Skip to main content
Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Wild Cards IX: Jokertown Shuffle

(Book Two of the Rox Triad)

Wild Cards (Volume 9)

Edited by George R. R. Martin

Tor Books

MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK

The Temptation of Hieronymus Bloat

by Stephen Leigh


I

I DON’T KNOW WHY I’m starting this or what I’m going to do with it or just who it is I’m talking to. I guess … I guess the reason is that I want someone to remember what happened here when it’s over. Lately I’ve been thinking that the Rox won’t last long.

It can’t; THEY won’t let it.

Do I need to explain who “THEY” is? I didn’t think so. I can tell you this, man—whoever you are—if you need to ask, then you ain’t a joker, are you?

There’s one question to answer, I suppose. No one ever really asks me directly, but I always hear it, like a little tinkling chime in the clamor of thoughts. I hear it whenever someone looks at me or even thinks about me: What’s it like to be so fucking gross? What’s it like to be a head and shoulders sitting like a wart on a body that takes up an acre of ground and feeds on sewage?

What’s it like? God …

Okay. Let me try.

Find a room. A huge, empty space. Don’t make it too goddamn comfortable—be certain that the floor’s cracked and damp, the air’s too cold or too hot, the overall atmosphere’s tottering on the edge of gloom.

Then find a chair. A hard and unyielding and splintery one that makes you want to get up and walk around after sitting in it for even a few minutes. Bolt it to the floor in the middle of your room.

Get five hundred television sets. Bank them all around the chair, a Great Wall of blank screens. Now wire each of the sets to a different channel, turn up the sound, and switch on every one of the mothers.

Sit buck naked in your splintery chair in the middle of that ugly room before all the televisions. Have someone chain you to that nasty chair, and then stack a couple hundred lead ingots in your lap. Make sure the binding’s tight so you can’t move, can’t scratch yourself, can’t hold your hands up to your ears to blot out that terrible din, so you’re utterly dependent on others to feed you or clean you or talk to you.

Hey, now you’re beginning to feel like Bloat. Now you have some idea of what it’s like.

I hear you. (I always hear you.) C’mon, you’re saying. You have the ability to read minds. Ain’t that a gift, a little kiss from the wild card deck?

Okay, I can read your mind. I have Bloat’s Wall, which keeps the nats and aces away from the Rox unless they really want to be here. I have my own army of jokers who protect me and care for me.

I make the Rox possible. I’m the governor. I have power. There’s no Rox without me. Bliss, right?

Yeah? Well, that’s bullshit. Crap. A load of bloatblack.

You think I really rule this place? You gotta be kidding. Look, I used to play D&D. Most of the time, I ran a character who controlled a little kingdom in the scenario our Dungeon Master had dreamed up. Y’know what? That fantasy’s about as real as the “kingdom” I have here.

You can’t hear what they’re thinking when they talk to me: Prime, Blaise, Molly, K.C., the other jumpers. Even the jokers, even the ones the wild card cursed. “God, I’m glad I’m not like him” or “I don’t care how much he knows or what kind of powers he has, he’s just a fuckin’ kid.…”

I know. I know what they think of me. I know what they think of the Rox too. My Rox is a convenient refuge, but if Ellis Island sank into New York Bay tomorrow, they’d find another place. The jumpers would melt into the city’s back alleys; the jokers … the jokers would do what jokers have always done: Shrug their shoulders—if they got ’em—and head for Jokertown.

So just what am I going to do? Threaten to take my basketball and go home, huh? You think I’m likely to go anywhere at all? Man, I was lucky I managed to get here three years ago when I was only the size of a school bus. Now … hell, the blue whale’s no longer the world’s biggest mammal. I’m bigger than a whole pod of fucking whales.

What’s it like?

You can’t visualize Bloat. You can’t empathize with me. It’s not possible.

Every goddamn joker’s hell is individual and private. So just leave it that way.

I hate being judge and jury. I even know why.

My parents were weak-willed. Hey, sure … most kids blame it on their folks.

But why not? Mine were spineless, accommodating people who let the neighbors, store clerks, and anyone in a position of authority push them around. They were two nice people who would gladly change their opinions and back down at any hint of opposition. They were two charming people, really, who let the neighborhood scum intimidate and harass their son, the high school poet; their son, the “oh, what a talented artist”; their son, the-one-with-his-head-in-the-comic-books.

They kept telling me (when I came home with bloody noses and black eyes and torn clothes): “Well, if they’re bothering you, why didn’t you just walk away? Maybe it’s something you’re doing. Concentrate on your drawing or your writing or your schoolwork, Teddy. Play that strange fantasy dice game of yours or read a comic book. When you grow up a little, they’ll stop.”

They were two compassionate people who, when Ted slammed into puberty by turning into a slug the size of a subway car, didn’t just abandon me. No. First they called the Jokertown Clinic, and then they disappeared.

Gone. Vanished.

Well, Mom and Dad, Teddy sure as hell grew up, didn’t he? I wish I were less your son now, because just getting big didn’t help and I’m still carrying all your emotional baggage with me.

So how do I do what I want to do? How do you find a way to mix power with a little compassion? How do you make the other players on the stage of the Rox see that they’re too damn shortsighted and selfish? How do you stay an idealist in a world of greedy pragmatists?

They brought in a case for me to judge today. “The gov’s court,” they call it, mockingly. Still, they bring in these cases because I insist on it. Okay, let’s be honest—the usual “justice” on the Rox is violent and final. Actually, they come only when the antagonists aren’t already dead or maimed.

