Chapter 19:

Unlucky

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


The break she'd been promised lasted only a matter of days before she was called in again, this time in the evening to make ready for a sortie that night. As the now-familiar darkness of the warp tunnel took hold, and the verdant scenery of the arboretum gave way to the gloom of Atlantis' main hall, Calli steeled herself for what was to come.

Sigma's briefing this time was just as short and to the point as before, which only served to put her on edge – especially considering that he referred to this as an “important mission” and even went so far as to tell them to “be careful.” A supposedly minor role had involved fighting military-grade sentinel droids and a hero. If this was supposed to be worse, well...

She still didn't feel confident using a gun, but she did take an actual bladed weapon this time, not wanting a repeat of last time's defeat and disarmament. It was similar in design to her ill-fated shockstaff, consisting of a telescoping shaft with a force-empowered bludgeon on the butt end. Atop this, however, was mounted a curved HF blade, usable as a shortsword when in its compact form, and more than suitable for use as a polearm once the switch was flipped and the haft extended to its full length.

Her armor seemed to have been repaired to some degree or another, but strangely, although the cracks in her visor had been sealed up again, the glowing scar seared onto the helmet's surface had been left untouched. Looking at it, her helmet seemed to stare silently up at her with its singular scarred, unblinking eye.

The cameras seemed perfectly capable of working around it, and the lingering damage didn't impede her vision any, but even so, when all the bullet dents had been buffed out and the more overt damage fixed, it struck her as odd that they would leave such an obvious scar.

Then again, maybe that was the point. From beneath his helmet, Cas gave a slight whistle as she exited the changing rooms. “Only your second mission, and you've already got yourself a hell of a mark. I don't know whether to say you're lucky or jinxed.”

“So it is supposed to be some kind of trophy, then.”

“More or less,” the senior combatant confirmed with a shrug. “Getting roughed up by heroes is par for the course, but actually taking a big hit from one and living to tell about it is a different story. Shows that you're a fighter.”

“Well, I guess that sets me apart from some of us, at least.” She twitched her head slightly as she spoke, towards where a certain man was refueling the engine of his chainsword. Roland must have heard her, since he turned his head back to look at her a moment later, giving what was probably a silent glare from beneath his helmet.

“Please don't provoke him,” A quieter, more sheepish voice cut in as Cas' partner quickly inserted himself into the conversation, raising his hands and vigorously shaking his helmeted head. “We're about to start a mission. Now's not the time to fight...”

“Relax,” Calli said, breathing an irritable sigh. “I already got it out of my system.”

...That was a lie, of course, but she'd just have to settle for what she could get. At least she'd gotten a couple good hits in on the bastard, and given him a taste of her fist as well as a piece of her mind. Still, she wouldn't be leaving her back to him this time. She'd sooner count on Roy for covering fire.

Or... perhaps not. The young Stratan seemed to have learned his lesson, and had neglected to replace his rifle – only his sword, which he was clutching tightly in a gauntlet scarred with three distinctive claw strikes. He raised his head as he saw her coming, then just as quickly lowered it again without saying a word.

...Once again, she couldn't help but be reminded of her little brothers. They'd argue and fight with such conviction that if they found themselves proven wrong, they wouldn't know what to say. He must have been going through a similar phase himself. He'd assumed a lot about her, and hadn't exactly been polite ever since their first meeting, but now he probably felt like he owed her or something, even though what had happened wasn't either of their faults.

Truth be told, she didn't want to be idolized as a savior when she'd put countless people's lives in danger to protect herself, nor did she want him feeling guilty over assumptions that had mostly been correct. So, rather than berating or avoiding him...

“...How's your arm? All better now?” She asked. He started slightly, though she wasn't sure what he had expected her to say to be so surprised at her simple question.

“Yeah,” was all the response he could muster.

“That's good to hear.” He couldn't see her face, but she tried to convey the smile in her voice, at the very least.

“I'm... sorry.” When he answered her at last, it was with an unexpected apology. She tilted her head to the side.

“For what?” Calli asked.

“...Everything, I guess. I messed up the whole mission, and I acted really rude to you, and you still --”

She cut him off there, reaching down and clapping him on the shoulder with a dull metallic clang that drowned out whatever else he was about to say. When his momentary surprise wore off, she gave her answer.

“Don't worry about any of it,” She said confidently. “You'll do better this time, so chin up, eh?”

She couldn't see his face lighting up at this, but with the way his whole bearing seemed to shift and start upright, she didn't need to. Grinning under her own visor, she held out a hand and pulled him to his feet.

“I'll be counting on you, so let's do this thing, shall we?”

“R-right!”

Across the room, Athena nodded vigorously, and Calli could have sworn she heard a quiet “thank you” over the comms. Cas and Pol shouldered their weapons, Stanley adjusted his helmet, and Roland grudgingly strode past the lot of them towards the portal.

“You all know the mission,” he said. “We warp in, hit hard and fast, access the security systems, get the data, and then evacuate before help arrives. If we're lucky, no one will be close enough to stop us. If we're unlucky... well, pray it doesn't come to that.”

The warp gate opened. Calli took a deep breath, glancing back over her shoulder one final time before she stepped through.

There, on his throne, Sigma seemed to be watching them intently. For just a moment, she could have sworn he was looking at her.

But that was surely her imagination. He must have simply been anticipating the results of the mission. So, in the interests of not angering him, she turned her back on Atlantis, and stepped through the gate.

- - -

It wasn't just instinct that led Genesis back.

