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Changeling Children

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Four children, dressed in black, have arranged themselves side-by-side against the containment cell’s far wall, their hair shaved down clean to the scalp and their hands held clasped behind their backs. Nobody has told them to stand this way.

Poe’s mouth falls open – in his defense, it’s a pretty damn eerie display – but Finn steps lightly around him without so much as a blink.

“At ease,” he says, raising a flattened hand in greeting. “May I speak with your junior squad commander, please?”

The children are, by Poe’s cursory estimation, between the ages of fourteen and seven. They all wear plated metal bracelets on their left wrists and ankles, imprinted with their blood type and body mass – more consistent than weight, which will of course vary from planet to planet – along with their division and individual serial numbers. None of them move or make a sound.

Finn tries again. A pained expression flits across his face.

“I order that junior commander of this squad step forward immediately.”

A broad and tawny-skinned girl, her jaw like a wedge, steps out of line. Her hands are gathered into sharp, anticipatory fists.

“AH-8765 reporting, sir!” Her voice is bellowing-hoarse, but Poe realizes that his initial guess was slightly off-mark. She is the oldest and largest of these children, certainly, a soft face atop shoulders already hardened by rigorous training, but she can’t be much more than twelve. “I am requesting an audience with FN-2187!”

“That’s me,” Finn tells her. He walks to stand directly in front of her, hands out and lowered at his sides as though to show her they are empty. “I’d prefer it if you called me ‘Finn,’ though. That’s my new name. What would you like to know?”

“If the – ” the girl’s lower lip trembles, but then she sniffs and juts her chin forward “– if the Resistance wants to submit us for disciplinary action, sir, tell them they only need to take me. I told them we should run away, like you did. It was m-m-my idea.”

Finn crouches until they are at about eye level with each other. Very slowly, perhaps so that the girl will not flinch, he lowers his hands onto her shoulders, although she flinches anyway.

Poe tries to keep perfectly still, and something cinches like a drawstring around his heart.

“You’ve been a very good leader, AH-8765. I’m here to promise you that you’ll all be safe, now. Nobody’s going to hurt you – do you think you can trust me?”

Finn looks into the girl’s staring eyes, for a measured beat, and then she nods. One of the younger children begins to sniffle as well.

“Okay.“ Finn gets to his feet again. “Is there anything else you guys want to ask?”

“Yes, sir!” shouts a skinny boy, who is missing his two front teeth. “AH-8768 speaking, sir – when do we all get our own names?”’

They sit and watch with fastidious, drilled concentration as Finn ladles stew into their bowls, then hold their faces over its fragrant steam for a very long time before taking a first deferential spoonful.

“Now, remember what I keep telling you guys,” Finn says. “I know it tastes really good, but if you eat too fast then you’ll make yourself sick and it all comes back up again.”

“Right,” one nods. “Like in survival training.”

“Except that’s with water,” another corrects, through two bulging cheeks. “When you’re stuck in the desert, and you drink too much because you feel so dehydridudated.”

“Dehydrated, stupid.”

The mess hall’s kitchen sits polished-clean and dimly-lit, quiet except for the steady hum of its conservators. Finn has asked that they be allowed in here after hours, so that they will not attract more attention than necessary – he’s also issued a polite but standing request that no adults hug or touch the children without first asking their permission.

The gruff-voiced junior commander has chosen the name Iris – slightly incongruous, Poe thinks, but Finn declares that it suits her – after an afternoon spent walking through the Resistance base’s underground hydroponic gardens. The boy AH-8768, marked to become their squad’s riot control trooper due to his promisingly long limbs, takes up the equally blunt name of Crash. The youngest child, a slipping-quiet girl labeled EU-7791 who was transferred to the AH squad one week before their defection, wants to call herself Equinox – or Nox, rather, Nox for short. She was the only member of her original detachment to pass their first combat simulation test.

The remaining boy – AH-8788 is ten, almost eleven, and there is a still-healing burn scar at the nape of his neck which he will not allow any medtechs to come near – cannot decide who he wants to be, just yet, so they call him by his old nickname Eights in the meanwhile.

