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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

High Stakes

A Wild Cards Novel

Wild Cards (Volume 18)

George R. R. Martin & Melinda M. Snodgrass, eds.

Tor Books




BARBARA BADEN—THE ACE Babel—stared through the open window. Overhead, the Milky Way arched in a glorious, multicolored stream through the night sky—dusted with more stars than Barbara had seen in ages. In New York City, they were lucky to spot even such luminous constellations as Orion in a sky fouled by city lights and haze. Here in Peru, at Machu Picchu in the mountains far from any city lights with the air thin around them, the stars cavorted in all their glory. Below Barbara, on the steep slopes, a new city of tents was spread, many of them alight from the inside, all of them bright in the silver light spilling from the half-moon crawling up the slope of the mountain Huayna Picchu, the peak looming over the Incan ruins.

Down in those tents were several of the Committee aces: Earth Witch, Bugsy, Tinker, the Llama, Brave Hawk, and Toad Man, as well as UN troops. But Klaus and Barbara, being who they were within the Committee, had—like Secretary-General Jayewardene of the UN—managed to commandeer actual rooms in one of the reconstructed buildings high up the slopes. It was one of the perks of being in charge.

“It’s lovely here, isn’t it?” she heard Klaus—Lohengrin to nearly everyone else here—say behind her, and his arms went around her as she leaned back into his embrace. She could feel the scratch of his eye patch against her scalp as he bent his head down, and see his arms. His skin was dry, and there were already faint wrinkles netting the back of his hands. They were both now well in their mid-thirties, and the dreaded “forty” could be glimpsed in the distance, a thought that had seemed impossible when Barbara had first met Klaus, some eight years ago. Her own hands, on top of Klaus’s, no longer looked as young as they once had, and she was fighting both weight gain and the occasional grey hair in her short, dark brown hair. She’d already given up on holding back the lines around her eyes. “You can see why the Inca wanted this place to be their capital. And haven’t I done a lovely job to bring this together?”

“You mean ‘we,’ don’t you?” Barbara told him, and she felt more than heard his laughter.

“Of course. We.”

The Committee had become involved in Peru as it became apparent that an internal squabble was about to boil over into loss of life. On one side were the New Shining Path rebels, advocates who wished a return to the structure of the Incan empire and an overthrow of the official Peruvian government and the military cabal that propped it up. The rebels were led by their own aces: Lorra (or as she was more popularly known, Cocomama) and Curare, a frog-like ace-joker who exuded poison from his skin and tongue.

The official Peruvian government was headed by President Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of former president Alberto Fujimori, who was supported by the leaders of other South American countries as democratically elected, especially those presidents who worried about coups and uprisings themselves. The Peruvian government, of course, had the military complex behind them, a well-equipped force with weapons that, if not entirely modern, were more than capable of creating mass numbers of casualties, and President Fujimori’s recent speeches had made it clear that she intended to use that capability if she must.

The UN forces, with Jayewardene in command of the team, had landed two weeks ago, just as the first major battle erupted between the two forces, near this very place. The rotors of the UN helicopters had thrashed the foliage around the clearing, whipping greenery into a frenzied dance. Below, they could all see the narrowing no-man’s-land between a Peruvian army company and the rebel forces. Tinker’s armed drones were already hovering above the opposing lines, whining and threatening and drawing fire.

Babel was wielding her wild card before the first helicopter touched ground. Her ability to render speech incomprehensible had quickly sown confusion and fear into the ranks of both sides, visible in the uncoordinated reaction to the UN troops’ arrival. It was impossible for armies to fight when their commanders couldn’t make their orders understood, when officers couldn’t pass the orders down the line and sergeants couldn’t communicate to their squads, when no one knew what they were supposed to do or where they were supposed to go. Even radio communications seemed to have been spoken in some incomprehensible nonsense language. Compounding the confusion on both sides was the fact that the UN troops and the Committee aces with them didn’t have that problem and could still coordinate their actions quite effectively. The line of eight copters—two UH-1Y Venom choppers with the Committee aces inside, and six huge, double-motored MH-47G Chinook troop carriers—banked in like roaring, menacing raptors, the Venom “Super Hueys” spraying a line of warning machine-gun fire to chew up the ground between the two forces as they approached. Through the glass cockpit, Babel saw one of Tinker’s drones explode into a shower of plastic shards and baling wire from the “friendly fire” as Tinker cursed loudly behind her and the chopper performed a stomach-dropping turn and landed.

