I paused at one of the doors of the kitchen. I’d come in one door and there were two more. One led to a hallway with people standing stationary at the end. Another led to the main room, where everyone had been seated before this had begun.
Crystalclear hadn’t signaled me further, and I took that to mean I was supposed to pause or wait. People in the main room were moving around. I peered through a crack in the door to see if there was an opening, a break in the ranks I could use to slip through or get something done.
I saw the people Kingdom Come had controlled had settled in, most finding seats in the folding chairs that had been set up throughout the room. Some stood around the side or sat with their backs to the wall. Others stood at the windows, watching outside.
The majority of the crowd was at rest. The ones who weren’t had guns drawn. The police officers were among them.
The officer with the sad mustache was at the front of the room, face streaked with blood. He was talking, and I couldn’t see who he was talking to.
I listened to the conversation, two people talking against a faint background of a chorus of hums and music box sounds.
“You want me to negotiate with terrorists,” a woman said.
“We want you to do what is best for your community,” the police officer said, in a very different voice than he’d used earlier.
“By playing along?”
“This started with civilians, it involves cape on cape violence,” the officer said. “If you cooperate, we’ll pay for damage done, we’ll extend our protection over your community in a way that keeps capes out of sight and mostly out of mind.”
“A protection racket?”
“Not a racket. No money or expectations. We’ll take the woman and we’ll tell you what to do in order to smooth things over.”
“I don’t understand why. What does this serve? Fume Hood was upfront about her history. She wanted to serve her time in this way.”
“If we tell you why, will you cooperate?”
“I can’t promise that,” the woman said. I was assuming she was the District Rep. Why had she left the others?
“The City is like a pressure cooker. The pressure is mounting and has been for a while. Things inside are heating up and winter is fast approaching. A number of great thinkers seem to think we need to vent the-”
“Vent the pressure?” the District Rep asked.
“Yes,” the police officer said. “The-”
There was an explosion overhead. Another of Crystalclear’s shots. Two more, leading from one corner of the room and away.
I looked at the crowd, and I saw the person closest to me staring at me.
Kingdom Come knew, he’d seen.
“We’ll continue this conversation shortly. You’ve got a cape with a gun inside the building.”
I backed away. Crystalclear created more explosions close to the other door. The people who had been standing guard at the end of the hallway, probably.
I retreated, ducking behind a counter.
They entered the room simultaneously, doors banging against the wall.
I ducked down, staying behind cover.
“You’re the one who fought Blindside?” the one at the door asked. The police officer.
I remained silent.
“I don’t want to shed any blood that isn’t mine,” he said. He was moving deeper into the room. I heard the door squeak, peeked, and saw the corner of it. It had been opened and was being held open. Another person?
“Alright,” he said.
One of the issues of being a parahuman was that there wasn’t a history to build on or a peerage to draw from. We had powers, yes. Some of those powers were similar to the powers others had, but there were almost always tricks and caveats, strengths one person had that another didn’t. I couldn’t copy Alexandria’s old tactics and style because my invincibility worked differently. Timing was so much more important to me.
I could be shot, if my timing was wrong, or if their timing was especially right.
A person like Jasper could take classes in martial arts and get lessons on the range, and he could use tools and draw on the experience of millions of others who had bodies that worked like his did, a set of capabilities that were virtually identical to his own.
There was only one Victoria Dallon with Victoria Dallon’s powers. I had to lean heavily on my own experience. In exercising my abilities, there was a point beyond which I was the only person that could teach myself – nobody resembled me closely enough to be an instructor in how to fight, how to process, or how to or pass on their experience.
But my own experience was a drawback if I was caught in the moment, where I had to rely on instinct but that instinct pointed me right back to my old ways.
These people were innocent. The officer, the others at the door. Maybe some had been protesters. Kingdom Come had no issue in using them, but I couldn’t hurt his pawns.
He could have moved them as a group, but he didn’t. He moved like a chessmaster played chess. One person taking a new position, pausing, checking the area, then another person moving. The police officer in charge -chief or sheriff, I wasn’t sure- had stopped in the center of the room. Others were moving around the perimeter.
I caught a glimpse of one by the gun he was holding, and moved around the corner. They all moved the same way when they moved, pistols held up, gripped in two hands that were dotted in drops of drying blood, pointed at the ceiling. I saw the gun before I saw the rest of him.
The lullaby continued, faint and distant. It wasn’t enough to obscure any scuffle I made. I didn’t want to make noise, and whatever the movies showed, it was hard to crawl around while wearing boots and be sure to not make any sound.
