place on the psychology team. We need someone to help push that part of the project forward, and I thought you would want to work closely with Bill."

John squinted over his glass. "There sounds like there's a but there."

Oak leaned back. "Professor Nettle, the current head of the psychology team, will be transferring to another facility. Because you were a team leader for the Johto arm, I'll have to ask--"

"Yes."

Oak hesitated, clearing his throat. "Right. I thought you'd agree. You'll be short-staffed and without an example of XP-650B, though. We haven't received any new recruits yet, and the Committee insists -- and I agree with them -- that creating another XP-650B would be unethical."

Looking at John's face, Oak could swear that he saw a slight change in expression. It happened extremely quickly: a flash of a frown and a dark glint in the man's eyes. After that, Oak felt a little cold, even though John smiled a second later.

"Ha! Is that what you call a challenge?" John asked. "Don't you worry. I can work with whatever you've got."

Oak forced himself to smile. "Great! We'll introduce you to the rest of the team and get you started tomorrow."

He started to stand up, taking the Styrofoam cup of coffee with him. However, before he could turn to walk away, John placed his glass on the table and spoke.

"They're in Hoenn."

Oak turned towards his colleague. "What?"

"Will, Pandora, and Abel," John answered. "They're in Hoenn."

The other researcher raised an eyebrow. "What makes you say that?"

"Think about it, Sam. Some of them can fly, and Hoenn isn't that far from here. Why haven't we seen any outside of captivity anywhere else yet?"

The realization hit Oak hard. He never thought about it, but John had a point -- a very important one at that. For whatever reason, the creatures he knew as XP-650 had infested an entire region... but only an entire region. In the months they've been on Earth, they haven't moved past the region's borders.

"That must mean..."

"They're flocking back to Hoenn. All of them."

Oak sat back down to let the revelation sink in. Why didn't he think of it before? The aggressiveness of Abel. What Bill said about the creature trying to escape. The fact that there wasn't a single sighting of XP-650 outside of mainland Hoenn. It had to be true: the creatures weren't leaving the island. But why? What could be there that drew all of the aliens to one place?

John stood this time. Turning away from the table, he leaned the small of his back against its edge and took a nice, long drink.

"By the way," he said, "I wouldn't trust the Committee if I were you. They've been hiding a lot of important information from all of us, and it doesn't make any sense why they would. Something's going on with them."

Oak stared at John's back. He knew there was something suspicious about the Committee already. That thought came to him as early as the moment he found out about the Pandora video. It was just that he didn't have a choice but to trust them at the moment, but he wasn't about to tell John that. Instead, something else came out of his mouth.

"Professor McKenzie, there's something else you should know about Bill."

John didn't even look back. "What's that?"

"He's not like Pandora or Abel, as far as any of us could tell," Oak told him. "He's lucid. He has the same personality as he did as a human, and he recognized us. For all intents and purposes, I'd say inside, he's still the same Bill we all know."

The other researcher didn't say anything. Instead, he took another long sip of his scotch.

"I thought you'd like to know," Oak continued, "so you wouldn't think you've lost your son yet. And if it means anything, John, it's good that he's lucid. Bill's sharp. He'll take care of himself until we can find a way to help him. You don't have t--"

"Lucid," John repeated. "An XP-650 that's lucid."

He started for the door. For a long while, he didn't say anything. He only finished off the rest of the scotch, the clink of the ice cubes against glass providing the only sound in the room. Then, placing a hand on the door knob, he said two words without even looking at Oak.

"That's interesting."

With that, he turned the knob and walked into the hallway.

---

Blue lightning hit the dirt with a crack. Dust swirled upwards in a brown cloud, and a coppery smell hung in the air. Bill landed on all fours, his claws digging into the earth to anchor him. Wincing, he crouched in a patch of tall grass and peered through the blades to his opponent. Several feet away, a manectric stepped forward, his teeth bared in a growl. Sparks crackled off his blue and yellow body as his nostrils flared to catch any sign of his metal victim.

This is bad, Bill thought.

Inside his mind, he felt Adam's presence. Do humans normally state the obvious?

Now isn't the best time for sarcasm, Adam. What should I do?

On the contrary. Now is the perfect time. As for what you should do, is it not obvious to you? Get up and fight. Use the new moves you have discovered.

