A Walk in the Park

From the Story Arc: Red And Blue

Previous Story in the Arc: Excoriation! by Red Saviour (Thursday, June 16, 2005)

Next Story in the Arc: Messenger by Belladonna Aura (Tuesday, June 21, 2005)

(posted Sunday, June 19, 2005)

It was a rare thing for Natalya to welcome interference from American heroes. Just the thought that she couldn’t handle a task rankled her. Yet the small Rikti infestation of the working class neighborhood of Pike’s Place proved to be beyond her abilities. Is just an off day for me, she joked lamely with Red Djinni, whose tone was chilly for a flamethrower. It was evident that he hadn’t forgiven her for the Council raid, or Communard’s bullying.

She didn’t really care; the nausea had returned with a vengeance. She brushed off his attempt to provoke her into an argument with a brusque dismissal: “Either go clean out Pike’s Place, or refuse so I can find other backings up. I am sore from plasma bolts and hospital bill.”

He snarled something about doing dirty work, which she took as an affirmative. “The workers thank you, comrade,” she said, and switched off before he could respond. There would be more fallout from that, she was sure, but no worse than what was already in the air. Natalya didn’t want to think about Red Djinni, or his weak-minded scruples, or even minor Rikti sorties. She wanted a smoke (which the hospital staff would not allow), a shot of vodka, and a hot shower.

Standing on the hospital steps, she signed the patrol logs of Shen Fai-Long, looking shamefaced as if their failure rested on his shoulders alone, and of Khrushchev. The robot assassin towered over her, yet his size did him a disservice: he was an ideal target for the Rikti sharpshooters. She fingered a few dents in his metal frame and ordered him to see Petrograd for bodywork.

“I volunteer for excoriation and kp duty,” Shen said, saluting stiffly. “I beg the Commissar to allow me to make up for my failings.”

“Go home,” she told him. “Alliance will clean up mess for us. Not every day is victorious one. Be happy to escape with skin intact… and unmutated.” The boy’s facial markings darkened with embarrassment. Natalya squashed his hat over his head. “Silly Little Tiger. You are too serious. You must learn to laugh at failure.” Something I rarely do, she lamented. “Comrade Khrushchev understands.”

“I do not laugh,” Khrushchev said in his dead voice.

“But you still have Russian sense of humor, I see,” she said with a smirk. “Take the boy back to HQ.” She lit a cigarette before acknowledging Shen’s overenthusiastic salute.

She watched their retreating backs as they tore past cars and pedestrians, Shen floating a few meters from the asphalt. Khrushchev paced the Chinese boy with pumping robotic legs.

The nausea peaked and receded. Her belt-flask of vodka had been drained hours ago. It hadn’t helped. Her body hurt, her mind whirled, but she was not tired. A heavyset woman strolled by with a bag of groceries. Natalya watched her with sudden envy for so simple a task.

Summoning a cushion of magical energies, she levitated into the air, rotating a few times before choosing a direction to fly. She chose north, for some strange reason. It would not take her home, nor to HQ, where she had a mound of paperwork and another pile of blank reports to fill out – especially after abandoning a mission to capitalists. Both destinations threatened to return her nausea. The blue sky beckoned to her. She willed her energies to propel her upwards.

Her acceleration sputtered, as if she had a dirty fuel line. The vacillation was subtle enough that she paused to be sure it had really happened. Blin, she swore, that has never happened before. It must be from Rikti blastings. I thought I was immune by now.

The buildings fell away from her. This far up, the air turned cold and the wind grew fangs. She preferred it to the murky comforts of the warm city.

Bzzzzz. Her comm unit vibrated a proximity alert to indicate a nearby CCCP comrade. A brief glance told her who it was. “Bozemoi.”

Bella. The last person she wanted to see right now.

Bella’s vitriol…her outright disloyalty… it was a scab on Natalya’s life. Itchy, aggravating, yet she could not resist poking at it, scratching, hoping it would come off to reveal healthy pink skin. Perhaps because it stemmed from love, not malice. The girl was an open book, but not an easy one to close.

Scanning the rooftops, she spotted a blue dot on a curved art-deco monstrosity. A handful of yellow dots surrounded the blue. What were they? In spite of herself, Red Saviour zoomed in closer. Surely she’d set off girl’s own proximity alarm, but the comm was silent. In fact, Bella listed as offline, out of contact. The girl wanted privacy.

On closer inspection, the yellow dots resolved into plastic tubs for HAZMAT cleanup. That tugged at Natalya’s heartstrings: Bella’s increasing caution with her radioactive body. What was she doing?

