Chapter IV – Desperate Measures
Anakin shot out of the hangar bay and rose quickly to the cruising altitude of one hundred meters. He skimmed along the surface and prepared for hitting the first checkpoint before beginning the run through Beggar’s Canyon. Anakin saw an arrow shaped INCOM T-10 Cloudrunner coming up behind him and moved to block the racer. As he moved, he saw another T-10 as well as a flashy XT-2000 Starchaser. Anakin rolled his eyes.
“As if it mattered who was first into a canyon,” he muttered and let the two ships pass him. The pilot of the T-10 threw him a mock salute as he accelerated past Anakin and toward the checkpoint. The XT-2000 also brushed past him, nearly hitting his wing as it passed. Anakin grimaced as his proximity warning went off, but where was Aiya? Anakin looked around and saw that she was still hanging back with the pack, not making any moves to snare the lead position.
All twelve craft passed through the checkpoint and Anakin’s time and how far behind the leader he was flashed on his HUD. He was only three-tenths of one second behind, which was typical for the race. They all dipped down together off of the plateau and down toward the entrance to Beggar’s Canyon.
Anakin was in fourth position when all the racers formed a single file and began their deceleration to safely enter the canyon. He slowed down to avoid the sharp crags, the jutting outcropping of rocks that threatened to end his race and possibly his life. He moved quickly to the left and right and hung as close to the middle of the narrow canyon floor as possible to stay away from the razor sharp edges. The floor of the canyon was actually the roof of a whole other semi-cavernous level. Anakin had often gone walking around in that area with Owen, marveling at the other world beneath their feet.
His radar screamed at him and he saw a green blip that was behind him careen into one of the walls and go dark. He re-focused himself on keeping the Volo in one piece when suddenly a blaster bolt shot past the nose of his ship.
“No one can activate their weapons until we’re in orbit!” Anakin shouted angrily. Another bolt shot past him and he realized they were too small to come from a ship. A message flashed on his HUD in red letters.
“Tusken Raiders on the cliffs of Beggar’s Canyon. Racers are advised to use caution.”
“Thanks for the practical advice,” he muttered.
Anakin let his instincts guide him around the narrow canyon as blaster bolts landed around him. His radar and proximity alarms sounded as a sleek looking J-27 three engine interceptor loomed behind him. One of the raiders had hit the left engine and Anakin watched smugly as the pilot lost control and couldn’t balance his craft.
“One less to worry about,” he grinned, but quickly lost that grin. The ship had exploded, but the bulk of the fuselage was lifted up into the air and was going to land on his own craft. In half a heartbeat, Anakin plunged his controls down and the Volo dropped out of sight altogether.
The three engine wreckage crashed harmlessly onto the ground as other racers flew past it unharmed. Anakin’s clearance above ground had been barely more than five meters on each wing, now flying under the “racetrack” reduced his clearance to such a short amount that he was forced to turn off his proximity alarm.
As he flipped off the annoying klaxon a series of circuits erupted, showering him in sparks, and darkened his cockpit. Anakin’s computer had completely blown out. With the exception of the passing lights of the world above him, he was flying blind.
Anakin felt his focus lock in and his instincts completely took over. He was able to anticipate every hairpin turn, every stalactite that threatened him, every single piece of this planet that threatened to crush his ship and his life at any moment with almost no light or computer to guide him.
Suddenly, Anakin felt his instincts scream at him and he pulled up hard and shot through a hole large enough for the Volo to fit through and he burst back onto the surface of Beggar’s Canyon barely ten meters behind the two leaders who passed him earlier. His grin widened as he could only imagine the looks on their faces as he seemed to spring out of the ground behind them. The Dune Sea was quickly approaching and Anakin prepared to leave them all behind.
Seconds before they were finally out of the canyon and with Anakin’s hand inching toward the accelerator, his instincts screamed once again. Above him, barely a half a meter from his canopy, the most beautiful ship he had ever seen flew above him and kicked its engines to life with enormous thrust just in front of the two leaders of the race. The nose kicked up and the sudden thrust from the engines scorched the canopies of the two ships. They veered off in different directions in total panic just before they reached the end of the canyon. Their ships slammed into both walls and exploded.
Anakin gasped and pulled up hard as the explosion from the two ships sent debris scattering in every direction. The fireball roared toward him as he strained at the controls of the Volo, debris clattering off of his canopy and fuselage. Anakin held his breath as he shot through the maelstrom unscathed and shot into the Dune Sea. Aiya Rios and her Aethersprite were far ahead of him now and Anakin almost thought he could hear her laughing in the distance.
