Chapter 35: Solitude's dusk
The cell was a simple affair. Eight cubic meters of empty space, enclosed by reinforced metal. A single gate, securely sealed by its own weight. A forcefield security system, usually turned off except during lockdown, to decrease power consumption.
Despite her hopeless position, Rouge felt bored. The chestnut-haired operator had woken up hours ago and, apart from some groans from nearby cells, she had no other proof she wasn't the last alive person in the world.
"Don't go crazy yet, girl," she muttered, shaking her head a bit. One cannot tap into a reploid's brain as easily as one can hack a database and so, when high-tech options do not apply, interrogators fall back to older methods. Prevent a reploid from going to sleep mode, lock their pain receptors to 'on' and suddenly you are dealing with yet another human mind, only with a sturdier body.
"I can deal with isolation. I like being alone…" Of course Rouge usually had something to occupy her mind during her 'me' times, commonly some old book file. Currently, she would have given her left hand for a digital copy of 'Crime and punishment'.
"Talking to oneself is the second sign of madness, dear co-inmate…"
The female voice, calm and smooth as it was, managed to scare her out of her wits. Jumping high enough to hit her head on the ceiling, the unfortunate Resistance spy let something inarticulate between a gasp and a curse leave her lips.
Following the instruction, Rouge gazed through her cell bars at another prisoner, occupying said cell. She possessed the dubious honor of having yet the most generic reploid face and built she had ever seen. Rouge wasn't exactly impressionable in appearance, but compared to her new company, she looked downright exotic.
"Who are you? Where did you come from?" demanded Rouge, still disorientated. She had checked that cell many times before, futilely hoping for sentient contact. She wondered whether she had zoned out so badly, she had missed both the newcomer and her obligatory guard escort.
"I am many things, coming from many places. Yet also nothing and nowhere at all. If you actually meant to ask me something as boring as my name, the answer is Iluzuli."
Rouge blinked owlishly at that, mouthing the foreign, to her, name. It failed to ring any bells, but she was still somewhat frazzled. "Rouge," she replied automatically. The strange reploid was lying on her cell's rough floor on her back, as if it was a luxurious bed, looking totally at ease. The Resistance reploid shrugged, guessing that any company in her situation was better than none at all. "What is then the first sign of madness if talking to oneself is the second?"
Iluzuli lazily brushed imaginary lint from her plain, nondescript outfit. "Existing, naturally," she replied somewhat dreamily.
"You are a tough reploid to find."
Alouette took in a deep breath, for once startled that someone had used her favorite pastime-sneaking- on her. She guessed she must have been in too deep a contemplation to miss their coming.
Polite and calm as it was, the voice did not relent. "Brooding is unbecoming of you. Had I known you were already awake, I would have come earlier." Small arms, still larger than her own, wrapped around her and squeezed in gentle affection.
Before even trying to respond, Alouette made doubly sure her inhibitors were active. It just wouldn't do to crush one of her two most important people by accident. "Ciel…" she tried, a bit powerlessly.
"It is quite past both our bedtime, but I believe we can allow for an exception, yes?" For the small reploid, Ciel voice was like a soothing balm. In the safety of her mind, Alouette had decided she needed to show her surrogate mother she had grown, if only a little. That she was not eight anymore, that she could be more than just the insecure, doe-eyed urchin Ciel had rescued years back.
"We both woke up mere hours ago," she breathed. Inwardly, she hated how meek she sounded. She was burning with desire to prove herself, to protect Ciel and make her proud. And yet, her supposedly adult mindset, her determination, her strength, all evaporated under the soft touch and soothing voice of the human prodigy.
'Caught in my own web of lies. Coward. Nothing but a pitiful little girl with delusions of normalcy,' she mouthed silently, trying not to break down crying, trying not to be more of a burden.
Of course, Ciel rightly caught her mood, completely missing the causes. While the young scientist possessed a great deal of empathy, despite her self-proclaimed social failings, she always had a blind spot for people close to her. "It's ok to cry," she cooed, prompting Alouette to do just that. "You were all alone; you had a harsh time. Perhaps you can tell me about it. It will make you feel better."
It couldn't have been farther from the truth. Alouette's ordeal had been harsh, but she had survived on her own long enough for Zero to come. There would be nightmares of wolves, perhaps, or even of Phantom, but Zero had prepared her well, if subtly. Fear's hold on her was very precarious, because she had precious people to protect and a teacher to make proud.
