Anima Ex Machina: Twenty-Four
At noon in the desert, a panting lizard waited for history.

Keycard. Thumbprint. Iris.

A door in the heart of Polaris Institute clicked open, and Tracey slipped into the room beyond it. The room was dark, and for a long while, he assumed it was empty until he could just barely make out the silhouette of someone hunched at a computer on the opposite end of the room. Clicking the door closed behind him, he let the room plunge into darkness save for the soft glow of the computer screen. The figure in front of it sat up and reached for a glass beside its monitor, letting the ice within it click against its sides before he spoke.

"Did anyone follow you?" John asked.

"No, Professor," Tracey answered.

"Good. Come here."

The watcher crept forward, his movements slow as he craned his neck to look over his superior's shoulder. He couldn't tell much from the screen itself. All he could see were two windows: one that contained black-and-white security footage and another that contained lines of code. When he was close enough to smell the alcohol in John's glass, he stood, waiting as John leaned back.

"Pop quiz, boy." John moved the mouse, guiding the cursor over to the first window and maximizing it. "What is this?"

Tracey squinted at the screen. On it, he could see an ixodida, the first of the two created at Polaris, talking to Professor Oak. The clip was muted, but Tracey had seen it enough times to know what was being said.

"The Adam Tape," Tracey replied. "Doesn't that contain--"

"Be more specific. What's going on in this clip?"

For a second, Tracey hesitated. His eyes gazed with uncertainty at the back of John's head, but the researcher made no effort to show that he noticed the boy's apprehension.

"Well? Don't be nervous now," he said.

The watcher took a deep breath and responded slowly. "Codename Adam is agreeing to being studied, sir."

"He's taking an awful long time to do it." John took a sip. "Tell me what he's really doing."

For another second, Tracey hesitated. Then, he replied, "He's talking about ethics. Professor Oak is trying to tell Codename Adam--"

"It's just you and me here, Mr. Sketchit. Call him by his real name."

Tracey swallowed. The uncomfortable feeling in his head crept into every inch of his body, and suddenly, he wanted to be anywhere but right there, even if the man was one of his idols.

"P-Professor Oak is... he's telling Bill that he always has a choice in whether or not we could study him." Tracey's voice was quiet, and the slowness of his every word betrayed just how much thought he was putting into what he was saying. "But then Bill is saying that he doesn't have a choice... because he's a researcher first."

"Poetic, isn't it?" John commented. He turned the glass in his hand, letting the ice slip to another part of its surface. "To pursue the truth, sacrifice is inevitable. Every good researcher knows that. Do you want to be a researcher, Mr. Sketchit?"

The question came abruptly, and once again, Tracey couldn't help but stumble over his words in a mad scramble to respond. By then, John was grinning, knowing very well what was going on in Tracey's head.

"O-of course! Yes! It's been my dream to study pokémon!" Tracey finally stammered.

"Then you probably already understand what it means to sacrifice for it."

Tracey straightened. "Well... I left home, if that's what you mean."

"Not entirely." John paused the video and minimized it to reveal the second window, the lines of code. "Second question. What is this?"

For once, Tracey had nothing to say, and it wasn't because he was stumbling over his words. Staring at the screen, he couldn't make out any part of it. Some parts he could read. Words in Common and English were scattered throughout the text, sometimes indicating a computer code and other times forming a fragment of a sentence or a word taken out of context. The rest, meanwhile, was complete gibberish to him. Most of it were simply lines upon lines of text with characters from both languages thrown together at random. Others were nothing but symbols: angular, bold characters he had never seen before in his life. He didn't realize that his mouth had fallen open the minute he attempted to read the screen, and because of this, John had to chuckle.

"Don't bother, boy. No rookie's been able to read this text without proper help. Here. Let me shine some light on this document for you."

With one hand, John keyed in a command. The text flashed, and characters darted about the screen. Finally, the document reorganized itself into something Tracey could read: a scientific report that detailed the physical description -- round body, transparent exoskeleton, eight legs, a mouth on its underside -- of an alien that strongly resembled the pokémon he knew as XP-650. The only problem was the header, which contained the name of a research facility rendered in the strange language.

"What is this?" he asked.

