The gap-toothed soothsayer lifted her head at the sound of the
chimes ringing when her door opened. Her shop wasn't big, just a
little hole-in-the-wall in downtown Camineet between a once-trendy
boutique and a moderately popular fern bar, but it didn't need to be
large. There was an outer waiting room, outfitted with comfortable,
threadbare chairs and a sofa, together with a payment terminal at the
counter where the fortuneteller sat when she wasn't with a client, and
a small inner room where she did her work. That was all that she
"Ah, Mister...Evlin," she said in a voice that quavered slightly.
"You are becoming a regular. This is your...fifth time coming to see
me, I believe?"
Bart Evlin smiled, glad she'd remembered him. He was in his early
thirties, of average height, with a certain softness about his body
that suggested he worked with his mind, not his hands, and didn't spend
time at the gym to make up for it. His suit was off the rack but fit
well, his sandy hair was slightly tousled, and he had a genial grin
that reminded most people of a puppy who wanted to be liked.
"Well, you've always been so accurate, Mila."
Mila spread her hands in a modest dismissal of his praise.
"The future is already written, Mr. Evlin. All one needs to do is
"Don't be modest. You always say that, but you know that no one
else can predict the future like you." He grinned and added, "I guess
you could call people like me future-illiterate."
She smiled thinly at his joke.
"So, Mr. Evlin, what is it you would request of me this evening?"
"Well," he said hesitantly, "I've got a pretty big deal in the
works, something that could really be my big break. I'd like to know
what's going to happen."
"But of course. A reading in response to a specific question is
easier than a general reading, so the price will only be one hundred
Bart got out his wallet, took out an access card for his accounts at
the Colesburg Bank and inserted it into the pay slot. He selected
payment from his credit line, verified the account, then put the
"Thank you. Let's go into the back."
Mila took him through the door into her workroom. There was
relatively little there, only a green baize table with two
straight-backed chairs and an overhead lamp with an opaque shade that
kept the table lit but put the rest of the room in shadow. The old
soothsayer went to the far side of the table and seated herself,
leaving Bart as always to take the chair with its back to the door.
There was a deck of playing cards on the table, their backs
decorated with a mystic-looking hexagram against a starry field.
"Take the cards," Mila told her client, "and shuffle them. Do not
think of what you are doing, but relax and let the pattern of your life
fit itself to the deck. Stop when you feel you are ready."
Bart picked up the deck and began to mix the cards. On an earlier
visit, Mila had told him that the ordinary playing cards used for
gambling games had always been a tool of fortunetellers, long before
poker, whist, and three-card monte had laid their claims. The four
suits of the modern deck, crowns, castles, hearts and coins, stood for
the four goals people sought in their lives--power, security, love, and
wealth. After a minute or so, he set the deck back down. She took it
up and began to shuffle, accustoming her own aura to the cards. Her
thin, fragile-looking hands were deft, making Bart wonder how many
years she had been doing this. Forty? Fifty?
When she was done, she dealt a single card, face-up, in the center
of the table. Mila then dealt two cards face-down below it, from her
perspective, and a small pyramid above, three, then two, then one.
"This card represents you," she said, touching the face-up card.
Unlike a regular deck, the face of each card bore a separate image
instead of a cluster of castles, hearts, or whatever the appropriate
suit was, and each image had a title in letters of gold foil. The card
for Bart was the four of crowns, showing a spectacled man sketching a
complex plan with a quill pen on parchment. It was titled,
"That fits," Bart said. "I'm offering a new design to--"
"It is Invention," Mila went on, cutting off his explanation before
it could disturb the rhythm of the reading. "A creative person, and an
intelligent one, but not always wise in the ways of the world."
Well, that was fair enough, Bart admitted.
"These two cards," Mila continued, lightly touching those below the
first card, "are the ones that show your dilemma, the forces that are
large in your life and shape the question you are asking." She turned
over the king of coins. "The Merchant Prince here suggests a
businessman, or perhaps a corporation. It means vast wealth, but with
a driving purpose." She reached for the other card, which proved to be
the knave of crowns. "The Courtier. This is a powerful man, ruthless
and cunning. Reversed, it indicated an enemy or rival. Be wary, Mr.
