In Joker Moon, the next Wild Cards adventure from series editor George R. R. Martin, we follow Aarti, the Moon Maid, who can astrally project herself onto the surface of the moon and paint projections across the lunarscape.
Theodorus was a dreamer.
As a child, he dreamt of airplanes, rockets, and outer space. When the wild card virus touched him and transformed him into a monstrous snail centaur weighing several tons, his boyhood dreams seemed out of reach, but a Witherspoon is not so easily defeated. Years and decades passed, and Theodorus grew to maturity and came into his fortune . . . but still his dream endured.
But now when he looked upward into the night sky, he saw more than just the moon . . . he saw a joker homeland, a refuge where the outcast children of the wild card could make a place of their own, safe from hate and harm. An impossible dream, some said. Others, alarmed by the prospect, brought all their power to bear to oppose him. Theodorus persisted . . .
. . . never dreaming that the Moon was already inhabited. And the Moon Maid did not want company.
Please enjoy this free excerpt of Joker Moon edited by George R. R. Martin, on sale 07/06/2021.
The Moon Maid
By Mary Anne Mohanraj
AARTI DUCKED INTO THE Bird and Babe, hoping that she wasn’t too late to snag her favorite corner for lunch. Thankfully, it was free—the Inklings hadn’t descended on it yet with their smeared manuscripts and typical high spirits. They’d probably be in soon—it was Tuesday, after all—but if she were firmly ensconced, then perhaps they would let her keep it and find somewhere else for their literary endeavors.
She slid onto the bench beside the fireplace, thankful for the heat. After three years in Oxford, she still hadn’t adapted to the dampness of English winters. A nasty February drizzle fell on the cobbled streets outside, and she shrugged off her soggy coat with relief. The dark, panelled walls added to the coziness of the room, and for a moment, she could forget England, forget Oxford, maybe even forget that her heart was breaking.
The server came over to wipe down the table. “It’s good to see you, Miss Aarti. How’s the painting going?” He’d seen her in here with paint-smeared fingers often enough.
“Fine, John, fine. Just had a show, actually.” Her first gallery show, which should have been a triumph. Aarti was studying astronomy because that’s what her father expected of her, what her scholarship was for, the scholarship that had brought an Indian woman all the way to England, where she could be a prodigy, a curiosity. A woman at Oxford was rare enough, though more common since the War had taken so many brave young men. A brown woman at Oxford was unheard of. She loved astronomy—the first time one of her teachers had let her look through a telescope at the Moon, she had gasped in wonder. But Aarti had a second passion: She loved to paint. Her family hadn’t taken it seriously, but in this town, at least a few people thought she had real talent. Did she have to pick between the glory of the stars and the glory of paint on canvas? Couldn’t she have both?
“Where’s your young man?” John didn’t mean to be cruel—he was just used to seeing her come in with Raj. Aarti had never actually been in a pub by herself, and Appa would be furious if he saw—but she was twenty years old now, and her father was in Bombay. She didn’t really care what he would think.
“He’s gone, John. Gone for good this time.” Raj had never found it easy, putting up with Aarti’s sharp tongue, but their families had been pushing the match hard, and there weren’t that many reasonable prospects for a boy like him in Oxford. Even fewer for her, of course. And they’d had art in common, at least—attended lectures together, painted dozens of dour English landscapes side by side. But eventually, she abandoned the English landscapes, and started painting her work instead. Galaxies and constellations bloomed across the canvas. The rings of Saturn, the moons of Jupiter.
And the Moon—oh, Aarti loved to paint the Moon in all Her phases, the craters and mountains. Mare Imbrium, Mare Serenitatis, Mare Tranquilitatis. Mare Crisium, also called the Sea of Crises. Mons Pico, Mons Argaeus. And the craters: Aristarchus, Boussingault, Copernicus—she memorized a host of them, from a to zed. Zagut.
Copernicus, Tycho, and Kepler’s bright rays were a pleasure to paint, and she couldn’t resist the Alpine Valley, Bay of Rainbows, and the Straight Wall. But Aarti had her personal favorites, too—Mons Argaeus sat between Serenitatis and Tranquilitatis, on their eastern border. She painted it over and over again, drawn to it for reasons she could not name, and with each repetition the work improved. Another layer of paint, or perhaps a scraping away, highlighting the curve of a dark sea, the play of light and shadow on mountain rise.
At first Aarti painted the images as if from a ship, circling the Moon, gazing upon Her. But over time the perspective shifted, until at last it was as if you walked the surface yourself, and the mountain rose before you in edged chiaroscuro.
As it turned out, other people loved her Moon paintings, too. As time went on, Aarti’s work started getting more recognition, and Raj’s didn’t. He couldn’t stand it. Their last fight had been an ugly one, on the steps of the gallery, in full earshot of dozens of people.
Everything is about you, isn’t it? Aarti Aarti Aarti.
Not everything. Just this! Why can’t you just be happy for me?
Why can’t you be like other women, and support your man? Is this what it’s going to be like when we’re married?
I can’t help it if I’m better than you!
