Low chicago, p.19
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       Low Chicago, p.19

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

  “Twenty-two species,” said Whistle. “All working together, exploring, researching, and negotiating such lucrative trade agreements! And please, Snorsk, my old chum, these two are obviously such delightful people, why, we should make sure our superiors treat them as guests.”

  “Stop puttin’ it on. You’re only interested in the one thing.” Snorsk indicated the rod that Whistle had been gesturing with earlier.

  “Yes,” I asked, nervously, “what was that about?”

  Whistle looked at Snorsk and gave a little sniff of that tiny nose. “Perhaps later,” he said, and sighed. He gestured toward the spacecraft. “Shall we?”

  As we were led under the awning and toward an entry port, I watched Timothy’s reactions. I’d been in New York long enough to accept people with all kinds of different body types. I was relieved to see that Timothy wasn’t shying away from the tentacles and such. It was as if he were so deeply freaked out that this little bit of icing on top didn’t make much difference. “There’s a dinosaur in there,” he whispered to me, nodding toward the ship. “It’s not happy.”

  I could feel, picking up on his power, that he was correct, but that feeling was suddenly overawed for me by … it was like a shadow had fallen over my mind. As I said, human beings don’t have much in the way of perspective about their place in the cosmos. Even the arrival of the virus and the alien who brought it hardly dented our sense of superiority. “Dr. Tachyon” pretty quickly took on our customs, after all, canny sod that he must have been. But now, here we were, two apes way out of our depth.

  The shadow sitting gently across my mind was the immense, close presence of … the biggest power I’d ever felt. A power the nature of which I simply couldn’t fathom. It had only just decided to notice me. I was aware that I should be picking up associations from it, getting flashes of meaning that should guide me toward being able to use it. But this was like … a fly looking at an airliner. They’re both in the same line of business. But I realized that I was unconsciously trying to pull my power back rather than connect with it. That would be like trying to drink from the end of the fire hose.

  “You look scared,” Timmy said suddenly. That was obviously making him even more scared.

  I stopped and took a breath, made sure I wasn’t about to suddenly be overwhelmed, and the power seemed to realize, to pull back slightly itself. “What?” I said. “Sorry, I was just wondering if I’d left the oven on.”

  He didn’t laugh. He was barely reassured.

  The aliens led us into the ship, into the shadow.

  The first thing I noticed was the vegetation. Some of the corridors had ferns and bushes actually growing on the walkways, so it was a bit like walking on the plain outside had been. The lighting varied wildly, depending, Whistle told me, on which species most frequented each part of the ship.

  The aliens eventually brought us, by way of an overgrown path, to an entranceway that opened out into a domed hub, inside which the undergrowth ran wild. The dome was populated by … well, my first thought was that the ship was run by giant golden bats. Or, actually, shit, were these dinosaurs, or at least something related to birds? No, for all the claws and tufts and the ruffs and the wings, they were furry, not feathery. And there was also, perhaps fortunately, no feeling in my head that I might be able to control them. There were eight of them, swinging from what could only be described as perches, claws striking out to activate controls, viewscreens swinging to stay with their ever-changing eyelines. Along the floor and over the instruments ran … euw! Huge greeny-black grubs!

  I knew, better than most, not to judge. I looked to Snorsk. “So are any of these guys the … captain?”

  “Like we have a captain! These guys are the Aevre, they fly the ship.” However, the power I had felt did not lie here. It was somewhere farther in. Then I gasped. It had suddenly moved. It was right behind me.

  I turned around. And realized, as I did so, that I might have just given away more about my own abilities than I cared to. But I hadn’t time to worry about that, because I was looking at … well, for a moment I thought I was looking at Father Christmas, or an elderly aunt of mine whose passing away was my first experience of death, or at … whatever it is you feel in cathedrals sometimes. Then the appearance of what was in front of me shifted, or I had the feeling it had always been what I was now seeing, and why on earth would I think it had ever looked different?

  This was a little old lady. This was one of my acting heroes. This was … Margaret Rutherford, best known for her portrayal of Miss Marple. I looked between her, Snorsk, and Whistle. “Oh come on,” I said. “This is a dream, right?”

