05 - The Key To The City

As Cataclysm traveled she realized she should have asked for directions. She knew roughly where City Hall was but this wasn't her part of town. The fact that most of the landmarks were piles of rubble didn't help, nor did the fact she had to duck patrols of Qularr. She wasn't afraid of the fight but she didn't want them knowing a metahuman was in the area, nor that she was headed for City Hall.

In the end she didn't so much find City Hall as she did find Grand Circus Park right in front of it. There was some kind of Qularr camp there, though not many of the bugs around. A ship hovered over the area and she hoped it didn't have any kind of sensors that could see her. Behind the park was City Hall, and Cataclysm couldn't help smirking at the ruin that stood there, though from here the damage didn't seem too bad. Her smirk faded when she realized she could see movement. The bugs appeared to be going through the rubble.

Luckily there weren't many patrols in the area, presumably because the humans had already been cleared out. She circled around to the west, staying in cover and darting across open areas as quickly as she could. There was enough cover that she was able to get across Park Avenue without being seen.

She watched the ruins for a long time. There actually weren't as many Qularr as she had first thought. If she was careful she might be able to get in and out before they realized anyone was around, though she was fairly certain she'd have to fight. She wished she knew where the mayor's office was. She might be able to go in a window if she did. Well it shouldn't be too hard to find. Just look for the most absurdly oversized and over-decorated space in the building.

Finally she had to admit her "reconnaissance" was just procrastination. She'd seen what she needed to see so it was time to go in.

She went through a shattered wall into office on the west side of the building. The floor was covered in rubble and her heavy boots didn't make it easy to move quietly. She heard a hiss from outside the door and knew she'd already been discovered.

Cataclysm burst out through the door and sent fire shooting towards the first shape she saw. There were two of them. She fired bolts from each hand, taking them out quickly, but she could hear chittering and the click of chitin on stone. She ran the other way, her footsteps thudding loudly on the hard floor. Her hope was to keep them guessing about her as long as possible.

She came around a corner and the corridor opened up into the main hall, an enormous space with a domed ceiling that was now open to the sky. There were about a dozen Qularr there and the all turned when she noisily burst into the area. She slammed fire into the closest one, dropping it, and then backed into the corridor. She looked back the way she had come and didn't even bother cursing. If they trapped her here she was doomed. She leaned out and peppered the approaching horde with fire. They had no cover other than a little ruined furniture so they charged her. She knew that gave her the advantage. They were exposed while she was behind a corner, and their movement would throw their accuracy off while she had time to aim. She'd been in enough fights to know the key was not to panic. She calmly sighted on each target and took it out, not letting the Qularr energy bolts striking nearby distract her.

One lucky shot seared her neck and her concentration wavered but she resumed firing as they closed. There were too many. She wasn't going to be able to drop them before they closed. She debated running back to the next corner, but if this degenerated to a firefight from cover she was doomed. She pulled back for a moment to get them to stop firing, and then rolled out into the hall. She barked her elbow badly on the marble floor but continued her roll, coming up on her knees so both hands were free. She released twin barrages of fire and was able to take the remaining four bugs down.

The side of her neck was in agony and her elbow ached but she couldn't stop. She scanned the area and spotted the elevator. Obviously that wouldn't be working, but nearby were the two things she needed: stairs and a directory. She leapt to her feet and ran over. Biselle's name was in big letters at the top of the directory and she saw his office was on the top floor. That might be a problem since much of the top floor was destroyed. She pushed open the door and bolted up stairs.

At the top she cracked open the door and listened. She couldn't hear anything. Fearing it was a trap, she opened the door and poked her head out for just a second before snatching it back. Nothing. She peered out again for a longer look, looking over a foyer in front of the elevators. A hallway led away and split into two paths around the central dome, or at least where it used to be. The dome and one side of the top floor were gone now.

She moved out into the corridor and the ground creaked alarmingly. She wondered if that was why there seemed to be no Qularr up here. You'd have to be insane to wander around the top floor of such a structurally unsound building. That made Cataclysm the right one for the job.

Still on her guard against both Qularr and shifting architecture, she moved down the hall, flexing her arm to work out the ache from where she'd slammed her elbow into the floor. The corridor to the right ended where the side of the building had been torn away so she turned left. Now that she was near the railing that overlooked the main hall she could hear movement from the main hall so knew they were probably looking for her. She stayed close to the wall and crouched over so she couldn't be spotted over the railing by Qularr on lower floors. The floor was carpeted so her footsteps were softer than they had been on the ground floor.

