The Scavenger's Tale
Part 2 of the Crumbling Galaxy AU
The clinking sound of sand hitting metal roused the scavenger from sleep. Her eyes snapped open and her hands silently took her staff from its nearby mount. She waited with bated breath, her senses instantly alert.
There were no other sounds inside her carcass home. The interior of the derelict war beast was utterly silent save the normal sounds of desert life. There was no movement visible in the shaft of light coming from the dirty cockpit viewport that served as her window; nothing beside the drifting motes of dust and sand, anyway. All was silent this far out from Buzzard Station.
Eventually, she permitted herself to relax. It was probably just the tail end of a sandstorm. She wasn't getting any feelings of danger and her instincts were rarely wrong, but her left hand kept a steady grip on her staff just in case. The sense that someone was spying on her home lingered in the back of her mind.
She looked down and realized her movement had dislodged the data pad from its perch on her chest, so she carefully picked it up and slid it into its concealed hold next to her hammock. The ruined machinery that had formerly operated the war machine's legs had several recessed voids she used for storage. Some of the gears still moved enough to maneuver small bits of machinery to block the stored items from view. It was rather redundant, since she never had or allowed visitors, but it paid to be cautious.
Really, the item should have been put away the prior evening. The screen had been on for several hours and she would have to charge it with her solar battery. She had fallen asleep reading again, the tales of adventure and travels in the stars keeping her up far later than was wise. Had any of those stories really happened? Was the galaxy really that full of wonder? Was there really anything beyond Jakku and her life picking a battlefield clean to survive? She could not know.
The scavenger shook her head. This was no time for such thoughts. That was for the evening, when all of her daily tasks had been performed and a few precious moments could be spared for leisure. For exercising the literacy she couldn't even remember acquiring as a young child. The daylight hours were here, and they were the time for the business of survival. She pulled back her tattered blankets and got to work.
The scavenger swung her legs out and dropped down from her hammock. The suspended bedding had protected her from the venomous arachnids that crawled through the deserts and killed so many others each year. She walked on what had been a wall when the war machine had still lived, stowing her staff securely in the sling on her back, to retrieve her meal.
The sustenance was suspended in a makeshift basket on the other side of the compartment. The intestinal wiring of her home had been burnt out to the point of near-worthlessness, so she had permitted herself the luxury of using it as a makeshift rope. The basket hung a meter and a half in the air for the same reason she slept in that very position. Vermin were a problem even in the mummified corpse that made up her home.
It wasn't difficult to find her morning quarter-portion. There were only a few of the shrunken plastic parcels left in the basket. She placed a 15cm wide bowl of precious water—easily the most valuable of her possessions—over the electric plate and brought it to a boil. She then ripped open the plastic surrounding the quarter-portion and dumped the powder into the water.
The dusty substance immediately congealed into a small, dirty gray loaf of grue. She took it and hungrily ripped off bite-size chunks of the stiff bread, inhaling the food rather than eating it. She had long ago ceased wondering how something could taste plain yet also disgusting at the same time. It had made up all of the meals she could remember in her short life. She tried not to dwell on that as she ate.
A scavenger's meal only took a few minutes from preparation to conclusion. The portions were designed for maximum efficiency, all the better to keep them alive and working, so making and eating was simplicity itself. Heating the water, 'cooking' the grue, consuming the ration, and cleaning the bowl all took less than a quarter hour, and the energy imparted from it would sustain someone for almost an entire day.
This was a routine the scavenger had been through hundreds of times. She allowed her mind to wander as her body performed the beyond familiar tasks for her. X-Wings and Tie Fighters buzzed around in her mind, trading beams of light and transporting her far from the interminable mundanity of her subsistence.
After eating, she cleaned up after herself, wiped down some of the dirtier spots on her body with a hand-held sonic shower she had stolen from another scavenger a year before, and donned the rags and slit-goggles that would protect her from the harsh desert. It was time to venture out.
The veteran scavenger crawled out of the eviscerated belly of the dead war machine. The beast's four metal limbs, each 10 meters long, provided a channel for her to walk down while shielded from the harsh winds. A momentary reprieve to ease the transition from the relative safety of her home into the hostile landscape of Jakku.
It would be inaccurate to say she raised her guard, but only because she never lowered it. Ever.
Her eyes scanned the legs to either side of her, watchful for ambush. She had laid traps, of course, and had even caught trespassers occasionally. The screams of the wounded thieves thrashing in the sharp metal jaws had provided ample warning of the intruders.
Deciding that exiting the normal way would be too risky, she used her staff to boost herself to the top of one of the legs. Nimble as Kathar, she crouched on the rusted limb, scanned the sands below, and, seeing no threats, leaped down outside the channel.
She rolled as she landed and came up with her staff on guard. There was no one there. Finally satisfied that there probably wasn't anyone nearby, she moved away from her home and set off toward the Boneyard.
The scavenger could see the titanic hulks on the horizon through the slit in her goggles. The bright desert suns shone off the glittering sands even through the protection covering her eyes, meaning the derelict starships appeared more like dark spots than anything more solid. Their exterior hulls hadn't lasted more than a few years before the sands reduced them to the worn, non-reflective state they now occupied. The desert wore everything down, eventually.
The hulks seemed to stretch out for eternity. The triangular shapes of Star Destroyers were intermingled with the organic curves of Star Cruisers. She had never seen the Imperial or Rebel ships when they were alive. The dead shells sticking half out of the sands of her planet were the only part of the stories that she could interact with. She kept trudging to her destination.
There was a sandstorm on the way to the Boneyard. It was only a small one, thankfully, but it was enough to delay her for nearly an hour. She had to crouch, covered in her rags, holding on to the staff she had driven into the ground for support. It was times like this she regretted not being able to afford a pack animal; at least they provided some company in times like this.
The Boneyard felt as dead as ever. Not a living thing could be seen. There were other scavengers, of course, but they knew by now to keep their distance. None of them wanted to feel the crushing bite of her staff, at least not again. This suited her just fine.
All of the smaller sources of salvage in the Boneyard had been stripped bare years ago. The shuttles and fighter craft that hadn't been obliterated were now bare skeletons mostly buried beneath the sand. She could vaguely remember piles of bodies, the crews and soldiers from the great battle that had created the Boneyard, lying on top of the sands that now covered them beneath deep dunes. Their mummified remains had been naked; everything down to the uniforms had been taken and sold. She mourned their loss. It was a lot harder to find salvage, now.
The sounds of movement reached the scavenger, who crouched low behind a dune to avoid detection. It took several minutes for a small group of children, lead by an adult female, to move into view. A troop of Duct Rats. Harmless to one such as the scavenger. Still, she kept her guard up, wary of being ambushed. She waited nearly an hour after they had passed before moving out again. One didn't survive long on Jakku without being cautious.
A Star Destroyer was the scavenger's current haunt. It was mostly buried, each year seeing more of it sink beneath the sands, and the only available opening was tens of meters off the ground on the behemoth's upper side. She meticulously made her way up, her grip as steady as any mountain climber. The sled that would bear the salvage on her back along with her staff, weighing her down. At least the metal sled helped keep the heat from overwhelming her by reflecting the twin suns' light. It clinked and jangled as she climbed.
The coil of rope disturbed the motes of dust as it fell through the cavernous room. The specks flowed and glittered through the air in chaotic patterns, as harmless and beautiful as the sandstorm had been deadly and overwhelming. The rope landed on the floor more than ten meters below, just to the side of a massive skeleton. The 'Tie Fighters' in the derelict's hangar bay had been stripped bare already. She wondered how much deeper she would have to go to find salvage as she descended the rope into the dark world below.
Pale green light pushed back the darkness, but only a few paces worth. The scavenger hung the small, transparent cylinder of glowing fluid from a hook near the end of her staff to form a torch. The shadows moved weakly across the walls as she swung the staff with each third step. Clouds of vapor started appearing with each breath as she delved deeper into the heat-shielded carcass of a starship and she added another layer to the rags that served as her clothing to guard against the cold. She moved deeper still, the staff that was her companion and protector and guide leading the way. Shadows continued to dance across the stripped consoles and torn deck as she went deeper in search of her livelihood.
The walls of the duct glittered in the pale green light as the scavenger levered open the access hatch. The reactors that would have powered the opening had long gone dormant, so it was times like this where the cumbersome staff truly proved its worth. She clipped the chem-light to her vest and reached in to pull out several circuits that should prove valuable. They were broken, unsurprisingly, but the raw materials should still have worth to someone. She stuffed them in the pack at her side.
There were more circuits deeper in. She could see them, sitting tantalizingly just out of reach. Tragically, her time as a Duct Rat was long over and she couldn't squeeze inside to fetch them. She cast a mournful look at the potential meal tickets before turning back and resuming her search for more salvage.
The sled made a metallic scratching sound as she dragged it over the stripped metal deck. This haul hadn't been a very good one. She'd found a lot of salvage, of course, but most of it was badly decayed. She'd be lucky to get even a portion for the lot of it. She might have to move on to another carcass soon.
