08 - Defending Defender

As the door slid shut, Cataclysm realized something was wrong. She could hear weapons fire up ahead, a lot of it, and a loud explosion rocked the building. The reception area was littered with Qularr bodies and destroyed humanoid robots. She assumed the latter were some kind of automated defense set up by the Champions. She debated for a moment but figured she should tell Witchcraft before moving on. She turned around and reached for the door control. "Oh, for fuck's sake," she sighed. The panel had been destroyed, though she couldn't tell if it was deliberate or not. She went over to the receptionist's desk, hoping to find another door control there, but there was nothing. She drummed her fingers on the desk surface but she didn't really have much of a choice. She'd seen the door and she wasn't powerful enough to blast it open so there was only one direction to go.

Cataclysm suddenly remembered the healing patches the paramedic had given her. She fished one out and looked it over. It looked pretty easy to use. She stripped the cap off one end and jammed the short needle into a patch of bare skin. In a minute or so her pain started to fade and she felt more energetic. She dropped the empty capsule and moved into the corridor.

It didn't take long for her to come across the first battle. Two Qularr exchanged fire with two defense robots. Cataclysm blasted the bugs and started to walk forward, but then dove into a doorway for cover as the robots turned their weapons on her. "Hey, I'm on your side!" she yelled but the machines were unmoved. They fired bursts of energy and she could hear them advancing down the hall. She rolled out low and blasted them both as hard as she could. She was unsure how vulnerable their metal bodies would be to her fire blasts, but they went down easily enough.

She listened and, though she still heard the sound of fighting, she didn't hear any more combatants approaching. She regained her feet and went to examine the robots for weak spots. Although made of metal they weren't that well armored and she saw several places her fire bolts could cripple or destroy them. She paused as she studied them. There was something familiar about them. She shrugged it off, figuring she'd seen them on news reports about the Champions building.

Cataclysm continued deeper into the building. She could hear a larger battle against the background of small weapons fire and suspected that was where Defender was. It seemed surprising he was having so much trouble against the bugs. Maybe he wasn't the badass everyone thought he was.

She came across more skirmishes and avoided the ones she could. However she'd learned her lesson once and no longer treated the defense robots as possible allies. She attacked either them or the bugs if she found either group alone.

Cataclysm neared the bigger battle. She could hear explosions, the fire of guns much larger than pistols or Tommy guns, and the high-pitched whine of energy beams. The ground shook with the steps of something massive. Defender was big in his powered armor but these thundering footfalls seemed too heavy for that. Maybe it was some huge defense robot.

She paused as she neared the end of the corridor. It opened up into a large chamber and this was where the sounds of battle were coming from. She approached cautiously and peered around the edge of the doorway. She had been right--it was a huge defense robot. It was humanoid and at least twelve feet tall. It had some kind of pods mounted to its shoulders and massive guns on each arm. As she watched it pointed its right arm and fired an automatic cannon at its foe.

She was shocked to see its target was Defender. He threw up an arm and an energy shield blocked the high-caliber rounds but they hit with such force he was pushed back along the tile floor. He fired a barrage of bolts from a wrist weapon and then threw his shoulders back. A powerful beam of energy shot out of his chest and struck the robot but that didn't slow it down. Cataclysm could see his armor was torn and sparking in places, and the robot showed a great deal of damage as well.

"You cannot defeat me," the robot said. "The Black Talon armor is invincible!"

Cataclysm frowned. That hadn't been a robot voice like Wild Bill's. She looked closer and realized she could see a human head through a clear bubble mounted at the top of the machine. It wasn't a robot. It was a huge suit of powered armor. Why was a human attacking Defender? Was he working with the Qularr?

Cataclysm was so focused on the battle she almost didn't hear the metallic footsteps behind her. She whirled to see a patrol of robots. She lay down a barrage of fire bolts, backing into the room as she did so.

"Reinforcements?" Black Talon taunted. "It will take more than two feeble heroes to defeat me. All the Champions together could not overcome a servant of Dr. Destroyer!"

Defender turned to see who had entered. When he saw Cataclysm he said, "Hero, we don't have much time!" He didn't see the pods on Black Talon's shoulders open to reveal an array of tubes. The tubes released a horde of small missiles that flew in a cloud towards Defender.

"Look out!" Cataclysm yelled reflexively.

Defender turned but was too late. The missiles exploded and he was lost in a cloud of fire and smoke. When it cleared, Defender lay unmoving on the ground. Black Talon laughed maniacally as he turned to Cataclysm. "Dr. Destroyer built this Black Talon armor for one reason and one reason only: to kill heroes like you."

