Abrams stood in a gutter that lined a trash-strewn street on a world that was a bit too far from his own. He wondered if he was being set up.
“How long will this take?” he asked.
“Not long Mr. Abrams. Trust me.” The cyborg’s words slithered out of his flabby mouth like fish heads down one of the colony’s filthy sewers.
“I’m not here to play games with you, Beal.”
“Please, indulge me for just a moment,” Beal said. “Step closer.”
Abrams studied the half-machine creature before him. Beal was a small blob of a humanoid whose eyes came alive only in short bursts before quickly returning to an odd inward look, as if he were a voyeur of his own thoughts. But despite having a feeling in his gut it was a mistake, Abrams had to keep going. Just this one last time. And then he would quit.
“Okay,” Abrams said. “Now what?”
“Just look out right in front of you. Drink it all in, as you Earthers say, because I am going to test you. Do you have it?”
“Sure.” Abrams said.
The little half-man fluttered his hands like in a movie run too fast. “Now close your eyes. Tight. “
“Very good. Keep them closed. Let us wait just a second. For the eidetic images to fade,” Beal’s voice now descended to a hissing whisper.
“The pictures on the retina. Superficial photon traces. A curious imperfection those of us with silicon-based retinas do not share. But never mind that. They are gone already. Now, tell me, keeping your eyes closed, of course, how much of it can you remember?”
Abrams tried to think. “There is a large door directly across the street.”
“Yes! That is quite right, very good start you have made sir. What else?”
“Windows. To the left of the door,” said Abrams.
He pulled the collar of his jacket tight against the icy artificial air. Abrams didn’t trust Beal. But the creep would get enough money if he took Abrams where he wanted to go. Still, Abrams really didn’t like this game.
“Very good,” said Beal. “And what is just to the right of the door?”
“ A hovercar.”
“Tsk Tsk. Sorry. Try again,” said Beal.
“You do not remember the lamppost? It was right in front.” Beal’s voice carried a slight patronizing lilt.
“I don’t recall….”
“And what about the flowers? Surely you remember the flowers?”
“I’m not sure….”
“Tsk. Tsk. Now Mr. Abrams, open your eyes and see what you missed.”
Abrams looked out across the street again. Miners in company ice-blue uniforms strode along the street from both directions, with the occasional vendor or maintenance worker shuffling along as well. How could he have forgotten that lamppost? It was twisted in several places, like being on the wrong end of a drunken giant’s hammer. Of course, the whole place was like that. Ever since Beal lead him out from the starport Abrams saw nothing but a rambling, crumbling wreck of a city that somehow managed to produce a GDP equal to the combined output of the top ten planetary economies.
Abrams kept looking. An improbable cascade of flowers flowed all around the bottom of the octagonal windows of the deli, bursting with rich color. Blood red, Earth-sky blue, and star white, all in heated planters. Even more beautiful for being stuck in the middle of an otherwise ramshackle street in a shitty little backwater mining asteroid.
“Memory. Beal snapped his grubby little fingers in the air in front of Abrams, straining to reach eyelevel. “See what I was saying? So fleeting. “
“OK, so what’s your point?” Abrams said, starting to get very edgy.
“My point? You’ll see. We just want you to make an informed choice, that is all, Mr. Abrams. Now off we go. Our destination is not far. This way.”
Beal scurried down the alleyway and was off.
Beal moved pretty fast for a guy that wobbled along like a river rat on two legs, darting in and out of the plodding, dirt-faced miners and the occasional tourist. Abrams had followed this squinty eyed gnome of a man all the way from the big casino just across the effluent bay at the south edge of the starport. But now Abrams was starting to wonder if he had gone too far. But Beal had promised him something he could not get at the tourist casino. Or anywhere else in the known galaxy.