Bill groaned. Stiffly, he forced himself up and held his claws out to his sides. The muscles in his fingers tensed against his armor while his skin began to glow white. On the other side of the field, the manectric lifted his muzzle to the sky and belted out a long, loud howl. Bill hesitated, trembling as he watched the dog arch his back and bare his teeth just a bit more.

Now, Bill, Adam ordered. Its guard is down. Strike now!

Without thinking, Bill launched forward, his glowing claws sweeping low. The manectric watched him with steady eyes, but he didn't move from his spot.

Why isn't he moving? Bill asked himself.

Although the thought crossed his mind, he pushed forward. With more speed than he thought he had, his hand swung down, fingers slashing across the crest on manectric's head. The dog yelped and emitted a burst of sparks, but he stood his ground as Bill stumbled to the side and fell to one knee.

A miss, Adam growled. Get up and do it again.

Nodding, Bill tried to stand, but suddenly, his body went numb. Crying out, he dropped back down, planting his hands on the earth. He winced and forced himself to look at his arm as electricity arced off his skin.

Static, he thought. I should have seen that coming.

What is that? Adam asked.

Pokémon on this planet have different special abilities. The manectric species... there's a chance some of them have Static. It induces paralysis.

Paralysis. Does that mean...?

It means... Bill struggled to move, but his body was locked in place. It means that I can't move.

A bark pulled Bill's attention back to the battle. With some effort, he lifted his chin enough to look directly forward. There, the manectric stood, panting and smiling like a puppy. Then, his mouth pulled towards the front of his muzzle while electricity gathered in a dome of sparks around him. Bill felt cold; he recognized the stance right away.

Thunder. No!

Struggling against paralysis, Bill forced his mouth open, but he wasn't quite quick enough to say a word. All of the electricity surrounding manectric surged through the air in a golden beam, and with so little space between the canine and his target, Bill took the full hit in a matter of seconds.

He couldn't even scream. One moment, he was kneeling in front of manectric. The next, he was lying on his back, lips parted slightly and eyes wide open. He was pretty sure he would have felt an overwhelming amount of pain if he could feel anything at all besides a tingling sensation all over his body.

You, Bill, are an embarrassment, Adam drawled.

While Bill felt the parasite recede from his mind, his canine opponent padded around his head and sniffed at Bill's face. A few seconds later, Thom peered over the two of them.

"Wow," he said. "You're really out of it this time."

Something landed with a thump next to Bill's head. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a blotch of brown, an object he knew to be Thom's bag.

"Now, let's see," Thom said, his hands rustling through his bag. "I know I have a revive in here somewhere..."

"Thomas Wattson!"

Thom yelped and jumped to his feet, knocking his pack to the ground. Whirling around, he came eye-to-eye with Ellen, who was storming towards them with Chansey not far behind her. On the crest of the hill above them, Thom could see Veronica watching them with a growlithe by her side.

"What did you do?!" she demanded.

"Uh, um..." Thom reached up to rub the back of his neck. "Training?"

"Training?" Ellen's voice grew shriller as she stood just inches from Thom. She placed her hands on her hips, and her lips were drawn tight. "Look at him! He can't even get up!"

She dropped to her knees beside Bill and passed a hand over his nose and mouth.

"He's still breathing. That's a good sign." Looking directly into his eyes, she added, "Bill? Can you hear me?"

It took him awhile to muster up enough energy to speak, but when he did, he replied hoarsely, "Oh, hello, Nurse Joy. Daijoubu da."

Ellen threw a glare over her shoulder at Thom before turning to Chansey. "Chansey, he's just conscious enough for Softboiled to work. Would you please?"

Chansey trilled and saluted. Stepping forward, she pulled her egg out of its pouch as it began to glow yellow. A small orb of light pulled away from its smooth surface and drifted towards Bill. He felt its warmth touch his metal skin, and slowly, the rest of his body began to feel warm as he gradually began to recover his energy. Still, although the feeling of weakness was starting to ebb, the numbness in his body persisted.

Noticing that he still wasn't moving, Ellen said, "Bill? Can you do me a favor? Can you wiggle your fingers?"

Squinting, he concentrated his energy on moving. His fingers remained still, and he still couldn't feel them.