I didn’t like flying. I wasn’t confident in it like I had been. Two years had passed in the hospital, and my sense of flight had been as disturbed as the movement of my arm or my attempts at vocalization. It was supposed to be back, but it was a muscle I hadn’t exercised.
I wanted to fly, but it was tainted.
I raised myself off the ground, still hunched over, staying low enough that the counters would block me from sight, and used flight as much as light pushes on the sides of the cabinet to propel myself away from the advancing gunman.
I had other training to draw on that wasn’t self-taught. There was what I’d learned and absorbed from time with family, but that whole experience was so full of pitfalls I barely wanted to touch on it.
The Wards. I hadn’t been with them for long. I’d absorbed some things from Dean, because I lived the cape stuff and Dean was willing to teach it. I’d studied up and I’d taken the tests. I knew the numbers and the labels. I knew the approach formations for squads. Simple, making conflict with parahumans as textbook as possible, black ink on white paper, sans serif.
In fighting that perpetual battle of trying to think things through and still act in time, the classifications were a nice shortcut. Apply the label, assume what worked against most people of one classification, and if it clearly didn’t, it was still a starting point.
He was edging closer.
Kingdom Come was a breaker and a master. He had a toggled state that changed the rules as they pertained to him. Shake, blow up, and he was now a horde of people controlled by the bodily fluids on them. Masters were second highest priority as targets, breakers were targets that required timing, often hitting them when they were in the state that they were weakest.
Kingdom Come made that complicated by not giving me a body to target.
They were closing in. They’d crossed the length of the room and if I had to guess, four of them were standing within fifteen feet of me, guns held high, where it would be that much harder for me to lunge for the weapon. He didn’t have perfect coordination of their movements, I had to assume, unless they were all doing the same thing, like when the crowd had turned their heads.
The old me would have dealt with this by blitzing them. Hit each hard, fast, before they had a chance to react. Some minor harm would have come to innocents, but the situation would be resolved.
The current me waited, staying silent, letting them get close. One to my left, one in the middle avenue of the kitchen, between the two rows of counter-islands, and one on the far right, furthest from me.
As I set my boot down on the floor, ready to move, Crystalclear volunteered his help. An explosion at the ceiling, a few feet behind the guy to my left.
He spun around, looking, and I took advantage, leaping over the counter, reaching for the gun he held aloft. I seized it and his hands, and pulled both to the ground, where the counters kept us out of sight of the other two.
They started to approach at a run, each around one end of the counter, so they’d catch me on both sides, and Crystalclear offered another blast between me and them. It took out the light fixture above, and cast the corner of the room into shadow, illuminated by periodic sparks.
It gave me a moment’s pause to think. I ignored the man I’d brought to the ground, as I held his hands and the gun. I didn’t even need my strength- only leverage and my body weight.
I couldn’t do anything to him that would put him down for good without risking hurting the real person. I couldn’t do anything to Kingdom Come, as much as the rule for dealing with masters said I should. He didn’t have a material body.
I used a burst of strength and tore the gun from the one man’s hands, sliding it along the floor so it went under one of the appliances. I’d gone high to go after the first one, so I went low as I went after the officer to my left, throwing myself around the counter, using a bit of flight to help keep up my speed as I went around the corner.
I tackled him to the ground, holding him as we went down to keep the impact from being too hard. I’d managed to get one hand around his wrist, and as he pulled his other hand away, gripping the gun, I seized that wrist too.
That left one in the middle of the room, one unarmed and on the ground and no doubt climbing to his feet, and one coming around the corner, gun ready.
I flew, sliding the police officer along the floor. I twisted to hit the cabinet with my shoulder as we reached the end of the row. That would bruise tomorrow. I flew again, to move another direction, keeping away from the rest.
As we stopped, the officer had enough in the way of bearings to drop the gun. He drew his knee toward his chest, and then kicked the gun so it would slide on the kitchen floor.
Someone stepped through the doorway, stooping low and catching the gun in a way that wouldn’t have been possible if they hadn’t had a greater awareness.
No, as much as he was a master in execution, he was also a breaker. I had to be sensible. It didn’t make sense to fight a breaker like this when he was in his breaker state.
I pushed the police chief away, and then, reorienting, I flew straight up, through the ceiling. I felt my forcefield go down, bracing myself in case I brushed up against any wiring.
Second floor. I checked my surroundings. None of Kingdom Come’s people. The lullaby music was louder. The drones would arrive soon. I moved, hurrying down the hall.
