The razor I’m using is old and beaten. It’s still sharp enough to clean the stubble from my face as I shave. That’s odd—five years ago, I barely even needed to worry about such a simple ritual as shaving my face. Now, I almost don’t even need to look in the mirror when I do. It’s something I do whenever I’ve earned a respite from the battles I fought for the Republic, and now the Empire. Why? Well, it’s part of the regs for one, but it’s also a reminder that I’m still alive and sane. Right now, it’s just me in the refresher, a rarity for sure, and so I can take my time about my shave. There’s a faint dripping of water in the shower and the soft hum of the razor’s vibrator, but other than that, it’s just me standing here in my shorts with lather on my face.
Some of the other troopers are a bit more lax about it since we wear our helmets constantly in the field. It’s not like our commanders care too much if we’re shaved on the frontlines. Underneath our helmets, we’re anonymous soldiers, fighting to defend the Empire’s worlds from the ravages of its enemies, and nobody cares what we look like underneath.
That’s part of the reason why I do care so much about a simple thing as staying well-groomed, even though nobody will notice except for my fellow troopers, who won’t care beyond making a smart remark. I’ve known dozens of troopers who will take meticulous care of their equipment and armor and not care for their body and personal habits as they should. I’ve even known a few who’ve come back from hellholes with traumatic stress disorder, but rather than get help for it they turn to pyrodase or death sticks to give themselves a chemical buzz and make it go away for awhile. Not me, though. It’s not that I’m tougher or better than they are—I might be—but I care too much about myself to fall into such habits, even though nobody else cares about me. That’s why I make sure I’m as good and professional underneath the armor as I am on the battlefield, even if it doesn’t make a difference to anyone else. To statisticians and senior officers, I’m just another asset to be used and risked as deemed necessary.
I’ve got the scars to show it, too. The razor traces an outline of a cleft scar on my chin from where I nearly got blown up on Tellanroaeg by friendly fire. That one wasn’t too bad, and it’s sort of tucked away near my neck so it’s not so obvious. A few more centimeters down and I’d have bled to death from a severed carotid artery, but I was lucky. I’ve also got a larger scar on my thigh from where a droid laser nearly sliced me in half. I’m a half step slower since that happened. The wound—stitched back together in a rough medical ward on Boz Pity—healed, but I’ve never quite gotten my full strength back from it. I’ve got a dozen more reminders of the battles I’ve fought all over me, reminders that I’ve bled my fair share for both Republic and Empire on a dozen balls of rock.
If we were ordinary soldiers, we’d be paid in full for what we’ve done. Maybe retirement to a nice little place out in the middle of nowhere, with no more armor, no more danger, no more dying, and most importantly, no more of those damn Separatist droids. We’d get a nice pension, collect some medals, and do whatever the kriff we wished. But we’re not. We were grown for the purpose of defending the Republic and when the shavit hit the ventilator on Geonosis, I don’t think anyone in the senior leadership even thought about what to do with us when it was over. Now that it is over—now that Grievous and Dooku are dead, now that the Separatist leaders are gone, now that the Supreme Chancellor—scratch that, the Emperor, has declared that the war’s over, I bet they’re wondering now. I know that we are.
Not just about what’s going to become of us—that’s not a decision we’re guaranteed to be able to make. If I know bureaucrats, they won’t part with expensive and valuable, albeit replaceable, assets easily. But if we do get a chance to leave the only life we’ve ever known, how many will take it? And who will we be if we do?
All my life, I’ve been a soldier. I’ve followed orders and been damn good at completing my missions. Take that away, and what’s left? Who is the man in the mirror staring back at me? What does he have? What are his hopes and dreams? Who is important to him? I’ve tried not to think about those types of questions too much, because the answer is I don’t know. I don’t know who I am or what I would be without the army. It’s not something you talk about much with your brothers-in-arms, but I suspect that most of them don’t know either.
I’m done with my shave now, erasing the stubble away cleanly and a quick rinse removes any vestiges of the shaving foam. I wish I could banish those lingering doubts as easily, but it’s not that simple. There’s a reason we’re not encouraged to think beyond life in the army. Part of it is for pragmatic reasons—as many battles as we fight, expectations of survival are somewhat unreasonable. Ask anyone who’s been there about Jabiim, or Drongar or Muunilist. The other part of it is that we’re supposed to keep our minds on our missions and objectives, not distracted by some fantasy life outside of the service. It keeps us focused, but it also keeps us subservient and dependent on the Republic—scratch that, it’s the Empire now—for life.
Most of the other troopers I know are fine with that—they like, or can at least handle the army. There’s comfort in staying with what you know and most of us feel more comfortable around each other than with non-clone officers or civilians anyway. Some of the new clones, the ones who weren’t from Jango, sometimes I wonder if there’s anything between their ears. Damned shame—things went better when we were all the same, all knew each other, but I don’t get to make that call.
