Low chicago, p.17
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       Low Chicago, p.17
 

         Part #25 of Wild Cards series by George R. R. Martin

  So on the night of the game, I really should not have been surprised that it was Croyd, in a moment of wild abandon, who turned my entire life into poo. Dinosaur poo.

  But I’m getting ahead of myself. You’ll have heard by now how it all went down. For me, the most significant moment, before, you know, the descent of poo, was walking into that suite at the Palmer House and immediately meeting Croyd’s stare across a crowded room. You know what it’s like, seeing an ex for the first time after the breakup. I’d mentally prepared for the moment, and emotionally I was a very different person from whom I’d been then. I’d been in another relationship since, for a start, with a joker whose pansexual ambivalence was initially intriguing, then turned out to come with a side order of self-hatred that I couldn’t cope with. But. Moving swiftly on. Croyd was in one of his gangster suits, the sort of thing that never goes out of style, but that marks the wearer as one of those guys who is who he is. His expression, on that classic Hollywood character actor face, instantly softened into a smile, and in that moment, I actually thought it was all going to be okay. I could feel his current power tugging at my brain. It was part of my job to tell Will what it was. Croyd knew that. I didn’t understand, however, exactly what I was sensing. Some sort of … nostalgia combined with déjà vu? It was like nothing I’d ever felt in a power before. I had the terrible feeling I was actually going to have to ask him. I wandered over, and was about to come out with the line I’d practiced, which was the kind of thing Lauren Bacall would have said in those circumstances, calculated to both reassure him and remind him of what he was missing. I actually opened my mouth to say it, but instead, a loud voice right beside me called out, “Hey, irritable bowel syndrome!”

  I acknowledge a few nicknames. That is not one of them. However, I knew exactly to what it was referring. I turned to see a young boy with enormous glasses and a mop of hair pointing at me like he’d won a prize. He had, oddly, a pigeon sitting calmly on the hand that wasn’t pointing. “Yeah,” I said with a sigh, “that was me.”

  “I knew it! Your ad is always on during the late night anime on Saturdays. Is it you saying the words at the end? Like, ‘may cause death’? ’Cause your British accent isn’t very good.”

  “I agree.” That was Croyd, stepping forward, smoothly charming, but oh God, there was that intense look in his eye, like the charm was only seconds away from being pushed too far. He hadn’t told me what his current power was, having only said in our email exchange that he hadn’t taken on anything that could affect the game in any way. My own feeling that I might well “cause death” for this young interloper was nothing compared to the genuine danger when Croyd was like this. “Now, if you’ll excuse us, the lady and I—”

  He was about to brush the boy off by saying we needed to talk, but the anime fan took it as a cue for introductions. “Timothy Karstens. Call me Timmy.” He shook Croyd’s hand, then did a little duck away from reaching for mine, not sure if that was reasonable. The pigeon looked at him questioningly, and he glanced back as if to chide it. “Charlie Flowers is, like, my uncle? My thing is games, and so he said I should get to know poker, and that there’d be lots of famous people here. Like you. I mean, you are kind of famous. Because of, you know, the irritable bowels.”

  “Is he bothering you?” That was Flowers, walking quickly over, interrupting my complicated emotion about how it was nice to be thought of as famous for whatever reason. “It’s okay, he’s not some kind of mental case. Kid, don’t you know better than to shoo some bird that lands on you? Diseases and stuff.”

  “It’s no bother,” I said quickly, realizing Flowers was about to drag Tim back to his group. Because he was nervous of the boy talking to anyone. I dialed up the cute a little and let out some of my pleasure at being recognized. “He just wanted an autograph. He knows me from my television work!” Which made me seem hopefully as shallow as quite a few of those in the room seemed to be.

  “Oh yeah.” Flowers’s face lit up. “Irritable bowel syndrome!” I managed to grin back. He looked sharply back to the kid. “Okay, when you’re done, you’re with us, and you stay with us.” And that had an edge of force to it. What sort of uncle, I wondered, was Mr. Flowers, to invite a child to an occasion where there might be violence? A very old-fashioned and uncaring one. And one, I suspected, with an ulterior motive.

