Racing the Clouds
by Catriona Campbell Boyle
Luke Skywalker poked his head around the door and smiled when he saw his aunt alone in the kitchen. Beru Lars was standing next to the oven busily chopping vegetables on the counter for the evening meal. She appeared to be deep in thought, a tiny frown creasing her brow. Absently she reached up and pushed her fringe of hair aside, then brought the knife down hard through the stick of turanic she had just placed down. Luke hesitated and glanced back out at the courtyard, indecision abruptly crossing his features; his aunt looked worried about something and he didn't wish to interrupt her thoughts.
Standing several metres behind him, Biggs Darklighter noticed Luke's reluctance and waved him on. Luke shrugged and gestured toward the kitchen and Biggs groaned and mouthed "go on", encouraging his friend as firmly as he could. Finally convinced, Luke disappeared through the door, and Biggs settled on the sun-warmed courtyard steps to wait for the youth's return.
"You're back early," Beru noted as soon as Luke entered the room, her private anxiousness wiped from her face. She smiled openly at her teenage nephew. "Problems?"
Luke opened the refrigerator at her back and helped himself to a carton of marave juice. He popped it open and took a long draught before answering. "No. Power motivator on the ridge is working, though can't tell for how long." He reached around his aunt and pinched a piece of turanic, popped it in his mouth and crunched through it loudly. "Um," he started again, and then swallowed. "I've worked through everything Uncle Owen said, and he said I was due for a day off, and Biggs was wondering if I could go over there tonight, and if I could stay and come back next work day. Is that okay?”
Beru turned around, humoured by the anxiousness she had heard in the boy's voice. She reached forward and wiped away the purple marave juice moustache he sported. "You have studies,“ she reminded him, already guessing his answer.
"I've done it and submitted it!" he informed her with some satisfaction and pride. "I don't start the next level until the new semester."
"When do you get your grades through?" Beru asked, much to Luke's chagrin, as she returned to her task.
"'Couple of weeks," he told her and took another drink. “So, can I go?”
His question ended high pitched with hopeful expectation and Beru turned to face him again with a smile. “Luke Skywalker! What is so important about a couple of nights at Biggs'?" Her smile faltered for a moment as she suddenly hit upon a reason for her nephew’s eagerness. "You're not going to the Canyon are you? Luke, we've told you, warned you about that place. I thought you'd have learned after that last time when that Fixer ran you down into the..."
Luke grimaced at his aunt's words, tired of the repeated scoldings. '“We're not going to the Canyon!" he interrupted her, his words toned by his weariness. "Biggs has got the new prospectus for the Academy! He's applying this year!" There was enthusiasm now, excitement in his voice. His eyes glimmered with envy for his older friend.
"Have you spoken to your uncle?”
The excitement died and Luke glanced away. He reached for another stick of vegetable and nibbled on it. "Well, he’s clear on the other side of the rocks, but I did ask for the day and he did say I could get it off."
"But, he didn't say when you could get it, did he?”
"Um, no," Luke admitted. "But..."
"So, you've come to your 'soft-touch' of an aunt, eh?"
"No!” Luke protested with a little too much innocence.
Beru laughed, lightly, enjoying her own joke on the boy and Luke smiled along realising his guardian was making fun of him and that he'd fallen straight into her hands.
"So, can I go?” he repeated.
"I see no reason why not... "
"Great! Thanks, Aunt Beru! "
"Unless there's something you've not told me... "
“Which I'll find out in due course when your uncle gets home.”
"Okay," she told him simply.
“Great!” he said again and lightly kissed her cheek. He took a final drink, scrunched up the carton, tossed it into the waste disposal and turned to go.
“By the way,” his aunt called at his back. “The already packed overnight bag that I found under your bed is now on top of your bed.”
Luke grinned, a little sheepishly, and shrugged. “Thanks.”
Then he was gone and Beru smiled at the yell which came from outside. "She said I can go!” And she turned back to her cooking and back to her thoughts, the frown reappearing to wrinkle her brow.
