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Death in the time of the Empire

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When Cassian was six years old, Imperial Stormtroopers shot his father in front of him. 

 

One of those extrajudicial killings that became a fact of life in the new political order, justified with words like security and peace. Not that he remembers it, not really: neither his father’s death nor the rise of the new regime. At six years old, you don’t. What he remembers is what his mother told him - he presumably told her, and she made sense of it, and told it back to him so many times that it became a story. One that had happened to him, one that he had witnessed, but with the ritual of repetition it became something more than the crash of a door kicked down, the toneless statement of his father’s name. Something like legend.

 

The way his mother told it back to him - and their neighbours told it too, it isn’t that he doubts her version, just that he has no details he can be sure are his own - it was all over in a matter of minutes. The door broken, table overturned, six year old Cassian knocked half way across the room when he clung to his father’s legs. He knows he was lying on the floor and that he could see everything when they forced his father to his knees and shot him in the back of the head.

 

Except he didn’t see everything. He was terrified; he was six years old. When the Stormtrooper raised his blaster, standing over his father on his knees, hands clasped behind his head and repeating over and over, “Don’t hurt my kid, he’ll go, let me send him out, don’t hurt him, don’t - ” at that moment, Cassian closed his eyes.

 

His memory is what he heard: the whine of the blaster, the soft thud of a body on a stone floor. Booted feet and a filtered voice saying, “Execution confirmed.” When he did open his eyes they were leaving, each one creating a moment of greater darkness as he passed out through the empty doorway. There was a puddle of blood rising under his father, and his face was the same but he wasn’t there any more.

 

Cassian told his mother that too, about not looking. He knew even then that closing your eyes does no good. What’s going to happen will happen anyway and just because you can’t see it won’t stop it. The least he could have done for his father at the end was bear witness to his death, to see it, to be with him at the very moment the light went out of him.

 

*

 

That death he saw was the first of many. Not his mother: she just didn’t come home one day. Ironically it was their father’s death that had radicalised her, and with the times what they were, Cassian and his older sister Amaya soon knew how to deliver a coded message to the Alliance, how to get past a checkpoint with a timid smile on their faces and a thermal detonator in their pockets.

 

The day their mother didn’t come home, Cassian and his sister ate what they could find in the house and went to bed late and alone, hoping she would be there when they woke up, but she wasn’t. Their neighbours, Alliance supporters like their mother, helped them search. Cassian remembers the woman who went with them when the body turned up in the city morgue three days later. He remembers it didn’t look quite like her and the childish hope he clung to that maybe it wasn’t her, that there was some mistake. But if it had been a mistake, wouldn’t she have come back?

 

“You should be proud of her,” their neighbour had said. She was crying as they looked at Cassian’s mother. Adults crying was normal, now. “She didn’t tell them anything. If she’d talked, they would have come for us by now.”

 

*

 

He would have ended up with the Rebel Alliance anyway, but maybe not so soon. An orphan on Fest under the Empire had nowhere to turn for charity and besides, they were old enough to help.

As an adult looking back, he understands that the Rebels on Fest did their best to look after him. The jobs he did for them were the safest they could possibly find for a child, but safe was a flexible, sharp-edged word. Safety was what the Empire promised - peace, safety, security. Cassian had seen what that meant.

 

*

 

The first death he saw with the Rebel Alliance was one of their own. An older boy who had always been kind to Cassian, caught by a blaster bolt as they ran. Cassian dragged him out of sight, pressed his hands to the wound, but it was too late. He didn’t faint at the blood and this time he didn’t close his eyes: he crouched on the wet ground murmuring, “You’ll be ok, you’ll see, I’ll help you, we just wait till they’re gone, you’ll be ok…” as his friend blinked and coughed, and his breath grew shallower and shallower, and Cassian looked at him, was there with him until he died.

 

When he was sure the Imperial forces were gone, Cassian laid the body down gently and walked away. He washed the blood off his hands at a damaged water pipe and got all the way to the next corner before he was sick.

 

*

 

Cassian didn’t see his sister die. A fellow soldier recorded a holo message for him, and he watched it all the way through without breaking or pausing.

