Science Fiction space Immortality Space Ships poker comet

The Pair-a-Deuce Comet Casino All-Sol Poker Championship

By James Van Pelt
May 13, 2020 · 5,605 words · 21 minutes

Poker night

Photo by Michał Parzuchowski via Unsplash.

From the author: If you could save yourself over and over, like a video gamer before he steps into a new situation, how would you behave? How would other immortals like yourself treat you? Find out in the high stakes games that take place in the galaxy's most dangerous casino.

            I am Jared.  I don’t know about the earlier versions of me that died in their time.  They thought of themselves as Jared too, I suppose, but I know who I am.  It is frustrating to never remember dying.  How did I face it?  Everything is clear up to my last save, but not the death itself.

            Weeks ago, when I arrived at the Pair-a-Deuce, it was inside Venus’s orbit and diving fast. The comet had grown closer through the transport’s vids, but nothing compared to the grandeur of stepping into the Casino and seeing the coma effervescing above, lighting the tables and players and the floor show.  For the longest time I looked up.  The comet’s shadow cast a straight, dark tunnel into the twisting gasses.  There were faint colors in the veil stretching away, ripples in the shining fabric, writhing around the shadow’s contrasting shaft. 

            With an effort, I looked away.  From the transport’s high reception area, the casino spread below me.  Beyond the dome, and startlingly close, the comet’s horizon glowed, as if a sunrise were imminent.  I turned in a circle.  The same orange hint painted the horizon all the way around.  Of the comet’s surface itself, I could see little.

            “Welcome, Jared,” said the concierge. “Your room is ready.  After you’ve settled, you are welcome to inspect the tournament schedule.  Also, there are three buffets to choose from, an excellent bar, a spa, a masseuse, and fitness center.  Our reset facility is state-of-the art and open continuously.”  She handed me a brochure, the same one I’d read on the transport.  “Abel, your personal valet during your visit, will direct you to your quarters.”

            A young-looking man, wearing a gold casino vest and a single brunette braid above his left ear on an otherwise bald head, smiled as he pointed to a commuter rail.  “If you’ll follow me, sir.”  He waited until a hand-loop appeared on the rail, then grabbed on.  The moving loop pulled him down into the casino, his feet skimming behind him.  A bit dizzy, I swallowed.  On the transport I chose between the zero gravity of the ship or the artificial gravity of the wheelhouse, and handled both easily, but the comet’s micro-gravity was disorienting.  It felt as if I were moving up.  I glanced overhead.  The dome’s transparent ceiling remained comfortably distant.

            “It takes a bit to get used to,” said the concierge.  She held my arm and moved me next to the rail.  I snagged the next loop, hoping I didn’t look too ungraceful.  The rail sloped to the casino floor.  A row of craps tables packed with patrons passed by on my left.  I caught a whiff of alcohol and sweat.  Bells clanged somewhere, signaling a slot jackpot.  Whether it’s Vegas or Clarke City at the foot of Olympus Mons or the backside of a comet plunging toward a brush with the sun, a casino is a casino.

            Using the loop’s thumb controls that moderated speed,  I caught up with Abel.  “Very good, sir,” he said.  “You’ve been to the Pair-a-Deuce before?”

            “No.  First time.”

            He raised his eyebrows.  “We could ride this rail for a tour of the casino, if you’d like.”

            I shook my head.  My stomach felt coiled, like a snake, and a dose of something to handle motion sickness sounded better than looking around.  I’d have days to explore before perihelion, anyway.

            He said, “We’ll have to slow at the next junction to make the transfer.”

            Ahead, a rail converged on our own.  Abel reached across the gap and snagged another loop.  I followed.

            When we reached my room, he said, “The door is keyed to your palm.  If you need anything . . .” he looked at me closely, “. . . a doctor, perhaps.  Room service will take care of you.”

            I nodded gratefully.  All I really wanted was some meds and to close my eyes to rest a bit.  The brochure hadn’t said anything about nausea!

