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What Will You Become?

Chapter Text

“I’m sure everything will go horribly wrong,” Kanan had liked to say.

 

Which basically sums up our pathetic lot in life, Sabine thought bitterly. After spending several years with them, it seemed like the Ghost crew couldn’t accomplish the simplest objective without undergoing some strange and/or disastrous fiasco in the process. Simple refueling mission? Guess what, it’s “let’s get warm and fuzzy with space whales time!” Zeb and Ezra go grocery shopping? Might as well pick up a TIE Fighter while you’re out! Restocking on medical supplies? Apparently, one creepy-ass Sith wannabe wasn’t enough; now we have two!

 

Sabine silently seethed over this seemingly inescapable pattern as once again, something went wrong, resulting in yet another change of plans.

 

Given, going back to Lothal to help the local insurgency with the Blue Bastard himself taking a personal interest in them wasn’t exactly the definition of “risk-free”, but hey, why not? As pragmatic as the rebellion liked to think of themselves as, when their new friend Kallus (thinking of him as that was still and would always be way too weird) contacted them with news that almost all of the Lothal cell had been captured, including both Marida Sumar and Azadi, they couldn’t say yes fast enough. The plan was simple, not easy by any means, people get those two mixed up a lot, but simple.

 

Or at least it was simple before they ran into Lyste.

 

Kallus had instructed them to use the sewer system running under the Imperial Complex, entering from where the pipes specifically designed for the Complex connected with the rest of Capital City’s sewer system. He provided them access codes to get through the special maintenance entrance connecting the two systems. They had gotten through easily enough and promptly freed the prisoners, who were thankfully still awaiting interrogation in their shared cell. A little dull for Sabine (not one single need for explosives!) but hey, freed prisoners were freed prisoners.

 

They were making their way back the sewers from whence they came when disaster struck. Slowly but surely the group had been heading down the corridors, Sabine and the front and Zeb at the rear. Each time they had to turn a corner, Sabine went first, blasters drawn to shoot down any unfortunate Stormtroopers she might find so they couldn’t raise the alarm.

 

After leaving a few dead Stormtroopers in their wake, they finally neared the entrance to the sewers. Just one last corner to turn, and they’d be home free. Right as Sabine was about to check the corner, they heard a sharp bark behind them.

 

“You there, halt!”

 

They all whipped around to see a group of troopers running toward them. Sabine pushed through the freed prisoners to join Zeb in facing the Stormtroopers. There were more of them than the pairs they had previously come across, but they still went down relatively quickly between her and Zeb, though not without a considerable, and noisy, scuffle.

 

“Alright, everyone,” Sabine said after finishing off the last one, “we need to keep mov-“

 

“This is Lieutenant Lyste, reporting escaped prisoners in Sector J, near the sanitation center!”

 

The rebels wheeled around to see the lieutenant standing by the corner, the one that Sabine had been about to check, holding a comlink and bearing an insufferably smug look on his face. A look that was quickly wiped off when Marida Sumar punched his lights out and crushed the comlink underfoot.

 

“That was for ‘reclaiming’ my farm,” said Marida with a cold satisfaction. “Do you think the message got through?”

 

Alarms blared.

 

“Hard to tell,” deadpanned Azadi. “We should probably get going.”

 

“Well we can’t use the sewers anymore,” Sabine said bitterly. “Extraneous exits are always the first things put on lockdown.”

 

“We can grab a shuttle in the hangar, it’s not too far from here,” said Zeb urgently.

 

“Those will probably be on lockdown too,” piped up Azadi.

 

“Hold on, I got it.” All eyes were on Sabine. “Every avenue we try is gonna be on lockdown. You guys can keep with the sewer route while I go to the control room and unlock the door connecting the Complex and the city systems. By the time you get to the door, I should have it open.”

 

“No, absolutely not,” said Zeb, “There’s no way in hell we’re leaving anyone behind, Sabine.”

 

“Zeb, you need to get these people out,” insisted Sabine.

 

“Including you!”

 

“This is the only way any of us are getting out of here alive!”

 

“Enough you too!” snapped Azadi. “Zeb, I hate to say it, but Sabine’s right. This the only way we can escape.”

 

“Alright, fine!” Zeb relented. “But once we’re on the other side, we’re waiting on you.”

 

“Only for an hour,” said Sabine. “Then you have to leave. Promise me.”

 

“Arghh fine,” Zeb grumbled.

 

“It’s settled then, you guys need to get going.”  Sabine turned to leave, but was stopped by Zeb’s paw on her shoulder.

 

“Be careful, ‘Bean.”

 

“Aren’t I always, big guy?” Sabine teased.

 

“I’m not even touching that!” Her and Zeb allowed themselves to share a few second’s laughter.

 

“Sorry to interrupt, but we need to keep moving,” Marida said curtly.

 

“She’s right,” said Sabine, “Get going. I’ll be right behind you.” At that, Sabine turned around and ran down the hallway leading to the control room.

 

Every nerve in Sabine’s body was on edge as she painstakingly made her way to the main control room (which, of course, had to be on the exact opposite side of the compound from the kriffing sewers). Doing her best to maintain a balance of stealth and speed, she expertly navigated the utilitarian corridors, knowing that each corner she turned could have bucketheads waiting to find her and alert everyone else to her position.

 

Finally having made it to the main control room, she keyed in the access code provided by their new buddy Kallus, silently praising the Force when it worked. She immediately set to work finding the area that had access to the sanitation center. After quickly locating the panel, she began hacking the system in order to override the sewer lock. Hacking wasn’t exactly a traditional discipline for a Mandalorian, but it was one she excelled at nevertheless.

 

In short work, she managed to override the sewer lock, and just for good measure, scrambled some of their data to throw a wrench in their operations for at least a day or two. Feeling quite satisfied with herself, she turned and made her way to the door of the control room, already planning her own escape.

 

“Leaving so soon, Sabine Wren?”

 

Sabine froze, feeling every nerve in her body come alight . Whipping her head around, she saw a tall, looming figure poised in a doorway positioned in the far corner. She knew the man on sight, an image straight from the Atollon briefing holotable, from the striking cobalt hue of his skin to unmistakable glowing red eyes.

 

“Thrawn,” she breathed. Like magnets she drew her blasters into her hand and aimed them only for them to be shot out her hands just as quickly. Thrawn began to walk toward her, smoking blaster in hand, with a strange, almost disappointed look in those cold, calculating eyes.

 

“For someone with your reputation, Miss Wren, I would have expected you to have some pause at the lack of guards patrolling the main control room. Not even the fact that you encountered not a single Stormtooper in the corridors en route to here seemed to trouble you in the slightest. I must confess I expected more from the famous Mandalorian artist and saboteur.”

 

“It’s been a long day,” Sabine huffed, angry at herself for being as embarrassed as she was. At this, Thrawn merely shrugged, continuing his casual advance toward her, taking her in from head to toe. She had the sudden feeling of being an object of study in his personal museum, which she quickly put aside.

 

“Such a strange Mandalorian,” he mused. Sabine’s fists clenched as her heart rate doubled. “You defect from your clan, forswear Mandalorian values, go out of your way to color everything from your hair to your armor,” she was pretty sure her knuckles were white by now, “and yet you feel as if being Mandalorian is an irrevocable part of who you are. Your armor says it all.”

 

“What’s that supposed to mean?” The mental cable holding her back from blindly going after this guy who outdrew a kriffing Mandalorian was being held together by one increasingly strained fiber.

 

Thrawn smiled at her as one does an innocently oblivious child. “Well come now Miss Wren, do you really expect me to believe that this,” he gestured to her armor, “is the traditional pattern of Clan Wren? Surely you don’t think I am so ignorant of Mandalorian armor decorations. Bright purple and orange are just about the exact opposite of the muted yellow and gray that is customary of Wren armor. But even so, you maintain the traditional helmet flare pattern, albeit in different colors but still a clear resemblance nonetheless, and each other modification, though they seem random, are all evocative of something meaningful, from the Starbird on your breastplate to the number five on your shoulder, standing for your callsign Specter Five. Despite making every effort to individualize yourself, you still treat your armor with the same honor your ancestor who originally forged it centuries ago did. The very fact that you still wear it speaks to this, and please don’t insult me by suggesting that you continue to wear one of the most recognizable types of armor in galactic history merely because of its protective qualities. Even though Mandalorian culture has branded you a traitor, disowned you, and cast you aside, you still cling to it for your identity, your sense of self.”

 

“Have you ever considered being an art professor?” Sabine shot back in an effort to ignore the fact that every word Thrawn just said was true. “I heard it has way better benefits than being a mass murderer.” Her tone was casual, but her hands were shaking in anger.

 

This seemed to amuse Thrawn even further. “So aloof and untouchable. So unwilling to face the truth of your situation. Just like your armor, which is perhaps why you favor it so. Beskar iron is among the strongest known materials, resisting even the fabled lightsaber. Wearing it almost ensures protection from anything one’s enemy can throw at them. So poignant that one of its wearers crafted an exception to the rule.”

 

“Shut up. Now”

 

“Or perhaps that is why you wear it. As a reminder that one way or another even the strongest exteriors can crack.”

 

“Say. One. More. Word. Go ahead. Try it.” Sabine whispered in a fatally low tone. Her entire body was trembling with pure, unadulterated rage, not caring that she was defenseless and was currently being held at gunpoint. If this guy pushed his luck a millimeter further, the next thing he’d be analyzing would be a crazy, pissed off Mandalorian.

 

And yet somehow even that didn’t deter the bastard a single bit. He continued, still infuriatingly calm and poised,” You misunderstand. I mean not to criticize, but to relate. There is an uncanny resemblance in our stories, Miss Wren, for I too was considered strange and other for my fixation on art and culture. No one truly understood why I so fervently maintained the usefulness of art analysis in battle, as I’m sure no one truly understood why you sought to integrate art into your warrior upbringing.”

 

Was this guy seriously trying to tell her his sob story right now, during a kriffing standoff? “Why the hell are you telling me this? Are you trying to start up an ‘Outcast Art Club’ or something?”

 

Thrawn maintained his expression, only cocking an eyebrow to add to his light smirk. “Fascinating that your first conclusion should be that I desire for us to work together.”

 

Sabine scoffed, “Yeah, because it’s basically Imperial regulation for you guys to try and get us to join you at any and every opportunity. And it’s also Rebel regulation for us to always reply with hell kriffing no.”

 

“I should hardly be surprised,” Thrawn said, unperturbed. “But I am unable to say I am not disappointed. You have the potential for true greatness, if you would only focus your talents on maintaining order and stability in the galaxy rather than sowing chaos and destruction. You have something most Imperials do not. Vision. True vision. With it, you can play a part in remaking this galaxy into something more. Something truly beautiful.”

 

“You’re insane.”

 

Thrawn sighed in resignation. “You disappoint me, Miss Wren. I’m afraid we shall now have to do this the hard way. Governor,” he called.

 

Right on cue, the door opened, and Governor Pryce entered the control room, her lips curled into a malicious, triumphant smile. Sabine’s heart sank even further. Was the whole thing a setup from the start?

 

 “Hello again,” Pryce purred menacingly.

 

“Pryce told me of her failure to overpower you back at Skystrike Academy,” Thrawn informed Sabine. “She is eager to redeem herself.”

 

Sabine positioned herself into a fighting stance. “And I’m eager to kick her ass for a second time.”

