A many-limbed medical droid hovered over Echo’s head like a spider. Other droids and half-organic Techo Union cyborgs moved around just out of his field of view. He tried to move his head, but his body would not respond.
The halting, mechanical voice of Wat Tambor spoke beside him, but he couldn’t quite make out what he was saying. Echo’s mind floated, adrift in a sea of drugs and pain. Even his terror had become distant, as though it belonged to someone else.
A droid locked another cord into one of Echo’s skull ports. Knifelike pain jolted through the fog, and with it came an icy, clinging presence. The slithering thing stole into his head and reached with greedy hands for Echo’s memories. Battle tactics, key leaders, training, locations… Echo tried to fight, but the thing was so strong and he was so weak.
“Fives,” Echo rasped. “Fives. Help me.”
Wat Tambor leaned in close to Echo and brushed his hand against the tangle of wires attached to Echo’s head.
“Tell me everything, CT-1409.”
Echo jolted awake, shivering despite the sheen of sweat covering his chest. He took in great gulps of air, trying to force the nightmare out. His eyes flew around the room until he found Tech’s sleeping form, only just visible in the scant light. The constriction around Echo’s chest eased.
He swung his legs over the side of his bunk, the fear of the dream fading into weariness, but his tired mind would not stop racing. The stinging chemical smells of Skako Minor stung his nose and clung to his body. He needed to shower before he could even think about sleeping again.
Echo stood, his prostheses whirring. He reached under his bunk and fumbled in the dark for a change of clothes. He found a fresh set of his neatly folded blacks and threw it over his scomp arm.
A rumble of thunder sounded over his head, and Echo jumped, bumping into something behind him with his elbow. Some metal piece of junk (the cluttered room had no shortage) clattered to the floor, impossibly loud in the dark silence.
Echo winced and looked up to see Crosshair watching him with narrowed eyes. Echo froze, caught between an apology and a quick retreat.
“Watch it, Reg,” Crosshair grumbled, his eyes already closing again.
Echo sighed and slid out of the room, into the bright, sterile halls of Kamino. At this time of the night, Echo rarely encountered anyone else walking the halls. Occasionally, he would see a Kaminoan or a clone, but he was usually alone with his thoughts and the ghosts echoing his metallic footfalls.
He took his time walking to the showers, and when he reached the large tiled rooms, they were just as empty as the rest of the facility. Echo undressed, grateful for the solitude. He had never minded the showers before, but before the Citadel, he had been one of thousands of identical clones. Unremarkable. Invisible. Now, he stuck out even in the midst of the Bad Batch.
Since returning from Skako Minor, he had used the communal showers with other clones exactly once. Since then, he had begun to go in the middle of night to avoid showering with the others. It was easier to be around the others, the regs, while they were all clothed in heavy armor or even their blacks. In the showers that day, he had received a stark reminder of just how unrecognizable he now was from all the others. Their identical bodies were strong and muscular and whole . He stood beside them, a ghost of the ARC trooper he had been. Nothing but metal and jutting bones sliding under pallid skin.
Wires slithered around him like serpents. Voices he could not make out. The reaching, grasping thing he could not escape.
Echo forced the memory down and activated the shower. He let the warm water flow over his body, leaned his forehead against the smooth tile, and closed his eyes. He took a deep breath, focusing on the caress of warm water and the once-familiar smell of Kaminoan soap.
“You’re out late.”
Echo whirled around, blinking water out of his eyes.
Three clones stood in the doorway, towels and clean blacks draped over their arms. Dust and grit covered their faces and hands, as if they had just returned from a mission. The obvious leader stepped toward Echo. Spikes of black ink bristled down either side of his neck.
“So are you,” Echo said, ignoring the hammering of his heart.
He had not been alone with strangers since… since before Skako Minor, he realized. Rex hardly left his side after the rescue or while the Kaminoans upgraded his cybernetics. After joining the Bad Batch, one of the Batch always happened to be nearby, whether he was getting food or fetching paint for his new armor. He caught on quickly to their hovering but couldn’t manage to tell them it wasn’t necessary. It would have been a lie to say he wasn’t grateful. He wanted nothing more than for one of them to be shadowing him now.