"A research report found in the encrypted files of the Committee's database," John informed him. "Tell me. What do you notice about this report?"

"...Where did this come from?"

"Ah! Good observation!" John placed his glass on the desk. "Project Stardust wasn't the first to study XP-650, you know. This report happens to be five years old."

"Five years...?" Tracey leaned forward, eying the report in an effort to pick up on some detail he might have missed. "But how? If XP-650 originated from the meteor in Hoenn, then there's no way it could have been here five years ago."

"It wasn't. I never said these were researchers from Earth."

Immediately, Tracey stood at attention. His eyes fell on John, and his mouth clenched shut. Noticing the boy's reaction, John laced his fingers together.

"Tell me. What do you know about the Committee?"

"Not a lot," Tracey admitted, his voice squeaking with a strained tone.

"Neither do we."

The watcher shifted on his feet. "We?"

"Yes. Last question."

At this point, John sat back. He rested his hands just over his stomach as he gazed into his assistant's eyes. If there was anything he had learned by working with young and innocent trainers in Goldenrod City, it was how to work an audience. He knew he had Tracey's attention. He was just enjoying every second of holding it.

And then, finally, he spoke in one last question.

"Have you ever heard of the Agency?"

---

Ever since the invasion, the forests surrounding Route 118 had been quiet. The thing was that while the ixodida could climb trees, few of them bothered, opting instead to pick off the ground pokémon or move to a different location before trying to hunt the pokémon that hid in the treetops. Because of this behavior, zigzagoon and electrike were the first to go. Then came their evolutions, who were slightly more capable of fighting back. Last came a good chunk of the kecleon and wingull population -- whatever couldn't make it back up the trees in time. It didn't take long at all before the populations of the route dwindled until only a handful of wingull and kecleon were left. The rest were far more adept at hiding or putting themselves out of reach. Or at least, they were marginally better than the ones that were killed.

In the dark of the night, one example of a survivor made its move. A red, jagged stripe hovered over a branch, racing towards the trunk until it crawled onto its rough, black surface. From there, it began to descend, gliding across black bark for several feet until it came to a stop halfway up the tree. Beneath it, a pair of small, black eyes opened and darted in opposite directions like dragonflies over water. Then, a pink tongue lashed out from thin air to slurp at one of the eyes before darting right back into a hidden mouth. After that, the rest of the kecleon appeared, its emerald-green and golden-yellow scales shimmering into view. For a long time, it rested there, eyes scanning the forest for any potential predators, tongue lashing out of the tip of its pointed jaws.

Beneath it was what summoned it there: a pile of berries, neatly placed at the foot of the tree. Although a variety of fruits lay on the ground, the ones that caught the kecleon's attention were the spherical, yellow aspear berries. Once more, it licked its lips as its eyes centered on the nearest one, and with its claws scratching against the wood of the tree, it scrambled down to the pile, plunged its hands into the fruit, rolled off the bark, and bowled through the feast and onto the ground. At last, it stopped, seated and raising the berry to its wide-open mouth.

Then, something pounced on it.

The aspear berry flew out of the chameleon's hands as it struggled beneath the steel claws pinning it to the ground. Its attacker reared back, his mouth open wide as a hiss rushed from his throat. He lunged, fangs bared and ready to tear into the kecleon's back, but before he could finish, he stopped. The kecleon lay still beneath his hands as one of its beady eyes cautiously gazed at the hunter. In that brief moment, he panted, his hot breath falling onto the lizard's scales.

At last, he let the creature go.

"I'm sorry. I just can't do this," Bill said.

What do you mean? Adam snapped. We must eat.

Cringing, Bill held his head. "I know! I know! I just can't bring myself to do it!" Sitting up, he moved to press his back against the tree. "Sorry, Kecleon. You can go now. I'm not going to eat you."

The lizard stood and tilted its head.

Unfortunately, Adam wasn't nearly as forgiving. What are you doing? You cannot let all our prey go!

"Well, I can't very well kill it when it's looking at me!"

Bill. They will all be looking at you when you kill them.

"Exactly!"

In his head, Adam huffed. If you will not do what is necessary to fulfill our needs, then perhaps I should.

