George R. R. Martin Presents Wild Cards: Sleeper Straddle

A Novel in Stories

About the Book

An original collection of interwoven short stories set in the Wild Cards universe, where an alien virus mutates some and grants superpowers to others, created by the #1 New York Times bestselling author of A Game of Thrones

An alien virus ravages the world, with effects as random as a hand of cards. Those infected either draw the black queen and die, draw an ace and receive superpowers, or draw the joker and are bizarrely mutated.

Croyd Crenson is the Wild Card’s greatest failure—and its greatest success. Dubbed “The Sleeper,” he randomly undergoes hibernations that can span days, weeks, or even months. After each hibernation, he awakens with a new appearance and set of powers—sometimes a joker, sometimes an ace, and sometimes a combination of both—until exhaustion claims him and his next inevitable sleep shuffles the cards anew. Ever since his initial infection in 1946, he’s awoken in a singular body—until now. His latest awakening has left him split into six different incarnations, each of them a self-contained piece of the original and each with a unique look and ability.

One of them, at least, recognizes this for the disaster that it is, and tasks the clever and elusive Tesla—a joker with ace powers—to locate and gather the remaining five versions of himself before sleep claims them again and leaves Croyd permanently fractured.

What follows is a journey through Croyd’s long and colorful life, through the lens of some who have encountered the world’s most unusual wild carder. And as Tesla delves deeper into the investigation, he’ll have to work fast, because not every Croyd is as amiable as the first—and they’ll do whatever it takes to survive.

Featuring stories from:
Christopher Rowe • Carrie Vaughn • Cherie Priest • William F. Wu • Walter Jon Williams • Stephen Leigh • Mary Anne Mohanraj • Max Gladstone • Edited by George R. R. Martin • Assisted by Melinda M. Snodgrass
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George R. R. Martin Presents Wild Cards: Sleeper Straddle

Part I

Tesla shut the folder. He took the string of the closure between his gray thumb and forefinger—no easy task given his long black nails, invulnerable to clippers as they were. Then he wrapped the string around the circular cardboard retainer, once, twice, three times.

The folders were an affectation, to be sure—as were the physical dossiers they contained, with their notes handwritten in pencil, and black-and-white photographs—but an affectation rooted in Tesla’s deep-seated needs for security and secrecy. He was a great believer in computers and databases for research and surveillance, but a much greater believer in absolutely never storing any data electronically, even on those of his machines connected to nothing but the electrical outlets in the walls of his basement office. He had heard rumors that his erstwhile colleagues at the National Security Agency were making progress on technology that could access computers through the electrical grid.

Tesla was a great believer in rumors as well—at least when it came to the governmental intelligence apparatus that had once employed him, and for which he occasionally did freelance work, if anonymously, through a nested series of false identities and think tanks that existed only as post office boxes.

Satisfied that the thick folder was securely closed, Tesla stood up from his oak desk and took a few short steps to the door of the bank vault dug into one side of his basement. He turned the dial through the sixteen-digit combination, pleased with the complete silence of the tumblers even to his preternaturally sharp ears, then wheeled open the heavy door.

Nothing of his considerable wealth was stored in the vault. At least not of his wealth in various currencies, negotiable instruments, and specie. What it contained instead was a vast wealth of information.

Filing cabinet upon locked file cabinet lined the walls of the vault. Tesla approached one, selected a key from the ring hung around his neck, and, after unlocking the cabinet, pulled open the top drawer. He carefully placed the newly closed file, unlabeled like the cabinets, in the crowded drawer. He narrowed his eyes, making of the random placement of the file in a randomly chosen cabinet a conscious memory. The next time he needed it, he would cast his mind back and watch himself in his imagination: turning the tumblers of the vault’s locking mechanism, taking a certain number of steps to a certain cabinet, tucking the file into a crowded drawer in a certain position, just so.

There were 4,622 folders stored in the vault, none labeled, all randomly filed. With a moment’s thought, Tesla could locate any of them. An intruder would take days to locate a particular folder—and that after successfully cracking the combination of the vault; after successfully locating the hidden basement; after successfully identifying the anonymous house in the anonymous Northern Virginia suburb where Tesla, with a reasonable level of confidence, believed exactly one other person in the world knew he lived.

Of course, even after all that effort, the theoretical intruder would have to break the arcane cipher Tesla used in writing his research notes.

