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Inside Straight (Wild Cards Series #18)

Inside Straight (Wild Cards Series #18)

3.9 22
by George R. R. Martin, Melinda M. Snodgrass (Other), Daniel Abraham (Contribution by)

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In 1946, an alien virus that rewrites human DNA was accidentally unleashed in the skies over New York City. It killed ninety percent of those it infected. Nine percent of those who survived mutated into tragically deformed creatures. And one percent gained superpowers. The Wild Cards shared-universe series, created and edited since 1987


In 1946, an alien virus that rewrites human DNA was accidentally unleashed in the skies over New York City. It killed ninety percent of those it infected. Nine percent of those who survived mutated into tragically deformed creatures. And one percent gained superpowers. The Wild Cards shared-universe series, created and edited since 1987 by New York Times #1 bestseller George R. R. Martin along with Melinda Snodgrass, is the tale of the history of the world since then—and of the heroes among that one percent.

Originally begun in 1987, long before George R. R. Martin became a household name among fantasy readers ("The American Tolkien" --Time magazine), the Wild Cards series earned a reputation among connoisseurs for its smart reimagining of the superhero idea. Now, with Inside Straight, the Wild Cards continuity jumps forward to a new generation of major characters, entirely accessible to Martin's hundreds of thousands of new readers, with all-original stories by Martin himself, along with Daniel Abraham, Michael Cassutt, and Stephen Leigh, among others.

Editorial Reviews

Since 1987, 17 volumes of the shared-universe Wild Cards series have been published, all based on outgrowths of the same riveting sci-fi scenario: In 1946, an alien virus that reformat human DNA infects the populace of New York City. Ninety percent of those infected die; nine percent become grotesquely mutated; and one percent gain superpowers. Inside Straight thrusts us into the world as it is in 2008, a place where gifted "Aces" vie for reality TV supremacy and others struggle to save the real world. The launch of a new generation of a classic sci-fi collaborative series.
Publishers Weekly

The newest Wild Cards mosaic novel marks a new beginning for the long-running saga. Veteran contributors such as Melinda M. Snodgrass and John Jos. Miller and newcomers like Carrie Vaughn and S.L. Farrell create a new generation of fantastical characters, including Jonathan Hive, who can transform himself into a swarm of wasps, and the six-armed, tattooed giant Drummer Boy. Twenty-eight superhuman "aces" are cast in a new reality show called American Hero. As the contestants compete in staged challenges and systematically get voted off amid Hollywood-fueled melodrama, horrific events in the Middle East bring to light the glaring unreality of reality television. When the show reaches its climactic final episode, some of the contestants decide to forsake the trappings of fame and fortune and become real-life heroes. The first volume of a projected trilogy, this fast-paced and sardonic story will appeal to comic book aficionados and heroic fantasy fans alike. (Jan.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Decades have passed since an alien virus created "wild cards" in the human population: people with mutations that were (for the lucky ones) super powers. Now the many second generations of Aces-those with positive mutations-are not sure what to do with themselves. When salvation comes in the form of the reality television show American Heroes, the country and the world get to watch twenty-eight aces compete to become the next American Hero. Will it be blogger John Hive, who can dissolve himself into wasps? Or six-armed, bad-boy, rock-star Drummer Boy? Or hard-working, hard-swearing Hardhat? Some will win, some will lose, and some will look for meaning in Egypt, dealing with a wild card-related genocide. The eighteenth book in the Wild Cards series is the first to feature the next generation of aces. The first chapter includes a handy recap of history, making this book a good jumping-on point for new readers. Several collaborating authors of this anthology are new to the series; others, such as founder and editor Martin, are still contributing after twenty years of the books. Despite different authors, the individual stories flow into and smoothly build on each other. The new characters, along with a few faces familiar to fans, prove relatable and engaging, and topical elements like reality television and terrorism resonate with day-to-day existence. These injections of freshness should propel the series for at least a few more volumes to follow this welcome return to a rare prose superhero series. Reviewer: Lisa Martincik
Library Journal

In 1946, an unknown virus rewrote human DNA, killing 90 percent of those who caught it and leaving the survivors with strange powers or deformities. The lucky ones, called aces, possessed the powers of heroes, while the unfortunate "jokers," embittered and dangerous, turned their back on the rest of the world. That was the first generation of "wild cards." Now, in 2007, a new group of children of the virus have come into their own and the world is theirs for the taking-or destroying. This 18th installment in the long-running "Wild Cards" series launches a new set of heroes and villains, all part of the culture of hip-hop, computers, and cell phones and holding the future in their hands. Nine interconnected stories by Melinda Snodgrass, George R.R. Martin, Michael Cassutt, and other genre authors take the tales of super-heroes in new directions. A good choice for series fans and newcomers, this SciFi Essential Book belongs in most libraries.

