Perhaps it has sometimes happened to you in a dream that someone says something which you don't understand but in the dream it feels as if it had some enormous meaning—either a terrifying one which turns the whole dream into a nightmare or else a lovely meaning too lovely to put into words, which makes the dream so beautiful that you remember it all your life and are always wishing you could get into that dream again.
C.S. Lewis, The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe
Fire devoured the Resistance.
Flames bled out of torches, stormtroopers pointing their weapons at homes, buildings, abandoned airspeeders. Witnessing the scum of the galaxy reduced to ash and ember ought to feel victorious, yet FN-2187 was horrorstruck, mind locked in time back to the miners he’d been sent to kill in an all too similar fashion. His eyes raked over the toys laid forgotten on the dirt, the roofs crashing into family homes. His own torch rested untouched in his arms. Sweat ran down his cheeks like raindrops. His eyes stung, too, and he suspected sweat had not gotten inside.
A trooper knocked shoulders with him. FN-2187 tripped forward, his scattered thoughts rendering him less coordinated than usual, and he was jarred back into reality.
Stormtroopers had been deployed to a known Resistance base on the outskirts of the First Order’s territory, long abandoned once the troopers arrived, but only recently. The rebels had fled in a hurry, possessions still strewn over the encampment. The air had been eerily quiet seconds before the first torch spat out flames, like a ghost town.
FN-2187 started running. Where to, he didn’t know. He had to hide before getting caught for his inaction. Torch left unutilized, he instead kicked discarded items for the impression it left. He ran past burning houses, eyes forward and locked on the stormtroopers ahead of him. He thought he saw Slip eradicate a house, but he didn’t double check.
He kept running until he came across a street of untouched houses which went on for five or six homes on either side. FN-2187 couldn’t believe his eyes. The base looked like everyone’s worst nightmare a few paces in the other direction, yet he had stumbled across another ghost town.
He licked his lips, then jogged down the street.
He imagined the miners living in one of those houses. If they’d succeeded in negotiating with the First Order, maybe they would’ve lived in one of those. FN-2187 kept jogging until hearing a crunch under his boot. His heart jumping into his throat, FN-2187 steadied his breath and willed himself to look down and come to terms with the potential heirloom his boot destroyed.
Visible over the tip of his boot was a piece of paper with words written in loopy font, proclaiming, Do not be intimidated. Join the Resistance.
He blinked, rereading the words a dozen times before he bent over to pick it up.
It was a Resistance propaganda poster featuring a man wearing an orange pilot uniform for the Rebel army, a black and burnt orange helmet tucked underneath his arm, the insignia for the Resistance partially visible. His black hair contrasted well with his olive skin tone, equally dark eyes staring back at FN-2187 with a defiant gleam. The pilot taunted FN-2187—or beckoned him closer. FN-2187 couldn’t tell the difference. His mouth grew parched.
“FN-2187, what are you doing?” said Captain Phasma.
His heart spiked, stuttered breaths escaping his lungs, and he shoved the poster through a small crack in his armor between his glove and the white casing that shielded his wrist. Eyes skittering and face paling, FN-2187 was glad that Phasma could only dissect his movements, or his lack thereof. She couldn’t peer into his head and pick it apart. FN-2187 spun around and straightened his spine. He said, “Captain, we missed a zone.”
“What are you going to do about it?” Phasma tilted her helmet in a way that said, I’m waiting.
A blast of flames burst into the quiet street. Troopers swarmed in, flames swallowing up the houses. Phasma stood still and silent, watching FN-2187. Or, at least, he thought so. Her helmet pointed in his direction, which ultimately meant very little.
Then she turned away and marched off.
After the mission, FN-2187 went alone to a simulation room.
Rebels swarmed and attacked him at all angles. They bulled forward with blasters pointed at his forehead, eyes glinting with unbridled fury. As of yet, neither hologram nor trooper had fired, but FN-2187 wanted to kill them. To kill them meant that he was a trooper. Troopers killed to defend the First Order and its vow to protect the galaxy from the corruption of the Republic. Yet those rebels’ eyes, radiating rage and obstinacy, saw only FN-2187’s impassive viewport. They couldn’t see him relishing in the darkness behind his eyelids as he blinked, where there were no holograms or houses bursting into flame or miners killed in cold blood—only blackness. His fingers flexed and fiddled with the handle of his blaster.
The drawing of the Resistance pilot was still tucked away under his armor, his body suit preventing sharp corners from cutting into his skin. That enthralling gleam in the pilot’s eye haunted him, the spark so at odds with the holograms’ glowers. None of the holograms resembled the pilot. FN-2187 sought out doppelgangers, heart battering in his chest when the pilot lived in solely in a two dimensional plane.
The rebels fired, blasting his shoulder. FN-2187 stepped back, arms falling limp to his side, and searched the rebels’ faces for the pilot until the simulation switched to a tropical forest, intending to train him on guerilla warfare.
