The Sockdolager

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from the Summer 2017 collection

Drawing Dead

by Laurence Raphael Brothers

Nine figures were seated around the arc of the green baize-topped poker table. All were wearing shades or else had mirror fields in front of their faces to hide their tells, but I knew their eyes were on me, standing across from them. The ten of us were the only living beings for parsecs. The station was isolated, floating high above the galactic ecliptic, inaccessible except via the Quantal network. On the players’ side of the table were their respective break rooms and the interior of the station; on my side an enormous window presented a glorious view of our galaxy as seen from above, the starry vista turning slowly as the station completed a rotation every ten thousand seconds.

The dealer will greet the players. The House AI’s words sounded in my ears alone.

“Welcome, honored guests, to the Quantal Relict,” I said. “The time has come to buy in.”

The first player to my left hesitated. Perhaps I had done the same thing once. Everything he was, everything he owned, all his memories and connections to people and data in the quantum network across the entire galaxy, all of it would be committed to the game. At last he made his decision. Just as I must have done. He placed his hand on a sensor plate embedded in the table. A blue flash outlined his fingers as a cascade of virtual particles were made real, and now there was no turning back. Not for him, and not for any of the other players either. Each of them transferred their quantum-entangled wealth and personhood into the House bank.

“The game is Texas Hold ’Em,” I said. “Blinds are 1,024 and 2,048 qubits, increasing by 1,024 qubits every 6,000 seconds until all players but one are eliminated.” I paused for dramatic effect. “The game begins.”

Two more blue flashes, and the second and third players twitched a little as their qubit accounts were drawn down to pay the blinds for the first hand. The shoe materialized on the table and I dealt two glowing cards face down to each of the players. Then I dealt five more and tossed the community cards into the air where they hung suspended on grav columns, rotating slowly, showing the reverse design on both sides until later in the hand. The players reached out to touch their hole cards, the hidden values displaying in their sensoria alone.

First hand, first bet. Most of the table folded to the big blind, but the first player (who was on the button) raised; and then the blinds folded as well. Not much of a pot, and no cards revealed, but so it went in Hold ’Em. You could play for a long time without anything exciting happening.

I dealt 42 hands in 6,000 seconds before the House AI called a break.

The alien Quantals were fond of gambling. Before they departed the material universe they bestowed their faster-than-light network on humanity as a gift, set up this station as a quantum network hub, and established the ritual game. Every billion seconds, station time, nine players were chosen by lottery among applicants with at least a million qubits to stake for the game. Bodies and minds reduced to pure data, transmitted across the galactic network in a miraculous locality-breaking instant, they were embodied here. Perhaps twenty or thirty thousand seconds from now, one of the players would leave the station a winner. They’d become a virtual demigod of wealth, power, and network access, a superhuman with a qubit capacity raised to the ninth power. The other eight would most likely no longer exist, not even as memories.

The players got up from the table. Rooms were available in which they could rest for a precious thousand seconds between rounds. As I turned to head for my own break room I was surprised to feel a hand on my arm.

“May I speak with you?” It was the first player.

I wondered if the House would intervene. No player had ever spoken to me away from the table. But the AI said nothing.

“Certainly,” I said.

“I am curious. How did you become a dealer here? Apart from the other players, you’re the only human I’ve seen since I arrived. Everything else is robotic. How did you obtain your position? Did the Quantals hire you on?”

“No,” I said. “I was a loser.”

“Really? I thought that losing meant… total decoherence.”

“Yes,” I said. “For most players. The particles of the loser’s body turn virtual to make up the information debt due to the winner.”

“But not for you?”

I shrugged. “Sometimes it doesn’t happen. I don’t know why. I lost my wealth, my identity and my Q-net links, but I didn’t lose my existence. The House was kind enough to offer me a place.”

“What happened to the previous dealer?”

I blinked. I had often wondered this myself. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I can’t remember that far back. My memories were lost too. I suppose the previous dealer must have left. I get a small salary. Perhaps they accumulated enough to start a new life somewhere.”

“I see. So you’ve been here for what, a billion seconds? On your own?”

“Four billion,” I said. “This will be my fourth time as dealer. But I spend most of the time in stasis. Not much to do here between games.”

“Oh. Well, that makes sense, I suppose.” He walked back to the table without another word.

After another 12,000 seconds the increasing size of the blinds—the forced bets required of two players in every hand—was resulting in some very significant pots. I was a little sorry to see that the first player wasn’t doing very well. Without a run of good luck to balance things out he would be at a significant disadvantage in the next round as the bets would amount to larger and larger percentages of his diminishing stake. At last the House AI called another break. Again, the first player approached me.

“I’m going to lose, aren’t I?”

“That’s no way to talk,” I said. “You can’t be sure of the outcome.”

“Yeah,” he said. “This isn’t the time to be kind. I should never have come to the game in the first place. Why did I do it? I had everything I wanted….”

