Chapter 14:

A Star is Born

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

The scene displayed on the holoscreen was one of pure chaos.

The pedestrians who had been flocking around the busy intersection just moments before were now scattering in terror as, from high above, a massive load of burning freight came plummeting down towards the crowded streets below, followed in short order by the car it had fallen from. The skycars above had time to swerve or brake to avoid the deadly shower, but the people on the ground weren't so lucky.

The footage was grainy and unfocused, blurring as the one holding the camera looked up, then turned to run away. Screams could be heard in the background, and people could be seen stumbling and falling this way and that. The camera turned back one more time, just in time to see the inevitable end that surely awaited the crowd.

Inevitable? No.

A fraction of a second before the first bits of debris could hit, a figure in blue and silver slammed down into the ground with the force of a meteor, holding up his hands to reveal glistening azure claws upon his fingertips. Once, twice, three times he swung, turning crates, burning fuel tanks and bits of metal shrapnel all to dust. Then, he braced himself, and –!

The footage shook and blurred as a shockwave knocked the camera out of the grasp of the one who held it. It clattered to the ground and spun several times before skittering to a stop – coincidentally pointing right towards the center of the intersection. The picture distorted as the lens strained to focus through a cloud of dust, only for that dust to clear and reveal the mysterious savior, standing tall -- with the entire train car held upon his back, using it as a makeshift shield to block the last bits of rubble from hitting the crowd below.

“Don't panic!” Bellowed a commanding voice – his voice. “It's going to be alright. You're all going to be alright! Everyone just stay calm, and get clear!”

The clip froze at this point, focused entirely upon the silhouette of the armored man, as a scrolling marquee appeared at the bottom. Genesis barely had time to read the words “ORBITAL'S MYSTERIOUS NEW HERO!” before an angry click switched the channel to... another station playing exactly the same clip, with two excited announcers talking over it.

“--look at this, Ron – he just comes crashing in out of nowhere!”

“Whoa! Just like that – one frame there's nothing, and then the next – WHAM! ...Where did he even come from, though?”

“Well, wherever he came from, he was in a hurry – that's for sure! Maybe he was on the train?”

“You're telling me this guy jumped off a moving train, hit the ground first, and still had time to catch an entire train car!?

“Well, I mean – that's certainly what it looks like, doesn't it? The clip kind of speaks for itself.” The first announcer gave a raucous, staged laugh as they played back the footage again.

“Still, that's some crazy powerful tech right there. Actually... Hey, could we zoom in there a bit? Doesn't that bit on his chest armor look kind of familiar?”

“The faceplate, too. It's just like --”

Another angry click. The channel jumped again, to yet another news station playing out the same routine, this time with even less subtlety, as the boldface headline displayed upon the ticker practically beat him over the head the moment it appeared.


A final, decisive click echoed through the observation deck, and the holoscreen in front of them disappeared. Beside him, Kouji was sweating nervously, clutching the armrests of his chair. Genesis couldn't really blame him. The man standing by the window was intimidating on a good day – and today was decidedly not one of those.

Oz tossed aside the remote with barely-concealed fury, glaring daggers at the both of them.

“Explain. Now.”

“Well, sir,” Kouji began, awkwardly scratching his cheek. “It's kind of a long story, but this was really all just one big accident...”

“An accident? Mr. Sasaki, I believe I gave you specific orders that you were only to instruct Mr. Rhodes on the basics, and that above all else, he was to refrain from doing anything that would expose his existence to the public prematurely.” Oz paced relentlessly, walking a circle around both of them, the venom in his voice growing with every word. “So do tell me, because I would very much like to know – just what kind of accident leads to him ending up on every single channel of the nightly news!?

Oz looked like he wanted to throw both of them from the top of the tower, and Kouji looked like he wanted to strangle the protege who had gotten him into this mess before Oz got that chance. Genesis sighed. Normally, shouldn't a hero get praised for saving people...? It wasn't like he had done anything wrong, even if the whole thing hadn't exactly gone well, either.

“I wasn't exactly planning on getting hit by a train, you know,” Genesis muttered. It probably wasn't a good idea talking back to the man whose interview process involved hiring a sniper, but after the day he'd had, politeness was the least of his concerns. “And once I got stuck on board, I didn't exactly have the time to worry about who did or didn't see me.”

“Oh, but you did,” Oz fumed, looming over him with golden eyes burning like twin suns. “I've already reviewed your suit's recordings. You won the fight; but instead of stopping the culprits, you decided instead to go show off for the crowd.

“...Show off for the crowd...?” Kouji asked incredulously. “Sir, there was a train falling on them. I'll agree that Genesis was careless getting into the situation in the first place, but his handling of the matter was --”

“Was a colossal failure,” Oz growled, turning his golden glare upon Kouji next. “Lest you forget, because of his grandstanding, those hijackers stole almost all the supplies on board that train, unopposed! Electronics, fuel, even bloody Lost Tech! They. Got. It. All.” Craning his head back, he turned slowly to Genesis, jabbing his finger towards him with each word. “I hope you're happy. Because you went and stirred things up, all that valuable, dangerous freight is in the hands of terrorists.

