Anima Ex Machina: Five
Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams.
When the dream receded and Bill felt his body for the first time in days, he awoke with a start. Immediately after that, he shut his eyes and groaned. Although he wasn't the kind of person who had a particular appreciation for alcohol, he imagined that this was exactly what a hangover was like: waking up to nothing but blinding whiteness that only fed a pounding headache. He twisted where he lay and tried to swallow to keep himself from throwing up, and right about then, he realized something was wrong. For one, he couldn't actually move his arms or legs. For another, his chest was pinned to what felt like a mattress, too.
And for a third, a pair of voices floated into his ears, and what they were saying didn't exactly comfort him.
"Professor, it's awake."
"He, Sienna. He's a male."
Much to his relief, one of those voices was Professor Oak. The other sounded strangely familiar to him, but he couldn't place where he might have heard it. Slowly, he opened his eyes into a squint and tried to look for the source of the sounds. His vision slowly resolved, allowing his world to transform from an amorphous, white blob to the edge of a bed and a metal rail. Several feet beyond the rail was a white wall, but other than that, there were no signs of people yet. Another groan rumbled in his throat as he pressed his eyes closed tightly and turned over. Blinking, he opened his eyes wider this time and found himself staring at another white wall, but in this one, he could see a window.
Beyond that window stood Professor Oak, staring at him with concern. On the left side of the researcher sat a blonde intern who moved her head back and forth to read something below the window. As soon as he glanced at her, it occurred to Bill that this girl looked familiar too, but no matter how hard he tried to focus, he couldn't remember where he met her. It wasn't just the memory of her that he couldn't quite grasp, either: all of his thoughts seemed hazy. Resting his head back, he stared at the ceiling and tried to think through his headache to what happened before he passed out. It felt to him like a safe place to start, and anyway, he had a nagging feeling this girl had something to do with the events leading up to that point.
"Sir, this isn't like the other times," the girl -- Sienna -- told Oak. "It, er, he's not reacting violently."
Oak nodded. "Yes. I wonder?" Clearing his throat, he rolled himself onto the balls of his feet. "Bill? I don't suppose you can hear us, can you?"
Bill blinked in confusion and looked back to his superior. "I can hear you just fine, Professor."
Immediately, Sienna looked up, and Oak raised his eyebrows. Bill shifted uncomfortably as his insides started to twist with worry. He couldn't imagine why he was there, why he was feeling so confined, and most of all, why Professor Oak was on the other side of that pane of glass. Gradually, his head began to clear. The pain was still wrenching his insides, but at least he was starting to think straight enough to realize there was something very, very wrong about all of this.
"What's going on?" he asked quietly.
Oak stared at him in response to his question. Then, after a long pause, he turned to Sienna.
"Unlock the cuffs," he said.
Sienna gave him a wide-eyed glance. "But sir--!"
Frowning, she turned back to the console in front of her and tapped a few keys. Then, she withdrew her hands as if every button in front of her was wired to give her electric shocks. She stared downward, but Oak looked through the window to study Bill.
As soon as Sienna was done typing, Bill felt something slide away from his arms, legs, and chest, and right then, the feeling of being pinned down disappeared. His arms fell onto the bed with a pair of thumps, and he arched his back to take pleasure in his sudden freedom.
"Wait, Bill, there's something you should know before you get up," Oak said. "If you're conscious, that is."
With more effort than he expected, Bill forced himself to sit up. "Conscious? Of course I am."
"Well, it's not that easy to tell," Oak replied. "We're hoping you're still the same person in mindset, but--wait! Don't!"
Before he could continue, Bill brought his hands up to rub his wrists. He couldn't imagine why this would be such a bad idea until one hand actually touched the other. As soon as he did, he heard a clack and felt something that couldn't have been right.
Looking down sharply, he examined his fingers. Somehow, while he was asleep, his skin had turned into metal plates, overlapping each other at the joints like the limbs of a suit of armor. His fingertips were no longer the round, fleshy things he remembered. They were now sharp, curved claws. Turning one of his hands over, he found the round hemisphere of a garnet embedded in his palm. In it, he caught sight of his reflection: a gaunt face, fangs just visible in his open mouth, short, bristly hair, and horns -- a pair of rounded horns shaped like cat ears on either side of his skull.
