Tie Till Death

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1. The Chase

I tap the triggers on my laser cannons; I have done it a thousand times before.  Someone in a flannel jacket paints a target on them.  We don’t know why, we don’t need to know, we don’t want to know.  Someone paints a target on them and we shoot the hell out of them.  Centre the crosshairs, tap the triggers, and boom.

There’s something up with this ship though, a junkyard Corellian freighter.  Could be a smuggler or resistance fighter, but someone painted the circles on this guy and here I am trying to obliterate him.  Only my targeting computer has blipped out or something.  I centre my cross-hairs and fire the lasers again.  And nothing.

The freighter is either out of control or the pilot is a genius.  Whichever it is I am ready, here at last, ready to roll, fingers on the triggers.  I graduated top at flight academy, with a sharp shooter merit in weapons free training, and I have a three digit kill score that a battle cruiser would die for.  I am ESF and I am Tie ‘til I die.

The gravity readings from the planet are normal, just another hunk of rock covered in sand, desert planet number who knows what.  Only I know there was a battle here, and the Empire had their asses handed to them; that much is clear from the Super Star Destroyer smashed halfway into the rippling dunes.

It was sombre on the briefing deck, a generation weighed down with the burden of their war.  This planet isn’t just a junkyard; it’s littered with the corpses of their brothers and friends.  We know what it means to them, a burning hot reminder of where they went wrong.  But this is my battle, and that won’t be my legacy.

The freighter dips and bobs closer to the surface, diving into the wreckage at the last minute.  It’s a suicidal move in a ship that size, but the pilot seems to know what he’s doing.  I dip in after him, and pew, pew, pew!  I see green flashing on their hull, but then he weaves left, and right, and up, jinking away from me.

We’re flying in tandem, targeting should be locked, but something is scrambling our weapons systems, possibly the residual EM fields from the wreckage.  My eyes flick across the consoles, taking in the readings, cross-referencing them, making adjustments, recalibrating my triggers.  One second later: pew, pew, pew!

Green on the hull again and the freighter tears sharply upward, breaking my targeting lock. This is a game, the best I have had since I earned my red stripes.  It crosses my mind again; precious assets, boxed and ready to go, but rusting.  That anxiety is for my bunk, not here.  We are ESF, ready to go, they will feel the burn.

I can see the wreckage stretching out ahead of me in the glare.  My fighter is screaming through the yawning, ripped hull of the Destroyer.  I recognise the ship, the Ravager, a burial monument for countless officers and troops, their grey flannel and snow white armour intertwined with the rusted metallic skeleton in the sand.

The freighter pulls up from the wreck and dips out of sight.  A squall of sand and metal fragments dashes my screens.  The fighter’s wing panels break their impact and I shoot into clear sky.  I catch a glimpse of flashing metal, just a fraction of a second, but I am back on the freighter, plunging down into another broken hull.

Sand is whipping through the junkyard, straining the decaying structures, showering debris on every surface.  I steer hard to avoid a broken girder as I gain on the freighter.  I see an X-Wing lying almost intact on its side.  I never understood how the Rebels pulled it off; neither do the commanders who send us on these missions.

My comm unit is chattering.  The fugitive on that freighter is first priority for the sortie. Destroy at all costs.  ESF have the mission.  Six more fighters are heading planetward, arrival imminent.  I see clear sky ahead, and that freighter will have a hyperdrive.  I spin the fighter in a corkscrew roll as the Corellian quad lasers fire.

Time is running out, I have to complete the kill mission.  Their gunner is firing in a scatter pattern, deliberately haphazard, impossible to predict, but I am screwing my fighter around the blast radius.  I have less than a minute before he clears the surface and spools up.  We are behind the curve here, I have to push it.

I take my fighter out of the corkscrew, push ahead on full power, flying straight at the freighter.  I am so close I can see the gunner silhouetted in the windows of the turret, wheeling around wildly to track my position.  You’re too late kriffer: pew, pew, pew!  There’s a blast, and a shower of debris, and he’s done.

Only he’s not, as the damn freighter is still wheeling up into the blue sky, and I am looping wildly towards the wreckage.  I’m going down.  I check the instruments.  I am going down.  I pull everything back, thrusters and weapons, and the fighter clears the edge of the shipwreck ahead, spinning up and over, and down.

And there it fraking is, desert planet number who knows what, every colour of sand you never wanted to know existed, scattered with hunks of scrap metal.  It haunts the old Empire, and it meant everything to the New Republic.  It is a cautionary tale for rookie pilots.  It is hubris, blindness, folly, and death.

So this will be my legacy, just another wreck for Jakku, an Elite Special Forces Tie Fighter. My left wing panel is missing and the engine is trailing thick black smoke.  I am heading breakneck into the sand.  I toggle the switch to power down the lasers and start to laugh.  Tie ‘til I die. Tie till I die!  Boom.

