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“I can’t tell,” remarked the man watching the screens, “which of them is the mark.” He slumped down
into his fake leather chair.
The control roomwas bathed in the light of countless screens set into its walls. The roomwasn’t made
for a large number of staff—it was for this man alone.
Behind the man stood a floor manager trembling with anxiety and fear.
“Look at this,” said the man in the chair. “It’s like he’s being toyed with. You’re the floor manager—if
you had to say which one of themappears to be getting roasted, who would you go with?”
“W-well, Chief, it seems to me that maybe it might be Marlowe?”
“Yes, I agree. With the incidents in the poker room and at the roulette tables, how many people are
going to have to be fired today?”
The floor manager recoiled. Management of the dealers was his responsibility, and to him, there was
nothing as chilling as a runaway dealer.
“Well, it’s no use,” sighed the chief, running his finger along a shiny black moustache. “Run a
graphical search for any images we have of these guests.”
“S-so, you’re saying they’re cheats, Chief?”
“No, we can’t tell just from these screens. All I need to have is an excuse ready for the boss, if it
comes down to it. Say they’re later found to be cheats, and we haven’t done anything about it. You and me
and Marlowe, all three of us will get to be real swell pals, just three more dupes on the next bus to the
“R-right. So, how many people do you want on this?”
“Just you will be enough. Get twenty or so videos, send them to me, and go to sleep. But make it look
like a few dozen others worked on it. Got it?”
“R-right. But, do you…when you say I can just sleep…”
“Once you’ve done what I’ve said, I’ll have my excuse, if it comes down to it. You, on the other
He made an exaggerated gesture of slashing his finger across his neck.
The floor manager gave a hurried bow and turned to leave, when a figure appeared before him. He
took a misstep and froze in place.
A frantic voice came booming into the room. “Why are you calling for me when I’m in the middle of
The voice’s owner had swarthy skin and wore Chameleon Sungla.s.ses the turquoise color of a robin’s
“What’s going on? House Leader? Chief? Special Consultant?”
All of those t.i.tles belonged to the man seated in the fake leather chair—the question seemed to ask,
“Which do you prefer being called?”
Not responding to the rapid-fire bl.u.s.ter, the chief turned to Sh.e.l.l-Septinos, slowly pushed two palms
in the air, then looked at the floor manager and said, “You called for him?”
“Y-yes. Th-that’s what the regulations say to do.”
“Yes, that’s right,” said the chief, as if condescendingly praising a little child. “That’s the
The floor manager, caught between the chief and the owner, scrunched down his shoulders, as if he
were shrinking into himself.
Sh.e.l.l barged into the control room, glaring at the two men, and barked, “Some rich person is winning
like crazy, and that’s got your spines all bent out of shape?”
“Some show-off p.r.i.c.k with a girl along. Not that he’s a show-off p.r.i.c.k because he has a girl with him.
What I’mtrying to say is, he’s a show-off p.r.i.c.k. Word fromthe floor is they’re uncle and niece.”
“What’s their winning percentage?”
Shrugging his shoulders as if it were nothing, the chief answered, “A little more than sixty percent.”
Sh.e.l.l took off his sungla.s.ses, and his Emperor Green eyes shone with rage.
“Sixty percent? Over how many games?”
“Last time I checked, two hundred sixteen.”
“What’s their method?”
“We don’t have any theories. We don’t know. They use the basics, sometimes. They don’t seem like
anything more than a couple of amateurs throwing their chips around.”
“I see. Like someone who, after throwing their chips around, turns one hundred dollars into more than
“Well, it can happen sometimes.”
“I suppose. I’ve seen it myself. But what are the chances someone can randomly throw chips around
and win more than sixty percent of the time?”
The chief, as if the motion were more of a bother than it was worth, made a circle with his right
pointer finger and thumb. The circle itself had no meaning, but the s.p.a.ce between his two fingers carried
his silent message.
Sh.e.l.l nodded. “Right. Not one in thousands.”
“But not zero, either.”
Sh.e.l.l bellowed, “Are you trying to be funny with me, Ashley?”
The floor manager trembled, but the chief, like a scolded child unrepentant, simply scratched his
“Take care of them,” Sh.e.l.l continued. “As if they were pros who came with clear plans. That’s an
“Pros, you say… They don’t look like pros to me.”
“I’mthe one who will decide that. Show himto me, that show-off p.r.i.c.k.”
Sh.e.l.l leaned forward, looking over the chief ’s shoulder at the screens on the wall. With a shocked
expression, he said, “I see. That is one show-off p.r.i.c.k. Like some cream puff playing dress-up as a
hustler. You’re right, a pro coming in here looking as stupid as that, that would be…”
His voice trailed off into silence.
For a moment, the low buzz of running electronics was the only sound in the room.
The floor manager, unable to withstand the silence, asked, “Boss?”
But just then, Sh.e.l.l exploded, “What the f.u.c.k is this?!”
The floor manager jumped. The chief, calmas ever, simply furrowed his brow as he gazed at Sh.e.l.l.
Sh.e.l.l was staring at the screen with a dumbstruck expression, his face pale.
“What the f.u.c.k! What the f.u.c.k are they doing here?”
“What, you know them?” the chief deadpanned.
Sh.e.l.l, his face tense, as if a loaded gun were pointed at his head and the safety had just flipped, stared
down at the chief and said, “Ashley, kill them. Chop themup with your cards. Give themyour usual.”
“What? You mean, kill themdead, kill them?”
The chief formed a gun with his fingers. He aimed his index finger at the screen and mimed the pulling
of the trigger.
Sh.e.l.l shook his head condescendingly. “That isn’t your job. I’mtalking legally. With cards. There’s no
need to take their lives here.” He straightened his posture and took a deep breath to calmhimself.
His voice dropped to a whisper. “They came here to completely waste my time. Time is vital. And
I’m not talking about the regrettable wastefulness of the pa.s.sage of time. Time is dreadful. Because time
that’s pa.s.sed affects the time that’s left.”
The chief lazily tilted his head.
“Don’t you understand?” Sh.e.l.l continued. “I’m running from time’s curse. That’s how I’ve been able
to climb this far. But my method isn’t perfect. That’s how I end up in situations like this. Things I’m
supposed to have forgotten flash back. Flashbacks—this world’s foulest curse. And I hire men like you to
cast themaway. Men like the card killer. Do you understand?”
