House Of Cards
By
Lewis Smith


www.gunmetalblack.com

Kienan Ademetria saw the softly blinking lights of the space station winking softly on and off. As the small shuttle in which he was traveling flew closer to the station, he took note of its almost comical opulence.

As the shuttle running lights panned over the outer hull of the station Kienan could see the designers had made an extra effort to make the station appear gilt. Briefly he made out a series of panels with various patterns engraved on them as the shuttle as it maneuvered towards the station's docking ring.

How futile, Kienan thought. They built a gilt tower to hang in space like some kind of chandelier and forgot there's not enough light in space to ever see the whole thing.

The lights from the docking ring washed his reflection from the window in a flash. He sighed and waited for the seatbelt light, feeling the lightness of zero gravity beneath his shoes.

The House of Games was a casino so secretive and exclusive it was almost a myth. Only those specifically invited were allowed in, no one was allowed to bring any weapons, and it was rumored, cheaters were punished by death.

Audentes Fortuna Juvat, the invitation had said, he remembered. He felt his shoes hit the floor with a reassuring sound as the gravity kicked in. "Fortune Favors the Bold." Hell of a risk, there's not many people I know would try to bet against Death.

He undid the safety harness, watching his fellow passengers with cold, emerald eyes. That woman with the diamond bracelets, probably a spoiled heiress, spending Daddy's money in search of something to fill a banal materialistic life. The man in the seat behind her, he's addicted to the rush. I can see the sheen of swat on his fingers. Doesn't matter to him if he wins or loses, it's all about the risk to him.

Where are they? He wondered.

He filed out, sparing a look over his shoulder. Through his chestnut bangs, he saw two women, one blond, one brunette in the very back of the shuttle. They were dresses in suits as black as night and skirts short enough to draw the attention of several men in the rows ahead of them.

They walked past them, their faces impassive, matching each other's pace perfectly. Kienan let them walk by him and smiled. In all ways they were almost human, but sometimes their true machine nature was betrayed in the small details.

Kienan let a few more people walk past him and then shoved in front of a rotund man.

"Excuse you, young man," he bellowed at Kienan. "Don't you have any manners?"

Kienan glared at the man and walked on.

Kienan reached into his white silk jacket, feeling the inside pocket for the invitation. Just getting one had taken a sizable amount of doing.

Not the easiest thing to do when you’re not here to play, he thought. In truth, Kienan was no cardsharp. He had no patience for the subtleties and calm reasoned anticipation of gambling.

No, he was here to beat the house in another way.

Repeatedly and fatally.

The blonde woman known only as Vain reached into her jacket and put on her sunglasses as she pulled out her invitation. The brunette behind her did the same a few minutes later as they disembarked the shuttle and filed into the reception area.

Follow the timetable, Vain remembered. Let the first few people file in past security, notice their security measures, then I go in and a little later, Mirage goes in.

She took a seat on a bench next to a potted plant. Mirage walked over to a column beside the vid-phones and watched the people. One of Vain and Mirage's favorite pastimes was watching people. Partly because it fascinated them to view the people they had been built to replicate, and partly to aid in their work.

While Vain and Mirage replicated human beings on the outside, on the inside they were vastly superior to them. Six times stronger and faster than any human being (even Kienan) they had picked up the various casino games Kienan had shown them within minutes, and managed to beat him every time.

Despite their aptitude, neither of them was here to gamble.

Vain and Mirage was Kienan's apprentices in a different kind of vocation. Several of them. Assassination, sabotage, destruction.

All of which, Vain suspected, they would employ tonight.

Kienan watched Mirage file in and tossed his cigarette to the deck of the reception area. He ground it into the polished metal floor as he walked towards the entrance to the House of Games. He walked by two women, clad in red and black leotards and wearing black jackets. Masks obscured their faces. Only their hair was visible, in a topknot ponytail that framed their masks like a plume on a knight's helmet.

Those must be the Arcana, Kienan thought. One of the few details he'd been able to glean from the few who'd survived a visit to the casino was the security staff, the Arcana. 52 of them, all women, patrolled the casino. Any sign of cheating, or any disruption of the games was punished with immediate execution.

He stared at one of them as he walked past, brushing his long braid off his shoulder as he walked languidly past them. If they bristled at his cavalier expression, they showed no sign.

Two burly black-suited men stopped him. Kienan proffered his invitation to them. One of the men read it and walked over to his stand to confirm its authenticity while the other man approached him, hands outstretched. From the humming nose that filled the small passageway, Kienan suspected he was being monitored by an impressive array of scanning devices.

While Vain and Mirage had needed special devices concealed in their clothes to pass by them, Kienan had nothing to hide.

