Jyn Erso was seventeen years old and she was about halfway across the galaxy from the hellhole Saw had dropped her in.
She hadn't eaten in three days. Imperial presence on Ryloth was especially strong since the Free Ryloth bombing of the month before. Jyn hadn't dared pull her usual trick of selling her pendant and stealing it back since then. She was going to have to risk it.
The only person who'd showed any interest in her pendant that she hadn't pulled that trick on already had been a blue female Twi'lek wearing long brown robes and a stole emblazoned with the Secura crest. She wore torso and limb braces that didn't hide her extensive burn scars. There was story there, of course there was, but Jyn wasn't going to ask. Everyone had scars from the Empire. Some inside, some outside, some both.
Jyn found the Twi'lek on the edge of town, talking to a shorter humanoid in purple and black. She called out.
They both turned towards her, hands flying to their hips. The shorter humanoid had stark white skin and their blaster was pointed at Jyn's head.
The Twi'lek's weapon wasn't a blaster. "What do you want?"
"Nothing, never mind." She shouldn't sell them her pendant. They didn't need it and she wouldn't be able to steal it back. Her mother had been a Jedi youngling, once, a very long time ago, before the Empire. She had survived Order 66 because she had never become a Jedi -- she'd joined AgriCorps instead. If her mother had taught Jyn anything, it was that tricking Force users rarely worked and was a bad idea in the first place.
And just like that, something shifted. Jyn had feelings, at times, and she was getting one now. It wasn't a bad feeling and it wasn't a good feeling, it was just a feeling that she needed to listen.
"Go to Jedha," the shorter humanoid said. They hadn't lowered their blaster. "Take your pendant to Jedha."
The shorter humanoid nodded back, spun their blaster and holstered it. "We're done here. "
When Jyn got to the spaceport, she touched her pendant through her clothing. There was a ship departing for Jedha to the west of her. It was an old ship, with outdated security protocols. Jyn found the first mate and asked if they would exchange labour for transport.
On Jedha, Jyn found work as a printer's apprentice. The printer housed and fed her against help in the workshop. In a city under Imperial occupation, anyone willing to open her door to a stranger was a diamond in the rough.
The work was good, honest work and every night Jyn went to sleep her muscles burning. Every day she kept her head down.
The Rooks were kind people, too kind for a galaxy under Imperial occupation. The family's son, Bodhi, taught her how to handle the presses in exchange for her telling him about the wider galaxy. He wanted nothing more than to fly; Jyn wondered what it was like to want something so much you didn't care about anything else. To be able to trade your whole life for a shot at the stars.
Jyn didn't read what she helped print -- any book was a flag in the darkness and she had had enough of flags -- but she couldn't help noticing they didn't print a lot of things; they printed exactly one thing, over and over and over again as if the sheer volume of flimsi would change anything, would overthrow the Empire. They printed the Book of the Guardians and pressed revolution into every page.
Jyn kept her head down when they printed. She kept her head down when she was distributing the Book throughout the Holy City, to the caravans through the desert and to the spaceport.
She kept her head down, with a book in her hand. One day, she began to read.
Sometime later she found her way to the Kyber Temple. She brought a copy of the book of revolution, a packed lunch from Bodhi and her pendant with her.
In the Chamber of the Whills, there was darkness. If she were to touch her nose, she would not see her hand. If she closed her eyes, it made no difference. It was darkness, pure and absolute, and yet in front of her stood Senator Mon Mothma of Chandrila, resplendent in robes so white they were glowing.
Jyn still had her eyes closed. She opened them. "You are not her. If you want to talk, be someone else."
The mirage shifted. In front of Jyn there now stood a girl her own age, desert-weathered, sharp-eyed and triple-bunned. She wore the loose clothing of those who often travelled the sand plains of Jedha, her headwrap pulled down over her shoulders, but she was not someone Jyn knew. She supposed it would have to do.
"Who are you?" Jyn did not expect an answer, but she wanted to put a name to the face.
"We are the Whills. All that is past is yet to be. You stand at a crossroad, Jyn Erso."
"I stand in the dark."
"You ask who we are. Who are you, Jyn Erso? You stand in the dark and the whole galaxy with you."
Jyn staggered back. This was a weight she did not want. She was not a hero; she was a girl in the dark with a ghost.
"Are you stardust in truth, the crucible of hope? Do you fight for peace or do you fight for justice? Who are you, here in the dark with no one to see?"
Jyn thought of her mother; justice had never brought her anything but death. Jyn thought of Saw; justice had never brought him anything but loss. Jyn thought of herself; justice had never brought her anything but grief.
"Justice," she said. Peace in our time had never been anything but a lie.
The Whills smiled with the stranger's face. "Remember you made this choice. You made this choice and you will have to live with it, to die by it. When the time comes, every time that the time comes, remember you chose justice over peace."