At once, Bill's arm went numb. He watched it rise towards the kecleon while it still stood at his side. With a gasp, he reached up with his free hand and grabbed his wrist, pulling at his own appendage to keep it from moving towards the pokémon.

"Stop it, Adam! I'm not going to let you--"

This is for our own good. Stop resisting!

"I don't care if it's for our own good! We're not going to--"

The kecleon punctuated this conversation by lashing its tongue out at Bill's arm. Its tip stuck to his forearm as if it was glued to his skin.

May I kill it now?

"No, Adam," Bill growled, "you may not."

The lizard's tongue parted from Bill's arm with a snap, and it reeled back as the muscle retracted into its wide mouth. Then, as its arms flailed, it righted itself until it stood calmly on two legs. With an added "kec," it tilted its head once again. All the while, Bill, finally back in control of his arm, lowered his hand and stared at it.

So if we may not eat this kecleon and we may not eat the wingull you had found earlier or the carvanha in the river, then what, if I may ask, may we eat?

"I'll find us something to eat," Bill promised. Then, he reached over and rested a hand on the lizard's head. "Just not this one."

He stood, picking up as many of the berries as he could carry. Without a second glance towards the kecleon, he turned and walked in a random direction.

"Perhaps we'll try a little bit further into the woods," Bill reasoned. "It'll be darker there, so maybe our victims won't be able to see us as easily."

I highly doubt that anything awake at this hour would lack some way of detecting us, Bill.

"Just trust me, would you?"

I have no other choice, do I?

The host let the conversation fall silent as he adjusted the berries in his arms. Behind him, the kecleon nearly completely vanished, and its stripe tilted and darted into the darkness between the trees. Bill didn't notice, however. He only continued forward, eyes to the parts of the sky he could see beyond the forest's canopy.

"Adam," he said after a few minutes, "we got away without another lesson today, but there's no telling what will happen tomorrow. I need to know what else we can do."

You know I cannot tell you so easily.

"Yes, but..." He looked to the side. "We're facing champions."

Clearly.

"League champions, Adam. They're the strongest trainers in this region. No ordinary trainers can beat them."

Fascinating.

Ignoring Adam's disinterested tone, Bill paused and thought about the blonde Rocket agent. "And that girl, Sienna. She disappeared after our encounter, and there's no telling what she'll do next. Between her and those two champions, we may be facing one difficult fight after another, especially if I don't have an inkling of what we're capable of."

In response, Adam remained silent. Bill bent down, placing the berries carefully at the base of another tree.

"Adam?" he asked.

You concern yourself with too many things that do not matter. Humans are of no threat to us. The ixodida are.

"Both are equally troubling," Bill responded. "But speaking of which, what should we do if another ixodida like the one that knocked us out comes along?"

An interesting question. Perhaps we should test that. Focus, Bill. What do you feel?

Bill jumped to his feet at those words. He frantically scanned the area around him as he gradually became aware of a feeling inside him. It started as a nagging twinge at the back of his mind, but it quickly grew to a full-blown feeling of absolute dread -- a cold, tingling, unpleasant sensation all over his body.

"No," he whispered. "Oh no, no, no. Not now!"

An iridescent beam blasted at him from somewhere between the trees. Yelping, he threw his palms towards it, summoning a green barrier just in time to deflect the attack. The beam slammed against his Protect and exploded, illuminating the forest with brilliant, white light. Bill flew into the tree trunk and dropped his feet into the pile of berries. The rest of his body began to sink, but bracing himself against the tree, he managed to remain upright long enough to peer out towards the darkness.

"That power... It tore my Protect apart!" Bill breathed.

Then ready yourself, Bill. Let your guard down, and it will not be your Protect that it tears apart next.

He's right, you know, a boy's voice quipped.

"Telepathy!" Bill gasped. His fingers dug into the tree trunk. "And a Psybeam! I knew it! You're a Psychic-type!"

So the rumors about you are true! the voice replied. Steven and Wallace told me all about how you're supposed to be pretty smart, and at first, I didn't think you were such a big deal, especially if your hunting technique was that much of a joke.

"Steven and Wallace..."

