"A citizen of the Order will learn that the mind is the greatest weapon. Command of the mind gives command of the body, and a mastery of these may lend command of other minds and other bodies."
These words are among FL-2173's very first memories, given to him sanitized and standardized the same as everything else in the First Order. To an infantry trooper, this mantra was sometimes referred to, with the small amount humor they were permitted to develop, as The Second Order. At the time they were first spoken to him (and they would be spoken often), he wasn't yet FL-2173. A full tail wasn't something you earned until you completed your training. Instead, new extractions began with only enough information to place them in their cohort. A letter for corps designation (F for infantry, T for pilots and technicians, X for command-in-training) and one for system of origin. The first time he heard the Second Order, he was simply FL among a few dozen others that he trained with.
The anonymity of that time before his training and tailing took the place of a womb in FL-2173's memory. Owning nothing but two nearly meaningless letters which technically he shared, FL prepared to be born. An amniotic sea of F-somethings, then-FL and his cohort grew into actionable things that deserved their tails as a reward for their self-command. A tail, to a trooper, was an identity and aspiration rolled into one, three or four or five or six numbers that followed the branch designation and extraction identification, depending on how lucky an extract was and how well he could command his mind by the time he finished training. The slower among his cohort ended up with long, clumsy tails like 12363 and 3774, destined for lives at distant bases on Hoth-like planets, at outposts with only the company of droids, or as extractors.
FL-2173 was lucky. His tail was short, 173, only three digits long following his cohort designator, 2. It placed him under the command of Captian Phasma. It was the only real marker of identity he had. But then again, was it? There were other FLs across the whole Order. There were FL-2s everwhere, with other FL-2100's and even FL-2170's in his unit. Where did his specificity begin? The question plagued him for a long time after his tailing, before his naming. Perhaps that last digit alone was what made him who he was. Thinking about this, contemplating his specificity (there was another word for it somewhere, there had to be, but FL-2173 didn't know it), was FL-2173's only act of rebellion. There wasn't much to think about oneself as a trooper, and so thinking about oneself became something significant.
Beyond this, his history was sparse, inhabited by landmarks like buoys on an open sea: here his extraction, blinding and silent, surprisingly clean; there his tailing, leaving him as anxious as he was excited; in the distance, his assignment to a squadron, shaking and charcoal grey as an officer's suit; there, bright and angry red, float his battles; and beyond that, his first reconditioning is marked by the void it left. And perhaps more like planets than buoys, these markers collected debris.
If he could remember before his testing, FL-2173 would know he had been extracted on a bright, hot morning. He would remember being woken and dressed by two stormtroopers, the pad of his feet on the dusty floor so different from their hard, shuffling footfalls. He would remember having his hand held for the last time and a short discussion of credit transfers.
But now FL-2173's extraction only ever comes back to him in the deepest dreams. Often, it comes in metaphors that he does not understand. There is a feeling of deep hunger, the sight of an empty bowl. Sometimes it is a bowl full of food that he cannot eat. There is never any noise, only a feeling of weakness, and images of small, empty hands.
The memory of his tailing is brighter. In it, there were others and they are like him. They all wore white like their caretakers, but the other extracts still had faces because they didn't yet have names. There was one with gap-teeth and curly hair that sat to his left when they were spoken to. There was one so pale FL-2173 imagined that she couldn't have seen more than a day of sun in her life. They all sat together as they usually did during group lessons, in one of the many rooms that all blended together into one in FL-2173's mind and memory, and were taken into a side-room (did it always have a side room? it must have in some iterations) to recieve their testing results. It would occur to FL-2173 later that they must have had numbers before that to have the tests assigned to them, internal identifiers kept from them to encourage assimilation, but at the time it had just seemed natural that it should be this way, that they be recognized by face alone, anonymous until the tests had all been administered. Each one was brought forward, beckoned by a simple, "Next!" from the second instructor, XT-1508, and the soft hiss of the side-door opening again, the previous extract presumably released out of another door inside the room which led into another hall.
