When we were heroes, p.1
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       When We Were Heroes, p.1

         Part #21 of Wild Cards series by George R. R. Martin
 
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When We Were Heroes


  When We Were Heroes

  Daniel Abraham

  Cover by John Picacio

  Manhattan smells like rain. The last drops fall from the sky or else the rooftops, drifting down through the high air. With every step, her dress shoes throw out splashes from the thin, oily puddles. It’s ruining the leather, and she doesn’t care. Her fingers, wrapped around her smartphone, ache, and she wants to throw it, to feel the power flow through her arm, down out along the flat, fast trajectory, and then detonate like a hand grenade. She could do it. It’s her wild card power. She’s not in the outfit she uses at the exhibitions and fund-raisers. She doesn’t look like a hero now. She doesn’t feel like one.

  The brownstone huddles between two larger buildings, and she stops, checking the address. The east side, north of Gramercy Park, but walking distance. She always forgets that he comes from money.

  The steps leading to the vestibule are worn with time and dark green with the slime of decomposed leaves. An advertisement for a new season of American Hero covers the side of a bus with the soft-core come-ons of half a dozen young men and women. Sex sells. She walks up the steps and finds the apartment number.

  Jonathan Tipton-Clarke, handwritten in fading green ink. When he’s being an ace, he calls himself Jonathan Hive. No one else does. Everyone calls him Bugsy. She stabs in the code on the intercom’s worn steel keypad.

  For a moment, she thinks he’ll pretend he’s not there, and she wonders how far she’ll go. Rage and betrayal and embarrassment flow through her. Breaking down his door would be illegal. It would only make things worse.

  But still . . .

  “Hey, Kate,” Bugsy says from the intercom.

  “Are you looking at me right now?”

  “Yeah. I’ve got one on the wall. Just to your left.”

  A tiny, acid-green wasp stares at her. Its black eyes are empty as a camera. Its wings shift, catching the morning light. Jonathan Hive, who can turn his body into a swarm of wasps. Jonathan Hive, who was there when they stopped the genocide in Egypt. Who fought the Radical in Paris and then again during the final battle in the Congo. Kate lifts her brows at the wasp, and Bugsy’s sigh comes from the intercom. The buzzer sounds resigned, the bolt clicks open. She pulls the door open, pauses, and flicks a tiny wad of pocket lint from between her fingers. It speeds to the wall and detonates like a firecracker. She can’t tell whether the wasp escaped.

  His apartment is on the fourth floor and she takes the stairs three at a time. When she gets there, she’s not even winded. He’s waiting for her, the apartment door standing open. Hair wild from the pillow. Lichenous stubble. Bloodshot eyes. His bathrobe was white, is grey. Wasps shift under his skin they way they do when he’s nervous.

  “Come on in. I’ll make you some coffee.”

  She holds out her phone, and he takes it. The web browser is at the mobile site for Aces! magazine. In the image, she is standing on the street by a small park, kissing a man. His face is hard to make out. Hers is unmistakable. The headline is DANGEROUS CURVES.

  Underneath it, the byline is his name. And then the first few lines of text:

  There’s nothing more American than baseball, explosions, and first date hookups. Well lock up your sons, New York. Everyone’s sweetheart is on the town, and she’s looking for some man action!

  “What the hell is this?” she asks.

  “The end of a good night?” he says, and hands it back.

  Twelve hours earlier, she’d stepped out of an off-off-Broadway theater onto the Sixth Avenue sidewalk. Traffic was stopped on Spring Street, and backed up for more than a block, the air filled with braying horns and the stink of exhaust. Clouds hung over the city so low, it seemed like someone on the Chrysler building could reach out a hand and scratch them. Above her, the marquee read Marat/Sade, black letters on glowing white, then underneath it, NYC’s Only All-Joker Cast! She paused on the sidewalk, her hands in the pockets of her jeans, cleared her throat. Outrage and disbelief warred in her mind, until she shook her head and started laughing.

