Low chicago, p.43
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       Low Chicago, p.43
 

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

  “The Screamers did this,” Red Herb Woman said. Ali had heard the People speak in fearful tones of this other tribe before—their brutality, their skill in battle, the war cry that gave them their name. Red Herb Woman picked something out of her teeth and spat. “This is a message. If we don’t leave these lands they will kill us all.”

  “Fuck that,” Ali said in English. Basket Weaver had been so kind to him from the beginning. “Let them come and fucking try it.”

  Red Herb Woman looked at him as if she got the gist. “You could kill them all. But if they come in numbers to the camp they will kill many of the People first.” She puffed and shrugged and exhaled a huge cloud of sour-smelling smoke. “You can still catch their killing-party. The ones who were sent to do this. They came to send a message. Send them back to the Screamers’ camp with a message.”

  Ali found them hours later, a dozen men with painted faces and severed hands on leather cords around their necks. They were making camp beside the river.

  It was a slaughter.

  He announced his presence by screaming and throwing a boulder into the camp. Then he burst into full view of the warriors, forcing the meat-and-metal to pop out all over his body. A few of them fled right away, shouting, “Spirit! Spirit!” To their credit, the rest of them stood firm. The Screamers were a bold people. Most of these men, Ali thought sadly, would die for it.

  He seized one man by the face and hurled him fifty yards away, where he hit the ground with a crunch. He hoisted two others, smashing them together like cymbals until they were pulp. He ripped up a tree and beat another man to jelly.

  These were things Ali had done before. Things he never thought he would have to do again. Bile burned in his throat but he kept himself from vomiting.

  He left two living men standing there among the bloody wreckage of human bodies. “Tell the Screamers!” Ali shouted, pointing at the dead and dying around him. “Tell them their spears and knives can’t cut me. Tell them I protect the People. Tell them to stay away from the People’s Camp!”

  The two men fled. One of them was crying.

  Ali wiped the blood and brains from his hands, turned his back on the dead, and went home to hold his daughter.

  They’d ridden in a limo to the card game. Mr. Flowers, Ali, and Mr. Flowers’s weirdo kid nephew Timmy, a junior high geek who had what Ali suspected was birdshit on his shoulders. Part of the freaks and losers crowd as usual, Ali remembered thinking.

  When they arrived at the card game, it was hard for Ali not to stand there staring like an asshole. He’d been around huge piles of street money before, but the Palmer House was on a whole other level. The wood. The marble. The silverware. This was real money. Rich-people money. Even the air smelled different. And while he’d been hyped at the thought of working for B-list disgraced celeb Charlie Flowers, the room at that poker game was filled with real names.

  Golden Boy! Motherfucking Golden Boy was there. Ali had stared like an asshole at that, until Mr. Flowers nudged him to keep moving.

  Giovanni Galante, whose family name still rang out loud on the streets of Chicago and beyond, was there, flanked by ace muscle. There was an Arab guy there, too, some Prince Bigshit Something or Other from the Gulf who spoke a form of Arabic Ali barely understood. He had nodded at Ali and smiled, then proceeded to ignore him.

  After a few hours, at Mr. Flowers’s insistence, Ali allowed himself to sit. Then everything went to shit.

  “Fucking ants. They’re going to get into the food.” Ali smashed another, then another, then another. It was no use.

  “I know you’re mad, Poppa, because you’re talking your Other Land talk.” Ali looked up from his fruitless task to see his daughter approaching.

  My daughter. How many years had it been now? Yet sometimes it still stunned him to say it to himself.

  Second came up and took his wrist, pulling him out of the shelter. “Poppa, look! Look, I said! I’ve been working on something.”

  Several little six-inch-deep pits the size of saucers formed a sort of semicircle perimeter around the entrance to the cave. Each was writhing with ants.

  “See, I put a bit of fruit in each pit and the ants swarm to it. Instead of coming and taking our food, they stay out here and fight over this. It only takes a few pieces.”

  Ali looked down at the child, and he felt something inside. Pride, he supposed. I guess this is what it feels like to be proud of the life you’ve made.

