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Jokertown shuffle, p.1
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       Jokertown Shuffle, p.1

         Part #9 of Wild Cards series by George R. R. Martin
Jokertown Shuffle

  Jokertown Shuffle

  ( Wild Cards - 9 )

  George R R Martin

  George R R Martin

  Jokertown Shuffle

  The Temptation of Hieronymus Bloat by Stephen Leigh


  I don't know why I'm starting this or what I'm going to do with it or just who it is I'm talking to. I guess… I guess the reason is that I want someone to remember what happened here when it's over. Lately I've been thinking that the Rox won't last long.

  It can't; THEY won't let it.

  Do I need to explain who "THEY" is? I didn't think so. I can tell you this, man-whoever you are-if you need to ask, then you ain't a joker, are you?

  There's one question to answer, I suppose. No one ever really asks me directly, but I always hear it, like a little tinkling chime in the clamor of thoughts. I hear it whenever someone looks at me or even thinks about me: What's it like to be so fucking gross? What's it like to be a head and shoulders sitting like a wart on a body that takes up an acre of ground and feeds on sewage?

  What's it like? God… Okay. Let me try.

  Find a room. A huge, empty space. Don't make it to(goddamn comfortable-be certain that the floor's cracked and damp, the air's too cold or too hot, the overall -atmosphere., tottering on the edge of gloom.

  Then find a chair. A hard and unyielding and splintery one that makes you want to get up and walk around after sitting in it for even a few minutes. Bolt it to the floor in the middle of your room.

  Get five hundred television sets. Bank them all around the chair, a Great Wall of blank screens. Now wire each of the sets to a different channel, turn up the sound, and switch on every one of the mothers.

  Sit buck naked in your splintery chair in the middle of that ugly room before all the televisions. Have someone chain you to that nasty chair, and then stack a couple hundred lead ingots in your lap. Make sure the binding's tight so you can't move, can't scratch yourself, can't hold your hands up to your ears to blot out that terrible din, so you're utterly dependent on others to feed you or clean you or talk to you.

  Hey, now you're beginning to feel like Bloat. Now you have some idea of what it's like.

  I hear you. (I always hear you.) C'mon, you're saying. You have the ability to read minds. Ain't that a gift, a little kiss from the wild card deck?

  Okay, I can read your mind. I have Bloat's Wall, which keeps the nats and aces away from the Rox unless they really want to be here. I have my own army of jokers who protect me and care for me.

  I make the Rox possible. I'm the governor. I have power. There's no Rox without me. Bliss, right?

  Yeah? Well, that's bullshit. Crap. A load of bloatblack. You think I really rule this place? You gotta be kidding. Look, I used to play D amp;D. Most of the time, I ran a character who controlled a little kingdom in the scenario our Dungeon Master had dreamed up. Y'know what? That fantasy's about as real as the "kingdom" I have here.

  You can't hear what they're thinking when they talk to me: Prime, Blaise, Molly, K. C., the other jumpers. Even the jokers, even the ones the wild card cursed. "God, I'm glad I'm not like him" or " I don't care how much he knows or what kind of powers he has, he's just a fuckin' kid…"

  I know. I know what they think of me. I know what they think of the Rox too. My Rox is a convenient refuge, but if Ellis Island sank into New York Bay tomorrow, they'd find another place. The jumpers would melt into the city's back alleys; the jokers… the jokers would do what jokers have always done: Shrug their shoulders-if they got 'em-and head for Jokertown.

  So just what am I going to do? Threaten to take my basketball and go home, huh? You think I'm likely to go anywhere at all? Man, I was lucky I managed to get here three years ago when I was only the size of a school bus. Now… hell, the blue whale's no longer the world's biggest mammal. I'm bigger than a whole pod of fucking whales. What's it like?

  You can't visualize Bloat. You can't empathize with me. It's not possible.

  Every goddamn joker's hell is individual and private. So just leave it that way.

  I hate being judge and jury. I even know why.

  My parents were weak-willed. Hey, sure… most kids blame it on their folks.

