Star Wars: Before the Awakening (4 page)

BOOK: Star Wars: Before the Awakening
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FN-2187 swung his mace in an easy arc, putting no real power behind it, all but telegraphing the move. Slip barely got his
parry in place in time and failed entirely to launch a riposte. They circled. Another glance at the instructors, and both were frowning. Slip tried to flip his grip on the pike and made a staff-end swing that FN-2187 ducked before he’d even thought about it. He had another opening and almost took it but for some reason found himself unable to.

It struck him, then, that if he were to lose, Slip
would be left to face whoever went next.

It struck him, too, that whoever Slip fought next wouldn’t care that he was already hurt, that another injury might be too much for him.

You’re one of us,
FN-2187 thought.

He attacked with the mace, an upswing that Slip blocked but without any strength behind it. The parry blew through Slip’s guard and sent his hands and the pike high, almost over his
head, leaving his middle exposed. FN-2187 stepped forward, leading with his shield, pressing rather than striking while at the same time bringing his left leg forward, behind Slip’s right. It took almost no discernible pressure; suddenly, Slip was on his back and FN-2187 was standing over him, and the instructor was shouting.

“Win!”

That was when FN-2187 saw the chrome reflection, the kick of
light off polished armor, and realized that Captain Phasma was watching them.

He stepped back, waiting as Slip pulled himself unsteadily to his feet.

The next combatant was from another training cadre, FL, but FN-2187 didn’t really notice and didn’t much care. He felt certain Phasma was watching him, though it was impossible to be sure. The FL trainee was using two weapons, a sword and an axe,
and he was wild with both. By that point FN-2187’s mind was racing—thinking about Slip and Nines and Zeroes, and Phasma watching him—and it wasn’t really a surprise when the world burst into a flare of white, when the hilt of the sword connected with his jaw, when he could taste his own blood. One moment he was up, the next he was on his back, staring at the lights in the ceiling through the lenses
of his helmet.

He got up and took his place in line.

“I have one question for you, FN-2187.”

“Yes, Captain.”

“Were you toying with FN-2003? Was that what I saw?”

FN-2187 hesitated, and just doing that, he knew, made Captain Phasma unhappy. If she was angry, he couldn’t tell. Through her helmet, her voice was always carefully modulated.

“FN-2003 had been injured in a previous bout,” he
said. “I didn’t want to see him hurt any further.”

“I see.” Her helmet turned toward him, hidden eyes seeking his, and suddenly FN-2187 felt horribly exposed standing in the briefing room in his armor, with his helmet tucked under his arm, just the two of them. “You didn’t want him fighting someone else, someone who wasn’t…sympathetic to his situation.”

“No, Captain.”

“Your objective was simple,
FN-2187.”

“I won the bout, Captain.”

“But you considered losing to him first, didn’t you?”

FN-2187 didn’t respond.

“A real stormtrooper has no room for sympathy,” Phasma told him. “A real stormtrooper is the extension of the First Order, of Supreme Leader Snoke’s will, nothing less. Do you think the Supreme Leader would have hesitated, FN-2187?”

“No, Captain.”

“Gather your fire-team,” Phasma
said. “You are being deployed.”

They moved from the base to a transport and from the transport to orbit, traveling with another half dozen of the trainee squads, all of them in their armor and with their rifles. The rifles were new, no longer the training version but the real thing, F-11D blaster rifles, loaded with live ammunition and fully charged for battle. Their first look at the Star
Destroyer, majestic and ominous at once, was through the hull windows as it came into view—almost impossibly small at first, then growing to become almost impossibly large as their shuttle sped toward it.

“This is for real,” Nines said, and FN-2187 thought there was awe in his voice, as if he’d never expected them to make it that far.

“Did the captain say where we’re going?” Slip asked. “What
we’re doing?”

“No,” FN-2187 replied.

“Of course not,” Zeroes said. “She’s not going to tell stormtroopers the Supreme Leader’s plans, or General Hux’s, or even her own. She’s not asking for our opinion. She’s got a job she wants done and she’s counting on us to do it.”

