By Kevin Andrew Murphy
Wild Cards has had a lot of great villains over the years, from Puppetman to Baba Yaga to Babd. Some are victims of circumstance like Bloat. Others are almost alien in their amorality, like Ti Malice. A few, like Demise, are occasionally antiheroes. But in our rogues gallery of all-time baddies, my personal first and greatest, the one I wish I’d created, is Fortunato’s nemesis and opposite: The Astronomer, created by Lew Shiner.
The Astronomer, like Fortunato, is almost limitless in his power: telepathy, telekinesis, astral projection, precognition, even desolidification and psychic surgery. He can block another ace from using their power or force them to use it as he wills. But his greatest and most deadly power is his ability to erase memories, making people forget he was ever there—even erasing their memories entirely, leaving them a mindless vegetable—or offering those with memories too terrible to bear the chance to forget their torment entirely.
This is the carrot he offered to both Roulette and Demise, his most potent assassins, tempting Roulette with a chance to forget her anguish at the birth of her doomed joker baby (the memory of which in turn fueled her deadly vaginal secretions) and for James Spector to forget the agony of drawing the Black Queen. This would remove the power that made him Demise, able to kill people by locking eyes with them and filling their minds with the memory of his own death.
The Astronomer appeared for only three of the novels: in the shadows, off stage, unknown and unnamed in Fortunato’s introductory story in the first volume, Wild Cards, then stepping on stage, in his full horror and glory, in Aces High, and finally shining as the main villain in the third volume, the first full mosaic novel, Jokers Wild.
Physically, the Astronomer is not at all intimidating, being a short frail old white man confined to a wheelchair with a slightly oversized head covered with wispy hair and a pair of thick bottle-bottom glasses—the complete opposite of Fortunato, a tall vital young man of mixed ancestry, half African, half Asian, with a swollen forehead that occasionally sports horns. But where Fortunato’s wild card made him a tantric magician powered by the kundalini, his power in his sperm, recharged by making love to any number of willing women, the Astronomer is—to use the symbolism of the Tarot—The Magician inverted, his ace powers focused and recharged by black magic, ritual sex mixed with ritual murder and rape.
All that is known of the Astronomer’s origin is what Fortunato read from his mind in their final battle—twenty years before, a little man had pulled himself out of the East River with no memory, but with his wild card just turned. The little man had looked up at the stars and gazed so far into the distance that he’d made telepathic contact with the Swarm Mother, the alien horror coming to devour Earth. Trying to make sense of this vision, he’d stumbled into a temple in Jokertown, headed by Balsam, the descendant of Count Cagliostro, who’d initiated him into the Egyptian Masons and made sense of his visions by revealing their greatest mystery, TIAMAT, their name for the Swarm Mother.
The Masons also showed the Astronomer the Shakti Device entrusted to Cagliostro by the Shining Brother—actually a Ly’bahr cyborg, a representative the intergalactic alien Network. The Ly’bahr was one of the last survivors of a doomed race, their planet and the fully organic Ly’bahr devoured by the Swarm. The Shakti Device was meant to summon the Network to save the earth when the Swarm Mother arrived, but the Astronomer misunderstood the message as it came down through the centuries. He thought the Shakti Device would allow the Masons to take control of Tiamat.
Of course, that didn’t happen. The Shakti Device was destroyed in the raid on the Cloisters while the Swarm Mother flew away after merging with the ace Mai Minh, a gentle healer. So the Astronomer nursed his wounds and plotted revenge.
Three months later he took it. On September 15th, 1986—the 40th anniversary of Wild Cards Day—he set about killing all the aces who’d taken part in the raid on the Cloisters along with all the members of the Egyptian Masons he felt had betrayed him.
