From the Hands of Hostile Gods – Ch. 2

The rules of Yetzirah. A deal of five cards to each hand. Cards can be shuffled, exchanged or drawn from any location within the remaining deck after the deal, though no more than one card may be traded at any time. The player seated to the left of the dealer begins the round, and play proceeds around the table in clockwise fashion. Players can hold no more and no less than five cards in their hand. Discards are removed from play until the displayed deck is gone, then reshuffled and fanned again until a player wins the round and advances to a new sephirot.

The game board is placed in the center of the table. The pattern is a direct facsimile of the kabbalistic Tree of Life with its ten glowing sephira and sharp angled paths connecting Keter to Hokmah, Binah to Gevurah, down the tree and so on. Inscribed in each circle are the names of the four minor arcana to which it symbolically corresponds. Keter, the four Aces; Tipheret the four Knights or the four Sixes; Netzach the four Sevens. Scratched along each line-pathway between the spheres are the titles of one of the major arcana. Malkhut to Yesod, Universe; Gevurah to Chesed,Strength; Hokmah to Keter, Fool. The task of each player is to acquire all five cards in a given spread corresponding to a sephirot and its radiating path from one circle to another.

Play proceeds until a player acquires the necessary cards to move from one sephirot to any of the other sephirot to which it is connected by a direct path. Thus, a given round’s winning hand might proceed from Malkhut to Hod, by virtue of obtaining the major arcana Judgement and the minor Eights of Staves, Coins, Wands and Cups. The limited choices available from any point within the game board render the gameplay itself a combination of sheer luck, a modicum of strategic thinking and a careful assessment of those against whom one played. Two players attempting to follow the same path would eliminate one another from contention, assuming each one held a card the other required. Players could only advance to a sephirot connected by a path from their current station.

The Tree can be climbed most directly from Malkhut to Yesod to Tipheret to Keter. In three consecutively dealt hands, this maneuver is called the Perfect Middle Pillar. The more statistically predictable pattern of procession is a serpentine route up and around, horizontal and arcing, even occasionally backward from sephirot to sephirot.

The goal of the game is to be the first to inhabit Keter.

The winner receives the opportunity to draw a final hand, ten cards placed in the traditional Celtic Cross pattern, lately used by Icky and his imaginary sexualized future. In accordance with a carefully cross-indexed sheaf of interpretations culled from more than a dozen texts on the history and understanding of the Tarot archetypes, the winner is allowed to scry the next day’s events.

The winner may then choose from a fanned deck one card, and replace any other single card in the spread with the card he has chosen. The revised cards are interpreted again, correlating the newly incorporated element. The winner alone decides the cumulative meaning for the coming day, particulates the results to his satisfaction, and theoretically, dictates the future as it will be written. It is the action of individual will on a set of external constants, a wild and unpredictable element introduced to a predictable and given subset.

This may be considered either a positive or negative element depending upon the surrounding cards.

Should the winner draw the scrying hand and approve the results as lain, he can choose not to select a final card. This signifies an acceptance of the random elements of fate, the weight of history proceeding unhindered, a nodding in time with what is to be. The card that would have been drawn is never known.

But if the final replacement card is drawn, it must be played.

#

The Observation Deck panels flickered various shades of green, spitting shadows against the low metal ceiling. The winds outside Persia Station had fallen to a dull screech, barely audible over the humming electronic life of the boards and monitors piled row on row, bolted precariously to the steel scaffolding which lined the room. Cooling fans breathed the steady exhaust of hot ozone into the air and made the room feel dry and suffocating in its warmth. Sievers was sweating openly, the collar of his shirt stained dark. His palms stained the tabletop where he rested his hands.

Brett wasn’t perspiring himself, not yet, though he understood there was probably a good reason for this–he had no idea what was going on. The cards in his hand weren’t any sort that he recognized. Swords and long, vinewoven walking sticks and golden round coins with pentagrams drawn on them, and one card that didn’t seem to have a suit at all, only the word Magician scrawled at the bottom and a black number one in a white, eye-shaped oval at the top. The figure in the middle was that of a robed man, bearded, standing erect behind a tall, cloth-draped table. In his right hand he held a glimmering white candle, pointed flame toward the heavens. The left hand pointed down, toward the earth at his feet.

Brett supposed, but in no way could be sure, that this was good.

Ritter, on the other hand, smiled around the table, benignly confident. Sievers dwarfed his side of the table, his shoulders crammed up around his neck, the muscles wound as tightly as a bulging metal coil. Jervis and Ilam alternated between glowering and petulant. It was really all that Brett needed to know.

