New from Ben Wilson
Bophendze felt nauseous not long after they landed on Guna Prime. “Angel, how long does it take to contract a local dise
“I feel like I’m going to puke.”
Angel laughed and slapped him on the back. “Welcome to the surface, Marine. You’ve been in space long enough that you’ve adjusted to artificial gravity. This is real gravity.” Angel then made a series of short hops in place. “We should only be here a few cycles, so roam around a bit but come back.”
Bophendze walked out of the hangar and into the sun. It blinded him briefly. His eyes teared. After he adjusted, he breathed deeply natural air and wished he never had to return.
He strolled through the garrison where they landed. Bophendze saw the open parade ground, about one hectare in area. He looked around the grounds, amazed at the green. It was a color he did not realize he had missed. The small trees dotted the perimeter of the parade ground, which was ringed by a cobblestone road. From where he stood, he could see the headquarters building to the North. The west side had the dining facility, and the south had the canteen where enlisted marines could unwind. The garrison seemed almost at peace to Bophendze, except for the actively manned anti-aircraft batteries watching the skies, and sandbags and weapons pods protecting the perimeter.
The Gunan sun dropped behind the distant trees as it set. He felt some peace because of the relative openness of the garrison, and because Smee remained silent. Bophendze felt alone with his thoughts. He headed over to the canteen, to see what relaxation meant to a marine on planet.
He walked across the parade field before its openness made him feel self-conscious. There were no other marines on the parade field. He decided the safe thing to do was walk around the perimeter. It was less likely to cause an NCO to yell at him for being where he should not be. He remained guarded as he walked to the canteen.
Once inside, he felt more relaxed. The canteen was much darker inside than out. It took Bophendze a few minutes for his eyes to adjust. Once they did, he noticed they shrouded the windows in blackout cloth. Why waste the effort to black out the building when the Gunans probably know where it is.
He admired the architecture, something he never cared for before. Is Smee making me look at things differently? The various rooms were small, perhaps some architect’s plan to give the marines a feeling of intimacy, a chance to hang out with a few comrades, rather than the open bay barracks where sleeping space was shared with dozens of peers.
Bophendze bought a drink at the bar that was conveniently located just inside the canteen’s doors. He thought the architect was smart about minimizing the distance between tired marine and drink, even if the paint in the rooms was too feminine for men prepared to fight.
Sipping his drink, he drifted through each of the canteen’s rooms. Most of the other marines seemed not to notice him, which a part of him did not mind. Though he felt a bit left out, and he hoped he might have a chance to actually mingle, versus drifting through.
Bophendze finally settled in a room where they were playing cards. Four sat around one table, looking very intense as they did. Each had varying piles of chips scattered about. The one with his back to the wall had the largest pile. Bophendze watched the four play for several beats, sipping his drink. He did not know what they were playing.
$- It’s called Batalo, or Militado, depending on which part of the Imperium you hail from. You should play.
No way. You see the chips? They’re gambling. I don’t know the first thing about Batulo, so they’d fleece me. There’s no way I’m going to risk what little I have on chance.
$- It’s Batalo, Puppet, not Batulo. Batulo is the Keicahn word for something inappropriate you do with your sister. Batalo’s either played with one or two decks—they’re playing as a foursome, so it will be two decks—with four suits. The face cards are kreitoj and the numbered cards are landoj or ensorĉoj. It’s not nearly as much a game of chance as it is a game of strategy. With three other players, it’s more important to play the player and not the cards. See the one with his back to the wall? Watch how he looks at the other players when the cards are dealt.
Bophendze watched closely, as he could see two of the player’s hands easily from his vantage point. The jacket pocket of the one with the chips had “Sablaroki” stenciled on it. The round ended, and the player just to Sablaroki’s right started shuffling the cards. He dealt out five cards, Sablaroki not picking his cards up until the other players had. Each of them selected two cards, then passed the hand to the right. Then each player selected one card from the remaining hand and passed it right until all the cards had been selected. Another round was dealt and selected the same way. They then discarded into a graveyard, leaving themselves with hands of seven cards. Then there was a round of betting before actual play began.
