Des approached the sabacc table and nodded to the Beta-4 CardShark dealing out the hands. ORO preferred automated droids to organic dealers: no salary to pay, and there was no chance a wily gambler could convince a droid to cheat.
"I'm in," he declared, taking the empty seat.
The ensign was sitting directly across from him. He let out a long, loud whistle. "Blast, you're a big boy," he shouted boisterously. "How tall are you-one ninety? One ninety-five?"
"Two meters even," Des replied without looking at him. He swiped his ORO account card through the reader built into the table and punched in his security code. The buy-in for the table was added to the total already owing on his ORO account, and the CardShark obediently pushed a stack of chips across the table toward him.
"Good luck, sir," it said.
The ensign continued to size Des up, taking another long drink from his mug. Then he brayed out a laugh. "Wow, they grow you fellas big out here on the Rim. You sure you ain't really a Wookiee somebody shaved for a joke?"
A few of the other players laughed, but quickly stopped when they saw Des clench his jaw. The man smelled of Corellian ale. Same as Gerd had when he'd picked a fight with Des just a few hours earlier. Des's muscles tightened, and he leaned forward in his chair. The smaller man let out a short, nervous breath.
"Come on now, son," the commander said to Des in a calming voice, stepping in to control the situation the same way he'd been controlling the table all game long. He had an air of quiet authority, a patriarch presiding over a family squabble at the dinner table. "It's just a joke. Can't you take a joke?"
Turning to face the only player at the table good enough to give him a real challenge, Des flashed a grin and let the tension slip from his coiled muscles. "Sure, I can take a joke. But I'd rather take your credits."
There was a brief pause, and then it was as if everyone had sighed in relief. The officer chuckled and returned the smile. "Fair enough. Let's play some cards."
Des started slow, playing conservatively and folding often. The limits on the table were low; the maximum value of any given hand was capped at one hundred credits. Between the five-credit ante and the two-credit "administration fee" ORO charged players each time they started a new round, the hand pots would barely cover the cost of sitting down at the table, even for a solid player. The trick was to win just enough hand pots to be able to stick around long enough for a chance at the sabacc pot that continued to build with each hand.
When he first started playing, one of the soldiers tried to make small talk. "I notice most of the human miners here shave their heads," he said, nodding out at the crowd. "Why is that?"
"We don't shave. Our hair falls out," Des replied. "Comes from working too many shifts in the mines."
"Working the mines? I don't get it."
"The filters don't remove all the impurities from the air. You work ten-hour shifts day in and day out, and the contaminants build up in your system," He spoke in a flat, neutral voice. There was no bitterness; for him and the rest of the miners it was just a fact of life. "It has side effects. We get sick a lot; our hair falls out. We're supposed to take a few days off now and again, but ever since ORO signed those Republic military contracts the mines never shut down. Basically, we're being slowly poisoned to make sure your cargo hold's full when you leave."
That was enough to kill any other attempts at conversation, and they continued the hands in relative silence. After half an hour Des was about even for the night, but he was just getting warmed up. He pushed in his ante and the ORO cut, as did the other seven players at the table. The dealer flipped two cards out to each of them, and another hand began. The first two players peeked at their cards and folded. The Republic ensign glanced at his cards and threw in enough chips to stay in the hand. Des wasn't surprised-he hardly ever folded his cards, even when he had nothing.
The ensign quickly pushed one of his cards into the interference field. Each turn, a player could move one of the electronic chip-cards into the interference field, locking in its value to protect it from changing if there was a shift at the end of the round.
Des shook his head. Locking in cards was a fool's play. You couldn't discard a locked-in card; Des usually preferred to keep all his options open. The ensign, however, was thinking in the short term, not planning ahead. That probably explained why he was down several hundred credits on the night.
Glancing at his own hand, Des chose to stay in. All the rest of the players dropped, leaving just the two of them.
The CardShark dealt out another round of cards. Des glanced down and saw he had drawn Endurance, a face card with a value of negative eight. He was sitting at a total of six, an incredibly weak hand.
The smart move was to fold; unless there was a shift, he was dead. But Des knew there was going to be a shift. He knew it as surely as he had known where and when Gerd's thumb was going to be when he bit down on it. These brief glimpses into the future didn't happen often, but when they did he knew enough to listen to them. He pushed in his credits. The ensign matched the bet.