Even as artificial tears made Ciel's clothes damp, Alouette wanted to laugh. At herself, at how clueless Ciel was; Laugh long and hard, until all reason was lost, then laugh some more, so intoxicated that even the cause of her mirth would flee her mind.
She should stop it right there. Distance herself from Ciel; thank her for everything; proclaim her real age along with her eternal loyalty, not to any cause but to Ciel herself; request, nay, demand a new body, an adult body, so that she can really help, so that she can become more than just a baby, more than just someone in need of protection.
She did nothing of that sort. Ciel's skin on her own, Ciel's comfortable smell, Ciel's mere presence were all working against her, reducing her monuments of resolve to sandcastles swept by the tide.
Alouette woke up some time later, only to find Ciel asleep in her arms, right there on the floor of the storage room she had foolishly hidden in. She gently brushed her hand on the human's face, though Ciel remained dead to the world, deep in her slumber.
She felt content and guilty at the same time, ultimately undecided. "One day you will see me, the true me. Will it break you, I wonder, to know I have been lying to both you and myself for years? Will it break me?"
With no answer forthcoming, Alouette sighed, releasing a tiny part of her constantly increasing power and gently lifting the larger body off the floor. The tiny reploid marveled and fretted at how light Ciel was, how frail she felt in her grip.
"One day…" she repeated, stealthily reaching Ciel's room and tucking the sleeping girl in her bed, a reversal of roles she would later deny.
"Have you got a smoke?"
Rouge groaned at the plain absurdity of the situation. Iluzuli had been silent for hours, only to utter perhaps the most cliché question in the history of incarceration.
"I don't smoke," she replied, unable to keep the harsh edge off her voice.
"Good, neither do I. Were you a human you'd live longer."
The Resistance spy couldn't quite stop herself from snorting. She'd be lucky if she survived the day. Or unlucky, if Phantom was involved. In truth, she wasn't sure how to handle her dubious companion. She was used to dealing with silliness or bubbliness or naiveté. Her best friend, Joan, who was also her worst rival, was all of the above, but this was different. Despite warring all the time, they had been friends, before their competition had nearly blown up the Resistance's fourth branch, and she certainly hadn't been insane.
Commander Elisa had decided to separate them, sending Joan to the fifty-fifth branch and keeping Rouge close. She had been saddened, especially since they couldn't communicate very often, but also relieved. Rouge was a very competitive person. Without Joan to antagonize her, she had begun applying to riskier jobs than an operator might expect, reveling in the challenge, until…
"When you frown like that, you remind me of a painting I once saw…"
Train of recollection derailed, Rouge eyed Iluzuli carefully. "Which painting was it?" As a rule, art and especially its history, rarely survive apocalyptic events gracefully…
"I believe the painter was called Pika-so. Some say he was a mouse artist, yet others swear he was an electric human. Much controversy…"
Rouge must have unconsciously decided a headache was appropriate, because, artificial body or not, her head started hurting. "I think we can officially declare you insane," she quipped, expecting a denial.
Iluzuli nodded eagerly. "That's fair I suppose. I do display the first 128 signs of madness, after all."
The operator turned spy bumped her head on her cell's wall fairly hard. Perhaps oblivion would do her some good.
"You might want to try harder if you need to avoid the impending visit. I'll leave you two alone."
Rouge opened her eyes, mentally preparing an eye roll, only to find the opposite cell empty. "I'm not crazy," she muttered pathetically, just before a new presence entered the room. "Leviathan!" she breathed.
The blue general of the Mei Kai army stood before her cell, larger than life, although there was weariness weighting her down. "Rouge," she returned neutrally. "Let's talk."
"I swear, the metool was somehow cheating," groused Michael, chugging down half his alcoholic beverage. Indulging like this, or even losing his composure, were both rare occasions, but nobody that had watched the competition dared comment.
Alcohol was both cheap and effective on reploids, causing similar effects as to humans, although synthetic lifeforms usually had a bit more tolerance. Case in point, Bolthor, who had enough in his body to kill an ox and had merely started stuttering.
"Sore l-loser. You got second place!"