The problem with smoking and flying was that you had nowhere to put out a cigarette butt. She flicked it into the air and disintegrated it with a short burst of energy. Then, biting her lip, she descended to the roof.

Bella sat with her head in her hands, oblivious and wailing as if the world had thrown her away. On the rooftop, alone until now, the girl had let go into paroxysms of grief. It was a horrific sight. Natalya landed near her, next to the bins. The wind blew tissues soaked with contaminated teardrops across the roof.

She regretted the interruption. The girl kept on weeping, unaware of Natalya’s presence. What horrors could she be trying to expel? It was a ritual of cleansing, one to be done alone, or with one’s lover. Not in the presence of a superior officer.

I could leave now, Red Saviour thought. She’d never know I was here. Let her grieve in peace.

She took a step back. Her foot bumped into the box of tissues. Before she could take flight, Bella reached out for another tissue, and found Natalya’s boot.

Bella stopped crying for a moment. The look of confusion on her face was almost comical. She sniffled through a clogged nose, looked up at Natalya, wiped her eyes.

“Nat?” she croaked.

Natalya stood, frozen. The girl’s pain passed from her reddened eyes out into the world, just like her leaking radiation. The Russian woman wanted to close the doors to it, send it away, avoid it altogether. I am a cruel woman, she realized with a pang of sadness.

Moving slowly, Natalya retrieved the dislocated tissue box. She put a clump into Bella’s hands. Bella blew her nose into the wad.

“P-p-privyet, Commissar.” She punctuated the greeting with another blow.

Natalya nodded, unwilling to speak, as if that would chain her to this source of utter angst.

Bella tried to pitch the tissue into a bin and missed. The wind swirled the tissue around Natalya’s ankles. She caught it under a boot heel.

“They’re hot,” Bella said. “Radioactive. Polluted.”

Red Saviour nodded again. She willed magical energy to surround her foot. The tissue vanished, leaving but shreds.

“You came here to talk?” Bella sat up straighter, revealing to Red Saviour the enhanced containment suit. It didn’t appear to be the kind of suit one removed often.

She hesitated. “Nyet,” she said. “Not really.” She searched for something to say, found nothing, said nothing.

“Oh.” Bella took another tissue to dab at her cheeks. “You’d better not touch those. I’m leaking a lot of rads lately.”

Russians do nyet fear radiation, Red Saviour wanted to joke, but she didn’t have the will. Instead, she shrugged.

“I don’t know when I can get out of this suit,” Bella said, forlorn. “I’ve never put out this many rads before. You’d be proud, I’m pretty dangerous.” She looked away, ashamed at the jab.

Send her away, Natalya thought. Deactivate her. It would solve her problem and mine. I’d never see her again. No more moral dilemmas, no more insubordination. Her records could be purged from our database…

The broad expanse of Paragon City chided her for her temerity. Reality expanded around her to include America’s greedy bustle, Moscow’s cold struggle for utopia, and this rooftop pavilion for Bella’s own morality play. As if the roof had blown off her home, Red Saviour felt exposed, vulnerable, unable to stop this cold wind from picking up everything in her life and dancing them into the sky. She controlled CCCP in name only. In the cold light of day, nothing controlled CCCP, or Paragon City, or their hearts. Ants enjoyed more luxury of order than humans.

The inconsolable girl mutant’s pain, which she gathered from friends and strangers like a shepherd gathers his flock, poured damp water over Red Saviour’s house of cards. Lenin as King, Stalin as Ace, Trotsky as a one-eyed jack with a dagger to his head… all washed to the table.

What did that leave her?

I don’t want to comfort her, she realized. I am selfish and vindictive, and I want her to suffer for doubting me.

Bella watched her with anxious eyes. She wants to confess everything, then I follow suit, Natalya knew. A girly outpouring of grief, hugging and crying, and affirming our love for each other in the face of it all.

But I love Lenin more than I love Bella. I even have a soft spot for cruel old Stalin. I am not so different from him: he gave up his inner goodness for the sake of the Revolution. What greater sacrifice is there? This girl knows nothing.

“I will help you collect them,” she said at last. She walked over to the closest. With her lighter, she burned it in her gloved hand. Bella watched her patiently incinerate each tissue.

“Is no worse than Terra Volta,” she assured her. An unfair joke, and Bella didn’t miss it. The girl winced and looked away. Natalya continued, distantly bemused at her own sadism. “Have you ever seen more poorly built reactor?”

“Okay, okay,” Bella moaned. “I get it.”

The two women stared at each other. Red Saviour suppressed the urge to apologize. She lit another cigarette.

“At least you have stopped crying,” she said with a scowl.

