Actions

Work Header

Spectre One Rises

Chapter Text

Chapter 6 – The Mutiny

 

5 ABY

 

Kanan – Chimaera / Seoulian Sector

The feeling that Thrawn’s imperious arrival dredged up in Kanan’s gut bore no resemblance to relief. However, the moment Ezra tossed his rifle to the squad leader and hurtled into Hera’s arms like a fathier out of a starting gate, Kanan appreciated the fact his lungs could exhale air again.

“Hera!” Ezra lifted Hera off her heels in an enthusiastic embrace, his voice faltering with heavy emotion. “I’ve missed you so, so much…”

Even with her feet back on the hanger floor, Hera seemed to float on waves of maternal love. Ignoring the armored barricade surrounding either side of their captive group, Hera met Ezra’s blue gaze with eyes that glittered with pent up tears, and her trembling hand captured his chin so she could take in the dark goatee encircling his radiant smile.

“If only we could’ve all been together while you finished growing up,“ Hera told him wistfully.

“Be grateful he stands here at all.” Thrawn’s voice cut into the tender moment like a cold blade.

Kanan forced down the raw lump in his throat, dragging his attention back to Thrawn. The Chiss stood planted like an unyielding Veshok tree in front of the bristling hedge of his weapons-bearing minions.

“You wanted a reunion with Ezra Bridger and your dearest Jedi Knight…” Thrawn smiled at Hera enigmatically. “And now, thanks to the Chimaera, you most certainly have it.”

Her face stiffened while Thrawn clasped his hands behind his back in the manner of a bird of prey folding its wings after a kill. “Welcome aboard, General Syndulla.”

“Like I had any choice, Thrawn,” Hera hissed back with a defiant scowl. But she seized the crook of Ezra’s elbow while the fingers of her other hand interlocked almost painfully tight with Kanan’s own.

Kanan frowned, knowing he was failing to pick up on something. All his overloaded mind spat out was a harrowing, far too recent memory in his own timeline: Hera staggering into his arms after interminable hours of torture strapped to Governor Pryce’s interrogation chair. And here before us gloats the puppet master behind it all.

Kanan’s jaws clenched to restrain his bared teeth; his body shifted of its own accord to align with Ezra as protective shields on either side of Hera. If only our unwanted Imperial audience would do us a giant favor and drop through the hanger floor. Instead, the glowing orbs of Thrawn’s eyes focused on Hera’s rigid face with keen satisfaction.

“Ah, but I am offering you a choice, General.” He gestured at Ezra, the elegant sweep of his blue hand outlining the incongruous, Imperial boilersuit under the young Jedi’s surly face. “Just as I offered Commander Bridger the opportunity to become my military guest over five years ago.”

“How…generous,” Hera responded in a glacial tone.

Ezra’s expression contorted into unspoken protest while Thrawn inclined his head serenely toward Kanan. “Your own… companion elected to join the Chimaera in this same capacity only recently.” A corner of the grand admiral’s mouth twitched with what could only be interpreted as restrained amusement.

Kanan’s insides tried to burrow deeper into hiding as the jade slits of Hera’s eyes slid from Ezra and Thrawn to settle disconcertingly on him.

“Is that so…” Her voice had gone ominously flat.

Kanan’s free hand spread itself in reflexive defense and his suddenly hot face scrambled up its patented “I can explain everything” look. Seeing Hera’s eyebrow climb to its most unnerving “You certainly will, dear height, Kanan could only wince while his oblivious heart shamelessly performed ecstatic backflips, behaving as if he and Hera snuggled once again on the Ghost, bickering playfully over their morning caf. Kriff!

“It’s, uh, complicated...” Kanan began to sputter.

“And currently irrelevant.” Thrawn’s deceptively soft words coiled around Kanan and Hera to ensnare their undivided attention. “The end result, General Syndulla”—Thrawn gestured somberly to evoke the dismal battlefield beyond the Chimaera’s hull—“is that both Jedi are the Empire’s willing allies against this grave, extragalactic threat.”

The red-hot coals of his eyes released the captives to cast a glare across the squads of stormtroopers. Thrawn’s glower lingered ominously on Bek to ensure his pointed reminder had sunk in, and the trooper’s furtive struggles to straighten his still crooked pauldron froze in mid-motion.

Hera’s skeptical gaze missed nothing. “I get it, Thrawn. You’re all friends now,” she forced through clenched teeth…then her fingers secretly squeezed Kanan’s reassuringly.

Kanan’s eyebrows drew fleetingly together and Hera shook her head at him almost imperceptibly. She knows more than she wants to let on. Kanan squeezed back lightly in acknowledgement before he flicked a glance at Ezra. His not-padawan subtly tapped Hera’s hand on his elbow to signal he’d picked up her coded signal as well.

Thrawn’s mouth quirked with suspicion and his relentless gaze burned into Hera. “It would appear the invader’s penchant for butchery has not escaped your notice.”

“It most certainly has not,” Hera bit out tersely, but her green cheeks paled.

“I trust you are also fully aware your immediate future holds only two possible destinations, General.” Thrawn raised his chin regally, his expression deceptively placid. “My security force will either escort you to the comfort of my office suite while I determine your potential to join this alliance…or you will be taken to the solitary confines of a detention cell for the remainder of your journey.” One eyebrow arched upward coolly. “State your preference with all due haste.”

In the beat of simmering silence, troubled thoughts flashed through Kanan’s mind. Thrawn was walking a razor’s edge after he and Ezra had tossed bucketheads all over the ship to reunite with a Rebel general who was not-so-arguably the Chimaera’s most reviled nemesis. If Kanan and Ezra escaped punishment, Bek and his Jedi-hating cronies would gain plenty of outraged company. Clearly, Thrawn was willing to risk this ire to keep the Jedi as active pawns against both the New Republic and the Nihilum. He knows all too well how to use Hera’s capture to maximize our cooperation.

Seeing the grimace emerging on Ezra’s face, Kanan knew the same unpleasant conclusions were taking root in Ezra. Before Hera could open her mouth to answer Thrawn, Kanan declared hotly, “We go wherever General Syndulla goes.”

“Excuse me, sir Grand Admiral,” Hondo piped in abruptly, startling everyone. The wiry pirate pressed his manacled hands to his chest. “Speaking for myself, Hondo, I would much prefer the comfort of that undoubtedly very fine office suite at the tip top of your most magnificent bridge tower.”

Melch squealed and nodded vigorously beside Hondo, and Kanan valiantly resisted the desire to plant his entire face in the palm of his free hand. Of all the beings in the Galaxy who could’ve popped out of hyperspace with Hera, these two miscreants were the absolute last Kanan would have placed on the list. “The Force works in mysterious ways” didn’t even begin to explain it.

Thrawn glanced coldly at the squad leader to his right. “Have the pirates taken to a detention cell immediately. Orders will follow concerning their interrogation.”

“Yes, Admiral.”

“Bah!” Hondo exclaimed at the two stormtroopers who dutifully manhandled him and the squirming Melch. “This is not at all unexpected—but disappointing nonetheless!” he called out reproachfully to Thrawn.

Ezra shifted forward but Hera’s gloved fingers dug into the fabric of his sleeve. He shot a glance of protest from her to Kanan. When Kanan almost blasted “Patience, Ezra!” through the Force, Ezra’s expression roiled into a menacing thundercloud.

“Is this really necessary?” Ezra demanded as the protesting pirates were hauled toward the rest of the squad.

“Extremely,” Thrawn asserted unequivocally.

“Ho! Gently now. We are happily going.” Hondo smiled toothily at his assigned escort, who was yanking the Weequay toward the hanger exit under an iron grip.

Melch promptly kicked his own stormtrooper right in an armored kneecap and was immediately rewarded with a sharp cuff to the head.

Ezra tore free of Hera’s grip—but to Kanan’s immense relief it was only to create a megaphone out of his clenched hands.

“I promise to come check on you, Hondo!” Ezra proclaimed.

“Dear boy, your concern for Hondo touches my heart!” The pirate shot back as he was unceremoniously marched away behind a moving wall of troopers. “But fear not, Hondo is an interrogation expert!”

Enough.” Thrawn’s baleful glare practically dissected Ezra and Kanan on its way to skewer Hera. “For the last time…your decision, General Syndulla.”

Hera’s eyes met Thrawn’s with a glare so ruthlessly savage, the pit of Kanan’s stomach felt supremely grateful it was inflicted upon the Chiss and not himself.

“Your office it is, Grand Admiral.” Her tongue coated Thrawn’s title with her thickest layer of sarcasm.

Thrawn ignored the jab as if it was utterly beneath his notice, nonchalantly issuing a gesture of command to the second squad leader. “Proceed.” Without another glance at the captive trio, Thrawn strode toward the hanger bay exit with his sentry droids close on his heels.

Lieutenant Braruz re-emerged into view and Kanan noted that her probing gaze stayed locked on him and Hera until the Devaronian reluctantly turned to trail the towering droids. Uneasy awareness percolated through Kanan’s senses. She’s stirring me and Ezra into some pot Thrawn’s cooking up on the Jedi. Whatever the duo was concocting, Kanan had no desire to be part of the ingredients.

Meanwhile, the squad corralled their “military guests” but purposely herded them along too slowly to keep up with the grand admiral’s entourage. Hera walked between Kanan and Ezra with her head held high, her lekku swinging gracefully with each firm stride. One slim hand had re-tucked itself in the crook of Ezra’s elbow while her other stayed intertwined with Kanan’s like a permanent fixture.

Kanan found himself treading along in more than a little daze, wondering if Hera (and the whole damn ship) could hear his heart beating like a thunder drum each time it sank in that she was actually here beside him. Everything had happened so fast that a part of him remained in shock to be holding hands with the woman he’d only dreamed of returning home to less than thirty minutes ago. Granted, being held captive aboard a Star Destroyer with Hera’s archenemy wasn’t exactly the romantic setting Kanan had envisioned for their reunion, but he sure as hell wasn’t going to complain.

Through the Force—and Hera’s pulse—Kanan sensed her emotions surging as wildly as his own beneath her deceptively smooth veneer. If only he could ask the million questions firing up every neuron in his mind (starting with our child!). Kanan had to settle for touching his lips to Hera’s cap-covered earcone and murmuring, “We’ve got a lot to catch up on.”

Hera’s face turned slightly, revealing a hint of the uncountable questions and concerns churning behind her stoic mask. “Yes, we do, love,” she agreed with equal tenderness and frustration…then leaned in until the warmth of her breath caressed Kanan’s ear in the barest of whispers. “When Big Blue isn’t around to hear us.”

Big Blue? That’s Ezra’s code name for… Kanan stared raptly into Hera’s eyes and the sly spark of triumph he found in their depths could only mean one thing: She had crossed paths with PZ-5—and the droid was somehow safe after all.

Oh, Hera. Galvanizing images filled Kanan’s mind, ways in which he wanted to express the fullness of his gratitude, to revel in the infallible resourcefulness of his Twi’lek general with enthusiastic abandon. The knowing gleam in Hera’s eyes forced Kanan to turn away and cool the red-hot flush rising inside his chest.

Ever since awakening in the Chimaera’s bacta tank, Kanan’s heart had felt shrouded under the mantle of Thrawn’s manipulative darkness. It now lit up so brightly Kanan couldn’t stop himself from flashing Hera the most devious smile he possessed in his arsenal. Her incandescent eyes reflected Kanan’s sideways grin before she slung him back an almost feral one of her own.

Hera is here, by my side. And she’s got PZ-5 out there drumming up a rescue party.

Kanan almost felt sorry for Thrawn.

 

Ahsoka / Takodana

“Did you just order us to escort Captain Abya and his ship to Chandrila?” demanded Zeb.

Ahsoka inhaled the night air, savoring the refreshing coolness to offset the heated glares from the Lasat and Kallus. Anticipating heavy resistance from the two, she’d had them join her outside of the Ghost to avoid waking Jacen. Not to mention she’d already spent what felt like hours in a claustrophobic alcove in Maz’s great hall negotiating with the cagey Klatooinian pirate. As handy as a mind trick would have been to speed things up, Abya’s mind had proven to be anything but weak.

Fortunately, Maz had sat between them as a mediator and charmed Abya into relinquishing his precious data cube before any prying eyes, wayward ears, and probing tentacles could infiltrate the details of their transaction. Throughout, Ahsoka had remained mostly silent, sensing the real reason the burly captain so zealously guarded his secrets wasn’t to protect his newly inherited asteroid field, but a desperate attempt to keep whatever destroyed the rest of the pirate fleet on the other side of the jumps.

At the thought of the hyperlane Eleodie Maracavanya had somehow strung together through one of the Galaxy’s most unstable regions, Ahsoka felt her spine tingle unpleasantly. Force help us all if what the pirates stumbled onto is a premeditated shortcut Palpatine created for his galactic invaders to advance Coreward. From what she’d learned in the Observatory, such vengeance beyond the Emperor’s grave was certain to reveal itself not only in unexpected forms, but at the most unpredictable of times.

To stop a severe frown from overtaking her face, Ahsoka envisioned Jacen enjoying his first mission as a diplomat. “Yes, I did,” she responded to Zeb serenely. “Maz will stop by first thing in the morning to give Jacen a cube of Force training lessons, then bid you farewell.”

Before Zeb or Kallus could splutter an objection, Ahsoka held up her own data cube in front of their obstinate faces. It felt feather light in her hand, but what she sensed lay in wait at the end of the trail weighed heavy as lead on her soul.

“This cube holds the coordinates for the beacons the pirate ruler, Maracavanya, planted along the route that terminates at the asteroid field where Hera is.” Or should be. Ahsoka fought to keep her voice even. “Along with all the beacons’ decryption codes.”

Zeb’s huge hand reached for the cube but Ahsoka tucked her fingers around it firmly.

“To get these coordinates, Maz assured Captain Abya that I served the Alliance to Restore the Republic in the highest of circles…that I’m an extremely valued colleague of Jedi Master Luke Skywalker, and that I have many other influential friends in the Senate.” Ahsoka managed a slight, modest smile. “Your job is to go as my esteemed representatives and get Captain Abya’s claims to the Sovereign Latitudes Hyperlane and the asteroid field directly before Chancellor Mon Mothma herself to be formally recorded.”

Zeb’s mouth widened in protest. “Why can’t Maz take him, or call back those X-wings of yours? We should be going with you to rescue Hera!”

Kallus’s lips were pressed into a solemn line. His hand gripped Zeb’s shoulder and he quietly asserted, “We’ve been given the more important mission for Hera, Zeb.” At the Lasat’s flabbergasted expression, Kallus hissed out an addendum. “Keeping Jacen safe from what Abya fears will appear in the sky overhead.”

Zeb’s gaze flicked back to Ahsoka and she nodded. She’d counted on the former ISB agent to connect the dots soon enough. “The New Senate must see that terror in Abya’s eyes for themselves.” Ahsoka firmly shifted her staff to her other hand. “With trusted companions of myself and General Syndulla standing by the pirate’s side, the senators cannot deny the threat is real.”

The fight slowly left Zeb and his ears drooped. “Fine. So, when is the Gregor leaving?” he grumbled.

“As soon as I prepare messages for Mon Mothma and Luke Skywalker for you to deliver,” said Ahsoka calmly while her stomach twisted into tight, anxious loops. With every passing minute, Hera’s trail grows colder. “I’ve already made Captain Abya aware the Senate will deploy an investigative fleet to validate both the security and stability of his hyperlane. If it proves viable, he’ll be summoned before a council to negotiate any anchoring improvements necessary for military and commercial use of the passage.”

“In other words, you’re asking Mothma to send a fleet to investigate the attack on Maracavanya,” stated Kallus crisply.

“And Abya’s counting his lucky stars he won’t have to go back to his bleeding asteroid field until the coast is clear,” snorted Zeb derisively.

If it’s clear. Thinking of the words none of them wanted to say, Ahsoka braced herself for more unhappy reactions to come. “One more thing. The cubes that Captain Abya encrypted for me and Hondo Ohnaka are programmed to degrade if anyone else attempts to slice the data. Either way, the data in each cube degrades in thirty-six hours.”

There was a beat of shocked silence as Zeb and Kallus stared at Ahsoka with alarmed faces. Ahsoka tipped her staff slightly toward the peaceful night sky. “You already know the reason why.”

“I find it difficult to believe Hera or Hondo would agree to Abya’s terms,” Kallus bit out. His blond eyebrows suddenly arched sharply. “They have no idea, do they?”

Ahsoka’s lekku swung slightly as she shook her head. “Neither did Maz.” The pirate queen had been…displeased to say the least. “They were only supposed to take a quick look and come right back!” Abya’s feeble protest still echoed in Ahsoka’s ears.

Zeb slammed a huge fist into the palm of his hand. “Karabast! That Loth-rat knew Hera has a kit.” His eyes had turned a poisonous shade of green. “If you don’t find the Last Chance soon, all of you have to figure out another way back.” The words much longer and more dangerous hung unspoken in the air.

“Understood,” Ahsoka softly agreed, recalling Abya’s guilt-laden toast of farewell. “By the gods, may all of us meet again to celebrate good fortune.”  In that tense moment, Ahsoka’s fingers had flexed with an aching desire to grab Abya’s stein and dump cold ale over his fear-infested head.

“What are we to tell Jacen if you’re not back with his mother in time?” asked Kallus with a razor’s edge in his tone.

“I know what I’ll tell that kriffing pirate,” growled Zeb.

Ahsoka stood straight, her montrals at their fullest height. She felt the staff’s crystalline core vibrate faintly underneath the tight grip of her fingers. “I will have Hera and the others back before then.” She turned an admonishing gaze on Zeb. “And you will succeed in your own vital mission. Understood?”

The Lasat finally nodded in acquiescence and punched Kallus on his arm. “Let’s get things ready for tomorrow.”

“We’ll make sure the fleet is sent,” Kallus assured Ahsoka, “and keep Jacen safe until you all return.”

Ahsoka nodded in gratitude, then watched the two head back up the Ghost’s ramp muttering quietly to each other. She rolled her shoulders to ease their stiffness before turning and walking toward the Gregor. Thinking of the dangers she was about to ask her own crew to face, she found comfort in the memory of Maz’s magnified eyes locking warmly on her own as the pirate queen’s encouraging voice bid her goodbye. “The Force will be with you, Lady Tano.” 

Ahsoka’s soft smile slipped into a slight frown. She sensed the challenge ahead required not only the Force, but more than a few of the gods and goddesses it bound together.

 

Hera – Chimaera / Seoulian Sector

Even after Hera departed the hanger, each blink of her eyelids still felt heavy with suspense. What if the next time she peeled them open, she found herself back in the cockpit of the Ghost, searching fruitlessly for Kanan and Ezra within the hypnotic shimmer of hyperspace? I couldn’t bear it.  Her fingers clamped down on Kanan and Ezra like a vise. I just got them back, and I can’t—I won’t—lose them again.

“You doing okay?” whispered Kanan. Both his and Ezra’s eyes probed her with concern.

Hera’s grip on both men eased from bruising distress to a gentle squeeze of reassurance. “Never better,” she murmured, shoring up her external façade with a venomous smile aimed at the nosiest of the engulfing stormtroopers.

By unspoken agreement, the trio continued walking in silence as any private conversation was out of the question. All the personal words Hera so desperately longed to share with Kanan and Ezra piled up behind her tongue. She remained determined to keep wearing her bravest face for them no matter how much her emotions spiraled erratically between exuberance and foreboding.

To fight the current undertow of fear dragging at her addled wits, Hera latched her attention back on their forced march through the Star Destroyer’s innards to Thrawn’s lair. Which, unfortunately, reminded Hera of the way Thrawn had cryptically echoed Hondo’s slip of the lip about her desire to rejoin Kanan. It was a deliberate jab that he was on to any denials about encountering PZ-5. How else could she and the pirates have known a dead man walked the decks of the Chimaera

And yet, for now Thrawn seemed content to play along with Hera’s ruse, presumably for the sake of this detestable alliance. Her lip curled with disgust, then slid into bitter amusement. Well, if Thrawn was counting on the pirates to cough up the goods during interrogation, he was out of luck. Hondo will be thrilled to have an audience to regale with his life story, but I made sure he and Melch have no clue where the droid hid. As for herself, she’d feign ignorance as to the droid’s whereabouts as long as the tactic held Thrawn at bay.

As for outwitting the grand admiral on his own bridge tower, that would require Hera to claw her way out of her emotional quagmires and stick to a duracrete path of detached reasoning. Step by step, the cool, rational voice in Hera’s head took control again. Not only did it temper the ecstatic aftershocks triggered by Hera’s stolen glances at her Jedi honor guard, it also diffused the lingering miasma of Thrawn’s gloating presence around their blissful reunion. Wonder of wonders, it even managed to numb the sting of self-reproach for getting hauled aboard the Chimaera like a scalefish and pinned under Thrawn’s odious thumb.

What the voice still struggled to dampen was the electric jolt whenever Kanan locked Hera within his gaze, how she suddenly hung weightless in the Force, helplessly watching her beloved’s pearl-blind eyes clarify into shining sea glass while an inferno blazed around his face like a halo. “We’ll see each other again, I promise.” It was a promise he’d fulfilled so briefly, leaving Hera shattered into pieces—pieces that had never quite fit together in the same way again. Even now, the reshaped vessel of her heart overflowed with the elixir of Kanan’s miraculous return, yet Hera’s thirst for the years they’d lost forever to the flames remained unquenched. Images of what could and should have been for her Ghost family turned Hera’s view of the corridors into a watery, background haze.

Snap out of it, Syndulla, or you won’t be making any new memories together, either! At the whipcrack of that harsh reprimand, Hera’s discontent scurried into a corner to sulk and her lekku tucked under like twin tails of a reprimanded akk dog. Huffing air upward to dry her tear-filled eyes, Hera shook a mental finger at that rational voice to go a little easier with the tongue lashings. It wasn’t like she wanted the past to keep gnawing away at her like a raw bone. It was just that everything about Thrawn’s realm seemed hell bent on raising her most excruciating memories and feelings to the surface. For now, all she could do was keep walking a tightrope over a deep chasm of unresolved angst and trust that her fragile net of newly spun euphoria would catch her if she fell.

By the time they reached the turbolifts, Thrawn and his entourage were nowhere in sight. Hera allowed herself to release Kanan’s hand and Ezra’s elbow, stifling any protest over their trio being pulled apart to ride separately. Now, if only she could get the idiot part of her mind obsessed with telling Kanan about Jacen to shut up! Hera bit her lip and tasted the imprint of Kanan’s fervent kisses from the hanger, the first they’d shared in almost six years. Her quickening blood suddenly congealed at the thought of the dangerous risks Kanan would take—the final sacrifice she knew he’d make—if that’s what it took to ensure Hera got safely back to Jacen. Could she even share the blessed news of their son on this damned Star Destroyer without it being twisted into a death sentence? Anger spiked Hera’s nerves and her lekku jabbed stiff points into her back. If Thrawn finds out, he’ll be elated to use Jacen as the ultimate leverage against us.

The lift door opened, and a relieved smile overrode Hera’s scowl when she rejoined Kanan and Ezra. Inside her skull, that almost callous, sensible voice stifled the swarm of buzzing thought-wasps by echoing one word: Leverage. Based on PZ-5’s intel and what Hera had witnessed already, the not-so-almighty grand admiral was in a precarious power juggling act of his own. Everyone aboard is demoralized by the Empire’s fall…and rats desert sinking ships. Or worse. Without fear of the Emperor to prop up the Chiss’s authority, who would still fight on his side if his mostly human crew turned mutinous? We’ll just see who keeps the upper hand in this alliance, won’t we?

A diminished retinue of stormtroopers finally funneled Hera, Kanan, and Ezra down the walkway that led to Thrawn’s office, only to steer them toward the entrance to an adjacent conference room guarded by two sinister sentry droids instead. The Rebel trio exchanged apprehensive glances before Hera relinquished her grip on both Jedi, determined to face Thrawn with defiantly clenched fists. Her grand entrance through the opening skidded into a startled pause when she encountered an enormous, glossy table surrounded by a dour-faced collection of the ship’s top brass.

As if Thrawn had known this wasn’t quite enough to send an intimidating chill up Hera’s spine, an unnerving holographic display encased the room’s circumference. In the frozen images, the blackened husk of the Liberty’s Misrule listed behind a crisscross of countless bolts of purple-red energy beams that lit up every fighter and ship within the pirates’ motley flotilla. Above this carnage, a huge holoimage of a sleek, mechanical menace loomed along the entire ceiling. Hera shuddered, realizing immediately it could be nothing other than the captured Nihilum described by PZ.

The conference room’s urgent atmosphere was further amplified by a few holo projections of officers clearly forced to maintain their physical stations on the Chimaera, which likely huddled dangerously close to the Dreadnaught’s massive carcass outside to stay obscured from any prying scanners. Hera hid a wince, trying not to think of how PZ-5 sat cocooned in Hondo’s escape pod somewhere along the Liberty’s Misrule’s vast hull while Thrawn’s scouts hunted for the droid in the dismal battlefield.

For now, PZ-5’s detached forearm sat on the tabletop in front of the grand admiral like a special exhibit. Indignance wrenched at the aloof face Hera had managed to retain. That conniving sleemo—he dragged me here to be another prop for this elaborate song and dance. Her mouth pressed into a bloodless slit and she pinned a sour glare on Thrawn’s visage at the table’s head.

Thrawn’s response was a thin crescent of a smile before he waved his hand in a pompous arc. “Officers, may I present General Hera Syndulla of the New Republic.”

Hera shared a wordless glance with Kanan and Ezra and squared her shoulders. Let’s get this over with. Their chiseled faces nodded back in deceptively placid unison.

