Star Wars AU Episode I: The Puppet Master

Chapter 2

Twin suns stood high in the sky, burning the sands to a yellow-white heat of noon during which all sensible people remained inside in the shade. Which was, perhaps, precisely why at such an hour Deak was sitting in the seat of the vehicle Xa'ej had devised for him—little more than a seat, engines, connecting pieces, and a few flaps for directional control, and not a bit of shelter from the burning sun.

No, thirteen-year-old Deak was far from a sensible person, as he raced over the yellow-white sands of Tatooine, entering the relative shelter of the Labyrinth, a geographic formation which also went by the name of 'The Dream Shatterer' for it was part of the pod-racing course and responsible for more failures to finish than any other part of the course, save the approach to Needle's Eye and the Eye itself.

"Deak Skywalker is racing well today," announced Deak, imitating Fode Annodue. "He enters The Labyrinth a hair ahead of Sebulba." His tone took on less of an imitation of the Annodue speech, and more of his own, as he continued, "Of course, we all know Sebulba will crash and fail to finish for the first time in history today."

He took the turn, returning his imitation, "Young Deak takes the turn as though he were born to race. He truly should be ..."

The fabric strip around his head was soaked as he made the necessary turn to sideways, barely letting up speed as he moved through the snaking hairpin near the beginning of the Labyrinth.

Deak felt the first drop of sweat overrun the fabric, reaching up absent-mindedly to wipe it away before it could drip into his eye. Inattention lasted just long enough to scrape and mangle one of the flaps of his craft.

"Kriff! Xa'ej is gonna kill me!" muttered Deak as he let off the throttle until he was able to regain control despite the fact that one of the stabilizer flaps was hanging loose, requiring near-constant course correction.

After coming to a complete stop, Deak got out of his seat and opened up the pack of tools that he carried with him. "What Xa'ej doesn't know," he muttered, "won't hurt her." With that, Deak set to trying to straighten out the bent piece of metal.

So engrossed in his work was he that Deak did not notice the approach of the other half of his imitation commentary, a being known to be even less sensible than Deak himself.

"Give it up, Dee-Dee," he said, going into a deliberate stall. "You won't finish next race." The engines fired again, and Sebulba flew low over the craft under repairs, made the turn flawlessly and disappeared from sight.

So low had been Sebulba's pod that Deak had to jump flat to the ground to avoid injury, the tool in his hand skittered down into a thin crack running along cavern wall and cavern floor.

"One of these days," muttered Deak, as Sebulba's racer sped past. "One of these days, you won't finish, and then we'll see who has the last laugh. And the winner's purse."

More immediate troubles, though, as Deak looked down and saw the spanner resting perilously on a ledge in the crack—a false move, and it would be hopelessly out of reach.

"Don't even want to think what Xa'ej would say about that!" muttered Deak as he flattened himself on the ground, carefully reaching in.

The position was too awkward, and he slid back, no longer able to look into the crack as he tried to retrieve the spanner.

Fingertips brushed against the tool. "Almost there!" he exulted. And then he felt it start to slide. "No!" he cried, and then his fingers curled around it ... he had not lost the tool after all.

Pulling the spanner out of the crevice, he sat with his back to the canyon wall, relief washing over him. He took the headband off, wringing it into a bottle, and then re-tied it, and went back to work. Crack! The bent metal gave way completely, and Deak was left holding the piece of the racer in his hands.

With a heavy sigh, he put the tools away and stowed the metal piece, turning the craft before getting back in the seat and heading back. Xa'ej is going to kill me after all.

No others were moving in the vicinity of the slave hovels as Deak dragged the partly-ruined racer back. Even slaves were given their liberty to rest in the cruelty of noon heat, as the foolish masters who had demanded their slaves work in such conditions soon found their investments wasted as the slaves died within days of such treatment, and so greed demanded such concessions to the slaves.

In the quiet of a resting community, Deak managed to stow the racer under the heavy canvas that was largely Xa'ej's hovel. He could hear the Jawa's soft breathing as he did so ... Xa'ej being of the sensible sort who slept during the noon heat.

Stepping away, he sighed in relief. No one noticed.

Now a mere three steps away from the hovel that he shared with his mother, the surprisingly soundless steps of Xa'ej had brought her just behind him. Xa'ej had the typical look and smell of the Jawa people, but she had entered slavery at an extremely young age, having two strikes against her amongst her own people: she was blind, her eyes the milk-white of congenital cataracts—visible even within the shadows of the hood of her garb; even worse, she was female. However, Watto had discovered long ago that his bargain was advantageous to him, as Xa'ej's blindness was immaterial—she had an uncanny ability to fix even the most complicated machines, restoring utter junk into sale-worthy merchandise. Already in five years, she had earned him ten times her purchase price from that moment of his uncharacteristic charity in purchasing her.

"What have you done?" asked the young Jawa slave.

"Uh ... nothing ..." said Deak, his face flushing from the heat and wishing heartily that Xa'ej were capable of more sound sleep.

"You wrecked it," accused Xa'ej."I told you not to take it out."

"But any other time, Watto'd miss me," Deak countered angrily. "And it wasn't my fault. Sebulba ..."

