issue thirty-three

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(4060 words)
Bob Lorentson
Life's a Gamble

       Silver and gold LIFE IS A GAMBLE signs flashed their neon brilliance over each of the jazzy, dice bedecked entrances to the National Gaming Empire's sprawling Northeast government casino complex. Holographic coins flipped one hundred feet into the air before slowly tumbling back to earth and launching again.

Dave Noyes inched his car closer to NGE employment Gate 12 and again ran his fingers through his lifeless hair. He practiced a smile in the rearview mirror but turned away, disgusted with his sallow, sunken face. It was a good thing he wasn't depending on his looks to be hired.

He fanned the five JC's he held onto tightly, and wondered which of the job lottery cards might hold the secret to his resurrection. He had never bought five cards before. The odds have to be in my favor now, don't they? he thought. He crossed his fingers just the same. The odds of his lasting another month without a job, this he didn't want to think about. In the back of his mind he knew well enough he was approaching that state where his own survival would become a betting category. Any way to make a buck. How many lives had he bet on himself over the years? Plenty. But no matter how bad it got, he told himself he would never risk it all at one of those repulsive Russian roulette gaming parlors just to try and pick up enough scratch to last another couple of weeks. And he'd still rather do that than ask Trudi for any more money.

He saw the attendant's arm reach out of his window to shake the hand of the driver in front of him, and then to wave him on through to the service entrance for job assignment. Bastard, he thought. He kissed the top card and rolled up to the window. The smug, mirror-shaded attendant never even looked at him, just took his precious lottery cards and crammed them one after another into the Blinking Beast, or GOD, as the players called it, same as they called all the lottery machines that lorded over their lives.

"Careful," he pleaded, afraid that a bent or mutilated card would reduce his odds. He hated to hear the desperation in his voice. The attendant didn't respond. He tried not to think ahead to the job assignment stop, but he couldn't help thinking that he'd sure like to have this prick's job and show people a little respect.

GOD beeped, flashed red and spit out the first shredded card. He could feel his heart pounding. One after another, the remnants of the other cards followed the first into the garbage bin. Crucified again. Twenty five bucks he couldn't afford, wasted. The guard looked up at him now with a sneer on his face. "Thank you for playing," the guard intoned as required. The "Loser" he tossed in out of sheer meanness.

Dave pulled away slowly and thought for a second of flooring it and crashing through the big electronic screens in front of him, all flashing images of happy people playing at the various gaming emporiums inside. Fuckin assholes, he thought. Luring all the poor desperate idiots in there who think they got a chance to be happy rich assholes too. Odds are those wannabes'll be playing their next games at the Suicide Parlors.   

Instead he meekly followed the U-turn lane back out the Gate 42 exit and checked the gas gauge. A quarter of a tank. He pounded the steering wheel once and noticed as he did that he didn't even swear anymore. It used to be automatic. Lose the job lottery, pound the wheel, swear your head off. Subconsciously he must have realized that it hadn't improved his odds any, so his mind had made a behavioral adjustment. The realization disgusted him. He had vowed not to change, that he would remain true to himself no matter what. He was all he had. He was all he trusted. He had seen too many friends and acquaintances become virtually unrecognizable, bundles of tics, superstitions, and odd behaviors. "FUCK!" he screamed at the top of his lungs as he pounded the wheel again. He grinned thinking that that was the most satisfying fuck he'd had in a long time.

Trudi would be upset again. So what else was new? He'd have to put his pittance into the gas lottery as usual, so he could drive here just to keep trying his lousy luck at landing a job. That would again leave nothing extra for the health insurance lottery this month, never mind the car or apartment insurance lotteries. And that meant that all her money would have to go to the rent and everything else, including the stupid baby lottery she insisted on playing. What a joke. Why the hell would anybody want to bring a new life into this? Unless, maybe she could win the genetic re-engineering lottery too, a virtual guarantee into the happy land behind the electronic screens. After all, she did seem to have a lot more luck than he did. Something that felt an awful lot like hope washed over him for a second before he recognized the delusion.

The concrete apartment building on the nearly treeless street looked bleaker than ever. He parked the rolling wreck that was his car and walked the dirt path to the lobby, then rode the elevator to the ninth floor, captive as always to its slot machine entreaties to PLAY! WIN! Ignoring the little GOD's hungry demands, he flipped a bird at the security camera, and stepped into his gloomy hallway.

"HONEY I'M HOME," he called out to the empty apartment, shutting the door behind him. The life-size wall TV clicked on automatically. SBC, the Sports Betting Channel, came to life, a panel of sports experts debating the upcoming games, running down the odds for the various contests that were scheduled that day.

"I love you too honey," he mocked. The running news feed at the bottom of the screen responded by urging viewers to place their bets now and support the war effort.

