Sitting in the back of the land cruiser used to transport miners between Apatros's only colony and the mines, Des felt exhausted. All he wanted was to get back to his bunk in the barracks and sleep. The adrenaline had drained out of him, leaving him hyperaware of the stiffness and soreness of his body. He slumped down in his seat and gazed around the interior of the cruiser.
Normally, there would have been twenty other miners crammed into the speeder with him, but this one was empty except for him and the pilot. After the fight with Gerd, the foreman had suspended Des without pay, effective immediately, and had ordered the transport to take him back to the colony.
"This kind of thing is getting old, Des," the foreman had said with a frown. "We've got to make an example of you this time. You can't work the mines until Gerd is healed up and back on the job."
What he really meant was, You can't earn any credits until Gerd comes back. He'd still be charged room and board, of course. Every day that he sat around doing nothing would go onto his tab, adding to the debt he was working so desperately to pay off.
Des figured it would be four or five days until Gerd was able to handle a hydraulic jack again. The on-site medic had reattached the severed thumb using a vibroscalpel and synthflesh. A few days of kolto injections and some cheap meds to dull the pain, and Gerd would be back at it. Bacta therapy could have him back in a day; but bacta was expensive, and ORO wouldn't spring for it unless Gerd had miner's insurance ... which Des highly doubted.
Most miners never bothered with the company-sponsored insurance program. It was expensive, for one thing. What with room, board, and the fees covering the cost of transport to and from the mines, most thought they gave ORO more than enough of their hard-earned pay without adding insurance premiums onto the stack.
It wasn't just the cost, though. It was almost as if the men and women who worked the cortosis mines were in denial, refusing to admit the potential dangers and hazards they encountered every day. Getting insurance would force them to take a look at the cold, hard facts.
Few miners ever reached their golden years. The tunnels claimed many, burying bodies in cave-ins or incinerating them when somebody tapped into a pocket of explosive gases trapped in the rock. Even those who made it out of the mines tended not to survive long into their retirement. The mines took their toll. Sixty-year-old men were left with bodies that looked and felt like they were ninety, broken shells worn down by decades of hard physical labor and exposure to airborne contaminants that slipped through the substandard ORO filters.
When Des's father died-with no insurance, of course-all Des got out of it was the privilege of taking on his father's accumulated debt. Hurst had spent more time drinking and gambling than mining. To pay for his monthly room and board he'd often had to borrow credits from ORO at an interest rate that would be criminal anywhere but in the Outer Rim. The debt kept piling up, month to month and year to year, but Hurst didn't seem to care. He was a single parent with a son he resented, trapped in a brutal job he despised; he had given up any hope of escaping Apatros long before the heart attack claimed him.
The Hutt spawn probably would have been glad to know his son had gotten stuck with his bill.
The transport sped above the barren rocks of the small planet's flatlands with no sound but the endless drone of the engines. The featureless wastes flew by in a blur, until the view out the window was nothing but a curtain of shapeless gray. The effect was hypnotic: Des could feel his tired mind and body eager to drift into deep and dreamless sleep.
This was how they got you. Work you to exhaustion, dull your senses, numb your will into submission . . . until you accepted your lot and wasted your entire life in the grit and grime of the cortosis mines. All in the relentless service of the Outer Rim Oreworks Company. It was a surprisingly effective trap; it worked on men like Gerd and Hurst. But it wasn't going to work on Des.
Even with his father's crushing debt, Des knew he'd pay ORO off someday and leave this life behind. He was destined for something greater than this small, insignificant existence. He knew this with absolute certainty, and it was this knowledge that gave him the strength to carry on in the face of the relentless, sometimes hopeless grind. It gave him the strength to fight, even when part of him felt like giving up.
He was suspended, unable to work the mines, but there were other ways to earn credits. With a great effort he forced himself to stand up. The floor swayed under his feet as the speeder made constant adjustments to maintain its programmed cruising altitude of half a meter above ground level. He took a second to get used to the rolling rhythm of the transport, then half walked, half staggered up the aisle between the seats to the pilot at the front. He didn't recognize the man, but they all tended to look the same anyway: grim, unsmiling features, dull eyes, and always wearing an expression as if they were on the verge of a blinding headache.
