A blinding ball of energy radiates from the Reactor, swallowing every stray ray of light in its path and leaving nothing but darkness behind. Ships fall from the sky like dead leaves. Tendrils of frost creep out over every surface. Snowflakes mingle with ash as the whole world turns grey.
Asana groans as she pushes herself out from under a fallen pillar. She blinks, confused at the sight of snowflakes swirling across an ink black sky. Frost has formed on her armor and she marvels as it melts into tiny rivulets at her touch.
Then, she remembers.
Her eyes travel up to the Reactor Core, now pitch black and shrouded in smoke, like a drop of ink in a cup of water. Its crystalline shield is in shards across the floor. She scrambles to her feet and scans the room for signs of life. In the corner, a spark of electricity catches Asana’s eye; Su-Ren is damaged, trapped beneath a twisted metal beam.
“Su-Ren?” Asana says, pulling the debris away from the android’s body.
Through the injuries, Asana sees that the android’s energy core is restarting, blinking and spinning faster by the second. Nanite tendrils unfurl along the ragged edges of Su-Ren’s wounds, reaching out toward each other in clusters. The warrior carries Su-Ren out from the rubble and places a protective shield over her body.
She searches the room again and sees Kaigin’s scarf flutter in the breeze.
Nearly covered in snow, Kaigin’s body is as still as a corpse. With baited breath, Asana races over and reaches down to check his pulse. His skin is ice to the touch, but his heart still beats weakly against her fingertips.
As she pulls his body out of the rubble, her breath catches at the sight of bright red blood seeping through the snow. She looks back up at the dead Reactor core, wondering what would happen now if he… Asana shakes her head. Calmly, she removes the crystalline shards from his wounds with a quick, firm hand and shields them to stop the bleeding.
Rubble falls behind them, and Su-Ren’s voice echoes through the night. “He’s killed us all,” Su-Ren says, weakly. “Asana…”
“I know,” Asana replies. She looks upon her former friend as confusion and sadness grip her heart. This man destroyed the Reactor. He’d sentenced all of humanity to a painful death. No redemption could ever be found for such a crime.
He never even told her why.
She unsheathes her sword and sighs, feeling its suffering through every inch of her being. The ancient yearns for the Reactor. After a moment, she whispers, “I’m sorry.”
Asana launches her blade into the distance. The thin band of prismatic light connecting her to the ancient makes the whole room glow. She looks back into Su-Ren’s eyes with sorrow. “I need to know the truth.”
She lifts Kaigin’s body from the floor and vanishes from the room. Behind her, Su-Ren lies alone, livid, in the falling snow.
Quark spins through the war-torn city, mouth open and eyes wide with glee, chasing snowflakes across the sky.
The anomaly giggles. “This one’s wet! And this one’s wet! And this one’s wet!” Quark dives beneath a big pile of snow. It begins to glow green. Quark pops out again, grinning, with a fluffy white snow beard around its cheeks. “Ho there! Looking good!”
Floating past a smoldering debris pile, Quark pouts. “Aww, no snow?” The anomaly tethers up an enormous bundle of ice and hurls it at the fire, cackling with joy as the black, ashen beams break beneath the weight. The whole building crumbles as Quark bounces away.
Catching a glimpse of their own reflection in the window of a skyscraper, Quark leans in close and makes faces at it, spinning and twirling around in little flurries of frost.
At a distance, Nix lies on a rooftop of a ruined building, camouflaged in snow. Through his sight, he can see Quark’s smiling face. “That’s it, you little weirdo,” Nix murmurs. “Smile for the shot.”
“Not so fast!”
Nix turns at the sound of a woman’s voice behind him and is immediately smacked by a heavy, holographic grappler. Another grappler latches onto his rifle and takes it away. “You’re not as sneaky as you think you are,” Celeste purrs.
“What is this?” Nix mumbles. “What are you doing here?”
Celeste nods her head toward Quark with a grin. “We’ve come for the same prize.”
“Over my dead body,” the sniper grumbles.
“That can be arranged,” Celeste replies. “Or we can figure out a more amicable solution.” She tosses the rifle back to Nix and raises her hands in a gesture of peace.
