The Cost of Confinement
Echo was an angry man.
He had been a prisoner in the Citadel for two years. Of course they tortured him after they healed his wounds. He was just a soldier, just a clone. Echo tried not to tell them what they asked, but in the end, he did. Just as they had known he would; just as he had known he would.
He was a bitter man.
Echo had hoped someone would come after him; he had expected someone to come after him, but no one did. He realized then that he was just a clone, just another cog, totally replaceable by the next man in line. Even to his brothers.
Even in prison, even behind the high walls of the Citadel, he heard rumors that the war had ended. He believed it because suddenly there were very few droids active in the Citadel. After a day without water Echo used his escape plan simply to find out what had happened. He still hadn't figured out a way to escape the planet but getting to the Citadel's main offices was easy. There were other prisoners and he was too much a trooper to simply let them out. He rigged up two droids to help him keep them fed and watered. Someone would come.
Even then, he had hope though he tried to suppress it.
Finally someone was sent to evaluate all the prisoners. When they brought him, the auditor had simply waved his hand. "A clone deserter. We certainly don't need to interview that."
That. A single word as though he'd been an object instead of a man.
Echo realized he should have done a better job suppressing hope.
"I didn't desert." He clarified, though he'd been ordered to keep silent.
"Really." The auditor asked, but not with a question. Echo had learned the rudiments of understanding body language a long time ago. He had refined it in prison where an inflection or a single misunderstood gesture could mean the difference between eating and starvation, between sleeping and torture. The auditor didn't believe him, but there had been that 'ARC' in his designation. He was returned to Kamino.
Bitter didn't begin to describe him.
He was sent to Kamino for evaluation under guard and key. He didn't ask why. Their body language told him they wouldn't answer his questions. On Kamino and, later, on Coruscant, he answered their questions and nothing more. He didn't speak except when spoken to by a superior officer. He ignored the other troopers and, for the most part, civilians unless their body language told him they were important. Even then, he didn't speak to them beyond 'yes sir' and 'no ma'am'.
Echo waited and he read; his one enjoyment. He was assigned to a company, pending certification, but not the 501st. He had started to ask, but Commander Cody was there, newly assigned as Kamino Imperial Battalion Commander of the cloning facilities and training of new clones at Timira City. The Commander remembered him; and his body language warned Echo away from asking anything about the 501st.
Echo trained and he listened. He was in the mess when he heard about the captain and for Echo there had always been only one captain. He covered his eyes with a big hand on discovering Rex was a traitor; that some of the best men in the 501st had gone traitor – Chopper, Kix. Even Fives. Echo couldn't understand that. The two troopers talking sounded sympathetic but he knew what to do and reported the two men he had overhead talking about traitors.
Then he read about Order 66 and a few things became understandable. He couldn't find it in himself to believe the commander had been a traitor and he hoped she had escaped. He hoped that Rex's treason had been worthwhile but he never mentioned it to anyone. He didn't have to. Most of the clones avoided him by now. It was rumored he was here to be reconditioned.
He was recertified for ARC. The considered reconditioning him and, for a short while, Echo wanted to be reconditioned. He wanted to forget what they had done to him in the Citadel. He wanted to forget that no one had come for him, that his closest brothers were deserters. But in the end, he'd been considered stable and not reconditioned. It had never been his choice to make. Echo couldn't find it in himself to really care one way or the other. They gave him new armor and deployed him to his company.
"CT-ARC-21-0408 reporting for duty." It was the only conversation he had initiated with his new command. He answered their questions.
"I was with the 501st, sir. I spent the last two years imprisoned on the Citadel then retraining and physical conditioning at Kamino. The Citadel mission was classified at the time, sir. I don't know now."
Echo was working on a design for his armor when his new captain came into the mess and stopped at his table. Echo stood at attention, then parade rest.
"You don't own the armor and you're not allowed to mark it. You don't have a name, ARC." Echo shrugged and crumpled the flimsi with the design.
"Yes, sir." The five blue lines would have been too obvious anyway.
He was no longer Echo, but oh-eight again.