He would have done better to let them collectively play out his dead man’s hand.

“Have you prepared your stratagem, Commander?” Ritter asked, his voice curiously arched and polite, as though he had just requested permission to launch the sub-light torpedoes or some such thing.

Brett studied his cards, shuffled his stick things together and put the Magician foremost, with the coin and sword randomly after.

With what he hoped was a sufficiently authoritative tone, he said, “Um.”

Ilam folded his hand face down on the table. He threw his head back, tossing the dark mane of his hair, and laughed his deep Irish rumble. “Once more through the ground rules for Chili’s benefit, I think.”

Ritter’s grin showed teeth around the red, saber-curves of his lips. He tapped his pointer finger against the printed computer diagram taped to the center of the tabletop.

“This is the game board,” he said. “Ten circles and twenty two lines. Sephirot and the paths between. In the occult tradition, it is a glyph known as the Tree of Life. This dollar coin in Chesed is Sievers. The pen cap in Gevurah is Jervis. Ilam, whom you will note handles his cards and his gamesmanship with such casual regard, can do so because of his bit of scrap way at the bottom in Netzach, just the one hand removed from Malkhut, where play begins.”

“I am,” Ilam sighed, his pale eyes glinting, “more or less out of contention.”

“And I’m the timing chip up near the top?” Brett asked.

Ritter shook his head. “No. You’re actually that grubby bit of cloth on the other corner of the triangle, in Binah. The timing circuit is in Hokmah, and that’s mine.”

Jervis winked at Brett across the table. “That means you’re tied for the lead. First one into Keter wins.”

Ritter leaned in closer, hunching his torso over the diagram. With his finger, he traced a serpentine path from the bottom to the crown. “You climb the Tree of Life.”

“I don’t think he understands,” Sievers said, exhaling a long jet of nicotine steam.

Brett nodded. “I get that there’s some correlation between regular cards and the one’s you’re using.”

“Diamonds to Coins, Spades to Staves, Clubs to Wands and Hearts to Cups, yes.” Ritter beamed at him. “Minus the mysterious Knight of the Tarot’s court, the minor arcana flows from ace to deuces, an exact correspondence.”

“But what’s the correlation between the game board and the cards? Why not just take the fifty two cards in common and play more poker?”

Ritter blinked at him and some of his glow faded, as if the question was nonsensical. He answered slowly, alternating his gaze between the board and Brett.

“In some western magickal traditions, the Tarot as a source of both divination and meditation became inextricably linked with an understanding of the Tree of Life, which is itself a Hebrew artifact. The Jewish mystical tradition held that the creative essence of the Unnameable God, when it flowed outward from beyond the Veils of Negative Existence, emerged as a plastic and liquid energy. Because the God, Yod-Heh-Vav-Heh, whom the Romans unfortunately literated as ‘Yahweh’ or ‘Jehovah’, was pure to the point that any direct contact with a non-divine creation would inevitably shatter the inferior material, He fashioned the Tree of Life as the mechanism for the creation of a physical universe, a firmament, that was from Him, but not of Him.

“The energy of the Godhead flows down from Keter to Binah to Hokmah and on to the bottom until it reaches Malkhut, which represents the universe. Mundane reality. For those who would rise, who would understand the measure of the universe and divinity, the path begins at Malkhut–complete and utter separation from the spiritual–and proceeds via the paths between the sephirot up the diagram until gradually, eventually they merge with Keter, the Crown, the complete understanding of the creative impulse of God.

“Each sephirot has a significance, a meaning which describes a state of spiritual development. Each line between is a path of knowledge, a mechanism for understanding that which is above it. The Tree of Life is about understanding, Commander. It is about the acquisition of knowledge, about what it means to be human, and at the same time, what it means to be a little, flawed piece of the Creator Deity whose presence fulminates beyond the impassable Triple Veils. To see beyond that gulf of unknowability and directly experience godhood is the purpose of the Tree. It is this that Moses requested in the Pentateuch, the chance to glimpse the glorious face of God Himself.”

Brett cleared his throat. “The winner gets to see God? That’s the point of this game?”

It might be time to take a closer look at these men’s psych profiles.

Sievers tittered from his corner, covering his mouth with his hand.

