They shoot RK-8978 for the crime of leaving.
They mean her as an example. Here, they say, here is what happens to those who would defect, defy, rebel. Here is the cooked blood and collapsed charred flesh of your sister, of the thing who was once your sister, of the anomaly, the broken.
Here, they say, lies sedition. See how broken it is. How bloodied. See the obscene redness of treachery’s blood against the moon-paleness of her skin. See how small she is, without her armour, see how weak, how she breaks before blaster fire.
Here she lies, the example, she-who-would-have-left. Here is what happens to the Troopers who would follow in the footsteps stamped by FN-2187, here is the example.
The problem the First Order never considered: the example is subjective. A body, cooked and smouldering by a blaster hail, a girl of intermediate age, hair blackened and wisping -- cut down by her very squadmates -- is meant to say all of the above and more, is meant to stand as a fixed point.
But TQ-7676 watches with his tongue thick in his mouth, his hands sweating within his gauntlets, bright white in a sea of bright white, and he thinks: this is what they do to those who are caught.
“TQ-7676’s squad was poisoned,” General Hux says, his voice low and dangerous, resounding through the galaxy, on holoboards and in dorms, in mess halls and officer lounges. Everyone watches, and everyone hears. “Infected with treachery -- his crime was the crime of his whole squad, who failed to report their concerns to superiors, and so they will all face the consequences.”
Blasters sing. Twenty three Troopers fall into smoking ruin.
The message intended: watch each other, report each other, your crimes are the crimes of your unit; you are not individuals.
The message intended: rebellion is a sickness, a tumour, a cancer to be carved from the flank of the Order.
The lesson RT-5687 (otherwise known as Red, for the colour of her hair) learns: when you leave, take with you all you love.
This time, they do not broadcast the execution.
“It offers the wrong message,” Hux says, heels wearing a path in the corridors of the Finalizer. “It shows that people are leaving. It proves Ren right -- he’s already muttering his venom to the Supreme Leader.”
“So we pretend it never happened,” says Phasma.
Hux sighs. “Don’t be so literal Phasma. It’s unbecoming. It’s about...shaping the truth. Telling them how to think. Telling them what the story really is -- get them by their thoughts, and the rest will follow. They cannot think that FN-2187 is someone they can imitate…” he blinks, a slow smile curving his face. “So we tell them that he is not one of them . I always thought he was a little too good to be a genuine Stormtrooper.”
The mark of good propaganda: when it convinces even those who dream it up.
Before she died, RT-5687 said to EG-5555 did you hear of the traitor FN-2187 and EG-5555 said yes he was a Resistance plant, didn’t you hear?
Well yes RT-5687 said but don’t you know that some think --
Some think what?
Treachery. It tastes of copper blood, hot and salt in the mouth, and RT-5687 bites down on it.
That he was one of us.
Don’t be stupid.
EG-5555 is known to her squad as Fiver. She is an excellent markswoman, her Aqualian heritage granting her better eyesight than most. It also gives her a frill of dry blue scales around her eyes.
(In the Resistance there is a joke about humanity: they fuck anything that sits still long enough, even the things designed to prey upon them.)
(A fact about Aqualians: they are sharp teeth and long venomous tentacles)
(An achievement of an ancestor Fiver will never know: somehow impregnating a giant sea anemone.)
“The traitor FN-2187,” she spits, during a weekly Moral Meeting. “He was never a Stormtrooper. He was never one of us .” Her squad nod around her.
This is the truth. This is the truth they know. FN-2187 was not a normal Stormtrooper. He was a Resistance plant. He was a shapeshifter. He was a Bounty Hunter.
He was, in short, anything but one of them .
“He’s scum,” agrees EG-7070. They call him Two Sevens, because nicknames are often in short supply -- this squad already has a Seven, a Sevener, a Seven-Seven, Big Seven, Little Seven and Medium Seven.
“Was scum,” Fiver says. “He’s dead.”
