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Project 34

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It is six hours and thirty four minutes before anyone actually asks.

Assumptions are running unchecked through the impromptu celebrations on Ajan Kloss, along with copious amounts of alcohol and more than a small helping of spice. All the First Order Star Destroyers blew up, all at once, says one rumour. Palpatine escaped, insists another. There are so many rumours no one really knows the truth, and no one really cares to find out. For now, all the Resistance and their galaxy of allies care about is finding whatever makes them happiest quickest, and doing as much of it as possible.

Rey does not feel like celebrating. After the initial relief of finding out that her friends have survived, after the hugging has become awkward and the sharing of stories is over she finds herself looking around for more. Searching for something that is missing. She knows exactly what it is but no one else appears to have noticed it is gone. No one so much as asks until Finn taps her on the shoulder as she’s bent over a console, squinting at the readout.

A bottle is curled in the crook of his arm, Jannah is hanging from the other. She looks like she’s having the time of her life but Finn tries to mould his features into an expression of sobriety. ‘Ren’s dead, isn’t he? You killed him, right? That was why you flew away in his shuttle?’

‘He’s dead.’ Rey confirms it with a nod although she knows that this is not, strictly speaking, true.

The Jedi texts have much to say about becoming one with the Force, about how it represents a state of being which is almost immortality for Force users. If they are one with the Force, no one is ever really gone, and she knows from past experience that the dead have tremendous power.

As Finn frowns at her, standing a little straighter and trying to focus on something he reads in her face, Rey realises that this is not what she wants for Ben. She does not want him wandering around in a shiny blue corona, dispensing the wisdom of the ancients and growing a beard. She does not want him haunting her, stuck in a limbo in which he can see all, but touch nothing. She does not want to grow old as he watches, and she does not want him endlessly waiting for her to join him in his non-existent grave. She has no idea what he was taught, but she hopes he missed the lessons about manifesting as a Force ghost. If he is dead, she wants him to have peace.

‘He’s not coming back,’ she says convincingly and Finn wobbles away, although not without a curious glance over his shoulder. She already knows she will have to speak to him again later. He will want to tell her he can sense her in the Force. She can sense him now too, and she will have to deal with the consequences of that.

Rey weaves amongst the crowds, congratulated by a pilot, hugged by a mechanic, apologised to by a droid. Someone somewhere has turned on some music and she heads in the opposite direction, feeling like the only adult at a children’s party. She hadn’t minded the odd firewater before, but something inside her has changed, and she doesn’t think she’ll ever drink again.

She seeks out the quiet of the secondary command post, but there is no peace to be found here either, since what is left of the Resistance old guard and the other grown-ups are clustered around a holographic map of the galaxy, taking stock. Some of them nod at her entrance. Others have no idea who she is.

‘Frantis Griss?’ asks Aftab Ackbar, with whom Rey scrapes an acquaintance.

‘Went down on the Steadfast with Allegiant General Pryde.’

‘Amret Engell?’

A blonde female Rey does not know spits on the floor. ‘That bitch. I hope she’s dead. She took my niece at two years old.’

‘Escaped. Last seen heading for the Jinata system.’ The information comes from an older man, busy tapping on a datapad.

‘Bellava Parnadee?’

The datapad yields further results. ‘In custody. Singing like a convoree.’

‘Domaric Quinn?’

‘Never made it to Exegol, according to Parnadee. Ren murdered him.’

‘Armitage Hux?’

‘Never made it anywhere. Pryde killed him for leaking information and letting us escape with the Falcon. Does anyone feel guilty?’

There is a shaking of heads from the four individuals clustered around the central display. Rey cannot help but feel disappointed in her own reaction. She has no compassion for the dead man. She knows his face from HoloNet but they had no personal connection. Still, she should feel regret or sorrow that he died as a result of helping the Resistance, or gratitude for the assistance he had given, but whatever part of her should be crying for him is dry eyed and stone faced.

Poe approaches from an adjoining chamber, talking urgently into his comm. ‘I understand the situation perfectly. I’m asking you to deal with it.’ He waits for a second, but Rey can’t hear the reply. ‘You know exactly how I want you to deal with it. I don’t need to spell it out. Call me when it’s done.’ He gives her a sideways glance as he takes his place at the map. ‘Situation report?’