"Hey" Des said, trying to sound nonchalant, "any ships come in to the spaceport today?"
There was no reason for the pilot to keep his attention fixed on the path ahead. The forty-minute trip between the mines and the colony was a straight line across an empty plain; some of the pilots even stole naps along the route. Yet this one refused to turn and look at Des as he answered.
"Cargo ship touched down a few hours ago," he said in a bored voice. "Military. Republic cargo ship."
Des smiled. "They staying for a while?"
The pilot didn't answer; he only snorted and shook his head at the stupidity of the question. Des nodded and stumbled back toward his seat at the rear of the transport. He knew the answer, too.
Cortosis was used in the hulls of everything from fighters to capital ships, as well as being woven into the body armor of the troops. And as the war against the Sith dragged on, the Republic's need for cortosis kept increasing. Every few weeks a Republic freighter would touch down on Apatros. The next day it would leave again, its cargo bays filled with the valuable mineral. Until then the crew-officers and enlisted soldiers alike-would have nothing to do but wait. From past experience, Des knew that whenever Republic soldiers had a few hours to kill they liked to play cards. And wherever people played cards, there was money to be made.
Lowering himself back onto his seat at the rear of the speeder, Des decided that maybe he wasn't quite ready to hit his bunk after all.
By the time the transport stopped on the edges of the colony, Des's body was tingling with anticipation. He hopped out and sauntered toward his barracks at a leisurely pace, fighting his own eagerness and the urge to run. Even now, he imagined, the Republic soldiers and their credits would be sitting at the gaming tables in the colony's only cantina.
Still, there was no point in rushing over there. It was late afternoon, the sun just beginning its descent beyond the horizon to the north. By now most of the miners from the night shift would be awake. Many of them would already be at the cantina, whiling away the time until they had to make the journey out to the mines to start their shift. For the next two hours Des knew he'd be lucky to find a place to sit down in the cantina, never mind finding an empty seat at a pazaak or sabacc table. Meanwhile, it would be another few hours before the men working the day shift climbed onto the waiting transports to head back to their homes; he'd get to the cantina long before any of them.
Back at his barracks, he stripped off his grime-stained coveralls and climbed into the deserted communal showers, scouring the sweat and fine rock dust from his body. Then he changed into some clean clothes and sauntered out into the street, making his way slowly toward the cantina on the far side of town.
The cantina didn't have a name; it didn't need one. Nobody ever had any trouble finding it. Apatros was a small world, barely more than a moon with an atmosphere and some indigenous plant life. There were precious few places to go: the mines, the colony, or the barren wastes in between. The mines were a massive complex encompassing the caves and tunnels dug by ORO, as well as the refining and processing branches of ORO's operations.
The spaceports were located there, too. Freighters left daily with shipments of cortosis bound for some wealthier world closer to Coruscant and the Galactic Core, and incoming vessels bringing equipment and supplies to keep the mines running arrived every other day. Employees who weren't strong enough to mine cortosis worked in the refining plants or the spaceport. The pay wasn't as good, but they tended to live longer.
But no matter where people worked, they all came home to the same place at the end of their shifts. The colony was nothing more than a ramshackle town of temporary barracks thrown together by ORO to house the few hundred workers expected to keep the mines running. Like the world itself, the colony was officially known as Apatros. To those who lived there, it was more commonly referred to as "the muck-huts." Every building was the same shade of dingy gray durasteel, the exterior weathered and worn. The insides of the buildings were virtually identical, temporary workers' barracks that had become all too permanent. Each structure housed four small private rooms meant for two people, but often holding three or more. Sometimes entire families shared one of those rooms, unless they could find the credits for the outrageous rents ORO charged for more space. Each room had bunks built into the walls and a single door that opened onto a narrow hall; a communal bathroom and shower were located at the end. The doors tended to squeak on ill-fitting hinges that were never tended to; the roofs were a patchwork of quick fixes to seal up the leaks that inevitably sprang whenever it rained. Broken windows were taped against the wind and cold, but never replaced. A thin layer of dust accumulated over everything, but few of the residents ever bothered to sweep out their domiciles.
