Low chicago, p.18
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       Low Chicago, p.18

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

  I was about to roar at it. I swear. I was about to leap up and down and wave my arms and try to scare it. I was not about to sprint away, leaving it to discover whether or not it liked human flesh by means of Timmy.

  Which was when the dinosaur gave a little squeal of panic, spun on its axis, meaning I had to jump over one hell of a tail, and sprinted off as fast as its little ballerina legs would carry it, making panicked warning squeals as it went.

  I was fully expecting, when I turned to look back at Timmy, to see an even bigger dinosaur behind us. But there was just Timmy. He was panting with relief. But he also looked like someone who’d just seized a life belt and found it was … I was going to say made of gold, but that would actually be very bad news for a life belt. I realized now, as I felt once again his power, what he’d just done.

  Timmy could control a single bird. Which meant, it seemed, he could control a single birdlike dinosaur. “I did it,” he said. “Shit, I did it!”

  “Language, Timothy,” I said, feeling as if I had to do my best to act in loco parentis. At least the kid now had something to hang on to. I didn’t want to deflate him by telling him that if he could do it, so could I. As long as I stayed reasonably close. “But, wow, thanks for saving us.” I enjoyed seeing his face light up. Then I looked down and realized I’d let go of the leaf.

  I gathered it quickly up again, wondering about the realities of the situation once more. One particular reality was for me about two weeks away, and for that I’d need to have found local approximations for certain items. Which seemed like a pretty big ask. In the short term, there was more than enough water, but who knew if the ancestors of the fruit and veg we knew were poisonous? Still, we could between us presumably get a small dinosaur to baste itself over an open fire. If it was safe to do so, given the butterfly effect and everything. But wasn’t every fruit we might eat something’s ancestor, too? Wasn’t the bacteria in the air? Had Arthur C. Clarke really thought this through? Sod it, I decided, I’d take a future with no tangerines, or whatever, rather than starve.

  Was there anyone else nearby with us? I started to shout the names of everyone I could remember who’d been nearby at that poker game, and Tim immediately joined in. We kept that up for a while, uselessly. I realized that Tim had been about the same distance across the room as the distance he’d been from me when he’d arrived here. If the others had landed in the same time, they would surely have been just as immediately obvious. I stopped shouting. So did Tim.

  Now I’d had a few moments to … no, I was still shaking with shock, so I wouldn’t say I’d calmed down, but now I wasn’t actually experiencing immediate terror … I realized there was a certain silence in my head. For the first time since my powers had manifested, I could feel Tim’s abilities, but nothing else. There would be, I realized, an entire world of nothing else out there. I let my power reach out, feeling the relaxation of it, sheer relief after the effort of the poker game, and found, right on the edge of my range … what the hell was that?

  I turned to look, out across the plain, past the dinosaurs. I couldn’t see anything, off into the distance. But it was somewhere in that direction. I told Timmy to stay put, but he yelled in fear that he wouldn’t. I explained I was only going a few feet to get behind some bushes and try to get some clothing together, and he haltingly said he’d do the same, but that we should keep talking. So we did. Well, I kept up my monologue of hopeful nonsense, talking about what the journey had been like for me, and he just said “yeah” nervously on several occasions. I tied some knots in leaf stalks, and ended up with a reasonably all-concealing … well, Tinker Bell costume, honestly. By the time I got back, Tim had gotten himself a single leaf successfully tucked up round his … yeah.

  “Okay,” I said, “I don’t want to get you hopeful, but—” And I explained what it was I’d felt.

  He got all hopeful. “It’s your friend, it must be!”

  I told him it almost certainly wasn’t, because I couldn’t feel Croyd’s time powers, and I didn’t recognize in this faint signal the signature of anyone else who’d been in that room, but even so, I did share a little of that terrible hope. I didn’t want to head out of the shelter of the jungle, but if there were others in the same situation, who’d for some reason landed far away, our chances of survival would vastly improve if we could find them. We headed out onto the plain, making our way around the edge of the great lumpen herd of slowly circling meat. They didn’t react to our presence. We were too small to worry them. A number of biped predators were stalking about the edges of the forest. I explained to Timmy the nature of my power, and he looked downcast for a moment, having lost his uniqueness, until I further explained that I could control a dinosaur only while he was around. Together we kept a watch and managed to steer away anything that took an interest in us. I got a handle on how to use his power pretty damn swiftly, because I had to.

