Chapter 24:

Me, the Combatant, and Him, the Hero (End of Vol. 1)

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

“Has the girl recovered from her injuries?”

The All-Seeing frowned beneath his mask, using it as a shield to sneak a glance up from where he knelt at the foot of his overlord's warped throne. Sigma sat, as seemingly impassive as ever – yet his underlying restlessness could not escape Panoptes' notice as he tapped incessantly upon the armrest of his seat.

“...She has,” Panoptes answered slowly, his voice carefully measured so as not to give away his own unease. Under his watch, the girl he had dragged into all of this had nearly died. Sigma had saved her. He should have been grateful for that. He was grateful. However...

“Good,” Sigma said, a clawed fingertip tracing its way down the side of his helmet. “And? Did you relay my offer to her?”

“...Yes, my lord.” Though it had been the last thing he wanted to do, he had made the offer. And though it had been the last thing he wanted to hear...

“What did she say?”

“She agreed. Calli Wolfwood... will continue to serve ATLAS as a squad captain in place of Roland.” The All-Seeing had expected some measure of celebration at this, though he would have been disgusted to see it. He knew not how his protege had drawn Sigma's attention so quickly, but now that she had, there was little even he could do to shield her from it. Now that she'd barely survived two missions, Calli would be thrown right back into the ever-escalating struggle for independence.

But for all he had done to achieve this outcome, Sigma looked anything but pleased to hear it. He clenched his fists around the rests of his seat, and lowered his head, uttering an almost inaudible sigh.

“And? Was there anything she requested in return?”

Panoptes hesitated to respond, but ultimately did so honestly, if not helpfully.

“She made but one request of me, and I will see to its fulfillment myself. You need not concern yourself with it.”

Sigma clicked his tongue at this, but he pushed his questioning no further.

“...Fine. Just... see that she is not disappointed,” He commanded, then waved his hand towards the door. “That will be all. You are dismissed.”

Panoptes considered himself a loyal servant of ATLAS. He owed much to the organization, and more still to its master. He prided himself on his ability to follow orders quickly, efficiently, and obediently.

It wasn't as if he objected to this particular order, either. Calli's well-being was his responsibility, as the one who had pulled her into all of this. Furthermore, he had given her his word, and he would make good on his promise regardless of whether Sigma told him to or not.

But even so, he wanted answers.

“My lord... what are you thinking?” He rose to his feet, but rather than making for the door, he stepped forward, towards the elevated dais upon which his master sat.

“I told you to leave, Panoptes.” Sigma's voice was chillingly cold, but the anger within him burned far too hot to heed his lord's command.

“Sir, I have a right to know! We have spent years in hiding; always waiting, planning, preparing, weighing the risks of each and every move. All that time, all that effort to keep your identity hidden – and now you've gone and thrown it all away. I just want to know why you –”

A sudden, chilling weight had pressed itself down upon him, crushing the air from his lungs, coiling around his neck like an unseen serpent. All around him, the floors, the wall, the ceiling – the entire chamber began to shudder.

For reasons he couldn't understand, Sigma was furious – more so than Panoptes had ever seen him before.

“I do not owe you an explanation for anything. It is my right to decide what is and is not necessary. It is your role to be silent and obey,” Sigma hissed.

Yet even so, he had to ask. He had to know just what he had dragged that girl into.

“Why... her?”

Just as suddenly as it had begun, the magnetic weight upon him seemed to weaken.

“Why Calli?” He asked again, gasping for breath. “I was the one who brought her into this mess. She's one of mine, and I'm glad you saved her. I just want to know... What is it you want from her? Why did you reveal yourself for her sake?”

Sigma stared at him in silence, then slowly – reluctantly – the crimson-clad overlord uncoiled his fists, and the energy in the air dispersed completely.

“...I want nothing from her but her continued service. Her persistence moved me. That's all.”

“You're lying.” There was another reason. There had to be another reason. Sigma was not the sort of person who would discard his carefully laid plans on a whim, rendering pointless all the sacrifices they and those who followed them had made to get this far.

