Wild Cards on Tor.com

The Visitor: Kill or Cure

For over 25 years, the Wild Cards universe has been entertaining readers with stories of superpowered people in an alternate history. The visitor comes… but she needs to be invited in. Ever since she woke up in the hospital with the ability to generate heat,  Ruby Johnson, a.k.a the Dragon, has built a reputation as an unstoppable force of nature. She makes her living as an assassin for hire, but one day she comes across a benevolent ace whose powers she vastly underestimates.

 

 

In the heat and darkness of a small room a woman lies deep in her dreaming. She rolls to her side, something mumbled on her lips. In the next moment her eyes open, alert, wide, and curious. She sits, letting her covers slide, and smiles. Sodium street lighting fingers in beneath the curtains to paint orange rectangles across the rear wall.

The woman’s hands explore her face then stroke down across belly. She looks surprised, patting around as if she has lost something. The hunt moves to the edge of the bed, where she discovers first a small table, then a lamp, then the switch. The light goes on and Tanisha Williams swings her legs to set both feet to the floor. She gazes wonderingly at the bedroom, its crowding units, drawers disgorging crumpled tops, balled up leggings. The curtains are heavy, bright with a crude flower print, and several inches too short.

Tanisha creeps, light-footed to the door. It’s a cheap thing and someone has kicked a dent in its hardboard skin. It creaks as she opens it and she winces at the unexpected noise. She stands in the shabby corridor, staring as if it too were a wonder to her, as worthy of study as the great nave of Notre Dame. When she turns the handle, the door across from hers opens without a whisper, and Tanisha peers in. She’s astonished and delighted. There is a baby in a crib, a sweaty mass of dark, tousled hair, fat cheeks, fast in his slumbers, and across from him a small bed with a pink Barbie duvet where a young girl sleeps with an arm and a leg hanging over the edge as if she might at any moment be carried to the floor.

Tanisha is just about to step into the room when she cocks her head as if hearing some distant sound. She frowns in concentration, biting her lip. A moment later her face becomes a vacancy, waiting to be filled. She stumbles, nearly crashing into the doorframe. She blinks, staring around wildly.

‘What? Where…’

The girl slips from her bed, and still confused her mother stumbles sleepily over to help her back.

 

Adao Adobaia knows he’s in trouble. The boys on the path ahead run with the Rulahs. Adao had left the youth club on Saville Road with every intention of heading straight home to his mother’s flat, but Devin had been insistent, there’d be girls at the gig down on Briar Lane. Adao wasn’t interested in the acts. None of them sounded that good live. Better to stream them once the studio had worked its magic. And though he’d never admit it, he’d rather listen to Beyoncé than grime and drill rappers shouting about money and guns. But girls, he liked those live – better than anything from the internet. Devin had said Lucy Mills would be there, and Rukia. They weren’t, but the promise had got him down there, kept him weathering the din until way too late.

Adao wouldn’t have cut across the park so late, except it was so late. His mother would wake when he got in, however quiet he was, and the exact time of entry would be the sole topic of conversation for all of the next day. She was desperate to stop him running with the gangs. Which was ironic because he never had, and his repeated refusals to do so were a good part of the reason why seeing three of the Rulahs barring his way past the playground was such bad news.

‘Alright?’ The boy in the middle, the largest of the three, shows his teeth in an approximation of a smile. They’d been lounging on the swings, smoking. This one was the only one to have his knife out, held carelessly at his side, the edge cutting a glimmer from the dark.

‘Hey,’ Adao mumbles. ‘Gotta hurry.’ He glances behind him, back to the park gates. Another boy is leaning against one of the pillars. Adao knows that the fact the gates were even open should have warned him.

‘What you got?’ the boy with the knife asks. Adao knows him by sight. They’re all several years younger than he is, fifteen maybe sixteen. A dangerous age. All of them thinking they’re immortal, immune to blades, to bullets, to the police, to all and any consequences in general. All of them thinking the world is going to open its legs for them. Wetting their blades is part and parcel of establishing their rep. If they were just going to rob him he’d hand over his phone and the few notes in his pocket and be done. But these boys are going to cut him. He can see it in their eyes, see it in the thin line of their smiles. And Adao Adobaia has never been so scared.

Adao calls her and she comes. Adao didn’t want her to see him like this but fear has washed away his pride. He surrenders the driving seat as she arrives.

The tension that has curled Adao’s body like a spring leaves him in an eye blink. He straightens and a smile replaces his grimace. Not a narrow predatory smile but something warm and friendly. He looks around at the three youths before spotting the playground.

‘Do they have a roundabout?’ They do. Adao starts eagerly towards it.

‘Hey!’ the knife boy shouts, standing his ground while the others back hastily away. ‘I said what you got, fool?’

Adao brushes past him, eyes on the playground. ‘I’m not sure.’

He reaches the roundabout and closes a hand around the cool metal riding bar. He starts to push. He looks back at the others. ‘Come on!’

‘Swear-down, I will gut you where you stand!’ The boy with the knife stalks after Adao, scowling.

‘Do it!’ another boy shouts.

‘Dip him, Eddie!’ His friend mimes the stabbing motion.

Eddie comes up behind Adao as he is getting the roundabout to speed. He hesitates. His arm’s drawn back for the blow, the kitchen knife is nine inches of stainless steel. It’s one thing to talk, another to stick a blade into flesh.

Adao is carried away on the turn, leaving Eddie standing foolish in his wake. It’s his friends’ laughter that makes his rage burn bright enough. He turns, roaring something wordless, and drives his knife at Adao as the roundabout carries him back, his grin as innocent as any child’s.

Somewhere behind the Visitor’s delight at riding the roundabout Adao cries out in shock, but his scream never reaches the air.

Eddie’s knife hits with the full force of his arm and shoulder behind it, joining with the speed at which Adao spins toward him. Eddie has been imagining this moment for months, ever since he first started carrying. He’s talked it over with K and Deeman, both as ignorant as him, and with Jax, who’s dipped his blade into half a dozen others and has scars of his own to show. ‘You won’t believe how easy it goes in.’ That was Jax’s wisdom on the subject. ‘Feels like you’re hittin’ a curtain, man.’

