Anima Ex Machina: Twenty
So the word of fire burns today.

In the middle of a grassy field sat a jeep. Sitting in the driver's seat was Professor Nettle with her dozing jynx by her side. All of Nettle's attention was focused on the screen of the laptop in front of her. On it was a window with a map of Mauville City and the surrounding area, and for the past half an hour, a blinking red dot within it was moving towards a white one. With each moment the dots grew closer together, the map zoomed in until Mauville completely disappeared from the screen. When that happened, Nettle smiled, and her jynx stirred and hummed. The human-shape pokémon sat up as her eyes began to glow bright blue, prompting Nettle to reach over and place a hand on her partner.

"Calm yourself, Jynx," she said. "It's only our field agent."

"Your field agent?!"

Nettle's gaze swept to the side to see 009 push her way through the tall grass surrounding the jeep. A scowl was planted across the blonde's face as she jumped into the air and landed with a bang on the jeep's hood. With both feet planted firmly on metal, she sent a furious glare at the scientist.

"In case you've forgotten, I outrank you according to Giovanni," the Black Tulip barked.

Nettle lowered her eyes to her laptop and pressed a button. A shelf slid out of the side, and an arm folded out of the side of the screen.

"In case you've forgotten, you seem to have fallen out of grace with Giovanni, so I would suggest you watch your own tongue if you're desperate to regain his favor," Nettle corrected. "Now. The Master Ball."

009 growled as she reached under her hat. Her hand drew free the purple poké ball, which she held at arm's length to show to the scientist. Putting the laptop on the dashboard, Nettle stood and reached to grab the ball, but just as soon as she stretched her arm towards 009, the agent smirked and pulled the ball away.

Nettle stood straight. "What do you think you're doing?"

"You really don't get procedure, do you?" the agent said. "Contact Giovanni first."

"Why would we do that?"

"Easy. We're going to hand XP-650 to him personally. That way, we're guaranteed a ticket home."

Nettle balled a hand into a fist and pounded the edge of the windshield. Jynx stood, her golden hair flaring to her sides as a blue aura surrounded her.

"Are you suggesting Mr. di Roketto can't be trusted? Do you realize that's treason?!" Nettle screeched.

"Hardly," 009 replied as she rolled her eyes. "That's what being a member of Team Rocket is all about, Professor Nettle. Giovanni would be proud of a member who bargains with him instead of just follows orders. You can't trust anyone in our business, you know."

"This is our leader, 009. How dare you question his intentions!"

"Seriously?" 009 flicked her wrist, and a black tulip slid from her glove to cover her smile with its dark blossom. "This is Team Rocket. Call Giovanni now, or I'll leave you here and find a way to contact him myself."

For a few moments, Nettle and 009 stared at one another intensely. Neither woman flinched in her expression -- not until Nettle sat back down and huffed. She pulled the computer onto her lap and began keying commands into a prompt window. 009 lowered her flower and grinned widely.

Suddenly, Jynx turned and exhaled a blast of cold air and snow. The wind cut through the air and swirled around an object high above them. Looking up, 009 and Nettle saw a solrock hovering directly overhead. One of its points glowed bright white just as the wind hit it, forcing it to release the pent-up energy in its stone body. The SolarBeam cut through the air, sailing directly for 009. Instantly, the agent jumped out of the way, diving into the grass just as the beam blasted into the hood of the jeep. Nettle ducked and screamed, covering her head with her arms as the windshield exploded.

When it was over, Nettle uncurled herself first, placing her hands on the laptop as the images on its screen flickered. Jynx stared intently at the solrock, her eyes glowing as she waited for orders. The Black Tulip stood in the tall grass, a hand wrapped around her arm while the other one gripped the Master Ball.

"Call Giovanni!" she demanded.

"How can we rendezvous with him now?!" Nettle snapped, her eyes peering over the screen at the smoking crater that had been the front of her vehicle.

"Just do it!"

At that order, Solrock tilted its body until it gazed at the laptop instead. As Nettle's fingers slipped to the keyboard, Solrock's eyes took on a blue glow. Jynx responded quickly, focusing her psychic energies into reaching out and grabbing Solrock, but before she could complete the attack, a ball of blue energy slammed into her back and washed over both her and her owner. The Water Pulse swept them out of the car, laptop and all, and sent them tumbling into the ground on the other side of the broken jeep. In seconds, the laptop hit the ground with a bang, and its display blanked with a fizzle of electricity.

"No!" 009 screamed. Then, as she turned away from the jeep, her purple eyes scanned the grass. "Who's there?! Show yourself!"