But Sigma merely waved his hand, and the force that had dispersed converged once more and prodded threateningly at Pantoptes' throat. “Leave,” He said at last. “I will not ask again.”

His questions unanswered, Panoptes gritted his teeth, and lowered his head.

“...As you wish, my lord.”

The All-Seeing departed. The door shut. There in the darkness, Sigma sank back into his throne, his shoulders slumped and head bowed.

He had made many mistakes to reach this point – and now he feared that he had just made another, far graver and more terrible.

He had long dreamt of this reunion, but he had never wanted it to be like this. The path he had chosen was one he had always intended to walk alone.

If that girl stayed her present course, her life would continue to be placed in jeopardy. But Prometheus had already noticed her – had surely already realized her true worth. If she left – if he let her go again – he could not guarantee her safety. At least here, he could do what he had never been able to do before.

This time, he would protect her; no matter what he had to sacrifice.

- - -

Ring. Ring.

The sky above was clear, but on the horizon, Ozymandias could see thunderheads forming over the distant waves. A storm was brewing – one that would soon shake NOAH to its very foundations.

Neuron had moved more quickly than expected. Their motives, at least, were obvious. Indeed, the question was not one of “why,” but rather “how.”

They had displayed almost miraculous foresight in this most recent incident, trespassing on his territory regardless of the consequences just to get a shot at ATLAS' leader, who had quite conveniently chosen that exact moment to reveal himself for all the world to see.

Oz supposed it was naive of him to assume he had a monopoly on such miracles.

He would move to sanction them, of course – and Horizon and Alterra would surely sustain it. Neuron's influence on the Security Commission had grown far too great in recent days, and surely he wasn't the only one who would like to see them put in their place.

An investigation into their handling of Esper containment would be launched, and he could spin hit pieces and conspiracy theories about it for at least a few months, even though the search would, of course, reveal no conclusive evidence. He'd leave them with a PR disaster and a few million credits in damages, get the chance to re-draw the borders of their districts, and smear a stain upon the reputation of Neuron's precious “undefeated” hero. But it would do little lasting damage, nor would it secure his throne.

No, he could not rest easy yet. Not until the mistakes of the past had been corrected. Not until that person lay dead at his feet.

But this incident was just as much an opportunity as it was a setback. At long last, his old enemy had revealed himself. If the bastard wanted a war, well... Ozymandias would be more than happy to give him one.

The ringing stopped, and the line connected.

“Good evening. I must admit, I had begun to lose hope that you would ever answer my calls,” He said.

“And I had begun to hope that you'd stop calling me.”

“Well, we can't all get what we want.”

“Great, glad to hear you already know what my answer's going to be.”

“Oh? Are you certain I can't convince you?” She hesitated to answer. Something in his tone must have given away that he had a winning hand.

“...Look, I've told you a hundred times already. I can't go back. I've got a family to look after now. I can't just –”

“What if I told you that the Southern Cross has returned?”

The line was silent, save for a muffled gasp – then, a quiet voice.


“I'm completely serious,” Oz rejoined. “Check the news if you don't believe me.”

“Okay. So what?” She asked defensively. “If he really is back, what do you want me to do about it?”

“...I'm not asking you to deal with him yourself, if that's what you're wondering,” Oz reassured. He could afford to concede that much now, just so long as she wasn't refusing him outright.

“No shit. You've got some new hero now, right? Why doesn't he –”

“He tried, and he lost immediately.”

“Ugh. That figures,” She sighed. “Crux always was a tricky bastard...”

“But you're the one who taught him all those tricks. If anyone could devise a way to beat him, it would be you, Polaris.”

“Don't call me that,” The former heroine grumbled. “And I told you, I'm not going to fight him.”

“You wouldn't have to. I firmly believe that my Sirius is more than a match for that washed-up has-been. He just needs... guidance.”

There was another long silence, and then, finally, the answer he had been waiting to hear came at last.

“...What's in it for me?”

“Oh, I'm so glad you asked...”

- - -

Genesis stood outside his apartment, gazing down into the darkened streets thirteen stories beneath him, watching the taillights stream by.

