It had been seventeen days since everything had gone to hell. Dash’s broken arm still hadn’t quite healed, and his head still hurt like the blazes for a few hours of every day. He knew he was going to end up with a thick, jagged scar at his temple. His rudimentary repair of his commlink hadn’t resulted in any damn communication, and his busted Starfighter was still… well. Busted.
And yet. And yet. Somehow things weren’t the worst they could be.
“Stop fidgeting,” he said, for the third time, vibrospanner slipping, sparks dancing.
“I am producing only fifteen percent of my full movement capacity.”
Dash rolled his eyes. “You want a functioning elbow joint? Then damn well keep it to zero percent.”
The droid made a whining noise, but thankfully locked its shoulder into place. Dash sighed, and continued the task of re-attaching the new elbow joint, salvaged from the deactivated chassis of one of the B1 droids that littered the surrounding area. It wasn’t the neatest work, sure, but Dash thought he’d done a pretty good job, all things considered. It wasn’t like he’d trained to be a droid technician, after all.
If you’d told him eighteen days ago that he was going to spend hours learning how to correctly attach a new elbow joint to a damn clanker, he would have assumed you’d been drinking too much.
Then again, if you’d told him eighteen days ago that he was going to lose his General, his brothers, and his entire damned purpose…
He’d woken up in the forest, his arm broken, his head bleeding, with not another living soul to be found. He’d salvaged what he could from his poor old Starfighter and then staggered along the rudimentary path until he’d found an abandoned village. Abandoned, except for a single clanker, wandering aimlessly about the place. The only reason he hadn’t shot the thing on sight was because he’d lost his blaster.
“You are a clone,” the droid had observed, on seeing him. It was worse-for-wear itself, with its antenna snapped in half and its forearm torn off, leaving its sparking wiring exposed.
“So what?” Dash had snapped furiously. He was in pain, and exhausted, and getting pretty damn freaked out that his entire unit were missing. He hadn’t been able to reach anyone on the comm.
“The other clones left,” said the droid, cocking its narrow head. “They shot the Jedi down and they left. You are alone.” When Dash had stared at it in disbelief its head had drooped morosely. “So am I.”
Don’t think about it, Dash told himself furiously, dragging his thoughts back to the present. It was fiddly work, making sure all of B1-772’s wiring was correctly aligned and its hydraulics attached in the right place. Dash didn’t want to have to do this again.
Still, he reckoned he owed the clanker, at least a bit. The droid had helped to splint his arm, and to mop the blood from his head wound, and apply bacta. It had agreed to help Dash find and carry some firewood, and to go through the homes in the abandoned village to find food and other supplies when Dash’s head injury made him faint and sick and dizzy. B1-772 was annoying, sure, and Dash didn’t trust it as far as he could throw it, not really, but with only one working arm it had been useful to have someone to help.
“There,” he said finally, sitting back. “How about that?”
B1-772 unlocked its shoulder and moved its new arm experimentally. It rotated the elbow, flexed the hand, curling the two stubby fingers. Then it picked up one of Dash’s pilfered tools and passed it neatly from hand to hand.
“Acceptable,” it said, in his annoying whine of a voice. “Thank you, CT-2868.”
“My name is Dash,” Dash insisted, for what must be the hundredth time. The clanker just tilted its head, not seeming to understand.
Well, fine. It wasn’t Dash’s fault the things were programmed to be idiots.
Ilduth wasn’t the worst moon on which to be stranded. It was covered in forests, and many of the purple-barked trees bore fruit (most of it unrecognisable to Dash, but juicy and fresh), and a clear, steady-moving river nearby was a useful source of clean water. The village had been cleared out by Separatist forces, and nobody had come back to claim it. Dash hoped that the villagers had been able to escape; there had been only a few bodies, certainly not enough to account for the amount of dwellings. He hadn’t recognised the species of the dead villagers. With a broken arm he’d been unable to bury them, but he’d enlisted B1-772 in gathering them for cremation.