“Metaphorically, only metaphorically,” Ritter said, unperturbed. “In creating the game, I sought to stay true to the rich tradition which shrouds the Tarot. We distrust the Tarot as a people, as a species, I think. The Tarot and those things like them. The I Ching, for example. Dice and yarrow stalks and psychics, anything which can be used to divine our possible futures. This is information which we at once covet and feel that we do not deserve. . .or rather, not that we personally do not deserve it, but that others less scrupulous than ourselves don’t deserve it because of the ends to which they would direct their knowledge. We want, and we shy away. Better, we say, that we do not know what roams beyond our limited horizons. It is a universal human reaction.

“It is the same as the scientific impulse, is it not? The same dichotomy which has haunted humanity from the first days of the Enlightenment. Newton placed against Dr. Faust. Penicillin weighed against mustard gas. Atomic energy versus atomic weapons. We want progress, those new horizons, an ease to life, but at the same time we fear the cost of that progress, as if there is something a bit naughty in reaching beyond our present grasp.

“Knowledge is what we play for, Commander. Those are the only stakes. Call them small, but it amuses us more than trading bits of credit back and forth between us.”

Brett knuckled his brow. “Go on.”

“The received kabbalistic tradition regarding the Tree of Life ascribed certain qualities to the sephirot and the paths, certain meanings, values. What one may call passive definitions. The markers are signposts on the lifelong road of spiritual development, or metaphors for more intensive psycho-spiritual journeys of understanding. The Tarot in the same way affixes meanings to the cards in the major and minor arcana. In the case of the cards, these meanings or super-psychological trends were applied to the art of divination, the casting of fortunes, the exegesis of the unknown. The Tarot represents the unseen in action, impacting the physical reality to which we, embodied beings, are confined.

“Western Kabbalists considered the two systems, determined the correspondences between the Tree and its paths and the Tarot, and concluded that the one was merely a representation of the other, or perhaps more precisely, both were particularities of the same universal truth. The Tree of Life provided a more coherent codification of the Tarot’s knowledge.

“Both systems, of course, have at their source the notion that a correct apprehension of the knowledge conveyed by the imagery of its symbols leads to a further stage of knowledge. Truth scalloped within truth, the meanings and sheer vastness becoming larger and more profound with each step beyond the mundane.”

“But you’re just playing cards,” Brett protested. “You’re not understanding anything; you’re not gaining any knowledge.”

“We climb the Tree by mechanism of chance and dealt hands and concomitantly make the assumption that the forces of the universe are acting upon all the random variables to produce an outcome which is inevitable. The winner is supposed to win because it’s been pre-ordained.”

Brett fanned his cards, looking again at the Magician with his sparkling dark eyes and the obscure cap tilted back on his head. “And for all this favor shone down from heaven he gets. . .what? The satisfaction of knowing he was in tune with the universe or God or random fate?”

“Knowledge.”

“Explain that.”

Ritter winked, and Brett found himself leaning back in his chair considering not only Ritter’s ferocity, but the grinning bandoleer of fools lounging around the table. The four men smiled down on his ignorance as though it was an inside joke, or worse, a simpleminded joke he wasn’t managing to comprehend.

He thought, At least it keeps them busy and out of trouble.

“The winner creates the day which is yet to be,” Ritter said at last. “He may, should he choose, dare to make a world.”

#

Ilam picked his card from the middle of the deck, glanced at it, then rolled his eyes and flicked it into the discard pile. The Three of Coins.

“Not my night,” he said amiably. “Anyone with a Six of Staves who would be willing to part with it cheaply?”

Jervis chuckled. “Go fish.”

Brett heard them only at a distance. “So let me understand this. You believe that the outcome of this game will actually impact the events here in the station tomorrow? The winner’s deal makes things happen?”

“You must define your terminology with more precision,” Ritter answered. He fingered the rightmost card in his hand, massaging the rounded corner with his index finger.

“The cards cause events to occur.”

“No.”

“Then the cards only predict events.”

“Again, not an adequate assumption, Commander.”

Brett ground his teeth. “Then explain it to me.”

Jervis selected a card from the bottom of the fanned deck, the one nearest to him. He peered at it, tapped its edge against the table.

They waited on him. Sievers shifted nervously in his seat.

“I’m thinking. Give me a minute,” Jervis muttered.

Ritter rolled his shoulders around, released their tension. He blinked hard once or twice, then adjusted his glasses on his nose.

“It’s a simple question,” Brett said.

“Most simple questions require extremely complex answers,” Ritter responded. “Take, for example, the simple question Can we create a habitable world from a sterile one?”

Brett shook his head at once. “That complexity only derives from the mechanism. The answer itself is a simple yes or no.”

