'It must've been a beautiful sight'. Being able to just look up and see the stars that filled the infinite horizon outside. That certainly must've been what the engineers had in mind when they designed the ceiling of the casino. The largest section by far, the casino nearly spanned the length of the entire ship. Spacious and luxurious, even with hundreds of people, it never felt crowded with the patrons evenly distributed among various bars, gambling machines, and card tables. And above it all was a great dome that would've given those patrons a glorious view of the Empty Desert; the cold, empty void that rested outside the hull of the cruiser. The nothingness that gave no obstruction to the cosmos, all of the stars, and, of course, the great red monster that towered over the entire sector.
The Madralen Nebula was nowhere near the cruise ship but that wouldn't stop anyone from recognizing the sheer size of it. It would've taken up the entire view of the clear dome above the casino. The deck was clearly designed with the giant gas cloud in mind as the casino had dim blue lighting that would have contrasted itself quite well with the red nebula. The low lighting plus the overall design was meant to create an intimate experience for the patrons despite its overall size. That was the idea at least.
'It must've been a beautiful sight.' Ash thought to himself again as he looked up at the ceiling and saw no stars...no big, red nebula. The dome had been boarded up. Though, perhaps, 'ironed up' was the better expression as that's what was now up there. Just the iron plating of the ship's hull plastered over the dome in place of the see-through plastic that obviously used to be there. It wasn't even aesthetically pleasing to look at. The metal material was clearly recycled scrap with welding spots easily spotted from below thanks to the bright white lights that were now attached to the ceiling. What was once a perfectly lit casino now looked completely washed out. It felt like it as well. Ash could feel the heat of those lights beaming down on him. He had been wiping sweat from his forehead during the entire game.
'Fear makes everything Ugly.' Ash thought while pressing the button on his vape, taking in a strong dose of nicotine.
Ash looked down mid-inhale and stared at the other players. The one sitting to his right impatiently asked. "You folding or what?"
Exhaling the vapor, Ash lifted up the cards in front of him to take a quick glance at his hand. A seven of clubs and jack of diamonds. Not a bad hand. "I call.'
He tossed the necessary chips forward and returned to his vape as the player to his right followed with a call of his own. There was a mocking sigh from the man sitting directly across from him. "I call...and call and call. That's all you ever do."
"Not true." Ash responded smugly. "Sometimes I fold."
The man opposite shook his head while the betting continued around the table. "Why don't you grow some balls?"
"I seem to be doing just fine without them," Ash motioned towards his pile of chips which was noticeably larger than everyone else's. "Perhaps you should consider cutting yours off, maybe you'll play a little smarter."
With none of the other players raising after Ash, the robot dealer drew the turn, the fourth card in hold'em, while a waitress walked up with a rocks glass filled with whiskey. She placed the drink down next to Ash and grabbed his empty.
"Thank you." Ash said to the waitress, his breath almost as strong as the whiskey he had been served. There were four cards now: A four of spades, nine of hearts, queen of hearts, and an ace of spades. Ash's hand was growing weaker. He folded before the round of betting could even reach him, much to the annoyance of the man across from him.
Ash could certainly understand the satisfaction of scaring people into folding but that doesn't usually result in large profits. To say nothing of the massive losses that could come when one faces someone who doesn't scare so easily. Ash drank from his glass as the current hand finished up with his rival across the table ultimately winning. Overjoyed, the man reached out and pulled in his chips.
It was purely an ego boost for the rich man, and he was certainly rich. Ash could see the man's wealth as clear as day, from his excessive tan resulting in orange skin that was horrifically mismatched with his blue hair, the man was a physical embodiment of the elite class. Frequent access to UV rays was a luxury, hair dye was a privilege, and the rich loved to show it all off without a second's thought about appearances. Never realizing that expensive tastes aren't the same thing as having class. The rest of the players were obviously wealthy as well with their own choice of colorful hair dye, rich tans, and over-designed outfits that seemed downright uncomfortable to wear. Though none were quite as flamboyant about it all as the man sitting opposite was.
But the river flowed both ways. Just as Ash could see the wealth of his competitors, they could all see him as the outsider he was. With his plain dark pants, dark shirt, and dark coat. His dark hair, dark brown eyes, and dark skin. Ash stood apart from his rich rivals just through his very presence. He didn't take the time to properly groom himself for his date with the elites either, sitting there with bags under his eyes, unkempt hair, and strong 5 o'clock shadow growing his dry, cracking skin. Ash didn't get much sleep, he didn't get much of the artificial sunlight, and he was definitely starting to suffer the effects. Though, as he quickly finished yet another glass of whiskey, Ash understood that was only the start of his issues. Not that he was bothered much by any of it, quickly motioning to the waitress to bring him yet another refill.
