In retrospect, the only way to explain what happened is to point out that I was drunk at the time.
It was a very subdued Life Day season aboard the Imperial Destroyer Warhammer, three standard months after we lost the Death Star. The entire navy had been put on heightened alert, and all leave had been cancelled. I wasn't overly put out by that, since as a very recent graduate of the Imperial Academy I was de facto ineligible for leave anyway. It was the first Life Day I'd spent away from my mother, however, and I felt guilty about it-even though there was nothing I could do. My father and namesake, Commander Aswald Vorgartin I, had been dead since I was fifteen, and my parents had no other children but me. That meant my mother was going to spend Life Day alone.
She had begged me not to enter the service in the first place, but that decision was sealed along with the urn containing my father's ashes. Aswald Vorgartin I died in a Rebel suicide attack on his Star Destroyer. The Rebels had yet to contend with Aswald Vorgartin II, but I had long ago promised myself that it would not be a meeting they would enjoy, or forget.
Three days before Life Day, however, with the Death Star still raining in burning fragments over a planet I'd never heard of a few months earlier, my resolve was temporarily forgotten, and I must confess I was homesick. So were the three men I considered my closest friends--when I could stand them--and we dealt with the problem in a time-honored fashion: by getting completely guttered on contraband liquor and playing a terrible game of sabacc in which we lost the same fifteen credits over and over.
The idea to up the ante was Kalac's, as most of the galaxy's stupidest ideas are. He had a smoldering fenril cigarillo dangling from his lower lip, and had unfastened the chest panel of his uniform, revealing his pale undershirt beneath. He had somehow managed to get his regulation-short dark hair to stick out in all directions, and I thought he would make a fabulous advertisement subject for the Imperial Navy. They say that the Academy Officer Corps gets relatively few applicants because the recruitment holocasts are designed to intimidate viewers-the better to keep out the underachievers. One look at Kalac would destroy any slacker's qualms about entering His Majesty's Armed Serivces, however. In fact, Kalac could probably have singlehandedly solved the Empire's post-Death Star officer shortage.
He had been sitting there in an apparent stupor for some time, until he suddenly swept his tiny pile of credits off the table, sending them and a fine shower of fenril ash off onto the floor. The credit pieces bounced and rolled; Scholcash managed to slap his boot down on one and catch it. Gharek was too drunk even for that. He just weaved in his seat and looked blearily confused.
"The hell with this half-credit crap," Kalac slurred. "It's boring me. Let's play for something good."
"Such as what?" I asked. The only "good" thing I owned was the necklace I was sending my mother as soon as the Warhammer got anywhere close to a spaceport. I'd gotten the delicate silver chain and pendant from Kalac, who'd gotten it from the same place he'd gotten the BrightFeather Gold we weren't supposed to be drinking. He had connections at the Coruscant Central Property Impoundment Facility, which was where objects confiscated from society's undesirable elements were collected and stored. The property was supposed to be re-sold and the money used for the good of the Empire, but as far as I could tell, most of it got snatched up by various officials and sold on the Invisible Market. Still, the Impoundment Facility could make a junior officer's salary stretch a lot further, and when Kalac had something for sale, one tended not to ask too many questions.
I wondered if he didn't have some stolen bauble in mind when he said "something good," but it turned out he was thinking of something else. "We're all shipbound and bored stupid," he said, "so let's play to stir up a little fun." Given Kalac's idea of "fun," I should have gotten up and left right there, but unfortunately we were in my quarters. He was getting fenril ash on my polished-to-specs floor, too.
Scholcash seemed slightly less drunk than Kalac-or at least he had sufficient coordination to pick up the credit piece under his boot and set it with only somewhat-exaggerated care on the table in front of him. Unlike our fenril-smoking friend, he'd managed to stay fully dressed and even retained a certain amount of his required attitude of Imperial superiority. Not a single hair had fallen out of the smooth curve running from the widow's peak in the middle of his forehead straight back over his scalp-I think he used glue to keep it in place. "And 'fun' in this instance would mean exactly what?" he asked.
"Loser has to take Therhurladde Clebur out on a date," Kalac said.
Gharek and I had the same reaction-we tossed our remaining cards down on the table and said, "I'm out." Therhurladde was a barmaid at a tavern across a Coruscant airway from the Imperial Academy. A cadet who was the biggest drinker I ever knew once told me that even after six pitchers of Tengumaster, she *still* didn't look good.
