“You know, these places are all the same,” I said as I tossed my last chip onto a truly staggering stack an hour later. The game was a form of poker where more cards were revealed after every round. “They take your money but they drown your sorrows. I’d almost call it worth it.”
“Speak for yourself,” said Donovan. It was the first he’d spoken since I sat down. Most of my chips sat in front of him. “I’m looking to pick up a few coins tonight.”
“Maybe a few sorrows, too.” All the other players had dropped out at this point. The table’s dealer sat across from us, looking across a battlefield of green velvet.
Donovan eyed me, no doubt trying to figure my bluff. I wasn’t bluffing. Not this time.
“A man like you knows a bit about sorrow, don’t you?” I said.
Skin went pale under his copper beard, but his eyes stayed steely and hard. “Call.”
I lay down my cards. Aces. He had kings. The dealer pushed a pile of chips my direction. The dealer shuffled.
“I’m retired,” said Donovan, not taking his eyes off my newly gained chips. “No need for sorrow.”
“Oh, what did you do?”
“I used to want to be a pilot.” I stacked the chips into five stacks and lined them in a perfect row. “Then the Benevolent happened.”
The muscles of his jaw clenched, but he didn’t speak.
“Lot of folks died that day,” I said after his ante was in.
Donovan gripped my arm and fixed me with his pale green eyes. “I’m here for the cards. Nothing else.”
The dealer dealt a hand. I didn’t touch my cards, but Donovan did a fine job pretending not to notice.
“The way I see it,” I said, sliding a bet into the center of the table, “a copilot’s just as guilty as the pilot. Just a tough business to be in. I wouldn’t want that kind of pressure.”
A muscle in his jaw twitched. If I hadn’t just picked up half his winnings in the last hand, he might have walked away. He knew what I was doing. That made one of us.
“Unless there was a technical problem or sabotage. Then it’s the engineer’s fault. You think the Benevolent was an engineering issue? Seems like I might have heard about it.”
He scowled. He might have hit me if I didn’t have most of his money. I probably deserved it.
“But you know all that, don’t you, Jacob?”
Donovan raised the bet. I raised it right back. The dealer dealt us each another card. I still didn’t look. My cards lay in front of me like dead birds.
“I’m just wondering,” I said. “What really happened? Wouldn’t it feel good to get that off your chest?”
“You wouldn’t understand.”
“That’s the truth.”
He raised the bet again, pushing a stack of ten chips into the center. I matched his bet.
“The thing is,” I said, “I don’t really think you’re guilty. I think you took a buyout for your silence, and I think that same silence is eating away at you. Pretty soon, you’ll be out of that fat retirement cash and you’ll need to figure out what to do with the rest of your life. Maybe that’ll mean getting a job here in the fancy part of town. Maybe it’ll mean rolling downspiral for something a little less reputable. Maybe it means landing in the Heavies where nobody frowns at your gambling or your drink. You can get lost for good in your own downward spiral of guilt and sadness.”
He gripped my arm hard enough to leave bruises. The dealer cleared his throat, but Donovan didn’t let go. “I’m not in a downward spiral, and I’m not headed to one. Now, if you’re here to play a game, play the goddamn game. If not, fold and get out of here.”
A shadow crossed over us. Two of the hall’s bouncers loomed over us. They didn’t advance, but stood with arms crossed, blocking our light.
“We’re fine,” I said. “No trouble here.”
Donovan released my arm. “I apologize.”
The goons stepped back, but not very far. The dealer dealt another card each, and Donovan raised the bet. I took my time deciding, but still didn’t look at my cards.
“You gotta look at them,” Donovan muttered. “Play the damn game.”
“You apologized,” I said. “Was that for crashing the ship?”
For a hitched half breath I thought he was going to hit me. When he didn’t, I rolled my shoulders, stretched my neck, and pushed another stack of ten chips into the center. “I’ll raise you,” I said. Then I pushed in another stack. The pile in the center far outweighed the lingering remains in front of me. “You’ve been dealt a poor hand, Donovan, but at least you know what’s in front of you.”
Without speaking, he met my bid. He was either the best actor in town or the worst poker face. Sweat beaded on his brow and his hand kept moving to stroke his beard. He must have known it was a tic, because every few times he stopped himself. It didn’t help.
He must have just then remembered his drink because he picked it up and downed the whole thing. When he was done, he crunched the ice, watching me the whole time. “There’s a word we have for people like you.”