Ritter frowned. “And I say that your query has as much to do with mechanism as it does solution. Very well. You’ve asked not only does the Tarot impact events, but how that impact occurs. Do we believe that the application of free will causes events to occur? Do we believe in a linear cause and effect? Or do you believe that history has weight and the pattern of events lead to a diminished capacity to choose for or against them over time? What do we make of the multiverse hypothesis, that each moment is sovereign, absolutely free and all potentialities are actuated in parallel universes to our own? These are all valid mechanisms with which I might answer you.”

Ritter raised his eyes from the cards in his hand. “Your questions, Brett, refer to which of these models of space-time understanding we accept. Historically, the fundamental claim against divination has been its charlatanry. Any lout with articulation and a deck of cards could propose to read your future, and that future was always appended with the caveat that the reading is ‘that which might be unless factors change. The cards reflect the future as all the related factors stand now, at this moment.’ The understanding being that either the one seeking divination could positively or negatively effect the ultimate outcome, but also factors beyond the individual’s control could change and change that which was to be.

“Thus, if the reading fails to reflect reality, it is not because the diviner erred, but because the factors which would have resulted in that reality ceased to be valid. People act, things change. It’s a messy sort of thing, but what is one to do? The cartomancer with any sort of pebble rattling about inside his skull was quick to point out that the Tarot is a study of trends and tendencies highly subject to change, and therefore he, the interpreter, was not responsible for the accuracy of the outcome. Not a very scientific approach, and justifiably rejected by the mass of thinking individuals.”

Jervis finally decided upon keeping the card he had drawn. He added the Two of Cups to the discard stack.

Ritter continued, “As a scientist, I abhor imprecision. But divination is, at its core a subjective exercise. The future I divine for myself may have no perceptive ramifications for anyone outside of myself. The question is, does that make a reading more or less valid? Has my free will been voided in any way by knowing what is to come? Am I activating my free will because I know what is to happen, and so I behave in such a way as to make the outcome inevitable, even without consciously doing so? Is there the possibility that I have, should the predicted events come to pass, interpreted them as consistent with the divination when they were, in fact, not consistent at all? Discounting chicanery altogether, there are still too many factors which may lead to error either in the interpretation of the reading of the cards, or the interpretation of the reading of post facto reality. Divination simply does not cohere to standards of scientific rigor.”

It was Ritter’s turn. He spread the deck with his fingers, nimbly tapping across three and four at a time as though strolling through a field of possibilities. At the end of his reach, he plucked out a card and slid it face down toward himself. He looked at Brett, their eyes meeting.

“A linear understanding of time-space would hold that the diviner is viewing the effects of causal factors that have a traceable lineage. There are real events that either will or will not occur based on various inputs, trends and predilections. The cartomancer is not necessarily wrong if his reading goes awry because it is valid to assume that one of the factors has failed to comply with the current trend.

“Contrarily, if we believe that history has momentum and weight, the cartomancer must either be correct or incorrect. He has no middle ground because the events cannot be turned from their course by simple factorial deviation.

“The multiverse theory provides that the cards have selected one possible outcome that is completely accurate in some universe parallel to this one, though not necessarily this one.

“In two of the three hypotheses, the diviner is allowed to skitter beyond reproach and stand behind the sacred battlements of free will. Both of those are unacceptable to me. It is my opinion that to accept the validity of divination, one must conclude that there is no free will on a practical level. The individual’s decisions are meaningless before the juggernaut of events, because by the time he realizes a decision must be made, the gallery of options has become so severely delimited as to be readily predictable. What the cards predict must occur because history has determined that those things must be.”

Ritter dropped his eyes, glanced briefly at the card he had selected. His upper lip twitched and he flicked it away. Nine of Coins.

“This belief presupposes, of course,” he said finally, “that the reading offered by the cards is invariably correct. Failing that, the entire scaffolding of logic collapses.”

#

Nine times they’d gone around the table. The evening had matured into full night. Brett could feel his eyelids every time he blinked, so full of weariness they seemed to crunch like pebbles of glass over his corneas. He wanted to make some coffee. No, fuck the coffee. He wanted to go to bed and forget about this damned game, but he couldn’t.

Round after round, Ritter failed to nab the one card he needed. Sievers had crowed his success twice, and could have as many as four of his five. Even Ilam had chuckled a time or two, and Jervis told them flat out that he lacked only the Queen of Wands to join Brett at Binah. Ritter wore dark bruises from fatigue or longing beneath his eyes. His glasses had slipped down his nose so many times and his trembling fingers rolled them up so often that the lenses were splotched and stained.

