25 - Temptations and Negotiations

The heavy security door slid open, letting in the sound of roaring flames and angry voices. "Go, go, go!" shouted Cataclysm. Maronni darted into the safe room. Her hands were pressed against her side and blood leaked through her fingers. Her rifle was long gone, taken away from her somewhere on level B. Cataclysm backed into the room, a sheet of fire roaring from her hands and her eyes literally blazing with flame. A man in a yellow prison jumpsuit leapt through the holocaust to slash at her with his claws. She dropped the spell and smashed her elbow into his face, stunning him. She whirled him around and shoved him through the door. "Command, close door Charlie-7," she shouted into the radio. She continued to pour flame through the opening as the portal closed with glacial slowness.

She didn't relax but turned and scanned the small room. It was about twenty feet across. The walls were heavy concrete, like the rest of the prison. There was another security door on the other side of the room and a stairway leading down. Maronni was leaning against the wall, pale and shaking. Cataclysm ignored her for the moment and sent a blast of flame down the stairs. She descended to find another area just like this one, also empty. "Clear," she called back up the stairs.

Maronni came down the stairs slowly, one hand holding the banister tightly and leaving a smear of blood. Cataclysm helped her to sit and then tore open the first aid kit. It wasn't the first time in her life she'd had to bandage a knife wound. She pushed up the ballistic cloth to take a look. "It's not too bad," she said to Maronni. "The armor saved you. Shallow. Bleeds like hell, hurts like hell, but no real damage." Maronni said nothing, just stared off into space. "You okay?" Cataclysm asked.

"Great," she said with a sniffle. "Hurts to sit because of the shotgun pellets in my thigh. And my fingers are still numb from the ice blast. But I'm fucking great other than that."

"Well if the job was easy, everyone would do it," Cataclysm said dryly. Maronni didn't respond. "Look, we're almost there. You're doing fine."

"You can't lie to a telepath," she said. Then she snapped her head around and bawled, "I know you hate telepaths! Stop saying that!"

"I didn't-" Cataclysm began.

"Yes you did! Everyone does!" She turned away again, tears flowing freely. "Forget it. I'm tired. I just need to rest for a little bit."

Cataclysm looked at her with concern and finished bandaging her in silence. When she was done, Maronni lay down on the hard ground and put an arm over her eyes. Cataclysm settled against the wall and waited.

After about ten minutes, Maronni said, "I don't like doing this."

"Yeah the fighting can be tough if-"

"No!" she snapped. "Not the fighting. The shielding. I hate it. Having that kind of intimate mental contact with a stranger. It's like being a prostitute. No, worse. Like being a prostitute whose clients hate sex." She sat up and shifted so her back was against the wall, wincing as she slid across the ground. "Everyone thinks it's so great to be able to read minds. Trust me. Worst. Superpower. Ever."

Cataclysm stayed silent. She wasn't really sure what to say and anything she was thinking the other woman knew anyhow. Maronni said abruptly, "How many telepathic supervillains can you name?"

Caught by surprise Cataclysm said, "Well, Menton of course. Mindslayer, Medusa, Psimon-"

Maronni interrupted her, asking, "How many telepathic heroes can you name?" Cataclysm struggled to come up with a name and Maronni said bitterly, "Exactly. You spend your life being resented by everyone around you. Everyone thinks you're spying on them and they hate you. And you know they hate you. You can't help but know. No wonder most of us turn into villains."

"I can understand that," Cataclysm said. Maronni gave her a skeptical look and Cataclysm waved to her clothes. "This costume doesn't exactly inspire love and adoration back in Millennium City."

"The key word is 'costume'," Maronni said. "You choose to put it on every day. And when it gets too much for you, you take it off. And outside Millennium City you're just another meta in a funny outfit."

"Yeah, I guess so," Cataclysm said.

"Most of us 'good guys' are people like me, telepaths too limited to be any kind of threat. And we burn out pretty quick, eventually retiring in the middle of nowhere so we don't have to hear the constant babble of voices." She sighed heavily. "Sorry. Didn't mean to go all psych patient on you."

Cataclysm smiled. "It's okay. And that's the truth." That got a little return smile from Maronni. "If you don't mind me saying so, this seems to be your first combat assignment."

