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Dust to Dust

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I.

My very first professor in the Futures Program asked me, “Galen, what would you like to do?”

I told him the truth. I told him he was welcome to try recruiting me into weapons design or something equally exciting, but I was set on developing renewable energy sources so cheap and efficient that even my mother on Grange could afford them.

He laughed.

At the time, I thought there was a hint of condescension in his response. I’ve since learned the difference between condescension and disbelief.

—Galen Erso, foreword, “Dust to Dust,” senior thesis for the Brentaal Republic Futures Program (annotated edition published 31 BBY)

===

Thin light from the morning sun kisses wind-tossed stalks rising high in the fields. A permanent hint of rain hangs in the air, emanating from the thick clouds above or from the damp, fertile soil underfoot. Grange is a Rim world, so far off the beaten paths of the galaxy that it has no significance to anyone who wasn’t born there.

All his life, Galen dreams of his homeworld.

He dreams of the farm and his mother and father. Both of them lifelong laborers without a scrap of either money or education between them. For years, when his mother told him that nothing worth doing is easy, Galen assumed she meant the endless work of the farm.

It was only when she repeated the words for the last time, embracing him and putting him on a transport to Brentaal, that he realized she'd always had higher hopes and greater dreams for him. Galen aspires to his mother’s wisdom. She’d taught him ambition and selflessness all at once.

II.

The memories of sentient beings are not long enough to record the life and death of stars. Fortunately, we have records stretching back many thousands of standard years — further than that, if one is willing to give credence to the accounts of pre-hyperspace peoples. Their records, of course, do not always stand up to academic scrutiny. While ancient records may be quite literally carved in stone, the mind, ancient or modern, is notoriously fickle.

I give more weight to these ancient accounts than many of my colleagues, perhaps due to my mother’s insistence on the importance of memory, family, and tradition. These things may be scientifically unreliable, but very often they are all we have.

—Galen Erso, “Dust to Dust”

===

Jyn crouches beside her flowerpot and Lyra hands her a pitcher of water freshly pumped from the kitchen vaporator. She’s trying not to laugh at Jyn’s bad-tempered expression when Galen catches her eye.

“I'm watering dust,” Jyn complains, tipping the pitcher until a thin stream hits the loosely packed soil.

“Not too much now,” Lyra counsels gently, reaching to take the pitcher back before Jyn can become overzealous. “You may not see anything yet, but if you keep at it, I promise it will be a flower.”

Jyn looks distinctly unconvinced.

“It will always be dust if you don't water it,” Lyra adds.

“But it’s been so long,” huffs Jyn. “I can't do this forever.”

Galen thinks of his long years on farm work, the exhausting labor of the Republic Futures Program, the backbreaking research treks through mountain ranges searching for crystals, the months waiting for rescue from the Separatist forces holding him and Lyra captive. Lyra raises her eyebrows at him. They smile silently over Jyn’s eight-year-old definition of long.

"Of course you can’t do it forever,” Lyra answers lightly. “But you can do it today." She places Jyn’s flowerpot back in the windowsill to soak up the light of Lah’mu’s sun.

Galen watches Jyn’s dissatisfied face.

“Did you know everything is made of dust?” he asks, and her eyes sharpen with curiosity. She’s such a bright little thing. For a single, stabbing moment, he wishes he could send her off to be educated as his own mother had once done with him. Of course, that had been before the rise of the Empire. Long before he was hunted for his ability to turn kyber crystals into instruments of death. A flinch builds under his skin, but he contains it. The problem of Jyn’s ultimate education will keep for another day. For today, there are many lessons he can teach her himself.

“What?” Jyn prompts when he doesn’t continue immediately.

Galen gathers his thoughts and smiles at her. ”When stars grow old and explode, their atoms eventually form new structures and even beings.” He kneels to match her eye level, whispering for effect. “Even you."

Jyn wrinkles her nose. ”I'm made of dust?” she asks, and Lyra laughs outright at her incredulous tone.

“Stardust,” Galen corrects, and laughs with them.

III.

The death of stars is a process that takes millennia. Starved of fuel, their collapse is inevitable, though it occurs in stages. The heart of the star dies before the rest.

—Galen Erso, “Dust to Dust”

===

The first year is the hardest. Lyra's absence feels like an amputation; he silently limps and bleeds.

Some of the other engineers forcibly drafted into the DS-1 program were colleagues long ago. They remember he had a family once — a family that is pointedly absent now. He feels their pity, but no one speaks. Speaking openly isn’t an option under Orson’s watchful eye.

Galen worries for Jyn until it twists into pain in his stomach. He sees her dead, sometimes, alone beneath the dirt, waiting for help that will never come. At night when he can't fight the visions any longer, he chokes on his own breath. On better nights, he steers his exhausted mind into memories instead. He sees Jyn, running through the fields of their tiny farm, her braids free in the wind.

When exhaustion pulls him into restless sleep, the memories slide into unsettled dreams. It’s just as well. When he’s awake, there is no hope.

IV.

Humanity is not a particularly long-lived race, so it may be that I am an authority on the fleeting nature of observable time. Of course, even those of my colleagues who have seen the dawn of more than one century inform me that time passes too quickly.

