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Spectre One Rises

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Chapter 1 - Out of the Ashes

 

Kanan - Lothal (1 BBY )

Kanan braced himself on the shuddering metal of the exploding fuel pod, allowing the Force to flow through him as never before.  The engulfing flames raged, slamming into the immense shield of energy Kanan wielded to protect the Imperial gunship hovering behind him.  That gunship carried everyone that mattered most to him in the Galaxy.  Hera. Ezra. Sabine. You will live.

Kanan filled with an almost ecstatic certainty that eradicated the last shreds of self-doubt he’d harbored for so long.  He felt no pain. No fear. This is my moment.  This is where I am needed most.  Kanan pushed even harder at the relentless inferno, wringing out precious seconds to ensure his family’s escape to safety.

“Kanan!”

His focus split as Hera rushed up behind him.  Kanan instinctively reached back, lifting Hera into a Force embrace.  Turning slowly to face the woman he would die for, Kanan realized his only regret was the shock and horror she radiated, the grief she and the others would suffer.  If only Hera knew what was crystal, clear to him.   His death had a greater purpose. Lothal’s rising sun would illuminate irreparable damage to Thrawn’s TIE Defender program.  Hera’s mission would be complete.

Holding Hera aloft, Kanan reveled in her unique Force signature.  Her inner and outer beauty had always shone brightest to him no matter the source of his vision. Kanan hoped she’d finally come to understand she had been his life’s mission from the moment they’d met on Gorse. All he could do was envelop her with the love he felt, grateful for the years they’d shared.  In that moment, Kanan sensed a second, subtle Force signature pulsing within Hera’s body. Hera will bear our child!   

Indescribable joy ignited Kanan from the inside out.  Oh, if only he could stay! Every part of him longed to be a father, a husband, to protect his entire Ghost family for their future to come.  But his future…that remained to be seen.  Ignoring his thudding heart, Kanan hurled Hera into the safety of Ezra’s arms.

Now the Force crested within him, a rising tidal wave.  As the energy surged ever higher, Kanan felt thirty years of body aches and old scars diminish.  At the same time, the miracle of sight returned to his formerly blinded eyes, an unexpected gift of color and light from the Force.

Kanan’s eyes drank in Hera’s loveliness like sweet nectar.  Her eyes widened farther in stunned surprise—she’d realized Kanan could see her! I love you, Hera.  Kanan’s gaze shifted to include Ezra. You’ve got this from here, kid. I know you can do it.  So much more to say to them both, but his time had run out.  With a final look at Hera, Kanan Force-shoved the gunship away with all his might. 

Kanan projected his consciousness outward milliseconds before the fireball engulfed his body.  Soaring upward, Kanan saw the gunship zoom safely away as the fuel pods ignited in a chain reaction of bright, white light—

 

Ezra - Chimaera (5 ABY )

A knock. “Master Ezra, are you all right?” A louder knock.

Ezra rose groggily from the none too cozy floor of his cabin aboard the Chimaera.  His mind was still emblazoned with the image of Kanan’s milky, blinded eyes brightening to vivid teal.  My master saw me in the end.

“Master Ezra?” His droid, PZ-5 stepped through the now open doorway.  Her reflective visor and droning voice somehow emulated concern.  “I heard your cries outside in the corridor.”

“I’m fine, PeeZee. It was…another one of those visions.” Ezra shakily waved her outstretched hand away, wondering not for the first time how a protocol droid who looked so much like AP-5 could possess such a different demeanor.  Maybe it was a lucky combination of the droid parts he’d salvaged on Thrawn’s purrgil-wrecked Star Destroyer to repair her.  Ezra doubted Chopper would have been impressed with his handiwork, but he might have gotten a thumbs up from Sabine. Ezra’s heart thumped wistfully.

“The one about your former master, Kanan Jarrus?”

Ezra tucked away thoughts of Sabine and his Ghost family as he shuffled unsteadily toward his bunk. It did him no good to wallow in homesickness like a puffer pig. “Yeah, and the images get clearer each time. But I feel like I’m missing some important detail.” 

PZ cocked her head. “But, if I may say so, what is the point of revisiting your master’s demise after these many years? Surely that is only painful and changes nothing you both endured.” 

Ezra’s knees buckled right before he slumped onto the stiff mattress.  He had no answer for the droid.  Yet.  What he did know was the visions about Kanan began tormenting him shortly after he’d sensed the death of the Emperor in the Force.  That stunning revelation struck Ezra about five years after the purrgil joined Ezra in his determined battle to liberate Lothal by demolishing Thrawn’s blockade. 

While aboard the Chimaera as Thrawn’s now escaped prisoner, Ezra silently asked the Force sensitive creatures for one last favor. Take me where I’m needed most, a place where I no longer endanger my family.  The purrgil lit up for hyperspace flight—and transported the entire Star Destroyer to the farthest reaches of Wild Space.  Setting the badly damaged vessel adrift in the atmosphere of an uncharted planet, the purrgil vanished. 

Ezra felt abandoned, alone, an injured Jedi among enraged Imperials without even his lightsaber by his side.  He struggled to understand why the purrgil dumped him at the farthest edge of the galaxy, forced into an alliance with an equally reluctant and disadvantaged Thrawn for mutual survival.  Ezra reached out to the Force with a heavy heart.  Was my sacrifice made in vain?  As if in answer, things immediately got worse.

The scouting parties sent to the scattering of planetary communities in search of aid found only the remains of tens of thousands of inhabitants, all massacred over a standard year ago.  Any survivors must have abandoned their world. Or--more likely—been taken as slaves.  Shivers ran up Ezra’s spine as he explored war torn streets and realized any structure or object that could be associated with a spiritual, artistic or cultural purpose lay in savage ruins.  In contrast, technological and industrial elements stood untouched, as if they were beneath the notice of those who had decimated the population.  Ezra shared in the Imperials’ constant apprehension.  Was something far worse following behind, on its way to swoop in and claim its tribute?

Thrawn strategically used the precarious situation to his starship’s advantage.  For several months, Ezra and the crew scavenged supplies and materials to make the Chimaera space worthy again.  Very early on, Ezra and the others became too exhausted and overworked to spare much thought on the potential of impending doom.   Once the Star Destroyer was finally space bound, progress was painfully slow.  Without star maps to navigate the maze of destructive anomalies—and lacking reliable sources of food and fuel--the Chimaera limped forward system by system toward the Unknown Regions.

By necessity, the ship’s course settings also became more furtive.  The few habitable worlds they encountered all had the same thing in common: the annihilation of their population, and demolition of all religious and cultural artifacts.  Ezra’s heart twisted for the innocent dead, and harbored concern for the vulnerable Chimaera.  Every time Ezra attempted to gain some sense of the mysterious attackers through the Force, he hit a blank wall.  The grand admiral seemed to find Ezra’s lack of perceptive success intriguing.

Meanwhile, Thrawn’s cold red eyes missed nothing as his crew collected grim evidence of a new and significant threat to the known galaxy. Ezra loathed Thrawn for all the suffering he’d inflicted on his Ghost family and the Rebellion.  Yet, Ezra developed a grudging respect for the way Thrawn galvanized his initially shell-shocked crew to restore and maintain Imperial order and discipline.  Ezra covertly gleaned much about the grand admiral, who was systematically transforming his purrgil-induced defeat into a surveillance mission vital to the Empire.   Ezra had no doubt Thrawn envisioned a triumphant return with priceless data on the hostiles and star maps of the Wild regions to bestow upon Palpatine.  Although…Ezra increasingly sensed Thrawn’s loyalty belonged to the Chiss Ascendancy alone.

Ever practical, Thrawn elevated Ezra to spearhead missions to scavenge supplies and fuel from each corpse-filled settlement to sustain the Chimaera.  Unlike the Imperials, Ezra was hardened by extreme and lean conditions under the Rebellion.  Ezra found himself even relishing the dangerous work at times.  He knew full well his success in bringing back his scouting parties alive earned him Thrawn’s increasing trust as well as greater tolerance from the crew.  But with PZ-5 his only genuine friend on the Chimaera, Ezra’s loneliness and homesickness for his Ghost family remained a daily battle. 

About three months after the Chimaera was again space bound, Ezra’s Jedi abilities earned him something more than trust from the grand admiral.  During a mission debriefing in Thrawn’s office, Ezra’s jaw almost dropped when the Chiss opened a locked drawer and withdrew…a lightsaber?  No—Ezra’s heart lurched.  From what little Kanan had shared of being made a Knight during his Jedi Temple vision, this was a Temple Guard’s lightsaber pike. 

“You did especially well today, Commander Bridger. Your…communication with the reptilian creatures prevented several troopers from being devoured.” Thrawn calmly held the beautifully designed hilt out toward Ezra.

 “All those big lizards wanted was a fair share of grain in the silos.” Ezra did not reach for the pike. He eyed Thrawn accusingly. “You’ve had this all along?”

Thrawn nodded. “It is one of the many Jedi artifacts I’ve collected, along with the mask that accompanied it.”

“And you’re giving it to me now?” Ezra resisted the urge to snatch the pike from Thrawn’s blue hand and bash him over the head with it.

“You once advised me that the Force is not a weapon. That it is something I would never understand. Perhaps you are right, Commander. However, what I have come to understand is that a Jedi like you without his lightsaber is…far less efficient in the field.”

Eyes narrowed, Ezra took the hilt away. He immediately felt the minute vibration from the crystal within.  Igniting the pike, Ezra’s whole sense of being lit up with the bright, yellow blades.  I’s been so long since I’ve held a lightsaber. Recalling the red blades of Maul and the Inquisitors, Ezra gently twirled the humming pike, careful not to slice Thrawn’s desk—or Thrawn—in half. “I’ve never trained with a double-bladed weapon.”

“Then there is no time like the present.” With an aloof gesture, Thrawn dismissed Ezra. Ezra rotated the blades a few times on his way to the door, then switched the pike off to hang it on his belt.

“I’ll put this to good use.” Ezra was not about to thank Thrawn.  The Temple Guard’s pike never belonged with the arrogant Chiss in the first place.  Thrawn’s crimson eyes gleamed back at him, clearly neither expecting—nor wanting—gratitude.

“Indeed you will, Commander.”

For this moment and countless reasons, Ezra never told Thrawn the Emperor was dead. He’d kept the news even from PZ-5. The day the Force had shifted profoundly, Ezra and PZ-5 were using one of the Chimaera’s remaining Lambda class shuttles to orbit the latest decimated planet.  As usual, Ezra reached out with the Force to sense any dangers before landing. Ezra felt himself abruptly sucked into an abnormally deep trance. His skin beaded with sweat as if a fever had broken within him.  The Emperor has fallen. Astonished, Ezra probed harder for details--and gagged, recoiling from what burned like ichor spewing from a ruptured, deeply infected wound.

Ezra felt caught in an ocean of Force energy settling itself after the passage of a raging storm.  As the Dark receded, Ezra found himself encountering a subtle ripple of Light.  Who is that?   The Force signature felt vaguely familiar, but it was not Ahsoka Tano or Obi-wan Kenobi.  It felt nothing like Kanan.  His former master’s Force signature carried undertones of an elemental, primal energy.  Whoever this sparkling ripple was, their Force signature pulsed as a faint beacon to the known galaxy.  Ezra’s heart bounded. He’d rushed through the mission, countering PZ-5’s inquiries and concerns with rote responses.  Back in his cabin, one thought flared over and over.

With the Emperor dead, I can safely reach out to Sabine! It’s time for her to find me!  To Ezra’s surprise, the Force met this thought with firm resistance. You are not done here.  Too eager for home to be easily deterred, Ezra called out furtively to the purrgil for hours.  Silence.  Apparently, they agreed with the Force. That night, visions of Kanan’s death started ripping Ezra’s heart open again and again. PZ-5 had found Ezra passed out in the corner of his cabin and refused to leave until he told her what happened.

“Master Ezra?”

Dragged from his river of past thoughts, Ezra opened his eyes--to find PZ-5’s gleaming visor looming over his face. “Agh!”  The equally startled droid staggered back.

“I’m sorry, sir.  I’ve been relaying details concerning our mission to Ja’Ghar and it appeared you fell asleep.”  PZ-5’s head angled in a frustrated pose. “Did you hear a single word I said?”

“Uh, no. Could you repeat, please?” Ezra rubbed his aching forehead. Was the droid shaking her finger at him?

“I must first express how increasingly debilitating these episodes have become.  In fact, I should escort you to the—”

“You know what would really clear my head, PeeZee? A strong cup of caf.”  This was their longstanding code for:  I need you to go spy on what’s going on out there.  PZ-5 shifted into an anticipatory stance.

“Oh. Of course, Master Ezra. Would you care for any additives?” How nosy would you like me to be?  If droids had dreams, Ezra had a strong suspicion PZ’s would consist of her running amok as an intimidating KX-security unit. 

“Just an extra shot, please.”  Check on the Big Blue Guy if you can.  “Oh, and inventory the shuttle, make sure those supplies I asked for are on board. We should be coming up on the Ja’Ghar system anytime now.”

“That’s precisely what I was attempting to tell you.” With an exasperated gesture, the droid stepped out, the door shutting behind her. Ezra rubbed his chin, smiling.  My goatee could sure use a trim.  His smile faltered; Hera had loved to tweak Kanan’s beard. 

Is your master truly dead?

Ezra stiffened.  That voice had resonated through what Ezra half-jokingly referred to as his “nature channel,” the Force frequency he used most often to commune with wildlife. The voice was familiar, but he couldn’t place it. Hearing nothing more, Ezra sighed out a shaky breath. Why is all this happening? What does it mean?  Maybe PZ-5 was right.  The visions were digging up Ezra’s long buried feelings of guilt.  Yes, Ezra had let Kanan go…but some core part of himself still felt a vitally important task regarding his master remained undone. 

Interwoven with all his emotional baggage, Ezra sensed an underlying, expanding imbalance in the Force. With the Emperor gone, new evils were undoubtedly emerging from their shadows to fill the vacuum.  Already here in Wild Space, they faced a merciless horde butchering its way into the galaxy.  The Light desperately needed every Jedi it could muster against the encroaching Dark.  If only Kanan was still alive to help Ezra tip the scales. But Kanan was gone.

 

Thrawn - Chimaera (5 ABY )

Grand Admiral Thrawn paced the Chimaera’s bridge, overseeing his skeletal crew, each member grown long accustomed to working multiple positions efficiently.  His red eyes turned to the viewscreen…and flinched almost imperceptibly as he recalled vast, swarming tentacles shattering through the permasteel glass.  I see your defeat. Like many arms surrounding you in a cold embrace.  Not for the first time, Thrawn speculated about what had become of the Bendu and how the creature had predicted his situation.

Thrawn did not berate himself for being outmaneuvered by a sky full of berserk purrgil.  He doubted any tactical officer in the Empire could have predicted such a peculiar, supernatural assault.  Thrawn did acknowledge, however, that he’d underestimated young Ezra Bridger.  He would not make that mistake again.  When so many of the Chimaera’s crew clamored for the Jedi’s blood in payment for their exile to Wild Space, Thrawn logically reminded them that Bridger was, in fact, the only one among them capable of recalling the purrgil for a hastier return. 

Thrawn ferreted out soon enough that the unpredictable creatures had abandoned Bridger, apparently indefinitely.  But Thrawn kept that to himself.  By this time, he had (at least temporarily) set aside his disdain for Bridger’s Jedi witchery; it had proven far too useful time and again, especially with navigation around volatile anomalies, and warnings of impending danger.  Bridger’s Force sensitivity and unique ability to communicate with planetary fauna remained crucial to gleaning what little information was available on each war struck world they explored.  Thrawn was not easily shaken, but he did admit to himself the absence of sentient life in this sector was…disturbing.

Whoever or whatever this menace was, Thrawn noted certain intriguing similarities with the Yuuzhan Vong, merciless invaders who threatened the Unknown Regions and the Chiss Ascendency. The Vong despised mechanical technology; instead, they developed genetically engineered and organic technological innovations for their civilizations. When Bridger noted he felt nothing from the Force concerning the menace here in Wild Space, Thrawn pondered. He was aware that plundered Jedi records revealed the Vong had no Force signature, and the Jedi could only indirectly attack using their Force skills.

Yet, Thrawn’s gut told him that the menace here in Wild Space was something other.  This invading horde did not pillage, or loot.  There was no evidence yet of escaped prisoners or slaves.  What this menace did with incredible precision was terminate sentient organics. As an art connoisseur, Thrawn found the horde’s defacement of cultural, artistic and spiritual constructs a puzzling affront to his sensibilities.  Yet, by leaving the technologies of these worlds untouched, the invaders apparently considered these achievements feeble and completely beneath them.  Thrawn’s intuition hinted at a menace inorganic in nature, but he required physical evidence to prove his theory.  If this did turn out to be the truth, Thrawn contemplated what might occur if the Yuuzhan Vong and this mysterious adversary met head to head.  Who might be the victor? Or, better yet, no victor at all.

Regardless, it appeared fortuitous the purrgil had unwittingly provided Thrawn with an early warning signal for the known galaxy.  And he had every intention that the Chimaera would deliver her message.

“Sir, we have reached Ja’Ghar, but are now receiving an unidentified transmission from a beacon in Kkantu, the planetary system beyond.” The officer looked up at Thrawn, eyes round with puzzlement. “Admiral…it is a Republic code from the Clone Wars era.”

Thrawn ceased pacing as he processed the startling information. “Very good. Instruct Commander Bridger to disembark on his mission here. Set a course for the beacon. Bridger will rendezvous with the Chimaera at those coordinates once his mission is complete.”

“Aye, sir.”

 

Kanan - Lothal (1 BBY )

Kanan emerged from the incandescent light of the explosion, completely disoriented.  Slowly, he realized he was within the dim and empty mountain cave on Lothal.  Kanan felt weightless yet sensed an indefinable mass to his energy field.  He also tingled with anticipation. Kanan’s visions prior to Hera’s rescue had hinted he might temporarily retain his own consciousness to help guide Ezra through the next step in protecting Lothal.  But the Force had made no promises, not by a long shot.

Kanan wondered how long his individuality would stay intact. As if invited by his thoughts, a distant tug pulled insistently at Kanan. This way.  Curiously, Kanan immediately felt himself held in place by an opposing tug.  The overall sensation was indescribable; like being caught in a web, yet actually being a part of the web itself. 

Apprehensive that his consciousness might meld into the Cosmic Force at any moment, Kanan focused on finding Hera and the others.  I’ll at least check on them, offer any comfort I’m allowed.  Just thinking of Hera caused Kanan’s energy to vibrate intently, which helped him ignore the insistent tug.  Good. He’d be thrilled to keep Hera planted in his mind for as long as this took.

Moving his energy mass took some practice. Rotating slowly, Kanan noticed his mask and shorn hair on the alter.  Looking up, his gaze was captured by an array of mysterious, ancient hieroglyphs along the cave’s back wall.  The walls are telling a story.  Kanan recalled Ezra’s voice from the past.  There are people coming from the sky. I think they’re Jedi

Drifting closer, Kanan realized a cluster of three figures clearly represented members of the Jedi High Council.  Ezra might have recognized Yoda, but he wouldn’t have known Ki-Adi-Mundi and Mace Windu.  The three Jedi reached for a baby, who was surrounded by a halo of powerful Force lines.  Kanan felt an electric shock of sudden awareness.   That child is me.

YES. CALEB DUME.

The affirmation pulsed through Kanan.  The intensity reminded Kanan of Bendu, the way that Force entity’s voice permeated Kanan right down his molecules. Kanan tried to speak aloud—but he had no mouth. His consciousness reached out. Who are you?

I AM DUME.

That declaration sent imagery flooding through Kanan’s senses. He reeled, overwhelmed by this ancient, elemental Force entity.  Dume had to be at least as old as Lothal itself. Kanan struggled to understand Dume’s inhuman thoughts, feeling like an ant trying to converse with a god.   Hey, Dume, you’re going to have to keep it very simple.

I JOINED WITH YOU. FOR LOTHAL.

Memories inundated Kanan, all out of order:  He was a youngling training in the Coruscant Temple, he kissed Hera heatedly in the cockpit of the Ghost, he drunkenly beat the crap out of a loudmouth smuggler, he ran in shame while his master, Depa Billaba, died to save him.  Kanan clashed lightsabers with Darth Vader, he consoled Ezra after Malachor. The final memory was of his parents, apparently robust, simple farmers who handed him off tearfully to the three Jedi masters.  But why, Dume, why join with me?

Dume blasted Kanan’s consciousness with multiple layers of communication. Kanan stumbled through this maze of inhuman thought and managed to absorb the key points:  Dume, a planetary guardian, sensed the Force growing increasingly out of balance long before the Clone Wars. Lothal’s potential to be demolished was very high. Yet the ancients had prophesized the birth of a Force-sensitive child whose energy signature could safely blend with Dume’s embedded presence.  This combined being would protect Lothal.

Drawn to Caleb’s unique and powerful Force signature, the High Council members gained his parents’ blessing and took Caleb to the Coruscant Temple for Jedi training.

Embedded within Caleb, Dume gained direct access to the Jedi and its failing war with the Dark. After Order 66, Kanan’s innate strength of will, backed by Dume’s powerful presence, enabled him to survive the purge that thousands of Jedi did not.  Even during Kanan’s darkest years, Dume absorbed crucial knowledge through his underground existence as a smuggler.  As Kanan realized his destiny had always been intertwined with Lothal, his consciousness lightened.  He also understood more than ever that meeting and falling in love with Hera Syndulla had turned the tide. With Hera as his compass, and Dume at his back, Kanan slowly reclaimed his life’s purpose.

As if called by his thoughts, Hera shuffled into the cave, clutching the Kalikori tightly to her chest.  “Why did I take so long to tell him?”

Kanan had never seen her look so broken. Hera. As she wept over his death, blaming herself for it, Kanan desperately tried to envelop her in a tangible embrace, to assure her it had all been his choice.  But she couldn’t feel or hear him. What is the point of my consciousness being intact if I can’t even help the woman I love?  Dume didn’t answer. Perhaps the entity considered heartbreak a petty, private matter.

It was Chopper—Chopper!-- who comforted Hera when Kanan could not. Kanan felt deep relief he hadn’t reduced the murderous droid to scrap metal all those times it seemed like such a perfect idea. Those early years of shock prods, binary insults, and brutal knee bruises were a small price to pay to both see and sense Hera’s grief ease a little. 

And when Chopper suggested the idea of adding Kanan to Hera’s Kalikori, Kanan wished he could hug the stumpy astromech and apologize (sincerely this time) for letting Zeb gamble him away to Lando.  

Hera’s grief-filled eyes warmed and softened. “No one deserves that honor more than Kanan.” Those tender words ignited a cascade of joy throughout Kanan’s entire being. Hera was going to make him part of her Ryloth family tree? Her husband.  This is what he’d pushed for, what she’d resisted so long because of the war. He knew Hera loved him, everything she shared inside and outside of their intimate moments made her love clear as day. But she had refused to confirm her feelings during any talk of a their long-term future.  Kanan understood now that his usually steadfast Hera had been terrified of losing him the way she’d lost others dear to her heart.  She’d finally made clear her love and desire for a future together with Kanan—then watched as an inferno consumed him.

Kanan enfolded his beloved—his wife--into his energy and made a vow.  For whatever time the Cosmic Force grants me, Hera, I will remain to watch over you and our child.

But when Kanan attempted to follow Hera out of the cave, everything abruptly shifted to a purplish, interdimensional night. It was becoming infuriatingly clear to Kanan that he was as embedded with Dume as Dume was with him.  On one hand, this symbiotic relationship kept Kanan’s consciousness from dissipating into the Cosmic Force. On the other hand, Kanan felt like a tick clinging to a bantha—limited to whatever the mighty Dume wanted to do and see.

Speaking of that, what Kanan saw now was a truly enormous Loth-wolf.  Oh, so this how you choose to appear to mere mortals?  And is that my shoulder pauldron emblem on your forehead? 

“Kanan?” Looking down, Kanan was alarmed to see Ezra entrapped by the trio of smaller Loth-wolves. 

YOUR APPRENTICE. PROTECT TEMPLE.

The second mission! Consumed with concern for Hera, Kanan had neglected Ezra’s urgent task. His padawan looked so tiny and vulnerable under Dume’s divine-like scrutiny.   Kanan rushed protectively toward the teen, but it was like slogging through space waffle syrup. Can’t you see? You’re all just scaring him!  Let me talk to Ezra.

WE TALK TOGETHER.

What? How was he supposed to talk in tandem with a giant spirit wolf?  With no instructions offered—and apparently no choice--Kanan projected his will through Dume as powerfully as possible, his intent to create words the kid could understand. I’m here, Ezra. I’ll guide you the best I’m allowed through what is to come. What emerged:

I AM DUME.

Ezra looked perplexed. Kanan felt the same.  Great. The ensuing conversation pretty much went downhill from there. Kanan knew Ezra had the inner strength and cunning to carry out the mission, the grief-stricken kid just needed a little reassurance. Instead, he was berated for being afraid. Kanan focused harder, imagining himself moving Dume’s jaws to speak the right words.  I know you can do this, Ezra. You’re strong in the Force, able to channel Light and Dark like no Jedi I’ve ever known. It’s why this task fell to you. Dume rumbled:

FIGHT. TOGETHER.

Ugh!  It was the space waffle syrup all over again. Again and again, Kanan blasted his will through Dume like a foghorn, trying to relay both compassion and the scant details that had been imparted to Kanan previously by the white Loth-wolf.  The Jedi Temple is in terrible danger from the Emperor, Ezra. You must move quickly, keep its secrets safe or no one in the galaxy will be safe.  Everything boomed out of Dume’s razor-toothed jaws in cryptic fashion.

KNOWLEDGE. DESTRUCTION.

Kanan didn’t blame Ezra one bit for eyeing the keystone the wolves gave him with befuddlement, but Dume’s frustration built to dangerous levels.  Hey, you’re not exactly making it easy for him!  Ignoring Dume’s exasperated sigh, Kanan made a final effort.

RESTORE PAST. REDEEM FUTURE.

Ezra’s ensuing pleas for help were the last straw. Dume growled and rumbled ominously.  Don’t hurt him!  But the gigantic wolf snapped his jaws over Ezra, and everything shifted to blackness.

Well, that went well.  Kanan floated in the murk, sensing Dume fume all around him. Kanan discovered he retained his own formidable sulking skills.  Dume and Bendu might be godlike Force entities, but they sure shared a short fuse.  Who knew?  Maybe Dume and Bendu were ancient pals—and the reason why Bendu hadn’t blown him out of Attolon’s sky. As far as his puny human mind was concerned, both entities seemed to lack a bit of common sense in some areas.  Soooo, now what?  In case you’re interested, I have some suggestions that might actually work.  

As if in response, Kanan now found himself afloat alongside the white Loth-wolf who had guided him to destroy the TIE Defender program’s fuel supply. The grasslands rippled under the early morning sun.  Following the wolf’s intent gaze, Kanan could see Hera, Ezra, Sabine and Zeb studying the Temple keystone. Kanan felt himself vibrating with relief to see his apprentice so full of purpose again.  Looks like Dume and I got through to you after all.  And there was Sabine, head bent closely over the keystone.  Kanan’s energy brightened. Those two were an unstoppable team.

When Ezra called the Loth-wolves for a Force-assisted ride to the Temple, Kanan managed to flow alongside the group.  His journey with Hera, Ezra, Sabine and Chopper was bittersweet.  Everyone Kanan cared most about was so close, yet so far away. Every attempt to touch or communicate directly always hit a barrier like unbreakable glass. He wasn’t sure how much longer he could endure it.

 

E zra - Ja'Ghar (5 ABY )

Ezra looked out at the starfield, enjoying his temporary freedom from Thrawn. It was just PZ-5 with him on the shuttle to Ja’Ghar. So much the better.  From the moment he’d found mention of the system in the remnants of information culled during missions on the other destroyed worlds, he’d felt an irresistible pull to explore it. 

Based on the symbols and language decoded by PZ-5 and one of the remaining protocol droids onboard the Chimera, Ja’Ghar appeared to be a religious epicenter for this sector in Wild Space.  Thrawn agreed it was important to investigate the planet for any clues it might still hold on the attacking force. 

As a spiritual hub, Ezra and Thrawn both concurred the attackers had most likely devastated the planet’s artifacts and buildings…but they could have overlooked something vital.  Ezra couldn’t shake the feeling there was something crucially important awaiting his discovery.

