Chapter 3:


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

Doing her best to stop thinking about the pain in her knee, Calli returned her focus to the task at hand. She trudged back to where she'd left off, knelt down, and resumed her work, scowling out of the corner of her eye at the trio still lounging around in the shade. There were still dozens more garden beds to go over, and, as usual, nobody seemed particularly inclined to help at all. Doing all of this by herself was going to be a real pain...

Or so she thought, anyway, until a burly arm and a gloved hand reached down beside her and silently uprooted a small clump of weeds. She glanced up, noting that a new shadow had cast itself over her -- not that of the Sky Canopy, but that of a figure significantly closer to earth.

"Working alone again, hm?" The older man's voice wasn't judgmental, merely observant. Calli gave a wry smile, sifting through the dirt with her trowel to flatten out the gaps they'd left behind, wordlessly adjusting to her colleague's pace.

"I guess," She answered noncommittally. "It's not like it was by choice. Things just happened to end up this way."

Argus didn't so much as blink, but she could already see the familiar twinkle in his eye. "That seems to 'just happen' to you a lot."

"Maybe so. Not much I can do about that, at any rate." Calli returned her attention to her work, and Argus frowned.

"I assume things didn't go well for you this time, either."

Calli's eyebrow twitched slightly at the reminder of how miserable her last week had been, but she nodded, however reluctantly. "Tell me about it," She sighed. "I tried everywhere between here and the Horizon Strand, and all I got to show for it is about a dozen more letters of rejection. At this rate, I'm going to be weeding gardens for corporate bigwigs until I'm old and..." She brushed back a few strands of her pale hair and gave a halfhearted laugh which slowly sank into a sigh. "Gray."

"Did they say that was their reason, then?" Argus asked, raising an eyebrow.

"Some, yeah. Others just gave the usual cryptic bullshit about 'not being a fit for their company.' It's all the same, in the end." She sighed again, then shook her head. "Sorry. I guess I'm just being sort of a downer today. I know I shouldn't let it get to me, but it's just... frustrating, y'know?"

"...I think anyone would be frustrated in that sort of situation." Argus was being a little weirder than usual today. Even though he did usually take her side, normally, he'd steer away from having this sort of conversation to begin with. Now, in his own quiet way, it almost seemed like he was angry on her behalf.

"Being frustrated won't get me a job, though. So, since doesn't make a difference either way, I guess I'd rather just ignore it and move on." She gave a decisive tug on another patch of weeds and tossed them into her garbage sack, but when she looked back up, Argus was staring at her with a grim expression.

"...What if I told you that I know someone who hires people like you? Those who, through no fault of their own, have no place in NOAH?" He asked suddenly.

"Where's this coming from? If you knew such a convenient person, then... I dunno, I guess I'd jump for joy, maybe say a prayer?" Calli frowned, trying to read the inscrutable man, but Argus merely shook his head, his face as impassive as ever. Frustrated and just a little bit spooked, she tried a different tack, and spoke more seriously.

"If you do know somebody who'd hire me, then by all means, introduce me. In fact, I've half a mind to ask why you didn't tell me sooner."

Argus was quiet for a moment, seeming to regret raising this topic at all. "Because it is not the sort of job I would like to see you do," he said at last. "You are diligent. Punctual. I have never had any complaints about the quality of your work. Someone like you deserves better. This sort of thing is... best left as a last resort."

"...This isn't a brothel or something, is it? I may be desperate, but --"

"What?!" That was probably the first time she'd ever heard Argus raise his voice. "Of course not! The job I speak of is for a good cause -- of that you can be assured."

"Sorry," She apologized, shaking her head. Obviously he'd be insulted if he thought she suspected he had... those kinds of connections.

"Do not apologize. You are right to be suspicious," he sighed. "It is for a good cause, but... it is also very difficult, and very dangerous." For someone who usually never hesitated to speak his mind, hearing him dance around the issue like this was seriously unnerving. If Argus of all people said something was "dangerous," that wasn't a warning to be taken lightly. Whatever this "job" was, it was something he couldn't discuss openly, and was probably the sort of work she'd moved to the upper city to get away from.

Normally, she wouldn't even consider such a thing. But as she sat there, trying to make sense of this unexpected offer, she couldn't help but think back to the messages left on her terminal that morning. She couldn't keep living like this. She couldn't keep letting everything she'd worked so hard for go to waste. She couldn't let her family down. She had already resolved herself to do whatever it took to repay the one who had given her everything, and to give her brothers a better life. And if that meant dirtying her hands again... well, as far as anyone in the upper city concerned, she was already filthy to begin with.