They docked in the primary bay and disembarked in tight formation, marching as they had been taught. Ranks of TIE/fo fighters
hung on their moorings overhead, gleaming in the docking bay light, and FN-2187 had to work hard not to stare at them, the real things up close. He knew, intuitively, that there was no appreciable difference between the fighters hanging above him and the ones he’d seen fly overhead so many times in simulations, and yet this was strangely, sharply different. Their power was palpable, even ominous,
as they waited above like a flock of sleeping, savage mynocks.

The deck officer, an older man in a perfectly tailored, immaculate uniform, was waiting for them. He separated them by cadre and gave them directions to their billets, and FN-2187 found that he and the rest of the team had been assigned to barracks almost identical to those they’d left behind on the surface. The difference was that
the ones aboard the ship were occupied by “real” stormtroopers, men who ignored them entirely as they located their bunks and stowed their gear. They’d hardly had a moment to remove their helmets and settle themselves when they heard the order coming over the ship’s PA system: all hands prepare for hyperspace. And it wasn’t a minute after that when FN-2187 felt the ship shudder slightly and they
were off and traveling faster than light.

“Fresh meat,” one of the stormtroopers said. “Who’s who?”

Slip grinned and indicated himself, then the others. “FN Corps. Slip, Zeroes, Nines, and FN-2187.”

“Let me guess,” the trooper said. “FN-2187 is in charge, right?”

“That’s right.”

The stormtrooper fixed FN-2187 with a stare. “No nickname. You’re one of those.”

“One of those what?” FN-2187
asked.

The stormtrooper laughed. He looked to be in his late twenties, perhaps, but there was something hard in his eyes, and the laugh wasn’t amused. “An outsider, cadet. You’re on the outside, and you’ll always be looking in and wondering why you don’t belong.”

The rest of the stormtroopers laughed, Nines and Zeroes and even Slip along with them.

The deployment was to a mining colony established
in an artificial asteroid field collectively known as Pressy’s Tumble. Once there’d been an ore-rich moon, but the ore itself had been buried deep, and instead of setting up operations on the surface and sinking mines, some engineer with a facility for explosives had decided the best solution was just to blow the whole thing to smithereens. Those smithereens now floated in the Outer Rim system
of Pressylla, along with three inhospitable planets and a red dwarf sun that made the fragments of the lost moon glow with a hellish light.

The largest of the fragments was the base of the mining operation, a sprawling refinery complex that covered most of the surface and had been sunk deep into the rock itself. FN-2187 wasn’t exactly sure what was being mined; opinions varied. Some of the stormtroopers
said it was fuel, vital to First Order fleet operations. Others said it was some kind of ore needed for starship shield generators. One stormtrooper claimed it was Tibanna gas, but he was clearly mistaken.

What FN-2187
did
know was that they were there to “restore order,” according to the briefing given by Captain Phasma herself. Republic agents, she told them, had infiltrated the mining operations
and were both sabotaging equipment and creating dissent among the miners. The First Order’s presence was required to put a stop to it, to get the miners back on schedule, and to prevent any further delays.

Theirs was the second squad to shuttle in, and it was different from their trip to the Star Destroyer. This time FN-2187, Slip, Zeroes, and Nines stood in deployment formation for the entire
ride, along with another three fire-teams of stormtroopers, some cadets and some more seasoned veterans. All of them were locked and loaded, carrying live ammunition and grenades, and one of the fire-teams, FN-2187 saw, had shock staffs and neurocage nets—weapons designed for crowd control, meant to subdue rather than kill.

They set down within the main facility, the ramp lowering almost before
they’d come to a stop. There was a concern they might meet with resistance—rioting or even saboteurs—upon arrival, and for that reason it was a combat exit, all the stormtroopers disembarking in rapid succession, rifles at the ready. They performed the maneuver flawlessly, exactly as FN-2187 and the others had done a hundred times before in the simulators, emerging into a vast loading bay already
occupied by one other First Order transporter. The ceiling rose almost fifty meters above them, cut into the rock and braced with scaffolding that dripped rusty water, creating brackish puddles of red and green across the floor. Ten-meter-long artificial lights hung from the braces, flickering irregularly. Beneath his feet, FN-2187 could feel a dull vibration, what he imagined were the drills working
the rock far below. Aside from a handful of maintenance droids in the bay, there was no sign of anyone.