“I needed that,” Bella said. “Don’t tell me you don’t need a big cry every once in a while.”

Red Saviour sucked in the flavored smoke. She wondered how she ever got along in Russia without menthols. “Sometimes.”

“See? We’re not so different.”

“I doubt that,” Red Saviour said. She gazed at the vista before her. Bella’s boots scraped the concrete roof as she stood.

“Nat, I can’t believe you would…” But Natalya silenced her with a disdainful wave.

Bella closed her mouth. Anger braced her shoulders, yet Natalya presented her with a wall. Communication lines had been shut down.

“I don’t want to fight. Please.” Bella forced her fists to unclench.

“No one fights the Commissar,” Red Saviour said. “You are wise.”

“Damn it, Nat! This isn’t about being the Commissar.”

Red Saviour faced the girl again. The anger had set her pouty blue lips to a grim line. Natalya perversely liked the change.

“Bella.” She threw her cigarette into one of the hazmat bins. “I am always Commissar. I cannot stop. Not for anyone.”

The wind whipped at Natalya’s red cape. She’d had to order another after giving her first one to Althea in a sentimental moment. It blew out past her like a Soviet flag. She raised a gloved hand to the girl, silencing her again.

“I am not interested in discussions.”

Bella picked up one of the bins. “Then maybe I should go.”

“Nyet. I have not dismissed you.” Natalya picked up another bin, full of innocent looking tissues that would kill a laboratory rat. “Let us go down to the street.”

“But…”

“You are going to question orders again?” She asked coldly. Bella secured the last bin, dumped the hazardous waste bags inside, and floated off the rooftop without saying a word.

They landed by the loading dock. “These are too hot for normal garbage,” Bella protested.

Red Saviour took one bagful of tissues in each hand, glowed, and vaporized them. Radioactive dust fluttered to the ground. “Good enough. When Terra Volta meets all safety standards, we will fuss over nuclear waste disposal.”

She gestured at Bella to follow her out the service drive. To their right, workers unloaded boxes from a truck. They grunted under the strain of the heavy boxes, hefting them only a short distance before dropping them roughly onto a palette. A yellow palette lift waited to wheel the goods inside. From the heavy thumps and the workers’ cavalier handling, Natalya supposed the boxes contained blank paper and office supplies. Fuel for the bureaucracy.

The two women carried the bins to the sidewalk. Pedestrians glanced with mild interest at them, but superheroes were a common enough sight in Paragon City that no crowd formed. They veered around Natalya and Bella out of deference, waiting until they had passed to comment on who they’d seen. It would be reported to the family at dinnertime.

“Shouldn’t we fly back to HQ?” Bella asked.

Red Saviour simply shook her head. With a tilt of her head, she started down the sidewalk, moving at a slower clip than her normal authoritative stride. Bella fell into step behind her.

“Are we headed to a mission?”

Again, the headshake. Bella cleared her throat. “These bins are a bit hot, too. I told you, I’m leaking more. We are exposing these people to needless radiation.”

“Is nyet worse than they get from too much television,” Natalya muttered. She took the bins, dropped one into the other, and tossed them into a nearby dumpster of a crew repairing damage to a building. The man-sized dent in the tower’s concrete provided evidence to the origin of the damage. They saw these crews every day.

Red Saviour took a right turn at the corner, bringing them into the financial district. The hammer and sickle on her new red cape stood in stark contrast to the Armani suits, Rolex watches and self-important cellular phone conversations of the businessmen and women around them. She didn’t speak. Bella squirmed; the silence appeared to be killing her. Radiation wasn’t all that was leaking out of her.

They walked for six blocks in silence. The conversations of passersby, so often ignored when their crimefighting business brought them to street level, became their soundtrack. A woman argued with her boyfriend; an elderly couple discussed a grandson’s grades. They eavesdropped on half a dozen stock tips, enough to start a portfolio. Someone complained over the phone about a Hollywood blockbuster’s poor dialog. A homeless man cursed under his breath at everyone and no one.

Natalya watched each person’s face. Americans always struck her as overfed sheep. She hoped to find a counterpoint to that opinion by moving amongst the people. She didn’t. No one spouted Marx to a friend, or encouraged his union to strike. Revolution was an unwelcome stench in this downtown neighborhood. She cast a glance at Bella. The girl’s expression was thoughtful. No doubt she scrutinized Natalya’s every movement for meaning. A Commissar gave up the privacy of the unimportant.

A man in an expensive suit passed them; his stride was that of self-importance. A CEO of some nameless financial company, she supposed. Not so different from a Soviet Commissar. His secretary watches him the same way as Bella watches me.

