Again a correction. Hawkes sat transfixed, staring intently at the board. The other players were similarly entranced, Alan saw. He realized it was possible for someone to become virtually hypnotized by the game, to spend days on end sitting before the board.
He forced himself to follow Hawkes' computations as number after number was called off. He began to see the logical pattern of the game.
It was a little like astrogation, in which he had had the required preliminary instruction. When you worked out a ship's course, you had to keep altering it to allow for course deflection, effects of planetary magnetic fields, meteor swarms, and such obstacles--and you had to be one jump ahead of the obstacles all the time.
It was the same here. The pilot board at the croupier's rostrum had a prearranged mathematical pattern on it. The idea of the game was to set up your own board in the identical pattern. As each succeeding coordinate on the graph was called out, you recomputed in terms of the new probabilities, rubbing out old equations and substituting new ones.
There was always the mathematical chance that a pattern set up at random would be identical to the master control pattern--but that was a pretty slim chance. It took brains to win at this game. The man whose board was first to match the pilot pattern won.
Hawkes worked quietly, efficiently, and lost the first four rounds. Alan commiserated. But the gambler snapped, "Don't waste your pity. I'm still experimenting. As soon as I've figured out the way the numbers are running tonight, I'll start raking it in."
It sounded boastful to the starman, but Hawkes won on the fifth round, matching the hidden pattern in only six minutes. The previous four rounds had taken from nine to twelve minutes before a winner appeared. The croupier, a small, sallow-faced chap, shoved a stack of coins and a few bills at Hawkes when he went to the rostrum to claim his winnings. A low murmur rippled through the hall; Hawkes had evidently been recognized.
His take was a hundred credits. In less than an hour, he was already seventy-five credits to the good. Hawkes' sharp eyes glinted brightly; he was in his element now, and enjoying it.
The sixth round went to a bespectacled round-faced man three tables to the left, but Hawkes won a hundred credits each on the seventh and eighth rounds, then lost three in a row, then plunged for a heavy stake in his ninth round and came out ahead by five hundred credits.
So Hawkes had won four times in nine rounds, Alan thought. And there were at least a hundred people in the hall. Even assuming the gambler did not always have the sort of luck he was having now, that meant most people did not win very often, and some did not win at all.
As the evening went along, Hawkes made it look simple. At one point he won four rounds in a row; then he dropped off for a while, but came back for another big pot half an hour later. Alan estimated Hawkes' night's work had been worth more than a thousand credits so far.
The gambler pushed his winnings to fourteen hundred credits, while Alan watched; the fine points of the game became more comprehensible to him with each passing moment, and he longed to sit down at the table himself. That was impossible, he knew; this was a Class A parlor, and a rank beginner such as himself could not play.
But then Hawkes began to lose. Three, four, five rounds in a row slipped by without a win. At one point Hawkes committed an elementary mistake in arithmetic that made Alan cry out; Hawkes turned and silenced him with a fierce bleak scowl, and Alan went red.
Six rounds. Seven. Eight. Hawkes had lost nearly a hundred of his fourteen hundred credits. Luck and skill seemed to have deserted him simultaneously. After the eleventh consecutive losing round, Hawkes rose from the table, shaking his head bitterly.
"I've had enough. Let's get out of here."
He pocketed his winnings--still a healthy twelve hundred credits, despite his late-evening slump--and Alan followed him out of the parlor into the night. It was late now, past midnight. The streets, fresh and clean, were damp. It had rained while they were in the parlor, and Alan realized wryly he had been so absorbed by the game that he had not even noticed.
Crowds of home-going Yorkers moved rapidly through the streets. As they made their way to the nearest Undertube terminal, Alan broke the silence. "You did all right tonight, didn't you?"
"It's too bad you had that slump right at the end. If you'd quit half an hour earlier you'd be two hundred credits richer."
Hawkes smiled. "If you'd been born a couple of hundred years later, you'd be a lot smarter."
"What is that supposed to mean?" Alan felt annoyed by Hawkes' remark.
"Simply that I lost deliberately toward the end." They turned into the Undertube station and headed for the ticket windows. "It's part of a smart gambler's knowhow to drop a few credits deliberately now and then."
"So the jerks who provide my living keep on coming back," Hawkes said bluntly. "I'm good at that game. Maybe I'm the best there is. I can feel the numbers with my hands. If I wanted to, I could win four out of five times, even at a Class A place."
Alan frowned. "Then why don't you? You could get rich!"
