Chapter 4:

The Other Side

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

Countless glowing red eyes stared back at Calli as, once again, silence fell over the dockyard. The armored man crossed his arms in a manner that bespoke frustration, tapping his gauntleted knuckle against a plated cheek and breathing a long, irritable sigh.

"You could have at least waited for me to finish, you know."

His voice was once again perfectly calm, with just the slightest hint of slyness -- completely unlike his bombastic demeanor moments prior. The eye-encrusted plumes fluffed out indignantly, then retracted with a snap like the closing of a paper fan, while the mask-like visor of his helmet retracted to either side, revealing -- sure enough -- a black beard and a familiar face.

"Really," Argus sighed, his voice no longer distorted by his suit's respirator filter. "I put so much effort into my welcoming routine... I wonder why everyone always cuts me off?"

"I can think of several reasons," Calli retorted, crossing her arms. "But if I had to settle for just one, I think I'd go with 'disbelief.'"

"What's so hard to believe?" Argus questioned, gesturing innocently to himself. "That I'm what the Four Great Enterprises would call a supervillain?"

"You work at a temp agency! Why would you be a supervillain!? Also how!?"

Argus wagged his finger and shushed her with a small smile. "Well, now that you mention it, I wouldn't exactly call myself a supervillain, either. I'm more of a... freedom fighter."

"You... I... What?" Calli stammered, trying to find adequate words to convey her absolute bewilderment. "You mean to tell me that you're some kind of anti-corporate vigilante?"

"That's a decent enough way of putting it, I suppose."

"You mean you didn't even tell her, boss?" Roy chimed in, raising an eyebrow.

"No. I never got the chance to," Argus shook his head, before turning back to the young woman who was still gawking at him. "I only decided to induct her into our little group today," he explained.

"...Just what sort of 'job' are you trying to get me to do here?" Calli asked, her voice torn between lingering disbelief and growing concern.

"A little late to be worried about that, no? You knew you were getting into something illegal, and yet you still showed up here. I do not think it presumptuous to assume that means you're at least somewhat interested, right?" Argus folded his arms and stared her down, and for the first time, Calli realized how intimidating the man could be when he was actually emoting for once. Nevertheless...

"I... Maybe? To be honest I'm still trying to process all of this. I thought this would be something normal like... I don't know, smuggling contraband, or robbing people on the side while doing our usual temp work."

"I believe I told you our work would be for a good cause," Argus said pointedly. "We're not here to stuff our own pockets. We're here to fix this city from the ground up."

"By doing what, exactly? Burning it down?"

"If we must," Argus replied without hesitation, staring down at her with a look of absolute, deadly seriousness. There was something unnerving about those eyes -- no, rather, that whole expression she'd once found comforting now looked wholly alien. Before she knew it, her gaze had fallen to the pavement beneath her feet.

"...How long?" She asked quietly.


"How long have you been doing this for?"

"Since long before we ever met."

"So, when you reached out to me..." Calli gritted her teeth, and her golden eyes shot up once again, glaring daggers at the towering man of whom she should have probably been afraid. But right now, what she was feeling... it wasn't confusion or betrayal, and it sure as hell wasn't fear.

"It was all just because you thought I'd listen to your recruiting pitch...?" She hissed. "Let me guess, it's the hair, isn't it? You knew from the start I'd never fit in, so you pretended to be sympathetic and then just waited for me to give up, gave me a little push, and I --!" Calli suddenly remembered that there were others watching, and stopped before she made even more of a fool of herself, her clenched fists slowly loosening as her arms went slack at her sides. When she spoke again, it was in a hushed voice.

"...I played right into your hands, didn't I?"

"...More or less," Argus answered quietly. His expression had softened at some point, and the way he was looking at her now was almost... sad? "I did approach you originally because I thought you could be turned to our purposes. That... wasn't my only reason, however." He placed a hand on her shoulder in what was probably meant to be a gesture of reassurance, but the steel of his gauntlet only felt cold.

"ATLAS, the organization I serve, was founded by a Stratan like yourself," He explained. "Someone who saw the injustices inflicted upon those unfortunate enough not to be born here, in the upper city. Someone who wants to set things right." He smiled at her, and for a moment, he almost seemed to be the protective uncle she'd always seen him as before. "When that is what I'm fighting for, how could I ignore someone doing her best to struggle against that very system in her own way? I wanted to see you succeed. I still do." He gave her shoulder a gentle pat, then released his hand... and the visor of his helmet snapped back into place, hiding his expression from view behind a mask of steel.

"But regardless of my personal feelings," He continued, his projected voice taking on a harsh, metallic distortion as he shook his head and turned away. "I still have a mission to spread the word of ATLAS to everyone who will hear it."

He spread his arms wide, and those eye-encrusted plumes of his fanned out around him once more, seeming to stare her down even though he himself was looking the opposite way. "To that end, I have assembled not only you, but many others like you; so that something might at last be done about the things which none among us can change on our own. You have tried playing by their rules, and they've scorned you in return, time and time again. But there are many ways to survive in this world, and playing lapdog for the Four Great Enterprises is only one of them."

Concluding his impromptu speech, he turned back towards her, and reached out his hand again, this time not to console her, but rather as an invitation.

"So, then... why not join us, and see what life can be like on the other side?"

Calli stared, a hard choice before her and a hard life behind her. She had been certain she could trust Argus -- certain he was on her side. But now, she wasn't so sure. Perhaps he really did have her best interests at heart, or perhaps he was just an extremist and an opportunist looking to take advantage of her. He talked a good line about helping the downtrodden, and he had definitely looked out for her in the past... but there was no way she'd just jump on board with his cause just because of that.