* * *
It was the early morning, the suns barely rising over the horizon, when they set off from the Darklighter homestead in the direction of Bestine Township. It was a four-hour journey across the desert, and the boys wanted to spend as much time as possible at their destination. Yawning widely, due to a night of camping down on Biggs' bedroom floor and very little sleep, Luke had settled in the back seat of Darklighter’s open-topped landspeeder and was thumbing carefully through the Imperial Academy prospectus as his friend navigated over the Tatooine terrain while listening to Tank Bower, seated beside him, tell an animated joke. Luke glanced up briefly as Biggs snorted laughter at the obscene punch line Tank had just delivered. He smiled, fleetingly wondering what was so funny about a Twi'lek's tentacles, but then he'd only heard half the joke. He stopped at the section which contained the details of Naval careers and hunched over to study the book more closely.
"So Luke, what tale did you spin this time?”
"Mmmm?” Luke murmured, not having heard Tank’s entire question and not deeming it worth the effort to lift his eyes from the prospectus. "Do you know," he suddenly burst. "It takes three years to become a regular pilot, then another one and a half if you want to fly a fighter?! “
"Hmm?" This time he glanced up into Tank's dark eyes.
"What did you tell your folks?”
"That I was staying over at Biggs' both nights.”
"You what?!" Biggs shouted in surprise at Luke's answer. "You realise my olds will think I was in on it! Thanks a lot, buddy! "
Luke winced at the dry anger in Biggs’ voice. “I had too!” He told them both, ignoring Tank's laughter. “Aunt Beru would never have let me go if she knew the truth.”
“You realise Lars is going to pitch a fit over this one, Luke,” Tank told him.
Luke grinned. "Yeah, but'll be worth it!" He lifted the book and flapped it in Tank's face. "Just to see, just to find out the retirements. I'll show him I'm serious about this!"
"You'll be grounded for a whole season," Biggs warned with certainty as he steered the speeder through the outskirts of Bestine toward the city chambers where the Annual Imperial Academy Recruitment Fair was held.
"It'll be worth it,” Luke repeated firmly glancing away from his friends, looking out at the passing vehicles and pedestrians, at the sand-coated buildings, at his own dreams playing within his mind.
Tank turned from the boy, made a circling gesture with his finger at his own temple and crossed his eyes, indicating his diagnosis of Luke’s mental health.
Biggs slapped the hand down. "Cut it out, Bower," he told the other under his breath. "I know what he means." He knew what it meant for Luke to be here, to escape from the stifling protectiveness of the Lars’s, to be so close to your own dreams you could almost reach out and touch them. The difference was he was at the point of realising his dreams, of taking that step away from home and toward independence. Luke, however, was still years away from this point, trapped within youth, trapped with a guardian who slapped down his aspirations with grim reality: the farm, work, study, the harvest.
He and Tank were here to make firm applications for the next semester: he for the Navy and Pilot training, Tank for the Army and the Medical Corps. Luke had begged to be allowed to join them, "Just to see. Just to find out." And he and Tank had relented on the understanding that he got permission from his aunt and uncle. It appeared Luke was so desperate to attend the fair that he had chanced lying to both his friends and his guardians. Biggs didn't know whether to admire the youngster's courage, or condemn his stupidity. At fifteen Luke refused to recognise the repercussions of his actions; at times it even appeared that he was blind to them as he stumbled into problems and situations without the slightest care, and Biggs sometimes worried that there would be no-one left to pull Luke's tail out of trouble after he had departed for the Academy.
“Look at all the Stormtroopers!”
Luke's gasp drew Biggs from his thoughts and he glanced about as he slowed the vehicle to the town's speed limits. There did appear to be large numbers of troopers about. A four-man patrol passed them without a glance and, as they neared the city chambers, they noticed several soldiers standing evenly spaced around the building. There seemed to be a concentration of white armour around the door and, when they drew closer, they saw that the soldiers were searching those wishing to enter the fair and checking their I.D. cards.
"There wasn't this many last year," Tank mumbled, frowning.
“I hope you brought your I.D., Luke. Or you'll have a long and hot wait with the speeder," Biggs commented, injecting a humour he didn't feel into his words. The troopers' presence upset him; somehow it didn't feel right. Something had happened and things had suddenly, and subtly, changed.
Luke squirmed around in his seat as they passed the door way, eyeing the soldiers uneasily. "What d’ya think’s goin' on?"
"Your uncle sent 'em after you, kid." Tank quipped; he reached over and pushed Luke down into the seat. "Quick! Get down before they see you!"