He later quit the simulation after his HUD alerted him that dinner would soon be served. When he finally made it to the canteen, the FN unit waited at attention in the corridor, their backs inches away and parallel to the wall.
“We’re due for training,” Zeroes told him, modulated voice lacking emotion.
FN-2187 felt aching and weary, yet the First Order never let the troopers rest. Not when they could be cleaning or working or learning.
“I would’ve really liked to eat during our allotted time,” said Nines, clipped and acerbic. He tilted his head. “I heard you didn’t fire again.”
On reflex, FN-2187 looked to Slip, straining his eyes to glimpse meaning into Slip’s helmet. Phasma always reprimanded FN-2187 when he held out a hand for Slip to grasp; the conversation never went the other way around. Yet he ached to see in Slip’s body language a semblance of a hand outstretched to him.
“We’re going down on Jakku soon,” said Slip. His helmet tilted, the angle sharper than Nines’.
FN-2187 wanted to slouch, or rub the back of his neck. Instead, he turned on his heels in the direction of the training room. “Let’s go,” he said, voice modulated for the unit to hear yet thick and heavy inside the helmet. He led the unit down the corridor.
Once they reported for training, the FN unit discovered they had a private session with Phasma. Weapons meant to attach to their forearms lined the walls, pinchers on either end that shot electricity. Standing beside the other troopers against a wall adjacent to the weapons, FN-2187 examined the pinchers and reasoned that the training would be a drill on how to subdue unruly prisoners. He was glad for the helmet on his head preventing anyone from seeing the expression on his face. He didn’t know how he looked, but he doubted Nines’ anger or Zeroes’ determination or Slip’s stubbornness was there.
The doors swung open and Phasma stalked inside, her red cape flickering behind her as she swept toward them. She carried a black leather bag with a metal button that couldn’t clamp because of the items poking past the brim. She stopped a few paces in front of them, peering down the line.
“You performed adequately yesterday,” she said. “Your reward is a lesson on important history concerning the relations between us and the Resistance.” She opened the bag, revealing four datapads, the insignia for the Resistance adorning the top of the frame outlining the screen. As she went down the line, each trooper grabbed a datapad and examined it, turning it over in their gloved palms. They rarely received a specialty item for them to keep and not share among everyone in the FN unit. “They are deleted of former information and redistributed for your use.” When she got to FN-2187, her helmet tilted minutely away, as if it sickened her to look at him.
He grabbed his datapad. His reflection peered back at him from the blank screen, a black and white smooth helmet, void of emotion. He strained his eyes to see if he could see his face. He wanted to see those features that were so uniquely his and unlike Zeroes or Nines or Slip. But, of course, try as he might, he saw only a stormtrooper.
“Set them aside for now. You can examine them later. For now, pick up a weapon and get in line.”
FN-2187 started first, as leaders ought to do, and faced off with Nines. Nines breathed hard, his chest and shoulders heaving at the crest of every inhale. FN-2187 stood with his knees bent and feet shoulder width apart, on the defense.
“You may begin,” said Phasma.
FN-2187 barely got to blink before Nines switched on his weapon and swiped the electric pulse across the jawline of FN-2187’s helmet. He fell down hard. He shot back up just as quickly, heart battering against his ribcage, and switched on his weapon. Vibrations from the crackling electricity drummed into him.
They circled around the training mat, the room silent save for the crackling from their weapons and the training mat squeaking beneath their boots.
FN-2187 ought to fight back. He knew all of Nines’ spots. FN-2187’s ability to read his unit and anticipate their actions helped him rise up and become the leader for the FN unit, and he was more than capable of defeating Nines in just one blow. But he didn’t attack. He kept circling around the mat. When Nines attacked, he dodged, not to draw out the fight but because he didn’t want to get hurt. He didn’t want anyone to get hurt. He wanted it all to stop.
He wanted everything to stop.
When dinner finally came, FN-2187 wasn’t hungry. Come morning he’d regret skipping meals, but he felt sick to his stomach.
Behind his closed eyes were flashes of the miners and their burnt arms, the blood oozing out of the wounds Slip shot into them, the smoke rising up into the night sky and blacking out the stars, houses burning.
He wanted to run down the halls and disappear into the FN barracks, but he couldn’t. If he did, he’d get reprimanded—or worse. Rather, he walked in a calm, steady pace to the barracks. Once he crept inside and the door locked, he ripped off his helmet and gasped for air, chucking onto his bed the helmet as if it were aflame. He paced the length of the room and shook his arms and head, trying to make the hurt escape out of his ears and leave his mind.
Of course, that didn’t work. He gritted his teeth. He breathed through his nose, yet that only made him start gasping. He crashed onto his bed, smashing his face into the mattress, eyes squeezed shut. He begged his mind to quiet down, for the images of those miners and Slip killing them and the burning houses to leave him alone. Yet they continued haunting him.