Abrams knew he had a problem, but would never use the word ‘addicted’. Blackjack, Dice, Lunar Slots, and especially Poker– all the old games that had survived the Puritan Purges of 2263. He had a good job and was paid extremely well. But somehow that wasn’t enough. He couldn’t explain it, yet nothing equaled calculating cards and faces in some smoky room charged with tension and body heat, and riding that adrenaline rush up and down and again and again for hours on end. But he had kept it pretty much under control. Up until the last year that is. That’s when his wife Sara finally kicked him out.
Left in the wreckage of Abrams’ marriage were two daughters. And more than anything Abrams wanted to get back to them. And to Sara. So this time he vowed he was going to quit for good. He just wanted to make one last spin of the wheel, to finally flush it all out of his system. It only took a few calls and he was on his way to see meet Beal.
Beal lead Abrams through a dizzying maze of dirty alleyways and dust-choked streets. Oddly, as they went deeper into the old city, the pedestrian traffic became thinner and thinner. Then they stopped.
Abrams gazed up at a large archway deeply recessed into a grimy, but well-crafted stone wall that rose at least 20 meters into the darkness above. Under the shadow he could make out a door. It appeared to be made of rare wood studded with iron, a sight that was quite odd for a city that until now seemed made entirely from rusted steel and UV blasted cracking plastic.
“This place looks like a church. Why are you taking me to church, Beal?”
The little cyborg squinted out a smile.
“Yes, my dear Mr. Abrams, of a sorts. You want to back out?”
Beal fished an old-style metallic key from beneath his shirt by means of a silver chain that hung around his squat neck. The door creaked open.
Inside it was too dark to see much. A sickly-sweet scent like burning candle wax leaked from within.
Then in the entranceway appeared an improbable figure—a tall man with long gray hair and short dark beard flecked with gray, and dressed in a long white labcoat.
“Mr. Abrams, please meet your host for tonight, Father Pascale,” Beal said.
“Welcome Mr. Abrams. It is an honor to serve you,” the man said. “Are you here to confess, or to gamble?”
“Ah, he is here to gamble, of course.” said Beal, suddenly seeming ill at ease.
“Some say there is no difference between these two acts,” Pascale said in a patient, rumbling baritone.
Beal stopped talking. Abrams did not like the looks of this guy in white either. Especially not his sharp smile. Something hid in there Abrams did not understand.
“Since when do priests wear lab coats,” Abrams said with a cold stare.
“Does it matter?” Father Pascale said, unfazed by the question.
Abrams looked at him for a moment. “No, I guess not.” Yet Abrams did not believe for one second that this guy with the grin of a rogue mathematician and the narrow eyes of a hunter was actually a priest. This excursion was starting to get a little unsettling. Maybe he could just stop now. Find something more conventional for that one last fix….
“But why a church?” asked Abrams. “Couldn’t we have met somewhere else?”
“Why not a church?”
“That’s not an answer.”
Pascale stared back without flinching. “It’s the only place where you could play undisturbed. There are some forms of gambling that Inter-Corporate Authorities do not overlook, even all the way out here on Axion.”
“I see. But what about God? What will He say about this?” asked Abrams.
Abrams glanced back to his left. Beal’s eyes flashed out from the flab of his face with something that appeared to be more than impatience. All Abrams knew about religion was from one course in college. Yet just enough of it was still rattling around somewhere in his brain to help him buy a little time. Something was not right. Maybe Abrams had gone too far this time. Maybe he should just turn around and head back to the starport and just be finished with it.
“I don’t know. I never asked Him,” said Pascale with smooth concentration.
“Perhaps I don’t want to hear an answer I wouldn’t like.”
“Good thinking, Padre.”
Pascale laughed a boy’s laugh. Beal just stood staring down at his own feet. Pascale continued, “But I think it would be acceptable to Him. Just look at the book of Job. You know Job, don’t you?”
“No. Never heard of him,” said Abrams.