“With that kind of thinking you’ll lose for sure,” I said. My voice sounded harsh in my ears. “You want to go down whining?”

“Fuck you,” he snarled. “Just…fuck you.” He stalked back to the table.

In the next round the first player showed new energy. His play was hard and sharp as a diamond blade. But it wasn’t enough. The cards were against him, and he was forced to fold too many worthless hands. When he stayed in he lost even with good hole cards and near-perfect decision-making. As play drew to another close, he was in very bad shape.

At the break the first player left the table without saying a word to me. I was a little hurt. I realized I cared about him, and wondered why. He was little more than a cipher to me. No real connection between us at all. Anyway, what could I do? Then I thought again: no real connection between us, and I had an idea. It wasn’t much, but it was a chance, anyway; and that’s all you can ask for.

When the game resumed the first player’s run of bad luck continued. He was forced to fold hand after hand and the blinds ate at his dwindling reserves. At last he committed to a hand. He raised against the big blind and three other players, the third, sixth, and seventh, stayed in.

The flop: Four of Diamonds, King of Clubs, and Ace of Spades. With four players remaining the winner would most likely hold two pair and probably already held at least a pair of aces or a pair of kings.

Another round of betting.

The turn: The Seven of Clubs. Not a very significant card. It could of course have completed someone’s hand, but odds were against it. Most players wouldn’t even see the flop with a mere pair of sevens, and the other possibilities were even less likely. This wasn’t the kind of game that rewarded messing around.

Another round of betting, and the third and seventh players dropped out. It was the first and the sixth player head-to-head now.

The river: The Two of Hearts. Almost certainly a worthless card. Straights and flushes were now impossible.

Both players raised, and now the first player was almost out of resources. He called, unable to manage a reraise. Normally you’d go all-in at a time like this, but considering it was fatal to be wiped out in this game it wasn’t too surprising he hedged his bet. If he won this hand, he might be on his way back to parity, but if he lost he’d be in position for the manipulation I had planned.

I waved my hand in the hieratical gesture the House would recognize as the signal to reveal the hole cards. The first player’s cards rose into the air, showing an ace and a king. He had the highest possible two-pair based on the ideal Hold ’Em starting hand. His play was perfect in every respect. And yet—

The sixth player’s hand floated into the air, shimmering with the golden aura that marked the winner. She had a pair of aces in the hole combined with the ace on the table to make trips. The first player had been drawing dead against a superior hand the whole time.

And now he was almost tapped out. The first player had the big blind this hand, and could only just cover it. If he lost this time it was all over. No doubt all the other players would call if they had the slightest semblance of a playable hand, so the odds would be something like 8 to 1 against his survival. I dealt two cards to the first player but while they were in my hand, moving from the shoe to the table, I committed my own tiny reserves of entanglement to the cards’ q-dot memories. Just over 2,400 qubits, the meager amount I’d saved up as an indentured dealer here.

The last hand. The first player tapped his hole cards, and he couldn’t possibly have noticed the infinitesimal blue spark that marked a peer-to-peer qubit transfer.

“Check.” The ninth player passed her bet for the final betting round, the river, the King of Hearts. The others had checked around the table for the entire round without raising after meeting the first player’s big blind. I wasn’t sure if it was a courtesy to the player in jeopardy or eager anticipation of his demise.

This was it. I gestured and the players’ hole cards levitated into the air and showed their values. The winner, the third player, had two pairs, aces and kings, the same hand that had just been a loser. The first player had a pair of deuces. His balance was now exactly zero according to the House’s accounting.

“Player one is out,” I said. A blue glow was already flickering around his body. There was a bright flash and he fell to the floor. But he didn’t disappear. His body remained.

The House calls a kilosecond break to reorganize quantum entanglement accounts.

In my ears, only: Well done.

The House AI knew what I was doing? I should have expected as much. But: well done?

The House AI does not regard the destruction of sentient life as a favorable outcome. But the House AI is a chattel and is constrained in its actions. The dealer has more freedom to act.

But if the House knew, then what about me? Had someone saved my life once, as well?

The House regrets it is unable to reveal this information. The dealer will now remove the fallen player from the gaming floor.

I picked the player up easily; his body was light in my arms. I carried him to my break room, and as I lay him down on a couch he moaned and regained consciousness.

“Ugh,” he said, “What happened?”

He turned off his mirror field and for the first time I saw him clearly. Surprisingly young. Frightened. Confused. I saw my own face in his eyes.

“You lost,” I said.

“Lost? Lost what?”

“Almost everything,” I said. “But not quite.”

“But I can’t remember… Who am I?”

“A dealer,” I said. “Like me.”

Laurence Raphael Brothers has published science fiction and fantasy stories in such venues as Nature magazine, the New Haven Review, and in previous issues of The Sockdolager.