Another in my continued experiment with omniscient POV. Written for Caeser's Palace First Lines contest. I used the first line from Graham Greene's novel, The End of the Affair.
Not much else to say, except that this is unbetad so please please if you find any mistakes let me know.
There are Many Ways to Die, Bodhi Rook
A story has no beginning or end; arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back, or from which to look ahead.
Whether the unlikely reunion between a smuggler and his decaying starship, a break-neck pod race slingshotting a young boy into destiny, warships crashing across the Jakku dunes or a rogue mission to Scarif that ends in massacre and eighteen petabytes of hope, there is always the story that came before. There is always the story that will come after.
And somewhere, wedged between all these not-beginnings and non-endings, is the story of a conversation, the whole of which can be transcribed onto a single sheet of paper. Short, insignificant – yet the hinge on which the salvation of the entire galaxy pivots – and it begins when Galen Erso sits down across from an ensign cargo pilot, looks deep into those troubled eyes, and says:
"There are many ways to die, Bodhi Rook, and you can only choose one of them."
Bodhi Rook, who normally lacks nothing in the way of confidence, does not know how to respond. "Pardon me, sir?" It is not the first time Galen Erso, the engineering genius whose intellect, pedigree, and rank outclasses him in every way, who by no rights should know Bodhi's first name let alone what time he favors to take repast, has conversed with him in low, conspiratorial tones.
But it is the first time he has done so in the open, in an ocean of eyes and lenses. "What were you saying, sir?" The commissary is teeming that morning. No seat goes unoccupied. Steady waves of conversation drown the room as Bodhi flicks his eyes from right to left, left to right, his heart on the brink. "Are you talking to me, sir?"
No one is watching them. Yet. If Bodhi offers one of his silent and infrequent prayers that Galen will somehow atomize into the air, he is to be disappointed. The man remains perfectly tangible, smiling in that distantly sorrowful way as he removes his gloves, pulling at each finger individually.
"I'm sitting across from you," Galen says with unnerving calm. "I said your name." Weeks from now, when this conversation has eulogized into a glowing memory in Bodhi's mind, he will not recall his resentment, nor the nibbling distress when his superior lays his leather gloves, along with his Imperial crested hat, onto the table between them, settling into his seat with a look of intention. "To whom else would I be meaning to speak?"
Of course, Galen does not mean to be condescending, much less threatening. But that does nothing to quell the perspiration sprouting along Bodhi's hairline. "Could we not speak later, sir? There are many people here, and –"
He is cut off with a wave. "Let them see what they want, and conjecture what they will. I received word this morning that construction is nearing the final stages. There is little time left for discretion, and even less for indecision." For a few moments Galen's searing gaze removes from Bodhi and lingers on the monolith windows running the length of the outside wall. They stand from floor to ceiling, clean and crystal clear and with a deceiving look of fragility even as they endure the tireless beatings of Eadu's rains.
Galen's gaze flicks back. "Now, if you are quite finished with feigning formality and ignorance, then I shall repeat myself one more time –"
"There are many ways to die – yes, yes, I've heard it!" He rubs his eyes. It's been too long since his sleep was undisturbed. "You are forever speaking of death, Galen."
Galen smiles. "Of course I am. Have you forgotten that I am a master of death?" He taps his temple twice. "I plan it. I design it. I build it from the ground up for others to wield as they may." His voice, naturally feather soft, has lost all its blunt edges. Every word cuts with surgical precision. "Make no mistake, Bodhi. An engine of death is coming to this galaxy. It will kill, destroy, eradicate. It will spread like a plague, like storm without end, and there will be no escape for anyone."
The bile rises. Bodhi pushes away his plate of untouched food. "Spare me your horror stories." It has also been too long since he could stomach even a morsel. "I am no stranger to death."
"Do you think you are the only one living and breathing this war? Out here on this outer planet, tucked away in your laboratories and factories, you forget that death's been this galaxy's loyal companion for years."
Galen leans forward. "Who were they?"
"Who are who?"
"The people you buried."
Bodhi's jaw tightens. "They were no one."
No one who he knew personally. None that he might have called friend.
No one mourned in a weak moment, when his eyelids begin to droop or an idle thought strays too far – and suddenly he is there, knees toppling onto the baked earth of his home planet, blinking at the scorched, limp feet of his grandparents.
"Landmines," Ari explains. "No one expected the Partisans to lace them along the Shakala ruins."
He will not touch them. He can barely look at them, their flesh so warped and blackened as to be almost unrecognizable. But he identifies at once Ama's prized gold bangle, the one she never removed even while bathing or sleeping. It hangs limply around the singed skin of her wrist, the Kyber crystal pendant which she polished every evening long since stolen.
