Chapter 5:

Per Aspera Ad Astra

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

As he stepped into the elevator, a certain young man took a moment to catch his breath. The doors sealed shut with a snap-hiss, and a quiet whir filled the chamber as the floor began to ascend beneath him.

It was strange, then, that rather than feeling like he was rising, Genesis Rhodes could feel his stomach sinking, held down by an unseen weight far heavier than the load of salvage he'd been tasked with handling yesterday when the accident occurred.

After over a century at the bottom of the ocean, lost tech had a well-deserved reputation for instability. But usually, by the time it finished passing through Alterra's salvagers and Orbital's reclamation division on its way to the R&D labs, it had been confirmed to be safe -- or at the very least, the damned thermionic cells had been removed so nothing accidentally powered up, discharged, or exploded.

It wasn't his fault that someone had skipped that very important step. He'd been lucky to hear the sound before the detonation occurred. Because of that, he'd been able to get himself and his work crew to safety. Really, they should have been thanking him that the company's finances were the only thing that had suffered a loss. Were it not for his... unusual good fortune, they'd have been burying a half-dozen employees.

Yes. Genesis had been very lucky, indeed. And precisely because of that luck, now he was going to be the one saddled with explaining things not just to his supervisor, or to the board, but to the company president of Orbital himself.

Before he knew it, he found himself staring down his reflection in the chrome-coated side of the elevator. The last time he'd worn a suit had been for his job interview half a year ago; just re-learning how to fasten his tie properly had almost made him miss his shuttle. Even now, it was still a little lopsided. He gave it an angry tug to try to get the ends to line up, but only ended up garroting himself with the accursed thing.

His hair wasn't quite parted straight, either. Not that it ever was, but still. He was about to meet face to face with one of the four most important people in all of NOAH, and here was was looking like an unqualified amateur who'd barely managed to step into his clothes; which, really, he was, but if he could fool him into thinking that he wasn't, then maybe the illustrious president of Orbital would be a little less inclined to sack him for letting such valuable technology go up in smoke.

The chrome coating on the side of the elevator gave way to a transparent alloy, through which he could see the vast promenade leading up to the Sky Canopy's main entrance about a hundred floors below him -- a mess of highways for landlocked vehicles, landing platforms for skycars, elevated rail lines for transit shuttles and cargo trams, and walkways for foot traffic all carefully winding outward around the sides of the mindbogglingly vast building so as to leave the view of the front garden unobstructed, even from above.

It was a sea of countless colors, all blending together like a patchwork quilt that stood starkly apart from the dreary metal and concrete jungle around it -- a landscape which in turn shrank away until all one could see along the horizon was an endless line of blue, periodically dotted with the tiny, skeletal shapes of what had once been skyscrapers. Their once-proud peaks had long since sunk and crumbled, and now only barely managed to protrude above the surface of the ocean like the bones of some vast, dead thing, around which the gulls circled and cried a mourning dirge for the world-that-was.

From this high up, overlooking such a bleak view, one could only feel either like an ant or a god. If Genesis had to choose one, he'd go with the former. The man waiting for him on the other side, however, was clearly of the opposite disposition -- at least, if his preferences in interior decorating were anything to go by.

The elevator smoothly coasted to a stop and the doors slid back with a quiet hiss, and Genesis stepped out into a sparkling corridor. Beds of exotic flowers lined the walkway up to the observation deck proper, overflowing with blooming vines that crept out from their confines and up the walls, coiling around the gilded bodies of a whole phalanx of statues. The sculpted knights stood eternally at attention along either side of the passage, their upraised spears inlaid at the tips with vaporous lights that cast a warm golden glow all along the red-carpeted ramp.

Just one of these faux-antique sculptures probably was worth more than all the contents of his bank account and every organ in his body combined, and he walked between them with all the trepidation of a particularly well-trained bull in a particularly expensive china shop, afraid to so much as touch anything around him when he probably couldn't even conceive of the number of zeroes attached to its price tag.

Then he reached the observation deck itself, and that fear was replaced by sheer awe. The view before his eyes was beyond anything he'd ever thought possible. It was like he'd stepped out of NOAH entirely, and into a picture of the Golden Age.