Dave grabbed a beer from the fridge and plopped onto the couch. He flipped through the Dollars for Prayers Channel, the Weather Betting Channel, the Food Contest Channel, and stopped at the Political Gambling Network. Same message everywhere. Place your bets now! Support the War Effort!

What the hell were they talking about? What war? They were supposed to be in a time of unprecedented peace, as far as he knew. Granted that wasn't very far.

His bewilderment was interrupted by the political panel experts beginning to debate the NGE's two new candidates for President, the second most powerful position in the Empire after the Director, the Imperial Director of Lotteries that no one had seen for years. The Director whose "Master the Gods, Control the Odds" slogan was no longer even allowed to be whispered under penalty of life imprisonment. But he remembered.

Damn! thought Dave. Another election? What the hell's going on here? We just got through paying for the election of a new Lottery Enforcement Secretary! This Director's gonna bleed us all dry!

The running news feed informed voters that they would have a month to place their bets by submitting electronic election ballots for the candidate of their choice, along with the required fee for each ballot. All voters were required to buy at least one ballot. True patriots of the War Effort were urged to buy as many as they could afford.

"Son of a Bitch!" he blurted out to no one, just as Trudi walked in the door.

"Hey Babe," Dave said, twisting his head over the top of the couch. "Did you know we were in a war?"

"Of course I did," Trudi replied brusquely, not hiding her irritation. "It's on all the channels. How did you not know?"

"You know I try not to listen to that crap," he shot back. "The radio in my car broke long ago."

"Yeah right. A hammer will do that. I'm just amazed they haven't caught you yet. That's a pretty big fine the last I heard. Not to mention the humiliation I'd have to endure. So, any luck on the job front today?"

"Sure Hon. Hit the jackpot. Sorry I didn't call you. Smile, 'cause we're gonna be Happy People now."

Trudi stared at him. "You need a better attitude Dave. That's what you need," she said. "You need to start trusting the government. Your odds will improve when you do, like they say. I really believe that. Life's a gamble, so you pay your money and hope for the best. But your attitude is dragging us down."

"Wake up Trudi. Hope is dead. The government killed it."

"I'm starting to worry about you Dave," said Trudi, shaking her head. "I make just enough now at the book store to meet our gaming obligations, and to even play the restaurant and vacation lotteries once in a while. I do that for us. But I can't hold you up forever. Especially when I win the baby lottery. You need to try harder to get a job."

"And you need to get off my back!" Dave snapped. "What else can I do, buy black market cards? Aren't you always complaining about the people who try and use black market cards to buy a book, and how easy you say it is to spot them? I don't want to go to prison. There's no odds in that place. You keep forgetting how easy it was for you, winning an education lottery, then winning a business lottery to run the book store. And don't forget winning a housing lottery for the privilege of renting this shit hole. It's like they're watching out for you. Don't you ever wonder why there seems to be such a clear break between the winners and the losers? I do.

"My grandfather was the last Noyes to have a really good job. But that was way back at the New Beginning. He was hired to help build the New World, and program all the fucking little first generation GODS when the WGE came into power. And what was his reward? He and all his kind vanished. Nobody ever saw them again.

"Then my father. They say he was a genius, but he could barely get by in a lousy GOD Repairman job. Then he goes and disappears too. Maybe losing is in my DNA. Or maybe the government doesn't want me to win."

Again Trudi stared. She shook her head once, worry lines and narrowed eyes a bit more pronounced. "It's getting less and less easy for me having to put up with your attitude, I'll tell you that," she said. A gray cat appeared from the hallway and rubbed itself against Trudi's leg. "Lucky knows, don't ya Lucky?" she purred, bending over and kneading the cat's neck. "See Dave, notice how the cat only comes to me now? It's your attitude. If a cat can tell, so can the GODS."

It was Dave's turn to stare. "You're off your fuckin rocker Trudi," he shot back. "I know the GODS. Inside and out. And I'm talking about the Big GODS. My dad taught me, for all the good that did. I just don't know their locations, seeing as how we all were blindfolded when they took us inside the screens to work on them. But the GODS were always breaking down then, and they needed us. And I was good. Now they must be a lot stronger. They don't need us so much. Ironic don't you think, that the more I knew the GODS, the less I won anything. Maybe I'm just lucky I haven't disappeared for getting too close to them, like my grandfather. And my father."

"C'mon Lucky," humpfed Trudi, stalking off down the hallway. "Let's get away from Mr. Paranoia." The cat followed.

"Jesus," Dave grumbled. Mentally he again counted the money he had left, wondering if it was worth it to try his miserable luck in the girlfriend lottery. I don't think I can go through that again, he thought. But I can't take this shit much longer either.

Dave noticed the talking heads on the big screen turn and face the viewers. He turned up the volume.