“Yes, well, sort of,” the chief muttered. Then, remembering something, he said, “By the way, Boss,
about the people we had to let go today—”
“You mean the mechanic in the poker room?”
“No, no, who gives a d.a.m.n about a little twerp like that? But down in the roulette area, someone else
Sh.e.l.l nodded curtly. “What about her?”
“For a casino around these parts to fire Bell Wing? That’s unbelievable.”
“Get to the point.”
“Couldn’t you let her stay? I’masking as a representative for the employees here.”
Sh.e.l.l aimed a scornful smile at the chief. “And what kind of representative are you?”
“One who’s loyal to his boss, of course.”
“Good. I’ll consider it. But only once you’ve completed your work. Now, I have to greet the partners
in my important business deal. Understand? While I’m gone, do your job. To the fullest of your abilities.
That’s why I pay you so well.”
The chief bowed respectfully. Without getting up fromhis chair, of course.
“That’s an order, Ashley. Don’t let themany closer to me.”
Sh.e.l.l put his sungla.s.ses back on and stormed out of the room with such force that, had the door been
closed, he would have kicked it right down.
The chief muttered, “Flashbacks, huh. I don’t want a job where the trigger’s being pulled on me.” He
turned to the still-cowering floor manager. “Hey, you. I’mchanging the plan.”
“Split the files into two thousand pieces and mobilize all the dealers currently on break. Track all of
their movements since the moment those two entered the casino, and report everything directly to my
In time with the last two words, the chief tapped his headset.
“I’ll be with you. Don’t let themleave here alive.”
The floor manager’s face tightened in an instant, like a soldier just given orders to launch the a.s.sault in
a battle where victory is a.s.sured.
He swiftly did an about-face and left at full speed, not stopping to look over his shoulder.
“What’s with those two?” the chief grumbled. “One’s the dog wagging its tail, and the other’s the tail
wagging its dog. How insipid.”
He leaned back into the chair and returned his attention to the monitors. Noticing something in the
picture, he touched his finger to the screen. The ConsoleView, responding to his touch, froze the image.
He slid his finger right, and the playback rewound.
“Ah, that’s too far back.”
This time he slid to the left, and the image moved forward frame by frame.
The chief stared at the screen. On the other displays were playbacks fromother, randompoints in time.
As he looked fromscreen to screen, he snorted like a dog on the scent.
“So she’s left-handed.”
But the girl on the monitor was taking in a chip with her right hand. Not just any chip, but one of the
most valuable chips in the casino—in all of Mardock City, even.
“Hmmm… I see,” he said, nearly yawning. His eyes were affixed to her left hand.
“I don’t know what your trick is…” he muttered with indifference, “but those gloves are well made.”
The chief—Ashley Harvest—hauled himself up out of his chair and slid his feet out the door of the
Sh.e.l.l dashed into his office and, like the fleeing heroine of a horror movie hiding herself in a room,
closed the door with the slightest of sounds.
With one hand he s.n.a.t.c.hed a microphone and into it shouted orders to his staff to take over his hosting
duties, and with the other hand he mashed the redial b.u.t.ton on his cellular phone.
Finally the line connected, and a low voice came over the phone—the steadfast voice of a man
charged with erasing Sh.e.l.l’s flashbacks.
–It’s me. Weren’t you supposed to be in the middle of a deal, Mr. Sh.e.l.l?
“Boiled! It’s awful! Where the h.e.l.l are you?”
–I’m investigating them. What’s wrong?
“Investigating? Investigating? What are you talking about? They’re here, right now!”
Boiled was silent.
“They’re here, all dressed up, like they’re going to a party!”
–I see. I thought so, Boiled said under his breath.
Now Sh.e.l.l was silent.
–I’ve been searching for them in your casinos. Of the four, I just finished up at the second. You’re
at Eggnog Blue, right? I’ll head over immediately.
“Y-you knew? That they would come to one of my casinos?”
–I found a card game crib sheet in their hotel room.
With a trembling hand, Sh.e.l.l removed his sungla.s.ses. His eyes were wide with the dawning
realization of his current situation.
–Are you there? Boiled asked, and Sh.e.l.l jolted back to attention. Please answer me this. Whatever is
involved with your business deal—is it there or not? That’s all I’m asking.
Sh.e.l.l’s mouth worked open and closed and open again, and finally, he took a deep breath and said,
almost in a moan, “This is where my first Show was. It was my first step… Everything always begins
After a brief pause, Boiled said, –I will be there within an hour. I will take them down. My
usefulness will prove that you’ve made the best decision.
For a time, Sh.e.l.l remained still. Then he muttered a single word.
A bold smile spread fromcheek to cheek.
“Yes,” he whispered. “Your existence is indispensable. You’re the hammer of G.o.d, and you’ll shatter
that filthy rotten egg.”
He put his Chameleon Sungla.s.ses back on. The lenses had turned a harsh red color.
“Isn’t it a little early to leave?”
Just as Bell Wing had finished packing up her things in the anteroom, Ashley called out to stop her. He
was rugged, well built with wide shoulders. An oddly charming expression spread across his normally
He coolly looked at Bell.
“I didn’t know Ashley Harvest was the kind of man to waste time on someone who just got canned.”
“You know, I’d like nothing more than to have all the other high-paid staff besides me gone.” Ashley
made an embarra.s.sed shrug. “But you’re a renowned croupier in the industry. You attract customers, and
besides, isn’t there such a thing as duty in this business? Are you going to leave without training a
“I don’t know when you decided to start acting like a manager, nor do I care. I’ll have you know, I’m
not particularly unhappy with my dismissal.”
“Oh, that’s the first I’ve heard that.”
“Well, it’s true. This is by my will. And n.o.body has the right to criticize it. Who said I was going to
retire fromthe business, anyway?”
“I’m not saying it. But the rookie croupiers, they say you’ve chosen your own successor, and they’re
pretty upset about it.”
“Ah. Yes, it’s true. That girl…” Bell gave a heartfelt nod. “The rookies here are considered first
cla.s.s, but she had talent to surpa.s.s them all. I’m not saying the rookies are bad, either. It’s just what I saw
with my own eyes.”
“For those who want to be seen by your eyes, that’s a bitter pill. So what? You’re going to leave here
to nurture that girl?”
