SHE NEEDED HIM. And he was nowhere to be found.
There was no one else she could rely on. No one like her brother. No one else at all, now that the New Republic stood on the verge of implosion, of destruction, of complete collapse.
They had thought that with the fall of the Empire it would all be so easy. That people would understand the need for patience, that time would be required to rebuild that which the Empire had taken away. Cities, communications, trade: All these could and were well on their way to full restoration. It was the intangibles that proved so much more difficult to re-establish throughout galactic society.
Freedom, for example. The freedom to speak one’s mind, to object, to dispute. She sighed. Those who had led the rebellion had under-estimated the deeply buried desire of far too large a proportion of the population who simply preferred to be told what to do. Much easier it was to follow orders than to think for oneself. So everyone had argued and debated and discussed. Until it was too late.
Pacing the chamber, she caught a glimpse of herself in a length of polished metal. She knew she looked tired. Sometimes she wished she had been born a commoner, an ordinary citizen, instead of planetary royalty. Such thoughts led her inevitably to memories of Alderaan. Her home world, now many years gone, reduced to ashes.
And her own father had been a party to it. It was a legacy she could not escape. She could not let something like that happen again, to any other world, to any other people. It was her responsibility, and the weight of it was heavy. Too heavy?
Easier if she had help. The kind of help only her brother was capable of providing. If he wasn’t dead.
No. Surely not. Wherever he was, if he had passed on, she would have sensed his demise. Of that she was certain. Of that much she had to be certain.
There had come a hint, a clue. Not much, but better than any report that had found its way to her in some time. She would have followed up on it herself, for who better to search for clues to the location of a missing brother than his own sister? When she had proposed the idea, the shock of objection on the part of her fellow Resistance leaders could have been heard halfway across the galaxy. Reluctantly, she had conceded to reason. Someone would go in her stead.
The name of a particular pilot had been put forth. His record was no less than remarkable, and she could hardly argue that a pilot scouting solo would draw less attention than a perambulating princess. So she agreed.
“Finding one man should not, in the final analysis, be so difficult,” insisted one of her colleagues. “Even on all the known worlds, there are only so many hiding places.”
“For an ordinary man, yes,” she had replied. “But we’re not trying to find an ordinary man. We’re looking for Luke Skywalker.”
There had been some further argument, especially from other leaders who had remained convinced that the pilot chosen to follow up on the slender lead was too young for such a crucial task. In the end, harmony had triumphed.
Once again she caught her reflection in the metal. It had been some time since she had not prevailed in the course of such discussions.
A thin, knowing smile gleamed back at her. No doubt her authority in such matters derived from her shy, retiring nature. The smile faded. No time for sardonic reflection now, she told herself. No time for extended, lengthy discussion. Times were desperate. The ruthless First Order was on the march, threatening to overwhelm the shaky framework of the weak, increasingly vulnerable, and still-developing New Republic.
Where was her brother?
The Star Destroyer Finalizer was massive and new. It had been forged and assembled in the distant orbital factories of the First Order, constructed in secret and uninfected by the virus that was the New Republic. Its devoted and fanatical builders had designed it to be more powerful, more technologically advanced, than anything that had come before it. Certainly there was nothing in the possession of the new Resistance that could stand against the vessel.
Almost invisible when they first dropped from a port in the side of the immense Resurgent-class Star Destroyer, the four transport vessels were of a proven design. Their function straightforward and simple, they had no need of the extensive redesign embraced by their mother ship. For all that, the transports still performed their prescribed role with brute efficiency.
As they went about their mundane daily tasks below, the inhabitants of the glowing orb known as Jakku had no idea they were about to receive a visit from four elite squadrons of Imperial stormtroopers.
On board the quartet of transports, the eighty white-armored troopers prepared for touchdown in the manner of soldiers everywhere. Wisecracks alternated with nervous speculation about what might await them. Surging adrenaline generated nudges and the occasional comradely whack on a neighbor’s arm. They knew one another well, had confidence in their team, and felt certain they could cope with anything the minor world toward which they were descending could throw at them.
