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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Wild Cards X: Double Solitaire

Wild Cards (Volume 10)

Edited by George R. R. Martin; Written by Melinda M. Snodgrass

Tor Books

MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK

Chapter One


BABY WAS GONE.

All that remained was the retinal imprint of the amber and purple lights as they had elongated, and given a final burst of colored fire as the living spaceship shifted into ghost drive. Aboard that ship were Tachyon’s grandson, Blaise, the Morakh killer Durg, and Tachyon’s body. How many million miles from Earth were they by now? wondered Tach, and then the emotions hit, beating at the confines of her skull like terrified birds slamming against a window: anger, fear, loss, and a grief so deep it manifested as a physical pain. The screens that lined the Turtle’s shell gave back images of stars, gem bright against the blue black velvet of the upper atmosphere.

The silence inside the Turtle’s shell was like a living presence. Tommy was looking at her. Tachyon couldn’t meet his gaze, and now, as the urgency of the chase faded, Tachyon was horribly aware of the close confines within the Turtle shell. Necessity had placed her in Tommy’s lap, his arms around her waist, his thighs a warm pressure against her buttocks. She slid onto the floor at his feet, wedged herself against a console as she tried to escape his male heat. Tachyon could feel her heart beating in her stomach, and each pulse brought a burst of nausea.

With a moan she bent over the fecund swell of her belly and murmured, “No.”

“Ah, hell, we’re practically in fucking orbit.” Tommy’s head swung from screen to screen. All of them gave back the same black picture except the cameras mounted on the base of the shell. They showed the Earth. A long, long way down.

The shell gave a sickening lurch, tipped until it was edge on to the thinning atmosphere, and began to fall. Tommy let out an inarticulate yell of terror. Tachyon’s own problems paled to insignificance when measured against the current problem of immediate survival.

The Turtle “flew” by telekinetic power. He pictured himself “pushing” or “pulling” against something. Until a few seconds ago he had been clutching Tachyon’s living spaceship with teke fingers. Then Baby had made the transition to ghost drive and was now flying in regions that could only be described as the edges and cracks of reality. Tommy had nothing “real” to cling to.

Their speed was increasing with each second, becoming a headlong plummet that would end in death. No, end far sooner than that, Tach corrected herself.

Forcing a calm she did not feel, Tachyon said pedantically, “We are in what is commonly called in the spaceman business a catastrophic reentry. You must slow our rate of descent, Tommy, or we shall be cremated, or form a rather large crater somewhere on the Eastern Seaboard.”

Tom had his hands over his face, muffling his voice. “I can’t. I’ve got nothing to grab hold of!”

“There’s a very large planet directly below us. Push against that.” A tiny thread of panic set some of the words to jumping. Tach wiped sweat and froze halfway through the gesture. “Tommy, we are running out of time!”

“I can’t.”

“The man who outfoxed Bloat’s Wall can think of something!” It was becoming difficult to speak as G forces built inside the welded steel walls of the shell.

Her child’s mind quested, groped at the edges of her mother’s thoughts, trying to understand. Tach blocked Illyana, not wanting the baby to read Tach’s growing panic. “Goddamn you! If you kill my baby, I’ll never forgive you!”

Tach glanced at the screens. Most had gone dark, burned out by the rising skin temperature. Only two threw back an image. Flames. Tach tore Turtle’s hands from his face, gripped his chin, and forced his head up and around.

“Look!”

Turtle gave a moan of terror and dismay and assumed an even more fetal curl in the big upholstered chair.

Bad idea.

Tachyon pulled back her arm, her elbow brushing a metal console. It burned her skin. Plastic was beginning to melt and run, the smell catching like acid at the back of the throat. No, they wouldn’t burn up first, they’d die from asphyxiation—plastics were highly toxic. She swung, and her hand connected with Tommy’s cheek and ear in a furious slap. He yelped and looked up.

“How do you fly? How do you do any of the things you do? Tell me!”

“I pi-picture things like b-big hands or something.”