The blue haired man shook his head. "How does some lowly drunk like you stumble his way into a place like this? What are you, some two-bit con-artist?"
"Well, I'm not." Ash shrugged, "But I know a few."
Most people in Ash's position would want to keep a low profile in Ash's position, especially given the less than legal means he used onto the luxury transport ship. In fact, most people in his position wouldn't use such a high-class means of transportation. But Ash wasn't one for caution. Besides, he relished the opportunity to plant his 'lowly' self among the elite. He certainly wasn't insulted by the contempt they gave him with the way he leaned into it with his disheveled appearance. And he knew that their contempt and suspicion wouldn't turn into any action against him. Reporting him to the authorities would require the elites to view him as something more than an annoyance and, of course, actual effort.
The robot dealer shuffled the deck as it gave the routine instructions for the players to pass the blinds. The big blind was now on Ash, requiring him to make a bet right out of the gate, so it was probably best to wait a bit before folding again...assuming his hand isn't completely worthless. The dealer began dealing out the cards to the respective players. It was still unusual for Ash to play cards with a robot dealer, he was accustomed to playing with human ones in less opulent settings. Not that he was prejudiced against machines, he just questioned how well it could monitor betting and potential cheating. But Ash had to admit, the Union's advancements in A.I were impressive. The robot, while a bit stiff in its movements, kept order pretty well.
The new hand began and Ash's was decent. An ace of clubs and a five of hearts. It was certainly good enough to warrant staying in to see how things play out. The betting started with the players to Ash's right matching his big blind and soon found its way to the blue-haired man, who raised. The betting continued, with one of the other players folding, and soon things were back on Ash. The blue-haired man mocked him. "I take it you will be calling again."
"You know me so well." Ash answered as he threw the chips onto the table, keeping his eyes on his rival. The robot dealer reached up and with its silver arms and straightened up the pile of chips before proceeding to draw the first card. A three of spades. Not really useful to Ash but, apparently, it was more than enough to prompt another raise from the blue-haired man. Two more players folded while Ash just called again.
Then came the second card, eight of diamonds, and there was yet another raise from the man sitting across. Another player folded as the betting went around to Ash who just realized that the blue-haired man had barely looked at his hand since the hand had begun.
"I am curious, how high are you willing to call?" The blue man asked smugly.
Ash couldn't help but be amused by his rich rival. He had gotten his ass kicked throughout the entire game and was only still at the table because his bottomless pockets were able to take the losses. But now, after winning just one round of significance, he was suddenly playing hyper-aggressive. Trying to scare the rest of the table away with his display of wealth and apparent strength. There was only one way for Ash to respond with a big smile on his face. "I will see you...and I will raise you."
Ash tossed in the chips and watched as all the other players folded in response, leaving just the two of them. The bet returned to the blue-haired man who called, prompting a laugh from Ash. "What? Don't have any balls?"
The man didn't respond which just added to Ash's smile as he returned to his drink. Another card was dealt. A ten of hearts. Ash watched as his opponent made the first bet, matching the blind and raising. Ash called and raised.
"Now you want to play." The blue-haired man stated. "You bluffing?"
Ash shrugged. "No more than you. But I am curious, how high are YOU willing to call?"
The robotic dealer motioned to the blue-haired man to make his move and, after a moment of tense silence, he made it. He pushed all of his chips to the center of the table. "I'm all in."
"I call." Ash responded calmly, pushing his chips in to match the bet. Ash will have some chips left if he lost but the rich man certainly won't, at least not without buying more. The robot reached up and neatened the pile before preparing to draw the last two cards of the hand. Both Ash and his terribly tanned rival flipped their cards over to reveal their hands. As he had predicted, Ash's opponent had a slightly weaker hand than his, a jack of spades and a three of diamonds. There were two cards left to draw though. The time for strategy was over, all Ash could do is sit and wait for luck to be on his side.
"Just how lucky do you think you are?" the rival asked eyeing up the disheveled Ash. "Because you don't strike me as particularly lucky."
Ash laughed at that pitiful attempt to demean him. "Really? I'd say someone like me being in a place like this would be considered 'lucky.'"