The Imperials welcomed Hera with steely expressions, watching her run the gauntlet of their sharp eyes as she strode to her designated seat at the foot of the table. She was hardly surprised that none of them attempted to impale either Kanan or Ezra with their gaze. After all, the Jedi had already proven necessary. They see me as Rebel scum, a tailhead who seduced a fallen Knight into stabbing the Empire’s side after Order 66. At least the officers’ disdain was honest. Thrawn (may the goddess rot his soul) had once audaciously proclaimed Hera one of his “greatest adversaries” while flaunting her Kalikori as if he’d granted her his highest honor by pillaging it for his art collection.

It would be so…satisfying to vault across the table and crush Thrawn’s neck under her heel. Instead, Hera sat in the unyielding chair, crossing her arms over her chest while Kanan and Ezra took their seats on either side. Sneaking a glance at Ezra, Hera marveled yet again at the sheer force of will behind that curtain of boyish charm, how his bedrock of inborn resilience had kept him alive as an orphaned child—and for years on this Imperial flagship he’d hijacked with a swarm of purrgil to protect his loved ones and Lothal. Hera’s jaw clenched until her teeth protested. It will be a cold day on Tatooine before I stop hating Thrawn…but I can be grateful this ship survived long enough to bring Kanan and Ezra back to me.

Hera felt Kanan’s boot gently slide against her own, a signal used countless times in their years of partnership to relay he sensed her inner turmoil when forced to deal with the Galaxy’s worst dregs during missions. I never thought I’d feel his touch again. Hera swallowed the latest lump in her throat before pressing her boot back against Kanan’s firmly. Inhaling a deep breath within the safe harbor of Kanan and Ezra’s staunch presences, Hera braced herself for Thrawn’s treacherous minefield ahead.

The grand admiral remained standing stiffly erect, folding his arms behind his back while his glowing eyes scoured everyone around the table. “We are in no position to linger,” he crisply intoned. “All information and matters essential to our mission will be addressed and concluded as swiftly as possible.”

His lips offered Hera a razor thin smile. “Let us begin.”

 

Ahsoka / En route to the Seoulian Sector

Ahsoka entered the cockpit area, her fingers cupped around her beverage container. She sipped the Chalactan tea, grateful for the way its soothing warmth revived her flagging energy. 

At the helm, Rex tipped a satisfied nod in Ahsoka’s direction. “We’re coming up on the first beacon, Umbra Leader. Right on schedule.”

Sabine was ensconced in her usual spot, swiping through files of ancient glyphs and artwork from Eedit on two separate datapads. In front of her, Evens projected a holo of yet another series of symbols that Sabine had recorded at the Observatory on Gelidiu.

“I wish I could say the same thing,” groused Sabine. She stifled a yawn, pushing at her bedraggled bangs. “I’m still going in circles.”

“Good,” Ahsoka smiled. “Then you won’t object if I send you to your bunk to get some rest and a fresh perspective.”

“What? No way,” objected Sabine. “I can’t sleep when we’re so close to reaching Hera.”

Ahsoka moved closer, sensing the Mandalorian’s nervous excitement had quite a bit to do with how close Hera might be to Ezra and Kanan…and it was her way of avoiding the dread of terrible discoveries once the Gregor reached the asteroid field.

“Well, you need to try,” Ahsoka stated more firmly. “Our mission needs you at full strength upon arrival.” She cocked her head at the clones. “And that includes you two. I’ll handle pilot duties for the next few hours.” As nobody else could decrypt the beacon codes, any arguments from the crew were destined for her deaf ears.

“And when are you going to get some shuteye?” groused Wolffe from the co-pilot seat. ”I don’t want to walk in later to find you snoring at the helm.”

“Evens will keep me company,” Ahsoka countered, “And poke me whenever necessary.”

The droid burbled agreeably, shutting down Sabine’s holo to roll toward the co-pilot seat.

“Traitor,” Sabine and Wolffe griped in unison with a look of defeat.

Ahsoka gave the recalcitrant faces around her a teasing smile, waving them away with her free hand. “Now go before I resort to a Force shove.”

With much grumbling and muttering, Wolffe and Sabine shuffled off toward the crew quarters. Rex lingered a moment by the helm.

“Wake me to take over when you lock in the final beacon, ‘Soka. I’m not the only one who needs more sleep than I used to.” His tone was jesting, but his deeply lined eyes remained serious.

Ahsoka squeezed his shoulder. “You have my promise, Captain.”

After Rex’s departure, Ahsoka finished her tea where she stood, staring at the fluidly shifting tunnel of hyperspace outside the viewport. After setting aside the empty container, she reached out in the Force, seeking clarity on the uncertain path ahead…only to encounter an odd push-pull of energy. On one level, Ahsoka felt a pulse of urgency, a sense that if they could only move faster, answers hung like ripe blumfruit waiting to be picked. But underneath it, a stronger current pushed against rapid progress, as if to reach her quarry too soon would result in an outcome far from what Ahsoka desired most.

Evens chittered an inquiry and Ahsoka broke off her concentration to focus on the helm with a calming sigh. What will be, will be. She settled into the pilot’s seat and graced the little R4 droid with a smile that seemed to bubble up from her younger, sassier self.

“We may not be fresh off the line, Evens, but neither of us is ready for the junk pile yet, right?”

The droid hooted an enthusiastic affirmative, happy to be useful.

Ahsoka’s eyes drifted to the staff she’d propped up nearby and her smile faded. She was less than eager to take advantage of the Gregor’s temporary quiet, but it was high time she mined her inner psyche for clues to a new name for this gift from the Architects, one that could unlock the layers of power they apparently intended Ahsoka to wield.

 

Hera – Chimaera / Seoulian Sector

Thrawn hadn’t exaggerated about conducting the meeting’s agenda at a blistering pace. Hera’s earcones had to work nonstop to stay on top of the rapid-fire series of status updates on primary systems and key stations. Currently, the taciturn holo of Captain Makeri had one eye consulting her datapad and the other monitoring unseen bridge crew in the background while she reported on decontamination efforts along the Star Destroyer’s radiation-soaked hull, and the progress of a patrol shuttle that had been dispatched to Seoul to determine if the remote outpost listed in the Chimaera’s databanks—along with its long-range transmitter—was still in operation.

Guilt squeezed Hera’s heart almost as ruthlessly as she had pressed Hondo into obeying her orders. And yet, even if she’d let the browbeaten pirate keep squawking and heard this way to cry out for help existed, Hera knew it would have done nothing to override her primal instincts to save Kanan and Ezra now. For Jacen’s future.

Hera shifted her gaze from her beloved Jedi to the red-eyed obstacle blocking their pathway home and a sneer twisted her upper lip. Who does Thrawn have left to call anyway? Based on Imperial records plundered by the New Republic, the few admirals who’d escaped to the UR would slam the door in his haughty face now that the Emperor who’d promoted him so rapidly over their heads was dead. As for Thrawn’s highly evasive Chiss kin, Hera would eat her headcap and flight suit if they deigned to offer a permanent sanctuary for a Star Destroyer full of Imp refugees. Thrawn has to know he’s caught between the Maw and the Maelstrom.

Which made it even more irksome when Thrawn nodded approvingly at Makeri as if she’d presented him with a gourmet feast. “Very good, Captain. Carry on and notify me immediately when the patrol reports in from Seoul.” He turned to Hera with an anticipatory gleam in his eye. “And now, to our main business at hand.”

At a small booth to Thrawn’s side, the same female Devaronian from the hanger tapped keys on a panel to operate the holo displays. Hera frowned, recalling PZ-5’s brief warning that Lieutenant Braruz was Thrawn’s favorite shadow and pair of spying eyes. A part of Hera’s mind started working on ways to use the strategically placed science officer to her advantage. For now, Hera focused on the encircling holo image, which had been magnified to isolate a lone YT-2400 escapee on the far edge of the massacre. Captain Abya’s ship.

“General Syndulla,” Thrawn purred while stepping closer to the holo image, “I surmise this pirate freighter survived to carry news of the Nihilum’s slaughter Coreward.”

Of course, Thrawn intends to spew conjectures to impress his minions rather than just let me do the talking. Hera steepled her fingers under her chin, trying not to roll her eyes too obviously while exchanging a furtive glance with Kanan.

“Based on the swiftness of your arrival and information extracted from Captain Ohnaka’s logs thus far,” Thrawn plowed onward, “I conclude that you were present on Takodana, informed of the Chimaera’s presence in the battle, then transited to this sector via the same hyperlane used by the freighter. This undocumented route in our own charts must have been established by Maracavanya’s flotilla only recently as this asteroid field’s resources have yet to be exploited.”

Hera’s annoyance at Thrawn’s patronizing accuracy was abruptly overridden by visions of an innocent, cherubic face that turned her heart to ice. If Thrawn’s slicers somehow accessed the beacon codes in Hondo’s navicomputer without turning the data to slag, that hyperlane would lead straight to Jacen. I’ll throw myself into the Chimaera’s reactor core before I let the Nihilum chase Thrawn anywhere near the Ghost.

At Hera’s frozen silence, a craggy-faced officer midway down the table snorted derisively. “It seems the criminals of Takodana rule the Galaxy now.”

Hera’s gaze flicked to the man’s chest and the sequence of stormtrooper commander rank squares on his dark uniform. Based on today’s bucket-busting activities alone, it more than explained his surly attitude. Hera glared into his scornful gray eyes and waved a dismissive hand at the holo of the destroyed Liberty’s Misrule.

“Don’t act so surprised that all the lawless gangs the Empire exploited to steal from others have turned their fangs on you,” Hera scathingly replied. “We’ve been busy mopping up your mess as fast as we can.” Her very personal meeting with Maz would remain none of their business.

Thrawn staved off the seething officer’s rejoinder with a terse gesture. “Lieutenant Commander Tiovata, a far more productive use of our limited time is to hear the general’s summary of events since our last encounter on Lothal.”

Hera’s eyebrows almost crested her forehead at Thrawn’s choice of words. Encounter? More like the Seventh Fleet wiped from existence thanks to Ezra’s outrageous gambit. If only she could have led the charge herself! Stuffing down a savage desire to trumpet every detail of the Empire’s humiliating defeat at the top of her lungs, Hera bit her tongue...but then her heart fired up with another objective that hard-nosed General Syndulla wouldn’t condone. Well, she’ll just have to step aside for one blasted moment. Hera’s long lost Jedi had waited so patiently for news of the people they’d sacrificed themselves for—while she’d learned in the most excruciating way possible that she couldn’t count on ever having more time to tell Kanan and Ezra what they yearned to hear.

Hera cocked her head defiantly from Tiovata to Thrawn. “To put it succinctly, Admiral, after you…vanished, our Rebel cell led an uprising that successfully liberated Lothal.” Her fists on the tabletop clenched so tightly her glove leather creaked. “Not long after, the Emperor unleashed a planet killing battle station known as the Death Star.”

Thrawn’s simmering eyes confirmed Hera’s suspicions that he’d been keenly aware of the rival to his TIE Defender program. She addressed Kanan and Ezra with a regretful sigh before continuing more softly.

“Klik-Klak tried to warn us on Geonosis.” She mimicked drawing a small circle within a larger circle on the tabletop. “The Death Star destroyed Alderaan before our Alliance found a structural weakness within the plans that a special task force managed to steal.” Hera’s heart ached at the Jedi’s appalled comprehension. All she could do was offer up far more pleasant news. “It was Luke Skywalker, the son of legendary Jedi Anakin Skywalker, who made the kill shot and blew the Death Star out of the sky over Yavin Four.”

Kanan’s eyebrows furrowed almost to his nose, but Ezra took in a sharp, excited breath. Hera reached over to squeeze Ezra’s wrist lightly, recalling words shared by Princess Leia in a private note when she’d donated the rare marble for the memorial of Lothal’s Jedi heroes. “Luke is a Jedi Knight about your age, Ezra. He was secretly protected by Obi-Wan Kenobi for many years.“

“So that’s why Master Kenobi stayed hidden on Tatooine.” Ezra smiled softly at Kanan, whose face remained a taut mask.

Thrawn cleared his throat pointedly. Hera turned back to the Chiss and his angry-faced officers with triumph in her eyes.

“Luke Skywalker sparked great hope within all of us to overthrow the Empire, while Princess Leia Organa helped him raise forces to free the Galaxy and bring justice for Alderaan. Four years later, Palpatine foolishly attempted to end the growing war with a second Death Star in the Endor system. This time, Luke defeated both Darth Vader and the Emperor aboard the battle station, then escaped before the Alliance fleet completely destroyed it.” She whispered an extra perk for Kanan and Ezra. “That kill shot was Lando.”

A sliver of Hera’s mind noted how Thrawn’s face had shifted oddly at the mentions of Anakin Skywalker and Darth Vader, but what fully registered were Ezra’s hungry eyes and Kanan’s breathlessly parted lips. They are desperate to know who else they love is still alive. “The Ghost team was there at many battles,” Hera added fervently. “Sabine, Zeb, Rex, Kallus, Chopper—everyone made it.“ 

Ezra’s joyous, relieved grin spanned ear to ear. Under the table, Kanan’s hand gripped Hera’s knee while his teal gaze probed her with an almost disturbing intensity.

Everyone, Hera?” he whispered, then winced as if he hadn’t meant to say the words aloud.

Hera stared back, trying to hide her bewilderment. He can’t possibly mean Jacen, can he? Had Kanan felt something in the Force, known something about her pregnancy before he…somehow didn’t die? Her heart thudded to a stop. Is that the real reason he sacrificed himself? She snapped to when her rational voice rapped on her brain cells sharply. Kanan must be asking about other Jedi survivors. Hera softened and gently covered his hidden hand with her own.

“I was told Master Kenobi died saving Luke before the battle of Yavin, then Master Yoda passed away later after Luke’s training.” Hera wavered at Kanan and Ezra’s pained expressions, then she brightened, knowing her next revelation would bring only joy. “But Ahsoka Tano has returned—I saw her recently myself.”

“Enough!” Tiovata abruptly slammed his fist on the table, startling everyone. Kanan’s hand instinctively abandoned Hera’s knee to reach for weapons he didn’t have. In the now very awkward silence, Tiovata all but cringed under the ominous flare of Thrawn’s eyes.

“My deepest apologies, Admiral.” The stormtrooper commander’s florid cheeks drained of all color. “But how long are we expected to listen to this—this drivel when so much is at stake?” He raked Hera with a scathing glance and a few other officers surreptitiously followed suit.

“Bear in mind,“ admonished Thrawn frigidly, “That the value of my military guests is linked to their importance to the New Republic, which is only enhanced by their connections to highly influential survivors of the original Rebellion. General Syndulla’s personal news confirms our guests’ value, while news of a Jedi resurgence most certainly impacts the future course of my ship.”

Thrawn pivoted his withering stare from the chastened stormtrooper commander to Hera. “That said, the general will now conclude her statement with no further diversions.”

Hera huffed under her breath and nodded brusquely. “Easy enough. The Empire lost the final battle on Jakku. When Grand Vizier Mas Amedda signed the Instruments of Surrender on Chandrila, it disbanded your government, including all Imperial Academies, and surrendered Coruscant to the New Republic.”

She leaned in, eyeballing each of the increasingly outraged faces one by one. “Those are just a top few of my favorites. Be warned that any Imperial officers who refuse to adhere to all terms of surrender are war criminals by declaration of the Chancellor.”

In the taut silence, Hera flipped a lek over her shoulder with an indifferent shrug. “All that remains of the Empire you once knew are a few deserters who’ve fled into the Unknown Regions.” Hera crossed her arms over her chest. “End of story.”

The incensed officers’ eyes riveted on Hera, shooting daggers of anger, fear, and mistrust. Tiovata’s lips added their own silent assault of curses, including the all too familiar shapes of worthless, lying, and the ever-popular scum. Hera didn’t care a whit because Ezra’s vivid eyes were shining and Kanan’s hand was back on her knee, squeezing his own private and very enthusiastic bravo

“Most intriguing,” Thrawn mused, studying his fingernails as if they contained the secrets of the universe. He alone seemed unphased as he compiled Hera’s unpleasant finale into whatever went on inside his unfathomable mind. “Some details concur with Captain Maracavanya’s claims.”

On either side of Hera, Ezra and Kanan snorted softly through their noses and she felt the side of her mouth edging toward a smirk.

Thrawn scrutinized Hera for a menacing beat. “Of course, General,” he continued in a far more dismissive tone. “I have no intentions of relying entirely upon you—or any number of pirates—as to the status of the greater Galaxy. Indeed, I will address a far more objective source of the truth soon enough.” Thrawn swept his attention to his pet Devaronian. “For now, the astronavigation update, Lieutenant.”

While Thrawn’s array of momentarily mollified officers eased back in their seats, Hera groaned internally, exchanging heavy laden glances with Kanan and Ezra. So, so much more to tell each other, but they could only endure this interminable meeting.

Thrawn stepped around the table as a portion of the surrounding holographic battlefield transformed into a star chart that featured a series of numbered red dots staggered along the farthest section of the Galaxy’s outer spiral arm. He stopped just behind Hera’s shoulder.

“Patience, General,” Thrawn chided as he leaned toward her ear cone. “You will find all of the information highly relevant to the forging of our alliance.”

Hera hid her shudder not only at Thrawn’s proximity, but in the way the most recent dot glowed uncomfortably close to the Chimaera’s avatar within the Seoulian sector.

Thrawn began pacing slowly among the crimson dots that eerily mimicked his eyes. “The team’s report on the changes to these red hypergiants’ spectral signatures leads me to conclude that the Nihilum”—his gaze flickered to the holographic monstrosity overhead—“have technology capable of siphoning energy from the stars’ extreme solar winds for the purpose of storing it within their vessels.”

Thrawn cupped the red dot closest to the Chimaera within his tapered fingers. “The spectral analysis of this star on the border of the Varada sector has altered measurably within the last cycle. I suspect the Nihilum are replenishing stores depleted from the battle with the pirate flotilla.”

Kanan’s boot tapped Hera’s own. She met his eyes and her heart stuttered at his “This is the kind of news that makes bad news look good” face.

While the officers flicked tense glances around the table, Braruz followed Thrawn’s instructions to reset the surrounding holo image to an earlier time stamp. At the tapping of the Devaronian’s keys, Hera found herself almost hypnotized by an ultra-slow motion replay in which the immense swarm of bio-luminous Nihilum schooled in fishlike synchronization to effortlessly evade the pirates’ desperate fighting force.

Thrawn picked up his datapad from the gleaming table to consult it. “Officer Swor’s engineering report remains far from complete, but it is my current supposition the Nihilum’s weapons are not fueled by this solar energy.”

In the holo, the extragalactic invaders halted as one and interwove their grasping appendages into what now resembled a vast, multilayered fishing net to ensnare the pirate armada.

Thrawn traced the ethereally glowing lines embedded along the nearest Nihilum’s streamlined torso. “I believe the Nihilum use their stores of solar power to harness a far greater and unlimited source of energy for their weapons and hyperspace propulsion.”

Hera scanned the faces of friend and foe around the circle and found puzzlement that matched her own. A wiry lieutenant commander in an engineering uniform tugged on her salt and pepper hair as if to make sure it wasn’t blocking her ears.

“Unlimited energy, sir? Are you referring to…dark energy?” Her tentative question was tinged with disbelief.

In the ultra-slow motion holo, the glimmering net of Nihilum curved into a multi-layered semi-circle while the luminescent glow of each vessel’s shielding intensified. Thrawn’s hand arced across this background like a dark blue shadow.

“Yes, Lieutenant Commander Nustre,” Thrawn’s silken voice intoned. "What the ancients poetically termed ‘quintessence.’"

Dark energy? Something akin to cold fingers squirmed their way through Hera’s insides. If Thrawn’s crazy theory was somehow true, these invaders had invented a way to raid the universe’s most elusive treasure chest.

“B-but, Admiral,” Nustre protested. “The technology to harness dark energy doesn’t yet exist. Based on the Empire’s research and development at the time of our…ah…displacement, it could take up to a century before—”

The engineer broke off as the Nihilum horde in the holo coalesced their otherworldly glow into a single, blinding beam of purple-red hellfire and hurled it into the heart of the Dreadnaught like a spear from the gods.

Hera blinked her eyes against the afterimage seared into her retinas. The agonizingly slow holo froze with the Liberty’s Misrule as a sinking sarcophagus. Hera’s heart wanted to sink right alongside it. The worst thing about what she’d just witnessed was how easy it had all looked. It was if the Nihilum could have effortlessly obliterated the massive starship into atomic particles if they’d only turned up the juice a tiny notch. Yet they’d only bothered to phase though the hull and incinerate everyone and everything from the inside out.

It’s the TIE Defender program and the Death Star horrifically rolled into one. Only worse. Far, far worse. A wave of nausea sloshed through Hera’s gut and her hand clutched Kanan’s under the table. For a single heartbeat, his grip almost crushed Hera’s fingers and she knew he shared the same disturbing revelation.

Thrawn’s stern pronouncement broke the hushed stillness around the table. “We don’t have a century.” He leaned in to pin Hera under his penetrating gaze. “From your expression, General Syndulla, neither does the New Republic.”

How Hera longed to spit smug assurances into Thrawn’s face that their current arsenal could combat such an advanced enemy. Instead, she’d rather cut out her tongue than reveal the damned Military Disarmament Act had slashed their resources to a limited peacekeeping force soon after the Galactic Concordance. I bet Mon Mothma and the Senate will regret overriding Leia Organa’s protests once they find out Grand Admiral Thrawn and this ruthless menace are slithering around out here. The unwelcome news would certainly add fuel to the endless fires of political squabbling unless and until the Nihilum obliterated the New Senate in the middle of another demilitarization meeting.

Hera offered up nothing more than a non-committal shake of her head, barely shifting the deadweight of her limp lekku. Thrawn lips became a thin, humorless curve before he nodded to Braruz. At a tap of her keys, the oppressive holo of the Nihilum overhead shifted.

“Fortunately, what I do have in my possession…” Thrawn paused and the image tilted sharply to reveal a curving, crown-like crest anchored along the backside of the enemy’s cranial shaped bow. “Is the ruler of the Nihilum.”

The officers beneath the streamlined mass of weaponized appendages merely gawked upwards, but Ezra’s dark brows climbed in growing amazement and even awe.

“The purrgil caught us their leader?” He turned to Kanan. “No wonder the Nihilum keep chasing us down no matter where we go.”

Kanan’s scowl only intensified, but Hera managed an inward sigh of relief. At least she could finally feign a little less ignorance. She jabbed a finger at the overhanging threat to their continued existence and glared acidly at Thrawn. “Sounds to me way more like a minus than a plus.”

The Chiss smiled with maddening calm. “Officer Swor and his team simply require more time to disengage the tracking beacon.” He raised a commanding hand before Hera or Tiovata could interject. “In the meantime, the Nihilum will not attack the Chimaera while the safety of their ruler is at stake. Make no mistake, we remain alive because of the captive—and I have no intentions of releasing it unless and until a weakness is revealed that can be exploited against the Nihilum.” His voice turned deadly cold. “Everything has a weakness.”

Tiovata shot glances at a few of his equally nervous cohorts, then addressed Thrawn in tones that struggled to remain deferential. “With all due respect, sir, we have no guarantee this clearly superior enemy is not already devising a way to extract the hostage…nor is it improbable that unforeseen engine or fuel issues could sabotage our efforts to outrun them.”

As if on cue, the holo of Captain Makeri interjected. “Admiral, the scout ship is reporting in from the outpost on Seoul. Did you still want the information immediately, sir?”

“Yes, Captain Makeri.” Thrawn’s simmering eyes snapped from Tiovata to Braruz. “Feed visuals through only, Lieutenant.”

Her slender fingers glided along the panel and the encircling holo shifted yet again to engulf the conference room in a new scene of utter devastation.

Hera instinctively leaned closer to Kanan, absorbing the charred wreckage of what must have been a reclusive monastery of a religious order unknown to her. The cloistered outpost’s only visible connection to the greater Galaxy was a now-smelted down transmission tower. Everywhere Hera looked, wraith-like smoke from almost dead fires from the compound’s orchards and gardens drifted in the silent air. She did her best not to linger on the charred, humanoid carcasses scattered across the seared landscape.

Braruz’s pink face was drained to near white. “This is the first time our patrols have encountered deliberate destruction of the technology of a land-based settlement.”

Thrawn tapped swift notes on his datapad, his expression somber but unsurprised. “I anticipated the Nihilum would alter their tactics to prevent our access to longer range communications and enforce our isolation.”

Ezra swallowed before murmuring to Hera in a voice heavy with remorse, “We escaped earlier, so the Nihilum took it out on them.” He glanced at Kanan’s angst-filled eyes and muttered to himself almost accusingly, “It’s like Tarkintown all over again.”

Tiovata swiped away the beads of sweat glistening on his forehead, then stabbed his finger at the nearest hovering red dot in the holo. “Admiral, the Nihilum could return at any time. Before it’s too late, I strongly advise that you order the enemy hostage ejected immediately and that the navicomputer logs extracted from the pirates be used to set course to a safer sector. Sir.” 

Kanan stood abruptly, planting both fists on the table and leaning forward like a charging mudhorn.

“No!” His gaze swept a relentless, blazing circle around the table of faces gaping up at him. “We’re going to use this ruler as bait to draw the Nihilum away from the populated sectors until we can figure out some way to stop them for good. Otherwise, they’ll continue to slaughter every sentient civilization they find moving Coreward.”

A tiny, smug smile crossed Thrawn’s face and he gripped his datapad as if it contained a royal decree. “Which brings me to our alliance, Master Jarrus.” His eyes took on the gleam of a predatory nexu. “And what we actually will do.”

Kanan turned to Hera, waiting for her nod before slowly retaking his seat and crossing his arms. Ezra’s rigid expression also made it clear the Jedi wouldn’t be lifting a finger without General Syndulla’s formal authorization.

Hera planted her elbows on the tabletop and turned her interlaced fingers into a resting spot for her chin. “I’m listening, Grand Admiral.” She issued it as a challenge, not a statement.

But, oh, how her insides seethed over the irony that the current safety of the greater Galaxy relied on helping Thrawn escape justice rather than dragging him to Chandrila to surrender for all the horrors he’d done.