However long the lifespan of a sentient being, it cannot compare with the life of a star. We witness their birth, their death, or some span in-between — never every stage. This makes the study of the universe a matter of legacy.

—Galen Erso, foreword, “Dust to Dust”

===

So many years. Galen feels himself blur into a wash of gray as his life fades into a mind-numbing process of research, experimentation, and execution, all drenched in Eadu’s endless rain. It pounds against the durasteel roof of the Imperial research base both night and day. The sound becomes almost violent when the wind howls.

He opens his eyes each morning and carefully stows away every thought of Jyn. Concealing the heavy disappointment of awakening to another day in which he’s alive and not with her is difficult.

Nothing worth doing is easy, his mother’s voice counsels him when he thinks he can’t take any more. It is a maxim proved true in his life time and again, with one exception: it had been easy to love Lyra and Jyn.

He walks numbly through each day of work and tries to decide whether he’d be better off walking out of the complex and ignoring the supervising stormtroopers’ shouts until they finally gun him down. But perhaps it’s not a decision he’ll need to make himself.

Orson’s gaze turns evaluating during his periodic visits, and Galen knows that he’s weighing just how vital his taciturn colleague is to his pet project. Orson always did value accomplishment more than people. It was a trait that had served them well during their school days. Galen had admired his drive then. Now he only admires his ruthlessness. He could rely on Orson to kill him if he was no longer necessary. Perhaps he can let himself fade from importance.

He sees Lyra’s eyes when he tries to decide whether to die. The fire in them, the determination, when she’d raised the blaster to point defiantly at Orson’s face. She’d died trying to protect him.

And Jyn.

So many years since he saw his daughter’s face or heard her voice. Asking pointed questions or inventing stories for her clay dolls, complaining about chores and waking early to program the vaporators. He misses the energetic voice, the messy braids, the bright eyes. More than anything, he wishes to know that she’s alive.

He tries to imagine her as she would be now. A young woman with Lyra’s eyes and Lyra’s fire. Or perhaps she takes after him. Perhaps she too has given up. The thought turns him colder than the icy rain pounding relentlessly overhead.

He thinks long and carefully as the gray days drag by. Gives no sign that he is weighing life, death, and defiance as he studies the spidery lines of light that make up the plans for the greatest death machine in the universe. It’s meant to be unassailable. It will be, if his team continues their current plans.

Unless.

Galen adjusts a single thermal exhaust port. Reroutes a few vital connections to allow a catastrophic chain reaction. It’s a tiny weakness, so insignificant that no one would check, no one would see. The risk is very great, of course. He has no way to communicate his plan to anyone and no guarantee that he won’t be discovered and killed, but he decides anyway. It’s almost nothing, but he’s introduced a chance where there was none. He works and smiles and lies, waiting for an opportunity to reveal what he’s done to the right person at the right time. Day after day, an exhausting charade.

I can’t do this forever, he thinks.

Of course you can’t do it forever, Lyra’s voice surfaces in his mind. But you can do it today.

So he does.

And when the time comes for him to choose a codename for his deadly project, Galen stands beside Orson and types the only word more powerful than hope.

STARDUST

V.

It’s a fact that seems improbable to the young, but it is a fact nonetheless: all stars die.

—Galen Erso, “Dust to Dust”

===

Rain and fire assault his senses in equal, overwhelming measure. All at once, Galen can’t feel or hear.

But that's not quite true; past the white ringing in his ears, he can hear his mother humming one of the folk songs she'd loved. A gentle, lilting melody, meant to be matched with the wind and the steady swipe of harvesting tools rather than instruments. He’d forgotten this song.

The world is grey when his vision clears and the humming gives way to the pounding of the rain. He hears Lyra's voice now, sees her face close to his own. He's dying, he realizes all at once — and smiles. He'd hoped for so long that she would be here when he went. A reunion beyond the stars.

But Lyra's eyes are too wide, the dark hair dripping rainwater not quite the right shade.

"Papa," her voice is saying.

Galen feels a moment of perfect stillness, like being safe in the center of a storm.

Jyn.

“I’m here,” she’s saying, barely audible over the drumming of the rain. Galen can’t feel it anymore. Can’t feel anything beyond an intense joy, violent in its sudden force. A heat that threatens to split him apart from the inside. Every memory he’d turned away, every tear he’d forced back, every scrap of hope he’d ever held inside himself for Jyn’s sake, all for her, poured over him at last. Too much, too much, there was no speaking it. How he’d kept himself alive for her, dedicated every hour to the thought that maybe someday, somehow, his work to destroy the death machine he’d helped to build would leave a better universe for her.

"I have so much to tell you,” he says. He can’t feel his body, but injury or fatigue is constricting his throat and he can’t speak any further.

I love you, he thinks. I love you.

He can’t breathe, can’t think, can’t see —

But just for a moment, he can feel. For the first time in fifteen long, gray years, Galen Erso feels free.

VI.

And perhaps that, after all, is the most profound lesson of the universe in which we live. The endless cycles of the cosmos are just that: endless. We may witness the death of stars, but we will also see their ashes bind themselves together again, igniting new fire. Birth and death and birth again: there is always the possibility of new life.

The endless possibility of stardust.

—Galen Erso, “Dust to Dust”