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|Xanadu story universe|
James Brosseau, also known as TK 0480 of Makaze Squad, self-consciously adjusted the black Nike dry-fit shirt that he wore, pulling at the high turtleneck uneasily and trying not to shiver in the night air. The twenty or so people around, most of them troopers of some sort, didn't seem to be openly staring. Everyone whose gear included a helmet was wearing it now. But he felt their gaze, measuring and uncertain, as if he was a complete stranger. It was not the most pleasant feeling.
Turning his head, James caught the glowing red eyes of a Thrawn looking squarely at him. The man was standing, as Thrawn often did, erect with his hands clasped behind his back, rather than working like all of the others in view. The Thrawn’s blue lips pulled back in a “you caught me” sort of smile that somehow remained entirely dignified, and the man nodded slightly before turning away.
This can’t be any easier for them, either, James thought.
Them. A few weeks back, James had been a part of that group, that them. Before Xanadu. Before The Event.
He’d been a member of the Fighting 501st ever since he’d turned eighteen. He’d spent thousands on the armor, in terms of hours as well as dollars. He’d flown to California to attend two Celebrations, and he’d marched in the Tournament of Roses. He’d even gone on a few fundraisers and to a children’s hospital for the Make A Wish Foundation – although the focus then had rightly been on the Vaders in the group. Kids loved Vader. No one really knew why. Stormtroopers were scenery, and for the handful of kids put off by the big man with the cape. James didn't really mind.
What he hadn’t done was gone to Xanadu. It had practically been in his backyard, compared to the other events he’d attended. Much of the rest of Makaze squad, including his girlfriend, had gone, and he’d stayed home to work overtime. The Kublai Con was big, and Albin Johnson himself, the founder of the 501st, would be there, but the focus hadn’t been on Star Wars; most of the attendees hadn’t been fans, and there wouldn’t be that sense of community. And what was the point in mingling with thousands of unwashed strangers without that feeling of “You are my people”?
Star Wars fandom, despite the often-quoted factoid that the fans hated the franchise, had a definite sense of community. He'd felt that ever since he'd seen Episode Three in high school, when he'd happened to share a theater with a friendly knot of fans in Jedi robes. He'd talked to them afterwards, heard their theories about the Death Star, had half a dozen different books recommended to him. He'd never looked back. It had been strange, but... good. Welcoming.
And… now that feeling was gone. James didn’t know how many of the 501st had gone to Xanadu. He probably never would. But for them, at least, there was no going back. No returning on the weekdays. There was now a schism in the group.
Well, actually, as James understood it there were a number of schisms. Most of the 501st hadn’t gotten too caught in character, but there were a number of others not associated who had. Could they be counted as members? Did the 501st have any responsibility for them? A largish cross-section of clone troopers who hadn’t been with the legion had been seen taking directions from an unknown Jedi or Sith, rumored to be a Revan. What should they do about that? What about Xanadu security? As what was possibly the largest armed and trained force on Xanadu that wasn’t made of mundane law enforcement officials, the 501st was well suited to helping establish and maintain order. But wasn’t that part of an Imperial line of thinking? Was that a good thing or a bad thing? Should they surrender any of their tech, as they had been repeatedly urged to do by several of those same officials? There was a truce of sorts, more friendly between some individuals than others, between the 501st and the much smaller, less organized scattering of people from the Rebel Legion, as well as assorted Jedi; what should be done about them? Who was in charge? Certain troopers with normal, low ranks were currently acting as superior officers to Vaders and Mauls and a couple of Isards and at least one Tarkin. Would that stand? What about the two or three who had come as Palpatine, who hadn't been seen since? What would happen if they reappeared?
And yet, despite all of those differences of opinion, the percentage of the 501st that had gone to Xanadu retained its solidarity. They were a group, and they stood by each other. There just happened to be a far bigger rift in existence, one which didn’t seem remotely surpassable.
On one side, there were the cosplayers… and then, on the other, there was the 501st.
James’d talked to his girlfriend and his friends within the squad, on the phone and over the computer and even in person. They knew and remembered him, and still called him friend. But something had changed, something that went past the physical.
That comradeship which had kept him in the squad for years, in good times and bad, was… gone. They were just different; that common ground of being fans with crafting skills was gone as if it had never been. They had been estranged. The rest of the squad had unknowingly seized a great, hidden, terrifying opportunity that he’d never seen. James still thought of himself as stormtrooper TK 0480, part of the Legion. He hadn’t resigned or revoked his membership. But… they didn’t see him that way. They saw him as other. Normal. And that hurt.
