Halfway through his ninth glass of whatever oil-rig swill they were calling Dodbri whiskey these days, a Mantilorrian half-breed with rotting teeth insults former First Order General Armitage Brendol Hux, Commander of Starkiller Base, Destroyer of Planets, Harbinger of the Hosnian Apocalypse, to the extent that something really must be done. Armitage Hux, to his credit, lands at least two respectable, square, closed-fist punches somewhere in the vicinity of what he assumes must be a solar plexus, or perhaps a kidney, before tripping over his own stool, biting halfway through his own tongue when his face makes contact with the cantina floor, and being firmly, bodily, removed from the establishment by the back of his shirt.
"See you tomorrow, Commandant!" says the bartender, jovially, when it is all over, leaning down to pat Armitage on the shoulder and relieve his pocket of his last three credits.
"Fuck you," says Armitage. "I was winning."
"No, you weren't," says the bartender, and the doors hiss shut behind him.
(He thinks about spitting, aggressive and puerile and rattling; the pain in his back and in his jaw making his stomach roil, his mouth full of saliva and hot blood. He swallows, instead, feeling it slither down the back of his gullet, into the hollow pit of his stomach, and climbs unsteadily to his feet.)
“I was," he says, stubbornly.
In the cold and empty corridor, there isn’t even an echo to agree with him.
When it finally happens, the bridge is engulfed first by the shockwave—a spiking, bone-shattering blast that curls the skin from his body like wet paper—and then by the white flash of heat, a benediction of fire on his bared skull.
Before this, he is standing with his hands flat on the rail of a console, the air full of ash and instruments screeching, the inhuman wailing of buckling steel, and a noise like the great bellowing cry of a enormous perishing animal, the death-rattle of a star. He braces his palms against the metal and it gives, melting, like putty against his skin, his hands burned up to the wrists. And yet he stands firm. The planet around him is heaving like a cauldron of molten crystal, like the bubbling of rotten meat inside a ring of coals, it belches rock and snow and trees and the shimmering globules of its own innards up into its disintegrating atmosphere, and he still stands firm.
Somewhere around him, glass is shattering. Someone is screaming. Sometimes he thinks it is himself—a long, low, singular animal howling into the heart of a monstrous storm. Sometimes he thinks he hears it as an echo from across the bridge of time, as if the cracks splitting in the earth have unleashed a tremor through the long history of sorrow, of loss, of honor, triumph, failure, hurt, and wanting. Sometimes it is just a scream, from no one mouth, no singular direction, just a claxon in the burning air.
There is moment that always comes where he cannot see. All is fire, flame, a wash of brilliant ignited crimson across the inside of his eyes, his bones, his marrow painted with it, his sputtering and unworthy lump of flesh suffused with it to the membranes of his cells. It is like the moment he met the sublime, watching it scorch across the sleek velvet black of the universe’s sky, with spittle still hanging from his chin.
A roar, then silence. A vacuum of scarlet—terrible, still, endless, beautiful.
He wakes sweating, wet-faced, shaking, head pounding, muscles spasming like his body is giving up its last pre-mortem gasps.
He is heartsick and stricken, every time, that it is only a dream.
This time, the pure nauseous roil of his disappointment and the blinding lance of his headache seem to hit at exactly the same moment, which sends his head over the edge of the cot as he retches, and one of his hands clawing out wildly to stop whatever is making that screaming noise.
“Fuck,” he yells, and immediately regrets it, once he feels the sharp pull in his jaw where something must have clocked him straight across the mouth at some point last night. He dares to open one eye, squint into the dimness, running his tongue against the split in his bottom lip as he pulls himself back onto the cot. His mouth feels swollen, raw; the inside of it tastes like the belly of an incinerator. His left hand is aching, the bones creak unpleasantly when he flexes it against his chest. “Ah—fuck.”
The screaming noise is his alarm, which he’s rigged from his lifepod shuttle distress beacon, and requires him to throw something very heavy at it with great force (usually one of his boots), in order to get it to stop.
