“Damn.” Poe squinted at the horizon, then wiped the soot off his forehead. “Just our luck, huh.”
BB-8 dropped from the insides of the ship; it looked around then slowly rolled up to Poe, drizzling sand in its trail as it strained up the gentle curve of the dune. When it reached Poe, it could see what he saw: lots of nothing.
The sand was red and orange, the skies very, very blue. There was only one sun, bright yellow.
“That’s Miller, right?” Poe said, blocking out the star with his hand. “Has to be Miller.”
<Confirmed,> BB-8 answered.
There was no other habitable single-sun system around this quadrant, but Poe still swore under his breath. He’d hoped for about anything else.
“So we’re on Miller-3,” he said dejectedly. “Great.”
He didn’t need BB-8 to confirm that one; if they’d crashed on any other planet orbiting the small star, Poe was pretty sure he would have been too dead to comment on it. Miller-2 was the one with the infamous metal rains, if he recalled his third year classes correctly. As far as habitable worlds went, Miller-3 was only barely better. Mostly sand and salt water.
Poe turned round and returned to the ship, his feet kicking up little geysers of sand as he jogged down the dune.
“Alright,” he said. “So what happened?”
<The power converter overheated attempting to reach light speed,> BB-8 booped.
“Why is it always power converters,” Poe mumbled, putting a hand on the small freighter’s side. It was burning hot, but that might have just been the sun, pounding down on them like it was trying to make up for being the only star around.
“Did you send a distress signal?”
BB-8 sounded apologetic. <This model of radio cannot pick up signals from this quadrant.>
The ship was slightly smoking still. Poe sighed. “This wouldn’t have happened in an X-wing.”
They were going to need a new power converter, at the very least, which would have been simple on any other planet than Miller-goddamn-3. Gods, Poe didn’t remember if it was even inhabited. It had to be. Right?
<Poe, alert. Poe.>
Poe turned round and saw BB-8 turned towards a pile of red rocks in the distance, nervously rocking back and forth in the sand.
“What is it, buddy?”
But then he saw it, too, tucked under the sharp rocks: three dark shapes hunched in the meagre shade of the solar zenith. Poe unclipped his helmet from his belt and put it on, activating the visor. The heat must be messing with it, too, but after a few fuzzy seconds, the image focused and zoomed in.
The first two were wrapped in layers of torn, flowing leather with bug-like goggles on their heads. Though Poe couldn’t be sure, he thought they might be human. He really couldn’t tell about the third one, which might have just been a bundle of cloth.
His brain was beginning to boil already; he took his helmet off and clasped it to his belt again, then scrubbed his hand up his face, raking his fingers through his damp curls.
“Alright,” he said, “might as well pay them a visit soon, B. We’ll need help getting off this rock, and we can’t risk them coming over here and finding out about your little cousins.”
His ancient freighter carried fifty hundred precious dormant BB units to be delivered to the Resistance, which sorely needed them. Quicker, lighter and more agile than the R2 droids, they were the best astromechs in the galaxy. General Solo had been extremely proud of his little trick—packing them into such an old piece of junk. No one, he’d said, would ever think of ambushing a ship which looked like it was about to break down.
Well, no one had ambushed Poe, but the ship actually had broken down, so he couldn’t really speak for Han Solo’s tactics.
<Scavengers are no match for BB-8,> trilled the little droid.
“Glad to hear it, buddy,” Poe said, sitting down under his ship.
The four legs it deployed at landing were long enough to leave room under its belly, which meant shade. Sure, the red rocks weren’t too far, but it would still have been suicidal to walk over there under the scalding sun. If there were people around, it meant the days weren’t inhumanly long; Poe would rather wait a few hours than risk sunstroke.
And indeed, less than five hours later, the heat receded to acceptable levels as the sun went down the horizon. Poe finished his ration of water, then got up, checked his blaster and nodded at BB-8. “Come on, B. Time to visit the neighbors.”
Poe crossed the patch of sand, turning silver under his feet as the light changed. The two hooded figures were watching him approach; the first one was just standing there like a sentinel, while the second one was busying themselves around a burner. The bundle of cloth did stir a bit as Poe approached; there was a third creature under there. Maybe it was some sort of animal.
“Hi there,” Poe said. “My name’s Poe Dameron, this is BB-8, and we’re here for business.”
He’d learned quickly enough that this single sentence often kept the shooting to a minimum. Few things were truly universal, but greed was one of them.
Up close, Poe could tell those two were definitely human, even though the reflective goggles threw him off a little. They had long, antique blasters strapped to their backs.
“Heya, Poe Dameron,” said the first one. Thank the Force, at least he spoke Basic. His accent was really thick and strange—it sounded like he’d gotten wasted on moonshine once and never really snapped out of it. “We are Karpov the Magnificent, and this is Sharp Shilago.”
“G’day,” said Shilago, without looking up from the burner. The voice was low-pitched and smooth, and Poe thought it might have been a woman’s. Shilago had sewn pieces of metal and broken glass over her cape, from the hood down to the middle of her back; they weighed over her shoulders like some strange, unfinished coat of mail. It looked like the top half of her had frosted over. Her face disappeared entirely behind her goggles and some sort of gas mask.
Karpov took off his own goggles and pulled down his hood, displaying what looked like ritual scarring across chalk-like skin. Poe was almost sure he was human, now. Maybe 87% sure.
<And the third one?> asked BB-8.
Karpov jumped, then crouched in a sudden movement which made BB-8 roll back in surprise.
“What is that?” he asked, grinning like a madman. “What is it?”
“A BB unit,” Poe said. “Sorry, this one’s not for sale.”
“We want it,” proclaimed the Magnificent. “We must have it.”
“No,” Sharp Shilago said suddenly, still poking at the burner. It stank of fuel, but its small, steady flame was more than welcome now that the skies were darkening. “Piece of metal junk, no good, don’t need more. Food, water. Yes?”
“I have food,” Poe said. “A week’s worth. I’ll give it all to you.”
He almost took a step back when Karpov’s hungry, bloodshot eyes and Shilago’s goggles focused on him.
“A week’s worth?” hissed Karpov.
“Seven days,” Shilago said, to make sure.
Poe almost said a week was twelve days, then remembered the Miller system hadn’t been claimed by the Republic. Or anyone, for that matter.
“Sure,” he said.
“And in exchange, what?” asked Shilago, shaking her cape—the metal scales tinkled in the cooling air.
“I need to get to a city,” Poe explained. “I need parts for my—”
Suddenly there was a blade to his neck.
“Tell you what, rich guy,” Karpov said in his ear, “what if we slit your throat and take the food? Huh? What if we—” he yelped and leapt back when BB-8 burned his thigh through his thick pants.
<Scavengers are no match!> BB-8 beeped furiously.
Poe hadn’t even had time to be scared; he laughed, then bumped his knee into the droid’s body. “Thanks, buddy.”
“We’re dying,” Karpov moaned, clutching his thigh. “The beebee thing—it killed us.”
Even under her mask, Shilago did not look impressed. “Forgive Karpov,” she said. “Warboy once, crazy forever.” Her goggles turned to BB-8. “Good stuff, this one.”
BB-8 purred appreciatively.
“Stay here tonight,” Shilago concluded. “Eat with us. Tomorrow, we take food, you take guide.”
“Works for me,” Poe said, sitting down next to the burner. Outside the circle of heat, it was getting actually freezing. What a rotten ball of a planet.
He hoped he wouldn’t get stranded here too long. He wasn’t too worried; after a while, General Organa was bound to send scouts after him, and they’d detect his ship’s beacon eventually, but he didn’t know how long it could last before they did.
Then he realized if the radio didn’t go through, the beacon’s signal wouldn’t either.
He pushed this thought away in the recesses of his brain. No use dwelling on it now.
It could have been a relatively peaceful night, until Poe finally found out about the third guy and things got unpleasant.
Poe had gone back to his freighter to bring back the military rations he’d promised. It was no skin off his back; he had enough for roughly two years, and it was disgusting stuff anyway. Karpov and Sharp Shilago sampled it, then swallowed three rations each without blinking. Life around these parts really was tough.
BB-8 was guarding the crate of food for the night; Poe was confident it could defend itself if needed, but he was also pretty sure Karpov and Shilago wouldn’t try anything. Karpov had tried, and BB-8 had given him the equivalent of a slap on the wrist, and that was that.
Karpov had taken off his hooded coat, leaving himself bare-chested and wearing only thick leather pants, taking a reddish tint near the burner. He was too skinny, with long gangly limbs; his torso was hollow and as unnaturally pale as his face, though the dye was flaking off in places. Shilago had pushed up her mask to eat, just enough to see her mouth. Her skin was brown and wrinkled like an old apple, with a thin white scar cutting across her lips.
Poe’s rookie years were long gone; he’d been on bizarre planets among more bizarre people, and he’d witnessed many disturbing rituals, such as Wookie coming-of-age ceremonies, complex Ewok mating dances, and Senate hearings. But he was still a bit unprepared for Karpov to jump to his feet after dinner, burp loudly in the deep silence of the desert, and walk to the bundle of cloth to give it a kick.
“Up!” he said. “We require dessert!”
The cloth slipped off and the man underneath slowly sat up in the red glow of the burner.
He was human, too, blinking sleepily, his face pinched and crumpled. His hard-boiled tan made him closer in color to Poe than to Karpov’s mortuary mask or Shilago’s dark skin. The man’s hair looked like he’d hacked it off himself while blind and drunk, with a weird little cowlick sticking up. He wasn’t looking directly at any of them, his eyes frighteningly empty.
He was powerfully built under his thick clothing, but he still opposed no resistance at all when Karpov grabbed his arm and dragged him out of his bundle, close to the burner. Karpov shoved him to his knees, then shoved him again, pushing him face-down into the sand. The man spluttered a bit, but then kept still and quiet, keeping his absent gaze to the ground. Karpov took off his belt and bound the man’s wrists behind his back, looking a bit too excited.
“Um,” Poe said, uneasy.
<What is happening?> BB-8 trilled.
The man tensed all at once; his eyes came into sharp focus and jumped up at BB-8, staring at it in alarm. Which—okay, the BB units were new, but it was still just a little droid.
But Poe didn’t ponder this mystery for long, because then Karpov tugged the man’s trousers down, grabbed onto his hips and took him in one brutal thrust, pushing a grunt out of him.
“Whoa!” Poe said, scrambling to his feet. He hadn’t even noticed Karpov opening his zipper. “What the hell are you doing?”