“No,” says Big Seven. She’s shaven-headed and silver-eyed, black as night. “No, he’s not. I was on a patrol on H’Trakok, in the J’Ara system, and we were told to keep an eye out for him. My, uh, my commander said that he had been seen on patrol in the area and we had to find him…”
Her voice trails off. Fiver wets her lips. She thinks of that trooper, the one people used to call Red because of her hair, the one who vanished along with her squad, dead in action.
“I heard,” she says, treading soft, treading slow, words sneaking into the conversation, curling up from her throat, “that...that some think ,” and here she stops. Treachery. It tastes of copper. It tastes of blood. She thinks of Red, of the squad that died on some backwater, of commanders who do not remember and Stormtroopers who never forget, because all that they own is what they see with their own eyes and hear with their own ears and even then they do not own these things, because Big Seven could -- if she was commanded to -- forget that she had ever been on patrol in some lonely planet in some lonely system --
But she didn’t forget. She is saying.
And so Fiver says, “That some think that he was a Stormtrooper.”
Medium Seven, EG-6777, wants to report her.
“Spreading dissent,” he says. He’s very young. His eyes are fiery with hate. He’s got the words of the Order on his bones. “It’s a dangerous, ridiculous lie.”
Stormtroopers do not have friends. Stormtroopers do not have sisters or brothers or family, and yet Medium Seven comes to Two Sevens before he goes to a superior -- not because of programming, but because it feels normal, it feels right , to discuss these things.
Raised from birth to a chorus of propaganda, the song of war, and some things can never be crushed: namely the teenage urge to talk .
“It is,” says Two Sevens, though he does not know precisely what Medium Seven means: the lie that FN-2187 was a Stormtrooper; that he is alive; that he escaped at all.
There are many, many lies.
“We should get her purged, for the good of the unit.”
Examples are what you make of them. Two Sevens thinks of TQ-7676. The holoboard. The steam coiling from broken white-black shells, like beetles smashed underfoot.
The message: if one fails, we all fail.
The lesson: if you see someone committing dissent, and do not report it, you are as guilty.
The actual lesson: we see your unit as the same entity. All will account for the crimes of one.
“I’m meant to outrank her. They’ll blame me.”
Stormtroopers do not have friends. Stormtroopers do not have brothers. Stormtroopers, especially Stormtroopers like Medium Seven (baby fanatics with fire in their eyes and hate on their lips), obey without question.
Medium Seven does not say a word to the officer when she comes for inspection.
Two Sevens is loyal to the Order. He believes firmly that they are in the right, that democracy is a scourge. He has fired his blaster into unarmed crowds, and he would do so again, but there is a kernel of...not doubt, not that, but confusion .
Why are there so many stories of the traitor circling? Why can no one agree on what happened?
Onboard the Finalizer, Kylo Ren throws a tantrum. This is not anything unusual.
The difference: the red flash of his sabre curves through a command console and through Medium Seven. The boy dies between one breath and the next, his blood running red through the plates of his armour, smashed-beetle bright, and he smells of cooking meat.
“Get rid of that,” Hux tells Two Sevens, flapping a hand at him. “Stop costing me money , Ren,” says Hux, fallen soldier forgotten.
Stormtroopers do not have friends. They do not have brothers.
Two Sevens is loyal to the First Order.
He fires his blaster into unarmed crowds. He obeys without question.
He tells nothing but the absolute truth.
“Medium Seven was the loyalest of soldiers,” he says. “He served no other master but the First Order. He would have turned any of us in if he suspected us of treason.” A pause. A weighted pause. In the dorms: Fiver with her strange, blue-frilled eyes; Big Seven with her calm certainty. Others: Sevener, Sevens, Bright -- a cruel nickname, for she is anything but -- Sharp, Spite, Shiner, Charm. Niner. Fives, Sixes, Thirds, Four-and-half.