“Fuck,” he says, again, and takes three deep, rib-aching breaths before he’s able to muster the energy and force of will to lean over the cot again, locate a boot with a clutching hand, and hurl it at the opposite wall of the lifepod.
He lies there, one arm hanging over the edge of the cot, and lets the ragged pounding of his headache settle into the rhythm of his racing pulse; lets his eyes adjust and focus. Above him, the same rounded, rusted curve of the ceiling of the lifepod, instruments dimmed out months ago, dotted like dull and useless gems along the sides, the faint, sickly white glow of the internal bulb, rigged into the waystation’s generators now. When he turns his head on the cot, there is the darkened pod window, the escape hatch, the single chair and dead console. (He never thinks about the Finalizer, in moments like this, never: not of its gleaming surfaces and wide corridors and spacious echoes, of its bright coolness and atria like carpets of glass, of its gentle, buttery humming, the flawless turbine of its engine like the heartbeat of a powerful avian. He does not think about waking into refreshed vigor, into ambition, into the crisp and righteous light of beginning, of continuing.)
His routine, such that it is, then proceeds as normal, such that it is: he will pull himself up to sitting and brace his elbows on his knees until his heart stops racing and battering the inside of his ribs; he will reach out with one hand and find whatever remains of last night’s cigarras and smoke one until the nausea of the dream softens sufficiently under the nausea of the narcotic; he will tug on his boots; he will find the nearest of his two shirts and pull it over his head; he will get to his feet, find his blaster on the floor, clip it on his waist, and stumble out the hatch door into the dim, cold corridor of the waystation’s backend.
He has been here more than eighteen months now, and he still harbors a dull and seething hatred for it all: the grimy patchwork, the lack of water rations, the disorganized clutter of the backend hovel, the slum of cobbled-together, rusted-out freighter pods and shuttles and metal scaffolding hooked into the lifeless, useless rock of meteor crust. He hates how the whole misshapen lump just circles aimlessly in some long, undefined Outer Rim orbit, as if even gravity itself couldn't be bothered to tug the whole small, stupid thing into the path of a ravenous anomaly and put it out of its misery. He hates how no one calls it Waystation 4-X, but instead by that sick little slur, The 4X, or worse yet, The Forks, as if it deserves the childish respect and affection of pet name. He hates, however much it may have saved his life, how simple it has been to disappear. He hates, even more, how easily it came to him.
He hates that he is just another wandering bit of astral dust, atoms in the shape of a man forgotten on the edges of a universe with a cruel sense of judgment and no sense of humor. He hates that he imagines that when the other dirty, miserable bits of life on this rock look at him, all they see is something insane, amusing, endearing, even, in his clearly delusional fantasy of having once been the commander of a formidable armada that struck terror into the reaches of the galaxy’s stable center.
General Hux! Some lumpy bit of toxic skin in the shape of an alien species had chortled at him across the bar one evening cycle, some time in the third month of his arrival. That dirty hoo-man foetus isn't General Hux—he's fucking dead.
So be it, he’d thought.
He hates his constant headaches. Hates alcohol, smoking; hates the vices in their interminable chokehold on his productivity, self-worth, ambition, health. He hates the tremors in his hands that start before noon, the constant nausea roiling in the pit of his gut, the rattling wheeze in his chest that developed six months ago, after a bout with the Bondan Flu that left him bedridden and choking on his own mucus for ten days. He hates feeling the film of filth on his skin, like a sentient membrane, consuming him slowly from the outside-in. He hates, in the way that he can barely be bothered to feel any feeling at all, that there is no obvious reason to do anything about any of it.
He hates the cantina. He hates his lifepod quarters. He hates the corridors: half-rock, half-corroded metal, all grime. He hates the communal refresher. He kicks the door of it open with the toe of his boot and sneers at the smell, at the (thankfully) empty row of rusted stalls and drainage holes. It has been maybe two weeks since he last had a shot at a shower, with the water rations so strict and his perceived station status so low that nobody bothered to mention when they’d been briefly re-upped last week.
