Flowers end in frozen patterns
artificial gardens cover
we get up close to midnight
search with powerful lights
the tiniest shrubs on the
A stream desperately is running to
Etel Adnan, “The morning / after my death”
You’re terrified, says Ren.
I can see you trembling, says Ren.
You’re alone, says Ren.
On the shuttle, returning, this is the part he will edit out. He will erase the litany of it. He will keep, though, the moments when Ren says: Don’t talk like that, and: You could stay. And the other parts also. He tells himself it is only natural for him to do so—it was a conquering, of sorts.
Once, many years ago: Forty-nine hours into his first stationed assignment as a Lieutenant Junior Grade on the Sunbreacher he’d been stranded just momentarily on a dying hunk of half-planet along the edges of the Rim. An accident occurred during a routine patrol of the outlying trade routes: engine two of their shuttle malfunctioned, exploded. They were pushed into the orbital well of the planet, lost control, sheared off most of their plating when they hit atmo spinning.
In the crash his CO died. Lieutenant Commander Gerra Lon. Split his head open on the console, all the way to the bone of his skull, his mouth lax and wet and open, pressed up against the panel like a tableau of a panting kiss. Hux had sat there in the jumpseat in the frigid and silent dark with blood drying tight on his face, waiting to see if perhaps L-C Lon would start to breathe again. There was only the sound of his own ragged pulse in his ears, the sparking hiss of frayed wiring, the tink-tink-tink of atmo-seared metal re-cooling unsteadily, and not much else.
Eventually, the cold registered. He began to feel the sting of it just as his fingers started to go numb, and so he unstrapped himself from the seat and tugged himself out of the wreckage. It was dark, bruise-purple; he couldn’t quite make out the terrain except for when light cracked across the sky in licks of jagged lightning. It was raining, too: long and languid stripes from the low and agitated clouds. Two inches of water swirling around his ankles. The ground was rocky, hard, granite-colored; they had ended up in a gully of tall spikes of stone. Underneath his feet something was quaking gently; the sky had been full of softly rumbling rolls of thunder. He catalogued gravitational decay, atmospheric trauma, the planet crumbling from the inside out, its protective mantles of core and crust and the invisible layers of N-O2-CO2-He-Ar-NO2 starting to bleed together. It had maybe, he’d thought, another three hundred years before it collapsed into itself.
His uniform was torn at the shoulder and the thigh. His ribs were aching; he wondered dimly if he’d bruised or fractured something. When he wiped the rain from his face with both hands, he could feel the sting where the superficial cut on his forehead reopened. When he attempted to scramble up a rocky ledge for better vantage, something twinged deep inside his shoulder. When he paused to catch his breath, leaning against a freezing, wet plane of stone, he felt unnaturally dizzy, vision swimming—he considered the possibility of a concussion.
From the top of the craggy outcropping, he could see nothing but more spires of rock, nothing but swirling dark clouds and distant flashes of violet light and sheets of rain. The cold was biting, evidence enough that if he did not move quickly he would not last more than another day cycle, at most, especially if the temperature dropped.
Clambering back to the shuttle, ribs still protesting, he found the Emerg-Comm box, cracked open the dented casing with a shard of durasteel, powered on the distress beacon. It registered relay in less than three minutes, with a calming spray of green light thrown up around the shell of the ruined shuttle. The comm crackled.
Shuttle 256-07, this is Sunbreacher central. We have you registering mayday signal 023 on EC channel. Ident please, over.
“This is Junior Lieutenant Hux,” he’d replied. “Mayday 023 confirmed. Requesting evac from current location. Over.”
Roger, Lieutenant. Stay with beacon, evac on route with ETA twenty minutes, over.
Lieutenant, evac requests intel. Do you require immediate medical assistance, over.
“No, central. Not immediate. Over.”
Roger, roger. Evac requesting headcount for retrieval—will this be a two-seater, over.
He looked back behind him, where L-C Lon was still slumped over the console with his arms limp along his thighs, palms upturned and gently cupped around the cold air. If he squinted in the dark he could see where the blood had started to congeal and freeze on the panel; there were ice crystals in Lon’s matted hair. Hux had known him for six hours: he was blond, he looked about forty standard years, he’d sworn loudly in Rim Basic when the engine blew out, he was dead now.
(He’d thought then for a moment about how his father had looked in the shadows of the SD Executor corridors when he’d been told that Maratelle’s corpse had been found four days gone in the belly of a smuggler freighter carrying refugees from the Reaches. His father of course had told him nothing himself—he was only eight or nine then—but Sloane, who had always been the bearer of worst news in his father’s life and the center of fortifying independence in his own, had later filled him in on the reason behind the sudden crumpling greyness of his father’s skin, the sheen of sweat on his jaw, the rigid white line of his mouth with all the blood gone from it. The metaphors that people used for this sort of thing, he’d realized then, were all wrong.)
L-T Hux, do you read, over.
“Yes,” he said.
Repeat: do you need a two-seater for evac, over.
“No, central,” he said, and he’d turned his back on the dead man in the pilot’s seat. “Just one.”
Now—he keeps imagining Starkiller like an amputated limb. He catches himself pausing for glimpses out of viewports, finds himself expecting to see the white talon of its crest slicing the sky beneath the stars. It feels to him like the parasympathetic static of déjà vu, the flickering expectation of its elegant bulk, its humming gravity. The strange dislocation of its absence.
Without Ren hulking in the corners and stalking like a pestilence the dark bands of the corridors, there is a ragged unevenness to everything. As if before there had been two wide and invisible plates of shining metal placed on either end of an arc—a white orb on one and a black shadow on the other—with himself in the middle. As if before there had been some logic to the arrangement. As if before. (Everything in unpleasant comparison.) And now—
The first message comes while he is mediating the end of a mutiny on the SD Formidable. She had found herself snagged in a smuggler gravnet at the edges of the Unknown Regions following the regroup necessitated by the Resistance terrorist attack on Starkiller—she’d dispatched the smaller smuggler ships, of course, but was left powered down, comms-out, without access to resupply routes or nav charts for a week while the fleet found its footing again.
They are told that Colonel Sharly Ukkon took a blaster bolt to her back on the first day of the uprising. That there is a small band of loyal officers held hostage in the mess hall storage units. That they are demanding dishonorable discharges for several pointed members of High Command. Phasma, quietly demoralized, already sure of her impending demotion before the incident, supports a holistic strategy—engage, eliminate, problem solved. In the end, he refuses to back off from the argument of resource loss, and they dispatch the remaining crew with poison gas in order to salvage the ship. And so the message sits blinking on his restricted personal comm, in his quarters, unnoticed for eight hours.
At first he thinks it is a mistake. A glitch, maybe. He clicks it open, distracted; it does not register—among the scrolling confirmations of the Formidable incident closure from Command—that the sender field is a scramble of unintelligible code. His console screen stutters, drawing his attention, and then the holo starts to play, projected and hovering over the surface of his desk.
The interior of a Star Destroyer. An empty corridor: long and dark-mirrored, polarized in bright and encoded light. That is all it is, the holo. An empty corridor of a Star Destroyer—as if somewhere in the system of the Finalizer an ailing bit of system saw fit to send him a scrap of closed-circuit surveillance of his own ship. The only indication that it is a moving image, that it is playing on a loop, is the spurt of static at the end, before it begins again.
He pauses where he is, one glove already off, frozen in the midst of tugging the other free. He squints. The holo loops again. Again—and again.
He shakes it off, the fixation. Closes the file and deletes it. He schedules a non-essential review of the surveillance system, and orders off the lights. The imprint of the holo of the empty corridor behind his eyelids when he crawls into his berth and shuts his eyes—this is, he reasons, the way that the human brain processes the vestiges of overly bright light in a dim room.
On Arkanis they funneled the water. There was so much of it, it had always needed to be diverted, controlled, contained, released, reconstituted. On lighter days they could shut off one or two canals for every five, otherwise the whole system of them raged with white and wild rivulets. Water treated like waste, and almost always too much of it to manage.
Near their apartments there had been an evap-station. All the runoff of their district sent there in the system of collection wells, wide subterranean troughs, the long sloughage canals, directed and sucked into the underground tubes, down the hills of the district blocks like the branching of pale veins. Enormous snakes slithering down hillsides, silvery worms shunting and curling along the delicate skin of roads and buildings, lapping at the edges of concrete and porous moss and stone and rusted durasteel. Everything wet was sent there: down, down, down, until it reached the evap, where it was sucked up into the innards, converted into power, released as steam and heat. From his window, as a very young child, he could see the tower of it piercing the clouds. Pale grey and slender like the shadow of a needle. The head of it crowned with a wreath of white mist.
It had always been the first and last thing he ever really remembered about Arkanis: the sight of the distant tower crumbling in the fog, under fire, as they prepared hastily—Maratelle shouting angrily in some distant part of the apartments at the realization that she had not been granted evacuation, his father hoisting his own small body into his arms as if he weighed nothing at all—to leave the planet behind.
The second message is there waiting for him when he wakes up, forty-six minutes before Second Shift, one week to the day after the first. He is dressing, when he opens it, leaning over his desk console with the placket of his uniform halfway fastened. His hair is still damp from the refresher. He has not yet had his caf. His eyes are still adjusting to the half-light of his quarters. The message is nestled between routine Black Shift readouts and the updated shuttle departure schedules—he spares a glance this time at the garbled line of code that his console spits out from the sender field:
When he opens it, the holo spurts to life again over the surface of his desk, pixels glitching on the edges as the image adheres to its invisible frame, finds the edges of the third dimensions. It resolves, finally, with a soft whirr of focus. The little shock of it when he realizes what it is is enough to rock him back minutely on his heels; he grips the edge of the desk with his fingertips.