She gathered the front of his T-shirt in her hands. Sweat squeezed from the material to coat her fingers. “Then do it now. Wings. Big, beautiful wings. Like Peregrine’s. Spreading out. Catching the air. Slowing our descent.” Tommy’s eyes closed. His plump jaw tightened with concentration. “We’re gliding now.” Tach groped for more metaphors. “A parachute. Gigantic.”

The shell gave a jerk that sent her sprawling. Like a spear her elbow drove into a screen, shattering it and coating her arm with blood.

“Shit, are you okay?” asked Tom.

“You did it, Tommy, you did it!” She laughed into his frightened brown eyes.

“You’re bleeding.”

“It’s nothing.”

“So what do you want to do now?”

She looked at the final remaining screen. New York formed crystal-and-steel spines on the northern horizon. Exhaustion hit, slamming into her chest like a falling sandbag.

“Take me home, Tommy. Take me home.”

Manhattan. They were approaching at sunset, and the buildings thrust like stone lances at a bloody sky. Landmarks began flashing past. Soon they were over the leprous growth that was Jokertown. It was a wild flight with only a single camera; they were flying virtually blind. Tachyon stared into that single monitor, expressionless and passionless. There was no sense of homecoming, just a bone-sapping weariness. She had lost everything. Any hope of returning to her true home. Any hope of returning her lost soul to its true form.

The clinic came into view. The camera mounted on the belly of the shell gave her a fleeting glimpse of the stone lions that flanked the front steps. Then they were over the roof, and settling gently onto the tar-and-felt surface.

Turtle opened the hatch, and Tach climbed out. The August setting sun was beating down, giving the roof a gelatinous texture. Her tennis shoes stuck to the tar, making the impossible climb up the curving side of the shell even more impossible.

Tommy stepped out of the shell, forcing a protest from Tachyon.

“Tom, no, you might be seen.”

The ace didn’t reply, just held her gently around the waist and boosted her up onto the back of the shell. They stared at each other for a long moment, then Tom said simply, “I’m sorry.”

“For what?”

“Failing you.”

The scene in the street soon became chaotic. Doctors and nurses poured from the doors of the clinic. Patients craned out windows. Traffic stopped. Turtle had returned to Jokertown. Rumors were flying. He’d brought word that Tachyon hadn’t died at all. He’d returned to Takis, and died there, and now Turtle had a Takisian princess with him who was Tachyon’s widow and mother to his yet-unborn child.

Bradley Finn, the clinic’s only joker doctor, pranced in the street. The nervous clatter of his hooves on the sidewalk sounded like a bad flamenco troupe warming up. Troll, chief of security for the hospital, laid a shovel-sized, horny hand on the centaur’s withers. The palomino skin shivered, and Finn quieted.

Tachyon, seated on the top of the shell, studied the faces of her people. Suddenly Dr. Cody Havero strode through the doors of the clinic, and ice talons closed around Tachyon’s heart. Long ago, in another lifetime, Tachyon had loved this woman. Now she felt only shame.

“THIS IS DR. TACHYON.” Turtle had cranked up the volume on his loudspeaker, and the words reverberated off the brick of the buildings. “HE’S BEEN JUMPED AND HELD CAPTIVE ON THE ROX. THE FACT THAT HE KNEW HOW TO LOCATE ME SHOULD BE PROOF ENOUGH, BUT YOU ALL, NO DOUBT, HAVE PERSONAL EXPERIENCES THAT ONLY YOU AND DR. TACHYON HAVE SHARED. TEST HER, IF YOU MUST, BUT THIS IS TACHYON.”

Silence, punctuated only by the normal sounds of the city. In the distance a siren wailed—drawing closer. For the cops, any gathering in Jokertown was a potential riot. Tachyon realized she had to get the crowd dispersed and order restored before the police arrived. She swung her leg over, and slid off the shell.

Cody reached her first. Tachyon glanced briefly up, but she couldn’t meet the level gaze from Cody’s single dark eye. She turned her back on the older woman and walked toward Finn and Troll.

