Knaves over queens, p.32
Knaves Over Queens, p.32Part #26 of Wild Cards series by George R. R. Martin
They couldn’t find a heartbeat. That was the thing he found hardest. The stethoscopes were unable to detect anything, and so far the needles they’d tried had simply bent against his wooden skin. When he asked the doctors about the results of his chest X-ray, they paled and mumbled words like ‘inconclusive’ before hurrying away.
One shower had washed away the last remnants of his old self. Eyebrows, body hair, all of it gone, from legs, chest, and armpits, even the irritating ones on the inside of his nose, though that was poor consolation. His skin had gone too, replaced by living wood, hard and smooth.
The door opened and Roger sighed. Nobody had bothered to knock since he’d come here. A doctor entered with a trolley. ‘Hello, Mr Barnes. How are you feeling?’
She nodded and picked up a clipboard. ‘Has your appetite come back?’
‘I see. Have you experienced any light-headedness, dizziness, anything like that?’
She made a note, then looked at him. ‘I’d like to know what your health was like before your infection. We have your blood type and medical history on file, but I was wondering about exercise. Did you play any sports?’
‘Not since school.’
‘Did you cycle?’
‘Only for the bus.’ He smiled but she didn’t return it.
‘I’ll put no formal exercise.’
‘Yes, that’s probably for the best.’
She took a bar from the trolley and passed it to him. ‘I’m going to add weights to this to see what you can lift.’
Roger sighed. He hated this sort of thing. He’d never been the tallest or strongest of men, and so had been quite relieved to reach an age at which he was judged on his brain rather than his ability to cartwheel or kick a ball.
The first weights were light and he lifted them easily. The doctor added more. She hadn’t given her name, but then, none of them had. After the first two, he’d given up asking.
She added more weights. He lifted those too, straight above his head. ‘How am I doing?’
‘Very well, Mr Barnes. You’ve just lifted two hundred pounds. You’ve never trained before?’
She made another note and they went on. Every so often, she asked if he was tired. He wasn’t. There was no sweat, no breathlessness. Did he even do those things now?
They had just reached five hundred pounds when the door opened to reveal the Lion.
‘Is there a problem?’ asked the doctor.
‘No problem. Mr Barnes will be coming with me now.’
‘What’s going on?’ asked Roger.
‘You’ll see, Mr Barnes.’
‘Where am I going?’
‘No time for questions. It doesn’t do to keep him waiting.’
An hour later, Roger found himself being shown into a small but well-furnished study that smelled of books and cigars. Two padded leather chairs faced each other, inviting. One seemed to be for him but he didn’t immediately go to it as he was too busy staring at the occupant of the one opposite.
If anything, Sir Winston Churchill was more impressive up close than he was on the television. The man was big in every sense of the word. He filled the chair, he filled the room, he filled Roger’s vision.
‘Thank you,’ Churchill rumbled, and the Lion slipped out, closing the door with a soft click.
To Roger’s amazement, Churchill stood and offered his hand. ‘Barnes, isn’t it?’
‘Yes, sir,’ replied Roger, surprised at the firmness of the other man’s grip. ‘It’s an honour, sir.’
‘If things go well, Barnes, the honour will be mine. Now sit down, and try not to gape, man, you’re not here to catch flies.’
Roger closed his mouth and sank into the chair.
‘No, thank you, Sir Winston.’
Churchill made a huffing noise and poured one for himself before sitting down opposite Roger. ‘I know you’ve gone through a bit of an ordeal recently but I have a favour to ask of you, Barnes, a big one. There’s no dressing it up, so I’m going to come straight out and ask if you’ll do it.’
Ever since he was a boy, Roger had worshipped Churchill. As a man, he still admired him. Preparing a speech for the former PM was every writer’s dream, and so it was with great restraint that he answered: ‘I’ll certainly listen to what you have to say, sir.’
‘Good. That’s all one can ask. Do you know what it takes to win a war?’
‘I’d imagine it would involve a number of factors. Superior tactics and intelligence, better numbers and more advanced equipment. I doubt any single element is essential but the right combination …’ He noticed the other man’s scowl and trailed off, realizing too late that the question had been rhetorical.
‘Wrong,’ Churchill boomed. ‘It all comes down to sacrifice. Men and women willing to risk their lives in order for our cherished society, our freedom, and our liberty to endure. The question is, are you one of those men?’
Roger rather suspected that he was not. ‘Excuse me, sir, but I wasn’t aware we were at war any more.’
‘There are many types of war. The one I refer to is a war of ideology, of the rule of law versus fear. The enemy I speak of is the Twisted Fists.’
Roger had of course heard of the Twisted Fists, a terrorist organization that killed people in retaliation for attacks on those unfortunates mutated by the wild card virus. His eyes widened as he began to realize what Churchill was asking him.
‘You see our problem, don’t you? To bring down these murderers we need to get someone on the inside. The trouble is that their leader, Black Dog, doesn’t recruit from the uninfected. Only survivors that have been changed, as you have been changed, are of interest to him. To use the language of the man on the street, we need a joker. Barnes, I am asking you to be that joker, to be our undercover eyes and bring down the Twisted Fists.’
