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Triptych

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***

Triptych


n., a picture made of three panels, typically hinged together side-by-side to make a single image

or: The Three Deaths of Kylo Ren

.

 

***

 

You've been starmarked.

There's no mirror in your quarters. They'd been built for someone else -- the Knight of Ren who'd come before you, and she'd no need of one. However, the barracks on the level below stand empty, as your ship has to … ah, run at half-staff at the moment. You stand in front of the mirror there and study the changed starscape of your body.

"What was it?" you'd asked when you woke up, deep in space with a droid bent over your side and nobody in your head but your own crew.

"A bowcaster, sir," the reconstructionist tells you, lowering his holopad and snapping his heels together.

"Ah," you say in understanding, right before you pass out again.

The next time you wake, it's to an officer saying, a shade too loud, "-- sorry, but it's General Hux's orders. The -- er, the Supreme Leader demands his presence."

"Of course he --" the reconstructionist, now professionally offended, drops his voice to a low hiss. "Humans do not heal with a snap of the fingers just because the Supreme Leader is impatient!"

Panic flares inside the officer's head, making you flinch like he'd swung a bright light at you.

"General Hux is waiting, sir," is all he says, with a helpless flap of his hand in the direction of the hallway.

You interject before the reconstructionist can damn himself any further.

"Are the grafts done?" you ask.

The officer's throat bobs. His head is nothing but regret, his thoughts swimming and swamping over with anxiety: he'd pulled the short straw for this. You shake yours, trying to get him out of it, trying to focus. You're pretty sure it took longer, the last time this happened to you and they had to regrow your chest from scratch.

"No, sir," he says. "There wasn't any time. We -- ah …" he trails off.

"Fine," your voice deepens, and he steps back smartly. The reconstructionist stands against the wall, and watches in silence as you get up.

Your body has been sliced open, punched through -- a bowcaster -- and you get up.

You reach for your helmet and you put it on; the weight settles on your head, across the bridge of your nose where the skin is raw, still burnt. You call on the Force, bracing yourself on it like a crutch.

You go.

In the hallway, Hux -- who is probably smarting from wounds less visible than yours -- permits himself only a single, "And here I didn't think you could top your failure on Naboo, Ren," which you greet with a half-hearted, "I did not set the bar for failure so low that you need vault over it so spectacularly, General, and yet here we are."

After the both of you are rebuked for your inefficiency at Starkiller Base, now that the Supreme Leader has the full picture of all that was lost, and told again to join him at his stronghold in the MISTA system, you return to your quarters. You clean your clothes, cycling them through the steamer twice until you're certain they're no longer stiff and sticky with blood (kneeling in it was unpleasant.) Then you seek out a mirror.

The first one you look at is the streak that cuts your face chin to crown, broad and comet-colored.

Morbidly, you pull at it with your fingers, just for the peculiar sight of your flesh coming apart, the raw inner bits of you.

There's another, hooked out of your shoulder, and a third slashed across the top of your thigh, red-edged and angry. There's something about the cauterized neatness of them that reminds you, unbidden, of how Starkiller had looked as it fired -- splitting open the black of space like a red scalpel knife. You touch your face, your shoulder, your thigh, naming each one that's taken a cut out of you -- one for the three minor Hosnian planets. They will scar -- from what your reconstructionist said, they will scar horribly.

You will be weak in this leg, in this arm, permanently.

Your hand drifts then to your left side, to the place directly under your heart.

The skin there is blackened, sunken, gutpunched, a starburst of a wound pulling the rest of you toward it. You can't put your fingers directly on it; it's too tender still. You hadn't gotten the chance to ask how much of your internals had to be reconstructed. More than you'd think, if there'd been no opportunity to grow a skin graft, too. A bowcaster.

This one, you think, is for the New Republic on Hosnian Prime.

This one is for your father.

You snap your eyes up to meet your own gaze, suddenly flash-bang furious with yourself, with them, and it lasts long enough that it silences everything else, but you can't hold onto it.

It slips, and as the rush fades from your ears, the sound comes back: the Force presses too close to you.

"That's fair," you tell your reflection, and drop your hand from the starmark on your side. Slowly, painfully, you assemble yourself. Your clothes, your boots, your gloves, your helmet. Every inch of your skin disappears.

 

***

 

The robes had a habit of bunching. You had trouble pulling them to lie flat across your chest: something always rolled.

You remember it vividly: constantly checking to make sure your undershirt hasn't ridden up, that your overcoat isn't lopsided where you'd pulled it through your sash. The fact that you'll be wearing these robes until further notice fills you with an itchy frustration, the kind that buzzes hotly right under your skin. Uncle Luke unconsciously shakes his head whenever he's near you, like he's batting away something bothersome. Sometimes his frown will follow you, and you'll think, I still don't understand what the point of the stupid outfit is! at him until his attention moves on.

"No wonder the Jedi all died out," you find yourself muttering, after you get caught on a door handle and have to backtrack to free yourself. "This is impractical," and immediately, you look up and around, ashamed.

The bar's patrons aren't paying you any mind. The human child in their midst isn't worth note. Besides, you'd feel it if they --

"BEN SOLO," booms out, and you sigh.

"Organa," you say, not loud enough to be heard. You rub at your forehead with the tips of your fingers. "It's Ben Organa."

Then you straighten up, calling back, "Hi, Maz," to the woman waving at you from --

From on top of her line cook's back, it looks like.

She steps off the shiny blue-black dome of his exoskeleton, and he clicks at her furiously, pinchers clamping down to rescue his finished plates before she can carelessly trod on her own customer's food. You follow her trajectory, dodging a drink server on a hoverboard who hollers at you, "watch it, slime mold!" in droid-speak. She leads you to a half-booth on the opposite side, occupied only by --

You suddenly feel inches tall.

"Hi, Commander Bridger," you mumble.

He looks up lazily, and then his eyes pop fully open and he jolts upright, planting both of his feet on the floor. Maz clambers into the chair across from him, looking pleased with herself.

"Well, if it isn't a Jedi-in-training!" Bridger's voice soars, and they are equally delighted with this situation, the pair of them. You hate them, you decide. "Who is definitely not supposed to be off grounds! Did you sneak out? Are you here for a drink? Are you going to place a bet on the O2 trials? If so, you missed the bookie on the way in -- the ugly guy with the tank, there."

You've always thought that Bridger had to be part-Mirilan, with eyes so blue you bet you could see them underwater, or in the pitch dark. But he doesn't know what he is, and you can't know something that he doesn't think about, so.

He widens them at you now. "Or, wait --" he drops his voice. "Is it a girl? Boy? Somebody not either one of those things?"

You have devised a way to die on the spot. You're going to do that in three … two …

Maz takes pity.

"He's here because I invited him, Ezra. I know the boy's father," she says, clearly not wanting to have to clean up the mess your humiliated remains would make on the floor of her establishment, and Commander Bridger clicks his tongue, disappointed. "And Luke knows about it, so don't even think of tattling."

"You never let me have any fun," he says, and kicks a chair out for you. "Well. Sit down, then. Ren, is it?"

"Ben," you say patiently, tugging your apprentice's robes into shape one more time before sitting.

There's a plate on the table, heaped with the kind of deep-fat fried something that you understand is universal bar food; the contents, of course, vary from system to system, although at a certain point of fried-ness, it probably doesn't matter. You lift a piece with your fingertips, considering. It leaves a sheen on your skin.

Leaning his elbows on the table, Bridger shows his teeth. "Ben. Right, I should know that."

Ezra Bridger is on your mother's tactical council, an information analyst; he's followed her all your life, his loyalty a shining, warm thing, like putting your hand against the hull of an X-Wing that's been sitting in the sun all day. Officially, his rank is a decoration and all he's got is a cushy job managing her security personnel -- since nobody's at war -- but back in the day, guerrilla hit-and-runs were his specialty.

("Domestic terrorism, the Empire used to call it," he amended once, proudly, when you'd been much younger. "When they finally caught up to me, they charged me with twelve counts of it," and your father had jerked a look at him, saying, "and they let you live?" like he didn't know whether to be shocked or impressed. Bridger's face had done something peculiar, then, and you lifted your head from your father's shoulder as the Force puckered around him, suddenly as sour as Ilthorian candy. "In a fashion," he'd replied, flat.)

He's a short, swarthy man with a dark beard, and his fighting arm is protected by a pauldron, the insignia on it near-faded to obscurity. It's too big for him, and there's a feeling to it, like it'd belonged to someone else: you can feel them in the Force, larger than life.

Maz reaches over, hand closing coolly over yours.

"And you?" she says, serious now. "Are you doing better? Enjoying your training? There are others your age, aren't there, for you to relate to?"

She sounds almost wistful. She is a thousand years old, and change. The Force draws so still and so deep around her that you can't ford it; her feelings are a mystery to you.

"I am, thank you, and yes, and there are," you answer, ticking off each question with your free hand, and then add, diplomatically, "My parents made the best decision they could for me."

"Hmm," she says. "And Luke Skywalker? Is he the Jedi you imagined him to be?"

He's been my uncle far longer than he's been my teacher, and a Jedi before he was either one of those things, you think, wondering if this is a trick question, but all you say out loud is, "Of course."

Maz eyes you sidelong, pulling her hand back to rub at one eyebrow thoughtfully. Your father emphatically warned you on multiple occasions that no, don't worry, Maz can't use the Force, and yes, she looks like she knows everybody's secrets, but that's her "woke up like this" look. It comes with a thousand years of life experience, so lying to her never works. Seriously, don't do it.

Sure enough, she quirks her mouth and says, "What aren't you telling me, Solo?"

You hunch your shoulders at her with an immediate, indignant, "Nothing!" Then, mutinously, ignoring the knot that tightens inside your chest, "Embarrassing stuff! I'm not going to tell you, you'll just go straight to my mom and dad!"

"Leave him alone, Maz," Bridger interjects. He flags down the drink server. "The general doesn't need to know about his weird Jedi boy dreams or whatever's bothering him."

You roll your eyes at him, like, thanks for your help, and scoot your chair in so the drink server can race by you to get Bridger's order. It promptly plonks a steaming mug down on the table, whistles something about Bridger's greasy mother, and speeds away, and Maz remarks, "I often find that children have deeper and more complicated dreams than that, Ezra."

Then she leans back, dismissing it with a shrug and a, "Bah! What do I know. I am not the one who has to lecture a dozen of them on powers they barely understand."

Bridger starts to say something, but manages to burn his mouth on his drink instead. As he splutters and coughs, you and Maz exchange a look, mutually indulgent.

When he recovers, he says, "Don't do that. You're just rubbing it in."

And you feel it, too: the sound jealousy makes in the Force is an angry spitting hiss, close enough to your ears to make them burn. What does he have to be jealous of?

You fold your hands into the sleeves of your robes. "Why?" you ask, and Bridger's eyebrows hike toward his hairline.

"You don't know?"

You glance at Maz, but she just smiles her thousand-year-old smile, and you shake your head.

He sets the mug down, jaw shunting as he worries at the inside of his cheek. The change comes over him gradually, the years settling and fossilizing into the lines on his face.

"Darth Vader had this apprentice," he begins, and your stomach swoops like you'd broke atmosphere with the inertial dampener turned off. "He -- for years, he hunted for the Force-adept all over the Galactic Empire. It was -- anyway -- he had this apprentice who could," he gestures vaguely around his skull. "They didn't have to execute me or send me to prison when they arrested me. They just had her sever my connection to the Force."

You look again to Maz, helplessly, but she just fiddles with her goggles and watches you with a steady, beetle-eyed gaze.

"They did that to a lot of us, actually, if they couldn't find another use for us or -- or tempt us into being Sith. That's why Luke Skywalker is the only true Jedi this galaxy knows. The rest of us had to find other paths." His mouth pulls, drawn sideways into some memory. "I do remember the Force, though. It flows through every --"

"-- living thing," you and Maz finish with him, and some of the crystalline sadness that had been crusting around him eases.

"We were all living deep in secret, though, so I, at least," he picks up one of the fried … whatevers, and gestures up-and-down at you with it, "never had to wear that during my training."

"It's terrible, I get stuck all the time!" bursts out of you in agreement, way louder than you intend, and he throws his head back, laughing.

"I thought Luke was tossing out bits of the Code left and right -- what, he didn't think to dispense with this little piece of tradition when he had the chance?" His teeth start to show. "Actually, wait -- how old are you? Fourteen?"

"Fifteen," you say.

"No, you're not! Your birthday's in -- oh. I guess -- never mind, I'm sorry I missed it, Lin."

"Ben."

"That's what I said. But anyway, being fifteen probably has more to do with it than your robes."

"If you wanted to stop wearing it, Ben Solo," Maz puts in. "I don't think Luke would stop you. That boy doesn't know what he's doing. He feels his way through it. It works for him, usually."

Hearing your uncle called "boy" is strange, but you suppose that to Maz, everyone would be. Across from you, Commander Bridger's mouth is skewed, like he's thinking the same thing.

Actually, that reminds you --

"What brings you out here, anyway?" you ask. "There isn't anything on Takodana, besides the oxygen tours and Maz's outpost."

"And a bunch of awkward young Jedi-to-be," the commander adds, the stillwater color in his eyes brightening with mirth. He pushes himself along the booth's padded back, fishing for his bag. When he surfaces, he drops something heavy and white onto the table.

It's a helmet, frog-mouthed, and every single hair on your body stands on end at the sight of it.

"I'm on layover," he says. "On my way to the MISTA system."

The noise in your ears is so loud it takes a moment for his voice to filter through. When it does, you break your stare with the helmet and frown up at him.

"That's -- past the Outer Rim, isn't it?"

"Yeah. The general," my mother, you think, "believes the Empire is colonizing the Uncharted Territories to engineer its comeback. It's not that they can't colonize new planets, per se, that's not the problem -- they just can't build, trade, or facilitate the manufacturing of any kind of weapon, permanent militia, or act of warfare," he recites easily. "And I would know, I was there when they signed the Concordance. And this," he leans forward to tap the helmet, "is definitely one of the above."

Beneath the sleeves of your robe, you're gripping your own wrists so tightly your bones grind together.

You are, for a terrible moment, glad that Commander Bridger has no Force-sense. You'd hate to think what kind of sound you're making.

Get a grip, you tell yourself. The others will sense you before you even get to the grounds. Especially Queenie -- you don't care what Uncle Luke says, that uncanny ability to be exactly wherever will embarrass you the most has to be Force-related.

"Besides, I used to collect Stormtrooper helmets as trophies, back when I was a kid on Lothal -- which, yes, I know, is morbid, don't judge me. This kind of looks like those, doesn't it?" he grins, turning the helmet toward you again.

Maz pushes herself up, reaching out to knock her knuckles against the top of the helmet, like she's checking to make sure that it's hollow and not still attached to a head instead.

You swallow.

"I'll take your word for it," you manage.

Settling back again, Maz clicks her tongue. "Of course you know," she says with a wave of her hand. "You're collectors, the both of you, I can see it in your eyes. You, especially -- they're your grandfather's eyes, you know."

And this, at least, is familiar territory.

"Yes, I've heard that," you say, with an edge to your voice you can't help, and her forehead crinkles, nonplussed, before her expression clears.

"Oh, no, not that grandfather. Pish! The other one. The good-looking one, fine specimen of a Corellian man. Collected the most amazing porcelain figures -- I was not opposed to looking at them when he came by, he was very proud of them, but I was more interested in collecting him, no questions asked."

Yelping in protest, you clap your hands to your ears, simultaneous with Bridger's scandalized, "Maz, I can't know that!"

It takes her a long time to stop laughing.

When she does, you lower your hands and say, quietly, "I didn't know I resembled him," and all of her wrinkles crinkle up at once.

"To be honest," she allows. "It's more your nose. I'd recognize that tragedy in any age, in any face."

Your hand darts to cover the offending appendage, and Commander Bridger says, "You had to work in that crack about human anatomy, didn't you?"

"Of course I did, darling, it's bizarre."

 

***

 

"Sir!"

You turn away from the viewport. Even with your eyes closed under your helmet, the afterimages of Starkiller's beam remains burnt on the insides of your eyelids, four great red gashes.

A Stormtrooper, a runner, stops at your elbow. He snaps to attention.

You open your eyes. His helmet is a frog-mouthed grimace.

"We've had word. The droid's been spotted in the company of Han Solo on Takodana, in the western quadrant of the Tashtor Sector." He's talking fast, throwing all of his information at your feet in the hopes you'll be too busy picking it up to focus on him. "Our informant … ah, unfortunately carries an outdated transponder, so we were only capable of triangulating her position to a fifty-mile radius, but --"

"No need," you say, quietly. You can see the strings of flags, multi-colored and fluttering in the breeze, as clear as if you're already there. "I know where they are."

 

***

 

On the day you were born, they tell you, there were still X-Wings in the repair bays bearing scorch marks from the Battle of Endor. Empire battleships were still smoking, strewn in pieces across the Jakkuvian desert.

There are holos of your mother at the inaugural assembly of the new Galactic Senate, a landmark moment months in the making.

It's over a thousand representatives from every system in the galaxy, brought together as equals for the first time since before the Empire, and there she is among them, her face swollen with exhaustion, you in a sling across her chest that she'd makeshifted in a hurry out of a pilot's harness. The droids had warned her against strenuous activity, and so when you arrived early, too sudden, all of her supplies were two systems away, and if she sent someone out to buy something new, she might miss her part in the opening ceremony. It's a speech she's dreamed of delivering since she was fifteen years old. So she got up and she brought you with her, carrying you in the materials she had on hand; her shawl, swaddling you, her brother's harness straps to transport you.

She casts her first vote as a free, non-Imperial woman, one hand flung in the air, the other cradling you to her, as new and freshly born as the democracy taking place around you.

 

***

 

When you were born, your mother kissed you very hard on the top of your head, pulled her hair up, and took you to work.

That's public knowledge.

That's galactic history.

 

***

 

When you were born, your father cried.

The only people who know that are yourself, your parents, your uncle, Chewie, and Artoo.

C3PO was never told, because the only sure way to guarantee that everyone will know something by the next meal call is to tell Threepio, and your father swore vehemently that he'd see that protocol droid shipped in pieces to seven different systems before he let him see him like this, but his cheeks were blotchy and his eyes stained red and his hands very large in comparison to how small you were, kicking at him with all your might, and nobody believed him.

 

***

 

Before the age of three or so, you have an imperfect understanding of what the Jedi are, exactly.

To you, your mother's a Jedi. Your father's a Jedi. Uncle Luke is a Jedi, and Chewie is definitely a Jedi.

The Jedi are the best, nicest, strongest, and most good people in the galaxy -- on this, you're absolutely, irrefutably certain, because everybody tells you so, and you know it to be true with every fiber of your just-begun being -- and so naturally your parents have to be Jedi, and Chewie is at least, like, two Jedi, which means that Chewie is Very Good. The Best.

When you get a little older, your uncle explains to you that being a Jedi is more like a job, something that requires dedication and a lot of practice and a lot of willingness to accept how much you don't know, and wanting to go ahead and get it right anyway. So while your mother is capable of doing some Jedi things, she isn't officially a Jedi, not like Luke is, although she's probably the closest thing after him. She has a different calling, is all, and that's okay.

You consider this piece of information carefully, your uncle's mechanical hand splayed out in both of yours. He's letting you tinker with it, although at your age, "tinkering" mostly just means tapping at his joints with your best guess as to which end of the drill is the correct one. You're doing your best to mimic your father, whose entire top half is buried in Uncle Luke's speeder, doing repairs.

He emerges to switch tools, and you obediently follow suit.

"What on earth did you do to this thing, kid?" he grumps, dragging out some black-charred bit so that he can get at its grooves with a rag. "Did you fly through the sun? It better not be moonshine. If it's moonshine, I'm telling Kes and the pilots and they can take you apart for not sharing."

Your uncle doesn't dignify that with a response.

"Does that mean," you say, pushing at the rubber padding at the end of his finger, as your father shoves the rag into his back pocket and dives back in. "That anyone can be a Jedi?"

"If they can feel the Force, yes," Uncle Luke tells you without hesitation.