2. The Crash

The heat is almost unbearable.  My leg is on fire.  I pass in and out of consciousness.  The access hatch has been ripped off in the crash and sand pours in with the sunlight.  A head emerges, hooded in beige, peering into my fighter.  I somehow already have my SE44c in my hand and fire twice. The figure moans, and disappears.

I am being dragged across the sand on a stretcher of some kind.  There are two figures pulling it along, and another lying next to me.  It’s not a stretcher; it’s the hatch from my fighter. Bundles of junk are lashed around me, metal and electronic components.  The figures are wrapped in cloth and the hide of some native beast.

I am still on the makeshift stretcher but we have stopped.  I attempt to move but I am bound tightly.  The figures remove my helmet.  I try to stop them but they manage to unfasten the retaining clips.  They hold something to my lips to drink but I resist.  As I pass out I can feel them pouring it down my throat.

I am in a tent, wind billowing against the sides, sand beneath me.  I am cool and the pain in my leg is more bearable.  I am still bound and cannot move my arms.  I can hear voices outside, but I can’t make out what they’re saying.  My helmet is lying next to me; the obsidian and red now dented and gouged to the silver beneath.

Some time later a figure enters the tent.  He has removed his head coverings and I can see he is a humanoid male of a similar age to me, his skin weathered and creased and his eyes a bright blue.  He offers me a flask and this time I drink.  He grunts and leaves me alone in the tent.  It gets dark, and I fall asleep.

In the morning he returns with a female, tall and slim with cropped dark hair.  She has the same lined complexion and bright blue eyes.  They grip me under each armpit and haul me up. The pain in my left leg flares through my thigh and I buckle, my boot giving way as I collapse onto them and lose consciousness again.

I have been propped up against the side of some scrap metal.  I am sitting amongst a collection of hovels, made from canvas and shipwrecked junk.  All around me are panels from different ships; destroyers, cruisers, fighters, freighters, Imperial and Rebel.  Set between them are a few tents and this small clearing of sand.

We are sheltered here from sandstorms and, I realise, shielded from First Order reconnaissance.  The scavengers live out here in the desert like animals.  The man lights a fire and crouches down to fan the flames into life. He places a tin kettle on a metal stand and disappears into one of the tents.  I am still bound.

Up there in the ether around this planet, my brothers in arms are counting their losses.  I know we lost pilots on the Finalizer, not just a few troopers, and they may think this pilot dead.  If my helmet is intact then the link to my comm unit may still work.  I would have to get them a message before they leave orbit.

The woman emerges with a green ration disc and pours hot water from the kettle.  I realise I am hungry.  I examine my leg.  The rip-stopped black fabric of my flight suit lies tattered below my left knee.  The pain is throbbing and cold, where it had been sharp and hot.  My ankle is charred and droops at an unnatural angle.

The man returns, supporting a third scavenger.  He is a child, perhaps a teenager, dressed in the same cloth and hide strapping.  His shoulder is bandaged and the rags on either side are burned.  I recognise the patterning as that of an SE44c blaster.  He must have been the figure I fired at from the wreckage of my fighter.

I wonder why they haven’t killed me yet.  I know they must want something.  I know my chances of survival depend on learning what it is as quickly as possible, and only giving it to them on my terms.  I think back to the academy, to all that training, to the intimidation and beatings. Glory days.

‘What do you want?’  I ask the male scavenger.

‘Eat’ he replies, coldly, and passes me a lump of reconstituted rations.

‘My hands are tied’ I remind him.

He nods at the female and she walks over and unties them.  It takes me a few minutes to move my fingers.  They are numb and then tingling, and I realise I may have been here for days.  I have one chance to signal the Finalizer if there is any hope of a rescue.  I haven’t got time to work through hostage negotiation protocols.

There is a staff lying a few feet in front of me.  I push off from the panel behind, fall to my right knee and grab the end.  I swing it into the fire and knock over the kettle and stand.  The rations fizzle in the sand and hot embers shower the three scavengers.  The male howls in pain and clutches his face, the child curls into a ball.

I scramble towards the tent, nearer to my battered helmet, to my comm. link.  The female is shouting.  I am dragging my left leg behind.  The pain should be worse; I wonder if they dosed me with some primitive medicine.  The female grabs my good ankle and hauls me backwards, just short of the tent.

I turn and swing my gloved fist at her head, but she dips easily out of range.  She has the staff in her hand and she lifts it high above her left shoulder and swings it down in an arc.  I roll to one side and raise my arm to block the impact, but my strength is not there to resist.  The staff hits my temple and everything fades.

3. The Scavengers

This time I scream myself awake.  This is no adrenaline fuelled Twin Ion Engine call to arms waking me from the sweating vortex of nightmares in my bunk.  It is the knowledge that the numbing ache in my leg means that my ankle is lost to me.  I look down and see that my knee is gone too, replaced with metal and hydraulics.

What the frak have they done?  I expected to be dead, rotting at the bottom of some wreck’s exhaust tube, or else repackaged and sold on as rations.  They had me where they wanted, hobbling and pathetic, and at their mercy.  They should have killed me, so why the hell have they fixed me with this  leg?

