They used to call me RL-one-six-niner-six; some called me Sergeant Major, or just Smaj for short. One gray bar and three black bars on the rank placard on my helmet. Now I’ve got a moisture farm that oddly smells of charred meat from eons ago, a growing family, and a garage full of droids, but that’s a whole ‘nother story. I retired after giving the Empire and First Order thirty long years, from a harrowing rookie tour on Jedha; Hoth; a bitter loss on a forest moon; to Coruscant, Starkiller, and one final op on Jakku. See that round crest above the mantel? That’s my old unit, Vader’s Fist, the 501st Legion. We were kind of a big deal.
I was bred for this life. I know, that’s oxymoronic – I mean, it isn’t like the Emperor had envisioned RL-1696 growing up to be a TIE pilot, or a star destroyer captain. I went where they sent me, fought whom I was told to fight, and won more often than not. That’s more than many of my peers can claim. At least I survived. By the time I left the academy on Coruscant, I was ready to take on anyone who dared question my emperor’s authority. Boy, was I in for a rude awakening.
If you ever see two old former storm troopers together, they’re usually laughing. You see, the joke’s on us. Blasters produced en masse by the lowest bidder – many troopers’ weapons were never zeroed properly and were consequently worthless, except as clubs. Armor that might withstand one blaster shot, if you were a prayerful type and if the moons of your home world aligned a certain way. And those execrable helmets that limited your field of vision, with built-in communicators that could barely transmit past five meters. Like millennia of soldiers before us, however, we made do.
“Hey, FNG.” At first, I wasn’t sure if it was some new designation, but that was how veteran troopers addressed me until we received a shuttle load of replacements from Iridonia. I was a squaddie, sweating my bone marrow away on the Jedha desert moon, all of us hunting for a group of violent insurgents led by Saw Gerrera. You kept your guard up at all times unless you wanted to suddenly find gear and/or crew-served weapons missing. If you took so much as one incoming blaster shot, you replied with every weapon on an AT-ST. You hoped that you had air support in the very likely event that you got hit with a proton grenade attached to a tripwire. I patrolled the streets of Jedha City for a year, before I learned that the moon had served as the base for some Force cult that Lord Vader crushed. We lost some real fighters there, warriors who could’ve helped us in succeeding years and battles. TK-6458 was my closest friend in that platoon, and we never saw the insurgent who hit his hovertank with a thermal detonator. I cheered Jedha City’s destruction from the porthole of a shuttle as we flew away. After we landed aboard Death Star 1, my platoon sergeant slapped 6458’s sergeant placard on my helmet. “I see you finally learned how to hate, 1696. Good. You’re taking over Third Squad. Meet me at the hangar in two hours for an orders brief.”
Hoth, three years later, was arguably the highlight of my career. Ever ride into battle in an AT-AT? It sucks. The troop compartment is cramped and dark, you can smell your squaddies’ fear percolating from under their armor. There’s all sorts of banging from incoming fire hitting the armor plate a few centimeters from your head, a ton of deafening outgoing fire, comm channels clogged with a thousand voices speaking at once but making no sense. With no portholes, troopers routinely puked inside their helmets from all the jerky movement. I asked the AT-AT commander what was going on, but the insufferable upper crust officer went mushroom on me: kept me in the dark, fed me shit. It took no small amount of willpower to not hit the emergency ramp release above the troop leader’s seat. When the ramp finally opened, though, holy Sith, it felt like your very bones would freeze instantly.
We were the third AT-AT in the lead formation, lucky for us since the first two were taken down by snow speeders. Thank the Force, the insurgents only had a handful of those. Once on the ground, I had to literally kick a few of my guys to get them to move. “Come on, damn it, the rebels are just as cold and scared as you are. Move out!” Two of my guys were so new, so nervous, that they fired most of their plasma packs instead of remembering how I’d trained them. My platoon sergeant on Jedha was a proponent of well aimed single shots at close quarters, since the E11 blaster wasn’t accurate past 150 meters. Use your helmet’s aiming reticle, line up your shot, then adjust your aim point low and right, or you’d do what 85% of troopers did: miss. Did I mention how much I hated our weapons? Ragtag insurgents without a pot to piss in could jerry-rig sniper rifles, while we – the Galactic mother loving Empire – couldn’t outfit troopers with a blaster worth a damn.
We breached the insurgent perimeter with a proton rocket launcher (damn, those things are heavy), and charged the first trench while most of the scum still lay stunned in their fighting positions. I took the lead because I had so many new troopers. To be perfectly frank, during the assault I was more worried about an FNG shooting me accidentally-on-purpose, than an insurgent using some antique Clone Wars weapon against us. Another quick stroke of luck: rebel infantrymen weren’t wearing anything heavier than cold weather snivel gear. Crappy weapon or not, a parka and a balaclava aren’t stopping a center-mass blaster shot.
Who came up with the defensive plan on Hoth? I remember hoping the rebels didn’t execute him or her, because we’d need more of that epic stupidity in the future. During the assault, it was almost laughable. Fields of fire didn’t overlap; some heavy weapons like their ion cannon pointed skyward rather than towards us, against whom those weapons could have been merciless; retreating rebels didn’t coordinate their movements, which turned the first two trench lines into routs that stained the snow red. Our surviving AT-ATs would rumble up, suppress a trench line or turret cannon, then we would clean up under a curtain of supporting arms. We secured the inner band of trenches so far ahead of schedule that the Legion’s commander didn’t believe me when I called the AT-ATs forward. All that was left was the mountain, and it looked like we’d become the lead element by default. A few insurgent ships took off as we advanced, but as long as they weren’t turning back towards us, I didn’t care. Let the Fleet handle those, that’s why they get paid the big credits.