James knew a few people in the furry community who hadn’t attended, a few casual friends, who felt similarly. All too many people who had been close had become familiar strangers, even if they retained their minds and memories. A gulf had opened up that no amount of prior connection could quite manage to close. The furries had come up with some kind of a solution, a way to cross people from one half of that gulf to the other, if they wanted it enough. It had taken nearly a week of cajoling to get it out, and yet more time to convince the 501st to try it on him.
It was related to what was sometimes called the "clothing curse" - that odd morphing that clothing underwent when some individuals tried to wear certain items. Backpacks that became satchels, trousers that turned into shorts or skirts or just became tighter, other articles that changed similarly or fell off or dissolved. Some alterations were rather dramatic. On one of the several blogs devoted to Xanadu, someone had described in detail a change they had witnessed, when a bathobe had twisted and dwindled into form-fitting body armor seconds after a "scarred chick with a shaved head" had put it on.
There were rumors among the furries that one of their own had picked up the ability to make suits that changed the wearer. And another of those blogs had reported an unverified story about what had happened to someone who found a confiscated suit of Metroid armor in a warehouse... well, James had been fired, all of his closest friends had gone to the big convention, and he wasn't that close to his family. What did he have to lose?
He’d convinced them somehow, then drove back home, collected all the materials he could think of, and drove up here again, to the agreed - upon spot, and finally waited until late at night. Hardly anyone from the 501st had been cleared to leave Xanadu, but that hadn’t stopped anyone. Security there would have a hard time catching anything smaller than a rampaging elephant. It had been easy enough for them to meet him and set up.
It just wasn’t legal to sell quality stormtrooper armor – cheap Halloween knockoffs just weren’t up to the standards of the 501st - either complete or disassembled, not like fursuits. Admittedly you did mail in for the helmet, and most people didn't make their own boots, but you couldn’t call someone up, place an order, read out specifications, shell out several grand, and come get it at the end of the month. You had to make your own.
With help, of course. A few weeks ago these collaborations, where a set of more experienced members helped a newbie to craft their first set of proper armor, had been called “armor parties.” James hadn’t been the center of one of those for years. He was one now.
Things were different, of course. This time, the casual aspect was almost entirely missing. It was all business, yet he wasn't working with them, and he wasn’t watching and hearing the “tricks of the trade” as senior members reassured him that although the process was as hard as it looked, it would get easier with practice. He could hear the machine running, and he knew that the troopers had to be exchanging comments using the com systems hidden in their helmets, but he wasn’t included in it at all. He knew what they were doing, how to make the molds and work the styrene and use the vacuum former to make the pulls, and how to trim away the excess and joint it. But they weren’t letting him see it at all.
It didn’t seem to be taking as long as it ought to. Pulling the molds always involved a lot of trial and error; lots of different parts went into stormtrooper armor. The shiny white “shell” was complicated and tricky to get right. It usually took at least two hours and a number of miss-fires to make a complete set. He was keeping his own helmet and boots, at least. They were doing something to those, he didn't know what. Everything else was being re-cast.
And to James’s thinking, it was going much too quickly and smoothly. They had been working for maybe forty-five, fifty minutes - he'd removed his watch and wasn't sure- and from the sounds of it they were already wrapping up.
Now it was all too quiet. The very loud vacuum former had shut off with hardly a complaint. Now there was no sound but a Vader’s stentorian breathing, the occasional clacks of armor, and what sounded suspiciously like the low drone of a lightsaber, which also cut off abruptly. He easily picked up the footsteps of the woman approaching him, although it helped that he was looking right at her.
"James." Julia’s voice was serious, but he saw the hope in her eyes, under the bill of her officer’s cap. Her body looked like it had compacted a little in the dark olive uniform of an officer of the Imperial Army, her chin had firmed, she had a directness to her that hadn't been this strong before, but otherwise she appeared almost unchanged.
James thought he would know. He’d been her boyfriend, a few weeks back. They had met in the squad. As TK 0480, he’d often played her bodyguard, stating boldly that there were few enough female officers as it was, so he’d protect this one, ID 4102. The fact that their names both started with “J” was a coincidence, but one that the rest of the squad had really rode them on once they hooked up.
Lately, he remembered, he'd been thinking about engagement, but the time had never been quite right.
"Y-yes?" Why was he nervous? Julia wasn’t, or else she would have been tugging idly at the hem of her uniform, fiddling with the rank cylinders in her breast pocket. Or had that changed too?
“We’re ready to get started,” was all she said. It sent James’s heart into his mouth, pounding wildly. Was this going to work?
If it didn't...