“I will provide the Jedi with the coordinates to a Chiss communications relay located in the Un’rhah system,” Thrawn stated decisively. “Master Jarrus and Commander Bridger will navigate the Chimaera through a series of anomalies using the route I’ve calculated to mask our trail from the Nihilum as effectively as possible.”

The grand admiral began a new circuit around his officers at the table, raking his unyielding gaze across Tiovata with especial intensity.

“Once my ship has safely reached the communications relay, I will reestablish contact with Grand Admiral Ar’alani and Lieutenant Commander Eli Vanto of the Chiss Defense Fleet.”

Hera noticed Braruz’s purple eyes widen briefly at Thrawn. Interesting. She wasn’t expecting this.

“For those of you who were not part of my senior staff during the Chimaera’s successful mission against the Grysks,” Thrawn continued, “I can assure you the Chiss Ascendancy was a vital ally, and they will be extremely interested to learn that a new enemy is attempting to conquer this region of space.”

Thrawn side-eyed Hera contemplatively. “I can also assure you the Chiss will provide objective verification as to the validity of General Syndulla’s claims concerning the political state of the Galaxy.”

Nustre and several other officers nodded with almost enthralled approval despite knowing they would soon be at the mercy of Thrawn’s people. Hera gritted her teeth. He’s playing all of our fears against us to get exactly what he wants.

“What if your friends don’t answer when you call?” Hera parried, her head and lekku tilting to a skeptical slant.

“General Syndulla…” Thrawn came to a dramatic halt, his stiffly erect figure framed within the holographic nightmare of Seoul’s destruction. “If the Chiss Ascendancy had fallen, the Grysk Hegemony would have clawed their way through your New Republic already.”

Ezra leaned toward Hera with a puzzled frown. “Do you know who these Grysks are?”

Hera crossed her arms with a disgruntled huff, refusing to reveal her government had uncovered far too little on the highly evasive, nomadic raiders. “I’ll tell you later.”  

Thrawn was already back to stalking around the table. “The input from fresh eyes and tactical minds”—he gestured sharply at Hera—“including your own, General, will enhance our strategies to outwit the Nihilum until the key to our enemy’s defeat lies firmly within our grasp.”

How nice to know I’m not entirely useless. Hera automatically shared a sarcastic glance with Kanan, and yet another thrill went up her spine not only because he was really, truly next to her…but that he could see her face.

With the exception of Tiovata, the circle of officers was alight with reinvigorated enthusiasm, their eyes locked on Thrawn’s regal form as he came to a halt by his seat at the head of the table.

Thrawn stared directly at Tiovata. “Of utmost importance, I will obtain guidance from our contacts within the Chiss Defense Fleet as to the location of the Imperial ranks within the Unknown Regions.” The grand admiral folded his arms regally across his outthrust chest to address his entire audience. “By my command, the Chimaera will rejoin the Empire.” 

Hera somehow resisted rolling her eyes while the officers called out “By your command, Admiral,” around the table, their voices strong and certain.

She noted that Tiovata’s mouth moved with the others’ sycophantic utterances, but just as silently as when he’d insulted her. Maybe Thrawn failed to totally hoodwink at least one of his minions. Who knew? The overruled stormtrooper commander might even appreciate what she was about to say.

Hera rose, planting a hand firmly on her hip. “So, let me see if I’ve got this alliance straight.” She felt Kanan’s boot press tightly against her own. No doubt he sensed just how hard she wanted to kick the grand admiral in the seat of his gleaming white pants. For now, she settled for ticking off her fingers to rattle off her points.

“Your ship is half-staffed with her shields and other systems vulnerable. We’ll be hopping in and out of radiation-soaked hidey holes to evade bloodthirsty war droids who’ll fry us the instant they get their ‘ruler’ back. You refuse to surrender to the New Republic—but expect my Jedi to get you to the Imperial refugees cowering in the Unknown Regions. I also didn’t fail to notice how you’re counting on the Chiss to help us reach the end of the road at the same time you’re leading this pack of Nihilum smack dab into the ones you call…allies.”

Ignoring the heated mutterings around the table, Hera flicked her lekku, leaning forward to lock eyes with Thrawn. “I have to say, it doesn’t sound very enticing.”

His mouth curved into a self-satisfied smile as if he were basking in Hera’s defiance. “First and foremost, what you and your Jedi receive in return, General Syndulla, are your lives.”

“You’ll have to do better than that,” Hera retorted tartly.

“He will,” Kanan proclaimed abruptly with a heated scowl at Thrawn. “Let Hera, Ezra, and the pirates go now. I’ll do your dirty work.”

“Hey!” Ezra barked out in surprise.

Hera’s insides boiled at Kanan with a fury that did nothing to melt the icy fear of losing him out of her heart. Not happening.

“You go where I go, remember? End. Of. Story.” Hera’s eyes blazed green fire at Kanan, daring him to utter another syllable. She would not return to Jacen empty handed when their son needed his father—and Ezra—in ways beyond counting.

Kanan slowly, but obediently, lifted two fingers to his forehead and saluted a surrender. For now, at least in front of the Imperials. Hera knew that obstinate set to his jaw only too well.

“Fine,” he growled, turning surly eyes on Thrawn. “But you’ll give back our weapons, including the lightsabers.” Kanan’s gaze flicked to Ezra, who nodded, then back to the grand admiral. “You’re jeopardizing our ability to navigate your precious ship when the crystals are constantly calling out to us in the Force.”

Thrawn’s mouth thinned into a line. He and Braruz shared an enigmatic glance before his attention slid back to Hera and the Jedi. “Each of your blasters will be returned as I see fit. As for the lightsabers, I will permit the Jedi’s use of the relics from my collection while our alliance stands.”

Kanan smiled acidly, but neither he nor Ezra protested further. The uneasy officers shifted at Thrawn’s decision, swallowing their dissent over the Rebels regaining deadly weapons with equal displeasure.

Ezra took this opportunity to glance from Hera to Thrawn, his thick brows raised somewhere between a plea and a demand. “Let Hondo and Melch go. They have nothing to do with any of this.”

That wasn’t entirely true, considering the role the pirates had played in Thrawn’s defeat at Lothal. Not that Hera was going to offer up any reminders.

“Regrettably, Captain Ohnaka and his co-pilot are guilty of a multitude of crimes against the Empire,” decreed Thrawn, airily skating over the fact the same held abundantly true for Hera, Kanan and Ezra. “They will remain my prisoners.”

Ezra’s blue eyes darkened, but Hera’s lekku twitched in relief. For the time being, it was better for everyone’s safety and sanity that Hondo stay locked up tight. Speaking of that, Hera crossed her arms and held her head at its fullest height.

“Well, Admiral, if we’re to be allies, I expect and demand freedom of movement for myself and my Jedi while aboard this ship. I also demand your oath to release us safely and unconditionally—and I do mean all of us—the instant our alliance is fulfilled.”

“Very well.” Thrawn thrust his shoulders back regally. “As Grand Admiral Thrawn of the Imperial Navy, you have my oath that you will be released safely and unconditionally upon completion of our alliance.” His formal expression shifted subtly. “As for your other request, I have already made preparations.” He gestured briskly at Tiovata. “Summon the initial rotation of my Ysalamiri guard.”

“Aye, Admiral.” Tiovata grumbled a command into his comlink and the conference room door slid open.

In marched a sturdy trio of stormtroopers, their white armor and helmets trimmed with accents of dark green. Their shoulder plates were imprinted with a distinctive, dark green crest that featured the curving shape of a lizard creature with four eyes. The troopers bore standard Imperial weaponry with the addition of a familiar looking, short staff strapped across each of their backs.

Hera frowned. A memory of Kanan losing his lightsaber to that simian assassin’s electrified weapon so long ago flashed in her mind. She exchanged wary glances with Kanan and Ezra while the troopers moved into silently attentive positions several feet behind her and the Jedi’s seats. The two guards closest to the Jedi each held a featureless, lockbox thicker than a datapad but only slightly larger.

“What’s this all about?” Hera demanded, even though she had little doubt.

Thrawn’s officious response was directed at his senior staff. “I have personally handpicked a select number of the Chimaera’s finest soldiers to serve as escorts for my military guests. Each has been assigned shifts of particular guards for continuous protection during our alliance.”

In other words, these Ysalamiri are a warning to Thrawn’s own crew not to start any trouble. But it was also an effective strategy to further hamstring any personal moments Hera, Kanan and Ezra were already struggling to carve out together.

“This is hardly what I’d call freedom of movement,” Hera sneered caustically.

“Freedom of movement requires trust, General Syndulla,” rebuked Thrawn. “To earn it, I demand that you swear an oath of alliance to the Empire.” He glanced from PZ-5’s detached arm on the table to Hera, his red eyes narrowed almost to slits. “I also demand that you tell me where you have hidden my protocol droid. Do this and I will consider dismissing the Ysalamiri.”

Hera’s lekku and shoulders stiffened with loathing. Damn him and his machinations. Thrawn’s unyielding face was proof he would have tortured her for the information in a heartbeat if he didn’t desperately need her Jedi. Well, he could forget about getting PZ-5, too. That droid was their only link to the outside Galaxy, Hera’s hope that Maz and Abya would help Sabine and Ahsoka find PZ, then somehow follow the Chimaera’s trail from there.

She turned to Kanan and Ezra with an unspoken, revolting question in her eyes. They both nodded solemnly in return, equally repulsed yet accepting in that serene manner only Jedi seemed to possess. Never in her wildest nightmares had Hera believed the following words would slither out of her mouth.

“As General Hera Syndulla of the New Republic, you have my oath that I, along with the Jedi, Kanan Jarrus and Ezra Bridger, will serve as allies to the Empire during our mutual mission to defend the Galaxy against the Nihilum.”

Hera swallowed back bile so she could force out the rest between her teeth.

“Your second demand will remain denied. The truth, Grand Admiral, is that I did not hide your droid.” It wasn’t a lie, PZ-5 had done that all by herself. “Take it or leave it.”

Thrawn’s glowing eyes burned a beat longer, then he folded his arms behind his back with finality.

“So be it.” He nodded curtly at Kanan and Ezra, expecting them to respond to some silent command.

To the surprise of the circle of officers, both Jedi rose and raised their hands toward the two boxes held by the Ysalamiri. With twin clicks of the locks, the lids sprang open and the contents of each flew out in whirls of flashing metal that ignited into blazing violet and golden light.

Kanan’s fingers snapped up the hurtling, black and gold hilt of the purple lightsaber, while Ezra captured the hilt of the spinning gold blades that Hera recognized from his holo. With a sizzling hiss, the Jedi deactivated, then rapidly hung their restored sabers on their belts before acknowledging Thrawn with appeased nods.

Pride glowed in Hera’s chest even though she recognized this up-close display of Kanan and Ezra’s Force powers had been prefabricated by the grand admiral to showcase his own prescience.

“This meeting is now adjourned.” Thrawn gestured at Braruz sharply, who extinguished the disturbing holo displays to the relief of everyone else in attendance. “Lieutenant, join General Syndulla and her escort to ensure that her assigned quarters are satisfactory.”

The Devaronian looked about as irked at the command as Hera felt. Thrawn assessed Hera coolly while Braruz and the obedient Ysalamiri guard strode closer.

“I advise you to take this opportunity to refresh yourself as I will require your presence later.”

Before Hera could snark out a reply, Thrawn’s attention snapped to Kanan and Ezra. “Report to Captain Makeri on the bridge. I’ve already relayed the coordinates for immediate departure after all patrols have returned.”

Kanan and Ezra turned to Hera for affirmation. She nodded formally because of Thrawn’s looming presence, but her voice was a warm promise. “I’ll catch up with you again later.” Kanan and Ezra smiled back reassuringly, ignoring their own encroaching Ysalamiri escorts.

All around them, the drained officers shambled toward the exit in search of a less harrowing environment. Ezra suddenly held up a restraining hand toward Thrawn and squinted at the Chiss apprehensively.

“Wait a minute. What if the New Republic shows up somewhere along the way? Are you going to throw us into cells as hostages or what?”

Hera wasn’t the only one who stopped in her tracks. Good point, even if the odds of running into the fleet out here are close to zero.

“As sworn allies of the Empire, you will each do whatever is necessary to ensure the Chimaera’s directive remains intact,” stated Thrawn unequivocally.

Sworn allies. Oh, how Hera hated the sound of that.

  

Ahsoka / En route to the Seoulian Sector

Reaching a meditative state had taken Ahsoka more focus than usual, but eventually a visualization of Morai soaring soundlessly in the warm desert skies of Atollon helped lull her agitated thoughts into serene receptivity. Guide me, Daughter.

The green feathered convor fluttered away, and Bendu’s rich voice rolled through Ahsoka’s mind. “The name serves as an imprint, uniquely tied to the one who bestows it.” In the near darkness of the vision, the flash of Ahsoka’s gleaming staff spun ahead of her. She followed its tumble deeper and deeper into her memories, determined to excavate whatever lay at her core to connect with the artifact and unlock its powers.

Who am I?

Backward Ahsoka plunged in time, until she was nothing more than a tiny, bright-eyed toddler, a Force-sensitive who could never truly fit in on her home world of Shili. Her heart squeezed with joy and sadness as she saw Jedi Master Plo Koon kneeling before her, the way she’d taken his hand with complete trust before he brought her to the Jedi Temple on Coruscant for training. Happy days, intense days, a place I’d wanted to belong.

All too soon, the outbreak of the Clone Wars had overtaken everyone’s lives. Ahsoka’s chest stirred now with pride and the sorrowful wisdom of hindsight as she relived being assigned to Anakin Skywalker by Master Yoda. She’d barely been a teen, so very eager to prove herself after joining her new master at the Battle of Christophsis.

Ahsoka inhaled a breath that felt heavy in her lungs, knowing the recollections from hereon turned ever more painful—the accusations of being a traitor to the Jedi Order, her refusal to remain as Anakin’s padawan after she’d proven her honor. 

And when Ahsoka’s attempts to carve out a new life and help liberate Mandalore had led her back to Anakin, she’d had no clue the brisk words spoken to her anxious, former master would haunt her to this day.

We’ll catch up another time.

So much taken for granted even as Darth Sidious gleefully smothered everyone within his dark cloud in the Force. 

Then the heartbreaking horror of Order 66 had erupted, twisting her loyal clone friends into her attempted executioners. Ahsoka and Rex had barely escaped to hide and survive within the new Empire’s relentless, bloody aftermath.

After the ruthless genocide of all the Jedi Ahsoka had loved, Bail Organa and his offer to take a part in a budding rebellion had been the only bright light, an opportunity she’d accepted to help save and protect Force-sensitive children from the Emperor and his minions. 

Ahsoka shuddered with what felt like an eternal chill, seeing again the unforgiving visage of Darth Vader when she had faced down the man she still loved as an older brother. I won’t leave you. Not this time.

Despite Ahsoka’s disappearance after Malachor, the Galaxy’s shadowed era had remained illuminated by flickers of hope, tiny flames of resistance she’d once helped to unite that now raged into a cleansing inferno. The mighty Empire had fallen during Ahsoka’s quest to an ancient place where unfathomable Force beings presented her with the very staff she now tried to name.

Ahsoka felt her arms wrap around herself tightly as if they could squeeze out the truth. Who is Ahsoka Tano? Born a Togruta, yet a Force-sensitive who could not safely stay on her world. Never a child, but a child soldier. A restless padawan alongside maverick Anakin, both operating barely within (and often outside) the Order’s tenets. Then an ex-Jedi, rapidly followed by survivor, fugitive, and Rebel spy. All these pathways she’d walked with one foot in and one foot out, struggling to find her proper place while she felt caught between worlds.

Her vision shifted and now Ahsoka saw herself straddling a fragile bridge between the arcane Architects’ intergalactic mysteries and her own small scope of existence. One false step and she could plunge the Galaxy into the dark pit that yawned on either side. It was times like these Ahsoka felt none the wiser, marveling at the intricacies of how her life had been spared all these years, entrusted by the Force and the Daughter to carry a staff capable of immense destruction.

The memory of Bendu’s encouraging chuckle prickled along Ahsoka’s senses. You have known the name of your staff for years.”

She blew air through tight lips, then murmured, “Easy for you to say, Bendu.” And yet, she could sense the name at the tip of her mental fingertips. It lay hidden behind a ragged, unhealed scar at the very depths of her core. She reached out gently…she almost had it—

A loud chime cut through Ahsoka’s trance; she blinked and found herself back in the cockpit of the Gregor with both the navicomputer and Evens chirping at her. Present duty called, so Ahsoka made herself let go of her exasperation with a calming breath. If I don’t wake Rex, he’ll be furious I didn’t squeeze in a nap before arrival.

Ahsoka punched in the last sequence of encryption codes, then waggled a mock admonishing finger at the burbling R-4 unit.

“I wasn’t sleeping, I was meditating.”

  

Ezra – Chimaera / Seoulian Sector

Ezra hurried toward the bridge’s navigator station, his feet following Kanan on autopilot while thoughts howled through his skull like a Geonosian sandstorm.

Ever since he’d woken up in the medbay, Ezra had felt like his nerves were trying to crackle out of his skin. The Son’s disturbing intrusion into his dreams had resurrected memories of Maul’s invading presence within his mind back on Atollon, how the vengeful ex-Sith had lured him to the wastelands of Tatooine to flush Master Kenobi out of hiding. There is no Middle without the Dark. Ezra had no idea what end game the Son was attempting to play through him—but no one was ever going to use him as bait again.

Too bad this fierce declaration did little to stop the way his insides kept squirming in the aftermath of his outburst in the hanger. The instant the stormtroopers threatened Kanan and Hera’s reunion, Ezra’s jubilation had plunged like a capsized boat down a waterfall and into a pool of cold rage. Without a second thought, he’d tapped the Dark to seize the oncoming stream of stun blasts and contort the energy into a blazing barrier of protection for his loved ones.

While everyone gaped at him, the Son’s voice had itched and crawled inside his ears from some shadowy place Ezra couldn’t scratch away. Hurt them all so they never hurt your family again. You know how much you want to. Sorely tempted, Ezra had trembled with the effort to resist escalating the situation beyond repair. At the same time, he’d sensed to the marrow of his bones that the Son’s command was a test to bend Ezra against his will…that if he didn’t stand his ground, it would only become harder and harder to ward off the Force entity’s insidious demands in the future.

Even after Hondo’s gleeful outcry helped snap Ezra out of his fury, his icy-hot desire to lash Bek and his cronies hadn’t fully receded. Without the loving touches of Kanan’s concerned, probing Light and Hera’s hold on his elbow, Ezra wondered how much longer it would’ve taken him to spin his inner rudder against the Son’s lingering pull in the undercurrents of his head.

By comparison, the tense walk to the bridge tower had felt like a reprieve. Throughout, Ezra’s heart had pulsed with gratitude each time he turned and saw Hera’s caring face smiling at him. All the hollowness of his years away from the Ghost had retreated in the solid warmth of Hera’s presence, while the protective way she clung to him and Kanan so fiercely lit up the answering smile of his own.

By the end of Thrawn’s convoluted conference meeting, Ezra had found his Jedi training challenged by the buzz of his overexcited thoughts over all the wonders Hera had revealed. In his struggles to calm his mind, what cycled over and over was a firm resolution to get Kanan and Hera away from the Chimaera to go home safely to Sabine and the others. Ezra’s chest practically glowed with gratitude that the Force had paved the way for him to find and return Kanan to Hera…now it remained his duty to stay behind and finish solving the twin problems of Thrawn and the Nihilum.

Which I really, really hope won’t mean doing permanent business with the Son.

As if all of this wasn’t enough to keep him busy, Ezra had another chaotic troublemaker to deal with before he incited an angry mob aboard. Hondo.

Since Ezra’s mouth couldn’t decide whether to twist between a smile or a frown, he settled for a sigh and finally refocused his attention on Kanan. As the other Jedi eased his long legs into the helm’s station, Ezra stood slightly behind the seat to take his support position.

Kanan turned to glance up at Ezra and his teal eyes narrowed. “Are you sure you’re okay? You were tuning out a lot during the briefing.”

“Thrawn’s voice tends to do that to me,” Ezra deflected wryly. He gave the restored pike hilt on his belt a comforting pat and grinned wolfishly. “I liked this part.”  

Kanan nodded back a sly smile but slapped his empty holster. “I’ll like it even better when we’ve got our blasters back, too.”

Ezra waved toward the helm panel, his eyebrows raised. “You going to be okay navigating without, uh, extra assistance?” They no longer had the mother purrgil to help thread a path through the Boomerang’s deadly maze of anomalies.

Kanan held up a reassuring hand, counting off fingers. “First of all, I’m not sleep deprived. Second of all, the Nihilum aren’t snapping at our tails—yet—and third of all…” his voice lowered to a murmur, “Don’t forget that I’ve got a pretty big friend of my own.”

Dume. Of course. Sometimes it was too easy to forget that the ridiculously large (and not all that friendly) Loth-wolf spirit was living inside Kanan somehow. Ezra realized Kanan hadn’t finished talking. “Sorry, what was that?”

“I said, you don’t really need to be here, Ezra. I know you’re worried about Hondo and Melch, so why not give your half of our fancy new escort a more productive assignment by taking you to the detention block?” Kanan jabbed a thumb over at the two stiff and watchful Ysalamiri stationed in the nearest alcove.

Ezra considered the two promoted bucketheads in their spiffy, green accented armor, but something outside of the transparisteel viewport tugged at him. He glanced out at the star-dotted space beyond. A dull ache suddenly penetrated his chest. I’ll have to do this myself when Kanan is gone.

“Big friend or not, you need a backup navigator, Kanan. How else will I get any better at it?”

Kanan’s eyes softened. “I’ll guide you on the next leg, promise. Now go, while Lieutenant Braruz is still busy babysitting Hera.” His brows knit together suddenly. “How did you get away from her earlier, anyway?”

“Eh…’ An embarrassed chuckle arose inside Ezra at the memory of the enraged science officer yanking futilely at her cap—which he’d kept firmly shoved over her eyes with the Force. “I sort of made sure she couldn’t see where she was going.”

Ezra projected his comical thought and Kanan joined him in a lopsided grin. “Nice. I just might steal that trick, too.”

“It’s all in the wrist,” Ezra quipped with an overexaggerated flip of his hand. But his humor faded rapidly as he felt his eyes dragged to the obsidian hulk of the Liberty’s Misrule and the floating debris of smaller ships. He leaned down and whispered into Kanan’s ear.

“I just wish there was a way to reach PeeZee, to tell her where we’re headed.” After Hera’s coded hints she’d somehow connected with the plucky droid, it was becoming increasingly hard for Ezra to hide both his enthusiasm and worry. For now, he could only trust that his friend and long-time conspirator was still okay.

“I know,” Kanan sighed, rubbing his hand across the stubble of his hair. A faint smile played on his lips. “Remember, you’ve trained her well…she’ll do her best when she’s found.”

If she’s found. That glum phrase had become an unpleasant and all too frequent guest in Ezra’s head.

You disappoint me. Ezra almost flinched as the Son’s hissing voice overrode his other thoughts. The answer is right in front of your foolish face.

Kanan’s gaze intensified, examining Ezra suspiciously. “Something’s going on with you. We’re going to talk about it later.” His commanding jab at Ezra’s chest made it an unmistakable order.

“Fine, sure,” retorted Ezra. He was only partially tuned in to their conversation, too busy searching for whatever clue the chastising Son was referring to. His gaze skimmed past the morbid view outside and returned to the navigation panel with the vector coordinates. Dimly, he heard the echo of his voice from what felt like ages ago. “PeeZee, record those clicks.”

An idea flooded Ezra’s mind and a rush of hope heated his blood. Kanan stopped fiddling with the controls and waved his hand vaguely at Ezra’s flushed face, which must have been adorned with one of his goofier grins.

“You’re…making me really nervous with that.”

“Relax,” countered Ezra airily. “I’m just thinking of a way to say goodbye to our former passengers.”  

“Goodbye…?” The puzzlement in Kanan’s eyes was booted out by dawning knowledge and his mouth quirked into a cautiously optimistic slant “Hmm. Well, I guess it’s worth a try.”

You need me to reach them.

Ezra’s grin abruptly froze, and he hastily erected a mental barricade against the Son’s intrusion. Thanks for the tip, but I can do this myself.

Ignoring a hiss of laughter in his head, Ezra held up an admonishing finger against Kanan’s increasingly suspicious stare. “Do or do not. There is no try.”

 

Thrawn – Chimaera / Enroute to the Un’rhah System

Alone at his desk, Thrawn finished preparing his message for Eli Vanto, ignoring twinges of impatience to reach Un’rhah’s relay that did their utmost to distract his thoughts. He saved the encrypted information to be transmitted later via a special commlink’s channel dedicated to his former Imperial aide. It had not taken long to finalize the most essential details; Thrawn had been composing the correspondence to Vanto off and on these past years, just as he’d kept a similar communique drafted for Palpatine awaiting the opportunity to reconnect. The latter, of course, was no longer a viable option.

This fact dislodged a memory of the last conversation he’d shared with the Emperor, and Thrawn pondered what different future might have transpired if the purrgil had not appeared in the skies of Lothal. Palpatine had been displeased by Thrawn’s warnings about Stardust, and perhaps more so by his having interfaced with the Chiss to destroy the Grysk Hegemony’s presence in the Kurost sector. Even though cooperation with the Chiss had proven necessary to protect a major supply line to the Stardust project, the Emperor had questioned Thrawn’s loyalty.

Thrawn’s jaw clenched at the way in which Palpatine had ordered him to return to Coruscant for a "long, long talk" once his mission to subjugate Lothal and capture Ezra Bridger was complete. Now was certainly not the first time Thrawn had linked the Emperor’s underlying threats during that final discussion to the Chimaera’s subsequent, long abandonment in Wild Space.

When Lieutenant Braruz arrived to personally submit her updated report on the Jedi, Thrawn redirected his focus to the Devaronian with what his tensely coiled insides interpreted as relief.

