Chapter 0:

The Combatants

ATLAS: Me, the Combatant, and Him, the Hero

The mission had gone better than expected to start with. They'd even gone into this one with something that resembled an actual plan! Calli had been optimistic for once, thinking that maybe -- just maybe -- they wouldn't end this one screaming their heads off and making things up as they went.

Fat chance.

They'd managed to sneak into the compound without getting spotted by any of the security cameras, or walking into a laser grid, or rounding a corner and ending up face to face with a sentinel droid. This incredible achievement was likely only possible, of course, because she had ordered Roy to stay a block away on a neighboring rooftop to provide them covering fire if they needed it, and had thus rendered him incapable of charging in blindly and causing a ruckus. She'd even patiently endured his constant wheedling over the comms every time a security droid walked into his line of fire and he had to exercise a modicum of self-restraint for once in his life.

If they could just do this quietly, it would all be worth it.

They'd made it all the way to the security room before things had started going wrong. The nightwatchman must have heard Athena removing the outside panel of the electronic lock on the door, because the automated cameras in the hallway suddenly changed their search patterns. Calli had cursed under her breath, and, dragging Athena with her, only barely managed to dive back around the corner before the nearest one swept right over where they'd been standing -- and zoomed in on the wires still dangling out of the lock. The nightwatchman came out a few moments later with a gun in his hand, and Roy chimed back in on the comms to helpfully inform everyone that the sentinel droids were sweeping the compound en masse.

Calli stopped him before he could even ask for permission to fire -- mentally thanking her exosuit's designer as she did so for making the inside of her helmet soundproof -- and then set about clubbing the poor nightwatchman over the head the moment he peeked around the corner. She was pretty sure she'd throttled the output on the servos well enough not to kill him... At the very least, his skull didn't look shattered.

Motioning to Athena, she disarmed the unconscious man, then picked him up by the shoulders while her bemused cohort took hold of his legs, and together, they hastily dragged him back inside the security room the moment the camera rotated the other way, shut the door, and waited for the heavy stomping of metallic feet to fade into the distance as the droids continued their sweep. Athena froze the cameras using the nightwatchman's fingerprints to access the controls, then slipped under the desk and started her unique brand of "hacking," a variety of tools and parts appearing out of thin air around her.

Calli exited the room, peering back down the hallway to keep an eye out in case the patrol returned.

"This is command team. Things just got a little dicey, but we're clear. Athena's getting us into the mainframe, and we'll be able to redirect those droids in just a moment, so just hang tight and --"

Her attempt at reassurance was cut off by a torrent of curses from the other end of the line, followed in short order by several muffled crashes from the ground floor, a series of gunshots, the distant rumble of an explosion, and alarm sirens wailing as a plume of fire and smoke rose up from the building opposite her, blocking the neon lights of the city from view behind a roiling curtain of ash and embers.

"The damn brickies found us!" Called one voice, between a continued tirade of profanity.

"I swear I didn't touch anything! It's not my fault this time!" Exclaimed another.

"So... does this mean I can start shooting now?" Roy chimed in all-too-cheerfully.

Calli slapped her gauntleted palm against the scarred faceplate of her helmet and groaned. Looking back through the door to her comrade for reassurance, she found Athena giving a thumbs up and nodding vigorously in front of a thoroughly disassembled databank, with several new attachments hastily wired into ports never meant to be compatible.

"Ready to go here, Captain!" Athena declared confidently. Though Calli couldn't see the young woman's expression through her exosuit's opaque visor, she had no doubt Athena was already grinning from ear to ear. "Once the power cycles, we'll be in!"

"You heard that, right, Stanley?" Calli rapped a knuckle against the side of her helmet, cycling the comms channel once again. "We need to cycle to emergency power to get the mainframe to reset. Think you can take care of that for us?"

"I most certainly can, though I'd suggest you cover your ears and find something to hold onto." Came the reply, as an old, rough voice gave a quiet laugh.

"Make all the noise you want. Thanks to Cas and Pol, the whole neighborhood knows we're here."

"Well, in a moment, the entire city is going to find out."