The entire colony was less than a kilometer on each square side, making it possible to walk from any given building to any of the other identical structures in less than twenty standard minutes. Despite the unrelenting similarity of the architecture, navigating the colony was easy. The barracks had been placed in straight rows and columns, forming a grid of utilitarian streets between the uniformly spaced domiciles. The streets couldn't exactly be called clean, though they were hardly festering with garbage. ORO cleared trash and refuse just often enough to keep conditions sanitary, since an outbreak of diseases bred by filth would adversely affect the mine's production. However, the company didn't seem to mind the cluttered junk that inevitably accumulated throughout the town. Broken-down generators, rusted-out machinery, corroded scraps of metal, and discarded, worn-out tools crowded the narrow streets between the barracks.
There were only two structures in the colony that were in any way distinguished from the rest. One was the ORO market, the only store on-world. It had once been a barracks, but the bunks had been replaced with shelves, and the communal shower area was now a secure storage room. A small black-and-white sign had been fastened to the wall outside, listing the hours of operation. There were no displays to lure shoppers in, and no advertising. The market stocked only the most basic items, all at scandelous markups. Credit was gladly advanced against future wages at ORO's typically high interest rate, guaranteeing that buyers would spend even more hours in the mine working off their purchases.
The other dissimilar building was the cantina itself, a magnificent triumph of beauty and design when compared with the dismal homogeny of the rest of the colony. The cantina was built a few hundred meters beyond the edge of the town, set well apart from the gray grid of barracks. It stood only three stories high, but because every other structure was limited to a single floor it dominated the landscape. Not that it needed to be that tall. Inside the cantina everything was located on the ground floor; the upper stories were merely a facade constructed for show by Groshik, the Neimoidian owner and bartender. Above the first-floor ceiling, the second and third floors didn't really exist-there were only the rising walls and a dome made of tinted violet glass, illuminated from within. Matching violet lights covered the pale blue exterior walls. On almost any world the effect would have been ostentatious and tacky, but amid the gray of Apatros it was doubly so. Groshik often proclaimed that he had intentionally made his cantina as garish as possible, simply to offend the ORO powers-that-be. The sentiment made him popular with the miners, but Des doubted if ORO really cared one way or the other. Groshik could paint his cantina any color he wanted, as long as he gave the corporation its cut of the profits each week.
The twenty-standard-hour day of Apatros was split evenly between the two shifts of miners. Des and the rest of the early crew worked from 0800 to 1800; his counterparts worked from 1800 to 0800. Groshik, in an effort to maximize profits, opened each afternoon at 1300 and didn't close for ten straight hours. This allowed him to serve the night-crew workers before they started and catch the day crew when that shift was over. He'd close at 0300, clean for two hours, sleep for six, then get up at 1100 and start the process all over again. His routine was well known to all the miners; the Neimoidian was as regular as the rising and setting of Apatros's pale orange sun.
As Des crossed the distance between the edge of the colony proper and the cantina's welcoming door, he could already hear the sounds coming from inside: loud music, laughter, chatter, clinking glasses. It was almost 1600 now. The day shift had two hours to go before quitting time, but the cantina was still packed with night-shift workers looking to have a drink or something to eat before they boarded the shuttles that would take them to the mines.
Des didn't recognize any faces: the day and night crews rarely crossed paths. The patrons were mostly humans, with a few Twi'leks, Sullustans, and Cereans filling out the crowd. Des was surprised to notice a Rodian, too. Apparently the night crew were more tolerant of other species than the day shift. There were no waitresses, servers, or dancers; the only employee in the cantina was Groshik himself. Anyone who wanted a drink had to come up to the large bar built into the back wall and order it.
Des pushed his way through the crowd. Groshik saw him coming and momentarily dipped out of sight behind the bar, reappearing with a mug of Gizer ale just as Des reached the counter.
"You're here early today," Groshik said as he set the drink down with a heavy thud. His low, gravelly voice was difficult to hear above the din of the crowd. His words always had a guttural quality, as if he were speaking from the very back of his throat.