“Why?” the droid had asked, as Dash had struggled to light the pyre, and anger had shot through him.
“You don’t just leave the dead,” he’d snapped. “You damn droids just mowed these people down and left them to rot. Well, I ain’t doing that. It’s about respect.”
The fire had caught, then, and Dash had stepped back, his own fury and despair growing like the flames.
“I do not understand,” said the droid.
“Shut the kriff up.”
With the village empty, the place was quiet. There was just the wind stirring the trees and the soft bubble of the river, and the occasional night-time noises of whatever animals lived in this place. It was nothing like Coruscant, or Kamino. Dash was unused to the quiet, unused to sleeping alone, unused to solitude of any kind. He missed Rocko’s snoring, and the way Loop would mutter in his sleep. He missed waking up to Red stretching his arms and complaining about his neck aching. He missed all of them so much he could almost taste it.
Maybe that was why he kept B1-772 around. It was annoying, and Dash despised clankers on principle, but there was no one else here.
Twenty-four days after he’d been stranded on Ilduth, Dash woke up from a nightmare. It was always the same: a soft voice muttering in his ear, total darkness, his arms and legs locked. He woke up, gripped by panic, to find someone looming over him. He lashed out, quick, his good hand closing around their throat—
Their metal throat. Dash blinked, and reality came back. B1-772 was watching him, kneeling beside his sleep mat, seemingly unconcerned by Dash’s hand around its neck column.
“You were shouting,” it said in a helpful tone. “Why?”
“I...” Dash let go of the droid’s neck, noting that his hand was shaking. “It’s nothing.”
“You were shouting leave me alone. Do you want me to leave?”
Yes, Dash almost snapped, but he held himself back. If the droid left, then he really would be alone. And his arm wasn’t fully healed just yet. Keeping the droid around would be useful. “No. I wasn’t yelling at you.”
“There is no one else here.”
Dash sighed and dragged his hand down his face, feeling the scrape of stubble. The emergency kit in the Starfighter didn’t include a razor. “I know that. It was a dream, alright. D’you understand that? Dreams?”
“Dream: a series of thoughts and sensations occurring in organic minds during sleep.” B1-772 recited, as though reading from some manual. “I have heard of them. When I power down, I experience nothing.”
Dash shuddered. “Well. Fine. Yeah. It was one of them. And now I need to go back to sleep, alright?” He lay back down, pulling the blanket back over himself. B1-772 didn’t move, but stayed crouched beside him. It didn’t speak, but it wasn’t silent either; its servomotors and fans hummed quietly.
It wasn’t the same as Rocko’s snoring, but it was close enough. Dash focused on those noises, and dropped into dreamless sleep.
The next night, B1-772 came to sit beside him again. The droid didn’t say anything. Dash lay facing away from it, his eyes stubbornly closed.
He woke up in the middle of the night, the little room in pitch blackness. He could hear the faint rustling of the trees and the soft whir of B1-772’s fans. Dash’s back was pressed against something very solid and warm. He glanced over his shoulder, and realised that it was the droid’s power casing; it was lying down, mirroring his own position, its back pressed against Dash’s.
Dash considered moving away. This was weird behaviour that he didn’t want to encourage. He didn’t want the droid to leave but that didn’t mean he wanted it to be attached.
But… the night was chilly, and B1-772 was warm. And it had been a long time since Dash had felt the warmth of another being, even if this one’s warmth was created by battery power and internal components. If he closed his eyes, it almost felt like body heat.
“What are you doing?”
Dash stood up and wiped his wrist over his forehead. He’d stripped to his shirt, and he was far too hot. He’d come out to the open land on the river bank for this, and the sun was beating down. He looked from the pile of metal and tools he’d assembled to where B1-772 stood watching him quizzically. To his surprise, he didn’t feel nettled by the question.
“Gonna try and build a long-range antennae,” he said. “My commlink’s not working, and nor’s yours. But there’s gotta be a way to contact somebody.”
“Ah.” B1-772’s narrow head bounced in a nod. “You want to find the other clones.”
