24 - Prison Bound

Cataclysm approached the plane in the pre-dawn light with some trepidation. Witchcraft had been cryptic when she called, saying only Cataclysm should pack for an overnight stay and get to the Champions jet as quickly as possible. She refused to say anything else other than that someone aboard would explain more.

She boarded the plane to find a sour-faced woman in an UNTIL uniform sitting in one of the seats, drumming her fingers impatiently. She looked up as Cataclysm entered and said, "Finally! Stow your luggage and buckle in." She got up to close and seal the door.

"Who are you?" Cataclysm asked in irritation.

"I'll explain in a minute. We have to get moving." She moved to the closed cockpit door and knocked once and then twice before taking her seat. "Come on, let's go!" she snapped at Cataclysm, who was still standing there.

Cataclysm shoved her bag under the seat and buckled in as the engines whined and the plane took to the air. The woman turned to her and said, "Hold still and don't talk until I’m done."

"What is-" Cataclysm began but the woman shushed her and stared intently into her eyes. Cataclysm gritted her teeth but remained silent as the woman's gaze continued to bore into her. After several seconds Cataclysm opened her mouth but the woman snapped, "Shh. Almost done." Cataclysm scowled but waited impatiently.

The woman let out a sigh, rubbed her eyes and settled back into her seat. "Okay, we can talk."

"What the fuck is going on?" Cataclysm demanded.

"My name is Lieutenant Isabella Maronni. Call me Maronni. At 1:47 this morning, three guards at Stronghold simultaneously drew their weapons and discharged them into key electrical junctions, causing a surge that disabled, among other things, the power suppression system and the surveillance cameras. This led to a massive breakout, which in and of itself would be a catastrophe but isn't as bad as what happened next. Within a minute of the loss of the suppressors the bulk of the prisoners and staff were under the control of Menton, who apparently engineered the breakout.

"The prison has contingency plans in place for escapes, including specific scenarios for the more dangerous supervillains. Your name has been part of the plan to secure Menton for quite some time and has been at the top of the list for three months."

"My name?" Cataclysm said in surprise. "That's news to me."

"Of course. When you are dealing with someone who is probably the most powerful telepath in the world, 'need to know' carries a whole new meaning. Only a handful of people know the plan, and most of them know only pieces. Witchcraft doesn't know why we need you only that we do. We knew the request would be better coming from her than from UNTIL directly. The pilots don't know who we are only that they are picking up passengers in Millennium City for delivery to Stronghold. I won't be telling you all you need to know until you need to know it; the more minds that hold the information the more likely Menton will find out."

Cataclysm's face clouded, though she had to admit that made a certain amount of sense. "Why me?"

"Again I can't tell you all the criteria for security reasons but I'll tell you the most obvious. We needed someone powerful but also someone not as high profile as the Champions or other traditional crime fighters. The person had to be geographically distant. Menton's reach is unknown. Some suspect he can read minds across the globe. But the longer the distance, the more minds he has to sift through to find the right one. It had to be someone who had come onto the scene after Menton's incarceration in 2005 so he wouldn't immediately scan for that person. Since we suspected he would seize control of the prison population, it has to be someone who won't hesitate to beat up prison guards."

"Or would even enjoy it," Cataclysm mumbled.

Maronni shrugged. "Exactly. There were also specific personality characteristics. It had to be someone who prefers working alone and who is stubborn and strong-willed, as that makes them more resistant to mental influence."

"And it didn't occur to you that I might refuse?" she asked sharply.

"No," Maronni said firmly. "It didn't. Are you refusing? Because if so we need to activate the next person immediately."

Cataclysm stammered a bit and said, "No, I'll help. It would just be nice to have at least the illusion of free will though."

Maronni smirked. "Yeah, OK, fair enough."

"So we are going after Menton?" Cataclysm asked. Maronni nodded. "How many of us?"

"We're it. The two of us."

Cataclysm was stunned. "So you are saying the two of us are going up alone against, as you put it, the most powerful telepath in the world?"

"Not only that but he's on the lowest level, where the most dangerous prisoners are housed. To get to him you'll have to fight your way through a prison full of supervillains."

"Well I wouldn't want it to be easy," Cataclysm said sarcastically. "Wait, what do you mean I get to fight. What about you?"

Maronni said, "I'm just here to hide you from Menton. I'm a telepath..." She paused and grimaced and then continued. "...part of Project Mind Game. I'm shielding your mind now and will continue to do so until we meet Menton. But I'm not like him. I can't control people or send mental blasts or throw stuff with my mind or any of that. I just shield. But I have to stay near you, preferably line of sight though I can shield targets I can't see over about twenty meters. I have basic combat training but I'm as physically vulnerable as any other non-meta. And that means you'll need to protect me."

"Better and better," Cataclysm sighed.

"It's not quite as bad as you think. After the big breakout in 1990, Stronghold implemented new automated security features. As soon as the power suppression system stopped the whole place went into lockdown. The prison is now sealed so the entire population is secured for the moment. In addition the facility is broken out into sections, each of which is sealed independently. Sort of like a ship that has compartments that seal so a leak doesn't sink the whole vessel. Command controls the doors between sections, and command is a separate building shielded against every possible threat including mental influence. We will take a specific route through the prison designed to take us to Menton's cell as quickly as possible with a minimum of conflict."