Now, Bill had always felt that he was a decently rational person. He would get excited about a success or a recent discovery or a new pokémon in the index, but he wasn't the kind of person to be jumping and shouting over it. Likewise, although he had seen quite a lot of things that would have shocked a normal person -- such as, for example, the complete destruction of his lighthouse's beacon by a giant pokémon -- he wasn't the kind of person to experience a total meltdown.
Of course, waking up to discover that his hands were made of metal was an unusual circumstance, and as such, it deserved an unusual response. With a cry, Bill jolted backwards, scrambling in an effort to get away from his own hand. In doing so, he could feel his feet and torso dig into the mattress and the foam stuffing flowing out against his metal skin. Looking down, he caught another glimpse of something that caused his voice to catch in his throat. His entire torso was made of overlapping plates of metal, and beyond that, his feet no longer looked remotely human. Inhaling shakily, Bill extended one of his legs and examined it carefully. It looked somewhat normal, although the calf stopped a few inches shorter. Right after where it ended, another joint led into a broad, reptilian foot. Swallowing, he tried to move his toes, only to see the three claws on the appendage flex.
It was at that point that he realized Oak was talking to him.
"--to stay calm," Oak said.
"W-what?" Bill croaked, suddenly finding his throat very dry.
"I understand all of this is startling," Oak continued. "We weren't exactly expecting any of this."
It was, of course, a half-truth. Oak did his best not to betray what he was thinking at that moment. It had been roughly two weeks since Bill had been brought to the operating room in an attempt to detach the parasite from his body, but when he cut off the hand of the surgeon -- with what, even Oak didn't know by then -- it was decided that there would be no further attempts. Oak knew it was too dangerous; Bill, of all people, attacked without much provocation. The elder researcher didn't want to think Bill was completely lost the way Pandora had been, but all he could do for the past two weeks was stand by and watch carefully behind a thick window.
There were, of course, two things that made this moment not exactly what Oak was expecting. First, the files the Committee gave him stated that Pandora was an ice-type, but as far as he could tell, Bill was a steel-type. Meanwhile, the other XP-650B, the one that had been created (as far as he knew) when a curious janitor interfered with the transfer of a test specimen, was an electric-type. None of it made sense. If XP-650B was an alternate form, did it somehow have alternate forms itself?
Aside from that, Oak didn't entirely expect to be speaking to Bill instead of a thrashing, screaming, extremely angry beast. He had hoped he would, of course, but he didn't really consider it a serious possibility. Yet, there he was, standing on the other side of the window to a room containing what appeared to be a responsive, albeit panicking, human.
"Bill?" Oak asked.
Unfortunately, his subordinate was a bit busy exploring more of his new form. Squirming, Bill realized he was sitting on something, and with that, he reached behind him.
"What is this?" he rasped.
Grabbing it, he froze. A cold, electric sensation ran up his spine and made him grimace. Whatever it was, it was definitely part of him. Carefully, he lifted himself and pulled the object out from underneath his body to let it rest beside him. His fingers ran along the length as far as he could follow it without bending over. Claws clacked along segment after segment along the thick, reptilian appendage, stopping a couple feet short of the sharp arrowhead at its tip. Closing his mouth, Bill experimentally focused on moving it, and on command, the arrowhead rose and fell in time with the tune his mind was playing to keep him from screaming until his lungs exploded.
"I... I have a tail," he murmured.
"Bill, can you hear me?" Oak asked.
He shut his eyes tightly and breathed deeply. His hands reached up to grasp the sides of his head, lacing through the stiff, wire hair on his scalp. Clenching his teeth, he swallowed and tried desperately to sort through his racing thoughts.
This can't be happening, he thought.
At that point, his mind felt like it stopped. He wrapped his arms around himself and curled himself so that his forehead rested on his knees. With a whimper, he shut his eyes and tried his best to ignore what he was feeling. It wasn't real to him. His skin wasn't metal. His fingers weren't claws. That wasn't a tail trying to wrap itself around his ankles. It was all just a mistake. He was still asleep. A thousand different things ran through his mind, but the longer he went, the more he realized that the plate he was feeling against his forehead wasn't going away.
Something warm hit his leg. Opening his eyes, he looked down to see a droplet of water run across his armor. Another one fell from his face, and he realized what he was doing.
It was strange to him. He felt detached from himself. On the one hand, he could feel himself shaking, and he could feel the tears run across his skin and hit his armor. On the other, he couldn't explain why he was doing it or why he could feel the tears running along the metal of his leg. All of these things were foreign to him. They weren't his emotions or sensations, but he felt them. He wanted to say he was scared, but at the same time, he wasn't so much scared as...