He shook his head. ‘I can’t become a terrorist, sir. I have a family that depends on me, and besides, I don’t know the first thing about … well, I wouldn’t even know where to start.’
‘If you did this for your country, I would see to it that your family were provided for. Can you say the same?’
‘I’m not sure I follow, sir.’
‘Do you think you will keep your position in light of your transformation?’ He took a sip of brandy as Roger’s face fell. ‘My own encounter with Xenovirus Takis-A has given me a more enlightened view of your predicament. However, I am no longer the Prime Minister, nor am I your immediate employer.’
They were going to fire him. Of course they were. Jokers were less than popular in the press, seen at best as a problem and at worst a plague. He tried to imagine getting another job that wasn’t menial and buried his face in his hands. ‘Oh God.’
‘I would have your answer.’
‘But if I did this, I’d become a criminal.’
‘Yes. As far as the public were concerned, you would be a Twisted Fist. A terrorist. A murderer.’
‘Can I at least tell Wendy?’
‘Certainly not. To ensure this remains secret, only you and I will know the truth.’
‘She’ll despise me. My children will think I’m a monster!’
‘Yes, they will. But we have no one else. You are a right-thinking man, one of us. You are also a joker. Do you know how rare that makes you?’
‘I’m sorry, sir. I can’t do it.’
Churchill leaned forward in his chair, making it creak ominously. ‘You would prefer to stand by and do nothing? The Fists kill five innocents for each joker that has suffered. When the next strike happens, how will you sleep knowing all of that blood is on your hands? That you could have been the shield that stood between them and death?’
He wanted to say that it was the killers that would be responsible, not him, but somehow, a few feet from Churchill’s quivering jowls, it se
Had anyone else asked he would probably have refused but Churchill was more than just a man: he was a living piece of history and a national treasure.
He gave a long sigh. ‘If I do this, you’ll protect my family?’
‘You have my word.’
‘And if anything happens to me, you’ll tell them the truth about what I’ve done?’
Churchill nodded. ‘When this is over, and the Twisted Fists have been brought to justice, I will tell the world,’ he smiled, ‘and your wife, that you are a hero.’
‘All right,’ said Roger. ‘I’ll do it.’
‘Are you sure? When you leave this room, there will be no turning back. This is a long and dark path I am setting you upon, with only my thanks, and the knowledge that you are serving your country, to warm you in the nights ahead.’
‘Then let me offer you my hand once more, in friendship.’
Roger took it, clinging to Churchill the way a drowning man grasps at a lifeline. All too soon, he was dismissed. As he stepped from the room, the door closed behind him with a click, final.
Only one of the lights still worked in the back of the van and it was struggling, cutting out for a second every time they hit a bump in the road. In some ways nothing had changed since the virus had taken his life from him. He’d gone from being a test subject in Churchill’s secret facility to part of a UK cell of the Twisted Fists. Both seemed to involve a lot of time in poorly lit places, and doing what you were told.
‘Any questions?’ asked Blister. Even muffled by bandages, his accent was strange. Part American, part something else Roger couldn’t place. The man had clearly travelled a lot, though Roger doubted it was by choice.
Bird picked her nose with the fused remains of her right hand. ‘What are we having for dinner after?’
Nobody laughed. A lot of the Fists thought Bird was funny but Blister didn’t. It was one of the reasons Roger liked him. He ignored her and turned to Roger. ‘What about you, Green Man?’
Green Man. That was who he was to the Fists. They all took on other names, rejecting their pasts and the society that no longer served them. He had no idea who Bird or Blister used to be, and probing anyone on their personal history was discouraged. Perhaps that was why it was so difficult to make any inroads into the group.
Time had passed. Two years since he’d seen Wendy or his children and it felt more like ten. He was finding it harder and harder to remember who Roger Barnes was. Roger didn’t condone violence. Roger wasn’t a killer. Roger paid his taxes and obeyed the law. Green Man was a different case altogether.
There was always a justification for the things he had done. The first time he’d killed had been to prove his loyalty – nobody was truly considered a member of the Twisted Fists until they had participated in a successful strike. And after that? Roger found it didn’t much matter after the first. He looked down at his hands, remembering how hard it had been to scrub the stains from the grain in his fingers. This time he was going to sully them for promotion. The Fists were looking to elevate some of their best, and he and Bird were two of the most promising candidates.
Of all of them, only Blister had actually met the Black Dog, and there was no way to take down the Fists without getting close to their elusive leader. So, to save lives in the future, Roger was going to take some tonight. The irony was not lost on him.
‘You with us, Green?’
‘Sorry?’ Roger glanced up to find Bird grinning at him.
‘Blis asked if you had anything to say. What’s up? You’re usually well chatty.’
‘I’m just getting my thoughts together, that’s all.’
It wasn’t that he didn’t have questions, just that they were the wrong sort. “Is there not a better way?” and “How is this going to help our cause in the long term?” was not what the Fists wanted to hear.
‘We’re ten minutes out,’ said Blister. ‘Prepare yourselves.’
