High Stakes

After the concluding events of Lowball, Officer Francis Black of Fort Freak, vigilante joker Marcus “The Infamous Black Tongue” Morgan, and ace thief Mollie “Tesseract” Steunenberg get stuck in Talas, Kazahkstan. There, the coldblooded Baba Yaga forces jokers into an illegal fighting ring, but her hidden agenda is much darker: her fighters’ deaths serve to placate a vicious monster from another dimension. When the last line of defense against this world weakens, all hell breaks loose, literally….

The Committee in New York sends a team of aces to investigate. One by one, each falls victim to evil forces—including the dark impulses within themselves. Only the perseverance of the most unlikely of heroes has a chance of saving the world before utter chaos erupts on Earth.

Edited by George R. R. Martin, High Stakes—the 23rd novel in the Wild Cards shared-universe series—features the writing talents of Melinda M. Snodgrass, John Jos. Miller, David Anthony Durham, Caroline Spector, Stephen Leigh, and Ian Tregillis. Dive deeper into the world of aces, jokers, and the hard-boiled men and women of the Fort Freak police precinct in a pulpy, page-turning novel of superheroics and Lovecraftian horror—available August 30th from Tor Books!

 

 

Barbara Baden—The Ace Babel—stared through the open window. Overhead, the Milky Way arched in a glorious, multicolored stream through the night sky—dusted with more stars than Barbara had seen in ages. In New York City, they were lucky to spot even such luminous constellations as Orion in a sky fouled by city lights and haze. Here in Peru, at Machu Picchu in the mountains far from any city lights with the air thin around them, the stars cavorted in all their glory. Below Barbara, on the steep slopes, a new city of tents was spread, many of them alight from the inside, all of them bright in the silver light spilling from the half-moon crawling up the slope of the mountain Huayna Picchu, the peak looming over the Incan ruins.

Down in those tents were several of the Committee aces: Earth Witch, Bugsy, Tinker, the Llama, Brave Hawk, and Toad Man, as well as UN troops. But Klaus and Barbara, being who they were within the Committee, had— like Secretary-General Jayewardene of the UN—managed to commandeer actual rooms in one of the reconstructed buildings high up the slopes. It was one of the perks of being in charge.

“It’s lovely here, isn’t it?” she heard Klaus—Lohengrin to nearly everyone else here—say behind her, and his arms went around her as she leaned back into his embrace. She could feel the scratch of his eye patch against her scalp as he bent his head down, and see his arms. His skin was dry, and there were already faint wrinkles netting the back of his hands. They were both now well in their mid-thirties, and the dreaded “forty” could be glimpsed in the distance, a thought that had seemed impossible when Barbara had first met Klaus, some eight years ago. Her own hands, on top of Klaus’s, no longer looked as young as they once had, and she was fighting both weight gain and the occasional grey hair in her short, dark brown hair. She’d already given up on holding back the lines around her eyes. “You can see why the Inca wanted this place to be their capital. And haven’t I done a lovely job to bring this together?”

“You mean ‘we,’ don’t you?” Barbara told him, and she felt more than heard his laughter.

“Of course. We.”

The Committee had become involved in Peru as it became apparent that an internal squabble was about to boil over into loss of life. On one side were the New Shining Path rebels, advocates who wished a return to the structure of the Incan empire and an overthrow of the official Peruvian government and the military cabal that propped it up. The rebels were led by their own aces: Lorra (or as she was more popularly known, Cocomama) and Curare, a frog-like ace-joker who exuded poison from his skin and tongue.

The official Peruvian government was headed by President Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of former president Alberto Fujimori, who was supported by the leaders of other South American countries as democratically elected, especially those presidents who worried about coups and uprisings themselves. The Peruvian government, of course, had the military complex behind them, a well-equipped force with weapons that, if not entirely modern, were more than capable of creating mass numbers of casualties, and President Fujimori’s recent speeches had made it clear that she intended to use that capability if she must.