Cataclysm didn't know what was happening, but she knew she was going to die if she didn't act quickly. "Then I guess it's good that I'm not a hero," she growled and she slammed powerful blasts of fire into Black Talon. She tried to aim for already damaged areas, hoping she could cause some kind of critical system failure. She could see she was starting small fires inside the suit and that might work to her advantage.

Black Talon brought up his automatic cannon and Cataclysm ran to the side, still pouring fire into him as fast as she could. His bullets tore chunks out of the wall behind her but he was moving a huge weight and couldn't track her fast enough to catch up. He lowered the cannon and raised the other arm. She skidded to a halt, preparing to run the other direction, but she wasn't fast enough. The gun fired with a *foom* and a coil of wire shot out and wrapped around her chest, trapping her arms. She'd been hit by tanglecoil shooters before--cops used them sometimes--but she quickly realized this coil was different. It was barbed and grew tighter as she struggled, digging into her skin until it drew blood. Black Talon did his villain laugh again and braced himself as the missile pods opened again.

Cataclysm bared her teeth and yelled in frustration as she fought to twist a hand around. She fired a tight stream of flame that cut the thin wire at the cost of a long burn across her chest. As soon as she was free, Cataclysm poured twin streams of fire into the open missile pods. The missiles started to launch but then they detonated, all of the warheads at the same time. Black Talon cried out and fell due to the force of the multiple explosions. He struggled clumsily to get up while Cataclysm's mind raced, trying to think of a way should could beat him.

Defender said, "Hero, over here! We don't have much time!"

Cataclysm turned in surprise. Defender was still lying immobile on the floor but she could see his mouth moving as he said, "We have a chance, but I need your help!" Cataclysm knelt next to him. "The suit servos are frozen!" he said. "I can't move! I can overload my chest beam and that might be enough to defeat our enemy, but I need you to aim the beam!"

Cataclysm found herself wondering if he always talked in exclamation points, but shook that thought away as she moved behind him and struggled to get him off the floor. "Roll me on my side!" he said. She lifted with all her strength but the armor weighed a ton.

Black Talon had regained his feet though seemed to be having trouble finding a stable position. "Persist with your interference, hero, and Dr. Destroyer's vengeance will be without limit!"

Finally with a burst of adrenaline Cataclysm managed to get Defender up on his side. She sighted the beam as best she could. "Brace yourself!" Defender said. "This will have quite a kick!"

A blinding flash shot out towards Black Talon and the recoil send Defender and Cataclysm sliding along the hard floor until they smashed into the wall. The shot tore off the lower section of one of the suit's legs. Cataclysm wondered if any of the pilot's real leg had been in there. His scream as the suit toppled again could have been pain or frustration. "No, I cannot be defeated!" he insisted.

Cataclysm was pinned between the wall and the unmoving Defender. Her strength had been spent lifting him once and she wasn't sure she could do it again. Then she realized Black Talon was struggling to point his automatic cannon at them and suddenly another surge of strength flowed into her. She got some leverage against the wall and pushed Defender, rolling him onto his stomach and freeing herself. She leapt across the room to stand on top of the fallen Black Talon armor. The pilot glared at her through the cockpit bubble as he tried to move the suit. Cataclysm lit up her hands and said, "You going to give up, or shall we find out just how fireproof this canopy is?"

He bared his teeth at her and she drew a hand back to fire. He said, "All right, all right. I give up." She backed off the armor and the canopy popped open. She kept her hands up and lit as he struggled out of the armor but he was clearly carrying no weapons.

"Handcuffs," came a muffled voice.

Cataclysm circled so she could see Defender without looking away from the Black Talon pilot. He was still face down on the floor. "On my belt," he said through lips smashed against the floor. It was all she could do to keep herself from laughing.

She cuffed the pilot. "So what am I supposed to do with you?" she said to Defender.

"The suit is repairing itself," he said, his voice still muffled by the floor. "I should be able to move in a few minutes." At least he had stopped talking in exclamation points.

Another patrol of robots came into the room and Cataclysm blasted them. "Can't you tell your defense robots to stop shooting at me?" She had intended the comment for Defender but the pilot responded.

"Ha! Dr. Destroyer's forces will never stop fighting heroes. You may have defeated me through luck today, but soon an army of robots will subjugate all nations as Dr. Destroyer spreads his influence across the planet."