“Calm down,” said Shilago’s low-pitched voice. She looked perfectly undisturbed by Karpov’s grunts and thrusts. “Business arrangement.”
“Business?” Poe repeated, still half-poised to go wrench Karpov away from the man.
The belt was only wrapped loosely around the man’s wrists, but he was making no move to free himself. Karpov snatched the end of it while he worked him over, tugging at it like a bad rider tugs at reins. The man’s chin was rubbing in the sand with each snap of Karpov’s hips; his face was twisted in mute pain.
“Your beebee made him tight, Dameron,” Karpov said, his hollow chest heaving with effort, pulling so hard on the belt he wrenched the man’s arms at a painful angle, “scared him and now he’s too tight. Too bad, fuckbag, too bad!”
“A man wants to cross the desert,” Shilago said, like a riddle. “Nothing to sell, but himself. Only thing to do, eat him or fuck him.” She pulled down her mask over her face. “He picked fuck.”
Karpov was almost done; his thrusts were getting quicker and more erratic. Eventually, he pushed all the way in one last time, groaning loudly, thighs shuddering. The man shook just a bit, but stayed perfectly silent. Karpov then let out a breathless laugh and let go of the belt; Poe quickly averted his eyes as he pulled out and zipped himself up, absolutely unselfconscious.
Just as the man tentatively moved to kneel up, Karpov shoved at him, sending him sprawling into the sand again then stepping on the back of his head.
“Want a go?” he asked Poe, grinding the man’s face into the sand with his boot. “We share. Food, fuck, all in good company.”
The man didn’t try to escape or move or speak, though he probably couldn’t breathe.
“No,” Poe said, nauseous. “No. I’m good.”
Karpov shrugged, removed his boot—the man started to splutter again—then looked over his shoulder. “Sharp?”
“No,” Shilago said, disapproving. “Sand in his mouth.”
Karpov laughed and kicked the man one last time, then lost interest. The man lay very still for a minute, then quietly pulled his clothing up and curled up where he’d been left, close to the burner, as if this was a favor he must enjoy while it lasted.
Poe was left feeling with a very sour aftertaste in his mouth. He felt like he shouldn’t have listened to Shilago, should have done something, but it was over already, too late now.
Afterwards, he had a hard time going to sleep, and when he finally managed to close his eyes, he didn’t dream of home.
<Poe! Poe, wake up, Poe. Wake up, Poe!>
Poe’s eyes snapped open; he hadn’t slept well and remembered where he was at once. Karpov the Magnificent and Sharp Shilago were already up and about, pulling a flightless two-wheel piece of junk from under the rocks.
“Hey,” Poe said, getting to his feet. “Where are you going?”
“Back to Furiosa’s Citadel,” Shilago said.
“Right,” Poe said, taken short. “I’ll follow you and—”
“No,” she said, “not the place for you. Need parts, need to go to Drachma’s Junkyard.” Her hand waved in some vague direction. “That way.”
“You promised to guide me,” Poe said, scandalized.
“No,” Karpov grinned. He hadn’t put his coat back on yet; his chalked-up skin looked even more sickly pale in the nascent daylight. “We promised you a guide. Fuckbag will do the trick.”
Poe opened his mouth, paused for a second. “Wait, but—does he know where to go?”
“He better,” Karpov said, “he needed a ride, we provided is all. Directions, not our business. Now he’s got a new ride, you got a guide and a fuck, and we go home with food! Win-win-win.”
Shilago was already astride what looked like an ancient wheelcycle. Karpov picked up the crate of food, charged it over his shoulder, then climbed in behind her. “So long, Poe Dameron!”
“Good luck,” Shilago said flatly through her gas mask. Then she revved up the engine, and they vanished down the dune in a scintillating wave of sand.
“BB-8, buddy,” Poe muttered, watching them go, “I think I just threw seven days of food to the wolves.”
<Poe has made worse mistakes,> BB-8 chirped, ever so helpful. <Remember the library on Uqbar?>
Poe shivered. “Yes, and please stop talking about it.”
He looked over his shoulder; the man had turned into a bundle of clothes again overnight, half-buried in the sand to keep warm.
Poe sighed a little, rubbing the back of his head.
The thing was—he knew he could not take in every stray in the galaxy, he knew that, like he knew he’d drive himself crazy thinking he could fix all woes. Every planet had its lot of misery, of unjust wars, of smoking ruins and hollow-eyed children. The lesson had been drilled into him a long time ago, by the soft-steel voice of his mother. You can never save everyone. To each world its own.
But he was weak at heart, and even though his newly acquired sex slave might turn out homicidal or catatonic, Poe just felt distantly relieved at the thought that Karpov wouldn’t have anyone to rape by the burner tonight.
A hot, dry breeze ruffled his hair, and he winced a little. The temperature was rising already, even though the sun wasn’t above the horizon yet. Dropping his hand, he tried to be positive. His ship must have cooled down enough to fly low; even if his new companion could not guide him, they were bound to find a city eventually.
Steeling himself, he trudged up the dune towards the red rocks.
“Hey,” he said. “Buddy, you awake?”
The bundle flinched; then the man’s head emerged from it. His wild eyes looked around until they focused on the tiny dot of Karpov and Sharp Shilago, disappearing in the horizon—Shilago’s shoulder mail caught the first rays of the sun, blinking bright.
The man let out an inarticulate noise and pushed up to his feet, apparently ready to scramble after them.
“Hey,” Poe said again.
The man’s eyes snapped to him. He looked scared and crazy, and he still had his cowlick. Poe felt the stupid urge to comb it back for him.
“It’s okay,” he said, trying to be as reassuring as possible, “I sort of accidentally bought you?”
So reassuring, Dameron.
“My name’s Poe, and this is BB-8,” he tried again. “Remember?”
The man’s eyes glued themselves to the droid. He did remember, but apparently, it didn’t made him less panicked.
“He’s not dangerous,” Poe said. He shoved at BB-8’s head, making it slide down its body before it righted itself with an indignant warble.
<Poe! Boundaries, Poe!>
“As long as you don’t try to hurt either of us,” Poe amended, because he still had some sense of self-preservation.
The man just stared at him now. He looked absolutely bewildered and deeply wary. His eyes kept shifting to look at something on Poe’s right, but when Poe glanced that way, there was nothing.
“Okay,” he said. “Look, I’m trying to get to—Drachma’s Junkyard. Heard of that?”
The man stared at him again, for so long Poe became scared he didn’t understand Basic. But, eventually, he gave a slow nod.
“Great!” Poe said, encouraged. “Do you know how to get there?”
A second nod, after another respectable amount of staring.
“Well,” Poe smiled, “if you can get me there, I’ll take you wherever you want. Hell, I can even get you out of Miller’s system, free of charge.”
The man looked a bit less wary, if still very confused.
“Come on,” Poe said, “let’s go back to the ship first.”
The man cautiously trailed after him across the patch of sand separating them from the freighter. When they climbed up the last dune, his eyebrows went up.
“It’s junk, I know, but it flies,” Poe said.
The man looked at him.
“It flies,” he rasped in a highly doubtful tone.
His hoarse voice was a surprise. Poe blinked, then said with an acknowledging wince, “Yeah, I know, nothing to be proud of—I mean, one miserable lightjump and the damn converter malfunctions, can you believe that?”
The man did not look like he believed—or, indeed, understood—a word Poe was saying.
The sun was beginning to burn Poe’s skin through his spacesuit, and he thought about Shilago’s reflective cape with longing. “BB-8, remind me to buy a good jacket later.”
<This man has a jacket,> BB-8 booped.
“No, you can’t just take other people’s jackets,” Poe said.
For some reason, this sentence seemed to dissipate a bit of the man’s distrust. He looked at the freighter, then back at Poe, like he wasn’t sure what to do now.
“You hungry?” Poe said, remembering how he hadn’t been given anything to eat the night before. “I’ve got more military rations, if you’re not opposed.”
A famished shadow shone through the man’s eyes. “Hm,” he grunted. “No. Not opposed.”
“Got to tell me your name, though,” Poe said. “You have one?”
The man stared at him for ten long, weird seconds. Then his eyes fled to the side. “Max,” he said, licking his lips again before muttering “yeah,” like he was confirming it to himself.
The shade beneath the freighter was still cool enough to eat there. Max inhaled everything Poe gave him. He did not ask for more, but when Poe offered, he nodded without a word and wolfed down another ration like he hadn’t eaten anything in days. Maybe it was the case, Poe thought, wincing internally at the ugly memory of Karpov thrusting into him while Shilago tended to the burner.
Poe didn’t like Miller-3, he really didn’t.
“Hey, BB-8,” he called. “How’s the converter?”
<It will still not allow the hyperdrive to function,> BB-8 said, idly tracing eights around the freighter’s legs, <but flying low should be fine.>
“Alright,” Poe told Max. “Looks like we can head off.”
Max blinked at him then said, with that rock-rattle voice of his, “It talks.”
Poe blinked in return. “BB-8? Well, of course. You don’t speak binary?” He gestured at the droid. “Hey, B, come over here.”
BB-8 turned, then rolled closer, curious. Max tensed.
“Say Max,” Poe said.
BB-8 understood at once, and turned to Max. <M-A-X,> it beeped.
“Hear that?” Poe said. “That’s your name. All three letters.”
Max looked at BB-8, puzzled, then glanced at Poe.
<M-A-X,> BB-8 repeated. <Hello, M-A-X.>
“It’s saying hello,” Poe said.
Again, Max looked at it, then back at Poe, like he was trying to understand whether Poe was messing with him. Unless Max was the best actor on this side of Proxima Six, he didn’t look like he knew anything about ships and droids.
He didn’t know about them at all, Poe understood suddenly.
Goddamn walking skies, but he’d managed to underestimate how lost and desolate this planet was. Max wasn’t that old; if he’d grown up in his own little crazy world, it was entirely possible he did not know about—everything else.
“Oh,” Poe grinned, “you’re gonna be fun. Come on,” he said, getting to his feet, “we’d better get inside for that part.”
The look of confusion went away, like Max was back on familiar ground. He nodded and heaved himself to his feet.
Poe opened the hatch and pulled himself up. “Come on, BB-8,” he called, and he heard the ship’s insides churn as BB-8 was pulled up and secured in its belly.
Max climbed in after him. He looked closed-off again, which surprised Poe a little. Usually, land-dwellers were all eyes inside a ship, even a freighter as rotten as this one. Shrugging, he leaned down to close the hatch.
When he straightened up, Max was unbuckling his trousers. Poe rewound to the last thing he’d told him and promptly realized he was the biggest idiot in the galaxy.
