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art by ShotHot Design

Men of Wealth

Ross Willard, a Colorado resident, has been writing speculative fiction in one form or another for as long as he can remember. A longtime member of the Penpointers critique group, Ross can often be found reading or writing at his local independent bookstore, or working on his website, www.rosswriter.com.
Thomas stared at the cards in his hand. He bit his lower lip and worried it between his teeth as he eyed the pile of black rock that lay halfway between himself and his opponent.
"Dammit boy, you in or not?" Drawled the old man.
"I told you, Geezer, I never played like this before. You gotta give me a minute to think, here."
Geezer shook his head and rolled his eyes. "It's the same damned game you wasted your money on whenever we stopped by the station. Ain't like you've gotta relearn the rules or nothin'."
"The ones on the station were computerized," the younger man countered. "It organized your number for you, told you how many cards were still in the deck. Hell, it even told you what your best play was, statistically speaking."
"And you still managed to lose all your money." Geezer snorted. "Seems to me the best advice it could've given you was to quit while you were ahead."
He seemed to realize what he was saying just as the words were coming out of his mouth.
Thomas's jaw clenched and he turned his gaze reflexively to the floor in shame.
"Dammit, boy, I didn't mean it like that."
There was a softness to the old man's voice now that Thomas had never heard before.
"I know." Thomas forced himself to look up. "Doesn't mean it isn't true."
Geezer sighed. "But it isn't. Don't you think I'd let you know?"
"It was a stupid risk."
"Of course it was. But that's what we do. We gamble."
"You don't."
The older man's face broke into a grin, exposing a jagged row of teeth and gums. "Now that's a damned ignorant thing to say. What the hell do you think this job is, boy? It's nothing but a lifetime of bets. You spend your life savings for a ship that was scrapped before your grandfather was born, and hope that you'll be able to make it run. You scrape together enough money for fuel, and pray that you find an asteroid worth mining close enough that you can fly back. You think you're the only man out here who lives on the edge? I could've gotten a job on any of the planets. I came out here because I needed the excitement."
"But you're always so careful," Thomas countered. "I've never seen you waste anything. Not money, not food. Nothing."
"That's because I already made my bet. I put every chip I had on the table before you and I ever met. I've just been waiting to see how it all turned out."
The smile faded from the old man's face as his words echoed in the tiny room.
"Yeah." Thomas sighed. "How it all turned out." He pushed the last of the black rocks from next to him onto the pile and laid his cards on the floor. "I'm in. Two pair. Queens high."
Geezer set his own cards down. "Three of a kind."
Thomas shrugged and glanced out the window as the old man pulled the rocks onto his own pile.
"That's... let's see, the rate was fifty two thousand and change an ounce when we left, and this is almost two hundred ounces, so ten million or so?"
"Yep. You're officially the richest man I've ever met."
"You want to play some more?"
"I'm broke."
Geezer nodded towards the window. "You could always go out and chip a few more pounds off."
"Nah." Thomas leaned his back against the cold steel of the ship. "I never did like those damned suits."
"Nobody does." Geezer leaned against the opposite wall and stared at the boy.
Thomas continued to stare out the window.
"So what are you going to do with your share?"
"What?" Thomas turned his gaze to his companion.
"Your share." The old man forced a grin onto his face. "Even at the station rates, and minus my percentage and winnings," he nodded at the pile of rock next to him, "you're a rich man. So what are you going to do with it?"
Thomas blinked in bewilderment. "But..."
"I'm going to get a new set of teeth." Geezer pressed. "The old sawbones on the station has been wanting to fit me with a new set for years now, but I've always had better things to do with the money. First thing when we get back, I'm going to go in and get a whole new set. Top of the line, even. I'll have him do that bit where they make your gums think you're a kid again and grow 'em for you fresh."
"That isn't exactly how it works. They pull a bunch of cells from your bones and reprogram them, it's this technique--"
"Don't much matter to me how it works," Geezer interrupted. "I just know it's the latest thing, and I'm gonna be the first person on station that has it done. So what about you, boy? You've gotta have a hankerin' for somethin'."
"I don't know." Thomas looked out the window again.
"Sure ya do. Come on, what is it? What would you get? A new suit? Your own ship, maybe?"
"I suppose. The only thing I really want, though, is Anna."
"Anna? Betty's girl, Anna? Son, you're in the money, now, no reason for you to go buyin' affection. A bit ironic, come to think of it, but it's true. Betty's girls are for men who can barely afford them. Buy a little style and women will be falling all over themselves to spend time with you."
"I don't want women. I want Anna."
"Oh, I see." Geezer shook his head. "Nothing worse than falling in love with a prostitute, son. There's no future in it."
There was a brief, deafening silence at that. Then Thomas's mouth split into a grin. He made a choking noise that transitioned quickly into a guffaw of laughter.
Geezer stared at him in bewilderment for several seconds before a kind of realization hit him and he started laughing as well.
In a matter of seconds both the men were rolling on the floor of their ship, laughing until they could barely breathe.
"Oh, oh my." Geezer gained control of himself first, wiping his eyes. "Oh, and here I was, thinking I'd never laugh again."
Thomas pulled himself into a sitting position, still giggling.
Geezer looked out the window for a few seconds, shaking his head and chuckling. When he turned back he found Thomas staring out the same window, his smile all but gone.
"Was that the oxygen deficiency you were talking about?"
Geezer shook his head. "No, that was just funny. We've still got a few more hours of air."
Thomas nodded. "I'm sorry, just so you know. I didn't expect the rock to fall that way."
Geezer shook his head. "I told you, boy, it ain't your fault. Sometimes this sort of thing just happens."
The two men sat together in silence, staring out the window at the small engine mounted to the side of their ship. A metal box which gave them enough power to move, recycle their oxygen, and stay warm in the depths of space. They stared at it, and the large black rock, worth roughly a hundred times more money than either men had seen in their lives, lodged in it.
After almost five minutes, Geezer cleared his throat, breaking the silence. "Seeing as how we're both rich men, what say I loan you five million and we can play a few more hands?"
Thomas sighed. "Sure. Why not."
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, May 24th, 2011

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