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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Wild Cards IV: Aces Abroad

Wild Cards (Volume 4)

Edited by George R.R. Martin and the Wild Cards Trust

Tor Books

MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK

The Tint of Hatred



Part One

MONDAY, DECEMBER 1, 1986, SYRIA:

A CHILL, ARID WIND blew from the mountains of the Jabal Alawite across the lava rock and gravel desert of Badiyat Ash-sham. The wind snapped the canvas peaks of the tents huddled around the village. The gale made those in the market pull the sashes of their robes tighter against the cold. Under the beehive roof of the largest of the mud-brick buildings, a stray gust caused the flame to gutter against the bottom of an enameled teapot.

A small woman, swathed in the chador, the black Islamic garb, poured tea into two small cups. Except for a row of bright blue beads on the headpiece, she wore no ornamentation. She passed one of the cups to the other person in the room, a raven-haired man of medium height, whose skin glowed a shimmering, lambent emerald under a brocaded robe of azure. She could feel the warmth radiating from him.

"It will be colder for the next several days, Najib," she said as she sipped the piercingly sweet tea. "You'll be more comfortable at least."

Najib shrugged as if her words meant nothing. His lips tightened; his dark, intense gaze snared her. "It's Allah's presence that gleams," he said, his voice gruff with habitual arrogance. "You've never heard me complain, Misha, even in the heat of summer. Do you think me a woman, wailing my futile misery to the sky?"

Above the veils, Misha's eyes narrowed. "I am Kahina, the Seer, Najib," she answered, allowing a hint of defiance into her voice. "I know many hidden things. I know that when the heat ripples over the stones, my brother Najib wishes that he were not Nur al-Allah, the Light of Allah."

Najib's sudden backhanded cuff caught his sister across the side of her face. Her head snapped sideways. Scalding hot tea burned her hand and wrist; the cup shattered on the rugs as she sprawled at his feet. His eyes, utter black against the luminescent face, glared at her as she raised her hand to her stinging cheek. She knew she dared say no more. On her knees she gathered up the shards of the teacup in silence, mopping at the puddle of tea with the hem of her robe.

"Sayyid came to me this morning," Najib said as he watched her. "He was complaining again. He says you are not a proper wife."

"Sayyid is a fatted pig," Misha answered, though she did not look up.

"He says he must force himself on you."

"He doesn't need to do so for me."

Najib scowled, making a sound of disgust. "Pah! Sayyid leads my army. It is his strategy that will sweep the kafirback into the sea. Allah has given him the body of a god and the mind of a conqueror, and he is obedient to me. That's why I gave you to him. The Qur'an says it: 'Men have authority over women because Allah has made the one superior to the other. Good women are obedient.' You make a mockery of Nur al-Allah's gift."

"Nur al-Allah shouldn't have given away that which completes him." Now her eyes came up, challenging him as her tiny hands closed over the pottery shards. "We were together in the womb, Brother. That's the way Allah made us. He touched you with His light and His voice, and He gave me the gift of His sight. You are His mouth, the prophet; I am your vision of the future. Don't be so foolish as to blind yourself. Your pride will defeat you."

"Then listen to the words of Allah and be humble. Be glad that Sayyid does not insist on purdah for you-he knows you're Kahina, so he doesn't force your seclusion. Our father should never have sent you to Damascus to be educated; the infection of the unbelievers is insidious. Misha, make Sayyid content because that will content me. My will is Allah's will."

"Only sometimes, Brother..." She paused. Her gaze went distant, her fingers clenched. She cried out as porcelain lacerated her palm. Blood drooled bright along the shallow cuts. Misha swayed, moaning, and then her gaze focused once more.

Najib moved a step closer to her. "What is it? What did you see?"

Misha cradled her injured hand to her breast, her pupils wide with pain. "All that ever matters is that which touches yourself, Najib. It doesn't matter that I hurt or that I hate my husband or that Najib and his sister Misha have been lost in Allah's roles for them. All that matters is what the Kahina can tell Nur al-Allah."

"Woman..." Najib began warningly. His voice had a compelling deepness now, a timbre that brought Misha's head up and made her open her mouth to begin to speak, to obey without thinking. She shivered as if the wind outside had touched her.

