Chapter 10:

The Train Job

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

So there she was, hijacking a train.

There had been almost no further briefing - no instruction on the "how" of her supposedly simple mission - just the order that she and the others would drop from an unmarked skycar onto a suspended cargo tram, destroy its compliment of security drones, gain control of its systems, and take it out for a joyride. Any cargo on board the train was fair game for them to steal, and they were free to use their weapons however they saw fit. Sigma had reassured them that there would be no human crew aboard to accidentally get caught in the crossfire, and that they had free rein to do as they pleased.

Then Panoptes had led the lot of them to a side room haphazardly divided by a line of storage crates down the middle, cracked open some of those crates to reveal exosuits in various states of assembly and an armory's worth of bizarre and rather menacing-looking weaponry, told them to "get changed," and then quickly left.

Calli had gotten as far as tying up her long hair in a messy ponytail and slipping into the padded black jumpsuit she'd been provided. The garment somehow managed to feel too big in some places and too small in others, and when after some vigorous adjustment it finally started to feel like it actually fit her, she couldn't help but feel like it fit a little too well. The damn thing was skintight, and she was just beginning to worry that even once she added the armor it wouldn't leave anything to the imagination. Then she looked into the crate again, and realized that was the last thing she should be concerned about.

No, no, no, wait just a second. This is military-grade combat armor, right? You can't just say "get changed" and leave it at that!

Dozens upon dozens of individual plates were neatly sorted, marked with letters, numbers, symbols and shapes in various inscrutable combinations to ostensibly denote what went where. Unfortunately, if there was a manual that came along with this secondhand superweapon, her employers hadn't seen fit to include it. The gloves alone were split into three separate interlocking pieces marked with labels ranging from "47-7B" to a green triangle, the greaves had at least seven parts with even more indecipherable markings, and she didn't even know where to begin with the chestplate. Even the helmet looked like some assembly was required!

"Talk about ridiculous," Calli muttered, glancing over her shoulder to where Athena had also been changing. "Couldn't they at least give us an explanation of how all this stuff works? It's a little bit unreasonable to expect--"

...Athena slipped her helmet on with a click, and a hiss echoed from the valves of her completed armor as it sealed on tightly. She turned and, noticing Calli gawking at her, cocked her head to the side as if to ask what the problem was.

Calli stared, a thousand questions running through her mind. Was she the weird one here for trying to join a villain organization without knowing how their equipment worked? Or maybe it was simpler than it looked. Was she just an idiot for not figuring it out herself? Ultimately, though, there was only one question that came out of her mouth.

"...Can you help me get this on? I'm a little... lost."

...One way or the other, she had managed to get her armor on, and so found herself staring at her reflection in the window of the skycar as they flew towards their objective. She could see now why the inner layer had to be so tight, at least. The armor interlocked with a series of slots, sockets, and mountings patched onto the polymer of her jumpsuit, fitting so snugly that the armor itself could hug close to her body without obstructing her joints with cumbersome external plating.

Where one armored panel ended, another seamlessly began, and the end result made her look more like a droid purpose-built in human shape rather than a person wearing armor. With almost no gaps and no weak points, the armor still somehow managed to feel flexible and light -- no doubt the servomotors at work. She raised her hand, stretching and coiling each finger in turn, marveling at how simple it was. It felt like she was wearing a thin glove rather than bulletproof sheet metal.

...How did she know it was bulletproof? Well, that was because she'd stepped out of her side of the changing room just in time for Roy to accidentally discharge a rifle he'd been messing with, and shoot her straight in the chest. The impact had knocked her clear off her feet, but apart from a small scratch on the surface of her armor, it hadn't even left a mark. Which was reassuring, she supposed, but being shot hadn't exactly improved the tension between the two of them as they now sat awkwardly across from each other. Roy was fidgeting with his weapon again, but this time he was checking and double checking to make sure the safety was on, so at least he seemed to have learned his lesson. As for her...

The shockstaff placed awkwardly in her lap was basically just a telescoping metal rod. It had no blade, no barrel, and no fancy functions beyond the ability to collapse itself for portability, extend when it was needed, and deliver a powerful burst of physical force upon contact with a target.

It was, for all intents and purposes, a stick. It was a very advanced, sophisticated stick -- durable and powerful beyond compare. But in technique and application, it was little different from any old bit of metal pipe you could find lying around anywhere back home.

In short, it was exactly the sort of weapon she was most familiar with -- a convenient tool for self-defense with which she wasn't likely to accidentally kill anybody.

The others didn't seem to have shared her caution, however. Roy had taken a rifle he obviously lacked the training to use correctly, as well as a high-frequency vibrosword. Athena had kept it simple, arming herself only with a small holdout pistol which she actually seemed quite proficient with, judging by her trigger discipline. Stanley, on the other hand, was more than egregious enough to make up for his lady's common sense, as he was toting several explosives and a minigun.

In addition to the familiar faces, however, there were three other passengers as well. Two -- a pair of old hands with ATLAS who had introduced themselves as Cas and Pol -- were armed with rifles, as well as a District Security task force's worth of ammo packs, grenades, and other tactical gear. The third, a stern individual by the name of Roland who seemed to be the leader of their little band, was carrying the monstrous lovechild of a greatsword and a chainsaw.