Squad leaders barked commands. Weapons were armed, checked, rechecked. Flame troopers made certain their special weapons were loaded to capacity. Each trooper made a point of inspecting the armor of a neighbor, ensuring that joints were sealed and panels tight.
The ensuing silence was replaced by a deep rumbling, motionlessness by jolts and bangs, as the four craft entered Jakku’s atmosphere. Someone made a particularly inappropriate comment and was immediately quieted by those seated across from him. After that, the only noise within each transport was the roar and thunder as they bucked their way down through thick air.
An automated electronic voice sounded the “Prepare for landing!” warning. Armored bodies tensed. There was a single sharp jolt, followed by the return of a silence so thorough it was shocking. Hands tightened on weapons, bodies tensed, and inside the bay all eyes turned to the transport’s bow doorway. The quiet was barely broken by the slightest of mechanical hums as the front of the ship started to lower toward the unseen ground.
There were smaller villages on Jakku. More primitive, more rural. No one passing over, or even through, Tuanul would have suspected that it held a secret. Even if they had, they would have found no reason to linger. The worlds of the galaxy were full of secrets, and there was no reason to suspect Jakku was any different. But this particular secret…
It was a peaceful place, as was the case with most small communities situated on desert worlds. Despite the desolation that was apparent at first glance, it boasted its characteristic assortment of indigenous life-forms. Regardless of the absence of much in the way of visible vegetation, the distant isolated hoots and mewlings of nocturnal native animals indicated that life was present even where none could readily be seen. A single wind chime yodeling in the occasional breeze provided a tinkling counterpoint to the yelps of hidden sand-dwellers.
With neither the place nor the motivation to hide, a creature that was decidedly non-native rolled eastward out of the village. Consisting of a rounded head floating above a much larger sphere, it was dull white with striking orange markings. Designated BB-8, the droid was, at the moment, very, very concerned.
Where a human would see only empty night sky, advanced calibrated synthetic optics saw a moving point of light. When the light resolved itself into four separate points, the droid commenced an agitated beeping. The phenomenon he was seeing might signify nothing, except…
The quartet of lights was descending in a controlled manner, on what could only be described as a calculated path, and they were rapidly slowing. If they continued in the observed fashion they would make a controlled touchdown at…BB-8 performed an almost instantaneous calculation.
Too near. Too near for coincidence. One such light was reason for concern. Four hinted at possibilities dire to contemplate.
Beeping and whistling in something approaching cybernetic panic, the droid spun and sped back toward the village. That is, its head spun. Facing all directions simultaneously, the spherical body did not need to turn, only to accelerate. This BB-8 did with alacrity. While it could have transmitted the conclusion it had reached, it did not do so for fear of any such message being intercepted, possibly by those it feared might be inhabiting the source of the four descending lights.
In addition to its motley group of mixed galactic peoples, Tuanul was home to an assortment of used but still valuable machinery. A fair portion of the village population eked out a modest living modifying and restoring such equipment for resale in larger towns and cities. As the droid sped past, the occasional human or alien worker glanced up from the task at hand, frowning, bemused by the droid’s apparently unwarranted haste as it raced through the community. Then they returned to their work, shrugging with the appropriate body parts.
Machines in various degrees of dismemberment and disarray did not slow BB-8, who dodged effortlessly around and through them. The flocks of bloggins the droid encountered were not so easily avoided. Whereas deconstructed devices tended to sit in one place and not move, bloggins not only wandered where they wished, but regarded whatever patch of land or sand they happened to be occupying at the moment as exclusively theirs, and took raucous exception to interlopers. The birdlike creatures promptly objected to the droid’s chosen path. The pecking he ignored, and he could have barreled on straight through them. But the domesticated flocks provided food for a number of the villagers, and their owners would not have been pleased to see them flattened.
