Anima Ex Machina: Seventeen
In the first act, there is a pistol on the wall.

The security system of Polaris Institute was top-of-the-line. Every second within its halls was on record in some way. Every conversation was taped. Every motion was filmed. Each clip from the countless recorders and cameras was meticulously stored within Polaris's security database, and these were carefully kept by the complex's security forces.

Of course, with the proper access codes, one could tap into these security records, and John McKenzie had them. Within his locked, darkened office, he sat at the desk and computer, the only two objects that occupied it as of yet. One hand was on the mouse; his other hand held the bulky headphones to his left ear.

On the screen was a single window. A list of files were queued in a media player, and these, in one of John's most noteworthy moments of professionalism, were blanket-labeled the Adam Files.

Although his team was expecting him in one laboratory or another, he left them to study XP-650A. He, meanwhile, spent hours poring over each video. Silently, he watched as a team of chansey pinned his son's limbs to a bed while doctors struggled to inject anesthetic after anesthetic into his body. He didn't flinch as he listened to his son's screaming, the babbling, the whimpering, the cracking of bones. He felt nothing as he watched the creature shed his son's skin, use his hands to claw at everything within reach, thrash against the bonds that pinned him to the bed. It should have been horrific, but John tried his best to remain as professional as possible. Even when his heart pounded and the bile rose to the back of his mouth, he sat and forced himself to keep watching. It was in the name of science, after all.

Yet, one video caught him completely off-guard. It was the second-to-last one. By then, his child was recognizable only by his face; every other part of him was a monster. John had watched hours of the creature barely even pretending to be the human he knew. He had expected nothing else but more footage of the demon lashing out against its bonds, but this time, the last time, Bill simply woke up.

Intrigued, John watched as Professor Oak had the cuffs taken off. He watched as Oak entered the room and Bill, while crying and shuddering with his hands on his head, struggled to adjust. Minutes marched on, and the creature John watched became steadily calmer. The shivering ceased. His hands drew away from his scalp. He stopped fighting against his own body and eventually came to look into Professor Oak's eyes.

Then, for the first time in a long time, John McKenzie heard his son's true voice.

"I don't have much of a choice," he said.

Professor Oak's expression remained calm through his response. "Of course you do. You know how the ethical codes work these days. If you said you'd be uncomfortable with it, we wouldn't be able to conduct anything on you, not even an interrogation. You'll always have a say, Bill."

"No," Bill replied, not even missing a beat, "I really don't, and it has nothing to do with what the ethical codes state. Professor, as a researcher, it's my duty to do everything in my power to help this project. While I don't know if you'll let me resume my place on the staff, I can't say no to allowing you to get as much information as possible from me."

"You're really starting to sound like your old self now."

John sat back and sighed. "Indeed he is, Sam. Indeed he is. But why?"

With a flick of the mouse, John moved the cursor to the next video. Clicking on it, he was presented with the image of a hallway. Corpses of security staff littered the sides and corners, and a fainted jynx lay limp on the floor. Standing over her were two sides of a war. On the one side, he immediately recognized Professor Nettle, and by her sides were interns and other scientists, all ready and waiting for her commands. On the other side were a crouched electric-type ixodida and the creature he was studying. Right away, it struck John as strange that the steel-type wasn't crouched like his companion was. Rather, he stood with his hands open, palms facing his would-be attackers. Turning up the volume, John found himself entering a conversation.

"Wait!" Bill exclaimed. "Just let us go. Professor, he can kill us all, but he won't if--"

"He's intelligent," Nettle interrupted.

The blonde to her left smirked. "Mm-hmm. Not at all like Pandora or Abel. Giovanni will adore this."

John practically threw the headphones onto the keyboard. The video continued to play as he placed his hands on the desk. Bowing his head, he breathed. Outwardly, he showed no other signs of shock; his face wasn't pale, his eyes weren't wide, and his breathing was natural. Inside, he began to feel a creeping sensation crawl under his skin.

It only got worse when he realized he wasn't the only one in the room.

"Codename Adam is a remarkable specimen, don't you agree?" a voice drawled.

He straightened and sat back in his chair. Although he wasn't smiling, he still responded as casually as he would if Professor Oak had made the comment.

"I don't believe I've met you," he said.

"I wouldn't be surprised, Professor McKenzie," the red-head said as she stepped forward. "I was promoted long after you left the firm."

She placed her hands heavily on the back of his chair. As she leaned down to put her mouth close to his ear, he could feel her breath and warmth looming all around him.

"The famous John McKenzie," she murmured. "They still talk about you. It's not often that one quits Team Rocket, much less someone as important to our operations as you."