Brett enjoyed his discomfort more than he craved sleep.

Sievers nudged his elbow. “Your turn, Chili.”

Five cards per player, he thought. That’s twenty five, plus nine per round per person, another forty five. Which is seventy together, from seventy eight. Eight cards remained. He didn’t have the math to calculate the chances that the Ace of Cups was one of those cards, as opposed to crouching about in Ritter’s hand. He had the other three aces, plus the Magician. Keter required either the four Aces or the four Pages, and Ritter still seemed fairly confident in his chances, if increasingly desperate as cards vanished from play, so he must have gone the route of the Pages. If he hadn’t been close, he wouldn’t have been so secure at the outset; he couldn’t have held aces then, because Brett had begun with the Ace of Wands and the Ace of Coins. Consequently, he must lack only a Page or the Fool. Surely no more than one card. And Brett was willing to bet that he didn’t have the last Ace, because the wise move would have been to discard it at once, remove it from play and block Brett’s chances of completing the phase in this round.

The missing Ace, and he’d warrant, the missing Page must still be in the deck. Brett could do that math. . .a one in four chance that he would win outright or at the very least manage to deflect Ritter until the next hand.

I can live with that, he thought, and selected the next to the bottom card.

The face showed an aqua malange, studded with flapping dolphins and frolicking, green-eyed merfolk. They leapt into the air from violet seas beneath a brazen summer sky, their arms raised high above their heads in a gesture of greeting. Against the background, the tan and powdered gleam of a sandy beach rolled up to the rugged brown walls of an island cove.

In the foreground, glistening waterspouts boiled from the lip of a bejeweled chalice, spilled into the ocean with a visual rumble of waves.

Ace of Cups.

Ritter crumpled as though his spine had been shattered. His cards tumbled from his fingers, and he covered his face with his hands, mashing his lenses against his eyebrows so that the legs sprang out from the side of his head like antennae. Brett thought for just a moment that the xenohydrologist was going to burst into tears.

Thankfully, he did not.

#

“How do I do this?” Brett asked, looking from face to face as the men gathered around him. “Right hand, left hand? Do I have to say any magic words?”

“However you want,” Ilam suggested. “If the fates have smiled on thee, per the stipulations of the game, then they won’t fault you for your technique, I think.”

Brett smiled at the humor, but couldn’t say he really cared. This was a formality, a task he performed because it was expected of him. The satisfaction had been in the victory, in knocking Ritter a bit off his pomposity. All he really wanted now was his bed.

“How do you do it?” he asked Ilam.

“Couldn’t tell you, honestly. I’ve never won.”

“Ritter always wins,” Sievers added, grinning. Ritter cleared his throat, sounding pained and weary. “Shuffle the cards, Brett. Separate them with your left hand into three piles. Select one pile with your right hand and spread those cards out along the table. From those, choose ten one at a time and I’ll show you where to lay them.”

He’d been shuffling the cards all along. He said, “How about I just take the ten on top now?”

“It isn’t done that way.”

“Can be if I say so. This is my divination, right? The fates have smiled on me.”

“I wouldn’t put much faith in Ilam’s comprehension of the fates, given his record in the game.”

Brett shrugged. “Okay. Whatever.”

He rippled through the top ten cards, counting them out with his fingers. He set the rest of the deck off to the side, and placed the remainder face down on the table.

“These are the ones I want. What’s next?”

Ritter walked him through the process. Brett placed the top card on the table, in the position called the Covering, straight up and down. The second was set perpendicularly across it, which Ritter said was the Crossing. Directly above was the Crown and below the Root. To the right was the Past and to the left, the Future. To the right of this diamond pattern, Brett lay from bottom to top a line of cards representing the Questioner, the House, the Inside and the Outcome.

Brett studied the spread. “Now what?”

As an answer, Ritter produced a thin pocket computer and began entering data against the touchpad screen. “What I’ve done is gather more than two dozen sources from ancient to modern which commented upon the meaning of the Tarot. Those card by card dissections have been correlated for their corresponding elements to achieve a sort of mean agreement.”

The pocket unit made a faint buzzing noise to indicate that it had completed its computations.

“Shall I give you the results, Commander?”

“Fire away.”

“That which covers you represents the events and issues and attitudes prevalent in the given situation. It is the influences both known and unknown on the discussion at hand, the general prediction of tomorrow’s events. In this case, it is the Four of Staves.”

