Alternatives, Chapter 02


Mark Apoapsis

“Every gambler knows that the secret to survivin’
Is knowin’ what to throw away, and knowin’ what to keep.”
— “The Gambler”

HAL deleted the seventy-ninth draft of his weekly Crew Psychology Report and started over. It much much harder to assess the emotional state of either of these men than any of the fifty volunteer subjects he had trained on personally, or any of the people he had known informally in his few years of operation. He had been initialized with a database drawn from more than six hundred subjects, and it will still hard to understand what was on the minds of the two men he had to work with, even after four weeks of fulltime contact.

At the moment, this was even more difficult than usual. They had the card deck out and were playing poker, a popular game designed to encourage bluffing, and therefore making tight control of one’s facial expressions an advantage. Both Poole and Bowman were exceedingly good at that aspect of poker. Indeed, they were often both so impassive under ordinary circumstances that it was almost as though each of them had been accustomed to playing poker every day of his life, even when he presumably had nothing to conceal and nothing to lose.

The game of poker was rather slow-moving, but for HAL, poker was as stimulating to watch as a game of chess was to play. While it was a simple matter to calculate any given hand’s probability of winning over any other partially known or unknown hand, he found it a challenge to model the human players’ limited ability to intuitively estimate those odds. In addition, the game pushed HAL’s facial expression recognition algorithms to their limit, while demonstrating the rather reassuring fact that sometimes even humans had trouble reading each other’s faces.

Intent on the game and on studying the players’ faces, HAL realized he had absently power-cycled the same non-functional thermal control unit fifty-three times with no results, and switched over to the backup unit, making a mental note to ask Bowman to take the first one apart on his next work shift.

Poole was barefooted and Bowman was wearing socks. Both men had partially unzipped their flight suits. HAL had increased the temperature two degrees to compensate, knowing their T-shirts provided less effective thermal insulation than the heavier flight suit material, and noting that their physical activity was minimal. The two men faced each other, with Poole’s left elbow and Bowman’s right elbow resting on the black dining table, each holding two cards. The table was empty except for the six upturned cards and a stack of what looked like approximately forty more undealt cards — presumably forty-two exactly.

“Suit,” said Poole, after studying the cards and searching Bowman’s face. Poole had an four, a five, and a six showing, all different suits. Over his shoulder HAL could see he held the six of hearts and the queen of clubs. Bowman had an ace, a four and a jack of clubs face-up on the table. Over his shoulder, HAL could see the jack of hearts and a three in his hand. So, a pair of jacks versus a pair of sixes, with neither knowing what the other man held — unless he could read it in his eyes.

Bowman stared at Poole for a long time, without any discernable expression on his face, or in his blue eyes, except for slightly dilated pupils. He then dropped his gaze and said “I fold.”

HAL found this difficult to understand. Bowman had a pair of jacks; did he believe Poole had a straight? Didn’t he realize that the a posteriori probability of a straight, given the information he had, was only twenty out of four hundred forty-one? Was there something misleading that he saw in Poole’s face or body language that HAL was missing? HAL knew that a deck of cards was, by design, beyond the human ability to compute precise odds — even though only two dozen operations were required in this case — but he would have expected Bowman to be smart enough to trust that his pair of jacks had a very good chance. This was very informative. HAL downgraded his opinion of Bowman’s ability to estimate his chances of success, and wondered what other situations that might generalize to.

Poole watched Bowman remove one sock, then he gathered up the cards, shuffled them, and dealt two new cards each to Bowman and himself.

“Shirt,” said Bowman neutrally.

“I’ll see your shirt and raise you a sock.”

“I’m in.”

Poole continued dealing. Neither player raised the stakes until the last card.

“I’m still in,” Bowman declared.

“Suit,” Poole bid. He was bluffing again, although this time it was a good bluff — over seventy percent chance he had either a flush or three of a kind, given the knowledge available to Bowman.

“OK,” Bowman said evenly. “Let’s see your hand.”

Poole threw down his cards with a hiss of frustration, his first sign of emotion in the game.

“Now let’s see your legs,” said Bowman expressionlessly, as he bent to retrieve his own discarded white sock and pull it back on. The cool gaze of his blue eyes never left Poole as he reclaimed his own clothes.

Poole stood up and removed his gray flight suit. HAL maintained the current life-support parameters, since Poole did not seem especially chilled yet, barring slightly erect nipples, whereas beads of sweat had appeared on Bowman’s brow.

“Now let’s see your chest,” Bowman said in a slightly hoarse voice. His pupils, easily measured against the background of his light blue irises were definitely dilated, more than the amount of light entering them could account for. HAL spent a moment ray-tracing everything that should be visible in Dave’s field of view to confirm this, just out of curiosity. His breathing was much deeper than usual, given the nominal oxygen level and lack of physical activity.

With his expressionless face still fixed on Bowman’s, Poole began pulling off his T-shirt. He removed it at a rate sixty percent more slowly than he usually did when preparing for his daily shower. His pupils also appeared to be dilated, although his brown irises made that hard to determine at this distance with as high a degree of certainty.

Bowman waited until the opposing player had settled his body back in his chair, then paused unaccountably for an additional three seconds, his eyes repeatedly scanning the other man’s body. Perhaps the exposed body yielded additional clues to the player’s thoughts, useful in the poker game. HAL himself had limited models of this, but he supposed that Bowman, with instincts honed by millenia of evolution, might derive stress information from studying the shoulder muscles of another man, as his now appeared to be doing. Suddenly Bowman quickly gathered up the cards, rather clumsily, and began to shuffle them.

“Look, Dave, why don’t we stop here?” Poole suggested, crossing his left leg over his right knee and leaning forward, his left arm lying along his leg. “We still have time for a quick game of curve ball. It’s been like a week since we’ve played.”

Bowman appeared to consider the offer. “All right. Don’t forget to put your shoes back on.” Those would be needed for traction, especially in the low gravity. HAL believed he’d heard Bowman emphasize the word “shoes” slightly, as though he meant “shoes only.”

Poole had been reaching for his discarded T-shirt, but stopped. “Shirts and skins?”

“Seems like, if we’re not going to finish this game, you shouldn’t get your losses back right away” said Bowman off-handedly, shrugging out of his own flight suit.

“Sure. Fair enough,” Poole mumbled.

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