There was a "next" for the pale one, a "next" for the boy with the black eyes and big smile, a "next" for the curly-headed girl. And then there was a "next" for him and the sound of the door.
"Extract, this meeting concludes testing and terminates extract status. You are assigned to cadet pre-training status as trooper FL-2173. Follow this hall to be assigned to your training unit."
The sentence had jarred him. The instructors did not call the extracts "you", but referred to them only in general, abstract terms. I am being assigned, FL-2173 thought. I am. I. The word felt odd as it rolled around his head, irregularly shaped. You careened around his skull, crashing into I and splintering off into we and they.
Another door hissed open. Another rite whispered closed behind him. Another distant "next".
The time in pre-training was good. If testing sounded like still breathing and falling dust, pre-training sounded like stifled laughter and indignant grunts. There was a lot of wrestling. First in the facilities and then in the bunks, it developed as a way to prove status and FL-2173 found that he was good at it. He lacked the hesitation that made other cadets weak and knew how to throw his weight without throwing a match. But unlike some, FL-2173 didn't fight in the bunks. He didn't feel a need to prove his superiority, to publicly exercise his specificity. Standing out made him as uncomfortable as it made FB-2245 proud.
They had called him -- FB-2245 -- Bantha, for his hard-headedness and for the many oaths the cadets would swear in his direction after an unwanted fight. FL-2173 felt assured in his choices, though, when Bantha was reassigned XB-2980. He wore the new name -- more than just an adjusted tail -- on the breast of his mono-suit with pride. He was going to be command, he gloated, he was going to be in charge of people like FL-2173 and FN-2187 and FK-2172. He, XB-2980 (which he nearly shouted, so that all the bunks in the barracks could hear), was going to be like Captain Phasma was: a prodigy.
How he had learned this word, FL-2173 did not know and did not particularly care because, as FK-2172 would later tell him, a command tail of 980 is no better than an infantry tail of 750. He had barely scraped the cut, and they knew he wouldn't be able to handle much more than a few weak-willed troops at a time. He was going with the long-tailiers -- the 1200's and 1250's -- to some outpost. He would be in charge, sure, but he wouldn't get far. Or rather, she had joked (which threw him, as joking was still a new concept to FL-2173 at this time), he'd get too far to do any real good or harm. Eventually, she would be proven right, and would also teach FL-2173 to joke himself, this curly-haired girl, called Yap by the other cadets, for her high laugh and constant talk.
FL-2173 remembers his graduation to cadet status as racous and restless despite its monochormatic palette. It was the first time the cadets were dressed in full white armor and not a jumpsuit equivalent, and most were as excited as they were uncomfortable. They were attended by a wash of barely-audible clicks and clacks as unfamiliar armor brushed on unfamiliar arms, bringing to FL-2173's mind the image of a thousand mouths whispering nervously to themselves.
A barely-graduated general -- a washed out, gingery man previously called XB-25 who the rumor mill claimed had been pre-command for only 2 years before ascending to a name and impressively high rank -- gave an impassioned speech about what it meant to work for the First Order, to be one of its citizens. He made it sound like they had built the damn thing, but spat their graduation announcement like a court martial sentencing.
His words masked an eagerness for violence that FL-2173 recognized among the Order's finest. The sound of that edge made his head buzz and caused in him a low panic that murmured and whispered instead of crying out, well-subdued by his training. This realization in turn caused the buzzing to intensify and the panic to grow more confident. He looked across the heads of his fellow soldiers and felt sick. More than that, he felt lost. All that time training had taught him to see his co-cadets past the masks, but now that they were wearing them, FL-2173 found that this fact unsettled rather than comforted him. It felt partially like having an additional sense; in a way it was like being able to see through solid surfaces, but mostly it felt like invisibility, a false sense of security, and the obfuscation of responsibility.
Though they were all dressed the same, FL-2173 didn’t see his division as a mirror. Instead he felt their presence as an ominous they that smothered his carefully-constructed I.