“You gave Finn his name, didn’t you, Commander Dameron?” Eights asks, suddenly. “That’s what he told us. Then you busted out together and stole a TIE fighter because you’re the best pilot in the galaxy and he says you can fly anything.”

Poe glances up from his meal. The children are staring at him, swinging their feet where they dangle off the tall stools.

“Well, yeah.” Poe balances the bowl on his knees. “Sort of. I’d say I owe Finn a lot more, though – his name was the least I could do.”

“But he says you helped him escape.”

“Does he?” Poe swerves his gaze around, raises a sportive eyebrow. “I think you’ve got that backwards, buddy.”

“Nope.” Finn makes a point of carrying the soup spoon to his mouth. “That’s exactly right.

The children, for whatever reason, all seem to absorb and understand this in the same instant, and do not speak again until they’ve licked their bowls so clean they gleam.

They walk everywhere in pairs of two, their steps timed and synced, and snap to follow requests with a mechanical precision that would, in other circumstances, be rather charmingly precocious. They also rise at 500 hours every morning, before even General Organa, and make their beds so tidily that a coin could bounce right off the surface. Finn always arrives on time for a mock inspection.

(You can’t break them from their routines all at once, Finn has explained, along with something about structure, and scaffolding, and the odd comfort of always knowing what you are expected to do next.

Poe tells him how this makes sense, partially.)

“That’s very good,” Finn observes, and then he grabs one folded corner of the blanket on Crash’s bed. “Can I use this for a second? I’ll help you put it back again when we’re finished, if you want me to.”

Crash nods, but then looks baffled as Finn strips off the sheets and blankets together with an enthusiastic heave.

“Excuse me, sir, but what are you doing?”

“Making a fort.” Finn winds one sheet around a bedpost. “It’s sort of like those lean-to shelters they tell you about. Anybody want to help?”

In fact, they do. Poe offers his assistance, as well, although the children know several aggressively complicated knots that he has only ever seen in outdated military handbooks from the Galactic Empire. Eights and Nox show him how to tie one that looks like a forked tongue, or else like a splitting crossroads.

When they are finished, everybody – except Poe, naturally, who is the oldest and is therefore assigned by Iris to keep watch outside – sidles in beneath their blanket fort’s muted light.

“Wait a second, wait a second, let me think of a story.” Finn crosses his legs. He is bowed slightly over, one elbow propped up on his knee, but the blankets still brush his head. “Okay, I’ve got one. Have you guys ever gotten Captain Phasma’s lecture about escape velocity?”

“Yes, sir,” Eights answers, straightening his back. “It’s the speed an unpowered aircraft needs to be going in order to escape a planet’s gravitational pull.”

“Exactly! Great memory! So this one time, Poe and I get ourselves stranded on a remote part of Tatooine while we’re on an intel mission. We’d needed to get dropped in, to avoid detection, but then they couldn’t pick us back up again because the First Order intercepted the ship General Organa sent to retrieve us. And I’m thinking, well, at least it’s not Jakku, but then Poe says – ”

Finn smiles the whole time he is telling this story, moving his hands and throwing his voice for dialogue so that the children laugh or gasp or lean forward at all the right times. Poe eventually realizes that he is smiling too – his face starts to hurt, actually – and there is a kind of electrical charge that circulates from his chest down to his fingertips and back up again.

But this isn’t really surprising, he knows. Finn just has that effect on people.

One day, while it is raining, Finn uses Poe’s security clearance to take Iris – Iris who is the oldest, Iris who is in some ways still the leader – above-ground. The three of them pause in a bunker entryway and watch the mist rise off D-Qar’s green, slope-shouldered hills.

“Iris,” Finn says, and his voice is emphatically grown-up in tone, “did you receive Phase II of your enhanced interrogation training?”

“Yes, sir. I did.” She considers, folding her stocky arms. “Crash would’ve gotten it next, if I’d let us stay.”

“All right.” Finn bows down and slips out of his shoes before rolling up his pant legs to the knee. “You don’t need to worry about getting dirty here, by the way – if we can’t clean it, I’ll just get you new clothes.”

After a second of observation, Iris mimics him, and then she follows Finn out onto the empty parade grounds with her usual quick and well-timed gait. Poe stays where he is while they squelch through the slick grass, stomping in puddles so hard that cold water bursts up around their legs and pushing their toes deep into the lush, satin-black mud.