Bird unzipped a long bag to reveal a chainsaw mounted on a bespoke harness. Roger’s eyes widened as she began buckling it to her arm. He’d heard rumours that Bird was bloodthirsty but he’d always thought they’d been exaggerated. Apparently not.
‘What you looking at, Green?’
‘You’re … you’re not actually going to use that on people, are you?’
‘Yep. It’s quick and painful and messy. Pretty much the opposite of how you want your sex to be.’ She laughed at his disapproving face. ‘No good just killing a few nats, is it? We’ve gotta send a message, really put the shits up them, you know?’
He was appalled at how casual she was about the whole thing. But he was British and well brought up, so he nodded and said nothing.
Soon after, the van came to a stop, and Blister took up position by the side door, his silhouette lumpy, asymmetrical, more like a toddler’s scribbled impression than an actual man. ‘They took one of ours. See that you take five of theirs. We’ll keep the engine running.’
The door slid open with a squeak, and Roger followed Bird outside. Run-down houses could be seen lining car-packed streets, all tinted an apathetic streetlight yellow. Many of the doors lacked numbers, but Roger was able to count across from one of the few that did, identifying the target’s house. He opened the front gate a few seconds after Bird had vaulted it.
Watching her run, it struck him as strange that the virus that had changed him so fundamentally had done so little to her. Only one of her arms had been affected, the forearm stretched and the fingers crushed together into a sharp cone, so that it resembled a huge bird’s wing, stripped of feathers. Admittedly, the resemblance was harder to spot now that a chainsaw had been attached to the end.
Where Roger tried to hide his altered appearance out of shame, Bird wore hers proudly, having stripped the sleeve from her leather jacket to better display her mutation. Just looking at her made him want to pull his hood further forward.
Bird hit the door at full tilt, smashing the cheap lock and tumbling into the hallway with a cackle.
‘There goes the element of surprise,’ muttered Roger.
‘Don’t worry, Green,’ she replied, ‘our element of “what the fuck” is well strong.’
Before he could ask what that was even supposed to mean she pulled the ripcord and the chainsaw roared into life. With a wink and a shout he could barely hear, but was sure contained the word ‘bastards’, Bird charged up the stairs.
Roger reminded himself that the people they were about to kill were extremist thugs, and that in addition to the joker they’d beaten to death last month, they’d hospitalized half a dozen others over the years. But watching Bird, and contemplating what he was about to do, the moral high ground seemed to slip through his fingers.
A quick sweep of the downstairs area confirmed that all of the targets had gone upstairs to bed, though by the sound of things, none of them were sleeping any more. Thumps and bangs could be heard through the ceiling above his head, like a drunken drummer unable to keep the beat.
With a sigh he returned to the hall to go and see how Bird was doing.
A man in his underwear crashed into the wall at the top of the stairs. Blood, someone else’s, was splashed across the side of his face. He barely noticed the collision, or Roger, his attention on something behind him.
‘Oh shit oh fuck oh God,’ he said, nearly falling in his haste to escape the nearby massacre.
The hallway light had been disturbed at some point and swung wildly back and forth, alternately casting each side of the man’s face in shadow. Nevertheless, Roger was able to identify him by his prematurely white hair and lazy eye. His name was Jason Abbott, and he was on their list.
Abbott didn’t waste any
Before the virus, Roger wouldn’t have dreamed of crossing such a man, the only choice being whether to run or offer up his wallet. However, mutation and time with the Fists had changed him. He took a firm grip on the banister and braced himself.
Abbott smashed into Roger the same way an egg smashes into a wall. There were several cracks, one of which was the man’s nose breaking, another probably a rib, and then he fell onto his backside with a moan.
‘Sorry,’ said Roger. ‘It’s nothing personal but you picked on the wrong people.’
Abbott started scrabbling backwards. ‘I’m not being taken down by a freak!’
Roger grabbed Abbott by the throat, barely feeling the other man’s punches to his stomach, and squeezed. ‘I really am sorry about this,’ he whispered.
Abbott gurgled, then died, and Roger stepped over him.
Upstairs looked like the set of a cheap horror movie. A jagged line ran across one side of the landing wall, and blood spatters arced on several surfaces. A body lay on its back, the hips several feet too far away from the torso. If he’d still had the capacity, Roger would have thrown up at the sight of it.
In the background, the chainsaw’s buzz fluctuated as it chewed into something new, accompanied by a juddering scream.
One on the stairs, thought Roger. One on the landing and one with Bird at the moment makes three. He looked into the bedrooms, counted two more bodies and breathed a sigh of relief. Five. It’s done. Thank God.
He closed his eyes for a moment and took a deep breath. A churn of emotions was starting up inside, but he would face them later. Right now he just had to get back to the van.
A muffled sob caught him as he was mid turn. It was coming from under the bed. Roger crouched down, putting one side of his head flat on the floor. A watery pair of eyes met his.
They’d been told to expect five, not six. This man was younger, probably still in his teens. Roger took in the details in an instant: shaved head, a half-finished tattoo on one forearm, and the strong smell of cheap aftershave.
Knaves Over Queens by George R. R. Martin / Fantasy / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes