She’s five and a half, and she is afraid.
The grown-ups speak in hushed tones, down in the front of the ship where they think she cannot hear them. It’s the first time she hears that word: classified. She won’t understand what it means for many years.
“Classified? She’s a child, not a starbase! We can’t leave her here, it’s not-”
“Don’t you understand? They’ll kill her! He’ll kill her!”
The words stick with her longer than the faces, which slip from her memory like the hot sand of her new home slips through her fingers.
“Emperor’s black bones, we have to go! Now!”
Hands cup her face; warm brown eyes stare into her own. “Rey, child, be brave. We’ll be back for you. I promise. We’ll be back.”
Just like that, she is alone. The ship blasts off into space and something tears in her chest. She screams after it in terror.
“Be quiet, girl!” the alien snaps, shaking her violently.
Anger burns through her fear. “I’m not girl!” she cries indignantly. “I’m –”
“You’re nobody,” he retorts, shaking her again. He crouches, folding his considerable bulk so he can look her in the eye. But there’s something about his unreadable face, something in his voice that she cannot describe, that stops her tears. Suddenly she feels a cold twist in her stomach; his fear mingled with her own. “Do you hear me? You are nobody now.”
She hiccups and nods. Still, she can’t help looking over her shoulder into the white-hot sky-
“Shut up!” someone shouts through the thin darkness of the shelter. Something hard hits her bunk and Rey wakes with wet cheeks and a damp pillow. She rolls over to face the durasteel wall, swallowing her sobs. It will be dawn soon and time to work. Unkar mustn’t know she’s been crying.
She’s seven now and it feels as though she’s been on Jakku forever.
Rey learns fast, that much she knows, because she’s beaten a lot less than the others. She knows how to wrap her forearms to protect her skin from blisteringly hot metal fresh from the desert. She knows how to sort droid parts from speeder from snubfighter from starship, Imperial from New Republic, and she knows she’ll be beaten if she does it wrong. Sometimes Unkar Plutt lets her disassemble the unusable scrap, and if she learns well enough, maybe he’ll finally let her work as a scrapper.
Rey’s only one of many younglings working for Unkar. They’re better before they’re grown, he says. Smaller fingers, smaller frames for squeezing in and out of wreckage. Cheaper to feed and if one gets lost in the Sinking Fields or in a metal collapse, there’s always another where it came from.
Every day begins the same. Mornings are for maintenance. She and Wix and Gera check Unkar’s moisture vaporators, pulling the heavy plastene drums back to his compound on sand-sledges. If it’s a good day, the drums weigh almost as much as the younglings. On a lean day, they’re easy to pull and everyone will go thirsty. Last week she tried to make one into a repulsor sled with a couple old repulsors that Wix found in the back room. Rey read how to do it on an old computer. It didn’t work, but Unkar didn’t beat her for wasting parts. Instead he praised her efficiency and gave her an extra quarter-portion for the day. She shared, of course, with Wix and Gera.
Evenings are for cleaning and sorting. Unkar holds court in the center of the compound behind his rough bars, doling out rations in exchange for scrap. The scavengers have already scraped off the desert varnish to try to increase the value of their hauls, but Rey knows this does little to sway Unkar. She takes what he gives her and sorts it into SALE or NO SALE. If she gets it wrong, she gets no rations for the whole day. Wix and Gera begin to clean the parts for sale, and as soon as Unkar closes up shop, she helps them. None of them will eat until the job is through.
Sometimes she has time to look out over the shifting sands and wonder where they are, and why they haven’t come for her yet. She doesn’t try to picture their faces any more. There isn’t room in her head.
She’s ten today and she’s so hungry she could cry.
Tagg and his gang strike as she leaves the scrapyard. He pulls her ration pack out of her hands, and when she lunges after it, the end of his metal staff strikes her chest. She falls into the dust, cheeks hot as the boys laugh. Rey scrambles to her knees and dives for his ankles, the only part of him that she can reach. Her fingernails find bare skin but the staff falls across her back. Her cry of pain is muffled by the dust, but the shame and the hunger hurt more than the bruise will.
Her eyes burn holes in Tagg’s back as they walk away with her rations, laughing. The other scrappers have already turned back to their own rations, the evening’s entertainment over. She picks herself up and dusts off her clothes. Someday she’ll know how to use a staff, too. Jazmeet was giving her lessons, before she got a job on that freighter. Someday, she’ll beat Tagg into the dust, just to teach him a lesson. She won’t take his rations. Beating him will be enough.
“Rey!” Wix’s voice calls and Rey looks up. Gera’s long gone, lost to the Sinking Fields a season and a half ago. “Hey, Rey!”
Wix is a head taller than Rey now and she’s covered with engine grease, from her yellow hair down to her scuffed brown boots. Unkar let her start scavenging in earnest a few weeks ago, and Rey can’t help being jealous. It would be easier to avoid Tagg out in the open desert than inside Unkar’s compound.
