Wild Cards Excerpt
January 7, 2014
Those About to Die…
David Anthony Durham
The door swung open and the guard prodded him forward and he slid out on to smooth floor of a small arena. He blinked under the bright lights, barely able to make out the ranks of expectant faces that ringed him. They stared at him from behind a wall of thick glass. Above it, a crosshatch of netting enclosed the space. Whatever this was, he was trapped in it.
The guard shoved him forward, and then retreated back through the door. It closed, trapping Marcus in the oval. This can’t be happening, he thought.
He’d told himself that again and again since he’d woken up in that small room with Asmodeus and Dmitri. He’d said it several times to Father Squid as they talked. The priest – kindly, grave, the membranes of his eyes sliding closed and then opening again – had assured him that it was, in fact, happening. “We are trapped in a garden of evil,” he had said. “Have courage, son.”
Marcus gaped at the spectators. Men and women in suits and fancy dresses, champagne glasses in hand. Fat men grinned their pleasure. Beautiful women rubbed up next to them, bejeweled and gaudy. Some of them clapped. A few shouted at him, jeers or encouragement – he wasn’t sure which.
Set apart from the others, a private box hung above the netting. An old couple inside of it. The woman looked like some ancient librarian with blue hair. What the fuck was she doing here? The man was a twisted monstrosity in a wheelchair, with wires and tubes running all over him, connecting him to the machines that crowded behind him. Attendants hovered around him as if he might croak at any moment. He looked like he was close to it. His gaping mouth drooled. His face twitched. His palsied hands squeezed in on themselves. Head cocked to one side, eyes closed, breathing labored: he was a monster, a knotted deformity of a man.
Lining the wall at the back of the box was a row of big-shouldered men in black suits and dark sunglasses stood at the back of the box. They looked like some Hollywood versions of Russian gangsters on steroids. It went without saying that they were packing.
Who were these people? Why were they here and did they want from him? Asmodeus may have explained it, but still seemed mad and unreal.
A voice spoke over the commotion, announcing him. IBT in his debut bout, ladies and gentlemen. Vigilante of Jokertown. Serpent of the sewers. Villain or hero? They could be the judges. Place your bets.
This can’t be happening.
The door at the other side of the oval swung open. Through it, Marcus saw a figure in silhouette. His heart hammered. The figure was like something dredged out of his childhood nightmares. It emerged into the light, a perversion of a centaur, horrific in a way that made Marcus’s skin crawl. From his torso up he was humanoid, but beneath he merged into a bulbous, arachnid body, with eight long, segmented legs.
The announcer spoke over the new tumult of applause. The Recluse, ladies and gentleman. Reluctant combatant with a deadly sting. Veteran of three bouts. A battle of half-men, the first ever such bout in the entire history of gladiatorial combat. Betting remains open until the first contact…
The lights above the audience faded to black, leaving just the ring alight. The announcer spoke on, but Marcus stopped hearing him. He stopped hearing anything, or seeing anything but the spider man. He watched him through ripples in the air, like heat waves. They distorted his vision, but they also brought waves of clarity. Crystal clear images and understanding.
The spider man circled to the left. The sharp tips of his legs skittered across the floor with audible clicks and scratches. At first, it looked like he was trying to run, searching for an exit. Marcus knew that was a ploy. The more he watched him, circling to stay away from him, the more he saw the man was sizing him up, testing him, trying to trick him. He kept saying something. Marcus saw his teeth gnashing together. He swayed crazily, his arms lashing at the air. His eyes flashed cold and savage, cut with highlight and shadow cast from the harsh lights.
He’s insane, Marcus thought.
The guy kept up such a frantic scurrying that Marcus felt trapped, pressed up against the glass wall that hemmed him in. He bunched his coils beneath him, and hovered above them, looking for a way to attack. His tongue trembled in his mouth, venom-soaked and ready to dart out. But he couldn’t get his aim set. The guy’s upper body wouldn’t stay still. He was trying to hypnotize him with the motion, confuse him.
This fucker wants to kill me.