Lohengrin’s ghost armor appeared as he leapt out of the Committee copter, his sword waving threateningly as both Peruvian soldiers and rebels retreated from the wind of the rotor blades and the blue-helmeted UN soldiers who poured from the other copters. The Committee aces with Lohengrin and Barbara followed him. Tinker’s remaining drones swooped down, racing along the lines. The earth shuddered under the opposing sides as Earth Witch quickly dug out a wide ditch between the two forces, which Ana banked high with rich, dark soil. The Llama, a well-known and popular South American ace, stepped to Lohengrin’s right; he spat once, warningly, the slimy mess traveling a good ten yards to land near the end of the Peruvian company’s line. Buford Calhoun stepped down after the Llama, transforming as he did into Toad Man, his tongue flicking out like a grotesque whip—those nearest the copters on the rebel side quickly retreated at the sight, too frighteningly similar, perhaps, to their own Curare. Tom Diedrich—Brave Hawk—hovered menacingly above the other aces, his black wings flexing. Glassteel stood at the rear of the aces, a crystalline, glittering presence.

And behind the aces, two companies of UN troops arrayed themselves in blue-helmeted lines, their own weapons at the ready.

There’d been some initial automatic weapons fire between the two sides as the copters first approached, but now it had just … stopped. Babel stepped out last from the copter as the rotors slowed. She took the microphone offered to her by one of the UN soldiers and spoke, her voice booming over loudspeakers mounted on the copter, her words now comprehensible to everyone who heard her, regardless of the language they spoke.

“This is over now,” she said. “You will all put your weapons down. You don’t want to face the consequences of continuing this fight.”

The physical battle ended with minimal casualties on both sides, and with the power that the aces and the UN troops represented, Jayewardene quickly brought both sides to the negotiations table, though there were a few sporadic incidents with recalcitrant rebels or army squads, all quickly settled by ace intervention. Jayewardene led the talks, though it was Babel and Lohengrin who, each night before, consulted with Jayewardene as to what he needed to say, what concessions to ask for, and where there could be compromise and where there could not. They slowly, over the next week, brought the Fujimori delegation and the New Shining Path advocates together.

The movement of a moth’s fluttering wings brought Babel back to the present. The creature that came to rest on the curtains of the open window was beautiful: a dark-winged apparition easily the size of one of Lohengrin’s hands, its wings swirling with multicolored whorls that looked like huge staring eyes. She knew what the moth was and what it represented, of course: their briefings had told them about the mysterious Messenger in Black, whose body could only appear in a whirling cloud of these moths, how he could hear and see what those individual insects observed, and how his prescient mind informed the rebel forces even if he himself never called himself the New Shining Path’s leader or took part in the fighting.

Babel gave the moth a quick, wry smile. She shook the curtain and it rose and banked away as Babel closed and locked the window. She leaned back against Lohengrin once more. When his hands went to cup her breasts, she didn’t stop him, just turned so they were facing each other. She stared up into his face.

“Not here,” she said. “Too many eyes—of all kinds—and cameras with long lenses.”

Klaus grinned at her and touched his eye patch with a finger. “I only have one eye, and it’s looking at you.”

She gave him a halfhearted, sad smile at that. “We have an early morning tomorrow, you know. It’s already late.”

“Does that mean we can’t have an even later night, meine Liebe? After all, tomorrow’s just for show. As for our infestation of voyeur moths, we’ll just close all the curtains.”

“You’re impossible.”

“Nothing’s impossible. Not as far as I’m concerned.”

“As long as we work together, you mean?” she asked him, and he gave a sniff of amusement.

“As long as we’re working together, then,” he growled. “Yah.”

She took his hand, smiling back to him, and led him to their bed.

The moon had climbed well above Huayna Picchu before they went to sleep.


Copyright © 2016 by George R. R. Martin and the Wild Cards Trust