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Actions & Adventure
History & Fiction
Thrillers & Crime
Romance & Love
Mystery & Detective
Time News Roman
George R. R. Martin
Black Trump 6
"I ... can't ... move ... my ... left ... side ..."
He toppled and hit the cabin floor without even trying to break his fall. In moments he lay in a pool of blood that ran from his nose, eyes, mouth, and the horrible gunshot wound in his head, as well as the hundreds of tiny ruptures that had opened in the skin all over his body.
"Help ... me ... Billlll...."
Whatever vitality powered the engine of Puckett's body had finally run out. Ray stared as Bobby Joe Puckett continued to leak blood and fluid and unidentifiable slime. He seemed to melt, liquefying before Ray's horrified eyes.
Ray stifled a scream. He had never felt such fear in his life. The Black Trump wasn't a foe he could fight. It was an insidious, cowardly force that tore invisibly at your body, breaking it down until you were nothing more than a nauseating pool of puke.
Without thinking he went to the center of the cabin and kicked at the emergency escape hatch. The door popped open and air went screaming from the cabin as it suddenly depressurized. Oxygen masks fell down from the ceiling. Ray went past them. The pilot came on the intercom, asking, "What's going on in there!"
"Don't come in here!" Ray screamed. "Stay out!"
He snatched one of the oxygen masks and took a couple of deep breaths. He let go of the mask and grabbed a seat cushion. He approached what was left of Puckett's body and used the cushion to push it to the cabin door where it was sucked out and away, falling down to the ocean below, Ray mopped up what fluid he could with the cushion and a couple of pillows, letting them fly out the door when they got soaked.
When he could clean up no more of the goop that had been Bobby Joe Puckett, he just stood and stared at the dark stain on the cabin carpet where Puckett had lain. He kept the emergency exit open a long time, breathing from the oxygen masks dangling from the ceiling.
After twenty minutes or so, he shut the door. He stayed on the canned oxygen for the rest of the trip to D.C.
But he wondered if it wasn't already too late. The Black Trump had killed an ace who was already dead, an ace whom neither flood for fire nor God himself could kill.
And he'd been exposed to it. He put his hand on his forehead. Was he already feeling a little warm?
♥ ♦ ♣ ♠
"Colonel Sucharayan," the President of the Republic of Free Vietnam said, "you've been trying to divert the Mekong River again. That's got to stop. Now."
As if for emphasis she swung her legs around and draped them over the arm of her heavy French Colonial chair of carved teak and green velvet upholstery. She wore what appeared to be tight-fitting black Danskins, and a black half-mask, figured to turn her face into a living yin-yang. Her hair was black, heavy, and unbound.
Despite the bat-wing swish of the fan suspended on a brass stalk from the ceiling high overhead, which at least kept the lethal Saigon afternoon air circulating, a trickle of sweat ran down one side of the Michoacan clay mask which served the Thai ambassador for a face. He was not used to being addressed in that tone of voice by a mere woman. Not to mention one whose dress and behavior were nothing less than scandalous.
On the other hand Royal Thai Army intelligence had it on good authority that she could rip the colonel's arm off as casually as he might pull the wings from a fly. That she was an ace stacked insult atop injury. Still, the situation called for circumspection.
"Madame President," the ambassador said, bowing his head. His English was excellent. He had received training at Fort Bliss. "Muang Thai requires much water to supply the rice-growing lands of the Khorat Plateau. We must feed our people. Surely the Mekong belongs to all the peoples along its banks."
The President's audience hall had once been the great room of the grand French colonial villa in the heart of Saigon - the unwieldy name "Ho Chi Minh City" was scarcely a memory anymore - which had been co-opted as the seat of government for Free Vietnam. It was as unorthodox as its occupant, being hung to either side of the chair of state with parachutes tie-dyed into ludicrous fireworks-bursts of color. Both were hard for the Colonel to take seriously.
Moonchild wagged a finger at him. "And by both treaty and custom the people downstream from your country are entitled to a share."
"That is a very difficult question," the colonel murmured. "There is great drought in my country."