A new, stunning thought suddenly occurs to you, and it eclipses the whole of your tiny world.

"Could I be a Jedi?" you say in wonder.

This time, your uncle does smile.

"That depends," he says, looking down at your upturned, open-mouthed face. "We have to wait until you're older, to see if you're Force-sensitive, but I think there's a very good chance you could be. Would you like that?"

"YES."

Your father reappears as if summoned. "Hey now! Don't you go planning my son's entire life for him, you two-bit meddling in-law!" he protests. He wriggles around and points the end of a hose at your uncle in what is probably supposed to be a threatening manner. It flaps a little bit. "Go away. Find a girl. Get your own, and leave mine out of it."

He continues in that vein for another minute, voice rising a fraction when he doesn't get a rise out of Uncle Luke, and after he runs out of things to say, you keep talking for a beat or two before you stumble to a halt, too.

His frown deepens as it dawns on him that you were acting like feedback, putting together strings of all the words you know in your best echo of the ill-tempered tone he's using, "-- want some rice, three nerfs in the whole dang blasted Corellian --" and then you stop and laugh because his face is funny.

"Oh, ha ha," he says, speaking to you now, which is even funnier. His eyes snap up. "This is your fault, kid -- er, somehow."

"I don't know," Uncle Luke says mildly. "That impression was pretty spot-on."

You put down the wrench you're holding so that he can have his hand back.

"Thank you, Ben," he says solemnly, and his fingers go click-click-click as they tighten into a fist. "They work much better now."

 

***

 

You're sure you can't have always been Force-sensitive, that there had to be a time when the Force flowed through you no more and no less than it did anybody else.

The point, however, is that you don't remember. To you, it's always been there, long before you had a name for it. Your uncle was certain that if you had it, your Force-sense would manifest later, and you don't think about a lot of things that adults flagged as "later," so you didn't think about that, either.

This lasted -- you not knowing, them not knowing, but it being there -- until you were four.

No, maybe five? Were you five?

There'd been a birthday, you remember, and it's an in-transit one because of an incident of "civil unrest" on Alaris Prime, suspending all inbound and outbound traffic. Your parents and a diplomatic entourage are left trapped, waiting in-taxi for a landing for fifty-one hours, with a queue growing steadily lengthier behind you. If you'd been on the Millennium Falcon, you're sure you would have dropped out for an unauthorized landing somewhere on the darkside, but it was a chartered transport, courtesy of the New Republic, and your father had to sit on his hands and wait with the rest of you.

It's not a bad birthday -- most of your favorite people are here with you, shipbound, and Chewie gives you a miniature replica worshyr tree that's taller than you for you to climb ("where the hell were you stashing that?" your father demands indignantly when he sees it,) with the promise that the two of you would see a real one on the moon below. Kashyyyk, his homeworld, is in this system -- the trees have migrated their way to almost all of the neighboring planets and moons.

"Do they all look like this?" you ask, hooking your legs around a lower bough and dangling upside-down.

Chewie bends his knees and tilts his entire torso so that he's looking at you upside-down too. He looks silly with all his hair hanging down, but then again, you probably do too. He rumbles an affirmative.

Commander Bridger even sits down and watches two whole episodes of Roid-UP BATTLE DROIDS with you, even though your mother comes through and warns you both that it will rot your brains.

"That's a myth, your Highness," Bridger assures her.

"I'm not worried about yours, Ezra, it's long gone," she fires back. "But my son's is still developing."

So you don't remember if this is your fourth or fifth birthday, but it doesn't matter. You're four or five, and droid-height, always having to look up at people who very rarely look down. You can't pinpoint the moment you became aware of the Force, but this is the moment everybody else finds out that you have it.

You're droid-height, and somebody tries to assassinate your mother.

 

***

 

A Trandoshan greets your mother's convoy as soon as it's finally granted permission to dock.

His head is full of violence. He hates the human monopoly on galactic politics and resents Senator Leia Organa's campaign through their space. The Kashyyyk System lost enough in the Clone Wars. It toiled slavishly under the thumb of the Empire. Before the humans came, all the Trandoshan had to worry about were Wookies and gut rot from drinking too much swamp water. It's intolerable, what they've suffered. A Trandoshan could pick his teeth with human bones, and she dares to come here, preaching democracy like that's supposed to be a saving grace?

You sense this, all of this at once, and stumble against your mother's leg as she halts at the bottom of the ramp.

His leathers are clean, a smile fixed on his lipless, dry-skinned face, his arms spread in welcome. You look up at your mother, but she isn't worried. It's like she can't hear it at all. Her smile cuts into her cheeks when she says, "Thank you for agreeing to this meeting, my Lord."

"The others are waiting for us presently," he says in perfectly pleasant Basic, and steps back with a gesture. "If you'll follow me … ?"

You glance at Master Calrissian, who's at your back, but he's scanning the perimeter, like the danger might be out there instead of right in front of you: in the distance, the trees are so tall their tops stay wreathed in clouds, but there's no shade here on the landing pad and the sun is roastingly hot, the air stagnant, heavy, and humid. Alaris Prime rarely suffers from any wind, all its atmosphere pulled taut by the gravitational proximity of the gas giant Alaris itself.

The gravity's different on the surface than it had been on the convoy, and the disconnect between your body and what your brain's telling you there should be leaves you dizzy.

One of the other diplomats keeps up a polite stream of questions about the local life as you walk; the Trandoshan answers them, courteous and brief, and just as you leave the blistering sun for the coolness of a shaded walkway, his head goes sharp with intent. All his thoughts telescope down.

How easy it would be, he thinks, warming with the satisfaction of a trap closing: a blaster to the head, a great war hero killed.

You don't even think. Your father, Chewie, and Commander Bridger are all still on the convoy -- politics is not where they excel -- and Master Calrissian doesn't even have his hand on his blaster. Everybody here is useless. It's up to you.

You put yourself in front of your mother, because that's what all her soldiers would do.

You look at the Trandoshan. You open your mouth.

You scream.

It splits the wet, hot-still air like a piece of ceramic hurtled against duracrete, jolting everybody.

Your mother whirls around. The Trandoshan's eyebrows pull downward, his grip on his blaster loosening in his surprise. You keep screaming at him.

When you refuse to stop, when your mother checks you for obvious wounds or stings and finds none, she flashes the rest of the diplomatic entourage an apologetic look and hauls you off to the side. Master Calrissian joins you, mouth pinched, and she crouches down, gripping you by the arms and whispering fiercely, "What is wrong with you? Ben, why are you behaving like this!"

You try explaining -- "he's going to hurt you! Your head will look like worms!" -- but you can't control your voice and you can tell they aren't listening to you, not really. You feel it in their heads -- your mother's worry, overshadowed by the annoyance of the others; what is that small child doing, does he have to cause a scene? How undisciplined. How aggravating.

Trust a princess of Alderaan to raise a brat.

Humans are the actual worst.

You squeeze your eyes shut, but it doesn't help. The Trandoshan's fantasy of your mother's skull in pieces is impossible to forget.

"Listen, Ben," your mother says lowly. "I know he looks a little frightening, but he's not going to hurt me. I've known him for years, and he's been nothing but kind to me, do you understand?"

That means nothing! People say things their heads don't say all the time!

"It's double-talk!" you try.

It's like when your father says everything's going to be fine when something on the Falcon malfunctions badly; his mouth says one thing, the panic inside his head another. It's like earlier, when he kicked up his feet onto the flight console and said, "You guys go have fun. We'll stay here, probably take a nap, watch more of Ben's show," when all of you knew that he, Chewie, and Commander Bridger were going to sneak out during the diplomatic meeting to investigate the "civil unrest."

You assume that double-talk is something every adult does, so why aren't they believing you?

You look up at Master Calrissian, who besides you is the one most invested here in keeping your mother alive.

"Please!" you beg him. "I can hear it!"

She starts to rise, and you yell. It's your turn to grab her, and you're roughly aware that you are in hysterics, utterly out of control, that the others have drifted further away to distance themselves from you, that you're hurting your mother's reputation, but you're terrified. Your head hurts. The Trandoshan isn't in your line of sight anymore. Did he slip away? What if he's plotting? What if the trap is just around the corner?

Master Calrissian frowns suddenly. "Is this a Force thing?" he asks.

And you see the moment it dawns on your mother: her eyes go so wide you could fit planets in them, and her mouth forms a single, surprised "o."

Abruptly, just like that, after wasting all that time not believing you, they do.

"Lando," she says above your head. "Patch it through to security. An attempt on Senator Organa's life."

He hesitates.

"They're going to watch the holovids," he says. "How are you --"

"I'll explain it if it comes to that. I'll fight every single one of them. For now, that assassin needs to be tracked down."

If your mother does wind up fighting a dozen disbelieving security people for you, you never hear about it. She finds you afterward in her fresher, shivering and sore from crying. One of the droids you've become fast friends with during the flight beeps nervously from the other side of the door, rocking loud enough to clatter, and you hear your mother say, "-- all right, See-seven, we'll be all right."

She pulls open the door and looks down at you. Her mouth curves at the corner.

"They caught him," she tells you.

She offers you a blanket, and you gratefully uncurl and come over to wrap yourself up in it. She sits down beside you on the floor, settling her back against the fresher door, and pulls you into her side. She's still wearing the dress she was going to wear to the meeting -- the meeting that's currently going on without her. There's mud splattered on the hem and caked into the grooves of her boots. Flyaways escape her updo. You stare at her forehead, trying to forget the way the Trandoshan imagined it, bones and worm-matter.

She strokes your hair, and gradually, you become aware of a feeling in her head that she's gently pushing at you:

Pride.

You look up, smile crinkling, and her eyebrows tilt.

"Is it like that? What you feel?" she asks, and when you nod, she tugs you even closer, blanket and all, hugging you with all the strength in her arms and with her head, too, warming you with pride and gratitude and love.

 

***

 

That's the first time you stop an assassination attempt on Leia Organa, and you do it without a single shot fired.

The next time … well.

 

***

 

When he returns with Chewie and Commander Bridger in tow, your father meets your mother at the hatch, and for a solid minute, they talk over one another, each one convinced the news they have to impart is the most important. Their voices get louder and louder, until your father breaks out of it first.

"-- wait, what," he blinks. His eyes drop to droid-height until they find you, peeking out from the corridor. "Really?"

"Really."

He blows out a gusty breath, and scrapes back his hair with his hand. There's an odor to him you can smell all the way over here that suggests his mission sent him wading through a swamp or two, but his head is lit-up, incandescent with this news.

"Well, then." Your father has a way of dragging his words around when he talks. "Where's Luke when you need him?"

Your uncle is with Artoo and a handful of your mother's pilots on the other side of the galaxy and can't be summoned back right away.

She leaves a message for him on his comm ("So I was nearly killed and Ben's been using the Force, please comm me back,") and then she looks at you. She puts her hands on her hips to make herself feel bigger and she says, "Okay. Leia Organa, Jedi teacher. Why not."

In the next few weeks, on your way from Alaris Prime to the next Mid-Rim sector your mother's campaigning in -- via way of Yavin 4 so your parents can pick up the Millennium Falcon before some goon scraps it for parts right there on the repair dock -- you receive an unprecedented amount of her attention. It's a little alarming.

You're disappointed to find out that the Force -- this Jedi-exclusive thing Uncle Luke said would manifest "later" -- isn't something new and exciting and powerful. It's something you already have; it's your awareness of other people, both as physical beings and as light-things, all their feelings and memories and intentions. What is exciting is that having the Force means you can move things with your mind --

Except for the fact you can't do that, no matter how much you concentrate, or how much you go around the ship pointing at people.

You feel cheated.

"Maybe when you're older," your mother promises, amused, when she asks you to fetch her holopad and you try to do it without moving, to absolutely no result.

She teaches you that the insides of other people's heads are their property, and no, she understands that you can't help sensing them the same way you can't help seeing someone when they walk in front of you, but venturing into their thoughts is off-limits.

This is a new restriction for you, a new line you've never had to think about before, and it's weeks before she stops sensing you and tapping you with the Force to remind you, Ben, boundaries.

Uncle Luke, the next you see him, crouches down to your level and braces his elbows on his knees.

He looks at you and thinks, HELLO, BEN, with what feels like his whole brain, that's totally unnecessary, and you stick your tongue out at him because he doesn't have to yell.

"Boundaries, Uncle Luke!" you shout back, and the surprised look on his face is a gem you carry in your tiny heart for years.

 

***

 

There's a game your mother used to play to keep you occupied on long hyperspace jumps, once you had wiggled into her lap and she was fed up with you upsetting her neat stacks of news flimsis and addresses from allies that she was studying. She would still your curious hands by covering your eyes, pulling you back into her.

"Okay, Ben," she'd say against the top of your head. "Where's Commander Bridger?"

And, gleefully, you'd stretch out with your Force-sense until you found --

"Sleeping!" you'd say triumphantly, pointing in the direction of the officer's quarters. You could feel his dreams. They were red, and there were prairies in them.

"Okay. Where's Chewbacca?"

You'd tell her.

"Where's … the Chancellor?"

And you'd laugh, because that's a trick question! You couldn't sense her, but she had to be "-- in the capital!"

… and on like that.

You never got bored. It was fun, racing out into the Force to tag someone for her and then come racing back. The Force was wide-open, familiar, and much, much, much larger than your droid-sized body, and some people, like Chewie, you could sense even if they were planets away, because you knew how they felt in the Force better than you knew yourself, the tops of your shoes or the backs of your hands.

But it was strongest with your parents. You couldn't lose them if you tried.

You're always the first to know when your father's back. You're better at keeping track of your mother's movements than Rebel security; jump into any system and you'd be able to tell which planet, which continent, which city your mother's in, without fail.

"Is that weird?" you ask once, after this trick earns you an unsettled feeling wafting off one of the comm officers, a disturbed, what weird Jedi mumbo-jumbo was that?

Your father pulls you into his hip, ruffling your hair. "Nah, you'll be handy at parties," he promises you with a grin.

 

***

 

Your mother is in the pilot's head, everywhere you turn.

You want to rip him to shreds.

When you exit the room, General Hux is waiting for you. You have the information you came for, and you have information you didn't. The map to Luke Skywalker is contained within the pilot's trusted BB8 unit, currently planetside on Jakku. And your mother still wears her wedding ring -- all her pilots agree it's a bittersweet gesture, considering she and her husband have not been seen in the same system together in years.

 

***

 

You're given no time to acquire new skin grafts, and so the hole that Chewie punched through your side warps and melds shut while you're on the move. Sometimes, when the noise is cacophonic to the point of distraction, you'll dig your thumb into the scar, twisting until the injured muscle underneath screams.

The pain clears your head, if only for a moment.

You pursue the scavenger.

Your master wants her. If she can best you, then she will make him a valuable prize, worth his training, and the idea of adding her to his collection has him fixated. Very few of the Knights of Ren survive the tests he puts them through; he is short on apprentices, and breeding the few of you he keeps takes too long. He's sent you hounding after those with Force-sense much quieter than this.

And right now, he wants her more than he wants Luke Skywalker dead.

(You would have liked to have known this before you'd tried to chop her into pieces, honestly. If she hadn't been smarter than you, she'd be dead, and now it's just going to be awkward.

Did the Supreme Leader think about that? That the girl might hold a grudge? No.

Overcome it, Ren. Sure, thanks so much, you'll get right on that.)

The island in the blue sea is the first place you go. It's colder in person than it had been in the girl's head, and it takes your Stormtroopers twenty minutes to perform a search, once they realize their thermal readers aren't functioning.

"No life signs," one calls up to you, but you knew that. The Force around you is quiet; you are probably the loudest thing here.

It's the island in the sea, then a podracer's home on a desert planet on the Outer Rim next, then a tight-lipped colony of ex-service droids who are the sole occupants of space station outside the Gorse system -- an interesting choice, as you cannot interrogate a droid.

The list of obstacles grows: the number of people willing to throw themselves between you and the girl is frankly baffling.

You catch up to her on a temperate planet not far from where you started; leaping out of hyperspace, the communication console beeps and a pre-recorded message from a representative of the Interplanetary Travel Committee gives you an advisory warning that debris from the destruction of the Hosnian system hurtling along at high speeds may obstruct travel in the neighboring systems, and to please journey safely!

The first X-Wing makes its appearance within minutes.

"Enemy contact!" an officer announces, and the control room swiftly becomes the contained flurry of motion that it does during combat.

You step off to the side -- you'd learned early on that this part operates best without your interference, as your people know what they're doing better than you -- and wait until it's confirmed. Then you take your ship and you go planetside to meet her.

It's night on the side you descend on, landing in an area far from the light pollution of the cities, and your Stormtroopers have their thermal readers but you have the Force, and as long as there are members of the Resistance living and thinking out in the jungle, you'll find them. The dark lights up with the exchange of blaster fire, the silence broken by shouts. You sidestep, and continue on.

Occasionally, a pinprick burst in the sky above will signal the loss of a TIE or an X-Wing, but most of the battle is happening past the horizon -- the most noticeable thing about the sky is the gap where the Hosnian system should be. The stars are vividly bright this far from the city, but in that particular quadrant, there's nothing at all.

And, up ahead --

"-- slow down, girl, these short legs get me where I need to go -- at my own pace! The young are always in such a hurry -- is this the ship? Didn't I swear an oath a hundred years ago that I was never going to set foot on another spaceship? Now look at me. Oh -- !"

A lot of things suddenly happen at once:

Rey senses you, and all of her defenses slam up at once, so fast it acts like a punch to the jaw; your teeth scissor through your tongue at the hit. The clearing floods with light, revealing the X-Wing parked there and the two figures about to climb in, just barely visible around the floodlight fixed to the top of the ship. The smaller one, who's only droid-height, stands above the open canopy, and she spots you in the same moment you realize you know that voice, that you recognize the Force, drawn so deep around her it could drown you.

"YOU!" she bellows.

"Ah," you say.

Maz Kanata is furious.

"You owe me a bar, Ben Solo! You owe me a home! You owe four planets in my night sky, and a smuggler! What are you still doing here!" She puts her hands on her hips and scowls down at you. "For the love of -- go home. Get to work on something worth doing. You have fought the Light long enough!"

Perched below her, Rey pushes at her, murmuring something.

Maz replies offhandedly, "Oh, girl, it's the nose. I saw that nose and knew it was trouble. Trust me -- I've seen it happen before. Did I tell you I knew the boy's grandfather? The good-looking one, not the one that had a murder problem --"

You sigh, and roll your neck back and forth where the weight of the helmet leaves a strain. When you agreed to abscond with your Dark master and abandon everything you loved, this isn't what you imagined you'd be doing.

"Maz!" you interrupt, and she pauses.

She glances from you to the scavenger and back again.

"Ohh," she says. "You're going to duel. Well, don't let me get in your way. Darling, when you're done with him, show me which of these buttons I'm going to need to push to make the ship go up."

She drops through the canopy of the X-Wing, and Rey springs to the ground.

You circle each other, the two of you, and she's studying you in the Force as much as you're studying her. You will not be able to freeze her again, although you thought it would be unlikely that you could -- there are no cracks in her defenses to hold her by. The silence stretches, broken only by your footsteps and hers, the crackle of your lightsaber. Hers is in her hand, unignited. Beyond the ring of light cast by the X-Wing's floodlight, you can just faintly make out the sounds of other engines, and jungle noises beyond that.

When you were younger and constantly on the move, visiting almost every named planet in the galaxy, this had always been your favorite part: how different does the air taste? What's the gravity like? How far can you run before your lungs start to hurt? How different does the Millennium Falcon's engines sound, in-atmo?

"Okay, this is taking too long!" bursts out of Rey, impatient. "You talk first."

"Have you had any further training?" you inquire, obediently. You are here to capture, not eliminate, but she won't hesitate to kill you, you're sure, as she's blasted through your Stormtroopers with relative disregard. "How would you feel about fighting me, now that I am no longer incapacitated with a gut wound?"

"That can be fixed," she says. "Stabbed anyone's father lately?"

"It's likely," you allow, even as your stomach dips.