$- See? The other players know most of the cards. They each have a pretty good idea of how the others will play. Did you notice he spent more time looking at the other players? He has already figured out how most of them are going to play.
What do you think his chances are?
In his vision, Smee flashed “13 percent.”
$- But watch him win, anyway. If you sat down at this table, I promise you can walk away much better off than you started.
Bophendze watched the hand play out. Players laid out number cards, canting them to draw what Smee described as potency, then used face cards to attack the other’s hands. In the end, it came down to two players—one being the one with his back to the wall. Based on what was on the table, he was about to lose.
“You want to give up, Keius? You know that I’m going to win. Want to divide the pot?”
“Don’t bluff, Sablaroki. You know I have you against the wall. Well? Are you going to lay down your next chip and buy into your doom?”
“Keius, every time you thought I was bluffing, I’ve beaten you. So, go ahead, call my bluff so I can win this hand quickly. Don’t waste my time debating.” Sablaroki made a show of counting Keius’ remaining chips—four. He picked up four of his own chips and placed them in the pot. “Are you that certain? Willing to put in your last chips?”
Keius hesitated. He looked at his cards, then at Sablaroki’s. “Fold.”
$- See? I told you. He’s in their heads now. No way he can’t win this table.
What’s saying he doesn’t get into my head?
$- You amaze me with your obtuseness. I’m here. It’s not like you’re playing by yourself. You might not read his facial ticks, but in the time we’ve been here, I’ve picked up on his cues. All you have to do is follow my lead. I know the percentages and the game. Since we see all the cards as they’re being selected, we’ll know all but two of what he has. This is a sucker’s game.
$- If you’re not cheating, you’re not trying in this game or in life. Come on. This will be fun. Just play a few hands and make a few dozen quid and we can get out of here.
Bophendze weighed the options in his mind. Fine, but if I end up losing my shirt, you won’t hear the end. “Mind if I join in?”
Sablaroki had finished sliding the pot to his side. He looked up and eyed Bophendze with suspicion. Then he glanced at the other players.
“Sure, if you don’t mind him taking all your money.” Keius rose out of his chair. Bophendze noticed Keius was only a little older than he was. “Maybe you’ll have a better chance of beating him than we have.” He turned to the table. “Sablaroki, if you weren’t my friend I’d beat you until you explained how you were cheating.”
Bophendze took a seat at the table.
“Twenty quid is minimum to buy in,” Sablaroki said.
Bophendze looked in his wallet and pulled out a card. “I’ve got thirty on this card. How about we just take twenty off of it? Then I’ll have some money just in case you do clean me out.”
Sablaroki reached over for the card and pulled out a slate. He tapped a few keys, then slid the card before handing it back. Bophendze looked at the card’s display to confirm that it still had ten quid.
He sat down as Sablaroki handed some chips over. “We’re only basic Batalo here. Nothing fancy, and no off-world rules.”
“Fine. Nothing fancy or foreign. Got it.” Except, I don’t get it. I barely know how to play the game.
$- Don’t worry. How about we leave after I earn you forty quid?
Suits me, or if I lose it all.
Sablaroki dealt out the cards. Bophendze picked up each card as it was dealt. He looked at the cards, unsure what to do.
Smee posted “17 percent” in Bophendze’s vision with the heading: “victory.” Smee then highlighted the card he wanted Bophendze to keep. It was the Ace of Space, which Smee captioned as the “Hipnoto Fantomo.” As the cards passed around, Smee steadily built a deck for Bophendze, and the percentage of victory that Smee displayed in Bophendze’s vision increased.
$- We’ll make a point of losing the first hand quickly. On the second hand, we’ll bet low and barely pull it out.
Fold? I thought you said you were going to help me win.
$- I am, puppet. But you can’t win on your first hand. It will demoralize the other players. Judging by the other player’s looks, the player to your right has a hand. He’ll run all the way. We can help bolster his confidence now so we can strip him clean later.
