Chapter 13:

A Harsh Lesson

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

When Calli opened her eyes again, it was to the sound of whalesong – of creaking metal and distant waves – and to the familiar sight of a dimly lit metal chamber. The whipping wind, the crackling fire – all of it was gone, replaced by a sudden silence that brought a tear to her eye.

She released her grip on Roy's hand. Taking a deep breath, she almost found herself laughing despite herself.

We made it back. We actually...

A thousand tangled emotions washed over her all at once. Triumph, anger, guilt, and gratitude so overwhelmed her that the next several minutes became little more than a blur. At some point, the gate behind them fired again, and the other four returned. Roy was helped in staggering out of the room by Stanley, while Athena uttered a confused jumble of words that were probably meant as thanks, but which she could not properly articulate, and Calli could not even begin to process. She followed quickly after the others, and Cas and Pol just as quickly followed after.

That just left one person, sitting awkwardly atop a crate fiddling with his oversized weapon, and doing anything and everything he could not to meet Calli's gaze as she tugged off her helmet for a breath of fresh air, and remembered.

“...You left us to die.”

Roland didn't protest or try to deny it. He merely continued his work in silence as though he hadn't heard her, adjusting the chain on his massive blade and tweaking the engine. Calli found her hands clenching into fists without realizing it.

“Say something, damnit. What are you, a child?”

The venom in her own voice surprised even herself. She hadn't even realized how truly, utterly furious she was, or the enormity of just what he had done until she tried to put it into words.

“...I left him to die,” Roland said at last, pulling off his own helmet. He was surprisingly tanned for a Stratan, with skin more likely burnt by working in some kind of power plant or industrial forge than by the sun. His gray hair and pale violet eyes were more than enough proof that he wasn't any more welcome on the surface than she was, after all.

“Bullshit,” She shot back. “You knew I couldn't hurt that hero. If I hadn't been lucky, then --”

“Maybe so.” He shrugged. “But you didn't have to fight him, either. You chose to risk your own life. I had nothing to do with that.” Despite his interruption, his voice wasn't confrontational, but rather just as calm and quiet as it had been when he'd been giving them their orders. That calmness infuriated her more than anything. He'd been the one who panicked and abandoned them, so where did he get off pretending to be all cool and collected now?!

“You...” She snarled, her already strained brain grasping for ways to properly express a contempt she couldn't even fully grasp herself. “You really have no shame, do you?”

“Shame gets you killed in this line of work,” He answered with a shrug. “As you can see, I'm still alive.”

Not for long, you won't be.

Calli masterfully resisted her murderous impulses – for the moment, anyway -- at the unfortunate cost of allowing Roland to continue pissing her off.

“You seem to be under the impression that ATLAS is a merry band of companions, all working towards a common goal,” He continued. His low, drawling voice was still disgustingly devoid of any sort of regret. “I knew the boy was naive enough to believe that, but I had thought you a more sensible sort. Count yourself fortunate that you managed to learn your lesson without losing your –”

There was a sudden, harsh impact, followed by a groan and a thud, and the sound of tools clattering across the floor. Calli drew back her armored fist with a contemptuous glare as Roland sprawled upon the ground, clutching the side of his face.

“The only thing I've learned is that you're a scumbag, and a coward,” She spat – metaphorically, that is. Not that she would have even needed to actually spit on him; that look of infuriating composure on his face was replaced in short order with a look of disbelief, then pain, and finally a scowl of pure rage.

“Are you insane, girl!? You could have broken my –” His words were once again silenced as, before he could finish rising to his feet, her boot connected with his armored gut. The wind rushed from his lungs as she punted him, sending him tumbling, clattering and scraping across the hard metal floor.

“It's a damn shame that I didn't!” She roared back, golden eyes glaring down at him with righteous indignation. “You seem to be under the impression that I'm someone you can just stab in the back and get away with it.” She cracked her knuckles, her armor accompanying the gesture with a mechanical whir. “Count yourself fortunate that you managed to learn your lesson without losing your damn teeth.”