“I need Quark alive, and you seem like you’d be fine with… not that. So, what if I take him now, and you do whatever you like with him later. He’s easy to spot in the dark.”
Nix stares at her. After a long while, he finally says, “No.”
“What? Why not?” Celeste exclaims.
“Twenty thousand ISO, and we’ll call it a deal.”
Celeste glowers at him. “LOOK AROUND!” she says, angrily. “The Trusts have killed the Reactor. What would you even use ISO for now?”
Nix shrugs. “That’s my business,” he replies. “Fork it over.”
With a grimace, Celeste agrees. “Fine. You’re such a mercenary.”
“No, I’m a Freelancer,” he says, nodding at her as he activates his stalker suit. “You have a good apocalypse.”
Celeste can hear the sniper’s morbid laughter echo down the empty street as she turns back to the anomaly, still playing in the snow. She activates one of Helio’s Proxi devices, attaches it to her grapplers, and launches it across the flyway. An orange shield wraps around Quark’s body, locking it in place.
“Gotcha,” Celeste says, reeling in her bounty. Inside the shield, Quark is giggling, pressing their face up against the boundaries and licking them from the bottom up. Celeste grimaces. “Come on. Let’s get you to Helio.”
The explosion took Helio by surprise. He knew that the Trusts were sapping the Reactor’s energy, but by his calculations, the Reactor should have been fine for decades more at least. He ran the numbers again and again, but it all seemed wrong.
Snow had never been seen in Atlas, but without the Reactor, the entire city was freezing over. His personal generators were still running for the time being. If it came to it, he could re-power some of the city temporarily while he figured out a way to restore the Reactor.
Then, a familiar voice sounded from the hallway. “Helio? Are you here?”
“Zuki!” Helio calls back, excitedly. “Get in here!” When the engineer pokes her head in, Helio notes that she’s covered in even more ash than usual.
She nods. “That generator you built me still works. Got me here just fine, even in all this.” Her eyes are as dark and grey as the city itself.
Zuki hadn’t spoken to Helio since the summer, still upset over his involvement with the Omni case. Her arrival now brought Helio out of his stupor.
“I missed you,” he says, quietly.
Zuki doesn’t seem to hear him. She stands at the door, hesitantly. “We’ve known each other for as long as I can remember. Before you tricked me and Lockwood and PuP into helping you do –” Zuki pauses and frowns. “I thought you would never lie to me.”
“I didn’t know that Celeste had involved you in all of that. Smith’s promise.”
She puts her hand up. “All I want to know is if what you’re doing – what we did – caused this.”
“No,” Helio says, immediately. “I didn’t do this! I’m trying to help people. This is the Trust’s fault! They overtaxed the Reactor’s energy with their stupid in-fighting and now it’s… well...”
“You stirred up trouble between the Trusts,” Zuki says. “You started their war, didn’t you?”
At that, Helio blanches. He runs his hands through his hair awkwardly.
“This is your fault,” Zuki says, in horror. “The world is over… because of you.”
“You’ve got it backward. The world can start again now. The Trusts are weakened now, maybe even dead.” He gestures out to the city. “This can be remade, and it can be remade better than ever.”
“Lockwood was right about you,” Zuki says, angrily. “You’re obsessed. You’re crazy.”
Maniacal, happy laughter rings through the room as Celeste and Quark show up at the doorway. “Delivery for Helio!” the thief says, cheerfully. “Oh! I didn’t know you had company...”
“I was just leaving,” Zuki says.
“No! Stay! Please? And Celeste, let Quark out of that thing already.”
The thief acquiesces, and the anomaly flies out, leaving a long streak of light around the room as they go. Quark tethers onto Celeste repeatedly and says in a singsong voice, “My turn, my turn!”
“Quark! Hold on a second,” Helio says. “We need a favor from you.”
“Strawberry or vanilla?” Quark asks, coming to a sudden halt an inch away from Helio’s face. Freed from Quark’s tethers, Celeste fixes her staticky hair in irritation.
Helio jumps back. “A favor, not a flavor. Quid pro quo. You do something for us, and we do something for you.”
“Oh?” Quark’s head tilts to the left, curiously. “You’ll do something for me?”