            He waited while I moved into the room, a very nice, high-ceilinged Nikka-Hilton suite.  My baggage was piled at the foot of the bed.  I reached into my pocket for a tip.

            “No need, sir,” Abel said.  “It’s included in the bill.” 

            I said, “This trip is dangerous, isn’t it?”

            His face lit up.  “Yes, sir!  Comets are completely unpredictable.  A hunk could break off, and we’d spin right into the sunlight.  Wouldn’t last ten minutes.  This morning’s odds were only seven to one we’ll make it.”

            Last I heard they were twelve to one.  Maybe they’d learned something new about the comet since I’d last checked.  The boy looked so blithe for someone playing Russian roulette.  “How old are you, Abel?”



            Abel knew Jared was one of the Patriarchs when he stepped off the transport, just as if he’d been a god.  There was something different in their body posture and the way they dealt with the world.  Most new guests didn’t even look up at first.  The casino was noisy, and there was the problem of micro-gravity, but Jared bent his head back to stare at the comet’s tail streaming above them.  It had a lot to do with immortality.  Short timers were busy keeping their houses in order.  Abel, for instance, had spent months going through interviews and screenings to get the job on the Pair-a-Deuce.  The pay amazed him.  It would put him a tenth of the way to his first reset.  When he got there, he went to work immediately making contacts.  He knew business was about making contacts.  He didn’t look up, really look up, until he’d been there a week.

            But Patriarchs were different.  Their value system wasn’t geared to the day-to-day.  They had so many.  So when Jared spent his first minutes on the comet gazing at the streaming gasses on fire with the near sun’s light, Abel knew.

            Not just any Patriarch, either, thought Abel.  Jared!  The Jared.  At two-hundred and fifty-one years, only eleven resets and a risk rating of 7.8, he was the third highest ranked.  This trip could vault him to number one, and Abel would be there to see it.  Not only that, but what a contact.  If they got along, Jared might be able to help Abel.

            After Abel took Jared to his quarters, he accessed his info, what little there was.  The immortals were a private lot.  Abel studied the holo that had been taken fifteen years earlier.  About Abel’s height, a shade under two meters, but well-muscled where Abel had a tendency to be scrawny, the effect of a career in low gee.  Abel scanned through the record.  It’d been forty-one years since Jared’s last reset.  The summary included his risk-factor activities.  There were dozens, including a one-man assault on several of the Valles Marineris’s toughest cliffs, which explained the high risk rating.  The longest lived of them was a Matriarch with only four resets, and they were all age related.  No risk factor at all.  She hardly ever left her compound, and, of course, she had no prestige in the immortals’ world. 

            What’s the point in living forever if you don’t do anything?  You either live an adventure forever or die a hero.  Why behave any other way?  And if you’re a Patriarch or Matriarch, you can have them both, over and over, thought Abel.

            Abel met Jared the next morning to start his first full day on the casino.  Jared had made an appointment at the reset facility.

            “Good morning, sir,” said Abel.  Jared looked much better than he had the day before.  His short, dark hair was combed straight back, and he wore a single-piece overall that changed colors depending on how the light hit it.

            “Good morning, Abel.”  Jared’s eyes were dark brown, almost black, and he gazed at Abel directly.  “Let’s take that tour you told me about.”

            When they reached the surface viewing rooms, Jared let go of his loop, and pushed toward the windows.

            “I hadn’t imagined so much character to the surface.”

            Abel joined him.  “The comet is composed of loosely packed rocks, dust and volatiles: water ice, frozen carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide.”  On the horizon directly in front of them, and only a couple of kilometers away, sheets of brilliantly lit crystals flew up to join the display above.  Depending on the sun-side jetting, which was irregular, the horizon at any one place could be bright, as it was then, or fairly dark.  At their feet, the surface was a bizarre conglomeration of twisted spires reflecting the horizon’s orange and yellow glare.

            “I thought it would be flat,” said Jared.  “Flat and black.”

