Anima Ex Machina [R]
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October 7th, 2008 (5:35 PM). Edited July 1st, 2009 by JX Valentine.
Your aquatic overlord
Join Date: May 2004
Location: Harassing Bill
Originally Posted by
It's always terrifying when something so powerful is so easily detroyed by something so small and meager.
It's probably going to get even scarier. Sorry. XD
Thanks for the compliment, by the way.
(Helter-skelter, birds flew off with the fallout shelter.)
Polaris Institute existed before Project Stardust, but then, it mostly centered around technology, rather than the direct study of pokémon. However, when Hoenn succumbed to a mysterious epidemic, the government stepped in to take over major research centers in its other regions, including Polaris. The best of the best in the Pokémon Symposium, the elite community of pokémologists across the country, were hand-picked by each center to lend their skills to the government in a time of desperation.
Ten months have passed since that day when each member of Polaris' team gathered to the circular citadel of a laboratory complex on Seafoam Island. Not long after, an armored car rolled past the gates, and safely inside that car, a metal box drifted through the entrance of the outermost rings of the complex.
The box had since been removed, but the thing that was formerly within it now dwelled in the very heart of Polaris Institute, a square building just beyond the rings of the living quarters. Even here, past two other rings with their own complicated systems of locks and gates, security remained absurdly tight. The corridors weaved within the building like a giant, white maze of linoleum and bitter-scented air. Doors were thick, metal beasts with only a small sign next to them to tell them apart. Even then, security cameras – the most recent feature, actually – hung above each door with one glass eye staring at the tops of heads with a scrutinizing gaze.
Then, even more annoying, was the lock. Keycard, thumbprint, iris. Those were the keys to unlock every door in the inner chambers of Polaris Institute. The eyes and thumbprints of every last employee were recorded and stored in a central computer within the complex to be used as the combination for each lock. It was, after all, of the utmost importance that the thing inside remained completely removed from the outside world – not to keep the people outside from getting inside, as most locks tend to do.
Outside one of the doors, a keycard slipped through the slot on the side of the lock. A pale thumb pressed against the silver thumb pad. Lights blinked as the panel above the thumb pad slipped upward to reveal a camera. Hands pulled back green, curly hair as a heart-shaped face leaned forward. A red beam flashed from the lens and trailed down one dark eye before vanishing. The young man straightened, his hands working their way into the pockets of his lab coat as he waited.
A female, computerized voice finally broke the silence of the hallway. "Identity confirmed. Welcome, Professor McKenzie."
The door slid open, and the young man stepped into a room full of machinery.
Technically, Bill McKenzie wasn't a professor. In fact, while he held a master's in psychology and biology, his attempts to earn a proper doctorate (and, therefore, the title "professor") were scattered across the near decade since he graduated college to the point where his close colleagues and relatives took it as a mundane piece of news whenever he would declare another attempt. It hardly mattered to them, anyway. Most of the respect for him came from actions, not credentials. Even at the young age of twenty-one, he had already written books on the subject of pokémon behavior and produced revolutionary inventions such as the Storage and Retrieval System.
It was those achievements that earned him a place at Polaris Institute, primarily because of his work with pokémon psychology, but the lack of credentials still sparked criticism and controversy within the Pokémon Symposium, an organization filled with scientists who worked for years to gain the credentials he lacked. In turn, that controversy planted doubt in the minds of Project Stardust's primary benefactor: the Japanese government and the officials who sat on the board that oversaw the research efforts. Many of them would have rejected him as being far too inexperienced to handle teamwork on a major project (based, of course, on the opinions of a number of members of the Symposium), but luckily, he had at least one very reliable backer.
"Good morning, Bill!"
Bill lifted his eyes towards the end of the room, past the rows of strange, flickering machines. A dark window spread across the far wall, creating a deep, crimson gap in the otherwise white wall. At it, an old man with near-black eyes stared at him. Professor Oak's wrinkled face drew into a wide grin as he motioned for Bill to come forward. With a small nod, Bill took a few more steps into the laboratory, but before he could go any further, another voice rose from the side.
"McKenzie!" A woman turned fully from the machinery at the side of the room to address him. "Do you realize what time it is?"
At once, Bill cringed, taking a step back towards the door. He wasn't normally shy around his own colleagues, but Professor Yvonne Nettle had that sort of effect on almost everyone. From behind a pair of oval-framed glasses, her hazel eyes flashed angrily at Bill. Her thin face contracted into a deep frown as she drew her hands from her lab coat pockets and crossed her thin arms. In many ways, she and her contracting mouth reminded Bill of fragments of glass: the smaller and thinner they were, the sharper and more dangerous they were. Normally, Bill didn't actually dislike many people. However, he felt his judgment was fair, considering Nettle's apparently perpetual sense of irritation towards him.
"Yes, Professor," he finally replied. "Half past ten in the morning."