"Yeah. I mean I have combat training but I ride a desk studying telepaths and coming up with ideas to defeat them. I was principle architect of the Menton plan. I've done some escort duty shielding diplomats, politicians, couriers. People with secrets they want to keep safe. Not people with other people shooting at them. Not sure why I volunteered for this one. Seemed like a good idea at the time. Didn't think it would be this hard."

"You sure decided to jump in the deep end your first time out," Cataclysm grinned at her.

Maronni stood and stretched. "Well, might as well get the next one over with," she said, drawing her pistol.

"You sure? We can rest a little longer if you want."

"No. Menton just keeps getting stronger so we might as well go."

"Okay," Cataclysm said getting to her feet. "Who's next?"

Maronni pointed to one of the doors. "Let me think. That will be Ogre, Darkmoon, Windfist and The Buzzard." She gave Cataclysm a quick rundown on each villain's powers.

Cataclysm listened carefully to the briefing. "Same plan," she said as she walked over to stand in front the door. "Blast through to the other door. No reason to stand and fight. Ready?"

"No," Maronni said as she moved behind her, "but go ahead anyhow."

Cataclysm touched the radio and said, "Command, open Delta-8".

"Delta-8 opening," said the radio.

Cataclysm weaved a defensive spell as the door slid open. She prepared to blast fire down the hallway but let the spell sputter and die as she tried to make sense out of what she saw. "Oh shit," she breathed.

"What is it, Cataclysm?" said Maronni. The telepath craned her head to look past her. "Oh shit," she agreed.

In front of them was a hallway. There were three cells on one side, one on the other and another security door at the far end. That was all expected. What was not expected was the four bodies on the floor, nor the door at the far end bent and twisted by some unimaginable force. She looked at the bodies. The Buzzard and Ogre were easy to pick out. The two others were male and in prison jumpsuits but she didn't know if... "Yeah, that's them," said Maronni.

"Stay close," Cataclysm said in a low voice as she moved into the hallway, watching the open door carefully. She froze as she heard the creak of a bed from one of the cells. She readied a spell and waited. Her eyes widened as the figure moved into the corridor. "Oh shit," she said again.

Cataclysm whirled around and shoved Maronni back into the safe room. "Command, close Delta-8 now!" she snapped into the radio and then turned back to face the woman.

"Isn't this a delicious pleasure," said Talisman in a sultry voice. "Of all the people I might meet in this dismal place, I would never have guessed I would run into my sister's protégé again."

Cataclysm's mind was racing. She and Witchcraft together had only fought Talisman to a standstill, though to be fair both of them were weakened. Talisman was finally captured by Witchcraft, Sapphire and several members of the Trismegistus Council and even then, from what Witchcraft had said, it had been fairly close.

Talisman waved derisively at Cataclysm's ready pose. "Oh stop that. I don't want to fight you." She grinned evilly. "Well, that's not completely true. Let's just says I don't want to fight you right now."

"Why?" ask Cataclysm suspiciously.

"Any number of reasons," Talisman said, leaning against the wall. She studied Cataclysm and Cataclysm returned her stare. Talisman was dressed in the standard yellow prison jumpsuit but she had torn off the sleeves and legs, and ripped open the front nearly to her navel.

"After our encounter at Burnside," Talisman began, "I was quite cross with you. I made a point finding out about you for the inevitable day I would kill you. And you know what I discovered? That you were on a terribly interesting and destructive path before Bethany got her hands on you." She sighed. "How I wish I had met you before she did. I really think you would have enjoyed my teachings more than hers."

Cataclysm sneered. "Is this the cheesy 'we could have been friends' line?"

"Oh no," Talisman laughed. "I don't really have friends as such. I don't play well with others. I mean I enjoy our games, but my companions generally do not. That's not my point. It's just disappointing to see someone with such a talent for mayhem being straight-jacketed. Restricted by rules. Rules are for the weak. People like us, people with power, we are the ones who make the rules. We take what we want. We go where we want. Nobody stops us. You know I'm right."

"You have a point?" Cataclysm snapped. "Or can we just fight and get this over with?"

Talisman closed her eyes, inhaled through her nose and blew out the breath slowly. "Ah, such delightful anger. Beautiful. So much potential." She opened her eyes again. "But perhaps this is not the time for such conversations. As I said, I don't want to fight you."

"And you still haven't told me why."

Talisman furrowed her brow in thought. "I find myself wondering why you are here. I'm fairly certain you aren't a resident. I tend to doubt you are after me. I suspect you are after our lord and master, Menton." She chuckled. "I have felt him try to control me but my mind is not as weak as some of the others here so I have resisted him."