“Wait, uh—Max, buddy, wait,” he said. “I don’t—this isn’t what I meant.”
Max’s hands stilled. He was back to looking wary, on unknown territory again.
“I just need a guide,” Poe assured him. He let himself smile again. “And a copilot, if you’re up for it.”
With its power converter barely functioning, the freighter couldn’t climb very high—less than a standard mile, but Poe pushed close to that limit, just for the pleasure to see the dunes flowing into the distance. At first, Max looked like his mind did not compute; but once he realized they were actually flying, his eyes widened in alarm and he grabbed Poe’s arm in a painfully tight grip.
“Get down,” he snarled.
Poe was a bit disappointed by that reaction, to be honest.
“They’ll spot us,” Max hissed.
“Who will?” Poe asked, puzzled.
“Leftover war boys. Not as nice as Karpov. Get down.”
Poe was a bit nauseated to imagine Karpov could be considered nice on this planet or another. He grinned to chase the thought. “Okay, so what if they spot us? Can they fly?”
Max’s death grip on Poe’s arm faltered a little. Apparently, he hadn’t thought of that.
Still, he looked scared and more confused than ever, so Poe took mercy on him and flew a little lower—might as well go easy on the converter, anyway. When they were close to brushing the dunes, Max completely let go of his arm but kept looking preoccupied as he scanned their surroundings. Poe felt a bit stupid now. He should have known it might freak him out.
At least he wasn’t anymore the dead-eyed thing Karpov had fucked into the sand.
Poe expected him to ask questions, about the ship, about BB-8, about where Poe came from. But he didn’t.
The sun had to go down again eventually, and the night came back like a freezing weight over their shoulders.
Poe was blinking tiredness out of his eyes; he hadn’t slept well the night before, and the cycles on this planet were surprisingly long after all. When he asked BB-8, it confirmed him a whole rotation took roughly twenty-four hours. Poe had grown up on Yavin 4’s gentle ten hours cycle, and spent most of his adult life in military barracks when you slept whenever you could. These long days and long nights were not for him.
Max didn’t flinch when Poe said his name, which Poe took as a good thing. “How long till we get there, do you think?”
Max huffed through his nose. “Depends. Hm. How fast does this thing go?”
Poe tried telling him, but their units of measure absolutely did not match and it took a while. When they managed to understand each other at last, Max finally looked a bit impressed. “Ah,” he said. “Two more days then.”
Poe considered flying through the night, but he was really too tired for it and quickly brushed off the thought. He landed the freighter between two high dunes, then powered it down.
In under three minutes, deathly cold seeped in.
“Ugh,” Poe said. “BB-8, can you fire up the heat cells—oh, never mind,” he said when he remembered converters also took care of the heating on old models. “Another freezing night for us, huh?”
<Not with a copilot,> BB-8 offered, its beeps coming out of the dashboard.
“What?” Poe said, even as his teeth began to chatter.
<It is standard military procedure for heat cell failure. Take an emergency blanket and share heat with M-A-X.>
Max looked up, then glanced to Poe for confirmation.
“Yeah, that’s your name,” Poe confirmed. “Nice catch.” He shuddered, rubbing at his arms.
<Poe,> BB-8 groused, <the temperature is way below acceptable levels.>
“No,” Poe answered in Yavinian. “He’s been used as a sex slave.”
Max looked worried, trying to follow a conversation he did not understand. Poe felt bad and reluctantly translated, “It says we should huddle for warmth.”
The expression on Max’s face turned to cautious hope, which threw Poe for a loop. He had expected him to be revolted by the thought of human contact.
But then he thought back on the way Max had curled as close as he could to the burner the other night. Obviously, this had been a luxury for him—he’d otherwise managed by half-burying himself into the sand. He must be looking forward to sharing Poe’s bed, to be warm.
Poe did not like Miller-3.
“I don’t want to do what Karpov offered, buddy,” he said through chattering teeth. “Okay?”
Max’s shoulders relaxed by a fraction. He shrugged and got up.
When Max took off his shirt, Poe saw his tattoo, and he almost forgot to shake for a second.
It was dark in the tiny cabin, and Poe had never been fantastically good at reading Basic, even less when it was handwritten. He could only catch a few words, but they were enough to make him sick.
No name – full life clear – two good eyes – no busted limbs – piss OK – genitals intact – heals fast – ISOLATE PSYCHOTIC – keep muzzled –
“Did Karpov write that on your back?”
The words had escaped him. For some reason, Max looked like this was almost funny to him. “No,” he said. “Karpov didn’t bite.”
He had been an actual slave before, then, Poe thought, trembling with cold. Maybe, to him, Karpov and Sharp Shilago really had been a lesser evil.
What am I doing, Poe thought, and then he tried to turn his mind off as they wedged themselves onto the bunk. It was—very narrow, and Max was not a small man. He turned his back to Poe, who shifted to his side; they weren’t exactly spooning, but it still made things a lot warmer all of a sudden.
“Gods,” Poe groaned as his muscles relaxed. “I’m not made for cold. I’ve spent most of the past decade up in stations, regulated temperatures are all I know anymore.”
Max said nothing. Maybe it was easier for him not to acknowledge where Poe came from—so he could strike the whole thing off as a hallucination later, and get on with his life. Poe tried to imagine how it would be, not to know about the Galaxy and then to suddenly be bunking with a pilot aboard a transgalactic freighter all of a sudden.
He supposed Max looking confused most of the time made sense.
“Hey, don’t shank me in my sleep, okay?” Poe mumbled, drifting.
Max still said nothing, but it might have been because he was asleep already.
Poe woke up in the middle of the night. It was still freezing cold right outside the covers; but underneath them, plastered as he was against Max’s back, he was very warm and very, very hard.
“Great,” he muttered.
It took him a second to realize Max was awake, too. The opposite would have been surprising, with the way Poe was poking him.
“You know, I don’t usually come to a planet just to fuck the natives,” Poe mumbled, trying to maintain some semblance of dignity.
This was really just great. Now he had to go sleep in the pilot’s seat. He was already cold just imagining it.
“I don’t mind,” Max mumbled.
Poe huffed through his nose. “Yeah, well,” he said darkly, “that’s not exactly my preferred level of enthusiasm in a partner.”
He turned round with difficulty, trying not to let too much freezing air in, until they were back to back. It wasn’t ideal—he was very close to falling off the bunk altogether—but he firmly thought of Karpov’s chalk-like skin, then of Hutts in heat, then of Ben Organa, until his erection faded and he was able to sleep again.
He woke up feeling like he had been up all night, which was just unfair. Max was sitting up next to him, blinking sleepily at his surroundings. He still had his goddamn cowlick and generally looked like a lost puppy.
Genitals intact, his tattoo boldly advertised.
Poe threw an arm over his eyes and wondered what would happen if he just lay there until the Resistance came for him.
“BB-8,” he croaked, “please tell me the caf machine didn’t break too.”
<It is fully operational,> BB-8 beeped cheerfully. <However, we were not supplied with caf upon departure.>
Poe considered letting himself fall to the floor and lying there for a bit, but then he rolled out of bed and pushed to his feet, because he still had a modicum of dignity left.
The freighter had been freezing; now it was already beginning to overheat, and it would cook them alive if they didn’t start moving soon in order to get a bit of ventilation.
Poe hated this ship, he hated Han Solo, and he hated Miller’s fucking system.
Flying low was the dullest thing in the world, and Poe tried to pass the time by thinking about how he’d tell Snap and Pava and the others about this when he finally got home.
So, get this, guys, I’m flying this piece of crap because of General Solo’s genius plans, when the damn thing malfunctions mid-lightjump and lands me on the most desolate rock in the galaxy. First thing I do there is buy myself a sex slave with PSYCHOTIC tattooed in bold letters on his back—
Max looked a little more curious than the day before, peering around the ship in between bouts of staring at the smooth flow of the dunes. Maybe he was only just now letting himself realize he wasn’t dreaming. Poe wondered for how long he’d stayed with Karpov and Shilago. He almost asked, but he was afraid Max couldn’t even answer the question—or maybe afraid he would.
“Why Drachma’s,” Max asked suddenly.
Poe startled a little—Max had never spoken unprompted before, and barely spoke at all as a general rule.
“Drachma’s Junkyard,” Max repeated. “Won’t have the parts you need. No ships here.”
Poe had been trying not to think about this. “There must be,” he said, though he was aware he was mostly trying to reassure himself. “The planet’s been charted by the Empire, back in the day—and also you’re here.”
Max just frowned at him.
“Not you specifically,” Poe explained. “Humans in general. Miller-3 was obviously colonized at some point—though I can’t fathom why,” he mumbled. “Hell, my freighter is so old, it might’ve been built here for all I know.”
Now Max looked like he would have declared Poe crazy if not for the fact that they were currently flying. For the rest of the day, he kept surveying the barren landscape, his face pinched in concern.
<M-A-X,> BB-8 booped. <Hello, M-A-X.>
Max blinked, then looked up at Poe.
“It’s saying hello again,” Poe grinned, then winced as he unstuck himself from the pilot’s seat with a disgusting wet noise. God, even with the ventilation of flying all day, the ship was still a goddamn furnace, and he was drenched in sweat.
<Look at his hair,> BB-8 said, rolling backwards to see Max’s head better. <His hair is funny.>
Max looked mystified, and Poe was beginning to regret letting BB-8 board the ship for the night. For some reason, it had taken a shine to Max and kept bumping into his legs.
“BB-8, you’re bothering him,” Poe said eventually. “Shoo, c’mon.”
<BB-8 is not a bother. BB-8’s company is delightful.>
“You’ve literally backed him into a corner,” Poe said in dry Yavinian. Puzzled by the little droid, Max had unconsciously stepped back until he had his back to the wall.
BB-8 looked at him, then at Poe, then at Max, then at Poe, then at the ground and booped a sad apology.
Max helplessly looked to Poe again.
“He’s saying sorry for confusing you,” Poe translated.
Max looked even more confused for it, but glanced down at BB-8 and said, with that rock-rattle voice of his, “It’s fine.”
BB-8 whizzed happily, instantly cheered, and Poe couldn’t help grinning. Someone who was nice to droids could not be all bad. And indeed Max was turning out to be one of the best-behaved passengers Poe had ever carried, if a bit on the silent side.
“Alright,” Poe said, wiping sweat off his face again—he’d peeled his orange suit down to the waist, sleeves dangling along his legs; but even in the white tank top he used as an undersuit, the heat was still unbearable. “I’m gonna go wash up while it’s not freezing. Grab some food if you want.”