"Y'know, I was born and raised in Strata 19, right? I was really lucky to have a home, and someone to take care of me in a place like that. But... for a while, I did my fair share of dangerous and difficult things, too." She gave another wry grin, and Argus' face twisted into an expression too complicated to decipher.

Looking back upon this moment, Calli would eventually come to realize that it was probably the face of a man who knew he'd succeeded at his job, but felt no joy in the accomplishment. If she had answered him differently, perhaps he -- no, perhaps both of them would have been happier for it. But she did not realize it; and so, she continued.

"I'm not proud of it," She said. "And there are still some things too dangerous even for me. But, if you're the one saying it's for a good cause... I guess it couldn't hurt to at least check it out, right?" Argus was a good man. He was on her side. He wouldn't ask her to do anything that would make her unable to face her family again.

To this, Argus merely nodded, and then resumed his work in silence. Not a word was spoken between them for the rest of the afternoon, and when he sent her home with her payment in the evening, it was not with his usual mirth, or his usual warning. All he said was...

"We meet tonight in the unused dockyard behind Pier 7. Do not bring your PT with you, and above all else, come alone."

- - -

By the time Calli had made it back to her apartment, the sun was already setting. She'd only had enough time to take a quick, cold shower, change into some clothes that didn't reek of fertilizer, and mentally prepare herself for her... "job interview."

The racing of her heartbeat didn't subside as she took to the streets once again. The neon lights of the towering skyscrapers shone down upon her, the full moon paling beside their radiance. Skycars flitted overhead, their thrumming engines drowning out the commercial jingles playing from the billboards and viewscreens that lined the road, upon which were proudly displayed the visages of countless corporate heroes and heroines. Their muffled voices recited a thousand different scripts that all blended into a perfectly unintelligible chorus of promotional jargon and favorable adjectives.

The street below was hardly quieter. Men and women in costume stood outside the various bars and boutiques along the footpath, calling out to any passers-by to promote their wares -- not that it even mattered. Whichever restaurant you went to, you'd get to eat Horizon-grown food prepared by Horizon-trained chefs, promoted by Horizon brand ambassador "heroes" wearing fancy dress costumes made by Horizon designers and fashionistas -- the same as anywhere else that mattered in NOAH.

But among all these proud visages, all wrapped up in their majestic armored shells, the living symbols of peace, justice, law and order... There was one woman on her way to commit a crime not even she herself knew. Calli was long since used to the stares she got from passers-by... or at least, she should have been. And yet, their gazes felt all the more piercing now, as did the unseen eyes of the heroes displayed all around her. It was as if they could see right through her.

As if they were right about what she was.

Here, looking out from a flashing signpost stood the B-lister Ganryu, up and coming rookie of Musashi Securities, said to be next in line for a promotion to Alterra Corporation's main hero roster... if only he could ever upstage Go-Rin. Opposite him, standing confidently on a billboard with his arms smugly folded was the Black Knight Valkaiser, the proud and undefeated face of Neuron's hero corps.

And, of course, towering over them all, her holographic image projected as a virtual statue in all its three-dimensional glory was the one and only greatest hero in NOAH's history: Polaris, the Silver Star.

Orbital's old flagship heroine, Polaris' likeness still adorned practically every single piece of merchandise endorsed or sold in the company's district even now, almost a decade after her retirement. And, of course, she had also been Calli's personal idol as a child. She could still remember vividly all the TV appearances and cartoon reruns she'd watched starry-eyed (no pun intended) alongside her siblings, all of them crowding around the PT and cheering with delight whenever Polaris appeared to save the day.

It took a special kind of resolve to keep walking with the feeling of that very same idol's faceless gaze on her back, and Calli herself was surprised to discover that she had it in her. Was she really that angry? All her efforts so far had been for nothing, true... but once you set foot into the underworld, you couldn't just turn and go back. She knew that. She'd seen it time and time again back in Strata 19.

But she kept walking. After all, if she didn't do something, nothing would change. If she was going to fail regardless, she'd rather burn out giving her utmost than just quietly disappear.

And so, before she knew it, she found herself standing at the half-open wire gate of a darkened dockyard, peering into the blackness ahead of her and trying to make out if there really was anyone hiding there. As she pushed the gate back and stepped through, its hinges gave a long, low creak that seemed almost deafeningly loud in the silence that followed, as though it was trying to remind her of something she already knew, but had willfully forgotten.

Once you set foot into the underworld, you can never go back.

