VIII

Owen's boots made soft crunching noises in the dirt as he walked the streets of Mos Espa. He looked around cautiously, as if the people around him might somehow discern his thoughts and apprehend him before he could reach his destination.

"Stop that," Anakin said, annoyed.

"What?" Owen asked defensively.

"You're going to stick out, doing that," he warned. "Just act normal."

Owen stopped and looked around. People were walking by him in every direction. Some carried bundles or bags; others rode atop beasts of burden, or led them along with harnesses. Most had at least one sidearm in open view. A variety of droids walked or rolled by, following the natural flow of traffic. None of them, even the ones that looked sinister at first glance, were attempting to sneak or conceal their movements. Owen realized he was letting his nerves get the best of him, and nodded to Anakin.

"All right," he sighed. "Over here."

He led his brother down a narrow alley, with barely enough room for them to walk shoulder-to-shoulder. They stepped over piles of trash and broken crates, turning every thirty or forty yards as the direction of the alley changed. Owen was relieved that they did not encounter anyone else in the alley. He planned to have only one violent meeting on this day. At last, they reached the end of their shaded path. They stopped near the corners of the adobe buildings, where the alley opened onto a wide boulevard. Owen leaned his back against the edge of one building, as Anakin stood against the other. From here, they could lean out to observe the street, and quickly duck back out of sight again.

"See the cafe?" Owen asked, pointing over his own shoulder. Anakin tilted his head to one side, and nodded. The cafe was open to the street, with several tables and chairs nestled beneath a shaded patio.

"Table in the corner," Owen said. "The Dug with his back to the wall."

Anakin's eyes narrowed. There was a male Dug sitting beneath a molded archway, facing the street, just as Owen described. He had grayish-purple skin with beige spots, and a single red stripe running vertically down the middle of his brow ridge. He had pointy ears, an elongated, camel-like snout, and a pair of angry-looking yellow eyes. He also had the small torso and long limbs typical of an arboreal animal. Anakin frowned. If there was a fight, it would be hard to match the strength of a species that spent its entire life swinging through the trees.

"I see him," Anakin said.

Owen waited for Anakin to say more, but he just kept watching, trying to read Sebulba's body language from afar. The Dug had his muscular arms under the table, and was holding his smaller legs up in front of him, using the opposable thumbs on his feet to hold his utensils. It was a strange sight, but the movements were so natural, it was clear Sebulba preferred to eat this way. As he scooped food into his mouth, a human waitress came by to refill his glass. As the young woman bent down, she inadvertently tilted her drink pitcher too far, spilling a few drops of amber liquid onto Sebulba's table. The Dug's reaction was immediate. He recoiled in his seat, pounded the table with his fist, and cursed at the waitress. Anakin's eyebrows jumped up.

"He's got a short fuse, doesn't he?" he asked rhetorically.

Owen scowled. He clearly didn't think the murderous Dug's temper should be described so lightly. "So what now?" Owen asked, hooking his thumb under the sling of his long gun.

Anakin eyed the weapon, then looked back down the street at the cafe. "We can't just shoot him," he said. Owen's eyes flickered angrily, but Anakin quickly clarified. "Too many people," he added. "We need to draw him over to us."

"How are we going to do that?" Owen grumbled. "Wave at him?"

Anakin shook his head dismissively, and scanned the rest of the street. His attention was drawn to a gorgmonger's booth next to the cafe, where an obese alien was selling frogs and other morsels from a metal hanger. Anakin watched the lifeless amphibians bob up and down as the metal hanger flexed in the wind, and his eyes traced a path back to Sebulba's table.

"I have an idea," he said.

Seconds later, Anakin walked across the street, squinting his eyes as the sunlight hit them. His pocket was heavy with coins; he'd bummed enough local currency off of Owen to buy half the gorgmonger's stock. He smirked to himself. It was the first money he'd got his hands on since he was searched incident to arrest on Alderaan. He stood a short distance from the counter until the alien vendor turned her back, then stepped forward through the crowd and selected a particularly rank gorg. He lifted it from the string tied around its tail, and held it up so it would obscure his face from the gorgmonger.