Confused. He felt confused. Very, very confused. Lost? Worried, of course, and why wouldn't he be? Mostly, numb. It was like his entire body was doing whatever it liked. Somehow, it didn't scream or thrash. It simply sat there, unable to do anything but shiver. His mind, meanwhile... for the first time in his life, Bill realized he couldn't think straight. He just couldn't force himself to grasp any particular thought.
Oak stood silently. Asking anything else seemed inappropriate, and he wasn't sure if Bill was already gone.
"Sir?" Sienna asked.
"Give him a moment," he replied as he looked at her. "In the meantime, go get him something to eat. It's been awhile."
"Yes, sir," she answered, and with that, she stood and started for the lab door.
Turning back to the window, Oak was just in time to see the victim lift his head. Bill's thoughts were still stumbling across each other in a mess, and he was barely aware that he had moved himself.
"Professor, I..." Bill's voice trailed off. He wasn't even sure what he was supposed to say. His mind was filled with beginnings of sentences and ends of others, but he couldn't for the life of him bridge one broken thought to another to form something coherent.
"You have a lot of questions," Oak said casually. "I would too if I were you. I'll do my best to answer all the ones I can, but Bill, you've got to promise me one thing."
Bill gave him an uneasy glance. "What?"
"No matter what you do, you've got to control yourself. Okay?"
Although Bill certainly didn't like the sound of the request -- because there had to be a reason why it needed to be said -- he nodded slowly. "Okay."
Oak stood a little straighter. "Well, let's see. Which one should we answer first? Ah. I guess we should try tackling the question of what happened, shouldn't we?"
Bill could only nod. His mouth was slightly open, but he found he couldn't speak.
"Right. Well, after you were brought to the medical wing two weeks ago--"
Bill jumped. His thoughts narrowed down to that one point, and he felt like he was abruptly being jerked closer to reality. Both of his hands clattered onto the rail on the side of his bed and gripped it with the same amount of tension that would have, if he still had human hands, turned his knuckles bone-white. He gave Oak a startled expression as he stared through the window.
"Two weeks?" he gasped. "I was inactive for two weeks?"
Oak, who had frozen at the suddenness of Bill's reaction, relaxed into a smile. This was definitely the Bill he remembered.
"I'm afraid so," he said. Then, he raised a hand and waved it in the air. "But don't worry about that. It'd be completely unreasonable for any of us to refuse forgiving you for not working with the psychology team for that long. Besides, you're still making a valuable contribution to the project, even if it's not exactly in the way any of us would have wanted."
"Contribution?" Bill whispered.
"Yes," Oak replied. "After you were brought to the medical wing, XP-650A began altering your body. It's a process the Committee has only one record of; they were hoping to use your transformation to fill in any gaps in data."
Right about then, several more questions finally crawled their way out of Bill's mental train-wreck. He shook his head, trying to clear his mind enough to grasp at least one of them, but only three words came out of his mouth.
"I don't understand."
Oak shrugged. "Honestly, Bill, I don't expect you to after hearing only that much. We don't fully understand it either, but let me try to explain it this way. XP-650A, what we were studying before your accident, is actually a predator only to pokémon. We're coming up with theories as to why it treats us differently, but we know that when it comes in contact with a human, it becomes a parasite. It latches onto the human host and transforms it into... well, something like you."
Inhaling shakily, Bill slowly slipped his hands from the rail and raised them to examine them carefully. Gradually, something was beginning to click in his head.
"Do you..." He swallowed in an effort to find his voice. "Do you mean to say... to say that I... I'm..."
"That you're not fully human anymore?" Oak replied. It was obvious, but he felt laying the facts in front of his colleague might help him climb back to sanity. "Yes. Currently, the Committee is calling pokémon like you XP-650B, the second form of the pokémon species XP-650. They say it's because the parasite is still technically unchanged, but the designation's still up for debate."
Bill shook his head and went back to holding it in both hands. "I'm a pokémon...?"
Oak nodded. "Yes. No one's sure how it happens. That's what we hope you'll help us find out."
Taking another shaky breath, Bill looked down, intending on gazing at his lap. That's when he caught sight of the other occupant of his body, the small glint of red right over his heart. Carefully, he brought a hand over it and touched it with a fingertip. It came as a surprise to him that he was able to feel his claw on it, as if it was just another part of his body.
"Is this..." He looked at Oak. "Is this it?"
