20 - Desert Vacation

"This is Witchcraft. I'll be out of cell phone range for the next two or three weeks so leave a message and I'll call back as soon as I return."

A few seconds later a different woman's voice said, "I'm sorry but this wireless customer's mailbox is full. Please try again later."

Cataclysm hung up with a frown. She had spent the couple of weeks since the battle with Hi Pan taking it easy so her injuries could heal. She was back to fighting fit and impatient to get back to...something. She wasn't sure what. It annoyed her when she realized she had become dependent on Witchcraft's direction. Cataclysm certainly didn't want to get into crime fighting, but at the very least she was ready for more lessons. She was sick of doing nothing.

Her bad mood was compounded by Pyro. Unfortunately their recent reunion wasn't going smoothly. They were spending some time together trying to rekindle the friendship, but something had changed. They were irritable, flying off the handle with each other over imagined--and sometimes not imagined--slights. Emotions still bubbled beneath the surface and they both felt betrayed by what had happened. It was worse because Pyro had closed herself off. It took Cataclysm several days to realize that her old friend didn't trust her anymore. Pyro saw her as the enemy so wouldn't discuss anything the Maniacs were up to with her. Cataclysm had grown tired of denying that she was working for the cops, and the tension between them grew.

Cataclysm cast an eye towards the danger room but she had just finished a good workout in there. She had continued to train in Witchcraft's absence and none of the other Champions seemed to object to her presence. In fact they were, if anything, too friendly. Cataclysm was still getting used to one hero friend; she didn't want five.

She wandered aimlessly down the hall. No, she admitted to herself. It wasn't aimless. She knew exactly where she was going. She peered into the doorway and was disappointed to see Defender was in his office doing something on the computer. If he'd been gone she could have put this off for another day. Cataclysm stood in the doorway debating about whether to talk to him, but the decision was made when he looked up and saw her. "Cataclysm!" he said enthusiastically. "What can I do for you today?"

Cataclysm took a few uncomfortable steps into his office. "Heard from Witchcraft?" she asked, as she'd asked him several times over the last few days.

"No, not yet, but I'm sure she is fine! Our work takes us into dangerous areas sometimes for weeks at a time! Witchcraft is a valiant hero and I'm confident she can deal with whatever dangers she encounters!"

"Yeah, I guess," Cataclysm said. "You don't think she might need some help?"

"Not at all! She is quite a capable woman!" There was an awkward silence until Defender prompted, "Was there something else I could help you with, Cataclysm?"

She shrugged. "I've been feeling restless lately. I've been thinking about getting out of town..." She trailed off expectantly.

Defender said, "Wonderful idea! After the difficulties you've had, you deserve a vacation!"

She rolled her eyes. "For fuck's sake," she mumbled. She should have known better than to expect him to take a hint. "Okay, Defender, let's try this again. Maybe someone should find out if Witchcraft is all right. And I'm thinking of getting out of town for a while."

He studied her for a second and she was just about to snap at him when he finally said, "Ah, got it! Cataclysm, could you do me a big favor? I'm a bit worried about Witchcraft so perhaps you could go down to New Mexico and make sure she doesn't need any help!"

"There's an idea," she said sardonically.

He turned to the computer to check something. "The Champions jet is headed down to Project Greenskin on Wednesday around noon! We would be happy to offer you a seat on the flight! See you then!"


Cataclysm ducked her head as she entered the plane through the low doorway. It was pretty nice inside, maybe not as plush as a corporate jet but certainly nicer than flying with the rest of the cattle on a commercial flight. She was surprised to see there was another passenger, more so when she realized she recognized him. She struggled a bit for the name and then said, "Wild Bill Tick-Tock, right?"

The cowboy robot turned to look up at her. "Tarnation!" he said with a metal grin. "Well howdy, Cataclysm. You disappeared so fast in that critter dustup a while back I feared you was buzzard food. Glad to see I was wrong."

Cataclysm took a seat across the aisle from him. "Where are you headed?" she asked.

"Home. Back to Snake Gulch. Got tied up in a few scraps here in the big city but I'm finally headed back to my kin. Tired of all the fussin' and fightin' here. Want to get back to play actin' for the small fry. Had enough of real gunplay fer a spell."

Cataclysm nodded sympathetically. "Yeah, sometimes you just need a break from fighting."

With her on board, the plane was ready and they lifted into the air within a few minutes. She and Wild Bill chatted for a while but she didn't really want to talk about what she'd been doing lately so the conversation lagged. He got the hint quickly and they passed most of the trip in a comfortable silence.

Cataclysm tried to read the text on fire magic she had brought but she found it hard to concentrate on it, especially since she figured it would be a bad idea to practice spells on the plane. She stared out the window, dozed on and off, and generally tried not to spend too much time in her own thoughts. The hours dragged but finally the pilot came back from the cockpit. She looked up and was surprised to see a look of concern on his face.

"We are near to Project Greenskin but there's a problem," he said. "We've gotten some garbled transmissions from them and it sounds like irradiates have overrun the facility. PRIMUS has been pushed back to a single foothold inside the complex itself. They have sandbags and a limited force protecting the landing strip but we are going in hot and fast. You are going to have to fight your way to the main building."

Cataclysm turned to Wild Bill, who was pulling out a duffel from under his seat. He took out two pistols from the bag and grumbled, "You greenhorns made me put my big shootin' irons in cargo."

"Yeah, well, we didn't know about this," the pilot said apologetically. "Cataclysm, can you cover us while we get his guns out of the cargo bay?" She nodded. He said, "Great! We'll be down in a few minutes. Stay buckled in because it's going to be a rough landing, but get ready to go as soon as the plane stops."