Brett held up his hand. “When you say ‘events’ do you mean events for the station in general, or events that I’ll experience directly. How general is this interpretation?”

“Meaning?”

“Say the cards tell me there’s sex in my future,” he replied. There wasn’t any reason he could see not to poke some fun at this exercise. “If the reading is specific to me, I’ll have to make sure I shower in the morning, that I put on a clean suit and break out the cologne. I have to get ready, if you understand me. Now, if the reading is general, it might be anyone in the station who’s going to have sex, and I can think of at least two couples in the chem prog lab alone who make that an almost pointless prediction. That’s more like a given status than a noteworthy event. Then not only will I have wasted my time in sprucing up the old daisy here, I’d also be setting up Mr. Cleveland for some major disappointment which, as you can imagine, makes him pretty unpleasant to live with.”

Ritter’s jaw tightened. “There is some degree of the general and the specific in each reading. It should be fairly obvious to you which one is in effect.”

“Mr. Cleveland?” Jervis inquired, grinning. “You’re joking. Tell me you’re joking.”

The others started to laugh, but Ritter cut them off. “Let’s get on with it. The Four of Staves signifies rest, seclusion and isolation from the cares of the world. It is a card which represents the status of exile, both literal and figurative.”

Ilam said, “We get that one frequently.”

“We are a people whose experience is seasoned by the fact of our environment,” Ritter said, nodding. “It tends to color our perspective on all things. That which crosses you, which may also be understood as the difficulties which bar your path–our paths–is the Five of Cups. This card suggests loss, either in the future, or which has previously occurred but remains haunting. There are overtones of sorrow and bitterness which have resulted from this loss, or even feelings of guilt. Often the Five of Cups can represent the end of an extant relationship.”

Sievers brushed his hand across his brow. “Good thing for you we don’t get regular mail service. That has ‘Dear John’ letter written all over it.”

“Or, it could have more to do with Ekers and Rian, from chem prog, like he said,” Jervis added. “Maybe they’re on the outs, eh? Maybe it’s Ekers loss. . .which could be a wise man’s gain, if you’re understanding me. She is not an objectionable piece of pie.”

Brett was too tired for their banter. “Moving along.”

“The card above, that which crowns you, represents what might be called the most fitting future outcome, or the best possible outcome given the elements presented. In the context of our little game, we often read both the Crown and the final card of the reading as not necessarily events to expect in the next twenty-four hours, but events which may manifest further in the future as a result of circumstances which develop tomorrow. One may have to trace the thread backward to find the correspondence, but the observant are rewarded, I think.

“The Tower, number sixteen of the major arcana, is a particularly dark and potent card.” Ritter glanced up from the screen. He swallowed and his adam’s apple rolled up and down the length of his throat. “It has been called the Tower of Babel. The Tower signifies the error of viewing through a glass darkly, and building an empire upon such incorrect vision. Of imagining that men might be gods. The errors which have been made are irrevocable, and the judgement, when it comes, will be sudden, fierce and consuming as fire.”

There was silence, a sort of breathless space between Ritter’s final word and the awareness of the machinery in the background. The regular card players seemed stupefied by dread.

Brett chuckled to break the mood. “Well. At least it wasn’t the Death card.”

“No,” Ilam said, offering a faint, dry grin. “What you got was much worse.”

“Shall we continue?” Ritter asked, offering a game attempt at calm, but Brett could see his hands trembling. He didn’t wait for an answer. “In the interest of brevity, I’ll note for you that both the root and the recent events positions contain remarkably similar cards. This suggests that trends which have fomented for some considerable time continue to have dramatic impact up to the present. Defining moments, characterized by the Two of Staves especially, have come boiling to the surface. This is paradigmatic of a choice to be made. The woman sits blindfolded upon the rocks, just above the raging black sea. She is surrounded by storms, and in each hand bears a sword. The swords are possibilities, paths of decision which have been held in balance for some time. But the grimace on her face suggests that the balance is precarious, she is becoming weary. There is a choice to be made, but the correct path cannot be clearly viewed because of a blindness. Choose wisely, is the advice of this card. Crisis approaches, but it is not new, not fresh and unexpected, but part of the past.”

“Keep going,” Brett muttered.

“The leftmost card is the immediate future, what may be measured in hours, or in the course of a day. It has become, for us at least, the most significant card in the reading. The others may help us understand ourselves, or our place in the events and trends at work, or even the distant ramifications of our actions taken today, but this card is the most immediate. It is tomorrow.