Bill lowered his gaze. Remembering Wallace brought only one image to mind: the look on his face that morning when Bill asked him if there was another ixodida nearby. He could still picture that smirk perfectly, and he let that image linger in his mind as he recalled the same unpleasant feeling that radiated throughout his body.

"You... You're the one I sensed this morning!" he finally said. "That's why Wallace didn't say anything! You're on our side!"

Sort of. Think of it as the enemy of our enemy's our friend. You're going up against the empress. It only makes sense that we make sure you don't die along the way. That way, we've got better odds. Understand what I mean?

Pushing away from the trunk, Bill took several steps forward. "I hope you don't consider this to be rude, but I'd rather not have a conversation with you if I can't see you. It's bad enough that I already have one voice in my head."

Can't argue with that. In fact, allow me to introduce myself.

The underbrush directly in front of him rustled. Bill crouched, his fingers tensing in preparation to defend himself. The rest of him shivered, trembled in anticipation...

...Until a figure much smaller than him emerged from the bushes.

Bill relaxed as a dumbfounded look crossed his face. The newcomer couldn't have been much older than twelve before he transformed, judging by his diminutive size and the roundness of his boyish face. What struck Bill the most, though, was the fact that as the stranger approached, he smiled warmly, almost in a friendly manner.

"My name's Tate. The leader of the Mossdeep Gym, at your service!" He saluted with a wink. "And you're right. I'm an ixodida just like you, but I'm of the psychic type."

He is a rogue, Adam told him, but be careful. You were right in thinking he is far more powerful than he looks.

"Relax, Adam. He's on our side." Then, with a smile and a slightly louder voice, Bill added, "Tate, it's a pleasure to--"

Suddenly, he felt himself being yanked into the air by an unseen force. Before he was fully conscious of what was happening, the force smashed him into the trunk and pulled him back into the air to dangle several feet above the ground. He felt his throat constrict, as if a giant hand was holding him up by his neck. Choking, he opened his eyes to see Tate far below him. The psychic's entire body glowed blue as he held up a hand, curved as if it was holding something. Even worse, the smile that had been on his face just a second ago was completely gone.

"Don't judge a book by its cover. Sometimes, the opponents you'll be up against will look exactly like friends at first glance, you know," he said. "You were wondering about lesson two earlier, right? Well, here it is. Wallace wants you to improve your reaction times, so he sent me to see how well you'd fare against my psychic powers. So, come on! Let's see you break out and hit me with your best shot!"

At the same time, fuzzy, white spots began to cloud Bill's vision. He strained against the hold, but as the seconds ticked onward, his thoughts became murkier and murkier.

"Adam..." he croaked.

Bill, I will admit it is impossible for you to win this match using the moves you understand so far, Adam responded quickly. Hold on. I will unlock a power for you. In doing so, you must trust me, and you must use this power without any question. Do you understand?

By then, Bill could no longer think. He simply nodded and opened his mind to Adam. At once, he felt the parasite slither across his brain and stab into his head like a cold knife. He tried to scream, but with little air, he found he couldn't operate his voice. All he could do was open his mouth, close his eyes, and thrash in mid-air. Below him, Tate's eyes flared with a brilliant, blue light as he braced himself and steadied his arm.

"Something's not right," he murmured.

The force encircling Bill's throat weakened and spread all over his body, but he didn't notice. He curled in the air and shook. His eyes glazed over, and for that moment, he couldn't see Tate or the forest. He saw in their places flashes of somewhere else.

A room made of crystal. Light filtering through the walls in rainbow colors.

A creature at its far end in flowing, white robes. Tall and lean with spindly arms.

Violet, almond-shaped eyes. A blank gaze.

A hand -- his hand -- rising, palm outward.

In reality, his hand slowly rose. His fingers fanned apart as the jewel in his palm began to glow white.

Tate's arm went slack slightly. "Hey! What're you trying to do?!"

A voice echoed through his head.

"So here we are."

The vision began to fade, giving way to Adam's voice instead.

Bill, do it now!

He stretched his palm towards Tate. For one last second, he saw the figure in white open its arms as the air around it quivered. Concentrating on this image, he mentally pushed his energy into the jewel until it pulsed outward as a green orb of light.

"Mirror Shot!" he called.

The blue light in Tate's eyes dissipated as he widened them in shock. "What?!"

