MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
That the Wild Cards series is still alive and kicking after over 15 years might be a surprise to some, but not to me. Then again, I’m the creator of James Spector, aka Demise, who died from the Wild Card virus but still managed to stay alive long enough to wreak havoc through several volumes of the series. The book you’re getting ready to read, Deuces Down, is not only the first new Wild Card opus in quite some time but also proof that the story ideas and concepts nurtured by the series’ writers have a way of coming to fruition eventually.
Let me digress for a moment to explain how I was lucky enough to become a Wild Cards author in the first place, since it bears to some degree on Deuces Down. When George R. R. Martin, Melinda Snodgrass, and the rest of the New Mexico writers and gamers were creating the foundation for the series, George cleverly decided to expand his group of participating writers beyond the borders of the Land of Enchantment. Being either incredibly insightful or a masochist, depending on how you look at it, one of the first people George turned to was his long-time buddy Howard Waldrop, who wrote “Thirty Minutes Over Broadway!” the lead story in Wild Cards. To know Howard is to love him, but his artistic temperament can best be described as inflexible, so it doesn’t make him ideal for team projects. Howard’s plan was to write his one story and jump ship, which he did. Master agreements and consortium points weren’t part of his game plan.
At that time, Howard lived in Austin (of which I’m a native and current resident) and was one of the Turkey City writers. Turkey City was, and is, a writers conference where friends sit around reading and then dismembering each other’s stories in turn. Given its Texas location, Turkey City was a bit more of a rock-em, sock-em affair than some of the more genteel writers conferences, but to date no fatalities have been reported among even the more brutalized participants. Another then–Austinite and Turkey Citizen was Lew Shiner, who George also quickly got on board for Wild Cards. Lew loved comic books and was an up-and-comer on the science fiction scene, being (with Bruce Sterling, also an Austinite and a Turkey City writer, I’m sure you’re getting the general drift of this by now) one of the core group in the newly formed cyberpunk movement. Lew’s character Fortunato, along with his antagonist, the Astronomer, was an integral part of the first Wild Cards triad. Lew, Howard, and I hung out a lot, including going on a weekly comic-buying run. Since I was also a Turkey City regular, Lew knew I could write, and sold George on giving me a shot at Wild Cards. How hard a sell he had to give George, I’m not sure. George had met me several times, read one of my early (unpublished and unpublishable) stories, and agreed to see what I could do. I wasn’t entirely without credentials, having done some work for DC Comics that eventually showed up in World’s Finest and House of Mystery as well as having a short story or two published.
Incidentally, I did the comic book writing under the name Bud Simons, which is what everyone calls me, although I’d been using Walton Simons for my fiction. This created mistaken assumptions about my true identity later on, but how was I to know? In any case, I was completely psyched to be on the Wild Cards team. The notion of being in the same book as Roger Zelazny filled me with glee, but I was going to have to earn it. The first book Wild Cards was already full, so I went to work on a Demise story for Aces High that I cleverly tied into Lew’s Fortunato yarn. George bought it and I’ve been lucky enough to be a Wild Carder ever since.
Now in those days, if you got a couple of Wild Cards writers together, sooner or later (usually sooner) the conversation would drift to aces, jokers, and upcoming story ideas. The exception, as always, was Howard, who was far too busy for all this folderol, other than to explain (in consummate Waldropian logic) how his piece of the Wild Cards pie would keep getting bigger over time. Lew and I, on the other hand, spent a lot of time bouncing ideas off each other. In the process, we came up with Kid Dinosaur and most of the Astronomer’s ace cronies.
During one of the early sessions, I went off on an absurd tangent and made up characters like Sign Girl, who could stand up in front of a neon sign or billboard, look like one of the letters, and disappear, Grow-Grip Man, whose hands became enormous when he grabbed someone, and Puddle-Man. Puddle-Man looks like … well if you’ve read Bradbury’s “Skeleton” you know what he looks like. If you want to find out how that might actually be useful, read “Walking the Floor Over You” later in this book.
Which brings us back to Deuces Down. As writers, we’ve been talking about doing this particular book in the Wild Cards canon for a long time. After all, for every alpha ace power like those of Fortunato, the Turtle, and Golden Boy, there has to be an omega. Might not the effect on those lives be as dramatic as those fortunate enough to receive more profound abilities? We always thought so, and you hold the result of that notion in your hands. Deuces Down has another advantage in that its stories aren’t all contemporary. The first book covered the history of the Wild Cards universe during its first forty years or so, but since that time the stories had remained firmly in the here and now. With Deuces Down those first four decades are opened up again to the possibilities of the storytellers herein. We hope you enjoy the results.