"Wait a second," Calli asked, concern growing in her voice. "How many charges did you even --"

Her question was answered by a significantly larger explosion, the force of which knocked her flat. Her head slammed against the padded back of her helmet, then the floor, and it took her a moment as she clumsily scrambled back to her feet to realize that her vision wasn't going white from the impact, but from the towering plume of fire that had erupted from the nearby power station, lighting up the horizon like a second sun at midnight. Behind this blinding pillar, the neon lights of the surrounding cityscape had suddenly disappeared -- and the lights of the viewscreens in the control room behind her followed suit, leaving the whole room in pitch darkness.

"About that many," came the delayed reply, once her ears stopped ringing.

"What the hell was that?! Didn't I tell you this was supposed to be a stealth mission? We were supposed to make this look like an accident!" As she regained her bearings, a distant hum reverberated from the floors below, and a moment later, dim red lights kicked back in, and the sirens resumed.

"Fuel explosions are a well-known type of industrial accident; the story is still sound," The old man replied absentmindedly, whistling to himself as he admired his handiwork. "Besides, the boss said we'd get a bonus for damages caused."

"Yes, but --"

"...So that means I definitely can start shooting now, right?!" Cut in another, increasingly annoying voice.

"Captain, please help, they're everywhere!" Screamed a second, increasingly desperate voice.

"Quit your whining! They can't even get through our armor, so -- Augh! Why do they all keep shooting at just me?!" Cursed a third, increasingly angry voice.

Calli facepalmed again, and the last, frayed thread of restraint she had left snapped completely. Yes, it had been naive to hope that maybe -- just maybe -- they wouldn't end this one screaming their heads off and making things up as they went... but, well, that was just what they did best, she supposed.

If you can't beat them... join them.

"Shoot whatever you want, Roy! Cas, Pol, I'm on my way to you, so just... don't get yourselves killed before I get there! Athena, lock yourself in and get those droids disabled, then open the vault doors so we can snatch and grab and get the hell out of here. Stanley... I don't even know. ...You got any bombs left?"

"But of course," The old man replied with a strangely eager tone. Seriously, he was worse than Roy sometimes...

"Great. Then have fun. I don't care what you blow up, just --" An idea occurred to her at that moment, and she stopped short. "Actually, scratch that. I do care. I'm marking targets for you now, so get to that location and start setting up." A three-dimensional grid and a map of the compound flashed up on the display inside her visor, and she flicked her wrist several times, swiping her finger in the empty air in front of her face -- damned false perspective interface, the illusion of depth made it so hard to see what she was actually selecting! -- and tabbing clumsily through the individual rooms until, after only a couple of misclicks, she found what she was looking for.

"Captain, this appears to just be an empty warehouse. We won't get any bonuses for-- "

"Check the floor plan again and you'll understand. If... no, when things escalate, this may be our best way out. Set your charges, then hang tight and cover our escape route." Closing the map, she turned to the window, reached down to her belt, and grasped the hilt of the weapon sheathed there.

"...I see. Then I'll be sure we make a spectacular exit." With that, Stanley signed off, leaving her with just one more pressing matter to attend to.

"I'm glad that you guys are having so much fun with your cryptic conversations and all, but if you could maybe come down here and save us -- that'd be just great!" Cas' angry voice called her attention down to the courtyard below, where she could already see a few dozen vaguely humanoid shapes all swarming around the front entrance, storming through the smoke into the storage complex as quickly as the half-collapsed doorway would allow. Every now and again, a crimson bolt would strike one and drop it to the ground; Roy's work, no doubt, as he proudly boasted over the comms before taking another shot. Annoying though he might have been, his aim really was quite good (for once), but the sheer number of "brickies" encircling her other two squadmates necessitated a more direct approach.

"Roy, pick off the ones in the back and clear me a landing zone. Cas, Pol, get ready to link up. I'm heading over to rendezvous with you."

"Huh? Wait, what do you mean 'landing zone' -- Oi, Calli, you're on the top floor, right?"

"Yeah. And our suits have shock absorbers." With the grind of metal-on-metal, she pulled the sword at her waist from its scabbard. Well, she called it a sword -- the hefty weapon more resembled an oversized metal club wrapped up in serrated teeth than anything else, but the massive "blade" still felt as light as a feather in her armored grasp.