The scavenger passed an opening on her way back to the hangar. It was a gaping maw ringed by jagged metal, a breach torn in the walls by the sheer force of the Star Destroyer's crash. The floor and ceiling were uneven around the breach, which made her grip her staff more tightly. The light of her chem stick glinted off something in the distance. She slowed briefly to consider entering. There might be salvage there...but then, that's what all dead scavengers thought. Those who had been desperate or stupid enough to go too deep into one of the Boneyard's mausoleums. Too deep to climb out again, too deep to reach. Not that anyone would ever come to rescue you; scavengers didn't take care of their own. She scowled and sped back up, eager to leave.
The journey down the side of the Star Destroyer was far easier than the journey up its slanted surface. After making sure her salvage was secure on her back, the scavenger climbed onto the sled, pushed off, and sped down at high speeds. She almost smiled.
She was almost home when she heard the squealing. It was an electronic warbling, the kind that the scavenger named Rey had only heard a few times in her life. She immediately threw off the makeshift harness connecting her to the sled and rushed off with her staff in hand. She was so excited she almost forgot to keep her eyes on her surroundings. Almost.
It was real. Rey was looking at it. A real droid was lying, half-submerged in the cruel desert sands, right at her feet. She fell to her knees and cleared away the sand with all the enthusiasm and care of an archaeologist digging up the find of a lifetime. The sand stung and worked its way beneath her gloves, her excited breathing fogged her slit goggles, her awareness of her surroundings started to fade, but she didn't care at all. It took only a few moments before her task was complete and she could look upon her prize.
It wasn't a droid like in the stories. Its body was spherical (consisting of a large ball with a dome-shaped head balanced atop it and held in place by some unseen force) rather than cylindrical like R2-D2's. But it was real. A real droid. A new one, judging by how its orange and white paint hadn't been worn away by the desert. And was that...
She edged closer, practically pressing her face up against the droid's surface. There was a symbol etched into a portion of its dome-shaped head. She didn't recognize it, but it bore a striking resemblance to the symbol of the Rebellion. Of the heroes...
Rey picked the droid up and clutched it to her chest. She felt a wave of vindication. Here, at last, was proof that the legends were true, that her doubts about her parents were baseless. It only took a moment for it to register that the droid might now be broken. When it did, she leaped to her feet and ran back to her sled, threw all of the meaningless junk off, placed the droid on with utmost gentleness, and took off back home.
Once safely inside, Rey twisted a particular portion of her staff, causing the multi-tool to come apart and deposit a packet of finer tools into her lap. She rejoined the pieces of the staff, unwilling to be parted with her defender for more than a few moments even in the relative safety of her home, and got to work.
The Mechanist's lessons had been well-learned. Rey knew that the scavenger engineer hadn't cared about the skills of the Duct Rats he taught. He had trained the children in the arts of the machine so they would know what was valuable and what wasn't. The crew bosses couldn't fit in the tight passages to supervise them, so a degree of intellectual autonomy was necessary. It was an entirely selfish practice on the Bosses' part. Still, the knowledge he had imparted, and what Rey had learned from countless stolen hours reading her precious data pad, served her well in the repairs. They turned out to mostly consist of cleaning sand out of sensitive components.
The droid woke up only a few hours after they had arrived home.
Rey couldn't remember a time before Jakku. She was too young when she had been left on the desolate, desert planet. Her earliest life was and had always been a mystery. She could feel it, though. She had always been able to feel it.
She could also feel them. Her...parents. Feel them, but not remember them.
Emotions were what she remembered most vividly from these early days. Discomfort at the bright, hot binary suns. Confusion over why she was in this miserable place. Pain and anger over being left with a stranger. Fear because she didn't know how long this ordeal would last. And loneliness. Such terrible loneliness...
Rey's earliest solid memories were of an elderly, impoverished Ithorian. The bizarre alien, who looked like flat worm that had been given arms and legs, had taken charge of her upbringing when her parents had left. He had been a terraformer—one of those tasked with restoring Jakku itself to a livable state after the great battle that had created the Boneyard.
He had failed. Rey could remember the frustration, the anger (never directed at her) that the Ithorian had felt. It had been years later that she learned, from eavesdropping on the conversations of visiting smugglers and their guards, that funding had dried up before the job was done. Jakku had been meant to be a verdant world full of green plants and rich with game. Instead, it was what it was: a half-dead desert planet being picked clean.
The sands had swallowed her caretaker before she was five years old. She didn't know if he had been murdered, fell ill and perished in a hospital, or fallen prey to any of the countless perils native to Jakku. All Rey knew was that strong men had shown up one day and shoved her aside to loot her meager home, telling her that her guardian was dead. His body was never found. They rarely were, on Jakku.
The pair had been living on their own then, well into poverty and lacking even basic amenities. Only a flag bore the emblem of the Rebellion to mark her guardian's theoretical employers. It was here she had first learned of the Rebellion and the Empire. About the galaxy's heroes and villains. Although her caretaker never said so, Rey was certain her parents had been Rebels. She could feel it with the same certainty she felt whenever she thought about their return. Still, the child and caretaker never talked about it. They rarely talked about anything. She was too young, and he too brilliant, to have any real common ground.
The only things of value they possessed were the Ithorian's instruments and data pads. Even to the end, he had not give up on his quest. His tools and knowledge were now lost, pawned to the highest bidder, and his life's work may as well have been swallowed by the sands along with him.
He had died far too early. Before he could tell her anything about her parents. How long they would be away, how long she would have to wait. There was never any doubt that they were coming. Such a thought would be like questioning whether the twin suns would rise in the morning. But she would have liked to know just how long it would take. It was hard to not know. Hard, and lonely.
"What do you mean, 'I have to leave'?" Rey demanded. The droid, 'BB-8' according to the information stenciled into its inner components, was struggling to roll off the flat hunk of metal that served as her table. Thankfully, the veteran scavenger had thought to place a restraining bolt on it, so the machine wouldn't be rolling away any time soon. A thought occurred to her that made her heart beat rapidly. "Are you on a mission? Are you working for the Rebellion?"
BB-8 hesitated, its frustrated attempts to start its body spinning ceasing momentarily. Slowly, almost hesitantly, it reached out a manipulator arm and wiped away the message it had written out in front of it. Rey had brought in a small tray of sand when she realized it couldn't speak Standard and it used the tool to reply to her questions. The risk of sand getting inside, something she had to constantly fight against, made the the act irritating on its own. The task also took an unbearably long time to complete and the scavenger lamented once again that she couldn't understand the complicated language of beeps and whistles that the mechanical being spoke in.
"You can't tell me?" Rey demanded upon reading the message, unhappy that her questions weren't being answered. Her ire fell when another thought occurred to her. "Is it a secret mission?" she asked, her excitement increasing again.
The droid hesitated. It pointed to the message it had already written out.
Rey blushed, recognizing her mistake. "Of course. You can't talk about it." She hesitated herself. "Do you...can you tell me anything? About the Rebellion? And the fight against the Empire?" She started speaking faster, her words catching up to her heart-rate. "Is it anything like the old stories? When heroes like Luke Skywalker and Han Solo saved the galaxy from the Emperor and Darth Vader?"
The droid was silent and still. Rey was starting to get angry. Maybe it was time apply her staff. Droids probably couldn't feel pain, but a few dents would be unpleasant for it and wouldn't do too much to lower its selling price. She was just starting to reach for her weapon when her 'guest' started writing once again.
He did have a mission. One that was vital to the fate of the galaxy. Rey felt like jumping up and down in glee. It was real! It was really Real!
Unfortunately, BB-8 kept writing, and what it had to say was not as pleasant to hear. "You can't tell me any more with the restraining bolt on?" she demanded, almost bursting out in laughter. There was no way in the hells she was letting that thing out of its electronic shackles. Giving up that kind of advantage was how a scavenger got killed.
She hadn't planned on ever removing the bolt. The palm-sized disc was fragile, having been scavenged itself from a hulk, and she knew that removing it without the proper tools, which she lacked, would likely break it.
Even if the droid didn't attack her, it might try to escape, at which point she would be unable to sell him. This was an unacceptable risk.
Then again, this would be far from the first time she'd done something as risky as this...
It had been inevitable that Rey would join a gang of scavengers. She was too willful and proud to beg, and no amount of desperation would push her to the more...degrading professions open to young girls. Scavenging on her own wasn't an option; there were too many predators, both sapient and non-sapient, eager to devour something as small and helpless as a six year old girl. Strays never lasted long on Jakku. Only in a pack did she stand a chance at survival.
"No dice," the Over Boss, master of scavengers in Buzzard Station, said. The obese, lumbering alien was seated behind a wire-mesh cage with an opening half-way from the ground through which salvage could be exchanged for portions. Rey recognized the tattered flag tied to the mesh above his seat from her time with the Ithorian. It bore the eight-sided symbol of the Empire which, she would later learn, had recently taken possession of Jakku through political maneuvering. All she knew at the time was it made her dislike the Over Boss right away.