‘Is this from a protocol droid?’ I shout into the darkness, ‘Why have you grafted this piece of tin onto me?  What the frak do you want from me?!’

I force a dark thought to the back of my mind; I cannot afford to face that yet, I have to focus on now.  On any First Order ship the med bay would have at least some basic prosthetic limbs.  Aboard The Finalizer there were hands that looked real.  These savages have grafted a droid leg onto me, a kriffing protocol droid.

It is several hours before the male comes to see me.  He ignores my screamed questions about the leg, just leaves me some rations and a flask of water.  I eat and drink quickly.  When he returns he has a chain with him, and a manacle.  He secures my good leg and attaches the other end of the chain to a metal pipe high on the wall.

I can move around.  The leg is solid, at least more so than it looks.  Although the light here is poor the droid appears to have been black once, beneath the layer of rust and grime that coat the exoskeleton.  It clicks and hisses as I stumble forward, putting my weight on the abandoned robotics, and the chain clinks along in time.

They have moved me to a chamber with dull metallic walls, perhaps made from the shipwrecked junk panels.  I manage to gather some momentum and stagger to the pipe.  It emerges from one wall near the corner and disappears into another.  I grip it with both hands and pull hard, but there is barely any give at all.

The leg catches on the woven mats that cover the floor.  It can support me, and I can move forward, but I am struggling to coordinate the rusted limb.  I know I will get there, spatial awareness is hardly a problem for ESF pilots, but I need to get there today.  The remaining flesh is beginning to chafe and swell above the robotic knee.

I gather up the chain and knot and twist the length, pulling backward to find any weakness in the rusted links.  I sit down and work my way back, taking the pressure off my leg, and hold for several minutes.  When I unravel the chain there are no deformities, nothing is twisted out of shape.  Only me.

When the man returns he is holding a blaster.  It is an old Republican weapon of some kind.  I doubt it works but I play along, what else can I do?  He takes off the manacle and prods me out of the chamber, through an opening in the darkness beyond the reach of my chain.  He walks behind me, needling me with the blaster.

I stumble along a narrow corridor, walls made from canvas riveted to metal, grills underfoot partially covered with the sand that sits beneath them.  There are small piles of clothing, equipment and utensils piled on either side.  I realise that these are living quarters.  More comfortable than a tent, and more secure.

We emerge into the same clearing by the fire pit.  The woman shoots me a furious look, and holds my gaze until I look away.  The kid has burns on his cheek to go with the dent in his shoulder, but he can’t suppress a smile and I know he likes me.  I know because once upon a time I was a deadbeat kid with no hope too.

This time we eat together, once they have bound my legs, my flesh and the droid metal, together.  It is late afternoon.  I am still wondering what these primitives want with me.  Is there a market for slaves here?  They must know they cannot hide me from the First Order; buying me would be a death sentence!

After we have eaten they unbind my legs.  All of them are armed now; even the kid has an ancient blaster of some kind.  I am marched out of the clearing and around the tent.  I stumble every step, and right myself.  I fall over, and they watch while I push myself back up.  I fall again, and they stand back and wait.

We all know that one mistake will cost them their lives.  If their weapons work then I won’t hesitate to neutralise them all. The man, the woman, and the child too.  I am not a monster, but the fate of fathers and sons has cost our galaxy dear, and the risk is too much to take.  I’ll spare them seeing him die if I can, and shoot him last.

We are moving up the side of a shallow dune.  The next time I fall I take a look back.  The camp is smaller than I thought, just a few clusters of tents and shacks, barely emerging from the sand.  There are several tall pipes too, which I guess are sunk deep as protection from suffocation during sandstorms.

We reach the crest of the dune and they nudge me over.  The light has begun to fail and it takes me a few moments to process the information.  I am looking at a small craft of some kind.  I start to walk faster, to stumble, to fall and roll.  The scavengers keep pace with me easily.  I pick myself up and stare.

This is no starship.  I start to laugh.  It is like a child’s model made from space junk.  Even if it could be made to fly, even if by some miracle the hull and the drives all hung together, who the hell would be crazy enough to fly this thing?  And that’s when I realise why they need a pilot with two legs.  Oh frak.

4. The Salvagers

There is a tapping in the deep.  It vibrates through the metal hull as if to taunt me.  It drips in my mind like an endless nagging maddening doubting leaking teardrop of fluid anxiety.  It is the tapping of metal upon metal, the sound of inorganic movement.  It serves as a reminder that we are not alone down here, so far beneath the surface.

‘Case’ I whisper down at the kid, who is harnessed just below me ‘make sure your blaster is charged and ready.  Remember what I taught you.’

‘I remember’ he grins up at me, ‘shoot to incapacitate.’

‘Right’ I smile thinly back at him, ‘shut down-‘

‘-and strip down’ he finishes, ‘battle, protocol or service.’

I pull down on my main tether to get some slack in the line and start to pick out handholds.  We need to move quickly.  The abyss of this latest flight deck yawns below us into the sand.  We are deep inside the Ravager and I don’t know how many more of these wrecked chambers I will be given the chance to mine.

