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Igms issue 3, p.5

IGMS Issue 3, page 5

 

IGMS Issue 3
 


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  "Morningstar."

  Shannon shook her head. "Too risky. Give me a game with better odds."

  "Morningstar with wild card."

  Shannon turned her back on the Proc and continued to the ice quarry. Upon the return trip, she discovered the same Proc, only this time, he was wearing an ill-fitting white fur coat. She just shook her head, hoping the alien would go away. Anywhere.

  When she got back to the dome, a strange smell was in the air. Shannon opened the door to discover Amima cooking bananas in a skillet. She decided it was some strange African recipe. As long as the kids ate them, she didn't mind. ARIP was not a place to waste food.

  She walked into the kitchen and stood looking over Amima's shoulder. The African woman turned to her and said, "Kele Wele."

  "Kele Wele," Shannon repeated.

  "It's not going to be as good as it is at home." Shannon looked around to find Adjoa laying on the floor in the next room. "There are no plantains, so we had to use regular bananas, and there are no hot peppers anywhere."

  Shannon smiled, happy that the girl seemed to have forgotten the betting idea. "I'm sure it will still taste good."

  "Well," Adjoa said as she propped herself up on one elbow. "After we win back our dome, maybe we can get some plantains and hot peppers from Togo."

  Naïve little girl.

  As the weeks passed, Shannon and the Olympio family grew closer. Amima liked to eat the Mexican dishes that Shannon cooked whenever meat was available, and Amima cooked Kele Wele whenever bananas were available. Shannon found Kele Wele a bit too spicy for something that was meant as a dessert, but all the kids liked it, including Alvin.

  Early one morning as the children were all eating a breakfast of oatmeal, there came a knock on the door. Shannon peered out the peephole and saw a uniformed Proc accompanied by a human. This didn't bode well. She opened the door.

  "Good morning, ma'am," the human said. "I am Blockman Jones and this is Sergeant Ukk of the ARIP Security Force. Sgt. Ukk would like you to know that a new ordinance was passed today restricting single-family domes to single families."

  The Blockman's declaration didn't make sense to Shannon. "Why? That's a stupid ordinance."

  Ukk grunted, followed by a one-sided conversation, the Blockman nodding as the Proc spoke. When he was finished, he turned to Shannon and said, "The other family living with you must leave your dome immediately."

  "You still haven't answered my question. Why?"

  "I don't make the law." He pointed with his thumb at the Proc standing next to them. "I only enforce it."

  The Blockman and Proc both continued to stand in the doorway. Shannon made a slow turn and walked into the living chamber with her mind in a state of shock and disbelief. Where would they go? To throw these people out into the cold with no shelter was tantamount to murder. There had to be a way out. She couldn't throw out this family she was becoming attached to. Her conscience wouldn't allow.

  As she entered the living chamber, her eyes went directly to Adjoa. She was about to call the girl over to help translate the situation into Ewe, but she checked that when she had an idea, a desperate idea. Someone once said, desperate times call for desperate measures. She turned her back to the living chamber and walked back to the door.

  "Blockman," she said, "Ask this Proc - Ukk was it? - if he would like to make a little wager."

  The Blockman shifted nervously from foot to foot as Shannon finished speaking. He looked up at the Proc, then back at Shannon before he said, "Procs always are willing to wager." He smiled. "What is it you have in mind?"

  Shannon snuck a quick glance over her shoulder to Adjoa, who was creeping toward the door. "I want to win a dome for this family."

  The Blockman laughed with more conviction this time. He motioned for the Proc to bend down, then he whispered something into the Proc's ear. The Proc stood, then emitted an enormous belly-laugh. He wiped his nose on his sleeve, then said in thickly accented English, "Of course!"

  What had she gotten herself into?

  The Blockman whispered with the Proc for another moment, then declared, "The wager will be dome for dome. If you lose, you forfeit your dome."

  "I understand that."

  "Good," the Blockman said. "Meet us in the main square in one hour. As the challenger, you have the right to name the game."

  "Blackjack."

  It was the voice of Adjoa, now standing at arm's length behind Shannon, and something told her to trust the girl. "Blackjack it is," Shannon said.