Roland seemed to be out of self-righteous retorts, as this time, he merely snarled, bounding back to his feet and coming right back at her with fists clenched and teeth gritted. Blood was trickling from a lip split by her first blow, and his temple also looked to have met the floor at a particularly rough angle. Nevertheless, although his first instinct seemed to be to lash out at her, he suddenly froze stock still. Was he... afraid of her? No, wait...

Huh? I can't move either.

The joints of her armor had locked up all on their own, and for all the power behind her strike just moments before, now she suddenly couldn't so much as twitch. A tingle ran up her spine, and she was pretty sure that it wasn't just the tension that was making her hair stand on end. She looked back to Roland, only to find that his eyes had gone wide as dinner plates. He was looking behind her at...

...Oh, right. This is where the gate leads to.

There, high atop his twisted throne at the far end of the chamber, sat a familiar figure in scarlet armor, blood red sparks crackling between the spines of his exosuit.

Sigma gazed down coldly at the both of them, one hand slightly upraised. He gave a lazy flick of his wrist, and both Calli and Roland – just inches away from striking each other – floated steadily apart, out of each other's reach. Seemingly satisfied with his demonstration of authority, Sigma lowered his hand, and just as suddenly as it had appeared, the unseen force surrounding both of them vanished.

She looked at Roland, and he looked at her. A reluctant understanding sparked between them, and, now that it had been re-established, neither one of them attempted to close the distance again.

There was silence for a moment – but only a moment. Neither one of them was crazy enough to keep throwing punches, but their tempers were still far from cool.

“...Look, girl.” Roland's voice told her quite clearly that he very much wanted to use a stronger word to address her. Unfortunately, it seemed like he also very much wanted to seem like the voice of reason here, and the expletives with which he doubtless wanted to shower her wouldn't be conducive to that end.

“We're not at all what you seem to think we are. Some of us --” He side-eyed Sigma as he spoke. “– might be revolutionaries out to change the world, save lives, bring down the oppressors – whatever. Perhaps some of us have the power to do that.” He began to pace, circling her like a wild dog too weak or afraid to strike, but almost too angry to care.

“But if you think that's where you come in, you're dead wrong. And pretty soon, you'll just be dead.” Reaching the crate he had been sitting upon, he tossed himself angrily back down upon it, almost forcefully enough to knock the whole thing over and drop his own ass on the floor again. “You're no elite. You're no Lord Sigma. And you're certainly no superhero. So tell me, girl – just what the hell are you trying to prove?”

Calli didn't see herself as particularly trying to prove anything, but she also couldn't think of a response that didn't feel like admitting defeat; it was now her turn to change the subject, focusing instead on what he had said before.

“I never once pretended that my being here would change the world.”

“Well why are you here, then?”

“...Because my family needs the money.”

“Just had to add that part, didn't you? Because your family needs it. Sure.” Roland scoffed. “Even when you're being just as greedy as the rest of us, you act like you're some kind of saint.”

“What would you even know?!” She hissed. “Just because you don't give a damn what happens to anyone but yourself doesn't mean –“

“Oh? Then did your family tell you to do this?”

Calli froze.

“Everyone's got a family, girl. Even a 'scumbag' like me knows more than enough about that. You chose this – not them. So don't try to blame them for what happens to you, or the things you do.”

“Fine. Maybe you're right – about that, at least,” She uttered through gritted teeth. “But regardless of why I'm here, or who the money's for,” She continued, her conviction unwavering despite Roland's insipid rhetoric. “That still doesn't mean it's fine to throw away common decency and abandon your allies just to save your own skin! If heroes are that dangerous, that's all the more reason to work together rather than dying alone!”

“There's not much difference either way.” Roland shrugged. “Droids are one thing, but heroes are a different story. Once one shows up, it's every man for himself. You take what you can, you keep your head down, and you get out – or, you die. Simple as that.”

“Funny, I don't seem to be dead.”

“And you just admitted that's only because you were lucky,” Roland shot back. “Try pulling a stunt like that again; see where it gets you.” Once again, she couldn't directly deny his statement, so she switched focus and pressed the attack elsewhere instead.

