Anima Ex Machina: Nine
What are fears but voices airy?

Ellen Joy, the chief nurse of Mauville City's pokémon center, was more or less like every other Nurse Joy in existence. Her pink hair was drawn into loops, just like the hair of the Nurse Joys in each of the other centers. She wore the same pressed uniform that was standard issue to all Nurse Joys. Her eyes had the same blue color as all her sisters, and she commanded her chansey companions with the same soft voice as her cousins. It would take the skills of only the particularly observant to tell her apart from any other female member of the Joy family. She couldn't explain why her family was like that. It just was.

However, she also knew that a whole list of things separated her from her relatives. Most Nurse Joys faced trainers with a sense of compassion and optimism -- an expression that told trainers that no matter how badly their pokémon were hurt, the center's staff would do its best to help the injured pull through. Their smiles were genuine and sweet, but Ellen's, as a result of spending months watching her city fall bit by bit to the aliens outside of it, had to force herself to smile those days just to help boost the survivors' morale. Oftentimes, she would walk down the halls of her empty pokémon center -- just one more thing that separated her from the other nurses -- not really thinking about anything at all except trying to maintain her hollow grin.

Beyond that, she had more responsibility than her relatives, having been appointed as not only a caretaker for the sick and injured but also a mother figure to the last inhabitants of Mauville City. People, afraid of being on their own in their almost-empty city, had taken up residence in all of the trainers' dorms, and she was the one to offer food, water, and a listening ear to anyone who needed it. This included whoever they found on the outskirts of town.

One of these findings was currently chained up in one of the recovery rooms. She was paused at the door beside her chansey, her blue eyes fixed straight ahead in a blank stare. A tray was in her hands, and on it was a covered bowl and a glass of water. Both rattled as she tried to compose herself.

"Chan," her companion cooed softly.

She glanced at Chansey. Nodding, she took a deep breath.

"Right. It's just like any other pokémon."

The pink pokémon smiled and trilled as she opened the door. Straightening her back, Ellen cautiously stepped inside.

Less than a day ago, the city's Officer Jenny came back with the fishing party assembled to gather food for the survivors. They weren't carrying fish, as they'd promised. Instead, they carried a metal creature, a thing that looked to her like a lizard with a human's face. Officer Jenny offered no explanation as the party bound it to the bed; instead, all she said was that when it woke up and was ready to offer any sort of answer, she was to be contacted.

Right then, Ellen nearly dropped the tray when she realized the creature's dark eyes were open. It turned its head to watch her walk forward. Whimpering softly at the image of its face, Ellen fixed her eyes on the small table next to the bed and tried to avoid thinking about what was in the room. Focusing on the table calmed her just enough to let her approach it and set down the tray without spilling the contents of either containers.

"It's good to see that you're awake," she said. "I'm sorry for all the chains, but I promise I'm here to help you. Are you hungry? I brought you some food. I could leave it here if you're not ready, too."

"Thank you."

She screamed.

Then, when she realized what she had just done, she slapped both of her hands over her mouth, turned towards the occupant of the bed, and took a few steps backwards. It, meanwhile, flinched and turned its head away from her, shivering as it gritted its teeth.

"Could you please not scream again?" it asked quietly. "I apparently have sensitive hearing."

Gradually, she pulled her hands away from her mouth. They were shaking uncontrollably, even as Chansey stepped into the room and put both stubby arms on Ellen's side to comfort her.

"You... you can talk?" she whispered.

The metal creature turned its head back towards her and gave her a strange look. Ellen crept closer, her hands moving over her chest. Chansey remained where she was, watching the two of them carefully.

"M-my name is Ellen. Ellen Joy," she said.

"It's a pleasure to meet you. I'm Bill."

Ellen paused. Male. This creature was male. Of course, this wasn't the thing that was currently putting her thought processes on hold. It was mostly the fact that she was holding a conversation with a member of a species that had annihilated most of Mauville City, and apparently, the creature in question believed in polite manners. To her, it was simply that trying to focus on that one little fact she had discovered about his gender made her feel slightly more sane than she was five seconds ago.

Bill, meanwhile, was just taking some relief in the fact that he had just spent two minutes in the room with a human being, and that human being wasn't trying to hurt him yet. This idea gave him enough courage to relax and try communicating with her again.

"Excuse me. Nurse Joy?" he asked.

She shook her head. "Huh?"

"Could I ask you to let me go?"

"I..."

Chansey perked up and immediately waddled out of the room. Ellen, meanwhile, looked down at her feet. The nurse couldn't quite figure out what she was supposed to do. After all, it had taken her a couple of hours to get over the shock of having the thing -- the same species of creature she had seen rip off children's heads in previous attacks -- inside her hospital in the first place, and now, he started talking to her like he was just any other human being. Trembling, her knees gave out, and she plopped onto the floor with her legs folded under her.