  “My dear girl, this is no dream,” said Margaret Rutherford. “Or if it is, it is equally so for us, and we are both the dreamers and the dreamt.” She had that gleam in her eye that had always been there when Miss Marple knew perfectly well who the villain was.

  “Who are you? Why do you look like that?”

  “I found what you would consider most comforting and wore that.”

  “What do you mean ‘found’?” I noted she hadn’t answered the first part of my question.

  “I’m not looking into your mind, if that’s what you mean. Certain aspects of who anyone is are visible on the surface. Dear me, I’m making you more uncomfortable. I’ve just allocated quarters for you both. Perhaps you’d like to find warmth and rest there for a while before joining me for a spot of dinner?”

  I could just about believe that the concept of “a spot of dinner” was visible on the surface of my consciousness. What was troubling me most about this being of incredible power, apart from the incredible power, was her absolute lack of surprise at seeing us. I looked to Tim. He was shaking. He’d reached the limit of what even a young, adaptable mind could accept. “What are you seeing her as?” I asked.

  “My … my mom…”

  “Oh,” said Margaret Rutherford. “Goodness, we certainly can’t have that. Now I’m the same actor for both of you.”

  Tim relaxed a little. I thought that for his sake, though I had a lot more questions, I’d best accept that offer of a bit of stillness and quiet. “Who is she?” I whispered to Whistle and Snorsk as they led us off down a mulchy corridor.

  “The ship’s Trader,” said Snorsk.

  “That doesn’t sound so important,” said Timmy. He was looking around, distracted. Using his ability, I could also feel, now the enormous power being had departed, that there was a dinosaur somewhere near, and that it was troubled, scared.

  Whistle chuckled. “She is the owner of the ship, our employer, the most important person within … well, I’m not sure where the next nearest Trader ship is, but within several hundred light-years.”

  “You lot wouldn’t happen to be able to travel in time?”

  “Oh dear no, we wouldn’t be so interested in space-time anomalies such as yourself if we could.”

  We were taken to quarters seemingly designed at least for bipeds, with flat beds, and water running down the wall in what looked to be an artificial re-creation of a waterfall. I realized I was thirsty and tried some, and was about to tell Timmy it was okay when he stuck his head under and started gulping it down. Then he sat down on the floor with a thump and started to cry. I fell beside him, grabbed him, and we held each other for a while, the only familiar things remaining in our worlds.

  After a long while, after he’d cried it out, I asked Tim about his family situation. “It’s no big deal,” he said, wiping away the tears on the back of his hand, not willing to look me in the eye. “It’s not like I’m abused. They just … don’t notice me much. Until Charlie did. He’s been … great. He’s really included me. Which isn’t like him, ’cause he’s really hard-core, and … I know he’s kind of using me, okay? But that’s okay, because I’m using him, and once those guys get to know me, they’ll see I can be useful, they’ll see there’s a place for me. I just gotta find a reason for them to take me and my power seriously. And I just gotta get back there, because … be
cause all this is so … I just want to go back home, you know?”

  I told him I did. After a while, I encouraged him to get up. We were able to find, in the various pods and baskets of the chamber, clothes that vaguely fit us, and so we joined the Trader for dinner in what bore an uncomfortable resemblance to hospital gowns, though thankfully they had backs. She rose from a small round table in the middle of what looked like a meadow, with comforting blue skies overhead, and gestured for us to sit on tree stumps to join her. “You made it look like home,” I said.

  “She did not,” said Timmy.

  “I thought it best you share one experience, so I had to choose between two quite different aesthetics,” she said. “I’m terribly sorry, Timothy. It seems I can’t do anything to please you today.”

  “S’okay,” he whispered, looking at his shoes. I wondered if he was ever going to be able to cope.

  “What do we call you?” I asked.

  “‘The Trader’ will identify me to the crew. Unless there’s another one of my people about, that will suffice. Individual names are so dull, don’t you think?” I opened and closed my mouth, unable to frame a reply. She seemed to notice. “Oh my dear, you must feel so out of your depth. I do wish I could be more help. Tell me, how exactly did you get here?”