Just for the record. Walton Simons is not a pseudonym for the wonderfully talented comic book artist/writer Walt Simonson. Not that I wouldn’t give a lot to be able to draw as well as he does. “A lot” doesn’t include being a Wild Cards writer, which I don’t think I’d trade for much of anything short of world peace.
Walton Simons, February 22, 2002
Age of Wonders
by Carrie Vaughn
If I’m an ace, I’d hate to see a deuce.
—Timothy Wiggins, congressional testimony in 1953
RALEIGH JACKSON SET HER alarm and planned on leaving the apartment early, grabbing coffee and a bagel on the way to the Aces! magazine office, so she wouldn’t have to talk to her mother. But when she stepped into the kitchen to grab her bag and coat, Aurora was sitting there wrapped in her silk robe, two mugs of hot coffee placed in front of her, beaming with a thousand-watt smile. Even this early, a shimmer of light haloed her head, to match the bright smile.
How had her mother managed to be awake before eight? She was an actress, theater people were never up before noon. “Good morning!” Aurora gushed at her.
Raleigh sagged. “Hi, Mom.” She climbed onto the stool at the breakfast bar, took the offered mug with a wan smile, and waited for the lecture.
At least Aurora let her take a first sip before launching in. “So. You’re really going to do it.”
Raleigh gritted her teeth. She loved her mother, she did … “Yes. I’m really going to do it.”
“Raleigh, I love you, and I wish you wouldn’t take this job.”
“Aces! is a rag! A gossip-mongering rag!”
But it was a gossip-mongering rag that everyone read. “It’s a first step. A big first step. I get a few professional bylines, I break a few stories of my own—this is a really big deal. I gotta start somewhere.”
Her mother might have been bitter that Aces! hadn’t published anything about her in a decade. Raleigh knew she kept a scrapbook of clippings from back in the day, when Aurora had been at her peak during the seventies, when she’d been in her twenties, beautiful and glowing—literally—and starring opposite Robert Redford.
Aurora was pushing sixty now, and still beautiful and glowing. Just not young anymore. The rainbow of light and colors that she could make ripple around her had taken on a silver sheen, a hint of diamond sparkle among the reds and oranges. She couldn’t dye that color away like she could the gray in her hair. Raleigh loved the silver lights; they were like a crown over her mother’s head. Aurora was maybe learning to love them. She still turned heads, anyway.
But she wanted to work, and good acting gigs for aging actresses were few and far between. She’d done some TV guest spots over the last few years, and she never complained. But it wasn’t the same.
Her mother hadn’t taken a sip of the coffee yet; she just held on to the mug like she wanted to strangle it and glanced out the window over the Upper West Side skyline. “Do you have to start at all? Can’t you work someplace … quiet? Journalism isn’t quiet.” She made it a declaration, forceful. “I just want you to be safe.”
Quiet. Raleigh’s whole life had been about keeping quiet, keeping calm. They’d had this same fight when she wanted to go away to college. To summer camp. When she wanted to take riding lessons.
Maybe Aurora wouldn’t have looked so constantly fearful and unhappy at all the unquiet things she wanted to do if Raleigh hadn’t been positive for xenovirus Takis-A—a latent, just waiting for her card to turn. And when it turned, she would probably die. She’d survived puberty, when many latents’ cards turned. The other most common trigger was stress. That constant hum of anxiety had run under everything, her whole life. She almost didn’t notice it anymore. Or, she pretended she didn’t. Absently, she adjusted the chain of the MedicAlert bracelet on her left wrist, with her name and “XT-A +: unexpressed” engraved on it. “I could get hit by a truck crossing the street and then how would we all feel for worrying so much?” Raleigh said.
Aurora looked stricken. “Maybe you should just stay home forever.”
“I know I know, I’m sorry. You’re all grown up and have to make your way in the world, I get it. I just…” Tears welled in her eyes, and at moments like these Raleigh could never quite tell if they were genuine or if she had summoned them, on cue. Everything with Aurora had to have a little drama in it.
Fine, she wanted drama? “I’ll tell you what, Mom. I’ll make you a deal. I won’t take the job. I’ll call Aces! up right now and tell them I won’t be there. If you tell me who my father is.”
Aurora stammered a bit. Then her expression went to panic, eyes widening, face draining of color.