The next few days had been too quiet for comfort. Oz had set about fast-tracking his debut, but even so, that would take time. Apparently, there was a whole procedure to go through first. They couldn't just officially announce him and be done with it – that wouldn't sell. So, while they waited and prepared for a suitable opportunity, he was sent on regular patrol duty, to give the public the chance to catch more glimpses of him and build speculation before the grand unveiling. It felt disgusting, knowing that he wasn't even doing his job for the sake of actually doing it, but rather just to sell merch.

...Not to mention that there wasn't even much of that job for him to do in the first place. After going through a bombing and a terrorist attack, he had spent the subsequent days retrieving lost pets and catching the occasional burglar or purse-snatcher. The fact that his first actual arrest had been a certain swindler had done a little to improve his mood – but only a little.

Something big was going on – bigger than all of this. He didn't want to just stand by playing a part for the cameras when there was real danger out there, just waiting to hurt innocent people. And if it was going to happen anywhere, then it would be at the place where it all began.

So it was that he found himself at the end of his patrol, standing outside the front gates of a certain research facility on the edge of the Orbital District, close to Neuron's holdings at the heart of the city.

This time, he wouldn't just wait around for something to go wrong. Even if Oz yelled at him for it later, Orbital's flagship hero could go where he pleased and investigate whatever was necessary to do his job... right? So, he'd just stroll in, and figure out what was going on in this lab that ATLAS was so interested in –

The distant rumble of an explosion, and the echoing wail of a siren dashed those hopes all too quickly.

Okay. Plan B, then. What have you got for me, mysterious voice?

Where would the intruders be located? How many employees were still inside? Where was he supposed to go in order to save –

“If you're just going to stand there, then get out of my way.”

The voice that answered his silent queries wasn't inside his head, but rather right behind him. Spinning around, he found himself face to face with a towering figure in black armor, unseen eyes glowering at him from behind a knightly visor.

“V-Valkaiser?! Why are you – how did you –?!” Even a precognitive had the right to be shocked once in a while. Genesis himself had found clues, and knew inside information that had led him to come here. But this just didn't make any sense! This area might have been close to the border, but it wasn't even in Neuron's district! Valkaiser was under no obligation to intervene in this area, and, in fact, didn't even have the right to enter the compound. Not to mention, whatever attack had just started inside the lab hadn't even been reported on the Hero Net yet... but here he was.

As if he knew it was going to happen.

“That doesn't matter.” The undefeated black knight's gravelly voice snapped back at him. “Now, don't make me repeat myself. If all you're going to do is stand there and gawk, then get. Out of. My way.”

“Hell no!” Genesis didn't know what was going on in that lab, but if Valkaiser was trying to force his way in, then that meant he knew something, right? That... or he was trying to take whatever was in there before ATLAS could. This was just a hunch, but if he really was onto some kind of conspiracy, then it must have been even bigger than he thought. And, much though he might have disliked Oz, he wasn't about to let something dangerous fall into anyone else's hands, either!

“This area's under my protection!” Genesis insisted firmly. “If anyone's going in there, it should be me.”

“...Amateurs should leave the fighting to the professionals,” Valkaiser growled.

“And outsiders should leave company matters to Orbital's employees!” Genesis retorted firmly, spreading his arms and planting his feet as the black knight tried to force his way past. Valkaiser glared at him. Then, quite suddenly...

“Don't you have a train to catch?” He asked, heaving an angry sigh.

“Huh? A train to – Wait a second, was that a pun?” Genesis' confusion only continued to grow, but this time for entirely different reasons. “I never would have expected you to have a sense of humor.”

“And I never would have expected you to sit by worrying about company politics when people's lives are in danger.” And just like that, Valkaiser went right back to berating him. He was so taken aback by the sudden swerve in the conversation that he almost forgot what he was doing, and in that instant, the black knight stormed past him, kicking open the gate and marching directly into the compound.

“Hey, wait, you can't just –” Genesis tried to protest, but silenced himself even before the stony man ahead of him could shut him up. Valkaiser was... actually right, infuriatingly enough – no matter what his real agenda might have been. People's lives were in danger, and first and foremost, it was his duty to save them. He would have to keep an eye on the other hero, of course – but right now, stopping the terrorists took precedence over arguing jurisdiction. So, rather than wasting any more time...

“Oh, for the love of – at least wait for me!”

He turned to follow after the suspicious hero, determined not to let him out of sight. But just as Genesis stepped over the threshold, he stopped sharply in his tracks. The scenery before him seemed to warp and change, and rather than a single coherent voice, a confused jumble of words he couldn't even begin to articulate screamed within his head as a singular, gruesome image formed before his eyes.

Valkaiser was – no, Valkaiser would be lying face down on the floor, bloody and unmoving, the entire front of his helmet caved in on itself like a crumpled soda can. Splayed on the floor around him in various states of death or something approaching it would be two shapes Genesis recognized as ATLAS combatants – the tall one, and the one with the claw strikes on his arm.

And there just a few paces away, propped against the wall, would be a woman's body in that same black armor, now dyed in a fresh coat of crimson.

But just the body; at the headless corpse's feet would lay a helmet marked with a singular, glowing scar, whose contents he dared not consider.

Gazing down upon this scene of carnage stood a horned figure he couldn't quite recognize, whose strangely familiar scarlet armor was caked in the blood of the slain. The gore-spattered man slowly turned to face him, and at that very instant his vision jolted back to the present.

Just as suddenly, the voice in his head went silent. There were no commands – no instructions – no simple answer telling him how to prevent the massacre he had just foreseen.

All he knew were two things.

Right now, the woman who had fallen from the train was still alive, and was inside Stargazer Labs.

And Genesis knew with nauseating certainty that in just a few short minutes, both she and Neuron's hitherto undefeated black knight would be dead.