Chapter III – Competition
Chapter III – Competition
Obi-Wan Kenobi stared out at the barren landscape that lay beyond the bridge of his ship. This was, by far, the most desolate planet that he had ever laid eyes on. Staring out at the endless desert gave him a feeling of nervousness and uncertainty. He closed his eyes, meditated for a minute, and allowed his mind to clear.
“Master, I sometimes wonder if the Jedi Council sent you here as a punishment, not as an assignment,” he walked over to stand beside his mentor for the past five years. Qui-Gon Jinn continued to read a report from Coruscant as if he hadn’t heard his former student.
“What I mean is that you should be sitting on the Council by this time. You’ve trained more Jedi Knights than any four Masters. You have solved more disputes, settled more squabbles, and stopped more skirmishes from turning into full-blown, interstellar wars than any other Jedi in recent memory,” he continued.
“In the past five years, I’ve seen you do things that I only heard about in the Holocrons. There are Jedi who think they know what to do, but you don’t have to think. You’ve shown me the difference between classroom Force and real world Force. So as a reward for seeing me through the Jedi Trials and preventing the assassination of the Regent of the Corellian system not once, but twice, they send you…to Tatooine?”
“There is a reason the Council does what it does, my young Pada…Jedi Kenobi,” Qui-Gon Jinn grinned at the faux pas. “I have a job to do here and if it seems minor to you, keep in mind that…”
“Nothing is ever as it seems, yes Master I understand,” Obi-Wan finished for him.
“Quite right. It’s nice to know that you did listen to at least a little of what I had to say during our years together,” he moved toward the ramp as Obi-Wan walked with him.
“Well Master, it was rather difficult to listen to your pearls of wisdom when I was being thrown around by a Gundark, shot at by assassins, struggling to figure out which artifact held the explosive in it before we were obliterated, and trying to devise a means of getting the Wookies and the Aqualish to sit down at the same conference table without them trying to rip each other limb from limb,” Obi-Wan laughed.
“And you did it all in fine fashion while bringing great credit upon yourself and the Jedi Order. Clearly you handled it all nicely since you are still, more or less, intact. In the meantime, this dispute between the Hutts and the Dantooine Merchant Clan deserves as much attention and effort as preventing an interplanetary war. I will complete this task with diligence just as you will complete your first task as a Knight of the Republic.”
Silence fell upon them both. Obi-Wan was searching for the right way he might say farewell to his master, but his mind was failing him.
“You’ve been absorbed in that report for some time now. Is it anything I should be concerned with?” Obi-Wan asked, changing the subject.
“Republic Intelligence is concerned with an increase in communications traffic between heads of state in the Outer Rim,” his master answered.
“Why would that concern the RI?” Obi-Wan asked.
“All the messages are heavily encrypted,” Qui-Gon replied with a frown.
“I don’t suppose they’re planning Chancellor Valorum’s surprise birthday party?” Obi-Wan joked.
“The Hutt representatives are nearly here. I shall miss your sense of humor, my young friend. Open yourself to the Force and you will open yourself to limitless possibilities,” Qui-Gon shook Obi-Wan’s hand firmly.
Qui-Gon began to walk down the ramp to the planet to greet a speeder that had just pulled up. Two large, pig-like Gamorreans were seated in the back and a skinny Twi’lek was in the driver’s seat. None of them were armed.
“I am Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn. I am here to settle the dispute your master has with the honorable merchant clans from Dantooine. You honor me by approaching peacefully and with no weapons,” Qui-Gon bowed to the Twi’lek.
“Killing a Jedi Master benefits no one, at this time. You will make these Dantoonine cantina rats see reason, or our employees will,” the Twi’lek responded. The two Gamorreans’s lack of something to smash with their fists was clearly making them restless.
Qui-Gon glanced over at Obi-Wan and said “At least the warmth on this planet is not limited to their hospitality,”
As Obi-Wan stifled a laugh, Qui-Gon turned back to the Twi’lek. “Very well, let’s proceed with the conference. Tell your master that I am ready to begin at his earliest convenience,” Before he could go, Obi-Wan put a hand on his mentor’s shoulder.
“Master, don’t forget about the race later today. Aiya would be crushed if you missed her bring home another championship banner,” Obi-Wan reminded.
“I wouldn’t miss it for anything,” Qui-Gon Jinn grinned back at him.
“I’m telling you, they brought this racer all the way from Corellia specifically for this race,” Beru said for the fifth time.
“And I’m telling you it doesn’t matter,” Owen muttered from under his port stabilizer. “Stop worrying and hand me the polarizer.”
Ever since Anakin became a champion starfighter racer, he had heard tales like this before. Beru had told them stories about a droid pilot from Arkania able to out-think him, a four armed pilot from Taanab able to out-reflex him, and a pilot from Mon Calamari that they brought out of retirement specifically to beat him. There were stories floating around to fill the entire hangar bay as he and another two dozen pilots worked to ready their ships.