 

Pryce responded, “You got lucky back at Skystrike, and unfortunately for you, little Mandalorian, your luck has just exhausted itself.” She got into a stance to match Sabine’s and started circling her, placing each step with slow deliberation as if walking through a minefield. Sabine pivoted to keep facing Pryce, mentally centering herself, steadying her breaths. In. Out. In. Out. She could hear her heart beating in her ears as her mind switched into hyperawareness, analyzing each painstaking step Pryce took. Finally, Sabine found what she was looking for. The slightest shift in weight differentiating one step from the others, telling her Pryce was about to pounce. Sabine sprang toward the woman, just in time for Pryce to do the same.

 

Sabine had the give Pryce this: she was good. The fight was just as brutal as it had been back at Skystrike, but this time there was no torture apparatus to throw Pryce into, so it went on much longer. It seemed like Pryce had been studying, preparing for this. Sabine got a few hits and kicks in here and there but for the most part, Pryce dodged every punch, sidestepped every maneuver. Fortunately for Sabine, Pryce wasn’t getting in that many hits either, and even when she did, Sabine knew how to take a punch, as shown from how quickly she recovered from Pryce landing a particularly solid hit to her abdomen and kicking her into the control panel. As Pryce ran toward her to keep her down, Sabine focused through her head spinning enough to leg sweep Pryce off her balance. Blinking out the stars in her vision, Sabine kipped up and made to kick Pryce, until the woman suddenly turned, grabbed Sabine’s foot, and slammed her to the ground.

 

Kriff. Apparently Pryce could take hits, too.

 

Before Sabine could react, Pryce had already positioned herself on top of Sabine, holding Sabine down. Sabine bucked and struggled, but Pryce held fast, but not without struggle herself.

 

“Quickly, do it!” Pryce barked at Thrawn through gritted teeth. Sabine looked up to see Thrawn briskly walking toward her, producing a hypo-syringe from his coat. Her heart stopped, and she fought against Pryce’s hold even harder, but to no avail. Thrawn crouched down beside her and held her head down, making Sabine now completely immobilized.

 

“Kindly hold still. This will only hurt momentarily,” he murmured as he positioned the syringe at Sabine’s neck. She suppressed a wince as he administered the drug.

 

The effects were immediate. A warm, tingling sensation permeated throughout Sabine’s body, and she could already feel appendages going numb and heavy. Through her blurring vision, she saw the door to the control room open and the outlines of two Stormtroopers bringing in something? Sabine couldn’t make it out.

 

“Ver- -ell do-, -overnor.” All of Sabine’s senses were rapidly dulling. She rolled over, no longer inhibited by Pryce, to see her and Thrawn standing over her in triumph.

 

“-leep, -ittle Mand-rian,” was the last thing Sabine heard before she succumbed to the enveloping folds of sleep.

Chapter Text

As Sabine’s mind began to resurface from the stupor of the drugs, her long-ingrained instincts kicked in, immediately trying to take in everything around her despite the fact that her head felt like someone had stuffed it with gauze. Before even opening her eyes, the first thing that stood out to her was the cold. Not just the air around her, but also extending down her spine from the nape of her neck all the way to her heels and in choice places on her body, including the neck, chest, waist, knees, ankles, upper arms, and wrists.

Restraints. A new coldness permeated her veins as she recalled the circumstances that had landed her here as well has those she deduced she must be in. She had narrowly evaded Imperial interrogation once back at Skystrike, but this time there would be no escape. As the natural urge to panic threatened to overtake her, those same instincts that had been instilled in her since childhood allowed her to swallow that fear with a few deep breaths. Ever since joining the rebels, especially since Kanan’s capture, she’d been mentally preparing for this very situation. One did not grow up and train among Mandalorians and Jedi alike to have a weak mind and resolve. She was strong. She was tough. She would not fail her friends. The only ways this would end is if she were somehow miraculously rescued or, more likely, if she died as a result of Imperial… efforts. Either outcome was fine by her.

When she finally succeeded in opening her eyes, she was completely taken aback by her surroundings. Rather than the dark, nightmarish torture cell she was steeling herself to see, she instead beheld a stark, pristine, almost painfully white ceiling, noting several medical-looking pieces of equipment in her peripheral. This clinical setting was the last thing she expected for an interrogation cell. On top of that, she suddenly realized that she was definitely not wearing the outfit she’d been captured in. As she struggled to crane her neck against the rather tight restraint around it, she managed to make out a simple, loose white shift that ended below her knees. Shaking aside the question of who changed her, which she really didn’t want to know anyway, she instead focused on the question of why. While it would make sense for her to be stripped of her armor and maybe her boots, as they could provide some buffer from various torture methods, her body glove gave her no such protection.

It was at that moment that Sabine realized that interrogation was more than likely not at all in Thrawn’s agenda. Besides the medical setting, the very nature of her restraints suggested contrary to torture. For one, she was more or less horizontal. Imperials tended to like their prisoners somewhat upright for interrogation. Also, the goal of her restraints seemed to be that of keeping her whole body completely still, rather than the normal intent of simply keeping her in one place. Imperials could usually care less how much their victims squirmed as long as escape was impossible, but here she was struggling for the slightest movement in any part of her body.

As the sudden uncertainty of her condition hit her, those same instincts struggled to keep a new, much stronger, wave of panic from completely overtaking her.

Sabine’s thoughts were interrupted by the unmistakable swoosh of an automatic door opening. Out of the corner of her eye she could see Thrawn enter accompanied by several medical droids. She considered greeting him with the usual defiant, witty remark, but knowing Thrawn, she figured he would not only expect something of that nature but would also probably find it amusing. Sabine refused to give him any such pleasure, instead settling on doing her best to sustain constant eye contact with the Chiss admiral.

As the medical droids dispersed to do their respective tasks, whatever those were, Thrawn stood over her for several moments, contemplating the Mandalorian rebel as if she were a worrt he was about to dissect. Sabine repressed a shudder when she realized how close that analogy probably was to the truth. Thrawn had a stony expression that was somehow simultaneously pensive, self-righteous, and… pitying? Why did this sleemo look about as happy with this situation as she was? She yelped in surprise as one of the droids installed an IV in her forearm while another attached monitors for heart rate and blood pressure. At this, Thrawn finally spoke:

“Surely you must be quite confused as to why you are here rather than undergoing interrogation,” prompting Sabine to break her silence as well.

“Am I just too pretty for torture? You saving that for Zeb?” she snapped. This did nothing to change Thrawn’s non-expression as he began to pace around the table/chair combination Sabine was secured to. The droids were still bustling about, preparing her for whatever their master had in store.

“You needn’t worry about the Lasat or those whom you had sought to rescue,” Thrawn replied evenly. “I deemed them unnecessary to our purposes, and therefore I allowed them to escape.”

Despite her best efforts to remain stoic, Sabine let out a sigh of relief, but soon even more questions filled her mind. Why would Thrawn so nonchalantly let several high-profile rebels prance out of Imperial grasp in exchange for one Mandalorian defector? What game was he at?

Once again, her ruminations were cut short by the door to whatever room she was in opening. She strained against her impossibly efficient restraints to look, but to no avail, other than deepening her anger and desperation.

“Proceed with the final preparations,” droned an all-too-familiar female voice, as a man in an impossibly white uniform joined the flurry of the droids.

Pryce.

“Governor,” Thrawn greeted. The severe, gaunt faced woman appeared in Sabine’s limited field of vision. She laid in the middle of the two Imperials, who were regarding each other, for the moment, like she wasn’t even there. Somehow, she felt even more like some bizarre science experiment than she already had.

“Grand Admiral,” Pryce replied. She looked down at Sabine and smirked evilly. “And how is our patient?” she asked in mocking concern.

“What do you want with me?” Sabine demanded, her voice shakier than she would have liked.

“Why, only what is in your best interests, little one,” Pryce replied cryptically.

“What is that supposed to mean?” Pryce opened her mouth to respond but was silenced by a pointed look from Thrawn.

“Allow me to enlighten you,” Thrawn began. “I was hardly trifling when I mentioned earlier the numerous similarities we share. I do truly believe we could work well together.” Sabine immediately opened her mouth to rebuke him, only for him to immediately cut her off. “Yes, earlier you made it quite clear that no amount of torture, blackmail, or threats to your rebel friends would ever persuade you to forsake your doomed cause, hence why I saw no interest in the Lasat and allowed him to escape. Quite disappointing, to be perfectly honest. I was hoping that we could come to an understanding without the need for… drastic measures. However, I believe I have found an alternative method that will be quite suitable for our purposes.”

The manner in which Thrawn purred that last bit made the cold uneasiness already dwelling in the pit of Sabine’s stomach permeate throughout her entire body as she repressed another shudder. Amidst the bustle of the droids in their preparations, Sabine tried to ignore the dozen or so mechanical arms suspended from the ceiling above her head. Staring down Thrawn and Pryce suddenly got harder as the light directly above her got even brighter.

Pryce picked up where Thrawn left off. “The Emperor has commissioned us with finding ways of… reeducating political menaces and bringing them back into the fold of law and order. Our good doctor here has devised a rather elegant solution.” Sabine really didn’t like where this was going. “The procedure you are about to undergo will purge the memories of treachery and treason from your mind, so we may begin anew in molding it to unlock your true potential- a sort of clean slate, if you will. Now, there’s no need to fret, the extreme precision of the procedure ensures that your many talents will remain intact. We wouldn’t want to waste such valuable gifts, now would we?”

Sabine finally understood what was happening. The sterile, clinical setting, the overkill restraints, the medical droids, everything came together in her mind to form a terrifying revelation of exactly what Thrawn and Pryce were going to do to her. At this point, her sheer desire to remain undaunted in front of these monsters was the only thing keeping her from full on hyperventilating. Torture was one thing, but she never expected anything like this.

Thrawn’s face remained completely passive, save for that look of self- righteous pity from before, almost as if he was saying you’ve given me no other choice. “Regrettably, the surgery requires for the patient to be awake for the full procedure, hence the seemingly excessive manner of your restraints, until the end, where your brain shall naturally fall into a brief coma in order to recover, at which point the rest of your metamorphosis will take place.” Thrawn glanced across from her, where, in her peripheral, she could make out a droid arranging a variety of tools on a tray, including a small, black box. Sabine’s eyes widened. “However, it might go more quickly if you relax and offer up no mental resistance, and in doing so you would not only make it easier on us but yourself as well.”

Sabine snapped. Willingly comply with her own mental enslavement? Not today, Hutt-spawn.

“If you knew ANYTHING about me at all,” she growled, “you’d know I don’t do anything the easy way! I don’t care how much more pain it puts me through, you son of a whore. I will fight this with every fiber of my being, so that it will go twice, three times, as slow as it should! I will never stop fighting you. Even after you think I’m yours, even then, there will always be a piece of me clinging to the truth, fighting for a chance to reclaim it. DO YOU HEAR ME?!”

Pryce chuckled softly and placed a hand on Sabine’s face, making Sabine growl at the unwelcome contact. “And there’s the speech. You rebels are nothing if not eloquent. No matter, the end result of the procedure is unavoidable, whether you submit or not. And as the Grand Admiral already mentioned, this is only the beginning of your transformation, so there’s no need to worry about that small piece you so poignantly alluded to.”

Sabine was breathing hard, panic setting in. The knowledge of what, who, she was to become was too much to handle. Brave loyalty would serve no purpose here: betrayal was the only option.

“Doctor, you may proceed with the operation,” said Thrawn.