This sounds a little shady.
$- And being a marine isn’t? You’re supposedly trained to kill people.
Only if they deserve it.
$- A man sitting at a card game is just as deserving to be beaten as an adversary does at being killed. He was a combatant. All we’re doing is teaching him the consequences of his actions in a way that earns you more drinking money.
By the time the betting got around to Bophendze, it was already two quid. He added his one quid. The player to his left folded immediately. Bophendze barely caught the smirk on Sablaroki’s face.
Does he think he’s got this?
$- He does, but I’m pretty sure he’s going to lose this hand.
Sablaroki raised Bophendze’s bet to a full five quid. The player to Bophendze’s right called the bet and made his play with a face card/creature.
“Too much for me on the first hand. I’m out.” Bophendze tossed his cards down.
$- He was expecting you to go another round because of your confidence in the hand, then he was probably going to raise the other player into folding.
As the play continued, Sablaroki’s position steadily worsened.
The player to Bophendze’s right smiled as he raked in the chips. “Still in the game.”
The next round of cards ended quickly for Bophendze, as he had nothing worthy of buying into. The cards were passed to Bophendze to deal. He shuffled the cards a couple of times.
$- Don’t forget to let me see the cards as you shuffle.
Bophendze stopped for a second, wondering if he could get away with it. He gave it a shot, and shuffled the deck inverted, looking at the cards as they fanned by.
“Hold it. I said nothing fancy. You can’t shuffle that way. Pass the cards to the next dealer. Your deal’s done,” Sablaroki said.
Bophendze held up his hands in defense. “Sorry. Where I come from, that’s normal. I didn’t realize it was fancy or foreign.” He passed the cards over.
$- Don’t worry. This hand we’ll win big.
The cards were dealt out, then traded around. Bophendze’s hand looked terrible. I’m going to fold this hand.
$- Don’t. Mister overconfident over there is going for a power play. The other two have decent hands, but he’ll weed them out. The hand you have will thump him soundly.
$- If I don’t win this hand for you, you can walk away.
Bophendze looked at each of the players. As he did, Smee superimposed cards, as if to tell Bophendze what hand each player was going to play. Bophendze realized the display was based on Smee’s having read the cards.
$- It doesn’t matter that passed the deck. Shuffling is not that random, so I know the cards they have.
Sablaroki came out with a four-quid bet. The player next to him folded immediately, despite the display showing he had a pretty formidable hand. In the hands of a better player, the cards could have been a win. Bophendze raised the bet to six quid. The player to the left raised to eight, and Sablaroki raised to 12.
Bophendze looked at his cards, planning to fold.
$- Stay in. Trust me. Raise him to fourteen.
That’s all I have left. Bophendze sighed, then pushed in all his chips. “Fourteen.”
The player on the left looked at his cards, then at Bophendze’s cards. He seemed to try to read the numbers through the opaque backing. Bophendze’s card display showed the other player’s hand was fairly strong but would probably not win.
“Call or fold. Decide,” Sablaroki sounded defiant.
“Newbie, I’m going to raise you to twenty.”
“I don’t have that.” Bophendze said.
“Then you’re going to have to fold.” Sablaroki smirked, wagging his head childishly. He smiled.
“Better yet.” Bophendze pulled out his card. “I still have ten, so let’s charge off the balance, and I’ll call you.”
“You can’t do that.”
“Why? Is it breaking some fancy or foreign rule? Or are you thinking you can bluff me out?”
The player on the left spoke up, “it’s neither. Sablaroki, it’s totally legal and you know it. Afraid he’s going to get a peek at your cards?”
Sablaroki glowered as he reached for the card. He charged off the six quid Bophendze needed to call. He handed the card and chips to Bophendze.
Bophendze took the chips and formed a stack in his hand. He held the stack over the bet and slowly dropped each of them. “Call.”
Sablaroki fumed. He picked up his cards, and the two played. The round went quickly as Bophendze’s hand was designed to play off of Sablaroki’s weaknesses and destroy his land.
