Black grease spurted onto Anakin Skywalker’s cheek, and he rubbed it away before it could stain. Now it would only stain the back of his hand. He gripped the hydrospanner tight and went at the bolt again, whispering, “Gently … gently,” so as not to strip it. If he screwed up this restoration, that would be another twelve hundred lost. Independent contracting had gotten fiercely competitive after the Hutts took over the planet. Even the Jawas had to convert to a mobile scrap business just to stay out of the Hutts’ clutches. Watto’s Repair and Trade was the last junk dealer in Mos Espa, so Anakin wished for gently . He smiled when the bolt popped free, set it aside, then removed the engine block.
Pod racing was also in the Hutts’ clutches. This Plug-F Mammoth Split-X engine belonged to a Dug named Sebulba, the best on the circuit. And also in the Hutts’ pocket. Competing cost too much — the entry fees alone were astronomical — and as Anakin cleaned out the regulator with a sharp blast from an aerosol nozzle, he sighed in rueful desire. He could podrace … if only. That list of if only reached from here to the Core Worlds, personal and professional reasons both. With a sigh, Anakin replaced the engine block, and then secured it in place, careful not to strip the screws.
He shut the lid, and then wiped down the oil spills before heading over to the cockpit and activating the motor. The energy binders flared to life, making the turbines growl. Anakin grinned, a thrill dancing up his spine, then killed the power. He pulled a rag out of his utility belt and wiped his hands before stepping out from under the tarp and heading into the shop’s main area.
The garage was in the back past rows of scrap: hyperdrive generators, droid casings, moisture vaporators, durasteel replacement parts for the shop’s upper levels where Watto made his home. Anakin barely registered the suns at post-noon, the heat crackling across his exposed face. He heard Watto’s hurried flapping, a clear indicator of agitation. Rounded his shoulders, Anakin took a deep breath, and then entered the dusky interior of the shop.
Immediately, the spicy scent of their best paying customer assaulted his nose, overwhelming the sour and earthy scents Watto sprayed in the shop to remind him of Toydaria. Sebulba sat on the counter, his leg-hands inside a clanging bag of coins, though Watto’s blue and green wings continued to flap. Anakin frowned. If anything, Watto loved money more than he loved, well, anything. Something wasn’t right, and Anakin stuffed his rag back in his belt.
“ Chut chut , Watto,” he said in Huttese, the standard beside Basic. The Tatooine colonists had learned to adapt if they wanted to survive. “Sebulba. Just finished for ya.”
The Dug cut his eyes across at Anakin, finished counting, and placed the coins on the counter. Then he hopped down and made for the garage, his head coming up to Anakin’s knee. Anakin pivoted to watch him go, then swung back around when Watto’s flapping stopped. The Toydarian now sat on a stool behind the counter, counting the money, one coin at a time. He sorted a short stack and pushed them towards Anakin. “No more can I afford.”
Anakin inhaled through clenched teeth, his anger tightening his chest. “What? Again? Why?”
“Had to pay the Hutts. They ask for more now.”
Them again. Anakin kicked a protocol droid shell. It toppled and clattered to the ground. “That’s a first rate job! Look, I know I don’t ask for much, but I need this for the farm. The — ” He broke off, too ashamed to mention it, but he needed to make Watto understand. “The Hutts have been pressuring us, too.” Not to mention what their thugs did when Cliegg refused to pay. “Watto, please, I need this money.”
With an effortless lift of wings, the Toydarian took flight and flapped towards Anakin, his portly stomach drooping in defiance of the anti-gravity action. His snout and fleshy mouth both flattened in a frown. “I’m sorry, Anakin. I have to let you go, too.”
* * *
The speeder tore across the dunes. More of a hanno speeder, really, a bucket with a single engine in the prow, but the effect was the same: a lightweight chassis capable of high speed and lots of it.
Anakin reveled in the wind ripping through his hair, blistering his cheeks, so hot with tiny grains of shrapnel-like sand skating over the transparisteel windscreen and inflicting the kind of miniscule damage that would balloon into bruises if his skin wasn’t already so weathered. Nineteen seasons in the Tatooine desert, a true-born son of the suns, it didn’t bother him any.
Beggar’s Canyon showed up like a shadow on the horizon. The hairpin turns, tight squeezes that scraped the paint off his hanno speeder more than once, and the breath-taking drops scared off all but a crazed few. Most of the pod racers practiced in the Canyon, since the Hutts used it in the Boonta Eve Classic. Anakin veered off the path home, headed straight for the drop. He came upon Cil Junket, a Kal-Cil racer also angling her pod towards the Canyon. Anakin eased up on the clutch, shifted gears, and accelerated to match her speed before she could disappear over the first drop. Two of her six eye stalks swiveled around, and one of her four arms waved in greeting. Her brown and aqua skin, protected by gray racing leathers, flashed in the suns, and her very long fingers beckoned and pointed, a tacit invite to take it on with her. Anakin grinned and veered closer, spun the hanno speeder into a drift and dropped so fast his body lifted out of the seat.
She plummeted like a stone. The twin turbines of Cil Junket’s racer hovered higher than the pod base. But then Anakin heard the distinct compression burst of her engines, the energy binders flared white, and she took off faster than Anakin could compensate in his relatively slow hanno speeder. The canyon floor hit him so hard, he jerked in his seat with enough force to rattle his teeth, but Anakin wasted no time bleeding the throttle and catching up.