            “When the sun hits the dark crust, it vaporizes the frozen material beneath, creating pressure that breaks through. The formations are active vents that went from sunlight into the shadow.  For a bit, of course, they continued to blow out gasses.  As they cooled, the last bit of material, mostly water, froze in the shapes you see.  The ice sublimates, but it takes a while.”

            “They’re fantastic!”  Jared’s eyes were wide, his mouth a little open in wonder, the same as yesterday when he looked up at the million-mile long tail.

            Abel faced the window, trying to appreciate the comet the way Jared did.  Is this immortality’s greatest gift, a more contemplative way to see the universe?

            Jared tapped his fingers against the glass.  “What are our odds this morning?”

            “Still seven to one but they haven’t collated all the seismographic data for the day yet.”

            Abel took me to the reset facility after the casino tour.  Every Patriarch and Matriarch handles resets differently.  Some are so fearful of losing any of themselves they backup daily.  For me, that’s obsessive.  The Pair-a-Deuce’s center looked like mine at home.  The same sort of reception area, although the couches here had seat belts so the patrons didn’t drift away, the same sort of security procedures to make sure you were who you said you were, not that a counterfeit was likely to slip in here, and the backup room itself was dominated in the same way by the reset imaging machinery, which looked like a giant waffle iron with a space cut out of it for your head and shoulders to fit in as it closed.

            “If you’ll take your place on the table,” said the technician.

            He cinched a strap across my chest.  A foot above, the top edge of the machinery loomed over me.  “This is a good time to backup,” said the technician.  “You’d hate to lose the trip out here and all the things you’ve already seen.”

            The top came down.  If the Pair-a-Deuce suffered a catastrophic event, or if my body gave out, or if an angry gambler killed me, the creak of the machinery descending on my upper body, and the oddly electric smell of the room would be my last memory before I woke up in a retraining center.  The reset machinery can take a perfect picture of where every neuron in my brain resides, the chemical state of each cell, where individual tendrons connect, where all the nerves lead on to other nerves down to the atomic level, which is an exact portrait of who I am at the moment of the recording, but it takes a while for the new brain to form the copy.  For a year I’d be relearning motor control and adapting to the move.

            With my eyes closed, I waited for the recording instrument to lock into place.  It settled onto my chest.  Cool gel flowed around my neck, chin, and the back of my head, over my ears and into them until my head was nearly submerged.  Only my nose and mouth were uncovered.  Then it solidified.  My head was absolutely still.  Soft pads settled on my cheeks and pressed against my eyes.  Some people hate this part–the claustrophobia–but I like it: the machine’s comforting grip.

            Depending on what my schedule is, I reset once a month or so.  The longest time between reset and death was my first one, four and a half years.  What did I know?  I was rich as a king and twenty-two.  I thought I truly was immortal.  Why spend the hour in a reset center when you have your whole life in front of you?  I lost a marriage, a son and the four and a half years by not resetting.  Six months after that last reset I met someone my age.  We fell in love, married and had a child, a boy.  He was three when I flew an experimental glider into a flat spin and lost a wing.  I’ve seen the vid: the plane careening.  On a closeup I could see my head bent over the controls.  I’ve listened to my communications with the control tower, but I couldn’t tell, not really, how I faced death.  What was I like in those last few seconds?  I don’t know.

            The tech’s voice spoke in my ear, through the solid gel.  “We’re almost ready, Jared.  There may be a moment of discomfort.”

            I would have nodded if I could.  By the time I finished my retraining that first time, almost six years had passed since my last reset.  I met my wife outside of the hospital.  She was under no legal obligation to come.  The man she’d married, the father of her child, died in the plane.  I was like his younger brother, and I didn’t know her.  I remember standing in the lobby, shaking her hand, as if she were a new business associate, while the little boy looked up at me curiously.  They had told me about my missing past while I was retraining.  I’d seen my wedding vids, but they didn’t mean anything.  Her hand was warm and limp in mine.  Her smile was attractive; I understood what I must have seen in her, but she was so old.  As far as I was concerned, I was twenty-three and ready to whip the world after a year in a hospital, after dodging death once.  How could I have chosen to marry?