Trees. He sees the trees, first. Craggy, spindly, bare branches. The holo is silent, like the other; they are bending and whipping quietly in some great and invisible wind. The blue-white wash of the holo renders everything pale and wan, but he knows: the color is wrong. The earth should be the color of rust. The branches of the gnarled trees should be soot-gray. There should be lightning, he thinks, insanely. Where is the—and the holo is lit up, suddenly, with a flash of pale light.
He flinches against it. When he opens his eyes again, squinting, he catches the moment that the holo judders, flickering to static, before it begins again.
They’d ended up standing in a circle around the body, after they came running, after the scream. Overhead, the lightning was flashing dry in the clouds—a heat storm—and the wind was lashing at the brittle branches of the deadened grey brush around them, and there had been that red dust smeared on their hands, faces, coating their boots and the hems of their trousers. To his left, Cadet Swallows had been crying, big open-mouthed sobs, her fingers shoved tight up against her mouth like it would stop the noises from erupting, somehow. Cadet Nesan had the dust soiling his uniform all the way to his thighs, from where he’d been crouched over the corpse, clutching, until they’d pulled him off. There was blood on his chin: shining black in the light of the storm. His eyes looked dull, vacant.
“I didn’t see him,” Nesan said.
“Hux,” sobbed Swallows, although she hadn’t seemed able to look away from the prone body of Cadet Pahara to implore him directly. “Oh, kriff, what do we do?”
“I didn’t see him,” Nesan repeated, louder. “I thought he was—”
“Fuck, fuck, fuck,” Cadet Jasha was muttering, her hands knotted in front of her, knuckles ashen and dust-smeared.
“Hux,” said Swallows again. “Do something!”
“Nesan,” he said, slow and even to counter the hysterical edge of Swallows, the pitch of frenetic energy she always brought to everything she did. “What happened.”
“I didn’t see him,” Nesan said, for the third time. He’d sounded numb. “I thought. I thought he was, an animal maybe.”
Hux had thought, back then, before it happened, that there had been some unusual closeness between Nesan and Pahara. Always with their heads bent together, one pitch-dark and one starshine blond; always managing to get themselves paired in astromech; always managing to find themselves side-by-side in corridors, in the Academy mess; and bunkmates, too. He had harbored a vague curiosity about it, if he had ever been forced to admit it, perhaps they had been—entangled, in a way he was himself not yet acutely intimately acquainted with.
“I didn’t think,” said Nesan. “I didn’t—”
“Give me your weapon,” he said.
Nesan crouched in the dust and pulled his blaster rifle back towards him by the strap of it. He didn't stand when he offered it to Hux; just stayed kneeling there in the red dirt with his eyes still fixed on Pahara’s corpse.
He felt all the rest of their gazes trained on him as he went through the protocols: flicked the safety, logged the shot roster, punched in his own Squad Leader code to lock it. He slung it over his shoulder against his own rifle, reached down to his belt to unclip his sat-comm.
“Is he dead,” said Jasha.
Stupid bitch, he’d thought: unbidden, unpleasant. Of course he’s kriffing dead.
“Hux,” whispered Swallows. “What—”
Whatever she said next was swallowed up by the scream of the wind and another searing flash of heat lightning. He was sweating, prickling like a overcompressed nerve, under the collar of his own heavy cadet uniform. He turned away, when he lifted the sat-comm to his mouth and made the call.
Later, he submitted his report in full. He testified at the hearing that in his opinion it had been a careless accident exacerbated by improper weapons handling. Cadet Nesan was reprimanded, reconditioned. He did not see Nesan again, or the rest of them; his squad was reassigned before graduation. Swallows spat at his feet once when he passed her in the mess hall.
Her face was a pinch of anger: lines and rivulets like the wind carving out the red dust of the earth.
Now—again. When he begins to think on it as a pattern, as something interrelated—when he begins to think on it at all: at first he thinks it must be some response for the Formidable. Some species of metaphorical threat. Some unnecessarily convoluted and poetic hissing from the ranks that now know, after FN-2187, that traitorous thoughts can be entertained. He considers ship-wide reconditioning. He considers the idea of a random purge. He considers going down to the comm central bank and tracing the message himself, wire by wire and signal by signal, with the tips of his gloved fingers, until he can snatch it from the air and crush its pathways to stardust and acidic film.
(He considers—once, blearily, at oh-two-hundred hours, staring at the ceiling of his berth—that it could be Nesan: clawing himself up from wherever he’d settled for a life of mediocrity, finally finding his kriffing courage after nursing a dozen years’ worth of sucking, gormless guilt.)
He considers also that he may be quietly losing his own mind. That whatever happened with Ren, alone in the antechamber after the Supreme Leader’s summons, had implanted some kind of a virus in his head. He is seeing things, perhaps. When Ren dug into his mind with all the finesse of a gale, the surge of bright pain must have been some center of his sanity dislodging. He has been broken apart and put back together poorly, messily—he has seen all too often what happens to prisoners who failed Ren’s interrogations. Reconstitution was never something they needed to practice with any integrity.
Or: perhaps he is dreaming, he thinks. Perhaps he has fallen asleep somewhere. Perhaps in five minutes or three hours, he thinks, he will wake up on the shuttle returning on autopilot to the Finalizer from Snoke’s great, damp cathedral of rock. Perhaps the last eighteen cycles have been a complete fabrication—mysterious nonsense inserted seamlessly into the banal.
Perhaps—he thinks. Perhaps. Perhaps. Perhaps.
He will pinch himself, gently, on the skin of his wrist, when the message is still there the next morning. He will delete it, and the crescent marks of his own nails will fade minutes later.
And then: the third message and the fourth come in quicker succession. After another week of silence, nearly enough time for him to forget the tremor of their interruption, and then—back-to-back. One cycle, suddenly, and then the next. Two sharp splinters suddenly embedded in the soft skin of his sternum; two lightning bolts, two short circuits, too close together to be a dream, a psychosis, anything but real.
In the air, above the surface of the conference table, there is the projection of a starfield, planetary coordinates, troop and squadrons arrangements: Coruscant, Chavila, and D’Qar locked inside glowing red rims, strategic shrouds, deathmarks. Across the width of the table, Kaplan is speaking. He is saying: “—for intelligence-provided coordinates, as such we are recommending a full-strength assault for targets priority one through three, with precision stealth at identified points of weakness for targets four and five—” and then Hux’s datapad pings softly at his elbow, the screen blinking to life.
He spares it a glance, moving to switch off the screen, when he sees the now pseudofamiliar garbled lines of code flickering up at him from the screen. He feels the involuntarily clench of his throat, the way his pulse skitters. The pad of his thumb hovers over the notification, hairsbreadth distance.
What is it, he thinks. What will it be this time.
“General Hux, sir.”
He blinks, hand twitching. Switches off the screen with a swift tap of his finger; clears his throat.
“Acceptable. I’ll review and forward with my recommendations by the end of the cycle.”
“General,” Kaplan leans forward, an elbow braced on the table between them. “I believe that the rest of the council of High Command is perhaps—concerned, that the window of opportunity is closing. They would surely appreciate any expedited protocol.”
“High Command,” he replies, soothing the bristle he feels at Kaplan’s tone with a little inhale through his nose, “has given me authority over the armada, and over this particular assault. Believe me when I say I am aware of any potential concerns, Colonel. As I said, by the end of the cycle.”
“Yes, sir.” Kaplan leans back in his seat, gaze averted, jaw set.
“Sir,” says Mitaka, at Hux’s left, as he rises from his own seat, his voice pitched low to hide under the rustling of uniforms, the hum of the door hushing open for the departing officers. “Our internal intercepts have just received intel that Commander Ren’s personal TIE is scheduled to depart from the Eclipse at oh-nine-hundred in two cycles, with no route logged in system. Shall I have the tracker send coordinate updates to your personal comm as planned?”
“Yes,” he says. He can feel the presence of the message still like a throbbing little wound: something half-healed and half-opened, a nagging prickle in the back of his skull. The reminder of Ren’s existence does little to help. “Yes—fine.”
“Yes, sir,” says Mitaka, and departs.
He barely manages to wait for the door to hiss closed before he’s grabbing for his datapad, stabbing viciously at the message notification with his finger. It springs to life over the table, just where the armada schematics had been moments earlier, fizzling and jittering around the edges as it coalesces.
He had been expecting, maybe, the desert again. The whipping silent wind and the dead trees. A part of him had been expecting any number of the things he had seen before, some version of the events that followed Nesan and Pahara, perhaps Swallows’ snarling, tear-streaked face leering back at him through the distortion, as if that had been the chosen logic he’d unconsciously inserted into the ridiculousness of it all. He had not, did not, expect—
A steady gushing tumble of water, over the shining, basalt-black rocks. Vertiginous angle, as if filmed at the bottom of a sharply steep gully, looking up. A quaking tremulousness about the whole thing, as if the ground below the water were in a state of slow and torturous seismic flux. Rain in the air, a sheer curtain of it obscuring the rocks in waves.
He remembers the shortness of breath he’d felt. The aching where he’d broken a rib, just below his left lung. The ice crystals in the air, the numbness in his fingers, the slippery cold under his palms when he’d scrambled up the rock wall, alone, thunder overhead. The image of his then-Lieutenant-Commander (What was his name, he thinks, wildly, Lore? Lont?) slumped over the console, the exposed viscera of his skull leaking sluggish. The way he had left him there.