All that Eddie has stabbed to date has been those poles that carry the electricity wires to houses along the street. Old, weathered wood, cracked by winters and near black with whatever carcinogenic tar keeps the bugs from chewing it down. You hit one of those things, and no matter how sharp your blade, no matter how strong your arm, a quarter inch is as far in as you’ll get. Sometimes not even far enough to let go of the knife and leave it standing.

Stabbing Adao Adobaia is just like stabbing one of those old poles. The force of the blow, and Adao’s relentless advance as he swings around, drives the hilt through Eddie’s grip. The steel edge cuts a hot line across his fingers as his hand hits Adao’s side.

Yelping in pain, Eddie leaps back. The knife falls to the rubberised tarmac. On the next rotation Adao steps from the roundabout, unsteady on his feet. Where Eddie stabbed him there is a small red spot marring the whiteness of his shirt.

‘Did you hurt yourself?’ Adao sways, still dizzy from the ride. His smile replaced by concern.

Eddie clutches his clenched hand to his chest, blood leaking between his fingers. It looks black in the glow of distant streetlights. ‘You fucking cut me!’

Deeman and K are coming up behind him out of the shadows, they have his back.

Adao sees the knife gleaming on the ground between them. He bends to pick it up, puzzled. Deeman raises his own blade, some sort of zombie killer bought off the internet. Jax called it a toy that would likely break first time he used it. K hunts for his own, unable to find it in his panic.

Adao frowns at the knife he’s picked up. ‘These are dangerous!’ He takes the blade in his hand and snaps it off.

‘Shit!’ K turns and runs.

With a frown of concentration, ignoring Deeman’s wavering knife, Adao twists the steel blade into a tight ball, squeezing it into a compact mass with a grunt of effort. When the Visitor comes, the fraction of her power she brings depends on the strength of her connection. That in turn depends on a mysterious combination of factors that seems to boil down to how much she likes the person she’s visiting. She likes Adao quite a lot, though they have only met the once and visited three times. She told her friends he was ‘boyfriend’ material. That made them laugh. Some kindly, some sadly, others both.

‘You need to go to hospital,’ Adao says, looking at Eddie’s hand. ‘I know a good one. It’s where they took Betty…’ Adao bites his lip as though pained by some memory. The red spot on his side has grown to the size of a penny piece but seems to have stopped now.

‘You’re fuckin’ crazy.’ Eddie spits the words and sets off running after Deeman, who has already lost himself in the darkness beyond the climbing frame.

Adao looks longingly at the swings. ‘I suppose you need to get home,’ he sighs, to the empty playground. ‘And I haven’t got much time…Say hello to your mum for me.’

His face goes blank. A moment later he flinches, cries out and drags up his shirt to reveal the smoothness of his belly and the hint of abs. On his side, just below the ribs, his fingers find a small smear of blood and a tiny wound. It’s sore.

With a wondering shake of his head he pulls the shirt down and sets off for home, running as fast as he can.

 

Miles Harman wakes amid the luxury of his emperor-sized bed beneath a stuccoed ceiling. The Visitor has received no invitation but she means no harm and she doesn’t have much time left. She wants to see where a man who can give the Royal London Hospital a million pounds lives. She would have visited his wife but she had seemed very tired at the ceremony and looked as if she needed a restful night.

Miles slips from his bed. Susan is not beside him. Perhaps when you have a big enough house you don’t need to share a bedroom, the Visitor thinks. Miles wears silk pyjamas. The Visitor enjoys the way the silk slides over skin. Miles is still asleep and won’t ever know she visited. Unlike Adao who called her and watched. The Visitor is still confused about why Adao and his friends were at the park so late or why he wanted her there so urgently. She should have talked to him again about playing with knives. Everyone knows that’s a silly thing to do. She should have said goodbye too. She wouldn’t be visiting again.

Miles lives in a house that seems to go on forever. He wanders through the rooms marvelling at the thickness of the carpets, picking up vases and ornaments. He finds a statue in the foyer that makes no sense. It’s all curves and voids. He runs his hands over the cool smoothness of the stone.

In the basement there is a swimming pool larger than any the Visitor has seen except for that one time at the hotel where the reporter stayed. It’s lit from below with blue lights and the ripples paint the ceiling. For a long time Miles sits in a recliner and watches the lightshow in awe.

A mild sense of discomfort stirs the Visitor into action once more. A tickling at the back of her mind. One of her people is scared, but it’s distant and weak. She can’t tell who or how much. Maybe it’s one she hasn’t visited before. Everyone who touches her becomes one of her people, too many now for her to keep track of. Really she should only visit the ones who invite her. Betty wouldn’t approve of tonight. But she doesn’t have long now and there’s so much she wants to see before she goes.

The Visitor finds one of the back doors open, a circular hole large enough to put an arm through has been cut in one of the glass panels. She thinks that must be cold in winter. She runs Miles’s finger around the edge, feeling its sharpness. When his finger comes away there is a thin cut across the pad. Her connection with Miles is not very strong and his weakness crowds out her strength.

Miles ambles off, sucking his finger. He follows a long corridor and finds himself in a library. He trails a hand across the backs of leather-bound books lined in ordered neglect. He cranes his neck to stare up at the shelves, stretching up beyond the reach of the tallest man. The Visitor is amazed. She wants to know every story behind those regal spines. So many tales to be discovered. The books with their closed covers and untold stories remind her of all the people she will never get to visit. She sighs with Miles’s lungs.

The Visitor had hoped to find Hannah – Miles and Susan’s daughter – but there are so many rooms. The sense of unease returns suddenly. It’s sharper now, more urgent. She sees a white line. A burning white line. And she follows it.

 

The British press called Ruby Johnson ‘The Dragon’. An unimaginative name and one that was as unwelcome as the spotlight of publicity that it swung her way. The wild card virus had struck her down in her mid-twenties. A full-blown case of XTA. She’d nearly died. For weeks as the fever burned through her, setting every nerve on fire, she’d wished it would kill her. She’d known that, even if she were among the one in ten to survive such infection, nine out of ten of those lucky survivors were horribly altered by the alien germs. Some people will cling to life at any cost. Many will say that they wouldn’t, will say that they’d rather die than X, where X might be anything from developing acne to going blind to being left horribly mutated by XTA. Ruby had really meant it though. Had someone given her a gun during any one of the first three weeks she would have happily blown her brains out.