She jerked as the table readjusted to a slightly more upright position. From just barely behind her, she could hear the arms suspended from the ceiling move, probably assuming positions on various parts of her scalp. Frantically, she raced through her mind, forcing up memories she desperately clung to, praying that if she tried hard enough, at least a few remnants would survive this barbaric purging of her mind. She thought of her biological family, but instead focused on her new one. The tender words and kind eyes of Hera. Kanan, the man who had brought her into the fold of her new family. She remembered how awkward and annoying Ezra was when he first came aboard the Ghost, and how he grew to become her brother-in-arms. Zeb, her fellow bruiser, always ready for action. Even Chopper, with his laziness and sometimes outright sadism. The family she’d come to regard above the one assigned to her by nature filled her mind as she frenziedly held on to those memories for dear life.

“Please don’t do this,” Sabine pleaded in a strained whisper.

Sabine gasped as what she guessed must be thin, shallow needles penetrated her scalp. Thrawn practically beamed in solemn triumph.

“Do try your best to relax,” he purred. “This will all be over soon.”

At this, the shocks began and, after a few moments, so did the screams.

Chapter Text

Never since Kanan’s capture by Tarkin had the Ghost been so quiet. Or empty, Kanan thought as he wandered the ship in search of his Padawan. According to Hera, during his stay aboard the Sovereign, barely any of the crew spoke to each other except in the concept of missions to track down wherever the Empire was keeping him. And now history had repeated itself, except at least then it must have been easier to track down everyone when they were confined to the ship. Now there was an entire base for the crew, namely Zeb and Ezra, to disperse and hide out in. Well that ends today, Kanan thought. He’d seen how Ezra had gotten when he was left alone for too long after Malachor, and he’d be damned if he allowed that to happen again.

Finding the ship to be decidedly lacking in moody, teenaged Padawans, he went to check the base’s outskirts where he and Ezra often trained. As he approached the clearing, he definitely sensed Ezra’s presence, but there was something that felt off about the boy’s Force signature. While Kanan could normally clearly sense Ezra through their bond, ever since Sabine had gone MIA a few weeks ago, his perception of his Padawan had gotten clouded, almost like static interfering with a transmission. Which is exactly how it had started after Malachor.

Ezra was practicing lightsaber forms, unsurprisingly. It wasn’t uncommon for him to drown himself in training in trying times. Through the Force, Kanan could sense Ezra’s forms and footwork, feeling a sense of pride well up when he realized how far Ezra had come in such a short time. In many ways Ezra had already surpassed Kanan, and he was sure his Padawan would become a greater Jedi than he had ever been.

“Not bad. Blocking needs work, but I sense much improvement in overall technique,” said Kanan as he approached the teenager.

Ezra switched off the lightsaber and looked towards Kanan. “Been practicing.”

“I can tell. You’ve been hitting the saber training pretty hard recently,” he hinted, trying not to force the subject.

Ezra shrugged. “Not a whole lot else to do.”

Kanan cocked an eyebrow. “Anything you wanna talk about?”

Silence.

Kanan sighed, “Hey, I kn- “

“Why are we just leaving her, Kanan?!”

There it was.

“Ezra,” Kanan said gently, placing his hands on Ezra’s shoulders. “Look at me”

Ezra turned to look at Kanan. He felt the boy’s worry, his strife.

“I know it feels like we’re doing nothing, believe me. I would love nothing more than to fly off and storm every Star Destroyer I came across until I brought her home.” Kanan opened up that part of his psyche to him and Ezra’s bond, letting him know just how true that was.

“Then why aren’t we?” Ezra snapped.

“Ezra you know we can’t do that,” said Kanan softly, knowing his Padawan wasn’t trying to be irrational. “We need to know exactly where they’re holding her before we strike. Kallus is working as hard as he can to get us that intel. I know having to trust him is new, but we don’t really have any better options.”

“I just wish we could do something.”

“We’re already doing everything we need to do right now. Training, saving up strength and resources, and being at the ready to go the moment we get a lead.”

Ezra sighed, still unconvinced. “Yeah, I know.”

“Hey,” said Kanan, feeling the boy’s hesitancy. “How many people do you know who are stronger the Sabine?”

Ezra softly snorted. “Not many.”

“Exactly. If anyone can hang in there, it’s Sabine. Trust her and her ability to survive. Believe me, I’m just as worried about her as you are, but allowing that fear to lead to rash decisions made out of anger is not the way to go about this.”

Ezra was silent for a moment. Then, finally, Kanan felt their connection clear up a little, allowing him to sense the tension that had built up within the boy slacken just ever so slightly.

“Thanks Master,” Ezra said with a small smile.

“Anything Padawan.”

Kanan’s commlink chirped. “Kanan,” said Hera’s voice.

“Yeah?” Kanan asked, picking up the comm.

“Briefing center. New message from Fulcrum.”

“On our way.”

Ezra made to start running when Kanan’s hand on shoulder stopped him.

“Hey,” said Kanan, “we good?”

Ezra smiled. “Yeah.”

“Good, now let’s go see what Kallus has for us,” he said as he and his Padawan together ran for the briefing center.

~ ~ ~

Hera, Zeb, and Chopper were already there when they made it.

“So what’ve we got?” Kanan asked as he and Ezra approached the briefing table.

“He wanted us all here first,” Hera replied, switching on the transmission. The symbol of Fulcrum illuminated the table.

“This is Fulcrum,” said the low garbled voice they now knew to be their former enemy Agent Kallus.

“What do you have?” demanded Zeb before Hera had a chance to speak. Being the one who had been on the mission with her, he’d taken her disappearance the hardest.

“I’d be lying if I said I had much,” admitted Kallus. “Neither the Imperial Center on Lothal nor any Star Destroyers in the system have any record of holding a Sabine Wren. What’s more, her ISB file indicated that she has been terminated.” Fulcrum’s symbol was joined by the holofile on Sabine, emblazoned with the fatal word.

Those surrounding the table were suddenly taken with stunned, horrified silence.

“Th-that doesn’t make any sense,” said Hera, quickly recovering her wits. “Surely they’d make a big deal of taking out someone with such a high profile. N-no, that can’t be right.”

“My thoughts exactly,” agreed Kallus. The crew exhaled in slight relief. “Not only that, but there are no records of her interrogation. On the surface she seems to have disappeared altogether without a trace. I’ve scoured recent Imperial records for anything irregular, and the best I could find was the departure of a single shuttle for an Imperial research facility on Binaros. Now, while Thrawn has been using this facility to assist in developing his TIE Defenders, he hasn’t visited there since they were first completed, and what’s more, he was accompanied by Governor Pryce, who before had yet to make that trip. I believe this is irregular enough to call it a lead.”

Hera sighed. “It’s not much, but we’ll take it. Send us the facility’s coordinates, schematics, schedules, anything you can get.”

“Already transmitting them. I’m sorry I was unable to bring you more, but this was all I could find.”

“We understand,” Hera replied, “At this point we’ll take anything we can get. Thank y-“

“Why weren’t you there?”

Everyone froze, all heads snapping towards the voice’s source, Zeb. “During the rescue, we thought you’d be there,” he continued. Hera opened her mouth to respond when Kallus cut her off.

“I’m so deeply sorry for that. Believe me, I made every intention of being in the Complex to aid in the rescue, but at the last minute I was sent off-world. There was nothing I could do without attracting suspicion.”

Zeb, clearly not satisfied with this answer, started, “Well-“

“Once again, we understand,” Hera butted in, throwing Zeb a sharp look. “It’s clear there was nothing more you could have done, and we thank you for helping us in any way you can. Keep searching from your side, and inform us immediately if any new details come to light.”

“Understood. Good luck on your search. Fulcrum out.”

Zeb immediately stalked off before Hera could finish the briefing. She sighed in empathy. “Prep for a mission. We leave first thing tomorrow,” she said, barely regarding Kanan and Ezra as she pursued Zeb. Ezra made to follow, but Kanan’s hand on his arm stopped him.

“Hera’s got this.” Ezra tore his eyes away from where the two had gone off to and looked up at his Master, nodding.

“Yeah,” the teen said with a small smile, “let’s go get prepped for tomorrow.” Kanan smiled back at his Padawan, moving his hand to Ezra’s shoulder. As the pair started off toward the Ghost, Chopper whupped out a complaint.

“Yes, she meant you too, Chop, get moving.”

~ ~ ~

“What was that?” Hera demanded as she approached Zeb, who had stormed off to munitions, presumably hoping to hide among the crates.

“He should’ve informed us that he was being called away,” the Lasat growled, not meeting Hera’s eyes.

“It doesn’t always work like that, Zeb. If he doesn’t limit how often he contacts us, he puts us all at risk, you know that.”

“Well he put us at risk by not telling us he wouldn’t be there, and look what resulted from that.”

“Zeb, I’m sure he did all he could.”

“Did he?” Zeb snarled.

“What? Zeb, you were the one who was the first to trust him and give him a chance.”

“Well, I’ve made some pretty bad calls lately, Hera, who says that wasn’t one of ‘em?!” Zeb shouted, this time looking Hera dead in the eyes. Hera instinctively took a step back, not used to Zeb’s ire being directed towards her. Almost instantly, Zeb’s bulbous green eyes went from angry to remorseful once he saw what he’d done.

“Hera, I’m s-“

“No one blames you for this,” Hera said quietly, looking up at him. “You know that, right?”

“Maybe they should,” Zeb replied bitterly. “I left her to the mercy of those monsters,” he spat out the last word venomously.

“You did what you had to do,” Hera said gently. “If you hadn’t, the Lothal insurgents may very well be dead right now. They owe you their lives.”

“More like Sabine. She was the one who paid the price.”

“You would’ve done the same thing if you were in her place. You both played your roles, and because of that, the mission was a success. And hey, you heard Kallus. There’s still hope that she’s out there somewhere, and we’re gonna find her.” Hera smiled up sympathetically. Zeb smirked reluctantly back at this brave little Twi’lek he called Captain. Over the years, he’d come to regard her as sort of a little sister, even though honestly she was far more often the voice of reason than he ever was.

“Damn right, we are,” Zeb said. Hera beamed up at him, affectionately placing a hand on his arm.

“There you go, big guy. Now go and gear up. We head out at dawn.”

Zeb smirked and saluted. “Aye, aye, Captain.”

~ ~ ~

In the vast emptiness on Deep Space, the Chimaera, the crown jewel of the Seventh Fleet, loomed in the void. Grand Admiral Thrawn stood pensively in his office, staring out into the cold, infinite vacuum. Many would find such endless nothingness disturbing, Thrawn supposed. For him, on the other hand, there was much peace to be found in contemplating Deep Space.

There were few things more beautiful than outer space, Thrawn mused. The encompassing presence of something so impersonal and objectively omnipotent was more artful than the most intricate portrait. There was a sense of cold, logical perfection about it all to which nothing else could quite compare.

Thrawn turned away from the viewport to regard the section of the retaining wall, as Lyste had so poignantly put it, with the Starbird, the symbol of Phoenix Squadron. The bright orange popped from the dull gray of the duracrete like a supernova against the black of space. Not a bad analogy, Thrawn thought. Yes, the rebels were very much akin to a supernova explosion. They burn bright and colorful, an uncontrollable inferno bringing light and fire to its entire system. Until, of course, they die out as quickly as they came, smothered by the unfeeling finality of the void.

His contemplations were interrupted by the door to his office opening. Through the threshold stepped a figure clad in black armor laid over dark grey fatigues, their face covered by an austere black helmet. The severe figure glided through the door with a rigid yet somehow graceful poise.

“Was your mission a success?” Thrawn asked the warrior.

“The target has been cleansed according to your specifications.”

“Very good. I see you were not dubbed the Immaculate in vain.”

Somehow, at this, the Immaculate managed to stand even straighter. “Thank you, Grand Admiral. It is an honor to serve.”