The holo-message jumps, jitters, goes blank—restarts. He shuts it off, in the middle of the loop. For a half-second: an afterimage—acid green—burned into the empty space of the air left behind.
In the morning, there is another. He wakes and reaches for his datapad as if he knows already it will be there—something in his chest when he sees the line of code at the top of his messages now swings toward a prickling, seething kind of anticipation, rather than alienation, rather than surprise. He sits up in his berth and opens it immediately, not bothering to move except to tuck his feet up under his thighs and to set the datapad on the thin sheets; the holo bursts to life above the mattress, ice-blue and glittering.
At first, it is not clear. Nondescript. The high crest of a dune, sand fluttering from the lip of it in a gentle whirl of sparkling air. Silent, like the others. The sky is empty above the desert. No clouds, no color. The whole thing looks washed-out and wan. Undefined, somehow. A non-place, untidily unspecific. The hulking mass of a sand dune, repeating in a four-second loop.
But, he wants to say, as if someone on the other end could hear him, this isn’t mine. This one isn’t, I don’t remember—
The holo loops again, the eddy of sand lifts off into the sky. A shadow under the dune catches his eye. A strange lump of blackness, a thick, eerie ooze. Clinging to the sand like oil. He squints at it, sleep still in his eyes. It looks a little like—it looks like—
His heart is immediately in his throat, a flood of anger and hot shame hitting him like a bolt to the chest. He slams his fist onto the datapad to close the holo, scrabbling to pick it up from the sheets and opening the empty message, punching the reply button with his thumb.
He types, furious: Who is this?—and then deletes it, fingers shaking. The cursor blinks steadily; he frowns down at it.
What do you want? (He deletes this too.)
Identify yourself. This, he sends.
It chases him like a bad dream. Some fragile sensation on the edges of his mind, the feeling that if he blinks too long, drifts unwieldy even for a moment, the thing there will catch up with him, and the weave of reality will all come unthreaded in a great spool of irrational, quivering lines.
He stays busy. (This is not difficult.) He seeks out the humming hive of the bridge; he stays there for three shifts. After, he tours four TIE bays, Mitaka at his heels, reeling off reconditioning reports. They are multitasking. He barks at a mech with sloppy power-conduit coiling, leaving her ashen and shaking in salute. (Everything is operational, normative.)
He is not thinking about the threads coming apart. He is not thinking about flickering lines of unintelligible code. He is not thinking about the empty corridor, or the bare trees in the desert, or the wet rocks, or the sand dune running with dark blood. He is not thinking about how it could be possible for someone out there in the arced span of the galaxy to reach inside his own mind and tug these memories free like tiny, struggling morsels. He is not thinking about how it could be possible for someone to make them solid and form them like clay and then fracture them and scatter them like a prism of light along invisible lines of communication. He is not thinking about the only person he knows, that he has ever known, who would be capable of this.
He is not thinking about what it all could mean.
He is thinking instead about squadron formations. About HVAC tubing and oxygenated flows. He is thinking instead about atmospheric reports and shift circulations and ion combustion and about QREs and reconditioning algorithms, about responsive circuitry and calculating Lagrangian Points for orbital transfer. He is thinking instead about a trio of prime target planets, arced in schematic and rimmed in crimson light. He is thinking about tasks for the next five minutes, and the five minutes after that, and the five minutes after that, and after that, and after that. About how long a single second feels when you are tracking a progression.
And later, when he is nursing a small metal cup of caf at the end of Sixth Shift, in his offices, he is thinking again that perhaps it is some form of a dream he has conjured from his own sparse sleep. That perhaps the nitrogen levels in his quarters are slightly too high. That perhaps the unflagging little curl of guilt sitting warm and prickly in his gut is not the result of these mysterious, impossible communications, but the cause of them. He is thinking, as he reviews updated orbital strike data from D’Qar, that he is not sure which would be the more troubling of the two. He is thinking—
A chime. Thrrmm. Familiar, solid. The door.
He sets down his datapad, turns away from the console.
“Sir,” says Phasma, as she steps inside. “The ‘Trooper condition reports have arrived from the Primarion and Executor.”
“Within acceptable limits,” says Phasma, handing him a small dataport. “You may hold a different opinion.”
This is her, he thinks, weighing the little dataport in his palm, as skittish. As if she were weighing penance, still, having done him some wrong by missing the chink in the armor before, as if she had caved too easily. As if she hadn’t been with him from the very beginning of it all and then clawed her way from the bowels of a quaking planet in order not to leave her post. As if he didn’t understand what loyalty meant—what a promise was.
“Doubtful,” he says.
Phasma is silent, still.
“Thank you, Captain,” he says, closing his fingers around the port. “I’ll review.”
“Yes, sir.” She moves to go, cape limp at her back.
“Captain.” He calls after her.
It is a mistake, he knows. But the faint spike of terror at being left alone, now, squeezes it out of him.
“Sir,” she says, turning in the doorway.
“Do you remember,” he says. And then—stops.
Outside the transparisteel portal, to his left, there is the gaseous cloud of a Coallax nebula forming—pale blue, blushing pink on the edges. The shadow clinging to the edges of his thoughts reaches forward, whispers at his ear.
“General,” says Phasma, prompting. Her helmet like an absence: just reflection.
“It’s not important,” he says. “No.”
“Yes, sir,” says Phasma.
He had wanted to say: Do you remember when they all started to die off? He had wanted to turn to her and say: Did you ever feel the sting of it, when Garren died, and then Alat, and then Tiro, and then the rest of them, until you were the only one left. He had wanted to ask: Did it make you wonder how long you had. He had wanted to ask: Did we do well enough to ensure you would not feel the pain of that either.
He had wanted to ask: How could it be possible for me to be shown something I only imagined, in a moment of weakness, a moment of confusion.
To say: I never saw it with my own eyes. How could it be manifest, like that.
“Just a memory,” he says.
“Yes, sir,” says Phasma.
“I want them with me,” he’d said to Sloane, after it happened again, with Tiro. “They’re too dispersed. Losing sense of their cohesion makes them lose sense of their mission; it leads to vulnerability.’”
The edges of her holo crackled, as if radiating her frustration, her confusion, whenever it came to the Children.
“You have your own duties, Armitage,” she reminded him, as if he needed it. “Other than babysitting Rax’s outmoded freaks.”
He bristled, but kept his voice steady. “Grand Admiral,” he said. “They are a highly trained special force.”
“And you are the future of the First Order, Major,” she said. Playing him adeptly, like an a piece of equipment she’d tuned herself, to a precise frequency. Even though he knew by then how she did it, even as it was happening, it did so very little to weaken the little glow of warmth inside his chest whenever she praised him.
It softened him. Sparked something decidedly vulnerable, erupted something bold and intimate and honest, always. He wanted to say, Rae, what do you know. He wanted to say, I’m being kept in the dark, someone is moving the pieces in a pattern I can’t make out. He wanted to say, I thought we were supposed to protect each other.
Instead, he said: “And I trust in the Order.”
She terminated the call, as if she'd been appeased by that, and he sat in the newly darkened comm room and drummed his nails against the durasteel of the console, resting his chin in his other palm, frowning at the empty screen, until he felt himself reach the limit of his own frustration, like a vessel filled just to the trembling brim, and he pushed away from the comm carrel, thrown the door open with maybe more force than was needed.
He found Kora back in his quarters, where he’d left him before the call to Sloane, still standing by the small viewport with his arms crossed over his chest. His chromed ‘Trooper Captain’s helmet was still sitting on the middle of his berth like a gravestone. They watched each other from across the room while Hux stripped his gloves and pulled his cap off, tossing both onto the berth beside the helmet—an uncomfortable, sad little group, he’d thought, that the four of them made there.
“You shouldn’t have come,” he said, finally.
“Why,” said Kora.
“Liability,” he said.
“Courtesy,” replied Kora. “Tiro was your favorite.”
“That’s absurd,” he said.
Kora hunched his shoulders, like a shrug. Even as a grown adult then, Hux still found it difficult not to find in his impassive face flashes of the little sandy-haired child whom he had ordered clubbed across the temples to prove the strength of obedience in them. Kora had cried out then, high-pitched—a reflex to pain not yet bred out.
“Tell me what happened,” he said.
“He died,” said Kora. He tapped his chest with two thin fingers, right at the silvery breastbone of his armor. “Three shots.”
“Was it quick,” he found himself asking. Against his better judgment, against the strange pang of feeling imagining Tiro exsanguinating against some cold and sandy crest of dune, his big, dark eyes going blank and dull behind his own helmet. Blood running like oil from his veins. Wind and sand ruffling his short-shorn hair.
“Quick enough,” said Kora.
“The New Republic?” His heart skipped a beat, even saying it. He’d been waiting for the cue, some hopeful spark sent hissing in an arc to light the itching smolder of something deep and predatory.
Kora shook his head.
He clicked his tongue, disappointed. It didn't matter, then, he realized. If it wasn't the Republic, then what was the point.
“You won’t see us again,” said Kora. “Not for a while.”
“Some of us are being called to new duties,” said Kora. “New training.”
“New—training?” A flare of something like jealousy curled in his chest. “With whom, exactly?”
“You are on your own path, now,” Kora said, as if that were reply enough. And then: “Your father is dying, too.”
He sniffed, muttered: “And taking far too long about it.”