Cataclysm suddenly realized why the robots had looked familiar. Every cheesy movie about Dr. Destroyer and the Battle of Detroit had to have tons of evil destroid robots for the hero to destroy. "You mean those robots aren't yours, Defender?"

"No, hero, they are the cruel minions of the evil Dr. Destroyer." Cataclysm frowned at the word 'hero' but said nothing. "Black Talon and the destroids are behind the Qularr attack on Millennium City. The Qularr are just pawns. Black Talon was here to activate beacons we had recovered during the last Qularr invasion. However he has modified them in some way. They broadcast a high-frequency signal which drives the Qularr crazy. That's what caused them to attack! We need to shut down all of those beacons!"

Cataclysm heard the exclamation points again and turned to see Destroyer was slowly pushing himself up from the floor. "That is better!" he said. "Most of my weapon systems are still damaged and will need longer to repair! You've shown great bravery today, my friend, but I still need your assistance! If you can provide the firepower I still have enough defensive ability to protect you from the destroids as we make our way to the beacons!"

Again Cataclysm bristled at his familiar tone but said only, "Ironclad says the cannon is ready and needs you to fire it from here."

"Excellent! The control center is past the storage room where the beacons are so we can fire the cannon once we have deactivated them!"

"What about him?" she nodded at the pilot.

"If we leave him, the destroids will free him so we must take him with us! Do not flee, prisoner, because justice will find you wherever you run! This way!" He strode confidently towards one of the corridors.

Cataclysm turned to the pilot. "Let me be more direct than the idiot cape," she said to him. She held up a hand and called up the flame. "Run and I'll be sure you regret it for the rest of your life, which will be quite short and painful. Got it?"

He glared at her defiantly and said nothing. She shoved him after Defender.

Defender could move with surprising stealth considering he was wearing a metal suit. He led the way with the prisoner behind and Cataclysm bringing up the rear. Defender stopped at a corner and beckoned Cataclysm closer. Softly he said, "My sensors show a force of four destroids around this corner, hero. I will go out first and attract their fire. Once they are focused on me, you step out and destroy them quickly." Cataclysm nodded, but her irritation with Defender was growing.

Defender stepped out to fire wrist-mounted beams down the hall and then blocked a barrage of return fire with an energy shield on his left arm. He moved to the far side of the corridor and Cataclysm knew it was time for her to move. She glared at the pilot and growled, "Remember what I said."

She leaned out and blasted the four robots there. Even as she destroyed them they kept their aim on Defender. Cataclysm reasoned they might actually be pre-programmed to target the Champions over others. That was fine with her. After the robots were down she looked over her shoulder. The pilot was still there, glaring at her defiantly. She roughly shoved him around the corner.

Defender said, "Great job, friend! At this rate we'll--"

Cataclysm had hit her limit. She threw her weight into Defender's chest, knocking him against the wall. "Listen, tin man," she grated, her face close to his. "I'm not your friend. I'm not a hero. You call me that again and I'll cook you like a baked potato wrapped in foil. Got me?"

Defender was taken aback by her reaction. "Of course, fr-...er, what would you prefer I called you?"

"I'd prefer you didn't, but if you must call me something my name is Cataclysm."

"Very well, Cataclysm! Shall we continue?"

She stepped back and waved him down the corridor. She looked at the pilot and said, "You better wipe that smirk off your face or I'll burn it off." He carefully rearranged his expression.

They met more destroids as they made their way through the building. The Qularr hadn't penetrated this deeply. The robots weren't really a threat, especially once Defender's weapons started to come back online. There was a larger force guarding the store room, but after all she'd faced today fighting them was practically a vacation.

Defender entered to store room and deactivated the beacons quickly. "Why do you keep these?" Cataclysm asked.

"Our studies of Qularr technology have led to a number of valuable innovations in our own technology, plus permitted us to build defenses against their attacks! That is one reason we have managed to hold them off during this invasion!"

"Yeah well maybe you should take them apart before someone does this again."

"You may be right, h-, um, Cataclysm!"

Next they went downstairs to the underground command complex. On one wall was a huge screen filled with a view of the cannon. Cataclysm was surprised the camera hadn't been destroyed. Below that was a wide bank of controls and several chairs. Defender sat in one and brought up a display on a smaller screen. He tapped a few controls on the screen and a few buttons on the panel. "Everything is in readiness! Systems show the cannon is operational, loaded and aimed at the mother ship's engine!" He paused and then stood up. "Why don't you do the honors, Cataclysm?" He pointed to a large button on the screen. "Tap this button to launch the Ironclad Defense!"