“Where do you get off acting like an expert if all you do is run away at the first sign of danger? I'll bet you've never even fought a hero before!” She goaded, flashing a taunting sneer. Contrary to her expectations, however, Roland didn't take the bait. Rather, he just gave a mirthless laugh and held up his weapon.

“Where do you think I got this sword, then?”

...She hadn't exactly been able to focus on the finer details of his armament during the thick of battle. And, in the half-light of ATLAS' undersea base, she hadn't been able to make out the sigil emblazoned upon the flat of the weapon... until now, anyway.

Neuron Dynamics: one of the Four Great Enterprises. A corporation that employed exactly one hero under their own label. Peerless and unrivaled, their mighty Black Knight had never known defeat. With almost prescient speed, he acted tirelessly to resolve all manner of incidents – everything from purse snatchers to domestic terrorism – almost as soon as they began. This weapon was, in short, a tool of that famous A-Lister...

“...You fought Valkaiser?!” She was taken so aback by the revelation that she almost forgot to be angry.

“'Fought' is a strong word. I met Valkaiser,” Roland corrected. “He was distracted – by people like you. They didn't make it. I did. I learned my lesson – like you should have.

“So you left them to die, too.”

“Oh, and I suppose you could have saved them?!” Roland snapped.

“Who knows? I didn't do too badly against that hero on the train just now.”

“Awfully proud of yourself for someone who was begging to run away at the first chance she got,” Roland observed.

“Awfully proud of yourself for someone who did run away at the first chance he got,” Calli retorted.

“Well, if the same thing happens again, nothing's stopping you from –”


That one word was more than sufficient to silence both of them. From atop his throne, Sigma gazed icily down at both of them, then at last waved his hand dismissively.

“Squad Captain Roland, you are excused. Begone.”

“Y-yes, sir.” The tall man hastily shouldered his weapon, gave a quick bow, and departed – still glaring back at Calli as the doors of the chamber snapped shut behind him, his smirk suggesting that whatever the reason she was being allowed to stay... probably wasn't a pleasant one.

Right, she had let her temper get the better of her and almost started an all-out brawl in the throne room. Thinking about it rationally, there was no way he wouldn't be furious at her.

“...What about me, Lord Sigma?” She asked, making a show of deference to hopefully appease the overlord's temper. If she had pacified him, however, he probably would have stayed in his seat, right? So why was he standing up and getting closer...?

“...What is your name, girl?” He asked. She had already introduced herself to him before, but obviously it hadn't stuck, so, in the interest of not pissing him off, she quickly repeated herself.

“Calli, sir.”

The crimson-armored man was completely silent for a moment, looming over her and staring down at her through gleaming LED eyes. Was he sizing her up? Trying to intimidate her? Wait, he wasn't about to say “You have failed me for the last time” or something like that, was he? She might have lost the fight on the train, but even so –!

“...I see. You are owed an apology.”


“I'm sorry?” Calli blinked.

“No. I am sorry,” Sigma replied, lowering his head unexpectedly. “According to our intelligence, there should have been no interference in your part of the operation. The hero who appeared before you was... expected to be elsewhere.”

So, he really had been serious when he had said their operation would be an easy one? She supposed that, if it had only been the droids opposing them, things definitely wouldn't have spiraled out of control like they did. But come to think of it, who even was that hero? She didn't recognize him, but even Sigma seemed to think he was important somehow... not to mention, his armor had almost looked like –

“Our enemies were a step ahead of us. Because of my carelessness, your life, and the lives of your fellow recruits were placed in danger,” Sigma continued. His phrasing was as melodramatic as ever, but his tone was almost gentle – proud, even. “Your bravery carried you and your comrade through alive. But the fact remains that you should never have been forced to shoulder that risk by yourself to begin with.”

Was she supposed to say something here? She hadn't been expecting congratulations, least of all from the overlord of the entire secret society. Yet here she was, being praised by a terrorist for her heroics. The sheer ridiculousness of the scenario made it impossible for her to even think of any response – and so she simply nodded along, dumbstruck.


