Black Trump 30
ng, but the look on Hannah's face seemed to stop him.
Quasiman's face went slack. A drop of saliva welled over a loose lower lip and ran down his chin. He smiled beatifically. "Glad I could help, Doctor," he said. "If you need anything else - "
He vanished. "Wait!" Mark shouted. "Oh, holy Christ! Wait!"
"Wait for what?" a voice said. "Who are you talking to, Doctor?"
Mark jumped. Jarnavon had come into the lab and was walking right toward him. He felt sweat enfold him like clammy Saran wrap.
Jarnavon walked up crisply, swiveling his head left and right. Green and yellow and red pilot lights danced across the lenses of his horn-rims.
"Hm," he said. "I thought you might be calling to a technician, but I don't see anybody."
He reached up to tip the glasses forward on his nose. "Who were you calling, Doctor?"
Mark collapsed into the swivel chair, feeling like a wrung-out bar rag.
"Ghosts," he said.
"Ghosts?" Jarnavon tittered. "Whose ghosts?"
"All the people you want me to murder."
♥ ♦ ♣ ♠
Nothing about the Mae Lang particularly recommended the ship, except for the fact that she was owned and captained by one Paddy O'Neal, whose daughter, Gregg learned, was Cara, the mouthless joker. If Captain O'Neal knew that Cara and her joker friends were Twisted Fists, he gave no indication of it. There were jokers among his crew, and O'Neal treated them no differently than any of the rest. Gregg and Hannah were given a cabin together. Brian had smirked as he'd told them; Hannah shrugged, but she'd also made certain that she and Gregg had no time together, that they were always with someone else. Gregg and Hannah had explored what little there was of the freighter in the first day of the passage. As a cruise ship, the Mae Lang was a miserable failure, but Hannah had feigned interest in everything. When they'd finally come back to the cabin, late that night, she'd immediately said how exhausted she was, and had fallen asleep in her clothes.
Because you're ugly. Because you're a worm and she's a nat ...
The voice had laughed all through his dreams.
Hannah wasn't in the cabin when Gregg woke up. For a minute, he lay there, curled up like a cat in the scratchy woolen coverlet at the foot of the bed, taking in the slow roll of the cabin and the briny smell of the sea. Gregg wasn't sure what time it was: early morning, by the slanting, swaying wedge of sunlight drifting across the room. He could see someone standing near the porthole, but his vision seemed worse than normal - he couldn't tell who it was.
"Hannah?" he called softly.
"No," answered a voice that Gregg recognized all too well.
"Quasi," he said. "You show up in the strangest places. What are you doing here?"
"Shopping," the hunchback said.
"Great place for it." Greg wriggled and stretched, then let his long body droop to the floor of the cabin until he was standing on his lower pair of legs. The rest of him followed, and he paddled over to the hunchback. Gregg looked up at the hunchback, who was staring vacantly into space. "Quasi?" Greg called again, louder. "Hey, Quasi!"
Quasiman blinked. Otherwise, there was no reaction. His right leg disappeared, and he toppled over as stiff as a marionette, leaning at an angle against the cabin wall.
"Great," Gregg muttered. "Hannah's gone, and Quasi's stuck in neutral." Gregg went over to the door. Hannah hadn't latched it - it opened. As he started out, he heard a pop behind him. When he looked back, Quasiman was gone.
The narrow corridor smelled of the cattle crowded into the decks below. Rust bled through most of the riveted seams of the wall, staining white paint gone yellow with age. At the end of the corridor a grimy window in another door showed the bobbing gray sea horizon. Gregg went through it.
Cold wind damp with salt spray hit his clown nose, fragrant with decay and cow dung. The decking was wet and slippery. A steel railing drooped rusty chains along the flank of the ships superstructure, blurred in Gregg's vision. Gregg sniffed, smelled nothing out of the ordinary. He went right.
Gregg heard the voices before he turned the corner around the stern: Hannah and Brian. Gregg wasn't sure what made him stop there, the words or the harsh tone of Hannah's voice.
"... back off. Now."
"Now, lass, I saw you with the caterpillar. I can't be less a man than that."
