January 14, 3056
Wolf Dragoon’s DropShip Artemis
Inbound for Outreach
Outreach, Chaos March
Pieter Cortez felt the snap of the cards as he shuffled them together once final time, and then laid them flat on the table. Tapping them once on the upper card, he then sat back and crossed his arms.
“Cut,” he said sardonically to his five companions.
One of the five—dressed just like the others in the black and red uniform of the Wolf’s Dragoons—frowned, and then reached out and laid his finger upon the deck. Feeling the edges, he parted the cards almost half way through, and laid the upper half to the side.
Cortez unfolded his arms, and rubbed his hands together briskly. “Name of the game, gentlemen, is Texas Hold ‘Em,” he said as picked up the bottom half of the deck and placed it atop the other cards, and then began to deal them out. Setting aside the deck, he shielded his hole cards with one hand and pried them up with his other. Careful not to let any expression reach his face, he saw first one King, and then a second—in Spades and Diamonds.
“Fifty,” he said as he tossed a handful of chips into the pot.
“Fold,” muttered the power technician to his left as he threw his cards in.
“Fold,” answered the Dragoons fighter pilot as he sipped on his bulb of orange energy drink.
The fourth man was huge in size, and frowned as he looked at the cards. Setting them down, he glared at Cortez, but the environmental specialist appeared to be neither fazed nor intimidated by the bulky Elemental who wore a triple braided cord around his right wrist. “I see your fifty and raise you another fifty,” he rumbled.
“Fold, fold,” quickly said the next two players, including the one who had cut the deck.
Cortez grinned. “Lucien, why do you persist when any smart man would give up? I call.”
The tech reached for the deck of cards—but Lucien’s large hand was already there, shooting out like a striking serpent. “Since you and I are all that remain, freebirth, I would ask that someone else finish dealing this hand,” he said in a quiet, but deep, voice that echoed in his chest until it emerged like the bellow of a ship’s fog-horn.
“What, you don’t trust me?”
“No. Though I do not yet accuse you of being dezgra and lacking honor—I have not yet the proof needed, nor the status to challenge you to a Trial of Grievance.”
Cortez shrugged, and languidly waved one hand. The pilot reached for the deck—and then stopped. Cocking his head at the elemental warrior, he waited until Lucien nodded his own assent, and then picked up the deck and set aside the top three cards. The next three he flipped over one at a time onto the surface of the table. Three Clubs appeared—a Six, a Nine, and the third King.
The environmental tech made a show of checking his pile of chips—and then pushed half of it in. “Two hundred and forty.”
The Elemental looked at his own pile—and slowly counted it out. Frowning, he pushed in two hundred and forty C-bills, leaving him with just two chips worth twenty each.
The pilot flipped over the next card—and it was the Ace of Diamonds. Lucien tapped his finger on the table, checking. Cortez smiled again and pushed the last of his chips in—another two fifty worth.
“Can you match that, Lucien?”
“You know I can not, freebirth.”
The tech shrugged again. “Well, you know the rules—you have to match my bet or forfeit the hand. Sure you don’t have anything?”
Stony-faced, the former Jade Falcon elemental slowly and solemnly shook his head. Cortez laughed, and began to reach out towards the pot—when a new voice sounded from the compartment hatch.
“I will back your play, Bondsman,” the new arrival said as he stepped into the compartment. Clearly not one of the Dragoons, his appearance in the hatch had gone unnoticed in the intense show-down of the card table.
“Table rules, chum,” said Cortez. “I don’t think YOU have any C-bills about you either, quineg, Clanner?”
“C-Bills, no, Mister Cortez, I do not possess. And yet, I do believe that I have something of worth to provide for the pot,” the man answered calm and steady, leaning against the rim of the hatch, his arms crossed.
“Bondsman, are you familiar with the zulkari I bear?”
Lucien frowned as he considered before answering. “I am aware of them, Star Captain Scott, though I have handled similar blades only once during a weapons display in my sibko involving melee weapons.”
“Yet, you are a skilled judge of the value of most weapons, quiaff?”
“Aff, Star Captain.”
The clan Warrior drew out first one, and then a second wickedly curved knife from a pair of scabbards attached to his belt. The blades were water-patterned steel—Damascene, it was called—and feature a short curved guard, one of brilliant gold and the other a gleaming ebony. The blade with the gold guard featured polished black leather strips, while the second was wrapped in golden bindings. A long tassel of silk strands descended from the pommel, once again, one black as night, and the other glimmering gold. Black stones—polished and faceted—adorned the golden guard and golden shimmering ones the ebony.
“These blades, Bondsman, were given to me by my Khan on the day which I earned my Bloodname. You may use these as your stakes,” he said as he stepped forward to the table and placed the two blades before Lucien.
