Pale orange eyes opened slowly, almost lazily, with a look of disinterested contempt that was at least ninety percent made up of sleepiness. They blinked slowly, with more sleepiness instead of surprise, and if anyone had been watching they might have noticed that the optic lenses took much longer than they should have to adjust, focusing on where a human and a reploid wearing a white coat made out of fabric like some human instead of proper armor were working on some type of box before tilting his head up from where it lay back on the ground slowly to look down at the hole in his chest.
If this person had ever heard of organ theft, he would have had something to compare this plunder of parts and the experience of waking up to discover that someone had removed a lot of bits from him to, but he just blinked again, this time realizing that yes, he was definitely dreaming. "What is this nonsense… Never mind." It wasn't as though it mattered. Very little did.
Despite his disinterest, the sides of the cavity poured in and the wound closed, cut padding and bared metal now replaced by unmarked mimicry of featureless flesh.
"Dr. Ciel, he's awake," another reploid said, looking at him with a frown. Those eyes weren't red, but orange? Colbor had seen both reploids and humans with yellow and amber optics, but orange wasn't a popular choice for, well, anything. Optics, eyes or armor. It wasn't even a bright orange, like one of the gourds hydroponics was experimenting with, trying to recreate some legendary method of soil-enrichment-free farming, which sounded like a perpetual motion machine to Colbor since humans needed metals and other components extracted from the soil, but what did he know about biology. He only knew about the gourds since they were one of the few foods the crèche small humans were encouraged to play with before consuming. Apparently there was some legend about making scary faces with them to frighten off things from old stories that were similar to baby elves.
The young female human looked up from her work at Zero's body. "That's not Zero," she said, and returned her eyes to her work.
The person in not-Zero's-body briefly contemplated feeling insulted, but she was correct, after all. If someone wasn't Zero, they didn't matter.
How had anyone mistaken him for Zero, he wondered, before noting the configuration of the body. It certainly wasn't a copy of Zero, but it did resemble him. Somewhat.
"Who is it, then?" the reploid in camouflage armor made up of various shades of tan asked, adjusting his goggles.
Ciel shrugged and the newcomer didn't bother to reply, idly tilting his head to the side to see if he could find out what was causing all the explosions and such without actually having to get up, or move, or any of the many things that weren't worth the bother. If he could even accomplish them in this dream. Well. "I suppose that's somewhat impressive." That four mere reploids and a copy of X were holding their own against the real Zero, or at least his body – the human had said something that implied they were waiting for Zero to wake up or something like that, not that he'd really been paying attention. "So this is another dream, then. How boring." He closed his eyes.
"What makes you think this is a dream?" the human asked with an abstracted air as she welded, ignoring the sparks that landed on her pink clothing. It was designed for this. "Well, technically reality is, but it's a consensus dream and I think you're talking about the individual kind we experience while sorting data."
"They're fighting one of the ancients and they're not dead yet," he replied, without bothering to turn his head to look at her, although he did open his eyes again. Yes, still seeing the same thing.
"Well, yes? Those are Master X's Guardians, and the one that looks like Master X is my creation," the human said proudly.
He didn't bother to ask what Guardians were. X had many second-in-commands in the hunters over the decades, there were many who had sacrificed themselves to protect him. "As I said, they're just reploids. None of them matter. Even being built by a dream version of Dr. Wily doesn't mean they can ever amount to anything either."
"Dr. Wily?" the human asked, wrinkling her nose as she frowned.
Why wouldn't dream-Dr.-Wily knew that he could identify him? "Facial recognition software comes with the copy-chip." That was how his dream had generated what Dr. Wily's face would look like if affected by female human development chemicals instead, obviously. "I wonder if I'll see a female X next? Never mind, I already saw one in the history files." So that would be boring. Iris, another worthless inheritor. Well, whatever. "I haven't had a lucid dream in a long time. I wonder if I could fight in that battle without waking him up." Despite the slight emphasis on the him, there wasn't any particular emotion attached to it. "Well, it's not as though I would make any difference, when a bunch of knockoffs are fighting Zero."