She took a deep breath. In the distance, the waves crashed, and the wind whistled between the long lines of empty shipping containers. She kept walking, peering around each and every corner in search of...

There. Three figures were gathered underneath a large crane, their silhouettes painted in stark relief by the moonlight. Calli tentatively approached, squinting to try to make them out.

They seemed to notice her as well, and all of them tensed for a moment, their gazes snapping up with the speed only a guilty conscience can muster. She raised her hands in a show of non-hostility, and the trio's postures relaxed. It seemed her appearance was working to her advantage for once -- a crook wouldn't suspect a Stratan of being anything other than a comrade in arms.

Or... well, rather, it seemed like they really were comrades, in that sense. The first figure she could clearly make out as he stepped out from under the shadow of the crane was almost immediately recognizable as a Stratan himself. His platinum blonde hair was only slightly less pale than her own, and his white skin looked positively ghostly under the moonlight.

He looked young -- maybe 16 at most -- but his cocky grin and confident posture would have made him seem like a hardened criminal despite his youth... if only he hadn't flinched more sharply than anyone else present when he had first heard her footsteps.

"Well look who we have here. Guess there were more of us trying to get a spot under the sky after all!" He said, trying his best to sound sarcastic and unperturbed... while also clearly breathing a sigh of relief. "So who are you supposed to be? I'm assuming Argus invited you, too?"

"You shouldn't just say the name of the ringleader when you're doing something bad, you know." A stern and unexpectedly posh voice spoke up from behind the boy, as a tall and rather dandy looking older gentleman strode out into the open beside him. His hair was white, too, but clearly not in the same way that theirs was; his wrinkles and rather formidable mustache were enough to tell her that much immediately.

"You're just as bad as him, though, Stanley, since you've gone and confirmed it," A sly female voice cut in a moment later. Shaking her head and shrugging her shoulders in an exaggerated show of resignation, a striking young lady emerged beside the elderly man, playfully sweeping back a few locks of her vibrant red hair.

"Ah. Indeed, it would seem that I have, La-- Ehem. Miss Athena."

"...And now you've gone and introduced me too, I see."

The boy, evidently feeling left out, quickly jumped back into the conversation without a hint of his earlier caution. "I'm Roy! How about you?"

"...Just call me Calli. Like you figured, Argus invited me," She replied tersely. This felt... strangely more like a normal job interview than she had expected? Rather than hardened crooks, these people seemed surprisingly open and friendly. It was as if they were all sitting in some corporate hallway, just waiting to be called in, go through the same tired list of questions, and head home again -- and not standing in a dockyard at night waiting to make some shady deal.

Well, then again, "normal" definitely wasn't the right word. For one thing, she hadn't expected to encounter what looked to be some manner of high class lady and her poorly-disguised butler -- let alone to see such unusual faces standing side by side with a Stratan.

Seriously, Argus, what the hell kind of "job" is this?

Short of a supervillain appearing and inviting them to join in his plans for world domination, Calli didn't think anything could surprise her anymore.


A creepy laugh suddenly echoed over the dockyard, and the conversation of those standing below the crane was put on hold as they all looked up at once to locate the source of the sound.

There, atop the crane's extended arm, with the full moon at his back, a man stood with his arms spread wide, gazing down at them. A sharp gust of wind blew over the dockyard, and the plumes adorning his all-concealing black armor began to emit a menacing crimson glow from countless eye-shaped sigils that fanned out behind him like the tail of a peacock.

...Eh? One actually appeared?!

While Calli was still gawking in disbelief, the man clapped his hands together with delight.

"I'm so glad all of you could make it," He said, his polite voice oozing with excitement. "Without further ado, let us begin!"

Giving another bombastic evil laugh, he leaped from the crane, flipping head over heels as those strange plumes entwined together and wrapped his body completely, and he descended to the ground with a mighty crash, performing a perfect three-point landing right in their midst.

Seemingly unfazed by the fact that he'd just dropped several stories, he casually rose to his feet, dusted himself off, and then spread his arms once more as if nothing at all had happened. He easily towered over all of them, but, more specifically... wasn't he just about the same height as --

"I bid you welcome, friends. I believe everyone here has introduced themselves, so it is only proper that I do the same! I am Panoptes, the All-Seeing. I come before you now on behalf of--"

Unable to contain her disbelief any longer, Calli couldn't help but ask the question that all of them were surely thinking. Who wouldn't ask, if they suddenly started hearing that voice which had always been so calm, so measured, reciting a villainous monologue with childlike glee?!

"...Argus, what the fuck?"