Casinos in Space Chapter 1

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Casinos in Space, a full-length novel serialized for Casino Detroit Magazine

Copyright © 2000 - 2014 By Howard Berenbon

Prologue

They waited impatiently for Dr. Barage to appear. Paul Erickson, his sister-in-law Rena, and close friends Mark Simonson and Barry Cohen were nervously pacing the small patient consultation room just outside the entrance to the ICU. When the doctor appeared, they were more than ready to hear the news. It was a horrible blow: Bruce Erickson, brother of Paul and loyal husband to Rena and father of two teenage girls, had died from a valiant 2 ½ year battle with glioblastoma multiform, the deadliest type of brain cancer. They tried every treatment known, including some trial treatments and alternative drugs, without success.

Rena began to cry uncontrollably while Mark and Barry shed tears silently.

Paul stood stern and stoic and said coldly, "I'm sorry, Rena. Bruce is at peace, now."

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Chapter 1

Charter Flight

The year was 2032. Gambling had been outlawed on every continent of the Earth by the year 2020. Except for those isolated areas where occasionally the illegally run casino would appear, the Earth was virtually casino free. It was a very risky business proposition for those illegal entrepreneurs, because when caught, they would end up on the penal planet in the Andromeda system, for life. It was the death of casinos on Earth.

At about the time the World Congress eliminated all on-planet casino gambling, anyone with money and nerve could safely travel from the Earth to the one hundred or so known habitable planets. It had only been a few years since the military perfected a new technology for fast space travel between the stars. Then only a few years later, the first non-military craft of its kind, called the Las Vegas (named after the great gambling capital of the United States), was assembled in orbit. It was the first privately owned resort starship, funded by the billionaire descendants of the casino owners of Las Vegas, the once-glittering Earth city in the Nevada desert.

All was not lost for gamblers who could afford a trip on the deep-space resort liner, the Las Vegas, built for vacationing throughout the known habitable planets of our galaxy, the Milky Way.

Actually, deep space travel had been possible since the year 2025. It was a group of Michigan scientists who invented the technology for traveling to distant stars, light years from Earth, based on advanced string theory using the TSTAR space drive to move an object great distances very quickly essentially breaching the speed of light. It was first named the TSPACE drive, but had to be changed because of the highly classified nature of the drive's technology. Any hint at the drive's capability, beyond its current use, had to be protected for security reasons. By the year 2029, with certain government restrictions and supervision, it was possible to use the new TSTAR drive, for private use, in the starship Las Vegas.

It was their first time on the Las Vegas for this group of six. Barry Cohen and Elena Romanoff knew that it was going to be the ultimate in vacations: even better than their honeymoon in Hawaii. They convinced two other couples to join them without much coaxing since the trip was complimentary, not to mention that they would be able to gamble between star systems on the luxurious starship, the Las Vegas.

"Are you guys ready?" Barry asked as their jet liner prepared for final approach to the Cape Canaveral airport, in Florida. "You know, we're so close to Disney World, you may want to change your mind." He directed the remark to Paul Erickson, knowing that he might be able to stir him up a bit. Paul was the nervous type.

"Now, Barry, I agreed to go and I'm here," Paul said in his defense, moving his body forward to meet Barry eye to eye. His head, within inches of Barry's face, revealed an oval face marked by a square chin, black curly hair, dark and bushy eyebrows, and a small noise just barely capable of supporting his gold-rimmed eyeglasses.

"Just checking, Paul," Barry said, then glancing over at Mark Simonson with a big grin. "Because once we're up in the Las Vegas, you won't be able to change your mind." Mark looked up and returned the grin. His hair was light-brown and thinning, with some strands dangling over the top of his gold wire-rimmed eyeglasses. As he smiled, he brushed his hair back where it belonged.

"It's what we have all decided on," Jane Erickson said, in Paul's defense. "We're going if we have to be tied down and gagged." Jane had long thick black hair down to her shoulders and a hint of gray streaks, which were noticeably visible at first glance.