"How much for this one?" Anakin asked, speaking Huttese.

The gorgmonger turned around, her spider-like eyes focused on the merchandise rather than the face behind it. "Seven wupiupi," she replied, also speaking Huttese.

Anakin reached into his pocket with his free hand, counted out seven of the coins Owen gave him, and set them down on the counter. The gorgmonger slapped her clawed hand over the pile of coins, and greedily raked them in. Anakin held his purchase close to his chest—but not too close—and casually strolled toward the cafe. When he got close enough, he turned his right side away from Sebulba, and hurled the gorg at him with all the strength he could muster.

He did not wait to see the impact. Instead, he turned back toward the alley and started running. It was an all-out sprint by the time he heard the loud splash, the clanking of dishes, and Sebulba's cursing. The next sound Anakin heard was the rapid thump-thump-thump of feet slapping the dirt behind him. Anakin's heart sank as the sound grew closer. He knew better than to turn and look, but it felt like Sebulba was right on top of him. Damn, he's fast, Anakin thought. I'm not going to make it back! But just then, his hand touched the corner of the building that concealed Owen. He flung himself around the corner and kept running down the alley. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Owen, with his back still pressed against the building. Sebulba hadn't seen him yet.

A heartbeat after Anakin made it back into the shade, the furious Dug came barreling around the corner on all fours. Owen stepped forward as Sebulba darted past him, and racked the long gun with an unmistakable clicking sound. Sebulba skidded to a stop, breathing with an angry rumble in the back of his throat. He turned to face Owen, and found himself looking down the barrel of the long gun. He leaned back on his arms, and raised his feet in a gesture of surrender. His eyes, however, said he was still out for blood.

Anakin moved up beside Sebulba, out of the path of Owen's shot. He put one hand against the wall of the building while he caught his breath. He wanted to start questioning the Dug right away, but he also knew he would get nowhere if he was gasping for air in the middle of a sentence. Sebulba saved him the trouble by speaking first.

"What do you want?" the Dug growled in Huttese. Owen pressed the stock of the long gun more tightly into his shoulder, and his face twisted into an expression of hatred. Anakin could sense that he wanted to pull the trigger, but was waiting for something. Whether that something was a word of encouragement or a word of protest, he did not know. Instead of trying to guess, he decided to go after the one thing he wanted from Sebulba above all else: a confession.

"We're here because of the man you killed," Anakin spoke up. He continued to use Huttese, knowing that Sebulba would do the same.

"Which one?" Sebulba snapped, his yellow eyes glaring.

Anakin took a deep breath. He hadn't expected this to be easy, but now his hatred for Sebulba was growing to match Owen's.

"He had one leg," Anakin said, carefully controlling his tone. "He used a chair to get around."

Sebulba looked back at Owen, and grudgingly nodded. "I remember," he said. "What about him?"

"Why did you kill him?" Anakin demanded, a cold undertone to his voice. Sebulba lowered his feet slightly, perhaps sensing that holding them up would not change his fate.

"He interrupted a private conversation," the Dug teased. "He said he didn't appreciate what I said about veterans. Then he said...I wouldn't even be a podracer if it wasn't for their sacrifice."

Anakin looked confused for a moment. "Then what?" he prodded.

"I knocked him out of his chair," Sebulba answered, raising one arm off the ground and balling his fist. Owen tightened his grip on the gun and leaned forward slightly. Sebulba quickly put his arm back underneath him. "I hit him a few times...to teach him to show respect. He didn't get up. He must have cracked his shell." Sebulba tapped his finger to the side of his head, casually painting a gruesome picture. Owen was unable to contain himself.

"You beat him to death, you scum!" he shouted. Anakin grimaced, and looked out at the street. People were milling around, but none seemed to have noticed the commotion. When he looked back, Owen was staring at him.