Finally, Bophendze had two characters and land to supply both, and Sablaroki had no land. The game was effectively over. “Looks like I win. I guess we don’t have to play it out, do we?” He put his hands out to hug the chips and drag them home. As he did, Sablaroki stood up.
“There’s no way you knew what I had unless you were cheating!”
“How could I have cheated?” Bophendze felt the blood drain from his face.
“When you turned the deck over you memorized the order.”
“How could he have done that?” the player to the left said, laughing. “You’re just a sore loser.”
“It’s the only way he could have won that hand. He cheated.”
“You give me too much credit.” Bophendze returned to scooping the chips.
Sablaroki looked like he was in no mood to negotiate. “Buddy, leave the chips. Get up and walk away. Or I’ll beat the living breath out of you.”
Reflexively, Bophendze shot out of his seat while flipping the table. What? Bophendze seemed to move on instinct. He grabbed the edge of the table and shot up, flipping the table. Chips and cards flew everywhere. The other players looked shocked, as did Sablaroki and Keius. What’s happening?
$- Shut it.
Before Sablaroki could react, Bophendze shoved him against the wall. Rather, Bophendze’s hands shoved Sablaroki. Bophendze had not told them to do anything. He was still trying to understand how he jumped to his feet and acted without thinking. He pulled Sablaroki from the wall and quickly shoved him again. Sablaroki’s head struck the masonry wall from the whiplash maneuver. Bophendze repeated the attack a couple more times. Sablaroki’s head slamming into the wall was loud enough to be heard over the buzz of the canteen.
He released Sablaroki, who dropped lifelessly to the ground.
The other marines sat or stood stunned. After a few breaths, Keius spoke up. “You killed him. You killed my friend.”
Bophendze was nearly petrified by what had happened. How did I do that?
$- You didn’t do it, Puppet. I did. I couldn’t wait for you to get a couple of your neurons to meet and consummate a thought. He’s not dead, but he’ll be in the hospital for a few days and will have a headache for some time after.
The words that came out of Bophendze’s mouth were not his. “He’s not dead, but I won’t let him get away with calling me a cheat.” He waited to see what the other marines would do.
The marine who had played to the left spoke up. “Give me your quid card. We’ll split the pot between us. We’ll give you half, since he was being a jerk. He’s probably mad because you out cheated him. Either way, we’ll cover for you. Right, Guys?”
Keius was angry. “Wait, Achos. We’re going to let this postie waltz in here, win a big hand and beat one of ours cold?”
“Keius, you really think we can take on a marine who can do what he just did? I mean, I barely blinked from the time he was sitting until Sablaroki was on the ground. He’s probably an anthorph.”
“Oh. Weren’t they exterminated?”
“No, they retreated to their own enclave. There are enough of them are still around though.”
Achos looked up at Bophendze, who was still trying to take in what had just happened. “No offense. I have nothing against your kind.”
My kind? I’m not an anthorph.
$- They don’t know that. Appearances can be deceiving. And to answer the question you’re not asking, I beat him down. He had a baton in his hand he was about to use on you.
Bophendze bent down and picked up Sablaroki’s hand. The baton was still collapsed. He pried it out of Sablaroki’s hand. “He was going to use this on me. I’m going to take it, okay?”
“Sure, buddy. Whatever you want,” the one to his left said. “Just give me your card so I can give you your share.”
Bophendze mechanically handed the card over, then waited until it was handed back. He pocketed both he baton and the card, then slowly backed out of the room. He kept walking backward until he left the canteen.
He hurried back toward the spaceport, barely noticing that he crossed the parade field. So, you can take over my body any time? Just like that?
$- Could, but I won’t do so unless it’s to protect you. Trust me.
I’m having a much harder time trusting you right now.
$- I just saved you in there. You owe me a thank you.
“I can’t do that just now, Smee.”
As he walked up the steps to the barracks, Angel walked out. “There you are. The admiral is ready to leave. The shuttle’s warming up.”
“I’m ready to go.”