~So, are you quite ready for another fun-filled afternoon of bilking the casino?
Communication via the neural lace was near-instantaneous, as far as Ngok was concerned, although speech from Yoma Xantana seemed to appear in his head in a slightly nagging tone which, he felt, ought to belong to his mother.
~Quite ready, thank you.
~Where shall we start?
~How about the Lucky Wheel?
~Well, if you think that's for the best?
Ngok had been given a number of body modifications so that he would fit in seamlessly with the local population, as well as a local background which should be impossible to pierce. The standard Contact training in spoken language, mannerisms, social mores, body language and facial tics should enable him to fit in flawlessly. It seemed to be working just fine so far, he considered.
He sauntered across the floor of the casino in the direction of the high-rollers enclave with every appearance of chic sophistication, giving plenty of time for any casual observers to admire his hand-made suit and ludicrously expensive and archaically clockwork watch - or at least very good reproductions made by the ship. He was immediately recognised by the bulky and unsmiling guard dressed in the slightly intimidating dark green casino uniform who, at his approach, pulled back the hooked rope which separated the exceptionally rich from the merely well-off.
The casino's haven for the wealthy was perhaps less busy than Ngok might have expected. Still, there was a decent crowd around the Lucky Wheel table, already exuding the kind of nervous energy displayed by experienced gamblers with the taste of an edge in their mouths.
Ngok nodded politely to one or two of the faces he recognised, then pulled out his wallet with an exuberant flourish and threw some very-nearly-authentic high-denomination notes onto the table.
"I'm in for two million."
An unsmiling and uniformed croupier swept up the bills, inspected them closely by eye and then by a sophisticated scanner, then pushed a large pile of chips across the table.
Ngok picked one up, holding it edgewise between finger and thumb and inspected it casually.
~Same as always? he asked the disguised drone.
~Yep. I'll just make a few alterations to this pile, then we can have some fun.
The chips in this casino were a great deal more than dumb markers of ceramic or plastic. Each token embodied a compact computing and communication system, unpowered until they were placed in the active areas of the gambling table. Once remotely activated by coded induction coils built into the fabric of the table, each chip securely asserted its identity, monetary value and current physical location, allowing the casino to identify some attempts to cheat or defraud, and to create a running risk position against legitimate gambling wins and losses.
All this sophistication was of course entirely transparent to intelligences as advanced as the Culture's Minds, or even drones, and similarly trivial to subvert to the Culture's own ends.
Ngok placed a couple of the chips on the blue circle, marking a collection of numbers with a nearly-even probability of a win. Not a 50-50 probability, of course: the tables at the casino - and the cards, and the gambling machines - all had a built-in bias to the house, ensuring that, in the long term, the casino always won.
"Twenty-seven, blue," the croupier intoned, when the wheel had stopped spinning.
Many of the chips littering the table were raked up, the win for the casino. Ngok's small pile on blue was augmented with two more tokens. He hesitated, not entirely for effect, then let all the chips stand on blue.
Ngok's collection of chips was beginning to look just a bit impressive. He thought for a moment, eyes narrowed, then left the chips stand again.
"Three, blue," the croupier announced, sounding just a little bit more animated.
With the slightest of hesitations, Ngok left the rapidly growing pile alone.
Again, Ngok left his mounting pile of tokens standing on the table. By now, quite a few of the other gamblers had noticed Ngok's string of luck, and several of them had started matching his bet on the blue circle.
A careful observer - and the casino was full of careful observers - might have noticed that Ngok seemed to hesitate briefly before making his decisions, exactly as if he was listening to some internal voice. The collection of chips was getting to be quite impressive; no doubt hidden eyes would already be monitoring his actions extremely closely.
"Hi," came a voice from behind him.
Ngok stiffened perceptibly, almost as an afterthought dragging the substantial pile of tokens to him, removing them from the gambling table.
He turned around slowly. An astonishingly beautiful woman was looking directly at him with a slightly shocking expression of appraisal on her face.
"You seem to be very lucky."
"Oh, winning is easy enough," he replied, a smiled widening on his face, "The tricky bit is not losing."
"Double zero, house wins."
The relief in the croupier’s voice was plainly audible, slightly diminished when he realised that Ngok's stake had been removed a few seconds before the start of the Lucky Wheel spin.
"So I see."
"I haven't seen you here before."
"New in town. They all seem to know you, though."
"I've been here a while," he said, "Call me Gock."
The local language lacked the phonetic and semantic flexibility of Marain, so his name was always going to be mispronounced by the natives.
"Sharah," she responded, "So, how does this 'not losing' thing work?"
"Well, first you have to win something," he suggested, adding, "When's your birthday?"
"Are you asking me my age?" she said, sounding aghast.
Ngok drew himself up straight.
"A gentleman would never ask a lady her age," he retorted, deploying his most charming smile, "I'm merely asking the day of the month when you were born."
Sharah smiled widely in return.
The Lucky Wheel was divided into forty sections, thirty-eight of which were numbered accordingly and coloured either blue or white. Corresponding areas on the table allowed bets on individual numbers, on either blue or white, and on a bewildering selection of combinations. The remaining two sections were coloured black and labelled with zeros; with these, the house won every bet on the table.
Ngok turned back to the table, selected ten of the chips and placed them in the centre of the white circle marked "thirteen".
A hush fell around the table, then the chatter picked up, eclipsing the previous level. This was an enormous sum on a single bet - equivalent to ten years or more of a working person's salary - and with a one-in-forty chance of winning.
"No more bets, please," the croupier intoned, spinning the wheel as quickly as he could.
The hush descended again, every eye in the place watching the spinning wheel slow down.
"Thirteen, white," the croupier said, looking as if he did not quite believe it.
A great cheer went up, although most of the spectators shared the disbelieving look of the croupier. A vast pile of tokens representing Ngok's winnings were very soon pushed across the table.
Ngok turned back to Sharah, who looked highly amused.
"Well, there's the win. So, now let's get on to the 'not losing' part. How would you like me to buy you a really good dinner?"
She looked at him curiously for a moment, then nodded in agreement.
"Great," he said, offering her his arm, "Let's just cash in these chips first."
The Ambassador leaned back in her obligatory desk chair.
"How's young Ngok getting on?" she asked.
As usual, the Elegant Sufficiency had not bothered with constructing an avatar or other physical representative, and spoke directly out of the air.
"Excellent. Blundering about nicely, raising suspicions and hackles in all the right places - oh, and being very, very lucky."