“Heavens, no. I don’t think she’d be interested. I’ll just keep throwing roulette b.a.l.l.s. Sometimes, I
might throw to the right, that’s all. Thinking the whole time…maybe she’ll come…”
“Then couldn’t you stay here a bit longer?”
Bell shook her head coldly.
“Even if, as a representative of the employees, I can turn the odds between me and the owner in my
“I don’t see why I owe you anything. What, you want my recommendation to the Casino Society for
you to run your own place?” Bell asked.
“No, no. You’re a gambler through and through, aren’t you? Or a loan shark, more like it, trying to find
the monetary value of every single one of my words. You’re the epitome of a gambler.”
Ashley lifted his hands, raising his pointer fingers. Speaking in hushed tones, he continued. “We don’t
know the true nature of our opponent. She’s going by a pattern we’ve never seen before. She’s using some
system toward some purpose. We’re working on an a.n.a.lysis, but by the time our staff finishes the
marathon of the graphical search, she may already have pa.s.sed the finish.”
“She’s that good?”
“She’s playing blackjack, and she’s called for a million-dollar chip.”
Bell frowned and looked at Ashley as if she’d misheard him.
“And she’s asked themto leave the eleven remaining chips at the table.”
“To think someone other than you could do such a thing.” Her eyes turned to the corridor leading to the
Ashley broke into a smile. “You want to see it for yourself, don’t you?”
Glaring at him from the corner of her eye, Bell said, “I’ll decide when I see her. If I don’t find her
interesting, I’ll leave, then and there.”
She started down the corridor.
With a slight shrug, Ashley followed after her.
As they walked, she said, “So this opponent is so good you think someone will be needed to check for
the next ones with the same tricks?”
“Yeah, basically. If whatever she’s got is good enough to get a million-dollar chip, copycats may
appear at all the other casinos too.”
“If you devise any countermeasures against her system, who will you tell it to? The boss?”
“Don’t be stupid, Bell.” Ashley waved his hand as if he were shooing away a fly. “I’ve got a
connection at the top of the Society. If my countermeasures get used by all the casinos in the Society, it’ll
mean a lot of money. Then I wouldn’t have to work for that fool of a boss any longer.”
“Don’t you like it here?”
“I overlooked it for a while, since there’s little trouble and the pay is good. But I can’t take it any
longer. Our boss had a fifteen-year-old girl living with him—and not as her proper guardian, if you
follow—but even worse, he’s so crazed he tried to kill her by blowing up his car engine. For the life of
me, I can’t understand why the Society still lets himhave a job.”
“Yeah, that’s a mystery. I don’t even want to know what his real job is. Look, I’ve got too few years
left in my life without getting involved in all this,” Bell said. “Anyway, if this opponent of yours isn’t
interesting, I’m going home. My kids are old enough to support themselves. My only reason for still being
in this place is just to lend some meaning to an old hag’s prolonged existence.”
As if presenting to her that meaning, Ashley led her into the VIP room, pointed, and said, “That table.”
“Her?” Ashley tilted his head.
He looked at Bell and, putting more force into his voice, repeated, “Her?”
Bell nodded. She stared at the girl. She stared at the girl seated at the VIP table, who was intently
focused on the dealer’s shuffle.
“Her? She’s the one you decided would be your successor? Oh, she’s trouble.” He snapped his fingers
But Bell’s solemn expression remained unchanged, intently focused on something. She didn’t even
respond as Ashley goaded her, saying, “So now what? Are you going straight back to the bus to take you
She only muttered, “A fifteen-year-old… Death by an exploding engine… So that’s it. That’s her
purpose. When you stand in her way, to her, it’s like a test bestowed upon her by the Holy Ghost. And
everything has led me here.”
Ashley, somewhat taken aback, gazed into Bell Wing’s face. “Have you had some revelation? You
quit your job as a croupier, and now you’re a prophet?”
“I wish you had a little more faith, Ashley. But I should thank you. You brought me here. But I’m just
here to observe. I won’t try to interfere. If I do anything to help, it’ll be after this is over.”
“That’s fine. As long as you’ll be my witness, the Society will understand. But Bell…what do you
know about them?”
“Nothing. Nothing at all. Just the girl’s name.”
Ashley shrugged his shoulders to say, That’s fine, so tell me.
“Rune-Balot,” Bell stated with a solemn face. “That’s her name. It’s a sorrowful name; a fitting
“Marlowe John Fever.”
At the sound of the harsh, chiding voice, the dealer’s hands froze, and his face went cold. The dealer,
having surrendered the first of his crop at the end of a long, brutal cat-and-mouse game, had stopped,
completely motionless, in the middle of his shuffle. Marlowe turned to look at the speaker and found a
small envelope pressed against his chest.
“Here’s a reference letter,” Ashley continued. “Maybe you can use it to find work someplace else.”
The dealer felt as helpless and humiliated as if he were held up at gunpoint.
“It’s not addressed to anyone. It just has my signature. Make as many copies as you’d like. Just take it
and get on the next bus before the owner finds you. You weren’t able to become a star here, but you can
still try somewhere else.”
Marlowe hung his head in utter shame. His expression was so dejected that one could scarcely believe
it was the same face that had been so pa.s.sionate when he had been shuffling the cards. Heartbroken, his
shoulders sagging as if carrying a heavy weight, he slunk off the floor. The word defeated had never been
“That’s quite different from what you told me,” Bell said to Ashley, standing at his side. “And I’m not
sure if I believe you actually signed that.”
Balot didn’t watch the retreating Marlowe, nor did she look at the man, dressed as a dealer, who had
just dismissed him. Her gaze was fixed on the cold figure of the old woman.
“Good evening. Miss. Sir.” Ashley stepped up to the table and bowed gracefully. “It seems our young
man is having quite the tantrum. He wanted to keep on playing with you, but we have rules here. Now, if
you don’t mind, I’ll switch out the cards with new decks.”
Not to be topped, the Doctor graciously replied that it wouldn’t be an issue. Ashley nodded and tossed
the used cards into the proper slot beneath the table. He withdrew six fresh decks, cleanly removed their
seals, and displayed the cards. The Doctor nodded his approval, and Ashley began carefully shuffling the
Balot looked at Bell. Since Bell had been staring at her the whole time, their eyes naturally met. The
old woman didn’t smile, but she spoke with a certain fondness.
“Good evening, Rune-Balot. We meet again.”
–Yes, Bell Wing. We do at that.
Without realizing it, Balot had broken into a grin. More than wondering why Bell had come, she was
happy to see the woman again.