"These ruins are sacred," Bodhi chokes out. Sand sticks to his wet face. "They come here most mornings."
"So do many." But Bodhi does not have eyes for the mother weeping over a pile of smoldering children, the wandering children picking up pieces of their parents.
What he does see are the scattered corpses of the insurgents, the burning heaps of destroyed Imperial conveys that were no doubt the primary target.
"Saw Gerrera and his men have gone too far," Ari continues. "They are a worse plague than the Empire ever was." He spits on the ground.
The sun dips into night. The sky bleeds ash and soot. Bodhi takes root by their unmoving forms. Grey flecks film over his head and shoulders, covering him like a cloak of grief as memories fold over themselves in his mind.
"I'm leaving Jedha," were his last words to them. "I'm leaving behind the lost causes, all the ridiculous rituals!"
Ama didn't look up from the curry bubbling on the stove. "You say that every morning, Bodhi."
"This time I mean it!"
"You mean that every morning, Bodhi." She laughed, gave three vigorous stirs. "At least wait until tomorrow to run off forever. I'm making your favorite!"
"What a flair for the drama," Apa chimed in. "You could go on stage, be the next smash hit on the Coruscant Circus. Or you could do something sensible and become a Guardian of Whills, like Ari keeps talking about."
"I have better things to do with my life than babysit a glorified mine, Apa!"
"Oh?" Most of his grandfather's communication was done with his majestic eyebrows, and he lifted one now in amusement. "Such as… making bad bets? Coming in last in every illegal drag race, perhaps?" He chuckled over Bodhi's flushed face. "Do what you want. You are young, which must mean you have time to do everything. But remember this, my child: a millstone will not grind with the water that has past."
Of all his quirks, Bodhi hated his grandfather's proverbializing the most.
But Apa's cracked lips will never laugh over his follies again. They will never offer sage advice, or scold him for skipping out on his prayers.
Is this how I will die? As a stewed mixture of blood, ash, and tears? As collateral swept under the rugs of ideology? Bodhi stares at his stolen family, hate simmering in his breast.
But for who? Fate? The Force? The Rebels?
Bodhi chose all three, and enlisted in the Imperial army before the sand had settled over their graves.
One day, in the not so distant future, Bodhi will pilgrimage to the ancient cemeteries of Jedha.
He will seek out the man responsible for interring them into their graves and plead for his trust instead of spit in his face.
He will weep into the coarse, red sand that Jedha wraps round and round herself like a scarf. He will scoop it into his palms and let the fine grains coat his fingers, spectral scents rising from the earth, filling his nostrils with the herbs and spices that once mingled with laughter, perfuming their little mud-brick home with a fragrance never since recaptured.
He will whisper, "I'm sorry," for everything he has done, for everything he is going to do, because he finally understands that one way or another blood will be on his hands, and already has been for years.
But for now, this is happening:
Bodhi sits in a cold, plastic chair, in a cold, metallic cafeteria that looks as though it were conceived and crafted by a man who has lived his whole life inside the gears of a clock. Everything flows in a seamless, robotic fashion, the autopilot food conveyors, the tables locked in a perfect grid pattern, the systematic process for disposal and washing of trays, plates, cutlery, and any miscellaneous tableware.
"No one?" Galen asks.
For a moment Bodhi aches for jagged spires of sandstone, tangles of wild plants scratching his ankles, that chaotic kind of beauty born out of manless nature. "No one important."
"I see." Galen, of a rank who need not fetch anything for himself, raises his hand with a small wave. In short order a LEP droid lurches over and fills the empty hand with a steaming mug into which he inhales deeply. "Tea. My greatest friend in the universe." He takes a sip, tilts his mug in Bodhi's direction. "Would you like a cup?"
"I'm fine." He is used to the stale taste in his mouth, the frozen feel in his fingers. The delicate machinery housed in Eadu requires strict temperature control, and a constant airflow leaves the entire station in a perpetual frost.
Not that the hulking cargo freighters, where Bodhi spends the largest chunks of his current life, have any more vivacity. He wonders briefly how a man once so infused with heat and sunlight has come to lose any trace of both. When did the appeal of warmth begin to feel unnatural? His skin is paler. His heart is lethargic, a slow glacier unable to rouse out of the dull apathy that's lately been his modus operandi.
