"Tech?" Colbor said, calling in to Zan'ei HQ.

"Yes?" Tech Kraken asked, since this was no time to be flippant, raise an eyebrow and say, 'If you can hear me, it is.' Zan'ei officers had the encryption program to transmit on this frequency to Tech and Phantom, but not the decryption program to understand transmissions from other officers, or even their own transmission. Instead, they had the decryption program for the encryption Tech and Phantom used. Since Tech was the current Watch Officer and Phantom was fighting Omega, it was fairly obvious who Colbor had to be talking to.

Unless goddamn Dr. Wily had managed to hack their codes, of course. And viewed tricking some mere mortals as worth being distracted from fighting all four of the Guardians and Master X's body double, who had just pulled power from the city's systems… Except not, in a way that had almost made Judge Biblio, normally a very controlled operator, blow a gasket.

Since he was regulating Neo Arcadia's power right now, his power regulation systems were as active as he could let them be without ruining his ability to multitask and plan the evacuation, Tech knew since his communication link system was effectively the same thing. The EMP that arrived with Guardian Harpuia, part of his attack on Omega, hadn't harmed Biblio because of a little something called surge protectors, but then a part of his mind that Biblio wasn't normally conscious of since it was on the same level as a human's oxygen intake system had started screaming 'you just can't do that!' when Copy-X put on that impressive light show.

Electric types. Tech Kraken was allowed to think stereotypically about them because he was one.

Normally calm and well-regulated, since their systems had to be carefully regulated so they encouraged the development of that type of mind. However, when they freaked out, they freaked out. That was also a survival trait, really: since the systems of electric types didn't constantly need to be shielded against high energy levels the way fire types did, they generally didn't have enough protection against those surges. Reacting quickly and with overkill to system problems was the only way to prevent serious damage. When their systems were functioning properly surges in the ambient energy level weren't a problem, which was why fire types were ineffective, but ice types, who specialized in messing around with conductivity, could turn an electric type's own systems into their worst enemy.

So when Judge Biblio's regulation system had thrown up a fatal-level System Error Report when his system was managing Neo Arcadia, he'd melted down pretty impressively. Tech Kraken was still trying to talk him down, but he wasn't up to words of two syllables yet. Giving someone who had survived the Elf Wars a panic attack that wasn't flashback-induced was pretty impressive.

A pity it hadn't worked against the combination of Wily and Omega.

Since he was multitasking even more than usual, Tech Kraken was slow to realize that Colbor had referred to him so informally because this was serious and they needed to talk fast.

"Can you set up a teleport for an untagged object without a transmitter or receiver station?" was the question.

"No," Tech Kraken said bluntly. "Only Guardian Harpuia could." Without a tag to identify it to the teleportation system, or a transmitter/receiver station to allow them to just teleport objects inside a certain volume, in order for the object to be transmitted its location and velocity would have to be triangulated by satellites: at least three teleport system sats would need a visual, and it would take Guardian Harpuia to get them to run those calculations.

And it would be power-intensive as hell.

Again, if this was the time Tech Kraken might have gone, 'What the…?' or, 'Why not ask for the moon while you're at it?' Of course, to be fair, Colbor wasn't a technician and he'd probably heard that transmitting untagged people without stations was possible, in a serious emergency. Well, reploids anyway. He might not know the package being an inanimate object made such a difference.

The little, "Hn," from Colbor meant that he had an alternative, probably the more realistic Plan A, but he didn't like it much. Ah well. "I'll need a stationless teleport, then. On my cue."

Expensive but realistic. "Target coordinates?"

"Yeah…" About that. "It's not so much target coordinates as target criteria. Can you keep an eye on the situation out here and generate target coordinates for the best spot as the situation changes?"

At that point, Tech Kraken sorely wished he was still young enough to have license to say something like, 'Are you insane? Do you know how many balls I am trying to keep in the air right now? I only have so many tentacles!' He didn't have programming for something like that, so it wasn't something he could do automatically, or even easily. He'd have to drop almost everything else he was doing in order to focus on it. "Is it that important?" he asked instead.

