Chapter 22:

No Way Out

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

A sizzling sound like meat on a grill and a low crackling hum filled the air as Valkaiser drew back his sword, the blood upon it vaporizing instantly from the heat.

Roland's own weapon clattered to the ground, followed by his body as he crumpled like a puppet with its strings cut. Calli didn't know if he was dying or already dead – all she knew was that she was next.

There was no escape. No hope of rescue. No way out. But as Valkaiser pointed his sword at her, she found herself moving anyway, once more extending her polearm and clutching its haft with white-knuckled determination. A wordless yell burst from her lips, and, unable to retreat, she charged instead.

Down. Left. Thrust. With reckless abandon, she swung again and again and again and again.

Deep down, Calli knew. Even if she did hit him, it wouldn't work. But she couldn't let up the attack. The moment she gave Valkaiser the chance to go on the offensive, it would all be over. She was going to die here. She was going to die.

Valkaiser took a step back. Then another. He wasn't leaving anything to chance now that she knew his weakness. He deflected some strikes and dodged others, but never could quite close the distance between them. Her reach was longer. So long as she kept him at bay, she could drag this out for at least another half-minute, each precious second giving her time to think of something – anything.

Finally, the opening she had been waiting for appeared. Another swing was blocked. Valkaiser retaliated with a high slash of his own, and she ducked underneath it, pivoting to bring her spear back around and strike at his legs. The blow connected, and Valkaiser was forced to negate it. For just a split second, he would be vulnerable. Lunging back upward, she put every last ounce of her strength into one desperate thrust, aiming to skewer the hero as he had done to Roland.

But in the haze of panic and adrenaline, Calli hadn't realized. Valkaiser wasn't just retreating.

He was luring her in.

The hero had read her like an open book. The moment she jabbed at his vitals, he leaped into the air. Her spear passed harmlessly through where he had just been standing... and lodged itself in the fallen shelf behind him. She frantically tugged at it, trying to cut free of the rubble, but in that instant, the hero landed weightlessly atop her trapped weapon, slashing downward and bisecting it at the haft. Calli stumbled, her own desperate efforts to free it nearly knocking her over when it was unexpectedly cut from her grasp.

In the time it took for her to recover her footing, Valkaiser kicked off the wall behind him, somersaulting over her head. And before Calli could even turn around, a searing pain spread across her entire back as the hero's blade struck home.

She reeled forward, dropping her broken staff and catching hold of the rubble in front of her to keep herself from collapsing. It was a futile effort; before she could recover from the first blow, a hand grasped hold of the back of her helmet, and her vision went white as her face was slammed into the side of the shelf. A moment later, she felt herself being picked up and thrown backward, and then she hit the ground, hard.

The simmering pain in her back became white-hot agony that spread through her whole body, and she gasped for breath, blinking back tears and squinting past a sudden flurry of warning popups on her HUD as she tried to make the world stop spinning. When her vision did finally clear, all she saw was the looming figure of her death staring down at her.

“You put up a good fight, One-Eye,” Valkaiser said. His voice sounded almost friendly, compared to the contempt with which he had addressed Roland. Where was Roland, anyway? Oh. He was on the ground right beside her. Was he still alive? His hand was shaking. No, not shaking... he was pointing at something lying next to her.

“Now have your rest,” The hero's voice dragged her hazy consciousness back to reality – back to the sword hanging over her head.

Valkaiser's whole body tensed to bring it down, and end her life.

Calli's own hand clenched tightly around the last hope she had left. With a roar, the chainsword's engine sparked back to life, and she lunged upward –!

Their blades locked, then Valkaiser turned his sword out and downward, and her own weapon slid clumsily off it as the pommel of his sword planted itself in her gut. The air rushed from her lungs, and Calli crumpled back to her knees.

“Face it. It's over.”

Valkaiser drew back his blade to take her head.

“I can't die... in a place like this...! I won't...!”

She tried to raise her sword again, but her whole body felt heavy.

...No, not her body. Rather, it felt like an immense weight had been placed upon her shoulders, and was steadily... growing? She herself had undoubtedly been cut, but... something within her armor had been hit, too. Something was crackling and sizzling behind her ears, and... wait, what did that popup message say?


She didn't have time to think about it.

The sword descended. With a final scream of exertion, she reached up, and grabbed hold of the volatile mass that was burning its way out of the molten gash in her armor. The knight hesitated for just a moment, taken aback by the blinding object in her hands – and in his moment of surprise, he failed to finish her off.

The beacon's weight had grown to be almost too much even for her armor's enhanced muscles to bear. But with strength born of desperation, Calli drew back her arm, and threw it straight at Valkaiser. The knight's sword connected with it and –

Voices screamed over the comms, but she couldn't hear them. Even the flames that had been roaring a moment ago were suddenly silent. The world around her seemed to whirl and spin, and she realized that she was falling.

No, not just her – everything was falling. In an instant, the ground floor – no, the entire warehouse had simply ceased to exist. First the area around Valkaiser had disappeared in a blinding vortex, and everything else had rushed inward a moment later to fill the void – walls pulled in, ceiling dragged down, shelves collapsing, ground crumbling – all spiraling down together into oblivion.

Together. There was a shape falling beside her. Reaching out, Calli grabbed hold of it – of him – as they tumbled into the dark.