Marcus surged at him, trying to get a good shot at the guy’s face. His venom needed to hit skin, not the man’s shell-encrusted legs or hairy underbody. Marcus shot, too early, poorly aimed. His tongue darted out a full ten feet. It nailed nothing but the air beside the spider man’s head. He snapped it back. He swung his momentum into a haymaker. His fist would have caught the man’s jaw perfectly, but, before it did, one of those sectional legs clipped it at the wrist. The blow slammed Marcus’s arm down on to the stone floor, yanking his body with it.
Marcus writhed on the floor, trying to wrench his arm free as his opponent’s bulbous, hairy black torso loomed over him. He punched at the joker’s underbelly with his free hand, slamming it again and again. It responded by pressing him down, rising and turning and pressing him down again. It was sickening. When it rose a third time Marcus caught sight of a jagged barb protruding from the underbelly. All the pressing and rising was just to keep him down while he moved into position to strike.
Marcus’s flesh tore as he ripped his arm from under the leg that pinned it. His torso corkscrewed him out of there just as the barb slammed down against the stone that had been beneath him. He rose up so fast that his head spun. He saw a blurred image of the spider man. The man’s face craned up to follow him. Marcus took his shot.
His tongue impacted with the man’s face with all the force he could muster. It hit hard as a fist, snapping the joker’s head back. Marcus loosened the muscles so that his tongue lapped venom all over the man’s cheeks, across his lips and into his nose. And then his tongue snapped back into his mouth. It only took a second.
The spider man careened away. His legs skittered even more wildly as he clutched at his face with his hands, crying in delirious pain. Marcus followed him. He held his damaged arm snug to his body, but struck blow after blow with his other fist, punching from high up on his coils, fast, snake-like. He kept at it until the spider legs collapsed in a jumbled splay. The man fell unconscious on top of them. Marcus shouted for the fucker to get up and take more of a pounding.
The lights above the crowd flared. Where there had been darkness a moment before, the close-packed people reappeared. They rose to their feet applauding. They laughed and shouted and pumped the air with their fists. Their eyes were wild with glee.
The announcer’s voice returned. The Infamous Black Tongue, ladies and gentlemen! The Infamous Black Tongue! Now that was a show, wasn’t it?
Marcus’s eyes settled on the elderly couple in the private box. They were the only two not caught up in the frenzy. This time, it was the woman that drew his attention. As horrible as the deformed man was, the woman was somehow more frightening. She stared back at Marcus, arms crossed, eyes hidden behind elaborate glasses, her blue hair in a snug swirl atop her head. Her face betrayed no emotion that he could fathom. Compared to her, the screaming crowd looked positively sane.
“It’s not your fault,” Father Squid said. He sat across Marcus, a table between them.
Marcus pushed morsels of egg around his plate with a fork. “So you keep telling me.”
“I saw the entire fight. They made us all watch it in the common room. It was horrible, but the man in that arena was not you. It was a perversion of you. I can see that even if you cannot. Trust me.” The priest managed to convey calming empathy through his eyes, and with the shape and movement of his dangling tentacles.
Marcus tried not to see it. “I trust you,” he said, “but you shouldn’t trust me. Not anymore. I would’ve killed that guy. I don’t know why, but… I hated him. I still do.”
“You would not have gone that far,” Father Squid said. “It’s this place. Somehow it turns men’s natures, brings horrible things out of them. It’s not your fault, though.” The priest reached across the table and tried to place a sucker-covered palm on the young man’s hand.
Marcus pulled away. “You haven’t been in the arena. You don’t know what it’s like.”
The older man pulled his hand back. “I will soon.”
“I have been matched to fight tomorrow night.”
“That I don’t know.”
“But they won’t be able to make you fight. Not you!”
“They can put me in the arena, but I will strive not to give in.”
“If anyone can resist it you can!” The thought buoyed Marcus like nothing else had. Father Squid would beat them by not fighting. He could see it: the priest standing with his arms crossed, proud and defiant, staring down that old lady. And if he could do that, maybe Marcus could too. “You can beat it.”
The priest ducked his head, seeming unnerved by Marcus’s sudden enthusiasm. “I will try, but I have violence in my past, Marcus. I fear it’s not buried as deeply as I would like.”