Unless of course one of those scanners could read minds.

"Sir, I have to pat you down before you go in," the man said. "No weapons in the casino, you understand."

"You can’t take my word for it?" Kienan asked with a smile.

"I'm afraid not sir," he said. "It's our policy."

The man looked over to his cohort at the stand. He gave him a curt nod and tossed the invitation into a box.

"Well, if it's the rules," Kienan said, raising his arms. The invitation had passed inspection, so that was one hurdle overcome. It was genuine, of course. His masters didn’t dare send him out with a forgery, especially at a place this careful.

Also, it was extra work. Why bother counterfeiting an invitation when killing the man who had it was so much easier?

Kienan let the bouncer pat him down, offering no resistance. He had no weapons on him for this job, something he hadn't done for some time. And since there was no way to provide one once he was inside, it was up to Kienan himself to accomplish the mission.

"He's clean, Roger," the bouncer said.

"Very good, sir," Roger said, offering Kienan a small envelope. "Your card for the night, sir. We ask that you please don't open it until the proper time."

"The proper time?" Kienan asked. "When's that?"

"I believe that will be obvious once you're inside, sir," Roger said, impatiently weaving him through. "Best of luck to you during your stay, sir. Enjoy the hospitality of the House of Games."

Kienan nodded and walked through to the main entrance. He walked along a balcony overlooking the gaming tables below. As expected, the usual games occupied the center--blackjack, poker, baccarat, roulette, the crap tables. To the left of center were more exotic games--pai gow, mahjong, and the rest. And to the right an impressive wall of slots--perhaps a thousand, all packed together like the marching formation of a robot army.

The interior of the casino was even gaudier than the outside. The walls had a peculiar motif, the busy curlicues of playing cards blown up to six-foot high panels that made Kienan's head want to hurt when he stared at them for longer than a few seconds.

Like something out of a comic book, he thought derisively.

He watched his fellow travelers milling below. Some immediately took a seat at one of the tables, charging headlong into the battle against the house. The more cautious players hovered around the diehards for some time, egging them on, working up their courage, or when courage needed coaxing, calling one of the waiters over to ply it with a drink.

Kienan walked slowly around the balcony, taking all of it in, but focusing even more on the silent Arcana who moved through the crowds like sharks among schools of fish. Kienan watched them closest of all.

His eyes flitted to one of the large golden clocks on the wall. According to the local time, midnight was more than four hours away. And from what sketchy information he'd been able to find, the real games didn’t start until then.

How to keep myself occupied, he mused.

He descended down the main staircase, taking care to pick out Vain and Mirage as he did so. Vain was busying herself throwing sevens at the crap table. Mirage was at the roulette wheel. Already they'd managed to accumulate quite a stack of chips.

Kienan wondered if the people he knew were watching would divine that with Vain and Mirage's gifts of perception it was a simple matter to win big every time, just as a person reasonably skilled in card counting could anticipate the cards in a game of blackjack.

A card counter would be easy enough to catch, he thought. But no human alive could possibly work out something as inherently chaotic as a roulette wheel.

He waved a waiter over. "Altairian Whiskey," he said tersely.

"Yes sir," the waiter said, quickly running back to the bar. Kienan stood at the landing of the stairs and watched the gamblers. Except for the Arcana, there was nothing to distinguish it from any other casino Kienan had ever set foot in. It was a little more extravagant, but in all other respects, just a casino.

"Your whiskey, sir," the waiter said, holding out a tumbler full of a dark green liquid.

"Thanks," Kienan said, tossing him a small strip of gold as he took the drink.

"Most welcome sir," the waiter said. He looked at the denomination of the credit strip. "Most welcome."

Kienan took a sip and mused on what had brought him here.

Stakes of life and death.

Kienan worked for one of the competitors of private casinos like the House of Games. But this was more than business.

The Blue Dragons were a crime syndicate centuries old. Though they made their business in vice, murder, extortion, influence, and a whole host of other criminal activities, they held themselves and their operatives to codes and tradition centuries old. The penalties for violating those codes were severe indeed.

Especially if the offense involved the brutal murder of one of the chief capos' firstborn son, Kienan thought. A month ago, Ma Cheung had been delivered to his family in a small black box with the seal of the House of Games on it. Inside were his remains, plus his head.

Stuffed in Cheung's mouth were 5 cards. Two aces, three eights. A dead man's hand. At the bottom of the box was a message, folded carefully at the bottom, written in Mandarin--"For every wager, there comes a reckoning." The only signature was the letter "S."

Killing the son of a syndicate capo was bad enough, Kienan thought. The mutilation though, that had really made them angry. The Blue Dragons had let the House of Games operate in this area of space without taking their cut because they ran a small enough operation not to be noticed and had never provoked them.