The fighter pilot whistled, and reached out—and then stopped himself. “May I?” he graciously asked in a whisper of the former Clan warrior. Lucien looked at the Jason Scott, who nodded his head, and the pilot lifted first one, and then the second of the matched pair. “They are beautiful—and finely balanced as well,” he said as he weighed them in his hands. Gently taking them, he rolled up his sleeve and quickly drew the steel across the skin, shedding hair that drifted down towards the deck. “And sharp as a razor. What are those gold and black stones set in the guard, Star Captain?”
“We call the black ones Kerensky’s Tears, Lieutenant Potter. From the perspective of a gemologist, they are black diamonds found in volcanic pipes deep within the Spiked Heart Desert on Babylon. The golden stones are a form of corundum—what you commonly call ruby—that we have named the Eyes of the Scorpion—also found only in the Spiked Heart.”
“Thank you, Star Captain, for allowing me to handle them—and for answering my question,” the pilot whispered. Turning to the table, he nodded at his companions. “Those are the real deal—worth a couple of THOUSAND C-bills, maybe even more to a collector.”
Lucien stood and took the two blades from the table. He turned towards Scott, and bowed, extending the knives—the zulkari—towards the Scorpion warrior. “I can not accept this, Star Captain. I am bondsman to these warriors, and weapons are forbidden for all not yet declared as abtakha. And I have nothing to offer you in return, as such a gesture requires.”
“Then return them to me Bondsman upon your victory. It is done,” he said, clapping the towering giant on his arm. “What value will you give these weapons?”
Cortez frowned as the other four Dragoons began to whisper among themselves. Finally, they reached a decision. “Twenty-five hundred C-Bills, Star Captain.”
“Bargained well and done. Bondsman Lucien raises to twenty-five hundred, Mister Cortez. Can you match that bet? By your own rules, if you can not, then you must forfeit the hand, quiaff?”
Cortez gritted his teeth, and opened his money belt, counting out twenty-two hundred C-bill notes, and then added a fifty. “I call,” he grated, beads of sweat popping out on his forehead, as he flipped over his two hole cards, showing the three Kings.
A sudden release of breath came from the small crowd that had gathered about the table in the cramped rec room, but Jason Scott just leaned back once again against the rim of the hatch and smiled.
Lucien turned over his own two cards, showing the FOURTH King—along with an Ace of Clubs. Someone in the crowd gasped, and Lucien felt sick at his stomach. Of all the shame and dishonor—he had cost this Scorpion items of great—priceless—value on a reckless wager. Cortez snarled and hissed at the two warriors, “For such genetically superior people, you Clanners are dumber than dog-droppings.”
“I would remind you, Mister Cortez, that unlike Bondsman Lucien, I have no prohibition against challenging you to a Trial of Grievance for your insults—and Colonel Wolf would most likely give me leave to conduct that Trial. And lest you forget freebirth, there still remains one card yet to be played.”
Potter took the top card and set it to the side. Taking the next, he flipped over the last polymer plaque, showing the Seven of Clubs. Lucien blinked once and then twice. Four Clubs on the table—and his own Ace in his hand, also of Clubs. He had won.
Cortez snarled and slammed his fist down upon the table. “How the devil did you know, you bastard!”
“I did not know, freebirth,” Scott answered coldly. “I do know that I dislike you—you have no honor and little worth. And I dislike when someone tries to bully another, on the field of battle or on a gaming table. I was willing to lose—just for the chance at victory. That, Mister Cortez, is the way of the Clans. Remember that should we meet again.”
The Dragoons in the compartment began to laugh as Cortez—despised by most as a scam-artist and con-man—quickly stormed away. Lucien turned to Scott. “Why?”
“I would trust even a fallen Falcon more than I would that man, Bondsman. You KNOW honor—and you retain it as you strive to divest yourself of those three cords. He does not.”
The elemental bowed and handed Scott back the pair of zulkari. He reached down and took three hundred and forty worth of chips from the pile, and then the same amount again. “That is what I waged, Star Captain Jason Scott of Goliath Scorpion. The remainder is your winnings.”
Scott nodded in reply, and took the folded bills Lucien offered him, placing them in a pouch on his belt. At that moment, a klaxon sounded throughout the ship.
“Attention, attention. Prepare for atmospheric entry in five minutes. Secure all stations and compartments for atmospheric entry.”
The announcement began to repeat itself as the Dragoons stowed away the table, cards, and chips, and began to head for their quarters. Scott smiled as he sheathed the two blades in their scabbards and began to walk towards his own cramped cabin aboard the Overlord class vessel. Soon, very soon now, he would meet with Colonel Wolf and he could begin his mission as a Seeker in service to his Clan.