            Still, there are times when I take out that old wedding album and thumb through the pages.

            I started resetting more frequently after that.  There’s too much to lose if you don’t.  A memory is more than a limp hand in your own; it’s more than a child you don’t know looking up at you.

            The pain started in the middle of my brain, like a pulsing ember.  It swelled suddenly, pushing outward, a supernova behind my eyes, and then, pop, it was gone.

            “It will be another moment, Jared,” the tech said.

            I knew he was checking the recording.  If it wasn’t perfect, he would have to do it again.  There could be no irregularities.  Then the recording would be transmitted to the retraining center on Earth where it would be stored.  The electric smell was stronger, and the steel-solid gel felt almost hot against my face.  Outside of the machine I could feel my palms against the table, sweat-slick and trembling.  A “moment of discomfort” indeed!

            Abel smiled while watching the hands dealt.  There was room for creativity in low grav.  The cards were slightly magnetic, and there was metal under the felt, otherwise the slightest breeze might turn up a hole card, but the cards in the air were fun.  A good dealer might have dealt the fifth card for five-card draw before the first one had spun down to its spot in front of the player.  All the dealt cards rotated in the air at once.  Most players didn’t deal this way themselves–too easy for a card to twist and be visible–they flicked the cards directly to the table.

            Jared, when he dealt, was businesslike. 

            After lunch, he played aggressively, betting high early to force others to abandon their comfort zones.  He bet the maximum often, staying in the game until the end.  Abel couldn’t find a pattern to when he would fold or bluff.  Twice Jared won big pots on great hands, an aces-tens full house, then a straight flush, king high.  He also won on pure bluffs.  By the end of the session, Abel believed Jared broke even.

            Jared’s demeanor changed during the day.  For a while he was pure poker face, playing like an automaton.  Later, though, he smiled often, moved his hands, became talkative.  Once, he lost his temper.  Flung his cards from the table.  They scattered in flat parabolas until wind resistance slowed them, and they began their leisurely descent to the floor.

            When the two of them finally headed back to Jared’s room on the commuter rail, Jared asked, “Do you know what a ‘tell’ is?”

            Jared turned to the young man, one hand on the loop, the other trailing, dragging lightly on the rail.  His expression was serious.

            “Sure.  It’s a mannerism that reveals whether a player is bluffing or not.”

            “You’ve been watching me all day; do you know what my tells are?”

            Abel laughed.  Everything he’d seen today had been a performance.  “That was brilliant, sir.  It didn’t look like it ever mattered to you.  I had no ideas what your cards were.”

            Jared looked at Abel oddly for a moment.  “The secret’s in caring for it all passionately.”

            “How’s our comet doing?” I asked.

            “Ahh!  There are three fracture zones the seismo-guys are looking at.  One of the techs calls them Usher one, two and three.  You know, like that house in the Poe story that looks solid except that it isn’t?  Pretty funny.”

            I nodded.

            “If the Pair-a-Deuce is above one of them, and the comet splits there, then it would be over, so we try not to camp on top of them.  None of them seem very stable, so our odds are down to five to one.”

            He sounded like he was talking about the trifecta at Camden Downs instead of his own life.  “That doesn’t worry you?”

            “Oh, no, sir.  That’s just the odds for the casino itself.  We have escape pods.  Our chances are much better, but I’ve already put my money on the entire ball of rock making the run safely.  They haven’t lost a whole casino in twelve years.  If you want to make a swing by an observation room, I can show you something worth looking at.”

            Outside looked much as it had my first time here.  Milky-white spires of twisted water ice stuck out of the surface like gnarled fingers, but in between them lay a haziness that at first I thought was in the glass.  “Is that fog?”

            Abel shook his head.  “Carbon dioxide crystals.  Look!”

            He pointed to my left, and the others at the window crowded against me.  A gray plume shot out of the comet, perfectly straight, like a beam of slow light.

