Matt Callaghan stood, exasperated but resolute, his hands in his pockets, standing – almost passively – between the telepath and Jane.
But standing all the same. The psychic, Natalia Baroque, blinked and stared at Matt like he was crazy. Beside her, the hulking black man James, who up until now had been guffawing stupidly at the ongoing spectacle, glanced at Matt properly for the first time since he’d started this little charade. Matt saw a small shadow of doubt pass over his face.
Sneering, the psychic raised a finely plucked eyebrow.
“Come on,” Matt sighed, sounding weary, “She’s had enough.”
Natalia’s head crooked to look at Jane, sweating, swaying and shaking on the floorboards; then back at Matt.
“I… I think she could use a little more,” she smirked, sending a ripple of laughter around the room. Her voice carried the same high, condescending sarcasm that she’d used to speak to Jane and the inflection made Matt want to punch her face in. But he restrained himself, and settled for giving the telepath a flat, bored grimace.
“Look,” he sighed, “You got her good, clap-clap, congrats. But that’s enough. Leave her be.”
“Stay out of this kid,” warned muscle-mania. Matt ignored him. Instead he turned and bent down to help Jane.
“Come on,” he whispered, “Let’s get out of here.” He wrapped an arm around Jane’s waist.
“Well, well,” Natalia drawled, her cold, imperious voice echoing at Matt from across the room, “Isn’t this special. The parasite has a protector.” Matt could feel her eyes burning into the back of his head. “Her own knight in shining armour.”
Matt kept on ignoring them. With a grunt from both him and Jane, he hoisted the empath to her feet. To hell with the spectacle, he had to get Jane out of here before that woman got back in her head.
“Stop,” commanded Natalia.
“Nope,” countered Matt.
The psychic’s eyes narrowed. “Stop right now, or I’ll do to you what I did to her.” A sudden hush fell over the Hall. Matt’s steps slowed to a halt. His grip around Jane loosened.
He was trapped. He couldn’t let the psychic get Jane, because Jane knew what he really was – but if this woman broke into his mind he was equally screwed. He could fight her, maybe, but even… even if he won, Matt realised and his stomach sunk, she’d be humiliated. He’d make an enemy of a psychic, and the last thing in the world Matt needed right now was an enemy who was a psychic. A really, really powerful psychic. Matt’s swallowed hard, feeling his pulse starting to race.
Run and lose. Fight and lose. Win and lose. And there was no guarantee he could win. Maybe he could. He knew how. But he’d never had to resist a true psychic incursion before, and there were no guarantees – well, his overly correct brain reminded him, short of taking PsyBlock. But it was obviously too late now and besides the very idea was ludicrous, the drug was so ridiculously expensive… but at least then, Matt thought ruefully, he’d have been guaranteed to win… heck, the threat alone would’ve been enough to-
And suddenly, in a rush of inspiration, Matt had an idea. A risky, stupid, brilliant idea.
Suddenly, he had a plan.
Matt closed his eyes, took a deep, steadying breath-
-and turned to face Natalia.
“No,” he replied, “I don’t think you will.”
A muttering raced around the room. Out of the corner of his eye Matt saw Wally watching him, shaking his head, aghast. He ignored his silent warning.
Natalia eyes narrowed to slits, as if unsure whether Matt was joking or insane.
“What did you say to me?” she hissed.
Matt stared back at her, releasing Jane, leaving the empath to lean against one of the tables.
“I said,” he repeated, “I don’t think you will. In fact,” he said, his voice rising as he took a step forward, “I know you won’t.” He smiled.
“Listen here, boy, I don’t know who you think-” Natalia scowled.
“Oh, boy!” interrupted Matt, in his best impression of this little twat’s posh English inflection. Retreat no longer an option, he went on the offensive. “Pish-posh, I do say madam, oh harrumph! Tally-ho and a bag of crisps.” The Hall erupted in unexpected laughter. Natalia glanced around in shock, wide-eyed as these people, who had been right behind her a second ago, laughed at her. Matt smiled humourlessly and dropped the accent. “Give it up Mary Poppins. Save yourself the embarrassment.”
Natalia leered at him. “Are you an idiot? Do you know who you’re talking to?”
“Do you?” He held out a hand to thin air – then twisted it and gave Natalia the finger. “I mean Winters shouted it out to you the other night but maybe your head’s so far up your ass you had trouble hearing. Matt Callaghan,” he announced, loud enough for the whole room could hear, and then, with emphasis on every syllable: “Clairvoyant.”
The Hall fell silent. And twenty feet away, Matt saw the tiniest shadow of doubt flicker across the psychic’s face.
“Big word, I know. More than four letters. You might not know it,” Matt continued, “Means I see the future.”
If looks could kill, Natalia’s would’ve. “I don’t care what you are,” she snarled, “I can destroy you with a thought.” But she didn’t move.
