68 paused for a moment by 24. The longnecks hadn’t picked out commanders yet, but 24, with his unerring instinct for team assignments and sorting out trouble before it could come to the trainers’ attention, had become the unofficial leader of their batch.
“Need ten, vod,” he murmured. 24 glanced at him, assessing, then gave a brief nod. Others within earshot closed ranks, reshuffling assignments, moving even before 24 gave the order. 68 faded back, moving casually until he was back with his squad, who had maneuvered themselves between two bits of ducting, 24 and the bulk of their brothers now providing cover and distraction along most of the sightlines, a solid wall of bodies between them and the doors. The squad parted, letting him into the center of the huddle, where 72 was crouched in a tight ball of misery, hands fisted into his tunic. Two squad-brothers crouched on either side of him, trying to offer what comfort they could.
“We have ten,” 68 told them, keeping his voice low. “72 … vod. What do you need?”
72 ducked his head, refusing to answer. 70--who had a talent for hearing everything he shouldn’t--answered for him. “Scores. Trainers say he’s underperforming on the physicals. 19 heard them talking, last cycle. They said … he wasn’t keeping up.”
68 absorbed the news, his face grim. Brothers who were exceptional, who performed better than standard, became commanders, were selected for elite teams and additional training. Brothers who fell behind … disappeared. Were taken away by the longnecks, never to return. “We’ll help,” he said slowly, trying to think. “We can swap assignments to give you extra training time, practice your hand to hand--”
70 was already shaking his head slowly, and 72 looked up. “It’s already in the record,” he croaked, his face a mask of misery. “I--I’ve been trying to keep up, 68, I swear. I don’t want--I’ve been training as hard as I can, but … it doesn’t help. I--I’m just …just not good enough.” He began to shake, and wrapped his arms around himself; 69 tucked in closer to his side, slipping an arm around him in support. “I’m scared,” 72 whispered, ashamed. “I don’t want to be decommissioned.”
“There has to be something we can do,” 69 said, fiercely, dark eyes bright and desperate. “We could go to the minders, tell them he just needs more time--”
“You think they’re actually going to listen?” 74 hissed back. “There are thousands of vod already, and hundreds more tubies being decanted every day. You think they’re going to disrupt their production schedule just ‘cause we asked nicely?” His voice cracked, bitter and angry. “Just because we don’t want 72 to go?”
“You know what they’ll do, if we try to keep him with us,” 68 said slowly, hating every word. His hands fisted at his sides, nails digging into his palms. “We have to follow orders.” If they didn’t … their entire squad would be at risk. Or worse, if the longnecks decided they had a bad batch on their hands.
Silence fell across their little huddle, minutes ticking away. Then 70 spoke. “What if we asked for help?” he said, picking his words with care. “From Ben?”
“That isn’t funny,” 74 snapped, low and angry, hands fisted at his sides. “Sure, let’s ask for help from imaginary jetii. If you can’t say anything useful--”
“I’m serious,” 70 argued in a whisper. “We can’t do anything, but Ben isn’t a clone. He could make the minders listen.”
“70 …” 68 said slowly, taken off-guard. 70 wasn’t a brother normally inclined towards ghost-tales. “Ben isn’t real. He’s just a baby story--something the tubies like to pretend is real.”
70 shook his head, his face set in stubborn lines. “He might not be. No, listen--” he gave 74 a glare when it looked like his brother wanted to interrupt again. “I’ve heard the stories, and they’re always the same. The tubies all know what he looks like. They all know he’s a jetii, before anyone ever told them what a jetii was. You know how the longnecks keep batches of tubies separate. There’s no way any of us, or any of the older vode, could have told them about him. But it doesn’t matter. All the batches know about Ben.”
“If he’s real, how come we’ve never seen him?” 74 sneered. “This mysterious jetii of yours?”
Even in the face of his brothers’ doubt, 70 refused to back down. “Maybe we’ve never needed him before. We’ve always had each other. But now ….” He glanced over at 72.
“I’ve seen him,” 71 said, and the whispered argument stopped cold.
