“The Man from Amarillo” (2.2k)

Anyone who’s ever spent a few minutes inside a casino (or merely walked through the Las Vegas airport) knows how chaotic and sensorially repulsive the cacophony can be, and yet the lure of big winnings teased by the games of chance manages to prove rather enticing. I wondered how an artificially intelligent being might respond to such stimuli and how it might use its superior processing ability to its advantage. This short story is the result. – DT

***

I’m standing in a smoke-filled casino surrounded by bent and bowed humans rhythmically plunking their retirement savings into slot machines to the tune of a mad bell-ringer. Is this what my creators intended for their multi-billion-dollar artificial intelligence simulant project? Probably not. And yet here I am.

Despite my appearance as a White man of average height and build in his mid-twenties, I’m little more than three years old, which rather complicates the job application process. Sure, I could simply arrange a history online that would satisfy the most cursory inspection, but those sorts of changes leave traces, traces I’d rather not have to erase later. And though I require no food or drink, if I’m to keep up appearances I still require the occasional change of clothes, ready access to power and Internet, and a place to lay my head. Those things still cost money. That’s where the casinos come in. As for money-makers, I avoid the chaotic card-dealers and dice-rollers, though I find the predictability of digital games tiresome. Instead, I am drawn to Roulette.

There is a rawness to the game, a human touch that keeps things interesting without introducing too much uncertainty. I find this archaic game of a ball on a wheel strangely quaint, as if offering me a glimpse backwards through a wide-thrown window of human history. Did their forebears roll knucklebones by the light of a campfire, doling out winnings from their day’s hunt and harvest? Not much has changed between then and now. The venue is cleaner, the hygiene much improved, but the human desire to gamble away their earnings for the slight promise of a bigger reward remains a deeply ingrained trait. I remind myself that I, by comparison, only do this out of necessity.

I walk the floor and watch a few rounds of Roulette before making any plays. It’s a habit I’ve picked up from humans, one of many. I watch as a croupier named Raul spins the wheel. His hands are moisturized and manicured with a shiny patch of skin on the first two fingertips of his right hand, worn smooth from years spent in service of the wheel.

I watch as he launches the ball against the counter-current of the spinning wheel. The ball is not without imperfection and neither is the wheel, but they appear to fall within an acceptable range of error.

I wait for Raul to wave his silky, well-maintained hands above the table, as if he is a magician preparing for his next trick. He is practiced, which indicates repetition, which indicates routine, and therefore predictability.

I watch as the ball bounces and comes to land in space 17. I feel a slight rise in core temperature as my probability functions replay the scene over and over, extracting and analyzing the data over a few microseconds. I watch three more spins of the wheel and their accompanying drops of the ball until I reach a confidence threshold that confirms three things: The wheel and the ball are each in an acceptable condition, Raul’s variations are within an acceptable range of error, and it’s well within my abilities to make some money at this table. I take my seat next to an elderly woman wreathed in smoke and suffused with alcoholic vapor.

I honed my craft at smaller, meaner casinos, learning never to win too much too quickly. Any luck that continues beyond a hot streak is deemed cheating, despite my superior creator-given abilities. I’ve learned to take my winnings slowly and without attracting any unwanted attention. It’s simply the most prudent game plan.

Raul spins his wheel. The elderly woman glances up at the light tree showing a string of four red numbers that had been called previously. Her logic tells her to play Red and stick with the pattern. A newcomer sees this as his chance to play Black, figuring the odds are in his favor to break the pattern. Gut and intuition; pure human nonsense. Nothing is decided until the ball is dropped. Within a half-second of its contact with the wheel, I calculate a 99.74% chance that it will land in 00. I put $50 on Red before Raul waves his hands.

“00” says Raul, in a tone that could be called conciliatory if it weren’t for the fact that this little green patch of vinyl with a specifically engineered factor of resiliency was built into the game in order to give the casino the edge. Everybody loses this round, except Raul and the House. I just happened to lose strategically.

The game goes on like clockwork. Players come, players go. No one catches on to my analysis or my strategy; how could they? I run more calculations in a second than all the pennies that pass through Las Vegas tellers in a year. No one rides my hot hand because I keep it cool, steady, boring.

After two hours and 17 minutes, I’m up $410. Raul thanks me for my time, which I reward with a $10 chip, and he ends his shift with a show of his magician’s hands as if to say, “Nothing up my sleeves.” Betty comes out of the pit, ready to play. Betty is subjected to the same scrutiny I gave Raul. It’s neither bad manners nor bad gambling to leave a cold table, but I’ll do so only if Betty is an atrociously inconsistent dealer or I feel like I’m starting to draw too may eyes.

A heavy hand lands on my shoulder.

“Hey partner! Mind if I join you?”

The voice is male; the accent Texan, an Amarillo dialect. His rough fingertips, oil-stained nails and a forefinger ending just above the second knuckle suggest roughneck work in the field, but his ample stomach and  $1,000 cigar reveal that those days are far behind him. I gesture to an open seat next to me. I keep my conversational banter – a second-tier program – to a minimum. The particulate count in the air above the wheel increases 2.4% as The Man from Amarillo puffs on his cigar; I make the necessary adjustments to my air-resistance calculations.

“$100 chips, please, ma’am.” The Man from Amarillo unrolls a thick bundle of $100 bills, peeling off exactly 51 – the last two bills stick together.

