By Mark Lawrence
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.
The girl slips from her bed, and still confused her mother stumbles sleepily over to help her back.
BUY IT NOW
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.