  “It’s always kind of a confrontational play,” a man’s voice said. She’d been aware of someone coming out to the street behind her, but hadn’t particularly taken notice of him. Middle twenties. Dark hair that looked good unruly. Friendly smile.

  “Confrontational,” she said, laughing around the word.

  “Not always that confrontational. This production was a little . . . yeah.”

  Curveball pointed at the theater.

  “Did I miss something,” she said, “or were they actually throwing shit at us?”

  The man looked pained and amused at the same time.

  “Cow pats. I think that technically makes it manure,” he said. “It’s always rough when you’re trying to out-Brecht Brecht.”

  Tomorrow was her exhibition show, the last one on this leg of the tour. She’d been planning to go out with Ana as her local guide, but her friend had been called out of town on business at the last minute and wouldn’t be back until morning. Kate had decided to make it an adventure. Grab a cheap ticket from the same-day kiosk on Water Street, take herself out to dinner someplace, spend an evening on the town. She had enough money to splurge a little, and she wasn’t in Manhattan often enough anymore for it to seem normal. The titleMarat/Sade had seemed interesting, probably because of the slash. She hadn’t known anything about it, going in. Then the lights had gone up, and things got weird fast. For instance, the Sade half was actually the Marquis de Sade.

  And it was a musical.

  “Was there a point to that?” Kate asked, leaning against the streetlamp.

  “The cow pats in particular?”

  “Any of it?”

  “Sure, if you look at the script,” he said. “Marat’s heading up the Terror after the French Revolution. De Sade’s . . . well, de Sade. They’re kind of the worst of political life and the worst of private life put together for comparison. I actually wrote a paper on Peter Weiss back in college.”

  “And the shit flinging?”

  “The deeper structural message can be lost, yes,” he said with a grin.

  From down the block, a young black man in a sand-colored shirt waved.

  “Tyler!”

  The dark-haired man turned and held up a finger in a just-a-minute gesture. Tyler. His smile was all apology.

  “I’ve got to go,” he said, and Curveball lifted a hand, half permission, half farewell. Tyler paused. She felt a moment’s tightness and the giddiness faded. She knew what came next. I’m a big fan. Can I get a picture with you? She’d say yes, because she always did because it was polite.

  “Some of us are heading over to Myko’s for drinks and cheap souvlaki,” Tyler said. “If you want to come hang out, you’d be welcome.”

  “Um.”

  “They don’t throw manure. That I’ve noticed.”

  Do you know who I am?slid to the back of her tongue and stopped there. He didn’t. Tyler’s friend called for him again.

  “Sure,” she said. “Why not?”

  Bugsy’s apartment smells stale. She wants to make the scent into old laundry or unwashed dishes, but it isn’t that. It’s air that has been still for too long. The kitchen is in the uncomfortable place between dirty and clean. A radio in a back room is tuned to NPR. In the main room, there are piles of books on the coffee table. Murder mysteries, crossword puzzles. The DVD of a ten-year-old romantic comedy perches on the armrest of the couch, neither box nor sleeve in sight. He starts a coffee grinder, and the high whining of hard beans being ripped apart makes speech impossible for a few seconds. The silence rushes in.

  “You’re working for Aces!,” she says, even though they both already know it.

  “I am. Reporting to the public at large
which of their heroes are going commando to the Emmys. Keeping the world safe for amateur celebrity gynecologists.”

  “Does the Committee know?”

  The coffee machine burbles and steams. Bugsy grins.

  “You mean the Great and Glorious Committee to Save Everyone and Fix Everything? I kind of stepped back from that.”

  There is a pause. Just like you did hangs in the air like an accusation, but he doesn’t push it.

  “What happened?”

  She means What happened to you? but he seems to take it as What happened to your job? Maybe they’re the same question. He pours coffee into a black mug with the gold-embossed logo of a bank on the side and hands it to her. She takes it by reflex.

  “Well, there was this thing. It was about six months after we took out the Radical,” he says. “Lohengrin called me and a few other guys in for this sensitive Committee operation at this little pit outside Assab.”

  “I don’t know where Assab is,” she says. The coffee warms her hands.