—Jackie Cassada
From the Publisher

“The shared-world series known as Wild Cards has had a long and illustrious history of contributors and achievements.” —SciFi.com

Product Details

Tom Doherty Associates
Publication date:
Wild Cards Series , #18
Edition description:
First Edition
Product dimensions:
6.77(w) x 9.07(h) x 1.27(d)

Read an Excerpt

Inside Straight

By George R. R. Martin

Tom Doherty Associates

Copyright © 2008 George R. R. Martin and The Wild Cards Trust
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7653-5712-0


Dark of the Moon

Melinda M. Snodgrass

SOMEWHERE OFF TO HER right gunfire erupted.

Anywhere else in the world people would flee that sound, but here in Baghdad it was just one theme in the symphony of celebration. The sharp chattering of a machine gun set a high-pitched counterpoint to the deep bass booms of rockets. A shower of golden sparks hung in the night sky, and edged the needle-like spires of minarets like a benediction. The sparks seemed to fall in slow motion. The light from the fireworks briefly lit the faces of the crowd. Men whirled and danced. Tears glinted on their cheeks, and their mouths stretched wide as they chanted for their Caliph.

Kamal Farag Aziz, the new president of Egypt, had come to Baghdad to submit himself to the Caliph and make his nation one with Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, under the restored caliphate. In Cairo, Baghdad, Damascus, East Jerusalem, and Mecca, the masses celebrated. In Lebanon, Qatar, and Kuwait, the leaders of the few remaining sovereign Arab states were shivering.

Lilith pulled the edge of her shimagh across her nose and mouth. Partly it was to disguise the fact she was a woman, but it also kept the dust, raised by thousands of shuffling, stamping feet, from choking her. Only in Iraq could you smell the rich, moist tang of water and reeds, chew on grit, and endure nighttime temperatures in the high nineties. Her robe clung to her body, and she felt a trickle of sweat inching its maddening way down her spine. When Saddam had lived in the palace the acres surrounding the building had been given over to lush gardens. The Caliph had chosen not to take water from Iraqi farmers, and allowed the gardens to die.

From her vantage point near the palace wall Lilith could see the looming bulk of the palace. The white marble walls were washed in a kaleidoscope of colors as the fireworks display continued. A man dressed in snowy white robes and keffiyeh stepped out onto a third-floor balcony. He paced, rested his hands on the carved balustrade, peered down into the crowd, paced again, and vanished back into the room.

Idiot, Lilith thought. Get yourself killed by a stray bullet.

She waited until one particularly spectacular fireworks display lit the sky and every head craned back in that particular kind of amazement unique to yokels. Then she swept the folds of her dishdasha and jalabiya around her body and felt that strange, internal snap, as the surface beneath her sandals changed from dirt over concrete to less dirt over polished marble.

Prince Siraj gaped at her. He was handsome, but his smooth round face and the bulge of a belly against his robes showed the dangers of sufficient food for a Bedouin. No matter that the royal house of Jordan had been out of the desert for four generations. Two thousand years of subsistence living was bred deep in the bone, and it whispered constantly that this meal might be the last for a long, long time.

"Are —" He coughed and tried again. "— Are you the one Noel sent?"

"You better hope so." Lilith stepped into the room. A breeze off the Tigris stirred the white fabric of the mosquito netting that swaddled the bed. An elaborate mosaic of multicolored stone covered the floor. It depicted King Nebuchadnezzar hunting waterfowl in the rushes. But of course, Saddam had been a secularist. Lilith wondered how long until the Islamic purity patrols of the Caliph would destroy this art.

"I have your clothes." Siraj lifted the folds of black material from the bed and thrust the abaya and burqa into her hands.

She pulled off the shimagh, and her waist-length black hair tumbled free. Siraj stared at her. At five-ten, Lilith was a couple of inches taller than the prince. Her only worry was the silver eyes, legacy of the wild card, but fortunately the Muslim requirement of modest downcast eyes for women worked to her advantage.

"Noel said you were in school together?" she asked as she dropped the tentlike garment over her body. With one of her blades she cut discreet openings in the material that she could reach through.

"Yes. At Cambridge. We were great, good friends. He loves our culture." The sentences emerged in agitated little bursts of sound.

"Would a friend put you in this position?" Lilith asked. The mesh was disconcerting to look through, and the veils reduced her peripheral vision. She felt naked beneath the layers of cloth.

"I can be a bridge," the prince said as he paced around the room. His hands kept clasping and unclasping. "Between our two worlds."

