Anakin Skywalker stood in a long, single-file line in an abandoned maintenance tunnel leading to the Wicko district garbage pit. With an impatient sigh, he hoisted his flimsy and tightly folded race wings by their leather harness and propped the broad rudder on the strap of his flight sandal. Then he leaned the wings against the wall of the tunnel and, tongue between his lips, applied the small glowing blade of a pocket welder, like a tiny lightsaber, to a crack in the left lateral brace. Repairs finished, he waggled the rotator experimentally. Smooth, though old.
Just the week before, he had bought the wings from a former champion with a broken back. Anakin had worked his wonders in record time, so he could fly now in the very competition where the champion had ended his career.
Anakin enjoyed the wrenching twist and bone- popping jerk of the race wings in flight. He savored the speed and the extreme difficulty as some savor the beauty of the night sky, difficult enough to see on Coruscant, with its eternal planet-spanning city-glow. He craved the competition and even felt a thrill at the nervous stink of the contestants, scum and riffraff all.
But above all, he loved winning.
The garbage pit race was illegal, of course. The authorities on Coruscant tried to maintain the image of a staid and respectable metropolitan planet, capital of the Republic, center of law and civilization for tens of thousands of stellar systems. The truth was far otherwise, if one knew where to look, and Anakin instinctively knew where to look.
He had, after all, been born and raised on Tatooine.
Though he loved the Jedi training, stuffing himself into such tight philosophical garments was not easy. Anakin had suspected from the very beginning that on a world where a thousand species and races met to palaver, there would be places of great fun.
The tunnel master in charge of the race was a Naplousean, little more than a tangle of stringlike tissues with three legs and a knotted nubbin of glittering wet eyes. “First flight is away,” it hissed as it walked in quick, graceful twirls down the narrow, smooth-walled tun- nel. The Naplousean spoke Basic, except when it was angry, and then it simply smelled bad. “Wings! Up!” it ordered.
Anakin hefted his wings over one shoulder with a professionally timed series of grunts, one-two-three, slipped his arms through the straps, and cinched the harness he had cut down to fit the frame of a twelve-year-old human boy.
The Naplousean examined each of the contestants with many critical eyes. When it came to Anakin, it slipped a thin, dry ribbon of tissue between his ribs and the straps and tugged with a strength that nearly pulled the boy over.
“Who you?” the tunnel master coughed.
“Anakin Skywalker,” the boy said. He never lied, and he never worried about being punished.
“You way bold,” the tunnel master observed. “What mother and father say, we bring back dead boy?”
“They’ll raise another,” Anakin answered, hoping to sound tough and capable, but not really caring what opinion the tunnel master held so long as it let him race.
“I know racers,” the Naplousean said, its knot of eyes fighting each other for a better view. “You no racer!”
Anakin kept a respectful silence and focused on the circle of murky blue light ahead, growing larger as the line shortened.
“Ha!” the Naplousean barked, though it was impossible for its kind to actually laugh. It twirled back down the line, poking, tugging, and issuing more pronouncements of doom, all the while followed by an adoring little swarm of cam droids.
A small, tight voice spoke behind Anakin. “You’ve raced here before.”
Anakin had been aware of the Blood Carver in line behind him for some time. There were only a few hundred on all of Coruscant, and they had joined the Republic less than a century before. They were an impressive-looking people: slender, graceful, with long three-jointed limbs, small heads mounted on a high, thick neck, and iridescent gold skin.
“Twice,” Anakin said. “And you?”
“Twice,” the Blood Carver said amiably, then blinked and looked up. Across the Blood Carver’s narrow face, his nose spread into two fleshy flaps like a split shield, half hiding his wide, lipless mouth. The ornately tattooed nose flaps functioned both as a sensor of smell and a very sensitive ear, supplemented by two small pits behind his small, onyx-black eyes. “The tunnel master is correct. You are too young.” He spoke perfect Basic, as if he had been brought up in the best schools on Coruscant.
Anakin smiled and tried to shrug. The weight of the race wings made this gesture moot.
“You will probably die down there,” the Blood Carver added, eyes aloof.
“Thanks for the support,” Anakin said, his face coloring. He did not mind a professional opinion, such as that registered by the tunnel master, but he hated being ragged, and he especially hated an opponent trying to psych him out.
Fear, hatred, anger . . . The old trio Anakin fought every day of his life, though he revealed his deepest emotions to only one man: Obi-Wan Kenobi, his master in the Jedi Temple.
The Blood Carver stooped slightly on his three-jointed legs. “You smell like a slave,” he said softly, for Anakin’s ears alone.