“You are worried,” said Kora. They always did that, back then—expressed his own emotions back at him blankly, as if he were some anthropological specimen, a strange mirror inscribed with ancient and unknowable glyphs that they stumbled upon in the dark of a tomb.
“I’m not,” he lied.
“Our lines will converge again,” said Kora. “Again, we will serve you, in our own way. Have patience.”
“You make less sense every time I see you.” He was bitter. It had felt to him, back then, as if he were finding himself suddenly ill-equipped for a task he had not anticipated. And that no one else was prepared to help him.
Kora pushed away from the wall and snagged his helmet from the berth. “Soon,” he said, before he put it on and left Hux alone in his quarters to ignore the encroaching emptiness of the thought of their numbers still dwindling. “Phasma will stay with you. You will see, soon.”
Now—three hours later, his personal comm screen is full. Dozens and dozens and dozens of messages. All the same, like an erratic echo, bouncing frantically across the walls of a cavern. His own desperate, angry query sent back to him, in endless replicate.
And after this: silence.
Hastily, angrily deleting every new message, until it seems to suddenly cease. For four more long cycles, where the fractures had been, an empty black hole in the middle of all the normalcy. Not a single new message he does not expect, not a single line of code that is not regulation, intelligible, regular, traceable. For four more cycles he wakes and checks his personal comm and finds his gut twisting at the absence of the mystery. As if he had corrupted whatever spell was cast by forcing impossible communication. As if—he thinks this one morning when he is under the sanistream, hot needles of water at his back—as if he has ruined it, somehow.
It is, he thinks, gritting his teeth against the little ache of admittance—frustrating. To have lost the thread of it, however absurd. When perhaps he had been so close to making sense of it all.
He rubs a little cleansing gel between his palms, frowns down between the spray at his bare feet. The logical node of it had been close enough to pinch, he thinks. The clues were there. The wet rocks he’d climbed up after the crash on the half-dead moon, the training incident with Cadet Nesan—these were entered into his record as basic information. Any member of High Command would have access to them, were probably already aware of them, in some form or capacity.
The other messages, though—he sighs, rubbing the foam over his shoulders. A corridor in an abandoned Star Destroyer? A figment of his own imagination, perhaps, like the sand dune he imagined where Tiro died. There was no record of these incidents—they did not exist as tangible, verifiable marks on flimsi, code in a database. They did not—he reasons, rinsing his hands, inspecting his fingernails—they did not live anywhere. They were not real.
He switches the sanistream off with another sigh, just in time to hear his personal comm chime from his berth in the other room. He ignores it: dries himself, combs his hair, passes a razor lightly over his jaw to clear the stubble. He dresses quickly and carefully. Lays his gloves on the console desk as he fastens the placket of his uniform and leans over to switch the comm on.
Zero-zero-zero, he reads, almost mouthing along as he scans the sender field of the topmost message in his comm. Zero-zero-six-seven-six-dash-zerek-zerek-xesh-cresh-six-jenth-grek—
“Kriff,” he says, aloud. (His voice cracks, on the edges.)
His hands are shaking, when he presses the pad of his thumb to the screen. Holds his breath as the holoprojectors whirr to life, collating and compiling the image. Static, fuzz, bleeding light, a jitter, and then: a tower in the mist.
A plume of smoke. The spire cracks. Buckles at the middle and goes down, tipped off vertical. Sudden static—the holo cut outs. The loop starts up again. Mist and rain, clouds low. The pale tower quivering, tilting, sinking down into the wreath of cold, thick-white air. Static. The tower, the mist, the crack of the blastershot (this he remembers hearing), the plume of smoke, the shuddering collapse. The frame of the window (this he remembers too, it is not in the holo). Watching the tower crumble as he was scooped into strong arms. Someone shouting. Static. The tower falling.
He slams his closed fist onto the comm. The holo shuts off with a spurt of frightened, anxious light.
His pulse is pounding; he digs his nails into his palms. Resists the urge to tug the console from his desk with both hands and hurl it across the room. In the sudden dim silence, there is only the noise of his ragged, panicked breathing, the grind of his teeth in his skull, the thud of his heartbeat behind his ribs.
It’s not possible, he thinks.
How could anyone know, he thinks, what I saw. When Ren—
It stops his pulse for a moment. A microsecond where his lungs seize up and his breath catches in his lungs. In that minuscule space: the revelation he’d been denying. That bright little sear of pain where he had felt Ren find the thing buried deep in the tangled neuron cavern of his brain, superior mark shot, right on target. Of course—of course. The scales had never been unweighted. Ren was still here, in his own terrifying and brutish and upending way, persistent and eroding. Of course.
He snatches his gloves from the desk, a snarl building in his throat. Stalks to his own door and across the corridor; the lights in the corridor flicker on with a hesitant shudder, dimming to the soft blue-white of Alpha Shift. Outside the door at the far side of the corridor, he pauses: gloves crumpled in his right hand, left raised to the keypad. There’s a tremor there, wrist to fingertips, so he makes a fist; he exhales, sharply. Extends his thumb, and presses the pad of it to the screen.
As the door slides open, he expects the air to be stale, underused. He remembers the last time, Ren half-naked and stinking of shame and medicinal-tinged sweat, elbows poking through the openings in his tunic when he dressed, ungainly and torso twisted. But the rooms are fresh, paralytically clean, air circulation systems humming faintly overhead. The lights thrum on, dim, when he steps inside. To his right, a thin berth, sheets stripped. In front of him, a desk, surface clear and consoles powered off. An antechamber to his right is locked to his handprint, demanding only a singular code. (He snorts, at that.) The closets are empty.
He supposes, as he stands in the middle of the empty room with his hands clasped at the small of his back, gloves clenched there in his fists, that the droids must have been cleaning regularly. He can’t imagine that this place was ever used so spartanly—impossible that Ren came aboard five years ago without a single possession to his name, a single overstuffed memory to shove under the mattress, to tie up tightly and leave to gather dust in the back of a cabinet.
Perhaps, he thinks, when he killed his father, it really all did disappear.
A lurch of envy, at that. A cold fear at the thought that Ren could banish pain with a flick of his fingers, like discarding an unwelcome opinion, that Ren could scalpel out his inconvenient nerve firings, sever unbidden recollection. That Ren had figured out a way to deny the most fundamental making of himself and just render it gone.
Fittingly juvenile, then. That Ren would taunt him—from lightyears away—with glimpses of his own carefully cauterized memories. That once he’d barged inside he saw fit to simply take what he saw there and make it his own plaything. To pick and choose like a spoiled child at the dinner table, molding it into his own liking, giving it form and substance and mocking likeness. The thick sharp edge of anger, now, overtaking disbelief: how dare he.
“Ren,” he says, to the empty air. Stupidly, teeth clenched against the lunacy of it. “Tell me if this is your doing.”
And then again, more quietly. Almost a whisper.
She’d met him in the portside Officers’ shuttle bay of the Eclipse, alone. She’d called him General, because that was his rank by then, and also—finally.
“My condolences,” she’d said. And then: “And my congratulations.”
“Grand Admiral,” he said.
He hated it, a little. The way she always seemed to so visibly age in the spaces between their meetings, as they grew longer, farther apart. She had a crown of white hair, by then, the fearsome streak he remembered from his childhood now spread like a cloud of mist, down to the very tips of her curls, the swirl of her neatly knotted bun. She was so much shorter than him, by then. Still always in her whites, despite the fact that the rank rows meant nothing now and then fabric was wrong, for their new order; it never felt quite the same as it did with other former Imperials, not as desperate, not as dust-ridden and mothy, not as skeletal. He supposed he was always mildly biased, when it came to Sloane.
“It’s just this way,” she said. No preamble. “They’ve put him in a hangar.”
They walked lock-step; he found himself unconsciously adjusting his own stride to make sure she could match his. He’d spent so many of his early years learning what it meant and what it required to be just behind her right shoulder, just at her ankles, always in arm's reach, until she had pushed him on ahead, trusted him somehow to not turn around and shoot her between the eyes at the nearest convenience to his own ascendence. (He wondered, then, if that was still coming, the moment he would be expected to strike her down—and whether he would, if given it.)
And the unclear meaning of this favor, too, he’d thought. If one could call it that.
The hangar was empty when they arrived. Unused TIE fighters tucked neatly into their bays, a stack of durasteel shipping palettes from wall to ceiling on his right. The starfield beyond, through the hazy scrim of the shields. He knew it was late in the Eclipse’s shift cycle—corridor lights low, tinged red—but he imagined she must have had a hand in this too, in emptying the space for its temporary use. A subtle nod to the sepulchral. A haze of honor, however little they both thought any of it deserved that.
“Here,” she said, and directed him to the center of the loading runway with a brief jerk of her chin.
A durasteel drum. Half-cylindrical, set atop an empty palette. Sitting quiet and isolated in the middle of the runway as if a mech had abandoned his work manifesto just before completion. He knew, distantly, that of course Brendol’s body was inside—embalmed and in cold storage—but he couldn’t help but imagine, then, that perhaps he was about to bid a grudging farewell to a half-ton of medical supplies or protein rations.
He approached, measured, hands still behind his back—Sloane just behind him, footsteps echoing. He stopped just two feet clear of the drum, found himself exhaling softly through his nose.