The UN forces, with Jayewardene in command of the team, had landed two weeks ago, just as the first major battle erupted between the two forces, near this very place. The rotors of the UN helicopters had thrashed the foliage around the clearing, whipping greenery into a frenzied dance. Below, they could all see the narrowing no-man’s-land between a Peruvian army company and the rebel forces. Tinker’s armed drones were already hovering above the opposing lines, whining and threatening and drawing fire.

Babel was wielding her wild card before the first helicopter touched ground. Her ability to render speech incomprehensible had quickly sown confusion and fear into the ranks of both sides, visible in the uncoordinated reaction to the UN troops’ arrival. It was impossible for armies to fight when their commanders couldn’t make their orders understood, when officers couldn’t pass the orders down the line and sergeants couldn’t communicate to their squads, when no one knew what they were supposed to do or where they were supposed to go. Even radio communications seemed to have been spoken in some incomprehensible nonsense language. Compounding the confusion on both sides was the fact that the UN troops and the Committee aces with them didn’t have that problem and could still coordinate their actions quite effectively. The line of eight copters— two UH-1Y Venom choppers with the Committee aces inside, and six huge, double-motored MH-47G Chinook troop carriers—banked in like roaring, menacing raptors, the Venom “Super Hueys” spraying a line of warning machine-gun fire to chew up the ground between the two forces as they approached. Through the glass cockpit, Babel saw one of Tinker’s drones explode into a shower of plastic shards and baling wire from the “friendly fire” as Tinker cursed loudly behind her and the chopper performed a stomach-dropping turn and landed.

Lohengrin’s ghost armor appeared as he leapt out of the Committee copter, his sword waving threateningly as both Peruvian soldiers and rebels retreated from the wind of the rotor blades and the blue-helmeted UN soldiers who poured from the other copters. The Committee aces with Lohengrin and Barbara followed him. Tinker’s remaining drones swooped down, racing along the lines. The earth shuddered under the opposing sides as Earth Witch quickly dug out a wide ditch between the two forces, which Ana banked high with rich, dark soil. The Llama, a well-known and popular South American ace, stepped to Lohengrin’s right; he spat once, warningly, the slimy mess traveling a good ten yards to land near the end of the Peruvian company’s line. Buford Calhoun stepped down after the Llama, transforming as he did into Toad Man, his tongue flicking out like a grotesque whip—those nearest the copters on the rebel side quickly retreated at the sight, too frighteningly similar, perhaps, to their own Curare. Tom Diedrich—Brave Hawk—hovered menacingly above the other aces, his black wings flexing. Glassteel stood at the rear of the aces, a crystalline, glittering presence.

And behind the aces, two companies of UN troops arrayed themselves in blue-helmeted lines, their own weapons at the ready.

There’d been some initial automatic weapons fire between the two sides as the copters first approached, but now it had just… stopped. Babel stepped out last from the copter as the rotors slowed. She took the microphone offered to her by one of the UN soldiers and spoke, her voice booming over loudspeakers mounted on the copter, her words now comprehensible to everyone who heard her, regardless of the language they spoke.

“This is over now,” she said. “You will all put your weapons down. You don’t want to face the consequences of continuing this fight.”

The physical battle ended with minimal casualties on both sides, and with the power that the aces and the UN troops represented, Jayewardene quickly brought both sides to the negotiations table, though there were a few sporadic incidents with recalcitrant rebels or army squads, all quickly settled by ace intervention. Jayewardene led the talks, though it was Babel and Lohengrin who, each night before, consulted with Jayewardene as to what he needed to say, what concessions to ask for, and where there could be compromise and where there could not. They slowly, over the next week, brought the Fujimori delegation and the New Shining Path advocates together.