He was already wearing the bodysuit, so it started, naturally, with the thigh pieces, still hot from the vaccuforming process. To his eyes they were ugly. Too shiny and new, both unpolished and far too clean, monochrome. Compared to the solid quality of the thigh armor on the legs around him, it looked like a joke. He’d never worn them so new before.
Standing there wearing nothing but the bodysuit and the thigh pieces, James clamped down on the urge to just turn and run. This wasn't going to work; he'd put everything on and then nothing would happen and they'd just stare... They were already staring. Hope was such a painful, fragile thing, lodged there in his chest. When he let her down, when he let his squad down...
I should just go now. Spare myself that much, at least. I don't want-
"Hey. Back off, boys," Julia said sharply, raking her gaze over several helmets. "Can't you see he's scared out of his wits? Go clean up or something."
"Gee, thanks Julia," James muttered, his cheeks flaming. Embarrassed as he felt, he still didn't miss seeing that the squad obeyed with more alacrity than they would have only a few weeks ago. He was still being watched, but at least some of the pressure was gone.
A Royal Guard in flowing scarlet came forwards with the boots, his boots. They didn't look any different. When he accepted them, it seemed almost as if a static charge passed between the shiny white leather and his fingers. But as he slid them on, he found that they felt utterly mundane. Normal, and definitely his, down to the insole on the right being marginally thinner than the one on the right.
Then the four pieces, inside and outside, that encased his right and left shins and calves. Above them were the codpiece and the “butt armor”. After those, he stuck the belt and the rear canister to the lower back, and added it and the abdominal section to his ensemble. The white styrene “shells” didn’t seem to be cooling, and the elastic that held the pieces together had apparently absorbed the warmth without diminishing it. They were hot to the touch, just short of painful. James was already sweating, the moisture wicking away through the bodysuit – which was also heating up, along with his boots.
Next came the neckpiece. Ordinarily a microphone would have been part of it, but he saw nothing but the raw trimmed shell. After that, James used a convenient tube of ABD cement and connected the biceps and the shoulder bells to the joined upper back and chestplate, with its stylized pectoral groove. That, he slid into like an oddly rigid T-shirt. The bodysuit underneath was almost instantly soaked. It was hot in that thing, rather more so than usual. The night was cool, at least for Orlando at this time of the year, but that really didn't help.
His palms almost dripping with sweat that wasn’t entirely due to the heat, James next donned the proffered gloves. As far as he could tell they weren’t his, but they fit like - well, like gloves. The thought forced him to fight down nervous laughter as he clasped on the forearm segments. Like with the shins and calves, these came in inside and outside pieces. Then the plates on the backs of his hands, held there in part by connections to his forearm armor, in part by elastic straps that bit through his gloves.
“Here.” Julia drew something long and black out of the holster strapped to her leg, then pushed it on him. James grabbed it automatically before it could fall.
It was a Blas-Tech E-11 blaster rifle, as perfectly detailed as any he’d seen. His mouth fell open a few centimeters. “Julia, I thought the rule was ‘no weapons’. We’re in enough trouble if we get caught now, if they find out that you smuggled one of these out –“
“It is only a replica. Check it for yourself.” James suppressed a startle and craned his head back over his shoulder to look up at the Vader who had spoken. It was hard to tell for sure, but he thought that this was SL 0075. It was almost impossible now to think of him as his old friend Cory Eldridge. Nothing about the tall, intimidating Sith matched with Cory’s own height and voice, or called up memories of his love of the Orlando Predators or his terrible luck with girls or his weakness for Bond films or his surprisingly neat handwriting. Entering a conversation from behind was a Cory-type thing to do, but he’d hardly been unique in doing so.
It seemed to James that out of all of the members of the 501st, it was the Darth Vaders who were the worst off. The majority of members were troopers, be they normal stormies, sand troopers, snowtroopers, scouts, Royal Guards, or other. Except for a few who played a specific character, they could take off their helmets and be recognizable to their friends and families. Yes, there was now a certain uniformity in terms of height, weight, age, and muscle tone, and everyone’s hair was cut to Imperial standards, and they were now expert sharpshooters except in the presence of Ewoks and a few individuals, and there were all kinds of minor psychological alterations that might fascinate a social worker. And it was true that those who had worn clone trooper armor now looked and sounded strikingly like Temura Morrison, and had to worry about accelerated aging. It was also true that there were a few isolated members with specific complaints, like the bounty hunter Zuckuss, who could only breathe ammonia, and Tusken Raiders, who literally could not remove their wrappings or walk around in public without them. And yes, some of the Sith had picked up a struggle with the Dark Side along with unpleasant personality quirks, and the bounty hunters and a few officers had their own new difficulties. Thrawn, for instance.