I found the stairwell. I stepped into it, glancing down. No sign of an approach.
I peeled some of the metal away from the railing, stepped back into the hallway, and leveraged my strength to twist the metal around the door handle, to seal it shut. I knew there could be other stairwells, but at least this way I’d hear them if they tried coming this way.
Covering my back.
Priorities. Blindside was as classic a stranger as I’d ever dealt with. Out of action or out of consideration for now.
Lord of Loss was a brute. Textbook answer when faced with a brute was to ignore them as much as they allowed you to. It would take too much effort and it would take too much time when dealing with someone who couldn’t be decisively dealt with.
I could remember studying the PRT paperwork with Dean, doing the quizzes. He’d said the rule for brutes had an unofficial second part. That as much as you might try to put them off, they had a way of making you deal with them.
What had I said in response to that? I was a brute on paper.
Had that been the study session we’d had in my room? Dean would have been leaning against a pile of pillows at the head of my bed, Lyo-Leo on his lap, while Dean pretended to have him read the answers. I’d been sitting at the foot of the bed, papers and books strewn between us. Real homework and superhero stuff.
The door had been left open, at my dad’s insistence. One foot tucked under me, I’d snuck my one foot across the bed until I could touch Dean’s knee, trace my toe along his leg. Seeing if I could break his focus enough to make him mess up while reading aloud.
No, wait, that had been a few days after Dean had reminded me of the brute rule. I’d been studying it with more interest because Dean was turning eighteen before long, and we were worried he’d get moved to another city, even with his family situation being what it was. I’d seriously been considering joining the Wards and then the Protectorate, so I could follow him.
But I’d told my stuffed lion that he needed to remind Dean that brutes like me had a way of making you deal with them. They could only be ignored for so long.
Normally clever Dean had been at a loss for words. He’d grabbed my toe and squeezed it. I’d wiggled it in his hand. We’d been familiar enough with each other that the silence that followed didn’t feel bad. Awkward in a good way, even.
He’d, after a long pause, found the clever thing to say, but he’d stumbled his way through it. It would be my pleasure. Pause. To deal with you.
It hadn’t been long after that that we’d had our first night together. It had taken two days of desperate attempts at coordinating schedules and patrols, for me to get out without family wanting to join me, for Dean to avoid the ‘sidekick’ situation and go out in costume without a Protectorate member joining him.
My heart hurt, thinking of Dean. My knight in shining armor.
Still, I smiled as I remembered some of the emails we’d exchanged, my hands resting on the metal I’d used to lock the door. Dean, ever the gentleman, had wanted to negotiate and check everything, from my comfort levels about X, Y, and Z to how my personal forcefield would factor into our time together.
I’d laughed at that, which had been the tip-off for Amy to realize something was up. She’d-
And I’d gone and done it. Let my guard down, tripped over the stumbling block, stepped on the emotional landmine. There was only the hurt, now, none of the mixed, warm feeling that came from thinking about Dean.
I pushed it all out of mind. It wasn’t the time for that anyway. I was prone to getting lost in thought, even though it sometimes felt like every path led to the same, regrettable destination.
Dry, deliberate classifications. Moving forward. Deep breaths, when my chest hurt enough that breathing was hard. Back to numbers and labels. Lord of Loss and Kingdom Come had to be ignored, but I could trust that Lord of Loss would come into the picture somewhere along the line. We still had to get out of here or deal with him.
Nursery was close enough for me to hear the hums and chimes. Shaker, clearly. Not dissimilar to Labyrinth from back in Brockton Bay. The rule for dealing with shakers was to avoid fighting them on their own turf.
Snag was changer or tinker, possibly striker. Those arms. He had something mover going on with how he’d gone after the bus Jasper was driving.
Still, there might be another in play.
I ventured down the hallway, still feeling that ache in my chest, feeling acutely aware of my own body, the way clothes constrained me, reaffirmed me, yet every reaffirmation was a reminder that I needed that small reminder in the first place, and why.
My hand brushed against the wall as I walked. The closer to the north end of the building I got, the more of the lullaby I could hear. Multiple sources formed the humming, soft around the edges, each slightly out of sync with the others in a way that suggested they all came from different places.
I felt the texture of the wall change. Smoother. I felt and saw the difference in texture and color, respectively. Gray and dusty rose shades, as if seen through a filter. The wall had become a painted surface that felt as if it had been painted over many times, some droplets having run down the wall and set in place, ridges elsewhere where similar bumps had been painted over and become a faint rise.