That evening, as he lay staring at the ceiling, his mind crowded with thoughts, his door cracked open. Of all the things he might have imagined would step through the door, the girl that slid into view wasn’t one of them.
As far as he could tell she was a nat. A jaw-droppingly beautiful one. Beauty wafted in with her like a scent that he inhaled through his eyes. Fashion model-slim, firm and soft in the right places. She wore jeans so tight they looked like she’d been dipped into them. Her shirt opened all the way down the front, a gauzy-thin, semi-transparent material. He could just see the curves of her breasts. Her large eyes were spaced widely, but they were more striking for it. Icy blue, sparkling, they studied him with a frankness that set his heart racing.
“I am for you tonight,” she said. “You must have fought well, yes?”
Marcus couldn’t say a word.
She considered him for a long moment, and then asked, “Is your tongue really black?”
Marcus had never heard a sexier question.
Her name was Olena. She sat beside him on his bed. The threads in the stitching of her jeans sparkled gold when she moved. She was Ukrainian, from a city called Poltava. “You know it?”
Marcus pursed his lips, frowned as if he was trying to place Poltava.
“It’s on the Vorskla,” she said. Her accent reminded him of when his sister used to imitate Natasha Fatale from the Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons. It would almost have been funny, except that she was too earnest, too beautiful, for him to possibly laugh at. “Is a river. Vorskla. You should know it.” She punctuated this by stabbing out her small hand and slapping him on the shoulder. “You live in New York, yes?”
Marcus nodded. He almost specified Jokertown, but the name died on his tongue.
“Do you know famous persons?”
“Not really.” Seeing disappointment in the way she bit the corner of her lip, he added, “I… I’m a little bit famous.” He chose not to say ‘infamous’.
“What makes you famous? Are you rapper?”
“Ah… no.” He had no idea what to say. He was famous for beating up a crooked cop? For living in sewers? For roaming around at night looking for thugs? “Just for… getting in trouble.”
This seemed to please her. She laughed and swayed into him. “You’re bad boy, aren’t you? I can tell you are!” Her head dipped coyly. For a moment her face was hidden behind a screen of her long black hair. Then she parted her hair with a hand, scooped it clear and swiped it over her shoulder. “Show me your tongue.”
Initially, Marcus refused, but she insisted. She seemed fascinated, first staring into this open mouth and then making him demonstrate his talent. She clapped with pleasure when he shot his tongue out and nailed the far wall.
“Is you’re ‘little snake’ as long as that?” she asked, sliding a hand over his torso.
Marcus felt an instant erection press against the scales of his groin.
She pulled her hand away and changed the subject. “Where would you take me in New York?”
An easy enough question, but it stumped him. Where would he take her?
“Not just your apartment,” she cautioned. “Not just there. I need to see places. United Nations. Broadway. Liberty Statue. Where else?”
To his relief, she didn’t make him answer the question. She went on talking about the places she wanted to see. Not just in New York, but at random points all across America. Marcus tried to listen, but he couldn’t understand who or what she was. Where had she come from? How was it possible that she was sitting here on his bed chatting with him like it was the most normal thing in the world? Why was she speaking as if they had a future together, filled with voyages to amazing places? He wanted to know, but he didn’t want to ask. Asking might kill whatever spell he was living in.
“Are you a good man?” she asked.
Marcus’s stomach knotted. “I try to be.”
“I know you are. I can see it in you. You won’t hurt me, will you?”
“No, I would never-“
“Asmodeus is not a good man. He hurts me. He wins and then hurts me. I say I don’t want to go to him but he always chooses me. That’s not so good for me. A better thing is that you fight and win and have me. Be a monster at fighting. A monster for me. Then we will do things to make you happy. All the things you want. You know what I mean.”
His face must’ve indicated that he didn’t.
Olena slipped off the bed on to her knees, sliding her hands across his scales. She smiled and whispered, “I show you.”
Excerpt from WILD CARDS XXIl: LOWBALL
coming from Tor in Summer, 2014
Copyright © 2013 by David Anthony Durham, all rights reserved. No part of this text may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, reposting, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without express written permission of the author.