"Please, you're just a drifter. Conning your way from city to city, gaming the system every step of the way. How do you get away with it?"
"I figured you would've figured it out by now." Ash said referring back to his habit of calling instead of raising. "I don't pick a fight I can't win."
The fourth card was drawn. A jack of spades. Ash's rival now had a pair over him.
"It seems that you can't win this fight."
Ash took a deep breath of nicotine from his vape and responded on the exhale. "Let's save the celebrations for the end, shall we?"
The robot flipped over the final card...an ace of hearts. The win goes to Ash. There is a light applause around the table Ash finished up his current drink in celebration.
"Don't worry." Ash said to his beaten rival. "I'm sure you can afford it."
Ash gathered up his chips and placed them onto a small carry tray to transport. All the while the petty blue man stated under his breath. "Ass."
"No, it's Ash. With an H." Ash corrected. "Common mistake. But I don't know what you're so angry about, you're the one who overplayed his hand."
With his winnings in hand, Ash stood up from the table and went to cash out. The cashout station was nestled in the corner of the casino not far from the long bar that ran through most of the aft side of the deck. Ash went up to one of the small glass windows of the check out station and didn't take for the clerk behind it to notice his gains. "Lucky night?"
"Nope." Ash answered as he slid the tray of chips under the glass. "Just took advantage of someone else's misfortune."
"That's a rather negative way of looking at it."
"Is it?" Ash answered rhetorically before pointing down to the glass of water that was sitting on the clerk's desk. "Your glass is 'half-empty' by the way."
The Clerk laughed as he counted up the chips, it took a bit. "Your total winnings are 12,345 credits. Just enter your card and we can make the transfer."
"Actually, I'd like the winnings in oxygen." Ash stated to the clerk's surprise.
"All of it?"
"Yes. You can do that here, can't you?"
"Of course, it's just most passengers who fly on this ship don't ask for it."
Ash nodded. "Yeah, I'm sure they don't."
"You'll have to pay for the tanks and transport carriers."
"I'm aware, you can take that off the winnings."
The clerk performed the transaction and gave Ash his receipt. The clerk explained that Ash would have to collect the oxygen at the shipyard after they dock and arrange for it to be transferred to his place of residence. Ash said that he understood even though he didn't actually have a place of residence where he was going...or anywhere for that matter. But it was always good to keep a good supply of oxygen on hand because, in the void of outer space, oxygen was more valuable than gold.
With his winnings processed, Ash walked over to the bar. The waitress who had been serving him all throughout the poker game was behind the bar preparing another round of drinks to serve across the casino. She saw Ash coming and simply placed the refill she had prepared for him on the bar. Ash grabbed the glass. "Thanks."
"You done at the table?" The waitress asked.
"Yes, I am." Ash placed his credit card on the bar and went to work on his new drink.
"You seem to enjoy that brand, would you like a bottle to take back to your room?"
Ash couldn't remember exactly what he said in response to that question...which probably meant he said yes. He could see the effects of the night as he was suddenly awakened by the piercing sound of the morning alarm. Ash threw off the sheets and smacked the alarm next to the bed to get it to shut up. The lights, signaled by the alarm, slowly lit up the suite as an automated voice came on over the intercom. "Good morning, Mr. Franklyn. I do hope you enjo-"
"Deactivate!" Ash screamed at the ceiling, forcing the voice to switch off. He sat on the edge of the bed wearing nothing but his dark pants and took a moment to collect himself. He looked over his shoulder to see he had gone to bed alone. That was disappointing, Ash had spent a lot of the night flirting with that lovely waitress and he had hoped it would lead to something. Or maybe it did and she simply rejected him. Though, given his uncertainty, it probably didn't matter either way. At this moment, Ash was actually more concerned about whether or not he had remembered to tip her. Ash got up from the bed, stood for a second, and remarked to himself. "Yeah, I'm sure I did."
Ash walked out to the other side of the luxury suite he was traveling in and entered the kitchen area. It was there that he noticed that he had, in fact, said yes to receiving a bottle of the whiskey he was drinking the previous night and it was now sitting on the kitchen counter. He opened the bottle, grabbed a coffee mug from the counter, and poured a bit into it. He then placed the mug into the coffee maker and stood there with both hands on the counter, trying to wake himself up, as the coffee brewed. Once it was done, Ash grabbed the mug and walked back into the living area of the suite.