Until now, Kienan thought, taking another drink. That's where I come in.

He cupped the tumbler in his hands, looking down into it. Three people against the house, he thought, and the house has the advantage. Gambling in the gambler's house.

He finished off the glass of whiskey.

I hate irony, he thought.

He found a waiter and deposited the empty tumbler on his platter as he made his way to the cash window. The young woman behind the counter looked him up and down, almost following the metal bars more than Kienan's shape.

"Good evening, sir," the cashier said, smiling a toothy grin at him. "How much would you like to start with tonight?"

Kienan reached into his jacket pocket, his fingers fumbling past the card for his money. The woman's smile faded as he took a bit longer than expected. Finally Kienan put a neat stack of credits on the counter.

"Let's try ten thousand, for a start," he said.

"Ten thousand," the cashier said, scooping the money up. "You must be pretty good to start that high. What are you, a blackjack man? Roulette player?"

Kienan flashed an easy smile. “Oh no," he said. "I'm useless at blackjack and I hate roulette. More a poker player, actually."

"Ah poker, I see," the cashier said, keeping the banal chitchat going as she filled a small tray with chips, then slid them over the counter to him. "Well sir, we wish you the best of luck tonight."

Kienan nodded, taking the chips. "Oh, I don’t believe in luck," he said. "It's all down to skill."

"Of course, sir," the cashier said, waving him off.

Kienan held the container of chips in his left hand and walked towards the poker tables. He looked back over his shoulder at the clock.

A little over three hours, he thought. Gives me some time to find out a little more about the place.

Vain juggled the dice in her hand, her machine mind calculating millions of complicated physical, geometrical, and probability equations as she did so. Finally, she casually tossed the dice.

"Seven!" The dealer said, then added under his breath. "To the lady. Again."

Vain's expression didn’t change as more chips were shoveled her way. She quickly calculated the exact amount in cash of her winnings and spared a look to the envious onlookers behind her.

I suppose I'm rich, she thought, taking the dice in her hand and starting the process all over again. Perhaps it might mean more if there was some use I could possible see for all this money.

She'd noticed the man behind her before. He'd been hanging around for the last hour, pacing behind her, urging her to win more and more. She found him somewhat contemptible. He was squat and toadlike, with beady, acquisitive, eyes. The whiskey he'd consumed before had fermented and it gave his breath a consistency that made Vain's hair bristle.

She threw another seven as the man's pudgy, sweaty hand reached as unobtrusively as possible. His index finger touched one of the 1000 credit chips before it fell off his hand.

Vain turned. The man's index finger lay on the green felt of the crap table, an inch away from her chips. Between the finger and her chips was a playing card. From the bright silver edges, Vain guessed it was razor-edged.

She turned to look at one of the Arcana standing beside her. Another one appeared behind the man, dragging him off as he clutched his hand and screamed.

"Theft in this casino is not tolerated," The other Arcana said, handing Vain the dice again. "Please accept our apologies and continue playing."

"Of course," Vain said, taking the dice in her hand and running through the equations again. She focused on the razor-card still embedded in the table. In a way, it was good to see the Arcana in action so soon.

After all, she thought. When the time comes for the real game to start, It's them I'll be playing against.

The one thing Kienan did well when it came to gambling was poker. Somehow the complicated game of bluffs and calls appealed to something within him. He quietly took the three cards he'd asked for and waited for the other players to weigh in.

The stuffy woman stubbed out her cigarette and sighed. "Nothing. I fold . . . and I'm out."

The man next to her threw in a stack of 100-credit chips. "I'll raise you a thousand," he said, staring at Kienan.

Kienan nodded. "I'll see your thousand and raise you five thousand."

"Too rich for my blood," the fat man on Kienan's left said, tossing his cards into the pile of chips in the middle.

Kienan looked from the man who'd raised him to the dealer. They were the only three players left. He knew the dealer wouldn't possibly fold, but something about the man's smugness annoyed him, and he wanted him out of the hand.

The man threw in his chips. "That's all I have."

"That's not enough," Kienan said. "Call or fold. If you can't afford it, don’t play the game."

The man's face fell. His lips curled into a sneer and he threw the cards on the table, pushed his chair away and left the game.

"Dealer calls," the dealer said quietly.

Kienan smiled and turned over his cards. A king, two queens and a three.

The dealer sighed. The most she'd had was a pair of fours.

Kienan smiled thinly as she slid the pot to him. He spared a glance to the clock. Forty minutes left. His thoughts returned to the card in his pocket. He was virtually certain whatever the man at the front had meant by the "appropriate time" would be midnight.