Luke frantically fought back, but could not loosen the stout youth's grip. He squealed with laughter as Tank knelt upon his own seat and leaned over to find Luke's ticklish areas.
"Stop it, you two!" Biggs hissed, urgently. "We're being looked at."
The fracas ended immediately. Luke sat straight up and ran a hand through his tousled hair as he noticed a trooper had turned his gaze upon them. Tank glanced up and gave the soldier a cheery wave. Biggs groaned in dismay, and Luke sank down in his seat as far as he could go.
"Shit!" Biggs cursed, vehemently punching his friend's shoulder. "What'd you do that for?"
"What?" Tank protested with innocent indignation as he rubbed his upper arm. "He's not even bothering with us!"
The boys hesitantly glanced over and, sure enough, the soldier had turned his attention back to the line of Academy hopefuls.
Luke burst with hysterical laughter as the tension left him, and Biggs shot him a foul look. "Don't encourage him."
"C'mon Biggs. Liven up!" Tank ordered as the speeder drew to a halt beside a battered XP-29. He glanced over at the building and at the growing line of people. "Need to hit the residence hall early to get a bed, “ he observed as he and Luke climbed from the vehicle and shouldered their bags.
Biggs engaged the vehicle alarm and steering lock, then reached into the driver's compartment for the documents he would need for the application before joining his friends. Then the three started forward heading for the residence hall. Tank watched a passing voluptuous human girl, nudged Luke, causing him to stumble, and made a rude gesture with his hands. Luke blushed, stopped and stared after the young woman, until Biggs grabbed his elbow and pulled him along.
The temporary residence for out-of-town fair visitors was located behind the fair halls. There were stormtroopers stationed there, too. Their IDs were glanced at and their bags searched before they were admitted. They were shown into a large room which held thirty make-shift pallets and told to dump their gear on the bed of their choice. Luke followed his friends to the centre of the room and dropped his bag on a suspiciously lumpy-looking mattress. That done, they eventually headed off for the fair itself.
Surprisingly, it didn't take long for the line to move down until it was their turn to enter the chambers. All fun aside now they dutifully handed over their IDs and nervously - with no real reason to be - they waited for their cards to be handed back. It appeared that here the soldiers were more thorough, more cautious, as their cards were scrutinised closely. Then they submitted to the searching hands of the armoured soldiers before being admitted to the fair.
"Anyone would think we were living under a dictatorship," Biggs whispered with a touch of anger once they had passed the soldiers. "Or were raving crims. You'd think the Senate would..."
"There'll be a reason for it," Tank assured him, totally unaffected by the whole ordeal and eager to get down to business. They stepped into the hallway and were immediately swallowed by the noise, scents and the throngs of young people here for similar reasons as their own.
Luke felt swamped by the crowd. It looked like the entire youth of Tatooine had converged in one place. His ears rang from the sounds of conversations, the whine of machinery, the reports of gun fire from the firing ranges, the monotonous dirge from the tannoy which announced different events and gave directions to particular sections. He stared at the different fashions, the laughing girls who tossed back their long hair; the young men who shoved passed them, the soldiers who stood silently watching the masses. Luke glanced around and saw more troopers stationed within the hall. Unsettled by the white armour, he moved closer to Biggs and Tank.
"Looks like the Navy's upstairs," Biggs had to shout over the noise. He turned to Tank. "Luke an’ I'll get you back here at ....when.... sixteen hundred?"
“Suits me!" Tank assured him, and he moved off toward his own goal.
Biggs tugged Luke's sleeve. "C'mon."
Together they made their way upstairs to the Naval Career section and, on entering, they found it to be a little quieter than the entrance hall. The large room had a corridor running down its centre and several areas partitioned off. Signs above the partitions identified each specific area of Naval life from the exciting to the mundane: Engineering, Catering, Navigation, Fighter Control and so on.
"Well?" Biggs questioned his friend. "What first?"
Luke grinned with delight. "Let's look round first, then choose." He was delaying the moment, savouring everything until there was nothing left, until they had no choice but to approach the main reason for them both being here.
"Yeah!” Biggs agreed.