It was a nice suite Gallen had gotten from him. About the size of a small apartment, the room had a large bed, a well-stocked kitchen, a large living room with a view, and a really comfy rug to stand on. The rich sure knew how to travel in style. Ash had no idea who 'Mr. Franklyn' was supposed to be, probably an executive of some kind for Gallen to hack his passport on Ash's behalf. Not that Ash cared about the inconvenience he caused Mr. Franklyn by stealing his ticket, he could probably just buy a ticket on the next cruise out. He did pity the poor customer service rep that would have to deal with the inevitable complaint though.
With his spiked coffee in hand, Ash planted himself in the soft recliner chair in the corner of the living room and swiped his hand in front of the black sensor on the wall. Once he did, the shudders on the window began to retract upwards allowing him to enjoy his glorious view that everyone tried so hard to block out. The lights sprawled from one end of the window to the other, the infinite stars of the cosmos and the great red nebula. Ash would say that it was like a painting that wouldn't do it justice. It was truly a beautiful sight to behold, one that Ash never grew tired of looking at. He never grew tired of looking out at the stars, He never came to fear them as everyone else did. He didn't even fear the red cloud even after it was given the name 'Madrelan'. The nebula didn't deserve that name. It wasn't responsible for Rhea.
Another voice came on the intercom to break Ash's concentration. A real voice this time. "Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. At this moment, there is now only an hour and a half delay on Wakefield's public media service. The beginning of the morning program will be reaching us about now if you would like to view it. We will be commencing our final light-jump in about 2 hours and will begin docking procedures shortly after. Thank you."
Ash sighed and said out loud. "Screen on."
The digital screen built into the wall opposite to Ash switched on and the Wakefield morning news were, of course, discussing 'Rhea Day'. The male anchor was speaking. "Mayor Harland's office gave a statement last night, reminding all of us that all traffic at the shipyard will be heavy before and after Rhea Day. And that the special delegation from Rome will arrive two days from now on Friday."
"I understand that the delegation will be larger than in previous years." The female anchor added. "Because, reportedly, the Chancellor's representative for the Wakefield ceremony will be the Director of Special Operations, Colonel Basileus Ryker."
"Ryker?" Ash said to himself as the newscast continued.
"If these reports are true." The female anchor added. "Colonel Ryker will be addressing the city of Wakefield prior to the Chancellor's Union wide speech on Rhea Day this Sunday."
Ash groaned. The reason he had decided to go to Wakefield was that it would be the best place to lay low during the weekend. Not only did the cyber-underground have no presence there at the moment, but it was typically low on the list of destination spots for VIPs during events like Rhea Day. The plan was for Ash to drink his way through the weekend without the risk of being discovered by Union security forces. It'll be significantly more difficult to do that if Ryker was the VIP going to Wakefield this year. He didn't quite understand why a man of Ryker's rank would be going to a city like Wakefield on Rhea Day. Ash couldn't help but wonder what kind of bet the Colonel had lost to get that assignment. But all of this, of course, means extra security for Ash to be mindful.
The two anchors carried on with their discussion on Rhea Day and everything that was happening on Wakefield over the course of the weekend which prompted Ash to say. "Screen off."
Ash sat back into the recliner and drank from his mug. He looked around the suite again and couldn't help but be impressed with Gallen's work, even if it was incomplete...
"So, the boarding pass is all set then?" Ash had asked Gallen before leaving the city of Columbia on the cruise ship.
"Oh, ye of little faith." The hacker answered. "I could get that for you in my sleep, if I slept. It was a cute side project while I focused on my hack of the news feed."
"Who hired you for that job?" Ash asked immediately regretting the question.
"No job, it's just fun. Imagine it, those empty suits are on the screen discussing the state of the ducks in the artificial pond-"
"Have you ever actually watched the news?"
"-and suddenly, BAM, porn my friend. Just hot, disgusting porn for the whole city to witness. I'm talking boobs, whips, and wildly inappropriate hairstyles. Oh, the horror."
"Well, that'll teach them...something I'm sure." Ash said dryly. He knew it was best not to question or engage with that statement. Ash knew Gallen Cayne well enough to know that to do so would send him down a rabbit hole of depravity from which there was no easy escape. Instead, Ash pressed on with his questions. "How about the false irises and synthetic fingerprints?"
"Oh." Gallen paused. "Well, I was going to get those from you but then I don't really want to spoil you. Plus, I have all the other important hacks to do."