            “It’s a lateral fault.  We’re only four kilometers from the sunny side where it’s 700 degrees.  The exposed volatiles are boiling off, but it’s darned hot underneath the surface too.  Pressure builds up.  It vents through weak areas.”

            I’d never seen anything to match it: the surreal comet landscape; the violent, beautiful geyser flying into the blackness above; the effervescent, shimmering veil fluttering on the horizon, and through the white and yellow display, the laser-steady starlight.  I couldn’t see the sun, but I could feel it, intolerably huge and flaming on the comet’s other side, pulling us in.

            “How hot will the surface get at perihelion?”

            “Well over a thousand,” said Abel.

            Someone behind me sucked air between his teeth.  I gave my space at the window to another.

            Beyond the dome, great sheets of leaping light flowed away.  It was like looking through the glass roof of an elevator dropping out of control toward a distant basement, three days from our closest approach and the slingshot gravity boost that would wing the comet back out of the solar system.

            The morning the tournament began Abel thought he’d made a connection with Jared, who had been contemplative over breakfast, and when Abel brought up the idea of a good recommendation, he nodded, so Abel decided that meant he had been happy with how he had done his duties.

            A bell chimed, and several other players left their meals.

            “It’s time to start, sir,” Abel said.

            Jared glanced at him, and the moment vanished.  A quick smile.  “Let’s see whether I remember how to play this game.”

            The tournament directors had drawn for table assignments.  Abel already had Jared’s, and he directed him to his seat and pile of chips.  The other players were familiar.  Jared had beaten them all over the course of the last few days.

            A tournament official confirmed that everyone knew the house rules, then play began.  Jared dealt the first hand of five card draw, and took that pot on two pair.  By lunch, he’d bumped everyone on the table into the loser’s bracket and advanced himself into that afternoon’s reseed, where table winners played each other.  It would take two days to trim the field down to one table full of the big winners for the championship.

            Cards flew from dealer to players.  Chips clinked against each other.  Waiters brought drinks, and players who were concentrating too much to care let the ice melt to nothing, having never touched their glasses.  It dizzied Abel.  Bets, raises, calls, bluffs, reversals of fortune.  Abel liked seven-card stud best, where he could see the upturned cards, but mostly he liked watching Jared, whose eyes went from tell to tell.  They’d talked about each player.  Who had a tendency to raise low when their hand was good.  Who laughed longer when they bluffed.  Who could be rattled by quick play or frustrated by indecision.  Abel knew Jared didn’t play his hand; he played the players.

            And after a while, they knew it.  By the second day the eliminated players started watching Jared.  A crowd formed behind the ropes put up to keep the tables clear.  Conversation buzzed behind Abel about Jared’s play.  “I’ll bet fifty he’s bluffing this time,” said someone, and pretty soon, there was a lively set of wagers going on with every one of his hands.  The players at the table moaned or grinned at their luck as the crowd reacted to the play.

            Abel had never seen a dynamic like it at any other tournament.

            Jared won steadily, until, one by one, the other finalists stared at the empty spot on the table where their chips used to rest, then shook his hand.  The crowd around the table applauded as the last cards were shown.  Jared won on a ten high straight.

            “Sometimes it goes that way,” he said to Abel as he left the table.

            “I’ve arranged for a reset before the victory party, sir, as you instructed.”

            Jared nodded.

            I won the tournament six hours before perihelion.  Good players got bad hands at bad times, and everything else went my way.  There’s magic sitting at a poker table when you know luck is backing you.  It’s hard to bluff another out of a good hand, and a full house doesn’t beat a flush no matter how well you read the other player’s face, so it’s best to have the flush.  You can’t control the cards.  Poker’s mostly damage control and resource management, but I didn’t get many damaging hands, and my resources were rich.  I think anyone who drew the same cards I did could have been the All-Sol champion this year.

            Abel congratulated me as we headed for my room.  I wanted to freshen up, and do a reset before the party.  When something amazing happens in your life, you don’t risk losing it.