He breathed in his helmet just to hear the sound stop at the modulator (he hadn’t noticed yet, but you don’t hear a stormtrooper’s breathing when they’re uniform unless something’s gone really wrong). He breathed until it became a roaring wind in his ears that brought back the image of an empty bowl, of small dirty hands.
During their welcome to Phasma’s unit, Yap -- who was still standing next to FL-2173 just as she had during extract and cadet training thanks to a tail that just barely and miraculously outranked his at FK-2172 -- practically bounced on her heels, excited to finally be free of the cadet trainers with whom she'd had many run-ins. The teachers and trainers didn't like her, but her placement was up to her test scores and Phasma's command attache, and the captain had, as Yap once said to a table full of groaning cadets, "taken a shine to her." It made sense to FL-2173, since she was an excellent hand-to-hand fighter, a good shot with a blast rifle, and always managed to pass interrogation drills with a smile on her face and a little extra blood on her teeth.
Though he would forge a few during his cadet days, she was FL-2173’s favorite we.
Yap's friendship with him had been one of convenience, he knew, as they shared a bunk in the cadet barracks and knew each other’s faces from a time when stoicism had not been an option, but she did not let that diminish its brightness. In the mornings, she slapped him gently awake from the top bunk (with a foot if she was feeling particularly mischievous) and was constantly tutoring him in hand-to-hand, though FL-2173 suspected that this was not the intention behind their spontaneous wrestling matches.
There were others too, of course, like FD-2300 and FY-2377, called Oughts and Lucky respectively for their coincidental love of betting on sparring matches and having ironically consistent rates of success. And they often ate with FN-2187 and his bunk-neighbors, FZ-2290-1 and FZ-2290-2.
The only thing FL-2173 had ever been able to best Yap at had been heavy weapons training, and even then he was only barely able to do so with the help of puberty. Back when they were extracts, Yap had been bigger than he was, but around year four of cadet training FL-2173 seemed to shoot upwards and overtook her by ten centimeters in only three months. She still made a point of throwing him to the ground whenever the mood took her, but it wasn’t as easy as it had once been, nor as painful.
It was around this time that the jokes started, about FL-2173 and Yap and the sorts of things that a good First Order commander knows are indicators that it’s time to start distributing neural drive inhibitors to their cadets. Mostly it was FZ-2290-1 and FZ-2290-2 whispering at the mess around FN-2187’s back in an unnecessary show of conspiracy. The FZ’s were often known in the cadet division as the Clones for their identical serial numbers and, more importantly, their identical DNA which some surmised was the cause of the double serial. No one knew enough of the actual clones to say for certain if they were, but the name had been thrown around once and, like a good grenade, it stuck.
FN-2187 would tell them to shut up if he had the energy, but mostly he just looked across to FL-2173 apologetically, knowing it didn’t matter what he said besides, and FL-2173 didn’t mind all that much. In a way it bound them together to have to deal with the Clones all the time. It got them talking.
“Seventy-three,” FN-2187 called once, passing FL-2173 on the way to the ‘freshers. “Hey, I just wanted you to know I think those two, the Clones, they’re just petty.” He said it with a sincerity FL-2173 found shocking.
FL-2173’s stomach clenched and he checked his peripherals for Yap. He didn’t often have conversations with people that weren’t also mostly hers, and he suddenly realized that the feeling in his gut was not panic at having to socialize without her, but elation that someone else had wanted to socialize with him without her.
“Yeah,” FL-2173 began, like some archetype he was taught about in extract training but had now forgotten, “they’re just petty.” Something about the same words being repeated back, something about a reflection.
“I don’t want you to think that just because I sit by them it means that I don’t mind, you know?”
“Not at all,” FL-2173 said back. Was he asking for validation? What did it matter what FL-2173 thought? How he felt about the Clones?
“So we’re okay?”
We coursed through him like a held-back sparring blow; not painful, but disarming.
