07 - The Battle Of Champions

The Champions building was under siege. An enormous army of Qularr surrounded it and dropships continued to bring in more. Cataclysm could see barricades set up on every ramp and stairway. A horde of heroes and PRIMUS troops defended the place as best they could, but the bugs just kept coming. An enormous cannon was deployed on the main plaza and Ironclad--she could easily recognize him and even hear him bellowing orders at this distance--stood defending it from the few Qularr who broke through the lines.

Cataclysm sprinted across the street to crouch down behind one of the trees on Woodward Avenue's median. She found what looked like a thin spot in the Qularr lines and started firing. Many of them were the crazed ones that fought hand-to-hand, but a lot of them still retained enough sanity to use their energy rifles. All of them basically ignored her, intent on getting either to the cannon or to the building itself, she wasn't sure which.

She broke a hole in their lines and saw someone beckoning her from the barricades. There were a line of soldiers there and a figure in dark red clothing standing in front of the fortification wielding twin swords and cutting up any bug that came close. Cataclysm ran across the street, continuing to blast Qularr as best she could. She didn't even have to aim. Anywhere she blasted fire, there was a bug there. Cataclysm charged for the line of crates and sandbags and dove down behind them.

"Welcome to the Alamo," said a metallic voice. "I hope we do better than them fellers did."

Cataclysm looked up to see a robot designed to look like a cowboy. He drew twin six-guns and started firing at a new wave of Qularr. Next to him a woman in a harlequin outfit fired strange, cobbled-together energy rifle over the crates. "Actually Rorke's Drift would be a better analogy," she said. "You know if the Zulus had energy weapons and space ships." She looked down and Cataclysm and winked. "And the defenders won that one."

There were also several PRIMUS soldiers behind the barricade. Cataclysm sat up to add her fire bolts to the barrage. At the next lull, the cowboy robot tipped his hat and said, "Wild Bill Tick-Tock, ma'am. Pleased to meetcha. Whiskey's on me when this is over."

"Cataclysm," she offered.

"I'm Shenanigans," said the harlequin. "That one doesn't talk," she nodded to the woman using the swords, who had retreated behind the barricade between waves, "but I've been calling her Cuisinart." The silent women stayed silent, merely drawing her swords as more Qularr came.

After battling this next wave Cataclysm looked behind her, trying to take in as much of the defenses as she could. "Not many of us here," she said. Everyone looked haggard. Even the robot seemed to be moving slowly.

"Used to be more," Wild Bill said. He shrugged. "Seem to be an endless number of them varmints though and when one of us falls, no one's here to replace us. You're the first new one I've seen in quite a spell."

"So what's the plan?" she asked in frustration. "We just keep killing bugs until we die?"

"Hey, at least it's a plan," Shenanigans offered. "I said we should fall back and defend the city from a beach in the Bahamas, but no."

Wild Bill said, "That big cannon up there was supposed to be the plan. Suppose to fire some kind of big slug that will take out the Qularr mother ship where their queen is. But them varmints damaged it and now we are waiting for supplies. Stage is late though. Robbers I expect."

"Why doesn't some cape just fly it in?"

Shenanigans said, "Qularr AA defenses are too good. Anything larger than a dust mote gets zapped out of the sky. They've made a real dent in the pigeon population at least."

Cataclysm looked up. It seemed odd to her but she hadn't really been paying attention to the mother ship. It was so huge her brain couldn't process that it was an object. It just seemed like the sky. "And if that cannon doesn't get repaired?" she asked.

Wild Bill shrugged. "At least I die with my boots on."

"Well, since they are actually welded to your legs that's not saying much," observed Shenanigans as she raised her strange rifle to her shoulder again. "Giant roach motel," she said as she started shooting. "That's my idea."

"Sounds like a winner," said Cataclysm as she blasted the bugs. "Afraid I left my can of Raid in my other pants."

"Isn't that always the way," Shenanigans sighed. "Anybody know how to say 'I surrender' in Qularr?"

The battle seemed hopeless. The ships kept dropping troops. The defenders would wipe them out and then more would come. It was only a matter of time until attrition and fatigue doomed the humans.

"Look!" someone shouted. "It's a truck."