“I trust that General Syndulla found her quarters satisfactory?” Thrawn queried softly.

“The general did refrain from throwing her caf tray back at the service droid,” responded Braruz in a dry tone.

Thrawn tapped his fingers on the desk for a beat. The unanticipated addition of the fiery Twi’lek to the Chimaera was a double-edged sword, but one he was determined to wield to his advantage. “Hm, I will interpret that as a positive start.”

The sardonic arch of Thrawn’s brow furrowed as Braruz remained silent, clutching her datapad tightly under one arm. His infrared vision picked up a faint flush in her cheeks.

“Your report, Lieutenant?”

Braruz nodded, but hurriedly glanced away. “Just so you are aware, sir,” she stated in an overly crisp voice, “It includes notations concerning the romantic attachment now displayed openly and mutually between Master Jarrus and General Syndulla.”

Thrawn nodded sourly. “Indeed.” The duo’s brazenly intertwined hands had merely cemented his pre-existing conclusions that Jarrus and Syndulla shared a marriage-like union in all but name.

Braruz restored eye contact, hastily adding, “This information is included only because their relationship is an anomaly within the Order, as well as an unpredictable variable in our already volatile situation.”

“The latter, no doubt, being the precise reason why such attachments were forbidden by the Jedi High Council,” replied Thrawn acerbically. As for the public’s mistaken assumptions of celibacy within the Order, the analytical currents of Thrawn’s mind churned up the startling claim of his newest military guest. “It was Luke Skywalker, the son of legendary Jedi Anakin Skywalker, who made the kill shot and blew the Death Star out of the sky over Yavin Four.”

Darth Vader’s menacing visage arose on Thrawn’s pathway of thought like a grim specter, and he marveled at how such a progeny had remained hidden from the Jedi turned Sith Lord—as well as the Emperor himself. Thrawn reluctantly tamped down Syndulla’s revelation and its many ramifications for further percolation, gesturing for Braruz to sit.

She remained stiffly in place, her eyes blank while a tremor of unease pulsed along her jawline. Thrawn frowned. “Is there a problem, Lieutenant?”

Braruz exhaled a startled breath. “No, sir. I mean, yes, sir.” She clutched her datapad even more tightly, clearly annoyed with herself. “What I mean, Admiral, is that I…I am simply uncertain whether or not you’ll be angry with me about particular aspects of my report.”

“How so?”

At his piqued interest, she bit her lip. “When the Jedi were unconscious in the medbay, I took the liberty to extract more samples for a series of tests. One of those tests, sir, was for a midi-chlorian count.”

Thrawn frowned in the strained silence. Ever since Order 66 and the Empire’s rise, all studies into the Jedi’s relationship with the Force—and most certainly midi-chlorians—had been banned as illegal medical research unless approved by Palpatine himself on a case by case basis. To his knowledge, the few exceptions had mainly involved the hunt for Force-sensitives by Lord Vader and the Inquisitorius.

Thrawn’s own investigations into the Jedi still orbited the ways in which their wide array of powers compared to the extremely narrow manifestation of Force-sensitivity in the Chiss. After swearing allegiance to the Empire, Thrawn had reluctantly constrained his research to his genuine appreciation of Jedi artwork and weaponry…as well as the history behind his acquisitions should the seller (or captured criminal) have more than outlandish tales to relate.

Whatever the Emperor may have suspected of his grand admiral’s underlying motives, he had refrained from challenging Thrawn or forbidding him from adding to his growing collection of Jedi artifacts. Perhaps it had served as an unspoken reward for Thrawn’s highly effective methods against Imperial enemies. Or, perhaps this subject was to be part of the “long, long talk” festering in Palpatine’s mind.

When Ezra Bridger had so inexplicably and flamboyantly hijacked the Chimaera, Thrawn’s qualms in pressing up against the Empire’s barriers regarding Jedi research slowly evaporated. Indeed, prudence and Thrawn’s duty demanded that he expand Lieutenant Braruz’s studies of his captive Jedi specimen once Bridger, irony of ironies, began forging himself into an increasingly essential asset to the survival of the very starship and crew he’d almost destroyed.

The Devaronian’s expression had settled into deferential resignation at Thrawn’s pensive silence.

“I fully understand if I must be disciplined for my actions, sir.” Her sharp nailed fingers dug into her datapad. “Which is why I took it upon myself to administer the midi-chlorian test without your prior authorization. This way, when we reach the surviving Imperial base, those in charge cannot fault or apprehend you should the Emperor’s testing ban remain in place.”

Thrawn scrutinized his protégé for a long beat, numerous potentials unfolding in his mind. Braruz had chosen a delicate, but certainly advantageous line to cross. There was no reason—yet—to formally reprimand his science officer for her proactive dedication.

“Be seated, Lieutenant,” Thrawn ordered firmly. Braruz perched tensely at the edge of her chair while he folded his hands on the table. “Clearly, circumstances have altered greatly since I engaged you in the augmentation of my prior research.”

She swallowed nervously. “Yes, sir.”

“As the Chimaera is dependent upon two barely cooperative Jedi to fulfill her current objective, all the data in your report is of utmost interest to me.” Thrawn reached out across the table with an authoritative sweep of hand. He softened his next words with a gentle curve of his lips. “I will determine the consequences of your actions, if any, from this point forward.”

“Understood, Admiral,” said Braruz in a steadier voice, placing her datapad in his hand. “As you will see, the first graph concerns the midi-chlorian counts from my additional test subjects, sir.

Thrawn glanced at the Devaronian sharply. Additional?

Braruz looked down, her apprehensive expression faintly reflected in Thrawn’s polished desktop. “My sole purpose in including these subjects was to create a comparison, one that helps establish the rudimentary beginnings of my scientific exploration into the Jedi’s abilities.”

“Understood,” Thrawn murmured approvingly, examining a set of bar graphs that displayed the results of four male human crew members, each of which averaged around 2,500 midi-chlorians per cell. Based on what he had been able to glean of pillaged Jedi records in his pre-Empire years of research, Thrawn’s recollections concurred with his science officer’s notations that this level was typical for a non-Force-sensitive being.

In sharp contrast to the humans’ results was a bar line with Lieutenant Braruz’s name on it. Thrawn arched an eyebrow. “You tested yourself?”

Braruz nodded resolutely. “Because Devaronians possess a higher frequency of Force-sensitivity than other species, it seemed prudent to include my results as a comparison to the humans and the Jedi.”

Her count hovered just over 4,800 midi-chlorians per cell, which was only two hundred beneath the threshold for mildly Force-sensitive individuals. Thrawn eyed the Devaronian appraisingly. “And does your count fall within the norms of your kind?”

“In the higher ranges, but, yes, Admiral,” Braruz responded in a humble tone. “The next graph relates to Commander Bridger and Master Jarrus.”

Thrawn silently absorbed the midi-chlorian test results, intrigued. At just over 14,500, Jarrus was certainly in the higher ranges for a Force-sensitive. But his is not the highest bar line on the graph.

“As you’ve noticed, sir,” said Braruz, leaning closer to the desk, “Commander Bridger’s count exceeds his master’s by nearly twenty percent.”

“And yet,” Thrawn mused aloud, “Kanan Jarrus continues to perform feats with the Force that rival or surpass his stronger apprentice.”

Indeed, the Jedi’s regenerated eyesight and Bridger’s resurrection of his master while in the Ja’Ghar sector remained maddening enigmas, their insolent wall of silence concerning Jarrus’s return shielded by their roles as critical pawns for now. Nevertheless, the conundrum struck a chord inside Thrawn that resonated strongly with the late Emperor’s perplexing demand to refabricate a portion of Lothal ‘s Temple aboard the Chimaera before taking Bridger prisoner. I increasingly suspect there was a Jedi temple on Ja’Ghar which holds the key to this puzzle box.

Braruz’s voice cut through Thrawn’s disconcerted reverie.

“In sifting through the body of data and theories, sir, it appears the quantity of mid-chlorians in a being’s cells is merely a potential to how sufficiently an individual can connect with and utilize the energy of the Force. Not a guarantee, nor a preset limitation.”

Thrawn steepled his fingers, thoughtful. “Not unlike the manner of artists born with varying degrees of natural talent. The ones with the greatest gifts might lack the circumstances and resources to hone or to even discover their abilities. And vice versa.”

“Yes, sir,” nodded Braruz. “Not only did Master Jarrus benefit from years of training with the Jedi and serving as a padawan to a High Council member, there is something intriguing I discovered when I examined him in the medbay.”

The Devaronian’s amethyst eyes glistened with scientific zeal as she indicated the datapad in Thrawn’s hands. “Once you examine the following series of EEG graphs, it will become evident to you as well, sir.”

With mounting curiosity, Thrawn tapped to the first image, finding it filled with color coded EEG results from the same four human test subjects. All oscillations for their alpha, beta, theta, delta and gamma brainwaves appeared similar in comparison, although the spikier patterns of each subject’s gamma results clearly occurred at much faster intervals than the other brain waves.

“I collected these EEG scans from the same human crew members during sleep and restful, meditative states of mind,” stated Braruz. She sighed almost wistfully. “Sadly, I am not a neuroscientist and limited to our medical records and equipment resources at hand. However, I can confirm all the readings are within normal ranges.”

Her fingertip hovered toward the spikiest, highest frequency patterns on the datapad screen. “These gamma waves are believed to link information from all parts of the brain. High levels of cognitive function, peak mental concentration and physical performance…including increased sensory perception.”

Thrawn tapped to the next EEG scan, which displayed results for Lieutenant Braruz. “You had the lead medical droid assist you during similar mental states?”

“Yes, sir,” responded Braruz. “To determine if and how the oscillation patterns between the humans and myself vary. As you can see, the only noticeable exception is the higher frequency of my gamma waves.“

Thrawn stroked his chin, evaluating the series of comparisons. “There is a direct correlation between each individual’s midi-chlorian count and the level of their gamma readings.”

“Yes, Admiral.” Braruz gestured at Thrawn to continue forward. “The next file relates to Commander Bridger, sir.”

Thrawn scrutinized the EEG scan. The alpha, beta, theta and delta oscillations were akin to the previous test subjects’ scans—but the frequency of the Jedi’s gamma waves was significantly greater than Braruz’s results.

“These are hypergamma waves, sir,” Braruz elucidated. “But occurring at a much higher frequency than what would be considered typical, especially considering the Jedi’s scans took place during a deep sleep enhanced by mild sedatives.”

Thrawn pursed his lips. The difference between Bridger and the other test subjects was striking, but a result he had anticipated due to the Jedi’s extremely high midi-chlorian counts. “How so?”

“Typical hypergamma waves, sir, normally take place when there is unusually high brain activity, such as in the minds of geniuses.”

Thrawn snorted softly, an eyebrow arched skyward. “I hardly think that accounts for the results we see before us.”

“Based on my observations of Commander Bridger over the years, I emphatically agree, sir.” The corner of Braruz’s mouth quirked with wry amusement. “However, in a body of data I collected during my own studies back on Devaron, I found examples of typical hypergamma waves that were observed in monks from the Church of the Wills, as well as disciples of other Light Force sects. The monks and disciples achieved these hypergamma frequencies when in states of meditation focused on compassion and unconditional love.”

Thrawn’s gaze momentarily strayed to the Jedi temple guard mask gleaming among his collection of artworks. “Considering the integral role of meditation within the Jedi culture, are you postulating that Force-sensitives possess an innate ability to produce these atypical hypergamma waves?” He tapped his finger on the heavily spiked, densely packed oscillations on Bridger’s EEG scan.

Braruz rubbed one of the horn nubs on her forehead in frustration. “I’ve already encountered a notable exception in my nascent research, but my instincts tell me these unusual brainwave frequencies—like the midi-chlorians—are an inborn trait that aid significantly with interfacing with the Force.” Her eyes narrowed in speculation. “If developed with proper training, the frequencies would enable a Force-sensitive to achieve an array of superlative reflexes and heightened awareness.”

Is it possible this trait is what has limited the Chiss, why so few children are born with the ability to wield the Force, only to have their powers fade when they reach puberty? Now the impatience to connect with Eli Vanto and discuss more than the Nihilum chewed at Thrawn’s gut. What advancements might Vanto have made over the years on his special, Force-related assignment for Ar’alani? How much could Braruz’s research aid them?

Thrawn’s awareness resettled on Braruz and the datapad in his hand. “Your notable exception, I surmise, is Kanan Jarrus.”

“Yes, Admiral,” the Devaronian propped her face in her hands, looking both stumped and challenged.

Thrawn’s eyes narrowed as he absorbed the patterns of the Jedi’s five different brainwave lines. Instead of one oscillation per line, Jarrus, inexplicably, had two series of hills and valleys interwoven on each. The dual fluctuations even overwrote one another in several areas, especially within the intense concentration of hypergamma spikes.

“You’re certain these aren’t artifacts due to sensor malfunctions?” Thrawn queried sharply.

“Yes, Admiral,” Braruz nodded determinedly. “I reran his scans three times and investigated everything available in the Chimaera’s medical databanks but could find nothing to explain this condition. It’s as if Master Jarrus has two separate sources of neural input, yet he appears to function normally in all other respects…for a Jedi, of course,” she amended.

Thrawn rubbed his chin thoughtfully. Lacking the necessary records from Jedi archives, it was impossible to confirm if Jarrus was indeed unique among the Order, nor what his anomalous brainwaves might signify either way. What Thrawn did know for a fact was how the Emperor had disdainfully dismissed Jarrus as almost beneath his notice, being far more consumed by Bridger. In truth, both master and apprentice were sorely underestimated by Palpatine—with my own self equally guilty of that charge. Fortunately, the silver lining remained that Thrawn held two powerful Jedi in his possession, sworn allies and assets who would not only benefit the Chimaera, but the Chiss Ascendancy as well.

A myriad of tantalizing potentials splayed across the gallery of Thrawn’s mind while the rich notes of Syndulla’s voice played in the background. “Luke is a Jedi Knight about your age, Ezra.”   Although how much of Anakin Skywalker’s legendary Force power had been inherited by his secret son was currently unknown, the vital clue was that he had inherited any powers at all. It certainly resurrected Thrawn’s long held suspicions that the Jedi’s strict path of detachment had served less as a platform for unbiased diplomacy but rather as a strategy to prevent the rise of competing Jedi dynasties from wielding the Force against one another like feuding clans of Mandalorian warriors.

Braruz intertwined her fingers tightly enough to turn their knuckles almost white. “As you will see, sir, I’ve updated several categories of my ongoing research to include new data since Master Jarrus’s…arrival, as well as the findings we’ve just discussed.”

Thrawn skimmed her report’s array of subheadings but tapped only on the most recent addendum. Braruz’s detailed notes featured holo replays from the Jedi’s training sessions in which their actions seemingly defied the laws of physics. She’d embedded these captured moments to underscore an intriguing hypothesis, one which explored the midi-chlorians as multidimensional organisms that not only connected all life to the Force, but how their high volume within the cells of Force-sensitives enhanced abilities to alter space, time, and probabilities on a quantum level.

Thrawn handed a startled Braruz back her datapad, withholding a pleased smile. Whether or not his protégé’s research was valid and could coax the breakthrough he sought from the matrix of information he had so painstakingly collected on the elusive Force remained to be seen.

“Lieutenant, I will fully review your report only after you revisit and revise its content through the lens of genetic manipulation. Your goal is to unveil any potentials and processes to enhance an individual’s Force-sensitivity via direct modifications.”

Braruz blinked with guarded puzzlement, her brow furrowed over her horn nubs. “Our mutual body of research on such topics is extremely limited, sir.”

And certainly forbidden. Those words she purposely omitted.

“Understood,” Thrawn stated, clasping his hands together on the desk. “However, it is time that truly limits us, Lieutenant. Presuming we survive the Nihilum, I have given my oath to release the two Jedi test subjects safely and unconditionally upon completion of our alliance. Based on our unprecedented circumstances, certain allowances must be made to achieve the results required.”

The purple of Braruz’s eyes deepened with uncertainty. “Is it your goal to make the Jedi…expendable, sir?”

Thrawn sighed internally. Now is not the time to tread on her fondness for Bridger and Jarrus. He leaned forward to deflect her question, his gaze a finely tuned mixture of assessment and approval.

“Lieutenant Braruz, as you have long proven your competence as a science officer dedicated to demystifying the Force, there are certain files I am now willing to entrust to you…if you are willing to accept sole responsibility and the potential consequences to your future.”

Even though Braruz almost glowed from his praise, she swallowed nervously. “Does this mean I could be court-martialed when we reach the Imperial base, sir?”

Thrawn locked eyes with his science officer. I have far different plans for you.

“No, Cri Braruz.” His voice was feather soft with a core of Mandalorian steel. “I am offering myself as an additional test subject and proposing this mutually confidential arrangement as Mitth'raw'nuruodo of the Chiss Ascendancy.”

He let the weight of those words sink into Braruz’s startled ears for contemplation, then added, “The highly classified data I refer to includes files pertaining to Force sensitivity within my own people. As these secrets affect the military and political stability of the Unknown Regions and well beyond, they must be preserved at all costs.”

Seeing the rapt curiosity in Braruz’s eyes, Thrawn darkened his tone. “Be aware that if I unlock the encrypted knowledge as a reservoir for your private research, it requires you to remain within my personal service indefinitely. You could never rejoin your family or home world again.”

Braruz stiffened, her cheeks turning pale. “I…understand, sir”

“You may refuse with the express understanding this conversation ceases to exist,” Thrawn assured her softly.

But the set of the lieutenant’s sharp jaw slowly shifted to resolution. “Sir, I believe General Syndulla’s claim that the greater Galaxy has fallen from the Empire’s rule. If I returned to Devaron now, it would be as a war criminal…I would bring my family only more grief and shame.”

Braruz bowed her head. During those few painful seconds, Thrawn fomented in impotent silence over the harsh fact all his officers and crew shared her plight.

When she looked back up at Thrawn, an insatiable hunger gleamed in her eyes.

“I am honored by your trust in me, Mitth'raw'nuruodo,” Braruz stated in a much firmer voice. She clutched the datapad tightly to her chest. “I will not leave my life’s work undone. I am willing to accept your proposal and its consequences. By assisting you and the Chiss Ascendency to preserve the stability of this region of the Galaxy, I can protect and serve my own people of Devaron in a capacity far greater than any other.”

Thrawn thoughts flickered to his former protégés, Eli Vanto and Karyn Faro, and a dull throb coursed through his chest over their yet to be known fates. Forcing the ache back to its usual confines, Thrawn resettled himself in the present and addressed the eagerly committed face of Cri Braruz.

“And so you shall, Lieutenant.” He graced the Devaronian with his rarest smile of all. Sincerity. “So you shall.”

  

Ahsoka – Gregor / Seoulian Sector

“Anything still alive out there?” Rex asked Wolffe from the helm.

The other clone doggedly checked and rechecked sensor scans at the engineering station. “Nothing yet,” Wolffe bit out the words in frustration.

Rex glanced at Ahsoka with a glimmer of hope fighting for its life inside his gloomy eyes. “Umbra Leader?”

Ahsoka slowly lowered her hand. Tendrils of disappointment unfurled along her nerve endings as she ceased her search for any sign of Hera’s Force signature within the battlefield debris outside the viewport. It feels like we missed them by less than an hour.

When the Gregor had first emerged from hyperspace near the asteroid field, everyone aboard had frozen in shock. No stranger to war, Ahsoka had expected to encounter nothing less than sheer ugliness and horror upon arrival, yet now she could hardly blame Captain Abya’s demand for sanctuary behind the armored skirts of Chandrila.

Faced with enough gruesomely charred wreckage to blanket a dry lakebed, the search team’s greatest fear was finding either blackened chunks of the Chimaera or the husk of Hondo’s pirate shuttle floating belly up within the grim panorama.

“Nothing, Rex,” Ahsoka sighed. Her lekku shifted heavily over her heart. “But I don’t sense anything…final…happened to Hera and her companions here either.”

Evens burbled encouragingly and both clones’ tensely bunched shoulders relaxed slightly. At the cockpit periscope, Sabine sucked in an excited breath.

“I think I see thruster flames—something ejecting off the Liberty’s Misrule!”

“Picking up an emergency beacon now,” confirmed Wolffe. After a suspenseful beat, he looked at the others with a deepening scowl. “It’s a modified Imperial escape pod…but no life signs aboard.”

Rex answered R-4’s inquiring whistle with disappointed agreement. “Yeah, Evens, must be a droid from the Super Star Destroyer.”

Ahsoka glanced around at their disheartened faces, feeling an energetic pulse of the Force deep in her center. She raised her eyebrows in a mild reprimand. “A very smart and lucky droid to survive long enough for us to find it and hear what it knows.”

On that note, Evens and the human crew perked up with budding anticipation. Rex rapidly maneuvered the Gregor toward the clumsily moving escape pod to capture it with the freighter’s docking clamps. Sabine kept her targeting periscope trained on their erratic target to glean as many clues as possible in advance.

“Wait a minute—that’s no standard Imperial paint job along its thrusters.” Her mouth thinned to a line under the scope. “And I should know.”

“What are you talking about, Mando?” grated Wolffe.

Sabine backed away from the scope, her hands rubbing her upper arms as if chilled. “Those crazy pirate markings match Hondo’s ship."  She swallowed thickly. “But Hondo doesn’t own a droid.”

Ahsoka sensed the Mandalorian’s rising tension like an amped up current. She stamped down her own spiky fear that she’d been proven wrong and the incoming pod contained the lifeless bodies of Hera and the pirates. But who or what is piloting it?

As if reading Ahsoka’s mind, Rex’s brows shoved together skeptically. “Well, then it makes no sense. Hera didn’t take Chopper.”

“For all we know that paint job matches dozens of roasted pirate ships out there,” Wolffe challenged hotly. “Besides, Hera could’ve hotwired a way to mask their life signs.”

“Enough speculation,” Ahsoka stated firmly, more to herself than the others. “Rex, you and Evens keep us ready for hyperspace.”

“Roger that, Umbra Leader,” Rex saluted in terse agreement.

Ahsoka grabbed her staff and signaled for Sabine and Wolffe to follow. “We’ll go welcome our mysterious passenger.”

With a clatter of bootsteps, the three hastily exited the cockpit level. It seemed like forever, but it only took the apprehensive team less than five minutes to get the escape pod securely latched. The atmosphere in the cargo hold could have been cut by a vibroblade by the time the sole occupant, a very stiffly moving protocol droid with a missing forearm, was finally safely aboard.

“It’s a droid, Rex,” Wolffe commed with relief in his voice. “No one else inside.”

Color returned to Sabine’s face while her expert gaze swept over the unique variety of mismatched components rigged onto the droid’s RA-7 chassis. “Definitely not Imperial standard either.”

“You must pardon my rather frozen circuits,” the droid finally droned in a female voice while her blank, visored face tilted side to side as if disoriented. “To remain hidden, I have been operating at nearly shut down mode inside the unpowered escape pod.”

“Welcome aboard the Gregor ,” said Ahsoka warmly, hope reignited in her chest. “I’m Ahsoka Tano, this is Sabine Wren, and this is co-pilot Wolffe. Captain Rex is at the helm with Evens, our Ar-Four crewmember.”

The droid raised her single hand in what was almost comically stunned surprise. “Ahsoka Tano and Sabine Wren? Oh, now my circuits feel as if they are overloading.” She clumsily touched her chest plate in greeting. “I am protocol droid PeeZee Five from the Imperial Star Destroyer Chimaera , under the command of Grand Admiral Thrawn—“

“What?” Sabine lunged forward and grabbed the droid’s arm with desperate intensity. “You’re from the Chimaera? Where is Ezra Bridger?!”

PZ-5’s head swiveled defensively from Sabine to Wolffe, now looming on the droid’s other side. “General Syndulla didn’t allow me to finish my introduction either,” she lamented.

“You’ve seen Hera?” Now Sabine gripped PZ-5’s shoulders as if ready to turn the alarmed droid upside down and shake out answers.

Crack! Ahsoka struck the durasteel floor with the end of her staff. “Let’s all calm down and give PeeZee Five and ourselves some room to process,” she ordered emphatically. It did little to untwist the excited knot of her insides. Even the crystal inside her staff had started vibrating faintly.

Rex’s urgent voice abruptly cut in over the comm. “Better get up here! Sensors are picking up big— really big—life signs headed straight for us!”

“Blast it!” Wolffe pounded his fist into his palm and snapped his gaze to Sabine. “Let’s get to the guns.”

Ahsoka barred any retreat with her staff. “Wait.” She tilted her montrals to hone in on an ethereal, plaintive wailing sound that was rising in volume within her ears. “Can’t you hear that?”

The others exchanged confused glances.

“Hear what?” Sabine asked, looking torn between cornering PZ-5 for interrogation and manning the dual blaster cannon. Then her eyes abruptly widened into saucers and she pointed out at the eerie graveyard of vessels visible through the cargo bay’s magnetic shield.

“Look! It’s a bunch of purrgil!” Sabine’s astonished face whipped toward Ahsoka, her expression brightening to hope. “Ezra could be nearby…”

Ahsoka peered through the magnetic shield, feeling the staff thrum more intensely beneath her hand. Undulating gracefully toward the Gregor through the ocean of debris and death was a small flock of the majestic and breathtakingly huge creatures, their luminescent eyes gleaming above flowing whiskers. Seven purrgil protectively encircled a mother with injured tentacles and her vulnerable baby.

Meantime, PZ-5 managed to shuffle a couple of steps back from Sabine to raise a didactic finger. “I regret that Master Ezra’s local proximity is highly unlikely as the Chimaera entered hyperspace fifty-five point four minutes before your arrival.” She pointed toward the incoming giants. “I can, however, confirm the purrgil in the center are the very same mother and baby that Master Ezra helped rescue after their original flock was massacred by the Nihilum.”