  “So you get the general idea,” he says, leaning against the counter. His fingernails are dirty. She’s known him for years, but she can’t remember if it’s normal for him. “Idea was to get some kind of industrial base going. Fight poverty by getting someone a job. You wouldn’t think there’d be a lot of push back on that, but there was. So essentially what you’ve got is this textile plant out in the middle of the desert with maybe two hundred guys working there, and five aces set up to do security until the locals can figure out what a police force would look like. I was half of the surveillance team.”

  “Was this the fire?” she asks.

  He smiles, happy that she’s heard of it.

  “It made the news a couple of times, yeah. No one much noticed. It happened the same week Senator Lorring got caught sending pictures of his dick to that guy in Idaho, so there were more important things going on.”

  “I saw it,” she says. “Someone died.”

  “Bunch of folks died, but most of them were African, so who gives a shit, right? The only reason we got a headline at all was Charlie. An ace goes down, that’s news. Nats kill him, even better.”

  Her phone vibrates. She looks at it with a sense of dread, but the call is from Ana’s number. Relieved, she lets it drop to voice mail.

  “They had us in this crappy little compound,” Bugsy says. “Seriously, this apartment? Way bigger. The place was all cinder blocks and avocado green carpet. Ass ugly, but we were only there for a couple months. Charlie was a nice kid. Post-colonial studies major from Berkeley, so thank God he was an ace or he’d never have gotten a job, right? Mostly, he hung around playing Xbox. He was all about hearing. Seriously, that guy could hear a wasp fart from a mile away.”

  “Wasps fart?” she says, smiling despite herself. He always does this, hiding behind comedy and vulgarity. Usually, it works.

  “If I drink too much beer. Or soda, really. Anything carbonated. Anyway, Charlie was my backup. My shift, I’d send out wasps, keep an eye on things. His, he’d sit outside with this straw cowboy hat down over his eyes and he’d listen. Anything interesting happened, and we’d send out the goon squad to take care of it. We had Snowblind and a couple of new guys. Stone Rockford and Bone Dancer.”

  “Stone Rockford?”

  “Yeah, well. Be gentle with the new kids, right? All the cool names are taken. Anyway, first three days, there were five attacks. Usually, they’d aim for right around shift change when there were a lot of guys going in or coming out. Then two and a half weeks of nothing. Just East African weather, energy from a generator, and a crappy Internet connection. We figured we had it made. Bad guys had been driven back by the aces, they’d just stay low and act casual until the police force was online and hope they were a softer target.

  “I was the senior guy. Been there since the Committee got started. Since before. Charlie gave me a lot of shit about that. How I was all hooked in at the United Nations. Big mover and shaker. And, you know, I think I kind of believed it, right? I mean it’s not just anyone can go into Lohengrin’s office and steal his pens. I was out there making the world a better place. Doing something. Saving people. Boo-yah, and God bless.

  “You know what they sent us to eat? Sausages and popcorn. We had like fifty cans of those little sausages that look like someone made fake baby fingers out of Silly Putty and about a case of microwave popcorn. I mean seriously, how are you going to strike a blow for freedom and right when you’re fueling up on popcorn and processed chicken lips, right?”

  She drinks the coffee, surprised by how bad it is. Bright and bitter. She expects him to distract her from the picture of her kiss with the tragedy in Africa, so it surprises her when he’s the one to go back to it. Maybe he’s trying to distract her from what happened in Africa. Maybe he’s distracting himself.

  “It’s not actionable,” he says, nodding to her phone. “You can ask any lawyer anywhere. You were in public. There’s no legal expectation of privacy.”

  “Do you think that’s the point?”

  He looks away, shrugs. “I’m just saying it was legal.”

  She leans against the wall, unfinished red brick scratching her shoulder. She thinks of the cinder block in the compound and the exposed ductwork at Myko’s, the thick, muddy coffee she drank the night before and the one in her hand now.

  “Were you following me?” she asks.

  “You think? Of course I was following you.”

  “Why?”

