Anima Ex Machina: Four
Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.

There was no such thing as the dead of night in Polaris Institute. At all hours, someone was working. Granted, in the middle of the night, most people had retreated to the apartments of the Outer Ring, the circular building surrounding the clerical and medical offices of the Median Ring and the laboratories of the Inner Ring, but there were still enough people to keep work on Project Stardust going nearly constantly.

Just after one in the morning, one of these workers, a bulky man in a blue jumpsuit, wheeled his bin towards the door of a lavatory. It seemed quiet to him, but he figured it was just the sound of hard, scientific work going on somewhere inside. With a whistle, he passed the door to a laboratory when it suddenly opened. The janitor grinned and, thinking he would exercise an ounce of courtesy, reached over to hold the door open.

That's when he heard a soft voice.


Blinking, he peeked around the door to glance at who was on the other side when he was suddenly grabbed and dragged into the room. Inside, he was greeted by one sight he never thought he'd see. An entire team of scientists, twelve in all, lay on the ground in front of the rows of computers on either side of the room. All of them were either dead or unconscious; he couldn't even tell which. He took a shaking breath and tried to step backwards, but the hands ? belonging to two large interns -- dragged him forward.

"Professor, this guy was snooping around outside," one of them said.

"H-hey!" he stammered. "I-I-I'm not looking for any trouble. Whatever's going on here, I won't tell a soul! Honest!"

"Honest," a voice echoed.

Looking forward, he watched as Professor Nettle walked out of a corner he couldn't see from his place at the door. Calmly, she headed straight to the tank on the other side of the room and clasped her hands behind her back. Her eyes stared through the window at the multitudes of ruby lights passing like fireflies across a sea of red. Other interns swarmed from the sides of the room to play with the machines. In the meantime, a jynx sidled up to Nettle with a Plexiglas tube in her purple hands. Instantly, the janitor knew what the tube was. It was supposed to be for transporting one of the little creatures in the tank into one of the glass boxes they used for testing. He had watched the transfer happen only once, but he had a feeling now that there wouldn't be a glass box involved.

"Honest is, unfortunately, what I'm afraid you are," Nettle continued.

The janitor only stood and watched as she inserted the tube into a slot beneath the tank and pressed a button on the console next to it. He could hear a whoosh, and one of the red glows shot downwards. The only thing that came back up was a large bubble. Twisting the handle on the tube, Nettle carefully drew the object out of the slot and held it up to examine the single light floating in its center.

"Uh, look, lady," the janitor croaked. "I didn't see a thing, right? I don't know what's going on, and--"

She glared at him over her shoulder, and instantly, he shut up.

"What do we do with him, Professor?" one of the interns drawled.

Nettle sighed. "Well, I don't suppose we can let him walk away, can we? He's going to tell someone. The question is whether or not we have much time before he does."

She sauntered forward with the jynx trailing behind her. Narrowing her eyes at him, she pressed her lips together and quickly went over her options. Slowly, she frowned and examined the tube.

"Your plan, Professor?" the intern asked.

"Let's make it so he can't talk, then," Nettle replied. "Jynx, use Lovely Kiss. And you--" She nodded to a third intern, standing at one of the machines. "--contact 009. Tell her our leader will have to be content with two specimens of XP-650B."

Immediately, the janitor began to scream and thrash, but just as he predicted, the interns held him tight, even twisted his arms to get him to stop. He doubled over at the pain shooting through his limbs, but this action put him in range for the other thing he was trying to avoid: Jynx.

The ice witch swayed her hips as she walked towards him. Her pursed lips began to glow bright pink, and she purred as she leaned in and grasped his chin with a large hand. He felt her strong grip clamp down on his jaw, and as she forced him to turn his head, he winced in pain. No matter how much he struggled, he didn't buy himself much time to protest because in the next second, he felt her cold lips against his skin. Shortly afterwards, a tingling, numb sensation spread through the rest of his head, and he suddenly felt like he couldn't keep his eyes open.

Struggling against drowsiness, he lifted his head as Jynx backed away to make room for her master. Nettle slipped forward and grabbed his collar. With a flick, she ripped his shirt open using only one hand, letting the buttons go flying. Then, using the same hand, she pulled his undershirt away from his skin, just enough to let her slide the tube against his chest. Unable to fight anymore, the janitor hung limply between both of the lackeys as he felt the tube's cold door slide open and the liquid within it rush across his skin.

The last sensation he had before he completely blacked out was the feeling of something biting him hard.


Bill eventually lost track of how much time he spent asleep. He had retreated into a haze less than a half an hour after the thing burrowed into his chest. Since then, he had been dreaming.

The dreams were strange and incomprehensible. At some points, he had torn off his own skin to find that a metal exoskeleton slick with his blood and the parasite's acid covered his muscles. His hands slipped out of his skin, leaving behind flesh-colored gloves, and in their places were silver-skinned appendages with claws for fingers and garnets for palms. He would have thought they were beautiful if their creation wasn't so grotesque.

He dreamt of internal changes. As if he had eyes inside his body, he watched organs melting, reforming, reshaping, and rearranging to take on new and strange functions. Twice, he died in this dream, but it brought him back -- the second heart on his chest. Whenever he slipped, it would reach inside him and ensnare his organs, grasping them until they pumped on their own again.

The other dream, woven between inner and outer transformations, was the most horrifying of all. Bill knew he should have felt pain. The thing inside him was ripping him apart and reassembling him just as violently. Yet, he felt nothing. He could remember no pain, no torment, nothing to indicate that he was suffering.

Someone else did it for him.

Helpless inside his own mind, Bill could only watch his body move as if it wasn't his. It thrashed. It screamed. It struggled desperately as Nurse Joy's team of chansey tried to restrain it. Between these moments were gaps in which he sensed morphine crawling through his veins or watched his bones crack and reassemble.

He saw glimpses of people he knew. Professor Oak hovered over him at one point. Bill could hear the elder's voice, but it said nothing to him. It was gibberish, spoken with a distant tone. The strips of skin Bill (or whatever was acting in his place) had ripped off his own body were being taken away at those moments along with little red vials of liquid Nurse Joy prepared. He never felt the needle or the tourniquet, let alone his blood rushing out of his veins.

Sometimes, there were people he didn't know. At one point, he found himself under bright lights. That caused a flurry of screams and shouts from voices he'd never heard before. A surgeon stood over him, looking from his face to the people around him.

Bill felt no pain then, even though he knew he was bleeding. He wasn't sure how he knew. In any case, his body reacted, convulsing and crying out without his consent. Something lashed out from his side. It was a flash of red and silver -- something he knew he never had before the dream began. Whatever it was, it slashed across the surgeon's wrist, the one that led to the hand that held the scalpel.

There was a spurt of red. He could almost taste the surgeon's blood on his lips, and that seemed to aggravate his body. The surgeon screamed and backed away, and his hand rolled off Bill's chest and onto the floor.

From his place somewhere behind his own eyes, Bill heard the wet thump of dead flesh on tile, but for whatever reason, his brain refused to make sense of it.

Another gap stretched across his memory. Darkness came more and more frequently now. There were times when he saw himself being wheeled down the corridors between the rings. He could swear he was strapped down, but because his body didn't react for once, he couldn't move to see. All he had was simply the feeling that he was confined.

Then, there was the glimpse of the room. All he could see was something bright white with a bed and a table and a window. No people. No pokémon. Nothing was there but him. His body thrashed every so often, but once again, he realized he was confined.

That last image repeated itself several times before finally, he turned over to fall into deeper sleep.

It was a terrifying dream, but at least, to him, that's all it was: a dream.

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