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Tactical Surrender

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            This was a village, only ten minutes ago.

            It wasn’t a particularly noteworthy village. It had been mapped, like many villages on many different planets, and that was all. No need for anything more. Only a small fishing community home to a peaceful race of bipedal feline humanoids, ones who had long ago forgotten the uses their ancestors had for teeth and claws. They lived in harmony with the nearby ocean, in homes of clay with roofs of packed mud and thatched straw. Every morning they would set out in their boats; every evening they would return with the day’s catch, which they’d set aside or trade with other neighboring villages.

            No, this was a simple place, situated in the Outer Rim, overlooked in the most recent decades of galactic conflict. After all, there were no resources here that the Empire or the First Order couldn’t find elsewhere, in greater quantity and convenience. And so the people led easy lives, untouched by war, although the stories reached them here as they did everywhere: stories of white-clad soldiers, of battleships, of resistance, of Jedi knights. The tale of Luke Skywalker’s last stand against an army, and of his successor, a girl who could move the earth itself, had found even this quiet place.

            This was a village. Now, it burns.

            Most of the villagers had already fled their homes when the TIE fighters started screaming across the night sky. But in the shadow of one of the larger huts, its roof aflame, stand three figures clustered together. Shi'illa and her son Taylin, both lifelong inhabitants of this burning village, alternate between gawking at the TIEs and looking at their home as it crumples from the damage. This is all they have ever known.

            Rey, the woman they say can move the earth, waits for the TIEs to pass overhead. Six of them. Six is overkill for a defenseless place like this. But they’re not here for the villagers. “All right,” she says. “Let’s move. Come on now.”

            As the TIE fighters circle around for another approach, Rey darts across to the cover of the next large hut, drawing away from the beach and toward the ravine that cuts into the hills to the east. It’s slow going. Shi'illa, whose left leg was burned when the roof caved in, limps, and Taylin has to help her across to the hut with his shoulder under her arm. He’s in early adolescence, about twelve or thirteen if this race has the same lifespan as humans, with light gray fur and yellow eyes. His ears lay flat against his head. Rey imagines the noise must be overwhelming. She’s almost desensitized to it by now.

            They only barely make it to the next shadow when the TIEs dive back, indiscriminately peppering the village with laser cannon fire. One of the blasts hits a little too close and sprays the group with rocks and dirt. Rey pulls her cloak up over her face to shield herself from it.

            Once the TIEs speed off into the distance to swing around again, Rey urges them to the shadow of another hut. Closer, closer. She can see the lip of the ravine now, where the earth starts sloping downward between two rocky walls, but there’s a lot of open space to traverse between them and it, and very little in the way coverage. Shi'illa follows Rey’s gaze, clearly thinking the same thing.

            “You’ll never get there with me,” she says to Rey.

            Taylin, who still has a supportive arm around Shi'illa, looks up at her, horrified. “Mom!”

            “We aren’t leaving you,” Rey says firmly. Only half an hour ago, she’d sat with them in their home, drinking the warm, sweet nectar beverage they had offered her as she explained who she was, what had brought her there, and the potential she felt in Taylin, potential she could help him explore if he wanted to go with her and learn. She always gives them a choice. She thinks it important that they get to say no, even though few do.

            And now, because she came here, that home is destroyed.

            Shi'illa shakes her head. “There’s an alternate passage just over that hill,” she says. “I’ll make it to the rest of my people.”

            “It’s not safe for you here. Come with us to the Resistance, to—”

            “It won’t be safe for either of you if I’m slowing you down,” Shi'illa says fiercely. “What matters most to me is the safety of my son.” She smooths the fur on the crown of Taylin’s head, then looks up at Rey. “Rey. Promise me you’ll keep him safe.”

            “Mom,” Taylin says again, more urgently. His large, shiny eyes reflect the firelight. “Please.”

            Shi'illa bends down and presses her nose to his forehead. “My beautiful boy,” she says, so softly that Rey can barely hear. “I always knew you would do great things. It’s all right. Go with Rey.”

            The TIE fighters swing around for another pass, but none of their fire comes anywhere near them, this time. Next time they might not be so lucky. Time is running out. Taylin sniffs, and he nods. “Okay, Mom.” His voice wavers. “Okay. I love you.”

            “I love you so much, my son.” Shi'illa strokes her hand down the back of his head, then looks at Rey. “Promise me.”

            “I promise,” Rey says. Her chest aches, but she pushes it down. Too much loss, too much sacrifice, too much destruction. But now is not the time to dwell.  “He’ll be safe with us.”