  Croyd had worked that out, too. “Okay, kid,” he growled, as soon as Flowers was out of earshot. “What does the bird do?”

  “What are you talking about?”

  “I can sense powers,” I told him. “And right now I’m sensing from you…” It was very slight, I realized. It wasn’t an ace thing. It was a deuce thing. I saw the look on the boy’s face turn to one of desperation, and I started to feel very sorry for him. He looked back to the bird, and it flew off and across the room to land on top of a tall bookcase, looking down on the card table. I caught Flowers giving the boy an approving glance.

  “I can control birds,” said Tim.

  “You can control one bird,” I said.

  “Charlie brought me here to see through its eyes—”

  “You little—” began Croyd, thinking he knew exactly what that bird was doing up on the bookcase.

  But Croyd was wrong. I put out a hand to hold him back. “But you can’t do that,” I said.

  “And you mustn’t tell him!” Tim was looking even more desperate, glancing between me and Flowers, who’d thankfully been taken aside into conversation with his buddies. “He asked me to do this. He knows what I do is useful. He doesn’t want me to cheat for him, he just wants to know if anyone else is, so I figured I could just keep on telling him nobody was, and at the end of it he’d—”

  “Pay you?” Croyd sighed.

  “No,” said Tim. “He just said I could … hang out with the guys.”

  I felt so sorry for him. Trust me, actors know what it is to be needed. I looked to Croyd. “He really can’t look at the cards. So we’re just going to let this slide, aren’t we?” After a moment, Croyd nodded and stalked away.

  Tim looked at me like I was his absolute hero. He was, what, about twelve years old? “The other kids,” he said, choosing his words carefully, “they call me Birdbrain. As an insult. ’Cause I always liked birds, always knew tons of shit about ’em. I mean, stuff. Sorry. But then I found out what I could do, and like, hey, ace name!”

  “Sure,” I said. “You go for it.”

  He gave me the most vulnerable little smile. “Thanks. You have a good evening. Love the ad. Be lucky.” He headed off back to the Flowers contingent. I watched him go, and found myself watching the empty, cynical look on Charlie Flowers’s face, as compared to the desperate hope of that boy. There are some people in this world, dear reader, that give one the impression that they have simply never been thumped hard enough. Unfortunately, those tend to be the people who, in reality, have been thumped entirely too much.

  I put Tim out of my mind and headed back to Croyd. I’d had that cool line ready, and now I was going to use it. I opened my mouth as I sauntered over, but Croyd spoke first. “So, you worked out what I can do?”

  “Nope.”

  He looked charmingly surprised. “I’ve been trying to experiment with it, fast as I can, as much as I can. I guess it’s … world changing. The stuff of philosophy. Never heard of anyone else being able to do it. So I got to be careful how I use it, try not to do any harm.”

  Which I’d like to say was typical him, but, you know, only sometimes. Even as he said it, he had that look in his eye that put a kind of gunslinger irony on “harm.” He reiterated that it wasn’t anything I needed to worry about. “World changing, kid. Not game changing. Not for this game, anyhow.”

  And of course, when all hell broke loose, that irony vanished completely and it turned out that, as usual, when it came to me, Croyd Crenson could at times be completely, arse-tighteningly, wrong.