The grass around her rustled rapidly. She reached for her waist, intending on pulling free her tulip baton, but before she could, a white and red blur leapt at her face. Instinctively, she sidestepped it and swung her arm outward, catching the object in the back of the head. As soon as the blow landed, the creature smacked into the hood of the car and bounced, landing on its hind feet on the ground nearby. As it turned, one of its paws reached up to rub the mark on the front of its face, and right away, 009 recognized it.

"A spinda," she muttered. Then, with a grin, she turned towards the field. "Lanette, was it? If you want to come out and challenge me, I'll go easy on you, but really, aren't I doing you a favor?"

There was a bang behind her. She looked over her shoulder just in time to see Lanette grab her arms.

"I'll decide what is and isn't a favor for me," she growled.

Glancing to the side, 009 smirked and yanked her body into a turn. Lanette stumbled off the dented hood of the jeep to follow her target, but this put her in range of Jynx. The human-shape creature flew towards her victim with a fist pulled back and covered in ice, and before Lanette could realize what was about to happen, the ice-type slammed her punch into the small of her target's back. 009 wrenched herself away just as the ice extended from Jynx's fist and completely engulfed Lanette. Clicking her tongue, 009 turned and smirked.

"Sorry, but it looks like we win. Now then..." 009 opened the hand that held the Master Ball, only to find a rock in the palm instead. Freezing, she did a double-take. "What's this?!"

She turned frantically, searching for the missing ball. A flash of purple caught the corner of her eye, and as she turned, she noticed the spinda's paws hefting the Master Ball just above the top of the grass as the panda ran through the field. Solrock bobbed above her, its stone face fixed on the jeep and the group near it.

"Abandoning your master? That's rich!" 009 shouted. "Jynx, after them!"

The frost princess sent her a glare as a sopping-wet Nettle approached the vehicle again.

"She only listens to me," Nettle informed her.

At that, the Black Tulip pulled her baton free from its clip across her thigh, and with a flick, she telescoped it to its full length.

"You both are useless!" she hissed.

The Black Tulip launched herself at the pokémon with her arms poised to swing the baton at them. Solrock stopped as the glow in its eyes intensified. Just then, 009 felt a force pick her up and throw her backwards, into the back of the jeep. At the same time, the Master Ball vanished into the grass. Nettled watched it as she seethed, but then, she turned to her frozen captive.

"Honestly, you grunts have no creativity," she sneered. "Jynx, assault their trainer directly. Psychic!"

The pokémon turned, her eyes lighting as she held her hands towards Lanette.

As if on cue, something in the grass popped, and a white blaze of energy streaked towards Jynx. Seconds later, the bolt slammed into Jynx, forcing her glow to extinguish. Both she and the newly released pokémon tumbled one over the other until, finally, the two of them crashed into the base of the ice prison. It tipped over, threatening to pin the both of them to the ground until a hand reached up to support it. The glow around the released pokémon faded at that point, leaving Bill kneeling between his frozen partner and the jynx. He stood as his free hand began to glow white, and with a quick swipe, he slashed at the surface of the ice. It shattered quickly, allowing Lanette to fall into her partner's arms. Unable to speak, she clenched her teeth and shivered as Bill pulled her free and set her to the side.

"Are you all right?" he asked softly.

She hesitated briefly before wrapping her arms around herself and nodding.

"Good." As he straightened, his expression darkened, and his next words came across louder and more forcefully than his question. "You and I need to have a word with each other."

Lanette opened her mouth as she gave Bill a stony glance.

"No, just listen," he said. "I just want you to know how insanely difficult you're making all of this. Of course, it already was rather difficult because in no way did I choose to become an ixodida, despite what one might say about my research methods. While I wouldn't have exactly minded being a pokémon, the one time I have the opportunity to truly live as one involves more problems than I would ever want in my life! Allow me to enlighten you. Not only did I not have a choice in the matter, I'm almost certain I died at least once during the transformation process. I was nearly captured by a criminal organization. I was sedated. I was kidnapped by an ixodida and dragged to Hoenn. I was pistol-whipped by a police officer. I was restrained to a bed twice. A city full of humans tried to use me as bait. Two ixodida tried to kill me. I had to watch myself kill someone in self-defense. I was burned alive, electrocuted, and thrown into concrete."