(The last time he saw Brendol: three, maybe four years prior. He’d called upon Hux’s assignation to the Millennium. Had said he was in transit to the Inner Rim, it was on his way. Brendol pushing his way into Hux’s office barely ten minutes after the aide had notified of his arrival, disguising the slowness of his walk with what he must have imagined was a dignified sort of air. Disguising his senility with what he must have thought looked like casual indifference. Hux had made it clear he had very little time for him that day. He’d hoped, then, that the dismissal had injured his father, somehow, in some nasty, needling sort of way—unnecessarily vindictive.)
Behind his back, his fingers twitched where they were been folded neatly into his palms. He wanted—for a microsecond—to reach out and touch the cold metal. He wanted—just then—to have someone to tell these things to. He wanted to reach out and press his palm to the barrel and say, Look, I’ve done it, and say, Look, you miserable fucking bag of dust, look at me. And say: Look at my stripes now and tell me I’m a worthless piece of rubbish, tell me now you should have left me back in the desert of Jakku, that you should have left me to die with the woman you hated in the rains of Arkanis, that you never should have brought me along. And say: It doesn’t even matter to me now, what you think. It stopped, years ago.
To say that and want to mean it, of course, to want to mean it, like it was true.
He wanted to push both palms against the drum holding his father’s corpse and gloat: I’ve met someone miraculous, just today. Just hours ago I stood at the foot of a dais and received him, watched him push back his hood and saw what was offered in the face of a man who could bring the entire Republic to its knees with a wave of his fingers. The Supreme Leader has gifted his powers to my strength and he took my hand when I offered it, you stinking damned pile of shit—he took my hand.
Instead, he said: “That’s enough.”
The lights in the hangar went off behind them.
(He never asked—never wanted to ask—what they did with the barrel and the body. He supposed they spaced it, later that next cycle, with perhaps a little more ceremony than the rest of the detritus. At times, later, he would imagine that the thing was still out there, floating aimless and cold in the vacuum. He would conjure in his head then a well-timed collision with an asteroid, if he felt he was lingering too long on the shuddering, twisting thought of it.)
Sloane directed him to the right, down one of the long corridors that curved upwards and around a curve, eventually—dotted with salvage bay locks, merging into engineering closets, turbolifts, refresher bays, living quarters. She walked with her spine straight and her gaze fixed front, easy strides despite her age. He’d found himself lagging, a little, as if he craved again, just in that little parched and claustrophobic moment, the familiarity of watching her back for her, in exchange.
“And how long do we have you for?” A half-pause in her gait, barely perceptible, to bring them side-by-side again.
“Until tomorrow. I’m scheduled to return at the top of Beta Shift.”
“Mm.” She glanced at him. “Not as long as I thought, then.”
“Did you require me for something?”
“There are some things,” she said. “In his quarters. Did you want the time to look through them?”
(Hux had imagined then, in a mean little flash: a moldy uniform, a tarnished set of rank cylinders, an untidy pile of holodiscs. Perhaps, maybe, just one of them was not about Brendol and his dead career, but—unlikely.)
“And the like, I suppose. I’m not privy to the manifest, I’ve just been told it’s to be cleaned out and sent to the archives, otherwise.”
He swallowed, a sick little twist of nerves in the base of his gut. “No. That is—the archives will do.”
Sloane hummed under her breath.
“His medical records are pertinent, however.”
“Of course. I’ve already ordered them amended into your files.”
“Are you aware of what caused it?”
“Stars, no. He was old, and growing fatter by the hour it seemed—I imagine that would be cause enough, in the end.”
“Did you see him,” he asked, the cadence of call-and-response catching him off guard, slipping from objective to personal, against all better judgment. “—at all?”
“Not often,” she replied. “I’m sure you can understand.”
“What was he—” he paused, like it was a stutter. Unplanned. “—doing?”
“He was retired,” she said. “I assume he did what most of them do: Drink themselves to sleep at night and try not to think about how badly they'd prefer not to wake up again in the morning.”
The door at the end of the corridor slid open as they approached, revealing a low-lit room with a long row of transparisteel portals, several soft-looking chairs, a mirrored-black bar stretching the length.
He stopped, just instead the doorway. “Is that what we’re doing?”
Sloane crossed the room ahead of him to reach over the bar, grabbing a bottle and two small glasses. “You,” she said. “Are not retired.”
“Is this your personal mess, Grand Admiral?”
“Stars,” she said, pouring them each a healthy serving of whatever brown liquor she'd taken in hand; when he approached, it smelled strongly of herbs, aniseedine and medicinal. “Do you think they keep me in such luxury? It’s Black Shift, Armitage, on a very large ship.”
“I didn’t think they ‘kept you’ at all.”
She handed him his drink, holding her own close to her chest, watching him with her sharp little eyes. “You feel sorry for me.”
“You needn’t to lie to me.”
“I hardly lie to anyone, unless it’s completely necessary,” he said, cupping his glass in his hand. “You taught me that.”
“If you’re trying for my sense of humor, I should remind you that you’ll be largely unsuccessful.”
She smiled, a little, at that. “Earnest to the last.”
He'd always imagined that that had been why she even came to him in the first place. All those years ago, a pale and trembling, skinny child with a serious face who would take on the weight of a promise like a grown man of principles would, who would hold it heavy in his hands and inside his ribs with all the devotion it deserved, even if the edges of it were self-serving. She’d never spoken to him as if it had been a flaw.
“Well,” she said, tipping her glass so the edge of it grazed his own. “To Brendol Hux. At least something of worth came of him eventually.”
He thought then that it was strange. As long as he had known her they so rarely talked directly of him, if they could help it. And yet here he was like a massive sucking eddy, between them, as if they could not now believably pretend the throbbing anomaly of it was invisible. Sloane had seemed, then, aware of it too. Aware, perhaps a little painfully, of how far their relationship had stretched beyond the necessity of Brendol Hux. She took a long drink from her glass, set it down, regarded him carefully.
“I heard they’ve given you the Finalizer.”
“Yes,” he said.
“A good ship.”
“She will be, when she’s finished.”
“And you’re already browbeating the mechs to have it all done ahead of schedule.”
“There’s no point in thinking of it as schedule if it could feasibly be done faster. Kaplan has been wasting resources—he doesn’t understand motivation.”
“Mm, there’s some truth to that.”
“Besides—” he felt it, then, the dangerous hot little curl of pride. “—other projects have already been. Approved.”
“Oh?” One of Sloane’s eyebrows lifted. “Your weapon.”
“Last time we spoke you wouldn’t even show it to me. I’ve told you I’ll be fair.”
“I was granted an audience.”
“You’re being cryptic,” she said. It was a little sharp. As if: he should know better.
“The Supreme Leader granted me an audience, upon my promotion.”
“Ah,” said Sloane. “And?”
And, he thought. And, well. How to even begin.
That hooded figure—it came to him then, again. The flash of burning pride he’d felt that far outweighed seeing their Leader for the first time, wreathed in monumental holographic light, the searing surge of surprise, of hopefulness, that came from the moment Snoke coaxed the figure from the shadows and revealed his purpose, a young man named Kylo Ren, master of some mystical order, with wrath and hunger carved into the strange asymmetric lines of his face, and eyes that were big, and dark, and starving.
To hear that now his only equal was a Force user—one who would take his hand in greeting and look him in the eyes. Who knew nothing of where Hux had come from, what he had grown from, what inferior people used to call him, what he had had to endure—he had known then somewhere deep inside his churning organs, inside his heart, that Kylo Ren only saw power meeting power, might meeting might, forging the future of order in the Galaxy, just as he himself did.
“It was,” he said, instead, “an honor.”
Sloane appraised him. Sharp eyes slightly narrowed, a tilt to her chin that said that she could tell, of course, the weight of all the things he was keeping to himself. The wheeling spiral of feeling inside him that he was keeping at bay with the thinnest line of defense. (She had seen him cry once, after all, when he was very, very young.)
“Indeed,” was all she said, in the end, and poured herself another glass.
And then, much later, she’d asked: “Did he ever stop beating you?”
They had finished their third glasses, by then. Sitting side-by-side in two of the chairs, watching a slow arc of TIE squadrons slip through the stars, wheeling under the belly of the ship below them.
“Yes,” he said.
(It was true. Mostly.)
She ran her finger around the rim of her glass; when he glanced at her, she was frowning, slightly, at the thin film of brown liquid still clinging to the insides. A little reminder, he thought, alcohol buzzing at the edges of his senses, diluting the bitterness of it, to not forget where I came from. To remember who pulled me out. To remember who put me here.
Eventually, she said: “Good.”
In the very end of it, she had left him alone. She left him alone after she walked him back the long, long way to his guest quarters in the dead of Black Shift of the Eclipse, after she said Goodnight, General, and he said Goodnight, Grand Admiral, and she had flexed her thin hand at her side and he had pretended not to see it, the way it seemed to ache for some confidence of action that she lacked and that he did not know how to appease or welcome. His head was swimming, a little—it had been a long time since he had had that much to drink. He had the dizzying thought that she might reach up to touch his face, perhaps. Bizarrely, he entertained the sensation that this was something he wanted. She would fix an invisible wrinkle at his collar. Push back a loose strand of hair from his forehead that was not there. She would put her small strong hand on his shoulder, on the back of his neck, maybe, and say, I am very proud of you, Armitage. You did so well.
But she nodded at him, once, and that was it. That was enough. She left him alone.
He stood there for a moment, in the empty corridor, listening to her footsteps fade. The lights flickering gently overhead, the floor a dark mirror, the heavy whrrm-whrrm-whrrm of engines vibrating under his boots. Something unidentifiable, heavy, crushing, building in the space behind his ribs.