The sniper frowned. "I tied with your girlfriend, Bolthor. I know I am no match for her at close range, but I thought I was better at aiming." Despite that result, he didn't really begrudge the purple and white armored ninja. She was a gentle person, after all, and delicate, even though she could probably snap him in half if motivated. Instead, he glared at the green metool, currently residing on the aforementioned ninja's lap.
"Smug little bastard, he's smirking at me," he muttered, causing Bolthor to almost fall on the floor.
"He doesn't even have a pr-proper face, Mike," reminded the gray giant amidst bouts of laughter.
Michael glared at Nephar again, then blinked, his face paling. For a moment, he had thought he had seen the metool sticking a giant tongue out of its fanged jaws at him. "That's quite enough for me," he muttered, eyeing his drink, before tossing it away and somehow nailing Viny, the cook, right on the forehead.
Zero had given up on alcohol when he had realized his body broke it down faster than he could chug it down, and was merely enjoying the ensuing chaos. Viny on the warpath was a sight indeed. He had also noticed Morvex was nowhere to be seen, but had dismissed the notion anything was wrong. He didn't quite trust the black-armored reploid, but he could work with him.
Deciding he had socialized enough for tonight, he proceeded to go on a patrol outside. After all, Alouette would usually meet him there and he knew that, joking aside, she would want to talk to him.
"Talk?" echoed Rouge without looking the other reploid in the eyes. "I don't think I have much to say."
Leviathan's face seemed to sport a permanent frown. "You betrayed me, Rouge. You were my best tech student two years back, before you vanished. When you reappeared six months ago, I never thought you had joined the Resistance."
Rouge shrugged. "As you taught me, it's easy to fake background information if you know the system. I only had to make sure you noticed my return. You taking me as an assistant was a given."
The azure general shook her head. "You don't even deny you have joined the mavericks."
The Resistance spy looked at Leviathan's eyes for the first time, braving her harsh blue gaze, then laughed mirthlessly. "Listen to yourself, parroting propaganda like that. You know very well there hasn't been a maverick for centuries. We are not infected or possessed and this is not a battle against evil, general. This is civil war and we are on the defensive."
If Leviathan had just had a personal revelation, it certainly did not show. "You are the ones that started this civil war, Rouge, and at the worst possible moment. Do you think no innocents, humans and reploids, have died because of your actions? Do you have any idea how much energy and how many lives this whole mess is costing us?"
Rouge almost leaned through her bars, now angry. "You shouldn't have opted for genocide, then," she growled. Leviathan tried to counter that, but her former student didn't let her. "No, you listen to me! I have seen how you do it. I was never in danger because I'm good at what I do. Many of my friends weren't, though. They would be arrested for some petty, frivolous reason, then they would just vanish. Nobody knew anything, until I hacked into a secure database and saw the truth. The plan was to just kill eighty percent of the reploid population, based on ability!"
Fairy sighed wearily. "Sacrifices had to be made, or we would all die…"
The spy snorted. "I didn't see you offing any humans. Neo-Arcadia was founded on equality regardless of race, after all. You should have tried other methods, fourth guardian Leviathan!"
"We did!" All fight seemed to leave the other reploid. Abandoning her intimidating stance, she sat down on the floor, lightly hugging her knees and looking past Rouge. "Ciel knows some of it, but I'm not surprised she doesn't spread it. First we tried putting some of the population to hibernation. Problem is, only reploids can do it. Humans on cryonics consume more energy than when awake. So, of course, reploids didn't want to go to sleep, while many humans were stupidly asking to."
Rouge cringed. "That's… pretty bad."
Leviathan ignored her. "We then tried some engineered variety of weed. It was nasty, but grew fast and cheap, and had lots of calories. We couldn't efficiently burn it for power, but humans could safely replace half their diet with it and reploids could live off the stuff indefinitely. We would have been able to stretch our energy resources for twenty more years."
"Another failure?" asked the other, intrigued despite herself.
Leviathan snorted. "Nobody could stand the thing. Humans, I can understand, but we reploids could just turn off our taste sensors. But no! Everyone just kept eating the energy-expensive delicacies or plugged themselves directly on the power grid. Eventually, one of the then common riots happened, burning down the weed farms and the nearby labs, including the data. We'd need a decade to find something that effective again."
Rouge was a bit more guarded now. "It's still not right. How could you not realize killing off people would start a revolt?"
