Aphelion Issue 233, Volume 22
October 2018
 
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Making Your Own Luck

by Martin Lochman




The casino was nearly empty. Apart from our little group sitting at the Poker table there were maybe ten other visitors including a couple of decently dressed Erdonians playing roulette and craps, a trio of Liktonians trying their luck in Blackjack and two members of an unknown species occupying the slot machines. They must have been either absolutely inebriated or not particularly smart since they had been persistently feeding the machines for the past thirty minutes without winning so much as a single credit.

That there were so few individuals willing to waste their precious financial resources on games of chance would be completely understandable -- it was Thursday and nearly midnight -- if not for the fact that the casino was amongst the most famous establishments of its kind in the entire Orion-Cygnus Union territory. It was located on board of a gigantic space station called Gemini 8 which orbited a very sparsely populated planet IPR-23-001 (I was almost convinced that the designation actually stood for "Inhospitable Piece of Rock" as those words would perfectly describe living conditions on the surface). The orbital station was the entertainment hub of the entire sector and thousands upon thousands of travelers from every corner of the known Universe visited it every day. I somehow doubted that the vast majority of the population experienced a sudden revelation and started pursuing less expensive hobbies. Instead, I had a feeling that the newest tax laws were to blame.

Further pondering about the economic conditions of my fellow citizens was interrupted by the dealer.

"Your turn, sir!"

The gentle reminder was directed at one of my opponents. He was sitting at the opposite side of the table and for the last minute or so he had been staring at his cards and emitting a nearly inaudible rattling noise that made it sound as if he was choking on a piece of food. If he was a human, such noise would constitute a sufficient reason to be worried about his well-being. However, since he was a proud representative of a species that was much more related to insects than to Homo Sapiens and as such had a different idea of verbal and nonverbal communication, no one seemed to be especially concerned. If anything, I would say that his prolonged indecisiveness was starting to make other players -- myself included -- mildly annoyed.

Just like in all previous rounds, the insectoid (I had never managed to remember the official name of his species that consisted of twenty seemingly random consonants) didn't appear to be too bothered by the dealer's hint or growing impatience of his opponents. He fidgeted around in his chair, looked at the cards on the table, then back at the cards that he was holding in his crooked appendages and repeated the process three more times.

For the love of god, just do something already!

As if hearing my thoughts -- fortunately, telepathy wasn't on the list of the insectoid's capabilities -- he stopped producing the annoying sound and extended his second pair of appendages to push a respectable amount of chips towards the center of the table.

"I call," he said. His voice sounded like fingernails scratching on a chalkboard and those two words were barely understandable but I decided not to dwell on that. After all, I wanted to honor at least one of my New Year's resolutions -- in this case limiting racism towards non-humanoid life forms to an absolute minimum.

The last, fifth card landed on the table. The dealer gave us good thirty seconds to consider our chances before he flatly repeated the same three-word phrase. This time, however, it was aimed at me as I was the first player.

Quite frankly, these constant prompts were almost completely unnecessary and began to irritate me a bit. Unlike the insectoid no other player was taking that long to make their move, yet the dealer evidently felt the desire to emphasize that the ball had to be kept rolling. I wasn't aware that poker is played with a clock!

With the cards that I had I didn't need any time to think.

"All in!" I said nonchalantly, pushed my chips forward and leaned back in the chair.

The furry entity that was sitting next to me followed my example. This was nothing unexpected -- Takkans had the reputation of being the biggest gamblers in the known Universe. They would literally sell their own mother just to play another round. I remembered reading stories on the Galactonet about a certain captain of a cargo ship who supposedly lost the vessel, crew and a half-million credits worth of supplies in a game of Yahtzee.

The fine gentleman against whom I had the pleasure of playing today wasn't faring any better. Apparently, over the course of the last three days on Gemini 8 he had managed to gamble away almost all of his savings. Any reasonable individual would have called it quits long before this game but the Takkan seemed dead set on proving that his luck would eventually turn around. For his own sake I hoped that he had at least already booked a return ticket to wherever he had come from.

Up next was the Liktonian. His people came from a star system that was barely thirty light years away from Earth and unlike the vast majority of the station's inhabitants they were genetically similar to humans -- based on the research conducted shortly after the first contact they were even more closely related than chimpanzees. If it weren't for the grey skin color, distinctly pointed chin and a smaller, lighter frame, they would be basically indistinguishable from us.