"Satisfied?" Owen cried out, his voice cracking. Anakin nodded, and Owen looked down at Sebulba once more. Anakin watched his brother's finger go inside the trigger guard. The finger tensed, took the slack out of the trigger...and stopped. Anakin's mouth fell open. Sebulba stared up at Owen, motionless as a statue. After what felt like an eternity, Owen's shoulders slumped. He collapsed against the wall, and held the gun out to Anakin, who quickly took it with one hand. Anakin kept the muzzle pointed down at the ground, and pointed his empty hand at Sebulba to emphasize his next words.

"You are going to leave Tatooine tonight," he ordered, "and never come back."

Sebulba bared his teeth. "I'm a podracer," he hissed. "Nobody is going to take that from me."

"There are circuits on your homeworld, and a hundred other systems," Anakin said flatly. "Pack your things, and take the next ship out of here. You can send for your precious pod."

Sebulba clenched his fists, but said nothing. Anakin made a small gesture with the long gun, like he was sweeping the dirt with a broom. The muzzle did not rise from the ground, but Sebulba understood the gesture. The Dug walked sideways, like a crab, toward the sunlit boulevard. Anakin turned his attention to Owen, who by this time had tears running down his cheeks.

"Just remember," Anakin said over his shoulder, "We found you once. We can find you ag—"

A massive impact to Anakin's back cut him off and sent him sprawling. The long gun spiraled out of his hand, landing in the dirt beyond his reach. He fell face-first, and the unforgiving ground sapped his strength even further. He coughed and rolled over. Owen was on the ground, on his back, with Sebulba on top of him. Sebulba was pummeling Owen with his sinewy arms, striking him so hard his head was bouncing off the ground.

"You want to kill me, farmboy?" Sebulba taunted, between punches. "You want to be a gangster? Hmm? I'll show you a gangster!"

In that moment, Anakin had a vision of Cliegg in the same helpless position as Owen, with Sebulba using his primate-like strength and agility to beat the life out of him. Anakin felt something powerful boiling up inside, like a surge of adrenaline, and reached for the blaster pistol on his right hip. He felt sluggish, like his limbs were responding too slowly to his commands. Come on, he urged himself. He killed Cliegg! He's killing Owen! Shoot him! NOW! His hatred grew—not just for Sebulba, but for himself, for not performing quickly enough—and with that hatred came a surreal level of focus. Everything that was not an object of his hate disappeared. He saw himself, and Sebulba, and nothing else, just blackness all around. Shoot him, he thought calmly. He extended his hand, and was almost surprised to see it was gripping his blaster. He hadn't even felt the draw from the holster. He squeezed the trigger, knowing on a subconscious level that he was on target. There was a flash of red light, and Sebulba crumpled to the ground.

Anakin stood, and holstered his blaster. It had done its job. Without looking, he knew his shot had left a smoldering hole through Sebulba's heart. He bent down to help Owen to his feet, and was relieved to see his brother was still conscious. The feeling of hatred, and the strange sense of clarity that accompanied it, was fading away. In its place came a deep concern for Owen's well-being, and a sudden urge to get back to the landspeeder before any curious bystanders approached the mouth of the alley.

"Come on," Anakin said, helping Owen up. When they were face-to-face, Anakin saw the extent of Owen's injuries and winced sympathetically. Owen's nose was gushing blood, and looked broken. His lips were split, and there was more blood staining his teeth and tongue. One of his eyes was starting to swell shut, and an egg-sized lump was forming on his head, near his hairline.

Anakin shook his head in disbelief. "We've got to get you home," he declared. He picked up the long gun, and slung it over his own shoulder. As he started to walk with Owen, guiding him back down the alley, Owen resisted. Anakin looked at him, and saw him glaring at Sebulba's corpse with his good eye.

"Got him," Owen sobbed, patting Anakin on the shoulder. "We got him, dad."