"Unless that's what he wants you to think," Cataclysm said.

A flash of worry crossed Talisman's face but was quickly gone. "However," she continued, "even I would not be able to defy him if he turned his full attention on me. And that is not a pleasant fate. You see, Menton enjoys the company of beautiful women and his depravities are, well, they turn even my stomach. I'm not sure even my saint-like sister deserves a life as a member of his harem. I not only want to leave this fine facility but I want to be as far from him as possible once he starts looking for me.

"Your goal is that way," she nodded to the twisted door behind her, "and mine it that way," she nodded to the other door. "And here we are in this narrow corridor, each an obstacle to the other. Now we could fight and we both know I would defeat you. No, don't puff out that flat little chest of yours and say you could win. You know you can't. But that wouldn't meet my needs. I want you to defeat him, not to die here at my hands. And although you have no chance against me, you are strong and it would drain my powers pointlessly." She pouted, "You might even hurt me. So I propose you let me pass. You open the door there, let me into the room beyond and I won't stand in your way."

"You expect me to help you escape?"

"Quite so. As much as it pains me to admit I am the," she licked her lips, "lesser of evils here. Besides there are still doors I will have to pass so it's not like you are giving me the keys to the front gate. Do we have a deal?"

Cataclysm mulled over the proposition. She played it out various ways but it all boiled down to one thing: she couldn't beat Talisman. And even if by some miracle she did, it would leave her in no shape to face Menton. She touched the radio and said, "Command, open Delta-8."

The door opened to reveal Maronni, who would have heard the conversation through the mental link. They exchanged glances and moved into one of the cells to allow Talisman to pass. Cataclysm watched her carefully but Talisman did nothing remotely threatening. Cataclysm moved back out into the corridor to see Talisman watching her through the doorway. "Command, close Delta-8," Cataclysm said.

As the door closed Talisman held her gaze with a slight smile. "Don't let my sister make you forget who you were. Who you could be."

Cataclysm scowled at the closed door for a bit and then turned away. She saw Maronni was also staring at the door thoughtfully. "You think I made the wrong decision," Cataclysm opined.

Maronni looked startled and turned to look at her. "No, not at all. Our goal is Menton. I'd release everyone in the place if it meant getting to him. That's not what worries me." She frowned and turned to look back at the closed door. "I'm not happy that we met an unprotected mind who not only recognized you but has studied you. I don't believe for a second Menton isn't in her head to some degree. What she knows, he knows. We've lost an advantage."

Maronni didn’t move, still deep in thought. Cataclysm said, "Is that it?"

"No. I don't like coincidences, especially when Menton is involved." She shrugged. "I guess there's nothing we can do now. The good news is that means we can go through her cell. I had planned a different route but this lets us avoid a combat."

She was right. Talisman was on the second to last level, where villains were kept in isolation with limited access even for the guards. The path Talisman had blasted through the security doors led them to the space outside her cell where they found access to the central stairwell that led down to the lowest level. There the prisoners deemed to dangerous even for the most secure cells were kept in Hot Sleep, and each Hot Sleep capsule was in turn kept inside a heavily secured bunker. It wasn't long until they were standing before the final door.

"Time for another surprise," said Maronni. "I have to drop your shield now."

"What? Before I face Menton?"

"Yes. This final door has multiple failsafes. It must be opened simultaneously by Command and by a code entered here, which I will give you. However it can't be opened by anyone under any kind of mental influence including shields. That prevents the possibility of Menton controlling people to open his cell." She looked at Cataclysm. "And I won't have time to re-establish it. Once that door opens you'll have to go in and face him alone. I'll stay out here and reset his Hot Sleep chamber. Once you defeat him, throw him in the unit and close it. It engages automatically."

"And you think I can resist him unprotected?"

"Yeah, as a matter of fact I do. Just stay focused. Let him piss you off. Your anger will help. Physically he's at a disadvantage and the PACE keeps him from being strong mentally. You'll do fine."

Cataclysm tried to tell if Maronni was lying but decided it didn't matter. Maronni gave her the code and then wished her luck before dropping the shield. Cataclysm thought she could feel its absence, though that might have been her imagination. "Command, open Menton's cell," Cataclysm said as she typed the security code into the cell. The door before her started to rise.