And on those words, the Whills were gone. Jyn stood alone in the dark.
She touched her pendant and emerged into the light. Beyond the door, awaiting their newest member, were the Guardians of the Whills. Chirrut and Baze came to stand with her.
She looked up and leaned on her shovel as she drank. A Stormtrooper patrol was walking down the road, crossing paths with a caravan. They ignored her; she ignored them while gritting her teeth. Looking down was safe. It was safe and it kept the peace. She went back to her work.
The road exploded.
Jyn tucked herself in and rolled with the blast, the way Saw had taught her. She got to her feet and wiped away the grit from her face, spat out a mouthful of gravel. She took a defensive stance, shovel at the ready.
There was a scattering of smaller explosions. Their heat made the sweat sizzle on her skin.
The pattern was familiar. Saw was behind this -- that meant collateral damage, and more than a little.
Jyn rushed to the caravan. There had to be something she could do, some first aid she could administer. The Chiss next to her was bleeding out. She ripped off her headwrap and tied in around his upper thigh. The blood flow slowed, but did not stop. Out of instinct, she reached for her hair tie, but her hair had been shorn short years ago. She redid the tourniquet, using her shovel as a winch to tighten it. The blood stopped.
Jyn extracted her shovel. She raised the Chiss' leg. He'd have to go to the hospital soon if he wanted to keep it, but for now he'd live.
She moved on to the next of the wounded, and the next, and the next. Often there was not much she could do.
The sound of a blaster being set on 'kill' made her look up. A second patrol of Stormtroopers was menacing the wounded and the helpers. They had to have been alerted to the explosions by the confusion and were now adding to said confusion by yelling and pushing people around. That was the last thing anyone needed.
"The wounded need medical aid," Jyn told the captain. She did not want to compromise with the Empire, but the survival of the innocent took precedence over her principles. Very slowly, Jyn stood up, bracing herself on her shovel. "Help us carry them to the Kyber Temple and we will heal your wounded too."
The air hung heavy with more than desert heat for a moment. The Stormtrooper holstered his blaster, knelt in the sand and picked up the Chiss awkwardly. Jyn corrected his hold.
She went around among the wounded, the helpers and the Stormtroopers, to make sure everyone who could be saved and carried to the Temple was. And on the march they went. It made Jyn uneasy, like an itch at the back of her skull, to have Stormtroopers behind her.
When they reached the Temple gate, she put a hand to her forehead, signalling to Baze to let them pass. He did.
Jyn's spine crawled when the Stormtroopers set foot inside the Temple, jackboots thudding against the holy earth. It was the price to pay for saving lives, so she would pay it. She would not pay it gladly, but she would pay it.
It was three hours later, once they'd already done the bulk of what healing they could and the second, unwounded, set of Stormtroopers was about to leave that the droid and its troops showed up. The new set of Stormtroopers threatened everyone, wounded included, and demanded the return of the hostages. Chirrut tried to explain there were no hostages; he did not sound like Chirrut at all, he sounded like what the Stormtroopers expected to see, a blind defenceless man. To anyone who knew him the act was laughable – it was a good thing Baze was still on the battlements – but the Stormtroopers believed it. Maybe they would also believe him about the lack of hostages.
They did not.
At that point, things might have still turned out different. Even when the droid introduced itself as K-2SO and demanded the return of the hostages and that the Empire be furnished in Kyber crystals -- Jyn touched her pendant through her clothes -- it might still have ended differently. Even with Jyn's hands finding her shovel on the stretcher at her side , it might not have gone the way it would.
Then the Stormtrooper closest to Jyn spoke. "Peace will be restored."
In her hands, Jyn had a shovel. In her heart, she had a choice.
"Justice," she said. She whacked the Stormtrooper with the shovel hard enough that he fell unconscious to the Kyber Temple's floor. "Not peace."
She expected to be shot to pieces. When she was not, she turned to the droid, who had its hand up in a 'hold your fire' gesture.
"Droid. If you wish to shoot, shoot. If not, broadcast my words."
The droid did not shoot. Neither did the Stormtroopers. The broadcasting signal in the droid's chest turned on.
"I am Jyn Erso, Guardian of the Whills. In the name of justice, the people of Jedha do hereby declare their independence from the Galactic Empire. May the Force of Others be with all."
Of its own volition the droid stopped broadcasting. Jyn pitched forward. Whatever bravery had carried her words out to the Holy City and beyond had left her.
The droid caught her. "Our chances of survival are low," the droid said. "Very low."
"Some things are worth dying for." Jyn stepped away from the droid. She lifted her chin in defiance of her unlikely ally -- if ally the droid was -- and continued, "Hope. Justice." On 'justice' in her speech he had stood straighter. She could understand that.
