Star Wars: Before the Awakening (3 page)

BOOK: Star Wars: Before the Awakening
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There were mandatory morale sessions twice a day, when everyone was required to stop what they were doing and direct their attention to the nearest holoprojector to
watch a recorded speech from High Command, most often from General Hux himself. Those would be interspersed with news feeds showing the deplorable conditions throughout the Republic: the famines on Ibaar and Adarlon, the brutal suppression of the population of Balamak, the unchecked alien advances throughout the Outer Rim. There would always be at least one story to follow about a First Order victory,
the liberation of a labor camp on Iktotch or a fleet battle in the Bormea sector. Everyone would cheer, and FN-2187 noticed that Slip would cheer loudest of all, maybe because he was having such a hard time with everything else.

For his own part, FN-2187 didn’t much care for the morale sessions, seeing them mostly as a waste of time that could be better spent in other ways. They were all First
Order, after all; it wasn’t like anyone could forget who they were or what they were fighting for. He would applaud when he was supposed to applaud and chant when he was supposed to chant and cheer when it was right to cheer. But his heart wasn’t in it, and he wondered if he was alone in that, too. Perhaps Nines or Zeroes felt the same way. He wanted to ask them but found he was afraid to. What
if they didn’t? What if he really was the only one who felt that way?

“I can’t wait to get into combat,” Zeroes said.

They were in the mess hall, all of them rushing to clean their plates. Everything in their day was regimented, an allotted number of minutes for bathing, for dressing, for training, for eating. If you went over on time, someone would come along and take your plate as you were
trying to finish. All of them had learned to eat quickly or else go hungry. The result was that if you tried to talk and eat at the same time, you’d end up failing at both. Zeroes’s comment was therefore something of a surprise.

Nines laughed. “You’ve got numian cream all over your chin, Zeroes. Don’t let Captain Phasma see you like that.”

Zeroes wiped at the mess with the back of his hand,
then leaned forward over his plate. “It’s coming, you can feel it. No more exercises. An actual deployment.”

FN-2187 looked at him, curious. “You know something we don’t?”

“I heard some of the instruction officers talking.”

This got all their attention.

“Saying what?” asked Slip.

“They’re accelerating our training. They say we have to be ready.”

“Makes sense.” FN-2187 used the corner of
a chunk of mealbread to wipe up the last of the cream on his plate. The meal, like so many others, hadn’t been designed for flavor as much as efficiency—slivers of overcooked meat in a numian sauce that tasted more like chalk than anything else. But it was filling and provided energy, and that was the point.

“I hope it’s soon,” Slip said. “I really hope it’s soon.”

“Don’t hope it’s too soon.”
Nines drained his glass, then set it down hard and stared at Slip. “Way you’re going, your first deployment might be your last.”

“Hey,” FN-2187 said. “He’s one of us. We’re in this together.”

Nines and Zeroes exchanged looks.

“Yeah?” Zeroes said. “Well, way he’s going, I’d rather it be just the three of us.”

The look on Slip’s face said it all—said more, actually, made FN-2187 wonder if he
didn’t have doubts, too.

Maybe FN-2187 wasn’t alone in what he was feeling after all.

Whatever the reasons for it, whether Zeroes could be believed or not, their training
did
accelerate. They were in the simulators two, three times a day, sometimes running combat missions as a single fire-team, sometimes working in concert with the other members of a larger squad. Twice they participated in
multiforce battles, base assaults where their simulator was tied to the action in fifty others, all of them running at the same time. They were massive engagements, with full air support, advancing armor, even orbital bombardment from capital ships. TIEs screamed overhead, engaging Republic X-wings in dogfights that streaked through the simulated skies.

FN-2187 found himself actually enjoying
those simulations, so much so it almost surprised him. The simulations were simple. The stormtroopers had a clear objective, they knew who the enemy was, and honestly, as serious as the simulations could be, they were ultimately just games, ones he knew he played well. In that kind of environment, it was easier to heed Captain Phasma’s advice, to let Slip rise or fall on his own. When Slip went down—and
he always went down—it didn’t really matter, because none of it was real, was it?

After the second multiforce battle simulation, Captain Phasma singled out FN-2187 for praise in front of everyone who had participated. She had him stand and face the debriefing—and there were hundreds of them there that time, all the pilots and stormtroopers and instructors; it felt like everyone. She talked about
his skill and his efficiency and his ruthlessness, how all the trainees could learn something from watching FN-2187. It made him feel awkward, even embarrassed, and he was thankful he had his helmet on so no one could see him.

The following morning they started on intensive melee combat training. This was done outside the simulators, in one of the exercise rooms designated for the purpose.
Previously, FN-2187 and the others had trained in hand-to-hand combat, working in close quarters with fists and feet. This time they found the room prepared with racks of weapons and shields lining the walls.

The instructors demonstrated the use of each weapon, the vibro-axes and shock staffs and force pikes and resonator maces, elaborating at length on the respective strengths and weaknesses
of each and when and how to employ them to best effect. They explained the composite alloys used to make the weapons, how some of the equipment was strong enough to block even a lightsaber. FN-2187 wondered about that—not whether it was true but whether or not they would ever be expected to fight someone who used a lightsaber. According to the First Order, the Jedi were extinct.

Soon enough,
the instructors passed out the weapons. FN-2187 found himself with a mace and shield. Zeroes and Slip each ended up with force pikes. Nines used a one-handed vibro-axe and a shield. They were told that all the powered weapons carried only a nominal charge, making them incapable of penetrating stormtrooper armor.

They began drills, basic moves—stance, attack, parry—and then repeated, over and
over again, until FN-2187 could feel perspiration running down his back inside the bodysuit he wore beneath his armor. When they’d finished, his arms ached from the effort of maintaining the mace and shield, but there was a sense of pleasure, too, the delight of learning something new and learning it quickly and well.