"No more bets please, no more bets," the croupier said, shooting the white marble into play. It spun counterclockwise to the motion of the wheel, a white halo against the whirling red and black of the wheel.

But to Mirage it was moving only slightly. Had one been able to see through her dark glasses they would have seen her irisless eyes spinning rapidly as they followed the ball.

Wait for it, she thought, calculating the RPMs of the wheel against the speed of the ball. Wait . . .

Now, she thought.

She stepped back, bumping into the man behind her who was having a loud conversation with someone else. He made a loud blustery show of the fact that Mirage had caused him to spill his drink and Mirage dutifully and mock-sheepishly apologized and stepped forward, bumping into the table.

The ball slowed as did the wheel, clacking to a stop on the black 6.

Exactly where Mirage had placed all her money.

"Black 6 wins," the croupier said.

"Hey you’re really good," a woman said, touching Mirage's arm. Mirage had noticed her before. She'd been playing against Kienan a few minutes ago at one of the poker tables.

"This is my first time, actually" Mirage said.

"Hell of a case of beginner's luck," the woman responded. "I hope you get into the Grand Game. With luck like that you might even win."

"Place your bets," the croupier said.

"The Grand Game?" Mirage asked, moving her chips to 22 black.

"It's about to start in a few minutes," the woman said, staring at the clock. "Every night at midnight, the head of the casino, guy named Spieler, personally plays against whoever has the lucky card that night. The challenger names the game, Spieler names the stakes."

"Has anyone ever beaten him?" Mirage asked, her eyes watching the wheel.

"No more bets, please. No more bets."

The woman shook her head. "No. Hell, I've never even seen the Grand Game and I've been here a few times."

"Hm," Mirage said, knocking the table with her knee.

"You'll have to forgive me, sir," the dealer said, stacking Kienan's chips into a rack. "The table's closing for a few minutes."

"No problem," Kienan said, flicking his cigarette into a nearby ashtray. "Does every table close this early?"

"No sir," the dealer said. "Just for a few minutes."

"ATTENTION, GUESTS OF THE HOUSE OF GAMES," A booming basso profundo thundered of the PA system. "Please direct your attention to the balcony at this time."

Kienan looked up. The house lights dimmed and a spotlight aimed towards a large pair of gilt-edged wooden doors. Two Arcana opened the doors and out walked a man, slightly taller than Kienan, but like him dressed in a white silk suit so immaculate it seemed to glow under the spotlight's glare. The man's long blonde hair framed a face covered by a strange mask. White with black eyes and yellow pupils. The mouth wearing a smile so wide it seemed to be on the verge of madness.

Kienan grimaced. Of course, he thought. Fifty-two Arcana, and one joker to trump them all.

"Welcome, my guests," The man said, leaning on a thick ebony cane. His accent seemed human but there was a slight tinge of another accent on certain words. "I am Spieler, the God of Gamblers. Welcome to the House of games. My house. I trust I am being very generous to you tonight?"

A ripple of laughter and moans ran through the crowd below.

Spieler acknowledged the noise, waving a black-gloved hand to silence them. "It is now time for the Grand Game," he said. "Tonight, the lucky card is the Ace of Spades. Who ever holds the card may challenge me tonight."

"Hey, buddy," someone whispered to Kienan. Kienan turned; taking note of everyone opening envelopes like the one he'd been given at the front.

"Wanna trade?" It was the sweaty nervous man he'd seen on the shuttle coming in. In his sweaty fingers he held the Ace of Spades.

Kienan opened his envelope as he regarded the strange man. He glanced at his card. The two of diamonds.

Kienan nodded and handed the card to the man. The man passed him the ace and shuffled away, making quiet noises of gratitude. Kienan would have done the same, had he been the gracious type.

"Has anyone got the Ace?" Spieler asked. "Do we have no challenger tonight?"

Kienan got up from his chair. "Yes you do!"

Kienan threw the card towards Spieler. It spun in the air, turning into a white and black blur. Spieler snatched it out of the air and stared at it, checking its authenticity.

"And who are you, sir?"

Kienan smiled. "Maxwell Gance," he said.

Spieler looked at him for a few moments. For a moment Kienan wondered if he recognized him from somewhere. Spieler didn’t look at all familiar to him, but it was hard to be sure with him wearing that mask.

"Very well, Mister Gance," Spieler said, putting the card inside his jacket pocket. He gestured behind him with an exaggerated flourish. "I await you in the private game room."

Kienan nodded as two more Arcana came to see him upstairs.

Well, looks like I won't need to take the indirect approach to see the man in charge, Kienan thought. I'd say luck was on my side.

If I believed in luck.

"As for the rest of you," Spieler said. “Those of you who drew the face cards will be my audience tonight for the Grand Game. As for the rest of you, the tables reopen in five minutes. Better luck next time."

