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 shithole 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.’
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 fucks 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 fuck 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.
Next: The Ambush