“Tagg?” Wix asks knowingly. Rey nods, unable to raise her eyes above her boots. “Heads up,” Wix says, and Rey looks up in time to catch a half-portion.
Rey’s cheeks burn again with the shame of losing her own quarter portion, but the gnaw of hunger in her stomach quiets her pride. “Thanks.”
“I heard Tagg’s getting assigned to the ‘vette next cycle,” Wix says conspiratorially, and Rey can’t help smiling a little. Everyone knew the crashed Corellian corvette was the most picked-over place in the Graveyard. He’d be on quarter-portions or less until Unkar moved him off. “Come on, Rey, there’s more!” Wix exclaims.
“What?” Rey asks stupidly, but Wix already has her by the hand and is pulling her outside the compound, onto her battered speeder, and into the desert.
Despite the rumble of her belly, it’s nice to be free. A thrill twangs through Rey’s heart. Unkar never said she couldn’t leave the compound without permission, but he never said she could, either.
At last, they clamber down from the speeder. Wix releases her sweaty fingers and points excitedly to something in the yellow sand. “There! Happy birthday!”
Rey cocks her head to the side. A large metal hump rises out of the desert. A couple of other lumps sit in front of it. It reminds her of a downed luggabeast. “The walker?” she asks, confused. Everyone knew about the downed AT-AT outside Niima Outpost. It had been picked clean for years, or so they said.
“Not just a walker!” Wix exclaims. “Look!” She seizes Rey’s hand again and drags her up close to the hulk. Someone’s put a makeshift moisture vaporator on the top of the AT-AT, and one of the armor plates hangs suspiciously open like a door.
“We can live here, stupid! No more barracks! No more Tagg!” Wix beams. She knocks on the armor plating with her fist. “No gnaw-jaws are getting through this!”
Home, Rey thinks, for the first time since she arrived on Jakku. There’s a lump in her throat that keeps her from saying anything, but Wix doesn’t seem to mind.
She’s thirteen and she’s alone again.
A metal catwalk in the Spike gave way under Wix’s feet three seasons ago. They only knew because Mashra the Scavenger brought her speeder home. Every evening, after she marks another day, Rey looks out over the shifting sands and wonders if they will be back for her before Jakku claims her, too.
There’s too much work and too little time to dwell for long, though. She can fly now and that’s something. Well, fly enough to pilot Wix’s old speeder or move the broken-down ships around Unkar’s lot. She likes it. It feels somehow like what she is meant to do.
She’s the scrapper chief now, with a pack of younglings under her. She’s kinder than Tagg ever was, but still she keeps them at a distance. It wouldn’t do to get too attached to them. There are so many dangers on Jakku, as Rey well knows. It’s easier to keep to herself.
Every day she asks Unkar when she’ll be a scavenger. He’s stopped hitting her for it, mostly, though he still threatens to loan her out to another, crueler scavenger boss. She doesn’t mind much. The threats are empty because she’s his best scrapper, and he is loath to send someone of value into the dangers of the Graveyard.
But Rey knows something he doesn’t. She’ll be the best scavenger on Jakku. She’s good at finding things, ask anyone. Everyone thought that old AT-AT was stripped, but she and Wix ate for a whole season out of what she found there.
The console she’s working on in the old ship Unkar’s been repairing for what seems like forever blurs with tears and she blinks quickly before anyone can see. She makes a tally of the parts she needs to fix it (Rey’s not just good at taking things apart, but building them, too) and ducks out from under the panel. She clomps down the landing ramp, brushing the tarp out of the way.
Unkar is there, speaking with a man in sinister-looking armor. Unkar scowls at her and she freezes. The little hairs prickle on the back of her neck. Danger, the wind whispers. Danger!
Startled, she drops her list. The datapad bounces on the metal landing ramp with a horrible clang. Her breath catches in her throat as the sinister man looks up. His eyes fall on her and Rey suddenly feels as though she’s been doused in icy water.
“You!” Unkar snaps, pointing at Rey. There is a strange urgency in his voice where normally there would be annoyance. “Yes, you, girl! Get your kit. I want you out at the Crackle by midday!”
Rey stares at him for a moment, shocked. The Crackle is in the Graveyard. He’s giving her a scavenger assignment. She’s a scavenger! Unkar takes a menacing step towards her and Rey is off like a shot, running for Wix’s old speeder. It looks battered but it’s going to be the fastest speeder in Niima, just as soon as Rey collects a few more parts. The wind carries their voices to her, while she dons her goggles and sand-mask.
“Who’s the girl?” the mysterious man asks. His voice makes her skin prickle again. Instinctively, she checks to be sure her staff is securely attached to the side of the speeder. She can (and does) knock the bigger boys down now. They don’t scare her anymore.