            “That’s incredible,” I said as the commuter rail pulled me toward my room.  We were only a hundred-thousand miles from the sun, and the comet’s tail flared above with squinty-eyed violence.

            “They’ll be cutting the casino loose soon,” said Abel.  “We have to move constantly as we go around.  The sunrise line will be moving too fast for us to stay anchored.”

            “What are the odds now?”

            Abel laughed.  “It’s looking a bit dicey, sir.  They told me fifty-fifty before breakfast.  I’ve been keeping my eye on the nearest escape pod for you.  If you get through this one, your risk rating will be the highest ever.  You’ll be the top ranked immortal, sir.”  His eyes practically glowed, and I realized that he worshiped me.

            “Only if I survive, Abel.  My rating drops if I don’t make it.”

            “No problem, sir.  I’ve got a good feeling about this one.  The way the cards were falling for you, if you had a leaky spacesuit and an hour’s worth of air, I’d give you ten to one that you could hang onto this rock with one hand, do the hot ride around, and still make your way back to civilization.”                                                                                                          

            He laughed again, and I had to laugh too.  His enthusiasm about me was contagious.  Maybe I was blessed.  Maybe this time I’d make it all the way around, so to speak, and never face my death again.  I was still chuckling when the reset machinery clamped down on my head, filling my nose with its strange, electric smell.

            At the first observation room, the crowd cheered when Jared entered.  Someone pushed a drink into his hand.  The tradition in the comet casinos was to spend as much of the trip around the sun drunk.  They called it “toasting the toast,” and this looked to be a royal party. 

            At the window Abel saw the comet’s surface crawling slowly beneath them as the Pair-a-Deuce glided with the shadow.  Wherever the fault lines were, he couldn’t see them, and they weren’t the only danger.  Most venting on the comet’s dark side were explosive.  If super-heatedd gasses made it this far, they did it under incredible pressure.  A large venting beneath them could push the unanchored casino away from the comet’s protective bulk and directly into the sunlight.  Or even more sudden, a section of rock and solid ice could be blasted into the Pair-a-Deuce’s underside and breach the hull.

            Abel took his own drink, a glass of water, but only tasted it.  He kept his eye on Jared.  There was access to escape pods at either end of the room, but the pods only held ten people each, and there were at least fifty partiers crowded against the windows, oohing and aahing at the spectacle outside. 

            Jared forced his way against the glass.  Abel rested a hand on Jared’s shoulder so they wouldn’t be separated.  As they took their place facing the exploding horizon only a couple kilometers away, Abel thought, maybe the comet will tear itself apart as it goes around the sun.  Maybe that would be the best thing to happen.  If Jared escapes that, then his record will be unassailable.

            The two men stood on the far side of the room closest to the escape panel.  Abel had just finished thinking, “maybe the comet will tear itself apart,” when the room shuddered, and the klaxons began blaring.

            People screamed.  In a panic, some tried to run and, instead, they floated helplessly above the floor, their feet and hands flailing about without purchase.  ESCAPE PROCEDURE signs lit on the walls, and the escape pod panels were marked with flashing red arrows.  “Proceed to your nearest evacuation area,” a voice intoned over the intercom.

            Someone kicked Abel in the head.  He grabbed an ankle and pulled the man down. 

            “Hold on!” Abel yelled as he put the guest’s hand on a bannister. 

            Where was Jared?  Abel turned all the way around.

            “Look!” someone yelled.  People glanced out the window and most moved, terrified,  toward the exits at the back of the room, away from the escape pods.

            Where was Jared?  He wasn’t in the crowd.  Where was he?  Abel pushed up so he could be above them.  Nothing. 

            Abel turned again.  Jared was still at the window, not moving.  The floor convulsed.  In the distance beyond the observation room back in the casino, Abel heard an impact, or he felt it in his bones, like the thunder of a mountain collapsing.  His ears popped, and that, more than anything else told him the end was near.  Air tight doors clanged shut in the distance.  Whatever was happening, it was massive. 