"But power suppression is down. Won't they just break out?"

"Eventually yes. The passive systems will hold them for a while but that's why we need to hurry. More importantly, the longer we leave Menton the longer he has to think, to plan, and to find a way out himself."

Cataclysm rubbed her face as she tried to absorb the information. "All right. Let's say this insane plan works. We--meaning me--fight my way through an army of supervillains and reach Menton. Then what? With no power suppressors, do I really have a chance against him?"

"Yes because of PACE." Cataclysm looked confused and Maronni explained, "Persistent Asymmetric Cortical Exhaustion, also known as Hot Sleep Sickness. Hot Sleep works by shutting down higher brain functions. Prisoners coming out of Hot Sleep don't immediately regain those functions. For example it typically takes twenty to thirty minutes for a prisoner to regain his sight. For some reason the scientists don't understand it disproportionately affects the right hemisphere, where psychic powers originate. Psychic villains are substantially weakened and the length of the effect is proportional to their power level and their time in Hot Sleep. In this case we estimate it will be as long as six months before Menton is at full power. When you combine that with the fact he is having to divert his attention to hold dozens of minds captive, you should be able to beat him." She added, "Probably."

Cataclysm shook her head. "You left out one other qualification for this job. You have to be fucking insane."

"Yes, well, that helps. Reckless, overconfident, delusional, suicidal, any of those will do."

"Which am I? No don't answer that." She sunk back into her seat and tried to absorb all of this. "OK, fine. Tell me what villains I'll be facing."

"No."

Startled, Cataclysm turned to Maronni. "No?"

"No. Like I said, I spoon feed you the plan as we go. That means I guide you practically from room to room."

"What if you get killed in there?"

"Then you are screwed."

"Fine, then what can you tell me?"

Maronni spent the next hour briefing her on a variety of subjects such as the general layout of the prison and how the guards were armed. Maronni gave her a small earpiece she'd use to keep in contact with command, who would be controlling the doors, and told her the radio protocols to use. She wrapped up the briefing and said, "One last thing. Remember the mission. We are there to take out Menton. Period. All other considerations are secondary. We aren't there to secure the other prisoners. And we aren't there to rescue the staff."

"We're not?"

"No. Anyone in there is working for Menton. Stronghold is tough duty. It's understood that everyone in there is expendable if that's what it takes to keep the more dangerous villains in check."

Cataclysm frowned. "Including us," she stated.

"Including us."

After Maronni finished Cataclysm had scores of questions, almost none of which the lieutenant would answer. Cataclysm grew increasingly frustrated but there wasn't much she could do about it. Eventually she got tired of trying to pry information out of the woman and they settled back to wait out the rest of the flight.

The plane landed at Stronghold, which had its own airfield to facilitate prisoner transfer. After they deplaned it was a short walk to the heavy gate that was the only entrance to the prison. Cataclysm looked up at the huge entrance, which must have been fifty feet high. "Do they really need such a big door?" she asked rhetorically.

"Grond was a prisoner here once," Maronni said. "And others. You never know what's coming in that door."

"I guess not." Cataclysm was nervous but there was no reason to delay. She reached up to press the tiny switch on the earpiece. "Command, this is Cataclysm. Do you read me?"

"Cataclysm, this is Command. Reading you loud and clear. Welcome to Stronghold."

She looked over at Maronni. "Ready?"

"Suppose so," the soldier said nervously, unlimbering her blaster rifle.

Cataclysm pressed the switch again. "Command, open outer main gate."

"Outer main gate opening."

The massive metal door began sliding upwards with a bone-rattling rumble. "They'll know we're coming," mused Cataclysm. The door didn't open its full span but rather ground to a halt at about the eight-foot mark. Beyond it was another door, just as immense. Every door was like that--an air lock. Only one door could be opened at a time. The two women entered the space and Cataclysm said, "Command, close outer main gate."

"Outer main gate closing."

The sound was nearly deafening in the confined space. The door slammed shut with a grim finality. Cataclysm reached for the mike but Maronni put a hand on her arm. "Now that were inside I want to tell you something." She hesitated. "There's no going back. Command can't take a chance our minds are compromised. That door won't open again until Menton goes down."

"What?" Cataclysm demanded. "You couldn't have mentioned that before the door closed?"

"It wouldn't have mattered. The actual point of no return was two hundred miles out. Everyone within that radius not in a heavily shielded structure is assumed to be under Menton's control. It just seemed best to wait until there was an actual physical barrier to prevent you from backing out. Remember, we are all expendable."

Cataclysm scowled at her. "Any other surprises like that coming up?"

Maronni looked away. "One or two."

Cataclysm simmered for a bit and then shrugged. "Doesn't matter. Nothing's going to stop me anyhow. Ready?" Maronni nodded. Cataclysm touched the radio and said, "Command, open inner main gate."

"Inner main gate opening."

The portal into the prison began its slow grind upward.