Anima Ex Machina: Fifteen
A storm is coming.

When the quarantine came down on Hoenn, the Japanese government didn't count heads. It was too much in a rush, too preoccupied to realize that there were hundreds upon hundreds of people who never got off the island by the time the restrictions on the ferries and planes were announced. The people of Hoenn already knew about the threat of the ixodida, of the red parasites that traveled in waves to consume every pokémon in their path and of the humanoid beasts that slaughtered humans for no apparent reason. Some people even watched it happen with their own eyes. Once the news broke out within the region about the alien creatures, the public naturally panicked. Riots broke out in Slateport and Lilycove as citizens became desperate to leave the island as soon as possible. More people died in the rush than in the ixodida attacks, yet the increasing number of disappearances in the heart of Hoenn made the crushing crowds at its port cities preferable to waiting in the wild.

The Japanese government knew about the stampedes, but there was nothing they could do. Each city could only hold so many ferries, the airports could only field so many air crafts, and the military helicopters could only lift so many people out of the region. At the same time, the ixodida sightings steadily increased, and the military feared that they couldn't repel the alien swarms as quickly as they appeared.

They hadn't even thought of the quarantine for this reason. If everything was going exactly as they were in the months after the news broke out, the government would have simply continued and evacuation until the entire region was uninhabited. Instead, something else occurred that no one could have predicted, something that completely changed the game: the St. Lucia Incident.

Ferries from Slateport City carried Hoenn residents to two places besides interregional transport: Pacifidlog Town and Dewford Town. Besides Mossdeep, Ever Grande, and Sootopolis, those were the largest settlements outside of mainland Hoenn, so they were deemed safe areas by the government -- safe havens where the region's citizens who had nowhere else to go could relocate until the military stabilized the mainland. However, only a few months after the evacuation began, one of the trainers, one who had traveled from Fortree after learning that his home had been annihilated, carried with him a seemingly innocuous backpack. Inside, it held the usual supplies for a trainer: food, water, his pokémon... and an ixodida parasite.

He wasn't aware that it was there, of course; he couldn't begin to guess when it might have crawled inside. Of course, he would never have time to guess. The parasite fed off his food supply without him knowing, and at the bottom of his pack, it laid eggs.

One could only come to the logical conclusion from this.

The ferry, known as the St. Lucia, went down in history the day that single trainer opened his backpack. A sea of parasites erupted from within it; he was the first to be infected. Thirty-seven other passengers fell victim, and the captain, a small portion of his crew, and several terrified civilians barricaded themselves in the control room. This small band of survivors lasted for two weeks on whatever supplies they shared between them while outside, an ixodida army began forming. The captain kept in contact with the military through the radio, and although he and the others could see part of the NDF's naval fleet outside their window by the third day, no help for them arrived.

At the end of the second week, as supplies gave out, as several of the survivors descended into insanity, and as the fully-formed ixodida began pounding on the doors, the remaining sane members of the tiny band said their goodbyes and asked the NDF for relief.

The St. Lucia took a torpedo to the side of her hull and sank a safe distance from Dewford Town. 400 civilians, twenty crew members, 387 infected, zero survivors. This single sinking was considered the worst maritime disaster in Hoenn's history, and the details surrounding it were instantly classified.

After the event, thereafter known as the St. Lucia Incident, the government realized that no ferry could be safe without vigorous security measures. For this reason, the quarantine fell. No one within the region could leave the island without being checked at the militarized Slateport or Lilycove. This meant days of quarantine as units checked every passenger thoroughly. Ferries were strictly organized, and everything going into and out of the region was categorized. There were still hundreds upon hundreds of people stranded in the heart of Hoenn, and the ability to leave was suddenly reserved for the very few.

That's why the Caravan began. In Rustboro, a group of survivors led by the former sailor known as Mr. Briney realized that no one official was about to help the last remnants of the region, so they gathered everything they could. Buses, trucks, cars -- all filled with clothes, tents, medical supplies, and people who knew how to use them. Their goal: to collect as many survivors as possible, defend them from the ixodida invasion, and deliver them, if they met government standards, to any of the military bases around Hoenn. Some of them would be carried to safety. Others were assimilated into the Caravan's army to help defend the rapidly expanding mobile settlement.

They found Lanette Chastain not at Fallarbor Town, as she usually was before the quarantine. Rather, she was several miles to the east, closer to Fortree. With the Hoenn League virtually frozen at the height of the evacuation, Lanette's storage system was shut down, and most pokémon were distributed among Japan's other regional networks. Lanette herself was summoned with her sister, Brigette, to a place called Point Zero. Their mission: to investigate the strange pokémon that had appeared around the area.

Unfortunately, the Chastain sisters never made it.

Lanette never spoke about what happened west of Fortree during that time, and even months later, she couldn't recall how long she spent in the wilderness. Either way, the Caravan found her dehydrated, half-starved, delirious, alone, and covered in blood. Strangely, she wasn't infected.