“They say that on Ord Mantell, she did this one move that faked out five other racers and he shot down seven targets at the same time,” Beru tried to imitate the move by waving her hands around.
“No doubt she did this all this while she was blindfolded and steering with her feet,” Anakin chuckled to himself as he leaned against the wing.
“Owen, are you almost done here? I’d like to get the pre-flight checklist done sometime before the race is over.” Anakin knocked on the wing to get Owen’s attention.
“Just about,” Owen answered. “I really think that I can add another two or three percent to your…”
Anakin interrupted him, “What’s that? You said you want Beru to show you the Wonder Racer?”
Beru’s eyes lit up and she giggled softly.
Owen swung himself out from under the wing and glared at Anakin. “Fine, but you get the sunrise shift when we buy the farm.”
Anakin laughed out loud as Beru hooked her arm around Owen’s and they walked down the hangar bay to view the other starfighters. Anakin had just begun to climb the ladder when someone tapped him on the back.
“Geez Beru, I’ll hear the story about the great windbag from Corellia some other time. I still have a bit of work left to do to get this bucket up in the air,” he said.
“I’ve been called far worse, but at least I don’t refer to my ship as a ‘bucket’,” a light voice said.
Anakin gulped before stepping off the ladder and turning around. Standing before him was a beautiful woman who wasn’t much taller than he was, but her presence seemed to fill the hangar bay. She stuck out a hand and flashed a tremendous smile at him.
“I…I’m sorry,” Anakin stammered as he shook the soft hand. “I didn’t mean what I said, it’s just Beru has a habit of, well never mind. I’m Anakin Skywalker,” he introduced himself.
“I know who you are. My name is Aiya Rios and let me assure you that only half of the rumors about me are true. I didn’t come to Tatooine specifically to race you. I just came here to win. I’m the pilot of the transport that arrived this morning. My passengers are here on business and it is just lucky for me that Tatooine is holding a race at the same time,.”
Aiya Rios seemed very light-hearted and jovial, a far cry from the brash, aggressive, hostile racer he was used to facing. Her practiced smile was dazzling. Her dark skin was smooth and almost seemed polished. Aiya’s hair was a little lighter than her skin, but she was tall, lean, and had a look in her eyes that shone with a brilliance that warned him that she was no ordinary racer. She had smudges on her face as well as numerous ones on her hands that Anakin knew would only have come from personally working on a ship.
“Well I’m just glad I have someone worth racing.” Anakin ran a hand through his sandy mess of hair. “It’s always a pleasure to go against someone from a real planet instead of the local yokels.”
“So this is the famous Volo?” Aiya asked. “It’s all anyone can talk about since I landed.”
“Famous? I haven’t the funding to race it outside of the system so I doubt anyone on any planet worth a damn has heard of her,” Anakin scoffed.
She brushed against Anakin as she leaned in to look more closely at his pride and joy. “This looks oddly like a Z-95 Headhunter, but I’ve never seen modifications like this before. Did you completely re-work your starboard power coupling?” She asked.
Anakin blushed. “Well I have had to make a few ‘corrections’ to the original design. The Volo will climb faster, turn harder, and go much faster than any other Headhunter in this section of the galaxy,” Anakin said with quite a bit of pride.
“With what you’ve done here, I bet it screams when it dives. Have you broken 5k in the atmosphere?” She asked, her hair inches from his face as she traced a random figure on the wing of the Volo with her finger.
“If I’m in a dive I sure can, but the beauty of this ship is her acceleration. I can go from a dead stop to two thousand kph in just…” Anakin stopped in mid-sentence. Her smile continued to be innocent, but something was hiding behind that smile. “Oh, you’re good, you’re very good.”
Aiya’s lavender eyes flashed at him. “The games begin even before the race has begun, Anakin,” she said.
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Anakin said warily. “And your ship is the fabled and legendary Delta-7 down there?” He asked, looking around the bay. He didn’t need to look far as a small crowd, that included Owen and Beru, was gathered around a sleek looking vessel.
Aiya waved her hand gracefully toward the growing crowd. “The Delta-7 Aethersprite prototype fresh out of the Kuat Systems Engineering shipyards on Corellia. Two months ago I conducted her shakedown and this will be her maiden voyage. Well, voyage isn’t exactly the right word to describe a ship with the new SX-25 twin engines,” she said thoughtfully, but Anakin hardly heard her.
“You really brought the Delta-7 to this worthless rock?” Anakin asked, his mouth hanging slightly open.
“The passengers I mentioned were two Jedi. Since this particular type of starfighter will be made exclusively for the Jedi Order, they wanted to take one along to see it in action,” she looked very smug.