“I am glad to hear that,” replied Thrawn, his lips touched by a light smirk, “for you are to be honored once more today. There is another assignment for you. You are to leave for Binaros as soon as possible.”

The Immaculate’s head tilted in puzzlement. “Am I mistaken in believing that site is already secure, Grand Admiral.”

Thrawn smiled. “You would indeed be quite correct in that belief. I am sending you there to keep it that way. According to my deductions, a certain band of insurgents are due to infiltrate our facility there. You are to maintain the facility’s integrity and capture anyone who attempts to compromise that integrity alive, especially any Jedi you might encounter.”

“Understood, Grand Admiral. I shall prepare immediately.” At this, the Immaculate turned on their heel and exited Thrawn’s office.

Once the figure had left, Thrawn returned his attention to the black expanse on just the other side of the viewport. Standing there, Thrawn realized just why there was so much beauty to be found in something so devoid of any distinguishing feature. The art was in the nothingness, Thrawn mused, for when something is completely empty, possibilities are neverending. Such an empty vacuum was the perfect clean slate to be filled as anyone who was clever enough to do so, himself in this case, saw fit.

Chapter Text

The rebel captain sighed in resignation, knowing that the day ahead would be among the most tedious. The already-muggy Outer Rim backwater they hid out from the Imps on somehow managed to be even hotter that day. The heat’s almost as oppressive as the damned regime, he grumbled to himself. Among all the scrappy, barely united rebel cells trying to keep their heads above water, this particular one had to be the most set upon. He swore the Empire had trackers planted in all of them, given how they could just never seem to catch a break. It felt like just about every other week their hideout managed to get discovered, with Imps chasing them from crappy boondocks to even crappier boondocks. Morale was low, supplies were even lower, and this apparently was affecting efficiency as he couldn’t for the life of him get in touch with his orbital defense crew.

He groaned, burying his face in his palm. He mentally flipped through all the plausible reasons for this latest nuisance. An Imperial ambush was definitely among those, but he pushed that aside. If it was that, the showboat Imps would have busted out of hyperspace guns blazing by now. No, it was probably either a malfunction or someone wasn’t manning their post (again). For sanity’s sake, he decided to go with the former, it wouldn’t have been the first malfunction, but would not be surprised by the latter. He told his lieutenant that lookout duty wasn’t supposed to be used as discipline.

Irritably, the captain yanked his commlink from his belt. “Silver 1, send one of your pilots to check on orbital defenses, communication’s down again.”

Static.

“Silver 1?” he repeated impatiently. He sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose to ward off the oncoming migraine. “Silver 1, come in. This is your Captain speaking!” he demanded.

More static.

“Lieutenant!” he barked, making the poor, mousy Theelin yelp in surprise. “Go find a pilot and send ‘em up to check on orbital defenses. Light a fire under their asses if you need to.” She hastily nodded and scurried off to fulfill her orders. He supposed in an hour or two he’d feel bad about targeting her, she was one of his best operatives, but he didn’t really care all that much about anyone’s feelings at the moment. The entire base seemed to be having an off day, which rebellions could not afford.

Now that he thought about it, where was everyone? He silenced his internal monologue long enough to try and hear any sign of movement on the base. Nothing, not even anyone slacking off and snoring on the rocks. The base sounded completely deserted, with the usual bustle replaced with deafening silence. The cell had its slow days, but never like this. Something wasn’t right…

Suddenly, the silence was shattered by a bloodcurdling scream. One that belonged to the lieutenant.

Instantly more alert than he’d been all day, the Captain snatched his blaster and sprinted out of
the command center. What he found was a scene straight out of anyone’s worst nightmare.

Every single rebel in the entire cell lay dead around the base, some gushing blood, others pocked with smoking blaster holes. Pilots hung limp from their cockpits. Munitions workers slumped over crates. All of them must have been taken by surprise, judging by their glassy, wide-open eyes staring into whatever lies beyond. In the dead center of the grisly sight stood the terrified lieutenant, locked in a chokehold from behind by a slim, dark figure clad all in black, angular armor. Her blaster laid uselessly on the ground beside her.

The lieutenant locked petrified eyes with the captain and opened her mouth to scream for help, but she was silenced by a knife slicing open her throat from ear to ear. Indigo blood flooded from her neck and pooled at her feet. Her eyes widened and glossed over in death. Her lifeless form collapsed to the ground as her killer let her slip from its grasp. Stepping over its latest kill, the assassin glided towards the captain, silently and menacingly.

Horror turned to rage as the captain aimed his blaster at the shadow. Before he could even reach the trigger, the figure drew its blaster so quickly he didn’t realize it until his own had been shot out of his hand. He gasped in pain and clutched his wrist, glaring at the ever-encroaching herald of oblivion. It stopped once it was only a few yards away from him and stared at him through its opaque, void-like visor, silent and still as the death it brought upon.

“Wh-who are you…?” the captain demanded.

In deep, garbled tones, the shade replied, “I am your salvation. Rejoice,” before placing a blaster bolt between his eyes.

 

~ ~ ~

 

“Ah!”

Ezra bolted upright, glistening with sweat and breathing hard. His heart raced almost as if he had just emerged from battle. He gasped for air while trying to slow and deepen his breaths to calm himself. It helped his breathing and heart rate, but it did nothing to stop the headache. Ezra’s skull pounded, a sharp pain piercing right between his eyebrows.

What was up with that dream?

Ezra had crazy, even horrifying, dreams before, but nothing that felt this real. He hadn’t felt panic from a nightmare like this since he was a kid on the streets, and even then, a few moments after waking up he usually realized there was nothing to fear. This fear lingered, as if whatever had scared him was real. Sure, he’d dreamed Force visions before that were very real, but those were usually sort of a surreal procession of seemingly unrelated images (piecing them together was the fun part!). This one had been clear, coherent, and uninterrupted. Or at least he thought so. The worst of it all was that he couldn’t even remember the dream, which did nothing to ease the persistent feeling of unease in his gut.

Ezra rolled over to go back to sleep, but that quickly proved to be easier said that done. Even if he couldn’t remember the dream, the uneasiness, not to mention the headache, sure stuck around. The engine-like snoring below him told him that his sudden awakening hadn’t alerted Zeb. Usually this wouldn’t be surprising as Zeb could normally sleep through just about anything, but this lately hadn’t been the case. Ever since Sabine had disappeared, Zeb had been far more restless than usual. He was now usually the last one to bed and the first one up, even beating Hera sometimes, and more than once Ezra had woken up in the dead middle of the night cycle to find Zeb not even on the ship. It seemed that finally being able to do something to get Sabine back had given Zeb enough peace of mind to return to his normal sleeping habits.

Officially giving up on getting anymore sleep, Ezra groaned and dragged himself upright. Hera probably wanted to get going as early as possible, so he more than likely wasn’t going to get that much more sleep anyway. He padded down the ladder as quietly as possible, the last thing he wanted was to wake up Zeb when he was finally getting a normal amount of sleep again, and made for the galley to get some caf. With any luck, it would at least do something about the headache.

He didn’t quite make it to the galley, however. When he opened the door to the hallway, he found himself face-to-face with something everyone had tried their best to ignore for the last few weeks.

Sabine’s room.

Ever since she had gone missing in action, her room had been left untouched. Hera didn’t even go in to clean it, which said something about how hard this had hit the entire crew. Ezra was no exception. The last thing he wanted was to shove in his own face the fact that he might never see…He shook his head, unable to even finish that horrible thought. He made every intention of pushing it out of his mind and going to the galley as planned, but his feet betrayed him and carried him to the quarters of his missing teammate.

Ezra regretted it the moment he opened the door. The pain of her disappearance turned fresh as if she had just vanished the other day. The room certainly looked that way. Everything was right where she had left it before her last mission, lying in wait for their owner to return. Her spare body glove was left draped across a chair. Her bunk was littered with parts and tools, the abandoned remnants of idle tinkering. An open sketchbook was left surrounded by graphites on the desk. The loud, vibrant colors of her murals flashed and popped, almost as a cruel taunt. A new addition gleaming from the dull gray wall caught his eye. It was half-way finished, but Ezra could already make out what it was. A flaming phoenix would emerge triumphant from a cracked, burning Stormtrooper helmet. She loved the idea of phoenixes and how they were reflected in rebellion. Something new, brighter, stronger emerging from the ashes of the past. Only last Ezra checked, phoenixes always came back to life. Rebels weren’t always that lucky.

Ezra entered the room hesitantly. His traitorous legs took him to the desk. Gingerly, he picked up the sketchbook as if it would crumble at any moment, dissolving into thin air just like its owner. Sabine would skin him for touching her sketchbook without permission, he thought wistfully. Suddenly, Ezra would have given anything in the galaxy for her to storm into the room, snatch the sketchbook out of his hand, and yell at him to go mind his own business. He delicately touched the page it was left open on and examined its latest entry. Sabine was designing new armor patterns. Despite himself, Ezra smirked internally. Typical Sabine, already getting bored with her current armor. This must have been a new design for her right pauldron, it bore her signature number 5, only instead of the dejarik board backing it was replaced with candlewick flowers intertwined around the number. Ever since her last mission to Alderaan, it had been her new favorite flower. Unsurprising, given its uncanny resemblance to fire, hence its name. Ezra wondered if Sabine had always been something of a pyro. The image of a five-year-old Sabine setting whatever she could get her hands on alight and making her Mandalorian caretakers’ lives hell almost made Ezra chuckle. Instead, it ended up just making him miss her even more.

“It’s like she never left,” croaked a hoarse voice behind Ezra. He whipped his head around to see Hera standing in the doorway. The faraway look in her eyes as she gaped at the room told him she was thinking the same thoughts he had just minutes before. For some reason, Ezra suddenly felt guilty for trespassing, almost as if he had disturbed a sacred site.

“Hera, I-I was just—”

“No need to explain, Ezra,” Hera cut him off with a raised, placating hand and a weak smile. “It’s past time someone found it in themselves to come in here. Makes sense for it to be you first.”

“I wish I hadn’t,” Ezra muttered. “Makes it all feel real, like she’s really…” He couldn’t finish.

“Gone?” Hera offered, making Ezra wince at the truthfulness of it. “I know the feeling.”

Her and Ezra stood in silence for several eternal moments, neither knowing exactly what to say to reassure the other. On all sides, bright, deceptively cheerful remnants of their fallen friend made it abundantly clear what lied at stake. If they failed, this room would remain frozen in this way, a never-changing memorial unfit for such a dynamic spirit. This knowledge did nothing to soothe Ezra’s ever-encroaching feelings of hopelessness.

Hera must have sensed this, because she carefully made her way to where Ezra was standing by the desk and gently placed a hand on his shoulder, moving her thumb in soft circles to help ease his tension.

“Hera, what if—” Ezra choked, “what if we can’t find her?”

Hera took a moment before answering. “I don’t know,” she admitted, “but what I do know is that we have to hope she’s still out there somewhere. The only thing we can do is keep searching and trust that she’ll pull through. If we give up and stop searching, she’s definitely gone for good.” She smiled reassuringly at Ezra, who returned a reluctant grimace.

“Come on,” she said. “The galley has a pot of caf with both of our names on it.”

Ezra exhaled through his nose that under better circumstances might have been a laugh. “So you’re encouraging caf-drinking now?” he asked with a smirk. Hera, despite her caf addiction, had been very careful to keep her younger crewmates from picking up the same habit.

“Well, we’re supposed to leave in a few hours, and something tells me that you’re not getting anymore sleep tonight. But don’t get used to it,” she added, raising a stern, semi-joking finger as her and Ezra made their way to the galley.

