(and Other Games of Chance)
Book 1 of The Antithesis Progression
by J. Daniel Sawyer
15 January, 2124
The crystal decanter quaked enough that drops of whisky spilled onto the PPD. One of them lensed the first letters in the word “Bounty” to a ghoulish size. Reuben Briggs cursed and set the decanter down, then picked the device up and used his shirt cuff to wick the liquor off before it found a way into the electronics. Manufactured in Panama—treaties and a common rule of law to one side, Panamanian electronics had a way of failing right when you needed them most.
The forty-year-old bureaucrat scanned over the dispatch once again. His job kept him in constant contact with the chatter coming out of the private military industry that haunted the borderlands between the North and South American zones. Contract murder was part of the business climate down there—the Persians used it to suborn corruption, the Americans used it to undermine the Persians, and business interests used it to eliminate local competitors who were good enough to be a threat on the open market.
If he hadn't been the dick-brained micromanaging shithead that his subordinates took him for, he'd not have known about this dispatch until the bullet hit his brain.
“Computer, begin dictation.” Briggs knocked back the full tumbler, nearly choked on the alcohol, recovered from the coughing fit, and poured himself a fresh glass.
“From: Reuben Briggs, National Security Advisor, To: Roberto Johanson, President of the United States of North America.” He closed his eyes and collected his thoughts. Maybe there was a way out. The price on his head just showed up today. Even in Washington, it would take a wetboy a few days to figure out how to get him, particularly if they wanted to make it look like an accident.
The bounty listing on the merc site specified an accident. Whoever did this didn't want a scandal—just his quiet removal.
He continued his dictation.
“Dear Mr. President:
“Attached you will find the requested analysis of the Mars Governance Treaty.
“Section 1 deals with the strategic implications of reallocating resources away from fleet renovations in light of the introduction of the Persian Destroyer Class. (see blue prints and specifications from the DDI in Appendix D). This development threatens our interests closer to Earth and Luna.”
He raised his glass to his lips only to find it empty again. When he picked up the decanter, he found his hands were sweating so much he could barely keep a grip on the thing.
“Section 2 examines the economics of colonialism. By the third generation, the cost of securing colonies often exceeds the strategic and economic benefit they provide. As loyalty to the mother country diminishes, revolution commonly follows. The report details our reasons for suspecting that Mars and Luna both currently stand on this threshold. The Persian situation is also examined for its complicating potential and its parallels to the lead-up to the Asian Nuclear Exchange.”
There was only one person who had both the brass and the need to put a price on Briggs' head. But proving it while keeping his skin? Briggs entertained no hope of being able to pull off such a feat.
“Section 3 dissects the economic effects of EU withdrawal on the ore mining and processing industries. This section also elucidates the probable effects of Space Station Nineveh on interplanetary traffic increases in goods, services, labor, and population.”
No. He'd been playing political chess with Senator Shelley for three years now. This dispatch was checkmate. A Secret Service lockdown wouldn't guarantee his safety—Shelley would be counting on that move.
Briggs would be dead inside a month, and he wouldn't be able to nail Shelley for it.
He couldn't resign—the hit was because he knew the Senator's secret. Or, at least, he'd allowed the Shelley to think he knew. Resigning would only move the locale of his execution from Washington to his apartment in Plymouth.
Briggs set his fourth tumbler of scotch in as many minutes down on his desk next to the brochure. Reef diving in the Caribbean. He'd been looking forward to it all year—now it might be the place where they hit him. Even with Secret Service all around him, he might be easier to kill away from the constant watchfulness of Washington.
He teetered a bit on his feet from the stress...or the booze. His heart was beating too fast—he'd been jockeying a desk for too long and was further out of shape than he'd been in his life so far. But he managed to keep his voice steady for the dictation.
“The concluding section uses Nineveh as a case study in private sector investment on the frontier, and proposes it as the only practical way to maintain the human expansion out past the asteroid belt. It also details policy recommendations to prevent the Persian situation from escalating, along with projections of the five most likely wartime and peacetime scenarios.”
Maybe, just maybe, the Caribbean could be his way out. They'd have to think he died. He could handle that. There were still ways to disappear, if one was careful enough.
But it would have to be convincing. Not even Joanne or the kids could know. If they did, someone might leverage them against him.
Besides, Joanne would be happy to see him gone—no more fights over visitation.
“Finally, in answer to your other question, I've settled on a fishing tour of the West Indies for my vacation. I'll send back some marlin steaks if I get lucky on the troll.
“Computer, correct the dictation for grammar and print me a proof copy collated with the items in the 'Persian-Lunar Tactical 3' directory.”
Reuben Briggs walked to his window and slouched against the wall. In the wan winter light, the snow-dusted eaves of the building opposite looked like something out of an industrial-era nightmare. He couldn't stand the snow and wet—they always made him feel like a peasant when they cut through his coat.
One way or another, he wouldn't have to deal with the snow after next week. He might never see the stuff again. The thought cauterized something inside him, and he turned back to his desk as rapidly as his equilibrium would allow.
