Ahh, Guinness with a whiskey chaser. A little contrary, due to the order, and a bit old-fashioned, due to the ingredients, but just par for the course where I sat. I looked across the Ho-maja table at the Scyllyrian. Its single phallic horn had lost a lot of its jaunty savoir-faire over the last twenty minutes. A pretty good indicator of its owner's emotional state, it was decidedly flaccid, rather like its owner's performance on the table.
I could sympathize. Twenty minutes since the Grakovite sat down. Twenty minutes and I'd lost nearly everything I had. Another twenty minutes and I'd be borrowing Max's blaster, whether to blow my brains out, or to splatter that nasty Grak's toadish, reeking, flatulent guts all over the walls, I hadn't decided.
Grakovites. Short and squat amoeboids, with no natural defenses and even less intelligence. Tasty to large predators and barely dextrous in a sad fumbling way. It was a wonder any of them managed to survive, let alone become the dominant species on their home world. Yet here he was, taking me and the Scyllyrian to the cleaners.
There ain't no justice.
"Set 'em up again, Max. Give laughing boy over here a drink, and make it a double."
The Scyllyrian's horn perked up a bit and he grimaced gratefully at me, unsheathing a mouth full of teeth that would make a shark take up flossing.
"Needs that I, nice thinking-monkey from Dirt-clod," its translator screeched. A lesser man would've dived under the table -- Scyllyrian voices have a natural timbre that reaches right down into the human hindbrain and tweaks the terror knob to eleven. Something about the sound of it reminds those rodent brain cells scurrying around the brainstem that dinosaurs once snacked regularly on their Grandpas. And their Grannies, too, for that matter. I was beyond that. I nodded benevolently at the saurian, as Trixie delivered our drinks. Half a crate of stout and as many Tullamore Dews had endowed me with rock-solid liquid courage.
The Grak, too, was oblivious, but for different reasons. Apparently, Nature had seen no need to gift the species with a "fight or flight" instinct, or much of anything else either. It bulged a tentacle toward its glass of Calderanian vintwasser and dipped it in. The level drew down exactly two millimeters. I would have laughed if I'd had the heart.
Vintwasser is the piss-water bilge-wash of a much stronger concoction, Calderanian magma-brandy, which is used with much foolish lack of aplomb by youngsters of oxygen-breathing species to demonstrate both their courage and their ability to ignite the resultant abundance of methane. This stunt was quite risky, since Calderanian magma-brandy produced this last in copious amounts, along with a hefty percentage of pure hydrogen. More than one inept young Turk had waddled home late at night, blowtorched, in agony after an explosive session with bottle and match.
Vintwasser, on the other hand, is less than small beer. The Grak had been nursing that drink all night, earning him plenty of disgusted looks from the bar's patrons, and especially from Max, who ran the place.
Never trust a man (or alien) who doesn't drink, especially at the Mare Inebrium. I squinted at the Grak, who seemed to be drifting out of focus. Too much Guinness, maybe.
"Alright bub, let's see what you've got." Ho-maja involves at least three players who attempt to match 17 random sequences of 23 tiles presented by the table, with partial credit applied for partial matches of tiles. The player keys in their choices and bangs a switch when they're ready for the "draw". Randomicity is guaranteed by the nature of the quantum mechanical machinery that does the selecting. Individual photons, generated by a femtosecond pulsed laser, are spat at holes in a diffraction grating where they pass through and smack into a collector. If they arrive on time, like a good Einsteinian photon, they'll tilt the count one way. If they tunnel and arrive slightly ahead of time, like a naughty Bohr photon, they'll tilt the count the other way.
Conventional wisdom holds that it is impossible to cheat at Ho-maja, which is probably why Max allows it in the Mare. Strategy is limited to careful marshalling of resources, knowing when to bet more, when to back down, and generally second-guessing the laws of the Universe. A lucky man can win, a fool will lose it all.
Call me a fool.
Before tonight, though, I'd been lucky. At the tender age of three, I built a chain out of wire hangers and shoved it into a 30000 KVA power conduit. It shorted to ground through the chain and not me, which was my first stroke of luck. It blasted a meter-wide crater into my folk's floor and blew the apartment block's power plant, which turned out to be my second stroke of luck. When the disgusted repair crew opened it up, they found the plasma housing had cracked some months before. If I hadn't been such a stupid brat, everybody within a kilometer would have been flashed to atoms before breakfast.
Time after time, my dumb luck pulls my hiney out of cracks. Playing hooky the day a meteorite vaporizes my office, missing a shuttle flight that blows up on the pad, ordering roast beef when the tuna salad's loaded with salmonella. On and on. Sometimes I can help it along, but only rarely. It's a Zen thing. Relax, let it happen, but don't think. Then, when it feels right, push.
