Trooper FN-2187 eyed his reflection in the polished steel plates that overlapped on the building's exterior. Pauldrons symmetrical, helmet aligned, chest plate a shining white beacon of propriety - he glanced down at his boots again, anxiously checking that his five minutes' with a handful of leaves had indeed removed every last splash of mud from the speeder ride.
The clock in the corner of his visor display flickered orange in a one minute warning.
"Trooper FN-2187 reporting for duty," he muttered. No, too bland. "By the authority of the First Order, I submit myself for your inspection." Way too much. "Captain Tury?" . At least that saved him from introducing himself to the wrong person. And made him sound incapable of reading rank insignia.
The clock digits were shading to red. Postings like this didn't come along every day. FN-2187 was all too aware of how hard he'd had to fight for even this chance, to even find out that this planet existed. He could have had his pick of standard trooper jobs after he graduated top of his class, but from the moment he’d heard the first rumour of a secret base, he’d known he had to get here, whatever it took. Being late had to be worse than being inarticulate. FN-2187 took a deep breath, stamped his feet, and tapped the door release.
A smell rolled out of the open door like a storm wave, intrusive and unavoidable, the stench of fermented and rotting things cut with acrid stings of bleach and ammonia. FN-2187 choked. Eyes watering, he activated his nasal filters and forced himself to step forward.
At least it was warm. Everything else inside the cavernous structure was far less appealing than the snowy wastes outside. Gigantic thick pools of substances that heaved and glopped, while scurrying droids and a handful of grimy humanoid figures wrestled with various noisy and incomprehensible bits of machinery, plunging them into and out of the liquids in mystifying patterns.
And the smell - according to all the readouts his filters were working, but it still felt as if something had crawled into his nose and died.
One of the droids at the edge of the nearest pool let out a flurry of beeps. The figure next to it, hip-deep in something FN-2187 didn't want to think too much about, turned to look over at the doorway. They were wearing the kind of helmet issued to troopers unfortunate enough to be stationed on toxic swamp planets. The rank insignia – FN-2187 squinted, trying to make it out.
The figure reached up, unhooked a bundle from the machinery overhead and flung it at FN-2187, who caught it instinctively. A loose flap of cloth detached itself on impact, hitting FN-2187's chest with a moist slap and oozing slime onto his armour. The rest of the bundle, when unravelled, contained a pair of gauntlets, a toxic swamp helmet of his very own, and a small pouch - FN-2187 held it up. Nasal filters, and not the standard issue ones.
"Thanks!" he said, and then remembered protocol. "Uh, Trooper FN-2187 reporting -"
"New garbage guy." The figure's swamp helmet gave her voice a metallic timbre. "Get in here. Someone thought it would be a good idea to route the drainage from the erkinite processors through the inlet for the decontamination ponds, and it's screwed the pH balance for this entire segment. Someone else decided to fix it by dumping in a destroyer-load of bondium carbonate and now every second filter in this place is blocked tight with precipitate."
FN-2187 took a step forward to the edge of the pool. A problem. Right. Hopefully no-one would ask him to explain what any of that meant. He eyed the liquid cautiously. Maybe she wanted him to take a message somewhere. Riding speeders through frozen wastes seemed like a great option right now.
"Get in here and hold this."
With a last internal farewell to his pristine armour, FN-2187 pulled on the gauntlets and stepped into the pool, trying not to cringe. New garbage guy, reporting for duty.
"The captain has been very helpful," FN-2187 said. And had fewer interpersonal skills than a scrubbing droid, but he supposed that didn't matter. What was odd was only having one person to talk to. Most of the people there were long-timers, experts; each of them had a trooper assigned, but bar major disasters such as the one he’d walked in on they were all over the planet and he rarely saw them; droids handled most of the day-to-day work. As someone who’d spent his whole life as part of a unit, it – well, it took some getting used to. He cautiously expressed this to the psytech, who tapped some more. FN-2187 hoped he was picking up on the "I am a great person for this post but I would be even better in something with less decomposition, more people and ideally more shooting" subtext.
After the psytech he took his third shower since coming off-shift, scrubbing his nails vigorously and tipping his head back to let the water run inside his nostrils before snorting it out – at least being on a snow planet meant you didn’t have to put up with sonic showers – and, once dried and dressed, headed to the gym. He made himself complete a full circuit of the weights and exercise machines before padding up the stairs to the simulator rooms, but despite the workout he was almost bouncing with excitement as he stood inside the painted circle, armour on and weapons equipped, waiting for the grey walls to fade out of existence.
He’d put his name down for any teams looking for an additional member before going into the target sim, and when the targets faded away his heads-up display flashed an alert, offering him a place in a four-trooper low-grav boarding mission. FN-2187 sent a quick acceptance and trotted back down the stairs to grab something to eat before start time.