Bill lifted his head just enough to look at her. "Are you all right?!"

She covered her eyes with a hand, and she could feel tears wet the skin of her palm.

Right then, before Bill could ask her what was wrong, Chansey came back in with a pair of scissors. Hearing the soft cooing of her partner, Ellen removed the hand just in time to see Chansey approach Bill and start cutting off the duct tape around one of his hands.

"Chansey, no!" she yelled.

Bill grimaced again, but before he could say a word, Chansey did instead.

"Chansey chan chan chansey."

Instantly, Bill sat bolt upright -- or at least as close to upright as he could get before the chains hit his torso and caused him to slam back into the mattress. Chansey snapped at him sternly and ripped off the first duct tape mitten while he looked from it to Ellen.

"Did... can your chansey talk?" he whispered.

Chansey moved to cut through the duct tape binding his feet and tail. Watching this, Ellen let her hands fall to her sides as something dawned on her. It began as a slow realization that ate its way into her brain before consuming the rest of her thoughts until she focused on it and it alone.

"Why aren't you attacking?" she whispered.

Bill, already thoroughly confused by the fact that he could understand the chansey perfectly (both her words of encouragement to Ellen and the order to stay still), stared at her uncomfortably before letting his head drop on the pillow.

"This is a dream," he muttered to himself. "That's the only way any of this can make sense."

Ellen rose to her feet. Not a single one of Bill's words registered to her. Instead, she approached his bedside as Chansey walked around the bed to take off the other glove. Bill looked up at the human nurse and squirmed at the blank expression on her face. Then, he felt her hand grasp his, and at that, he tried to pull away.

"What are you doing?" he demanded.

"Why aren't you attacking me?" she repeated.

"Why..." Bill furrowed his eyebrows. "I don't want to hurt you."

She stared at him for awhile while she processed what he just said. "You... you don't want to hurt me?"

He shook his head. "No. Not at all. Why would you think I would?"

Her eyes stared into his and studied his expression. Bill squirmed again, but he didn't pull away, not because he physically couldn't but instead because he was starting to see something. There was an explanation behind all this fear she showed him, and the intensity of her stare told him she was very close to letting down her guard a little.

"You're telling the truth," she said.

He nodded. "I am."

She exhaled. Then, after a long pause, she reached over and pressed a button on the side of the bed. Half of it raised, lifting Bill up just enough so that he was, in effect, sitting up.

"I'm sorry," she told him. "We've had so many ixodida atta--"

"What?"

Stopping, she looked at him.

"Ixodida," he said. "What do you mean by that?"

She smiled. "Oh. You must not call yourselves that. Ixodida is what the researchers in Littleroot Town are calling your kind."

"Littleroot Town," he whispered. "Professor Birch's laboratory must be..."

Sitting on the edge of the bed, Ellen blinked. "You know who Professor Birch is?"

He nodded. "Yes. I've worked with him before."

"...You still think like a human?"

At her question, Bill stopped. Although he couldn't figure out why she would ask that at first, his mind thought back to Abel and understood. That must have been the only kind of ixodida Ellen had seen, and he must have been an anomaly. It made sense, though. After all, it explained why she was so afraid of him. With his mind lingering on Abel, Bill pictured the creature, how he readily attacked everything in his path, how he communicated in grunts and half-words...

...How he looked when an entire hunting party shot volleys of bullets through him.

Shuddering, Bill nodded and spoke softer than he meant. "Yes, I do."

"You poor thing!" Ellen breathed as she reached up to brush his forehead. "I'm so sorry. I wish I could do something to help you, but..."

She shook her head, reached over to the table, and removed the lid on the bowl. Immediately, the room filled up with a smell Bill couldn't place. It wasn't entirely unpleasant to him, but something about it seemed wrong. Whatever it was, it was a metallic scent, almost like copper, and that overlaid the smell of something sweet. His stomach rumbled as soon as he picked up on the odor, and he curled his toes and clenched his teeth through the hunger pangs that suddenly hit him. All at once, he came to the realization that he hadn't eaten anything since he first woke up as the creature he was now, and he wondered if anyone tried to feed him during his transformation.

"Let me take care of you at the very least. I can tell you're hungry," Ellen said softly. "Here. Eat this."

She picked up the spoon in the bowl and brought part of its contents to Bill's mouth. He glanced at it, noticing it was something red in an equally red broth. Yet, he was too hungry to ask what it was. Instead, he just opened his mouth and took the bite.