I hear the kid’s comm crackling.  It’s Jenk again, after an update.  He is a few hundred clicks above us with the others, still lashing our salvage to the sledges to haul.  I know his patience with my plans is running out, and he suspects I am delaying.  He knows I have another plan, he just hasn’t figured out what it is yet.

‘Are we going back?’ the kid asks, looking worried.

‘Case’ I whisper back, ‘we have a deal.  Soon he won’t be able to put his hands on either of you.  You need to hold the line.’

The tapping is growing louder.  We are passing an access shaft, moving slowly, weighed down with nets of trooper chest armour plates.  We don’t need any more for the camp, but these are to trade at Niima Outpost.  That’s the plan, the part I told Jenk anyway: salvage, trade, build, and jump off this planet.

‘Is it a droid?’ the kid asks.

‘What else can it be?’ I reassure him, ‘that blaster will take it down, don’t worry.’  I don’t mention that I hear the tapping all the time now, even in my sleep.

Case knows we have seen the prey, but never the predator.  As we mine deep into this wreck, day after day, we find dismembered droids.  We have seen the corpses too, their prosthetics torn from them.  This graveyard of the flesh still seethes with abandoned simulacrums, shuffling the darkened corridors without purpose.

We are right on the shaft, an old corridor, thrown on its axis with the entire section of the ship and sinking at a diagonal into the sand and rock of Jakku.  I can see white armour plates in the gloom, more dead troopers, and a disembowelled protocol droid, its wired innards scattered into the darkness beyond my head beam.

I crack a flare and throw it into the shaft.  I feel Case bump up behind me, waiting, never far from my shoulder since we made our deal.  He knows he and his mother have only one chance to escape this planet, to get away from Jenk.  He also thinks I won’t kill him after knowing him six weeks, but he’s just a kid after all.

‘Stay where you are’ I tell him, ‘I want to have a closer look.’

‘What is it? What do you see?’

‘There’s something at the end, I can’t make it out, need to get closer.’

‘But Jenk wants us back in the upper chamber’ says Case, sounding worried, ‘He says we should have been back days ago.’

‘Screw Jenk.’

The kid laughs and I swing into the shaft, unclipping the main tether.  I check my E11 blaster rifle, just part of the arsenal I have collected down here, and still confiscated by Jenk and his crew every time I surface.  I miss my SE44c, and I’ve got my eye on a flamethrower I found last week that’s still stashed in our camp.

These savages have been living on top of this weapons cache for thirty years.  They salvage rusted metal and pitted circuit boards from the sand when they could dig deep into the treasure trove beneath.  Here in the belly of the Ravager, in the blood and guts of the real deal, a Super Star Destroyer, is the power of life and death itself.

‘What do you see?’

I ignore the kid as I move down the corridor.  I pick my way over the charred troopers and dip beneath the looms of wiring hanging from detached ceiling panels.  Something moves to my right, and I swivel.  The leg keeps pace, hydraulics now fine tuned, the black skeleton hidden under my flight suit, a living metal part of me.

I sense movement and fire. Boom.  An access panel explodes.  A door rolls upward.  I peer at a shape in the dark.  It can’t be what I think, the mother lode itself.  And there’s something else moving, tapping, right behind me.  I turn slowly.  It’s a droid, a kind of droid, an amalgam, a monstrosity of its own creation.

The thing looks like an insect, a distended gathering of wire and junk metal teetering on mismatched droid legs, the head a patchwork of corroded plates.  The eyes are orange, and I notice the laser attachment almost too late.  The weapons arm lifts and clicks, but I am already rolling away, and blasting. Boom. Boom.

I can hear Case shouting.  I keep moving, shooting to the head and legs.  It lunges for my prosthetic limb.  This thing isn’t battle, protocol or service.  This is something else, trying to survive, a droid scavenger, building itself to serve its fallen Empire.  I don’t have the time to explain what happened, and who the frak I am.

The corridor is scorched with laser fire, but I get three clean hits on the legs and the droid collapses in a pool of hydraulic fluid.  The eyes flicker at me.  The thing never found an audio unit, and I’m glad.  I am tired of neutralising these zombie droids.  Nobody ever told them they were dead in the first place.

I move quickly through the access panel to check whether my eyes were deceiving me, but there was no mistaking the squat chassis and conical head.  I wipe my glove through the patina of dust and reveal a glowing pulse that beats back at the tapping in my head.  At last, after so many weeks, a working R5 unit.

5. The Ambush

All hell is breaking loose in the upper chamber.  A laser cannon decorates the panelling behind us with a deadly pattern.  We stay low, crouched behind the piles of netting, letting the bundles of trooper armour absorb the impact as they were designed to do.  The attacking scavengers loose off another few rounds with their blasters.

