The Ones That Get Away : Alternate Histories of an Alternate Universe

by Ian Tregillis

There are stories we never get to tell.  Every ace in the consortium has a couple, or a dozen, up their sleeve. Even the ones who are no longer with us.


Sometimes we don’t get to tell them because the time isn’t quite right, or because the right moment for the story has already passed, or because they just won’t fit with what everybody else is doing this time around, or because an intervening volume changed the characters, or the world, too much.  Not all stories are evergreen.


Sometimes we put those stories aside because they involve characters whose originators have passed on. Half the fun of writing for Wild Cards is brainstorming with other writers to hash out the characters’ interactions.  But if I can’t toss ideas around with Vic Milán or Ed Bryant, two sorely missed fallen aces whom I had the tremendous privilege to know, what’s the point?


Sometimes characters outlive their creators. But even then, the happiness that comes from seeing the greats live on through their creations is bittersweet. Witness Roger Zelazny’s Croyd Crenson, the one and only Sleeper. Croyd has continued to appear in the Wild Cards universe for more than two decades after the passing of his creator. (And who, according to one George M., “will be a part of Wild Cards as long as the series endures.”) I never had the opportunity to meet Roger, but I’d been reading his work since I was too young to understand and appreciate it, so I was pretty happy when circumstances enabled me to write some interaction between Croyd and Rustbelt — and by “interaction” I mean “bare knuckled brawling” — in LOWBALL.  (Wild Cards achievement unlocked: Croyd cameo.)


But what about the crystal woman in your closet, Croyd? What’s her deal?


We’ll never know. It’s a story that Roger never told us.


Vic Milán introduced a panoply of characters into our canon, and I very much hope and expect that some of those, too, will endure. (I selfishly hope that I’ll get to contribute to their longevity.) But, again, we’ll never know what Vic had in mind for them. Unrealized stories haunt our shared universe like ghosts.


Once in a while — and I don’t think this happens very often — a story’s time naturally comes around again. That’s how Vic’s mega-Ace Mark Meadows and his “friends” came to dominate SUICIDE KINGS. Not all stories are evergreen, true, but some go dormant, deep in the permafrost, only to bloom again years later.  Or for another great example, look no further than Steve Leigh’s Oddity story in FORT FREAK, “Hope We Die Before We Get Old.”  (Damn you, Steve… damn you.)


Of course the old-timers in the group (sorry, old-timers) have an advantage over the rest of us. They’ve been stashing ideas in their mental Wild Cards filing cabinets for decades.  Check out Walter’s blog post about Modular Man (who happens to be one of myfavorite characters whom I didn’t create), and the way he hints at the possibility of further adventures. Walter knows where Modular Man is right now. Then why, for heaven’s sake, hasn’t he reappeared in the canon since I’ve been a member? (Oh, very well. I suppose, according to the rules of our universe, I might  share some of the blame for that oversight.)


Melinda has untold Dr. Finn stories.  And George himself told me just the other day, “I know exactly where Turtle and Legion are, and what they are doing.” (It’s OK with me if you want to take a moment to let that sink in.)


Even I have ’em. A couple of years ago, I thought I was done with Rustbelt. Nothing against the poor fella, I just didn’t have any more places where I wanted to take him. (My contribution to SUICIDE KINGS was largely motivated by the desire to write a scene where Rusty wrestles a crocodile. My contribution to LOWBALL was mostly an excuse to write a scene where Rusty gets stuck to a giant car magnet in a scrapyard. I might not be the most highbrow writer in the consortium, but damned if I don’t know how to pitch a Wild Cards story.) I was happy to relax and let other members of the consortium pop him into their stories — in other words, to sit back and watch him take on a life of his own. But then, some time back, George asked in passing if I happened to have any Rustbelt stories in the mental hopper. I got about halfway through my answer (“N-“) when, all of a sudden… there it was. The logical continuation of Rusty’s arc.  (Want a hint? Peter Sellers. That’s all I’ll say. And it’s probably not what you’re thinking.) I don’t know if the stars will ever align — opportunity, motivation, and time — but if they do, who knows?