Later when he thinks on this particular moment, the moment about to happen, he will imbue it with a logic that he knows was never there. He will convince himself that it was there objectively, that it was always there. That he was never perturbed by the apparent flimsy magic of it, of its impossibility, of its purely irrational existence and form. Later when he thinks on this particular moment he will say to himself: It was obvious that it was him because there is no one else that it could have been, as if the tautology of it was not a flaw but instead proved the conviction of the very thing he could not understand.
The thing he could not understand (this is also the thing that he will not, when later he thinks on this particular moment, allow as permissible evidence): The corridor, the red planet, the sand dune, the wet rocks, the tower in the mist—these all belonged to him.
The rest of it was obvious. The rest of it was clear like a schematic. They were laid out in a line once he rearranged them properly from join to join and end to end. It went like this: the tower in the mist, the red planet, the wet rocks, the sand dune, the empty corridor. Plotted like radar points along a star field. Logic and efficiency dictated to start at the beginning, not at the end.
Later when he thinks on this particular moment he will not remember the ugly thrill of foolishness, of the rage and terror and anticipation that guided him. This too will be edited out.
He masks his steps. False transmissions, fabricated request from High Command, deceptive flightplan logged. He takes an Upsilon shuttle, alone.
He clears Finalizer’s arc-orbit for hyperdrive and waits in the pilot seat for exactly fifteen minutes before logging off long-range radar and punching in the course change. He changes in the back-hold among the swaying hangers of ‘Trooper altitude suits and oxygen tanks, stripping his greatcoat and his uniform jacket, leaving his trousers and boots, tugging over his undershirt a plain training slick. His blaster—check charge, disconnect from usage logs, verify fingerprints—he clips back to its belt, tugs the hem of the slick down to cover it.
When he steps back into the cockpit, the proximity alarm is sounding—high-pitched and steady. He straps himself into the seat and eases the shuttle out of hyperdrive, the sucking jolt of it pushing the back of his skull against the headrest. The white sheet of starfly slows, jitters like static, and then settles. The southern pole of Arkanis appears in his viewpoint, off the port side.
Blue-black belly, a belt of heavy gray clouds along her equator. Hux shifts in his seat, craning his neck up at it, even as he enters in the orbital entry commands, glancing at scanner intel. There’s a storm on her southeastern hemisphere, a slow, treacherous tidepool of swirling white with a light-swallowing eye. Monsoon, perhaps, he thinks. Or typhoon. And then: What did they call it? The Springrush? The Equinoxical? The syllables seem like he’s more likely to have read them as scrolling data than to have heard them said out loud, than to have tried with his own childish tongue to sound them out. He only remembers the feel of it—the rain and the wind and the barrier clamps on the windows, and the way it would howl and howl and howl for days and nights and then one day in the morning everything would be clear and the canals would be overflowing, lapping at doorsteps and choking everything with the soak. The way it felt as though his young bones were made of water, carving out his muscles like erosion.
Negotiating orbit is less eventful than he anticipated. The planet seems abandoned by even the Republic now: the high-atmo scanners barely seem to graze the shuttle, easily deflected and confused by the FO-standard rotating cloaking code. He goes in darkside, distant sunstar winking out beyond the curved horizon of the planet, plunging the interior of the shuttle into dimness, redlight only. The coordinates he enters feel uncanny, unpleasant in a tingling, nauseous sort of way. He has seen them before: in his own records, in his father’s, and once at the Academy when he spent three full nights in the astromech lab navigating the records of the evacuation plan. When Pahara and Cadet Knoll had found him there on the third night, with his eyes red-rimmed and his teenage stubble clinging his to jaw, Hux had lied and said it was for a military history report. (He had had the wild thought at the age of sixteen Standard Years that his mother had perhaps been saved, alive. That she had been evacuated to the Midrim, or the Unknown. It was a purge, in the end—to prove the idea wrongheaded, impossible. That was all.)
The shuttle breaks atmo in silence. When he pulls back on the speed and lights up the landing thrusters, the heavy cloud-cover starts to shake along the plating, buffeting the Upsilon and pulling it along in a shear. A heavy rumble starts up from the engines; he grips at the edge of the console with his free hand, out of habit more than fear. He can feel the sweat prickling at the nape of his neck.
The Upsilon lands with a soft ch-chunk, and immediately through the sound of the engines cooling and the revdown of instruments he can hear the thrumming spray of rain on the hull, misting the viewports and sliding down the transparisteel in rivulets. Outside, it is night—the landing strobes fade as the shuttle settles, and plunges the interior into dimness again. He unstraps himself. At the shuttle hatch, he pauses to check his blaster settings again. Forces a long exhale as he charges it, hefting the weight in his hand, and then tugs the hood of the slick up around his face, and punches the hatch console to open.
The rain smacks him square in the face: steady, needle-sharp, and cold. The wind, as he jumps down from the shuttle hatch, catches at the hem of his slick and buffets him back a half-foot. He catches himself against the Upsilon hull and adjusts the slick, tightens his hood, wipes water from his face with the back of his hand.
Perhaps 300 feet away, there is the rising hulk of the apartment blocks. Enormous silent greyed-out geometry against the cloud-heavy sky. A few flickers of a feeble warm glow, in some of the upper level windows. Squatters, he thinks. Discovering fire. In the farther distance, beyond the block and through the wet mist, he can see the roving sweep of some faraway lights—a ranger droid, perhaps. Left here to uselessly patrol the edges of a deserted city: joints rusting, salt-encrusted viscera, lichen growing in its circuitry, fungus clinging to its belly in the mockery of symbiotica. He still switches off the sightlamp on his blaster, out of an abundance of caution.
He makes his way through the spray and the dimness towards the block, wet gravel crunching under his boots, his uniform trousers already soaked through. Approximately halfway to the block, he finds the remnants of a sloughage canal, half-full of rubble and overflowing its high banks. Skirting the edge of it takes him to a narrow duracrete stairway, crumbling but stable enough to take to the plaza above, the apartments looming larger overhead, now. And the rain keeps coming.
At the top of the plaza, he pauses. Wipes the water from his forehead and cheeks again and turns on his blaster sightlamp once more, keeping the level of it low. A cursory sweep of the plaza reveals it to be empty, except for the corroded shell of an Imperial TIE at his eleven o’clock, and some other, unidentifiable mass of twisted metal, the edges of it flickering and shifting eerily in the sweep of his sightlamp.
He takes stock. Six buildings, equal in square-footage and height, arranged in a circle on the grid of the plaza. He arrived from the east. Deviated slightly southerly along the canal. The closest building, then—should be the one.
There is a deactivated droid slumped in the entrance. Metal shoulders propped up against the doorjamb, exposed wiring like natal vines seeking the sun, shards of wet and shattered transparisteel piled in its lap like an offering of some eerie kind, cupped haphazardly in its spindly long fingers. Its head, or what’s left of it, peers up at Hux from the floor, empty cracked eyesockets catching the light of his blaster’s sightlamp, when he sweeps the lobby. He steps over it, carefully.
Inside, the sudden drop of the drumming rain, the whistle of the wind—it makes his eardrums pop. He keeps his blaster trained on the wide stairwell ahead, pushing the hood of his slick back and swiping the last of the water from his face with his free hand. The lobby is deserted too, echoing, tinny, with the noise of the rain outside and the gush of water down its rusting pipes and broken eaves. The turbolift block is a blasted-out hole in the wall to the right of the stairs. Not that he had ever expected the ease of it, he still breathes out through his nose in frustration, when he goes to take the stairs.
Seven flights, and his blaster sighted around the corners—every one of them deserted, populated only by shadows and crumbling concrete. There is wet everywhere in the walls, under his boots. Flights eight and nine are a weak little waterfall, right down the center of the stairwell, pooling in the landings, disappearing into the cracks. Flights ten and eleven are a shower from above, where a skylight has cracked and fallen in. The rain gets in his eyes, his mouth—flattens his hair to his forehead, his cheeks. He spits, at the final landing, his blaster muzzle pointed down toward the end of the hall (the taste of it was metallic, acidic).
His pulse is hammering in his throat, his chest tight. (It is just exertion, he tells himself. Just the climb.) He takes the corridor carefully in slow half-steps, cocking his head to keep the muzzle trained and the sightlamp illuminating where he wants it—the door he vaguely remembers. End of the hall. Commandant’s Wing. His nanny droid would make him pause there, at the threshold, to remove his shoes, his rubber boots, his slicker. He remembered once trying to recite the passcode, before he was even very good with language at all. He thought it would impress.
It is cracked ajar. He can see the sliver of purple-silver dimness slicing on the edge when he approaches. Those large windows, he remembers this too, framing the rain and the wind and the clouds. The wide expanse of light filling all the rooms when it was—rarely—sunny. Someone—someone, someone, someone, he knows who—has left the door unlocked for him. He sidles up, heart still pulsing wild under his skin, up against the closed side of the threshold. He sights his blaster level—inhale one-two, exhale one-two-three—and pushes open the door with the toe of his boot.
His blaster muzzle sights the far edge of the room, the long stretch of transparisteel windows. The figure seated there, at the edge of the sills, looks up—but doesn’t move to greet him.
“Oh,” says Hux. “It’s you.”
“So rude,” says Kylo Ren. “I know you’re not actually disappointed.”
“Are you alone?”