Pull yourself together. What are you afraid of? Echo scolded himself. They’re your brothers.
“I’m Spire. This is Eleven and Rain.”
“I’m Echo.” His voice wavered, and he cleared his throat. If Fives could see him now… Why was he so afraid ?
“You just getting back?” Echo asked, nodding at their dusty clothes.
“An hour ago. From Anaxes.”
Echo’s heart sank into his feet.
“Some of them are calling you the Hero of Anaxes.” Spire’s lip curled in a sneer. “Most of my squad died on Anaxes. The kriffing droids knew where we would be. What we would do.”
Echo opened his mouth, trying to tell them about Skako Minor, about the thing in his mind, how he didn’t have a choice, but what did it matter? Their brothers were still dead. Nothing could change that.
“I’m sorry,” was all he could manage. The pathetic words fell into the white light, small and brittle and useless.
Echo shut off his shower, plunging them into silence. Nothing he said would ease their pain.
“I’m sorry,” he said again, almost involuntarily. “I’m sorry about your brothers.”
Echo tried to edge past Spire, but Rain blocked his way. Echo's heart beat fast against his thin chest. Echo took a step back from the wall of clones. When had he ever been this large?
“You’re sorry ?” Spire hissed, his dark eyes narrowing. “Do you know how many of us died because of you?”
Echo tried to speak, but his mouth had gone dry.
“Nothing to say? You weren’t shy about talking to the Separatists.”
“ Laandur Aruetii ,” Rain spat. He pushed Echo back hard.
Echo reacted on instinct. He shoved Rain back with his scomp and bolted for the door. He made it a few feet before Rain caught his scomp arm and twisted it behind his back.
“Please, I didn’t—”
Spire drew his blade and Eleven and Rain seized Echo’s shoulders. Under his raging fear, a detached thought came to Echo’s mind: the irony of Rex finding him all the way on Skako Minor only for him to bleed out in the showers on Kamino.
“We all know who’s holding your leash. You may have pulled one over on Captain Rex, but the rest of us know it’s only a matter of time.” Spire rested the flat of his blade against Echo’s jutting collarbone.
“I didn’t have a choice. They… they made me tell them,” Echo said. He pulled against Rain and Eleven’s grip, but their hands tightened around his shoulders with bruising force. He looked into Spire’s eyes and found only cold, broken rage. “I didn’t have a choice.”
“There’s always a choice. You chose them . You’re not a clone anymore, aruetii . You’re a droid.”
Spire took hold of the wrist of Echo’s one remaining limb. He moved his knife to Echo’s shoulder. “You chose to be a droid. You should look the part.”
Spire pressed the blade against Echo’s shoulder joint.
“No!” Echo threw himself away from Spire, but the others tightened their grip, restraining him.
“I didn’t want to! They made me—”
Spire’s knife dug into Echo’s shoulder, a line of fire moving with agonizing slowness. He screamed, knowing no one would help him, even if they heard. Hot blood ran down Echo’s arm. No no no I tried to fight it wasn’t my fault Fives please help me—
“Spire,” Rain said. “That’s enough.”
Spire’s blade paused. Tears ran down his cheeks. His shaking breaths were hot against Echo’s skin. “They were our brothers,” Spire growled, his voice cracking. His blade twisted in Echo’s shoulder.
“I know, Spire. Leave him.” Rain took the bloody blade from Spire’s white-knuckled grip. Eleven’s restraining hands around Echo's arms loosened.
Spire leaned in close, pressing Echo’s back against the cold tile. “I don’t care if that batch of freaks accepts you. When you betray us, I’m going to kill you.”
Spire turned and grabbed Echo’s neat pile of clean clothes, tucking them under his arm as he left the showers without a backward glance. His boots left faint, bloody footprints behind him. Rain and Eleven released Echo and followed behind, and then he was alone again.
Echo slumped against the tiled wall, his body quaking. Blood ran down his arm and dripped onto the floor. He tried to take a deep breath, but his lungs wouldn’t cooperate. His breaths came faster and faster, until every breath came as a sharp gasp.