They moved on, picking up brochures at the various areas, asking questions of the officials who represented each section. They had a go on the firing range with mock blasters and Biggs scored higher than Luke. They wandered into Catering, for 'a laugh‘, and were asked to leave when they interrupted a demonstration on now to set a table for an Imperial Banquet by guffawing loudly when the official spoke on Twi’lek etiquette and the use of their tentacles when they ate. They took a mock quiz at Engineering and again Biggs scored higher, but Luke held his results with pride when the Lieutenant there told him he'd still performed better than ninety percent of their actual recruits. Eventually, they had worked their way around all the areas and found themselves at Fighter Control.
There were tables set aside for immediate applications and a youth was stepping away as Luke and Biggs approached. Hardly able to contain his excitement, Biggs stepped forward and announced his intentions to the officer behind the desk. "I'd like to make an application, sir."
The Captain glanced at him and smiled, noting the fresh eagerness on the youth's face, the sun-tanned features and the calluses on the large hands. "Take a seat." He indicated to the empty chair in front of Biggs, then he sat behind a computer keyboard and pulled the monitor closer. "Do you have the necessary documents?"
“Yes, sir!" Biggs responded, his voice quivering slightly, and he handed the man the papers he had taken from the speeder. His heart hammered with excitement.
“Date of birth registration?"
Luke, standing behind Biggs, watched and listened with growing envy. His friend was actually doing it, actually making his application, actually fulfilling everything they had dreamed about together! If only he was older, if only his uncle would permit him to make an early application so he could enter the Academy as a cadet, if only...
"You're a farmer?"
“I help out on my father's ranch."
"Your school scores are excellent." The Captain observed.
"Thank you, sir," Biggs answered.
Luke began to lose interest in the interview, his gaze wandered over the rest of the Fighter Control area until it settled on the Flight Simulator. He glanced at Biggs, decided his friend was going to be a while yet, and moved quickly over to the machine. It was dormant for the moment and there didn't seem to be anyone about. Disappointed that he couldn't see it in action he, nevertheless, climbed the steps. He peered into the mock cockpit. It was dark, and the control panel was off, and there wasn't much to see. Frustrated, he climbed back down.
"Would you like a ride?"
Luke turned to the speaker and found himself facing a middle-aged man. His red hair was speckled with grey, there were thin lines around his eyes and mouth and he looked quite stern. But, his voice had sounded amiable enough and when he smiled there was genuine friendliness behind it. His uniform was the grey of the Imperial Navy and Luke searched his memory to place the rank which accompanied the bars on the man's tunic.
The officer smiled at Luke's effort. "I'm a Flight-Commander." He supplied for the boy. "Flight-Commander Narra. And you are?"
“Luke Skywalker, sir!”
"Would you like to take a ride, Luke?” Narra repeated his question.
"Yes, sir!" Luke responded with adolescent enthusiasm, his eyes wide and wild with delight. "That'd be great!" He watched with interest as the man turned to the computer control panel set below the workings of the simulator. There was a rumble of power and the machine came on line.
"Okay, in you get. Now the controls are pretty standard," he looked quizzically at Luke. "Have you flown anything before?"
Balanced on the steps and eager to enter the cockpit Luke answered. "T-16 Skyhopper."
"A bush pilot, huh? Okay, as I said, controls are standard. I'm going to run a simple battle pattern for you. Basically, the idea is for you to kill all your enemies while remaining unharmed. There's a helmet on the seat with a com in it." Narra explained quickly. "Through it you'll hear the others of your TIE squad, and if you start feeling overwhelmed, or sick, give me shout."
Luke clambered in and fastened himself into the seat harness - Narra helped him tighten it up around his thin frame- then he pulled the helmet on.
"Well, it's a bit big, but it'll do."
Narra pulled the canopy closed and Luke found himself faced by an interior of a TIE fighter and a cacophony of lights and controls. "Standard, huh?" he murmured and gripped the joystick; surely it couldn't be any more difficult than the games he played at Tosche station? The scene beyond the cockpit appeared to be that of a ships hanger. He could see other fighters, men passing by on walk-ways and droids working on assorted tasks; it all looked so real. "Wow!" He breathed, impressed.
There was a crackle of static and a chuckle over the com. "Okay, Luke, your call sign is 'Leader'. You're in the hanger of a Star Destroyer suspended over the docking bay doors about to be dropped into battle. Your opponents are X-Wings. Ready? "
"Ready." Luke echoed.