He does a quick scan: empty, abandoned, waterlogged and cracked concrete walls, overturned half-recognizable furniture, long-ago ransacked shelves and cabinet doors hanging dumbly by rusted hinges. He takes two steps into the room: keeps the blaster sighted on the space between Ren’s eyes. All in black, still, hair half-wet, like he’d come unprepared for the deluge and likely felt he had no need for proper equipment. Heavy boots both planted flat on the wet floor, but resting back against the windowsill, gripping the edge of it with his gloved fingers like he might need the support. Something in the subtle cave of his chest reveals it, too.
“Not anymore,” says Ren. “Obviously.”
He holsters his blaster, but keeps his palm on the grip of it, tucked against the small of his back. Widens his stance. “Is this a trap, then?”
Ren bares his teeth, for a moment, his eyes narrowed. “Does it feel like one?”
He scoffs, lightly. “You could have simply used commlinks, like everyone else. Instead of leaving your mystic little ‘clues.’”
“I didn’t want to talk to you,” says Ren. “Pay attention.”
“What did you want.”
“To test a theory,” says Ren, his shoulders lifting in a minute shrug.
“A theory,” he echoes.
“That you’d come,” says Ren, looking back over his shoulder to where the rain is slicing across the sky, to where the mist is covering the landscape beyond the cracked and broken windows. “That it was here.”
“That what was—”
“What I saw,” says Ren, interrupting. He looks back at Hux, taps his own temple with two fingers. “In your head.”
The validation—that of course it was him, that of course that it was then—feels sick. Far from revelatory.
“You found all that,” he says, voice steady despite the tremor of feeling building in his throat. “From just that once.”
“Your guard was down,” says Ren. “I was angry. It was easy.”
“Easy,” he says. Something hot and gnarled twists in his gut. He shifts his stance again—bolder. “Is that what you think of me.”
“Why does it matter what I think of you?”
“It matters,” he says. “That you think I am—malleable enough to drop everything and spring to engage with your childish games.”
Ren gives him a very long, pointed look.
“Never mind,” he says. Shame burns at his cheeks. He clears his throat. “Where have you been?”
Ren leans down with a muted grunt, one arm clenched slightly against his midsection, the other reaching to the ground to lift up a lump of wet, dark fabric. He hefts it, and then tosses it at Hux’s feet, still silent. The package hits the ground with a dull, wet slap, a sharp rattle of metal. Encased in damp fabric, it looks like a shriveled, oversized slug, curled fetal and weakly defensive.
“What is that.” He resists the urge to nudge at it with the toe of his boot.
“My uncle’s hand.”
“Your uncle’s hand.”
Ren shrugs. “You collect skulls.”
“I don't—” he inhales through his nose. “—collect.”
(Unbidden, the memory of their first year together. He knew of course how he had been—puffing out his chest and speaking down to this unruly, rapidly unwieldy creature who stalked his ship's corridors and seemed to give no mind for protocol. But it had been a necessary tactic, however ill-advised. He had been floundering, a little—compensatory. How disappointed he had been when Ren paid him so little mind and respect, after that first meeting where he had taken Hux’s hand. How he had scoffed at Hux, at his cultivated viciousness, like he was a toy soldier, stupid and meager.)
Ren glances skyward for a moment, as if in exasperation.
“I don't suppose he gave it to you after you asked for it politely.”
“Ah.” He imagines then, Ren at the crown of some distant planetary rock, staring down at the lifeless body of his former teacher, and deciding which piece of him to take as trophy. “Interesting how familicide never seems to truly solve your problems.”
The air charges, when Ren bristles, at that. Hux can feel like, like an electric signal, a sizzle through the raindrops. Ren gets to his feet, fists clenched at his sides; he takes three long strides, advancing across the room.
“I’d watch your words, General.”
He ignores him. “And the scavenger girl?”
“She—” says Ren, looking askance. “—escaped.”
“Got the better of you again, more likely,” he says. He jerks his chin in Ren’s general direction, seeing now from a closer distance the stains of dirt on his clothes and the way he is clearly disguising a limp, and the nasty blooming bruise on his temple.
“I told you to watch your words.”
“I will not,” he snaps. “And you—will not order me around simply because you’ve failed at your mission and have come skulking back to me with your tail between your legs. As if this is how it all works now.”
Ren snorts, leers. His scar twists, when he does. “Where's your tail?” He cranes his head, as if trying to sneak a peek at Hux’s backside. “Still fluffy and prim? We both know that's a lie.”
“Get karked,” Hux snaps, heat already in his cheeks. It rankles him enough he turns to leave without thinking, without strategy. And Ren, of course, is quicker. Snatching Hux’s wrist in a strong, rigid grip and tugging him backward across the room, slamming him back into the corner between the windows, up against the rough concrete wall—his blaster digging into the small of his back.
“Let go of m—”
“How it works now,” says Ren, tugging his wrist again where it’s trapped between them, and leaning in. “Is that I know now that you'll come scampering to me whenever I call for you.”
Hux feels his lip curl in the weak echo of a snarl. All of it—his hammering pulse, his nervous prickling skin included—like he is some cornered, wavering woodland creature. Ren, never one to miss the opportunity for mockery, leans in further—his temple pressed to Hux’s—and whistles, low and soft against his ear. Like beckoning a pet.
Hux attempts to jab him in the ribs with an elbow: ineffectual. “You piece of bantha shi—”
“General,” interrupts Ren, pulling back just enough to release Hux’s wrists. “You know you should be sweet to me.”
Hux snorts in his face, so Ren grabs him by the chin to shut him up, squeezing roughly at his jaw with one broad hand.
“Why don't I find out for myself how much you missed me,” Ren growls. “Dig inside your lonely little skull again and rip that dirty secret right out of you?”
“Why bother,” he spits. Even though his blood is rising. Even though his trousers are tighter. He feels the flush that sort of talk burns into his cheeks. “You’ve clearly seen everything you need to already.”
“Not everything,” says Ren, and releases Hux’s face to press his palm against the flat of Hux’s chest—something in between a warning and an entreaty. His fingers half-curled against the zipper of Hux’s slick. His head tilted, like a semi-sentient creature struck by curiosity: predator gleam in his eyes.
“You just like the way it feels,” says Hux, swallowing down a hot surge of saliva. (It is nerves, he thinks, distantly. Not arousal.) His voice is rougher than he would like; it sounds hoarse, thin, swallowed up by the thudding of the rain outside. “When you’ve been beaten. Some meager salve for your ego—thinking you have power over me.”
“Don’t I?” asks Ren, and leans in.
The kiss is damp; Ren’s mouth is surprisingly warm. It takes him a moment to register the subtle, digging hunger of it. When Hux opens his mouth under it, just a little, Ren’s teeth close on his lower lip, his tongue follows to soothe the sting of the bite. It drags an embarrassing noise of out him: unsubtle want. He reaches between them and fists at the front of Ren’s surcoat, forces him back with a little push of his knuckles.
“What,” says Ren. There is color high on his cheeks, already—garish flush, wet shining lips.
Hux turns his face away. He can see only now the edge of a wet concrete window ledge, shattered glass, a foggy rain-soaked gray landscape beyond.
“Were they even real?” he asks, against every inch of his better judgment.
“What,” says Ren, again.
“The—” he does not know what to call them. “The messages. Were they real.”
“Does it matter?”
He exhales, angry. “Because I refuse to accept the possibility that your—powers are capable of conjuring delusions from thin air.”
Ren laughs. It’s low, hoarse, the warm breath of it slips across his cheek. It sends a little shiver up his spine, the feeling of it.
“What if they are,” says Ren, leaning in, lips against the shell of Hux’s ear. “What if I’ve seen everything that you’ve thought so long were secrets? What if I can make you see anything I want to? What if I can make you believe anyth—”
Ren does. Surprisingly. Stops talking, but lingers there where his breath ghosts over the thin skin at the curve of Hux’s jaw, lips almost-but-not-quite touching. Ren’s hand, where it is paused, pressed flat to the front of Hux’s slick, thick fingers a span over Hux’s sternum. He smells like dirt and salt; his hair where the wet curls of it tickle at the bridge of Hux’s nose scented with some foreign planet’s air, some foreign fight’s sweat. Rage and grief and shame like spores, sprouting invisible into the air, into aimless currents.
Inhale, exhale, thinks Hux. Infecting each other.
There is, he realizes, lichen growing in the cracks of the concrete windowframe. Subtle grey-green veins of it, all following the lines of fracture to the leaching source.
“I find myself—amazed by it,” he says. “That of all the billions of creatures in the galaxy—”
It sticks in his throat. It feels bitter, hostile, to him, the admittance of it. He is sure that where Ren has his palm pressed against his own chest he can feel the tattered, nervous pounding of his heart.
“That you,” he says, and then finds himself unable to go on again.
“Finish your thought, General,” says Ren.
“I won’t,” he says. Outside, the rain picks up. It drums dull and hard on the grey concrete, gathers and washes across the air like a long, frantic whisper. “I don’t want to. You’ll have to take this from me too, if you want to hear it.”
Ren’s hand lifts from his chest, and then grips his jaw again, tugging his chin front. Ren’s thumb is pressed hard against his lower lip, and Hux, dizzily, entertains the image of Ren reaching inside his mouth with all of his thick fingers, sliding down his throat and plucking the words out from where they are stuck there, one-by-one, holding them out in the meagre space between their bodies, glistening and wriggling, as if they are a prize.
“Fuck,” says Ren. It’s soft, as if he has been quietly awed by something. “You’re so starved for it.”