  I looked up as we walked, at that great sky that hadn’t ever been looked at before by human eyes. In the gaps in the clouds, the stars were coming out. I wondered if the constellations would be familiar and felt another pang of geologic time. I was just starting to get the first hint of perspective on how small and insignificant we were. Before we arrived, nothing on this world knew. It had all just existed: churning, cycling, unconscious meat. And at some point, probably soon, we would not know either, and we’d be swallowed up by it, perhaps literally, and the great unknowing would resume, undisturbed. It felt too big to bear. So I was doing what little mammals always did, what people always do: I was refusing to bear it. I saw a meteor. Then a bigger one, a fireball that flared for a second and made Timmy shout in new fear. Then it was gone, then a cluster more, like fireworks, then nothing. I looked to Timmy. He was choking up, trying not to sob. What at home would be just a shooting star was here a potential threat. This long silence had let him have a good long think about our situation.

  I wish I knew what it was I was following. For all I knew, I’d discovered dinosaurs with ace powers. Which would be both an amazing scientific wonder and an enormous pain in the arse. Though there was no way I could think of that anyone could have got ace powers before the wild card virus had been released.

  We covered the ground pretty fast, marching along. All that oxygen. The plain wasn’t covered in grass as such, more a sort of rough moss and weed cover, with very light and rather sad-looking leaves, despite all the ash underfoot. That big moon gave us enough light to see as we crested a low hill and looked down and saw a farther plain beyond, in the direction from which I was sensing the powers.

  In the middle of the next plain sat … oh my days …

  “It’s a spaceship!” yelled Timmy. Then, a second later, “Oh shit, it’s a spaceship.”

  Because, as I was discovering myself, that’s pretty much the natural reaction when one sees a spaceship in the middle of … well, I was about to say “an everyday setting,” but … My first thought was that we must be looking at a Takisian ship. Takisians who’d visited Earth way, way before they were supposed to have. And not in one of those iconic, seashell-shaped ships that had been all over the books in my school library, and were a favorite tongue twister when I was little … so actually, even given that we were millions of years in the past, probably not Takisians. Which was a good thing, considering their willingness to treat the human race as guinea pigs. Still, at least this was an actual spaceship, and not a blazing pod like those that had brought to Earth that other sort of alien from my schoolbooks and childhood nightmares, the Swarm. Instead, this was a squared-off black-and-white object, with a sort of flattened dome on one corner and a tower on the other, landing gear, and huge wheels dusty from the plain. Under a sort of awning we could just about see moving figures.

  I looked at Timmy. He was as nervous as I was. “Okay,” I said. “We sneak closer. We try to work out if they’re friendly. Somehow. I mean, maybe they’re flying a … friendly-looking flag.”

  Which was when I discovered that no plan survives conta
ct with dinosaurs.

  The roar came from behind us. We spun around. Running at us, blasting out low, powerful notes that felt like they were vibrating my body and tiny mammal soul at the same time, came … well, I still haven’t quite worked out what they were, but they were like scary enormous ostriches with sort of hand claws, and there was a whole pack of them.

  Timmy and I must have had the same thought at the same instant, because suddenly the leading two ostriches spun on their running claws and leapt at the others following, but that caused only a moment’s kerfuffle and feathers flying and shrieks before our two champions vanished into the pack and the rest all swung together, like a flock of psychopathic starlings, and raced at us wing tip to wing tip.

  We turned and sprinted for the spaceship.