Not even two days ago, you'd felt it in the Force: the delight of one of your Stormtroopers getting the news from base that he'd been declared suitable for breeding, and at next furlough he and his squadmate planned on returning to their home base in the MISTA system to see if they were compatible. And sometimes that does happen -- breeding is highly regulated on First Order worlds, but sometimes the perfect match find each other on their own. It's more the hope of beating the system that has them applying for it, though. He died on entry.

You're anticipating an attack, but honestly, if her eyes didn't jerk to a point just beyond you right then, you might not have sensed it.

As is, you twist away just a moment too late, and the blaster shot singes through the fabric at the back of your neck.

It's a very good shot.

"HA! Take that!" a triumphant voice shouts out, and when you whip your head around to face it, it amends that to, "Oh, crap. You shoot people, it gets their attention."

It's the Stormtrooper, the one from Jakku, the one from Starkiller -- FN-2187, you remember easily -- and in the split second you don't have your eyes on her, Rey breaks the stalemate and flings herself up the side of her X-Wing, slithering into the cockpit. You hurtle after her, and the swing of your lightsaber skids through the place where she'd just been, and does nothing but score the hull and remove a chunk of the landing gear. Then the engines fire, coming online, and FN-2187 shoots at you again, and you're forced to retreat or be fried.

The Stormtrooper blocks your path, and you have to blink at him once, twice.

His hair's grown out, covering the tops of his ears, and his nails go past the quick, rims of white that make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up: both are far past regulation length for a Stormtrooper.

"Hey, how you been?" he jerks his chin at you, baring teeth. "That limp looks great on you."

"FN-2187," you reply.

"Aren't you going to ask me about my back? You should really ask me about my back, because it's great."

He chambers each word and fires it at you, loudly but precisely. Each thought is a torch-flare, dragging your attention to him. And underneath those thoughts -- something small and lost in the dark, igniting flame after flame for the comfort and the warmth. He's terrified. He's terrified of you, he's terrified of what's waiting for them in space, and even now he's terrified he'll wake up back on the Finalizer, about to head to Phasma's reconditioning.

He's terrified and he flings himself in your face anyway.

"So, like, Ben -- can I call you Ben?" he gestures questioningly with the muzzle of his blaster, stepping back smartly as you advance on him, lightsaber held low along your side. " -- you did terrific work, bravo, but theirs was better, so I gotta ask. If the Resistance could patch me up -- get replacement parts, all nice and tidy and neat -- on their foreshortened budget, why couldn't the First Order do the same for you? Or maybe you just weren't important enough. Maybe they were trying to repay you for your inefficiency."

The feeling inside your chest freezes, just for a moment.

Then you say, calmly, "I was going to ask about your nightmares, actually. How are they?"

His throat works.

"Thought so," you say, and swing your lightsaber down.

He yelps, just barely ducking away in time. He whirls around to return fire, and honestly, what's he doing? Buying time? It's a miracle he hasn't tripped over a tree root yet, since he's walking backward in order to keep himself facing you. He can't possibly hope to do any damage to you, armed with a single blaster, so why --

"You know, if I do have nightmares, I probably have you to thank. Lifetime of conditioning and all that."

"You say that like you believe I have a choice in the matter," you say, and his face does a number of peculiar things. Not being a mind-reader wouldn't be so hard, you think, if everybody's face expressed as much as his.

"Are you insane? There's always a choice!" he insists, and neither of you are talking about his upbringing now, and you know it. "Everything is a choice, Solo!"

"Organa!" you snarl back at him, and are immediately, blindingly furious with yourself for the slip.

Ben Organa died with the rest of the Jedi apprentices on Takodana. He had a mother he would step in front of a blaster for. He had a father who used to laugh whenever anybody asked why you -- he -- had his mother's name, instead of his father's. Why would I want him to have that? That's not the kind of legacy I want a boy of mine to carry.

Victory kindles in FN-2187's eyes, and you feel your lips curl off your teeth, helpless and enraged.

"What about you?" You launch yourself on the offensive. "How is FN-2187? Did you kill him when you became Finn? Or does he always threaten to strangle you, should you ever stop running?"

The smile drops off his face.

"That's not the same thing."

"Isn't it?"

You step toward him, and he steps back, momentarily illuminated by a pool of light from --

Wait.

It dawns on you abruptly that you can still hear the engines on the scavenger's X-Wing, which should have lifted off by now, and while you were chasing FN-2187 in circles, he's successfully maneuvered you into --

They fire in unison, FN-2187's small blaster and the X-Wing just barely hovering off the ground, and you drop your lightsaber in order to fling up both your hands, reaching out with the Force to freeze the bolts in place. They crackle wildly, suspended midair, the heat curling and igniting the dead foliage underneath them, and you duck out of the way before releasing your hold. The explosion lights your surroundings briefly -- the Stormtrooper, pelting over the jungle litter in the direction, you assume, of his own getaway ship.

You curse. Of course the scavenger wouldn't leave him behind, not even if he afforded her the distraction to do exactly that.

The X-Wing lifts, clearing the tops of the trees. It leaves you below, plunged back into darkness, with nobody in your head -- no Resistance, and none of your own soldiers, either.

 

***

 

Any inquiries regarding FN-2187 in the public access parts of the system earn you nothing but a giant red notice of "DEFECTED, KILL ON SIGHT," but the Knights of Ren were created to operate outside the system, and you put in a request for his files anyway.

The console beeps at you in irritation, and you mimicking the sound sarcastically doesn't make it work any faster, but after it considers your request and your override, you soon have all of his personnel records in your hands in their original condition.

They're standard, you find, nearly identical to any of the tens of thousands of others who've lived and died by the First Order's algorithm. Born to colonists who settled on MISTA005, he has all good marks, shown aptitude in at least five different potential specializations, and until Phasma's summary of the village situation on Jakku, he's never displayed antagonistic behavior or enemy sympathies to his superiors or his squadmates.

Idly, you scan downwards, already having moved on from this line of thought, and then you come to a shocked halt.

There's a note, inserted early in the Stormtrooper's training -- from your former master.

Dhar Ren's full comment is, Demonstrates possibility. Knights of Ren will monitor on behalf of Supreme Leader, and it takes you a long moment to decipher what that means, because you haven't consciously had to think like the Knight who trained you in several years. You work through it slowly, and then with certainty.

She suspected that FN-2187 might have Force-sense.

She'd planned to follow up.

You think about him blocking your attacks in the snow on Starkiller Base, instinctively compensating for the weightlessness of his blade -- something he'd never wielded before Takodana. You think about how you didn't hear him coming on the jungle planet, how he managed to find even footing with every step, even in the dark, in the trees, and while keeping himself turned toward you.

You think about having to go and kneel in front of your Supreme Leader and tell him that there aren't two Jedi to contend with -- there are three. A master, an apprentice, and someone who may or may not have discovered his powers yet.

Flinching, you lean back.

In the moment your defenses fall, the sound of everyone else on the ship escalates, pinning itself to the front of your skull. It makes you wish you had the liberty to pinch the bridge of your nose to try to stave it off. Your helmet manages to sit on the pressure points in all the wrong ways.

Although -- you lift your head.

What if you stopped the hunt for the girl?

Convincing her to join you isn't impossible, even now, but … you could bring the Stormtrooper to your master instead, and train him as the next Knight of Ren. There are a hundred and one buttons you could push, triggers he might not even know he has, that would get him to fall in line. He would be easier to manipulate than Rey would be -- you know his life in a way you can't know the life of a bone-picker from a poverty-stricken planet.

You turn in a circle on the spot, thinking hard.

If FN-2187 hated the First Order so much he would rather desert it than serve it, he has to know that he abandoned others to his same fate.

He'd want to change that. But how could he possibly do that from way out there?

If he was one of you, however, they'd have to listen. He could improve interrogation and retrieval protocol, so that an inefficiency like your massacre of villagers on Jakku won't happen again. Stormtrooper reeducation clearly needs to have an intelligent mind working on it; reeducation exists for the good of the unit, and to have a Stormtrooper so terrified of it you can sense it on him even months later is a problem.

There are so many things you could offer FN-2187, but …

Your shoulders drop down, curving inward.

You've been inside his head, and inside the scavenger's, and it won't matter what you do: whichever side of the Force one is on, there the other will be also.

And while it's possible you could pull FN-2187 to the Dark Side and call it his duty, you know you can't keep him there, not as long as Rey is in the Light.

So you're back to square one: you need the scavenger.

You're distracted, and underneath your thoughts, the Force continues to grow louder and louder until it -- it suddenly crescendoes, swamping your head with pain. You hiss, catching yourself against the console to keep your balance, but it's too late; you feel everybody on this ship, asleep or awake, important or mundane, as if all of them are standing over you, their thoughts and emotions turned up so loud it's like being buried.

You plant your feet in it and you yell back, enraged and frustrated and tired of never being allowed to have a quiet thought without the Force there.

Your hand is at your side, unconsciously.

When you're done, the console is dripping liquid alloyed metal to the floor, hot enough to feel your skin blistering under your gloves.

General Hux is at the end of the corridor, and his sallow, thin-milk face bears the smallest tear in the corner; the contemptuous, superior smirk of someone watching a small child make a puddle on the floor.

 

***

 

When the New Republic was founded, it was decided that the capital, along with the Senate, wouldn't remain on Coruscant -- too much history, too many memories. A fresh start required fresh ideas.

In order to foster democracy, cooperation, and diversity, the New Republic would migrate to a new host planet every five years, and the next one would be chosen by general election. Any planet could be eligible -- those in the Core, those on the Outer Rim, and those in between. Any planet that wanted a say in how its government made decisions could find itself the hub.

"But Coruscant is located almost exactly at the center of our galaxy," you say to your mother, trotting to keep up with her. At twelve, it isn't that your legs aren't as long as hers, it's just that she moves really fast. "That's how it became the Planet of Lights -- it was never more than three or four hyperspace jumps from any other point in the galaxy."

"True," she says, and darts you a curious sidelong look. "And?"

"So what happens when the capital's on the Outer Rim? The planets farthest away from the Outer Rim are also on the Outer Rim -- what if they can't afford the time and expense to travel that distance? Will they just have to sit out of the Senate for five years?"

The two of you come to a halt outside the lift, and she takes the opportunity to unpin a twist of her hair and redo it while she considers your question.

"I'm sure in that case, they'll elect to have their representative stay on-planet for the duration of its term, and communicate with their constituents long-distance, but it'll be interesting to see." She smiles, and licks her thumb so that she can scrub some offending stain off your face -- you twist away, muttering embarrassedly. There are lifeforms everywhere, Mom, do you have to? "The whole thing is still so very new. The New Republic is only as old as you are, after all -- you were born on the same day. Does that make you twins, do you think?"

You grimace at her, because that joke's getting old.

She smiles back. "We're still learning. There are hundreds of existing problems that haven't gone away, and so many new ones we haven't uncovered yet. But --"

The hologate on the lift dematerializes with a cheerful ding, and you both look up to find that four Gungans have tried to squeeze themselves into the "humanoids and smallers only" car, probably in a hurry.

"We'll catch the next one," your mother says politely, and looks back to you. "Coruscant's location made it easy to reach in an emergency, but the Empire used that same proximity to terrorize others. It's time to break away from that."

You nod.

After the Battle of Endor, the Rebellion chased the last dregs of the Empire to the very edge of colonized space, where they made their last stand in the corridor between an arid, sinkhole planet called Jakku and its neighbor.

Your mother had been there. Your uncle had been there. You'd even been there, you were surprised to realize once, although you couldn't have been much at the time; a pressure on your mother's insides, a collection of veins and the suggestion of a person.

After the surrender came, the Empire signed the Galactic Concordance and disappeared into the Uncharted Territories -- and that had been Snoke's idea.

"I found them when they were weak," your Supreme Leader tells you, after. "Incapable of recovering from the loss of their leaders, their lieutenants, and their legend. Offering my expertise seemed like the least I could do."

When he read the Concordance, he'd laughed at it. The loopholes were many and varied, he said -- it's like the New Republic wasn't even trying.

The First Order could not possess a weapon of any kind, nor the means to manufacture any, but what need do you have for weapons, Snoke pointed out, when you were allowed to have people?

He suggested that they pursue a side project long-shelved by the Empire, a back-up plan to a back-up plan that somebody'd dropped into a data bank somewhere and forgot about: the colonization of the MISTA system. To build a power base, the First Order didn't need to stoop to such barbarian behavior as conquering. The Empire had tried that and failed.

Instead, it would grow its own population from refugees and homesteaders, from hopefuls looking for a new start. He suggested the breeding regimen, to cherry-pick a superior survival rate and -- more importantly -- to encourage desirable traits. He suggested that they start training up troops and to do it now. The First Order isn't allowed to have a military, and the New Republic systematically dismantled all the Imperial Academies, but nowhere in the Concordance did it say they couldn't offer free fitness programs to its people -- it's a coincidence, of course, that these things have a lot in common with military training, but why fix something that isn't broken?

And the New Republic … well, the New Republic was tired of fighting, tired of chasing the phantom that the Empire left behind, and it wanted to focus on reconstruction, on moving forward.

It left people like your mother gripping her hands into fists, seeing the inevitable coming but being unable to stop it.

The Resistance formed -- officially, at least, with funding from the Senate and support from the Chancellor -- when you were twelve, but even before it was called that, you were being raised in it. You were brought up in the Resistance as surely as General Hux had been brought up in the First Order.

Its roots are planted in you; twisted, gnarled things that still sometimes catch you unawares, even when you think you've burned away every last bit of it.

 

***

 

The first assignment you and Hux serve together, you aren't quite eighteen yet, although you've grown into the kind of towering height that made sure it doesn't matter.

You're still fresh from your failure on Naboo, stinging and wounded and trying to outlive the consequences, and your Supreme Leader sends you to the THAIN system, a previously uninhabited chunk of space that contains five potentially viable planets. Two of those planets will take considerable investment in terraining if you are to populate them, and it's for this reason that Hux -- not yet a general, but a much-lauded architect straight from civil service -- accompanies you.

You are to trust his judgment. If he thinks it's doable, then the Supreme Leader is willing to commit to the expense.

"You are the same age, even," he adds offhandedly. You look up in time to catch his sardonic smile, etched at you in blue holo-light. "Perhaps you can be friends."

When you meet Hux for the first time, he snaps his heels together and announces himself.

He gives you a summary of his objective in the THAIN system, followed by a description of his qualifications, which you already know. You tilt your head, and listen to what his words aren't telling you.

He has five brothers and a sister. He views everybody as competition.

You have no brothers or sisters. (No, Lando, the New Republic doesn't count.) There'd been kids your age, and you could even call them friends, but you traveled so much -- as children, that hadn't mattered and you were always able to pick up right where you left off, but then you stopped being children and started being people, and that got harder. The fact that nobody could have a private thought without you hearing it also probably had something to do with it, and so your closest friends growing up were always droids.

Droids have no Force presence; nothing for you to manipulate, nothing to bombard you with when you were trying to sleep. You couldn't know their secrets just by digging your fingers in. They were the closest you could get to the kind of friendships others must have, the kind they have to work at.

(You're almost glad when circumstance hands you Poe Dameron, then Rey -- they are the kind of clay you can work with, and so you never had to see what Hux planned to do to the BB8 unit.)

"-- of my specialization in meteorological architecture, I was chosen for this mission," Hux winds down. At university, he'd pursued his degree with a ferocity that gained note from his superiors, and eventually the attention of the Supreme Leader.

When you respond with nothing but silence, a sickle of a smile cuts into the side of his face.

Ah, you think. He's figured out who you have to be -- not everybody does.

He explains, slowly and with so much arched condescension it has you thinking geometrically, "I create storms. And I calm them. I'm very good at what I do. The breadbasket belts that feed MISTA002 and 004 only thrive because of my atmospheric alterations."

"I'm sure your skills will be very valuable to your military career," you allow, diplomatically, and the sickle twists, cutting further into himself.

In that moment, he fits you neatly into one of his preset molds:

You are to be his antagonist, he decides. You are an obstacle he must overcome, nobly and with competence. He already has it pictured, right down to your eventual fade into obscurity in the face of his meteoric rise. He's left a string of such people everywhere he's gone, at home and in school and in the service; nemeses that he's crushed and moved on from, regardless of whether or not they were aware of their roles. Under your helmet, where he can't see it, you press your lips together and suppress a snort. Honestly.

But the First Order is thriving, and needs room to expand.

And like any successful growth, it needs to be maintained.

You need planets with resources. You need bodies. The THAIN system provides the first, and the New Republic is all too willing to provide the second, although they don't intend to. Economic depression has ground several areas of galactic commerce to a dead halt. On the Outer Rim, where systemic poverty meets a grinding lack of aid or opportunities, people are tracking down First Order recruiters to escape. Better chance it as a colonist than starve to death in the safety of the New Republic, they figure.

You go as overseer.

The first generation of settlers is always the worst -- "unsanitized," is Hux's word for it -- and you are to work with their leaders, those most likely to sow dissent if the treatment they receive isn't to their liking.

You visit with them, and you talk.

It's civilized, even if it isn't always sanitary.

You want them to understand that the First Order has no intention of mistreating its colonists. That's counterproductive. After all, the First Order would not exist without its settlers, its homesteaders, its brave frontiersmen, which is why they have to trust that the First Order knows best. Some indulgences they enjoyed in the New Republic will need to be sacrificed. Some behaviors will not be tolerated. Opposition to these changes will do nothing but distress others, and that's not the kind of environment you intend to subject your people to. If they give to you, you will give them everything you promised. You make sure of it.

The most observant colonists will often talk back to you. It's very informative.

Food rations are based on a human diet. Work shifts are based on the average human physical capacity. Permits for breeding are granted to humans with far fewer restrictions than they are for others. The prebuilt housing units available at new settlement sites are always defaulted for human occupants, and special accommodations for nonhuman needs are available, but require more paperwork. Your Supreme Leader's desire for the easiest, most biddable population is there in the fine print.

Sometimes, these microaggressions are noticed.

Sometimes, there are complaints.

You, Kylo Ren, are sent to correct this.

Their minds are quiet when you're done with them, and at least for a little bit, the Force is completely, utterly silent.

 

***

 

You live like this for years, chasing those moments. It's the closest you're going to get to how you felt in Snoke's presence, the first time he spoke to you, the first time you realized the Force could be made to shut up.

You might as well admit it: you'll do anything for that silence.

 

***

 

Starkiller Base is Hux's masterwork. It's the culmination of everything he's been building his career towards.

A space station built into a moon-like planetisimal, capable of generating not only enough power to sustain its own breathable, self-recycling atmosphere (albeit a bitterly cold, almost always snowcapped one,) but also of creating an energy pulse stronger than a meteorite strike. It'll be a weapon unlike anything the galaxy's ever seen. The First Order will never again have to fear the noose of another Concordance.

There's a moment of silence following the presentation of the specs at the round table. Your Supreme Leader's hologram hovers at the center of it.

Hux is breathing hard; he likes to shout.

Then Trel Ren pipes up.

"So basically what you're telling us," they say. "Is that you need your lightsaber to be bigger than ours."

 

***

 

When you're done with THAIN, you have five new planets to oversee, and Hux has his military rank.

You also have an apprentice.

Trel Ren is older than you, though not by much, and two heads shorter. You've never seen their face, and they've never seen yours. (At least, not in the flesh. Sometimes, your -- no, sometimes Ben's mother makes the news holos. Sometimes, they're watched, even out here. Sometimes, you're mentioned.) The shape they make in the Force is all teeth, ferret-faced and sharp, and that's more real to you than the sight of their helmet, identical to yours.

To train them, you have to return to MISTA001, so that your Supreme Leader can observe and offer guidance.

Very few apprentices survive the tests they're put through, but there's a feeling to Trel Ren that you trust.

You teach them how to duel -- the form, the discipline -- and you train them in the ways of the Force. Your lessons are piecemeal, half-jumbled with things Luke Skywalker tried to teach you, and what Dhar Ren later corrected.

