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Black Trump

Black Trump

Black Trump 56


  "Yes," she said. She brushed hair back from her forehead, as if what she were saying was simple small talk. "It means all of us here die. One way or the other. What the hell. We can die sitting here until the virus kills us. Or we die when the bomb goes off."

  "What are you saying?" the Black Dog asked. His breathing was labored, and he hung onto Hannah. The Fist had lost a great deal of blood, and Gregg could feel him fighting against shock and pain - a table laid out for the feast. Puppetman hungered.

  "Your nuke," Hannah told him. She swept her free arm out, taking in the square and the city beyond. "Look at this. The virus is out there, killing. The panic's already spreading. People are going to get into cars, into boats, into airplanes. They'll flee - and some of them will be carrying the virus. Where they go - Damascus, Tel Aviv, Cairo, Athens, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Rome, London, New York - they'll bring the virus there. Unless we stop it. Now."

  No! shouted Puppetman in reply. I won't let you! I'm BACK, damn it! I'm not going to die now, not again! The mind-creature hurled himself at the bars inside Gregg's head, and Gregg staggered with the impact. Fuck you! it shrieked. Goddamn it, let me OUT!

  For a moment, the power was free, and Puppetman went tearing madly at the strings to Hannah. Gregg caught him, dragged the thing back while it tore and scraped at him with mental claws and fangs, spitting and hissing. You idiot! You fool! She wants to KILL us!

  You can't touch her. I told you. I won't allow it.

  She doesn't goddamn LOVE you, Greggie. You've seen the rotten shit inside her; you've seen the way she really feels.

  You're wrong. Anyway, she's right - this is what we have to do.

  And you're suddenly a moral paragon? You're a saint? I KNOW you, you shit. We always wanted the same things, down inside. You wanted it all the same way I did. And you know what? YOU brought me back. You brought me back. You brought me back because you missed it.

  Liar! The rage allowed Gregg to grasp the power and hurl it back into darkness, slamming the bars in place once again. Liar! He breathed hard, raggedly, allowing himself to see the world around him again. While he'd been away, wrestling with Puppetman, the Black Dog had come to his own decision.

  "I thought we were on opposite sides," the Black Dog said to Hannah.

  "Are we still?"

  "I guess sides don't much matter anymore," the Black Dog told her. "We need to hurry."

  "Gregg?" Hannah had turned to him. He could feel the fire of her gaze.

  Noooooo! "Yes," Gregg told her. "I'll help. It's the only way we can end this."

  I'm not going to let it happen, Greggie. The voice snarled deep down in its cage. I tell you now: I'm not going to let you kill us.

  Limping, hobbling, the three of them made their way down streets bright with fire through the maddened, terrified city.

  "There," the Black Dog grunted at last. He pointed down a cul-de-sac. Centuries-old buildings hemmed in the narrow entrance. "Damn!"

  Gregg looked. An ancient, slat-sided truck was rumbling as someone revved the engine, gunning it again and again. Twisted Fists were offloading something from the rear into a garage behind the truck. They looked up as Gregg, Hannah, and the Black Dog approached.

  "What the hell are you doing?" the Black Dog snapped. "Who told you to unload the nuke, Bruckner?"

  A florid-faced man in an Andy Capp hat leaned out from the drivers window. "My decision, mate," he said in a thick, lower-class British accent. His headlights speared out into the night. "I'm getting the hell out of here. Anybody that wants to go with me, they're welcome."

  "You can't do that," Hannah shouted over the thunder of the truck. She looked at the jokers milling around the truck, clambering over the side into the back. Even with Gregg's near-sighted eyes, he could see the bruises on some of their arms; he could see jokers helping fevered, unconscious brethren onto the truck. "Some of them are infected. You'll just spread the virus."

  "Get out of my way, lady," Bruckner snarled in return. "You're in my way."

  "You can't!"

  "I can. I will. And I'll run you the hell over if you try to stop me."