“I’ve laid in the coordinates for our landing, Master Ezra.”  PZ-5’s metal hands moved smoothly over the controls.

“Thanks, PeeZee. Stand by, I’m going to proceed with my Jedi witchery.” Ezra winked at the droid before closing his eyes.  Reaching out, he probed for any dangers or other potential circumstances in their path.  Almost immediately, he felt a tug toward a different region of the blue-green world below them.  Eyes still closed, Ezra let his hands take hold of the shuttle’s controls.

“Sir, why are you entering different coordinates?”

By her tone, Ezra knew PZ-5 had her head cocked at a puzzled angle. “I’m picking up on a powerful energy signature.  In that region of waterfalls.” Ezra shivered, felt his consciousness slipping a bit. He focused harder, retaining control.  “Just trust me on this, okay?”

“Well…” The droid reacted as Ezra abruptly slumped.  “Master Ezra, are you all right?”

“Just…stay…on…course…” Ezra’s voice faded as a deep trance took him over.

Ezra knew he was in a dream-like vision, but everything felt intensely real. He floated in a purple black sky, staring up at a familiar, almost absurdly giant Loth-wolf. Dume’s dagger-like teeth flashed as he spoke.

RESTORE PAST. REDEEM FUTURE.

Ezra frowned, puzzled. But I’ve already done what you asked.  I opened the Gate to the World Between Worlds. I rescued Ahsoka Tano from Vader. I helped destroy the Jedi Temple to keep its power and secrets from the Emperor.

AGAIN.

What? How? The Temple is gone. Who are you, anyway? You have my master’s name, but you’re not really him. Are you?

CALEB DUME.

Ezra recoiled as fire and heat suddenly raged around him.  Not again!  But he was back inside the Imperial gunship gripping Hera.  Both of them stared incredulously while Kanan’s milky, blind eyes brightened back into teal.  It’s as if the Force itself is looking at me through his eyes.  Then Kanan flung the gunship to safety as he vanished silently into the enormous blast.

The scene suddenly shifted. Ezra lay inside the Imperial drill vehicle, feeling the Jedi Temple shuddering into destruction around them. Bright white light as the Force intensified with unfathomable power. And Kanan’s calm, assuring voice…The Force will be with you. Always. It reminded Ezra of the time his blind master saw him through a similar massive explosion of Force energies generated by the colliding Sith and Jedi holocrons.

Bright light dissolved into chilly dawn. Ezra and a sorrowful Hera faced barren ground where the great Temple once stood.  In the distance, the white Loth-wolf stared at Ezra, as if waiting for a signal.  Goodbye, Kanan.

“Master Ezra? Can you hear me?” Ezra’s eyes popped open to find PZ-5 propping him up in his pilot seat.  “Oh, there you are, sir.”  Warm sunlight filtered in through the viewscreen.  Ezra looked rapidly around, relieved to see the shuttle safely landed.

“How long was I out, PeeZee?” Breathe. Just breathe.  Ezra calmed his pumping heart. An intense wave of longing to be back on the Ghost with Kanan, Hera, Sabine, Zeb—even Chopper—nearly overwhelmed him. He took another deep breath. Relax.  When the time is right, Ahsoka will find me. Sabine will find me.

“Only for five-point-twelve minutes, sir. You made an interesting comment at the end of your trance.”

“I did?” Ezra hadn’t realized he talked aloud during the visions.

“Yes. You said, ‘I know what to do now.’ What did you mean by that?” The droid watched Ezra jump out of the pilot seat, then trailed behind him on their way to the shuttle’s ramp.

“I don’t know, PeeZee.  But I think I’m about to find out.”

Emerging from the shuttle, Ezra found himself surrounded by mystical, temperate woods.  The tall, slender trees encircled a beautiful body of water that was fed by a magnificent waterfall at one end.  Foaming water cascaded down a jagged cliff, creating a spray of mist below.

The plunging water cut deeply through the upper outcroppings of rock.  The effect resembled towers of a primitive temple jutting skyward.  Keeping the hilt of his lightsaber pike handy, Ezra explored the area, pondering overgrown vegetation that covered a variety of strange shaped lumps under leafy vines and moss.  He approached the largest lump, an angled semicircle that directly faced the waterfall.

“I think there’s some kind of monument under here.”  Ezra gestured for PZ-5 to help him tear away the clinging vines.  Their efforts revealed a tableau carved into a thick block of stone. Ezra’s eyes locked on the glyphs and primal images, excitement rising as he recognized geometric art, kindred in design to the cave paintings he’d seen on Lothal. “PeeZee, what do you make of all this?” 

“It appears the overgrowth disguised a ceremonial site from the invaders, Master Ezra. “These other hidden structures are assembled in a pattern to emphasize this particular tableau.”

“But what do these carvings look like to you?”  Ezra needed to make sure he wasn’t imagining things he wanted to see. 

“Processing, sir.” The tableau’s most prominent series of carvings depicted four different symbols set equally apart along a deep, circular groove. The droid focused silently a moment, scanning internal records for any matches. “It appears to resemble points on a compass.”

“That’s exactly what I thought.” Ezra touched each symbol in turn:  a square, a sail-shaped triangle, a bowl-shaped semi-circle, and a set of three very slender rectangles, the center one tallest.  PZ-5 cocked her head, observing.

“Sir, based on my data for comparisons, those carvings align with multiple cultural references to the four elements.”

Ezra’s eyes narrowed.  Yes, of course.  “Let me guess. The square is earth, the bowl is water, the triangle is air…that leaves these rectangles for fire.”  He turned his gaze to the small lake with its foaming waterfall. His heart beat faster.  “Looks like we’re at the water point.”

“It is a logical deduction, Master Ezra.”  PZ-5 gestured at the center of the compass.  Inside, a carved glyph combined all four elemental shapes within a series of interlocking circles.  “This infers a central connection between all four points.”

I’ve been led to a Temple that might connect to the World Between Worlds!  Ezra sensed the truth of this resonate deeply within him. Restore the past. Redeem the future.  He focused hard on the other three points, then placed his hand on the square.  Earth. Ezra could almost see and feel an endless sea of grassy plains, whimsical stone mountains protruding into a soft sky. Lothal is—was—the earth Temple.  

The pounding beat of the waterfall resonated in Ezra’s ears like a never-ending drum. Maybe the vegetation wasn’t the only thing hiding something important from the attackers.  But if that’s the water Temple, how do I get inside?

Reaching out through the Force, Ezra felt his hand drawn to the center of the tableau’s compass.  He held it there and closed his eyes. Opening his mind fully, Ezra felt the Force flow strongly through him, surging outward in an energetic wave, directly at the plunging waterfall.

Something deep within the rocky cliffs groaned, stone slowly grinding on stone.  The roaring of the waterfall altered with it. Ezra opened his eyes wide, both astonished and gratified at the sight of the waterfall parting like foaming curtains.  The waters churned and plummeted now to either side of a deep and gaping hole in the cliff face, diverted by some unseen mechanism Ezra had activated through the Force.

PZ-5’s blank face somehow managed to look stunned.  “Sir…it’s a cave.” Ezra gazed at the dripping, jagged entrance above them.  It resembled nothing other than the gaping maw of a huge, wolf-like creature.  Stone stairs cut into the cliff face led upward into its darkness.

Ezra’s stomach knotted with eagerness, and a hint of foreboding. This time, I’m going in prepared.

 

Thrawn - Chimaera (5 ABY )

Thrawn waited patiently while his orders were carried out to the letter. The Chimaera’s tractor beam hauled in a small, derelict asteroid, then anchored it in place near the outer hull of the starship’s main cargo hold.  The unimpressive hunk of rock had been hurtling through the outer regions of a system known as Kkantu according to the surviving records of its massacred inhabitants.

The retrieval team carefully extracted the Republic era beacon found lodged in the asteroid, sterilizing the slim device before bringing it aboard the Star Destroyer.  The team deposited the beacon in Thrawn’s office, then reluctantly departed.  Thrawn had no intentions of allowing anyone else to view the beacon’s data before he analyzed it first.

Thrawn found the decryption code easily enough.  After all, the Republic had become the Empire, so retained prior codes within the Imperial database, whether or not they were still actively used.  Curious to see if this message in a bottle would prove worthy of its retrieval, Thrawn activated the data cube.

The holographic image of an aging Clone War trooper took shape. Thrawn couldn’t see much of the clone’s surroundings, but he appeared to be piloting a fighter craft of unknown alien design.

“My original designation was CC-Five Six Seven Five.  I am a defector of the Grand Army of the Republic. My chosen name is Sulis. I leave this message as an urgent warning for the Senate and the Jedi--or whatever entity may now oversee the civilized Galaxy.”  The clone paused, gathering his thoughts. “It is imperative that the Senate heed my words. Do not disregard me because I chose to leave a war that killed so many of my brothers and held no desirable future for any brothers who might survive.”

Thrawn studied the clone’s heavily bearded face and pain-filled eyes. This soldier had sacrificed honor and duty to eke out a bleak existence in Wild Space.  In his last moments, the clone clearly sought to redeem himself.

“Those Separatist clankers we fought by the thousands are a pitiful lot in comparison to the horde raging through these systems.  I don’t know much yet, except they came from outside our Galaxy.  I suspect these artificial creatures wiped out whoever was foolish enough to create them in the first place.  What I do know is they are like no enemy I’ve ever faced.  Their only cause seems to be exterminating us organics like we’re a virus to be cleansed from our own Galaxy.”

Sulis paused to alter his craft’s course.  “I’m no Jedi like my former general, but my wife, H’ida…was a Force-sensitive healer.  She got part of a message to me before…before they massacred her and the entire settlement while I was off planet to trade wares.”  

The clone wiped his eyes with his blocky hands. “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.” 

Sulis pressed various buttons, arming his guns. In the tense silence, Thrawn’s mind filtered and stored every bit of information with growing excitement. I was right. It is not the Yuuzhan Vong. 

Sulis spoke again, his voice hard. “The worst part of her message was…these butchering clankers are only clearing the way for more of their kind.”

The clone increased his craft’s speed.  Thrawn absorbed the ominous words.  If this were indeed true, the threat was dire for any system this vanguard targeted.  Thrawn’s thoughts were disrupted as the clone shifted his holo recorder’s direction.  The image now revealed what lay outside CC-5675’s viewscreen. Thrawn’s body stiffened.

A countless multitude of huge, metallic forms careened directly forward.  But these were not starships.  These streamlined entities were inorganic individuals: coldly glowing eyes topped their menacing, humanoid shapes. Every appendage bristled with weaponry.  High intensity energy beams lashed the alien craft mercilessly. 

CC-5675’s voice rose in volume.  “I’m not going to make it back to Coruscant, obviously! But I’ll take out every bastard clanker I can!”  Accompanied by the clone trooper’s war cry, the small craft dove headlong into a dense cluster of the terrifying assailants.  The holographic image abruptly died out.

Thrawn stared at the empty air, brooding.  He slowly realized his fists were clenched so tightly, he’d left nail marks in his blue palms.  Thrawn focused, relaxing his body and mind, allowing his calculations to flow.  One thing was clear. He had no doubt the Vong and this vanguard would take immense pleasure in decimating each other.  However, it was far too risky to lure the vanguard toward the Unknown Regions.  He would have to find a way to lure the Vong to Wild Space.  Not only would his strategy remove the immediate threat to the Chiss Ascendancy, but the Vong would throw themselves against the vanguard…and whatever was following in its wake.

We must reconnect with the  Greater Galaxy at all costs. Too much was at stake.

 

Kanan - Lothal (1 BBY )

Kanan now hovered in the dark night some distance from the Jedi Temple, sickened by the sight of its precious arts and knowledge laid out on the ground like butchered meat from a kill.

Yet, he was more concerned about Hera.  She was uncharacteristically fragile, so fearful of losing Ezra and Sabine to the Emperor she wanted to abort the mission.  Instinctively, Kanan reached out to lend his strength and support.  For the first time, Hera’s hand reached upward, her fingers intertwining with his.  She can feel my presence!  Every part of Kanan radiated his confidence, his love.  Hera, I’m here with you. I know the kids can do this. Have faith.  Under his touch, Hera relaxed.

Kanan watched alongside Hera and Zeb while Ezra and Sabine stealthily examined the magnificent Temple painting to decipher it and open the Gate.  Sabine’s capture by the minister was a very dicey moment, but Ezra managed to enter the portal.  Kanan attempted to follow—and was yanked back by Dume like a Loth-kitten by its neck.

STAY.

Ow. Fine.  Kanan’s prior visions had been hazy about what lay in store for his padawan, but he’d guided Ezra on this mission knowing inside the Temple existed a chance to save Ahsoka from Vader on Malachor.  If rescued, Ahsoka would be a powerful ally to help protect Ezra and the Temple against the Emperor. She’s certainly more skilled at combat than me.

For now, Kanan contented himself with supporting Hera and Zeb’s rescue of Sabine. Not that those two need much help.  In typical Ghost family style, Sabine escaped from the minister with Hera and Zeb in the nick of time to help Ezra close the Gate. It was unclear what happened with Ahsoka, but Kanan felt only gratitude for Ezra’s safe return.  Kanan both sensed and shared Ezra’s deep regret the Temple must be destroyed, but it was the only way to keep power hungry Palpatine out of the Temple’s pathways through time and space.  As the Temple’s energy exploded around them, Kanan called upon Dume to help him shield his family.  The Imperials…well, they weren’t so lucky.

Before Ezra lost consciousness, Kanan channeled love, strength and calm to boy who’d long ago become far more than a padawan to him. The Force will be with you. Always.

And rejoiced to know Ezra heard him.

 

Ezra - Ja'Ghar (5 ABY )

Carefully treading the last treacherous step, Ezra entered the cave, his movements hampered by his heavy stormtrooper armor and helmet.  Behind him, PZ-5 carried a pack filled with bacta wraps. Moisture pitter-pattered everywhere, fed by the mist from the waterfall’s parted curtain outside.

“Look, PeeZee.” Ezra walked toward the back of the dark cave where deep carvings in the rock glowed with the eerie light of phosphorous microorganisms. He removed his helmet, eyes glittering with excitement.

The array of primal, geometric shapes created three large, bipedal figures, all wearing headdresses decorated in an alien, amphibious style. The hand on the female figure to the left was open to the sky. The tallest, central figure faced forward, his webbed hands stretched out to either side. The figure to the right pointed his closed fist at the ground.

Ezra’s breath escaped him.  “It is a Gate.”  PZ-5 eyed the stone carvings blankly.

“A gate, sir? I see a wall.” 

Ezra grinned at the droid. “Let’s see which one of us is right.” Ezra stood next to the female figure, then placed his gloved hand on the softly glowing stone hand that stretched upward to the sky. 

The bioluminescence intensified, outlining all the figures with eerie light.  Ezra moved away, watching intently while the female lowered her hand and faced the central figure.  He raised his outstretched arms high overhead.  Ezra heard faint voices speaking in a language he couldn’t understand.  Outside, the roar of the waterfall shifted in tone.

On the right side of the cave, a paper-thin sheet of water cascaded from the ceiling mere inches from the wall, creating a continuous, transparent curtain.  The water at the bottom flowed along the stone floor to spill out the cave entrance.   In the cave wall behind the sheet of water, phosphorous light grew brighter and brighter.  It formed the shape of a serpentine, amphibious creature with wolf-like jaws.

Ezra and PZ-5 watched in fascination while the glowing creature circled faster and faster.  Its arc of light reflected in the water’s transparent curtain.  Finally, the creature’s wolf-jaws clamped down on its own tail, creating a wavering, glowing circle within the thin sheet of watery curtain. 

“I…I don’t understand,” droned PZ-5.  “Is it a gate, or isn’t it?”

“It’s a portal, PeeZee, to a place I don’t really have time to explain right now. What I do need you to understand is this:  If I don’t come out of there within three Lothalian rotations, you’re to use the shuttle’s cannons and destroy this cave and everything around it.”

The droid practically staggered.  “What? But why, Master Ezra?”

“Because Thrawn and his Imperial cronies can’t know about this place. Once I’m gone, what you’re going to do first is secretly record all the symbols in this cave and the ones outside with the tableau.  Then you’ll take the shuttle to our original coordinates and complete the mission. If Thrawn calls in, you tell him everything is fine, and we’ll rejoin the Chimaera shortly. Got that?”

“But…I…yes…”

“And if I don’t come out in three rotations, you’ll tell him I attempted to Force connect with some very large Ja’Gharian carnivores, only I must have insulted them because I wound up as dinner.”

“What large carnivores, exactly, sir?”

“Trust me, they’re out there.” He patted his pike hilt.  “Be glad you’re a droid.”  Ezra took the big pack away from PZ-5 and hoisted it onto his back.

“I still don’t understand why you must enter this portal, sir.”

“PeeZee, this is a mission I was given over five years ago, but I couldn’t complete it then. It wasn’t the right time.  But now I think the Force has given me a second chance. If I don’t try, I’m not sure I can live with myself.”  Ezra smiled softly at PZ-5. “Hey, don’t look so glum.  I made it back the last time I did this on Lothal.”

“I…will miss you if you don’t return, Master Ezra.”

Ezra fondly patted the droid’s shoulder. “You’ve been a trusted friend to me, PeeZee.  As a friend, I hope you’ll do me one more favor.”

“I would be honored.”

“If anyone can get the Chimaera back home, it’s Grand Admiral Thrawn.  But if I’m no longer aboard, it’s urgent that you find my friends, Ahsoka Tano and Sabine Wren.  Tell them all the times we’ve shared together, everything we’ve discovered about the invaders.  But the most important thing you must tell Ahsoka and Sabine is that I found this Temple.  Show them your secret recordings. Tell them I did it for Kanan.  And Hera.  Only they can safely know, and only they will understand.  Do you promise?”

PZ-5 nodded solemnly.  “I promise, Master Ezra.”  Ezra nodded solemnly in return.

“Thank you, my friend.” Ezra’s face lit up with a smile. “Remember, I plan to be back. For now, enjoy playing spy droid. I know how much you like it.”

PZ-5 waggled a finger at him. “I cannot argue with you on that point.”

Ezra put his helmet back on, settled his pack.  He gently pushed his gloved hand through the sheet of water, felt the portal give under his touch. “See you soon, PeeZee.” And then Ezra slipped through the glowing circle…and vanished.

PZ-5 stared, processing. “It is indeed a gate.” The swirling serpentine figure slowed to a stop but stayed aglow. “Very well. Now commencing recordings and Lothalian rotation countdown.”

Inside the portal, Ezra found himself in an interdimensional place almost identical to the one he’d explored in the Lothal Temple.  Both strange and familiar voices echoed around him while he walked the twisting pathways.  There were differences.  The pathways rose and fell much more steeply, more frequently circling upside down.  Ezra had no trouble falling off, everything around him shifted to his own perspective. The portals were more primitive in design, some vaguely disturbing. Other dimly lit portals made Ezra’s skin crawl as he walked by.

How do I find the portal to Kanan? He’d been avoiding this question as he’d grabbed his various supplies from the shuttle for the pack.  The Daughter’s bird had guided him to Ahsoka.  The portal to Kanan before had only been a trap set by the Emperor, one that Ezra had barely avoided thanks to Ahsoka’s intervention. Well, now the Emperor’s dead. He can’t try that again.

Ezra searched the surrounding starfield, searching for the Wolf constellation.  He was surprised to find it in the “sky” much farther back.  He didn’t recall seeing it earlier. He turned back, walking faster.  At least it will be closer to my exit. Ezra listened more carefully, ears tuned to the distinctive sound of Kanan among the echoing voices. And then Ezra heard it, deep and soft.

Nobody ever pays enough attention to the world around them.

The voice came from a portal with artwork on top that reminded Ezra of the Lothalian cave paintings.  It was a small figure, likely a child, surrounded by radiating lines.  The circle of the portal itself depicted the open jaws of a very large wolf.  Okay, I get it, this has to be the one.  But something inside him now hesitated to proceed.  Ezra knew Kanan’s sacrifice would be worthless if he was pulled away before the gunship was hurled to safety.  Everyone on board would die in the explosion, and Ezra wouldn’t even exist to be here now. And if Kanan didn’t die, his spirit--his will--wouldn’t have been able to guide Ezra via Dume through those three days to ensure the Jedi Temple disappeared from the Emperor.  I told PeeZee I know what to do now. But do I really? Was it the Force at work here, or his own wishful thinking for a second chance?

The future, by its nature, can be changed.

Ezra froze.  He recognized that immortal voice.  It was the Son from the Gate.  It had been this same voice who asked Ezra not so long ago: Is your master truly dead? But, if the Son was guiding him now instead of the Daughter…was it a good thing?  The Son represented the Dark side.  And yet…if the Force was balanced between Light and Dark, and needed both to exist…was the Dark innately evil?  After all, the Son spoke through his “nature channel.”  In Ezra’s experience, most of nature and its animals, including more sentient creatures like the Loth-wolves and purrgil, did not seem to exist for one side of the Force over another.  If they were part of the balance, didn’t it stand to reason he must be tapping into both Light and Dark to communicate with them?

Is your master truly dead?  The voice and its question echoed again around Ezra.  But what Ezra sensed was the Light had opened a portal on Lothal…and now the Dark wanted its turn here on Ja’Ghar.  A balance.  If this meant Kanan could be saved like Ahsoka, so be it.  And with that thought, Ezra’s mind cleared, and he realized that he had known all along exactly what to do.  Ezra set down his pack, opening it to pull out the bacta wraps.  He adjusted his helmet, gloves, and armor, making sure everything was secure.  

He stood before the portal, reaching out calmly with his mind. If this is the will of the Force, you will open.

The circular wolf mouth began to glow, brighter and brighter.  Inside the portal, intense heat and flames.  And just visible through the inferno, Ezra could see Kanan from behind.  His master had already turned his face toward the gunship, one hand stretched to hold back Hera, the other splayed before Ezra to keep the intense fire at bay.

Ezra didn’t need to see Kanan’s face.  This scene was burned into his memory forever.  In just a moment, the Force would fill Kanan so completely, its healing energy would regenerate his milky eyes to blue-green.  That healing power should protect Kanan  enough from what Ezra was about to do. But he had to wait, just a moment longer…wait for Kanan to turn completely… to shove away the gunship.  And in that next fraction of a second, if Kanan slumped, it meant he’d projected his consciousness outward before the explosion could ignite his body with agony…Yes! There he goes--NOW!!!

Ezra grabbed Kanan through the portal, the intense, raging inferno searing his gloves and armor.  Ignoring the pain, Ezra yanked Kanan’s inert body back into the interdimensional realm, out of time and space.  Heat and light and fire blasted, then the portal closed.  Ezra fought unconsciousness, calling upon the Force for strength. With shaking hands, Ezra lay Kanan on the pathway, then clumsily cocooned Kanan’s singed body in bacta wraps.  Gently wrapping Kanan’s head and scorched fringes of hair, Ezra managed a weak smile.  “Good thing you already shaved most of that off.”

Ezra dragged off his helmet, grimacing at the agony in his hands.  He slowly peeled off his damaged gloves and armor, relieved to find none of it melted to his skin.  Wrapping the remaining bacta wraps around his lower arms and hands, Ezra sank back with a shaky sigh. He let the soothing mixture ease the worst of the pain.  Kanan remained unmoving next to him, the slow rise and fall of his chest the only proof he was still alive.

Ezra unwrapped the fingers of his right hand to carefully open the lid of Kanan’s nearest eye.  Vivid teal stared back at him.  Ezra felt tears well, and he gently closed Kanan’s lid.  He rewrapped his hand, then completely broke down into sobs of relief.  A nagging part of his mind reminded him: Kanan still needs his essence back.  What if he can’t find his body? Ezra shoved that away, giving thanks to the Force for his success so far.  He whispered a thank you to the Son as well.

Ezra realized he had no way of knowing how much time was passing in the outside world.  Perhaps it had been one Lothalian rotation already.  And he needed to get Kanan into a bacta tank as soon as possible.  Then, scattered through the intermittent voices always echoing in the World Between Worlds, Ezra suddenly heard Zeb say, “What do you mean gone?”

Listen.  Ezra emptied his mind, reaching out.  “I thought we had more time.” Hera. 

And then it was Sabine, “I agree with you, but only because we can’t let that thing track us back to our base.”

“It talks with its eyes.” Zeb again.

And so their voices periodically faded in and out, giving Ezra clues as to how much time was passing.  It also reminded him how greatly he missed them all. With a weary start, he realized he better move Kanan to the Ja’Gharian portal before time ran out and PZ-5 blew the cave apart.

Ezra’s hands had recovered enough to heave Kanan up.  He dragged Kanan by walking backward; it was ungainly, hard work, with Kanan’s bootheels trailing behind on the twisting pathways.  Right now, I sure wish you were a lot shorter, Master.  Ezra stopped for a rest every now and again, listening intently for the voice clues.  When the Ja’Gharian portal came into view, Ezra hauled Kanan with renewed energy.

Several steps away from the portal, he heard Sabine say, “That one! The Son!”  Ezra frantically pulled Kanan along.  It was almost the third dawn on Lothal, and Ezra’s time was running out.

“The Force will be with you. Always.” Kanan.  Time was speeding up! Ezra winced in pain, fumbling as he almost dropped Kanan.

“He’s gone now, isn’t he? I mean, really gone.” Hera’s sad, resigned voice echoed around him. Ezra toppled backwards through the portal, yanking Kanan along with him.  As the duo hit the cold and wet stone floor…the cave began to shake. Recharged by the sheet of chilly water, Ezra blinked upwards to see the circling serpentine creature slow and dim as the bioluminescence in the cave wall behind died out.  The cave shuddered harder.

“No, PeeZee, not yet!”  But Ezra’s commlink had been fried with his armor.  The sheet of water cut off like a closed faucet.  Desperate, Ezra Force-pushed Kanan’s body along the slippery wet floor as gently as he could.  “Sorry, Kanan!”  Ezra stumbled toward the cave entrance, shouting wildly.  He stuck his head out of the entrance, the bright sunshine hurting his eyes.  “PeeZee, stop!!”  Except, there was no attacking shuttle outside.  Ezra saw the Lambda parked at a distance, the engines starting to fire.  Ezra waved his arms desperately…and sagged with relief as PZ-5 waved back from the cockpit.

But the shaking was still intensifying.  All the figures on the back wall went ominously dark. Why is this happening? I didn’t close the Gate. And then it hit him.  I pulled Kanan out of a different portal.  Ahsoka hadn’t come with Ezra back on Lothal for her own reasons. Well, a little heads up from the Son would have been nice!  Too late for that now. The groan of rock sliding on rock disrupted his thoughts.  The waterfall curtains started to cascade inward.  Ezra grabbed Kanan--and jumped off the cliff, splashing into the foaming water below.  Still underwater, he dragged Kanan along, headed for the surface as far as possible from the incoming torrent. Ezra broke the surface, gasping for air. 

“Master Ezra!  Are you all right?” PZ-5 had hustled to the shoreline. 

Ezra plowed through the water, keeping Kanan’s head above water. I sure hope he’s still breathing.  How ironic to save his master from fire only to drown him instead!  Behind them, the jagged spires of the Temple collapsed inward, chunks flying.  Ezra Force-blocked a few smaller particles that plummeted directly at them. By then, PZ-5 reached out and Ezra shoved Kanan into her arms. “PeeZee—meet Kanan Jarrus!” The perplexed droid goggled, managing a nod.

“We must get up the ramp immediately, sir!” Ezra and PZ-5 propped the blissfully unconscious Jedi master between them. Several of the bacta wraps hung loose, fluttering as the trio escaped up the ramp of the shuttle.   

Inside the cockpit, Ezra leapt into the pilot seat, launching the shuttle skyward in a steep turn just as the Ja’Ghar Temple blew its top like a water-filled volcano. The shuttle barely missed the tremendous flood of water and rocky debris.  It soared up and away, spattered with mud and droplets.

 

Kanan  - Lothal (1 BBY )

Kanan hovered, watching Ezra and Hera where they stood in the distance, surrounded by barren, beautiful landscape where the Jedi Temple once stood.  Next to Kanan, shrouded in the misty light, was the white Loth-wolf.  It glanced from Kanan to the others, silently waiting.  For what?

Feeling uneasy, Kanan tried to move closer to embrace the two,  but the relentless tugging increased dramatically.  And there was no responding anchor against it from Dume.

