Vera was pushed into a standard cell. Maybe fifteen feet on a side. What wasn't standard was the cell's other occupant.
Professor Cognis. The telepath. The world's greatest genius, and leading superhero."Vera Rapport," he said. "I wasn't expecting you so soon."
"You knew I'd be here?"
"Mephistopheles would want you as a bargaining chip in his struggle against Phoenix."
"You didn't see? Mephistopheles is Phoenix."
"No he isn't."
"I think I'd know. His haircut was different, but it was definitely him."
"It was Vafnir. The alternate version of him from Earth Beta."
"I thought Phoenix killed him."
"I thought so as well. Evidently, we were misled." Cognis seemed distracted. Vera had heard he was always like that, constantly juggling scenarios, solving problems.
"Anyways, how did you know I'd go after Mephistopheles?"
"That much was obvious. Slightly less obvious was that Mephistopheles would enable you to find him, and stop Phoenix from stopping you. For instance, he provided the plane that brought you here, and deliberately made it easy for you to track him down."
"How did you know about the plane? Oh, right. Mindreader."
"While I'm explaining things to you, let me change the subject to the accommodations. They are significantly better than what many villains provide. Food comes in through a hole in that wall, waste goes away through a series of holes over there. There is no surveillance."
"Why?" Vera was trying to absorb information as fast as Cognis could dispense it. It was like trying to discuss math with Phoenix.
"Because where Vafnir grew up, nobody was as smart as him. Dr. Demented was brilliant in his way, but he was always locked in his castle, doing science beyond mortal comprehension and leaving his lieutenants to run the world. Vafnir was king of the intellectual mountain before he could drive."
"People like Vafnir, like me and Phoenix, we can go years without meeting an intellectual peer. But Phoenix and I have struggled against each other dozens of times. We've learned to deal with minds as brilliant as our own. Mephistopheles hasn't. He knows he'll always underestimate me. And because he knows he'll always underestimate me, he compensates for it by overestimating me. He worries- possibly accurately- that observing would give me the opportunity to engage in psychological warfare."
Vera took some time to parse what he had said. As soon was she was done, the Professor launched into his next spiel.
"Vafnir is almost certainly aligned with Dr. Demented. With me in captivity, Phoenix is the best hope at stopping them. You provide Mephistopheles with leverage. Can you think of a way to eliminate that leverage?"
"You mean you can't?"
"I am the greatest mind in the world. I want to see what you'll say."
"You can't see just by reading my mind?"
"It is very difficult to project future thoughts. And, in the event that you have a better idea than me, I'd like to hear it."
"Well, we could try to call for help."
"Mephistopheles blocks all forms of telecommunication I can check, and no sort of sound or other vibration could penetrate the concrete walls of our cell."
"Maybe we could tunnel out?"
"Again, that would require going through eight feet of solid concrete."
"Oh. Well, um, could we do something with the food? Or those waste disposal systems?"
"I give up."
"You were on the right track with the idea of tunneling out. You use the powered skeleton Phoenix gave you."
"How- Oh, right. Mindreader. You think I can punch through eight feet of concrete?"
"It should take a few days. And before you start getting nervous about exploiting modifications Phoenix made without your permission, please bear in mind both that the safety of the world may well be relying on it, and that imprisonment can be far more dehumanizing than any bionic implant."
Vera took in the responses to the arguments she had yet to make. "You don't think anyone will notice?"
"It is reasonably likely that someone will." He closed his eyes for a moment. He opened them again. "I scanned your skeleton." He backed up, sensing the confusion bubbling up in Vera. "The same apparatus that lets me scan brains also lets me scan simpler machines. It is a little-known fact that I am a technopath." He waited for Vera to absorb this. "I scanned your skeleton. It can accomplish the task in about 3.4 days. It won't run out of energy. It is actually an exceedingly clever design." Listen to him waxing poetic about my inventions, right when they start saving his butt from an evil genius. Who's the smartest guy in the world now, Cognis?
Vera still wasn't impressed with the hero's plan. "That's the best you could think of? You, the world-renowned supergenius?"
"Yes. Some problems do not have perfect solutions."
"How long did you spend thinking about it?"
"And you give up after that long?"
"I am not a normal person. If I don't see a solution in four minutes, it doesn't exist. So I move on to a different problem. Right now, I am thinking about the financial crisis in Bali."
"Fine." She punched the wall. For the first time, the robotic muscles Phoenix had created were used to their fullest potential. Cracks appeared in the concrete. Her skin was shredded. That was one punch out of the thousands? Millions? needed to get through. She punched the wall again.
"You know," said Cognis, "out is the other way."
As the hero watched Vera punch through the wall, tearing the flesh off her hands, he reflected on his little misdirection. He had told Vera that this plan would result in Mephistopheles losing his hostages. He didn't tell her about the chance that the hostages would wind up dead.