Anima Ex Machina: Three
If you come across Pandora's Box, don't open it.

The alarms were still blaring when 009 darted into her apartment in the Outer Ring of Polaris Institute. She had already shifted command over to her mole in security; now, she had more important things to worry about. Shutting the door behind her, she ran down the small hallway and into a side room. Inside was a fairly modest space with a cot and a dresser against the far wall. Without hesitation, she rushed for the dresser and placed her hands on the knobs on the face of one of its drawers. Before she could pull it open, however, she suddenly heard a cough.

Slowly, she straightened. She peeked over her shoulder to see Professor Nettle standing in the doorway of the room. The woman's arms were crossed, and her mouth was contracted into a small frown.

"Professor Nettle!" 009 gasped. "How did you get in here?!"

"Sloppy work, Black Tulip, especially for you," the scientist replied. "You failed to lock your door just now."

"Hmph!"

009 pulled the drawer open. She didn't say anything. Instead, she simply pulled a black case out from under neatly folded clothes. Nettle narrowed her eyes at the other woman's lack of response.

"What I don't understand," she said, "is why you felt the need to stage all of this in the first place. Why would you call our forces in security to sound a false alarm?"

Tossing the black case on her cot, 009 busied herself with opening it and drawing from its depths a manila envelope. At Nettle's question, she glanced over her shoulder.

"Headquarters didn't notify you?" she asked.

Nettle quirked an eyebrow. "Of what?"

"Giovanni must not trust you that much." Turning, 009 slipped a hand into the envelope and pulled from it a photo. "The Stardust Operation is for gathering intelligence, but my mission, the Polaris Operation, is a bit different. I was sent here to collect this."

Walking forward, she handed the photo to Nettle. Glancing at it, the scientist saw the image of a creature crouched on all fours on a cement floor. Even though the image was black-and-white, the thing was the palest object in the room. Crystal spikes jutted out of its back, tracing along its spine and down a tail that ended in a glassy arrowhead. Straight, white hair draped across the back and around the wrists of the creature. Locks of it pooled around the pair of rounded horns on its head and fell in front of its face. The tips of the creature's hair, meanwhile, brushed long claws on both its hands and three-toed feet.

"XP-650B," she said as she handed the photo back. "I already know about this. My operation hasn't collected nearly enough data concerning it, however. We've been blocked from further observation thanks to the Committee's concerns over human experimentation." She narrowed her eyes. "Surely our leader already understands we wouldn't know what to do with one of these things if we captured one."

Placing the photo on the dresser, 009 flicked her free wrist to let a black-petaled tulip slide into her hand. "Giovanni doesn't care. He wants this and the A form, and he'll figure out the rest in our own laboratories, beyond the Committee's reach. I'm surprised he never notified you of my mission. That says a lot about his opinion of you. Then again, he gave you the Stardust Operation to run, and he's highly disappointed in your lack of results."

Nettle smirked. "Or perhaps he realizes that one should never send in a team leader to do a grunt's job. You misunderstood my question, 009. You assume I don't know about Operation Polaris, but I asked you why you staged the attack, not why you're here. Now that Polaris Institute is aware of the possibility that XP-650A can escape, everyone will be keeping a sharper eye on it. How do you propose to complete your mission now?"

Frowning, the Black Tulip replied, "Now, you're underestimating the organization, Professor Nettle. Our operatives have a hand everywhere. We can slip in and out of this place easily, regardless of how well-guarded it is."

In response to her claim, Nettle turned her head slightly and stared at the Black Tulip from the corner of her eye. The blonde noticed the scientist's skeptical look and responded with a huff.

"Instead of questioning me, why don't you make yourself useful and ensure that our agents secure XP-650A? Operatives on the chemistry team have told me that the green substance in that test rattata you used today was actually a cluster of eggs. I'm certain the little cuties will be hatching shortly, and with the number of eggs that were laid, who's going to miss one tiny specimen out of hundreds? Our agents will rendezvous with you tonight outside of Laboratory F. Act like you're bringing them in to brief them on tomorrow's experiment and--"

"And make the exact same mistake you have?"