Snoke, in turn, teaches them to wield each emotion like it's its own saber, to compress it thin and deadly and then when to ignite it; he teaches them to feel their emotions, not to suppress them, and then turn them into weapons, not distractions. Each of his Knights has a particular one you're adept at, that Snoke encourages you to feel to the point of mastery: for Cora Ren, it's joy, that particular kind one gets when listening to an exceptionally moving symphony, only his symphony is the hum of his lightsaber and the sound flesh makes, dying before it can cry out. For Dhar Ren, it had been loyalty to the First Order and her master; when she tapped into it, she could turn the Force into a bulwark, and nothing could touch her.

"And you?" Trel Ren inquires, tilting their head at you. Then, because they can't resist biting, "Is it vanity?"

"Anger," you correct them. "Pain."

When you reach a certain point with both, the Force goes crystal-clear, sharp, and suspended on a note so high you can't hear it. In that state, you can do anything.

It feels a lot like power. It almost feels like peace.

Trel Ren thinks about it. "So. Self-pity, in other words?" they say, and laugh when you snarl.

The Supreme Leader hopes that you can train them to do as you do, walking in and out of people's minds like you're in a forest of matchstick trees, with footsteps no longer light nor kind. But you're not sure how. How can you teach someone this thing that you've done all your life, without meaning to?

Your attempts to enter their head uncovers only the most cursory things -- like you, their childhood involved a lot of people who liked to yell and a lot of different places and not much else, but that's where the similarities end. You see their mother turning herself in, a smuggler's compartment in the sub-level hull where they'd hide with other children during role call, keeping up the mental chant of more kids means more taxes, so don't get found! You see how sometimes on slow nights they could pick up holo-channels from as far away as the First Order. Oh, how they wanted to be like Ace from the holodramas, who could look the bullies in the eye and say --

Trel Ren snatches your hand and nearly breaks three of your fingers. That's as far as the two of you go on that count.

"Apprentice kills the master, then becomes them," they remind you, panting. "Isn't that how this goes?"

Your own training had been --

-- rain, droid, Istill, Jee'eke, Queenie's heart drumming astromech-fast with fear, red light --

-- sudden, but Trel Ren doesn't require the same push that you did. There's no one to sever them from, so you train them first with the durasteel swords from the Supreme Leader's armory (which are exactly as ornamental as they sound -- you could probably only kill one person at a time with them,) before allowing them to practice with your lightsaber.

"Apprentice kills the master? If I ever fall so deeply asleep you manage that, then you deserve to have it."

They grimace, using both hands to swing figure-eights, trying to get a feel for it. Your lightsaber crackles messily, resisting, and they seem nervous of the guards.

"It's heavier than I thought," they comment.

It's not weight, it's instability, but you suppose that could feel like heaviness to someone who'd never fought with a kyber-powered weapon before. "It's an old design." So old, in fact, it can barely be called Sith, and it always feels like it's about to fall apart at any moment, like every time you ignite it is a risk, but it's yours.

"When do I get mine?"

"When you're done with training," you say, and sidestep when this results in Trel Ren immediately swinging for your head. "Killing me isn't going to complete your training any faster, Ren."

"Won't it?"

"Well, it might, but you'll have a mess, too."

"No, I won't!" You can't see their smile through their mask, but it turns on you in the Force, all razor-sharp and venomous and so, so pleased. "Lightsabers don't make messes."

The ones the Knights use are secondhand. Snoke salvages them from the most questionable corners of space.

He's a collector, after all. The blade he presents to Trel Ren is shorter than yours and blunter than Dhar Ren's spear had been, more like a long knife than a saber, with a grip that curves right into their palm. It fits their capacity for brutal speed, their Force-enhanced agility, and it leaves the two of you pretty evenly matched; your long reach versus their ability to somersault right over your head. You have to work to keep yourself alive now, dueling with them.

By the time they become a fully-fledged Knight of Ren, your second generation has been born in the THAIN system, and as they grow, so do the demands.

You send Trel Ren to intimidate your outside suppliers, to lean on your contracts with the well-established guilds that provide funds, goods, and services denied by the Galactic Concordance. It requires Trel Ren's particular skill set and reminds you, almost, if you were allowed to think about it, of Commander Bridger. Domestic terrorism.

Your weapon requisitions increase accordingly, and Trel Ren laughs with delight, head thrown back, their lightsaber gripped loosely at their side, with ease.

"When are we going after the Resistance?" they ask you.

You frown. "Are they being bothersome?"

They consider it, shrugging. "I guess not. But will we be sent somewhere together, Ren? Will I get to fight side-by-side with you, instead of this fake sparring nonsense we have? Maybe we can get a little competition going -- how many nerf-heads can I send rolling before you even get that big lug of a sword in the air?"

"One Knight of Ren is sufficient," you say. "That's why we exist."

Their head jerks, alert to what you didn't say. "You've been on a group mission before."

"Yes," you say, end of discussion.

 

***

 

MISTA-sub02-1, a moon of MISTA002, underproduces from the very beginning. Several factors contribute to this: not enough settlers, too much demand for supply that's more difficult to mine than estimated, lack of follow-through and poor consistency on part of the local government, all leading to an undisciplined, overworked population. It reaches breaking point.

Riots disrupt exports, and given the highly contagious nature of bad behavior, there's a real risk it could spread to neighboring colonies.

You arrive at the Supreme Leader's conservatory to find Dhar Ren and Cora Ren already there.

Long black helmets look up as you approach, and you acknowledge each other with a nod before Cora Ren resumes pacing on his bowed, foreshortened legs. He might be a very dwarfish human, but you think it's more likely that he's cross-species. Dhar Ren glances skyward as another ship passes close enough to the atrium's ceiling to rattle the transparisteel, then leans on her lightsaber -- a long grey staff that could easily be mistaken for a walking stick, until she ignites the blunt red blade at the tip and runs an enemy through.

You fall into parade rest at her side and wait to be summoned.

The First Order has no true nerve center -- no mothership, no capital, no home base. Your Supreme Leader's network of holographic receivers means that he can be projected to wherever he is needed. His generals and overseers -- and his Knights, too, when you're in the field -- only see him as he wishes to be seen, towering over them in behemoth proportions.

It allows him to spend his days here, in his stronghold so high in the mountains of MISTA001 it's only accessible by aircraft. Each wing of the conservatory is a dome plated with transparisteel, which on approach gives it the appearance of several large, iridescent soap bubbles clustered together and clinging to the cliffside, all with tiny worlds contained within.

Snoke's fascination with unique species leads to the desire to possess them, and everywhere you go in the conservatory, there's something fantastical to see -- four-winged birds that were indigenous to THAIN005 before Hux's meteorological adjustments, phosphorescent amphibians that glow underneath clear-paneled walkways in the corridors, exhibits that you've never seen because they're so hermitically-sealed, so pressure- and gas-controlled that entering one would kill you.

It's more like a zoo than anything, you think in your most uncharitable moments.

Which would make the Knights of Ren … what, exactly?

When you're permitted to enter, your Supreme Leader is a dark silhouette hovering in front of a dozen lighted screens. Standing at attention between Dhar Ren and Cora Ren, you flick your eyes up, trying to make sense of what they're displaying. All show footage from MISTA-sub02-1's only outpost.

Just like that, you know why you're here.

For these tasks, Snoke never sends less than three Knights -- you are there as much to police each other as you are to complete your mission, which means this is going to be something horrible, even by First Order standards.

A moment passes, in which there isn't a sound except for the tinny echo coming from the screens; the sound of a hundred angry bodies. It's disorder. It's what the First Order cannot abide.

Snoke turns.

"Eliminate them," he commands.

"Supreme Leader," the three of you acknowledge at once, and you leave.

You go hunting.

Several years later, when the Finalizer is docked in MISTA-sub02-1's shipyard, Hux mentions the moon's past -- how the uprising here was crushed, the earth salted, the colony restarted since it was too valuable to lose, and you acknowledge it absently. You're not thinking and you say something like, "Yes, I was there. We were efficient and the losses were acceptable," and you feel it neatly puncture Hux's picturesque story.

You ignore it, because it's not your fault your matter-of-factness gets in the way of his fantasy about First Order glory (of which he, of course, will be a vital contributing part. You've seen the image, worn smooth by years of fingerprints as Hux touches it again and again for luck, of himself standing in front of a sea of white helmets, framed by the crimson of the First Order flag, his arms raised like a conductor and arms raised to him. You are, frankly, sick of seeing it.)

Except Hux isn't done with you.

His lip curls. It shakes. So do the ends of his fingers, even as he fists them behind his back to hide it.

"This isn't one of your simulations, Ren, it's not data, it's --" he says between his teeth, and then clamps down on it.

You wait, expecting more, but he masters the twitching in his jaw and swallows it, until the compact knot moves from his throat to his chest. You swear you can see its progress, cold and molten at his core. It would be different, you think, if he was angry on behalf of the colonists, the ones with frightened faces who fell with cauterized neatness before three lightsaber blades. That you would accept. That would be fair. The fact that he's mad you won't accept his story of it --

No.

You turn away.

Hux has never had to kill a person up close, and the fact that he thinks he can judge you when he's drafting up modifications for a base that can destroy planets is laughable to you.

How is it, you think, that everyone thinks you're the angry one.

You're not.

("You lied to me, when you said anger was your weapon. You don't know anger," Trel Ren says, glancing at you sidelong and dismissing you, fast as that. "You don't know what anger really is until you've been the bootscrape the government uses to clean off the mud. You can't know what we feel.")

What you are -- what you are is afraid.

In your defense, fear is easy to mistake for anger, but you, Kylo Ren, you're terrified.

You're terrified of what the Supreme Leader will do if you fail him. You're terrified of what your parents will do if they capture you. You're terrified that Luke Skywalker is out there, somewhere, and you will have to look him in the face. You live in this terror every day of your life. You're almost used to it.

You're not like FN-2187. You cannot be this afraid and then still act in the face of it. It paralyzes you.

But if you tell yourself that you're angry instead, then you don't have to confront this thought.

Trel Ren is angry. Hux is angry. They are the stillness before an explosion ignites. They are angry enough to fuel and destroy a system.

(You? You're just scared.)

 

***

 

The second time you lose the scavenger in the Tashtor Sector, it forces you to limp back to First Order space for repairs. When she sees the Finalizer and the sorely depleted state of your Stormtrooper squadrons, the quartermaster on base gets a particularly pinched look, like you're something questionable she'll have to scrub off her boots later.

Wasteful, says her mind.

Your Supreme Leader summons you to his stronghold, and Hux darts you a look like he sincerely hopes you're about to get smeared down the mountainside.

Wasteful, says his mind.

You swallow your pounding heart until it's back in your chest, and you find a puddle-jumper to take you to MISTA001.

Snoke, however, isn't interested in discussing your failure to capture one girl-child.

He floats up to you as you enter, already talking. You tear your eyes away from the dripping carcass suspended over an enclosure that's mostly obscured by flat, blue trees -- feeding time for something, apparently -- and tune in time to hear, "-- rock formations that are visual illusions. They appear solidly conical from a distance, but are not."

"Supreme Leader," you acknowledge, completely lost.

"It's likely that the Jedi Temple Skywalker seeks is on this planet, Kylo Ren," Snoke says, and you straighten up. "Take the personnel you trust and proceed to Lothal. Set a trap for Skywalker."

"Yes, Supreme Leader," and you leave before he can mention anything else.

You commandeer Captain Phasma from Hux (like the both of you, Phasma had to work to regain her standing after Starkiller Base, and unlike the both of you, succeeded,) and a ship from the quartermaster, whose lips go very white. "Sir," she says stiffly, and you leave Phasma with her to haggle for however many Stormtroopers can be spared -- you trust Phasma to know which would be best. There's a shortage, the quartermaster reminds her. Yes, I know, says Phasma. I was there.

Lothal is a golden prairie planet on the Outer Rim so geographically flat it plays host to terrifying windstorms. You know as soon as you land that your Supreme Leader's lead is wrong; the temple isn't here.

It can't be. The caves aren't the right type.

But there might be a temple, if not the first temple, so you throw yourself into the investigation anyway. You clear out one smuggler's cove, which results in some interesting weapons you can send to R&D on MISTA007 and at least a half-dozen now ex-smugglers who have decided that they would rather be settlers in the THAIN system. You had them at "basic income," you think. Also -- you glance around -- at "plumbing."

The next site you investigate is an ambush.

It starts like a breeze going over the back of your neck -- except your skin is always covered, and the sensation makes your spine go straight and your head come up, alert.

On the other side of the planet, a dreadnought leaps out of hyperspace. You feel it in the Force; weathered, recycled, and well-worn -- all things you automatically associate with the Resistance. You come to an abrupt stop.

Your mother is on board.

She might not be able to sense you yet, but that's only a matter of distance.

"Retreat!" you shout.

It startles your Stormtroopers half out of their skins, and they halt so suddenly they almost fall out of formation. Their confusion flashes at you, faster than plasma bursts.

"Sir?" Phasma questions, offended. Everything in the immediate vicinity is nonthreatening -- rocks, and the grasses, and a gape-mouthed furry animal no bigger than a shoebox eyeing you cautiously from an outcropping are the only things in sight. Rock spires disfigure the near distance, still far enough away that the optical illusion holds; it looks like a single swirl rising out of the landscape. They are practically Lothal's only landmarks. Up close, it will be several smaller spires clustered together, hiding a warren of caves within.

"The Resistance is here. Move!"

You're glad, right then, that you insisted the quartermaster let you borrow a warship, not a stealth ship, because your TIE fighters successfully scramble in time to meet the Resistance X-Wings in orbit.

You, Phasma, and your troopers race through the tall grass single-file. Your shuttle sits on a rise, gleaming chrome under the grassland sun, and you're cursing the proximity of the caves, the height of the grass, and the absolute lack of cover for a shuttle that size, because the first Stormtroopers in line fall to the scavenger before they can even register her appearance.

The line breaks, soldiers yelling, weapons cocking and discharging.

The lightsaber hisses.

You bellow in outrage. Your troopers had been warned there might be Jedi mumbo-jumbo, but this isn't what you meant.

You wish, for an even stranger moment, that you were like your uncle, who could levitate things with an idle wave of his hand. You never managed that level of control; your ability to stop things in motion isn't the same. You can't sweep your soldiers aside the way you want (you are not as strong as Darth Vader, you are not as strong as -- you will never -- but you have to --) and you are not returning to the quartermaster and telling her you lost another squadron of Stormtroopers. Hux will smear you down the mountainside himself.

So you yell at them to get down and swing your lightsaber above your head, two handed. The spitting light succeeds in drawing Rey's attention.

She bares teeth.

One hand fishes in the pouch hanging off the back of her belt, and she tosses something to the ground at your feet. It clunks heavily, rolling to a stop in front of you. Wires stick out of it. You're not your uncle or your father, you don't know ships. You wouldn't have any idea what it was if she wasn't beaming it into your head.

You sigh, and add one sabotaged shuttle to your list. The quartermaster and Hux will have to flip a coin on who gets to kill you first.

She switches her grp on her lightsaber and calls to you, "That piece of junk up there -- don't tell me it's yours? How'd you wind up with that garbage?"

"My usual ship is full of holes," you return. "Please give my regards to Poe Dameron on that front."

Rey barks with laughter, triumphant.

You don't think she means to let you see it, but her affection for the pilot comes off of her as a sunstruck, bubbling thing, as vast as the golden prairie grasses that surround you.

You can't blame her. Poe Dameron doesn't do double-talk. His head, heart, and mouth all say the same thing.

On her belly in the dirt, one of your Stormtroopers gets her blaster leveled. She takes aim. You fling a hand out sideways and freeze her in place -- your Supreme Leader won't be pleased if you bring him a dead girl. If you drive Rey to other side of the ship, Phasma could get your people onboard, maybe even start fixing the … whatever Rey did.

You attack.

Her blade comes up, parrying your blow like -- like she knows she carries a lightsaber now, not a staff.

Your envy snags on the hilt and the steady, purring blade. The fact that your grandfather's lightsaber had been on Takodana the entire time is -- is -- is just. You could have had -- and instead, you get --

But of course, why would you return there?

It doesn't matter, anyway, because it belongs to the scavenger. Cora Ren always scoffed at the idea that lightsaber loyalty is a thing, but behind his back, Dhar Ren shook her her head at you: it absolutely is, and here's one of the few remaining true lightsabers in the known galaxy, and a girl-child from Jakku carries it clipped to her belt like she's certain of it.

Lightsaber crafting is a Jedi art, lost to the war. Commander Bridger remembered some details from when he made his in secret, hiding from the Empire -- anyone can wield a lightsaber, but only those with Force-sense can craft one, which rules him out now -- and Skywalker had tried between missions to uncover the rest, especially as he had a flock of fledgling Jedi growing up on his coattails.

"What was supposed to be here?" you demand, and the light hits her eyes.

"Why?" she taunts back. "Didn't find anything, I take it?"

"Well now I've found plenty," you point out. You lower your blade just enough for her to see the way you tilt your chin at the sky. "Interesting. What brings General Organa to Lothal?"

The reaction is instantaneous:

The lightsaber sizzles past you, missing your helmet's visor by an inch.

"You --" she spits in fury, and comes at you again, forcing you back several sharp steps before you get your lightsaber up between you again. You crash together so hard your heels skid an inch back in the loam, and her face is inches from yours, flyaway hairs and slick teeth as she snarls, "-- have lost any right to even say her name -- you -- you --"

You twist out from underneath her blow, forcing her to stagger to the side before she compensates, blade spluttering and skipping off the soil.

In an instant, she is on you again, and your lightsabers crack together once, twice, three times.

"-- you MURDERING BASTARD."

Your father makes a flash-bright peculiar shape in the Force, plummeting between you, and you're still blinking the afterimages from your eyes when she spins away. The Force contracts, right before she throws a punch.

Her fist doesn't connect with you, but it doesn't need to: she takes the Force and hits you like a battering ram.

You are knocked clean off your feet.

You hit the ground, flattening prairie grass as you roll, and when you skid back up onto your knees, your hands are empty.

You cast about wildly, but you can't see the silver gleam of your lightsaber anywhere. You fling out a hand and try to summon it, but by then Rey's recovered from her own surprise and is nearly on top of you.

A shot rings out.

Rey shrieks in pain, stumbling and almost falling. Her boot smokes, and agony flinches all the way through her when she puts her weight on that foot. You look up, see Phasma settling into a sniper's position atop the shuttle, hidden from Rey's line of sight by its fins. She didn't miss: she's shooting to incapacitate, not to kill.

You scramble to your feet, holding your left side as your organic and artificial parts disagree with each other.

Still disarmed, you reach for Rey's head and fire with the one weapon that has always been at hand.

"If I can't ask after my mother, then how is our dear FN-2187?" you say, and watch blood spray from the impact. Memories scatter into the dirt at her feet, and you sift through them fast before she has the sense to shove you away.

You press, "Oh, good. That well?"

Control is yours again. You could be in the ring with Trel Ren, or any of the apprentices who came before them. She could be --

"He's very competent. I don't want him to think the First Order isn't suffering for the lack of him. We rely so heavily on our Stormtroopers --"

"Stop talking!"

"-- his squad sorely misses him and want him back -- or, well," you lift a hand and make an equivocal gesture. "They would, had he not got them all killed."

The lightsaber comes up and she darts for you, but the whine-click-SEAR of Phasma's shot drives her back before she can land a hit.

You circle around her, keeping her at a distance while scanning the ground for your weapon, and she circles back in unison. Her lightsaber descends to hang ready at the ready at her side, kicking blue light off the grass and the side of the shuttle, and her other hand drifts along, fingers twitching in that direction as she tries to pinpoint --

You put yourself between her and Phasma and you raise your voice.

"I'm glad you have company. You were alone all your life, weren't you? Abandoned. I can see how much that would mean to you. And the pilot -- oh, Dameron again? Are you aware that he has friends outside of you that he's likely been neglecting? And your Finn --"

Her body jerks, but it's your mind she throws herself against this time, meeting the bars and snarling --

"-- you don't get to call him that!"