A curious sense of security came over her—and a feeling of relief at seeing the old woman out of her
croupier’s uniform. Bell’s appearance made it clear that she had indeed been dismissed from her job.
Strangely, Balot felt no remorse. The girl knew that the battle between her and Bell was already in the
“So you really were after something big, weren’t you?” Bell spoke in a tone clear of any clouds of
hostility or regret.
–I’m just having some fun. I thought I might learn something.
“You seemlike the sort of person who can learn anything. You’ve got that kind of face.”
Bell turned her eyes to the shuffle, as if to tell Balot, You should be watching too. But it didn’t matter
—even if Balot wasn’t looking, she could still sense each and every slightest movement of this new
dealer’s shuffle. He shuffled carefully and with no wasted movement. Calling his motions smooth
wouldn’t quite be right—they seemed completely natural. In contrast to the previous dealer, who showed
off his smooth technique, Ashley was simply doing his job.
–Do you play blackjack too?
Bell, keeping her attention on the shuffle, answered, “No, this man just persuaded me to come watch.”
–Do you know each other?
“His name is Ashley Harvest. He’s something of a bodyguard for this kind of business. For him to
show up, this must be no ordinary matter. So I’mhere to see how well you can stand up to his skills.”
Ashley glanced at Balot. “She’s here to make sure we have a fair match. So please don’t be
Even if he didn’t exude the same fighting spirit as the previous dealer had, he seemed even more
indomitable. More than Bell Wing, even.
“This man’s luck doesn’t spin counterclockwise like mine. He has no weaknesses. Remember that.”
“I’ll be watching over you. Over the whole game. You don’t have a problem, do you, Ashley?”
Taking it as a signal to begin, Ashley nodded and calmly a.s.sembled the cards into a neat stack. He
spoke softly, but his voice carried.
“Right. From this point on, this table is reserved for you two only. Think of it as a modest gesture of
appreciation for retiring that mechanic in the poker room, Bell Wing right here, and the fine young dealer
who sat at this table.”
He might as well have just come out and said, I know what you’ve been up to. After that near
declaration of war, Oeufcoque commented,
–We antic.i.p.ated this would happen. Don’t take his bait. Let the Doctor handle him.
Dr. Easter, as if on cue, spread his arms fearlessly and, sounding quite pleased, said, “Our very own
private table! Why, that is quite the luxury!”
Ashley raised a finger and, beaming a smile as if he were their accomplice, said, “That should make it
easier for you to win, right?”
His candidness was startling—indeed, a sustained number of matches was required for card counting
to be effective.
“If it’s all right,” said the dealer, “the minimumwill be ten thousand dollars.”
“Is that a table rule?” The Doctor crossed his arms and, as calmly as if he were haggling over
vegetables at the market, shook his head. “Maybe I want to try my hand at another table, then.”
Ashley replied without hesitation. “Fine, we’ll go with a ten-dollar minimum bet.” He pointed at
Balot’s chip. “That way you’ll be able to play a hundred thousand games with that single chip.”
“Then we’re agreed,” said the Doctor. “Ten dollars it is.”
Ashley nodded and set the transparent red card on the table, inviting either Balot or the Doctor to
place it in the deck.
Reaching for the card, the Doctor said, “You’re quite the unusual dealer, aren’t you? I’m eager to see
you deliver on what you seemto promise.”
He casually inserted the red card into the stack of cards.
Ashley shrugged and effortlessly cut the deck. He then inserted the cards into the shoe and placed his
rough but eminently graceful hands on top of it.
Balot and the Doctor placed their chips. Ashley drew the first card. The game had begun. Their last
game—the one they had to survive.
“We have a push,” Ashley said.
The cards disappeared. With just a wave of his hand, the dealer had returned all the cards on the table
to the discard pile.
Nothing else moved. Not their chips. Not their determination. Not their tactics.
All that pa.s.sed by were time and cards.
The Doctor blinked twice and placed his chips on the table.
Balot stared blankly at hers.
The cards were distributed. Ashley’s upcard was a 7.
The Doctor had a 9 and a jack, totaling nineteen—stay.
Balot had a 7 and a 3—hit. A 9 card came, and with nineteen, she stayed. A decent hand. But Balot
and the Doctor were in no position to make quick judgments.
The dealer revealed his hole card—9. That made sixteen. Following the rules, he drew another card—
3. Ashley surveyed the table.
“We have a push.”
The watching crowd let out a collective gasp. It was formless, not quite wonder, not quite amazement.
Since the first card Ashley drew, this was the sixteenth hand.
They hadn’t won a single hand.
They hadn’t lost a single chip.
Both Balot and the Doctor had lost nothing.
Sixteen tied hands, with only the value of the count changing.
Placing his chips on the table, the Doctor cleared his throat and grumbled, “This is quite amazing.
There’s not even the slightest movement.”
With a serious expression and a tone of admiration, Ashley responded, “Just proof that your fortune is
an even match for this casino. It’s incredible. You’re a tough opponent. I’mriveted.”
–What kind of man is this guy?
–I can’t read him.
Oeufcoque’s unexpected answer terrified her.
–I don’t understand. What’s he after? Is he enjoying this? Is he angry? Is he sad when you draw a
card? I can’t tell. It’s all mixed together. What kind of scent is this?
Oeufcoque was nearly shrieking, but then, as if realizing he was only making her more afraid, he
suddenly stopped himself.
–For now, we a.n.a.lyze. We’ll hold him of with our best tactics. It’s not like we can’t keep on
counting the cards.
Balot pulled herself together and signaled that she understood. She lightly squeezed her left hand over
There was a strange tension in the air. The seventeenth hand was also a tie.
Fatigue was setting in, a nameless weariness.
Blackjack demands you endlessly walk a long, long path.
Over the long path, there are ups and downs—the road is never flat. But this—this was like trudging
through a barren desert. There was no path to be seen; the scenery shifted from moment to moment, but in
the end, nothing changed. All you saw was the flat, boundless horizon.
At the twenty-second hand, something different happened. The Doctor had an ace and a queen. Balot
had a 5 and a 6 and hit to draw a king. Two twenty-ones, side by side.
Ashley’s upcard was a 2. For the first time in the match, Ashley spoke.
“This is easy. Not having to do anything. I don’t have to entertain you, and I don’t have to trick you
either. You both play with precise tactics. That way, I don’t even have to think about anything.”