Anakin felt tears in his eyes, and blinked rapidly to clear them away. To distract himself, he focused on the long walk ahead, and tried not to worry about what he would say to the others once they returned to the homestead. It was slow going, since Owen was dazed and possibly concussed. Anakin took the time to steer him around every obstacle, so he would not trip. He was so preoccupied with this task, he did not see the bearded, grungy-looking man kneeling over Sebulba as they rounded the corner.

When they emerged on the other side of the alley, Anakin was surprised to see that most of the pedestrian traffic continued to walk by without stopping or asking any questions. They seemed oblivious to Owen's fresh injuries—or perhaps they saw, and didn't care. Either way suits me fine, Anakin thought. When they reached his landspeeder, he breathed a sigh of relief. The further they went, the more weight Owen had been putting on him, and with the adrenaline wearing off, it was all the more difficult. He helped Owen clamber over the side of the landspeeder, then made his way around the front and collapsed into his own seat.

"Still with me?" Anakin asked. Owen nodded, but his mouth hung open lazily, and the back of his head did not leave the seat cushion. Anakin frowned as he activated the engines. It would be late afternoon by the time they reached the homestead, and he had no idea what he would do if Owen needed urgent medical care before then. He looked out at the horizon, and visualized all the ground he had to cover. Only one way to help him, he thought. Get there fast. He opened up the throttle, and raced for home. The bearded man from the alley stood at the edge of the crowd, watching the landspeeder grow smaller and smaller, and lifted a commlink to his lips.

Anakin zipped across the desert as fast as his landspeeder would allow. His normal aversion to abusing the vehicle was gone, far outweighed by his concern for Owen. He felt giddy when he spotted the first moisture vaporator on the perimeter of the homestead, and when he looked over to check on Owen, he saw a faint smile on Owen's face as well. For both of them, it felt good to be back. Anakin pulled up to the small dome much earlier than he expected, having shaved almost half an hour off his return trip, and promptly shut off the engines. Beru, Padmé, and Obi-Wan had heard the landspeeder's approach, and were standing anxiously by the doorway. Anakin leapt over the side of his landspeeder, and came around to help Owen out. As he lifted Owen by the arm, the others got their first clear look at his face. Beru gasped and rushed forward, taking Owen's other arm.

"I'm fine," he mumbled weakly. Beru looked behind Owen's back at Anakin, her expression a mixture of worry and disapproval.

"I can explain," Anakin said. "Take him inside. I'll be right there."

As soon as the door slid shut behind Owen and Beru, Anakin turned to his other two companions.

"I tried another way," he said to Obi-Wan, "but it fell apart."

Obi-Wan bit his lip and nodded. "I'm glad you're all right, Anakin," he said. From his tone, it was clear he did not condone the younger man's actions. Something else seemed to be bothering him, too—some unseen pain—but Anakin felt it best to ask him about that another time.

"How are the others?" he asked Padmé.

"They were a little tense after you left," she replied. "I was waiting for you to come back before I contacted them again."

Anakin smirked, and gestured toward her commlink. "Tell them we're on our way back to Mos Eisley," he said, "and we're leaving for Coruscant as soon as we get there."

Padmé and Obi-Wan both looked relieved. Anakin stepped toward the door. "Just give me a minute," he said.

"Saying goodbye?" Obi-Wan asked.

"For now," Anakin answered. "I'll be quick."

Before he could toggle the door controls, however, Padmé called out to him. "Anakin!" she shouted. He turned, hearing the consternation in her voice. "You were followed."

Anakin gazed out at the horizon, and a lump rose in his throat. A large, fully enclosed skiff was approaching the homestead, flanked by two swoop bikes. All three vehicles were traveling at high speeds, leaving clouds of dust in their wake.

"Go inside," Anakin warned, taking a protective stance in front of his friends.

"Who are they?" Padmé asked.

"I don't know," he said, keeping his eyes on the looming threat. "Just go."

"They've already seen us," Obi-Wan pointed out, "and you can't face them alone."

