FN-2187 wakes up to blinding natural light, unfiltered for the first time in more than a year. When he’s been planetside, he’s always been wearing a helmet, and it takes him a few moments of stunned blinking to figure out that he’s not wearing a helmet. His ears are ringing, and he’s lying on his back, stunned and uncertain.
“Am I dead?” he blurts, without thinking.
There’s a little flurry of activity somewhere to FN-2187’s right, as he blinks and slowly comes to the conclusion that the bright light above him is from a hole in the white ceiling of the ship where a panel has fallen away.
“Oh, you’re awake, thank the little gods –” comes a voice from the same side, and a second later the face of a nervous young man comes into FN-2187’s view. He knows this man: this was the pilot he had been assigned to guard, someone neither important enough nor likely enough to try and bolt to require a fully-qualified stormtrooper escort, but not someone the First Order wanted left alone.
“What happened?” he asks, trying and failing to get himself upright. The pilot offers him a hand.
“We crashed. Well, I crashed. These Order ships – old Imperial ships, really – they’re designed for adults,”
FN-2187 zones out a little, as he’s been scolded for so many times by his superior officers, scouring his brain for where they were meant to be going, and the protocols for a trooper whose vision is spinning. The pilot, hands pushing through his longer than regulation hair, is still babbling.
“...So the shock absorbers in your seat were above your head height, and then the harness was too big for you and you got thrown. I guess in the middle you got pretty bashed up. Wait there, I’ve got a medikit somewhere, you’re probably concussed –”
FN-2187 shakes his head, and does his best to hide the wince at his brain’s spiteful reaction to that.
The pilot stares at him. “Okay,” he says eventually. “If you say so.”
There’s a moment of silence as FN-2187, recalling his training, stands stiff and waits for the pilot’s instruction – probably the pilot isn’t a very high-ranking officer, but FN-2187 is only a cadet.
“I have your helmet.” the pilot offers, bluntly. “It came off in the crash, and I didn’t want to just... shove it back on.”
FN-2187 tries to find the words to ask for it back, and fails; the pilot, luckily, seems to understand and holds it out for him without any further prompting. He’s not even sure why, but FN-2187 hesitates to put it on: he can’t imagine it would do any good for the throbbing headache, the probable concussion he’s choosing to ignore because he can’t afford to make the trouble, but, still. The helmet is protocol.
The pilot restores the ceiling panel and goes back to the cockpit and his chair, with FN-2187 a loyal step behind, just as he’s been taught, cradling his armour in his arms. There’s an automatic repair system that should have them up and running soon, he knows that, even if he isn’t entirely sure how the ship works. That’s not his job.
“How old are you, anyway? That helmet is tiny.”
FN-2187 resists the urge to agree about the helmet, loudly. He’s growing fast, and he’s fairly tall for his age anyway, and the helmet – which had been snug when it was assigned a year ago – now cramps his head whenever he wears it.
“Twelve standards cycles, sir.” he replies, and is met with a blank look.
“Twelve years old.”
He doesn’t get what the problem is, but there must be one, because the pilot turns to gape at him with something like horror.
“Nine hells, I had hoped you were just small or something,” he breathes. “How long have you been a trooper?”
Pilots like this, FN-2187 knows, are not rained like stormtroopers. They’re recruited from other lives. They don’t understand.
The pilot is still staring.
“I’m seventeen, and that’s young to be here, kid, that’s really young,” he babbles. “And you’re... I mean, it’s not like either of us had a choice, is it? But, damn.”
FN-2187 doesn’t have the words for what he feels, so he says nothing. To his surprise, the pilot huffs a laugh.
“We’re a case for the saint, aren’t we?”
“You don’t know the –” The pilot cuts himself off with a wave of his hand, sitting straighter in his seat. “No, of course you wouldn’t. Shame, because you’d need him worse than most.”
The pilot makes a gesture that FN-2187 doesn’t know the meaning of, but has gathered enough from the other First Order agents to recognise as religious in some way.
“The saint of sorrows.” he explains, more gently. “He’s a man... well, not a man, really, he’s a vision of a man that appears to kids in the galaxy when they’re ‘badly used’. That’s what my folks told me. That he tells the kids not to cry and tries to help them.”
The fantasy of comfort that the pilot is describing is one that FN-2187 has to consciously resist the pull of. There is no man, he reminds himself, that will come and try and help. Not here. It’s a foolish belief.
The systems are coming back online, enough so that soon the surveillance will be fully functional again, if it wasn’t already.
The pilot speaks rapidly, as though he’s trying to get the words out before anyone in command might hear them. Against his better judgement, FN-2187 hesitates just a few seconds longer to put on his helmet.
“I thought I saw him, the night before I was ordered to report to work for the Order. I was dreaming, and there was a man, dressed all weird, and he bowed to me.”
The blinking red light that means we are watching you sputters back into life: FN-2187 all but jams his helmet back onto his head, and the pilot falls immediately silent.
They do not speak for the rest of the journey back to base. FN-2187 hears, as he is marched in the other direction, the pilot’s garbled explanation of the crash, and then everything remains coldly, clinically, silent until he is questioned by his lieutenant.
FN-2187 spends this time wondering, more obsessively than he ever has about anything, about the saint.
He’s spent two weeks in denial, going about his training and his duties and telling himself that the fact that he hasn’t seen the young pilot since the day of the crash doesn’t mean anything, necessarily. The man might still be alive, somewhere, just somewhere other than the very restricted route around the base FN-2187 has clearance for.
Once a month, the stormtroopers are called by their unit to a speaker to listen (and memorise, and if you can’t memorise then to hope like hell that no one orders you to recite) the new orders and notices. The FN units’ speakers are by a massive plexiglass viewing panel, and although they have to keep their posture as stiff and still as statues, FN-2187 knows he’s safe to move his eyes out to watch the distant stars and planets without noticeably moving his head. There’s junk floating out by the window, spoiling the view.
The cold, dispassionate voice on the comm begins to read out the roll of cadet troopers chosen to progress to the next stage in their training, and FN-2187 hears them begin on the FN roll, and should be – invisibly, of course – excited to hear his own designation listed among them.
It’s just that he’s staring at the glassy-eyed body of the young pilot floating with the trash.
He knows better than to stay awake in a sleep-shift; it’s against the rules, and punishable by removal of rations, under the logic that a trooper who insists on weakening themselves should be made weak enough to suffer. They’re past the age when cadets are simply drugged into unconsciousness for the required five hours, but most of his peers are still exhausted enough to collapse the moment they’re in their narrow bunks – unfortunately, FN-2187 has always had a more powerful imagination than his commanders have ever approved of. A good trooper would have forgotten the pilot. A good trooper wouldn’t have spoken to him in the first place.
FN-2187 wonders if the pilot saw the saint before he died.
And then he freezes up, because there’s someone moving through the lines of bunks. He can hear the sound of their boots, very faint but audible against the metal floors, and their breathing, out of rhythm with the snores FN-2187 has been familiar with his entire life.
He screws his eyes tight shut rather than be caught blatantly awake.
“I’m not angry with you, child,” says a close voice, as soft as a whisper. “You don’t need to pretend.”
FN-2187 doesn’t open his eyes, doesn’t question who it is standing by his bed. It can’t be, he thinks. I’m dreaming.
“That doesn’t mean I’m not really here.”
He feels the weight, very real, as the stranger settles on the end of his bunk, and cautiously, cautiously opens his eyes just a fraction. It’s dark in the bunk room, but the figure seems to give off his own light; he’s too foreign in appearance for FN-2187 to have imagined, dressed in strange, too-loose layered clothing, his hair wavy and far longer than a regulation cut, to his shoulders.
“Do you have a name yet, little one?”
Yet? FN-2187 shakes his head: he has a designation, and it’s not the same. The man nods a little sadly, like he understands. He reaches out and touches FN-2187’s hand, and the touch is not warm, but it is surprisingly solid.
“I’m so sorry that you are a witness to this death.” says the saint. “You’re kinder than they intended you to be – in a time gone by, you would have been training to be a...”
The saint trails off, an expression of embarrassment tightening his features as he realises that FN-2187 won’t know the word.
“A warrior of good.” he says instead. “Not this.”
FN-2187 still doesn’t quite dare to speak, fearful somehow that his words might disturb the other cadets where the saint’s haven’t. But the saint seems to sense the question on his mind.
“You’re afraid of the new training?”
He nods, hesitant to do so; fear is the mark of a trooper who won’t survive, and in FN-2187’s experience are you afraid isn’t so much a question as a trap.
“Don’t be, child. You’ll be okay. You could be great – if you wanted to, you could be an officer. But you won’t.”
FN-2187 tries his best to squash the flare of guilt that rises in him – his lieutenant wants him to try and be a commander, he knows that, but the thought of behaving to others as his superior officers do to him repulses him.
“That’s okay.” consoles the saint, soft and surprising enough that FN-2187 wonders if he has actually, finally, been driven mad by the Order. “You care about other people, little one, that’s a good thing.”
Not for a trooper.
“Maybe not. But you won’t spend the rest of your life as a stormtrooper.”
The saint’s hand tightens marginally on FN-2187’s, enough that he starts to take this deadly seriously, to forget for a moment that this is almost definitely a dream.
“I can’t help you now. I couldn’t save that poor man,” says the saint, grim. “I can’t intervene like that. But listen to me – there will be another kind pilot you can trust, and when you know you have to make your escape, find him. Do you understand, little one?”
FN-2187 nods, frantically, something simultaneously like elation and panic rising in the pit of his stomach. The idea of escape hasn’t existed in his universe, he hasn’t allowed it to. But here is a promise that, some day, he will.