WE MUST GO.

No!  Let me stay. They could finally feel me, hear me.

STAY AND VANISH.  OR GO TOGETHER.

And then, with an undertone of respect:  YOUR CHOICE.

All this time since the explosion, Kanan had felt himself pushed and pulled, fighting upstream to accomplish what his will had desired.  Yet, here his family was. Safe. And he sensed Hera and the others were going to be okay…or as okay as any war would ever let a family be. 

Dume said it was his choice, but Kanan decided it would be their choice.  Like the white wolf, he waited.  In the distance, Hera gently touched her shoulder. “He’s gone now, isn’t he?  I mean, really gone.”  Kanan twisted inward, barely hearing anything again until Ezra’s voice cut through with its reluctant resignation.

“Goodbye, Kanan.”

Kanan hung there in the dawn’s light for a moment.  He expected to feel sorrow wash over him, but their ultimate acceptance eased an inner ache he didn’t even know he’d had.  Did he really want to remain here, not even a ghost of himself?  If they could accept his departure, so could he.

Whatever Dume or the Cosmic Force now needed of him—if anything—he would do it.  His time here was complete, and Kanan let go with simple gratitude for all the love he’d been able to share with those whose time had not yet come.

Beside him, the white Loth-wolf melted away into the rising sun.  And Kanan’s consciousness abruptly tumbled and spun, released from Lothal to spin faster and faster into a blazing kaleidoscope of time and space—

—Bright light, so bright it hurt to look.  Kanan squinted, his eyes desperately working to focus. He was floating, floating in…a bacta tank?  He convulsed reflexively, sucked air through the respirator, almost gasping as his startled heart kicked into overdrive.  Through the thick liquid, he could hear alarms sounding.  Suddenly, intense blue eyes pressed up to the tank wall.  A young man with dark hair, a goatee, and a growing smile on his face.  Ezra.

“Kanan?” Ezra’s eyes widened and he placed both hands on the transparisteel, the closest thing to a hug he could give. Ezra’s thoughts were written all over his face: Kanan is…Kanan!

Feeling trapped in the tank, Kanan called upon the Force to center himself with peace and calm.  It wasn’t easy.  Intense emotions seared through him like the inferno that had taken—nearly taken—his life.  Kanan had presumed all along it was the Cosmic Force tugging away on him, but it had turned out to be his own not-so-dead body.  Leave it to Dume to keep him in the dark about the Force granting him a second chance.  Then again, maybe Dume hadn’t wanted to raise false hopes.  Ezra had succeeded despite almost impossible odds.

Kanan would be with Hera again. And I'll be staying on that Kalikori.  He would finally meet their child, be a father.  Kanan was returning to everyone and everything he loved. On top of all these miracles, he’d been restored the gift of sight.  Salty tears blended with the fluid surrounding him.  And then the med droid injected a solution, sinking Kanan into a deep healing sleep.

 

Ezra - Chimaera (5 ABY )

Thrawn paced his office, striving for calm, but these were certainly the most unusual of circumstances.

“Commander Bridger, how does a Jedi Knight who died five years ago—in an explosion that derailed my TIE Defender program, I might add—wind up in my ship’s bacta tank out on the edges of Wild Space?”  Before Ezra could speak, Thrawn snapped out, “And why should I let him stay in it?”

Thrawn’s eyes flamed so red, Ezra almost expected them to catch fire.  Ezra folded his arms, finding himself abnormally peaceful.

“I actually have a question for your first, Admiral.  Do you ever wonder why the purrgil dumped us out here together?”

“What does that have to do with my inquiry? You know full well you deceived those weak-minded creatures into doing your Rebel warfare. “

“I had zero mind control over them or where they brought us. I’m sure you’ve noticed they haven’t come back.”  Now Thrawn’s glare turned icy.  Ezra shrugged his shoulders.

“So here we are…by the will of the Force, not so conveniently discovering a huge threat to the galaxy.” Ezra held up his hand to hold off a retort from Thrawn.  “And also through the will of the Force, a ‘poorly trained child’—that would be me—pulled Kanan through time and space thanks to a convenient space anomaly right where PZ-5 and I happened to be.”

Thrawn stopped pacing. “I don’t believe a word of your ‘space anomaly’ explanation, Bridger. It is absolutely ludicrous and entirely undocumented.”

“Fine. Then I’ll stop talking about it.  You can’t deny my master is here and very much alive. It seems very obvious to me the Force thinks the galaxy—and you—need Kanan and me back together.  Don’t tell me you can’t find an efficient use for two Jedi in those big plans you’re cooking up to wow the Chiss Ascendancy.”

Thrawn’s eyes penetrated Ezra for a very long moment.  Ezra could almost see the wheels within wheels turning.

“Oh, indeed I can.”  Thrawn’s lips curved ever so slightly.  “And I will.” He gestured at the door. Dismissed.

Ezra turned to leave, then a thought occurred to him.  “You don’t happen to have any other lightsa—” Thrawn cut in smooth as silk.

“Kanan Jarrus must earn it first.”

Ezra departed, feeling a bit less peaceful. Perhaps substantially less peaceful.

 

Kanan - Chimaera (5 ABY )

Kanan rested quietly in the medical bay, still adjusting to not being dead while savoring the visual details of everything around him.  Even the bossy XT-92 med droid didn’t annoy him too much.  Some areas of his skin needed further healing, but most had returned to its light russet brown color.

Closing his eyes, he could still tune in his highly developed Force-sight. He’d need to actively use it to make sure his advanced abilities didn’t weaken.  He looked up as Ezra came in, clutching a cup of caf.  “Sorry…I’d get you some, but that hovering droid won’t allow it.” 

“I think saving my life pretty much makes up for it.” Kanan’s mouth quirked.

Ezra plopped down next to Kanan’s bed with a sigh, his blue eyes darkened with shadows. “Yeah, well, I’m not so sure I’ve done you any favors, Kanan. We’re stuck out here with Thrawn, one step behind a new enemy that could shred this ship like a rabid Loth-wolf. “

“Ezra.  Being here—even for a moment—to see the man you’ve become…it’s worth any danger.” 

Ezra ducked his head, cheeks flushed.  Kanan gripped Ezra’s forearm, feeling the Force resonate between them.  “Always remember. We are the balance, Ezra. We are supposed to be here now. Where Lothal needs us most.”

Ezra lifted his gaze back to Kanan, brightening again.  “Yes, Master.”

Kanan’s lips curved.  “You know, I’d say you’ve grown waaay past the apprentice stage.”

“Are you saying…you’re no longer my Master?” Ezra’s brow furrowed.

“More like I’m sensing the Force reunited us to become a new kind of team.  We’ll just have to figure it out as we go along—like we’ve always done.” 

Ezra’s thoughtful expression eased into a teasing smile.  “Well, don’t get too bossy about it. You’re not all that much older than me anymore.”  Ezra’s grin widened.  “I just realized—won’t you be a little younger than Hera now?”

Hera. Kanan’s heart swelled with an almost unbearable longing to hold her—and our five-year-old!—tightly in his arms and never let go. He forced the lump in his throat down with a laugh. “And I look forward to reminding her of that every day.”   

Ezra’s grin slipped away.  “I wish I could tell you when we’ll make it home.”  The unspoken if we’ll make it home hung silently between the two Jedi. 

Kanan sighed deeply, then his somber expression shifted into his signature smirk. “Hey, at least it’ll give me time to grow my hair out.”

 

Jacen, Hera and Sabine - Lothal (5 ABY )

Jacen Syndulla skipped along the beach, trailing behind his mother and Aunt Sabine.  The sea lapped gently against the sand and stonier outcroppings.  Jacen zigzagged among scattered debris washed up by yesterday’s unusually fierce storm, searching for pirate treasures hidden in the kelp and rocks.  Hondo will be so jealous!  The breeze blew Jacen’s bright green bangs into his eyes and he flipped his hair aside with a grin. Although sometimes he wished he had long, curving lekku like Grandfather Cham, Jacen felt nothing but pride whenever anyone said he looked like his father.  I’m the son of a Jedi Knight.

“Jacen, don’t run off too far,” Mama called out.

She and Aunt Sabine stood looking back at a gleaming, spiral form that stretched into the blue sky.  Mama had explained Aunt Sabine worked with others on the City Council to build a memorial to Lothal’s freedom from the Empire.  They’d come for a few rotations to join other family and friends for the grand opening.  Jacen liked any excuse to visit Aunt Sabine.  She told great stories about all her explosive adventures. Plus, there was supposed to be a huge party.

“Okay, Mama!” Jacen really did mean to obey her this time, but then he saw huge Loth-wolf prints in the damp sand.  He knew immediately those led to something exciting.  Making sure Mama’s pretty face was turned away, Jacen dashed off. Oh, yeah, he’d have plenty to tell Hondo later today.

Jacen followed the tracks around a mound of sea-rusted permasteel.  I bet this is from the dome that got blown up in the sky.  That was one of his favorite stories, especially when Uncle Zeb told it.  But right now, he was more interested in the pit the Loth-wolf had dug.  Avoiding all the piled-up sand, Jacen slipped into the damp hole.  And landed on a storage container.  It was pretty banged up, but still shut tight.  I wonder what’s inside?  Jacen lay his hand against the lock.  He closed his eyes…and reached out with his mind to open it.

Huddled together in private conversation, Hera and Sabine didn’t see the feisty five-year-old disappear behind the washed-up wreckage. 

“Truthfully, I’m not sure what to do, Sabine.  Just the other day, Jacen managed to lock Zeb and Kallus in the cargo hold.  About five minutes after I left.” 

Sabine stifled a smile. “I’m pretty sure Chopper played a role in that.”

Hera managed a wan chuckle. “But he’s always knowing things he shouldn’t, getting into places and things that should be beyond him.”

Sabine gestured at the Liberation of Lothal spire. “You have to admit, his parents happen to be well known troublemakers.” 

The two women shared a wry grin before Hera’s expression tightened again.

“I know. But now that’s Jacen’s getting older, the safest thing seems to send him to stay with the few other Force sensitive younglings. He could learn from Luke…but then I’d hardly see him.” Hera’s graceful hands clenched.  “I’m just not ready for that.”

Sabine eyed Hera with concern. “Are Jacen’s Force abilities becoming a danger to himself or others?” 

Hera sighed. “He got teased again the other day for not looking Twi’lek enough. Jacen didn’t hurt the boy…but he did Force push the toy they were arguing about hard enough to stick in the wall.”  Hera’s lekku slumped. “If only Kanan or Ezra were here to teach him.”

“Hera, there may be other options.” Sabine tried to contain her excitement. “I haven’t had a chance to tell you yet. Ahsoka Tano is returning soon.”

“Ahsoka’s coming back? That’s, that’s…welcome news” Hera smiled, recalling the Togruta with both fond and bitter memories. “But she’s not a Jedi anymore, is she?”

Sabine planted her hands on her hips. “Hera, she’s a Force wielder…Surely, she can at least offer some useful advice about Jacen.” Sabine did not add before Ahsoka and I go looking for Ezra.  She would share that significant news with Hera and the others later.

“Yes, of course, you’re right, Sabine.” Hera squeezed Sabine’s shoulder. “Speaking of my son, where did that little Loth-rat go?” 

Hera and Sabine scanned around, calling out Jacen’s name.  Hera now spied the Loth-wolf paw prints leading away.  “Jacen!”

Distant movement caught Sabine’s eye and she pointed. “There he is, he just jumped on top of that wreckage.” 

She and Hera rushed toward Jacen, relief on their faces. Hera beckoned imperiously.

“Jacen Caleb Syndulla, you get down from there before you fall through!”

Jacen waved back from his precarious perch with a gap-toothed grin. Then, he ignited the lightsaber upraised in his hand.  The brilliant blue blade stopped Hera and Sabine in their tracks.

“Is that Kanan’s…?” Sabine’s voice choked up.

Hera’s own voice tried to scream, cry and laugh at the same time. “Jacen?!”  Her legs unfroze, and she raced across the last of the sand just as Jacen jumped down with a flourish of the humming blade. 

He switched off the lightsaber, placing it obediently in Hera’s commanding hand.  “Better put it somewhere safe, Mama.” Jacen looked off into a distance only he could see and smiled. “I think Daddy’s going to need it back.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 2 - A Tangled Web We Weave
5 ABY

Thrawn - Chimaera

Thrawn slowly circled his desk as the enlarged display of the Chimaera’s secondary hanger emitted from the holoprojector. His gaze intensified as the focal point zoomed in on Ezra Bridger, trapped within a trio of hovering training droids. Moving with fluid grace, Bridger deflected an intense volley of crimson bolts by whirling the bright yellow blades of his pike from side to side.

“Ezra!” The image widened to reveal Kanan Jarrus, eyes closed, who evaded a flurry of laser fire while bounding acrobatically from one Lambda shuttle to another. The five training droids in pursuit dove ever closer to their elusive target.

Following the Jedi’s nimble movements, the grand admiral noted with satisfaction that Jarrus was wearing the same type of makeshift uniform he’d imposed upon Bridger years ago: A light grey Imperial boilersuit, utility belt, blaster holster, and polished, black knee boots. It had allowed for ample freedom of movement, while enabling Bridger to blend in—at least aesthetically—with the Star Destroyer’s crew. Although Bridger had been forbidden any insignia or emblem related to the Jedi or Rebellion, Thrawn never forced his “military guest” to don the Imperial Crest. Indeed, the ongoing arrangement became a tacit reminder of their fragile alliance. With Jarrus now aboard, it remained to be seen how much the reunited Jedi duo would chafe under Thrawn’s strict command.

In the holovid, Bridger deactivated his pike just before hurling it directly at Jarrus. The older Jedi caught the hilt, igniting the twin blades as he flipped backwards to face off against the manically swirling droids. Deflected energy beams flashed in all directions.

On the ground, Bridger fired away on his blaster—his remaining two droids shorted out in a spray of sparks. As Bridger leaped to join his Jedi master on the shuttle, Jarrus flung the still blazing pike directly into Bridger’s path.

Without missing a beat, Bridger caught the spinning hilt, then landed on the shuttle’s roof with a dramatic flourish. Two droids sizzled loudly as the pike blades made brutal contact. The surviving droids’ laser bolts ricocheted throughout the hanger like fireworks gone astray.

With a flip of his left hand, Jarrus Force-pushed his three energy spewing droids hard enough to clatter against the far side of the hanger. Eyes still closed, Jarrus grabbed the blaster from his holster to finish off the hapless trio with dead center stun shots.

In the sudden silence, Bridger ruefully nudged the two slightly smoking droids at his feet. “Looks like an exciting evening of repairs.”

Jarrus’s eyes finally opened while his mouth twisted into a sideways smile. “At least there’s something left to fix this time. The grand admiral must have ordered a few upgrades.” The Jedi spun his blaster before shoving it back into the holster, then gave a sardonic salute in the direction of the holo recording lens. He called out with mock cheer, “Nice try! We need faster, more intense!”

Thrawn’s narrowed eyes shifted across the room to his only companion, Cri Braruz, a young, female Devaronian. Visible through the holovid’s dim light, Braruz’s pink skin looked almost gray, while the horn buds on her brow appeared nearly as dark as the purple hair under her snug science officer’s cap. She quickly pressed one of the projector controls. The holovid abruptly froze, capturing Jarrus and Bridger in the middle of sharing amused grins.

“What is the status of your preliminary report on Kanan Jarrus, Lieutenant Braruz?”

“I’m still compiling the data, Admiral. I will include the relevant findings from the medbay. Per your orders, I will also continue to personally schedule and oversee the Jedi training sessions…provided we have your ongoing permission to use the secondary hanger, of course.” Braruz gestured at the frozen image, her dark purple eyes lowered deferentially.

Thrawn nodded his approval. “Of course. I surmise you have some information of consequence you wish to relay regarding our unexpected military guest?”

“Yes, sir. One moment.” Braruz swiftly picked up a datapad to tap efficiently at its keys. Thrawn had yet to regret handpicking the eager Devaronian from a roster of alien recruits shortly before destroying the Rebel base at Atollon. He’d directly ignored his colleagues’ derisive opinions, intrigued by the rarity of a female of that species dedicating herself not only to spacefaring, but to an isolated existence within the human-centric Imperial Navy. Thrawn’s instincts had been quickly vindicated by Braruz’s scientific mind and utter loyalty to him. Like Commodore Faro, the Devaronian had proven herself worthy of Thrawn’s rare trust; during the campaign to eradicate the Phoenix and Lothalian Rebels, he’d assigned Braruz to thoroughly analyze and collect additional data for his archives on Jedi lore.

With Faro's fortuitous transfer to command the Eleventh Fleet, followed by a multitude of his officers perishing on the crippled Chimaera, Thrawn had promoted Braruz, ordering her to research Bridger’s Force abilities as thoroughly and surreptitiously as possible. Bridger immediately caught on to the various machinations—and still complained of being “Thrawn’s Loth-rat under a microscope.” Over time, however, the young Jedi mainly ignored the lieutenant’s observations, focusing instead on questionable attempts to engage Braruz in winsome conversation. Thrawn suspected Bridger’s lurid tales featuring Devaronian smugglers, geriatric Weequay pirates, and high-strung puffer pigs were expressly intended to elicit his own teeth grinding upon review of said recordings.

Braruz’s faintly accented voice disrupted Thrawn’s inner musings. “This is only our third session since Jarrus’s release from the medbay, but I can confirm the Jedi has retained possession of at least the most obvious, previously documented Force-related abilities in your files.” She counted on her sharp-nailed fingers. “Precognition, hyper-reflexive defenses, telekinesis…As usual, I will use data extracted from the training droids to calculate the degree of force applied on relevant maneuvers.”

“Excellent, Lieutenant.”

“I can also confirm that Jarrus’s presence aboard the Chimaera has kindled a highly enthusiastic response in Bridger, resulting in a measurable increase in the strength and application of the padawan’s own skills during all trainings.”

Thrawn briefly assessed the image of the two Jedi dispassionately, his hands crossed against his lower back. Even motionless and almost colorless in the holovid, the reunited Jedi master and padawan made a visually striking—very dangerous—pair. Thrawn was unexpectedly reminded of Sabine Wren’s artwork of Lothal’s wildlife. Despite adding four centimeters to his height earlier in the voyage, Bridger’s form remained wiry and compact, his agile movements and capricious temperament those of an unpredictable Loth-cat. In direct contrast, Jarrus called to mind the more supple Loth-wolf, serenely languid on the surface, yet capable of cunning savagery in an instant.

“Thank you, Lieutenant. I would have been surprised to hear anything otherwise. You will continue to analyze both of our guests’ Force abilities while overseeing their safety and comfort aboard. I trust you placed Jarrus’s quarters close to Bridger’s and your own?”

“Yes, sir.” Braruz opened her mouth to speak, then hesitated.

“Go ahead, Lieutenant.” He noted that Braruz’s face flushed a deeper pink as she manipulated the holovid to zoom in on the taller Jedi.

“Sir, my service droids have recordings during the past two sleep shifts that Jarrus has left his quarters to wander the corridor in an…aimless manner. The Jedi’s eyes were closed, but it appeared he was listening to something the droids could not pick up on their sensors. Each time, Jarrus came to an abrupt stop, opened his eyes, and immediately returned to his compartment.”

“Hm. Are there any medical restrictions still in effect on Jarrus?”

“No, sir, the doctors confirmed he is fully recovered. They also stated the Jedi’s eyes were intact and functional prior to submersion in the medbay’s bacta tank, sir.” She paused, biting her lip. “Jarrus is in prime physical condition, with a biological age reported at approximately thirty-two to thirty-three standard years. Based on information available in your archives, sir, Jarrus should be five years older.” Braruz eyed Thrawn, a furrow appearing between her horn-nubs.

“Indeed, Lieutenant.” Thrawn studied the insolent expression on Jarrus’s angular face. The last time he’d seen the Jedi at close range on Atollon, most of Jarrus’s features were obscured by a solid mask and full beard, but all intel indicated the Jedi had been completely blinded at least several months previously. Thinking of Atollon reminded Thrawn of the infuriatingly enigmatic Bendu creature—yet another frustratingly indefinable, Force-related mystery Braruz was researching. Yes, if there was a silver lining to being stranded by the purrgil, it would be to take full advantage of the two Jedi specimens onboard and scrutinize the Force in great depth. Time and circumstances had not permitted such invaluable research with Anakin Skywalker (and certainly not with his Sith Lord alter ego, Darth Vader) during past missions on Batuu. However, doing so necessitated placing increasing trust in his Devaronian protege.

“Commander Bridger claims to have pulled his master through time and space via an anomaly encountered in the Ja’Gharian system.” Thrawn watched keenly as Braruz’s eyes blinked, then gleamed with intense, scientific curiosity.

“Your additional orders, Lieutenant, are to access the restricted files in my Jedi archives to piece together how a human obliterated by a multitude of exploding fuel pods on Lothal is now standing on my Star Destroyer--and in better condition than before the catastrophe.”

“Understood, sir.” Braruz swallowed. “Will there be anything else, sir?”

He nodded curtly. “You will replay this entire recording. However, this time adjust the image to focus on the background instead.”

“Right away, sir.” A familiar furrow appeared between the Devaronian’s horn nubs.

During the rewatch, Thrawn’s mind sifted rapidly through potentials that featured Jarrus and Bridger as assets to be exploited for the greater good. One led to gleaning all information that might possibly enable the few Force-sensitives born among the Chiss to retain their full powers beyond childhood. With each passing day, Thrawn increasingly agonized over the fate of his entire people while he remained completely in the dark as to their vulnerability to the Grysk. Had the treacherous species incited full civil war among the Ascendancy? If so, had they already used the opportunity to overtake Chiss territory? And had the Empire’s access to the Unknown Regions been thwarted by blocking the few stable hyperspace lanes?

Indeed, what of the Empire’s state of existence?  Palpatine had demonstrated Force powers that enabled him to sense and plot against threats rising across great distances…yet the Sith Lord had sent no rescue party—not even a drone—to the Chimaera’s aid these many years. Perhaps Palpatine wants me dead. Certainly, none of the other fleet admirals would shed any tears if he remained missing from the Imperial arena. I must reestablish communications with the Emperor. Better yet, a far more trusted ally, Eli Vanto. To this end, perhaps the two Jedi could be coerced to combine their precognitive abilities to safely navigate the Star Destroyer into more familiar galactic territory. Thrawn would then ascertain if Bridger and Jarrus were prisoners of war to be triumphantly relinquished to Palpatine…or if the uniquely skilled duo would remain as Thrawn’s military guests to be rerouted to the Chiss Ascendancy. They could earn their freedom by serving as useful allies against the Grysks.

As for adversaries, the immediate concern remained this unfamiliar foe in Wild Space. Here, the Jedi’s strong connection to the Force was a tantalizing, potential tactic to lure the hostiles toward the Vong and the Grysks. However, this would require a strategy that endangered neither the Chiss nor the Empire. Thrawn repressed a frustrated sigh. It was only a matter of time and analysis of the data collected in their journey. He’d yet to encounter an entity without a weakness to control or contain it. Surely this extra-galactic vanguard was no exception. Satisfied with his analysis for the moment, Thrawn refocused on the ongoing holovid display.

“Hold, Lieutenant. Now project this section at quarter speed.”

“Aye, sir.”

In the holovid, a variety of crew members skulked throughout the hanger, eyeballing the Jedi duo’s supernatural grace and skill during the grand finale of training droid demolition. Scanning the slow flow of facial expressions before him, Thrawn’s mind swiftly sorted and filed away distinct groups for contemplation. Those few who watched the Jedi train with jaws dropped in almost superstitious awe. The majority, who observed with a mixture of reluctant respect and unease. And…

Thrawn glanced sharply at Braruz. “Freeze.”

The Devaronian complied, capturing a trio of off duty stormtroopers whose watching eyes simmered with unsuppressed hostility. Thrawn’s lips pressed together in a thin line.

“Lieutenant, alert me immediately of any crew member who exhibits aggressive behavior toward either Ezra Bridger or Kanan Jarrus.” Thrawn tapped data into a console on his desk. “I reprimanded these obdurate stormtroopers during the early stages of our journey.” His red eyes glowered at Braruz. “There will be no more reprimands. For as long as the Jedi remain an asset to our mission, I will not tolerate any threat to their security aboard my ship.”

Braruz swallowed. “Understood, sir.”

“One more thing. From this point forward, you will accompany Bridger and Jarrus on any away missions, then report directly to me—and to me alone—any pertinent information the Jedi are unlikely to reveal in my immediate presence.”

“Yes, Admiral.”

 

Kanan - Chimaera

Kanan lay in his nondescript bunk, wishing he could catch up on lost sleep. Once again, he’d thought he was in bed, dreaming of roaming the sterile corridors…until his eyes opened to find a startled service droid, its lenses staring back and recording Kanan’s every move. “You are in a restricted area, Master Jarrus. Please return to your quarters.” Kanan realized he’d been headed for the bridge dressed only in sleeping pants. Odd behavior for someone who wasn’t drunk, or trying to catch Hera’s eye back in those earlier post-Gorse months aboard the Ghost.

Why do I keep hearing Mace Windu’s voice? It made no sense! Kanan had never heard a peep from his Jedi Grandmaster before. The weirdness had all started not long after his removal from the Chimaera’s bacta tank, but as mere, indecipherable whispers. Mace’s distinctly recognizable voice first emerged when Kanan drifted into one of his deeper trances, a particular, meditative state he and Ezra had quickly developed together to communicate important information they didn’t want nosy Imperials to overhear.

It had become rapidly crystal clear that Thrawn and his minions planned to keep both Jedi’s private time (either together or alone) as limited as possible. Ezra had also confirmed Kanan’s suspicions that various droids and personnel were eavesdropping on them in public, then reporting to the grand admiral. Long ago, Ezra had put PZ-5 on the trail of ferreting out specific spies, plus any changes to their rotations. Ezra surreptitiously taught Kanan the “we’ve got a live one” hand signals he and PZ-5 had created. That droid. He could easily see PZ-5, Chopper, and AP-5 engaged in a chassis kicking contest over who outranked who on the Ghost. If only he’d get to see it.

For now, he was stuck with scheming Imps. So, in public areas like the commissary, Ezra mainly caught Kanan up on non-confidential things…like the Chimaera’s journey to date and various, important discoveries the ship had made while passing through the systems. When Ezra first guided him through the decks, Kanan was reluctantly impressed by how well the crew functioned as a cohesive unit under Thrawn, despite heavy losses. The decks that housed higher ranking officers and most of the stormtroopers had been particularly damaged by the purrgil, so enlisted personnel were quickly promoted to fill vacancies. Kanan noted many corridors of the ship’s damaged sections remained sealed off pending the Star Destroyer’s return to the Empire’s repair yards. He and Ezra planned to be long gone before that day dawned.

Kanan had to admit Thrawn’s leadership was clearly superior to most Imperials he’d had the displeasure of dealing with, but that’s where he drew the line. Lacking Ezra’s five plus years of imposed proximity to Thrawn, Kanan’s loathing of the grand admiral—and everything he’d done to hurt Kanan’s loved ones—remained very fresh in his heart. How in the nine hells Ezra had managed to hold his own for so long and so alone was a testament to the young Jedi. So, when Ezra broke down during one of their rare private moments, browbeating himself about Hera’s rescue plan, it momentarily stunned Kanan.

“I can’t believe I didn’t think of flying the gliders over the fuel depot and dropping detonators! I could’ve distracted Pryce and her goons while Sabine got you and Hera safely out…and none of this…,” Ezra had waved futilely at the starship’s dull innards, “would’ve ever happened.” Mistaking Kanan’s appalled silence as agreement, Ezra fumbled onwards. “Better yet, I could’ve—”

“Don’t you dare say another word, Ezra.” Kanan had gripped Ezra’s shoulders, still getting used to how the once scrappy boy had turned into a solid young man. “We both trusted in the Force that night, and it was the right thing to do.”

Ezra had only ducked his head, unable to meet Kanan’s eyes. “Ezra, you’ve got to remember what you did helped save our homeworld. None of us get to see the big picture, only small bits of each path to choose from.” When his not-padawan had failed to look convinced, Kanan had squeezed Ezra’s shoulders reassuringly before finally letting go.

