Chapter 12:

Off The Rails

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

“Look, I don't want to hurt you guys anymore, and if we keep fighting I can't say for sure I'll be able to hold back. I mean, I didn't even mean to hurt him, and look how he ended up! So can you please – please -- just surrender? I promise I won't hurt you if you just lay down your weapon.”

...This wasn't getting anywhere. He'd been rambling for the better part of a minute now, to no avail. No matter how much he tried to reason with them, the woman was entirely focused elsewhere as she looked over her injured comrade, and the wounded combatant just kind of sat there staring into space. He... he was alright, wasn't he? Sure, Genesis had cut his arm pretty badly, but he wasn't dying or anything, right? The blood still staining his gauntlet was getting more unnerving to look at with each passing moment.

Still, neither one seemed inclined to answer him, no matter how much he tried to talk them down. The woman hadn't been trying to hurt him before, right? So if she was reluctant about fighting to begin with, then why was she stubbornly clambering to her feet again and pointing that staff of hers at him? Was she trying to avenge her comrade? It wasn't like he couldn't understand the sentiment, but it would have been better for the both of them if she'd just stand down. Then he wouldn't have to hurt her, and her companion could get his wound treated. And, best of all, he wouldn't have to fight somebody without truly hostile intentions, whose future actions he couldn't --


Oh. I can predict her now. Well, that's good. Or bad.

Obediently, he jumped backward, just in time for the woman's staff to come slamming down where he'd just been standing. There was a low electronic warble and a bone-shaking force that throbbed outward from the point of impact, and the metal plating caved inward, punching a hole clear through the bottom of the car. In one dexterous move, the woman swept it back up, spinning it overhead and bringing it down again, and again... and again.

Never mind, it's bad! It's definitely bad!

Left, right -- he desperately ducked and weaved away from the unseen force that blasted outward from the tip of her weapon, his instincts keeping him only a split second ahead of her furious rain of blows. She redoubled her assault, pushing his instincts to their very limits as his power screamed incessantly inside his head. What started as coherent images and predictions became single word commands as his mind raced to keep up.

...Then suddenly the voice in his head went silent again. He froze up, and in the instant his precognition failed him, she once again slammed her staff into the floor directly in front of him, then wedged it upward.

Another wave of force blasted forward, sweeping him off his feet and into the open air. Was he falling?

No, not falling, but flying. He'd left his anti-grav stabilizers running when he jumped back to avoid that blast earlier! The push carried him weightlessly backwards, and although he hadn't been able to predict any of this, that didn't matter when his armor could just recover for him. His boots magnetized onto the back of the opposite car, and he planted himself vertically upon it, then kicked off and launched himself right back again, raising his sword high overhead and diving –


Oh, shit.

-- right into the shockstaff's already-upraised end.

- - -

A bass rumble like a thunderclap split the air, and the hero was sent careening right back into – and subsequently through the side of the neighboring car. He tumbled for several feet before slamming into a shipping crate, sending a cascade of freight tumbling down on top of him, beneath which he disappeared from view.

There was silence. Calli took a deep breath. She hadn't punched a hole through him like she had with the droids – which was a relief in its own way, honestly. Still, he didn't seem to be getting back up, either, so...

“Did... did I get him?”

“Not likely,” came the immediate reply. Roland could have at least let her savor her momentary victory for a little longer than that, right? “You got a good hit in, though, so keep pushing, before he has time to recover!”

“Wait... Couldn't we just evacuate while he's doing that?” She responded, shooting a glance back to where Roy was still sitting, shellshocked, at the back of the car. If she kept this up, she'd have to risk either killing someone or dying herself, and there wasn't any reason to fight if she didn't need to, was there?

“Negative. They'll need another minute or two before they can pull you back,” Roland replied. “The gate's still... uh... recharging.”

There was a time limit? Okay, it looked like she needed to fight after all. But wait... recharging? Didn't that also mean someone had already used it? But who? She was pretty sure she could still hear gunfire in the distance, so that just left...

But now wasn't the time to be pointing fingers.

“Okay. And when it's charged, can it take both of us?”

“Huh? Oh – of course. It only needs one beacon to lock onto a target. As long as you're in contact when it fires, there should be no problem.” Roland seemed all to eager to answer her question, as though he was trying to change the subject – confirming her suspicions. She would have words with him if... no, when she got back to base.

Fine. Then I guess I'll just have to hold out until it's ready.”

Clutching her staff tightly, she broke into a sprint, leaped across the gap, and into the darkness of the next car.

- - -

Genesis groaned, worming his way out from underneath a veritable mountain of junk. Despite the way the room still seemed to be spinning around him, he forced himself upright with one hand, clutching his aching stomach with the other. Just when he'd gotten used to having his precognition to help him again, that weird weapon went and turned the tables on him. Unless he could find some way around it, he wasn't going to be able to get anywhere...