“Wasn’t planning on it,” Ezra replied, this time with a real smile reminiscent of his more playful days. No matter how much he grew and matured, deep down he’d always be that mischievous kid capable of driving any sane sentient up the wall.

“So what’s got you up?” Hera asked as she prepped the caf maker.

“Nightmare,” Ezra groaned as he flopped down in a chair. “Or at least I think so,” he added, pinching the bridge of his nose. The blasted headache was still there.

“You think so?” Hera asked with a raised eyebrow.

“I can’t remember it for the life of me, but whatever it was was bad, and clear too. It’s like knowing exactly what word you want to say, but you can’t even remember what letter it starts with.” Ezra furrowed his brow, trying to recall some detail from the dream, but to no avail.

Hera hummed in concern but said nothing.

Ezra continued, “Let’s just hope it’s nothing Force-related. I know it was bad enough that we definitely don’t want it turning out to be real.”

Hera weakly snorted, “That’d be our luck.” She took the two completed cups of caf and set one on the table in front of Ezra. He lightly blew on it to cool it off and lightly sipped it, the caf still too hot to drink much more. Hera on the other hand immediately took a long gulp of it before she even sat down. Ezra smirked to himself. Surely her mouth must be permanently scalded to be able to unflinchingly inhale near-boiling liquid. It would give some credence to the crew’s theory that Hera didn’t have taste buds, given her notoriously inedible cooking.

There the two of them sat in peaceful silence, drinking their caf, each silently cherishing the other’s company. Ezra wondered if this was one of the reasons that Hera was always up first. She was always looking out for everyone else in the crew, and on the base for that matter. This was likely the only time she could truly have to herself. He felt privileged to be able to see the side of Hera that wasn’t the daring pilot hero fighting for freedom for all. From personal experience, he knew how tiring that could be, and he had only lived that life a little over three years. Hera had dealt with it probably since before she left Ryloth. How the woman kept going was probably the Rebellion’s best kept secret, one they didn’t know the answer to themselves.

After about an hour they were joined by a slightly groggy Kanan shuffling into the galley. Ezra smiled as he saw Hera’s face light up as she saw him. He supposed that was part of the answer to what kept her going.

“Morning, love,” she said warmly.

“Morning,” Kanan breathed, kissing her on the cheek. Ezra suddenly became very interested in examining the dregs of his caf to give them the moment.

“Someone’s up early,” Kanan noted as he went about making his own caf.

“Hey, I can be a morning person, too,” Ezra said defensively, only to be betrayed by a yawn.

“Nerves for the mission,” Kanan inquired, “or something else?”

“Something like that,” Ezra replied. “Dream.” Kanan took a few moments to respond, furrowing his brow.

“Can’t say I’m surprised,” he said at last. “Given the situation, the most unexpected thing is that you haven’t had one up until now. You haven’t, have you?” he shot suspiciously.

“No,” Ezra said hurriedly. “And before you ask, I’d love to discuss it, only I can’t remember any of it.”

“Wonderful,” Kanan muttered. “Well, if it’s Force-related, it won’t reveal itself until it’s ready, so there’s no point in trying to dig it back out now. Keep an eye out today, and if anything sticks out or you start recalling parts of the dream, you let us know.”

“Got it,” Ezra said, throwing up a lazy thumbs-up. Kanan hummed in tired satisfaction, sipping his freshly made caf.

From that point onward, the rest of the morning went on about as standard as could be expected. Kanan was soon followed by an expectedly grouchy Zeb, and from there the crew dispersed amongst the ship to ready themselves for the mission ahead. Blasters and sabers were checked, the Binaros facility’s schematics were reviewed, and plans were solidified, all done in solemn silence. Sharing the morning had been refreshing, but now a wordless consensus had been reached among the crew as if everyone had just realized how crucial this mission would be.

Just as they became fully ready, Hera commed Commander Sato to report their departure.

“Commander, this is Phoenix Leader checking in. We will be taking off for Binaros shortly.”

“Affirmative, Phoenix Leader. However, if at all possible, an additional objective needs to be made to the mission. Silver Squadron has been unresponsive to all communication for over a full rotation. You are to personally visit their base to check in on their status.”

“Yes, sir. We can drop by before our return.”

“Good. And Hera,” Sato added sincerely, “Good luck on your search.”

“Thank you, Commander,” Hera replied with a small smile.

Moments later, the Ghost surged into the swirling blue void of hyperspace, plunging headfirst into the mystery of their lost Mandalorian.

Chapter Text

“Alright,” said Hera, “let’s review the plan one last time.” The cerulean sea of hyperspace churned outside the cockpit viewports. “We’ll land on the far side of the hill behind the facility’s entrance.”

Kanan nodded and picked up after her. “Ezra, Zeb, and I will climb the hill and lightsaber our way in through the roof of the storage division.”

“From there, we sneak our way to the data core and download as much as we can,” Ezra continued, holding up a data spike. Chopper whupped in protest.

“For the last time, we don’t care if you’re ‘the best for the job,’ this is supposed to be a stealth mission, which is why you’re staying with Hera on the Ghost,” growled Zeb. “Anyway, if by the grace of Ashla we actually don’t get caught, we sneak back out from where we came in.”

“To be whisked away by yours truly,” finished Hera.

“Still seems too easy if you asked me,” grumbled Zeb.

“Don’t worry, Zeb, I’m sure a nice complication will pop up about five minutes in,” Ezra said with a smirk, earning a glare and a snarl from Zeb.

“Enough,” said Kanan.

“Arriving at Binaros now,” cut in Hera. “Chop, make sure our signature stays scrambled.” Chopper rolled over to the control panel, grumbling something about Hera’s judgement over when he was needed. “I’m gonna pretend I didn’t hear that,” she muttered.

As the Ghost emerged from hyperspace, a lush green and blue orb came into view, unobscured by ships of any kind.

“You’d think for a top-secret facility they’d have at least some type of orbital defenses,” Ezra commented with a furrowed brow.

“A blockade would draw too much attention,” Kanan replied. “What better hiding place than a planet believed to have no Imperial presence? If they’re willing to go all the way with hiding it behind temple ruins built into the side of a hill, then I’d put nothing past them.”

“Speaking of drawing attention,” said Hera, “I’d like to remind everyone that this mission is strictly recon. We don’t need the Imperials knowing that we’re onto them regarding wherever Sabine is, and plus letting them think we don’t know about their little science fair gives us a long-run advantage.”

“She was talking to you,” Zeb ribbed Ezra, who elbowed him in response. Kanan sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose in exasperation.

The ship broke atmosphere, and as it neared the surface, Binaros’s attractive landscape came into view. Rolling hills colored verdant green with rich forests opened up into peaceful grasslands studded with grazing fauna. Sapphire lakes and ponds leapt from the green canvas, and rivers led to a vast, sparkling ocean far off in the horizon.

Far to the side of the view, in a small clearing at the base of a hill stood a strange rock formation.

“I take it that’s their ‘super-secret temple lab entrance?’” quipped Ezra, nodding to the left.

“Which is why we’re giving it a wide berth, just in case their surveillance is better than we think it is,” replied Hera. She steered the ship in a wide arc circling the ruins, keeping a careful distance. She touched down at the hill’s base on the exact far side away from the entrance.

“I’ll keep the engines running,” she said. Kanan took her hand in his and squeezed. She smiled, squeezing back. He, Ezra, and Zeb then left the cockpit and made for the ship’s exit. As walked down the boarding ramp, they were instantly hit with not only the planet’s heat, but its humidity as well.

“Who’s ready for a hike?” Kanan announced with a smirk. Ezra and Zeb groaned, already done with the wet, sticky heat.

Other than the uncomfortable conditions, the climb up the hill, while tedious, was not unbearable. The slope of the hill was mild, but that, however, did not lessen the sheer irritation of the hike. The temperature and humidity made movements feel all the more taxing as their sweat-soaked clothes chafed skin. The low, yet thick brush could have easily been cleared with a lightsaber, but leaving a trail was not the brightest call to make for a stealth mission. So instead they maneuvered the tight space between trees and shrub as best they could, putting up with snags, snaps, and scratches.

None of the local wildlife decided to try and make them lunch, which was appreciated. As a matter of fact, they didn’t encounter any significant animals other than the insects swarming their faces. Even the trees were deathly silent in the absence of songbirds. It was almost as if they could sense that section of the forest was unnatural and stayed away.

At long last, Kanan signaled them to halt. Clearing his mind, Ezra could sense the machinery that lay hidden beneath the soil. For the briefest moment he could sense something else, something strangely familiar that he just barely couldn’t recognize. Just as he began to put words to his feelings, it left as soon as it came. He could’ve sworn he had sensed—

Clang

The dull, harsh ring of metal snapped Ezra from his musings. He refocused to see Kanan sticking a limb into the earth and pulled it out to reveal it had descended not even a full foot before being stopped.

Discarding the limb, Kanan drew his lightsaber and plunged it into the soil. A searing sizzle shattered the ambient silence as the stink of scorched earth and steel filled the air. After carving a wide circle into the ground, Kanan extended his hand and set aside the large smoking chunk.

Ezra was the first to slip into the hole left in the hill, followed by Kanan and Zeb. The hot and wet air from outside was immediately replaced by cool and dry, their skin prickling in relief. Their reprieve was short-lived as they quickly realized this was most definitely not a storage unit.

 “What is all this?” Ezra asked. Bathed in harsh artificial light, everything in the strange room was impeccably white, clean, and sterile. High-tech, almost medical-looking machinery lined the walls. Hanging overhead was another set of lights, then turned off, accompanied by a set of menacing metal arms. Sitting centerpiece in the clinical array was a skeletal metal apparatus, sort of a combination between a table and a chair. The gleaming bed was adorned was about a dozen or so shackles painstakingly arranged along where the body, limbs, and neck would be placed. Clearly whoever this was built for would be an unwilling patient, Ezra realized with a chill down his spine.

“I’m not sensing what I was expecting to,” said Kanan. “Ezra?”

“It’s almost like an operating room of some kind,” he explained hesitantly, “or at least I think so. But that doesn’t make any sense, why would they label it as storage in the specs?”

“They must not even want people who are aware of the facility to know about this,” mused Kanan. “A secret veiling yet another secret.”

“Place gives me the creeps,” muttered Zeb. “Let’s get what we came for and get outta here.”

Without warning, the door to the room slid open, through which a dark figure bolted in. Before they could react, the shadow flew around the rebels as if in liquid form, brutally attacking them. Almost in one motion, it delivered a swift blow to Ezra’s stomach and then held him in place by his neck while it shot at Zeb. Had Zeb ducked behind the table a moment later, the sizzling hole in the wall would’ve been in his chest.

Kanan sent the figure flying toward the wall with a thrust of his hand, but before it could slam into the surface it twisted in midair, planting its foot and using it to propel itself from the wall. The attacker soared across the room, producing two metal rods. It landed on the table in a feral crouch, the rods coming to life with crackling blue sparks.

For a moment everyone was still, apprehensively waiting for someone to dare and make the first move. The deafening silence was filled only with the electric hum emitting from the shock rods along with that of Kanan and Ezra’s now-drawn lightsabers.

Suddenly, a flurry of black hurtled toward Ezra, who the figure quickly had pinned up against the wall, shock rod hissing against lightsaber. Kanan rushed to his apprentice’s aid only for his lightsaber to also be blocked by the other rod. Zeb aimed for the attacker’s exposed back, only for it to twist, shifting the double lock so that Kanan and Ezra were between it and Zeb. He growled in frustration, trying to figure out a way to attack without Kanan and Ezra being caught in the crossfire.