  Biggest Woman approached, peered into the ant-pits, and nodded. “This is a good thing you’ve made, Second,” she said. “Good enough, I think, to earn your name.”

  Second let out a happy yelp. Biggest Woman came to stand beside Ali. She kissed his shoulder, then put her arms around him.

  Ali thought that this might be what it felt like to be happy.

  The game at the Palmer had been going for hours when all hell broke loose.

  Giovanni Galante had proven himself to be a miserable little shit unworthy of his family’s name. He reminded Ali of Jason, the dipshit gangster’s grandson who’d murdered a kid and got Ali sent to prison for it. Even his facial expressions were the same. The resemblance was so strong that Ali had to restrain himself from throttling the fool. The tiger-faced motherfucker flanking Galante had seemed to sense this, and tensed.

  But the real trouble had come when Giovanni slapped the teen girl working the bar. All of a sudden the bellhop had leapt at Galante. The girl next to Galante started shooting out flames. Ali had shoved Timmy and Mr. Flowers behind him, throwing up his fists as a shield.

  Then there was a burst of rainbow light. And Ali had ended up here. And once he had thought it important to get back. But who the fuck wants to go back? I’m home now.

  Ali was sitting scraping hides with Biggest Woman when Ratcatcher, the People’s most keen-eyed scout, hurried over to them. He looked worried. Ratcatcher nodded a greeting to Ali, then turned to report to Biggest Woman. “You need to see this,” he said. “Meat-Man should come, too. Right now, Chieftain of the People.”

  Minutes later they were halfway up the glacier that loomed over the Bowl, the People’s springtime camp. Ratcatcher pointed at a huge shelf of ice, fifty yards long, full of cracks and fissures.

  Biggest Woman grunted. “The ice is melting. Falling. There’s going to be a landslide. We’ve got to leave the Bowl.” She turned to Ratcatcher. “Tell the People to prepare. Step carefully.” She didn’t look worried. She never looked worried. Always their Chieftain.

  Ratcatcher picked his way carefully back down the slope, and Ali was alone with his wife. “Should we—” he started to say, and then the ground below them rumbled.

  There was a noise like thundercrack and a bomb smashed together, and Ali jumped in spite of himself. Biggest Woman didn’t. She grabbed his arm and gestured for him to be still. As one, they turned their heads and looked farther up the hill. The massive shelf of ice, crusted with rock and dirt and branches, had broken loose from the glacier. It was half a football field long and it was sliding, an inch at a time, toward them.

  Toward the camp.

  The Bowl—fertile, hidden from view, cave-riddled—had been a good choice for the camp this season. The ice hadn’t looked threatening. Ali had seen a dozen melting seasons with the People, but ice was melting now faster than it had before. Something was changing.

  No time to think about that now. If the ice-shelf kept moving like this it would crush the camp and all within it like a mortar smashing herbs in a pestle. Even if all of the People got out, they’d starve without the tools and food.

  “Warn the People!” Ali said. “Get everyone out of here!”

  Biggest Woman didn’t object that she was Chieftain, and somehow that frightened Ali. She brought her hard mouth to Ali’s and kissed him. She stared at him for a moment and then scrambled swiftly but carefully down into the Bowl.

  There was another deafening crack, and the ice-shelf began to slide faster.

  “Run!” Ali shouted, and he turned
to stop an avalanche.

  He trotted up to the ice-shelf, braced himself, and shoved. It pushed him hard, and he began to slide backwards, but he kept from being bowled over.

  No. No no no no no. Fuck this. You don’t get to do this to me, God. You don’t get to take this from me. Not this time. Ali risked a glance behind and below him and saw Biggest Woman and Second and the rest of the People scurrying for safety. The shelf of ice shoved him back and he turned back to it. He slid backwards, a foot every second.

  Ali got mad. Madder than he’d ever been. Mad at God. The hook burst out, the meat covered him thicker than it ever had before. He felt new strength fill him. He heaved and shoved and scrabbled his feet forward and the ice-shelf almost stopped shifting. But it wasn’t enough.

  The sheet of ice groaned and shifted again. Stinging bits of snow and dirt flew loose and got into Ali’s eyes. Ali screamed and raged and the meat covered his eyes and he was nothing but meat-and-metal and fury.