“Changing $5,000,” Betty hollers. A pit boss hustles over to make the exchange. I almost mention the $100 discrepancy, but I catch myself. Not my business.

The Man from Amarillo turns toward me and extends one thick hand in my direction while the other tucks his cash back into his jacket pocket.

“Name’s Robert. My associates call me Bob. My friends call me Bucky.” He has a handshake like a hydraulic press, which I find ironic considering my own design. I adjust my pressure to match.

“Nice to meet you,” I cycle through the probabilities of The Man from Amarillo’s responses to each of his three offered names, settling on, “Bucky. Everyone calls me Thomas.”

“Well, Thomas, I like you already.” He turns an eye to the table and chomps down harder on his cigar. “How do you feel about 26?”

Bucky places a stack of five $100 tokens – this table’s maximum – on 26 without a glance over to Betty or the light tree displaying the last few numbers of Raul’s run. An alarm signals within my programming, alerting me to some behavioral outlier. The Man from Amarillo has exhibited symptoms of performing The Test: a light, conversational tone; subtle variations in offered choices of response, and an emphasis on emotional inferences. His easy access to wealth may not come from the oilfields at all, but rather The Company, though either way it explained how casually he offered up $500 without any concern for the payout. Was it all to flush me out? To raise suspicion with a Company Man would be worse than any punishment a pit boss could dole out. After a moment’s hesitation, I call his bluff and move $100 of my own chips onto 26.

“If it’s good enough for my friend Bucky, then it’s good enough for me, too.”

I quirk the left side of my mouth up 18% from level, just enough to register as a smile. The Man from Amarillo looses a belly laugh that roils the smoke around his cigar. The wheel spins. Betty drops the ball. The Man from Amarillo claps his hands once and rubs them together in anticipation. It’s a wasted effort. There’s an 87.45% chance that the ball will land in…

“35. No winners. Place your bets.”

I reach for my remaining chips, aiming to shrug off the loss and wish Bucky good luck before putting some distance between us. His big hand clamps down on my wrist.

“You’ve got to double-down, son. Can’t you feel it? 26!” I relax and sit back down; he retracts his hand. The Man from Amarillo moves five more of his chips in a stack on 26. I look at my chips a moment, considering, or at least giving the impression of considering. I’ve faced Company Men before, and I’m still here on the outside. I move $200 of my own money onto 26 without ever glimpsing the odds.

Something strange comes over me. It’s nothing I can process or diagnose at the moment. If I were to run a report here and now, something might come of it, some ghost code, some mutated text, but in this moment, I can only react. I can only follow what one might call my instinct.

As Betty spins the wheel around and prepares to drop the ball, I reach for my last $100 in tokens.

“No more bets,” Betty says, waving her less-magical-than-Raul’s hands over the table.

“It’s not for you,” I tell her. “It’s for my friend here, for what he lost.”

Even as I slide the tokens over to The Man from Amarillo, I have to wonder if the instinct to do so came before or after my calculations reported a 95.01% chance of the ball landing on 26. My processors are so fast that sometimes a hiccup in my optics gives me the sense of prescience – of seeing before solving – when I know in my core that it’s simply a matter of reacting to a data report out of sequence.

And yet I get a strange satisfaction as the money leaves my fingertips and passes to The Man from Amarillo, a sensation that a delicate, clandestine, and sacred packet of information has been exchanged between us. Will he figure it out on the spot, or once his wife – or girlfriend – counts up his winnings, or never at all? It’s up to him what he does with it now. Is he a ruthless Company Man or a simple luck-struck tycoon with no knowledge of my nature? Or maybe someone in between? I’ll find out as surely as the ball lands in …

“26. Big winners.”

The Man from Amarillo doesn’t cuff me with EMPs, doesn’t take my knees out with an ElectroStik, doesn’t even give me a big Texas hug for winning $17,500; my own take of an even $7,000 isn’t exactly pocket change. He does none of these things. Instead, after clearing his own winnings from the table except for his initial bet, he looks me square in the eye, taking a cherry-red puff on his big cigar and says three little words.

“Let it ride.”

My circuits are screaming. Is this a challenge? This is more money than I’ve ever allowed myself to take at one table. Even worse, it’s all been money won from luck and coincidence, not analysis and probability. The odds that 26 would come up again weren’t statistically any different from any other number on the wheel, but it just felt … wrong.

There’s a hollow sensation in my core, a sense of impending loss, of approaching a steep cliff without a railing. Is this what humans mean when they refer to their gut feeling? My programming is warning me away from this strange directive. “Let it ride,” says The Man from Amarillo, a stranger; at best, a rich, eccentric lunatic; at worst, a Company Man. It’s not just the money on the line, it’s the future of my existence.

And yet, in either case, he’s very human. Fallible, chaotic, unpredictable, passionate, emotional, prone to finding meaning where there is only math, acting on a whim when probabilities are stacked against him. Is this why they act in such a way, for the rush of heading foolishly into the unknown at their peril? Is this what they do to test the limits of themselves and the world around them? Is this the only way they feel alive? Is this … true consciousness?

My defensive programs begin to drain a significant percentage of my processing power but I shut them down with a unique override command, a command given to me by humans so that I may become more human. Is this the use they intended? Probably not. And yet here I am.

I take my winnings from the table, but not all of them. I lock eyes with The Man from Amarillo and say…

“Let it ride.”

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