Anakin frowned. "Just stay behind me," he muttered. "I have a feeling I'm the one they want."

The skiff slowed as it approached Anakin's parked landspeeder, and turned so its starboard side faced the group. The skiff was about ten meters from bow to stern, and was black and purple in color. It had rectangular windows running along both sides, but their dark tint made it impossible to see through them. The skiff had a trapezoidal profile, but its rounded corners and luxurious accents gave it the look of an armored limousine. When it came to a stop, hovering silently just beyond the landspeeder, the swoop riders took up new positions. They arranged themselves with one bike in front of the skiff, and the other behind. The riders angled their bikes inward, giving themselves overlapping fields of fire, and dismounted. They were humanoid, but wore helmets that prevented Anakin from confirming their species. They also carried blaster rifles, which they thankfully kept pointed at the ground. As Anakin studied these new arrivals, there was a faint hissing noise from the skiff, and a passenger door near the stern opened outward. A frizzy-haired man with a beard—the same one from the alley, although Anakin had not seen him at the time—exited the skiff, and pointed right at him. Anakin's breath caught in his throat. The man pointing at him motioned for him to come forward. Anakin took one last look at his friends, and seeing no other way to protect them, started walking toward the skiff.

"Leave the blaster," the man called out. Anakin stopped in his tracks, and slowly removed his pistol from its holster. He handed it to Obi-Wan, who took it by the barrel, clearly not enthused. Anakin continued on, feeling the swoop riders' eyes on him the whole way. When he reached the door, the strange man patted him down for any other weapons, then gestured for him to enter. Anakin did his best to conceal his apprehension, and stepped aboard the skiff.

The first thing Anakin felt was cold air on his skin, like he'd just walked into a freezer. The next thing he noticed was how dark the interior of the cabin was compared to the outside. There were dim overhead lights, but much of the cabin was still out of focus to him. Anakin shut his eyes, allowing them to adjust from the harsh desert sunlight. He wanted to see what awaited him, but while his eyes were closed, he had to concentrate on his other senses. There was the sound of the door hissing shut behind him, the gentle brush of air as the doorman walked around him to the far end of the cabin, the pounding of his own heart...but nothing else happened. When he couldn't stand the anticipation any longer, he spoke.

"Whatever you're going to do, spare them," he said to whoever had summoned him. "It was all me."

"Come sit down," a male voice commanded. Anakin opened his eyes, and took in more details of his surroundings. The interior of the skiff was extremely luxurious, with molded leather seats, shelves of colorful liquor bottles suspended over a brushed metal bar, and a dazzling array of control panels and viewscreens. Throughout the cabin, there were biometric safes mounted to the support pillars, perfectly sized to hold blasters. Anakin took all of this in, then his eyes shifted toward the bow, where two humanoid figures sat facing him. One was the doorman, who wore shabby dark clothing and appeared to have never picked up a comb in his life. The other was dressed in rich black and purple robes, with a tall, matching cap on his head. His skin was light blue, with orange-yellow markings on his cheeks and forehead, and he had a neatly trimmed gray beard. He stared at Anakin with cold, black eyes, calculating, sizing him up. Anakin had never met this man before, but his unique appearance gave away his identity. He was one of the highest-ranking lords of Tatooine's criminal underworld. Anakin slowly walked over and took the chair facing him.

"Do you know who I am?" the man asked.

"Yes, sir," Anakin replied meekly. "You're Baron Papanoida."

The blue-skinned man nodded. "And do you know what I do?"

Anakin chose his next words carefully. "You...own a few local businesses," he said.

Papanoida gave him a predatory smile. "I control a lot more than that," he commented. "But that's smart. I like it. And you are Anakin Skywalker."

Anakin nodded. It was hardly surprising that Papanoida knew who he was. Hondo used to boast of sharing drinks with the baron on more than one occasion.