“I know what seemed like my…death was very, very hard on you, Hera, everyone. We’ve all lost years we wanted to share.” Kanan’s hands had gripped his knees. They would never pick up his swaddled youngling to cradle in his arms. And he couldn’t share Hera’s pregnancy with Ezra, not yet. He needs my undivided attention, not something he’ll try to add to his guilt trip. Kanan’s sigh was ragged. “I wish to hell things could’ve been different, but thanks to you—”

“And Dume.” Ezra’s humble voice had interjected.

Kanan’s face scrunched while he’d wiggle-waggled his hand noncommittaly. “Ehhh, I suppose he deserves some of the credit. The point is…we’re here together. And together we’re gonna figure out why the Force led us here, so we can make it back home. You got that?”

Slowly, Ezra had met his gaze. “I…can’t even describe how good it feels to have you back, Master. I mean, Kanan.” Ezra had faltered, then his jaw tightened. “I’m not going to lie, it was really awful at the beginning…but little by little I’ve found most of the crew to be pretty decent people. Misguided for sure, but not evil.” He’d shrugged awkwardly. “Not that I’m close to anyone…but I guess I do care about what happens to them.”

Kanan smiled gently. He might look different on the outside, but Ezra had the same compassionate heart beating on the inside. Kanan had turned to his favorite tactic—teasing—to lighten the mood. “Yeah, well, I’m sure you’ve charmed more than a few Imps into feeling the same way about you. Maybe even that Devaronian science officer who practically records your every move.”

Oh, his ploy had worked like a charm. Ezra’s cheeks had flushed while his dark eyebrows shot up. “Cri Braruz? Are you kidding me? I’m her specimen, Kanan. I bet she’s sharpening her dissection tools for the moment Thrawn tosses us aside.”

Kanan’s smile slipped sideways. “We’ll see about that.” Everywhere they went on the Chimaera, he’d sensed Braruz and other crew members mostly acted aloof toward Ezra to keep the grand admiral from breathing down their necks. My not-padawan may have even conjured up some much-needed allies on board this tub.

“What I do know, Ezra, is you’ve done a lot to be proud of.” Kanan had patted Ezra’s back fondly. “I don’t know of anyone in the Rebellion, myself included, who could’ve handled themselves better all this time alone.”

Ezra had eagerly led Kanan to their training session, his blue eyes bright and no longer brooding.

Kanan’s mind deposited him back in the present. I should shower before breakfast. Instead of rising, Kanan crossed his hands behind his head on the none-too-cushy pillow. Yep. So here he was, amazingly still alive. On the bright side, he and Ezra were getting quite a kick out of their evolving Jedi relationship while deciphering the Force’s mysterious mission for them in Wild Space. On the flip side, we’re under the magnifying glass of a certain Chiss who’d welcome any excuse to throw me out the main hanger. Such as wandering around the ship half-naked in pursuit of a voice from the past.

Kriff. As if it wasn’t it enough Kanan and Ezra were already dealing with a sticky mess concerning the grand admiral. “I’ve had visions the Emperor is dead,” Ezra’s silent message had penetrated Kanan’s trance as the two Jedi meditated separately in their own quarters. “Can you see it, too, Kanan?”

It had taken Kanan several deep breaths to re-submerge himself fully into the Force. He’d first sent the anxious Ezra his assurances he’d been wise to keep this news from Thrawn for now. Then, Kanan stretched his senses far and wide. He’d felt the low thrum of Dume’s presence, the ancient Force entity pulsing like a secondary, slower heartbeat. Ever since Ezra rescued Kanan from the Ja’Gharian temple, Dume had lurked under the surface of Kanan’s awareness as an integral, but silent aspect of his energy field. Now as Kanan probed ever outward for a hint of Palpatine, Dume stirred with increasing alertness. The sensation was like an inner channel being finely tuned, enhancing Kanan’s ability to connect with the Galaxy in ways he’d never experienced before.

Kanan had gagged as he encountered the abhorrent remnants of the Emperor’s Force signature. It was as if something profane had ruptured, snapping key strands within the Galaxy’s glistening web of Light. Kanan shared Dume’s premonition of something unfathomably dark encroaching upon those vulnerable expanses. Kanan sent his wordless message to Ezra. He’s gone. But he left the door wide open for something meaner and uglier—on purpose.

His deep sense of foreboding seemed connected to something far beyond the vicious alien forces the Chimaera had been researching—and evading—with bated breath. How many other red flags are popping up out there while we struggle with the ones already waving in our faces?  Would the Rebellion even matter if the safety of the Galaxy itself—its every inhabitant—was at risk?

Kanan pulled the pillow over his head, groaning. Regardless, he and Ezra had to relay the news of the Emperor to Thrawn sooner rather than later. It would help no one if the grand admiral (or any of his underling scouts) were caught off-guard by learning the shocking truth through some indifferent, outside spacers.

As to what Thrawn would do with the information, that remained unclear in the Force. How typical. Then again, considering Kanan found the Chiss’s mind a conniving, convoluted maze—impenetrable as a clear path out of this section of Wild Space—it stood to reason the Force did, too. A mirthless grin spread across his face. Kanan’s best guess involved Thrawn tossing him and Ezra into detention cells on the grounds of instigating treason or mutiny. His worst guess involved his far too frequent enemy: the airlock.

Kanan yawned, running his hand over the peach fuzz of his scalp. Which brought his thoughts full circle to Mace Windu and his intimidating, bald visage. His Grandmaster’s voice had notably picked up in frequency after the revelation of the Emperor’s demise. In his dreams that weren’t dreams, Kanan followed Master Windu’s elusive voice through flashes of unfamiliar landscapes and settings. The most recent vocal snippet had been “This is a costly war” before Kanan stumbled into the hapless service droid. Kanan’s sigh expanded into another yawn. All this he’d also withheld from Ezra so far. Relaying a mishmash of conversations that Kanan had never been a part of would only add unnecessary worry to his not-padawan.

Another yawn almost cracked his jaws as Kanan scratched at his incoming goatee. Well, he was just too kriffing tired to explore this particular predicament at the moment. Besides, he needed to concentrate on his official meet and greet with the almighty Thrawn. It would be his first time up close and personal with the grand admiral since Bendu almost killed them both. Ah, the good times. The upcoming encounter promised to be an intricate dance of outward cooperation with the (now defunct?) Empire, while covertly probing at Thrawn’s vise-like mind to extract his real intentions toward Ezra and himself. Kanan just hoped he’d manage to avoid punching Thrawn’s haughty face within the first thirty seconds.

As Kanan forced himself to sit up, his heart was speared by a merciless wish. If only his lumpy pillow would transform into Hera’s warm, soft body to wrap himself around. Solutions to desperate problems always found him easiest when he lay nestled in her arms. Stop your useless pining. You will find your way back to her. Then again, knowing his hot-blooded Twi’lek pilot, she’d most likely find her way back to him first.

 

Hera - Lothal

Hera stood under the brightening sky of Lothal and looked into Kanan’s penetrating eyes, wishing with all her heart that they were real.

The statue of Kanan and Ezra was uniquely beautiful, carved from now exceedingly rare Alderaanian marble. Princess Leia had become aware of a huge block of the elegant stone stored away, earmarked by Palpatine to be carved into some gloat-worthy backdrop for his throne in the Imperial Palace. Over the objections of absolutely no one, the outraged Rebel icon immediately seized possession of the precious material.

Hera sighed deeply. If anyone knows the agony of tremendous loss, it is certainly Princess Organa. As a personal gift, Leia had dedicated this remnant of her destroyed home world to honor the two Jedi who sacrificed themselves to liberate Lothal and inspired so many throughout the Rebellion’s darkest times.

The princess had consulted with Hera and Sabine on how best to represent the fallen knight and his still missing padawan. All three women ultimately agreed on a portrayal of Kanan and Ezra during the period when the Jedi helped Leia steal her own Hammerhead corvettes—ships that would play a pivotal role in the Rebel victory at Scarif. The finished statues of the two Jedi would stand as an honor guard at the foot of “The Liberation of Lothal” spire in Capital City.

With Leia’s royal funding behind the project, Sabine had engaged a gifted Mandalorian sculptor recommended by her father. The stunning result was unveiled during Lothal’s grand, five-year Liberation Anniversary to massive applause—and many tears—from the gathered crowd. Hera’s eyes had probably been the only pair which avoided looking directly at the statues that night. The emotion-drenched celebration was overwhelming enough without the life-size replicas of Kanan and Ezra as a centerpiece. It took all of Hera’s composure to make it through the seemingly endless speeches and heart tugging conversations before she could retreat to the Ghost. There, she’d curled up with Jacen in his bunk, listening to his breathing slip into the rhythm of sleep just as she’d done countless times with his father.

Now Hera soaked in every detail of the two Jedi standing devoutly against tyranny, brandishing slender lightsabers skyward. Hera stiffened, recalling Jacen’s exhilarated face when he handed over Kanan’s newly found saber. “I think he’s going to need it back.” Hera tucked that perturbing thought away yet again, just as she had tucked Kanan’s lightsaber in the lockbox to join his mask and other, painfully few personal items.

Hera’s jaw tightened. Your father’s gone, akei. He’s not coming back. Oh, but the sculpture standing before her was real and magnificent. Holograms paled in comparison to Kanan’s solid, lifelike form, his handsome features and powerful stance captured perfectly by the artist. Hera fingers twitched with memories of stroking that angular cheek, his silky hair. Just a hint of Kanan’s infectious, crooked smile played at the edges of his carved mouth. Jacen’s smile. Hera’s eyes stung. Every reminder of how much of Kanan lived on in their son both healed and hurt her heart at the same time.

Turning her blurring gaze to Ezra’s statue, Hera’s lips gradually curved upward. The dull ache in her chest lightened and she wiped tears to better see the mischievous glint in Ezra’s wide eyes. Ah. It’s him, alright. There was that touch of cockiness in the tilt of his head, the errant locks of his hair flopping boyishly. The days of the Spectres stealing starships for Princess Leia and the Rebellion seemed like such carefree romps in retrospect. As if in collusion with Hera’s ever shifting mood, thin ribbons of cloud scudded over the rising sun to dim its light.

Why, oh why, did I ask Sabine and Ahsoka to meet me here? The stone faces before her offered only silence.

“General Syndulla.”

Hera turned at the melodic, familiar voice to see Ahsoka Tano cross the last few steps of the beautifully landscaped courtyard. Sabine walked sedately by Ahsoka’s side, her vivid helmet tucked under her arm. Hera had never seen Ahsoka look so…regal. Like the Alderaanian marble of the statues, Ahsoka’s pale cloak gleamed as the sun escaped its cloud prison. The elegant circle atop her slender staff reflected light in scattered bursts of brightness. What startled Hera the most, however, was Ahsoka’s face. The former Jedi looked so much older. But not from age. No. It was the sorrow-tinged wisdom pooled deeply in Ahsoka’s sapphire eyes…an essence of self-imposed isolation that hung like a veil over the Togruta’s kindly expression.

“Just Hera. Please.” Hera managed a smile back for both women. “It’s wonderful to see you again, Ahsoka.”

“And you as well, Hera.” Ahsoka’s free hand clasped Hera’s shoulder, her touch emanating warmth and strength.

Hera suddenly realized she knew full well why she’d chosen this meeting spot. Where were you, Ahsoka, when I lost my love, along with the boy who was like a son to me? Ezra told us how he saved you in that strange place…Why didn’t you come back in time to help save them both?

Hera lowered her eyes and took a deep breath to silence the sudden buzz of accusatory thoughts. It was unfair to still feel bitterness over Ahsoka’s disappearance. Clearly, wherever Ahsoka had been—whatever trials she’d faced during these five years—the experience had taken a heavy toll.

As if reading Hera’s mind, Ahsoka released her to study the statues of Kanan and Ezra with an expression of admiration and somber regret. “It’s a masterful rendition of them both.” She bowed her hooded head. “I’m sorry I wasn’t here in time for the dedication ceremony.” Ahsoka grasped her staff with both hands. “And words can never express how much I wish I could’ve been part of your efforts to free Lothal. I would’ve gladly given my life to have Kanan and Ezra standing here with you today instead.”

Hera’s mouth moved, but no words came. Sabine gently touched Ahsoka’s arm. “Ahsoka, we would have lost them both at Malachor if not for you.”

Ahsoka nodded, but her eyes remained downcast. In the silence, Sabine forced a cocky grin and readjusted the grip on her helmet. “And we will find Ezra. There’s no way that monkey-lizard can hide out on me forever.”

At this, Ahsoka raised her head with a knowing sparkle in her eyes.

Hera’s own smile barely parted her stiff lips. Her unruly mind now wanted to replay yet again the day Ahsoka ordered her to abandon Kanan to the Grand Inquisitor. Hera had mostly forgiven herself for temporarily obeying the former Fulcrum agent—it had been a gut-wrenching necessity to protect Ezra at the time. But that betrayed look in Ezra’s eyes when Hera called Kanan an expendable soldier? That might as well have been her own heart staring her in the face. Enough, Hera. No need to inject fresh guilt into unhealed wounds.

Hera realized Sabine was speaking to her with an eyebrow cocked in concern. “…so I’ll grab some caf from the street vendor while you two catch up a bit at the Overlook. Then we’ll all head over to my office for the briefing, okay?”

“Great idea, Sabine.” Hera gestured Ahsoka toward one of the paths that cut through the courtyard’s picturesque flowers and vegetation. “This way, Ahsoka, it’s not far.”

Hera and Ahsoka set off toward the seaside after a wave to Sabine. Hera’s lek swung over her shoulder as she glanced back in farewell at the two Jedi frozen forever in valiant pose.

Hera walked the curving path to the observation deck with Ahsoka, savoring the sun’s balmy warmth on her face. So much of her life had been spent traversing the cold of indifferent space, battling the Empire on inhospitable worlds. The cost of this one’s freedom had been almost unbearably high. Hera drew tangy sea air deep into her lungs and relaxed her stiff shoulders.

Ahsoka’s soft voice broke the silence. “Sabine apprised me of what information Ezra shared—and much of what you’ve endured since his disappearance.”

Hera’s lips pressed together. Endured. An all too fitting word. “Luckily, we’ve had each other and extended family to get through the worst of it.”

Ahsoka’s brow furrowed minutely, then smoothed. This time her voice was almost a whisper. “Family is a blessing. It is clear that motherhood suits you well.”

Hera nodded a chagrined thank you, belatedly realizing her words had omitted Ahsoka from her inner circle. Meanwhile, Ahsoka’s gaze serenely shifted back to the sparkling blue sea coming into view, scanning its soft horizon for a long moment.

“It’s certainly been…uh, interesting,” Hera replied. It’s the reason you don’t find me the same Rebel pilot you recruited. Hera’s razor focus of devotion to the cause had been forever tempered by tragic loss coupled with startling joy. Despite inevitable flickers of self-doubt before and after Jacen’s birth, Hera found herself strengthened—not weakened—by finally acknowledging and fulfilling the personal and emotional needs she no longer denied.

The tapping of Ahsoka’s staff was the only response for a long moment. “Hera, I promise to explain my long journey back to Lothal during Sabine’s briefing.” Hera almost winced as Ahsoka’s penetrating, sapphire eyes settled on her. “For now, we have a more personal matter to discuss.” She smiled unaffectedly. “Your son.”

Hera’s lekku stiffened. “What all did Sabine tell you?”

“Only that you are apprehensive regarding his Force-sensitivity and what might be best for his development.”

Hera’s stomach fluttered. “Oh…yes. I’ve been hoping you’d have some…suggestions.”

Ahsoka stroked her chin with her free hand, eyes hooded. “You’re aware Jacen was born on a planet uniquely strong in the Force?”

“What little I know of all that is—was—through Kanan and Ezra.” Hera took another deep breath of the sea air. “They gave everything they had to protect Lothal, so it just felt…right to give birth to Jacen here.”

Ahsoka shifted her staff to her other hand. “I understand.”

Hera fixed her gaze on a small yacht hovering its way toward the marina. “We return here whenever my schedule allows to enjoy the peace and quiet...for Jacen to interact with school children his age.” A smile found its way to Hera’s lips. “But mostly because he loves playing with the Loth-cats.”

Humor sparkled in Ahsoka’s eyes. “Before I forget, I should say I’ve heard nothing but praise from the pilots you’ve trained at the base. My two X-wing escorts were your former students. Hyrran Tong and Nuada Taluka.”

Hera’s smile turned wry. “Ah, those two troublemakers. I had to keep a tight rein on them for a few weeks, but they straightened out.”

“All it takes is the right teacher.” Ahsoka tilted her staff in a small circle. “Which brings us back to Jacen.”

Hera sighed. “I know he needs training, but I don’t feel right about leaving him in a compound...” Alone. Hera sensed that unspoken word was more for herself than her son. Kanan gone. Ezra missing. And now Sabine will leave with Ahsoka to find him.

“Hera, I had only a brief time with Luke Skywalker, but I can assure you he has a kind heart and honorable intentions. If anyone can rebuild the Jedi Order on a foundation of compassion and wisdom, I believe it’s Luke. He has only the finest qualities of his par…father.”

Hera turned as Ahsoka’s voice faltered. What is she hiding?  The Togruta’s face remained serene, but her grip on the staff was overly tight. “That said, I feel Jacen should not be trained by Luke. At least not at this time.”

“Really?” Hera almost sagged with relief. “Why not?”

Ahsoka’s array of lekku shifted as she sighed deeply. “Luke has a heavy load before he can truly devote himself to the few Force-sensitives now at the Academy. His mission includes collecting Jedi artifacts and archives—anything and everything the Emperor didn’t destroy. All of which is vital to Luke’s own knowledge and mastery of the Force.”

“So…if Luke’s too busy, are you saying…you’ll train Jacen?” Hera’s own lekku quivered expectantly.

Ahsoka fixed her gaze on the bobbing fishing boats far across the waves. “The problem is, I’m not a neutral party, Hera. Although I left the Jedi Order, so much of my connection with the Force is wired into me through my years as a youngling and padawan.” She turned to face Hera. “It remains unclear to me if a Jedi path is appropriate for Jacen, considering his father’s unconventional nature.”

Hera’s brow furrowed. “I don’t understand. Kanan said he was knighted in Lothal’s Jedi Temple.”

“Yes. But based on my relationships with Kanan and Ezra, along with data I’m still gathering…I’ve come to believe both would’ve chafed under the Order had the Jedi Purge never occurred.”

“In what way, exactly?” Hera’s tone was sharper than intended. Was Ahsoka implying her Jedi were inferior in some fashion?

Ahsoka’s voice turned soothing. “It appears Lothalian born Force-sensitives are anchored by a very deep connection to the Living Force—especially to the core energies of Lothal itself. It creates emotional requirements out of alignment with the classical Jedi Code.”

Ahsoka pointed at a flock of white-feathered seabirds dipping in and out of the water. “For example, I’m sure you recall Ezra’s ability to call upon both Light and Dark…and his empathic abilities to strongly connect and communicate with a multitude of living forms.”

Hera shook her head, a grimace and a smile competing for her lips. “How could I ever forget?”

Ahsoka nodded, her full lips upturned. “A Lothalian Jedi’s Force connection seems to hinge on their attachments to the people they care for…attachments that for most Jedi can lead to a dangerous imbalance. To the Dark Side.” Ahsoka’s face paled as she walked up the wide steps to the observation deck in silence.

Hera followed Ahsoka to the guardrail made of elegantly intertwined driftwood. “I still don’t understand. Ezra wasn’t Dark. He removed himself—and Thrawn—to help protect us all from the Empire.”

Ahsoka leaned her staff against the rail, and pulled her hood back. Her eyes locked on Hera’s own. “I was referring to Kanan, Hera. His ability to love you as strongly as he did without turning obsessively possessive and destructive…it is something rarely mastered by a Jedi. Perhaps by any Force wielder of considerable power.” Ahsoka’s free hand gripped the guardrail. “Kanan not only achieved that emotional balance, he awakened it within his padawan as well.”

Hera steadied herself against the railing, dimly aware of the crashing surf below. Her mouth felt very dry. “Wait a minute. You’ve been telling me that Kanan was a Lothalian himself? All this time?”

Ahsoka’s robes fluttered in the sea breeze as she dipped her montrals in a nod. Hera sifted poignant memories.

“Huh. It’s no wonder he found Ezra here and they felt such a connection.” She winced in pain, swallowed the lump building in her throat. “Kanan ended where he began…I wish he’d known that.” Or, perhaps Kanan had sensed something. He’d acted more and more differently before the end.

“I’ve extracted every bit of data available on Kanan—Caleb Dume—in the records salvaged from the Coruscant Temple to date. It wasn’t easy--his file was restricted to only the highest Jedi Council members.”

Hera’s brow furrowed. “Isn’t that typical?”

“Not that I’m aware of.” Ahsoka cradled her staff, pensive. “The Jedi archives indicate a number of Lothalian natives over the centuries were born with enhanced sensitivities to nature on the planet. However, Caleb Dume was the only youngling ever taken into the Order and trained as a Jedi.”

“That sounds like he was special in some way,” Hera puzzled. Well, Kanan was certainly special to me.

“I’m still deciphering the details of his case. I believe it’s important to knowing what’s best for Jacen.”

Hera felt her spine tingle. Hm. What is it you don’t want to tell me, Ahsoka? It felt like she was back in the days of Fulcrum, being told only what was expressly needed for the mission. “That reminds me, you never really answered my question about training him yourself.”

Ahsoka tilted her head decisively. “I advise you to consult a non-Jedi Force-sensitive. One who can objectively observe Jacen to get a clearer sense of what lies on his path.” Ahsoka’s sapphire eyes probed Hera appraisingly. “But all hinges on your openness and trust.”

Hera turned her palms upward. “Please, Ahsoka. Just tell me where to find this person.”

“Very well, then. You will go to Takodana in the Western Reaches. I’ve already spoken to Hondo Ohnaka, and he is willing to escort you—”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa…Hondo Ohnaka?” Hera’s palms now planted themselves on her hips. “You’ve got to be kidding me!”

“Hm. Openness and trust, remember?” Ahsoka gave Hera a reproving glance. “Hondo is best suited for the task. First of all—as I understand you witnessed during the liberation of Lothal—Hondo has a soft spot when it comes to helping young Jedi.”

“I do have to give you that,” Hera sighed, her lekku sagging. “Fine. What’s the second of all?”

“Hondo is a very close friend of Maz Kanata, the wise one Jacen needs to meet.”

“Maz Kanata, the pirate queen?!” Hera’s lekku felt as if they’d sprung straight up above her flight cap like exclamation points.

Ahsoka’s eyes now glittered with a hint of mischief. “Ah. You know Maz already?”

“I know of her from all the times Kanan and I spent smuggling! I can’t believe you want me to take my five-year-old son into a pirate’s den.” Hera crossed her arms, grumbling to herself. “He’ll never want to leave.”

Ahsoka leaned in, gesturing reassuringly. “I wouldn’t send you off to Maz Kanata without the Force’s guidance to do so.” Hera’s eyebrow arched itself balefully. A sigh escaped Ahsoka. “Hera…the pirate queen is the only face I see when I meditate on your son. Will you trust me?”

Hera’s eyebrow slowly slid back down. Her mind was a whirl of fleeting fragments: Missions and battles, peaceful moments, sorrow and laughter, all with Ahsoka steadfast at the vortex. Hera’s heart told her if a hideous creature launched itself from the rising tide below, Ahsoka would instantly, selflessly give her life to save Hera from its snapping jaws. Perhaps it’s the Force itself I’m no longer sure of.

It was now Hera who clasped Ahsoka on the shoulder. “Of course, I trust you, Ahsoka. I always have.”

“Great! I’m sure glad all that’s settled!”

Hera turned to see Sabine striding across the deck to join them, bearing a drink carrier heavy with caf containers.

Sabine’s grin turned especially fierce. “Now let’s get to work before Jacen locks Zeb in the cargo hold again.”

 

Ezra - Chimaera

Ezra gave himself one last inspection in the mirror before heading off to breakfast. Everything looked properly buckled and in place. He grinned to himself as he admired his recent crew cut. Thrawn wouldn’t allow long hair or full beards, but he’d very reluctantly given up on making Ezra wear a ridiculous Imperial cap only because it fell off thirty seconds into a training session. Ezra’s grin turned positively impish.

He’d found himself smiling a lot more often over Thrawn’s peculiarities lately and knew without a doubt it was because he now had someone to laugh over them with. Kanan. There were still mornings where Ezra woke up in a panic thinking it had all been a dream. That he’d go to Kanan’s quarters to find them cold and vacant.

He was still wrapping his brain around everything Kanan had communicated via their trance sessions about Dume, about how he tried so hard to reach out more directly during the horrible days following the fuel depot explosion. Ezra’s smile faltered, then swooped back into place with a thought that still got his heart beating fast. Kanan’s Lothalian, too. We were meant to be Jedi together. No matter what happened on the Chimaera from this point forward, Ezra felt confident he and his Master (former Master) were exactly where the Force wanted them to be. And one day soon, that place would be home.

Zipping out of his quarters, he almost mowed down PZ-5. “Whoops, sorry!” Ezra steadied the droid. “I’m running a little late.”

“Good morning, Master Ezra. Master Kanan wanted me to inform you he awaits you in the commissary.”

“Okay, thanks. Oh, hey, were you able to translate any more of the records we salvaged from the Sintuuian system?” He walked backwards, awaiting PZ-5’s reply.

“Unfortunately, the planet was a simple trading post with only a handful of small settlements, Master Ezra. If our translations are accurate, they did reference a system that may have at least one planetoid with Clouzon thirty-six gas in its atmosphere."

“That’s what the purrgils eat.” Ezra almost skipped in excitement, mind racing.

“Yes, sir, it is at least one of the gases edible to the creatures that the archives are aware of. The grand admiral ordered the Chimaera’s course to be altered to intercept. You, Master Kanan, Lieutenant Braruz, and I will be the away team on the mission. I am on my way to help prepare your shuttle.”

Ezra frowned at the mention of the Devaronian. She’s babysitting us. Fine. You want to document two Jedi in action, that’s what you’ll get. “We’ll head over once Thrawn releases us. See you then, PeeZee.”

PZ-5 returned his two fingered salute as they parted ways.

At the commissary, Ezra spied Kanan’s broad back at a far table. None of the other crew members were seated nearby, although Ezra noticed Kanan was the recipient of curious, covert stares. Kanan seemed oblivious to the attention, busy tapping keys on a datapad in between spoonfuls of the bland, cooked grain that was the mainstay of breakfast meals.

Ezra grabbed up a tray and was entering the food line…when an uneasiness tickled at him. Turning, he noticed a table half-full of off duty stormtroopers snickering and nudging each other. Suddenly, a spice shaker zoomed directly towards Kanan’s back. Ezra barely had time to think this should be interesting before Kanan’s free hand lifted slightly. The spice shaker froze millimeters from his back. Everyone watched in tense silence as the shaker floated into Kanan’s open hand. Without even turning around, Kanan calmly shook some spice into his porridge bowl.

“Thanks. This will taste a little less like druk now.”

Titters rippled from the occupants of other tables around the area. A smirk grew on Ezra’s face as Kanan casually turned around, his vivid teal eyes scanning the table of rigid stormtroopers. His gaze locked on the red-haired brute who had slung the object. Ezra grimaced. Of course—it was Bek, ever the charmer. With an effortless Force-push from Kanan, the spice shaker sailed back across the room and landed in Bek’s bowl with a splut.

“Sorry, bad aim.” Kanan winked mirthlessly, then turned back around to resume eating.

More suppressed giggles—which hushed the moment Bek and two other stormtroopers stood up with their eyes shooting daggers at Kanan. To Ezra’s intense disappointment, they merely headed for the exit. Ezra overheard mutterings of “rebel scum” and “not worth it” as they passed by him. Ezra gave them his most insolent, two fingered salute, earning a furious glare from their leader.

“Yeah. Always good to see you, too, Bek,” Ezra smirked.

“Things always this friendly?” Kanan asked as Ezra joined him.

“Eh. Those guys were a little rough in the beginning, but they settled down. I think you’re just ‘shaking’ them up a bit.”

“Ugh, your puns are almost as bad as this paste.” Kanan grinned, then bit into a slice of fruit.

“It’ll grow on you. Maybe literally.” Ezra dumped generous portions of sweetener and cream into his own unappetizing bowl. “Sleeping okay? You look tired.”

Kanan’s mouth thinned. “Just getting used to the Imperial routine.” He chomped another bite of fruit. “PeeZee told me about the mission. I’m looking forward to getting off this ship for a bit.”

“Yeah, if Thrawn lets us go after we hit him with our good news.” Ezra forced his lumpy spoonful down with a gulp of caf. He muttered the rest so softly it was barely audible above the clatter of the diners in the background. “Although, will he even believe us without any proof?”

Kanan responded just as quietly. “The important thing is he’ll have heard it from us first before anyone else. And it will give him some time to figure out how to break it to the crew when the time comes.” Kanan jerked his thumb toward the exit. “Those three and their kind won’t take it kindly when they find out.”

“What do you mean? You’ve seen how loyal the crew is to Thrawn. Will, uh, you know who’s death even matter?”

“If Thrawn can’t get them back to the Empire for whatever reason, that could change a lot of attitudes. When all is said and done, Grand Admiral Thrawn is an alien outsider—and unloved by his high-ranking colleagues from what I recall of Hera’s intel.” Kanan briefly squeezed Ezra’s shoulder and relayed by Force the core message. Without the Emperor to back him, Thrawn knows his rivals will make sure his fall is faster than his rise.

“So…where do we fit into all this?” Ezra forgot to be quiet as his stomach churned.

Kanan scanned the room and the few remaining onlookers shifted their curious faces away from his measuring gaze. “We’re Jedi, Ezra. Right now, we don’t seem to fit anywhere.” Kanan’s next words were heard only in Ezra’s mind. But if the Empire’s gone with Palpatine, all that can change.

 

Ahsoka - Lothal

Ahsoka stood at the small conference table in Sabine’s office, spearheading the holovid presentation on display before her audience of two. The colorful artwork adorning Sabine’s otherwise pristine walls faded as Ahsoka dimmed the room lights. “I’ll condense my return to Lothal as much as possible to avoid overwhelming you with irrelevant details.”

“We hope this isn’t too painful for you.” Hera set aside her caf, curiosity ablaze in the depths of her green eyes. “It just helps to know, even a little.”

Next to her, Sabine nodded with anticipation.

Ahsoka repressed a shudder. It had nothing to do with the presence of her companions, and everything to do with the cold, lonely chill of Malachor that never seemed to leave her bones. She felt forever imprinted by that horrifying, never ending day of confrontations: Inquisitors. Maul. Anakin. No. Darth Vader. All followed by a mind-bending wrench through time and space to discover Kanan was dead—and his heroic sacrifice being used as bait by the Emperor to trap Ezra. Ahsoka took a calming breath, released her clenching fists.

“Very well.” She tapped keys, bringing up a series of archival images of Lothal’s serene Jedi Temple, juxtaposed alongside the malevolent Sith Temple on Malachor. “When Ezra saved me through Lothal’s portal, I sensed if I attempted to exit with him outside of my timeline…the Temple would self-destruct. Anyone within the blast radius—certainly us—would almost certainly perish.”

“Yeah, we barely made it out of there as it was,” Sabine muttered.

Ahsoka rubbed her arm, where beneath the robes her skin remained scarred by Sith magic. “I returned to Malachor, where it required a deep, healing meditation to recover from the Emperor’s attack.” Ahsoka paused, recalling the eerie emptiness of the deeper, undestroyed chambers. “It was then that Master Yoda spoke to me. I never expected him to penetrate the Sith Temple’s Dark energies, but he managed a brief moment of comfort and guidance.”

It is prudent for now to keep that moment to myself. The ancient Jedi master had asked no questions about the events on Malachor. By his few words, Yoda seemed well aware of those who lay dead, and those who had retreated to nurse searing inner and outer wounds. "Find you will an Inquisitor’s fighter ship worthy of space." But even if she did, where could she go where the wrath of Darth Vader did not follow? Yoda’s fading message still pulsed in her ears. "Walk did you through the Between. Changed, many potentials are. Seek now you must the place where time the price of knowledge is."

Ahsoka refocused on Hera and Sabine. “Ezra and Kanan had escaped safely in the Phantom. There was no sign of Darth Vader or Maul as I searched for an abandoned ship. So much was buried under debris, but I found one Inquisitor’s TIE mainly intact. I set course for Thabeska as soon as I could. I had contacts there more than willing to trade for a less conspicuous ship.” Ahsoka smiled slightly at the memories of her unscrupulous Fardi connections and the scrappy YT-1760 they had coughed up in exchange.

Hera’s mouth set in a grim line. “We understand you couldn’t return to the Rebellion back then. If the Empire had known you were still alive—”

Sabine finished the sentence. “You would have been hunted down mercilessly.”

Ahsoka’s montrals dipped in a nod. “At that time, I was nothing but a danger to everyone and everything I cared about.” Ahsoka tapped more keys, bringing up a galactic star map. “And Master Yoda had entrusted me with a mission, one I could sense was of vital relevance to the…Rebellion.” The entire Galaxy.

Hera’s face twisted with confusion. “But what mission could be so important you vanished for years?”

Sabine’s eyes narrowed almost accusingly. “You promised Ezra you’d find him.”

“Patience, dear friends. My pathway to this point—and what we face beyond—remains difficult even for me to fully understand.”

Hera’s knuckles whitened as she clasped her hands. “We’ll do our best.”

“As will I.” Ahsoka keyed the display to zoom in on the planet Devaron. “Morai, my…special Force companion, had helped me uncover a few pertinent clues in the Sith Temple before I left for Thabeska.”

Ahsoka now displayed images of an old stone structure surrounded by encroaching greenery. “That information led me to Devaron’s Temple of Eedit. I gained entry through a secret cave entrance unknown to the Empire’s garrisons there. Once inside, the Force directed me to a cache of archaic records. I extracted data on a civilization that existed long before the dawn of our Galaxy. They’ve been called Celestials but are more commonly known as the Architects.”

Sabine tapped at her temple, expression both reflective and skeptical. “Hmm, I’ve seen artifacts from different cultures depicting the Architects, but everyone knows those stories are just legends.”

Hera nodded sharply, lekku shifting. “One of Jacen’s favorite bedtime stories is how the Architects built the Maw to trap space monsters near Kessel.” The Twi’lek’s thin eyebrows twitched in confusion. “Not sure what that has to do with Ezra.”

Ahsoka gazed coolly at both women. “After what happened at Lothal’s Temple, do you still feel the same regarding myths of the Ones?”

Hera and Sabine exchanged a chastened glance.

“As for what is fact or fiction concerning the Architects, the translation of the archives downloaded from Eedit remains incomplete. Sabine, I’m hoping your artistic expertise will help unlock at least some of the pictographic imagery. For now, what matters is that within the data I found a very real map to a long-lost library.”

Tapping another key, Ahsoka shifted the holovid to display a glittering, almost surreally alien structure in orbit around a huge, dead-black circle in space. While Hera and Sabine eyeballed the disturbing image, Ahsoka felt the pit of her stomach twist. She’d never be able to wipe the memory of steering her vulnerable ship toward that indifferent, gaping void.

“In the Old Tongue, the Library’s name roughly translates to ‘The Price of Knowledge is Time.’ It’s an ancient space station built by the Architects, long forgotten by almost all…except a handful of Jedi archivists over the millennia. As you can see, it orbits a massive black hole, so that anyone desperate enough to visit, however briefly—”

“Returns to find years have passed them by on the outside…” Hera’s mouth hung open as she absorbed the implications. “Is that where you’ve been?”

Ahsoka didn’t answer for long moment. It had taken every bit of her Force training to dock calmly with the tomb-like, abandoned artifact. The survival instinct within her core kept screaming to hyperjump away immediately. The black hole seemed all too eager to feast voraciously on anything that brushed up against its immense gravity well too closely.

“For me, barely an hour passed.” Ahsoka turned to her wide-eyed companions. “In your time, I disappeared shortly after Malachor and returned only after the battle at Endor. Almost seven years, gone.” She’d returned to discover Alderaan vaporized. Masters Yoda and Obi-wan dead. It was grief, not time, that had lined her face, those terrible losses that still weighed heavy on her heart. Yet there was also a new hope ignited with young Luke Skywalker. Anakin redeemed by saving his Jedi son from Palpatine. And now the few scraps that remained of the Dark Lord’s Imperial forces were in hiding somewhere in the Unknown Regions--or being mopped up on Jakku.

Sabine’s face was mix of compassion and consternation. “I don’t get it. Why would anyone build a library in a place like that?”

“I don’t believe it was built there, only hidden away,” Ahsoka clarified.

“It's all very odd.” Hera leaned in, her chin cupped in her hand. “What did you find there?”

“This.” On the holovid, Ahsoka brought up a display of an exquisite frieze carved into a giant, clear blue crystal. The frieze featured three elegant aliens far taller and thinner than a Kaminoan, all garbed in intricate, flowing robes. The central figure held a long, metallic staff horizontally over its head, gripped within exceedingly slender fingers.

Sabine rose to study the crystalline frieze more closely. “This reminds me of the Temple’s mural of the Ones.”

“The Architects are the precursors to the Ones if my interpretation of the data is accurate. Sabine, you mentioned you and Ezra heard voices when he activated the Gate.”

Sabine nodded.

“When I entered the Architects’ Library, I heard a voice as well. I can’t say for sure, but I sensed it was the Daughter. She told me she could communicate via the energy that still powers the station. It was she who led me to an inner sanctum and this frieze.”

Hera glanced from the frieze’s image to Ahsoka’s cloak and staff set aside by a nearby wall. “Ahsoka, your staff looks just like the one the Architect is holding.”

“That’s because it is the same staff, Hera.” Ahsoka recalled how startled she’d been when the figure in the frieze opened his delicate hands. Before the metal staff could hit the floor, Ahsoka had instinctively called it to her hand with the Force. The moment her fingers closed around the staff, it felt like it had always been hers. “The voice told me it was mine to wield. It’s a key.”

“A key to what?” Sabine asked, her expression perturbed and fascinated.

“That remains to be seen for certain.” Ahsoka sighed at their exasperated faces. “Please understand, the Architect’s Library was an immense structure. Much of my limited time to gather information was spent getting to the inner sanctum and back to my ship. But I did manage to collect enough to cobble together a likely theory.”

Bright Mandalorian and Twi’lek eyes locked on her expectantly. Ahsoka hesitated, sensing through the Force those elements of her mission which could be shared, and those that must remain tightly under wraps. Not because she didn’t trust Hera and Sabine, but because there were crucial points she first needed to confirm conclusively. I will not burden my dear friends with hopes that may prove false in the end.

“Uh…Ahsoka? I’m all ear cones.” Hera leaned in impatiently, as did Sabine.

“Before I continue, it’s relevant that Sabine share her theories concerning Ezra’s potential whereabouts.” Ahsoka waved Sabine forward. A bit perplexed, Sabine grabbed up her datapad and took over the controls of the holoprojector.

“Well, all of us know that wherever the purrgil took Ezra and Thrawn, it had to be somewhere out of range of the Empire, or we’d have heard something a long time ago. The Emperor would’ve trumpeted Ezra’s capture or death across the Holonet. And with the network of contacts Hera and I’ve put together over the years, we’d know if something else happened—”

“Like pirates looting the Chimaera’s wreckage,” Hera interjected softly.

Sabine tapped keys and the holovid display returned to the star map of the Galaxy, this time with the major hyperspace routes lit up. Almost the entire galactic west side was dim in comparison to the bright hyperlanes on the east.

“Now, it’s logical to assume Ezra wouldn’t try to contact or return to us while Palpatine was alive. We know he left to protect us from collateral damage.” Her almond eyes briefly closed as she inhaled a deep breath. “But as there’s been no word since the battle of Endor…I believe he’s become marooned somewhere and has no way to know the Empire lost.”

Ahsoka nodded solemnly. “We must be prepared to face the grim possibility Ezra was captured, or that he’s—"

“Dead.” Hera intoned bleakly, her brow furrowed. “Yes, Sabine and I have discussed all the scenarios—good, bad, and worst—a great deal. With the damage the Chimaera sustained, the first thing he’d have to do is survive hyperspace.”

“I’ve given that a lot of thought,” Sabine crossed her arms, one hand cupping her delicate chin. “And one thing to consider is creatures like the Loth-wolves and purrgil don’t access hyperspace the way we do. When the wolves transported us from the northern to the southern hemisphere, it was like walking on water.” Sabine paced a moment while the others reflected on her words.

“Hera, when we rode the wolves to the Temple, I definitely heard voices from the past—yours and Kanan’s for sure. It was like we were moving inside a space time bubble—wherever it was. Both times, I just sort of woke up very far from where I started.”

Hera nodded, “Yes, it was almost like a dream. Nothing like hyperspace on the Ghost.”

“Hm, it seems the Loth-wolves have their own version of a World Between Worlds they can access at will—at least on Lothal.” Ahsoka added this intriguing puzzle piece to her growing collection.

Sabine’s eyes brightened. “So, 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.”

Hera turned to Ahsoka. “Sabine and I both feel it’s very unlikely the purrgil would take Ezra anywhere he’d be immediately endangered.”

Sabine nodded, pointing at an expanse on the star map nestled on the Galaxy’s darker side. “Which is why I ruled out the Unknown Regions—that’s where the Chiss are from, so taking Ezra there would have only helped Thrawn.”

“Ezra has to be in one of the regions of Wild Space.” Hera sighed in frustration. “The only problem is—“

“There’s a whole lotta Wild Space.” Sabine planted her hands on her hips, surveying the clusters and filaments of stars encircling the entire galactic edge. “But the northern rim has fewer impassible anomalies to navigate. My target is somewhere along the southwestern edge.”

Ahsoka smiled softly. “Excellent strategy, Sabine. Which brings me back to my patchwork theory.”

As Sabine sat down, Ahsoka drew the others’ attention to the Galaxy’s dim, western side. “One of the many legends regarding the Architects is that they deliberately blew up stars and set planets onto rogue trajectories to make this side of galaxy difficult to traverse. The hyperlanes are few and mostly unstable. The stories claim it was to keep savage species from invading the more enlightened cultures of the eastern side.”

Tapping keys, Ahsoka illuminated planetary locations throughout the entire Outer Rim. “Based on the data I’ve collected from my travels, I believe the Architects did much more than that. Using the Force, they created gateways through time and space, and energetically connected a string of planets within our Galaxy’s Outer Rim.” Bright lines lit up between all the illuminated worlds that eerily resembled the tattoos on Hera’s lekku.

Ahsoka’s hands moved in a circle as if encompassing the star map. “This connection created and maintained a protective shell. It was meant to prevent extra-galactic intrusions from affecting our Galaxy’s development. The Gates provided a warning and communications system.”

Hera took a swallow of her almost forgotten caf, and grimaced. “I, ah, admit to feeling a bit overwhelmed now.”

Sabine crossed her arms. “Yeah, I mean it’s all fascinating, Ahsoka, but…how does it connect to finding Ezra?”

Ahsoka lit up Lothal’s location in the farther northeastern corner. “Because Lothal is one of those connected worlds. And Lothal was a Gate.” Ahsoka tapped more keys rapidly. “Let me show you what else I found, etched into the ceiling of the Library’s inner sanctum.”

The star map winked out, replaced by a fascinating image of what appeared to be a distorted compass, its four corners and center connected and interwoven with elegant, alien glyphs and script.

Sabine’s eyes practically bulged with interest. “I’ve never seen designs quite like that before…” She was on her feet again, fingers tracing through the nearest symbols. “But I’ll bet my best airbrush these largest symbols on the corners represent the four elements.” She pointed out the top right glyph. “See? It’s like a flowing volcano…so that one’s earth.”

“Correct you are.” Ahsoka brought up the galactic star map again, but kept the distorted compass superimposed over it. The symbol resembling a volcano now lay directly upon the planet Lothal. “The Temple Gate of Earth.”

With a key tap, Ahsoka lit up the planet Ilum’s location on the far top left of the map. Superimposed over it was a large glyph that resembled a windblown cloud. “Ilum. The Temple Gate of Air.”

Everyone now looked at the compass’s two bottom corners, each superimposed over areas of Wild Space. On the right was a glyph that looked like a burning torch, while the glyph on the left was like a cresting wave. Ahsoka frowned. “I haven’t yet matched any Jedi temple locations to these Gates of Fire and Water.”

Hera rose to her feet, green eyes wide. “Wait a minute. Ahsoka, do you mind if I enter some coordinates?”

Curious, Ahsoka gestured Hera forward. Hera tapped in the digits—and the planet Lira San lit up under the Fire symbol.

Hera turned to Sabine, her lekku swinging. “The Lasat homeworld.” The Twi’lek’s eyes shifted to Ahsoka. “They may not be Jedi, but we know from Zeb they are very devoted to the Ashla.”

Ahsoka stroked her chin in deep thought. “According to the Eedit archives, after the Architects disappeared, the Gates were taken over by the Jedi thousands of years ago.” She studied Lira San more closely. “There very well could be a temple of some other kind there.”

Hera gestured at the southwest corner of the compass. “So…that just leaves the Gate of Water.”

Sabine tucked back an errant strand of bright violet hair. “Here’s the thing. I still don’t understand how these Gates get us to Ezra…”

Ahsoka trailed her fingers through the interweaving patterns on the holovid that connected the four corners and center of the compass. “My theory is that the Force influenced the purgill to drop Ezra near one of these remaining Gates so he could open it when it was safe to do so, then pass through to the Central Gate.”

She tapped a key and the planet Tython lit up beneath all the compass lines that intersected near the galaxy’s center. “Some believe the oldest Jedi Temple of all lies within the Deep Core...here on Tython.”

Sabine’s eyes locked on Ahsoka’s staff in excitement. “So that’s a key to open the Gate to get to Ezra?”

“I believe the staff seals and unseals the Gates…but that duty involves my mission from Master Yoda and the Daughter.” Ahsoka did not share the Daughter’s words still floating in her mind. The Emperor was not the first, nor will he be the last, threat to the World Between Worlds. All Gates must be sealed, and the keys safely collected. “All of which hinges upon finding Ezra first.”

“How nice of them to include Ezra in their plans.” Hera huffed, exchanging a rather heated glance with Sabine.

Ahsoka sighed. “Ezra has no need of my key when he is himself a key. Only, something has happened to keep him from entering the Gate.”

Hera rubbed at her temples, still simmering. “Well, Ezra can’t be on Lira San. The Lasat would’ve sent us a message years ago that he was with them.”

“Agreed.” Sabine approached the holovid’s western side of the star map. “And he can’t be on Ilum. The Empire had it under their thumb while strip mining kyber crystals. That means—”

“Your calculations have been right all along, Sabine. Why am I not surprised.” Hera smiled at Sabine’s blushing face before focusing on the region of Wild Space beneath the Water glyph. “So, if Ahsoka’s theory is correct, we can focus on finding Ezra somewhere near here.”

Sabine face turned wary. “Uh. Hera, you know Ahsoka and I’ll be the ones getting Ezra back. You need to get Jacen to Maz Kanata.”

“Now just a damn minute—” Hera rose up to object and her comlink pinged as if on cue. She answered tartly with, “What is it, Zeb?”

“Ah, Hera, you might want to make your way over to the farmer’s market.” Zeb’s voice was about as subdued as a burly Lasat’s could get.

“And why is that?” Hera’s eyebrow arched almost impossibly high.

“Because Jacen just Force-pushed three younglings into the central fountain. I’ve got some very angry parents breathing down my neck—and I really don’t want to break any of theirs.”

Hera’s lekku sagged as she heaved a sigh. “On my way.” She pointed a stern finger at Ahsoka and Sabine, who blinked back at her innocently. “Don’t either of you dare smile.” They both covered their mouths in an instant.

Hera huffed and headed for the exit—then abruptly turned around, lekku swaying. The stern finger was back. “And don’t you even think of leaving this planet before saying goodbye.”

 

Kanan - Chimaera

The closer Kanan walked with Ezra toward Thrawn’s office, the loopier he felt. Out of the corner of his eye, intermittent glimpses of vivid landscapes and building interiors flashed by far too quickly for him to identify. Kanan turned abruptly toward a peripheral image that could be from Ryloth—to, once again, find himself staring at the corridor wall.

Maybe my eyes are playing tricks on me after being starved of color for so long. Kanan couldn’t blame them for trying to generate some visual excitement. The Chimaera’s décor, if anyone could call it that, was drab on drab, accented with a bit of dreary. Dressed in his Imperial boilersuit, Kanan practically blended into the walls himself.

“Skywalker, something strange is going on. I think you should come down here.” At the sound of Mace Windu’s voice, Kanan almost stumbled. His vision was now scattershot images of running frantically away from an impossibly enormous creature made of scales and teeth. It was as if a Coruscant skyscraper had gone raging amok. Had he just seen the Zillo beast?

“Kanan? Are you okay?”

Kanan’s vision flashed back to normal. Ezra stood looking up at him with concern. His hand steadied Kanan by the elbow.

“I’m fine.”

Ezra gave Kanan what could only be dubbed The Hera Eyebrow.

Kanan waggled his hand back and forth. “Okay…mostly fine. I, uh, think I’m still getting used to seeing again.”

“Listen, we don’t have to do this right now if you’re not well. Or, you can go lie down and I’ll deal with Thrawn.”

“It’s okay, Ezra, really. But you can definitely do most of the talking. You know Big Blue best.” Kanan managed a wink as he tugged out of Ezra’s grip to keep walking.

Ezra rolled his eyes as he fell into step beside Kanan. “Nice to know you’re just as stubborn and annoying as ever.”

“And I’m flattered you remembered me so accurately.” Kanan resisted the urge to pinch the bridge of his nose. His head felt light, like it wanted to float away somewhere on its own. Just about anywhere would be more pleasant than Thrawn’s upcoming office.

The two stormtroopers guarding Thrawn’s doorway shifted at their approach. “Stand by for permission to enter,” one of them ordered with an upraised hand.

Kanan’s vision jolted to a jagged sequence of Force-propelled clone troopers sailing to safety across a chasm when an energy bridge beneath them deactivated. This is Ryloth, I know it! The scene abruptly twisted to a retinue of Separatist droids being annihilated by Cham Syndulla’s forces. An overlay of Master Windu’s voice intoned, “You’ve earned your freedom, General, all of you.”

Kanan scrunched his eyes closed, then popped them open. The stormtrooper’s hand was waving the Jedi toward the now open entrance. Ezra side-eyed Kanan. “Uh…Are you sure about this?”

“Too late now.” Forcing himself forward, Kanan strode into the grand admiral’s lair, noting the eclectic collection of artifacts and artwork strategically displayed throughout the passage. He headed to the central, unoccupied desk. “So, where’s our illustrious leader?”

Ezra leaned against the desk with a shrug.“Must be taking out his frustrations on his sentry droids again.” Ezra’s mouth twitched sardonically. “Guess he’ll need another session after this meeting.”

Kanan’s roving eyes landed on the unexpected sight of Sabine’s bright, Rebel graffiti on a wall fragment displayed near a corner. He stepped over and gently touched her blazing Starbird, his hackles both raised and soothed by its presence. Kanan shot a heartfelt smile over at Ezra…then he felt the palpable weight of Thrawn’s gaze upon his back.

Kanan turned, his stomach clenching as he faced Thrawn. It felt as if his eyes were being pulled toward those glowing, crimson orbs like a magnet. The Chiss stood by an open side passage, his long arms tucked regally behind his back. His head dipped in a coolly polite nod.

“May I extend my formal welcome aboard the Chimaera. I would have done so earlier, but the circumstances necessitated recovery time and adjustment.”

Whether or not Thrawn was referring to Kanan or (more likely) to himself was up for grabs. Kanan flipped through all the typical responses he’d have given under normal circumstances. Words like thank you and it’s a pleasure to be here. Nope and definitely nope. He settled for a coolly polite nod in return.

Thrawn smiled faintly, then tapped thoughtfully at his chin. “I’m rather at a loss as to how to address you, Kanan Jarrus. To the best of my knowledge, you refused any military title under the Rebellion…unlike Commander Bridger here.” Thrawn’s gaze slid briefly to a scowling Ezra, then back to Kanan.

Kanan flinched as Windu’s voice spoke near his ear. “You must realize there aren’t enough Jedi to protect the Republic. We are keepers of the peace, not soldiers.”  He took a calming breath. “Just Kanan will do.” Thrawn studied him a moment, as if sensing Kanan’s inner turmoil.

“Very well, then. Kanan. In private, you may address me as Thrawn. In front of my crew, I advise you to refer to me as Admiral. Are we clear on this matter?”

Kanan very clearly imagined Thrawn sailing backward from a well-aimed Force push and smiled charmingly. “As crystal.”

Thrawn gestured at the desk and chairs. “Shall we begin with the mission briefing?”

Ezra rubbed the back of his neck. “Yeah, well, before we get into that, there’s something pretty important you need to know…” Thrawn’s aristocratic eyebrows arched inquiringly at him. “It has to do with the Emperor.”

“Indeed?” Now the grand admiral’s brows nosedived and his eyes smoldered a richer red.

Whatever conversation ensued was abruptly drowned out as Kanan’s senses were overtaken by an intense duel before his eyes: Mace Windu wielded his violet lightsaber against a crimson-clad Nightsister bearing a flaming green sword. She cackled triumphantly. “Your power is no match for my magic!”  Violet clashed against green as Master Windu countered with, “Magic is only an illusion.

Kanan’s braced himself, his mind a whirl of images: Windu with Depa Billaba, observing Kanan's youngling trainings as Caleb Dume in the Coruscant Temple. Windu’s purple blade shimmering in front of Count Dooku. “This party’s over.”  Windu with Master Yoda in solemn conversation. “But which one was destroyed, the master or the apprentice?”  Windu among the Jedi High Council, Anakin Skywalker standing stiffly before them. “You are on this council, but we do not grant you the rank of Master.”

Kanan could feel his hands pressed to his temples, but all he saw now was Palpatine, seated against a backdrop of the Coruscant skyline. Windu’s voice grew louder in his ears. “In the name of the Galactic Senate of the Republic, you are under arrest.” Everything twisted—including Kanan’s insides—while Palpatine effortlessly slayed the charismatic Kit Fisto, and two Jedi that Kanan vaguely recognized as Agen Kolar and Saesee Tiin. Stop it, make it stop!  Instead, it cascaded into agonizing flashes of Windu’s bitter duel with the Emperor—until Palpatine crouched near the feet of Kanan’s Grandmaster, completely at the mercy of his shimmering, violet blade. “The oppression of the Sith will never return. You have lost.”

With that adamant declaration, time stuttered into a procession of holopic freeze frames while voices reverberated through Kanan’s skull:

Master Windu looming over Palpatine like an executioner.

Anakin Skywalker rushing forward, tormented.

Palpatine pleading to him. “I have the power to save the one you love. You must choose!”

Sith lightning arcing futilely against Windu’s blade.

Darth Sidious sagging—vanquished, exposed.

“I’m going to end this once and for all.” Windu’s saber rising. “He’s too dangerous to be left alive.” 

Skywalker’s challenge. “It is not the Jedi way!”

Windu, unyielding. S

kywalker choosing—selfishly. “I need him!”

Skywalker’s lightsaber ignited—and everything disrupted into gut-wrenching motion. Blue plasma slashed through Windu’s wrist. The dismembered hand, along with the violet blade still ablaze in its grip, tumbled away from the broken window. Kanan gasped in horror, his heart like the shattered permaglass. We were all betrayed by the Chosen One.

“Noooooooo!” Kanan found himself back in Thrawn’s office, hunched over with the sickening knowledge his Grandmaster had fallen thoroughly into Palpatine’s carefully laid trap.

“Kanan…?”

He lifted his head, barely registering Ezra’s alarmed face. Ezra hurried to his side in protective support—and to barricade Thrawn’s silent scrutiny.

“Kanan, can you hear me?”

But Kanan only whipped his head around to something that called irresistibly to him from across the room.

Kanan outstretched his hand, targeting a locked, permasteel cabinet. He was dimly aware of Ezra’s tentative attempt to block him—of Thrawn’s sharp countermand. With a deft twist of Kanan’s fingers, the lock released itself, and the heavy doors swung open. Kanan beckoned urgently with the Force—and a slender, metallic object soared into his grasp.

Heart thumping wildly, Kanan stared down at the black and gold lightsaber hilt in his palm. Its distinctive components gleamed, hauntingly familiar. With a snap-hiss, Kanan ignited the blade. They all stared at the humming shaft of violet plasma that lit up the room.