On the other hand, if they don’t, the next chapter in Rusty’s story will become one of those unwritten stories that permeate the aether of Wild Cards.  And then, as other writers use Rusty in their own stories, he’ll grow and change and become somebody who could never embark on the next misadventure I envision for him. So his unwritten story will become yet another alternate history of our alternate universe.

Something similar is already happening to a different character I introduced into Wild Cards. Mollie Steunenberg, aka Tesseract, has… well, if you’ve read HIGH STAKES, you know that she’s been through some serious shit. And she’s none the better for it. Or, to put it less delicately, she’s considerably worse off for it. Let’s just say she has anger issues and leave it at that. Now, as you might recall if you’ve read SUICIDE KINGS, Mollie has some unfinished business with one particular character.  A few years ago, Melinda and George dreamed up a particularly ingenious take on how this might unfold. But I just couldn’t commit to writing my portion of that story at that time — it would have required and demanded far more attention and effort than I could afford. But I loved the concept, and still do.


I hold out hope that we might get to tell some (probably smaller) version of that story someday. But in the meantime, Mollie isn’t static. She’s having adventures, and being changed by those adventures. And so, of course, are the people — and the world — around her. So when someday arrives, she’ll be a little different than she was the last time I wrote her. A time will come when the story of Mollie’s grudge no longer fits our evolving universe. That, too, will become an alternate history.


Sometimes those alternate histories arise because a character takes on a role entirely different from what the creator intended.  I’ve written elsewhere about how Rustbelt was intended as a throwaway character, basically invented in three sentences for the purpose of filling out a team roster in the first season of American Hero. His role in the series quickly outgrew that, but purely by accident. Tesseract had an even shorter introduction to the canon: she’s first mentioned in BUSTED FLUSH, in a background conversation between two people discussing the second season of American Hero. That’s it: literally a name and nothing else, conjured out of thin air entirelyas an excuse to mention of our favorite reality show. But later, I was asked to elaborate on the character…and once again, she outgrew her intentions.


Even stranger is when a character’s fate changes before they even have a chance to  make their first appearance on the page.  Such was the case with the homely joker ace Niobe Winslow, aka Genetrix.  As ace powers go (after sex, she lays a clutch of three or four eggs that hatch into short-lived children imbued with the usual distribution of aces, jokers, and Black Queens) hers is not the easiest to work naturally into just any story, for obvious reasons.  Consequently I’d envisioned a dark fate for poor Niobe. (Wild Cards is many things, but a fairy tale isn’t one of them.)

I thought her unusual power would place her squarely at the heart of countless criminal endeavors as she “sold” her power to aspiring felons of all stripes.  (Let’s face it: if you’re planning to commit a major crime, wouldn’t you love to hire a team of superpowered co-conspirators destined to melt long before the cops get on to you? Co-conspirators with no fingerprints on file, no birth records,  no criminal records…)  I saw her as somebody doing what she had to do to get by. The side effect being, as a consequence of her telepathic links to her children, an encyclopedic knowledge of all the crimes she had facilitated. (I imagine that in the alternate universe where Genetrix’s life turned in this direction, she probably neglected to mention this to her clients.)


That was the plan for her. But we recognized, almost immediately, that shoehorning this version of Genetrix into BUSTED FLUSH — and all the other storylines written by all the other authors — wasn’t going to work.  By the time her first appearance rolled around she was no longer a criminal queenpin, but instead living as a voluntary lab rat at a maximum security research facility.  Right from the start,  even her personality differed from that of the character I’d originally sketched out. (The criminal mastermind version of Genetrix wasn’t so warm and friendly.) Later, she married a hermaphroditic teleporting ace assassin and had a “normal” child with him. So, come to think of it, she more or less didget a fairy tale ending.


But, as far as I’m concerned, the ghost of the character Genetrix might have been haunts every one of her scenes.