"I am rich," Hawkes said in a tone that made Alan feel tremendously foolish. "If I got much richer too fast I'd wind up with a soft burn in the belly from a disgruntled customer. Look here, boy: how long would you go back to that casino if one player took 80% of the pots, and a hundred people competed with you for the 20% he left over? You'd win maybe once a month, if you played full time every day. In a short time you'd be broke, unless you quit playing first. So I ease up. I let the others win about half the time. I don't want all the money the mint turns out--just some of it. It's part of the economics of the game to let the other guys take a few pots."
Alan nodded. He understood. "And you don't want to make them too jealous of you. So you made sure you lost consistently for the final half hour or so, and that took the edge off your earlier winning in their minds."
"That's the ticket!"
The Undertube pulled out of the station and shot bullet-like through its dark tunnel. Silently, Alan thought about his night's experience. He saw he still had much, very much to learn about life on Earth.
Hawkes had a gift--the gift of winning. But he didn't abuse that gift. He concealed it a little, so the people who lacked his talent did not get too jealous of him. Jealousy ran high on Earth; people here led short ugly lives, and there was none of the serenity and friendliness of life aboard a starship.
He felt very tired, but it was just physical fatigue; he felt wide awake mentally. Earth life, for all its squalor and brutality, was tremendously exciting compared with shipboard existence. It was with a momentary pang of something close to disappointment that he remembered he would have to report back to the Valhalla in several days; there were so many fascinating aspects of Earth life he still wanted to explore.
The Undertube stopped at a station labelled Hasbrouck. "This is where we get off," Hawkes told him.
They took a slidewalk to street level. The street was like a canyon, with towering walls looming up all around. And some of the gigantic buildings seemed quite shabby-looking by the street-light. Obviously they were in a less respectable part of the city.
"This is Hasbrouck," Hawkes said. "It's a residential section. And there's where I live."
He pointed to the tarnished chrome entrance of one of the biggest and shabbiest of the buildings on the street. "Be it ever so humble, there's no place like North Hasbrouck Arms. It's the sleaziest, cheapest, most run-down tenement in one hemisphere, but I love it. It's a real palace."
Alan followed him through a gate that had once been imposing; now it swung open rather rustily as they broke the photobeam in front of it. The lobby was dark and dimly lit, and smelled faintly musty.
Alan was unprepared for the shabbiness of the house where the gambler lived. A moment after he spoke, he realized the question was highly impertinent, but by then it was too late: "I don't understand, Max. If you make so much money gambling, why do you live in a place like this? Aren't there any better--I mean----"
An unreadable expression flitted briefly across the gambler's lean face. "I know what you mean. Let's just say that the laws of this planet discriminate slightly against Free Status people like yours truly. They require us to live in approved residences."
"But this is practically a slum."
"Forget the practically. This is the raw end of town, and no denying it. But I have to live here." They entered a creaky old elevator decorated with too much chrome, most of it chipped, and Hawkes pressed 106. "When I first moved in here, I made up my mind I'd bribe my way into a fancier neighborhood as soon as I had the cash. But by the time I had enough to spare I didn't feel like moving, you see. I'm sort of lazy."
The elevator stopped with a jarring jolt at the hundred-sixth floor. They passed down a narrow, poorly-lit corridor. Hawkes paused suddenly in front of a door, pressed his thumb against the doorplate, and waited as it swung open in response to the imprint of his fingerprints against the sensitive electronic grid.
"Here we are," he said.
It was a three-room apartment that looked almost as old and as disreputable as the rooms in the Enclave. But the furniture was new and attractive; these were not the rooms of a poor man. An elaborate audio system took up one entire wall; elsewhere, Alan saw books of all kinds, tapes, a tiny mounted globe of light-sculpture within whose crystal interior abstract colors flowed kaleidoscopically, a handsome robot bar.
Hawkes gestured Alan to a seat; Alan chose a green lounge-chair with quivering springs and stretched out. He did not want to go to sleep; he wanted to stay up half the night and talk.
The gambler busied himself at the bar a moment and returned with two drinks. Alan looked at the glass a moment: the drink was bright yellow in color, sparkling. He sipped it. The flavor was gentle but striking, a mixture of two or three tastes and textures that chased each other round Alan's tongue.
"I like it. What is it?"
"Wine from Antares XIII. I bought it for a hundred credits a bottle last year. Still have three bottles left, too. I go easy on it; the next ship from Antares XIII won't be in for fourteen more years."
