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 shit and 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 fucked 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 fuckers 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 fuck 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 fuck?!
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.