"That's the spirit," Mark said.

"Come on, guys, that's enough," Susan Simonson interjected. "We are all going on this trip. It was decided a while ago. So let's stop razzing Paul. Please?"

"I am surprised at you, Barry," Jane said. The passenger jet was almost at the gate and people were readying their hand luggage for disembarking. "We're all going, and we're all going to have a great time. Enough said."

"It was just a joke," Barry said. "I'm sorry, Paul. Hope you weren't offended?"

"Don't worry about it," Paul returned. "I can take a joke or two, and I was not offended." He looked a bit hurt even though he hadn't expressed it.

Barry quickly took notice of Paul and said, "No, I insist on apologizing. I'm sorry, Paul." Barry had thick light-brown hair and a medium build. He seemed to be in a good mood most of the time, and usually had a smile on his face or sometimes it was a grin. That was a quality everyone liked about Barry.

Just then, the flight attendant announced, "Passengers, the aircraft is at the gate and disembarking will commence in a few minutes."

"Great. We made it," Barry said. "Hope you guys are ready?"

Everyone was quiet as they moved along on the walkway to an area where their luggage and a limousine awaited them. In less than an hour, there would be no turning back, because they would be leaving Earth behind.

They were all looking forward to this vacation. It had been many years since their families planned a long getaway. Even though Mark, Barry and Paul were college professors at a prestigious university in the Detroit area, they were partners in a side business called the Holo Exchange. Their outside work filled many evening hours during the year, and all available time during the summer months. They manufactured history-related holographic movies for independent history classes they sponsored off-campus, approved for university credit. Unfortunately, their successful business kept them from taking time off for traveling.

So, after ten years of a self-imposed moratorium on vacations, they decided that enough was enough and took the summer off. They chose a very special and unusual destination, with a mode of transportation just as special and unusual, for their first vacation in a decade.

Barry was glad to get away, even though this trip would take them light years from Earth. It wasn't bad though, because they had a full month of just leisure activities with no limit on food and drinks. A much needed rest for all involved.

The Las Vegas would take one week to reach the Briney System, where three Earth-like planets awaited their arrival, each with its own exotic and unique environment. Once there, they planned five days on each planet.

The civilian shuttle terminal was only a ten-minute jaunt from the airport, so they were there before anyone had time to talk of turning back, and spending their free month on Earth, at Walt Disney World.

The shuttle, one of thirty in the line, was filled to its five-hundred passenger capacity for a quick blast off to the Las Vegas. Each week, several shuttles would deliver passengers to the returning starship, while transporting those back to Earth, heading home from one unusual vacation. It was amazing that these people paid the $100,000 per person charge for a potentially dangerous vacation.

The shuttle lift-off was something that they would never forget. It was the most exhilarating feeling anyone could experience, maybe with the exception of seeing the birth of one's child. As they left the Earth, the feeling of steadily increasing acceleration, plus the increase in body weight due to the G forces involved, was something they would never forget. Once the ship reached orbit, their weightless experience allowed them to forget the momentary pain of their bodies being pushed and pulled in a struggle to be freed from their earthly bonds.

After the fifteen minute climb from Cape Canaveral, and another ten minutes to establish a course to Earth Station Ten, the passengers could see the cigar-shaped star liner, the Las Vegas, docked at one of twelve spokes of the slowly rotating space station.

Viewed from the shuttle, the Las Vegas was not an impressive sight. It just looked like a long cylinder floating in space, or more like an orbiting cigar than a starship. Its outer appearance was misleading, because within that metal hull was a beautifully engineered structure slightly more than a mile long and over a quarter of a mile in diameter. It was designed and patterned after the Earth city, Las Vegas, and was quite comfortable for anyone that could afford to pay their way. There were accommodations for nearly 20,000 vacationers, and additional space for the more than 5,000 employees and crew members.

The Las Vegas had ten hotels, a mix of ornate and modern with a themed casino on the main floor. The rooms were in mini skyscrapers with windows that offered a spectacular view of space through a clear plastic dome and The Strip below. Although dinner was traditionally spent with the crew and other passengers, dining was available at over seventy-five restaurants and pubs on The Strip.