  He heaved, putting the last of his life into it. “MOTHERFUCKERRRRR!” he screamed. Then the snow covered him.

  When Ali woke, the first thing he saw as he blinked his eyes open was Second’s small round face hovering over his. “S-Second.” He coughed, his lungs burning with cold.

  She threw her arms around his neck and hugged him before correcting him. “Ant Trapper, Poppa!”

  “Yes, Ant T—” He coughed again, loudly enough to frighten Second.

  And then, suddenly, Biggest Woman was there. Tears shone in her eyes. “You’re alive,” she said. Second—Ant Trapper—ran to her mother.

  “What happened?”

  Biggest Woman took his big meaty hand in hers. “You saved the People, that’s what happened. You held it long enough. We dug you out. I … I thought you were dead.”

  A few hours later, after some broth and a nap, Ali felt strong enough to stagger out and greet the People.

  All of the People—all ten-tens-and-twenty of them—stopped what they were doing. As one, they rushed over and began chanting. It took Ali a moment to realize what they were chanting.

  “MOTHERFUCKER!” they shouted, hoisting spears and tools and firebrands. “MOTHERFUCKER! MOTHERFUCKER! MOTHERFUCKER! MOTHERFUCKER!”

  Ali laughed and laughed and knew he was home.

  The next night, Ali sat at the High Place with Biggest Woman and Ant Trapper. They chewed sweetroot and stared out over the land at the sinking sun. Ali thought that he could die in this place and time and be happy.

  Then far away, across the forest, he saw a bright shimmer of rainbow light.

  A Long Night at the Palmer House

  Part 9

  NIGHTHAWK TOOK A DEEP breath and looked around. They were in a small clearing in a forest that consisted almost entirely of pine trees set on a sloping mountainside. The sun was a big red ball, clear and sharp-edged, sitting on the lip of the horizon. The air was cool on their naked skin, but pleasantly so.

  “I grew up in the country,” he told Croyd. “It never smelled like this.”

  Croyd nodded. “I know what you mean. It’s so … fresh. The air’s so crisp that everything has an edge to it. Even the sunset seems cleaner. I mean, back when we were with the dinosaurs it was so muggy that I could barely breathe. But now I feel like we’re in an air-freshener commercial. It’s like we’re the only people in the world.”

  “That’s not quite correct,” Nighthawk said, gesturing downslope to the rolling flatland. It was more open than the forest that surrounded them, though there were scattered copses of trees as well as a meandering line of them following a stream or small river.

  Croyd looked to where Nighthawk was pointing. Near a bend in the stream a plume of smoke was slowly ascending into the darkening sky.

  “Fire,” Croyd said.

  “And where there’s fire…”

  Croyd sighed. “You know what I miss the most when we time jump?”

  “What?”

  “Shoes.”

  “You got that right,” Nighthawk said, and they began slowly picking their way downhill.

  Things went a little easier on their feet once they reached the floodplain, but both were limping on bruised soles by then. Croyd was muttering a stream of steady curses and Nighthawk’s mood wasn’t much better.

  “At least,” Nighthawk said at one point when they were resting on a grassy bank as dawn was breaking over the fresh and unspoiled land, “our list is getting short.”

  Croyd grunted. “Cynder, Galante, and that Meathooks guy,” he said. “None of them exactly softies.”

  Nighthawk looked around. “Beautiful scenery, but not much else.” He stood up. “Though we should be prepared for the possibility that they might not be alone.”

  “I’m more worried about hypothermia than cavemen,” said Croyd. “If we find Alley Oop, I want that fur dress of his.”

  “I don’t think you’ll need it.” Nighthawk sat down again on the grassy bank. “Looks like the locals are coming to meet us.”

  Croyd shaded his eyes, looking across the plain where Nighthawk had noticed distant figures approaching, rippling the waist-high grass through which they walked. There were maybe a dozen altogether. As they approached, Nighthawk and Croyd could see that they were a small, brown-skinned people. They carried long sticks. Probably spears. Except for the two walking side by side in the lead. One, they gradually realized, was a tall woman. The other figure, even bigger, was Meathooks himself, Charlie Flowers’s bodyguard.