"Oh, come *on,*" Kalac said grinning like a fierkat inviting a weavole to tea, "she has a great personality."
Actually, I had never noticed this particular virtue in Therhurladde before. "*You* go out with her, then," I said.
"If I lose, I will," Kalac said, giving us an earnest expression that generally indicated he was lying. "That's the fun part-for the three guys who get to stand on the corner and laugh."
"I did that anyway the last time you had a date," Scholcash said.
"He's had a date?" I asked, feigning shock.
None of this made a dent in Kalac. "Think of her as five hundred kilos of green feminine flesh," he said, caressing the air with his hands as if he were stroking some vast, spherical object. Beside me, Gharek made a nauseated sound. Kalac still wouldn't shut up: ". . . long, clawed legs, tiny blue eyes, six luscious, bouncing breasts . . ."
Gharek groaned. He was looking a little green himself, and I said, "Stop it, unless you want Gharek's BrightFeather back, with interest." Milles Gharek was living proof that not only the strong, the swift, and the smart need apply to the Imperial Academy Officers' Corps. He was a short, podgy guy with red hair and blotchy freckles who often ended every statement with a nervous laugh. Fortunately, the laugh disappeared when he was drunk, which made his company more bearable.
"All right, all right, you bunch of big Girl Guards," Kalac said, waving a disgusted hand at us. "Here's an easier bet, that won't make you wet the bed out of fear. The loser has to give a Life Day present to someone."
Scholcash and I looked sidelong at one another. I could tell we were each thinking the same thing: this was a scam of some kind-it had to be. "The loser has to give *who* *what?*" I asked.
"That's the catch," Kalac said, his fierkat smile returning. "You don't get to pick both. The loser can choose either the gift, or the person. The winner gets to pick the other."
This sounded mildly entertaining, or at least it seemed to have potential as an outrageous story to be repeated at alcohol-soaked gatherings in the future. "You can get to choose the gift?" I asked skeptically. I was thinking of my limited budget, and also of the high probability that the winner would choose himself as the beneficiary of the present. I'd almost want to be the loser in that case, so I could give the triumphant sot a case of, say, rotten eggs-especially if the winner were Kalac. "All right," I said finally, picking up the cards I'd thrown down and shuffling them back into the deck. "I'm in."
"I'm in too," Gharek said. Gharek was an incurable "me too'er." I'm still not sure why the Empire gave an officer's commission to a guy with the leadership qualities of a duracrete slug. He scurried to shuffle his own cards back into the deck.
Scholcash gave Kalac a long, hard look. "Nothing illegal," Scholcash said. "I'm not acting as a mule for any confiscated spice that came out of Impounded Property."
I felt my eyes widen as I finished shuffling. The possibility that I might be caught up in *that* kind of scam had never occurred to me. Scholcash saw the worst in everyone and suspected plots everywhere. So if you were going to spend your time around somebody like Kalac, you wanted Scholcash along.
Kalac managed to look wounded at the implication he was out to use us to peddle drugs. "Is that what you really think of me?" he asked. "You think I'd try to dupe my best friends into being smugglers?"
I didn't really think that Kalac was *that* bad-or at least not that smart, but Scholcash was unequivocal: "Yes," he said.
Kalac shook his head sadly and made a disapproving sound. "No Life Day spirit in this room at all. None at all," he said.
"They cancelled Life Day on account of the Death Star, remember?" Scholcash said.
"Are you in or out?" Gharek asked, with an impatience that still somehow came across as nervousness. He was probably already worried that he would lose, but was too big a coward even to back out.
Scholcash stretched his long legs out and said, "I might as well be in, so long as we're not running spice for the Hutts. Kalac's little games are sort of like airway accidents . . . you know you should look away, but somehow you can't." That did indeed pretty much sum up entertainment, Kalac style. Why I didn't remember that and throw them all out right then I don't know.
We had Gharek deal, because nobody trusted Kalac to set up a game in which he'd picked the stakes. My hand was initially nothing special-but in sabacc, as in life, fortunes can change.
Both Gharek and Scholcash folded early-probably because Gharek was afraid and Scholcash had the sense not to fight to be the victim of one of Kalac's twisted jokes. Only I was stupid enough to do that.