Behind him, Professor Nettle cleared her throat. "Pardon the interruption, but--"

Bill whirled around and glared at her. "I apologize for my insubordination, Professor Nettle, but if you don't mind, I'd like to finish." Then, turning back to Lanette, he continued, "That's not even the half of it yet. Then, my best friend keeps trying to kill me. My symbiotic partner thinks all of this is incredibly amusing and thought it would be even more entertaining to force me to kiss you -- and I don't mean any offense by that, Lanette, but I had absolutely no intent to do that, and that wasn't me. And then, Hope! Moreover..." He pointed a thumb back towards Professor Nettle. "Why is Professor Nettle behind me, and what just happened?"

By then, Lanette's body had warmed up just enough for her to stop shivering. At the end of her colleague's list, she exhaled, lifted a hand, and slapped him.

"Would you stop doing that?!" he exclaimed as he brought a hand to his reddened cheek. "I'm very close to being driven absolutely mad from all of this, you know!"

"This is hardly the time to snap at me!" Lanette argued. "Those two captured you in a poké ball, Bill. A poké ball! And they intend on keeping you, and you're worried about how much grief I'm causing you?"

"In a poké ball?" He stood and faced the Rockets. "Let me see it."

Nettle narrowed her eyes at him. "McKenzie, we may not be at Polaris Institute, but I am still your superior. You'll address me with respect."

"Normally, I'd oblige," Bill replied as he twitched his tail. "However -- and I must apologize for this, professor -- my patience has been worn very thin by now. I would like to see the poké ball you used to capture me."

The corners of Nettle's lips curled upwards as she purred, "Do you really think you're in any position to make demands? I own you, you annoying insect!"

"Uh, correction?"

Nettle swiveled her head towards her fellow agent. "What is it?!"

009 tossed the limp spinda she was dragging behind her, allowing it to land with a thud at Lanette's feet. With her other hand, she held up the Master Ball.

"I was the one who captured him, so wouldn't I be the one who owns him?" she asked.

Bill spread his hands to extend his claws as he took a step forward. "Neither of you own me. You may have that ball, but if you think I'll obey either one of you--"

"Oh, you grew a spine since we last saw you," 009 quipped. "That's good. Giovanni likes a challenge." She tossed the ball into the air, caught it, and pointed the button directly at the ixodida. "Speaking of which, he's probably waiting for you, so back in the ball you go!"

Every muscle in Bill's body tensed at that point; he prepared himself to dodge the Master Ball's retrieval beam, although he knew he hardly had the speed to avoid it. Luckily for him, at that moment, a blob of purple light slammed into her hand from the side, forcing his would-be trainer to release the ball. It arced through the air towards Nettle, but before she could reach up to grab it, a blue glow surrounded it. Then, it shot backwards towards a waiting solrock. As soon as it had a grip on the orb, it darted to Lanette's side as she knelt to scoop Spinda into her arms. Standing, she held Spinda in the crook of one of her arms while the other reached up and swiped the ball out of the air.

"Neither of you have the right to own him," she said.

Bill relaxed and looked at her. "Thank you. Now, if you would be so kind as to rel--"

"He's mine," Lanette finished, punctuating her statement with a cold glare directly at him.

And then, his expression dissolved into one of utter horror. "What?!"

009 gripped her baton with both hands and brandished it at the red-head. "Hey! You can't do that! I caught him legally! What kind of hero are you, stealing other people's pokémon like that?!"

"You know, she's right up until the part about catching me legally," Bill added. "Lanette, you've got to let me go! You can't keep me like this!"

Lanette's expression hardened as she stepped closer to him. "Bill, Protect."

One of Bill's hands lashed outward, and a translucent, green wall erupted around both him and his partner. Drawing his eyes forward, he watched as 009's tulip baton collided with the wall, and the agent herself, in what appeared to be a jump aimed at Lanette, bounced off the barrier and landed on her feet back where she started.

"What just happened?" Bill breathed.

"Intercept with Metal Claw," Lanette barked.

To Bill, it was as if his body was acting on its own. His hand rose, skin glowing bright white, just as the Rocket agent bolted for him. Her baton struck his palm with a clang, and there they stood in a stalemate as they locked gazes with one another.

"Metal Claw again. Knock her out of the way," Lanette ordered.

Bill's free hand swiped at 009, but she, anticipating it, jumped into the air, backflipped, and landed out of her opponent's reach.

"What other attacks do you know?" Lanette asked.

Her partner half-turned to see her. "A-attacks?"

"Metal Claw, Protect, Magnet Rise, and what else? Parry with Protect and hurry up!"

Bill flung his hands outward, his palms facing the Rocket as a green barrier glittered around him. Seconds later, the Black Tulip's baton hit his Protect with a bang.