He shrugged. "Forgive me for saying this, but of course I would. I realized a little too belatedly that maintaining a relationship with you wasn't profitable. Mr. di Roketto understands, most likely."

"Less likely than you assume," Ariana responded. "You're a very difficult man to track down, professor, but Giovanni is an equally patient man. Perhaps you shouldn't have left Goldenrod City."

"Hm. Of all the times to decide not to bring a drink with me into the laboratory." He clicked the media player closed. "Forgive me, my dear, but even if Mr. di Roketto wanted me that badly, he surely should have realized by now that capturing me would be pointless. It's been almost twenty years. Given that I haven't heard anything noteworthy about your organization in the news, I think it's safe to say that the project was a failure anyway, and besides that, I had twenty years to go to the authorities, didn't I?"

"It was hardly a failure, and I believe you're a smart enough man to know why going to the authorities would be a foolish move."

At last, John cracked a grin. "You can't use my family against me, love. My wife can take care of herself, my daughters were raised to be strong, and I'd hardly think you'd waste my son on bait. I wouldn't be stupid or sentimental enough to take it anyway."

"You have it all wrong this time, Professor McKenzie," Ariana replied. "Perhaps we would have considered all of that earlier, but the circumstances are quite different now. As I've said... Codename Adam is a very fascinating specimen, isn't he?"

The creeping feeling returned in full force, and the smile faded from John's face. Still, he kept his eyes on the computer, although he forced himself to relax as much as he could.

"It's a grave mistake to underestimate a McKenzie, least of all William," he said.

"I'm not underestimating anyone. I'm simply asking you for a favor."

"Which is?"

Ariana's hands moved to John's shoulders. He wanted to shrug them off, but he knew the woman would use any indication of emotion against him. She was a member of Team Rocket, after all. They were all the same that way.

"Study him," she said. "Our operatives are right now attempting to locate him, and we have infiltrated every position possible within this institute. We can give you everything you need to unlock the secret of why Adam is such a unique case."

"So you can use that to create an army of XP-650."

Ariana withdrew, allowing her hands to fall to her sides. Exhaling, John shook his head and logged off the computer.

"Team Rocket never changes," he muttered. "Not even when it was run by that nitwit of a woman. No offense intended, ma'am."

"Giovanni would agree with you concerning that statement. What about my proposal, professor?"

John crossed his arms. "Why bother me about it? Why not one of your operatives?"

Ariana grinned. "Because Bill would trust you the most. You are his father, after all, aren't you?"

As soon as she finished, John burst into laughter. Ariana took a step back, her expression faltering as she eyed her associate carefully. In the meantime, he stood, wiped tears from his eyes, and gave her a smile.

"All this time you've been chasing me, you really never learned anything about me?" he asked. "I'm the last person William would trust. We're not exactly on speaking terms, you know. He thinks I'm a lazy, womanizing, drunken git, and I respond with, 'Thank you, and I was hoping you'd be a girl.' We compliment each other all the time like that. Our relationship is the envy of every father and son across Johto."

He sauntered over to her and leaned in close to her face, forcing her to reel backwards.

"Here's a lesson you could learn from Giovanni," he told her. "If you're gonna ask someone to do something for you, you'd best be prepared with either something they desperately want or a fine ultimatum. Right now, there's nothing I want, and if I had a choice between working for you again or saving William from the pits of Hell, I'd say I couldn't imagine anyone who would enjoy a place as boring as Heaven anyway."

Turning, he walked towards the door. Ariana didn't bother to stop him. She simply stared as John unlocked the door and turned the handle.

"Professor McKenzie," Ariana abruptly said, "what if I told you I could pay you handsomely?"

John opened the door a crack. "Funny. That's what Giovanni said the first time around."

Then, he left the room before the executive could say a word.

---

"Bill?"

He opened his eyes to see sunlight filtering through a lush, green oak tree. Sitting up, he stretched, taking in the warmth of the sun and spring breeze. Turning his head, he caught the red-eyed gaze of his companion. Lanette looked different then. Her hair was shorter, and most of it hung down to her shoulder blades except for a few orange locks clipped to the back of her head by a barrette. Her clothing was neater. No rips, no tears, nothing out-of-place on either the crisp, white blouse, the lab coat, or the green pencil skirt. Most importantly, on her face was a sharp frown, yet Bill knew that a few seconds ago, the softness of her voice betrayed a completely different emotion.

"What on Earth are you doing out here?" she asked. "You have ten minutes until you speak in front of the most prominent researchers in the nation, and here you are, sleeping under a tree!"