The movement of a moth’s fluttering wings brought Babel back to the present. The creature that came to rest on the curtains of the open window was beautiful: a dark-winged apparition easily the size of one of Lohengrin’s hands, its wings swirling with multicolored whorls that looked like huge staring eyes. She knew what the moth was and what it represented, of course: their briefings had told them about the mysterious Messenger in Black, whose body could only appear in a whirling cloud of these moths, how he could hear and see what those individual insects observed, and how his prescient mind informed the rebel forces even if he himself never called himself the New Shining Path’s leader or took part in the fighting.

Babel gave the moth a quick, wry smile. She shook the curtain and it rose and banked away as Babel closed and locked the window. She leaned back against Lohengrin once more. When his hands went to cup her breasts, she didn’t stop him, just turned so they were facing each other. She stared up into his face.

“Not here,” she said. “Too many eyes—of all kinds—and cameras with long lenses.”

Klaus grinned at her and touched his eye patch with a finger. “I only have one eye, and it’s looking at you.”

She gave him a halfhearted, sad smile at that. “We have an early morning tomorrow, you know. It’s already late.”

“Does that mean we can’t have an even later night, meine Liebe? After all, tomorrow’s just for show. As for our infestation of voyeur moths, we’ll just close all the curtains.”

“You’re impossible.”

“Nothing’s impossible. Not as far as I’m concerned.”

“As long as we work together, you mean?” she asked him, and he gave a sniff of amusement.

“As long as we’re working together, then,” he growled. “Yah.”

She took his hand, smiling back to him, and led him to their bed.

The moon had climbed well above Huayna Picchu before they went to sleep.

* * *

Marcus Morgan slid out of the barn. Normally, he was smooth and powerful, propelled by serpentine muscle that began at his waist and stretched twenty feet to the tip of his brightly ringed tail. He cut an impressive figure, snake on his lower half, a well-muscled young African-American man from the torso up.

He didn’t feel impressive now, though. He tried not to wince with the pain of moving, but he couldn’t help it. Getting shot was a bitch. He was hurt. Bad. He knew that now even if he hadn’t fully understood it in the chaos of the arena or in the exhilaration of fleeing from it. If he had to fight now he wasn’t sure he’d be any good; the rage that took him over in the arena was gone. He hoped fighting was behind him. Now he just needed to stay alive and get home. That was going to be hard enough.

Looking around at the nondescript buildings and the dim, sputtering streetlights, he thought, Would you look at this? Me, gunshot, stuck in Kazakh-wherever-the-hell-we-are…

He turned as a young woman crept out of the shelter. She wobbled on her stilettos. Like everything she did, she made that wobble look sexy as hell. Marcus had fallen for her the first time he saw her, when she slipped into his cell back in Baba Yaga’s joker gladiator compound. She’d looked like she’d stepped out of Vogue. She’d been too perfect to be real, with her light blue eyes and short black hair that reminded him of a movie star from the 1920s he’d once seen on a postcard. It was hard to place her age, except that everything about her glowed with the raw beauty of youth.

And I’m with her, he thought. He still couldn’t quite believe it.

“I’m not dressed for this,” Olena said in her Ukrainian-accented English. It was an understatement. She still wore the clothes of her role in Baba Yaga’s casino. Pleasure girl, given like a piece of exotic meat to victorious gladiator jokers. Her short red dress clung to her curves, skintight. It was so sheer Marcus could see the contours of her abdomen and the lines of her collarbones. He didn’t let his eyes linger on her nipples, though they wanted to. She was gorgeous, but she wasn’t a piece of meat to him. She was more than that. If they survived this he would prove it to her.

There was one thing out of place in her appearance. The Glock that she had shoved down under her belt. It pressed flat against her belly.

Earlier, he’d asked her, “Where’d you learn about guns, anyway?”

She’d answered curtly, “My father.” That was all she would say about it.

“Are you ready?” Marcus asked, starting to slither away.

She fell in step beside him. “I still think we should—”

“I’m not going to the hospital! The hospital’s going to be filled with people from the casino. People I sent there.”

“Wasn’t only you that did it,” she grumbled.

“You saw the ambulances arriving as we left. The military vehicles. There must be cops all over the place.”