FN-2187 reached behind him and felt around the small of his back, stealing out of his belt the datapad Phasma gave him. Reading quieted his thoughts, whether the words were ingredients on labels of disinfectant or the daily agenda. Settling his pillow against the wall, he pressed his back against it and set the datapad on his thighs, pulling up his knees so the datapad stood up without the use of his hands. He switched on the datapad, the blood red insignia for the First Order greeting him. He pulled up the menu, then hunted down a folder containing the historical documents Phasma mentioned.
Resistance is Futile, read a folder. FN-2187 pressed it.
The datapad screamed. Or, rather, it beeped erratically, then the screen flashed various colors before blackening. FN-2187 beat his head against the wall. Of course, this would happen to him. If he wasn’t already the worst stormtrooper in existence. What was Phasma going to do to him when she learned he broke the datapad? A tune began playing, a victorious crescendo that had his heart swelling and stomach pinching, and FN-2187 watched the screen, enthralled. The screen lit up with an orange background, then text appeared: Welcome back, Kea. Had that been the datapad’s previous owner? Kea?
The Resistance’s insignia adorned the screen as the First Order’s had once before. The orange was amazing. Anything that wasn’t black, white, or red was automatically amazing, in FN-2187’s opinion. He fiddled around with the contents, pulling up data files, and quirked an eyebrow when he saw a file called Recruitment posters. Déjà vu peered over his shoulder as he pressed the folder, and though the notion of finding the image of that handsome pilot emerged in the back of his mind, he still jolted when those warm brown eyes smiled at him from the screen.
Oh, man. Phasma could never confiscate this datapad.
He ought to destroy the drawing he snatched from the Resistance base. That would cover his tracks and prevent others from suspecting him. The idea weighed heavy in his gut, but his bones were lead in his arms, weighing his weary body down into the bed. He felt silly and naïve, eyes locked on those of the pixelated figure. The pilot regarded FN-2187 with a stare that no one had ever before directed his way. He’d seen the stare occasionally in the locker room between troopers that were rumored to be fraternizing. The pilot believed in FN-2187. The pilot ached to know FN-2187. While a drawing, his likeness must be based on a real person. Might this pilot regard FN-2187 with that look, in private like those troopers who lingered in the sonic showers long after the water stopped running?
The datapad buzzed, and FN-2187 nearly screamed. Had he not been trained to stifle emotion, he would have.
OPEN MESSAGE? the datapad prompted him. YES? NO?
FN-2187 pressed yes.
BLACK LEADER: Status?
“Fuck,” whispered FN-2187. His hands shook as he tore off his gloves. He flicked his finger across the screen to pull up the keyboard. His body worked on autopilot as his mind froze and went into panic mode. He couldn’t explain why he felt the impulse to reply other than he felt an unquenchable need to speak to someone who wasn’t Phasma or a trooper or someone begging for their life. Hysterically, he wondered if Black Leader knew the pilot in the propaganda poster.
Alive, replied FN-2187, since at least that wasn’t a lie.
Black Leader didn’t reply. Why that disappointed FN-2187, he had no idea.
When three dots started bouncing under FN-2187’s message, he also couldn’t explain why he heard his heart beating in his ears.
We’ll send out a rescue team to pick you up. Send coordinates?
Distress signals blared in his mind, guilt pressing hard on him. He didn’t want to lie, not when Black Leader showed him nothing but kindness, even if Black Leader had no idea he was talking to a trooper. I’m on a Star Destroyer, with Kylo Ren, FN-2187 replied, adding in Kylo Ren if anything because the man frankly terrified him. Undercover spying, he wrote quickly, before Black Leader could reply. I’m really good at spying. One of the best. Top secret best.
FN-2187 breathed in sharply. He had no idea where that came from, either.
Excellent. You’re a prize to the Resistance. Have you discovered anything yet?
FN-2187 reread that message a thousand times over: ”A prize to the Resistance.” The corner of his lips jumped up on reflex, and even when he tried to stomp them down, they still fought to stay up. There’s going to be an attack on Jakku, he wrote. He would tell Black Leader anything if Black Leader called him a prize again.
That’s a shame, replied Black Leader.
When Black Leader wrote no more, FN-2187 punched keys and typed out a message that he hadn’t once thought over first in his head. I’ll find a way to sabotage it. For the Resistance. I stole the uniform off a stormtrooper I looked enough like. I’ll hold out for as long as I can.
Black Leader’s response came back quick like fire. That’s more like it!
Black Leader didn’t write anymore, and FN-2187 was so distracted by the nausea rolling in that he didn’t bother waffling up another reply. He stared at the datapad until his vision unfocused and the letters blurred together. When the datapad’s screen went to sleep mode, he didn’t bother turning it on.
A spark ignited in him. A spy for the Resistance. A self-appointed spy. Truly the best one, since no one knew his face other than him.
He felt like he had found somewhere to belong.