"Master X decided it…" the reply was quiet and almost dejected.
The Resistance operator all but snorted fire. "Like hell he did! Megaman X Light was a paragon of virtue. Everyone knows this is an imposter. You are practically his daughter, how can you not know!"
Leviathan jumped to her feet. "It's him! The people love him even if he has changed. There can be no other explanation. If he hadn't returned, there wouldn't be a Neo-Arcadia now!" she shouted.
Rouge nodded. "I get it. It has to be him, because otherwise you are nothing but a witless mass murderer. I once respected you, Leviathan. Perhaps even loved you. I never had a mother figure other than you and you were good to me." The captured reploid's eyes flashed at that. "But now you are just a puppet of the puppet some complete bastard created."
The general took a deep breath instead of throttling her former subordinate, like she wanted to, though her fingers were twitching. "You are certainly entitled to your opinion. I came here to offer you to become a double agent for me. I would do that for you." Rouge closed her eyes. It was certainly tempting, but she remained silent. "I thought not," continued Leviathan sadly, after a while. "Phantom will start on you in a couple of days, Rouge. It would be a waste. I'll ask you again once more before then," she concluded, turning to leave.
A chill filled Rouge at that point and she shuddered. "Wait!" she cried, freezing the ice general on her tracks. "If you actually care about someone so insignificant as me, then kill me now. You'll be doing me a favor."
Leviathan didn't move for a whole minute, her form hunched. Then she left just slow enough to not seem frantic.
Alouette did not think. Unlike earlier, the voice was just next to her ear module. Zero had to catch a vicious elbow strike, nodding with approval as slid back a little. "Nice form," he half-mocked, half-praised.
The tiny reploid brought her erratic breathing under control and threw a glare at the red hunter, before her embarrassment overruled her ire. Sighing a bit, she returned to her previous position, sitting on a somewhat elevated cement slab, looking at the still dark sky. "What is this, sneak on Alouette day?" she groused.
"You are angry," noticed her mentor, taking his place next to her.
"I noticed neither the mysterious spy nor you, but I guess that's to be expected. Thing is, even Ciel startled me back there," she replied sulkily.
Zero raised a brow. "You didn't react as violently, I gather?" he joked.
Despite the rhetoric question, Alouette couldn't help but shudder at the thought. "I recognized her as a human before I could react," she replied uneasily.
"Did you talk?"
The reploid girl sighed heavily. "Yes… and no," abandoning any pretence of looking at the stars, she gazed at her mentor. "I wanted to tell her… Tell her about myself. About what I am, who I am," she sniffed a bit. "I couldn't, Zero. She thought I was still rattled about getting abducted and I couldn't correct her. I couldn't show her I am a grown-up."
Zero couldn't help it. He laughed at her and she debated kicking him, though she quickly changed her mind, lest the conversation turned into an impromptu spar. "What's so funny?" she demanded instead.
"You are naïve." She tried to complain, but Zero went on. "You throw around important words like 'child' or 'adult', but in the end, you can't really understand them."
Alouette scrunched her face a bit. "What do you mean?"
Zero sighed. "These things are never rigid. Humans start as children, then become adults. Yet all of them have child-like moments, no matter the age. Then you have regular reploids, who usually don't get a childhood. Yet they behave like children just as often."
She blinked at that. "What does that mean? Are you trying to tell me age doesn't matter?" she inquired incredulously.
The crimson hunter shook his head. "Humans need a few years to mature mentally and reploids, though they start better off, also need time to understand what they know. Age is nothing but an indicator of knowledge and experience. Outside of laws, 'child' and 'adult' mean very little."
Alouette looked down. "So what does that make me?" she asked sadly.
In response, he placed a hand on her head, slightly ruffling her hair. "It makes you unique, like anyone else. But that's not what you wanted to ask me, is it?"
Her blush returned with a vengeance. "I'm sorry for… you-know-what you when you found me."
He raised a brow, which vanished under his helmet. "I-know-what?"
"For kissing you!" she all but shouted, before her eyes darted all around them. "It was wrong. Inappropriate. Rude." She added quieter but not less frantically.
Zero closed his eyes. "Yet you are not really sorry, nor should you be," he offered.
"I believe the words you used were 'one less regret'," he reminded her. "You like your secrets, Alouette. I believe that right then was your most sincere moment to date."
