A Wild Cards Mosaic Novel
By George R. R. Martin, Patrick Nielsen Hayden
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2008 George R. R. Martin and The Wild Cards Trust
All rights reserved.
TO THE HUNGRY SOUL, EVERY BITTER THING IS SWEET
Melinda M. Snodgrass
I FIND MYSELF AVOIDING the passages about ashes and worms. The pages are thin, almost feathery beneath my fingers as I turn them, looking for another passage that won't fill my throat with bile. I know my father is dying. I don't have to read about it.
Here's one. It reads more like a page out of Lord Dunsany than a collection of musings by long-dead Hebrews. "Who layeth the beams of his chambers in the water: who maketh the clouds his chariot: who walketh upon the wings of the wind." I have a good voice and I know how to use it. I use it now, softening and deepening the final words. I know he should sleep. I don't want him to sleep. I want to talk to him. Hear his voice before it's silenced.
That damn lump is back. I keep swallowing, trying to make it smaller. Through the mullioned panes I can see a glint of sun on the sluggish waters of the Cam. It's August, and it feels like this endless summer will never end. The room is breathlessly warm, and the heavy air holds that sick/sweet scent of fatal illness. I can feel my shirt clinging to the skin of my back. Outside there's the sputtering growl of a lawn mower somewhere on the street, and a dog carols his annoyance. I'll probably need to mow the lawn for my parents, or find a teenager. Through the open window I can smell the green. The branches of the apple tree out back sag under the rosy burdens. Maybe that's what happens to every living thing when they have to breed.
My father touches the back of my wrist. His skin feels just like the onion-thin pages of the Bible that now rests in my lap. "Thank ... you." His blue eyes are surprisingly alert in a face reduced to harsh bone and stretched skin. "There's wisdom between those covers," he adds, and transfers his hand to the Bible. "Maybe by reading to me you'll find some of it."
Fantasies and fairy tales, is what I think, but I keep control of my features. "So, you think I'm foolish." I grin at him. "Thanks."
"No." His expression is serious. "But I know that something is wrong. I raised you, Noel, you can't hide things from me."
He's smiling, but I still have that visceral gut clench that affects every child when their parents display that kind of preternatural omniscience. It passes quickly. After all, I'm twenty-eight, and I amuse myself for a moment wondering what he thinks I've done. No pregnant fans. I'm a hermaphrodite, so I'm sterile. I'm not in debt. Both my public job and my secret job pay me quite well. What could he imagine I had done? For a moment I toy with the idea of telling him.
You know I'm a member of the Silver Helix, Dad, a division of MI-7. What you don't know is that I'm their designated assassin. I don't remember how many people I've killed. They say you never forget your first. His face is as blank as all the others.
But of course I don't. Standing, I set aside the Bible and stretch. "Tea? There's lemon tarts, and some boiled tongue for sandwiches. Will you eat something?"
Our kitchen is small and cluttered, and several days' worth of dishes form towers in the sink. A fat fly moves lazily between the trash can and the dirty dishes. The buzzing is almost hypnotic. No, no, no. A sharp head shake drives back the sleepiness. Looks like I'm going to have to hire a maid as well as a teenager.
The tongue, sullenly red and pimpled with taste buds, gleams with congealed fat under the refrigerator light. American kitchens are almost obscene with their gigantic refrigerators crammed with food. We English are starting to go the same way. Who has time to shop for each day's meal that day?
I wonder who had cooked the tongue — certainly not my mother. She never cooked. My father took care of the house and the kid, and prepared every meal, and he fit every cliché about English cooking. A spurt of anger flares in the center of my chest, but I back down from it. It isn't Mum's fault he's dying. She was the bread winner so I suppose she had the right to dodge the drudgery. But I suspect if she hadn't worked she still wouldn't have cooked and cleaned.
Her devotion to radical feminism has defined her life. Hell, she was so militant that she made damn sure I was raised as a boy. Now figure that one out. They may look funny, but I've got both sets of genitalia. I could have been raised as a girl, and even kept the same name, just changed the pronunciation.
My pager vibrates. I stand there juggling the tongue while I search through my pockets for the correct pager. I'm wearing a med-alert pager since I am so often away from England, and I have the pager my manager uses to arrange my performances, I have one from the Committee that summons Lilith, and another from Prince Siraj, the man that commands Bahir, and I have the one given to me by the Silver Helix. It's Siraj calling.
Fuck you, says that febrile part of my mind. But I pull out my mobile and call him. Naturally he wants to see me. Naturally it has to be now. Naturally I'll go.
