Inside straight, p.1
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       Inside Straight, p.1

         Part #18 of Wild Cards series by George R. R. Martin
 
Inside Straight


  THE RETURN OF WILD CARDS

  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 era.…

  INSIDE STRAIGHT

  A Wild Cards Mosaic Novel

  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

  TheWild Cards Series

  Wild Cards

  Aces High

  Jokers Wild

  Aces Abroad

  Down and Dirty

  Ace in the Hole

  Dead Man’s Hand

  One-Eyed Jacks

  Jokertown Shuffle

  Double Solitaire

  Dealer’s Choice

  Turn of the Cards

  Card Sharks

  Marked Cards

  Black Trump

  Deuces Down

  Death Draws Five

  Edited by

  George R. R. Martin

  Assisted by

  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

  A TOM DOHERTY ASSOCIATES BOOK

  NEW YORK

  NOTE: If you purchased this book without a cover, you should be aware that this book is stolen property. It was reported as “unsold and destroyed” to the publisher, and neither the authors nor the publisher have received any payment for this “stripped book.”

  This is a work of fiction. All of the characters, organizations, and events portrayed in this novel are either products of the authors’ imagination or are used fictitiously.

  INSIDE STRAIGHT

  Copyright © 2008 by George R. R. Martin and The Wild Cards Trust

  Excerpt from “Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda” copyright © 2008 by Caroline Spector

  Excerpt from Busted Flush copyright © by George R. R. Martin.

  All rights reserved.

  Edited by Patrick Nielsen Hayden

  A Tor Book

  Published by Tom Doherty Associates, LLC

  175 Fifth Avenue

  New York, NY 10010

  www.tor-forge.com

  Tor® is a registered trademark of Tom Doherty Associates, LLC.

  ISBN-13: 978-0-7653-5712-0

  ISBN-10: 0-7653-5712-7

  First Edition: January 2008

  First Mass Market Edition: November 2008

  Printed in the United States of America

  0 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

  Copyright Acknowledgments

  “Jonathan Hive” copyright © 2008 by Daniel Abraham.

  “Dark of the Moon/Star Power/Blood on the Sun” copyright © 2008 by Lumina Enterprises, LLC.

  “Chosen Ones” copyright © 2008 by Carrie Vaughn.

  “Looking for Jetboy” copyright © 2008 by St. Croix Productions, Inc.

  “Metagames” copyright © 2008 by Caroline Spector.

  “Wakes the Lion” copyright © 2008 by John Jos. Miller.

  “Crusader” copyright © 2008 by George R. R. Martin.

  “The Tin Man’s Lament” copyright © 2008 by Ian Tregillis.

  “Incidental Music for Heroes” copyright © 2008 by Stephen Leigh.

  To Kay McCauley, ace agent,

  who always deals us

  winning hands

  DANIEL ABRAHAM

  Jonathan Hive

  1: Who the fuck was Jetboy? Posted Today 1:04 am

  HISTORY, JETBOY | REFLECTIVE | “THESE ARE THE FABLES” —THE NEW PORNOGRAPHERS

  Who the fuck was Jetboy?

  My grandfather tried to tell me when I was too young. I didn’t get it. A flying ace, he said, from before there was the wild card. I could never get my head around that. How could you have any ace—much less one who flew—before there was the wild card? And that all happened back during the Great Depression, which was right before Napoleon who took over after Rome fell. My grandfather hadn’t kissed a girl yet when Jetboy died. That was forever ago.

  My sense of history has gotten a little more nuanced since then. I know there was a Middle Ages, for instance. I understand that women existed before Christina Ricci, though I’m still not entirely sure why they bothered. I’ve read all the underground R. Crumb comics about the Sleeper. My dad told me stories about the Great and Powerful Turtle. My fifth grade babysitter—who smoked pot and sometimes forgot to wear her bra—told me lurid tales about Fortunato, the pimp ace who got his powers from sex. I saw Tarantino recycle all the tropes of Wild Card Chic, trying like a lifeguard on amphetamines to breathe new life into them.

  When I drew my ace, I thought it was the coolest thing ever. I wasn’t Jonathan Tipton-Clarke. I was Jonathan motherfuckin’ Hive. I was hot shit. I was the kid who really could sting like a bee. Let me assure all of you out there that nothing but nothing stops bullies picking on you like being able to turn into your equivalent mass of small wasplike stinging insects; it shuts those rat bastards down. I figured I didn’t need to go to school or worry about how a swarm of wasps was going to pay for an apartment. I was sixteen and an ace. I was God.

  Maybe that was why Grandpa always wanted to talk about Jetboy. Jetboy, who didn’t have any powers. Jet-boy, who tried to stop the wild card from coming into the world and failed.

  Jetboy (I thought, through all my youth and adolescence and most of my adulthood to date) was a great big loser who died half a century ago. But here’s the thing: He was a hero to my grandfather, and my grandfather was not a stupid man.

  When Grandpa started junior high, there were no aces in the world. When he started high school, there were. He was alive when the virus hit. He read about the 90 percent that drew the black queen. He heard rumors of the first jokers back when people still hid them away like they’d just crawled out of a David Lynch flick. And he saw the first aces. Golden Boy. The Envoy.

  How can I imagine that change? How do I, or anyone in my generation, put my mind back to think what it would have been like in a world without jokers, much less a jokers’ rights movement? A world where we didn’t think that aliens existed? Where phones had actual dials, and no one locked their car doors?

  It’s hard—it’s always been hard—to look back at that kind of simplicity and ignorance and not sneer. We know better now. We know more. We were raised on President Barnett. We saw pictures from the Rox war. We always knew that if we happened to be around when two aces started fighting each other, they might bring the building down, or cut us down with laser eye beams, or turn us to stone without even meaning to; we could die at any time, in any way, and there was no way to protect against it. You couldn’t expect us to get choked up over a guy who fell off a blimp before our parents were born.

  Most people my age think of history as being divided into two essential halves: before the Internet and after. But there was a shift before that, and maybe there have always been shifts, back through history. Maybe every generation has seen the world change forever, and we don’t know only because we weren’t there.

  Ace or not, I grew up. I went to college. I got a degree and trust fund that I’m rapidly spending down. I write a few magazine a
rticles, and I’m working on a novel. I’m an ace, and that’s great. But I’m a journalist, too—or will be when I catch a break. Being able to turn into wasps won’t help me meet deadlines or pick the right words or forgive a cent of my electric bill. So, maybe what Grandpa was trying to tell me sunk in after all. Or maybe I missed his point and made up one of my own.

  Here’s the best I’ve got, folks:

  Jetboy was the end of a world. He was the last man to die before the wild card came, and his age died with him. He is a symbol whose meaning I will never understand, except in the way I’ve come to understand King Arthur, JFK, and all the other beautiful losers of history. He will never mean to me what he did to my grandfather, and not because I’m more sophisticated or smarter or more jaded. It’s just that the world’s moved on.

  To me, Jetboy’s a reminder that there have always been people—a few—who fought for things that mattered. And (cue the violins, kids) that maybe being a hero isn’t just about whether you win. Maybe it’s also about whether you die memorably.

  How’s that for a Hallmark moment?

  2 COMMENTS | POST COMMENT

  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 w
hen 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.

 
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