That’s when the Witch had come to her. In one of those rare moments when Kyle left her side. In the papers they always showed the Witch as a silhouette, a black piece cut out of the day. In person she was exactly the same, too dark to show any surface. A sucking darkness that begged you to touch it, to discover if there really was anything there.

The Witch had offered to ease Ruby’s pain. In return Ruby would later accept a job. The Witch always struck a bargain. Her reputation was such that nobody in their right mind would accept any of them. Ruby hesitated all of ten seconds grunting her agreement past pain-gritted teeth. By that time the Witch had already reached the door.

Five years later the fever still burned at her core, and she still hurt, but the agony had been dialled down to the point where the hypothetical gun was more likely to be used on anyone who irritated her rather than as a permanent cure for her condition.

The Witch had done nothing but touch her. Despite its impenetrable blackness, a void encompassed by an ever-changing outline, the Witch’s hand had felt like any other, a little cool and dry. She left something behind though. Something that had passed between them. A small piece of darkness remained. Lodged behind Ruby’s eyes now. A constant presence. A filter between her and the world.

Ruby had taken the job.

 

‘Keep the kid quiet, and watch the perimeter.’ Ruby downed the rest of a cold black coffee with a wince and stood.

‘Where’ll you be?’ The mercenary called himself Tex though he sounded Liverpudlian. Maybe he watched a lot of westerns…

‘I’ll be observing the enemy.’

Tex snorted. ‘You think Harman’s hard core? He’s just some merchant banker.’

‘He’s a lot more than that. And nobody gets that rich without getting their hands dirty.’ Ruby looked at her own hands, turning the palms up. She let out enough heat to ripple the air above them. It eased the ache in her bones. ‘Money is hard core, “Tex”. Period. Harman will be sending pros after us. He’ll call them before he calls the police.’

Tex shrugged and leaned back in his chair. A bank of monitors before him showed CCTV from a dozen external cameras gazing out over the mansion’s well-lit lawns. Two showed movement. Just his outer team patrolling in pairs. ‘I’ll keep the kid quiet, and watch the perimeters.’ He patted the handgun at his hip.

Ruby shook her head meaningfully. Firearms were a last resort as gunfire would bring in police from all over. An actual gunfight would be national news, with MI5 all over it and talk of terrorism. If Ruby were to unleash her powers in a recognisable way, that would be even worse. If an ace’s involvement was suspected the Silver Helix could be drawn in, and their agents were seven kinds of bad news. ‘No guns.’

Tex scowled and reached for the combat knife on the desk before him. ‘What’ll you be doing?’

‘I’ll be supporting the team watching Harman. If he’s not going to fold then we may have to up the stakes.’

‘He’ll see things our way,’ Tex said. ‘We got him by the balls. I’ll do the girl myself if need be.’

Ruby shrugged. ‘Some men love their children. Others just think they do, but when it comes to the crunch, to get what you want you actually have to take them by the balls.’ She cupped her hand and her palm began to glow red as if it were steel fresh from the furnace.

Tex pursed his lips. ‘Ted’ll be here soon. He’ll give her the Ted talk. Daddy Harman will be falling over himself to give us whatever it is we want soon enough.’

Ruby left the mansion, a place her employers had been renting at an eye-watering weekly rate for several years now in a well-heeled corner of Hampton, a place where most of the properties were investments by Russian oligarchs and others seeking to launder money which, while a touch cleaner than cartel cash, still carried all kinds of stink. It was a corner of London where curtains rarely twitched and even if they did there was little to see save the neighbours’ high walls.

She drove down the gravelled path to the main gates, her rental car sleek, black, and anonymous. When she’d emerged from the inferno of pain into her power and discovered what the wild card virus had wrought of her, she had thought she might own a place like the mansion retreating behind her. She’d thought that wealth and fame were hers for the taking. Who could stand against a woman who could melt steel in her hands and throw a grown man into the air as if he were a baby?

The reality had proved itself rather different. Her strengths made her an asset the powerful wished to acquire rather than a threat they feared. She was still just one person and the rich had many people at their disposal. She needed to sleep, and whichever way she turned, her back still faced half the world. She might be tough but a bullet to the head or poison in her morning juice would be the end of her.

Then there was the kiss.

Her ability to generate heat had made her mildly famous in a world where there were other more powerful, more flamboyant aces. The kiss though, that had made her infamous.

Kyle had stayed at her bedside throughout the whole battle with XTA, despite the fear of infection, despite her screaming, her toxic desperation. He’d held her hand until it blistered him. When they moved her to the special facility at Holborn, Kyle came too. She fell into a coma for a week and he’d sat behind a heat shield even as her sheets smouldered. And when her fever miraculously broke on the twenty-third day he was there. A day after the Witch’s visit Ruby had risen from the carbonised remains of her bed, marvelling that the delirium had cleared from her head so swiftly and so totally, battle smoke swept away by a fresh wind. She’d found herself in a blackened room, windowless and refractory tiled. Beyond the single heavy ceramic door a battery of tests awaited, a host of councillors, contracts, lawyers quoting regulations, invitations, scientists.

At the end of it all, relegated to the street, sat Kyle, waiting on a bench with the first of spring’s blossom speckling the trees to either side and the last of the daffodils nodding at the margins of the small triangle of green behind him.

The tests had been thorough. They knew she could will her hands to a white heat. They knew that anger could turn her breath to fire. The press already had hold of that one. She was ‘The Dragon’ in the nationals before she even regained consciousness. They had sequenced her DNA to the last of a trillion base pairs, measured and quantified her, blood to bone. But somehow the fact that her kiss would light a man up had escaped them. Kyle had burned like a torch in her arms and nothing had been right since that day. Some wag at the Daily Mirror had christened it ‘The Kiss of the Dragon’ in reference to a film she’d never heard of. It caught on, became a meme, haunted the internet. She’d never hated humanity before. Been irritated by them, despairing, sure, but never hated. But when, en masse, the planet took her tragedy, having the only man she’d ever loved, the only man who’d ever loved her, die before her in the most horrible way, and having it be her fault…when they had taken that and made a joke of it…the Witch’s dark seed had grown. A coldness had tempered Ruby’s heat, and every day the world seemed further away.