Brian. For a moment, Gregg thought the man's voice sounded like that of Puppetman, oily and sinister in Gregg's head, and a queasy and strangely jealous fright settled deep in him. Gregg didn't wait to hear more. He came around the corner to see a blurred Brian pressed close to Hannah, his head no higher than her waist. Brian saw Gregg at the same time - the joker turned toward the intrusion. "Hey - " Gregg began, raising up on his hind legs.
Brian kicked him.
The blow, entirely unexpected, came from an out-of-focus left field. Gregg felt the world snap into slow motion around him as his body jolted backwards into overdrive. Six legs pumped wildly and out of control. Gregg went skidding madly up the side of the ship, careened upside down across the metallic overhang and back down one of the supports. Fighting for control, he skittered along the rail like an insane tightrope walker on speed, balanced precariously on the edge of a drop into the rolling, greasy waves of the sea below. He shot past Hannah and Brian ("Mother of God! I've never seen the like of that ...") and slammed headlong into the next roof support. That dropped Gregg back onto the deck and redoubled his speed. He shot past the two going the other way, bounced off the low bar of the railing, and bulleted along the walkway like a ball down a pinball chute. He hit another support near the forward turn, and went tumbling down a set of metal stairs to the deck. He felt none of it; the body simply kept moving, the legs flailing.
He passed Captain O'Neal, out on morning inspection, somewhere on the forward lower deck. The man watched Gregg with wary eyes as he slid into the greasy anchor chain and reversed direction, finally starting to gain some control over his wild retreat. "Do you exercise like this every morning, man?"
Gregg didn't answer. Furious with himself, he pointed himself in the direction of the stairs and headed back toward Hannah. By the time he reached the stern again, he had slowed to normal.
He could also hear Brian screaming.
"Let me go, you crazy woman! Are you insane?" Gregg squinted. Hannah was holding Brian out beyond the railing by the front of his shirt, high above the foaming wake of the Mae Lang, his jacket half-off. His legs kicked wildly, and even in Gregg's near-sighted vision, he could see the red veins popping in Brian's emerald face. "Damn you, woman!"
Hannah's anger arced like fire in his head. He could taste it, rich and sweet, and he could also sense the control she had of it, iron wrapping the flames. "You want me to let go, Brian?" Hannah asked all too sweetly. "No problem ..."
"No!" Brian shrieked, and his fingers dug into Hannah's forearms. "Blood of Christ, bring me in! Bring me in! I can't swim!"
You could take away that control. You could stoke the flames so they melt the iron....
"You're going to leave me alone? You're going to behave?"
"Swear it," Hannah said. The wind threw salt spray into Brian's face; the joker sputtered.
Do it now, hissed the voice. Do it now. She hates the man, hates everything he stands for. It would be so easy, and his death would taste good. And afterward, her guilt for dessert ...
"I swear," Brian shouted. "I'll leave you be. Just put me down."
No! Gregg shouted back. I won't listen to you. I don't know you.
Oh, you know me, Greggie. You could even give me a name, if you weren't so afraid.
No! Gregg forced the voice out of his mind. He sagged, and his link with Hannah suddenly dissolved. He could feel nothing from her; he was only watching.
"All right," Hannah was saying to Brian. She brought the joker back over the railing and set him on the deck. Brian shrugged his jacket back around his shoulders. He glared at Hannah, at Gregg, watching them. Gregg thought the man was going to say somethi
Brian brushed at his shirt where Hannah's fingers had wrinkled it, and stalked silently away.
"I guess he wasn't in the mood for a dip," Hannah said. Gregg looked away from Brian's retreat to see Hannah gazing at him. He dropped his gaze.
"Yeah. I noticed," Gregg said, and the exhaustion in his voice surprised him. The adrenaline high was gone, and what energy he had left had gone in the mental battle. The bland, ugly grayness of the morning matched his thoughts.
"Gregg? What's the matter?"
"I'm ..." I'm haunted. I'm visited by the ghosts of dead things. Gregg groped for words, trying to define the boundaries of his feelings. "I used to know what I was there for, what I could do." Yes, and look at what you did with those powers ... It was the softer voice this time. "At least, I thought so. But now ..."
"Gregg," Hannah said softly, crouching down beside him so that he could see her face, sharply focused against the blurred background of the frothing sea. "You wanted to be my knight in white armor just now? Is that it?"