  The Blockman turned to leave, but the Proc hesitated. He looked Shannon in the eyes and said, "Make sure you arrive on time." With that, he turned to leave, following the Blockman out the door.

  Shannon looked down at the little girl whose words may decide whether they all would live or die.

  "You must find a way to allow me to play blackjack against the Proc," Adjoa said.

  "Impossible," Shannon said. "The Procs won't allow a minor to gamble." Impossible, but crucial because she didn't even know how to play.

  "You must teach me to play blackjack, Adjoa."

  The girl was animated, waving her arms and pacing the floor. "No, I must be the one to play."

  "They will not allow."

  Adjoa's face melted, then it brightened again as she voiced another idea, "Maybe I can walk you through the game as it's played."

  "I doubt it," Shannon said. "I've never seen a child at any gambling event, much less helping to play the game." She shook her head. "Out of the question. Teach me the game and I'll manage on my own."

  "No, you will lose," Adjoa said with passion. "The trick to beating a Proc isn't in the game, it's in his head. I know how to do it, you don't."

  The Proc just wouldn't be willing to wait until Adjoa turned eighteen. The game would begin at noon, and Shannon had to face him alone.

  As high noon approached, Shannon fed the fish, then left Alvin with Amima and walked to the main square alone. No point in looking back. In an hour, there would most likely be no place to call home. Adjoa had taught her the basics of blackjack, but she didn't have a good feel for how to play -- when to draw and when to stand. She quickened her pace.

  At the main square, a table had been set up, and a crowd of people had already gathered around, hoping for a chance to watch the destruction of the stupid human girl. She took her seat to the applause of the crowd. A Blockman acted as announcer, and began to speak through a megaphone.

  "The rules to the contest are plain. The game is simple blackjack. Each contestant is being given one hundred red chips. The first contestant to gain all the chips is the winner."

  A dealer stood at the head of the table, and Shannon sat opposite her opponent, Ukk. Each player threw in one red chip, then the first cards were dealt. The Proc had face-up the queen of diamonds. Shannon was dealt the three of clubs face-up, and the ace of hearts face-down.

  The Blockman indicated Ukk as the first to play, but Ukk motioned that he wanted no cards. At the same time, Shannon felt something on her leg. She looked down to see Adjoa under the table.

  Ukk must have noticed her eyes leaving the table. "What is she hiding!"

  The blockman came around to Shannon and discovered Adjoa under the table. He grabbed the girl's parka in the back and pulled her to her feet. "What kind of deception is this?"

  "I should be playing the Proc!" Adjoa shouted, but the big Proc laughed so hard he almost fell off his chair.

  "That child against me!" Ukk snorted as he inhaled. "Imagine, that child against me!"

  Shannon had an idea. "You think you can beat that child?" The crowd gasped at the very idea of a Proc gambling against a child. Even the Blockman was taken aback. "I think she can beat you."

  "Ah! It would be like taking candy." The Proc couldn't stop laughing.

  "Then, since we haven't completed the first hand, I would like to change the game."

  "What!" The Proc didn't like that idea.

  "The stakes remain the same, but the game is now a
bet that this little girl can beat you at blackjack."

  The Proc looked to the Blockman. "Is that legal?"

  The Blockman nodded. "Technically, it is still the woman who is gambling. The minor is just a component of the game. Yes, the bet is legal."

  "Then I accept the new terms. Sit, child. Continue this hand." Shannon got out of the chair and let Adjoa sit.

  The little girl looked at the Proc, who waved at the dealer. The dealer turned his attention to Adjoa.

  "Hit." The five of clubs fell to the table. Not enough. Shannon was shaking with nerves.

  "Hit." The two of hearts fell to the table, and she waved off the dealer. The little girl tossed two more chips into the pot, and Ukk matched it. The two players showed their cards and Ukk pushed the chips to her.

  "Lucky hand," he said.

  Adjoa's face lit up with a smile. "You let a little girl beat you! Ha, you're a loser!"

  The skin around the proc's eyes wrinkled in irritation. He slammed five red chips into the pot. Adjoa matched it as the dealer shuffled the deck. The cards soon began falling, and the three of diamonds landed face-up for Ukk. The ace of Hearts landed face-up for Adjoa, and she was dealt the three of spades face-down.