“You’ve been shot. When people are shot it’s hospital they go to! Why are you stubborn?”

“I’m a joker. If I wasn’t stubborn I’d be dead by now.” Marcus paused as a black SUV roared across the intersection in front of them. A moment later a police car flashed by, lights blaring but with no accompanying siren. Moving forward, Marcus asked, “What if Baba Yaga’s there? We’d both be fucked then.”

“She is dead woman. Who is afraid of her?”

They’d been through this all already. The hospital was out. Talas itself was out, what with Baba Yaga’s thugs around, with no way of knowing who they could trust, and with him being the way he was—a black halfsnake joker from New York. Not only that, the entire city seemed to itch with unease. While they’d hidden and tried to rest, sporadic gunfire kept jolting Marcus awake. Once an explosion went off near enough for Marcus to feel it through his tail, loud enough that the whoosh of the flames was audible. At some point sirens began to wail a monotonous message. They were still at it. Shouts and running feet, the sounds of fighting, helicopters chopping through the sky. He didn’t know what all was going on, but they had to get away from it.

Olena said, “You should’ve killed Horrorshow as well.”

“Horrorshow?”

“It’s just one name for him. That awful old man always beside Baba Yaga.” She made a sound in her throat, an exhalation of both disgust and fear. “Once I had to sit near him in the box.” She shivered, flicking her fingers as if to shake some foulness off them. “God. He’s horrible. He’s… I don’t know what. Some people said he liked the killing, that he enjoyed it and that Baba Yaga created the whole arena for him. Others said he was an ace who had crossed her. She’d made him like that as punishment, so that he would suffer and suffer, and everybody would see it. I don’t know what’s true. There were many rumors.”

Remembering the deformed, drooling old man enmeshed in a confusion of tubes and respirators, Marcus said, “Who said all this about him?”

Olena walked on a moment without answering, and then said, curtly, “Guards. Sometimes they talked and talked.”

Marcus immediately wished he hadn’t asked the question. It didn’t take much for him to imagine the worst. Guards, talking and talking because they had Olena alone, because she was a whore in there and they had just…

He cut the thought off and changed the subject. “Where are we headed anyway?”

“That way.” Olena pointed through a gap in the buildings. A snowcapped peak rose in the distance, in shadow against the red-hued sky. “Toward that mountain.”

“Why that one?”

She brushed her short hair from her face. “You know a better mountain? We go toward that one because it’s outside the city. We’re not. If we reach it, we are.”

“I can’t fault your logic.”

“Come. We go.” She took his hand.

Marcus slithered beside her. His tail was sluggish and aching. It shot jagged shards of pain through him. He hoped they’d be able to avoid people, to move cautiously and get out unobserved. It didn’t take him long to give up on that.

Once out from their hidden back lot, they found a city alive with people and cars. It wasn’t a normal busy, though. A driver careened down the street, swerving and cutting others off. He pounded on his horn and shouted out his window. As if racing with him, one boxy little car jumped the curb and whined down the sidewalk. Marcus and Olena barely managed to get out of its way.

“What the fuck’s going on?” Marcus asked. “Nobody wants to get to work that much!”

Olena didn’t answer. She waded into the crowd of pedestrians. Seeing his serpentine bulk, people cleared out of their way. Mouths gaped and eyes went wide. Marcus couldn’t tell if they were surprised by his tail or his ethnicity. Either way, they parted.

The city would’ve been strange enough to Marcus’s eye even in normal circumstances. The buildings were squat and ugly, cement facades that seemed designed to warn people away. The cars were different makes than he was used to, older-looking and shaped funny. He thought he’d seen just about every type of person—and every kind of joker—in New York, but he’d never seen people quite like these. Light-skinned and black-haired, Asianlooking but distinct somehow from the Chinese and Koreans Marcus knew from Jokertown. Their clothes were exotically colorful in some ways, drab and bulky in others, just normal sometimes. He registered all of this vaguely, but it was the chaos that really baffled him.