This is a eulogy. Eulogies are permitted. Eulogies are not treason -- how could they be? All Two Sevens is doing is speaking well of his model comrade. All Two Sevens is doing is highlighting the good of his service.
“And he died,” he says. “He died.”
He doesn’t need to say: Kylo Ren killed him.
He doesn’t need to say: Hux asked me to get rid of that .
He doesn’t need to. They know, they all know, and they raise their alcohol ration in a quiet, solemn toast.
“I heard that FN-2187 was a Stormtrooper,” says Fiver to him, three days later.
He could say that is not what I was told . He could say we do not speak of traitors . He could say once upon a time Hux’s speeches were full of bile and hate for that man, and now he is not mentioned at all. He could.
He says, “I heard that too. Who did you hear it from?”
“She’s dead now. Her entire squad as well.”
“I admire your comradeship,” says Two Sevens, “and I appreciate your presence in my squad. And I have heard that too. A lie, of course.”
“We need to make sure it has not spread. Has the rest of the squad heard it?”
“How could they just have vanished? ” Hux shouts.
Phasma shows her teeth. Her helmet is wedged against her hip. “I don’t know,” she admits. Sleek chrome glittering in the sterile lights of the Finalizer. Hux’s fists quivering at his sides. “Three hundred and twenty six,” she says, “we’ve got back a hundred, but the rest --”
“In the scheme of things,” he says, “that’s not much. Right?”
“There are two billion active Stormtroopers in our Empire,” she says.
“Good,” says Hux. “Good.” But there’s a thin thread to his voice, a snag, a catch; the unspoken --
Two billion. And what if they decide that they are not Stormtroopers anymore?
“Have you heard the rumour?”
“Yes. FN-2187 was a Stormtrooper.”
“Nonsense, of course. Sedition.”
“He was a traitor.”
“A monster. I’m escorting some cadets to their training planet. They would listen to such a rumour."
"They would listen readily."
"We much protect them at all costs."
They change the training routes. They have to. Five carriers full of soon-to-be Stormtroopers vanish in five standard months and that’s a thousand altogether, a thousand children who will never march beneath the red and black banners of the Order.
“FN-2187 wasn’t a Stormtrooper,” says Blue to Green. She’s named for the colour of her eyes; he for the strange ridge of scales he’s got on his spine.
“Nope,” Green says to Blue. “Not at all. Filthy rumour that. My troop don’t know it.”
“I don’t know. I don’t think so.”
Green says to Tenner, his commander, “There’s this awful rumour going round.”
Tenner says to Green, “I’ve heard it. Where did you hear it from?”
Green says to Tenner, “If I tell you, it needs to be on the condition that they’re purged.”
Tenner says to Green, “Sure as the sun, they’ll die.”
"This is what we get for recruiting non-humans," says Commander Tarr. He's an avid humanist, and Hux hates him.
Hux hates most people.
"Don't be an idiot," says Phasma. Hux doesn't hate Phasma. She's calm, despite everything, and her face is all hard lines. "If we purge non-humans then we lose half our battle force. The defection of Blue and Green was nothing to do with their ancestry and everything to do with an unforgivable lapse in their programming. We need to investigate higher command."
"Don't be absurd. We can't investigate them; if we do then Ren will be up my arse. He's already looking for an excuse to cost me my command."
Phasma's eyebrows scoot up. A red flush rides onto Hux's cheekbones. He's said too much -- fuck.
Things are slipping between his fingers. Stormtroopers are leaving, and that's not meant to happen.
They're not meant to think for themselves.
"Right," he says. Fingers splay into his hair. "We'll purge non-humans from higher command. Blame them for the spread of dissent."
The art of compromise: no one is left happy.
Words have power. Words travel where nothing else can, hunting along the edges of space, bleeding into ships and minds and dorms, things that the Order thought it could shutter down. Hux does not speak of Finn anymore, and neither does anyone in power, but they do not need to --
“Did you hear --”
“Yes. Awful rumour.”
“Where did you hear it from?”