Ruby took a hard right, tyres squealing. Harman’s place wasn’t far now. Her team were in place. He would fold. He’d get his brat of a daughter back. Ruby would get paid. She didn’t even know what the dispute was about. Corporate take-over probably. Her employer was big pharma. She wasn’t supposed to know that. The CEO of the company involved probably didn’t know it either. But a conglomerate of the biggest shareholders collectively financed her sort of covert operations, just to ensure the dividends kept flowing, a hedge against the unexpected.

Ruby didn’t care about the money. It was good, not mansion good, but she had few opportunities to spend it. Since she went off-radar she’d had to get used to a changing succession of wigs, prosthetics, identities, and addresses. The carrot they dangled before her was a modified retrovirus they claimed would soon be able to provide temporary respite from the effects of XTA. Why she believed they might succeed where Doctor Tachyon had failed after four decades of effort she couldn’t say. Hope is a cruel thing.

The alien doctor had left Earth before Ruby was born, leaving the virus behind him. His other legacy was the Blythe van Renssaeler Memorial Clinic, the centre of endless conspiracy theories. One of the more popular ones, to which Ruby gave considerable credence, was that far from seeking to continue Tachyon’s work in helping the victims of the wild card virus, the clinic in fact continued his work in testing and further developing the infection. Her employers claimed that their retroviral cure, so tantalisingly close now, had as its foundation work stolen by their agents from the alien’s clinic.

Ruby pulled into the drive of another of her employer’s rentals. A shadow moved in the grounds. One of her team, watchful, ready. The others would have eyes on Harman, and ears. When they took down his security they left their own in its place.

‘Boss.’ Kirsta greeted Ruby without looking up from the monitors as she entered the ops room.

‘All square?’

Krista shrugged her broad shoulders. Unusual. Certainty was the woman’s defining characteristic ‘He’s walking around. Been doing it a while. Saw the point of entry a few minutes ago and just carried on wandering.’

‘He can’t have seen it,’ Ruby said.

‘Ran his fucking finger round the hole. Just kept going, like he was lost in his own house. No reaction.’

‘Weird.’ Ruby considered herself to have written the book on weird. ‘Must be a sleepwalker.’

‘No sign of it during the week.’ Krista shook her head. ‘Cut hisself on the fucking glass too. Leaves an edge, a hole like that. Surprised he ain’t sliced it right open. Should of woke him up though.’

Ruby’s turn to shrug. ‘Show me him now.’

Krista pointed to the relevant monitor, bringing the image onto the big central screen. In the half-light an image-intensified Miles Harman ambled barefooted through his library. He had pyjamas on, silk by the way they hung. He walked without purpose, touching the books and gazing at the height of the shelves in wonder. He looked away. Ruby squinted, trying to force meaning from the grainy image. Impossible to say for sure but she could swear he suddenly looked sad.

A moment later he stumbled then jerked upright. He spun in confusion then walked with outstretched arms, patting the walls until he hit a light switch. The monitor pulsed as it compensated for the replacement of the ambient city glow and exterior security lights with the glare of hundred-watt LEDs blazing within the diamonded guts of an antique chandelier.

Ruby and Krista watched while Harman made his way purposefully back to his bedroom, shaking his head as he mounted the grand staircase.

Ruby’s phone, the phone to which almost nobody had access, buzzed. The pattern told her who it was. ‘Tex?’

‘Riley here.’ The man sounded unsettled. ‘We got trouble.’

 

Hannah Harman came to her senses from a confused dream where she’d found herself being carried through her own house by gorillas. The room in which she woke distinguished itself by its lack of furnishing and by rotating slowly around her in a manner that left her nauseated and hardly able to lift her face from the rug on which she was lying.

The rotation slowed then stopped, a double image of the room fusing reluctantly into a singular version. Hannah found that she had been drooling and that strings of saliva still joined her to the wet patch on the rug where her head had been resting. Her arms trembled with effort as she levered herself into a sitting position. She was wearing the blue nightie she’d gone to bed in.

The room was bare, lit by a naked bulb, but by no means squalid. White, well-plastered walls, a plain linoleum floor, a thick, shaggy rug in the corner she occupied. Confused, she tried to stand, reaching for the wall for support. She noticed for the first time that on her left wrist she was wearing what looked like half a handcuff. The chain, rather thicker than traditional and much longer, stretched from the cuff to a solid bracket bolted to the wall.

Almost without thinking she began to tug at the chain, trying to yank it free. Her hands had time to become sore before the chemical fog lifted from her mind sufficiently to consider the puzzle more broadly. Terror arrived belatedly but in full force. She’d been abducted. Fuzzy memories returned to her. Black-clad men in gorilla masks carrying her from her house. Jeffry should have been on guard. Not to mention the two Dobermans, Maximillian and Alphonso. But all she remembered was leaving. Watching over someone’s shoulder as the house retreated into the distance. They must have taken her over the rear wall but she couldn’t remember that part.

All of her trembled now, a hot terror infecting every thought. There had been several of them. Three at least. Hannah hugged herself, willing her limbs to stillness. She didn’t think murderers and rapists came in trios. She wasn’t going to be tortured and buried under the floorboards. Her father was a rich man. This was about money. It had to be. She clenched her chattering teeth, trying to reclaim the confidence she’d owned all her life. This was about money and her father would get her out of here.

She made a less panicked survey of the room. She hadn’t missed much, but there in the top right corner of the room a small black camera sat on a small black bracket. It lacked the tell-tale red light of most active cameras but something told Hannah that its dark eye was drinking in every detail.

Hannah sat back against the wall. There was no point shouting to be freed. They were hardly likely to come in, say, ‘So sorry. Our mistake,’ and let her go. No point speaking at all until she needed something. Pitting her strength against the chain was wasted effort. Instead she tried to concentrate, shaking away the last of whatever drug they’d used to knock her out.

This had to be time critical. She was at university most of the year. They could have taken her from her shared house far more easily than stealing her from under her father’s nose during the summer vacation. It couldn’t just be money they wanted. It had to be something to do with her father’s current business dealings. He’d said the new report on Bioxin would upset the markets. When the antibiotic was released for prescription, a range of chronic conditions that required regular palliative drugs would become curable. A month’s course of Bioxin and done. Her father had anticipated aggressive market takeovers, shareholder buyouts, legal challenges, and good old fake news. He was threatening the revenue streams of major drug companies. It was the very reason none of them researched antibiotics anymore – to do so would harm their major sources of income. Ultimately drug companies are not in the business of curing disease, they’re in the business of managing disease.

