The gambler strode down the crowded streets. He cast his gaze around, searching for the right place. There were thousands, probably hundreds of thousands of nightclubs, bars, and cantinas on the planet of Pluuko IV, but he wanted to find the one that would, if he played his cards right, leave him a rich man by the end of the night.
There was one-on the other side of the street, a dingy-looking place with a half-burned-out sign-wow, neon; who used that anymore?-that read T E G N ING R COR. No; too seedy. No one'll be there but drunks and rank amateurs. The gambler had learned a long time ago how to recognize which joints had it and which were a few vornskrs short of a pack.
A few minutes of walking passed. The gambler spotted another place-fairly respectable-looking, clean, and it had a holo-sign instead of neon. It was the kind of place where a guy could enjoy a good Bantha Blaster and maybe play for a couple hundred. But no; the gambler wasn't looking for modest pickings. If he wanted a new starship, he'd need at least ten thousand credits. Maybe some other time.
There was more walking. More scanning. Still nothing, save an aliens-only cantina that offered chemical inhalants instead of beverages. Stang. How hard was it to find a decent nightclub on a planet bigger than...
Ah. There it was.
It was a few stories high, all white, and had a massive holosign that read THE IVORY TOWER-a landspeeder parking lot located conveniently beside it. It looked opulent enough that the more well-to-do of this district would attend, but not so posh that a down-on-his-luck-yet-still-dashing gambler/entrepreneur/sometime spacer couldn't get in. It would probably cost a large chunk of the fifteen hundred credits that was currently all the cash he possessed, but he could easily parley the rest into 12,000. If his luck held.
The gambler crossed the street and marched up to the large durasteel entrance door, which was flanked by two SG-120 security droids from Holowan Mechanicals. They were well over six feet tall, and each was packing what looked like a huge riot gun. Yeesh. Tight security.
One of the droids held up a hand. "Pppaymmmennnttt isss rrreqqquiiirrreddd." It must have had a bad vocabulator.
"How much?" inquired the gambler.
"Onnne hhhuuuunnndddrrreddd cccrrredddditttsss ffforrr nnnooonnn-mmmemmbbberrrsss."
The gambler reached into his pocket and pulled out some credit chips. "Here you go, old rattle-trap."
"Ennnjjjoooyyyy ttthe cllluuubbb."
The gambler brushed past the droids and entered the building. Inside were dozens of tables that bracketed a large stage. Patrons of multiple species sipped drinks, chatted idly and only a few watched the act, a Palo's wick jizz-wailer who sounded like a Wookiee with a head cold.
There were server droids all over the place, but the gambler needed an organic employee; a place like this was sure to have a few, if only for show.
Ah-there. A maitre'd, Chagrian, by the looks of him, across the room. The gambler strode briskly across the floor and tapped him on the shoulder.
The Chagrian turned. "May I help you, sir?"
The gambler put on a winning smile. "Yes. I'm a scientist by trade, you see."
"I'm sorry?" the Chagrian asked, but there was a gleam in his eye. He recognized the opening of the universal player's introduction.
"A mathematician, to be more precise. I'm especially interested in statistics."
"Yes. Particularly permutations and combinations of the number seventy-eight, in sets of three. Fives are wild."
"Ah." The Chagrian's voice fell to a whisper. "Sabacc."
"I was seeing if I could conduct some research here. Do you know anyone who could be of assistance?"
"There is a research foundation that I know of. In back of this establishment, in fact. I might be able to induct you into the foundation. Your name, please?"
The gambler grinned and gave a hearty chuckle. "You just made my day. I'm Calrissian, Lando Calrissian."
Five minutes later, Lando was in.
The small back room held a round table, a CardShark 1700 dealer droid, and five beings of varying species. There was Lando. A Rutian Twi'lek whose blue skin made her look, in Lando's opinion, incredibly gorgeous. An Ishi Tib, who had an incredibly bad sabacc face and was clearly nervous. A Gand whose emotions were obscured by the mask it wore and who hadn't yet spoken. And a tough-looking human who called himself Hal Grishna and was packing a DL-44 heavy blaster. Looking at him, Lando almost wished he had more than his five-shot stingbeam pistol to defend himself in case the game got ugly.
