art by Shothot Designs
by Nicky Drayden
Nicky Drayden is a Systems Analyst who has made the recent life decision that she'd rather spend her time working with prose than code. She resides in Austin, Texas where being weird is highly encouraged, if not required. You can see more of her work at www.nickydrayden.com.
Seven security gargoyles stare at me from atop the elaborate sandstone columns lining the casino’s walls. Their sharp eyes and oversized talons flex ever so slightly in anticipation of snatching up cheaters like unsuspecting prey. They’ve moved closer since I first sat down at this slot machine, the only place in the casino that hadn’t had line-of-sight thanks to a fortunate arrangement of overgrown palm fronds and the gritty haze from a gaggle of feathered Gwiffahs smoking silvawax from a hookah. But the gargoyles have been swarming to my location ever since my machine passed 87,000 kalax, its blinking lights and wailing sirens announcing my winnings to the entire casino.
The pit boss watches me too, now, and for good reason. I’m an Ittari after all, a shapeshifter, just as they’d identified me with the DNA scan when I’d entered this fine establishment. Traleel Az, their biometric readouts had said, and along with my name and race, they'd listed half a dozen details--birthdate, gender, height, mass, skin color, eye color--all inaccurate and irrelevant to my kind.
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As I redouble my winnings, the management must really be sweating. They tempt me with free drinks and tickets to an impressive buffet featuring delicacies from every corner of the Cascade. They’ll do anything to knock me out of this winning streak.
“I don’t drink,” I tell the waitress, a Krellian girl with silver skin and a prehensile tail holding a cocktail that looks strong enough to peel the paint off the hull of my space cruiser. “I don’t eat either, actually.” Not humanoid food anyway.
They’ll have to do better than that to stop me. I pull the lever on my slot machine again and watch the symbols fall into a line--three Bulouvian cherries, all in a row. Jackpot. Now I stand at 415,000 kalax.
When I hit 1.2 million kalax, the pit boss comes down to congratulate me himself, a six-footed Crawvite, a smile on his long equine face. But he can’t stop his nervousness from showing as his hooves clack apprehensively on the casino’s slick granite floor.
“I’d like to offer you a three-night stay in our penthouse suite,” the pit boss says, shaking his luxurious mane in an obvious boast. The suites here are renowned across the Southern Cascade, not a single amenity overlooked. “Why don’t you get a little rest, then come back to the floor when you’re refreshed?”
I smile back at him. “No, thanks,” I say. “I’m sort of on a roll here. And besides, Ittari don’t need sleep. I just hope your casino has enough money in the vault to cash my voucher.”
And with that, I pull the lever, and what do you know, another jackpot. I can’t lose! The gargoyles flock to my machine, dozens of them, heads cocked, eyes sparking like struck flint, muscles tensing beneath stone. But they only suspect. The crowd behind me cheers me on, eighty or so witnesses that make any illicit means of prying me from this seat pretty much out of the question. Losing thousands of kalax is one thing, but having a reputation for strong-arming patrons would be even more damaging to the casino in the long run.
Nevertheless, three consecutive jackpots later, I’m being scanned and poked, prodded and searched.
“He’s a no-good, dirty shapeshifter!” the pit boss says to the disconcerted crowd, as if that would get them on his side. They gasp at his words, and I roll my eyes... I mean literally pop them out-of-socket and into the palm of my hand. I close them into my fist, and when I reopen it, they’re a pair of dice. I give them a shake, then toss them into the crowd. My audience shuffles out of the way as the dice tumble across the floor, then finally skid to a stop.
“Lucky seven!” an old Gwiffah biddy clucks. She’s so excited that her yellow feathers molt all over the place, and she can barely keep her wingtips from shaking as she scoops the dice up for a souvenir. They won’t be much of a souvenir once she’s on her way home, though--just a small puddle of oily, black goo when the dice leave the range of the coalescence field that allows me to hold my shape.
“You let me in here knowing what I was,” I say to the pit boss with a sneer. “In fact you’re the only casino in this system to let Ittaris gamble. You claim your machines are tamperproof, or is that just a marketing ploy? I’m good enough to play your games as long as you’re taking my money, but suddenly if things are reversed, I must be a criminal?”
The crowd applauds me, and I know I’ve got them in my pocket. Suddenly the casino is on the verge of some very bad press.
“Of course not!” the pit boss whinnies, trying to save face. “Our slot machines are tamperproof. But what you’ve done is impossible!”
“Improbable, yes, but not impossible. I figure the chances of hitting eleven jackpots in a row is one in eight billion, two hundred fifty million, six hundred twelve thousand, three hundred and fifty-four.”
“We know you’re cheating, Traleel,” the pit boss finally accuses, drawing his pink gums back to expose gleaming white teeth. “Tell us how and we won’t press charges.”