Rey is still not used to his assumption of command, but Ackbar salutes casually. ‘The First Order hierarchy are killed or captured. One escaped but we’re tracking her. We haven’t traced the next rank down yet.’

Poe slides Rey another sideways look and she is instantly on the defensive, sensing his question before it is asked.

‘What about the next rank up? Where is Kylo Ren – is he dead?’

Rey has thought about this over the last nearly seven hours. She is not obliged to tell anyone the whole truth. No one else was present, the story is hers and it would be much easier to simply carry on repeating the condensed version for easier consumption. She could say that she fought Kylo Ren on the Death Star and killed him, and she need not mention the fact that she stabbed an unarmed man incapacitated by grief. She is not required to divulge the secret that Palpatine’s blood runs in her veins, contaminating her permanently. No one needs to know that Ben fought at her side against her grandfather and then sacrificed himself to save her in an act of love that culminated in a kiss still fresh on her lips. The tale could live on in her memory alone.

But across the other side of the map Lando Calrissian is examining her carefully, perhaps aware of her deliberations. Leia spoke of this man a few times, always with a twinkle in her eye, and he would have known Ben in his youth, as had Chewbacca. There are a few people around who still remember who he was before the dark side took him, and if Rey lies to them, she will be blackening his memory. Not that it could get much blacker.

She decides to filet the truth. ‘Ben Solo is dead. I saw him die. He fought at my side and he gave his life saving me; he became one with the Force as I watched. You don’t need to worry about him anymore.’

Lando’s eyebrows raise in surprise. ‘Ben Solo?’ he queries. ‘That’s a name that hasn’t been used in a while.’

Rey shrugs. ‘I never spoke to him about it. I didn’t speak to him about anything, I was too busy fighting, but I had the sense that he had changed. He wasn’t Kylo Ren any more. His mother’s death hit him hard.’

‘Where’s his body, Rey? Where did you bury him?’

Rey can appreciate that Poe wants to confirm that his opponent is dead, but there is a flicker of anger inside her at the thought that he does not simply take her word for it. ‘Are you thinking of sending flowers?’ she snaps and then corrects herself, pushing the emotion back into its hole. ‘He became one with the Force. He just faded away.’

Poe gives her a very direct look and his next question convinces her that he has hit his head at some point over the last few hours. ‘And what was he wearing when he faded away? What clothes did he have on?’

This question is absurd, but she is being scrutinised by the rest of the Resistance, who can surely detect the fact that there are massive gaps in her story. ‘He died,’ she answers. ‘He didn’t need clothes.’

‘So he was naked?’

Rey just stares at him and his comm link crackles into life. He strides away and she can tell that he is arguing with whoever he is speaking to, his body language tense, his shoulders set in the manner he has begun to use when he gives orders. When he returns to the map he simply mumbles: ‘Situation on Exegol.’

‘What situation on Exegol?’ she asks, dreading the answer. She never wants to go back there. She never wants to think about it or hear its name. She knows that part of her was left behind on that planet but the wound is too raw for her to touch at the moment.

Poe shrugs. ‘Sith loyalists. Hundreds of them, all trying to escape. There was cloning technology like we’ve never seen – I’ve got a team down there now clearing the vaults, seeing what we can learn and making sure no one runs off with anything they shouldn’t.’ He pauses. ‘They haven’t found a body for Palpatine either, but there are bits. Traces. Smears all over the remains of the throne – does that sound about right?’

Rey nods, on slightly safer ground. ‘I used his lightning against him. I think he exploded.’

‘Then we’ll bring him back in a bucket.’

‘Don’t bring him back at all. Leave him there to rot.’

Poe shakes his head. ‘Not until I understand how he managed to escape the Death Star. If there was any chance at all that he was a clone, I want his genetic material here, where I can destroy it myself and prevent any more clones from being made.’

Rey doesn’t want her grandfather’s genetic material anywhere near the Resistance’s databases, which also hold copies of her own DNA. If Luke and Leia felt no need to reveal her parentage to anyone, including her, during the time they had known, then she sees no reason to volunteer the information now. It is far better for everyone if her connection to Palpatine stays hidden. But she doesn’t want to draw attention to the subject by arguing so she lets it drop, deciding that she will simply hack into the Resistance datacore later and amend her records.

‘So what other problems do we have?’ asks Poe, turning his attention elsewhere.