  But why not? Mine were spineless, accommodating people who let the neighbors, store clerks, and anyone in a position of authority push them around. They were two nice people who would gladly change their opinions and back down at any hint of opposition. They were two charming people, really, who let the neighborhood scum intimidate and harass their son, the high school poet; their son, the "oh, what a talented artist"; their son, the-one-with-his-head-inthe-comic-books.

  They kept telling me (when I came home with bloody noses and black eyes and torn clothes): "Well, if they're bothering you, why didn't you just walk away? Maybe it's something you're doing. Concentrate on your drawing or your writing or your schoolwork, Teddy. Play that strange fantasy dice game of yours or read a comic book. When you grow up a little, they'll stop."

  They were two compassionate people who, when Ted slammed into puberty by turning into a slug the size of a subway car, didn't just abandon me. No. First they called the Jokertown Clinic, and then they disappeared.

  Gone. Vanished.

  Well, Mom and Dad, Teddy sure as hell grew up, didn't he? I wish I were less your son now, because just getting big didn't help and I'm still carrying all your emotional baggage with me.

  So how do I do what I want to do? How do you find a way to mix power with a little compassion? How do you make the other players on the stage of the Rox see that they're too damn shortsighted and selfish? How do you stay an idealist in a world of greedy pragmatists?

  They brought in a case for me to judge today. "The gov's court," they call it, mockingly. Still, they bring in these cases because I insist on it. Okay, let's be honest-the usual "justice" on the Rox is violent and final. Actually, they come only when the antagonists aren't already dead or maimed.

  I knew who was guilty before they dragged either one of them in front of me. I always do.

  Blaise escorted them, but Kelly was with the groupKelly whom I find so achingly attractive, who is still so innocent in her way. I like to watch her; I like to fantasize about how it might be if I were normal or if I were one of them. I could read vague, contradictory feelings as Kelly approached. Darker, more violent thoughts eddied from Blaise and K. C. Strange, another one of the jumpers, while fright mingled with relief from Slimeball, the joker they were hauling toward the Administration Building.

  I told everyone around me that company was coming, and chuckled. My joker guards came to attention around the lobby. Kafka came scuttling in from his workroom, his mind still snared in the maze of blueprints he'd been studying. Around me, jokers turned to watch: the ever-loyal Peanut, Mothmouth, Video, Shroud, Chickenhawk, Elmo, Andiron-a dozen others around the floor or looking over the lobby's high balcony.

  Eddies in the currents of thoughts. I could feel the rest of the Rox too: File, lost in rapture-ecstasy in some hovel in the north end of the island; Charon, heading out from the Rox toward the siren call of some joker in New York. My guards had tightened their grips on their weapons.

  Blaise's little group entered the lobby noisily, throwing a blast of cold air into the building. Slimeball was being dragged by main force between K. C. and Kelly. Blaise was shouting before they were even halfway to me, ranting.

  Kafka cleared his throat. His carapace rattled like a pair of cheap castanets. At the same time, Shroud slammed the bolt home on his . 22 Remington single-shot rifle. I caught amusement from Blaise (fucking popgun). Blaise isn't the psi lord his grandfather is; his mindshields leak, dribbling thoughts like an incontinent child.

  Kafka began scolding Blaise. "Show a little decorum, ple
ase." Like a parent lecturing his son-it went over about that well too. "We've discussed this before. The governor deserves your respect. That's as much a part of your rent as anything else."

  Blaise glared at Kafka. I caught an image of a roach being squashed beneath a huge foot. Little fucking insect. I laughed again. Then the thought drifted away as he looked up at me. He titters like a goddamn schoolgirl. So fucking gross. The smell's worse than usual.

  Almost in response, a rippling went through me, along with a sense of release and relief. I could feel the thick sludge of bloatblack rolling down my sides. There was a sound: soft, squelching, nasty, like thick mud being squashed between two hands.

  "Governor," Blaise said then, and he gave the title a big mocking lilt. I ignored him, paying more attention to Kelly than Blaise; she was trying, unsuccessfully, to ignore my continuing defecation. Kelly's hands went to her hips-a pose of defiance and arrogance that was totally at odds with her thoughts. Poor ugly big thing…

  I smiled at her, a waif in torn jeans, her tits rounding under the Free Snotman T-shirt, her eyes huge and the color of the deep sea under her soft hair. "Governor," she said, echoing Blaise, but her voice was soft and pleasant, and she smiled back at me.