One of the veterans, a sergeant, ordered FN-2187 to take his fire-team up to the entrance of the bay and secure it. FN-2187 put Zeroes on point and followed in second position, with Slip behind him and Nines at their backs. The doors were enormous, rising almost as high as the ceiling, and
they ground as they pulled open. A wall of noise poured into the bay—the sounds of innumerable machines working, what FN-2187 thought must be the refinery itself.

The bay opened into an enormous cavern, easily a dozen kilometers across and deeper than he could see. Puffs of steam and green-tinged smoke rose from below, billowing up like the breath of some hidden, sleeping beast. More condensation
ran down the walls. It flowed in steady streams, dripping like a lazy rainfall. Worker droids floated across the vast space on repulsorlifts, bobbing and ducking around giant rickety works of scaffolding. Narrow girder bridges linked different levels, some of them at angles that seemed impossible to negotiate without plummeting to one’s death. Platforms jutted from the cavern’s sides, as unstable-looking
as the bridges and supports, many of them draped with tarps.

On one of them, almost directly to his right, FN-2187 saw movement and pivoted, bringing his rifle up in time to catch sight of two humanoids peeking out at them. One was a Talz, the other a Gran. He saw them for only a second before they ducked out of view again, but it was long enough. The Talz was emaciated, tall and scrawny, with
missing patches of hair along his arms and shoulders that revealed raw, chalky, peeling skin. The Gran was heavily scarred, what FN-2187 thought was the result of burns, perhaps chemical.

Now that he had seen them, FN-2187 could see others. Almost all the miners were aliens, as varied a mix as the galaxy could offer. Yet to the last of them they appeared malnourished and sickly, many obviously
injured. Most wouldn’t even glance at the stormtroopers, and the few who did just as quickly looked away again. FN-2187 knew why, and he understood that they weren’t just frightened; they were
terrified
.

He felt something in his stomach tighten, then surge. For an instant, he thought he might be sick in his helmet.

They’d been holding position at the entrance of the bay for almost three hours
when FN-2187’s radio clicked on in his ear. The bay behind them had long before emptied of stormtroopers, the sergeant leading the rest of the troops out into the facility, and Zeroes, Nines, and Slip had begun complaining about how boring the detail was, how it wasn’t fair that they’d been stuck there to guard the transporters.

“FN-2187, respond.” It was Phasma’s voice.

“FN-2187. Go ahead,
Captain.”

“I am sending a unit to relieve you. Once they arrive proceed with your team to level alpha-seven-seven, room ought-three. Confirm.”

“Confirmed.”

The others were looking at him.

“We’re being relieved,” FN-2187 told them. “Captain Phasma wants us to move to a different location.”

“Anything’s got to be better than this,” Nines said.

“You could be a miner here,” FN-2187 said.

“Don’t
make me laugh. We’re not supposed to laugh when in uniform, remember?”

“I’m not joking.”

“They could leave if they wanted to,” Slip said.

FN-2187 thought of the empty bay behind them, containing only the two transporters that had taken them and the other stormtroopers there. He didn’t say anything.

Their relief arrived, another cadet fire-team, and FN-2187 brought up the map he had downloaded
to his in-armor computer so it was projected across his vision. They made their way through the complex, along the more stable perimeter walkway and then to an enormous lift that took them down more than five kilometers before finally shuddering to a stop on level alpha-seven-seven. The doors opened onto a view similar to what they’d left above, only even darker, puddles spreading across the floor
deep enough that their boots splashed with each step.

Captain Phasma was waiting for them outside a door marked O-3, a half dozen stormtroopers with her.

“Reporting as ordered,” FN-2187 said.

Phasma indicated the closed door, her cloak sliding off her arm as she did so. Green and red reflected off her armor.

“The negotiators are inside,” she said. “You and your team will accompany me.”

“We’re
negotiating with the Republic?” The question came without thought, and as soon as he had said it, FN-2187 regretted it, expecting Phasma to rebuke him.

“No, for the striking miners.” Phasma turned, hitting the activation plate on the wall and opening the door. She led them inside.

Four humanoids sat at the far side of a rectangular slab of a table, opposite the door. Only one was human, his
eyes sunken, half his cheek puffed and shiny from a burn scar. The others were a Rodian missing two of the fingers on his right hand, an Abednedo, and a Narquois. All of them straightened in their seats as Phasma entered and watched as she shut the door behind the stormtroopers.

BOOK: Star Wars: Before the Awakening
7.01Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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