“After you do a favor for us, yes.” Helio says.
Quark giggles. “I get to pick?”
“Whatever you want… within reason. And assuming we’re in any condition to deliver it.”
Quark nods. “Let’s do it! I’ll go first!” the anomaly says, flying off.
“WAIT! You don’t know what it is yet!” Helio shouts. “We need you to go and tether to the Reactor Core, just like you did with the Omni Core.”
“You want me to go hug Ma?” Quark asks, twirling around.
Helio glances at Zuki and Celeste wearily. With a small, confused sigh, he says, “Yes?”
“OK! But then you have to do whatever I want afterward!” Without wasting a second, Quark crashes through the closed glass window and beelines toward the Reactor, glowing brighter as they fly away.
Helio races to his holotechs and taps into the Omni Core’s mainframe. If his calculations were correct, Quark’s tethers would restart the Reactor, but stabilizing the energy output afterward would require additional work.
“Zuki, I need to borrow your ship,” he says, grabbing some of his shield generators.
She stares at him, still clearly upset.
“This is our only chance to make things right. You don’t want the world to end, right? So be mad at me after I – after we – save it.” Helio says, urgently.
“Get in the ship,” she replies, rolling her eyes. “But you have to sit in the sidecar.”
A relieved smile spreads across Helio’s face. “Deal.”
Soon, they’re speeding across the skyway toward the Reactor.
Snowflakes and ash build up on the dash as they travel. The rooftops around them are scattered with powered down Eliminator bots and abandoned exo suits. Behind panes of frosted, foggy glass, the occasional shadow of a civilian can be seen. Far below, the depths are blanketed in white snow and speckled black with the charred remains of fallen ships.
Helio scrabbles together mods to his shield generators, cursing as he bumps back and forth in Zuki’s sidecar. When they catch up to Quark, the anomaly sticks a tongue out at the ship grumpily.
Zuki pulls her flying junkyard up to the Reactor Core.
“What’s happening to it?” Zuki whispers.
The Core is a whirling ball of black smoke, electrified with purple lightning.
“She’s grumpy and sleepy!” Quark says, cheerily.
With that, the anomaly launches itself into the Reactor Core. The smoke turns white and glows from within, the same color as Quark. The whole reactor begins to whirr. Colors shift within the smoke in rapid cycles, from red to green to gold.
Helio preps his shield generators and places them around the Reactor’s housing. Barriers spring up around the Reactor core, containing its energy.
Zuki and Celeste watch in awe as thousands of tiny, prismatic stars erupt from the Reactor. The snowfall over Atlas glows with every color of the rainbow as lights drift down on top of them. The rest of the illuminated motes float through the darkness in clusters, painting streaks of color across the night sky. Soon, twelve defined beams of colored light form from the center of the Reactor, stretching outward like petals on a blooming flower.
Quark shoots out of the barrier and lands with a thud in one of Zuki’s passenger seats.
Helio, Zuki, and Celeste look around in shock as block by block, the light returns to Atlas. Soon, the entire city is aglow, from city center all the way to the Waste.
“It worked,” Helio says, in wonder. He laughs and throws his arms into the air excitedly. “IT WORKED!”
“And now you owe me BIG!” Quark says, sticking out a tongue.
“Whatever you want,” Helio replies as he stares out across the city, imagining a whole new world rise up out of the ashes.
“Then it’s MY TURN!” Quark shouts, throwing a tether on Helio.
“Ow! Wait, what?” Helio tries to pull the tether off unsuccessfully.
“I WANNA PLAY!” Quark yanks the tether hard enough that Helio faceplants into the snow. “Your turn!”
Zuki laughs and spins her bazooka up over her shoulder. “Guess it’s go time,” she says, with a wink.
“Oh please,” Celeste scoffs. “Just try and catch me!”
Their laughter rings through Atlas as life slowly re-emerges from the snow. Citizens in brightly colored coats appear on the rooftops, eyes wide as they stare up at the lights above. Merry cheers sound from the Depths through to the Strata. For the first time in weeks, the people of Atlas feel something dangerously close to hope once more.
Atlas is awake again.