"Yes, of course, I'm sorry," you allow. "Quite popular, isn't he? He made all those friends while you were chasing Skywalker. Friends who aren't quite your friends, I take it? He says it doesn't matter, but it does. It matters to you. You found him first. But you can't keep him at the exclusion of all others, Rey. Him or Poe. Don't you think you're demanding enough of their time?"

The hit lands exactly as you want it: with her fears now given voice, made real, control slips right out of her hands, and she leaps over it to launch herself at you, lightsaber arcing above her head.

Ah, you have time to think.

 

***

 

You hold yourself still in the presence of your Supreme Leader.

"Investigation into Lothal yielded nothing," you report, and he leans back onto his throne and says, "hmmmm," rumbling deep and slow. He says nothing else, so you bow and dismiss yourself.

The comm ends and his hologram shimmers out when you're half-way down the walkway, which is roughly when you collapse.

 

***

 

"Sir," your reconstructionist says when you wake.

"Dgggnn," you manage, eloquently, and allow yourself a moment to be grateful he was among the essential personnel you thought to requisition from the quartermaster. You lever yourself up onto your elbows, taking stock of what hurts worse. You're the only one in the medbay, which swims your stomach: that either means no one else got hurt, or they were all beyond helping.

The reconstructionist folds his hands at rest behind his back and addresses a point above your ear, "The repair droids we brought from the Finalizer have a complaint to make, sir."

You frown, trying to process the switch, but you're drugged and duller than you like.

"Is there an inefficiency?" you ask. And furthermore, why hadn't they come to you? There'd been time for them to do so while you were waiting for supplies to be transferred from the Finalizer, before you left for Lothal. And there's no reason for shyness; a childhood spent distracting concerned astromech droids while your father and uncle threw themselves into X-Wing repair like it was imperative they out-fix each other meant that you understand droid-speak just fine.

"Their specialty is technical repairs, sir. If you insist on injuring yourself instead of the sanitation control consoles like you usually do, they feel they are not being productive."

It occurs to you, belatedly, that he is being glib.

You stare at him, and he adds, "sir," unnecessarily.

"This is a much less expensive repair," is what you decide on, because regrowing tissue only requires that you have the right bacta template. You would have thought they would be pleased that instead of ruining your ship, you've been falling on Jedi.

The reconstructionist makes a noncommittal noise in response, then nothing else, and you think that's that.

Except after a pause, he speaks again.

"Sir," and he's being careful about it. "I noticed it last time, but there was no chance to discuss it with you. Your artificial organs -- were you a child when they were installed?"

This is not at all what you're expecting to hear, and you look up at him, completely blank.

"They're undersized," he explains.

They would be. "Yes," you say. "Some were meant to grow as I did, but at least one would require later replacement." Unconsciously, your hand goes to your side, covering the blackened, punched-out scar there. If Chewie had aimed a little higher … had he been banking on the First Order already having done the replacement?

The reconstructionist eyes you and starts, "It would be no trouble …"

"No," you say flatly. "They are mine."

"Sir," he snaps his heels again. Then, "General Hux commed for you," and whatever it was he just tried to start with you, that's your signal that it's over, "wanting a brief on Lothal."

Great. You're looking forward to having this likened to your disaster on Naboo. Again.

"Nothing happened on Lothal," you say, already looking for your helmet. You need to wash your clothes again.

Rey will make you bleed every time, you think. Every time.

"Yes, sir. Understood."

 

***

 

If your legacy as Kylo Ren will always be the quiet you leave when you're done with a place, then Dhar Ren's is the exact opposite.

"We're learning. The Empire did not succeed because of any one reason, but because it was an orchestra of many parts, a hundred instruments that worked in symphony," she tells you, and opens the door ahead of her with a Force-wave of her hand, allowing the both of you to sweep through without breaking stride. "When we say 'Empire,' most people in the galaxy remember Darth Vader's reign of terror, and it had its place in that orchestra. Fear is a powerful motivator."

She glances behind her, and you straighten unthinkingly. The son of Darth Vader's daughter has been a Knight of Ren for six months. The robes are only fractionally less annoying than the Jedi ones had been, and any time you might have had for -- for regrets, but let's call it homesickness -- is eaten up by your Supreme Leader's tutelage, and Dhar Ren's lessons.

As you are, you don't motivate much.

"But the greatest of the Empire's strengths were," she flicks one gloved finger into the air. "Its Academies, and its propaganda machine."

You nod. Your uncle had wanted to apply for the Imperial Academy in his system when he was young -- he hadn't seen it as a beacon of evil, but as a chance for escape. You remember your mother and Shara Bey Dameron, who'd flown in from Yavin 4 with a half-dozen other former Rebellion pilots when you were twelve to school the Senate on who, exactly, they had to thank for their freedom. You were supposed to be in bed, and they were drunk as Ewoks with their arms around each other, howling out the chorus to "The Empire is Might, the Empire is Right," remembered in perfect clarity even all these years later. Master Calrissian pounded his mug on the table and hollered, that's not even the dirty version, ladies! What's the point if it's not the dirty version!

Dhar Ren darts you another glance, and you realize you're humming it without thinking.

You stop and swallow. The Empire died the day you were born -- you shouldn't know the song at all.

"I proudly attended the Academy on Lothal. I grew up looking forward to having a holiday every Empire Day, without thinking about the sacrifice of the generation before me that made it possible."

"Are you in charge of … our propaganda, then?" you hazard.

The hallway she leads you down is walled with slanted transparisteel, showing you the mist-wreathed foothills and the neighboring peaks, which lack an official designation by cartographers but are simply called the Ascent by MISTA001's colonists. Moisture collects on the inside of the panes, giving the view a sleepy, foggy feel. Somewhere up there is your Supreme Leader's conservatory.

"The thing about propaganda is that there's always someone smart enough to know what they're looking at. I wanted to provide … something subtler."

Further down, a door warns you to open slowly if the red light is lit; recording in progress. It's on.

Dhar Ren gestures you into an unmarked room, lined with file cabinets stacked to the ceiling. Scaffolding and tarps along the opposite wall tells you there's an expansion in progress. You drift close enough to pull one of the drawers out. A hundred data slips are crammed together inside, and you tilt your head to read the tabs. "Episode 1:1," "Episode 1:2."

It clicks.

"The holodramas?" comes out of you, shocked. "You're the creator of the holodramas?" Wait, no -- you look around. "Is this -- your -- I mean, our whole entertainment channel?"

You can't see Dhar Ren's smile, but you hear it in her voice. In the Force, the shape of her near glows with pride.

"It was my idea. Our people work long hours in order to enjoy the amenities we, the First Order, take great care in providing." She gestures at all the cabinets. "This gives them something that will feel like a reward. It's one thing to work just to get food. It's another to work because at the end, you have a holo to look forward to."

With her permission, you start looking through the other titles.

There are dramas, documentaries, comedies, animated series for children -- there's probably even something on par with Roid-Up BATTLE DROIDS in here, something Chewie and Commander Bridger would be thrilled by and your mother would despair at. Having a variety of options is important, Dhar Ren tells you, because the more that's available for them here in their own system, the less likely people will be to bootleg New Republic media, with all its dangerous New Republic ideas and values.

You're stunned by their depth: they're all planned years in advance. Dhar Ren -- and a team of writers -- have made sure there will continue to be content long after she's gone. A drama series, for example, will air for two years before it "ends," only to have a remake slated for production a decade or so later, when there's another generation to experience it for the first time and when the older generation will want to cash in on the nostalgia.

If it hadn't been for her remark on propaganda, it probably wouldn't even have occurred to you to look.

But you do, and --

"The First Order isn't on here anywhere," you say, glancing up.

There's no "produced for you by," and even in the few clips you browse through, you don't see the emblem of the First Order on the title or credits scenes. It's almost shocking, that absence, considering how loudly pro-First Order messages get blared everywhere else. It could almost be any other piece of media you've seen, except … it's entirely about the First Order, even the children's shows with sing-alongs about numbers and the dominant species from each planetary system. They just don't call it that.

"Subliminal," Dhar Ren confirms. "Like most entertainment is. We're training people to respond to us without ever calling it that."

"With …"

"Listen to me, Ren," she takes you by the shoulder. "The generals are going to talk to you about programming. Programming soldiers from birth. Programming citizens to react correctly in their daily routine. Don't let them get through to you with that."

You tilt your head. You haven't met the Supreme Leader's military generals yet -- seen them from a distance, though, nearly all of them full-blooded human and sour-faced. It isn't hard to see the Empire when you look at them.

"When they say training, they mean riot control. I lived the Empire. You win nobody's hearts by firebombing them."

"We don't!" you protest, and she leaks pity around the edges, forcing you to say, slowly, "Or … we do?"

"You will have to," she says flatly. "For the good of the First Order. To say otherwise is a Resistance sentiment, Ren."

"Right, of course," you say, quick and cowardly.

"You're not going to hear it said out loud, but those lifeforms in uniform think that because we provide our colonists with basic income, health care, and employment, that it entitles us to them. Their labor, their bodies, their children."

A noise in the hallway. Her helmet turns, and she steps closer to you, dropping her voice.

"It doesn't work. That's not how you win people. This is," her hand goes to your wrist, lifting the hand holding the data slip. "You show them how great they are. The citizens of the First Order will fight for us because that's what their favorites would do."

You glance down at the data slip, then you stick it back where it belongs and slide the drawer shut.

"Are there any Knights of Ren?" you ask, curious. "In these shows?"

She just looks at you.

No, of course not. Nobody should see you coming.

You are the Supreme Leader's masked monsters, and the people should have no context for you at all.

 

***

 

In hindsight, you think Dhar Ren knew what was coming for her. There's so much she tries to give you.

 

***

 

She rousts you out in the middle of the night, when nobody else in the compound is awake except for the droids and the night watchmen patrolling the towers, none of whom are interested in the figures in black. She drives you outside in order to spar.

The air is so cold it sticks like splinters in your nose, in your lungs. MISTA001 is a beautiful, if tectonically overactive planet, with more mountains and canyons gouged out of its surface than any other planet in the system, and the atmosphere at this altitude is not only bitter, but thin and difficult to work through your lungs.

Your brain is slower to wake than your body is, and the Force is faster than both those things, catching Dhar Ren's initial hit and repelling it. Your blade spits at her, and you twirl, swinging in low under her spear.

She throws you back with a Force-shield, and for a beat, she snuffs herself out.

You cannot sense her around the barrier thrown up between you -- to see someone but not sense them throws you, badly. It's like seeing someone headless.

The shield drops. She rebounds and comes at you again.

Five minutes become fifteen, become a half-hour. The watchmen change shifts.

Your replacement parts, made for the heat of your insides, protest your prolonged exposure with stabbing pain.

It distracts you, and she lands a hit she shouldn't have. The tip of her lightsaber spear crackles close to your ear. The fabric at your shoulder sizzles, and the stench of burnt plastic fries your nose.

You wheel away from her, resetting your stance and thumping your chest with your free hand. You spit up a discharge and hawk it into the slush, furious that she can see this.

Her speartip lowers.

"You are mechanical," she says, like it's only just dawned on her.

"Yeah," you say. Then, "Yes. I mean yes. Why? What do I need to keep in mind?"

"Keep in -- oh, for combat? I couldn't tell you," she answers absently. "You know your own body better than I. What was replaced?"

"My heart. Most of it," you amend at the flare of horror she throws at you. Even for a species as widely medically documented as humans, the success rate for heart regeneration isn't very high.

You'd been lucky. They talked over your head to your parents: if this had been any other planet but the capital, the likelihood of your survival would have been dodgy at best. Such a structural weakness, your primary medic had sighed. Zhe had three, and had been very proud to show you a holo of them. They were very different from human hearts, zhe pointed out; they were smaller, nugget-shaped, and placed at optimal points to better pump blood to the ends of hir very, very long arms. You were fascinated.

"Lung," you add, putting a hand on your left side helpfully.

"Bones?"

"All of them. The ribs, I mean."

She says nothing for a long time, facing you with her expressionless mask.

You're still coiled, expecting a renewed strike, but then she douses her blade, planting the staff end in the ground, and when she speaks, there's a note in her voice that's odd even through the modulator.

"Blaster?"

"Yes. Mod-energy. The kind that makes a mess."

"We were supposed to have evolved beyond that."

The note you're having trouble placing in Dhar Ren's voice is anger, you realize, and you're so confused that your blade dips towards the ground. What had you done? Why is she angry at you? "Some people like the archaic," you try, and to you, you sound very small.

Her tone grows sharper. "How old were you?"

"Ten."

Outrage sticks at the Force, as prickly as the wind in your nose.

"A child," she gets out.

"I guess." You're off-balance. You don't like it. "Listen, Ren, it doesn't slow me down. They're good parts," you thump your chest again for good measure; alloyed ribs and artificial lung, splints holding the remainder of your heart together. "Maybe a little too small now," you admit, trying for a grin, wanting her to stop being mad. "If you're going to stab me or shoot me, aim for the other side."

 

***

 

Chewie had been aiming for your heart, you think, but no --

If he'd been aiming for your heart, he wouldn't have missed. He should have aimed for the other side, where the parts were organic and not undersized.

Maybe then it wouldn't have taken you so long to die.

You pound on your chest to keep the organs going, blood congealing and dripping between your boots. Here's Finn and here's Rey and here's your grandfather's lightsaber, your family legacy, and the three of them carve bloody paths out of your body, one for each minor planet missing from the sky, to match the crater Chewie blasted out of your side -- for your father, for Hosnian Prime.

And Rey -- the scavenger, you think. The scavenger, but the thought has no bite, no matter how you scrape for your contempt.

She is a scavenger and she has bested you. Is better than you. These are facts. All your envy and fear cannot make them less.

Alone in the snow on Hux's masterpiece planet, you die for the second time.

 

***

 

Not you, the Force says. Not today.

"No," you say back, and you are Kylo Ren and you are Ben Organa, twenty-nine and ten years old, simultaneously. "No, I'm done. Let me go."

But the Force pushes back. It pushes you inside your body.

You live.

 

***

 

The first time you stop an assassination attempt on your mother, you're four (or five?) years old on Alaris Prime.

The second time, you're ten, and it kills you.

It's election season in the capital. Your mother will be dirtbound for months, and your parents discuss whether or not to send you away for schooling -- this is one of those things on which their respective upbringings clash. The Alderaan academies your mother remembers don't exist anymore, but there are equivalents on the Core planets -- the Dameron's son even lasted a few years at one -- and the thought makes your father's lip curl like it's shoddy repairwork. He's adamant that you're learning more here, with them, than you ever could locked up somewhere with a holopad.

(Uncle Luke thinks they're both blowing steam. You're Force-sensitive. You have to be a Jedi. Eventually.)

But you're ten, and this doesn't concern you yet. The capital is a brand new planet and your head is full of lifeforms you don't know and a lot of lifeforms that you do, settling in after being away for the off-season, and you've been working hard at growing your hair out -- it takes so long, how can hair possibly take so long to grow? You want to wear it in the same style your mother's been favoring, a five-strand braid down your back.

She does it that morning, uncomplaining as your bouncing disrupts the star chart on her bedspread, dipping it toward you so that the constellations go skewed; half of the Tashtor system blinks across your abdomen, and you laugh.

"Leia!" your uncle's voice carries through the apartment. "Are you ready yet?"

"What do you think?" your mother says dryly, and flicks the tail of your braid over your shoulder to show you it's done. Hers is still loosely netted on top of her head, the same style that she wears to sleep.

"We can do it!" you volunteer, wanting to be helpful. "Can't we, Uncle Luke?"

"Ah," says your uncle. "Er."

Your mother's smile goes so wide it plumps all the way through her cheeks, and she gathers up the star chart, saying firmly, "Thank you, but no."

She settles herself in front of the mirror, reaching up to start pulling out pins, and you hop off the mattress to go to Luke's side.

"What do you think of the new gravity?" you ask.

He blinks down at your upturned face. "New gravity?"

"Yeah." You really like the mattresses, too, but that's no surprise: you've been rooming with everybody else in the berth on your mother's transport for the past three weeks, and those cots hadn't been made with humans in mind. You miss your bed on the Millennium Falcon, but these ones aren't bad. You'll adjust, but right now, the new gravity makes jumping on them really fun.

A considering look crosses his face. "It is different everywhere you go, isn't it? I remember noticing that, the first time I left home. Huh, I hadn't thought about it recently."

You see the thought form in his head, and you're already nodding, excited, except your mother can see it too.

"Don't even think about jumping on my bed, you two."

"Leia," your uncle whines.

"No!"

He leans against the doorframe, folding his arms and mock-pouting, which makes you laugh, and the Force is as light as sunshine all around you, warm on the backs of your eyelids, and you are a single mote of dust suspended in it, hazy and comfortable.

You have no inkling that you will die today.

The feeling carries you through the rest of the morning. You're in your nicest clothes, following one step behind your mother when a representative from the Corellian delegation calls out, "Senator Organa, Master Skywalker, wait!" and your mother flashes delight through the Force, saying, "Moona! I'd hoped you were here already, I read your proposal, and --"

You keep your hands behind your back, making a game out of trying to catch the end of your braid in your hand as it swings with each step.

A staircase curves down into a pavilion, beautifully blending the planet's original architecture with new construction, specifically designed for the planet's duration as the New Republic capital. Behind you, your uncle wonders what will happen to all these arenas, pavilions, and structures once the capital's moved on to the next planet. What's happening to the poor now, he thinks, glancing around. What will happen to the poor once all the economy leaves?

Other thoughts flicker all around you.

Most fire right over your head since you're too small to be noticed, but others you catch: your mother's aide is composing a script for when she calls her mother later, worried that she'll never understand her daughter's decision to serve that "stuck-up Rebel royalty." Listen, Mother …

Past her, others are rehearsing their speeches for the opening ceremonies, trying to remember names, thinking about money, money --

More money --

right nose clear, but is there something in the left? Make sure noses are clear, humans very particular about body fluids

no not him his breath smells

-- of COURSE there are stairs, why did I expect them to remember that not EVERYBODY is bipedal?

if I ask, do you think zhe'll wear that red thing later?

Nervous, sweaty, oh there she is that's her Senator Organa do it now do it now do it NOW --

And you --

-- move.

The blast hits you square beneath your shoulder blade, point-blank range.

It flings you off your feet, and you have one startled second where you see the whole pavilion upside-down, your mother and her brother and her people all kaleidoscopic, before your trajectory is halted by somebody else's body.

You land with a crunch at the base of the stairs, sprawled half-way on top a robe. The owner of it squirms and kicks you off, too panicked to pay heed.

You hear --

-- yelling, footsteps running --

-- the rumbling of the mosaic tiles under your cheek --

-- the hiss of your uncle's lightsaber leaping into his hand, your mother reaching for the Force with both hands and SHOVING people aside so she can get to you --

-- and "BEN" rips right out of her throat.

The image of yourself in others' heads, the chunk of you obliterated, is an odd thing to see. It doesn't even really hurt. Your braid lies on the tile, feet from your face, the detached end burnt and unraveling.

It had taken so long to grow, you think, dismayed.

That's the last thing you remember.

 

***

 

No, the Force tells you. Not today.

You're in a strange place, like you're dreaming. The physical world isn't there, but the light-world is. You're not used to thinking of the two of them as separate -- the Force extends in every direction, without your body to bind it. You could go anywhere, and you don't think you'd even have to go back.

There's a flare beside you, bacta-blue all over, and she says, Did you hear me? Not today.

You look up. The Force-feeling is kind, but sad, and all around her head --

"Hey," you say, stopping in your tracks. "You've got my hair!"

She twinkles with amusement, and folds down to your level. Curly hair silhouettes her head, her shoulders.

Technically, I think you have mine, she says. Yes, you do. And there's your mother. She's everywhere here. Except for this, her light glints off your chin. That's Han Solo's. I don't recognize this nose, exactly, and you giggle, because that tickles. And …. hm, no, I don't see any Anakin in you. It must be very well hidden. Well, we just don't tell him, shall we?

I can hear you, you know, the Force flares, indignant.

The light glimmers with laughter, and it pushes you back.

You live.

 

***

 

You get to keep your hand, and your kidney, and a few other minor internal organs you have never heard of before and are certain your medic is just making up, except zhe shows you on holo.