The Neimoidian liked him, though Des wasn't sure why. Maybe it was because he'd watched Des grow up from a young kid to a man; maybe he just felt sorry Des had been stuck with such a rankweed for a father. Whatever the reason, there was a standing arrangement between the two: Des never had to pay for a drink if it was poured without being asked for. Des gratefully accepted the gift and downed it in one long draft, then slammed the empty mug back down onto the table.
"Ran into a bit of trouble with Gerd," he replied, wiping his mouth. "I bit his thumb off, so they let me go home early."
Groshik tilted his head to one side and fixed his enormous red eyes on Des. The sour expression on his amphibian-like face didn't change, but his body shook ever so slightly. Des knew him well enough to realize the Neimoidian was laughing.
"Seems like a fair trade," Groshik croaked, refilling the mug.
Des didn't guzzle the second drink as he had the first. Groshik rarely gave him more than one on the house, and he didn't want to abuse the bartender's generosity.
He turned his attention to the crowd. The Republic visitors were easy to spot. Four humans-two men, two women-and a male Ithorian in crisp navy uniforms. It wasn't just their clothes that made them stand out, though. They all stood straight and tall, whereas most of the miners tended to hunch forward, as if carrying a great weight on their backs.
On one side of the main room, a smaller section was roped off from the rest of the cantina. It was the only part of the place Groshik had nothing to do with. The ORO Company allowed gambling on Apatros, but only if it was in charge of the tables. Officially this was to keep anyone from cheating, but everyone knew ORO's real concern was keeping the wagers in check. It didn't want one of its employees to win big and pay off all his or her debts in one lucky night. By keeping the maximum limits low, ORO made sure it was more profitable to work the mines than the tables.
In the gaming section were four more naval soldiers wearing the uniform of the Republic fleet, along with a dozen or so miners. A Twi'lek woman with the rank of petty officer on her lapel was playing pazaak. A young ensign was sitting at the sabacc table, talking loudly to everyone around him, though nobody seemed to be listening to him. Two more officers-both human, one male, one female-also sat at the sabacc table. The woman was a lieutenant; the man bore the insignia of a full commander. Des assumed they were the senior officers in charge of the mission to receive the cortosis shipment.
"I see you've noticed our recruiters," Groshik muttered.
The war against the Sith-officially nothing more than a series of protracted military engagements, even though the whole galaxy knew it was a war-required a steady stream of young and eager cadets for the front lines. And for some reason the Republic always expected the citizens on the Outer Rim worlds to jump at the chance to join them. Whenever a Republic military crew passed through Apatros, the officers tried to round up new recruits. They'd buy a round of drinks, then use it as an excuse to start up a conversation, usually about the glorious and heroic life of being a soldier. Sometimes they'd play up the brutality of the Sith. Other times they'd spin promises of a better life in the Republic military-all the while pretending to be friendly and sympathetic to the locals, hoping a few would join their cause.
Des suspected they received some kind of bonus for any new recruit they conned into signing up. Unfortunately for them, they weren't going to find too many takers on Apatros. The Republic wasn't too popular on the Rim; people here, including Des, knew the Core Worlds exploited small, remote planets like Apatros for their own gain. The Sith found a lot of anti-Republic sympathizers out here on the fringes of civilized space; that was one of the reasons their numbers kept growing as the war dragged on.
Despite their dissatisfaction with the Core Worlds, people still might have signed up with the recruiters if the Republic wasn't so concerned with following the absolute letter of the law. Anyone hoping to escape Apatros and the clutches of the mining corporation was in for a rude shock: debts to ORO still had to be paid, even by recruits protecting the galaxy against the rising Sith threat. If someone owed money to a legitimate corporation, the Republic fleet would garnish his or her wages until those debts were paid. Not too many miners were excited about the prospect of joining a war only to have the privilege of not getting paid.
Some of the miners resented the senior officers and their constant push to lure naive young men and women into joining their cause. It didn't bother Des, though. He'd listen to them prattle on all night, as long as they kept playing cards. He figured it was a small price to pay for getting his hands on their credits.