“You brought two real Jedi to this worthless rock?” Anakin asked, his mouth hanging a little more open. Before now, he had thought the Jedi were as real as the mythical Delta-7. There hadn’t been a Jedi on Tatooine since the Dark Jedi Revan arrived some three thousand years before Anchorhead was re-founded.
Aiya’s eyes sparkled as she spoke. “I don’t know any fake Jedi,” and she laughed to herself. A bell sounded two times over the intercom, signaling they had two hours before the race. “I need to finish prepping my ship, thanks for the conversation. It was very…illuminating,” she smiled warmly before turning around and walking back toward her ship.
Anakin watched her go and let out a low whistle before another voice startled him.
“Are you whistling at the girl or the ship?” Owen asked him as he came back from the tour with Beru.
“Both, I think.” Anakin said before turning back to his ship. He forced himself to focus on climbing into his cockpit and not on the fear that crept into the pit of his stomach.
Having Aiya Rios around became a welcome relief to Anakin. He worked through his onboard checklists by himself for the first time in weeks. The usual throng of people that would push and shove to get close to him now surrounded the Delta-7 Aethersprite. Many “armchair pilots” were pointing to the fuselage, the engine, the cockpit, any piece of the ship they considered to be significant. At some point, they all pointed to a series of strange markings on her tail that were arranged in a series of rows, but were unfamiliar to Anakin.
“You would think they hadn’t seen a new ship before,” Anakin said in a huff as he powered up the navigation computer.
He glanced over at Aiya and saw that she was speaking to two men in brown robes. He couldn’t see their faces, but something in his gut told him that they were the Jedi she spoke of earlier. He punched the controls to make his Heads-Up Display light up in front of him. All of the indications for weapons, targeting, navigation, steering, hull integrity, and life support lit up on his HUD.
Anakin patiently waited for the loading crane to get him into position. The two men in brown robes shook hands with Aiya before leaving, deep in conversation. She shook her hair behind her before putting on her helmet and closing the canopy. Anakin wasn’t sure, but it looked like she gave him a slight wink before sealing herself in.
He breathed a huge sigh of relief as the loading crane magnetically sealed itself to the Volo. He truly enjoyed the build up to the race itself. The two inner magnets clamped to his fuselage and a moment later the outer two magnets sealed to his wings. The ship was lifted into the air with a burst of cheers from the locals who saw him rise high above them.
Anakin knew that the betting would be furious prior to this race. Although gambling was the planetary pastime on Tatooine, it always seemed to reach a fever pitch whenever an impressive off-worlder came. Tourists would come from across the sector and occasionally across the Republic to see the natives with their “backward ways” get beat by someone more “cultured and sophisticated”. The locals would then rebel by flocking from across the planet to root against the invaders and cheer on the hometown hero.
By the time the loading crane had him set into position alongside the other eleven craft that would be racing, Anakin was mentally prepared for his last race. In his last seven victories, he had become bored, complacent, and weary of blowing past his competition. Today, there would be none of that.
He was ready for the biggest challenge of his life. He planned to do something he hadn’t ever before. Anakin wanted to win the Trellius Accuracy Trophy, the Dowager Queen Crowd Appeal Award as well as the Tatooine Cup of Speed sponsored by the Desilijic clan of the Hutts. If he could sweep those trophies, he would also put enough credits into his pocket to leave Tattooine behind forever.
As the clock ticked down to the thirty minute mark, the announcer’s voice blared out over the loudspeakers. “Ladies, Gentlemen, and Others! My name is Ulith Rekaba and I am thrilled to bring you the play-by-play of the 74th Annual Tatooine Cup!”
The crowd cheered, but Anakin tried to tune them all out. He completed the last few steps on his onboard checklist when his HUD flashed at him. There was a message that had been transmitted to him.
I’m sorry about earlier. I didn’t mean to be so deceptive. I really am interested in hearing more about your ship. You must be quite a pilot to push a Z-95 model to such extremes. I will truly enjoy defeating such an accomplished flyer like you. I can’t wait to add you to my tail. –Aiya
Anakin felt the grin slowly fall from his face as realization dawned on him. He looked over at the Delta-7 to see that the strange markings on her tail section were decals. The markings represented champions of different worlds that she had defeated. He swallowed slowly as he counted thirty-nine different planetary emblems. This was no lady, this was a predator; and now she had the fastest ship ever.
Ulith’s words brought him back to reality. “Today we have a match un-paralled in the history of the Tatooine Cup! Twelve racers will push their vessels beyond all reasonable limits. From Bimmisaari, the Desilijic are proud to bring you, the only member of the extended royal clan to leave the system, Quellis!” A fur clad man rose waved from his cockpit at the camera that zoomed around his ship. “From the legendary planet of Telos IV, growing up in the craters left by the ravages of the Jedi Civil War, Heth Leos!” The crowd roared again.