She had long since already realized that she was in over her head, but... really, just how the hell had she gotten herself involved with a group like this? Looking down at the peaceful city below her, it was only just beginning to set in what it was she was about to do. All those tiny little people down there, like ants scurrying about their little lives, unaware of the boot that was about to come down and --

"Hahaha! Everybody's so tiny! They're like ants!"

...The fact that Roy of all people had said what she'd just been thinking made her blush under her helmet, and she once again thanked her stars that nobody could see her.

It was a blessing she would soon come to repeat when the shooting started.

All at once, they'd dropped sharply, matching their speed to the cars below. Then, the bay doors of their skycar had swung open, and without a moment's hesitation, everyone had tossed themselves out onto the top of a large freight car. She'd followed a moment later, though not before eyeing the rotors of the skycar and wondering if they'd still have enough force to mince her if she misstepped, regardless of the armor she was wearing.

By the time she landed, sirens were ringing out from the cars up ahead of them, and Roland was already barking out orders over the radio. Cas and Pol split off with Athena and Stanley, bounding against the deafening wind over the tops of the cars towards the front of the train.

"You two newbies are with me. We'll clear out the security compliment and buy the others time to take control."

"Huh?" Calli snapped back to attention, only just realizing that she was being spoken to... and what exactly that meant. "Wait, why are we the ones --"


"Get down!" Roland barked, grabbing her and tugging her back away from the edge of the car, just as a shower of autocannon fire peppered the ledge. Below, several bulky humanoid figures were raising their arms, the plating of which had peeled back to reveal the revolving barrels of military-grade anti-personnel cannons.

She'd seen those models before, actually, back when she'd been scavenging in the derelict levels of the Strata far below the water line.

She had also seen what happened when they turned on and ID'd a salvager as a target.

But her armor was bulletproof, right? So, maybe it would hold up to --


Roy tumbled backwards, smoke rising from a fresh indent in the shoulder of his armor. She didn't see any blood, but... that looked like it still hurt.

"I'm going in."

"What?" Calli stared at Roland with eyes wide in shock, confusion, and more than a little bit of fear. She was, frankly speaking, terrified, but if it showed in her voice, he didn't acknowledge it. In the face of all this, he just resolutely raised his sword, tightening his grip on the handguard and causing the blade's engine to roar to life.

"I said I'm going in. Must I repeat myself? Boy, lay down supporting fire. Girl, you're with me. I'll take the two on the right, you get the one on the left. Go."

She really wanted to question this plan, since any strategy that involved the guy who had just accidentally shot her laying down covering fire seemed doomed to fail. Unfortunately, the stoic man didn't seem inclined to give her the chance, as, in the next instant, he leaped to his feet, raising his oversized blade before him as a makeshift shield to brave the shower of autocannon fire, diving over the edge of the train car and into the fray.

Calli looked at Roy. Roy looked at her. His gun wasn't even in his hand, much less at the ready. ...Just as well. That meant he wouldn't accidentally shoot her in the back when she, before she knew what she was doing, rushed to the edge and jumped right after their fearless leader.

Roland had tackled the droid in the middle and driven his sword through its chest. The other two had already begun turning to point their weapons at him as he tried to wrench his massive weapon free. That meant, thankfully, that neither one was paying attention to Calli, who descended from above, whipping her shockstaff off her belt and releasing the lock, bringing it down with a wordless yell. The end of the staff extended with a loud crack, and... caved in the entire head of the droid on the left, the shards of metal and bits of wiring that scattered out the back end leaving behind an almost perfectly circular hole.

...She had chosen a normal weapon, right? Something that she couldn't accidentally kill anybody with? So then why did the impact point look like rather than bludgeoning the droid, she'd drilled clean through it?

At any rate, there was still one left, so she turned to aid Roland. He hadn't been able to pull his sword out of the first droid in time, it seemed -- but that hadn't stopped him from lifting the whole droid up instead, using the skewered machine as a shield against its comrade before kicking it off the end of his weapon, slamming it into the third and sending both tumbling off the train and into the side of a neighboring building, where they promptly... exploded...?

...Why, though?

Turning back, Roland seemed almost surprised that she'd handled her own enemy so quickly. To be honest, so was she. It wasn't like she was stranger to fighting -- she'd learned self-defense from a young age, and was pretty proud of her skills. But those skills were usually reserved for significantly more mundane threats than military robots.

Now, here she was, standing over one unscathed, feeling more powerful than ever before, and also a little bit scared of the weapon in her hand and the armor she wore.

It was around this time that Roy, who had finally managed to get the safety on his gun back off but had yet to realize that the fight was already over, nearly shot both of them in the back. Roland started angrily lecturing him over the radio, only for the door of the car they now stood on the outer balcony of to swing open, revealing at least a dozen more droids, their arms warping once again to form wickedly curved, red-hot blades.

"'Nothing so drastic,' he said..." Calli groaned, feeling her heart drop and her breath catch in her throat.