“Nihilum?” Sabine exchanged a wary frown with Wolffe and crossed her gauntleted arms. “I’m guessing that name belongs to the slaughter out there.” Her chin jutted toward the magnetic shield.

The droid nodded somberly. “Aboard the Chimaera , it has been my experience these invaders destroy every sentient lifeform they encounter.”

In the shocked silence, a merciless cold burrowed its way down Ahsoka’s spine, an unpleasant reminder of being pressed up against the Emperor’s Dark chair. The Force pulsed throughout her senses like a warning beacon, resonating with Ahsoka’s suspicions that Darth Sidious had welcomed these savage outsiders to fulfill a long-range, nefarious plan. With Palpatine’s fall, had his captive monsters broken free of whatever had chained them to the Galaxy’s edge?

A loud, repetitive string of clicks and squeaks erupted through the cargo hold—everyone but PZ-5 practically jumped out of their boots.

“What in the blazes of Mustafar is that?” exclaimed Wolffe, clasping his ears.

Rex’s agitated voice cut through the comm. “I think that injured one’s emitting some kind of attack signal!”

PZ-5 tilted her head alertly to Ahsoka, processing another series of repetitive clicks and squeaks. “Pardon me, Lady Tano, that isn’t a warning, but a navigational vector. Perhaps even specific coordinates.”

The droid turned to Sabine, her droning voice somehow implying joyous enthusiasm. “You must record and process the mother purrgil’s signal for your navicomputer if we are to find Master Ezra and the others.” PZ-5 waggled her single hand. “I do hope General Syndulla still has my forearm.”

Sabine’s consternated face U-turned into cooperation. “Fine—I’m on it.” She jabbed PZ-5’s chest plate with a demanding finger. “But after that, you’ve got a lot more explaining to do.” In a blur of colorful armor, Sabine raced off without another word.

Ahsoka clutched her staff, her thoughts thrumming like the crystal inside. Others. The word certainly referred to Hera and the pirates, but did it also include Kanan Jarrus? If only I could download the droid’s memories directly into my brain. Even if such a feat was possible, now was certainly not the time. Outside the magnetic shield, Ahsoka could see the massive purrgil overtaking the old G9-Rigger to surround it. One wayward swipe of a single tentacle and the Gregor would be pulverized.

Instead, Ahsoka steered PZ-5 in the direction of the cockpit, trailed by Wolffe.

“Are you sure we can trust these creatures?” he rumbled dubiously when the mother purrgil emanated yet another blasting round of her clicks and squeaks.

“Let’s see what she’s trying to say,” Ahsoka urged in soothing tones. “Whether or not this flock was sent by Ezra, I sense they mean us no harm.”  

With the RA-7 droid shuffling along more fluidly now, the three soon rejoined Rex and Evens near the viewport. At the engineering station, Sabine recorded the mother’s ongoing signals as if her life depended on it. By the time the volume of the clicks began to fade, all Ahsoka could see clearly through the transparisteel were bundles of seemingly endless tentacles that streamed behind each behemoth.

When the mother’s pattern of clickety-squeaks abruptly ceased, the atmosphere inside the Gregor fell eerily silent. Far ahead, two of the giant escorts gently wrapped a portion of their serpentine appendages around the injured mother and her playfully cavorting baby. Throughout the flock, blue rings of bioluminescent light rippled along the arrays of tentacles, faster and faster.

While Ahsoka watched the mesmerizing display with almost childlike wonder, her inner senses tuned in to the way her staff’s crystal vibrated ever higher. All at once, the purrgil stretched their incandescent limbs at an angle perpendicular to their streamlined bodies in unspoken unison and vanished into hyperspace.

In the breathless hush that followed, Ahsoka softened her grip on the staff that now rested mutely in her hand. Instead, snippets of Sabine’s voice emerged out of the not-so-distant past in Ahsoka’s mind. “Creatures like the Loth-wolves and purrgil don’t access hyperspace the way we do…When we rode the wolves to the Temple…It was like we were moving inside a space time bubble…If the purrgil can do the same thing in space, that means the Chimaera could’ve jumped across the Galaxy in almost no time at all.”

“A World Between Worlds they can access at will,” Ahsoka murmured to herself.

She turned from the viewport and took in the deeply etched furrows around the clones’ mouths and the sheen of tears in Sabine’s eyes. Their thoughts are lost within the day of Ezra’s disappearance. Determination surged into Ahsoka’s heart to fulfill her promise to find the young Jedi. And all the others.

To give the humans time to resurface from their memories, Ahsoka quietly beckoned Evens to join her and PZ-5. The R4 rolled forward, his photoreceptor peering up at the protocol droid shyly.

“Alright, you two,” she smiled at both droids invitingly. “What better way to get acquainted than by processing the purrgil’s signal for the navicomputer together?”

 

Ezra – Chimaera / Enroute to the Un’rhah system

When the Chimaera had shifted subtly into hyperspace, it set off waves of alarm in Ezra’s gut that his fragile plan was doomed without the Son’s help. Well, it’s too late to worry about that now. Ezra would just have to trust that the message he’d relayed in the Force would reach its recipients. To make up for the momentary stutter in his confidence, not to mention his footsteps, Ezra had walked on so swiftly that his accompanying Ysalamiri stormtrooper had barely been able to keep pace.

But now as Ezra reached the main turn toward the detention block, he slowed yet again, feeling his skin crawl. He usually avoided this area of the Star Destroyer because of an oppressive, specially adapted chamber that lay far beyond the sealed doorway in the opposite direction…yet far too close for comfort. That forbidden compartment still held a portion of the Jedi Temple that the Emperor had stolen from Lothal.

“Ezra, are you coming?” Ezra rubbed his arms at the memory of his mother’s voice beyond the Gate, willing away the chilling memories of Palpatine offering him a treasure no true Jedi could claim when the price was the entire Galaxy’s freedom. And if the Emperor had gained control of the World Between Worlds, Ezra felt he would have found a way to enslave everyone forever. Even now, whenever the beckoning call of his parents haunted his loneliest nights, Ezra would waken in anguish, braced to destroy the Sith Lord’s cruel trap once again.

Recalling an earlier, fateful moment at Lothal’s Temple with Sabine, Ezra could now almost hear the ethereal voices of the Daughter, Father and Son in his ears. “We are the Ones that guard the power. We are the Middle, the Beginning, and the End.” Until now, Ezra realized it had never occurred to him that the Chimaera’s special chamber containing the Temple’s crumbled remains might be the source of the Son’ infiltrations into his psyche. On the heels of that thought, another one rattled Ezra even further: If the Son had been spying on him from that artificial tomb all these years, why did the Dark Force entity wait until the chance to save Kanan from the Ja’Gharian Water Temple before making his presence known?

Someone behind Ezra cleared his throat pointedly, the sound filtered through a helmet speaker. “Is everything okay, Commander Bridger?”

Ezra blinked, not at all surprised to find himself standing stock still in the corridor, staring straight toward the distant chamber full of rubble. Ezra rather hoped the Ysalamiri escort wasn’t thinking about the Imperial guards who’d been crushed during his frantic escape from Palpatine’s hideous, holographic presence. Thrawn had ordered the guards’ crumpled bodies removed long ago, but resentful memories among troopers like Bek and his ilk seemed to remain endlessly fresh and raw.

Ezra tipped a nod at the emotionless visor eyes behind him. “I’m fine.” From what Ezra could pick up from the Force, it appeared Thrawn had carefully handpicked the Ysalamiri from troopers devoted to the grand admiral himself, not revenge. Ezra squared his shoulders with relief and refocused on Hondo and Melch to speed his boots in the direction of their cell. Even if Ezra hadn’t sensed the pirates’ unique Force signatures behind the durasteel walls, he couldn’t have missed the two guards stationed outside the sealed door in an otherwise empty corridor.

“I’m here to check on Captain Ohnaka and his co-pilot, Melch,” announced Ezra firmly. The guards turned toward Ezra’s escort to take in the green crest on his pauldron. At the escort’s affirmative signal, the closest guard shrugged slightly before hitting the control to open the cell.

“Ezra Bridger! Come in, come in, my boy,” waved Hondo in warm welcome. “We must pick up from where we were so rudely interrupted.”

Leave it to Hondo to treat incarceration like a paid holiday. Ezra gestured at his escort to wait outside, then tramped down the steps to join the pirates. The two prisoners sat crisscross on the floor playing sabacc, flanked by meal trays overloaded with beverages and edibles.

Ezra raised a sarcastic eyebrow while he took a seat on the floor. “Let me guess. They’re torturing you with indigestion?”

All the items looked like special treats hoarded by the crew, sometimes traded for favors or even offered as romantic enticements. Shipboard romances were officially frowned upon, but after years lost in space, blind eyes stayed turned as long as entanglements were kept discreet. It had certainly given Ezra ideas of how strict things must have been for the Jedi, especially on those days he missed Sabine and her explosive antics even more than usual.

“Torture!” Hondo slapped Ezra on the back and barked out a laugh. “So unnecessary when Hondo generously answers all questions—official, and dare I say, unofficial.” He tossed a dried fruit with a golden hue into Ezra’s hand. “Have one of these juicy morsels—I have no idea what they are, but they are most refreshing.”

Ezra’s train of thought swerved in a new direction. “Wait a minute, these are from the officers’ stores.” He held up the rare fruit that had been painstakingly harvested from a desolate planet’s oasis not long before Kanan’s rescue, then shook it at the guardian troopers outside. “Did Admiral Thrawn authorize this?”

In guilty answer, both guards flinched before one smacked the controls to slam the cell door shut. Ezra turned back to find Hondo chortling merrily.

“Oh, ho, my boy, these are all merely tokens of appreciation from friends of our kindly stormtroopers outside.” The pirate bit into his own fruit, chewing with gusto while Melch squealed approval over his tightly clutched hand of cards.

“But you’ve haven’t even been here half a cycle,” Ezra protested. Nobody on this ship ever gives me anything! The pike from Thrawn definitely did not count.

“Ah, but you see they are desperate for information only I, Hondo, can give them,” Hondo slapped his chest, then waved Melch’s outraged grunt away with a disparaging hand. “Sadly, they do not speak Ugnaught, my unfortunate friend.” 

Ezra crossed his arms across his chest with a warning glare. “What kind of information, exactly?”

“Oh, just little tidbits of what has happened in the Greater Galaxy while you‘ve been wandering out here like a lost shaak.” Hondo slurped from a moisture beaded beverage container. “See? This delicious brew was an offering from a native of Kuat.” He patted something cushiony under his wiry bottom. “And this beautiful weaving is from one who pines for her betrothed on Corellia. She was supposed to transfer to a different fleet and be reunited after Lothal.” The pirate sighed dramatically, then his eyes gleamed speculatively from behind the goggles. “Speaking of Lothal, surely you have something of value to trade for news of your home world?”

“What? I’m not here to trade with you!” Ezra’s voice dropped to a harsh whisper. “I’m here to figure a way to get you and my family off the ship.”

Hondo slapped down his sabacc cards with jubilant glee. “Another win for Hondo!” When Melch’s jaw dropped open with fury, the pirate captain raised an appeasing hand. “Now, now—let’s go another round. You can bet all of those plump turnovers.”

“Did you hear what I said?” Ezra hissed.

“What? Oh, of course, of course,” nodded Hondo. “But the situation is already under control. With my plan, we shall all be escaping soon enough.”

“Your…plan?” Ezra’s head felt dangerously close to spinning. He was starting to understand why Kanan and Hera always looked trapped between outrage and horror whenever Hondo appeared on the scene.

Hondo patted the space next to him, casting his gaze at the closed cell door. “Shhh, sit closer and I will fill you in, young Jedi.” His bony finger jabbed at Melch, who was shuffling the deck. “And no cheating while you deal.”

Ezra eased over a bit, berating himself for not checking in on Hondo a lot sooner. “What have you done now, Hondo?” It came out more like a groan.

“Why, nothing more than dispense the truth to my benefactors,” Hondo beamed. “That I, Hondo, alone hold the hyperlane codes to reach Takodana, where my close and personal friend, the illustrious pirate queen, Maz Kanata, offers safe refuge in her castle for all who seek it.” He ruffled Ezra’s short hair heartily. “This was all very popular information with our stormtrooper friends outside, I assure you.”

Ezra clutched his skull, feeling sorry for the overwrought brain inside. “Hondo, seriously. Do you really think this queen of yours is going to welcome a Star Destroyer full of Imperials?”

“You mean a mutiny?” Hondo threw back his head and laughed heartily. “Oh, that is a good one, Ezra Bridger! Hondo is happy to see the sense of humor I taught you has fared so well in my absence.” He abruptly grabbed the card deck away from Melch indignantly. “Hondo saw you try to steal the Idiot!”

Ezra yanked the deck away from Hondo. “The game can wait. What ideas are you putting into these bucketheads, Hondo?”

The pirate poked Ezra in the ribs with a conspiratorial elbow. “Why, just escaping from those extragalactic nasties with us, of course,” he whispered rather too loudly, jerking his thumb vaguely in the direction of space outside the hull.

Ezra’s jaw gaped open. It took every fiber of his Jedi training to resist the urge to rip out his own goatee in frustration. “Are you insane?”

The Weequay grinned deviously. “Insanely brilliant!” He hissed a boast into Ezra’s ear. “Why else would your delightful droid entrust Hondo to concoct a daring rescue?”

The bombardment of absurdities spewing from Hondo’s mouth knocked Ezra’s dazed mind sideways, and he clutched desperately at hopes the plan he’d concocted back on the bridge wouldn’t fail.

Hondo suddenly jabbed him in the chest. “Hey!” Ezra protested.

“You’re not paying attention,” the pirate declared loftily, crossing his arms. “Hondo said I expect full compensation for my heroic services—and the sacrifice of my ingenious escape pod.” He sniffed decisively. “I will consider a security squadron for my casino resort moon as an acceptable start.” To seal the deal, he popped one of Melch’s turnovers in his mouth and chewed with gusto.

Ezra leaned in nose-to-nose and Hondo’s eyes widened slightly at the dangerous scowl on his face. “Is there a problem?”

“Just one,” Ezra growled in his best imitation of Kanan. “Thrawn’s not gonna let any of this happen.”

“Bah!” Hondo brushed turnover crumbs off his tunic. “You worry far too much, my boy. His mighty admiralship will never suspect a thing.” He waggled his sinewy hand. “It’s just a teeny tiny few, very discrete troopers who will get Hondo and Melch to the Last Chance so we can all”—he fluttered his fingers—"disappear.” He grabbed up his beverage container and his devious grin intensified. “In all the glorious hubbub, you and the happy lovers will have jumped aboard my ship first, of course.”

With that, Hondo toasted Ezra and Melch and slurped his illicit ale heartily.

Ezra glared at the grizzled Weequay and the meal trays full of bribes. The “plan“ was complete madness…but was it already too late to shut it down? Regardless, Ezra had to make Kanan and Hera aware of the ridiculous situation so they could help brainstorm it into an actual escape plan before Thrawn found out and hit the literal kill switch.

The immediate hurdle was Braruz and the Ysalamiri guards snooping around the Rebel trio’s every move. Gah! Well, maybe by the time he was able to alert Kanan and Hera, some miracle in the Force would have sprouted an ingenious plot in his mind that wouldn’t get anyone executed. Right now, the few brain cells working in Ezra’s head were too busy pointing out all the snags.

“Hondo, how are you getting back to Takodana when the Chimaera won’t be anywhere near the hyperlane once Kanan brings us out of the Boomerang?”

Hondo patted Ezra’s cheek with carefree confidence. “Because I know you or Master Kanan will steal the navicomputer’s logs to follow the trail backwards, yes?”

“Yesss,” Ezra sort of agreed. With Kanan navigating, that part seemed shockingly doable. What really bothered him was the “teeny tiny” number of deserters themselves. If what he recalled of Hondo’s modifications to the Last Chance were still in place, Ezra guesstimated the greedy Weequay would try to stuff at least fifty bribe-toting stormtroopers aboard. As for the dubious haven of Takodana, it was far more likely those bucketheads would try to hijack the shuttle by using the pirates—plus Kanan and Hera—as target practice the instant the Last Chance safely exited the hyperlane.

“Excellent! Then it is all settled,” declared Hondo as he popped the last of Melch’s turnovers into his mouth, ignoring the Ugnaught’s angrily waving fists.

Yeah. As in settled in our graves.

Ezra rose creakily to his feet just as a vivid memory of Kanan chasing Hondo away from the Ghost flared up in his mind. “You’re as crazy as a Vjun fox and even harder to get rid of!” It was pretty good bet his not-master would have Loth-kittens the second Ezra shared the bad news that a certain Weequay had turned their universe sideways yet again.

Ezra shook a Hera-like finger at Hondo’s cunning face, wishing Jedi mind tricks worked on the ones he needed to control the most. “You just make sure your”—he gritted his teeth—“ passengers keep their mouths shut, plus have supplies ready to sneak aboard when the time comes. Don’t even think of making another move without talking to me first or we’ll have a total disaster on our hands.”

“But of course, my boy.” Hondo wiped crumbs from his chin spurs and smacked his lips with satisfaction. “Besides, Hondo is very busy with more important matters at the moment.” He reached up to tug the card deck out of Ezra’s hand for shuffling.

Clearly dismissed, Ezra banged on the cell door with a bit more force than necessary. “Open up! I’m done here.” If only those words were true.

All along his escorted walk back toward the lifts, Ezra’s thoughts plowed fruitlessly through various escape scenarios, each worse than the last. Ezra entered the lift on autopilot, only marginally aware when it stopped much sooner than expected. It opened on a waiting quintet of off-duty stormtroopers dressed in their underarmor blacks, and Ezra’s mental haze cleared when he found himself staring at an all too familiar redhead. Bek. How wonderful. Both Syphex and McDonnell were among the unjolly crew.

Glaring disdainfully at Ezra, Bek stuck out his hand to halt his cronies from moving forward. “Wait for the next lift. This one stinks like rebel scum.”

The snickering group backed up just as a hapless mouse droid attempted to scurry past on its duties. Bek seized the opportunity to kick the tiny droid directly at Ezra, who instantly sidestepped the incoming missile. The droid smashed against the back wall with a squawk before landing upside down on the metal floor with a clang.

Ezra whipped his gaze from the stricken mouse droid to scowl at Bek. “Hey!”

The surly redhead ignored Ezra and addressed the Ysalamiri escort. “You’re welcome.” He gestured derisively at the slightly smoking MSE-6. “Better have it scrub down the whole compartment.” Bek waved his hand in front of his nose and swaggered off to another lift tube with the others sniggering alongside him.

The door slid closed before Ezra could fire off a satisfying retort, so he settled for picking up the battered MSE-6 to inspect the damage. He noticed his dutiful escort about to touch the com on his helmet.

“Don’t bother to report it,” Ezra sighed. He glanced down at the droid’s designation of 5Q-K. “I’ll just fix, uh, Squeak here myself.”

“As you wish, Commander.” The Ysalamiri’s filtered voice held a hint of relief that he’d been spared the unpleasant task of ratting on his fellow trooper’s destructive conduct.

Shifting the droid to a more comfortable grip, Ezra felt his annoyed frown slip into a devious smirk as one of Zeb’s favorite stories replayed in his mind. Once upon a time on a stolen cruiser-carrier, the cunning Sabine Wren had outwitted Cham Syndulla’s traitorous freedom fighters with a lowly MSE-6—and Ezra could almost hear the Mandalorian’s bossy voice telling him what to do with this one. Unlike advice from the Son, Ezra took Sabine’s expert guidance without a moment’s hesitation.

The droid attempted to spin its wheels and peeped at Ezra pathetically.

“Don’t worry, Squeak.” Ezra murmured, giving it a reassuring pat. “You’re going to be better than new.” 

 

Hera – Chimaera / Enroute to the Un’rhah system

Emerging from the tiny refresher wrapped in a thin towel, Hera sighed with relief that her assigned officer’s quarters had its own facilities. The last thing her raw nerves needed was sharing personal grooming and bodily functions with a locker room full of Imperials.

In a life filled with war, Hera knew better than to reject any chance to recharge with food and caf—let alone a shower in which she could finally release hours (years) of pent up grief, anger, gratitude, and joy in alternating waves of body shaking sobs. It had left Hera feeling almost pleasantly hollow, scoured from the inside out.

If only this soul wrenching mission was complete, and we could all go home to Jacen. Her arms longed desperately to hold her precious, beautiful son. Instead, it was time again to stay toe-to-toe with a constantly scheming Chiss who was demanding her presence in his office before meeting up with the Jedi in the hanger bay.

Just as Hera’s thoughts warmed at the prospect of seeing Kanan and Ezra again, they nosedived into annoyance at the sight of black fabric draped across the foot of her bed. Highly polished, knee high boots gleamed nearby on the floor. You’ve got to be kidding me. Hera picked up the non-comm uniform, noting its Imperial insignia had been removed. Her gaze slid to her bed’s bland coverlet; this time, Hera was actually pleased to find a black utility belt with a holster that contained her hold out blaster.

Realizing her own flight suit, cap, and boots were MIA, Hera grabbed the commlink Braruz had given her earlier. “This is Hera Syndulla. What have you done with all my clothing, Lieutenant?”

After a moment, the Devaronian’s faintly accented voice answered sedately. “The service droid took everything for cleaning, General. Replacements were provided based on the sizes of your items to wear while aboard the Chimaera. Inform the service droid if you require any alterations, and the size adjustments will be made before any extra sets are issued.”

Hera huffed. “I don’t plan on being here that long. I expect my things to be returned, especially my head cap.”

“You will find a suitable wrap on your vanity until matching caps are fabricated.”

“What?” Hera barked.

“Admiral Thrawn ordered that you blend in appropriately with the crew, General.” Lieutenant Braruz ended the transmission.

Hera stomped over to the vanity and snatched up a black, flexible cloth, clearly meant to serve as a headband. It was entirely non-descript but met the basic standards of modesty for a female Twi’lek. She wanted to wrap it around Thrawn’s neck and yank hard.

Reminding herself that she was losing precious moments with Kanan and Ezra, Hera donned the cursed uniform, tucking its jodhpur pants into the boots before fastening the tunic’s cross flap near her right shoulder. Using the vanity’s none too generous mirror, Hera twisted the wrap around her lekku and shunted it into place.

The sight of her reflection jolted Hera back to the outfit she’d worn the night she’d first met Kanan and shared a decidedly unromantic street fight with a gang of thugs on Gorse.

Hera’s mouth quirked to one side as she cinched her waist with the belt. Kanan’s always liked me in black.

 

Ahsoka – Gregor / Seoul Sector

To Sabine’s intense satisfaction, PZ-5 and Evens completed the navicomputer calculations from the purrgil’s signal far more rapidly than expected, and she champed at the bit with impatience to set off after the Chimaera immediately. When Ahsoka agreed with Rex’s recommendation that they first attempt to send Maz Kanata a status update so the pirate queen could forward it to the Ghost , the Mandalorian practically stamped her boots in frustration.

“It will take too long. Can’t you see we’re in the middle of nowhere?”

“What I’m seeing is this outpost on Seoul,” Rex snarked back, pointing at the Gregor’s star charts. It required only some minor backtracking to reach the planet and its long-range transmitter.

Even so, Sabine’s simmering glare didn’t fully subside until Ahsoka reminded her quietly, “Zeb and Kallus are experts at wearing brave faces, but any news about Hera will help them take proper care with little Jacen.”

What Ahsoka kept to herself was a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach that she felt while looking at the lonely, little world depicted on Rex’s map. She sensed their primary objective would fail…yet the detour was important, nonetheless.

While Rex, Wolffe, and Evens focused on getting the G9 to Seoul, Ahsoka set her sights on rescuing PZ-5 from Sabine, who had cornered the hapless droid in the far end of the cockpit section to pry out long-awaited details on Ezra. As Ahsoka stepped up to intervene, PZ-5 defensively projected a holorecording that turned her and Sabine into wide-eyed statues.

In the image, a startlingly mature Ezra stared urgently back at them while he clamped a vambrace on what had to be PZ-5’s missing forearm. He spoke loudly over the unnerving sounds of blaster fire. “This is Commander Ezra Bridger of the Imperial Star Destroyer Chimaera. I’ve outfitted this droid, PeeZee Five, with a tracker-comm.”

Just as Ahsoka noticed Ezra plant a similar device over the sleeve of his Imperial uniform, a huge crash rattled her and Sabine out of their dumbfounded trance.

“What’s going on?” Sabine hissed at PZ-5. “Who’s attacking him?”

“I assure you that Master Ezra—” the droid started to drone.

“Shh!” Ahsoka commanded, trying to hear Ezra through the holographic chaos.

“—information for Mon Mothma,” Ezra rasped out. “Or whoever now leads the Rebel—I mean, New Republic.” The image shook after an eruption of blaster fire. “You can see we’re under attack—” He regained his defensive footing. “We’re near the Boomerang Nebula in the Seoulian system." 

Sabine’s hands instinctively touched her blasters as a damaged sentry droid menaced Ezra from the far side of the background. “No, no, no, no…”

Another horrible, metallic crash sounded. Ahsoka’s hands clenched into impotent fists, and she realized she was chanting internally to calm herself. Ezra’s alive, we know he’s alive.

In the holo, the young Jedi doggedly continued. “Thrawn’s headed for the Unknown Regions—at least that’s what—”

“Ezra!!” An impossibly familiar voice rang out through a rain of crimson bolts.

Sabine clapped her hands over her mouth in shock, then her eyes almost bulged when Ezra leapt into the fray spinning a golden-bladed pike. “PeeZee will fill you in on the rest!” He saluted with two fingers and shouted. “Go, PeeZee, go!”

Just when Ahsoka felt nothing could possibly overwhelm her emotions any further, Kanan’s unmistakable physique stumbled into view, somehow battling the sentry with a blazing, violet lightsaber she thought she’d never see again. Her heart was a joyful explosion in the middle of her chest, ignited by the undeniable proof that her long-held hopes had not been in vain.