I could hear her now. Nursery. A human’s hum, joined by all the others. She was close.
Peering around the corner of the T-shaped junction, I didn’t see her, but I saw the change. Her turf, as it was. Dusty rose carpet, picture frames with simple things like animals and boats in grays, blacks, and pale pinks. A crib, white, covered with a quilt.
I stayed at the edges of it, going further down the hall rather than turning the corner and venturing into her realm. Only the wall to my right was affected. A baby carriage draped in a blanket was parked beside a small bookshelf that had been stacked with children’s books and building blocks. The cloth stuck as if it had been taped down or the sheer amount of time it had been there had nearly fused it to the fabric of the carriage, producing a tearing sound reminiscent of Velcro. The carriage was empty, except for a vague oblong stain on the seat’s back and the seat itself.
When I left it behind, though, I could tell that there was humming coming from that vicinity, one of the soft, vague hums in the grander chorus.
Every five or ten feet, there were more. A car seat removed from the car, handle up, blanket over it. Another crib, a much-used blanket tangled in the mobile, a child’s wagon. Toys, clocks, wall decorations, cardboard boxes stuffed of baby clothes, marked for ages zero to three. A rocking horse and more.
I was forced to venture further into it to get closer to the true sound’s source.
I saw her. Nursery was a woman with an ankle-length dress, a shawl over her shoulders. She clutched the shawl and rocked from side to side, speaking the inarticulate sounds rather than humming.
Beside her was Snag. He was heavyset. Two hundred and fifty pounds, at least, possibly three hundred pounds, and he wasn’t quite six feet tall. That mass was made even bulkier by his coat, which was fastened closed, draping down to his ankles, where his boots were. The sleeves had been modified to be longer, fitting the arms, which reached to the floor.
It was my first chance at seeing his face, though. He had long black hair and a thick beard, both in the loose heavy-metal take. His mask looked like he’d taken handfuls of black clay and layered it over the skin his hair and beard didn’t cover. The mask created a kind of neanderthal brow with a permanent glare built into it; the circles under his eyes were so dark it was hard to tell exactly where the eyeholes of the black clay mask started. It might have been thick rubber, melted to be in the crude shape needed, the texture left unrefined.
Nursery barely flinched as the door opened. Fume Hood stuck her head and arm out, and she fired three projectiles. One hit the slash of white paint that separated Nursery’s realm from the door, exploding into a cloud of gas. Two hit near where Nursery and Snag were, going to pieces instead of exploding or producing gas.
The gas from the first shot expanded to fill the space between Nursery’s pocket world and the door at the end of the hall.
“Speed it up,” Snag said.
Nursery turned his way. She wore a cloth mask with holes cut out for the eyes. The cloth had a floral print and was bound close to her neck with a series of chokers. She continued to mumble and hum, but she’d stopped rocking in place.
“Come on now,” Snag growled. “We’re expecting trouble.”
The humming stopped. The music box chimes that seemed to be plucking and pealing from the light fixtures and behind the walls grew noticeably quieter.
“Every time I have to stop to respond to you, Snag, it slows us down. Be a good boy and be patient, trust us. We’re making progress, even if you can’t see it.”
“If we get caught between the new player and Bad Apple’s team-”
Nursery let go of her shawl to reach out, placing her hand flat on Snag’s face, covering eyes, nose and mouth. He pulled back, and I ducked back behind the corner, so he wouldn’t catch a glimpse of me.
“Hush,” she said. “We’re safe even if that happens. This is my sanctuary.”
“I will bite you if you touch my face again.”
“You’re not as scary as you pretend to be, Snag. I know scary. You’re just a man that’s dressing up,” Nursery said. She sounded gentle, calm even after being threatened.
“Please, hush,” she said. “Let me do my work.”
“If you take any longer, I’m going to push for plan B.”
Nursery resumed humming.
No more feedback from Crystalclear. The group at the end of the hall weren’t doing much of anything.
More to the point, I was rather concerned that the area of the building I was in didn’t entirely map to the layout of the building that I’d seen from the outside. There was just a little too much room to either side of Nursery and Snag.
“Tell me the details,” Snag said, his voice growl-like even when he wasn’t threatening Nursery. He’d walked a distance away from her and toward me.
A pause, long. Snag picked up a child’s plush and threw it down the hall, bowling over a stack of thin hardcover books.
“Well, it’s taking plenty of time. So is Nursery,” he said. “What’s Kingdom’s status?”
“At this stage I’d settle for plan B,” he said. “I’d pay for the property damage.”