The long fingers of her right hand began to drum on her left elbow. "When were you scheduled to arrive here?"
Bill paused, swallowing hard. "Half past… ten?"
"Yes." Nettle narrowed her eyes. "And what time is it now?"
Right then, Bill's blood felt cold in his veins. What time? Wasn't it half past ten? Reaching into the pocket of his own lab coat, Bill pulled out a silver pocket watch. He pursed his lips and found himself trembling slightly as he glanced at its face. The hour hand was almost to eleven, but the minute hand sat comfortably just past the ten. Immediately, the color drained from his cheeks, and he found he couldn't speak. How could he have lost track of that much time?
Nettle, meanwhile, knitted her eyebrows as she set her jaw.
"McKenzie," she said. Her voice lowered in volume, but it was just as winter-cold. "If you wish to be a
recognized pokémon researcher, you should learn that punctuality and professionalism in the laboratory—"
Oak stepped forward. "Excuse me, Professor Nettle."
Immediately, Nettle stopped and turned. Her hazel eyes went wide at Oak's sudden interruption.
"Don't be too hard on him," Oak said. "After all, a real researcher is never late."
Nettle's expression softened slightly. "With all due respect, Professor Oak, that's exactly my point. A real researcher is always on time, which is why McKenzie should be taught to arrive promptly, when he promised to arrive."
Oak smiled, but unlike Nettle's, his was one of a genuine, friendly nature. "All I mean is that a researcher is never late because he arrives precisely when he means to."
For a beat of hesitation, Nettle puckered her lips and tried to make sense of this statement. "Given that we're working for the government, surely we should take into consideration a strict schedule…"
"Ah." Oak nodded. "Considering the government, yes, I think we should consider the time he arrived compared to when he was scheduled to work here."
Nettle suppressed a smile as she turned her attention back towards Bill. Her subordinate cringed again. He knew the worst part of his day was just about to begin.
"And in that case, we should consider the fact that Bill was actually on time then too," Oak added.
Nettle turned her head sharply back towards Oak. "I'm sorry?"
Even Bill had to send his superiors an odd glance. After all, his watch was in perfect working condition. He made sure of that. It was his
clock that needed adjusting.
In the meantime, Oak took off his watch and offered it to Nettle with a firm nod and a smile. "Absolutely. Check my watch if you'd like."
Without a word, Nettle reached for the leather strap of the watch. Her mouth opened slightly as she examined the face. On it, the hour hand pointed towards the eleven, but the minute hand nestled itself between the six and the seven. If it was correct, then Bill would have arrived just a couple of minutes before 10:30 in order to endure the conversation until the minute hand ticked to 10:32. Biting her lip, Nettle handed Oak his watch.
"Maybe your watch is a few minutes fast," Oak said with a shrug as he put his watch back on. "You should be careful about that, Professor Nettle. You know how the other teams feel about arriving early enough to interrupt their experiments, and I would hate to have to settle an argument when we're all working well together today."
"Right," Nettle said with a slow nod. "Right then."
She turned her attention back towards Bill. He still looked heavily confused, and that expression alone tried Nettle's patience. Nonetheless, she hid that fact well.
"McKenzie, I want yesterday's reports finished by 1:30 today," she said. "We have Laboratory D for a two o'clock experiment. After that, you're to begin today's reports."
Without another word, she turned and walked briskly to the other side of the room. Bill watched her lean over another colleague of theirs to observe what was appearing on a computer screen.
"You can relax now," Oak said. "She'll go easy on you today."
At his consent, Bill exhaled a breath he didn't even realize he was holding. "Professor… Thank you. You lied for me."
Oak pulled his sleeve to examine his watch. With his large fingers, he pulled out the pin in its side and twisted the head to turn the hands back to their original positions.
"Eh, I should've known you would notice," he replied. "Luckily for you, Nettle didn't." He pushed the pin back in. "Bill, I know you don't mean to do it, but please, for your sake, try not to cross Professor Nettle again. I can't keep helping you like this, as much as I want to."
Bill lowered his head. He felt the heat of a blush cross his cheeks. "I understand."
"It's different, working in a team compared to working freelance, especially if the laboratory is government or corporation-owned and operated, and I want you to realize that, Bill," Oak said. "As harsh as she may seem to you, Professor Nettle is right. There're certain rules you need to follow in order to work well with the rest of the team."
Inside, Bill felt himself flinch. It was one thing to be scolded by Professor Nettle, who was perpetually in a sour mood around him, but it was a different thing altogether to be scolded by Professor Samuel Oak. For one, Oak rarely felt the need to reprimand team members, although his typically jovial personality was slowly being replaced by weariness born from constant pressure as Polaris' current director combined with sheer old age. For another, even without the title of Polaris' director, Oak was the foremost figure in the field of pokémology aside from Professor Oswald Rowan. To receive praise from Oak was the ultimate affirmation for a pokémon researcher. Criticism, that one had a long way to go.