"Iron Defense, Scratch, and Slash," he yelled to Lanette. "That's all I know."

"Fine. Iron Defense!" Lanette ordered. "Bill, you know one more. What about Iron Tail?"

When 009 swung at him with her baton again, Bill automatically blocked her with his forearm. Underneath cotton cloth, he could feel a warmth pass over his arm and his skin stiffening against his muscles. The agent responded by, once again, somersaulting backwards, landing where she started, and darting to the side.

As he kept watching her, Bill finally responded, "I can't use that by myself! I've tried, but when I try to focus--"

"Intercept! Follow with Iron Tail!" Lanette shouted.

Bill couldn't protest. He didn't even think about it. Instead, as if it was moving on its own, his hand raised just in time to grab the Black Tulip's baton just as she rushed him from the side. Then, his mind cleared, his tail stiffened behind him, and each joint began to glow. His feet slid into motion, turning his body until his tail cut through the air with a whistle. 009 gasped and let go of her baton. She leapt into the air and shoved her boots into Bill's shoulder, using him as a springboard to launch herself out of his reach once more. Thrown off-balance by her dodge, Bill tilted backwards, letting his tail -- and the attack -- slam into the ground just before he fell onto his seat. He coughed and sputtered at the dust that was kicked up around him as his fingers felt the ditch he had inadvertently created. Eventually, a realization dawned on him.

"How did I..." He moved his tail, feeling the ache of the attack radiate up his spine. "Adam, was that you?"

No, that was entirely you, Adam replied. At last. You begin to fight. This is a very good sign.

"But I--"

"Bill! Protect!"

At the sound of Lanette's voice, Bill's arms shielded his face as one more green barrier ignited around him. An orb of light blue energy crashed into the wall and exploded, coloring the dust around him with brilliant turquoise light. Not a single tendril of energy passed the wall, but by the time it faded, Bill smacked his hands into the ground and leaned into his arms. All of a sudden, his vision began to fade, and he felt as if he had already run for miles.

Lifting his chin, he watched as the dust cleared to reveal Jynx and Professor Nettle standing side by side. Jynx had her purple hands held palm outward as her eyes remained steady on the ixodida.

"My turn," Nettle drawled. "Jynx! Ice Beam!"

Obediently, the ice woman opened her mouth as a ball of blue energy formed just in front of her plump lips. Her golden hair rose as she leaned back until the ball grew to the size of her head. Bill braced himself, tensing in case he caught another order from Lanette, but one never came.

Instead, a black and white object dropped from the sky and smacked Jynx in the head. She immediately tilted backwards and released, allowing the bolt of ice energy to fire into the sky. Following it with his gaze, Bill watched as it narrowly missed a creature suspended above them.

A creature, Bill noted with a cold feeling in his heart, that was on fire.

Although the creature's form was blurred with the corona surrounding it, Bill could tell it was another ixodida. It was human-shaped, roughly the size of a lean, fully grown man, with a long tail that curled under reptilian feet. Human arms extended to its sides, ending in red-hot claws. Behind it, a pair of insect wings blazed, keeping it hovering a safe distance away from the group. Its eyes, black in color, scanned each member of the party below it as it silently waited.

Suddenly, Professor Nettle screamed. Glancing towards her, Bill noticed that she had picked up the object that had been thrown at Jynx, and in her horror, Nettle threw the object as far away from herself as she could. Keeping his eyes on it, Bill watched it bounce once and roll to the side until it stopped. Once it did, he froze, staring deep into the milk-white, dead eyes of a decapitated, feathered ixodida.

"Solrock!" Lanette shouted. "Stone Edge! Quickly!"

The rock sun's eyes flared with white light as a pair of light rings crossed its body. It tilted back until all of its face was bathed in the light thrown by the flaming ixodida. At the same time, the rings around it split into sets of white stones hovering like miniature planets around their star.

Just as Solrock was about to fire both sets, the ixodida finally moved. It lifted a hand to its chest and cast it outward, pointing directly at Solrock. As soon as it did, the flames of its body turned bright blue as fire shot off its arm, sliding down the ixodida's finger until it blasted as a light-blue inferno. Its victim was instantly engulfed with flames as the force drove it into the ground. Lanette dodged, diving with Spinda in her arms into the tall grass nearby. When the fire died down, Solrock lay in a crater, charred and still.

Bill felt a shudder, but he knew it wasn't his doing. In his chest, he could feel his core drop in temperature.