"Sebulba! Your stories are getting better," spat Xa'ej, whose tone suggested that she considered his claim of Sebulba's involvement a fabrication on the order of getting caught in a sudden rainstorm.

"I'll make it up to you, honest!" said Deak. "I'll fix it."

"You?! If I wanted it splintered, maybe," scoffed Xa'ej. "Don't you touch it again, 'less I say so."

"But ... how can I prepare for the race if I don't practice?" protested Deak. "You know winning that race is gonna get us both out of here."

"Dreamer!" snorted Xa'ej. "You won't win. Sebulba always does. Don't touch mine again, or you can take Watto's junk for the race."

"Watto's racer? I'll be lucky to get a meter past the start in that," said Deak. "You know he thinks you're fixing that up, not making your own."

"I couldn't get the parts," said Xa'ej. Within the folds of the hood, Deak could almost imagine that she wore the sort of grin with which he might have spoiled such an outrageous lie.

"When you going to tell him?" said Deak.

"When it's too late to finish," said Xa'ej. "You best be off to the yard, and make sure you come back with something worth the trouble you made me."

"It wasn't my fault," said Deak.

"Just go now," said Xa'ej. "Before Watto wakes up. Don't take too long, he'll be in a mood."

Deak was utterly filthy, covered in a fine grit from head to toe, his hair standing out and raining sand when he scratched at an itch. Nimbly, he had clambered over the piles of refuse, finding a good piece of metal that might well substitute for what he had mangled at noon this day. Another machine, he was unsure what it was actually supposed to do as it lay inert, and nothing he could think of seemed to rouse a flicker of activity from the metallic cube.

"Xa'ej will probably know," he said, and he moved on, adding the pieces to the pile that he was making.

Satisfied that he had found everything worthwhile on this run, Deak tied it together, and hoisted the whole thing onto his back. He had found in the past year that he was gaining in strength—it could well have taken two trips to bring all this back last year, and he continued with barely a glance at the setting suns.

The interior of Watto's shop was dark as Deak came through from the back. He could hear Xa'ej working away, however.

"What do you think you're doing?" came Watto's voice as he himself came flying toward Deak. "Don't you even think of tracking all of that into my shop! And you're late—the lights aren't lit."

"Xa'ej doesn't need them," said Deak.

"But the customers do!" said Watto. "Think boy!"

"Sorry," said Deak, setting down the pack he carried, making a considerable clang.

With those noiseless steps, Xa'ej was there, those milk-white points of light within her hood the one feature which distinguished her from all other Jawa on sight.

"Xa'ej," said Deak, digging into the pack. "I found this. I don't know what it's supposed to do, but I thought maybe you ..."

"Fascinating," said Xa'ej, taking the inert device, turning it over in her hands, bringing it up close under the hood and from the sound of it, she was sniffing it.

"Don't stand there gaping, boy," said Watto. "Get yourself dusted off and get the lights lit, and get to work!"

"Right away, Watto," said Deak, daring to make a face at his owner as soon as the Toydarian was flying in the opposite direction.

Shmi was, as always, quite near utter exhaustion as she made her way back to the hovel that was 'hers' ... at least as much as a slave could lay claim to any possession. There had been no sign that Deak had come in at noon, a fact that would have worried her far more if she had not caught a glimpse of her son through the window as she had worked far upstairs of the shop proper.

Watto's meal had been made before she left, but now she began measuring out the gram flour, pouring in a measure of the soured milk to begin kneading into a dough.

Sacrificing his rest at noon started to hit Deak quite hard, as he struggled to complete the task of sorting out the bins in the back for Watto so that he could go home. Xa'ej had spent the time serenely working at the repair of a droid outfitted with attachments for housekeeping—a broom, a dustpan, a mop, a feather duster on an extendable arm, and they had had little opportunity to exchange words of any sort.

The sizzle of dumplings on the hot coals greeted Deak as he made his way into their home, and he sat down at the table, pulling a cup of yogurt close to him.

"Where were you this noon?" asked Shmi.

"Nowheres special," replied Deak.

"Don't give me that!" said Shmi. "You were racing again, weren't you?"

"No," said Deak, easing his conscience with the thought I wasn't really racing ... I was on the ground when Sebulba came through.

"Did Watto say you could go?" said Shmi.

Deak felt the tale-tell flush of color, knowing that he'd just given himself away somehow, and he said, "Not exactly..."

"Dee! You mustn't!" said Shmi. "It's bad enough, when Watto makes you race, but ..."

"I'm careful," protested Deak. "Mostly ..."

"It's the 'mostly' careful that worries me most," said Shmi. "Dee, you can't go out like that, no one even knowing you're gone. It could be hours before anyone even knew to look, if something happened to you."

"I'll be fine, Mom," said Deak, taking the dumplings that his mother had just dished up for him. "Don't worry."

"It's my job to worry, Dee," said Shmi. "What would Watto say if he'd known?"

"He doesn't have to know."

"Dee, you know perfectly well that," began Shmi, as Deak began mouthing the words silently along with her, "a slave doesn't get to decide what he's going to do without his owner's permission."

Deak thought Someday, I just won't be a slave anymore, as Shmi finished, "It's too dangerous, Dee. Don't do it again."

"Yeah, Xa'ej's probably gonna sleep in the racer so I don't take it out anyhow," said Deak.

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