Woah….” Ezra breathed.

Kanan slowly turned and glared into Thrawn’s crimson eyes. They seemed aglow with cryptic satisfaction. Kanan thrust the shimmering blade directly at the grand admiral and growled.

“What are you doing with Mace Windu’s lightsaber?”

Chapter Text

Chapter 3 – Pirates and Purrgils and Queens, Oh My!

5 ABY

Thrawn - Chimaera

Thrawn stood in a deceptively placid stance, assessing the intent in Kanan Jarrus’s blazing, blue-green eyes. The potent thrum of the outthrust lightsaber was the only sound in the tension filled room. The Jedi is like a player of dejarik, awaiting my move. Thrawn permitted himself the slightest of smiles and shifted his gaze to include the deadly, violet blade within his field of vision.

“It appears you have earned my gratitude…Kanan.” Interesting how his face radiates more brightly into the infrared.

“Is that supposed to mean something to me, Thrawn?” Jarrus’s furrowed brows quirked, but he subtly angled the lightsaber into a less threatening position.

Thrawn inclined his head minutely. “You have proven this relic from the black market of Coruscant was worthy of the substantial investment of time and personal resources that I expended to acquire it.”

Jarrus’s scowl intensified. “None of this was for your benefit, Admiral.” The Jedi indignantly wiped beads of sweat from his forehead with his free hand. “The crystal called to me because my grandmaster was betrayed—and robbed of his weapon. Now this belongs again to the Jedi.”

With calm finality, Jarrus extinguished the blade and hung the gold and black hilt on his utility belt. Bridger’s fascinated, yet troubled expression shifted as he turned to Thrawn. The young man forced a grin and crossed his arms defiantly over his chest.

“Well, Thrawn, looks like my mas—Kanan—earned his lightsaber a whole lot faster than you thought.” Bridger rubbed at the goatee that Thrawn so barely tolerated and protruded his lower lip in a mock-offended pout. “I had to work for months to get my pike.”

Thrawn’s smile turned razor thin as he studiously inspected his fingernails. “Both of you assume great liberties considering your lives and freedom remain at the sole mercy of my discretion.”

He slid his gaze upward to examine the heat now rising in Bridger’s face. In contrast, Jarrus only appraised Thrawn in brooding silence.

Thrawn placed his hands behind his back sedately. “I have only to give the order, and the two of you will be stripped of my property and thrown into detention cells for the remainder of our journey.”

Bridger rolled his eyes and half-raised his hands. “Why do you always have to be so dramatic? C’mon, Admiral Thrawn, you’re smart—you know full well these lightsabers accomplish a lot more for you in our hands than stuck inside a locked cabinet.”

Bridger leaned in to whisper into Jarrus’s ear. Thrawn heard it faintly, but clearly: “Plus, I’d like to see him try to take them back.” The corner of Jarrus’s mouth curved upward slightly.

Thrawn regarded Bridger’s impudent face. “You continue to assume far too many things, Commander…including the range of my hearing.”

Now the commander’s face flushed, and his blue eyes darkened. “Don’t push us into a fight over this, Thrawn. You won’t win.”

Thrawn waved a dismissive hand. “Won’t I? I believe you are entirely incapable of harming a single crew member aboard this Star Destroyer after heroically saving so many of their lives.”

Bridger’s face crumpled with realization and Thrawn leaned in with a clinical stare. “But do tell me if I’m wrong, Ezra Bridger. That you would be willing to decapitate Lieutenant Cri Braraz or kill any stormtrooper who has served faithfully under your command on scouting missions these past years.”

Bridger’s conflicted eyes turned to Jarrus. “Kanan…I…” Jarrus placed a soothing hand on his Padawan's sagging shoulder.

“Ezra. You know we didn’t survive to battle what’s left of the Seventh Fleet.” Jarrus’s eyes locked with Thrawn’s own. “Look, I don’t like it any more than you do, Thrawn, but the Force wants us to work together.”

Thrawn raised an eyebrow. The Force, indeed.  “Ah. And does this grand declaration now bring us to the subject of the Emperor’s alleged demise?”  Thrawn’s challenge to Commander Bridger’s dubious claim at the start of this meeting had been thoroughly disrupted by Jarrus’s own emotional outburst.

“It’s not alleged,” Bridger huffed. “Palpatine’s deader than a dokma in a krykna belly.”

“Perhaps.” The two syllables emerged from Thrawn’s lips dripping with skepticism. “And perhaps your intent is to undermine my leadership and my crew’s stability the further we head Coreward.” He stroked his chin, eyes narrowing. “I find it especially convenient such damaging news comes upon the heels of your master’s mysterious rescue.”

“I didn’t tell you anything before because of the way you’re acting right now!” Ezra threw his hands up in exasperation. “But Kanan said you needed to hear the truth.”

Jarrus nodded, maddeningly serene. “We have nothing to gain by lying, Thrawn. What you do with the information is up to you.”

“You are attempting to hamstring me with a no-win scenario,” Thrawn snapped as turned to pace his office ruminatively, surreptitiously scouring the body language of both Jedi for evidence of deceit regarding Palpatine and finding none. Yet, Jedi were capable of masking all too many things. He found himself pondering the vast differences between these ill-trained mavericks and the now legendary Anakin Skywalker. Are Jarrus and Bridger to my benefit or my detriment?

Thrawn resisted the urge to grind his teeth in frustration. The Jedi have no concept of the task before us if their tidings are true. The constant leaden weight in his stomach had only tripled in heaviness today. Merciless foes within the Unknown Regions could have already ripped their feeble Rebellion to shreds. And subjugated the conquered in ways that make your oh, so detested Empire seem like a benevolent dictatorship.

Bridger shifted impatiently, and Thrawn wrenched his thoughts back to what was imperative in the here and now. If the Emperor was gone (and Thrawn could hardly deny he’d been harboring that same conclusion), then Jarrus and Bridger would be forged into tools to serve the Chiss Ascendancy against the Yuuzhan Vong and the Grysks.

Thrawn ceased pacing to pin the Jedi under his gaze. “You will speak to no one of this…news while I take it under further consideration.” With a commanding wave of his hand, Thrawn gestured for the two men to sit.

“So…you’re not going to lock us up?” Bridger slouched into the closest chair by the desk, a furtive smile playing on his lips.

Thrawn ignored it by stepping to the storage cabinet and shutting the open door. “As advisable and tempting as that is, I must prioritize more immediate concerns.”

Bridger’s mouth had the audacity to spread into a triumphant grin. Thrawn imperiously raised his hand to indicate the vacuum of space beyond the Chimaera’s hull. “The most pressing of which is the hostiles invading this sector.”

Jarrus had lowered his sprawling frame into the chair next to Bridger and crossed his long legs at the ankles. “What can we do to help…Admiral?”

The crosshairs of Thrawn’s mind aligned on a long ago encounter with a notorious Rebel known as Nightswan. The precarious strategy of transparency had engendered an unlikely peace between himself and his enemy. The current dilemma clearly necessitated a similar risk.

“You will each answer a question I once put forth to a worthy adversary.” Thrawn’s narrowed eyes tracked between master and padawan.

“Fire away.” Bridger’s thick eyebrows rose in curious anticipation.

“Very well, Commander. You and I are facing a dangerous predator intent on slaughter. Running may be impossible; the tools and weapons are limited. What are your options?”

Bridger’s vivid blue eyes glanced up at the ceiling briefly as he pondered, then he uttered with conviction. “We join our forces. Just like we’ve been doing all along.”

Thrawn smiled thinly, then turned back to Jarrus. The older Jedi had straightened up, his hands now resting on his knees. “What say you…Kanan?”

As Jarrus tilted his head and closed his eyes, Thrawn repressed a shudder, experiencing an odd sensation that he’d been probed in some way beyond visible sight.

Jarrus opened his eyes, frowning deeply. “There’s an uglier option. You could make sure the predator attacks me first, giving you more time to find a way to survive.”

“Correct you are.” Thrawn stepped behind his desk, settling into his chair purposefully.

Bridger’s jaw dropped. “Wait, what? You’re going to make us bait? That sounds pretty cold, even for you, Thrawn.”

Thrawn dimmed the office lights, aware of how his red eyes glowed brighter in the darkened room. “Once again, you are jumping to premature conclusions, Commander,” he chided as he pressed a control button.

The area above Thrawn’s pristine desk lit up with a large holographic image of an aging Clone War trooper, piloting a fighter craft of unknown alien design. Jarrus’s teal eyes narrowed instantly, while Bridger looked perplexed.

“First witness the predator we are up against, Jedi…and perhaps you will understand why I’ve come to refer to them as the Nihilum.”

Bridger and Jarrus watched intently as the holorecording continued to play.

“My original designation was CC-Five-Six-Seven-Five. I am a defector of the Grand Army of the Republic. My chosen name is Sulis. I leave this message as an urgent warning for the Senate and the Jedi—or whatever entity may now oversee the civilized galaxy...”

 

Ahsoka - Lothal

Ahsoka stood a few feet from the cliff’s edge, looking out at the wide expanse of grasslands and spirals of stony hills. She opened herself to the unique Force energies of the planet, focusing on connecting with the enigmatic entity who had identified itself as Dume. Ahsoka stretched her senses ever-outward for a response...with the ironic hope that  the one she sought with such determination would not (could not) answer her call.

A few feet away, Sabine ran her hand impatiently through her cropped hair, looking uncomfortable. “I don’t understand what we’re still doing here, Ahsoka. What are you expecting that can help us on our mission?”

Ahsoka kept an inner part of herself in search mode while addressing the query of her companion. “It’s hard to explain, Sabine.” She glanced back at the dark maw of the cave behind them. “After studying the wall paintings, I’m sensing more and more that our journey is not so much about finding Ezra as it is about what we must accomplish after he’s found.”

Sabine’s eyes squinted in puzzlement. Accompanied by suspicion. “Are you talking about whatever Yoda and the Daughter told you to do?”

“Yes.” Ahsoka sighed. “And no.”

“Ugh, you sound just like…Kanan.” The young Mandalorian folded her arms across her armored chest.

Ahsoka shifted her staff as she searched for words to explain what remained partially clouded to her own mind. “I can only say I felt invited to this place.” Called, rather. “Maybe because it was the last location you shared significant time with both Kanan and Ezra.”

Sabine bit her lip, and her arms dropped to her sides. “I haven’t been back for a long time.” Her voice came out almost as a whisper.

The wind blew around them, fluttering Ahsoka’s cloak as she moved closer to place a comforting hand on Sabine’s graceful shoulder. Softness inside her, but no weakness. “I’m sorry if coming here causes you pain, Sabine. A few moments more, then we’ll go. I promise.”

In answer, Sabine nodded, then moved away to crouch by the edge and peer into the distance where the bright hulls of Ahsoka’s T-6 shuttle and the X-wing escorts glinted in the sunlight.

Though Ahsoka’s core mind still signaled repeatedly to Dume, her surface thoughts drifted to the ancient art gallery that adorned the cave’s inner walls. Her heart twisted at all the power and potential alluded to the child depicted in those paintings. Caleb Dume. If only his fiery sacrifice hadn’t been necessary, if the boy who’d been forged into Kanan Jarrus were still here to know his own son, to share more time with all of his Ghost family. The life of happiness that could have been for Kanan and Hera…might that have existed for Anakin and Padme if things gone differently for them as well?

But futile wishes did nothing to change what was. Like the wind sweeping through the sea of grasses below her, Order 66 had brutally scoured the Jedi from the Galaxy. Ten thousand bright, shining lights of potential brutally extinguished. If not for Barriss Offee’s terrorist convolutions that led to the Jedi Council’s false accusations against Ahsoka—followed by her own renouncement of the Order—she’d have perished herself by Anakin’s side. By his own hand, far more likely.

For what felt like the thousandth time, Ahsoka pondered: Had I stayed in the Order, could I have prevented Anakin’s fall? The same answer always surged in its wake. Not even Anakin’s beloved Padme could save him from the Dark Side.

Ahsoka released a long breath, conjuring up a different Skywalker’s face. He seems to possess none of his father’s self-destructive vanity. How painful it had been to see Luke eagerly listen to her (deliberately) lighthearted stories of Anakin and Padme before Ahsoka had to depart the New Republic base for Lothal. If Ahsoka survived the hazardous journey before her, she would share a wider spectrum of memories with the bright-eyed Jedi. As for Luke’s dark-haired twin sister, well, time would tell how much of the Force…and her true heritage…Princess Leia would embrace.

A soft, insistent growling wrested Ahsoka’s mind fully to the present. Sabine was rising slowly to her feet to adopt a defensive stance, her gloved hands almost touching her blasters. “Ahsoka…”

Calmly turning, Ahsoka came face to muzzle with an enormous, white Loth-wolf, his lips pulled back to reveal glistening, sharp teeth. Sith-like eyes bored into her own. “You’re not Dume,” Ahsoka heard herself whisper. In reply, the growl increased in volume. Ahsoka shifted her body carefully to stand between the Loth-wolf and Sabine.

“I haven’t seen the white wolf since Ezra vanished.”

To Ahsoka’s dismay, Sabine’s hushed voice was now to the side of her.

“Keep your distance, Sabine.”

I'm the one who knows how he fights,” Sabine muttered. “Be glad we’re not stormtroopers.”

Ahsoka’s lips curved slightly. I should know better than to keep a Mandalorian out of a battle. She slowly lowered her staff, prepared to use it as a weapon if necessary.

The Loth-wolf’s eyes tracked the staff’s glimmering circle tip for a tense moment, then he ceased growling. He sank back on his well-muscled haunches and lowered his fearsome head in a more tolerant manner. This wolf recognizes the staff?

Intuitively, Ahsoka extended her hand and gently placed it on the wolf’s forehead. “I’m Ahsoka Tano. Do you have a message for me?”

From Dume? Ahsoka’s mind added the name that she hesitated to say aloud, as if speaking it would manifest the very being she wanted to be far, far from Lothal.

The Loth-wolf shook his thickly furred head from side to side while Ahsoka’s thoughts tumbled with garbled images. All she could decipher in the chaos were two emphatic words before the wolf pulled away from Ahsoka’s touch to rise back to his feet.

Once again, the creature’s Sith-like eyes bored into Ahsoka’s own while his massive jaws opened to speak one word: “BENDUUUUU.” And then the Loth-wolf stepped silently backwards until he vanished at the dark mouth of the cave.

Ahsoka gripped her staff tightly, breathing deeply to calm the hammering of her heart, lowering its pulse to match the cadence of the Loth-wolf’s two precious words. NOT HERE. NOT HERE. NOT HERE. Ahsoka felt her hopes rising higher with each repetition.

Wide-eyed, Sabine joined Ahsoka and asked in a halting voice, “Did…did that wolf actually say…Bendu?”

A smile emerged on Ahsoka’s lips. “Looks like we’ll be setting course for Atollon.”

 

Kanan – Chimaera

Kanan drained the last of his caf, wishing it was a bottomless cup to get him through this ceaseless, almost tortuous briefing. The deceptively soft cadence of Thrawn’s voice had wormed its way deep into Kanan’s brain, bombarding it with data that presumably (very soon please) would loop back to the attacking alien horde. The Nihilum indeed. That final image of the incoming swarm was practically burned into Kanan’s retinas.

After the clone’s ghastly transmission, Thrawn had seen fit to ply Kanan and Ezra with light refreshments to recover somewhat—emphasis on the somewhat —while Lieutenant Braruz joined them in the ever-so-scintillating meeting. The Devaronian now manned the projector controls while the grand admiral discussed an almost wall-to-wall holographic star map dominating his office.

Absorbing this day’s onslaught of information would have been difficult enough without Kanan’s emotional insides all battered and bruised.  He took a deep breath. Pay attention to the now. There was nothing that could be done about the revelations from Mace Windu’s lightsaber crystal.

As if aware of Kanan’s distraction, Thrawn raised his voice. “For quite some time, the astronavigation team has calculated that our position lies within the southwestern edge of the Galaxy.” The grand admiral paced to the far end of the map where the outermost spiral arm of stars met the void beyond.

“The team’s been hindered in pinpointing the Chimaera’s location more precisely because—for reasons yet unknown to us—a number of red hypergiant stars in these sectors do not align with the charts available in our data banks.”

Kanan stiffened. A ripple of disquieting energy emanated from Dume while Thrawn’s blue hand swept elegantly through a series of flagged, red dots that originated at the far edge of the spiral arm and oscillated Coreward.

“The team is monitoring each hypergiant in an attempt to determine why their current luminosity and spectral analysis varies so greatly from our records of the region.”

But Kanan’s gaze was tugged much farther east: There floated Malachor, where so much had gone wrong. Like a veil lifted from his eyes, Kanan suddenly understood Ahsoka’s shadowed eyes, her odd behavior that all started with Darth Vader’s relentless pursuit of the Rebels on Lothal. Ahsoka had figured out whose face was under that hideous mask. Anakin Skywalker, the kriffing Chosen One, if whispers of that prophecy at the Temple were true. Ahsoka’s very own master had betrayed the entire Jedi Order just so Palpatine could save his… lover?  Ahsoka must have been utterly devastated. And hellbent on stopping him.

The sound of his grinding teeth snapped Kanan back to find Ezra’s blue eyes probing his own. Tell you later, Kanan mouthed grimly to his concerned not-padawan just before the star map zoomed in on the grid where an avatar of the Chimaera floated like a tiny, insignificant triangle.

“We’re currently on a direct course for this nebula.” Thrawn pointed out an immense gas cloud hundreds of light years across. The glowing dust was filled with a staggering array of bright crescents that resembled sharp-edged weapons flung through the heavens by an angry god.

“These are young stars being ejected from the central cluster at over two hundred thousand kilometers per hour.” Thrawn’s eyes glowed softly with satisfaction. “The astronavigators are confident this unusual configuration is the Boomerang nebula within the Sintuuian sector.”

“So…this is all good news, right?” Ezra asked, perking up. “If the navicomputer now knows where we are, the ship can make safer and longer jumps.”

Thrawn rubbed his chin as he addressed Ezra. “The Boomerang is a formidable obstacle, Commander Bridger. The ejecting stars generate immensely powerful magnetic fields and radiation that impedes not only our forward progress, but any attempts at long range communication.”

Braruz was crunching numbers on her datapad. “Sir, if we circumnavigate the nebula, it will take approximately six months longer to be clear of its magnetic interference. We could then set course for Seoul. Its population is minimal, but the locals should possess a long-range communications system.”

Thrawn gazed intently at the oscillating pattern of flagged, red dots. “The problem, Lieutenant, is that we do not have six months to spare.”

The ripple of unease from Dume intensified, and Kanan’s gut clenched. “What do you mean, Thrawn?”

The grand admiral almost caressed the flagged red dot that floated closest to the Chimaera. “The team has reported this hypergiant’s luminosity began decreasing measurably only one rotation ago.”

His crimson eyes surveyed Kanan and Ezra as if to assess the reaction of his now rapt audience. “My analysis of this recent development—in combination with the pattern of these similar hypergiants—indicate the phenomenon is actively on its way Coreward.”

The grand admiral spread his hands and arched his eyebrows. “I am curious to know…what do you make of it, Jedi?”

Kanan and Ezra eyed each other, then both reached out with the Force with intense concentration. For a long moment, the only sounds in the office were the faint hum of the holoprojector and the quiet breathing of its occupants.

“I don’t feel anything, Kanan.” Ezra broke the quiet, disconcerted. “If this dimming comes from something natural, it should resonate in the Force.”

Kanan cleared his dry throat, suppressing the growing fear that wanted to rampage through his insides. “I think we all know one very unnatural thing it could be.”

Thrawn rested his hands behind his back, but Kanan sensed the pulse of agitation beneath his serene facade. “Whether or not it is the Nihilum, I want the Chimaera out of its path as quickly as safety protocols allow.”

Lieutenant Braruz’s pink face had paled. So we’re not the only ones who just got hit with the bad news.

“Sir, the Chimaera must traverse the nebula within less than three standard cycles, or the radiation levels are likely to penetrate our shields and hull.” She consulted her data pad again, brow furrowing even further. “Until full repairs can be made in a full-service drydock, many of our systems remain vulnerable.”

The office communication system pinged. Stiffening with irritation, Thrawn acknowledged the call. “What is it, Captain Makeri?”

A gruff female voice responded deferentially. “Admiral, we have reached the debarkation coordinates for the Jedi’s mission.  Long range sensors indicate the gas giant nearest to the system’s star has the highest concentrations of Clouzen thirty-six. We’ve detected no evidence yet of any mining facilities or other sentient structures.”

“Understood, Captain. Hold position and await further orders.”

“Aye, sir.” The system pinged off.

Ezra had leapt upward to begin pacing, a plan lighting up his face. “If that planet is a regular feeding ground for the purrgil, I might be able to call in at least a couple of them to help get us through the Boomerang.”

The grand admiral’s mouth set in a thin line. Oh, I’m sure he’s thrilled at the thought of all of Ezra’s tentacled friends latching onto his precious Star Destroyer. Despite his tension, Kanan had to stifle a chuckle before Thrawn finally gave a terse nod.

“You have six hours to attempt this strategy and rejoin the Chimaera.”

Six hours ? Kanan exchanged a silent thought with Ezra. The grand admiral isn’t kidding about hightailing it out of here.

Thrawn gestured for Braruz to shut down the holoprojector. “Lieutenant, you will find the rendezvous coordinates downloaded in the shuttle’s computer.”

“Sir…” the Devaronian bit at her lip. “If Commander Bridger is unsuccessful in, ah, deploying the purrgil—”

“I will call upon our military guests to swiftly guide the Chimaera through the Boomerang.”

Wait. What?

Thrawn’s eyes slid to Ezra. “After all, Commander Bridger has already proven quite useful in aiding our pilots through a number of minor anomalies.”

Kanan’s pride in his not-padawan briefly relaxed his tense innards. He gave Ezra a quick wink of approval, and Ezra’s cheeks pinked up.

Thrawn now turned toward Kanan with a challenging gleam in his eye.

“The Sith Lord, Darth Vader, once single-handedly piloted my Star Destroyer at high velocities under extreme duress.” The Chiss spread his hands. “Certainly you, Master Jarrus—who has traveled so inexplicably through time and space—are capable of such a feat?”

Kanan’s teeth wanted to grind again, this time with some part of Thrawn’s flesh between them. He’s no Skywalker. Rex’s all too frequent assessment echoed in Kanan’s head. After what Mace’s crystal showed me, I thank the Force I’m not, old friend.

Quickly recalibrating his thoughts, Kanan called forth a somehow incredibly pleasant memory from his sightless years: Guiding Hera through blinding fog on Jalindi while the Ghost corkscrewed at breakneck speed between the canyon’s pillars of rocky death—as chasing TIE fighters tried to outdo each other in blasting the ship to smithereens.

“Hmm.” Kanan scratched at his incoming goatee, then looked up at Thrawn. “It sounds like fun.”

Thrawn actually looked taken aback for one split second. Kanan tried not to smirk over getting under the Chiss’s almost impenetrable blue skin…and almost succeeded.

 

Hera – Lothal

Hera stopped abruptly in the contained chaos of Capital City’s spaceport when she realized Jacen was no longer beside her. The facility had been significantly expanded in the past five years, testament to the efforts of Sabine and Ryder Azadi to not only rebuild, but to improve Lothal’s infrastructure and its importance in the sector after the Empire’s humiliating expulsion from the planet.

“Jacen?” Hera’s sudden turn flung her lekku in a half circle. She finally saw her wayward son smiling and waving from where he stood petting a bevy of stray Loth-cats that sprawled on a large cargo crate. Hera retraced her steps with a sigh of annoyance.

“Now you be good and play nice, you hear?” Jacen was saying as he scratched behind the brindle ears of the biggest Loth-cat.

Hera took a firm grip on Jacen’s hand to lead him away from the meowing cats. “Jacen, love, we don’t have time to say goodbye to every tooka along the way.”

They entered one of the largest bays, where the Ghost, Ahsoka’s T-6 shuttle, and the two X-wing escorts were docked in close proximity. Zeb waved over at Hera and Jacen as he pushed a stack of supply crates up the Ghost’s cargo ramp. Nearby, Kallus stacked more crates on an antigrav lift. AP-5 hovered, clutching his datapad while shaking his visored head.

“No, no, no, this is all wrong.” The droid gestured for Zeb to come back. “You’ll need access to those perishable supplies more quickly. If you load them first, as only an imbecile would, you’ll have to move all of this"—he jabbed a finger at Kallus’s crates—"out of the way.”

Hera sighed. Here we go.

Zeb stopped to glare down imperiously. “No, I won’t because you’ll be doing all the moving,” he grunted. “Now stop your dithering and make sure our inventory is complete. What really matters is whether or not everything actually gets on the blasted ship in the first place.”

AP-5 planted a hand on his hip socket. “Might I remind you, Lasat, that my primary purpose is to serve as an academic tutor to our captain’s offspring, not as your mindless minion.”

“You’re a glorified babysitter, that’s what you are,” snorted Zeb.

“And highly more competent in that capacity than you are,” droned back AP-5.

Kallus took the words out of Hera’s mouth as he rapidly pushed his stack of crates up the ramp. “Will the two of you ever stop your bickering—you’ve been going at it all morning, and I’m about to sign on as Hondo Ohnaka’s crew to escape.”

At that, Jacen yanked excitedly out of Hera’s grip. “Great idea, Uncle Kallus!” Ignoring Hera’s protests, he ran closer to the open bay doors to yell over to an adjacent hanger. “Hey, Uncle Hondo!”

Inside, Hondo and Melch were busy offloading dubious merchandise from their vividly painted shuttle, the Last Chance, to an equally dubious looking buyer. The wiry Weequay captain glanced over to see Jacen gesturing from himself to the mortified, pink-cheeked Kallus.

“We can be your gunners!” Jacen pantomimed the firing of heavy weapons. Hera rubbed her aching forehead.

Hondo bestowed her son with an approving wave and grin. “But, of course, Jacen Syndulla! And may your Jedi youngling aim with my canons match those rocks you threw so accurately through the school master’s window!” Still grinning, Hondo turned back to his impatient customer.

Hera set her fists on her hips, narrowing her eyes at her crewmen above. “Rocks…?”

Zeb slapped Kallus on the shoulder as the human slunk past him on the ramp. “Karabast. Hera wasn’t supposed to know about that.”

“I should have locked that old pirate up in the Emperor’s dungeons before I turned traitor,” muttered Kallus as he disappeared into the cargo hold.

“None of this would have transpired had I been in charge, but I’d been sent out for supplies.” AP-5’s speaker grid seemed to flare a brighter red in disdain as he jerked his thumb at Zeb.

“We can always ship you back to Hosnian Prime to keep decrypting Imperial files,” Zeb retorted with a sideways grin.

Chopper emerged from the cargo hold to blat profanely in agreement.

Hera ignored the droids’ ensuing argument while Jacen crept up to her side, eyes wide and innocent as a Loth-kitten’s.

“Remember, Mama, you told me I needed to practice controlling my Force throws.”

“Not next to a window, Jacen Caleb Syndulla!”

“Uh, actually, Hera, he wasn’t anywhere near the school master’s quarters.” Zeb had fled down the ramp to evade the round of insults flying between AP-5 and Chopper. The Lasat raised a mighty arm to rub the fur on the back of his head. “I thought we were safe out on the playing field.”

Now Jacen’s teal eyes practically gleamed. Oh, that look. So like his father. She had yet to develop a defense against it.

“Looks like I’m getting stronger, Mama!  I wonder how strong Dad was when he was five?”

Hera gave up the battle (for now, she told herself firmly ) and chuckled. “I’m sure he was just as destructive as you, little love.”  She hunkered down to kiss his forehead. “And, no, you can’t fly with, uh, Captain Hondo… I need you for my co-pilot.”

Jacen nodded in reluctant surrender, then grinned at something behind her. “Auntie ‘Bine!”

Jacen raced off as Sabine, Ahsoka and her two X-wing pilots, Hyrran Tong and Nuada Taluka, entered the hanger bay.

Hera poked Zeb in the chest. “You and Kallus are not completely off the hook.”

“Hey, we already paid for the windows,” Zeb retorted with a half-smile before he strutted off to say his own hellos.

Hera watched Sabine pull the very wriggly Jacen into a hug while Ahsoka’s placid face lit up with a smile. The Togruta seemed…less burdened somehow. The cliff cave must have provided useful information after all. Hera had avoided the location for years and saw no need to revisit it. Like Rion’s moons, it was on her list of places that remained too painful to face in person now, perhaps ever.