The only good thing—the only good thing—about flying a pre-Empire freighter was the water shower. Modern ships only had the sonic versions. Which were great—efficient and all. But water, gods. It was still burning enough outside that the shower felt like fresh heaven over Poe’s back and sides, water trickling down into the hatches at his feet. He didn’t even have to worry about wasting it, since it was all recycled as per usual in deep-space ships. As long as he didn’t think too long about what that implied, he was fine.
“Walking skies,” he groaned, stepping out, “I’m a new man. Want to go?”
Max was still eating, but he finished up quickly and got to his feet. He was obviously ready to take anything Poe would give him, and he disappeared into the small cabin while Poe finished toweling off and zipped up his suit to the neck.
“Don’t worry about saving water,” he yelled over his shoulder, “it’s recycled.”
Max gave no sign that he’d heard him, but Poe heard the shower starting a few seconds later. He kicked his feet up the dashboard and grabbed a military ration, which didn’t even taste as awful as usual. Cleaning up had greatly improved his mood.
Max wasn’t long to come out, bare-chested. Without his layer of grime and the sand crusting his face, he looked younger. Droplets of water were still caught in his half-shorn hair, but even that hadn’t entirely taken care of his cowlick, which just looked a bit flatter now.
Poe felt a bit uncomfortable when he saw how utterly covered in scars he was. It wasn’t like Poe was a stranger to war, but—he had an ugly feeling most of those had happened while Max was in no position to defend himself.
The sun disappeared behind the horizon, and the wave of cold seeped in like a shapeless ghost.
“You should dry up,” Poe said. “Time for bed.”
Poe did not have time for things to become awkward that night. They wedged themselves into the tiny bunk, burrowed under the cover, and he felt like no time had passed before he woke up to Max shaking his shoulder.
“Uh,” he said. “What is it?”
Max’s eyes were glinting in the obscurity. “Outside,” he said.
Poe pushed the covers off him, instantly shuddering in the cold. He listened, but there was nothing to be heard. Max, though, was getting agitated. His eyes snapped to something invisible, lingered for a couple of seconds, then came back to Poe.
“Outside,” he repeated.
“Max, buddy,” Poe said, trying to think of a way to phrase it. “Do you think maybe you’re just—”
Before he’d even finished his sentence, a huge shock almost threw the ship to its flank. Poe was ejected from the bunk and slammed into the wall. In silent mode, BB-8 flashed panicked lights along the consoles.
“Shit,” Poe wheezed, sucking enough air back in to yell, “BB-8, what’s going on?”
<Humans,> BB-8 said. <They have spiky vehicles.>
Poe frowned. Binary was great for space battles, but it sometimes came across a few hurdles in new environments. “It says there’s people outside,” he translated anyway, pushing to get up. “With… spiky vehicles?”
Max’s his lips tightened into a dark line. “Buzzards.”
Poe’s frown deepened. Great, now he couldn’t understand Basic either. “Buzzards?”
There was a second shock, greater than the first, and they both lost their balance again. Max was the first to get back up. “We need to leave,” he said.
Poe grabbed the hand reaching for him and they both hurried out of the cabin to their seats. “Strap in,” Poe yelled, sitting down and booting up the antique dashboard. “We’re gonna fly away right under their noses.”
A third shock—and Poe distinctly heard the noise of the hull tearing.
“BB-8, remind me to murder Han Solo,” he said, bringing the ship to humming life. “No, better yet, remind me to paint a dick on the Millenium’s windshield. Alright, hold on—”
He pushed the thrusters and the freighter heaved itself off the ground—then slammed back down in the sand.
They hadn’t been just hit; they’d been tethered.
Poe swore in Yavinian and fired up the engines again, but even though the freighter must have enough traction power to drag whatever anchored them, there was no accounting for the balance of an already very unstable ship. They might crash for good this time.
Max was already out of his seat. “Need a way in,” he said.
“A way—yes,” Poe said. “There’s a hatch, right there—”
Max nodded as he located it; he wrenched it open, then disappeared into the entrails of the ship with surprising swiftness. Poe hoped whatever had pierced through hadn’t damaged his precious cargo of dormant droids.
“Industrial claw, heavy chain,” Max called almost at once.
Poe swore again and called up whatever visuals were available. He switched between screens until he saw the vehicles outside—they had spikes indeed, sharp rusty spikes pointing at the night sky. An enormous chain linked the back of the ship to a truly monstrous beast of a truck, blackened and heavy, gigantic wheels yellow with sand.
The Buzzards had backed off in a hurry, apparently surprised by their prey’s ability to fly. But they wouldn’t be long to rile each other up and move back in.
“There’s a power saw,” Poe yelled. “On the wall! Blue with a green stripe, take the safety off before you press the red button on the side! Don’t cut your hand off!”
Max did not answer; for a second, Poe was scared he couldn’t figure it out, but then he heard the keening of the saw.
“Go for it, that thing will cut through anything—but protect your face!” he shouted.
The keening turned into the high screech of metal on metal. Poe readied the old freighter and grabbed the commands.
“Done,” Max yelled hoarsely.
The static-filled visuals were clear enough to show the Buzzards moving in, readying bazookas and blasters as they ran down the dune.
“Grab onto something!” Poe yelled back—and then he pushed the thrusters to full power.
This time, the freighter blasted unchallenged into the night. BB-8 flashed reports across his dashboard, and Poe kept a close eye on them, but even with a hull breach, the ship’s balance wasn’t messed up to the point of spinning out of control. Poe flew higher and higher, and for a second, the stars seemed deliriously close; he wished he could have reached the orbit, hit lightspeed and see them streak across the windshield like paint on a canvas.
But BB-8 wasn’t long to remind him the converter was beginning to strain, and Poe brought the ship close to the sand again.
He went in a straight line for a few miles, then landed as smoothly as he could and unbuckled himself from his seat, hurrying towards the hatch.
No answer. He threw his legs down the hole and let himself fall through.
The hull breach was—well. It was sizeable, which pretty much ruined all of Poe’s hopes of ever leaving. But more importantly, Max hadn’t fallen through it; more ruffled and crazy-eyed than ever, he’d been holding on for dear life onto the power saw itself, which was tethered to the wall as a safety measure.
“You did it!” Poe said, overjoyed. He helped Max to his feet and clasped him in his arms. “Good job, buddy.”
Max stiffened a bit under his touch and Poe was quick to let go, but he was still beaming at him and Max even managed a vague shadow of what could have been a smile.
“Told you,” he rasped, sounding a bit breathless. “Fly low.”
Poe blinked, then grinned. “You got me there. C’mon, let’s go back up. We deserve some hot—whatever they did supply me with.”
Neither of them was going back to sleep after that. Poe tightly closed the hatch so the draught wouldn’t make them freeze to death, and they flew on.
For a little while, there was only companionable silence. Escaping death always made Poe a bit dizzy, and he gently rode that wave as far as it would carry him. Max might be feeling the same; in the bluish light of the solitary moon, his face looked softer, more peaceful, even though he was still squinting at the silver dunes in mistrust.
“I didn’t ask you,” Poe said after a long silence. “Where do you want to go? Afterwards?”
Max turned his head to look at him. Then he went back to looking into the darkened distance.
“Nowhere,” he said.
Even though his answer didn’t exactly surprise Poe, his mind still rebelled at the thought. “You sold yourself to Karpov and Shilago so they’d take you nowhere?”
“Mm. No,” Max said. He paused a second, like he needed to scrape his throat for words. “Away from somewhere.”
This made more sense to Poe, and he was careful not to ask. “You know, I meant it when I said I could take you out of Miller’s system,” he said instead.
Max looked at him.
“Miller,” he said. “This—” he vaguely waved at the dunes and scowled, “—world.”
“Yeah,” Poe said, because Max was tentative enough discussing galactic stuff—Poe wasn’t about to bother him with the specifics.
“To go where?” Max asked.
It was Poe’s turn to look back at the dunes. “You tell me, buddy. Anywhere. There’s a lot of choice out there, lots of different planets.”
Max looked away as well.
Eventually, he finally asked the question Poe had expected him to ask from the start. “Where did you come from?”
“Yavin 4,” Poe grinned. “Very far away, different quadrant. It’s a very green place.”
Some kind of emotion twitched across Max’s face, but it vanished too quickly for Poe to identify it.
“Do you have green at all, around here?” Poe asked.
“Used to,” Max said, and then he said nothing else for the rest of the night.
At dawn, Max woke up from his doze and put his hand on Poe’s wrist.
“We’re close. Get us down.”
Poe was oddly moved by this light contact. The rising sun painted Max’s features with a pure orange glow; there was still a faint shadow of madness in his eyes, something wild and raw nothing could extinguish, but his hand was gentle on Poe’s. He kept counsel with his own ghosts and did not let them scare anyone else.
Max must have seen something on his face; uncertainty flashed through in his gaze, and he let go of him.
Cursing inwardly, Poe grinned in reassurance, trying to lighten the mood. “Gotta say, you’ve been the best copilot I could hope for. Best human copilot,” he corrected when BB-8 trilled in protest. “BB-8, that goes without saying, come on.”
It worked, somewhat, though Max kept staring at him for a second longer.
Max insisted they did not land too close to Drachma’s Junkyard, for fear of attracting attention. Poe tended to agree, but that meant they had to walk almost a mile to get there. Even though BB-8’s absence made Poe nervous, he’d left it to guard the ship. In case of extreme emergency, it could fly it away and come back later.
Poe was not fond of hiking in the sand, and the sun was beginning to beat down on them already, but he was galvanized by the thought of leaving soon. He knew a hull breach complicated things even more, but even a patched-up ship could make a lightjump. Probably. He’d figure it out. As long as he had a converter…
When they got there, though, he felt what little hope he still had deflate like a burst balloon.
It was a valley filled to the brim with—junk. Scrap metal, twisted wrecks, blackened shells, piles and piles of cars and trucks and monstrous, mangled hybrids, and not a single thing resembling a ship. It stank of oil and petrol and hot metal. Poe thought he’d known what to expect—thought he was prepared not to give in to discouragement, but gazing upon this desolate heap of junk, going as far as the eye could see, he realized he’d been wrong.
“Hey,” Max said. The look on Poe’s face must have been a sight to behold for him to speak up.
Poe laughed; it sounded hollow and wrong. “No, I’m—it’s okay. Look at all that stuff. There’s no way we won’t find what we need.”