"Don't use the gift on me, Najib," she said gratingly. Her voice sounded harsh against that of her brother. "I'm not a supplicant. Compel me too often with Allah's tongue and you might one day find that Allah's eyes have been taken from you by my own hand."

"Then be Kahina, Sister," Najib answered, but it was only his own voice now. He watched as she went to an inlaid chest, took out a strip of cloth, and slowly wrapped her hand: "Tell me what you just saw. Was it the vision of thejihad? Did you see me holding the Caliph's scepter again?"

Misha shut her eyes, bringing back the image of the quick waking dream. "No," she told him. "This was new. In the distance I saw a falcon against the sun. As the bird flew closer, I noticed that it held a hundred people squirming in its talons. A giant stood below on a mountain, and the giant held a bow in his hands. He loosed an arrow at the bird, and the wounded falcon screamed in anger. The voices of those it held screamed also. The giant had nocked a second arrow, but now the bow began to twist in his hands, and the arrow instead struck the giant's own breast. I saw the giant fall...." Misha's eyes opened. "That's all."

Najib scowled. He passed a glowing hand over his eyes. "What does it mean?"

"I don't know what it means. Allah gives me the dreams, but not always the understanding. Perhaps the giant is Sayyid-"

"It was only your own dream, not Allah's." Najib stalked away from her, and she knew that he was angry. "I'm the falcon, holding the faithful," he said. "You are the giant, large because you belong to Sayyid, who is also large. Allah would remind you of the consequence of defiance." He faced away from Misha, closing the shutters of the window against the brilliant desert sun. Outside the muzzein called from the village mosque: "A shhadu, allaa alaha illa llah"-Allah is great. I bear witness that there is no God but Allah.

"All you want is your conquest, the dream of the jihad. You want to be the new Muhammad," Misha answered spitefully. "You won't accept any other interpretation."

"In sha'allah," Najib answered: if Allah wills. He refused to face her. "Some people Allah has visited with His dreadful Scourge, showing their sins with their rotting, twisted flesh. Others, like Sayyid, Allah has favored, gifting them. Each has been given his due. He has chosen me to lead the faithful. I only do what I must do-I have Sayyid, who guides my armies, and I fight also with the hidden ones like al-Muezzin. You lead too. You are Kahina, and you are also Fqihas, the one the women look to for guidance."

The Light of Allah turned back into the room. In the shuttered dimness he was a spectral presence. "And as I do Allah's will, you must do mine."

MONDAY, DECEMBER 1, 1986, NEW YORK:

The press reception was chaos.

Senator Gregg Hartmann finally escaped to an empty corner behind one of the Christmas trees, his wife Ellen and his aide John Werthen following. Gregg surveyed the room with a distinct frown. He shook his head toward the Justice Department ace Billy Ray-Carnifex-and the government security man who tried to join them, waving them back.

Gregg had spent the last hour fending off reporters, smiling blankly for video cameras, and blinking into the constant storm lightning of electronic flashes. The room was noisy with shouted questions and the click-whirr of high-speed Nikons. Musak played seasonal tunes over the ceiling speakers.

The main press contigent was now gathered around Dr. Tachyon, Chrysalis, and Peregrine. Tachyon's scarlet hair gleamed like a beacon in the crowd; Peregrine and Chrysalis seemed to be competing to see who could pose most provocatively for the cameras. Nearby, Jack Braun-Golden Boy, the Judas Ace-was being pointedly ignored.

The mob had thinned a bit since Hiram Worchester's staff from the Aces High had set up the buffet tables; some of the press had staked permanent claims around the well-freighted trays.

"Sorry, boss," John said at Gregg's elbow. Even in the cool room the aide was perspiring. Blinking Christmas lights reflected from his beaded forehead: red, then blue, then green. "Somebody on the airport staff dropped the ball. It wasn't supposed to be this kind of free-for-all. I told them I wanted the press escorted in after you guys were settled. They'd ask a few questions, then..." He shrugged. "I'll take the blame. I should have checked to make sure everything had been done."

Ellen gave John a withering glance but said nothing.

"If John's apologizing, make him grovel first, Senator. What a mess." That last was a whisper in Gregg's ear-his other longtime aide, Amy Sorenson, was circulating through the crowd as one of the security personnel. Her two-way radio was linked directly to a wireless receiver in Gregg's ear. She fed him information, gave him names or details concerning the people he met. Gregg's own memory for names and faces was quite good, but Amy was an excellent backup. Between the two of them Gregg rarely missed giving those around him a personal greeting.