The drink made Alan mellow and relaxed. They talked a while, and he hardly noticed the fact that the time was getting along toward 0300 now, long past his shiptime bunk-hour. He didn't care. He listened to every word Hawkes had to say, drinking it in with the same delight he felt when drinking the Antarean wine. Hawkes was a complex, many-faceted character; he seemed to have been everywhere on Earth, done everything the planet had to offer. And yet there was no boastfulness in his tone as he spoke of his exploits; he was simply stating facts.
Apparently his income from gambling was staggering; he averaged nearly a thousand credits a night, night in and night out. But a note of plaintiveness crept into his voice: success was boring him, he had no further goals to shoot for. He stood at the top of his profession, and there were no new worlds for him to conquer. He had seen and done everything, and lamented it.
"I'd like to go to space someday," he remarked. "But of course that's out. I wouldn't want to rip myself away from the year 3876 forever. You don't know what I'd give to see the suns come up over Albireo V, or to watch the thousand moons of Capella XVI. But I can't do it." He shook his head gravely. "Well, I better not dream. I like Earth and I like the sort of life I lead. And I'm glad I ran into you, too--we'll make a good team, you and me, Donnell."
Alan had been lulled by the sound of Hawkes' voice--but he snapped to attention now, surprised. "Team? What are you talking about?"
"I'll take you on as my protege. Make a decent gambler out of you. Set you up. We can go travelling together, see the world again. You've been to space; you can tell me what it's like out there. And----"
"Hold on," Alan said sharply. "You've got things mixed up a little bit. I'm going to Procyon on the Valhalla at the end of this week. I appreciate everything you've done for me, but if you think I'm going to jump ship permanently and spend the rest of my life----"
"You'll stay on Earth, all right," Hawkes said confidently. "You're in love with the place. You know yourself you don't want to spend the next seven decades of your life shuttling around in your old man's starship. You'll check out and stay here. I know you will."
"I'll bet you I don't!"
"That bet is herewith covered," Hawkes drawled. "I never pass up a sure thing. Is ten to one okay--your hundred against my thousand that you'll stay?"
Alan scowled angrily. "I don't want to bet with you, Max. I'm going back on the Valhalla. I----"
"Go ahead. Take my money, if you're so sure."
"All right, I will! A thousand credits won't hurt me!" Suddenly he had no further desire to listen to Hawkes talk; he rose abruptly and gulped down the remainder of his drink.
"I'm tired. Let's get some sleep."
"Fair enough," Hawkes said. He got up, touched a button in the wall, and a panel slid back, exposing a bed. "You sack out here. I'll wake you in the morning and we'll go looking for your brother Steve."
Alan woke early the next morning, but it was Rat, not Hawkes, who pulled him out of sleep. The little extra-terrestrial was nibbling on his ear.
Bleary-eyed, Alan sat up and blinked. "Oh--it's you. I thought you were on a silence strike."
"There wasn't anything I wanted to say, so I kept quiet. But I want to say some things now, before your new friend wakes up."
The Bellatrician had been silent all the past evening, tagging along behind Alan and Hawkes like a faithful pet, but keeping his mouth closed. "Go ahead and say them, then," Alan told him.
"I don't like this fellow Hawkes. I think you're in for trouble if you stick with him."
"He's going to take me to the Atlas to get Steve."
"You can get to the Atlas yourself. He's given you all the help you'll need."
Alan shook his head. "I'm no baby. I can take care of myself, without your help."
The little alien creature shrugged. "Suit yourself. But I'll tell you one thing, Alan: I'm going back to the Valhalla, whether you are or not. I don't like Earth, or Hawkes either. Remember that."
"Who said I was staying here? Didn't you hear me bet Max that I'd go back?"
"I heard you. I say you're going to lose that bet. I say this Hawkes is going to fast-talk you into staying here--and if I had any need for money I'd put down a side-bet on Hawkes' side."
Alan laughed. "You think you know me better than I know myself. I never for a minute thought of jumping ship."
"Has my advice ever steered you wrong? I'm older than you are, Alan, and ten or twenty times smarter. I can see where you're heading. And----"
Alan grew suddenly angry. "Nag, nag, nag! You're worse than an old woman! Why don't you keep quiet the way you did last night, and leave me alone? I know what I'm doing, and when I want your advice I'll ask for it."
