What is it about humans and deserts, thinks BB-8 -- why is it that Friend-Poe (who otherwise possesses immaculate judgement in all matters, flying and romance and more) insists on taking him to lands of slippery grit, where he struggles to gain traction, where the heat teeters on the unbearable, where his circuits sizzle and spark?
Humans have to explore. That’s their job, R2 chirrups, picking his awkward way between the rubble. Did you know that the first droid was called Curiosity?
No I didn’t! BB-8 adores R2. He’s ancient and wise and noble, and when he saw Living Legend Luke Skywalker he chased him all around the Resistance base, squealing with rage:
You FUCKER you LEFT ME you JEDI PIECE OF SHITE you useless Jedi fuck come back here so I can fucking kill you --
BB-8 has learned a lot of fascinating words from R2, most of which Poe objects to him saying.
Yup, says R2. The first droid, the one they sent out to the stars, they called her Curiosity.
Humans are lovely.
Humans are silly fucks , R2 corrects, silly silly fucks, and this is why we are on this desert planet scrounging about for old data, because we need to work out what the shit the First Order are on about with all this twatter about repurposing old Imperial projects --
The Black Sabre project.
Exactly. We need to find out what it is, and this is the last place we’ve got a record of it being mentioned. This used to be where the Empire housed their greatest projects. Noble, distant Scarif and R2’s quoting something, someone, but BB-8 doesn’t know who and he doesn’t want to ask. He rolls after R2, plopping down from jagged rock to jagged rock.
It wasn’t always a desert, this place. Scans indicate that once there was water and greenery and life, but the Death Star was tested on it and it destroyed everything, leaving dust and desert and big chunks of machinery and torn-open command posts.
“Just like Jakku,” Rey had said, “the desert gets everywhere, it conquers everything.”
And so it does. BB-8 had started to tell her about soil erosion and climate change and R2 had shut him up with a neat little jab to the side. She’s trying to make a poetic point you daft fuck.
Anyway: here they are on Scarif, once a verdant water-drenched battle base and now a dust-bowl. Friend-Poe and Friend-Finn are within visual range, working their way through the wreckage: sheers of melted metal twisted into such strange forms that Poe, expert pilot, had examined one and decreed there’s a fifty-fifty chance that this was an X Wing. Maybe. Could have been a TIE fighter or um -- anything else.
Rey and Luke are elsewhere, nearer to the ruined Star Destroyers to the north, while Black Squadron combs the space wreckage and Red Squadron picks their way through the catacombs below. The Death Star blast starbursted everything this way and that, and what might have neatly nestled within an archive could well be half-buried in a sand dune ten miles north. So they search.
The earth itself springs open like lizard skin; the Death Star’s blow destroyed an archive and did strange, terrible things to the atmosphere itself. And now there is no rain on Scarif, not a drop, not for decades. This place is steeped in mourning , Luke said when they landed, oh the pain here, the death -- careful Rey --
And Friend-Rey, kind and gentle Rey, going pale and sweat-glossy, like a fever grasped her. Her fists clutching, as if to grasp some weapon; her heart rate building. BB-8 is not wise with the Force, but he knows humans well, and he knows the signs of distress.
Anyway. It is these ditches and gouges that BB-8 and R2 explore.
Something crunches under BB-8. He rolls back, swivels his eye-stalk down. It’s a ridge of metal, blackened and twisted, with paint smudged and crisped across it.
BB-8 scans the metal.
It was part of a droid’s chest-piece.
Oh, BB-8 beeps softly, sadly. Another dead droid. This place is littered with them.
He’s still not used to dead droid-bits. He’s seen so many of them, and he isn’t used to it.
(Can droids die he had said to Poe and Poe had said well I suppose everything can die and BB-8 had said but what happens when -- and Pilot-Pava had said what a curious droid and BB-8 buzzed at herPoe reprogrammed me and taught me to think and and Poe’s gentle hand on his shell, and droids aren’t meant to be calmed by physical contact and yet -- )
(Something changed with me because he wanted me to be BB-8 and not just an astromech droid BB-8 had said, later, to C-P30. Humans don’t understand it but they do change us. Humanity. Did you know that in the language of the T-arai of Cerebus VI the word for Humanity and Infection is one and the same? They do insist on getting everywhere, says Threepio. Besides. You are BB-8. You’re you.)
(And later still: Finn. The human who knows what it is like to have a number not a name, and it isn’t quite the same, because FN-2187 had thoughts and feelings and dreams before Poe but still, still ---)
BB-8 rolls over the next edge, skids down a loose scree of pebbles, wheeking in excitement, momentarily forgetting his distress in the tumbling fall. He bumps up over another a droid bit -- another chest-piece -- and spins, slips down another drop, bounces when he lands, calls up, Friend-Poe! Friend-Poe! I’m in distress, I’m in distress!
Oh you mollycoddled fuck, R2 says fondly. Then: I can see him coming, stop beeping you silly little ball .
BB-8 chirrups, rolls back and --
Scans indicate a memory chip , he beeps, remembering their primary objective. I will find it!
Is it Black Sabre?
It is -- a memory chip , BB-8 bips helpfully, and without further ado goes off to retrieve it. Scans indicate that the memory chip has not been destroyed. It is functioning! It is close!
It is --
It is wedged into what was once a droid’s skull.
Another droid -- or a human -- might call this a head-piece. But BB-8 is not any other droid, and he is not a human, and it is a skull, for once this was something alive and now it is something dead. I am sorry Friend-Dead , he twitters, and pries the chip loose. May the Force be with you, BB-8 adds, because this is what Friend-Poe says, and Friend-Finn, and they are wise and know many things that BB-8 is still learning, things about death and ending and life, things that droids do not often worry about.
But BB-8 is not other droids.
(The word for humanity and infection is the same Threepio had said and BB-8 wonders if this is such a bad thing after all.)
“BB-8?” And here is Friend-Poe, come to save the day.
BB-8 chirrups I am in distress! without much indication of distress; it is more a command to come at fetch him at once, right now, please and thank you. Poe always responds to it. And now BB-8, at the bottom of a ditch no more than six feet deep waits, expectantly, for Poe to lift him out.
You spoil him something chronic , R2 rebukes, as Poe leaps without hesitation into the ditch, lifts BB-8, and deposits him on the somewhat solid ground.
“Hush R2,” Poe says, rubs at BB-8’s shell with his sleeve, buffing the dirt away. “What did you find?”
A memory chip! It is from a droid. He is down there. He is imperial make, and that is why his skull survived the explosion. Was, BB-8 amends. Tenses are funny things. It might be helpful -- I can scan it!
“Thanks BB,” Poe coos, and BB-8 trills with pride.
I should scan it, R2 says authoritatively. Bring it here. I’ve worked with imperial tech before; I know how to decode it.
No! I found it --
“BB, don’t be a brat,” Finn says, lolloping up. Sweat soaks into his tank top, and he looks pained: he hates deserts almost as much as BB-8 does.
(Number of times Finn has said some variation upon fucking sand it gets everywhere: thirty six since this mission started, which was three days ago.)
Friend-Finn is meant to be on my side!
Finn whistle-chirps at him; a word in binary that doesn’t have a direct translation but means, roughly, shut it little droid you are valued but this other droid has a better understanding of the situation .
Binary is a beautifully pared down language, functional and brisk.
BB-8 twitters frustration, and rolls over Poe’s toes.
The heat is truly unbearable, and they cannot risk sand clogging up R2’s ports, and so they retire to the Falcon, parked atop a ridge of red rock lined with black and brown: char-marks, BB-8’s sensors tell him. Long-ago battles, carved right into the stone.
Not so long ago , R2 says, when BB-8 voices this, not long ago at all little droid.