"It's just one world," Lilith said, then added, "Do you have the map?"

"Yes." He handed her a piece of paper, and hurriedly pulled back his hand when their fingers brushed.

Lilith wondered at the avoidance. He had been educated in England, and lived for long periods in the West. Perhaps it was just the proximity of the Caliph that had him jumpy. She looked down at the paper. It looked like a cross section of a honeycomb. "A little hint would help. You know, insane religious nutters sleep here," Lilith said.

Siraj flushed at her drawling British delivery. "He changes rooms ... frequently."

"Well, that's ... irritating."

"He's become increasingly paranoid."

"Understandable. He was nearly assassinated by his sister." She gave Siraj a bright smile, then realized he couldn't see her features. Ridiculous culture.

Siraj plunged on as if she hadn't spoken. "Even though I'm on his council, I think ... well, I think he doesn't trust me any longer. It started when the Righteous Djinn arrived. The Djinn disapproves of Western education. He thinks it taints us." The hand washing had become even more fervent. "You mustn't fail."

"Relax. Tonight you have a pro."

The prince looked around as if expecting the walls of the room to collapse in upon them. "It may not be as easy as you think. The Djinn accompanies the Caliph everywhere. He is enormously strong, and he can become a giant."

"Good thing we're indoors."

Her light response didn't please Siraj. "Since you find the Djinn unworthy of concern, you might remember that there is also Bahir."

"I'm very aware of Bahir."

But it didn't stop the nervous flow. "Bahir can teleport. Many an enemy has been surprised to find his scimitar suddenly behind them. It's the last surprise they have before they're beheaded."

"Little flamboyant, don't you think? A gun would be easier and far more certain." She was very aware of the pistol strapped to the inside of her thigh.

"Well, yes, it's a stereotype, but it's also symbolic. The street loves it."

"All that symbolism is why the Arab has found himself despised and dismissed." Lilith looked at the map again. "I can't just go teleporting into rooms hoping to find the Caliph. Do you have any idea where he'll be?"

"He's at the banquet now," the prince said, "with the Egyptians. Aziz."

Kamal Farag Aziz. Egypt's new strongman had come to power when the meddling Americans had forced a free election that swept out the secularists in power and swept in the fundamentalists of Ikhlas al-Din. "Is your absence going to be problematic?"

Siraj shook his head. "I took ipecac. No one doubted I was sick."

"Ah, ipecac. Every British schoolboy's delight." Lilith paced. "Well, I can't crash the party." The folds of the burqa twisted around her legs. "Is the Caliph a typical male? Is he going to stay with the boys 'til dawn?"

"He is a serious man, not given to frivolity." Siraj paused.

Lilith seized on the thoughtful look. "What?"

"He is close to Nashwa, his first wife. He often shares his triumphs with her."

"Good thing I'm a girl."

"What are you thinking?"

"That I've always wanted to see the inside of a harem."

* * *

There were a pair of soldiers on guard outside the door to the women's quarters. Their dull dun uniforms were brightened by the presence of the green kerchief tied at their throats. Their eyes swept across her and dismissed her in a blink.

In a thick country accent, Lilith said, "The Caliph has sent this for his beloved wives, but the Caliph, great is his glory, will not mind if his brave and loyal soldiers sample a few of the delicacies."

They echoed her words of praise, and Lilith held the tray while the young men helped themselves to sugar. She noticed they both had dirty fingernails. Lilith then slipped under their arms and tapped lightly on the door. The heavy panel fell shut behind her, cutting off the bass rumble of male voices.

The large room she had entered was lovely, but not grandiose. Through a whitewash of paint she could make out the faint colors of a mural that had once graced the left wall. The air was redolent with the smell of rosewater and orange oil.

Two women stood at the window, peeking through the curtains at the continuing fireworks display. Red, blue, gold, and green light washed across the fabric and their faces. One was enormously pregnant — her face was swollen and her fingers puffy. From the way her belly hung, she looked to be within days of delivery. The other woman was at that midpoint in a pregnancy when a woman seems to glow.

Curled up on a couch was a much younger woman — late teens, maybe early twenties. She was far prettier than the other two, and not just because she didn't look like a gravid cow. She flipped the pages of a French fashion magazine with such rapidity that she couldn't actually be absorbing anything. Her lower lip thrust out, and a frown furrowed the golden skin between her brows.

Lilith offered the food tray first to the pregnant women. They grabbed at the sweets with greedy fingers. She moved to the young wife. The girl took a small slice of melon.

Lilith took the chance. The worst it would earn her would be a slap. "I went to school in Paris," she said softly. "Before my father sent the family home."