It was all Anakin could do to keep from throwing off his wings and going for the Blood Carver’s long throat. He swallowed his emotions down into a private cold place and stored them with the other dark things left over from Tatooine. The Blood Carver was on target with his insult, which stiffened Anakin’s anger and made it harder to control himself. Both he and his mother, Shmi, had been slaves to the supercilious junk dealer, Watto. When the Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn had won him from Watto, they had had to leave Shmi behind . . . something Anakin thought about every day of his life.
“You four next!” the tunnel master hissed, breezing by with its midsection whirled out like ribbons on a child’s spinner.
Mace Windu strode down a narrow side hall in the main dormitory of the Jedi Temple, lost in thought, his arms tucked into his long sleeves, and was nearly bowled over by a trim young Jedi who dashed from a doorway. Mace stepped aside deftly, just in time, but stuck out an elbow and deliberately clipped the younger Jedi, who spun about.
“Pardon me, Master,” Obi-Wan Kenobi apologized, bowing quickly. “Clumsy of me.”
“No harm,” Mace Windu said. “Though you should have known I was here.”
“Yes. The elbow. A correction. I’m appreciative.” Obi-Wan was, in fact, embarrassed, but there was no time to explain things.
“In a hurry?”
“A great hurry,” Obi-Wan said.
“The chosen one is not in his quarters?” Mace’s tone carried both respect and irony, a combination at which he was particularly adept.
“I know where he’s gone, Master Windu. I found his tools, his workbench.”
“Not just building droids we don’t need?”
“No, Master,” Obi-Wan said.
“About the boy—” Mace Windu began.
“Master, when there is time.”
“Of course,” Mace said. “Find him. Then we shall speak . . . and I want him there to listen.”
“Of course, Master!” Obi-Wan did not disguise his haste. Few could hide concern or intent from Mace Windu.
Mace smiled. “He will bring you wisdom!” he called out as Obi-Wan ran down the hall toward the turbolift and the Temple’s sky transport exit.
Obi-Wan was not in the least irritated by the jibe. He quite agreed. Wisdom, or insanity. It was ridiculous for a Jedi to always be chasing after a troublesome Padawan. But Anakin was no ordinary Padawan. He had been bequeathed to Obi-Wan by Obi-Wan’s own beloved Master, Qui-Gon Jinn.
Yoda had put the situation to Obi-Wan with some style a few months back, as they squatted over a glowing charcoal fire and cooked shoo bread and wurr in his small, low-ceilinged quarters. Yoda had been about to leave Coruscant on business that did not concern Obi-Wan. He had ended a long, contemplative silence by saying, “A very interesting problem you face, and so we all face, Obi-Wan Kenobi.”
Obi-Wan, ever the polite one, had tilted his head as if he were not acquainted with any particular problem.
“The chosen one Qui-Gon gave to us all, not proven, full of fear, and yours to save. And if you do not save him . . .”
Yoda had said nothing more to Obi-Wan about Anakin thereafter. His words echoed in Obi-Wan’s thoughts as he took an express taxi to the outskirts of the Senate District. Travel time—mere minutes, with wrenching twists and turns through hundreds of slower, cheaper lanes and levels of traffic.
Obi-Wan was concerned it would not be nearly fast enough.
The pit spread before Anakin as he stepped out on the apron below the tunnel. The three other contestants in this flight jostled for a view. The Blood Carver was particularly rough with Anakin, who had hoped to save all his energy for the flight.
What’s eating him? the boy wondered.
The pit was two kilometers wide and three deep from the top of the last accelerator shield to the dark bottom. This old maintenance tunnel overlooked the second accelerator shield. Squinting up, Anakin saw the bottom of the first shield, a huge concave roof cut through with an orderly pattern of hundreds of holes, like an overturned colander in Shmi’s kitchen on Tatooine. Each hole in this colander, however, was ten meters wide. Hundreds of shafts of sunlight dropped from the ports to pierce the gloom, acting like sundials to tell the time in the open world, high above the tunnel. It was well past meridian.
There were over five thousand such garbage pits on Coruscant. The city-planet produced a trillion tons of garbage every hour. Waste that was too dangerous to recycle—fusion shields, worn-out hyperdrive cores, and a thousand other by-products of a rich and highly advanced world—was delivered to the district pit. Here, the waste was sealed into canisters, and the canisters were conveyed along magnetic rails to a huge circular gun carriage below the lowest shield. Every five seconds, a volley of canisters was propelled from the gun by chemical charges. The shields then guided the trajectory of the canisters through their holes, gave them an extra tractor-field boost, and sent them into tightly controlled orbits around Coruscant.
Hour after hour, garbage ships in orbit collected the canisters and transported them to outlying moons for storage. Some of the most dangerous loads were actually shot off into the large, dim yellow sun, where they would vanish like dust motes cast into a volcano.
It was a precise and necessary operation, carried out like clockwork day after day, year after year.