"In breaking news, reported first on PGN, the National Gaming Empire has announced a brand new game to be run by the Prophesy Division. This is the latest in a series of fun new patriotic games designed to help fund the Empire's War Chest, so critical in these perilous times. I think we can all agree that war is not fun, which is why we need to support our leaders, now more than ever. Game details to follow this brief message from our Vice President."

A middle aged, impeccably tailored man appeared on screen, as blandly handsome as top leaders always were. He was seated at the Presidential desk in front of the Empire's roulette wheel flag backdrop, which was flanked by two of the most beautiful women Dave had ever seen. Dave couldn't ever remember seeing this Vice President before, but that's not what bothered him. Presidents, Vice Presidents, and other high ranking officials seemed to come and go as often as the games they promoted. It never changed anything. He thought it amusing that candidates for office never even bothered to promise change anymore.

The woman on the right however, there was something about her that seemed hauntingly familiar. She was new in that position, that much was certain. If there was one thing he still noticed in the world anymore it was beautiful women.

There! It was her eyes. She blinked, and he knew. He had never seen a woman blink like that before, a slow, almost deliberate blink instead of the usual kind, or the even faster than automatic gunfire blinks of many women. Of course she was what, only sixteen or so the last he had seen her, the already beautiful daughter of Tori, his old flame and co-worker who disappeared about four years ago. The rest of her face had been changed somewhat, but not enough to throw him off. The blinks sealed it. What was she doing there? How could the daughter of a GOD Repairwoman ever get behind the screens?

"Good afternoon fellow patriots." The Vice President looked grim as he spoke. "This is your Vice President speaking, on behalf of our beloved Director. I am saddened, and angry, to have to report to the hard working citizens of this freedom loving empire that gaming revenue has been falling behind the levels necessary to defeat our enemies. Your Director and I blame the previous President's ignorant policies for this inexcusable lapse in patriotism. Thus it is my great responsibility to seek new ways to increase revenue, and to announce a ripping new game from our Prophesy Division. Unfortunately however, I must also be clear that if patriotic contributions do not adequately increase, it will be my heavy burden to have to impose food and water lotteries. I can assure you that is not an action I would enjoy taking. So have fun, play, and support our troops. The future of this great empire is in your hands. Life is a gamble, but we can't win if you don't play.

"Additionally I regret to inform you that, due to the lack of progress in our war with the enemies who seek to destroy our way of life, we will also be instituting a military draft lottery. This will ensure fairness across the population. Winners will be exempt from the selective service, until such time that another draft is announced. The more lottery cards you buy, the more you protect yourself and your country. That's a win-win in any book. Thank you, and stay tuned for details on our new game. I think you will enjoy it."

The talking heads came back. Dave was still livid about Trudi and the government's demands for more money, and now a new draft, barely registering the talking head's discussion of the Prophesy Division's new game, "Apocalyptica." He felt like hurling the remote through the screen, but settled for turning the volume down to the lowest setting allowed, since turning it off was not an option.

The screen changed to show a table reflecting the new betting categories with their respective odds, differentiated by year of occurrence for the prophesied apocalypse. The bottom of the screen showed what looked to be a complicated legal definition of an apocalypse. Dave stared in horror at what he was seeing, reading the categories with disbelief: Nuclear war, Asteroid impact, Sea level rise, Overt act of God, Religious war, Infectious disease pandemic, Artificial intelligence, Environmental degradation, Mass extinctions, Cataclysmic crust displacement, Increased solar flare activity, Drought, Fire, Volcanoes, Super storms, Facebook.

"What the hell!" he blurted loudly. "A game? Now they're making a fucking game out of predicting an apocalypse? Who's behind this insanity?"

Trudi came back into the living room. "What's all the fuss? What are you complaining about now Dave?" she asked.

"Aren't you seeing this Trudi? This new game they're trotting out, like it was a football game or something."

"Yeah, so? What's the problem?"

"What's the problem?" he fumed. "They're making a game out of the destruction of the world, or a good chunk of it anyway, however the fuck they define a bloody apocalypse. Don't you have a problem with this? We've already got an apocalypse of poor people killing themselves in suicide games just so they can leave a little money for their families! Jesus! I'm so glad I don't have a family at least."

"Dave! You don't mean that! What about our plans? The baby lottery " Trudi collapsed to her knees, head in hands, sobbing hysterically. Lucky sauntered up to her and rubbed against her leg.

Poor Trudi, thought Dave, knowing he should go to her, put his arms around her and say some comforting words, perhaps about being under a lot of stress. Poor kind, considerate, clueless Trudi. She doesn't deserve me. He stood up. He didn't go to her. Something inside of him had stretched too far and snapped. There was no going back.

"I'm sorry Trudi," was all he said.