“They’re trying to buy time and it’s working. Tell Blindside to hurry up.”
I stood with my back to the wall, listening in. Crystalclear hadn’t communicated, but I wasn’t sure he could. Fume Hood and Tempera weren’t doing much but holding the fort and delaying.
Nursery continued humming, but she piqued the last hum with an inquisitive note.
“Blindside faked being out. Should arrive soon. We’ve got some details on our mystery guest. Dressed like one of the troopers I stashed in the room back there. Untouchable but still wary of being hit. Emotion control.”
The humming stopped.
I expected Snag to complain. He didn’t.
I chanced a look around the corner.
Nursery had turned around. She faced me. Snag was gone.
I stepped out of cover, one hand on my gun, glancing around to see where Snag had disappeared to.
I wasn’t supposed to fight a shaker in her domain. But here she was, standing with her hands clasped in front of her, defenseless. She was also the only thing standing between me and the room where Fume Hood was.
“Let me through,” I said.
“No,” she said.
I pushed out my aura, as hard as I could manage.
She didn’t flinch. It didn’t reach her.
That was what this was. Her sanctuary was a protection from shaker effects. She overrode everything by transplanting this screwed up baby decor into the area.
I wondered if I could hit her. I looked around for Snag and didn’t see him.
“Wake up,” she said.
“What?” I asked.
“Wake up, sweetie.”
The crib, a little red wagon with blankets heaped over it, and a carriage nearby jumped, rattling as if something had moved within.
I heard wet sounds. Throughout the hazy altered space, the meaty squelching started to overtake the background hums.
I stopped in my tracks.
Things moved beneath the blankets. She still hadn’t budged.
I turned around and ran.
I got away as fast as my legs would take me. I hit the wall at the end of the hallway and stopped myself with my hands rather than slow down with my legs. I turned right and headed away, past more cribs, more strollers, baby seats and bouncy chairs, all draped in their blankets of varying types and quality. Some tipped over from the violence of the agitation.
Yeah, no, whatever it was she was doing, I wasn’t going to mess with it.
There had to be other ways.
I escaped the area of Nursery’s shaker effect, stepping back into ordinary community center hallway. I was in the opposite corner of the second floor from where I’d started.
Looking out the window, I could see the shadows cast by Lord of Loss’ branches. Was it worth chancing flying outside, then flying into the room where Fume Hood was, when Lord of Loss could try hitting me or grabbing me?
There was another stairwell at the end of the hall- one I hadn’t sealed.
The door opposite it had something hanging on it. A gauntlet with clawed fingertips, the ‘arm’ something electronic. The claw’s tips were embedded in the wood of doorframe and door both.
“Hello?” I called out. I glanced back to make sure Nursery and Snag hadn’t followed me.
“Don’t touch the door!” was the rushed response.
“Who is it?” I asked.
“Patrol from the high school, community center staff,” the voice from the other side said. “Don’t touch the door. There’s a bomb!”
“I see it,” I said.
“They said they’d disable it when they left. You said to stay safe, so we cooperated and let them lock us in.”
“That’s- that’s good,” I said. My heart was still pounding from Nursery’s thing. I was pretty sure Blindside wasn’t around, because my senses weren’t being affected. “We’ll get this figured out.”
I wasn’t sure how. They had a shaker power to override Tempera and Fume Hood. Potentially Crystalclear and Longscratch as well, depending. They had Lord of Loss sequestering the outside and they had Nursery taking over the inside.
In the same moment I turned my thoughts to Snag and his disappearance, two mechanical arms stabbed out of the nearest wall as if the wall was paper. One hand caught me around the neck. The other across the face. I was slammed into the window, hard enough to shatter it and take out my forcefield. Glass tinkled onto my head, into my hair, and all around me.
Before I could get my bearings, he hauled me into the wall. My head cracked into the drywall and I felt it break with the impact. His hand gripped my mouth and the length of his long forearm caught me around the throat.
I put my hands on his arms, and I felt the whir as machinery kicked into life.
As someone with the ability to control emotions, I was supposed to be harder to read and affect. It was why I’d deflected Crystalclear earlier.
It was why Dean and I had gotten along. Even why we’d been possible.
Maybe that resistance came into play. Maybe it turned Snag’s power from an emotional uppercut to a mere slap. Negative emotions poured into me like liquid from a syringe.
But a slap on an open wound could be enough to bring someone to their knees. The walls came tumbling down, the memories flooding in, and my last coherent, present thought was that I hoped I wouldn’t maim or kill anyone in the meantime.