  The Black Dog had thrown off Hannah's support. Now he reached for the Uzi still strapped around him, bringing the weapon to bear on Bruckner and the truck. "I give the orders here," the Black Dog said. "And I say - "

  A single shot echoed, cutting off the statement. The Black Dog grunted and his body twisted around violently, the Uzi flying out of his weak grasp. As the Black Dog crumpled, Bruckner gunned the truck and jammed it into gear. Hannah and Gregg pressed against the walls as the truck went by in a wave of exhaust and sandy dust, the headlights blinding them as it passed. Hannah ran to the Black Dog as Bruckner and his load of jokers careened around the corner and out of sight. The Black Dog grimaced as she lifted him up, and Gregg saw the red wetness spreading across his abdomen. "Goddamn!" the Fist said. "Goddamn! My own people ..."

  "The nuke," Hannah said.

  "In there." The Black Dog pointed to the open doors of the garage. The Black Dog tried to rise, couldn't. Hannah bent down, facing away from him. "Arms around my neck," she said. "Hold on." With the Black Dog on her back, she managed to stagger into the garage and shut the doors, while Gregg examined the machinery inside.

  The nuke had been partially disassembled, the metal shell removed to show wiring and the packs of conventional explosives arranged carefully around the inner core. "It looks complicated," Gregg said.

  "It's actually three bombs," the Black Dog answered. "A nuclear device is two atomic weapons of sub-critical mass, surrounded by another conventional bomb. That one's really the key; it's a carefully shaped explosion which will force the two sections together into one supercritical mass. A nuke is a dance of death. The conventional explosive - attached to the timer - must go off at the exact moment the two radioactive sections are released. Otherwise ..." The Black Dog grimaced and slumped down to a sitting position, his back to the wall near the doors. "So tired," he said. "It hurts."

  "What do we do?" Hannah asked.

  Behind the mask, the Black Dog's eyes had closed. Now they opened again. "Balthazar did some re-wiring" the Black Dog said. His breath rattled, liquid. "The timer's there, on top. All you have to do is press a damn button, and the sequence starts: ten minutes, and boom!" The Black Dog started a laugh that turned into a bloody cough. He wiped at his mouth and smeared blood over the mask. "Just one thing" he said when he'd recovered. "Once you start it, you can't stop it."

  "What do you mean?" Gregg asked. "That's the stupidest - "

  "We were going to drop it off for the Nur, remember?" the Black Dog said. "Balthazar rigged it so that if you tamper with it, or pull the wires, you set off the conventional explosive."

  The timing device hung on a tangle of wires over the front of the mess, incomprehensible Cyrillic characters inscribed on the black steel. Hannah crouched alongside Gregg, and the closeness of her caused Puppetman to slam against the walls of Gregg's brain. The device had been simplified: a large red button, protected by a plastic shield, had been set in the center. The Black Dog had wanted to make it simple for Bruckner to set the timer and make his escape.

  That would make it easy for them now.

  No! Puppetman shrilled insistently inside Gregg, You can't!

  This time, as Gregg tried to push the power back down, Puppetman slithered desperately from his grasp. For a moment, the tints around Hannah deepened. He could feel the desperation that drove Hannah, and within it the sliver of doubt that he knew must be there.

  Take her! he heard Puppetman whispering. The woman's mad, and she's about to kill thousands upon thousands of innocent people. You think the guilt of a few deaths is going to compare to that? How stained will your soul be if you allow this to happen?

  Leave me alone! Gregg screamed, and he pulled back at the power, trying to drag it back into himself. This is what I want. This way I pay back all my sins!

  This isn't about you, Greggie. It's me.

  You ARE me! Gre
gg cried. We're the same!

  Puppetman laughed, and for a moment, it ignored the strings, forgot about Hannah. You finally admit that? it asked. After all these years ...

  Gregg placed mental arms around the power, using its momentary lapse to take it off balance and pull it back inside. For long seconds they struggled, wrestling inside Gregg. When he finally managed to throw Puppetman down, to place the cage around it once more, Gregg was exhausted. He came back to reality slowly, as if he'd been gone hours.

  It had been only a moment. Hannah shook her head as if ridding herself of the shreds of a bad dream and pulled aside the shield on the timer.

  "Any last reservations?" she asked, her forefinger poised above the button.

  The Black Dog coughed and didn't answer. "Gregg?" Hannah asked.

  "Do it," he told her, ignoring the shrill denial inside him.

  Hannah pressed down. There was a soft click, then the timer on the bomb hummed, the numbers flickering on the LED display:

  10:00

  9:59

  9:58

  ♥ ♦ ♣ ♠

  As Ray had wandered through the Old City looking for Harvest he'd noticed medical stations flying the UN flag. He took Quasiman to the nearest one. They had to be careful not to step on any of the dead or dying patients lying on stretchers or the pavement, stacked up around the building that had once been a church.