"Your accent," the girl said. "You sound Saudi."

"I'm from Kuwait." There was a wealth of emotion in the final word. "Have you been here long?"

"Three months."

"You must be homesick."

The girl started to cry.

"I'm sorry, mistress. Would you like me to leave?"

The girl's hand clutched at Lilith's sleeve. "No, tell me about Paris."

Lilith mingled her actual visits to the city with evocative scenes from movies. She talked of the restaurant boats draped with lights sliding beneath medieval bridges, and setting the reflection of Notre Dame in the water to dancing; of strolling through the outdoor stalls on the left bank of the Seine where old men with hunched shoulders and shabby jackets peddled even older books. To Montmartre, where children fed the pigeons, and aspiring artists painted the famous church. Lilith took her rapt listener past the open doors of bakeries where the smell of bread and pastries hung so rich and heavy in the air that you could practically chew it.

The young wife's eyes held excitement, but also resentment. Lilith wove a tale of her own frustration with an autocratic father who had been inspired by news of the rise of the new caliphate, and had sent his family home so her brothers could be part of this renaissance of Islam. "While he stayed in Paris," the young wife said, and a touch of acid laced the words.

Lilith shrugged. "Yes, but he's a man. So are they all, except for our glorious Caliph, long may he live and reign."

"Yes, he is a good man," the girl admitted.

"What is he like? Have you spent much time with him? Is there a chance he will come by? I would love to see him. I've only seen him at a distance." Lilith rushed the questions and statements, giving the girl no opportunity to answer.

The wife laughed. "No, sorry. He won't come. He always sends for one of us." The lush lower lip protruded again. "And it won't be me. Not tonight. He'll want to talk to Nashwa."

Nashwa, late forties, first wife of the Caliph, and mother of his son and heir, Abdul-Alim. Daughter of a prominent Yemeni businessman. "I will go and offer her refreshments," Lilith said. She stood and gathered up her tray.

"She's in her room," the youngest wife said, and pointed vaguely down the hall. Lilith started away. "By the way, I'm Ameera. What's your name?"

"Sura," Lilith answered, and enjoyed the private joke. It meant to travel at night.

* * *

"How dare you? You knock and receive permission before entering."

Jeweled beads on the edge of the headdress emphasized the black frown that twisted the older woman's face. Nashwa was far from a beauty. In fact she was plain, and her voice clanged rather than lilted. She had to be the wife of the Caliph's heart, otherwise he would have divorced this hatchet-faced woman.

Lilith didn't respond to the rebuke. She crossed the room in four long, fast steps, grabbed the woman's arm, and forced it up behind Nashwa's back, immobilizing her. Lilith then pictured the room in the Uffizi Gallery that held the collection of Roman busts, and took them there.

There was that dislocating moment of dizziness and extreme cold. The stone floor beneath her slippers gave way to the softer sag of wood. Nashwa screamed in her ear. Lilith released the woman, wrapped her hand in the folds of her burqa, and gave the frame of a large painting a tug. Alarms began their shrill-throated cry.

Lilith teleported back to Nashwa's room in the Baghdad palace. The Italian police would hold the woman for hours. By the time they accepted her story and affirmed her identity she would be a widow.

Back in the room Lilith threw off her drab black burqa and donned one of Nashwa's. It was still black, but the material was of top quality and it was shot through with metallic silver thread. She settled the headdress over her hair and felt the sapphires and pearls jiggling cold and sharp against the skin of her forehead. Over it all she tossed the outer robe that shrouded even her eyes. Lilith sat down to wait.

* * *

Three hours passed before she was summoned.

The Caliph had sent four guards to escort his chief wife. She might be a mere woman, but the guards were obsequious because she was the Caliph's woman. Chief wife. The mother of his eldest son. Nashwa wielded bedroom and pillow power. Lilith touched the knives that rested in sheaths on her thighs and the small of her back, and the gun she had for insurance. They turned down another hallway. This one was narrower still. Three floors below, Lilith could faintly hear the rumble of male voices and the wail of musical instruments. She caught a whiff of roasted lamb and cinnamon. Her stomach grumbled. Lilith promised herself dinner and a glass of cabernet as soon as she was back home.

They went up a narrow staircase. Two soldiers led the way. Two walked behind her. They were now on the top floor, and the roof and ceiling radiated the heat accumulated from the day's sun. Sweat trickled slick and sticky between her breasts and down her back. She longed to scratch at the itch beneath her bra strap.

How dreadful to be the ruler of much of the Middle East and have to live in such discomfort because you're so afraid.