"No. Well, maybe." Gregg sniffed a loud liquid sound from the clown nose. "If you had needed me, I'd've been a hell of a lot of help, wouldn't I?"
I could have helped. From deep inside. Bitter.
Hannah smiled, and he hated the gentleness of it. "I don't know. You were quite a distraction, actually."
"Hannah - "
"I'm sorry," she said. The smile faded on her lips. "Gregg, I ... I've always believed that things happen for a purpose. There was a reason I was dragged into this with the church fire; there was a reason that we found out about the Sharks before they could finish the Trump. And there's a reason why you're still alive."
There's a reason why the old power is returning. But Gregg, you have to control it this time. You cant listen to it. You have to be the one in charge ...
"Even as a joker?" Gregg asked, and he wasn't sure whether he was talking to Hannah or the voice.
"Even as a joker " Hannah answered quietly. Her hand started toward him, hesitated, and finally brushed along his long spine. "You're alive, Gregg. You could just as easily be dead. From what you've told me, you should be. And there's a reason. I know it."
"I wish I did," Gregg told her. "I really wish I did."
♥ ♦ ♣ ♠
Mark fanned the STM pictures on the black tabletop like a hand of cards. Dr. Carter Jarnavon leaned over his shoulder to peer at them. The smell of his hair cream was like fingers poking up Mark's nostrils.
Mark had a single straw to cling to, to keep his sense of self afloat. If only this jerk doesn't see it.
"We're making progress," he said, tasting bile at the back of his throat. "Cobbling together the BT virus without the transposon is reducing the DNA recombination rate, just the way the lab notes say."
Jarnavon bent close to peer at the images. Mark felt sweat bead along his hairline. "And how are the cultures doing? Is this really leading to more viable strains?"
Mark struggled. "Sometimes." He tapped a computer screen aglow with tables. "Some variants survive as long as seven generations. But it's, like, a crapshoot, man. They're more likely to die out after one or two, or even fail to reproduce; the average is two generations. Which isn't what you're looking for."
"No," Jarnavon said, shaking his head gravely. "Mr. Casaday wants no limits at all."
Mark sighed and swiveled his chair to face him. Inside he was just a big bag of wet matted blackness. Since Quasiman's visit to the lab Mark had replayed the ace's parting words over in his mind daily. Hell; hourly, more like it, awake or asleep.
And every iteration drove another nail of certainty through his skull: He's not coming back. He thinks he already has, thinks he's rescued Sprout, thinks he's brought the drugs so I can whistle up one of my friends and save the day. By the time Quasiman got his jingle-jangle time-sense squared away, all the world's wild cards were likely to be just another odd historical interlude, like communism, but even briefer.
"Like I've told him," Mark said, not forgetting to whine, "he can just shoot me now, then. It's like the nature of this thing to instable. An average generation span of six, seven, maybe ten at the way outside is the best we can shoot for."
His lips twisted. "That should give him what he wants, anyway. After seven generations, the only wild cards left will be the ones isolated from the rest of humanity. Out on mountaintops and stuff." Like Fortunato. Can he avenge us? Will he bother?
"Or quarantined, of course," Jarnavon said. "As you will be, Doctor."
Mark turned away.
Jarnavon shook his head. Pungent cream slimed down his brief rusty-brown hair, but a cowlick poked stubbornly up in back.
"Doctor, Doctor," he said, "you're a good man. You want to do the right thing. That's one of the things I've always admired about you."
"I guess we admire those who are what we aren't," Mark said.
It was as if a shutter slammed shut before the youthful face, like a Navy signal lamp. You bloody fool! Trav chimed from the back of Mark's skull. Don't bait him! He can expose your whole mad scheme! I told you no good would come of this....
The researcher recovered quickly, smiled. One of those hail-fellow trying-to-be-one-of-the-guys smiles, as of a nerd who doesn't yet realize the reason all the jocks are laughing is that one of them has covertly set his shoestring on fire.
Mark had been there. Only he had moved on.
"Heh," Jarnavon said, "heh-heh." He shook his head. "Don't you see, Doctor? What we're - what you're doing here is right. It's for humanity."