"He's paralyzed," Ellen murmured. "Chansey, use Heal Bell, please."

Stuffing her egg back into her pouch, Chansey brought her arms close together and began to sing in a series of high-pitched, long notes. Her body took on a blue glow as ripples of light ebbed off her body. Bill closed his eyes completely and allowed himself to relax. The music seemed to seep into him, as if he wasn't just listening but absorbing it into his muscles. It left him feeling an unpleasant, tingling sensation through his limbs, like the feeling he got after his foot fell asleep.

"Try flexing your fingers now."

Bill opened his eyes and realized that Chansey's music had ended. Keeping his eyes on Nurse Joy, he tried moving the fingers of his right hand. Without any trouble at all, each one of them curled into a fist. Smiling, he sat up, but as soon as he did, he swayed and nearly fell backwards. Ellen grabbed him by the arm and gently supported him.

"Careful! You're still recovering," she told him. "You should be fine if you take it easy for the rest of the day."

Nodding, Bill shifted to sit up on his own. "Thank you."

Ellen smiled, but as soon as she turned to Thom, her expression turned ice-cold. Thom froze, backing up slowly as his manectric whimpered.

"Using a gym leader's manectric against a low-leveled pokémon. You ought to be ashamed of yourself!" she snapped.

Thom held up his hands. "It was an accident! I was gonna go easy on him, but I just got, y'know, a little carried away."

"You induced paralysis on him and then proceeded to electrocute him. He could have died!"

"Ah, Nurse Joy," Bill said, "if I may, aren't you being a bit harsh on--"

Ellen didn't seem to notice, opting instead to move towards Manectric. She stooped down with her back towards Bill, who instantly fell silent. All of the nurse's attention went towards the dog for a few moments, examining his underside, his paws, his legs, and everything else she could go over in a few seconds. The dog waited obediently, mouth open and tongue lolling out of his muzzle at the attention he was receiving. When the examination was complete, Ellen sat back on her heels and put a hand on Manectric's crest.

"Chansey, Softboiled should be enough to take care of this cut. Otherwise, he didn't seem to sustain any other injuries, but give him another look over to make sure I didn't miss anything." Then, she stood and turned her icy glare back towards Thom. "As for you, Thom, how long have you been battling like this?"

While Chansey trilled and got to work, Thom looked skyward. "Uh, since this morning, I guess?"

"It's past three in the afternoon! You're telling me you've been battling him nonstop for hours?"

"Hey, not nonstop!" Thom protested. "We've had breaks... here and there."

"Thom, how could you?" Ellen replied. "We don't know anything about the ixodida or their limits, and you know Bill's new to this! He doesn't know how strong he is or how much he can take!"

Bill sat a little straighter. "Nurse Joy, I--"

"You can't go too hard on him," Ellen interrupted. "If he gets seriously hurt, I don't know how well I can fix him up."

Veronica crossed her arms and moved forward. "You know, maybe Thom has the right idea. Growlithe!"

The puppy stepped forward. Veronica took off her hat and bent down to put it firmly on her dog's head. Then, she stood, turned, and put some distance between herself and her pokémon.

"Bill," she said, "there are a lot of ixodida on this island, and they can attack at any moment. Therefore, we need to make sure you're ready to fight them." She turned and motioned to her dog. "If you can get my hat away from my growlithe, you'll earn my respect. If you can't, then Nurse Joy will just have to clean you off the hill. Growlithe, have fun. Got it?"

The dog barked and lowered her head. Her lips pulled back, revealing rows of sharp, white teeth. Already, orange sparks flicked between each of her fangs.

"Veronica," Ellen hissed. "What are you doing?"

She smiled. "Relax. I'm going easy on him. Go on, Bill."

Bill looked down at the growlithe, who was still snarling at him. He forced himself to his feet and fixed his eyes on the hat. Walking forward, he noticed that the growlithe wasn't moving, wasn't putting an obstacle between him and her. He almost called Veronica's task easy, if he wasn't so suspicious of it thanks to the officer's opinion of him.

Even with this in mind, he stooped down to reach for the hat. Before his fingers could get within an inch of its blue fabric, Growlithe lifted her head and spat out a ball of fire that hit Bill's shoulder. Although Bill could recognize it as Ember (and not a full Ember at that), he still felt searing pain radiate from where the ball struck him. Reeling back, he sucked in a breath through his teeth and covered his shoulder. Under his hand, he could feel his skin soften, and beneath that, it felt like his muscles and bones were on fire.

