The Beast, Pt. 23 (Chapter 11b)

The dice tumble through the air, hit the table again, tumble, hit the wall on the far side from us, bounce back. All the times I laughed off calamity, weaseled my way out of punishments, bumbled through situations where I should have gotten my ass kicked or been thrown in jail or had everyone tell me, “Nope, fuck you” and walk out of my life for good, all of those moments are playing through my head. A slideshow of stupidity, a film strip of failure. My brain has strapped me into a chair and pried my mind’s eyes open with specula, sat down beside me with popcorn and a soda, an elbow to the ribs, laughter and hushed whispers. “Oh, man, get a load of this! Remember that? That’s one of my favorites! Oh, shit, here it comes!”

I am a thousand light years away from the table, frozen in some dark place that the Sun’s light doesn’t reach, where warmth is a distant and fading memory. I wonder how long it will take me to build up my savings again. I wonder if I was dumb enough to empty out my retirement and if it’s the pile I’m about to lose. I wonder if my friends will literally turn around and kill me when the stickbot reaches out and our lives’ earnings disappear into the vault beneath the table.

For most people, it’s not one big thing that does them in. It’s a thousand little things, a million. It’s a lifetime of bad decisions and close calls and errors of judgment that the gods track and tally on their great slate board in the sky, so much debt never to be forgiven. A glass of booze to loosen up and relax. A cigarette to calm the nerves. A couple lines of stim to keep you on your feet and dancing when your body is ready to collapse, begging and pleading with you that it’s time to go home. Every choice we make we borrow against the future, and there’s a figure in a hooded black robe and a green eyeshade sitting behind a calculator, adding it all up and chuckling softly.

For centuries (Hell, for all of human history,) the wealthy and the desperate and the gullible thought they could game the system with science. They thought that death was a problem to be solved once and for all, and they threw all of their money and the smartest minds in their employ at solving this problem, and all the while they were doing the same goddamn thing as the churches they decried as misguided and outdated and childish: fixating on what comes after we shuffle off the mortal coil to the point where the present, where the living suffer. They bought into promises like, “We’ll just freeze your brain and in the future scientists will have a way to revive it and you’ll live forever!” “Give us your money and we’ll build a machine that will make everything perfect and you’ll live forever! Eight lives saved for every dollar you donate!” “Fund our research and we’ll scan your brain and upload it to a server and it’ll be a paradise all your own!” So many promises, and so few questions: why would scientists bother researching how to unfreeze disembodied brains? What earthly government would cede their power and authority to an AI programmed in a lab somewhere? What happens when the server goes down, as they inevitably do?

At the dawn of the 21st century, some ancient Christian cult or another predicted the end of days. Enterprising atheists offered to watch the pets of folks who were certain that they’d be raptured away to eternal bliss. Animals don’t have souls, after all, so they can’t come to Heaven, but someone’s got to look after Mr. Wiggles. Might as well just pay your friendly atheist to do it, and so what if they want payment up front? You won’t need the money in Heaven and it won’t do them any good once the earth splits open and demons and the dead start pouring out.

How stupid the eschatologists must have felt when they woke up the day after the world was supposed to end. How smug the atheists must have felt as they cashed their checks. How stupid they made us all look when they turned around and sent that money to some “Research Institute” or another because it was the only thing that would save them.

I suppose it’s in human nature to be unable to accept inevitability. And don’t kid yourself, the failure of your funds, the failure of your mind, the failure of your meat is absolutely inevitable. Oh, sure. Maybe you can stave off your appointment with the collections agent. There are things you can do. Work out to keep your heart healthy. Get married for the sake of your emotional well-being. Go to bed early because staying up late correlates with all kinds of undesirable behavior. Get a pet because fuzzy wuzzy things are the best kind of palliative care. Get a degree since education correlates with better health. Move into a nice suburb somewhere, with rows of identical houses full of identical pieces of furniture. Do it all so you’ll live as long as possible. But you can’t hide from the reaper man forever. No matter what the bill comes due. No matter how you play it, life’s a game.

“And the house always wins,” I mutter under my breath. The dice bounce one last time, roll for a little bit, come to a stop. I close my eyes and take a deep breath and wait to feel four separate sets of hands clamp around my throat and choke the life out of me.

This is it. This is the end. It was inevitable.

How smug I’ve been all my life. How stupid I feel now.

I am so fucked. Well, the least I can do is not cry.

“Hard six!” the stickbot calls out in a high mechanical voice, and the room erupts into cheering and laughter and curses of disbelief.

“What?” I open my eyes and blink stupidly and look down at the table. I’ve been yanked out of my thoughts and back to the Meadows like a newborn plucked from between the legs of its mother, just as confused but a little less likely to wail in existential angst. Down on the felt, two rows of three glowing dots stare up at me, shining like the unblinking eyes of some strange alien creature. Shining like jewels, like treasure, sapphires and emeralds.

Googe and Monk are slapping me on the back. Papa Chub is laughing like a maniac. Erb is shaking his head and saying, “I don’t believe it,” but he’s smiling and the smile turns into a grin. The stickbot pushes a stack of chips stretching towards the heavens, or at least towards the ceiling lights, across the table, at me and my friends, at me.

I don’t speak or move. My eyes flit back and forth from the dice to the chips again and again until the room is spinning and my vision’s going black at the edges. I can’t even understand what I’m feeling, if it’s joy or residual fear or just more adrenaline than my endocrine system’s ever been subject to at once, but all eyes are on me, and I have to do something.

I take a deep breath. Might as well do what comes natural.

I throw my fists over my head and bellow, “Drinks all around! Hookers! Stims! I want a bottle of the finest whiskey in this place, and I want it now!” A woman that I assume to be a hotel employee in a dress so tight that I’m not convinced it isn’t actually some kind of synthetic fabric that’s been literally painted onto her skin nods her head. “Right away, Sir!” She scurries away, impossibly thin and curvy and perfect, a testament to surgery and gene therapy and pheromonal black magic and just general good luck in the game of life, and I think back to Erb’s words on the shuttle. Fuck bottle service. This is what it’s like to be a high roller. This is what it’s like to be somebody. This is what it’s like to be rich. This is what it’s like to pay for hot. I watch her genetically engineered ass sway from side to side as she moves and then something occurs to me and I cry out, “Get me something aged in wooden barrels! Real wooden barrels!” The crowd laughs uproariously. Was that funny? Fuck it, I’m rich now. Everything I say is funny.

A woman I’ve never even seen before with dark hair and dark eyes and lipstick as red as blood throws her arms around me, kisses me on the cheek. “Good job, baby,” she says, and she makes a sound that is an honest-to-God purr, and whether she’s some kind of a cat synth or she’s just extremely talented, it doesn’t matter. It was a good job. I did a great job at having good luck.

I wheel around and kiss her hard, smearing her lipstick, and she just laughs and smiles. I pump my fists over my head again and shout for all the casino floor to hear, “I’m going to live forever!” and they cheer me on, roaring their indiscriminate approval at the jubilant lunatic.

Everybody loves a winner.

Word Count: ( ;,;)

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