“She’s nobody,” Unkar rumbles, dismissively waving a beefy hand. “A scavenger. Come, do we have a deal?”
The sinister man looks back at Unkar, and suddenly she can breathe again. Rey doesn’t wait to hear the result of their trade. She streaks off into the open desert and her heart soars with her speeder.
She’s fifteen and she’s almost vibrating with fury as she stalks among the half-buried snubfighters dotting the dunes on the fringes of the Graveyard, looking for astromech droids. It feels like she’s angry all the time now: angry with Unkar, angry at the half-broken computer she scavenged for the AT-AT, angry with them for abandoning her, angry with the whole galaxy and most especially angry with Unkar Plutt.
She saw the hopeful lights descending that morning in the pre-dawn cool while she checked the moisture vaporator. The blue glow of repuslorjets mingled with the bright white of a sublight drive glinting off a long shining metal body as the freighter arced gracefully around to land in Niima’s tiny spaceport. Rey couldn’t have done it better herself. She shoved the plastene container inside, too excited to be annoyed with herself with the wasteful slop of precious water that splattered onto the sandy floor. She crammed a leftover portion of bread in her mouth, grabbed her staff, and bolted for her speeder.
Once or twice a season, freighters descended on Niima Outpost. Some to resupply, some to repair, some to trade. Everyone looked forward to the traders’ arrival because they brought the opportunity to turn their scrap into credits rather than ration packs. Unkar was always particularly generous when a trader was in town, because he was getting far more in credits than he was losing in rations. But Rey is not, for once, interested in food. She recognizes this ship: the Krayt Errant. The captain is a wizened old human called Renn Antilles. Rey fixed his starboard repulsorjets a couple seasons ago, and he promised her a job the next time he made port. It’s the only way any of them ever can hope to leave Jakku, finding a berth on a starship.
She’s hardly had a chance to jump down from her speeder outside Unkar’s compound before Unkar himself boils out of the exchange hut, shouting at her. “You’re late, girl! Get back on that thing and out into the Graveyard.”
Rey hesitates. Not today, she can’t go out today, not with the Krayt Errant in port. “But it’s barely dawn!” she protests, glancing desperately over her shoulder towards the marketplace. “I was-“
He cuts her off. “Those motivators you brought me yesterday, all bad! Those power cells, all drained! I paid you, girl, for faulty parts.”
She stands there speechless for a moment, feeling eyes on her back from the compound waking all around her. The parts were fine. They were all fine! She’d checked them herself.
“But Unkar,” Rey begins, “I tested-”
He interrupts her again, punctuating his words with a beefy hand. “You’ll make good on what you owe me, now, or I’ll take it out of that speeder!”
As if Unkar in a rage isn’t intimidating enough, a look over her shoulder confirms two heavy-looking men whom she recognized as Unkar’s enforcers standing over her precious speeder. For a moment, she considers running for the spaceport and taking her chances with Unkar. But what if Captain Antilles wasn’t there? What if he’d forgotten his promise, or worse, didn’t want her? She couldn’t afford to make an enemy of Unkar Plutt. Cheeks blazing with shame and the general injustice of the galaxy, Rey turns on her heel and stomps to her speeder.
The Krayt Errant is gone by the time she returns to the compound after sunset. Rey joins the line in front of Unkar’s exchange, at once fuming and trying to blink back tears of frustration. Her rage is palpable as she all but throws her haul across the counter at him.
Unkar glowers at her dangerously, and for a single sickening moment, Rey fears she’s finally gone too far. She swallows, her heart pounding nervously against her ribs. Unkar reaches down and slides three full portions across the counter. She stares at him in shock. Her haul wasn’t worth that, not nearly, and besides, he’d already paid-
“It’s for the best, girl,” he rumbles by way of explanation. “How will they find you, if you are no longer here?”
Unkar had known about her offer the whole time, and sent her into the desert anyway. The betrayal punches her in the stomach. Numbly, Rey takes the ration packs and flees to the privacy of the desert before he can see her cry. He’s right, of course, and she hates him for it.
She’s seventeen and she walks unafraid among the shadows of giants.
Bones don’t last the ravages of the sand or the scavengers for long, but death is all around her in this place. The frigate where Callig was suffocated when a spacetight hatch closed without warning. The crater dotted with fragments that had been an X-wing and not much else, where Meer triggered a live proton torpedo with his shovel. A falling engine in the crashed Corellian corvette had crushed Ky, Lana, and Thiros, all in the blink of an eye. The shattered canopy of a TIE fighter where Tagg had tried, and failed, to hide from a pack of gnaw-jaws. The towering hull of a wrecked Mon Cal cruiser, the structural struts eaten to nothing by the endless abrasion of sand, was where her friend Wix had fallen to her death years ago.