"Yes, Professor," Bill said after a long pause.
Sensing the youth's discomfort, Oak's stern face cracked into a warm smile. With one of his large hands, he gave Bill a firm pat on the shoulder, nearly knocking his colleague off his feet in the process. Quickly, Bill righted himself and blinked until he fixed his wide eyes on his superior.
"You'll learn," he said. "Ah, the innocence of youth. It reminds me of a poem, actually. Would you like—"
Bill couldn't decide whether it was a relief or impending doom that Nettle's voice suddenly interrupted.
"Excuse me, Professor," she said. She stood stiffly a few feet away, and her voice was strained, as if she was struggling to keep the sharpness out of her words. "With all due respect, we need McKenzie's reports before two this afternoon."
Oak's smile grew, and without warning, he tilted back on his feet to laugh. His deep, rumbling voice bubbled over every other noise in the laboratory. A few other scientists even looked up to watch him close his eyes for a moment and rub the back of his neck.
"Oh yes!" he replied. "I'm sorry. You're absolutely right." He opened his eyes and glanced towards his younger colleague. "Well, Bill, go on! Work hard for Hoenn's sake! I don't expect anything less than excellence from you."
Although the director probably didn't realize it, Bill had definitely heard that line of encouragement before, uttered to another researcher who felt the cold, hard snap of the voice of another team leader. Nonetheless, Oak's smile and tone were enough to let Bill ease from anxiety caused by humility and into a slightly more comfortable zone. He returned his own smile – albeit a significantly more timid one – and nodded.
"Right. Thank you, Professor."
With that, he walked briskly to his station in a corner of the laboratory. Nettle watched him for a moment before turning to Oak.
"I don't mean to offend you, Professor, but I think you're being a bit easy on him and those like him," she muttered as she crossed her arms. "We have an important project on our hands, and we need every last scientist working on it to take it with the utmost seriousness."
At the end of her comment, Oak turned his head, giving her a long look. She stood with her back ruler-straight next to him. The corners of her mouth wavered slightly for a second before pulling back into its taut frown, but that short second betrayed her uncertainty. Oak smiled, not for her vulnerability but instead because he knew her all too well.
"Ah, Professor Nettle," Oak sighed. "You'll make an excellent director someday."
Nettle straightened a bit more, a feat in itself. "Thank you, sir."
Oak shook his head. "But you really need to know your team members. Is the psychology team making any progress?"
At once, Nettle raised her eyebrows. "Yes, sir."
"And how many official warnings have you given Bill or the other members of your team?"
"Fifty-seven in the past month. McKenzie alone accounts for thirty-four of them."
Oak nodded. "Yet, all of them have been making progress. The reports from your team are thorough and have delivered incredible amounts of information every week. The Committee even ranks the psychology team as one of the top five most productive bodies in Polaris Institute. Is that true?"
Nettle shifted uncomfortably on her feet. She sensed a trap closing in on her. "Yes."
Oak said nothing more, but to Nettle, that one word said far more than she was willing to comprehend.
The afternoon crept into the complex, and with it, at two exactly, Professor Nettle herded her team into the observational deck of Laboratory D.
Even the other members of the psychology team couldn't quite understand how Nettle became their leader. Granted, she was nearing fifty and had almost as many awards and degrees as she did years on Earth, but it was widely known throughout the complex that she was a bit overly anal. She had previously been a professor of psychology at Celadon University and before that, a field researcher like Oak himself, known mostly for her endeavors to understand the jynx communication patterns. It was a whispered joke that she communed with the ice women well enough; to the men, she wouldn't hesitate to handle them just as frostily as she frequently did with Bill. To women, she had her harsh moments, but she often restrained herself just enough to give the members of her own gender something resembling mercy.
Needless to say, while she never made a decision that she didn't think was justifiable, her often overly critical nature grated on her team. Bill wasn't the only one who cringed when she threw a glare.
So, when she swept her hazel eyes from the back of a trembling scientist to Bill, he was only slightly surprised that his colleague visibly relaxed.
"McKenzie?" she said sharply as she turned away from a computer.
Bill recoiled as he stood across the room. The observational deck of lab D was just large enough for the five scientists working on the psychology aspect of Project Stardust, yet Bill felt it just wasn't large enough. He turned towards Nettle and tried to look as professional as possible, knowing that she – who, if her reputation was correct, most likely loathed the fact that a successful man still existed in that day and age – would happily comment on his behavior if he wasn't.
"Yes, Professor Nettle?" he asked.
She glanced at him with a serious, nearly suspicious eye. "Are the cameras in working order?"
He nodded. "Yes, Professor Nettle. They're feeding into monitors two through seven."
"Yes. Speakers one, four, and six."
Bill swallowed, resisting any temptation to wince at the thought of the experiment. "XP-494 is ready in cage one. Rattata C is in cage two."