“That’s not surprising.” He shook his head pensively, and continued. “The story is a bit odd, even for the Bible. It begins normally enough with God and the angels in heaven in holy convocation. But suddenly, God allows Satan, the Adversary, to jump in and propose a bet. Satan bets God that Job is only good and pious because God favored him. So God basically says, ‘OK Satan, you’re on. Do whatever you want to Job. I bet he will still be faithful.’ So Satan kills all of Job’s children, his cattle, and wracks his body with every disease imaginable. But Job persists. Job stays with God.”
“Nice story. They never taught me that one,” Abrams could not hide the sarcasm. “And what did God win for gambling with Job’s eternal life?”
“The text never says.”
“Figures. I hope it was something big. Like a new universe or something. Maybe that’s why he left this one,” said Abrams.
Pascale chucked. ”I don’t know about that. But it does show us that even God likes to gamble.”
“That might be pushing it.”
They stopped a moment. So maybe this guy really was a priest, Abrams thought. Or at least someone that had taken his appropriation of a church as cover for an illegal gambling ring as a sign to pursue a hobby in ancient Judeo-Christian theology.
Abrams asked another question, just for the hell of it. “And what about Job?” What did he get out of this little game that to me appears to be a fancy way to account for random destruction?”
“Job wins new cattle, new sons, and new beautiful daughters.”
“Nice. But what about his first family? His first sons and daughters? They never come back, do they?”
Pascale looked into the middle distance for a moment. “No, they do not. And it seems they are forgotten. At least by history. But there is pain for Job. And the memory of the pain for the rest of his life. Much pain. But there is no redemption without pain, now is there?”
Beal broke in. “Theology class is over, my dear Mr. Abrams. Perhaps on your next trip we can continue your inquiry. However, the others await you.”
The priest held the door. Beal went first. Abrams went in behind him, still wondering about Job.
Pascale led them down the center aisle of the church. In the dim light the forty meters of pews looked like black waves rolling across a velvet sea. “The Mertonite Missionaries were the first to Colonize Axion-25. It was their habit of building elaborate catacombs that lead to the fortuitous discovery of the data storage mineral Ityl. Our number one export here on Axion is only found deep beneath the surface,” Pascale droned like a tour guide. “And as you might know, it was a splinter group from these original missionaries that founded the Alexandrian Archivist Cult. Librarians of a sort.”
Just before they got to the altar, the priest stopped speaking and stooped down as if to tie his shoe. Then suddenly, he flung open a trap door.
“After, you, Mr. Abrams.”
Abrams paused. Out of habit reached into his front pants’ pocket and felt the little piece of steel he always kept there. It was the hexagonal nut that fastened his first-born daughter’s training wheels to her bicycle. He was so proud of her. He had spent hours trotting along side of her in the long grass meadow at the edge of town, picking her up after she tumbled, and encouraging her to try again. And then finally the moment came when the slow hex of tottering imbalance was broken forever and she glided away on her own, free. He always carried the little piece of metal with him to always remember that beautiful summer day. And for luck.
Then Abrams went down into the dark.
Instantly his shoe jolted against something metal, with each clanging step singing out to the empty dark. Then slowly his eyes adjusted to the faint blue light. They were going down a long spiral staircase. As Abrams stepped down and down his hand grazed along an iron railing, faintly warm to the touch. Flakes of rust brushed free and made their helical way down through the darkness below. The ringing echoes of their feet haunted them all the way down. When they finally got to the bottom, it was even warmer, especially after the windy chill of the desolate streets above. Abrams could see now that the only light was coming from the dark blue mold oozing from the cracks between the mortar joints of the stones lining the walls of the vaulted tunnel.
They continued along a narrow passageway. The grit crunched in an insistent whisper beneath their feet. The passage made innumerable branches and turns, yet Pascale seemed to have no trouble remembering the correct path. Suddenly the ceiling became much lower and the walls much more narrow. Pascale stopped.
“This is where I leave you, Mr. Abrams,” Pascale said, suddenly quite solemn. “If you are sure, that is. You still have a choice.”
