The hours ticked by. Other miners began to arrive, the day shift coming in to replace the night crew that had left. The CardShark kept dealing, and the players kept betting. Des's stack of chips was growing steadily larger, and the sabacc pot kept on growing: three thousand credits, four thousand, five . . . None of the players seemed to be having fun anymore; Des figured his scorching rant had burned off all the pleasure from the game.
Des didn't care. He didn't play sabacc for fun. It was a job, same as working the mines. A way to earn credits and pay off ORO so he could leave Apatros behind forever.
Two of the soldiers pushed away from the table, their credits cleaned out. Their seats were soon filled by miners from the day shift. The lure of the massive sabacc pot was enough to draw them in, despite their reluctance to go up against Des.
Another hour passed and the senior officers-the lieutenant and the commander-finally packed it in. They, too, were replaced by miners with visions of hitting one good hand and cashing in the unclaimed sabacc pot. The Republic soldiers who stuck around, like the ensign who had first challenged Des, must have had deep, deep pockets.
With the constant influx of new players and new money, Des was forced to change his strategy. He was up several hundred credits; he had enough of a cushion built up that he could afford to lose a few hands if he had to. Now his only concern was protecting the sabacc pot. If he didn't have a hand he thought he could win with, he'd come up in the first few turns. He wasn't going to give anyone else a chance to build up a hand of twenty-three. He stopped folding, even when he had weak cards. Sitting out a hand gave the other players too much of a chance to win.
Some lucky shifts and some poor choices by his opponents made sure his strategy worked, though not without a cost. His efforts to protect the sabacc pot began to eat into his profits. His stack of winnings shrank quickly, but it would all be worth it if he won the sabacc pot.
Through hand after agonizing hand players continued to come and go. One by one the soldiers gave up their seats, forced out when they ran out of chips and couldn't afford more. Of the original group, only Des and the ensign remained. The ensign's pile was growing. A few of the soldiers stayed to watch, rooting for their man to beat the miner with the big mouth.
Other spectators came and went. Some were just waiting for a player to drop so they could swoop in and take the seat. Others were drawn by the intensity of the table and the size of the pots. After another hour the sabacc pot hit ten thousand chips, the maximum limit. Any credits paid into the sabacc pot now were wasted: they went straight into the ORO accounts. But nobody complained. Not with the chance to win a small fortune on the table.
Des glanced up at the chrono on the wall. The cantina would be closing in less than an hour. When he'd first sat down at the table, he'd felt certain he was going to win big. For a while he had been ahead. But the last few hours had drained his chips. Working to protect the sabacc pot was crippling him: he'd gone through all his profits and had to re-buy-in twice. He'd fallen into the classic gambler's trap, becoming so obsessed with winning the big pot that he'd lost sight of how much he was losing. He'd let the game get personal.
His shirt was hot and sticky with sweat. His legs were numb from sitting so long, and his back was aching from hunching forward expectantly to study his cards.
He was down almost a thousand credits on the night, but none of the other players had been able to cash in on his misfortune. With the Sabacc pot capped all the antes and penalties went straight to ORO. He'd have to work a month of grueling shifts in the mines if he ever wanted to see any of those credits again. But it was too late to turn back now. His only consolation was that the Republic ensign was down at least twice as much as he was. Yet each time the man ran out of chips, he'd just reach into his pocket and pull out another stack of credits, as if he had unlimited funds. Or as if he just didn't care.
The CardShark fired out another hand. As he peeked at his cards, Des began to feel the first real hints of self-doubt. What if his feeling was wrong this time? What if this wasn't his night to win? He couldn't remember a moment in the past when his gift had betrayed him, but that didn't mean it couldn't happen.
He pushed his chips in with a weak hand, defying every instinct that told him to fold. He'd have to come up at the start of the next turn, no matter how weak his cards were. Any longer and someone else might steal the sabacc pot he was working so hard to collect.
The marker flickered and the cards shifted. Des didn't bother to look; he simply flipped over his cards and muttered, "Coming up."
When he saw his hand he felt like he'd been slapped. He was sitting at negative twenty-three exactly, a bomb-out. The penalty cleaned out his stack of chips.