            Shi'illa nods. “I see you, and I believe you.”

            Rey looks across to the ravine again. If she can’t take Shi'illa with, maybe she can give her some cover, so she can reach wherever the rest of her people chose as an evacuation point. “Taylin, Shi'illa,” she says. “On my mark, both of you run as fast as you can. Taylin, run to the ravine trail. Shi'illa, the hill. The passage you mentioned.”

            Taylin looks at her. “What are you going to do?”

            “I’ll be right behind you, but don’t look back until you’re safe.”

            He nods and turns around, crouching, ready to spring and sprint. The ravine begins as a relatively shallow crack. There’s space enough for one person across, and if he ducks down he’ll make too small a target for the TIEs to get a bead on. She just has to give him the time.

            “On my mark,” she says again. “Three, two, one— now!”

            Taylin takes off for the ravine, and Shi'illa begins moving as quickly as she can toward the hill, now on all fours. Rey runs after Taylin, out of the cover of the hut, then whirls around and faces the TIEs as they turn for another attack run. She draws her lightsaber and ignites it, a fierce bright line against the darkened landscape. And she stands her ground.

            “Come on!” she calls, knowing they can’t hear. “You want me? I’m here!”

            They take the bait. Two swoop in, focusing their fire on her, and a few of their bolts nearly hit her. Rey swings her lightsaber in an arc overhead and calls the Force to her aid. In an instant, she erects a protective shell around herself. It strains but holds as it absorbs the massive force of the blast, making the air blur as heat reflects off the domed surface, like a mirage. She holds out a hand and slows two other bolts, leaving them pulsing in midair, crackling with static as they continue their decelerated approach. This is a trick that she pulled straight from the mind of its master when he tried to wrench secrets out of her years ago.

            But Rey has improved it. She holds the bolts still for a second, gritting her teeth with the effort, then coaxes the Force to redirect their energy, sending them straight back up as the TIEs pass overhead. One bolt misses the mark entirely, but the other slices through a wing and sends the TIE spiraling out of control past the ravine. She watches the small dark shape of the pilot eject before the starfighter crashes in a fiery blaze on the horizon.

            She senses Taylin crouching behind her, already in the safety of the ravine, and risks a quick glance to her left to see Shi'illa vanish down the hillside. Good. They made it. They both made it.

            No one needs to die today. Not because of her.

            Rey powers down her lightsaber and releases her Force shield with a grunt, sprinting for the ravine as the other TIE fighters pull up on her, flanking her. She moves quickly, and with her dark gray cloak in the black of night she makes a very difficult target to strike. Just a few feet from the ravine’s edge, where Taylin waits for her, she slips, falling onto her side, but she reaches for the Force to balance herself. And she finds it again, just waiting for her. It propels her, keeps her moving, sliding across the dirt until she’s safely out of range, covered from more fire by a craggy shelf of earth.

            Taylin moves back, giving her space as she slides in. He looks at her with wide eyes. “Woah,” he says. “Am I going to learn how to do that? With the—” He makes a noise deep in his throat, a pseudo-growl, imitating the hum of the lightsaber.

            Rey gives him a little smile, her body coursing with adrenaline. “Maybe someday,” she says. “But I hope you’ll never have to make use of it. Now, come on. Your mother’s safe, and we still have a ways to go.”

            Taylin jerks his head in a nod, and they continue on, running along the floor of the ravine as it deepens, widens. He knows the land better than Rey does, and moves faster; she waves him ahead whenever he pauses and looks behind, waiting for her to catch up. The ravine is narrower at the top than it is at the bottom, and Rey can hear the TIE fighters racing above, and the horrendous sounds of laser cannons firing, attempting to get a shot in at them. None of the blasts strike anywhere near them on the ravine floor, but one breaks off a chunk of rock and sends it ricocheting down the walls.

            Taylin and Rey both recoil, and Taylin, still in front, holds up a hand in front of his face to protect himself. The rock stops, frozen in midair. Taylin stares at it, and then he whoops, overcome with excitement. He exclaims something in his native tongue, then says, “I’ve never done that to something this big before!”

            Rey makes a swatting motion, using the Force to push the rock aside and shatter it harmlessly against the ravine wall. “You felt that,” she says, continuing to jog forward behind him. “That energy flowing through you, through the rock, through the air between you and the rock? That was the Force.”

            “That was the Force? How does it work?”

            “I’m not going to talk your ear off now,” says Rey, finding space in the moment to be a little amused. “You’ll be sick of hearing me go on and on about the Force soon enough. The Falcon’s just around the bend, see that light?”