He walked past her, feeling the tightness in his throat and the boulder in his gut, opened the door, shut it behind him, and walked down the hall with the unreality of a condemned man. It was over, he knew that. Not just Trudi. Everything. If life was a game, he had lost. They had won. The House almost always wins. The odds and the GODS are programmed that way.

He got into his car, backed out, and headed for the outskirts of the city. His mind was numb, but determined. The cliff was calling. Suicide cliff, where so many had ended their miserable existences, including several old friends. It was the surest bet now. He wouldn't lose this time.

The familiar decrepit old neighborhoods passed by, a few sad souls walking a dog or returning from work, mingling with the homeless and the hopeless. Dubious gaming houses flashed dubious messages of recent big life changing winners. And signs. Signs everywhere, government signs, forcing their happy little lies on hopeful little minds at every moment, as if the sheer magnitude, the unremitting pervasiveness of them was enough to induce belief, trust, and cooperation amidst all the evidence to the contrary. Was everyone lying to themselves, or was this what passed for happiness now? How had it all come to this?

The apartment complexes, the shops, and the signs were replaced by the skeletons of past habitations slowly turning to rubble. Then the barren hills rose up and down again before succumbing to the scraggly forest lands. The road straightened out, the cliff was approaching. Few ventured here anymore without a reason, and as everyone knew the reason, the road was empty. He stepped on the gas. The car responded, complicit in their goal of mutual self-destruction.

The curve in Canyon View Drive came up quickly, its guard rail long an ancient memory. Dave stayed straight, aimed for the gap in the rocks at the edge, shut his eyes, and pressed harder on the gas. For a few brief seconds he felt the bumps underneath him, and then he was flying, soaring for an instant on a road of peace, before an equally uncaring God of Gravity asserted itself and claimed the intruder with terrible screeching winds and an invisible punch to the gut.

Dave passed out and the world ended.

Time passed, very little time actually, before the world began again. He was being pulled from the car like a baby from the womb, by a big, familiar looking man. Definitely not a doctor. He blinked repeatedly and tried to focus, his mind not believing his eyes. It was Harry. Harry Pilcher. His old supervisor on his GOD Repairman team. Harry who had been reported missing years ago.

"Dave, you son of a gun, we finally got you!" Harry exclaimed, tears in his eyes as he hugged him tightly, pushed him back to arm's length, and hugged him again.

Dave looked blankly over Harry's shoulder at more people he recognized, all grinning at him. Pete, Sonya, Jack, Buzz, Susan, all disappeared co-workers from years ago. And Tori, standing there with the biggest grin of all. Others in the background he didn't recognize, but he watched them busy at some activity that slowly closed the door on a tunnel of bright light.

Harry passed him to the others who all hugged and welcomed him just as warmly. Especially Tori. She looked to be crying.

He was in a cave, that much was becoming clear. Rough rock walls, ceiling, and floor, and now, nothing but artificial light casting weird shadows. And there on the floor, his car, intact, sitting on an immense inflatable cushion.            

"Somebody get some ice for his head!" Harry yelled. "And get him over to a chair for God's sake."

He felt himself being half dragged, half carried, pushed gently down into a chair, felt a cold compress applied to his forehead, and saw the semi-circle of old friends, grinning, happy friends, kneel before him. Somehow, he had been resurrected from the dead after all, he thought.

"Welcome to your new life, Dave. We've been waiting for you," said Harry. "Don't speak yet. You're still absorbing. We'll fill you in on the details later, but right now it's important for you to know that you're safe, relatively speaking, because the Empire is looking for us. And you too, soon enough. There's a bounty on lottery evaders, as you know. We're the enemy Dave, the Resistance, all former GOD Repairmen and women they want to exterminate. We've got a tracking device on your car, that's how we knew you were coming, and we were ready, just like we were ready for most of the others. Sadly, some took a different route. Into a tree, or at one of the damned Suicide Houses. But we all took bets that you'd come here. Just kidding. Betting is outlawed here. Fortunately, or unfortunately, the cliff is where most people decide to come, though we only track the Reapers. That's what we call ourselves. Reapers. It's got a nice ring to it, don't you think?

And now with you here, the Reapers are at full strength. You always were the best and the brightest. GOD Repairman of the Year, three years in a row as I remember. But it's our time now Dave. We're going to hack the GODS and change the odds. It's time they were on the side of the little people. If anyone can do it, we can. And we've got someone on the inside now too. You remember Trudi's daughter, Gesa? We'll show you our plans later, you may have some ideas of your own. Right now, you need to rest. OK? But first I've got one more surprise for you."

An older, gray haired man came out of the shadows, walking with a cane, smiling. He looked like the happiest person on earth.

"Hello Dave," said his dad.

Dave felt his mouth moving in a strange, long forgotten way. He realized that he was smiling, too.    




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This work is copyrighted by the author, Bob Lorentson. All rights reserved.