Vain started walking upstairs, flashing her card (queen of diamonds) to the Arcana at the foot of the stairs. She was let through, along with a few others. She walked forward very slowly, taking stock of the situation.

Kienan couldn’t have planned for a face to face match with the owner of the casino, Vain pondered. We'd only planned to sabotage the entire facility, but this makes our job easier

And harder, she thought, walking along the upper level as Mirage stayed below. Now we have a clear shot at our objective, no weapons and perhaps ten guards to pounce on us the minute we try anything.

Kienan and Spieler walked into the private game room. It was even more opulent than the casino had been. Kienan's shoes sank into the deep burgundy carpet as he took note of the antique games Spieler had filled the room with.

"Is this your job or your hobby?" Kienan asked.

"Games are my life, Mr. Gance," Spieler said. "Chance and risk--these are the things the human being is perpetually fighting to win over, to beat, to cheat or merely to break even against. It is my passion and obsession. My very name--"

"Means "gambler,"" Kienan said, stopping at an old billiard table. "And how good are you?"

Spieler turned to face him, his rictus mask impassive and seeming a little more mad with every looked he spared Kienan.

"I never lose, Mr. Gance," Spieler said, his hand tightening on the end of his cane. "I made my reputation prior to owning this casino as an oddsmaker for bloodmatches. Are you familiar with them?"

"Underground fights to the death, aren’t they?" Kienan asked innocently.

"Yes," Spieler said. "I was quite good at my job too. Until a human won the championship. It completely ruined my business. Humans were never supposed to win them, you know. To enter one was to seek your own death."

"But someone did?"

Spieler nodded. "Fortunately I’d saved enough to allow me to build this casino. Only a fool places his bets on one mark."

"You've done well," Kienan said. "It's a nice place."

"Thank you," Spieler said.

"This Grand Game of yours," Kienan ventured. "Kind of seems like a bloodmatch as well."

"Are you implying I'm revenging myself on that human who thwarted my previous life, Mr. Gance?"

"I wouldn’t know," Kienan said. "I'm not a psychiatrist."

"What are you then?"

Kienan smiled. "A blackjack man. Shall we begin, Herr Spieler?"

Mirage watched the rest of the players as she stood in line at the payout window and frowned. I knew I should have traded with someone for a better card, she thought ruefully. Now I'm stuck waiting outside while Kienan and Vain are alone.

She was confident enough that they could handle themselves of course, but somehow it didn’t feel right. Mirage and her sister were determined to stand by Kienan no matter what.

Plus, she hated waiting around while the more exciting stuff was happening elsewhere. Gambling held no mystique for her, it was all mathematics. Dull, dreary calculation.

She sighed and tapped her foot. She'd seen humans do it when they were impatient and thought it was quite clever and resolved to try it when she had a free moment.

The worst part of it is, we didn’t plan for this, Mirage thought. The plan was always to start enough of a commotion in the main room that we could slip past the Arcana and wreck the place while they dealt with the situation elsewhere.

She sighed, another human tic she quite liked. She hated having carefully set-out plans upset by blind chance.

But that's probably the machine in me talking, she thought.

"Eighteen," Spieler said. "You win again, Mr. Gance."

Kienan nodded, his face impassive and calm. The only sound for most of the time they'd been playing had been the quiet murmur behind them, as the spectators placed bets on the successive hands.

"You've won quite an impressive amount, Mr. Gance," Spieler said. "Shall we continue to play for money or would you consider upping the wager?"

"Precisely how high?" Kienan asked.

"I suggest we involve everyone," Spieler said. "The next hand we play, if you win, I will command the slot machines downstairs to open. The total in gold is quite impressive. A few million."

"And if I lose?"

"I will activate another switch and fill the main room with carbon disulfide gas, killing everyone."

"I don’t lose either way then," Kienan said, looking over his shoulder. "These people mean nothing to me.

"Humour me, Mr. Gance."

"Let's do it."

Spieler dealt him two cards. One facing, one down. The Queen of clubs.

Kienan stared at the two cards for a little while. Spieler stared at him.

"I'll take a card," Kienan said.

"You don’t even want to look at your other card?"

Kienan's eyes fixed on Spieler. "I'm curious," he said. "About whether your wager's on the level. Would you really kill off a casino full of people to make a point?"

Spieler nodded and dealt him another card. The jack of diamonds. There was a subdued "oooh" from the crowd. Spieler took a look at his card and waited. "I will stay," he said with a sense of satisfaction that told Kienan everything he needed to know.

Kienan turned his card. The king of spades. "Thirty," he said.