Lando looked at his hand-a five of staves, a three of coins, and a one of sabers. Negligible. However, his luck would change fast. Sabacc involved an element of surprise, unlike other card games such as pazaak. The cards in a player's hand would continue to change faces until laid down on the stasis field in the middle of the table. One wanted their hand to get as close to twenty-three as possible wothout exceeding it. If you got twenty-three, you won the sabacc pot.
"Gentlebeings; m'lady; please place your bets," the CardShark asked.
"I'll bet one hundred to start with," Lando said, praying to whatever powers-that-be controlled sabacc cards.
"I'll see your hundred and raise it by fifty," the Twi'lek said. The others matched the bet.
A moment passed. Then Grishna placed his hand on the table. An eighteen. Respectable. He grinned. "Anyone else?"
The Ishi Tib slammed his hand down in disgust. "Pile of bantha crap."
Lando's one of sabers suddenly jumped to an eleven of coins, which beat Grishna by one point. Lando matched the big man's grin and laid his hand down. "Dear me. Just got lucky, I guess."
Grishna's smile vanished, and he muttered a string of curses as Lando scooped in the chips. The Twi'lek sipped her drink serenely; the money was clearly no loss to her. The Ishi Tib looked like he would be sweating if he were capable of doing so. The Gand's body language was unreadable.
The Twi'lek decided to make small talk as the next bets were placed. "So," she asked, directing the question at the humans, "where you boys from?"
"Corellia," Grishna growled absently.
"Nowhere special," Lando answered. "Here, there, and everywhere. Oh-I win again." He raked in more chips as Grishna glared and the Ishi Tib clacked its beak nervously. "What's a lovely lady like you doing in a place like this?"
"I decided to see how the other half lives. You?"
"I'm in need of a ship. Lost my old one to a friend." The fact that Han, an amateur, had beaten Lando, con artiste and expert sabacc player, still rankled him. The gambler had been forced to stow away on a dung freighter to get here, ruining his best baby-blue cape in the process.
Yes, a cape. What's the point of being impoverished if you can't look good doing it?
Over the next half hour, Lando strategically placed and lost many small bets, winning enough big ones that he had amassed two thousand more credits than he had had when he arrived here. Most of the small bets were going to the Twi'lek and Grishna. The Ishi Tib dropped out after he lost one too many times. The sabacc pot had grown; it now stood at dour thousand credits.
The Twi'lek took a look at her new hand. "Five hundred." The others matched her wager.
The Gand, who still had yet to speak, laid down his hand-A seventeen. Grishna followed suit with a twenty. Lando was sweating. He had intended to win this one, but his ten of flasks had just switched to The Evil One-worth -15. Stalling for time, he asked Grishna, "So you're Corellian? A spacer, then, I take it."
"Captain of the Corsair. I had some credits to burn. Figured I'd come here." He gave a predatory grin that made Lando more than a little uneasy. "Don't mean to brag, but that pot's mine by the end of the game."
Lando's Evil One switched to a nine. He hastily laid the hand down and scraped in the chips.
The next bet was two hundred. Lando let the Gand win that one.
Two hands later, the pot stood at 4,500 credits. The Gand laid down a twenty-one. The Twi'lek, a twenty-two. Grishna smiled and slammed his hand down-pure sabacc, a twenty-three. "Sabacc!"
"Not so fast, my muscular friend." Lando grinned and laid down a zero, a two, and a three. The Idiot's Array. Sabacc in the literal sense. Grishna groaned, and the Twi'lek gaped. Lando was now over six thousand credits richer.
Lando smiled. "New game, anyone?"
They all agreed. It was Grishna's turn to make a bet. He swallowed hard and said, "Six thousand."
What? He must be crazy. If he lost...
Oh well. His mistake.
All of the other players matched the wager. Lando smirked and laid down his hand-the Ace, a four of coins, and a three of flasks. Twenty-two.
Surprisingly, the Corellian was smiling, too. He laid down his hand.
Lando's jaw almost dropped, and nausea swept over him. It was impossible.
An Idiot's Array.
Two twenty-threes in a row? How in the Core?
"I told you I'd win," Grishna smiled. "No hard feelings." He moved to rake in the chips. Lando just stared-
And then saw a small flash of red light in the Palm of Girshna's hand. "Wait a second..."