Liktonians had joined the Orion-Cygnus Union relatively recently, after decades of fighting the economic crisis, widespread corruption and a half-dozen other social issues. They barely met the accession criteria and already within the first three years requested financial assistance. Attitude-wise, they were generally very distrustful, apprehensive and borderline paranoid when it came to their personal capital. There were exceptions, of course, as demonstrated by those few in the casino but I was still a bit surprised when this particular Liktonian opted for going all in as well.

Maybe he wants to pay off some of that national debt himself, I thought and tried to imagine how he would react to losing everything in a blink of an eye -- especially considering the fact that up until this point he had been playing it very safe.

Dealer's gaze briefly stopped at Gina who was apart from yours truly the only other representative of mankind at the table (and most probably on the entire station). She was one of my oldest friends but I hadn't seen her in a while, that is, until I ran into her yesterday in one of many bars on Gemini 8. We had drunk, shared stories and towards the end of the evening decided to meet in the casino the next day.

At the moment, Gina was no longer in the game, having lost everything in the previous round to the insectoid. I remembered that as a child she had been a sore loser and judging from the death stare that she was giving him now this hadn't changed much.

And so it was once again the insectoid's turn. Staying true to himself he took his sweet time deciding his next move. His exoskeleton was rapidly changing colors, going from brown to red and back which indicated maximum excitement. This time I couldn't say that I blamed him for being so hesitant -- he had won last four rounds and was currently in the lead. When it looked like the dealer would have to give him another reminder the insectoid gently nudged his chips forward.

The tension in the air became almost palpable.

Here we go, flashed through my head. I stole a glance at Gina and noted that the previous angry expression had been replaced by genuine curiosity.

"Show your cards, sir!" the dealer said and looked at me.

I gave him a slight grin and placed my cards on the table. I had an Eight of Hearts and Nine of Hearts, that very nicely complemented the Ten, Jack and Queen (also of Hearts) from the community cards... forming a Straight Flush! Feeling like a winner -- the probability that the second highest hand would be beaten in the same round was virtually nonexistent -- I allowed myself to relax and watched in anticipation what my opponents held in their extremities.

The Takkan reacted exactly as I had expected. He swore loudly in his native language (the only word I was able to understand could be translated as a very indecent nickname for female genitalia) and theatrically threw his cards on the table. They landed face up and I saw that he had only a Three of a Kind -- definitely not enough to win most of the rounds that we had played that evening. Innate propensity to gambling aside, going all in with such a weak hand bordered on sheer stupidity but I highly doubted that he would want to hear that.

The Liktonian's chances at winning turned out to be slightly better, however -- as he had just learned -- words like "slightly" or "almost" didn't mean much in a game like this. The color in his face took on a very pale shade of grey as he sat there, staring at the table in what could be best described as a mixture of disbelief and shock. For a few long moments he didn't move and I wasn't sure if he was going to pass out or get a stroke but then a duo of cards fell down from his shaking hand -- he actually had a Full House.

All eyes turned to the insectoid.

Unlike my other two opponents who now had to start getting used to the fact that their personal wealth took a steep dive he didn't look nowhere near as astonished by what I had just presented. Granted, he was still very excited as I could see on his exoskeleton but his previous restlessness and nervousness seemed to have completely evaporated and something like serenity settled in. It was almost as if he knew that...

He laid his cards on the table, nicely aligned so that at first everybody could see only the top one. It was a King of Hearts. I felt like someone just reached into my stomach and squeezed.

A thin crooked appendage moved the top card aside and revealed an Ace.

Ace of Hearts.

Son of a bitch! That damn oversized beetle actually won!

Admittedly, I wasn't the only one who was downright flabbergasted by the sudden turn of events. Both the Takkan and the Liktonian appeared to have momentarily forgotten about their desperate situation, Gina's expression fully corresponded with my current state of mind and even the dealer took a little while to announce: "We have a winner!"

While the insectoid was enjoying his moment in the sun my mind was racing. If I was religious, I would have probably thought that some higher power chose to punish me for a lifetime of sins but since I had zero belief in an omnipotent being in any shape and form I was looking in the direction of logical explanations. The insectoid's winning streak, the combination of cards that allowed him to conveniently beat my hand, his sudden change of attitude... Of course!

