Anima Ex Machina: Twenty-Two
I guess we've lied enough.

The sun was setting the next time Bill awoke. Already, it was nearly dark, save for the dim beam of orange light that filtered through the window. He sat up, allowing the remaining bones and organs of the zigzagoon to clatter to the floor. It took all of his strength to ignore it, to ignore the smell of blood or the spatters on the white sheets or even how stiff his joints felt. Instead, he stared out the window for a bit and waited for the remaining grogginess to ebb away from him.

"Adam?" he whispered.

Yes?

"Are we ready?"

If you mean to ask if all our wounds have been healed, then yes.

"Good."

Slipping out of the bed, he carefully placed his weight on his feet and waited for the strength in his legs to kick in. His muscles felt tense as an ache throbbed from his knees, but thankfully, he remained standing. Cautiously, he crept towards the window, opened it, and leaned out a little to see what was outside. Looking straight down, he realized he was on the second floor facing the back of the building, and beneath him was a small courtyard enclosed by a wooden fence. A few wooden tables and benches sat in each corner of the area, presumably untouched since the last attack on Mauville City.

"That should do nicely," he murmured. "Magnet Rise!"

A golden aura ignited around him, and his insect wings burst from his back. He felt his toes brush the linoleum floor as he began to hover a short distance above it. One of his feet curled around the edge of the windowsill, and with a shove, he threw himself out the window and sailed through the air towards the courtyard.

May I ask what you have in mind? Adam asked.

"We're going to train," he replied.

I thought you said you had no desire to fight.

He landed softly on his feet and let the aura around him fade. Looking up towards the open window of his room, he took pleasure in the fact that there was at least one power he was slowly getting the hang of.

"That's true," he admitted, "but that doesn't mean I can't know how to defend myself. I can use Protect well enough, but I can't use it multiple times consecutively. Iron Defense can only do so much, too. That means I'll need to figure out what other moves I can use, even if I have to spend all night doing it."

He moved to one of the tables and pulled himself onto its surface. There, he crossed his legs and wound his tail onto his lap, and once he was in position, he closed his eyes.

"Okay, Adam. I need your cooperation. I know you don't want me to master my moves this way, but I need to know what else I can do so I can work on it quickly. Can I use Thunder Wave?"

Do we look like an electric-type?

"Double Team?"

Even if we could, your speed would prevent it from being effective.

"Teeter Dance? Substitute? Reflect?"

Unfortunately no.

"Attract?"

There was a brief hesitation.

...Really, Bill?

He snapped his eyes open. "Look, I'm trying as hard as I can to come up with a strategy I can use where no one gets hurt!"

A wise human once said that the best defense is a good offense.

Bill sighed and let his shoulders slump slightly. In the quiet between them, he thought for a moment, listening to the sounds of the chilled wind as he struggled to come up with another possible attack. Behind him, he heard the slight rustle of what he thought was the grass against the wooden fence.

"Detect, then."

If we could learn Detect, you would have already used it to greet our incoming company.

"What?!"

At that warning, Bill flung a hand above him to summon a green dome of light around his body. Seconds after it appeared, a black tulip smacked against its surface, its blossom exploding in a shower of blue powder. Furrowing his eyebrows, Bill watched as the wind carried the Sleep Powder extract and the remnants of the flower harmlessly away.

"A black tulip," he whispered. Then, his eyes widened in realization, and he jumped to his feet. "You! Show yourself!"

From the shadows in the corner of the courtyard, a figure leapt up and slammed her feet onto the wooden table Bill had been sitting on a moment ago. With a smile, the blonde fixed her purple eyes on him and drew her black tulip baton into view.

"My my!" 009 exclaimed. "You've gotten to be quite a battler, even without that stuck-up old hag ordering you around. I'm sure the boss would love to meet you now."

Bill ground his feet into the dirt, anchoring himself to the ground with his claws. He knew he would be seeing a fight shortly.

"For your information," he spat, "that 'old hag' happens to be my partner, and I have absolutely no intention of going with you anywhere."

009 clicked her tongue. "Touchy. Anyway, why are you protesting? I caught you fair and square in a poké ball given to me by my fellow Team Rocket member. For all intents and purposes, you belong to Team Rocket. Completely legally, too!"

"That's hardly true," Bill snapped. "A ball may have captured my body, but my mind doesn't belong to you. And just as soon as I can convince Lanette to get rid of that thing, I'll be free again, but until then, it's in her hands, not yours."