- - -

The explosion had been overwhelming, even from several floors below. All of a sudden, the entire corridor shook, and Genesis had only barely managed to keep his footing well enough to back up before the entire hallway in front of him collapsed.

By the time the dust had cleared, the lights had all gone out, and he was left in the dark save for the flicking of fire through the cracks in the crumbled ceiling.

In the distance, he could hear the sound of sirens and the rumbling of falling masonry. The ground continued to shake even as he retraced his steps over the cracked and upturned bits of hallway not yet blocked by rubble.

His whole body hurt. The explosion that had dropped him into the sublevels hadn't caused any serious damage to his armor, but the shockwave felt like it had turned his bones to jelly. His head was swimming, his ears were ringing, and even the slightest tremors beneath his feet forced him to rely on his auto-balancing systems just to keep upright.

But he had to keep moving. He had to get back... before it was too late to save them. Those three who had still been fighting must have been the cause of the blast – which meant at least some of them were still alive, right? His precognition had stopped telling him anything – it just kept showing him that same gruesome image.

The only thing that had changed was the surroundings. No longer did his vision display the warehouse floor, but rather a crumbled corridor strewn with debris, much like the one he shambled down. They must have fallen into the lower levels, too, then. They might even have been close by! There was still time... still time to stop this fight and save them.

But try though he might to recognize his own surroundings, or those he saw in the vision, it was impossible. Even though he had worked here for months, everything was falling apart around him. In the flickering half-light of the fire, he could hardly make out any details of the ruined lab. How was he supposed to know where he was, or where he needed to go?

But still, he kept walking. Hoping – praying – that somehow, he could still prevent what he had foreseen. Because he was the only one who could.

Because, like it or not, he was a hero.

- - -

I have to get out of here.

The sword in her hand gave a shrill, pitiful groan as its heavy edge dragged across the cracked ground behind her. Sparks flashed over her head from dangling wires, plummeting into the puddles of water pooling around the ends of warped and broken pipes. The ground shook again, and a fresh coat of dust covered her as, all around her, more bits of concrete and shattered rebar crumbled to the ground.

This whole place will collapse soon.

Once again, Calli put one foot in front of the other. Another lurching step, another twinge of pain that forced the wind from her lungs. Little by little, she dragged herself farther away from the mountain of rubble from which she had only narrowly extricated herself and the man slung limply over her shoulder.

Her helmet's radio crackled, and her suit's artificial muscles froze and twitched, forcing her to struggle against it just to keep walking. Burnt, cut, battered, and broken, it seemed her armor was reaching its limits. The weight of the sword in her hand was such that she couldn't even lift it – and the weight of the man she dragged along beside her felt as though it would crush her already wounded back.

“I'm... sorry,” Gasped Roland. His voice was barely audible, coming out with a wheeze that sent a fresh trickle of blood flowing from his otherwise cauterized side. “I can't feel my legs. I can't –”

“Don't talk,” Calli grunted back. “You'll reopen your wound. Don't make me go to all this trouble –” She lurched forward again, gasping for breath herself. “– just to save your corpse.”

There was silence save for the distant rumbling, the crackling of fire, and the splashing of her own irregular footsteps. Over the radio, she could almost make out a voice. Roy was calling her name. She tried to answer, but nobody responded. The damn thing must have broken. Just her luck.

“...Why are you –” A cough, another spurt of blood that stained her black armor in crimson.

“I told you not to talk,” She grunted, stopping long enough to adjust her grip on Roland as he squirmed in pain. His upper half did, anyway – his legs just dangled limply.

“Why... save me? You said –”

Because I'm not a hypocrite.

“Because that beacon of yours is my last ticket out of here.”

“I... see.”

The water around her feet was growing deeper, and she struggled to wade through it. The cracked floor rose up sharply just a little ways ahead as the crumbled hallway she had landed in connected with another corridor that seemed to be in better shape. An exit sign dangled precariously from the wall, its flickering arrow still pointing the way down the hall.

Dragging herself up out of the water, she rounded the corner. Sure enough, there was a door hanging ajar at the end of the hallway. She could see light flickering from a stairwell beyond it. Just a little further. They were almost out. If she could just make it there, they could escape to the surface before this whole place came down around their ears. Then, if they could just contact Atlantis, they could use Roland's beacon to escape. No one was going to die today. They could still –

There was a splash behind her, and the click of a trigger. With what little strength she had left, she threw herself aside, covering Roland with her body as a ruby-red sphere of energy streaked past both of them, striking the ceiling over the doorway and bringing the entire end of the passageway crumbling down in front of them. In an instant, her last escape was buried beneath tons of concrete.

Calli raised her head, turning around as the sparking wires and crackling flames behind him cast a single figure into stark relief. His once-proud black armor looked like it had gone through a blender, with some pieces cracked, other pieces burned, and others missing entirely. From behind his half-broken visor, a single crimson eye glared daggers at her, blood oozing from a pallid brow cut by shrapnel. With a gauntleted hand clinging to the wall for support, the dripping figure hauled himself the rest of the way around the corner, and raised his gunblade again, taking aim with a still-shaking hand.

“Well, that was a surprise... but you're going to have to try a little harder than that.”

Valkaiser was still alive.