Poe saw the saber come to life. Saw it start to describe its lethal arc. Time seemed to slow as he watched it descend. Thoughts raced through his mind, half crazed, wholly powerless. He heard himself yelling, sensed himself raising his blaster and firing. Too late, too slow, he told himself despondently even as he continued to fire.
Perceiving the threat, Kylo Ren reacted immediately. A hand rose sharply, palm facing toward the unknown assailant. The gesture was merely the physical manifestation of something infinitely more powerful and entirely unseen. It intercepted the discharge from the pilot’s weapon, freezing it in midair as effectively as any solid barrier. From behind the mask, eyes of preternatural intensity tracked the attack to its source.
Initially driven by pure rage, Poe now found that he could not move. His heart pounded, his lungs heaved, but his voluntary muscles refused to respond. He was paralyzed as effectively as the blast from his blaster.
A pair of stormtroopers took hold of him and dragged him for- ward until he stood helpless before the impassive Ren. Had they not held on to him, Poe would simply have fallen over. He attempted bravado even so. “Who talks first?” Poe asked, making his voice light. “Do you talk first? Do I talk first?”
Having deactivated his lightsaber and returned it to his belt, Lor San Tekka’s murderer casually scrutinized the prisoner. Poe’s nerves twanged as feeling slowly began to return to his arms and legs. Ren’s gaze settled on the details of the pilot’s clothing.
“A Resistance pilot, by the looks of him.” He nodded curtly. “Search him. Thoroughly.”
One of the troopers who had dragged Poe forward commenced a detailed and none too gentle pat down. Pulling a small device from his service belt, the other trooper slowly passed it the length of the prisoner’s body, beginning at the pilot’s head and ending at his feet. The examination did not take long.
“Nothing,” declared the first stormtrooper, standing at attention. Poe winked up at the trooper who had used his hands. “Good job.”
Forgetting himself for a moment, the goaded trooper kicked the prisoner’s legs out from under him. Poe went down hard on his knees, still defiant.
The other trooper gestured with the handheld instrument. “Same here, sir. Internally, this one is clean. Nothing but the expected food residue.” He didn’t hesitate. “Terminate him?”
Kylo Ren did not let his disappointment show. At such times momentary delays were not unexpected. All would be satisfactorily resolved, in good time.
“No. Keep him.” A brief pause, then, “Intact and functioning.”
Plainly disappointed, the two troopers dragged Poe away. Ren watched them for a moment, contemplating possibilities. Later
, he told himself. For now, there were other details to attend to. He allowed his thoughts to be briefly diverted, regretting the time that had been wasting in dealing with necessary inconsequentialities.
Awaiting his pleasure, the senior officer in overall charge of the special squadrons drew herself up at his approach, her black cape of rank hanging loose around her. It stood in startling contrast to her armor, which even in the poor light shone like polished silver.
“Your orders, sir?” she murmured.
Kylo Ren surveyed his blazing surroundings. He had already spent too much time here, to only partial satisfaction. He disliked such delays.
“Kill them all, Captain Phasma, and search the village. Every building, every possible storage facility and place of concealment. When your troops have razed it to the ground, search the ground. Scanners, perceptors. You know what to look for.”
A single nod and she turned. A line of troopers stood before the assembled surviving villagers. “On my command!” Weapons were raised. The reactions of the villagers were typical. Some stepped forward, insolent to the last. Others fell to their knees. There was whimpering and crying and shouts of defiance. None of it lasted very long. “Fire!”
It wasn’t a massacre. In the lexicon of the First Order it was nothing more than a prescribed chastisement. Appropriate retribution for harboring a fugitive of note. It was the nature of the tutorial that was important, not the numbers involved. It took less than a minute.
When it was over, and the only sounds were methodical chatter among the troopers mixed with a variety of unholy crackling, they dispersed to carry out a final survey and scan of the debris—inorganic and otherwise. Standing by himself, one trooper with a bloody face mask was startled when a hand came down on his shoulder. Though the hand belonged to a comrade, the first trooper did not relax.
“Notice you didn’t fire. Blaster jam?”
Automatically, the trooper being questioned nodded in response. His comrade gestured knowingly and clapped him on the shoulder. “Turn it in when we get back to base. Let the tech boys deal with it and get yourself a new one.”
“Thanks. I will.”