Dash’s heart clenched, and he knelt to begin separating out the scrap parts. “My brothers. Yeah.”
“Hmmm.” B1-772’s fans whirred loudly, which Dash thought meant that it was thinking about something. Or processing something, or whatever it was that droids did. “But they left without you.”
“They thought I was dead.” Dash had to believe that, just as he had to believe that B1-772 was mistaken about seeing clones shoot down General Vakev. “We don’t leave men behind unless we have to. I’m gonna find them again.” He glanced up at the droid again. “You must miss your… the other droids.”
There was that damn quizzical head tilt again. “Yes,” said the droid slowly. “I miss my network. It was easier, before. My obedience module is damaged, and I have no command directives.” It sounded morose.
“Hm.” Dash picked up a length of coaxial cable and began to check it for damage. “I know what you mean, I guess. Easier when you’ve not got to figure it all out for yourself. Is that all you miss? The orders? You and the others weren’t, I dunno, friends?”
“I do not understand.”
For some reason, that made Dash… sad. He missed his old life, but he missed it for his brothers. The people who he lived with and joked with and fought with. “Well, I miss my brothers. I miss Grey’s stupid jokes, and Loop always trying to be better than everyone else, and Rainer with his head in a book any chance he could get…” he trailed off, his chest tight. B1-772 didn’t speak for a while, and Dash was grateful. He could focus on checking this cabling and nobody needed to know that his eyes were burning.
“Why are you called Dash?” the droid asked.
Dash blinked the tears away, hard. “Cos I’m fast. Fastest in my unit, all the way from basic training. Loop hated it.” He laughed, and it came out rough. “‘S better than ‘CT-2868’.”
“I have only ever been designated B1-772.”
“Yeah? I could call you Pain-in-the-Arse if you like.” Dash straightened up and sucked in a long, shaky breath. He’d build this antennae, make contact, and figure out a way out of here. He wasn’t going to be alone forever. “I need something to dig with. Go and find a shovel or something, would you?”
Later, Dash stripped off his sweaty clothes and waded into the river. At first it was shockingly cold, but then its coolness was a blessed relief against his skin. His shoulders were burned, he realised. It wasn’t something he’d ever been in danger of before. He ran his fingers over the reddened skin.
He rinsed out his clothes as best he could and lay them to dry over a large river rock, then returned to the cool water. His arm still twinged slightly, but it appeared to have healed fairly straight. A good thing, he realised, that B1-772 had splinted it. That had been a surprising bit of practical thought from the droid.
For a moment, it was hard to imagine that there was a war raging through the Galaxy. How long had it been, since Dash had been in a battle? Since he'd been shot at? He missed so much of it, like a missing tooth he couldn't stop probing at, but he had to admit that it was sort of nice, to be able to let his guard down, to experience some leisure and peace.
He was still enjoying the cool water, the suns above beginning their slow descent, when B1-772 appeared. It was carrying one on the village’s many baskets, which seemed to be woven from the purple bark of the trees, filled with food. Dash abruptly realised how hungry he was.
“Now what are you doing?” B1-772 asked. It asked Dash that question a lot. He was finding it less annoying, these days.
“Washing up.” He splashed the water a little, as though in demonstration. “Humans get pretty grimy sometimes. The water’s lovely.”
“I am not watertight,” said B1-772. It set the basket down and then sat cross-legged on the river bank, a posture that Dash thought it had copied from him. “I would like an oil bath, but this village does not have the equipment.”
“An oil bath, huh?” Dash waded out of the river a little reluctantly and sat on a sun-warmed rock to dry. He’d never been concerned about being naked around others - no clone could be - and it wasn’t like it could mean anything to B1-772.
“Yes. It would remove all the grit and dust from my joints and vents.”
“Sounds uncomfortable.” Now he thought about it, the droid did look pretty dusty.
There was a pause, in which B1-772’s fans whirred. “Yes,” it said, as though surprised by this notion. “It is.”