He couldn't sleep. The moment he closed his eyes, that night at Stargazer would come flooding back. The gruesome vision he had seen, all he had done to prevent it from coming to pass, the things Valkaiser had said and done, and of course... Sigma Octantis.

Among the ranks of ATLAS was a Stellar Knight who shouldn't have existed. Oz must have hidden that Polaris had another successor – that much was obvious. But as for who that successor was, or what his motives were, Genesis hadn't the faintest clue.

Furthermore, why would he choose now to reveal himself? If he had come to kill Genesis, he had plenty of chances to make good on that goal. Even Valkaiser hadn't been a match for him. It wasn't that they had driven him off. He had let them go. Had he really only come there to save his comrades?

It was like a bad joke. One of the island's most esteemed heroes was nothing more than a glorified executioner, cutting people down without hesitation or remorse. They might have been guilty people, but they were still people all the same. And to save those people, a notorious villain had arrived in the nick of time, risking life and limb to save the day.

And the most unnerving part of it all was that villain's interest in him personally.

There had been no secret project – no dangerous experiments – no evil plan. The only thing ATLAS had sought in that lab was security footage and personnel files – the very same information that had been used by Oz to force him into his current role.

It made no sense. If they knew who he was and were targeting him, why would they be looking for clues as to his civilian identity? And how would they have even found out his involvement in that incident when it happened before he ever became Sirius?

But that bomb in the salvage clearly wasn't just some random attack. Even before he ever became a hero, someone had been trying to kill him. That thought, more than anything, made him sick to his stomach, because the moment it occurred to him, he knew it was true.

After all, this had happened once before. Though he had still been a child at the time, he remembered it clearly. How could he ever forget the night his father had –

But it wouldn't do to let his thoughts run away from him. Going back to the issue at hand, he couldn't think of any other explanation. The target was and had always been him.

So then why didn't he finish me off when he had the chance?

Because Sigma Octantis had been trying to save his allies. It was the only answer that made sense. Somehow, preserving their lives was more important than taking his. That girl with the scarred helmet especially – she had been skilled enough to go up against Valkaiser, however briefly, and hold her own. She definitely wasn't an ordinary combatant.

...If he could find her, and make her talk, then maybe, he could finally get some answers.

But where to begin? It wasn't as if she'd just conveniently come strolling up and –

“Oh? Hey, Genesis. You're up late.”

- - -

It had been half a week since she'd last been home. The slash across her back had only narrowly missed severing her spine, and all her tumbling around afterward had ripped the wound wide open. Even with ATLAS' advanced technology at her disposal, she'd been stuck in the Atlantis medbay for days, undergoing countless treatments and tests to make sure there were no lasting complications.

Her whole body still was a little stiff, but the scar on her back looked far worse than it actually felt. Calli made a mental note to go through her clothes and throw out the ones that wouldn't cover it – which would probably amount to just one hand-me-down dress that she never had an excuse to wear anyway.

Well, the first thing she would need to go through was her fridge, though. Her milk had almost certainly expired while she was hospitalized, and she didn't even want to consider the sorry state of her produce. But she didn't have the energy to cook right now, anyway. She'd just have to go get something to eat out – assuming anywhere was still open this late.

Not that she had much of an appetite. There was far too much on her mind for that. She had nearly died. Not once, or twice, but over and over again.

She wasn't the only one, either. Roy was still shut up behind a blackout curtain recovering from his concussion. Stanley was sitting a vigil by Athena's bedside while her broken ribs healed. And Roland...

Well, he wasn't going to be walking again.

And yet those who still could chose to keep fighting, even though Panoptes had offered them an out. Walk away, go back to their normal lives while they still had them, and turn their backs on what they had done and seen. They had refused it.

The enigmatic Athena. The devoted Stanley. And, of course... Roy.

There wasn't a doubt in Calli's mind what would happen if they kept this up. Even Roland had been lucky, all things considered. He was crippled for life, but at least he was still breathing.

Yeah. They were going to die. Forget pretending to do good for the cameras – even NOAH's most renowned active hero had no mercy for those who got in his way.