“No!” yelled Kanan, sensing an opportunity. “Go and complete the mission, then rendezvous at the temple entrance,” he said, hoping the explicit location would lead the assailant to pursue them rather than Zeb. Zeb nodded and ran out of the room. The shade made to follow, but the two Jedi kept it in place just long enough by doubling their efforts into the lock.

As soon as the door hissed shut, their adversary snapped. Breaking its silence, it let loose a low, harsh snarl and unleashed an animalistic side yet before unseen. Its attacks shifted from well-placed and precise to wild and brutal, wailing on Ezra and Kanan like a savage beast rather than attempting to chase Zeb.

Why would it go after opponents who are already trapped instead of one that’s already escaped? Ezra thought worriedly. What game is it playing?

His thoughts were cut short by his head slamming against the edge of the table, the figure’s hand clenched on his shoulder, holding him down. Once again, he was barely keeping the shock stick at bay with his lightsaber, but this time the shade switched its other shock stick out for its blaster to keep Kanan at bay. The Jedi gasped as he let a blaster bolt slip and graze his arm. The fact that he gritted his teeth and resisted the instinct to drop his guard, a testament to his strength of will, saved his life.

So, this thing wants to fight dirty, huh? Ezra seethed. Great. Let’s fight dirty.

Pushing through the throbbing ache in the back of his head, Ezra brought his knee hard into the assailant’s gut, a decision he immediately regretted as his knee met hard armor. However, at the very least it surprised his opponent enough for him to be able to sidestep out of the lock, putting it between himself and Kanan.

Instinctively, the shade snapped its head towards Ezra. Kanan took advantage of this by opening fire. As with Ezra’s knee, the shots failed to penetrate its menacing armor, but it threw it off its balance enough so that when Ezra Force-pushed it, this time it slammed into the wall and stayed there. Unfortunately, that section of the wall happened to be less than a foot to where Kanan was standing.

“Seriously?” Kanan said, scrambling away from the struggling attacker.

“Just go!” Ezra gritted his teeth as he slowly made his way to the door, focusing all his energy into keeping their would-be assassin in place. Kanan pushed the button to open the door, positioning himself just outside the room. As soon as Ezra’s feet crossed the threshold, Kanan shut the door and sabered the controls. Ezra exhaled, his arms dropping in exhaustion.

“That won’t hold it for long,” Kanan said, as he and his apprentice proceeded to run like hell.

 

~ ~ ~

 

“‘Don’t worry, Zeb, I’m sure a nice complication will pop up,’” Zeb grumbled mockingly as he sprinted toward the data core, assuming that wasn’t mislabeled in the specs, too. “I swear I’m gonna skin that half-pint if we all make it through this… jinxing us like that.” Nothing contributed to a stress-free mission like nearly getting blasted in a creepy operating room by whatever the hell that was.

In stark contrast to the ancient, earthen façade, the interior of the complex was just as gleaming and artificial as the room he had just left. Miraculously encountering no Stormtroopers, Zeb arrived at the door that according to his specs was supposed to lead to the data core.

“Ten credits says this is worse than the last creepshow,” Zeb muttered as he opened the door. Looking in, he had never been happier to lose a bet, even to himself. This room wasn’t any kind of lab or torture chamber or anything, just an average data core with average control panels. He hastily made his way to the data port and installed the data spike.

“Let’s hope this works,” Zeb prayed. He really should have been the last choice for this job—technology was not his strong suit by far. However, his job was significantly better than that of his comrades at that moment, so he could hardly complain. Still, he couldn’t help but think that high tech roles in missions typically had always gone to…

A neat click snapped Zeb back into the present. He looked down to see the data spike completely installed into the data port. Well at least something useful might come of this, he thought hopefully as he removed the spike.

“Time to ditch this freakshow,” Zeb grumbled with relief. He bristled at not having anything to blow up the data core to erase whatever mad science the Imps had come up with, but explosives didn’t exactly fit in with a stealth mission. Not that stealth had done them any damn good. Grunting in resignation, he turned and fled the room.

Didn’t Kanan say to rendezvous at the main temple entrance? Zeb pondered. He was sure of it, but something didn’t feel right… Kanan was a little too specific about where to meet and wasn’t exactly shy of saying it in front of their attacker. As Zeb reached the operating room again, something stopped him from simply passing it. He heard no sound from the room, not that it meant much. Bracing himself for another onslaught, he opened the door only to find the same silent, menacing setup they had first found. Only this time with more blaster and lightsaber marks. His eyes were immediately drawn to the hole still in the ceiling, and everything suddenly clicked.

Zeb let out a low, sly laugh, “Kanan, you bloody genius!”

 

~ ~ ~

 

Running from something trying to kill you was always an interesting experience.

Ezra and Kanan had at least gotten enough of a head start to not encounter the shadow at all in their mad dash to the front entrance, which was great other than the fact that they had no idea where that thing currently was. On the same note, the complex being completely deserted was great for not having their escape hindered but not so great for the lingering feeling of dread.

“Call me crazy, Kanan, but I think they might have been expecting us,” gasped Ezra, trying not to tire out.

“You must be getting even stronger in Force then I thought—you’re practically a seer!” Kanan grumbled, prompting an eyeroll from his Padawan.

“Funny,” Ezra groaned as they finally made it to the front command center. He and Kanan leaped over the deserted panels and equipment to reach the door. With a wave of Kanan’s hand, the sleek durasteel door slip open to reveal the crude stone ruins of the temple’s interior. Ezra made to rush through the door before Kanan held up a hand to stop him.

Too easy, Kanan mouthed. Ezra gave Kanan’s arm a squeeze in concurrence. Together, they drew their lightsabers, but didn’t ignite them, and entered the temple with painstaking silence and caution.  

They came into a room filled with stone rectangular boxes which Ezra identified as sarcophagi. The pair creeped around the caskets toward an archway leading into another room. Their senses were lit up like constellations, aware that the caskets could potentially be hiding spaces.  

As they came to the archway, they pressed their backs against the wall on either side of the arch. Reaching through their bond to move in tandem, master and Padawan, sabers at the ready, together whipped around to enter the next room. Looking past the altar flanked by two stone benches, Ezra’s gaze locked on to the promising blue and green outdoors lying just outside the room. Maintaining their cautious approach, the two silently pressed on, slipping between the pews and the altar. As they approached the final exit, Ezra dared to hope that freedom would be in their grasp. Maybe, just maybe…

An all too familiar shade dropped in from just outside the temple, snuffing out Ezra’s hope for an easy escape. Before either Jedi could react, the shadow from before landed a shock stick straight into Kanan’s gut. His master’s strangled cry of pain shot forbidden fury through Ezra’s veins, who only half-tried to keep it in check. In the split second while the shadow was incapacitating Kanan, Ezra ignited his lightsaber and brought it toward their attacker’s head only to clash with its other shock stick. Ezra realized all too late that the arm and weapon that had attacked his master were now completely free. His eyes widened, and he braced for impact. Only it never came. Ezra glanced down to see the other shock stick frozen in inch from his stomach. His master, still doubled over, had raised an arm to hold the shade back with the Force. Both Kanan and their opponent were straining from their efforts.

The shade managed to free its leg from Kanan’s hold enough to connect its foot to his chest. Kanan fell further into the temple, gasping from his injuries. Ezra snarled and Force-pushed the figure back out the temple entrance, placing himself in front of Kanan to give him time to get back on his feet. Of course, the assassin landed deftly on its feet outside the grass and in the same motion exchanged the shock sticks for a blaster. Ezra centered himself and prepared for the coming onslaught.

Just as the shadow raised its blaster, it was knocked off its feet by shots raining down from above. Ezra watched through the door as the Ghost descended into his view. A sigh of relief emitted from both Jedi as their would-be assailant scrambled for cover. Ezra took advantage of the distraction to help his master to his feet. Once Kanan was steady, they both dashed through the entrance of the temple toward the ship. The Ghost had pivoted to the left of the temple entrance to shoot directly at the assassin. Even when pressed against a stone column by blaster fire, the shade still managed to try and blast the pair as they ran in the opposite direction toward the ship’s extended ramp, but to no avail. Ezra casually deflected the bolts from behind his master.

“Come on!” yelled Zeb from the side edge of the ramp, extending both arms toward his friends. As Kanan and Ezra reached the ramp, Zeb grabbed both of their arms and hoisted them up into the cargo hold. “They’re in!” the Lasat yelled into the intercom, prompting Hera to close the on-ramp and take off into the atmosphere. Both Jedi slumped to the floor in relief and exhaustion.

“No reinforcements are registering on the scanner, but stay sharp just in case,” the voice of their captain replied. Ezra and Kanan rose from the floor, Kanan’s breath hitching as his injuries began to catch up with him.

“Easy, master,” murmured Ezra, grasping Kanan’s arm to steady him.

“I take it you got my meaning back there?” Kanan asked Zeb, his hand gripping his Padawan’s shoulder.

“Yep. Slipped out the hole you left in the roof and got Hera,” beamed Zeb.

“That’s probably how our attacker managed to ambush us back there. Good thing it didn’t know where the ship was. Thanks for having our backs, buddy,” grimaced Kanan.

Zeb shrugged in embarrassment, “Ah, don’t mention it. Come on, Hera’s gonna want a rundown of this latest poodoofest.”

Nodding in assent, Ezra, along with Zeb, helped Kanan up the ladder toward the cockpit.

 

~ ~ ~

 

Gazing into the sky, the Immaculate helplessly watched as its mission slipped into space and out of its grasp. Its chest tightened with an alien emotion: pure terror. It had experienced healthy fear before, but it had never felt anything like this.

Of course, it had never failed before, either. Failure was not an option. The Immaculate had never known failure. Not until now, at least. Nor had it experienced, or even the contemplated, the consequences for such.

Terror was coupled with chilling dread as the Immaculate faced the unknown. If perfection was the standard, what was the price to pay for complete and utter failure?

Chapter Text

In the infinite black of Deep Space, the Chimaera silently drifted, far removed from any settled civilization. The massive construction of war and destruction alone filled the dark, empty expanse, like a wild beast prowling through the wilderness.

Suddenly, the stillness was broken was a small white ship snapping into view, emerging from the ocean of hyperspace. The shuttle was flown by the warrior called the Immaculate. As the ship approached the Star Destroyer, the cockpit’s dashboard pinged with an incoming message.

“Incoming ship, you are unexpected—identify yourself immediately,” crackled a muffled voice tinged with anxiety.

A low, warped voice responded, “I have special clearance from the Grand Admiral, which I am submitting now.”

Several tense seconds of deafening silence followed the code’s submission. Finally, the officer from the Star Destroyer gulped and awkwardly cleared his throat. “We-well, everything seems to be in order. You may proceed to your destination, and I-I will inform the Grand Admiral of your arrival.”

The white shuttle continued in its approach toward the Chimaera, but instead of heading to the main hangar it turned toward one of the side docking ports: entrances made for the express purpose of more discreet arrivals. The Immaculate enjoyed a brief amusement at how flustered the clearance code required to use those ports always made the control tower officers.

The shuttle locked onto the port with a neat hiss. The Immaculate exited the cockpit toward the door. Before they could reach the controls to open the door, it opened to reveal two Death Troopers standing within inches of the entrance, catching the Immaculate off guard. Their arrival had never been met with an escort before.

“Immaculate, Governor Pryce requests your presence immediately,” growled one of the troopers.

“Has the Grand Admiral granted consent for the delay of this mission’s debriefing?” There was no avoiding this, but to give in with no show of authority was not an option.

“Immediately.” The troopers appeared unmoved. Were they aware of how quickly their lives could be ended right now?