Once he was dry enough, Dash sat beside the droid and ate the food it had brought: the sweet, fleshy blue fruit, the salted meat, the nutrient bar. They looked out across the river at the darkening sky, the suns dipping below the horizon.
“Did you call yourself Dash?” B1-772 asked, breaking the silence.
Dash glanced at it sidelong, chewing the last of the nutrient bar. “No,” he said, his mouth full. “My brothers did. Well, one of ‘em started it - can’t remember who. Might’ve been Split. He died, year or so back.” Shot by a battle droid, he didn’t say. “Then it just stuck. That’s how it was for most of us. We gave each other our names, not the numbers they’d decided we’d have. We looked the same, but didn’t mean we were the same.”
B1-772 nodded, its long head dipping and rising quickly. “B1 units all look the same,” it said. “And we have the same programming. We are the same.”
Dash crumpled up the nutrient bar wrapper and dropped it in the woven basket. “Nah,” he said. “I don’t reckon you are.” B1-772 looked at him. Despite its lack of facial expression, Dash thought it looked a bit incredulous. “You’re more annoying than any other B1 unit I’ve ever met, after all.”
There was a moment when he thought he might actually have hurt the droid’s feelings (and another when he wondered when he’d begun to consider that it had feelings in the first place), and then B1-772 said, snippily, “And you are the most annoying clone.”
Dash laughed, for the first time in weeks.
“Do you want another name?” he asked curiously. None of the astromechs or other Republic droids had had names, as far as he knew. “I can give you one, if you want.”
B1-772 looked at him, then out at the horizon, the sky turning pink and purple. “What would you call me?” it asked curiously. “If I was a clone, and not a droid.”
Dash considered. “Well. All you do is ask bloody questions.”
“Because I want to learn things.”
That made Dash smile. “And that’s a good thing, even if you are damn annoying. You’re a bright spark, sure enough.” He leaned over and gave the droid a firm pat on the back. “How about that, for a name? I’ll call you Spark.”
“Spark,” the droid repeated. It bobbed its head up and down. “Yes. I like it.”
That night, Dash lay down to sleep and Spark plugged itself into the opposite wall, sitting with its knees drawn up. Dash lay in silence for a few minutes, staring into the darkness, his eyes slowly adjusting until he could make out vague shapes. Then he stood, grabbed the edge of the sleeping mat, and dragged it over to the droid.
“What—” it began.
“Shut up,” said Dash, lying back down and pulling the blankets over himself. “I’m going to sleep.”
“Roger roger,” murmured Spark. Then, “Good night, Dash.”
Dash sighed, and patted the nearest bit of the droid he could reach. “Night, Spark.”
The village was not the most technologically advanced place in the Galaxy. Its electricity was generated by solar panels and turbines mounted on the roofs of buildings. There was no sign that they had used droids, or even that they had used space-worthy ships. Dash had found some charging ports for speeders (though no evidence of speeders themselves), and very little else.
“Could have crashed somewhere with some damn civilisation,” he muttered, forcing open the door of yet another storage compartment. He didn’t like ransacking these houses, and he’d fix what he could, but for now he just needed to find what he was looking for.
“Ah hah,” he said, triumphant.
Spark was busy building the scaffold that would, with any luck, become the tower for their antenna. When Dash waved to get its attention, it set down the metal sheeting and meandered over.
“Got an idea,” said Dash, lifting the metal canister he’d found. “It won’t be a proper oil bath, but might be better than nothing?”
Spark peered at the canister, then at Dash. “You have found machine oil,” it said, sounding surprised.
“Sure did. You want to get rid of some of that dust, or not?”
Dash had no idea what he was doing, but he figured it couldn’t be that hard. Spark had complained about grit in its joints after all, so that seemed the place to start. As well as the can of oil, he’d found some clean cloths and some kind of small, soft brush. Maybe the house’s previous occupant had been an artist? Dash didn’t know anything about art. He’d let Red draw the designs on his helmet.