"Whoa, big fella," the ensign mocked drunkenly, "you must be lumsoaked to come up on that. What the brix were you thinking?"
"Maybe he doesn't understand the difference between plus twenty-three and minus twenty-three," said one of the soldiers watching the match, grinning like a manka cat.
Des tried to ignore them as he paid the penalty. He felt empty. Hollow.
"You don't talk so much when you're losing, huh?" the ensign sneered.
Hate. Des didn't feel anything else at first. Pure, white-hot hatred consumed every thought, every motion, and every ounce of reason in his brain. Suddenly he didn't care about the pot, didn't care about how many credits he had already lost. All he wanted was to wipe the smug expression from the ensign's face. And there was only one way he could do it.
He shot a savage glare in the ensign's direction, but the man was too drunk to be intimidated. Without taking his eyes off his enemy, Des swiped his ORO account card into the reader and rang up another buy-in, ignoring the logical part of his mind that tried to talk him out of it.
The CardShark, its circuits and wires oblivious to what was really going on, pushed a stack of chips toward him and uttered its typically cheery, "Good luck."
Des opened with the Ace and two of sabers. He was at seventeen, a dangerous hand. Lots of potential to go too high on his next card and bomb out. He hesitated, knowing that the smart move was to fold.
"Having second thoughts?" the ensign chided.
Acting on an impulse he couldn't even explain, Des moved his two into the interference field, then pushed his chips into the pot. He was letting his emotions guide him, but he no longer cared. And when the next card came up as a three, he knew what he had to do. He shoved his three into the interference field beside the two that was already there. Then he bet the maximum wager and waited for the switch.
There were actually two ways to win the sabacc pot. One was to get a hand that totaled twenty-three exactly, a pure sabacc. But there was an even better hand: the idiot's array. In modified Bespin rules, if you had a hand of two and three in the same suit and drew the face card known as the Idiot, which had no value at all, you had an idiot's array ... 23 in the literal sense. It was the rarest hand possible, and it was worth more than even a pure sabacc.
Des was two-thirds of the way there. All he needed now was a switch to take his ten and replace it with the Idiot. Of course, that meant there had to be a switch. And even then he'd have to draw the Idiot off it ... and there were only two Idiots in the entire seventy-six-card deck. It was a ridiculously long shot.
The marker came up red; the cards shifted. Des didn't even have to look at his hand: he knew.
He stared right into the ensign's eyes. "Coming up."
The ensign looked down at his own hand to see what the switch had given him and began to laugh so hard he could barely show his hand. He had the two of flasks, the three of flasks ... and the Idiot!
There were gasps of surprise and murmurs of disbelief from the crowd. "How do you like that one, boys?" he cackled. "Idiot's array on the switch!"
He stood up, reaching out for the stack of chips on the small pedestal that sat in the center of the table representing the sabacc pot.
Des whipped his hand out and snagged the young man's wrist in a grip as cold and hard as durasteel, then flipped over his own cards. The entire cantina became silent as a tomb; the ensign's laughter died in his throat. A second later he pulled his hand free and sat back down, dumbfounded. From the far edge of the table somebody let out a long, low whistle of amazement. The rest of the crowd burst into noise.
"... never in my life ..."
"... can't believe ..."
". . statistically impossible ..."
"Two idiot's arrays in the same hand?"
The CardShark summarized the result in the purest analytical fashion. "We have two players with hands of equal value. The hand will be determined by a sudden demise."
The ensign didn't react with the same kind of calm. "You stupid mud-crutch!" he spat out, his voice strangled with rage. "Now nobody's going to get that sabacc pot!" His eyes bulged out wildly; a vein was pulsing on his forehead. One of his fellow soldiers had placed a hand on his shoulder, as if afraid his friend might leap across the table to try to choke the life out of the miner on the other side.
The ensign was right: neither of them would be collecting the sabacc pot on this hand. In a sudden demise each player was dealt one more card, and the value of the hands was recalculated. If you had the better hand, you'd win ... but you wouldn't get the sabacc pot unless you scored twenty-three exactly. That, however, seemed impossible: there were no more Idiots to deal out to preserve an idiot's array, and no single card had a value higher than the Ace's fifteen.
