The smell of old wood and cheap alcohol filled me as I pushed back the tattered metal door, a fusion of instruments and sounds that no single race could claim dancing in my ears. I smiled my signature toothy smirk and slid my hand into my back pocket. Satisfaction filled me as my fingers brushed against something hard and papery. I pulled out the small weathered box and was greeted by glances ranging from curious to menacing.
I navigated through the crowd, my destination a lone table at the far end.
I let my right elbow lean into the hard wooden bar behind me as I slipped behind a chair cradling a Cygnan whose skin, currently a confident shade of turquoise, changed colors with his mood. The rest of the beings at the table sat hunched, their postures a silent testament to the game's tension.
I tapped the bar twice and was promptly slid my usual.
The locals out walking the grimy streets of Xarion VII have a little saying: "Women can't handle the Shar'Xatin's Slime, so keep it in the house and it will all be mine." The old miner's song rings in my head over and over as I down the mug of thick liquor, smiling at the irony.
An outburst punctuates the otherwise tense silence of the game. A short-haired Loxar is the first to bow out, his fur bristling in embarrassment. I wink at the poor guy, hoping to lift his spirits as he walks away in shame. But the move cost me. My old buddy, Grax the skulleater, swooped in and claimed the empty chair.
I tap twice on the bar.
My box of old playing cards feels real in my hand as I rotate it over and over. Familiar, rhythmic, enticing. The dim glow of bio-luminescent fungi threw dancing shadows on the walls, each form stranger than the last, an acrid aroma following each pulse of light. In the midst of it all, my pile of galactic credits shimmered, a beacon of triumph amidst the murk.
Just as I begin to feel itchy and irrational, my right hand fingering the blade at my hip, a small Octanik gets up in a huff, tossing its cards all over the room with its various arms. I seize my chance and take its seat for my own.
"Ah, yeah. Now we're talking," I sigh out loud, easing into the greasy old chair.
"Vivi, glad you could make it," Grax said in his thick rumbling voice.
"Grax, buddy! It almost sounds like you're happy to see me. Had one too many Slimes have ya?" I tease.
"Oh, but I am happy to see ye, Vivi. Ye and all yer credits thar be mine soon." Grax's grimy voice sounded as sticky as his fingers.
Rolling my eyes I respond, "Oh Ho! So you've forgotten our last game already?"
"Ne, I ain't forgotten. But I know yer tell now, young Vivi. Ye ain't leavin' this table with a single credit to yer name, lass." As Grax speaks he leans in and looks at me with cold hard eyes, his voice getting more serious by the moment.
My toes flex inside my boots, that itchy feeling coming back so soon after it had gone.
I lean in over the table, matching everyone else’s stares, and reply with gritted teeth, "You're bluffing." There is no way he could know my tell, nobody does.
The table erupts with a chorus of impressed murmurs and gasps, my toes relaxing in response.
"Alright, let's see what you got!" Said Zirah, who I hadn't noticed was at the table until now. She had a tasty-looking pile of credits in front of her, prim for the winning.
The Cygnan who won the last game was getting up, taking his winnings while he still could, so other than Zirah and Grax, the table mostly had unknowns sitting around it. A black-gated Squelox, whom I didn't recognize, oozed the hints of a violent temper. Beside him, a male Mimmech, a native of the enigmatic planet 265-34, betrayed his arrogance through a series of fluid hand and arm movements, each more ostentatious than the last. On the far side of the table, another local of this shitty planet sat glaring at me, his left eye missing. Last I heard, I think they call him Haric. His face told tales of hard-fought battles, and he wore an expression that made it clear he'd love to see me fail. Next to Heric sat a richly armored warrior, face concealed in a vizor, who looked like they were from the mechanized space fleet that just got stationed near the sun in this quadrant.
How did you get in here, government dog? I thought to myself, unwilling to say it out loud, as I pulled out my cards and added them to the mix.
The heavy cards felt cool against my fingertips as I shuffled them, their sleek surfaces gleaming under the dim overhead lights. My focus tightened on the deck, the rhythmic riffle of the cards building up suspense. As I dealt the cards around the table, every eye followed their trajectory, every breath held just a fraction of a second longer than the last.
The first hand was cautious. Zirah, her delicate plumage subtly shifted as she evaluated each card in her hand carefully. I played it close. Grax's four neon eyes seemed to scatter, never quite settling, absorbing every detail around him.
As we began I could feel an air of trepidation. I looked down at two cards: the Stellar Queen and a Nebula Nine. Not a strong start, but fine potential lay ahead. The flop revealed two more Queens, and my heart skipped. The Mimmech, to my left, threw in a modest bet, a casual movement of his skilled hands. Zirah hesitated before matching, her feathers puffing up ever so slightly. Grax's upper left arm twitched, but he folded without fanfare, as did the government dog. I raised, pushing forward a neat stack of credits. Only Zirah called. The turn and river cards were inconsequential.
Triumphantly, I displayed my three Queens. Zirah just shook her head, feathers settling back down, and pushed her cards away face down.
