Chapter 7:

In the Court of the Crimson King

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

The message from Argus had been short. Simple. Too simple. No, actually, it told Calli everything she needed to know while explaining absolutely nothing.

"Find somewhere private, away from the city. Avoid places with security systems or any kind of monitoring equipment. Standby there until noon, then activate your badge."

Easier said than done. "Away from the city" was already a tall order, given that the entire surface of NOAH was covered by sprawling metropolis that extended right up to the shoreline. Having to avoid security fixtures too only made things even more difficult.

Surveillance droids performed constant patrols and sweeps throughout the city, and stationary cameras were mounted in every hallway, every storefront, and every intersection. Moreover, there were also less obvious pieces of monitoring equipment to worry about.

Scans for anomalous energy readings were commonplace, in addition to even more specific search methods that detected things like alien biological matter, to root out those who illegally experimented with Kaijuu cells. Those tended to misfire and catch innocent Mutant-Types more often than actual mad scientists, though.

Not even her own D-Ranked powers, weak though they might have been, were beneath notice. Within a day of moving in, her apartment door had been broken down by an Orbital District Security team, and her entire room had been searched, "just in case." She'd even had to submit to a blood test on the spot to prove she wasn't a Kaijin infiltrator.

That... misunderstanding had thankfully been resolved quickly, but regardless, the experience was more than enough to assure her that whatever her badge did, it wasn't something she should risk having anywhere near her apartment -- not unless she wanted District Security on her in a heartbeat.

But there was one place she knew of that fit the criteria of "away from the city," at least.

The Arboretum was like a scene from another world. Even the promenade in front of the Sky Canopy Tower couldn't compare. Stepping out of the concrete jungle into a lush green realm, one could almost picture how the earth surely must have looked before the flood.

The wind blew. The towering trees rocked gently to and fro, emerald boughs creaking and leaves rustling. If she went a little further, there was a courtyard where street performers and food trucks would gather around a large fountain, and children would play in the cool water.

But Calli hadn't come here to sightsee. She turned aside, skirting the ring of trees around the center of the park before turning along a footpath that grew progressively more and more bare, until at last she reached a dead end -- a small clearing amidst the trees, which even the gardeners seemed to have forgotten about. The flowers lining the walkway had long since spilled out of their beds and into the grass of the meadow, turning their colorful faces upward to greet the sunlight that filtered down through the tangle of branches overhead.

The constant roar of engines and city noise was so far away that she could even hear the birds singing. The first time she'd come here, fresh out of the Substrata, it hadn't even occurred to her that such creatures existed -- let alone that they'd make such odd sounds.

But soon, the song above her head gave way to fluttering wings, and Calli watched as a small, tawny-colored form vanished into the brilliant blue of the summer sky. The sun was almost directly overhead now. It was almost time.

Looking back the way she came, she couldn't see or hear anyone else, but just to be sure, she surmounted an overgrown hedge and dropped down behind the trunk of a large oak, into a little hollow carved out at the base of its roots, where she snugly tucked herself out of sight. The faint sound of a distant chime announced the time, and she flipped a switch on the back of her badge.

The logo flashed to life, hidden circuitry pulsing and shimmering beneath the ornate emblem emblazoned on the surface. It looked like an ascending pyramid of skyscrapers, beneath which was displayed an inverted cityscape. The name ATLAS was prominently displayed at the center, and holding it all up was a pair of blocky... hands? Not very subtle, were they?

The logo flashed once, then twice, then went dim, leaving her to wonder what would happen next. Perhaps they'd contact her and provide further instructions for reaching their secret hideout? Or maybe they'd just give her her mission now, without risking making contact in person just yet? Would she have to prove herself first, or--?

As it turned out, what happened next was none of those things.

What happened next was that her badge flashed, then everything around her suddenly seemed to bend and stretch farther and farther away. Calli felt like she was falling into a deep, dark hole... and then suddenly she was sitting on a cold, hard floor in a near-lightless room. In the distance, she could hear supports creaking and metal yawning, and the distant sound of a whale crying -- a song far more familiar to her than that of the birds she'd left behind her on the surface. In other words...

This is... the Substrata? But how? Did I get drugged just now and dragged here? Or was that --

"HOLY CRAP!" An excited young woman's voice exclaimed from right next to her ear. "Was that a warp tunnel?!"

...Yeah, that was going to be her second guess. Also ow. Calli hadn't realized the other girl -- Athena, wasn't it? -- could be so loud when she was excited.

"I dunno. What's a warp tunnel, anyway?" chimed in a second voice that was desperately trying to sound unfazed -- an effort that was completely undercut by the way its owner was already looking frantically around in the darkness with barely-masked paranoia. Calli sighed.

"It's lost tech that opens a hole from one place to another," She answered the question which hadn't been directed at her in the first place, standing up and dusting herself of what bits of grass and dirt had managed to tag along for the ride. "I think there used to be a whole network of the things linked up down here. I didn't expect our employers would have the budget to fix one, though -- let alone the know-how to make it portable."

...Why'd he jump like that?

"Huh? Who's there?!" Oh. That was why.