Anakin’s mind wandered away from Ulith’s over-hype, and he checked his gloves and helmet for the tenth time. He didn’t bother responding to her taunt this time; he had larger ambitions than showing up yet another snobbish off-worlder. He was jolted back to Ulith’s voice as it rose to an incredible pitch.
“Today, the magnificent Desilijic Hutts are proud to announce that they have brought to Tatooine a racer of unbelievable status. This woman is perhaps the most famous flyer to ever grace a landing bay. Her beauty is matched by her ruthlessness, her thirty-nine victories are consecutive!” Ulith paused as the cheering crowd threatened to drown him out. “Ladies, Gentlemen, and high rollers from across the quadrant, I give you…” he licked his lips in anticipation. “…from Corellia, flying a Delta-7 Aethersprite prototype, the pride of the Kuat Shipyards, AIYA RIOS!”
Even in his sealed cockpit, Anakin almost had to cover his ears. This time, there were actually two different roars. He could look into the stands and see that there was almost a dividing line. One half of the spectators were cheering with extreme passion, the other half were actually jeering. Anakin realized that the half that was less than pleased must have been the locals who did not approve of Ulith’s delight and enthusiasm.
He glanced over at Aiya again, but all he saw were cameras swarming all around her ship. Ulith waited for the crowd’s intensity to slacken before speaking again.
“Finally, we have a racer whose skill is matched only by his incredible daring. You were thrilled when he became the first local to win the Tatooine Cup in forty years. You were in shock when he became the only racer in history to win three in a row.” Ulith was clearly milking this for all it was worth. The crowd was buzzing in the stands, the volume growing louder with every word.
“You were in awe when, in his fifth race, he was able to save a stranded pilot from falling into the atmosphere before the lifeboats could get to him and still bring home the victory!” He paused once again as the crowd began chanting something. It was too low for Anakin to hear, but it was clearly intensifying.
“Oh yes, ladies and gentlemen. This flyer’s skills are un-deniable, his reflexes are un-measureable, and his courage is un-doubtable.” Ulith’s voice had to get louder with every word so he could be heard clearly over the crowd. Anakin realized what the crowd was chanting. They were chanting his name over and over again.
“Pull out your wallets and tug on those heartstrings…” the crowd rose as one now, the sound of their roars hitting his cockpit like a tidal wave. “…for the Boy with Bravado, the Ace of Anchorhead, the Titan of Tatooine, I give you Anakin…Skywalker!”
The Three Dimensional Imagers flew from Aiya’s ship to his in half a heartbeat. Like a swarm of angry Zethas, the TDI’s buzzed around his cockpit and he brought out his best smile as his face flashed up to the fourteen large screens as well as the thousands of personal imagers the people obtained that the Hutts charged a nominal fee for. His head swam as he felt the adoration from the crowd course through him.
Finally, the cameras peeled away. The crowd’s roar resumed a dull buzz as a series of bells sounded.
“Ten minutes left, let’s see what they’ve given me,” Anakin said as he focused on his navcomputer. An image was quickly uploaded onto the screen that finally revealed the map and target locations for today’s race. He let out a low whistle.
He zoomed in on several sections of the map and the various checkpoints he would need to pass through. “Over the Dune Sea will give me an edge in speed. Twisting through Beggar’s Canyon at eight hundred kph should be fun, and then we climb into orbit and go through the shooting range,” he muttered to himself.
From personal experience he knew that several of the other flyers would fall behind trying to get through Beggar’s Canyon. Others would quickly lose sight of Anakin as he would blow past them on the Dune Sea.
“But what about Aiya…” Anakin wondered to himself. He had flown against many of these flyers before, but she and her ship were the X factors.
The bells sounded again, signaling the two minute warning and Anakin scanned the map one last time. Finally, he adjusted his helmet, gloves, and safety harness one more time before waiting for the final countdown to the start of his last race. He stole one last glance over at Aiya Rios to see her totally focused in on the task at hand.
“Stupid!” he said to himself. “Keep your eyes on the prize, Anakin.”
A series of lights appeared on his HUD, a red one flashing at him. He activated his engines and felt them roar to life. Anakin gripped his controls just as he had done so many times before. He felt comfortable, at home, at ease here in his cockpit without any of Tatooine’s distractions weighing him down. Owen’s moisture farm wasn’t here, Anakin’s meaningless existence, and his lack of a future wasn’t here. He would miss racing when he left, but there was no turning back now. Anakin’s time on Tatooine was over.
The light stopped flashing and moved quickly from left to right. Once they went to the green light, Anakin pressed his accelerator forward and his craft shot forward along with all the others. Anakin’s final race, and his race for freedom, had begun.