The Grak exhaled a ferociously rancid breath, a fetid utterance its translator mangled into a series of hyperthyroidal chicken clucks ending with a loud raspberry. It finally managed to jabber, "Queegly spraggle, icken ze baddest of the bad. High yam yer bratwurst nightmare." It laid down a cool Flat Pat: 10 tiles dead on.
Carefully, I exhaled a slow breath and gazed at the table without seeing. I slapped the trigger and pushed.
A hick in the corner wearing an antique "CAT Diesel Power" hat dropped his beer, grabbing it mid-tumble without spilling a drop. He chugged it one-handed, signalling with the other for another round, much to the delight of the besotted Grays he'd come in with.
When my eyes refocused, I smiled and spread the Eleven Sisters on the table, eliciting a shocked gurgle of tar pit eructation from the Grak, who flashed several shades of pink and chartreuse. It fluttered its tentacles around its putrescent maw before it whipped one over to its vintwasser, dropping it a whole six millimeters. Its mantle flickered disconcertingly with an effect human brains were not designed to comprehend. I almost hurled before the rippling passed.
A reptilian screech scythed through my nausea, "Time long I bumper around galaxy, chomping little snit-warts like your un-esteemed selfses. Never do I see physics fiddled so hard. What you got, chronosnoop? Heisenbuggerer? Not nice to fool Mother Nature." He turned and yelled across the room. "Max, pat down chumps for gizmos. Then I shred!"
Max smiled and said, "Nobody's shredding anybody, Gashkar. They're both clean. Besides, everybody knows you can't cheat at Ho-Maja." But his eye lingered long on me, then on the Grak. After a moment, he turned and set up whiskies for a pair of red-haired Terrans -- a homely, hard-eyed man in a kilt and his female companion, who could've been his twin. She smiled at me, green eyes twinkling.
Good thing I was already sitting down. I shook my head and thought about icebergs as the table racked the points. The Grak wheezed a burbling wash of vintwasser-tainted Limburger in my direction, bringing tears to my eyes. Which helped, actually.
With no eyes, lips, or definable face, it somehow managed a convincingly loathsome leer. Its translator squonked, "Us Ho-Maja bet-boinking or us hunting kitty-kitty?"
I growled, "Ho-Maja it is, gristle-gums. Let's go."
And so we went, for nearly an hour in a no-holds-barred death match. I was playing for more than just all my worldly possessions, which the Grak had so handily snagged earlier in the evening. I was fighting for my mojo, slugging it out toe-to-toe with the Grak's, who had apparently sold what passed for his immortal soul to the Dark One for his power. As we battled, the normally boisterous and flap-jawed crowd that never offered a second glance at teleporting, telekinetic, or just everyday outrageously aberrant aliens of all descriptions, those oblivious, single-minded alcoholics whose every move spoke of decades of studiously applied discretion and mastery of the art of minding their own damn business, that pack of heinous rascals and rapscallious cads whose glasses would never falter in a slurred toast, even had God Almighty thundered through the door a-striking lightning bolts and burning bushes, those disreputable avaricious bar-crawlers gradually fell silent, somehow stuporously aware that history was being made before their dumbfounded eyes.
All the while, the Grak drank steadily, if sparingly. A millimeter here, two or three there, then back to one. Each time he tippled, his buboe-slathered integument phased noxiously.
There is a conservation principle to everything: heat, momentum, and probability. What the Grak and I were doing was dangerous, even criminal, breaking every rule in the Great Book of the Universe, milking the continuum of its good fortune, and possibly causing some poor bastard somewhere to get the sack, or wreck his ship, or get caught with his pants down when hubby hoofs it home early. In the Game Room itself, the losers at the craps table gave up when the dice began yielding nothing but snake-eyes. Blackjack players busted continuously, and even the pool players had to call it quits when the cue ball zinged around the table like a pinball on crank. All for the sake of a few lousy tiles. As the crowd sat enthralled, the air flowed ominously in melted waves of warped reality.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw Max whisper to the redheaded man who nodded and produced a flask from his kilt. He disappeared into the crowd.
At last, the Scyllyrian gnashed its teeth and tossed down its tiles in disgust. It was out. It had been playing a hedge game, slowing the hemorrhaging of its funds to a trickle in the hopes that me and the Grak would annihilate each other. It eyed the Grak speculatively, as one might contemplate the last dessicated hors d'oeuvres on a frat-party canape dish at 4:00 am, then its eye glazed over, evidently deciding that this treat was just a little too far gone even for its indiscriminant taste.
"Assimilate them and excrete saline from your ocular ducts," the Grak said, and banged his tiles on the table. It was a Grand Google. Every last tile.