"Liberty." The droid extended his hand, in a crude parody of a handshake.
Jyn smiled. No one in the galaxy would be free until they all were; there would not be justice while there remained even a single soul enslaved to the Empire. Jyn clapped her hand in the droid's. "Welcome to Independent Jedha, K-2SO."
From that moment, she knew K-2SO would stand with her.
It had been a day like so many others, filled with the minutiae of running Independent Jedha. Food was scarce and there was never enough water, but the Guardians of the Whills had been on Jedha for millennia. These were problems they were used to. Jyn envied Baze and Chirrut. She envied them even more because no one considered them as sacrilegious and evil as the Empire for what they'd done in service to justice and Jedha.
She had to deal with the Empire and the Rebel Alliance -- it had been her declaring independence, it was on her to deal with what that meant.
And so it was on her to deal with the Kyber shields too. The shields were the only thing that stood between Jedha and death from above. The entire population had contributed what they could -- space, money, time, materials, expertise -- but the bulk of the engineering had been done by Kaytoo.
In her more cynical moments she thought her father would be proud. Death, destroyer of worlds, and his daughter the shield maker. Jyn breathed out. She twisted her feet against the floor, imagined her bitterness sloughing off her and being swallowed by the earth like water in the desert. The meditation helped, a little, enough that she could move on and get to the important things. She threw back her shoulders.
There had been a spy caught in the outskirts of town, near one of the shield propagators. Jyn had inspected the propagator, because keeping the shield running was the priority, and it hadn't been damaged beyond the usual wear and tear. She'd replaced the bent antenna and the missing screw. She'd cleared out the sand from the inner circuits.
Now she was to speak to the spy. Empire or Alliance was a good question, but maybe not relevant. The Rebel Alliance had yet to make any conciliatory move towards Independent Jedha. Saw had. Of course he had. He had been on Jedha when it still been Imperial Jedha and he was still on Jedha now that it was Independent Jedha. Saw Gerrera was a free man. He was a rebel, but he was no longer part of the Rebel Alliance.
Jyn found Kaytoo holding the spy above the floor by the furred hood of his coat. In his other hand, Kaytoo held a blaster.
"I see you've met Kaytoo," Jyn said.
The spy scowled. Kaytoo put him down and said, "I have a blaster now."
It wasn't precisely a question, but Jyn nodded in reply all the same. Let Kaytoo have a blaster. She had one herself, it was only right that he did too.
"Cassian Andor, Rebel Alliance," the spy said. He held out a hand; neither Jyn nor Kaytoo took it.
"Jyn Erso, Guardian of the Whills." The introduction was hardly necessary, given that she had broadcast her face and name to the entire galaxy, but she liked having control of her own name.
"K-2SO, free droid."
Andor turned to Jyn. "Is he reprogrammed?"
"He is a free droid," Jyn said. She might have spat. "And he can speak for himself."
"On occasion I can also speak for other people," Kaytoo said.
Jyn bent her head. A fair point, well made. Either Kaytoo was a person, or he was not. If he was, he could speak for himself and did not need her to say so for him.
"What do you want?" Jyn asked Andor. "What does the Rebel Alliance want with Independent Jedha?"
"Join us," Andor said. "You need resources, water, food. We have resources. We need a safe haven. You have space and your shield. Ally yourself with us."
Jyn thought about it. Openly allying with the Rebellion would put Jedha in even worse a position regarding the Empire than they already were. But peace was not a good counterargument; it was never a good argument, not against justice.
Andor was right. Jedha needed food, and it needed water. If the Empire's war machine had struggled to provide food and water for its own, how would the Rebellion manage to provide for Jedha and its own? It wouldn't and so they would all die pointlessly.
Jyn tapped Kaytoo on the arm with the flat of her hand. With her index, she tapped out her conclusion. She saw his eyes dim slightly as he redirected power to his calculations. Eventually he nodded in confirmation of her estimate. Then he nodded his approval.
"We cannot offer you a place on Jedha," Jyn said. "There is tension enough with Saw's Rebels."
Andor drew himself back, back stiff and straight.
Jyn continued, "But we would ally with you. Jedha stands for justice. Jedha stands for the Rebellion."
And, she hoped, Cassian Andor would stand with her.
Three days ago an Imperial cargo pilot had defected. He'd come to Jedha, hoping to talk to her. His name was Bodhi Rook and he knew her from before she'd been Jyn Erso, Guardian of the Whills and Voice of Independent Jedha.
Instead, he had found Saw. It had taken a day.
After another day, Saw had found her and given her Bodhi's -- her father's -- message.