The rest of your left side has to be regrown from scratch. They reconstruct your lung with gel and wires; it takes days before you stop noticing the synthetic taste in your exhaled breath. Splints hold the ventricles of your heart in place, whole webs of veins grown to replace the burnt ones. Your ribs get crafted, alloyed with a substance not dissimilar to durasteel and your own cartilage, which has to be grown separately before it can be fused in.

This, zhe tells you, will also help when you're growing. With any luck, your lung is the only thing that will have to be replaced again when you're an adult.

A cheerful young Xexto on hir third year in pediatrics, zhe lets you watch your skin grafts grow under bacta light. Zhe assures you the scars will be seamless, but you have the disregard of a child -- what do you care about skin? You've got more.

You're angrier about your hair, to be honest. Can't they do hair grafts, too?

You have to stay hooked up to a shield generator ("a very small one, yes," your medic says, when you light up and tell hir, "I know an astromech droid who does that! Like the kind spaceships have?") that keeps your internal organs in place while your skin is still growing. It leaves an unpleasant buzzing in your teeth, but the sight of all your new wires and pumping parts underneath it makes it worth it.

When you show Uncle Luke, he wriggles his metal fingers at you and whispers, "It looks like we match now, Ben."

He and your mother have barely left your bedside.

You had opened your eyes once in the middle of surgery and found them unerringly, standing with their arms around each other just outside the range of the med droids. Your uncle, tears in his beard, and your mother, splattered, her face as grey and ground-up as gravel, utterly still. You said to them, "Oh, wow, you look exactly like her!" before you plunged back into unconsciousness and the droids' alarms started wailing again.

Other faces come and go: an aide is the first, bringing your mother a change of clothes so that she doesn't have to wear your blood anymore. Master Calrissian comes in with an update on the assassin, who Uncle Luke had promptly divested of both weapon and the hand attached to it before another shot could be fired. He makes you laugh in the same breath, and leaves with a ruffle to your singed hair. Threepio makes you laugh, too, when he comes in, but you don't think he means to.

The only time you're left alone is for the opening ceremonies, which you watch with the maintenance droids and your medic. Your mother, resplendent in a honeycomb costume of silver and gold, made entirely of hard edges, fists her hands and starts her address with, There is still fear in the galaxy.

"This system won't forget what the Rebellion did for it during the war," your medic says quietly from behind you. Zhe has six arms and twenty-four fingers, and when you look back, zhe manages to keep all of them busy so as to not look at you. "We will protect Senator Organa down to our last breath."

"Okay," you say. That makes perfect sense. "So will I."

One of those hands touches yours. "You already have, Ben," zhe tells you, gentle.

And isn't that the strange part -- everybody keeps thanking you, like you did something out of the ordinary when you put yourself in front of a blaster that was aimed at your mother.

You didn't. You did any one of her soldiers would do.

You just happened to be quicker.

 

***

 

Throughout all of this, you keep one eye on the door, hopeful and expectant, but it's one week and four days before your father materializes in the Force. You feel it the moment the Millennium Falcon leaps out of hyperspace, and your whole body reacts, pulled toward it.

Sleepily, your mother lifts her head.

She looks at your face, and says, "Ah."

They fight in the lobby, three floors away from you. They might as well have had a row two feet from your body.

"-- HAVE YOU BEEN?"

Your mother's voice doesn't know whether it wants to cut him or slap him or pummel him, turning hard and flat and razor-thin at the edges, all at once.

"Finishing the Yendo contract, like you --"

And it's the wrong thing to say, because the Force goes so simmeringly hot around her that, three floors up, you hiss and pull your bedsheet up over your hands like you're expecting to get burned.

"Your son was shot. He almost died --"

I did die, you think blankly, but it's past tense. Was dead is a lot better than is dead.

"I know that -- wait, my son? How come he's suddenly my son?"

"-- and you thought the job was important?"

"What, do you think I wanted to stay away? You try extracting yourself from that situation in a hurry without blowing the whole thing to smithereens, princess, I dare you! Oh, wait, you probably could, because you're --"

Flash-bang goes his anger, momentarily smearing his words to ashes in his throat.

"Because I'm what? What --"

-- not cantina scum, you came from someplace better and I didn't, and you look at me like you can't see it when it's the only thing I see when I look at myself --

But his mouth opens and it says, "-- what about me, where were you, anyway? Yes, you! How could you let this happen to your son?"

With a whimper, you sink down against your pillow, burying your ears in your hands and pushing down until the only thing you can hear is your own heartbeat, reverberating off your palms back to you. Try as you might, their emotions leak in around the edges, swimming your stomach with the nausea that comes with being full-up with fury. Tears prick at your nose, but you don't think they're yours.

You wait for them to stop.

You wake up hours later with your hands still loosely curled against the sides of your skull.

A hand rests on your back, careful of where the shield hums protectively over the remaining gaps in your grafts, and there's a warm, downy weight settled around your shoulders. In your haziness, it takes you a moment to realize you feel that weight only in the Force, quilted together from your mother and father; their pride, their love, tucked all around you. You burrow under it, content.

Apparently you're "our" again.

Out in the hallway, you can hear Chewie rumbling, defensive. A maintenance droid replies with strained politeness -- this is a pediatrics ward, sir, you cannot have a weapon, no, sir, not even if it's really small, there are children. Sir!

Above you, your mother and father talk, lowly.

You tune in to their conversation ("-- is he?" "Nervous. Trying not to hover. How do you think?" "I thought she wasn't … not for another month?" "Well, Ben was premature, too,") until it lulls you back to sleep.

You're not sure what makes you wake next.

You lie still in the dark and listen with your Force-sense. Then you sit up, and slide to the floor. Your father's asleep in the chair, your mother curled under his arm, both of their faces lax. You smile at them, then turn and unplug the shield generator, looking around for a hover cart you can put it on, like you do when the medic takes you over to the next wing for imaging.

Chewie yodels at you -- quietly -- when you slip through the door, and you're instantly engulfed by a Wookie's version of a very, very gentle hug.

You lean your head into his fur and muscle and warmth, breathing deep, and then pull back so you can show off all the new artificial parts they gave you, just visible through the shield. Chewie vocalizes appreciatively, and tells you he hopes very, very much that nobody shoots you again, it's no fun. Then he tilts his head and asks if he needs to come with you.

You think about it.

"I don't think so?" you say. "I'm just going up there."

It's up one floor, in another room practically identical to the one you just left, except the walls here are pale pink. You pass a trio of Rodians in the hall nervously discussing their hatching clutch; how much longer will it take and what will happen if that smallest egg doesn't start breaking shell soon -- is there anything medics can do in that case? They can't seem to help the excited twitching of their snouts. They're very bright to look at in the Force, and you find yourself shielding your eyes even though that's completely pointless.

As soon as you poke your head through the door, you know you're in the right place. The sound in your head clears immediately, like losing the static on a radio frequency you've been trying to find.

A woman sits cross-legged on the bed, pale-skinned and human-ish with freckles all across her nose, bent over a puzzle box that she keeps twirling between her hands. A mug levitates at her elbow, the spoon idly stirring itself. At the sound you make, soft and startled, she glances up and tilts her head in inquiry.

"You have the Force," you tell her wonderingly, and her eyes sharpen.

She sits up straight and her mind brightens, pushing against yours like a balloon expanding. Your bare toes crunch in delight against the duratile.

"I didn't know anybody but Mom and Uncle Luke had the Force," you tell her, still hushed, and her mouth peels back into a grin, like she's enjoying a joke.

She sets the puzzle box aside. The mug drifts into her open palm, and she sets that down, too, so she can ask you, "Would you like to meet her?"

You blink, and at her gesture, the courtesy droid hovering by her monitor activates. It fetches the loaf-shaped bassinet you hadn't noticed before and brings it over to her so that she can reach inside. The baby she pulls out is very red and very small and doesn't seem to know what it's doing with its limbs. It flails, disturbed and sleepy, and at the mewling noise of protest, the freckled woman makes a face back, like, right, right, I know, tell me more.

You come closer automatically, tugging your generator along.

Babies are very strange, you've found; they haven't been around long enough to be much of anything at all, and in the Force they feel more like they're the potential of light than anything you can actually read.

You reach out with your mind, trying to find her -- it's the kind of thing that would make your mother frown and say, Ben, boundaries, but you're curious. She isn't thinking anything so much as she's feeling, and even that's hard to decipher; she doesn't have a lot of practice.

"Here," her mother says, bending down to you. "Careful."

She deposits the baby into your arms, mindful not to let her touch the shield barrier on your left side.

She's heavier than you thought, and squirmier, and it's not very fun, and you're thinking about just saying, "that's nice" and handing her back, except then she peels her eyes open and looks up at you and --

Oh.

"Oh, wow," you breathe out, astonished.

She's looking up at you, and because she is too brand-new to have any context for the world, for you or the wall or the lights over your head, you are the entirety of her world -- you are everything she knows. You're going to have to sit down, because you've never felt that in anybody's head, never ever. She has no concept of permanence, so the world begins and ends with your face.

Well, the blobby bits of color that make up your face, at any rate.

The Jedi -- she has to be a Jedi -- laughs, getting down from the bed so that she can support you with one hand on your back. She helps you with her baby's head until she's sure you've got it.

"It's new to me, too," she tells you, and the two of you flash elation at each other in the Force before you look back down.

The baby scrunches her face up, and you feel like you have to do something.

It almost overwhelms you. You've got to --

When you were born, your mother strapped you to her front in a pilot's harness and she took you to work. In that enormous theater where the New Republic was born, she gathered up the Force and she planted you in it, there in that victory, that democracy, all of that astonishing, newborn hope.

You have nothing like that here to work with, but you call on the Force anyway. Every fiber of Ben Organa's body, and you stretch it out past the confines of your physical self.

Listen, you tell it, when you're sure you've gathered it close. Listen.

This one's important. You look out for her.

"Does she have a name?" you ask.

"We're still deciding," the Jedi says, watching you curiously.

"Okay," you say, and you stay like that until she finally asks for her baby back, and even then, you do so reluctantly.

 

***

 

The Resistance never makes a secret out of you.

At first, they report you missing. When you aren't found among the bodies of the Jedi apprentices or in the surrounding forest, that status is updated to "kidnapped," which you won't learn about until it's far too late. It dumbfounds you. The evidence has to be overwhelming. Uncle Luke had to have known the instant he and Artoo set back down on Takodana who was responsible: the Force had to have screamed it at him. And they still --

Later, you think they were trying to get a message to you, wherever you were. Any message, however late.

You hadn't been sent to your uncle for training because you were a danger to yourself and to others, like you thought; your mother sensed the trap that Snoke had laid for you and sought to remove you from it, except it snapped shut too fast and she lost you.

Telling the universe you were kidnapped was all she could do, then, while there was still time for you to come back.

When the truth comes out, you expect them to sweep you under the rug, to pretend like you never happened, and they don't.

They admit openly to your betrayal.

They call you by your name to anyone who asks. Ben Organa, son of the Resistance General Leia Organa, defected to the First Order. Yes, that's him. He killed the Jedi, the young hopefuls of the universe. He tore the Force apart, Light to Dark. If he's ever apprehended, he will be tried and executed, like any other war criminal.

At first, you're protected by your mask, your robes, and the name Kylo Ren.

You're protected by the fact that nobody in the First Order cares; the people you work with in THAIN aren't concerned that you're Resistance-raised, or that you're a child-killer -- they just want to know if you can get the right equipment to THAIN002 so that the new settlers can get to work harvesting the black carbon fields, yes or no, Ren?

But when you go back, you find that somebody always knows. No matter where you go or who you interrogate, somebody knows exactly who you are.

Eyes will peek up at you and a mouth will say, "You hurt your family so much. The general cried for days. Your uncle was almost unrecognizable. How could you do that to them?"

Or, "Son, go home. I know your parents. They are the brightest points of Light in this galaxy. They raised you better than this."

And the Force never --

-- ever shuts up.

"The enemy is cleverer than I give them credit for," Trel Ren decides, coming to stand beside you.

On the overhead screen, a correspondent for the New Republic Senate-Watch brings up a point of controversy: General Organa's son. The woman there, Ben's mother, nothing to you, doesn't even flinch.

Trel Ren shakes their head. "How can they act like they aren't shamed?" they spit out. "They don't have a leg to stand on! Their own leader's son knows which side will be the winning side, and yet they -- there must be a reason. No, they're planning something. No organization can truly be that stupid."

They turn, pointing their helmet at you.

"We'll find it, Ren," they promise you, fervent. "We'll cut down every last one of them," and you say, "Thank you, Ren," with a cold weight in your stomach.

They cross to the other side of the control room, and you become aware of a thought at your back, a swift flare in the Force.

Curiously, you look over your shoulder, scanning the room until you crosshair one of your Stormtroopers standing guard at the hatch. A recent lieutenant; the flag on her shoulder not quite molded into its shape. She's called "Phasma" by her squadmates for her unerring accuracy with a plasma weapon.

"PN-0923?" you question, and she snaps to attention. "What do you think?"

She pushes down her immediate resentment at having been singled out. She does it ruthlessly, and when she speaks, it's without a waver of fear. She has no context for you -- the Knights of Ren weren't included in her training, and as far as she knows, you materialized out of the black, and if her commanders have to obey you, then so must she.

"I think it demonstrates the inefficiency of the enemy, sir," she says, and you quirk a smile without meaning to.

"Oh?"

"That they waste so much energy on one lost child. The mother is perhaps past prime years, but she is still young enough. If it is an economic necessity, she could have another to replace him. Instead, she wastes her time, and ours."

You're still smiling, but it doesn't, fortunately, come through your voice modulator when you speak. Phasma is not so much the product of Dhar Ren's media programming as she is the pinnacle of it. She takes a lesson learned from her holo -- and the line about inefficiency had come straight from one of the swashbuckling youth-oriented dramas -- and she applies it to her real life. Subliminal. Perfect.

"You are correct, PN-0923. At ease," and she does.

You look back at the enemy general on the overhead, see the lines in her face, and dismiss the feeling in your chest as a malfunction between your organic parts and the artificial.

 

***

 

"You really are the most peculiar breed," your Supreme Leader muses in a slow, deep rumble. "And it is a constant source of frustration to me that you are the primary species I must work with."

By his design, the whole First Order is structured around it. He deems you plentiful and easily biddable, and dreams of crafting a human race tailored to his specifications, but that doesn't mean he likes you very much.

He floats along beside you. The midday light coming through the atrium ceiling cuts the walkway in front of you into squares, and you swallow against an arid patch in your throat. You had been reveling in the quiet, this peace in your master's presence, but you should know better by now; your Supreme Leader prefers to give you orders via transmission, and won't summon you to his side for anything less than the deeply unpleasant. He takes your reward and makes a punishment of it.

"I find that I can never predict you," he continues. "I thought for certain that killing the Jedi-in-training -- the new hope for your universe -- would alienate you from your kin, but still they reach for you."

"Supreme Leader," you say, neutrally.

"You cannot truly be mine while that option remains, Kylo Ren. I want you to think: what action will turn them from you as surely as it will turn you from them?"

And you are helpless to stop the first thing that leaps to your mind; the faces of your mother, your father, Chewie, your uncle, planted deeper in you than your own living self.

Dhar Ren warned you. She told you, you cannot cut your family out.

The Supreme Leader is no mind-reader, but he doesn't need to be.

"Hmm," he says, and your stomach clenches. "Yes, I think I know, too."

 

***

 

Your father walks toward you on the catwalk.

He is greyer than you remember. He is smaller.

 

***

 

You are no pilot. To you, machines have no Force presence beyond what people give them, and they don't speak to you the way people do.

Most of the time, you're fine as long as somebody else is there, unconsciously broadcasting the correct tool and the correct procedure while they're supposed to be teaching you to think of it first. So you wouldn't make a bad copilot, you suppose, but mechanical competence is not your strong suit.

In a family of skilled -- okay, legendary -- pilots, this stands out.

You are not your father's, you are not your uncle's, (you are not Anakin Skywalker's,) and neither of them are sure what to do with you.

"Well," drags out of your father's mouth. It skews to the side, pulling at the lines around his eyes. "That's fine, honestly. Who wants a carbon copy of themselves, anywa --"

Your mother cuts him off with a loud, disgusted noise, and those lines swiftly crinkle up into laughter.

You cannot cut your family out, Dhar Ren said, and there are days when you're not sure if she meant it as an accusation, or a warning, or if she was trying to reassure you, because there are memories of your parents that are more deeply buried in you than your wires, and sometimes you reach for them, the way a hand will always reach for something warm when it's cold.

Here's your father, pulling you into his side so that he can ruffle your hair and say to you in an undertone, "Don't tell your mother, okay?" as you're surrounded by a group of rough-looking thugs on an indeterminate space station outside the Gorse system. They chatter in Huttese, their looser appendages draped casually over their weapons, and you press yourself small in the space between your father's body and the back of Chewie's legs, which does nothing but draw their attention.

Routine, you hear your father think. Why can't it just stay routine?

"Han Solo!" bellows one delightedly, switching to Basic, and your father sketches a lazy smile in greeting.

"Howdy, Nax. Been awhile."

"I'll say! Heard you en't solo anymore!"

"Nope," your father answers, fingers tightening around your shoulders. "There's no one here by that name."

That's double-talk, you're pleased to realize. Your father's being sly.

Chewie grumbles at him, put-upon, and you look to the ruffians, expecting more ribbing, but they just look pleased.

"Good on you," says Nax, coming over to slap him on the back, and your father's surprise flashes you in the face: he hadn't been expecting a friendly welcome. "Glad she makes ye happy, Han. Now, come in, come in, what can we do for ye?"

And here's your mother, who spent your childhood building the New Republic system-by-system, working out of the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon where everything's worn smooth by years of hands, and on long hyperspace jumps, she covers your eyes and asks, "Okay, Ben, where's Dad?" and your joyful heart all but leaps from your ribs, pleased to find your father in the Force and bring the information back to her.

Anywhere in the system, and you would bring him back to her.

Your parents never had to pursue you, once they realized you'd left willingly. All they had to do is be somewhere you would find them.

You'd hear them, in whatever system you were in.

 

***

 

Your father walks towards you on the catwalk.

Your eyes cut at him, to and away, taking his approach in small sections because you cannot handle it, this is happening and you need it not to happen, and you are thinking a hundred things at once, but the most important is that you wonder how you would fit, if you were to hug him now. It's coded into your body like Luke's lessons on meditation, like Dhar Ren's lightsaber techniques -- your muscles leap instinctively to go to him with your arms open, even after all this time.

Could you still press yourself into his shoulder, or would he press into yours?

He comes at you, his face broke open.

You don't want to be here.

Stop, you try to say, but your throat is a cage of wires and it chokes itself.

You need him to be somebody who isn't your father. You need him to be the Han Solo from galactic history, the one who didn't fit into anybody's plans. The smuggler, the bare step up from scavenger.

You need him to be the unforgivable human stain on your Jedi genetics, the way your Supreme Leader tells you he is.

You need him to try to charm his way out of this. You need him to be sly. You need him to double-talk.

You need him to say something horrible, so that this is easier.

But he doesn't.

He tells you the truth.

"We miss you," he says, and you haven't even touched him yet and he's already bleeding. He leaves pieces of himself all over you.

Your mother is in his head, everywhere. If you see our son, bring him home.

(You're still "our." How can you still be --)

He cannot sense what he's doing, how the Force draws into him and comes out screaming, and you feel like you're malfunctioning, like your replaced lung and heart have gone offline and your organics are straining to compensate. Your chest aches.

You don't want to be here.

Your father reaches for you, and no one ever told you that the Light can be as violent as the Dark.

Your father reaches for you, and the Light screams out of him, blinding you. The noise in your head is unbearable.

You're crying, but they're not your tears.

"Please," you try, and both your hands and his on your lightsaber. He only needs to turn it just slightly to ignite it, to run you through, and oh, oh, it would be so quiet. It would be the quietest thing. Please.

With a wrench, the lightsaber ignites.

The noise suddenly stops.

