Chapter Nine

The cantina didn't have a name; it didn't need one. Nobody ever had any trouble finding it. Phaeda 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 colonies, the warehouses, the hanger bays, or the barren wastes in between. The colonies were a massive complex built on top of collapsed mining tunnels, where all of the housing units and offices were located.

Rogan Strife had residence in one of those housing units, which was nothing more than a bunch of old army barracks thrown together to house the criminals and spice dealers that came passing by. The offices had gathered up an inch layer of dirt in their time, and nobody had ever considered hiring janitors to sweep it all out. It was a waste of credits.

The planet had once been a great place, or so he had been told. Probably complete with saunas and working toilets, too, Rogan thought. The only building with some color was the cantina, a magnificent triumph of beauty and design when compared to the dismissal 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 barracks. The three-story building towered over the other singal-floor "muck-huts", completed with a dome made of violet glass, illuminated from within. Matching violet lights covered the pale blue exterior walls. On almost any other world, the effect would have been revolting, and amid Phaeda it was doubly so. The owner and bartender, Leela, claimed she had made the bar as tacky as possible to offend the little inspectors that came to check things out once every thirty years.

As Rogan crossed the distance between his housing unit and the cantina, he drew his leather jacket closer around himself, not to protect him from the cold, but to hide the small hold-out blaster and the special "item" within. Rogan didn't recognize any of the faces within the cantina, and he didn't really care. It wasn't crowded, but there was a modest amount of men and woman there. There were no employees except Leela herself, and Rogan didn't mind. He knew her well enough already: she had saved his smoking rear end more than once, and he could wait.

Apparently he didn't have to wait long, for as soon as the pretty brunette saw him, she momentarily dipped out of sight behind the bar, reappearing with a mug of Gizer ale just as Rogan reached the counter. "I wasn't expecting you today," she said, with a hint of a smile. She set the drink down with a heavy thud and slid it over to Rogan.

"I have an appointment with a regular," Rogan said, downing the drink in one large gulp, then slammed the empty mug back on the bar table. Once again he was thankful about Leela's policy: if a drink was poured without being asked for, it's free.

Leela tilted her head and leaned foreword to look him better in the eye. As usual, he was felt with the curious sensation that she was studying him. Concerned. Rogan never had anyone's concern before, and he treasured its' value. "Things are getting to you," Leela said after a moment. "Are you sure you're not overworking yourself?"

Rogan thought about the Kalanese Chieftain and almost grimaced. Almost. "Maybe a little bit," he said. "But it's all going to be for the better, believe me."

Leela just pursed her lips and poured him another cup. She never asked too many questions, and Rogan was fine with that. He was careful not to shove his drink back down again as he had with the first. Leela rarely gave him more than one on the house, and he had to be careful not to tread on her hospitality. She was an unarmed combat expert, and was known to throw a Barabel out of the cantina without a second thought. She doubled at the cantina bouncer, though it would be hard to tell from her form fitting clothes and her soft demeanor.

Rogan turned his attention to the crowd. It was easy enough to pick out his man: a small man with grey hair and a grizzled expression, hunched over a game of sabaac at one of the tables near the back. "You're meeting with Ram?" Leela asked. She leaned over the bar with a glass in hand, wiping it with a dirty rag. She glanced at the old man, then back to Rogan. "Be careful with that one, Rogue. They all say he's a mad scientist. I don't ask too many questions about that guy. He pays the bills, and that's all what counts."

"He carry any weapons?" Rogan asked.

"A small bulge in his pocket," Leela said. "I was meaning to go over there and remind him about the No Weapons Policy before you came in. While we're on that topic: give me your gun."

Rogan gave her an apologetic look. "Sharp eyes as ever, Lee," he said. He took his weapon out of jacket holster and handed it to her. She took it and leaned over with her other hand, setting the mug down and opening his jacket further. She inhaled in surprise. He touched her hand, directing it towards his chest, where his "item" would not be visible. Rogan looked at her intently.

"No way, Rogue… You're not a Jedi!" Leela said in a tight whisper. For a moment he saw a trace of fear in her eyes, which he knew could harden into resolve any second and he'd find himself on the roads before you could say "whoops."

"I'm not," Rogan said. "I nicked it from… an acquaintance. Remember old VeeVee?"

Leela glared at him. "That's a Jedi weapon, Strife," she said plainly. "The natives don't like Jedi here."

"I brought it to ensure our friend's help," Rogan said, jerking his head towards the old man at the sabaac table. A man pushed his way to the front of the bar and demanded a drink. When Leela went to go fill the order, Rogan turned to study the gaming area. There weren't any free seats at the sabaac table, and Rogan was forced into the role of a spectator. For well over an hour he studied the plays and wagers of the newcomers, paying particular attention to Ram. He tended to be the better player than the rest of the wimps.

The game on Phaeda 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 inferance field to lock in its value. At the end of any round a player could come up revealing his or her hand forcing all other players to show their cards as well. Best hand won the pot. Any score over twenty-three or below negative twenty-three, was a bomb-out that required the player to pay a penalty. If a player had exactly twenty-three—a pure sabbaac—he or she automatically won the pot.

Simple.

About another hour later, everybody had folded and it was only Ram and a young man left. Finally, Ram flipped over his hand and showed them his numbers: a pure sabaac. He tapped the cards, and whispered one word into the man's ear.

He went ballistic. He leapt up, grabbed the underside of the table, and heaved. Though is was attached to the ground, it rocked back and forth, causing drinks to spill over the electronic cards, which made them spark and short out.