He reached for his hole card. A bad premonition ran down Balot’s spine.
It was a 4. The 2 and 4 made six. He drew a card: 4. Another: 5.
Before Balot’s dazed eyes, Ashley smoothly, dispa.s.sionately, turned over the next card: 6. The 2 and
4 and 4 and 5 and 6—twenty-one.
Balot felt something scream deep inside herself. He was toying with them, with his unchanging cards.
A heavy fatigue was building up inside her, even worse than if she had been losing.
Behind Ashley, Bell Wing stood watching with a clear face. After the twenty-seventh tie, Ashley
placed one hand over the other and leaned over, like a waiter who had just finished setting down their
“This is a good place to take a break.” The red card was on top of the deck, without a single card to
Balot was stunned. And the Doctor, who had placed the card himself, stared at the card shoe as if it
were a fortune teller who had just correctly guessed his birthday.
Ashley’s bulky hands never paused. He began to shuffle.
“You two have wonderful luck,” he said. “I wonder to which one of you it belongs. The gentleman? Or
the young lady? Or is there someone else who brings it here?”
Balot could sense information coming to Ashley through his earpiece. How much she and the Doctor
had won and in which games. What was remarkable about their methods. Under what circ.u.mstances did
they prevail. Fromthose bits of information, Ashley had sensed a third party.
–Don’t be sucked in by him.
So said the third party. Balot’s fists were clenched.
Ashley finished the shuffle. This time, Balot inserted the red card into the stack of cards. His effortless
cut seemed to swallow up her influence on the deck with supreme skill.
And as Bell and the large audience watched, the second round began.
Ashley’s first upcard was a 2. The Doctor drew an 8 and a 10—stay.
Balot had a 3 and a 5. For a moment, she considered staying, but in the end, she decided to hit. A jack.
Eighteen. The same as the Doctor.
Ashley revealed his hole card—a 6, making eight. Next, he drew a queen, making eighteen.
Even if she had recklessly stayed, all that would have resulted would have been her loss.
The Doctor added more chips to his bet. Balot followed suit and raised her bet, from three thousand
dollars to six. It was both Oeufcoque’s instructions as well as her desire.
She wanted to feel in control of something, if only to dispel the depressing sensation of total
stagnation. And the number of chips she placed before her was the singular thing she had control over.
“Such luck you have,” said Ashley. “Its power is affecting even me.”
Balot and the Doctor were progressively raising their bets. To the dealer, it should have been a
pivotal moment. But Ashley’s management of the cards was undisturbed, leaving no openings for attack.
He seemed to be taking their hands and instantly ripping themto shreds.
“I’ve never met a player who could rival my luck. That’s why the casinos treat me like the door to the
vault. But maybe this time, someone has come holding the key.”
Ashley kept repeating that word, luck, luck, but Balot and the Doctor didn’t think—not even for an
instant—that this had anything to do with luck or chance.
Maybe this man had the singular ability to arrange the deck in such a way that the outcome would be
A shuffle that could manipulate the order of over three hundred cards—that would be a skill with a
There was no sign of marked cards hidden at the bottomof the card shoe.
It would also explain why he had opened new decks. Unsealed cards could be in any order, but if he
knew the order the cards came in, he could potentially arrange the cards using his particular technique.
Granted, it was hard to believe such a technique could exist.
But the real problem was what that technique would bring. Their fatigue would build and build, and
eventually they would be sent away. But if the casino’s orders were to retake her chips, he wouldn’t have
a way to do so.
Why didn’t he have a method to force the players to lose? Was he trying to tell them that they were
free to leave now without consequence? Balot didn’t know—and she could sense Oeufcoque wanting to
ask the same questions. If Ashley wasn’t setting some trap, then wasn’t he just trying not to do anything?
Sure, he was like an iron wall, but he’d be nothing more.
But Balot couldn’t quit now. Just because she’d obtained one of the four chips, she couldn’t have said,
Well, that’s enough for me.
The Doctor had said that memories were many-body information. They grew along with the pa.s.sage of
time, but at the same time, memories of one time were connected with memories of another. If Sh.e.l.l’s
memories were divided between four chips, those memories couldn’t be reproduced without all four time
lines. And if the memories couldn’t be reproduced, all they’d have is an alb.u.m showing the growth
process of neurons.
Their goal wasn’t that kind of a.n.a.lytical research—it was the details of Sh.e.l.l’s deeds, and without
those, their entire battle—and Balot’s game—would be without meaning.
The Doctor sighed. “We may have to change our tactics.” For the first time since starting the game, he
took his chips off the table. He placed half of themback down.
The cards came. Ashley’s upcard, a queen.
The Doctor had a 5 and a 7; twelve. Balot had a king and a 4; fourteen.
The Doctor hit and received an 8. His total, twenty.
“Hit.” His tone was defiant, like an underling in a gangster movie facing down the barrel of a gun,
crying out, “Go ahead, shoot me!”
Ashley looked at the 8 and edged up his chin as if to say, “That’s the card you got.”
“I said hit.”
The Doctor hit his finger against the table, insisting on the card.
In the face of such reckless self-destruction, Ashley swiftly turned over the next card.
“That’s a bust,” stated the dealer.
The Doctor shrugged. The situation was obvious. Anyone could see it. Even Ashley.
The problem was that the Doctor had exposed himself. He had called out the perfect deck. But how
would their opponent move next? Everything depended on that.
Balot hit. Her card, a 6. Her total, twenty.
–Should I hit?
–Stick to the optimal tactics. Leave the attack to the Doc. Following Oeufcoque’s instructions, she
Ashley revealed his hole card: 4. With the queen, that made fourteen.
He drew another card: 2. He drew again: 4. Twenty.
“We have a push.”
This time, he spoke directly to Balot. He swept away the cards.
Calmly, the Doctor whispered, “I guess one card isn’t enough.”
It was as if hitting or staying made no difference. It was as if the order of the cards itself was
The Doctor placed his chips, half again the amount of the previous hand.
Balot kept with her same bet. As Bell Wing quietly watched for any changes on the table, Ashley
brought his hand to the card shoe and swiftly dealt the cards.
His upcard was 7. The Doctor had an 8-5, making thirteen. Balot had K-3, for thirteen.
The Doctor hit. He got a 4.
He hit again: 2. His total, nineteen.