  "A little girl beat you," Adjoa whispered.

  The dealer looked at Adjoa and she waved him away. She took no cards. Attention turned to Ukk.

  "Hit." The two of spades fell.

  "Hit." The five of hearts fell. Ukk was breathing harder.

  "HIT!" The jack of clubs fell, and Ukk threw his cards into the pot. "Bust."

  Adjoa scooped the ten chips and pulled them to her end of the table. "A little girl beat you again."

  Shannon leaned over Adjoa's shoulder and whispered into her ear. "Don't egg him on too much, he might eat you."

  She turned her head and whispered back. "No. There are too many people here."

  Ukk was not amused. "You playing?"

  "I'm winning," Adjoa said.

  "Gaaaah!" Ukk gathered his chips and pushed them all into the pot. Adjoa took her time counting out ninety-two chips, setting the few remaining chips carefully aside. Ukk fidgeted as Adjoa slowly counted, dragging it out as long as possible, but the Proc said nothing. Finally, she pushed her pile of chips into the pot.

  "I'm ready," she said.

  Ukk just groaned in response. The deal came. Ukk received a face-up nine of clubs. Adjoa received a three of clubs face-up and a seven of hearts face-down. Shannon was nervous, but Adjoa only smiled.

  She started whispering again. "Don't let the little girl win. What would all the other Procs say if you lost everything to a little girl?"

  The Proc reacted with a growl. "Hit." The eight of spades fell to the table, and Ukk threw the card in his hand to the ground. He stood, pushed his chair to the ground, and pushed the bystanders aside as he walked around the table to Shannon to put the key to the Olympio dome into her hand. His aim was poor, and it fell to the ground. As Shannon picked up the key, the Proc stormed away. When Ukk was ten paces on his way, the crowd erupted in cheers.

  Shannon handed the key to Adjoa. "Go find your family. You just won back your home."

  Adjoa took the key, but she shook her head. "No," she said. "I only won back the dome. Winning back my home -- our home -- that's going to take more than one game."

  The Box of Beautiful Things

  by Brian Dolton

  Artwork by Laura Givens

  * * *

  Yi Qin came to visit Weng Hao's Grand Carnival Of Curiosities on a spring day, with the air sharp and clear. She was humbly dressed, not like an emissary of the Emperor at all, and she took her place in the line, and she handed over her quarter-teng piece. She looked at the tigers, pacing back and forth in their cages. She watched the acrobats perform, tumbling and swooping and spinning. She listened to the story-teller, and laughed when he recounted the tale of the Little Fisherman and the Seven Foolish Demons.

  She had not come, however, to see these things. They were diversions; amusing in their way, but no more than that. No; she had come, like everyone else, to see the Box Of Beautiful Things.

  But not for the same reason.

  There was a long line. Even though the carnival was camped in the middle of a dusty plain, people had come from a hundred li in every direction, spurred on by rumor. Weng Hao himself was marshalling the customers. As Yi Qin waited for her turn (for no more than ten people at a time were allowed into the tent where the Box Of Beautiful Things was kept), she studied him. He was a big man; bigger, almost, than his skin could withstand. His cheeks seemed distended, and his eyes were thin black slits that he could barely open. He had a long black moustache and wore gaudy silks.

  His voice boomed out, from time to time. The wait is worth it, he would cry. Why, a wait of a Great Year would be worth it, to see the Box Of Beautiful Things. Such things as you have never before seen. Such things as you could not even imagine! Gaze upon beauty, and let your heart lift, to know that there is still such wonder in the world!

  Yi Qin had seen many wonders, and by no means all of them were beautiful. She shuffled forwards as the line moved, and folded her hands together under her sleeves. Her thumb sought the point of one of the darts she kept hidden. Not yet, she told herself. Not until you can see the Box Of Beautiful Things.

  The sun was low in the west by the time she reached the head of the line. She bowed politely to Weng Hao, who was still beaming, and whose eyes could still not be seen. The Seven Ways taught that the eyes were mirrors of the soul. Yi Qin wondered what she would have read, if she could have seen into his eyes.

  She wondered, too, what he might be able to read in hers; and looked away.