But if he used his new sword or tried attacking her, wouldn't she just explode like the other guy had? Or even if he didn't hit... whatever that was, he'd still probably end up slicing her to ribbons, right? The fresh bloodstains on his gauntlet told him all he needed to know about what would happen if he went on the offensive. Spilling more was the last thing he wanted.

But if this kept up, it was his own blood that was going to spill. Seriously, getting hit by that staff of hers stung like hell. It felt like he'd just been run over by a truck, but despite the pain, he was pretty sure nothing was broken --


Barreling through the hole in the side of the car, the enemy had suddenly leaped across the gap and brought down her weapon with unrelenting ferocity, aiming to smash his head right back into the floor. Reacting once more on instinct, he raised his sword, and swept it up to meet her staff. With a flash of light and an earsplitting shriek of metal on metal, the two enhanced armaments clashed and --!

-- in a shower of sparks, the butt of the staff was cleanly severed, the weapon's stump glowing red hot as his vibrosword cleaved right through it. His assailant stumbled back, and Genesis grinned under his helmet.

He'd just found his ticket to victory.

- - -

Calli was hardly an expert in the art of combat, but she knew well enough that, when using a bladed weapon, the goal was to hit the enemy with the sharp edge, and to block things with the flat of the blade.

This hero, whoever he was, clearly failed to appreciate that distinction. And, if he was using a normal sword, that lack of understanding surely would have been his downfall. His blade would have bent, broken, and become useless, and he would have been the one left without a weapon.

Unfortunately, he just so happened to be using a high-frequency sword that, by the look of it, could cut through just about anything short of whatever the hell his own armor was made of. And, as he recklessly flailed that sword around, aiming to strike her staff rather than her body like a child play-fighting, he had blocked her strike edge-first.

And so she found herself with only about three-quarters of a staff, only one end of which could even hope to hurt him.

She raised the working end of her battered armament -- she supposed it was more like a spear than anything, now -- hoping to present the point and ward him back until she could think of some way to regain the upper hand. No use. Encouraged by his success, the moment she lifted her weapon, he just blindly swung high to strike it again. She only barely managed to wind around his strike and tap the shock emitter against the underside of his sword, deflecting the blow upward rather than meeting it head on.

An opening. She circled around to his exposed side and jabbed for his ribs, but he simply brought his sword down again, forcing her to pull the strike aside. He didn't even flinch – like he knew that she wouldn't commit to the attack.

No matter. Twisting with what force she had left, she went for a low sweep at his legs, and he stumbled backward to avoid it, tumbling head-over-heels and awkwardly rolling over the top of the crate behind him. She'd done it! She just needed to keep him on the back foot, and then –

– then he got back up and kicked the damn thing at her. It hit her square in the chest like a cannonball and sent her crashing into the wall of the car. The crate broke open from the impact, spilling out several spherical tanks of some kind that aimlessly rolled and scattered outward across the floor.

The hero followed up with his sword a moment later, but seemed to hesitate for a moment – though whether that was because he wanted to avoid taking her head clean off, or just because he had tripped on one of the rolling canisters, she couldn't say for sure. Regardless, his momentary fumble lasted just long enough for her to duck and scramble out of the way before his humming sword carved a red-hot gash across the entire wall behind her.

She was being backed into a corner now, and it was getting harder to think straight. She launched another tentative thrust, but he just swung again and forced her to deflect. He was reading her like a book. This time her attempt at a parry didn't even break his stride. His sword came right back down. She batted it aside again. Again he swung. She backpedaled further as his blade split a storage rack beside her in half, dropping several more canisters that had been placed precariously upon it. These hit the ground hard enough to crack like eggs, and with a sudden, high-pitched hiss, a thick cloud of gas spilled outwards, within which the hero vanished completely from view.

It was just for a split second, but by the time he burst out from the improvised smokescreen, it was already too late. Her own training was working against her, and before she knew it, she had raised her weapon on instinct to block his downward swing and protect her head.

Another squeal of metal on metal pierced her ears, sparks flashed before her eyes, and the staff in her hands split in two. The blade, slowed but not halted, continued its descent. Screaming wordlessly in panic, she threw herself backwards with all her might, tumbling out the back of the enclosed car and skipping like a stone over the battered flatbed behind it.

Her vision distorted into a blur of darkness and broken pixels, and for a single frantic instant, she was sure her left eye was gone. But a moment later, her view normalized as cracks spread outward from a long, red line carved directly over the left side of her field of vision. Unbearable heat from the molten surface of her almost-but-not-quite severed visor washed over her face, and she shut her eye tightly against it.

Her helmet had protected her -- just barely. But as she gazed down at the broken halves of her destroyed weapon, a yawning certainty started to rise within her. How many paces behind her was Roy? Could she run to him and grab him before the hero caught up with her and cut her down? How much longer would it take to activate the beacon? If she left now, what would become of the others?