As if it were the natural choice, he hit again. Ace. Total, twenty.
And again he hit. For a moment, Balot thought Ashley might get angry, but he didn’t. As he coolly drew
the next card, he said, “Congratulations.”
It was an ace; 8-5-4-2-A-A: twenty-one.
The Doctor immediately looked over at Balot, asking without speaking, Did he do anything
She answered with a slight shake of the head. Ashley hadn’t made the slightest indication of trickery.
“So you’ll be staying, then.”
You couldn’t draw fromtwenty-one. The Doctor nodded curtly.
Balot received an 8. Total, twenty-one.
The Doctor groaned. With his eyes, he asked Balot again, Are you sure he didn’t do anything
suspicious? But Balot was just as astonished. What was going on?
“Now what?” asked Ashley. For the first time, he focused his dark brown eyes right at her. As he
smiled, his eyes seemed to dissect her alive.
“That’s some technique.”
Bell Wing, who had been quietly watching the game, had spoken. “I don’t think there’s anyone who
could imitate you.”
“It’s all practice.”
He turned over his hole card. A 9. Along with his 7, that made sixteen. He drew another card and
slapped down the 5.
“We have a push.”
Balot felt dizzy.
Then Bell said, “This has turned into a dull forced match.”
Balot looked at the old woman, who was staring right at her.
“Rune-Balot. Are you the kind of kid who lives by listening to others?”
At first, Balot didn’t understand what the woman was talking about.
“Chips don’t mean anything to you, right? I don’t know why you’re holding back. You shot down every
single last ball I threw, and now you’re subjecting me to this nonsense.”
As Bell’s words drew the girl in, Oeufcoque’s reb.u.t.tal came bubbling to the lining of her gloves.
–Focus on the game. Don’t forget, she’s with the casino too.
The cards came.
“You’re you.” Bell’s words struck right through Balot’s heart. “You don’t have to hold back for
anyone. Especially in a big match like this. In a match, restraint is like s.h.i.t. It stinks and it distracts you.”
Then Bell was again silent.
Once more, the Doctor carelessly hit, until finally he bust.
As if hiding behind him, Balot hit.
With a 2 and a queen, she got a 7, making nineteen. She stayed, and Ashley revealed his hole card.
With a 4 and a jack, he drew a 5, making nineteen.
Ashley’s voice, announcing the tie, seemed to come fromsomewhere far away.
Subconsciously, Balot bit her lip. The next hand, the Doctor once again bust himself before her turn.
Balot received a 2 and a 9. She doubled down and drew an 8. Nineteen.
Ashley’s upcard was a 9. The hole card, jack. To no one’s surprise, a push.
Again she bit her lip, hard. The next hand, the Doctor bust, Ashley revealed his hole card, and as he
announced the tie, the pain of her teeth gnawing at her lip snapped her back to reality.
Slowly, she pulled her lip from her teeth, and as she wet her lips, she felt a realization come over her.
She had chosen this game. The game of whether she would live or die. And that was one answer to her
question Why me?
It took a moment for Balot, distracted by those thoughts, to realize that there had been a change in the
cards. The change occurred when the Doctor returned to the optimal tactics.
Balot’s eyes were focused on the reveal of the dealer’s hole card.
The upcard was a 5. The hole card, 9. He drew a 3. Seventeen.
“A loss…and a push.”
Confused, Balot checked the Doctor’s cards. Jack-3-3. Sixteen.
Balot’s cards were 5-7-5. Seventeen. Only the Doctor had lost.
Dr. Easter silently placed his next chips. Balot bit her lip again.
Ashley dealt the cards. Balot had no clear sense of his fingers. No sense of his fingers. Scathing doubt
washed over her.
What am I fighting against? This man’s fingers?
If he had a gun in his hands and not cards, what would I do?
Simply stare and watch as he pulled the trigger?
For the first time since the beginning of the game, Balot sensed the cards. The stack of cards, how they
were ordered. She thought again about whether the cards had been arranged into a certain order.
She heard the Doctor say, “I’ll stay.”
He had 7-6-6. Nineteen.
Ashley’s upcard, an 8.
Balot had J-3. She hit and got a 7.
The card in front of her, Balot was silent.
She felt one with the table. Her nerves spread through it, and she sensed the weight of each card upon
Speaking gently, as if inviting something, Ashley said, “Will you draw another card? Feel free to ask
the man next to you, if you want himto tell you what will happen.”
Balot slowly raised her head and sensed the dealer’s presence. She wondered if drawing her senses
into his fingers alone had been a part of his strategy.
Quietly, she said,
Ashley casually flipped over his hole card.
A 4. With 8, that made twelve. He drew an ace and then a 7.
–And a push.
Balot completed his sentence. There wasn’t a meaning behind it—she just wanted to see how the
dealer would react. She wanted to sense his movements, his mood, everything. Ashley shrugged.
Balot grinned at him. At first, he looked taken aback, then he returned the smile. At the same time, he
swept up the Doctor’s chips.
The cards came. Ashley’s upcard, a jack.
The Doctor’s cards were 5-9. He drew an 8 and bust.
Balot kept her senses upon Ashley and transmitted everything to Oeufcoque.
On her left arm, along with the running tally of the true count, the tactical instructions, and other data,
was a hastily compiled report of information on the dealer.
Balot’s cards were 8-J. Somewhere, she felt Ashley’s pulse.
Ashley responded without delay. His movements casual—truly, those were the iron wall.
Balot had drawn a 2.
Following Balot’s choice, Ashley revealed his hole card.
Something was matching up, she sensed. In the following hand, the Doctor didn’t bust, but his J-8 was
defeated before Ashley’s and Balot’s twenties.
“It seems like we’re starting to see whom luck favors,” Ashley said, sweeping up the cards. “Those
who take even the slightest wrong turn will find themselves immediately parted from luck. She’s nearly
impossible to latch on to. No one can ridicule those whom luck has deserted, for it is just that easy for her
to leave you.”
He spoke as if the Doctor’s loss had been his plan all along. It certainly wasn’t out of the realm of
possibility for that man.
But the Doctor knew his role. He knew what he had to do.
He lowered his bets and determinedly went bust.
Balot bet the same amount again and again. The game wouldn’t end.
Ashley turned an upcard. It was a 6. The Doctor received a 3 and a 9.
“I’ll double down,” stated the Doctor, stacking his chips.