The floor was made of lustrous black marble, and the walls paneled with rich mahogany, above which shone luminous crystal chandeliers hung at intervals from a ceiling engraved with countless constellations, all bedecked with gilding. At the very center of the chamber, the company's logo -- a figure of a planet haloed with an orbital ring -- was embossed upon the marble in gold leaf, along with a Latin motto inscribed below.

"Per Aspera Ad Astra" -- Through hardship, to the stars.

Just beyond this point, the floor gave way to a solid sheet of reinforced glass, as did the ceiling and the opposite wall. Before this open vista stood a lone figure, silhouetted against the sun, which had only just begun to crest the tops of the buildings below, burning a brilliant gold arc across the horizon.

Genesis couldn't help but avert his gaze. The sun's intensity, blotted though it was by the singular man who stood haloed before it, was far too much for his eyes to bear. The man at the window, however, continued staring directly into that blinding light without so much as a hint of discomfort.

Genesis cleared his throat, and the man slowly turned to face the entrance. Compared to the brilliant corona behind him, his whole body seemed like a singular mass of shadow -- but even so, Genesis could make out his golden pupils glowing as the augmetics beneath them adjusted themselves for normal light levels.

The smile on his face, too, seemed painfully artificial. His teeth were far too white, too evenly-spaced to be natural. As he stepped away from the window and out of the sun's glare, his titanic stature, perfectly symmetrical face, immaculate coiffure of ink-black hair, and unblemished, alabaster-like skin made it almost look as though one of the sculptures had come alive and traded its armor and helmet for flowing white silken robes and a golden laurel crown.

"Ah, do pardon me. I had not heard you enter," The imperious man said, his words oozing from his mouth with a cadence as smooth as silk, in a tone as low as thunder. Indeed, his voice was modulated so well that you almost couldn't tell it wasn't human anymore.

"Uh, no, that's alright. I only just arrived." Genesis was too preoccupied with the uncanny figure addressing him to think of a better answer. He had heard that Orbital's president was a connoisseur of the Golden Age and its culture, and of course it went without saying that a man of his means would be able to afford all the augmetics and enhancement treatments NOAH's medical sciences could offer... but nothing could have prepared him for the Olympian being who now stood before him. Rather than a company president, this man had the appearance and presence of an emperor.

"Nevertheless, you shall not find me lacking as a host. Please, make yourself comfortable." He snapped his fingers, and an imperceptible seam opened up in the flooring beside them, two plush chairs rising up from a hidden compartment below. Genesis eyed the seat uneasily, and decided it would be best to wait before taking it -- at least until his "host" had done the same.

Seeming to notice his hesitation, the pale giant adjusted his robes calmly, sweeping his massive form down into the comparatively tiny seat with such practiced poise that the motion somehow looked graceful despite the almost comic disparity in his proportions. Genesis, still not sure if a plebeian like him was allowed to touch anything, awkwardly scooted into his own chair a moment later.

"I do believe introductions are unnecessary, but it would be far ruder not to introduce myself, since we are meeting for the first time. I am Ozymandias Astrophel, second President of Orbital Industries." His name was even more extravagant than his appearance. It was the kind of self-introduction that felt a bit like being beaten over the head, and the man clearly knew as much, as he continued without missing a beat. "Of course, that is quite a mouthful, and I prefer to go by Oz anyway, so feel free not to stand on ceremony. And you are...?"

He had said introductions were unnecessary, but the way he trailed off made it fairly clear that Oz hadn't bothered to remember the name of the peon he'd called to account for his mistakes. As such, seeing his cue, the young man immediately followed suit -- making sure not to take him up on his obviously insincere offer to speak casually in the process.

"Genesis Rhodes, sir. I'm a shift supervisor with one of Orbital's subsidiaries, Stargazer Laboratories. Specifically, I work in the research and development wing."

"Right, of course," Oz rejoined smoothly. "And tell me, Mr. Rhodes, what does your job entail?"