"What in the wastes are you talking about?" the human asked, surprised, annoyed and wondering if he was serious. "Of course helping makes a difference. Even trying does." Even misguided trying, like her creation of Copy-X. She'd seen how the Guardians cared about him, how strong he'd grown up to be. "Saying a person's actions are just going to be worth nothing… that's like saying it's possible for a person to be worth nothing."
He snorted. "But we are." Sunrise-eyes watched as lances of light slammed down onto the field, clearly conjured up by invoking the defense system of that city over there. The copy of X must have done it: he was the only one hovering (mostly) out of reach of the melee, so he might have had the focus to reach out to a structure's systems like that. It was hard even for him to interface with a large external system: no reploid distracted by a fight for their life could possibly manage it.
But of course Zero managed to dodge all of them instead of being trapped.
How boring. How predictable.
"I used to think that the future mattered," the dreamer told the human. "I believed in evolution, improvement, that this world had a future and it belonged to the new generation, but I was shown how wrong I was. None of us matter compared to the ancients, the prototypes. The evolution of this world went down a useless path long before I was built, and there's nothing left but to wait for all of us to be destroyed. All of our lives and everything we do are nothing but waste. Sound and fury signifying nothing."
"Don't be stupid, do you want to just lie down and die?" she demanded, wrench hitting the box she was working on with perhaps unnecessary force to communicate how angry those words made her.
"As I said. Sound and fury, signifying nothing." He snorted again. "And yes, I certainly do recommend that. If I hadn't struggled pointlessly to survive I wouldn't be trapped in this useless limbo with only the occasional dream to waste already wasted time. After all, why not lie down and die?"
"What about Master X and Zero? If the prototypes still matter, they matter, right? Their actions matter? Well, we're the ones they've fought for!" Was he just going to waste that?
He found he couldn't care enough to laugh. "Fought for us? For you, maybe, human. They're the ones who showed me how useless it was to struggle, that I could never compare to them. That everything I'd built, everything I'd done was just doomed to come crashing to the ground, as worthless as its worthless creator."
"Look," the reploid in the doctor's coat said, finally speaking up after he finished wrapping wire around a piece of metal. "If you're going to be like that, then shut up and stop distracting her." Go ahead and play dead, be worthless and stop annoying the people who are doing something worthwhile. "No wonder Ciel knew right away that you weren't Zero, with that attitude…"
"It's not Zero in Omega either." Of course not. "You can't be the Uncle Axl person Guardian Leviathan talked about, so who are you?" Ciel wondered.
"No one you've ever heard of, I'm sure." How long had it been? How long had this world continued to die with fading whimpers instead of a bang, anything that would prove it existed? "Before I trapped myself in this living death trying to live, I was Lumine, system administrator of the Jakob Space Elevator Project."
"Nope, never heard of you," the one in camo agreed. He had a purple insignia, nothing like the Hunter emblem. So there had been some change, even if nothing that mattered.
"The ruins of the space elevator are still there… But that probably doesn't cheer you up any. I only knew that was what it was since I pulled up an old map looking for where I could get cable with a high enough tensile strength. That was a tough salvage job," Ciel reminisced. "It's still mostly in sections, though, and it's pretty hard to take apart? Actually, if you weren't a good engineer, it would have made things a lot easier for me. And parts of the security system were still functioning." So cheer up, that was pretty impressive.
The lab-coated reploid groaned. "Ciel, what have I said about talking about all the dangerous stuff you did with only a cyber-elf for backup before we met?"
"Sorry, Cerveau," she said, although it was clearly 'Sorry I made you feel worried,' instead of, 'Sorry, it was wrong of me to take so many insane risks to build Copy-X that I still have stories you haven't heard yet and I promise I won't do anything like that again.'
"And of course you've heard of Axl, the prototype." Of course. There might have been anger there once, but only faded resentment was left: what good would it do to complain? This was simple reality… "The purple one."
"General Phantom?" the one in camo asked. "What about him?"
Lumine's eyes were no longer half-lidded, but he said nothing. His mouth opened slightly, not knowing what to say or to whom. But this?