The look of concern on Max’s face was too much; Poe let himself slide down the steep dune and climbed on top of an old upside-down car. It creaked ominously under his weight. He took a deep breath, then looked up at the sky, blinking fast so his eyes wouldn’t water.
It would be fine, he thought, breathing deeply. Someone would come for him eventually. It was up to him to shorten that delay.
He sniffed determinedly, then started walking from wreck to wreck, hoping to see anything that’d resemble the technology he knew.
Even though he must not know what to look for, Max was definitely looking for something. He walked in circles that kept getting larger, scanning his surroundings—sometimes startling and glancing at something that wasn’t there, before he started walking again.
At first, his path intersected with Poe’s every few minutes. Then it became every fifteen minutes, then every hour, and then he did not come back at all.
Poe was not too worried, even though the sea of—garbage, it was garbage—covered a much larger ground than it had looked from high up on the dunes. They’d find each other again eventually. Or maybe his brain was too fried to worry anymore about anything. The heat was horrible, most of the wrecks almost white-hot with it, sizzling under Poe’s boots and melting the rubber of his soles. He’d covered his head and face with a dark cloth, and sounded the ground before him with a long, rusty pole so he wouldn’t fall and break something.
When the sun finally began to go down, Poe lowered his improvised mask, took a few oppressed breaths, and decided to call it a day.
Finding his way back was not too complicated; he was tired and he almost did slip and twist his ankle once, but otherwise he had no trouble recognizing the landmarks he’d passed. Huge twisted truck with gnarled bumpers, looking like some sort of horned tauntaun: check. Then small curvy car with flakes of green paint still valiantly sticking to its rusty shell: check. A bunch of two-wheels, half-melted together for some mysterious and probably horrific reason: check. And then more cars, more trucks, more bikes, more wheels, and finally, sand—which Poe found more welcoming than he’d thought possible. It was deceitful, he knew, giving in under his weight and making him spend twice as much energy on his steps, but at least it was smooth and cool and unlikely to suddenly break open and swallow him in a cloud of rusty dust.
The problem was that he was still perfectly alone.
“Max?” he called.
Maybe he’d gone back to the ship?
Gods, they should have discussed this beforehand. Poe had not been worried before, but now his mind had cooled down a bit and the ignoble chill of anxiety was twisting up his gut.
“Max,” he shouted louder. “Max, can you hear me?”
There was no answer.
At a loss for what to do, Poe sat down in the sand and watched as Miller touched the horizon and set it on fire. It was the best hour of the day, when flaming heat and freezing cold met in a heavenly truce.
Poe waited and waited, but Max did not come back. He was getting really worried, and he had no idea what to do. Once it got cold, he could definitely not stay here, and he wasn’t all that certain he could find his way back to the ship in complete darkness—he should already be getting a move on.
Getting back up, he took a deep breath, ready to shout as loud as he could for Max, but a weird noise stopped him.
He shut up and tilted his head to hear better.
It sounded like… like seabirds. Like the mindless, high-pitched cries of seabirds. It was coming from the heart of the junkyard.
Poe threw a last, helpless look over his shoulder in his ship’s direction, then climbed onto a car and made his way towards the noise, tripping and slipping a bit on rust and metal. The air was getting colder by the second.
“Max?” he called again, heart beating, and Max did not answer but the chatter got louder. It was not seabirds, thought Poe, it sounded a lot like it but it wasn’t. He got himself on top of an eviscerated bus, stood high above the junkyard—and then he saw.
It was a gaggle of kids.
Some of them were paler than snow with bright golden hair, other darker than night with eyes and teeth very white, most of them a uniform sand-brown or rust-red, all of them dusty and dirty and chattering excitedly to each other in a language Poe did not know. They progressed easily in the junkyard, climbing atop the tallest wrecks, jumping easily over the gaps between burst-out shells, as sure-footed and agile as a tribe of Ewoks.
Max appeared behind them, brow furrowed as always, trying to keep up with this prepubescent herd—looking like he wanted to tell them to be safe but painfully aware he was the one who should watch his step.
Suddenly, the kids noticed Poe; a cheer went up from their disheveled crowd. Max looked up, saw him, and gave him a weird little salute.
Unable to close his mouth, Poe awkwardly climbed down from the bus and reached some sort of platform which allowed him to hurry towards them. A few kids ran up to him, and then it was all of them, speaking excitedly and jostling each other pressing around him. They were tugging at Poe’s clothes, sniffing him, making comments to each other and touching him everywhere they could reach.
Poe gaped at Max, too overwhelmed to even find a question to ask, and it was the closest he’d seen Max to laughter.
“They’ll know,” he said gruffly, getting closer. “If what you need’s here.”
When he understood, Poe could not fight the wide grin spreading over his face. “Max,” he said, even as the kids kept molesting him, “Max, you—”
“Promised them food, though,” Max went on. “And, ah, a ride.”
“A ride?” repeated Poe, trying to keep his balance.
“Yeah. Your ship?” He shrugged. “Flying. They’d like that.”
Poe did laugh, out loud, like he hadn’t since his crash. “Oh,” he said when he was able to speak again, “yes, that’ll be my pleasure.”
The kids, apparently frustrated not to be able to understand him, turned to Max who scrunched up his nose and said a few words in their language. Instantly, there was a burst of renewed excitement and Poe almost toppled backwards under their combined weight.
“Okay—okay, that’s enough, let me breathe,” he laughed, pushing them back. “Max, what are we going to do with them?”
Max blinked at him.
“It’s getting cold,” Poe explained. “They won’t all fit in the ship. For the night.”
Max shook his head—there was no need. No, of course the kids didn’t need Poe to shelter them—they’d survived well enough all the nights before. Poe felt a bit stupid. You can’t save everyone—he really must remember that, or he’d go mad.
“Hey,” Max said, crouching down. The attention of the kids was mostly diverted to him; he talked to them, his words as halted as they were in Basic. They nodded gravely, then suddenly scattered as quickly as they come, galloping in the junkyard as easily as they would have on flat land.
Poe blinked a little, still disheveled from the onslaught and confused as to what was happening now. Max walked up to him. “Bring the ship here tomorrow. They’ll be waiting.”
The grin was back on Poe’s face, almost painful with how wide it was. “Buddy, I don’t know how to thank you.”
Max shrugged. Poe shook his head, still smiling, and lightly punched him in the shoulder before they made their way back.
“G-g-gods,” Poe said through chattering teeth as they got to the freighter, “finally.” They’d left the junkyard as it was beginning to get dark, and he could see his breath plume in front of him.
<Poe!> chirped the ship with BB-8’s voice. <Good to see you. Nothing to report.>
“N-nothing to r-report either for t-today,” Poe said, opening the hatch with aching hands, “except that I h-hate deserts.” He slipped into the freighter, which was only barely less cold yet felt like a warm blanket thrown over his shoulders. “Ohh, you don’t know how lucky you are to be metal, B.”
<BB-8 is fully capable of appraising temperature change.>
“I know you are, buddy.” He waited for Max to climb in, then closed the hatch. The difference in temperature hadn’t soothed him for long, and he was already beginning to shiver again. He stripped down to his undersuit and tugged Max by the arm. “Come on, bed, I’m going to lose a toe.”
Max said nothing—he wasn’t even shivering, the bastard—but he obligingly followed Poe to the narrow bunk and wrapped him in his arms as they settled in.
It was only after a minute that Poe thawed enough to reflect upon the strangeness of this position. It was not exactly affectionate, he didn’t think; rather practical, since neither of them risked falling off the bunk like this, and it was much better when it came to keeping warm.
Regardless, Poe was glad. As a pilot with an uncanny knack for getting stranded, feeling too far away from home sort of came with the territory; but that didn’t mean he’d gotten used to it.
“Thanks,” he sighed again as he shifted to get more comfortable.
If Max wondered what he meant, he didn’t say.
For once, Poe woke up before Max did.
During the night, they’d moved and rearranged themselves, and Max had burrowed in Poe’s arms instead, like an animal seeking warmth, or maybe protection. He was twitching in his sleep, the same way he sometimes did during the day, hearing things that weren’t there.
Poe was reluctant to wake him up by leaving the bed, so he tried calling, “Max?”
Max twitched more violently—then his eyes snapped open, unseeing for a few seconds before they focused again. He looked at Poe, who smiled at him.
“Sorry, buddy,” he said. “Gotta get up.” He carefully let go of him and slithered out of bed before stretching, clenched fists brushing the low ceiling. He grunted, then relaxed, feeling a bit less crumpled. “Good morning, B.”
<Good morning,> BB-8 answered through the ship. <The bed sharing seems to be going well.>
“When did you get a gossip module installed,” Poe muttered, slipping into his filthy space suit then shuffling out of the room. “Alright, let’s head for the junkyard.”
He sat in the pilot seat, yawning as he started up the ship without thinking, gestures automatic. “Max, breakfast?” he called over his shoulder.
There was no answer, but Max slid into the copilot seat minutes later, fully dressed and already back to looking at his surroundings like he wasn’t sure whether he was imagining them. Poe passed him a military ration, which he accepted without a word.
“It’s a shame I didn’t bring actual food,” Poe said. “Yavinian food, gods, you’d love it. We have this spice—people will cross half the Galaxy to taste it.”
They were getting closer to the junkyard; Poe grinned when he saw children crowding at the edge of it. He couldn’t do barrel rolls in this thing, but he made a point into making the freighter turn on itself before landing, in what he hoped was a majestic way—showing off the big hole in the hull, great thinking.
Glancing out the windshield, he saw that some kids looked about to faint with awe, though, so he thought he wasn’t doing too bad.
The ship deployed its legs and landed a bit roughly in the sand. Poe let go of the controls and grinned at Max. “Time to go kid-wrangling.”
At first, the kids were just puzzled by BB-8. Then, after a few reluctant words from Max, they pressed around the little droid with looks of pure adoration, laughing excitedly to each other whenever it beeped. BB-8 preened and paraded until Poe grinned and said, “Alright, buddy, sun’s getting a bit high.”
BB-8 blew a raspberry at him, then projected a hologram of a power converter up in the air. The children scrambled back in fear; when they realized it wasn’t a weapon, they cautiously came back to study the rendering. One kid started thinking out loud—by the sound of it—and another countered her remark, and soon they were all caught into a fierce debate with agitated gestures, presumably comparing the merits of this or that zone of the junkyard.
Poe looked at them, and he couldn’t help smiling a bit, and he was not letting himself worry about them, he was not.
It was just that he knew what usually happened to children living in garbage.
Although—wherever Max came from looked even worse; maybe the kids were better off here. For a certain value of better.