An old man yanked on a dog’s leash, trying to get the frightened canine to move. It wouldn’t, and the man began walloping it with his cane. Young men climbed into a truck already piled high with furniture and household items. One of them waved an ax above his head and said something sharp and threatening to Marcus. A girl stood on a street corner, turning around and around, calling for someone. A guy on a bicycle weaved one-handed through the traffic, a flat-screen TV perched precariously on his shoulder. There was something in the air, a panic that seemed to have touched everyone. That was obvious, but just what caused it Marcus couldn’t figure out. It wasn’t like they were running in any one direction, or like there was anything causing the chaos other than themselves.

Watching the cyclist weave away, Marcus realized another strange thing. “How come there are no jokers?”

“In cities,” Olena said, eyes scanning the crowd, “they are not welcome.”

A mother shouldered past them, crying baby clutched to her chest and an older child dragged behind her. The child, seeing Marcus, went wildeyed and began crying. Olena caught the woman by the arm and spoke a rapid barrage of Russian words that meant nothing to Marcus. The woman tried to pull away, but Olena pleaded. Reluctantly, the woman answered, speaking even faster than Olena. She yanked her arm away and strode off, her baby crying all the louder.

“What did she say?” Marcus asked.

“Nothing that makes sense,” Olena said. “She said the police are killing people. That Allah has turned his hand and—”

A car slammed into a lamppost beside them. The driver’s head smashed against the windshield, cracking it and leaving the driver bloody and unconscious.

“Jesus!” Marcus cried. “What’s going on?”

Olena finished her sentence, “—we are to be tested.” She looked at Marcus for the first time since they’d entered the chaos. “Marcus, you look horrible. You’re paling. I didn’t know you could, but… You’ve lost too much blood.”

“Don’t start talking about the hospital again.”

She exhaled. “We need to find someplace where they will help you. Away from here. We need to find it fast.” She glanced around, lips pressed together in thought. Her gaze settled on a truck that had just pulled onto the street. “I’ll be right back.”

“What? Where you going?” Marcus asked.

Pulling the Glock from her belt, Olena stepped into the street, heading toward the truck.

* * *

Just how in the hell, Detective Francis Xavier Black asked himself, did he come to find himself in an elevator on the fourth floor of a Kazakh hospital while a cold breeze brushed his skinny ass exposed by his hospital gown?

Because someone stuck a gun in your face, and suggested you’d like to investigate the screaming.

The someone in question was one of the three thugs employed by the Russian crime boss Baba Yaga. Of course when you say “crime boss” the image of a wizened eighty-something-year-old woman with impossibly red hair didn’t spring to mind. But once he’d looked in Baba Yaga’s cold grey eyes Franny had no doubt about her ruthlessness or her resolve. She’d have her goons gun him down like a dog if he didn’t comply.

Franny had been staring at his image in the bathroom mirror noting that his eyes seemed more bloodshot than blue, that he had two days’ growth of dark beard and his black hair formed greasy spikes. He was wondering when he’d be allowed to take a shower when a guy “no taller than a lamppost, and no wider than a beer truck” had dragged him out of the room. The fact the gorilla was wearing a two-thousand-dollar suit was offset by the fact he clearly wasn’t a big fan of showers. The man’s B.O. was like a wave proceeding them down the hall.

In Baba Yaga’s room there were two more goons, and a very well-dressed man with a smooth expressionless face, manicured fingernails, a Rolex flashing on his wrist, and sleek brown hair. Something about him made Franny think of otters. Of the other goons one had a shaved head that glittered under the fluorescent lights. The other sported a large ruby earring and a luxurious mustache. Franny started to say, Hey, the seventies called, they’d like their mustache back, but didn’t because Baba Yaga had turned those dead eyes on him and scornfully called him a hero. Then the screaming had started.

Baba Yaga’s command had been short and succinct. “Go. Check it out. Come back and tell me what you see.”

