by David C Petterson

(Standard Year 2249)

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I have not been vacationing on Lorelei, Uncle. Perhaps I should say, I have been not-vacationing there. It was strictly business, though I admit I love my work, and until recently I would have sworn it was business done for you. Now, I’m not so certain, and that’s part of why I’m making a report right now. I don’t think anything I’ve done has harmed the Monolem bottom line. I have kept you appraised of all my activities—just not the reasons for some of them, because I’d thought you already knew—and I’m sure if I’d done anything unprofitable, you would have said so.

I’m going to record this whole report, and then think for a while before I send it. Maybe I won’t sent it at all. Maybe I have to. I don’t know any more.

Okay then, let me explain what I was doing on Lorelei, and what I learned. I think it was valuable, even if, as it turns out, I got sent there for some apparently fraudulent reasons. There is a lot of that in industrial espionage, isn’t there? You get to decide what to do with the information. I’m sure I don’t know what to do with it...

********** * **********

Most everyone was playing cautiously tonight at this particular blackjack table. The two exceptions were a nondescript middle-aged colonist from an undeveloped world just outside the Federation’s rimward boundary, and the obviously well-to-do teenage son of an industrial magnate sitting two stools to his left. Both of them were making bets bordering on the reckless. And surprisingly, the pile of credit chits in front of the dilettante teenager had been steadily evaporating, while that in front of the colonist was beginning to look like a topographical scale model of a particularly mountainous planet.

The other players—and members of a gathering crowd—were enjoying the show. It was great to see an underdog making a killing—the point of gambling, after all, was to let those who are down on their luck get a chance at a big break. And they all agreed it couldn’t be happening to a nicer guy.

Kenti Tollermat had spent most of his life in the harsh environment of a barren lump of ice that promised, one day, to be a major way station to a thousand worlds out on the rim—if those worlds were ever removed from Federation Prime Directive Protection status. In the meantime, he had a family to support, and this trip to Lorelei was likely to be the only vacation they were to see at any time in their lives. They’d saved their credits for decades for the chance to come here. If they’d lost their life savings at the gambling tables, at least he’d have had a good time. That Kenti was actually making money was a fairy tale come true.

Kenti peeked at his down card with a critical eye, and tried to look shrewd. He had a five, with an eight and a four showing. Seventeen was an uncertain place to be; if you were already ahead, the best course was simply call the current bet and then accept no more cards. Nevertheless, his luck had been phenomenal tonight. He decided to press it a bit farther, and he doubled the pot, the maximum allowed on any single bet.

Lorelei Blackjack was run under modified rules. The game was normally played only against the house, losing or winning in relation to the hand held by the dealer. But at these tables, the game went against all players as well, best hand takes all, with ties going to whichever player had made the last bump. It added a level of strategy, encouraged big pots, resulted in a lot of transfer of funds between players—and made for something of a cutthroat game.

To Kenti’s immediate left was a snorting Tellurite who watched as Kenti added to the pot, and then folded in disgust, preferring to lose no more than his ante and the first round of betting. He crossed his arms, gave a flatulent grunt, and sat back to watch the rest of the hand.

The last player—everyone else had already dropped out—was Stefan Barris, who lounged insolently against a dark-haired piece of Haven arm candy. Stefan was dressed in an expensive suit, one clearly unwashed and allowed to wrinkle, just to show his distain for however much it had cost him. His companion wore a few random swatches of black leather laced on in strategic positions, and in ways that shifted teasingly as she moved. She watched the game avidly, turning away from time to time only to lick Stefan’s ear.

He was showing a nine and a five. He didn’t even look at his hole card. He waggled his fingers at the dark-eyed girl next to him. “Match the bet, Mikki,” he said. She giggled and started counting credit chits.

The dealer was showing an eight. She was a willowy blue-skinned Cygnian, barely wearing something made of flimsy gauze and daydreams. She counted house chits to match the bet, efficiently arranged the pot into six neat stacks of ten hundred-credit chits each, and then nodded to Kenti. “Will you take a card, sir?” He nodded back, and she dealt him a two. He did his best not to show his excitement, instead trying mightily to stifle a yawn in a way he hoped would look casual.

Stefan finally saw fit to peel up the corner of his hole card. He raised an eyebrow and shrugged. “I’ll hold,” he said. The Haven standing next to him giggled again.

“The bet is to you sir,” the Cygnian acknowledged toward Kenti.