The corridor turned right and led to large glass doors, in pieces now, that led to city offices. Glass crunched under her boots as she stepped over the shattered doors. According to the sign behind the receptionist's desk she should go left, so she did.

She passed other offices and looked into the ones with open doors, but she was becoming confident that she was the only one crazy enough to be up here. The floor shifted under her more than once, which set her heart racing. She knew the noise probably wouldn't alert the Qularr over all the other creaking and shifting going on in the structure. She made it to the mayor's office without incident.

The room was large and lavishly furnished, designed to impress visitors. This visitor just curled her lip at the waste. She crossed to the oversized desk and looked underneath. It took her a moment to find what she was searching for because she had expected the safe to be set into the desk; it was actually set into the floor. She pulled out the piece of paper and twirled the dial to each number indicated. The safe opened with a clunk and the door opened smoothly.

She pulled out everything inside. She might be saving the city but if there was anything valuable in there she wasn't going to leave it for the bugs. Sadly it was just papers and other junk of no use to her. She grabbed the laptop and briefcase and stood back up.

Cataclysm didn't want to go back into the heart of the Qularr, especially now that they were looking for her, so she eyed the office window. She leaned out and scanned the street. Nothing was moving. She was a little turned around but finally figured out she was looking out the north side of the building. The Qularr were focused on the south so might not have any presence up here. Unfortunately she also didn't see a way down that didn't involve a long drop and a sudden stop.

She braced herself against the wall, testing to be sure it was sturdy, and leaned out of the broken window. She craned her head, wincing at the burn on her neck, to see if there was a way down from another window. One of the trees behind the building had fallen over and smashed into one of the top floor offices. That looked like her best chance.

She pulled her head in and quickly made her way three offices down the hall where the tree had smashed through the window. She looked over her escape route and saw a host of problems: the broken glass surrounding the opening, the tree itself which wasn't well-anchored and would probably shift under her weight, and the problem of climbing down a precariously leaning tree while holding a briefcase and laptop.

She used the briefcase to knock away as much of the broken glass as she could and then leaned out to look down. Directly below was a strip of grass and flower beds. Beyond that was an iron fence, and on the other side of the fence was a concrete sidewalk. She could drop the brief case and it should be fine as long as it hit the grass. The laptop she was less sure of. The case was thickly padded but she wasn't sure the computer could survive a four-story drop.

She dropped the case into the flower bed. The plants made for a soft landing and again she debated about the laptop, but finally slung the case over her shoulder and pulled herself out onto the tree. The tree shifted slightly and she tensed up but it settled and she resumed her descent.

The tree was meant for decoration and not climbing. There were lots of branches, but rather than offering plenty of hand and foot holds they merely served to block her progress and tangle the laptop strap. She grew increasingly frustrated as she descended, slapping and kicking at the branches in her way. She didn't want to burn them off because she was afraid of both attracting attention and lighting the tree on fire.

She was most of the way down when the laptop slipped off her shoulder. Reflexively she grabbed for it and lost her grip on both the tree and the computer, the latter dropping away from her. A branch caught her leg, turning her so she fell head first. She looked down to see the points of the iron fence coming up fast. She twisted, managed to kick off the trunk of the tree to avoid the fence and land face first on the sidewalk next to it.

Her head was swimming and she tasted blood. She forced herself to sit up and shake her head to clear it. She reached up and probed her mouth. Her teeth were intact, though her lip was swelling. She shrugged it off, having had worse injuries, and looked around. The laptop had managed a soft landing in the flowers. She pulled herself over the fence, grabbed the briefcase and laptop, and then climbed back out of the flower bed. She looked around for Qularr and, seeing none, she darted across the street to the ruined buildings on the other side.

Cataclysm ached from head to toe. Maybe it was the distraction from that, or maybe she was getting sloppy after not seeing Qularr for so long, but she didn't realize she was in trouble until something hit her in the back hard enough to knock her off her feet. She rolled over to see two Qularr standing over her. She didn't know where they had come from and didn't care. As one lifted its foot to kick her she lashed out with fire. They didn't go down quite as easily as the ones she'd seen so far, but they did go down.