            They scramble over a few more rocks and pieces of debris. Up ahead, the familiar, welcoming shape of the Millennium Falcon, the closest thing Rey has ever had to a home, waits for them, parked but running. It only just fits between the ravine walls. The ramp is down, and Chewbacca stands alert in front of it. As soon as he sees them, he roars, waves his big, furry arms, and goes inside to prepare for a quick departure. Rey looks up at the narrow strip of sky she can see, clear but for the occasional TIE silhouettes passing above.

            She guides Taylin onboard and into the cockpit. “Chewie, Taylin,” she says, by way of introduction. “Taylin, Chewie. Taylin, strap into the copilot’s seat. Chewie’s going to have to do some fancy flying to get us out of here in one piece.”

            Taylin obeys, buckling himself in wordlessly. Chewie barks a question at Rey.

            “No, his mother’s— staying here. I’ll take the gunner position. There are five TIE fighters out there and they have visual confirmation that I’m on this planet, that means company can’t be far behind.”

            Chewie growls acknowledgment, and Rey sprints down the hall, passing R2-D2 on the way. She briefly touches Artoo’s domed top for luck, tells it, too, to get secure, then climbs down into the gunner’s seat of the ventral quad laser cannons. Once she has her headset on, she says, “Right, Chewie. Let’s go.”

            The Falcon’s engines thrum and it rises up ten feet off the ground, hovering in place for a few moments, kicking up dust. Then, abruptly, the ship turns fully sideways and begins speeding through the ravine. She hears Taylin gasp over her headset and wonders if he’s ever even been in a spaceship before. If not, he’s in for a hell of a ride.

            The blue glow of the Falcon’s thrust vector plates catches the attention of the TIE fighters still dancing above, and Rey can see more and more rock crashing down the sides of the ravine as they try to get a shot in edgewise at the ship. She’s been flying with Chewie for years now, and she knows that he’s going to keep them under cover until the last possible moment. She keeps her thumbs on the triggers, takes a deep breath, and waits.

            The Falcon scrapes up against the walls of the narrowing ravine once, twice, and then it bursts through the surface in a shower of sandstone, the TIEs falling into line behind it. A mistake: Rey is able to pick the first one off easily with a cannon blast. It explodes in the air, and Taylin whoops. “Yeah, Rey! Yeah!”

            “We’ve still got four,” she says, but she smiles. “Chewie, can we draw them away from the village?”

            Another vocalization of acknowledgement from Chewbacca, and he continues speeding up away from the beach, swerving to avoid blasts from the TIE fighters. Rey returns fire at every opportunity, but the TIEs keep moving back and forth, breaking formation then coming together, and she gets the uneasy sense that they’ve studied the Falcon and they know how it moves, how she shoots. She and Chewie have picked off more TIEs than this before with ease.

            She’s shaken from that thought when a laser blast strikes the Falcon‘s deflector shields, rocking the ship. Chewie yowls. “Well, there were six earlier!” Rey calls back. “I know we’ve been a pain in their backsides, but is this really such a—” She pauses to let off a few more rounds of cannon fire, scattering the TIEs as they dart away to avoid being hit. “—a good use of their time and energy?”

            Chewie grumbles agreement, then abruptly reverses course into the path Rey cleared between the fighters, which are forced to jolt out of the way of the oncoming ship. In their haste, one of them clips the other, and the second TIE careens straight into a third. The two TIEs explode in a shower of glass and metal, and this time it’s Rey who whoops happily as Taylin cheers.

            “That was incredible, Chewie!” She keeps an eyes on the two regrouping TIEs as the Falcon speeds toward the planet’s upper atmosphere, but looks up for just a moment, on instinct. Then stares. “Oh no,” she says. “Tell me you’re not seeing that.”

            Chewie replies. He does indeed see the two—two!—Resurgent-class Star Destroyers hovering in orbit, and he’s not happy.

            “I know,” says Rey, who isn’t happy either. She fires off a couple more blasts at the TIEs, keeps them on their toes. “We might have to forget about these starfighters. They can’t make the jump to lightspeed anyway. Do you think you can stay clear of the—”

            She stops, her breath catching in her throat. Her back tingles. She lets out a short, sharp exhale, and someone else does the same, someone not so far away, someone standing on the bridge of one of those Star Destroyers, looking out at the Falcon.

            Rey turns her head. He does too. And she knows, somehow, that although there are miles between them, they are looking straight at each other for the first time since the day she closed the Falcon’s door in his face.

            This is the closest they’ve been in three years.