The pudgy, aging colonist took a deep breath. There were 6000 credits already on the table, a quarter of which were his. As things stood, he was ahead by a great deal—there was more money scattered around his cards than he had ever honestly hoped to see in one place in his life. His total of nineteen was a good bet, but no sure thing; the smart and safe move would be to let it ride, and see what Stefan would do. But instead, he made a great show of reluctance, and counted a matching six stacks of ten, sliding them into the middle. “Match the pot,” he said quietly, stealing a glance at the young man beside him.

The onlookers gasped. Stefan blinked, trying not to look impressed at the man’s audacity. “You’re full of it,” he said, and the darkhaired beauty standing next to him laughed. “You’re already over, and you’re just trying to intimidate me.” Lorelei rules allowed some very inventive blackjack.

Kenti tried to look unconcerned. “One way to find out.”

“It won’t work, old man.” Stefan waggled at Mikki. “Twelve,” he said. “Up the pot.”

Mikki started counting, and the crowd around them got very quiet. As she moved, the scraps of leather she wore slid enticingly around her skin, barely covering the parts that needed covering to keep her legal.

The bet was twelve to the house, which the dealer was obligated to match, but not allowed to raise. The Cygnian started pushing stacks of chits toward the center, and Kenti stared, his eyes bulging. There were suddenly thirty-six thousand credits in the pot. He didn’t have enough left to match again; but he did have enough to make a sizable raise. He paused. Putting it all in would risk his entire life savings on a single hand. He bit his lip. He matched the six thousand Stefan had raised him, hesitated, and pushed in ten thousand more. That left him a final ten in case he lost; but if Stefan raised farther, he be forced to fold and lose all he’d bet, or to put in his final wager.

Of course, Stefan had no way to know that Kenti had nothing in reserve, nothing left with which to purchase another tray of chits. Kenti twitched nervously and waited.

Stefan sighed. He drummed his fingers on the table. Finally, he shrugged, and turned his cards over. “I’ll fold,” he said. “I’m done.”

There was another collective gasp. Even the dealer, trained to be stoic, even she blinked in surprise. “Very good sir,” she said, and slid another ten thousand to the pot, to match Kenti’s bid. “House calls. Another card sir?”

Kenti shook his head. He leaned forward. “I’m ready to see the house,” he said.

“Very good sir.” The dealer flipped over her hole card. It was a three, and she placed it along side the eight she already had showing. Since the rules for the dealer were fixed, all dealer cards were played at the end of betting. Her eleven required another hit; the next card was a six, giving seventeen, also requiring a hit; then came a five. “House goes bust,” she announced, “the pot is yours, sir.”

Kenti exhaled, grinning broadly. His eyes shone. He started pulling the stacks of credit chits toward him. The crowd behind him was cheering.

“Did you have it?” Stefan asked.

“Aww, baby,” his Haven companion cooed, “you know he doesn’t have to tell you.”

Stefan cursed. “Yeah, but maybe he didn’t know that. Look, why don’t you go stand by him for a while? You’re not doing me any good.”

Kenti laughed, feeling more than a little drunk. “Isn’t she your girlfriend?”

“Her? Hell no. Met her yesterday, when I was winning. I thought a Haven would keep my luck going.”

She tapped his nose with a fingertip. “Yesterday, you played better.” She giggled, and blew a kiss at Kenti. “I’d be glad to stand near you,” she breathed. “Talk money to me, baby.”

“Uh,” he suddenly turned red. “I’m married.”

“And I’m pretty.”

The crowed laughed.

Another Haven stepped up to the table, a large and very strong-looking man dressed in a tight jumpsuit that outlined impressive musculature. He had a fat Rigellian cigar clamped in his teeth, but it was unlit. He tapped the girl on her shoulder. “Are you Mikki Garan?” he rumbled.

“Maybe. Who’s asking?”

“You have a call, ma’am,” he said, and gestured behind him.

She straightened, and sighed. “Well, guys, it’s been. Laters.” She turned and stepped away, letting the tall man lead her off. The strips and patches of leather floating around her as she walked made a pretense of trying to keep her from being arrested for indecent exposure.

He towered over her, looking down appraisingly. “I’m with Topflight Security,” he said, his voice low and almost conspiratorial. He glanced around as they walked, making sure no one would overhear. “You were recognized by the monitors. Tell me, Miss Monolem, does your uncle know you dress like that?”

She chuckled, looking up innocently. “Uncle Omm bought me this outfit,” she answered. She paused and did a quick twirl. “You like it?”

He cleared his throat, and grinned. “You know the answer to that, ma’am. So would it insult you more if I was polite, or honest?”

She laughed and hung a hand on his shoulder. “You don’t work for me. It’s not like I care.”