Ashley, as if faced with no other choice but to pull the trigger, handed him his card. A queen. A bust.
A cruel defeat, but the Doctor didn’t seemto be concerned with what he had lost.
Balot, with a 4-7, drew a 6. Seventeen. Ashley revealed his hole card: 5-6. He drew an ace, then a 5.
The Doctor slowly rose. He patted Balot on the shoulder and said, “I’ll leave my luck to her.”
He offered her his chips, then turned to Ashley and said, laughing, “And I’ll leave my bad luck with
His actions were the turning point in the game. The order of the cards attested to it.
He retired from the game as soon as he had seen the balance in the cards—if he hadn’t hit, Balot
would have won. And if he hadn’t even been there, Ashley would have had twenty-one.
“From this point forward,” stated the Doctor, “I’m just an innocent bystander. Well, a bystander who
has an effect on the game. A far-off phenomenon causing a ma.s.sive local effect—a b.u.t.terfly effect. And
my defeat is the b.u.t.terfly.”
“It’s a metaphor for a theory of causality. A small occurrence, a b.u.t.terfly flying on the eastern coast,
can trigger far bigger events—a typhoon on the western sh.o.r.es. And I think we are about to prove the
many-body problemfar more clearly than it has ever been shown before.”
Ashley shrugged his shoulders with apparent disinterest.
“You’re always welcome to join back in.”
The Doctor nodded and patted Balot’s shoulder once more. His message clear: You don’t have a
shield anymore. Balot looked himin the eyes and asked her most pressing question.
–Do you think I can win?
“Maybe not right away. But there’s one on his side and two on ours. With our combined luck, you’ll
win for sure.”
Balot nodded. By two, he had meant Balot and Oeufcoque.
The Doctor pushed in his chair and stood behind Balot, next to Bell Wing, ready to watch over the
Ashley and Balot were now sitting face to face.
The crowd around the table continued to grow in size, one by one, drawn in by the spectacle.
Bell Wing had nothing left to say.
The cards were dealt. Ashley’s upcard, 6. Balot had Q-4.
So this is how the game has changed, she thought. Up until then, the cards had presented easy choices,
but now that the Doctor had left his seat, she found herself faced with a tough decision.
But Oeufcoque’s tactical a.n.a.lysis was steadfast. All she had to do was continue onward.
She hit. A card came—2. Sixteen. Not enough.
She hit again. Ashley’s hand flashed, revealing the next card: 4.
Ashley kept on moving.
His hole card was a 3. He drew another and scored an ace. Twenty.
“We have a push.”
Balot steadied her breath, quietly awaiting the next hand.
Ashley’s upcard came, an ace.
Balot had an 8-3. She almost pressed on with a double down, but at the last moment, she hesitated.
Oeufcoque’s tactical a.n.a.lysis displayed double down, but the girl worried about not being able to
draw any more cards. If only she didn’t have to draw any more. If she didn’t have to make that choice,
maybe she could have found some peace of mind.
Balot focused on her cards as if she were judging the entire world in a courthouse.
Then, with the sense that she had overcome her paralyzing fear, she declared the hit. A 5 card came.
She felt she had made the right decision.
She hit again. The card that came was a 5. Twenty-one.
Holding in a sudden wave of relief, she announced her stay.
Ashley turned over his hole card. A jack. Blackjack.
Balot groaned. The noise was soft, yet her vocal chords were taut, as if she had screamed.
Ashley announced the tie and within moments had begun the next round.
His upcard, a jack. Balot had a queen and a king.
The tactics displayed on her right arm instantly calculated her winning percentage along with her
losing percentage and the amount her chips would change. Ashley’s pulse was there too, with not even the
The dealer had squelched her brief moment of self-victory.
Or so Balot thought, as she was once again unable to move.
Balot stayed. Ashley revealed his cards. The sharp tip of the ace pointed straight at her. Blackjack.
It was her first loss. Her chips were taken away. But it was still all right. The amount she was to bet
plunged lower. But it was forgivable.
Ashley’s next upcard, however, wasn’t.
An ace. Something inside Balot’s chest clenched tight, grating against her.
Balot had K-4. If she hadn’t hit earlier, she’d have a twenty-one now.
Where did I go wrong? She couldn’t hold back her thoughts. I never made the wrong decision. But
what else could it be called but that?
What’s wrong is this table with this man, Ashley, standing at it. The difference of just one card was
chasing her to a certain defeat.
Balot composed her feelings and hit. Her card, a 2. Sixteen.
That number weighed frightfully heavy. Her tactics called for a stay. It was displayed right next to the
If she didn’t follow the tactics, what else would she follow? But the choice was heavy. Her throat
Balot stayed, and Ashley casually flipped his hole card.
A 2. With the ace, thirteen. He drew another card. Again unforgivable. It was a 5. If Balot had drawn,
she would have had twenty-one.
“So sorry,” said Ashley. It was sixteen against eighteen, and Balot’s second straight loss. With a
slightly trembling hand, Balot placed her next bet.
“No one can predict the future,” the Doctor spoke up. “But it can be approximated. That separates us
from animals. We can think with two minds. The stale, old-fashioned, and the ever-changing new—
namely, the left brain, and the right.”
He orated with the clear, resonant tone of a bystander at ease.
“Humans have cerebral hemispheres—first, because the brain’s development was too rapid for the
two sides to unite. The neurons projected out from the brain stem and the spinal cord and formed the
cerebral cortex, enabling a great increase in the size of the human brain.”
Ashley, already having lost interest in the Doctor’s words, paid himno attention.
Bell Wing watched this would-be meddler, aloof—then, seeing through to the seriousness behind his
words, wiped the expression fromher face.
The cards came.
“But the left and right hemispheres grew abnormally large—almost like a defect—and an imbalance
occurred. The left brain became digitalized, with a fluid intelligence. The right brain has crystallized
intelligence, in a.n.a.log. The origin of this behavior can be traced back to the development of the neurons.”
Ashley’s upcard, a queen. Balot had a 4-6.
Oeufcoque’s tactical display read hit. Balot hit.
“Since the dawn of the age of the invertebrates, nerves had been unmyelinated—that is to say,
uninsulated, like bare electric cables. The unmyelinated nerves functioned with a.n.a.log hormones, but with
the development of myelinated nerves—that is to say, insulated just like jacketed electric cables—
nervous structures came to utilize neural circuits that distribute digital neurological signaling. Therefore,
even in the a.n.a.log human brain, there are digital processes, and they interact with each other to function.”