So BB-8 was forced to dodge and avoid, which he did with skill and patience, beeping and shrieking at the shamble of pseudo-avians in order to clear a nondestructive path. Eventually the last of the annoying beasts was behind him. Deep within the village, there was far less likelihood of encountering anything domesticated that was worth eating: a biological process he understood from an objective point of view but for which he could never rouse much empathy. His goal was close, and there was not a nanosecond to lose.
Like most of the buildings in Tuanul, the residence toward which he was speeding was an odd amalgamation of the contemporary and the very primitive. Dwellings on many of the minor desert worlds were like that: designs dictated by necessity as well as the environment. Though BB-8’s intended destination resembled little more than a primeval hut, it contained electronics and multiple concealed enhancements capable of making living in a harsh, dry climate more than merely tolerable.
Though he was fatigued, Poe Dameron tried not to let it show. He owed that much to his host. Besides, he had a reputation to uphold. He had come a long way through difficult and dangerous circumstances to be in this place, in this moment—all on behalf of the Resistance and specifically on the orders of General Organa herself. He was not about to let a minor inconvenience like exhaustion tarnish a farewelling.
His visage, framed by dark, thick waves of hair, was a bit proud of countenance: something that others, not knowing him, might mistake for arrogance. Confident in his skills and in his mission, he sometimes displayed an impatience that arose only from a desire to fulfill the task at hand. His worn-down red-and-sand-hued flight jacket had been with him as long as he had been in the Resistance, rising through its ranks.
From the moment of Poe’s arrival, Tuanul had struck him as somewhat less than imposing. This was in notable contrast to his host. While Lor San Tekka appeared physically capable of removing the heads from various unthinking carnivores, his manner was more that of a Soother, and a professional one at that. One immediately relaxed in his company. Provided one held no inimical intentions toward the hut’s owner, of course. Though their visit had been brief, the pilot felt quite confident of his analysis.
Coming close, Tekka placed a small leather sack in Poe’s open palm, then covered both with his own hand. He smiled softly and nodded.
“These days I can only do so much. Would that I could do so much more.” He sighed heavily. “And there is so much more that needs to be done. But…this will begin to make things right.”
As the older man’s hand withdrew, Poe tightened his fingers around the leather bag. In size, it was small. In importance…
“Legend says this map is unobtainable,” Poe noted. “How’d you do it?”
The older man just smiled, clearly not willing to give up all his secrets just yet.
Poe grinned back at him, accepting it. “I’ve heard stories about your adventures since I was a kid. It’s an honor to meet you. We’re grateful.”
Tekka shrugged—an old man’s shrug, slow and full of meaning. “I’ve traveled too far and seen too much to ignore the collective anguish that threatens to drown the galaxy in a flood of dark despair. Something must be done; whatever the cost, whatever the danger. Without the Jedi, there can be no balance in the Force, and all will be given over to the dark side.”
Though Poe was reasonably secure in his knowledge of such things, he was also intelligent enough to know he could not begin to discuss them in depth with someone like Lor San Tekka. Rather than make a fool of himself by trying to do so, he prepared to take his leave. Besides, he had a delivery to make. Casual philosophical conversation could wait for a better time.
“The general has been after this a long time,” Poe said, as a way of beginning to take his leave.
Tekka smiled at some secret thought. “ ‘General.’ To me, she’s royalty.”
“Yeah, but don’t call her Princess,” Poe told him. “Not to her face. She doesn’t like it anymore. Really doesn’t like it.”
He was about to elaborate when a frantic metal sphere rolled into the room, barely braking in time to avoiding hitting the two men, and began to spew a stream of electronic chatter. The two men exchanged a glance before rushing toward the building’s entrance.
Poe had his quadnocs in his hands even before he stopped running. Aiming them toward the general section of sky indicated by BB-8, he let the integrated automatic tracker focus on any targets in the vicinity. The device located four almost immediately. Lowering it, he spoke without turning, his gaze fixed on the horizon.