  He almost laughs at her. It’s like she’s asking where the sun will rise tomorrow, if he’s breathing, whether summer is colder than winter. Anything self-evident.

  “Because you’re in town. I mean the whole point is to get stories about aces. We’re public figures. Most weeks, I have to find something to say about the people who are in the city. There’s only so many issues in a row that the readers are going to care about whether Peregrine’s hit menopause. Someone new comes in, I’d be stupid not to check up, see if anything’s interesting. I was thinking I’d just write up the exhibition thing this afternoon. The fund-raiser. But this is waybetter.”

  When the anger comes back, she notices it has died down a little. She tries not to think what Tyler will say about the article. How he’ll react. The fear and embarrassment throw gasoline on the fire.

  “When I’m at work,” she says, forming each word separately, “you can come to work. This is my private life, and you stay out of it.”

  “Wrong, friend. That’s not how it is,” Bugsy says. The sureness in his voice surprises her. “Everyone knows who we are. They look up to us or they hate us or whatever. You’re not doing these exhibition things because people just love seeing stuff blow up. They can blow stuff up without you any day of the week. They come to see you. They pay to see you. You don’t get to tell them they care about you one minute and not the next. It’s their pick whether they pay any attention to you at all, and you make your money asking them to. So don’t tell me that here’s your personal you and here’s your public you and that you get to make those rules. You don’t get to tell people what they think. You don’t even get to tell people whether they admire you.”

  With every sentence, his finger jabs the air. The buzz in his voice sounds like a swarm. Tiny green bullets buzz around them both, curving though the air. His chin juts, inviting violence. She can see how it would happen: the toss of the mug, his body scattering into thousands of insects, the detonation. Her own anger reaches toward it, wants it. The only thing that holds her back is how badly he wants it too. He’s trying to change the subject.

  She laughs. “Hey, Bugsy. You know what the sadist said to the masochist?” He blinks. His mouth twitches. He doesn’t rise to the bait, so she acts as if he had. She leans forward. “No,” she says.

  “I don’t get it.”

  “We’re aces, so everybody knows us. We don’t get to pick how they feel. We’re still talking about Charlie, aren’t we?”

  Myko’s was a small place with a dozen tables s
mashed into enough space for half that number. Posters of Aegean-blue seas hung from the walls by scotch-taped corners. The walls were white up to the six-and-a-half-foot mark where the drop ceiling had been ripped out, exposed ductwork and wires above it. Crisp-skinned chicken and hot oregano thickened the air and made the wind picking up outside look pleasantly cool.

  “I don’t know why the hell I let you talk me into these things,” Tyler’s friend said. She hadn’t asked his name, and hadn’t offered hers. The other two at the table were a Lebanese-looking woman named Salome and a joker guy in a tracksuit that they all called Boss. He wasn’t really that bad looking, for a joker. All the flesh was gone from one of his arms, and his skin was a labyrinthine knotwork of scars. He could almost have been just someone who’d survived a really horrific burn.

  “Did I talk you into something?” Tyler said.

  “You did say it was a cool play,” Boss said.

  “It is a cool play,” Tyler said. “It’s just a lousy production.”

  Everyone at the table except her and Tyler laughed, and his glance thanked her for her tacit support.

  “You are the only person I know who’d make that distinction,” Salome said. “When you say ‘this is a cool play,’ I think you mean, ‘it would be cool to go to this play.’ What was that whole whipping him with her hair thing about?”

  “They took that from the movie,” Tyler said.

  “There’s a movie?” Tyler’s nameless friend said, his eyes going wide.

  “Look, I understand that it’s kind of an assault on the senses,” Tyler said. “That’s part of the point. Weiss wanted to break through the usual barrier between the audience and the actors. Not just break the fourth wall, but burn it down and piss on the ashes.”

  “That sounds like the play I just watched,” Boss said.

  The waiter swooped in on her left, piling the ruins of their dinner on one arm and unloading demitasses of dangerous-looking coffee and plain, bread-colored cookies from the other. His hip pressed against her shoulder in a way that would have been intimate in any other setting and didn’t mean anything here.

 
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