Death by lightsaber is one of the cleanest deaths there is, your uncle had told you, all fourteen of you, Jee'eke squeezed between yourself and Istill and none of you breathing because lightsabers, at last. Luke's mouth did something peculiar, and he said, the heat cauterizes the wound. An execution performed with compassion and empathy is almost painless.

You think you must have done it wrong.

You must have, because there's something hideous in the shape of your father's mouth, right before he falls.

 

***

 

Very few of the Knights of Ren survive the tests that the master puts them through. You all know that, going in.

But you live, and you're forced to your feet the next day with a blackened crater punched out of your side, and as it heals it becomes a starburst that contracts your skin toward it, white lines stretching as far up as your ribs, your heart.

You should have known, really.

You should have realized it was coming -- that all the tests you'd been given so far weren't true tests at all, that the worst was yet to come.

"Kill your father," the Supreme Leader commanded, but the part of you that will always be a child in your father's presence is still screaming, hurt, confused, because you know Snoke considers Han Solo the place where your genetics went wrong, but his death doesn't remove those genes from you! So why the waste!

He sought to relieve you of a weakness, but you'll be permanently weak in all these places you were cut and shot, so how, exactly, did you win?

(You didn't. That's the point. The victory is the Supreme Leader's alone.)

You scrub a hand over your face in front of the mirror in the officer's barracks where you see all your scars for the first time, and wish for one terribly, terribly small moment that you could go home. Didn't matter where that was -- your mother's apartments in the capital, your bunk on the Millennium Falcon, the governor's compound on THAIN001, that space at Snoke's right hand.

It began a year ago, when you were chasing down a rumor of two children with Force-sense in some gaudy tourist system on the edge of the Expansion Region.

You're preoccupied, scarcely thinking of this errand at all -- you've been the overseer in THAIN for the better part of ten years at this point, so your mind is back with your tasks there. It's only as you're breaking atmo planetside that you apply your first shred of critical thinking to the situation.

Just like that, you know you're cornered.

Your head comes up.

"Where are we?" you ask, and when Phasma turns to answer you, it's only virtue of having known you this long that keeps her from tacking on a slightly judgmental "sir" to the end.

"Ah," you say.

There's a former Rebel pilot down there.

You were there when she announced her retirement, swinging your legs because they weren't long enough for your feet to touch the floor. Your mother cried, though she quickly ducked her face into the back of her hand to hide it. It didn't work: Captain Syndullah engulfed her in a hug, saying, "You'll still see me, your Highness. You know me, there's always a fight somewhere."

"She is getting married," Master Calrissian had interjected. "That's probably the biggest one there is."

"That … might be the nicest thing I've heard you say about it."

"Hey, I still think you're slumming it, Captain," he'd remarked, all his teeth on display. "Let's be honest, all these fine specimens in the galaxy, and you pick that one to marry?"

Captain Syndullah cocked a hand on her hip and replied, sweetly, "I assume you're the fine specimen you'd recommend as replacement, then?"

Master Calrissian spread his hands, grin widening.

"I'm old enough to be your mother, Lando."

"Yes, but don't Twi'leks age differently?"

Your head came up, and you announced cheerfully, "She's gonna shoot you!"

And Master Calrissian glanced at you once, and then did a double-take, his grin fading.

"Wait," he said. "Is that a Force thing. Is he picking that up in the Force?" he looked back to Captain Syndullah, who was still smiling at him, very, very prettily.

You kicked your legs and singsonged, "It's gonna hurt," and it worked: your mother, at least, wasn't crying anymore.

So Captain Syndullah took her human male and moved to a cosmopolitan planet where that kind of thing isn't worth noting, and now here you are, looking down on it. It's too much to hope for, you suppose, that this is an entirely unrelated coincidence? That you can land, pick up two potential apprentices for the Supreme Leader, and leave the system without Hera ever knowing you're here?

You get as far as an alleyway in a neon city, traffic moving along at a fast clip overhead and week-old snow shoved up into slushy piles on either side of you, when your Force-sense prickles.

You stop.

To your right, there's a poster plastered to the wall, emblazoned with the Resistance symbol. Its boldness makes you tilt your head; you remember your parents talking about how people had to pass each other things with the Rebel symbol stamped on its undersides. Here, now, the Resistance can hang its recruitment posters freely. There's something in that you don't have the energy to pick apart.

A couple lounges against a stack of crates at the end of the alleyway, having paused their enthusiastic pawing in order to watch you curiously.

The female cups her hands around her mouth and calls to you, "Hey, gimpy! Yeah, you -- you're wearing too many clothes for this establishment!"

You blink at her, then glance up long enough to register the naked figure on the sign over her head.

"No," you protest, as her partner guffaws loudly. "I'm not --"

Wait.

With a disgusted noise, you wave your hand and knock them both out, and immediately, the Force surges against you. It crosshairs you.

Your hand leaps for your lightsaber, but already, you sense a finger tightening on a trigger.

You spin.

Where --

A lightsaber ignites, and you're still stretched out with all your senses, so you feel it as it impales you straight down through your neck. You gasp, shocked airless with that agony, even as your eyes finally lift to the rooftops. There, you see the blue-skinned figure of a male Pantoran slump over the railing, bowcaster slipping from his grasp, and behind him --

Trel Ren straightens up, kicking the body aside with distaste.

They step off the railing, dropping three storeys to you and using the Force to cushion their landing. They holster their lightsaber and come to your side.

"Were you asleep?" they demand disgustedly.

You rub at your neck, where your nerves are strung highwire tight with the phantom sensation of the Pantoran's death, burnt into them. "What are you doing here, Ren?"

"Saving you from would-be Resistance assassins, apparently. You're in enemy territory, Ren, what's the matter with you."

"I'm on a mission."

"Yeah, well, not anymore. I've been sent to retrieve you. The Supreme Leader wants us back on MISTA001, immediately -- he has a new mission for us."

You frown. "Why would I need to be retrieved? The master only has to ask."

"He seemed to be under the impression you might need encouragement to come. I'm encouragement. Do I need to encourage you?" They sound like they're really hoping they get to encourage you.

"No."

They join you on the Finalizer and you punch out of that system. Stars turn to thin cuts of light through the viewport, and the knot between your shoulder blades eases fractionally. With any luck, Captain Syndullah and her children will go into hiding. Or the rumor will get forgotten. Or something.

You turn to Trel Ren. "What's this about?"

The long muzzle of their helmet points at you. "The Supreme Leader wishes us to eliminate Luke Skywalker," and your visceral insides get into a disagreement, stomach leaping and heart sinking simultaneously. Everything swims.

"I thought he had vanished," you manage.

"Yes, but you know how our master gets when threatened by another collector. Should Skywalker ever come out of exile, he could take an apprentice. Our Supreme Leader doesn't want him to get that chance."

Your teeth click together. When you were fifteen, you'd killed all the Jedi apprentices, and hadn't that been the reason why? Not only did the act tear Ben Organa to shreds, forcing him to hide inside the towering, empty infrastructure of Kylo Ren's tall bones and stretched-out skin, but it also took care of Snoke's competition: without Luke Skywalker to get to them first, the Force-adept were Snoke's for the taking.

You manage a short "ah" in reply, but Trel Ren's paying attention now.

"You have a history with the Jedi, don't you?"

Under your helmet, you lift your eyes toward the ceiling in brief acknowledgement of the irony. Then you level Trel Ren with a look, holding it steady until they step back and lift their shoulders uncomfortably.

"It was mentioned."

"Oh? Turning into an interrogator after all, are you, Ren?"

"Sten Ren told me."

There's never been a Knight of Ren by that name in the Supreme Leader's service, but you let it slide. Trel Ren fraternizes with their lieutenants -- not something you've ever been tempted to do, but you're not here to tell them how to run their ship. They must have a strange concept of pillow talk, if this is the kind of information they get.

You feel your mouth curl. "Did the Supreme Leader ever tell you about the hoggle?"

"The what?" Trel Ren frowns, and their mind promptly turns its pockets out; everything is a challenge, with them. "Is that one of his creatures?"

"Never mind," you say.

You wait until their frustration starts to curdle, burnt, before you speak again.

"I was Luke Skywalker's apprentice, once," you say, and their surprise flickers at you; they hadn't been expecting you to admit it. "I imagine the Supreme Leader is concerned I will be too weak to confront an old master."

You're expecting something snide in response, and so it astonishes you, Trel Ren stepping in close and clasping your elbow.

"I'm glad, Ren," they say lowly, while you're still blinking. In the Force, they face you, made entirely of teeth and sharp edges. "You are much better suited here, with us, than you are with -- with the kind of people who let worlds like mine happen, who promise us democracy and aid and then let us suffer worse than we ever did under the Empire while asking us to be grateful. I am glad you got out -- now we will erase the last Jedi, and be done with it."

When you arrive at your Supreme Leader's conservatory, you're startled to find General Hux already there.

Not only were you expecting him to be dirtbound on his meteorological experiment -- sorry, he's calling it Starkiller Base now -- but Snoke rarely ever lets his generals see him in person. It undermines his status.

"Sir, why is this a problem?" the general is saying as you come in. "The search will go so much faster if you approve the use of heavy force."

Snoke clucks his tongue, but Hux isn't deterred, already steamrolling onward.

"-- by your wisdom and guidance that has kept us hidden from the machinations of the New Republic so far. But we have grown. The First Order is a power to be feared, and the New Republic should know what happens to them if they think otherwise!"

You come to a halt beside him, staring. He hasn't worked himself into a froth yet, but he's getting there.

"This is what we've been building toward, and all who have ever harbored the Jedi Master should know what's coming for them! Will you approve it, sir? Will you let us cut our soldiers on something other than simulations? Will you give our people the satisfaction of victory?"

"Hmmm," says the Supreme Leader ponderingly. "Kylo Ren, what do you think?"

You exchange a look with Hux. Or, rather, more like a blow: his eyes flay you, icy and contemptuous and preemptively triumphant.

"I am sufficient," you say stiffly. "What can Hux's Stormtroopers, fine though they may be, accomplish that one Knight of Ren cannot?"

The Supreme Leader makes another thoughtful noise. He hovers on past, with you and Hux trailing after.

"General Hux has a point worth considering," and Hux's flare of surprise would be comical if you weren't suddenly terrified. "Our armies stand ready. Your weapon nears completion. And I grow weary of this Resistance claiming themselves our equals. The galaxy should see how decorative their government is, how faithless they are in the task of actually protecting them. You have permission to use firepower in your pursuit of the Jedi, Kylo Ren, General."

Hux manages to wait until you're in the corridor, the windows misted over and some white-robed acolyte pushing a trolley heaped with steaming, crimson meat to an exhibit further down (and thinking, disturbingly, of her own lunch,) before he speaks.

"Don't worry, Ren, my people will play to your strengths."

His voice is swollen, fat with the vision of the things he can do with the amassed militaristic wealth of the First Order, his to orchestrate.

He knows what your personal feelings on killing Luke Skywalker are likely to be, and -- oh, no, he's definitely pleased he gets to see this, too. You feel like an insect under a scope, prime for dissection.

"What do you imagine those to be?"

"Your efficiency at eliminating the unnecessary components in any situation," he answers, and then, "Oh, right. I forgot --" he hadn't forgot. "You were not formally educated. I apologize. I meant, you're very good at destroying what you can't use. Killing. Whatever it's called in those sims of yours."

What it winds up being -- in reality, outside of Hux's fantasies -- is overkill.

You return to the New Republic. You gather every thread you can find, and you unravel it. One small man is difficult to find in a very large galaxy, but there's always somebody new to ask, somebody who knows somebody who knows something. Luke Skywalker tied up a lot of loose ends before he vanished, and all those ends is a potential lead, whether they know it or not.

Your ship slides smoothly overhead and these people grab whatever primitive weapons they have that survived the war. They gather to defend themselves.

What you do to them is unnecessary.

And somewhere --

Somewhere so deeply buried in your artificial organs, in your bones, so deep that not even the Force can sense it, you wish you'd never left Luke.

You wish it a hundred times, a thousand times, every time you bring fresh Stormtroopers straight from the training facilities on MISTA002 to what is essentially a slaughter, and later listen to Phasma give the tally: x amount died in the first encounter, y amount will need reconditioning, z amount will need monitoring because they enjoyed it too much.

You wish it in the quiet in your skull when everyone is dead.

("Please," Hux says in exasperation, "will you at least leave two survivors? Dead man can't tell tales, Ren, and we need them to tell!")

You've made your bed, Kylo Ren, and here you lie in it, with all these bodies. All of them so considerately silent.

 

***

 

Your skin grafts for the wounds you sustained on Lothal grow in, mostly seamless, and the Finalizer is cleared again for active duty, and still you haven't heard a peep about the scavenger.

You're back in the medbay within the week, and as he treats you for the burns you get destroying half the sanitation console in your frustration, your reconstructionist informs you, droll, "I take back everything I said, sir."

You grimace, acknowledging, and mumble, "sorry," and he does both of you a favor by pretending he didn't hear you. It's not even noteworthy, ship-wide; everybody's just careful about their waste for a few days, until the tech-mech droids get their repairs done. Your long-timers assure your new squadrons that it's nothing out of the ordinary, honest.

You rub the sore spot at the front of your head.

You're realizing, belatedly, that you're not even sure what Rey's doing. She got Skywalker off his island, and now the two of them are … what? Your reports have been piecemeal at best; FN-2187's defection means that the Resistance now has a better grasp on what the First Order uses for code descrambling, and their transmissions in the months since might as well be in Wookie for all your people have understood them. The fact you lost most of your highest-ranking officers and technicians at Starkiller doesn't help.

(Wait. Are they in Wookie? No, your mother's smarter than that. You went through a phase when you were toddling where you spoke in nothing but Wookie yodels -- it was more fun, for one thing, and for another it wasn't nearly so complicated as Basic, which you were trying to learn.)

(You should listen again, though. To be certain.)

All you've managed to do is get in Rey's way. Once or twice. Unsuccessfully.

Ugh.

It's while you're in this limbo that word reaches you of an incident on THAIN005.

It's isolated, high priority. A band of colonists from one of the frontier settlements have declared themselves refugees under New Republic sanction, and have sent out a crudely scrambled message asking for aid and protection in getting out. You intercepted it before it could get very far, but you're reasonably certain it was picked up by at least a few outposts outside First Order space.

It's a curious message.

"We're not bothering with it," Hux tells you flatly. "The local enforcement can quell it."

"No," you say.

Hux throws you a vexed look.

"Fine," he says. "We'll comm Trel Ren and get them to do it."

"No," you say.

Since the destruction of the New Republic capital at Hosnian Prime, Trel Ren has been everywhere in the galaxy, raiding planets for their resources while they remain undefended. Last you heard, the Resistance had successfully chased them out of the Core, but couldn't keep ground further than that. You could call them back, but you don't want to entrust this to someone who probably hasn't slept in months.

You tilt your head and say with certainty, "It's a trap."

Hux's sour face puckers further. "How do you know?"

You're not sure.

There's nothing overt about the message, you think, trying to puzzle it through. But …

It dawns on you, where that feeling's coming from: your father, keeping you entertained while the pair of you fed dishes from your mother's meetings into the cleaner -- and there's a lot of things that can be said about the Rebels, but the ones you know eat a lot. He would wave his arms, telling you one story or another how he and Chewie used to dodge traps bigger and deadlier than this. You were probably aware that he exaggerated most of it, but as far as double-talk went, this was the harmless kind.

"Ren," Hux says sharply. He's been trying to get your attention.

"We're going to spring the trap," you tell him, and rise from the comm console.

His burst of frustration bounces harmlessly off your back.

THAIN005 is a waterlogged planet; 31% of its total landmass had been lost when Hux's meteorological terraining melted the upper continental sheets of ice, raising the water levels planet-wide. It is, objectively, the poorest of the THAIN worlds, and it will perhaps be another decade before it produces enough to make up for the money your Supreme Leader sunk into making it inhabitable. Like you, it's playing catch-up from the start.

The Resistance ambush is waiting for your descent, and it's clear that whatever kind of response they were expecting, they weren't expecting you.

"No casualties, if it can be helped," you tell your pilots and your Stormtroopers. "I want them alive."

The settlement sits between two enormous freshwater lakes. Bugs are a problem in the summers, but vaccines for the major bug-borne disease are readily available, you've already made sure. The main export is a particularly nutrient-rich fish meat, harvested from said lakes and sent to the processing plants further inland, where they'll get packaged into rations for the laborers on the MISTA moons -- it's employment for over half the citizens here.

When the short-lived (but valiant) fighting ends, your Stormtroopers corral everyone in the village square, and Phasma comes to fetch you.

"No casualties," she reports, satisfied.

They've collected two dozen scrappy Resistance officers, three pilots, and one hundred twenty-five actual colonists. It's an interesting bunch.

Their thoughts flit and circle and fire back and forth, not unlike fish darting about in a pond (since it's on your mind,) and as you slowly make your way around, you start to piece the story together: a reconnaissance mission landed a Resistance crew not far from here. This probably means there are either former Rebels or Resistance members living in the First Order, but you've figured since the beginning that there might be. The economic crisis would have hit them too, so they could be here undercover, or they could just be genuine settlers. Anybody who might know something about it starts thinking very loudly about wildlife whenever you draw close, though.

She isn't here, but your mother is still here, everywhere, in all their heads.

They planned the trap with the refugees in a bid to prove to the villagers that the First Order didn't care about them -- not until they step out of line, in which case retribution would be immediate and deadly. The Resistance figured that they would be able to handle the retaliation -- THAIN005 is small, and poorer than its neighbors, and their mistake had been to assume that meant you wouldn't care about it -- and gain the allegiance of the villagers in the process.

They were prepared to break the people out, too, if it came to that -- to show other colonies that it could be done. They didn't have to settle.

(No pun intended.)

Your voice modulator clicks. "Hmm," you say.

A thought dashes at your knees, and you blink, then drop your eyes to scan at droid-height.

It's one of the youngest colonists -- a girl, not a day over five. She peeks at you from behind her father's robes, then vanishes, pulling it in front of her like she thinks that if she can't see you, it means you can't see her.

You stop. You kneel down.

Above your head, her father's presence in the Force turns instantly to teeth and claws, quivering, coiled and ready to leap at you. He doesn't know what you are, but that doesn't matter.

"You're hurt," you say, and she sneaks another look at you.

She is: a cut gashes her forehead open, and she's rubbed at it, smearing it across her eyes.

"Are you scared?" you ask her, and she nods mutely, gaze darting all across your helmet, like she isn't sure where your eyes should be but is making her best guess.

You're listening for it, so when the thought occurs to her, you're already nodding.

"Go ahead," you tell her.

Letting go of her father's robe, she hesitates for a split second, and then she breaks away from the cluster, coming up to you. Like him, she has no context for what you are -- the Stormtroopers, however, make her want to hold very still.

She reaches up, and you bend your head so that she can touch your mask.

Beyond her, her father practically vibrates with terror. The closest Resistance fighters consider the possibility of bludgeoning you while your neck is bared. They shift their weight and try to gauge the likelihood that they'd succeed before they were riddled with energy burns. The fantasy of your death weighs the back of your head down.

The child's fingers trace the lines of your visor, and your fingertips tingle with the cold she feels.

You're there at the edge of her thoughts, so you feel it, the moment her curiosity starts sinking back into fear. She draws away, and you --

-- you hear Queenie's voice in your memory, loudly complaining, "Ben, you're not even listening," and it's so unexpected that it sucker-punches the breath out of you and --

-- you do something you've never done before.

Not on any First Order world, and never in front of your people.

You pull your helmet off.

Her face brightens, shoulders lifting when she realizes that you aren't a droid, or some fearsome nightmare-faced monster, but someone who looks -- a little like her, even, if she just had one pair of eyes instead of two, but she thinks that might be okay. She has friends who are human, and they're not, like, terrible or anything, so you're probably not, either.

A ripple of shock goes through your soldiers like you'd flung a rock at them.

Even the ones who've been with you for several years, like Phasma, have never once seen your face. You were, after all, alone with Rey when you took your helmet off for her interrogation, and none of the Stormtroopers who were there when you confronted your father survived.