Rey had watched the transactions between the scavengers and their master with the rapt attention of a starving child for the entire previous day. She had hoped that her hollow cheeks, dirty face, and reddened eyes would move someone to pity her. Anything, even scraps, would have been enough after so many days of nothing. A bit of water to wet her painfully dry throat would have been even better. Finding that no one would help her, she had decided to offer her services first thing in the morning. Any misgivings about the Over Boss' political loyalties would have to be ignored. Her heart was dropping into her stomach as she realized that even this concession might not be enough.
The Boss looked past her (or rather, over her) to the train of other children waiting to bring in their salvage. "You're too scrawny, girl. Too weak. I can tell right now you won't last a day on the job. Make way for real survivors." Rey was about to protest when he shouted "NEXT!" and an even larger alien grabbed her arm, dragged her to the edge of the compound a few meters away, and carelessly tossed her out and to the ground.
Tears formed in her eyes as she watched a man of middling age lead his troop of children to the Boss. Each child came forward and offered what salvage they had found in the last journey to the Boneyard. The bits of metal clinked as they fell into the wire mesh basket. With each load the Over Boss made a mark in his data pad and placed a small plastic container on the table in front of his cage.
Food. Rey's stomach grumbled painfully at the sight of the dirty gray powder enclosed in shrunken plastic.
Eventually, a girl about her age came forward and dumped a particularly small pile of rusted junk into the waiting basket. The Boss growled loud enough to hear even from so far away. He grunted at the large alien that had thrown Rey out, who smacked the little girl so hard she fell to the ground. He then began raining down blows upon her as punishment for her failure to deliver.
That...was too much. A fire kindled in Rey's chest. She had to do something. A quick glance confirmed that another guard, this one a human, was standing watch at the entrance to the ring of crates and junk that made up the outer section of the scavenger compound. However, he was turned inward, apparently entranced by the spectacle. This made Rey even angrier.
She looked around her for something, anything, that could give her an advantage. Bits of trash littered the ground, but these were mostly food wrappings or other frail objects common to places where no one cared about cleanliness. There didn't appear to be anything that she could use as a weapon. Eventually, she turned back to the horrible show and spied a length of metal pipe, as long as she was tall, lying to the side of the compound entrance, apparently having been dropped by someone. That would do.
A plan formed almost instantly in her mind. She rushed forward and, before the guard even had time to turn around, had snatched the pipe and swung it into the back of his knees.
The guard howled in pain and fell to the dirt, clutching piteously at his injured legs. Rey kept running, the impact only making her stumble a little, and rushed inside. This had the dual effect of clearing the way and drawing the attention of everyone there. The alien savage looked up from his task of beating a defenseless child and grinned at what he saw. A maw full of triangular, razor sharp teeth greeted her as she rushed forward. He drew a knife as long as her arm and waited.
When Rey was a half-meter away, she swung the pipe into the ground and sent a shower of dirt and sand into the alien's face. His free hand shot to his blinded trio of eyes, all thought of his attacker momentarily forgotten. She tackled him before he could recover (the pipe had been wrenched out of her grip by the impact with the ground), careful to grab his arm and twist so that he landed on it.
The brute howled louder than even the other guard had. Only for a moment, though, as Rey proceeded to land blow after blow upon him. Just enough awareness forced its way through the haze of rage that she was careful to avoid striking the monster's face. Those teeth would slice up her hands something awful.
Strong arms suddenly grabbed her from behind, locking her smaller arms to her sides. She kicked and struck the man's thigh. He grunted in pain, but just held her a bit further away from himself. She screamed what obscenities she knew, ignoring the searing pain from her dry throat, and waited for the end.
A roaring laugh silenced the compound. Rey blinked her eyes, which were too dry to produce tears, and stared, stunned, at the scavenger boss.
"Looks like I was wrong," he chortled. His rolls of fat jiggled as his laughs diminished into chuckles. "You're a survivor after all."
The alien she had attacked rose painfully from the ground and shot an outraged look at his master. "Boss, we gotta bury this runt!" he grunted, his hands clutching his sides. The other injured guard agreed vigorously from his place lying on the ground; his legs wouldn't be supporting his wait for a while. Rey felt a burst of pride at the impact she'd had on the scum. "Look what she did!"
All trace of mirth vanished from the Boss' face. He stared hard at the other alien. "You let a little girl beat you senseless?" he demanded. The normally gray alien turned an unhealthy shade of tan in response. The Boss glared at the rest of his underlings. "And you lot let her pass?"
All of the scavenger muscle started looking uncomfortable and glancing submissively at the ground.
"Rygel! Set her down!" the Boss yelled. The man holding Rey slowly lowered her to the dirt. She didn't bother thanking him, knowing that he was only being gentle to avoid drawing the ire of his master, who continued to address him. "Get her set up on one of your crews. Team E lost one lately, aye? Put her there."
The man nodded. Only now did she realize that he had been the one leading around the child scavengers.
"Girl!" the Over Boss shouted. He was grinning slightly, pleased at the acquisition of a new scavenger for his crews.
She bravely met his eyes and said, "My name is Rey."
The Boss' eyes turned cold once again. "Not anymore, it's not. You're E-4 now. A Duct Rat." He pointed a thick finger at her warningly. "Don't disappoint me, E-4. Or I'll throw you to the Sarlacc." That business done, he turned back to his data pad as if the world around him had ceased to hold any relevance to him.
"This way, E-4," the crew boss said after gathering up the small pile of portions his batch of children—Duct Rats—had earned. "Let's get some food in ya before ya keel over. Can't have the latest investment die on day one, aye?" Rey turned and followed him, too eager for a meal to protest any degradation. He continued speaking as they left the compound, not deigning to look at her as she followed behind at the front of the line of other Duct Rats. "There's a lot of other scavengers, even other kiddies, that'll try to take a score from ya." He glanced back at her speculatively. "You seem pretty good with a staff. A bit of training and you'll be a right force. Think I've got a spanner that's about the right size..."
An hour later Rey sat alone, devouring her small loaf of grue. The rest of the children sat together a small distance away and glowered at her. None of them were happy that this stranger had been given a portion of their meal by the crew boss. She didn't care. For all she was concerned, the entire world consisted of nothing more than her fluid-rich food and the hands she was using to tear off bits of it and stick them in her mouth.
The sound of footsteps drew near. Rey clutched the spanner she'd been given tight and looked up. A girl stood a few meters away. Her hair was red, and her face was nearly the same shade aside from the purple and black bruises. That was the girl Rey had saved earlier.
"I'm E-1," the girl said. "I lead Team E. You're E-4. You take orders from me, or you hear from the Boss. We're leaving in the morning." She turned and started walking away.
The words had burst forth unbidden. She didn't know why she was speaking. All she knew was that she needed the girl to stay and talk to her. So, she lowered her staff to the ground and explained. "My-my name's Rey," she said.
The girl stared at her for a long while. "You think you're tough, Rey?" she demanded.
Rey just blinked.
The girl lifted her chin and stared at her, hard. "I could have handled that chavit. I'm a scavenger—a Team Leader. One day, I'll be the Boss' right hand muscle. I don't need people sticking up for me. And I sure don't need people on my Team making trouble with the Boss."
Rey stared. She was too puzzled to feel outraged at the ingratitude. Also, even though she'd never admit it, she was too lonely to snap at someone her own age who was talking to her.
Eventually, the 'Team Leader' seemed to take the silence as an act of submission. She nodded and gestured to herself. "Cas," she said. She waved over the rest of the other children. They hesitantly obeyed. "Luco," she said, pointing at the boy, "Brea," she pointed at a girl with dirty blonde hair weaved into a pony tail, "Frigga," she pointed to the last girl with dark brown hair tied into a bun. Each made a half-hearted gesture of greeting as they were introduced.
"We're leaving in the morning," Cas repeated. "Be ready, 'Rey'."
The staff was the closest thing Rey had to a family. Only her precious data pad and the stories it contained were closer to her than her constant, durasteel companion. She had modified and expanded it over the years, attaching more components as she outgrew it so that it was always longer than she was tall. Twisting certain sections would detach a portion of it, revealing tools crucial to her survival as a scavenger. It contained wrenches, cutting implements, drill bits, and a compartment to hide any particularly small and valuable salvage she found. It was her helper, her protector, her good luck charm.
Today, it was her totem. She held it in a firm grip, rubbing it up and down with a thumb, as she tried to think what to do.
She wanted to know what the droid knew. The droid couldn't tell her unless she took the bolt off. She wanted to sell the droid after she learned what it knew. The droid might escape if she took the bolt off.
What to do, what to do...
In the end, there was really no choice. The droid was the only link to the world of adventure, of good triumphing over evil, that she had ever seen with her own eyes. The only proof that there was a life beyond Jakku. That there were people there...
Rey sprang up and twisted her staff. The collection of precision tools fell out again. The restraining bolt was off in seconds and immediately fell apart into smoking pieces in her hands. She consoled herself that the alteration she'd made to its innards would help prove her ownership of it, at least. The droid hooted appreciatively and rolled back and forth on the table. It looked like it was about to roll around the cabin in triumph.