One of the soldiers tapped on a closed door. There was a muffled response. The door opened, and the soldiers bowed Lilith into the room. The door fell shut. Someone behind her had closed it, but she was in blinders from the layers of clothing and veils. She concentrated on what she could see through the mesh that covered her eyes.

The room was small, whitewashed, its walls adorned with flowing script. Verses from the Koran. Yes, it looks like the bedroom of a religious wingnut, Lilith thought. A narrow bed and a side table with a glass water pitcher were the only furniture. Oddly, the bed didn't rest against the wall. It was pulled out a few feet, and there was the cut of a door in the plaster. Bolt hole.

She heard the footfalls of the man who had closed the door behind her and turned to greet him. But it wasn't the Caliph. It was the Righteous Djinn. He was taller and younger and broader. The lips exposed between the black beard and mustache were thick and moist, and he sucked at the lower lip like a child contemplating a knotty problem. Oddly, his eyes were gray.

He was still normal size, but quite large enough for Lilith's taste. He wore boots beneath the traditional white robes, and she wondered if the clothes enlarged with him, or if he ended up a thirty-foot naked giant.

"Honored One?" the Djinn said, but it wasn't a greeting. A query hung in the words.

I'm supposed to do something, Lilith thought, but I don't know what. Oh, bloody hell.


Excerpted from Inside Straight by George R. R. Martin. Copyright © 2008 George R. R. Martin and The Wild Cards Trust. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

George R.R. Martin is the author of the acclaimed, internationally bestselling fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire, adapted into the hit HBO series Game of Thrones. He is also the editor and contributor to the Wild Cards series, including the novels Suicide Kings and Fort Freak, among other bestsellers. He has won multiple science fiction and fantasy awards, including four Hugos, two Nebulas, six Locus Awards, the Bram Stoker, the World Fantasy Award, the Daedelus, the Balrog, and the Daikon (the Japanese Hugo). Martin has been writing ever since he was a child, when he sold monster stories to neighborhood children for pennies, and then in high school he wrote fiction for comic fanzines. His first professional sale was to Galaxy magazine, when he was 21. He has been a full-time writer since 1979. Martin has bachelor's and master's degrees in journalism from Northwestern University. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

This volume was edited by George R. R. Martin, with the assistance of Melinda M. Snodgrass, and written by:

Daniel Abraham
Melinda M. Snodgrass
Carrie Vaughn
Michael Cassutt
Caroline Spector
John Jos. Miller
George R. R. Martin
Ian Tregillis
S. L. Farrell

Brief Biography

Santa Fe, NM
Date of Birth:
September 20, 1948
Place of Birth:
Bayonne, NJ
B.S., Northwestern University, 1970; M.S., Northwestern University, 1971

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Inside Straight 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 22 reviews.
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KirstenMc More than 1 year ago
Since the Wild Card virus struck Earth decades ago, the very nature of our definition of human has had to expand to encompass the Aces, Dueces and Jokers as those who contract the virus are known. Tight plotting, interwoven story lines and an amazing cast of characters.
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harstan More than 1 year ago
Although his grandfather will never forgive him as he was part of the age of chivalry before JFK and Jetboy died Jonathan Hive and twenty-seven extraordinary marvelous superheroes (that word is used loosely) sign onto a survivor reality TV show. In actuality, the chosen 28 have never been heroic, but each has a superhuman skill. These ¿aces¿ will initially belong to one of four ¿suits¿ while competing in staged contests as only LA-LA land could dream up with losers voted off the show until the greatest American Hero is left standing. --- However, as the weeks go by those left standing are stunned by appalling sickening events in the Middle East. There inane games look pathetic when compared to those without superpowers risking their lives. Stunningly several including Jonathan whose grandfather is probably smiling, leave the set to become real American Heroes not just Hollywood Heroes even knowing they may die in their endeavor. --- The latest round of the Wild Cards thrillers starts a new saga in which several authors ( Daniel Abraham, Melinda M. Snodgrass, Carrie Vaughan, Michael Cassutt, Caroline Spector, John Jos. Miller, George R. R. Martin, Ian Tregillis and S. L. Farrell) contribute. The well written tale reads smooth (a trademark of the previous entries) in spite of the numerous contributors while satirizing reality TV and world affairs. INSIDE STRAIGHT entertains the audience but also asks readers to ponder two key points. First who is a hero reminds us of Charles Barkley¿s 'I am not a role model. Parents should be the role models¿ in this case soldiers are the heroes. Second that with great power comes greater responsibly beyond ¿Bring em on¿ bravado from a safe house or Hollywood set. This is an excellent exciting and thought provoking royal flush as the whole is greater than the individual parts. --- Harriet Klausner