* * *
The only reason it was the premier of the United Arab Emirates who received a visit from Bahir and not the president was due to an infelicitous exchange Al Maktoum had had with Prince Siraj in a Paris restaurant. The premier had mentioned how he liked to relax in a hot bath and watch the sun set through the floor-to-ceiling windows. Naked men are particularly vulnerable, and it's easy to locate bathrooms on building plans. Add to that west-facing windows, and it was a simple matter for me to use Google Earth and locate my target. The time of day was a little less felicitous. I can't use my powers at twilight or dawn, and Bahir cannot be summoned after dark. But Siraj's recollection of the conversation suggested Al Maktoum liked to read in the tub prior to sunset. And I was delivering a threat, and they rarely take long.
The rippling water in the deep glass-tiled tub makes it hard to see clearly, but it appears the premier's balls have retreated up into his belly. He stares up at me, and terror clouds his dark eyes. I risk a glance at the brace of mirrors on one wall of the marble-lined bathroom. I am a nicely terrifying figure, dressed in a black dishdasha with a pistol holstered on my hip. I had dispensed with the headdress. The trailing edges can interfere with peripheral vision, and in the desert heat my scalp sweats and itches. So my mane of red-gold hair shines under the lights. I use the tip of the scimitar to scratch at my beard. The premier never takes his eyes off that blade. I really wish that genius in operations at Whitehall who conceived of using my male avatar as a Middle Eastern ace hadn't insisted on the sword as part of Bahir's persona. It's so absurdly Arabian Nights, but I'm stuck with it now. Bahir's blade has decapitated a lot of people — including the last Caliph.
"Prince Siraj sends greetings to his brother, and is saddened that his brother has chosen not to honor the price of oil set by the Caliph."
"It's just a few dollars." His voice holds a quaver and a whine. As I watch, goose bumps bloom across his shoulders and upper arms.
"One hundred dollars."
"The three hundred that the prince has set is too high. The European and American economies are staggering. How does it help us if we bankrupt them? If no one can buy our oil, where is the gain?"
"You should have made these arguments to the prince. Not sought to slip behind him like a thief. His highness is not a fool. He will ease prices, but not until the westerners have paid a mighty price."
"We were not part of that war in Egypt. Why should we exact vengeance? None of our soldiers were lost." He's becoming angry, beginning to wonder if he really stands in danger of his life. I glance toward the window. The sun is perilously close to the horizon.
"You say these words without shame, which shows you are a pawn of the West."
When a blade swings quickly it really does whistle, faintly, not like in the movies, but you have that split second of sound to let you know something awful is coming. The premier flinches, and flails. Water droplets form prisms as they cascade past the window and the rays of sunlight break apart. Blood fountains and glows in the dying light. I have taken off his right hand at the wrist. He is screaming, the sound echoing and reverberating off the hard surfaces. Outside the door there is the sound of pounding feet.
The threat has been delivered. It's past time I was going.
* * *
John Bruckner, the Highwayman, is emerging from Flint's office as I arrive to report about my little mission for Siraj. Out of courtesy to our chief Bruckner had removed his stained Andy Capp hat while in the office, but he's in the process of restoring it to its customary place and customary task — covering his nearly bald pate. I retreat to the wall because the Highwayman has the build of a beer keg and about as much dexterity.
An exuberant handshake later, he's offering me one of his foul black cigars while stuffing one into his own mouth. I wave him off and pull out a cigarette. The heat from his dented Zippo fans my face as I lean into the lighter. He transfers the fire to the tip of his cigar and sucks lustily on it until the tip of the stogie glows red. The rituals having been observed, we lean against opposite walls and study each other.
"Now, how is it that I'm a bloody lorry driver and you're a bloody magician?"
"I'm prettier than you are."
"Right you are, and you dress better," he says, hitching the waistband of his baggy corduroy pants up over his paunch.
"What have you been up to?"
A jerk of the thumb at Flint's door and he says, "Old Granite Face has me running arms from Lagos to the troops out in the bush." When the Highwayman gets his rig up to speed he can move from London to Melbourne or Shanghai without passing through any of the territory in between. "Effing roads are no better than goat tracks," he continues. "They've beat the bloody hell out of my suspension. Bloody natives."
It isn't just white man's burden rearing its head. Bruckner has seen strange and disturbing things while traveling his "short cuts," and he lives in fear of getting stranded in this strange, surreal no-man's-land.
"Show a little gratitude. Nigeria is the only thing that's keeping petrol in your truck."
"Yeah, well, why can't the niggers build a bloody first world road?"
I keep control of my features. Bruckner's somewhere in his sixties. Times have changed, but not the Highwayman. He's racist and sexist, and despises foreigners with a superiority unique only to a white Englishman. Straightening up with a grunt and another tug at his pants, he says, "I've got to push off. Join me and the lads for a pint?"
"Can't." I incline my head toward Flint's office.
"Well, next time."