The servomotors of her exosuit whirred as she drew back her arm, raised the blade, and with a one-handed swipe, bashed out the window, the window frame, and a good portion of the wall. Broken glass, bits of concrete, and warped bits of metal all scattered to the winds as she took a step forward, spread her arms wide, and took the fast way down.

There were some things about her job that Calli would probably never get used to. The feeling of being punched through concrete, or the feeling of bending metal with her bare hands, for example. This was sort of like that, too. It was a strange experience, not feeling and barely hearing the wind whipping around her -- her suit muffled all of that.

It almost felt like she was floating, or standing still. And yet, below her, the ground was approaching rapidly. Every bit of common sense that she had left screamed at her that she was going to die, but she'd learned that it was best to disregard such things. So, she put her legs under her, raised her sword over her head, and, with her best attempt at a battle cry, met the ground head on.

Roy laughed. Pol screamed. Cas kept cursing. Athena yelled at everyone to be quiet. Stanley whistled to himself and kept setting charges.

Calli stood up from the impact crater formed by her landing, winding her fingers through a series of rings in the cross guard of her sword as the "brickies" turned around to face her. They were giant, blocky, vaguely human-shaped machines, more a walking mass of armor than anything else. Their eyes lit up, recognizing a target, and the armor on their arms folded back to reveal countless barrels, all pointed straight at her. Several guns all cocked in sequence, and Calli tensed her fingers, yanking down on the cross guard.

The rev of an engine echoed through the courtyard, and the "teeth" of her sword's "blade" began to spin. She braced against the ground, then kicked off. The autocannons fired. Some of them missed, others hit. It didn't matter either way. These things were designed to deter ambitious thieves and below-board corporate mercenaries -- not combatants wearing illegal, experimental exosuits built from lost tech.

Bullets whistled around her, ricocheting off her cold iron shell with a satisfying chorus of "tings" as she dove single-mindedly forward, and plunged her chainsword into the chest of the first sentinel. Its thick armor peeled back in a shower of sparks and a spray of oil as she tugged harder against the cross guard, the engine's rev swelled to a deafening roar, and the blade tore its way out the machine's side. The iron giant crumpled to the ground like a puppet whose strings had been cut, and Calli kept on moving.

The muzzle flashes pulsed like strobe lights, and with each burst of gunfire, she pressed onward, tearing through the wall of iron that stood between her and her allies. From the rooftops above, beams of scarlet light lanced through and through, leaving smoldering holes in the bodies of the security proxies, while explosions and gunfire rang out from inside. Before she knew it, she was at the door, and face to face with two figures holding rifles and clad head to foot in bullet-scarred black armor, peeking out from behind a collapsed staircase as everything suddenly went quiet.

"Was that all of them?" Pol asked sheepishly.

"No, but I've just finished disabling the rest," Athena chimed in. "All security systems are officially under ATLAS control! The vault doors should be opening... aaaaaaany second now."

"About damn time," Cas muttered, shaking his head. "Let's grab what we came for and get the hell out of here before any more trouble shows up."

"About that. I don't want to rain on your parade, but I'm getting some... uh... concerning contacts here," Roy said sheepishly. Roy, who'd been desperate to blow their cover for the last half-hour, was sounding sheepish. Something really was wrong.

"Where? I don't see anything." Calli checked her own sensors, but nothing came up.

"At the front gate. Signature's weak -- barely shows up on radar, but there's some kind of strange energy emission..."

"How many signatures?" Calli asked, though she already knew the answer.

"Just one."

At that exact instant, a new sound rang out across the courtyard. A lone figure in a long coat strode through the open gates of the compound, sidestepping between the fallen bodies of the destroyed sentinel mechs as he took a glowing object out of his pocket.

That sound was music. Really, really annoying music. It was an overly peppy electronic tune, accentuated at seemingly random points with what sounded like the strumming of some kind of stringed instrument. The song was the annoyingly catchy sort of thing you'd hear in a Saturday morning cartoon that you'd hate from the moment you first heard it, but it would still get stuck in your head for days after.