There is more tapping from datapad man, who appears to have taken over the role of intelligence officer, or possibly he has simply resumed the role of intelligence officer given his age and familiarity with the system.

‘Twenty five Star Destroyers disappeared into the Hydian Way and we haven’t logged exit co-ordinates. We have reports of others entering the Rimma and Perlemian Trade Routes at various points almost immediately after Palpatine’s navy fell but no word on exact numbers or destination – they must have been communicating so we’re analysing First Order comms signals to see if we can identify a rendezvous point. There is a significant First Order presence at large in the galaxy and we’re lacking intelligence on where it is, or what it might do next.’

The blonde woman stands and Rey can tell by the way she moves that she is a warrior. She is dressed all in black, without any identifying rank or insignia, apart from a single, silver pin in the shape of a bird. ‘Rebellions are under way on most of the First Order occupied worlds, but although we know that some have succeeded relatively quickly, on others the fight is going to be long and slow. The bastards aren’t going to give up power easily, especially where they are more heavily armoured and more numerous than the people they’re fighting. And in some places people have been so abused that they’ve lost the courage to fight. We’re going to have to rout the remains of the Order planet by planet, base by base until we’ve killed them all.’

Ackbar continues the assessment. ‘We need to re-establish the New Republic as soon as possible, which will be difficult because so much was lost on Hosnian Prime. The galaxy needs a government.’

‘The galaxy needs a leader,’ says Calrissian. ‘Government can come later. Right now, people are scared. They don’t know what’s going on. They came when I called because fighting the Emperor was a cause everyone could get behind, but that alliance is going to break down really fast unless we get the message out there about what happens next. Someone needs to be the face of the Resistance, for the next few months at least.’

Rey glances around the room, wondering who will volunteer for this task. Calrissian is looking in her direction, but she wonders whether he will step up for the role, since he is a trusted face and popular enough to mobilise a fleet. However, the other attendees of this tiny council of war have turned their faces towards General Dameron, who wears an expression of patient resignation that Rey thinks might be fake. Before he can say anything his comm link crackles again with the unmistakeable sound of blaster fire.

Poe steps away from the gathering, but not quickly enough that Rey misses the first part of his conversation.

‘Fighting back…’ yells a voice, full of panic. ‘Can’t lock him down.’

Poe turns his back on Rey. ‘How many have we lost?’ There is a pause as he listens. ‘Really? I wasn’t expecting that. We’ll have to try another approach.’ The rest of the conversation is lost as he lowers his voice and shortly afterwards, returns to the group.

‘Situation getting out of hand?’ Rey asks.

Poe gives her a tight nod. ‘I’m going to need your help.’ He turns and starts issuing orders but Rey stops listening.

She is not ready for this, not yet prepared for life to continue, for the battle to go on without any further pause for reflection. She is acutely aware that she has been operating on autopilot since she left Exegol. She has simply kept moving, pushing any and all reaction to what happened there to the back of her mind, where it has festered and spread its cancerous fingers through her thoughts. Today was the day she died. When she is alone, she knows that the full horror of that experience will come flooding back and she will have to re-live it before she can she can dream without nightmares. Today was the day she loved. When she is alone, she will remember the dawning of that feeling in her heart, the way it swelled and broke in her chest when she realised Ben had come back to fight at her side. Today was the day she lost. When she is alone, she will see his smile again, taste his lips and know that she is alone now forever. Rey isn’t looking forward to being alone.

Some time passes before she realises that everyone but Poe has left and he is pressing buttons to transfer a file to the holoprojector hidden in the floor. He turns to face her with a twisted expression on his face. ‘I need to show you something. It’s top secret so I don’t want you to mention it to anyone else at the moment. We need to deal with this ourselves for now.’

A grainy picture emerges from the projector, the view of a small room with no windows, containing only a chair and a table. From the flickering at the edges of the image, and the way it appears to freeze and then jump forward every couple of seconds, Rey has the impression this transmission is live and being broadcast from somewhere moving at high speed. She steps forward to get a better look.

Poe explains, ‘He was found wandering in the ruins of Exegol, stark naked and unarmed.’

And there, sitting in the metal chair, dressed in a white paper boiler suit which is visibly too tight across the chest, is Kylo Ren.

‘I’m not sure who he is,’ says Poe.