"...If I were to say yes, what's in it for me?" She asked at last. Argus lowered his outstretched hand. Behind his mask, she couldn't tell if he was surprised by or disappointed in her question, but he answered it all the same.

"In exchange for your services as a combatant, ATLAS will provide you with everything you need to serve our ends: weapons, armor, and equipment to suit your skills. Additionally, you will be compensated generously for all the risks you must undertake, with a regular salary starting at three times your current hourly wage at Pleione, along with substantial bonus incentives offered as hazard pay."

That... wasn't bad, she supposed. Her final earnings would obviously depend heavily on what sort of hours she could actually work for this shady organization, but assuming it was roughly comparable to what she was working now, with that kind of money she'd probably be able to pay her bills at the very least. Even so, she was far from satisfied.

"What sort of risks are we talking about here? You said I'd be a 'combatant,' so I guess that means you want me to get all dolled up in a fancy exosuit like yours and fight the enemies of your little resistance movement?"


It wasn't... entirely out of her area of expertise. Though she'd never used an exosuit before, she'd worn something similar in the past. And as far as fighting went, she'd say she was pretty good at it. Even so...

"Supposing I do that, how big are the risks, really -- and how substantial are the bonuses involved?"

"If worst comes to worst, know that you may... no, you will be required to fight professional heroes. As such, should you complete your missions despite their interference, your rewards for doing so would be equal to half a year's wages, paid up front."

"Half a year... and that's assuming full-time employment?"


If that was the case, then doing just a few such "missions" would be enough to elevate her earnings from "not bad" to "too good to be true." Which begged the question... how could they afford to offer this kind of thing to all their soldiers?

They obviously weren't penniless, of course. That exosuit Argus was wearing definitely wasn't made using publicly available tech. Whatever this "ATLAS" organization really was, they clearly were backed by someone wealthy. But were they really wealthy enough to offer those kinds of bonuses to just anyone? Or was this all just as big of a scam as it seemed?

"What guarantee do I have that you'll actually pay up when the time comes?" She asked skeptically.

"Do you have any idea how hard it is to find help that can stand up to a hero for more than a few seconds? If you can pull that off, of course we'd pay you," Argus scoffed. "Besides, assuming you join us, what guarantee do we have that you won't try to sell us out for the reward money?"

"You think anyone would believe me if I tried?" Calli asked, unable to hide her disbelief at the question. Argus gave a quiet chuckle, and shook his head.

"No, I suppose not. Regardless, you will have to trust me at least that much -- just as I will have to trust you not to betray us. Is that satisfactory?" He asked. She mulled over the prospect in her head, then nodded at last. Basically, what he was saying was that she had an out. She wouldn't be some easily-disposable peon who could be used once and then cut off empty-handed if she could just go to the authorities and provide anonymous tips on her employers in retaliation -- so long as said authorities didn't know she was a Stratan, anyway.

Even without worrying about that, though, the job would be dangerous. But she had decided that, against her better judgment, she still trusted Argus at least enough to hand her a paycheck. And right now, more than anything, she needed the money. She couldn't afford to hesitate and let this chance slip by. If it meant the difference between returning home triumphant or coming crawling back to her family penniless and empty-handed, she could easily fight a hero or two.

Or rather, Argus had never said she actually had to fight the heroes at all! She just had to survive and work around them, which couldn't be that hard when they were all holding back trying to look good for the media anyway... right?

So, as Argus offered his hand again, Calli smirked, and took it.

"Alright, then, Argus. What would you have your new combatant do?"

"Aren't you forgetting some people here, lady?" The voice that cut in from her left reminded her all of a sudden that Roy, Athena, and Stanley had all been listening, patiently waiting for their own turns to negotiate terms. "Of course, it goes without saying that I'm in -- and not just for the damn money," Roy continued, shooting a scowl out of the corner of his eye at her. "Somebody's gotta knock these topsiders down a peg so that the rest of us can rise up. Might as well be me!"

His eagerness... wasn't really surprising, nor was his apparent contempt for her after what he'd just seen. For someone who truly believed in the cause Argus was spouting, her own motives must have seemed disgustingly mercenary. What was surprising, though, was that Athena and Stanley both also quietly agreed in short order, despite their apparent high standing. Were they that invested in the cause, too, or was there some other reason for their willingness to risk themselves even after all they'd heard?

It wasn't any of her business, regardless. Their meeting soon adjourned as Argus -- or rather, Panoptes, as he stubbornly insisted -- handed them each a small brooch-like device of some kind, and told them to await further instructions. Before she knew it, she was trudging the neon-bathed path back to her apartment, her heart heavy as she walked once more beneath the hollow eyes of countless superheroic effigies -- her new enemies.

A lot had happened, none of which she had expected. Yet, much to her surprise, only a little bit of what she felt was guilt. Actually, she almost felt... excited? After spending so long scrambling to make ends meet, the threat of having no stable income seemed far greater to her than the unknown dangers she might face as a combatant. If she could do well for herself, she could pay off all her bills. No, more than that, she could finally send some money home to her family!

Every challenge she had faced would finally be given meaning. Every obstacle she overcame would go towards paving her little brothers' ways towards a brighter future. Finally, she would be on track to realizing her dreams. Finally, the worries that had hung over her head all day began to dissipate. Finally... she wouldn't have to lie anymore.

"Miss Aurora? Yeah, it's me. Mm. I'm really sorry it took me so long to call you back. Things have been... rough. Yeah. I'm doing okay now, though. Yeah. I promise. It looks like I'm not going to be able to come home for a little while longer, but... No, it's alright. See..."

"...I think I've finally managed to land myself a job."