It took her a week to recover physically, and once she was physically stable, she regained her sanity slowly but surely. Nonetheless, she never recovered from whatever happened those weeks ago. She was cold, distant, and most of all, intent on eradicating every ixodida she saw. The Caravan accepted her as part of its own military force, and she quickly climbed the loose ranks it developed until she became Briney's right-hand woman. Within the Caravan, they knew her as their strongest warrior and most brilliant adviser. Whatever she said, the others listened to her every word. Whatever she did, the others followed. They trusted her to protect them, and she never let them down.

That was why, when she landed at the Caravan's camp on the outskirts of Mauville, members of the Caravan immediately took notice of the expression on her face. She strode forward in the usual manner: straight-backed, head held high, a small frown on her lips. Yet, there was something else in her red eyes, a glint of an emotion no one had ever seen from her. Or perhaps it was the fact that her face was just a little paler than usual that tipped people off.

Whatever it was, as soon as she strode towards the center of the camp with Altaria in tow, a young, green-haired man looked up and started forward, his smile fading as he looked carefully at her expression.

"Vito," Lanette said firmly, "it's clean. Spread the word to have everyone pack and move out."

Her companion hesitated. She eyed him with a cold glance.

"Well?" she asked.

"Lanette, you..." Vito tilted his head. "What did you find?"

She bowed her head. Of course, she thought of Bill, the familiar face attached to an alien body. She had been thinking about it since the moment she left him standing on the streets. He thought like a human. That was the Bill she had always known. Yet, he was an ixodida. The rules were strict about his kind.

So, she would just have to deal with him herself. It would be cleaner that way. No fuss.

A hand wrapped around her wrist. She yanked her arm towards her chest and lashed her hand towards the neck of her would-be attacker. Vito instinctively tilted his chin back, allowing Lanette's fingers to brush his skin. The researcher stopped there, relaxing as soon as she realized who had just touched her. Her hand dropped to her side, and she turned her eyes away from the trainer. Vito watched her movements for a few seconds. Then, he moved forward and wrapped his arms around her. She didn't reciprocate, opting instead to leave her arms limp at her sides with her hands clenched into fists.

"Something's wrong in that city, isn't there?" Vito asked.

"Nothing dangerous," Lanette admitted. "There is a small colony of human and pokémon survivors located at the center of the city. The ones I was able to spot look ready to travel. We should have enough room on one of the buses for the majority of them, but the city is otherwise empty. If we need further supplies or transportation, we have a large selection."

"No ixodida?"

"No." Lanette's answer was quick and firm, even though her eyes narrowed a little at the lie.

Vito held her a little closer. "Lanette... you know if you need anything, you can tell me, right?"

Lanette's body went slack just a tiny bit. Her normally stiff and straight posture slouched slightly, and her fists loosened until her fingers dangled at her sides.

"Where is Hope?" she asked.

"Where she always is," Vito told her. "On the school bus. Julie's looking after her."

"Good," Lanette responded. "When we stop in Mauville, I want her to stay there. Have Julie watch her closely."

Vito pulled away from her, resting his hands on her shoulders. "You know she doesn't get off the bus anyway. Why would you need anyone to keep an eye on her?"

"Just make sure it's done," Lanette replied.

She pulled away from Vito, keeping her eyes on the camp in front of her. Her hand rose in a small motion, and Altaria fluttered to her side. Vito lifted one of his own hands, intending on grabbing her shoulder one more time. Instead, Lanette cut him off before he could say a word.

"Now, notify the rest of the Caravan that we're moving," Lanette ordered. "We should arrive at the Mauville Pokémon Center before nightfall so the scavenger party can get to work safely."

Vito lowered his hand. Although he wanted to say something more, instead, his voice uttered two words softly, almost beyond his control.

"Yes, ma'am."

---

In the middle of a field just north of Slateport City, a black helicopter lifted off and rose quickly into the blue sky. The wind from its blades made the sea of grass dance violently, but the two people standing beside a black jeep nearby hardly felt phased. Neither of them moved until the helicopter was well out of sight, when the wind died down into a calm, warm breeze.

The older of the two was the first to pull her eyes away from the sky. She scoffed and turned, the hem of her silver long coat whipping around her legs so hard that the stiff material smacked the white leather of her boots. A brown bag slipped off her shoulder as she opened the door to the passenger side of the jeep and sat down. Her blonde companion looked towards her and watched her pull out a black laptop.

"What are you doing?" 009 asked.

"Getting to work," Professor Nettle replied.

She opened the laptop and waited for the screen to flare to life. As soon as it did, it revealed that she already had a program open: a map of Hoenn with a single red dot on its face. There was no other information save for a set of numbers in the top right-hand corner.

"We need to go to these coordinates," she said.

"Hold on," 009 snapped. "Just what is that, and why do we need to go there? Giovanni ordered us to capture an XP-650, not go sightseeing."

Nettle glared at her. "If you would get it through that simple mind of yours to wait, I would be happy to explain."

009 opened the door on the driver's side and slid onto the seat. Slamming the door behind her, she turned and waited for Nettle to say something.

