DARK, ROUGH-BARKED TRUNKS climbed straight to an impossibly high mesh of branches against flat gray clouds. Massive roots echoed the interwoven web of sky and limb, spreading deep beneath the wet earth. Every mound of dirt, every fallen twig, every rock glistened with moisture, cloaked in moss and lichen and fern. The thick, swimming air damped even sound to a muffled hush. Green dimness engulfed endless columns of the giant trees.
They counted their lives in tens of centuries, breathed to a rhythm that reduced human generations to brief flickers. Yet even the oldest had germinated and thrust skyward within a timeless, endless cycle of forest. Even the memory of change slumbered at the heart of the world. There was only the forest, the slow repeating of seasons. It was the Way.
Then through the silence came a breath of wind, stirring leaf and needle, shaking drops to shiver and splash. It carried a ghost of sound—a cry, then a ground-shaking thud. A russet-furred creature darted up one massive trunk, peering with startled amber eyes.
Quick russet scurried away into shadow, and a deep hush swallowed the wind’s voice. Forest muffled the distant cry. It was not in the Plan.
It hovered inside dark, domed space, an agoraphobic’s nightmare in chrome, smoked plasmeld, and blue neon. It was blatantly mechanical, a ridiculous throwback to low-tech, garish and vulgar.
Everybody loved it.
So far. Inside the glittering caverns of Casino, you could count on only two things—it would always be night, and even the luckiest run would die.
“. . . but you do still trust your own eyes, Kurtis? You want to see something beautiful, take a look down there. Even the leasers are lining up for a go. The Fast Chance is pulling in the best take ever, and you’re telling me I shouldn’t ride it? Kurtis?”
I blinked, then swiveled away from the bird’s-eye view of casino floor and game dome beyond the transluce wall, started to rub my eyes, remembered the fancy makeup job. I drummed my fingers on the armrest. “Do I have to spell it out, Marrick? It’s making too much for you.”
The fat man behind the desk console swiveled from the view to face me. “For us. Don’t forget your exorbitant percentage.” He laughed, his eyes nearly lost in the creases of colored highlighting.
“Don’t get greedy. They’ll burn out on it if we don’t lower the odds. I’m working on a player rating to even things out.”
He started to fling up his arms, thought better of the energy expenditure, and reached with a grunt to hit a desk button. I leaned back in my chair, fingers still drumming, writing off hopes for a quick exit as the ritual began. Suck of air and whisk of the service trap. Gilt servo extending embossed tray. Steam and sickly-sweet aroma. Green liquid in convoluted glass and a gooey mound of confections. Marrick’s thick, gem-implanted hands hovering over the selections, swooping down. Moist sucking and chewing noises.
He was breathing quickly, sweat springing out on his forehead. He looked up, mouth full, gesturing. “At least have a drink or a smoke.”
I shook my head.
He shrugged, crammed in another candy, and talked around it. “All right, my plan. Expand into the cavern next door. Bought it years ago, haven’t done anything with it, nothing but some arcades, steady flow, but I can tear it out easy enough. Connect up with the main floor here, maybe some fancy ramps, anti-grav, whatever—you come up with the bells and whistles. Another big game. Mechanicals, flashy lights, whatever’s gaudy enough to take their fancy.” He wiggled his fingers toward the wall behind him. “All that low-tech paraphernalia, they’re eating it up. Even the leasers.” He swallowed and gave me a broad smile. “And I want big. Even bigger than our pretty baby down there. Same concept, different wrapping. You know. And we’ll have to move fast on it, while they’re—”
He coughed, took a hasty drink. “What?”
I briefly met the dark eyes, grotesquely quick in their puffy, painted skin folds. I swiveled to stare out the wall again. “No. It’s too obvious, throwing a copy at them. I thought you were smarter than that. If you want me to design another one, it’s going to be something new.” What, I didn’t know yet. Didn’t really care. Unheard beyond the transluce, the distant gamers milled, waving their number chits, calling out wagers for the recorders, craning and pushing for a view of the ungainly contraption whirling its flashing rods inside the dome. Tiny bright-dressed dolls dancing to silent music. Straw puppets jerking to the cybers’ strings. A remote, meaningless play sealed in a plasmeld sense-cube….
“…always find another designer. Which is probably the best idea I’ve had all day.” A chuckle. “Wouldn’t have to put up with your moods.”
And the little dolls were smiling, laughing. Happy to be at the hub of the ordered universe, nestled in the tinseled womb of the hollow world. They didn’t know or care that we were all misfits to one degree or another, inside Casino. The games allowed them at least the illusion of chance, a shot at change or ruin—things the cybers’ tidy worldplans didn’t allow. Casino was a release valve, but there were always limits. Even here. Maybe especially here. Even in Casino the notion of freedom was just—
“…a joke! Don’t forget, my friend, you’re still only an outie. Beyond me why you kissed off your shot at a lease, but just because you’re on a lucky run doesn’t give you all the cards. Take it from me, get smart. I’ve seen it all, leasers to rim touries, and the name of the game is get it while….”
The game below me was building to a crisis. Too much riding on nerves, lights flaring randomly inside the dome, gamers crowding closer outside, rods spinning and twirling to a blur in the darkness of simulated stars.
Whirling. That shock of windless velocity, immense distances, thrown giddy into referenceless space, flying. Fleeing. Eyes glazing blind with speed, spinning through measureless black, the sharp stars closing in. Demon whispers, burning spook fingers clutching. Sealed within the dark uncharted spaces in my skull, the fiery points of the cybernetic Incorporeals pursuing me into horror, into nothingness. Loneliness, searing pain, loss. Emptiness.
I blinked and jerked away from the wall. Marrick was staring at me, another sweet poised in his fingers, eyes puzzled, almost alarmed. Then, a switch making the right connection: concern.
I shook my head and thrust my face forward before Marrick could go on. “Okay, then. Find another designer. I can always take my next game to another casino. There are plenty of owners willing to pay a dumb outie.”
Now there was a glint of anger in the eyes. Better. I started to push out of the chair, then hesitated. Marrick could give me a bad name here.
So who cared? I didn’t need this. But I had responsibilities now, I couldn’t just go off half-cocked the way I always….