I took the pot with a smirk.
The next hand was more contentious. Two of my cards were part of the Cosmic Straight sequence: a Galaxy Five and a Meteor Six. The flop, however, was a dud, showcasing high cards but none connecting to mine. Yet, a growing tension indicated that someone might've hit big. Grax went in strong, pushing a hefty pile to the center.
I folded quickly, as did the Squelox. Zirah, Haric, and Grax went head to head. When Zirah revealed a pair of black hole Aces, Grax visibly shrank, forfeiting a sizable portion of his stack.
The third hand was dealt. I held a Sun King and a black hole Ace. The promise was palpable.
The flop was a mixed blessing: another Sun King, a Nebula Nine, and a Cosmic Ten. A potential straight was on the horizon, but it was risky. Haric bet timidly. Grax was out before the bet even reached him. Zirah eyed me, a challenge in her gaze, and raised significantly. The Squelox and Mimmech both matched me, making me shudder internally, intense itchiness cascading down to my legs.
My gut told me to call. The turn was a Galaxy Jack, setting me up for a high straight if the river favored me. Zirah’s eyes narrowed, and she checked. The river was a gift, the Meteor Queen. My straight was complete. With a deep breath, I pushed a massive stack into the pot, trying not to betray my elation. Zirah, after a drawn-out pause, folded, granting me the largest pot of the night thus far.
As the rounds went on, the atmosphere thickened with intensity. Every glance held calculation, every bet a story. The credits moved back and forth, but more often than not, they seemed to find their way back to me.
The game's ebb and flow felt like an intricate dance, a game of both skill and serendipity. So familiar, so addictive. Each hand was a testament to the cosmic ballet that this game truly was.
I raised more aggressively, pushing the limits of my opponents, watching as their tells became clearer, their uncertainties more pronounced. As I challenged each of them, looking into alien eyes one after another, I felt them shrink. The government dog, tail between their legs, stands and leaves the den without another word.
I could feel the game in my very being. The table had its own rhythm now: the gentle tap of credits being stacked, the hushed exhales of players contemplating their next move, the ever-so-subtle glances exchanged between competitors. My heart thrummed in my chest, but not from nervousness. It was the thrill of the chase, the intoxicating dance of risk and reward.
Grax's red-crusted fingers twitched involuntarily, his neon eyes flickering irregularly as they darted left and right between us and his own hand. Zirah, however, was a stark contrast. Her every move was deliberate, her feathered face stoic, talons gliding over her cards with an unsettling grace. I craved defeating them both, but ultimately Grax's fall was due to Zirah’s uncanny ability to predict her opponent’s every move. It left a bad taste in my mouth as I watched her pull his credits into her ever-growing clutch.
The Squelox studied his cards with careful consideration. I caught the Squelox occasionally flicking his side-eye my way, his facial gates undulating disturbingly. A tell? Or is it attraction? A wave of nausea passes over me, forcing me to quickly turn back to my own cards.
I held a Galaxy Jack and a Stellar Queen. Good, but not great. The flop came, laying out a pair of Nebula Nines and a Meteor Ten. The Squelox hesitated and checked, while the Mimmech made a sweeping gesture, signifying a moderate bet. Haric smirked, pushed some chips in, and glared at me with his remaining eye. Reading his cockiness, I raised, pushing a generous stack forward. The Squelox's hesitation turned into a fold, his tentacles retracting inwards, signaling his withdrawal. The Mimmech, not to be outdone, matched my bet. But Haric, after a brief internal struggle, pushed his cards away, yielding to my aggression.
The thrill of it made my body go hot and I almost let the excitement show on my face. But to keep my calm, I tapped the table twice. Thankfully, the barman filled my drink promptly.
I was dealt two Cosmic Eights. The flop presented a Nebula Nine, a Sun King, and another Cosmic Eight. A set! The Squelox checked quickly, trying to mask his disappointment. Grax folded and ordered another drink as well. The Mimmech's gestures became more theatrical, his rubber-like arms stretching and swirling in a figure-eight before placing a timid bet. Haric, this time, hesitated before pushing chips to the center, seemingly trying to regain his lost footing from the previous round. With confidence, I raised. It was a calculated risk, but I wanted to challenge their mettle. Zirah, perhaps recognizing a pattern, folded. The Squelox's eyes darted, his aura growing dimmer. The Mimmech wavered, its fluid form quivering before it too withdrew, its gestures now less flamboyant. Haric stared me down, but eventually, with a huff, discarded his hand, giving me another victory.
Again the flop came in my favor: two more Galaxy Sixes and a Stellar Queen. Another set. The Squelox, disheartened by his previous folds, put in a modest bet. The Mimmech, perhaps desperate to assert itself, made a showy display, throwing in a sizeable stack of credits. Haric grunted, grinding his teeth, and called without raising. Grax seemed to go back and forth. I played it cool, merely matching the bet. The turn brought no significant change, but the river revealed a fourth Galaxy Six.