“Thanks for the talk,” said Abrams.
“It was my pleasure.” Pascale paused. “You know Mr. Abrams, I was once in your place.”
“What do you mean?”
“The gambling. The relentless temptation. The constant hunger for more. I have known all these. I lost nearly everything.”
Abrams did not know what to say. He caught a glimpse of Pascale’s face—brows furrowed in pain, or perhaps concentration, with a half smile moving across his lips, like he was listening to far away music in a land outside of Time. Abrams still wasn’t sure that he was a real priest, yet it seemed at least possible.
“And Mr. Abrams.”
“I almost forgot. Job won one other thing because of the bet. From within the heart of a storm, Job gets a vision of the hidden God. And perhaps of at least equal value, a glimpse of himself.”
“I will try to keep that in mind” Abrams said.
“I hope you do,” Father Pascale said and he turned and disappeared into the darkness from which he had come.
Abrams turned around. Beal was in front now, motioning with frenzied flapping hands for Abrams to stoop beneath a low stone arch. In the dark blue shadow above the entranceway Abrams noticed the carved face of a leering Gargoyle.
They entered the card room. But it was a card room unlike any Abrams had ever seen in any casino he had ever been to before. For one thing, it was rough-hewn from solid rock. And the ceiling was higher than Abrams could even see the end of. In the middle of this room, dwarfed by the cavernous surroundings, rested a small round table where six people were seated and one standing. A single light hung over the center of the table and cast weak shadows in all directions. But it was enough to see something strange was happening.
Upon the head of each of the six seated figures was a circlet of silver. It did not rest directly on the head, but instead seemed to float a few inches above. These circlets glowed with their own light, an eerie Earth-moon blue that seemed to shift in a rapid flicker of darker blue flecks whenever the wearer moved ever so slightly. At times they were almost too bright too look at. But the color was so pure and subtle it had a way of pulling the eye in, the ever shifting pattern of the shades was like a puzzle that you felt you were on the verge of solving.
The players did not even bother to look at Abrams and Beal when the two came in. Their eyes flicked only from their cards to the eyes of their opponents and back to their cards again.
“Just what the hell is going on here Beal?”Abrams asked.
“Poker,” Beal smiled with his beady little eyes looking inward. “That is what you requested, is it not?”
Abrams still stared. “But there’s no chips, no money. You can’t have Poker without betting.”
Beal made a laughing sound like coins rattling in a greasy plastic bag.
“You see Mr. Abrams,” Beal said, suddenly now wearing the mannerisms of a circus ringmaster. “It is all quite simple. Human memories are sequestered in distinct regions of the prefrontal lobe. These can be assessed externally. The trick is to synchronize the distributed storage of the memory. Luckily our friends in the Archivist cult seem to have a superabundance of computational power. More than enough to re-assemble the neural-image packets.”
“So they are betting bits of their minds?”
”Well, yes, if you must put it so crudely. Bytes might be a better word.” Beal did nothing to attempt to conceal a laugh that was now more of an obscene croaking gloat. “That is, minus the House’s, ah, modest cut, of course.”
Abrams looked at Beal. He did not return the stare but was already smiling his little inward smile. Abrams pulled out a chair in front of one of those silver circlets that was lying on the table and looked at it: a simple metal band without seam or adornment, except for the light that seemed like a live snake dancing and darting around and around the surface.
One last time was all Abrams thought to himself. He knew in poker hesitation is a sign of weakness. He picked up the circlet and placed it on his head with the resolve of a medieval knight donning his helmet. He did not feel it touch his skin. A slight momentary tingle crawled across his scalp as a brief sound, like the gentle hush of a mother to her baby drifting to sleep, whispered into his ear.
An unremarkable man with a short military style haircut was the dealer. “The game is five card stud. Ante up,” the dealer said.
“What’s the ante?” Abrams asked, being sure now to show only his external Poker face.
