Mindstorm, part 22
Disclaimers and other information in "part 0"
Until John messed it up.
Over the course of the day, they had passed several game booths. The one that had caught John's eye was a hand-eye coordination game. A length of copper tubing had been bent and twisted and affixed to a block of wood. Circling the copper was a loop of nickel wire, just a fraction larger than the diameter of the pipe, attached to a wooden handle. Current ran through the metal, and if the nickel and copper came in contact, the game would produce a loud buzz. The trick was to run the loop of wire the length of the copper tubing without causing the machine to buzz.
All day, John had noticed person after person fail the task. Apparently, Diane had noticed John noticing, because as their shift ended, she had steered them to the tent housing that game. She had challenged him, bet him a dollar he couldn't do it. He had resisted, arguing that he wasn't interested, but he had betrayed himself. He only realized when Diane began staring at him that his idle hands had traced the wire loop along the tubing three times. In complete distraction, he had performed an action that human beings could not manage with complete concentration.
The carny running the booth had made unpleasant accusations of cheating. Diane had defended John even as she hustled her bewildered partner from the tent and back to the squad car. Once on the way back to the station, though, she had nothing to say to him.
John was reminded again how alien he really was, how badly he had let his facade slip. But in truth, he hadn't realized until then just how completely different - how limited - human consciousness was.
Today's events made him appreciate, though, the kind of concentration that the carnival game required of human beings.
Inside Superman's mind, something had exploded. Something had sought to reorder everything in Kal-El's psyche. J'onn wasn't sure why it hadn't instantaneously demolished his friend's mind, but it hadn't. It had moved slowly enough for J'onn to create an elaborate balancing act that was, for a Martian, the equivalent of a human trying to prevent a loop of nickel wire from coming into contact with the copper tubing it encircles.
J'onn had managed - for a while. He had successfully protected the core of Superman's mind from the delusions created by his attacker. He could not give Kal-El control of his own body, though. The effort to keep mind, delusion, and physical reaction from interacting was a mental trick that no telepath could manage for long. When something finally had to give, J'onn made a choice.
He sent Lois away and sealed himself into the Observation Deck with Superman. He could still save Kal-El's mind, but he would have to allow him to act out the delusion.
It was a hard thing to battle a friend, even one who was supposedly invulnerable. And it wasn't as if J'onn could fight an entirely defensive battle. He needed to play according to the script in Superman's delusion as much as possible, and he needed to ensure that the only target Superman had was J'onn. There could be no collateral damage.
The stakes were high.
If it came to it, J'onn would kill Superman.
He didn't allow his mind to shy from that truth as he slammed a fist into Superman's jaw, ensuring he still had the Man of Steel's attention. The Watchtower rocked under the impact of Superman's body, and a red light flooded the medbay as Superman roared and surged toward J'onn again. Hull breach.
J'onn was not anxious to take this battle into space. Kal-El's tolerance for the vacuum was remarkably high, but he was still subject to negative effects if exposed to it for too long. J'onn would undoubtedly outlast him, and out there he would not be vulnerable to-
FIRE! His mind was almost instantly caught by it as he dodged Superman's heat vision. The chaos started to surge through his thoughts, threatening the limited protection he was still able to give Kal-El's mind. It was the risk to Kal-El that let J'onn focus enough to aim his own Martian vision at the small breach and make it bigger, to make the slow leak of atmosphere into a gale force departure of air.
The fire flickered out. Superman did not budge as a steel cabinet slammed into him and bounced to one side. A bed crashed into the wall, its form twisting and distorting and ... plugging the hole.
Superman smiled unpleasantly and moved in again. J'onn mirrored his movement, his senses on high alert. His head was still clouded by the echo of flames, but clarity of purpose replaced clarity of thought. He had to contain Superman. Period. Contain, or maim, or kill.
Superman's breath was visible in the now thinned air, and that realization seemed to inspire the Kryptonian. A sudden gust of icy breath blasted over J'onn's body. Fortunately there was not enough humidity in the air to form an even temporary sheath of ice around J'onn, which would have been the only thing that could even have slowed the Martian. He took advantage of Superman's confidence in his attack to aim a tackle at the other alien.
They crashed together with concussive force, J'onn's momentum sending them tumbling through the debris that had collected at the far end of the medbay. There were metal screams and crashing sounds as their bodies destroyed the already mangled equipment. They finally came to a halt in a jumble of limbs from which J'onn instantly extricated himself, ready for the next blow.
Superman didn't move. His eyes were open, staring blankly, his mouth rounded into an "o" that might have been surprise.
J'onn remained guarded, prepared for anything.