"Base to Flight Leader," The no-nonsense tones did not belong to Narra. “Please acknowledge Flight readiness to launch."
"Uh," Luke floundered.
"Flight leader, do you copy?”
"Uh, yes?” Luke suggested.
"Please confirm that Flight is ready to launch."
"Confirmed." Luke stated, beginning to get into the part.
"Stand by. Three, two, one …”
And Luke suddenly felt as though he had just been hit by a raging Bantha. He was thrown into the seat cushions with a force so powerful he was sure his spine would crack. The breath was pushed from his body, he felt faint, and his stomach heaved with sudden nausea. The snip shimmied and twisted and he was slammed to the side and his head banged about within the loose helmet.
“Flight leader," that same toneless voice. "Enemy ships heading in at 20 degrees."
Luke fought to lift his head and stared at the star field ahead. His hands tightly gripped the joystick and he suddenly drew in a great whooping breath as the G-Forces gradually slackened. "Wow!" he croaked.
"Please repeat, Flight Leader."
“Nothing," Luke told the voice as he grew accustomed to the pressures within the cockpit. "Acknowledging targets at 20 degrees." He gently angled the controls bringing his ship around to the heading, found he'd over-compensated, and completed a roll before righting himself. "Oops.”
There was a blast of light to his left and his fighter shook from the shot. An X-Wing flashed passed. Quickly, Luke studied his control panel and located his rear scanners. The dart-like fighter was behind him.
"Flight Two to Leader. There's one to your rear!" It was the voice of a young male.
"Never!" Luke responded with sarcasm through gritted teeth. He grinned as he looped around the 'Wing and brought his guns to bear on his opponent. He missed, and again the ship zipped passed. "Damn!”
"Leader, I've got one on my tail! I…" There was a scream and a crackle and silence.
"They got Four."
“Two 'Wings moving in!"
"Break left!" Luke ordered, shouting in his excitement. "Cut around and come in at..."
His fighter rocked from a rear hit.
“Rear scanner failure," the monotonous voice announced.
Luke dismally stared at his instrument panel as the rear scanner read out died. He twisted his head around and spotted his antagonist. Again he looped around, succeeding in getting behind the X-Wing. This time he didn't rush the shot, he eased closer, matching the moves made by the ship in front, and centred it in his target grid. He gave a yell of triumph when he fingered the trigger and the 'Wing exploded. "Yes!”
"More coming in... Leader, above you!"
Luke automatically glanced upwards and saw nothing but where the hatch would be on a real TlE, then directed his eyes back to the scanners. The voice of the non-existent pilot was right, there had been two above him and they had just dropped in behind him. He twisted the controls and the star field shifted, his stomach dived and he brought the ship around. He glanced around frantically looking for his opponents - it was so annoying having only front and rear cockpit screens, so annoying having to rely on scanners for most angles. It was certainly different to flying his T-16 with its wide visuals backed up only by simple scanners.
He was punched forward and his neck whipped lashed painfully when the harness caught him. A Klaxon screamed within the close confines and his instruments crackled.
"I’m hit!" He yelled to no-one in particular. He wrestled with the controls, the star field spun before his eyes. The fighter took another blast, the force wrenching the controls from Luke's hands. He threw up his arms in reflex action waiting for the impending explosion.
The alarm died. The ship stopped its nauseating spin and settled down gently. Luke breathed a sigh of relief when the door seal cracked and light from the room flickered into the cockpit. He laid his head back against the seat, trying to catch his breath.
"You're dead," Narra told him, smiling.
Luke lifted the helmet from his head and ran his hand through sweat soaked hair. "I feel dead, sir." He commented, handing the head gear to the Imperial.
"Quite a ride isn't it?"
Narra helped him down from the simulator and set him on unsteady feet. The noise of the fair closed in on ears still ringing from the events of battle. Luke didn't answer the man's question. He was sore, bruised more than likely, and completely disheartened by his performance.
Narra studied the teenager's depressed features. "You really want to be a pilot, don't you?"
"More than anything," Luke answered somewhat dejectedly as he corrected his dishevelled clothing and tucked his shirt back into his pants.
"Then tell me what happened."
“You said it. I'm dead," he answered, flatly.
"It was too different. Everything relied on the scanners. I'm used to using my eyes." He shot the machine a foul look.