“The bedroom of your childhood home,” the dealer replied with professional calm.
“I’m in,” Abrams said.
Abrams felt slight hum like a hive of microscopic bees were boring into the base of his skull. Images floated and whirred in the space right in front of him. And layered over top of it all were ghosted crimson buttons hovering just at the periphery of the visual field. It was as if Abrams was seated at the instrument panel in the cockpit of a Spaceliner, only he could still see through the panel to the game before him. An insistent red button flashed at the left edge of his visual field.
“You have to push the button to complete the bet, Mr. Abrams,” said the dealer with only a hint of annoyance.
Abrams heard him, but he could not move. The whirring had stopped. His gaze was fixed in mid-air, on the room Abrams had lived in as a child. It was small, with one little window that let in the golden evening sun in the long wall that faced the apple tree in the backyard. The room with the red, white, and blue wallpaper where Abrams hung the pennants from his father’s favorite sports teams above his bed. The closet door that folded in like an accordion to shelter all his toys and books and clothes and everything a boy of eight could ever hope to have. And especially marvelous were the toys. Gleaming in a slant of sunlight was his indestructible radio-controlled airplane. The kite that he and his father had built from just a sketch in an old book his father had given him. And his lucky baseball glove that gave him the confidence to play third base the year his team won the county championships. Abrams could see every single thing on those closet shelves. And turning around Abrams saw the bed that had faithfully cradled him and carried him to the vast land of dreams each night. Abrams had forgotten so much about that place, that one perfect little room . . . .
“Are you in, Mr. Abrams?” Beal was no longer smiling. “We need to move along. After all, as you Earther’s say, time is money.”
Abrams reached into the air in front of his eyes and pushed where he thought the button should be. As soon as he touched the spot the hum drilled into his head again and everything went gray.
“Mr. Abrams is in the game.” The dealer said as he quickly dealt a down card and an up card. “Mr. Reed has the high card and the bet,”
Mr. Reed peered over his sunglasses. He was just on Abrams’s left and had an Ace of hearts showing. Then Mr. Reed looked at his down card.
“First Love.” Mr. Reed said.
The scenes in front of Abrams blurred. Then his mind leapt back. Abrams’ junior year in high school. Jennifer Winters. The Party at Roger McCormick’s house. Jennifer smiled from across the room and it struck him like a thunderbolt when he finally realized she was looking at him. And Abrams felt that same thunderbolt now in his chest again. Then he saw leaves swirling across the open green behind the school, dancing in anticipation of the first real windstrokes of Fall coming up from the west end of town. Abrams marveled again watching himself walking out with her through the racing wind and dappling sunlight playing across the time-stopping scent of wildflowers at the edge of the tree-lined soccer field on that far, warm windswept September day. When he finally kissed her it was like flower petals. All this over thirty years ago. It eventually rained that day a light cool rain that did not make them cold, despite their bare skin….
The dealer looked over at a middle aged man studying his cards like they had just dropped out of the sky. “I’m out,” the man said finally. The two others Abrams could barely see at the far end of the table tossed their cards in without a word.
“Not going there this time. Out,” said the bouncing guy. So no one wanted to stay in with Mr. Reed. Except Abrams.
Abrams had only a Jack down and a ten of hearts showing.
“I call,“ Abrams said as he placed his finger on the button hovering in the air in front of him. The memory being betted again grayed out. Abrams wasn’t going to let this guy push him off the table with just an Ace. His heart pounded.
The cards came round again. Abrams caught another Jack. Mr. Reed had a queen to go with his Ace showing.
“Check.” Mr. Reed said, looking directly at Abrams.
Was this weakness? Or a trap?
Abrams decided he needed to test the ace. Abrams looked at the screen swimming before his eyes. It was like peering into an infinite corridor lined with glass doors, an endless midway of little theatres, each one showing an entire world. Something told Abrams Reed was bluffing. But how much should he bet?
“A question, Mr. Abrams?”