She scoffed childishly. "I thought I was going to die. And now you probably won't want anything to do with me," she added with dread, not denying his claim. In the end that was her greatest concern right then, that Zero would distance himself from her because of awkwardness.
The red warrior shook his head. "Like I said, naïve. Did you think I was completely oblivious? Most people believe me to be a bland automaton, but you should know better."
Alouette paled. "You knew?"
Zero shrugged. "You are certainly not the first female I train. Can't really remember names or faces, but I know what to expect. It often happens with one-to-one training and when teaching in general is involved. Most of it comes from legend and hero-worship, though," he added, his voice sarcastic and a bit self-ridiculing.
The girl went frantic at that. "No no! I admire you for who you are!" her visage fell a bit. "At first I was just seeing the legend, but later… You ended up knowing more about me than anyone else, even Ciel."
After contemplating that a bit, Zero nodded. "That goes both ways. Ciel and I have talked some, but training together teaches you a lot about the other person." Smirking a bit, he added. "Mind you, you were a lot subtler than the random Resistance females that keep dropping hints, or even Ciel herself."
Alouette's eyes goggled at that. "You know about Ciel fancying you?" she exclaimed, blushing at how tactless it came.
Zero raised a brow. "While you might be clocking thirty-three years, I'm close to three centuries, without counting stasis. Memories or not, I have retained some semblance of empathy from my past life."
The reploid girl hugged her knees, trying not to look at him. "So I guess you are interested in neither," she mumbled.
He snorted at that. "Despite all that has happened, both you and Ciel are basically civilians."
She half-glared at him, although she was also curious. "Meaning?"
Zero sighed, albeit pleasantly. "Meaning you still lack a certain paranoid mindset," he replied, although his words were hardly accusing. "You are a fledging warrior, Alouette, but no veteran. Neo-Arcadia will soon realize they can't get at me easily. Anyone close to me will be public enemy number one at that point, in an attempt to break me."
"But what about what YOU think? You told me you had a girlfriend back then. Wasn't she in danger?" riposted Alouette, a bit agitated.
The red warrior shrugged. "I can't remember very much, but I think we had a similar conversation. I simply can't remember enough to risk such a commitment in the middle of open war."
Alouette's response was gloomy. "In other words, you are not interested," she repeated.
Zero smirked. "Both you and Ciel are great friends. When I remember more and you get a bit taller, I'll consider you," he replied, patting her on the head condescendingly.
She pouted at that, turning away. "You still don't take me seriously," she mumbled. A second later she yelped, when something soft and fluffy landed on her head. "What?" she tried, retrieving the item. It was her bunny doll, which she had considered lost forever. "Where? How? It looks like new."
Zero yawned at her excited visage. "Got Cerveau to patch it up. Did you know he sews as a hobby? Thought you'd want it back, but I made some modifications."
Alouette blinked, then regarded the doll again. "It's a bit heavy…" A short inspection later, she found a concealed zipper at its back. The contents left her completely dumbfounded, though. "Is..that…?"
"…a beam saber," finished Zero nonchalantly.
"Orange," she breathed transfixed as she ignited the weapon, coloring the night around them.
"Realized I should have given you one already. Would have saved both of us some trouble and you are more than capable. I also took the liberty to install a resonance chip in you, so that you don't accidentally behead yourself. If fact… " The crimson bomber didn't get to finish that sentence, as Alouette turned the weapon off, then cannonballed at him, hugging him for all she was worth.
"Thank you, thank you, thank you…" she chanted, this time crying out of joy. Beyond even the practical aspect of having a weapon, it meant Zero acknowledged her and trusted her.
Detaching himself from his delighted student, Zero ignited his own saber, setting it on the training level. "After this session, I doubt you'll feel the same," he replied, with fake disdain. They both knew that was untrue.
Ciel did devote some time dwelling on how she had been returned to her bed. While the possibility of Alouette didn't even register, she spent whole minutes fantasizing it had been Zero himself, before waking up for good and berating herself for lack of professionalism.
She reached her workstation just in time for a live message from another Resistance branch. That in itself was unusual, because of how careful everyone was to avoid revealing their respective positions. The fact it was Elisa herself calling did not alleviate her worries. The old military base housing the fourth Branch was positioned in the middle of nowhere, right where one of the world's vast deserts met the ocean. The location was petty secure, but Elisa was also known for her caution.