Now Jacen was practically dancing around the heels of Tong and Taluka, firing off a zillion questions about their X-wings. The grins of Hera’s former trainee pilots, and the easy laughter among the group—even the unrelenting squabbling between Chopper and AP-5—brought a lump to Hera’s throat. If only we could all stick together for this mission to find Ezra. What if this is the last time we ever see each other again?

Hera took a calming breath, accepting full well that the safety and needs of her son came first. That was a given, and to Maz Kanata’s castle she’d go. But…Hera decided she wouldn’t be acting at all like a cuckoo hen to press Sabine and Ahsoka into committing to a number of check-ins during their search. Perhaps even a rendezvous with the Ghost at Takodana. After all, the pirate queen’s planet wasn’t all that far from the sector of space they planned to investigate. Just logistical, rational, plans of action. Hera Syndulla had not been made a general for nothing, after all.

A ZZZAAPPP from behind derailed her train of thought. Inevitably, Chopper had rolled down the ramp to threaten AP-5 with his electroprod.

“Oh, one of these nights when you’re recharging, I will permanently detach you from that accursed weapon,” AP-5 swore from behind the safety of a crate.

“All right, you two, that’s enough! Get back to work.” Hera pointed upward, where Kallus (with the intelligence of the former ISB agent that he was) had wisely remained out of the fray and was presumably rearranging supplies deep inside the cargo bay. It was time to get her own mission rolling.

While the droids complied with their most begrudging levels of obedience, Hera made her way over to the oblivious group still chatting happily under the bright red wings of Ahsoka’s shuttle. Hera’s lips lifted in a bittersweet smile as Sabine and Ahsoka welcomed her warmly. She had many, many goodbye hugs to give and receive.

 

Ezra – Sintuuian Sector

Ezra held Kanan’s arm to keep him at the foot of the shuttle’s ramp while Lieutenant Braruz disappeared inside. PZ-5 was already aboard ensuring nothing had been overlooked for their brief mission to the planet with a purrgil-enticing atmosphere of Clouzon-36.

“Something wrong?” Kanan turned, and Ezra was caught off guard by the way his not-master’s teal eyes caught the light. Ezra suddenly realized his subconscious remained irrationally braced for Kanan’s blind, milky gaze to return, that his restored sight (maybe Kanan himself ) was a magical gift the Force would take back as it deemed necessary.

“Ezra?” Kanan sighed in rueful understanding and clasped Ezra’s shoulder before speaking much more quietly. “I know. I should have told you about those lightsaber visions, but I didn’t realize what was going on. I didn’t want to worry you on top of everything else.”

“Just…just don’t hold back if something is hurting you, Kanan. I can sense you’re still really shaken up.”

Kanan rubbed at the back of his neck, working on a taut muscle. “Look, I promise to fill you in on everything when we have less company.” Kanan indicated the shuttle with a tilt of his head, plus a trio of pilots boarding their TIE Defenders to the far side. “Let’s focus on the mission at hand to make sure it’s a successful one.”

“Kanan, I promise to do my best—but you know as well as I do that purrgil pretty much do whatever they want.”

Kanan’s mouth flattened and he edged Ezra further from the ramp. “Yeah, well, so does Thrawn.” He pretended to inspect his blaster while almost whispering to Ezra. “The grand admiral seems to be awfully chatty about filling us in on things, which means only a couple of things in my book.”

Ezra pulled out his own blaster to inspect its charge. “Let me guess. It’s nothing good.”

Kanan shot him a mirthless grin. “One, Thrawn is pretty sure we’re all going to die anyway so it doesn’t matter what he reveals to us at this point. And two, if we somehow do make it out of Wild Space alive, he’ll make sure we don’t make it off this ship alive to reveal anything to the Rebellion—or whatever the Rebellion’s become.”

Ezra felt his stomach curdle. “Do you really think he’d end us, after everything I’ve done to help him and the crew?” Seeing Kanan’s arching eyebrow, Ezra ran a hand through his cropped hair. “Okaaaay, so I admit he could still be a little cranky that I am the reason he’s out here in the first place.”

Kanan shoved his blaster into its holster. “Ezra, Thrawn lives and breathes tactics and strategy.” He now carefully, almost reverently, inspected his newly acquired lightsaber. “He’ll always do whatever that Chiss brain of his computes is for his greater good. It’s nothing personal.”

Ezra sighed. “I know, Kanan. I guess I keep hoping he’s capable of changing.”

Kanan reattached the saber hilt to his belt with a flourish. “Well, it doesn’t hurt to stay optimistic, kid.” Stepping onto the ramp, Kanan spread his arms akimbo and winked at Ezra. “Look at the effect you’ve had on me.”

Ezra followed Kanan into the shuttle, his lips tugging into a lopsided smile. “Hey, you’re not supposed to call me kid anymore.”

Inside the cockpit, Ezra noticed the pink of Braruz’ cheeks deepened as Kanan brushed past her to take the gunner’s station instead of the co-pilot seat. Now that’s interesting. The glances of desire Kanan received at times from others (not always humanoids like Hera, either) hadn’t been lost on a teenage Ezra throughout their missions but the lieutenant’s reaction was more like embarrassment. Did I miss something?

Braruz sat gingerly nearby as Ezra’s co-pilot while PZ-5 took the operations station. Their departure from the Chimaera was routine, and Ezra’s heart surged with a feeling of freedom as he zoomed the sleek Lambda away from the lumbering Star Destroyer. Well, as free as that escort of TIE Defenders on my flank allows.

Ezra and Kanan exchanged a quick look. Any monkey-lizard ideas (oh, say, like an ill-advised escape attempt ) and the TIE Defenders’ bristling guns and missiles would take instant aim on their shuttle. Ezra snuck a glance at Lieutenant Braruz, whose expression was reasonably calm considering she had to know she’d be vaporized with the Jedi and PZ-5 if Thrawn found it necessary.

After Ezra initiated the jump into hyperspace, Kanan stretched his long arms over his head a moment to crack his back. “I’m going to meditate for a bit, see if I can pick up anything ahead of us.”

“Sure, Kanan,” Ezra teased. “I’ll try to fly gently so you can enjoy your nap.”  

Kanan managed a half-hearted glare before his eyelids slipped shut. Concern gnawed at Ezra’s gut again. He looks so tired. Those visions were probably keeping him awake for days.

Ezra turned back to the wash of hyperspace, trying not to feel self-conscious with Braruz aboard. She’d be documenting his every move for Thrawn, especially any mistakes. Hmm, how to distract someone born with a magnifying glass in her baby Devaronian hands?

“So, Braruz, what’s your theory on the holo you watched with us on the repeat? Do you think the clone trooper’s wife is right and the Nihilum destroy people because they don’t like how we’re connected to the Force?”

The lieutenant hissed at Ezra. “The information in that transmission is currently top secret, Commander.”  She side-eyed PZ-5 sharply.

Whoops. I’m so used to PeeZee being in on my secrets, it just slipped out. Ezra returned Braruz’s glare. “I don’t see the big deal. Thrawn’s going to drag PeeZee into analyzing that holo sooner rather than later—and you know it.”

“That’s not the point—and you know it.”

PZ-5’s visored face swiveled from Braruz to Ezra as if offended. “Do you wish to wipe this conversation from my memory, Master Ezra? Or shut me—”

“What? No! Just stay working on ops, okay?”

“As you wish, Master Ezra.”  

Yep, she’s definitely offended.

Braruz crossed her arms and looked away. Ezra could still hear her muttering, “Fine. It’s just a droid anyway.”

Great. Add insult to injury. Ezra huffed in the awkward silence. “Well…think you can at least share some not so secret theories to pass the time, Lieutenant? You know, like maybe one based on all the temples, museums and galleries we found blasted to rubble.” His words had a more sarcastic bite than intended.

Braruz regarded him a moment, as if weighing whether or not he was capable of understanding anything truly complex. It’s the way Sabine used to look at me, before everything we went through as a team. How he missed Sabine’s sparking, unpredictable moods, her brilliant mind. But mostly because Sabine knew and accepted him for who he truly was, while he’d learned the Mandalorian’s often whip-sharp tongue belonged to a person he could trust in completely.

Ezra sensed a similar core of steel in Braruz, but in the Devaronian, it lay at the center of a quiet, icy moon while Sabine’s was wrapped within a fiercely glowing and uncatchable comet. Ezra sighed, wondering where Sabine was and what she was doing. Did it involve Ketsu?

“I actually have several theories, Commander, all of which could be entirely wrong.”

Ezra made an effort to look and sound inviting. “So, tell me. It’s not like I’m going to grade you or anything.”

Braruz snuck a glance back at the meditating (snoring?) Kanan, then over to PZ-5, who was tapping away on her station’s console.

“Oh, don’t mind me,” PZ-5 droned methodically. “I’m just a droid, after all.”

Braruz’s sigh sounded a bit chagrined. “One theory…I think it is possible we take the Force for granted.” At Ezra’s surprised look, she continued more firmly, “By that, I mean how strongly the Force’s energy appears to interact with us in our Galaxy.”

She gestured at the transparisteel viewport. “Perhaps in other galaxies, the way that life and the Force’s energy evolved did not result in our type of interaction. If these Nihilum intruders are from such a galaxy, it is likely they find the Force in ours confusing and threatening.”

Ezra mulled that over, gnawing his lip. He’d honestly never given much thought to galaxies outside his own. I didn’t exactly have the time or luxury…or education . Not that Hera and Kanan didn’t do their best in the middle of a life-threatening rebellion.

“Huh. Interesting. What else you got?”

“Well, our Galaxy has endured millennia of wars involving the Force. The Jedi, the Sith, and countless other sects and religions based upon it. Each with their secretive, exclusive, and controlling philosophies.” Her voice had turned sharper than usual.

“The aliens could be the product of such Force related wars in their own galaxy. Perhaps the androids were programmed to recognize and destroy potential Force enemies as soon as they were encountered…and it resulted in an apocalyptic confrontation that ended all sentient life.” Her eyelids dipped half-closed.

Ezra felt a chill down his spine. This was all hitting a bit too close to home based on what little he knew of the Jedi versus the Sith, the Clone Wars, and now the Rebellion versus the Empire. The last thing their Galaxy needed now was a new player at the overcrowded war table.

Artificial intelligence was…unpredictable in Ezra’s experience—and it mostly went by the name of Chopper. That maniacal little rust bucket had taken out thousands of Imperials pretty much on his own (and frequently without much provocation). Ezra’s chill escalated into a shiver. If we’re being attacked by a horde of super Choppers, we are in major trouble .

“Am I giving you a headache?” Braruz’s voice sounded amused.

Ezra realized he was rubbing his temples. “What? Oh, no, not at all.” He bobbed his head in what he hoped looked like enthusiastic contemplation. “It’s just that…that’s all great food for thought.” He raised a finger almost apologetically. “I’ll be honest, though—I hope you’re completely wrong.”

To his surprise, she actually smiled. “Those aren’t even my most alarming theories, Commander.”

“Ehhh, how about we save those for another time? I’d kind of like to explore a less nerve-wracking subject of conversation.”

“And what might that be?” The Devaronian crossed her arms and tilted her horn nubs at an angle that echoed Vizago’s almost constant state of skepticism.

You. Such as, how did you wind up in service to the Empire?”

“Why do you even care, Ezra Bridger?” Her brow furrowed with suspicion and bemusement.

He shrugged nonchalantly. “I think it’s only fair that I know something about you, seeing as how you know so much about me.”

“Hah. For your honesty, I will tell you something…” She tapped her angular chin a moment. “I doubt you know much of my planet or my people’s history, but what matters to our conversation is that Devaronians have a higher frequency of Force-sensitivity than any other species.”

“Really? Why do you suppose that is?” Ezra tried to imagine Vizago meditating in quiet contemplation like Kanan…and found it impossible. He coughed to suppress a rising chuckle.

“Your question is one I have been researching for quite some time.” Braruz’s purple eyes narrowed in thought. “The complete answer remains elusive, but I believe it likely involves a combination of my species’ genetics and a very powerful vergence in the Force on the planet. The Jedi even built the Temple of Eedit there to train all the Force-sensitive children on Devaron.”

“So that’s why you enjoy studying me—I mean, the Jedi—so much.” Ezra felt his mouth quirk in a teasing smile.

The lieutenant eyed him back coolly. “My own family tree has had its share of Jedi through the centuries, Commander Bridger.”

Ezra remained silent with surprise. Her? Related to Jedi?

As if in response to his possibly offensive expression, the sharpness in Braruz’s voice returned. “It was a blessing I was not born one of them. I prefer to unlock the scientific secrets of what has been touted as magic—and hoarded for millennia by a powerful few over the superstitious many.”

Ezra felt a defensive stab in his heart at Braruz’s heated outburst. “The Jedi aren’t like that.”

She turned away to add in a softer tone, “But they were purged in yet another war to control something that belongs to everyone.” She glared back at Ezra. “Had I been born with the Force, I would not be here to study it. I’d have been executed with my great uncle and cousin.”

Ezra now felt the stab extend to his gut. “So….now you’re working for the ones who killed your family.” I can’t imagine Vizago doing that either .

Braruz’s eyes shone like hard amethyst. “Life has made me a very practical person, Ezra Bridger. If you cannot beat your enemy, you join them. And then from inside your enemy you make things better however you can.”

“Is that what you’re doing with Thrawn? Making the Galaxy better by helping the Empire crush you and your world under its heel?” The words tore out of him, brimming with disappointment rather than disdain. What had I hoped to hear? That she’s a Rebel spy like Kallus or some other nonsense?  

Braruz scowled fiercely. “The grand admiral is a venerable mentor—and a brilliant, selfless leader in a time of power-hungry fools! That much should be obvious, especially to you , Jedi.” She waved Ezra away like a mettlesome stingfly, then targeted the viewport with her righteous glare.

Ezra blinked, something coming clear to him in the Force. Lieutenant Cri Braruz serves Thrawn, not the Empire. Whatever he orders, she’ll comply. Not out of fear or love or desire, but because her choices feel justified standing by his side. What would this mean for him and Kanan?

The proximity alert forced Ezra to shift focus to the mission at hand. “Coming up on the gas giant…PeeZee, open up Channel Zero and transmit.”

From behind Braruz, Kanan abruptly called out, “Ezra, stay sharp!”

Ezra gasped as an intense chill of pain, loss and sorrow surged through him. He whipped his head around to find Kanan alert and very pale, his eyes full of alarm. He feels it, too!

“PeeZee! Shields at maximum.” Ezra opened communications with the flanking TIE pilots. “Leo, Capra, Viper—everyone—on your toes.” Ezra hit the controls to drop them out of hyperspace.

“Acknowledged, Commander,” transmitted group leader Leo with an edge in her voice.

“What is it, what is wrong?” Braruz was bracing for combat in the co-pilot seat.

The glow of hyperspace abruptly halted into inky black. PZ-5’s head tilted in confusion. “Scanners show no signs of life, unknown spacecraft, or other structures ahead, Master Ezra.”

All was quiet as the tense quartet peered through the transparisteel. Directly ahead, Leo’s TIE angled toward the hazy, blue-green gas giant that orbited the system’s mid-sized star. The planet seemed almost lit from within, its layers upon layers of atmosphere like magic smoke trapped inside a crystal ball.

PZ-5’s fingers click-clacked rapidly over her control panel. “Master Ezra, the planet’s magnetic field is extremely strong. Between that and the system’s star, I’m having difficulty maintaining consistent readings with our instrumentation.”

“Acknowledged, PeeZee. Just…don’t let anything fry.”

Ezra cautiously steered forward, guided by a mysterious grief that dragged at his heart. His throat felt dry, his eyes wet. Reluctantly, he turned the shuttle’s yoke in the direction that hurt the worst. The TIE Defenders banked with him in protective formation.

And then Ezra saw it. Immense, familiar shapes silhouetted against the planet’s deceptively peaceful glow. “Kanan?” His voice cracked. “Look over there.”

Kanan’s response was grim. “I see them.”

A flock of dozens of purrgil drifted majestically above the swirling atmosphere. Their incredibly long tentacles trailed gracefully behind their enormous bodies. The TIE‘s instantly shielded the Lambda as if it were a stray nerf headed for a rancor. Gun turrets rotated rapidly into position.

“Stand by, pilots—do not fire. I repeat, do not fire.”

Ezra reached out with his senses to communicate with the purrgil and received back…nothing.

Feeling nauseous, Ezra navigated the shuttle closer. The limp creatures surrounding them were completely crisscrossed with heat-seared wounds, injuries that only an extremely high energy weapon—or weapons—could have inflicted.

Through the Force, Ezra sensed these purrgil were part of same flock that had spirited away the Chimaera from the skies of Lothal. All the wide-set eyes Ezra remembered gleaming with intelligence and bioluminescence during that surprise attack were now as dull and gray as ash. They must have been keeping tabs on me after all. And now every single adult and youngling were dead.

Grief welled up in Ezra’s heart like the tears that stung his eyes. “Kanan, who could do this?”

Braruz dragged her eyes from the carnage floating around them to enter data into her pad. “I don’t understand. The Nihilum have been killing sentients, not creatures.” Her voice was tremulous.

“So far,” Kanan muttered. He’d closed his eyes again and stretched out his hand. “I sense this happened about a standard cycle ago.”

Braruz stiffened. “Whoever they battled could still be nearby.” She grabbed the yoke on her console. “PeeZee Five, complete your scans as quickly as possible. We need to report all evidence to the Chimaera.”

“Wait!” Ezra stiffened. Something is calling. “I’m picking up a distress signal.”  He exchanged a hopeful glance with Kanan. “Do you hear it?”

“Just barely.” Kanan’s expression was strained.

“Master Ezra?” PZ-5’s fingertips tapped across her station controls. “We are receiving no outside transmissions on our communications system.”

Ezra grabbed his own yoke, taking back control of the shuttle. “It’s through the Force. You’ll just have to trust me.”

He sped the Lambda out of the dark flotilla of lifeless purrgil. I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry. Ezra clenched his teeth, narrowing his concentration to latch firmly on the faint call he heard in his mind. We’re coming, just hold on.

Ezra piloted the craft in a beeline for the northern polar region. Kanan gestured to where the planet’s aurora borealis lit up the atmosphere with brilliant purples and greens. “It’s going to get a little dicey.”

“We’re going down into that?” Braruz’s eyes were rounded. The TIE’s pulled in closer as if confused.

“Commander Bridger, evasive action from the planetary atmosphere is highly recommended.” Leo’s transmission crackled heavily.

“Acknowledged. You’re all welcome to stay up here, Group Leader.”

“Lucky them,” muttered Braruz.

“Relax, you’ve got two Jedi specimens on board,” Ezra retorted. “What could possibly go wrong?”

As the shuttle descended deeper and deeper, the view outside the transparisteel gradually melded from a deep teal haze to an almost impenetrable murk. The persistent trio of TIE’s finally vanished in the suffocating gloom, leaving nothing but an unsettling hiss on the communications link.

“Commander Bridger, if we go much further, the atmospheric pressure will collapse our hull. We must pull up!” PZ-5’s mechanical hands flexed in alarm.

“Almost there…” Ezra gingerly piloted the shaking shuttle forward now, targeting a darker shape lurking within the gloom. We’re here, it’s safe to come out now.

A bulbous purrgil emerged, its luminescent eyes brightening while two of its tentacles propelled it tentatively forward. The other two main appendages were wrapped around an absolutely giant tentacle in a fiercely tight grip. The remainder of the enormous tentacle extended into the murk far below them.

“Kanan—it’s a baby, and that’s his mother!” Ezra paused as the baby keened, a long and low wail. “They’ve been feeding on the gases while hiding in the planet’s magnetic field…”

Kanan moved to stand solidly by his side. “It’s a miracle they escaped the battle.”

As his not-master clasped his shoulder, Ezra felt a surge of comfort warm his frozen insides.

The baby tried desperately to lift the injured mother upward, but he was clearly exhausted and far too small. His eyes dimmed and rolled upward in their sockets--he flailed and began to sink.

Ezra’s heart throbbed wildly. “They’re really hurt, Kanan—we’ve got to help them!”

“You know what to do, Ezra.” Kanan’s voice resonated encouragement. “Ready?”

Ezra stood, gesturing to Braruz to take over the shuttle. “Ready…”

In unspoken unison, Ezra and Kanan reached out with the Force, pulling the baby and his mother upward. Whoa, they’re even heavier than they look. The baby alone would overflow the Chimaera’s secondary hanger.

It was demanding, exhausting work. Ezra recalled lifting stone door after stone door in Malachor’s Temple for Maul. That was like lifting a bantha milk carton for a refreshing sip compared to this. As the shuttle climbed in altitude, the dangling mother emerged from the haze bit by bit. Ezra gulped. From the delicate feelers protruding along her blunt jaw to the end of her main tentacle tips, she was probably a third of the Chimaera's length.

Two of her main tentacles were twisted into a large clump as if seriously injured. The remaining free appendages undulated feebly to help her tugging baby and the Jedi fight against the gas giant’s gravity. The mother’s visible eye half-opened, and she communicated a rapid series of clicks and squeaks.

As if obeying an urgent command, the baby copied its mother in swallowing huge gulps of the thick, blue-green air. Ezra felt the load lighten to a somewhat more bearable level. The gas also increases their buoyancy! The intake seemed to revive the mother as her unburdened tentacles thrust a bit more strongly.

Braruz continued to pilot the shuttle slowly upward while the Jedi ferried the purrgil in tandem. She’s no Hera, but competent enough. Ezra was vaguely aware of PZ-5 scrambling to keep the shuttle’s stabilizers, navigation, and other key systems working steadily within the constant magnetic fluctuations. Throughout, the mother purrgil emitted another series of clicks and squeaks over and over. Is that some kind of message?

“PeeZee…” Ezra grunted, “Record those clicks.” He rolled his aching shoulders. “They…could be…important.” Karabast. Even my tongue is tired.

The surprised droid managed a hurried nod. “Yes, Master Ezra.”

Everyone looked as drained as the beleaguered baby purrgil by the time the Lambda finally cleared the upper edges of the gas giant’s atmosphere. Ezra’s legs trembled and he spoke through gritted teeth. “How. Much. Farther?”

Braruz piped up, grim. “We must gain more altitude to establish a stable planetary orbit, Commander. Unless you prefer to burn like a meteor on our way back down.”

Ezra groaned. Outside the viewport, the trio of TIE Defenders spiraled unsteadily out of the upper layers of planetary haze like rejected meteors themselves.

Through crackling static, Ezra heard Group Leader Leo sputter, “C—Commander Bridger, our navigations systems overloaded, we barely made it out.”

“Just glad…to see you…back…” Ezra managed to puff out.

The fighters regained a stable flight path on approach to the shuttle and dangling purrgil. This time, it was Viper’s guttural voice that cut through the static.

“Commander! Ready to fire missiles against the enemy onslaught!”

“NO!” Ezra, Kanan, Braruz and PZ-5 all shouted at once.

“This is a rescue , not an attack!” Ezra clarified frantically. “Stand down, now!”

Capra’s stunned voice crackled through. “I don’t kriffing believe it!” But the trio of TIE’s swooped past without blasting anything to smithereens.

PZ-5 swiveled her visored head to face Ezra. “What, may I inquire, are you going to do with the purrgil, Master Ezra?”

“Ehh…” Ezra blew out air and let his shoulders drop down from where they’d almost grazed his earlobes. A wavering, deep-pitched keening from the dangling mother drew his attention to the massive lump of her twisted tentacles. As he realized what lay clutched inside her grip, disbelief rippled through him, rapidly followed by awed gratitude.

Kanan wiped sweat off his brow, panting. “Whatever it is…you’re gonna need a bigger ship.”

“Get…Thrawn,” Ezra agreed.

Braruz glanced from Kanan to Ezra with incredulous eyes. “The grand admiral will never haul these destructive creatures, Commander.”

“Yes…he will.” Ezra glared back at her with fierce conviction, then shot a triumphant look at Kanan. There had been a surprise attack…but by the purrgil, not on them. He huffed the rest with a tight grin. “They’ve got…a first-class…ticket.”

 

Ahsoka – Lothal Sector

Ahsoka checked the cockpit’s panel of readouts from her seat in the none-too-spacious T-6 shuttle, part of her mind already occupied with what might lie ahead upon their arrival at Atollon. Bendu. The one in the middle.

Ahsoka recalled that strange day which seemed like a lifetime ago. She’d been preoccupied with thoughts of Anakin while preparing to depart for Malachor with Kanan and Ezra. She’d walked the perimeter of Chopper Base to clear her head, but even the shadows cast by the plated coral trees seemed filled with an aura of foreboding. Ahsoka had heard the distinct cry of a convor overhead just before the mighty, ancient Force entity rose out of the dusty ground as if he was made of the planet itself.

Bendu’s unexpected appearance certainly surprised Ahsoka—yet after those mind-bending experiences on Mortis (if any of her fragmented memories were indeed real), she’d grown increasingly accustomed to the oddities flung into her path by the Force. Bendu’s visit had been brief, hardly more than an introduction between them, but Bendu’s energy and the words he’d spoken remained imprinted on Ahsoka’s soul.

“You are set on this confrontation then?" Bendu’s iridescent, pearl-like eyes had penetrated through every layer of her being.

Ahsoka had nodded firmly, her lekku shifting. "I have to know the truth."

Bendu had scratched his thickly furred chest in a moment of deep thought, then pointed a very long finger. "So be it, but understand this, much will change as a result of this encounter, including you."

Icy tendrils attempted to crack into the edges of Ahsoka’s resolve. "Isn't that true of all things, as time advances?"

Bendu’s enigmatic smile had let slip a trace of pity. "My dear, when I say change, I mean death."

Ahsoka still felt the chill of that word to this day. So much had flashed through her mind at the time, all of it spiraling around her beloved master. If Vader is indeed who I fear him to be, my chance of surviving our encounter is…

"So I will die?"  She was relieved to hear a note of acceptance in her voice.

Bendu had cocked his head at her, perhaps faintly amused. "Will you?  I didn't know that.” He’d opened his enormous palm to her in farewell. “Goodbye then, Ahsoka Tano, former Jedi Knight."

And then Bendu was gone, and there was nothing Ahsoka could share of her experience with Kanan and Ezra without revealing her hidden fears concerning Anakin. It had all been quite—

“Agh! This is so frustrating !”

Hm. Not precisely the word I was looking for. Ahsoka turned her head toward the passenger seat, which was set a bit farther back than her own. A surly Sabine shoved aside her datapad and massaged her forehead.

“I feel like I’m in a Garelian goose chase, looping endless circles around myself.”

“It sounds like you’re having about as much luck as I did when trying to decipher those ancient glyphs from Eedit.” Ahsoka gave the fuming Mandalorian an encouraging smile. “Perhaps the meanings will become clearer if you view them less with your eyes and more with your heart.”

Sabine scowled. “I am no Jedi.”

Ahsoka’s mouth twitched upon hearing the same emphatic declaration that had passed her own lips. “No, Sabine, but you are a gifted and sensitive artist.”

The younger woman pounded a fist on her thigh. “If all this is so important to the Galaxy and the Force, why doesn’t it just—I don’t know—pump the information directly into your brain or something?”

Ahsoka shifted her position in the pilot seat to improve the blood circulation to her feet. “A lot of us younglings asked similar questions back at the Temple.” A certain Caleb Dume and myself being very much included. She chuckled faintly.

“I remember one day Master Nu told the class to imagine the Force was like a universal star. In order for the star to exist, it must maintain a very difficult balance.”

Ahsoka tightened her hand into a fist. “The fusion rate of the hydrogen atoms at its core must not become too rapid, or the star explodes into a supernova.” Ahsoka now splayed her fingers wide. “But, if the energy at its core becomes too small, the star collapses under its own gravity and turns into a black hole.” Ahsoka’s fingers curled back into an even tighter fist. The never-ending dance between the Light and the Dark.

“Master Nu said everyone and everything alive in this universe are like these tiny hydrogen atoms. As they fuse within the crucible of the star, the atoms’ transformation becomes the source of the star’s energy…and part of the balance to maintain its existence.”

“Hmmm,” Sabine nodded, eyes narrowed. “Then I guess that star’s too preoccupied to talk directly to each little atom.” She sighed in exasperation. “Sounds like we’re all left to figure it out on our own.”