“Mercy's not in my contract.”

If they ran up against another such hero, it was clear what the outcome would be. And yet...

“If this is how a hero behaves, I don't want to understand it!”

“Are you alright?”

There was at least one hero out there who deserved the name. Somebody who risked his life for others without a second thought. Somebody who could reach out a helping hand, even to his enemies, like the shining star of her childhood in whose footsteps he walked.

Calli herself wasn't such a good person. She couldn't even begin to live like that. Her world wasn't large enough for it. So long as she and the people she cared about were alive and happy, she'd do anything – and damn the rest.

If she wanted to live, the choice was obvious. This was never her fight, and it wasn't a battle she could even win.

But someone else had chosen such a battle for her sake. Someone else had lost so that she could live. And someone else was going to keep fighting that battle, all alone if he had to. Because unlike her, Roy had something he believed in.

A hero who could save anyone. A villain who no one would save. She couldn't live like the one – but that didn't mean she could throw the other away. So, when her turn had come... when she'd been offered a secondhand sword and the role of captain...

...Well, it wasn't as if anyone else was hiring her. She needed the money – and the raise would be good for her family. Right. That was the only reason. Her world wasn't big enough to worry about things like risking her life, or winning or losing, or saving others – just so long as the people she cared about were happy.

So long as they were happy.

“I want you to promise me something,” She had said. “Promise me that if anything happens to me, you'll see to it that my brothers are taken care of.”

Argus had looked startled at this. “...Are you sure? I deceived you. I took advantage of your circumstances, and –”

“The fact that you're asking that question is all I need to be sure,” She answered, cutting him off. “I trust you, and I trust my team. That's why... Yeah. I don't need any bigger reason. I'll stay.”

It was too late for regrets. She had already set foot in the underworld – she couldn't go back now. Even if it meant hiding the truth, or living a lie, or fighting for her life – she'd just have to endure it all. For the sake of her family, and her dream.

But even with her choice made, there was one other thing she was worried about, too.

“Oh? Hey, Genesis. You're up late.”

The ginger-haired young man started slightly, and turned away from the window, surprise turning to recognition as he faced her.

“Oh. Uh, good evening, Calli. Yeah, I just, uh... couldn't really sleep.”

She nodded. “I saw the news,” she said understandingly. Since she knew his secret already, that was a good enough excuse, right?

“Oh. Right. Of course you did.” He sighed. He was probably going through a lot thanks to her – what with all the damage she had caused.

But despite what she did, he had still tried to save her from Valkaiser. Really, it was only thanks to his intervention that her head was still firmly attached to her shoulders by the time Sigma arrived. She owed him more than he would ever know. The least she could do, then, was...

“Want to talk about it?”

“...Yeah. I would like that. Uh, if that's alright with you, that is.”

“I wouldn't have offered if it wasn't,” She answered with a smile. “But I'd rather not have a long talk here. I did skip dinner today, after all.”

“Is that so? You treated me last time, so... How about I return the favor?”

Calli grinned. “I was hoping you'd ask!”

The one who had caused his distress was her. The enemy she was going to have to face in the future was him. Were it not for a meeting of chance – a fateful encounter – a mere moment's courtesy – she might never have known what sort of person lay behind the title of “hero.”

She might never have realized there was someone she could call a friend, even here in the upper city.

Her friend. Her enemy. If, one day, he also learned the truth of their strange relationship... how would he react?

The future was uncertain, and full of danger.

At any time, my life could end. Things can't stay like this forever, or even for long.

He wouldn't kill her, and she wouldn't sell him out.

But he'll protect my life, even if he doesn't know it. And I'll protect his identity, so no one else will ever know.

It would be her little secret. A story only she knew.

As if anyone would believe me, even if I told them.

Neither one of them had wanted to end up standing where they were now – but here they were. All they could do was stay the course.

Until it all worked out, somehow. Until something changed. So, she would just keep hoping that maybe -- just maybe...

Maybe tomorrow will be better for both of us.

For me, the combatant – and for him, the hero.