Evlin; this enemy is very dangerous."
Bart knew exactly to whom that referred. Alan Rogers, a partner at
the firm where Bart had once worked and a shrewd, calculating
businessman to the core.
"These next three cards indicate your immediate future." She turned
over the first, the seven of coins. "Gambling," she stated. "This
does not necessarily mean games of chance in the literal sense, but an
opportunity to either make or lose money. Next we find the five of
hearts, Venture. This card indicates a journey, a long one in time,
distance, or perhaps both in your future. Last is...Sunset." She
peered at the three of hearts as if trying to make sense of it, as
indeed Bart was as well. "In this position I can only interpret that
as indicating direction. Your journey shall be to the west."
Bart frowned, trying to understand how a trip fit into his future
plans. So far as he knew, he wasn't going anywhere, nor had any reason
"The next two cards reveal the major forces that will shape your
future, not the outcome but that outcome's cause." Mila first turned
over the eight of hearts, which depicted a young woman with angelic
wings soaring against a starry background. The card was entitled
"What does that mean?" Bart could not resist asking.
"Positioned as it is above Venture and Sunset, I can think only of
its most literal meaning, that you will travel to the west by air. I
am surprised to see it here on the second row, however. The natural
place would have been in the first row. Clearly, your destination is
not as central to the outcome as is the method of travel." Mila's
puzzled frown was a reflection of her client's. "There are two cards
left. Perhaps they will bring clarity."
She turned over the card next to Flight and revealed another
inverted portrait. This one showed a green-haired young man with a
ponytail and goatee, a slender sword in one hand and a dagger in the
other. His card was named The Duellist; it was the ten of crowns.
"This is a bad sign," Mila said. "The Duellist is the mark of skill
and ability, but reversed it means incompetence or accident, an
Despite himself, a shiver ran through Bart. Mentioning an accident
in conjunction with air travel had only one meaning for him, the same
one it did for most people.
"Could...could this accident or incompetence actually work in my
favor?" he asked hopefully.
For the first time, Mila actually broke off the flow of her reading
to give Bart an answer.
"It...could," she murmured. "Only the final card can reveal that.
It represents the ultimate outcome of your future with respect to this
matter." She turned over the last card, then jerked her fingertips
away from it as if stung.
"Mila, what is it?"
"The...Ace of Castles. Perfect safety, perfect security,
only...reversed." The fortuneteller was actually trembling as she
lifted her gaze to lift Bart's. "There is only one interpretation. It
is a prophecy...of death!"
* * * * *
It would be a truism to state that no one consults a soothsayer to
hear bad news. The prediction that he would die, most likely in an
aerojet crash, had rocked Bart to his core. A few stiff drinks before
bed and a night's sleep, though, had him walking into his office the
next morning the picture of confidence, telling himself that he
wasn't a superstitious man, that he didn't believe in
fortunetellers. He had a smile and a cheery good morning for Elysse
Karl, his personal assistant, and settled down to work.
Bart had been expecting a call from Lucas Arashi of the Nakagaki
Corporation on an important matter, the one, in fact, about which he
had paid his visit to Mila. It came after three hours at his desk.
Arashi was a tall, slim man of indeterminate age, which might have been
due to biosculpting or good genes. Obsidian-black eyes that matched
his hair regarded the engineer-turned-entrepreneur with calm
"Good morning, Mr. Evlin. I trust I find you well."
"Y-yes, thank you. Have you had a chance to review my proposal?"
Bart winced as he saw the flicker of disappointment pass across
Arashi's face. Clumsy! Too clumsy! He should have let the man from
Nakagaki take the initiative, decide when to turn the topic to
"We have," he stated, "and we find it most interesting." Arashi
folded his hands on the desk in front of him. "We have, however,
received another proposal from Zephyr Systems Design."
Adan Rogers. The Courtier.
"I have decided to request each of you to give a presentation where
my staff and I can evaluate your separate proposals and ask questions."
"All right," Bart agreed. He wasn't really a salesman, but he had
been the lead designer on his fledgling company's proposal. He knew it
inside and out and why it would be an improvement over his competition.