Raleigh gasped. “Oh my God, you don’t know, do you? All this time I thought you were just being stubborn but you don’t actually know!” Look at that, not even on the job yet and she’d gotten her first big scoop. She wanted to scream.
“Oh, honey, it was the seventies,” Aurora said, shrugging a little.
“I was born in 1980!”
“There was some spillover.”
“No wonder you won’t take me to see Mamma Mia!”
“Well, that’s mostly because I don’t know anyone on the production who can get us comps.”
Raleigh had to get out of here, somehow, right now. She leaned forward on the counter, and wrapped her hands around her mother’s, still on the coffee mug. Her skin was deep tan, teak-colored, against her mother’s pale. That told her a little something about who her father was, at any rate. Her deep brown eyes to Aurora’s blue, her curly black hair to her mother’s red-gold, which would be going to roan if she let the color grow out. Still striking in either case.
Still didn’t narrow it down much. The thing that did narrow it down? Her father had the wild card virus, too. “Mom. I love you. And I’m taking this job. Who knows, maybe I can bring some respectable journalism to the place.”
Aurora huffed a laugh. “You’re worth a million of whoever they’ve got over there.”
Raleigh drank down the coffee and let her mother see her off at the door, giving her a big hug. At least she wasn’t arguing anymore. “I’ll tell you all about it when I get home.”
“Looking forward to it,” Aurora said. As Raleigh headed for the elevator down the hall, she called out, “And watch out for Digger Downs, he’s a creep.”
Thomas “Digger” Downs, Aces! senior reporter for going on three decades, met her at reception. He was of average height, nondescript, trending toward paunch in middle age. His brown hair was thinning. He looked her up and down. She couldn’t tell if he was sizing her up or checking her out. She had dressed as professionally as she knew how, her dark hair in a bun, wearing a muted blouse and neat slacks.
His gaze narrowed thoughtfully, an expression she couldn’t interpret. “Raleigh Jackson? Digger Downs, nice to meet you.” His handshake was professional enough, at least. Then he asked, “And how’s your mother?”
She had known her relationship with Aurora would come up and was relieved to get it out of the way as soon as possible. “She said you’re a creep.” Held her breath, waiting for the reaction.
Downs laughed, and Raleigh let the breath out. “You’ll get along just fine here. Come on back.”
The magazine’s offices were in Midtown, in an older building down a side street. Not a prestige address but still in the middle of everything. The lobby had a wide desk at reception, a couple of seating areas and coffee tables filled with back issues of the magazine. Blown-up, framed covers hung on the walls, a timeline from the start on up to the present. Iconic images. A view of the Great and Powerful Turtle’s first shell, the original tricked-out VW Beetle flying overhead, with the Empire State Building as a backdrop. One of superstar Peregrine’s early covers, the young model glancing over her shoulder, hair brushing her cheeks, her astonishing wings draped around her body, raising the question of whether she was wearing anything under them. Jumpin’ Jack Flash, arms spread and cloaked in flames, laughing as he flew over Central Park.
And there was the famous picture of her mother, a young ingénue perched on a grand piano, holding a champagne glass, while her ace power flickered a rainbow cascade around her.
Downs caught her staring at it. “That’s a great picture of her.”
“Yeah. She’s got a print of it framed in the living room. If you haven’t seen her lately, the lights have gotten some sparkles in them. Like diamonds.” Not white or gray, certainly not. “You might think about doing a photo shoot, getting an updated version of that. It’d look great.”
He gave a crooked smile. “Already hustling. Bring it up with Margot, okay?”
It wasn’t a no, at least. Margot Dempsey was the magazine’s editor in chief. Raleigh wasn’t sure she’d ever get to meet the woman at all, and was suddenly nervous all over again.
Next came an open room with rows of desks and computers, ringing phones, filing cabinets along the walls, whiteboards with lists of names. Stark lights, a row of windows looking out over another row of windows, and bustle. A charge in the air, like everyone had a mission, and you couldn’t help but walk a little faster and talk a little louder to keep up with them. Being out in the world and making things happen. This was exactly where she wanted to be.
“Everyone, our new junior reporter, Raleigh Jackson. Raleigh, this is everyone. Suzy’s the department editor, Jim’s got the Hollywood beat, Eddie’s on fact checking—”
“You guys check facts?!” voices answered in chorus, followed by laughter, like this was an old, beloved joke. Eddie held up two middle fingers.
Downs made a half dozen more introductions, features writers and beat reporters. Already overwhelmed, Raleigh missed names and would have to check the magazine’s masthead to remind her.