  I spent the evening sensing, then whispering to Will about, a large and varied array of powers. These d
ays I can, given fair warning, psych myself up and hold a power at bay, just sensing its surface details, what it “wanted” to do to me, instead of immediately letting it. (Fair warning had not been given before the theater incident.) But that means keeping my guard up, which turned out to be, across several hours of poker, pretty exhausting, like holding an awkward weight with every limb I had. Still, at least I got used to the proportions and placing of said weights, with the same aces mostly in the same chairs. There were some heavy hitters in here. It was … interesting to be in same room as John bloody Fortune, for a start, though I couldn’t sense any powers from him. Tim kept looking over at him, exactly the sort of famous person he’d come here to see. That part hadn’t just been a cover story. Except then Flowers actually reached over and cuffed him, got him to pay attention, and Tim smiled back at him like that was a grand acknowledgment of his existence. Also around the table were several people whose powers I positively had to fight off. Jack Braun, the former Tarzan, projected a sort of brute strength that came with a side order of deliberately obtuse, the sort of American I really have problems with. I couldn’t quite meet his eye, though he kept trying to smile aggressively at me, like he did with almost everyone around the table. The guy who said “tiger” at my power senses, the one called Khan, was someone I’d picked out as dangerous at the briefing, and in real life he was … well, let’s just say I was aware of him in all sorts of ways. Tim’s bird kept flying from one vantage point to another, and Flowers nodded in approval every time it did so. Hell of a tell.

  Then, however, that “old waiter” walked in. I immediately started to tell Will that someone who could increase his strength had just entered. Even as I said it, I was fighting down the urge the new arrival’s power was thrusting onto me, that every muscle in my body wanted to escape my clothing. (I end up suddenly naked really far too often for someone who’s vowed never to do a nude scene.) In that same second, however, the tiger strength and speed of Khan also amped up for me as he leapt for the new arrival, and so did the fire powers of Cynder, as she blasted randomly skyward, and I realized I was suddenly about to sprout hooks from every part of my body as well and it’s probably fortunate for me that … well, I overloaded, I think.

  As the darkness rolled up into my eyes, I recall feeling again that signal of weird nostalgia and déjà vu, only now it had suddenly amplified. I felt whatever Croyd’s power was, washing over me. I felt it as regret, the roaring up of the deepest layer of memory right into the middle of my mind. I was stunned by the recollection of seeing the sea for the first time, a paper hat on my tiny little head, an ice cream falling from my hand as—

  I fell.

  It wasn’t like any sort of unconsciousness I’d previously experienced. My vision narrowed into a sort of tunnel with every possible shade of light stretching into absolute darkness, and my sense of self cut out. Even with my conscious self gone, I was still aware of … extraordinary, sudden movement, in a sort of instinctive, emotional, way.

  When I came around … or sort of woke into my body again … something in me thought I was being born. It was very warm, it was wet, I was naked … yes, irony upon ironies, this was yet another of those occasions. These conditions persisted, and I realized I had my eyes closed, and that everything else my senses were aware of had returned to … well, I want to say normal, but that takes “relatively speaking” into dimensions that phrase was never meant to encompass. I opened my eyes.

  I closed them again. Then, slowly, trying hard to keep calm, willing myself to see only what was real, I allowed the light in again.

  I was lying, naked, as I mentioned, in a jungle. Truly enormous and very unusual leaves were above me, water dripping from them onto me. Truly enormous and very unusual insects buzzed between them. I was at the edge of the tree line, the light of a truly enormous … moon, without some of the features I’d normally want to see on the moon … illuminating me. Through the gaps in the last few trees, which had been reduced to ashes and charred, collapsed, trunks, I could see a plain beyond, on which … was grazing a herd of …

  Oh. Oh my fucking stars.

  “Croyd Crenson!” I bellowed as I leapt to my feet. “You complete fuckwit!”

  Because here I was, looking out on a vast herd of enormous, meaty creatures, their bodies giving off steam, birds that weren’t actually birds, more hairy than feathery, flocking all around them in enormous swirls, presumably catching enormous insects. Dark, stormy clouds broiled overhead. It looked to be just past sunset at who knows what millions of years ago.

  In the time of the dinosaurs.

  That had been Croyd’s power. Frigging time travel. And he’d used it during a fight at a poker game.

  I found that I was taking enormous breaths, out of sheer panic, and that … was weirdly satisfying. The air was somehow better than what I was used to. It actually smelled … great. I mean, full of the stench of enormous piles of dung, but hey, I grew up in the country. Under that, and the brilliant green smell of the jungle, there was something utterly invigorating. Now, I think that was probably higher oxygen levels. Which is very much a two-edged sword. Yes, you can run a bit longer. But because of the additional fire risks, you’re going to have to.