Oi, shouldn't a Stratan be a little more aware of his surroundings? Even the old man noticed me, you know?

Roy must have been from one of the higher levels, she supposed. It was easy to stay blind in the dark when you lived in a district where the lights actually had the decency to stay on. She was used to it, though. The darkness reminded her of home.

That was probably why she could have made things out well enough without even using her powers to realize that the four of them weren't alone.

"Who do you think?" She answered pointedly. "We met just last night, and I don't think I sound anything like Argus."

"Oh. You." The disappointment in his voice was palpable when he finally recognized her. It seemed her money-grubbing first impression had been worse than she thought.

Nevertheless, she merely shrugged, and then shot a glance over her shoulder into the darkness behind them. "Ah. Sorry. I forgot. It's supposed to be 'Panoptes' while we're at work, right?"

Sure enough, that got a response -- a very bright, glowy response. Countless crimson eyes all blazed to life upon the plumes of a tall, armored form -- How long was he waiting to make his entrance, anyway? -- standing attentively at the foot of what she could now see as some kind of... throne? Rather, the metal plates of the wall looked to have been warped and bent outward, as though grasped by a giant hand and twisted into the crude shape of a chair.

Atop this seat was a figure clad head to foot in scarlet armor. It was sleek and smooth, with scales of black metal reinforcing the joints, and golden brocade adorning the regal, fur-collared cloak that was draped over the whole ensemble. His horned helmet was crested with an ornamental cross upon its brow, and from behind its ink-black faceplate, the armor's wearer stared back at them through gleaming crimson eyes.

"Indeed," Panoptes answered coldly, his voice sounding metallic and hollow underneath his visor. "You would do well to remember that, Combatants." His curtness caught her by surprise. After that big entrance, she'd been sure he'd start acting like a giggling supervillain again, but here he was, right back to his usual self... Was he just trying to act professional in front of his boss?

"Uh... that's nice and all, but where even are we? I'm still a little lost here." Calli wasn't sure whether she'd describe Roy's attitude as too meek or too bold, as he inserted himself back into the conversation with absolutely no regard for the tense air of the room.

"This, boy, is Atlantis -- the birthplace of tomorrow, and the seat of our revolution." The armored tyrant's voice was quieter than she had expected. His words were grandiose and his tone commanding, but at the same time, the best word she could use to describe the manner in which he spoke would be "methodical." He admonished Roy, but he didn't seem angry -- it was merely a matter of course.

"I... uh... see." He obviously didn't see, either figuratively or literally, but either way he was cowed into silence by the sheer weight of the crimson king's words.

"Then you are the leader of ATLAS, I presume?" Athena cut to the chase and asked what all of them were thinking.

"You presume correctly, young lady. I am indeed the founder of Secret Society ATLAS, and the enemy of the Four Great Enterprises. Though I have answered to many names since first I donned this mask... the name under which I appear before you all today is Sigma Oct."

...It seemed like making bombastic self-introductions was just a matter of course around here. Of all the stupid things the cartoons could have gotten right about supervillains, it just had to be the melodrama. The crazy costumes, the overly-flowery manner of speaking, the weird themed codenames...

Wait a minute. Actually...

Panoptes, ATLAS... even Pleione, and now Atlantis... All the names she had heard so far were of a set. They all referred to the mythology of the ancient Greeks, an old world civilization that predated even the Golden Age.

She was particularly familiar with those specific myths, since it was them to which she owed the misfortune of her ridiculous name. But although she was pretty sure "Sigma" was a letter taken from their language, the name "Sigma Oct" didn't seem to refer to any particular mythological figure she knew of. Of all the people to be an odd one out, it struck her as strange that the leader wouldn't match his subordinates...

Regardless, there were more important things to worry about at the moment.

"Alright, then, Sigma..." No, wait. If she was a minion and he was her boss, she should probably try to read the room and behave accordingly, which meant... Darn, how did obsequious cartoon underlings talk again?

"Ehem," She cleared her throat, correcting herself mid-sentence. "Lord Sigma?"

"'Lord' will suffice," The villain nodded coolly, as if it was the most natural thing in the world.

I wish I had that kind of confidence.

"Right, then. Lord Sigma -- you called us here because you had a task for us, right? I don't mean to get ahead of myself, but I'd like to know what we're getting into -- particularly considering how many of us have already assembled."

"How many of who--?" Roy began to ask, only to be cut off by the sounds of booted feet upon the iron floor, as dozens of figures all clad in the same featureless black bodygloves and armor-plated exosuits emerged from all corners of the room, all marching lock-step into formation around the new arrivals. He practically jumped out of his skin, only to look equal parts embarrassed and betrayed a moment later when he realized he'd been the only one not to notice already.

"Your curiosity is understandable." Sigma slowly rose from his throne, swiping his cape back over his shoulder and spreading his arms to the assembled mass of villains. "Since all the players are now present, I will happily oblige you, and raise the curtain on today's operation." He began striding down from the elevated dais as he spoke.