009 arched her eyebrows but then scowled. Her hand swung up and pointed the head of the flower at Nettle. In response, the scientist merely smirked, slipped her hands into her pockets, and watched the blossom spark electricity.

"I know what I'm doing," 009 drawled. "Why don't you leave worrying about how to smuggle XP-650A and B out of the institute to me and follow my orders?"

"Because you forget my place in the organization," Nettle replied. "As far as you're concerned, if you work in a Rocket-run laboratory, you answer to me, not the other way around."

009 lowered her tulip and glared at Nettle. She couldn't argue with the scientist's statement when it was absolutely true.

Grinning at the surrender, Nettle shrugged. "However, for the sake of a potential Rocket victory, I'll humor you and follow your suggestion. Whatever failures come from this are your responsibility, not mine. Do you understand?"

The agent gripped the stem of her flower until it burst into a shower of sparks. She didn't seem to notice. "I understand."

"Good." Turning away, Nettle was about to head for the door when she stopped. "By the way, for the sake of curiosity, whom did you choose to become XP-650's host?"

"You should know him very well. McKenzie, from the psychology team."

Nettle laughed. "I don't know whether to congratulate you or pity you. Our leader will be thrilled to know you infected one of the few people in this complex we were explicitly told not to touch."

With that, she walked out of the room, leaving 009 to glower at her back.

---

Oak stood in front of his desk in his office. His dark eyes were fixed on the wall-sized screen behind it. There, he saw a black-and-white clip of a young, dark-haired woman in a hospital gown. She was seated on a bed at the far end of an otherwise empty room, and her shoulder was exposed to reveal the glistening parasite. At first, it was simply a shot of her, swaying as she tried to remain conscious, but then, the clip cut abruptly to the image of the woman with her head craned back and several scientists gathered around her. One of them attempted to stick her with a long needle, but her flailing arms knocked the syringe flying. Pale crystals burst from her skin, letting the scraps hang in bloody flaps from her shoulders.

The clip cut again. This time, her hair had fallen out, and a pair of rounded horns jutted out of her skull. Her entire body took on a shimmering coat of ice, interrupted every so often by a crystal spike. The creature's thin arms wrapped around her naked body as she shivered and opened her mouth in a silent scream. A few more men in lab coats immediately responded by gathering around her. Their bodies shielded most of her from view, save for the limbs that flashed above their heads.

Suddenly, the girl sat with long, pale hair shielding her pallid face. Behind her, a tail flicked back and forth. The patient sat perched with her knees hugged tightly to her chest and her clawed feet curled around the edge of the bed. After a few seconds, a scientist appeared in the side of the shot with his back turned towards the camera. His hands moved as if he was speaking with her, to which she responded by lifting her head.

In the next instant, no one was on the bed, and the scientist had disappeared. Something dark sprayed across the lens of the camera, partially obscuring the image of the room.

Then, a mouth with a pair of long fangs appeared in the shot, followed by a split-second shot of a claw. Static followed, the only sound that broke the long silence.

Eventually, a new image appeared on the screen: one of five silhouettes sitting at a long desk. The Committee.

Its full name was hardly ever used by its members, and no one else who knew about its presence ever felt the need to know what it was. All anyone knew was that it was simply a board of individuals who oversaw the funding and activity of government-sponsored scientific endeavors. In other words, they were the ones currently in charge of Project Stardust: monitoring all operations, collecting all information, and deciding the best choice of action based on the research they received. They funded the efforts, summoned each scientist, and most importantly, watched each designated research facility carefully.

So, several hours after Bill was discovered and the interns were questioned about the apparent accident (the story being that one of the interns had dropped XP-650's carrying case in the hallway and that Bill had accidentally gotten in its way), Professor Oak called them to explain the situation and seek advice. He expected to be reprimanded or even dismissed from his position. However, he only got as far as informing them about Bill and XP-650 when the Committee calmly showed him the video of Pandora.

"XP-650B," the center silhouette said. "Codename Pandora, a former intern at the Valencia Institute of Science in the Orange Islands. Shortly after this video was taken, she killed half the staff and destroyed most of the complex before escaping. Valencia Institute was shut down, and the survivors are currently housed in one of the National Defense Forces' bases to be given therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder. We refuse to have that happen again."

