Chapter 2:

A Fateful Encounter

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

Calli awakened to find several notifications on her PT, and a long day of work ahead of her.

Ever since she'd moved to the upper city, she had (unwillingly) become a regular for the Pleione Employment Agency's services, in no small part because they had a reputation for taking all comers regardless of birthplace or background. Even a silver-haired outsider like herself was more than welcome to show up to their work drives; so long as they got enough hands for whatever job needed doing, and nobody committed any crimes while they were on the clock, their staffers didn't mind.

Argus, Pleione's shift manager, had always been kind to her as well. Maybe the formidable man had friends or family from the Substrata, but he'd never seemed particularly bothered by her pallor -- or by anything else, really.

She remembered the first time she'd joined one of their recruitment drives. Two other volunteers had quit the moment she was assigned to their group, and so Argus had stepped in and taken their part of the workload himself. He was a taciturn man of powerful stature and middling years, and quite perceptive -- whenever she was running herself ragged, he always seemed to notice and tell her off for it. In that respect, he felt sort of like an overprotective uncle.

She didn't mind, though. It was nice knowing that at least somebody was on her side.

He'd worked with her on more jobs after that, usually whenever one of the other temp staffers tried to start anything with her. Whether it was an uncomfortable attempt at flirtation, coworkers trying to push their responsibilities onto her, or someone talking down to her because of her hair, Argus always seemed to show up whenever she needed him. Then they'd work together in silence, and, when the day was done, he'd send her off with his usual "stern" warnings.

"Since you're a regular, I included a little bonus for you -- so don't let any of the others see your paycheck," he'd say. A mischievous grin would appear for a fraction of a second beneath his thick beard, and there'd be a little twinkle in his eye, and then he'd wave her off with his usual brusqueness as if nothing had happened. It was blatant charity, a fact which stung her high pride. But even so, she couldn't find it in herself to be mad, and accepted it without complaint.

After a while, Calli supposed, the others must have noticed that she was one of his favorites. People stopped picking fights or trying to pick her up, and generally just left her alone. That suited her just fine. She was there to work, after all -- not to make friends or, heaven forbid, find a date.

As if anybody in the upper city would seriously date her of all people. It was fine to dream such things, but actually getting her hopes up would only be a fast track to seeing them dashed.

At any rate, whenever her latest round of job applications fell through, she'd always end up right back where she started. This time had been no different. She'd sent a request in to see if they were looking for anyone, and sure enough, Argus had responded within the hour, giving her a place and a time to meet up for their latest contract. "I'll save you a spot," the message had said -- a bit of courtesy she had appreciated, but...

When you put it like that, it feels like I'm going to be doing this for the rest of my life.

If only that was the greatest of her worries right now. As she scrolled past Argus' message, she noted that there were also several more unread messages from a very familiar sender -- none of which she could bear to answer truthfully.

The questions had started out simple -- "How's the job hunt going?" "Are you enjoying the upper city?" Her responses at the time had been... normal enough, she thought. She'd dodged saying anything about her situation, and instead focused on whatever good things she could find to talk about -- interesting places, good food, and that sort of thing.

Then the questions grew more and more roundabout, and all the more difficult to read the further down she scrolled, as her own responses grew shorter and less frequent. Before she knew it, the entire thread had turned into a one-sided wall of things like "Are you eating properly?", then "Is anyone harassing you?", and finally just "Are you OK?" Then the questions stopped entirely, and that morning she had received a request instead.

"Please call back as soon as possible. We're all worried about you."

She couldn't bear to tell the truth, but, faced with that, she couldn't just say nothing, either. Before she knew it, she was imagining how her brothers must have looked crowding around the PT, demanding to know if she'd said anything. How their faces must have fallen every time they were told that their big sister hadn't sent so much as a single word for weeks.

But what could she say? That she'd already exhausted her life savings chasing a pipe dream? That nobody wanted anything to do with her, and the best she could manage was temp work that wasn't even enough to keep her water running? That at this rate, even if her landlord was her guardian's close friend, she'd be out on the streets within a month? That she had squandered the opportunity that the woman she looked up to as a mother had worked so hard to give her?

How could she ever go back if she told them? How could she live with herself if they knew?

But she had to say something. To say nothing would only make it seem as though she'd forgotten the ones who were her reason for doing all of this in the first place. It would only hurt them, and that was the last thing she wanted. She'd figure something out that evening, and find a way to break it to them... or find a way to cover it all up; she would decide which when she couldn't put deciding off any longer. So, before she could stop herself, she'd typed just a few short words in reply, hit the button, and then closed her PT and rushed out the door.

"Busy today. Will call tomorrow."

- - -

Temporary gigs were the only form of work a Stratan like her could easily do in the upper city without quickly becoming an eyesore. Whether it was cleanup around a Neuron research compound, helping an Orbital factory manager run a quarterly equipment check, doing warehouse inventory for an Alterra exec, or miscellaneous busywork setting up decorations to prepare for a Horizon-sponsored formal event, Pleione would get her the gig, and she'd do it without complaint.