He felt anger rise like lava inside him, fenced it behind his teeth. "Murdering all the jokers and aces in the world is for humanity?" he demanded. "Give me a break!"
Behind thick lenses Jarnavon's eyes glowed with apostolic fervor. "But it is. In a few generations most of the population of the Earth will be jokers - sad, twisted, tortured souls. Long before that the aces will have taken over. Nats will be nowhere; they'll be slaves, then cattle, and then extinct. I know you're not working toward that, Doctor, but overall it's inevitable. It's biology.
"I know what we're doing, what we're asking you to do, seems harsh. But it's necessary to save humanity - the nat majority. You used to be a hippie, Doctor. Remember that old slogan, power to the people?"
He raised a hand as it to give Mark a brotherly pat on the shoulder, caught the look in Mark's eye, dropped the hand back to his white-smocked side.
"Think of it," he said, "as the greatest good for the greatest number."
Mark turned away. He had no answer. He had believed that once, too. Experience had shown him with brutal clarity where such false compassion culminated: in long lines marching to the showers, lumps of pumice they had been told was soap clutched in their hands.
Squeaks and rustles as the younger man bobbed in his shiny black shoes. "Speaking just for myself, I'm pleased at the progress you're making. More than pleased - amazed. You really are a genius, Doctor."
Mark swallowed and shut his eyes.
"Mr. Casaday has high expectations," Jarnavon said. "But he also has a great grasp of the realities. I'm glad I'll be able to tell him you're making good progress."
He hesitated, dropped his voice to a near-conspiratorial murmur. "I'd hate to see him give your little girl to Layton or Ditmar, Doctor. Really I would."
Mark's shoulders knotted. For a few moments he listened to Jarnavon breathing heavily behind him, and then the squeak-squeak-squeak of the younger man walking away.
When the lab door closed he relaxed in a shuddering expellation of breath.
Yes! he exulted silently. His pulse became thready with something like triumph. He didn't more than glance at the imaging. Although he doubted Jarnavon had the skill to read what was truly here, Mark had feared. Profoundly.
Because that was the unwitting favor the Trump creator had done Mark. Along with showing the way to turn the virus into an even greater evil, the unknown researcher had also provided the perfect ca
mouflage for Mark's other project, which might save the wild cards - and, incidentally, Mark's vision of himself as a decent human being.
Because there was a way to beat the Black Trump: overtrump it.
The pictures lying on the back rubberized tabletop showed a strain of the Trump paired to a highly infectious but generally mild flu - a simple process, basically a reprise of work already done. But this was a special species of Black Trump: a scorpion without its sting. To the body's immune system, it looked like the Trump.
But it was no more lethal than the common cold.
The Overtrump could be used to create vaccine. Riskier but quicker would be to release it deliberately as a counter-infection, like fighting a forest blaze with a back-fire.
It was an edge-hanging game Mark played. He dared not document his real work; he had to keep everything in his head, and concoct a reasonable cover tor his Overtrump development. That was just possible by carefully compartmentalizing the tasks he assigned the techs who actually ran the lab's advanced equipment; none of them knew enough to piece together what he was doing, or had any reason to question it.
Of course, they might talk among themselves, and some bright boy - his helpers were exclusively male - might make a connection. Or Dr. Carter Jarnavon might have a brainstorm.
The worst danger was that Jarnavon's adulation for the older scientist might overcome his apparent natural laziness, lead him to go systematically over all Mark's work. He did know enough to spot that a number of Mark's experiments were apparently superfluous, and he could probably take it from there.
Keeping all the data in his brain, and covering it with reams of hardcopy counterfeit, made Mark's head hurt. The strain of his double game kept the hum of low-level stress constant in his ears. He fought ceaseless blinding headaches, could barely keep down food. He longed for the shelter offered by his old girlfriend Mary Jane, but that was denied him - his opium-growing hosts disapproved of smoking dope.
He even longed for that release which, except for a few weeks after Sprout was taken from him by a New York court, never had much appeal for him: to crawl into a bottle and hide. But while his captors didn't object to booze, and were more than willing to provide him with it - or anything he might ask for, except drugs or freedom - he didn't dare drink, He couldn't afford the mental fog - or the risk of lubricating his lips.