"You were trying too hard, Luke Skywalker. You never relaxed, you never let your natural instincts guide you. You tried to rely too much on your scanners because you thought you had to."
Luke shrugged. "I guess." He glanced around looking for Biggs, hoping that the elder boy was still occupied elsewhere, and was horrified to find Darklighter watching him with a grin on his face. "I'd better be going." He told the man hurriedly and tried to edge away.
“Not so fast!” Narra told him, laying a hand on his shoulder. "I'm not finished.”
“Sir, I..." He gestured to Biggs. "My friend is waiting."
"You think you failed, don't you?"
"Didn't I?” A frown furrowed his brow.
"You were killed in battle after making a kill yourself. That's not a failure - just a waste of talent." Narra smiled at the boy, watching a glimmer of hope re-ignite within Luke's eyes. "Your friend tells me you've only been flying for eight months, so I'm suitably impressed!" He took his hand away. "Learn to relax, son, and don't try so hard."
“Thank you, sir," Luke pulled away and headed towards Biggs, his face red with embarrassment. His emotions in turmoil, his heart still racing from the exhilaration of the battle. "Did you see that?" He tentatively asked the elder boy, wondering himself if he meant the simulations run or the words of advice and encouragement from the Commander. He rubbed at his neck muscles, trying to ease out some of the pain he felt.
“Yeah, I saw." Biggs told him as they walked away from the Fighter Control, heading for the exit stairs.
"Did you ever take a simulation?"
"I was killed."
Biggs playfully slapped the back of Luke's head. "Thanks, I feel the same way 'bout you!"
"You! Stand where you are!"
The sudden shout caught the attention of many in the hall. Luke and Biggs turned to find two young men bolting toward them. Biggs pushed Luke out of the way as the pair raced passed pursued by several troopers.
"Stand! Or we'll fire!"
The duo skidded to a halt as the crowd parted and silence descended over the area.
Luke watched, spellbound and frightened, as the soldiers reached the boys, pushed them roughly against a wall and kicked their legs apart. "Biggs?” he whispered the question, looking for an explanation for the events as the captives were searched.
Darklighter didn't answer.
An officer sauntered into the hall and was approached by the troop leader who gestured toward the captured pair. The officer glanced briefly at the youths, studied the ID cards he was offered then dropped them to the floor. After exchanging a few words to the waiting soldiers he walked away. The youths' hands were then bound and they were marched down the corridor and out of the hall. As they passed Luke, he caught the glance of one of them, and never had he seen such despair, such fear, and he shivered, feeling totally helpless.
Luke turned in surprise at the whisper to find an Imperial standing behind him. The man coldly eyed his wide, open-mouthed expression of incredulity.
“You didn't hear me, kid," the soldier warned him, then turned his back on Luke and walked away.
There was a tug on his sleeve as the crowd began to mingle again once the small procession had left the hall. The noise level increased as the last few moments became the topic of conversation for many.
"Come on, Luke."
“Did you near him?" Luke questioned his friend.
"That guy back there. He said..."
"No. I didn't hear him, and neither did you." Biggs grabbed Luke by the shirt and pushed him through the crowd to the exit steps. As soon as they reached the ground floor, they were accosted by Tank who had been restlessly waiting for them.
“Where've you guys been?" he questioned, full of enthusiasm. "I did it! I really did it! I signed on! I'll hear if I've been accepted within two moon cycles - or so they said, but I did it!" He paused for a beat, then asked. ”You?"
"Yeah," Biggs answered quietly.
Luke glanced up at the older boy. There was something about his tone of voice, a distant tremble of emotion in the single word. Biggs was staring at a passing uniformed officer with the strangest expression Luke had ever seen on his friend's face. Then it suddenly occurred to the boy that Biggs was scared! His friend and idol, who was never scared of anything - not even Fixer! - was afraid. Biggs had talked of nothing else but the Academy for years. Together they had lain on the sand dunes staring at the gathering clouds around harvest time, racing them in their minds and dreaming of a time they would leave Tatooine and their mundane lives to race the clouds across the sky of some foreign planet. And now Biggs was on the point of realising those dreams and he was afraid. Luke wasn't quite sure that he knew the reason for Biggs' sudden fear, but he had a feeling it had something to do with the events they had witnessed upstairs.
