"Skywalker?" barked the Imperial officer, cold grey eyes glinting from beneath his cap. Even though he was fully decked out in regulation black, the intense heat didn't seem to bother him. Nor did it melt the permanent scowl on his face. "It's your turn. Get in."
Luke Skywalker, a blonde youth of 16 years, hesitated. It wasn't the sight of the Imperial officer - they weren't unknown even on a backwater planet like Tatooine. And it wasn't the city of Mos Espa surrounding him, bigger and more alive than anything he'd ever imagined. It was the vehicle.
"I can't drive this," he protested, pointing at the sleek, black KT-31. "It's twice the size of the landspeeder I had my lessons in." Wasn't he supposed to take the test in a similar vehicle to the one he practiced in? That's what Uncle Owen had said.
"The regulations state that you'll take the Imperial land-speeder test in the vehicle assigned by the Examiner. Namely me. Are you questioning the will of the Emperor?"
"But this is impossible; the controls will be different and-"
"Keep whining and I'll fail you right now."
Luke gritted his teeth. "Oh, all right then," he said, climbing into the pilot seat of the speeder. "But no one told me about this. It's not fair."
The Examiner seated himself next to Luke. "The test has begun," he said, producing a handheld computer in which he began to tap information. "Do the safety system diagnostic."
"The safety system diagnostic."
"This speeder has a safety system?"
"Do you think we're going to use seat belts? You're not in some farm wagon now, Skywalker." He pointed at a blue dial, the only display item which was currently lit. "The KT-31 is equipped with the latest in safety force-fields, powered by a separate generator. You see?"
The Examiner shook his head. "Just start the engine."
Luke studied the dashboard. He had to admit that the KT-31 was far in advance of the rickety speeder he had used for practice and the controls were more complicated. Okay, don't panic, he thought. Just keep calm and everything will be all right. Let's see, obviously the stick in front of me is for steering but where are the repulsorlift activators? And what the hell is that pedal next to the accelerator and the brake for? And most importantly - how do I turn this damn thing on?
"You see that big green button?" said the Examiner.
"You might want to press it. Unless you think we're going fast enough already."
Luke winced at the man's sarcasm but did as he was told. The motors whirred into life and lights flickered on the display panel. His stomach, which had been filled with butterflies all morning, gave a twinge as the speeder rose a little into the air. Well, here goes nothing, he thought and eased his foot down on the accelerator. The speeder lurched forward then shuddered to a halt.
His heart felt like it was going to burst from his chest. What's wrong with this stupid vehicle? Why won't it go forward?
"Depress the mixer control."
"The third pedal there, next to the brake."
This machine is crazy, he thought. If only he'd been allowed to take the test in a different speeder. But no, the Empire had to do everything according to some regulation that probably made sense when you were on Coruscant, but out here in the Rim...
Luke furrowed his brow and tried again. This time he kept the mixer depressed as he accelerated. It worked. The speeder shot forward. In fact, the acceleration took him by surprise. His fingers automatically clamped harder around the steering stick. He saw that the nose of the speeder was on a collision course with a Jawa market stall selling droid spare parts. Quick, do something. He yanked the stick to the left. This brought the tail end of the speeder round in a whiplash action. Oh no! He hit the brake. The speeder stopped inches from the chassis of an R-2 unit.
"Ootini!" shouted the Jawa stall-holder, shaking its fist at Luke before checking that its stock was undamaged.
Luke released the breath he'd been holding in his lungs. From the corner of his eye, he noticed the Examiner tap something into his computer. "I guess I've failed already," he sighed. "Should I get out?"
"The test will be over when I say so."
"But if I've already failed there's no point."
"Get moving. You'll know the result at the end, not before."
"This is torture."
"No, but it can always be arranged..."
Within seconds they were hurtling through the main thoroughfare of Mos Espa. Luke wondered if he was going too fast. He knew the Imps had stupid regulations about the maximum speed limit in a city area. Better slow down, just in case. His foot was hardly touching the accelerator so he tried taking his other foot off the mixer. The speeder slowed to a relaxed velocity. This gave Luke the chance to look around at the wonders of this bustling city.
His attention focused on a pretty, dark-haired girl walking along the side of the road. Luke pressed the brake lightly as he neared her. She's beautiful, he thought. The girl glanced in the direction of their speeder, frowned then continued on her way. Once she had passed, Luke looked back. That's strange, he thought. Where did she go? It was as though the girl had simply disappeared.
"Look out!" the Examiner cried.
Luke turned back to see a huge creature stomping towards them. A dewback! He managed to swerve out of the way, but not without attracting jeers from the pedestrian onlookers.
"Hey kid," called one bystander, "it might help if you look where you're going." The man's companion, a Wookiee, bellowed his agreement.
Luke felt his face blush bright red. He wanted to shout something back but his mind had gone blank. He shrank a little further down into his seat.
"Assuming that you know which way is forward," said the Examiner, "We're going to leave the city. Take the exit at the end of this road."