So it was that Calli found herself doing everywhere the jobs which no self-respecting full-time employee wouldn't try delegating to a droid instead -- as if that would even work. Most of the service machines in NOAH had been reverse-engineered from whatever military and industrial models happened to survive the war; while they served just fine for heavy lifting, they were almost universally clumsy, clunky, and generally ill-suited for such delicate tasks as, say, gardening.

Calli sighed, pulling down the wide brim of her straw hat a little further with a gloved hand, and a sore arm that had already gone from its usual pale white to an almost unrecognizable shade of red. It seemed that even with her Metahuman powers to help her, she couldn't overcome her natural aversion to sunlight after spending more than half of her life in its complete absence.

Not that Calli was complaining, mind you -- she was lucky enough just to be able to keep cool in this weather, when at least three of her coworkers had already trudged off into the shade complaining of heat stroke. Although, only one of them had really seemed convincing about it; she was fairly sure the other two were just trying to push their part of the job off on her and jumped at the first convenient excuse they found to do so.

Well, maybe that was just her persecution complex at work, though. Today was sweltering even by the usual standards for summer in NOAH. Even if the heat didn't get to her, the humidity that swept in across the shoreline was such that she practically felt like she was swimming in the very air she breathed. Whenever the wind blew, it carried with it not only the distant sound of waves crashing against the metal embankments, but also a fine mist of spray and vapor that condensed onto everything it touched.

This was the downside of working close to home. Wiping her brow and standing up, she felt an uncomfortable twinge run up her legs, and gave a quiet grunt of annoyance. After crouching in one place for so long, her feet had both gone to sleep. Sighing, Calli turned her attention away from the half-weeded flowerbed in front of her and began to pace awkwardly in no particular direction, trying to get some feeling back into her legs.

As she walked, she stared out across the vast garden through which she had meticulously worked her way over the past several hours. Her gaze wandered over the gaudy fountain, with its oversized statue of the company founder -- his stony suit perfectly creased for all eternity, and a photogenic smile forever frozen on his face -- before at last settling upon the colossal edifice that loomed over it all.

Orbital's headquarters, the Sky Canopy Tower, built upon the foundations of a now-defunct pre-war space elevator, was the centerpiece of the megacorporation's private district along the western side of the island. It wasn't just close to the shoreline, however; it was actually only a few blocks from Calli's own apartment. She supposed it made sense in a way. Those blocks, after all, contained almost nothing but apartments, no doubt meant to house the countless workers needed to staff such a uselessly gigantic building.

True to its name, the Sky Canopy had at least provided her with ample shade through the first half of the day, before the sun had at last circumvented it as it now began its descent towards the horizon. The tower split into multiple "branches" partway up, with several skywalks and struts crossing over to neighboring buildings, before finally culminating in a vast observation deck, spreading outward like the boughs of a great tree that overlooked the entire district.

This wasn't even to mention the extensive network of basements and sub-levels that surely must have extended unseen beneath her feet. With all the amenities contained therein, and the sheer scale of the compound, an employee could probably live at their workstation for weeks without ever having to leave the building. Hell, some of them probably did.

But such a scale was only to be expected of one of the Four Great Enterprises that had built NOAH itself. That an outsider like her could so much as prune the hedges of its garden was nothing short of miraculous. Though, given that responsibility had fallen solely to her, she couldn't exactly bring herself to feel particularly grateful. Dwelling on her failure just reminded her that she'd have to find a way to break the news to her family when she got home, and before she knew it, she was right back to--

Before she could get swept up in her negative thoughts, however, she walked into something -- or rather, into someone. Her gaze up at the tower had suddenly been obstructed, and in the next moment she found herself sitting awkwardly on the ground, nursing a scraped knee and a bruised pride. The good news was that the feeling was back in her legs again; the bad news was that the feeling in question was pain.

"Oi! Watch where you're going, lady--?" The way his voice trailed off at the end sounded almost more like a question than a command. Raising her gaze, she realized that her straw hat must have fallen off when she fell over, because she could see the face of the man she'd bumped into clearly -- and he, in turn, was looking straight at her hair.

"...Sorry. I was distracted," She answered quietly, calmly picking up her hat and quickly putting it back on. She lowered her head slightly so the brim would cover her face, blocking out the man's somewhat unpleasant stare. That, and because if she hadn't, she was pretty sure she'd have started staring right back.

Though he looked to be of eastern descent, his slicked-back hair was dyed a shade of blonde far too vibrant to be natural, and his eyes were bright red -- colored contacts, maybe? He wore a finely tailored crimson suit, but he'd removed the jacket on account of the heat and had draped it over his shoulders like a cape. His necktie had also been completely undone and was hanging pointlessly around his neck, along with the top two buttons of his dress shirt, revealing the faintest hints of a muscled chest underneath.

Basically, he looked like a frivolous playboy. Who was he, she wondered? Maybe the prodigal son of a board member? Surely a normal employee wouldn't be allowed the freedom to look so improper...

"Oi, you didn't try to pick my pocket just now, did you?!"

Oh, right, and he was also pissed as hell. There was also that.