Raj turned and walked away, leaving Aarti standing there in the rain, knowing it was over. She shouldn’t have said that last. Her mother always said her tongue would get her into trouble. But was she expected to bridle it for the entire length of her marriage? Amma would undoubtedly say yes.
Aarti met John’s eyes and said quietly, “Raj and I are over.”
John clucked his tongue in sympathy. “Sorry to hear that, lass. Chin up—you’re pretty enough to find yourself another man soon. Plenty of fish in the sea.”
Did people really say that? Apparently, but she wouldn’t complain as long as John fetched her drink. He brought it quickly enough, but his hand brushed against hers on the table as he set it down. She pulled back, setting her spine against the corner of the fireplace; John wandered away without saying anything else.
Maybe she shouldn’t be in here on her own. John was handsome, but the last thing she needed was to start something with a white man. If her father got word of it, he’d never let her stay at Oxford, and if Aarti couldn’t have Raj, she could at least have her degree. With it, she could go home and get a teaching job, finally get some independence from her family. It’d probably be basic mathematics taught to schoolgirls instead of serious astronomy, which would break her heart. But it was better than being forced into a loveless marriage. Just one more year . . . Aarti’s fingers curved around the stemmed glass, tightening. She would survive this.
Loud voices from the hall—the Inklings had arrived, inevitably. Aarti braced to repulse their invasion.
“Lewis, do you regret agreeing to the debate with that woman? She demolished your arguments regarding naturalism and the possibility of human reason rather handily, I’m afraid.”
“Let’s not discuss it, please. I have some new chapters of my Aslan story that I’d like you to look at—Miss? Miss, are you not feeling well?”
“I’m fine,” Aarti wanted to snap, wanted to demand that they simply leave her alone with the sherry she hoped to drown her sorrows in. She would have said that, but the room was spinning strangely. Aarti tried to stand up, but that was a mistake. The room tilted and fell away, and she fell with it, into the arms of one of them—Lewis, Tolkien? The pale face blurred and darkness descended.
The ceiling fan spun lazily overhead, above the tent of white mosquito netting enclosing the large four-poster bed. A lizard skittered across the ceiling, and for a moment, Aarti wanted nothing more than to lie there, watching it go.
She had been lying in this bed for too long. The day had slipped away, like so many other days, and the Moon would be rising outside the window. Aarti pushed herself up, wincing at the pain in her arms, the pain that throbbed across her body. Every inch of skin ached. Her arms, her legs, her entire body was swathed in bandages, everything but her face; she was sure her family would insist on covering that, too, if they could get away with it. Aarti wore a length of fabric wrapped over her head, like a hood, although it did little to disguise her condition. Her parents had been appalled when the English boat brought their daughter home, whimpering and twisting in the grip of the alien virus. It had almost killed her, but not quite. Aarti couldn’t help thinking that it would have been easier for them if she had died—after all, her father had bluntly said so.
A dead daughter was easier to explain to the neighbors than one whose skin turned a sickly gray, erupting in strange protuberances, sunken craters. Her hair fell out entirely, and her head swelled to almost twice its size, grown round and bulbous, like no human on this Earth. A few of the craters painfully oozed fluids that would surely contaminate anyone who came into contact with her. That was what her father believed, her mother, the temple priests brought in to consult, the astrologer who cast her horoscope again, with every prediction gone dark. Her brother cast a last look at Aarti as they quickly shuffled him out of the room—all the gods forbid that the little prince should be put at any risk!
You cannot be near Kish, her mother said. No parting kiss on Aarti’s forehead from the woman who had borne her, raised her. Aarti’s sharp tongue had won her no fondness, no kindness that might soften the goodbyes. Pray—pray that the gods will forgive you for what you have done, for the bitterness in your heart that has laid you open to this. Her mother’s prayers, her father’s curses—the last words Aarti heard as they fled, leaving her alone with two servants to see to her needs in this big, lonely house.
Manju would be in soon to change Aarti’s bandages and slather a homemade turmeric poultice over the open sores, as if it would help. But for now, Aarti hobbled over to the window, each step a misery. She pushed the shutters open, letting moonlight and the scent of jasmine flood into the room. She had never been much of one for praying, but in the weeks since her parents’ departure, she had tried praying to every god she knew of. Vishnu, Shiva, Brahma, Saraswati, Lakshmi, Ganesha—a long litany of them. She’d tried praying to the Christian god, too, just in case, but no luck there, either.
She had also tried to work, but the pain made it hard to think, to run through even the simplest calculations. No chance now of finishing her degree—but at least no one would be trying to force her into a marriage. The virus had saved her that, at least! But it had also driven away any chance of friendship, of love, of family. Only servants were left to her, paid handsomely to endure her gross and repugnant form.
The only consolation Aarti found now was in moments like this, when she could gaze at the Moon, so bright, so far away, could dream herself gone, away from here. From this place where she must wear mask and hood to dare walk to market, flanked by a phalanx of watchful servants to guard her from abuse. Or to guard the residents of Bombay from her contagion. Who could say? Even her servants—Manju, Yajnadar—watched her with pitying eyes. They patiently tolerated her bitter outbursts, and she Could. Not. Stand. It.