“What do you think?” Finn must shout to be heard above the hissing rain. “Feels pretty good, right?”

“Yes!” Iris shouts in reply. With a bright, sharp shock, Poe realizes that she's weeping. “Yes, sir!”

And she goes on stomping – angrier, now, her fists once more clenched as though to receive or deliver a blow – when Finn draws quietly away. Water drips from his hair, off his back, down the wicks of his now-unsmiling mouth, as he comes to stand beside Poe.

“…Do I want to know what Phase II is?” Poe asks, finally.

“Probably not.” Finn keeps his eyes forward. “Trooper protocol is that you only ever know what you need to, in case you’re captured and questioned, but they still prepare unit or division leaders to withstand different, uh, persuasive techniques. I probably don’t need to explain that to you, though, huh? So for training, sometimes, they’ll take your bare feet and – ”

And Finn raises one hand to make a businesslike, flicking movement with his wrist, like the curling lash of a whip. Poe frowns.

“ – You wouldn’t think it could possibly hurt that much, but man.” Finn shakes his head, and they both observe Iris turning a fumbled cartwheel. “You feel it in your bones.”

Carefully, silently, because there is really nothing he can say, Poe puts an arm around Finn shoulders and keeps it there – his skin is warm even under the chilly-damp shirt, through Poe’s uniform sleeve – until Iris gathers up her shoes and walks back towards them.

She does not put the shoes on after they go inside, however, and instead grins down at the bare footprints she leaves behind. So does Finn.

These dormitory beds are designed to hold only one person, the mattresses economically narrow and covered in a crackling plastic shell, so Finn and Poe must always twist themselves together in a way that leaves at least one foot or hand tingling-numb by morning. Someone’s elbow also ends, typically, stuck in somebody else’s eye or nose. Neither of them minds.

But tonight Finn lies flat on his back, staring at the alusteel bedframe above them after the lights are turned out in their shared quarters, and he sets both hands complacently down atop his chest until Poe finally lifts one of them up.

“Come in, Officer Finn,” he says, with his best comm unit articulation. “What’s your 20? Over.”

“Huh?” Finn’s muscles twitch in surprise, and he blinks. “Oh. Sorry. I’m right here.”

“Really? Could’ve fooled me.” After a pause, Poe swipes his thumb across a raised, heavy vein on the back of Finn’s hand. “I’d ask what’s on your mind, but I think I can make a pretty good guess.”

Finn gives a long, emptying sigh as he considers what to say.

Moments such as this – it could be pure imagination on Poe’s part, obviously – seem to close a space of quiet around them both, the kind Poe can remember finding whenever he scrambled up the Force tree’s branches and sat among its moving, green-gold shadows.

But, again, that could just be his imagination.

Finn keeps his eyes on the steel bars.

“I’ve been thinking about my old –” his lips purse around the words “—squad, I guess. I still call them that, you know, in my head. Zero, and Nines, and –”

“– Slip,” Poe finishes.

“Yeah. Mostly him.”

They’ve spoken about this many times before, and so Poe understands more or less what this means – Slip who always fell behind, Slip who Finn always tried to save, Slip who died on Jakku anyway with Poe’s blaster-bolt through his chest.

(“But he says you helped him escape.”)

Ah, Poe thinks. 

Yes. That makes sense.

He stays quiet so Finn can go on talking. Around them, the base’s extensive pipework and ventilation systems make their usual clanking, groaning, settling-down noises.

“I know they’re not – they weren’t my family, really, because that’s not how they trained us to see each other, but they were what I had. And they weren’t all bad, either.” Finn’s throat goes taut. He shifts his grip so their fingers will link together. “Whatever protocol tries to dictate, every trooper squad still follows its own rules. It’s mostly stupid things, like – don’t laugh if one of your men starts crying, no matter how much of a coward you think he’s being. Or, don’t take more than your share of rations, because everyone’s as hungry as you are. If the guy you’re partnered with starts, well, puking, or something, all of a sudden, after he’s had to shoot an unarmed protester twice because the first shot wasn’t fatal, you should take off his helmet and hold his head until he’s finished because you’d want somebody to do the same for you. They can put all kinds of armor here, obviously – ”

Finn raises his free hand to tap it once against his forehead, about where the visor of a helmet would go, and then lowers that same hand to tap the spot over his heart.