"You'll find Lord Sigma has a penchant for understatement," Roland sighed, revving his sword again.

"Huh? What are you guys --" Roy began to ask, dropping down next to them, only to nearly drop his rifle as, with a loud mechanical screech, the droids attacked.

Calli ducked the first swing, then brought up her staff and struck the droid in its overextended arm. The limb shattered, her weapon emitting a warbling electric hum as she followed through with the opposite end, staving in the machine's torso. Beside her, Roland swept two aside with a single blow of his massive sword, advancing into the car and covering her right flank. In the back, Roy fired indiscriminately, screaming his head off and thankfully at least managing not to hit either of them in the chaotic melee.

Actually, rather than panicking... was it possible he was enjoying this? He'd sounded scared at first, but as the head of a droid next to her vanished in a shower of bullets, she could have sworn he was laughing.

Well, that changed right back to screaming as another one snuck up on him and cut the rifle out of his hands, though. She spun her staff around and jabbed the butt end into its back, shattering the machine's spine, and he dispatched it a moment later once he finally managed to get his sword out of its sheath.

She had no more time to worry about that. Another one tried to come in from the left, swinging down at her, while a second rushed her head on. She backpedaled, parrying the flanker's blow wide and, when it lost its balance, kicking it into the wall.

Twisting with the momentum, she brought her staff back down to force its charging comrade away. The droid took the blow by crossing its bladed arms, but was sent reeling anyway by the resulting shockwave. She caught it with the opposite end as it stumbled, and bashed its chest in as she'd done before, sending it hurtling back into the ranks of its remaining cohorts.

It exploded too. Calli still didn't know why that kept happening. She jabbed her staff back into the body of the first droid that was still recovering its footing, and with another hum-crack from her staff and a pulse of almost visible force, sent it crashing clear through the wall and out of the train. The distant bang she heard a moment later told her that it never reached the ground, either.

But her eyes were already moving back to the battle ahead of her. When the first droid had detonated, it took the whole back end of the car with it, along with a few of its own comrades. With the tables turned, the remaining droids had already begun to fall back and regroup, jumping over onto the next car -- a flatbed freight load, by the look of it. Taking cover among the piled shipping crates, their arms folded back into gun form, and their autocannons began to spin up.

Roland nodded to her, and the two of them wordlessly gave chase, rushing forward through the breach and across the gap, with Roy close behind. She could hear the bullets whizzing in the air around them as the droids opened fire, and a moment later felt like she'd been sucker punched in the gut as one of them hit her dead on. It knocked the wind out of her, and she nearly stumbled, but managed to right herself just in time to make the leap across to the other side.

Roy had overtaken her in that instant, though. If he had been afraid before, he wasn't showing it now. He dived in head first, rushing past even Roland to wildly hack through another two droids before they could shift their arms back into blades to defend themselves with.

...Really, the whole transforming arms gimmick might have looked impressive, but with how long it took to actually carry out, wasn't it actually kind of useless as a weapon?

Not that she was complaining, though. With their enemies unable to retaliate, another few strikes as she and Roland caught up brought a swift end to the chaotic battle.

The wind whistling around them had seemed deafening when they landed. Now her ears were ringing, and everything suddenly seemed almost unbearably quiet by comparison. It was only then that she realized that her hands were shaking, and that, in the moments after she'd been shot, she had forgotten to start breathing again.

Pacing herself as best she could, Calli tried to gather her racing wits and process what had just happened. She'd smashed five... six... seven... eight droids, maybe? In all the excitement, she had lost count, but now, looking back, she couldn't help but marvel that things had gone so smoothly.

As a salvager, tripping a security proxy's radar was practically a death sentence. The ones down in the lower levels had been rusting for a decade now, but those guns they carried could still cut a man to pieces in an instant. Yet just now, she'd been shot by a new and fully functional sentinel droid directly, and had barely even felt it. Not just that -- their heavy armor had crumpled like paper under a single blow. It had been so easy that it all hardly felt real.

Suddenly, the way Sigma had been so calm about all of this made a twisted kind of sense. For someone used to being invincible, this must have felt like just another day at work.

"Eh? That's all of them?" Roy asked. He sounded almost disappointed, having finally found his courage, that he no longer had any enemies left to destroy.

"Seems that way," Roland replied, tapping his helmet to open a channel to the others. "How are things looking on your end, Cas?"

"The girl's hacking the controls now. There's still a few proxies active up here, though. We're holding them off just fine, but they're starting to get really annoying." The voice that came back was interspersed with the muffled sounds of gunfire, which, now that her ears had stopped ringing, she could faintly hear echoing from up ahead of them as well. "If you're all done back there, then don't just loot everything for yourselves -- hurry up and help us out!"

"Of course. We're on our way now. Just give the rookies a moment to catch their breath, and then --"

At that moment, Calli received a sharp reminder that although they were powerful, they were anything but invincible. After all, just as it was their job to sow chaos and resist the power of the Great Enterprises in a way few could, there were also those whose job it was to crush upstarts like them underfoot.

Descending before them like a thunderbolt from a clear sky... a hero arrived to save the day.