Beside the row of basins, there is a bowl of soapy water that looks, frankly, fucking fetid. The thought of washing any part of himself with it sends his empty stomach into a soft roil of displeasure, and he braces one hand against the ledge of sinks; closes his eyes, wills it to pass.
It doesn’t. His knees feel weak. There is a clammy sweat gathering on the nape of his neck, his palms. His body betrays him; he hates it—he hates it. It sends him careening, always, into a terrible somatic echo, towards the last time he was himself (righteous, tall, respected), and then everything compressed into a hot singularity of loss: everything—gone.
At the beginning, he had protested.
“Supreme Leader, I—”
“Fuck,” he whispers. Of all the nightmares he’s had now, feverish or drunk or suffocated by his own position, this one is the worst. It comes when he’s awake. It won’t leave, not really, not by any coaxing of the numbing properties of alcohol or drugs or sheer will of manipulation of his own memory, it won’t leave. He has yet to find a way to make it dissipate into the ether of his cells, to have it be a softly faded bit of unpleasantness, like the time his father first struck him, or the memory of his mother’s funeral, her white hands folded like small doves across her chest, a spill of golden-red hair strewn with lilies.
“Did you think I would be pleased? Did you think I would forgive you your complete and utter failures simply because you managed to bring me my single knight, half-whole and unconscious?”
He had protested.
Supreme Leader, he had said. I have done everything you ordered. The Resistance—
Snoke had been unmoved.
“You and your incompetence have cost—us—everything!”
It had already been decided, he realizes now.
“You have clearly reached the limits of your usefulness, General.”
It had been a blind entrance, his arrival with the staggering remnants of the First Order fleet and the comatose, bacta-floating body of Kylo Ren. He had drifted furious and heartsick and seething into his own execution chamber.
Snoke in the flesh somehow worse than the holoprojection. That withered, pockmarked face and diminished body cutting him off at the legs and leaving him swinging in the dark. He could have reached out and killed him, Armitage thinks. I could have strangled his small throat with only one of my hands, he thinks. I could have left him bleeding black blood, slumped at the foot of that ridiculous throne, he thinks, with one shot of my blaster.
No one would have stopped me, he thinks. I was second-in-command.
“You will be given a lifepod. You will take it, to wherever you think best to ruminate on the immensity of your failure. You are summarily relieved of your duty to the Order.”
The words had settled over him like a wash of warm water against his cold and clammy skin. He supposes now it had been something like a gift, to have been given no choice at all, to not have had to feel the keen sting of it until he had woken, dazed, as if from some sunlit reverie, hours later and skating at the edges of an asteroid belt, the steady, whining noise of the distress beacon searing a pattern of lancing heat through his pounding head.
“I will be given a lifepod. I will take it, to wherever I think best to ruminate on the immensity of my failure.”
In the ‘fresher, now, the memory has a strange and hollow ringing about it inside his skull, as if it were a holofilm he might have watched when he was young. He stares at his face in the grimy bit of mirror drilled into the metal wall: a now-familiar purpling under his eyes, matted beard, regulation cut gone to shit and streaked with sweat and grease. A new bruise along one cheek, the puffiness on his lower lip from whatever got him in the mouth settling into a darker, scabby red. He leans in, both hands on the edge of the basin; watches in the mirror as he catches at it with his teeth, feels the quick sting, the healing crust burst.
“I am relieved of my duty to the Order.”
He spits into the sink, and turns his back on his reflection.
“Good morning, Armitage,” sing-songs the Twi’lek from behind the bar. Young, blue-skinned, with some no-doubt deeply traumatic sexual slavery in her past, Armitage assumes, she worked the early cycles when the cantina sold coffee (mostly instant caf) and stimtea, spoke with a lilting childlike tone, and seemed to be the only person in the entire waystation backend that called him by his name, instead of the seemingly endless string of sarcastic, nonsensical military rankings.
“You look like shit,” she says, with a wide smile, placing a steaming cup down on the bar in front of him. She pronounces it like she does not really know what it means.
“Yes,” he says. “I’ve seen.”
“I have put something in there for you, yes?”