He leaves, trailing smoke like the fumes from one of his lorries. I tap on the door. I can't actually hear Flint's invitation to enter, but I go on in. He's in his great stone chair, necessary because his sharp stone body would cut the upholstery of any normal chair to shreds.
I take my customary chair, stub out the butt, and take out another cigarette. The streetlights throw shadows across the bookcases. Only a small lamp on the desk is lit so Flint's eyes glow red in the gray stone face.
"God damn it! Must you be this effective on behalf of our enemies?"
Oh, damn, I had hoped to report about my actions in Dubai before Flint heard of it. No such luck. It seems I will not be basking in the sunshine of my chief's approval today.
"I take it the UAE has raised their prices."
"You know bloody well they have. You cut off the man's hand! He's a friend of the prime's."
"I must occasionally succeed, sir, or Siraj is going to wonder if his ace bodyguard/assassin is a complete cock-up."
"Can't you exert any influence over Siraj?"
"Bahir is viewed as a blunt instrument. I think Siraj would be just the tiniest bit suspicious if the Caliph's assassin suddenly started displaying political acumen."
Flint grunts, and gives a grudging nod. Gestures from my boss are disconcerting. It's like watching a statue come to life. He surprises me when he snaps his fingers together and produces a flame. I realize it's for the forgotten cigarette hanging between my fingers.
My, my, this is rare condescension. I guess I'm forgiven for my unauthorized bloodletting. Leaning forward, I light my cigarette. The harsh Turkish tobacco is like claws raking across the inside of my lungs, but the hit to the nicotine pleasure centers outweighs the discomfort and the theoretical lung cancer.
"Where are you off to now?"
"I've got a date." I preen and Flint makes a grinding sound like frozen gears trying to engage. "Believe me, you don't hate it as much as I. Babysitting is not my style."
* * *
I pause in the bathroom before testing my bladder control against the cold darkness of the Between. As the urine splashes against the porcelain my better nature wars with my real nature. What I really want is to call Lohengrin and cancel our date so I can go home to Dad and sleep in my old bedroom. If I go to New York I'll be eating an overly rich and heavy meal very late, and then indulging in vigorous and inept sex between sweaty sheets with the big German ace. What he lacks in finesse Lohengrin more than makes up for in stamina. I dread tomorrow. Even when I'm back in my normal body I will have an uncomfortable ache in my nether parts.
For an instant I find myself looking with loathing at my short and strangely shaped penis. Would my life have been better, easier, if Mum had let the surgeons cut it away, and make me ...
My thoughts slam up against the reality. No amount of surgery would have made me a "real girl." I tuck myself away and zip up, and then move to the sink to wash my hands. I'm still holding the rough paper towel when I allow the transformation to twist my flesh. Breasts soon press against the front of my shirt, and my pants fit uncomfortably over female hips. Long fingernails pierce the paper towel.
The image in the mirror isn't all I could hope. The heart-shaped face looks drawn and there's the hint of a shadow beneath the silver eyes. It's rather a shock to realize that fatigue of the real body translates to the avatars. Checking my watch I calculate the time difference between London and New York. If I stop at my digs in Manhattan and repair my face and change out of pants and boots I'll be late meeting Lohengrin for dinner. But he's got a rather traditional view of women. He'll think that's typical.
I picture the flat in the Village. As my body twists into that cold, strange place I decide on the little black dress. Keep the focus on the legs. ...
* * *
IT'S DARK. SUFFOCATING. I can hear the sounds of the helicopters overhead. I've got to do something. But I can hear screams now. Oh, God, the way they scream as the flesh is seared off their bodies. I need to bubble. I need to get away from the smell of burnt skin and muscle. Screaming. I need to make the screams go away.
I try to blast my way through the darkness. For a moment, I can't bubble. It's as if there's a wall between me and my power — then a stream of bubbles flows from my hands. Dust and rubble fill my mouth and rain off my body.
There's light. The light is so clean and pure. I bubble more until I chase the darkness away and blow the weight of the debris from me.
I look around. I'm not in Egypt. There are no helicopters. No falling bodies. No fiery flesh. Just the clean, antiseptic testing room at BICC. Biological Isolation and Containment Center — who thinks these names up, anyway?
God, I hate government facilities. Why on earth would anyone build anything in an abandoned salt mine? And in the middle of Nowhere, New Mexico, to boot ...
"The purpose of the test is to see how much force you can absorb, Miss Pond." The disembodied voice belonged to Dr. Pendergast. His voice was normally silky smooth, so it was hard to tell when he was really pissed. But there was a hint of anger and I knew I'd been bad. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Busted Flush by George R. R. Martin, Patrick Nielsen Hayden. Copyright © 2008 George R. R. Martin and The Wild Cards Trust. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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