68 turned to him, and 71 met his gaze levelly. 71 didn’t talk much, but when he did, his brothers had learned to listen. “When? How …?” 68 asked, even as a tiny forbidden ember of hope flickered to life.
“Second year. I … didn’t like words. Didn’t see the point.” 71 shrugged uncomfortably. “Minders didn’t like it. Ben … he came. When no one else was awake, or paying attention. Told me stories; taught me which words were important.”
68 frowned. “Why don’t we remember any of this?” They’d been decanted together, grown up in the same habitat. Surely they would have noticed a stranger.
71 shrugged again. “We were tubies. And … the minders, they never seemed to care when he was around. Afterwards, it’s almost like they forgot he was ever there.”
“Could he help us now? We’re not tubies anymore. How do we even find him?” 69 said, torn between skepticism and hope. “Would the trainers know?”
70 shook his head. “I’ve never heard the trainers talking about Ben. Just brothers.”
“So where does that leave us?” 74 said. “What do we do? Just wish really, really hard that he’ll appear?”
“Well, that works. Or you could just ask nicely,” came the amused reply from the hall outside, and a man stepped into sight. The room fell silent; 24 and the rest of the vode instinctively stepping backwards, out of the way of the … jetii as he made his way across the room, towards them.
“You’re Ben?” 68 said, feeling as if he’d just stepped into a ghost story. The jetii--Ben--wasn’t anything like he’d expected. He was … soft, wearing layered robes devoid of armor, or even an undersuit. And old--older than any brother, any trainer, with a silver-white beard and wispy hair, wrinkles folded deep into his skin around eyes and a smiling mouth. 68 wanted to touch them, see if they were real, what they felt like.
But Ben didn’t walk as if he were old, or frail. 68 wasn’t sure what to make of that, this jetii with the weathered face that wore power around his shoulders like a cloak.
“I am,” Ben said as he reached their little group. “And-” he continued, ruffling 71’s short-cropped hair affectionately, “-it is good to see you again, little one. Have you chosen a name yet?”
71 shook his head, looking up at the jetii. “Still looking for the right word.”
Ben nodded. “Names are important. It’s good to take your time.” A faded blue gaze looked them over, and 68 had to resist the urge to step in front of 72 as Ben focused on his huddled brother. “May I sit?” he asked gently.
Wide-eyed, 72 managed to nod. Ben sat down, sweeping his outer robe out of the way as he leaned comfortably against one of the ducts. “Now. Let’s see if we can figure out what to do.”
69 looked nervously up at the viewing windows, and the others in the room shifted uneasily, glancing at each other and at the open doorways. Hiding brothers inside larger groups of vode was one thing, but the jetii … he was too large, too different. He didn’t look anything like a brother; they couldn’t cover for him the way they did each other. “The minders …” he said, looking at Ben. Wanting to hope, but afraid to.
Ben shook his head. “Don’t worry, my friend. They know I’m here.” His smile was gentle, all-encompassing, and 69 nodded, oddly reassured. Ben, for all his strangeness, felt … warm. Like the sheltering bulk of an older brother during a live-fire exercise, or the heavy press of armor against his vulnerable belly, a bulwark against the world. The squad and the other brothers nearest the jetii pressed forward in spite of themselves, and that smile gentled, turned into something both solemn and sad. Ben turned, taking in 24’s worried face, the hushed room. “I promise you--all of you. You do not need to be afraid; you will never be punished for asking for me.”
“Yeah?” said 70, eternally suspicious. “How can you be so sure?”
Ben folded his hands in his lap, regarding 70 carefully, as if taking his measure. “Because if they try, I will know. And I will stop it.”
“Why are you here?” The question came from 24, who had pushed his way forward, shoulders straight and tense, protective worry warring with fascination.
“Why, because the Force led me here, of course,” Ben said, as if it were the most natural thing in the universe. “And because there are vode who need me.” He smiled at 72. “But today I’m here for you. You are important, little warrior, and I see no reason we should lose a brother just because he runs a little slower than everyone else.”