The flashy man set about rigorously going through all of his pockets, taking out keys, a wallet, his PT, a pen, and a other assorted bits of miscellany to make sure everything was still there. ...What was that glowing keychain thing anyway? It seemed important, since the moment he realized she was looking at it, he shoved it back into his pocket with a huff.

"Of course not," Calli sighed. "As I said before, I just wasn't paying attention, and for that I apologize." She lowered her head in a slight, awkward attempt at a bow, but when all she got in return was another glare, she decided that her manners were wasted on this conversation. So, she continued in the same innocent tone, hiding her smirk beneath the brim of her hat.

"Oh. My mistake. That must have been a joke! After all, if you really thought I was trying to rob you, you'd never go out of your way to let me see exactly which pocket your wallet is in. That would just be stupid, right?"

"Why you--" The man's eyebrow twitched at this, and Calli figured this was probably around the time she'd get evicted from the premises, blacklisted for her insolence, and told never to return -- but before he could answer, another voice cut in.

"Knock it off, Kouji. She just happened to bump into you -- that's all."

Calli blinked, raising her head once again. Had there been someone else there? Sure enough, another young man had walked up while she'd been preoccupied by the one in front of her. Evidently he'd seen their little collision, and was... actually vouching for her?

"So you finally showed up, Genesis? Tch. Whatever," the blonde, Kouji gave an unconcerned shrug, only for the suit jacket precariously perched upon his shoulders to begin slipping off as a sudden breeze swept through, forcing him to scramble to recover it. He clearly wanted to return it to its former position, but evidently felt that would look too silly, as he fidgeted with the garment indecisively and then at last awkwardly draped it over one arm. "What took you so long, anyway? We've got work to do."

"Sorry to keep you waiting. I left my -- uh, something important at my desk and had to run back to get it."

"Seriously?! There's a limit to being careless, you know!"

The new arrival seemed younger than his more colorful colleague, and a bit more sensible-looking too. He wore a very plain black suit with a red tie, neatly buttoned up despite the summer heat, and his wild reddish-brown hair had evidently been tamed to the best of his ability, since she could recognize something that could almost be called a part in the middle of the mess atop his head.

He was only a bit taller than her, and had a generally youthful sort of face that made it difficult to guess his exact age. At a glance, she'd have guessed he was younger than her, though it was hard to say for sure. Given how uncomfortable he looked in a suit, she didn't think he could be too far out of his late teens, so at the very least he probably wasn't older.  A new hire, then? She tried not to feel too jealous -- an effort which was made much easier by the hand he extended towards her, which in turn reminded her that she was still sitting awkwardly on the ground.

"Are you alright, miss?" He asked, gazing down at her with bright blue eyes full of concern. She nodded, and took his hand, only to wince slightly as her knee gave another painful twinge in protest. The young man seemed to notice immediately, and moved forward with surprising quickness to support her in case she fell. "Ah. Sorry about that! You hurt your leg, didn't you?" He apologized hastily.

The gesture of trying to catch her quickly proved meaningless, and she released his hand and disentangled herself as soon as she was back on her feet. She appreciated the effort, but that didn't mean she wanted to spend even a single second in close proximity to a stranger if she didn't have to. She didn't think he seemed particularly dangerous or anything, it was just... old habits died hard, and all that.

"Hey, don't worry about it," She said quickly, giving a slight smile to show she was alright. "I only scraped my knee a bit, and it's my own fault anyway. I should have been paying more attention to where I was going." She kicked up her foot and shook her leg slightly by way of demonstration, ignoring the continued pain from her knee as she did so. The young man seemed unconvinced, but he didn't look like he was about to stop her either. So, before his more rude and overbearing colleague could suspect or yell at her any more, Calli decided that it would be best if she made a quick exit.

"Then, if you'll excuse me, I need to get back to work."

"Do as you please," said the blonde, dismissive as ever.

"Ah, right. Of course. Uh... be careful, then, I guess." The younger man said awkwardly -- as if she planned to walk into any other random strangers on her way back to where she'd left off.

But Calli just bowed, adjusted her hat atop her head, and then turned to go, their conversation fading into the background noise behind her.

"So, Kouji, where were we?"

"Like I said, I'm your senior, so shouldn't you be a little more respectful?"

"My most humble apologies, milord."

"Not that formal, idiot! Sheesh... how did someone like you even get this job?"

"I wonder that myself."

In hindsight, this random encounter was far more important to her future than she possibly could have guessed at the time, and later, thinking back, she'd try to remember what her first impression of the young man she'd met that day had been.

Perhaps what struck her had been his lack of prejudice, how he'd been willing to speak up for a Stratan like her without a second thought? Or maybe it had been his kindness, how he hadn't hesitated to reach out and help someone who might have been hurt? It even could have been his looks -- the brilliance of his blue eyes, the warmth of his hand, or something similarly corny -- though she didn't think of herself as being that easy or that shallow.

But no matter how she might later try to convince herself that she had achieved some deep and profound understanding of the young man's character from their chance meeting in the garden that day, what she had actually been thinking at the time as she walked away was just one, simple question.

I know I'm hardly one to talk... but who even names their kid "Genesis," anyway?