Vault closed, Tesla took his key ring from around his neck and stored it in a separate safe hidden in the basement’s floor. He turned off the overhead light, red-bulbed and so casting light in the wavelength his infinitely adaptable eyes found best for close work, then pulled down the retractable staircase.

It was time to check the mail. Which meant it was time for lunch.

Tesla picked a cellphone from a rack of them on his kitchen counter. He powered it on for the first time, then used his nail tips to dial a number in the Netherlands. The ring that sounded reminded Tesla of an old-fashioned dial phone, which was easily explained by the fact that the number was for precisely that kind of device.

On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, someone Tesla would never meet picked up the phone’s handset and set it into a cradle. A tone sounded. Tesla dialed a thirty-digit number and patiently waited for the uplink that would send his call up to a satellite that had been launched from a Pacific atoll by no government and by no publicly known private enterprise. The signal bounced off the satellite down to an exchange, this afternoon’s random one in rural Pennsylvania, and a third dial tone sounded. Tesla dialed again.

A woman’s voice, aggressive, aged, and accented, came through the cellphone’s speaker.

“China Star, may I help you?”

“I would like to order some food for delivery, please.”

“Phone number?”

Tesla smiled. “This is Mr. Price.”

“General Tso’s chicken, steamed dumplings, right?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Cash or charge?”


“Okay, thirty minutes.”

Tesla pushed the disconnect button. Then he dropped the phone into the industrial trash compactor that stood where a refrigerator would in someone else’s kitchen and set it churning to destructive life.

The one other person in all the world who knew Tesla’s address, the spectacularly well-educated daytime delivery driver for China Star, climbed the three brick steps to the front door. He did not knock. He did not press the button for the doorbell, which in any case was disconnected. Instead, he waved at the cleverly concealed camera above the lintel, set a brown paper bag on the wrought-iron table next to the door, and took a sealed business-sized envelope from inside the mailbox.

The envelope contained two $20 bills, one relatively new but not crisp, one relatively old but not creased.

The driver tapped the envelope once in his palm, moved it briefly near his left ear as if listening to it, then tucked it into a back pocket. With that, he left.

A moment later, the wrought-iron table sank into the porch. A moment after that, it rose up again, empty.

Tesla set his lunch out on the dining room table. As usual, the food was steaming hot. The broccoli in the chicken dish was bright green and he knew it would be perfectly cooked. His only complaint about the food from China Star was that, while they always had excellent vegetables, they never included enough of them.

He used a fork—his nails made him hopeless with chopsticks—to spear a dumpling and popped it in his mouth. His teeth, as sharp and black as his fingernails and as the upturned horns growing from his temples, made quick work of the bite.

He ate quickly for a few minutes, but then slowed and contemplated the fortune cookie sealed in plastic that he had placed to one side of his plate. He ruminated, with his mouth and with his mind.

Then, with quick, precise movements, he picked up the fortune cookie, removed it from its wrapper, and broke it in half. A small rectangle of white paper, printed in red ink, fell onto the table.

Tesla could feel the electrical charge building up between his horns and reflexively fought it down.

One side of the fortune had a series of numbers on it, meant for lottery players. Below the numbers was a sentence, “Knowledge blooms in new turned soil.”

On the other side, there was a series of Chinese characters. Below, in English: “Learn Chinese! What time does the train arrive?”

These things all taken together—numerals, fortune, phrase, and Hanzi logograms—added up to a coded message. “Riverside observation deck. Old Town. Four a.m.”

Tesla sighed. He hated going out. Especially so early in the morning.

Going out, at least at the appointed time and traveling to the appointed location, involved getting out the car. Tesla bought a carefully anonymous upper-mid-range sedan every two years. On average, each of the cars accumulated less than two hundred miles while he owned them, which meant there was some obfuscation involved in getting rid of them. Selling or trading in a car with that little mileage recorded on the odometer was something the other person involved in the transaction would remember. Tesla used various methods of disposing of his old cars, including shipping one overseas to a largely automated salvage yard, sinking one in Lake Ontario, and, once, sending one as an anonymous donation to a Jaycees chapter in Fayetteville, Arkansas, for use as a raffle prize.

He had carefully planned the fifty-five-mile route from his home to the meeting point with plans to arrive exactly ninety-five minutes early. He kept an eye on the screens of the three separate mapping devices he used for navigation as he backed out of his garage and drove out of the subdivision, observing the posted twenty-five-miles-per-hour speed limit carefully, but not too carefully.