"Adam," he whispered. "What's going on?"

Something far from convenient for us. Be prepared to run.

"Run?" Bill squeaked.

"At last, an ixodida worthy of our leader's army," Nettle said with a smile. "Jynx! Psychic!"

Before the siren moved, the flaming ixodida's other hand flicked outwards to point at Professor Nettle. Blue fire spewed from his other arm and spun directly at the scientist. Jynx cried out and moved towards her master, but she was far too slow to protect her. The flames slammed into Nettle, engulfing her with searing heat. Her screams pierced the air, rising above the roar of the blaze. Bill flinched at the sound, clapping his hands to his ears as his colleague's cries ripped through his head. Through watering eyes, he could see her silhouette bathed in azure. Writhing. Wilting. Collapsing in on itself until it melted into a black mass at the heart of a fire. Her screams faded into nothingness, and all that she left behind was the booming fire and the sobs of her pokémon. Neither of the humans could say a word, their eyes transfixed by the shock of what happened right in front of them. Bill himself couldn't move, couldn't feel a thing except something wet dripping down his face.

Inside him, Adam remained alert. Bill. Listen to me. Do you see what happened just now? This monster will kill us if you do not focus. I cannot help you to run this time. Do not give him the opportunity to act.

Yet, even with Adam's orders, the most Bill could do was stand -- and even that was done shakily. Looking up, he found that the ixodida's eyes were suddenly on him.

"At last, I have found you," it said. Its voice was deep. Male in tone. "I have sensed you since you arrived in my territory. It surprises me thoroughly that Her Majesty did not choose me to hunt you, but now that her champion is dead..."

The creature landed several feet away from Bill. Around his toes, the grass smoldered and blackened.

"A rogue of the Iron Clan. This is most disturbing," the ixodida commented.

"W-who are you?" Bill croaked, his throat suddenly tight.

The other monarch tilted his head. "A better question would be who are you? Your name."

Do not answer him, Adam advised.

Bill shut his mouth. The other ixodida narrowed his eyes as the fires dancing across his skin grew. Around him, patches of grass burst into flame.

"Very well," he said.

His arm rose, and a clawed finger extended towards Bill. The steel-type tensed as he watched blue fire curl around his opponent's wrist.

Bill! Run!

Adam didn't need to tell him twice. Bill lifted a hand, extending a green barrier of light around himself as he turned and pushed off the ground in a sprint. He intended to dodge to the side, to lead the ixodida away from the others, but as soon as he turned and started running, he could hear the roar of fire rush towards him. Almost immediately, a massive force smashed into his barrier and sent him flying backwards into the grass. As soon as he hit the ground, the barrier around him shattered, and the blue fire streamed through to ensnare his body.

For the next few seconds, all Bill knew was pain: pain greater than anything else he had ever experienced. It was like he was thrown into a vat of magma, where every inch his limbs tried to move was met with extreme resistance, where his flesh began to bubble and melt under the intense heat, where every nerve screamed at his brain. His skin felt as if millions of hot needles were jammed into every part of him all at once. He swore he could hear a woman scream his name, but her voice was drowned by the deafening thunder of the fire. His mind blanked, and although he could perceive Adam barking command after command at him, he couldn't think.

In other words, it hurt like Hell. Exactly like Hell.

After some time -- and Bill could no longer discern how much time was passing around him -- the fire drew away from his body as something stepped between him and the ixodida. His vision resolved just enough to see the hem of a pink dress outlined with blue light. Golden hair rose into a wide halo as a purple hand directed the rest of the blue flames into a curve aimed its source. Above Jynx, dark clouds quickly rolled in, and fat drops of rain fell onto the field. The flames charring the grass began to die as Bill lay, staring blankly at Jynx as the siren's arms swept each fireball away from him and back towards the flaming ixodida. Behind him, he caught the sound of voices. Some of them were familiar. Some of them weren't.

"Alakazam, good job! Now assist with Psychic!"

"Manectric, Thunder!"

"Chansey, hurry!"

"All right, Growlithe! Let's go!"

Pokémon stormed around him, but he couldn't move out of their way. He only let them pass over him as he continued to watch. In the meantime, the corners of his field of vision darkened, and his eyesight blurred once more into nothing but colors. Two objects, white and green, lowered beside him.

"Is he all right?"

"Bill, can you hear us?"

"It looks bad. He's been burned. If we don't do something soon--"

"I get it."

A purple blotch lowered, overlapping part of the green object.

"Bill. Return."

At Lanette's final order, he closed his eyes and obeyed.

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