“Your suit,” Natalya prompted, the first words she’d spoke in ten minutes. “When can you change back to normal suit?”

“I don’t know,” Bella said. She didn’t need to elaborate: she was stuck inside it, like a turtle in a shell. Her powers had become a prison.

“You have seen Soviette for examination?”

“She thinks I’ll stabilize, but who knows when it will be?” Her lip trembled. “I… I wish…”

Poor girl, Natalya thought. She resented her sympathy for Bella. A part of her still wanted to condemn her treachery. That hatred tasted sweet in its simplicity, yet it receded in her heart. Trapped inside a radiation suit… it was like punishment for the crime of being a mutant.

“The races must be separated!” Bellowed a nearby voice. “Order can only come from strict segregation. This administration caters to the rich and the craven!”

It caught them up short. In a pavilion surrounding a glassy tower, two Council thugs, lacking the armor that made them an obvious threat, flanked a man in a three piece suit. He stood on a footstool to project his reedy voice to all pedestrians. Most ignored him. Two punk rock teens taunted him to the side.

A third thug handed out pamphlets.

Without breaking stride, Red Saviour pushed past the stream of people to confront the speaker. “I am interested in hearing more about Council,” she said with a wolfish grin.

Bella gaped at the Council flunkies. She held her breath.

“We are the only organization who champions…” The man’s well-rehearsed spiel ended as his eyes widened. The tall, dark-haired beauty before him was none other than Red Saviour, scourge of the Council. The Council recruiter stared. Since Althea’s rescue, the Council’s recruiters doffed the military gear in favor of civilian clothes. They went unarmed and proclaimed their legitimacy as a political organization.

They knew this would never stop Red Saviour.

The fear in the fascists faces took on comic proportions. Red Saviour flipped through the pamphlet, nodding with interest at the text while the men stared at her as if she were a shark. They stood frozen in fear.

“Hmm. Very interesting.” She dug her lighter out of her pocket and set fire to the pamphlet. The men tensed.

“Boo,” she said, raising her eyebrows.

They bolted in all different directions. The teenagers jeered at them.

Red Saviour brushed the ash off her gloves. She gestured to Bella to move on.

“I thought you were going to…”

“Kill them?” Red Saviour finished. “Nyet. They are small fries.”

“After the kidnapping…”

Red Saviour cut her off again. “The raid made its point. Is nyet matter for your discussion.” She noticed a small grassy park pushed up against a War Wall. “Come this way.” New trees, planted after the Invasion to replace uprooted ancients, struggled for sunlight in the long shadow of the War Wall.

The grass crunched under their feet. Aside from a few laptop wielding workers, the park was theirs.

Red Saviour stopped under the canopy of asmaller tree. She regarded Bella for a long moment. The girl squirmed under her gaze.

“There is no one else around,” she said at last. “Take off your glove.”

Bella hesitated. She had been psyching herself up for a long period of containment. “But I’ll…”

“You’ll follow my orders, tovarisch,” Red Saviour sighed. The Russian word carried a double meaning: friend, and comrade. She took off her own glove. “Davay.”

Bella undid clasps, Velcro, and some sort of gelled seal. The glove came off. She flexed her fingers in the cool air.

“Feels better, da?”

“I shouldn’t expose you to radiation, Commissar.” Bella spoke with both worry and despair.

Red Saviour waved the concern away. “I grew up around radiation. I will get decontamination if I must.” She held out her hand. “We walk some more.”

Bella looked at the offered hand. It was likely she had been avoiding human physical contact for months, for legitimate reasons. The loneliness in her eyes could not be missed. All her eagerness to heal, to help, to advise and comfort, it stemmed from this.

“Davay,” Red Saviour said in a softer voice. “I am not afraid of you.”

The blue girl took her Commissar’s hand. Her grip was tentative, as if touching the handle on a cooking pot. Red Saviour squeezed and pulled her into stride.

Bella’s skin felt at least ten degrees hotter than normal. Not even the radiation blasts or blue skin could underscore her freakishness as this did. Natalya thought of poor, sturdy Petrograd, who could teach monks a thing or two about discipline. Was Bella to wind up this way?

They walked the four block length of the park. Without conversation to distract them, the gut-level hum of the War Wall took on greater definition. High harmonic overtones became clearer. It was no wonder that birds, squirrels and insects forsook this park. It, too, had been cut off from the world.

Natalya broke the silence. “I know of hotel with accommodations for contaminated individuals. Is used by Crey for some of more far-gone Protectors. Sloppy shielding, you know.”

“It’s a Crey-run hotel?”

Natalya nodded. “I saw it when checking files for evidence.”