Cataclysm saw an army truck bouncing its way down rubble-covered Woodward Avenue. "That's got to be the cannon parts. God, they'll never make it."

"Suppressing fire!" shouted the PRIMUS commander. "Make a hole!"

Every gun and superpower was directed at the Qularr between the Champions building and the truck. The humans fought with renewed energy as hope approached, but the truck hit one obstacle too many and skewed to the side. It smashed into a light pole and stopped a half-block from the defensive lines.

Cataclysm could actually feel the energy drain out of the defenders. It was like a cloud had covered the sun. She gauged the distance. There was no way. You'd have to be crazy to even try.

"Let's go," she said, standing.

The others looked confused. "Go where?" said Shenanigans.

"To get those supplies."

The others swiveled their heads as one to look at the wrecked truck and then back at her. They didn't even need to speak for Cataclysm to know what they were thinking.

"Look," she said, "if I wanted to die cowering under cover, I'd have stayed in Westside and at least died with my friends. In that truck are the parts we need to take down that ship." She hoped. It might also have been fleeing civilians, a crate of PRIMUS dress berets, or anything else. "These fucking cockroaches are not going to take over my city. Not as long as I have a breath in my body. I'm going."

The others were silent and then the woman with the swords drew her blades and stood next to Cataclysm. Wild Bill said, "I reckon I'll join this posse. Wish I had my horse, though. And about a hundred deputies."

Shenanigans said, "Sure, sounds like a laugh."

The PRIMUS squad leader nodded. "Okay, we're with you."

The hole they had made was already closing. They were going to have to move fast and hard. The swordswoman led the way, carving out a path out of the surging insect bodies that moved to block them. Wild Bill focused on keeping their right side clear while Cataclysm took the left. Shenanigans followed, lending her support to either side. The PRIMUS soldiers protected their flanks.

This was not a time for slow advance under cover. This was a straight balls-to-the-wall charge that wouldn't have had a chance against an organized enemy. But the Qularr just didn't seem to see them. The bugs had lost their minds and they simply charged in just as mindlessly as the humans who were charging out. Behind them Cataclysm heard commanders shouting for their troops to provide supporting fire.

They reached the truck without taking a single injury and Cataclysm started to think this mad plan might just work. The truck bed contained a single crate, strapped down securely. A couple of slashes from the silent woman's swords and it was free. The PRIMUS soldiers struggled to get it off but she waved them off. She pushed the crate to the truck's tailgate and then jumped down. She stood with her back to the truck and reached behind her to pull the crate onto her shoulders. From the way the truck rose when the crate was removed, Cataclysm figured the crate must have literally weighed a ton. The woman grunted a little but otherwise seemed fine carrying the load herself.

The Qularr finally realized something was going on. The nearest bugs turned their rage on the little group. Cataclysm burned down as many as she could but they were closing in fast. The silent woman couldn't move faster than a rapid walk under the weight of the supplies, and the loss of her combat skills hurt the group's ability to defend itself.

The painkillers from the healing patch seemed to wear off suddenly and Cataclysm's body started aching. Fatigue was catching up with her and she found herself stumbling on the uneven ground. One time she bumped up against the crate and it swayed dangerously. The woman growled but righted the load and continued. "Sorry," Cataclysm said as she returned to the fight.

She heard yelling and turned. A group of soldiers and heroes led by Ironclad were charging down the ramp. They smashed into the Qularr in a wedge formation. Ironclad drove through the crowd of bugs to the beleaguered group, laying about with his giant sword. "A brave plan, my friends," he boomed. "I'll take this burden from you." He lifted the crate with one hand and shifted it onto one shoulder. The woman straightened up, stretched her back muscles and then drew her swords.

The reinforcements had disrupted the Qularr enough that the humans were able to get back to the Champions building. Cataclysm felt exhilarated until she turned and saw that many of the others were carrying bodies. She didn't know if they were wounded or dead, but it sobered her to realize they had lost so many. She had to know if they had risked everything for a purpose. While the others resumed their position at the barricades, she followed Ironclad to the cannon.

He had opened the crate and PRIMUS troops were looking over the contents. One was saying, "The triggering components aren't here. We can fix the rest but we have no way to fire it."

