“We think we’ve got this all figured out—the Takisians, the Swarm. We don’t know sh*t.” –Bradley Finn, Joker Moon (Melinda Snodgrass)
Wild Cards is an alternate-history saga, telling stories of a world in which superhumans (“aces”) and mutants (“jokers”) have existed cheek-by-jowl with normal folks (“nats”) since 1946. It’s an amazing series, edited by George R.R. Martin and Melinda Snodgrass, and written by a host of different SF/fantasy authors.
Generally speaking, the stories are set here on Earth. That’s the way your typical alternate history works, after all. However, extra-terrestrial activity has also had its role to play in the Wild Cards Universe (i.e., the WCU).
Briefly, there are the Takisians, who introduced humanity to a genetic virus as part of a grand experiment right at the start of the saga, in Volume 1: Wild Cards. And then are the Swarm, giant sentient yeasts of malevolent intent. Guided by their “Swarm Mother,” these doughy invaders came calling in late 1985, only to be completely repelled in the summer of ’86, as thoroughly documented in Aces High. As far as most of humanity in the WCU is aware, we have faced alien invasion twice now in our history, and survived both times.
But as Bradley so eloquently and ominously pointed out, the Takisians and the Swarm are not the only ones out there. Humanity at large still hasn’t entirely reckoned with the Network.
Part One: Network Management
“Their contracts are so unconscionable, the bargains so hard, that people are crushed beneath them.” –Melinda Snodgrass, Double Solitaire
The Network is a coalition of multiple alien races; sort of the Wild Cards version of the United Federation of Planets, albeit not quite so benign in intent. Unlike the UFP, the Network is a trading ring of 137 different alien species, the leaders of whom are the enigmatic “Master Traders of Starholme.”
We don’t actually meet a Trader until Low Chicago, and even in that sequence (penned by Paul Cornell), the powerful figure retains an air of mystery; a Trader’s true form is always disguised telepathically, such that if you happen to be in their presence, you will perceive them as a member of your own species.
But if the Traders’ true appearance is mysterious, their philosophy is not. They are driven by a hunger for profit, and they live by their contracts. According to John Jos. Miller’s Wild Cards guidebook, Mutants & Masterminds, the Network at this point controls over 1,000 worlds.
Part Two: Network Affiliates
“His chariot is the size of Manhattan Island, and armies of angels and demons and gods fight at his beck and call. They had better. They’ve got binding contracts, all of them.” –George R.R. Martin, Aces High
Of the 137 species comprising the Network, only a few of them have been explicated at much length so far in the Wild Cards saga. They include:
The Kondikki: A race that long ago sold their home planet to the Network, the Kondikki are divided into various castes. In Cornell’s tale for Low Chicago, the Network ship that ace Abigail Baker encounters is populated with several members of the “worker” caste, which to her resemble “large, black-green grubs.” Meanwhile, at the heart of that same ship is a Kondikki “godqueen,” which Abigail—ever the colloquial one—describes as a “blobby insect thing.” This Kondikki queen is responsible for the ship’s sensors and security systems. According to a description by Martin in Aces High, the godqueens have “vast minds.”
The Ly’bahr: Per Martin, they are “more machine than flesh, awesomely powerful.” Their planet used to consist of a population in two parts: Those who had become cyborgs, and those who had chosen to “remain flesh.” Ten millennia ago, the Swarm descended on their world, and the living-flesh Ly’bahr were all killed. Now there are only the cyborgs, who cannot reproduce or perpetuate, even though they themselves are incredibly long-lived. They have been “a dead race for 10,000 years.”
The Rhindarians: Miller describes the Rhindarians, in part, as bipedal mammals. There is a lot of information about them in Mutants and Masterminds, suggesting that they are one of the most important of the Network’s member races. So far, however, we’ve seen very little of them in the novels themselves.
The Aevre: Often employed by the Network as starship pilots, the Aevre are described by Cornell as “giant golden bats.”
We’ve also met specimens from a few other member species over the course of the WC saga, including: the Embe (in Aces High), the Viand (in Double Solitaire), and the Moho (in Low Chicago).
Network species that have been name-dropped but never depicted include: The Kreg, which are “machine intelligences,” and the lyn-ko-neen, about whom we know nothing except that they… sing sometimes. Or possibly all the time? The data is incomplete.
Then there’s the planet Glabber, which has produced one particularly significant Network operative…
Part Three: Wireless Network
“Somewhere the Network [operative] had a monitoring station. A place to spy upon this unsuspecting little world. A place to prepare the contracts that would ultimately deliver the humans into bondage.” –Melinda Snodgrass, Double Solitaire
Much of what fans know about the Network comes from stories appearing in Aces High (still, incidentally, one of my all-time favorite books in the series). It’s established there by Wild Cards impresario George R.R. Martin that the Network’s official interest in humanity began after the Takisians released their virus upon humanity in 1946. The Master Traders decided to establish a presence on our planet only a few years later; so ever since 1952, there has been a Network xenologist from the planet Glabber living on Earth. Glabberians look nothing like humans, but fortunately that hasn’t been a problem. This operative simply lives in Jokertown, seemingly just one more among thousands of mutated human beings.
Longtime fans know which recurring supporting Wild Cards character is the Network observer, but the only books in the series to make it explicit are Vols. 2, 3 and 10. More recently, Cornell gave readers a strong hint in Low Chicago. I’ll not spoil it here, because the reveal is so wonderfully done. Better to discover it for yourself by reading Aces High.