  A prom princess in rags. I found her much more attractive than, say, K.C. Kelly wasn't a jumper, not yet. Prime hadn't initiated her-but then, Prime wasn't into much except blond young boys in recent months, not since the Oddity killed David. Kelly was one of the hangers-on, one of the jumper wannabees, a runaway teenager from the city. There's a lot more of them than actual jumpers. Given Prime's obsession with David look alikes, Kelly and most of them would stay wannabees too.

  I like to watch her. I stare when she walks by my building, and I dream about Kelly, sometimes…

  But Blaise glared at her now, and she went sullenly quiet. "If I may beg an audience with Your Fucking Excellence," Blaise began.

  Such defiance: a symptom of my difficulties. I had to laugh again, even though the whole problem is that none of them take anything seriously. They play at creating a new society; I can't get them to understand how important all this is.

  Kafka rattled in outrage. I felt my joker guards' minds become suddenly more focused and intent. For a moment, I toyed with the idea of just sending Blaise, Kelly, and K.C. away. The laughter had come, but I wasn't amused. Not really.

  I could hear most of Blaise's thoughts. I knew that like Kelly and K. C. too-at least part of Blaise's insolence was show, put on from simple peer pressure. He didn't want to be weak in front of the others. No, not Blaise. In fact, he didn't want to be here at all.

  "I'm listening, Blaise. I always listen when a joker's in trouble. And Slimeball's certainly a joker, isn't he?" I finished, and tittered, as he'd call it. I paused, looking right at K. C. "I'm always listening. Always. Even though some people are thinking I sound like some stupid fucking twoyear-old when I laugh."

  K.C.'s face reddened-I'd quoted her thoughts, you see. For a moment I felt a little ashamed of myself. No matter how many times I demonstrate my ability, I always get that reaction. People aren't used to having their precious private thoughts stolen. They don't feel anything, they don't see me doing anything unusual, so they forget.

  Kelly's thoughts, at least, are usually kind.

  Blaise was pissed. "Well, I stopped K.C. here from offing your precious joker. I should have gone ahead and offed the mother, though. This is the second time Slimeball's been in our food stores."

  I knew that. I'd long ago caught the thoughts from Slimeball and


  "K. C. and Kelly caught him, and the little fucker sliced at them with a knife. What you gonna do about it?"

  I knew what Blaise wanted me to do. The image was very clear. His justice is very black and white. Simple.

  I glanced at Slimeball. He'd been radiating wordless chattering fear since the incident, all shot through with unresolved hatred toward Blaise. His salamanderlike skin was gleaming with sticky oil, the flat pads on the ends of his fingers crushed into his palms. His bulbous eyes, vertically slit and golden, were momentarily lost under thick translucent lids as he blinked. His mouth opened; a forked snake's tongue wriggled out briefly from between snaggled incisors, and then retreated.

  "You lied to me," I said to Slimeball. "That's very, very bad." I tsked and shook my head. "You promised you'd leave the food alone. I ordered you to stay away, and I warned you about bothering them again. Remember? We're all one big happy family on the Rox."

  K.C. guffawed at that, but no one else laughed. "What happened, Slimeball?"

  That's a mind reader's trick: just ask a direct question. It jars them away from the stream-of-consciousness images and forces them to focus. I hardly listened to Slimeball's words; I was watching his mind. I could sense his hunger all the while he was talking. The words didn't matter-he'd gotten hungry, a common enough thing on the Rox. A simple thing. He'd thought he could get away with stealing from the jumpers. He'd been wrong. That's all.

  Blaise broke in then. "Bloat, I want the problem taken care of. Permanently. You do it, or I will," he said. "Make the fucker an example to everyone else."

  He stared at me. I'll kill him, Blaise told me then in his mind, deliberately and consciously pushing the words forward. Like he thought I might be hard of hearing in my mind. You make sure Slimeball gets fed to the sewerage system, or I'll do it myself. Either way, you eventually eat the mother. Your choice= "Governor."