It seemed that Hannah’s father had underestimated how violently the vested interests would oppose him.

 

The door opened unexpectedly, startling Hannah out of her contemplations. A man walked in, the light from the bare bulb gleaming on his bald head. A black T-shirt strained to encompass his chest. His arms were those of a bodybuilder, the muscle heaped up to an unhealthy steroid-driven excess. He had bad skin, deep-set eyes, and a curiously thoughtful expression. In one hand he carried a three-foot cane and in the other a smartphone.

‘I’m Ted.’ His voice was higher pitched than she expected, not the rumble such a chest should issue. ‘You and I are going to make a video. All you have to do is scream and cry and beg for your daddy to save you.’ He tilted his head on a thick neck, as if sizing her up for the part. ‘This’ – he swung the cane, making the air hiss – ‘is to help you be convincing.’

Ted hit her without warning. She didn’t even see the blow coming. A white agony erupted in her arm, filling it from shoulder to fingertips. She fell back with a scream, clutching at her triceps. The cane had left a livid crimson line, maybe six inches long. With her eyes screwed tight the line was still there, burning white across the back of her eyelids. The air had left her lungs but somehow the pain wouldn’t let her draw breath. All she could do was huddle, clenched against the hurt, hissing out whatever dregs remained in her chest. Black dots danced before her vision.

‘That was just to warm you up.’ The man jabbed at his phone with thick fingers. ‘We’ll get the rest on camera.’

You’re awake. A young woman’s voice sounds in Hannah’s head. It has a child-like quality to it. But there’s nobody else in the room. You’re hurting.

Hannah at last sucks in a shuddering breath and looks around in amazement. The man peers at her over his phone and frowns. When he hurts people he is the centre of their world. They look at him or they close their eyes. They don’t take a sudden interest in their surroundings.

‘Where are you?’ Hannah manages to gasp.

I can help you. But you have to invite me.

‘I don’t understand!’ Hannah cries to the room.

Ted’s frown deepens but whatever is wrong with the girl doesn’t matter. All she needs to do is scream. The phone is filming now. He steps in closer, raising the cane. ‘Hannah! Look at me, Hannah.’ He has to start with a good close up. The girl glances at him then looks to her side as if hunting something lost. The fear’s unhinged her. He’s seen it before but never this early on.

Invite me. I can help. The Visitor sees what Hannah sees. We’ve met before. You were kind to me.

            ‘I invite you! I invite you!’ Hannah curls foetal before the descending blow.

The cane lands squarely across her back. The nightie makes no difference. Ted only uncovers them to show the welts. They could wear a woolly jumper and the cane would still leave them crisscrossed and screaming. Ted knows all that stuff with thumb screws and racks is for show. He’s never met anyone, from hard man to little girl, who can hang on to their pride past the first few strokes of his cane. Doesn’t take more than a few minutes and all you’ve got is a blubbering, screaming, pleading mess, all snot and blood.

Ted draws back for the next swing before he realises there wasn’t a scream that time, not even a gasp.

Hannah Harman looks up at him with dark, tear-filled eyes.

‘You’re a horrible man,’ she says.

He’s so surprised that he forgets to hit her as she stands. She turns away from him as if he were of no account, looking at the door. His next blow takes her across the small of the back but lacks strength. She walks away from him towards the door.

‘Bitch!’ Ted surprises himself. He’s not given to cursing. He swings with all his strength and the cane explodes across the girl’s back, breaking in two. Again the girl doesn’t seem to notice.

Into the silence that stretches between them comes the sound of feet descending the stairs beyond the door. Tex will have seen what’s going on.

Hannah sets her hand to the door handle and looks in surprise at the broken chain trailing from her wrist. ‘There are other men outside?’ she asks. ‘You’re keeping her prisoner?’

Ted doesn’t understand the question but he nods anyway.

The door handle breaks off in Hannah’s hand. ‘I’m only doing this because I don’t want to hurt them,’ she says. ‘But I will if they make me.’ She pauses. ‘Also, I’m in a hurry.’

With that she hurls herself at the opposite wall, using the door to launch herself towards it. There’s a deafening crash. Ted watches open-mouthed, phone forgotten, as masonry dust swallows the room.

 

‘What do you mean, “she escaped”?’ The scrambler flattened the words but couldn’t blunt the tone of outrage.

Ruby had asked the same question herself in the same tone when Riley’s call came in.

‘She’s an ace. I should have been told.’ Criticising your paymaster is not considered professional, even among those in Ruby’s line of business, but her temper has never been well controlled, at least not since the infection. ‘She went through two walls and came out of the basement through steel shutters. I’ve seen what’s left of them. Ted and the grounds teams tried to stop her. She threw three of them over a fence.’

Silence at the end of the line. ‘If she’s an ace why would she let herself be taken? Why wait so long? Why go when she did?’

‘I don’t know.’ Ruby growled the words. It hurt her to say them. ‘I’m ready to move against Harman.’

‘No.’ The man’s voice came sharp, commanding. ‘We need to understand this better.’ A pause. ‘I’m sending Jane.’

Ruby killed the call. ‘Fuck.’

Ruby stood slowly. A cold knot formed in the hot pit of her stomach and darkness pulsed behind her eyes. She left the small, copper-lined room where she’d taken the call and strode back into the operations centre where Krista still watched the monitors.

‘Fuck.’

‘More problems?’ Krista looked up, her blunt face inscrutable.

‘They’re sending the Witch.’

‘Fuck.’ Nature hadn’t shaped Krista’s features for fear but she managed to look frightened even so. ‘Here?’

The doorbell sounded. It shouldn’t be possible to reach the front door without being intercepted and without silent alarms turning the control board in front of Krista into a Christmas tree.

The main lights went out.

‘She’s here.’

 

The Witch’s reputation didn’t come from killing. As far as Ruby knew the Witch had never killed anyone. The fear she invoked was more associated with the sense of wrongness that hung about her, and with her methods.

Hannah Harman had arrived at her family home half an hour ago and lights shone from every window. Police and contract security had begun to arrive already. The former with blues and twos to wake the neighbours, the latter in black vans, carrying heavy bags.