It was easy to do nothing, easy to be just another stormtrooper, easy to let the days go by. It was easy and that scared Echo.
Then he heard they had a prisoner; a deserter, a traitor, and Echo was curious. What could be worth deserting your brothers?
The Price of Escape
The prisoner sat on the bunk. The scars on his face were interspersed with dark bruises and contusions. He looked up at the guard wearing the Phase II armor. He was slightly more muscular than most clones. ARC-modified then, thought Chopper.
He had managed the first round of interrogation. He couldn't remember a question beyond "You think you're tough, deserter?" There'd be another round, he knew, probably with this ARC and he would be a bit more damaged. Then the real interrogation would follow; with drugs and a sympathetic man with a kind, sorrowful voice. The kind of man who truly listened; the kind of man who didn't so much ask questions as simply elicit information.
Fortunately, he had been with Ahsoka. He didn't remember why she couldn't have used the Force on his captors; maybe there were too many, maybe they were using electronics, he didn't remember, but he didn't try too hard either.
He did remember what he had known and chuckled through a split lip. The Empire would be very unhappy to hear they'd been so close to finding out the information but had failed. Chopper didn't remember the information itself either. He did remembered turning to her. "Make me forget, Ahsoka," he commanded and she had done so. She'd done something else, but he couldn't remember that either though he suspected it had to do with the wedding band they'd taken. There was a white ring around his finger where they had removed it and a blank ring in his mind. Chopper was so glad he couldn't tell them anything valuable.
The big ARC merely observed him and Chopper decided he was a very good observer; much better than anyone else in this Imperial Army. He'd be a hard man to fool and Chopper was glad he really didn't know anything.
The prisoner sat on the bunk. Echo shook his head. Chopper didn't know anything; that … confidence … radiated from him. In spite of the beating he'd already taken, in spite of the beating he was expecting.
Echo wanted to rip off his helmet and hug Chopper; wanted to scream his joy that he'd found someone who would understand, wanted to sob on Chopper's shoulders. He wanted to cry and be comforted and ask about the captain and the commander. Echo wanted to know about Fives.
Echo sighed and stood. "You're going to tell me everything you know," he said in a resigned voice.
"Probably," Chopper replied in a matter of fact tone.
I'm glad I don't know anything said his body as plain as his broken noise, as evident as his crushed hand.
Echo reached down for Chopper's hand and gently held it; supported it in his own hand as he inspected the damage Chopper tensed and his face become stone. His hand felt like a warm, padded sack of thick water.
"What's the internal damage?" Echo asked.
Chopper grimaced and hissed at the movement of his hand. His stony face dropped into pain.
"I'd say it's pretty much pulped." His voice was tight. "Permanent unless I get it set and into bacta within… oh …" Chopper glanced at the walls. "No chron and I've been busy, so I don't know." He shrugged with his opposite shoulder. "Maybe it's already too late."
Chopper gasped in pain as Echo turned his hand palm up, still carefully supporting it.
"Who was with you?" Echo didn't really care, but there was the illusion of interrogation to maintain.
Chopper laughed though his face was pale.
"Thought so." Echo inspected Chopper's fingertips. "I suspect you're right about your hand also." As gently as possible he set Chopper's hand back on his leg, letting the forearm take the weight. "I think it's already too late." Already the fingertips were darkening into purple. Echo ran the tip of his finger just above the white line on Chopper's swollen finger.
"Some troopers took my ring along with everything else."
"You wore it a lot," commented Echo.
"It was to stay on my hand until I died." There was another nonchalant shrug from one of Chopper's shoulders. "I guess this counts."
"Will you tell me why you would wear it so long?" Echo was curious. It was a civilian thing; otherwise he would know what it meant. It was a civilian thing that Chopper did and yet wearing jewelry did not fit Chopper. He saw Chopper observe him, knowing the question as personal and not the question of the interrogation.
"Bring it back to me and let me die with it on. They will have inspected it by now and discovered that it's nothing more than what it appears."
Echo pointed out the obvious. "It won't fit on your finger." He gestured to Chopper's swollen fingers; puffed and swollen.
"You can make it fit."
