Anima Ex Machina: Twenty-One
So the phoenix burns.

Forward.

Bill had no idea where he was or even if it was possible to break free from the Gray Forest, but nonetheless, he walked forward, eyes straight ahead, hands balled into fists. He didn't care that he could feel Adam's stare bear down on him. His mind remained focused, and his pace never slowed.

He didn't know how much time passed before anything happened, not that he particularly cared. It simply felt like an eternity before he saw a flash of silver at the edge of his field of vision. Suddenly, he was aware that it was to his left, slightly behind him but walking at the same speed.

"What are you doing?" Adam asked.

"Walking." Bill was slightly surprised by how blunt his voice sounded, but he tried his best to appear stoic.

"Are you aware that you will never reach the end of this forest?"

"I don't care."

The flash of silver disappeared from Bill's view, but the sound of leaves crunching under metal feet and a cold chill in his bones told him he still wasn't alone.

"What people say about you is true," Adam drawled. "You certainly are impressive. Quick to adapt. Quick to learn. Your mind yields to change so easily. Yet, at the same time, your heart always stays the same. Determined, chivalrous... stubborn." It paused for a few seconds. "You will never reach the end of the forest, you know."

Bill gritted his teeth. "I. Don't. Care."

"You should. I only wish to speak to you this time."

At that, Bill stopped. He looked skyward briefly before whirling around and glaring at Adam.

"What?" he demanded. "What do you need to tell me this time? That I'm weak? That I'm easy to manipulate, but it's necessary that I serve as your host for some aggravatingly vague reason? Go right ahead, Adam. Belittle me. It's not as if I have a choice to listen to you, considering it seems that you decide when I can wake up."

Adam cocked its head, but its face remained blank. Unnervingly blank. Bill felt his own emotions waver as he gazed into Adam's all-too-familiar, soulless eyes.

"Belittle you?" Adam questioned. "Hardly, I should say. In truth, I wish to congratulate you. I knew you would be powerful in your own right someday. You have my abilities backed by such a keen mind, after all. But never would I have imagined that you would take to fighting so quickly and so abruptly. The way you responded to Lanette and how you fought those humans... it was quite interesting to watch, if I may say so."

Bill cracked a grin. He normally wasn't the kind of person who would stoop to being petty, but at that point, he wanted the catharsis of arguing with someone. The parasite just happened to be convenient.

"I'd hate to disappoint you," Bill said, his voice nearly a purr, "but I wasn't in control of what I was doing. Perhaps it wasn't you who was acting for me, but I most certainly wasn't deciding whether or not I should attack. I refuse to fight, and I will always refuse to fight."

Adam lifted its chin. Although its expression didn't change, there was something in its face that told Bill it wasn't as amused as it had been a second ago. Its features seemed to darken, to gain a shadow that wasn't there, even though its mouth was still a line and its eyes were still glassy and wide.

"Is that so? Are you certain?" Adam's eyes flicked to the side. "Poké balls are fascinating devices, are they not? A symbol of human ingenuity. You happen to know quite a lot about them, if I understand your memories correctly. They convert pokémon to energy and energy to data, a concept in direct violation of the sciences that apply to humans. They harness the purely pokémon ability to manipulate the fabric of reality itself in order to function. They turn those laws against the creatures that use them in order to draw nets over them. Yet... humans have not been able to use this ability to its fullest. The device only works on a physical level."

Bill felt as if the ground beneath him was being pulled from under his feet. He knew he was about to lose this argument, to lose his power over Adam, and he wasn't ready to admit it.

"I know this already," he told the parasite bluntly.

"Then you know that your logic is invalid," Adam told him. "You cannot blame what you did on the device that holds you captive because you know very well that they do not function in that manner. Lanette did not force you to obey. You chose to obey her, just as every other tamed pokémon chooses to obey their respective humans."

"Why would I choose to hurt people?" Bill growled.

Ignoring him, Adam continued, "Is that why you are walking? You wish to defy me, do you not? You are upset because you feel as if your life is being dictated to you by fate, by Lanette..." It took a step closer as its eyes moved back to its host. "...By me. Yet, you fail to realize that no one is forcing you to do anything. You simply choose to let us control the events around you."