"Ciel here," she responded. "I trust the supplies from the rescue operation are safe?" she asked, hazarding a guess on what was wrong.
Elisa sighed, her short blond hair more frazzled than normal. "There are no issues on that front, doctor. The transport was a complete success and we can barely store all this staff. No, I fear I have made a blunder in a much different case. One of my best spies was caught on the job and she has sensitive information."
The human girl blinked, then frowned, trying to remember. "I wasn't aware your branch had active spies in place."
Elisa bit her lip. "We have kept such information very… private. I apologize for not reporting it, but…"
Ciel interrupted her. "That's fine." She thought about it, then added. "We have some issues with spies ourselves these days and I understand the need for secrecy. Tell me about your agent."
"She's very capable, although quite headstrong and a bit blind when competitive. I assigned her as a spy to general Leviathan, since she used to be one of her best students."
Before she could say more, Cel interrupted her. "Rouge! You are talking about Rouge."
Elisa blinked. "You know her?"
The young scientist sighed, feeling thrice her age. "Only in passing. I didn't even know she was with us. Leviathan talked about her when she first took her under her wing, years back. From the beginning, the general had a soft spot for her. I can only imagine…" she informed. She couldn't help but feel concerned for Leviathan, even though they were enemies. The blue general hardly had any actual friends and, despite everything, Ciel considered her an older, if estranged, sister.
The fourth Branch commander nodded. "That is accurate. The general had assigned her as her personal assistant. In fact, the last update was about an inspection in that naval Neo-Arcadian base close to your position. She missed her last two updates and we received her distress signal briefly."
Ciel nodded slowly. "Either captured, or… I see. What does she know?"
Elisa's face was grave. "Quite a bit I fear. Our Branch's coordinates, of course, but also detailed information about the fifty-fifth branch, where a friend of hers is assigned. She did work as our main operator for some time, so she has intimate knowledge of our codes up to level red, four exploits in your operating system that we often use, as well as general logistics Intel, although a bit outdated."
Ciel felt a headache coming in fast. "Elisa…" she started, somewhat exasperated.
The reploid wilted under her gaze. "I know, I know, she shouldn't have been anywhere near Leviathan, but we needed someone there and there was no one else to send."
The young scientist sighed, regaining her composure. "We'll try to get her out, if she's still alive. Perhaps they don't even know how much she knows. Is she strong-willed enough?"
Elisa nodded fervently. "I'd trust her silence with my life, doctor. She won't betray us as long as her mind is her own. She did manage to send a rough outline of the base, along with some information about other prisoners in her last update." She hesitated a bit. "My whole branch is at your direct command. Anything we can do…"
"No," interrupted Ciel. "To get her out we'll need tact, not an army. What you can do, is prepare our contingency plan. If worse comes to worst, I need your Branch to minimize the damage. Contact anyone that could be compromised, make evacuation plans and keep them in high alert. Start looking in alternative codes. We'll do our best to avoid it coming to that, but…"
"I understand," replied Elisa, sounding apologetic. "Will you be ordering Zero to go?"
Ciel almost laughed in her face. "I don't 'order' Zero, Elisa. I ask him for his opinion and he decides. If anything, he orders the rest of us, never mind his refusal to be given a rank. Even with a portion of his memories, he is ten times more of a strategist than myself."
Elisa nodded, understanding all too well. "I'll keep in touch, doctor. I will make proper amends for my error after the situation is resolved."
Her commander sighed again, then smiled. "Don't blame yourself too much, Elisa. Nobody can avoid such mistakes. Learn from them and do better next time." People that knew Ciel would roll their eyes and suggest she followed her own advice, but Elisa decided against that course of action, slightly mirroring the smile before the connection was terminated.
"I spy… something brown!"
Rouge had every right to be startled all the way to the equivalent of a heart attack, but felt too drained to do more than glare at the opposite cell, where Iluzuli had inexplicably reappeared. "Should I even ask how you do this?
The weird girl blinked. "How I do what?"
The caught spy accompanied her word with an eye roll. "How you managed to hide while Leviathan was here," she clarified.
Iluzuli ignored that question. "Something brown?"