Insurgent mechanics, headquarters pukes, and other assorted support personnel shoot worse than rookie storm troopers. If a blaster shot melted the snow within an arm’s length of you, that was just blind luck. My guys, thankfully, hit what they aimed at. You didn’t see many stray blaster beams from 1st Platoon. Even my new guys calmed down, settled in, and became the unfeeling killing troopers they’d been conditioned to be. 2nd Squad started a fire in the hangar when they hit a plasma tank, and that’s when the remaining rebels broke.
Some raised their weapons, barrels down, to signal surrender. No time for prisoners who didn’t look important. The only insurgents worthy of capture were a leader named Rieekan, an Inner Rim princess who advised him, and a pair of mercenary smugglers; Lord Vader said so himself during the operations order, and you don’t defy him if you enjoy breathing. We continued our advance in bounding overwatch as we entered the mountain/hangar; one squad fired while the other two moved forward, then we switched off. I left XN-8250 in charge of two squads to dispatch the steady flow of prisoners, while I took one squad into the hangar bay itself. It was an ugly ship, a Corellian freighter that might’ve seen its best days during the Republic, and its engines were revving. Damn it! Its ventral turret fired, killing two of my troopers, then it took off. I fired on it, but it flew out of range quickly. Then I heard him breathing behind me, and I didn’t dare look, lest I be blamed for not accomplishing the objective. I’ve seen him Force choke senior officers, it’s messy, and I didn’t want to be the first Legionnaire to be honored in that fashion.
I didn’t get choked. I got a promotion and a cushy job instead, sergeant major of the security battalion on Endor. For a few years, my biggest concerns were speeder bike accidents, Ewok hunting (to this day, still my favorite meat), and keeping the shield technicians safe. Long story short, we lost. Headquarters Troop got rolled up so fast by a rebel SOF team that I didn’t even fire my weapon. I spent three years as a prisoner of war on Yavin before being repatriated to a Coruscant I didn’t recognize. There was no shortage of folks in the new Republic who’d refuse service, lodging, or employment, the instant they discovered you’d been a storm trooper. Some of the desert worlds we’d subjugated, lost, then subjugated again, increasingly looked like good places to start anew.
Then I heard through the 501st veteran grapevine about this thing called the First Order, in an uninhabited system past the Outer Rim, led by a Sith no one had seen except in a hologram. The Fleet was gathering there, and the reactivated 501st Legion needed training cadre for an influx of new troopers. Before I could shuck my old/new name, I was RL-1696 again. It’s the only thing I was ever good at, and my boys needed a sergeant major to train them, make sure they survived to train still others.
Starkiller was cold, desolate, and the best stretch of a storm trooper’s career I could have imagined. I ran thousands of troopers through the new Academy, and they’re now deployed in over fifty star systems. I revamped the curriculum so the rookies wouldn’t be so damn raw when they hit the Fleet. I stressed the Big Four: marksmanship, don’t blindly spray and don’t waste plasma packs; small unit tactics stressing lessons learned on Endor, Hoth, Jedha, and Tatooine; fealty to the Supreme Leader; and a callous disregard for life. Having someone like CPT Phasma as Legion Commander on my side, as we literally rewrote the book on training, was immeasurable.
Jakku was our final shakedown, intended as a validation of our years of preparation. You know the old saying that a good plan never survives contact with the enemy? Just before takeoff, headquarters sent us a Jedi to be in overall command, some kid who could wield a lightsaber but didn’t know jack or shit about leading storm troopers in combat. Phasma was pissed! The last time I’d seen her this angry, she shot a trooper cadet just so his peers could practice casualty evacuation. Still, she was a professional to the core and didn’t let it show, except around me. She trusted me, because how can a senior enlisted adviser serve the officer if he doesn’t know what she’s thinking? We accomplished our objective and captured a rebel – sorry, (air quotes) Resistance – pilot, but not his droid. The village that we air assaulted into? Well, it doesn’t exist anymore. Another hard lesson learned from Endor. I hear later that some stupid FNG couldn’t handle the blood on this op and defected. I hope we find that traitorous bastard soon.
We returned to the destroyer after the headquarters Jedi got his fill of killing. I took off my body armor for the last time, each section marked with the name of the storm trooper I was giving it to. I felt naked and out of balance, especially once I changed into civilian clothes I hadn’t worn since my Coruscant days, after Endor. That night, I just couldn’t go through with the retirement ceremony that CPT Phasma had planned. I apologized to her, because I knew she had gathered elements from the entire Legion, even a few old retirees with whom I’d served long ago. We had a quick drink in her command center in gross violation of First Order regs, then I boarded on the next shuttle to the Inner Rim.
I’m here now. The planet is hot, but it’s quiet and no one really cares about your past. At night I’ll look up at the band of stars that mark the Outer Rim, and try to guess which ones I’ve been to. Will we win this war? Who knows? It isn’t up to me anymore. If I have my druthers, neither of my children will go off to fight. I’ve done enough of that for a thousand families. My fight is here, eking out a living out of this farm to supplement a meager pension, worrying about the raw deal the Jawas will offer for the droids I just refurbished. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to take the lady of the house on her weekly shopping trip to Mos Eisly. Just in case, though, my old blaster (a parting gift from CPT Phasma) is under my cloak. You just never know.