Oak leaned towards the window to see what Bill was talking about. "Oh! Yes, that's the parasite."
Frowning, Bill turned back to it and tried to dig his claws into his metal skin around it. At once, Oak darted towards the door to the other room.
Skidding to a halt in front of the door, Oak whipped out his ID. Quickly, he swiped it and pressed a thumb against the pad to force the lock to open. When it clicked, he threw open the door and dashed inside.
At the same time, Bill was finding out why what he just did was a bad idea. Suddenly, he felt like something under the skin all over his body constrict, but the feeling was especially strong in his chest. He tried to scream but could only manage a loud croak; something gripped his lungs to make it difficult to breathe. His vision went blurry as he pressed his forehead against the mattress. In his head, he heard his own voice hiss.
You will not.
Before he could make sense of the message, he felt a pair of hands force him to unfold himself. The feeling of all his organs being clenched subsided, and he let himself be coaxed into lying flat on his back. He was still panting. The pain had only diminished from blinding to dull but still irritating.
"Bill, are you all right?!" Oak asked.
Eventually, Bill's vision returned, and he stared at Oak's face. The elder was standing over him. His large hands held Bill down, and his face was full of worry. When the question finally registered in Bill's mind, the patient nodded.
Oak sighed and pulled his hands away. "I know this is all overwhelming for you. I can't really blame you if you feel like you don't want any part of this. However, until we figure out just what happened, please don't try to remove it yourself. It's hard to say what it'll do to you."
Releasing him, Oak backed away. Blinking, Bill slowly sat up and stared at his superior. Eventually, after a long while, he began to feel his thoughts settle down a little. He realized then that he was going to have to deal with his situation somehow.
"I'm sorry, Professor," Bill said quietly. "I don't know what to do."
Oak nodded. "I'd be worried if you didn't panic. I'm glad to hear you're calming down."
"Of course I would. However it happened... it feels like it might not be that easy to undo. I just have to accept that for now."
At that, Oak relaxed. Bill was sounding more and more like his usual self, and for that, Oak was grateful. After all, it not only meant that Bill wasn't about to rip him limb from limb, but it also meant he might be a little more willing to help after all.
"No, it might not be," Oak replied, "but everyone here will do everything they can to figure out what happened and how to reverse it. In the meantime, will you let us study you?"
Bill shrugged. "I don't have much of a choice."
"Of course you do. You know how the ethical codes work these days. If you said you'd be uncomfortable with it, we wouldn't be able to conduct anything on you, not even an interrogation. You'll always have a say, Bill."
Turning his head, Bill eyed Oak carefully. "No, I really don't, and it has nothing to do with what the ethical codes state. Professor, as a researcher, it's my duty to do everything in my power to help this project. While I don't know if you'll let me resume my place on the staff, I can't say no to allowing you to get as much information as possible from me."
Oak grinned. "You're really starting to sound like your old self now."
Bill shook his head. "Actually... I'm simply talking because I feel like my sanity is very close to being compromised."
"Compromised? Bill, you don't mean..."
He looked at his elder from out of the corner of his eye. "Professor... I thought I had a dream while I was unconscious. Could you tell me if I happened across a surgeon in the past two weeks?"
Oak didn't know what to say. He only clenched his jaw shut and stared at Bill with a blank expression. Noticing the silence, Bill looked up and studied the professor's face. When Bill spoke next, his voice was barely audible.
"I cut off his hand, didn't I?"
"You didn't mean to," Oak answered quickly. "It was a defense mechanism. He was trying to separate the parasite from you. We should've known it'd try anything to keep you two together."
That didn't seem to be what Bill was hoping he would say. Instead, Bill pulled both knees to his chest and buried his face in them again.
"I'm sorry, Bill," Oak said. "You've got to listen to me when I say it wa--"
Before he could finish, he was interrupted by a loud bang. Oak looked up, glancing over his shoulder at the door. Sienna slammed the one to the hallway open and rushed forward until she stood behind her chair. Her face, which was pale on its own, took on the hue of a sheet of paper.
"What happened?" Oak asked.
Sienna motioned behind her. Curiously, Oak moved to the door and looked across the lab. All of the interns and scientists that were lined up at the computers paused to watch people storming down the hall. One of them stopped, clinging to both sides of the doorway.
"Professor Oak, sir!" the scientist screamed. "It's Abel!"
Oak headed for the door. "What about Abel?"
The scientist looked over his shoulder as he stumbled into the lab. "He knows Discharge, sir!"