Seemingly satisfied with this non-answer, Sigma stepped back, and turned away.

“You must be tired. You've done everything I could ask of you and more, despite a hero's interference. I'll have Panoptes include a bonus for your efforts, and set aside some time for you to rest before your next mission. What I can give you is hardly equal to what you deserve for your service, but nevertheless, I...” A man like him didn't stutter. Every word he said was wholly thought out beforehand, and spoken with the utmost composure. Yet for just a moment, he paused – as though searching for the right thing to say. As though for just that one moment, he was uncertain about something.

“I hope it does your family some good.”

Was he sympathizing with her, or was he just trying to secure the support of someone who had shown some skill? It was probably the latter, but, even so, she appreciated the gesture. After all that had happened... she really did need some time to think about all this.

Sigma wasn't the only one to apologize. When “Panoptes” handed over her payment, he'd neglected his usual smile and warning, and hadn't even corrected her when she called him Argus out of habit. He'd also insisted on checking her eye at least twice once he saw the sorry state her helmet was in, despite her insistence she was fine apart from a few bruises.

Athena helped her change back out of her exosuit once she was sure Roy was alright, and thanked her for saving him again – this time in actual words rather than frantic ramblings. There was definitely a story there somewhere, but... now probably wasn't the time to ask.

She had just been packing the last bits of her battered armor back into the case and slipping out of the bodysuit underneath when she heard a snap, followed by the sound of several tiny objects hitting the floor. It took her a moment to realize where the sound had come from.

The bracelet adorning her wrist had snagged on the sleeve of her jumpsuit, one of its many tarnished baubles getting tugged just a little too hard when she pulled the garment off. Just like that, the old string had broken, and all the little beads and talismans the children had woven into it went scattering across the floor.

Her good luck charm. Her family's parting gift. It was a strange feeling, realizing she had forgotten she was even wearing it until she saw it in pieces.

Calli wasn't a superstitious person, but if there was ever a day to believe in the power of such things, it was probably today. Somehow, a miracle had occurred. Somehow, she and Roy were both still alive. Thinking like that, she supposed her lucky charm had served its purpose.

With a sudden sentimentality she didn't know she possessed, she found herself scrounging about upon the floor, scooping up every last piece she could find. Weaving it fully back together was... probably impossible. The cord was in far too rough shape for that. So, instead, she settled for fastening all the little baubles onto one of the larger surviving loops of string, and tying this in turn to the strap of her bag.

Changing back into her street clothes and storing the unmarked envelope containing her bonus in one of the bag's inner compartments, she returned to the warp gate and, before she knew it, found herself back in the arboretum, sitting in the little hollow where she had hidden herself away earlier that day. Her badge was lying on the ground in front of her, and she hastily stuffed it into the bag too, fearful that someone might see. Quickly extricating herself from her hiding place, she began retracing that old, overgrown path towards the center of the park.

Night had fallen at some point, and the songs of the birds had been replaced by the droning of cicadas. The sky was clear and cloudless, with innumerable twinkling stars reflected upon the tranquil surface of the ocean. Above derelict, sinking skyscrapers, a thin band of shadows was painted in stark relief along the line where the shattered orbital ring blended with the nebulous colors of the Milky Way far beyond.

Calli found herself mesmerized. The children playing in the fountain, the adults gathered around the auditorium nearby watching some sort of hero announcement on its holoscreen – none of them paid any heed to the astounding tapestry of starlight hanging right above their heads. They took it for granted, as though there was no world without a sky. But for Calli, it was something almost magical – something she appreciated tonight more than ever.

This uncharacteristic reverie would no doubt have been broken soon enough. She was being melodramatic, and she knew it – as if one near-death experience could give her some kind of profound insight into the world, or as though what had happened today would somehow change her life forever. She had read too many comic books, and surely would have written such cheesy thoughts off as being far too unlike her in another few moments...

...if, that is, she wasn't first called back to reality by a hand roughly grabbing hold of her wrist, and a man she'd never seen before screaming accusations in her face.

“Caught you, thief!"