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Bad Fortune
by Darrell Whitney


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 needed.

"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 read it."

"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 meseta."

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 smartcard away.

"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, "Invention."

"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 to.

"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 Flight.

"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 unintended result."

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 self-assurance.

"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 business.

"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."

Bart nodded.

"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.

Loar.

"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.

"Elysse?"

"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 too hard.

Bart had been working for five minutes before his assistant cut in to report.

"Mr. Evlin, I'm afraid there was a problem in arranging that ticket."

"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 reservation."

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 to Bart.

"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, huh?"

Bart gulped.

"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 aerojet!

"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 as you."

Rogers chuckled.

"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. Goodbye, love."

I, Adan Rogers decided, am a very fortunate man.

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