  Inside the tent, there were only two lanterns. Curtains hung, thick velvet, fringed with tassels. The Box Of Beautiful Things was resting on some kind of platform. It was black, smooth and shiny, lacquered and inset with mother of pearl. It stood as tall as a man, as broad as a man's reach. Its doors were open wide. And inside it...

  Yi Qin pricked her thumb with the dart, and withdrew her hand. She smeared the blood onto her forehead, drawing the sign that was the Fourth Unspoken Word; the Word That Allows The Truth To Be Discerned.

  There was nothing beautiful in the box.

  There was nothing inside it at all.

  In front of her, nine other people were marvelling, and whispering to one another as they pointed out one beautiful thing after another. Yi Qin stood slightly apart from them, and looked into the empty box. When another woman asked her what she thought of the red cheongsam, with the silver dragon picked out in meticulous detail, she smiled politely and agreed that it was exquisite. When a man loudly declared he had never seen such fine goldwork - and he was a goldsmith himself, who could only dream of creating such beauty - she nodded with the others. And, after the others were drunk on beauty, and could endure no more of it, she filed out carefully behind them. She lifted a red cloth to her face, dabbing away the blood from her brow, under the pretence of mopping up tears that had been brought forth by unworldly beauty.

  Then she sat down on a rock nearby, and waited for the fall of night.

  A man came to her, as the sun was just dipping behind the western mountains.

  "Your pardon, lady, but the carnival is closing. You must be away from here."

  "I was hoping," she told him, "that I might speak with the estimable Weng Hao."

  "Master Weng Hao is a busy man," he said. "I can bear him a message, perhaps. But it is not possible to speak with him."

  "I must insist," she said, rising to her feet. "Perhaps, if you tell him what I have shown you, he will wish to talk?"

  "You have not shown me anything, lady," the man said.

  In response, Yi Qin reached inside the bag she carried, and withdrew a tablet. The last rays of the setting sun caught the embossed symbols carved on it. The man bowed, very low.

  "Your pardon, noble lady. Please, forgive me. I did not know you were an emissary of the Emperor."

  "There
is nothing to forgive," she told him, tucking the tablet back into her bag. "But you will tell Weng Hao that I wish to speak with him, concerning the Box Of Beautiful Things?"

  "I will tell him, noble lady" the man said, and bowed again.

  Yi Qin sat down again on her rock, and waited. The sun slid below the horizon; First Moon followed it down, while Third Moon shone big and pale in the eastern sky.

  "I am honoured," a voice said from nearby. "An emissary of the Emperor himself, come to my humble carnival! Truly, this is a blessing. How may I be of service, noble lady?"

  Yi Qin rose, and bowed towards Weng Hao, who was approaching, bearing a lantern.

  "I would talk, Weng Hao,"

  "By all means! I love to talk!" He laughed, expansively. "But this is no place for it. Come to my pavilion! I will offer you food, and rice wine, and listen eagerly to what you have to say."

  "I would prefer, Weng Hao, to talk here, under the eye of Third Moon."

  He bowed. "If that is what the Emperor's Emissary wishes, then that is what shall be! As a loyal subject..."

  "Are you a loyal subject of the Emperor?" Yi Qin asked, mildly.

  Insofar as it was possible to tell, behind the smooth face and inflated cheeks, Weng Hao looked surprised.

  "Do you doubt it?"

  "If I may speak frankly, Weng Hao; then yes, I doubt it. I have seen certain things, today, which give me cause to doubt that you are a loyal subject of the Emperor. Which make me doubt, even, whether your name is truly Weng Hao."

  "And why do you doubt these things, lady?"

  "Because you are a charlatan, Weng Hao."

  "A charlatan? If so noble a person as the Emperor's Emissary tells me, then it must be so; and yet, I do not understand. I would be grateful beyond measure if you could explain this to me."

  "A thousand people come to your carnival every day, Weng Hao. They come, because you have a tent, in which there is a Box Of Beautiful Things. But the box is empty, Weng Hao. There is nothing beautiful in illusion; in conjuring."

  "In conjuring? And how, pray enlighten me, did you discern that the Box Of Beautiful Things was empty?"

 
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