No one was more impressed than Barry after his group entered the starship through the aft hatch.  Neon lights, reminiscent of the twentieth century city of Las Vegas, flashed and pulsated warm greetings to the twenty-first century travelers. An actual Welcome Aboard sign illuminated the entrance to the monorail system, a fast and efficient transportation service that would take their party one-half mile into the ship to the Mirage Hotel and Casino, where Barry and his friends made their reservations some six months before.

"This is very nice," Paul said, as they headed to the monorail platform. "If I didn't know that I was on a starship, I'd say I was back on Earth, maybe at Disney World."

"They even have artificial gravity," Barry said sounding somewhat annoyed. "And it feels surprisingly Earth-like. But I'd prefer being weightless. In fact, I was just getting used to being weightless on the shuttle, and I kind of liked it. I guess I'm sort of disappointed."

"Lose some weight, then, Barry," Mark said with a smirk. "Don't eat, and you'll feel lighter."

"Ha, ha, very funny," Barry replied.

"But seriously," Mark added. "Being weightless may feel good, but it can cause lots of problems. For one thing, long-term weightlessness is bad for our body. Muscles don't work right, not to mention it's bad for digestion. Some of us need a little gravity to push things through." He paused to take a deep breath, and then said with a smile, "Also, it's bad for gambling. Chips and cards would be floating everywhere."

"Okay, okay, I see your point," Barry said. "It was just a thought."

"You're excused," Mark said with a smirk.

Suddenly they heard a hissing sound coming from the monorail entrance and turned to see a long, black vehicle pulling up to the gate. Its doors automatically opened and an artificial voice said, "All aboard. Please enter monorail car now."

"Let's go," Paul said as he directed Jane and the others through the doorway.

As quickly as they entered, they found seats, and then heard the voice say, "Buckle your seat belts, please." The car then started moving away from the gate with only a quiet rumbling sound as a warning.

"Well, we're on our way," Barry said as the car moved out of the aft station and started its climb to the second level and then accelerated to a fast pace. From their vantage point, the brightly illuminated skyline was in full view.

Just as suddenly as they accelerated, the car slowed, plunged downward through a dark tunnel and then up again to enter into the lobby of the first hotel on The Strip. It was the Dunes Hotel and Casino. On Earth, the Las Vegas Dunes was known as the Jewel of the Desert. It held that title through the early nineteen nineties when it was forced to close due to financial difficulties.

"It is very beautiful," Elena said as she shifted her position, straining to look around. She was very attractive, in her early thirties, with light-brown hair almost to her shoulders. Her red lipstick complemented her deep blue eyes.

"Just wait, Elena," Barry said. "This hotel is no comparison to the Mirage."

"It really doesn't matter to me," Susan said. "As long as there's a bed to rest my tired bones and a bath to rest the rest, I’m happy." Susan was tall, with dark hair and very slim. She was holding Mark's hand; and liked to express her affection in public. Mark didn't mind. He was the same way.

"That was very poetic, honey," Mark said. "I like that."

"Well, thanks for the compliment, dear."

The car had only been motionless for a few seconds when the computerized voice said, "Passengers who have reservations at the Dunes Hotel and Casino, please exit. Doors will be opening in one minute."

Several passengers got up to leave. When the doors opened, they could hear the familiar casino sounds. Slot machines were announcing their payoff with the sound of coins clanging on the metal tray. They could hear people talking and laughing and some shouting from high-stake players winning at craps.

Martin Landau, an unsuspicious, chubby man, carrying a black briefcase, exited the car with several other vacationers excited to check in and get to the gambling tables. However, instead of heading to the check in desk, Martin followed a pathway near the monorail tracks leading south to the aft of the Las Vegas. After a brisk five-minute walk, he found his way down a darkened staircase and entered into a corridor below the monorail station. He looked as if he was lost until he pulled out a map of the ship and then wandered away into the darkness with briefcase tightly gripped looking as if he was on a mission.