Four of a kind!
I feigned contemplation, then pushed all my chips to the center. The all-in was a bold declaration. The Squelox's eyes widened; he threw his cards down in exasperation, folding for the third consecutive time. Zirah raised an eyebrow at me. The Mimmech paused, his early bravado now a distant memory. Haric's one-eyed glare intensified, but he seemed to recognize the battle was lost. With a final snarl of frustration, he tossed his cards forward, surrendering to my relentless offensive.
The table was mine, their spirits broken. My momentum was undeniable. With every victory, I felt invincible, each hand pushing me closer to an undeniable lead. The table, the den, the very cosmos felt like it was bending to the rhythm of my game. One by one the game whittled down to just me, Grax, and Zirah. The room seemed to grow quieter, the universe shrinking down to this singular moment. As the last card was turned, a collective intake of breath filled the space. My straight trumped Zirah’s three-of-a-kind and Grax’s hand was crushed under us both. The credits slid towards me, each one a testament to the electrifying tango of strategy and chance that continued between us remaining three.
Grax’s oft self-proclaimed impenetrable demeanor reignited as he deliberated over his newly dealt cards, a formidable figure reborn from the ashes of his previous internal conflict. When he revealed his hand — a decent full house — a momentary glimmer of hope crossed his glowing eyes, and was just as quickly extinguished as my superior cards were laid bare before him. It was a silent, glaring defeat. The mighty Grax, so unflinching before, vacated his seat without a word, his bulky frame retreating into the shadows, a living embodiment of subdued turmoil and relinquished pride.
But the game was not over yet. Now it was just Zirah and I.
Every drawn card and every revealed hand was met with bated breath. The pot swelled further, and soon we were locked in a high-stakes duel, each trying to outmaneuver the other.
Laden with unspoken expectations, the credits in the middle of the table formed an insurmountable mountain that belied our fears. Zirah shifted, her avian eyes meeting mine without a hint of hesitation. My gaze fell on the pot, its shining hue of cobalt blue softly reflected on my face, igniting a cascade of emotions through me. Looking back up, I matched her gaze, equalling her challenge.
My toes flexed as the rhythm of the game, which had once felt like a dance, now seemed like a relentless march toward an unfathomable abyss. For a fleeting second, my confident facade crumbled, my next move no longer clear. Instead of raising or calling, I found my hand reluctantly pulling back my credits, so unwilling to lose even one, that I folded what could've been the winning hand.
The crowd emitted a mix of murmurs and gasps, along with a few clucks of disappointment from Zirah, but all of that faded into the background as my body began to itch and my mind fuzzed over.
“Ay, Vivi, had one too many Slimes have ye?” Grax’s disgruntled voice mocked me from somewhere in the crowd.
With some effort, I forced away the itching and pushed the haze aside, giving my next hand a proper look over. I splayed out my cards, revealing a stunning Galactic Flush, and that brought with it a rush of refreshing adrenaline.
Whispers darted around the room; a few patrons even exchanged knowing nods. Then, with a flourish that sent a chill down my spine, Zirah revealed her hand: the Quantum Quintet. I didn’t need to hear the gasps to know I had been bested. In my haste to play the Flush, I missed Zirah’s nigh-imperceptible tells, and now I would suffer the loss.
Zirah leaned back, her plumage catching the low light as she basked in her victory, a mere flicker of a smirk crossing her beak. The mound of credits shifted from my side of the table to hers. My fingers brushed the sticky wooden table, feeling the itchy void the credits left behind, a reminder of the fickle nature of fortune on this decrepit world.
The establishment's ambient noise returned, yet a palpable change had descended. I felt many eyes on me, some in sympathy, some with hidden glee at my downfall, and a few genuinely surprised. Pulling together what dignity I had left, I rose from the table, giving Zirah a nod. She responded in kind, the closest thing to mutual respect we've ever shared.
As I made my way through the departing crowd, a soft hand rested on my shoulder. Turning, I met the compassionate gaze of the Mimmech, who, through a series of intricate gestures, communicated a simple message: Another day, another game. Unable to smile, I just nodded back at him.
Exiting the den onto the dark, dirty street, the cold expanse of the cosmos greeted me. Looking up into the vastness of space, dotted with stars and constellations whose names I did not know, reminded me of my insignificance. And yet, within that vastness, I found comfort. Every loss, every win, was but a blip in the continuum of time.
I lingered for a prolonged moment, letting the musky streets of my home fill me with their sights and sounds, the sensations simultaneously soothing and irksome.
In the back pocket next to where I keep my cards, I pulled out an octagonal disc-shaped device that, at the flick of my wrist, projected a hologram of a man with one eye and a baleful glare above its metallic surface.
Accepting the bounty with a habitual tap, I unsheathed my blade with renewed determination, knowing that my new target couldn’t have gotten far.
For in the grand tapestry of the universe, losing and winning are just matters of chance, one game indistinguishable from the next.
And, all it took was another claimed quarry to play again.