"By and large, sir, my work involves storing and cataloging samples, as well as overseeing the transfer of salvaged materials into the laboratory for analysis." It was a textbook answer to a meaningless question. Oz already knew what he did for a living, otherwise he'd never have been called here.

"So yesterday was a typical day at work for you?" Right to the point, then.

"Up until the accident happened, yes."

"And could you describe the events leading up to that accident in detail?"

Genesis raised an eyebrow at this. Surely he already had read the reports, right? Did he doubt what had been written? Or was he trying to catch Genesis specifically in a lie?

"There's not much to say, sir. We got the shipment from reclamations in the early morning, and it sat in the bay for a few hours because all the loaders were busy over in another wing. The loaders finally got there around noon and were about to start moving the salvage container when I heard, uh, a humming noise from inside the crate. I had just enough time to get everyone away from it before the whole thing blew." His gaze wandered slightly as he spoke, and he had to force himself to keep looking into the probing golden eyes of the man-machine seated across from him. But he'd rehearsed his story, and no amount of nervousness was going to make him flub it now.

"Was anyone injured when the blast went off?"

"No, sir. The droids were next to the container when it exploded, so they took most of the shrapnel."

"Given the scale of the damage to the facility, that's almost a miracle, wouldn't you say?" Genesis winced, but reluctantly nodded. He just hoped Oz wasn't trying to pin the responsibility for all that damage on him.

"I suppose so, yes."

Silence. Genesis naively hoped that this would be over soon; Oz's next statement dashed those expectations.

"You know, it is quite interesting that you report hearing a sound before the detonation."

"...What do you mean?"

"You see, we've spoken to everyone else on your work crew, and the strangest thing about this whole incident is that not one of them reported hearing anything." Never mind. This wasn't going where he thought it was at all, and now, he almost wished he was just being used as a scapegoat.

"Well, maybe I was just the only one close enough to hear it," He tried. Oz just smiled at this, and then gave a leisurely wave to an unseen sensor. A transparent viewscreen projected itself from the ceiling, displayed upon which Genesis could see a security camera feed paused at a specific moment -- a moment in which five shapes were all gathered around a large container, and a sixth was frozen mid-step running away from it, yelling something back over his shoulder.

"It looks to me like all of them were much closer to the container than you ever were, Mr. Rhodes." Oz's smile widened, and his eerie golden eyes gleamed.

"Well, uh... maybe they thought the sound was coming from the droids, or just didn't notice it?" Another flimsy excuse, but it was better than nothing -- better than letting the truth slip. Oz didn't even bother addressing this one, however. He just kept going, as though everything was following a script he'd known from the very start.

"I've checked your file, and according to your medical records, you don't possess any Metahuman abilities or augmetics that could expand your hearing range enough to notice sounds others couldn't hear." He swiped his finger lazily in the air, and the image from the camera feed was swiftly replaced by the documents in question. Indeed, there were no Metahuman powers listed therein.

"What's more, the security systems did not register any sort of energy surge prior to the moment of the detonation. If a salvaged device had overloaded, the facility's scanners should have been able to detect it. But, as they didn't, then how, I wonder, would it have made a sound?"

"I... I don't know." Genesis stammered. His voice suddenly refused to come out.

"You are aware that lying concerning a matter of public safety, or concerning a matter involving damages to private property exceeding a minimum valuation of one thousand credits is punishable by immediate termination of your contract, as well as possible fines, asset forfeiture, and imprisonment. Correct?"

This can't be happening. Not like this...!

"...Yes, sir."

"And wouldn't you say that this matter fits both of those categories, having endangered the lives of yourself and five coworkers, as well as causing significant damage to Stargazer Laboratories' assets and facilities?" He lazily rested his chin upon his palm, gazing down at the cornered young man before him with a sneer of cold command well worthy of his namesake.

"I... I suppose it would, yes."

Damn it, not like this!

It was over. He'd been figured out. If they knew the truth about him, then --

"Mr. Rhodes, are you also aware that yesterday's 'accident' is currently under investigation by Orbital's private security concern as an act of sabotage by the terrorist group known as ATLAS?"