From within, this world looked infinite, Poe thought. Sand and metal and sun, and savagery feeding savagery. Poe wished he’d get the chance to show Max how small this planet actually was—just a ball of earth in a system too insignificant to be claimed either by the Republic or the contenders for a New Empire. The discrepancy made him dizzy.
He had to remind himself of this, too—you could always jump to another world. Leave it all behind.
Poe stood to the side while Max wandered amidst the kids, looking slightly alarmed and mostly disgruntled while he listened to their chatter. Eventually, he shuffled back to Poe.
“Mm. Yeah. They’ll look,” he said.
Poe swallowed a pang of ridiculous disappointment—what did he think, that they’d draw him a map?—and nodded. “I want to keep looking too,” he said, “I’ll give ‘em rides and food this evening. Can you tell them that?”
Max threw a few words over his shoulder to the kids; there was a repressed gasp of excitement, then renewed enthusiasm as they seemed to give directions to each other, assigning themselves different zones. One tiny kid with brown skin and red hair walked to Max, tugged on his trouser leg and asked something in a high-pitched voice. Max looked surprised, but then answered, too low for Poe to hear.
He didn’t have to wonder for long—the kid ran back to the others, then turned with a toothless grin, and shrieked in phonetic Basic, “Bye, BB-8!”
All the kids laughed and waved and repeated “Bye! BB-8! Bye, bye, BB-8!” and then scattered across the junkyard in pairs, chatting to each other excitedly as they leapt from car to car. It was a bit like watching the start to a treasure hunt, and Poe realized he was still smiling.
Encouraged, Poe did not repeat the mistakes of the day before—he kept Max within sight and took long pauses in the shade whenever his brain started to melt with heat.
He was still painfully aware they were only covering a tiny portion of the junkyard; if not for their army of tiny explorers, they wouldn’t have had enough of their lives to turn up every stone. So to speak.
The heat was horrible, and he wished he could have poured water over his head, but then it would be lost for good. He could only do that in the freighter’s shower, where it’d be recycled and reused. So he drank long gulps instead and licked the wetness off his lips, before hoisting himself up to his feet to resume his search.
There was a buzzing in his ears, and it was probably why he did not hear Max’s voice until it was too late.
“Poe,” he finally heard, and he could only think huh, had he ever said my name before—before his head exploded with pain and he fell backwards into darkness.
He woke up coughing and spluttering, with the taste of metal in his mouth.
It took him a long minute to understand what he was seeing. He had to blink sand out of his eyes and get them to focus. It looked like a wall, but there was something weird about it. Eventually, Poe realized he was seeing it upside down.
Blood was trickling from his split lips into his nose.
He huffed it out, spluttered again, then tried to move, but his ankles and wrists were firmly bound to—he jerked his head up as much as he could—some kind of square, metallic rack, like a bedframe. It was propped at an angle against the wall; Poe was on his back, with his head to the ground.
And he’d been stripped bare.
Licking blood off his lips, he let his head fall back. Dark spots were dancing before his eyes; he must have stayed like this for quite some time. The side of his head hurt like hell, and his heartbeat was throbbing in his ears. The weirdest thing was that this position vaguely reminded him of something.
He could hear a hollow wind hooting gloomily through metal pipes. Twisting his head to the side so his surroundings would fully tip into view, he saw that although he was propped against a stone wall, he wasn’t in a cave. The other three walls were artificial, built from scraps. He must still be in the junkyard.
The entrance to the shelter was riddled with rusty spikes and blocked with sandbags. Three—no, four, five people were posted there, smoking something which made them exhale thick, bluish wisps of smoke, sitting on their heels with ancient blasters in their laps.
Poe wanted to call out to them, but he realized this might not be the clever thing to do. Presumably he’d been left alone because he was unconscious. In different circumstances, he might assume they’d only incapacitated him in case he proved dangerous, but he remembered the pain exploding against the side of his head. It was still throbbing hotly, pounding like a migraine. They’d taken him down and brought him here and tied him upside down to the rack.
He swallowed again, and he must have made a noise since one of them saw him and called to the others. They did not speak Basic; their language resembled that of the kids. Poe strained against his bonds, but it only tightened them.
Noticing he was awake had set something in motion; people were bustling around a burner—identical to Shilago’s—and after a few minutes, an old woman came to him with a bowl of white liquid, thick as honey. She dipped two fingers into it and brought them to his mouth. He tried to inch away, but she tutted and brutally brought his head back in line—her old wrinkly hand was like talons digging into his jaw.
Her fingers rubbed the white substance onto his lips, under his nose, and he couldn’t help smelling it and swallowing some of it. The taste was thick and heady and distantly familiar.
Poppy, he realized. Or an equivalent, anyway. Was she trying to sedate him? What for?
“Do you speak Basic,” he asked. He was slurring already. She gave him a black-and-silver smile, patted his cheek and put the bowl down. A glint of metal caught Poe’s eyes, and he saw she had an enormous butcher knife hanging from her hip.
He suddenly realized what his position reminded him of. Pigs tied for the slaughter.
He knew how this went. He’d seen it done in Yavinian farms. First you had to drain the blood, then you sliced open the animal’s gut and disemboweled it. Craning his head backwards until it hurt, he saw that there was an empty basin under him.
A man wants to cross the desert, he remembered Shilago saying. Only thing to do, eat him or fuck him.
He couldn’t breathe, suddenly, and he wanted to struggle, but this was why she’d drugged him; so he wouldn’t panic and spoil the meat. Poe tried to speak, but his mouth would not function. He could feel his heart thumping slower and slower.
The old woman got out a knife smaller than a finger, pushed it against Poe’s neck and cut his jugular open.
Poe let out an inarticulate noise. He felt the hot trickle of arterial blood down the side of his face, seeping into his hair before it dropped into the basin. It came out in little pulses, in time with his heartbeat. The woman hadn’t made a very wide cut, just poked a hole, really. There were other things to prepare, more burners, maybe salting or curing, and they were all busying themselves with it now, while Poe’s blood trickled drop by drop into the bowl. They could afford to let him die slowly, they were not ready yet and killing a pig took time.
Poe wanted to tug at his bonds again, but the poppy had left his body slack and cold.
He was left to hang there. He didn’t know for how long. The blood was still burning along the side of his face, like it was really acid seeping out. He could not close his eyes. He could not look away from the basin into which he felt himself trickle down.
“B—” he managed. “BB-8.” He swallowed. “Max.”
The guards at the entrance were getting to their feet. One of them yelled something, warning the others to—
—and then the freighter burst through the metallic wall, bending spikes and crushing whoever was in its way. Poe heard the roars of the engines, felt the heat of them on his face, and the bowl under him had been knocked over and his blood was dropping into the sand now. The sand, getting into his eyes and mouth again. The poppy making his mind sluggish, his limbs heavy.
A masked silhouette came to him. A knife glinted again, cut at his wrists, at his ankles, it was freeing him, it was Max, it was Max freeing him and gathering him in his arms and carrying him away, into the freighter which opened to swallow them, BB-8 already there and beeping frantically <Poe, Poe, Poe!>
Poe trembled for hours in Max’s arms.
He’d lost time; when he came back to himself, he first thought Max was only reassuring him before he died, holding him to make the passing easier. But after another few seconds, his shock ebbed just enough for him to realize his neck was under a thick bandage and felt tight and hot, like there was plastic over the wound; this was how cauterizing spray felt like. He looked around a bit haphazardly, saw the empty can which had rolled under a seat, and understood he was probably not going to die.
The sluggishness from the horrible mixture was finally going away, and he only shook harder, unable to speak or move, terrified like a child and huddling like one against Max’s chest, both of them sitting on the floor.
But he was also a soldier, and after a longer while he did his best to swallow down his terror and repress his shudders. It did not work at all, but at least he was trying now.
Something pushed at his side, and a soft boop rose in worry. Poe managed to smile, though he still felt weak and bloodless.
“T-t-thanks, guys,” he said. “I w-w-was in sort of a tight spot t-t-there.”
“People Eaters,” Max said, rather unnecessarily. His voice rumbled in Poe’s body.
Max had escaped them, and then—what? Followed them? Or maybe asked the kids, asking where to find the heavily defended bunker, and gone back to the freighter, and warned BB-8, and they’d both decided to bring the entire ship into battle, the broken ship with its precious cargo, they’d crashed through the wall with it.
Poe was so grateful to them both he couldn’t breathe.
<M-A-X really is a good copilot,> BB-8 said.
“And you are the best friend and astromech I could dream of,” Poe said in Yavinian. He shuddered. “Thank you,” he said again.
<Almost eaten by cannibals on Miller-3,> BB-8 went on, <for Poe, just another day at work.>
Poe laughed shakily, and for once, Max didn’t look worried he couldn’t follow the conversation—he seemed grateful to the droid for making Poe laugh. This, more than the rest, made Poe want to get a hold of himself, but he couldn’t completely master his shivers yet.
“Did you kill them all?” he asked in a low voice.
Max did not answer. Maybe he didn’t know. Poe needed to ask something, but he wasn’t sure he could say the words.
“Have they been—”
He stopped. Tried again. He had to ask.
“Have they been eating the kids. Do you think.”
Max remained silent for a long while.
Then he said quietly, almost gently. “The kids are.” A pause. “Probably theirs.”
Poe’s stomach revolted and acid rose in his throat, but at the last second, he managed to keep it in. BB-8 quickly rolled to him, bumped against his side, and Poe looped an arm around it. Its round smoothness was reassuring somehow. It reminded him this world was just one of many.
But no, it was not a comforting thought, and it was not even the truth. Poe was transporting BB units for a war. For a moment, he thought he understood how it must feel to be Max, wandering a wasteland which went on forever—war and death and horror without any sort of veneer to cover it up anymore. Wherever you looked, sand and metal, never anything else. Everywhere he went, the same madness, the same horror. People beyond all help.
“So—what,” Poe said, teeth chattering, “did the kids—did they ambush us? Did they see us and—did they pretend to like BB-8—to want to go in the ship—just so we’d trust them—just so they could—”
Max’s arms tightened around him. “No,” he said.
He sounded so certain Poe was stumped.
“They’re just kids,” Max mumbled. “Liked your ship.”
Poe thought of pigs again, thought of how he’d liked the pigs at the farm and cried the first time his uncle killed one—but it was killed anyway, and afterwards he’d eaten it and found it delicious.
He let out a shuddery laugh.