She winks, and the scalding combination of caffeine and liquor slides down his throat; he can feel the itch of the tremors in his hands fading before they’ve even had time to completely send his day careening into the territory of one-hundred-percent bollocks-up.
In another time, he thinks, he might have attempted something approaching flirtation. She was always very kind to him, for some unfathomable reason (even if perhaps the reason was simply that she was very kind to every piece of cosmic dirt that sidled up to her bar and drooled enough credits into her palms for her to feel like she really was moving up in the world, now that she wasn’t being forced to take all manner of alien pricks into her blue cunt at all hours of the day). In another time, he thinks, he might have deigned to nod approvingly, silently, enough that she might know that he was pleased, but not too much to assume that they should speak, that they were equals.
“Thank you,” he says. It feels hollow; strange and thick on his tongue. He stands, drains his cup, digs a hand into his pocket for whatever credits are left. (There are none, of course.)
“On the house,” she lilts, waving him off with a soft and graceful gesture. “I know you have been working very hard, lately. Although do not tell the others, yes? They will be jealous!”
There is a part of him that will immediately file this away, this moment—the moment when General Armitage B. Hux, the single hope of a dynastic spark, prodigy, accomplished strategist, galactic nightmare, was cowed into awkward, slump-shouldered shame, by the pity of a pretty whore.
The rest of him will continue to pretend.
Jealous. The cantina doors hiss shut behind him. If they knew—
To stalk rigid-spined, tense-legged, aching and still half-asleep, from the cantina on the backend to the shipbay on the far side of the waystation, takes just enough time for the caf and liquor to start its work, but not nearly enough time for his headache to dissipate. Instead, by the time he has climbed the last scaffolding stairwell to the doors of the bay, it has settled into a steady pressure in the back of his skull, radiating into his temples.
The Forks’ shipyard constitutes a dozen bays, stacked on top of one another like the hive of some large and injured hibernating insect, half-completed and haphazard, connected to each other with the treacherous metal arteries of steel scaffolding, spiderwebs of ladders and the cluttered eaves of catwalks. When he’d first arrived, there had been an old man with a rusted prosthetic arm who seemed to be involved some scheme involving old techdroids and smuggler freighter repair, until the day about three weeks later when the old man simply wasn’t there, anymore, and no one on-station seemed remotely interested in where he might have gone. The graveyard of his labor had been shoved into one corner of the bay by an airshaft, picked over for useful parts and valuable metal, and left to rot.
The bays are never full: usually four or five dark, deadened, hulking shadows of the hulls skulking in the shadows of their dockings—they arrive without fanfare and leave quickly, as silently as possible. Sometimes, if one stays for longer than two or three week cycles, its occupants having neither the will nor the ability to leave on their own power, it will eventually get towed into the backend and made a permanent fixture, a new cell in the toxic little tumor of life growing out of the meteor’s crust, barely worth the oxygen thinly pumping through the corridors.
There is one freighter now, in an upper bay on the far side of the yard, that seems to be made up mostly of all the worst bits of every Outer Rim scavenger ship in existence. He skirts the bays, pulls himself up onto the scaffolding, and ducks under the hull until he finds the open hatch; from inside the darkened hole, there is the the hum of a laz-spanner and the warm flickering of sparks.
He leans up, raps his knuckles on the outside of the hull; the sound of the spanner stops short.
“You’re late,” comes a voice from inside the hole. There is the noise of someone moving about in the hull, a dull echoing of metal scraping against metal, and then a clench of small, pearly-colored fingers extends downwards, and unceremoniously hands him a fistful of white analgesics.
“I’m not late, Chumma,” he says, taking the pills and swallowing them dry. “No one on this blasted rock ever knows what time it is anyway.”
“They wanted out by third cycle, and we’ve still got to overhaul this mess of rotted-out repulsorlift cages, and now we’ve got a new dock in Bay 11 that rolled in last cycle that needs the hyperdrive looked at.”
“What’s wrong with it?” He pulls himself up into the hatch, lets his legs dangle out the hole, scans the inside of the freighter’s underbelly.
“I don’t know, you strange speckle-faced human, that’s why we’ve got to look at it.” As Armitage’s eyes adjust to the dimness, the little mass in the corner pulls itself up from a crouch and hands him a second prepped and humming laz-spanner, small face pulled into an expression that Armitage now knows is supposed to be a grin. “But they’ll pay us 200 creds for it.”
Chumma Blat was of some unfamiliar Outer Rim speciation, of indeterminate gender and origin, standing barely three feet high, with eyes like wide, yellow flare pulses and skin the color of pearl that wrinkled like tissue in the folds of its joints. It spoke with a voice like a low whistle, and seemed to have the complete monopoly on whatever passed for “honest” shipyard work on this hollowed-out and crumbling rock since the departure of the old droidtech. It tended to regard Armitage with something approaching incredulous bemusement, found the color of his hair very unappealing, and asked no questions (other than: Where in the frozen hells have you put the spanner? And: Are you going to finish that coolant repair any time this cycle, or will I have to do it myself?), for which Armitage was gently, almost mindlessly grateful.
“I want work,” he had said, when he first stalked up to Chumma in the half-light of the corridor outside the cantina, six weeks after first getting his lifepod towed into the backend of The Forks: his shoulders set, nails digging half-moons into the flesh of his palms. Need was too much like begging; he was not there, not yet.
“What can you do?” said Chumma Blat, its eyes like beacons in the dimness.
I can lead armies into battle, he had thought. I can command warships and build empires. I can destroy whole worlds, whole systems, wipe out life with a single word. I can wield the power of a star and bend it to my will. I can dream into the darkness, into the chaotic abyss of history and ruin, and where before there was only nothing, I can make order.
“I can fix ships,” he’d said.
“Any good at it?” asked Chumma Blat.
I was second in my class at the Academy. I drafted the first schematics for Starkiller in my own hand. I built an army from their births and inspired the currents of their very blood with loyalty. I could draw you a map of the Finalizer from memory. I handpicked my officers with the kind of acuity and judgment only my father could truly appreciate. I followed orders. I minded a wild, childish creature with a penchant for expensive, violent tantrums and negligent sabotage, and still plucked him whole from the cold skin of a quaking, dying planet and delivered him healing into the arms of he who had asked. I am supremely, singularly competent.
“Very good,” he’d said.
“What's my cut?” He says now, tugging a pair of goggles from the techkit Chumma has hauled up into the hatch and strapping them to his head.
“40,” says Chumma, turning back to the grimy mess of repulsorlift cables.
“You little thief, if you think—” he starts.
“60, then,” says Chumma, and turns on the laz-spanner.
“70,” he yells, over the sparks and the hissing.
“Deal,” says Chumma, flicking off the spanner and pulling the folds of its face into a grin, again. “You are no businessman, General. But it is enough to get you nice and drunk for several days, I think.”
It pats him on the arm, and turns back to the twisted piles of metal and wires.
Armitage grimaces. He does not protest. There is work to be done, and at the end of the day, the blasted little alien is more right than it knows.
It is nearly two full cycles later when Chumma leans back on its small heels and declares the repairs well enough done. Armitage gathers up the techkit and gives the cages one last disparaging once over, as Chumma jumps down from the hatch and skitters off to the shipyard exit, returning by the time Armitage has carted the techkit down to the lower level, its hands full with two bowls of capsule noodles.
(It also returns with a small metal flask of sharp, clear, medicinal homebrew, which it plunks down besides Armitage’s thigh without comment. He takes three long pulls, which is enough to quiet the tremors that have already started again in his hands, and gives it back, silently. He has always suspected that Chumma may not actually even drink itself, but indulges him to the extent that it keeps his fingers steady and his functionality just on this side of serviceable. It is a strange and foreign species of generosity. He does not like it.)
They eat in silence, like they always do, crouched on the broken and discarded wing of a starfighter, grease-covered and flecked with the hot spittle of melted metal and laz-spanner sparks. Armitage is nearly finished, face buried in the oily broth, when he notices that Chumma has been staring at him.
“What,” he says.
“Your face is broken,” remarks Chumma, mouth full of noodle.
“I fell,” he says.
Chumma’s laugh is like a squeal. “Into a fist?”
He lifts his face from his bowl again just long enough to glare.
“Ay, ay,” Chumma waves a dismissive hand at him, throws down its empty bowl, hopping down from the wing. “Always so serious, General. You finished?”
“What’s next?” he tosses his bowl into Chumma’s, snaps the goggles back onto his head and hauling up the techkit.
“Hyperdrive,” says Chumma, beckoning him. “Here in the back bay.”
They clamber up together, to the very back of the shipyard, the farthest bay from the exit, where the catwalks are cluttered with droid parts and discarded bits of techkit, and the shadows gather aggressively against the two only working strips of overhead light, which flicker and strobe unpleasantly, like frightened insects.
He expects nothing. He expects another freighter. Everything up until now, from the moment he first settled into the nauseous realization that nothing again would ever really matter, not in the way that it had before, everything up until now has been about the increasing dullness of losing all forms of expectation. And so it takes a moment, when he climbs the last ladder and pulls himself up into the bay behind Chumma, before he realizes what he is seeing. It is like having a ghost materialize from the darkness of a dream, like the flicker of a holoproj in the corner of his vision, the static of an ancient comm-message in his ear.
He stops short.
“This is First Order,” he says. It sounds hoarse; it catches in his throat.
“What?” Chumma is humming under its breath, running its little fingers over the hull, trying to find the panel for the underbelly hatch.
“This is—” he swallows, tightly. His chest hurts; he feels vaguely dizzy. “This ship is registered to the First Order.”
“It’s not registered,” says Chumma, absently. “Use your small human eyes. Where are you seeing registration?”
It is right. The hull is black, blank, matte. No insignia. No callsign. Frantically, Armitage leans in, ducks under the hull to the other side of the ship, lets his palm run over the underside of the wing, looking for the serial encryption.
But this is Upsilon-class, he thinks. It has to be. He is sure of it. Smaller overall, maybe, and the large stabilizers replaced with what looked like a less identifiable profile of a rigid cross-wing, but the bulk of the hull is the same: flat, square, the snub-nose and perfect little protrusion of the cannons.
“Whose ship is this?” he demands, tugging the goggles from his head with a snap. His cheeks feel hot; his skin is prickling. His headache is suddenly a low roar in his ears, pounding in his jaw.
Chumma, from the other side of the hull, is still humming.
“Chumma,” he snaps, loudly. “Where’s the bloody manifest for this ship?”
Chumma stops, tilts its head, blinks its wide, reptilian eyes at him, and then bursts out laughing.
“You are funny, sometimes,” it chortles. “A manifest.”
“Yes,” he hisses. “A manifest—who brought this in?”
“General,” says Chumma, calmly. “How would I know that?”
“Who was it?” he says, climbing back under the hull. He wants to fucking throttle the little alien. “Didn’t you speak to them?”
Chumma lifts its slight shoulders in a shrug. “It was a human. One human. Said the hyperdrive was broken. Like I said before. I didn’t ask for the family history, you know.”
“What did they look like?”
Chumma grins. “Like you.”
It sighs, waving a hand. “I was trying not to be so species-est, General. It was a human, you know you all look alike to me.”
“You’re bloody useless, you—”
“I—” says Chumma, turning to him and poking him in the midsection with one, long, pearly finger. Its yellow eyes are narrowed. “—am where you get your credits. And we have work to do. Stop making so many loud noises out of your very large mouth and help me get this hatch open.”
Armitage clenches his jaw, a prickly, anxious sort of heat growing in his chest. He reaches out, and with one fist, slams the hidden button for the underbelly hatch. The door on the underside of the hull slides open with the perfectly sibilant hiss of a seamless, flawlessly executed hydraulic seal. It makes his heart ache.
“There,” he says, sharply.
“Oh,” says Chumma. “Good, you found it.”
“Chumma,” he hisses.
“Hmm?” says Chumma, absently snapping its own goggles to the top of its head.
“I didn’t find it,” he snaps. “I designed it.”
Chumma pauses, squints its large, yellow eyes at the button panel, and then turns back to Armitage. “And it’s very nice,” it says, climbing into the hatch, dragging the techkit after it.
“Oh my god,” says Armitage.
“There’s nothing wrong with it,” he hisses at Chumma, for the sixth time in the last half-cycle.
“Said there was,” Chumma shrugs, although it won’t budge from where it is crouched over the hyperdrive motivator, its small pearly face pulled into pursed little frown. It has tried everything it knows (which even Armitage will admit is quite a lot); it seems almost frustrated by its inability to diagnose, stymied by perfection and performance: expecting rot and rust and finding seamless joints, flawless consoles, the honey-ish purr of the sublight engine.
“There’s nothing wrong with it,” he says, again. “I can tell just by looking at it.”
“So go, then,” says Chumma, uncharacteristically tight. It is poking at the alluvial dampers connex, which Armitage knows does not need any poking at, even remotely.
“Fine. This is a waste of time,” he sneers, pulling himself to his feet. If this is a trap, he wants at least two more exits in view, and a far higher vantage point than the darkened hull of a mysterious shuttle. “Fuck your 70 credits.”
Chumma does not respond.
“‘allo, it’s our Supreme Leader,” says the half-breed behind the bar, when Armitage squeezes between two jabbering Sullustans to find his usual stool in the back corner. “All hands at attention, then?”
“That ‘joke’ is two years old, BeeTee,” says Armitage, feeling the tight-jawed tug of his racing pulse, the creaking of his anxious joints. He points significantly at the bottle of whiskey on the bar rack. “And you’re an ugly fuck with too many eyes.”
“Ugly fuck who’s pourin’ your drinks, mate,” says BeeTee. “So you can mind your ginger mouth.”
“You stole three credits from me last night,” says Armitage, downing the first drink as quickly as BeeTee can push it at him.
“You owed me nine,” says BeeTee. “We’ll make it an even four yet if you can make it out of here tonight without cartwheelin’ out onto your soft white little belly because a Mantilorrian decided your beard was offensive.”
“Was that the problem?” He tries for his best sneer. “Here I was thinking it was because I called his mother a cross-species fraternizing slut.”
“If you’d gotten all those words out in that order, Commandant, I’d have been very impressed,” says BeeTee, pouring him another. “To mind, I also would’ve punched you meself.”
“Fuck off,” he growls, turning in his seat a little, craning his neck so that he can scan the cantina crowd for whoever might have been the human that Chumma had spoken to, whoever might have steered that Upsilon shuttle into the Forks shipbay sometime last night.
“Lookin’ for someone?” BeeTee says.
He feels his cheeks color, snaps his eyes back to the bar. “Anyone’s better than you,” he tries. It sounds hollow, distracted. He knocks his drink back, lets the empty tumbler glass skitter on the counter when he lets it go.
“Used to be,” says BeeTee, leaning in, pouring him one more. “You just kept to yourself, like.”
“I assure you,” he says, deliberately only making eye contact with his glass of whiskey. “That is still my most passionate intention.”
BeeTee snorts. “Three fights this month, mate.”
He lifts his head only long enough to sneer. “Was not.”
BeeTee lifts a withered hand, counts them off: “Mantillorian, human, the one with the green bits.”
Armitage purses his mouth; chews at the inside of his lip. The memory is vague, but he’s positive he hadn’t been sure what that green one had been called either.
“All I’m sayin’ is,” says BeeTee. “I’ll keep servin’ you. Up to you to keep that ugly head of yours on straight.”
He is about to say, Which one of us is the ugly one, when he feels a tug on the hem of his shirt. He turns on his stool and Chumma is there, peering up at him between two massive Sullustan thighs, hand extended with a fistful of credits.
“Told him there was nothing wrong with the ‘drive,” it says, as Armitage gathers them up, counts them on his lap—35 in all.
“Still insisted on paying half,” continues Chumma. “So for you, just enough for tonight, maybe.”
“Aye, he can stretch that far enough for two nights if he’s nice to me,” says BeeTee, leaning over the bar.