"Hey!" she said, making the machine pause. "I did what you wanted. Now pay up."
It hesitated for a moment. Then, BB-8 activated one of the lenses on its head and a hologram appeared in front of it. Rey watched as a man in a black cloak questioned and killed a helpless old man and then, as if to prove how wretched he was, ordered the murder of a village of innocent people. Judging by the shacks and clothing of the villagers it was probably on a planet a lot like hers. Maybe even—dare she hope?—on Jakku itself.
She watched in a trance, utterly absorbed by the spectacle before her. She had never even seen a hologram up close before. Much less one with a tale as enthralling as this.
It was a story. A real story. A story that had really happened. A story that hadn't come to her through her data pad, but from a living (sort of) messenger. She told the droid to play it again. Then, again. She devoured every detail as thoroughly as if it were her first loaf of grue after a long fast.
The snapping sound of a trap going off jerked Rey back to reality. She bit back a curse and moved, swiftly but silently, to the side of the entrance. Someone must have seen her bring her precious cargo back home, although how they could have evaded her notice she wasn't sure.
It was hard to make anything out. There had been no shout of pain, so the intruder must have avoided being snared. She shushed the droid, who had begun beeping inquisitively the moment she had leaped away from him. There was less light than there had been, as it was now dusk, so there were no shadows stretching into her home.
There was never any doubt that there was an intruder. False alarms weren't unheard of, of course. No trap or alarm system was perfect, much less one cobbled together from scraps. But Rey knew better. She could always tell when someone was sneaking up on her.
She could feel it.
She waited long enough to be sure that the intruder was waiting for her to leave and investigate. Rey, however, was no fool. She wouldn't abandon her ambush spot just to be ambushed herself. This might be a scout, though, and if she waited they might surround her and cut off any hope of escape.
Thankfully, she had planned for this. She silently laid down a trap just inside the entrance and then moved toward the rear of the hollow chest cavity that made up her home, carefully stepping over or around the machinery that had been too big to move and sell. There was an opening there which had served as the top hatch when the war machine still lived. The sands had covered the mechanical beast on that side, but she had carefully dug a small tunnel out.
The veteran scavenger was prepared. She broke her staff into pieces and tied them to her back with a length of wire, knowing it would be impossible to crawl out with it in hand. She pulled away the rags that covered the opening and made her way inside, careful not to use the support struts she had installed as hand holds. The last thing she wanted was for the tunnel to collapse on top of her.
In no time, she reached the tunnel's end. She carefully pulled up the edge of the cloth concealing the opening. Sand poured in as she disturbed the concealment; she would have to scoop that out later. A few moments of listening and allowing her eyes to adjust to the light passed before she silently squeezed out of her secret exit. She crouched and moved forward onto one of the war machine's legs, carefully picking her steps to avoid stepping on the traps she had set.
The intruder was, predictably, trying to ambush her. He was crouching just to the side of the hole in the mechanical corpse's eviscerated belly. He seemed to be alone. Rey was almost insulted. She actually grinned as she carefully lowered herself from her perch and moved up behind him. She held her staff at the ready as the distance shrunk.
One quick movement hooked the weapon beneath the man's legs and swept them from under him, landing him on his back with Rey looming overhead, ready to finish the job. He looked up impassively, his features hidden behind a cloth wrapping and goggles.
"The Over Boss didn't send you," she said. "You wouldn't be alone if he had—he's not this stupid. So," she said, readying the staff to plunge it downward into the man's face.
"Just wanted to ask you a question," the man said. Rey couldn't recognize his voice but that was no surprise. She didn't interact much with the other scavengers, anymore, and his voice was muffled by the wrapping. "My boys and I were coming home and noticed a whole mess of salvage lying out on the dunes. You're the only one who lives out here and we were wondering what happened there."
This was complicated. Her first thought was to just kill the man and be done with it. He had intended to do the same to her, after all. But the Over Boss wouldn't appreciate such a response, especially after he'd extended her a lot of slack by letting her live out here by herself. Everyone understood that membership was for life and killing another scavenger might push things too far.
"You should clean your goggles," she snapped, instead. "That salvage was drek. I only hauled it as far as I did because it was all I could find. I couldn't muster the interest to bring it all the way home, so I dumped it. End of story."
"That so?" the other scavenger asked. There was no disguising the coy disbelief in his voice.
Rey responded by swinging her weapon down onto his left arm hard enough to hear a snap. The scream he let out was most satisfying.
"Yes," she said, simply. That was the end of the conversation.
A short time later, after resetting her alarm and trap system, she reentered her home. A spike of fear ran through her as she realized that the droid wasn't there.
She needn't have worried. The machine in question rolled out from its hiding place just inside the escape tunnel. It let out a series of inquisitive beeps.
"Guy was a nerf herder," she replied, shrugging weakly. She turned away quickly, hoping the droid hadn't seen the expression on her face. She'd give it a few minutes before pressing to hear more about its adventures. She couldn't afford to restrain him yet.
The sound of metal ringing against metal announced the start of the day. Rey didn't jump from her sleep, as she had the first morning of her life as a Duct Rat. Indeed, she had woken the moment the crew boss had entered the scrap metal shed Team E shared as a sleeping den.
"Rise and shine, Rats!" the boss shouted, continuing to bang the length of pipe against the wall. The sheet metal rang along with the pipe's ringing to make an intolerable racket. "Time for another Run. Line up for morning portion and be ready to move out in an hour."
Brea grumbled slightly in her place next to Rey in the Team hammock. The boss' eyes narrowed and he grunted a warning; Brea moved a bit faster to obey. Rey smirked a bit, careful to do so while facing away from their superior, as the four of them climbed down from their sleeping net. It was lucky their boss was as forgiving as he was. There were many others that would have applied a shock stick for that kind of insolence. Instead, he left the shed to attend to other business, confident that his orders were being followed.
The members of Team E made their way out of the hammock and started their daily routine. It wasn't a bathing day, so none of them had to line up for the sonic shower. This simplified things. All Rey had to do was slip the outer robes onto the inner coverings she had slept in. It only took a few moments to fetch the articles in question from the basket hanging from the ceiling, standing on her toes to reach. Next, almost hurriedly, she snatched up her spanner and checked the hidden compartment dug into the floor. It was unopened; her data pad was safe.
The bowls of grue were already laid out for them as they left the scrap shack and winced at the desert heat. They moved forward and each took one, knowing that sating the growling in their bellies would help distract them from the scathing suns and air. They sat and ate on a length of rough cloth laid out on the ground behind the shack. It was the only space that had any shade. At least, the only space that wasn't claimed by one of the other Teams whose shacks were all had a maximum of two meters separating each other.
The members of said Teams weren't in sight, but only because the Runs were carefully scheduled not to depart at the same time. The crew bosses claimed it was to keep the children from fighting each other. Rey suspected the bosses didn't want them making nice and maybe causing problems by demanding unreasonable things like food that didn't taste like wet sand. She wondered what they might accomplish if they banded together, their own little rebellion against an oppressive regime.
"Thinking about your stories again?" Brea's voice whispered, pulling Rey back to the present.
Rey glanced fearfully at the crew boss, who couldn't be allowed to know about her data pad. Such an item would be immediately taken and handed over to the Over Boss for a fat payday. Even Team E's boss wasn't nice enough to pass up that kind of reward just to keep his charges happy. Thankfully, he was standing a few meters away in front of a flickering hologram, looking away from them and no doubt planning the Run. The fuzzy projection showed another crew boss and the pair were arguing loudly over who had the rights to which part of the current derelict.
"You might say that," Rey said, turning to look at her friend. Brea was looking down at her empty bowl, having already shoveled her meager meal into her mouth. They all finished pretty quickly. Yet another indicator of how much better their lives could be. Rey magnanimously decided to give her friend the last bit of grue in her bowl, which Brea accepted with taught lips. "You should really let me read to you some more," Rey said, trying her luck once again. She'd been begging for them to let her read some of the stories to them; it had been such a stroke of luck that the smuggler she'd stolen it from had been a lover of heroic tales and she wanted to share her good luck with them. "There's a lot I could teach you, about the galaxy and everything, and you might enjoy it this time."
Brea snorted. Leo did, too, after a second. It still hurt a bit to see them react that way.
Cas just chuckled indulgently. "You're not gonna get anywhere with'em there, Rey," she said. The unofficial leader of Team E set down her own empty bowl and turned to face her directly. Cas still sported a black eye from a recent sparring match with Leo; she was always working to be a better fighter. Even Rey would hesitate before stepping into a ring with her. "Tell you what: you got anymore stories about that Admiral—Ackbar, right?—and I'll listen to it the night after we get back from the Run. Sound good?"
Rey's heart leaped. She nodded vigorously, happy to finally get another chance to share her favorite activity with one of her friends. They were so stubbornly against learning anything and improving themselves. It was maddening for someone like her.
The crew boss made his way over, the deal with the other boss apparently having been settled. "Clean up already, Rats. We're leaving."