"That's not true. If I had the opportunity to decide, I wouldn't--"

"Have become an ixodida? You had the opportunity to call for help in Polaris Institute, but you did not. You underestimate your strength, Bill, yet I cannot complain. It makes things far more convenient." Adam's eyes closed halfway. "Or perhaps, to be more specific, are you upset that I kissed Lanette? I told you she fascinates me."

Bill couldn't help himself. He felt a sudden burst of emotion, and before he knew it, his hands lashed out to encircle Adam's neck. Just as soon as he felt the cool metal beneath his palms, Adam vanished, leaving Bill to choke thin air. A pair of arms wrapped around him from behind, and with a yell, he flailed, his fingers clawing for any part of Adam he could grab. Adam's hands quickly grasped Bill's wrists, its claws scraping his smooth skin. In the meantime, its tail lashed up to take the place of its arms around his waist, and only then, after he realized that he was caught, did Bill finally stop struggling. He panted angrily as Adam leaned close to his ear.

"You see? The only thing truly controlling you are your emotions. You must learn to master them, or our body will master you."

"It's not true," Bill hissed. "I wouldn't ever..."

"Fight? Are you still curious as to why you obeyed Lanette's orders without thinking about them? The answer has always been within you, Bill." Adam's voice lowered to a whisper. "'Getting inside its skin helps me get inside its head.'"

Bill drew in a sharp breath. He didn't say a word. His teeth clenched as he tried to wrench himself free from Adam's grip, but this only caused the ixodida to hold him tighter.

"You see it, do you not? The way you are now becoming an ixodida inside as well as out, I mean. How your imagination is forcing you to become not only a pokémon but also the pokémon of that woman." Adam leaned a little closer until its lips brushed Bill's ear. "Well, Bill? How far have you gone? How much of an ixodida have you let yourself become?"

Adam waited for a few moments. When no answer came, it unwrapped its tail from its host's waist and shoved him to the ground. The impact with the wet earth jarred just enough to shake Bill out of shock. Picking his head up, he looked over his shoulder at Adam. By then, the parasite was already walking away, its tail switching behind it with every step.

"Humans are fascinating creatures," it said, "but your humanity will kill you, Bill."

Just as Bill pushed himself to his feet to confront his partner, he noticed the gray world fading around the edges. With that, he sighed and closed his eyes, waiting for his reentrance into the real world.

---

Which hurt like hell.

It took every ounce of willpower he had not to scream, but somehow, Bill managed. His fingers dug into something soft as every inch of his body felt like it was on fire which, given what he remembered from before he slipped into unconsciousness, wouldn't have surprised him. All around him, he could hear the sounds of muffled voices, and as he began to focus on them instead of the pain, they slowly became clearer and clearer.

"--waking up." Ellen's voice, Bill realized.

"Finally." Lanette's. "How much longer do you think it'll take for him to fully recover?"

"Any moment now, I think."

"Any moment now?"

"Yes. He's recovering faster than anything I've ever seen apart from ditto, and with Chansey's Softboiled helping him, the worst of his injuries are almost healed. Once that's complete, there are only a few minor burns left, but if he continues at this rate, he can even take care of those on his own."

"Fascinating."

"What we should be more concerned about is how much energy he's using. If we get more of a reaction than this tonight--" A soft hand brushed Bill's fingers. "--then we should count ourselves lucky. He'll need to rest, and he hasn't been fed lately, either."

"No worries!" Thom's voice now. "I've got that all taken care of! Look what I got!"

Bill heard the rustling of cloth. All of a sudden, the room filled with the scent of blood and something musty. He felt his stomach begin to rumble, and at that, he dreaded to know what Thom had just pulled out. Ellen's gasp and sharp whisper didn't really help.

"Thom! What are you doing?! This is a hospital room!"

"What? You told me to go out and catch something Bill can eat, and here it is!"

"He's not awake yet! Besides, do you know how unsanitary that is?!"

"Oh, come on! It's not like you've never had one in here!"

"Not dead!"

"They're not much different when they're alive, right?"

Lanette sighed. "Nurse Joy, let me take care of him. You keep an eye on Bill and tell me if he regains consciousness."

"Too late for that, Lanette," Bill told her hoarsely.

He opened his eyes to see Ellen hovering over him as a pinkish blotch on a stark, white background. When his eyes focused on her, he could see the concerned look in her eyes and the worried frown stretching the corners of her mouth.

"Bill!" she exclaimed. "How do you feel?"

"Weak," he admitted.