"I've definitely failed, now haven't I?"
"What did I tell you before?"
Luke bit his lip. This whole thing seemed like a waste of time. He said nothing more until they arrived at the city exit where a group of stormtroopers saluted the Examiner, and stepped aside to let the speeder pass.
"Hey, I didn't see any stormtroopers earlier. Is there a problem?"
The Examiner shook his head. "Nothing that need concern you. A supposed sighting of some rebel sympathisers."
"Rebels? On Tatooine."
"Highly unlikely," the Examiner sneered. "The only signs of resistance I've seen on this dust-ball are when you try and drag a bantha away from a watering hole."
Luke remembered what Biggs had said about wanting to join the rebellion. He was going to become a rebel pilot and fly all around the galaxy. Luke, on the other hand, was going to stay on Tatooine forever.
Sometimes he dreamed that his father would arrive in a gleaming silver spaceship to take his son away from this hellish place. But he knew that wasn't going to happen. All he had to look forward to was a life of moisture farming. And if he could pass this test perhaps the occasional thrill of travelling through the Jundland wastes. Something that was looking increasingly unlikely given the way things were going so far...
But such thoughts left Luke's head as he beheld the beauty of the desert. The flats stretched out on either side for hundreds of miles. In the distance Dorfi Mountain loomed high, flaming red in the light of the twin suns. Beggars Canyon was just up ahead.
It wasn't until they entered the canyon that they saw the girl lying on the ground.
"What the hell?" said Luke. "What happened?" He began to decelerate. Off to one side of the canyon lay the remains of a crashed speeder.
"Keep going" said the Examiner.
"What do you mean?"
"A girl out in the middle of nowhere... It's obviously some kind of trap. Don't stop."
"We can't just leave her out here. What if there are Sand People around?"
The Examiner's eyes scanned the ridges of the canyon. "That's what I'm afraid of. They might be using the girl's body to trap us."
"Her body? You think she's dead?"
The Examiner ignored Luke and leaned forward to check the instruments. "Doesn't seem like there's anything else out here. But maybe they've got something jamming our scanners."
"Sand People with communication jammers?" How did someone like this manage to become an Imperial officer? "Look, I'm supposed to do what you say to pass the test. But I reckon I've already failed so it doesn't matter what you say and I can do what I want." He stopped the speeder directly in front of the girl, cut the motor and jumped out.
"Skywalker," the Examiner called out. He was now sitting in the pilot seat. "Never disobey an order from an Imperial officer." The KT-31's engine roared into life.
"Wait, you can't leave me here!"
"Stay where you are," shouted a female voice, "or I'll blow your painfully small Imperial head off its shoulders."
Luke turned. The girl was on her feet and wielding a blaster. But even more surprising was the fact that he recognised her; it was the girl he'd seen earlier on in Mos Espa. Her delicate features were locked in a frown that would have made her look even more attractive, were it not for the weapon she was carrying. She used the pistol to motion towards the speeder. "Get in, hero boy. We're going for a ride."
The Examiner was right. It had been a trap, but with what purpose? Kidnapping a farmer and a speeder examiner didn't seem too ambitious a plan. Still, there was no point in arguing with the wrong end of a blaster. He climbed in the vehicle.
The Examiner stared daggers. "Well done, Skywalker. This is without doubt the worst test it's ever been my misfortune to adjudicate."
"It's not my fault," protested Luke. "I thought she was hurt."
"Shut up," said the girl. "And do as I say."
The Examiner turned to face the girl who was now sitting in the back seat. "Do you realise the amount of trouble you're making for yourself? I'm an Imperial officer."
"That's the whole idea. Now get this thing moving north. And if you reach for the communicator, you can wave goodbye to your hand."
Cricking his neck with frustration, the Examiner did as he was told and set the speeder moving towards the larger of the twin suns.
Luke felt intense curiosity about this girl. Who was she? Why was she doing this? It didn't seem likely that she was working alone. "Are you with the Rebels?" he asked.
"Let's just say I'm not on the Emperor's payroll."
"What's your name?"
"If I told you that," she smirked, "I'd have to kill you."
The Examiner gave a derisive snort. "If there's any killing to be done here, it'll be by the Emperor's Imperial Stormtroopers. Once they realise I've gone missing they'll search every corner of this planet until they find me. And I'd better be alive and well, because you wouldn't want the whole of Tatooine placed under martial law, would you?"
"I think you overestimate your importance to the Empire. You're just a minor official."
"But one who's important enough to kidnap."
"Only because you happen to know the entry code for the Governor's offices."
The Examiner glanced over his shoulder at the girl. "How... how did you find out?"
"Oh, didn't your Emperor warn you? Rebel spies are everywhere. When a Captain of the Guard is found drunk on duty and demoted to speeder examiner, it doesn't go unnoticed. It's a shame you no longer travel with an escort when you're outside the city isn't it?"