A few hours later, they were deep in the pitch black confines of the derelict starship. The green chem sticks weren't much help anymore. The Duct Rats of Team E were big enough that their bodies blocked most of what little light they gave off. The only things Rey could really see were the feet and backside of her team-mate, Brea, and the sides of the duct immediately between the two of them. It would be easier when they split up and they wouldn't get in each other's way.
The eight year olds (roughly that; none of them could remember their birthdays) crawled in a straight line, one after the other, heading for any unexplored sections of the small maintenance ducts that criss-crossed the entirety of every starship. This would be their last trip in, because they were getting too big. It would be the harder but arguably safer life of searching the larger corridors for salvage from then on. This fact was enough to keep them up for the last few nights. The change would be easier to stomach once they'd gone through the informal, private graduation ceremony/rite of passage.
The green light was starting to give Rey a headache. She hated that it was necessary to have light to spot potential salvage. It would have been much easier to just navigate by touch and sense of direction. She lamented that it had been hours, maybe even a day, since they'd seen daylight. The longer Runs always wore on her, no matter how many of them she went on. She suppressed a shiver and told herself it was due to the cold air that resided this deep in a derelict.
"I hate these Star Destroyers," Brea complained. Her voice was difficult to hear as it was muffled by the densely packed Rats in front and behind her. That, and the fact that she was almost whispering. No Duct Rat had the courage or the foolishness to raise their voice this deep in. Who knew what, or who, might be drawn to the sound? "So many twists and turns. They're confusing."
"It's not a Star Destroyer," Rey corrected. "It's a Mon Calamari Star Cruiser. See the curves?" She asked, referring to the organic curves and rounded edges that characterized starships manufactured by the Mon Cal. The design was a mixed bag. They were more difficult to hurt yourself on, but gave the much stronger feeling of being inside the bowels of an enormous beast. Rey denied ever having nightmares, but if she did ever have one, being digested while on a Run would definitely be common.
Honestly, it was surprising Brea had mistaken one ship type for another. Exploring derelict ships was literally their livelihood. Despite this, she and the others had a tendency to refer to any large ship as a 'Star Destroyer'. Maybe they just liked the name?
This was what they got for never letting Rey read the stories to them. They could mock her and her precious data pad all they wanted. She knew what was really going on in the world, and that was worth the risk she'd taken in stealing the device from a visiting smuggler. Brea just snorted at the correction and, though Rey couldn't see from her position behind her team-mate, definitely rolled her eyes.
"Details," Brea said. "Should have figured you'd know, what with that patch of yours. You might want to hide that, by the way. Not everybody's happy about the change."
It had only been in the last month that the Rebellion had retaken control of Jakku from the Empire. The Rebel emblem was everywhere again, and Rey had been able to trade a quarter-portion to a street vendor for a small patch bearing it. Said patch was now proudly attached to the shoulder of her form-fitting clothes. It was a constant struggle to avoid getting it caught on a surface and torn off, but she felt it was well worth it. Besides, it provided an extra motive to always be aware of her surroundings, and that was always good.
"'Everybody' can piss right off," Rey replied, adopting her team-mate's dismissive tone. "The Rebels are the good guys. The heroes. We should all be happy they're back in charge."
"For now," Brea countered.
"You've been talking to your boyfriend too much," Rey sneered, her blood rising. They were all around 8 years old, so thankfully there wasn't anything gross going on, but it still made the others feel weird with how close Brea and Leo were to each other. "He's so dour and stupid he doesn't think the suns exist because light itself has to be a lie—ouch!"
Brea's foot had suddenly moved back and crushed some of Rey's fingers to the floor. She clutched the stinging digits and started to reach for her staff to retaliate.
"We're here," Cas' voice said from up ahead, cutting off conversation before it could really turn ugly. "Cut the chatter." This was a phrase she had picked up from a story she had once let Rey read to her. It had been the only time until now, Cas was usually too busy training to one day become one of the Over Boss' muscle, but it had contributed to the leader's vocabulary. She always sought out ways to sound more authoritative and powerful.
The words suited Rey just fine. Following orders like that made her feel like she was on a Rebel on a mission. Her anger cooled enough to get back to business.
They had reached an intersection. There were now three different directions they could go in. Leo had been left behind to collect some promising circuits a hundred meters back, meaning they now each had a path to follow. Cas removed another chem stick and left it in the intersection so they could find their way back.
They all split up and scoured the virgin maze for salvage. The chem light glowed dimly on open, vacant panels, rents torn by the ship's crash, and the small tracks that droids had formerly used to traverse the ship in these little corridors that had been built for them. There were no droids now, though. The ship was dead.
Thankfully, it only took a minute or two for Rey to stumble on a load of meal tickets. She pulled the pack off her back started to tear valuable bits off the walls and stuff them inside. A data jack here, a circuit there, a droid recharge port here...The Mechanist's lessons served her well and, within an hour, she had a decent haul dragging behind her. It jingled as the rope, attached to a harness between the split halves of her spanner/staff on her back, pulled it along. It was almost enough to make her grin. Almost. Only her stories really made her smile, anymore.
She was making her way to the distant glimmer of the intersection chem stick when a glint of reflected light caught her eye. She'd made a few turns, trusting in her sense of direction, and was now approaching the way back from the duct Cas had gone down. She turned to the wall and saw a rent that opened into another chamber of the Star Cruiser. She held her chem stick closer to the opening and squinted her eyes as hard as she could.
There was a pilot's helmet out there!
It was large—big enough to cover the entire head of an adult, a necessity for pilots who flew in a vacuum, with a plasteel visor to protect the eyes and a blast shield that could be pulled down to protect against sudden flashes. Rey knew that there were advanced circuits embedded within the item, systems to allow the pilot to communicate with their squadron without using their hands. She would bet that all of the helmets functions were in perfect working order. It had to be the most valuable thing she had ever seen on a Run.
Most important of all, though, were the twin Rebel emblems emblazoned on its sides. The stagnant air of the derelict had allowed the red paint to remain whole and unfaded in the gloom. A Rebel pilot might have just taken it off a few minutes ago after a successful battle among the stars. It was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen.
The room below was filled with lockers, one of which had broken open to display the tattered clothing within. There was little else of interest. The pilot's jumpsuit was boring and plain, but the helmet...That was the sort of thing Luke Skywalker had worn when he destroyed the Death Star.
It was the kind of thing her parents must have been wearing at that very moment.
It took almost a minute of twisting and turning to get the pieces of her staff in her hand. It was difficult as she had to avoid getting her clothing, form fitting though it was, caught on the warped surroundings. She was cursing quietly before she finally hooked the pieces together and positioned herself to reach out. A metallic groan stopped her short. This duct wasn't very stable. That was probably why Cas hadn't noticed the prize. Rey's instincts had been screaming at her to move on from the start, and she started to wonder if she should listen.
The glint of the helmet's visor convinced her to ignore them. Thoughts of owning the treasure, of clutching it to her chest as she fell to sleep, filled her head as Rey reached her staff out through the rent.
There was never even a question of finding a way out of the ducts to retrieve it by hand. No Rat ever wanted to leave their haunts, partly to avoid the beatings that went to those who went off task and partly because of the stories of monsters living in the hearts of dead ships. Legends abounded among spacers about dragons that lived in the power-plants of starships. Rey had eavesdropped on enough of the visiting smugglers, ever searching for more stories of the world outside Jakku, to hear about them.
Duct Rats had their own legends about what happened when ships died—the dragons grew hungry without the heat of their reactors and fed on unwary scavengers. So many Rats went missing every year, falling to their deaths or crushed in collapsing passages or even ambushed by other scavengers, that the stories always held weight. Rey never believed them, of course, but she was cautious enough to stay where she knew only other Rats could chase her. Those were predators she knew how to deal with.
The end of the tool moved toward the loop in the helmet's straps. Forward a bit...missed! She swore and adjusted her grip. Forward again. Almost...almost...
The floor of the duct gave out under her. The crashing sound drowned out her scream and the staff was wrenched from her grip. It must have only lasted a moment, but Rey felt like she was falling for hours. She wound up with her leg screaming in pain and every limb pressed down so she couldn't move. She could barely breathe.
This was the ultimate nightmare for a Duct Rat: she was trapped in the dark, no way out and no rescue, made into helpless food for the undead dragons of the Boneyard.
"H-help!" she cried. "Cas! Brea! Anyone!" She coughed and wheezed, dust scratching her throat.
There was total darkness. Her chem stick must have gotten crushed in the fall. The world felt like it was closing in on her, which at first she thought was just nerves (a lot of the heroes in the stories felt like that at times) but she started to think the rubble was actually getting heavier. It was harder and harder to breathe each second. Shouting for help was no longer an option. Tears started to form in her eyes for the first time in years and she started shivering in the cold depths of the dead ship.
She was alone. Truly alone. Leo was half-way across the ship, Cas was probably cut off by the collapse, Brea too, and Frigga...she'd disappeared years ago. Swallowed by the ducts. No one could reach Rey, assuming they would even care to in the first place. She was truly alone. She closed her eyes and tried not to cry.