Nodding, he continued, "He short-circuited the cuff system, and now he's attacking the door with Thunder! He's more powerful than we thought he'd be! The security system can't handle him much longer!"
Rushing towards the door, Oak could see a flash of light. The sound of thunder reverberated off the walls of the hallway, and the smell of fire grew more intense. Glancing outside, he could see scientists streaming out of the lab down the hall; the door lay in a twisted mess beneath their scrambling feet. Light bounced off the walls, and the sound of screaming echoed through the open doorway. Without hesitation, Oak moved back into the room and darted to a corner. There, on the wall, a phone hung. He quickly removed the receiver and pressed a key, and he only had to wait a couple of seconds before someone answered.
"Officer Jenny, sound the alarm," he ordered. "Abel's trying to escape from Laboratory V."
Before she could reply, he placed the receiver back into its carriage and scrambled to close the door to the hallway. All of the scientists backed away from the computers and into the middle of the room.
"Stay calm, everyone!" he ordered as he made his way to the other door. "Abel might be breaking out, but security will be here to subdue him soon. Get ready in case he tries to break down the door. Professor Rosewood, I know you have a bellossom with you. We'll need its Sleep Powder. Professors Maple, Apple, and Cedar, unlock the cabinets and distribute tranquilizer guns to everyone who can aim. Don't shoot until it's clear Sleep Powder won't have any effect!"
With that, he approached the other doorway and leaned inside to look at Bill. Staring back in fear, Bill sat straight with his claws digging into the mattress.
"What is it?" he asked.
Frowning, Oak hesitated in sharing what he knew, but eventually, he gave in. "Bill, you're not the only person who was infected two weeks ago. Shortly after you were brought to the medical wing, a janitor got into the holding lab while a few interns were preparing another XP-650A for observations. It attached to him, and we've been struggling with containing him ever since."
"Abel," Bill whispered.
Oak nodded. "Bill, I'd like to tell you more, but I need for you to do something."
"Stay here. We'll be protecting you in the observation room."
With that, Oak closed the door. Bill tried to stand up and protest, but then, the alarms sounded. This time, unlike two weeks ago when he last heard the beginning of them, it felt like it was several decibels louder than normal. He screamed and bent over, holding his aching ears as the sound continued to blast into his head. After a few seconds, he tried to calm himself just enough to lift his head from the mattress.
Pulling his legs over the edge of the bed, he tried to stand and immediately crashed to one knee. Pain shot through him, but he forced himself to remove his hands and grit his teeth against the blaring noise. Then, he planted his hands on the edge of the bed and struggled against gravity one more time. It took him a few seconds to realize why he fell in the first place: he wasn't used to the way his legs worked. With that in mind, he shifted his weight, placing all of it on the balls of his feet. When he was sure he wasn't about to collapse again, he took his first stiff steps towards the window, just as light illuminated the other room. Resolving himself, he tried to pick up the pace, walking awkwardly to the window to peer beyond it.
In the doorway to the hall, he saw the creature he assumed was Abel. Electricity sparked off the yellow spikes that jutted from the creature's skull, arms, and limbs, and a tail studded with golden barbs flicked behind him. The only things that weren't yellow were his face and the glistening, red parasite on his chest.
Then, Bill noticed the people in the room. Two of the interns were already electrocuted and on the floor. Everyone else was backed against the sides and corners of the room. Shots rang out as darts flew towards Abel, but before any of them could hit, he shielded his face with his arms and surrounded himself with a field of blue electricity. In the next instant, the field expanded, sending the darts flying away from his body.
That wasn't the only thing it did. Blue lightning struck everything around it, leaving scorch marks on the floor and ceiling, blasting a row of computers, and striking three of the scientists and interns who happened to be in the way. With a crack, the bellossom, who was standing in the middle of the room, was thrown against the wall, hitting it with a thump before crashing onto a console.
Bill yelped in response and took a step backwards. As soon as he did, his tail tangled around his feet and sent him crashing to the floor once again. Another grimace twisted his face, and he looked up to see blue light flash through the window.
Inside his head, he heard his voice speak again.
Will you simply stand by and watch?
"I don't know what to do," he whispered.
What else is there to do? the voice asked.
Bill paused and thought about the question. He could hear screaming from the other side. The sound mingled with the roar from the creature and the boom of thunder. In response, he stood.
"I don't want to do this," he muttered to himself.
Yet, despite acknowledging that part, he made his way towards the door.