The Witch had taken over the main reception room in the company’s observation house. She’d allowed the lights to struggle back into life but shadows still hung the room, invading spaces where they shouldn’t be.

She had requested a number of items. Everything the Witch asked for was a demand, no matter how it was phrased. Things the girl had touched. Hairs from the girl, left by her in the holding room. Finding those amid the ruin had been near impossible. Ruby hoped the team hadn’t cheated. The Witch would know. And her last request: pieces of the two men who had got closest to her, namely Ted and Tex. Fingers ideally, though tongue or eyeball would serve.

‘They’re not dead,’ Ruby had said, confused. ‘Sorry if there was a misunderstanding. Tex is going to need some bones splinted, but Ted’s not even hurt.’

The Witch had remained motionless and said nothing else. After a long pause Ruby went to issue instructions.

The requests arrived by motorbike courier. The Witch added them to a collection of items seemingly taken at random from a drawer in an antique oak sideboard by the bay windows. As she picked them, a board marker here, a Bic Biro there, a cheap plastic ruler, she named each for an actor in the current debacle. Ruby was the ruler, Miles Harman the Biro, Ted was Ted’s finger, and so on.

She gathered the components into the void of her hands and whispered to them, weaving strands of shadow about their length. The temperature in the room began to plummet and Ruby shivered despite the fires banked within her. She imagined that behind the curtains frost was spreading ghostly tendrils across the window glass.

The Witch threw her collection to the floor. They fell as any loose assembly of such junk might, but somehow the pattern held Ruby’s eye. The Witch bent over it, tracing her silhouette hand across each part.

‘There’s a ghost in the machine.’ Little more than a murmur. ‘A haunting. A web, connecting our players. There’s no point going after the pieces. She’ll just jump from one to the next. The Harman parents are as dangerous as their daughter until you deal with this little visitor.’

Ruby felt a cold malice that didn’t seem to be her own seeping into her mind from the piece of darkness that had long ago been lodged behind her eyes. ‘Point me at her.’

The Witch studied the pattern, touched her own black finger to first one severed digit then the other. ‘The hospital. They met her at the hospital. That’s where you’ll find her.’

 

Ruby was still shivering as she emerged from her car in the street outside the Royal London. Krista drove it away. Finding parking at the hospital would be a nightmare. She stood on the pavement staring up at the lighted windows, hundreds of them. The night hung on her, hot and dirty as the traffic growled past in a slow snarl. Her hands trembled. She balled her fists, made as much heat as she could get away with without starting to glow, and the shivering eased.

The Witch had offered Ruby one of the fingers ‘to point the way’ and when she had balked at the proffered digit, the Witch had touched her instead. The same cool, dry touch she remembered from the tiled room they’d kept her in. ‘Now you’ll know the way.’

And she did. Horribly, Ruby knew her path through the hospital as well as she knew the way to her own bed. It meant that something new had stayed with her when the Witch withdrew her hand.

‘Won’t she just take me over too?’ Ruby had asked. ‘And send me back at the company?’ The idea of being someone else’s puppet stirred a deep revulsion in her, while at the same time a small voice told her that she already was one. Money pulled her strings, but something had changed to let that happen. The Witch had made that change as part of the bargain that dialled her pain down to manageable levels.

‘If she tries she’ll get a nasty surprise,’ the Witch had said. Ruby didn’t want to know what was considered ‘nasty’ by someone who thought fingers were a reasonable donation to the cause.

Passing down the long green corridors and climbing flight after flight of stairs, Ruby wondered who she would find at the centre of this puzzle. An ace who’d been working on Harman’s medical project no doubt. Some gifted healer who’d been given the wild card. It made sense. Harman was hardly going to take on such vested interests without a powerful backer. The world doesn’t make heroes and villains, just winners and losers. Harman’s drug wasn’t an act of benevolence, it was a power play.

Ruby found herself at the swing doors to the respiratory ward. She buzzed to be let in. No point forcing the issue before she needed to.

‘Yes?’ on the intercom.

‘I think they brought my mother here. Mrs Smith.’

A click and the door opened as she pushed.

‘I think she’s down this way.’ Ruby strode past reception. The woman on duty frowned and turned to her records, perhaps wondering if they even had a Smith on the ward.

Ruby knew her way. Not as clearly as if she had been following one of those primary coloured lines leading down the corridor to A&E, but well enough to find the door she needed. It just stood out in sharper focus than the others.

She opened the door and went in, ignoring the ‘ISOLATION’ sign. The room beyond was dimly lit, the gloom filled with the whir and pulse of a ventilator and an array of monitors where the patient’s vital signs trailed jagged lines in glowing green and glowing purple.

A young doctor looked up from adjusting the patient’s breathing mask. She wore olive scrubs, latex gloves, and a cloth mask that covered the lower half of her face. Ruby closed the door behind her.

‘Can I help you?’ The eyes above the mask held the question too.

The doctor was tallish, slim, possibly athletic, blonde hair tied back in a serious ponytail. Ruby wondered what other talents she’d been dealt over and above possessing people at a distance. She was strong. They knew that much. ‘Can I–’

‘I don’t think so.’ Ruby pulled her sleeves back as if preparing for an old fashioned punch up.

‘Then you really need to leave. This patient is infectious and very ill.’

‘What’s wrong with them?’ Ruby hadn’t had so much as a sniffle since XTA had its way with her. Bugs couldn’t tolerate her body temperature. She had no interest in what was wrong with the twisted figure beneath the sheets, it was just a distraction as she closed the distance to the bed.

‘That’s patient confidential.’ The doctor’s tone grew exasperated. ‘Will you please–’

Ruby grabbed the doctor’s neck. She could crush all the bones in a man’s hand just by squeezing. She hesitated though. She’d killed before, but not like this, part of her at least needed her victim to fight back first.

‘Double pneumonia!’ the doctor gasped in shock. ‘We’re putting her in a drug induced coma. But it’s difficult. We’re having to do it orally–’

‘I don’t care.’ Ruby cut off the woman’s gabbling. Why wasn’t she fighting back?

Ruby squeezed a little and lifted the doctor from the floor. Immediately the woman began to choke and purple. ‘This isn’t personal.’ A moment later the woman’s struggles stopped and she just hung there, face vacant.