Calm down, Echo. Deep breaths with me , Kix ordered in Echo’s head. The ghost of Kix’s hand pressed against his chest, and Echo forced himself to take in a deep breath and then hold it for a second before he took another. Deep breath in, hold, release. Once his breathing had calmed, he turned his attention to his shoulder.
The slice wasn’t too deep, but the sight of the deliberate incision around his shoulder joint and the red rivulets of blood threatened to send Echo right back to hyperventilating again.
It’s just a flesh wound, Shiny, Fives said in Echo’s head. You’re okay. Just stand up and find your squad.
“They’re gone,” Echo whispered. “You’re all gone.”
But you’re not, brother , Fives said.
Echo let out a low, humorless laugh and looked down at himself. Nothing but a half-starved bundle of bones encased in metal. Fives wouldn’t have recognized him. The ARC he had been, the ARC Fives knew and loved and fought beside, had died a long time ago.
He closed his eyes, anything but looking for another second at his mutilated body. He wanted to rip himself apart, to tear free from this stranger’s body, this thing he loathed so much. In that moment, he hated himself with a cold fire that took his breath away.
Soft footsteps sounded in the doorway. Echo’s eyes snapped open.
Crosshair looked down at Echo, his narrowed eyes running across Echo’s bloody arm, the bloody boot prints around him, and the red marks from Rain and Eleven restraining him. Echo looked away. He didn’t care what Crosshair thought of him anymore. What was one more brother who hated him?
Crosshair let out a sharp huff of breath and turned away. Echo’s shoulders hunched, an unexpected stab piercing his chest. Tears pricked at his eyes, and he squeezed his eyes shut.
Echo knew he should stand up, push past Crosshair, and leave, but he was so tired of fighting. Tired of being a ghost of himself. Tired of living with strangers, however kind they usually were. Tired of nightmares and flinching at every sound. He was just tired.
The footsteps returned, and Echo opened his eyes to find Crosshair standing above him again, a cloth bunched up in his hand and his face drawn into a scowl. He silently reached for Echo’s wounded arm.
Echo jerked away. He pulled his metal legs close against his naked chest, shielding his fragile skin with metal.
“I’m not going to hurt you,” Crosshair said in his rasping voice. He knelt, bringing himself down to Echo’s level, and held out his slender hand.
Echo lowered his arm into Crosshair’s palm. Crosshair gently gripped his wrist and pressed the clean cloth against Echo’s wound. Echo winced.
“Just a flesh wound, Reg.”
Crosshair kept pressure on the wound until it stopped bleeding and then washed the rest of the blood off Echo’s skin with precise, even strokes.
“Can you stand?”
Echo nodded and got to his feet, hugging his arm around his naked chest.
“Where are your clothes?” Crosshair asked, scanning the room.
“They took them.”
“They took them,” Crosshair repeated, his voice flat, his lip curling.
Echo nodded again.
Crosshair went to the shelves stacked with towels and retrieved one. He draped it around Echo’s body like a cloak. It left Echo’s legs and his metal midriff exposed, but there was nothing they could do about that now.
Echo followed behind Crosshair, hugging the towel tight around himself. He grimaced every time they rounded a corner, praying they wouldn’t meet other clones along the way. He shivered in the cold air, his teeth chattering.
Crosshair bumped his shoulder against Echo’s uninjured one. “Chin up, Reg. You’ve looked worse.”
Echo sighed, taking the sharp comment as his brand of comfort. “Thanks, Crosshair.”
When they reached the Batch’s room again, Crosshair reached for the light switch, and Echo blocked his arm.
“You’re going to wake them up,” Echo whispered.
“Hunter will wake up as soon as he smells blood, and then he’s going to wake everyone else up with his mothering.” Crosshair flicked the bright overhead lights on.
“Ach,” Hunter grumbled, covering his eyes. “What the hell, Cross?”
Tech sat up, squinting as he fumbled for his goggles. “Crosshair? What has happened?” He adjusted his goggles and fixed his eyes on Echo. “Oh, I see.”
