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Rated: ASR · Short Story · Sci-fi · #1986464
Sometimes skill is not enough.
A Gambler's Tradition

The dim light made the covering appear to float like an apparition. Joshua knew better but he wished it was just that – a trick of the light or his eyes.

"Mr. Wright." The nasal tone of the coroner pulled him back to the present. He turned to the short, misshapen man, noting that he was an Altarian. His short but well-muscled frame spoke of being raised on a planet with strong gravity. "Are you sure you want to do this? We have many ways of identifying ... last remains."

"It's Okay, Doc. This was Card's last request. He wanted me to bear witness."

"Card? Our records show his name as ..."

"It was the name he was known by on seventeen planets in as many solar systems. Card is ... was ... a Gambler."

The coroner pulled back the sheet and Joshua felt tears well up. The face was hideously distorted, the results of sudden decompression, but recognizable. It was a freak accident that never should have happened ... but it had.

The coroner asked formally, "Is this Marion Alonzo D'Squalo?"

Joshua reached a hand out and turned the left arm over revealing an Ace of Diamonds tattoo. He remembered Card laughing, saying "It never hurts to have an ace up your sleeve." At a loss for words, Joshua silently nodded, then watched as the sheet fluttered back over his friend.

The Doctor brought a vid-screen hologram to life and tapped a few keys. As the screen blinked out of existence, the last remains of "Card" D'Squalo were transported back into the holding area.

"Do you have any requests for his final resting place?"

"No. Standard cremation and scatter was all he ever mentioned. He didn't have any family – at least none he ever spoke of." Joshua turned and sent a final thought. Good luck, Card. Play the odds.

He placed his thumbprint on the screen, wiped his eyes, and departed.

Joshua walked down the sterile corridor and emerged on the viewing deck of the orbiting city with its crowds of jostling beings. He cut a path across the crush of strolling figures to a small alcove, an eddy in the flow of life. Staring out into the vast star field that spread out from Haley's Emporium, he felt alone for the first time in years.

Are you out there, Card? Standing there, he thought back to when he had first met his friend and his mentor.

He had been orphaned and on his own since he was sixteen. He made what little money he could living by his wits – hustling a pool game here, playing a little poker there, even conning newbs with a Three-Card Monty scheme at the local spaceport.

Alderbaran III was a backwater little world given mostly to farming. "If it can grow, it's growing here" was the planet's motto. Card was passing through and stopped to watch Joshua move the cards. "Care to take a chance, mister?"

Card just laughed. "Son, there is no chance in this game."

"Too quick for you, old man?" Joshua goaded him. It was a ploy that often worked.

Card smiled. "I'll tell you what. I'll play but by my rules. You can move the cards but I get to turn my own card over."

Joshua knew that it didn't matter. He would already have palmed the Queen. "Sure. But only the one card you choose." He knew he couldn't allow this mark to turn over all the cards or he would be exposed.

"Deal." Card reached into his pouch and produced a hundred-credit note, causing Josh to almost choke.

"I can't cover that large a bet," he stuttered.

"I'll make the bet ten to one. You put up ten to my hundred."

Ten was about all Josh had but he couldn't pass up an easy hundred. "Deal."

Josh began by showing the Queen of Hearts and two Jacks – spade and a diamond. He deftly flipped them over and began moving them in a figure eight pattern as he started his patter to distract the mark. When he stopped, he pointed to the neatly aligned cards and said, "Where's the Queen?"

Without hesitation, Card flipped over the end card – a Queen of Hearts! He then flipped over the middle and the remaining cards. Each showed a Queen of Hearts. "You make this too easy, my young friend," he laughed.

"You cheated!" burst from Joshua's lips.

In a blur of motion, Card's hand shot out and grabbed Josh's wrist, turning it over and dislodging the palmed Queen. "Seems like I'm not the only one!" His laugh was contagious and soon Josh was laughing too. "I see a lot of myself in you ..."

"Joshua, sir," he filled in.

"Well Josh, I have a proposition for you."

That was the beginning. Card taught Josh every trick of every game, what the odds were in every situation, and how to read others of every species. He was ready – but Card wasn't.

A couple from Rigel, their dark hides dotted with starlight, pushed into the alcove, grappling at each other. Their low growls pulled Josh back into the present. Seeing him standing there, they made quick apologies and departed. Grow up! Get a room, he sent the thought after them.

"Grow up," he muttered, the words trailing off as they triggered one single memory that suddenly came back in crystal sharpness.

They were on Betelgeuse VI when Card announced, "It's time, Josh. I'm not playing tonight – you are. Congratulations, you're now a gambler."

Something in the way he said it let Josh know that "gambler" was with a little "g." I'll make him proud. I'll show him, he thought.

He lost. Not just a little, but a lot. Back in their room, Josh was confused and apologetic. "I don't understand. I played every hand to perfection. I don't know how I lost."

Card just smiled. "That's the difference between a gambler and a Gambler. A Gambler knows that it's only ninety-five percent skill. When luck fails, it's time to move on."

Josh stood looking out at the darkness that seemed to go on forever. I'm sorry Card. There is so much that we left unsaid. It struck him that life was an endless shuffle and you played the hands you were dealt. The smart man didn't stick with a losing hand; he folded and waited for the next one. He felt a smile begin. Card had lived as a Gambler – until luck had failed and now, he was moving on. Joshua finally understood the truth in Card's final lesson.

His eyes were pulled to a sudden brightness out in the distance as some far away star threw its molten arms into the void. Josh stared at the light and watched as it seemed to resolve itself into a glowing diamond. It was a final message. I see you Card. I'll remember – everything!, he thought as he waved back. With a laugh that was more tribute than humor, he turned back into the crowd.

It was time to move on. The next hand was waiting.

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Word Count: 1144

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