No sooner had his helpful colleague departed to rejoin his own unit than the trooper found himself gaping at the tall, dark-clad figure striding purposefully toward the singular shuttle that had set down in the midst of battle. Though he willed himself to move, to turn away, he found he could not. He remained rooted in place, clutching his unfired weapon, staring despite himself.
And in response, the figure of Kylo Ren turned and looked sideways, directly at the soldier. The trooper saw only light reflecting off a mask, and his own fear. He knows. He must know. And I’m . . . dead
But he wasn’t. The glance lasted barely a second. Then Ren resumed his pace, deep in thought as he strode toward the shuttle. In the course of returning to his ship he passed a blaster lying on the ground. It was Poe’s, the one that had come within an arm’s length of killing him. Once he was beyond its reach he touched it—but not with his hands. It rose, seemingly of its own accord, and flew free, smashing into a nearby structure and scaring the wits out of an idling stormtrooper unfortunate enough to be standing nearby.
The purification of the village extended to its outskirts, where a clutch of troopers had just finished searching the damaged X-wing that had been abandoned there. Having done all they could with the tools and equipment at hand, they prepared to return to their units. Specialized gear could have reduced the Resistance fighter to its component parts, but that was not how they had been ordered to proceed.
“Nothing there,” declared the last of the quartet as he descended from the fighter’s cockpit. “The usual Resistance trash; that’s all. Deep scan shows nothing in the fuselage or elsewhere.”
As soon as he was safely out of range, his companions activated the pair of heavy weapons they had brought to bear on the hiding place. A couple of bursts was all it took to reduce both ship and outcropping to rubble.
The sound of the exploding X-wing reverberated across the gravel flats and dunes. Far away now, a solitary spherical droid looked back even as it continued to flee. The fireball that rose into the sky suggested the detonation of something far more volatile than primitive buildings and scrapped mechanicals. If he could have rolled faster, the frightened droid would have done so.
Contrary to much popular thought, desert worlds are not quiet at night. In the absence of light, an entirely different ecology springs to life. Moving with greater caution, BB-8 tried not to pause at each howl, every meep
, the sounds of clawed feet scraping against bare rock. There were things in the vacant, wild regions of underdeveloped planets that would gladly take apart a solitary droid just to see what made it tick. Or roll, he knew. His internal gyros threatened to send him tumbling wildly at the very thought of such an encounter.
Droids such as him were not meant for unpopulated places, and he desperately desired to find others like himself. Or, failing that, even people.
The shackles that Poe had worn on the troop transport were removed as soon as he and his captors disembarked. Aboard the Star Destroyer, there was no reason to physically restrain the prisoner. Apparently enjoying themselves, or perhaps merely impatient to get out of their armor, his escort chivvied him along with what he considered to be unnecessary roughness. Not that stormtroopers of any ilk were noted for their individual diplomacy. Considering whom he had tried to shoot, he knew he ought to consider himself fortunate that they had brought him aboard still attached to all his important appendages.
A physical state of being, he knew, that could be altered at any moment.
On the other side of the enormous and impressive receiving bay, other troopers were filing out, grateful that more of their number had not been lost on the expedition and looking forward to some rest and food. Intent on reliving the battle below, they paid no attention to one of their own who fell behind. When he was convinced no one was looking at him, the trooper turned and raced back into the open transport. He removed his helmet and proceeded to void the contents of his stomach into the nearest refuse receptacle. The terror in his expression was palpable. Fortunately, there was no one there to witness his disgrace.
There was, however, now someone behind him.
Terror gave way to cold fear as he found himself gazing back at Captain Phasma. How much had the senior officer seen? How much did she know? Too much, as it turned out.
Aloof yet commanding, she indicated the rifle he still carried. “FN-2187. I understand you experienced some difficulty with your weapon. Please be so good as to submit it for inspection by your division’s technical team.”
“Yes, Captain.” How he managed to reply without stammering he did not know. Instinct as opposed to training, he decided. Self- preservation.
“And who gave you permission to remove that helmet?”
He swallowed hard. “I’m sorry, Captain.”
He could feel her disgust as he struggled to put the helmet back over his head.
“Report to my division at once,” Phasma said. Worse, he knew miserably, was likely to come later.
Copyright © 2016 by Lucasfilm Ltd.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.