"Which you brought on your own damned selves," said the person who stood at the President's shoulder. A meter and three quarters tall, with the white-feathered and fiercely beaked head of a bird of prey, and claws to match emerging from the sleeves of his tiger-pattern camouflage battle dress, he twisted the colonel's sensibilities. Southeast Asians, by and large, had a loathing for human deformity, and thus for jokers. "You cut down all the trees in your country, for Chrissakes. Fucked up your watershed something fierce. Not our fault."
Sucharayan's thin lips drew tighter, giving the impression his face might be about to implode. "The internal affairs of my country are no concern of yours," he hissed.
"When you interfere with the flow of water to the farmers of the Mekong Delta, you make it our affair," Moonchild said. She raised her legs and spun on her butt until she faced forward, then placed her black-slippered feet primly on the floor. The colonel's eyes started out of his head.
The joker thrust his yellow break forward so that its hooked tip was inches from Sucharayan's nose. "Keep trying to steal our water," he said, "and you're engraving yourself an invitation to an entire world of hurt."
The colonel puffed up like a frog. "If you are making threats, permit me to assure you that the Royal Thai Army - "
"Can't find its butt with both hands." The joker raised his head and emitted horrid cawing laughter. "Remember those Thai Ranger teams you infiltrated through Cambodia, back when Bush was President? The ones with the Green Beanie advisors? How they like us now, baby?"
The colonel put his finger inside his collar, where pressure from his necktie was chafing him. He did not look happy. It had been necessary to liquidate several of the survivors of the missions the Thai Rangers had undertaken in cooperation with the American DEA and Special Forces, to prevent them telling demoralizing tales.
"That's right," the joker said. "You keep messing with the Mekong, shit's gonna happen. You dig? Your officials are going to start acting weird. River monsters will run off your workers. Your heavy equipment's gonna burn. There will be problems."
Moonchild held up a hand and gave a little Queen Elizabeth wave. "Peace, Colonel Inmon." She smiled sweetly. "I'm sure he wants to get along just as much as we do."
She giggled. The colonel stared at her. Sweat streamed down his face.
A woman - a girl really, no more than eighteen - came bouncing into the audience hall. Not just any girl, but a tall glorious Occidental girl with hair like spun gold, wearing a floppy sun hat, a red halter top, and cut-off jeans that showed how impossibly long her legs were. In one hand she held a string bag full of oranges. The other cradled a pink teddy bear to her breasts. She was every tinpot Third World dark-sunglasses-wearing fascist brickhead colonel's ideal vision of what a Western woman ought to be.
A pair of jokers so hideous the colonel couldn't bear to look at them followed her in. They spread out to either side, flanking the door with AKM assault rifles held ready. Trying to ignore the scrutiny of five unfriendly eyes, the colonel watched the girl skip to the President, lean forward and plant a kiss on her unmasked cheek.
"Hi, Isis," she sang in a little-girl voice. "I'm ba-ack!"
"So glad to see you, Sprout, dear," the President said. "Run along now, please. I've important business to tend to."
"Sure." The girl turned, flashed a smile dazzling enough for a beer commercial at the colonel, who was making no effort to hide an expression of sheer disgust. Then she went bopping out of the room, all unconcern.
Sprout," the President said, eyes lingering on the door she'd left by. "My - that is, my chancellor's daughter."
"A most charming creature," Sucharayan said in a voice starched
"Yes she is, isn't she?" The President grinned at him. "Now, then, Colonel, I'm sure the Kingdom of Thailand is as eager as we are to see relationships between our two countries remain friendly. We can work this out."
"No doubt we can," the Colonel said.
"So," the President said, crossing her legs and rubbing her hands together, "now that we've got business out of the way - you wouldn't happen to have a daughter, would you, Colonel?"
♥ ♦ ♣ ♠
Jay Ackroyd shook two aspirin out of the jumbo bottle he kept in his desk drawer and washed them down with a swallow of cold coffee from yesterday's pot. Then he made a face. The stuff tasted like Rondo Hatten's socks.
He wondered how his junior partner was doing. They should have heard something by now.
Peter Pann was asleep on the long leather couch in the corner of Jay's office, snoring a sweet little eleven-year-old snore. His tie was loosened and his shoes were off. "Wake me up when the tink gets back," he'd told Jay before nodding off, hours ago.