            “You’ve got to get out, sir!”  Abel grabbed Jared’s arm, but the man didn’t let go of the rail below the window.

            “Have you ever seen anything like it?” Jared said, his voice filled with wonder.

            Abel pulled again, but Jared still held on.  He braced his foot against the wall, ready to force Jared away when he looked out the window, and for a moment, froze.

            The horizon had split in a wide crack that led from the incandescent curtain of the comet’s tail all the way to the Pair-a-Deuce, like a ravine, and the edges drew slowly apart.  At the far end, gasses drove out of the gap, lit from below, intolerably bright, flaming, and as the crack widened, the awful light stretched toward them.  Through the veiling gasses, the exploding volatiles boiling away in the thousand degree heat, slowly appeared the surface of the sun.

            The room became hot.  Abel felt it on his face.  Even with his eyes closed, it was too dazzling.  He pushed hard to break Jared’s hold.  Eyes watering, Abel dragged him toward the escape pod.  The room had emptied. 

            If I can get Jared into the pod, Abel thought; if Jared survives this, he’ll hold memories that will never be equaled!

            Nine of the ten places were occupied.  The pod’s auto-countdown had engaged.  “Twenty seconds to separation.  Please exit the takeoff area,” the recorded message intoned.  Twin airtight doors would shut, sealing the passengers into the pod on one side and protecting the integrity of the casino on the other.

            Abel grabbed the last spot’s canopy and pulled Jared toward it.  He didn’t weigh very much, but his mass was the same.  Abel grunted with effort.

            “Did you see?” he said, his face glowing with joy.  “The sun was coming through.”

            “Get in!” Abel yelled. 

            Ominous metal shrieking split the air behind them.

            Jared’s hands caught both sides of the canopy.  The acceleration seat waited within.

            “Fifteen seconds,” chanted the recording.

            Abel put a hand in the middle of Jared’s back, still keeping a grip with the other.  The young man shoved, and somehow Jared shrugged in a complicated way.  Instead of pushing against him, Abel’s effort thrust him into the pod.

            “Don’t be ridiculous,” Jared said as he swung the canopy shut.

            “No!”  Abel beat against the descending door.

            Jared looked at Abel for the last time.  Behind him, the observation room blazed in acetylene brightness.

            Against the rising wind within the casino, Jared shouted, “If you make it, tell myself I died brave.  I’m OK with this.”  He smiled and then the canopy clicked shut.

            I remember the reset machinery coming down and that peculiar electric smell.  Then, I woke up.

            At first, I thought my arms were restrained, but it was the combination of Earth gravity and my lack of motor control.  I shut my eyes against the familiar sensation of not being able to make my body respond.  After all, I’d done this eleven times before.

            It took over a month before I was able to manipulate my hands well enough to type out a question for my therapist.  Speech would come weeks later.

            I laboriously typed, “Did Abel live?”

            “Who is Abel?” she said.

            Hours passed before an answer came back.  I stared at the ceiling, feeling the blood pumping through a body I’d never worn before.  Breathing air in lungs that were new to me.  Keenly aware that my consciousness had made a transfer that my physical self had not.  Was I the same me that just won the All-Sol championship, or was this copy of me flawed in some way?  Was the self thinking in my head now a new person or the same one?  Was there any way to measure the changes?  It was a question I often wrestled with.  Of course, it was the same question I asked every morning when I woke up.  What happened to the me that fell asleep the night before?  What difference was there between sleep and dying?

            Anyone who wonders about death and reincarnation need only take a nap. 

            The therapist finally told me that Abel survived.  I’ll be released from here before he returns. 

            Space travel is so slow. 

            I’ll meet him.  I hope he saw me in the end.  I hope he has news to tell me of myself.

This story originally appeared in Talebones.

James Van Pelt

An interviewer asked the author if he wanted to be the next Stephen King: he said, "No, I want to be the first James Van Pelt."