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Dice

by AJAI RAJ

The cloaked man carried dice in a pouch and was fond of drink.

Robert Jobs met him on his way to a board meeting, when his car skidded in the driving rain and hydroplaned off the shoulder. The shoulder gave way to a steep face of dirty rock, which in turn overlooked a balding patchwork of grass and shrubs which the state called a Nature Preserve.

It was what you might call an unexpected detour.

None of this concerned him, at least on the conscious level. Gone too from his "to-worry-about" list was the style of his presentation, whether his tie matched his jacket, how his wife would react when he said he'd have to work on Christmas, and whether or not his daughter was a slut. He was only aware of the skidding, and then the terrifying free-float of hydroplaning, and then the horrific plunge over the edge and onto hard-packed dirt. He was aware of dizziness and weightlessness and a nauseating kind of fear, the kind you get when you're caught in a helpless situation and want very badly to extricate yourself, but it's just not your roll of the

"Dice?"

This was the question Robert asked the cloaked man, who now sat across from him at a perfectly round table at the edge of Infinity, where light was a dream and shadow the reality. He was confused when he heard the word come out of his mouth, but the question gave him some comfort. His mind was boiling with questions- none of which had answers- and his chest felt heavy with the unspoken weight of them all. He wanted to cry, but he also wondered how many times his car had flipped, and more than that, he wondered where he was now.

The hooded figure did not speak, but held those dice still in an open palm. Two silent black dots stared at Robert, and he stared back. He felt drunk. Had he been drinking? He couldn't remember.

The cloaked man was looking at him as well, but not staring. His eyes were flat, black on white and utterly lacking in emotion. His right hand, the one without the dice, was holding a bottle of clear liquid. Robert could smell it and did not suppose it was water.

Things came back to him, slowly at first and then in a deluge of information. He still didn't know how many times he'd flipped- from the inside, flipping was just prolonged turning at the wrong angle- but he knew that his fifty-thousand dollar tank had landed on its nose and that he'd careened through the windshield. The airbag had reacted too late, mashing him into the roof of his car from the waist down. He remembered a migraine jackhammer feeling in his skull and the sensation of being pressed against a wall by a very fast piston, he remembered that he'd pissed up his pants somehow, and he remembered the horror he'd felt when he realized he couldn't feel his feet. He remembered the Great Freeze, how he'd been watching a falling October leaf, how the leaf had stopped its descent in midair. The branches on the trees had stopped blowing in the wind and a bird in the sky had simply stopped moving and remained aloft. He remembered, finally, an invisible hand grasping his own and pulling him onward and onward, above the car and then above everything else, until it had been too much and he'd blacked out.

And woken up here.

The hooded apparition nodded, a motion so subtle that it might have been a mere shifting of the hood. Robert wasn't sure. Again he wanted to ask questions but was physically unable, could only manage a single croaked word.

"Dead?"

The cloaked man shrugged and reached into the pouch which had held his dice. The pouch was embroidered with symbols, some familiar and others alien. There was the yin-yang and the cross and the scales and the swastika, the one of old before Hitler had corrupted it with so much unnecessary bloodshed. So too was there a pair of hands, a strange sort of curlicue, a series of dots and slashes, and a single, unblinking eye.

Robert thought then that he might just drown in questions. Or be poisoned by them.

From the pouch the hooded apparition took several small objects, each- save one- fashioned of glimmering crystal. Robert catalogued each one as the other laid them down in turn: a thundercloud, a car, a man, and finally a sword, which was made not of crystal but of iron. Robert wondered at this last, then balked in spite of himself. It was only another question.

The figurines now stood in a row at the center of the table, reflected in its flawless surface. Without a word (as was his wont, it seemed), the cloaked man plucked the thundercloud and cast it aside. It was swallowed soundlessly by the darkness. The other three remained.

The cloaked man reached again into the pouch and pulled forth a second pair of dice. He handed these to Robert and pointed to the crystal car.

Robert rolled the dice, mirrored by the cloaked man. Both pairs landed at the same instant, one on either side of the car.

Robert had a seven, and the cloaked man a nine.

The cloaked man plucked the car from the table and disposed of it in one deft motion.

In the distance, like a muffled echo, Robert heard the sound of crunching metal. Glass splintered and cracked and shattered, rubber burst and spat air at a million miles an hour. Pistons huffed and puffed and chuffed and died. An engine stopped working. He looked with increasing apprehension at the figure of the man standing in the center of the table.

The cloaked man took a swig from the bottle and offered it to Robert. Robert waved it away, his gaze hopelessly fixed on the voodoo doll in the center of the table. He thought he might be ill.

Again the cloaked man pointed to the table and bade him roll.

Robert had ten and the cloaked man had eleven.

As he watched the figurine disappear, he moaned and felt the headache return. His ribs felt pressurized and splintered, and again he wondered if his feet were still there. He stared at the iron sword which now stood alone on the table and fought desperately against the urge to vomit. His mouth filled with sour electric spit; he gagged. Pain exploded in his chest, but he kept it all down and was glad for the little victory.

The cloaked man pointed to the sword and looked Robert in the eye as he drank once more from the bottle. His eyes were still flat. He did not offer Robert a drink.

Robert looked at the dice in his hand, fought back another pang of nausea, and suddenly he understood.

(It was time, oh yes, and he would go down fighting, and)

They rolled again.

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