“I need a shower,” he said, pushing himself away from Max. “I’ll be fine. Just need a shower.” He pushed up to his feet, then almost fell right back down; he caught himself on the wall and Max got up with a look of concern.
<Poe, you should rest,> BB-8 beeped anxiously when Poe dragged himself towards the shower, almost falling with every step. <You lost a lot of blood.>
“No,” Poe said, holding onto the wall, “it’s okay, I just want a shower.”
<Poe, you cannot stand on your own—>
“I need to take a shower,” Poe repeated. His teeth were still chattering.
Suddenly Max was at his side, helping him towards the tiny cabin.
“Then let’s go,” he said.
Poe realized he was already naked—or rather still naked, save for the bandage around his neck. Max helped him lean against the plastic wall inside the stall. Then he shrugged off his jacket and stripped off his clothes. Within a minute, he was nude and pressed into the shower with Poe, closing the door.
It was almost too narrow for them both, but Poe was calmed by it—this tiny space and this huge body breathing against his, bracing him against the wall, solid and warm. It slowed down his heart, made his breaths deeper. The water trickled down, and he let out a loud breath when it splashed over his skin, rinsing the blood and sand off them both.
Damn, he thought absently, that’s gonna clog the filters, but he just stood there, against Max, and Max felt burning hot against him, maybe because Poe was so cold. He felt a bit warmer after a minute, but he almost didn’t notice, because he was busy staring at Max, at his intense eyes, the droplets of water hanging onto his full lips.
Max was staring back, and Poe’s heart rate was picking up again, although for an entirely different reason.
“Is this a sex thing?” Poe asked eventually. “I can’t tell if this is a sex thing.”
Max pushed him completely against the wall and pressed their mouths together. Poe exhaled and clung to his slippery shoulders, giving into the kiss like it could cleanse his mind from the past few hours. He licked into Max’s mouth, bit on his lip and finally, finally, he could run a hand up Max’s head to grip this stupid cowlick of his.
Max hardened at once against his thigh, sucking in a shuddery breath. Poe let out an interested noise, then tugged harder, making Max grunt and press against him like he wanted to mold their bodies together. Poe felt like he was made of cobwebs, like he’d dissolve in the heat of Max sometime soon, but he was fine with it. His free hand sneaked down to wrap him in a tight grip.
Max’s eyes were closed; there was still a small wrinkle between his eyebrows, but he remained pliant when Poe began to move his hand. The angle wasn’t right and his muscles felt like jelly, but it didn’t matter, because he desperately needed something that wasn’t horror, needed that unbearable heat and the shivers coursing through Max’s compact frame.
Poe let go of Max’s hair so he could bring his hand to Max’s mouth. Max captured his fingers at once, diligently sucking them in, twitching and huffing as Poe kept moving his other hand. Poe let him lick on his fingers for a while, until it all became sloppy and slick; then he pulled his hand out, brought it down, over the full curve of Max’s ass.
“That fine with you, buddy?” he asked hoarsely.
“Mm.” Max was jerking his hips in his grip, in repressed thrusts. For a second, he looked like he was about to say more, but nothing came out. When Poe pushed two fingers in at once, he did not make a sound but went very still, his breath hot and shaky against Poe’s shoulder.
Poe vaguely remembered Karpov less than a week ago, but there hadn’t been blood then and there was no pain on Max’s face now. Poe worked his fingers in, without trying to tease—this wasn’t about leisure and he went for efficiency, just going deeper and deeper as Max opened, until he hit the spot—Max’s body jerked like he’d been shocked, his cock heavy and hard in Poe’s hand now.
From then on it was just a matter of time, Poe kept working him over, with both hands, back and front, winding him up and up until finally Max pulsed his release, completely silent save for his harsh breaths.
The second he was done—the shower had already washed all evidence away—he slid down to his knees and swallowed Poe down to the hilt, holding onto his hips. Poe gasped and heard himself groan. His vision was swimming; he was probably in no state to do this—he would have crumpled down if not for Max’s hands pinning him up, but Max was skilled and relentless, absolutely unconcerned with his own comfort, choking himself on Poe’s cock like he was saving his life somehow, and within minutes, Poe’s body seized up and fell apart, and it was such a relief to let his thoughts scatter.
Max swallowed every drop, which was Poe’s preferred way of being eaten.
“BB-8, please—go back to your module,” Poe slurred, on their way to the bed. “We need to be ready to fly off in case—” He waved his hand about so he wouldn’t have to finish his sentence.
<People Eaters are no match,> BB-8 beeped gravely. <Poe can sleep soundly.> It looked up and said, <M-A-X.>
Max looked at it. But BB-8 just bumped against his legs a bit, then rolled away.
Max laid Poe down in the bunk, then took his jacket, which he’d brought from the shower for some reason. He took out two hollow needles, a lighter and a long, thin rubber tube coiling on itself.
“Uh,” Poe said.
“You’re still cold,” Max explained as he ran the lighter’s flame over both needles.
“I—” Poe said, bewildered. “Buddy, I appreciate it, but there’s this thing called blood types—”
Max pointed over his shoulder at the tattoo on his back. He was sitting up, hunched forward, and Poe could easily read what it said. Universal donor.
Poe watched Max hook the tube to both needles, pierce his own vein. He didn’t resist when Max took his arm, and didn’t even flinch when the needle pushed into him. Max’s blood seeped into the tube, red with life, and from there into Poe’s veins.
He thought he could feel it, maybe.
Being exsanguinated, Poe found, resulted in the worst hangover.
He rolled to his side and threw his legs out of bed. He didn’t feel so great, but he had no doubt that he would have felt worse if not for Max and his emergency transfusion. He was still shivering a little, but he decided he was done being pathetic and pushed himself to his feet.
“Whoa,” he said when the room swayed around him. “Okay, need to eat something.”
He still took the time to put on spare clothes—whatever they’d done with his spacesuit, he wondered. That was a problem. Hitting light speed without a suit was incredibly dangerous. But his ship couldn’t access light speed anyway, and also there was a big hole through the hull, so.
<Poe!> cried BB-8 when he came out of the room, speeding towards him.
“Hey, buddy,” Poe grinned, putting a knee down. “Sorry I made you worry.”
<Poe needs to eat something,> BB-8 said, clearly emotional, <Pava said Poe never takes care of himself and said to make sure he did, Poe needs to eat something so he won’t die.>
“I’m not gonna die,” Poe said, stroking its head, “I’ll be alright.” As he said it, he realized it was the truth, at least for now.
He would have liked to say military rations had never tasted so good, now that he was filled with the glory of being alive. But he had to be honest here. They still tasted like shit.
At the very least they metabolized fast and contained everything he needed; as he wiped his mouth, he already felt a bit more stable. “Where’s Max?” he asked, though there was only one place he could be—sitting in the shade underneath the ship.
But BB-8 said, <At the junkyard.>
Poe blinked. “Wha—what?” He scrambled to his feet so fast dark spots danced in front of his vision again. “Why did he go back there alone?”
He opened the hatch and dropped in the sand. The full blast of a heat wave made him see white again; he shook his head to clear his vision, then looked into the distance. The junkyard shivered in the boiling air, almost too bright to be looked at.
Poe needed to go after Max, but darkness was overtaking his sight again and he knew for certain he would pass out if he stayed out for a second longer.
“Shit,” he said, back inside the ship. His eyes were watering. “Shit.”
<Max can take care of himself,> BB-8 pointed out.
Poe put a hand over his eyes. “So can I, buddy. That doesn’t mean nothing can happen to him.”
The freighter was too big and offered too little visibility to use it to go searching for Max. Sending BB-8 was out of the question. Poe wished for his X-wing so bad he could taste it.
Suddenly he thought—is this about the shower? Did he leave because of what happened in the shower?
“BB-8, did he say anything?” he asked.
<He said he would come back,> was the answer.
Poe’s panic deflated, allowing his mind to remember some details—such as Max kissing him first—which helped him feel a little less horrible.
<He is coming back,> BB-8 said.
At first, Poe thought this was just reassurance, but then what BB-8 was saying hit him.
He hurried to the windshield and squinted at the white-hot desert outside. He almost couldn’t see, but through the trembling air he could see a distorted silhouette walking decidedly to the ship.
Poe opened the hatch again and stood in the sweltering heat. Max was not alone, he realized. Two girls were following him—a teenager with hard dark eyes, and a tiny one with skin the same reddish color as the sand.
“Found it,” Max said, without a word of explanation or accusation.
“You—what?” Poe asked, bewildered.
Max made a weird little gesture towards the insides of the ship.
Then blinked again.
“The power converter?” he said weakly. “They found one?”
Max winced in a way which meant it was more complicated than that—but, also, yes.
Poe couldn’t believe it. He couldn’t believe it. This goddamn planet, where people could plan on eating you while their kids rooted through garbage for a chance to climb aboard your freighter. They were not good or evil, Poe understood. They were all just survivors, in the most literal, brutal meaning of the word.
The two girls lingered mistrustfully behind Max, closed-off and defiant in the absence of their friends.
“They’re the ones who found it?” Poe asked.
Max nodded. Poe exhaled and closed his eyes. He mustn’t get his hopes up—and he wasn’t, not really. Miller-3 was not the type of planet which just let you go like that.
“Let’s go have a look,” he said, reopening his eyes.
They all climbed into the ship, the girls after a lot of hesitation. BB-8 watched them with interest before rolling away to its module. Poe closed the hatch, then walked to his seat. Max sat next to him without a word, as if it was perfectly normal. Once they were both strapped in, the girls relaxed a little.
On a normal day, Poe would have asked for their names, tried to make them smile even though they didn’t understand him. But his throat still pulsed with a nasty pain, and his hands were still a bit shaky on the controls, and he said nothing.
The girls’ eyes went wide when the ship took off; they slowly came closer to the seats, peering outside the windshield like they’d never seen the junkyard. Poe flew slow and low, following Max’s translated directions.
It took a long time, but Poe’s heart started beating faster as he started recognizing what he looked at. It wasn’t just trucks and cars anymore. He thought he saw the busted, carbonized shell of an old MM-1979 like the one he was flying, the bullet shape easily recognizable, and the angular, obsolete angles of a RW-1981.
Goddammit, Han Solo had doomed him making him fly such an old ship, and now it was going to save him, because parts from those antiquities would have been to no use trying to fix any ship built post-Empire.
They were all completely gutted, though, and Poe was beginning to think that was that until the girls rose to their tip-toes and pointed, and Poe saw what they were pointing at, and burst out laughing.
It was an YT-1300 freighter. Same model as the Falcon.