Nettle nodded. "Very well." She turned away from him. "Professors Heath and Mulberry, stand by the window for release. Professor Fig, keep an eye on the monitors. McKenzie."
Bill looked up as his colleagues took their places. She eyed him carefully with a critical gaze, then nodded.
"Prepare to record the observations."
At that, Bill nodded and turned away, only to sigh. It was usually how it was with Nettle. As soon as she was given a leadership position, she would take it upon herself to assign what she thought would be the most appropriate task to each individual member of the team. Unfortunately, without those precious credentials and given Bill's behavior around the professor, Nettle was apparently convinced that Bill was barely able to function at all. For that reason, she gave him the simplest jobs that required as little of his skills as a pokémon researcher as she could possibly get from him. He, however, rarely complained, not because he was lazy but instead because he knew the alternative was forgoing the experience and returning to Cerulean City, possibly shaming himself in the process.
Nettle narrowed her eyes as she watched him assume a position in front of the computer on the observational deck. She didn't trust him, although she couldn't name as many reasons for why Bill shouldn't be there as Oak had for why he should (reasons that, naturally, convinced the Committee to invite him onboard). Turning, she walked to the window, her eyes staring out and down at the large, concrete room. Nothing was in it except two glass boxes, one of which held a purple rat and the other of which held the creature, pulsing with red light as it scuttled around its cage. Her eyes narrowed at the sight of the crystal boxes in the very center of the room.
"Open both doors," she said.
Fig, a small, squat man, turned his bright blue eyes towards a red button by the monitors. His large hand rose, hitting the smooth face of the button with a fleshy palm.
"Doors released," he said as he slowly turned back to the monitors.
Nettle touched her bony chin as she watched through the window. One side on each respective cube swung outward, and the cautious rat was the first to move. He crawled into the open, twitching his long whiskers as he blinked at the strange creature in the other box. The creature clacked its numerous legs to pull itself forward, from glass onto concrete. It had no eyes, yet it seemed to be staring at the rattata. A cold feeling settled in the prey's heart as he crept towards his left with his eyes fixed on the red creature.
Then, suddenly, the thing leapt at him. With a screech, the rattata lunged towards the open space to the side. His paws scrambled desperately as his small heart beat against his chest in his mad dash for safety. Yet, even with his speed, in seconds, he felt the searing pain of eight small, sharp needles planting themselves into the flesh of his shoulder. He screamed once again, and his eyes widened in horror at the bulbous creature resting on his body. His legs still pounded in a frantic, tumbling run as something slid under his skin and sucked on his veins. No matter what he did, including bashing his shoulder into the cement, the creature refused to let go.
With the rapid loss of blood, the rattata's movements became sluggish, eventually slowing to the point where he could only stumble inch by inch towards his box. By the time the rodent reached the glass walls again, he collapsed and closed his eyes.
"Dear God," Nettle whispered. "How long was that?"
"Two minutes, forty-seven seconds," Fig recited.
Bill's fingers clacked on the keyboard to record the number. Then, he glanced up cautiously to note the positions of his colleagues, particularly Nettle. She stood with her back towards him, completely absorbed in the happenings on the field. Pursing his lips, he pulled away from the computer and approached the window, casting his eyes towards the field to steal a glimpse before she noticed.
Immediately, he paled as he watched the creature consume the rattata from the inside out. It crawled up the rodent's side, ripping the flesh as it went to open a large gash and expose the ribs and the slick insides. Bill had seen a vast number of different things since he became a pokémon researcher, but never had he seen a pokémon consume live prey with such clean efficiency. Not a drop of blood was spilled, and the creature cut through flesh with such ease that it seemed to take no time at all to open the rattata's body.
Already feeling lightheaded, Bill covered his mouth with a hand, but he couldn't tear his eyes away from the creature. Then, when it began to ooze a strange, green gel into the wound, Bill stumbled backwards, towards the desk with the computer perched on it. Nettle heard the sound of his feet and looked over her shoulder.
"McKenzie?" she asked in a neutral tone.
He exhaled, and seconds later, he was on the floor.
When Bill opened his eyes again, he found himself staring at a white ceiling that he knew wasn't part of the observational deck. Moreover, he felt under his body something soft, rather than the hard, tiled floor. His fingers pressed into the mattress and cotton sheets in deep thought as a pounding headache began to radiate from the side of his skull. Drawing in a breath, he closed his eyes again and brought a hand to his face to gingerly rub his forehead.
"Ah! Welcome back to the land of the living, Bill."
Bill opened one eye and looked towards the side of the room, where Oak sat on another bed. By then, Bill realized he was in the infirmary within the Outer Ring, stretched on one of the hospital beds in the minor injuries wing, rather than the private rooms reserved for serious accidents that happened on occasion. Squinting (mostly because fully opening both eyes would send pulses of pain through his head), he propped himself up on his elbows to face his superior.