Low grav turned out to be variable grav, something FN-2187 had minimal experience with - mostly gravity training for cadets was done after they were assigned to a ship, as the processing power for the sims to achieve this planet-bound was far too much to expend on cadets, and what he had done had been glitchy, unrealistic. Obviously such considerations didn’t apply in the heart of the First Order. The sim had a bunch of rebels sabotaging the stabilisers on a civilian orbital, causing wild fluctuations that had FN-2187 skidding along floors that abruptly turned into ceilings while dodging laser bolts and debris, and the experience was realistic enough to have him regretting his snack. .
The other troopers – two EXs and an RT – gave him a few muttered pointers in between attacks, none of which were of any use when the last stabiliser finally went up with a percussive thump and FN-2187 was left hanging in midair in an access tunnel, spinning in a slow cartwheel. He grabbed at the air for traction, twisting wildly, and then something hit him from behind between his shoulderblades and all his displays flashed blinding red before powering off.
“Oh man,” FN-2187 said. One of the EXs gave him a sympathetic wave, and then FN-2187’s visor blanked out, leaving him waiting for the others to finish. FN-2187 glared at the darkness. He hadn't been killed in a sim since second year. So much for making a good impression.
But the other troopers still invited him to the canteen with them when he would have slipped away, and after a few digs about his "death" - the sort FN-2187 would have given, if the positions were reversed - they talked more about the sim itself and possible tactics. FN-2187 was drawn into the conversation.
The RT had some influence with the canteen staff, and eventually managed to extract a round of Restian thunderbellies, in tiny thimble-sized glasses to keep within regulations. FN-2187 tipped his back, feeling the burn cascade down his throat and into his stomach.
“You’re new,” EX-6773, the more senior of the two EXs, said, putting her own glass down. “Family or politics?”
FN-2187 wasn't used to thinking about his family, and he didn't think of himself as particularly political. “Family or politics what?”
“You don't get to this base without connections,” EX-6773 said. “What are yours?"
"All assignments and promotions within the First Order are, of course, purely done on merit," the other EX, 5497, put in. Which was what FN-2187 had been about to say, but now it would have just sounded suspicious.
"Neither," he said.
EX-6773 raised one eyebrow. “Neither? Where are you assigned?"
Well, at least that should prevent any suggestions of favouritism. "Sanitation," said FN-2187.
The other EX laughed outright. EX-6773 sniffed deliberately, nostrils flaring, and then sniffed again. FN-2187 waited them both out.
"Thanks for the sim," he said, when they stopped, and pushed his chair back. The RT held up his hand.
"No, wait," he said. "You got here, anyway. And you weren't completely hopeless in the sim."
"Thank you," FN-2187 said, but the mood had shifted, becoming more light-hearted. He stayed a little longer, the conversation back on the sim again, and then made his excuses and headed back to barracks.
Lying on his bunk, he thought about the conversation. He didn't usually do introspection - that was what the psytechs were for – but the hints then and at other points in the conversation, of factions and in-fighting and jockeying for position, made him wonder if he might possibly be in over his head. He wanted to be here because it was the best. And he wanted to be the best. It seemed so obvious when he put it that way.
Maybe other people thought about it differently.
No. He rolled over and punched the pillow. This was the only job he'd been able to get here, but he'd earned it. The Order needed him. Do the job, hit the sims, talk to the psytechs. Do the best he could. Avoid politics.
The three days he spent sorting out a sewage back-up at one outpost took him up to his next long-leave, and on a whim FN-2187 sought and obtained permission to take the first day in travel, giving him a chance to explore with the speeder rather than stick to the established routes. The technician who saw him off from the base was dubious about the prospect.
“Gale-force winds through sector 17,” he said, pointing at FN-2187’s display map. “If you really want to go off-track and not end up blown halfway round the planet, go up this valley and through the eastern pass.”
FN-2187 leaned over to check. “There’s a rockfall warning for the area.”
The technician shrugged. “Icemelt’s rare, this time of year. Of course, you could always take the official route.”
“I could,” FN-2187 said, and punched in the new route. “Thanks.”
“Least I can do for someone who saved us from exploding toilets.”
FN-2187 grinned. “All part of the job. I put it in the report, but you need more facilities here – there’s too many people on station. I’ll be back again in a few months if it’s not sorted out.” He waved at the cluster of structures behind them, many still in the process of being built; this was a larger and more permanent-looking outpost than the others. “It looks like you’re only expecting more.”
“It’s the usual thing, tech is first priority and people come way down the bottom,” the technician said absently. “This oscillator –“ he corrected himself quickly – “this tech is suddenly the most important thing ever, and so we all had to drop everything else and rush over.”
“Until next month, when something else comes up,” FN-2187 said easily, ignoring the slip. He could keep his mouth shut, even if he was just in Sanitation. He kicked the speeder into rumbling life and dropped his visor.