She received a 9. Nineteen. Oeufcoque’s tactical display read stay. She stayed.
“Humans can’t divine the future. This is because, even with all the mathematical methods known to
man, it is essentially impossible to solve for the mult.i.tude of occurrences concurrent with the many-body
problem. If only one card remained in the deck, its ident.i.ty could be deduced by examining the discard
pile. But with two or more cards remaining, the ident.i.ty of the next card cannot be determined.”
Ashley showed his hole card. A king. Twenty. Balot’s third straight loss.
“But humans, with two minds inside one skull, can use both the fluid knowledge—that is to say, the
digital neural circuits—to explain a discrete event, as well as the crystalline knowledge—that is to say,
the a.n.a.log perception—to form a comprehensive image of all the other possible events. Therefore,
humans have produced the ability to generate simplicial approximations and have essentially solved the
many-body problem. By the time they are born, humans have already chosen a journey infinitely
asymptotically approaching reality.”
Balot placed her bet. Ashley dealt the cards.
His upcard, a 6. Balot had a J-3, thirteen.
Oeufcoque’s display read hit. Balot also felt she should hit. She received a 6. Nineteen.
Ashley revealed his hole card, 4. He hit, and drew an ace. Twenty-one.
“And if those humans could create four minds where there had been two, they would no longer need to
content themselves with simplicial approximations. No, they might be able to solve the many-body
problemand determine each and every event. And for that dream, a being was created. That being was not
able to divine the future. But for any object, it could quantify its entire composition, the external and
internal forms equally, and become an All-Purpose Tool.”
Ashley’s upcard was 6. Balot had a Q-2.
She hit. Oeufcoque had told her to. Balot had thought the same.
Ashley showed no change. And his cards showed no change.
She drew a 6. Eighteen. On eighteen, you stayed. She hesitated.
But after a moment, Balot stayed. And she asked herself why she had hesitated.
Ashley flipped his hole card, a 5. He drew a king. Twenty-one.
Balot’s fifth straight loss. She was drowning in a marsh of defeat.
But as someone once said, blackjack demanded you walk a long, long path.
And that someone was raising his voice desperately behind her.
“Within the structure of the human brain, the many-body problem is calculated as nothing more than a
series of simplicial approximations. But what if, despite having been the reason for the cerebral
hemispheres, the development of the brain, too rapid to form a cohesive whole, was able to go on
developing externally? That is, what if the brain changed its form and continued developing beyond the
cranium, spreading over the whole body?”
Ashley’s upcard was a 4. Balot had a 3-5. Hit. A 2 came. Hit. A 4 came. Hit. A 3 came. Seventeen.
The tactical display read stay.
Oeufcoque had chosen that as the winning move. Balot stayed.
“I find it impossible to believe that those two beings, who represent entirely different concepts,
working together, couldn’t read the flow of these cards.”
The Doctor had finished, and now he fell silent. He had been trying to wake them up—Balot and
Oeufcoque—and their untapped strength.
Ashley showed his hole card. A 6. He drew another. Ace. Twenty-one.
Six losses in a row. Balot squeezed her left hand. She felt impatient. But maybe that itself was some
sign. There was still a chance. Just enough of a chance for her to feel impatient. Oeufcoque softly
enveloped her arms.
Ashley’s upcard, a queen. Balot’s cards, 4-8.
Without hesitation, she hit. Ashley drew her a card. A king.
“That’s a bust,” said the dealer.
On Balot’s arm, a number changed, and she realized this was her first bust of the game.
Something had changed. It was a change for the worse, certainly, but it was a change.
Ashley’s next upcard was an ace. Balot’s cards, J-3.
She hit and received a 10. Bust. Her cards were swept away. Ashley’s hole card—an 8—was
revealed only for a moment. Balot added it to the true count on her left arm. Along with: If I hadn’t
drawn, Ashley would have bust.
The following upcard, a 3. Balot’s cards, A-9.
For the first time in a while, she had a valuable ace in her hand.
Balot stayed, and the hole card was overturned.
A 6. Ashley drew another.
Another 6. Fifteen. In accordance with the rules of the game, he drew again.
And a 6. Under already remarkable circ.u.mstances, a remarkable draw. Was Ashley’s unbreakable
luck within that scarcely conceivable draw?
So, 3-6-6-6. Twenty-one. Balot’s ninth straight loss.
But Ballot sensed something. A sign. In the dark, flat desert, she saw a single ray of light.
In the previous hands, the same number had never appeared in succession. If he was ordering the
cards, it woud be easier to have some of the same card in a row than it would be to have everything
Had it not happened before because he had been building himself some roomto maneuver?
He’s skipping some of the cards.
Balot was sure of it. Maybe three times in a round. He was shuffling the cards in a way that enabled
himto tweak the order at will.
Was she taking the threat too lightly by thinking his perfect judgment of the cards was slowly wearing
Balot quickly reviewed her count so far. The upcards and aces were running extremely low, but the
cards helpful to the dealer were also dwindling. Oeufcoque’s instant internal calculations were showing
an increase in her bet amount and her winning percentage.
Her fatigue dispelled by antic.i.p.ation, Balot refocused on the game. Just as Balot had fully exhaled,
Ashley’s casually stated words cut through her like a blade:
“By the way, your left hand…”
Balot took in a deep breath.
“…it’s got some device measuring my pulse, doesn’t it?”
Her heart skipped a beat. It was too sudden. Before she knew it, she had raised her head and said,
As soon as the word left her mouth, she stopped herself. But it was already too late.
Ashley grinned. He mouthed the word Gotcha.
Balot got goose b.u.mps on her arms.
The sudden shock of it had stood her hair on end.
“It seemed,” said the dealer, his tone dripping congeniality, “like you were conversing with your own
hand, not your cards.”
Terror welled up deep within Balot. Would she fail and leave empty-handed because of the tiniest of
blunders? If she were any more afraid, her hands would have been shaking.
Oeufcoque read Balot’s emotions and tried to calmher, saying,
–Don’t let it get to you. You don’t need to tell him anything. Even if he believes it to be true, he
can’t do anything about it but use it as a diversion. Without any proof, he can’t lay a hand on patrons’
clothes. He has no way to separate us.
Balot was rea.s.sured, but a peculiar irritation settled over her.
And it was peculiar, for she had n