“Yeah, we’re okay.” Something about a letter, something about reverberations… It was on the tip of his stilled tongue.
And then FN-2187 smiled in a way FL-2173 wasn’t even sure he’d seen Yap do and he couldn’t help but smile back.
Echo, he thought. That’s what that archetype was called. Echo.
FL-2173 started talking to FN-2187 more after that, almost as much as he talked to Yap. And although Yap still talked more alone than both FL-2173 and FN-2187 did combined, the three became a regular sight at meals and in blaster training. FN-2187 moved across the table at the mess to leave the Clones to their jokes for as long as they lasted. Fortunately that wasn’t all that long, anyways. Some said that they tried to tease Yap in an empty corridor, assuming that the lack of supervision would keep them out of trouble rather than landing them squarely in it. But, FN-2187 would say to those for whom he performed the story, we’ll never know anything for sure except that the twins came out moderately bruised and blessedly quiet.
They developed a rhythm around the bunks. Yap provided the banter while FN-2187 provided the laughter and FL-2173 provided the intimidating height and gentle calm that diffused any arguments that cropped up (and being friends with Yap, there were always arguments).
For the most part, cadet life was a series of carefully-ordered “firsts” that all came in quick succession up until there were no more to have, but one of the worst of these was first Conditioning.
Where the extracts only had to do lessons on memorization – “FK, what does a citizen of the Order do when approached by a commanding officer? How does she respond?” – cadets had to internalize those lessons.
Conditioning was an endless monotony of “teamwork drills” where they put on their armor and learned how to walk, how to stand, how to predict each other’s movements, and then proved that they had learned how over and over and over.
FL-2173 loved blaster training, and even learned to love hand-to-hand as he grew into his body, but Conditioning he never grew to like or even understand.
The individual tests were the worst of all. They had to run battle simulations in never-ending permutations, their suits constricting and growing hot and uncomfortable if the tide turned against them. They attended simulated debriefings (always in their helmets), where they were asked to explain what had happened in the battle simulation in perfect, clipped detail, and felt the uncomfortable tingle of a circuit completing itself on their skin if they evaded a question or misinformed their “commander”. There were a few mission drills as well. FL-2173 had nightmares about the execution drill for months and months until one night he woke FN-2187 in the middle of the night.
“Hey, Seventy-Three, wake up,” FN-2187 whispered from his bedside, crouching next to the bottom bunk across from his own. “You were thrashing.”
“Yeah.” FN-2187 cocked his head, like he was trying to get a good look at FL-2173 through the dark. “We okay now?”
Sweat evaporated on FL-2173’s forehead and the sound of his own helmet-breathing receded into dream memory. An echo.
“Yeah, we’re okay.”
“Just checking. Go back to sleep, we’ve got parade drills tomorrow.”
The dreams stopped after that even though Conditioning unfortunately didn’t.
The first time Phasma welcomed them as cadets; the under-500 division had been excitable and immature, both hopeful and fearful of pleasing their commander who they knew had already memorized every one of their serials.
The second time Phasma welcomed them as full-fledged soldiers and it was the closest thing FL-2173 thinks he’s ever seen to a party.
By now, Yap stood further away from him, having been re-routed to pre-command and he having been selected to be a part of the heavy weapons team, but FL-2173 found he didn’t need her there, bouncing inside her armor like he had needed her at cadet welcome.
“Once a bunk-mate always a bunk-mate,” Yap had said to him when she’d been moved to pre-command quarters. It wasn’t consolation, exactly, since troopers didn’t need comforting, but it was something close. A reflection of it, maybe, turned sideways, like an order imperfectly executed, a way to cheat the Conditioning. She had taken the opportunity to grapple him down into one last noogie and said that, besides, nobody else in the unit could keep up with her wit like he and FN-2187 could. She needed soldiers like them under her command, if she was gonna do this, she needed to know there were people worth leading.