Ash sighed. "So you forgot, wonder-boy. How the hell am I supposed to get through Customs?"
"You're resourceful, I'm sure you'll figure it out."
...And figure it out he did, whether or not it would actually work was Ash's main concern at the moment. It took all the connections he had to get off Columbia but he'll have to be clever to get through customs on Wakefield. A city he had only been to a few times before. After the ship had made its final light-jump and went through the lengthy docking procedure that was downright torturous on the eve of Rhea Day weekend, Ash would soon see just how clever he is.
Once the ship was docked, Ash made his way down the boarding tunnel out of the ship and soon found himself in one of the many receiving areas of the Wakefield Shipyard. It was crowded, lots of people traveling during Rhea Day weekend, but Ash was a natural of navigating through such traffic. Out of the windows of the shipyard, he could see all of the other starships navigating around each other to dock with the hundreds of tunnels that stretched out from the enclosed platforms of the shipyard. He could also see the smaller maintenance ships making repairs. And all of this was just one section of the shipyard, working here must've been a logistical nightmare.
Ash worked his way through the crowd, his travel bag in hand, and soon found himself at customs. He walked across the area, examining the various lines as he did. Or, at least, that's what he wanted the Union security officers to think he was doing. What he was actually doing was examining the security cameras at each customs station until he got a lucky break. He saw a line with a camera that had no red light. Wakefield was an old city, there was always something broken. The next question was the customs officer himself.
The line was as long and moved as fast as one could expect during Rhea Day weekend but Ash stood patiently as he slowly made his way up. He didn't look at the security officers, he didn't look at any of the other people in line, and he certainly didn't keep looking up to confirm that the camera was broken. He just stood in line with his large travel bag in hand. And, before too long, Ash found himself at the customs desk. He placed the bag on the conveyor to be x-rays, there was nothing in there that he needed to be concerned about. He didn't travel with weapons, they were easy to obtain when the situation required it.
Ash handed his hacked boarding pass to the customs officer who inserted the plastic pass into his computer and asked. "Are you here for business or pleasure, Mr. Franklyn."
"Neither." Ash answered. "I have no business and what pleasure is there to have on a weekend like this?"
"I'll just put down pleasure."
Ash examined the customs officer who typed on his keyboard without making much eye contact. The man seemed reasonably put together at first glance but didn't take Ash long to spot the slight tears in the seams of his uniform. His skin was pale and beginning to crack, not enough exposure to the artificial UV lights. Plus he was thin, very thin. This man may not be from the Wakefield sewers but he wasn't far up from them. The Customs officer made a decent living but it apparently wasn't enough to cover whatever debts he had built up in his thirty-plus years. He was struggling to pay for food and vitamin D pills, probably because he was spending what spare money he had on maintaining his oxygen supply.
"Alright, Mr. Franklyn." The customs officer said, still not making eye contact. "If you could provide your handprint and retinal scan with the scanners in front of you."
Ash didn't do that. "Oh, I had a pretty good run at hold'em and won a fair amount of oxygen for myself."
"Yes, that's on here. You can collect it at warehouse 3. You'll have to pay to have it transported to wherever you're staying. You can't keep it here."
"Well, shit. That sounds expensive."
The customs officer sighed, still making no eye contact. "Well, you could pay for it with some of the oxygen itself."
"I could." Ash conceded. "But, then again, I have nowhere to put it all. I don't suppose you could help me out with that."
At that moment, someone from behind Ash yelled. "Can we get a move on please!?"
The Customs officer grew impatient, "I can't help you with your oxygen storage. Please scan your-"
"You really don't have any need for oxygen." Ash stated bluntly, prompting the customs officer to finally make eye contact. Ash made a casual glance behind the officer. "The security camera seems to be out. You might want to inform security about that."
The officer turned to take a quick look as Ash continued. "Oh, I will certainly do the scan for you. I apologize."
Ash put his right hand just above the scanner and kept his eyes closed as he leaned down to the retina scanner. After that, he straightened back up and asked. "You get it."
The customs officer's eyes darted around a bit as he thought it over to himself. After a few seconds, he typed a few things into his keyboard and answered. "Yes, everything seems to be in order. Welcome to Wakefield, Mr. Franklyn."
"Thank You." Ash grabbed his bag and went about his business.
Author's Note: Thanks for reading. Leave a comment, tell me what you think. Support me on Patreon, writer_jameskeller