He returned the laugh. “Bullshit, ma’am. Everyone works for your uncle.” They reached a wall, and an unobtrusive door slid open. “And if you didn’t care, you wouldn’t dress like that. This way, please.”

Down a short hall, there was another door, and past that was an opulent office trimmed in a lot of wood, and occupied by tasteful leather couches and a real oak desk. A thin Haven in a conservative dark suit smiled as they came in, and waved the security man back out. “Loki Monolem,” he said, extending a hand. “I’m Tak Rodin. Welcome to Twelve Down. It’s sweet as Scab to meet you.”

She took his hand lightly, and then started wandering around the room, admiring the elegant and slightly risqué artwork on the walls. “’Course it is. I’d be thrilled, too. What’s up, Mr. Rodin?”

“Tak, please.” He sighed. “As honored as I am to be visited by the niece of the CEO, I am curious as to why you didn’t let me know you were here. We could have treated you better—”

“And that’s exactly the reason. I’m on a holiday. If I wanted to be treated better, I’d have used my real name.”

“You’re slumming? You expect me to buy that?”

She laughed, and dropped unceremoniously onto a couch, one leg thrown provocatively over its arm. “You may know my family, Tak, but you don’t know me. I’m a racer. Saford’s Hell, I wouldn’t be slumming even in a real slum.”

He narrowed his eyes. “So why the Scab are you here? Don’t give my that ‘holiday’ junk-bond shit. You’ve been in my house four days. You’re not gaming. You’re not fucking. You’re not drinking or smoking.” He sat casually on the edge of his desk. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think the Board sent you to do my books after checking out my operation.”

She grinned and shook her head. “I did your books before I checked out your operation.”

He placed his hands on the desk on either side of his hips, and didn’t even try not to look offended. “And you found abso-fucking-lutely nothing untoward did you? I deal clean, Miss Monolem—”

“Of course you do,” she interrupted. “You know very well we’d run you out of business otherwise. You are still in business. So obviously, we know you’re clean.”

“Then where does even the CEO get the balls to do a secret audit—”

“There’s an anomaly,” she said. She sat up straight, and got suddenly serious.

He blinked, brought up short. “No,” he said. “There isn’t. We do statistical regressions on everything. There’ve been no changes in the take—”

“Yes, there have been. It’s very subtle. But it’s there.”

He folded his arms, and raised an eyebrow. “Then enlighten me.”

She took a deep breath. “Okay. I’m new at this. I just know what they tell me. Okay. So your profits are steady. You’re not skimming—no, don’t be offended damn it, I’m trying to put you at ease. You’re taking in exactly what the projections say you should. You’re paying out what you should. Nothing’s missing. The gamblers lose about ten times what you pay out, and that’s normal. The average loss is what it’s always been, and the average winning is what it’s always been. The problem is—” and she paused.


“The winnings have slightly shifted. The same number of people win, and their collective winnings total up to the same amount. But there are slightly fewer big winners, and those that are left take a bit more than statistics say they should. The rest of the winners take slightly less. The total is the same, but it’s spread different. See?”

He frowned. “It happens. It’s called chaos. That’s how you know the game isn’t rigged. It’s random. It varies. No two weeks are identical, ever, and sometimes the high point is higher than at other times—”

“Thanks for the statistics lesson, Teach,” Loki said. “The problem is, the curve has been warped like this for the last year. And it’s not just you. It’s every casino on Lorelei.”

His frown deepened. “That’s not possible.”

She laughed. “Yes, it is possible. Or so the accountants tell me. It’s just incredibly unlikely.”

“Okay, Miss Monolem. You have my attention. I take it your family has a theory.”

“Sort of. You see, if I was gonna run a scam, that’s how I’d run it. The gamblers who would lose, still lose, the ones who would win, still win. The books balance, the casinos still make exactly what they expect to make. No one gets hurt; no one loses a thing except some of the winners don’t win as much as they would have—they just win slightly less—but a very few big winners profit more. And some of them would not normally have won anything at all. And no one notices.”

He turned his head to one side. “I’m with you. So, who profits? That’ll tell you who’s doing the scam.”

“You’d think, wouldn’t you? But there’s no pattern.” She stood, and waved back toward the door. “Example. Yesterday, this high roller rich kid from Terra won his normal tankerload of chits. He’s a good blackjack player. Tonight, he lost a bunch of it. Not unusual for him, it comes and goes. But he played for shit, and he lost it to this schmo from a colony world who had no idea what he was doing.”


She waved her hand dismissively. “I’ve been at Terra too long. The thing is, there’s no pattern. There this guy, from an undeveloped colony. Then there’s an independent trader. And this terraforming specialist. A librarian from Andor. A professional companion on vacation. You’d think, if it’s a scam, they’d have something in common, they’d all like the same food, all be into bondage, have the same hairdresser, be part of the same club, have a fucking mole in the same place, something.” She shook her head, staring off into space.