Lieutenant Elpis was sitting on her knees since Harpuia had shorted out something in her balance system when he temporarily killed her. Lieutenant Lark couldn't fix programming errors and this was no time for a reboot. She wasn't talking because she felt so damn dizzy and she didn't want any of the others to figure out there was something wrong with her and waste time on it, but she still glanced over at the newcomer, wishing she felt well enough to think well enough to figure out what to say to give him a verbal kick in the ass.
There was a little crease in that forehead, as though what he saw confused him. A bit of disbelief, a bit of 'why, just… why?' and perhaps even…
"How's your project coming?" Colbor asked Drs. Ciel and Cerveau, a cautious hand on his gun as he watched the fight. If he hadn't seen Lieutenant Lark do her thing before, he wouldn't have recognized what just happened. Half of one of Fefnir's cannons and several of Harpuia's wing panels still littered the ground, but all the damage had just regenerated itself. So this was the power of Dr. Ciel's creation… Maybe this Lumine was sort of right: no one really thought about competing with the Guardians, much less Master X, because they were the Guardians. They were legends, so of course they were in a different category and you'd just get an inferiority complex if you focused on that instead of thinking about what you could do.
But Dr. Ciel's generators had already changed Neo Arcadia, opened up so many new possibilities and new upgrades for her inhabitants. Suddenly, reploids were capable of things they just weren't before, and everyone had to adjust their estimate of the possible, of what they could do if they tried, up. And up.
Honestly, Colbor found it worrying now that he thought about it, not heartening. Master X and the Guardians, surely Dr. Ciel's creation as well if he fought beside them, could be trusted with the power they wielded. They'd proven that so, so many times over. But thinking about gullible newbuilts with that kind of power? Even responsible newbuilts could do a bit of damage until they figured out how much care they had to take with the world around them, what things were more breakable than others. For instance, a hug hard enough that a heavily armored reploid could even feel it would crush a human.
As someone who had started as a patrol cop, Colbor was a firm supporter of the notion that certain upgrades should be reserved for the armies and reploids who had already proven that they were responsible by attaining enough status in whatever field that they had an actual use for the upgrade. Giving every reploid a built-in buster at activation would be almost as bad as giving small humans real guns and letting them follow their programming to experiment unsupervised. Well, probably less than a quarter as bad. 'Learn how to kill things' was part of the small human base programming, because food acquisition was a survival necessity for them.
Yes, it was racial profiling, but it was still true that humans were responsible for more than ninety percent of Neo Arcadia's crime. Partially because their programming made them more likely to succeed and they knew it. Humans had a natural aptitude for being sneaky that Colbor, as a Zan'ei, admired and respected. He still knew that if something went missing in the office, step one was to check the pockets of all the visiting small humans. When theft was practically a pre-programmed training exercise… Colbor was sure that General Phantom encouraged them and tried to recruit them because it was better to have them in the Zan'ei than on the other side. Sadly, encouraging them or giving them attention when they did something made them do more of it, since they were supposed to be learning the strategies adult models could confirm were good strategies, so it might have been the Zan'ei's own fault that all the small humans they attracted ended up turning into such sneaky little mettaurs.
Still, it was definitely a good thing that humans couldn't be upgraded with reploid systems, since the Zan'ei's human members were deadly enough as it was. Giving them the hardware to match their software would be just unfair.
And to think that the humans were the ones who thought they weren't contributing enough to Neo Arcadia, weren't needed as much now that reploids had more upgrades.
Dr. Ciel was proof of how ridiculous that notion was, when she was human herself. "There's stuff I can do to make it sturdier, but it could be deployed now. The problem is that it won't work unless we can get him out of Omega's body somehow."
It startled them when the strange person in what had been Zero's body asked, "Is that all?" He still sounded jaded and tired, but that wasn't an idle question, Ciel knew. Not quite.
"Yes," she told him.
That head turned over again to face her and Cerveau, orange eyes not just focusing on them but trying to see them for the first time. As golden hair began to pale and shorten, the shape of that face shifted, just a little, as though instead of holding himself distant this Lumine had taken a hesitant step towards them, out of the slumber he'd been trapped in since he tried and failed to take over Axl's body and into reality despite its memories of pain and failure. "For how long?"