A new kind of you formed in FL-2173’s mind. It conveyed something beyond concern about his testing scores or how to survive conditioning, but carried concerns about Yap doing those things, too. It offered a thought about her having a new bunk-mate for the first time since pre-training. It offered a worry.
“We okay?” he asked.
“Yeah,” she said, squeezing tighter so that he couldn’t turn his head to see her, pulling his ear closer to her chest, “we’re okay.”
FL-2173’s first battle is the worst thing he ever survives. It is a mass of blinding white and red and fear and pain. There is fire everywhere. He realizes that the Conditioning simulations did not include the screams. But he takes his orders anyways. He waits for Phasma’s count. He dutifully fires.
This is not a memory, but a living thing that sits inside of him every time he sleeps. It does not always rear its face, but he can always feel it there. It is not a was, but an is. It makes FL-2173 realize why his I’s and we’s and you’s are contraband. It makes him want to forget his specificity.
When he cannot sleep, FL-2173 talks to FN-2187 and when FN-2187 cannot sleep he listens. As soldiers they are mostly free to choose their bunks, and it makes sense to bunk with someone you know and who knows you. During their finishing – in that limbo between “well-trained” and “battle-tested” – they have these talks a lot. FN-2187 is on a delayed schedule, since they only move around 150 troops through finishing at a time, and he asks about it constantly. He masks it in a tone of excitement, but FL-2173 can feel his fear, his anxiety, and he doesn’t have the heart to be honest about how wise it is.
Finishing is the worst parts of Conditioning all rolled into one, he wants to say, all of the Conditioning drills you hated the most as a cadet put on loop until you do them without looking. It’s hard to get through, he wants to admit, I don’t know if I can finish.
But he doesn’t say any of these things during their nighttime talks, and prays FN-2187 never asks outright.
And after his debut, FL-2173 doesn’t say anything during their diminishing talks at all.
The day it happens, it is unbelievable.
Things go wrong on the ship all the time – things go wrong in the First Order all the time – but never like this. Never with a live hostage escaping, and never with the whispers like FL-2173 caught as he sprinted towards the hangar.
Lucky ran near him, making one of his legendarily ill-fated predictions, “Probably an undercover agent the left as a stopgap. Knew he’d get captured.”
Oughts was just a few feet behind him, panting something like a laugh, correcting him. “No way, they’re not that smart. That’s a trooper trying to steal that ship.”
“You think we’d have a traitor on this ship?”
“You bet your blaster. Had to happen eventually.”
FL-2173 agreed with Oughts and felt something unfamiliar twist in him. He didn’t have much of a reason to recognize envy in the Order, so later he doesn’t blame himself for not knowing.
They arrived into the hangar to see the TIE fighter struggling against its tether and to hear a kind of chaos unfamiliar even to those who’d seen battle. So many troopers were yelling at each other, trying to muster, some of them simply arguing. The comm lines were a desperate jumble.
“Is that really—”
“—not on your life—”
“You think it was who?”
“—one of the other prisoners?”
“Are there other prisoners?”
“—one of ours?”
Then a single voice, high and clear, “Division 500-Delta, this is temporary command. Attend. Maneuver to port-side center, fire on that fighter.”
Oughts called out an affirmative and took the front as Lucky and FL-2173 covered his rear. They met Yap at makeshift cover. “Orders, command?” If there was a smile in Oughts’ voice, for once Yap didn’t tease him about it.
“You know your orders, Zeroes, suppress that fighter.”
“It’s Oughts, ma’am.”
“Really? I thought it was FD-2300.”
“Affirmative, command, that it is.”
“Good, now are you going to fire on that fighter like I asked or not?”
“You’ve got it.”
This banter continued as they yelled to one another over the screeching of the trapped fighter and Lucky even tried to make a joke about expenditures when the gunner managed to hit the control tower, but it became clearer as they fought that this wasn’t going to work. Maybe it would delay the escape, but it couldn’t prevent it. Someone was going to have to land a shot somewhere critical and take the fighter down.
“Soldiers, I have an idea.”