It was intact—at least on the outside. Those ships were nearly impossible to force open; Poe knew, because Han Solo had boasted about it enough.
“Alright,” he said. “We’re gonna need that power saw again.”
Poe gave food and water to the girls. He couldn’t not. They grabbed it like hungry animals and fled through the junkyard without turning back.
Max gave him a long look, but Poe didn’t really want to talk about it. They just both wrapped their heads in bundles of cloth again, and walked out into the unbearable heat. BB-8 could not progress on such uneven ground, and Poe gave Max the saw so he could carry the little droid in his arms.
They cut a neat hole through the hull, and Poe let BB-8 in. “Don’t be too long,” he called.
<BB-8 is the fastest in the galaxy,> BB-8 buzzed in answer, then rolled away in the corridors. Poe heard it use its blowtorch to get past doors that had presumably been blocked for a few hundred years.
Poe had put his helmet on the ground with the visor open. Eventually, BB-8’s beeps rose from it. <I have found the pilot! But they are dead.>
Poe snorted. “Not a big surprise, buddy.” The inside of the ship was a furnace; it smelled stale and burning hot and he couldn’t stay too close to it lest he burned his lungs.
<The power converter seems functional,> BB-8 said, like a passing mention.
It was several seconds before Poe realized what he’d just heard, and processed it. When he did, he suddenly sat on the ground, utterly without strength.
Max gave him an alarmed look—his wide eyes so clear against his weather-beaten skin. Poe looked at him and managed a smile.
“Looks like I get a ticket out of here,” he said, and then his tears rolled down and he put his hands over his face and said the Yavinian prayer of thanks, which he hadn’t done since his mother’s passing.
Poe was not a big believer in repairing crumbling ships, and though he still had a kid’s crush on the Falcon, its patchwork nature made the seasoned pilot he was wrinkle his nose. It had been done with skill, sure, it wasn’t like its new parts had been glued over, but still—it would have been easier and safer to just get a new ship altogether.
“Alright,” Poe said. “Remember that big hole in my ship? I’m gonna cut off a piece of that one and glue it over.”
Max raised his eyebrows.
“Weld it, fine,” Poe corrected. “Same difference.”
The sun was going down; soon it would be cool enough for humans to go inside the YT-1300. But the power converter could wait until later, because if Poe didn’t make his ship able to pressurize again, he’d be dead before he could even power up the hyperdrive.
Cutting off the piece they needed was a lot of work. Carrying it to Poe’s freighter was even worse. At least it was night—still freezing cold, but the hard work was keeping them warm. Poe was beginning to get as twitchy as Max, because he kept watching over his shoulder for an attack.
Thankfully, thankfully, he didn’t have his blaster on him when he’d been caught; he’d left it in the ship, thinking it wasn’t needed. That was a mistake he wouldn’t make again, and the weapon moved against his hip as he turned on his welding iron and, indeed, just fucking glued a goddamn piece of hull over the hole in his ship, after banging the dents out best as he could.
He wondered if Han Solo was out there congratulating himself somewhere, and hoped General Organa was strangling him.
In the middle of the night, they took a break and devoured three rations each, holed up in the freighter. Poe remembered being surprised by Karpov and Shilago’s willingness to eat his food. It felt like it had happened ages ago.
After they were done, they went back out without a word, and got back to work.
The patch-up work wasn’t airtight, but the extra piece was in place; they decided to leave it for now and extract the power converter while they still could. Then they could fly away and finish the reparations away from Drachma’s Junkyard.
BB-8 could not carry the converter, though, so Poe had to crawl inside the ship while Max kept watch.
He had his helmet on; its feeble light had a hard time piercing through the deep obscurity of the ancient YT-1300, left undisturbed for gods knew how many cycles. Discolored by time, the corridors were a uniform, ghostly grey, like the entire ship had been molded from the same material.
It was a relief to see BB-8’s familiar shape, so bright white and orange, cheerfully rolling to Poe with a loud beep. It had done a good job, carefully detaching the power converter from its nook. All Poe had to do was wedge it out—and there. He was holding it in his arms. It wasn’t even that big.
Such trouble this piece of crap had given him.
On his way out, he took a detour by the pilot’s cabin. He wanted to pay his respects, maybe even find out who it was. But all that was left were brittle bones on the seat—so little of it, he could not even tell if those were human remains.
This ship looked too much like the Millenium Falcon. Poe didn’t linger.
Poe landed the freighter in the middle of the smooth, silver desert, which seemed so incredibly soft and quiet and welcoming after the metallic hell of Drachma’s.
Replacing the power converter was delicate work, but it was exactly the kind of thing BB-8 had been programmed to do. Poe left it in its capable hands—so to speak—and focused on making sure his extra piece of hull was as solidly attached as possible to his ship. In theory, it should be fine; as long as he maintained light pressure inside the freighter, there was no reason even its weakened parts should give.
The sparkles from the welding iron had hurt his eyes even through his helmet, which was designed to withstand the full blast of giant stars. Poe took it off, wiped soot and sweat off his face and said, “Alright, I think we’ve earned ourselves a good night’s rest.”
It was the first full sentence he’d said since they’d started working on the YT-1300. Max’s mutism was rubbing off.
They took another shower—separately this time—even though it was still night and freezing. Rubbing his hand over his bandage, Poe realized he hadn’t thought about it all day. Perks of backbreaking work.
Despite this, sleep did not come.
Something was gnawing at Poe, and it wasn’t about cannibals or kids running barefoot on scalding metal. They’d been lying in bed for maybe two hours when finally he said:
“You’re not coming with me, are you.”
Max was turning his back to him just like on their first night, but his silence was eloquent enough. Poe’s mother had warned him, so long ago. You can’t save everyone.
“Why not?” he still asked, trying not to sound as powerless as he felt. “You said you wanted to get away from here. I could take you further away than you ever dreamed.”
Max stayed silent for a long while.
“I can’t leave them,” he said eventually.
Poe didn’t ask who them was, even though he had a few theories by now. He screwed his eyes shut, then reopened them.
Getting up, he grabbed his sweater off the floor and slipped it on as he left the room.
The dawn found Poe sitting in the pilot seat, holding onto the controls, flying east. The temperature inside the ship was beginning to even out; thanks to the new power converter, it could regulate again, and he wasn’t warm nor cold. He could stare at the sun through the tinted glass, and watched it go up ever so slowly.
A noise made him look up; Max shuffled into sight and sat in the copilot seat. He looked uncertain.
“Apparently, there’s a water hole straight ahead,” Poe said. “I’m getting you there at the very least. Also, for you.” He nudged the bag at his feet. “All the rations I could fit in there. Water purifiers. Clothes.”
Max said nothing.
“That’s the least I owe you,” Poe said.
And Max kept saying nothing.
Once again, Poe did the exercise. What story will I tell when I get home.
This time he imagined it differently. More official. What he’d tell General Organa, maybe. What he’d write in his report when he’d be back between white walls, in the clean smell of the D’Qar base, with constellations he recognized out of the window.
Had to perform an emergency landing on Miller-3. It is currently in a state of apocalypse and populated only by a few human survivors. Got into a bit of trouble with them before I could find the parts I needed for my ship. Met a man who saved me a few times. I don’t remember how many. I think he had ghosts with him, though I am not strong enough in the Force to see them.
I would have taken him with me but I left him behind. He wanted me to. He wanted me to understand no one born on this planet can leave it. I have only spent a few weeks there and yet I’ll never leave entirely, either. I bled a lot, and he gave me blood in return. You’ll want to put me in quarantine for it. But he’s a full life clear. It was written on his back.
I left him alone in the desert and I’m never going back and I would like his name to be remembered. His name was—
Max shouldered the bag and climbed down.
Both feet planted in the sand, he looked up at Poe, who sat on the floor with his feet dangling down the open hatch, and smiled at him.
“And one last thing,” he said.
The trap door opened and a confused BB unit fell through.
Unlike BB-8, who’d insisted on matching Poe’s suit, the new unit was a standardized silver and white. Its head swiveled around slowly, taking in its surroundings, then focused on Max.
<Sir,> it bleeped, lightening up.
“You can call him Max,” Poe grinned. “I don’t think he’ll mind.”
The unit booped in consideration. <M-A-X.>
Max stared at it in complete befuddlement, then looked up at Poe, who laughed a little and jumped down to land in the sand, then walked up to him. “I missed that look on your face.”
Max glowered at him for a second, then glanced at the unit again.
“It’s yours,” Poe said, putting his hands in his pockets. “I activated it during the night, calibrated it to your prints, all the technicalities are dealt with. I know you don’t speak binary, but it understands Basic. Maybe in time you’ll come to understand it, too.”
Shaking his head, Max took a step back, as if to say he didn’t want it, or couldn’t accept it. He looked at Poe helplessly.
“Please,” Poe said. “I’ll feel a bit better knowing it’s here with you. Very feisty, and also the best mechanic you can ever hope to find.”
Though he still looked unsettled, there was gruff resignation in Max’s scowl. Poe grinned at him. “Great. Hey, you should give it a name. Doesn’t have to be numbers.”
Max looked at the little robot for the longest time. Then he mumbled something. Poe hadn’t heard, but the droid had.
<S-P-R-O-G,> it repeated assiduously. He rolled up to Max and bumped into his legs a bit. <Hello!>
Still wincing a bit—though it might have been the rising sun getting in his eyes—Max looked up at Poe, who tried not to let his smile falter. He raised a hand and put it on Max’s shoulder, moving it to the back of his neck.
“You take care,” he said. “Alright?”
Max did not answer, but he let Poe kiss him, one last time. He tasted like salt and sand, and they stayed until the heat made them part.
“Look up,” Poe had said before climbing into his rig, “if I make my jump, there’ll be a shimmer across the skies. Five minutes, tops. And if you see an explosion instead, well,” he’d added with another of his dazzling smiles, “you’ll have Sprog to remember me by!”
The skies were terribly blue, and the sun terribly bright. Max had been looking up for six minutes and thirty-eight seconds.
For a few moments more, everything was very still; then the air seemed to shiver, as though rustling under an otherworldly wind.
Max dropped the hand he’d used to shield himself from the glare of the sun, then looked at the tiny robot.
“Sprog,” said Sprog’s shadow, a few steps behind him, like the wind murmuring over the dunes. Max hardly startled; for once his voice hadn’t sounded angry.
Adjusting his bag on his shoulder, he looked up again, squinting against the bright skies, and started heading for the water hole in the distance. The robot chirped happily, then trailed after him with a few difficulties, not quite yet used to the sand.