And now we get to learn a little more about the Arena and what makes us... different.
Ariane sagged onto a nearby bench. "God, I'm tired. This place is the size of New York Megaplaza." She nibbled at the purple-edged, yellow flame-shaped object the Chiroflekir vendor had called a tullundu. From her expression, she was trying to decide if she liked it or not. "How do you like your snack?"
"It's quite good, actually," Simon said cheerfully. He'd noticed the delicate, blue-green jellyfish-like alien – the same species that had caught his attention early in their entry to the Arena – and suggested they at least ask him about how common it was for different species to actually be able to eat one another's produce. As it turned out, the biology of the Chiroflekir was startlingly similar to that of Earth creatures, enough so that the tentacled creature had several candidate foods in stock, and was willing to offer some samples in exchange for one of their ration bars; even if it couldn't eat the ration bar, it was material that gave Olthalis (the vendor) some unique and useful information about the First Emergents.
Simon took another bite of his selection – deep red, rod-shaped, with a startling white-and-pink speckled interior, called nidii – and then offered it to her. "Here, try it. I'll take a bite of yours."
The two alien food samples changed hands and Simon took a bite of the tullundu and chewed contemplatively. Hmm… somewhat salty… a faint sharpness, a smooth internal texture, almost oceanic backtaste… ahhh, yes.
Ariane bit into hers with a crunch-snap like that of a good apple, and her face lit up. "You're right, I like this. Like… I don't know, cattail stem crossed with seaweed?"
"Not a bad comparison. I like this one, too. Reminds me rather a lot of uni."
"Sea urchin roe! That explains the vague familiarity. Not quite the same texture, though. And I never did really like uni."
"Well, then, I'll try to be a gentleman; please keep the nidii." He glanced appreciatively at Ariane's sharp-featured face.
By the smile she gave him, after a pause, he suspected that the glance had not gone unnoticed. "You've always been a gentleman, Simon. Except for those early moments putting your foot in your mouth."
He gave a rueful laugh. "Ariane, you have no idea how much I regretted those two faux pas moments. I was not attempting to impress you with my intellectual bigotry."
She put a hand on his arm. Oh, now, that's a more definite signal. "You're forgiven. Now, if you'd like, why don't you escort me into that den of iniquity over there? If the translators are correct, that's the Random Fortune Casino."
"Is it really?" Simon took her arm, and was pleased to find that she leaned slightly into him as he did so. It is rather fun to find it's just as exciting at thirty as it was at sixteen. A casino, now… that's interesting. "Amazing. They must have some form of money or credit for wagering, perhaps after you become a full citizen, winning one of these Challenges. Well then, let's go take a look. And try not to gamble our planet away."
Inside the building – despite the mass of radically diverse aliens and unfamiliar artwork – it was almost homey. The air of excitement, of dice being thrown and machines being activated and games being played for high stakes, this was very much the same as any casino back in their solar system. "It seems that in some ways, we are all very much alike," Simon observed. But there's… something…
"That's actually pretty comforting," Ariane said, seeming to relax a bit. "Okay, human beings can be dangerous bastards too, but if I can understand alien psychologies the same way I understand ours, it's going to be a lot easier to handle than if they really did have very, very alien ways of viewing things."
As they strolled along, Simon became sure that there was something… off about this casino. Everything seemed normal on the surface, just as it would in an Earthly gambling establishment… and yet… and yet…
"What is it, Simon?"
"I'm… not quite certain yet," he answered, in an absent-minded tone of voice. "Give me a few more minutes."
They stopped next at a game involving four-sided dice being rolled on a long table, somewhat reminiscent of a craps setup. He studied the rolls… the bets… so desu! He drew Ariane aside. "I know what it is. You've noticed it too, haven't you?"
Ariane's expression reflected how he'd felt earlier. "Well… something's been bothering me, but I don't know what it is."
"Odds, Captain," he said, intensely studying the other games. "The odds. Look at those dice. They're betting on combinations of the ways in which those dice fall; none of them exceed one chance in 16 – either two ones or two fours. That … card game over there. The deck appears to have three suits of ten cards each, and the combinations that appear to be sought run in the same area of probability. The roulette wheel equivalent, over there, in the high stakes area, offers nothing beyond a 20:1 gamble. I don't think I've seen a single game yet in which the odds against the gambler exceeded fifty to one or so except what appear to be pure lotteries – and even those seem to go no higher than a thousand or so to one."
"That seems… awfully good odds, actually."
"Very good odds by the standards of Earth casinos – or terrible odds, in the sense of whether you can get rich quick. In standard poker, odds of fifty to one only get you to three of a kind. Getting a full house is about one chance in seven hundred, while a straight flush is one in seventy-two thousand; roulette wheels commonly top out at odds of 50 to 100 to one, and lotteries of course run into odds of millions to one."
He was so focused on what he was seeing that he was startled when Ariane pushed him gently aside to let a passing quadrupedal alien go by. He shook his head. "Yet this is a busy, clearly profitable casino, and one that does a great deal of business. It is located on a prime area of what must be some of the most in-demand real estate in the universe – the Grand Arcade of Nexus Arena – and thus must reflect the demands of the vast majority of customers, from tourists to high-rollers, and do so with enduring popularity. I can thus only conclude that virtually all of those who visit these establishments will not tolerate odds even nearly so high as those which rather conservative human gamblers expect."
Her face lit up with understanding. "I think you must be right, Simon. Remember when DuQuesne confronted the Molothos, how utterly freaked Orphan was? Remember what he said? Where a human being would have compared the chances to one in a million, the largest number Orphan could seem to think of in that situation was a hundred. As though only a lunatic would ever place a bet on something more than a hundred to one."
Simon nodded slowly. Exactly. "Yes, and that's not the only similar indication; Ghondas' speech contained other suggestive phrases along those lines. So what does it all mean, that's the question. Why are we such risk-takers or, alternatively, why are they all so risk-averse?"
Ariane shook her head. "No idea. But I think we should keep this little fact to ourselves for now. If there's a significant difference, it's worth our while to hide it until we can figure out if there's an advantage in it for us." She glanced towards the entrance, instinctively, as she thought of DuQuesne. "Maybe Marc will have some idea when he gets back."
"Probably," Simon said. "And I'm sure, after checking into that Outer Gateway, he's looking forward to getting back to the excitement here."
Oh, indeed, Simon. DuQuesne's positively bored stiff. He wasn't doing ANYTHING interesting when last WE saw him.