“Big talk for a little girl,” replied Matt. A vein twitched above Natalia’s temple. “Come on then,” Matt continued, before his opponent had a chance to speak. He raised an eyebrow. “Go ahead. Twenty bucks says you can’t read what colour underwear I’m wearing. Without peeking, you saucy minx,” he added, sending a ripple of laughter around the room.
The psychic hesitated. Then her expression darkened.
“Fifty,” she snapped.
“Two-hundred,” Matt drawled, rolling his eyes for effect. More gasps. Natalia’s eyes bulged, and Matt smiled, “Or higher. I’ll go as high as you want. You… do know you’re betting against a seer, right?” he added with faux concern.
For a moment, the telepath just stared, frozen in place, her face blank.
“Come on Princess fussy-britches,” goaded Matt, “It’s not like you can’t afford it. Look at you, fancy coat and all, you’ve probably got the cash on you right now.” The Hall gave another peal of laughter. “Come on. Put your money where your mouth is.” He held out his hand and wriggled ‘come hither’ with his two fingers. “No time limit, no handicap, no nothing. It’ll be easy. You can’t lose. Who am I?” He spread his arms into a wide shrug at the rhetorical question. “I’m nobody. You’re the ‘Legion’s best psychic’, apparently. There’s no way you can lose. I mean, nothing’s certain, but hey…” he paused, letting the words hang. A devious grin split over his face. “…it’s not like one of us can see the future.”
His smile held as a murderous expression twisted over Natalia’s powdered face – but still, the psychic didn’t move. Matt’s confidence, his unfounded enthusiasm in the face of Jane’s dismantling, was making her hesitate. What does he know that I don’t, Matt could almost hear her thinking. Why is he doing this, why is he so sure of himself? And that unexplained confidence was triggering concerns and uncertainty, watering little seeds of doubt. Was he bluffing? But why would he bluff in front of all these people when she could so easily call him out? Unless it wasn’t a bluff, unless there was something, unless he really could…
Over and over and over and over, round and round and round. Matt could practically see the conflict playing out on the telepath’s face. He grinned to himself – he wasn’t psychic, but he was already inside Natalia’s head.
Around the hall, people were starting to call out, shouting for her to do it, egging Natalia on. People were laughing. Someone (possibly Celeste) was making very genuine chicken-noises. Matt watched as Natalia made up her mind, saw the risk of the unknown get outweighed by the looming threat of humiliation in front of her peers.
Exactly as Matt knew it would.
“Fine,” hissed the psychic. One single solitary word. And in an instant her eyes narrowed and her fingers flew to her temple.
But Matt was ready.
With a staggering crash, Matt felt the psychic’s mind slam headfirst into his walls. He felt it but he did not notice it, for his mind was filled only with the same immutable verse, looping over and over again, singular, unassailable.
He could feel Natalia pushing, scrabbling, raking mental talons against his barrier, searching for a way through, trying to find some hold or weakness; but every time she managed to pull a piece from the wall it was so confusing, so bizarre, that the psychic momentarily stopped to examine it, to figure out what the hell she was looking at – by which time the breach had sealed. She was fast – but Matt was home.
Twenty seconds – thirty. Natalia was driving now, pushing against Matt’s barrier with all her might, a thousand disparate thoughts – scenes of blood and murder, joy and sadness, Jane and the Legion, sex and sunshine – anything to distract him, anything that might make Matt take the bait and think, even for a moment, of something other than-
She pulled back, and back in the real world Matt could see the psychic panting, sweating, her face contorted with effort and rage. The Grand Hall was silent – every person there watching on with bated breath, blind to the titanic struggle taking place before them.
You’d be cuter if you wore girls’ clothes, Matt chanced to think, and Natalia’s mind roared and raced at him, straight into-
She was getting desperate now, trying to go under and around, trying to cut off Matt’s senses from his brain. A clever trick. Most people tended to forget about their non-conscious processes. Matt was not most people. He heard Natalia scream in frustration as telepathic blades reaching for the link between his eyes and eyesight met only-
Matt could feel her beginning to tire. Natalia was strong, phenomenally strong, but telepathy wasn’t an endurance sport and endless concentration took its toll. She charged again, desperate, a wave of sensory input, slashing wildly, drilling into a dozen separate points. But this attack was scattered, weaker. Matt saw his chance and took it.
Matt pushed out his walls, like forcing a huge breath of air he’d been holding out of his lungs, throwing back Natalia’s scrabbling consciousness, a tiny buoy against a wave. The assault wavered, and in reality Matt could see the apprehension and terror dawning on the psychic’s face. He didn’t know how long it had been – time flew in patches when you were moving at the speed of thought – but he could hear people muttering, whispering in disbelief at their psychic’s beading sweat, pulsing veins and stony, locked-jaw silence.
Again Natalia pushed, and again Matt threw her back, each assault weaker than the last. A slight raggedness was forming in Matt’s chest and he could feel himself starting to tire – but it was nothing compared to the telepath, who was drenched head to toe in perspiration, makeup blotching on her cheeks and thin muscles in her neck twitching irregularly. There was a pause – maybe thirty seconds where one eyed off the other and the other stood perfectly still, waiting. Suddenly, Natalia mentally charged again, but Matt’s thoughts lunged, and he rebuffed her like back-handing a jumping cat, and the link between them broke.