 

"I can't wait to get out there and gamble," Barry said. "It brings back memories of the real Las Vegas." He was looking at some of the slot machines that were in the hotel lobby.

"I was not with you during those times," Elena said. "But I wish I had been."

"By the time we met," Barry said, "gambling was in trouble, and not many people were going to Las Vegas. But it doesn't matter; we'll make up for lost time and money, on this trip."

"I thought you always broke even in Las Vegas?" Mark asked with a smile. "You mean you left some of your money in those casinos?"

"Oh you know, Mark. You, Paul and Ben Harrison were with us on some of those trips. It's hard to say because I've never tracked it that closely. But if I lost, it was never too much." Barry had a far away look on his face. "But whatever we lost, we're going to make it up here."

"I'm sure I'll be practicing safe gambling," Susan added. "That is, until I'm ahead and playing with the casino's money. I'm a tough blackjack player when I'm ahead."

"Sounds like a good technique to me," Barry answered.

The car started moving after all who wanted to get off at the Dunes, got off.  Then, just before it started down the steep incline to level one, the computer announced, "Please fasten seat belts. Thank you." In less then a minute, the car stopped in the lobby of the Flamingo Hilton.

"Whew, what a ride," Mark said. "I wasn't ready for that roller coaster feeling."

"It sure surprised me," Barry said. "Luckily, our hotel is next. I didn't know we were taking Paul's side trip to Disney World.  It felt like we were in The Pirates of the Caribbean; one of my all time favorite rides, you know."

"Could it be that you'd rather be at Disney World?" Paul asked sarcastically. "Why don't we take up a collection with our winnings and send him there?"

"Okay, maybe you're right," Barry replied. "And I'll take you up on that collection, but only if I lose and you win."

No one got off at the Hilton, so the car moved swiftly on to the Mirage Hotel and Casino, the final stop for Barry and his friends. As they passed between hotels, the sky began its daily gradual dimming to simulate the approaching darkness of night. The lights of the nearby hotels glowed the colorful brightness that so characterized Earth's Las Vegas.

"Well, we made it," Barry said happily as the car came to a complete stop and announced the hotel. "Elena, I'm ready to go to the tables, are you?"

"Yes, we will have the hops take our bags to our room," She replied.

"Don't you mean bellhop?" Mark asked with a laugh.

"Ah, oh, yes. You are correct, Mark," Elena said, blushing. "I did mean bellhop. What was I thinking?"

As they exited the monorail, Paul said, "It must be around 6 p.m. Did you notice that it's getting dark?"

"Six o'clock and it’s getting dark," Mark said. "Anyone starved, or is it just me?"

"Well, we've been traveling half the day," Paul said. "It's bound to get dark in a ship that claims to simulate Earth."

"Anyone hear me?" Mark asked. "I'm hungry."

"Okay," Barry said. "I'm willing to get a bite before we start gambling. Let's check out the buffet."

The lobby was magnificent. It was a small-scale rain forest with lush vegetation. A waterfall, opposite the main desk, sprayed a fine mist as it emptied into a blue-green pool below. The water poured from the side of a simulated mountain over one hundred feet above the open-air lobby. The simulated sky was turning a bright crimson as the light slowly faded. Pinpoints of starlight were peeking through the clear dome.

"There's a sign we should follow," Paul said pointing past the waterfall. "Restaurants are on the next level. Let's take the escalator."

As they reached level three, they could see the simulated desert area of the Mirage. In the distance, the Luxor Casino was in view, the biggest and most impressive structure on the ship.  A moving sidewalk lead tourists from the Mirage into a simulated desert and passed a realistic replica of the Sphinx of Giza, a man’s head on the body of a lion.  Then it continued into the center of a full size replica of an ancient Egyptian pyramid.

"I'm impressed," Susan said. "Let's go right to the casino after we eat."

"First, let's find that buffet," Barry said. “Level three had a variety of restaurants, with several offering buffets.”