Not that Des cared. It was enough to have destroyed his opponent's will; to have crushed his hopes and robbed him of his victory. He could feel the ensign's hate, and he responded to it. It was like a living being . an entity he could draw strength from, fueling his own raging inferno. But Des didn't put his emotions out on display for the rest of the crowd to see. The hate burning in him was his own private store, a power raging inside him so fierce he felt it could crack the world if he let it escape.
The dealer flicked out two cards faceup for everyone to see. They were both nines. Before anyone even had time to react the droid had recalculated the hand, determined that the two players were still tied, and fired out another card to each of them. The ensign took an eight, but Des got another nine. Idiot, two, three, nine, nine ... twenty-three!
He reached out slowly and tapped his cards, whispering a single word to his opponent: "Sabacc."
The soldier went ballistic. He leapt up, grabbed the underside of the table with both hands, and gave a mighty heave. Only the weight of the table and the built-in stabilizers kept it from flipping over, though it rocked and slammed back into the ground with a deafening crash. All the drinks on it spilled over; ale and lum washed across the electronic cards, causing them to spark and short out.
"Sir, please don't touch the table," the CardShark implored in a pitiful voice.
"Shut up, you hunk of rusted scrap metal!" The ensign grabbed one of the overturned mugs from the table and hurled it at the droid. It connected with a ringing thud. The droid stumbled back and fell over.
The ensign thrust a finger at Des. "You cheated! Nobody gets sabacc on a sudden demise! Not unless he cheats!"
Des didn't say anything; he didn't even stand up. But his muscles were braced in case the soldier made a move.
The ensign turned back to the droid as it rose shakily to its feet. "You're in on it!" He threw another mug at it, connecting again and dropping the droid a second time. Two of the other soldiers tried to restrain him, but he shook free of their grip. He spun around, waving his arms at the crowd. "You're all in on it! Dirty, Sith-loving scum! You hate the Republic! You hate us. We know you do. We know!"
The miners pushed in closer, grumbling angrily. The ensign's insults weren't far off the mark; there were a lot of bad feelings toward the Republic on Apatros. And if he didn't watch his mouth, somebody was going to show him just how strong those feelings were.
"We give our lives to protect you, but you don't give a wobber! Any chance to humiliate us, you take it!"
His friends had grabbed him again, trying to wrestle him out the door. But there was no way they could get through the crowd now. From the looks on their faces, the soldiers were terrified. With good reason, Des thought. None of them was armed; their blasters were back on their ship. Now they were trapped in the center of a hostile crush of heavily muscled miners who'd been drinking all night. And their friend wouldn't shut up.
"You should get down on your knees and thank us each and every time we land on this ball of bantha sweat you call a planet! But you're too stupid to know how lucky you are to have us on your side! You're nothing but a bunch of filthy, illiterate-"
A lum bottle hurled anonymously from the crowd struck him hard in the side of his head, cutting his words short. He dropped to the floor, dragging his friends down with him. Des stood motionless as a mass of angry miners surged.
The sound of a blaster caused everyone to freeze. Groshik had climbed up onto the top of the bar, his stunner already charging up to fire again. But everybody knew the next shot wouldn't be aimed at the ceiling.
"We're closed," he croaked as loud as his raspy voice could manage. "Everybody get out of my cantina!"
The miners began to back off, and the soldiers stood up warily. The ensign swayed, the cut on his forehead bleeding into his eye.
"You three first," the Neimoidian said to the ensign and the soldiers who supported him. He waved the barrel of his weapon menacingly around the room. "Clear a path. Get them out of here."
Everyone but the soldiers remained frozen. This wasn't the first time Groshik had whipped out the stunner. The BlasTech CS-33 Firespray stun rifle was one of the finest nonlethal crowd-control devices on the market, capable of incapacitating multiple targets with a single shot. More than a few of the miners had felt the brutal force of its wide-beam blast rendering them unconscious. From personal experience Des could attest to the fact that it wasn't a pain anyone was likely to forget.
Once the Republic crew vanished into the night, the rest of the crowd began to move slowly toward the door. Des fell into step with the masses, but as he passed the bar Groshik pointed the blaster right at him.