The rebels must be planning an assassination, Luke realised. But that really would bring the wrath of the Empire down on Tatooine. Perhaps they just wanted information, maybe tap into the Imperial communications network. Whatever they were up to, he felt a tingle of excitement coursing through his veins. Just wait until Biggs hears about how I got caught up in the rebellion.
"You won't get a thing out of me," the Examiner said.
"I won't, but we have an interrogation expert who can be quite persuasive."
"Imperial officers are trained to withstand the use of truth drugs."
"Good for you. But we won't be using them."
Luke saw that the Examiner had turned quite pale, and was sweating more than could be attributed to the heat alone.
"Is that what you're going to do?" asked Luke. "Torture him?"
"It's in the best interests of the galaxy. Don't worry; we won't hurt you."
Despite the speeder's visor, the desert whipped around the occupants of the vehicle. Particles got into their hair, their eyes and their mouths. Luke felt an acrid taste burning on his tongue. But not all of it was due to the sand. He braced himself then stretched out his left foot and pushed down hard on the brake.
"No!" yelled the Examiner. "Are you crazy?"
But it was too late. The speeder flipped over like a toy thrown by an angry child.
For an instant during the crash, Luke felt nothing. It was like the universe had been switched off. Then he screamed. Bolts of fire lanced up through his arm. He opened his eyes just as the blue safety force-field which enveloped the occupants winked out. They must have skidded for hundreds of metres, but the speeder had come to a halt the right way up.
He flexed his arm to see if it was broken. Fortunately, the force-field seemed to have done its job well. He was bruised but otherwise unhurt. He noticed that the girl was coming round. Her hands darted around the back seat.
"Looking for this?" the Examiner gloated, holding the blaster pistol. "Pity you rebels aren't trained to cope in an emergency."
In response, the girl's fist slammed into the Examiner's chin, knocking him back against the instrument panel. She jumped out of the speeder and headed for the walls of the canyon.
Looks like they are trained for emergencies, thought Luke.
Recovering from the unexpected attack, the Examiner fired off a couple of rounds, but the girl was already under cover of the rocks. "I'll have to finish this on foot," he said.
"I don't know about that," said Luke, checking the scanners. "There are two speeders coming in."
"Let me see," said the Examiner. He frowned when he saw that Luke was right. "We're probably near the rebel rendezvous point. We'd better get back to Mos Espa."
The Examiner hit the accelerator and they roared away, the KT-31's motors kicking up a cloud of dust. Luke turned to see if he could make out anything but the whirlwind of sand obscured his view.
"This will make a great story to tell your grandchildren," said the Examiner, rubbing his jaw. "Let's hope it's the last time you see any rebels."
Luke nodded his agreement. At the same time, he felt an irresistible urge to see that girl again. Maybe one day, he thought.
"By the way..."
"Yeah?" Luke was half expecting the Examiner to say that given his heroics, he had passed the test.
"It was a foolish thing to do - stepping on the brake. You could have killed us all."
Luke folded his arms. That was it. He was through with the Empire. The next time something like this happened he was going to let the rebels do what they wanted.
"But you did save my life, so perhaps I can overlook some of your faults..."
Luke saw the trace of a grin on the Examiner's face. He felt a larger one spreading over his own.
After the initial excitement, life at the moisture farm continued as normal, with the exception that Luke was now able to use the second hand X34 landspeeder his aunt and uncle had bought him to check out the vaporators on the far ranges.
Following one such check, he was returning home when he saw a Skyhopper parked outside the farm entrance. A squad of Imperial Stormtroopers stood nearby in close formation. His heart raced. What are they doing here? Have the Sand People attacked? He calmed down when he saw Uncle Owen talking with an officer in a black uniform. Luke recognised the man; it was the Examiner.
"Hey Luke," called Owen. "It's okay. This officer says he has something for you."
Luke parked the speeder and jogged over to join his uncle.
"I'm sorry if we alarmed you," the Examiner was saying to Owen.
Owen leaned on his Berlinger rifle. "It's not every day we get stormtroopers out here."
"Your nephew saved the life of an Imperial officer. Namely me. More importantly, he also helped to foil an assassination attempt on the Governor herself." The Examiner turned to regard Luke. "And in return the Governor wanted you to have this." He gestured at the brand new T16 Skyhopper.
"It's for me?" Luke stepped closer and ran his hand over the fuselage. "I can't believe it."
"Should be good for practising in."
"Practising? What do you mean?"
"You realise that the KT-31 is designed to be especially difficult to pilot. The Empire doesn't want just anyone passing the test and zooming freely around. Although you lack a certain... discipline, your reactions were the best I'd ever seen. Good enough to be an Imperial TIE fighter pilot. Good enough to have a place reserved for you at the Academy."
"The Imperial Academy!" Luke's eyes widened. It meant that one day he would soar through the depths of space. One day he would leave Tatooine far behind. One day I'll be just like my father, he thought. I'll be a true Skywalker. "Did you hear that Uncle Owen? I'm going to the Academy!"
It was some time before Luke was able to understand why his uncle just growled and loped back to the farm.
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