Of course, he thought. I'm a steel-type. I'm weak to fire. But I shouldn't be this weak.

"What's wrong, Bill?" Veronica asked, her eyes narrowing. "Afraid of a little fire?"

He glanced at her. "What? No! I..."

Setting his eyes back on Growlithe, he sighed. Then, he swept himself downward and swiped for the hat as quickly as he could.

He didn't notice the sparks in Growlithe's mouth until the Flamethrower hit him in the stomach.

Screaming, he flailed backwards and hit the ground with a bang. Closing his eyes, he tried to will away the burning sensation crawling across his torso. His fingers dug into the earth, ripping through clumps of dried grass. Only a couple of feet away, Growlithe opened her mouth again and released another stream of fire, this time using her tongue to twist it into a spiral headed straight for her target.

The next thing Bill felt was pain and heat. His eyes snapped open, and all around him, he saw orange light. Growlithe's fire twisted around him like a serpent, rising higher and higher until it obscured Bill completely in a towering inferno. Inside, Bill could only scream; even if the Fire Spin didn't bind him to the spot, his body refused to move thanks to the sheer amount of pain he was feeling. It felt like the fire had entered him and was cooking him from the inside out. Every nerve screamed, every muscle burned under his bubbling skin.

Over the roar of the fire surrounding him, he heard one other sound: a bark, a single loud bark that penetrated his brain. Right away, his bones felt chilled, and without thinking, he burst out of the fire cyclone and hit the ground just outside it. The fire dissipated shortly afterwards, and Bill was left shaking where he was on the ground.

In the ensuing silence, Veronica took her hat back from Growlithe and glanced towards Ellen's way. The nurse was staring at the blackened circle where the flaming tornado had been a second ago.

"Veronica," Ellen whispered. Then, shaking her head, she started forward. "Chansey! Quickly! Use Softboiled!"

Nodding, the happiness pokémon pulled her egg free from her pouch again. Raising it high in the air, she watched as it began to glow bright yellow. Just as it had not too long ago, the egg spat out a ball of yellow energy that floated gently towards Bill. It gently touched his half-melted skin and spread over his body, enveloping him in a yellow light. He felt the pain gradually recede, his skin reinforce itself and smooth itself out, and his energy come back to him until he was finally able to lift his head.

"I failed, didn't I?" he rasped.

"Like you wouldn't believe," Veronica replied.

"Hey!" Thom yelled. "What's the big idea, anyway?! I thought you said you were gonna go easy on him!"

"I did," she told him. "Compared to the ixodida, anyway. You keep babying him, and he won't be in any condition to fight. You've seen ixodida. They don't show any mercy when they battle. If he's not prepared to give it his all, then he's useless."

Bill sat up. He had nothing to say, but he knew Veronica was right. If he couldn't learn how to fight against any normal pokémon, how could he expect to protect anyone?

"Besides, we just got a radio message from the Caravan," Veronica continued. "They're staying at the Winstrate Estate right now, and they should be here within the next few days. If that thing isn't ready to prove to them that he'll be an asset to our side, then I'd hate to see what they'd do to him."

Instantly, Thom's eyebrows went up. "The Caravan? They're coming for us?"

"Of course they are. There's people here, and they don't abandon refugees for any reason."

"The Caravan?" Bill whispered as Thom went off on another list of questions.

Ellen nodded. "They're a band of strong trainers that travels all across Hoenn. They stop in places like Mauville to protect survivors and take them to safe places at the edges of the region. They've been through here once, but they couldn't take all of us then."

Bill turned to look at Ellen. For a long while, all he did was study her face, tuning out the conversation Thom and Veronica were having around them. Ellen's expression softened, and she gently grasped Bill's arm.

"Come on. We should get you back to the pokémon center. You've been hurt pretty badly, and Chansey's Softboiled can only do so much."

With some effort and her help, he rose to his feet. "Nurse Joy..."

She offered him a smile and whispered, "It's okay. Don't listen to her. There are people at the center who have already figured out a way to get the Caravan to take you with us."

He could only give her a confused look as she led him past Thom and Veronica.

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