My name’s BB, stop calling me little droid.
Your name is --
Whatever I want it to be, that’s what Finn says. And you’ll call me BB-8. You will, you will , and BB-8 is not sulking, he is not, he is simply remembering when Finn first woke up and tottered into the Resistance camp, unsure of himself and unsteady on his feet, with a spine full of metal and a heart full of loss.
BB-8 had accompanied him around the camp . Introduced him to the other droids . My designation is BB-7, mine is O5-313 --
“What would you like me to call you?” Finn had said, focusing hard on getting the whistles at the right tone.
Utter silence followed his words. The two droids, one an astromech and one a translator, looked at each other, confused.
Then BB-7 ventured, “What do you mean?”
“Well,” Finn said. “What you just said, those are makes and serial numbers – do you have names? What do you want me to call you?”
Later Poe found Finn whistling at R2-D2. The constellations span around them, and R2-D2 was happily pointing out the location of every single secret Resistance base.
“You really shouldn’t do that,” said Poe. “He doesn’t have clearance –”
“He asked,” chattered BB-8. “He asked what we wanted to be called.”
“Don’t you know how important that is?” Finn whistled, low and serious, and the light of the holograms played blue and bright over his face.
Names matter. Names matter and Finn knows this, because just as BB-8 is not like other droids Finn is not like other humans.
The memory chip is inserted.
“It’s a droid’s brain, basically,” Poe says to Finn. “Got all the programming on it, all the data -- might be something there we can use. R2?”
R2 is making whir-beep sounds that aren’t binary, but general expressions of confusion; and after a moment he manages, this is not a normal droid and you wouldn’t think that droids can sound pained, but there you go, they can, and R2 does. He jitters his head back and forth. Sparks spit from the joins in his plating.
Poe kneels in front of R2. “We’ll get that chip out of you,” he says, “we’ll -- “
No! R2 barks, and shoves his electric prod out, no don’t, don’t -- he’s alive!
He -- the droid, he is alive, he is alive .
And with that R2 skids forwards, shoving past Poe, whistle-chirping to himself: it will be ok yes it will be ok it will they are dead but you have to understand you have to -- fuck’s sake listen to me --
And the memory-chip is of an old imperial make, and BB-8 would need all sorts of adaptors to scan it because he is of a newer make, and the same would go for Poe’s X-Wing; but the Falcon is old, old, old and it has a special tucked-away bank of ports and one of those is designed to fit the sort of memory chip that once lived inside an imperial droid.
Before any of them can stop him, R2 shoves the chip into one such port.
Cassian Andor lives.
There is an escape pod at the base of the comms tower, tucked into the catacombs, and Jyn Erso half drags his beaten-up body into it, launches them into the cold reaches of space and they hit hyperspace heartbeats before Darth Vader arrives.
They flee and get married and have ten children and --
(A scree of static; a white flare of light.)
Cassian Andor lives. He sprouts wings. He --
( climb climb CLIMB CLIMB)
-- he lives.
He will not, he cannot, but K2 devotes the last working circuits he has to imagining a scenario where he does, because he cannot bear to die knowing that soon, soon, soon his friend will
( ninety-nine per cent chance that -- )
will die --
( he will not make it off the planet )
And even as his vision fails and falters, and even as his knees crumple and he strikes the ground even as the internal alarms
( you are going to die can droids die there is nothing but nothing waiting for you droids do not get Force ghosts no matter what Chirrut babbles about)
(Cassian Andor lives -- )
wail and gutter to a halt, even then K2 forces his programming into new shapes: imagine the impossible.
Imagine that he lives.
Every light on the dashboard flares into life. The ship judders and, somewhere, an alarm sounds. Poe swears, shouts, “R2, what have you done?”
R2 responds, He is alive! He is alive he survived, this is not a normal droid! And then, don’t you dare take off!
The Falcon judders. Sparks leap from the console. A worrying groan from the heart of the ship; a series of frenetic beeps.