“Not to be presumptuous, sir, but you need to hide.”
Tekka didn’t need quadnocs. He had already identified the incoming ships by the sound they made as they finished their descent. “Not to overstate the obvious, but you need to leave.”
Despite the importance of his mission, Poe found himself conflicted. Not only did he respect Lor San Tekka, he liked him. How could he leave him here? “Sir, if you don’t mind, I—”
The older man cut him off. “But I do mind, Poe Dameron. You spoke of your mission.” Both his gaze and his tone hardened. “Now fulfill it. Compared to what is stirring in the galaxy, you and I are little more than motes of dust.”
Still, Poe demurred. “With all due respect, some motes are of more importance than others…sir.”
“If you wish to flatter something, flatter my memory. Go. Now! I must see to the defense of the village.” Turning, Tekka headed off, not looking back.
Poe hesitated a moment longer, then whirled and raced toward the far end of the village, BB-8 pacing him effortlessly. As he ran, he was passed by armed, stern-visaged villagers. How the alarm had been raised he did not know, just as he did not pause to wonder at how or why such seemingly simple folk had come into possession of so many weapons. Doubtless Lor San Tekka would know. Poe resolved to ask him—one day.
The ship that was parked some distance from the village was well hidden beneath a high rock outcropping. That wouldn’t shield the X-wing from sophisticated search gear, Poe knew. He needed to exit the atmosphere, and fast. Hurrying to the cockpit as BB-8 rolled into the copiloting position, he hurriedly activated the controls. Instrumentation flared to life. In the distance a swarm of bipedal shapes in glistening white armor could be seen approaching the village. Stormtroopers. The weaponry they unleashed confirmed their identification.
Those villagers who had armed themselves attempted to mount a defense. In this, bravery was a poor match for training and advanced equipment. As more and more of their number went down, the defenders had no choice but to pull back.
It was over almost before it began. Seeing the hopelessness of further resistance, the villagers began to give themselves up, surrendering in twos and threes. As penned animals panicked and broke free, several of the specially equipped flame troopers began setting chosen structures afire. To an outraged Poe there seemed no reason for it. But then, to those behind the First Order, sowing fear and terror was merely politics by another means.
His angry thoughts were interrupted by a stream of electronic anxiety from the droid. “We’re going, Beebee-Ate, we’re going! Almost there…” He thumbed another control.
Landing lights snapped on as engines whined to life. Roll clear of the overhang and then punch it, he told himself.
He was a second from doing just that when the ship was hit.
The pair of stormtroopers had come up on him unseen. Whoever had planned the attack was too smart to rely on a simple frontal assault. Perhaps these two were part of a preceding suit drop or had used a vehicle to circle around behind the village. If one of their bursts connected with the cockpit, their origin wouldn’t matter.
On the other hand, they were either angling for a commendation or just plain stupid, because their line of approach put them right in front of the X-wing’s weapons. Poe hit the control that deployed the drop-down pivoting gun from the belly of his X-wing, then fired. The resulting blasts cleared the ground of the enemy and every other living thing that had been unfortunate enough to have been in their immediate vicinity.
Having dealt succinctly with the momentary interruption, Poe returned his attention to the X-wing’s instrumentation. An ascending whine rose from the rear of the ship. Shuddering slightly, it started to move out from beneath the protective rock. Strapped into the pilot’s seat, Poe flinched in response to the unexpected vibration. There shouldn’t be any shuddering.
The X-wing stopped, but the rising whine did not. After quickly shutting down to prevent any further damage to the engines, Poe popped the canopy and climbed out. Moving to the back of the ship, he stared hard at the now inert engines. The two stormtroopers might not have been tactically sophisticated, but they had been good shots. The damage to the engines was severe.