  We ran like scurrying mice under that gigantic sky. We ran screaming and yelling and waving our arms to whatever was ahead. Even getting zapped by space death guns, or whatever, was better than dying messily in a two-person amateur production of Oh Shit It’s Dinosaurs. As we got closer, the figures ahead started to react, to run about making gestures. So, these were going to be someone new. First contact. With me and Tim here the rather surprising representatives of humanity. Today was turning out to be, as my mother would say, “somewhat eventful.” We were running in sheer hope, and fear of what was behind us. As someone who knows story shape, I realized suddenly in my guts that the big obvious shaggy dog story twist here was for the two of us to be immediately zapped for our naive desperation.

  The screams on our heels were getting closer. Tim and I kept reflexively turning two more dinosaurs back at the others, but the others just rode over them and kept going, and there were so damn many of them.

  Ahead, the figure closest to us resolved itself in my vision. I was ready for anything.

  It was the guy from whom I used to buy magazines.

  He had seen us, and was now running toward us, waving his arms. Behind him came several other beings of various shapes and sizes, waving various appendages. The power I’d sensed earlier lay behind them, inside the ship, and, I started to realize, it must be truly enormous for me to have felt it at that distance.

  However, the closer the lead alien got, the more certain I was that here was my local news vendor. I wasn’t getting a sense of any powers from any of these guys, which meant they surely must be aliens, and not victims of the wild card virus. But him being here meant exactly the opposite.

  “Jube!” I shouted. “Hey, Jube!”

  “You … know these guys?” panted Timmy.

  I wanted to say I knew one of them considerably less well than I thought. Jube was a joker who ran the magazine stall round the corner from my apartment in New York. He looked somewhat akin to a bipedal blue walrus. He normally favored Hawaiian shirts and little hats, even in the hardest Jokertown winters. Here, he was dressed in some sort of scarlet uniform, bare-armed and -legged. I suddenly realized that actually I’d never got any sense of what Jube’s powers were, but surely that was because I last saw him before my own abilities had matured to what they were now?

  He raised a hand, and in it was … ah, that was actually one of those space death guns I’d been worried about, wasn’t it? I didn’t have time to react beyond a first jolt of fear. There was a flash. I grabbed Timmy and threw us to the ground a second before an explosion showered us with soil.

  I heaved with my legs and managed to pull the screaming boy to his feet, ready to hopelessly, meaninglessly, run in a third direction again, caught between the screeches that were now almost on us and this new danger. Only then I saw something that had been revealed by the explosion. In front of us, the dust and soil that had been thrown up was hanging in the air, tiny lightning bolts zapping around it, an ozone smell and a stream of smoke indicating its disintegration. A blue glow flickered into a dome shape around the camp. Inside that dome, what I’d taken to be our newsagent-led alien attackers were gesturing urgently.

  “They didn’t want us to hit their forcefield,” I yelled. “They’re trying to help us.”

  As I said it, a gap opened up, right in front of us. We ran at it and leapt through just in time to land, roll over as the field slammed closed behind us, and witness … an enormous quantity of chicken flash-frying itself. The screams and the smell and the splattering and sizzling sounds were … well, pretty damn satisfying, actually.

  We lay there, panting, and, led by my newsagent, the mixture of aliens stepped … and oozed and scrabbled … forward to meet us.

  I got to my feet, hauled Timmy up, and raised a hand. I was panting. “Hello. We’re humans. From here. I mean, actually, yes, here, but not yet. I mean, this is our world. Or it will be. But if you’re planning on … I mean, I really should emphasize it’s still ours—”

  I was perhaps not the ideal spokesperson for the human race. Hey, the first guy on the moon surely had a speechwriter.

  I stopped, realizing that my audience was at best not following my meaning, and at worst still possibly hostile, and decided simplicity was the key. I pointed at Jube. “Jube?” I said.

  He pointed at me. “Jube?” he said.

  I knew it! I threw my arms around him. “In a few million years,” I said, “the two of us are going to bond over the editorial direction of Entertainment Weekly.”

  “Entertainment Weekly,” he replied, carefully hugging me back.

  “So are you a time traveler too? Are you all time travelers?” Perhaps Croyd’s power hadn’t been as novel as he thought. Or perhaps Jube was just incredibly long-lived? But no, of course not, he could only have become a joker, only gained any special abilities, after the wild card virus release in 1946. If he wasn’t a time traveler, this didn’t make any sense.