The droid scooped the chips to the center of the table, and the marker in front of him began to pulse with rapidly changing colors. Blue meant no shift; all the cards would stay the same. Red meant a shift: an impulse would be sent out from the marker, and one electronic card from each player would randomly reset and change its value. The marker flickered back and forth between red and blue, gaining speed until it was pulsing so quickly the colors blurred into a single violet hue. Then the flashing began to slow down and it became possible to tell the individual colors apart again: blue, red, blue, red, blue ... It stopped on red.
"Blast!" the ensign swore. "It always shifts when I have a good hand!"
Des knew that wasn't true. The chances of shifting were fifty-fifty: completely random. There was no way to predict whether a shift was coming ... unless you had a gift like Des occasionally did.
The cards flickered as they reset, and Des scooped up his hand one more time. Endurance was gone, replaced by a seven. He was sitting at twenty-one. Not a sabacc, but a solid hand. Before the next round could begin, Des flipped his cards over, exposing his hand to the table. "Coming up on twenty-one," he said.
The ensign threw his cards to the table in disgust. "Blasted bomb-out."
Des collected the small stack of chips that were the hand pot, while the other man grudgingly paid his penalty into the sabacc pot. Des guessed it was closing in on five hundred credits by now.
One of the miners at the table stood up. "Come on, we got to go," he said. "Last speeder leaves in twenty minutes."
With grumbles and complaints, the other miners got up from their seats and trudged off to start their shift. The ensign watched them go, then turned curiously to Des.
"You ain't going with them, big fella? I thought you were complaining about never getting a day off earlier."
"I work the day shift," Des said shortly. "Those guys are the night shift."
"Where's the rest of your crew?" the lieutenant asked. Des clearly recognized her interest as an attempt to keep the ensign from saying something to further antagonize the big miner. "The crowd's become awfully thin." She waved her hand around at the cantina, now virtually empty except for the Republic naval soldiers. Seeing the open seats at the sabacc table, a few of them were wandering over to join their comrades in the game.
"They'll be along soon enough," Des said. "I just ended my shift a bit early today."
"Really?" Her tone implied that she knew of only one reason a miner's shift might end early.
"Lieutenant," one of the newly arrived soldiers said politely as they reached the table. "Commander," he added, addressing the other officer. "Mind if we join in, sir?"
The commander looked over at Des. "I don't want this young man to think the Republic is ganging up on him. If we take all the seats, where are his friends going to sit when they show up? He says they'll be along any minute."
"They're not here now," Des said. "And they're not my friends. You might as well sit down." He didn't add that most of the day-shift miners probably wouldn't play, anyway. When Des showed up at the table they tended to call it a night; he won too often for their liking.
The empty seats were quickly filled up.
"So how are the cards treating you, Ensign?" a young woman asked the man Des had bested in the last hand. She sat down beside him and placed a full mug of Corellian ale on the table in front of him.
"Not so good," he admitted, flashing a grin and exchanging his empty mug for the full one. "I might have to owe you for this drink. I can't seem to catch a break tonight." He nodded his head in Des's direction. "Watch out for this one. He's as good as the commander. Either that, or he cheats."
He smiled quickly to show it was just another of his mildly offensive jokes. Des ignored him; it wasn't the first time he'd been called a cheat. He was aware that his precognition gave him an advantage over the other players. Maybe it was an unfair advantage, but he didn't consider it cheating. It wasn't as if he knew what was going to happen on every hand; he couldn't control it. He was just smart enough to make the most of it when it happened.
The CardShark began passing out chips to the newcomers, wishing each of them a perfunctory "Good luck" as it did so.
"So it seems you don't really get on well with the other miners," the lieutenant said, keying on Des's earlier comments. "Have you ever thought about changing careers?"
Des groaned inwardly. By the time he had joined the table the officers had given up their recruiting spiel and stuck mostly to playing cards. Now he'd given her an opening to bring it up again.
"I'm not interested in becoming a soldier," he said, anteing up for the next hand.
"Don't be so hasty," she said, her voice slipping into a soothing, gentle patter. "Being a soldier for the Republic has its rewards. I suspect it's better than working the mines, at least."
"There's a whole galaxy out there, son," the commander added. "Worlds a lot more attractive than this one, if you don't mind me saying."
Don't I know it, Des thought. Out loud he said, "I don't plan to spend my whole life here. But when I do get off this rock, I don't want to spend my days dodging Sith blasters on the front lines."
"'We won't be fighting the Sith for much longer, son. We've got them on the run now." The commander spoke with such calm assurance, Des was half tempted to believe him.