BB-8 rolled up beside him. Nothing was said. Nothing needed to be said. Both man and droid could see that they were in big trouble.
In the village the fight continued as a die-hard group of its inhabitants, perhaps knowing all too well what the representatives of the First Order had in mind for them if they surrendered, refused to give up their weapons. While the battle was a mismatch, it was not a slaughter, and those villagers who continued to resist gave as good as they got.
Shot straight on, a trooper went down in a mass of shattered armor, shredded flesh, and blood. One of his companions immediately rushed to his side and knelt to render assistance. A torn, bloody glove lifted toward the would-be rescuer, shockingly bare fingers protruding from the torn protective covering.
Faces behind helmets stared at one another. With a shock, the trooper who had arrived to render aid to his fallen comrade recognized the one whose life was now bleeding out inside his armor. They had trained together. Shared meals, stories, experiences together. Now they were sharing death together.
Combat was not at all like the would-be rescuer had envisioned it.
A brief, final flailing by the downed trooper splattered the newcomer’s face mask with blood. Then hand and arm fell, and movement ceased.
There was no assistance to be rendered here, the second trooper realized. Straightening, he surveyed the hell in which he found himself. His weapon hung at his side—unfired. He stumbled off, away from his dead comrade and that exposed, pale, pleading hand.
As madness ebbed and surged around him, he wandered through the village, feeling himself more a participant in a historical drama than in an actual battle. The horrific and all too common red stains on the ground contradicted his denial. This wasn’t like his training at all, he told himself numbly. Unlike in simulations, reality bled.
Smoke and dust rose from the devastated buildings around him. His helmet’s aural receptors picked up the sounds of distant explosions as well as those close at hand. Crackling flames did not rise from burning sand; they rose from homes, small workshops, storage buildings.
As he turned the still-standing corner of a building, movement caused him to raise his weapon reflexively. Frightened and unarmed, the woman he found himself confronting inhaled sharply and froze. The expression on her face was one the trooper would never forget: It was the look of someone still alive who realizes she’s already dead. For an instant they remained like that: predator and prey, each fully cognizant of their respective status. When he finally lowered the blaster’s muzzle, she clearly couldn’t believe it; she continued to stare at him for a long moment.
What could only be described as a thunderous hiss caused them to turn away from each other. When the trooper turned in the direction of the sound, his movement broke the woman’s terrified paralysis. She whirled and fled.
The shuttle that was descending was far more imposing than those with which the trooper was familiar, boasting exceptionally high folding wings and a raptorish silhouette. When the bay door opened, it was to allow a single figure to exit. Tall, dark, cloaked, with its face hidden behind a metal mask, it ignored the still-swirling chaos of the battle to head unerringly in the direction of Lor San Tekka.
Struck by the new arrival’s apparent indifference to the enveloping fray, the trooper was startled when a sharp nudge from behind momentarily threw him off balance. A glance found him locking gazes with a superior. The noncom’s voice was curt.
“Back to your team. This isn’t over yet.”
The subject of his ire nodded in recognition and hurried off, wondering what the arrival of that singular figure might portend but not daring to inquire.
For an ordinary trooper like him, ignorance was not simply an abstract value. It was in the manual.
At least for now, Poe realized, the X-wing was not flyable. If he could scrounge certain critical components, find a machine-grade cutter, then maybe, just maybe…But first there was a far more important matter to attend to.
From within the leather bag he had received from Tekka, he removed an artifact. Its significance far exceeded its size. After a moment of fumbling with BB-8’s exterior, the pilot inserted the artifact into the droid. A confirming beep indicated that it was securely lodged. Satisfied, he stood to eye the glow of the burning village.
“Get as far away from here as you can,” he ordered his mechanical companion. “Any direction, so long as it’s away from this place.” When the droid’s anxious electronic response indicated it was hesitant to comply with the command, Poe added emphasis to his voice.