Franny had tried to argue. “Send one of your damn bully boys.”

“I’m not risking my guards and you caused this. Now go.”

“If I caused this then you know what it should be…”

The old woman had nodded at the Baldy and Franny found himself staring down the barrel of the guard’s Sig Sauer.

“Okay, persuasive reason why I should go.”

Franny had been dithering so long that the elevator doors started to close. He threw up an arm to hold them back, and was forcibly reminded that he had a recently sewn bullet wound in his side, and another in his shoulder. The room seemed to be ballooning in front of him. He knew he was pumped full of painkillers, but drugs alone couldn’t explain the creeping fear that was crawling up his spine and left his belly empty and shaking.

Shouts and sobs were coming down the corridor. Franny shuffled off the elevator, his paper slippers sussing and crackling on the linoleum. A pair of security guards went past. They were muscling an older woman in a nurse’s uniform who was screaming abuse while she tried to claw at their faces. Her face was a mask of rage, spittle formed white flecks on her lips, and the front of her dress was spattered with blood.

Franny pressed himself against the wall. The screaming was still continuing. More voices, bellows of rage. “Fuck this,” he whispered.

He was no longer under guard. He could just exit the hospital and find help. The absurdity of the plan soon presented itself. He didn’t speak the language, didn’t have any local money, or ID, and was dressed in a hospital gown. If he saw himself wandering around New York like this he’d arrest himself.

He forced himself back into motion. Heading toward the raised voices, the nexus of the uproar. Pressure tightened around Franny’s skull and it felt like something was crawling slowly down his nerve fibers. A low grotesque humming seemed to fill the air. Anger at Captain Mendelberg back in New York who hadn’t fucking listened and wouldn’t fucking help, thoughts of Abby constantly blowing him off even when he worked his ass off to help her. His fucking partner who left this pile of steaming shit on his desk and didn’t help until he made a halfhearted offer when it was too fucking late. The other cops at Fort Freak who couldn’t even give him one fucking little congratulation for making detective. Jealous assholes, all of them…

What the fuck? He pushed aside the chaotic, angry thoughts, tried to focus. What had he come here for? Oh yeah. He continued down the hall and stepped into a room where doctors were frantically working on a man in a doctor’s white coat who was lying on a gurney. A scalpel was embedded in his left eye, his face a mask of gore. A pair of nurses were hugging each other and sobbing. There was a babble of conversation in a language he didn’t understand as several security guards seemed to be trying to interview the bystanders.

Several IV stands surrounded the bed, and tubes snaked down to— Franny recoiled. He had thought his years in Jokertown had prepared him for anything, but the figure in the bed was beyond grotesque. The arms and legs were twisted and skeletal, but the belly bulged like a woman on the verge of delivering. It was so bloated and distended that the gown couldn’t hide it. It was also pulsing, shivers running across the skin, and there was the slow roil of deep purple and violent red beneath the surface as if something were swimming in the blood and viscera.

The thing had a mouth, but the lips were elongated, resembling the proboscis of a mosquito or anteater. Those rubbery lips were working like a blind baby seeking a tit. Grey stony growths shot through with gleaming red veins protruded from his cheeks and neck. The grating humming, like foil on gold filings, was emerging from that deformed mouth. There was a faint glint from beneath the wrinkled eyelids as if he was trying to wake.

The smell of blood, vomit, and fear-induced sweat overlaid the tang of disinfectants and bedpans. Franny memorized the scene as best he could, and then stumbled backward out of the room. He staggered down the hall. He passed an orderly leaning against the wall, his pants unzipped, dick in hand. He was energetically beating off while staring at a young nurse who was crying in the corner.

With each step away from the room the band around Franny’s head loosened, and that maddening humming began to ease. He punched at the elevator button with increasing desperation. Finally he went to the stairwell. No matter how much it might hurt he had to get away. All the anger was gone. Only fear remained.

Excerpted from High Stakes © 2016

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