We’re trapped down here.  It took us weeks to mine the oppressive weight of sand, rock and metal and enter this section of the Ravager.  Nobody had ever thought to dig this far, to ignore the ransacked hull protruding from the surface and tap the rich and untouched resources below.  Well that was my plan, and it worked, to a point.

These scavengers must have taken out Jenk’s half assed guards and used our ropes to abseil down here, the same lines we’ve been using to haul up the sledges of salvaged weapons, armour and savaged droids. Jenk is holed up near the bottom of the mineshaft, pressed to the wall, tooled up with a pistol, a rifle and a flamethrower.

I shake my head at the kid as he eyeballs Jenk.  We still have our weapons; there was no time for them to take my E11 before the crew attacked.  Jenk doesn’t care, he is focused on the fight and he has seen me fire a few blasts at them.  He knows Case and I can’t go anywhere but back down into the deep.

I roll away, towards the R5 unit.  The attackers don’t know that we have located the repair bay.  When I plugged the droid into the data port we downloaded every schematic under general classification in the Ravagers’ databank.  We know exactly where the bay is, how to get there, and how many ships were trapped there.

Jenk could hardly resist the plan.  Why the hell would you throw together a bundle of junk and fly yourself into oblivion when you could jack up a TIE Interceptor?  I guessed that at least a few fighters would have been just sitting there 30 years ago when this ship went down, out of service and far from the battle.

‘R5-10-62’ I instruct the droid, ‘bring up the schematic for the repair bay, including the Interceptor, floor projection only.’

The droid beeps and whistles and a green line diagram appears on the dusty floor in the gloom.  R5-10-62 has been charged up and is fully functional again.  Case crawls over, glancing anxiously at Jenk.  The laser cannon tears a hole in the wall to our right.  Jenk and his crew fire back.  I hear a scream and some shouting.

‘Are we going now?’ asks Case, ‘What about my mother?’

‘No, we wait, but I need to know exactly where this ship is located.’

‘We already know’ says the kid, looking puzzled, ‘in the repair bay.’

‘Listen’ I lower my voice, then raise it again as the blasts resume, ‘we will only get one chance at this, we need to know every inch of that schematic.’ I point out the launch tube, and the position of the Interceptor.

Jenk is calling us and I tell him we are taking cover.  He shouts to stay down.  I taste acrid smoke and we start coughing.  Only Jenk would be stupid enough to use that flamethrower down here.  I hear more screaming and the laser cannon falls silent.  There are a couple more blasts and then more suffocating smoke.

‘Case’ I look him in the eyes, make sure he is listening, ‘I need you to give me your comm link and take my blaster, fire off a few shots for each of us.’

The kid nods and does what I ask without hesitation.  I wait until I am happy that Jenk should think we’re backing him up.  Then I take the comm link and snap off the microphone.  I take off my gloves and use my fingernail to strip the ends of the exposed wires.  I retrieve the booster unit I have hidden in the lining of my flight suit.

It doesn’t take me long to hook up the rig.  I put in the ear bud and plug the booster unit into the data port of the droid.  It whistles and bleeps at me, as if it expected that I should ask permission.  The chamber is now thick with smoke and I doubt Jenk could see me even if he looked right over here.

‘R5-10-62, open a channel to the First Order fleet, route straight to the Finaliser, TIE Command, identification code E1V9R7X6.’

The droid beeps and whirrs and falls silent.  I wait.  The blasts from the ambush crew are few and far between and I know time is short.  There is a crackling in my ear.  I hear a scanner and the digital chatter of droid talking to droid as they establish the link.  I am sweating.  I am choking but too tense to cough.

‘This is the Finaliser, please clarify identification code.’

‘Black Knight Down’ I whisper into the booster, ‘E1V9R7X6.’

‘Please wait’ says the voice, and then ‘code violation.’

‘Black Knight Down’ I repeat, ‘Jakku mission, request pickup.’

‘Negative’ says the voice, ‘all souls accounted for on Jakku mission.’

The mic clicks and cuts out.  I clench my fist and smash it into the R5 unit.  What the frak?! The droid whistles and I hit it again.  What the fraking frak?!  Case looks back at me and I turn away, head in my hands.  All my plans, all my plans and now this; how can they not count me missing, what the hell does that mean?

‘What-’ the kid hesitates, ‘you need to get back up here.’

I stare down at the top of my fist, clenching and unclenching my thumb around my curled forefinger.  I am First Order.  I slap the top of my fist against my forehead.  I am TIE.  I am TIE, ‘til death.  I can feel it, the rage I cannot control, it is here.  I power down the R5 unit and calmly pick up my blaster.  It’s time.

6. The Interceptor

Jenk wants the weapons first.  We throw up the blasters and follow with the nets of salvage.  He has seen what I am capable of doing with an E11.  I know Jenk enjoys the killing more than I ever would.  And he knows that I can kill with a precision and efficiency that frighten him.  I am a professional. He is just a murderer.

‘Stay cool’ I whisper to Case before I haul him up, ‘tell her to be ready.’

‘She’s ready’ he nods, ‘we both are.’