"Well, Anakin," Papanoida continued, "it seems we've both heard stories about one another. Hondo spoke very highly of you. He once told me you could pilot anything with a seat and an engine."

Anakin found himself wondering why Papanoida would mention that specific skill, and tried to ignore the bad feeling in his gut. After a short pause, Papanoida went on. "And he's obviously told you a thing or two about me. Do you know why I've come to see you today?"

Anakin shook his head. He could have guessed, but he sensed Papanoida was about to tell him anyway.

"I have a little problem, Anakin," Papanoida explained. "And this problem also happens to be your problem."

Anakin gritted his teeth. Here it comes, he thought.

"Tomorrow is the Boonta Eve Classic. The biggest podrace in the galaxy, as I'm sure you know. I sponsored a racer, Anakin, and I convinced some very powerful friends of mine to do the same. Can you guess who it was?"

"Sebulba," Anakin sighed.

Papanoida nodded, a grave expression on his face now. "Sebulba was an ornery little womp rat, but he was a winner. I put a lot of money on him. And I don't like to lose money...especially in this amount. So I need someone to take his place."

Anakin's jaw dropped. "Who, me?" he asked, leaning back as far as his seat would allow. Papanoida and his lackey both stared intently at him, and he took a moment to compose himself before continuing. "With respect, Baron, I can pilot a ship, but I've never raced a pod before. And people will notice I don't exactly look like Sebulba."

Papanoida held up his hand, and Anakin fell silent. "I have an enclosed pod for you," he said. He reached toward the tinted window glass and rapped on it with his knuckles. "The audience won't see you. All you have to do is perform like Sebulba did. That means you take first place...by any means necessary."

Anakin rubbed his temples with his palms. First place in the Boonta Eve Classic? Impossible! He wanted to scream, but knew that would not be well-received.

"Sebulba made a few modifications to his pod that should help you along," Papanoida said, "and I'll even give you a map of the course." At this, he reached into a compartment next to his seat, and withdrew a small, circular holoprojector. He tossed it to Anakin, who caught it without looking.

"You win, my friends and I make a lot of money, and we put this ugly mess behind us," he promised. "No hard feelings."

"I can't exactly say no, can I?" Anakin knew there was no argument that would get him out of this, but he wanted to try.

"If I wanted you to say no, you would say no," Papanoida answered, leaving Anakin to draw his own conclusion. "You do as I say, and tomorrow night, someone will find Sebulba had one too many deathsticks to celebrate his big win. You refuse? Then it becomes a question of how many things I have to change before you see it my way."

Papanoida stared out the window at the homestead. Anakin perceived the threat immediately, and leaned forward with his hand outstretched.

"Please," he said. "I'll do it."

"Like I said...smart," Papanoida said, smiling again. He nodded to his subordinate, who jumped out of his seat and walked past Anakin to the door. Anakin rose to his feet, and Papanoida raised his index finger.

"One more thing," he said. "I can't have word get out that Sebulba is dead until after the race. There's only one other person who saw what happened in that alley." Papanoida pointed at the homestead. "I don't have to worry about him, do I?"

"No, sir!" Anakin quickly replied. Papanoida nodded, satisfied.

"I'll have my people at the spaceport watch your ship," he said, "just to make sure no one...steals it overnight. I expect you at my casino in Mos Espa at dawn. Back entrance. Alone."

Anakin nodded receptively. He saw Papanoida's eyes flicker toward the door, and took that as his cue to leave. He couldn't get off the skiff fast enough. He welcomed the hot air on his skin once more, and the blinding light of Tatooine's twin suns. They reminded him he was still alive, even after passing through so much danger. He did not turn to watch as the skiff and the swoop bikes accelerated away from the homestead. The diminishing sound of their engines was enough to calm his nerves.

"Anakin?" Obi-Wan called out as he approached the small dome. "Who was that? What happened?"

Anakin addressed Padmé first. "Call the Phantom II," he said, rubbing his thumb across the holoprojector he'd been given. "There's been a change of plans."