“Oh, shut up,” he hisses, and knocks Ren’s arm away so he can grip and scrabble with both hands at Ren’s face and ears and damp knotted hair, so he can pull him back in with all the raw and exposed anger and want and empty raging need and confusing unweighted, unbalanced, teetering emptiness of the last weeks, so he can bite at Ren’s wet, warm mouth, so he can make Ren remember that there is a sharpness there, between them. Inside him.
Ren grunts, into his mouth, vibrating against his tongue and teeth. Shoves a thick thigh up between Hux’s legs and crowds him even closer into the corner. He feels himself go up onto the balls of his feet, clutching at Ren’s shoulders now in the wild, dizzying tilt of arousal. There’s a buzzing between his ears when he rolls his hips deliberately and Ren grabs, hard, at the back of his neck and at his waist. The thudding noise of the rain drops away, replaced by the wet slick sounds of their mouths and their panting, short breathing, and the rustling drag of their clothing.
This—he realizes, muzzily—this is better. To rut mindlessly against a solid and trembling, powerful body, smelling like mud and water, in the complete silence of a deserted world.
Ren makes a muted, needy sound again, and then his lips are on Hux’s neck, mouthing greedily at the skin above the high collar of the rainslick. The noise that escapes Hux’s throat—an open-mouthed gasp, so loud in the prickling humid air—makes Ren drag his teeth along Hux’s jugular, as if seeking for blood.
“Fuck,” Ren mumbles against his skin. Fingers digging bruises into the back of Hux’s skull, his ribs. “You’re so hard. I can feel it.”
“I believe I—ah—told you to shut up.”
Ren pulls back, just enough to leave a little space between their chests, eyes downcast to watch as he grips Hux’s waist with both hands now, deliberately forcing Hux’s hips to roll, to drag his erection along the line of his own thigh.
“Is this what you want,” Ren asks, mouth quirking when he glances up through the black smudge of his lashes, when he leans in again to whisper the rest against the corner of Hux’s lips. He is close enough that Hux can see the broken blood vessels in the bruise on his right cheekbone, the whorled and jagged edges of his scar. “To come like this? Humping my leg like an obedient curr?”
Hux tangles a fist in Ren’s hair, tugs hard. “Did you have something else in mind, when you dragged me here against my better judgment?”
“Dragged you here,” Ren echoes, like it is a question, a joke—punctuates it with a sharp jab of his thigh that punches the breath right out of Hux’s ribs, slams him right into the vertiginous space between pleasure and pain. “Funny way of putting it.”
“Nothing about this is funny,” he mutters, still scrabbling for a handhold somewhere in the vicinity of Ren’s hair, his shoulders, his neck; still catching his breath, still—inconceivably—trying to rut his hard prick against Ren’s thigh, trying to find that perfect claustrophobic bit of pressure that will just, will just—
Ren bites him, at the soft little juncture of his jaw and throat. “Be nice.”
“Fuck you,” he hisses, rapidly losing his mind, something hot starting to spool thick at the bottom of his stomach. “Fuck you and your stupid little tricks and your be nice, I don’t—”
Ren releases him, sudden enough to shut him up with a soft and distinctly embarrassing moan of loss, quick enough that he hardly realizes it’s happened before Ren is turning him around with two large hands on his waist, shoving him back up against the wall and pinning him there with a firm press of his hips, fingers rucking the hem of Hux’s rainslick up around his ribs, seeking the fastenings on the front of his trousers.
“You said ‘something else,’” murmurs Ren in his ear, pushing the waistband of his trousers and briefs down. An inelegant and sturdy trap around his thighs; air suddenly cold on his exposed skin. He shivers, involuntary, hands flexing where they’re trapped between his body and the wall. Hears, feels, the shuffle and rustle of fabric behind him—and then Ren is pressed full length up against his back, hot hard cock against the bare skin of his arse.
He jerks against Ren’s body. Not a flinch, but some sort of nervous surprise at the boldness, the openness, the strange vulnerability of it. As if they hadn’t before groped at each other mostly fully clothed and full of disgust and fear, mere metres from the Supreme Leader’s chambers. As if he didn’t know what Ren’s come tasted like, felt like, when it coated the back of his throat.
“Spit,” says Ren. His hand is cupping Hux’s chin, fingers at his lips.
“What are you—”
“I’m not a heathen,” says Ren. “Spit.”
He sucks Ren’s fingers into his mouth instead—the shaky little groan he hears when he does it is worth the taste of dirt and old blood and salt there. He expects, a little dimly, for Ren to do something mindlessly filthy with the permission of it. As if him licking at the rough pads of Ren’s fingers and letting his teeth scrape the skin when Ren withdraws his hand, as if this is some kind of strategic opening Ren will take advantage of. (As if Ren doesn’t know he has that already.)
But Ren only takes his spit-wet fingers and slides them down between Hux’s body and the wall, wraps them around Hux’s straining cock, rippling the grip of his fingers as he starts to stroke. The shock of it forces another betraying gasp out of his throat, he feels his knees threaten to buckle with how good it feels—Ren’s hand on his cock and Ren’s teeth at his neck, and Ren’s hard dick rubbing in short, dry little thrusts against the crease of his arse.
“Just think,” Ren says. His breath is wet and hot against the shell of Hux’s ear, a telltale hitch in his breath. “If we had done this years ago. What fun we could have had.”
“It wouldn’t have happened,” he manages. “Not like—”
“Not like this, no,” says Ren. “It would have been so much work, getting you soft enough to bend, like this.”
“Scared of a challenge?”
“I haven’t minded the chase so far,” says Ren, and bites the lobe of his ear, spreads Hux’s cheeks wider with his free hand. The head of Ren’s cock snags on the rim of his entrance, and he bucks his hips when he feels Ren’s cock twitch against him, the tickling sensation of a little wetness bubbling there, feels Ren smear it down the head of his own cock deliberately, feels him use it to slick the way.
“Ah, Ren—” He’d meant for some kind of ferocious bite of wit, something to match the edge of it, some kind of harsh and accusatory comment about ‘being caught,’ but the hot shiver of anticipation (inside me inside me inside me inside me, like the relentless scream of the wind, the incessant drilling of the rain) stops it all up inside his throat. It pushes out in a soft sob instead. And in the arch of his hips, the open slackness of his mouth, the flexing of his fingers against the wall.
Ren curses, under his breath. Tightens his grip. “One of these days you're going to let me fuck you properly.”
“Why don't—ah, don’t you?”
“Don't ask stupid questions. I’d split you in half.”
“Y-you think I couldn’t take it.”
“I know you could, I’d make you. I’d hold you open and make you watch, my fat—fuck—cock stretching you open.”
“You should.” It’s a dare, one he desperately, searingly wants Ren to take him up on. “When—when we return and—”
“If I return, you mean,” replies Ren.
“What—ah, fuck—will you not go to Snoke?”
“Don’t talk about him now.”
“I don’t. I just want to—” He squeezes his eyes shut, presses his cheek harder against the rough wall to feel a little edge of pain. “Kriff, I’m close.”
“You said he was using me.” Ren grunts in his ear. Slick drag of his cock, and the maddening grip of his fist.
“Speak for yourself,” Ren says, hips pistoning, rolling, losing rhythm. “I know what he thinks of you.”
“What—” he can feel the pressure building despite himself, the dizzying spiral beginning, the sparks on the edge of his vision. “What did yo—”
“He’ll kill you,” says Ren, voice tight, edge of desperation. “Fuck, Hux—he’ll kill us both if I let him.”
He's already coming when he feels it: the hot, thick splash against his lower back, down his crease, dripping down his thighs. He shakes through it, his vision white, Ren’s palm on his cock unrelenting. He bites his lip all the way to blood to silence the quaking breed of shout inside his throat.
The rain hisses in the air. In the far distance, a hazy flash of lightning. Twelve seconds pass—he counts them. Then thunder rolls through the mist. So soft he thinks hazily that he might be confusing it for his own pulse.
“Will you,” he says. The wall against his cheek is rough and damp. “Let him?”
Ren is panting, ragged, at his back. And he is silent.
After, he asks again with more composure: “What will you do now?”
Ren is fumbling with the fastenings of his belt, as if his fingers are stiff. The line of his jaw is tight, tired. The whole look of it betrays something far too vulnerable, so Hux steps into his space and swats his hands away to save Ren from including him in the shame of it; he tugs the belt closed with two sharp gestures.
And Ren grabs at his fingers, holds them there tightly, curled against the cold metal of the clasp, and he says: “I’m going back. With you.”
(He will never be sure if this was said as a threat.)
Ren sleeps, the whole of the return journey. Sleeps in the jumpseat curled in on himself, back like the brittle curve of a shell. Hux sets autopilot, and watches the blips of the chronometer punch endlessly forward: ceaseless, infuriating, always one half-beat slower than the thudding of his own pulse. Every second following the next, and the next, and the next, and the next, and the next, and the next, headless and oblivious to every irrational, blistering urge inside his skull to shove his arm straight through the durasteel of the console and with his broken bloodied fingers rip the wires from their holdings, to stop time in a shower of sparks and burning flesh and a scream of triumph.
He does not, though.
In the end, Ren sleeps, and he himself sits with his palms flat on his thighs, watching the click of each second progress, hyperdriven stars through the transparisteel like a choking shower of light, a piercing tunnel of arrowshafts. A pinprick of black, in the center of the distance: a steady, velvet eye.
This, he knows now, was what it was that everyone should have used to describe the fullness of loss. A tower shattering at its midsection, crumbling into the wet air. The crowded space of the sky once hidden by armature, and now exposed.