None of them were quite as badly off as the Vaders. Instantly recognizable and immediately dreaded, they literally could not remove those masks and helmets outside of an oxygen chamber without risking all kinds of difficulties. They could barely eat normally, and some were wracked with pain inside of those suits. Most people seeing them or hearing them speak and breathe couldn’t help treating them with fearful suspicion, and that was hardly unwarranted, given the mental problems – impatience, a literally deadly temper, a certain carelessness and hasty judgment - each Vader wrestled with daily. Most children still loved them, a fact made all the more bizarre by the fact that these same children would run to them and away from Xanadu’s resident Santa Claus, for example. But that didn’t exactly make up for everything else.
James realized that he was staring openly and looked down and away, shamed. Surely enough people stared at SL 0075 already. “I’m sorry,” he got out. “I didn't mean to be rude.”
“At least you will admit it. I am not entirely accustomed to this myself.” SL 0075’s deep voice, completely out of synch with the amplified sound of his breathing, somehow held a rueful hint that was enough like Cory to make things feel weird. Weirder, anyway.
Rather than search his feelings, James got to looking over the blaster rifle. On second take, he could see that it was made of PVC, wood, aluminum, and styrene, painted lovingly. It was better-made than his, with a level of skill he just wasn’t up to yet. He gripped it more carefully as he saw the craftsmanship and amount of detail that had gone into it, angling it so he could see down the muzzle. “Who made this? It’s very nice, very professional.”
“That would be the work of TK 210,” Julia put in, obviously pleased to see his pleasure.
“Two-ten, two-ten, do I know a two-ten… wait. You mean - it can't be. It is? Albin Johnson made this?” Why had the rifle gone warm in his hands? It matched the steady, almost unbearable heat in his suit, which had also spread into his body, making his muscles quiver almost imperceptibly, as if he'd drank a cup of espresso and was having a reaction. “The 501st’s founder himself? He made this?”
“Indeed,” SL 0075 confirmed, making the word into an ominous intonation. “He had word of what we are planning to do, and constructed this replica. We have his blessing.”
“Wow.” James turned the E-11 over in his hands. “What an honor.” He didn't realize how transfixed he had become until he was interrupted from this reverie.
“Do you want to stand around admiring that all night, James, or are you going to finish this?” Julia held up the last, most iconic part of the armor. The helmet.
Peripherally, James was aware that the other members of the 501st had finished cleaning up and formed a circle around him. This made him remember the nervousness that had left while he’d been examining the blaster rifle, but he wasn’t about to back out now. They were his legion. He was TK 0480. How could he let them down?
Glancing down at the rifle that Johnson had made him, he rather sheepishly asked, “Someone want to hold this? I can’t put my bucket on one-handed.” They hadn't given him his holster back yet.
SL 0075 hesitated for only a moment. “There is no need.” The Vader accepted the white helmet from ID 4102 and held it in his hands, then raised it up.
Automatically James inhaled sharply, closing his eyes as the helmet settled down over his head. It was his, he knew it. Someone had removed the cooling fan and filled in the little holes in the frowning “mouth”, so as it heated to match the rest of his outfit and seemed to fit itself closer to his face he fully expected it to become horribly stifling.
It didn’t. Something sort of clicked, and a little air began to circulate, cool on his skin. He shivered convulsively, causing the shells to tap each other. Was the heat fading? Was the rifle weighing heavier in his hands? Was the new-made armor shifting, both gaining mass and fitting more securely? He felt the extra space inside of the helmet contract further, saw a faint glow through his eyelids. Tilting the rifle's barrel directly upwards, he opened his eyes and squeezed the trigger.
That night, the Orlando Police department received a number of complaints from the remaining residents of a neighborhood not more than a mile or two off Xanadu grounds, just outside of the evacuated zone, close enough that nearly everyone had left to stay with relatives in safer, saner areas. It seemed that someone had been making an incredible ruckus – jubilant cries in various voices including a drawn out bass “Yes!”, strange weapons like short red laser beams discharging into the sky, vaguely menacing laughter, that sort of thing. On arriving on the scene with a super from Xanadu who had volunteered for just such an occasion, the law enforcement officials found no one. Only a few scorches on the walls – dark scars with guttering flames in the center – the marks of some kind of heavy table, and a pile of white squares, each of which had had something cut out of it, remained. It was tallied up as yet another of the city of Orlando's many, many complaints about that strangest of conventions.