"Professor Oak," he murmured.
Oak nodded. "You fainted. Hit your head on a desk on the way down. Luckily, it was only a mild trauma, but you'll still want to stay here for awhile before going back to the dorms."
"How long ago…?" Bill's voice trailed off as he gingerly rubbed the side of his head, feeling the bump beneath his curly hair.
"You were brought here a few hours ago," Oak said. "You knocked your head pretty well, and the shock Professor Mulberry tells me you had just before then probably didn't help, either."
"A few hours." With a heavy sigh, Bill lay flat on his back again with his hand rubbing the bridge of his nose. "I'm certain Professor Nettle thinks highly of this."
Oak offered him a sympathetic glance. "I know that Professor Nettle never gives you a chance, but you shouldn't be discouraged. You're doing well."
Well enough to faint at the sight of a pokémon being dissected,
Bill thought, but he didn't dare voice that comment. Instead, he offered a weak smile.
Seemingly unaware of this smile, Oak continued. "Professors Heath and Fig are happy to be working with you, and Professor Mulberry insists you do most of her work for her. I hope she's exaggerating. It'll send the wrong message to the other teams, after all."
Oak cracked a smile, a reassurance that none or little of what he said was to be taken seriously. Bill felt that was a reassurance enough and forced himself to sit up. His head swam, and for a moment, he swayed. Oak's smile faded, and his large hands thrust out to catch Bill by the shoulder.
"Easy now!" he said. "Steady. That was a nasty bump, and we can't be having you adding more to it. Lay down. I'll get Nurse Joy."
Bill shook his head. "No. I'm… I'm fine. I just need—"
He was about to finish the sentence with "more time," but before he could, alarms went off. Swiveling around, Oak threw a wide-eyed glance towards the door. Then, he let go of Bill, holding one of his hands up with his palm outward. Bill winced at the blaring sound but managed to keep an eye open to glance at Oak. In Bill's eyes, his superior was beginning to blur into a shapeless figure as a headache slammed through Bill's skull.
"Stay here," Oak said. "With our security, I wouldn't be surprised if it was a malfunction, but I'd better go see anyway."
Bill nodded, but he knew it was a pointless gesture. Already, Oak had turned away, quickly heading towards the door.
Oak cautiously poked his head through the open doorway, casting his eyes up and down the sterile-smelling corridor. At first, he heard nothing but the blaring siren echoing down the empty hallway. However, as he parted from the doorway and began moving past rooms, he began to hear shouts of men heading closer to him at a faster pace than he was moving towards them. In the first moments, he couldn't make out what they were saying, but as they grew closer to each other, he began to realize they were shouting orders to one another – namely, orders to break in.
His feet shuffled backwards, preparing to run towards the closest security booth behind him. Before he could, a pair of hands grabbed him from behind. With a startled gasp, he turned his head, finding himself face-to-face with the dark cap and face of a Team Rocket henchman. Frowning sharply, he shoved the grunt away and began bolting back the way he came. He didn't get particularly far, however, because a few feet away, a group of black-clad Rockets rounded a corner and blocked his path. Stopping short, Oak whirled around to find Rockets approaching behind him. Realizing he was heavily outnumbered, he allowed two pairs of white-gloved hands to grab him by the arms.
A woman pushed through the crowds to face Oak. She was much shorter than the scientist, but her violet eyes conveyed an intimidating ferocity that made the old man feel weak. A grin spread across her pale face, nestled evenly between the locks of blonde hair caressing her rosy cheeks. She crossed her white-clad arms as she eyed Oak.
"Professor Samuel Oak," she said, almost as if she was reciting information from a book. "Pokémon researcher, based in Pallet Town. Currently the director of Polaris Institute and one of the overseers of the top-secret government endeavor known as Project Stardust." She tilted her head. "I thought it would be harder to find you."
He scowled at the woman. "Who are you? What do you want?"
"Collectively," she said with a smile, "I think you know. We're here for any and all information on the pokémon temporarily designated as XP-494."
At that, Oak narrowed his eyes. "I don't know what you're talking about. We're a technological institute."
She put a hand on her hip. "Oh, don't even try to pretend. We have eyes and ears everywhere. We know you have the pokémon that caused the government to quarantine an entire region, and we want to know everything you've discovered about it. Cooperate, and we'll leave quietly once we have everything we want. Resist, and, well…" Her smile grew slightly sweeter. "…You'll see."
Oak hesitated for only a brief second with his response. "You can do whatever you want with me, but you're not getting XP-494 or any of the information we've found on it."
The woman opened her mouth to say something, but before she could, another voice rose from the back of the crowd.
She looked past the old man to see three figures pushing through the sea of black. Two of them were fellow Rocket agents, unnamed underlings in her eyes. The third, however, was someone who piqued her interest. Her eyebrows rose as she stepped past Oak, who stared at the new captive with wide eyes. She stood slightly on her tiptoes as she reached forward to lift the chin of the captive with a finger. He stared back at her with intense, dark eyes.