Only then did he realize four things. First, the soup was actually cold -- stone cold, as if it had been chilled instead of cooked. Second, the broth was actually salty and viscous and had the distinct taste of something bloody. Third, the red chunk was chewy and tough. It took him a few more seconds to come to the final realization: he was eating raw meat.

He would have choked on it right then if he hadn't felt his jaw and throat go numb. Right then, he felt the alien's presence in his head, forcing him to swallow the morsel instead of spit it back up.

What are you doing? its voice drawled. Do not be so rude as to refuse the kindness of a stranger, especially if she so kindly gave us exactly what our body needs.

Bill stared straight ahead, unable to look at the jewel in his chest. We... what?!

Yes. My kind consumes the flesh of the recently dead. What else did you think we eat? Is it not your specialty to analyze the body structure of a pokémon and understand from that how it behaves? Think, Bill! Claws! Fangs! A tongue specially designed to be inserted into small wounds! What else is our body built for other than the hunt?

"Is something wrong?"

Bill snapped out of his daze to look at the nurse. She already had another spoonful ready.

"Are you all right?" she asked.

He tried to force himself to speak, but instead, he shook his head and took the next spoonful. Inside, he felt Adam watching him carefully.

This is wrong, he thought.

How different is it to what a human normally eats? Adam asked. We need to recover our strength. Eat.

There was a variety of things Bill wanted to do: struggle, scream, cry, plead Ellen to stop. No matter how much he tried, however, Adam kept him quiet and compliant. Yet, at the same time, he felt strange. With each bite, he felt a sense of satisfaction, like he was eating the most fulfilling stew he ever had. He wanted so much to shudder at the thought, but he was trapped. Adam was in his head, and as a result, although the parasite didn't think of anything coherent right at that moment, it held every part of his body like a puppeteer.

Oh gods! he thought. What's happening to me?

He could feel himself slip inward, recoiling at the weight of what had been dumped on him for the past two days. It wasn't enough to wake up as something other than a human. Oh, no. He was sharing a body with an alien, that alien could invade his mind whenever it felt like it, he was transported to Hoenn, people kept attacking him, he was being force-fed raw meat, and to top it all off, he almost liked it. His body started to go numb. All he wanted to do was sink down into himself for awhile, if only to figure out how to process everything. Yet, part of him didn't want it, didn't want to process it or let it be his life.

No!

Bill felt something wrap around his mind, like an invisible hand seized it and pulled it back to the surface. The numb feeling gave way to small, stabbing pains all over his body.

You will not, Adam hissed. Did you already forget our deal? This is our life now. You must be strong and embrace it. You have no choice.

I can't, he replied. I just can't.

It will only be too much for you to handle if you let it be. Remember, I know your memories. You studied the monsters you call pokémon by donning their skins, did you not? This is a new skin for you to wear. Let your mind adapt to fit your form. You can, Bill. You have done so before.

Bill closed his eyes. It was hard to force him to want this. The experience felt too natural, as if at any second, he'd slip away from being human and right into becoming an alien. In his heart, the possibility of slipping felt cold and dark, and when he imagined it, he could only think of a hole. He wasn't sure if he would be able to climb back out and come back to being human if he fell into something like that.

Then again, although the things Adam was saying didn't entirely quell his fear of losing his humanity, the parasite had a point. Bill had done this before. He could maintain control of himself if he tried. All he had to do was treat it like his experiences wearing costumes for his research: see the world through Adam's eyes but always remain conscious of what was under the synthetic frame. After all, what was the difference between wearing a pokémon costume and this other than the fact that the costumes had a switch or a button to press to turn him back into a human? Wasn't this just a costume he had to wear for a while longer? If there was a way to turn him into that monster, there must have been a way to turn him back.

Either way, Bill was, in his heart, always a human, and no matter what he had to do, that truth was still there. That was the last realization to dawn on him, and it lingered in his mind for awhile as he mulled it over. He was always a human inside. With any changes that happened to his physical body, he would just have to adapt. He didn't have a choice right now, did he? If he was transformed into a pidgey, he would still have to eat insects to sustain himself, and he would be perfectly all right with that idea. Anyway, he would have gladly eaten raw fish and shrimp in the kabuto costume for the sake of realism, so what made this any different?

Somehow, that thought, as crazy as part of him knew it was, made him relax a little more. It was then that he realized Adam had given him control of his body again, and more importantly, he remembered Ellen was trying to feed him. Currently, his mouth was clamped tightly onto the spoon, and Ellen was tugging gently with a shaking hand.

"Um," she murmured.

He released and gasped. Quickly, Ellen withdrew and put the spoon back in the half-empty bowl.