“So it’s statistically very unlikely,” Tak agreed. “It’s weird. It’s unexplainable. It’s one of those things. No one’s getting hurt, the dice are just having a string of boxcars. So what?”

She blinked, coming back from somewhere else. “So what? No, you don’t get it. This isn’t just really unlikely. It’s like shaking a planet-sized box full of spare parts and having them merely happen to fall together into a fleet of starships. It’s so Scabbing bloody fucking unlikely that it must be happening on purpose. Someone is doing it. We just don’t know who. Or how. Or why.”

Tak managed a grin. “You know what I think?”

“What? What do you think?”

“I think the resha are messing with you.” He chuckled. “Lorelei is an invented world, Miss Monolem. It was settled by races from all over the Federation, for the purpose of simply having fun. It has no gods of its own, which means it’s ripe for any gods to make whatever takeover they can manage. And maybe they’re having fun, too. Someone is playing with you, I think.”

She returned the grin. “Probably. And that makes it even more important to find out why. Wouldn’t’cha say? What’re they up to?”

He shrugged, and his grin got bigger. “The gods are jerking you around, and you think you’re gonna find out why?” He shook his head.

She looked at him, her grin gone, her face deadly serious. “Yes,” she said. “I really do.”

********** * **********

Tak tried very hard to convince Loki to take a suite larger and fancier than the one she had, a free upgrade on the house—clearly wanting very much to put Omm Monolem’s niece into his debt. But Loki was perfectly happy with the rooms she already had; even the smallest suites at the Twelve Down were, to put it mildly, plush. Hers was done in blacks and deep reds, lots of velvet and leather, with carpets of pile so deep it needed mowing. There was a spacious whirlpool tub, an enormous bed, a well-programmed replicator, and even a traditional and fully-stocked wetbar. The effect on her was at once soothing and arousing, a relaxed decadence of dark, silent serenity.

She left her interview with the proprietor of Twelve Down, and retired to that comfortable and luxurious room. It was close to three in the morning, local time, and she considered drawing a hot bath in the whirlpool, and just going to sleep in the pulsing water. But she had a call to make first. She sighed. She had a duty to check in with her handler. She considered waiting until morning, but she smiled to herself. Undoubtedly, if her handler had been anyone else in the galaxy, Loki would have waited. That was probably, she reflected, the reason this particular handler had been chosen for her. Someone had a good sense of compatibility. For, as disconcerting as these conversations always were, it was still a most pleasant duty.

Loki sat in the leather chair at the small desk, and started arranging a secure connection on the terminal there. Her handler’s name was Qaili—Loki had no idea if that was a real name, an assumed name, a title, or simply an invented word. She had only a vague notion of the woman’s family—she claimed to be distantly related to Loki, through marriage. She was part Haven, but clearly also part Human, of Asian descent—and, most likely, other things too, for her dark eyes were so large they must betray some Antari blood, and her small yet voluptuous stature most surely had Indiian overtones. All in all, Qaili was something of a mystery—but a stunningly lovely one, Loki thought with a sigh, and Qaili’s calm and musical voice always left Loki feeling warm and comforted.

Yet the enigma of Qaili was more than a little discomforting. For just over twenty standard years now—more than half of Loki’s life—she had left messages at unpredictable intervals, and visited Loki at unexpected times. She always seemed to know things she would not admit to—and she never, never gave clear answers to any of Loki’s questions. But she always pointed Loki in productive and profitable directions; she always had cash or advice when Loki needed it; and she demanded nothing other than occasional reports when Loki was on a mission.

Like now.

It only took a few moments, and there, on the little screen, there were those enormous Asian eyes, the small bright-red lips, the soft face framed in jet-black hair. Loki had known her for just over two decades; yet she never seemed to change, never aged a day, not a passing hour showed on her pale, flawless skin.

Qaili seemed to be in a dim room, perhaps a bit smoky, with only her face illuminated, almost like a Rembrandt painting. Loki couldn’t make out anything else, not even what she was wearing. She broke into a delighted smile. “Loki! I trust you’re well.”

She couldn’t help but smile back. “Well enough. But thoroughly confused.”

That enigmatic face gave a chuckle. “I’m not surprised. So, what have you discovered?”

Loki rested a hand on the back of her neck, thinking hard. She was here on Lorelei because Qaili had given her a brief description of the statistical anomaly, and had implied there might be someone who had discovered a way to make illicit profit from Haven casinos. The most troubling part of it, from a practical point of view—and Havens were always practical—was the thought that someone could surreptitiously manipulate otherwise honest dealings.