“ – But I don’t think they’ll ever be as good at putting it here.”

For the first time, he turns his head to look over at Poe, and then he tries to laugh.

“That sounds pretty ridiculous, right? Corny as hell. I just wish there were something more I could do for, uh – for them. For them all.”

And there are many things Poe could probably say, here, in response, things he may very well have said before he met FN-2187 – well, don’t feel too bad for them, because they all have the same choice as you did and they don’t take it, they are not all innocent children or untested young soldiers, they are the enemy and we are at war and how could you ever really trust someone who has been taught to kill with such perfect, exacting precision?

Poe does not say any of that, though, and this is what makes all the difference.

“It does sound ridiculous,” he admits, instead, “but probably not as ridiculous as what I’m about to tell you. Listen, here’s the idea – ”

….

It takes Poe five days to convince General Organa that he is, indeed, still sane.

“We should at least try,” he finishes by saying. “That’s all we can do, right?”

It takes four days more for their communications team to determine how one might go about scrambling and overriding the First Order’s transmission channels for as long as they would need, and three days of Finn drafting and rehearsing and editing down his words to fit the estimated sixty-second window he has been allotted.

Just beforehand, he reads everything aloud to Iris and Nox and Crash and Eights. They all listen with their eyes shut, and then Finn waits for their opinion.

“Don’t worry so much, sir,” Iris tells him, studying the set of his shoulders. “It’s like in training – if you get too scared, you have to hold your breath and count to five before you let it out.”

“Yeah,” Crash says. “If you can keep doing that, you’ll get through things all right.”

“Talk like you did when you told us about Tatooine,” Nox adds. There is something peculiar and sidelong about the way she looks at everyone, as though she can see two of them if she holds her head at the right angle. “Or the way you talk about Takodana, and Han Solo, and that girl Jedi you know. That way they’ll feel, um, they’ll know –”

She cannot decide what she means, so Eights rounds off the thought for her.

“That way, they’ll know you’re really telling the truth.”

Finn thanks them for their sage counsel.

And when he leans close to the holorecorder, when the light flashes once as his signal to proceed, he speaks with the careful, earnest voice of a storyteller while everyone in the Outer Rim – standing on the high warship bridges, deep inside its bases, patrolling polished hallways in white-masked pairs of two – halts abruptly to listen. A hooded man clothed all in black stops mid-stride to listen as well. 

The message goes exactly as follows:

“Hey, everyone. This is FN-2187 speaking. I’m sure you’ve heard about me, one way or another. And I should tell you now that I’m not sending this message because the Resistance ordered me to – this is just between you guys and me. What I want is to make you all an offer. It might sound unbelievable, but hear me out first –”

From the edge of his vision, Poe can see two technicians working furiously over the control panels, but studying this any further would force him to take his eyes off of Finn.

A clock nearby shows how much time he has left, its numbers running down as smoothly and rapidly as sand through the narrowest part of hourglass, but Finn does not seem at all hurried.

“ – Any stormtrooper or solider who comes freely to the Resistance will be given amnesty. If you want to fight alongside us, we could really use you here. If you want to go home, or find a new home for yourself, we can try and help you with that, too. We’ll need peace, first, before I can call that second part a promise, but I think you have the power to make it happen. What I can promise you for now is this – ”

The children have somehow crept past three sets of secured and airlocked doors, have sat themselves down on a bench without detection, and Iris holds Nox tightly in her lap. Crash clenches his jaw. Eights scratches absentmindedly at the scar on his neck.

“—You will not be disciplined. You will not be punished, or persecuted. Whatever you’ve done in the past, or have been made to do, we’re a lot more interested in what you can do next.”

Now Finn glances up at Poe, during this rhetorical pause, so Poe smiles.

Finn smiles back.

“So, it’s your choice,” he finishes. “Think about it.”

Then the transmission snaps out with a click, the clock stops at zero, and in the radio silence afterwards all they can do is wait.

But they will not, Poe suspects – rightly – have to wait for very long.