"Hey! Try some self-control!" came a shout from a Cerean on the other side of the table.

"Shut up, you!" The man grabbed one of the overturned mugs and hurled it at the Cerean, who was knocked down flat on his back. Rogan stood: this was what he had been waiting for. The man pointed a finger at Ram. "You cheated! Nobody gets sabaac on a sudden demise! Not unless he cheats!"

Ram looked mildly amused. "I consider myself too important to cheat," he said. "Unlike yourself, who had a Shift under his sleeve the whole time." Then, with a speed faster than possible for a man his age, he took the man's wrist and flipped it over, revealing the blue-and-red tip of a card just sticking out.

The man brought his arm back angrily and turned to the crowd. "Is this how you treat your customers here?!" he roared at Leela, who had been pouring a mug of beer for another. "You sick, perverted, obstinent slut! You don't care about us! You're little CardShark droid here can't tell when an old man cheats! No, no, you're too busy trying to get everyone drunk!"

A couple of the man's friends surged foreword. The male patrons, all heavily-muscled and dangerous, surged foreward, blocking their way out. Rogan could feel their anger a mile away, and relished it, taking another sip of his recent drink, a cup of translucent orange Klev. He had taken personal offense at the man's rude remarks, but kept quiet. Watching, and waiting for the right chance to slip in.

"All of you here are filthy pieces of trash, you know that??!! AT LEAST I HAVE SOME VALUES! You should get on your knees and thank me every time I land on this filthy planet!"

An bottle flew out from the crowds and narrowly missed the man, who took no notice of it. Rogan decided the time was right, and drank the rest of his drink, laying down the tab before silently sliding out of his seat, steadily making his way closer to the intoxicated fellow. "—and you! What do you have to say for yourself? You crazy old man! Locked away in that god damned cellar you call a lab! Time I taught you to get out once in a while!"

Rogan was there right before the man threw the fist. He stood in front, blocking the man's blow with his entire left arm. He slid in, driving a right hook into the man's jaw. It knocked him back into his group of friends, who staggered under the dead weight. Everything went silent except for the grumblings of his friends. Another stepped foreword and shoved Rogan. "Hey! That's my friend you hit!"

"And he tried to hit mine," Rogan growled.

"You ain't his friend, you boatload of sh—"

A single blaster shot stopped everything. Leela had climbed to the top of the counter, and held a single stun gun in her hand, pointed towards the ceiling. "Out!" she ordered. "We're closed. You two stay here and help me clean up." She pointed towards Ram and Rogan. With an angry grumble, the crowd dispersed, leaving them at the sabaac table. Leela locked the door and angrily pointed at Rogan. "Have your little talk," she said gruffly. "If you're not out in an hour, you're going to be kicked out."

Ram looked at Leela for a moment, a sad expression on his face. "I didn't mean to cause this little interruption."

"It's fine," Leela said, taking a rag to the mess. "I knew something was going to happen when Rogue started watching. He's bad luck that way."

"That right?" Ram muttered.

Leela nodded. She shooed them towards another table, and proceeded to clean up. Ram sat down on one side, and Rogan took the other. "I have a proposition for you," Rogan said, leaning back in his chair. "I'll let you keep a sample of my blood if you modify your latest experiment to my liking."

Ram snorted. "Why would I want a sample of your blood, space jockey?" he asked. "Do you have the plague or something?" He took a sip out of the drink he had saved during the little fiasco.

"Because I've got a medichlorian count of over twelve thousand," Rogan said. "I have no doubt you know what that means. Plus I'll give you an extra two mil. Take it or leave it." I can make you do it, scumball. A little talk with the Kalanese would make everything better.

Ram's expression didn't flinch. "Three million. You know what I'm making, and you know the consequences that would follow if it fell into the wrong hands. I'll need money to get a ship out of here and live the rest of my days peacefully."

"I don't think you know who you're dealing with," Rogan said offhandily, sliding his hand under his jacket. He grasped the large lightsaber handle, fitted for something with hands the size of a very large dinner plate, and placed it on the table with a dull thud. The golden plating reflected in the dim purple lighting, and the green jem laid in the activation stud sparkled. "My name is Rogan Strife, captain of the HawkBats, and the only man known to escape the leader of the Jedi and live to show you this lightsaber. Dear old VeeVee's."

Ram's expression turned into distaste. "That isn't right," he muttered.

"Right or no, this lightsaber is mine, now. Personally stolen from Vieux while I hotwired his ship and flew off, stranding the lizard in the Harrun Kal jungle. I have more powers than you can possibly imagine, Ram, and I'll I need in the guarantee you'll do exactly as I say."

Ram's pointed teeth showed in the dim lighting. "You're threatening me, Strife. What happens if I say no?"

"Then I will make you do it. I've had practice with the best… For every secret I learn, there is a terrible price." Rogan shuddered slightly, and looked far away, engrossed in his thoughts. "A terrible price…" He snapped back to the present. "And after you're done, I would kill you. If I manage to convince you to do it, you'll be let go to live your own life."

"You're crazy."

"I've been told," Rogan said dryly. "Three million credits, my blood. All for your little experiment."

Ram's lips tightened into a snarl. "Fine," he spat. He held out his hand, and they shook on it.

--

All in one motion, Vieux felt the world around him collapse. He leaned on one of the cooridor walls for support, breathing heavily. Thankfully, nobody was in the halls at this time: they were all at their classes. Vieux's eyes drooped at he looked towards the ground, sapped of strength.

There was a major disturbance of the Force from far off, but Vieux could feel it in his bones. In his soul.

Rogan Strife had made his first move.