Besides which, he could talk about technology with laymen and not be
too boring; when he had worked for Zephyr he'd been asked to give
proposals like this before. "When do you want to do this, and what
datanet protocols will be involved?"
Arashi shook his head.
"I prefer not to conference electronically on a matter like this.
It is too impersonal, and does not offer an opportunity to get to know
the people with whom I'll be dealing. After all, the Nakagaki
Corporation is being asked to invest several million meseta in this
project. This is not a matter for a hasty decision."
"Very well; I'll be ready. What's the place and time?"
"I'm forwarding the formal invitation now, but I'll tell you that
the presentation will be tomorrow morning at the Skyscape Resort and
Conference Center in Loar. A suite has already been reserved for you,
and complete computer and multimedia facilities will be provided.
"Is something wrong, Mr. Evlin?" Arashi asked with a raised eyebrow.
"N-no, nothing. I'll see you there."
"Excellent. Have a good day." The screen went blank.
Bart was trembling as he tried to work the thought through his head.
Loar. It was a North Peninsula city, best known for its seaside
resorts but otherwise unremarkable. A glance at any map, though,
indicated that Loar was some distance to the northwest of Camineet.
Together with Arashi's insistence that they meet in person instead
of via datanet conferencing, it seemed as if Mila's prophecy was about
to come true. He was going to take a trip to the west. Bart
didn't have any subordinates he could give this job to, and even if he
did this was too important to pass off to anyone else. Getting this
contract would be the breakthrough Evlin Datamark needed to make a name
for itself, pay off some of the company's debts, and verify that the
gamble he'd taken in going out on his own was worth it. Arashi would
know all that if he'd done his homework, which he certainly had, and if
Bart sent anyone else in his place it would be as good as a direct
insult to Arashi and to Nakagaki both.
Besides which, there was no truth to fortunetelling, to prophecy.
It was all a game, entertainment, like taking in a show or reading a
novel. It was silly to get himself so worked up over it.
Still and all, Bart decided, perhaps the best thing to do would be
to put his mind at ease, to take steps that would keep the prophecy
from coming true.
"Yes, Mr. Evlin?"
She was lovely, in her late twenties with waves of pale violet hair
and lithe curves that could have been a holovid star's. Bart had
thought more than once about asking her out, but had always backed off.
She was a first-rate assistant and secretary, and starting up a
romance with her (or if she shot him down cold) would wreck that smooth
working relationship. So Bart kept his mouth shut, and as faint heart
never won fair lady, nothing ever happened in that direction.
"Could you please call up the teleport station and arrange to have a
ticket prepared for me? I need to go to Loar this evening."
"Teleportation? Can we afford that?"
She had a point. To teleport to Loar would cost around three
thousand meseta, while a flight would only be around four hundred for
business class. The project was worth the expense, Bart decided, as
was his peace of mind.
"Yes, I believe so. It's for the Nakagaki deal."
"Oh, yes, I see. All right, Mr. Evlin, I'll get right on it."
Relieved, Bart turned to his computer terminal, accessing files to
try and gather the materials he'd need to present to Arashi. He'd
anticipated having to make a presentation ever since he'd heard that
Zephyr was in the running for this contract, so he'd done some
preparation. Converting his material for a live audience wouldn't be
Bart had been working for five minutes before his assistant cut in
"Mr. Evlin, I'm afraid there was a problem in arranging that
"What? Have rates gone up?"
"No; it's just that the Loar teleport station will be down for
another forty-eight hours. They're installing and testing new, more
efficient equipment and it required a complete shutdown. Shall I go
ahead and make aerojet reservations?"
Bart's face had gone dead white; he was numb with shock. The trip
to Loar might be coincidence, but the teleport station being down,
forcing him to travel by aerojet? That was something else.
"Mr. Evlin? Is something wrong?" Elysse asked.
No, it had to be a coincidence. It had to be. There was no
such thing as precognition. Mila couldn't really read the future. He
was a man of science, with a new system architecture he'd invented. He
was a man of business, and millions of meseta were on the line. He
couldn't let fairy tales stop him, not this close to success.
"N-no, Elysse, nothing's wrong," he forced out. "Go ahead and make
The next few hours passed in an agonizing blur for the president and
majority owner of Evlin Datamark. Try as he might to forget it, there
was nothing Bart could do to force the prediction out of his mind.