Bill rubbed his eyes. "I was not sleeping. I was meditating."

"I thought you didn't like being outside."

"I don't like speaking in front of large groups of people, either."

"Too bad. It's in your job description."

"Where?"

"Right under writing theses, attending Symposium events, and the thousand other things you say you don't like to do. Why are you a researcher anyway, Bill?"

He stood and dusted himself off. After a moment of thought, he replied, "The spare moments I spend studying anything at all make it worth it. How do I look?"

Lanette eyed him carefully. Glancing at her in response to the silence, Bill noticed her press her lips together and fight off a smile. He looked down at himself and then back at Lanette. Then, with a tilt of his head, he gave her a glare.

"Come on, Lanette. I'm wearing the plainest outfit I own," he said.

"It's not that. You, uh..." She pointed at his head and lowered the volume of her voice. "You have leaves in your hair."

"What?"

He shook his head vigorously and then ran his fingers through his curls. Sure enough, a rain of dead leaves and leaf debris rained down around him. Straightening his gaze, he pulled his bangs out of his eyes.

"How about now?" he asked.

Relaxing, Lanette let herself grin sympathetically as she reached up to pluck a twig out of her partner's hair.

"Better," she replied. "Now, come on. I promised Brigette I wouldn't be long, and I think poor Celio will give himself a heart-attack from waiting for you."

Bill ran his fingers through his hair one more time. "And Bebe?"

"If we don't get back soon, she'll think we... well, you know Bebe."

He sighed. "Indeed I do."

"Absolutely no refinement," Lanette added dryly. "Why on Earth would we do that kind of in the open anyway?"

Instantly, Bill shot her a wide-eyed look. His face grew bright red as he snapped, "Or at all, I should hope!"

She simply looked at him.

"Or I mean to say... you and I... we're, ah..." Bill hesitated. "I've gotten into a bit of a mess, haven't I?"

"Once again," Lanette said, "but I forgive you because you're you."

She turned to walk away. Bill stared at her back for several beats before straightening.

"Hey! What do you mean by that?!" he called.

Without even turning around, she answered, "You're a genius, Bill. Figure it out!"

He stood rooted to his spot as he watched the distance between the two of them grow larger. Then, he glanced towards the blue sky and clenched his teeth.

"Adam," he said, "get out of my head."

Snapping back into reality, Adam let the image in front of it dissolve into what Bill was seeing. Instead of the warm campus, the two of them looked at a bare wall in a cold, dark building. Bill was sitting, not standing, and their hand was still chained to the parapet around the catwalk, not running through soft, curly hair.

Forgive me, Adam drawled, but Lanette seems too intriguing to resist.

Bill narrowed his eyes at the wall. "You weren't supposed to see that."

On the contrary, Bill. We are two halves of a symbiotic pair. So long as you and I coexist within this body, I have every right to know the darkest secrets of your mind. Perhaps one of them could be important. Besides, I would hardly call that particular memory dark.

"It wasn't," Bill admitted, "but I would still appreciate some sense of privacy when it comes to my memories."

I have no desire to argue with you this time.

"Then don't."

Bill shut his eyes again. His encounter with Lanette left him with a sour taste in his mouth, and because of that, he wasn't in the mood to deal with Adam. Slowing his breathing, he cleared his mind and sat in silence, his hand hanging heavily within the cuff. In that state, only one question floated into his mind. It filled every crevice of his brain, and his lack of an answer to it gave him an uncomfortable, painful feeling in his chest.

There is something else I learned from your memories besides the depths to which you care for your Lanette, Adam commented.

At the sound of the parasite's voice, Bill winced. He opened one eye and stared at the ceiling. Although the last thing he wanted at that point was to deal with Adam, he didn't stop the creature right away.

It is fascinating that humans had so many different languages, but you all distilled it down to one hybrid, it said.

Bill sighed in exasperation and shut his eye again. "What are you on about now?"

Your name. What does it mean? William. From an old place -- Germany, it was called. Yet your people did not consider themselves German. No, not for nearly a thousand years.

"It doesn't matter anymore, Adam."

But it does, the parasite drawled. You search for your purpose, but you need not look any further than your own name. Wil. From the word will, meaning the unwavering inner strength to carry out one's desires. Helm. From the word helmet, a metaphor for protection. Together, they mean "willful protector," he who defends others regardless of the risk. Your purpose is there, Bill. Every moment of your life is pointing you towards protecting your people. Do not give up on them, even if they turn you down.