The Immaculate waited two seconds, just long enough to make the troopers squirm—a fruitless endeavor. “Very well.”

The Immaculate followed the Death Troopers down the grey, rectangular hallway, suppressing any thought of what this could mean. Each passing step brought the three nearer to Pryce’s office, toward the unknown. The grim procession of the figures in black down the never-ending grey tube felt infinite, the tension so palpable one could feel choked, until finally the macabre parade arrived at its destination. One of the troopers pressed a button requesting entry.

“Enter.”

The door opened, and the three entered Pryce’s office. The troopers parted to take their positions on either side of the door as the Immaculate passed through to face Pryce. The severe woman was unreadable, her face devoid of any emotion or intentions. She stood still and silent, her eyes studying the dark figure standing at attention before her.

“At ease, my dear,” Pryce said finally. The Immaculate removed their stark, black helm to reveal the face of a young woman. Despite her youth, she wore her severe, angular armor, designed specifically to induce fear, like a second skin. She tucked the helmet in the crook of her arm and still nearly as rigid as before, carefully maintaining a face as expressionless as Pryce’s.

“I understand that your mission did not yield the expected results, Immaculate?” Pryce remarked coolly.

The Immaculate chose her words carefully, ignoring her racing heart, “The insurgents were more skilled in combat than anticipated, preventing the mission from being fully successful—”

“You failed,” Pryce snapped. “You underestimated the rebels, and you failed. Euphemisms do not work with me, and I do not appreciate deception.” The Immaculate’s stoic demeanor was harder to keep up when every word hit her like shards of ice in her chest.

“I do not believe that more could have been done to ensure the mission’s success,” the warrior replied with a forced even tone. “In the future—”

“In the future, you will heed the advice of your betters,” Pryce interrupted again, her voice growing deadly. “Had you been accompanied by a backup force of any kind, as I had suggested, we would not be having this discussion right now.”

“The Grand Admiral agreed with me that clearing the facility was the optimal course of action.”

“The Grand Admiral put his trust in you, and you failed him,” Pryce snarled. “Furthermore, you placed too much trust in your own abilities that you forgot your place. You are truly remarkable, yes, but you must remember that the Empire is the galaxy’s greatest machine, and you are?”

The Immaculate sighed. “A gear,” she answered.

“Yes,” Pryce affirmed, “a gear. A crucial one yes, but without your place in the machine you have no function, no purpose, just like before we found you.” Her words cut deep into the Immaculate with no mercy. “Perhaps you are in need of a reminder of why you have a place in this universe.” Pryce glanced over the Immaculate’s shoulder. The soldier knew from their footsteps that they were approaching from behind. She could feel in her bones the few easy motions that would kill them both without them even knowing, but she forced her protesting body to remain still and submissive.

She held still as her left arm was roughly seized and extended until it hurt. She held still even though the other trooper felt the need to restrain her other arm. She held still as her left glove and gauntlet were ripped off, her sleeve pushed up. She even held still as she caught in the corner of her eye the trooper bringing a glowing red instrument to her left wrist.

However, even the Immaculate, the Empire’s herald of death, could not force back a primal, bloodcurdling scream as the red-hot metal touched her skin. The instrument was pressed hard into her wrist, and she suddenly couldn’t see or hear anymore. There was only pain—pain so intense she failed to even notice at first when the instrument was removed. The underside of her wrist burned white-hot, a fire that could be felt in her entire arm so that she nearly blacked out.

The pain slowly relented from agony to a low, searing burn. Her mind and body begged for her to give out, to collapse and faint, but she refused. She planted her legs like pillars into the floor and forced herself to stay awake. Her howls subsided into gasps. After a few eternal moments, she finally mustered the courage to look at the glowing red image burned into her flesh—

The symbol of the Galactic Empire.

Her eyes were torn away from her wrist by a sharp upward jerk of her head. Her dark, terrified eyes met with those of Governor Pryce, who held the warrior’s chin in a vice-like grip. The woman gazed upon her charge with a cold, satisfied smile.

“I trust that I will not have to do this again?” she asked lightly.

The Immaculate exhaled and said with all the strength and poise within her, “Of course not, Governor.”

Like night and day, Pryce’s expression softened. Keeping her grip on the Immaculate’s face, she gently pushed back a strand of hair as dark as the girl’s eyes out of her face. The light touch highlighted her still-burning wrist. “There now, I consider that a lesson learned. Fear not, for the Empire is merciful and always ready to extend the hand of forgiveness. I think we can put this unfortunate matter behind us and start on a clean slate now, hmm?” She raised her eyebrows expectantly.

The Immaculate bowed her head, now free of Pryce’s grasp. “I am grateful.”

“As we all should be,” Pryce responded warmly. She looked once more at the Death Troopers, “Escort the Immaculate to the medical bay and have that wrist cleaned and wrapped. No bacta will be necessary.” She looked pointedly at the Immaculate. “We want to make sure our reminder sticks, do we not?”

~ ~ ~

 

Once again, the Ghost zipped through hyperspace, calmly riding the serene blue waves. Hera released her grip from the controls, slumping into the pilot’s seat and breathing a sigh of relief. Behind her the cockpit doors opened. She wheeled around to face her weary crew. Her eyes immediately locked onto Kanan, who was breathing heavily and leaning hard on Ezra.

Before she could even say anything, Kanan piped up, “Nothing life threatening.” Damn, that man knew her.

“Good to hear,” Hera said, raising an eyebrow. “Did we at least get what we came for?”

Zeb triumphantly raised the data spike. “No idea how, but we did.”

Hera gave a tired smile. “That’s good at least. I put us on course for Silver Squadron’s base like Sato asked. Go get cleaned up and meet back here to go over what we have. Dismissed.” She eyed Kanan, “My cabin,” she said leaving no room for argument. She got up and took Kanan’s arm on her shoulder to relieve Ezra, who followed Zeb out the cockpit.

Once Ezra and Zeb were satisfactorily out of earshot, Kanan whispered to Hera, “We need to talk.” Hera grunted in assent and helped Kanan out the cockpit toward her cabin.

Once the door had slid closed behind them, she steered him toward the bed. “Wait here while I get the medkit,” she said while sitting him down. “Do you need help getting your shirt off?” she asked while digging in the drawers.

“Don’t think so,” Kanan replied. He started to do so until his arms got too high. He gasped and froze.

“Let me,” offered Hera, approaching him with the medkit in hand. Gently, she grasped his arms and lowered them, passing the shirt over his head and down his arms. His breath catched as burnt part of the shirt peeled away from his shoulder. “Sorry,” Hera apologized. Kanan exhaled through his nose, controlling his breathing to keep the pain at bay. Hera frowned when she saw the blaster burn on his shoulder and the nasty bruise coloring his lower abdomen.

Kanan must have sensed her concern and forced a smirk that barely smothered a grimace. “Should’ve known you just wanted my shirt off,” he teased.

“Very funny,” Hera grumbled, unamused. “Hold still, this might sting,” she warned, before taking an alcohol swab to his shoulder.

Kanan barely suppressed a hiss, his false grin melting. He sat in silence for a few moments while Hera cleaned his shoulder. “Did you see what attacked us?”

“Not really, but Zeb was quite descriptive, so I got the picture. What was it?”

Kanan shook his head. “I don’t know, but it was good. Ezra and I barely held our own.”

Hera furrowed her brow. “Another Inquisitor?” she asked, fearing the answer.

“I don’t… think so,” Kanan replied hesitantly. “It wore similar armor, but it didn’t use a lightsaber, and I couldn’t feel the Force from it at all. If anything, it felt…empty.”

“A droid?” Hera asked skeptically. She placed a bacta patch on Kanan’s shoulder. He visibly relaxed as the soothing bacta did its work.

“Nah, this was no droid,” Kanan answered, shaking his head again. “I really don’t know what it could’ve been.”

Hera didn’t offer up any solutions. “I think you fractured a rib or two,” she pointed out instead, examining the indigo bruise blooming under his chest.

Kanan weakly snorted, “Like I said, it was good.” He hung his head and sighed, “First Thrawn, then Sabine, and now this.”

Hera looked up from applying a second bacta patch to the bruise and grimaced sympathetically at her Jedi. She gently removed his mask and stared into his milky pale green eyes, placing her hands on his face. He couldn’t stare into hers anymore, but he smiled softly and leaned into her touch.

“We’ve been through a lot,” Hera began warmly, “And we’ll go through more, but together we’ll make it through this and anything that comes our way.”

Kanan similarly grasped Hera’s face and pulled her in for a gentle, tired kiss. He desperately took in the feeling of her skin, soft and smooth against his fingertips, and of her lips hot and tender against his. He pulled away and pressed his lips right under her ear, breathing in her scent. Hera gasped at his touch. He breathed in her ear, barely a whisper, “With you by my side, we can face anything.” He pulled his pilot close and held her tightly, the two clinging to each other as they clung to these brief moments of quiet, peace, and hope.

Chapter Text

“Alright, Chop, you ready?” asked Hera. Chopper whupped a dismissive reassurance. “Okay, buddy, work your magic,” she said, plugging the data spike into the droid. Chopper sat still and mostly quiet, a rarity for him, as he worked to decrypt the key to their friends’ rescue. The crew sat around the cockpit with bated breaths, the tense silence only filled with soft whirs and beeps from Chopper.

Finally, the little droid cheerfully announced his victory, prompting a mass exhale from his spectators.

“Yeah, yeah, don’t get a dent patting yourself on the back too hard,” grumbled Zeb, failing to hide his smile, “Whaddya got?”

Chopper displayed a series of holofiles, each on classified Imperial research that would prove vital to the Rebellion. Only as each file was viewed and passed along, the crew became more and more impatient to find something that could clue them into where Sabine was.

“Maybe,” Ezra offered, “we should look at some of the weapons projects. Given her experience in engineering, they might be making her design a weapon for them.”

“Perhaps,” Hera mused. “I haven’t really seen anything that suggests her involvement. They’re obviously not about to list her as a contributor in the files, but other than that there’s no real way to know.”

Chopper kept flipping through file after file, but nothing presented itself that could hint to the whereabouts of their lost friend. With each passed file, hope of finding a clue got weaker and weaker.

“Ezra,” Kanan pondered, “you remember that trick I showed you with the prisoner manifest back on Garel?”

“When we were still looking for my parents? Yeah.” Ezra shrugged. “You think that’ll work here?”

“Only one way to find out. Hera?”

Hera sighed. “Go ahead. I can’t think of any better way forward.”

Kanan nodded. “Okay, Ezra. Remember, clear your mind and let the Force show us what we need.” Together, he and his Padawan lifted their arms and focused on their connection to each other and the Force, feeling their way through the data. Suddenly, the hologram projected by Chopper expanded to display every file, filling the entire cockpit. Hera and Zeb stared wide-eyed as the holofiles began to spin. The whole room was engulfed by the glowing blue cyclone, until finally the files slowed in their dance and began to vanish one by one. When the spinning finally ceased, one single file was left emitting from Chopper’s original display.

Hera crouched down and examined the single, glowing page with a furrowed brow.

“Not gonna lie, there’s not much,” Hera admitted. “Project…Clean Slate?”

“The hell is that supposed to mean?” Zeb muttered.

“I’m not sure,” Hera confessed. “The only things listed are the name of the head scientist and the date of the first trial.” She frowned, looking down in deep thought. “Hold on, this trial date…it’s the day after Sabine went missing!” Kanan sat up straighter, and Ezra and Zeb looked at each other with wide, expectant eyes.

“Anything else?” Ezra asked impatiently.