"Well?" she asked. "What is it?"

Nettle smirked. "While you were busy attempting to order me around in Polaris Institute, I took the liberty of attaching a small tracking device to McKenzie during his transformation. No matter where he goes on this island, I'll know exactly where he is so long as the device is still transmitting. And because Giovanni explicitly told us to capture him..."

009 reeled back. Her hand slipped under her hat and pulled free the key to the jeep. As she pushed it into the ignition, she couldn't help but smile.

"For once, Professor Nettle, I have to compliment you on your genius. I suppose you have a plan for what to do once we find him?"

"Of course."

Nettle reached into her bag for a second object. 009 looked towards her just in time to be presented with an object the size of a ping-pong ball. With a click of a button on its face, Nettle expanded it to reveal a purple and silver poké ball. Two pink bubbles protruded out of its violet hemisphere, and a silver M was etched between them.

"You plan to capture him with a poké ball?" 009 muttered.

"Not just any ordinary poké ball," Nettle answered. "You wouldn't know what this is, would you? Allow me to enlighten you. The Silph Company has always been a close partner of the Pokémon Symposium. Our finest members have been employees of Silph, and Silph frequently designs tools for Symposium scientists. Several years ago, Silph sent the Symposium's top researchers these: special poké balls meant for only the most powerful pokémon. I've kept it since then to wait for the perfect opportunity to use it. I believe now would be that time."

She reached over to 009 and pulled one of the girl's wrists towards her with one hand. The other placed the ball in 009's palm. Once she was released, 009 pulled the ball close and examined it with scrutinizing eyes.

"Take this," Nettle said. "Your stealth and battling skills will enable you to use it on McKenzie when he least expects it. I would myself, but I doubt he would allow me to come anywhere near him."

009 moved her eyes to her partner. "I still don't get it. What's so special about this ball?"

"That," Nettle replied, "is the Master Ball. It has the ability to capture absolutely any pokémon without fail."

---

To the east of Mauville City, the warm breeze characteristic of Hoenn burst into a gust of cold wind. The water in the river that divided Hoenn neatly in half churned, and its blue surface rose into white peaks. Just beneath the waves, a magikarp swam lazily, its blank stare on the waves above it. Because of its own distraction, it didn't see the four carvanha darting out of the dark depths of the river.

The only warning it received was a flash of red and blue just at the edge of its peripheral vision, but by the time it twisted itself to look at its attackers, four pairs of jaws sank their teeth into its sides. It cried out and lashed its tail from side to side in the closest thing to an attack it knew, but in response to the Splash attack, the carvanha simply ripped away from the carp. At once, the magikarp stopped struggling and turned until it floated belly up on the surface of the water. Its gills pumped frantically as its mouth flapped, taking in gulps of water it didn't process. All around it, the river began to turn pinkish red from the spurts coming from the four deep wounds in its sides.

Each of the four carvanha swallowed its own mouthful and glanced at the rest of its group. They twitched their tails in preparation for another attack. The fish darted towards the magikarp, jaws open and ready for another bite.

Right before they sank their teeth into their prey, three pairs of claws lashed into the churning water to grab most of the school. The last one stopped just before striking. Its eyes focused on three blurry objects just above the surface as it backed away. Then, it turned and darted into the darkness, leaving both its hunting party and the dying magikarp behind.

Above the water, three white ixodida hovered. Snowy, bird-like wings extended from their backs and flapped at regular intervals to generate bursts of wind. Each gust played with the white feathers covering their bodies and the long, white hair that cascaded from their heads. Golden claws on their feet brushed the surface of the water, and the matching set on their fingers clutched the fish in their hands. Their tails, each ending in a blunt tip, wagged happily as they brought their catches to their mouths. The carvanha screeched and lashed as the harpies' lips parted to reveal long, sharp fangs. Then, before the fish could slip away, the bird-women bit down into their prey, fangs sinking deep into flesh.

Almost immediately, the fish fell silent and still.

The harpies ate in peace for awhile, consuming every last scrap of the fish -- bones, rough scales, and everything else. After a few minutes, they paused as a new gust of wind blew over them. Their heads turned towards the sky to see another feathered ixodida stare steadily at them with a pair of black eyes. As he watched them, his long tail swung beneath him, its arrowhead tip cutting through thin air. Upon spotting him, each of the harpies dropped the remnants of their fish and bowed their heads low in respect.

"I have a task for you three," he said.

Craning his neck, he glanced towards the horizon. The three birds lifted their heads and turned to see the skyline of a city not far away.

"Within that human settlement, there is one of our own," the male told them. "I want the three of you to go there and find him. If he is a member of the Iron Clan, use any means necessary to bring him to me. Is that understood?"

The three harpies swiveled their heads towards him and screeched. Their wings extended, and with a flap, they ascended until they floated above him.

"Good," he said. "Go quickly before we lose him."

All three of them opened their mouths for a second screech as they twisted themselves in mid air. Before long, they shot towards the city, putting as much distance between their superior and themselves as possible.

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