Even before Ezra’s message cut out, Sabine started shrieking with stunned delight. “Ezra did it, Ahsoka! He did it! Kanan’s alive ! He’s really alive!” The Mandalorian threw her arms around Ahsoka in a fierce, victory hug.

The clones were charging over with their eyes wide with alarm and their hands halfway to their blasters. Evens rolled behind with his dome swiveling in distress.

“What’s going on? What’s wrong?” Wolffe shouted.

“Everything’s right !” Sabine exclaimed ecstatically. “Ezra and Kanan are both alive, you have to come see!”

The clones slowed to a halt, utterly baffled. “Kanan…Jarrus?” they queried in unison.

“You know some other Kanan?” Sabine retorted with a sarcastic grin, then she beckoned at PZ-5 urgently. “Play it again, please, for everyone!”

PZ-5 pivoted her head between Sabine and Ahsoka, looking awkwardly contrite. “There is actually a great deal more Master Ezra asked me to share, but it is only authorized for the two of you. His words were, ‘Tell them what I did was for Kanan. And Hera. Only they can safely know, and only they will understand.’” 

“What exactly have you been hiding from us, ‘Soka?” Rex reprimanded. His heavy fists rested on his hips, but his golden-brown eyes lit up with guarded hope.

Ahsoka shared a look with Sabine, who nodded a vehement yes to her unspoken question. With a grateful smile, Ahsoka turned back to the clones feeling even lighter on her feet.

“Nothing…anymore,” Ahsoka said gently. “We just didn’t want to disappoint you.” She turned to PZ-5. “Captain Rex and Wolffe are very dear and trusted friends of Ezra, PeeZee. He’d be truly happy to know they are aiding our search and agree with my decision to include them in viewing your recordings.”

PZ-5 processed this a moment, then proffered Ahsoka a totally Ezra-like, two fingered salute.

“Then allow me to present…” The droid activated her holoprojector rather dramatically. “Master Ezra’s secrets from the Ja’Gharian Temple.” 

 

Kanan – Chimaera / Enroute to the Un’rhah system

“What do you mean we have a Hondo problem?” growled Kanan under his breath as he released his grip on Ezra’s shoulder at long last. “And why didn’t you tell me earlier?”

His Force-navigator-in-training still sat at the helm, looking a bit dazed after spearheading the second leg of the Chimaera’s journey. Under Kanan and Dume’s continual guidance, Ezra had precariously zigzagged the ship through cascades of far flung stars to reach the uppermost rim of the Boomerang.

The young Jedi had exceeded expectations—until Dume abruptly overrode Kanan’s motor functions, yanking the helm away to evade the gravity well of a rogue, giant gas planet that had flung its enormous girth into Ezra’s course as if from out of nowhere.

Despite Ezra’s careless blunder, Kanan’s chest had re-puffed with pride by the time his trainee settled the Chimaera into the latest hiding spot to decontaminate the nebula’s radiation from her hull once again. The opinion Dume boomed in Kanan’s mind’s about Ezra’s learning curve had been…prickly at best, but Kanan remained confident Ezra would be up to the task of handling bursts of solo navigation on the final leg to Un’rhah.

To top off Kanan’s good mood, neither hide nor hair of the Nihilum had been detected by the ship’s sensors so far.

My tiny moment of tranquility, sucked forever into the chaotic vortex of Hondo Ohnaka.

Ezra shrugged and smiled just like the Weequay in question, which only added to Kanan’s trepidation.

“Because I didn’t want to distract you.” Ezra pulled Kanan in closer, pointing out buttons on the control panel in feigned concern and whispered, “Don’t worry, I’ve already got eyes on the situation. For now, just slip me a copy of the navicomputer logs.”

“Oh, is that all?” Kanan scowled and rubbed his forehead, wishing desperately it was implanted with a magic jewel that granted endless wishes.

“I’ll explain everything to you and Hera later, I promise.” Ezra’s gaze flicked to the data slot and back to Kanan, his blue orbs pleading silently and without mercy.

“Fine,” Kanan gritted out. I’ve got such a bad feeling about this. “Move out of the seat and I’ll pretend you’re an idiotic pirate who did something stupid I have to fix.”

“Just try not to take it out on the control panel,” Ezra half-joked, secretly slipping a data chip to Kanan as they switched places.

“You just make sure our audience doesn’t get suspicious,” Kanan snarked back, tipping a nod at their nosy Ysalamiri escorts by the alcove. “Now, put on your humble apprentice face and tell them your master must meditate on your mistakes, so your next lesson doesn’t include our untimely deaths. In other words, the big boss has to cool his heels a little longer.”

“Hey, I only made one mistake,” Ezra protested, then a note of uncertainty crept into his voice. “Right?”

Kanan crossed his arms over his chest and donned his most officious, noncommittal Jedi Knight expression. Ezra took that as a yes based on the cocky glint that reappeared in his eyes, but he slipped into character by slouching his shoulders and shuffling dolefully over to engage the two fancy bucketheads in conversation. Kanan quickly inserted the disc to start the download, hiding his actions under the guise of reviewing his trainee’s navigational bumbles.

To effortlessly summon a disapproving frown, Kanan turned his thoughts to being ushered into Thrawn’s presence yet again. The bright spot in that glum future was knowing who else awaited him in the hanger. Hera. Kanan closed his eyes as if sagely meditating while he relived their burning kisses earlier. I wonder how close her quarters are to mine ? Knowing Thrawn, their pitiless overlord had housed Hera right across the corridor from Kanan just to taunt him with her unreachable proximity.

The grating situation reminded Kanan of his early months aboard the Ghost , his night cycles spent tossing and turning over the potent lure of Hera so physically close and yet so emotionally far away. By the grace of her compassion and the ways she’d inspired him to reconnect with the Force, Kanan had slowly excavated the inner strength and drive to evolve into someone worthy of winning Hera’s love…and able to accept his own self-worth. After all the trials and tribulations the two of them had faced and overcome to be together, would the constant barriers to their union ever cease?

For several heartbeats, Kanan hovered powerlessly in the dim cave on Lothal while a grief-stricken Hera showed Chopper the triangular shape she’d added to her Kalikori. Kanan’s lips trembled with an unspoken promise. The first thing I’m gonna do when all of this is over is ask Hera to marry me.

Exactly how all of this was going to be over remained a labyrinth in the Force, one convoluted with twists and turns that made navigating the treacherous Boomerang seem like child’s play. Every time Kanan reached out to seek clarity, the snips and snaps of feelings and visions he tuned in only generated more questions, not answers. As for knocking on Dume’s door for guidance? Pfffft. Apparently, the Force entity considered detached silence or cryptic utterances at the most inopportune of times exceedingly helpful on the mortal plane.

Kanan inhaled deeply. Always in motion, the future is. Especially one that had a “Hondo problem” clouding up the mix. Grappling all the erratic variables in his mind felt like trying to juggle balls of sand that fell apart between one toss and the next. On top of that, a far more pleasant challenge to his powers of concentration was the dizzying spiral of emotions that Hera’s thrilling news in Thrawn’s conference room had set off. Kanan’s heart remained full as a moon knowing the rest of his Ghost family and friends still lived and the war was truly, finally over. And yet, learning of the existence of Anakin’s (Vader’s!)  Jedi son and wondering what this might portend for himself and Ezra intrigued and troubled Kanan in equal measure.

When the data transfer completed, Kanan exhaled what was supposed to have been a calming breath, not entirely sorry to cut short his reveries. Opening his eyes, he swept his sharpest, All-Knowing Master gaze across the bridge officers to deflect any probing stares while he deftly tucked the disc into his boot. Rising as majestically as the encasement of his dull uniform allowed, he then finished off his performance with a flawless swagger to join Ezra and the unsuspecting Ysalamiri.

Ignoring the suppressed mirth quivering on Ezra’s impudent mouth, Kanan proclaimed, “Not…horrible. You almost plowed us into a gas giant or three, but at least you missed the pulsar we’re using now as a smokescreen.” He waggled his hand back and forth. “You judged well on distance, but a smidge off on its spin axis. Be more careful next time or the particle beams could fry us.”

“Understood, Master.” Ezra masked his wink with a chastened nod.

The trip down to the main hanger was certainly less eventful than Kanan’s last. Rounding a final corner, Kanan noticed scuff marks the service droids hadn’t yet polished off the wall and pursed his lips. On his mad dash to Hera, he had evidently Force shoved that pair of stormtroopers a lot harder than necessary. Kanan refused to worry about it too much after his not-so-guilty conscience assured him the hapless duo had ignored his yells to move the hell out of his way.

Speaking of today’s inflamed actions, Kanan surreptitiously probed Ezra yet again for leftover hints of the Dark that had infiltrated the young Jedi’s remarkable incident with the stun rings. Since then, Kanan had sensed fleeting glimmers of the unsettling energy around Ezra during Thrawn’s meeting and on the bridge, but he couldn’t detect anything definitive within Ezra himself. Kanan allowed himself a small sigh of relief…and yet something about the Chimaera's ambiance felt off. It was almost like a faint whiff of tainted meat in the air that vanished whenever Kanan was close to pinning the source of the rotten odor down.

“If Thrawn wanted us to examine the Nihilum, why didn’t he just have the meeting down here in the first place?” griped Ezra. “Would’ve saved a lot of time.”

“Because he always holds his sabacc cards close to his chest.” Kanan kept his voice low so their escorts behind wouldn’t overhear. “Whatever Thrawn thinks we can dig up, he’s not quite ready to share it with his cronies.”

They walked swiftly to the partitioned area of the hanger bay, where Kanan and Ezra were immediately waved inside by the stormtroopers who guarded the entrance. The Ysalamiri stayed behind near the entry, keeping their distance from Thrawn’s balefully glaring sentry droids on either side.

The towering threat of the sentries shrank to nil compared to the monstrosity that filled Kanan’s view once the Jedi were fully inside the secured examination area. The Nihilum was at least the size of a Corvette-class starship, but the ominous, android-shaped vessel had been forced into a submissively hunched position to fit the cramped quarters. It was the first time Kanan had been permitted this close—and it was unnervingly easy to envision the captive enemy unfolding its weaponized limbs in a vengeful fit of rage and blasting everyone aboard into molecular mist.

For now, the inert Nihilum resembled the carcass of a greater krayt dragon awash in sunlight, its hide swarmed by scavengers intent on feasting upon the choicest morsels about to be ripped from its innards. Among the clusters of probe droids and engineers, the unmistakable forms of Hera and Thrawn stood stiffly together while the Chiss alternated his pontifications between something on his datapad and the Nihilum’s gleaming form.

Kanan’s gratitude for his restored sight returned a hundredfold as he and Ezra closed the distance to Hera. Despite the tense and hurried setting, Kanan could not help but find time to appreciate the way Hera’s Imperial boots accentuated her impossibly long legs. Not to mention how the simple black headwrap and tunic set off the vibrant green of her eyes. He kept his hands and compliments to himself when he reached Hera’s side, but Kanan did hope his open admiration would help her hate wearing the enforced outfit a little less.

The tiny smile peeking out from around the corner of Hera’s mouth silently relayed the words he never grew tired of hearing from her lips. You did good.

Thrawn greeted Kanan and Ezra with a glowering nod. “General Syndulla and I were just concluding our discussion concerning potential evasive maneuvers when the Nihilum make their next appearance.” He glanced at Hera with aloof approval. “Your piloting skills will be a significant asset.”

“Well, I did get a lot of practice outrunning you,” Hera smiled none too sweetly and planted her hand on her hip. “But helming a Star Destroyer in battle is a whole other matter.”

What? Kanan’s stomach twisted in outrage. “Since when did we all agree to this?” he challenged. Hera’s supposed to be off this damn tub, not piloting it.

Hera bit her lips as if to repress a retort while Thrawn raised a condescending eyebrow. 

“As your general’s solo feats include evading my entire fleet before jumping to hyperspace through a construction sphere, I deem it worthwhile to consider the possibility.”

“Well, deem yourself lucky,” Ezra quipped to lighten the mood, flashing Hera his sassiest grin. “You’ve finally got the best pilot in the Galaxy on your side.”

“Perhaps,” Thrawn allowed, looking down his nose at Hera. “Which is why I will allow you the resources you deem necessary to run simulations on your suggested maneuvers, the microjump tactics in particular.”

By now, Kanan’s heart was pounding out an off-kilter duet of pride and protest over this completely unacceptable development, but Hera placed a restraining hand on his shoulder.

“Kanan,” she said gently, but firmly. “Whatever we have to face, we’re going to face it together—with everything we’ve got.”

It was pointless to challenge that stubborn glint in her eye in front of Thrawn, so Kanan slowly unclenched his fists to cover her hand with his own.

”I know that if anyone can make the Nihilum chase their tails at close range, it’s you,” Kanan admitted reluctantly. “I just don’t want it to come down to that.”

“Neither do I, love,” Hera said softly. She squeezed his shoulder once more. “So, let’s make it our last resort.”

Kanan swiveled his attention to Thrawn after Hera let him go and crossed his arms over his chest. “With that in mind, what did you drag me and Ezra down here to look at?”

Thrawn’s mouth tightened and he gestured for the trio to join him in a slow walk along the Nihilum’s perimeter.

“My engineering team’s efforts to deactivate the Nihilum’s tracking beacon remain impeded by the hull’s resistance to our available scanning and diagnostic equipment.”

Kanan exchanged a knowing glance with Ezra. Thrawn wants us to use the Force to do what his team can’t. Of course, nothing was ever simple or straightforward when it came to the grand admiral, so Kanan amused himself by placing an internal bet on how long it would take the Chiss to stop beating around the bush.

Thrawn consulted his datapad notes intermittently, frowning in concentration.

“Analysis of the hull’s microscrapings has revealed a high-entropy alloy of chromium, manganese, iron, cobalt and nickel. Its damage tolerance, tensile strength, and fracture toughness values exceed virtually all other metallic alloys in our database.”

“So, we know the Nihilum can really take a hit,” Ezra muttered. “Assuming we ever get one in at all.”

“Indeed, Commander,” Thrawn nodded. “More importantly, the alloy is embedded with nanorobotic technology far beyond the Empire’s own. Not only do these nanomachines resist and repair dissection attempts, they are presumed responsible for the way in which micron-thin sheets of bismuth and a separate molybdenum alloy are fused in alternating layers throughout the dominant hull material.”

Thrawn’s stream of jargon had propelled Kanan’s mind into his dusty, long-ago science lessons at the Jedi Temple in search of something relevant.

“Well, durasteel’s full of molybdenum alloys to withstand extreme temperatures—which sure helps getting cozy with a massive star.” He jutted his chin toward the nearest cluster of engineers. “And bismuth’s almost as dense as lead, so your wrench-jockeys already know what’s blocking the scans.” His eyes narrowed in puzzlement. “The real question is…how in the hell is the Nihilum’s tracker beacon getting through all that?”

This earned Kanan a thin smile from the grand admiral, who halted the group with an imperious hand.

“If the Nihilum harness dark energy for their weapons and hyperspace propulsion, it stands to reason it could power their communication systems as well.” Thrawn stroked his chin, his eyes aglow with speculation. “Signals could be relayed through sub-hyperspace.”

“That’s a lot of maybe’s,” Hera stated, flicking back a lek from her shoulder in annoyance. “All I really want to know is that your team found an off switch for this contraption.”

Thrawn bestowed Hera with a sidelong glare. “All that our available equipment can detect from the Nihilum are isolated gamma rays,” he admitted in frigid tones, pointing at the captive’s thickly armored lower chassis. “The rays escape the core at infrequent intervals, but appear to emanate along the same closed loop”—his finger moved in a graceful circle—“which Office Swor believes is part of an inner power source that generates the tracking signal.”

Ezra snorted uneasily. “Yeah. But what happens if Swor’s team pushes any wrong buttons trying to shut it down?”

Hera’s delicate brows knit together, and she wrapped her arms tightly around her waist. “Maybe it already happened to the fools crazy enough to build these death traps.” She turned to Kanan and Ezra with an unsettled expression. “After all, that clone in the holo Thrawn showed me claimed the Nihilum were clearing the way for more of their kind, not their makers.”

“A valid theory, General Syndulla,” Thrawn interjected coolly. “But I have come to suspect otherwise.”

Kanan shared an apprehensive frown with Hera and Ezra. He had yet to hear a theory from Thrawn that he actually liked.

Thrawn gestured at the prostrate enemy before them, his hand tracing the air in the same pattern as the indecipherable swirl of filigree visible along its upper chassis.

“I have been studying similar artistic designs embedded in each of the Nihilum vessels using the available holorecordings,” Thrawn explained. “The wide variety of the markings and their placement do not signify numerical designations of battle droids. Instead, they denote a hierarchal system of individual identities, including specific rankings and surnames in the manner of organics.”

Ezra scratched the back of neck, puzzled. “But the Nihilum are…machines. Horrible machines, granted, but they’re just like droids in the Force. A big blank.” He glanced at Kanan, who nodded a confirmation.

LOOK AGAIN.

At Dume’s abrupt contribution to the discussion, Kanan blinked in startled confusion.

Meanwhile, Thrawn lifted his hand regally toward the crown-like apparatus on the Nihilum’s head. “And yet, their leader bears a symbol of royalty.”

Kanan eyed the subjugated entity before them, still feeling the goosebumps Dume’s words had left in his mind. Droids were built to serve their makers…but a claim to royalty was not out of the question for cyborgs like Count Vidian. He flicked his gaze to Hera, and by the way she bit her lip, noxious memories of Vidian’s psychotic attempts to destroy the crystalline moon of Cynda had sprung to her mind as well. A single cyborg like Vidian or General Grievous gone Loth-bat crazy was bad enough, let alone a horde of them.

“But it makes no sense for them to have some kind of king or queen.” Ezra crossed his arms skeptically. “I mean, if they only swarmed like mindless hives of vulture droids, maybe. But they sure didn’t need this guy”—he cocked his thumb at the Nihilum—“to take out the entire pirate armada.”

“Their obvious independence is a conundrum, Commander Bridger,” Thrawn agreed, folding his arms behind his back. “Especially as the extreme measures the Nihilum have taken to reclaim their ruler thus far imply a zealous loyalty.”

Thrawn’s simmering orbs settled heavily on Kanan. “Such devotion could be part of their programming…but I will not discount its potential to stem from an innate, emotional bond between the Nihilum. Either way, I intend to exploit this attachment as a weakness.”

Kanan raised a warning eyebrow at Thrawn’s not-so-veiled parallel threat. “Well, don’t forget one tiny rust bucket extremely loyal to Hera managed to destroy an Interdictor and two Imperial cruisers. Not to mention recruit an Imperial droid who landed us a Rebel base you couldn’t pin down for an embarrassingly long time.”

Ezra moved closer to diffuse the glaring match between Kanan and Thrawn with a disarming smile. “Yeah, it’s too bad Chopper or ApeeFive aren’t here or they could just reprogram this king to go self-destruct in the middle of his faithful followers. It sure worked great on that infiltrator droid on Atollon.”

Ooops.

The muscle along the grand admiral’s jaw pulsed while he lifted his frigid gaze to a team of engineers and droids atop the Nihilum. The nervous workers instantly stepped up the pace of relocating their diagnostic equipment.

“That actually addresses a dangerous possibility concerning the tracking beacon,” Thrawn purred coldly.

“Really?” Hera asked with her fists on her hips. “Isn’t it bad enough it’s a giant arrow pointing out exactly where we are?”

“I regret to alarm you, General,” Thrawn stated without a trace of apology, “But the tracker that allows our enemy to retarget our location may serve as far more than a homing beacon. If its signal does travel via sub-hyperspace, it greatly enhances the Nihilum’s ability to remain in communication no matter how vast the distance that separates them.”

Kanan’s blood ran cold. “They’d stay connected like a grid.”

“Yes, Master Jedi.” Thrawn’s eyes glowed like hot embers. “And if each Nihilum possesses a self-destruct device similar to ones used by infiltrator and assassin droids in the event of capture, its detonation could be initiated by a cohort in the Nihilum horde if the captive is incapable of doing so.”

“Karabast,” breathed Ezra. “Like when Hera blasted that surveillance ship using their own signal after they sabotaged Chopper.”

Hera’s green skin paled, and she stared up at the statue-still Nihilum. “I’m about ready to agree with Tiovata about spacing this thing here and now,” she joked weakly.

“If only it was an option,” growled Kanan, rubbing a hand across his stubble of hair. “But we have to keep them busy hunting us until we find a way to shut them down.”

“If only Sabine was here,” sighed Ezra longingly. “She built the Duchess—I bet she could figure out a way to use this king’s weapons against his horde.”

Seeing the calculated shift in Thrawn’s expression, Kanan suppressed a sardonic smile, ready to collect the winnings from his earlier bet. Here it comes, right on cue.

“As Sabine Wren is elsewhere,” Thrawn intoned, clenching his fist, “It is imperative that you Jedi engage your Force abilities to determine how to safely operate the tracking device on this war machine…if a war machine is truly what exists beneath the hull.”

Kanan exchanged a round of glances with Hera and Ezra, then relayed the trio’s unspoken agreement to Thrawn with a curt nod. “Fine. We’re in.”

Thrawn silently escorted all of them toward the Nihilum to allow Kanan and Ezra to stand close enough to touch the nearest swirls of artwork that adorned the Nihilum’s upper chassis.

“We’ll do our best on the beacon, Thrawn. As for anything else…” Ezra shrugged and lifted a dark brow.

Thrawn’s eyes flared an unrelenting scarlet. “It has been my experience that properly concentrated efforts yield different results.”

Normally, Kanan would have rolled his eyes, but he was too distracted by the way Dume’s energy increasingly rippled through his cells.

Ezra touched the hull and huffed out a breath. “You ready, Kanan?”

Kanan nodded vaguely and slowly placed his hand alongside Ezra’s on the cold metal of the Nihilum. Closing his eyes, he reached out in the Force—and almost immediately hit a featureless wall.

LOOK CLOSER.

Kanan knit his brows in confusion. Closer at what?   All he could sense was Ezra’s own frustration with the same wall, but also a refusal to give up so soon.

CLOSER!!

Kanan ground his teeth. And yet there was an edge to Dume’s insistence that reminded him of Bendu’s relentless push back on Atollon to unveil the surrounding krykna despite the murk of Kanan’s blindness. “Your connection to the Force allows you to see in ways that others cannot.”

The giant spiders had existed as elusive shadows in Kanan’s mind until he finally acknowledged and released the inner blockages he’d created from his own pain, isolation, and grief since Malachor. Only then had Kanan’s vision through the Force sharpened so he could finally see himself alongside the creatures and their own true nature.

EMPTY YOURSELF.

Taking a breath at that familiar phrase, Kanan let go of anything he expected, hoped, or feared to find within the Nihilum. And all at once, he floated weightlessly in the Force in the same way his formless, shapeless consciousness had done on Lothal while watching over Hera and the rest of his beloved Ghost family.

Kanan’s essence drifted, feeling the hull as a vague, distant pressure beneath the hand of his inert body. The metal grew impossibly large while Kanan’s consciousness shrank to infinitesimal smallness and sank into the material’s tightly structured depths. He hesitated for a moment, entrapped by the atomic labyrinth, then a path lit up in the form of energy bridges, bonds, and conduits…it was as if the very molecules welcomed Kanan into their dance of electrons by creating a twisting and turning passage to reach his destination.

Everywhere and nowhere Kanan sensed an ethereal pulsing at a frequency inaudible to his physical ears. Its celestial energy was far too intense to touch directly even within the Force. The siren song was reminiscent of the pulsar that currently cloaked the Chimaera, rotating at mind numbing speeds to sweep this sector of space with its twin spindles of deadly particles.

This could be nothing other than the tracker’s signal; Kanan cautiously followed the pulse along a safe, parallel pathway, diving ever deeper into the Nihilum’s core. Feeling like a ghostly, subatomic particle, Kanan passed through the inner workings of an alien vessel so advanced it would take an army of master engineers several years—maybe decades—to fully unravel its delicate complexity.

Like the minds of younglings trying to grasp the sacred Jedi texts.

The further Kanan propelled his weightlessness toward the source of the pulse, the more he felt a new sensation tug at his awareness. Cold. The frigid chill emanated just ahead of him, muffled by a thick structure composed out of an alloy of rigid molecules entirely different from the hull.

Kanan returned his focus to the ethereal tracking signal only to realize its pulse looped around this new structure like a flow of viscous blood pumped by an arrhythmic heart. Kanan probed gingerly, but his efforts failed to pinpoint a specific source of the pulse anywhere along the circular current. Any device responsible for the beacon must have been inextricably entwined with the alien mechanisms that generated the cold beyond the barrier.

With a mental sigh, Kanan warily pushed himself inside the structure—and cringed as if he’d been shunted out of an airlock. Somehow, the cold bit into his consciousness almost as ruthlessly as the vacuum of space, and he knew all too well he’d have been frozen down to his bones had his body accompanied him along this bizarre journey.

Calming himself through his connection with the Force, Kanan forced his awareness to explore his confines and realized he was encased within what disturbingly resembled a casket. His far away face grimaced with comprehension and he felt his stiff lips whisper, “Cryo chamber...”

In the outer world, Ezra said something that lilted into a question, but Kanan’s mind was far too occupied to process it.

Something… someone …lay in icy slumber at the center of the cryogenic chamber.

Kanan hung like a sustained note in the melody of the Force, transfixed by the molecular haze of the organic entity beneath him and its myriad of connections to the maze of cybernetic components embedded throughout the vessel. Like tentative fingers, Kanan’s senses stretched toward the mysteriously preserved occupant—and struck an atonal energy that reverberated painfully out of tune with the Force.

Startled, Kanan spun in on himself to disconnect. The last time he’d felt anything remotely like this discord was back in the Spire on Stygeon Prime during the attempted rescue of Luminara Unduli. That horrible moment he’d discovered the venerable Master was not a living prisoner, but a desecrated husk flaunted by the Empire to lure remaining Jedi to their deaths.

DIVERGENCE!