With a bang, the orb exploded in the form of a brilliant, green beam. In seconds, it struck Tate in the chest, blasting him off his feet and into the brush behind him. With Tate's focus on maintaining Psychic broken, Bill dropped from the air like a rock, landing with a thud on the soft ground. He shook his head and pushed himself to his knees. As soon as the dull pain radiating through his limbs faded, Bill pulled out of a grimace and stared at his hands.

"What was that all about?" he asked himself.

Nearby, Tate yelled and jumped from the bushes. This time, he supported himself in the air with a pair of glowing, blue butterfly wings.

"Okay!" he snapped. "You might've had a lucky shot that time, but now, I'm about to get serious! Wallace sent me out here to test you, and I'm gonna do it! So ready or not, here I--"

Abruptly, he was interrupted by something invisible slamming into his back. With a startled cry, he pitched forward and crashed into the ground, face-first. A jagged, red stripe bounced off a spot between his shoulder blades and arced into the air until it came to land beside the pile of berries Bill had set up. In the meantime, Bill watched the events unfold, and once the stripe landed, he blinked.

"Was that... Shadow Sneak?" he muttered.

As soon as he voiced his guess, green scales appeared around the stripe until the kecleon came into view.

"Leon!" it called.

For a few seconds, Bill simply stared at it. Then, he straightened in realization. "Wait! You're... you're not the kecleon from earlier, are you?!"

It nodded. "Kec!"

He knitted his eyebrows. "I don't understand. Why are you following me?"

"Kec! Kec kec kecleon!"

"You... want the aspear berries I gathered?"

"Kec!"

He groaned. "You do realize that I was trying to use those berries to catch you so I could eat you, right?"

"Leeeon?"

With a sigh, he waved a hand in the air. "Take as much as you'd like. I can't eat any of it, and at this rate--"

"Hey!"

Bill paused and then looked back towards Tate. The boy was once again on his feet with his butterfly wings still in full view. His fists were clenched, and he exerted as much effort as possible to stare daggers at his elder.

"Did you forget about me?!" he snapped.

"Sorry," Bill replied as he reached up and rubbed the back of his neck. "Actually..."

The kecleon interrupted by lashing out its tongue and smacking the tip of it against Tate's forehead. Instantly, the psychic's eyes widened and blanked as the lizard's tongue stroked his skin once and slithered back into its mouth. As he watched this, Bill stood and crossed his arms.

"And that was Lick. As eccentric as this kecleon may be, it certainly knows how to fight according to type," Bill commented.

Then, Tate leaned back. His wings faded away with a sparkle, and he collapsed backwards until he lay flat on the ground, hands sticking up in the air and twitching.

"Tate!" Bill gasped as he stooped down and grasped one of the psychic's arms. "Paralysis. And it looks like you took a lot of damage in addition to that. Hold on! I'll take you back to the Caravan! Ellen should be able to help you!"

With that, he scooped the boy into his arms and stood. Tate shivered and tried to resist, but his joints locked up, rendering him unable to do much else but let his arms and legs dangle. He looked up, straining to look at the face of his former opponent as the latter carried him into the brush.

"Hey, Bill?" he finally said.

"Yes, Tate?"

The psychic reached up and placed a hand on his companion's head. Bill stopped, freezing completely as he felt a presence enter his mind and surround a part of him before Adam resurfaced. In that single part, he heard Tate's voice.

I wouldn't trust Adam if I were you.

As soon as those words were passed from one ixodida to the other, the presence retreated. Then, at the piece of advice, Bill couldn't help but force himself to smile as he continued forward.

"I know that," he said.

While they disappeared into the forest, the kecleon sat beside the trunk of the tree and watched them leave. Then, it quickly stuffed as many aspear berries into its mouth as it could before getting up and rushing after them. With each step, its scales blended in with the forest around it until it was nothing more than a red stripe following closely behind Bill and Tate.

At the same time, Domino smiled from her perch in one of the trees. She drew a tulip close to her mouth to hide her amusement.

"So you learned a new move," she drawled. "Big deal. That just means this will be even more... interesting."

As a giggle escaped her mouth, she tossed the flower towards the ground and leapt from branch to branch to follow the ixodida.

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