Spieler flipped his. "Nineteen," he said. "It appears you lose this round, Mr. Gance."

"So it does," Kienan said.

"But as I am impressed with your courage, I think I'll declare this round a push," he said. He'd had just about enough of this man and his cool cavalier arrogance. This would rattle him and then in the next hand he'd break him.

He waved one of the Arcana over. The silent guard pushed a trolley carrying a small video monitor.

"Perhaps you’d like to see proof of how I honor my wagers, Mr. Gance?"

In the main hall, Mirage watched with shock as a series of events happened. First, all the payout windows closed, as did any other exist. Then the slot machines, even the ones unattended, unloaded their bounty. Mirage watched as the people scrambled to grab as much as they could carry for themselves.

Had they bothered to look up, they might have noticed a strange rippling effect in the air. Mirage took a few deep breaths and suddenly realized what they were planning.

Poison gas, she thought. Not a very generous house at all

As the gas suffused the room people began to panic. Some pounded on the doors or screamed until their lungs filled with the deadly substance. Some hammered on the doors with chairs, trying to force their way out, but there was no hope.

Mirage took all this in and wondered how many of them had come in intending to bet their lives. Then she, like all the rest, lay down and "died."

"Do you see now, Mr. Gance, is it becoming clearer to you now?" Spieler said.

"It is at that," Kienan said. "So is that what you do with the loser of the Grand Game? Kill him?"

"It's in the rules," Spieler said. "For every wager--"

"--there's a reckoning," Kienan finished. He lifted the deck of cards in his hands and shuffled them. "That's what you were going to say, isn't it?"

Spieler's eyes seemed to narrow on Kienan. "Who are you?"

Kienan's eyes narrowed on him. "Maybe I'm your reckoning, Spieler. One more hand?"

Spieler bristled, then nodded. "Winner takes all," he said. "The loser's life is forfeit."

Kienan smiled and dealt the cards. "I wouldn’t want it any other way."

The Arcana made their way through the dead, tapping some of the corpses with their feet to make sure the gas had done its work. Mirage lay there for a time, then activated a device within her. Her body seemed to shimmer, then vanish into thin air.

They must have some kind of air supply in their masks, she thought, carefully stepping over the bodies. She heard large fans hum to life, cycling the deadly gas back out of the room. Mirage carefully made her way closer to the Arcana, making sure not to move if any of them happened to look in her direction. While she was invisible to the naked eye, there was still enough of the gas in the air to make out a noticeable motion within its strange haze.

Finally she made her way behind one of them. Carefully she reached into the Arcana's jacket pocket.

"Wait a minute," the Arcana said, moments before Mirage snatched her razor-cards out of her pocket, flinging three of them in the direction of the other Arcana. One of the cards stabbed deep into one of the Arcana and she crumpled to the ground as Mirage shut off her device and reappeared just in time to snap the neck of the Arcana she'd been holding.

"KILL HER!" Another Arcana said, pointing to Mirage. Mirage backflipped over a roulette table, narrowly missing a clutch of razor-cards that flew in her direction as the Arcana charged towards her.

Well, she thought. It appears I've started the party a little early, she thought. She found the croupier's drawer on her side, scooping up the four marbles within.

Sorry Kienan, she thought. Improvisation seems to be the order of the day.

She'd managed to kill one of the Arcana with their own razor-cards by virtue of her strength. Thrown with the strength of an average person, they could slice right through certain things like flesh, if they hit the target with the right force.

In Mirage's hands they were deadly armor piercing weapons.

The roulette balls were no razor-cards, but they would do their work. Mirage popped up from behind the table, shooting the white marbles at the Arcana. The marbles hit with such force they broke through the Arcanas' masks like bullets, killing them instantly.

Unfortunately for Mirage, even after four successful hits, that left ten more Arcana for her to deal with.

She sighed and sank her hands into the roulette table, tearing the wheel free and blocking the incoming razor-cards with it. Then she threw the wheel at one of them, catching her in the waist.

Mirage sighed and looked over the rest of the tables and wished now more than ever that she had a gun.

Vain watched Kienan carefully, pacing back and forth behind the knot of spectators, keeping her distance, but looking more and more worried. The five Arcana that had been in the room milling around and keeping order were starting to line up behind Spieler.

While not a human female, Vain didn’t need intuition to know something was about to happen. Kienan had dealt the cards out minutes ago but neither of them had moved since then.

Kienan rested his hand on the deck. "Would you like another card?"

"No, Mr. Gance," Spieler said. "I think I have what I need."

Kienan smiled. "In that case, by all means, you go first."

"With pleasure," Spieler said. His black-gloved hand flipped over his card. The ace of spades and the jack of clubs. "Blackjack, Mr. Gance."