Armitage flips him off, stuffing the creds in his trousers with his other hand.
“See you tomorrow, General,” says Chumma, waving a pearly little fist of fingers as it totters off toward the exit.
“What’ll it be, then?” says BeeTee.
“Just—” he hesitates, feeling the weight of the credit chips in his pocket, the stinging hiss of whiskey against the back of his tongue, the anxious clench of something in his bones and along his skin, like the prickling of the hairs on the back of one’s neck when you know you are being watched in the dark. “Just, more.”
Usually, it is between drinks five and six when he starts thinking of his father. Usually, if he has enough credits, the thoughts will be gone by drink number eight, punctuated by the last time he had seen him alive, while nursing number seven.
The room had been warm, almost to the point of stifling; he had felt the reassuring hum of an ion engine like a caress through his legs. His father’s lips been stained with the dull bloom of wine. Armitage can’t remember now, what was said.
Sometimes he imagines it wasn’t important. It was just another conversation, another small gesture of his prowess and demonstration of his pride where he tried just too hard, spoke a little too loudly, held his own spine too straight and rigid. Just another exchange where his father always knew exactly how badly he craved the things that only his father had the power to deny him; the only space in the entire universe where he could be denied anything, where he could be made to beg, in small pauses, in silences, in muddled gestures and breath held in the miniscule black, wet space of a mouth between clenched teeth, for anything. Sometimes he imagines that it doesn’t matter at all. Sometimes he imagines that it is insignificant.
It had been three weeks before he was to take command of the Finalizer. They would promote him—to General. Maybe because of it, he thinks, sometimes. It was reported that it was an accident. So unfortunate, such an illustrious career, to have been so cruelly shortened by the unintended chaos of the cosmos, that Commandant Brendol Hux would be felled by a simple technical blunder, mechanical failure—or, worse: human error.
He lifts his head. He hadn’t realized he’d put it down in the first place.
BeeTee is looking at him, significantly.
“What,” he growls. His throat is rough, dry; his face feels hot. His glass is empty. He nudges it towards BeeTee with an elbow.
“You’ve got company,” says BeeTee.
Armitage squints at him; his vision swims. “Funny,” he says, snorting when BeeTee’s refilled his glass. “You’re very funny.”
BeeTee rolls his third eye, flicks his towel in Armitage’s general direction. “I’m not funny,” he says. “And you’ve got company. The kind that’s been starin’ at you across the ‘tina since you stumbled your arse in.”
“No one,” he says, firmly, into his glass. “Is here. For me.”
“I’d say he is, mate,” says BeeTee.
“Stop. Just—stop.” He wants to push his eyeballs all the way into the back of his skull with the flat of his thumbs, just to put a biting stop to the headache that’s started to crowd into his temples. “I really am only interested in being left alone.”
“Wish I could help you, Commandant, but he’s li’erally right behind you.”
In hindsight, it is one of the moments in his life that he will most actively, passionately regret, despite even all the rest of it to come: swivelling in his stool, mouth open for retort, shoulders tensed to meet whatever slimy bit of backwater Outer Rim filth has decided to slither out of its hole and accost him, and instead finding the literal wind knocked out of him directly through the clench of his heart and the suddenly tight cage of his ribs.
His hair is different: longer, darker, and pulled away from his face in a knot at the back of his head. But his face is the same: long-nosed, pale-skinned, disconcertingly young and gentle along the jaw, the two moles dotted on his forehead and cheek like the speckles of flicked ink. The cauterized sear of the wound has settled into a streak of dull red scarring, edges like torn paper. He is unmasked.
Armitage Hux is, in that moment, suddenly and acutely aware of how he must look: grime-covered and gaping, unwashed for weeks now, beard untrimmed, hair wild, bruised in the face and red in the eyes, wearing a two-year-old pair of grease-stained uniform trousers and a threadbare jumper he won from a blaster-scarred, shifty-eyed human with an old-Coruscant accent in a game of holochess nine months ago, fisting a glass of possibly the worst whiskey in the entire galaxy.
“Fuck,” he says.
“Hello, General,” says Kylo Ren.