Jenk inspects the nets and grunts his approval.  He has no idea that for weeks we’ve been hoarding blasters, armour and droid components.  We have been tapping our stash over the past few days. Case collects it while I work on the Interceptor.  All Jenk sees is the same as usual; nets bulging with the daily load of salvage.

‘We move to the next site tomorrow’ mutters Jenk.

‘No’ I look him in the eyes, ‘there’s more down there, too much to carry.’

‘Get it now then’ he says, ‘We move on tomorrow.’

‘No’ I uncouple my harness and drop the line, ‘after I rest.’

Jenk thinks about it, hesitates.  I detach Case and gesture for him to head for the mineshaft.  I can tell Jenk is seething.  He stalks over to the sledges and starts lashing the nets together.  He is afraid of me, afraid of what he has seen me do.  He has a weapon, and I am unarmed, but now he knows that will not stop me.

I feel a needle of pain shoot through my forehead.  There are images in my mind; a scavenger kneeling, screaming, crying, begging as a black gloved hand fires a blaster point blank at his head; the surprise on his face, first as the E11 jams, and then as I smash it into his face until his nose crumples and caves into a bloody pulp.

Jenk will not cross me, but he will never take his eyes off me again, and he wants me moving on through the wreck.  I think he will separate me from Case too, as soon as we finish stripping this section of the Destroyer.  We have to make our move now, today, and before the Interceptor is out of reach.

I wait until Case has headed topside and the sledges are loaded.  I know exactly how much time he needs to reach the surface, trek to the camp, and get his mother to the pickup point.  Jenk is ready to haul up the salvage and the others are packing up all our supplies.  He has no intention of coming back down here.

‘I’ll go now’ I tell him, hooking on my line.

‘We’re heading up’ says Jenk, ‘be back tomorrow.’

‘If you want that pile of blasters, I go now’ I insist, ‘and there are a few thermal detonators down there too …’

‘Be back up before I clear this sledge’ he orders, taking the bait, ‘I’ll lower it back down.’  He turns to the others, ‘Once you’re all up, blow the shaft.’  They nod and carry on with what they were doing; no surprise there.

I take a last look at the upper chamber and jump back off the ledge, abseiling into the abyss, down into the belly of the beast.  I haven’t got a blaster, but I know where to find a few.  I couldn’t waste time wrangling with Jenk.  There is a risk he will blow the mineshaft while I’m still down here, but that’s just fine with me.

It takes several hours to reach the repair bay but I could find it with my eyes closed.  Case and I have mapped every corner of this section.  We have incapacitated every droid, stripped every corpse and stolen every weapon.  There are a series of drops, corridors and collapses to navigate, but nothing else.

I stop once; to retrieve the bag I hid behind a broken access panel several days earlier.  I check each of the weapons and ensure the power cells aren’t leaking.  Then I peel off my flight suit, now tattered and sand-blasted.  My droid leg catches the light from the blinking, exposed console as the hydraulics hiss and whirr.

I pull on the W1ND8K.  I recognised it as an original straight away, as soon as I saw it hanging there, a relic in the mausoleum of some long dead Imperial officer’s quarters.  It’s a predecessor of the 181st flight suit and the toughened black fabric, still flawless after all this time, fits me perfectly.

I lift up the grey flack vest and push my arms through the rings at either side, pulling the fabric down across my chest and back, tightening the straps to fasten it to my body.  I flip the seals to secure my gloves and boots.  The pressure gauge is heavy and reassuring on my chest.  I can’t wait to retrieve my helmet.

When I reach the Interceptor I waste no time.  She is primed and ready, the black panelling opalescent against matt grey in the half light.  I flip the access hatch and drop into the pilot’s chair.  It feels like I was born to sit here.  I can feel my heart beating faster as I envisage the launch tube and the sand and rock that block the end.

The power cells are fully charged, R5-10-62 made sure of that after we convinced Jenk to leave him down here.  It seemed to make sense to him, to power up the Ravager and activate the lights and doors.  I didn’t think we had much chance of pulling this off, not until Jenk made that fatal mistake.

‘R5-10-62’ I shout back at him, strapped unseemly but securely to the hull and jacked into the external data port ‘power up the Ion Engines and set shields to maximum, we go full throttle in three, two …’

The droid whistles his approval.  I close my eyes as the engines hum and the cockpit vibrates.  The ship lifts and hovers and I throw the throttle forward full speed.  The enormous engines scream a vainglorious song as we hurtle through the repair bay, over the fleet of abandoned ships and towards the launch tube.

I tap the triggers and green light bathes the cockpit.  The noise is deafening.  The tube narrows and billows with sand.  I tap again and again.  Shards of rock bounce from the shields and are thrown behind into my slipstream.  The Interceptor starts to shake as we exit the tube and the sand flows against the ship itself.

R5-10-62 is beeping and whistling.  The shields are failing, I already know that much.  A dark expanse of rock looms ahead in the sand.  I am tapping with both triggers and the rubble explodes to either side as the shields collapse.  I flinch, just once, just as the Interceptor punches through, up and into the blue.