Tank encircled Biggs shoulders oblivious to Darklighter's mood, his own excitement overshadowing everything else. "My friend, we are getting off this rock!" He stopped when he noticed Luke standing watching them enviously. "Sorry, kid."
Luke shrugged, telling himself that it didn't matter that in a few months he was going to lose his closest friends to the Academy. "S'okay," he assured him.
"C'mon," Biggs broke in, pulling Luke back into their small circle and injecting false enthusiasm into his voice. "Let's get our very own Squadron Leader some eats!"
"Squadron Leader?" Tank questioned as they exited the hall and left the bustle of the fair behind them in search of a local cafeteria.
It didn't take them long to find an establishment that sold the appropriate junk food and they settled themselves at an outside table opposite the city chambers from where they could watch the comings and goings of the fair and enjoy their meal. The event was beginning to wind down, the line was down to a dozen people and there were more leaving the halls than wanted to enter. The soldiers were all still there though, their white armour glinting in the evening Tatooine sunlight.
It was with relish that Luke bit down into the meat patty sandwich and chewed thoughtfully as he watched the activity across the way.
Tank stared at Luke's plate. "Give me a piece of that will you? Hey, Biggs. Did I tell you that within five years I could be a Captain? Isn't that something?"
"Why didn't you order some if you wanted some." Luke wanted to know.
"Yeah, you said!" Biggs reminded Tank.
"I didn't think it would look that good," Tank told the boy, then directed himself at Biggs. "There's an accelerated programme that, if my training and grades are okay, I can go on.”
"Okay, but only if I can have some yours," Luke agreed, reaching over for a handful of Tank’s meal.
"I still have to progress through the regular way," Biggs explained, watching Luke and Tank swap food from plate to plate. "But I can choose at the end of my training whether I want to enter a squadron or join a ship as a mate."
"I'd go for the fighter," Luke told them, trying to join the conversation.
“I'll decide at the time," Biggs said. "Though I think life expectancy is better as a ship’s mate.”
Luke grimaced with mock disgust. "Coward." He bit into his sandwich again, his attention going back to the door of the hall. "I’d sure go for…”
"Tank, do you think we've done the right thing."
Biggs’ voice was quiet, flat, and Luke fell silent. He looked to his friend and saw that same fear he had noticed earlier. Tank also turned to regard Biggs.
"During my interview I was asked what I thought of the Empire. Whether I thought it was a good idea to have the systems under one basic form of government."
“So?” Tank asked, returning to his meal. “I was asked the same thing. Hey, we got it in school, remember?"
"I know, but... Hell, Tank. I'm just not sure anymore!" Biggs pushed his plate away and stared over at the soldiers.
Tank laughed and shovelled a spoonful of food into his mouth. "I don't believe this! Biggs Darklighter's got pre-academy nerves! Wait 'til I tell the others!"
Biggs leaned forward over the table. "It's not the Academy! I still want the Academy... It's just... I don't think I want to serve the Empire."
"Suns, Biggs!" Tank glanced rapidly about them. "Someone'll hear!"
"That's my point,” Biggs told him grimly. "Since when have we been afraid to talk?”
"Tell 'im about the rebels!" Luke interjected, enthralled by the conversation, excited by the sudden new danger which seemed to surround him.
Tank glanced at Luke. "What are you talking about?" He looked back at Biggs.
"We saw some kids arrested," Biggs explained reluctantly, shooting Luke a dagger-like glance.
Luke ignored the look. "The guy behind us said they were rebels." He recalled the passing expression he had caught from one of the youths, the fear, the terror, and he shivered.
“Luke's imagination running riot," Biggs said, silently telling Luke to shut it with the tone of his voice, his steady gaze, and well-aimed kick under the table. "They were a couple of pick-pockets."
Tank looked at Luke reproachfully. "That mouth is going to get you into real trouble some day, kid."
Luke grimaced, reached under the table and rubbed his shin where Biggs’ boot had caught him. “I was only…”
"What kind of courses will you have?" Biggs asked, rapidly changing the topic of conversation; he was sorry he had brought up the subject of the Empire in the first place, sad that Tank had reacted the way he had.
“We start with basic training, the usual stuff. We don't go into our chosen fields until after we've passed. So I won't start medicine until about two months into the semester. What about you?"