“Sleep.” says the saint, and FN-2187 feels himself growing tired at last – somehow not with the usual heavy-limbed, brain-numbing exhaustion, but with a kind of warm and safe feeling – as the man watches him, his gaze still soft and still sad.
“Wait,” he whispers, barely more than a breath. The saint looks at him curiously.
“What is it, child?”
“Why... why didn’t you...”
His eyes are closing involuntarily, but he still feels the saint gently touch the back of his hand again.
“Why didn’t I come to you when you were scared before?”
He nods, and slips into unconsciousness as he distantly hears the saint reply,
FN-2187 dreams for the first time in years, and the dreams are stunningly vivid.
He’s sat curled up, small as possible, considerably smaller than he is now, in the corner of his bunk, not even trying to restrain the tears that flow freely down his cheeks.
“Don’t cry,” comes a gentle voice next to him, and when he looks up he can see through the figure sitting next to him to the other, empty, bunks behind. “It’s okay.”
Little FN-2187 nods dutifully.
“They’re gonna fix me.” he says, his voice too high and too unsteady.
“There’s nothing to fix.” objects the saint, putting his hand up to the small boy’s close-shaven hair as though he could somehow protect him like that. “You’re not a tool to be tuned, you’re a person.”
Shakily, the boy wipes at his face with the heels of his hands.
“I’m a stormtrooper.”
The saint looks sad, and little FN-2187 doesn’t respond, because he’s used to that expression on his comrades’ faces.
There’s the sound of heavy boots in the corridor outside, and little FN-2187 gasps sharply, looks to the saint with terror.
“I’ll be with you.” promises the saint. “I won’t leave you. It’ll be alright.”
And then a trooper is standing by the door, and FN-2187 is taken to reconditioning, and he forgets almost everything of the past week.
And he forgets the saint.
The dream changes, and he’s older; he knows when he is this time, two years ago, when he failed in a simulation exercise so catastrophically that he was dragged before his lieutenant and reconditioned again, off-schedule and unexpected. FN-2187 was told afterwards that he was lucky not to be shot.
He’s in a cell, because there had been nowhere else to put him, and he’s wretchedly miserable but he knows better than to cry.
“You’re very brave.” says a voice that is, by now, familiar.
FN-2187 startles, and the saint raises his hands in surrender, half-swamped in his too long sleeves.
“Don’t be afraid, child, I wouldn’t hurt you. I couldn’t.”
The saint stays very still and allows FN-2187, cautiously, to examine him, to put a hand out and carefully touch his shoulder and feel the tangible-not-tangible strangeness of his skin.
“What are you?”
The saint smiles at his curiosity even in this terrible situation.
“A ghost, kind of. I came because I felt that you were scared.”
“I’m not scared.” FN-2187 insists, without thinking. At the saint’s look of concern, he relents and slumps down a little. “It’s just – reconditioning hurts, I think. I can’t remember it but I remember...”
A flash of half-memory stutters through the dream, of his small body held in a machine, of brilliant white light that made his eyes burn, of a scream that might have been his.
FN-2187 sees the saint repress a shudder as he comes closer, feeling the horror of the memory as well.
“What you did was brave,” the saint tells him, and the FN-2187 in the dream can’t work out if he feels proud of not, but the FN-2187 having the dream can’t remember what he did to be sent to reconditioning at all. That’s the point of it. “You were right to stand up for that boy, even if they’re going to punish you for it.”
There’s something achingly sincere in the saint’s expression.
“That’s the problem with the galaxy. If more people stood up for each other, maybe this Order wouldn’t have...”
Treasonous talk. FN-2187 covers his ears with his hands, and the saint stops himself guiltily, waits until FN-2187 slowly lowers his hands to speak again.
“You’ll live through this.” he says, gently. “I promise.”
“I will.” FN-2187 hears himself whisper, afraid to show the resentment in his voice too loudly. “They decommissioned FN-2270.”
“I know.” I was with him rests, unsaid, in the saint’s face.
“It wasn’t even his fault he failed the simulations-” FN-2187 blurts, bitterly. “-his blaster was faulty, and no one gave him a chance.”
“You did as much as you could without endangering yourself. Your commanders failed him, not you.”
‘Failed’ is, perhaps, an understatement, but it’s the most the cadet FN-2187 will accept as not outright treason. He buries his face in his hands, hiding his expression just as he will soon have to hide it behind a helmet, and waits.
The saint stands vigil over him until he is taken away.
And then they make him forget.
FN-2187 wakes at the end of sleep-shift with a strange new feeling of resolve, and he reports to his new training obediently, but with a small, defiant smile disguised behind his helmet.
He keeps the prophecy private and precious in his heart. When the time comes to escape, there will be a kind pilot.
FN-2187 will be ready.