John's fear of Gregg's anger was a bright, pulsing purple amidst the jumble of his emotions. Gregg could feel Ellen's placid, dull acceptance, colored slightly with annoyance. "It's okay, John," Gregg said softly, though underneath he was seething. That part of him that he thought of as Puppetman squirmed restlessly, begging to be let loose to play with the cascading emotions in the room. Half of them are our puppets, controllable. Look, there's Father Squid over near the door, trying to get away from that woman reporter. Feel his scarlet distress even as he's smiling? He'd love to slither away and he's too polite to do it. We could fuel that frustration into rage, make him curse the woman. We could feed on that. All it would take is the smallest nudge ...

But Gregg couldn't do that, not with the aces gathered here, the ones Gregg didn't dare take as puppets because they had mental abilities of their own, or because he simply felt the prospect too risky: Golden Boy, Fantasy, Mistral, Chrysalis. And the one he feared most of all: Tachyon. If they even had an inkling of Puppetman's existence, if they knew what I've done to feed him, Tachyon'd have them on me in a pack, the way he did with the Masons.

Gregg took a deep breath. The corner smelled overbearingly of pine. "Thanks, boss," John was saying. Already his lilac fear was receding. Across the room, Gregg saw Father Squid finally disengage himself from the reporter. The reporter saw Gregg at the same moment and gave him a strange, piercing glance. She strode toward him.

Amy had seen the movement as well. "Sara Morgenstern, Post correspondent," she whispered in Gregg's ear. "Pulitzer, '76, for her work on the Great Jokertown Riot. Cowrote the nasty article on SCARE in July's Newsweek.Just had a makeover too. Looks totally different."

Amy's warning startled Gregg-he hadn't recognized her. Gregg remembered the article; it had stopped just short of libel, intimating that Gregg and the SCARE aces had been involved in government suppression of facts concerning the Swarm Mother attack. He remembered Morgenstern from various press functions, always the one with the hardball questions, with a sharp edge to her voice. He might have taken her for a puppet, just for spite, but she had never come close to him. Whenever they had been at the same affairs, she had stayed well away.

Now, seeing her approach, he froze for an instant. She had indeed changed. Sara had always been slim, boyish. That was accentuated tonight; she wore tight black slacks and a clinging blouse. She'd dyed her hair blond, and her makeup accentuated her cheekbones and large, faintly blue eyes. She looked distressingly familiar.

Gregg was suddenly cold and afraid.

Inside, Puppetman howled at a remembered loss.

"Gregg, are you all right?" Ellen's hand touched his shoulder. Gregg shivered at his spouse's touch, shaking his head.

"I'm fine," he said brusquely. He put on his professional smile, moving out from the corner. Alongside him Ellen and John flanked him in practiced choreography. "Ms. Morgenstern," Gregg said warmly, extending his hand and forcing his voice into a calmness he didn't feel. "I think you know John, but my wife, Ellen...?"

Sara Morgenstern nodded perfunctorily toward Ellen, but her gaze stayed with Gregg. She had an odd, strained smile on her face that seemed half-challenge and half-invitation. "Senator," she said, "I hope you're looking forward to this trip as much as I am."

She took his proffered hand. Without volition, Puppetman used the moment of contact. As he had done with every new puppet, he traced the neural pathways back to the brain, opening the doors that would, later, allow him access from a distance. He found the locked gates of her emotions, the turbulent colors swirling behind, and he greedily, possessively, touched them. He unfastened the locks and pins, swung open the entrance.

The red-black loathing that spilled out from behind sent him reeling back. The abhorrence was directed towardhim, all of it. Totally unexpected, the fury of the emotion was like nothing he'd experienced. Its intensity threatened to drown him, it drove him back. Puppetman gasped; Gregg forced himself to show nothing. He let his hand drop as Puppetman moaned in his head, and the fear that had touched him a moment ago redoubled.

She looks like Andrea, like Succubus-the resemblance is startling. And she detests me; God, how she hates.

"Senator?" Sara repeated.