"Dr. Ciel thinks it's our best shot."

"Right." Well then. "Give me a minute, and the criteria." He'd need the minute to hand as much as he could off to other people, because right now they were pushing way too many systems to the limit, and if no one was keeping an eye on them? Failure or interception of communications on the battlefield meant friendly fire casualties at best, and communications security, Tech Kraken's actual job was practically the least important thing he was handling right now.

As he said that, Tech Kraken was already relaying orders on dozens of other channels.

Lieutenant Brise had the diplomatic/interrogation skills to calm down Biblio, and taking Hanumachine with her meant the younger reploid could protect her against accidental electrocution. It definitely wouldn't help Biblio's mental state if he accidently fried a human trying to earth a power surge and routing it into his offensive systems instead. That meant she had to find someone capable of keeping a lid on the church, because he didn't have the free calculation capacity or the time right now.

Spotter Commander Rouge's reaction to being placed in charge of all communications in addition to military ops coordination and information analysis summed it up best, really. As a matter of protocol all communications had to be in words, uploaded diagrams or something else a human could understand (if it was put on a screen or printed out, anyway) in case it needed to be relayed to a human (every rephrasing or translation it went through increased the distortion and potential error content of information). However, the two of them were far from the first married couple to develop their own communications shorthand.

If Rouge used that sort of language, she might have said, "Oh fuck me," and not in the fun way, coupled with the absolute certainty that unless there was a damn good reason for doing this to her, someone would be sleeping on the couch tonight. They didn't actually own a couch, but for this, she would damn well buy one just to tie him to it with his own tentacles.

Again, not in the fun way.

None of the Guardians missed the sudden appearance on their passive detection systems of something radiating a lot of energy. Especially when that something was back where Dr. Ciel had been left with Zero's body.

Three out of the four of them had already decided that Fefnir was the one that should withdraw from the fight long enough to investigate when that power source started heading towards them at an almost casual pace. Out of the corners of their eyes they saw a reploid making his way across the rubble unhurriedly, eyes looking downwards as though he was more concerned with not tripping than the battle raging a few dozen meters ahead.

That was so obviously an act that they didn't need Phantom's movement analysis programming to verify that the reploid was adjusting his path very slightly, heading towards Omega even though it seemed as though he wasn't looking at them.

It was Phantom instead of Fefnir who pulled back, leaving the other three to keep Omega too busy to get himself out of the crossfire: no matter how he stood, he was exposing his back to one of them, and without that hair he couldn't try to entangle Leviathan's spear and pull it out of her hands, for example.

Of course, tag-teaming Omega like this wasn't anywhere as much of an advantage as when they'd managed to do this to their Father. X could fight at close range, could fight multiple targets, but it wasn't his specialty and was half at least of Harpuia, Leviathan and Phantom's. If they could corner him, they had the advantage, or at least it would handicap him enough that they didn't feel so much like he was going easy on them so that the fight would last long enough for them to get actual experience with moves other than, 'flying across the room and collapsing into a pile of singed metal ow.'

Still, this was the formation they'd used to fight an opponent who was, at the time, much stronger than they were in so many ways. Omega was far better than X at melee, and unlike X he wasn't holding back for the sake of the newbuilts, but even though they were fighting a harder battle the Guardians weren't newbuilts any longer. Weren't trying to figure out or remember moves they'd never used outside of practice, weren't scrambling to come up with ways to avoid a trick they'd never seen before.

And this wasn't a game anymore. Practice wasn't something X dragged them to even if they didn't want to go: it was something they did every day. Because they knew more lives than their own depended on it, not because X would shoot or beat them hard enough their legs needed to be repaired before they could walk again and then give them a very patient, very long lecture while he was repairing them about how they really did need to take this seriously, just in case, if it was clear they were just screwing around and hadn't worked on whatever he'd assigned them last week.