  Beings of various species had started putting in front of us food that, while it looked unfamiliar, at least smelled edible. “Umm,” I said. “Ah…” Because I was, after all, addressing a being of terrifying power who had me by the ovaries. I had never felt so small and insignificant. And I’ve met theatrical agents. Now I was close to her power, it didn’t feel at all like that of an ace. It was utterly different in nature. Different and scary. So that was something I’d learned about my own power: that I could pick up on all sorts of things. What I was wondering was: If this deity-sized old lady was so interested in time travel, and couldn’t do it herself, what would she do if she had it? I’d been worried about stepping on butterflies. Here was the biggest butterfly of all. And it could do the stepping. “Sheer accident, I suppose. I don’t know much about it.” I glanced at Tim, and he nodded. For him that was rather more true than it was for me.

  “Oh dear,” she said. “You’re lying. You at least know the mechanism. A person is involved. A person dear to you.” I could feel her starting to probe deeper into my thoughts.

  I had to risk it. I grabbed the fire hose and sucked. Her enormous power rushed into my head. I immediately regretted doing that and desperately tried to let go, but then it was pulled away once more.

  “Don’t do that, dear girl,” she said. “Or your head will literally explode.”

  “I’ll do it every time you bloody well try to poke my brain. Or his. I’m sure I can ramp up quickly enough to explode my head before you find anything out. And I’m sure you now value my head more than his, because you’ll have sensed how little he knows.”

  Timmy looked between us, aghast.

  The Trader sat back, tapping her mouth with her finger. “Goodness me, you are quick on the uptake. How is it that you can interact with my natural abilities, I wonder? I know of several intelligent biped species. None of them can do that. That is a new thing that is going to happen in the universe, at whatever future point you spring from. Interesting, actually, that you’re a mammal.”


  She shook her head. “If you’re not about to volunteer information, neither am I. Well, this has been nice.” She stood up, having not eaten anything. “Do finish your dinner.” And without a moment when she seemed to have actually vanished, she was gone.

  We sat there for a bit, not saying anything. I felt, and so, seemingly did Tim, that we might be still being listened to. Finally, we tried a bit of the local fruit and veg. It was fine. After an hour or so, some crew members arrived and escorted us back to our room. I wondered whether we would have been allowed to leave the ship.

  That night, Timmy and I stayed awake. The Trader had definitely given the impression that our conversation would continue. I doubted her motives were entirely dubious. She seemed to run a humane ship, after all. It was her power that worried me. We were cut off from all law, all human rules. I had to learn a lot more before I could trust her. Perhaps she was giving us time to do that. But I wanted to do it in a rather proactive way.

  We waited until the ship got a little quieter, which wasn’t saying a lot, then pushed open the quasi-wooden door and ventured out into the corridors. I led Timmy after me. He seemed to be keeping it together. He’d mentioned to me an idea that seemed like a good first step in working out how things really were here. “Let’s find that poor dinosaur,” he whispered.

  Of course, I could feel it, too. That sense of projected saurian misery. The closer we got to it, the more the corridors filled with those insect things, skittering back and forth. Suddenly, I heard a voice from behind us. “Oh, hello. Are you out for a stroll?”

  It was Whistle, with that probe of his in hand. He gestured to it, seeming almost embarrassed. “The mating customs of my people mean I am often found tiptoeing away from nighttime entanglements. Even our form of greeting indicates the possibility of romance. Other species and their physical differences have for us always been the greatest adventure. But surely I cannot hope that you are on the same joyful mission?”

  “Nooo,” I said, boggling just a little. Timmy was violently shaking his head. “We just … couldn’t sleep.”

  “Well then, allow me to give you the grand tour. Have you met the Queen?”

  “Do you mean—?”

  “Not the Trader, dear hearts, the Queen!”