He took a pack of cards from the center drawer and set them next to the brochure. He hadn't played regularly in a couple months—was probably rusty as hell. Still, he had an hour before his next appointment to practice.
His flight left for Trinidad on Wednesday. If he was going to live to see Friday, he had a lot of work to do.
Space Station Sidon
20 March, 2128
1900 Hours GMT
Whispers at the edges of the room, repeated often enough, had found their way off the station spinning endlessly in the sky. Falling through the atmosphere, they moved through Earth's card rooms like an inoffensive virus. Just a rumor—the kind that attracted attention.
The rumor in question centered around one man. Or, more particularly, around his last name. “A less appropriate name doesn’t exist” was how it always started. In the end, his name was all that mattered.
The whispers said that the cash he won was incidental—his true prize was the dark pleasure of crushing his opponents.
He never pulled a weapon—he didn't need to. The terror he evoked was so profound that not even the hustlers dared accuse him of cheating. Yet he seemed to win nearly every game, and the shadow of doubt hung over every deal. The air of doom he generated wove a mist of paranoia around him.
And like buzzards to a kill, they could not stay away. Sooner or later, his streak would end.
In truth, he won much less than it seemed. He always stayed just a little bit ahead—keeping his opponents in the game deliberately, only taking a big pot once in a while, building his victories cumulatively. He'd walked into the dive nearly a year ago, his presence preceding him like an unspoken threat; a short man, narrow in shoulders and slight in build, dressed all in black, he moved like a cat. A fedora shrouded his face forever in shadow save for a long scar that ran down his cheek, the occasional glint of cunning from the hidden eyes, and his bristly chin jutting out into the light.
While his opponents sucked down marijuana and beer, he drank iced tea and gnawed on dried ostrich, and never appeared with a woman on his arm or drink on his breath. A consummate professional he seemed—nothing to distract him from the game, not even a proper cigar.
It just wasn't right.
He even managed to cast a chill with his humor. His learnedness ate through his jokes like the devil's breath. The first day he came in, an inebriated woman approached him and slid into his lap as he sat down.
He indulged her stumbling monologue as she tried to pick him up. Then, looking straight in her eyes, in a voice that would chill frozen blood, he intoned: “Behold, I am become death, the destroyer of girls.” One or two of the men around the table chuckled at the mutilated quotation, but the girl blanched for a moment as if he had passed sentence on her, and then slipped away in search of a less morbid bedmate. As one possible conquest left his lap, he turned his mind to the more important battle, and started to deal.
Straight poker was his game. He varied the format occasionally, but nothing went wild in his game. His glare spooked his opponents into folding, or into reckless bets and predictable bluffs. Very few that played him lasted long, whether or not they won; the presence he carried was too intense. Like a windless graveyard, everything about him was ordered, controlled, and silent.
That is why his name was whispered in bitter reverence in card rooms across the solar system.
"Alex Hart," they said, "What a name. Should be 'Heartless.'"
That was the facade.
* * *
“Attention all visitors to ISS Sidon," the announcer said, "EMP Vandals are known to operate in this area. Please secure any vulnerable devices in Faraday pouches, which are available for purchase throughout the station. Please visit any of our convenient kiosks for information on the bounty offered by Station Security for information leading to the apprehension of the vandals.”
Just beyond the sign lay salvation for the man once known as Reuben Briggs. It hung there past the customs desk, fifteen meters away. In giant, embossed bronze letters lit up like rays from heaven, it announced itself as the last stop on a very, very long road.
Space Station Sidon, Gateway to the Outer Colonies.
All he had to do was clear customs. One more hand-off with the passport, one more long moment of suspense as he prayed that it hadn't been spotted as a phony and flagged since the last port.
It was the longest fifteen meters he'd ever seen.
Sidon was a quasi-independent state orbiting between Earth and Luna. Originally built and run by the Persians, they now had no military presence on the station and only a political claim to it. That ambiguity made it the perfect place for his needs. No one watching the outgoing traffic, no American presence waiting to nab him as a defector or to snatch him back.
Space Station Sidon. Last stop on the road to freedom.
He moved up to the customs counter and presented his bag. His passport listed him as "Joss Kyle" and his occupation as "trader." He always snickered privately when passing through a port; the occupation sounded uncannily similar to his own government's label for him.
He handed it over and made a fuss out of whether he had to formally declare the antique didgeridoo he'd bought in Australia. He knew perfectly well that the customs agents wouldn't give a rat's ass what he brought in as long as it wasn't easily convertible to an explosive or a projectile gun. Joss didn't carry much more cash than it would cost him to get off the station after his layover, and he wasn't stupid enough to draw attention to himself by letting them catch him with a weapon.
As the customs inspector insisted, for the fifth time and now at the top of her voice, that he “didn't need to declare a fucking musical instrument,” he used the cover of argument to slip a ceramic grip from his bag into a pocket so that it wouldn't go through the scanner. Then he relented. Her assistant handed his passport back to him and waved him on, glad to be rid of him.