"Bill McKenzie," she recited in the same fashion as she had for Oak. "Pokémon researcher, based in Cerulean City. Student of pokémon psychology and related technology."
"We found him leaving the hospital wing," one of the underlings said.
"It's a good thing you did," she said. "I think he may be valuable to us."
She looked over her shoulder towards Oak. The old man could only stand there, staring at his colleague with a paling face.
"Bill," he whispered.
The youth looked up, cringing slightly at the situation. "I'm sorry."
"Oh, don't apologize," the woman said as she smiled at Bill. "You've just made negotiations a little easier." Then, she turned to Oak. "You might not budge if we did anything to you, but what if we did anything to
? I mean, look at him." She studied the younger researcher with a mischievous glint in her eyes. "He's just an innocent, ambitious new addition to the team, isn't he? Cutting his life short, if not a few appendages or fingers, when he hasn't even reached his prime…" She paused for emphasis, relishing the fact that he was now staring at her with wide, startled eyes. "…That would just be a tragedy, wouldn't it? And he'd have your stubbornness to—"
"No!" Oak shouted.
Agent 009 fell silent as she turned towards Oak. In the ensuing silence, Oak mentally flipped between his options. On the one hand, it was his duty to protect the institute and everything in it, including XP-494. On the other hand, it was his duty to protect the researchers as well. Team Rocket only wanted information. Was protecting that information worth risking someone else's life or limb? Oak felt his mind go numb at the thought of even asking himself that question, yet looking at the number of Team Rocket uniforms that surrounded him, he knew how small the number of options he had actually were.
In the meantime, despite her sweet smile, Agent 009 grew impatient. "Yes?"
"All of our laboratories are in the Inner Ring," Oak said. "I can take you—"
Bill shook his head. "Professor, don't!"
Oak sent him a warning glance. Bill immediately closed his mouth and bit his lip, knowing better than to argue with his superior. The grunts tightened their grips around his arms until it hurt, when he could feel the skin and muscle under the thin cotton of his shirt twist with their hands. He refused to cry out in protest. That was what they wanted to hear, and besides, what would they do if he happened to scream?
"I'm sorry. What was that, Professor?" Agent 009 said.
Oak's eyes flashed towards her saccharine grin. "I can take you to the Inner Ring. That's where we're conducting our research on XP-494."
Agent 009 grinned with glistening teeth. "Excellent. Lead the way, then."
The elaborate electronic locks and barriers that carefully guarded all three layers of Polaris Institute quickly fell away. Bill hung his head, keeping his eyes on his feet and his expression hidden as they marched him just behind Oak through the three layers of the institute: first the Outer, then the Median, and finally the Inner. The alarm had been disabled long before they left the Median Ring, and the few scientists who were still on edge were quickly pinned by Rocket agents. Oak spoke now and then to Agent 009, but none of his words sank into Bill's skull. Instead, Oak's young colleague found himself focusing on the hands holding him, twisting his skin and muscle under the loose sleeves of his shirt. He winced every time they turned a corner and wrenched his arms with every swift pivot. Somehow, he fought the urge to break out of their grip. He knew that if he tried without a plan, he would get no further than two inches before they seized him again. Looking up, he attempted to find an opening, but there were simply too many black suits. He bit his bottom lip as his hope slowly faded.
Eventually, Oak arrived at the door at the end of the labyrinthine hall. Bill recognized it as the door he'd arrived at earlier in the day, Laboratory F, the room with the tank on the far wall. Briefly, Bill froze in his tracks, unwilling to go further, but the Rockets yanked him forward painfully enough that, as a reaction, his teeth bit painfully into his lip. A salty, metal taste crawled across the tip of his tongue as he watched Oak approach the final lock. Bill felt nothing, as if all of his nerves were suddenly hesitating, each one waiting for Oak's next action. He watched his elder lean forward to pass through the three locks on the door. All he could do was pray that a glitch or some other miracle would prevent that door from opening.
Technology ignored prayer. Instead, each one quickly accepted Oak's signatures, completely oblivious to the crowd behind him. With a cheerful, electronic greeting, the doors opened. And that, Bill knew, was the sure sign that there was nothing left to protect the institute's secrets.
Inside, the scientists at work – both the psychology team and the internal biology team – turned to see countless Rockets flowing into the room. Before a single one of them could protest, they were backed against walls, away from machines and guarded by Rockets. The Rockets that held Bill dragged him into the room and threw him, nearly literally, into one of the groups. He staggered to remain on his feet and glared at his captors as he gingerly rubbed one of his shoulders. Ignoring him, the Rockets formed a wall of black to prevent the scientists from interfering. In the meantime, Agent 009 approached Oak, who stood in the middle of the room.