For a few moments, Adam waited in silence. Then, when not a word came from his host, it tried to push itself back into his mind to search for his thoughts. It was mildly surprised to feel a division between them. Pressing against the wall around Bill's mind, Adam realized that the human was learning, was actively attempting to keep the parasite out of his head. Amused, Adam withdrew and mentally circled around Bill, searching for a weak point.

On the other hand, it is curious that you shorten your name. A bastardization of your true purpose. Perhaps you already realized this?

For a second time, Bill sighed. He opened his eyes and glared at the wall straight ahead of him. "Adam, I'd like to make two comments. First, I have absolutely no problem with my real name. I simply prefer being called Bill because I like the way it sounds. Second, if this is the best you can do with attempting to force me to act, I would like to say that if I hadn't already made up my mind and if my actions would be determined by your charisma, I would almost certainly prefer sitting here to die."

Adam stopped where it was. Already made up your mind?

"Yes. I never liked sitting around doing nothing, and I detest the idea of suicide. The only reason why I'm still here is because--" At this point, Bill lifted his arm, allowing the handcuffs to rattle against his wrist and the bars of the parapet. "--there seems to be a minor inconvenience preventing me from escaping. Furthermore, the longer you continue to distract me, the less time I can spend answering the question of how we might be able to resolve this issue."

Oh. You should have said something. I could have offered assistance.

Raising an eyebrow, Bill lifted his hand just enough to pull the chain taut between his wrist and the bars behind him. He eyed the few inches of chain carefully, long enough to give Adam a good look.

"The chain is too short to cut with claws or my tail, Adam, even if I could concentrate enough to execute an attack properly."

Hm. I would not be so simple as to assume if I were you, Adam replied. Try pulling.

"Pulling," Bill repeated incredulously.

Correct.

"You're serious, aren't you?"

Gravely.

Bill looked towards the ceiling and considered Adam's advice. It sounded crazy in his mind, but crazy or not, he couldn't think of many options himself. Knowing this, he humored Adam and pulled his arm until the cuffs resisted. When it did, he snapped his limb forward to make it clear that it wasn't going anywhere.

No, no. Pull harder.

"...Harder?"

Correct.

Pressing his lips together, Bill pulled. Again, the cuffs held.

Slower. Put as much force into it as you can. Do not be afraid of damaging your wrist. You will not, I assure you.

Bill hesitated. He fixed his gaze on the chain, already pulled as far as it would go. What would yanking it harder do?

Sensing his uncertainty, Adam added, You must learn to trust me, Bill. I need your body to survive. Therefore, everything I tell you will be in your best interests.

Relaxing just a bit, Bill whispered, "A-all right."

Then, he pulled at the chain. At first, it continued to resist, but the more he leaned away from the bars, the more it creaked beneath his weight. The metal stretched like flimsy plastic, thinning gradually until at last, it snapped, sending Bill crashing to the floor of the catwalk. At once, he sat up and lifted his wrist. The severed chain dangled from a bent cuff still around his arm.

"What is this?" he breathed.

Refined strength, Adam explained. I have taken the liberty of adjusting how well your body is capable of performing physical work. Call it another gift.

Bill held his head and shakily stood. "How many more gifts did you give me?"

Enough. Is there a problem?

He shook his head. "No. I just... it's quite a bit to take in. I wish you would just tell me what you would did to me."

You would never understand until you learned for yourself. Is that not one of your personal defining traits?

Bill turned and tilted his head to the side. "What are you implying?"

Ignoring him, Adam continued, But no matter. You are free now. What is your next move?

Wrapping his hands around the rail, Bill peered downward. Adam was right in one respect: the need to learn more about himself had to be put off for later. Right then, he had to think of what to do after that. Focusing, he quickly scanned the room for a possible way out. Gazing straight downward, he realized there were at least two stories between himself and the floor of the battlefield, and lying neatly beneath the catwalk was the ladder he had used to follow Lanette and Veronica. He knew exactly what their intentions were, and they had nothing to do with giving him a chance to escape.

"We need to get down somehow. Do I have a power that would let me survive this far of a drop?"

Several, but why do we not simply use the way I had entered this place the last time?

Bill looked around. He had nearly forgotten that this wasn't his first time in the Mauville Gym, but no matter how hard he tried to remember, nothing was coming to mind as to how his partner had broken into the gym. Adam noticed his silence, and in the ensuing beat, Bill could feel the parasite in his head.

Give me control. I will show you.

Stopping, Bill considered it with a shudder. At first, he could think of a thousand reasons why Adam's proposal felt wrong. Then again, what choice did he have? Adam knew his body more than he did at that point, and although it was his job to test unknowns, there was a line between scientific curiosity and suicidal levels of crazy. Reluctantly, he closed his eyes and let himself be pulled back into his head. From that point forward, he trained his mind not to think about the possibilities as his eyes opened on their own.