Ten steps later he passed the sign. Then, from memory, he turned left and headed toward a bar with the best poker game on the station.
He was through.
* * *
Alex sat before the day's take, sucking on his ostrich jerky. This bounty had already paid more in winnings than had any previous commission. An acceptable thing insofar as it went, but after a year even poker became routine.
Deal, bet, fold, shuffle.
Deal, bet, bluff, call, win.
No choice, though. The employer was as unforgiving as a khan—the type who paid lavishly for success and extracted penalties for failure in body parts. Alex had dealt with him before.
Ah, but the price is right. The largest bounty in the entire system for the most dangerous quarry on-planet or off: a defector. No less a mark than the highest ranking defector in the history of the North American Union; ruthless, cruel, and with a price on his head that had been attracting attention for years: one “Reuben Briggs.”
Besides, even when poker became routine it was better than an ordinary stakeout. And it was the perfect place for an ambush.
But in the doldrums of the daily grind, one face blurred into the next, each one promising and then failing to be the quarry. Stupid, soft, slovenly drunks lining up for their chance to watch their money slide away into Alex's grasp so they could go home to an empty bed and dream about a humdrum tomorrow punctuated by shots of Jack Daniels.
"Five card stud, nothing wild." It was Alex's deal, last game of the night, and there was a new face at the table. Alex had seen him earlier at the bar, sizing the game up.
The man drank expensive scotch like a connoisseur rather than a drunk, and he was good at blending in. Too good. Every move he made was completely forgettable, until Alex noticed the eye line. The man sat at the remote corner of the bar, but his eyes watched Alex's reflection in a picture frame. Research?
He had a traveler's satchel with him, which meant he was either just arriving or just leaving. His clothes were tired, the pleats in his coat beginning to relax after too many hours on a warm body. Just arriving, Alex decided.
The lurker took a seat at the table directly opposite Alex. He did not introduce himself, nor did he remove his hat or coat. He simply anted in without a word. If he wasn’t a professional, he knew how to fake it. Perhaps, at last, there was someone at the table who would prove a worthy subject for study.
Jim, the assistant barkeep, sat down at the last moment and threw a chip in.
The first round of cards went down, and then the second and third. Three players folded, one to a terrible hand, and two to Alex’s glare. The fourth round went down and the three-way contest heated up. Alex, Jim, and the newcomer.
The nameless man surveyed the table under Alex's watch, then glanced up with a defiant grin. With four of the five cards on the table, the bicycles seemed to favor the upstart. He showed the makings of a royal flush, while Jim showed only three of a kind and Alex nursed a low straight flush. It was the newcomer’s bet, and with an flourish he dropped a C-chip onto the table, bringing the pot to six hundred rial.
Jim folded, cursing his luck once again, and stood up to return to his bar.
Alex let a long moment pass while he studied his opponent. Despite his careful preparation, the man didn't play like a professional. He was too loose—and much too relaxed for a man who held the key hole card. Carefully, Alex took a deep draught of his tea and flicked two fifties at the pile in the middle of the table. The newcomer nodded, inviting the final round of cards.
The cards went down, a ten of clubs for the newcomer, a three of hearts for Alex. Alex’s hole card completed his straight flush. The newcomer had to hold the queen of clubs to win. It was too late and the game had been too long, but Alex was nearly certain it had fallen to one of the folded hands.
Alex’s opponent furtively glanced at his hole card. Very unprofessional. He then looked up expectantly, waiting for Alex to bet.
Alex dropped a ten onto the table. The stranger raised a single rial. He wanted to see the cards, but if what was stacked up in front of him was any indication, Alex could easily out-bid him and force him to fold. Yet, baffling the few remaining onlookers, Alex raised the bet only modestly.
Back and forth it went. Raise, see, raise, see.
Alex’s plan should have succeeded, would have had the opponent’s unspoken challenge not dared him to keep playing. The stakes went higher. Every time the bet was passed Alex was tempted to call, and every time he raised. This stranger did not have the vital hole card, but the confrontation felt like opium honey in Alex's mouth.
With almost a grand in the pot the bet passed to the newcomer. The man palmed his hole card, looking long and hard at it, his glance darting between the card and Alex. His indecision broke, and he returned it to the table face down. He took from his meager stack of chips a twenty and evened the bet, calling the hand.
Hours seemed to blow across the table like pot smoke before either moved to show his cards. Then, with a look of triumph, the prick tossed his hole card on top of the pile of tokens. The two eyes of a dark queen looked up, signing the public notice of Alex's greatest defeat.
The stranger stood to take his leave. He collected his winnings and stuffed them into his pockets, and left, leaving nothing of the massive pot but the queen of clubs.
As he walked out the pub door with his winnings securely in his pocket, Joss Kyle smiled to himself, and hooked a right toward the docking ring to book passage on the next available flight to Luna.
End of sample. ©2008 J. Daniel Sawyer, All Rights Reserved
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