Pandora 0.1

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I watched the Nīpa's whiskers twitch and forced myself to take deep breaths, so my satisfaction wouldn't show on my face.

He wasn't the first Nīpa I'd encountered with that particular tell. Most people never noticed, because the Nīpa's constantly sniffing noses made their whiskers twitch all the time. But this was a different kind of twitch, one I'd picked up on in nearly a decade of lingering in gambling dens. It followed a fast, short rhythm, tick-tick-tick, and made the Nīpa's pointy, rodent-like muzzle wrinkle.

"Nīreep," the Nīpa said. His whiskers tick-tick-ticked all the faster.

Ante-up, basically. I shifted my Kāchik bag in my hand, letting the stones roll beneath the worn leather as if contemplating. I knew what was in my bag. If this bluff went wrong, I'd have to make a run for it, and this was the last gambling den in the sector that I hadn't thoroughly plundered. I'd have to move, find a new shithole for me and my birds to live in. And I knew at any moment I could slip, that my facial expression or body language would give off some signal I hadn't intended it to.

Nothing for it, Xan. Hesitate too long and he'll get suspicious. I reached for my pile of chips and, hoping for an air of nonchalance—not one I tended to pull off very well—shoved the entire set into the middle of the table with the rest of the prize pool.

My opponent's whiskers stopped moving all together. He heaved a dramatic sigh and I held my breath, awaiting his decision. Finally, he threw down his Kāchik bag.

"Fold," he said, his voice rising to distressed squeakiness.

Ha! Can't read people, can I? You'd be amazed what necessity can do for a person. I smiled, trying for gracious rather than triumphant, and reached out to sweep the pot to me. As I sat back in my chair, activating the magnetics so the chips would pull together in a convenient tube, the Nīpa remained in his seat, staring at me. Nerves rose in my stomach like the swelling of a wave.

"What did you have?"

"Doesn't matter," I said quickly, snapping up the last of the chips with the magnetized end of the stack. "Look, I actually need to get back to—"

He stood up on his chair and I tried not to flinch. A lot of people underestimated the Nīpa, who as a species rarely stood taller than a meter. But they also had a meter-plus of long, lightly-furred tail, and my current opponent's nasal horns were impressively large. My fellow humans might regard the Nīpa dismissively as "horned space rats," but I had enough experience with them to know better.

"What did you have?" he repeated.

Slowly, I reached for my Kāchik bag and upended it onto the table. My opponent's large black eyes bulged in shock and dismay.

I had two red stones, which were pretty good; they could take out green, yellow, and dark blue. But I also had a pair of white stones, which could only top out brown stones, a yellow, which only topped light blue, and a truly pathetic beige, which only topped white. Altogether, it was one of the shittier Kāchik hands I'd ever had, and I was glad the other players—who'd been knocked out in earlier rounds—hadn't stuck around to see the outcome.

"What is this?" the Nīpa demanded. "This is not a winning hand! You—you cheated!"

"No I—"

"Cheater! Cheater!" His voice rose to an ear-piercing shriek.

I shrank in my chair, flinching away from that sound, which seemed so loud and so sharp, piercing down through my flesh and straight into my bones. I'd never dealt well with loud noise, especially not when it was high-pitched. And now other people in the gambling den were looking up from their various games, turning their attention to us. Their gazes felt like sandpaper scraping against my skin and I wondered, not for the first time—and not, unlikely, the last—why it hurt so much, just being in a crowd.

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