“I’m not cheating. The machine is hot, that’s all.” I morph myself a new set of eyes, then nod at the machine. “Why don’t you give it a spin?”
He looks at me dubiously, then trots over and pulls the handle. Jackpot!
The pit boss shakes his head in disbelief then orders the machine dismantled. Without warning, stone talons grip me, and I'm whisked away to the pit boss's lair for more questioning. A tinted glass wall overlooks the glitzy casino floor where thousands of patrons from hundreds of homeworlds plink their hard-earned kalax into stingy machines. We're all chasing crazy dreams of striking it rich, though what sets us apart is how much we're willing to sacrifice to make those dreams come true.
I'm feeling smug, maybe a little cocky as the pit boss paces the length of the room. At the center of his lair is a strikingly intricate desk, which I can't help but notice is carved from a Brahvian mammoth skull. Insanely expensive. Highly illegal. Most people might take this as a threat, but it’s difficult to intimidate an Ittari. Can’t exactly torture someone who can slip into a semi-liquid state, and forget about using those primitive lie detectors on me.
“So maybe you won’t talk,” says the pit boss, pulling a pistol out from a pewter box sitting on his desk. The pistol's bloated barrel is streaked with white light converging into a puckered tip. “But once my crew is finished dismantling that slot machine, I'll know the truth, and you'll be nothing but a puddle of sewer sludge.”
I almost flinch, but I keep my cool. I hadn't thought oride laser technology had made it to this edge of the Cascade. It's the only frequency of light that can nullify my coalescence field. We lock eyes like adversaries across the pink felt of a Brahvian Hold'em table. The pit boss's wide nostrils flare. Maybe it's a tell, maybe just a twitch. But I decide to call him on it, because one, I've never been one to play the odds, and two, he's holding the pistol backwards.
“You can’t prove anything,” I tell the pit boss, “because there’s nothing to prove. Not even telepaths can tamper with your machines, much less a no-good, dirty Ittari like myself. You really think I’ve got the smarts to crack your encryptions?”
He raises an arrogant eyebrow and gives me a long once-over. “Absolutely not.”
“Well, unless you’ve got anything else you’d like to accuse me of, I think I’ll collect my winnings now.”
“A six million kalax payout would cripple us,” the pit boss admits, and I almost feel sorry for him.
“Not necessarily,” I say. “Just think of all the press coverage you’ll get! ‘Local shapeshifter wins big’ the headlines will read. ‘Hits eleven jackpots in a row!’ People will be swarming in here like Guruvian flies on a pile of dung to play on that machine!”
The pit boss hems and haws and whinnies, his nostrils flaring in disgust. Finally, he places the pistol back in its box. “Maybe we can make a deal. One million kalax paid now and the rest paid over a five-year period.”
I bite my lip and entertain the offer. “Two million,” I dare to say. “And the rest paid over a five-year period including twenty percent interest.”
The pit boss rears his hooves up, then claps them back down on the floor. His tail swishes vigorously. He’s aggravated beyond belief, but what choice does he have? “One-point-five million and fifteen percent interest,” he finally says.
I extend my hand and we shake on it. “You drive a hard bargain, sir,” I say. “But I can assure you I’ll only give glowing reviews of your establishment. This is my favorite casino in the Southern Cascade. And I’m not just saying that because you’re the only one who lets me in.”
The pit boss grimaces, then escorts me to the vault. It takes three gargoyles to haul my winnings out to my space cruiser. Once I’m loaded up, I wave goodbye to the pit boss and blast off, still a no-good, dirty Ittari, but a rich one.
I feel my coalescence field straining, first just a tiny tug the size of a pair of dice. A sharp pain runs through my core as I lose that part of me, and somewhere in that old Gwiffah biddy’s purse, the pair of souvenir dice turns into two oil puddles.
I laugh, wondering how I of all people had pulled off the scam of the century. I’m definitely not smart enough to tamper with those machines, though I doubt anyone is. They truly are the most encrypted in the Cascade. But there is one thing I’m good at and that’s shifting. I can imitate just about anything, from something as small and simple as those dice, to something as large and mechanically complex as a personal space cruiser, like the one I’m flying right now.
I ache again, this time much more intensely. The coalescence field is straining one last time as I break the planet’s orbit. Before the bond severs completely, I give the lever a final spin. Somewhere in the pit boss's lair, three Bulouvian cherries blink all in a row, announcing a final jackpot before the slot machine melts into an oil slick on the casino floor.
This story was first published on Wednesday, November 10th, 2010
"Winning Streak" was written for my wonderful father, Bill Edwards, who wanted to read a story of mine that actually had a happy ending. Most of my stories tend to be bittersweet, so this posed a challenge. It was both exciting and stressful to write a story tailored to someone else's interests, but we were pleased with the results. Expect to see more from Traleel Az in the future.
- Nicky Drayden
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