“Yeah, I’m gonna take out as many of those bucketheads as I can. Beebee-Ate, I’ll come back for you. Go! Don’t worry—it’ll be all right. Wherever you end up, I’ll find you.”
BB-8 continued to hesitate. But when the pilot remained indifferent to repeated queries, the droid finally turned and rolled off, accelerating across the sand and away from the village. It looked back only once, its head swiveling around to regard the X-wing and pilot rapidly fading from view even as it increased its speed in the opposite direction. Much to BB-8’s regret, it could only protest a direct order, not reject it.
The tall, hooded figure whose arrival had so transfixed the shell-shocked trooper made his way directly to Lor San Tekka. He did not waver in his course or objective, ignoring startled stormtroopers and armed villagers alike. Seeing him approach, Tekka halted and waited: The village elder recognized who was coming toward him and knew there was no point in running. Resignation slid over him like a cloud.
The passenger from the shuttle stared at Tekka, examining him from head to foot much as one would a relic in a museum. Tekka gazed back evenly. The black mask, with its slitted forehead and thick, snoutlike breathing apparatus, covered the face of the man he knew as Kylo Ren. Once, he had known the face behind the mask. Once, he had known the man himself. Now, to San Tekka, only the mask was left. Metal instead of man.
Ren spoke first, without hesitation, as if he had anticipated this meeting for some time. “The great soldier of fortune. Captured at last.” Though emanating from a human throat, the voice that was distorted by the mask had the sick flavor of the disembodied.
Tekka had expected no less. “Whereas something far worse has happened to you.”
Words had no effect on the mask or, so far as Tekka could tell, what lay behind it. There was no reaction, no outrage. Only impatience.
“You know what I’ve come for.”
“I know where you come from.” For all the concern he displayed, Lor San Tekka might as well have been sitting atop a mountain ridge, meditating on the sunset over the Sko’rraq Mountains. “From a time before you called yourself Kylo Ren.”
From behind the mask, a growl: feral, but still human. “Careful. The map to Skywalker. We understand you’ve acquired it. And now you’re going to give it to the First Order.”
At the point where he had entered the village, moving cautiously and keeping to what cover was available, Poe could now observe the confrontation. Tekka he recognized even from behind and in bad light. The tall, masked visitor was unknown to him. He strained to overhear what they were talking about, but without edging closer and exposing himself to wandering stormtroopers, he could only look on.
“You don’t belong with them.” Tekka spoke calmly, in matter-of-fact tones, and without any fear. Speaking truth to the lie that stood before him, striving to bring light to darkness. The hope was a faint one, but he had to try. “The First Order arose from the dark side. You did not.”
Impatience on the part of the visitor gave way to exasperation. “How is it possible that a conversation becomes so tedious, so quickly?” A sweep of one long arm encompassed the boundaries of the village. “Don’t turn a simple transaction into a tragedy for these people.” A tincture of undiluted sadism stained the voice behind the mask. “Hasn’t your presence here done enough for them already?”
“I made my peace with these folk and this place long ago. As to the other, to turn away from your heritage is the true tragedy.”
Ren stiffened ever so slightly as he leaned forward. “Enough witless banter.” He held out a hand. “Old man, give it to me.”
From his vantage point nearby, analyzing the movements and gestures of both men, Poe could divine enough to guess what was being discussed. And to envision the eventual, inevitable conclusion.
“No,” he muttered under his breath. “No, no, no…” Foregoing any further effort at concealment and disregarding his own safety, he broke from cover and started toward the pair.
“You may try,” Tekka responded with quiet defiance, “but you cannot deny the truth that is your family.”
Kylo Ren seemed to grow before him. Rage flared behind the mask as reason gave way to fury. A lightsaber appeared in one hand, flaring to life, a barely stable crimson shaft notable for two smaller projections at the hilt: a killer’s weapon, an executioner’s fetish of choice. “So true.”
Light, refulgent and cutting, ripped across and through the figure of Lor San Tekka.