In the small house, Dash sat himself in one of the rough wooden chairs, Spark standing before him. He considered the seams in the droid’s chestplate; the gaps in its shoulder and elbow joints; the intricate plating of its hands. It would be a more fiddly job than he’d realised.
“I’ve never done this before,” he said, dipping the brush into the canister. “Tell me if I’m kriffing it up.”
Starting at where Spark’s neck met its torso, he swept the brush slowly down the seam. Then into the curve of its right shoulder, where he could feel the build-up of dust and grit. Spark made a strange humming noise.
“Yes. This is… pleasant.”
“Hm.” It was, in a strange way. The sun was streaming into the little room, burnishing Spark’s chassis. Dash worked slowly, methodically, sliding the soft brush through the gears of the droid’s shoulder joint, and the mechanism of its elbow. Spark stood quietly, its visual sensors clearly focused entirely on Dash.
“Is this working?” he asked, pouring some oil on one of the soft cloths and beginning to run it over the smooth plating of Spark’s chest, bringing it to a golden sheen.
“Good. Great.” Dash took its hand, cradling it in his left palm. “You get oil baths a lot, usually?”
“Negative. Only when our movement commands are compromised. If they are too compromised, we are scrapped and recycled for parts.”
Dash frowned. He knew that many saw clones as disposable, but General Vakev never had. She had taken the time to get to know them, to understand them. “Sorry. That’s not fair.”
“It is the best use of resources.”
“Yeah?” Dash glanced up at the droid. “You saying you wouldn’t mind being scrapped?”
There was a moment of silence, and Dash heard Spark’s fans pick up speed. “No,” it said slowly, as though unsure of its answer. “I would not have liked that. But I will not be scrapped here.”
Dash curled his fingers around the droid’s blunt hand, a strange, tight feeling pressing at his ribs. “No, you won’t be.”
He wasn’t sure why it sounded like such a promise. He swallowed, dipped the brush back into the oil, and bent back to his task.
“Hold it steady!” Dash called.
“It is steady.”
The tower they’d constructed had looked perfectly safe until he’d climbed up it, and now it felt worryingly wobbly. He should have sent Spark up here, Dash thought grimly as he tried to position the cobbled-together arial. He could probably put it back together if it got smashed up.
Him. Put him back together.
“Does this look straight?” he called down.
There was a faint whirring noise, as the droid focused his optical sensors. “You should move it five-point-two degrees to the left.”
“Five-point-two,” Dash muttered, shaking his head. That wasn’t exactly easy to do by eye, but he did his best.
“You have overshot by two-point-three—”
“It’ll do!” he called. “Now hold it still - I’m coming down.”
It was with great relief that his boots hit firm ground. Dash shaded his eyes, looking up at the antenna. “Alright,” he said. “Let’s give this a try. Would you power it on?”
Dash’s heart was in his mouth as Spark clanked off. This was it. He’d contact his unit, finally hear a familiar voice, and they’d figure out a way to get him off this damn moon. What would they do? Contact the nearest squadron, probably, send a couple of troopers out here to get him. It might take a few hops to get back to his own team, but that didn’t matter. Then he could find out exactly what had happened to the General, and why the mission had gone so disastrously wrong. And Spark…
A faint, cold sensation seeped into his chest. Maybe he could get them to not shoot Spark. He’d explain that the droid had helped him. He didn’t have a restraining bolt any more, and his programming had obviously gone haywire. Maybe Spark would come with them, give up some of his intel on the Separatists, undergo some reprogramming… could be useful, having a Seppie clanker on their side. Like a spy, almost. Yeah.
Maybe he wouldn’t even need to be reprogrammed. It wasn’t like he had hurt Dash, was it? He was fine.
Dash’s commlink beeped, and he shook those thoughts off. A signal!
“Come in, 301st squadron! Do you read me? This is CT-2868. I have been stranded on Ilduth for thirty-one days with no comms. Does anyone read me? Over.”
A faint crackle. Dash’s heart was hammering.
“301st squadron,” he tried again. “This is CT-2868. This is Dash. Captain Rocko? Red? Loop? Anyone? I’m requesting extraction from Ilduth. Over.”