“Is it asshole, because I can stop you right here. I’ve heard that before.”
“In the business, there are those of us who get things done. We follow rules, check all the boxes, take orders. We do things the way they’re supposed to be done and when there’s a crisis we make things right. We might not come up with the results you people like, but they’re the best results given the circumstances, and we deserve medals for every safe landing you’ve never heard of.” He took a look at his cards again, and must have seen something he liked because a wicked grin crossed his face. He bid everything else on the table in front of him. “We’re pilots, you piece of shit, and we’re the people who get you where you need to be. Now fucking drop out of the game and let’s be done with it.”
I tapped the cards in front of me, as if considering how much faith I needed to put in them. With my luck this was a losing hand, dead before it ever got started. But I didn’t need luck. Donovan might have been dealt a poor hand in life, but mine had been fantastic and I’d already thrown it all away.
Before I could second guess myself, I pushed my chips in. What the hell was I going to do with a few dimes, anyway? They’d just burn a hole in my pocket until I wasted them.
“Thing is,” I said to Donovan, “you say you take orders like a champ. Who were the orders from that day you crashed the Benevolent.”
One by one he lay down his cards. Kings and sixes—a full house. He met my gaze with hooded eyes. “You, on the other hand, float through life. You let happen to you whatever’s going to happen. When a ship crashes it’s not your fault. It’s just something that your betters decided should happen to you.” He glanced at my fedora. “Whether that’s your boss or your government or your god, there’s always someone else to blame. You want to know who crashed that ship? It was me. Yeah, I was only copilot, but my pilot showed up drunk. We were in the void before I knew it was going to be a problem. The Benevolent was going to need to dock somewhere, either up in the Hallows or down here. Might as well get people where they wanted to be, right?”
“Who gave that order?”
He reached for my cards, but I was too quick. I held them down.
He spat his words like a reflex. “Play the goddamn game.”
“You’ll see the cards when I get what I want.”
“You’re nothing,” he said. His voice slurred, and I wondered how much alcohol was in that drink of his. “You people are all alike.”
“Who gave the order? Who told you to keep going, and who told you where to dock?”
A wary smile touched his lips. “You wouldn’t believe me if I said—” he swallowed hard “—if I said what it was that gave the order.”
What, not who. “It was Trinity.”
His face flushed. “It was my call. Now show me the damn cards.”
I held his gaze for several deep breaths. The bouncers took a step forward, but our dealer waved them back. With the kind of deliberate movements one uses to disarm a bomb, I upended each of my cards to reveal my hand: the hand I’d bet it all on.
“Pair of eights,” I said.
The anger in Donovan’s expression slowly melted, giving way to a amused grin, then a light chuckle, and finally an all-out guffaw. He laughed at my face, breaking all sense of decorum.
A hand rested on my shoulder, and Beck said in a lightly mocking voice, “Was it worth it?”
I hadn’t seen her come in. In fact, I looked around and saw that the whole gambling hall had been watching us, and I hadn’t even noticed. I’d been so focused on the game and on Donovan’s answers. A dozen blues rhythms about gambling and booze rang in my head. I’d bankrupted myself again between the brick walls of gambling and the truth. Every dime I owned was gone.
“There was something I needed to know,” I said to Beck. “And now I know it.”
Instead of answering, I led her back through the crowd. The place had a short bar where servers picked up drinks to deliver to gambling patrons. I bellied up to it and ordered a couple of watered-down gin and tonics. When I couldn’t pay, Beck made an exasperated sigh and dropped a couple dimes on the counter.
“How did you get in here?” I asked. “The gate was closed. Get close to it and Trinity will go nuts.”
Beck made a face at the first sip of her drink. “Don’t they have limes in this place?”
It wasn’t lost on me every time she avoided a question, just like I assume it wasn’t lost on her every time I avoided one of hers. “They’re imports, either from up in the Hallows or from a different city.”
“How many cities are there?”
“Twenty-seven originally, all in a row. Not all of them are populated now.”
That sober thought hung in the air for a few minutes. “The maintenance tunnels below this neighborhood weren’t secured. I was able to get in through one of those.”
I decided not to ask her how she’d found me. “Those tunnels are tiny.”
She flashed me a sideways grin. “You’d be surprised where a lady can fit if she needs to.”
“Well, I think I’ll use the front gate.”