“The card you have chosen is called The Moon.” Ritter fixed him with a level gaze, his eyes large and round behind his glasses. “This card is a warning of deception. That which has been or will be perceived, or which may be understood to be true from sources which are generally reliable, may not be an accurate representation of reality. All is not what it seems, Commander. Certainty is an illusion, and mystery hulks within mystery, an enigma which denies solution. On the card, the moon rises between two twin towers. One is the Tower of Truth. The other is the Tower of the Crown that you have already seen.

“Tomorrow, it would seem, is a critical day. You are exploring a territory for which there is no map.”

Abruptly, Ilam said, “This is the last time we let you win, Chili. The absolute last.”

They all laughed, and Ritter’s ominous tension evaporated like fairy dust.

“The next card is known by position as the Querant. It represents the person who is casting the reading, and elements of his personality which may or may not influence the imminent trends, depending upon their application.”

“This is me?” Brett asked.

He studied the card, the Four of Cups. On its face was a young man, his back set against a tree. He seemed to glare at four overturned goblets set on the grass at his feet, as though he had tasted each and found them all insufficient, leaving him sour and unfulfilled.

Brett frowned. “I would have liked something a little less. . .petulant. More masculine.”

“This is the card of dreams, or dreams turned to disillusionment. It is a card of nostalgia by some interpretations. The characteristic of looking toward the past to make sense of the future, or preferring what has come before to what has come into being now.”

Brett only grunted.

“Again, with the eighth and ninth cards, we see a correspondence. These are the House and the Interior positions, representing both environmental aspects, general feelings of one’s surroundings and the motivating feelings for good or ill–that is, hopes and fears. These two positions are often linked closely together. We have, in order, the Three of Pentacles and the Three of Wands. The threes are reinforcements, complementary. The first is a card of labor, of skilled workers performing the tasks at hand. The second is a card of hope, signifying those who look toward the future, toward discovery and bright tomorrows. They have come across a vast distance, a voyage over the sea in the card, and look wondrously at a glorious and fertile plain ripe with the promise of new life.”

Ritter smiled weakly, as though heartened. “These cards present a curious dissonance with the final position, the ultimate outcome of that which will be. The trends set in motion, compounded and exacerbated culminate in this card.” He tapped it once, with his finger. The Nine of Staves. “The Nine shows a man rising in tears from his bed. A man wracked by nightmares that grip him still, even awake, leaving him both stunned and horrified. The title of this card is Despair. It promises a future in which dreams of success and joy and pleasure, in which all fresh hopes, end in failure.”

Jervis exhaled loudly, disgusted, through his nose. “That really sucks.”

“Definitely not letting you play with us anymore, mate,” Ilam added, though smiled weakly.

Brett shook his head. “So how do we extrapolate this to the entire station?”

Eyebrow raised in curiosity, Ritter snapped his portable unit closed and leaned toward him. “What do you mean?”

“That seemed to have some pretty specific applications. Or do you view Persia as a macrocosm of the tomorrow that’s been forecast for me.”

The curiosity became a squint. “It’s interesting that you would say such a thing. How is that it seems specific to you, Commander?”

“Don’t tell me you can’t see the specificity,” Brett barked. He spread his arms, indicating the lay of cards with the sweeping gesture. “Choices which have to be made. Lousy data that could result in catastrophe. It’s all command level responsibility. The cards say something is going to go wrong, and it’s going to be my fault, or something I could’ve prevented. That’s a pretty damned individual reading.”

“That is one possible interpretation, I suppose,” Ritter said. He steepled his fingers over the bridge of his nose, his chin resting on his thumbs. “Interesting.”

“You see something else?”

“Certainly.”

“Let’s hear it.”

Ritter began to tap the cards, one at a time, with his finger. “The Four of Swords we covered as a universal condition, meaning isolation. The Five of Cups crosses us all with a meaning of sorrow, disillusionment, homesickness perhaps. This is a fair assessment of the station personnel en masse, and a logical byproduct of the current situation as described. The cards referent to the past discuss balance, a choice between extremes which, when related to the preceding cards, clarify that as we approach the mid-term of our service contracts, we are all experiencing some difficulty maintaining our sense of perspective. Five years is past, true, but five more remain. Will we be able to hold together the unfurling fabric of our determination? Will we destroy ourselves with isolation, loneliness, thoughts of the loss of our homes and families and all that we have held dear? This is the weight against which we struggle.