About the Author

Christopher Rowe
Christopher Rowe is professor of Greek at the University of Durham. More by Christopher Rowe
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About the Author

Carrie Vaughn
Carrie Vaughn’s work includes the Philip K. Dick Award–winning novel Bannerless, the New York Times bestselling Kitty Norville urban fantasy series, over twenty novels, and upwards of one hundred short stories, two of which have been finalists for the Hugo Award. Her most recent novel, Questland, is about a high-tech LARP that goes horribly wrong and the literature professor who has to save the day. She’s a contributor to the Wild Cards series of shared world superhero books edited by George R. R. Martin and a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop. An air force brat, she survived her nomadic childhood and managed to put down roots in Boulder, Colorado. More by Carrie Vaughn
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About the Author

Cherie Priest
Cherie Priest is the author of more than a dozen novels, including the award-winning Clockwork Century series (Boneshaker, Dreadnought, Clementine), the Cheshire Red books (Bloodshot, Hellbent), and The Borden Dispatches (Maplecroft, Chapelwood). More by Cherie Priest
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About the Author

William F. Wu
Cherie Priest is the author of more than a dozen novels, including the award-winning Clockwork Century series (Boneshaker, Dreadnought, Clementine), the Cheshire Red books (Bloodshot, Hellbent), and The Borden Dispatches (Maplecroft, Chapelwood). More by William F. Wu
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About the Author

Walter Jon Williams
Walter Jon Williams is the Nebula Award–winning author of thirty volumes of fiction, as well as screenplays for film and television. A fourth degree black belt from the American Kenpo Academy, he lives in rural New Mexico with his wife, Kathy. His novels include Impersonations: A Story of the Praxis, Dread Empire's Fall: The Praxis, and Destiny's Way: Star Wars Legends. More by Walter Jon Williams
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About the Author

Stephen Leigh
Stephen Leigh is a Cincinnati-based, award-winning author with nineteen science fiction novels and over forty short stories published. He has been a frequent contributor to the Hugo-nominated shared world series Wild Cards, edited by George R. R. Martin. He teaches creative writing at Northern Kentucky University. Stephen Leigh has written Immortal Muse, The Crow of Connemara, and the fantasy trilogy Assassin's Dawn. He can be found at More by Stephen Leigh
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About the Author

Mary Anne Mohanraj
Mary Anne Mohanraj is the author of Torn Shapes of Desire, editor of Aqua Erotica and Wet: More Aqua Erotica, and a consulting editor for Herotica 7. Her fiction has appeared in many anthologies and publications including Herotica 6, Best American Erotica 1999, and Best Women's Erotica 2000 and 2001. More by Mary Anne Mohanraj
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About the Author

Max Gladstone
Mary Anne Mohanraj is the author of Torn Shapes of Desire, editor of Aqua Erotica and Wet: More Aqua Erotica, and a consulting editor for Herotica 7. Her fiction has appeared in many anthologies and publications including Herotica 6, Best American Erotica 1999, and Best Women's Erotica 2000 and 2001. More by Max Gladstone
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About the Author

George R. R. Martin
George R. R. Martin is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of many novels, including those of the acclaimed series A Song of Ice and Fire—A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords, A Feast for Crows, and A Dance with Dragons—as well as Tuf Voyaging, Fevre Dream, The Armageddon Rag, Dying of the Light, Windhaven (with Lisa Tuttle), and Dreamsongs Volumes I and II. He is also the creator of The Lands of Ice and Fire, a collection of maps featuring original artwork from illustrator and cartographer Jonathan Roberts, The World of Ice & Fire (with Elio M. García, Jr., and Linda Antonsson), and Fire & Blood, the first volume of the definitive two-part history of the Targaryens in Westeros, with illustrations by Doug Wheatley. As a writer-producer, he has worked on The Twilight Zone, Beauty and the Beast, and various feature films and pilots that were never made. He lives with the lovely Parris in Santa Fe, New Mexico. More by George R. R. Martin
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About the Author

Melinda M. Snodgrass
Melinda M. Snodgrass is a failed opera singer, a recovered lawyer, and now a novelist and screenwriter. She worked on Star Trek: The Next Generation, Reasonable Doubts, and Profiler, and has written movies and TV pilots. Together with George R. R. Martin, she created the Wild Cards book series, currently the longest-running shared world anthology in existence. More by Melinda M. Snodgrass
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