BB-8 bips back, too fast for Finn to pick up on; but Poe seems to understand. His face crumples in confusion. “You did what .”
More beeps; the unmistakable growl as the engines start up; then a high oscillating shriek from R2 as he rams himself full force against the control panel. FUCKING STOP.
The engines judder to silence. The control panel flashes; sprinklers hiss over Finn, Poe and BB-8. BB-8 squeals something about his circuits, hides behind Poe’s legs.
“What did you do?” Finn demands. The control panel is a riot of lights and strange beeps and R2 doesn’t pay either of them any attention; he wires himself up to the Falcon and chirrups --
Accessing sound data banks now, hold on --
The Falcon shrieks -- and then lapses into sudden, chilling silence.
“R2,” Finn says, again, “what did you -- “
“--Cassian. Cassian Andor?”
The voice is strange, warbled; it sounds like half a dozen voices chorused together, some lapsing out mid-word while others spring up from nowhere. The overall result is eerie, unearthly: like ghosts speaking.
Which in a way is true: the sound data banks are full of old holo-records of long-dead singers and actors, and even a few recordings of Han and others from the glory days.
“Cassian. Captain! Cassian Andor -- “
He’s dead, R2 beeps softly, gently.
“No,” the Falcon warbles.
“What -- R2, get this out --” Poe says, stepping forwards.
R2 brandishes his electric prod. Try it flyboy , he beeps, try it, just try it, this is a droid you know, and this droid is alive.
“And in the Falcon! You can’t --” and Poe flounders, his mouth opening and shutting soundlessly, “you can’t just plug a droid into another system, doesn’t work that way -- “
No, agrees R2, and I’d explain the mechanics but you wouldn’t understand; but I am helping him; and the Falcon is helping; and we are re-routing -- and of course there is the Force.
“I never believed in the Force,” says the Falcon, rather prissily. “Neither did Cassian. But -- are they dead? Statistically likely, statistically certain -- but I had hoped -- “
The Force is in everything! BB-8 chirrups, rolling out from his hiding spot. I know, I know, I feel it, we all do! Statistically , he adds, and Finn gets the distinct impression that he is mocking whatever intelligence has just been jammed into the Falcon, impossible scenarios becoming true, and light-swords and that bastard Kylo Ren and you must be very old and slow if you don’t believe in the Force. Not believing in the Force is like not believing in -- in Friend-Poe! He is here, I see him, and so I know he exists.
“Not droids -- “ protests the Falcon. It sounds strained. “Not me -- what are you, an astromech droid? What are you on about? Cassian Andor -- he’s -- he’s -- and Chirrut, and -- droids don’t have Force presence, we -- “
Yes droids. Yes you. Turn those fucking sprinklers off .
“I’m not sure that I know how -- wait a moment.”
Take all the time you need, says R2, low and reassuring, and Finn can’t help but think: high command used to say that Stormtroopers didn’t have emotions.
And people say that of droids, and in some cases they are right, and in others they are wrong, wrong, wrong.
(Finn had a number, once, and people telling him that the Force was not real and that people like him -- troopers -- did not have souls or emotions and --)
“There,” says the Falcon. The sprinklers stop. Poe’s wet-haired and wild-eyed and clearly running through all the scenarios he envisioned happening here on lonely, haunted Scarif and not finding anything remotely resembling this.
“Right,” he manages, after a moment. “Who are you?”
“My name is K2,” says the Falcon. “I’m -- well, I was -- an imperial droid. I was reprogrammed by Cassian Andor -- “
“The spy,” says Poe. He grins. It’s a worried, fretful sort of grin, quivering at the edges, pulled taut over panic. “Yes. The spy. The martyrs of Scarif, of course. You’re -- you’re K-2SO, I remember you. I have a poster of Cassian Andor -- well: used to. I left it behind. But. But I remember, I remember the stories -- we all do -- he reprogrammed you. You were the first droid that was -- that wasn’t normally a droid, if that makes sense.”