The pass was beautiful, all snow and jagged black rock, but despite the technician’s assurances there were ominous creakings from the mountainsides as FN-2187 made his way upwards, and the occasional skittering noise of falling pebbles. Nothing more substantial, though, and he made his way safely through and down almost to the treeline on the other side before stopping for a break. He felt as though a weight had lifted off his shoulders. He checked the droid power supplies first, making sure all the solar cells were free of debris and condensation, and then stepped back from the speeder, stretching his shoulders and shaking out any cramps.
Thick black clouds were rolling in over the landscape ahead of him, unavoidable. “Some detour,” he said, but the whole trip still felt like a good idea. It was weird, being out here by himself, but good as well. Maybe it was a useful new skill to have. He ripped open the wrapper of a nutrition bar and bit into it, munching thoughtfully.
When he finished it and went to head back his foot hit something, and he looked down to see a rounded pale object, more regular in appearance than the average boulder. Curious, he lifted it up, turned it – and unexpectedly found himself contemplating a skull; non-human, obviously, with a flattened forehead with horn-like nubs at each side, low-set ear holes and oddly rounded teeth. Aliens? On the First Order’s secret base?
Back at base he lifted the droids free and racked the speeder – now dripping rain, like himself – and then took the skull, wrapped carefully in a sheet of flimplast, to the captain to ask what he should do about it.
She was field-stripping of a diagnostic probe, and had all the tiny pieces placed in meticulous order on the bench top, each one spotlessly brilliant. FN-2187, who had never seen the captain or any of her work this clean and tidy, fumbled through an explanation of his trip and his concerns about possible intrusion or invasion and then brought out the skull.
“Natives,” she said, after a brief glance.
“Natives?” FN-2187 should have been relieved, but instead he felt as though he’d missed something. “I thought this planet was uninhabited.”
“Now it is.” The captain was contemplating a burn mark on a capacitor. “When the Order picked it out as a base, there were a few million locals. Low-tech, a few open cast mines, no political affiliation.” She scraped a fraction of the burn off with a thin hook.
“Oh right.” FN-2187 wrapped the skull back up again. He’d thought – well, hoped – he’d found something important. “Must have been a pain, moving that many people off-world.” He was thinking, perhaps inevitably, about toilets.
The captain gave him a long unreadable look. “No,” she said, and bent back to her work. FN-2187 saluted, belatedly – this post was terrible for his military discipline – and headed back to barracks for a well-earned rest.
He told the psytech about the skull – although not about how he’d had a moment when he thought he might have stumbled on a threat to the sanctity of the base – and about how he was getting better at working by himself. “Although I would like to serve in a combat unit again,” he added hastily. “I feel that I have much to offer the Order in that setting.”
Tapping. “Your combat skills are not in doubt,” the psytech said. Female this time. “On this base, at this time, discretion is most valued.”
“I can be discreet,” FN-2187 protested. He was about to offer an example of discretion, about how he hadn’t mentioned the technician’s slip about his base’s function, but then he froze. Maybe telling her that would show that he wasn’t discreet. Maybe the psytech knew already, and this was a test.
More tapping. “The Order has many secrets,” the psytech said.
“Secrets are good,” FN-2187 agreed. “Something’s important, you don’t go around telling everyone about it, right?”
“Not everyone agrees.”
“Well, that’s just wrong,” FN-2187 said.
“Sometimes, the Order has to protect itself from those who might disclose its secrets.”
Now FN-2187 was lost. He’d thought this was about his own ability to keep his mouth shut. “Sell information to the Republic, you mean?” he hazarded. “I’d go after anyone who tried that.”
It seemed to be the right answer. The psytech asked a few more questions about how he was sleeping and whether he was meeting the exercise requirements, and then he was free to go.
He bumped into the RT trooper from the orbital sim in the canteen. “Hey,” he said.
The RT trooper smiled. “I didn’t even smell you coming.”
“Don’t be like that, man,” FN-2187 said. “Are you up for another sim?”
The RT was booked in already, another low grav sim, but he managed to wrangle an extra place for FN-2187.
“Are you going into space?” FN-2187 asked, as they put on their armour and weapons in preparation, but the trooper shook his head. “Captain Phasma likes to make sure we’re experienced with all possible modes of combat. Postings here shouldn’t be an excuse to get lazy.”
Captain Phasma. He didn’t know the name. “Are you deploying soon?" He tried not to sound too envious.
The RT nodded. "Next week. The others have already shipped out."
FN-2187 tightened the straps on his holster. Five more months in Sanitation, and then...
“I could put in a word for you,” the RT trooper said. He pushed open the door into the chamber and held it for FN-2187; the other participants were already inside. “Although try not to die this time. She watches the replays.”
“A word would be great,” FN-2187 said, startled and pleased. He could be the best, but someone needed to know about it. He stepped through. “Not that, you know, Sanitation’s not interesting. But I’d like it if my armour stayed white for more than five seconds at a time.”
The sim faded into existence around them.