And when a code is a code dreamed by one lone genius it can be cracked, but when a code grows organic from the hearts and minds of a people who have always been kept pressed down beneath high boots and white armour -- well, it is harder to trace.
Stormtroopers are raised with a limited number of words. They are raised to speak a certain language, and they still speak that language --
Purged: to be cut from the First Order.
Killed: to cease to be a Stormtrooper.
Hero: to obey orders.
-- and yet.
This is how the Resistance discovers that they have sparked a revolution: five carrier ships with an escort of a thousand TIE fighters materialise in Resistance air space.
Finn's woken by the wail of alarms. He leaps out of Poe's arms, dresses in a fumble, and races to the landing pad.
"Fuck, fuck, fuck," Poe pants. His eyes are wild and wide. TIE fighters in the sky, brighter than stars. Five carrier ships. That's five thousand, two hundred and twenty Stormtroopers. It's an invasion.
"Mobilise!" Organa's voice rings out across base. "Get to the X-Wings! Dameron, take black squadron --"
Orders barked out. The Resistance is nothing but organised. Every man and woman there knows their place.
There's something wrong.
He stands there, in the centre of the storm, and he looks up, at the huge bloated moon of D'Qar and the TIE fighters like lost stars and the carrier ships, and his boyfriend is tugging his hand, trying to get his attention and --
"They would have killed us already," says the boy who had been a Stormtrooper. "If they wanted to kill us, they wouldn't be waiting. Why are they waiting?"
The answer comes in the form of a broadcast, delivered in response to General Organa's demand that they identify themselves.
"Was FN-2187 a Stormtrooper? I heard he was. Is he?"
It's a woman's voice, trembling and very young.
Finn pulls the transmitter to his mouth. His lips brush it as he speaks. "Yes. I was. I was, and I'm not anymore. My name is Finn. What's yours?"
The rush of static is a sigh of relief. "They call me Fiver."
"Hello Fiver," says Leia Organa. "Why don't you let me direct you to a more appropriate landing space?"
The Resistance changes over night.
A process is put in place, which is a fancy way of saying that the Stormtroopers -- all four thousand of them -- have to line up to have their minds read by Luke Skywalker to make sure they're not First Order spies.
That takes five days. By the end Luke is pale and shaking, ready to drop, but there's hope in his eyes for the first time in thirty years.
"Not one of them harbours any desire to harm us," he says. "They want to see the Order fall."
Fiver, who is leader by virtue of age and confidence, finds herself compelled to speak. "More than that. We want Stormtroopers freed. No offence General, but I don't want to storm the Order if it means my kind are going to be cut down indiscriminately. There are so many of us, and so many of us --"
"Who want to be free," cuts in Finn.
The look Fiver gives him can only be described as worship. The frills around her eyes flush a deeper blue. "Yes," she says. "Precisely. We are at your disposal, FN -- Finn, that is. Finn. Sir. Finn." She coughs.
She's looking at him like he's the sun -- that is, she's looking at him like he's too bright to bear, like she can't tear herself away.
"We only ask that, uh." She stammers a little, unused to making demands of those she believes outrank her. "We only ask that the cadets be spared active combat. The eldest is but five rotations and they are not ready -- give them ten years and they will fight for you --"
"Ten? They can have twenty. Thirty. They need never fight, if they do not wish to," says General Organa.
Fiver's mouth hangs slack. She tries several times to speak, and fails, and then she bursts into tears, pressing her face into her hands.
Finn pulls her against him. She shudders all over at the contact, cringing away and pushing closer at the same time.
"It's okay," he says, patting the sharp jut of her shoulderblades. "It's all a little much, isn't it?"
"You're FN-2187," she says, like a prayer. "You were a Stormtrooper."
The first mission that Finn goes on is one of rescue.
It's fitting. Before he leaves, Poe kisses him long and sweet deep and tells him the story of his first meeting, a story of subterfuge and spying, hunting for information. "You're the patron saint of revolution," he says, staring at Finn with such love that Finn shivers. "You go and set them free, d'you hear me? You go look after them."