Echo winced at Chopper's answer. Chopper must have caught his body's reaction. He chuckled again.
Echo shook his head softly. "You know you'll ruin my reputation as an interrogator if you keep laughing."
Chopper laughed aloud at that and Echo smiled inside his helmet. Chopper hadn't laughed much when he'd been a trooper. Now he was a prisoner but still found something to laugh at.
"Your reputation is not my concern but I'll try to keep my merriment to a dull roar." Chopper gave a lop-sided grin.
"I'll be right back." He was gone only a moment; Chopper's belongings, including the ring but minus the blaster and vibroknife, were on a table at the cellblock entrance.
He held the ring between two fingers. "I don't …" he began, but paused. How could Echo say he didn't want to hurt Chopper when he was here to 'soften him up' for the real interrogation?
Chopper reached out with his undamaged hand and, when Echo dropped the ring into his hand, manipulated it onto the third finger of his good hand, pushing the ring against his thigh. He smiled at Echo.
"It can go on either hand. It's a symbol and a message that I've been claimed by a woman as her husband. That I take care of her and she takes care of me. That we belong to a community." Chopper became solemn. "Thank you for letting me die with it on."
"Kriff," muttered Echo. "I wish you hadn't told me that."
"Because you'll go get the woman and promise to let her go if I tell you what you want to know?" Chopper smiled a secret and confident smile.
"I didn't want to interrogate you. I will not do that to a civilian." Echo paced the small cell, shaking his head.
"Why not? It's not uncommon. If I'd been civilian would my face be any prettier? My hand any less damaged?"
Echo frowned. Chopper had the truth of it. He'd seen civilians interrogated. They called them 'guerilla fighters'; troopers in an un-uniformed army.
"If they order it, you'll do it." Chopper said quietly. "But don't worry about her until the time comes to ask."
Echo sighed and sat down. Chopper was right about that. "Will you tell me about being married? Nothing personal if you don't want; just … what it's like?"
Chopper relaxed against the wall. This ARC was either inspired or stupid. "Remember the first day you got your armor? How proud you were?" He saw the ARC nod. "It's like that but better. It's like having a brother by choice but better. At night she would take all the hurt and pain I'd gone through," Chopper glanced up, "And deserting my brothers was not easy whatever you may think of me. But every night she takes it all away. Every morning, I feel reborn."
"No." Chopper corrected. "The sex is nice and good; but that isn't what makes the nights good. It's being held in spite of all the wrong I'd done. It's another heart crying for my pain. It's love. Don't ever confuse love with sex." Chopper paused wondering how the ARC would react. He'd heard the new guys had been taught there was no such thing as love; that it was only sexual hormones and sexual fulfillment and brain chemistry.
The ARC nodded and Chopper wished he could see the man's face. "I had a …" He paused, stood and moved to the entry door. Then he came back. "I had a brother by choice once."
Past tense; dead then. "I'm sorry," said Chopper.
"I'm not. For a while I had him as my brother. Best man in the whole company. My brother."
"What happened?" Chopper could hear the tears in the ARC's voice. He shifted and his hand fell against the bar of the bunk. He cried out in pain. The ARC knelt, holding Chopper's hand.
The ARC looked up at Chopper through the intimidating visor slits and reached for his medpack. "What's your tolerance for class 2 painkiller?"
Chopper's eyes narrowed and he considered lying. Six of the caplets would probably kill him. Seven would for sure. He sighed knowing it would be impossible to lie to this observant trooper. "Five." The ARC nodded and pulled out seven. He poured five of the caplets into the palm of Chopper's good hand.
"That's for pain." He spoke quietly and dropped the other two caplets with the remainder. "That's for choice. If you die here, they'll take you to the morgue. It's pretty deserted most of the time, no droids. It even has an outside door." Chopper heard the breath of his mouth open as if to say something more, but nothing else came out except the steady panting of a man under stress.
Chopper nodded. The ARC wasn't promising anything. He was giving Chopper his choice of a reasonably painless death and maybe, just maybe, the slightest possibility of escape.