A horrified gasp went up in the Game Room. This was the final straw. In all the history of the game, in all the no-good swill troughs and alehouses, two-credit bordellos and four-drink-minimum clip joints, in every rotgut palace and pool parlor in the known universe, not to mention those vaunted haunts of the gilt-clad elite where the game is played among jaded movers and shakers with their 400-year old brandy and hallucinogenic cigars, had anyone, human, Drrrish, android, telepath, empath, or any other gat-dagged semi-sentient critter ever matched all twenty three tiles.
Game over. Whupped. But I could still feel the Grak pushing, trying to worm its way into my head. Its smothering influence reached for me without its twitching a flabby, fat marbled, stringy muscle. Reflexively, I jerked back, to find a pair of warm hands pushing me gently back into my seat. A seductive alto voice whispered in my ear, "Stick around, and maybe you'll get lucky."
It was her, the redhead from the bar. Instantly, all the tension and anxiety of the last hour drained from me, blown to flinders by an overpoweringly absurd blast of dumb puppy love, shot through with raw unabridged hump-the-sofa lust. I goggled. Where the hell did that come from?
"Down, boy," she soothed. An obedient slave, I sat.
My chest puffed out like Conan the Destroyer, I turned back to the Grak, quivering like day-old tapioca in the tropical sun. Its tentacle darted for its glass, only to find that for the first time in that momentous evening, for the first time ever perhaps, it was empty.
A hairy paw, not unlike an orangutang's on steroids, replete with stiff, wiry red hair jutting from the knuckles, daintily grasped the tumbler between thumb and forefinger, a thimble mauled by King-Kong.
"Here, have a drink on me," the Cimmerian in the kilt growled. He poured four fingers of red-eye into the glass. The Grak regarded him intently, as pulsating blood vessels stood out in sickening relief on its cratered membranes. The homely face cracked wide in a guffaw and he planted a good-natured slap on the Grak's back, though how he could tell which end was which I'll never know.
He roared, "Don't even try it, bub. That crap's got as much effect on me as a mouse's fart on a T. Rex." All of a sudden his face turned serious as a heart attack. "Now drink," he commanded.
Rubbing the new oversized hand-shaped impression in its hide, the Grak drank. And immediately let out an ear-splitting gibbering screech that made even the Scyllyrian cringe. Obscene shapes heaved and bulged beneath its skin as gobbets of slime spewed from every orifice. Its tentacles flailed wildly, a squid doing a Joe Cocker impression. It phased in and out, molecules twisting and coiling about a billion simultaneous axes of rotation, not all of which were in this time-space continuum. At last it sat, vibrating in ever-increasing oscillations until it could barely be seen.
You've only got to smack me in the face with wet shellfish a couple dozen times before I catch on. I fumbled in my jacket for a cigar and nipped the end off with my teeth.
The Grak gurgled fear-shaped syllables.
I pulled out my prized Zippo and stoked the stogie.
The Grak gabbled unintelligible whimpering pleas.
I waited, cigar at arm's length.
The Grak, who could contain it no longer, passed gas in an enormous flabulent, whoopie-cushion hoo-haw rip-snorter: high-octane methane cocktail with a hydrogen twist. It blew up like Chinese New Year, flaying what was left of the Grak into jellyfish sushi. A clang like a sledgehammer on an anvil rang through the room as a heavy object banged down on the table and bounced, smoking.
My jaw dropped. No, say it ain't so!
It was a horseshoe.
Max strode to the table and picked it up, turning it this way and that. He saw my face and grinned. "Probability generator, alcohol fueled. Built right into its cuticle. Works great if you keep the mixture lean. It's just enough to enhance the Grak's natural luck, which is how they made it this far, but not enough to set off my alarms." He sighed philosophically. "Have to recalibrate, I suppose."
The kilted Cro-Magnon gave me the once-over and observed, "You, on the other hand, appear to be the genuine article. I've never seen the like. How would you like to come with us, get rich, father a passle of babies, stomp the bad guys, and live forever?"
I shook my head in ragged disbelief. "Who are you people?"
Two pairs of green eyes turned my way, two sides of the same coin, though maybe one was showing a few more nicks and scratches, as if the stamp had struck off a few more copies than the other.
The redheaded bombshell purred, "If you're very good, there'll be time enough for everything, love."
Goofily, since my brain had just gone hootling off to Mardi Gras, sporting a top-hat and lime green skivvies, and leaving nobody north of the beltline in charge, all I could manage was, "I'd rather be lucky than good."
She chuckled, "Luck you're born with. Good takes practice."
I vowed to be a very good student...
Jim Parnell squashes bugs for a living -- like the ones that infest your computer. As a gesture of faith, he plans to be on full life-support in a commercial airliner booking flights and making e-trades at 23:59:59, December 31, 1999. If the plane don't crash, he hopes to get out of the geek business for good.
You can e-mail Jim Parnell at email@example.com
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