"Not you. You stay put."
Des didn't move a millimeter until all the others were gone. He wasn't scared; he didn't think Groshik would really fire. Still, he saw no advantage in giving him a reason to.
Only after the last patron had left and closed the door did Groshik lower his arm. He clambered down awkwardly from the bar and set the rifle on the table, then turned to Des.
"I figured it was safer to keep you here with me for a bit," he explained. "Those soldiers were pretty mad. They might be waiting for you on the walk home."
Des smiled. "I didn't figure you were mad at me," he said.
Groshik snorted. "Oh, I'm mad at you. That's why you're going to help me clean up this mess."
Des sighed and shook his head in mock exasperation. "You saw what happened, Groshik. I was just an innocent bystander."
Groshik wasn't in any mood to hear it. "Just start picking up the chairs," he muttered.
With the help of the CardShark-at least it was good for something besides dealing, Des thought-they finished cleaning up in just over an hour. When they were done the droid waddled out on shaky legs, heading toward the maintenance facilities for repairs. Before it left, Des made sure his sabacc winnings had been credited to his account.
Now that it was just the two of them, Groshik motioned Des over to the bar, grabbed a couple of glasses, and took a bottle down from the shelf.
"Cortyg brandy," he said, pouring them each half a glass. "Direct from Kashyyyk. Not the hard stuff the Wookiees drink, though. Milder. Smoother. More tame."
Des took a sip and nearly choked as the fiery liquid burned its way down his throat. "This is tame? I'd hate to see what the Wookiees drink!"
Groshik shrugged. "What do you expect? They're Wookiees."
With his second sip, Des was more careful. He let it roll across his tongue, savoring the rich flavor. "This is good, Groshik. And expensive, I bet. What's the occasion?"
"You had quite a day. I thought you could use it."
Des drained his glass. Groshik filled him up halfway, then corked the bottle and set it back on the shelf.
"I'm worried about you," the Neimoidian rasped. "Worried about what happened in the fight with Gerd."
"He didn't give me much choice."
The Neimodian nodded. "I know, I know. Still . . . you bit off his thumb. And tonight you nearly started a riot in my bar."
"Hey, I just wanted to play cards," Des protested. "It's not my fault things got out of hand."
"Maybe, maybe not. I saw you tonight. You were goading that soldier, playing him like you play everyone who sits down against you. You push them, twist them, make them dance like puppets on a string. But this time you never let up. Even when you had the advantage, you kept pushing. You wanted him to go off like that."
"Are you saying I planned this whole thing?" Des laughed. "Come on, Groshik. It was the cards that set him off. You know I wasn't cheating-it's just not possible. How could I control what cards were dealt?"
"It was more than the cards, Des," Groshik said, his gravelly voice dropping so low that Des had to lean in close to hear. "You were angry, Des. More angry than I've ever seen you before. I could feel it from all the way across the room, like something in the air. We could all feel it.
"The crowd turned ugly in a hurry, Des. It was like they were feeding off your rage and your hate. You were projecting waves of emotion, a storm of anger and fury. Everyone else just kind of got swept up in it: the crowd, that soldier . . . everybody. Even me. It was all I could do to aim that first shot from my blaster at the ceiling. Every instinct in my body was telling me to fire it into the crowd. I wanted to take them all down and leave them writhing in pain."
Des couldn't believe his ears. "Listen to what you're saying, Groshik. It's crazy. You know I wouldn't do that. I couldn't do that. Nobody could."
Groshik reached up a long , thin hand and patted Des on the shoulder. "I know you'd never do it on purpose, Des. And I know how crazy it sounds. But there was something different about you tonight. You gave in to your emotions, and it unleashed something . . . strange. Something dangerous."
Groshik tossed his head back and drained the last of his cortyg, shuddering as it went down. "Just watch yourself, Des. Please. I've got a bad feeling."
"Be careful, Groshik," Des replied with another laugh. "Neimoidians aren't known for relying on their feelings. It's not good for business." Groshik studied him carefully for a moment, then nodded wearily. "True. Maybe I'm just tired. I should get some sleep. And so should you."
They shook hands, and Des left the cantina.