Cataclysm was tempted to tell him what he could do with the cannon, but she had to admit it seemed pretty cool. She crossed to the console and reached out to tap the screen. It was a bit unsatisfying at first--there really should be a good solid 'click' to a button like that--but then the ground shook as the massive cannon fired. The camera tracked the hypervelocity shell as it penetrated the mother ship's shield and hull.

Cataclysm waited but nothing happened. "Was that it?" she asked in confusion.

"Not at all! It will take Ironclad a while to do enough damage to disable the ship! Let us go outside where we can get a better view of our victory!"

They encountered no destroids as they returned to the main floor, their prisoner still sulkily in tow. With Black Talon defeated and the beacons deactivated, Cataclysm figured they probably had retreated to wherever they had come from. She found herself wondering how they had gotten into the building. They certainly hadn't come in the front door or Witchcraft would have mentioned it.

They exited the building and Witchcraft greeted them with an enormous smile. "You're safe! The Qularr have started to withdraw." Cataclysm saw she was right. There were only a few bugs out there now and those that remained were boarding ships rather than attacking the barricades. The mood of the PRIMUS soldiers with Witchcraft was certainly improved over what it had been when Cataclysm had gone in.

The Qularr weren't attacking anymore so everyone watched the mother ship, keeping half an eye on the remaining invaders as they evacuated. Finally Cataclysm could see several bright flashes in the rear area of the ship. Slowly the ship began to move but she could see something was wrong. It was listing and the nose was dropping. More flashes appeared in other areas of the ship and smoke began to billow out of the enormous ship. The sound of the explosions finally reached them as dull thuds.

"It's going to hit the UNTIL building," someone said in alarm. The mother ship was losing altitude rapidly as it moved to the south and it did look like it was going to clip the UNTIL tower, but by some miracle it passed over without striking the building and dropped toward the river.

"There's Ironclad!" said Defender, pointing to a dot that was falling away from the doomed ship.

"He can really survive a fall from that height?" Cataclysm asked.

"He can," said Witchcraft. "I'm not sure any impact is strong enough to hurt him."

The mother ship plummeted into the Detroit River with a crash that rippled through the entire city. A cheer went up from the defenders, and even Cataclysm found her usual grumpy mood evaporating.

With the mother ship destroyed, the other Qularr ships over Millennium City fled into hyperspace tunnels. As global communication systems came back online reports said that all the other invasion fleets were retreating as well. Apparently this had been the central command ship for the entire operation. Like many of the insects they resembled, the Qularr were controlled by queens and when a queen was destroyed the rest of the hive was nearly helpless.

Defender threw open the doors to the Champions building, inviting everyone inside for a celebration. Cataclysm let herself be dragged in by the flow of the crowd, mostly to wolf down a little food since she hadn't eaten all day. However she felt out of place in the crowd and finally slipped out.

She stopped when she heard her name and turned to see Witchcraft approaching. "Please stay. No one had more to do with our victory than you did."

"I'm not really one of this gang."

Witchcraft looked puzzled. "Of course you are. Has anyone make you feel unwelcome?"

Cataclysm was surprised to realize nobody had. Once she got away from the cops, who just saw a Maniac, nobody had given her much of a second look. But that hadn't been her point. "No, I mean I don't really fit in with all this hero shit. I was just saving myself."

Witchcraft looked like she was going to say something and then changed her mind. "Well, I wanted to offer my personal thanks. Defender told me what happened. You probably saved his life. He's a good friend. I owe you my thanks and much more."

Cataclysm shifted uncomfortably. "Not telling people I saved Defender's life would repay anything you think you owe me."

Witchcraft chuckled. "I suppose that wouldn't go over well with your friends."

"I'm serious," she snapped.

Witchcraft raised her eyebrows. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to sound like I was making fun of you. We appreciate the value of...anonymity here. I'll talk to Defender and we'll keep your name out of this if that's what you want."

"I'd appreciate it," she forced out. "Sorry. It's been a long day."

"Are you sure you won't stay? It's nearly dark and we had planned to let people stay the night here if they needed to. We can run you back to Westside in the morning."

"I'll be fine."

"Maybe I could-"

"I'll be fine!" Cataclysm snarled. Then she grimaced and said, "Look I just really need to get out of here. This," she gestured derisively towards the celebration noise, "isn't who I am. I'm nothing more than a street punk who can do some tricks. I just want to get back to my kind of people."

Witchcraft looked concerned and said, "All right, I understand." She reached out to touch Cataclysm's arm. "I meant that about owing you a favor."

Cataclysm shrugged off her hand and walked away.