A wrenching sound pulled her eyes back open. There was a green glow a short distance away. The rubble was becoming less heavy and...was that the tip of her staff levering the debris off her?
"Come on, already! We can't hold this forever!"
Rey pushed forward as best she could. She came out from under the rubble, scrambling on all fours, and turned around onto her back just in time to see the pile crash back down with a deafening sound. Cas and Brea turned and stared at her, their chests heaving from the exertion, the staff still in their hands.
Rey quickly took in her surroundings, noting that the ceiling had partially caved in and knocked the room's contents around. The locker had fallen over in the collapse and spilled its own innards onto the floor. Rey's eyes locked onto the helmet before she realized what she was doing. She looked back at her friends just in time to see the other scavengers' eyes widen, and then narrow. Rey stared back blankly.
Brea just shook her head in disbelief. Cas didn't seem to react at all. She just took the staff, walked over, and picked up the helmet. Rey was terrified that she would break the prize, but instead she kept walking with barely a pause and offered both it and the staff back. Rey accepted them with a nod, trying not to look possessive. This had been a serious screw-up on her part.
Cas' hands held on as the other Rat tried to pull the prizes to her. Their eyes met.
"We're even," she said before letting go.
Rey didn't need to ask what they were even over. There was only one thing that could match saving a person's life. Honestly, it had been so long and no one had ever talked about it, so Rey had mostly forgotten how they'd all met. She nodded. "Thanks," she whispered to Cas' back. The trio re-entered the ducts, each breathing a little sigh of relief as they did, and made their way out of the dead ship to present their salvage to the crew boss. None of them mentioned the new prize buried in the bottom of her pack.
Rey turned the pilot's helmet over and over again in her hands. BB-8—the droid! Don't get attached!—had told her more about the world outside Jakku than she had ever heard before. It was slow going, what with everything having to be written out in the sand, but she had been patient and the remaining quarter portion had been enough to quiet her grumbling belly. The droid had told her that the Empire was now called the 'First Order' and the Rebellion had become the 'New Republic'. It told her that there was a 'Resistance' fighting the First Order but that the New Republic had mostly given up the fight.
She couldn't believe that. Luke Skywalker and Han Solo would never just give up, and the Rebellion was their side. Maybe they were a part of the Resistance? The droid had said that Princess Leia was leading it.
Rey dropped the helmet back onto its perch with a frustrated grunt. The fighting was still going on. Even if only a few people had given up, that could extend the war for a long while. Her parents might never be ready to come back to get her.
The droid beeped again. It would have been hard to read his message in the dim chemical light that illuminated her home now that night had fallen. Thankfully, the living machine had been repeating the same question for a while now, so she no longer needed to bother.
"I'll take you to Buzzard Station tomorrow," Rey said, yawning. "It's too dark out to risk it." More beeping. Now, it was rolling over to her, which she naturally found unacceptable. She brandished her staff and narrowed her eyes. It stopped a meter away and twittered fearfully. She decided to reassure the thing to keep it under control. "Stop worrying about the other scavenger. I get intruders like him every once in a while. The message I left him with will keep them away." She got up, slipped the chem-light into a bag to darken the room, and climbed into her hammock. The machine beeped more softly and rolled off to the corner it had apparently picked as its temporary quarters.
Rey kept a close eye on it. Not obviously, of course, just out of the corner of her eye. Sleep was out of the question with the restraining bolt broken. Honestly, she probably would have kept awake even if it was still in place; having another thinking being in her home overnight was almost nerve wracking. She wondered how she would handle the following day. It was beyond questioning that she would sell the droid to the Over Boss. She was out of portions, and this thing would be worth a fortune. The question was how she would do it without a restraining bolt. She had promised to bring the droid to the Station to help it contact the Resistance. It should be simple to trick it into accompanying her into the scavenger compound, but if she needed help to restrain it that would lower the selling price. What was she going to do?
There had been a moment, just a moment, right after the droid had finished telling her about the world, that Rey had considered helping it. Helping reunite it with its pilot and contact the Resistance. Maybe she could even get a message to them herself. She could ask about her parents. A nameless fear had stopped her. Fear of what she might learn, fear of not getting a response at all...
She stomped down on those thoughts. Foolishness. Until her parents came back for her, she was a scavenger, and scavengers sold salvage. That was what she would do. The sooner she got that thing out of her life, the better.
It took a long time for the droid to decide to power down. The scavenger yawned again, and decided to rest her eyes. Just for a moment. Thoughts of what she had learned, of what was happening in the galaxy of heroes, filled her mind as she drifted off to sleep.
Rey woke up with a start. Light was streaming in through the opening in the walker's belly. It took a moment to remember all that had happened and when she did, she swore more loudly than she ever had.
The droid was gone.
The scavenger leaped to her feet and grabbed her staff. She scoured her home, overturning boxes and searching every corner, trying to find her meal ticket. Nothing. Damn that droid! Damn it and its stories!
Rey rushed out of her home and sprinted to the end of the road of limbs. The empty desert stretched out ahead of her in all directions. There was no sign of the droid, but the machine was so small and low to the ground that it was hardly a surprise. It must have decided to head out to Buzzard Station on its own. Maybe it deduced what she'd had planned for it.
She had just turned around to retrieve her water when a pipe smashed into her face. Rey found herself on the ground, her staff missing, curling up to protect her vital areas from the blows that were raining down on her. There must have been at least four or five people striking her. She had been ambushed. Stupid. So stupid...
"Thought you'd scare us off, did you?" the leader of her attackers said once they'd paused in the beating. This confirmed their identities as other scavengers. As if that had ever been in doubt. The leader kept talking, his tone full of gloating. "That whole 'lone warrior' schtik doesn't cut it with us, little girl. We know you found something on the way back from the Boneyard. And we're gonna find it. Come on, boys, let's tear this place apart!"
The sounds of her home being ransacked competed with the sound of her own wheezing breath. Rey couldn't move. Couldn't protect her home, her possessions. Couldn't do anything but cringe with dread when she heard a shout of triumph from her attackers. What had they found?
Footsteps drew closer, and she felt a horrible anticipation of the answer. "A data pad," the voice said, and Rey's stomach dropped out from under her. No. Not that. Anything but that.
"P-please," she croaked. There was nothing left to her but begging. It would have pained her to be reduced to this if the terror hadn't been so overwhelming. "Please..."
Her attackers laughed. "Do we look like generous people to you?" the leader asked brightly. His voice fell to a grave, ironic tone. "You should have your eyes checked."
Then, she was alone. Truly alone for the first time in years. Laying helpless in the desert sand, here body bruised and broken, with the scorching sun beating down on her, Rey was too weak to resist the memories of the last time she had felt so alone.
She had failed. There were only three people on Jakku she cared about, but she had still failed. Rey walked home in a daze, barely remembering to avoid the contents of chamber pots that had been carelessly emptied out of windows as she walked the streets of her slum.
Cas was dead.
Cas had been her friend. And now she was dead. Rey had saved Cas when they first met. Cas had saved her in the Star Cruiser when she found her pilot's helmet. They were friends. And now she was dead.
She arrived home. The makeshift door squeaked and clanged as it was opened and closed as quickly as possible. The heat-resistant coating on the container's exterior still kept it filled with relatively cool air, which helped clear her head. The staff helped keep her steady. She had been using her tool as a walking stick on the way home, despite the filth that was now stuck to the bottom of it. She had needed to feel it in her hands. Needed the comfort, the feeling of stability. Because Cas was dead.
Brea and Leo were already there. Leo was sitting on the half-pallet that served as their sofa while Brea leaned against the side of the room, her smoky eyes glaring into space. They had stayed inside since Team E had returned from the latest Run. Since Cas had been summoned by the Over Boss for some kind of special meeting. That had been three days ago.
They were all far too big now to be Duct Rats, so they were serving as more general scavengers. It meant deeper trips into the Boneyard to find wrecks whose human-sized corridors hadn't been picked clean, but that just meant they stuck together even closer. Rey was glad they were there. She needed to talk to someone she could trust. She opened her mouth to speak.
"She's gone," Brea said after taking one look at Rey's expression. Neither she nor her lover looked surprised.
Rey nodded, her throat choked. Her eyes watered but didn't shed tears. Her body had adapted enough to Jakku to prevent that loss of moisture.
It hadn't been right. Cas was an excellent leader and a skilled fighter. Even if she hadn't been cut out to be muscle, her skill as a scavenger couldn't be denied. She had been worth a lot where she was.
The Over Boss hadn't agreed. He had seen her red hair, green eyes, and slender face and, although he was not human, had recognized how beautiful she was. In his estimation, Cas would have made a far more profitable prostitute than muscle or scavenger. The visiting smugglers and their crews were a lonely sort, after all.
Rey leaned against the side of the room next to Brea, who moved away and joined Leo on the sofa. Rey was still too stunned by the news to take offense. Too shocked by the choice Cas had made to avoid a life she didn't want. A choice...