"I'm terribly sorry," he said.

As if she didn't hear him, she continued, "Maybe we should try this again later. It's clear that you're not entirely comfortable with this."

Bill looked away and tugged on the handcuffs. He wanted to say something to reassure her he was harmless, but he had a feeling that it wouldn't stop her from shaking. Not to mention the handcuffs and chains really put a damper on any plans he might have had.

"Could you let me go?" he asked quietly.

Ellen put the cover on the bowl. "I'm sorry. I can't."

"I promise you I won't hurt you."

She smiled weakly at him. "I believe you, but I don't have the keys."

"Oh. That... that would be a problem."

Gently, Ellen reached down to place a hand on the side of his face. Looking into his eyes, she tried to think of a way to assure him she would do everything she could to free him, but before she could get a word out of her mouth, something else caught her attention. Her hand nudged the side of his face until Bill turned his head.

"What?" he asked.

"Your bruise is gone," she told him.

"My bruise?"

She nodded. "When Officer Jenny brought you in, there was a large bruise on the side of your face. It's not there anymore."

He blinked, struggling to remember why he would have a bruise in the first place, let alone how one might have disappeared apparently overnight.

The circumstances are inconsequential, Adam told him. The results, meanwhile, are those of another gift I have given you.

Bill tried to process those words. He was about to ask Adam about the gift, but as quickly as the parasite spoke, it retreated, slipping away from Bill's mental grasp. All he could do was stare blankly at Ellen as she sat on the edge of the bed with her eyes steady on Bill's tail.

"I'm sorry about all of this," she said. "I'm sure if they knew you were human inside..." Her eyes trailed to his face. "You must have gone through a lot. The people here are good. It's just... it's really what the other ixodida did to this city..."

Bill hesitated. The memory of Abel flashed in his mind again, but this time, he tried not to think about the part where his fellow victim was killed. Instead, he tried to think of the way the electric-type acted. Sure, Abel was feral, but all he was doing was trying to escape... right? He had every right to lash out at his attackers because he was a prisoner.

Even then, it occurred to Bill at that point that he couldn't quite understand what Project Stardust was for, despite all those months at Polaris. Why was there a quarantine? Why was Ellen so afraid of him? Why did the people of Mauville attack him? Could there have been something else the ixodida had done besides transform humans and try to escape? It didn't make sense to Bill. There was something missing in the equation.

Finally, he asked, "What happened?"

"They destroyed our city and killed most of our people," a new voice replied.

Ellen jumped to her feet and turned towards the voice. Only a few feet away, Officer Jenny leaned against the door frame with her arms crossed.

"The guard's spotted several poison-types trying to cross the city from the west. Hunters are dealing with them, but we lost track of two. Be alert," she said, just before looking at her prisoner. "And who the hell took off the tape?!"

Chansey happily waved the scissors above her head and trilled.

Scowling, Jenny took one look at her and growled, "Great. You're lucky that thing hasn't stabbed you both yet."

Ellen stiffened. "He hasn't. What does that tell you?"

"That it's plotting something," Jenny replied.

"I beg your pardon?!" Bill snapped. He couldn't really help it. Being chained to the bed put him in a less-than-comfortable mood as it was, and being talked about as if he was pure evil really didn't help matters. "Officer, I assure you--"

She glared at him. "So, I wasn't dreaming before."

Swiftly, she stepped forward. Bill's indignant expression gave way to wide, frightened eyes as the police officer's hand grasped his neck. Right away, Ellen darted to Jenny's side and grabbed her arm.

"Veronica!" she screamed.

Jenny's eyes narrowed. "I'm just coaxing it to tell us what we need to know. You! Ixodida! Did you lead them here?"

Unable to force his tongue to work, Bill stared at Jenny for awhile. When several seconds passed, he felt her hand tighten around his neck.

"Answer me!" she demanded.

His head turned. He intended on shaking it in response, but as soon as he moved, Jenny recoiled with a scream. Bill cringed at both the sound and the sharp, metallic scent of blood. Opening an eye, he watched Jenny show her shaking hands to Ellen.

"It cut me!" she shrieked. "The bastard cut me!"

"You were choking him. Didn't you see the plates on the sides of his neck?" She sighed and examined her friend's hand. "Chansey, go get disinfectant, lidocaine, and a clean suture kit. This looks deep."

The pink pokémon saluted and waddled towards the door. Before she could get there, however, a chubby, blond man skidded to a halt in front of her. His dark eyes were wide as he looked into the room.

"Officer!" he yelled. "Just heard over the radio! The guards just got wiped out by the two missing ixodida! They're headed this way!"

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