She got up with a groan. She felt a sharp pain in her back when she breathed, which probably wasn't a good thing but there was nothing she could do now. "What the fuck am I doing here?" she said, more loudly than she probably should have. She leaned over with a grunt to pick up the laptop and briefcase.

"Hello?" came a woman's voice. "Is someone there? Um, someone human that is?"

Cataclysm looked around. This didn't seem like a Qularr trick--they weren't that subtle--and certainly the noise of the fight would have alerted any bugs in the area already, so she called out, "Where are you?'

"Here!" cried the voice. Cataclysm heard pounding. "I came into the store room to hide but the door's jammed and I can't get out."

Cataclysm followed the voice to a door. "Okay, okay," she said impatiently. "Stop pounding. You'll attract the bugs." She cleared away two large beams that had fallen and then looked at the door. "The hinge is bent. I'll have to blow it off. Stand back from the door."

"Okay."

Cataclysm blasted the hinge twice to separate it from the frame and then struggled to get the warped door open. The woman's voice said, "These aliens are really creeping me out, you know? Can we get out of here? Pleeaase? Regular bugs scare me, the aliens totally give me the heebie-jeebies." The door finished opening to reveal Cataclysm and the woman shrieked in horror and scurried back into the dingy store room. "Don't hurt me, don't hurt me, don't hurt me," she cried.

"Shut up!" Cataclysm snarled. "I'm not going to hurt you but if you keep screaming the bugs will find us." The woman quieted down but continued to whimper as she looked at Cataclysm in fear. She was blonde, about twenty, and dressed in a blue jacket and skirt. "Come on," Cataclysm said tiredly.

"What are you going to do with me?" she asked uncertainly.

"Look," Cataclysm said impatiently. "You can come with me or you can stay here until the bugs come. I don't care." The woman didn't answer and was clearly debating the lesser of evils, but finally nodded and hesitantly stepped forward.

Cataclysm shoved the briefcase and laptop at her. "Carry these," she said.

The girl took them and saw the city seal. "Oh, you know the mayor? Because I know-"

"I don't want your life story," Cataclysm snapped. "Just be quiet and follow me."

The girl came out and gasped at the two dead Qularr outside. "I hate bugs!" she said emphatically.

Cataclysm paused at the door to survey the street and then dashed across to the next building. She looked back and the woman was having trouble keeping up. Cataclysm looked down and realized the blonde was wearing heels--low business heels rather than ankle-breaking slut heels, but still they made it hard for her to move quickly especially on the uneven ground. Cataclysm sighed and waited for her to catch up.

Progress was slow but they made their way from building to building, staying out of sight. One time, while waiting for the girl to catch up, Cataclysm spotted another three-bug patrol. She crouched down to let them pass but then the girl saw them. She shrieked, "AHHHH! Aliens!" and turned and bolted.

"Stop!" Cataclysm yelled. "Don't run!" but the girl wasn't listening. She could move pretty fast in those heels after all. "Oh, for fuck's sake," Cataclysm sighed.

This of course had alerted the bugs so Cataclysm had to deal with them first. They were in the open and she was in cover so she wasn't in any real danger, but it wasted that much more time. When the bugs were down Cataclysm headed in the direction the girl had fled.

Cataclysm hoped she had just run to the first hiding place and stopped. She wasn't prepared to search all of City Center for her. She peered into the first building and called out, "Hey, stupid blonde girl. You in here?" She heard crying so entered the building.

She found the girl huddled in a corner, sobbing and hugging the briefcase and laptop. "What the fuck were you thinking?" Cataclysm snapped. This just made the girl cry harder.

Cataclysm forced herself to take a deep breath and calm down. She crouched down next to the girl and patted her arm clumsily. "Look, it's okay," she said. "I got 'em. We're safe." The girl stopped crying but wouldn't look at her. Searching for a way to calm her down, Cataclysm said "What's your name?"

"Melanie."

"I'm Cataclysm." She sighed. "Look, where I come from fear is weakness, and weakness gets you killed. So we learn to express it as hostility." Melanie looked at her but then looked away. "Plus I'm in an amazing amount of pain and it's making me cranky." Melanie relaxed a little more. "Now I suppose you want me to say that beneath this creepy makeup is a girl like you who thinks about guys and shopping and vampire novels. Well, I'm not. What I am is exactly the kind of scary and vicious bitch you need to get you out of here. And I will get you out of here. But you have to do what I say. All right?"