7. The Escape

I wheel the fighter up and flip it over the laser-blasted crater.  Already sand is running back to cover the launch tube, settling and levelling, burying the remaining treasures back down in the deep.  The dunes ripple below, lapping the metal islands of wreckage as I speed overhead, squinting into the remaining light.

I find my bearings immediately and lock onto the camp.  I am there in minutes.  Case is by the junk shuttle just as we planned, standing next to his mother.  He waves, as if he’s flagging down a rescue craft.  R5 is still bleeping, trying to power up the shields by the look of the read-outs on my console.

I drop the Interceptor straight onto the sand and flip the hatch.  Case is already running towards me, his scarf pulled over his mouth with one hand, the other holding onto his mother.  I hear something but the engines are whining too loudly to make it out clearly.  I know something has changed; my forehead begins to pulse.

Case is dragging his mother.  She stumbles and almost pulls him over.  He glances around at her, and stops.  I can see it from the Interceptor, the streaks across her ribcage, the black smoke against burning sand.  She has a look on her face I have seen before, up close, an expression that precedes the stink of decay.

‘No!’ he shouts, the words so loud they are audible over the hum of the engines, addressed to the heavens as much to his mother ‘Get up!’

I watch as a second blast burns past Case, as he tries to force his mother through the sand, as her head starts to loll.  Her body is drawn into the shifting surface of the planet, her limbs seemingly being sucked into her grave without delay.  The kid falls apart, and I realise now how this will have to play out.

There is movement on the ridge.  I see the sledges at the top, the nets of armour gleaming in the failing light.  Jenk is up there somewhere with a long range cannon.  I have been on this planet too long, my senses dulled, my body battered into submission.  I screwed this up, the part where we all get out of here anyway.

‘Case’ shouts Jenk, his eyes burning, stumbling down the dune with the cannon strapped to his shoulder, ‘you get back here now boy, or you’re both dead.’

‘Case’ I shout, fumbling for the blaster I stashed in the cabin, ‘take cover!’

It’s too late though.  His mother’s eyes are already glazed, and she sinks away.  Jenk hesitates, mesmerised by the damage he has done to his family.  Case is blind to anything but the tragedy, and for a second I wonder what I am doing here, watching a family of desert rats tearing themselves apart.

I have minutes to get off the rock.  I fire my blaster at Jenk and take out his knee.  He screams and drops the cannon.  I hit him again in the chest, firing with one hand as I run past the shuttle and grab Case’s tunic with the other.  The kid is shouting incoherently; I knock his head with the butt of the blaster and he falls silent.

‘First Order scum’ screams Jenk, bleeding out into the sand, ‘you’re dead already, there’s nothing for you out there.  You’re nothing.’

I am dragging Case back into the Interceptor.  I see my helmet lying next to the shuttle, just as I asked.  I strap Case into the other seat and check he’s breathing.  Then I run over to my helmet and put it on, engaging the retaining clips.  I might weld the thing together; this helmet is never coming off again.

‘You’re dead’ says Jenk, gargling now ‘Vark killed you already, you don’t even exist anymore, don’t you see?’

‘What the frak are you talking about?’ I stand over him, glancing over at the Interceptor, checking nobody else is coming, ‘What have you done?’

Jenk is laughing, blood bubbling from his mouth.  There is movement on the ridge.  I count at least two of the others up there, nestled into the sand.  I can make out the blasters but nobody is firing.  There is no-one to give them orders, but it is a matter of time before someone decides to make a bid for the Interceptor, and glory.

‘Tell me what you did Jenk?’ I ask him, ‘Who is Vark?’

I see one of the scavengers circling the shuttle, trying to get behind and nearer the fighter.  There is no time.  A blaster catches the sunlight.  I kneel down, and I whisper in Jenk’s ear.  He laughs and splutters.  Sand explodes near my droid knee and I return fire, driving them back for the few seconds I will need.

I lift my boot and smash it hard onto Jenk’s neck until I hear the crack.  He seems to sink away too, wallowing in the reddened sand so close to his murdered lover.  I run back to the Interceptor and bank up and over the camp.  So did Jenk know that I was not counted as missing by the First Order?  What the frak?!

The power cells are fading.  I spin the ship and hover over the makeshift dwellings.  I can see the clearing where I sat with Case when I first arrived.  There are scavengers running for cover in the hull sections.  Some are fleeing the camp.  I see others cowering beneath the flapping awnings of dirty canvas.

I tap the triggers and unload everything I have.  The camp burns, a haze of heat and flame devouring every living thing within.  I tap again, once, twice, three times to pick up the runners; they fall silently, tumbling down the dunes.  This place is no longer the prison that held me.  It is not even a memory.

‘Case?’ I whisper.  I am glad he’s unconscious; I am not a monster after all.

Before

I wake.  I feel cold, and I wrap the fibres of the blanket tightly around me to absorb the sweat.  I know the cabin temperature is maintained at a constant throughout the night.  I know that there is nothing here to be afraid of, and yet knowing is not enough.  I can sense the uncertainty.