"Yes, I'm very much looking forward to this," he said automatically. "Our society's attitudes toward the victims of the wild card virus have changed for the worse in the last year. In some ways people like the Reverend Leo Barnett would have us regress to the oppression of the fifties. For less enlightened countries, the situation is far, far worse. We can offer them understanding, hope, and help. And we'll learn something ourselves. Dr. Tachyon and myself have great optimism for this trip, or we wouldn't have fought so hard to bring it about."

The words came with rehearsed smoothness while he recovered. He could hear the friendly casualness of his voice, felt his mouth pull into a proud half-smile. But none of it touched him. He could barely avoid staring rudely at Sara. At this woman who reminded him too much of Andrea Whitman, of Succubus.

I loved her. I couldn't save her.

Sara seemed to sense his fascination, for she cocked her head with that same odd challenge. "It's also an entertaining little junket, a three-month tour of the world at the taxpayer's expense. Your wife goes with you, your good friends like Dr. Tachyon and Hiram Worchester..."

At his side Gregg felt Ellen's irritation. She was too practiced a politician's wife to respond, but he could feel her sudden alertness, a jungle cat watching for a weakness in her prey. Off balance, Gregg frowned a moment too late. "I'm surprised a reporter of your experience would believe that, Ms. Morgenstern. This trip also means giving up the holiday season-normally, I go home after the congressional break. It means stops at places that aren't exactly on Fodor's recommended list. It means meetings, briefings, endless press conferences, and a ton of paperwork that I can certainly do without. I guarantee you this isn't a pleasure trip. I'll have more to do than watch the proceedings and cable a thousand words back home every day."

He felt the black hatred swelling in her, and the power in him ached to be used. Let me take her. Let me dampen that fire. Take away that hatred and she'll tell you what she knows. Disarm her.

She's yours, he answered. Puppetman leapt out. Gregg had encountered hatreds before, a hundred times, but none had ever been focused on him. He found control of the emotion elusive and slippery; her loathing pushed at his control like a palpable, living entity, driving Puppetman back.

What the hell is she hiding? What caused this?

"You sound defensive, Senator," Sara said. "Still, a reporter can't help but think that the main purpose of the trip, especially for a potential '88 presidential candidate, might be to finally erase the memories of a decade ago."

Gregg could not help the intake of breath: Andrea, Succubus. Sara grinned: a predator's smile. He readied himself to assault her hatred again.

"I'd say the Great Jokertown Riot obsesses both of us, Senator," she continued, her voice deceivingly light. "I know it did when I wrote my piece on it. And your behavior after Succubus's death cost you the Democratic nomination that year. After all, she was only a whore-wasn't she, Senator?-and not worth your ... your littlebreakdown." The reminder made him flush. "I'll wager we've both thought about that moment every day since then," Sara continued. "It's been ten years now, and I still remember."

Puppetman wailed, retreating. Gregg was startled into silence. My God, what does she know, what is she hinting at?

He had no time to formulate a reply. Amy's voice spoke in his ear again. "Digger Downs is heading over at a trot, Senator. He's with Aces magazine-covers the entertainment types; a real sleazeball, if you ask me. Guess he saw Morgenstern and figured he'd listen in to a good reporter-"

"Hiya, folks," Downs's voice intruded before Amy had finished speaking. Gregg looked momentarily away from Sara to see a short, pallid young man. Downs fidgeted nervously, sniffing as if he had a head cold. "Mind another reporter's nosing in, Sara love?"

Downs was a maddening interruption, his manner rude and falsely familiar. He seemed to sense Gregg's turmoil. He grinned and looked from Sara to Gregg, ignoring Ellen and John.

"I think I've said all I want to-for the moment," Sara answered. Her pale aqua eyes were still locked on Gregg's; her face seemed childlike with feigned innocence. Then, with a lithe turn, she spun away from him, going toward Tachyon. Gregg stared after her.

"Chick's looking damn good these days, ain't she, Senator?" Downs grinned again. "Begging your pardon, of course, Mrs. Hartmann. Hey, let me introduce myself. I'm Digger Downs, with Aces magazine, and I'll be tagging along on this little venture. We'll be seeing a lot of each other."

Gregg, watching Sara disappear into the crowd around Tachyon, realized that Downs was staring at him strangely. With an effort he forced his attention away from Sara. "Pleased to meet you," he said to Downs.

His smile felt wooden. It made his cheeks ache.



Copyright © 1988 by George R. R. Martin