“Take me to my office. Tell me what terrible things the jumper did in my place. Then take me home.”

Cody was at her elbow. “You haven’t got a home. We thought you were dead. We let the apartment go.” She shrugged dismissively, but Tachyon could sense the pain she was hiding.

“Softer might be better,” suggested Finn softly to Cody as he joined them. His eyes kept drifting to, then jerking away from, the swell of her pregnancy, and Tachyon felt a bone-gnawing need to break something … kill something.

“Better just to get it all out,” replied Cody stubbornly.

“Better for whom?” asked Tach.

Cody’s one eye stared at her with the desperation of a dying animal. “I couldn’t help. They held me for months. Chris thought I was dead. They stuck my kid in a foster home.” Tachyon couldn’t tell if Cody was looking for comfort or just babbling randomly. “Then Blaise told me he’d killed you. I believed him. I didn’t mean to fail you.”

In a low, flat voice Tachyon said, “I cannot handle you. Your presence. Your words. Deal with my clinic, deal with your own pain, and leave me alone.”

It was said without a glance to the stricken woman. Cody stiffened, wrapped herself in her pride, and walked back into the clinic. Troll and Finn stared at Tachyon.

Troll said quietly, “She’s been through some terrible times.”

“And she deserved better. Yes, I know. I cannot provide it. I cannot face her.… I cannot help her … any more than she helped me.”

Tach suddenly turned and bolted back to Turtle. Laid her cheek against the steel plates of the shell.

“I’m frightened.”

“IF YOU NEED ME, I’LL BE THERE. YOU KNOW HOW TO FIND ME,” Tommy said.

Tach nodded and walked back to join her staff.

“Then Cody vanished—missing/presumed dead, and you—well, we thought it was you—” Troll corrected himself. “Retreated into a bottle and eventually resigned from the clinic. We limped along. Then suddenly Cody returned with word you’d died, and the fake Tach vanished. I wanted to go to Ellis Island and search—”

“Only by then it was called the Rox, and nobody could get there,” Finn broke in.

“Oh, you can get there,” Tachyon said softly as she remembered the lonely, frightened, dreaming boy who held sway over the joker kingdom that now occupied Ellis Island. “It’s just a little like never-never land.…” Her voice trailed away.

“Never more than now. A fucking castle has appeared out there. This Bloat’s issued a statement to the American government that he and all the jokers are seceding from the United States. You know what happened the last time somebody tried that? It was called the Civil War,” Finn said.

“Who cares about all the political shit? I want to know what happened to the Doc.” Troll pressed. “What did happen—after Blaise kidnapped you, I mean?”

Tachyon sat silent until Finn said uncomfortably, “It’s a little obvious, isn’t it?” Troll glowered. Strain was definitely showing among the staff of the Renssaeler Clinic.

Seven months of hell passed with sickening ease through her memory. The kidnapping, Blaise, the transfer of her soul and mind into the body of a sixteen-year-old girl, the rape. Weeks of utter darkness in a basement cell. Another rape. The pregnancy. The aborted escape attempt, and yet another rape. Finally rescue. And now despair.

“Who’s the father?” Finn asked.

Tachyon rose. “My charming and psychotic grandson, Blaise.” As their faces registered shock and disgust, Tach smiled thinly. “Don’t look so shocked. Incest is an ancient and revered tradition on Takis.”

“It ain’t much, but it’s home,” Finn said as he tossed the keys onto a table in the entryway.

“It’s a penthouse,” Tachyon protested.

“Yeah, well, it sounds good even if it’s not true.” Tach followed the young man into the living room. “I’m a joker. Daddy’s a rich Hollywood producer-director, I figure I’m entitled to a few perks.”

The room was spacious, and furnished almost entirely with large throw pillows. There was one sofa.

“A concession to two-legged critters,” Finn said, following her gaze.

Curious now, Tach peeked into the kitchen. About what one would expect from a kitchen, but the cabinets and counters were all set much lower than the standard.

Back in the living room Tach discovered the bar. She stood and contemplated a bottle of Courvoisier with the hungry eyes of a starving refugee.