Aarti closed her eyes against the brightness, flung her arms wide, heedless of the pain that cracked through her. She wished desperately to be gone, to be anywhere but here, to be there, on the Moon, finally alone. . . .
She opened her eyes. Rocks and nothing else, as far as the eye could see. Her room was gone, her bed, the garden with its bougainvillea and hibiscus. Colors bleached away, all whites and grays—except there, overhead, a gibbous blue glory hanging in the sky. The Earth, four times bigger in appearance than the Moon appeared from Earth, and so much brighter and sharper than Aarti would have expected, with swirls of white clouds, distinct to her eye. But the greater miracle than all of that—there was no pain. For the first time in months, her body felt no pain. Nothing else mattered.
Aarti danced, joyfully and spectacularly, bounding higher than she ever could have under the rules of her home world’s gravity. She danced under the earthlight, the Moon’s landscape bathed in a dim bluish-white twilight. Brighter than the light of a full moon, but still night-like. Aarti didn’t understand how she could be here, on what was clearly the Moon, in the shadow of her beloved Mons Argaeus, how she could breathe—though did she actually breathe? Aarti felt no breath leaving her body or entering it again.
Yet that didn’t seem to matter. Her body was her own again. Aarti’s skin was still gray and cratered, her head still swollen. But the pain was gone, and in its place, a strange new awareness. It was almost as if her body, her skin, carried a map of the Moon on it. She could feel the impact of tiny meteorites on the Moon’s surface, like monsoon rains hitting parched land. If Aarti closed her eyes and stretched out her arms, she could feel the dust of the Moon collected on the tiny hairs of her skin, warning her of the tiniest disturbance.
Much of what she experienced was what she might have expected if she had ever dared to dream of actually visiting the Moon. But there were surprises, too—from her telescope, the Moon had looked rough and jagged, but here on the surface, the Moon revealed Herself to be soft and round and welcoming. Another surprise was a buffeting of wind from the sun that varied in its force, but was quite palpable. Did this solar wind visit the Earth as well? Did Earth’s atmosphere shield it? Aarti didn’t know, but she gloried a little in knowing something about the Moon that the Earth’s most respected astronomers couldn’t dream of. Her discovery, and hers alone! She could feel the sun’s light, too—sunlight bathed the light side of the Moon, with the added glow of reflected earthshine. It surrounded her now, inviting her to ecstatic communion.
That would have been enough—more than enough! But it got better. When Aarti spun barefoot in the gray dust, her sari skirts flying and her arms flung wide, color streamed from her fingertips. They had gone long and strange, thinned to filaments—brushes, the finest brushes she could imagine. All Aarti had to do was think it, and the color changed—azure, ultramarine, indigo. Verdigris and malachite, orpiment and vermilion. No clogging of the brush, no weary soaking in turpentine, just a pure rush of color, translating the images in her mind directly onto the air. And then fading again—oh, that was a sadness, seeing her creations disappear into the lunar haze. Cats and castles, mountains and monkeys, here one moment and gone the next.
Still, when she’d been granted such gifts, it seemed churlish to complain. Aarti danced and painted for hours on end; she felt no hunger in her belly. It was like a dream, yet it felt more real than any moment of her life thus far. This was her true life; she would stay here forever.
If only she had a chair, comfortable, to sit in, to gaze at the Earth hanging overhead. Painting was a little tiring, as if it drew from her inner self; a chair would be nice to rest in. Aarti painted it, a sturdy English chair, cushioned and wing-backed, upholstered in buttoned-down brown leather—oh, how scandalized she’d been, the first time she’d sat down in a leather chair! Not that she’d ever been a good Hindu, but still. She painted the chair with fierce concentration, every ounce of longing she had rising up and flowing out through her fingertips. When she finished, she took a step back, admiring its smooth and gracious lines, waiting for it to fade.
It didn’t fade. It sat there, a little squat, quite solid. Aarti stared at it, waiting—but it stayed, as solid as her own hand. Until finally, she couldn’t bear it anymore, flung her body into the chair, and oh, oh—it felt so good, the soft leather pressing against her pocked skin, like a lover might.
Not that she and Raj had ever gone that far; even she had not been so daring. But they had kissed, under the gray arches of Oxford, and his hands had moved, urgent, on her waist, her hips. We will be married soon, he’d said. Aarti hadn’t quite trusted his promises, though; she had been right to be suspicious. But the chair—oh, the chair did love her. It had stayed for her, but why? Because she had wanted it so? Perhaps. She would have to explore her powers further—but then the Moon fell away, and Aarti found herself back in her room. The sun was rising outside her window; pain pulsed through her once more. Aarti fell to her knees and wailed her fury to the uncaring world, tears streaming down cratered gray skin. Amma would have told her to behave better, but why shouldn’t Aarti make a spectacle of herself?
There was no one here who would care.
Copyright © George R. R. Martin 2021
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