The first hairpin turn ended at a sheer wall wide enough to discourage the most suicidal of risk takers. Anakin followed Cil Junket around the pass, then angled his hanno speeder on a vertical pivot. He squeezed between two sandstone towers, having to lean so far back in his seat, one of the columns grazed his nose.
The low-hanging stalactites of Laguna Caves required a reduction in speed. Especially in the dark. Cil’s species had incomparable night vision, and he heard the gear shifts and compression fields of her engines ahead of him, but for Anakin … For some reason, dodging between the stalactites always passed by in a blur, as though a voice inside him whispered there, move, that way . He responded without questioning it. Had never questioned it, in fact, because only the most reckless pod racers screwed up the Caves.
If only …
And then a frisson of feeling hit Anakin so suddenly, he lost his concentration. He ducked just in time to miss a stalactite to the head and emerged from Laguna Caves to see Cil Junket take the next hairpin turn into the final pass. He eased up off the accelerator and slowed to a stop, grimy like back in his days working the moisture vaporators. Anakin hated giving up to Cil Junket, even if she was the second best racer on the circuit, though that feeling refused to leave. Almost like a scream of … terror and helplessness. He scrambled onto the hood of his hanno speeder and drew himself up to his full height, searching the horizon.
A haze gathered in the distance, slowly and steadily blocking out Tatoo II. A sandstorm. It would be on them in thirty minutes, though that wasn’t what had reached him. Then he saw it, two ships punching through the storm, trailing smoke and debris. They were so low, he didn’t need macrobinoculars to see that . As he watched, he gasped in fear as the two starfighters did nothing to slow their descent. How could they? The electrical interference from the sandstorm would have fired their circuit boards. He heard the roar of Cil Junket’s pod pull up next to his hanno speeder. All of her eye stalks were captivated by the sight before them. “Should we … ?” she began in Huttese.
Before Anakin could respond, the starfighters slammed into the faraway dune, sending up a spray of sand. Cil Junket jumped in her seat, then clicked her teeth in her people’s version of a long whistle. “They’re dead.”
Anakin shook his head. He didn’t know how he knew, but they weren’t dead. Both were injured, one severely, but not dead. He dropped into his seat, and revved the engine. Cil Junket said,
“You’re going after them?” She gestured to the horizon. “But the storm.”
“Get inside,” Anakin said, swung his hanno speeder around and shouted over his shoulder, “Be sure to power down!” He took off.
This end of the Canyon wasn’t as thrilling or challenging as the other, but he still had to maneuver through the Canyon Dune Turn. And then the desert opened up before him, the hard-packed turf that helped his hanno speeder reach unfathomable speeds. Really, he didn’t know: he had to remove the speedometer when upgrading the throttle. He lost a little speed when the dunes dipped and swirled, making his bucket seat bounce. Following the smoke trail, he reached the wreckage, swung to a stop, and took in the damage.
The starfighter closest to him had the cockpit dome removed, carbon scoring up the fuselage, and a smoking engine, the astromech cooked in its shell. Anakin spotted the second starfighter in the distance. A person in the brown robe stumbled towards it. Anakin climbed out and hurried over.
He hated crossing the open desert. Especially now, his skin prickling with the menace of the approaching storm. But he raised his arms and waved. “Hey!” The man in the brown robe whirled, appeared to squint. “Let me help you!” Anakin finished crossing to the stranger, saw that he was actually quite young, no more than a few years older than Anakin’s nineteen seasons. Glazed green-blue eyes refused to focus and blood ran from his temple.
“Thank you,” he said in a curious accent.
Although Obi-Wan looked human, Anakin had couldn’t place his origin. Surely not Corellian — not with that accent. Then again, what would he know about the wider of the galaxy?
They reached the second starfighter. Obi-Wan gripped the haul to remove the cockpit dome, and then cried out and snatched his hands back. His palms blazed red. The storm must have fried their shield generators, giving them the full burn of re-entry. Obi-Wan wrapped the robe around his hands and tried again, but the cockpit dome refused to budge. Anakin’s hand flew to his tool belt, palmed the hydrospanner, and began to unscrew the bolts securing the dome. Then he replaced the tool, wound his desert wraps around his hands, and together, he and Obi-Wan removed it.
Anakin’s breath caught in his chest.
She was a vision, like an Angel of the moons of Iego, the most beautiful creatures in the universe. With her eyes closed and her face slack in repose, it was a vision. The red stain spreading across her white jumpsuit, however, marred it. Obi-Wan reached out to release her harness, but his fingers fumbled, and then he swayed, fell to his knees. Anakin moved to catch him, but Obi-Wan waved him away. “Help her, please.”
Anakin removed the harness, gathered her into his arms, and lifted her out of the cockpit. She weighed nothing, petite, though most humans were petite compared to him. He checked on Obi-Wan, who had his head on the sand, shoulders flexing with his breathing.
“You may have a concussion,” Anakin said.
Obi-Wan glanced up, then nodded, then shut his eyes as though to stop the world from spinning. “I’ll be all right in a moment.”
Anakin checked the horizon, grimaced. The storm was close. “We don’t have a moment. Come on. I can get us to safety.”
Anakin lowered the unconscious woman’s legs to grab Obi-Wan’s collar and haul him to his feet. Keeping a hand on Obi-Wan and an arm around the unconscious woman, he marched them all back to his hanno speeder. Obi-Wan had regained his balance by then and helped to strap the young woman into the bucket, taking the back panel for himself. Anakin squeezed in next to her, revved the engine, and asked the gods, the galaxy, and the Angels to get them home fast.