“What if a player has no equivalent memory to the bet?”
“Ah, excellent question. You are indeed a thinker. And my sincere apologies to you for not explaining earlier. In such cases, the computer will select from a Player’s stock an equivalent memory. And as always the deepest and most pleasurable ones are selected. Quite judiciously, of course.”
“Thanks for the info.”
Abrams did not have time to contemplate how “judicious” the selection would actually end up being. Abrams had to act. Abrams searched the gallery of memories in front of him. Then Abrams saw something so precious it froze his heart:
Under the bright hospital lights 13 years ago, May 20th, an impossibly wrinkled little face, at once old and young, her body and new voice shaking with the joyous rage of being uncoiled from timeless sleep into life. Abrams felt anew the overflowing pride for what he had made.
As the last echo of his words died amid the dark fissures of the ceiling, the cavern went still. No one moved. Reed’s eyes gazed at scenes no one else could see. The pounding of Abrams’s heart doubled in force. Abrams almost started to question himself. But then Reed breathed in a quiet hiss and tossed his cards over to the dealer. “Take it.” Reed said with his jaw clenched. Reed knew what was coming.
In the next instant the air in front of Abrams swam with forms, as if he were looking out a subway window at the world painted on the inside of the tunnel. Abrams thought he heard a clipped yelp of agony from somewhere nearby, but he did not care. He just watched all that was going on inside. Abrams had never had a win like this in all his countless trips to Las Vegas or Selena City, or anywhere casino in the whole quadrant for that matter. The images ran far too fast for him to see any one thing, but then they slowed to dream-speed and Abrams saw a woman Abrams did not know, with dark hair and deeper dark eyes, smiling in a way that made his whole body electric. Abrams reached out to touch her.
“It is bad form to count your winnings at the table, Mr. Abrams. Very bad form. You will be able to take your winnings home where you can,” Beal’ smile was now twisted to a grotesque mask, “as I can personally, attest, enjoy them at your leisure.”
“Just deal the goddamn cards.” Mr. Reed said, his hands rubbing his eyes like he was trying to pull off a spiderweb he had just wandered into.
Abrams focused back on the table. The cards were again dealt with expert speed. Abrams felt his heart in his chest pounding in way like never before.
Abrams was not sure how long he played. But the next thing he knew he was stumbling over a doorseal. Then he stepped out into an alleyway. Abrams looked up. Midnight milk blue night. Pretty. The street was completely deserted. Like the spirit of the city had departed and had left only the dark behind. Abrams was a little dizzy. It was very late. He did not feel like himself. Like he had had a few drinks too many. But Abrams did not drink. Abrams was just glad to have made it out of there a winner. A woman. Blonde. On the edge of the walkway, back to the wall. Just sitting. Rocking, humming, hugging her knees. Staring at nothing. Thank God that was not him, he thought. I’m done gambling. I know I am just lucky to have gotten out. And now I’m done. Never again. But still the feeling. . He felt it in his guts. Like gravity had been turned off and he was left to fall and fall and fall forever.
It started to drizzle. The mist tingled. Like little icicles on his lips. It made him think of a line from a book. When he was a child. It was something about the falling sky. Rain seeming like flecks of broken stars. “Memory still sharp as a tack.” Abrams murmured to himself. He probably did not lose much. If anything.
A man appeared in the door. The door he had just come from, Abrams slowly realized. The man had gray hair and a short dark beard flecked with gray. He was dressed all in white. He seemed somehow familiar.
“Now do you have something to confess?” the man whispered through clenched teeth.
Abrams looked at him. “I’m not sure . . . . ”
Muscle memory caused Abrams to put his hand in his pocket. Something cold and hard was there. He pulled it out and puzzled over it. Everything seemed to be racing away. Like the stars at the instant of a 10,000 light-year hyper-warp. Then another reflex. He touched his cheek. His face was wet. He tasted salt. He was crying. But he could not remember why.