I'Tara is a training world, densely populated. The youngest troopers are stationed at the pole. They are kept warm by artificial atmosphere, and cordoned off, and Finn aches to rip away every soul on the planet but it is at the pole that their contact works.
"How do you know you can trust her?" he asks of Fiver.
She turns her wide, blue-ringed eyes on him. "I asked her if she had heard you were a Stormtrooper. She said she had; and that she believed it."
There's utter conviction in her voice. The way she looks at him is akin to how Rey looks at Luke, or Poe at General Organa.
It makes him uncomfortable, to be the subject of such devotion.
He's tried to explain to them that he's not special, that he's no hero, that he tripped and landed in adventure -- but they won't believe him, they do not listen, and in the end Poe had taken him aside and told him to stop being so Force-damned modest. They love you because you're very loveable. And besides, he had added, every revolution needs a figurehead.
I don't want to be a figurehead!
Wrong word. How about patron saint?
That's worse but Poe had kissed him, and Finn can forgive Poe anything if it's followed by a kiss.
It's a devilish power that Poe is all too glad to exploit.
"Here," says Fiver. "Here we land."
Five thousand gone from I'Tara, basically overnight. Five thousand cadets. Ten thousand are killed as one of the major barracks ignites in revolt. Two thousand arrested.
Drops of water in an ocean, Phasma wants to say, but they both know that she doesn't believe it.
“Kill them!” Hux shouts, a high and desperate whine in his voice. “Give the order -- blow up the planet!”
“There are still two million cadets there, sir,” says Phasma. Her voice is level. Her hands are steady on her weapon. Her heartbeat is slow and sure. “Two million cadets and five hundred thousand two hundred --”
“I don’t care! If one rebels, they all will. We’ll fall ,” and he jabs one leather-clad finger against her breastplate. “Give the order -- that is an order .” And the jumble of words, and the wetness of his lips, and the wildness of his eyes. His hair, sweat-drenched, is bright as blood.
“Five hundred thousand and twenty one soldiers,” says Phasma. “Sir. Loyal soldiers, sir.”
“But they’re not loyal, they can’t be loyal, traitors come from their ranks and so they’re infected as well!”
Wildness in his eyes and sweat in his hair and her blaster is heavy and familiar in her hands.
“Kill them! If you don't, I'll get rid of you and find someone who will!”
“Yes sir,” says Phasma.
“Of course sir,” says Phasma.
“I only ever think of my troops,” says Phasma, and shoots him in the head.
Phasma's hands shake. She drops her blaster on the floor, pulls her helmet off and tosses it aside. Her breathing is, as ever, slow and deep and calm.
There is absolute silence. Hux's body smolders. The reek of charred flesh and cooked blood fills the air.
Examples are what you make of them.
Phasma does not remember her parents. She does not remember a time before the First Order. The first hand she was offered smacked her down and pressed a gun into her chubby starfish hands and she has never, never known any other way.
"FN-2187," she says, aloud. Her right hand is starting to spasm. She sips in oxygen and her heart judders against her ribs and she thinks how she would wear her helmet at First Order functions, hating how people stared at her face. She thinks how she did as she was told, always as she was told; how she thought she was a Stormtrooper and nothing else.
The silence is an ache. It seems to continue forever.
Then there's a hiss. A click. A Stormtrooper removing his helmet. He's young. He wets his lips before speaking. "Have you heard?" he says. "FN-2187...he was a Stormtrooper."
There is always a choice, Phasma thinks. "Yes," she says, "yes he was."
General Organa almost has a heart attack. Poe draws his blaster, tries to put himself between the former Captain and Finn.
Finn, however, can never be held back. He steps forwards, offers his hand. Phasma hesitates a moment, then clasps it.
"I used to be a Stormtrooper," she says.
"Yeah," grins Finn, bright and wild as the sun. "Me too."