When Dr. Tachyon, the last remaining Takisian on Earth (that we know of), had an urgent need to return to the Takisian homeworld, the only transportation available was via the Network. This required Tach to enter into an open-ended contract with them (via their Glabberian liaison), payment to be named and collected sometime in the future. This ominous development occurred back in Melinda Snodgrass’ Double Solitaire, and we’ve not really seen Tachyon since then. As far as we know, the contract remains open—so the question still looms as to what exactly Tachyon is going to do when the Network comes to collect.
Meanwhile, the Glabberian operative on Earth is presumably still dutifully documenting his observations every day, even as of the year 2022. At some point, though, the Network is bound to return. When they read their xenologist’s report about all the superhuman power that is now amassed on the planet Earth after 75 years of mutation by the wild card virus, how will they react? It seems unlikely that they’ll simply leave us be.
Part Four: the Old-Boy Network
“…maybe it was the wild card powers calling the Swarm. Of course, that would mean the virus had called the Swarm before the virus existed, but Tachyon was accustomed to dealing with the absurdities of space and time.” –Pat Cadigan, Aces High
Dateline: September 15, 1946
This was the very first Wild Card Day, when an alien virus caused the WCU timeline to deviate from our own. But that means the history of the world prior to Wild Card Day should match real life precisely. Shouldn’t it?
A Network agent came to Earth, making contact with Count Alessandro di Cagliostro. Certain information was imparted unto the count, which led to the creation of the Egyptian Rite of the Freemasons. Like a game of telephone, the sacred knowledge was distorted somewhat as it was passed down over generations of Egyptian masonry, and across continents as well. Still, the hand of the Network in the origins of the cult of the Freemasons was visible to the one person on Earth with eyes to recognize it: our aforementioned Glabberian.
It was clear to the xenologist that, all those centuries ago, the Network had given to Cagliostro the instructions for building a transmitter that would let the Freemasons contact the Network and summon them back to Earth. At the proper time, the incredible amount of power at the Network’s command would be employed on behalf of the Masons, thus letting the cult fulfill their desire to rule humanity.
As it happens, a coalition of civic-minded aces assembled by Dr. Tachyon routed the Masons before any of this could happen, and the Master Trader was never summoned. And besides, as the Glabberian explains to one of the last surviving Freemasons at the end of Aces High, “The Master Trader would never have given you world dominion. We don’t give anything away for free. But we would have sold it to you.”
It seems clear at this point, though, that if the Network ever decides it wants what Earth has, they won’t wait for any summons. They’ll simply show up one day, and what then?
However…if 1946 is the point of divergence between Wild Card reality and our own, how is it that the Network was visiting Earth all the way back in the year 1777? It seems that something anomalous is happening, temporally speaking…
Dateline: 66,000,000 B.C.
Due to a time-travel event caused by someone’s stray wild card power in Low Chicago, absent-minded British ace Abigail “the Understudy” Baker was sent backwards in time, landing in the age of the dinosaurs. Her very presence in a prehistoric era made her a temporal anomaly that attracted the attention of a Master Trader.
The Trader’s ship landed, and soon became fascinated by the existence of a superpowered, time-traveling humanoid on Earth, and what this implied about the planet’s future.
So it would seem that the Network has been, retroactively speaking, interested in Earth for over sixty-million years … still all due to the virus’ release in the 20th century. So perhaps the best way to think of it is that the point of divergence between our world and the WCU is still and always September 15, 1946—but the release of the virus is like a rock thrown in the pond of space-time, causing ripples outward from that date, not only into the future but also into the past.
As for the Network’s own status in the year 66,000,000 B.C., they are said at that time to only have 22 member species, rather than 137, which gives a sense of the Network’s slow but inexorable rate of expansion.
Part Five: Debt Collection Network
Most recently in the Wild Cards timeline, joker Bradley Finn was transported all the way to Takis, instantaneously and quite against his will, thanks to another character’s ace power. Finn’s situation was a kind of inverse of Tachyon’s; he didn’t need the Network to get him off of Earth, but he did end up running into them while a spaceship was taking him back home.
With so many characters, storylines, and authorial voices all interwoven through the WC saga, quite a lot of things happen “off camera,” so to speak, and Finn’s trip home is one of those. He was teleported to Takis at the end of Black Trump, but by Death Draws Five, he was back on Earth. In another example of the authors keeping us in suspense for a bit, creator Snodgrass at last allows Finn tell us in his own words how he got home, in Joker Moon.
Finn is characteristically colloquial in his recitation, demystifying the Network—for himself at least—with some strategically placed crude humor. He too signed one of those ill-advised insidious contracts, in order to ensure that the Network saw him safely back to Earth, but he isn’t sweating the implications. “I’m still not sure if I sold my left nut or my firstborn when I signed that contact,” he tells us, “but so far nobody’s come to collect.” It remains to be seen whether Finn will remain so sanguine on the day he finally has to pay his outstanding debt.
Post-script: Contacting My Network Providers
What do you say, Wild Card writers? Will you give the fans the “aces vs. the Network” trilogy that we need in our lives? I’ll trade anything for it! What do you say? Open-ended contract, exact payment to be decided later? I’ll happily sign on the dotted line.
Jason Powell is the author of The Best There Is at What He Does: Examining Chris Claremont’s X-Men, and of several original musicals and operas. His sci-fi musical Invader? I Hardly Know Her, was performed at the NYC Fringe Festival in 2010. On YouTube he calls himself The Man in Orange, and performs various original songs about topics such as Chris Claremont and Wild Cards (go figure). You can hear his tunes at https://www.youtube.com/user/MrDooteronomy.