The streets of Apatros were dark. ORO charged such high rates for power that everyone turned off all their lights when they went to bed, and tonight the moon was only the barest sliver in the sky. There wasn't even the cantina's glow to guide him: Groshik had shut off the lights on its walls and dome until he opened the next day. Des stayed in the middle of the street, trying to avoid barking his shins on the debris hidden in the darker shadows along the edges.
Yet somehow, despite the near-absolute darkness, he saw them coming.
It was a split second before it happened, a sense that danger was coming ... and where it was coming from. Three silhouettes leapt at him, two coming head-on and another attacking from behind. He ducked forward just in time, feeling the metal pipe that would have cracked his skull and knocked him cold swiping through the air a hairbreadth above him. He popped back up as it passed and lashed out with a fist, driving into the featureless head of the nearest figure. He was rewarded with the sick crunch of cartilage and bone.
He ducked again, this time to the side, and the pipe that would have brained him square between the eyes thumped down hard across his left shoulder. He staggered to the side, driven by the force of the blow. But in the darkness it took a moment for his opponents to locate him, and by then he had regained his balance.
Through the gloom he could just make out the vague outlines of his attackers. The one he'd punched was slowly standing up; the other two stood wary and ready. He didn't have to see their faces to know who they were: the ensign and the two soldiers who'd half carried the man from the cantina. Des could smell the reek of Corellian ale wafting up at him, confirming their identities. They must have waited outside the cantina and followed him until they thought they could get the jump on him. That was good: it meant they hadn't gone back to their ship to get their blasters.
They came at him again, rushing him all at once. They had the numbers and months of military hand-to-hand combat training on their side; Des had strength, size, and years of bare-knuckle brawling on his. But in the darkness, none of that really mattered.
Des met their charge head-on, and all four combatants tumbled to the ground. Punches and kicks landed without any thought given to target or strategy: the blind fighting the blind. Each blow he landed brought a satisfying grunt or groan from his opponents, but his enjoyment was limited by the pummeling his own body was enduring.
It didn't matter if his eyes were open or closed, he couldn't see a thing. He reacted on instinct; aches and pains were washed away in the darkness by the adrenaline pumping through his veins.
And then suddenly he saw something. Someone had drawn a vibroblade. It was still black as the heart of the mines during a cave-in, yet Des could see the blade clearly, as if it glowed with an inner fire. It stabbed toward him and he grabbed the wrist of the wielder, twisting it back and driving it toward the dark mass from which it had appeared. There was a sharp cry and then a choking gurgle, and suddenly the burning blade in his vision winked out, the threat extinguished.
The mass of bodies entwined with his quickly untangled, two of them scampering clear. The third was motionless. A second later he heard the click of a luma switching on, and he was momentarily blinded by its beam of light. Eyes squeezed shut, he heard a gasp.
"He's dead!" one of the soldiers exclaimed. "You killed him!"
Shading his eyes against the illumination, Des glanced down to see exactly what he'd expected: the ensign lying on his back, the vibroblade plunged deep into his chest.
The luma flicked off, and Des braced himself for another assault. Instead he heard the sounds of footsteps fleeing in the night, heading toward the docking pads.
Des looked down at the body, planning to grab the glowing blade and use its light to guide him through the darkness. But the blade wasn't glowing now. In fact, he realized, it had never really glowed at all. It couldn't have: vibroblades weren't energy weapons. Their blades were simple metal.
There were more pressing concerns than how he had seen the vibroblade in the darkness, however. As soon as they reached their ship, the soldiers would report to their commander, who would report the incident to the ORO authorities. ORO would turn the planet upside down looking for him. Des didn't like his chances. It would be the word of a miner-one with a history of brawls and violence, at that-against two Republic naval soldiers. No one would believe it had been an act of self-defense.
And had it been, really? He had seen the blade coming. Could he have disarmed his opponent without killing him? Des shook his head. He didn't have time for guilt or regrets. Not now. He had to find somewhere safe to hide out.