“It’s worse than you told me,” Loki began. “It’s been going on for more than a year. It’s in all the casinos, not just the Haven ones.” She sighed.

“That’s what you read in the audits. But what have you seen?”

“Well, just tonight, an easy mark of a colonist beat the pants off this rich kid who’s been winning at blackjack since before he could even count to 21.”

“Played brilliantly, did he?”

“No, that’s the thing. He sucked. He did everything wrong. The kid just sucked worse, did really stupid stuff, even when he got good cards. Like on the last hand. It didn’t even matter who had what cards at that point. All he had to do was raise the colonist one more time, and he’d have bid the poor sap out of the game and taken every credit he’d ever earned. But he folded. The idiot actually folded.”

“Almost as if he got bad advice from somewhere, you think?”

Loki frowned, certain that was supposed to be a hint, but not at all sure where to take it. “That’s not possible.” Casinos on Lorelei had subspace scramblers to prevent anyone from communicating with someone at one of the tables. There wasn’t any way he could have gotten advice of any kind, good or bad. Unless... She frowned. “Telepathy? I suppose that could happen.”

“You know better. It was a Haven casino, right?”

Loki nodded, more confused than ever. Haven casinos kept powerful telepaths on staff whose job it was to detect psychic cheating, for the same reason they had the subspace scramblers. She growled in frustration. “But however they do it, why would anyone give advice like that? Was it to make sure the kid lost, or to force the colonist to win?” She shook her head. “But there’s not a hint of a pattern to the winners. Not a thing in common among the lot of them.”

Qaili’s pretty face didn’t show a hint of surprise. There was something else, though, a touch of amusement perhaps. “Oh, there must be a pattern, Loki. Even chaos has patterns.”

Loki opened her eyes wide, a frightening realization dawning. “Saford?” she whispered.

Saford was a word in the native language of Haven. It literally meant “chaos”, though Terran translators, depending on context, usually took it as “cheat”, or “dishonest deals”—or even “Satan”. Among Havens, Saford was thought of as a force of disorder and confusion, sometimes personified, as if mayhem and anarchy in the Universe was caused by the CEO of some rival corporation, one dedicated to tearing down everything profitable.

Qaili laughed. “Have you seen a better example? Who else would do what you’ve witnessed? More, who else would have the power to whisper such bad advice into someone’s ear in the middle of a Haven casino?”

Loki swallowed. “You are teasing me, aren’t you?”

The handler gave a coy little smile. “Something to consider. Loki, look for the pattern. There has to be one.”

“I have looked, Qaili. I really have.”

“Maybe you don’t have a big enough sample.”

“I told you, I’ve checked every casino on Lorelei. Every one.”

“Yes. Every casino. What else is there on Lorelei?”

That brought her up short. “What aren’t you telling me? Scab it all, Qaili, what do you know about this?”

The image on the screen glanced down, and brought one elegant and graceful finger to gently touch her lips. “If there was anything more, I couldn’t tell you. We’ve been through this before.”

“Screw that! It’s not like you’re the worthless Federation and I’m a poor backward planet protected by the Prime Directive—”

“Haven is now part of the Federation,” Qaili softly reminded her. “You’re supposed to have respect for Federation law.”

“And screw that, too. Why am I on this mission if you already know the answers?”

“Because you don’t know them. And neither does anyone else in the Federation, except a very few who are afraid that they’re wrong.”

Loki glared at her, very close to telling Qaili—for the first time in twenty years—exactly where to stick her “mission”.

“Loki,” the handler said, her voice barely above a whisper. Her maddeningly ambiguous smile was gone, replaced by a look of honest concern—and something else, something Loki couldn’t quite recognize. “Dear Loki, there is something here far more important than you imagine. You are on the verge of something. It is something you need, something all the galaxy needs. This may be your one chance to find it.”

She took a deep breath, calming herself. “And you can’t tell me, because....?” she prompted.

“First, because you wouldn’t believe me. Not yet. And second...” and she paused, and the something else in her face seemed even stronger. “Second, because I’m not myself certain which of several possibilities it is. If I tell you the wrong one, all will be lost. But all these possibilities are just as vital. All are shades of each other. And all are—” and her voice dropped still more. “—just as dangerous. If I told you, you would not have the courage to find out.”

And with a chill, Loki recognized what that something else was in the eyes of her handler. It was something she had never expected to see, something she could not possibly have expected, something that made her heart stand still.

It was fear.

********** * **********

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