"Do you feel any sort of significant pain?" she asked. "Does anything hurt inside?"

Bill forced himself to sit up. Instantly, a sharp pain hit his side. He yelped and wrapped his arms around his torso. Ellen reached out to grab him as she glanced over the bed to where Chansey had been standing.

"Chansey, I need a Softboiled," she said.

The happiness pokémon trilled and yanked the egg out of her pouch. A yellow light glimmered across its surface for a few seconds before pulling away to form a tiny, yellow bubble. It floated lazily to Bill before touching the skin of his forehead. He lifted his head, feeling the warmth of the bubble pass into his body and flow across his skin as a yellow glow washed over his body. The pain dulled, and gradually, he relaxed. Smiling, Chansey slipped her egg back in its pocket and promptly collapsed.

"Chansey!" Ellen cried as she scrambled around the bed.

Bill opened his eyes and looked her way before reaching out to her. "What happened?!"

Ellen knelt and pulled her partner into her arms. The egg-shaped creature panted and curled up close to her master.

"She's exhausted," Ellen explained. "You sustained serious burns all over your body. Chansey spent all day healing the worst of it."

"I'm so sorry," Bill murmured.

"You wouldn't have been able to avoid it. Besides..." Ellen held Chansey a little closer. "She wanted to help you."

"Wanted...?" Lanette's voice was nearly inaudible, but Bill caught it. It was soft, uncertain, and not that far from him.

Doing his best to force her voice out of his mind for now, Bill kept his attention on Ellen and Chansey. "Please let her know I appreciate it, but you must let her rest now. I feel fine."

Ellen bowed her head. "Thank you. I'll be back to check on you as soon as I take care of her." Then, glancing over the bed, she caught sight of Thom. "Thom, come here. I need you to help me carry Chansey to a room where she can rest."

"Sure thing, Nurse Joy!"

Thom strode forward quickly, but before he reached her, he glanced at Bill, smiled, and plopped something at the foot of the bed. Bill looked at it, and in his horror, he realized that it was a headless zigzagoon.

"By the way, it's good to see you awake, buddy! We were all worried about you, you know!" Thom exclaimed. "Hope that'll help you recover a little. I caught it myself!"

"T-thanks," Bill croaked.

"Thom!" Ellen snapped.

The boy jumped and moved to her side. "All right! All right! Jeez!"

He stooped down to scoop Chansey into his thick arms, and as soon as he knew he had a good grip on her, he scurried out the door. Ellen followed but not without stopping at the door to gaze at the only other human occupant of the room, Lanette.

"Please be gentle with him. He still needs to recover," she pleaded.

With that, she disappeared through the door, leaving the human and the ixodida in silence. Lanette turned away from the door, her eyes falling on the dead zigzagoon. One of her pale hands reached over to seize it by the tail, yank it into the air, and plop it smack into Bill's lap.

"Eat," she said.

For a second time, Bill felt a pang of hunger hit him. Shuddering, he put a hand over his stomach, only to realize that for the first time since the Caravan came, he was completely naked. He swallowed and tensed. The air was full of the zigzagoon's scent, and that alone caused Bill's instincts to start screaming at him. At the same time, Adam's words echoed through his mind.

"I'm not a pokémon," he mumbled to himself. "I'm not--"

"What was that?" Lanette barked.

Bill took in a breath through his mouth as he placed a hand on the furry carcass. He forced a smile as he looked at Lanette.

"Nothing. I just..." His mind raced to find something to stall her, to make her forget about the dead zigzagoon in his lap for the time being. "...I just noticed my clothes are gone."

"You were set on fire. You weren't even wearing trainer-grade material. Did you really think they would have survived any of that?" she replied flatly. "I sent Vito to find you proper trainer-grade clothing. Eat."

Bill grasped the zigzagoon and lifted it off his lap, moving it away from himself as carefully as possible. Upon realizing what he was doing, Lanette grabbed his wrists and stared directly into his eyes. He shivered, finding himself suddenly unable to turn away from her steady, cold gaze.

"I'm not about to let you starve yourself to death," she snapped. "Eat. That's an order."

For a long time, they stared at one another until, finally, Bill pulled the zigzagoon back into his lap, let his eyes fall on its back, and used one of his claws to cut through its fur coat. Its skin parted easily, revealing dark red muscle underneath. Bill took a shaking breath as he sliced off a strip of muscle. His mouth began to water, and suddenly, his brain stopped thinking about it. Lanette sat back, watching the ixodida slice off strips of meat and bring each chunk to his mouth. She didn't say anything as she watched him wince the first time, as blood trickled down his chin, as his expression began to get more and more relaxed with each bite he took.