He couldn't go back to his barracks: that was the first place they'd look. He'd never reach the mines on foot before daybreak, and there was nowhere on the open wastes he could hide once the sun came up. There was only one option, one hope. Eventually they'd go looking for him there, too. But he had nowhere else to go.
Groshik must have still been awake, because he answered the door only seconds after Des began pounding on it. The Neimoidian took one look at the blood on the young man's hands and shirt and grabbed him by the sleeve.
"Get in here!" he croaked, yanking Des through the door and slamming it shut behind him. "Are you hurt?"
Des shook his head. "I don't think so. The blood isn't mine."
Taking a step back, the Neimoidian looked him up and down. "There's a lot of it. Too much. Smells human."
When Des didn't reply, Groshik ventured a guess. "Gerd's?"
Another shake of the head. "The ensign," Des said.
Groshik dropped his head and swore under his breath. "Who knows? Are the authorities after you?"
"Not yet. Soon." Then, as if trying to justify his actions, he added, "There were three of them, Groshik. Only one's dead."
His old friend nodded sympathetically. "I'm sure he had it coming. Just like Gerd. But that doesn't change the facts. A Republic soldier is dead ... and you're the one who's going to take the blame."
The cantina owner led Des over to the bar and brought down the bottle of cortyg brandy. Without saying a word, he poured them each a drink. This time he didn't stop at half glasses.
"I'm sorry I came here," Des said, desperate to break the uncomfortable silence. "I didn't mean to get you mixed up in this."
"Getting mixed up in things doesn't bother me," Groshik reassured him with a comforting pat on his arm. "I'm just trying to figure a way to get us out of this now. Let me think."
They downed their glasses. It was all Des could do to keep from panicking; with each passing second he expected a dozen men in ORO body armor to crash down the cantina's door. After what seemed like hours, but was probably only a minute or two, Groshik began to talk. He spoke softly, and Des wasn't sure if the Neimoidian was addressing him or merely talking out loud to help himself think.
"You can't stay here. ORO can't afford to lose their Republic contracts. They'll turn the whole colony upside down to find you. We have to get you offworld." He paused. "But by morning, your picture will be on every vidscreen in Republic space. Changing your looks won't help much. Even with a wig or facial prosthetics you tend to stand out in a crowd. So that means we have to get you out of Republic space. And that means , . ." Groshik trailed off.
Des waited expectantly.
"Those things you said tonight," Groshik ventured, "about the Sith and the Republic. Did you mean it? Did you really mean it?"
"I don't know. I guess so."
There was another long pause, as if the bartender was gathering himself. "How would you feel about joining the Sith?" he suddenly blurted out.
Des was caught completely off guard. "What?"
"I know . . . people. I can get you offworld. Tonight. But these people aren't looking for passengers: the Sith need soldiers. They're always recruiting, just like those Republic officers tonight."
Des shook his head. "I don't believe this. You work for the Sith? You always said never to take sides!"
"I don't work for the Sith," Groshik snapped. "I just know people who do. I know people who work for the Republic, too. But they're not going to be much help in this situation. So I need to know, Des. Is this something you want?"
"I don't have a lot of other options," Des mumbled in reply.
"Maybe, maybe not. If you stay here, the ORO authorities are sure to find you. This wasn't a cold-blooded murder. The judiciary probably won't let you get off by pleading self-defense, but they'll have to admit there were extenuating circumstances. You'll serve time on one of the penal colonies-five, maybe six years-and then you're a free man."
"Or I join the Sith."
Groshik nodded. "Or you join the Sith. But if I'm going to help you do this, I want to be sure you know what you're getting into."
Des thought about it, but not for long. "I've spent my entire life trying to get off this hunk of rock," he said slowly. "If I go to a prison world, I'm trading one barren, blasted planet for another. No different than staying right here.
"If I join the Sith, at least I'm out from under ORO's thumb. And you heard what that Republic commander said about them. The Sith respect strength. I think I'll be able to hold my own."