"What's that? You think you belong to that girlfriend of yours? Oh, that's so cute!"

At once, Bill's face flushed. "What?! I beg your pardon, but she is most certainly not--"

"Your girlfriend? Come on, I've heard it a thousand times!" 009 brandished her baton and crouched. "Anyway, if you're going to insist that you don't belong to Team Rocket, I'm going to have to convince you myself!"

With that, she leapt off the table and lunged at him. Her baton swept in an arc beside her, aiming for the ixodida's head. As swiftly as he could, Bill raised both his hands, palms out towards her, as a second green barrier flared to life around him. The baton banged off its surface and flicked harmlessly to the side. 009 twirled it beside her as she crouched in preparation.

"Protect worked twice, but let's see it work three times!" she shouted.

She swung at him for a third time, but this time, he didn't try to block it. Instead, he turned, whipping his tail around him until it curled around the baton. As he turned he wrenched it out of 009's hand and sent her weapon flying across the courtyard. Snarling, he crouched and kept himself between her and it. She straightened her back and gazed at him through half-open eyes.

"Sienna," he barked. "Your name. It's Sienna, isn't it?"

A grin crawled across her face. "Maybe. You're smart, aren't you? What do you think?"

His tail waved back and forth behind him as his claws flexed. With narrow eyes, he studied his opponent, waiting for her next move.

"What's your name, then?" he asked.

"They call me a lot of things. The Black Tulip. Agent 009..."

She flicked her arm towards her opponent, and with a snap of her wrist, she shot a tulip straight at Bill's face. He had no time to dodge before the sharp stem slashed his cheek, and in that single moment, he yelped, flinched, and covered the wound with a hand. That single fluid reaction bought 009 enough time. In his distraction, she darted around him and leapt into the air. Somersaulting in mid-air, she closed the distance between herself and her weapon until she landed gracefully right next to it. Her hand swooped down to snatch it, and with her fingers gripping it tightly, she turned just in time to see her opponent pulling his hand away from his face. As the wound on his cheek visibly began to heal, he scowled at her and assumed a defensive stance: one foot in front of the other, one arm bent at his side with a hand balled into a fist, the other held up with its palm open. Bill knew next to nothing about martial arts, but he imagined, thanks to one kung-fu movie or another, that this stance helped in some way. Adam was at least not arguing about it.

"Your name," he repeated.

009 twirled her baton and walked towards him. "Why do you need to know?"

"I should think it's only proper to know the name of your opponent before you fight them. It separates a pokémon battle from common street fighting, wouldn't it?"

She chuckled. "You're too cute, but I can tell you're stalling. Fine. I'll humor you. It's Sienna."

At her last word, she lunged at him, baton swinging for his head. Bill's body flashed with a dim, blue aura as he raised his arm to block her strike. The sound of metal on metal resonated through the courtyard, and while it lingered in the air, he turned in an attempt to repeat his strategy to disarm her. She was ready this time, ducking low before his tail could touch her.

"Or maybe it's Yolanda!" she shouted.

Her next move came in the form of a swing at his head once again. He leaned back, allowing the blossom to pass over him harmlessly, but in the process, he noticed it spark with electricity.

"Or Saffron!"

She swung again, forcing him to block her with one arm. Once again, the baton banged off his skin, but before she could recover, Bill swung his free arm upwards and quickly channeled his energy into his fingertips. Each one took on a brilliant, white glow just as he slashed at the stem, slicing it in half. He was about to slash at her hand to knock the blossom away when she swung her arms away from him and twirled both ends in her hands.

"But I think my favorite cover was named..."

At once, she pointed both ends at him.

"...Domino!"

Electricity arced off both the blossom and the baton's blunt end with a crack. For a second, Bill could only see light as his entire body went numb -- and airborne. Before he could realize what was going on, he came crashing down onto one of the wooden picnic tables, smashing through it until he lay in a heap on top of splintered wood.

Groaning, he opened his eyes and held his head. His vision blurred, but he could just barely make out a black and yellow blotch moving slowly towards him. Squinting, he forced his vision to resolve until he could see 009 standing over him with her broken baton at her sides.

"Well? Did I convince you?"

Bill spat at her feet. "Your real name."