Yap drew a sticky grenade from her utility belt and jerked her head in a familiar, goading motion. “Cover me,” she said, and leapt over the cover.
FL-2173 was following her before Lucky or Oughts could even move. He thought he could hear Lucky yell incredulously (“Cover?!”), but he tuned it out. There was no covering in this fight – there wasn’t anybody to shoot covering fire at – but FL-2173 had recognized the pitch of her voice, the one that said she was about to wrestle somebody, and couldn’t help but follow.
The hangar felt much larger than he knew it really was as they ran across it, indefensible, but the distance closed under their feet and suddenly Yap was running up the side of the fighter’s cradle to get a better angle to throw from. FL-2173 followed behind, sneaking a glance up at the fighter as he passed under it and nearly froze where he stood. There, in the gunner’s seat, was an unmasked trooper that he didn’t merely recognize, but knew.
And in his moment of confusion, FL-2173 missed the tether breaking and snapping back to the cradle.
But he did not miss the sound of his temporary commander screaming in alarm as it hit her, or the heat of the electrical sparks it sent off. He did not miss the envy turn even more sour in his gut, curdling into guilt and anger and shock all at once. He did not miss the echo of electrical shocks hiding away in his muscles as he disobeyed direct orders by dragging Yap’s body from the wreckage of the fighter cradle, or the hot, stinging feeling in his eyes when she didn't answer his calls.
After the escape, everything was worse. The nightmares were worse and now there was no one to talk to about them. The mess was worse now that there was a Yap-shaped hole in its northern corner. Even the barracks were worse, with the new stillness and silence punctuated only by the sounds of newer nightmare-havers.
In the end, it was not by force that FL-2173 was brought to Reconditioning, but the weakening that accompanied the worsening.
Phasma described it to her troops as a clean slate. She cautioned that it would not be like the first conditioning they had gone through as cadets, but would leave them feeling like they just had. It was usually administered, she said, rather than elected.
But, in the end, FL-2173 had always thought of himself as an individualist.
Memories after reconditioning are never as clear as they were before, even new ones. Especially new ones, FL-2173 explained to his seat-mates as they shipped out for Takodana. They called each other names that he didn’t know, something having to do with odds and lucky numbers, he thought then promptly forgot.
So it’s strange, of course, but really it’s not that bad, he explained. He’s kept all the good stuff. He laughed. He thinks he’s kept all the good stuff, at least. He’s forgotten the useless stuff, he said, and that must count for something.
His seat-mates didn’t respond, but inclined their helmets towards one another. Oh well, let them think what they think. It didn’t matter to FL-2173. He had a unit to lead under temporary command.
The battle itself was hectic and confusing, and FL-2173 found it gave him a certain type of focus, now, to tune out all of the noise and just think on the orders. First, the droid. Then, if they couldn’t find it, the girl. Beyond that, there was a small bounty for anyone who could detain or kill Solo or the wookiee, and a slightly larger one for a supposed ex-trooper. A traitor wasn’t a common occurrence, and neither was a bounty of that size, so FL-2173 kept an eye out. Besides that, it was kind of exciting to think that he might see a defector from his own cohort somewhere out here and be able to test himself against him. Juvenile, perhaps, but exciting.
The life of a stormtrooper is meted out piece by piece. New breastplate, new helmet, new rations, new command. It is not cluttered and it is not messy, at least not noticeably and not for long.
The unnecessary bits get scrubbed, units get reprogrammed, but the First Order forgot something along the way: a body keeps its own records. Even when the conscious mind forgets, a body remembers.
Certain things like I’s and you’s and we’s require delicate calibration and many moving parts, but other concepts are more simple. Some words aren’t as much signifiers or symbols as they are physical realities, analogous to sensations such as pain. And if there is anything a body knows, it is physical realities.
Perhaps it does not know the words for regret or disappointment or self-destruction, but a body knows rage.
Where it may not recognize “prodigal”, a body will always know “traitor.”