As he slammed the accelerator forward, he felt the Volo respond instantly. His ship almost seemed angry as it shot across the flats of the Dune Sea. A quick glance at his radar showed the pack dropping behind him. It was clearly down to him and Aiya, yet he simply couldn’t catch her.
Anakin checked his readouts. He was flying across the Dune Sea at a velocity he had only flirted with in the past. His hull was intact and his aerodynamics were sound. He wasn’t dragging anything, but he couldn’t catch the Aethersprite. A slight sense of panic crept into the cockpit with him like an unwelcome passenger.
“Now that is fast,” he let out a low whistle as they zoomed past a herd of wild Banthas and through the next checkpoint.
He was now a full two seconds behind Aiya, an eternity in the racing world. She picked her nose up and shot toward space, twin exhaust trails showing her path to the stars. Two seconds later, Anakin followed suit. He set the ship on autopilot and began going through his pre-orbital checklist when another message appeared.
“You have a cute little ship. It looks precious in my rear-view scanner. After the race, can we talk about it for a while? I do enjoy antiques!” –A. Rios, Position 1.
Anakin felt his panic twist into anger as he read the message three times. Each time, the message burned him more intensely. His ship was an antique? The ship he had tinkered with and nurtured after finding it in a scrap-yard when he was a child? He and the Volo had practically grown up together and he refused to let his long time friend be insulted.
They left the atmosphere with the rest of the pack now a full twelve seconds behind them, nearly eliminating them from contention. Anakin pushed them all from his mind and focused on the next generation of racing vehicle that was in front of him.
He could feel the internal life support blowing cool air on his face as the clouds fell away and the blackness of space welcomed him. Anakin felt more at home crammed into a cockpit in space than down on the planet’s surface.
“Now for the fun part,” Anakin said.
He watched Aiya pass through the first checkpoint and activate her weapon systems. One-point-seven seconds later, Anakin also passed through the checkpoint and powered up his weapons system. Thankfully, the targeting scanners were functioning well enough to run a brief diagnostic to ensure that everything was working before Anakin got the green light to begin shooting. A message flashed on his HUD:
“Warning, one-tenth of a second will be added for each missed target.”
Anakin tensed at the controls. He needed every microsecond he could get.
There were four different paths he could take here and each path had ten rings to it. This allowed the flyers enough rings to shoot at without flying up each other’s tailpipes. Each path curved slightly and then had a steep arcing return to where they started from. Anakin joked with Owen that this was the “Shoelace Run” due to the shape of the ring path.
Each ring was only eight meters in diameter, leaving barely two meters clearance on each side of his narrow craft. Each ring has five equidistant points on its perimeter and each point had to be shot out to avoid penalties. The catch was that the rings would begin shrinking once the first target was struck. You couldn’t shoot too soon or you wouldn’t have enough space to fly through unless you want to leave a piece of your wings behind. If you shoot too late, you don’t have time to hit all your targets. It took incredible instincts to walk this fine balance and Anakin’s had yet to fail him.
Aiya banked to the left and Anakin steered to the right, adjusting his speed to keep his timing precise and at an appropriate distance, he opened fire. The ring’s five points winked out one after another as the beams struck home. Anakin barreled through the first and then began to climb to the next one. His blasters again lashed out at the target and again the points went dark.
He increased his speed along the now curving path, passing through ring after ring, hitting target after target. After his third ring, he stole a glance toward Aiya and saw that he was actually gaining some ground on her. She was only one ring in front of him now, perhaps only a full second ahead. Anakin tore through the fourth ring with a vengeance and decided to try something that, even for him, was reckless.
The fifth ring was at the apex of the tightly formed loop. Anakin shot the targets out farther out than he ever had before and then hit his aft vertical thrusters. He shut off his main engines and let the momentum carry him toward the ever shrinking ring. His thrusters were pitching his nose down and pointing him exactly toward the final half of the loop. Physics was in control of the Volo now.
As he neared the ring, Anakin had a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. The ring was shrinking and he was simply drifting toward it. He was five hundred meters away now and he was silently praying that he had judged his timing correctly. He was three hundred meters away and his rotation was nearly complete. The blackness of space was now replaced by the rusty brown surface of Tatooine. Anakin allowed himself to stare at the immense planet in awe for only a moment before he realized that he was a scant fifty meters from the now much smaller ring. He held his breath in the hopes that it would somehow help him slide through the narrowing obstacle.
There was a slight shudder within the ship as Anakin watched a little paint scrape off the hull as he passed through the ring. Once he was clear, Anakin jammed his accelerator forward and the Volo responded instantly. His current orientation afforded him the luxury of already being pointed directly at Tattooine. He soared toward the next ring at an incredible speed and shaved off so much time that he was certain he had left even the unbeatable Aethersprite behind.