"What the hell is taking so damn long?" Jay said irritably.
Across his desk, Melissa Blackwood looked up from her little bitty computer. It was the latest experimental prototype, she'd explained to him, a NEC Neuromancer powerdeck with bubble memory and holographic display, wouldn't be on the market for another two years, minimum. "We don't even know if he's been arrested yet," she said. Readout flickered in the air in front of her eyes, phantom letters that Jay found vaguely disconcerting. "And they will probably want to interrogate him before they take him to wherever the others are being held."
"God, I hope not," Jay said. "I don't know how long he can carry this off."
"You worry about him too much," Melissa said. "He'll do okay. You should get some sleep." Her hair was an unruly cascade of red curls spilling out from beneath her hat, her body hard and small. Very small. Beyond petite, maybe five feet on a tall day. If she wore boots. This morning she wore a jogging suit, a pair of old Reeboks, and a shiny, black silk top hat.
The top hat was her trademark. Aces magazine had named her Topper back when she was still a teenybopper protegee of Cyclone out in San Francisco. During the years she'd spent with the Justice Department, Melissa had played the part to the hilt, dressing in a distinctive uniform of white shirt, bow tie, long-tailed black tuxedo jacket, black satin short-shorts, black fishnet stockings, and high-heeled black fuck-me pumps.
She'd walked away from the costume, and the feds, soon after the Rox War, for reasons she still refused to discuss. Jay figured that Cyclone's death had something to do with her decision. There was no way to walk away from the top hat, however. Her power didn't work without it, the same way Jay couldn't teleport anything without making his fingers into a gun. Ace crutches were a funny thing.
"You getting anywhere with that thing?" Jay asked, gesturing at the powerdeck. For the past hour, she had been trying to hack into the sealed files of the Special Executive Task Force down in Washington, in the hopes of finding out what the hell was going on.
"Nothing we didn't already know," she said, turning off the machine. The phantom letters vanished. "The feds have three major Sharks in custody. Dr. Etienne Faneuil, Philip Baron von Herzenhagen, and Margaret Durand. Durand's cut a deal and she's snitching out the other two. Pan Rudo, who seems to have been the head of the whole operation, is supposed to be dead, murdered at the UN by this six-legged yellow joker, who's either George G. Battle or Gregg Hartmann, depending on who you believe. On paper, it looks as though the Shark organization has been pretty well smashed up."
"What do you think?"
Melissa closed up her powerdeck. "Faneuil and Durand are in nice young bodies, which has got to mean that the Sharks have a tame jumper, or had one at one time."
Jay groaned. "Jumpers," he said. "Why is it always jumpers? From now on, we charge triple time for any case with jumpers in it."
"I know how you feel," Melissa said. She disconnected her modem, wrapped the line around the computer, took off her top hat and thrust the whole works inside. "Von Herzenhagen used to run the Special Executive Task Force, until he was exposed as a Shark. Now he's been replaced by Straight Arrow. That ought to be good news for our side. Nephi's an ace, and more important, he's a decent man, honest, loyal, hard-working ... only ..." She hesitated.
Jay didn't like the sound of that only. "Only what?"
"Only ... is he really Straight Arrow?" Melissa put the top hat back on her head and cocked it at a rakish angle. "With all this body-swapping going on, there's no way we can be sure who's who, or even who's alive or who's dead. We could be dealing with a Shark in Straight Arrow's body. All those SCARE aces could be Sharks by now. That would explain last night's raids. For all we know, Rudo is still alive in a new body, just like Faneuil and Durand."
"Not to mention how many more Sharks are still out there, under cover," Jay said gloomily. "Leo Barnett in the White House, hell, this damn thing may go right to the top." Jay's head was throbbing. He needed hot caffeine. He pressed his intercom. "Ezili, make some fresh coffee, will you?" There was no answer. She probably wasn't in yet. Ezili came to work when she felt like coming to work, usually around ten-thirty or eleven, but sometimes two or three. He looked hopefully at Topper. "I don't suppose - "
"You don't pay me nearly enough to make coffee," Melissa said. "Make it yourself."
"Have you ever tasted my coffee?" Jay said. "Have pity."