 

*

 

The first man he killed was wearing a mask. Cassian fired, saw him fall, and ran.

 

Two days later he slept with a girl for the first time. She was older than him and knew what they were supposed to be doing, and if she’d been any nicer to him he might have cried. The next day he found a boy to take him to bed and that was easier. Easier at the time, anyway - afterwards he couldn’t help the creeping association of the two deeds, death and sex wrapped up together like something unwholesome growing in the dark.

 

Neither of them knew what he’d done, except in the sense that they all did things like that now. It was almost normal.

 

*
When he thought about his own death, he imagined darkness. His work by necessity was done in back alleys, storage tunnels, ill-lit hangars and landing bays, all the unobserved places of exploited worlds. The Empire could kill in broad daylight, with impunity, but that’s how they take out the innocent, not men like Cassian. Him, they’ll shoot at night as he runs away, or tear him apart in an interrogation room until he wished he was dead. This was just something he knew. How could it be otherwise?

 

*

 

The first man he killed who wasn’t wearing a mask, Cassian used a knife. It’s intimate, a knife fight: you’ve got to touch, get your hands dirty. An Imperial intelligence agent, responsible for hundreds of deaths - a man like that, Cassian would have had no qualms about slitting his throat from behind. Fighting honourably is only possible in peacetime, he thinks, and why would you be fighting in peacetime? Under the Empire, there’s only bad things that you do to stop worse things from happening, and if you have to stab a man in the back so that he won’t kill a hundred more, then you do it.

 

Cassian would have done it - he tried to do it. Some kind of body armour stopped him, and by the time the blade slid home they were grappling face to face. Cassian was almost nose to nose with the man when he went from being alive to being dead, and he held on a few seconds longer before pulling his knife out, looking at what he had done.

 

He tried not to dwell on it later, but a man has to look his own choices in the eye. You can't pretend when you take a life, especially not to yourself.

 

*

 

The first man he doesn't kill when he should have done is Galen Erso. That's the beginning of the end. Rain in his eyes, Erso’s daughter there in the platform where he can barely see her through night and downpour, and his mercy all for nothing. Alliance bombs do what he wouldn't, and Jyn won't forgive his intentions.

 

"I've been in this fight since I was six years old," he spits at her, and remembers his own father.

 

*

 

When Cassian dies, the light is what he isn’t expecting, after so long in the dark.

 

All this light, and Jyn holding him up until she can’t any more. Sinking down on the beach to sunlight shining on water, white sand, a place that could be beautiful but for the record of so much evil behind them and their companions dead all around them. Nobody's getting off Scarif, no way of knowing if the transmission got through. They’ve done all they can, and they can’t go any further.

 

They know what it is when the horizon glows and swells like a sunrise that won’t stop: it’s her father’s weapon. Maybe the Alliance have the plans and maybe they don't. Jyn Erso will die by the weapon her father couldn't stop, and so will everybody left alive here. Jyn the last of her family; Cassian the last of his.

 

Cassian isn’t looking at her only because she’s too close. She’s tiny and so strong, her arms are tight around him. He doesn’t have to look at her to know she’s here with him, better than a witness. It’s more than he could have hoped for, more than he deserves, to have somebody with him when he dies.

 

He was wrong to think killing a man with a knife was intimate, that sex can ever bring you closer to another person. Jyn Erso dying here with him and she knows he didn't kill her father: she knows he would have done it, but he didn't.

 

What’s going to happen will happen anyway and just because you can’t see it won’t stop it. Even if he closes his eyes the light shines through. There’s another human being warm in his arms who fought alongside him, who won’t look away from him at the very end. The light is pouring into them and in those last few seconds of life, he doesn't see the past like people say you do. Cassian Andor sees the luminescence of the future where what they did here counts for something, where there is more to hope for than someone who doesn't look away when you die. A fraction of a fraction of a second where Jyn’s body pressed against his is a promise they both want, where she might have known everything he's ever done and still loved him.

 

A huge expanse of time stretching ahead bright against the darkness, before the light engulfs them, and it all ends.