X had learned from the Zero school of rookie management, after all.

Although at least with Zero there wouldn't have been the lectures.

Right now, fighting Omega felt about as hard as fighting X had been, so long ago. So very like it: Omega had the ability to learn their moves, but X had known all the moves they'd had back then and how to counter them because he'd designed those moves in the first place, and the Guardians had to learn the weaknesses of their techniques so they could handle an enemy who was able to spot them.

Most people would have panicked if they were one mistake away from getting vaporized, but once the war had started, once the training became serious, the Guardians had known that when they fought X they were exactly one mistake away from being taken out of the fight, because that was how real warfare was, and the others had to learn what to do if they lost one of their number, or had to decide whether or not to try to protect an injured comrade, expose themselves to danger to keep the enemy from finishing them off.

How to handle that loss, that decision when they happened? Because X had been certain they would die, one after another, and if the grief had ruined their focus?

They were fighting a far more powerful opponent: been there, done that. They were one mistake away from death? Yes, and the sky was blue.

Dr. Wily couldn't admire their valor, their ability to keep fighting flawlessly when fear would have distracted lesser opponents, made them fight too cautiously or let their minds scramble for a way to survive, distracting them from actual survival. He didn't know enough about what made the difference between a war machine and a hero to notice it.

The Guardians were obviously inferior to Zero, to Omega: he thought that was obvious. When it took three or four of them even to hold back a shell that didn't think, merely reacted? Stripped of Weil's programming, what they called Omega was nothing but an autopilot, a mechanaloid guardian meant to keep someone from destroying Zero's body while he was out of it doing virus things and taking over the world like he should have.

Decades of experience and they could barely manage to stab a guard dog in the back after it had them identified as friendlies: yes, the descendants of Dr. Light's technology were so impressive. As for Harpuia fending off the evil chip? Outdated technology was outdated technology.

Phantom, it seemed, was another Zero, although at least he was failing to do what was right out of attachment for the idiots he considered his family instead of because he was, to put it in words Forte would have used enthusiastically if he'd known them, thinking with the wrong head.

Wily couldn't recognize heroism when he saw it because he'd rarely seen anything else.

So he didn't see any particular significance in one of his old, failed creations wandering up to the fight, even though it should be obvious that Wily was a little busy here. Still, it wasn't as though it was a problem: who knew, Omega might even kill one of the annoying things while Wily was dealing with the brat he'd built Sigma.

Phantom was far more experienced than Lumine, and he was a general while Lumine had had been a construction foreman. Lumine might have had the advantage maneuvering in Zero G, the Guardian thought, but although he was careful to avoid overconfidence he really didn't think the former newgen Maverick leader was much of a threat. Even a cursory check of his energies showed that he was still a Newtype: he hadn't transitioned to the second stage yet if he even knew that was possible.

He hadn't even bothered to form a buster, and while his relatively small feet hinted that he had impressive balance and likely agility for a reploid, Phantom was by far the most agile living reploid, so if Lumine was counting on that for an advantage, or had used it as his one advantage against the Hunters, he was in for quite a surprise.

…Oh, right, Phantom belatedly remembered as his kunai went through Lumine's arm without encountering a bit of resistance, the nanites flowing around the blade. Lumine wasn't a reploid. And the only reason that Phantom had his agility was that he wasn't either.

He was so used to pretending that he was a normal reploid, because newgens were illegal. Because of Lumine himself.

He even thought of himself as a reploid still, because X had called himself a reploid even though he was an android and Zero, well, even if they hadn't been pretending that there wasn't anything odd about Zero he was still a person. He still walked around in a reploid body instead of floating around like an elf or being organic like a human so what did it matter?

Theoretically, Phantom knew, he should be able to control his nanites like that instead of just copying different patterns, taking on different (reploid) forms. That his armor didn't have to act like normal armor.