  I turned left and right. Shit. Shit shit shit. Time travel. One small step for woman. One giant leap for just me, bloody on my own. What should I do? What shouldn’t I do?

  I looked down at my bare feet, and hopped quickly out of the way of a rather huge millipede that was rushing toward me, and thankfully on its way without having had eating me in mind. Then I gave a little cry of fear and looked back to where my feet had landed. “No stepping on butterflies,” I reminded myself, again out loud. Because there had been that story about how time travel worked, hadn’t there? By that writer, was it Arthur C. Clarke? That had made it pretty damn clear that any action I took here could have big consequences down the line. I had no idea if that was the case in real life, but I wasn’t going to risk it.

  I felt that I was probably going to be talking to myself quite a lot in the … two minutes to seventy years or so of life in dinosaur land that I had left. “No, no thinking about that, either.” I was British, I reminded myself. I was pretty sure that there was no way a fossil of me could reveal that I’d been blubbing, but just in case, I wasn’t damn well going to. Also, a fossil of me would be irritatingly helpful to frigging anti-evolution idiots, so I should make sure to … get myself … no, perhaps later for that train of thought.

  At any rate, I was not going to despair, just because I was … stranded zillions of years before any human being would ever be born. Shit. Shit shit shit.

  My mum always said if I went into show business something like this would happen.

  I took a few careful steps toward the edge of the jungle. Some sort of blaze had indeed been through here quite recently. There were signs on the ground of older ashes, too. And I didn’t like the look of the clouds above the herd of … whatever those were. The creatures had now started making enormous lowing noises. The cries were so divorced from the calls of any animal I’d heard that they were, actually, the worst thing I’d experienced thus far.

  Until, that was, the very next moment, when I heard a voice from the nearby foliage. “Err, hi?”

  I spun around and managed to grab and wrench away one of the big leaves to cover myself, basically in one startled movement. From out of the undergrowth, his hands covering his … whatever … stepped Timmy, also entirely naked. “How long have you been looking at me?” I said.

  “I haven’t. I mean, I saw you, and then I—”

  “If this is a fig leaf—no, it can’t be, can it?—if this is something that evolves into a fig, a kind of proto-fig, and you and I … I mean, okay, we’re now the first people, but that doesn’t mean—I’m saying don’t get any ideas, okay?!”

  He just stared uncomprehendingly at me. Perhaps understandably, yes. Because I’d really gone there before anyone in their right mind would. But perhaps you’d be so kind
as to tell me what anyone in their right mind would do at any given moment of this situation?

  The boy was looking, I realized, very lost and very scared.

  “Sorry,” I said. “You … scared me. God, actually, I’m really glad I’m not alone here.”

  “Me too.”

  I wanted to give him a hug. Except also really not. In movies about prehistoric times, everyone seems to quickly stitch … furs, no, not much in the way of fur around here, I thought. I wondered how much the temperature dropped at night. I wondered if Croyd would realize what he’d done, and, if he was still alive, be able to rescue … but no, if so, that would have happened … immediately, wouldn’t it? If he could find us, if he’d ever found us … here he’d be. Immediately. Probably. Whatever the rules for this stuff were.

  Shit. Shit shit shit shit shit.

  I had to get control of myself. For the sake of the kid. “Someone will find us,” I said. Even as I said it, I realized he was looking over my shoulder, and that all the blood had drained from his face. A warmer, even wetter, stream of air was wafting gently down onto my shoulders, and the smell of dung had increased, suddenly, exponentially. And this time it smelled distinctly meaty.

  I turned slowly around and looked up into a world of feathers, bloodshot eyes, and enormous teeth. It must have been strutting around the edge of the jungle, sizing up the herd of animals on the plain. It moved its head slowly, to better look at me. It must never have smelled anything like people, I realized. It didn’t actually know whether or not we were prey.

 
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