His eagerness must have shown, at least to Groshik. "Any chance you heard a Republic crew was stopping by and then picked a fight with Gerd just so you could get here early?"
Des shook his head. "No. Just a happy coincidence, is all. What angle are they working this time? Glory of the Republic?"
"Trying to warn us about the horrors of the Brotherhood of Darkness" was the carefully neutral reply. "Not going over too well."
The cantina owner kept his real opinions to himself when it came to matters of politics. His customers were free to talk about any subject they wanted, but no matter how heated their arguments became, he always refused to take sides.
"Bad for business," he had explained once. "Agree with someone and they'll be your friend for the rest of the night. Cross them and they might hate you for weeks." Neimoidians were known for their shrewd business sense, and Groshik was no exception.
A miner pushed his way up to the bar and demanded a drink. When Groshik went to fill the order, Des turned to study the gaming area. There weren't any free seats at the sabacc table, so for the time being he was forced into the role of spectator. For well over an hour he studied the plays and the wagers of the newcomers, paying particular attention to the senior officers. They tended to be better players than the enlisted troops, probably because they had more credits to lose.
The game on Apatros followed a modified version of the Bespin Standard rules. The basics of the game were simple: make a hand as close to twenty-three as possible without going over. Each round, a player had to either bet to stay in the hand, or fold. Any player who chose to stay in could draw a new card, discard a card, or place a card into the interference field to lock in its value. At the end of any round a player could come up, revealing his or her hand and forcing all other players to show their cards, as well. Best hand at the table won the hand pot. Any score over twenty-three, or below negative twenty-three, was a bomb-out that required the player to pay a penalty. And if a player had a hand that totaled exactly twenty-three-a pure sabacc-he or she won the sabacc pot as a bonus. But what with random shifts that could unexpectedly change the value of cards from round to round, and other players coming up early, a pure sabacc was a lot harder to achieve than it sounded.
Sabacc was more than a game of luck. It was about strategy and style, knowing when to bluff and when to back down, knowing how to adapt to the ever-changing cards. Some players were too cautious, never betting more than the minimum raise even when they had a good hand. Others were too aggressive, trying to bully the rest of the table with outrageous bets even when they had nothing. A player's natural tendencies showed through if you knew what to look for.
The ensign, for example, was clearly new to the game. He kept staying in with weak hands instead of folding his cards. He was a chaser, not satisfied with cards good enough to collect the hand pot. He was always looking for the perfect hand, hoping to win big and collect the sabacc pot that kept on growing until it was won. As a result, he kept getting caught with bomb-out hands and having to pay a penalty. It didn't seem to slow his betting, though. He was one of those players with more credits than sense, which suited Des just fine.
To be an expert sabacc player, you had to know how to control the table. It didn't take Des many hands to realize the Republic commander was doing just that. He knew how to bet big and make other players fold winning hands. He knew when to bet small to lure others into playing hands they should have folded. He didn't worry much about his own cards; he knew that the secret to sabacc was figuring out what everyone else was holding ... and then letting them think they knew what cards he was holding. It was only when all the hands were revealed and he was raking in the chips that his opponents would realize how wrong they'd been.
He was good, Des had to admit. Better than most of the Republic players who passed through. Despite his pleasant appearance, he was ruthless in scooping up pot after pot. But Des had a good feeling; sometimes he just knew he couldn't lose. He was going to win tonight . . . and win big.
There was a groan from one of the miners at the table. "Another round and that sabacc pot was mine!" he said, shaking his head. "You're lucky you came up when you did," he added, speaking to the commander.
Des knew it wasn't luck. The miner had been so excited, he was twitching in his seat. Anyone with half a brain could see he was working toward a powerful hand. The commander had seen it and made his move, cutting the hand short and chopping the other gambler's hopes off at the knees.
"That's it," the miner said, pushing away from the table. "I'm tapped out."
"Looks like now's your chance," Groshik whispered under his breath as he swept past to pour another drink. "Good luck."
I don't need luck tonight, Des thought. He crossed the floor of the cantina and stepped over the nanosilk rope into the ORO-controlled gaming room.