The following morning they resumed the training where they’d left off but now with the introduction of sparring. The instructors would pick two of the trainees to square off against each other. They’d give a go signal, and then it would be on, weapons swinging through the air while the white-armored figures collided, blocking and jabbing and parrying until one was knocked off his feet or one
of the instructors announced a winner. The losing combatant would return to the others waiting their turns at the edges of the room, the winner would remain, and it would start again.

FN-2187 realized that, powered or not, armored or not, their weapons could cause real damage. Twice, trainees had to be helped off the floor, one with broken fingers from a particularly savage mace blow, the other
stabbed by the tip of a force pike that had slipped off of an armor plate and punctured the membrane holding the plates together.

Slip was the first of their cadre to be called onto the floor, and for a moment while he watched his friend sparring, FN-2187 thought that might be the one thing at which Slip excelled. His footwork was consistent and good, and he kept his force pike in its proper
grip. He didn’t make any of the obvious mistakes.

It didn’t last.

Slip’s opponent was using a pike of his own. They were exchanging blows for the sixth time, quick end to end as if fighting with staffs, when suddenly Slip’s opponent stepped back, spinning his pike in both hands over his head, then bore down with a blow that cracked so loud on the top of Slip’s helmet it sounded like his helmet—and
his head—had been split in two. Slip staggered, and his opponent flipped the staff and brought the opposite end up, just as hard, smashing it into Slip’s chin. Slip dropped like a stone, and when the instructors removed his helmet, FN-2187 could see blood coming from his mouth, his vision looking unfocused.

Slip got back in line.

The person who remained longest on the floor was Zeroes. He
went four bouts without falling, and then FN-2187 was called and ended his run. The force pike gave Zeroes reach and he went in strong, but FN-2187 had his shield and he quickly discovered that, when he angled it properly, he could redirect a jab in almost any direction he wanted. Zeroes tried attacking four times—low, low, low, and then high, driving the pike with both hands toward FN-2187’s heart.
FN-2187 blocked, angling the shield to his right so that when the blow glanced off, Zeroes was off balance and overextended. FN-2187 spun on his toes in the opposite direction, brought the mace in his other hand around low, and caught Zeroes just above the knee, sending him sprawling.

“Win!” shouted one of the instructors.

FN-2187 moved to help Zeroes back to his feet, dropping his mace and
taking him by the elbow. Zeroes shrugged him off, his anger evident even behind his armor. FN-2187 figured that was because he’d broken Zeroes’s streak.

It was the start of FN-2187’s own streak, however. The next trainee to go at him was from a different cadre, the FO group, also armed with a mace and shield. The fight lasted three seconds. FN-2187 feinted an overhead blow with the mace, and
when his opponent brought his shield up to parry it, he hit him instead with his own shield and knocked him flat. His next two opponents were also FO designations, another with a force pike and one with a shield and sword. The second of those took the longest, almost a full minute, before FN-2187 managed to knock away his opponent’s shield, and then it was a simple matter of waiting for an opening
and striking at the right time.

Then it was Nines’s turn, with his vibro-axe and shield, and if FN-2187 had thought Zeroes was angry when he’d lost, Nines seemed to start out that way. Nines began with a swipe straight at FN-2187’s head, and the next thing 2187 knew Nines had rammed into him, body to body, their armor clattering as he was pushed back along the training floor. It took all his
strength to keep his feet, to keep from giving Nines another opening with his axe, and finally FN-2187 dropped his shield altogether and used his free hand to take control of Nines’s wrist. They spun in place, and FN-2187 slammed his shoulder into Nines’s chest, sending him off balance long enough to create distance between them. Before he could recover his discarded shield, though, Nines was launching
at him again, and FN-2187 was using his mace with both hands, knocking away Nines’s attacks as quickly as they came. He could feel his heart pounding inside the armor, the echo of his breathing as it grew labored. The thought occurred to him, unexpected and shocking, that Nines thought this was
real
, not an exercise, not training.

The vibro-axe fell again, slashing at his arm, and FN-2187 skipped
back. The two of them began to circle. Nines feinted with the axe, then swung the shield and nearly caught him in the side, but FN-2187 managed to get the mace up to parry just in time. He saw the follow-up coming before Nines launched it, knew the axe was slashing in again, and that time, instead of stepping away from it, FN-2187 stepped
forward
and under Nines’s guard. The mace was in the wrong
position, its heavy head toward the floor, so FN-2187 used its pommel instead, smashing it into Nines’s helmet. The other trooper went sailing onto his back. He laid still, dazed for a moment.

FN-2187 recovered his shield and reset it on his arm. He didn’t move to help Nines up.

That was four of them, which tied him with Zeroes’s streak.

Bout five was Slip, and right away FN-2187 could see
something was wrong. Maybe it was the blow to the head, or something else, but he was moving slowly. His footwork, impeccable before, was sluggish and sloppy. His grip on his force pike kept slipping, not obviously but enough that the point was too low, so it would be easy for FN-2187 to knock it out of the way or even disarm him entirely. In his helmet, tasting his sweat, FN-2187 glanced over at
the instructors observing them, looking for any sign that they were seeing what he was, that Slip wasn’t up to it, that it wasn’t going to be a fair fight at all. The instructors were impassive, standing in their uniforms, hands behind their backs. Nothing in their expressions betrayed anything but vague interest. There was no sign of sympathy.

Slip lunged, and FN-2187 blocked him easily, sending
the tip of the pike off his shield and to the left. Slip followed, unable to stop himself in time, almost at full reach and obviously off balance. FN-2187 stepped back, giving him room to recover. Again he glanced at the instructors. One of them, he thought, was frowning.

BOOK: Star Wars: Before the Awakening
5Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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