The murders started with Roulette assassinating the Howler, using her own ace to poison him while having sex, and went on from there. Kid Dinosaur was brutally dismembered by the Astronomer himself outside of Jetboy’s Tomb, the Astronomer using his psychic surgery power together with mental invisibility, commanding people not to see him. Numerous Masons were killed by the Astronomer off stage, both named and nameless, as well as prostitutes ritually murdered and dismembered to fuel his orgy of revenge. Murder attempts were made on other aces. Roulette was sent after Dr. Tachyon, playing a long slow game as she wrestled with her own demons. The Astronomer, having disguised himself as a waiter while staying invisible to Fortunato, threw Water Lily off the balcony at Aces High just after the Wild Cards dinner dessert course.
Peregrine saved Water Lily, then made love to Fortunato, charging him up for a final battle with the Astronomer (and in the process conceiving John Fortune, as would be revealed in Aces Abroad). Then Fortunato and the Astronomer clashed over the river in an epic battle before falling. The Astronomer again pulled himself from the East River, only to be confronted by Roulette, who took his glasses (which he was almost blind without) and smashed them with the heels of her shoes. The Astronomer, escaping, then encountered Demise who forced his death into the Astronomer’s eyes just as he was phasing backwards through a brick wall. The Astronomer was too weak to use more than one power at once, so could not block Demise’s ace, and so he died.
Later, the brick wall with the Astronomer’s corpse was cut out and put on display at the Famous Bowery Wild Card Dime Museum, and that was the end of him.
Or was it?
I’d read the first seven Wild Cards novels before I got a chance to join the Consortium, and I loved the Astronomer as a villain. It was the eighties, and the Astronomer had echoes of other great villains of the time—Lo Pan from Big Trouble in Little China, able to go from an ancient man in a wheelchair to a vital paragon of the mystic arts, and also the Shadow King from Chris Claremont’s X-Men run, a vile and hedonistic psychic parasite.
The Shadow King, who had survived in the astral plane as a psychic entity, to later possess Karma….
With this thought in the back of my head, I’d gotten the gig to write the second Wild Cards roleplaying game adventure for Steve Jackson Games, based loosely on Aces Abroad and taking the same title. And so, I’d come up with my first official Wild Cards character, Ellen Allworth, the ace Cameo.
She wasn’t originally called Cameo, but I worked with George on the second draft to tweak her and Herne to become my official characters (and they joined the cast as canon immigrants for Dealer’s Choice), but I had devised her power of psychometric trance channeling, able to channel the psyche of the dead from the psychometric impressions left on significant objects of theirs. So, I could, for example, have Cameo walk by the East River, pick up a shattered pair of glasses from the mud, and look through the crazed lenses….
That led, at least for my roleplaying adventure, to Cameo being possessed by the Astronomer, his psyche able to overpower hers, then erase the trace of his visit along with leaving a post-hypnotic suggestion for Ellen to later take out the shattered glasses and put then on again. He’d also led her to the police badge of Harry Matthias, the ace Judas and one of the Astronomer’s Masons who’d died in the raid on the Cloisters. Judas could detect the powers of other aces, leading the Astronomer to new recruits for his Egyptian Masons, and also useful for his plots in Australia with the Murga-muggai, the trap-door spiderwoman, the villainess created by the late great Ed Bryant, who I was allowed to borrow for the game book as well.
I had great fun writing that adventure, particularly the bit in the finale where aces seeking to stop the Astronomer could vanquish him by snatching the shattered glasses from Cameo’s face (a bit of business echoed in the canon chronology in Dealer’s Choice by John Jos. Miller, with Cameo channeling a different dead ace from a different artifact).
But, of course, Cameo and Herne haven’t been my only canon immigrants from the Aces Abroad GURPS roleplaying game book. Captain Flint came in soon after. Curari, Cocamama, and the Messenger in Black were able to step into the actual pages of Aces Abroad for the expanded reprint of the novel. And Primrose has just joined Captain Flint working for the Silver Helix in Knaves Over Queens.
So, Cameo peering through the Astronomer’s crazed glasses in some historic tale?
Maybe, if the stars align….