It is a prophecy...of death!
He couldn't concentrate, could barely think clearly enough to be
able to select the files he wanted and download them to chip.
Thankfully the actual presentation wasn't until next evening, because
until the aerojet touched down in Loar, Bart knew he was going to be a
nervous wreck. He'd always been a little contemptuous of those who
were scared to fly, but now he knew exactly how they felt.
When he got to the aeroport Bart was still shaky, so he decided to
take the edge off those fears by self-medicating with a few stiff
drinks in the business travelers' lounge. Windward Airways provided
free drinks with business-class tickets, and Bart took full advantage,
downing three double whiskey and sodas in quick succession. The
numbing effect of the alcohol started to take effect, and his smug
self-assurance was starting to take over when a man sat down on the bar
stool next to him.
"What'll it be?" the serving robot asked in a passable imitation of
a bartender's grunt.
"Ale. MacLean's, if you've got it."
The robot set a glass and a bottle on the bar, then removed the cap.
The man ignored the glass and took a tug from the bottle, then turned
"Ah, best thing about flying is the drinks before," he said.
Bart hadn't really noticed the man, but when the newcomer spoke to
him he had to look up and pay attention. He found himself facing a
rakish young man, dressed casually, with green hair tied back in a
ponytail and a goatee.
He was looking at the Duellist from Mila's cards.
"Are...are you traveling to Loar?" he forced himself to ask.
"Oh, yeah. Visiting the folks back home. Guess you're on business,
"Yes, I am...business..."
It was hard to think clearly under the influence of the alcohol he'd
downed, but a series of thoughts managed to force their way into Bart's
brain. The trip to Loar was one coincidence. The teleport station
being down was another. That might have been all they were. But now,
seeing that one of his fellow passengers would be the living
incarnation of the force of accident, not just as a metaphor but the
very image of the card...
Bart didn't know what the statistical probabilities were, and he
didn't care. All he knew was that he was not getting on that
"Um...excuse me," he babbled to the green-haired man. "I've...I've
got to make a call." It was an excuse, nothing more, an excuse to
leave the lounge, leave the aeroport, and let a cab take him home.
Evlin Datamark was his own company, after all. What good was its
success if he wasn't around to enjoy it?
* * * * *
Adan Rogers looked like a successful businessman. He wore his suit
well, and the touch of gray in his hair suggested wisdom and maturity.
He was very pleased with himself, too, and it showed in his walk, his
smile. He'd just concluded a major deal for Zephyr Systems Design with
Palm's fourth-largest megaconglomerate. There'd be a large bonus in it
for him; he'd even negotiated for stock options--and Zephyr's stock
would take off once the financial press got ahold of the Nakagaki deal.
Convincing Lucas Arashi to go with his product hadn't been hard, not
when the competition hadn't bothered to show up.
Rogers instructed his cabdriver to wait, then walked over to the
little shop tucked between a boutique and a somewhat overdone fern bar.
Chimes rang as he opened the door.
"Ah...Mr. Rogers. Good evening," Mila greeted him. "I trust
everything went well in Loar?"
"Quite well," he said. "You did an excellent job."
The soothsayer smiled at him, showing the gap in her teeth.
"Thank you, Mr. Rogers. That's high praise coming from one so wise
"You can save that for the marks, Mila. I just came to drop off the
part of your meseta that was contingent on success. Always pay
promptly for good service, or so says the businessman's handbook."
Mila's smile broadened.
"As I said, you are a wise man."
Rogers took a money clip from his pocket and laid several
hundred-meseta notes on the counter. The soothsayer's deft fingers
captured them instantly.
"Do come again, Mr. Rogers."
"Perhaps I shall. You've always given me favorable readings."
The chimes rang again as he left the shop. As he headed for the
cab, he got out his porta-visiphone and dialed.
"Hello. Elysse? It's Adan. I've just gotten back in town, and
wondered if you'd like to go out and celebrate with me, darling? You
would? Wonderful! I'll pick you up in half an hour. Yes, you're
splendid dear, and your brother was perfect. Yes, that's right.
I, Adan Rogers decided, am a very fortunate man.