Chopper waited until the ARC had gone. Another stormtrooper came in and showed him the wall a few times until he nearly passed out. It was easy to pretend to pass out and he slump to the floor. It wasn't that uncomfortable on the cool stone floor. The stormtrooper gave him a kick against his hip for good measure then left to make a report.
Chopper's entire arm throbbed now and all the fingers of his crushed hand were turning purple. It seemed that simply looking at his hand hurt.
Seven of the pills would kill him and that was an attractive option; five would be eaten up by the pain. He looked again at his crushed hand and took six of the pills. The seventh he crushed under his foot near the corner of his cell. They'd find it, hopefully later rather than sooner.
He woke up because it was cold and he was shivering. Looking around he saw other bodies and knew he was the living one. "Cause I'm cold, you understand," he told the other corpses. He couldn't get the door open then looked down and realized he'd been trying to use his useless hand. The door opened easily once he switched hands from the purple-black hand to the one merely a blue-white. He pulled his tag off and was about to throw it away but smiled and switched it with the tag on another corpse. "S'ok, darling. Just another piece of jewelry." He knew he wasn't making sense, but they weren't listening to him. "You're not attentive. You don't observe; that's why you're dead." He staggered out of the cold locker. "You're good company," he turned his head and told the bodies, lined and laid out in some Imperial order. "But I've got to be somewhere else."
He staggered through the outskirts of the military camp; a hedge-maze of brothels and bars, his head down, his good arm curled around his hand, looking drunk and beaten, talking to people that weren't there. Talking to people that hadn't been there for years.
The painkiller was starting to fade. He made it to one of the brothels and passed out on the floor. He smiled up at what he hoped was a familiar face, glad he'd made it somewhere. He hoped it was the right one.
Ahsoka was there when he woke and he could feel the vibrations of hyperspace flight. He'd been cleaned, shaved and tended to. He glanced down at the space where his hand had been.
"There's nothing on board, Chopper, to replace your hand."
"As near as I can figure, I should be dead, Ahsoka. My hand is a cheap price to pay." He rubbed his forehead with his good hand. The ring gleamed in the dim light of the med unit and he smiled at that. "Did everything go as planned?" He grinned wanly at her. "Whatever the plan was?"
"We had to makeshift your part, but yes. It was a success."
"Will you give me back the memories of my wife? She might be a bit upset if I don't recognize her."
Ahsoka laughed. "She won't, not at you, anyway. But before I walk your mind, I want to know what happened after you were captured. You won't be allowed to know anything more, to go on any missions in the future."
Chopper nodded. "It's a good rule. I don't think I've been brainwashed for the Empire, but how would I know?" He closed his eyes; tired to the very core of his being. "I'm glad, Ahsoka. I'm tired of all this and I'm only sorry…"
"I'll miss you, Chopper." She stroked his face with her palm. "You've always been the best partner.'
Chopper gave her a grin. "Better than Rex?"
"Yes, but don't tell him." Her nose wrinkled at the wideness of her grin and she laid her head gently on his chest. His arm came around her.
"It should end for the two of you, also. I'll tell you that, commander. I'll be praying every day for this and every war to end for the two of you." She sighed deeply and didn't tell him but he'd been her partner for a long time. "The Force says the war won't end for you?" She gave a shake of her head and sat up.
"Rex says it's our punishment for living." She bowed her head. "How did you escape?"
Chopper pulled his lower lip with his teeth as he thought. "There was an ARC. He talked to me rather than interrogated me. I'm glad; I think he could have gotten past some of the barriers you've set up in my head but he wasn't interested in interrogation. When he asked my tolerance for painkillers and I told him five; he gave me seven."
Ahsoka sucked in a breath and Chopper nodded slightly. "Enough for a peaceful death if I had chosen that. He also told me if I died during interrogation I'd be taken to the morgue. He said it had an outside door."
"You always did chance things, Chopper." She had tears in her eyes.
"So did he, Ahsoka. Consider how easily he could have been caught."
"Who was he?"
Chopper shook his head, tiredly. "Someone who should have deserted but didn't.
Just a one-shot...
Read, enjoy, review...