The spell shattered. Natalia stumbled forward, her tension suddenly cut. She caught herself after a single step – but it was over. The psychic clutched her hands to her knees, doubled-over, the noise of her panting, ragged breathing echoing, the only sound in the entire Hall. She looked up at Matt, horrified – and afraid.
Without so much as a breath or a brow-wipe he crossed the floor, past the still struggling figure of Jane, over to where the psychic was standing, flanked by her crew of wide-eyed, dumb-struck lackeys – who, it pleased him immensely to see, recoiled ever so slightly at his approach. Even James the giant, with his biceps as thick as Matt’s torso, took an almost imperceptible step back.
“Wow-wee,” hollered Matt. He slapped Natalia genially on her felt-coated back, causing the psychic to stumble another step forward. “How’re you feeling there Nat? Am I boxers or briefs? What’s my date of birth?”
The psychic said nothing but just kept staring at the ground. Matt chuckled. “That’s what I thought,” he said coolly, “Well, a bet’s a bet. Two hundred dollary-doos, thank you very much.” The room was dead quiet – Natalia looked up at Matt with an expression that was one part contempt, four parts afraid, and three parts despairing. Subtly, so no one else could see, Matt threw her a small wink. A frown creased the psychic’s face. She gazed questioningly up at Matt and a small tendril of thought made its way across.
What are you-
Trust me, Matt extended, from behind the safety of his walls.
For a moment, Natalia just stared at him – then she withdrew the thought, straightened up, and slowly drew a black leather purse from the pocket of her coat. The Hall seemed to hold its breath as she thumbed out ten twenties and passed them silently across.
“Eight, nine, ten,” Matt counted under his breath, before pulling out his own wallet and slipping the money inside, “Well done.” He looked up and flashed Natalia a smile. The edge of her mind reconnected.
Ask me what I am.
“What are you?” Natalia asked.
“Oh, nothing special,” Matt shrugged, grinning at her but speaking to the amassed crowd, “But I am on Psy-Block.”
A collective groan went up around the room. Natalia’s stunned face blanched, and across the Hall Wally Cykes burst out laughing. After a few seconds, James joined him.
“God-damn it,” he chuckled in his deep, booming baritone. He lumbered the two steps beside Natalia and wrapped an enormous hand around her shoulders, shaking the psychic playfully. “You idiot, I was actually worried.” He laughed again, and this time most of the people around him joined in. The telepath, on the other hand, didn’t say anything. She merely looked up at Matt, her face frozen in an expression of confusion and disbelief. Catch on, Matt begged.
Their silent exchange went unnoticed by everyone around them, most of whom were shaking their heads in various levels of amusement and returning to their breakfasts. An odd few here and there shot Matt dirty looks but more grinned at him, and a lot of the Seniors the psychic had been sitting with were chuckling. Over in the corner, Wally was still laughing hysterically.
“God-damn Psy-Block,” guffawed James, alternating grinning between Matt and the still-slumped Natalia, her hair hanging over her face in loose, dishevelled bangs. Matt was quietly glad he found the idea so funny, as opposed to being angry that Matt had “cheated” his friend.
“Hey, I said I’d win,” said Matt, throwing up an artificial smirk, “I didn’t say why.” He clasped Natalia hard on the shoulder, who flinched at his touch. “Pro tip, don’t bet against a clairvoyant.”
“You’re alright kid,” the big man chuckled. He held out a gigantic, plate-sized, sausage-fingered hand. “James Conrad. We weren’t properly introduced.”
“Matt Callaghan,” replied Matt, who shook it, “Pleasure.”
“Come on, smartass,” grinned James, “Let’s get some food.” He swung his massive shoulders around, still shaking his head merrily at Natalia. “Stop pouting Nat, no one likes a sore loser.”
James started walking away and Matt followed close behind. As they went, he glanced back at the psychic, who was still standing in the same place, watching Matt go – her face kept blank, a mask to hide her confusion, as the gears slowly turned inside her mind. The shame and animosity that had been there before had vanished, replaced by a slow, subtle creep of understanding, gratitude-
And maybe still a little fear.
Matt loaded up a plate and sat down amongst the Seniors. “It was actually pretty amazing,” he assured them between bites, “I could feel her pushing.” He spared a glance at Natalia – take heed, he thought, and appreciate what I’m doing. “Didn’t even know that was possible, to be honest. She’s incredibly strong.”
As he spoke, he saw Jane slinking from the Hall, unsteady and unnoticed. Matt bit into a slice of orange, watching her leave.
Bio: Born and raised in Newcastle, Australia, Ben is a lifelong writer currently studying his Masters in Creative Writing at the University of Technology Sydney. An avid fan of the weird and wonderful, he has wanted to be a writer since he was five years old (before which he wanted to be a dinosaur).