The Black Tulip cocked her head to the side slightly, but before she could respond, something cracked against the back of her skull. Her eyes rolled up into her head, and she dropped like a ragdoll at Lanette's feet. The redhead rubbed the edge of her crowbar gingerly, as if she was more concerned about the damages done to it than to the Rocket field agent.

"She would have only lied anyway, Bill," she stated. "What were you doing?"

He coughed and struggled to sit up. "Training."

"Training," Lanette repeated as one of her eyebrows rose.

"Or trying to anyway before she interrupted me."

"Hm. First rule of battling."

With one of her feet, she shoved Domino's body to the side and offered a hand to her partner. He briefly glanced at the blonde to the side before accepting Lanette's gesture and allowing her to pull him to his feet. His legs tingled and shook with the remaining effects of the electricity, but Lanette supported him, wrapping her arms around his waist to keep him upright.

"Don't ask the enemy questions in the middle of a fight," she finished.

"Oh. That?" Bill smiled awkwardly and slipped one of his arms around Lanette's shoulders for stability. "That was stalling."

"That was stupidity."

"I needed time to think of a move that wouldn't kill her!"

"You do what you need to do. She wouldn't have let you kill her."

Bill pulled himself away from Lanette and glared at her incredulously. "Are you suggesting I should murder someone?"

"No," she replied. "I'm suggesting you defend yourself properly. The policy of the Caravan is to do what is necessary to safeguard the lives of everyone we take in. Out there, there are ixodida who will gladly rip you apart without rhyme or reason. We need to be prepared for that, which means you'll need to be prepared to do everything in your power to protect us. And I mean everything."

"And I will, but I don't plan on hurting anyone in the process. Lanette, we can figure this out! Between you and me, we can uncover what the ixodida really want! This doesn't have to be a war!"

For a long moment, she locked her eyes on his. Then, she placed a hand on her hip, sighed, and shook her head.

"You still don't understand, do you?" she said.

"I'm trying to," he told her quietly. "Believe me, I'm trying to."

"Not with that attitude, you're not. But if you need to be convinced..." She looked over her shoulder. "Steven. Wallace."

She stepped aside to reveal two shadows perched on one of the unbroken wooden tables. Stepping forward, Bill squinted, forcing his eyes to adjust to the darkness in order to see them. When he did, he stopped.

Both of them were young men not much older than he was. The one on the right kept pale, narrow eyes fixed on Bill and Lanette as thick fingers played with the smooth surfaces of a stone he held in his palm. On the left, his companion leaned the small of his back against the edge of the table but kept his eyes on the moon. One of his hands curled around the edge of the table; the other held his white beret against his straight, green hair.

Bill didn't need an introduction to know who either of these men were. One of them -- the right one, the gray-haired man in the suit -- was Steven Stone, son of the world-renowned inventor who ran Devon Corporation. The other, the green-haired man in loose-fitting artist's smock, was Wallace, renowned master of water-type pokémon. Furthermore, he knew enough from Lanette already to realize he was in the presence of both of Hoenn's league champions. With that in mind, he waited, anticipating that something painful was about to happen to him.

Wallace was the first to speak. "What she says is true. The ixodida have no desire to negotiate, and we can't waste our efforts trying."

"Why not?" Bill asked.

"They can't make their own decisions," Steven explained. "At the heart of the Hoenn region is Point Zero, the crater where the meteor that leveled Fortree City fell. Somewhere in that area is an ixodida known as the empress, a creature stronger than any of the others on this island. All ixodida answer to the empress without question, and it's because of her that they're attacking us. Unless we defeat her, she'll continue to order the others to kill us all."

"But why?" Bill insisted. "There must be a reason for it! Perhaps they're simply territorial, or perhaps we've somehow threatened them. There could be any number of reasons why they're attacking us, but it can't simply be because they sociopathic."

Steven slouched and gazed at the rock in his hands. "That may be so, but any other ixodida won't give us that answer. They will attack us on sight, and they won't hold back. We need to work our way to the empress in order to stop her, and in doing so, we'll need to travel through an area with a high population of ixodida. Therefore--"

"Wait. We?"

At that, Steven looked up. "Yes. You, Wallace, the rest of the Caravan--"

"There are children in the Caravan!"

Wallace glanced at Lanette. "You didn't tell him?"

To that, she tore her eyes away from them, moving her gaze to the side. "It was irrelevant."