            “Chewie,” Rey says, her voice low. “Punch it.”

            Chewie accelerates away from the Star Destroyers, but not far enough. Not fast enough. Rey feels every hair on her body standing on end. He’s watching her, she knows. He’s watching her leave, again.

            A rumble from Chewie. In the distance, she can see more TIE fighters zipping out of the hangar bays of both Star Destroyers, joining the chase for the Falcon. They’re far off yet, but if they have the chance to catch up they’ll—no, they won’t shoot to kill. She knows that, although she doesn’t want to think about how. They might damage the Falcon, batter its shields, but they’ll leave it in flying condition. They have to. Their orders are to herd it within range of a Star Destroyer’s tractor beam.

            “Do whatever you have to!” There’s a note of alarm in her voice that she hadn’t expected. She swallows it down. “Just get us into hyperspace. We have to get the kid out of here. I made a promise.”

            Rey presses down on the triggers, firing blast after blast at the trailing TIEs, and she nails one in a direct hit but her other shots are wild, wide. It doesn’t matter. The Falcon is quickly outstripping them regardless. She closes her eyes, but she can still feel his gaze on her. He’s grown stronger since they last faced each other. She has, too.

            “Get out of my head,” she growls. “Get out of my head.”

            She can feel him formulating a reply, but she never hears it. Chewbacca finally makes the jump to hyperspace, severing their connection abruptly. The starry expanse around the Falcon blurs to white, and Rey slumps back in the gunner’s seat, gasping as though she just breached the surface of a vast, dark ocean.

            A few minutes later, Rey climbs back up to the Falcon’s main deck, then walks to the cockpit where Chewie and Taylin sit. She nods at Chewie, then puts a hand on the boy’s shoulder and squeezes. “Thank you, Taylin,” she says softly. “You did so well, and you were so brave.”

            Taylin nods, mutely. The thrill of the chase is wearing off of him now. He looks out at the whirl of colors, blue and white and purple, streaming past the ship. There will be two hyperspace jumps, the first to an empty quadrant, to make sure they haven’t been tracked—new protocol, although it’s very difficult to track a craft of the Falcon’s small size through hyperspace—and the second to their final destination. This boy’s new home, for however long.

            “My mom,” he says at last, voice croaky.

            Rey exhales. She can see it in her mind, as clearly as if she were there. The shuttle settling on the beach, its ramp lowering with a sickening hiss. Then the sea mist dampening his black cloak, the waves lapping at the heels of his boots as they leave distinct prints in the wet sand. His hair whips across his face, blown by the western winds, obscuring his eyes and part of the scar she gave him as he crouches down to examine the tracks the villagers left behind as they fled. A stampede. Footprints marking a trail as obvious as the moons in the sky above.

            Down the beach and slightly to the east, the caves. They're deep, with winding tunnels, many of which are dead ends, some of which lead out into the ravine. One of these tunnels leads down, down, under the earth to a yawning cavern toothy with stalactites. And it’s here, by a clear pool that glows green from bioluminescent algae, that the villagers huddle together waiting for the threat to pass, as they have many times before. But the only threats in recent memory have been the hurricanes that blow in with the winter. The Supreme Leader of the First Order is a force of nature unto himself, a storm that these people have no frame of reference for and no ability to weather.

            She can see it, though she doesn’t know if it will play out this way. Just one of many possible futures. Just one, where he leads twenty Stormtroopers down the right tunnel, sensing life at the end of it. One where the villagers cluster behind a dozen or so men and women armed with rusted old blasters, no match for the Stormtroopers’ high-tech FD-11 blaster rifles and specialized armor. Shi'illa is in the back, hidden by her neighbors, but not for long. Her face is taut with worry, for her son, and with fear, fear of what is to come, for herself and for the rest of them.

            Kylo Ren stalks to the front of the line of Stormtroopers, who have their blaster rifles trained on their targets and await the command to fire. He raises one outstretched hand, reaching as if to extract from the villagers all he desires to know.

            And he says, simply, “Tell me where they went.”

            They won’t, of course. They don’t know. And when it becomes clear they don’t know, he’ll have no use for them. That beautiful cavern will become a mass grave. And Rey can’t stop it. She can’t save them.

            Just one, one of many possible futures. But not an unlikely one.

            “I’m sorry,” she says. “I don’t know.”

            Rey turns away and walks out of the cockpit, past Artoo, who beeps at her inquisitively. She doesn’t respond, too deep in thought. This can’t continue on the way it has. Something has to change, and he won’t.

            He won’t.

            That leaves only one other option.