Hera’s finger ran across the bottom line of the page, “Only that…ugh great, full records were stored in a separate location. Probably a security protocol,” she fumed.

“Karabast,” Zeb swore. Ezra slumped in defeat.

Kanan maintained his calm bearing. “What’s the scientist’s name?”

“Some guy named Doctor Tuzin Gast.”

“Well,” Kanan reassured, “We have the names of the project and its head scientist, and we have something linking it to Sabine. It’s not much, but it’s not nothing either.”

Hera nodded. “Kanan’s right. It might not be a lot, but it’s enough of a lead to give Kallus a better direction for his search from the inside.”

Ezra shrugged, “Not like we have too many other options. Let’s just hope Kallus can find more leads.”

“Well, he came through with Binaros, minus us nearly getting gutted, so I think he’ll come through with this,” Zeb conceded. Hera smiled.

“We can contact him right after we check in on Silver Squadron.” The control panel pinged to signify that they were nearing their destination. “Speaking of which, prepare to land right as we emerge from hyperspace. Also, gather some maintenance supplies, just in case they’re dealing with technical problems again.”

“Let’s hope it’s just technical problems,” Ezra muttered, filing out of the cockpit with the rest of his crewmates.

 

~ ~ ~

 

In his office aboard the Chimaera, Thrawn stood and contemplated the exquisite pieces that made up his little museum, a common practice of his. Studying the art of his enemies was a crucial exercise for the mind: just as, if not more, important than training the body.

However, this time, his mind was not entirely focused on the pieces that stood before him. The Immaculate’s arrival, which had occurred at the expected time, was properly communicated to him, but well over half an hour had passed since then with no further sign of her. Usually, she arrived at his office for the full mission debrief within minutes of her arrival. This was most irregular.

He was considering the possibility of infiltrators using the Immaculate’s security code when he received an incoming transmission. Mentally ready for the worst, he answered it with haste. An image of Governor Pryce, nothing in her demeanor betraying any concern, appeared at his desk.

“Grand Admiral. Apologies for the delay, but the Immaculate should be arriving at your office shortly.”

Thrawn raised a single eyebrow. “Might I inquire as to the cause of this delay?”

Much to Thrawn’s irritation, Pryce remained nonchalant. “We were having a conversation regarding the failure of her latest mission.”

“Was this conversation so urgent that delaying the usual debrief mission was absolutely necessary?”

“I-I believed that a few reminders were in order if she was to receive the full takeaway of the debriefing,” replied Pryce. Finally, her cool disposition was beginning to crack as she realized that she was not in charge here.

“And you decided to neither consult nor inform me, because?”

“Well…I—”

“You are not to make decisions regarding the Immaculate without my knowledge or consent again. Do I make myself clear?” Thrawn’s eyes narrowed.

“Y-yes Grand Admiral.” The image of Pryce promptly cut out.

Thrawn sat down and folded his hands in contemplation. He frowned at the space where Pryce’s image had just been. That woman embodied everything wrong with the Empire. Her arbitrary, self-serving displays of power ultimately made her weak, as they did the rest of the Empire. Her need to assert her authority at the expense of true results could even potentially be dangerous to his purposes, especially in her heedless and often unnecessary brutality. He thought sourly of the incident at Batonn. He similarly contemplated what all Pryce had said, and done, in her little session with the Immaculate, not optimistic about its true nature.

Long overdue, his office door opened. The Immaculate stepped through the threshold, her helmet already removed and cradled in the crook of her arm. He was about to comment on the hazard she had just posed to the necessary discretion of her position until his attention was drawn elsewhere. Her left gauntlet had been removed, a white bandage peeking out from the space left between her black glove and sleeve. The injury could very well have resulted from her mission yes, but his instincts told him otherwise.

“Grand Admiral,” she announced, her face intentionally blank, “apologies for the inexcusable delay.”

“Think nothing of it. Following orders is an excuse in and of itself.” Thrawn beckoned her toward his desk, getting up to meet her halfway. His eyes locked onto her left wrist. “Would this be the reminder the Governor Pryce spoke of?

“Yes, Grand Admiral.” The Immaculate’s eyes did not quite meet Thrawn’s. He needed to have another discussion with Pryce later, he thought bitterly. He changed the subject.

“I am already aware that your mission was less than successful. Please explain what led to that result.”

The Immaculate visibly strained. “I underestimated my enemy, and they overcame and escaped me. When I engaged the Jedi, I failed to secure the Lasat or to take into account that he could get into contact with their pilot, which led to their escape. The lack of backup ensured their ability to escape.”

Thrawn was silent for a moment. “Immaculate, have I ever explained to you the difference between an error and a mistake?”

“I am unable to say that you have, Grand Admiral.”

“An error can be made by anyone, but only those who refuse to correct their errors find themselves making mistakes. Your mission was a failure because you made errors, Immaculate, but how can we keep those errors from becoming mistakes?”

“Governor Pryce reminded me to heed the advice of my betters.”

Thrawn smirked, “Advice that we should all follow, I am sure.” If only Pryce actually practiced that principle herself. “What specific changes to your approach to the mission might have made it a success?”

“I should have had backup.”

“Perhaps,” Thrawn pondered. “Do you know why I agreed with clearing the facility of security before the mission?”

The Immaculate glanced downward. “You put your trust in my judgement and my ability to apprehend the Jedi.”

“Partially,” Thrawn conceded. “To be frank, I was unsure of whether that was the best route to take. This was as much an experiment of your abilities as it was a mission. I wanted to see how you would fare alone with this particular band of rebels.”

“And I failed,” the warrior recited bitterly.

“You did. But let us not forget that failure is first and foremost a lesson, and this failure has taught us both that some of your objectives might require some accompaniment. It would be foolish to assume that you would never require help to complete a mission. However, does this mean that you should have a squad of Stormtroopers follow you to every assignment?”

The Immaculate hesitated before answering, “No. If I am not mistaken, you expressly agreed with my statements that Stormtroopers could have become underfoot on Binaros.”

Thrawn affirmed, “Your recollection is correct. Stormtroopers are most useful when sheer numbers are required, but we have made it clear that your purpose lies in achieving more discreet aims. Also, you proved that you do not require backup for less subtle missions such as basic cleansing assignments. What can we conclude from this?”

The Immaculate eyes shone with sudden understanding. “More subtle missions such as apprehensions require a small, elite backup force consisting of Death Troopers and special agents.”

She learned more from simple discussion without even a threat of mutilation. Astonishing, Thrawn mused bitingly. “Precisely,” he said. “Walk with me.”

The Immaculate followed Thrawn through his collection of art and artifacts. Passing by paintings, sculptures, and weapons both ancient and modern, they stopped at a small wooden totem standing humbly on its pedestal.

“Immaculate,” Thrawn continued, “you also noted that you underestimated the capabilities of the rebels, especially their non-Jedi members. What can be done to rectify this error?”

The Immaculate hesitated again. “Studying their known methods and tactics?”

“That would be a start.” Thrawn contemplated the artifact before them. “Do you know what this is?”

“I cannot say exactly,” the Immaculate answered, taken aback by the apparent detour in the subject.

“This is a kalikori, a Twi’lek heirloom rescued from the former home of Hera Syndulla, the leader of the rebel cell you just encountered. Each piece on the totem represents a member of her family. The last time she was on Ryloth, she risked the capture and defeat of not only herself but her father and comrades to reclaim this. Her reverence for this extended to even wishing to destroy it to keep it out of Imperial hands. What does this tell us about her?”

The Immaculate silently pondered the totem for several moments, before finally answering, “She values family above all else.”

“Exactly. That is the most crucial aspect of her and her crew. They are not mere colleagues or comrades: they regard each other as family, which defines how they interact and work together.”

“It makes them dangerous. In retrospect, I believe the elder Jedi was able to communicate a change of plans to the Lasat during our altercation without me even realizing it at the time. That requires something deeper than a good working relationship.”

“You are learning quickly, Immaculate. Yes, their ability to work together seamlessly does make them formidable. However, the very thing that makes them a threat is also their fatal flaw. In my personal experience with this group, they will always come to the aid of one of their own, no matter the logistical risk.” He looked pointedly at the black-clad warrior before him.

“Easy to exploit,” the assassin surmised.

Thrawn cocked an eyebrow, “Indeed. Keep what we have discussed in mind for future missions. You are dismissed.”

The Immaculate saluted and made to leave.

“One more thing,” said Thrawn. The warrior snapped to attention once more. “You are quite aware of the necessary discretion surrounding your position and purpose, so in the future, please refrain from removing your helmet in the corridors.”

“Of course, Grand Admiral.” She put her helmet on and left the room.

Silent and poised, Thrawn watched the Immaculate as she exited his office. He mentally planned all that he would say to Pryce during their next discussion. Had the Immaculate’s loyalty been any less firm, Pryce’s stunt could have very easily jeopardized their hold over the warrior. Fortunately, he had managed to salvage the situation, no thanks in small part to the assassin’s own talent in deduction. No officer had ever picked up Thrawn’s teachings that quickly, or humbly.

Thrawn continued to pace through his collection, stopping once again at the piece he had studied just the other day- the starbird mural. His eyes slid to a newer addition placed next to the duracrete block. In a transparisteel case stood a set of female Mandalorian armor. One of a kind, the armor was adorned with colorful, graffiti-like images instead of a traditional clan pattern. Thrawn’s usually-passive expression curled into a soft smile. She was taking to the change quite well; His Majesty would be pleased with the success of Project Clean Slate.

 

~ ~ ~

 

As the Ghost emerged from hyperspace, the remote planet that housed Silver Squadron’s base snapped into view. Hera attempted to comm them, just in case short-range communications were still on line.

“Silver Squadron, this is Hera Syndulla from Phoenix Squadron, come in.”

No response.

“Silver Squadron?”

Silence.

“Well that can only mean good things,” Hera quipped as the Ghost neared the planet. They passed the orbital defense station before entering the atmosphere. The complete lack of activity around it was not a good sign.

“Uh, Kanan?” piped up Ezra

“What is it?”

“You remember that dream I was talking about this morning? Some details are coming back to me, and it’s reminding me of this,” Ezra faltered.

“Anything specific?”

“Not sure,” Ezra admitted. “I just have a really bad feeling about this.”

The ship continued in its descent to the surface. As the base came into view, it seemed as eerily still as the station above it, but on a closer look it wasn’t empty. The Ghost finally got close enough for the crew to get a good look.

“Oh no…” Hera gasped as she saw the scene outside the viewport. “Chopper, finish the landing sequence and let down the platform.” She leapt from her chair and sprinted past her crew out of the cockpit.

“Hera!” Kanan exclaimed as he raced after her.

“Karabast,” Zeb muttered, he and Ezra following the pair.

The rest of the crew caught up to Hera just outside the ship. Her eyes widened in terror and her hand covered her mouth to muffle her screams at the horror before her.

The entire base was littered with corpses, the stink of death hitting the crew like a brick wall. Some lied in pools of dried, coagulated blood. Some were marred by black holes in their chests, backs, and heads. All stared into nothingness with empty, glazed eyes. Maggots infested the already-rotting flesh of the fallen. What were once tents and makeshift buildings were now scorched ruins.

“Please tell me my senses are deceiving me,” pleaded Kanan. No one answered him, not wanting to put the nightmare before them to words.

Ezra’s face grew a sickly pale, his eyes alight with terrible realization. He turned away and retched, bile adding to the stench of fire and death.

Hera gripped her commlink tightly, “Chopper run a life-forms scan, now!”

Chopper uttered a response, affirming what everyone knew but no one wanted to believe.

“There were no survivors,” Hera croaked. “They’re all dead.”