It must've been a beautiful sight. Being able to just look up and see the stars that filled the infinite horizon outside. That must've been what the engineers had in mind when they designed the ceiling of the casino. The largest section by far, the casino nearly spanned the entire length of the ship. Spacious and luxurious, even with hundreds of people within it, it never felt crowded with the patrons evenly distributed among various bars, gambling machines, and card tables. And above it, all was a great dome that would've given those patrons a glorious view of the Empty Desert; the cold, empty void that rested just outside the hull of the cruiser. The nothingness that gave no obstruction to the cosmos, all of the stars and, of course, the great red monster that towered over the entire sector.
The Madralen Nebula, and the stars behind it were nowhere near the cruise ship but that wouldn't stop anyone from recognizing the sheer size of it. It would've taken up the entire view of the clear dome above the casino. The deck was clearly designed with the giant gas cloud in mind as the casino had dim blue lighting that would contrast itself quite well with the red lighting of the nebula above. The low lighting plus the overall design was meant to create an intimate experience for the patrons despite its overall size. That was probably the idea at least.
It must've been a beautiful sight. Ash thought to himself again as he looked up at the ceiling and saw no stars...no big, red nebula. The dome had been boarded up. Though, perhaps, 'ironed up' was the better expression as that's what was now up there. Just the iron plating of the ship's hull plastered over the dome in place of the see-through plastic that obviously used to be there. It wasn't even aesthetically pleasing to look at. The metal material was clearly recycled scrap with welding spots easily spotted from below thanks to the bright white lights that were now attached to the ceiling. What was once a perfectly lit casino now looked completely washed out? It felt like it as well. Ash could feel the heat of those lights beaming down on him. He had been wiping sweat from his forehead during the entire game.
Fear makes everything ugly. Ash thought while pressing the button on his vape, taking in a strong dose of nicotine.
Ash looked down mid-inhale and stared at the other players. The one sitting to his right impatiently asked. "You folding or what?"
Exhaling the vapor, Ash lifted up the cards in front of him to take a quick glance at his hand. A seven of clubs and jack of diamonds. Not a terrible hand. "I call."
He tossed the necessary chips forward and returned to his vape as the player to his right followed with a call of his own. There was a mocking sigh from the man sitting directly across from him. "I call...and call and call. That's all you ever do."
"Not true." Ash responded smugly. "Sometimes I fold."
The man sitting on the opposite side of the round poker table shook his head while the betting continued around the table. "Why don't you grow some balls?"
"I seem to be doing just fine without them." Ash motioned towards his pile of chips which was noticeably larger than everyone else's. "Perhaps you should consider cutting yours off, maybe you'll play a little smarter."
With none of the other players raising after Ash, the robot dealer drew the turn-the fourth card in hold'em- while a waitress walked up with a rocks glass filled with whiskey. She placed the drink down next to Ash and grabbed his empty. "Thank you." Ash said to the waitress, his breath almost as strong as the whiskey he had been served. There were four cards now: A four of spades, nine of hearts, queen of hearts, and an ace of spades. Ash's hand was growing weaker. He folded before the round of betting could even reach him, much to the annoyance of the man across from him.
Ash could certainly understand the satisfaction of scaring people into folding but that doesn't usually result in large profits. To say nothing of the massive losses that could come when one faces someone who doesn't scare so easily. Ash drank from his glass while the current hand finished up with his rival across the table ultimately winning. Overjoyed, the man reached out and pulled in his chips.
It was purely an ego boost for the rich man, and he was certainly rich. Ash could see the man's wealth as clear as day, from his excessive tan resulting in orange skin that was horrifically mismatched with his blue hair, the man was a physical embodiment of the elite class. Frequent access to UV rays was a luxury, hair dye was a privilege, and the rich loved to show it all off without a second's thought about the appearance of it all. Never realizing that expensive tastes aren't the same as having class. The rest of the players were obviously wealthy as well with their own choice of colorful hair dye, rich tans, and overdesigned outfits that seemed downright uncomfortable to wear. Though none were quite as flamboyant about it all as the man sitting opposite was.