  Ray pushed through to a man in a once-white coat wearing a UN arm-band and carrying a clipboard. "He's got a vaccine for the Trump!" Ray announced, pushing Quasiman forward. "Some kind of counter-virus or something ..."

  "Really." The doctor looked unspeakably weary. "And who are you?"

  Ray drew himself up straight. "My name is Billy Ray. I'm a Special Agent for the U.S. government."

  "Go away," the doctor said, "we're very busy here."

  Ray grabbed the doctor's arm. He put steel in the grip and in his voice. "Listen, moron, Quasiman here came from halfway around the world to save our asses. Give him a chance! Tell him what you've got. Quasi."

  The hunchback turned blank eyes on Ray. "What do I have?"

  "Oh, Jesus, don't space out on me now!"

  The doctor would have looked panicky if he'd had the strength. He tried without much energy and no success to pull away from Ray. "Young man - "

  A woman approached, interrupting them. "What's going on here?" She, too, looked tired and feverish.

  "This man is insane, Sheila. He's babbling about a cure for the Black Trump."

  She peered at him blearily. And suddenly Ray knew her ...

  "I'm a government agent," Ray said desperately. "I met you in Atlanta, at the Democratic convention in '88. Some reception for Hartmann delegates ... asked you out. You turned me down. Remember?"

  "Ray ... Billy Ray." The name seemed to suddenly stick in her conscious. "Yes, I remember." She looked closely at him. "What happened to your face?"

  Ray waved it aside. "I screwed it up so that I could go underground and join the Twisted Fists. Listen! Quasiman has a cure for the Black Trump. Well, not a cure, really, a vaccine or something. He brought it from Mark Meadows."

  "Meadows? Mark Meadows?" She seemed to be having problems following Ray's story.

  "Yes. Mark. Meadows. The biochemist. Got it?"

  Davidson nodded. "Yes. Yes, I think I do."

  "This is nonsense," the doctor said. "Even if this man is who he says he is, why, we don't know what that, that other fellow has. We have to test it, double-blind - "

  "Test my ass!" Ray roared. "What the fuck difference does it make? Everyone here is dead, anyway! What could it hurt?"

  Davidson seemed to shake off her lethargy. "Yes, he's right. Meadows is a brilliant biochemist. If he's succeeded we'll soon know. If he hasn't ... well ..." her voice trailed off, hopelessly. "We'll administer the serum."

  "I won't allow this ... this travesty!" the doctor said. "I'll - "

  "You'll what?" Ray said, picking him up one handed and slamming him against a wall. The doctor fell silent. Ray dropped him.

  Quasiman seemed to rouse himself as Ray unstrapped the canister from his back. "Hannah," he said distinctly. "Don't!" And he vanished.

  Ray was left holding the canister of the Overtrump.

  "Don't what?" Sheila Davidson asked.

  Ray turned to her. He noticed for the first time that her perspiration was tinged with blood. "Uh ... don't waste time. Spray everyone. Listen, why don't you take some of this stuff yourself? It couldn't hurt."

  She smiled at him, but it was a pained, wan smile. "No. I don't suppose it could ..."

  ♥ ♦ ♣ ♠

  Hannah sank down, sitting with her back to the ugly device. She seemed empty. There were no colors around her at all.

  "We've got company," the Black Dog said from alongside the door. They could all hear it: muffled shouts, and hammering on the warehouse doors. The doors bowed, and they could glimpse torchlight between them, and the front rank of a crowd. There were angry faces there, joker and nat alike, and their fury swelled like a red wave, threatening to tear down the doors all by itself. Gregg shivered with the power of the crowd-emotions. "The locks aren't going to hold."

  "Stay back!" Hannah shouted at them, her voice small against the growing roar outside. Something hard rammed the doors, bending them. "There's a bomb in here! Get away!" Hannah glanced at Gregg. She's mine! Mine! "They could still stop us," she said. "I wish the damn thing would hurry up!" Then she laughed, almost hysterically. "Listen to me," she said. "Rooting for a damn nuclear explosion."