A surge of adrenaline shot through her. She knew what she had to do, now, as certain of it as she had been the day she rushed to Cas' defense and earned her place among the Duct Rats. She started rushing about the room, gathering her meager possessions from her makeshift trunk and the baskets suspended from the ceiling to thwart hungry vermin.
"What do you think you're doing?" Leo growled.
"What does it look like? I'm packing," Rey explained without looking up. Honestly, did they always have to be so slow?
Brea laughed. "Going somewhere? Don't thing the Boss'll approve." The judgment in her tone finally made Rey pause and look up. Both of her friends were now standing. Neither was packing their own things.
"We have to leave," Rey replied, perplexed. "We can't stay here. Not after what happened to Cas."
"You want us to run? What do we do then?" Brea demanded. "Become Strays? They don't last too long, you know."
"We could leave Buzzard," Rey replied, starting to feel doubt creeping in. "Another station..."
"Another station," Brea scoffed. "None of the other stations will take us. Scavengers aren't allowed to pick their Bosses. Not that we'd make it anywhere without transport."
"We could steal one," Rey insisted, her voice loosing power with each word. "The Banthas aren't too well guarded..."
"That would just put a Death Mark on our heads!" Brea shouted, throwing her hands in the air. As usual, Leo had backed up and let his lover take over now that the conversation had turned serious.
Annoyance replaced the timidity in Rey. Why did her friends always have to be so difficult? Couldn't they see that now wasn't the time? "We'll think of something," she insisted.
Another snort. "Are you deaf? Where are we going to go?" Brea demanded. She pointed to the Rebellion patch still on Rey's shoulder. "Are we going to join the Rebellion? Be like those 'heroes' you worship so much?"
That was too much. Being silly and refusing to see reason was one thing, but insulting the Rebellion was unaccceptable. Rey finished packing, slung her light bag over her back, and started toward the entrance. They could catch up later if they wanted to act like children.
She stopped immediately. Brea and Leo were standing between her and the entrance, and they were scowling. The temperature of the room seemed to drop several degrees as Rey finally started paying attention to her instincts.
Leo's fists were clenched, which wasn't very unusual, but Brea...Brea was holding her knife. The weapon was crude, crafted out of scrap metal with a handle made from strips of rags wrapped around one end, but it was sharp. Rey would know. She was the one who had crafted it.
"What do we have here? There's a word soldiers use, what was it? Oh, right—defect. You're trying to defect. We heard you confess," Brea said, an evil grin spreading across her face. Leo cracked his knuckles. "You know what happens to people who defect. Don't you, E-4?"
This...this couldn't be what it looked like. "Guys...we're friends," Rey said in an almost whisper.
"No, you were Cas' friend," Brea spat. She pointed her knife at Rey as she spoke. "We only put up with you because of her. Because you helped her that one time. Now that she's gone..."
The world was falling apart around her. Nothing was making sense anymore. "Why..."
"Why?" Brea repeated, her voice equal parts disbelieving and furious. "I don't know, maybe it has something to do with the way you're always looking down on us? How you keep wearing that stupid patch, even though the Empire owns Jakku again?" Her voice became a mocking imitation of Rey's. "Ooh, look at me, my parents are heroes in the Rebellion and that makes me better than you. Want me to read you some stories? I can read, you know, and you can't, and that makes me better than you, too." She ended with another snort.
Leo was moving closer. Rey adjusted the grip on her staff. Leo stopped. Rey's fighting instincts were starting to kick in, and she retreated behind them, trying to think just in terms of survival. "I'm good with this staff," she warned. "You've seen me."
They'd planned this ahead of time. It was the only way they could have pulled it off so well.
"We're good at fighting, too," Leo growled. Rey was so shocked that he had spoken up again, what with Brea having taken the lead, that she almost missed the knife flying through the air.
It would have missed. The blade wasn't balanced for throwing and Brea was a lousy shot, anyway. Unfortunately, Rey's instincts lead her to swat the flying object out of the air, which opened her guard to Leo, who rushed forward and tackled her into the wall.
The breath was forced out of her lungs by the impact. She was prevented from taking in more by Leo's hands, which gripped her throat and squeezed so hard she was sure they would bruise. The room started to spin and sparks started going off in her peripheral vision.
The staff had fallen from her hands in the impact. It leaned, caught on the edge of the hammock, just out of her reach. Her hand stretched as she strained to reach it. Darkness started to creep in the corners of her sight. She screamed in her mind, calling to her weapon, demanding it return to her.
Suddenly, it did. She must have stretched the last bit of distance because she felt her hand fill with the familiar weight of her closest of all companions. Her arms fumbled, unable to move her staff into a position to do anything more than gently tap her attacker. It looked hopeless.
Luckily, she wasn't aiming for him. The end of her weapon hit one of the hanging baskets and spilled some portions onto her attacker's head. He let go of her throat, either from surprise or horror at the potentially wasted food was unclear. With her increased freedom she kneed him in the groin and slammed her forehead into his nose.
A satisfying crunch greeted her. The nose gave way and pushed inward, and Rey knew that it had impacted the brain hard enough to be lethal. The attacker fell backward to the ground and didn't move. A distant part of her mind was horrified, knowing that she had just killed one of her only friends, but most of her was concerned with sucking in air as quickly as possible.
Any conflicted thoughts or feelings were then driven out by the blade that slashed her across the chest.
"You bitch!" a voice yelled out.
More slashes rained down before Rey could move her staff into guard. She saw a roughly meter and a half tall humanoid swiping and stabbing at her and reacted instinctively. A block was followed by hooking the ankle which was followed by the attacker falling to the ground which was followed by a downward stroke crushing their skull.
The room fell quiet. Nothing moved. Rey leaned back against the wall. Sweat from the exertion poured down her body, stinging her wounds and clouding her thoughts. This was bad. So bad. Her friends...all dead...
Survival. Focus on survival.
The situation wasn't beyond salvaging. The Over Boss knew she was strong, and this would only prove it further. A scavenger operating alone, still selling to one Boss and therefore not a Stray, was rare but not unheard of and Rey had just proven she could pull it off. She was strong. Strong enough to win the fight, and strong enough to not be overwhelmed by the betrayal.
The whole thing wasn't really that surprising, anyway, she told herself. She'd always known that her true family were the only ones that ever really cared about her. Even Cas had been selfish enough to abandon them all in the first place. That was just life on Jakku. That was the life Rey would live, until her parents came back for her.
Rey woke up to the feeling of water being poured into her mouth. She instinctively drank, her parched throat desperate for relief. The cool air of her home helped numb the pain radiating from every part of her body. It took a few moments to remember what had happened. She had been ambushed by other scavengers. But, they wouldn't be bothering to take care of her. They would have left her to die in the sand, if only to avoid leaving a witness to their assault. Then who...
Rey forced her eyes open and turned her head, both actions that her body protested strongly. What she saw brought her wide awake.
The droid, BB-8, was a few centimeters away, holding a small bowl that must have held the water from a moment ago. It had come back. Or, perhaps, it had never left? It took a few moments for her addled mind to realize that the droid probably didn't know the way to any station, so it had hid itself intending to follow her as she rushed to catch up. It was so obvious in hind-sight.
What wasn't obvious was everything that had followed. She knew she'd been ambushed outside her home. How had she gotten back in? Had she crawled and, in her delirium, simply forgotten? Had the horrible dream of the beginning of her solitude forced the memory out? Or had the machine, having avoided detection by the other scavengers, dragged her back inside? At the very least it was obviously tending to her. Why hadn't it followed the other scavengers who, in their excitement over their prize, had doubtless returned to Buzzard Station to sell the precious data pad?
The puzzlement must have shown on her face. The droid set down the bowl and used its manipulator arm to scrawl another message in the sand that had made its way inside with her.
That made her throat tighten. BB-8 couldn't possibly know what that phrase meant to her. About Cas. If he had, she probably would have scrapped him for daring to intrude on one of her few happy memories. So, instead, she said, "I take it you want to go to a station to contact the Rebellion? I mean, the Resistance?" she asked.
BB-8 beeped affirmatively. It was unnerving, how much Rey had grown to understand his bizarre language.
"We'll leave as soon as I'm better."
It only took a few minutes to dig up the emergency cache of salvage Rey had buried behind her home. There had been nothing of value left inside the dead war beast itself. At least, nothing intact. The other scavengers had smashed anything they didn't think was worth taking with them.
That had included the pilot's helmet.
It had taken more strength than she had used in years not to cry as she held the warped ruin of that precious bit of gear. The dome was bent inward and the visor was cracked to pieces. She'd slice her scalp to bits if she tried to wear it now. Never again would she slip it on to fall asleep, her dreams transporting her into the stories she read about. Never again would she read any stories on her precious data pad to fuel those dreams. It would be near impossible to steal another now that she lived alone, far from the visiting smugglers and the brothels.
The only links to her parents were now gone. But, she didn't cry. She couldn't waste the moisture, and she didn't want BB-8 to see and get the wrong idea. She didn't want him to think she was weak.