But the river flowed both ways. Just as Ash could see the wealth of his competitors, they could all see him as the outsider he was. With his plain dark pants, dark shirt, and dark coat. His dark hair, dark eyes, and dark skin. Ash stood apart from his rich rivals just through his very presence. He didn't take the time to properly groom himself for his date with the elites either, sitting there with bags under his eyes, unkempt hair, and strong 5 o'clock shadow growing on his dry, cracking skin. Ash didn't get much sleep, he didn't get much of the artificial sunlight, and he was definitely starting to suffer the effects. Though, as he quickly finished yet another glass of whiskey, Ash understood that was only the start of his issues. Not that he was bothered much by any of it, quickly motioning to the waitress to bring him yet another refill.
The blue-haired man shook his head. "How does some lowly drunk like you stumble his way into a place like this? What are you, some two-bit con-artist?"
"Well, I'm not." Ash shrugged, "But I know people."
Most people in Ash's position would want to keep a low profile, especially given the less than legal means he used to get himself onto the luxury transport ship. In fact, most people in his position wouldn't use such a high-class means of transportation. But Ash wasn't one for caution. Besides, he relished the opportunity to plant his 'lowly' self among the elite. He certainly wasn't insulted by the contempt they gave him with the way he leaned into it with his disheveled appearance, in fact, he relished it. And he knew that their contempt and suspicion wouldn't turn into any action against him. Reporting him to the authorities would require the elites to view him as something more than an annoyance and, of course, actual effort.
The robot dealer shuffled the deck as it gave the routine instructions for the players to pass the blinds. The big blind was now on Ash, requiring him to make a bet right out of the gate, so it was probably best to wait a bit before folding again..assuming his hand isn't completely worthless. The dealer began dealing out the cards to the respective players. It was still unusual for Ash to play cards with a robot dealer, he was accustomed to playing with human ones in less opulent settings. Not that he was prejudiced against machines, he just questioned how well it could monitor betting and potential cheating. But Ash had to admit, the Union's advancements in artificial intelligence were impressive. The robot, while a bit stiff in its movements, kept order pretty well.
The new hand began and Ash's was decent. An ace of clubs and a five of hearts. It was certainly good enough to warrant staying in to see how things play out. The betting started with the players to Ash's right matching his big blind and soon found its way to the blue-haired man, who raised. The betting continued, with one of the other players folding, and soon things were back on Ash. The blue-haired man mocked him. "I take it you will be calling again."
"You know me so well." Ash answered as he threw the chips onto the table, keeping his eyes on his rival. The robot dealer reached up and with its silver arms and straightened up the pile of chips before proceeding to draw the first card. A three of spades. Not really useful to Ash but, apparently, it was more than enough to prompt another raise from the blue-haired man. Two more players folded while Ash just called again.
Then came the second card, eight of diamonds, and there was yet another raise from the man sitting across. Another player folded as the betting went around to Ash who just realized that the blue-haired man had barely looked at his cards since the hand had begun. "I am curious, how high are you willing to call?" The blue man asked smugly.
Ash couldn't help but be amused by his rich rival. He had gotten his ass kicked throughout the entire game and was only still at the table because his bottomless pockets were able to take the losses. But now, after winning just one round of significance, he was suddenly playing hyper-aggressive. Trying to scare the rest of the table away with his display of wealth and apparent strength. There was only way for Ash to respond with a big smile on his face. "I will see you...and I will raise you."
Ash tossed in the chips and watched as all the other players folded in response, leaving just the two of them. The bet returned to the blue-haired man who called, prompting a laugh from Ash. "What? Don't have any balls?"
The man didn't respond which just added to Ash's smile as he returned to his drink and vape. Another card was dealt. A ten of hearts. Ash watched as his opponent made the first bet, matching the blind and raising. Ash called and raised.