"It seems you have begun to learn," Adam commented. "You trust me."

Adam, I'll do whatever needs to be done. Please keep us safe.

"Did you think I would fail at that much?"

Adam unwound their tail and snaked it out from under Bill's shirt. The parasite stretched, dropped to all fours, and darted across the catwalk a wall at one end. Bill watched from inside, trying to piece together what his companion was about to do until he noticed the rows of holes dotting the wall. As Adam approached, Bill noticed that they stopped a few feet from the floor of the catwalk but ran straight upwards to just beyond his field of vision. He couldn't imagine where they might have led until he noticed chunks of plaster and dust littering that end of the catwalk. Adam ignored these as he bound over them to the wall, leaving Bill no time to think about them.

Then, Adam sprang up and latched onto the wall with both hands and feet. For a moment, Bill was left completely speechless, unable to react as Adam scaled the wall. At times, the parasite used the holes as footholds; at others, it created completely new ones by punching its claws into the plaster. Bill struggled to process all of this until, finally, his mind came up with one line.

Surely you're joking.

"Why?" Adam asked. "Is this amusing to you?"

Certainly not! Bill paused. It's just... defiant of... almost everything that I was thinking.

"I must reiterate, Bill. Stop seeing our body as human. It will be much easier to accept that you no longer have the limitations you once did."

Bill couldn't think of anything to say to that. Instead, he sat back and watched his body traverse the wall, eventually arriving at the ceiling. There, Adam continued, hooking their tail directly into the tiles as an added anchor. Fixing their eyes on a small hole hidden above one of the gym's lights, Adam skittered quickly upside-down until it climbed through the roof.

Outside, the sun sat high in the sky, forcing Adam to squint at the sudden, harsh light. Yet, even then it didn't slow down as it darted across the roof to the edge. It peered down over the parapet along the roof to an empty alley behind the gym. Although Bill couldn't think straight, he could tell it was well above a few feet from the ground to where they were.

That's... that's a long way down, Bill mumbled. Perhaps we should--

Adam mounted the parapet and launched itself directly downward. It pretended not to hear Bill's screams.

The fall was short, ending in Adam landing with a bang on the pavement. The cement beneath its hands and knee was cracked and indented, but it showed no signs of pain as it waited until Bill fell quiet. Pushing off the ground with its hands, it slowly rose to its feet. Then, Adam shuttered and retreated, pitching Bill's consciousness forward. Finally in control once more, Bill trembled and breathed. He could feel the adrenaline Adam generated, the tingle of his muscles and bones beneath the parts of him that hit the ground, the ache in his tail from hours of being wound around his waist... but otherwise, he wasn't hurt.

"Remarkable," he breathed.

Inside his head, he felt Adam curl up and rest, but he could tell the parasite still had his attention focused on him. He moved a hand and prepared to speak. A thousand questions stumbled over each other in a frantic dash to escape his mouth.

Before a single one could get out, however, a scream rose from a distance, followed by the sounds of gunshots. Jolting out of his meditations, Bill looked to the sky. The shrieks were uncomfortably familiar to him.

"Ixodida calls..." His eyes widened. "The Caravan!"

His feet sprang into a run. He didn't think twice about it. All he could do was imagine what was happening blocks away.

Bill, Adam said, what are you doing?

Turning a corner, he forced himself to pick up speed. "They're in danger!"

And you plan on saving them?

"Yes!"

By any means?

Bill stopped under a streetlamp. His body wasn't built for speed, and because of that, he could tell he would have to take it easy if he wanted energy left over for a possible fight. Placing a hand on the pole beside him, he panted.

"Yes!" he finally replied.

Even after they trapped us?

He nodded and bent over.

Why?

Bill lifted his head. Several different faces flashed across his brain, but the one that lingered was Lanette's, fresh from that memory Adam had summoned not too long ago. He felt Adam slide into his thoughts and look.

Her? You must care deeply for her.

Bill stood straight and frowned.

Why do you insist on trying with her when she does not see you as her friend?

"Because she's her," Bill answered simply.

Before Adam could argue, he started into another run.

Behind him, a pair of purple eyes peered out from the alley by the gym. 009 pursed her lips as her hand reached up to press a button on a communicator attached to her ear.

"This is 009. Target spotted."

"But not captured?" Nettle hissed over the device.

"Good things come to those who wait, Professor. Trust me."

With that, she stalked out into the empty street, taking her time to follow.

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