  Once they got close enough Nighthawk could see that the woman had an expression that seemed mainly curious on her scarred face, while Ali’s showed something between wariness and concern. The men accompanying them fanned out on either side, content to let those two take the lead. Croyd leaped to his feet, smiling. “Hello, Meathooks,” he said. “Remember us?”

  The pair approached to within half a dozen feet. The woman carried a spear, holding it casually at ease. Meathooks was empty-handed, but Nighthawk knew he had no need of a weapon. His body grew them at will. The two seemed comfortable with each other. Nighthawk wondered if they were a couple.

  For a moment the bodyguard was silent, then he shook his head. “It’s been years since I’ve heard English,” he said. His tongue almost seemed to stumble over some of the words, hesitant of their pronunciation.

  “Sorry about that,” Croyd said. “We got to you as soon as possible. The fact that you ended up so far back in time made our jump a little less precise than I’d like.”

  That, Nighthawk thought, and the whole speeding thing. Though that, he allowed, was better than the alternative. If Croyd ever fell asleep, they’d be totally screwed. The odds of him having time-travel powers when he awoke months later were slim indeed. Croyd was perhaps an imperfect tool, but he was the only one Nighthawk had to work with.

  “What do you want?” Meathooks asked.

  Nighthawk had a sudden sinking feeling at the bodyguard’s words. “Why, we’re your ticket home,” Croyd said.

  There was a sudden, awkward silence. The woman spoke a few words in a surprisingly mellifluous language.

  Meathooks listened, his face unchanging. “This is Biggest Woman,” he said when she was done. “She’s…” He paused a moment, as if uncertain how to go on. “My wife. She wants to know if all the other men from my land are as small and skinny as you two.”

  “Hey, man,” Croyd said, “those specimens who came along with you aren’t all exactly Golden Boy either.”

  Meathooks held up his strange-looking hands almost placatingly. “I know. She just expected that the men from my land would be like me.”

  Croyd’s eyes crinkled as he frowned. Nighthawk could see the danger in them. “We’re all aces here,” the Sleeper said softly.

  Of course Biggest Woman couldn’t understand his words, but she could hear their intent. She shifted her stance and held her spear in a ready manner.

  Nighthawk said, “Easy,” in as soothing a tone as he could manage. “We came a long way to find you. To help you
and take you home.”

  Ali’s eyes shifted to him. “This is my home. I—we have a child. These people need me. I’ve found”—he paused a moment, thinking—“my purpose here. My peace.”

  Croyd sighed. “Well, damn, John.”

  “It’s not that simple,” Nighthawk said tightly. “We have the time line to consider—”

  “We’re thousands of years in the past,” Croyd said. He gestured at Meathooks. “This guy is like a pebble tossed into the ocean.” He looked at the bodyguard. “No offense.”

  Meathooks grunted.

  “He’s introducing the wild card into the human gene pool thousands of years before the Takisians unleashed it on earth,” Nighthawk said.

  Croyd was unmoved. “Maybe so. Big deal. There have always been stories. You know, myths and legends of shit that happened in the past. Heroes and monsters. Maybe a couple of times his genes met and crossed and produced, I don’t know, Hercules, or Leonardo da Vinci, or something. What if that’s what happened?”

  Nighthawk shut his mouth. Croyd had a point, he thought, but the Sleeper was getting sloppy and impatient to be done. Maybe he just didn’t give a damn anymore. He eyed Meathooks dubiously. If the bodyguard didn’t want to come along, was he going to force him?

  Nighthawk wasn’t a praying man, but it almost seemed that that was what the situation called for. Please, God, he thought to himself. Help us get this right.

  “Christ, John, the man’s found something here. We already fucked up Julie Cotton’s life. You made Khan shoot all those mob motherfuckers. What’s the big deal if we leave him? Are we going to return and find mammoths on Michigan Avenue?”

  “The butterfly effect—”

  “Yeah, yeah, I know. Asimov, Heinlein, who gives a damn? I read the story. Guy steps on a butterfly and when he returns to the present there’s a new president. A terrible president. Well, we’ve already got a terrible president.”

 
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