Your soldiers have never seen an inch of your skin.

To your left, EO-0206 is, you note with amusement, utterly horrified to see that your hair is past regulation length.

"Look," you tell the girl. "We match."

Her fingers go to the scar carved out of the front of your face. Her mouth forms over a wordless exclamation, and she doesn't quite smile, but her fear loses its edge.

She pipes up, "How come it's healed all wrong?"

"Because it did," you answer. "But that's not going to happen to yours, okay? We'll fix it up."

Beyond you, one of the Resistance pilots thinks at you, as loudly as zhe's put hir mouth against your ear, Why is he bothering with this display when none of us are going to make it out of here alive?

"That's not true," you say, rising out of your droid-height crouch.

You circle the group until you find the pilot -- a Pau'un -- and draw up in front of zim. You are not short, but zhe still eclipses you in height, and you find yourself wondering if they make specially modified X-Wings for non-human lifeforms, and then feel stupid: of course they do. The Resistance isn't like you. You're the ones who modify the people to fit the machine.

"Let me tell you what's going to happen," you say.

Your voice sounds strange to you without the modulator.

"Give it a little bit of time for your undercover people here, and for my undercover people in the Resistance to get word to the General. If I know her," you pause, maintaining eye contact with the pilot, and yes, zhe knows who you are. "Then she'll send a rescue for you. She'll send exactly one person. We'll negotiate. We'll probably fight. Some of these buildings might get destroyed, but in the end, there will be a trade."

You don't even have to raise your voice. You have everyone's attention.

"You will be returned to the Resistance --"

What, Phasma thinks flatly from behind you.

"-- and my colonists will have a choice. They are free to go with you, whoever wishes to go --"

WHAT, Phasma thinks louder.

You're glad General Hux elected to stay onboard the Finalizer for this. You've never wanted to see a man spontaneously birth nerfs.

"-- and they can take their chances that the parts of the galaxy they left no longer suffer any of the same problems that made them leave in the first place. Or, they can stay in their homes. Their choice. This will happen if you," you indicate the pilot, and everybody else in Resistance colors. "Do not fight my people. They will not fight yours."

You lift your chin. "Fair?" you ask.

The Pau'un tilts hir head back to you, acknowledging.

Patience is not your strong suit, but your Stormtroopers see to the villagers' needs in the meantime -- and why wouldn't they? These are their people.

The little girl's cut is bandaged up. Everybody's fed, and then you sit down with the girl's father. Phasma stands at your back, two Resistance officers hovering close by.

The noise in your head is growing steadily sharper, and sharper, until every light in your eyes, every sound in your ears burns like a dry socket. You cannot make this many minds shut up to give you a moment's peace, so you set your jaw and you make yourself focus through the pain, through the fishy smell that's making you nauseous.

One hundred twenty-five colonists at this settlement is not enough. You could tell as soon as you landed.

Their appeals for aid from the settlement offices on THAIN001 would have been rejected by the algorithm in your system. The stress that's been on these people isn't their fault. You should have been more vigilant.

You nod when the father explains this. You promise support.

THAIN is, after all, yours. The Supreme Leader trusted its colonization, its labor and production, its continued wellbeing, to you. You should have been here, not chasing --

It doesn't matter.

It'll be fixed now. You swear it.

 

***

 

By the time Rey arrives, your colonists have started up a festive kind of chatter; they've never had so much unscheduled time to themselves.

("What do you mean you don't have Ace's Adventures out there?" somebody exclaims, and a Resistance fighter blinks bemusedly, replying, "We … we don't get your channels."

"How do you live."

"Quite well, thank you. What is Ace's Adventures?"

"Oh, my -- okay, okay. Sit down. Just. I -- Ma'ara, do you have your holopad on you -- yes, thank you, we need to explain this from the beginning.")

You stand as soon as you register the silhouette of the Millennium Falcon approaching, and you watch your childhood home low sail over the treetops, landing a short distance away on a ridge that overlooks the lake. The descent sends ripples scurrying across the surface. The sunlight winks and flashes off the water.

"Sir --" starts Phasma, but you gesture. Stay.

You meet Rey at the top of the path just outside the main gates.

The hems of her brown robes scuff the dirt ahead of her boots, just that hair's length too long (you hated that,) and her lightsaber is just barely visible under her arm, clipped to her belt.

At the sight of you, she does a double-take -- belatedly, you realize that she hasn't seen your bare face since Starkiller Base. The white star-trail carved out of it is new to her. She had assumed that, like her Stormtrooper, bacta would have taken care of that, that such a large chunk of you would not still be missing.

The both of you come to a halt.

You put your hands behind your back. You wait for her to speak first.

"It's a pretty place," she comments, gesturing to the village and the surrounding environment with a jerk of her chin.

"What were you expecting?"

"From the First Order? Something different. A lot more darkness -- a perpetual night, maybe -- and nothing green. Chrome. Industrial. Big bad stuff," she answers, without embarrassment.

She tracks her gaze over the lakes, then the settlement: the rounded, economical homes and the radio tower; the signs for the health clinic and the jail standing above the rooftops, bright and obvious; First Order flags waving at the end of every street, fliers pinned to the cantina door playing their advertisements on loop. Insect netting stretches over the public spaces. In the square, several of the children have blown their ration wrappers up into balloons, and everyone -- even the adults -- are playing the game where none of the balloons are allowed to touch the dirt. You can't so much hear the laughter as feel it; fizzing, bubbling in the Force.

"Would you like the tour?" you offer.

She makes a rude noise and says, "No," but when she shoulders her cloak and heads down the hill, you follow.

You glance back at the Millennium Falcon, just the once. You can feel the shape Chewie makes in the co-pilot's seat, the flare of him so strong in the Force it makes the skin on your face hurt, like you're standing too close to one of those UV lights they've got on your ship for soldiers combating sunlight deficiency. Rey had told him to stay, same as you had done to Phasma.

As for other reinforcements, you're sure they're out there -- although how many, and how powerful …

You don't know if your mother the General is willing to risk the potential retaliation, so deep in enemy territory, not now that she lacks the back-up of the New Republic fleet.

But frankly, when it comes to Rey, when it comes to you, you aren't sure what your mother wouldn't do.

"I'm not letting you kill these people," Rey says, and the shape of her voice isn't her. It's the Stormtrooper and it's her pilot, the ones from Jakku. They made her promise it wouldn't happen again. If you close your eyes, you could probably sense their Force-presences beside her, that's how close she keeps them. "Not for the crime of wanting a better life."

"Why would I?" you return. "I'm not interested in wasting my own people."

"But other people are fair game?" she fires back, incensed.

That's … not an invalid point.

You turn to her. "All of these people will go home," you promise. "If you surrender to the First Order."

Take a trap and turn it into a trap.

Your father taught you something, at least.

Her look could slice you to ribbons. "You're using your people as hostages to get to me?"

No. They're THAIN. If Rey calls your bluff, you'll lose. But you're banking on her not wanting to risk those lives -- in her experience, you will always do the cowardly thing.

"Or," you say, with a gesture. "I could try to take you in by force. We'd fight. You want to fight me," you amend, because even if you were deaf and blind to the Force, you would have felt that thought: the satisfaction of running you through is a fantasy she puts her hands against when she's cold. "But there'd be casualties."

Turning abruptly, she takes the Force and collars you with it, taking you by surprise.

"Oh, now, now you care about casualties?" she hisses, incredulous.

When she leans in, her Force-grip on you drags you with its weight, and she tightens it with every word.

"Where was your caring about casualties when it was my outpost being blown up? Do you know how many casualties there were at Maz's place?" She gets into your space, neck craning to meet your height. Her teeth make violent shapes. "How about the Hosnian system? On Hosnian Prime alone, when the capital was destroyed? Do you know how many people died there who had nothing to do with the New Republic or the First Order? Do you?"

You do not.

I didn't order that, that wasn't my command, you want to tell her, but as an excuse, it's so thin you imagine she could shred it with one snap of her teeth.

You didn't stop Hux from thirsting for it, you didn't argue the whole time Starkiller was being constructed. You made no effort to curb the excess use of force when you were pursuing Skywalker. You didn't stop your Supreme Leader from commanding the destruction of the capital and its satellite planets. You said nothing when he ordered Starkiller recharged so that it could fire upon the Resistance homeworld, even knowing it would mean the death of your mother.

You put your head down and pretended it didn't have anything to do with you.

The least you could do now, you suppose, is learn what it cost.

You do not touch the blackened starmark on your side. You do not touch the grip around your neck.

"Rey," you say, quietly, hoarsely, with as much composure as you can. You've never been on this side of it before. "You're choking me."

It's an honest surprise to you, the way she immediately lifts off your throat: Trel Ren wouldn't have relented. None of your apprentices would have. She stares at you, nostrils flared wide. She hadn't even realized she was doing it.

After a long silence, you manage, "Neither of us have any interest in more. Rey."

Her hand comes up, cutting between you in a sharp movement, and she whirls away.

You get the message. Names you are not allowed to say in her presence: your mother's, Finn's, and hers.

In the square, your colonists are still playing their game with the balloons, laughing when one hapless porcine-faced Ugnaught is besieged with three at once, one of which comes precariously close to touching the ground before he gets his foot out and punts it over his neighbors' heads, but at Rey's approach, a silence falls. Curious, expectant faces start to turn in her direction; many of those sitting get up on their knees to see over each other's heads. All the Resistance fighters are standing very straight.

Somebody, toward the back, whispers the word "Jedi," and you feel the ripple it makes as it spreads, first touching the people who know what it means, and taking root in the people who don't.

Your hands start to clench at your sides, and then a small face materializes at the edge of the circle.

She spots you, and when you crouch down, she takes it as an invitation to approach -- you're less frightening, you've found, when you're down on their level. There's something to be said for how Snoke thinks he has to project himself in mammoth proportions; "bigger is more intimidating" is, honestly, at the heart of a lot of First Order rhetoric.

"Is it better?" you ask, and her fingers dart to her forehead, like she'd forgotten.

"I can't feel it at all," she says, picking at the edge of the bacta-tape that covers her cut. "It's so weird."

She peeks up at Rey shyly, her pairs of eyes blinking together, and edges closer to you. "Hi," she says.

Rey crouches, too. "Hi."

"This is --"

"I'm Rey."

"-- and she's our guest."

Rey cuts you a filthy look, and you grimace, acknowledging; the last time you'd said those words, she'd been in manacles.

"You're with the Resistance," the little girl notes.

"I am."

Her nose scrunches up. "Why?"

Rey's mouth twitches, and you watch her consider and discard several answers, trying to find the most honest one, the one she would have wanted to hear at that age, and she decides on, "Because it's the right place to be."

"Okay," says the girl, with a politely dubious hunch to her eyebrows. "Home is the right place to be, though, isn't it?"

You blink, fast.

"Not … for everybody," Rey says, carefully. "But my home is with the Resistance."

"Oh! That makes sense, then." Her father makes a nervous gesture to catch her attention, and she straightens up, saying quickly, "Thank you miss! Please choose well!"

She darts back to the circle, ducking under EO-0206's blaster.

Rey stands, and looks out over the villagers. They look back at her, with quiet mouths and very loud hearts. They don't make a sound, but you can hear them; be like Ace, a young humanoid is thinking to himself. Be like Ace from the holos. Ace would stand and accept what comes, and so will you.

Her head turns, eyes dropping to you, and you watch her shoulders pull back, her jaw setting in place. You feel it in the Force -- the decision rises in her and puts its hands around her throat.

 

***

 

You stay with Phasma to oversee cleanup -- and, unlike your usual definition of cleanup, this is actually cleaning up; roll is called among the settlers, the square swept clean, the Resistance fighters politely but firmly escorted back to their ships. Your people will flank them to the edge of First Order space -- they'll be anticipating the shot in the back the entire time, but there isn't much you can do about that.

"Set the example," you tell Phasma, whose blaster has been slung around her back to free her hands. You're not sure when she lost her cape. You think for a moment. "You grew up with stories of the Empire, didn't you?"

"Sir," she acknowledges.

"Whatever you think the Empire would do, do better."

She says, "yes, sir," again, but her mind is a satisfied flare of, better? Gladly.

General Hux will not be pleased that such a soft option was chosen, but it is your opinion -- as master of the Knights of Ren, its lead interrogator, and as THAIN's overseer -- that the First Order is better served by proving everyone wrong this time than by proving them right.

When you get to the top of the hill, you find Rey standing on an outcropping that overlooks the settlement, the wide lakes and the hills just barely visible through the haze kicked up by the wind. It must be a popular spot; several small piles of multicolored stones lay heaped up around her, plainly left by villagers whenever they visit. The clearing where your long-legged ship perches is just beyond her -- her guard patiently arrayed several steps back, six white-clad Stormtroopers reluctant to lay their hands on her to hurry her along.

"What's it called?" she asks you, turning her head as your boots crunch on rock.

"District 5-PLN1403," you answer honestly, and just as her lips peel up off her teeth, disgusted, you add, "But the locals all call it Coverleaf."

"Coverleaf," she echoes, and you step up beside her, pointing. The afternoon haze makes it difficult to see, but on the other side of the lake, close to where she'd parked the Millennium Falcon (now missing,) the trees are all crooked, bent double by the wind, so their boughs dip low, low, low. Their leaves are broad, and they wave when the branches toss. All plantlife on THAIN005 is tinged a greeny-violet, the chlorophyll more purple here than it is on most planets.

Her mouth twitches, and you're blindsided, just like that.

It's a realization that almost flattens you with its absurdity. Kylo Ren, you are weak for her approval.

You want her to like the settlement. You want her to like the people.

You want her to like that there are rations enough for everybody, here.

You want her to understand that before you were pulled from THAIN to hunt Skywalker, an oversight like the abysmal working conditions of this settlement would not have happened, not on your watch.

You want her, frankly, to like a First Order world in spite of herself.

It's like you're twelve years old again; the things you were willing to do, carefully watching Snoke for the slightest hint of approval. The feeling's the same, here.

You squash it flat. You straighten your shoulders and put your hands behind your back. You're proud of your colonies, that's all.

Down below, an anthem blares out, momentarily cutting through the sound of droning insects by the lakes. All the villagers stop what they're doing to turn to the First Order flag -- you sense some clumsy confusion, people uncertain of themselves, since most of them are not where they usually are this time of day. All of them are aware of their Stormtrooper audience: the kids take the performance seriously, stretching their arms out and chanting their full-throated pledges to the First Order, but there's a nervous buzz to the adults.

You and Rey are too far away to hear the announcements afterward, but you can guess what they are.

You turn your head towards her, watching it set in her jaw. The lives here may be much different than the stories she's heard from her Stormtrooper, but it's all still the First Order.

Dhar Ren's right, you think. When it comes to propaganda, somebody always knows what they're looking at.

Her awareness of you shifts; her proximity makes her Force-presence harder to ignore than that of the settlers' below, so you feel her attention blinking off of you like lights flashed from a near distance. She's thinking about the green scenery and the villagers, how they get to enjoy that green at least, and her longing makes a gape-mouthed yawn inside her chest, about the lack of green there will be as a prisoner on your ship, about captivity, and her eyes drop, then come back up, but your hands are on her mind, and the vulnerability of her bare neck, and captivity again, and --

-- you don't understand, not for one moment, and not the next. And then --

Oh.

You step back, so fast you almost lose your footing on one of the pebble-pyramids.

No.

No, not that. You're not thinking about that.

(You were eight years old, the first time somebody looked at you, and in the Force their violence, their thirst, the way they imagined your body cut into parts for them to devour without any consideration for you, it all felt sharp enough to cut yourself on. The looks you garnered from that point on -- some innocent, some not, and one or two turned sharp, consuming with intent, made your stomach hurt like it was being pulled out of you in ribbons through your ribs.

But nobody has looked at you like that since you started wearing the mask. Not once.)

You want to tell her that of all the things she likely has to fear from you, you on her body isn't one of them, but --

Why should she believe you?

You've already, in your impatience to be rid of the Jedi quickly so you could return to your job in THAIN, gone after her mind with the same disregard those lifeforms had considered your body. You've already caused pain, already made her feel unsafe in her own self, so why should it matter to her what you do or do not intend?

You swallow, and take another step back.

She takes one last look at the view, pulling the Force into and through her, then turns to face you.

"Tell me how Stormtroopers are chosen," she says, stepping between the pebble-pyramids.

"There's an algorithm," you answer, as the guards fall in wordlessly behind you. "That the Supreme Leader devised for the MISTA system, before the Empire fell. It calculates an infant's potential, based on the projected environment and genetic predisposition. The best -- or, rather, the most suited -- are requisitioned for the Academies, where they undergo a lifetime of training."

According to the Galactic Concordance, the First Order cannot possess a weapon. But it's easy to forget that people are the worst kind of weapon, if made right.

"Requisitioned. You mean taken."

"Yes, fine, taken," you allow. "But all parent-pairs are informed of this risk before they are ever qualified to breed. The harm done to family units by separation is kept minimal, for the good of the whole."

You pass from the sunshine into the shade, and when you look over your shoulder, Rey's paused on the ramp. Her face does something strange.

"How can you -- that's disgusting," she spits at your feet.

She decides it. She hands it down. She's already made up her mind.

You pause. You grab for your anger, to rein it back, but it's already swollen. It hits your stomach and goes molten.

"No," you bite back, stepping within her lightsaber's reach again.

You tilt your chin, using all your height to hand her condescension right back to her, "No, what's disgusting is the conditions that so many of our colonists left behind before coming here. My Supreme Leader is wiser than you know -- before he ever picked officers, he recruited doctors to the First Order. He recruited scientists. Have you seen the infectious disease rate on our worlds? It's nonexistent. That's one thing nobody has to fear, here. Could the New Republic say the same?"

She steps up to go toe-to-toe with you, the shadow from the bay door throwing her face into darkness.

"Your Supreme Leader -- do you even listen to yourself?" she sneers. "At least on our worlds, parents don't live in fear that their children are going to be taken away to become bucket-headed canon fodder based on the results of some computations."

"No," you reply calmly. "Instead, little girls are abandoned to slave for scavenger scum lords on a sinkhole planet, where they remain lonely and unaccounted for by a system that doesn't care."

Her blow hits you straight across the face, and she doesn't lift a hand to deliver it.

Slowly, you straighten your neck, and lick the blood from your teeth with your tongue. She stares at you, the Force coiled so tightly around her it has you thinking about detonation.

Blasters cock loudly into position all around you. Sightlines of muzzles crosshair Rey's chest.

You wave your soldiers down.

You lean in. "No one is unaccounted for, here. Basic income is provided for all, regardless of physical condition or ability. Medicine is provided. Food and lodging are provided. We don't fool ourselves by thinking the First Order could exist without those people out there," you gesture past her shoulder. "Working as hard as they are, for us.

"Perhaps," you tilt your head. "You'd be interested in being a pioneer? If your other options don't pan out. There are places on this planet, in this system, that are yet unexplored. The First Order would be more than happy to provide. You wouldn't go hungry."

When you were eighteen, discovering the THAIN system had been like what visiting new planets on the Millennium Falcon had felt like as a child, except better, because all the questions were new:

What's the gravity like? How does the air taste? What color does the chlorophyll turn the plants?

"Except there's no freedom," she hisses. "You say no one is unaccounted for, I say no one is unsurveillanced. You have to apply and wait for approval to do anything. You just have more droids! Healthy droids, maybe, who are marginally richer than they were, but they're still mindless! The junk at Ankor Platt's has more personality than some of your Stormtroopers!"

Resentment flashes off the ones flanking you, and Rey flinches, like she'd forgotten they were there.

"The personal liberty enjoyed on the scale of the New Republic is undisciplined and inefficient," you say by rote; this has been drilled into you almost since the day you first met Snoke. "Removing it is a social vaccine."

Her head rears back, and all her features flatten out with disbelief.

She looks at you like you're something she's scraped off the sole of her boot.

"Your mother is one of the greatest people I know," she gets out through her teeth. "Where did you even come from? How did you even get here?"

 

***

 

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