Kienan looked down and turned his card. "How ironic," Kienan said. The ace of spades and the jack of spades. "It appears it's a push."

Spieler bristled. "You've cheated, Mr. Gance."

"No," Kienan said. "You did. That ace is the same card I threw back at you when you called for a challenger for the grand game. I know because I bent one of the corners when I threw it."

Spieler slammed his hand on the table. "I do not like being made a fool of, Mr. Gance."

"And I hate people who cheat," Kienan said, smirking. "So I'll collect my prize now. Your life."

"Oh really?" Spieler said, raising his cane. He brought it down on the table, splitting it in half.

Kienan jumped up, kicking his chair behind him. He spared a glance over his shoulder, then turned back, unbuttoned his jacket and gestured to Spieler.

"Come on," Kienan said.

One of the Arcana made a move towards him, only to be felled by a chair wielded by Vain. Kienan nodded to her and leapt off the remains of the table towards Spieler.

Mirage whipped her jacket off, whirling it around to catch another volley of razor-cards. With her coat gathered around her arm she punched one of the Arcana as hard as she could while she threw a kick towards another one's shins, breaking her leg.

Mirage frowned at her skirt, then seized the hem and ripped a ragged line up her thigh. She turned her body, launching herself high into the air and crushing another guard with a guillotine-line spin-kick.

She caught another guard with a spare razor-card, sparing a look at her skirt.

This is hardly ladylike, she thought, vanishing as two Arcana tried to tackle her. She leapt high into the air as they collided beneath her. She reappeared, landing catlike before them.

"Double down," she muttered, swinging a chair at another one.

Spieler swung his cane at Kienan with the inelegance with which a barbarian might club an animal to death. Kienan sidestepped the clumsy blow and struck Spieler's forearm, causing him to drop his cane. Kienan let it roll off his back and clatter to the floor and he felled Spieler with a combination of punches.

Spieler stumbled back and swung his cane at Kienan again. Kienan sized the cane under his arm. Spieler attempted to throw a few punches, but Kienan merely kicked him in the stomach and sent him to the floor.

Spieler fell to the floor. The material of his mask was cracking, the twisted smile now seeming to cry tears of blood.

"Who are you?" Spieler demanded.

"Your executioner," Kienan said.

Spieler charged forward, but Kienan grasped Spieler's hair and slammed his head into his knee, shattering Spieler's mask and throwing him back to the ground.

"Who sent you?" Spieler demanded, crawling on his stomach, trying to buy himself time to get to his cane.

"The Blue Dragons," Kienan said, kicking hard into Spieler's stomach. "You picked the wrong opponent for your Grand Game."

He watched Spieler slither on the floor for a bit, looking over his shoulder and catching his breath. He saw a blur of motion heading for him and reached out for it. Kienan felt the hard impact of an object hit his hand. He looked at it.

A billiard ball.

He looked behind him. Vain turned to him, busily swinging her pool cue for the fences. "Sorry," she said. "Can I have that back, please?"

"I'll do you one better," Kienan said. One of the Arcana hurled a razor-card at Vain, who batted the thing into a strange, erratic curve. Kienan caught the card in one hand and threw the billiard ball at the Arcana who'd thrown the card. Vain teed off on the one she'd been working on as Kienan watched Spieler grab for his cane.

"I could use an exit, Vain!" Kienan said, running to the sidebar and grabbing for a bottle of champagne. He clubbed Spieler with it to keep him down.

"Working on it, Vain said, knocking the Arcana who'd been struck with the billiard ball back down. The one she'd been clubbing grabbed her leg.

"STAY DOWN!" Vain said, pointing the improvised club at the Arcana. The guard, unwilling to take another pummeling, took her advice, lay down, and stayed there.

Spieler eventually staggered to his feet. His body was eaten alive with pain; his formerly immaculate white jacket was stained with spilt whiskey and his own blood. He leaned on his cane, drawing himself slowly and painfully up to his feet.

This wasn't supposed to happen, he thought, his mind quite insane with rage. The God of Gamblers isn’t supposed to ever lose. Whoever this man is, I'll make certain he never profits from it.

He hobbled to his desk, activating a hidden panel. On a nearby keypad he typed a special 11-digit code and smiled.

"You just set the station's self-destruct, didn’t you?" Kienan said, striding in from the shadows. "I suppose I should thank you for doing my work for me."

"It . . . doesn’t matter," Spieler said, hiding his cane behind the desk. "I've locked down the shuttles. No one can escape. You, me, the rest of these accursed people, we're all going to die."

"You’re not a gracious loser, are you?"

"I . . . never lose," Spieler said, quietly twisting the shaft of the cane.

"Until today," Kienan said.