"Well?" she said. "What can you tell us?"
Oak exhaled. "The data we've found is recorded in the computers that surround you."
Grinning, Agent 009 held up a hand and motioned for her underlings to get to work. Without a word of protest, several Rockets immediately took to computers and machines to record whatever information they could get from the system. In the meantime, Agent 009 glanced back towards Oak. Her violet eyes fell on the window beyond him, and with a smile, she skipped past him to peer through the glass. Inside, a red glow moved from left to right like a firefly in a wine-red sky.
"What's this?" she said with a grin. "Oh, don't tell me!" One of her white-clad fingers rose to prod at the glass. "Is this it? It is, isn't it?"
Oak said nothing, opting instead to merely stare at her.
Grinning, she straightened and turned around. "We'll take it too."
Raising his eyebrows, Oak shook his head. "I can't let you do that. You can have whatever information you like – but not that."
Agent 009 snapped her fingers. One of the Rockets immediately turned towards her, and she motioned towards him with her hand. With a nod, the Rocket plucked a poké ball from his belt and flicked it towards the center of the room. In seconds, it broke open and released a flash of white light that quickly formed a tyranitar. The green beast threw back his head and emitted a booming roar from the depths of his stone throat.
"We'll take it too," Agent 009 repeated.
Oak shook his head, but he said nothing. His mind tried to piece together a plan. He was painfully aware of the number of Rockets that surrounded him and how fast he was at that age. Both provided too much of a barrier. What could he do?
With a frown, Agent 009 turned towards the agent. "Choose the weakest-looking scientist and experiment on them – to see whether or not they can take a Hyper Beam."
Oak's eyes widened almost to an impossible degree. "
He tried to step forward, tried to do something to stop the tyranitar's trainer from selecting one of the scientists when the black wall of Rockets reached forward to grab him and hold him back. There was to be no interfering, and Oak's heart sank at the realization of that fact. A grin crossed the trainer's face as he glanced towards the huddled group of scientists. His arm rose, finger extended towards the willowy Professor Mulberry. With a low growl, the stone dinosaur turned towards the woman, who stood pale-faced in front of the pokémon.
Bill couldn't help but react to this. He couldn't even explain what made him jump at that time. Something pushed him to act, and without thinking, he responded by darting towards Mulberry to shove her out of the way. All he was aware of was Mulberry's scream and the glow of energy forming in the tyranitar's mouth. The dinosaur reared back as Rockets shouted incomprehensible orders. Energy burst into a beam from the stone mouth and careened with a high-pitched wail towards the two targets. At the last moment, the two shifted, and the beam sailed past them, striking a computer that burst into a shower of glass and plastic as Mulberry hit the linoleum floor. Bill was about to follow when a pair of hands grabbed him roughly by the arm and swung him around to throw him into an empty spot at Agent 009's feet.
Agent 009's smile faded into a narrow-eyed frown as she knelt and reached down towards Bill with a white-gloved hand. He struggled to push himself up on his hands when he felt cloth grab his chin and harshly tilt his head back. His eyes watered slightly as he felt long nails dig through the glove and into his skin, but he couldn't turn away. All he could do was stare at the agent's electric-purple eyes.
"You idiot," she hissed. "Don't you know how to deal with Team Rocket? Or haven't you learned anything from watching Professor Oak? Pretending to be a hero doesn't get you anywhere."
She let go of his chin and stood. Before he could even move, she placed a boot on his back and put her weight on that foot to shove him back onto the linoleum.
"I was really hoping you'd be a bit more clever than this," she said to no one in particular. "Well, I guess I can't have all my expectations met." She lifted her purple eyes to tyranitar's trainer. "Have your tyranitar blast open that window. We'll take it when it's stunned."
Oak held his tongue. He wanted desperately to step in and defend the laboratory and his employees, but with so many Rockets, all he could do was stand among the cluster that held him and watch as the trainer directed his tyranitar to turn to the red window.
The beast reared back for a second time. In his mouth, a second yellow ball of energy formed. No one could do anything to stop it. Rockets had the scientists pinned and restrained, and any attempt to disrupt the tyranitar would only result in that energy being released prematurely – at people, at the window, at the machinery. It all was at risk.
When the beam was fired, time seemed to slow. Yellow light surged from the creature's mouth and into the window, which rippled and bent inward at the force of the strike. A red light appeared and floated frantically in the pool of blood and water beyond the glass until finally, the glass gave way. As soon as the glass broke, a chorus of screams rose to fill the room as a rain of glass shards and a cascade of red water surged from the wall and onto the linoleum floor.