  Gregg looked around the room; the curved steel plates that had once covered the nuke were leaning against the walls of the room. Gregg went to one of them and sniffed its delightful sheen. "Hannah," he said. "Grab these. Put them in front of the door. That's it - jam them in tight. Here, take this bar and stick it on like a brace ..." Gregg directed the building of a loose barrier of metal around the door. In a few minutes, they had an impressive heap in front of the door.

  "That's not going to keep anyone out," Hannah said. "None of it's attached to anything."

  "Give me a second...."

  Gregg scrambled up until he stood on top of the heap. He looked at the metal, let its delicious tang fill him.

  And he vomited, carefully, again and again, as he moved around the mess. In a few moments, the metal began to sag and fuse, the plates melting into each other, the bars and braces fusing into the adjoining pieces. The biological welds created a massive unit of steel: plates, bars, hinges and locks, all lumped around the wood and effectively sealing them in.

  "There," Gregg told Hannah and Puppetman. "Now it's over. Forever. No way out, no way in." And there's nothing you can do about it, he told Puppetman. Nothing.

  Inside, Puppetman fumed. Gregg huddled by Hannah and wondered what death would feel like. He snuck a glance at the LEDs.

  6:00

  5:59

  For four minutes now, they'd had time to contemplate their lives, and their deaths. There was nothing to say. None of them spoke. Gregg wondered if there was silence in Hannah or the Black Dog's minds. There certainly was none inside his.

  There's still time to stop it! Still time!

  All of Gregg's strength went to keeping Puppetman down. He had nothing left for anything else.

  "Hannah?"

  The voice startled all of them. Hannah scrambled to her feet, trying to bring the Black Dog's Uzi to bear, Gregg skittered reflexively back several feet until he bumped into the wheel of the bomb trailer. Hannah fumbled with the safety, then laughed. "Quasi!" she shouted, dropping the Uzi and hugging the joker. Then the laughter died. "Oh, Quasi, you have to leave here. Now."

  "Hell, yes," Gregg said excitedly. Optimism suddenly flooded through him. We're going to get out of this! We're going to LIVE! "And he can tale us with him." Inside, Puppetman suddenly yammered in hope.

  "One at a time. That's all I can do."

  "Hey," Gregg told the hunchback, and a voice echoed him from inside. He's got to take
you first. Chances are he'll take Hannah somewhere else and then totally forget what he's doing. He'll never make it back in time. You first ... US first.... "No problem. One at a time, then."

  "Gregg," Hannah said. She waved a hand at the bomb, at the timing mechanism. "Remember this?"

  "So what?" Gregg told her. "It's all set. We're not infected Hannah. There's no reason we have to die here. Not now. The bomb will go off on its own. Let it do it while we're somewhere else."

  "No," Quasi said.

  I'll goddamn MAKE you ... Puppetman seethed. Let me have him, Greegie. Almost, Gregg let the power loose, but he held it back another moment. "Quasi, we don't exactly have a lot of time for discussion here."

  "Someone has to stay. I've seen it."

  "Why, Quasi?" Hannah asked far more gently than Gregg would have. "Why does someone have to stay?"

  "The Overtrump," Quasiman answered. "I brought the ..." He seemed to forget the word, then his face brightened. "... stuff. From Mark." Quasiman stopped. His left hand disappeared and his gaze went vacant. A thin line of drool trickled from one side of his mouth.

  Hannah took Quasimans head in her hands, forcing him to look at her and causing a surge of irrational jealousy in Gregg. "Quasi, please. What are you trying to say?"

  For long seconds, there was no answer. "Quasi..." Hannah said again, and the joker shook himself. He smiled at her, and Gregg could feel again the outwelling colors of his love for Hannah. "A cold," he told her. "Complete sentences. The Overtrump is the cure ... like a cold ... only then you don't get the Black Trump ..."

  "Oh, God." Hannah let her hands drop. She looked at Quasiman as if he were an accusation. "You're not joking? It works?"

  "Works," Quasi nodded. "Working already. You need to stop ..." For a second, Quasiman's entire upper body winked out of existence, returning eerily a moment later. "I ..." he said. "I need to take Hannah with me. I ... can't hold it together any longer. It's getting too hard. I'll ... forget." The agony in his voice was exquisite. Puppetman howled.

  "Going now," Quasiman said. "Hannah ..." He opened his arms. Hannah looked back at Gregg.