Dume’s proclamation abruptly spiraled Kanan toward more recent layers of his memory banks and he found his puzzled mind grasping at a conversation between Ezra and Braruz. At the time, Kanan had barely registered their words as his consciousness straddled meditation and sleep, but now he fished Braruz’s voice up from the depths. “Perhaps in other galaxies, the way that life and the Force’s energy evolved did not result in our type of interaction.”

CONNECT!

Dume’s energy pummeled Kanan with vehement affirmation, and he screamed voicelessly as he was sucked into a maelstrom of visions—flashes and fragments of the Nihilum’s past that the Force channeled to Dume, but which Kanan’s own beleaguered mind could barely ingest.

Within the torrent of information, Kanan seized upon on the invaders’ sentient-like rage, an insatiable wrath over a betrayal yet to be fully avenged, while the voice of the grief-stricken, deserter clone reverberated in his head like a mourning bell. “She said they seemed to despise the living for being part of the Force. It’s something they have no ability to understand or connect with—so they destroy what they can’t have.”  

And then Kanan understood the full truth that the clone’s wife had only partially grasped: The frozen, disharmonious being who slumbered beneath him could never waken and walk freely in Kanan’s Galaxy…because its lifeforce was attuned to the Force energy native to its own.

The Nihilum were lured here with the promise of a resurrection that can never come. A promise that had the Emperor’s fingerprints all over it.

In that same moment of clarity, the reptilian part of Kanan’s brain recoiled violently from the Nihilum’s Otherness. His primitive instincts lashed out blindly to crush the atrocity and its vile, heartbeat signal with the Force—

DOOM!

Kanan snapped to his senses, a horrific vision of the Chimaera’s vaporized remains seared into every level of his awareness by Dume’s outcry. He felt his body thud against the hull of what he now knew was far more than an extragalactic war machine…and then his mind slid into blackness.

 

Ahsoka / Seoul

Ahsoka stared at the ragged smoke drifting from the scattered bodies and ruins of the surrounding monastery, her feet rooted into the scorched dirt. She leaned heavily on her staff, hoping it would keep her from falling into the seemingly endless layers of horrific memories in her mind.

Was she even on Seoul, or standing in bone-weary grief amidst the wreckage of a Venator -class Star Destroyer on an obscure moon? Was her body and soul aching at the loss of each clone she and Rex buried, men who had loyally painted her colors on helmets that now adorned their nameless graves? Or were the gritty ashes stinging her eyes all that remained of ancient, cataclysmic battles between Jedi and Sith on Takodana and Malachor? More and more images of needless pain, suffering, and death looped backward in time as if to carry Ahsoka to the origins of time itself, while despair threatened to seep into her heart like poison into a well.

She gripped her forehead, willing away the throbbing headache that fought to nest inside. As the gruesome slaughter reclaimed its place in Ahsoka’s present, it became even clearer to her in the Force that the Nihilum had seared the unfortunate monks into husks without any warning as they tended the now decimated flocks and fields. Ahsoka wasn’t familiar with the monks’ order or even their species, but the tusked humanoids appeared to be one of the many religious groups who had fled the Empire years ago to eke out an existence on the thin soils of similar, desolate worlds in Wild Space, hoping to be left alone with their spiritual beliefs as long as they possessed nothing of tangible value to be stolen.

Ahsoka rubbed acrid dust from her frowning lips. The sad truth was that even without the Nihilum’s attack, the monks’ tiny refuge had been doomed from the moment the pirate queen, Eleodie Maracavanya, rooted out a swift, reliable path to this remote sector. As the only habitable planet in proximity to the asteroid field, Seoul’s new destiny was to become an anchor point for the hyperlane that made access to the field’s resources economically worthwhile. She clenched her jaw, rescanning the compound for any signs of life. I doubt the New Republic could—or would—have kept the monks from being swept aside by greedy outsiders.

For now, the only visible technology beyond the slagged remains of an almost antique shuttle was the molten transmitter. Ahsoka felt anger stir in her gut. The Nihilum’s likely goal had been to thwart the Chimaera, but they could have destroyed this tenuous link to the Galaxy without taking the monks’ lives. Not that she excused the utter annihilation of Maracavanya’s armada…but at least the pirates had been heavily armed. An actual threat. No doubt Seoul was only the latest bloodshed in a long trail leading back to the Intergalactic Void. Ahsoka’s stomach roiled and she clenched her fists, determined to prevent countless other lives from sharing this same fate.

Up ahead, Sabine’s bright armor flashed through the haze, the beskar gleaming fitfully whenever it caught the dim red rays of the planet’s dwarf sun. The Mandalorian cut the flames of her jetpack to land near Rex and Wolffe, who were also surveying the settlement for any survivors. The three shook their heads grimly at each other, exchanging terse reports Ahsoka didn’t need to hear to know the fruitless outcome. She glanced over at the nearby Gregor , where the droids kept the freighter ready for a fast getaway in case the Nihilum or any other threats raised their ugly heads.

Ahsoka heaved a sigh all the way to the bottom of her boots. Just when all of them had been savoring the excitement and joy of PZ-5’s recordings and details concerning Ezra’s rescue of Kanan from the Ja’Ghar Water Temple, they’d been slammed with this brutal reminder of what they--and their missing friends--were  up against.

Why did Darth Sidious lower the Galaxy’s defenses to let in such a virulent intruder if his intentions were to rule unchallenged and supreme? Had he foreseen his demise at the hands of a redeemed Darth Vader and hidden the Nihilum up his sleeve as a final trump card to outplay Luke Skywalker and the New Republic? Did this invasion serve a dual purpose to punish his Imperial subjects for their failure as well? Worse yet, were the Nihilum just a fragment within some greater, twisted vendetta the Sith Lord had devised to somehow ensure that he and his Dark reign of oppression dominated the Galaxy’s future until time was no more?

Ahsoka shook her head so sharply it made her lekku sway. Enough. She could almost hear Obi-Wan chiding her to find her center within the chaos of her thoughts. She obeyed, focusing on her hope to get answers to at least some of her questions by reconnecting with Ezra and Kanan, and exchanging their knowledge.

At the thought of the two resilient Jedi, she reached into the Force once again, relieved to sense nothing that fanned her suppressed fears the Chimaera drifted silently like an unfindable gravestone in space. If only the Gregor’s hull and shielding were up to the challenge of following the Star Destroyer’s vector directly through a nebula as dangerous as the Boomerang, but they would be able to flank the path and reach the coordinates PZ-5 had helped plug into the old freighter’s navicomputer. Just as soon as this dismal mission is complete.

Montrals held high with resolve, Ahsoka strode forward through the straggling smoke to rejoin the others…only to feel as if her staff dragged her back with each step. She pressed her lips together in trepidation and annoyance. What stone did I possibly leave unturned?

The guttering breeze shifted, and she could almost hear Bendu’s voice whispering in her ear. “It only makes its appearance during times of boundless creation…or as a desperate measure against vast destruction.”

Ahsoka stopped and shifted her grip on the staff to assess it carefully. Her thoughts cycled to a recurrent concern that always walked hand in hand with Bendu’s words. Was he implying this gift from the Daughter and the Architects always obliterates both sides if it is activated during a time of destruction? Had she been sent the vision of the ancient Jedi igniting Vade’mecum to destroy the Sith to prepare for a similar sacrifice that must be made in the future?

Ahsoka bit her lip so hard it almost bled. She had no qualms about giving her own life to protect the Galaxy, but Bendu and all the other Force entities were gravely mistaken if they expected her to drag her friends aboard the Gregor and Chimaera into paying that ultimate price alongside her. They’ve all been through too much. They deserve so much better.

Red sunlight glimmered on the circle tip of her staff, and with it a matching flicker of hope lit up inside Ahsoka’s chest. Vade’mecum. It was not entirely impossible that Bendu had only shared that particular name as a failsafe measure, one to eradicate the Nihilum in the event Ahsoka proved unable to unlock a new one that could temper and safely channel the staff’s indiscriminate power. 

Regardless of all the uncertainties, there was one firm goal permanently implanted within Ahsoka’s core. No matter the cost to herself, she would find a way to foil Darth Sidious’s sickening, posthumous plans--plus rescue Ezra, Kanan, and Hera in the process. Never again would her love and loyalty to friends be used against her in the way the Sith Lord had stolen Anakin right from under her nose while he twisted the Jedi into his unknowing puppets of a war that crowned him Emperor.

Once the last of his Sith stain is finally wiped from our Galaxy, may the Force help us all to recognize our opportunity to finally evolve beyond constant bloodshed and tyranny. Ahsoka had no delusions that paradise would have time to fully blossom within her lifetime, but she did hope to die feeling the road to peaceful co-existence was at least a few centuries shorter. 

 

Kanan – Chimaera / Enroute to the Un’rhah system

“Kanan?” Ezra’s voice asked urgently. “Can you hear me?”

Kanan felt the young Jedi support his weight as he staggered back into awareness. His dizziness increased with a last-ditch effort to extract yet more information from the Nihilum, but his consciousness had already retreated from the twist and turn of molecular pathways to rejoin the world outside.

“Kanan?” A gloved hand cupped his cheek tenderly and the softest of lips brushed his ear. “Come back to me, love.”

Kanan sucked in air and fluttered his eyes open to find Hera looking back at him with intense concern. Relief flooded both her and Ezra’s faces when Kanan smiled weakly.

“How…how long was I in there?” he rasped. And why did every cell in his body feel like tiny sponges that had been wrung dry?

“Over twenty minutes,” Ezra answered. He downcast his eyes in frustration and apology. “I tried, Kanan, but it just felt…” He slapped his free hand against the nearby hull. “Dormant, for lack of a better word.”

“Hah.” Kanan pressed closer to Ezra in a feeble attempt at a side hug. “I feel pretty dormant myself.” Feeling the heat of Thrawn’s scrutinizing gaze, Kanan turned his face toward the Chiss. “From now on, we’ll stick to jumping around gravity wells and supernovas,” he ground out.

Hera took the beverage flask from a service droid she’d waved over and glowered at Thrawn. “They won’t be doing anything until they get food and rest.”

“Agreed…but after a debriefing in my office, General,” Thrawn deterred, calmly watching Kanan gulp cold water to slake his raging thirst. “It is imperative we clarify your Jedi’s findings as quickly as possible.”

“He can barely stand.” Hera dug in her heels with a fierce frown.

Kanan eased out of Ezra’s grip without too much obvious swaying. “Thrawn’s right, Hera.” Oh, she’s really going to hate just how right he is.

“Kanan…” Hera gave him The Eyebrow of All Eyebrows.

He raised a hand to ward off her protest, flicking a meaningful glance at their furtive audience of droids and engineers. “Let’s just go get this over with while it’s clear in my head.”

Hera got the hint, but it did nothing to stop the tips of her lekku curling with annoyance. “Fine.”

Oh, I’ll pay for this laterand enjoy making it up to her. Right now, Kanan concentrated on setting one foot in front of the other, trying not to groan audibly over how far away Thrawn’s damn office was.

It was a huge relief Hera wasn’t too ticked off to stay hovering by his side while Thrawn led to the way to the bridge tower. In fact, an unexpected giddiness joined Kanan’s dizziness; he had to stifle a laugh when a jewel-like bubble of sapphire Chiss and emerald Twi’lek hues suddenly engulfed the entire entourage. Kriff! My senses must still be recalibrating after my atom-sized adventures.

Kanan finally quashed both the iridescent bubble and the sensation of floating down the grey corridors by mercilessly digging his fingers into the knotted muscles along the back of his neck. As for his head, it still felt like snips and snaps from Dume’s onslaught of Force visions were whirling around in search of a batch of brain cells coherent enough to land on.

Kanan breathed easier once the posse of overly armed escorts were left behind Thrawn’s office door to outdo each other keeping watch, but he wasn’t exactly thrilled to find Lieutenant Braruz and her datapad waiting for them inside. It’s lab rat time again. Not to mention, his distaste for debriefings wasn’t going anywhere no matter whose side he was fighting on.

The Devaronian stood by the end of the grand admiral’s desk closest to the wall fragment featuring Sabine’s Starbird. Once again, the bold painting reminded Kanan of how much he missed its brilliant, sassy creator. He glanced at Hera and found her eyeing the artwork with the same fond expression that was warming up his own face.

A service droid finished depositing a tray filled with food and beverage containers near the science officer, and Thrawn waved the others forward. “Please. Fortify yourselves and be seated.” He took nothing for himself before moving to stand by his chair.

Kanan’s stomach twisted queasily, unsure if it was hungry or repulsed. Of course, Hera noticed something was wrong and squeezed his arm.

“You look pale. Sit. I’ll make up a plate for you.”

“You always know what I need.” Kanan managed a grateful wink with just enough of a naughty tinge to take the edge off her worry. He sat heavily in a chair at the other end of the desk, angling himself sideways to stretch his legs. But before he could even begin to feel remotely comfortable, his gaze felt dragged to a sculpture beyond Thrawn’s shoulder where a pair of four-eyed lizards seemed to stare down into his soul. Ysalamiri. There was no escaping them.

Hera quickly brought two plates to the desk to join Kanan, but Ezra frowned over a bowl of dried, golden fruit on the tray for a long beat before taking some. He noticed Braruz sitting off to the side with only the datapad on her lap and offered one of the tidbits to the science officer.

“Thank you, Commander, but I already had my meal,” Braruz refused with stiff politeness.

Ezra shrugged and shot her a wry grin. “I’m starting to think Thrawn winds you up with a key in your back every cycle.”

She quirked a cool eyebrow at him while he popped the fruit in his mouth. “That would be more efficient.” She turned toward Thrawn, fingers posed on the keys.

Thrawn pointedly waited for the smirking Jedi to sit, his lips pressed into a slit.

“I will begin with a reminder that the pulsar is a strategic blessing and a curse concerning the safety of our current position.” He took his seat and folded his hands together regally on the polished desktop. “As the astronavigation team is unable to maintain adequate observations of the hypergiant in the Varada sector, the Jedi must be prepared to navigate to the Un’rah system within three hours.”

Feeling Hera’s outrage ramp up like a gorgara about to launch at the grand admiral, Kanan quickly stole a piece of soft flat bread from her plate as a distraction.

“Then allow me to make this debriefing live up to the middle part of its name.”

Thrawn’s eyes narrowed into scarlet crescents. “Proceed.”

Kanan rolled the bread into a cylinder and held it up as if it were a miniature replica of the Nihilum vessel from its legs-like stern to cranial bow.

“One: The Nihilum aren’t typical battle droids or even cyborgs.” He pointed at the layers visible inside the end of the cylinder. “From what I could see, the whole ship serves not only as a life source”—he partially tore the middle section of the cylinder apart—"but as a cybernetic avatar for the real Nihilum frozen inside a cryogenic chamber.” He pointed at the cavity he’d created in the bread.

For a moment, all was silent except for the tapping of Braruz’s keys. Hera and Ezra shared a glance, then rejoined Thrawn in staring in fascination at the bread wrap.

Kanan presented it at various angles, wishing he had a less ridiculous model. “I think each alien’s organic mind was somehow linked or at least copied into the cybernetic processing unit before the freezing process to make its AI function like the original personality in stasis.”

Now his finger traced imperfections in the outer layer’s crust. “Which would explain all the fancy curlicues for names, rankings, royalty, whatever.”

“Understood,” Thrawn almost purred. His mouth curved in not-so-subtle triumph and Hera shifted her gaze toward Sabine’s Starbird to ignore him.

“Two,” Kanan rattled onward as more fragments from Dume’s visions snapped into place in his mind. “The Nihilum are really—and I mean really—ticked off. With all their advanced technology, they apparently didn’t figure out their Force energy is like a fish out of water in our Galaxy until they got here.”

Braruz’s tapping abruptly ceased and she inhaled sharply. Kanan gave her a brisk nod of affirmation.

“Your theory about the Force evolving differently in other galaxies seems to be true—at least for the one home to the Nihilum.”

The Devaronian stared at him, clearly surprised he’d actually heard her words back on the Lambda. Kanan bestowed her with his best cryptic Master Jedi smile, then addressed the others.

“The bottom line is the Nihilum came here expecting to conquer, but once their cyber-selves realized the organic bodies would die if woken up, they started taking revenge on the people of our Galaxy.”

Hera clenched both fists on the desk, her plate of food long forgotten. “Why don’t they just go back where they came from instead of attacking us out of spite?”

Kanan shared an intense look with Ezra, projecting a memory of the putrid remnants he’d sensed in the Force after trying to determine whether or not the Emperor was actually dead: He’s gone. But he left the door wide open for something meaner and uglier—on purpose. Based on the disturbing visions Dume had blasted into his brain since then, it was proof the Sith Lord had invited the Nihilum (and gods knew what else) through the gaps he’d ruptured within the Galaxy’s protective web. As to why Palpatine had done such madness, it remained unclear.

Seeing shadows form in Ezra’s eyes, Kanan felt his gut clench at the prospect of sharing any of this knowledge with Thrawn. Alliance or no, the grand admiral was all too capable of concocting treacherous plans, especially ones justified by knowledge his Emperor condoned the Nihilum’s presence. It was already clear as transparisteel Thrawn would extract every speck of data and technology possible from the captive ruler to lay at the feet of the Chiss…or the Imps in hiding. Maybe even both.

I’ll fill in Ezra and Hera on the real deal later. As for Big Blue…we’ll just wait and see.

“I’m not sure, Hera,” Kanan sighed. “Maybe they can’t return because the Force is too unbalanced in their own galaxy and it’s dying.”

Ezra shook his head, the lines of his face rigid with determination. “Well, we can’t let them stay here and kill ours, too.”

Hera nodded sharply at him, then gripped Kanan’s forearm. “Did you find a way to control the tracking beacon?”

Kanan winced to suppress a horrible, vivid image and felt the tremor of stress in Hera’s fingertips increase. “That’s number three.”

He addressed Thrawn’s narrowed eyes. “The tracker’s interwoven with the life support systems. And it’s triggered, so if anyone tries to hack it”—he ripped apart his bread roll and dropped it on his dish—"let’s just say we’ll spend eternity together as a debris cloud.”

The tapping of Braruz’s keys stopped abruptly.

Ezra blew out a huff of frustrated air in the silence. “Nothing’s ever simple.”

Hera exchanged a bleak glance with Kanan, her lekku sagging. “Nothing that’s worth doing, it seems.”

In contrast, Thrawn steepled his hands under his chin in thoughtful deliberation. “And yet, a simple-minded creature managed to deactivate the Nihilum’s other systems entirely without it self-destructing.”

Kanan scowled back at the implied insult. “If you’re referring to a purrgil whose Force-sensitive species conquered hyperspace eons ago without a lick of technology…why, yes, I suppose she did.”

Ezra suddenly lit up and his hand slapped the desktop. “Dormant. The mother somehow shut down the rest of the Nihilum within the Force.” He swiveled to Thrawn. “Like how we all woke up on the Chimaera in low atmosphere on that first planet.”

Kanan recalled a moment far more recent to his time-warped self than to the others. “The Loth-wolves did the same when they transported us to the cave.”

“And when we rode the wolves to the Templewe blacked out at some point when they moved us through Lothal.” Hera’s eyes looked beyond Kanan, filled with memories that etched her face in pain.

I was there Hera, by your side. If only Kanan could say the words aloud, tell her how many attempts he’d made to comfort her. But there was Thrawn and Braruz tapping away even more swiftly on her datapad.

Kanan crossed his arms and muttered, “Well, however the creatures travel in hyperspace must overwhelm our minds. We go blank to avoid going crazy.”

“Considering how each relocation experience has concluded with the regaining of consciousness, we must bear in mind a similar outcome is possible with the captive Nihilum,” Thrawn stated ominously, “particularly if its bioluminescent components power the cybernetics to at least some degree.”

The trio eyed each other tensely while Kanan’s stomach curdled at a vision of an angry, sleeping giant waking up in the hanger.

“Which hardly improves our current situation,” Thrawn continued relentlessly, “unless the Jedi can use their Force powers to emulate the creatures’ suppressive abilities.” His eyebrows rose into a query.

Kanan glared at Thrawn in disbelief. “Uh, that would be a no. We can’t pop ourselvesor anything elseinto the purrgil’s hyperspace zone.”

Thrawn leaned forward, his face as rigid as his posture. “The only other weakness our enemy appears to possess is a need to rejuvenate their energy stores after major combat.” He tapped his long fingers on the desktop. “A need easily fulfilled because the opposition has been eradicated.”

Hera stroked her chin, brows furrowed. “Maybe if we could trap the Nihilum right after they’re depleted, before they can suck up more energy from a hypergiant, the purrgil might have a better shot at shutting them down.”

Ezra’s expression darkened. “Hera, almost every purrgil in the flock gave their lives to zap just one Nihilum.”

Hera caught Kanan’s eye. He sighed, reluctantly addressing Ezra’s scowl to state the obvious. “We’d need a new army of your friends.”

Ezra crossed his arms and shook his head. “I can’t control them like that. It’s just like the Loth-wolves. They do what they do only when it’s somehow mutually beneficial for them.” He leaned in to smack his fist on the desk. “And even if I could make the purrgil follow orders, the Nihilum have to drain their weapons by killing a planet full of people before we can attack.” His shoulders drooped.

Hera eyed Thrawn sidelong. “What about your Chiss allies? Do they have enough firepower to go up against the Nihilum? Provided they answer your call at all, of course.”

The grand admiral stared down his nose at her. “I know my own people, General,” he retorted coldly, “as well as all of the major regimes in the Unknown Regions. Alliances would have to be struck to amass sufficient forces and weaponry for any hope of a successful assault on the Nihilum.”

Hera groaned. “Politics.”

“Indeed,” Thrawn agreed with a mirthless smile. “A lengthy process the Chimaera is highly unlikely to survive before the negotiations are complete.”

“Wonderful,” Kanan muttered. If only this was all an overly detailed nightmare and he’d wake up in Hera’s bunk on the Ghost with his arms wrapped snugly around the woman beside him.

“However,” Thrawn added acerbically, “the Ascendancy can be a source of tactical support while we divert the Nihilum’s presence away from populated areas until the means to their defeat is secured.”

Kanan straightened up in his chair and reeled in his protesting legs. “Well, you won’t be chatting with any of your Chiss buddies unless Ezra and I rejuvenate our own energies.”

At the obvious dismissal, Thrawn rose to his feet and bid the others to stand. “Of course, Master Jedi,” he purred.

“Kanan,” Kanan gritted through his teeth. The grand admiral acknowledged his correction with the barest of nods. Why do I even bother?

He gave Sabine’s Starbird a farewell glance before their trio stepped away to rejoin the awaiting Ysalamiri. In the process, he noticed Braruz and Thrawn’s almost expressionless faces could barely mask their impatience to be left alone to analyze the briefing’s scintillating minutia ad nauseum. Kanan repressed a snort. The Master of Manipulation and his trusty Sidekick of Scheming. The only thing Kanan wanted to deeply contemplate right now was his pillow.

The trio elected to walk most of the way from Thrawn’s lair with only the marching feet of the troopers to disrupt their companionable silence until they reached the corridor leading to their quarters.

“Are you sure you’re okay?” Hera asked him softly “You didn’t eat a thing.”

Kanan tentatively touched his abdomen. “I think part of my stomach is still stuck somewhere in the Nihilum.” He gave Hera a sideways smile. “I’ll grab something later.”

“No need, love. Here.” She pulled something wrapped in a cloth napkin out of her jodhpur pants pocket. Dried fruit and cheese wrapped in a slice of flat bread.

Kanan took the offering gratefully and tucked it away to savor when the food might stay down his gullet. His face and voice turned serious. “How are you holding up?”

Hera’s return smile trembled with repressed emotions. “Honestly? This has been the absolute craziest day of my life.” She linked elbows with both Jedi. “But I’d do the parts with you two again in a heartbeat.”

Ezra turned to her, his eyes sparkling over a roguish grin. “Same here, Hera.” As they approached a section of identical looking doorways, he slowed and rubbed the back of his head. “Well, ah, guess I’m the first stop.”

The group halted, and Hera pulled Ezra into a warm hug. His happy expression shifted to contemplation, and after a beat of hesitation, he whispered something into Hera’s earcone. Her lekku abruptly stiffened and she pulled slightly back to stare at Ezra’s chagrined face.

Kanan’ stomach sank in realization. I can’t believe I almost forgot the “Hondo problem.”

With a grin that looked more awkward than reassuring, Ezra renewed the hug to murmur a few more words against the black wrapping over Hera’s earcone. She patted his back with a bit more force than necessary, then released Ezra with a rigid smile.

“Sabine misses you, too, Ezra, and I promise to fill you in on how she’s doing as soon as I can,” Hera said, then her face softened. “But rest well knowing she and Ahsoka are out there right now looking for you.”

Ezra’s hands squeezed Hera’s shoulders, his face turning serious. “I knew I could count on them.” He finally let go and snapped a two fingered salute at his general, then Kanan. “We’ll catch up soon.” He punctuated his code phrase with a sassy wink.

Kanan managed to roll his eyes in answer before Ezra entered his quarters, then felt a surge of relief when the Ysalamiri stationed himself outside the door. I’m surprised Thrawn didn’t order these nerf herders to follow us into our ‘freshers.

Hera and Kanan walked only a little further before she gestured at the upcoming door with a flap of her hand. “And that’s me.”

Sure enough, Thrawn had quartered Hera only two doors across from Kanan’s room. Anger and annoyance bubbled in his veins but when he gazed down into Hera’s uplifted face, all of that washed away in a wave of gratitude and joy. My beloved is here. I can live with all the rest.  

Except, that wasn’t entirely true, was it? And with that admission came a cascade of pent-up questions and anxieties over the one mystery Kanan could no longer bear to remain unsolved.

Our child. What happened with our child?

Hera’s grip on his arm squeezed painfully tight and Kanan obediently tilted his head until her lips almost caressed his ear.

“Hondo’s planning an escape,” she whispered. “And accepting bribes to be included.”