"Now you want to play." The blue-haired man stated. "You bluffing?"
Ash shrugged. "No more than you. But I am curious, how high are YOU willing to call?"
The robotic dealer motioned to the blue-haired man to make his move and, after a moment of tense silence, he made it. He pushed all of his chips to the center of the table. "I'm all in."
"I call." Ash responded calmly, pushing his chips in to match the bet. Ash will have some chips left if he lost but the rich man certainly won't, at least not without buying more. The robot reached up and neatened the pile before preparing to draw the last two cards of the round. Both Ash and his terribly tanned rival flipped their cards over to reveal their hands. As he had predicted, Ash's opponent had a slightly weaker hand than his, a jack of spades and a three of diamonds. There were two cards left to draw though. The time for strategy was over, all Ash could do is sit and wait for luck to be on his side.
"Just how lucky do you think you are?" the rival asked eyeing up the disheveled Ash. "Because you don't strike me as particularly lucky."
Ash laughed at that pitiful attempt to demean him. "Really? I'd say someone like me being in a place like this would count as 'lucky'."
"Please, you're just a drifter. Conning your way from city to city, gaming the system every step of the way. How do you get away with it?"
"I figured you would've figured it out by now." Ash said referring back to his habit of calling instead of raising. "I don't pick a fight I can't win."
The fourth card was drawn. A jack of spades. Ash's rival now had a pair over him.
"It seems that you can't win this fight."
Ash took a deep breath of nicotine from his vape and responded on the exhale. "Let's save the celebrations for the end, shall we?"
The robot flipped over the final card...an ace of hearts. The win goes to Ash. There is a light applause around the table as Ash finished up his current drink in celebration.
"Don't worry." Ash said to his beaten rival. "I'm sure you can afford."
Ash gathered up his chips and placed them onto a small carry tray. All the while the petty blue man stated under his breath. "Ass."
"No, it's Ash. With an H." Ash corrected. "Common mistake. But I don't know what you're so angry about, you're the one who overplayed his hand."
With his winnings in hand, Ash stood up from the table and went to cash out. The cash out station was nestled in the corner of the casino not far from the long bar that ran through most of the aft side of the deck. Ash went up to one of the small glass windows of the check out station and it didn't take long for the clerk behind it to notice his gains. "Lucky night?"
"Nope." Ash answered as he slid the tray of chips under the glass. "Just took advantage of someone else's misfortune."
"That's a rather negative way of looking at it."
"Is it?" Ash stated rhetorically before pointing down to the glass of water that was sitting on the clerk's desk. "Your glass is 'half-empty' by the way."
The clerk laughed as he counted up the chips, it took a bit. "Your total winnings are 12,345 credits. Just enter your card and we can make the transfer."
"Actually, I'd like the winnings in oxygen." Ash stated to the clerk's surprise.
"All of it?"
"Yes. You can do that here, can't you?"
"Of course, it's just most passengers who fly on this ship don't ask for it."
Ash nodded. "Yeah, I'm sure they don't."
"You'll have to pay for the tanks and transport carriers."
"I'm aware, you can take that off the winnings."
The clerk performed the transaction and gave Ash his receipt. The clerk explained that Ash would have to collect the oxygen at the shipyard after they dock and arrange for it to be transferred to his place of residence. Ash said that he understood even though he didn't actually have a place of residence where he was going...or anywhere for that matter. But it was always good to keep a good supply of oxygen on hand because, in the void of outer space, oxygen was more valuable than gold.
With his winnings processed, Ash walked over to the bar. The waitress who had been serving him all throughout the poker game was behind the bar preparing another round of drinks to serve across the casino. She saw Ash coming and simply placed the refill she had prepared for him on the bar. Ash grabbed the glass. "Thanks."
"You done at the table?" The waitress asked.
"Yes, I am." Ash placed his credit card on the bar and went to the work on his new drink.
"You seem to enjoy that brand, would you like a bottle to take back to your room?"
Ash couldn't remember exactly what he said in response to that question...