It had taken Jyn half a day to muster the courage to watch it. The message had contained a holo message for her, personally, explaining how her father had betrayed the Empire. It had also contained, explaining the bulk of the container, data plans for the Death Star, straight from Scarif. She'd spent years pretending her father was dead instead of working for the Empire and now she was finding the later was wrong and the former was true.
And now the Empire had come to Jedha.
There was chaos in the Temple, everyone rushing to battle stations and Jyn going the other way. She needed to find Cassian, give him the plans.
She whirled, blaster at the ready and aimed straight between Kaytoo's eyes. Kaytoo barely registered the blaster -- Jyn's battle-stress responses were well known among the Guardians and no one took offense.
"I found the traitor," Kaytoo said. "He's dead."
She didn't ask if Kaytoo was sure -- he was -- or who the traitor was -- there were no good answers -- or how he'd died -- it didn't matter. Now that the Imperials had landed and the shields were back up, nothing mattered except hope.
Jyn hastily checked that Kaytoo's paintjob was still intact. It wasn't; the red had been scratched off in various places, but Kaytoo was still recognisably not an Imperial droid.
"Where's Cassian?" Jyn asked. If anyone would know, it was Kaytoo.
"I'm here." It had been months since Jyn had seen Cassian wearing the hooded coat -- fur being an inadvisable fashion choice in a desert climate, as some might say -- but now he was wearing it again, including the insignia of his Rebel rank. He was brave and she hated him for it. If he had not done this, she might have entertained the thought that he would live, that he would survive and thrive on some other world. She was a dead woman and Kaytoo would die by her side, but she'd had hope Cassian might have lived.
Jyn grabbed the front of Cassian's coat. "Tell me your Rebellion's out there and you can reach them."
Cassian nodded. Jyn turned around, her hand still fisted in his coat, and proceeded to drag him towards the comms chamber. Cassian pried her fingers from his coat. His touch was delicate, almost tender, and she hated him for it, for trying to be kind. He was not a kind man. They were not kind people. She needed to hate him now so she would have no regrets when he died.
When she died.
"Jyn. I gave Kaytoo the communication codes. Go. Both of you, go. I'll see you when the fighting's over." Cassian let go of her and drew his blaster.
"Farewell," Jyn said. She was not a kind person, but she was not cruel enough to let him think she would survive.
"Farewell," Kaytoo echoed.
He picked her up and rushed her to the comms center in the eastern wing. The great shadow of the planet killer could not stop the sun from cresting over the horizon. A new dawn for a new hope, Jyn thought; the thought was not as bitter as she might have thought it would be.
Kaytoo put her down. Jyn could hear the Stormtroopers coming closer.
"Our chances of survival are low," Kaytoo said. "Very low."
Jyn might have laughed. Once a master of understatement, always a master of understatement. "Some things are worth dying for. Hope. Justice."
"Liberty." Kaytoo put a tentative hand on her shoulder, a gesture he had to have learned from Chirrut.
She hugged Kaytoo as if it were the last time, because it was. She had no words for what she meant to say to him, so she poured all her love and affection into the gesture. She gave him late nights over shield plans, early mornings over status reports, long treks in the desert in search of enlightenment or absolution, paint all over his chassis and under her nails, hidden confessions, laughter, all the fierce hope of knowing he had made himself free and how much she admired him for it, the way he always beat her in sparring matches, all the little ups and downs of their lives together. She gave him friendship and her heart burst with joy when he hugged her back.
He let go first and turned to face the Empire to win her the time she needed.
"Welcome to Independent Jedha, K-2SO," she whispered as the door to the comms center closed.
Jyn rushed the relay station. She grabbed the freqstick Kaytoo had slipped her during the hug and shoved it in the addressing slot. She addressed a quick prayer to the Whills that somewhere out there the Rebellion was listening.
The Whills were listening. Mon Mothma's voice came in through the receiver. "Cassian?"
"I am Jyn Erso, of Independent Jedha," Jyn said. As she spoke, she began opening the console and pulling out the wires. She put on the headset as she moved over to the shield propagator. "I have the plans of the Empire's planet killer. There is a weakness in the reactor core." She stripped the main wire of the propagator, unbraided the cables within and brought them back to the main console. "I will need to cut our shield to get enough power to transmit -- I don't know if our shield could have stopped it, but I'm sending you those plans too -- so you better be listening like you've never listened before."
The wires touched. The light flickered, once. Jyn flipped the switch.
Pain bloomed in her side.
A bullet had pierced through her abdomen to ricochet against the console. She turned around to see her mother's murderer standing in the doorway. She spat out a mouthful of blood.
"You're too late." Jyn smiled, blood on her teeth. Her pendant felt like a new-born star against her chest. "The fight doesn't end if we die here. Hope never dies."
Far above, the sky opened above the Holy City. The world went white as the blast claimed her; it was not a painless death, but it was fast.
The Force of Others was with her.