“No, boss,” came Finn’s voice from behind her. “Try this instead.” She turned, and he proffered a glass of milk.

“No, thank you.”

“Drink it.” He pressed the glass into her hand.

“I hate it,” Tachyon said. “When you fuss. When you force me to take care of myself. When you make me feel that this”—an accusing finger pointing at her belly—“is more important than I am.”

“It is you.”

Tach stared up at Finn. She touched her face, lightly combed her fingers through her hair. A featherlike brush across the swollen belly. “This is not me. It’s not, Bradley.” Her voice was tight with strain.

Finn guided her to the sofa, pushed her down. “Boss, it’s gotta be said—this may be you. What I mean is the femaleness, not the pregnancy. Blaise is gone. Your body’s gone. If it can’t be recovered, you may have to spend the rest of your life—”

The rest of this hideous, rational, and perfectly logical speech was lost to the ringing of the doorbell. Finn trotted away to answer and so didn’t notice when Tach began to shiver. The glass slipped from her numb fingers, spilling milk across her lap. Pressing both hands to her head, Tach gasped for air. Clammy sweat was breaking out at her hairline and along her upper lip, and her vision seemed to be narrowing to a tunnel with blackness to either side. Cool fingers gripped Tach’s wrist and felt for the pulse point.

Her eyes snapped open, and she stared up into Cody’s lovely, beloved face. Embarrassed on a host of levels, Tach looked away, but in that brief glance Tach noticed the wisps of silver among the ebony cap of Cody’s hair, and that the lines about her single eye had deepened. Clearly the suffering of the past months had not been limited solely to Tachyon. There had been plenty of grief to go around.

Tachyon, when she had been a he, had desperately wanted to make love with this woman. The emotion, the desire was still there, but there was no testosterone to fuel that drive, no penis to deliver on the passion.

“Don’t!” shrilled Tachyon. She struggled wildly to get up off the sofa, cursed with vexation when her ungainly body refused to cooperate.

“Anxiety attack,” said Cody calmly. “Get my bag,” she threw over her shoulder to Finn. He complied, and as she fished out the hypodermic, she said conversationally to Tachyon, “I’m going to give you a light sedative. I don’t normally approve of this for a woman as advanced in pregnancy as you are—”

“Get away from me! You shame me! I am humiliated beyond all measure! I cannot live like this! I will not!”

Cody reached up and straightened the black eye patch that covered her missing eye, sighed, and said, “Let me in, Tachyon. Stop closing me out.” Cody’s calm, husky, womanly tones set a sharp contrast to Tach’s girlish soprano. She filled the hypo. “And by the way, you may not have the luxury of a choice.” She slid the needle beneath the skin of Tach’s upper arm and depressed the plunger.

“So I should just lie back and enjoy it?”

“You know goddamn well I’m not suggesting that. Look, I’m sorry, we’re all sorry, for what happened to you. But being female is not the big tragedy you’re presenting. And maybe while you’ve got this opportunity for an in-depth analysis of the female condition, you might want to take a few notes!”

“What are you saying? That I am insensitive to women?”

“Yes. People always got sidetracked by your flamboyant dress and the ease with which you displayed emotion. They assumed you were a wimp or a puss boy. The truth is that you were the ultimate boy’s boy, and a real goddamn prick sometimes. Women have always been objects for you. Sex objects, ideals of romantic love, mother comforters, potential wives, potential brood mares. What we’ve never been are people.”

Tach swallowed past the lump that had hardened in her throat.

“People, I’m scared. I can’t live like this.”

Finn’s arms closed about her. “I know, baby, I know.”

Since the rapes she hadn’t been able to tolerate physical contact with a man. Gently, trying to avoid panic, Tach disentangled those confining arms. Stood and looked at Cody. Suddenly Cody’s hand shot out, and she steadied Tachyon. The sedative and the tumultuous events of the day were catching up with her, and she was literally swaying on her feet.

“Go to bed,” said Cody softly, and pushed her gently to Finn.