He just didn't have any idea how to actually make that work. The mechanics of how his nanites actually took on the shape of synthflesh versus armor or any of the other things they mimicked had never been really important, not as long as it kept working, not when there were so many other things to worry about.

Lumine, on the other hand, had built a space elevator. There was probably very little about materials science he didn't know, and what he didn't know, his creator would have.

And that was when Phantom realized that he should have pulled the blow earlier, because his gloved hand had just made contact with Lumine's arm, and newgens were designed as infiltration units.

Not just to infiltrate the hunters, oh no. To infiltrate X and Zero's systems, to analyze them as 21XX scientists couldn't, to disable them the way Phantom had temporarily disabled Omega.

Axl had fought off Lumine's infestation, but he'd spent years fighting off the virus and knew what he was doing. It had still put him in a coma for hours.

Phantom wasn't going to give up, but realistically? He was out of the fight. All he could do was try to distract Lumine enough to keep him from going after any of the others, but he'd dodged Omega, not fought him, and that was all the experience he had with this. And Omega had been a single program: this was a massive infiltration. Closing to melee range with Lumine, or any newtype? That was the reason X had let him train with such short-range weapons in the first place, because his small size and special abilities would make that more dangerous to the enemy than to him! He might have just jumped into a room without pausing to look or think and found the floor was lined with instant death-spikes. One where jumping to cling to a wall or the ceiling wouldn't save him because they were covered too.

"Stay," Phantom heard as his body moved forward against his will, as Lumine wrapped an arm around him, pulling the smaller (not-)reploid against a pale-armored body.

Leviathan was the one to break away from Omega next, shifting her focus from her own body to the water around them, to her own nanites. If they couldn't get within saber range of Lumine without being disabled the way Phantom had disabled Omega, if they couldn't shoot at Lumine without hitting Phantom, then this was a job for her.

As the ice-dragon charged towards him, Lumine smiled.

"Tentacles?" Was Wily's reaction as the dragon was sliced through and the pieces flung aside. "Tentacles? Those should be on the Evil Overlord list, in the same entry as not turning into a snake. They never help." And Wily had lived in Japan, so he'd known better than to ever build a robot master with tentacles. It wasn't as though perverted humans needed encouragement to fantasize about his children.

"Maybe, maybe not," Lumine said as the Guardians began to cast wary eyes at the ground beneath them: if Lumine could send his nanites out under the sand, how far had they spread? Those tentacles had just suddenly thrust up from under the ground. Normally, there would have been a limit to how many nanites Lumine could deploy even if he made his so-called 'real body' paper-thin, but this was a Wilybot: he could have more mass stored in another dimension or something.

It was the tentacles that finally jogged Fefnir's memory and identified this as Lumine: Axl had mentioned that when they fought him he suddenly got really big and grew tentacles, which… Suddenly didn't seem as ridiculous as it had back when Fefnir was a newbuilt.

And damn, Lumine had already gotten one of the only two that could fly, and sending Harpuia up while Leviathan would have to be the one to make Lumine keep his distance? Fefnir had no illusions about how long he would last before becoming scrap metal at that point.

And that was when more tentacles burst up out of the blasted earth… At Omega's feet. Jumping back, Fefnir saw someone in Zan'ei armor teleport in and then out again a moment later, leaving behind some kind of strange box that seemed familiar somehow as Omega's body was caught in glowing, purple-tinted white: some were trying to envelop him, but most of them were aiming for his head…

For the crystal on his forehead.

If they were human, they would have covered their ears as a strange, discordant pitch of frequencies resolved into a scream of frustration as a black cloud emerged from Omega's body. Not quite an elf, but…

That was what the box was! "Aurora!" Fefnir called to her, because even though the cloud was being drawn down towards it Wily was fighting the pull, the tentacles around Omega's body were shredding apart as Omega's nanites destroyed Lumine's. There weren't any other elves in range, and it would take too long to explain what they needed, but Aurora remembered what happened now, right? She'd know what to do?