I knew who was guilty before they dragged either one of them in front of me. I always do.

Blaise escorted them, but Kelly was with the group—Kelly whom I find so achingly attractive, who is still so innocent in her way. I like to watch her; I like to fantasize about how it might be if I were normal or if I were one of them. I could read vague, contradictory feelings as Kelly approached. Darker, more violent thoughts eddied from Blaise and K. C. Strange, another one of the jumpers, while fright mingled with relief from Slimeball, the joker they were hauling toward the Administration Building.

I told everyone around me that company was coming, and chuckled. My joker guards came to attention around the lobby. Kafka came scuttling in from his workroom, his mind still snared in the maze of blueprints he’d been studying. Around me, jokers turned to watch: the ever-loyal Peanut, Mothmouth, Video, Shroud, Chickenhawk, Elmo, Andiron—a dozen others around the floor or looking over the lobby’s high balcony.

Eddies in the currents of thoughts. I could feel the rest of the Rox too: File, lost in rapture–ecstasy in some hovel in the north end of the island; Charon, heading out from the Rox toward the siren call of some joker in New York. My guards had tightened their grips on their weapons.

Blaise’s little group entered the lobby noisily, throwing a blast of cold air into the building. Slimeball was being dragged by main force between K.C. and Kelly. Blaise was shouting before they were even halfway to me, ranting.

Kafka cleared his throat. His carapace rattled like a pair of cheap castanets. At the same time, Shroud slammed the bolt home on his .22 Remington single-shot rifle. I caught amusement from Blaise (fucking popgun). Blaise isn’t the psi lord his grandfather is; his mindshields leak, dribbling thoughts like an incontinent child.

Kafka began scolding Blaise. “Show a little decorum, please.” Like a parent lecturing his son—it went over about that well too. “We’ve discussed this before. The governor deserves your respect. That’s as much a part of your rent as anything else.”

Blaise glared at Kafka. I caught an image of a roach being squashed beneath a huge foot. Little fucking insect. I laughed again. Then the thought drifted away as he looked up at me. He titters like a goddamn schoolgirl. So fucking gross. The smell’s worse than usual.

Almost in response, a rippling went through me, along with a sense of release and relief. I could feel the thick sludge of bloatblack rolling down my sides. There was a sound: soft, squelching, nasty, like thick mud being squashed between two hands.

“Governor,” Blaise said then, and he gave the title a big mocking lilt. I ignored him, paying more attention to Kelly than Blaise; she was trying, unsuccessfully, to ignore my continuing defecation. Kelly’s hands went to her hips—a pose of defiance and arrogance that was totally at odds with her thoughts. Poor ugly big thing …

I smiled at her, a waif in torn jeans, her tits rounding under the Free Snotman T-shirt, her eyes huge and the color of the deep sea under her soft hair. “Governor,” she said, echoing Blaise, but her voice was soft and pleasant, and she smiled back at me.

A prom princess in rags. I found her much more attractive than, say, K.C. Kelly wasn’t a jumper, not yet. Prime hadn’t initiated her—but then, Prime wasn’t into much except blond young boys in recent months, not since the Oddity killed David. Kelly was one of the hangers-on, one of the jumper wannabees, a runaway teenager from the city. There’s a lot more of them than actual jumpers. Given Prime’s obsession with David look-alikes, Kelly and most of them would stay wannabees too.

I like to watch her. I stare when she walks by my building, and I dream about Kelly, sometimes …

But Blaise glared at her now, and she went sullenly quiet. “If I may beg an audience with Your Fucking Excellence,” Blaise began.

Such defiance: a symptom of my difficulties. I had to laugh again, even though the whole problem is that none of them take anything seriously. They play at creating a new society; I can’t get them to understand how important all this is.

Kafka rattled in outrage. I felt my joker guards’ minds become suddenly more focused and intent. For a moment, I toyed with the idea of just sending Blaise, Kelly, and K.C. away. The laughter had come, but I wasn’t amused. Not really.

I could hear most of Blaise’s thoughts. I knew that—like Kelly and K.C. too—at least part of Blaise’s insolence was show, put on from simple peer pressure. He didn’t want to be weak in front of the others. No, not Blaise. In fact, he didn’t want to be here at all.

“I’m listening, Blaise. I always listen when a joker’s in trouble. And Slimeball’s certainly a joker, isn’t he?” I finished, and tittered, as he’d call it. I paused, looking right at K.C. “I’m always listening. Always. Even though some people are thinking I sound like some stupid fucking two-year-old when I laugh.”

K.C.’s face reddened—I’d quoted her thoughts, you see. For a moment I felt a little ashamed of myself. No matter how many times I demonstrate my ability, I always get that reaction. People aren’t used to having their precious private thoughts stolen. They don’t feel anything, they don’t see me doing anything unusual, so they forget.

Kelly’s thoughts, at least, are usually kind.

Blaise was pissed. “Well, I stopped K.C. here from offing your precious joker. I should have gone ahead and offed the mother, though. This is the second time Slimeball’s been in our food stores.”

I knew that. I’d long ago caught the thoughts from Slimeball and K.C.

“K.C. and Kelly caught him, and the little fucker sliced at them with a knife. What you gonna do about it?”


Copyright © 1991 by George R. R. Martin and the Wild Cards Trust