Steven rapped his hand on the table, hitting the wood with the surface of his rock. "Nonetheless, we need to prepare absolutely everyone who can fight if we want to reach the empress without incident. You're an ixodida yourself. You're better equipped than any of us to do the job for a number of reasons, the least of which is your inherent strength compared to most native pokémon. All you need is training."

"Surely, there's another way to do this."

Lanette huffed. "Why won't you understand? The ixodida will not stop attacking us until we defeat the empress, and they're certainly not going to listen to reason. We don't know whether or not the empress will, but that's irrelevant if we can't get to her in the first place. You need to train because you, as much I'd hate to admit it, are probably our best hope in getting to her in one piece."

"But all ixodida are human inside! I can't kill them!" Bill protested. "If I can think independently, then--"

A growl rumbled out of Lanette's throat, and suddenly, she turned to him and slapped her hands on his shoulders.

"Listen to me, Bill," she snapped. "Try to imagine what would happen if you and Hope were facing an ixodida. The ixodida is trying to kill Hope, and you have ten seconds to keep it from doing the job. What do you do?"

"I..." Bill lowered his head. "I... I don't know."

"The correct answer is you would rip that ixodida apart," Lanette told him. "The ixodida are a real threat to innocent people. You can't rely on the possibility that you might get through to one and convince it not to attack. There's still the chance that someone else will get hurt because you didn't act, and it's better to sacrifice someone who can't think for themselves for someone who can. Do you understand that?"

He lifted his chin slightly and mumbled, "I do."

"So Steven and Wallace can hear you."

After taking a deep breath, he replied in a clear, loud voice, "I understand."

"Good."

She forced him to turn and shoved him back towards the pokémon center. He took a few steps before turning and glancing back at her.

"Get some rest," she ordered. "Tomorrow, we wake up early to move out. You're going to have to learn on the road."

"Learn on the road?"

She nodded. "As soon as Steven and Wallace arrived to fight the fire-type, it fled. The three of us have agreed that there's reason to believe it will come back. We can't stay here to wait for it."

He wanted to protest. He wanted to open his mouth and ask her how she could believe he could fight against something like that -- not because he was worried about the human it was inside but instead because she knew how weak he was. Steven and Wallace could spout their beliefs concerning the strength of an ixodida compared to a pokémon all day, but at the end of it all, Bill knew he could be defeated by a chansey and a growlithe. He wanted to help. He didn't want to be a hero, but he certainly wanted to be a protector, a guardian of the innocent people of the Caravan. But the thing he couldn't do was fight, and no matter what he tried to say, he just couldn't make anyone there understand the reasons why. His mouth opened; he found the words to say and was just about to say them.

But instead, he said, "I see."

It was when he was halfway to the door that he realized he wasn't in control anymore. Although his mind made an effort to pry control from Adam's grip, his main concern at that point was the utter confusion he was feeling right at that moment.

Adam, what are you doing? he finally asked.

"Saving you the trouble of arguing for another hour," the parasite whispered. "They are all correct. The empress exists, and we will not be able to rest until she is defeated. Besides, you need to sleep. The way you battled was a decent effort, but you took enough damage to require us to rest. I really wish you would not be so quick to put our body in harm's way."

As soon as it stepped inside, Adam retreated, pitching Bill forward. He wavered on his feet and grabbed his head, trying his best to shake off the disoriented feeling that suddenly hit him hard.

"Even my body is against me," he muttered with a grimace.

Then, without another word or glance back, he continued into the center and headed back to his room.

Outside, Lanette, Steven, and Wallace watched the door close. As soon as it did, Lanette relaxed.

"Well?" she said.

"His technique could use improvement, but it definitely shows potential. The way he disarmed that girl shows that he can be creative in a battle if he wants to be," Wallace commented. "We just need to refine his reaction times and his ability to strategize. That I can do." He glanced towards his partner. "Steven?"

"You've already told me he can use Iron Tail and Metal Claw, Lanette," he said, "but the way he used Metal Claw makes me think he could be taught a few other moves. I'd like to see which ones I can teach him." Then, his gaze drifted over his shoulder, towards the fence. "What about you, Tate?"

There was a long silence. At the height of it, a boy walked out of the shadows. With each step, a long tail with an arrowhead-tip swayed behind him, and the core on his ankle and the bone-white horns nestled in his pink hair glinted in the moonlight. The rest of his body was dressed in blue and red Chinese-style garments, all of which covered his smooth, pale-pink skin. As he brought his claws to his mouth, he stared at the door with blue-eyed wonder.