"That's not how I hear it," Des said. "Rumor is the Brotherhood of Darkness has been winning more than its share of the battles. I heard it's got more than a dozen regions under its control now."
"That was before General Hoth," one of the other soldiers chimed in.
Des had heard of Hoth on the HoloNet; he was a bona-fide hero of the Republic. Victorious in half a dozen major confrontations, he was a brilliant strategist who knew how to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Not surprising, given his background.
"Hoth?" he asked innocently, glancing down at his cards. Garbage. He folded his hand. "Isn't he a Jedi?"
"He is," the commander replied, peeking at his own cards. He pushed in a small wager. "A Jedi Master, to be more accurate. And a fine soldier, too. You couldn't ask for a better man to lead the Republic war effort."
"The Sith are more than just soldiers, you know," the drunken ensign said earnestly, his voice even louder than before. "Some of them can use the Force, just like the Jedi! You can't beat them with blasters alone."
Des had heard plenty of wild tales of Jedi performing extraordinary feats through the mystical power of the Force, but he figured they were legends and myth. Or at least exaggerations. He knew there were powers that transcended the physical world: his own premonitions were evidence of that. But the stories of what the Jedi could do were just too impossible to believe. If the Force was really such a powerful weapon, why was this war taking so long?
"The idea of answering to a Jedi Master doesn't really appeal to met' he said. "I've heard some strange things about what they believe in: no passion, no emotion. Sounds like they want to turn us all into droids."
Another round of cards was dealt out to the remaining players.
"The Jedi are guided by wisdom," the commander explained. "They don't let things like desire or anger cloud their judgment."
"Anger has its uses," Des pointed out. "It's gotten me out of some nasty spots."
"I think the trick is not to get into those spots in the first place," the lieutenant countered in her gentle voice.
The hand ended a few turns later. The young woman who had bought the ensign his drink came up on twenty-not a great hand, but not a bad one, either. She looked over at the commander as he flipped up his cards, and smiled when he had only nineteen. Her smile faded when the drunken ensign showed his twenty-one. When he scooped up the pot, she cut his laugh short with a friendly elbow to his ribs.
Everyone anted and the dealer flicked out another pair of cards to each player.
"The Jedi are the defenders of the Republic," the lieutenant went on earnestly. "Their ways can seem strange to ordinary citizens, but they're on our side. All they want is peace."
"Really?" Des said, glancing at his cards and pushing in his chips. "I thought they wanted to wipe out the Sith."
"The Sith are an illegal organization," the lieutenant explained. She folded her cards after a moment of careful deliberation. "The Senate passed a bill outlawing them nearly three thousand years ago, shortly after Revan and Malak brought destruction to the entire galaxy."
"I always heard Revan saved the Republic," he said.
The commander jumped back into the conversation. "Revan's story is complicated," he said. "But the fact remains, the Sith and their teachings were banned by the Senate. Their very existence is a violation of Republic law-and with good reason. The Jedi understand the threat the Sith represent. That's why they've joined the fleet. For the good of the galaxy, the Sith must be wiped out once and for all."
The drunken ensign won the hand again, his second in a row. Sometimes it was better to be lucky than good.
"So the Republic says the Sith must be wiped out," Des said as he anted up for the next hand. "If the Sith were the ones in charge, I bet they'd say the same thing about the Jedi."
"You wouldn't say that if you knew what the Sith were really like," one of the other soldiers said. "I've fought against them: they're bloodthirsty killers!"
Des laughed. "Yeah, how dare they try to kill you in the middle of a war? Don't they know you're busy trying to kill them? How rude!"
"You bloody Kath-mutt!" the soldier snapped, rising up from his seat.
"Sit down, deckman!" the commander barked. The soldier did as he was told, but Des could feel the tension in the air. Everyone else at the table-with the possible exception of the two officers-was glaring at him.
Good. The last thing on their minds now was cards. Angry people didn't make good sabacc players.
The commander sensed things were bad, too. He did his best to defuse the situation.
"The Sith follow the teachings of the dark side, son," he said to Des. "If you saw the kinds of things they've done during this war . . . and not just to other soldiers. They don't care if innocent civilians suffer."
Only half listening, Des glanced at his cards and placed a wager.
"I'm not stupid, Commander," he said then. "Whether the Republic officially acknowledges it or not, you're at war with the Brotherhood of Darkness. And bad things happen during a war, on both sides. So don't try to convince me the Sith are monsters. They're people, just like you and me."