  I allowed him to lead us. It turned out we were still heading toward the dinosaur I was sensing. We walked through a pair of double doors into an open area in which sat … well, it took all my liberal joker-friendly sentiments not to scream at what I saw. Inside the dome was a sort of giant blobby insect thing, wrapped in an embrace with … it took me a moment to work out what I was looking at. It was like an enormous embryo, that is to say, an embryo the size of an adult human, in a sac of nutrients, pipes feeding to the transparent, bulging walls. The creature inside was curled, unborn, mostly just an enormous brain, but with hints of tiny limbs, eyes. It was the sad dinosaur that had been calling to Tim and me. “Oh,” I said, “that sort of … Queen. Is the dinosaur … part of it?”

  “What are you doing to it?!” whispered Timmy, horrified.

  “It’s a bit of a failed experiment,” said Whistle. “We grew it here. The Queen is the heart of the ship, responsible for our sensors, security systems…”

  “Why did you attach a dinosaur to it?” I looked up at the poor thing, certain now that only Timmy and I could feel its pain. I was certain also that I wasn’t entirely happy with a culture that allowed this.

  “Its brain is used to augment the Queen’s processing power. The Trader seems to like these dinosaurs of yours. She’s a great fan of highly evolved species. We’ve been collecting DNA from them, presumably with the aim of breeding and trading them.”

  I looked to Timothy. His expression was now one of pure rage. I realized, in that moment, that to him this was one of his beloved birds being caged and abused from … well, before birth. “It wants to get out,” he whispered.

  “Well, ah, that’s a bit above my—”

  “Let it out!”

  “Perhaps we could ask the Trader if—?”

  “No! No more!” Tim closed his eyes. The dinosaur embryo thrashed and started to bellow. “Come on!” he cried, and grabbed my hand.

  We left Whistle behind us, flailing and desperately calling after us. We ran through a ship in which the vegetation had begun to thrash as if a storm were rushing through it. Every door was suddenly flying open, every alarm blaring. Tim, I realized, had used his power over the dinosaur to throw a spanner in the works. “I had to stop it,” he yelled to me. “It isn’t meant to be here! It doesn’t have a place here! It wants to die!”

  The grubs were rushing everywhere. Nobody blocked our
way as we headed to, and out of, the main doors, which were standing open. I couldn’t feel the power of the Trader, I realized. Surely she could stop us if she wanted to? “Where can we run to?!”

  “Back to where we arrived! That’s where they’ll come to find us! Or we can hide there! Until the aliens have to go!”

  I must confess, even having seen the dinosaur/insect Queen combo, I was conflicted as to whether or not this was the best move. But I had no idea what kind of punishment Tim might have invited by doing this, and figured in the moment that following him was fulfilling my duty of care. I could always negotiate with scary Miss Marple with Tim safely in hiding. And there was a slim chance someone might indeed come looking for us. If the aliens had sensed our space-time anomaly, maybe others could, too.

  We ran across the plain as lightning started to strike on the horizon. In the gaps between the clouds, I realized I was now seeing many, many more shooting stars. I remembered something Snorsk had said: that the ship had come here to observe two events. I skidded to a halt. “Tim,” I shouted, “I think we should go back—!”

  But he wasn’t listening. He was running for dear life. He was running for that tree line as if there he would find once again the only home he had.

  I set off after him again, yelling, as the rate of shooting stars overhead increased every second. I ran across the plain like a rodent. I ran with the sky falling. “Tim!” I yelled, as I burst through the tree line behind him, “I think it’s the meteor. It’s the frigging meteor that kills the dinosaurs!” Tim was nowhere to be seen. I kept calling his name, more desperate by the moment. The meteor had landed somewhere in Mexico, hadn’t it? Just for once, that didn’t seem that far from Chicago. Whether we’d freeze in a global winter or … or with all this oxygen, all it would take would be one chunk of flaming rock to land within several miles—!

  I have never been more grateful to have the image of standing on a beach in a paper hat rush into my head, as it did at that moment. I spun around. Behind me had appeared Croyd, naked in that new old body of his, and a small man who’d been one of the guests at the poker game, whom I knew from my research to be John Nighthawk. “We got the right time!” said Croyd. He must have had some means to find us geographically, too, because we’d just run for the tree line; it would have taken us a while to find the place where we’d appeared.

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