Slowly, Kal-El rocked his body forward, half-rising before falling to his knees in an attitude of prayer. Tears began to flow from his eyes.
Warily, J'onn stretched out his consciousness, reaching into the delusion that seemed to have coiled in on itself. He caught fractured images, a bridge, Lois, a heated battle between Superman and some adversary, a coffin...
J'onn remained carefully alert as he reached to Kal-El's mind. Not real, he reminded his friend, even as he prepared for the backlash from this new delusion. Superman would not remain quietly grief ridden. It was not in his character to accept death easily.
But Kal-El did not stir, did not even brush at the freezing water on his cheeks. The next movement came from an entirely unexpected source.
With no warning or fanfare, Dr. Occult appeared out of thin air.
And into it. J'onn responded instantly to the gasp of surprise as Occult found himself in the depleted atmosphere of the medbay, wrapping himself around the mystic and pressing a hand over the man's nose and mouth, concentrating the oxygen remaining in the air and filtering it through his body so Occult could breathe. After a startled several seconds, Occult began to shimmer in his grip and shift out of phase, the Symbol of the Seven clutched in his fist.
J'onn stepped back as Dr. Occult faded to ghost-like insubstantiality. "It seems to be one of those days," the mystic remarked dryly.
"You are all right?" J'onn asked.
"Startled, but certainly better than our friend here. You?"
"Likewise," J'onn answered, "and I take it you-?"
"I was in his mind, yes. Talking with Bette."
J'onn's eyes widened.
"I see the name means something to you."
"Bette Noir," J'onn stated, reading confirmation on Occult's face. His mind raced back to when he had last seen the psychic entity, months - too many months - before. "She is supposed to be-"
"In Trapps, whoever or whatever that is. She told me."
"I thought - what -"
"A telepath called Black. She thinks he'll kill her, and I got the sense it wasn't a misplaced fear."
"A telepath-" J'onn thought back, finding in memory the group that called themselves "the Elite" and the firestorm of publicity they had garnered for their take-no-prisoners approach to supervillains. "Manchester Black."
Dr. Occult's face flickered in sudden recognition. "Wasn't he supposed to be-?"
"Incarcerated. Top level security, STAR Labs dampening equipment..." J'onn felt his mind rushing through possibilities, then he paused. "Wait. How did you end up -?"
"I followed Bette. From Kansas."
"Kansas," J'onn repeated. Jonathan Kent. "She was in Kansas?"
"Long enough to make a lair." Dr. Occult was studying Superman. "She said she would reign in the nightmares. It doesn't look like-"
"Compared to what was going on before, this is an improvement," J'onn interrupted, mentally cursing himself. There had been a conversation - over a year ago? A night on monitor with Superman when Clark had revealed that his father had been not quite the same since the Imperiex war. J'onn had offered to do a telepathic scan, and Clark had declined. Had J'onn insisted -
This was getting him nowhere. He stretched out his mind, reaching out a telepathic link. He gritted his teeth against the spike of pain that the action caused; need had distracted him from how badly he had abused his abilities. Batman, Flash.
J'onn! We can't get the audio! What the-
Report, J'onn, Batman overrode the Flash, his mental presence solid and anchoring.
Superman's mind has been invaded by a psychic entity. I've run into her before.
Her? That was the Flash.
Bette Noir. She was hosted by Dr. Trapps in a secure facility last I checked on her over a year ago. Before the Imperiex war. Dr. Occult suggests she has been nesting in Mr. Kent's mind since the war.
I'm pulling files on Trapps, Batman stated.
Pull up files on Manchester Black, as well, J'onn directed. He's behind this somehow.
Isn't he supposed to be-? Flash started.
Luthor. Even through the mental link, Batman's tone was icy.
Possibly, J'onn cautioned.
Definitely. That's the missing piece.
"J'onn?" Dr. Occult's voice held a note of concern, and J'onn felt the wispy brush of the mystic's hand against his shoulder. J'onn blinked, realizing belatedly he had sagged to one knee, was close to mimicking Superman's posture.
I can't maintain the link, J'onn confessed. Wally, try to get communications-
Already working on it, Wally promised, and J'onn realized he probably had the video feed. Do what you have to do.
J'onn out, he projected before severing the link. He looked blearily at Dr. Occult. "You were saying about one of those days?"
"I'm guessing you were in contact with someone outside this room and not being attacked?"
J'onn staggered to his feet. "I apologize. I should have -"
Dr. Occult shook his head. "Remember the company I keep. What next?"
J'onn thought for a moment. "Tell me everything Bette told you." He would get to the bottom of this, and someone was going to pay.