Echo moved past Crosshair, ducking his head as Tech and Hunter stared. Both of them had seen him, as Crosshair had so sensitively pointed out, “looking worse,” but that didn’t mean he wanted them to see him like this again. He grabbed the med kit and moved to the far side of the room.
He fumbled with the clasps, cursing his trembling fingers and his clumsy scomp arm. He swore under his breath. The others’ eyes, watching him struggle, made his skin crawl.
“Echo?” Tech came to his side. “Would you like our assistance?”
"I can do it myself."
"But you don't have to," Hunter said.
Echo’s scomp slipped on the clasp again.
"You're shaking worse than a newborn tooka, Reg," Crosshair snapped. "Swallow your pride and let him help."
Echo slid the medkit over to Tech, who easily opened the lid.
"Would you like help? It is alright to say no," Tech said.
Tech scooted closer. “Where are you hurt?”
“Sh-shoulder,” Echo shivered. “It's just a knife wound.”
Tech reached for the towel and then paused, looking into Echo’s eyes. “Echo, may I remove the towel?"
“Yes,” Echo said.
Tech gently moved the towel off Echo’s shoulders. The clones’ bruising handprints stood out in stark relief against his pale skin, and Spire’s slice had begun to bleed again.
Tech laid out his supplies and began to clean the wound while Hunter brought Echo a blanket and draped it around him. Echo’s shaking began to subside.
Hunter sat down in front of Echo. His brow furrowed, drawing his half-skull tattoo into an angry scowl. “What happened?”
“They served on Anaxes. Their brothers died because of me.”
“That wasn’t your fault.”
“Doesn’t change what happened. What I did."
Tech’s hands paused against Echo’s skin. “The Techno Union plugged directly into your brain. That is not something you can fight. You were a slave, Echo.”
“Does it matter? Would that make you feel any better if it had been Hunter, Crosshair, or Wrecker who died?”
Tech resumed bandaging Echo’s shoulder without answering.
“No, it wouldn’t,” Crosshair said from behind Hunter, where he leaned against the wall. “I would hate you.”
“Helpful, Cross,” Hunter sighed.
“What’s goin’ on?” Wrecker’s booming voice split through the quiet. Echo flinched away, and Tech placed a steadying hand on his shoulder.
Hunter stood to intercept Wrecker. “Echo got cornered by some regs. He’s okay.”
Wrecker growled, his huge hands balling into fists as his eyes caught on Echo’s injuries. “Who did it, Echo? I’ll crack their heads together!”
“As much as he might appreciate the sentiment, Wrecker, more violence is probably not what Echo needs right now,” Tech said.
Wrecker frowned. "Well… okay." He turned and began to rummage around in his bunk. He emerged with his stuffed tooka. He rushed to Echo and carefully placed it against Echo’s side.
Echo smiled. He touched the plush with the end of his scomp arm. "Thanks, Wrecker."
Tech finished bandaging Echo’s shoulder and packed up the medkit again.
“Thank you,” Echo said.
"Of course. That is what brothers are for." He gave Echo’s arm a parting squeeze and went to put the medkit back in its place.
Crosshair had dropped a change of clothes beside Echo when no one was watching him, as if he was embarrassed of the kind act. The others moved away so that Echo could dress, and he pulled on the fresh clothes. He looked across the room, where the Batch now sat at the workstation. Tech had made a cup of tea for each of them, and a fifth cup sat steaming at the end of the table, waiting for Echo.
Heartache gripped Echo’s chest as memories of Domino Squad rose in his mind. Hevy and Cutup's laughter. Droidbait leaning heavily against his side after a nightmare. Fives' warm hand on his back. For a moment, his old squad seemed close enough to touch.
You're still here, brother, they said. Be well. We love you.
Echo said a silent goodbye to his brothers and joined the Batch, taking the warm mug into his hand. He sipped the tea, letting it warm him as he sat among his new squad. Wrecker chatted with Tech, his hands waving wildly along with his exuberant voice. Beside him, Crosshair grumbled out terse replies to Hunter as he cleaned his beloved rifle.
Echo smiled. This was not home yet, but it would be.