Melissa made a face at him. "Just this once," she said. She took off her top hat, reached inside, and pulled out a styrofoam cup of coffee, black and steaming. She put it on Jay's desk.
He picked it up with both hands, blew on it, took a swallow. Life seemed slightly more tolerable. "Real good," he told her. He looked wistfully at the hat. "I don't suppose you have a cheese danish in there?"
"Don't press your luck."
Something pinged against the office window. Jay looked up. A bright point of light hovered outside, beating against the glass, darting and fluttering back and forth in a frantic aerial dance, trying to get in. He got up and opened the window. The light shot over to Peter, circled around his head, then zipped up to the ceiling, buzzing wildly. "What's she saying?" Melissa said.
"How should I know? I don't speak tink." Jay went to Peter and shook him roughly by the shoulder, until he sat up groggily. The tink zoomed down and hovered in front of his face. Its buzz was frantic, insistent. Peter rubbed sleep from his eyes and listened. "They took him to Governor's Island," he said. "They're all there. We going to break them out?"
"Might as well," Jay said. "Can't dance."
♥ ♦ ♣ ♠
When the Thai was gone Moonchild waved her chief of security away. Inmon nodded his feathered head and left.
After the door shut on him Moonchild rose from the ornate chair and walked toward another door at the back of the great room. She weaved slightly. As she approached the door, painted in layers of white enamel, her feet sank several inches into the scuffed parquetry floor.
"Whoops," she said, and giggled. "Shit. I'm starting to lose it." Her outlines blurred, shifted, and suddenly it was a man, small and blue-skinned, enveloped in a hood and billow of black cape, who stood reaching for the brass doorknob.
"Screw this," he said in a high-pitched and peevish masculine voice. "I'm Cosmic Traveler. What do I need with doorknobs?" And he walked through the door.
On the far side a short hall led to another door. "That fool Meadows needs to quit fretting like a brooding-hen," the cowled figure muttered as it walked forward. "I've got all the memories that high-kicking bimbo does. And a lot more upstairs. Anything she can do, I can do better." At the door he paused and smirked. "And then some," he said, and stepped through. As he passed through the wood he felt tearing dislocation. "Oh, shit!" he exclaimed. "It's too soon - "
He fell forward, through the door onto the polished hardwood floor of a small office. What landed on all fours was another male figure, tall and lanky, dressed in jeans and blue work sh
irt, with ashy blond hair getting long and the beginnings of a goatee.
"Whoa," Mark Meadows said in a long expulsion of breath. "Almost lost it there."
He shook his head and reached for round wire-rimmed spectacles that had dropped from the aquiline bridge of his nose. "I'm being the Traveler too much. It's giving me a death wish."
Not to mention the fact that at the end of the interview Trav had broken character to ask if the colonel had a daughter, for God's sake. "If you can't maintain better," Mark said aloud, "I'm gonna start leaving you in the bottle and winging it myself."
Down the dim and dusty back-corridors of his mind a dry mocking laugh rebounded. The threat was empty, and no one knew it better than Cosmic. Power in Asia was a personal affair, and the President of Free Vietnam was Isis Moon, also known as Moonchild. Mark was her chancellor, fully authorized to speak for her - but unless she put in fairly regular appearances, people would sense an opening and start to conspire.
And Moonchild wouldn't come out to play any more. Not since she had broken her vow against taking human life by breaking the neck of the joker-ace Ganesha. Small matter that it was an accident - and that Ganesha had been trying to rape Sprout. Moonchild's powers and very existence were predicated upon observing the Tenets and Student Oath of tae kwon do; to her the third portion of the Oath, "I shall never misuse tae kwon do," meant she could not use her ace powers or martial arts skills to kill a human.
Mark had tried. Endless internal monologues elicited no response. When he took the silver-and-black powder that summoned Moonchild, he curled into a fetal ball and went catatonic for an hour. He didn't even know if she still existed. Or whether, like Starshine - killed by a Ly'bahr cyborg in orbital combat over Takis - she was simply gone.
So he had to rely on Trav, slimy and unreliable as he was. He was taking the blue powder too much; and when he took a single potion too often, bad things happened. Like the one-hour duration of a "friend's" visit became unstable, and you risked translating back into solid with skinny Mark Meadows in the middle of a hardwood door....