"We are about to launch a raid to either steal or destroy a new weapon intended by Orbital to be used against us. Its nature I cannot say, but I promise you that it will either serve our cause, or it will serve no one." That sounded pretty important, Calli mused -- far too important to be entrusted to a band of new recruits. Which meant it wasn't her problem... right?

"However," Sigma continued. "Although we have the means to carry out such an operation... I'm afraid that doing so will require much of the manpower currently at our disposal. That is why I enlisted the help of my trusted assistant, with whom you are doubtless already acquainted." He stopped beside Panoptes, lightly tapping an armored knuckle against his comrade's shoulder. "I tasked him with scouting additional Combatants who could perform a supporting role in our little production. While we prepare for the main event, they will divert the eyes of the local heroes... elsewhere."

A diversion, then. That would probably be an easier job than raiding some kind of secret lab...

It was going to be easier, right?

He stopped directly in front of them as he concluded his explanation, and Calli only then realized then that they were positioned right at the center of the assembly. It wasn't just Sigma -- the armored figures surrounded them on all sides, those blank visors all staring inward.

Some were giant and brawny -- Mutant-Types, more likely than not. Others were so lean and slight of stature that they looked positively minuscule by comparison, and Calli couldn't help but wonder what use they could possibly have as soldiers... unless they, too, were Metahumans? Transformation-Types, maybe? Or could they even be Emitters? Kinetic-Types were so rare that they were probably out of the question... though, she supposed an evil organization like this might be the one place in NOAH you could run into an Esper-Type.

...Everyone was still staring at them. Calli felt a lump forming in her throat, as she was once again reminded of the fact that she, a completely -- or, well, a mostly ordinary person, was currently surrounded by armed and armored villains.

No. Wait. As of now... I'm a villain too, right? Then in that case...

"Ah. Right. I guess you were expecting us to introduce ourselves." Calli forced on a confident smirk, and broke the awkward silence with her head held high. She'd learned from experience that the best ways not to get robbed were to look either too poor to be worth the trouble, or too strong to risk messing with. Maybe the same was true of fitting into an evil secret society? So, since looking weak and pathetic was out of the question...

She took a deep breath and stepped forward, jabbing a thumb assertively towards herself and projecting her voice so the whole room could hear. "The name's Calli! As you can see, I'm a Stratan like... well, most of you, probably." She eyed her fellow Mutant-Types in particular as she spoke, and gave a nod of acknowledgment. "I'm technically a Mutant-Type Metahuman, but as you can imagine from my boring appearance, my ability's pretty crappy, so I'll spare you the pointless details. Anyway, I guess I'll be in your care, or something."

...Huh. It actually felt pretty refreshing to put on her old tough gal act after all this time. Fretting and fussing over every little word and acting all polite didn't suit her -- she knew that much already. But maybe, in so doing, she'd bottled up her true thoughts even more than she expected. She shot a sidelong glance to the crimson overlord towering over her, but if he minded her sudden shift into informality and irreverence, he didn't show it, so... maybe as long as she stayed respectful to her superiors, she could say whatever the hell she wanted?

Nice! Maybe this job has some unexpected perks, after all. Gotta look on the bright side of things!

Not to be outdone, her fellow Stratan seemed to get the hint, and stepped up alongside her without missing a beat, striking an almost identical but even more exaggerated pose. Was he trying to one-up her?

"I'm Roy! I don't have any fancy abilities or whatever, but I'm ready to kick the ass of whoever gets in our way!"

...Some of the armored figures looked like they were laughing at this, but not one of them uttered a single sound in response to him, either.

"I'm Athena, and this is... my uncle, Stanley." The redhead tried to follow suit, despite the deafening silence of their peers, but her awkward start gave away to Calli, at least, that she still hadn't practiced her cover story enough. "Though we were both born in the upper city, we owe a great deal to Roy, and we share his belief in your cause."

That was a bit smoother. So long as they made their relationship with a fellow Stratan clear, they... probably wouldn't be distrusted? Or so one might hope, anyway. Still, how the hell did a rich girl like her end up following a kid like him around? And why wasn't anyone saying anything?

"Though I possess no abilities myself," Stanley joined in, evidently feeling expected to say something. Rather than trying to sell his own talents, however, he decided to further talk up his companion. "My niece is an Emitter-Type with a particular affinity for technology. I'm sure those skills will be useful to your organization, Lord Sigma."

"A hacker, then?" The man in red stepped forward, gazing down intently at the redhead, before nodding a moment later. "How fortunate. If you are indeed as skilled as your uncle claims, those talents will prove quite useful for today's sideshow."

"So what's our target? Lay it on us! I'm ready!" Roy chimed in, all too eager to be praised by Sigma now that Athena had gotten her turn. Calli resisted the urge to facepalm.

An evil overlord isn't usually someone you want to get noticed by, you know...

"Are we gonna fight a hero? Blow something up?" It was too late for common sense. Roy's excitement had already reached critical mass. Sigma didn't seem to mind, though, and merely shook his head gently in reply.

"Nothing so drastic as that," He said, the smile creeping back into his voice. "All I need you to do is..."

Calli's eyes widened. That sounded pretty drastic to her.

So much for an easy first mission.