"I... What?" Genesis blinked. Had he not realized the truth after all? But... wait, no, this was even worse! If the explosion had been caused by someone on the inside tampering with the salvage, and he was being suspected... forget termination of contract, the only termination he'd be facing was a firing squad!

"No, of course I--" Genesis began to say, opening his mouth to provide some excuse, defend himself any way he could think up, and was about to jump to his feet, when suddenly, the sinking feeling in his stomach became a scream in the back of his head.


His eyes went wide and he froze, forgetting to so much as breathe, let alone speak, as all of his instincts screamed at him to stay put. At that very instant, his "luck" was warning him exactly as it had on the previous day, in a way he had only felt twice before.


His body remained perfectly still, but his eyes darted frantically around the room, searching for the source of the danger -- but there was nothing to be seen. Where? Where would it come from? Was it the man sitting across from him? Or was this entire room dangerous? Or maybe, was it...

Oz sneered triumphantly, and at that moment, Genesis finally spotted the glowing red dot on his own chest, and traced it back out the window, towards a single glimmering pinprick atop one of the neighboring "branches" of the Sky Canopy. He stared at the president in shock and horror, and the inhuman man gave a jovial laugh. Oz had seen the whole thing -- seen how Genesis reacted even before noticing the sniper's presence -- which meant...

He knows.

"Hah! Even a miracle seems positively boring once you've figured out the trick," Oz chuckled, shaking his head. "Rest assured, Mr. Rhodes -- I know now that you're no saboteur, and I will do everything in my power to clear these blatantly false accusations against you. It would be a shame, after all, to lose such a valuable asset."

"...What do you want from me?" Genesis asked through gritted teeth. "I wasn't using my power for anything illegal."

"Oh, but that won't matter to the Security Commission. The laws on people like you are quite uncompromising, I'm afraid. And can you really blame us? After learning such hard lessons during the Ascension Wars -- after seeing what your kind can do -- why, it's a matter of public safety to keep you contained."

"Why?! The only thing I did was save the lives of my team! What's so wrong about that!?"

"It doesn't matter what you did, my dear boy; all that matters is how you did it. There are certain untraceable powers that pose far too great a threat to be left unchecked. Powers that allow unauthorized access to information, or to technology. The power to read or influence the thoughts of those around you. And, of course... the power to see the future, my Esper-Type little friend," Oz drawled out the words with all the finality of a judge reading a death sentence. The president rose to his feet and clapped his hands, and the red dot on Genesis' chest vanished, taking with it the certainty of his impending death. The weight in his stomach remained, however, as the towering man sneered down at him.

"How will you prove it?" Genesis clenched his fists around the armrests of his chair, wishing he could sink into the floor along with it. "If you're going to lock me up and throw away the key, you'll at least need some evidence."

Oz merely smiled, and a voice -- his own voice -- suddenly filled the room.

"I wasn't using my power for anything illegal."

"--wasn't using my power--"

"--my power---"

He's been recording this whole conversation.

Genesis gawked, and realized with dawning horror that he maybe should have chosen his words more carefully -- or, failing that, skipped this appointment, burned down his apartment, changed his name, and started a new life in the Substrata.

Even for a precognitive like him, hindsight was 20/20.

"...Just... shoot me and get it over with, would you?"

"Now, now," Oz chided. "I believe I already told you that I have no intention of losing such a valuable asset, didn't I? I assure you, I don't want to let this go public any more than you do... provided you do me a little favor in return, that is."

Genesis blinked. So he wasn't being executed or imprisoned for life yet... just blackmailed by one of the most powerful people in the entirety of NOAH. Great. His prospects just kept getting better.

"...What is it you even want? Because I'll warn you right now, if my power was as convenient as you seem to think it is, I'd have called in sick this morning."

"Allow me to answer your question with another question." The towering man turned, and snapped his fingers one final time. A hydraulic lock was released, and the floor next to them folded back once again. From within a hidden capsule, a humanoid figure emerged in a spray of fog -- no, not a person, but rather a resplendent suit of almost comically ornate silver and blue armor.

Wait. Was that...?


"How would you like to be a hero, Mr. Rhodes?"