After the sixth strip he took, he hesitated.

"Lanette."

"You can't be done," she said.

He shook his head and brought a hand to his mouth.

She narrowed her eyes. "If you're going to vomit..."

"No!" He lowered his gaze. "Lanette, I need to talk to you about something, but I want to know that you'll listen."

"Go ahead."

His hand dropped to the carcass, and his claws widened the cut in its back. He could see the glistening white of the creature's spine, the purple of its kidneys, the blue and pink of its veins. Suppressing a shiver, he sliced off another piece of muscle.

"I want you to get rid of the poké ball."

"No," Lanette replied quickly.

"I'm asking you as a friend."

"No." Her voice took on a slightly more forceful tone. "Give me one reason why I should."

"Lanette," Bill said, his voice heaving in exasperation, "I think I've gone too far."

"What do you mean?"

By then, his claws were acting on an almost mechanical manner, slicing off parts of the zigzagoon's muscles without needing his conscious thought to direct them. Soon, the bed sheets were red with blood as a pile of meat strips sat in a pile on top of the creature's rib cage. A window formed in its flesh through which Bill could see the pokémon's slick, winding intestines.

"The only reason why I followed your orders in that last battle... it may be because lately, I've been thinking more and more like a pokémon, not a human being."

Even as he said it, Bill flinched. He didn't want to admit that Adam had a point, but he didn't have any other explanation. Not only that, but he realized right then the disturbing truth: that he was staring at he innards of a dead zigzagoon -- eating them, even -- but he felt nothing but the relief of having his hunger satisfied. It felt natural to slice off parts of that pokémon. It felt right.

He wondered what else had changed about himself. That was what scared him about the dead zigzagoon in his lap.

"Lanette, you must destroy that poké ball," he said. "I need to be free. I'm afraid that the more you treat me like a pokémon, the more likely I'll forget that I'm human."

"Are you afraid of hurting someone?" Lanette asked quietly.

Bill looked up. "Yes. Yes, that's exactly it, Lanette. I don't want to hurt anyone. I want to be me, but--"

The zigzagoon was knocked out of his hands. It landed with a wet slap on the tiled floor, but Bill was too preoccupied to notice. The reason why was because at the same time, Lanette forced him back, her hands shoving his shoulders into the bed. When he was down, she sat on his stomach and seized one of his wrists. With a sharp yank, she pulled his fingers to her neck, forcing his claws to circle her soft flesh.

"H-hey!" Bill stammered. "What are you--"

"Kill me," she snarled.

"W-what? What are you talking about?"

"Kill me, you coward!" she yelled. "If you're the monster you insist you are, then do it!"

Bill shot her a scared look. "I would never do something like that! What's gotten into you?!"

She scoffed and released his hand. Then, she swung her leg over him and pushed herself off the bed.

"The Master Ball will not be destroyed," she said. "I'm keeping it to ensure that you don't do anything. If you want to be treated like a human, work for it. Did you have this much of a problem pretending to be any other pokémon?"

"There's a difference between my costumes and this. I can't take this off," Bill replied as he sat up.

"As far as I'm concerned, you still have a human brain. Use it."

She grabbed the zigzagoon from the floor and threw it at Bill. He caught it but not without letting one of its organs splatter across his chest and fall to the floor on the other side of the bed. Staring at it, he let her words sink in.

"You're really not the Lanette I knew six months ago," he commented.

"And you're not the Bill I knew six months ago either. The Bill I knew wouldn't have succumbed to fear so easily. People change."

"Yes." He let the zigzagoon rest on his legs again. "Lanette... what happened to you?"

"It's none of your business," she replied quickly.

He looked at her. "I want to help you."

"You can't. Not with that thing listening."

"Thing?" He furrowed his eyebrows. "You don't mean the parasite, do you? He isn't listening to us right now."

"I'm sorry if I fail to have any confidence in that claim," Lanette replied with as much sarcasm in her tone as she could muster.

"Lanette, I'm serious. We were friends at one point, weren't we? We can be friends again if you'd trust me."

"You can't even trust yourself," she sneered.