“Well, what the hell was I supposed to do?” Genesis exclaimed, rising up angrily from his chair – this time without his powers warning him of any imminent death, thankfully. “There were dozens of people down there – I couldn't just stand by and let them be crushed! People's lives were at stake. I just –”

Genesis stopped himself. He just what? He had followed his instincts – even when that meant falling into his opponent's trap. The thrown staff, the gas explosion... his powers had only warned him that bad things would happen if he didn't deflect it, so he had batted it aside. At the time, he hadn't thought anything of it – the explosion hadn't really hurt him, so maybe the staff hitting him would have been more dangerous?

But what if that wasn't the reason at all?

What if the train needed to fall in that specific place, at that specific moment?

“...Even with my intervention, people easily could have been hurt,” He said, taking a deep breath and continuing more calmly. He wasn't actually certain himself, but... Even if he was wrong about this, it was an excuse Oz couldn't object to.

“A lot of the rubble luckily happened to fall in places nobody was standing, and I just so happened to be in the right place to prevent the biggest pieces from hitting anyone, either.” He gave a meaningful glance to his superior, and inwardly couldn't help but note with some amusement the way Oz's brow curled itself into knots as he realized the implications of what Genesis was saying.

“The fact that nobody got hurt is a miracle, wouldn't you say?”

“Why – why you –”

That's right. You can't say anything, because Kouji's here. If anyone else knew about my power, they'd know exactly why you made me a hero in the first place. You can't say anything, because then you'd be complicit in covering it up.

A smug grin crossed Genesis' lips, though he hastily concealed it behind a straight face. No doubt, Oz would give him an earful for this later, but for now, it meant he could make his point without any opposition.

“My suit was already damaged, and I lost my weapon. Even if I had gone after the other hijackers, there's no guarantee I would have won. But if I didn't do anything, it was obvious that people were going to die. I chose the option most likely to save something, and because of that, every single one of those news stories is praising Orbital's handling of the situation.”

The words coming out of his mouth were complete bullshit, and he knew it. He hadn't been thinking at all. But if he could make it sound like he had a good reason for doing what he did, then maybe Oz would see the upside of this outcome?

Oz's withering scowl indicated otherwise.

“So we got some good PR out of this disaster. So what? Gratitude is cheap, and people take their lives being saved by heroes for granted.” Oz spread his arms, gesturing out across the skyline. “They'll talk about this for maybe a week, then forget all about it. That won't even get back a fraction of what we've lost.”

“While that may be true, sir – you have to admit that we couldn't have asked for a better debut,” Kouji interjected. “A mysterious hero saves an entire crowd of bystanders, wearing the armor of a Stellar Knight – it's no wonder the news is running wild. People have been waiting for a successor to Polaris ever since the last –”

“Ever since she retired, yes.” Oz's sudden, forceful correction and icy glare silenced Kouji before he could get any further.

“Right, of course,” Kouji nodded obediently, not wanting to argue with his boss any more than he had to. “But Genesis is anything but a normal hero in their eyes, right? Unlike us freelancers working for exposure, he doesn't even have to try to make people look his way.”

“What's your point, Mr. Sasaki?” Oz asked icily, folding his arms and raising an eyebrow.

“Simple. If the goodwill from this incident goes away, we just need him to solve another. Just keep him in the public eye, and pretty soon you'll have sponsors lining up to back him that'll make the freight load you lost look like pocket change in comparison.”

This suggestion seemed at last to satisfy the statuesque man – or, well, satisfy was probably the wrong word, but at least he didn't seem quite so murderously angry anymore.

“...Very well. Then I will take your suggestion to mean that you believe Mr. Rhodes is ready to immediately begin his job as a hero,” Oz said, his brow slowly unraveling itself from a warped scowl into an equally twisted smile. “In which case, I have no further use for you, Mr. Sasaki, as a teacher.” Kouji opened his mouth to protest this decision, but Oz shut him up with another pointed remark. “Since it was your oversight that allowed this incident to occur to begin with, I trust you have no complaints. You'll remain on staff – but solely as a security contractor. Consider yourself fortunate that I cannot afford to fire you yet.”

Kouji sank back into his seat, his dreams of fame as the teacher of Polaris' heir and his bonus crumbling before his eyes. “...Understood,” he said quietly, and Oz, content with crushing one man's hopes, turned his focus to Genesis.

“As for you... congratulations on your imminent debut, Sirius. I'll be expecting you on active duty starting tomorrow. Do not disappoint me again... or else.”

Those words stuck with him all the way down the elevator and out of the tower. It didn't exactly help that Kouji hardly said a word until they had left the building, and only then gave him a mumbled congratulations on his first successful mission – though neither of them had it in them to celebrate. After that, the dejected samurai had shambled off towards the transit station, no doubt heading back to his agency to share the bad news.

As for Genesis, he'd had a rough day, and apparently another one was already lined up for him tomorrow. So, with nothing else to do, he began to make his way home. Yet as he trudged along, his heart felt heavier with each building he passed.