The crackling continued. Why was no one there? They couldn’t all be dead. They couldn’t. And even if they were, someone else would pick up the signal.
They must, they must, they must.
Hours later, Dash stared at the dipping suns. A sudden, white-hot surge of anger tore through him, and he flung the stupid, useless commlink as far as he could. It cleared the river, landing somewhere among the large leaves that covered the opposite bank.
He buried his face in his hands. No one was out there. No one was coming. What had happened?
“Why didn’t it work?” Spark asked, and Dash jumped. He hadn’t even heard him approach.
“It just didn’t,” he snapped, not looking at the droid.
“Hm.” He could just picture that kriffing head tilt. He clenched his fists. “Perhaps the antenna was at the incorrect angle.”
“No,” Dash snarled, whirling around. “It’s not the damn antenna! It’s because there’s no one kriffing out there! So I’m just stuck here, in this miserable bit of kriffing nowhere, with a useless, piece of shit clanker.”
Spark didn’t seem to react, but for the slightest little droop of his head. Somehow that tiny action galvanised Dash’s anger further.
“Go away. Now.”
“I do not—”
“I don’t need you to understand. Leave. Me. Alone.”
He was breathing hard, staring at the droid, hating it, hating that he was stuck here, without his brothers or his friends or anyone who he gave a shit about. When Spark gave a sarcastic sounding, “Roger roger” and turned away, he felt nothing but a furious sort of satisfaction.
The suns disappeared. The moons rose. Dash had been stranded for thirty-two days.
When Dash woke the next morning, his head felt like it was being split open. The light lanced into his eyes. He curled up, clutching at his skull, gritting his teeth, waiting for it to subside, but it didn’t. He had no idea how long he lay there, blinded with agony, sweating, unable to even think properly.
When something blessedly cool and damp was placed against his temple, he could have wept with the relief of it. The pain eased slightly, and Dash was able to take what felt like his first real breath. He squinted his eyes open, and saw Spark crouched beside him, the small medkit open beside him. The cool thing on his head was a bacta patch, he realised.
“Thanks,” he croaked.
“You are welcome,” said the droid. “Your stress response was twenty-five percent stronger than usual.”
Dash didn’t know how to respond to that, so he didn’t. Slowly, the relief of the bacta swept through him, and he felt his rigid, aching muscles begin to relax. Spark left the bacta patch resting against Dash’s temple and moved his blunt fingers down his jaw to the back of his neck. The metal fingers were slightly warm, and the faint pressure was… pleasant. When Dash didn’t protest, the droid’s fingers moved up into his hair, which was getting long.
“Oh.” Spark sounded pleased and surprised. “This part of you is soft.”
“My hair,” Dash muttered. The pain in his head had dulled to a faint ache. He should tell the droid to stop. He didn’t need his hair stroked, he wasn’t a child, or… or… who else had their hair stroked? Dash didn’t know. And it did feel quite nice. It was something to feel that wasn’t the pain.
“‘M sorry,” he mumbled. “For yelling at you, yesterday. Wasn’t your fault.”
Spark’s fingers paused for a moment, and then resumed their rhythmic stroking through his hair. “I forgive you.”
Something loosened in Dash’s lungs. He could have fallen asleep again, the blessed cool of the bacta and the gentleness of Spark’s fingers in his hair slowly relaxing him. Then Spark said, “I found the commlink.”
“You - what?”
“You threw it away. I found it again.” He sounded proud of himself. “Just because it did not work this time, does not mean it will not work in future. We can try again.”
“There is higher ground. We can build the antenna there. Or build three, and triangulate the signal. We will try again.”
A strange feeling filled Dash, rising all the way from his toes. He pushed himself to sit up, his head swimming only a little, and grasped Spark’s blunt hand. For a moment they just looked at one another. Somehow, Spark contrived to look hopeful.
“Yeah,” said Dash slowly, a smile spreading across his face. “Yeah. We can try again.”