  One of the other aliens stepped forward. None of this bunch were what pop culture would have recognized as stereotypically alien—either handsome and humanoid or roaring shape-shifting monsters—but this guy was like nothing I’d seen on telly or in films. He was a tiny gray biped with enormous black eyes, a slit of a mouth, and a frail, thin body compared to his big head. He wore only a sort of gray loincloth. He struck me as incredibly cute, and that cuteness was welcome in that moment. He held up a long thin device with a bulb on the end, and made a kind of shoving gesture with it.

  “He seems to want something,” whispered Timmy nervously. “He’s kind of gesturing for us to … turn around.”

  Jube gently pushed the little gray guy back and took something from a pouch on his belt. He fiddled with the gizmo thus revealed, and turned a few dials that seemed to spring out to meet his big fingers. All the while he made small barking sounds, which suddenly became … “testing, testing…”

  “Ah, that, that!” I said. “That’s it! That’s English! Like you were speaking before!”

  “English?” he said. “What’s that? Lady, I was just copying the sounds you made. I had to let it scan you, ’cause we had nothing in the ship’s memory. Who the fuck are you people?”

  “We’re not Takisians, if that’s what you’re thinking.”

  “That’s not what I was thinking, because what the fuck is a Takisian?”

  His accent was exactly like Jube’s even. Except the news vendor had never been this brusque. “Jube,” I said, “listen, in the future—”

  “Jube? What’s Jube? Stop throwing this stuff at me like I should know!”

  “Oh, was that maybe just your joker name? I never asked if—”

  Jube looked to the gizmo again. “It could be badly tuned, I guess. I don’t joke a lot, you know? Let’s start again. I’m Petitioner Assistant Snorsk.”

  I slowly, horribly, realized that I had perhaps broken the record for going abroad and running into someone who looks just like someone from back home. But how could Jube be so like this guy, when, as a joker, he was literally unique? “Oh. Oh. I really am terribly sorry. I seem to have mistaken you for—”

  “We’re on this planet to observe two events, the bosses tell me, one of which is a space-time anomaly. An
d here you are. So I gotta ask: Are you it?”

  I looked at Timothy, he looked uneasily back at me. “Yep,” I said, “that’s us.” We were way beyond stepping on butterflies now. I got the feeling I was talking here not to some kind of space commander, but to an ambitious junior. And God save us from ambitious juniors. So the unexpected intervention of the little gray guy was very welcome.

  “I’m terribly sorry,” he said, “if I may interject?”

  “You’re British!” I said, delighted. Obviously.

  “I’m sorry to say that is an honor the details of which thus far elude me. I am, your most humble servant, a Moho underling by the name of—” He pursed his thin lips as best he could and gave a little fluting whistle. “The translator device favored by my colleague renders our speech patterns into the closest equivalent to which you have an affinity. Thus, myself: ‘British,’ whatever blessed condition that may be. My colleague—”

  “New Yorker,” I said. “Because I thought he was an old friend of mine.” And not at all because he was blunt to the point of rudeness. I realized as I said it that my own accent had leapt up several social strata, as it tends to when one runs into the aristocracy. I felt the immediate need to know exactly what sort of ranks and social positions I was dealing with here. Hearing an upper-class accent unexpectedly can do that to you. I mean, to one. “So you’re an ‘underling’ and he’s a ‘petitioner assistant’…”

  “Oh yes,” replied Whistle, “we’re terribly, terribly important. No, not at all! Bottom of the greasy poll, that’s us. My species has been a member of the twenty-two for some considerable time, but his—”

  “We ain’t members, okay?” barked Snorsk. “The Twenty-two picked me up from where I was stranded and I ended up workin’ for them.” He looked to Whistle. “And should you really be carin’ and sharin’ so much with the space-time anomaly here?”

  “The Twenty-two?” I asked, hoping to get one more answer before the others acknowledged the truth of what Snorsk was saying.

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