“You will stay there for time being. Is legitimate operation. You will nyet be in danger, and you can convalesce for as long as you need. Lead-lined walls, decontamination equipment, cable TV. Very fancy.”

“Nat…” Bella cast about for words. “I can’t accept that. Even if it was just a money issue, you’d be supporting Crey’s operations.”

Natalya shrugged. “So I break a few more Crey Power Tanks. Will make up difference. Is hard to spend money in America without supporting some evil capitalist or another. I have even purchased giant pickle jar for five dollars at Wal-Mart. Had to remove shopping cart from lot to justify purchase.”

Bella gaped at her. The girl had been so down, humor was a foreign intrusion. But the veneer cracked, and she allowed a chuckle.

“Nat, are you sure? You can budget for that?”

Red Saviour shrugged. “I am Commissar. Is my job to be sure.” She met Bella’s gaze. “This is important enough to budget for, da. Besides, it won’t be forever. You will get better.” Her last statement ended like an order.

“I…”

Red Saviour touched Bella’s hair. “I said, you will get better. Is nyet thing for discussion.”

A radioactive tear rolled down Bella’s cheek. “I want to hug you, Nat, but it would jeopardize your health.”

“Is few extra minutes in decontamination chamber. Believe me, I have had worse from comrades I cared for much less.” She pulled Bella into an embrace. The girl sobbed into her uniform, not so hard as before. Natalya let her vent the rest of her tears.

“I wanted to quit CCCP,” Bella said between sobs. “I couldn’t stand it, the killing, the brutality…”

“I would have let you.” Natalya searched for the right words. “You have gentle heart. Is nyet weak, but is nyet hardened to this life.”

She wiped a tear from her own eye in spite of herself. This park is grim, she decided. It was a bad choice. It will live again when they finally tear down the War Walls.

“I don’t want to be hard. Not like that.” The accusation hung in the air.

“Da.” Since watching Bella’s DVD, she questioned how to feel about it. “It has been long time for me.” She looked for patterns in her thoughts and deeds. A confession about anything would assuage the girl’s pain. Yet ethics seemed to be a mirrored pond whose surface broke into opaque ripples as her hand quested for the bottom.

“I will nyet ask you to.” She recalled Bella’s words from the video: when the facists start making us act just like them---they’ve won. “I have thought much about what you said on DVD. Was first time I have seen insubordination as multimedia presentation.”

Bella stopped crying. She tensed in Natalya’s arms.

“Is joke. I am nyet angry any more.”

The girl relaxed. “So was I wrong?”

“Not wrong. But sestra, you must understand… Is not simple matter of black and white.”

Bella’s eyes grew wary again. “No offense, Nat, but everything is black and white to you.”

“Nyet,” Natalya sighed. “Not any more. There was time when I believed many things because I wanted to. Because there was finite amount of belief required, and I could go about my duties without question.” Her face darkened. “And I did some things that I will nyet describe to you. All in name of State.”

“Do you regret them?”

“Some.” Natalya recalled years as a police officer, backroom interrogations, planting evidence, trumping up charges. It had been war then, too. “Is often hard to gain sense of perspective.

“And I cannot say that I know answer to this question that will satisfy you. The killing of Council was last straw for you, da?”

Bella nodded.

“It was nyet easy decision. Mojiotok, People’s Blade and I argued for hour over it. But we felt that sacrifice of enemies’ lives was worth potential saving of innocents’ lives.” She wanted a smoke again. “I knew some would survive. They had to see rage in my eyes. They woke the sleeping bear.”

“But why killing, Nat? Why go so far?” Bella’s voice cracked. This was the core of her pain. Natalya had finally allowed her to expose it to sunlight.

“Is only language they understand. There are thousands of Council soldiers. Some can be rehabilitated…others deserve a lifetime in prison. We can nyet arrest them all, or stop all recruitings. But if we slow them down, strike fear into their hearts, make their movements tentative, we might reach point where they do nyet recover. And then…then we can end threat.” She squeezed the girl’s hand again. “Is nyet our duty to kill, Bella. Is our duty to sacrifice. It is for the greater good. For the Collective. Is same reason to expose myself to radiation to be here with you.”

“But I’m just one person,” Bella protested, “not a Collective.”

“I see no difference.” Red Saviour’s gaze was strong. “I will not let my sister suffer. For anything.” Bella buried her head in Natalya’s shoulder; the tears flowed again, but they signified something other than despair. “Shh. Is okay. There is being solution, somewhere.”

She rocked Bella as the girl wept out the rest of her tears. She had victimized this girl without trying. Between her absolute and Bella’s, there was a middle ground, and that’s where Natalya would find absolution, for the good of them all.