"Doesn’t matter, Spieler said. Slowly he pulled the cane free of its shaft. A sword in a cane was an old trick, but in desperate circumstances, it could trump anything else. "No one will . . . ever know."

Spieler leapt over the desk, brandishing the blade. Kienan smacked the sword out of his forearms, flicking his head so his braid whipped around Spieler's neck. Kienan quickly pulled the braid tight and yanked Spieler into Kienan's head. Kienan let his braid go slack and shoved Spieler back into the chair behind his desk, reached into his jacket pocket and threw the razor-card he'd plucked from the Arcana.

"Go to hell, Spieler!" Kienan yelled, tossing the card.

The card embedded itself in Spieler's chest and stopped his heart. Kienan would have relaxed, if his job were over. He looked at the readout on Spieler's hidden panel.

Ten minutes, he thought. Not much time.

"Everything's locked down," Vain said. "Some of the guests tried to get out, but I don’t think they got very far. Some kind of booby trap killed them."

"Then the booby trap did its job, I guess," Kienan said. He walked around one of the gaming tables Spieler had in his parlor, idly lifting the edge. "Spieler's activated the station's self-destruct cycle. In eight minutes, we all go."

"Then how do we get out?" Vain asked.

Kienan flipped the table over onto its side. "This way. Cone on, help me push it."

Vain and Kienan got behind the table and once they got it lifted, charged for the doors. As they got closer to the heavy wooden doors, Kienan and Vain turned, aiming for the hidden panel of two-way glass next to the door.

"Hmph," Mirage said, putting on her sunglasses. She frowned upon noticing one of the lenses was missing. "Well, I think you've all learned your lesson now."

Behind her, she heard an explosion of wood hitting and destroying glass. She looked up in time to see a table flying off the upper balcony, and just behind it, Vain and Kienan.

"So how'd you do, Kienan?" Mirage asked as he landed catlike on the floor.

Kienan got up and brushed himself off. "Oh, I won," he said. "But if we don’t get out of here in about five minutes, we're all going to lose." He gestured forward. "Ladies, we go back the way we came."

They charged down the corridor, encountering little resistance as they made their way back to the hangar bay. The klaxons were roaring but there was no stampede of frightened guests or workers. Kienan had seen some of them in the main room, suffocated, but what about the workers? Were they locked up in their rooms, not knowing what was happening?

Vain tapped on the keypad that led to the docking port for the shuttle. "Kienan, I'm afraid we have a problem," she said. "They've locked the airlock and I can’t crack it."

"Is there any way to force the door?" Kienan asked.

"Yes," Mirage said. "Vain, move back."

Mirage reared back and punched the keypad, shattering it with a hiss of ozone and a rain of broken plastic buttons. As the ruined keypad hissed and sparked, she tore a lower panel free, exposing a hidden lever. She pumped the lever a few times and gradually the door raised enough for them to crawl under.

"All right," Kienan said. "I can fly us out, but I suspect Spieler's locked it down ladies. We've got three minutes to get the ship unlocked. You get going on unmooring us, I'll start the engines."

Kienan charged inside to the cockpit and started hitting switches. There was a subtle vibration through the floor plates as the engines roared to life. He frowned as one of the readouts still showed the docking claws locked onto the outer hull of the shuttle.

He made a mental check of the time. Ninety seconds.

Vain and Mirage clambered aboard. Vain got into the seat next to him. "Go," she said.

Kienan gestured to the readout. "But the mooring claws--"

"--Are still on the ship," Vain said. "We couldn’t get those off but managed to rip out the rest of the machinery. Now go if we're going."

"Yes ma'am," Kienan smiled, gunning the engines.

The shuttle pulled away slowly, fighting inertia as its engines flamed to maximum burn. Gradually it began to pick up speed as the central core of the station began to shake and distort. The shuttle roared up to its highest speed, rocketing away from the station as it annihilated itself in a blaze of light as brilliant as the darkness that enveloped it soon afterward.

"Well," Kienan said. "That's that."

"It's almost a shame," Vain said. "We were doing quite well."

"We got out alive, Vain," Kienan said. "I don’t think you can do better than that."

Mirage walked in from the rear sections. "I don’t see any damage anywhere in the ship" she said. "We should be Ok to return to base in this thing."

"Done and done," Kienan said, activating the ship's Space Drive. "You know ladies, after this, I thought perhaps we might take a vacation. Cabiria's kind of nice. Quiet little ocean world where everyone minds their business."

"No casinos?" Vain asked.

"Not a one," Kienan said.

"Sounds ideal," Mirage said.

"I was hoping it would," Kienan said. "I don’t know about you ladies, but I've about had my fill of casinos for some time."