Or rather, upon second thought, it wasn't a cartoon song; it was a damn ad jingle, a realization that became immediately obvious, given the obnoxiously enthusiastic narrator voice that was also coming from the man's belt, reading off cheesy slogans punctuated by stock soundclips of flutes, drums, and shamisen.

"THE PINNACLE OF POWER. PRECISION PERFECTED. THE CUTTING EDGE OF TECHNOLOGY, AND THE LAST WORD IN SECURITY." As the belt's announcer voice continued its spiel, the man struck a pointlessly dramatic pose and froze in place for several seconds, as if he was waiting for a suitably dramatic gust of wind to cause the tails of his coat to billow out around him. Unfortunately, the wind was coming from behind where he was standing, so the overly-long garment ended up just trying to wrap itself around his head.

"So..." Cas asked, grinding his teeth. "...Is anyone going to save us some trouble and just shoot him before he finishes whatever the hell this is supposed to be?"

"Roy?" Calli asked. He had the best vantage point, and his long rifle was better suited to the range. But, far from his usual gusto, Roy seemed strangely disinclined to comply, for reasons that became immediately obvious.

"I mean... I could, but like... he's not a droid. That's... you know... Can't you guys do something?"

"Okay, fine, coward. Lemme show you how it's done!" Cas raised his weapon and lined up his shot, then held down the trigger and let his weapon spray a shower of bullets across the courtyard, which... collided with the air around the posing man and fizzled into motes of golden dust.

"He's got shields. Of course he's got shields. I don't know why I even try."

Across the courtyard, the man started laughing. He was almost out of earshot, so Calli couldn't really make out what he was saying, but she was pretty sure she heard the words "evildoers," "useless," and "surrender," none of which sounded anything like "transform" or an indication that he was planning on taking them seriously. So, while the man continued striking a variety of increasingly stupid-looking poses, none of which could get his coat to billow in quite the way he wanted it to, she sighed, then reached over to where Pol was standing frozen next to her.

"Pol, go grab the payload, would you? In the meantime, I'm borrowing this," She said, and then yanked a grenade off his belt, pushed down on the detonator, and haphazardly lobbed it across the courtyard. As it rolled to a stop at the man's feet, he looked down, eyes widening in momentary horror, then gave an astonishingly shrill shriek that sounded a lot like "transform," and hastily jammed the glowing trinket in his hand into his comically large belt.

As the grenade went off with an earthshaking kaboom and the middle of the courtyard became a nice, smoking crater, Cas looked at her with something approaching respect, and Pol gawked with something approaching terror. She shooed him off towards the now-opening doors of the vault, then turned back to appreciate the smoldering remnants of her handiwork.

"Damn, Captain," Cas said. "That's cold."

She shrugged. It wasn't like it would work anyway. Blowing him up might relieve stress, but there was no way things would end that easily. Sure enough, a humanoid shape was already walking implacably out of the fire, no doubt trying desperately to make up for his abysmal failure of an entrance.

The worst part was that he actually did look genuinely intimidating.

"MUSASHI ENFORCEMENT, LLC.," The belt announced helpfully, in a booming voice that overpowered the crackling flames. Its voice was then joined by another -- no doubt the man inside the armor, eager to announce himself.


Well, since he'd been so kind as to introduce himself, company policy (unfortunately) mandated that she respond in kind. Calli stepped forward, shouldering her oversized chainblade as the hero standing across from her drew his own sword -- a long, curved, eastern-style weapon longer than she was tall. Beside her, Cas leveled his rifle, and across the street, Roy finally seemed to be overcoming his initial trepidation now that there was a real fight on their hands, and was lining up his shot. She flicked on her suit's open microphone, raised her sword high over her head, and spoke a simple phrase straight from the employee handbook.

"We've held up your world long enough. Now, we of ATLAS shall bring it crashing down! By Lord Sigma's will!"

"By Lord Sigma's will!" Echoed Cas and Roy.

Calli clenched her fingers. Her sword revved up with a mighty roar. The hero leveled his own blade. They sized each other up, and then--

The next thing she knew, she was flying through the air, then through the upstairs window, then halfway into a concrete wall. As the combatant lay inside a perfectly Calli-shaped crater waiting for the world to stop spinning, she looked up at the sky and wondered...

"...Why the hell did I ever take this job...?"