Bill recoiled. "Perhaps not. Lanette, I..." He took a deep breath. "I can't do any of this alone. Neither can you."

"What makes you think I can't?"

"Why am I still here?"

This time, it was Lanette who stopped. For the first time since the day they were reunited, a shocked expression crossed her face, and unlike the moment they found each other, this one lingered on her face. Bill studied her expression closely, trying desperately to figure out what she might be thinking.

"You had every opportunity to get rid of me," he pointed out. "You could have killed me in the gym, but you chose to trap me instead. When I came to find you after escaping, you had pokémon with you, but instead of using one of them to weaken me, you chose to fight me with a crowbar of all things. When Team Rocket captured me, you went after them, and just now, when you could have let me burn to death, you had me brought here."

"That was because the citizens of Mauville actually insisted that you be saved."

"But what about the other times? You didn't have to rescue me, but you did. And when you had the opportunity to kill me, you didn't." Bill tilted his head. "The truth of the matter is that if you plan on keeping me -- which you are, as you're holding onto my poké ball -- we'll need to rely on each other to overcome our problems. I need you to help keep me human inside. And I'm not sure what you need me for, but you do."

Lanette huffed, and her expression turned stony once again. "You keep telling yourself that, Bill."

"Does it have anything to do with Brigette?"

Instinctively, Lanette jumped. Quickly, she turned her back on Bill to hide the expression on her face.

"It does, doesn't it?" he asked, his voice dropping until it was nearly a whisper.

"The fire-type ixodida went through Mauville before it found us," Lanette told him. "It killed most of the Caravan and burnt down large portions of the city. When it found us, it was already weak, but it took all of our efforts and help from a group Altaria had led to us to drive it away. It's going to come back, so as soon as you regain your strength, I'm going to take you to meet the people who helped us. They offered to help train you. You're not going to be very useful in a fight against a fire-type, but we'll need you to be in fighting condition to serve as support anyway. Your job will be to keep Hope away from the fight." She looked over her shoulder with the same stony expression she always had. "It's your responsibility to take care of her anyway."

"Hope... Well, yes, but..." Bill hesitated. "What does this have to do with--"

"I never thought ixodida would be merciful," Lanette continued. "They didn't kill Altaria. Perhaps they just weren't interested."

Bill let his shoulders sag. "...You're not going to tell me, are you?"

"No." Lanette faced forward and started walking towards the door. "And it would be a good idea not to ask again. Eat. I'm expecting you to get back on your feet by tomorrow."

Her boots thudded heavily on the floor as she left the room. In her wake, Bill sat motionless on the bed, not even making an effort to stop her. Once she was gone, he turned back to what was left of the zigzagoon and stared deep into its furry body.

"Brigette--"

Clipping off the thought, he bowed his head.

"Oh Lanette..."

---

"Sir."

First sat calmly at the head of the Committee's table. His fingers were laced, elbows propped on the table, and hands hovered close to his mouth. He waited for the voice, Fourth's, to speak.

"Sir, our technological experts have been able to glean the information from the storage system's poké ball assignment protocol that Codename Adam has been captured. Within the last twenty-four hours, a user logged in with the ID of the Hoenn storage administrator to reassign Adam's trainer manually. Here is his new trainer information."

Fourth passed a paper to First. The leader accepted it and held it up with as few fingers as possible, as if the ink that crossed its surface was laced with cyanide.

"Of particular interest here is the name of this trainer," Fourth continued.

First craned his neck. "So I see."

"What should we do, sir? Codename Adam is no longer wild. Even more importantly, XP-650 activity is increasing, particularly around Mauville City where our data indicates Adam is currently located. We have reason to believe Adam is somehow connected to the rise in activity, and if this trainer is involved..."

"Then we will have a difficult time convincing John McKenzie not to interfere," First finished. "Perhaps it would be prudent to make our move at last. I propose that we send one of our own to lead a few members of the Agency in locating Codename Adam. Once found, we should inform him of exactly what he is up against. All those in favor?"

The other four members of the Committee raised their hands and, in unison, chanted, "Aye!"

"And opposed?"

Silence.

"Then it is done. Fourth, for delivering this information to us, I assign you the task."

Fourth bowed. "It would be an honor, sir."

"Of course."

First placed the paper on the table in front of him. His fingers smoothed over its surface, but they lingered over two particular words: the name of the trainer.

Hope McKenzie.

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