"Have it your own way," Rat said. His tone was mildly reproachful. Alan felt abashed at having scolded the little alien that way, but he did not know how to make proper amends; besides, he was annoyed at Rat's preachiness. He and Rat had been together too long. The Bellatrician probably thought he was still only ten years old and in need of constant advice.
He rolled over and went back to sleep. About an hour later, he was awakened again, this time by Hawkes. He dressed and they ate--good real food, no synthetics, served by Hawkes' autochef--and then set out for the Atlas Games Parlor, 68th Avenue and 423rd Street, in Upper York City. The time was 1327 when they emerged on the street. Hawkes assured him that Steve would already be at "work"; most unsuccessful gamblers started making the rounds of the parlors in early afternoon.
They took the Undertube back to the heart of the city and kept going, into the suburb of Upper York. Getting out at the 423rd Street terminal, they walked briskly through the narrow crowded streets toward 68th Avenue.
When they were a block away Alan spotted the sign, blinking on and off in watery red letters: ATLAS GAMES PARLOR. A smaller sign proclaimed the parlor's Class C status, which allowed any mediocre player to make use of its facilities.
As they drew near Alan felt a tingle of excitement. This was what he had come to the Earther city for in the first place--to find Steve. For weeks he had been picturing the circumstances of this meeting; now it was about to take place.
The Atlas was similar to the other games parlor where Alan had had the set-to with the robohuckster; it was dark-windowed and a shining blue robot stood outside, urging passersby to step inside and try their luck. Alan moistened his dry lips; he felt cold and numb inside. He won't be there, he thought; he won't be there.
Hawkes took a wad of bills from his wallet. "Here's two hundred credits for you to use at the tables while you're looking around. I'll have to wait outside. There'd be a royal uproar if a Class A man ever set foot inside a place like the Atlas."
Alan smiled nervously. He was pleased that Hawkes was unable to come with him; he wanted to handle the problem by himself, for a change. And he was not anxious for the gambler to witness the scene between him and Steve.
If Steve were inside, that is.
He nodded tightly and walked toward the door. The robohuckster outside chattered at him, "Come right on, sir, step inside. Five credits can get you a hundred here. Right this way."
"I'm going," Alan said. He passed through the photobeam and into the games parlor. Another robot came sliding up to him and scanned his features.
"This is a Class C establishment, sir. If your card is any higher than Class C you cannot compete here. Would you mind showing me your card, sir?"
"I don't have any. I'm an unrated beginner." That was what Hawkes had told him to say. "I'd like a single table, please."
He was shown to a table to the left of the croupier's booth. The Atlas was a good bit dingier than the Class A parlor he had been in the night before; its electroluminescent light-panels fizzed and sputtered, casting uncertain shadows here and there. A round was in progress; figures were bent busily over their boards, altering their computations and changing their light-patterns.
Alan slid a five-credit piece into the slot and, while waiting for the round to finish and the next to begin, looked around at his fellow patrons. In the semi-dark that prevailed it was difficult to make out faces. He would have trouble recognizing Steve.
A musky odor hung low over the hall, sweet, pungent, yet somehow unpleasant. He realized he had experienced that odor before, and tried to remember--yes. Last night in the other games parlor he had smelled a wisp of the fragrance, and Hawkes had told him it was a narcotic cigarette. It lay heavy in the stale air of the Class C parlor.
Patrons stared with fanatic intensity at the racing pattern of lights before them. Alan glanced from one to the next. A baldhead whose dome glinted bright gold in the dusk knotted his hands together in an anguish of indecision. A slim, dreamy-eyed young man gripped the sides of the table frenziedly as the numbers spiralled upward. A fat woman in her late forties, hopelessly dazed by the intricate game, slumped wearily in her seat.
Beyond that he could not see. There were other patrons on the far side of the rostrum; perhaps Steve was over there. But it was forbidden for anyone to wander through the rows of tables searching for a particular player.
The gong rang, ending the round. "Number 322 wins a hundred credits," barked the croupier.
The man at Table 322 shambled forward for his money. He walked with a twisted shuffle; his body shook palsiedly. Hawkes had warned him of these, too--the dreamdust addicts, who in the late stages of their addiction became hollow shells of men, barely able to walk. He took his hundred credits and returned to his table without smiling. Alan shuddered and looked away. Earth was not a pretty world. Life was good if you had the stream running with you, as Hawkes did--but for each successful one like Hawkes, how many fought unsuccessfully against the current and were swept away into dreamdust or worse?
Steve. He looked down the row for Steve.