Sometimes, though, I wonder what it would be like to live like everyone else out there. No more orders, no more hopping from one planet to another, waiting for that lucky shot to end it all. I wonder what it would be like to know who you are, to not be defined by what you do. I’ve asked some of the others about it, but only fellow ARCs really understand the kind of independent thought that it takes to contemplate something like that. And Coruscant knows there’s few enough of us left after all those blood-soaked years. It’s been a long war, but what happens after the blaster roar stops? What happens when the battlefront is quiet at last? Can old soldiers ever find rest?
I shake my head; I can’t afford to entertain such questions. Instead, I run a calloused hand across my face to see how thorough I was in shaving, but I got all the stubble the first time. It’s rare that I don’t—I’m known for doing things right the first time and shaving is no exception just because it seems more trivial than blasting droids.
A few short steps return me to the long barracks room that I’ve called home since arriving on the Engager. It’s not that crowded—the room is reserved for just the ARCs and there’s only seven of us on the ship in a space meant for two dozen. I don’t need the space—I only have a small chest of belongings and most of them aren’t mine anyway. I punch in the combination to open my chest and fish out my uniform from the bottom of the chest where I’d tossed it. Ordinarily, I’d suit up in full armor, minus the helmet, for my duties on the ship, but Captain Bolnir wants us to show up at the meeting scheduled for thirty minutes from now in the regular non-field uniforms we were issued not too long ago. Pulling out the required articles of clothing, I hold them up to the light. Dark gray pants and tunic with a nameplate and the Imperial insignia. Not too bad, I suppose. A little looser than the insulating underlayer we wear beneath our armor, but it’s not utterly ridiculous.
As I pull out the uniform, something slips out and falls to the deck with a clatter. That was unexpected; all the weapons, power packs, and anything else metal are stowed in their own compartments or strapped down where they won’t be jostled during transit. And yet there it is, some kind of metal disk. Bending down, I reach over and pick it up. There’s two initials engraved on it, a Senth and a Krill. I turn over the cold metal in my hand to see a symbol etched into the surface, a symbol I’ve tried very hard to forget. It’s a loop enclosing two upswept wings with a blade in the middle and I’m suddenly reminded of the origins of this particular piece of metal.
It was a gift from a Jedi Padawan a long time ago. His name was Selu Kraen; we met on Boz Pity. He saved my life and gave this to me not long afterward. Ever since the Jedi rebellion, I’ve tried hard not to think about him. I’ve tried hard not to imagine that naïve young kid with an overgrown sense of responsibility as a traitor, mostly because he was the one person I ever knew who wasn’t a clone and still cared about me. He’s probably dead now and so I’ll never get a chance to tell him, but he was the only one. Staring at the medallion he gave me takes me back a few years, back to something I tried to bury because there will never be a chance for closure.
I don’t know how long I stood there looking at it, like I was in some kind of a daze, but it wasn’t too long and I eventually snapped out of it. Probably shouldn’t have even kept the stupid thing, but I just never really felt like parting with it. I wish I’d known that Jedi in another world, in another life besides the battlefield. We might have been friends. I’ll never know now, at any rate, but I do know this: there isn’t anyone in the army that I can say had the same appreciation for me. All of my original brothers are dead and gone out of my group of ARCs. I’m the only one left. There’s nobody who really cares about what happens to me as a person, just about what I can do for them. That’s enough to tell me that it’s time to get out if I have the opportunity.
I’m no deserter and I’ll serve the Empire as long as it requires me to, but I won’t be sticking around if I have the choice. The closeness I used to have with my brothers is missing and the quality of the officers certainly hasn’t improved.
Maybe I was meant to find this disk here, to remind me that there’s something else outside of the army. Normally, I don’t entertain these thoughts—I just stay focused on my mission. Now I have no mission, the war is over, and maybe it’s time for me to move on if I get the chance. I don’t know what I would do, but I’d like to have the chance to find out.
I look down at my hands—rough and calloused. Could they find a trade besides dealing out destruction? Could I be a farmer? A merchant? Could I give up all this, the safety of my preconceived identity as a soldier and venture out into a new world? Could I possibly one day hold a child and not think a single warlike thought? I don’t know, but I’d like to find out.
I shake my head—enough of this. I have a meeting with the other ARCs on the Engager and Captain Borlis. I’ve done enough contemplation of my fantasy life to last me the next month, and so I slip that token back into the bottom of my storage chest. Fastening up the uniform tunic and buckling on the utility belt that goes with it, I finish dressing. The final touch is to slide my trusty DC-17 hand blaster into the polished black holster in my side. Its familiar weight is comforting and it reminds me of who I am right now.
There’s a small chance that one day, I’ll be someone else. I’ll have a life of my own and my years in the Imperial Army will be a distant memory. For now, though, the man in the mirror staring back at me is a soldier. For now, I’m Alpha-28, a terrifying specter for the enemies of the Empire, and I am the best. At the moment, that’s enough, but one day, it won’t be. I live for that day.