Ruby lowered her, amazed. Had she died? Fainted? She had expected more. She drew her free hand back for the coup de grace. Heat rippled as she made a fist, her skin already a dull red.

‘No.’ The doctor’s head snapped upright, eyes wide, bloodshot, and watery, but with a determination in them that had been wholly absent before.

Ruby grinned. This was what she’d come for. This was ok. The ace might have been playing the mouse until now but those eyes revealed her true nature. She threw her punch, flames trailing behind it.

The force of the blow tore the doctor from the grasp of Ruby’s other hand and threw her against the wall, cratering it.

The doctor stepped away from the ruined wall, shrugging broken plaster from her shoulders and rubbing her jaw. A small trickle of blood escaped the corner of her mouth. She tilted her head and gave Ruby a look that was more curious than angry. ‘You’re very strong.’

Ruby lifted both hands, fingers spread, white hot now, buckling the ceiling tiles a yard above her. ‘And you’re interfering with things that don’t concern you.’

‘This is a hospital. They help people here. Why are you smashing it up?’ The doctor sounded outraged, hurt. She sounded like a child, or if not a child then naïve. It wasn’t a world view that survived contact with hard realities.

Without any particular joy in it Ruby advanced swiftly for the kill. The doctor seemed to have no experience of hand-to-hand combat – she just stood there, not even adopting a fighting stance. Ruby reached to take the doctor’s head in her blazing grasp. At the last moment the doctor’s hands caught her wrists.

They struggled and to her shock Ruby discovered that the woman was stronger than her. She even weathered a series of knees to the ribs as she kept Ruby’s hands from her face.

Beneath the white heat of her hands Ruby’s wrists glowed a dull red, and a faint stink of burning rose from where the doctor’s fingers encircled them, but she seemed in no hurry to let go.

The fire started where it always started, right at the bottom of Ruby’s stomach. A rolling inferno rising through her. It felt as though she would be utterly consumed, as though all that would remain was a carbonised statue that would crumble away. It was always like that. The flames roared from her open mouth, setting fire to the air, engulfing the doctor. She screamed and released her hold on Ruby, who stepped back from the swirling firestorm. A cruel end for a worthy opponent.

Ruby hadn’t wanted to. Even trapped and outclassed she hadn’t wanted to. Every time the fire got away from her like this, every time someone died burning in front of her, she saw Kyle, heard his screams not theirs.

Smoke billowed, alarms sounded, the sprinklers began to jet.

The doctor staggered forward. No longer burning. Clothed in soot, her hair gone. Even with the sprinklers in full flood she should still have been burning. The others all had, like awful human candles. Even with the fire out she should have been in unbearable agony. Instead she just stared with wide blue eyes. ‘Doctor Reece is the nicest, kindest woman in the world, and you’ve burned her clothes off!’ She shouted the words like someone unused to shouting. ‘She only tries to help! It’s not her fault she can’t get her needles into me. She’s doing her BEST!

And with that the doctor lunged forward, shoving Ruby in the chest with two flat hands. The attack sent Ruby flying. She slammed into the hospital bed, knocking the heavy steel frame onto its side and spilling Ruby and the patient to the floor. They both crashed down together.

Ruby was on her feet in a moment, reaching for the gun concealed in her jacket. But the doctor was already falling, crumpling gracelessly into a blackened heap. Her last words finally sunk in. The doctor wasn’t the source, just another puppet. Ruby whirled around wildly, pointing her gun. ‘Show yourself.’

A nurse opened the door and poked her head in, horrified.

‘Fuck off.’ Ruby sent a bullet over her head and the woman vanished screaming.

Realisation dawned slowly. She lowered her gaze. On the floor, half shrouded in a torn, wet sheet a blonde girl lay twisted into an unnatural pose as if every muscle were at war with every other. She was painfully thin, her arms drawn up against her body, wrists bent at impossible angles. Blue eyes stared into the distance above an oxygen mask. Ruby had seen this before, cerebral palsy, spastic quadriplegia, one of her cousins had been born that way. Died of pneumonia aged twelve, a twisted thing, incapable of speech or movement.

‘You?’

Ruby stepped back. The Witch had said this ace needed to touch you, to have touched you. Did they touch? Ruby couldn’t remember, not in the tumbling fall when the doctor had thrown her at the bed.

She understood now. If the dying girl on the floor was as invulnerable as she made those she inhabited become, then how would they treat her? Intravenous antibiotics might save her but what kind of needle would they need? Ruby didn’t know how to kill the girl, but the bubbling wheeze of her breathing said just walking away and waiting twenty-four hours would do it. She didn’t have much time.

Ruby put the gun away. Part of her said this should mean more. She should feel more. She had loved her cousin, played nurse with him, cried when he died. And now…nothing…just a coldness and a darkness behind her eyes.

‘I’m sorry.’ Ruby turned to go.

I’m sorry too. The voice spoke in her mind. I should be invited.

As the visitor moved into her Ruby found she knew the girl’s name: Angela. She tried to fight off the invasion, tried to marshal her thoughts and cling to her body, but instead a dark something unfolded itself within her skull. Ruby’s last thought as she was thrown clear was that the Visitor seemed as surprised as she was.

A moment later Ruby found herself on the floor, her limbs twisted and unresponsive, her lungs sloshing with corruption as she tried to breathe. And worse, much worse, a level of pain that threw the worst of her fever agonies into the shade, a pain that let her understand how Angela had managed to function despite the agony of the doctor’s burns. The girl had lived with worse from the moment she’d been born.

 

The thing waiting for her is not the woman that Angela expected. That woman had been a confusing mixture, cold and detached on the surface, angry and hurt underneath. On the rare occasions Angela has battled someone for their body it has been a raw, emotional struggle, with the person clinging to bones they’ve owned their whole life.

But the fiery woman has gone and in her place is a blackness, spider-like, cold rather than cruel. But all the more frightening because of it.

Angela launches herself at the darkness, heart first, she’s lived all her life like this. The only thing that has ever truly scared her is losing the people who love her. Until the wild card dealt her a new hand there were so few of those. Her condition had put a wall between her and the world, a thick one that few had the sight and endurance to scale. But some had, some had seen her, truly seen her, and loved her. Betty, who died in this same hospital, was one such.