By the count displayed on his HUD, Aiya had missed three targets and Anakin smiled smugly to himself at this slight advantage.
Anakin completed the loop, raced through the last ring, and glanced around him to see where his competition was. The four paths converged on roughly the same area, pointing back toward the Final Run on Tatooine’s surface. Anakin was stunned to see that Aiya Rios was practically in his exhaust trail. He had used an unprecedented maneuver and he was only barely hanging on!
He shifted in his seat uncomfortably as his mind scrambled to come up with some desperate solution. The solution seemed to come from somewhere within himself. Anakin’s own being seemed to push the Volo into a steeper dive.
He was supposed to fire his retro-thrusters and slow his descent once he hit the thermosphere, but he didn’t.
He was supposed to reduce his engine thrust and begin to pull out of the dive before he hit the mesosphere, but he didn’t.
He was supposed to start leveling off before leaving the mesosphere, but he didn’t.
Anakin’s calm focus blocked out the shaking of his ship, the creaking of his wings, and the warnings his HUD was screaming at him. He simply let his instincts take control and when the time was right, he fired the retro-thrusters, his vertical thrusters, cut his main engine speed, and pulled back as hard as he could .
The Volo groaned at the sudden change of direction at record breaking speeds. Anakin could feel the G-Forces pressing him against his seat and the wings shuddered violently.
“C’mon…I do not want this race to be known as the Skywalker Memorial Race,” Anakin grunted as he strained at the controls. Anakin hit the stratosphere, a mere fifty kilometers from the surface, before his ship finally began to respond. Slowly, but surely, the Volo pulled out of the dive. Anakin was less than one hundred meters from the ground when he finally leveled off and entered the Final Run.
Anakin couldn’t help but whoop in delight as he looked around and saw he was alone. He felt comfortable that he had finally left Aiya Rios behind him. Anakin felt the panic fade and his confidence return as he shot down the final one hundred kilometers to the finish line.
He thought about how he was finally going to leave Tattooine and start a real life. The galaxy was calling to him and his victory over Aiya Rios was the icing on the cake. Everything was going to change for Anakin Skywalker as soon as he crossed that finish line.
The Volo’s proximity alarm went off. Anakin snapped his head around to see the Aethersprite was there, creeping up on his starboard wing.
Anakin’s grin faded. He felt the ire rise in his throat like bile. The Volo was his love, his life, his passion, the one thing in his miserable existence that brought him happiness, and it simply wasn’t good enough. He glanced over at the Aethersprite to see that Aiya was looking back at him. She flashed a quick smile at him as the prototype continued to pass him.
Anakin saw his freedom slipping away as she inched by him and they neared the finish pylons. Panic coursed through him as he saw his chance to finally leave this barren rock, the moisture farm, and his meaningless existence stolen from him and there was nothing he could do about it.
He turned to look at the Aethersprite again. No, he didn’t look at it, he focused on it. His eyes were burning into the hull of the ship with rage. He felt this strange sense of calm, as if this anger and focus felt right.
With no warning, the left wing of the state of the art Delta-7 prototype shattered into a thousand pieces.
Aiya Rios spun out of control on all axes only five hundred meters shy of the pylons and plummeted toward the planet’s surface. He watched the canopy explode and Aiya’s escape chute deployed an instant before the beautiful prototype slammed into the ground.
Anakin let a roar of triumph escape his lips as he crossed the pylons, shattering his old speed record. He then looped into the air and spun his ship back around as roving TDI’s surrounded his ship, broadcasting his winning smile to the masses back on the planet’s surface.
As the rescue boats raced to the shattered remains of the Delta-7, a man in a hooded brown robe turned to face his former Master.
“Master, tell me you felt that,” Obi-Wan Kenobi said quietly.
“Yes, it was very hard to ignore,” Qui-Gon Jinn replied.
“What do you think it means?” Obi-Wan asked.
“I’m not sure. That was brief, but incredibly intense. Perhaps you should have a conversation with that young pilot before you leave tonight.”
“Have you felt anything like it before? What he did shook me,” Obi-Wan shivered, despite the repressive heat.
“Rarely have I felt a disturbance in the Force like this. When the rescue boats return, I will see to Aiya Rios and the Aethersprite. You will go and speak to him immediately. Determine what his intentions are and feel out his emotional state. He may be a promising candidate.” Qui-Gon instructed.
“Promising is an understatement,” the younger man locked his eyes on the grinning picture of a triumphant Anakin Skywalker.