Not the first, R2 says, Threepio’s different and so am I.
“One of the first,” Poe amends quickly, eyeing R2’s electric prod.
This is Poe , BB-8 says, and then whirrs behind Finn, shoves him forward. And this is Finn. He’s like you. He had a number and now he has a name, Force-be-thanked.
“....I would quite like to be asleep again, please,” says the Falcon, “I don’t think I’m ready for droids that believe in the Force. Chirrut will -- Chirrut would have been thrilled .”
(Tenses. Funny things.)
Finn pats the console. “Nice to meet you K2,” he says, “I’m Finn. I was a Stormtrooper -- “
“You’re not a clone,” says K2/the Falcon. “Are they using humans now?”
“Yes,” Finn says.
“My records are not up to date,” grumbles K2. “I will power down and study.”
And, just like that, the Falcon powers down around them. The lights go off. Poe smacks a few buttons on the console, and nothing happens.
“I’m going to get Luke,” Finn opines. “He’ll know what to do.”
Luke does not know what to do.
Rey, on the other hand, says, “Oh cool,” like the Falcon getting possessed by the possible-ghost of a possibly-dead droid is something perfectly normal -- nay, something desired. She runs her hands over the console and chirrups at it. Finn feels her Force-presence run like water over his skin, over the Falcon, saying: hello hello hello!
(The first ever droid was called Curiosity, R2 told Finn. That droid, in all her brightness, could have been named Rey.)
The Falcon rumbles back into life. “I have scanned the history drives,” it says, “and -- “
Once, the higher command had said that Stormtroopers could not feel grief. Once, Finn was told that droids -- even droids like BB-8 -- could not feel grief.
Finn knows that both of these things are wrong. He puts his hand on the console. Bows his head. “I’m sorry,” he says.
“They saved many,” says K2. “Statistically, their sacrifice was -- “
“I’m sorry ,” Finn says, again, but this time he puts some weight into it. When he woke up, it had taken some insisting from Poe to convince him that no, the Resistance did not expect him to be working within two hours of getting out of bed and, no, no one was decommissioned in the Resistance, no matter how severe their wounds. He knows that habits of a lifetime are hard to break.
“They are dead,” K2 says. “I failed them and they died and -- “
Shh, and if Rey’s Force-presence is water -- a giddy little spring sparkling with light and life -- then Luke’s is the ocean, vast and deep and you could drown in it if you let yourself, but now it holds them all in its immensity. Calm floods through Finn. Poe visibly relaxes. The lights on the Falcon’s dashboard stop flickering quite so frantically.
You failed no one , Luke says, without moving his lips at all. Somehow, he speaks both binary and Basic at the same time. You failed no one at all.
“Machines have ghosts, everyone knows,” Rey says briskly, “on Jakku we would call on them when we were mending salvage; the metal remembers the shape it is meant to have, and droids remember their function, the life they had once.”
She’s sitting at the command chair like she was born there, straight backed and proud. She’s the most beautiful thing Finn has ever seen.
(Pink colours her cheeks. He really needs to work on this whole Force-sensitive-crush stop-thinking-everything-so-loudly thing.)
“I’m not a ghost,” says K2. “I’m me. I’m just...in a different body. I didn’t die. At least, I don’t think I did. Droids don’t die. We’re not alive so we can’t die.”
We’re alive you silly fuck , says R2.
“What do you know, astromech?”
I lived through the Clone Wars, through the rise of Vader, through everything, really. I’ve seen some shit.
“That’s it? That’s your defence for making a deep theological point? I’ve seen some shit? Chirrut and I used to have long and complex debates about the nature of personhood and you just say I’ve seen some shit?”
Fuck you --
How about this! BB-8 trills. You could be dead, and you could be a ghost, and you could be a reincarnation or a reupload -- but! I put it to you than none of that matters as we have a job to do, and you are our Falcon, and we would very much like to be your friend!