"Now, how do we do this?" Paul asked. "Food is free, isn't it?"

"Yes," Barry said. "Our package includes all you can eat and drink, including alcohol. You just have to show this food pass as you enter."

The dinner buffet had a great number of choices with hot and cold foods, all types of meats and poultry and even a variety of fish. And for those with a sweet tooth, a separate dessert bar had every dessert under the sun.

They spent a good hour eating and talking, reminiscing about the shuttle flight, planning their gambling strategies and speculating about the weather and beaches at the Briney System. At one point, Paul, a bit homesick, tried to direct the conversation away from the Las Vegas. He remembered some work he had left unfinished, and was irritated that he had forgotten to complete it.

"Paul, forget it," Barry said. "Work will be millions of miles and a month away from us, so let's rest. It can wait."

"But, but," Paul said and then paused. "Okay, you're right. I'm here to have fun and not work."

"Great," Mark said. "Now that that problem is resolved, let's check out our rooms, and then head for the casino."

"Okay," Paul said.

They retraced their steps and easily found their way back to the lobby. Dusk had turned to night, and the real stars, like tiny lamps penetrating the clear plexasteel upper dome, beamed through with a steady glow.

Registration went smoothly with all six recorded as guests. They were escorted to the tenth floor where three adjoining rooms had been on reserve. When they entered, their suitcases had already arrived, and their cloths had been unpacked and placed into dresser drawers.

They wasted no time, resting only minutes, and then met in the hallway to plan their gambling strategy for the evening.

Paul was fidgeting, obviously nervous, but no one commented. It was best to leave him alone. It would pass.

They headed to the elevator and everyone got in. That is, everyone except Paul. Jane noticed Paul's absence, and said, "Where's Paul,"

"He must have gone back to the room," Barry said. "He was out in the hallway a few minutes ago. Don't worry, Jane. I'm sure he'll join us downstairs in a few minutes. So, let's go. Paul can take care of himself."

"I imagine you're right," Jane said. "Okay, let's get this car downstairs. I'm raring to go."

The elevator swiftly deposited the five travelers at the lobby level, and they waited patiently for Paul to join them. But they had a long wait.

Paul did go back to his room because he had forgotten his camera.  When he opened the door to the room, he felt as if someone was with him. He couldn't see anyone, so he ignored the feeling.

After finding his camera, the feeling surfaced again, but he knew logically that he was alone, so he ignored it. Just as he was about to walk toward the door, he heard someone say, "Howdy partner."

"Oh, no," Paul said. "Am I starting to hear things again? No, no, it can't be."

He heard the voice again saying, "Howdy partner." Then, after a short pause, it said, "Are you deaf or something? Can't you hear me?"

"Who's there?" Paul asked nervously. "What do you want?" He could feel panic starting to set in but he caught himself. "I shouldn't over react," he mumbled to himself. He didn't want to undo what years of therapy had accomplished. He was a much calmer person now, and he wanted to keep it that way. It took two full years for Paul to get over the death of his younger brother Bruce, who died unexpectedly of a brain tumor at the age of 49. It was a horrible 2 ½ years for Bruce Erickson and his family and friends who watched him deteriorate from an incurable form of brain cancer.

Suddenly, before Paul's eyes, a man appeared in front of him. "Howdy. I'm Slim Brody." He waived with his right hand, and in his left he was pointing a small pistol at Paul.

"Hey, partner, don't be afraid. I won't shoot. That is, unless you don't cooperate." Slim was wearing a wide-brimmed cowboy hat that covered most of his gray hair. He dressed in jeans, which were visibly worn, but not ragged. He looked like he was from another era.

By now, Paul managed to calm himself, and said, "Uh, uh, don't worry, I respect guns. What do you want, my money?"

Slim's age-worn wrinkled face wrinkled more, and then he said, "No, partner, we're gonna make ya some money."

 

It had been fifteen minutes since Barry and the others went down to the lobby.

"Where is he?" Jane asked. She was losing her patience. "This is not like Paul."