“Proceed to tomorrow, the near future as particulated by The Moon. What is this but a warning of enemies beyond our sight? Bad intelligence, poor awareness of ourselves. We’ve not paid sufficient attention to our morale because we have been consumed with our work and our diversions and concomitantly have failed to attend to our mental health. We’ve missed the breakdown of our emotional integrity as earthlings by allowing ourselves to lose our tether.

“Thus, the Querant, the ‘you’ or the ‘us’ cumulatively. We embarked upon a grand adventure to the stars, only to find now that we’ve been here for what seems half an age that we cannot resist dreams of home. We torment ourselves with fantasies of blue skies and green grass and strangers to meet on the streets of towns we’ve never seen, rather than accept the bitter but eternal round of Tappen and Sievers and Ecker and Djen and the other thirty odd souls of Persia.

“Moving on, you see again a ready interpretation of our environment and our hopes as complementary units. A great journey has borne us to a new land, a new potential. And on this grand frontier, we don’t cast our eyes back, but we cast them forward. We look toward what will be, toward our racial destiny. This is our mission statement in a nutshell. Not just Persia’s or Sahara’s or the even this entire, single project, but the driving mission of all people, whether on Archae Stoddard or Mars or the Erascii Belt. Or even Earth itself. All of humanity in our far cast corners of the galaxy. We are contributing to the well-being of our own species by daring the hostile cosmos to make a world for those who are yet to come. A world ripe with potential and a future as bright as the past. These things motivate us, keep us level and strong. These things fill us with hope.”

On the final card, Ritter paused, lingered. He ran his finger across the card’s face. “At the same time, there are other things happening which we have not yet grasped. Danger lurks around the corner, just beyond our understanding at present. Watch and wait, but with vigilance, that is the message to us. Awaken from our stupor of work and drink and willing blindness as we bide our time to the end of our contracts. Choose to see the improbable. Face the nightmare of ignorance. Study, as it were, to show ourselves approved of the cosmos. Or face the alternative. Disaster and crisis.”

“So. . .you’re saying we’re all doomed. Not just me.” Brett winked at him. “That does make me feel a bit better, I guess.”

“If you’d like, I can provide further analysis of the cards you’ve selected. There are a few interesting patterns which–”

“I’ll pass, thanks.”

“You will agree, however, that it is an accurate representation of our situation?”

“It’s better than taking it up the ass all by myself, I’ll give you that.”

Ritter winced at his sarcasm, but said nothing.

“So we’re done, then,” Brett went on, trying to goad him. “Tomorrow I’ll draft a station memo reminding everyone to contemplate their cosmic navels, whistle while they work and whatnot, and we’ll stave off the coming crisis.”

“Or,” Sievers pointed out, “you can take another card.”

“And why would I do that? According to Ritter, things are pretty clear cut.”

“Why, to influence the future, old man!” Ilam said. “Certainly, all of this beforehand is nothing more than trend to trend mutual buggery. The last card is all the fun. Or in this case, it might just damned well stave off a bleeding disaster.”

Ritter seemed to nod his encouragement. “It is the Will in action, Commander. Knowing what is to come, the drawing of the one card signifies the individual’s ability to make an impact, to recreate reality to fit his needs and his desires. It is a denial of the condition which places us at the mercy of destiny, history and tidal forces beyond our control.”

Brett looked at them, from face to face, crowded as they were around the table. “One card, and you think I can make it all better?”

“Or worse,” Ilam piped merrily. “You could make it worse.”

“But I don’t have to. I can choose to let it ride.”

Ritter nodded unhappily. “You may.”

Brett reached toward the deck. He held his hand unwavering above the remaining cards. He said, “You really think this will make a difference? If I pull this card and choose to replace, let’s say, that Tower card everyone seems so worried about, I can make it all better again? Everyone’s angst and depression and old-style European ennui will vanish like phantoms? The crises that threaten to crumble the walls of the station and erupt the burning metallic core of the planet itself will magically disappear? It all comes down to my decision to turn over this one card?”

He was mocking them, and they knew it.

“It’s just a game, Commander, played merely for its amusement value,” Ritter said.

Brett said, “What the hell, right?”

He flicked the Tower card off the table, sent it pinwheeling across the room. At the same time, he pulled the top card from the deck, flipped it up for them to see and slapped it down in the other’s place.

Sievers paled visibly. Ilam had the good grace to do nothing more than cough.

Ritter beamed like a man vindicated. “It seems, Commander, that despite your intervention, tomorrow will be a bad day indeed.”

The card he had chosen was Death.

Brett wasn’t going to argue. “I’m fucking going to bed.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *