A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. . .
It is a period of civil war. The Galactic Empire has increased its recruitment drives to combat the threat of the Rebel Alliance. LUKE SKYWALKER and BIGGS DARKLIGHTER formed a plan to enlist and leave their home planet and take their skills to the Rebellion once their training is completed. Little do they know what dangers are facing them in the Core, for the Empire has completed work on their ultimate weapon. . .
Luke Skywalker tightened his grip on his duffel bag and strode off the landing platform. The mass of other beings in the spaceport walkways slowed his gait. He gazed up and down at the massive buildings that dwarfed the liner he and Biggs had just disembarked on this local afternoon. The wind gusting over and around the aerodrome tugged at his shaggy blond hair. The sharply acidic smell of the air irritated his nose. He clenched his teeth. He wasn't gawking at Coruscant like the spacers said he would.
An arm bumped into his unencumbered left shoulder. He turned to Biggs Darklighter’s unrepentant grin. “We finally made it,” the black-haired young man said. “Sent a subspace comm off to my parents, but we'll probably finish basic training before they get it.” Biggs shook his head. “So what's next on our arrival agenda?”
“We’ve got to find the airbus to the Academy. They didn’t leave us any time to sightsee.” Luke glanced as the directional sign hanging from the ceiling as they moved inside the passenger terminal dome. It labeled the sections of the aerodrome. “Looks like planetary transport is on the other side of the dome.”
“Or we could just follow the guys dressed like us.” Biggs gestured at a group of young men about their age wearing navy blue jumpsuits and carrying duffel bags.
“That’ll work until they prove just as lost as we are.” Luke fell in step with Biggs’ suggestion and walked beside his storm-brother. Watching the other Imperial Academy cadets through the crowd gave him something to concentrate on besides the hollow throb around his stomach. You shouldn’t be here, sprang to his mind, yelling to be heard over the din. Luke ignored it for the umpteenth time. He had never been cut out to be a moisture farmer, there was no reason to stay on Tatooine, their plan would make a difference, and he earned his right to be here by passing the Academy entrance exams.
The young men from Tatooine stepped onto a travolator that whisked them across the terminal level past all the other landing bays, waiting areas, shops, and restaurants that filled the space. Not to mention the people crowding into those spaces and the stable corridors connected to them. Mos Eisley had a population of 60,000 people; this level of Westport had that many to Luke's count.
Biggs poked Luke with his elbow and nodded in the direction he wanted Luke to look.“No wonder the Sullustan on the liner's crew turned down shore leave.” His frown tugged down his black mustache.
Luke looked at the restaurant they were moving past. Five stormtroopers stood right behind a pair of Duros as the server gestured widely for them to leave. The Duros did and the stormtroopers marched in step behind them. “Turning down business, that’s something you don’t see in Mos Eisley,” Luke agreed in a quiet voice. Biggs’ nostrils flared—never a good sign. Luke leaned his head closer to his taller friend. “Remember what your father told us. We have to stay quiet about what upsets us on the Core Worlds.”
Biggs rolled his brown eyes. “Yes, Mom, I do remember what Dad told me. Keep it up and I’ll start quoting your uncle back at you.”
Luke smirked. Biggs was the only one who never shied away from mentioning the Lars. “Fine, but ‘no you can’t go to Tosche Station’ has limited use here.”
Biggs snorted and shook his head. “I’m just glad we qualified for the Academy’s flight school.”
They had already left the white-clad marchers behind when Luke nodded his agreement.
The airbus was a sleek, aerodynamic vehicle with more viewports than metal parked under a landing pad that doubled as an awning for their level. The transparisteel dome covering the pilots jutted up even with it. Luke wondered how many ramming accidents had there been with trainees. If you missed all the jumpsuited cadets boarding it, ‘Imperial Naval Academy Imperial City’ was emblazoned on it between the windows and the repulsorlift generators.
An older year cadet—Luke still wasn’t sure of the collar tab meanings yet—marked their arrival on a datapad. They found a free bench at one of the windows and stowed their duffel bags under the seat. The airbus was nearly full. They waited as the last cadets finally boarded. The cadet-in-charge stepped up into the airbus and stopped in the center of the aisle. “Welcome to Imperial City, first year cadets. Take a good look as we approach the Academy because you will be too busy for sightseeing once you get there.” He paused to let the good-natured groaning die down. “Once we get to the Academy District, you’ll go through check-in and get your dorm room assignment, then you’ll go through a medical evaluation because we don’t know what you’ve dragged here off the Corellian Run. Once that’s done, you’ll be free until orientation at 1800 local hours.” He sat down in the nose of the airbus and the vehicle slid backwards out of Westport.
Biggs craned his neck to look around Luke’s head at the orderly levels of air traffic filling the spaces between buildings. “Small wonder they send the best pilots here. You have to fly just to travel on planet.”
The airbus pilot’s voice commed into the passenger area. “Since this is likely your first trip to Imperial City, I’ll be pointing out our major landmarks as we pass them. Westport is one of the busiest spaceports on the Queen of the Core. It’s closest to the Legislative District, the Imperial Palace, the Senate Buildings, the Academy, and Coruscant University. So if you wash out of the Academy, you may find a job there.”
The cadets snickered. Luke smirked at Biggs. “A back-up plan to the plan?”
“You are addicted to plans.”
The airbus pilot continued. “We’re flying through the Legislative District. On the port is the Imperial Executive Building and the Imperial Senate Chamber is the larger dome behind it.”
Luke leaned closer to the window. Blocks of buildings radiated from each of the domed centers like they were a set of massive gears. The tall and relatively thinner spires towering over the domes ruined the gear illusion. It was folly to build anything that tall on Tatooine; one good storm would smash a tower like that into the sand. Was living higher than everyone else a status symbol on Coruscant?
“If you need to find your senator,” the pilot said with a suppressed chortle, “their offices are in the Imperial Executive Building and all of them live in this borough.”
“Does Arkanis sector have a senator?” Biggs asked.
“If we do, it’s someone Jabba approved of,” Luke answered. They both grimaced.
“Off the starboard, you can see the Imperial Palace. Our route today doesn’t take up any closer, but cadets are given a guided tour eventually.”
Luke and Biggs both craned their necks but so was everyone else on the airbus. The other buildings pointed out to them had been graceful domes, the Palace was a colossal trapezoidal block as big as the Senate Chamber. Spotlights illuminated the long red banners stretched in multiple places down the walls. The white Imperial crest was in the center of each banner. Five smooth spires rose up from the base to touch the sky. A landing pad jutted out over a duracrete canyon like an offering plate.
A wave of cold as frigid as a night desert wind rolled over Luke. He leaned back against the seat as his gut seized up. Stay away! Danger there! Yeah, that was different enough to pay attention to. He focused on the buildings from the port window until he thawed.
The Imperial Academy of Imperial City was housed in a tall spire flanked by shorter spires and connected with thin buttresses. The airbus came down on a square landing pad in front of the large doors under the black Imperial crest emblazoned on the duracrete. Luke was glad to see the interior lobby—while still more expansive than it needed to be—had shrunk to hundreds of meters rather than kilometers. The hallways and office rooms they followed the cadet-in-charge through finally reduced to human-sized and the day became sand-gritted boring.
Luke went to the next room behind the cadet in front of him with Biggs behind him. He stepped up to the clerk behind the long counter when the clerk said “next.” He answered the questions the clerk had no matter how nonsensical the need for the answer seemed. And then repeated the same thing in the next room. He eventually got some useful things out of the routine: his dorm room number and he was still bunking with Biggs—no breaking in a new roommate necessary—and a map of the Academy to find that dorm room and the mess and the classrooms. He finally got to sit on an examination table in the medical cubby, so he studied the map as he waited for the medical nurse.
The man that came in carrying a datapad and wearing a medical jumpsuit was only a few years older than Luke and Biggs. His brown hair was slicked back into the same short hairstyle all the clerks had. They would probably send him for a haircut next. “Luke Skywalker?” he asked in a brisk tone.
“Flight school enrollee?”
The nurse tapped his datapad with his finger before setting it down on the countertop in the corner closest to the door. “Now we’ll take a blood sample and while the mediscan unit processes that, we’ll take your vital statistics.” He opened the drawers under the counter as he spoke. “Hold out your hand.”
The small vial pricked Luke's finger and drew up blood into its clear tube. The nurse closed the vial before swiping Luke's skin with a disinfectant pad. “Stand on the scale with your boots off.” He gestured at the flat plate set under the sensor array on the back wall and then turned to the machine on the counter.
Luke toed off his boots and listened to the machine's beeps: the one behind him and the one on the back wall which flashed his weight and height.
“One point seventy-two meters and seventy-seven kilograms,” the nurse said as he tapped the datapad again. “Good thing you're in the pilot program, you're too short to be a stormtrooper.”
“I'm aware,” Luke said as evenly as he could manage. Would the Academy turn into Tosche Station; everyone making fun of him? He was more than ready to leave the Wormie nickname behind him. He shoved his feet back into his black boots.
The mediscan unit beeped that it was finished. The nurse turned to it with his datapad. “All your markers came in completely healthy. Now we'll input your genetic code into the military database and you'll be finished.”
Luke snagged his duffel from the examination table. “Genetic database?”
“In case we can't identify your remains any other way. You want your kin to know what happened to you.” The nurse pressed another button on the mediscan unit and consulted his datapad. “Next of kin Huff and Lanal Darklighter?”
“I'm an orphan.” Luke stuffed his datapad into his duffel and zipped it closed. “They were the last ones to take care of me.”
The nurse turned to Luke at the same time the mediscan unit let out a screech. He jerked back to it, plugging in his datapad. “What the‽” The machine wailed again.
“I thought you said I was healthy?” Luke asked.
“You are. It's never done this before.” The next button the nurse pressed stopped the shrill noise. He read his datapad with his pale face growing paler the longer he stared at it.
“What's going on?” Luke asked.
The nurse's throat convulsed as he swallowed, but he looked up, not that his eyes focused on Luke. “I have to... my supervisor... just wait here. Wait here.” He jerked the cubby door open and trotted down the corridor.
Luke slipped the strap of the duffel over his head and across his chest. The mediscan unit did not have a display screen. Maybe he should connect his datapad?
Biggs leaned in the doorway. “What the hell was that? Are you dying?”
“He said I was healthy so it's not that. I don't know what it is.”
They both heard the voice of Luke's nurse carry down the corridor. “We'll just keep him here for whoever shows up first?”
“Pull yourself together, ensign.” A group rounded the corner: an older, dark-skinned man, two guards in black jumpsuits, and the nurse behind them. The older man wore a Lieutenant's bar on his chest. “Which one of you is Cadet Skywalker?”
“I am, sir,” Luke said.
The Lieutenant nodded. “These two men will take you to your dorm room.” The guards stepped forward, arms loose at their sides.
“What's going on, sir?” Biggs asked. “Is Luke in trouble?”
“No, I'm sure this is just a bureaucratic snag,” the Lieutenant answered smoothly. “The datapushers will get it sorted out before classes begin tomorrow. Carry on with your enrollment, cadet.”
The last had the unmistakable tone of an order expected to be obeyed, but Luke recognized the mulish gleam in Biggs’ brown eyes. “I will see you later, Biggs.” He squeezed Biggs’ arm as he stepped through the door.
“Later, okay,” Biggs answered with a head nod.
Luke nodded back, left his hand against Biggs’ arm for as long as he was in reach as he stepped over to the guards, following the one who turned on his heel first and took the lead. Luke kept his face and his body calm, but his mind churned on why he needed a pair of guards. Nothing he ever did on Tatooine should have reached the Empire, much less alarmed them. Fierfek, Jabba didn’t even know who to blame. So who wanted him? From what the nurse said, it was more than one person. And why was he wanted now?
He followed the guards onto a turbolift and couldn’t blame his sinking stomach on the lift alone.