Eddie, a young white guy with glasses who couldn’t have been much older than her, called out as they passed through on their tour. “Question, New Girl, and this is very important: should Jack Braun only date women close to his actual age, even though he still looks twenty-two?”
Serious journalism, Raleigh murmured to herself. Serious journalism.
“You do know who Jack Braun is, don’t you?” Downs asked darkly, as if this were a test.
“Golden Boy,” Raleigh answered. “One of the Four Aces. Hasn’t aged a day since 1946.”
“Okay, good. We get some interns in here who think the Four Aces was a British rock band.”
Eddie asked again, “Well, how about it?”
Raleigh answered, “That’s a pretty intense ethical question. Like, let’s flip the genders. What if Golden Boy had been Golden Girl? What if the strongest ace in the world had been a woman who never aged? Would you be asking me the same question? Or what if Braun had been twelve when his card turned? An eighty-year-old who looks twelve. What then?” Yeah, that made the question pretty icky, didn’t it?
Eddie turned to Downs. “She’s too serious for this place.”
“We’re trying to class up the joint,” Downs said, shrugging like it was out of his hands.
Raleigh already loved it here.
Downs led her on, through a door to a hallway with a tiled floor. “Didn’t Braun date your mom once?” he asked.
Probably. Aurora had dated everyone, it seemed like. So had Braun, for that matter. Jack Braun was definitely not her father. Probably definitely not her father. “I’d have to check the Rolodex,” she said.
“You might get a kick going through the files for tidbits about her. Stuff she might not have told you.” He winked.
Like who she’d been dating nine months before Raleigh’s birth.… Plenty of time for that later. “Anything you can think of off the top of your head?”
“Well, it was a bit of a scandal when she showed up pregnant and refused to say who the father was. You, ah, want to share that bit of gossip? Not that anyone cares now, mind you. Just for my own interest.”
“I’m sworn to secrecy,” she said, lying.
“Right. Anyway. Moving on. Ms. Jackson, meet the archives.”
The door at the end of the hall opened to reveal a side room. Downs pulled on a string—the light was actually for real a bare bulb turned on with a dangling string, and she wasn’t sure she’d ever seen such a thing outside of the movies. But then this whole building looked like it should be in some independent auteur film from the seventies.
The room was … astonishing. Dozens of banker’s boxes, book boxes, post-office bins filled with paper, along with hundreds of manila folders accumulated in archaeological layers, probably for as long as the magazine had been operating. Dust on some of the boxes was thick; Raleigh smelled ancient rotting cardboard. Anything the magazine hadn’t thrown away, but hadn’t been of immediate use, must have ended up here. She was afraid to touch anything lest it disintegrate from age and neglect, so she merely stepped forward, staring.
“We’ve always had more material than we can use, you know? You plan a big human-interest story, but then Peregrine gets knocked up and the baby-bump watch clears out your features schedule for the next six months. You think you’ve got enough material for one thing, you just need one more interview, and for whatever reason it never happens. But we can’t throw anything away, so it ends up here. It might all be garbage, but there might be some big scoops hidden away. We’ve been wanting someone to go through it for a while now.”
She couldn’t even get her eyes to focus to read labels, there was so much to look at. Typewritten labels, handwritten notes, files rubber-banded together, some with paper-clipped addenda. The newer boxes and files had sticky notes on them. “This is amazing.”
Downs smiled wryly. “I thought you’d say that. It’s why we hired you. That series of restaurant reviews you did for your college paper? ‘The New Food Scene in Jokertown’? Those pieces were great. You didn’t go for the sensationalist angle. Just about everyone who writes about Jokertown who isn’t from Jokertown acts like they’re a tourist, someone at a carnival sideshow. But you—you wrote about the place like a local. You made your reader feel like a local. Maybe you can take that outlook and do something with this mess. It’ll probably be pretty thankless, but who knows.”
It was either a mountain of trash or a gold mine. She wouldn’t know which until she started digging. She couldn’t wait. “Where do I even start?” she breathed.
She expected him to say something trite, like at the beginning, or to walk away laughing. Instead, he went to the back of the room, to what might have been the oldest box there, its cardboard sagging. Coughing, he dug through it and came out with a single folder.
“Try this,” he said, handing it over. Coughed. “You might want to go outside to read it. We probably ought to issue respirators to come in here.”
She’d stopped paying attention, completely enthralled by what she held in her hands. The handwritten label on the edge of the folder read, Fidel Castro.
Copyright © 2002 by George R. R. Martin and the Wild Cards Trust