Sighing deeply, her co-prisoner decided to go along. "My hair. And yours as well, if it…" she started in a bored tone, then stopped in mid-sentence. "Wait…" she tried. "Your hair was black before. How did you…?"
"She cares about you, doesn't she? She is not a bad person, just misguided."
A bit miffed at the non sequitur, Rouge nonetheless decided to reply. "There is no excuse that can possibly absolve her. People are defined by their actions, after all."
"People are also defined by their environments." Before the former operator could comment, a tiny piece of cardboard landed just outside her cell.
"The Tower," she breathed, lifting the card. "Sign of impending ruin and calamity."
Iluzuli chuckled. "You know to read Tarot cards?" she replied, for once sounding surprised.
Rouge scowled. "Strictly academically. There is no more truth to this thing that there was centuries ago. What I want to know is where you have found something so frivolous. I don't need your 'ill omens' to know I'm in trouble."
"What ill omens?" came the innocent riposte.
The spy matched the other's gaze for a full minute, before she couldn't resist any more. Her eyes went wide as she eyed the card in her hand, which seemed to have changed without explanation.
"The Sun," she whispered.
The floor shuddered under his bulk as he walked into his commander's office. "You asked for me, general?"
Leviathan eyed the newcomer expressionless. Blizzack Staggroff was her current second in command, as far as the military side of her duties was concerned. She idly reminded herself to find a replacement for the information side, to take Rouge's position. Ideally, one person should have filled both jobs, but she knew of no one with such qualifications.
"Indeed. I must change my schedule for a reason that will become clear later," she started, referring to Phantom's little project. "However, the inspection of this base must continue."
"Leave it to me, sir," replied the stag-based reploid, bowing.
The blue general sighed. Staggroff was not exactly the sharpest ice pick in the freezer. "Nobody expects you to become a data expert overnight, Staggroff. We will use this excuse to have you remain here longer."
Her subordinate hesitated a bit. "To what end?"
Leviathan smiled. "Rouge managed to send data about this place before she was caught. Even without her here as a prisoner, a Resistance raid is probable."
Finally understanding, the larger reploid nodded. "I will fortify this place to the best of my ability and I will run a few drills. Rouge's replacement can resume the data inspection when the spy has been dealt with."
"Exactly. Stick to your strengths," she agreed, managing not to wince at his somewhat callous attitude towards his former partner. She was about to dismiss him, when another thought came to her mind. "Keep in mind that you might need to fight at some point."
"I will eagerly use what you have taught me and put myself to the line, general," he replied easily.
An eye-roll accompanied Leviathan's response. "Fight against Zero himself," she clarified.
Staggroff's face was not built to show a wealth of expressions, but she had to try not to laugh at how unnerved he looked. Zero had wormed himself into the minds of everyone in Neo-Arcadia as some kind of shadowy, supernatural agent of chaos, against which there was no hope of victory. "That… doesn't faze me," was his unsure answer, still very brave compared to the bedlam she had seen among the ranks.
Leviathan sighed, leaving her seat and slowly walking around her subordinate like a tiger on the prowl. "You are of course required to either win or die. Zero is to be treated as a maverick, at least for now." She stopped behind him and leaned, her next words a whisper. "Yet, off the record, you have permission to flee if there is no hope of victory. No sense in hopelessly wasting you on something that might eventually prove to be a misunderstanding."
She resumed walking, returning to her desk while eyeing him carefully. She was taking a risk here, of course. Copy X or Phantom would readily brand her a traitor. Still she decided to follow Fefnir's example for once. Her big oaf of a brother had doctored his report concerning the shuttle incident and it was only because of her subtle intervention he hadn't been caught. She'd inform him of that little factoid sometime she'd need a favor, she decided.
Returning to the here and now, Leviathan eyed her subordinate carefully. There was fear there, of course, and gratitude, but also indignation and determination. Would he follow her advice, or would he try to prove her wrong? It could go either way.
End of chapter 35.
A/N: And, lo! Another chapter this year. Could it possibly become a trend? That was pretty much a setup chapter. Alouette's issues were, if not concluded, temporary resolved, a new character was introduced (hopefully causing some mirth to you people) and we are ready for the next mission. After Staggroff is out, it's time for the giant mechaniloid fight and Fefnir!
Until next time and don't forget to review. Be sure to tell me what you think of Iluzuli. Hopefully ffnet won't start spazzing out again like last time.