Of all the players at the table, only the commander folded his cards. Des knew that at least a few of the soldiers were playing bad hands simply for the chance to take him down.
The commander sighed. "You're right, to a point. The ordinary troopers-who serve in the army because they don't know what the Sith Masters and the Brotherhood of Darkness are really like-are just people. But you have to look at the ideals behind this war. You have to understand what each side really stands for."
"Enlighten me, Commander." Des put just a hint of condescension in his voice and casually tossed in some more chips, knowing it would rile up the table even more. He was glad to see that nobody folded; he was playing them like a Bith musician trilling out a tune on a sabriquet.
"The Jedi seek to preserve peace," the commander reiterated. "They serve the cause of justice. Whenever possible, they use their power to aid those in need. They seek to serve, not to rule. They believe that all beings, regardless of species or gender, are created equal. Surely you can understand that."
It was more a statement than a question, but Des answered anyway. "But all beings aren't really equal, are they? I mean, some are smarter, or stronger ... or better at cards."
He drew a small smile from the commander with the last comment, though everyone else at the table scowled.
"True enough, son. But isn't it the duty of the strong to help the weak?"
Des shrugged. He didn't believe much in equality. Working to make everybody equal didn't leave much chance for anyone to achieve greatness. "So what about the Brotherhood of Darkness?" he asked. "What do they believe in?"
"They follow the teachings of the dark side. The only thing they seek is power; they believe the natural order of the galaxy is for the weak to serve the strong."
"Sounds pretty good if you're one of the strong." Des flipped his cards up, then scooped up the pot, relishing the grumbling and curses muttered under the breath of the losers.
Des flashed a nasty grin around the table. "For the sake of the Republic, I hope you guys are better soldiers than you are sabacc players."
"You mudcrutch, rankweed coward!" the ensign shouted, jumping up and spilling his drink onto the floor. "If it wasn't for us, the Sith would be all over this pit of a world!"
Another miner would have taken a swing at Des, but the ensign-even more than slightly drunk-had enough military discipline to keep his fists at his sides. A stern glare from the commander made him sit down and mumble an apology. Des was impressed. And a little disappointed.
"We all know why the Republic cares about Apatros," he said, stacking his chips and trying to appear nonchalant. In fact, he was scanning the table to see if anyone else was getting ready to make a move on him.
"You use cortosis in the hulls of your ships, you use it in your weapons casings, you even use it in your body armor. Without us, you wouldn't stand a chance in this war. So don't pretend you're doing any favors here: you need us as much as we need you."
Nobody had anted yet; all eyes were drawn to the drama unfolding among the players. The CardShark hesitated, its limited programming uncertain how to handle the situation. Des knew Groshik was watching from the far side of the cantina, his hand near the stun blaster he kept stashed behind the bar. He doubted the Neimoidian would need it, though.
"True enough," the commander conceded, pushing his ante in. The others, including Des, followed suit. "But at least we pay you for the cortosis we use. The Sith would just take it from you."
"No," Des corrected, studying his cards, "you pay ORO for the cortosis. Those credits don't make it all the way down to a guy like me." He folded his hand but didn't stop talking. "See, that's the problem with the Republic. In the Core everything's great: people are healthy, wealthy, and happy. But out here on the Rim things aren't so easy.
"I've been working the mines almost as long as I can remember, in one way or another, and I still owe ORO enough credits to fill a freighter hull. But I don't see any Jedi coming to save me from that little bit of injustice."
Nobody had an answer for him this time, not even the commander. Des decided they'd talked enough politics; he wanted to focus on winning the two thousand credits that had built up in the sabacc pot. He went in for the kill.
"Don't try to sell me on your Jedi and your Republic, because that's exactly what it is: your Republic. You say the Sith only respect strength? Well, that's pretty much the way things are out here on the Rim, too. You look out for yourself, because nobody else will. That's why the Sith keep finding new recruits willing to join them out here. People with nothing feel like they've got nothing to lose. And if the Republic doesn't figure that out pretty soon, the Brotherhood of Darkness is going to win this war no matter how many Jedi you have leading your army."
"Maybe we should just stick to cards;" the lieutenant suggested after a long, uncomfortable silence.
"That works for me," Des said. "No hard feelings?"
"No hard feelings," the commander said, forcing a smile.
A few of the other soldiers murmured assent, but Des knew the hard feelings were still there. He'd done everything he could to make sure they ran deep.