You sneaky little bastard!

It made sense now. Good fortune had nothing to do with his success but the question was: What did? How did he manage to cheat?

I knew it wasn't something as obvious as card marking or controlling the card shuffler machine remotely -- the casino's anti-cheating technology was far too advanced to allow that. That he was colluding with the dealer also seemed highly unlikely. No, it must have been something else, something innovative.

I looked him over, head to toe (or in his case: head to claw). To insectoids the concept of clothing was alien so he was pretty much sitting here butt-naked, making it impossible to conceal anything. He had only two things on him -- a standard wrist computer and a small egg-shaped pendant on his neck. At first glance it appeared inconspicuous, much like a regular piece of jewelry but then I noticed that it was giving off a faint glow. There were also two barely visible buttons on the side. Bingo!

I immediately got a vague idea what it could be and if I was right I needed to find a way to get my hands on the pendant. So I got up and started walking towards the other side of the table where the insectoid was seated.

"Well played, buddy!" I said with as much sincerity as I could muster. "Those are some nice cards you have there. Congratulations... "

Two steps away from his chair I pretended to trip and as I was falling I grabbed hold of the pendant and ripped it off his neck. Landing on all fours on the floor, I pressed the buttons a couple of times until it beeped sharply and stopped glowing.

I quickly got up to my knees, just in time to see as the air just above the insectoid's cards shimmered and the winning combination disappeared, replaced by a Four of Spades and Seven of Clubs.

It was as if the entire casino suddenly fell quiet.

The insectoid's exoskeleton turned yellow and he looked like he was going to say something. Before he had a chance to do so, however, dealer's voice broke the silence: "Sir, you are hereby eliminated from the game. You will be escorted outside and explained further actions."

I didn't even notice the three members of casino security until they were standing right behind us. They weren't armed but still more physically imposing than the disgraced cheater who finally managed to open his mouth and start protesting. Since it didn't look like he was going to get up on his own accord the security guys simply picked him up and practically carried him away, ignoring his pathetic pleas.

Although cheating wasn't punishable by the OCU law, it meant an immediate lifetime ban so our dear insectoid wouldn't be setting foot in this casino again. I also had a feeling that he would have a hard time visiting most of the gaming establishments anywhere since their owners liked to share information on potentially harmful elements of this kind. Well, as they say: If you play with fire...

With the insectoid gone, only one thing remained. The dealer turned to me.

"Congratulations, sir! You are the winner!"

Music to my ears.


*****



Less than an hour later, Gina and I were sitting in a bar and enjoying a nice glass of the finest Erdonian wine. It had taken some time to get everything sorted and the chips cashed in the casino. I was quite surprised that they let me keep the entire winning amount including what the insectoid had accrued and didn't distribute it amongst all players instead -- but I certainly wasn't going to complain. Their house, their rules!

Watching Gina play with the glass I could tell that there was something on her mind. I was sure that it wasn't about the money; I had promised to give her back what she had initially put up and then some and she gladly accepted.

"What is it?" I asked.

She set her glass back on the table. "How did you know that he was cheating?"

"To be perfectly honest, at first I didn't. Only when he beat my Straight Flush I knew that something wasn't adding up. I mean: What are the chances of having so many high ranking hands at once?"

"Close to none," she said. "And the holoprojector?"

"That wasn't difficult to figure out. He had to be using something state-of-the-art otherwise he would have been caught the minute he walked in the casino. My guess is that they will be doing some upgrades there pretty soon."

"I guess so," she said and smiled, content with the explanation. "Still, you had some damn good cards at the end. I wish I had been so lucky!"

I smiled back at her. There was one thing -- one last piece of the puzzle -- that I hadn't told her yet since at first I wasn't certain that I should. But Gina was one of very few friends that I had these days so I decided to go with it.

"Actually, that... " I leaned towards her and in an elegant motion pulled two cards (that were virtually indistinguishable from those used in the casino) from my left sleeve.

Her eyes widened in awe.

"...wasn't entirely about luck."



THE END


2018 Martin Lochman

Bio: I am an emerging author who lives in Malta and works as an academic librarian at the University of Malta Library. My short stories and flash fiction appeared in Ikarie, a Czech science fiction literary magazine, Theme of Absence and on 365tomorrows.com.

Email: Martin Lochman

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