“Is he always this optimistic?”
Yes, says R2, glumly, as Poe singsongs, “Yes!”, as proud as any father.
“Black Sabre wasn’t a weapon,” says K2. “It was a plot. The idea was inspired by defectors -- Bodhi Rook wasn’t the first. Send someone out as a fake defector, let them kill some of their own in an escape, leak some fake information, lure the rebel command into a trap -- possibly with news of someone else high status who wanted to defect, someone that command wouldn’t be able to resist -- what? Why do you all look so worried? Ah. Of course. Well, we better hurry back,” and without anyone actually pressing the correct buttons, the ship launches itself into hyperspace.
Constellations blur white by the windows.
Finn expects a fire-eyed fanatic, but instead meets a slump-shouldered, defeated man only a little older than himself.
“Hi,” Finn says. Poe flanks him, blaster ostentatiously at his hip, simmering with barely tamped-down fury. This man would have killed the General. This man would have given her false hope, made her think that Ben was still alive: of course, Poe had said, of course he deserves to die, of course.
The man lifts his eyes from the floor, peers up through a dirty white-blonde fringe. It’s clear why he was chosen for the mission: his Force presence is thin and wavering but there, hanging murky and dense around his thoughts, hiding his true intent. But you don’t need to be Force-sensitive to read him now.
“What’s your name?”
“EG-7070,” says the trooper.
“That’s not what I asked,” Finn presses, walking forwards, shaking off Poe’s protective hand. “What’s your name?”
“...my squad called me Two Sevens,” he says. “When is my execution scheduled?”
“I know. The traitor.” But he says it without rancour; he’s just stating a fact.
“You didn’t have to do this, you know.”
“Of course I did. I was ordered.”
“There’s a choice.”
“We’re like droids,” says Two Sevens. “There was never a choice.”
Finn snorts. “There’s someone you should meet,” he says. “Because, yeah, we are like droids. But I don’t think you know quite what that means.”
“You have a mission,” says Chirrut.
“Why must you torment me from beyond the grave,” grumbles K2/the Falcon. K2 the Falcon. K-Falcon. He’s trying out new names. None of them quite fit. But he’s got plenty of time to work through them.
“Because I’m a Force ghost and it is my job to guide people.”
“I am not a person. I do not have friends, and I do not have emotions. I am a droid. That is all.”
“Sure,” says Chirrut. “And you never lie, and you never turn the hot water cold in the refresher because you find it amusing when Poe Dameron squeals like a small child. And I have never seen you watch old holo-records of Cassian. He is at peace, you know.”
“And I’m not. Figures.”
“The Force works in mysterious ways. Sometimes, you see the same eyes in different faces.”
“Banthashit,” says K2 the Falcon.
Chirrut smiles, and fades away, because Rey is leaping aboard, her eyes bright with adventure and a smile on her face the size of the horizon. “Right K2,” she calls, “we’re off soon, got to go pick up some defectors on some smuggler’s moon -- you ready? Run systems checks?”
“Getting to it,” grumbles K2. “You’re so impatient.”
“Mangy old rustbucket.”
“Shut up pilot, and listen to your elders.”
Poe’s next aboard, zipping his flightsuit up. “He was the pilot,” he calls back over his shoulder, “he was the pilot, and he was amazing -- Bodhi Rook was one of the reasons I wanted to join the Resistance! He never gave up, never stopped fighting -- “
“--fought bad guys and looked good doing it,” says Finn, carrying BB-8 aboard, R2 at his heels, Chewie and Luke bringing up the rear.
“What are we waiting for?” Rey says. “Let’s go!”
“Rogue One, getting ready for take off ,” says K2, because this ship has been the Falcon for a long time, and maybe it is time for a change. It is never too late for a change.
“May the Force be with you,” says Luke. He’s talking to the ship, to the little ones around him, and to the ghosts who linger in the air around them.
And off they fly.