"Tea, I find, has a way of clearing the senses," Galen says. He leans back in his chair, eyes latched on the spinning ceiling fans bolted twenty feet over their heads, rotating his cup in his hands. "We used to grow our own leaves back on Lah'mu. They had sweet floral notes, but an earthy depth. I drank a cup every morning, then every evening while I read my daughter stories before bed." He looks back at Bodhi, one fingernail clinking the side of the ceramic mug. "Can I tell you a story?"
"Is it bedtime?"
He laughs and takes another sip. He seems almost pleased with the recalcitrance. "It's a story about you."
Bodhi stiffens. "What do you know about me?"
"Next to nothing. But more than enough." Two storm troopers plod by, suspending the conversation. A breathless two minutes pass before their clunking footfalls fade away and Galen leans forward again, peering into places within Bodhi he has long thought abandoned. "You see, this story isn't about your childhood, or even your service to the Empire. This is a story that hasn't happened yet. A story about your future. About a man who once watched the galaxy crumble, and when nothing remained but sorrow and debris, he wondered why he did nothing but watch."
Bodhi swallows. "You think you know so much? You think you know everything about me, and what I will feel when the Empire finally crushes the fools leading this violent rebellion?" His hands curl to tight fists in his lap. "You're just like them, Galen, thinking you can decide for others what they must do. Thinking the ends always justify the means. Thinking you're always right."
"Of course I'm right. And do you want to know why?"
"No. No, I don't want to know. All I want right now is for you get up, walk out of the commissary, and leave me in peace, for once!"
"I know, because I see the look in your eyes. It is one that I know well."
What look? Bodhi wishes now he had asked for the cup of tea, for some kind of barricade to shield him from Galen's prying gaze. "What look?"
"The look of someone who knows they must do something. The look of someone afraid to die."
"No." Bodhi shakes his head. He feels nauseous, despite the empty stomach. "I'm a soldier. I don't fear death."
And it's true. He does not fear death, because he refuses to acknowledge its ever-present shadow, the way it crouches at his door. For someone as young and reckless as Bodhi, death must be the great unspeakable of life.
So he never speaks of it.
He never thinks of it.
He has never thought of it since Ari's funeral.
Ari's funeral. Was it only three years ago? Bodhi can still see the sheen of the pristine battleship, hear the stirring eulogy echoing off of every polished surface. "Ari Linko was a remarkable pilot, with an unblemished service record. Hailing from the Jedha territory, he rated as Class One straight out of the service academy." For an ace starfighter such as Ari, no expense was spared. A full twenty-six salute, several squads of stormtroopers lined up in immaculate rows for that extra flair of dignity. Long, black tapestries emblazoned with the Imperial insignia hung from the steel ceiling, an embroidered flag draped across the empty casket. "He ranked in the top three for his class at flight school, with a record forty-two missions in which he shot down no less than twenty-eight rebel starfighters."
The bromides were plentiful that afternoon. But they had forgotten to mention the most important threads in Ari's life, the unique textures that made up the warp and woof of the man behind the accolades. His brassy laugh. The way his right eye turned in when he was tired.
Wasn't it Ari who had initiated the pact made so long ago? The three of them, Bodhi and Karina and Ari, the worn out natives determined to emancipate themselves from the shackles of their tiresome homeworld. They went round the village lanes, declaring to every beleaguered neighbor how they would one day, "leave Jedha forever and make something of ourselves!"
"And if we must die," Ari liked to say in his booming tenor, "then let us die as heroes, defending the Empire, instead of slaughtered as these rebels' sacrificial lambs!"
Bodhi followed his friend's rallying cries like a child after the piper. They led him into adventure, into mischief. Into the massive jaws of the Empire's service academy.
But not into the starfighter program. "I'm afraid your scores aren't up to snuff, Rook. But there's a pilot in you, yet. You'll never be a starfighter, but there are other kinds of ships worth flying."
He watched Ari and Karina soar into grandeur while he played the part of a deliveryman. And though at the time he had boiled with jealousy, enraged at his denial of vengeance, of the chance to die in a blazing spectacle, memorialized forever as an Imperial Hero, as he passed by his Ari's coffin to pay his final respects, he had only one thing to say:
"I'm glad it was you and not me."
In a few short hours, Bodhi will blast away from the roiling thunderclouds of Eadu. He will sit quietly in a solitary and darkened cockpit, and the problem that has tormented him since his commanding officer pinned him as an ensign into the Imperial Forces will suddenly make itself clear.
It is not what I have seen. It is not the unknown future, the promise of the Death Star or the dread of corpses piled up to the stratospheres.
The problem, he will realize, is what he has seen already. What his experiences traversing each and every corner of the galaxy, the pervasive reach of the Empire's long arms, have shown him to be true.