Furrowing his eyebrows, Oak meditated briefly on the name. That wasn't the first time she'd heard a designation like that. Typically, when a pokémon species lacked an official name, the Pokémon Symposium simply referred to it as XP, followed by its number in the National Dex. Therefore, XP-650 literally meant "Unidentified Pokémon #650," the first entry after the most recently documented legendary pokémon Genesect. Letters at the end of such designations, Oak recalled, usually indicated alternate forms: A for the first, B for the second, and so on. The practice was rare; only a handful of pokémon were documented in this manner prior to receiving their official names, with rotom being the last case. If the pokémon Oak knew as XP-650 was only the A form with the one in the video being its B form, Oak wondered how many other forms this single creature possessed.

"Why weren't we told about this?" Oak whispered.

The leader sighed. "We have very little information about it other than what I have just told you. XP-650B has the potential of becoming an uncontrollable beast. Valencia made the mistake of not taking caution in handling Pandora. Do not follow their example with this researcher you described to us."

Oak swallowed. Naturally, his thoughts wandered back to Bill. He tried to imagine his junior slipping into a violent rampage, but it didn't quite fit in his mind. For that reason, he laughed nervously.

"But this is Bill we're talking about," he said. "He's a pacifist. He wouldn't intentionally hurt anyone."

His superior shook his head. "It will not matter. Soon, XP-650 will invade his body and alter his thought processes. Should he survive the transformation, he will not be the same person you know. You must remove the parasite quickly. If you fail, then you must take heavy precaution. Sedatives, restraints, and increased security, Professor."

Oak's smile faded. "Isn't that all a bit much?"

"If anything, it may be too little to keep your staff safe. XP-650B is a powerful creature that should not be taken lightly," the leader replied. "Nonetheless, killing him is not an option. This is the second time a member of Project Stardust has been infected. We must use this opportunity to find out how and why to fully understand what we are facing. Perhaps then we may be able to find a way to stop or reverse the transformation."

Oak listened carefully and nodded once the Committee finished. "I understand."

The leader straightened. "Additionally, we will send you all of the reports salvaged from Valencia to establish your base of information. In the meantime, we request that your reports designate this Bill of yours as Codename Adam to protect his identity once we begin chronicling your reports. We had hoped that we could learn the secrets of the parasite without resorting to a violation of the Nuremberg Code, but perhaps it may be impossible if we wish to continue our work on XP-650. For that, we sincerely apologize. All of the institutions have a right to know, yours especially but also Sinnoh's and Johto's as well."

Sinnoh's and Johto's as well, Oak thought. ...Oh no.

At once, the professor remembered the victim's family. Frowning, he looked away. Bill wasn't the only researcher in the McKenzie clan, and even worse, hadn't Bill once mentioned that his father was lending his own talents to Project Stardust?

"Professor?" the Committee inquired.

Shaking himself back into reality, Oak responded, "I understand, but there's something else that's bothering me. Bill's father, John McKenzie ? he's a member of Project Stardust with the Johto branch. Shouldn't we at least tell him?"

The Committee leader nodded. "Tell him whatever you wish, but there must be victim confidentiality otherwise. If he agrees to it, we may begin processing a transfer so that he may work under you. We would suspect that he would be interested in working directly with Codename Adam."

Oak nodded. "Thank you. I'll tell him as soon as I can."

"Very well," the leader replied. "Remember, we will take special interest in Polaris from now onward. Very rarely have we been able to study XP-650B. The first and last instance was Pandora, who had completely surprised us with both her generation and her behavior. We can only emphasize that if a similar reaction occurs every time XP-650A comes in contact with a human being, it should be quite obvious that maintaining Adam's captivity at this moment is of the utmost importance."

"Yes. I understand."

"Very good."

Before Oak could say anything else, the call cut off, and the screen faded to complete black. Oak stared at the dark screen for a long while before turning to the rest of his office. With shaking steps, he made his way around the desk, pulled out the chair behind it, and dropped himself into his seat. Leaning back, he sighed and wiped his forehead.

"I'm getting too old for this," he muttered to himself.

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