The dark thing tears at her with clinical detachment, hitting her weaknesses, hamstringing her, deflecting her strength. It’s a battle of minds, of intelligence, a chess game. And Angela is losing. Ruby’s eyes grow black, darkness bleeding from pupil to iris and into the whites. Angela is hemmed in, torn down, bound tight until she occupies only a corner of the shell they’re fighting within.

The Witch doesn’t speak to her, doesn’t relish her destruction, or even care. The Witch is an emptiness, a cancer, the space left when the virus killed a woman years ago.

Angela’s body is dying on the floor with Ruby trapped inside. Smoke escapes her nostrils, the mask on her face is melting, but she can’t do more than twitch. Angela’s mind is dying inside Ruby, poisoned by the Witch’s impersonal malice.

Angela does what she has done for nineteen years. She endures. She holds on. She looks at the gifts she has been given and makes the most of them. Her resurgence isn’t swift. It is relentless though. It’s the green pressure of the spring that forces new shoots through tarmac, that swells that tree trunk and cracks stone. It’s the advance of glaciers, of tectonic plates. And the Witch has never known its like.

By the time the first fireman is through the doors the Witch has retreated to a black knot buried at the back of Ruby’s brain. Angela pushes her out. Something ugly bleeds from the back of Ruby’s skull. It takes on the form of a nightmarish spider no larger than a hand, and scurries away, out into the corridor. It will find the Witch and reunite with her.

Angela falls back into her own body and Ruby in turn is drawn to hers.

Leave and don’t come back. Don’t ever hurt any of my people. Angela’s voice is sad rather than scolding, as if she just wished Ruby could be a better person. Don’t hurt anyone.

            Ruby lets the emergency crew carry her out. She’s too deep in thought to struggle to her feet. And in any event her body feels like the ground on which some great battle has been fought, churned to mud, strewn with deep trenches and craters. The pain that the Witch took away as part of their bargain has returned. It still burns. It’s still bad. But after what she felt in Angela’s body. After knowing for a few minutes what the girl must have lived with all her life, Ruby thinks she can live with her own measure.

Ruby knows the girl is foolish, naïve, a child given powers nobody should be trusted with. Angela hasn’t lived the life Ruby has, she never had the chance, she’s not been faced with impossible choices, compromises that leave you dirty, each one a cumulative pollution of the soul. But now that the Witch’s touch has left her…Angela’s innocence tears at Ruby, makes her want to cry, makes her want that purity of vison for herself. Ruby isn’t suddenly a good person but suddenly, for the first time since the Witch touched her, she doesn’t want to be a bad one.

Doctor Reece has first degree burns over fifty percent of her body but she will make a good recovery. The investigators looking at the damage wrought by the fireball are unsure how she isn’t…toast.

Angela has a new bed in a new room. Angela hasn’t been assigned a new doctor. She is past their help. She will not be here long. They are coming to take her away.

Angela’s death could have been averted if Miles Harman’s new antibiotic Bioxin had been rushed to market. And if some way of feeding it through her obdurate flesh into her veins could have been devised.

But in the end it was Ruby Johnson who saved her. The bacteria crowding Angela’s lungs were resistant to six forms of antibiotics. They had certainly found the measure of Angela’s immune system and overwhelmed it. But when Ruby Johnson moved in, it quickly transpired that the bacteria were not immune to the fire that filled Angela’s lungs.

Angela is as well as she is ever going to get. Her carers come and take her back to the residential home.

 

A week later a man waits at a desk. He’s in a secure basement three levels below a ten story office block in Paris’s 12th arrondissement. A dozen heavily armed mercenaries guard the access points. He controls a powerful organisation and is in turn controlled by it. If you were to shoot him he would be replaced. He is a cell in the body of a beast whose blood is money. And the beast wants Miles Harman dead. It wants his drug discredited. It wants its interests protected.

This is the beast that so scared Ruby. It can’t be fought. It’s a hydra with a hundred heads. It is a multitude, immune to governments and their agents, immune to aces and their powers.

Even the Witch who steps from the elevator cannot challenge the organisation. The man before her, yes she could make a ruin of him, but he is an interchangeable piece of the machine.

‘Are we covered?’ the man asks her.

‘We are. All agents withdrawn or terminated. Our footprint has been erased. There’s nothing that can be traced back to us.’ The Witch is a disconcerting silhouette. She speaks without emotion. As if she were hardly there at all.

‘And the ace?’

‘Angela Carter, lives at Carstons Residential home. We’re developing a plan to isolate her and then drown her. She needs to breathe. It’s the easiest of her vulnerabilities to exploit. Though a prolonged fire or powerful explosion would also work.’

‘Drowning,’ says the man. ‘Nothing flamboyant.’ He hesitates. ‘And we’re safe from her here?’

The Witch inclines her head. ‘She doesn’t know where we are. She can’t move. And she needs to touch someone before she can possess them.’

The man nods. ‘Give it a week or two then make an end of her.’

The Witch makes no reply. She makes no move to leave. She’s silent and very still. Then at last she speaks. ‘I’ve come to visit.’

When she lifts her head there is something changed about her. How he knows this the man can’t say. She is, after all, an inscrutable hole cut into the brightly lit space before him.

‘You’re a very bad man,’ the Witch says. From anyone else it might be funny but nothing from the void they call the Witch sounds funny.

‘What?’

‘She didn’t go to the hospital,’ says the Witch, ‘but she did touch me. A piece of her touched me.’

The man stands rapidly and backs away. ‘I don’t–’

‘My friend Ruby says this will take a while,’ says the Witch. She stands and the temperature falls. The lights flicker and dim, the computer banks shudder, uneasy in their metal skins. ‘But that’s ok. I have lots of time now. And she says she’s going to help me.’

‘Shoot her!’

Bullets whine through the air as the Witch advances. Where the bullets that hit her go is unclear, none emerge from the other side or bounce off, but what is clear is that they are no inconvenience to her. Cameras watch her progress. All those who might replace this man are seeing his fate.

‘Ruby says there are too many of you and that we’ll never be safe.’ The Witch looks at the cameras, finding each with unerring accuracy. ‘But I told her that nobody is ever safe. And that although you lot might be many…I’m more.’

 

“The Visitor” copyright © 2020 by Mark Lawrence
Art copyright © 2020 by John Picacio

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