Behind her, someone screamed out a warning. She looked back up. In the broken doorway of the opposite car, she could see two blue eyes glowing amidst the haze of gas and smoke as the canisters spilled out their contents into the air.

Gas canisters... fuel skimmed from the geothermal vents on the ocean's floor. Exotic gases, often used in research and development, or in powering old technologies. She didn't know much about their properties, but, if this day had taught her anything, there was one thing she didn't even have to guess.

Something was humming. It was getting louder. She looked down at the useless fragments in her grip. That wasn't just her hand shaking. The emitter was... still running? Or rather...

The hero was coming. The buzzing of her broken weapon rose to a fever pitch. She clenched her fist, drew back her arm, and threw. It was a last, desperate show of defiance from one who lacked any other means to fight. The hero saw the "attack" coming from a mile away.

Like always, he was one step ahead – but only one.

He raised his sword, and batted the broken weapon out of the air.

Then it exploded.

Of course it exploded -- why wouldn't it explode?

The first blast was small -- but it was immediately dwarfed by a second. The gas in the air had ignited. Within a single instant, the entire interior of the neighboring car became a sea of flames, and the hero vanished within it. A moment later, the world seemed to shake and spin off its axis, and Calli suddenly realized she was falling.

No, she was standing up -- it was the floor beneath her that was falling! The coupling had been damaged by the blast, and the last car – the car she had been standing on – was now dangling by a thread, trailing sparks from groaning rails and bending metal fastenings as they were dragged vertically along behind the speeding train.

Time seemed to slow to a crawl as gravity took hold. The train was still going at full speed. There was probably an automated emergency brake that would kick in now that part of it had jumped the tracks, but it wouldn't be fast enough to matter. This whole car was going to fall in mere seconds, careening down towards the street far below.

Crates tumbled down past her, one of them striking her and sending her sliding back towards the brink. She reached out frantically, and caught hold of the car's edge and hung on for dear life, gazing back to see the long fall that awaited her. It was then that, through the haze of panic, Calli remembered the reason she'd been fighting.

"Help! Please, help me! I'm gonna fall!"

There, on the far edge of the precipice, was a lone figure, clinging desperately to the railing with his working hand.


Over the screaming metal, the crackling flames, and the roaring wind, the sound of footsteps reached her ears. She looked back up, and her breath caught in her throat.

The regal blue-white armor of her enemy was scorched and stained with soot. His coat was burnt and ragged. The sword in his hand was broken off at the hilt, its blade shattered by the detonation. She had done everything she possibly could to stop him in his tracks. The hero had stood right at ground zero of a blast powerful enough to knock the whole train off the rails.

And he was still fine.

One footstep. Then another. Walking vertically down the dangling flatbed in defiance of the whipping winds, her death drew steadily closer, his azure eyes burning even brighter than the flames he strode implacably out from.

The hero reached out his clawed hand -- a hand that could crush her as easily as swatting a fly. Was he going to kill her? Perhaps he was demanding her surrender? Or...

Is he... trying to save me?

He seemed to realize something, and reached up to his helmet, tapping at an interface she couldn't see. For just a moment, she could almost hear...

"Are you alright?"

"Girl!" Roland bellowing in her ear snapped her back to reality. "The gate's ready to open! We're pulling you back!"

"Wait, sir, please! Roy's still --" Athena's voice pleaded in the background.

"Yeah, he is -- and if we wait any longer, then that girl's gonna bite it too!" Cas barked sternly back.

"You can't!" Athena tried, but was silenced by Roland.

"There's no time. HQ, open the--!" Roland began to say.

She could have left it at that. Roy might fall, and if he did, it would be her fault -- but at least she could make it back. She wasn't going to die today unless she did something stupid.

But just as Roland gave the order, a blubbering voice interrupted him with yet another nigh-unintelligible plea not to go through with it, as that boy – that incompetent, reckless boy – begged once again for someone – anyone – to save him.

Just as her luck would have it, nobody else could – and so, in the absence of any good ideas, Calli decided that today was a great day to do something stupid, after all.

She looked up at the hero -- at the hand he had offered to her, his enemy.

Then she let go.

In the same instant, with a loud snap, the last tether holding up the back end of the train broke. The sudden shock broke the wounded boy's desperate hold on the edge, and as she herself tumbled down, she could see Roy falling just ahead of her. She could hear him scream, and at that moment, she found him saying exactly what she herself was thinking.

"I don't want to die!"

She reached out towards him.

"Take my hand!"

Glass, metal, bits of cargo -- it all tumbled down like an avalanche around them, even as the ground rushed up to meet them.

Desperately, he reached back. For just a split second, their hands connected, and then --

"ROLAND, DO IT NOW!" She screamed with all her might.

In that one frozen instant, the ground below her was all she could see.

Then everything went dark.