Taking note of his expression, Steven asked, "Tate? What is it?"

"I don't know," the boy admitted, "but I couldn't read that guy's future."

---

Lab assistants in Polaris Institute were a lot like vital organs: although one didn't notice his own liver while it remained in full operation, removing it disrupted an entire delicate system. Most of the time, lab assistants were not hired separately from researchers. Rather, many researchers had full-time assistants that they brought with them on the account of being able to trust their ability to remain confidential, keep calm, and work well in a team. Thus, they were permitted in the laboratory to work side-by-side with researchers to collect data, ensure each experiment ran smoothly, and generally perform whatever duties each research team required.

The position thrilled Tracey Sketchit beyond all reason.

Tracey did not have an illustrious background; in fact, he was the first pokémon watcher in his family. By contrast, many of his family members were in the tourism industry, and he was the son of a craftsman on Valencia Island who specialized in turning seashells into souvenirs. Most Sketchits never even had a passing fascination with pokémon save for the facts that some were used to harvest shells and that it was often trainers who came to their shops. So it was a great surprise when, seemingly out of the blue, Tracey announced that he wanted to take his marill and travel the world to study pokémon.

The next few years were a flurry of adventure. For a long while, he traveled by himself, fine-tuning his abilities to observe pokémon and sketch them in a short amount of time. For another while, he traveled with a young trainer from Pallet Town, and that made his life even more interesting by giving him the opportunity to encounter strange and wondrous pokémon he never would have met by himself, the least of which were the legendary birds.

Then, for the next while, he was Professor Oak's personal assistant. As such, his position in Polaris Institute was an important one, although he sometimes shied away from describing it as such. While he was rarely required to step into a laboratory and assist an experiment himself (mostly because Oak was more of a supervisor than a scientist), he performed all clerical duties Oak required, greeted and organized new members to the Polaris staff, and analyzed employee profiles sent by the Committee to help his superior choose new members. Only on occasion, he would set out to the Median and Inner Rings to oversee certain experiments to deliver a report to Oak, and now was such an occasion.

Tracey's steps fell quickly as he raced down the hallway towards one of the laboratories of the Inner Ring. His ID was already in hand, and his mind was struggling to keep track of the time. He knew that he was running late, that the biochemistry team's experiment was starting in fifteen minutes, and that he should have been there five minutes ago.

He also knew that according to Murphy's Law, if one is running late, the chances are greater that there would be one obstacle or another to determine that one would absolutely be late. As such, just as he spotted the door to the laboratory in the distance, a hand grabbed his arm and jolted him back. By some miracle, he didn't tumble to the floor and instead managed to right himself, all while twisting his body until he came face-to-face with a man whose image he had seen on the backs of more than a few books.

"Ah! Tracey Sketchit! Just the assistant I wanted to see!" John said cheerfully. "Do you remember who I am?"

At the question, Tracey widened his eyes and stammered, "Y-yes, sir! You're Professor McKenzie, one of the world's leading experts on pokémon psychology and battle techniques! I'm a huge fan of yours, but--"

"Clever boy, clever boy!" John exclaimed as he patted Tracey on the back. "Say, you wouldn't happen to be busy, would you?"

"Uh, actually..." Tracey's eyes darted towards the end of the hallway. "I'm late for assisting the biochemistry team, and--"

John's face fell. "Oh. Them. Well, in that case, let me escort you! I'd like to make a business proposal along the way, if I may."

"A... business proposal?"

"Yes, yes! Very simple arrangement, really. You see, I need help on a little project of mine, and I can't trust anyone but Professor Oak's finest. I can convince the old arcanine to lend me you for a bit, but negotiations would be much smoother if I knew whether or not you'd like to work closely with me."

"Well, I..."

"Did I forget to mention that it'd get you out of a desk job and back into a laboratory?"

That was all it took to coax the boy into rambling about why he would be thrilled to do it and wasn't entirely sure if it would be okay and countless other things John only half-listened to. The older man simply grinned and put an arm around Tracey's shoulders like he was a close friend, and with that, the two of them walked down the hallway. Along the way, he shot a victorious glance through an open door. Beyond it, he could see Ariana, dressed in the uniform of the chief of security and flanked by two large lab assistants, and while the assistants looked completely nonchalant about the image of Tracey being accompanied by John, the Rocket executive seethed in quiet fury.

And that, in John's opinion, made this all positively worth it.

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