Melanie finally looked at her and nodded.

Cataclysm continued, "I know you're scared, but we don't have far to go. You hear that gunfire?" Melanie listened and nodded. Cataclysm said, "Those aren't Qularr guns. That means it's cops or PRIMUS. They're close." The girl relaxed a little more. "I can get you out of here but you have to do exactly what I say, okay?"

"Okay," she choked out.

"Stay close to me. Don't run. It's okay to get down behind cover, but if you run away I can't protect you, right? And if I tell you to do something, then do it right away. Got it?"

"Got it," Melanie said weakly.

"Good. Now let's go." The stood up and Cataclysm moved to the door. She stopped to check outside and Melanie ran into her. Cataclysm gritted her teeth and said, as nicely as she could manage, "Melanie, I need you to stay a little less close than that."

"Sorry."

Cataclysm was about to step into the street when she heard a sound. It was almost like a baby crying. She turned her head back and forth until she located it. She didn't want to be saddled with another refugee but she figured she should check it out.

As she neared the sound she realized it wasn't a baby. It was a cat yowling. It wasn't hard to find. It was in a carrier that was sitting in the middle of the street, probably dropped by a fleeing owner. Cataclysm frowned and surveyed the area carefully but there didn't seem to be any bugs around. She stepped over and peered into the carrier. The cat eyed her and hissed. "Yeah, I hear ya," Cataclysm said.

She picked up the cage and handed it to Melanie. "Carry this,"

Melanie shifted the other two cases to one hand and struggled to take the carrier. "Why do I have to carry everything?" she whined.

Before she could catch herself, Cataclysm snapped, "You're right. I'll carry stuff and you can fight the Qularr for a while." Melanie wilted under her fury. Cataclysm again forced herself to calm down. "If we are going to get out of here, we are going to have to work together. This," she pointed to the cases, "is critical to the city's defense. This," she pointed to the pet carrier, "is a helpless animal in need of rescue. Like you I might add. I need you to care for them so I can focus on fighting. Make sense?"

"Um, yeah. Okay."

The cat had stopped yowling, which Cataclysm was grateful for. The sound didn't bother her but she didn't want to attract any bugs in the area. Luckily they didn't encounter any more, at least until they got close to the barricades.

Cataclysm watched the place from the cover of a building. Should could see about a dozen MARS cops and a woman wearing the uniform of the Silver Avengers. They were in a well fortified position but they were being assaulted by a force of Qularr. These were huge bugs, much larger than the ones Cataclysm had seen so far, and they seemed almost crazed. They carried no weapons but fought hand to hand and with a viciousness that was threatening to break through the barricade. "Stay here," she said.

She stepped out and slammed fire into the Qularr from behind. It took a half-dozen shots to take down each bug and none of them even did her the courtesy of turning around. They were totally focused on breaking through the fortification. That just made it easier for Cataclysm to cut them down.

"Let's go," she said to Melanie. The girl stepped out and they started towards the police line. Suddenly the Silver Avenger started beckoning urgently and pointing behind them. Cataclysm turned to see another dozen of the huge Qularr thundering down the road. She grabbed Melanie's arm and said, "Okay, now we run."

The two of them hurried towards the barricades. Melanie was doing the best she can but stumbled a couple of times. Cataclysm kept her up with a firm grip, knowing if they fell that might be it for both of them. When they got to the barricades Cataclysm practically threw the girl over the stack of sandbags and then leapt over herself. The cops, who had been holding fire as they approached, opened up as soon as they were clear. Cataclysm got to her knees and added to the barrage.

After they defeated the wave of Qularr, the Silver Avenger turned to Cataclysm and said, "There's nothing better than being hip-deep in aliens to start your day!"

Cataclysm glanced at her nameplate, which said, "M. Sanchez". She said, "Yeah, I can think of about a million things I'd rather be doing. We're headed to the mayor's temporary command post. Where is it?"

Sanchez turned and pointed down the street. "See that building past the hospital? He's in the basement there."

Cataclysm turned to Melanie. "You should probably go to the hospital. I'll drop you off on the way."

"Um, my friend will probably be with the mayor. Can I come with you?"

Cataclysm suppressed a groan and said, "Sure."