Before the Corellian could react, Lando grabbed his hand and forced him to drop the object he had rather clumsily concealed in his fist. It was a small disk no bigger than a sabacc chip, flashing red and blue. A cheater. It was an electronic device that could change the face of a card. Grishna must have used it to get those two twenty-threes.
He'd played it safe, losing most of the bets the lure the others into a false sense of superiority. Then, he'd used it, and no one would have suspected a thing if Lando hadn't seen the flashing of the indicator light.
All of the players rose to their feet; the Gand and the Twi'lek had seen the cheater as well. "Why you-"
Grishna, in the space of a second, was on his feet with his blaster drawn. The others slowly sank back into their chairs. Grishna smiled that predatory smile again. "Like I said-no hard feelings."
Lando glared. The spacer casually leaned forward to gather up the chips.
The Twi'lek upended the table.
It was instant bedlam. Chips were scattered everywhere. Grishna's blaster went off and hit the CardShark, spraying metal shards into all corners of the small room. Lando, recovering his wits fairly quickly, punched Grishna in the face and went for his stingbeam. Before he could draw it, the Gand body-slammed him into the wall, then got kicked in the rear by the Twi'lek. Apparently, it was every being for him-or her-self.
Grishna, who had dropped the DL-44, snarled and shoved the Twi'lek into the wreckage of the CardShark. Lando propelled the Gand off of him and into the Corellian, then dodged a chair that had been lobbed at him by the Twi'lek. It hit Grishna and the Gand, who were grappling on the floor. Lando, regretting the bespoilment of such beauty, sucker-punched the Twi'lek and turned toward the
Grishna was out cold, and the Gand was on his feet. Lando went for his stingbeam, but before he could draw it, something grabbed him from behind. The Twi'lek. Snarling, Lando threw himself backwards, crushing the female against a wall. Her grip went slack, and the gambler shook her off. He and the Gand launched themselves at each other, and were rolling around on the floor within two Standard
First the alien was on top, then Lando, then the alien again. Lando growled, kicked the Gand in the gut, and, with all the strength he could muster, ripped the alien's mask off.
Gands could not breathe oxygen. They existed by breathing ammonia. This necessitated their wearing masks when they went to worlds like Coruscant or Pluuko IV. The oxygen-rich air of this planet's atmosphere instantly began scouring the alien's lungs. The Gand collapsed and began convulsing. Just to be sure, and because he was a humane sort, Lando emptied all five shots of his stingbeam into the alien's body.
"And I did it while looking good," the gambler remarked. He turned to the collapsed table and began gathering up as many chips as he could carry in the hidden pocket of his cummerbund.
Just as he was finishing, he heard a click.
Slowly, he turned and saw that the Twi'lek had recovered. She had Grishna's fallen blaster primed and trained on him. Lando happened to know that that DL-44 heavy blaster had enough power to blow his head off with one shot.
Not now. Not when I've just won 12,000 credits...
He put on his most charming smile. "Do you really want to do this? I thought you had money."
"It's the principle of the thing, sweetheart. You hurt me, I hurt you. Clear?"
"Come on." The gambler waggled his eyebrows. "Wouldn't you much rather have a nice dinner with me? I believe I have two thousand extra credits to burn. We could get some wine. A private room at a nice hotel..."
She snorted. "You'll find, Captain Calrissian, that I'm not so easily manipulated." But she did look tempted.
"Oh, I would never dream of trying to manipulate you. Consider it...a bargain."
She looked thoughtful. "Throw in a thousand of those credits?"
It was a lot. But what else was a gambler in a tight spot to do?
She lowered the blaster. "Good." Lando offered her his arm. "Shall we?"
The Twi'lek smiled. "We shall."
The two went to redeem the winnings. It occurred to the gambler that he didn't even know her name yet. But he had other things on his mind. He had a ship to buy. And he had had to get that wine and the hotel room...
Yes, it was a lot of trouble for a new starship and one night with a beautiful Rutian Twi'lek. But it wasn't the last trouble Lando would get into...
Original cover by Pallas-Athena. HTML formatting copyright 2010 TheForce.Net LLC.