"We can fire the weapon from the control room," Ironclad said in his rich baritone. He looked around and spotted Cataclysm. "My friend, I need you to carry a message to Defender inside the headquarters. Tell him the cannon is ready, or will be by the time you reach him, and he must fire it as soon as possible." He pointed. "Go around the building this way to reach the main entrance, which is being held by Witchcraft. Tell her I sent you and she will let you into the building."

Cataclysm would rather have stayed to fight than act as gofer, but she knew they had to work together. "On my way," she said. She glanced at the cannon and hesitated. "Okay I just have to ask. Why does that bullet have a door?"

Ironclad grinned. "No single round could disable a ship like that. I shall ride in the cartridge as it penetrates the ship's shield and hull. When it stops, I shall emerge and smash the ship's systems from the inside. Then as the ship falls to earth, I shall leap free."

Cataclysm just looked at him for a while. "If you ever get sick of this Champions thing, come over to Westside and join the Maniacs. You're crazy enough to pass the entrance exam."

She thought he might be offended, but instead he said, "You honor me, my friend. Good luck!"

Cataclysm ran as quickly as she could, knowing that even with this new hope the defenses could collapse at any minute and the Qularr could swarm the gun. The walkway curved around the building to the main entrance on the west side. She came around to see a line of sandbags set up at the top of a wide stairway. Qularr swarmed up the stairs towards the defenders at the top.

Cataclysm stepped out and attacked the Qularr from behind. She stayed to the side, out of the line fire from the soldiers at the top. She rained fire on the bugs as she ascended the steps. She neared the top and saw a red-headed woman in a green dress standing between two lines of sandbags. She wasn't crouching behind cover because a shimmering shield deflected any Qularr fire that reached her. Cataclysm recognized her as Witchcraft.

The last of the Qularr fell and Cataclysm jogged up the steps. Witchcraft smiled a greeting at her. "Thank you for the help," she said a little out of breath. "I didn't recognize the spell. Was that Blazing Arrow or Ezner's Flame Jet?"

Cataclysm wasn't sure what to say to that. She shrugged. "I point at stuff and it blows up."

Witchcraft looked surprised. "You mean you haven't had any formal magical training?"

"No." Cataclysm looked down at her hands. "Is that what I'm doing? Magic?"

"Most definitely. I'm astonished to see that level of ability in someone with no training. You must be an intuitive fire mage. But try this." She stepped over and grabbed Cataclysm's hand. "Curve your fingers in like this. And when you cast, you know how you feel the heat move up your arm?" Cataclysm nodded. "When it gets about to your wrist, rotate your hand like this."

"Here they come again," said one of the PRIMUS soldiers.

"Try it," Witchcraft said.

Cataclysm looked down the steps at the approaching wave of Qularr. She curved in her fingers and called up the fire, rotating her hand when the heat reached her wrist. The first blast of fire came out with such force her arm jerked back. It was like the difference between a .22 pistol and a shotgun. The shot went wild. Bracing against the recoil she tried again. The Qularr she hit dropped in one blow. "Yeah," she said with a grin. "That's a lot better."

Witchcraft finished chanting a spell and lightning danced among the Qularr, felling many of them. "Talent is valuable but you need training to reach your true potential. A man might be seven feet tall, but to become a basketball star he still must learn the game. You should find a teacher when this is over."

Cataclysm, who had been exhausted a minute ago, was filled with energy as she blasted bug after bug with her new power. She was almost cackling. "Yeah, I think I'll do that." Suddenly she remembered why she was there. "I need to get in to talk to Defender." Blast, blast. "The cannon," blast, "is done but Defender has to fire it from inside." Blast, blast, blast.

"Go ahead," Witchcraft said as the last of the wave fell. She gestured over her shoulder and the door slid open. "Some of the Qularr have gotten inside, though not many. I imagine Defender has already defeated them." She shook her head. "They are mad to get inside the building. I don't understand it."

Cataclysm nodded. "It's the same out there, but it's been a lot worse the closer I've gotten to the Champions building. I don't think it's just because this is the command center either."

"Nor do I. Well, hurry along. Maybe we are seeing the end of this battle."

Cataclysm nodded and trotted into the building. The door slid quietly shut behind her.