Agent 009 darted out of the way to avoid most of surge, but Bill wasn't as quick. Instead, he shielded his head with his arms and buried his face into the floor as salty water slammed the floor in front of him and pooled around him. Glass bit through his clothing and into his skin, but that hardly concerned him as much as the feet of the Rockets who scrambled around and over him. The tyranitar roared above him briefly, just before he heard the crunch of rock smashing metal. He looked up and over his shoulder to see the red beam of a poké ball draw the beast back into its confines before a tower of machinery – its front smashed in, presumably from a strike from the rock lizard – exploded. Crackling electricity arced to the towers next to it. Each of them began to spew smoke, and immediately, the scrambling crowds behind him knew exactly what was about to happen.
Both machines burst into flame. With shrieks, screams, orders from Agent 009 that were largely ignored, people began to stream out of the door as a sea of black and white. Bill forced himself onto his knees. His body ached, and every move he made was sluggish, just as every thought that floated through his head was muddled and confused. He looked down, preparing to plant his hands into the linoleum to force himself to his feet when he saw it. XP-494, the tiny creature, bobbed in the inch of water on the floor as it flashed red light from its body frantically.
Drawing in a breath, Bill jolted, splashing the water as he jumped awkwardly at the sight of the parasite. He slipped to his rear, one wrist smacking into the floor painfully to support him. As it bobbed in the waves he created, XP-494's glow calmed. Bill kept his eyes fixed on the creature, but for the life of him, he couldn't move. He was frozen to the spot.
Behind him, Oak pushed past Rockets in an effort to reenter the room. They didn't even bother to stop him. His dark eyes scanned the area for anyone left, and without much effort, his gaze landed on his young colleague, still sitting in the middle of the room.
"Bill!" he called.
At once, Bill looked up and over his shoulder. As soon as he did, the parasite took advantage of the opportunity and leapt unseen onto his right leg. Swiftly, it darted up his pant leg and onto his shirt while Oak distracted him. Before he had a chance to notice, it slipped under the folds between buttons and continued upward in search of a warm patch of skin.
In the meantime, Oak started forward.
"Are you all right? Can you stand up?" Oak asked. "Come on. We need to leave. The security doors – we have three minutes to get out before they seal the fire in!"
Sucking in a gasp, Bill forced himself to stand.
"Yes, of course," he murmured. "I'm sorry."
Oak didn't seem to notice Bill's confused words. Instead, he turned and hurried the youth along, pulling him towards the door and into the hallway. The room quickly filled with smoke and the red-hot glow of fire as a distant, mechanical voice boomed an alarm and warning to evacuate the area. Bill looked back only briefly as he tried to get his thoughts to settle enough. The rapid march of the past hour went by so quickly, he wasn't quite sure what was real.
Outside, the hallway was empty. The Rockets were long gone, save for their voices rising in a shout as they stampeded in a panic back towards the Median Ring. The barking of growlithe – the security dogs of Polaris – mingled with their screams in the song of a battle neither Oak nor Bill could see. Behind them, the door clanged shut by itself, and the metal locks whirred and clicked into place. Oak loosened his grip on Bill's arm, but he didn't let go for fear that doing so would cause his younger colleague to collapse. He cast a concerned glance towards the other scientist, who stared at the closed door with wide eyes. Oak didn't even need to take a second glance to know something was seriously wrong.
"Bill, are you all right?" Oak said. "Can you walk as far as the medical wing?"
Before Bill could finish his thought, his voice caught in his throat. Suddenly, he wrenched his arm away from Oak and bent over as a surge of pain radiated from his chest. A cry escaped his lips as he fell to his knees.
Seasoned researcher or not, even Oak had to jump at the suddenness of Bill's collapse.
"Bill! What is it?" he asked as he reached for the youth's shoulder.
He shook his head. "XP-494…"
Oak's eyes widened as he realized he didn't check for his subject. He was thinking about only the masses of people; it hadn't occurred to him that the thing might have been left behind.
"Is it still in there?" Oak asked as he stepped towards the door.
Again, Bill shook his head. "No! It's… it's…"
Oak watched as Bill quickly took his lab coat off and flung it to the side. Already, his shaking hands were fumbling with getting his shirt off. Taking a step towards him, Oak felt a cold pang of dread fill his chest.
"What? What is it?" he asked.
it's on me!
" Bill cried.
His hands desperately tore at the cloth over his chest until he ripped the front of his shirt to shreds. Oak's eyes widened as he watched for a moment before stooping down to Bill's level.
"What?" he asked in a low voice.
Oak grabbed Bill's wrists, and with a bit of resistance, he managed to pull the youth's hands away from his chest. There, beneath Bill's fingers, was the parasite. Already, XP-494's sharp legs burrowed into his skin, and the creature began to glow a deep, blood-red as its bulbous body began to expand. Oak drew in a gasp as he studied Bill's face. The youth's expression twisted in pain.
"Professor," he whispered, "help…"
Professional ninja. May or may not actually be back. Here for the snark and banter at most.
Need some light reading?
Anima Ex Machina
(Chapter 20 now available)
The Leaf Green Incident
(SWC 2012 winner)
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