He returned to the cockpit and in a few minutes she felt the plane turn. She looked out the window and saw Project Greenskin swing into view. Even from this distance she could see the smoke rising from it. There were a lot of little dots in front of it. If every one of those was a radioactive zombie, then they were in a lot of trouble. She said to Wild Bill, "I guess you've got a little more fussin' and fightin' to deal with before the day is over."


Cataclysm flopped down in the chair in Director Kaufman's office. He looked up from his work and waited patiently for her to begin as she rubbed her face tiredly. She looked at him blearily for a few seconds before saying, "Major Gertz is dead."

Kaufman leaned back in his chair and let out a long breath. "That's too bad," he said.

"No choice," she said.

"I'm sure there wasn't. Still...I knew him." He looked out the window. "It's one thing to lose a man in battle. This...this is different. I had hoped maybe he'd at least give himself up in the end. Face court martial." He turned back to her. "The base is secure then?"

She nodded. "Yes. None of his guys were willing to surrender."

"Very well. We'll send a squad in tomorrow to recover the bodies. Send 'em home. Not sure what I'll tell their families."

Cataclysm yawned loudly. When she finished, she thought Kaufman looked annoyed. "Sorry," she said. "That wasn't directed at you."

"I know," he said. "I think you've gotten less sleep than anyone around here. Well other than that robot."

"And you," she said. It was around three in the morning but yet she had known she'd find him in his office when she got back to the base.

He said, "Go get yourself some chow and then get to bed. "

She nodded and slowly rose to her feet. "I'll head up to the northern barricades tomorrow. Wolff said there's been a lot of irradiate assaults there lately."

Kaufman said, "Oh, don't worry about that. That's normal irradiate shenanigans. You've gone well above and beyond anything we could expect, soldier." His eyes twinkled. "I'd put you up for a civilian commendation but you aren't in the ASPRA database."

She snorted. She was not about to register her powers with the ATF, no matter what the law said. "Really?" she said sarcastically. "I'd swear I sent that form in a few days ago."

"I may not be able to thank you officially but you have my personal gratitude. I don't have the words to express how great a debt we owe you, every last one of us. Cataclysm, I salute you!" He did so. Embarrassed she returned the salute sloppily.

He continued, "You're welcome to stay at this facility as long as you like but I know you also have your own mission to attend to."

"Not unless I find out something new," she said gloomily. "Still no news?" She'd asked him about Witchcraft when she had first arrived several days ago. Witchcraft had passed through here and had even asked Kaufman if he needed any assistance; he had said no, not knowing about Gigaton's plan to rally the irradiates. She had flown off to the northwest, not saying anything about where she was going or what her business in the area was. There was a lot of desert out there and without some idea where she was going Cataclysm could wander for weeks. PRIMUS recon had been tied up with the irradiate problem but Kafuman had told her he'd have them look out for Witchcraft as well. Unfortunately they had found nothing.

Kaufman shook his head in response to her question. Cataclysm shrugged, "Then I guess I'll help out Wolff tomorrow." She left his office and paused outside. The cafeteria was to the right. Her bed was to the left. Both called to her but she knew if she didn't get something in her stomach she wouldn't be able to sleep so she turned to the right. She shuffled through the deserted hallways, feeling like one of the zombies she'd been fighting lately.

There was one solider in the cafeteria, eating a sandwich and reading a magazine. They exchanged a silent nod as Cataclysm headed for the vending machines. She groggily looked over the sandwiches and finally picked one at random. She got a soda out of the machine next to it and headed for a table near the soldier. She looked at the food and, though she was starving, it just seemed like too much trouble to lift it to her mouth. She rested her cheek on her fist and closed her eyes to rest them for a moment before eating.

"Burnside."

Cataclysm jerked awake and turned to the soldier. "What?" she asked.

He looked up from his magazine in surprise. "What?" he echoed back.

"Did you say something?" she asked.

"No."

She rubbed her eyes. "Sorry. Dreaming I guess." She yawned and forced herself to take a bite of the sandwich. As she chewed she felt her eyes closing again. Maybe she'd just take the sandwich to her room.

"Burnside."

She jolted awake again. The soldier was eyeing her. "You didn't hear that, did you?" she said. He shook his head. It had been a woman's voice, distant and weak. "Does 'Burnside' mean anything to you?" Cataclysm asked.

The soldier thought for a second. "Hmm. Maybe. Might be one of the ghost towns out there. Not sure." There were a thousand towns like that, built during the early settler days and then abandoned when the mines ran out or the railroad bypassed them or smallpox wiped them out or for any of countless other reasons. Most of them were empty now, inhabited by nothing more than coyotes and jackrabbits.

Feeling energized, Cataclysm nodded thanks at him and grabbed her food and drink to take to her room. She had a map there and maybe the town would be on it.

It wasn't, but she asked the recon division the next day and they were able to locate it for her. They lent her a GPS device that would make it easier to find. It was about a day's travel for her so she decided to set out early the following morning.

"Heard yer leavin'," said a familiar voice as Cataclysm walked down the hall the next day. She turned to see Wild Bill leaning against a wall.

She smiled at him. "Yeah. I found what I needed to know, I think, so I'm going out to look at it. You gonna stick around?"

"Naw. This little cavalry station seems pretty well under control now. Time to hit the road and get back to the old homestead." He shook his head. "Things keep gettin' in my way but I'm finally going to get back on the trail to the peace and quiet of Snake Gulch."

"Good luck," she said. "I'll have to come out and see you next time I'm out that way."

He tipped his hat. "You'd be welcome, ma'am. Most fun you can have west of the Pecos."

She waved at him and headed out. Once she got out of the main building, she took to the air and shot off to the northwest.