I think I am alone, but then TI-7663 knocks on the wall and strolls through laid back as ever, but with a wary expression I have seen before.  Why knock, when his bunk is right opposite mine?  The same reason that on mornings like these my brothers in arms like to rise early and get out of my way.  The same reason I am cold.

‘Squadron leader wants to see you’ he drawls, in the bastardised accent of some distant planet, ‘straight after mess.’

‘Frak it’ I roll over, ‘Tell him to frak it.’

‘I’ll let him know’ TI-7663 laughs and fiddles with his dog tags, ‘sure will.’

I groan and roll back over, dropping my feet to the floor, my toes curling around the unforgiving grille plates.  TI-7663 slopes off to the showers.

I know the nightmares are getting worse.  TI-2272 told TI-7663 he saw me punching the wall one night.  I don’t remember, but my fists were bruised all right.  TI-2272 thinks I should talk it through.  TI-7663 says I need shore leave.  TI-4380 doesn’t like it mentioned; says it’s bull and what happens in the cabin stays here.

Those three guys hear me at night, but they can’t know what I see.  Somewhere in my head there is a knot of uncertainty, a seething mass of black worms that breed with every mission.  The better I am at my job, the more accomplished a Pilot I become, the greater their hold over me.  Something is not quite right.

‘Enter!’

The Squadron Leader waves me over to a metal chair in front of his desk.  There’s nothing on the desk apart from a data panel and his grey cap.  When he looks up from the panel he realises the cap is there and carefully folds it away.  I can see that he wanted to snatch it from sight but forced himself to control the manoeuvre.

‘Sir’ I give him a nod, real slow, nicely controlled.

‘Ah yes’ he says, and looks me up and down.

I stay silent.  I have had many Squadron Leaders over the years.  This one is strong on rules and regulations, less keen on the use of initiative.  He certainly isn’t the worst.  He wasn’t a bad pilot, and maybe he’s a great leader, how the hell would I know?  One thing is for sure; he doesn’t like my style.

‘Mission FOA-5791-3050’ he intones, ‘I will have to file a report.’

‘A report, Sir?’ I raise my eyebrows, guessing it won’t be a commendation.

‘Your mission was to destroy a dam’ he reminds me, ‘interrupt the power supply to Mahreb 4, believed to be harbouring Resistance sympathisers.’

‘Affirmative’ I nod, ever so slowly, ’Mission accomplished, Sir.’

‘I don’t deny that the dam was destroyed Pilot’ he concedes, ‘but you also destroyed their Citadel and 16 of their fighters.’

‘They were firing upon us Sir’ I remind him, ‘TI-7663 took two hits, he could have been in real trouble.’

‘You destroyed a two thousand year old Citadel and wiped out most of their fleet on one run’ he says, but it isn’t meant as a compliment, ‘and now you think controlling their energy supply will be enough to win them over.’

‘Sir, I know diplomacy isn’t my strong point but-‘

‘You’re damn right’ he says, almost forgetting himself, ‘we wanted Mahreb 4 as a supply base, we were planning to trade energy for their assistance.’

‘Well I didn’t know-‘

‘Enough Pilot’ he unfolds the cap and pulls the peak down almost over his eyes, ‘You are off active duty, effective immediately.’

‘Sir-‘

‘Pilot’ he bangs his fist on the table, and shoots to his feet, ‘don’t think I can’t tell a plasma junkie when I see one.  This is the end of your run.’

I stay seated when I should be standing.  I stare at the cabin window.  We are jumping into hyperspace.  The Squadron Leader is on the Comm.  He sounds concerned.  I glance over at him and I can tell he has had no warning of whatever is happening.  The lights flash red and the low wail of the siren permeates the cabin.   

‘Battle-stations, report to the ready room Pilot’

‘But-‘

‘I will file the report tomorrow.  This is a Priority Mission for ESF.  Your team will fly point.  One last mission and you’re off this ship, understand?’

‘Sir, yes Sir’ I stand to attention.

I am in the corridor and en route to the ready room before he can change his mind.  The others are already in their flight suits, strapping on their armour and checking the hose fittings.  I grin at them as I pull on my gear.  TI-2272 rolls his eyes and TI-4380 slaps me on the back. TI-7663 looks at me like a dead man walking.

‘What’s going on boys?’  I ask, already halfway into my flight suit.

‘Something big’ says TI-4380, ‘not sure what-’

‘But we know where’ adds TI-2272.

‘Where?’ I pause for a second.

‘Jakku’ says TI-2272, raising his eyebrows.

‘Jakku?’ I shake my head and laugh, ‘As in the Battle of Jakku?’

‘The very same’ says TI-4380, ‘one of those places we just don’t go.’

‘Heads in boys’ I tell them, still the senior man, the old war dog, ‘let’s make the most of this one, it could be our last.’

‘We are ESF’ we all shout together, ‘Tie ‘til death!’

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