The terrible truth that gnaws away at Bodhi's conscience, that robs him of sleep and any pretense of appetite, is that the last time he saw Ari, before his friend's body had incinerated in the hollow vacuum of space, he had hardly recognized him.
And not because a land mine had torn off half his skin. Not because of the lustrous poise which often taints a man bathing in stardom and glory.
It is because the man who once held Bodhi as he wept over his grandparent's bodies, who challenged him to fight for an Empire that would breed unity, cauterize all the wounds of a disjointed Republic, was bent over a bleeding civilian, howling insults as he beat him again and again and again for disrespecting the great name of the Emperor!
Bodhi wanted to be shocked. He wanted to be disgusted, wretch in the street and demand why?
Instead, he did nothing. He felt nothing. Cargo pilots are not so much insignificant cogs as they are the oil which keeps the engine running. They are everywhere, and what Bodhi saw happening on the bustling street of Coruscant was the same as what he saw all the Empire over. In Corellia. In Ryloth. Geonosian, Beland, Calypsa, Deluuj –
Can anyone truly be severed from their roots, the soils which once nourished them? Everything in Bodhi's life circles around Jedha, like water around a drain, always to return to those dusty, red sands.
But at the moment, sitting mutely across from Galen Erso, Bodhi has not yet begun to unravel the turmoil tangled within himself.
In fact, he has only just come to understand a single revelation, which is that Galen Erso is absolutely, utterly, terrifyingly right.
Bodhi does fear death.
And he must do something.
"Do you really not fear death, Bodhi?"
Bodhi tosses aside the question. "Why did you enlist in the Imperial Forces, Galen?" He looks beyond Galen's shoulder, to the buffeted windows, his eyes glassy and full.
"I imagine much for the same reasons you did."
"Then there was a time you also believed in the work the Empire is doing. That their purposes were good."
Galen nods. "Uniting the galaxy."
"A single, galactic order that could put an end to all wars, all battles, all the senseless casualties."
"But not all death."
"No." Tears fall. They stagger through his stubble, drip like regret off his chin. "Death is inevitable. No one escapes."
"Then you finally understand? Why I am here, why you are here, and why you must make a decision? You finally understand how many lives are at stake?"
How many? What a haunting question. Could he count the stars? The grains of sand on Jedha? A dawning conscience awakens inside, makes him wonder if the question is not truly how many but how many more?
"I understand." Bodhi wipes his eyes. "I should have done more to stop them, Galen. I should have tried to stop them years ago." Because more than anyone, those of Jedha know exactly what the Kyber are capable of.
Outside, the endemic cloud cover of Eadu breaks in half. Abrupt sunlight pours into the commons, a herd of feet trailing to the windows amid a wave of awed murmurs. "The sky! The sky!"
A lull in the storm, like the day Karina died. Bodhi wasn't there, of course, because the Empire does not require attendance at executions. But he can imagine her end, the stark contrast it must have been to the fanfare of Ari's departure. He can hear the charges laid out against her – for crimes of treason, theft, and conspiring against the Empire! – and wonders when her final push came, who her Galen Erso was.
He pictures the blade falling across her neck, and lightning strikes his heart, conviction rattling his bones.
Bodhi Rook makes his choice.
"This is how I will die."
Galen cocks his head. "How?"
"As a traitor."
The millstone cannot grind with the water that is past.
Bodhi stands. "What do I have to do, Galen?"
A story has no beginning and no end, and neither does this one.
Because after Bodhi rose from his chair, he died.
But before the grenade exploded, before Bodhi ignited, his flesh vaporized into a cloud of ash, his molecules infusing into the moist sands of Scarif; before he languished in Saw Gerrera's prison cell or flew off on a renegade quest with a band of strangers who would shape the course of the war, Bodhi walked out of the Eadu station commissary with a stolen hard drive, climbed into his cargo ship, and set a course for Jedha.
There are many ways to die, Bodhi Rook. And he thought he'd made his decision.
But there was another way. Another way to die that he had not considered. Not as collateral. Not as a hero.
Not as a traitor, because even traitors have names.
Here is how Bodhi Rook died:
On a planet far from home. Surrounded by people he did not know and who did not know him. As a puff of dust, a deep scar across a forsaken landscape, a cargo pilot with a message whose name no one knows, whose face no one will remember, whose memory will be lost to the greater stories of the age, seared to nothing under the terrible power of a death ray he strived so desperately to destroy.
And though he knew that this was not how he had chosen to die – homeless, nameless, and forgotten – he pressed the button anyway.
"This is for you, Galen."