Finn led her to the guest room. “Do you want me to stay? I can get somebody else to do late rounds for me.”

“No, take care of my clinic. And I … I want to be alone.”

The snick of the door closing behind him was loud in the shadows. Tach eyed the bed. Remembered many nights of fervent swordplay with a variety of lovers. Their names were forgotten, but their bodies … Rage and loss filled her.

Bad dreams brought her awake. Blaise was still walking through her mind, the memory of his mental and physical rapes like an oozing wound. Terror had set her heart to hammering, each wild beat bringing a surge of nausea. By the time Tachyon was fully awake, she was out of the bedroom and was standing shivering in the living room.

So she could now add sleepwalking to her list of night terrors.

She went searching for relief. Finn’s liquor cabinet revealed him to be something of a wine snob, but there were also bottles of brandy, fine whiskey, and vodka.

The residue of the sedative was still in her system, making her head like cotton wadding and dragging at her limbs, and she knew as she uncapped the brandy that she shouldn’t be doing this. But it had been a haven for too many years, and she wanted to turn off her head.

Tach had made a substantial dent in the level of brandy in the bottle before an overfull bladder sent her staggering into the bathroom. It had a traditional toilet, but there were also an oubliette in the French fashion. A rather large hole in the floor.

How did Finn manage at the clinic? Back into a stall, lift his tail, and hope his aim was good? Tach wondered.

The bath had also been altered. It was an enormous sunken affair with heavy frosted sliding doors. She realized she had never before considered the difficulties Bradley had to face. The realization shamed her, adding to the already deep depression that seemed to have a palpable presence.

After relieving herself she stood and stared at her thickening body. I’ve become a joker. A stranger in a deformed body. Lifting the hem of the long T-shirt, Tach ran an experimental hand across her swollen belly. She was a trained physician. It wasn’t hard to locate Illyana’s head.

What a burden to grow up knowing you were conceived during a violent rape. That in your veins runs the blood of a madman, a killer. How can I ever explain it to you? What will I tell you when you ask about your father? A pleasant little story maybe? He was called the Outcast, and he was a lonely prince who went away long, long ago.

Her laugh was a bitter yelp, a cry of pain. You’re an accident. Blaise became my child in a spray of blood. You were conceived in blood. You’ll be born in blood. What’s to keep you from being a monster too? To keep you from feeding on me the way he did? The way you already have.

The physician-trained part of Tachyon’s mind was screaming like a siren trying to penetrate the drug-, alcohol-, and exhaustion-induced depression. Over the long, pain-filled years Tach had always managed to battle back from the weary surrender. This time she didn’t care to try. Illyana’s emotions wove a frantic counterpoint about Tachyon’s weary, bitter thoughts. It was like holding a small dying creature.

We’ll die together, baby, Tach thought as she rummaged through the medicine cabinet.

Bradley was an old-fashioned boy. The mother-of-pearl grip on the straight razor glittered in the lights. With clumsy fingers Tach pulled out the blade. She cut the pad of her thumb badly, but it didn’t seem to hurt. Methodically she spun the spigots, filling the tub with hot water. Settled onto the toilet to watch it fill.

Will you understand, baby? asked Tachyon as she studied first the razor, and then the tub. I hope so, because I have to do this. I’m so tired. I cannot go on.

It was filled. She stripped out of the T-shirt and walked down the steps into the water. The heat of the water stung her toes. Slowly she lowered herself into the water. Lifted an arm from the water, drew the blade down the length of her wrist. There was cold and pressure, and then pain. The blood was running down her wrist, warm and a little sticky. Switch hands and repeat the process. She had two good hands again. She could do surgery.

Cutting out the life, she thought dreamily as she rested her head against the edge of the tub.

Warm, so warm. The blood flowed from her wrists, mingled with the water, and was carried away in ever-widening eddies. Sunsets over oceans. Flower petals dancing away in the chop of a mountain stream. Lethargy tugged at her. Soon even the light faded.


Copyright © 1992 by George R. R. Martin and the Wild Cards Trust