Weil and Omega terrified the Mother Elf. Wily had pretended to be relatively nice.

And that was why Aurora could leave the shelter of Fefnir's mind, that was why a glowing blue-green orb with purple-black wings could slam him down.

The box closed.

"Well I'll be," Fefnir breathed, stunned as Aurora floated back to him, hovering over and behind his right shoulder.

"Phantom?" Harpuia asked, not putting his swords away yet.

"His personality was destroyed by Omega," Phantom said, staring down at the lump of glowing metal Lumine's body had melted down into with no mind left to keep it in its custom configuration. Lumine hadn't even been trying to avoid the strike. "Theoretically he could reconstitute himself eventually, but I don't think that's likely," he admitted, shock and sadness slipping past his discipline.

Because Phantom had found an audio file in his systems after Lumine left them.

"You. You're the last of our kind. A worthless race passed over by history. I thought we were the future, but we were brushed aside. Evolution is the test of who is worthy, and we lost. I lost. But… there's something Zero said once. That even if reploids were destined to die, to be replaced, he would fight to survive. For his kind to survive." X's kind, X's children. "If you die, there will be nothing left. No evidence any of us were ever here. So don't, don't die." His last words, last request, such sad, empty force in them.

He'd left that message for Phantom, for the son of the prototype Lumine had hated, and then he'd just let Omega kill him, if that was what it took for the remnants of his will to get past the protection program and force Wily out.

Decades studying people, including criminals, including criminals who were trying to go straight, and Phantom still didn't know what to do, or say, or feel. Axl had died to protect everyone, not just Phantom: so that Zero could come back, so Marino and Cinnamon had vengeance. He hadn't wanted Phantom to think Axl was doing it for him, so he didn't feel responsible, and Phantom didn't. But this uncle he had never even met, who had never seen him before either had just… And Phantom was why.

He felt like he should get a chance to complain somehow. Like he should have grabbed Lumine and said, "You're not allowed to do this, not when I didn't even get a chance to know you!" Because who was left who had ever met Lumine, who could tell Phantom more than half-remembered jokes? Who…

Evolution, he'd said.

If Lumine hadn't done something, then Phantom would have died.

Parents weren't supposed to outlive their children. Phantom wasn't Lumine's, but he was all there was left.

The only, precious future of their kind. That had never really mattered to Phantom. His 'kind' was his family.

Axl's son: he was Lumine's family, he realized.

He still didn't like it, but that explained it.

"Fefnir?" Harpuia asked next, since he seemed to know what the hell was going on.

The Red Dragon pointed. "That's a goddamn ghost trap. She built a fucking ghost trap."

Phantom and Leviathan stared at him. Then at the box. Then back up at him.

"Well, I'll be a monkey's uncle," Leviathan said, stabbing her spear into the ground and folding her arms.

"Like the baby elf containment uni-Get it out of here!" Harpuia yelled, diving forward to grab the box and throw it to Phantom as Omega roared.

Before he managed to roll back onto his feet, a white boot came down on his head.

"G-" The swear was cut so short it almost came out as an annoyed tch as Leviathan grabbed her spear out of the ground. "Will you just stay dead already!" she screamed as she charged. Because it had been fun, but the Ice Princess was officially no longer amused.

As I mentioned way back in the ANs of the first chapter, killing their skilled workers and driving the smart people who cared about the state of the world to defect to the enemy or flee the city really wouldn't have helped canon Neo Arcadia's ability to do stuff, like generate power or look after humanity. People aren't as replaceable as machines, even ones who are machines. These people, their skill level, their actions and their dedication matter, as I've tried to demonstrate throughout the fic. "Oh brave new world, that has such people in it!" is the quote from The Tempest, and it's sad how often people forget the second half of that quote, what makes Miranda so impressed by the world outside her little island paradise. The phase 'brave new world' has become simply about progress, forgetting that all progress is made by and depends on people themselves and their actions & choices.