At least she still had her staff. The attackers had broken her companion in two, but the modular design of the tool meant she was able to remove the damaged section and replace it with spare parts she had stored up. Still, it felt lighter in her hands now, as if a part of it had been lost. It was no longer the invincible protector it had always been for her. She tried to put it out of her mind.
The droid rolled beside her as she made her way to the Station. His spherical body made an even trough in its wake, his dome-shaped head held aloft by whatever magnetic or anti-gravity force the Resistance engineers had designed for him. Rey had sealed the cracks that had allowed sand to muck up his innards before, and he was taking full advantage of the privilege of mobility. He twittered occasionally as he spotted something of interest, such as the rare Jakku hawk or plume of sand from a distant vortex, seeming for all the world like an enthusiastic rookie Duct Rat on their first trip to the Boneyard.
It made Rey feel terrible. The persistent aches and stabs of pain from her injuries (the swelling around her eyes was particularly vexing as it made the slit goggles she wore fit poorly) certainly didn't help matters. Her responses to his inquisitive beeps and whistles were short and terse, and BB-8 soon stopped asking.
It would have been smarter to stuff the droid into her pack and simply drag the reserve salvage behind her on her sled. Certainly, it would have been more safe. For some reason, though, she just couldn't bring herself to do it. She kept a constant, fearful eye on the horizons, terrified that another scavenger would spot them and steal him away. She wasn't fully recovered and doubted she would be able to fight anyone off. She clutched her staff a bit tighter as they went, for more than one reason.
"I see you got into a tussle," the Over Boss said as Rey entered the compound. The New Republic insignia hanging over his cage didn't tempt her to a grin like it normally would.
She made her way past the hired muscle hanging around, taking note of any corners or hiding spots in the piles of compacted salvage that served as walls for this part of the compound. Focus on survival. That was what she had to do. It was the only way she could stay alive long enough for her parents to come back from her. Her parents; she had to think about them.
"The other guys got it worse," Rey lied. Her reputation as a fighter was good enough that it was believable.
The Over Boss laughed. "I'm sure they did," he said. His alien, all-black eyes glittered as he eyed the full pack on Rey's back. He loved examining 'the merchandise'. It was the only reason he manned the particular post he had chosen rather than just command from the rear. "What have you brought me?"
The haul wasn't particularly impressive. The emergency cache had only been meant to keep her alive after a bad run, so it was only good for a couple quarter-portions. The droid, however...
The Over Boss grunted in disappointment and slapped a single quarter-portion onto the table in front of him.
"That should be good for at least two!" Rey objected.
"The blow to my reputation is worth at least one," the Over Boss retorted, his large eyes narrowing. "Or did you think I hadn't heard what really happened to you?"
What color was present drained from Rey's face. If word had gotten around that one of the Boss' underlings had been beaten and robbed, it would be a blow to the entire group, not just the victim herself. Combined with the lie she had just told, Rey was lucky to get what she had.
"That concludes our business," the Over Boss said. He paused. "Unless you have something else for me?"
This was it. This was the part where she told the Boss that BB-8 was hiding a few meters outside the compound. The moment where Rey would receive a payday beyond any she had ever gotten. Her gut tightened and her pulse quickened. Emotions she was utterly unfamiliar with were trying to keep her from making the sale, but it had to be done. She hesitated, then opened her mouth to speak and—
"Boss! Boss!" A voice cried out from the entrance.
Rey whirled around and the bottom fell out of her stomach. One of the Over Boss' thugs was walking in with BB-8 clutched firmly in its second set of arms.
"Lookee what I found trying to sneak up on the place!" he said. The alien's face seemed to be struggling between a scowl over finding an intruder and a grin over the potential payday this could be for it.
Rey could practically hear the Over Boss' eyes widen as he leaned forward on his stool. "Well, well, well!" he said. "Where in the galaxy did you come from, my little friend?"
BB-8 beeped defiantly and tried to zap his captor with one of his manipulator arms.
The Boss just laughed. "Feisty one, are we? Wonder who your master is."
"I am!" Rey shouted. Every eye turned to her. She blanched inwardly, but rallied and powered forward. "I found him half buried on the way back from a Run and fixed him up. The scavengers who jumped me wanted him, but didn't get him. I made sure of that."
Everyone stared at her. She had told a half-truth, and had leveraged that first part to make her statement as authoritative as possible. The fact that the best lies were always built on the truth was something she had learned early in her career.
"Why didn't it come in with you, then?" the Over Boss demanded. The thug holding BB-8 nodded vigorously, obviously not wanting to lose his glory and payment.
"I didn't want anyone getting handsy with it," she said. "Check the inside of the hatch marked 'A-6'."
The thug did so, hesitating until the Boss growled at him, and found what she had left there: a stylized version of her name. A signature. Scavengers rarely needed to sign anything, but marking something as your own was a necessity, and Rey had used her rare gift of literacy to good effect in that regard. Pretty much everyone had at least an idea of what it looked like as she was so proud of it.
BB-8 let out an annoyed whistle when the thug called out what it had found. "Quiet, droid!" Rey barked. One couldn't let such insolence go unanswered without their reputation suffering for it. The ball of dark matter in her stomach had increased in mass to resemble something like a dying star. She felt the entirely foreign need to apologize to him, but resisted. This was no time for such foolishness.
The Over Boss grunted. "I suppose he is yours," he said. He then reached below him and pulled out a whole portion. Then, another one. And another. Eventually, they numbered forty. "Your payment."
Rey walked forward, keeping herself from trembling by sheer force of will, and placed her hands on the bounty. It was so much. More than she had ever seen from at one time. All she had to do was slide them into her pack and make her way back home...
Something stopped her. She glanced back at the droid. At BB-8. The machine was silent and unmoving. The lens on its dome felt like it was peering into her, examining her soul in detail, learning who she really was for the first time. It felt like a hot vibro-blade being stuck into her heart. She breathed raggedly, struggling to get her pulse under control. This was what she had come there to do.
Rey turned back to the Over Boss, and made a choice.
"He's not for sale," she said, taking her hands from the bounty of full portions.
It felt like a weight had been lifted from her. The feeling in her gut vanished and her breathing became steady. But, it was also painful. Those whole portions were calling out to her, demanding to be taken as hers by right. It took everything she had to ignore them.
"Thanks for the portion," she said, sliding the single quarter-portion from before into her pack. She turned to the thug. "You can set him down now. We've got a busy day ahead of us."
Everyone in the compound was staring at her in disbelief. Rey smiled and readjusted her grip on her staff, continuing to look at the thug expectantly. Eventually, the Over Boss grunted a command from behind her. They were free.
The pair strolled out of the compound, the mechanical being beeping happily at his restored freedom. It was a near certainty that other scavengers would be sent to steal the droid and possibly finish Rey off. The Over Boss couldn't very well tolerate such an act of defiance. It looked like she was going to have to move to another station, after all. First things first, though.
"Let's go find this pilot of yours, shall we?" she said with the first genuine smile she had shown in years.
Note: I've been working on a small number of stories about the characters in the new Star Wars movies. I hope none of them sound too 'rant-y' as I have some pretty strong opinions on what I see as the shortcomings of these films. Hopefully, this will help me work out some of those frustrations while providing you guys with some quality entertainment.
Note: There are a lot of problems with the main characters in the new Star Wars movies. Probably the biggest one is the fact that none of their personalities match their backstories. Kylo Ren doesn't act like someone raised by Han Solo and Princess Leia, Finn doesn't act like someone raised from birth to be a Storm Trooper, and Rey doesn't act like someone who has survived on her own as a scavenger for years. One of the things I want to address in my fics is this disparity. I'll keep it as close to canon as possible, but I'm not going to let what are, in my opinion, bad stories get in the way of telling the best that I can.
Note: I had a problem with Rey's characterization from the beginning of The Force Awakens. Why is she such a selfless, good-natured person? It made sense for Luke to be like that because he was raised as a farmer by a loving family. The impression we're given is that Rey has been on her own, surrounded by scavengers and criminals who don't care about her, for the majority of her life. That isn't a situation that molds a person to be nice. She should be anti-social, distrustful of others, untrustworthy, and generally stand-offish. Instead, she's a Disney Princess because the movie wants the audience to like her. You'd have to work very hard for this kind of personality to be believable for this character and I don't think the films addressed it at all.
Note: Many viewers have complained that Rey is a Mary Sue. I resisted that criticism at first, but on reflection I have to agree. She is too perfect. I tried to justify here why she is able to fight so well, why she knows enough about mechanics to get the Falcon working again, and why she seems to worship the heroes of the Original Trilogy so much. I couldn't figure out a way to explain why she's able to pilot the Falcon and perform the Jedi Mind Trick without any training, but I have my limits as an amateur writer. Maybe you guys have some ideas? I'd love to hear them, because I really don't want to hate the new movies as much as I'm starting to. Although I'm not sure anything could improve my opinion of The Last Jedi.
Thanks for reading. Love you guys.