"You're right," Barry said. "I'm going up to the room to see what the problem is. Mark, you want to join me?"

"Sure. Let's go."

As Mark and Barry entered Paul's room, Paul and his new friend, Slim, were on their way to the Luxor Casino through the simulated desert on the moving walkway.

Paul was shivering as they entered the casino. "It is cold out there," he said, rubbing his arms to warm them.

"Doesn't bother me," Slim said.

"Well, there must be something wrong with the heating system. I'm going to report it."

"Don't bother, son," Slim replied. "It's perfectly normal. What's the matter? Haven't you been in a desert at night?"

"Well, uh, no, not lately." He was thinking back to his trip to Egypt, several years ago, and couldn't remember the weather.

"Take my word for it," Slim said. "Next time, bring a jacket."

Paul reluctantly followed Slim through the crowded casino. It was beautifully decorated in an Egyptian theme. He found blackjack tables built around chariots with dealers dressed as Egyptian soldiers. Roulette, poker and craps were plentiful, but so were a few table games that he was not familiar with. As in most of the casinos, there were Sacantily clad cocktail waitresses were roaming carrying drinks for the players.

After passing several rows of three-dimensional poker machines, they stopped at one uncrowded craps table. Paul started getting nervous. Not because he was lead there under a threat of violence, but because he could lose a lot of money.

"Uh, Slim," Paul said. "You don't mean to say that we're going to be playing at this craps table, do you?"

"Why sure, boy," Slim answered. "Now, you're not afraid of losing a little of your own loot, are you?"

Paul lied saying, "Oh, no, I'm not worried."

"Good. Cause we're going to make us some money. Now get some cash out, say three hundred dollars, and let's go to work."

Paul tried not to react, and put down three hundred dollars worth of fifty dollar bills on the table.

"Ask for twenty-five dollar chips, son," Slim ordered.

A fat woman, now rolling the dice, was trying to make the point, which was ten. "Quick, boy, put two chips down on ten the hard way," Slim said, pointing at the middle of the table. Paul did so. "And put four chips on the field, in front of you."

The fat woman threw the dice and they bounded along the sides and into the center of the table. She rolled snake eyes. Slim laughed with glee.

The dealer announced, "Four the hard way." Paul received two hundred dollars in chips for his field bet.

"Remove your field bets," Slim ordered, and then the fat woman threw the dice again.

This time she made the point, throwing a six and a four, and the game was over. Paul lost the two chips placed on ten the hard way, but was paid one hundred dollars for his field bet.

"I can't believe it," he said happily. "I'm ahead two hundred fifty dollars."

"Quick, son," Slim said, "put three hundred fifty dollars in the field." Paul did what he said.

It was remarkable. The fat woman rolled twelve, and Paul was paid again.

"We're nine hundred dollars ahead," Paul said. "And we've only been playing for five minutes. I am amazed."

"Stick with me, boy, and you'll go far," Slim said. "But take your chips and let's go. Your friends are gonna worry." Paul didn't want to leave, but Slim was right.

As they approached the lobby, Jane spotted Paul first and ran toward him. "Paul. Where have you been? We didn't know what to think."

"I was with my friend, Slim, and we won nine hundred dollars." He pulled out the hundred dollar bills, and waived them. But, it was too late for introductions because Slim disappeared into thin air.

"I don't know who you're talking about, honey," she said.

"He's here right next to me, Jane," Paul replied.

"I don't see anyone, Paul. Are you okay?"

Paul looked bewildered when he couldn't find Slim.

"I said, are you okay?" Jane repeated.

"Where did he go?" Paul mumbled.

"I'll be close by," Slim said, sounding some distance away. "But you better watch yourself, son." His voice was fading. "Or you could be with me, forever."

"Jane, did you hear that?" Paul asked

"Yes, you said you won $900. That's great."

He looked around, but couldn't find a trace of his friend, and then dropped the subject.

"Yep, I won a lot. Sorry I worried you, dear."

 

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To be continued .....