  "I don't kill jokers," I answered him aloud.

  He snorted at that. "The whole goddamn world kills jokers. What makes you so special?"

  I could've told him. I could've told him how it's a curse to always know. Hey, I know everything. I know that the jumpers have stolen more food from the jokers than the reverse. I know that hunger's a problem for both sides here on the Rox. I know that Slimeball has about as much intelligence and moral sense as a six-year-old, and while he was genuinely sorry now, he'd forget all this and probably do it again.

  It's easier not to know. But I always know the truth. I know all the facts.

  It's hard to hurt someone whose most intimate thoughts you've experienced. It's hard when you know that their pain is going to be broadcast back to you and you'll have to listen to it. It's hard when you see that there's never-NEVER-just black and white.

  Wrong or right. Evil or good.

  Not for me, certainly. 'There are things I've done… Just by being here and creating the Rox, I'm responsible for a lot of deaths. My Wall isn't kind, and Charon doesn't stop for passengers who change their minds. Kafka tells me that the waters of the bay under the Wall are full of skeletons. My victims, directly. There's a lot of the violence in New York done by people who live here. People I protect.

  I tell myself that's only justice.

  I stared down at Slimeball over the slope of my body. Filling your belly shouldn't be a capital offense, no matter what the circumstances.

  "What're you gonna do, Governor?" Blaise is as impatient as Kelly is lovely. Glitteringly dangerous. As close to amoral as any mind I'd ever experienced. He wanted me to kill over a few damn Twinkies.

  Hell, I didn't know what I was going to do. Nothing felt good-there wasn't any right or wrong here. When you know all the facts, that's what you always find out. Every decision is unfair. Yet if I just shrugged this off, I'd undermine any progress I've made in that last several months toward actually being the governor. But I don't kill jokers either, and if I came down on the jumpers, I could lose their support they're as essential to the Rox as I am.

  Look, it was all fucking fun and games at first. Big kid Bloat takes the Rox and keeps the bad of nats away. But it kept getting more serious. It stopped being some comic-book plot and started being real. The thoughts kept coming louder and louder, and I couldn't shut them out anymore, and suddenly nothing was quite so funny. David died under the Oddity's hands, everyone started grabbing for control of things instead of cooperating, and the conditions for jokers in the world outside ju
st kept going into the fucking toilet. Blaise wouldn't let me think. "Bloat? Hey, Bloat!"

  I glowered down at them all, angry now. "Slimeball's at fault," I barked at them finally. "I warned him about the food. But I'm not going to kill him for that, Blaise. Slimeball, you're one of the bloatblackers now. You'll haul my shit until I'm sure that you'll stay away from the jumpers. If you're found in their part of the Rox again, they have my permission to do whatever the hell they please with you. Understood?" Relief was coiled around disgust in Slimeball. K. C. shrugged her shoulders. Kelly looked at me with her small smile.

  Blaise scowled. "I will kill him if I see his oily face again," Blaise proclaimed loudly. "I don't need your permission for that, Bloat."

  "Blaise," Kelly began placatingly. "The governor's-" Blaise rounded on her, his fist raised. I could feel the violence in his mind leaking out like molten lava.

  "Stop!" I shouted, and the fury in my voice caused gunbolts to click back. Blaise radiated a sudden fear. I could feel the heat on my face as I continued to shout. "You damn well do need permission. I am the Rox. Me. Without my Wall, the nats'll be swarming on this place like maggots on roadkill. They'll bury you here. I hear your thoughts. You think I'm weak. `Bloat doesn't kill, he can be pushed around.' I hear you."

  I looked at the jokers watching the confrontation. I listened to their thoughts. They were as violent as the jumpers. I knew I had to end this now or someone would do something really stupid.

  "Kafka," I said. "Blaise needs to bow to me before he leaves. I want to hear him thank me for taking the time to judge this case." I paused. "And if he won't do it, blow him away."

  Blaise was confused. His mouth gaped. He thought for a minute of mind-controlling my jokers, but there were a lot of us around, and he suddenly wasn't sure he could handle us all. He sputtered. "You're bluffing. You ain't gonna do that. That ain't your way." It was just mind static.

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