Kriff! Kanan stifled a groan and shared a long-suffering glance with Hera.

She leaned in again to add furtively, “Ezra claims Sabine would love the way he’s extracting intel, and he’ll update soon.”

“That loopy Weequay’s going to get himself killed,” Kanan murmured against her cheek, pulling her into an embrace. 

Or…maybe not? Maybe there was a way to get Hera and Ezra off the Chimaera without the almighty Thrawn’s say so after all. Granted, any plan involving Hondo was koja nut crazy, but the slippery pirate and his erratic antics just might spin the grand admiral’s head around long enough for a quick escape to succeed. We’ll see what Ezra digs up first.

For now, the image of Hera vanishing into the stars on the Last Chance plunged Kanan’s heart into a tug of war between joy and pain. He wanted her safe…but he wanted her near. More than anything, he wanted to send Hera home to wrap her arms around their youngling and tell them how much their father loved them…but was there a child awaiting Hera’s return?

Between Thrawn’s constant interference and the Nihilum, what if this moment was Kanan’s last chance to find out? He dragged his focus to the Ysalamiri and reached out with the Force. Sensing the grand admiral had—no surprise—chosen troopers with sturdier brains than most, Kanan frowned. This dutiful duo would likely resist a full-force Jedi mind trick, but he could push them towards an action they’d prefer to do anyway.

“Excuse me,” Kanan called out, Hera still wrapped in his arms, “but I’m going to kiss General Syndulla now.” He moved one hand in a slight wave. “You really don’t want to watch this.”

The Ysalamiri shared blank visored glances for a beat, then intoned. “We really don’t want to watch this.” They backed up several feet and faced away.

Hera tilted back from Kanan to reveal a rather wicked smile spread across her face. She tapped his forehead teasingly. “And here I thought you were plotting about Hondo.”

Kanan attempted to grin back saucily, but his mouth suddenly rebelled. Hera’s eyes widened in concern as his trembling hands cupped her cheeks.

”Kanan? What’s wrong?”

“Nothing’s wrong, Hera,” he whispered hoarsely. “I just…love you so much.”

Her lips parted, and she wrapped her arms wrapped around his neck. “I love you too,” she breathed, pulling him even closer. “And I…I should have told you years ago.” Her voice broke on the last words.

Kanan shook his head gently, but adamantly. There was no need for apology or forgiveness. “You did, Hera, in so many other ways.”

He pressed his lips against hers, slowly sinking into their supple fullness. Just before the growing fire in his body overtook his senses, he pulled away. Hera stared up at him breathlessly, confused by his abrupt retreat. He ran a thumb along her lower lip, feeling a lump welling up in his throat.

“But there is something you haven’t told me, Hera,” he said tenderly. “Something I sensed at the fire.”

She inhaled sharply in realization. For a long moment, Kanan watched a battle raging in the depths of her eyes. She wants to tell me. She fears what might happen if she does. He did his best to smile reassuringly and probably failed miserably.

Please.” He almost cringed at his pleading tone, but Jedi training was hardly a match for a man desperate to know if he had, indeed, fathered a child.

Finally, her slim hand rose and traced the skin where the lightsaber scars from Maul had crossed his face. 

“Kanan,” she whispered raggedly, “do you remember what Maul did to me that time he came searching for your holocron?”

He stared back, puzzled. While he and Ezra were away, Maul had captured the Ghost and forced Hera to walk the former Sith through the ship to find Kanan’s precious gift from Master Billaba, the only relic of his Jedi heritage left to him other than his lightsaber. He remembered comforting Hera after the horrible episode was over; she’d been a wreck, feeling helpless and violated by Maul’s ruthless probe into her mind to steal her thoughts and everything else that didn’t belong to him.

“Can you do that?” Hera asked in a wary, yet determined, voice.

Kanan’s mouth dropped open. She wants me to probe her mind to keep the answer from prying ears. It was a power called on by Sith, not Jedi, and her willingness and trust in him to use it stunned him to his core. It was something Hera would never have allowed him to do before their tragic night together on Lothal. Any tiny residue of doubt over whether she loved him truly or not evaporated from his heart.

He managed a nod and murmured, “Are you sure?”

“Just kiss me.” She pulled him down toward her lips, her lekku shifting and twining gracefully.

Kanan slid his fingers across the smooth skin of her face until he cupped the back of her head, then covered her mouth with his own. He felt a spiral of warmth expand outward to engulf their embracing bodies as if to bind the two of them into one.

Hera. Lightly, delicately, Kanan reached out in the Force, concentrating on a bright ball of energy that danced out of the sparkling surface of her thoughts.

The glowing orb morphed into the shape of a tiny, sleeping infant with the tiniest tuft of green hair. The baby lay snuggled in Hera’s arms while she sang an old Twi’lek lullaby. The two were cocooned within a circle of immeasurable, unconditional love; Kanan felt his heart swell with the pureness of the energy and ached with a desire to hold the little one against his chest.

Hera lifted the youngling to kiss their satiny brow—and her lips pressed against the sweet face of a chubby-cheeked toddler who was crowned with an emerald halo of hair. Teal eyes glowed mischievously under angular brows. Oh, how Kanan wanted to laugh at how closely they mirrored his own.

Hera rose to set the wriggling toddler’s plump feet on the ground…and now a boy wearing a jacket with a Loth-wolf emblazoned on its left shoulder capered around her. A wild grin adorned the boy’s cherubic face from pointy ear to pointy ear, and Kanan’s hands itched to tousle his mop of green hair. Our child’s more perfect than I could ever imagine.

He heard Hera’s voice in his mind, speaking with the rich tones of Ryl. “Jun eswo, eyima xama li a'kei Hirani.”

My beloved, we have a beautiful son.

Tears welled in Kanan’s eyes, threatening to spill over in full force over this miraculous addition to his Ghost family. We made a new life.

Kanan deepened his kiss, feeling Hera respond in equal measure even as her fingertips wiped away the tears running down his cheeks. One last thought from Hera scampered toward him like the teasing boy who was now forever part of Kanan’s heart and soul. The thought was a name.

Jacen.

Suppressing a sob of joy and longing, Kanan broke their kiss to rest his forehead against Hera’s, mouthing the precious syllables soundlessly.

Hera placed a finger on his lips, her shining eyes gazing at him with utmost tenderness before they blazed with the same fearsome protectiveness that Kanan felt ignite throughout his entire being. He understood without question all the words Hera dared not speak and why. If Thrawn learns our secret, he will use it ruthlessly to control us.

The clatter of plastoid armor alerted them both the Ysalamiri were back in business.

“Rest, love,” Hera said gently, stepping back. “We’ll find our way to getting home soon.”  She gave his hand one last, very firm, squeeze. “Together.

Kanan smiled faintly and watched her enter her quarters…but his mind had already turned to a brightly painted pirate shuttle far below.



Ahsoka - Gregor / Enroute to Un’rah System

Ahsoka rested her hand soothingly on Rex’s armored shoulder, taking in the tense set of his jaw and pain in his eyes. He’s still wishing we could have done more for the dead. As are we all. But the risk of losing the Chimaera’s trail had been too great; in the end, they could only hastily move the bodies they’d found in the monastery’s blasted courtyard and placed them under the scant sanctuary of a shattered rooftop. It would be up to the scout ships from Chandrila to pick up the signal from the beacon they’d planted on Seoul that contained Ahsoka’s encrypted updates for Mon Mothma.

“It won’t be too long before the monks are properly laid to rest, Rex. We can count on the success of Zeb and Kallus’s mission.” Ahsoka gave him a reassuring pat and shifted her gaze to the wavering blue of hyperspace outside the viewport.

“I know,” Rex sighed. “It’s just…everything back there was another reminder we never know which day we’ll breathe our last.” His mouth slanted into a smile. “At least I know Kanan’s still kicking out there thanks to Ezra.” He waggled a finger at Ahsoka. “Although I can’t say I appreciate you keeping all that from me until now.”

A twinge of remorse prickled along Ahsoka’s insides. “You know it was only because of how close you and Kanan became after I sent him looking for you.”

“Hah,” Rex snorted, his brows raised in wry humor. “You could’ve given both of us a little heads up at the time.”

Ahsoka put her fist on her hip, eyeing Rex sidelong. “Do you really think Kanan would’ve listened to me if I had?”

“Not a bit,” he admitted with a flash of a grin. “That Jedi was as stubborn as a grumpy Pervickian dung camel—and probably still is.”

A chuckle rose in Ahsoka’s chest to lift her lekku. “And how is our progress on finding that out?”

Wolffe joined them from the engineering station as Ahsoka gestured at the navicomputer panel, which contained the combined star maps she and Sabine had each previously compiled on this outer quadrant. Ahsoka could hardly argue with the Mandalorian’s exasperated complaint at the time of the upload. “Of course, Ezra managed to lose himself inside the most chaotic region of the Galaxy.”

“We know the Chimaera’s got to come up for fresh air along the way to this Un’rah system,” Wolffe responded. The onscreen map made it clear Thrawn’s trajectory stretched toward Chiss territory in the Unknown Regions--and to where the Imperial remnants cowered somewhere beyond. 

The clone’s finger pointed to their own freighter’s path, which currently flanked the Boomerang. “Between the droids and the navicomputer, we’ve narrowed down some likely pitstops, but it’s unlikely we’ll cross paths before we reach the purrgil’s final coordinates.” Wolffe pursed his lips, glancing at Ahsoka. “Assuming the Destroyer stays there long enough for us to catch up.”

 “We’ll find them,” Ahsoka said firmly, shoving the feeling she was looking for a grain of sand on the beaches of Scarif aside. Along the Gregor’s flight path were a series of flagged dots, all celestial anomalies that could serve as a temporary curtain against an enemy’s prying sensors: globular clusters, high mass x-ray binary systems, a supernova remnant, pulsars…even a magnetar, but its rarity set it apart as a hiding spot. Even without reaching into the Force, Ahsoka knew Thrawn would avoid that refuge like the Bandonian plague.

“Picking up anything to narrow it down?” asked Rex with a note of hope.

Before Ahsoka could respond, Sabine’s sharp command startled her and the clones.

“Hold it right there, PeeZee!”

“Pardon, Lady Wren?” The droid stood frozen in an awkward position, projecting a cluster of isolated pictographs that she had recorded for Ezra back on Ja’Ghar.

Sabine sat to the side of the larger holo image being projected by Evens, this one featuring extracted glyphs and symbols from Eedit. Meanwhile, she fiddled with two datapads shoved onto her lap that contained her own recordings from the Observatory. Yet another datapad near her knee displayed a close-up image of Ezra’s goateed face.

Motivation. Ahsoka hid a smile.

“Move just a little to the left,” Sabine ordered PZ-5, her eyes intently focused on the mish-mosh of displays. “Good, now back up…just a bit more.”

Ahsoka’s inner smile collapsed into a rueful sigh. It seemed the devout Mandalorian intended to grow roots in this particular spot of the Gregor’s flooring. She turned to Rex and Wolffe. “I’ll meditate on these potential crossroads in a moment.”

“Aye, Umbra Leader.” Rex briskly turned back to the ship controls.

Wolffe slid Ahsoka a wink. “Good luck saving those droids before they run out of juice.”

Sabine remained completely oblivious to Ahsoka’s approach, too busy getting the droids arranged into the precise positioning she desired.

“No, Evens, you have to stay locked down. There, don’t move a single circuit.”

“Have you found something, Sabine?” Ahsoka inquired, raising an eyebrow. The holoimages projected between the two droids was nothing more than a glowing cloud of fuzzy squiggles.

“Almost there.” Sabine spared Ahsoka a glance, the tip of her tongue peeking out from the corner of her mouth in her concentration.  She set the two datapads from her lap on the floor and readjusted them to project the Observatory images into the increasing mass of contorted pictographs. “Okay, PeeZee, shift a tiny bit to your right,” she demanded, concentrating. “Now stay. Perfect!”

And suddenly the blurred haze clarified and the layers of holoprojections merged into a three-dimensional sky map.

“Yes!” Sabine exclaimed with a fist pump.

The positions of the map’s stars were formed from stylized glyphs from the Observatory, while the glyphs that floated under key celestial objects like name tags were created by interlocking fragments from the Eedit pictographs. The map’s core and four equidistant corners blazed with the unique symbols from the tableau on Ja’Ghar, including the Temple Gates of Earth, Air, Water and Fire: square, sail-shaped triangle, bowl-shaped semi-circle, and the set of three very slender rectangles.

Ahsoka stepped closer to take in the combined images, gripping her staff excitedly.  “How did you figure it out, Sabine?”

The Mandalorian ran a hand through the purple fringe of her bangs. “You can actually thank PeeZee-Five for that,” she half-laughed. “She bumped into Evens while we were reviewing all the recordings and I noticed that some of the Eedit fragments suddenly looked more complete. On a hunch, I started shifting everything around with the datapads and, sure enough, it turns out a lot of the archived information you extracted from Devaron was disguised by fragmenting the pictographs into separate layers.”

“Well done,” Ahsoka smiled approvingly at the tired but exultant Sabine, then nodded at the statue-like droids. “To all of you.”

Sabine traced her fingers along a few of the Eedit glyphs, studying the various stars and systems to which they were attached. 

“Now I just have to work on the translations of these markers.” Her keen eyes narrowed. “I can already see the shapes that tag these seven major systems around the Galaxy are similar, so that will help. I think. I hope.” She shrugged a shoulder before cracking the stiffness out of the joints in her neck.

Ahsoka nodded and cupped the nearest of the glyphs Sabine had pointed out within the palm of her hand. Noticing the core of the intriguing swirls resembled two intertwined infinity loops, recognition shimmered along Ahsoka’s senses. It was an ancient hieroglyph in the Old Tongue; she’d seen the distinct shape come up at least three times during her research on Vade’mecum.

Ponte’caeleste…” she said softly.

“What?” Sabine immediately moved to Ahsoka’s side, staring hungrily at the glyph floating within her hand. “You already know what it means?”

“I’ve seen the root of its form,” explained Ahsoka hesitantly. “The closest I can translate this to in Basic is ‘celestial bridge.’”

Sabine’s eyebrows shot up. “Celestial bridge...?” She gestured at the Ja’Gharian symbols at the four quadrants. “Then maybe these new markers are locations of more Temple Gates.”

The crystalline core of Ahsoka’s staff resonated ever so slightly and her stomach jolted with something far from exhilaration. More Gates? Don’t we already have enough of them, along with the Outer Rim’s damage to deal with?

Ahsoka inhaled a calming breath to ease the tightness clamping down on her lungs. “I don’t know, Sabine. Perhaps. We’ll have to comb through more of the data to see what we can scrape together before we find the Chimaera.”

PZ-5 raised a questioning finger, attempting to remain stock still in every other way. “Speaking of the Chimaera , Lady Tano,” she droned, “I advise you and your crew to hide me before we reach Grand Admiral Thrawn. If he sees me intact, it will undermine any explanations General Syndulla has provided him since her capture.”

Sabine rubbed her forehead, exchanging an apprehensive glance with Ahsoka. “She’s right. We can’t put Hera in any more jeopardy—or let Thrawn reclaim PeeZee.”

Evens burbled anxiously and Sabine turned back to PZ-5, her face taut with concern. “Plus, he’ll wipe key parts of your memory if he does.“

PZ-5 shook her head forlornly. “I don’t wish to forget Master Ezra.”

“Trust me, PeeZee,” Sabine declared, her fingertips tracing the tops of her blaster grips. “I won’t let that happen. To any of us.”

Ahsoka frowned. Between understanding the glyphs and ferreting out what temporary refuges Thrawn might use along the way to the Un’rah system, she had a lot of meditating to do. Not to mention trying to lock in on Ezra and Kanan through the Force as they drew closer to the Star Destroyer.

She felt her gaze pulled back to where the intertwined loops of an ancient hieroglyph seemed to dance within the glimmering light of the star map enticingly. The beckoning shape lay not far outside the upper segment of Thrawn’s pathway toward the Unknown Regions.

Ponte’caeleste.

The crystal in her staff hummed faintly within her grip yet again.

  

Ezra – Chimaera / Enroute to the Un’rhah system

Ezra flip-flopped on his bunk for about the umpteenth time, searching for a position that would lull the darting thoughts in his mind to sleep. Navigating through the Force with Kanan had thrilled his senses but strained his nerves at the same time. The last thing he wanted to do during the crucial hyperjump ahead was nod off and slam the ship into a comet…yet he also dreaded the pair of relentless, red eyes and hissing voice that might await him in the dream world.

Ezra groaned and rolled onto his back. Even without the Son lurking around, how could he possibly nap after so much had happened this cycle? Now that he finally had a quiet moment to fully digest Hera’s victorious report to Thrawn, his whole body trembled with elation and relief that the Rebellion was over and won. Sabine, Zeb, Ahsoka, Rex—and maybe Jai, Mart, and other friends—were all still alive! All the faces he missed so much spun around in his mind with Chopper headbutting his profanity-spewing dome into the giddy mix. Ezra’s grin subdued into a longing smile. Sabine never gave up on me…she’s with Ahsoka searching even now.

There was something else that elevated his spirits: Luke Skywalker. The Jedi son of Anakin Skywalker. Was Luke that distant ripple of Light that Ezra had felt in the Force back when he’d probed for details on the Emperor’s demise? Were there other lost Jedi emerging from the shadows now that the Empire had fallen? Would Ezra and Kanan become an active part of the Order’s rebirth? During the war, their future as Jedi had felt so limited…but now the prospects seemed endless. If only the Nihilum didn’t exist and he, Kanan, and Hera could hurry back to rejoin the rest of their loved ones…and enjoy the peace that had cost far too many lives on both sides.

And what of Thrawn and his crew? For all the pain and suffering the Chimaera had rained down on Atollon and Lothal in years past, a dull ache in Ezra’s heart overrode any burning desire to haul them before the New Republic as war criminals. After living behind the cold mask of the Empire, Ezra doubted he could ever blithely cheer the explosion of enemy warships again knowing what he did now of the not-so-faceless people inside.

A lump lodged itself in Ezra’s throat at a memory from his time inside the Lothal Temple.

“Yeah, but Master Yoda, how do we win if we don’t fight back?”

“Win? Win, hmmm. How Jedi choose to win, the question is.”

Yoda had showed Ezra how the Jedi had lost sight of their role in the Galaxy as peacekeepers by becoming entrapped within the violence and fear of the Clone Wars. But all his younger self had wanted then was a way to defeat the Sith, to protect his friends. “We already chose. We’re going to fight.”

Recalling the deep sadness in Yoda’s eyes, Ezra pondered a new question: How many more would die fighting the Nihilum? Yet, what other choice did they have? From what Kanan had learned in the Force, the invaders were so consumed by rage, any attempt to make peace would only turn the Chimaera—and any allies Thrawn managed to scrounge up—into easy targets.

When a rap on his door cut off the gloomy thoughts, Ezra heaved himself out of bed. That has to be Squeak. He ran his hand across his scruff of hair to smooth it out, smiling grimly. As if they didn’t have enough trouble on their hands, a certain pirate prisoner was whipping up a cluster of mutinous stormtroopers hellbent on escaping the Nihilum’s line of fire: Hondo.

Ezra opened the door to find the MSE droid that he’d repaired earlier circling around the Ysalamiri’s boots, chittering non-stop.

“Oh, hey, Squeak,” Ezra grinned at his tiny visitor, listening to the stream of squawks and chirps. “Really? No problem. I’ll adjust that right now.” Not bad. The simple-minded droid had followed Ezra’s programming to fake needing more repairs to the letter.

Ezra stood aside so the droid could roll into his quarters, then addressed the escort with a bland smile. “Thanks. I’ll send him out as soon as I’m done.”

The Ysalamiri’s visor eyes stared back expressionlessly, but one shoulder lifted in the slightest of shrugs. “I will alert the second shift as necessary, Commander.”

With a nod, Ezra shut the door and picked up Squeak. He’d called back his mini spy via remote control soon after he left Hera and Kanan. The holorecording device he’d covertly installed inside the droid’s innards had come from a stash of extra parts left over from fixing up PZ-5, and Ezra wanted to recheck that all its components were functioning correctly. Hours of recorded static would do nothing to divert Hondo from almost certain disaster.

“Okay, little guy, let’s see what you picked up so far.”

Ezra plopped on his bunk and set Squeak next to him to activate the secret projector. A murky holorecording appeared, its grainy images captured from the droid’s extremely low point of view. The constantly flickering holo seemed to feature several distant figures gathered to talk in hushed voices, but Ezra couldn’t make out many details.

After painstakingly adjusting the volume and focus, Ezra found himself staring at a clarified scene that made his stomach curdle. The figures were huddled within a dimly lit chamber, one forever burned into his memory—the forbidden compartment full of rubble from Lothal’s Jedi Temple. They must have pried a way through the service ducts in sealed off sections of the ship.

Ezra’s eyes narrowed, scrutinizing the off-duty blacks worn by a cluster of people whose faces were illuminated only by random swathes of light from the torches on their wrists. Stormtroopers.

“How many times do I have to explain to you laserbrains the plan hasn’t changed a kriffing bit, except we’re taking the pirates’ Lambda instead?”

Ezra’s neck hairs prickled at that familiar voice. Of course, Bek would be the ringleader of Hondo’s uprising. The half-lit figures by his side were Syphex and McConnell. Explains why I ran into these moof-milkers near the detention levels.

Someone out of view piped up hesitantly. “Yeah, but is it really a good idea to make our move now ? I say we wait, see if Thrawn can at least contact the Imperials who made it to the UR.”

Ezra frowned. How did they know Thrawn’s plans from today’s briefing? These bucketheads were way too far down the chain of command. And then his stomach lurched while the slam of Tiovata’s fist on the conference table echoed in his mind. Karabast! Their commander’s got to be in on this!

“Oh, that’s a great plan—if you want to get us all fried by those metal monsters out there,” snarled Syphex. “Don’t you get it? Every jump could be our last.”

“And takes us farther from the hyperlane to Takodana,” added Bek.

“Right,” the voice retorted heatedly. “The planet full of bounty hunters to snap us up for New Republic credits.”

“You idiot, nobody said we have to stop at Takodana,” grated Bek. “Once we’re far enough Coreward, we’ll jettison that fossilized Weequay and his pigheaded sidekick.” He waved his hands, smiling craftily. “We’ll disappear someplace safe, then split up so everyone can find a way back to wherever you want to call home.”

“But what about the New Republic?” the protester countered. “I don’t want to rot in some kriffing Rebel prison.”

“Pfhhhf.” Syphex spit to the side. “That drek can’t catch what they can’t find. It’s a big galaxy—and we’ll ditch the shuttle if we need to somewhere along the way.”

“Yeah, we’ll split our stock of supplies before everyone scatters,” McConnell nodded, then jabbed a finger at the offscreen dissenter. “And if you still want to make your way to what’s left of the Empire, good luck.” She gave Syphex a saucy smile as she bumped her shoulder against his. “We’ll be starting our lives fresh undercover in Wild Space.” 

Ezra bit his lip in concentration, his ability to see and hear increasingly disrupted by the holo’s flicks and sputters. Among the troopers,  head-wagging agreement won over a few last murmurs and unintelligible whispers of indecision coming from others not visible from Squeak’s recording position. They’ve been plotting an escape way before Hondo and Melch showed up. The pirates were just a lucky shortcut falling into their laps.

“Look,” the protester rose and stepped into view. Ezra pegged him as one of Bek’s more recent fringe followers.

“I get none of us want to be roasted out here after all we’ve been through. But if Thrawn plans to reunite us with—”

“Just shut it, Pobro!” Bek launched himself upward to glare into the other trooper’s rigid face. “We can’t trust Thrawn anymore. He’s a Chiss first and an Imperial second—if at all. He promoted his pet Devaronian and that Rodian over better qualified humans after Bridger killed off thousands of our crew. He forced that Jedi scum down our throats for years and now we’ve got to put up with a second slimeball and their harpy Twi’lek?”

McConnell rose with her hands clenched. “Thrawn should’ve executed all these Rebs. My father was killed during an assault on Tarkin’s Star Destroyer.”

Syphex stood to squeeze her arm in commiseration, glaring defiantly at Pobro. “Or maybe you think it’s okay Thrawn let us get thrown around like trash over that tailhead just so the Jedi will deliver him to his home world? I say he’s going to give the Chiss our ship and what’s in the hanger so he can be their big hero now that the Empire’s gone.”

Bek nodded sharply, his fists on his hips. “Those blue skins won’t give a kriff what happens to us humans after that.” His narrowed eyes raked the group, then resettled on Pobro. “So, are you in or are you out?”

“What if I was out?” Pobro crossed his arms defiantly.

Bek shared heavily weighted glances with Syphex and McConnell, then planted his face nose-to-nose with Pobro. “Then I’d say don’t stand in our way...” he hissed and spread the fingers of both hands threateningly, “or everything goes—”

The flickering image abruptly distorted and dissolved, leaving Ezra to blink at nothing but static. The old recording component could not have died at a worse possible time. He turned off Squeak’s projector, feeling a strong undercurrent of warning in the Force. This is bad. Really, really bad. All the hopes he’d been nurturing that Kanan and Hera could escape with Hondo collapsed into barren dust. Like it or not, he would have to alert Thrawn. With this evidence, Ezra could probably convince the grand admiral that Hondo was (mostly) a pawn who’d been swept into a preexisting circle of traitors. Led by, or at least fed information by, Lieutenant Commander Tiovata. Oh, it was going to get ugly fast.

Was it remotely possible the bad batch was still hunkered down in the chamber, busily conspiring? Maybe Kanan, Hera, and I can catch them there red-handed. He brought up the recording’s time stamp and grimaced. If this was even accurate, Squeak had recorded the troopers’ secret gathering while he’d been busy navigating the Chimaera with Kanan. Too many things could have happened since the recorder zapped out. Propelled by that unnerving thought, Ezra jumped up to start Operation Damage Control.

And that’s when the Chimaera’s alarm klaxons went off.