NOAH was a violent place. He knew that now more so than ever; he'd seen the reports coming in on the Hero Net. Terrorist attacks, armed robberies, mysterious disappearances, industrial accidents – they all occurred with alarming frequency. The incident in which he'd found himself that afternoon wasn't unusual... in all but one respect, that is.

Normally, heroes resolved most of these crimes quietly. A purse snatcher would be unceremoniously apprehended, or a bomb disposed of casually by someone who couldn't be hurt by it. When you were nigh indestructible, could fly faster than a skycar, and had the strength to arm wrestle a sentinel droid and win, there weren't many things dangerous enough for your heroics to make a good story. At best, it might earn a brief mention in a side column, or a token article on the intranet. Unless you were someone like Valkaiser, who could achieve notability through his sheer number of exploits, or unless you stumbled into a really big case, you'd never make headlines like the heroes of the lawless days of yesteryear had so often done.

But catching a train car just above the heads of dozens of pedestrians was exactly that. It was exciting. Dramatic. They even had footage from someone in the crowd at the very moment the incident had occurred. It was an honest-to-God, face-to-face picture of a hero at work.

And people loved it.

Every viewscreen was showing the footage. He passed his own armored visage over a dozen times in one block alone. The only other hero he saw displayed anywhere in that space was Polaris herself – and that was mostly because at least some of the screens were showing side-by-side comparisons of their armor.

It wasn't that he regretted what he had done, no matter what Oz said. People who might otherwise have died were by now safe in their homes with their families, looking forward to a tomorrow they might not otherwise have gotten. Kids would get to say “Welcome home” to their parents, and those parents would get to see their children off tomorrow with a smile.

And it was because of him. Putting it like that felt... strange, though. Arrogant. As if he thought himself a god, ordering and ordaining their little lives by the grace of his foresight.

Yes, he had saved people, but half of it had been his powers and the other half had been accidental. Could he really, knowing that, claim any credit for his so-called heroics?

In the first place, the fight had only escalated as far as it did because of him. The train car wouldn't have fallen if he had been more careful where he swung his sword. Yes, if only he had been more careful, then that girl...

The image flashed before his eyes again, unbidden. The gash along the side of that featureless visor, cracks spreading outward from the point of impact. The molten glass and underlying circuitry glowing like embers – like a single blazing eye, scarred but unbroken, staring defiantly up at him.

...If only he hadn't been so stupid. If he had just realized sooner that his microphone was off, maybe his attempts to reason with her wouldn't have fallen on deaf ears. Maybe he could have taken them both in peacefully. Maybe she wouldn't have let go.

They hadn't found any bodies in the rubble; nor had he seen any signs of the two combatants once he managed to safely set down the train car and search the scene. Had they landed amidst the confusion and scurried to safety? Or maybe they had crawled off and died somewhere, and their bodies just hadn't been found yet.

He found himself staring at the footage on the screen despite his turbulent thoughts, as though somewhere in that video, he might find an answer. No such luck. The camera was out of focus up until the car itself had already landed. There wasn't any way to tell what fate had befallen the hijackers.

Yet just as he was about to look away, he noticed something, tucked away in the corner of a freeze-frame of himself about to swing his claws up at a falling crate...

...A crate stamped with a very familiar logo. A logo he had often seen while loading and unloading freight. A logo that had adorned the very shipment of salvage that had gotten him into this whole mess.

Stargazer Labs...?

But why? Did this attack have something to do with the bombing a week ago? Maybe it was just a coincidence, but even so, he couldn't get the thought out of his mind. The discomfort he felt at seeing the clip only grew, and so, before he knew it, he decided on impulse to take a different route home. It was a little bit longer, but maybe a walk through the arboretum would clear his head?

It was a still, clear night. The stars shone down brilliantly between the trees, and the lights of the fountain bathed the whole plaza in a warm golden glow – a far cry from the harsh neon blues and reds of the cityscape around it. Children were playing. People were laughing. Truly, it was a wonderfully peaceful scene.

...Or so it would have been, if it weren't for the man by the fountain, grabbing some girl by the arm with one hand, while trying to yank free the strap of the bag on her shoulder with the other, yelling all the while.

“Give me my bag back!” He roared, spittle flying from his lips. “You thieving Stratan rat!”

“I don't even know who you are!” The girl protested. “And I already told you, this is mine, so get your hands the hell off me – or else!”

“Now you're threatening me? Security! Someone call District Security!”

Genesis grimaced. Really, it wasn't that uncommon... and as he now knew, far worse things than common robbery happened in NOAH every day. Still, the scene before his eyes was giving him the strangest sense of deja vu. In fact, now that he got a closer look, the alleged bag snatcher actually looked kind of... familiar, somehow? Her hair was almost pure silver, and –


Oh! It really is her.

...It was definitely weird to get encouraged three times just by knowing that the same person was having a worse day than him – but he could worry about such things later, when the continued existence of someone's bones wasn't at stake.

So, once again, Genesis found himself walking straight into trouble.