"I don't doubt that," Groshik conceded. "But don't dismiss everything else that commander said. He was right about the Brotherhood of Darkness. They can be ruthless and cruel. They bring out the worst in some people. I don't want you to fall into that trap."
"First you tell me to join the Sith," Des said, "now you're warning me against joining them. What's going on?"
The Neimoidian gave a long, gurgling sigh. "You're right, Des. The decision is made. Grim fate and ill fortune have conspired against you. It's not like sabacc; you can't fold a bad hand. In life you just play the cards you're dealt." He turned away, heading for the small stairs at the back of the cantina. "Come on. In a few hours, after they've searched the housing units in the colony, they'll start searching the starport for you. We have to hurry if we want to get you safely hidden away on one of the freight cruisers before then."
Des reached out across the bar and grabbed Groshik's shoulder. Groshik turned to face him, and Des clasped the Neimoidian's long, slender forearm.
"Thank you, old friend. I won't forget this."
"I know you won't, Des." Though the words were kind, there was an unmistakable sorrow in the gravelly voice.
Des released his grip, feeling awkward, ashamed, scared, grateful, and excited all at the same time. He felt like he needed to say something else, so he added, "I'll make this up to you somehow. The next time we meet-"
"Your life here is over, Des," Groshik said, cutting him off. "There won't be a next time. Not for us."
The Neimoidian shook his head. "I don't know what's ahead of you, but I get the feeling it isn't going to be easy. Don't count on others for help. In the end each of us is in this alone. The survivors are those who know how to look out for themselves."
With that he turned away, his feet shuffling briskly across the cantina's floor as he headed to the back exit. Des hesitated a moment, Groshik's words burning into his mind, then rushed off to follow.
Huddled in the hold of the ship, Des tried to get comfortable. He'd been crammed into the small smuggler's hatch for nearly an hour. It was a tight fit for a man of his size.
Twenty minutes earlier he had heard an ORO patrol come to inspect the ship. They had made a cursory search; not finding the fugitive they were seeking, they had left. A few seconds later the captain, a Rodian pilot, had rapped hard on the panel keeping Des hidden.
"You stay until engines go," he had called in passable galactic Basic. "We take off, you come out. Not before."
Des hadn't recognized him when he'd climbed aboard; he had looked like any other Rodian he'd ever seen. Just another independent freighter captain picking up a load of cortosis, hoping to sell it on some other world for enough profit to keep his ship flying another few months.
If ORO had offered a reward for Des's capture, the captain probably would have sold him out. That meant the ORO managers hadn't put a price on his head. They were more worried about paying out a bounty than letting a fugitive escape Republic justice. It wasn't important that they found him, as long as they could show the Republic they had tried. Groshik must have realized all this when he made the arrangements to smuggle Des aboard.
The high-pitched whine of the engines powering up caused Des to brace himself against the walls of his close quarters. A few seconds later the whine became a deafening roar, and the ship lurched beneath him. The repulsors fired, counterbalancing the vessel, and Des felt the press of the g's as the ship took to the sky.
He kicked at the panel once, knocking it free, and untangled himself from the hidey-hole. The captain and crew weren't around; they would all be at their stations for liftoff.
Des didn't know their destination. All he knew was that at the end of the trip a human woman was waiting to sign him up for the Sith army. As before, the thought filled him with a mix of emotions. Fear and excitement dominated all the others.
There was a slight jostling of the ship as it broke atmosphere and began to speed away from the tiny mining world. A few seconds later Des felt an unfamiliar but unmistakable surge as they jumped to hyperspace.
A sudden sense of liberation filled his spirit. He was free. For the first time in his life, he was beyond the grasping reach of ORO and its cortosis mines. Groshik had said that grim fate and ill fortune were conspiring against him, but Des wasn't so sure now. Things hadn't worked out quite the way he'd planned-he was a fugitive with the blood of a Republic soldier on his hands-but he had finally escaped Apatros.
Maybe the cards he'd been dealt weren't so bad, after all. In the end he'd gotten the one thing he wanted most. And when you came right down to it, wasn't that the only thing that really mattered?