Beck gulped back the last of her drink and ordered something with some fruit in it. “Why would they make a gate with gaps big enough for people to get through?”
She didn’t look convinced. “Are there aesthetics in being useless?”
“It’s not useless. It’s perfectly functional for almost everyone on the ship.”
“But not you, and not anyone else excommunicated from Trinity.”
“So, that’s what I mean.” She sipped her new drink and nodded with approval. “The design is specifically made to allow you through. Why?”
I’d never thought of it that way. “My life without the AI’s help is inconvenient enough. Just leave me this one thing, all right?”
“One thing. Yeah. But what about getting personalized security threat alerts from Trinity? What about all the the things you can do in the liminal spaces that nobody else can do?”
Gin soaked my brain, and I closed my eyes for a moment to block out the distracting noises of the gambling hall. For the first time all evening, I didn’t want to leave. Not yet. “Tell me about Earth,” I said. “What’s it like growing up on a planet?”
She waved dismissively. “Earth is the rotting core of humanity. It’s all stuck on being the cultural center of the expanding human universe, but nobody there bothers to notice that everything new happening is out here in the outer colonies. All the best new art, all the technological innovation. It’s all out here.”
“Here? Nobody around here cares about our artists. Our planetside colonies are going to be another hundred years before they’re sustainable.”
“More, the way I hear it.”
I shrugged. “Long enough it doesn’t matter to me.” There was an expression in her blue eyes I couldn’t recognize. “Is that what Violet Ruiz is doing out here?”
“My boss wants the painting for sentimental reasons.”
“But why? Two years in cryosleep for a painting, and then she goes right back home?”
Beck stared at the far wall for several long breaths. “We weren’t asleep. Violet lives on that ship. It’s the only place I’ve ever seen her, and I don’t think she ever intends to set foot anywhere else.”
I shook my head in disbelief. “I’ve lived my whole life on a station, and I think that’s crazy.”
“It’s the peak of luxury in there. She has everything she wants and it’s able to sustain her for her whole life, no matter where she goes. I think she plans to travel to all the colonies, just to see them.”
“The ultimate retirement plan.” I touched Beck’s wrist with the tips of my fingers. She didn’t pull away. “Where does that put you?”
She swallowed back the rest of her drink, and shifted her arm so that she was holding my hand. Her fingers were warm and light against my massive ham hocks. There was a sadness in the corners of her eyes that wasn’t reflected in her voice. “I’ll do whatever I want. It’s a decent job and when I’m ready to quit I’ll get off at the next stop.” She led me through the crowd toward the exit. “Come on, big lug. We have work to do.” Her voice was all professionalism, but the bounce in her step told of a lighter emotion. It was distracting.
She pulled me along and we slipped past the bouncers into the black Onegee night. Even in this affluent neighborhood, very few people bothered to break the curfew. Those leaving the gambling hall did their best to slink away undetected. Only a few pinpoints of yellow illuminated the streets now, and the false sky above resembled the boiling gray of a cloudy night. A warm breeze tugged at my hat.
Beck got me out of the place and climbed the stairs. She stood a couple steps up where her face was even with mine, and she looked straight into my eyes. “Demarco,” she purred, the name like sweet wine on her lips. She leaned close.
I wanted nothing more than to pull her close. To kiss her and feel her warmth on my body. For a moment, our breaths mingled in the soft breeze, but the moment didn’t last.
A flicker of movement flashed through one of the pools of yellow light. I touched Beck’s arm and drew her to the side.
Beck searched my eyes. “What?”
“They must have followed us up here.”
She turned to look, just in time to see Sam pass through the next lighted area. He wasn’t even trying to keep to the shadows. His face was a steel mask of angry determination. The tension in his shoulders hinted that he was juiced up on that new drug. Raging on it. He saw that I was looking his way and a cruel smile crossed his lips. Behind him, a dozen more men and women crossed into the light.
“Beck,” I said, “where did you say that maintenance tunnel was?”
Right about then, Sam broke into a run.
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Bio: Anthony W. Eichenlaub's short fiction has appeared in numerous publications, including Little Blue Marble, On Spec Magazine, and the anthology A Punk Rock Future. His novels range from pulse-pounding technothrillers to the adventures of irresponsible scientists on a colony planet. In his spare time he enjoys woodworking, video games, and working in his garden. Support him at: https://www.patreon.com/AWEichenlaub