Sometimes, when the desert goes quiet in the twilight before dusk or dawn, Rey can feel them. Hot white flames of lives snuffed out, standing out brightly against the thousands upon thousands killed during the battle thirty years ago. It scared her at first. She tells herself that it’s just her imagination, or dehydration, or maybe the desert has finally driven her mad. They whisper to her, too, sometimes, though she still tells herself it’s only the wind. Rey can’t bring herself to ignore them completely, though. Somehow it feels wrong.
Despite this death all around, Rey is not afraid. She knows she will not die on Jakku. She can’t explain how she knows this, like she can’t explain how sometimes she knows sinking sand from safe, or where a hidden supply cache may be found, or even Unkar’s mood when he is out of sight. They will come for her, someday, and when they do, she’ll never set foot on this world again.
That’s not to say she hasn’t had her share of close calls. She’s been cut more times than she can count, burned every limb on metal warmed to scorching by the sun, fallen from catwalks and sheer starship hulls alike. Once she almost broke a leg leaping fifteen meters from a collapsing hulk. Another time she narrowly missed being impaled on a malevolent antenna when she startled a nesting steelpecker and it flew into her face. Sometimes it feels like something is out there, watching over her. Rey knows that can’t be true. She’s just a scavenger. What would possibly take an interest in her? No, she’s just lucky, and thankful for it.
The colossal hull of the star destroyer looms ahead of her, blotting out the horizon to the west. Kilometers of metal, housing some of the richest scrap on Jakku. The lower decks, easily accessed by holes in the hull, are more or less picked clean. But Rey’s not interested in the lower decks.
She walks up to the hull and touches the metal experimentally. It’s cool enough she might be able to get away with her bare hands. The armor plating isn’t as smooth as it looks from a distance; there are plenty of finger- and toe-sized nooks and crannies. Yes, she can do this.
Rey squints up at the sun, judging the angle. She needs at least two hours of shadow, unless she can find a lower passage through the hull. She leaves her sand-sledge at the bottom. A lone spineflower pokes out of the sand near her sledge. Rey smiles and plucks it from its stem. She tucks the spineflower securely into her belt, and begins to climb.
She’s nearly twenty and she chases a dream.
This world has as much water as Takodana had green. It stretches as far as she can see, undulating softly like open desert dunes yet somehow in motion, flowing like blue-gray shimmersilk. Rey still can’t quite believe it’s all water. Water is something precious; something squeezed from the air and doled out liter by liter in the marketplace. An entire ocean is almost incomprehensible.
The island cuts knife-like out of the water, a sharp spire of rock surrounded by heaving waves. It reminds her a little of the Spike, looming above the dunes, and she feels a sudden pang of something she can’t identify for the familiar desert of Jakku. It’s certainly not regret: Rey has lived nearly all her life on shifting sands and she doesn’t doubt she will find her feet here on this strange new world. So far, it’s exactly as she dreamed.
She looks out over the water and swallows. He taunted her with this very dream onboard the Starkiller, pulling that lonely image out of her head and trying to twist it against her. Neither of them had expected for her to do the same to him. Her mind still echoes with the memory of the encounter with his own: dark with shame and burdened with legacy that the storm of anger could not quite obscure.
Rey knows he did not die with the planet. He’s out there somewhere in the wide galaxy, and she knows in that curious, utterly certain way that she will face him again. Ice twists in her stomach. She breathes deeply and stills her mind, willing herself to picture the frozen forest, the silver hilt of the lightsaber sticking out of the snow, and the feeling after.
She reaches out and she calls. The lightsaber springs out of the snow (snow!), drawn to her hand by luminous, intangible strings. This time the grip feels smooth and even and right in her hands. The blade thrills to life and somehow, even though the very galaxy has shifted beneath her feet, even though she’s fighting for her life, Rey is not afraid. The light within her burns as brightly as her blade.
She blinks back to the present before she can fully recall the image of Finn sprawling wounded in the snow. A lump swells into her throat and she nudges the satchel at her feet again for reassurance. She’ll see Finn again, too. She just hopes he will forgive her for leaving without saying goodbye.
The landing is clean and simple under Chewbacca’s expert hand. A good pilot would stay aboard until the ship was safely shut down, but he senses her eagerness and waves her out of the cockpit. Rey takes her satchel and her staff and bounds down the landing ramp.
A slender stone staircase snakes up an impossibly green valley somehow hewn into deep grey rock. This is where her dream always ends. She looks up, into the unknown. Someone is there up there, waiting for her. She can feel it. Her heart begins to pound with something like anticipation. She breathes deeply, inhaling the thick sea air laden with salt and moisture, and leaps down onto the first step. It feels reassuringly solid beneath her feet. It feels like she is meant to be here, like she finally belongs.
Rey waits no longer. She takes up the lightsaber and begins to climb.