Luke listened half-heartedly to their conversations he ate his sandwich. He watched the pedestrians in the street go about their business and wondered why Biggs had closed the discussion. He glanced at Tank as the large boy laughed loudly. Tank suddenly seemed like a stranger, seemed to be apart from Biggs and himself, appeared not to have noticed what was happening around him. Tank suddenly looked like his uncle Owen.
It was getting dark by the time they finished their meal and, still swapping stories and information about their day, they headed for the residence hall and the make-shift beds they had booked there.
* * *
Luke was sitting quietly in the passenger seat of Biggs' speeder reluctantly watching his home grow steadily on the horizon as they approached it. They had dropped Tank off at his own home and had travelled the twenty or so kilometres to the Lars farm in relative silence, each lost in their own thoughts. Luke rubbed at his stiff neck and winced at the ache; the simulator had left him sore, and he had a spread of bruises on his chest where the harness had caught him. The uncomfortable bed he had slept in last night hadn't eased the soreness; it had merely made him feel worse. But it had been worth it!
“When did Lars expect you back?" Biggs questioned as he drew the vehicle to a halt.
“This morning," Luke informed him.
Biggs cleared his throat. "'Wouldn't like to be in your shoes."
"Me either.” Luke said with a grin.
They were quiet again, listening to the nearest vaporators hum with power, each reluctant to end their time together as though by parting this day they were losing something they would never again regain, as though this was the first step toward their final farewell when Biggs left Tatooine for good.
"It's been good, huh?" Luke finally said.
"Yeah," Biggs agreed, knowing they were skirting around the issue, knowing they were trying not to think of the things they had heard and witnessed, knowing it had raised questions for them both and had put a damper on their dreams and aspirations. Reality had reared its ugly head and had spoiled what should have been one of the most important days of his life; it had forced him to look ahead with the open eyes of an adult and not the clouded vision of a boy.
"You'll be over tomorrow?" Luke asked.
"If Lars lets me after today,” Biggs returned, sure he was going to take some of the blame for Luke going AWOL.
Luke climbed from the speeder and reached into the back for his bag. He shouldered it and turned to regard the dome of the homestead.
"Tank sees it. But, he doesn't want too. More than anything he wants off this dust ball, and like us the Academy’s the only way for him to do it." He paused staring at the sky at the wispy pieces of white cloud which scudded across the blue. "He'll bury his head in the ground like a sand-viper and pretend nothing's changed until something forces him to see it, until it stares him in the face. I guess... he's scared."
Biggs nodded. "I can't wait to get out of here, Luke! The chance to train as a pilot...." His voice trailed off and he turned to face the younger boy. "It's our dream, Luke; it's my chance to actually be one of those shooting stars. But..." And his tone altered, the enthusiasm died. "Everything's changing and it's reaching Tatooine now, too." He drew in a breath, the air warm and still. "Yeah, I’m scared. I'm scared of leaving here...don't laugh... I'm scared of leaving here, losing the security here. I’ll be on my own, Luke, and I'm afraid I'll make the wrong decisions."
Luke didn't know what to say, wasn't sure he completely understood what Biggs was telling him.
“Luke! Is that you?"
Skywalker grimaced at his guardian's angry shout. “Yes, Uncle Owen!” He called back.
“Get yourself in here! Now, boy!”
“In a minute!" he yelled back with annoyance, then he turned to Biggs and hesitated, wondering if he should say something, something which showed Biggs he understood, even if he didn't. However, he could think of nothing. "I gotta go."
"Give 'im hell, kid." Biggs encouraged.
"Yeah, right," the boy commented and, scuffing his boots through the sand, he walked to the dome and disappeared down the steps.
Muted voices reached Biggs' ears from the sunken courtyard, and he smiled to himself. He suddenly realised he had been wrong about Luke. The boy had recognised the consequences of his actions, he didn’t just blindly stumble on into trouble as it sometimes seemed. Luke had carefully weighed everything up in his mind and had decided to go to Bestine despite the problems it would cause him. He had returned home to face his uncle, ready to accept the repercussions of his two nights away. As he had said it himself, it was ‘worth it'.
Biggs gunned the engine of his speeder and turned from the farm, briefly wondering if he would be able to accept the consequences of his actions and decisions as readily as Luke.
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