Ahsoka leaned back to squeeze Sabine’s shoulder. “I believe it’s more that each of us must choose our own journey to the heart of the star, and how much of its voice we want to learn to hear along the way.”

The younger woman tilted her head to peer at Ahsoka like a convor calculating the precise angle of attack on its prey. “Well, that journey must be a lot easier for those born with a way bigger Force antenna than the rest of us.”

Ahsoka released her gentle grip on Sabine with a patient sigh. “Master Nu also stated to us younglings that the Force was our gift to open only in service to others.”

She refrained from adding Master Nu’s dire warning. Command the Force for power and greed and you open the jaws of a slime-snake ready to devour its own tail.

Sabine made no comment, but the tenacious Mandalorian lowered her gaze in at least a temporary truce over all that irked her (perhaps rightfully so) concerning the Force.

“I just wish I could make heads or tails of these pictographs.” Sabine plucked the datapad back onto her lap. “It’s like parts are missing on purpose to drive me crazy, or whoever created them ran out of time.”

“How very odd.” Ahsoka frowned and shifted, but her search for a more comfortable position this time was in vain. She rapidly entered a coded message into her private channel. On the inside, Ahsoka smiled like a naughty child. Sorry, Mon Mothma, this ship just isn’t going to suffice for the long haul.

Sabine’s fingers abruptly stopped tapping on the keypad. “You know…speaking of time, there’s one thing that really bugs me about that library where you got the staff.”

“Which is?”

“Well, since time passes so quickly for us out here, the Architects—if that’s who put the library into orbit around the black hole—only did it a short time ago in their time frame. After all, one year to them is over sixty thousand years here based on what you told us.”  Sabine gave Ahsoka a troubled glance. “Why did they do it…and how could they anticipate what might happen in our time?”

Ahsoka shivered, recalling her brief time in the World Between Worlds with Ezra. “I don’t know, Sabine. The Architects are clearly extremely evolved, and must have access to dimensions outside of time, or maybe the ability to somehow see everything at once. So many things are outside of our comprehension.”

Seeing the impatient, unfulfilled expression return to Sabine’s face, Ahsoka laughed gently. “I like to think grand mysteries like these are challenges our future generations can look forward to solving as our Galaxy’s civilizations evolve. After all, how dull life would be if we already knew everything.”

Sabine’s mouth twisted into a half-smile. “True. But the thought of all powerful, all knowing Architect-whatevers watching us like bugs under a glass makes me very nervous.”

“I concede your point.” Ahsoka nodded, then settled her gaze on the vortex of hyperspace surrounding the shuttle’s cockpit viewport. She felt greatly pleased by how much Sabine had grown and matured since her days of exploding Imperial property so effectively with the Spectres. Although Ahsoka had infrequently interacted directly with the capricious Mandalorian during those times, she’d sensed Sabine was far more than a fierce warrior and innovative street artist. Sabine’s wise leadership during Lothal’s reconstruction made it clear she was a potential a beacon to restore a lasting peace on war-torn Mandalore.

She is a strong and capable ally on this mission. The time had come to trust in her mettle.

“Sabine, there’s an aspect of my research I’ve hesitated to share, but I believe you should know it. It’s important not only because it involves Jacen’s heritage, but it could play an integral part in finding Ezra.”

Sabine’s startled eyes scanned Ahsoka’s face. “And what aspect is that?”

“Kanan’s birth name, Caleb Dume. Only, according to the Jedi records, Dume is not a last name. Dume is a Force-related entity…a guardian spirit of Lothal, for lack of a better explanation.”

Sabine’s brows furrowed, then her eyes brightened. “Which I guess makes some sense if Lothal is part of the ring of planets protecting the Galactic Rim, right?”

Ahsoka nodded, smiling. Hera wasn’t kidding when she told me Sabine’s mind is like a gravity trap.

Sabine gripped her forehead as if pulling out memories. “Ezra mentioned Dume to me and Hera after Kanan’s death. But we had so little time to talk.” Her face grimaced with loss. “I know Dume had something to do with Kanan’s will helping Ezra find you in the Temple, then stopping the Emperor from getting inside.”

“Yes.” Ahsoka nodded again as she held up one finger. “Caleb.” She held up a second finger. “Dume.” Now she crossed the two fingers together. “Caleb. Dume. Two as one. It is an extremely rare occurrence for such a powerful Force spirit to intertwine with a corporeal host.”

Sabine’s slender eyebrows abruptly climbed toward her vivid purple hairline. “Wait. What? Are you telling me that giant wolf-thing was inside Kanan all his life?”

“Yes, but I don’t think Kanan was aware of that until much closer to the…end.”

After a ruminative silence, Sabine slowly rested her chin in her hand. “But…Kanan and the Temple are both gone, so what does Dume have to do with Jacen now? Or Ezra?”

“When I spoke with the white Loth-wolf, I found out Dume is gone from Lothal.”

Sabine only stared back with puzzled eyes. “And….?”

Ahsoka leaned in closer. “The Jedi’s archives make it clear a planetary Force guardian does not die with its host.”

“Okaaaay….”

Now Ahsoka gripped Sabine’s hand in her own. “More importantly for us, Sabine, the guardian can’t leave its world without its host.”

Sabine’s hand clamped down so tightly it made Ahsoka wince. “You’re saying Kanan is alive because Dume’s still inside him!”

She abruptly let Ahsoka go to clutch at her temples, shock battling with disbelief. “But…but…I saw the explosion…” Her voice faltered.

A lump rose in Ahsoka’s own throat as she recalled Ezra’s agonized face in the World Between Worlds. "I can save him."

“No remains were ever found,” she said gently.

Sabine gulped back the beginnings of a sob. “Because Kanan was nothing but ashes.”

“Sabine, there’s nothing tangible I can provide you right now as proof to the contrary, but if Ezra found that Temple Gate in Wild Space…”

The Mandalorian looked up, eyes now glinting with hope instead of tears. “He’d try to find and save Kanan. I know he would.” Then, almost instantly her face twisted into a grimace of realization and hope faded.

“But—but, it’s still impossible, Ahsoka. If Ezra saves Kanan, then we all die in the explosion—and Ezra isn’t alive to go into the Temple and save Kanan.”

“Sabine,” Ahsoka looked encouragingly into the young woman’s eyes. “Don’t forget Ezra’s had a few years to plan a strategy in case he ever got a second chance. If anyone could figure out a way to save Kanan without disrupting the timeline…”

“It would be Ezra,” Sabine finished softly, her gaze turned inward.

The flight console beeped and Ahsoka forced herself to focus back on the helm. “We’ve arrived at Atollon.”

Around them, the blue wash of hyperspace surged into the black velvet of real space. The reddish hue of the arid planet filled the transparisteel viewport. Alongside the shuttle, the two X-wings resettled into protective positions.

Ahsoka engaged her com. “Umbra One and Two, we’re setting down at Chopper Base as far from the northern perimeter as possible.”

“Roger that, Umbra Leader,” Tong transmitted back. “We’ve heard a lot of stories about those nasty critters.”

Ahsoka scanned the long-abandoned, demolished base looming ever closer in her viewport. Even the massive coraline tree formations along the mesa remained darkened by battle scars. “I doubt much survived in Thrawn’s wake…but be careful.”

“And carry a big sensor beacon,” added Taluka, a grin in her voice. Both X-wings zipped slightly ahead of the T-6.

“Ahsoka?” Sabine was eyeing her solemnly.

“Yes, Sabine?”

“Thank you for trusting me with this about Kanan…but mostly for not telling Hera anything until we can find out for sure.” Sabine ran a shaky hand through her bright hair. “I couldn’t stand to see Hera’s heart shattered all over again.”

Ahsoka nodded gently, pretending not to notice the tear Sabine wiped from her cheek before she grabbed her helmet. If I’m wrong, it will be more than painful enough for us both.

“I’m coming, Ezra,” Sabine muttered. She planted the colorful helmet firmly on her head. “And you better have Kanan with you.”

With a faint smile, Ahsoka turned away to maneuver the T-6 into a landing near the forlorn remains at Chopper Base’s southern edge. There was no guarantee that the Bendu still slumbered in the local wilderness in some form or fashion—but if he did, Ahsoka was determined to give him a wake-up call.

 

Hera – En route to Takodana

Hera leaned back in her form-fitting pilot seat, savoring the rare peace and quiet throughout the Ghost almost as much as the hot caf she sipped in absentminded bliss. The hypnotic blue-white swirls of hyperspace lulled her mind into a tranquil state, muting the incessant pings of anxiety emanating from her solar plexus.

Yes, I’m actually flying my only son into a dinko’s nest of pirates. That disturbing thought—which usually did its best to run amok between tchun and tchin—for the moment seemed cushioned away in a padded cell. Hera indulged herself in a luxurious, full-scale yawn, allowing her eyelids to stay at half-mast.

Back in Jacen’s toy-cluttered cabin, AP-5 was drilling her son through a series of Ryl verb conjugations (no doubt with pedantic pomposity). A very surly Chopper had finally acquiesced to running diagnostics on the Phantom II after relaying a litany of complaints starring Zeb and Kallus. They’d apparently ejected Chopper from the common room to silence his incessant, insulting opinions about their dejarik strategies. Hera could faintly hear Kallus’ voice rising heatedly over Zeb’s derisive laughter as the game continued. Those two. They’d die for each other—but living around each other was apparently a whole other pod race. 

A resonating memory sent a pang through Hera’s chest. Her mind served up images of Roughneck Kanan attempting to charm her in that dive of a cantina on Gorse (The Asteroid Belt, indeed ). She’d pushed his chair away from the table as a not-so-subtle hint of disinterest, but he’d just flipped it around and straddled it like a speeder bike, then insolently grinned his way back into the conversation. To think she’d almost walked away from Kanan forever before their adventures on Gorse had even begun.

What if we’d never connected on that mudball of a world while saving its shining moon, Cynda? How many more abused miners would have died? And would Hera have gone on to become a general in the Rebellion…or been fatally shot in one of her headstrong rampages against the Empire?

A tougher question arose. Would Kanan still be alive if he’d never laid eyes on me? Hera swallowed the dregs of her caf, grimacing at its bitter aftertaste. Most likely, Kanan would’ve died in some senseless bar fight, buried under a pile of empty Corellian whiskey bottles that he’d drained dry on his final Empire Day.

Hera steered her thoughts to the kaleidoscope of blue-white light that displaced her ship outside realspace. The tunnel shimmered and pulsed, so very like the humming blade of Kanan’s lightsaber. “I think Daddy’s going to need it back.” Hera sighed heavily. Why had Jacen been led to find the weapon now? Although Hera was grateful to the Loth-wolves for the return of Kanan’s lightsaber, she did not appreciate the manner in which their gift ignited an unfulfillable wish in her son’s head. What games were those enigmatic creatures playing?

Seeing the lightsaber again, and its painfully familiar hilt grasped so confidently in Jacen’s hand, had opened up a sinkhole to regrets that Hera had done her best to climb out of in the years since Kanan’s fiery death.

Why had she taken so long to tell Kanan those three little words? As always, that futile question gave her mind a puzzle box of mismatched pieces to grapple with. Was it because the ability to open her heart to any man had been undermined by years of bitter discord with her father? It wasn’t until Hera had stolen that Imperial fighter carrier over Ryloth with Cham at her side that their estrangement had finally ended. That blessing had seeded a cautious reconciliation between Hera and her father that had flowered slowly over time—and flourished rapidly after the birth of Jacen.

What remained obscure to Hera’s consciousness during most of the ten years she’d shared with Kanan had become painfully obvious in retrospect: She’d kept Kanan tucked behind many of the same emotional barriers she’d erected against the pain of her father’s neglect. Yet, day by day, year by year, Kanan irrepressibly swung himself across Hera’s carefully laid fortress walls, earning her trust with his tenacious reliability. Kanan never lost faith in me no matter how much he’d doubted the outcome of my mission against the Empire.

More quickly than she’d admitted to it at the time, Hera found herself unfolding like a sun-starved rose before the steadfast love alight in Kanan’s eyes…and even delighting in that same, damn insolent grin he liked to spread across his unfairly handsome face. Long before Hera kissed Kanan openly for all the Ghost family to ogle with knowing smiles, she’d known her devoted lover had proven himself more than worthy of dwelling within the most vulnerable sanctuaries of her heart.

I love you. Those three not-so-simple words finally left her tongue on that darkest of nights, a long overdue admission—and a promise to Kanan of so much more to come. And then the love of my life was gone in a blinding flash, while the Emperor gloated and crossed another Jedi’s name off his blood-soaked extermination list.

The leather of Hera’s gloves creaked loudly, and she looked down at her tightly bunched fists. The Jedi. Her thoughts back-peddled to probe one of the largest puzzle pieces in her “why” box. For the apocalyptic thundercloud of Order 66 had ironically granted Hera and Kanan a guilt-edged silver lining: the freedom to explore their undeniable, mutual passion within an attachment they both knew the High Council would have frowned upon had it still existed. Yet, the decimated Jedi Order had remained an invisible, but tangible wedge between herself and Kanan, especially when their budding relationship was still in its infancy.

Was it because Hera had feared that Kanan stayed with her only because she wouldn’t accept his overtures? That her refusal to commit to an intimate relationship left him free to re-embrace the Force whenever it called? For the first six months after Gorse, Hera almost expected to wake up one morning to find Kanan gone…although she understood him well enough by then to know he’d only slink back to his self-destructive road of hedonistic wanderings and avoid any return to his Jedi path.

When it became abundantly clear Kanan had no intentions of abandoning Hera’s side for any reason other than her direct order to leave the Ghost forever, Hera made Kanan gently aware of one mandatory condition: The heated, intimate union they’d finally surrendered themselves to must take second place to Hera’s mission.

Did I make Kanan swear to this because I knew in war there’d be agonizing loss upon loss upon loss? Already torn from her life were her beloved mother, her infant brother, and almost countless relatives on Ryloth either dead or brutally enslaved. Hera closed her stinging eyes, forcing the encroaching memories of past heartbreaks to take up residence with the suppressed anxieties currently embedded in the softly padded cell.

As the battles against the Empire grew in scope and dragged on, Hera had known in her core it made no logical sense to believe she and Kanan would have more time. Just surviving to fight another day in the Rebellion was a victory. Still, some voice within Hera had insisted the Force must have saved Kanan from Order 66 for a reason, that his existence was somehow integral to defeating Palpatine. Surely Kanan would live to see it! Why else had Hera been led to recognize the Jedi entombed inside him, to feel compelled to help Kanan reclaim who he really was instead of drowning his magnificent heritage in drunken oblivion?

How wrong I was. Like all of those whose blood had spilled across the Galaxy to grease the relentless wheels of the Empire, Kanan’s life had been cut far too short. It was a deep root of pain that refused to shrivel away in Hera’s heart. This irresolvable hurt had made it impossible to assemble her box of puzzle pieces into something that fully explained the why’s of all she’d done—and not done—while Kanan lived. Throughout all of Hera’s emotional sifting and sorting since his death, only one thing remained clear. For all that Kanan endured and sacrificed to help others, he deserved so much more.

Only a few now remained who could truly appreciate and understand the extent of Kanan’s loss…and the one who’d been closest to him of all remained missing himself. Ezra. At the thought of Kanan’s plucky padawan and her surrogate son, Hera sat up straight in the pilot’s seat. Okay, General Syndulla, you’ve indulged yourself in enough remorse and longing for one day. Besides, the padded cell had reached its bursting point. Hera took a deep breath and diverted the flow of her remaining intrusive thoughts into a secondary holding tank for another time.

Hera rubbed her eyes, then checked all systems to prepare for the Ghost’s arrival at Takodana. In the here and now (and certainly what Kanan would want ), she must concentrate on Jacen’s needs and help ensure that Ezra be found. Hera wasn’t quite sure how she was going to accomplish her duties, but she was damn sure that nothing, especially a planet full of pirates and smugglers would stop her from succeeding.

As if in agreement, her communications console chimed. She opened the channel, actually grateful for the absurd distraction that only Hondo could provide. She addressed his beaming visage in the holo transmission.

“Go ahead, Hondo.”

“Ah, hah! My lady General, I hope you are enjoying your uneventful journey through this region of unsavory criminals. Rest assured, they are all very good friends of Hondo...and know all too well how unwise it is to cross me.” He wagged his bony finger at Hera, grinning with satisfaction. “I promised safe passage as Hondo’s gift to set your Jedi youngling on his noble path. As you can see, no one has attacked us so far. Hondo is always a man of his word.”

In the background, Melch belched out a derisive laugh and raised an obscene gesture. Hera restrained the roll of her eyes. “I do appreciate you escorting the Ghost to Maz Kanata’s castle, Hondo. I know you’re a very busy, um, businessman.”

Hondo pinched his finger and thumb together. “There is one teeny, tiny little detail Hondo should reveal before I present you to the pirate queen.” Hondo now scratched under his bone-frilled chin, hemming and hawing. “Nothing vital, well, actually, perhaps very vital, but it slipped Hondo’s mind in all the excitement.”

Excitement. Really? Hera had been forced to sweet talk Hondo from out of his buyer’s strangling appendages—and Lothal's spaceport security —after their deal disintegrated into a spectacularly destructive temper tantrum. If only I could’ve enjoyed the luxury of watching Hondo get hauled off to detention.

Stuck with the wily pirate (for now), Hera felt a hot stone settle in the pit of her stomach. “Just spit it out, Hondo.”

“Well, you see, Maz Kanata is an illustrious collector of very rare and special items from across the Galaxy. It will not do to offer her—” his hand brushed the air disparagingly"—credits to help your little Jacen Syndulla. You must offer the queen a gift…like my gift of safe passage to you…one that is unique and irreplaceable.”

Hera leaned herself almost face-to-face with the wizened pirate captain’s holographic image. “And you’re telling me this now?”

Hondo’s eyes widened a fraction in alarm. “Surely you have something aboard that would suffice.” His alarm abruptly shifted to glee. “But of course. Your giant, hairy, purple Lasat—the queen will adore him!”

Hera’s hands twitched toward her nose gun controls. I’m going to kill him. Luckily for Hondo, the proximately light flashed and Hera’s hands dropped the Ghost out of hyperspace instead. As the spears of starlight snapped into pinpoints, Hera saw the Last Chance skimming its way toward the green-blue planet like a happy dragonfly above a pond.

Anger bubbled up from the hot rock in Hera’s insides. “Get back here! I am not giving Zeb to Maz Kanata!”

Hondo’s holo face flinched, and he started shoving his Ugnaught co-pilot. “Melch, hurry now to your treasure box and see if there is anything fit for the pirate queen!”

Melch pushed back at the Weequay, grunting and squealing rebelliously. With one hand grappling his diminutive crewman, Hondo held up the bony finger of his other hand at Hera. “Stand by, my lady General.” Hondo cut the transmission.

Hera stared at the blank spot, her mind feeling like melted solder wire. Jacen appeared at her right, plopping himself into the co-pilot chair. She noticed vaguely he had something cradled in his arms.

“You know what think would be a great gift, Mama?” Jacen smiled and answered eagerly before Hera could utter a word. “A baby sister.”  

What? The melted wire of Hera’s mind now jolted with electrified confusion. Slowly, she managed to assemble a rational sentence together. “Jacen, love…Maz Kanata is almost a thousand years old. I think it’s a little late for a baby sister.”

“Not for the pirate queen, Mama. For me,” Jacen exclaimed.

Hera blinked dumbly at his enthusiastic face, at the way his teal eyes glowed with fanciful ideas. Baby…sister?

“I could be her teacher, help her learn to communicate with animals just like me and Uncle Ezra.” He looked at Hera confidently. “She’ll be a Jedi, too, of course!” A loud purring rumbled from the bundle nestled in Jacen’s lap.

Hera’s eyes dropped toward the sound. When she finally registered exactly what Jacen was petting, they almost bulged from their sockets. “Jaaacennn…what is that Loth-cat doing on the Ghost?”

Jacen held up the exceedingly contented feline. “I just found him hiding in my bunk, Mama.” Her son’s smile turned downwards. “He does it all the time—it’s because he’s so little and the other cats always play too rough with him.”

Hera gawked at the enthusiastically purring furball, which was indeed tiny for a grown Loth-cat. Some rational, observant part of Hera’s brain that still functioned notified her that its fur was black. Black? Since when have I ever seen or heard of a black Loth-cat?

Hera’s lekku twitched as if a switch went off between them. A collector of rare and special items, hmmm? Hera felt her jaws unclench as a genuine smile worked its way across her face.

“Well, now, little tooka, I think you’re going to need a name.”  Hera scratched behind its perky ears and the Loth-cat purred even louder. “How about Teeubo.”

Jacen’s face lit up in recognition and delight. “Mama, that means treasure!”

“Yes, akei, yes it does.”

 

Ahsoka - Atollon

With a final thump of her staff on the dry earth, Ahsoka stepped into the shade under the wide plates of a coral tree and pulled back the hood of her cloak. She reached out yet again with her senses. Bendu? Can you hear my call?

Sabine leaned back against a boulder and tugged off her helmet. “Ugh, I’d almost forgotten how hot this place is.” The Mandalorian took a brief swig from a canteen bottle, then re-hooked it to her belt.

“You do realize how unlikely it is the Bendu survived, right? The decoded reports state Thrawn’s forces killed a violent, unidentifiable creature when it interfered with the attack on the base.”

The screech of a convor filled the air as one of the ever-curious birds sailed past. Ahsoka’s pulse quickened.

“It’s even more unlikely that Thrawn’s skill set includes the destruction of an ancient, supremely powerful Force entity.” Ahsoka gave Sabine a wry smile.

“Huh.” Sabine shrugged. “Well, maybe this entity just doesn’t like me. I could go back to wait with the pilots—”

“And what reason would I have to think ill of you, my dear?” The Bendu’s distinctive voice resonated around them.

Ahsoka felt the vibrations deeply in her chest—even through the soles of her boots. Dust motes rose and danced lightly in the warm air.

Sabine rotated tensely in search of the speaker, hands hovering near her blasters’ handles. “Where are you? Is this the Bendu?”

The Bendu’s voice chuckled softly, and a light breeze fluttered its way around Ahsoka as if to inspect her cloak and staff. Any moment, she expected an immense, archaic form to emerge from the rocks and sands.

“I am indeed the one in the middle, even though I no longer have a middle to speak of.”

Sabine’s brow furrowed in confusion while the impact of the Bendu’s words bruised Ahsoka’s heart. “So, Thrawn did deprive you of your physical form. I am deeply sorry for your pain, Bendu.”

“While I, Ahsoka Tano, am not sorry that you are not dead.” The warm humor in Bendu’s voice shifted to a more serious note. “Yet, I see the imprint of Ashla’s footprints now sinks more deeply within the tread of your own.”

Ahsoka dipped her montrals in deference. “Bendu, I believe I’ve been sent by the Daughter for your guidance. The white wolf of Lothal brought you to my attention as well.”

The Bendu harrumphed. “Rather presumptuous, considering my present condition has me occupied with stabilizing this entire region of the Outer Rim—no thanks to the antics of his kind.”

Of his kind. Ahsoka shared a glance with Sabine. This sounded like a jab at both Kanan and Dume. I best approach Bendu sideways or risk provoking him to silence . The Bendu had made it very clear years ago to Kanan and all at Chopper Base that the turmoil of short-lived mortals was the bane of his presumably eternal existence.

Ahsoka thoughtfully stroked her chin, genuinely curious. “Bendu, may I ask why such a primal Force entity as you would even bother to inhabit a mortal form?”  

She recalled how tangible the Ones’ bodies seemed at death, directly in contrast to their surreal, otherworldly features and shapeshifting abilities during life. Ahsoka shuddered, remembering the Son’s ghastly transformations and how he’d poisoned her with the Dark. Perhaps one day the Daughter will clarify what was reality on Mortis or just Force projections into my mind.

Bendu’s voice rumbled around Ahsoka and Sabine. “The energy of all life flows into the Force, and the Force flows through the energy of all that lives. But to truly evolve in tandem with living beings, an energy like my own must periodically experience the perspective of your realm via the conduit of a physical form. And the vessel must be compatible with our energies or only great damage and suffering will result.”

A faint draft of air cooled Ahsoka’s face briefly. It was the Bendu’s version of a sigh. “I was rather partial to my last form these past few centuries. It will be some time before a suitable replacement manifests.”

Ahsoka’s lips curved in agreement. “It was uniquely magnificent, indeed. Which brings me to this.” She presented the staff and was not at all surprised to feel it tugged gently from her grasp. Let us see what the Bendu offers up on his own.

Bendu’s voice emitted an even heavier sigh of resignation as the staff rotated slowly up and down and from side to side. “This implement—I recognize it.” His tone sharpened. “It only makes its appearance during times of boundless creation…or as a desperate measure against vast destruction.”

And I thought I’d prepared for the worst. A heavy dread spread its way through Ahsoka’s insides, settling firmly in the pit of her stomach despite all her Force training in such matters.

Sabine moved closer to Ahsoka, her face pale. “Let me guess. It’s not creation time.”

The staff rotated to point its elegantly circled tip directly at Sabine. “You are correct, wielder of the Darksaber.”

Sabine swallowed with surprise and consternation. “H-how did you…” She quickly regained her bearings. “You must have seen me train with Kanan and Ezra.”

The Bendu murmured in acknowledgment. “Yes…the noisy ones.”

“Anyway,” Sabine continued firmly, “I conceded that weapon to Bo-Katan to unite and lead Mandalore.”

“Ahhh. So it would seem…but do not be surprised if the Darksaber returns itself to your hands sooner than you imagine.”

The staff abruptly spun upright and impaled itself in the packed dirt in front of Ahsoka’s feet. “It will be up to you to grasp it.”

As the Bendu’s voice reverberated against the surrounding corals, Ahsoka and Sabine shared a silent glance. Then, Ahsoka reclaimed her staff from the earth with a possessive tug.

“Bendu, this staff came to me as a gift from the Daughter and the Architects, but all I was told is that it is a key to the Temple Gates.”

An amused snort puffed the air between Ahsoka and Sabine, and warm humor returned to the Bendu’s voice. “Yes. It is a key that must be unlocked to reveal its purpose and power layer by layer to the bearer.”

Sabine’s eyebrows arched almost to her hairline. “Unlock a key? How does that even make any sense?”

Always riddles upon riddles within the Force, it is. Ahsoka mouth twitched in remembrance of Master Yoda’s reply to her youngling mix of frustration and anticipation during lessons.

Meanwhile, a playful waft of air had sent the dust motes into a whimsical ballet. “Yet, you stand here talking with the invisible Bendu, who stands between the unceasing pull of the Ashla and the Bogan in their eternal dance. Is there any sense to be made of that?”

Sabine opened her mouth, hesitated, then raised a gloved finger. “Point taken.” Her armored shoulders lifted in exasperation. “But what good is a key that we don’t know how to open?”

Bendu tsked and tutted. “It’s not so difficult as all that, my dear. The key is unlocked by its name, of course.”

Ahsoka’s thoughts sifted through that revelation while Sabine raised a hand in mock triumph. “Oh, of course!” The Mandalorian dropped her hand to her hip with a scowl. “Except we have absolutely no idea what it is or how to find it.”

Like a huff of exasperation, a breeze fluttered Ahsoka’s cloak and Sabine’s bright purple hair. “It isn’t something that can be found. The staff must be given a name by each who bears it.”  

Ahsoka’s fingers now detected a slight thrum of Force vibration within the staff and the wheels of her mind slowly ground into place. The name serves as an imprint, uniquely tied to the one who bestows it. As to what name would unlock the staff for her would require further delving into Ahsoka’s soul.

“Uh, just how many staff bearers have there been?” Sabine’s mouth turned down as if dreading the answer.

The Bendu chuckled mirthlessly. “That is of no importance to the present, young Mandalorian. I will share the staff was known most recently as Vade’mecum. And—as evidenced by the fact we three exist to have this pleasant, perhaps senseless conversation—the Galaxy did survive its last crisis more or less intact.”

A soft wind eddied around Ahsoka and Sabine in what felt very much like a disinterested yawn. He’s already weary of us. Ahsoka’s lekku twitched in exasperation while Sabine shook her head, rattled.

“Thanks, Bendu. Good to know.” Now Sabine’s narrowed eyes sought Ahsoka’s own. “So, that’s it? Just a name, like…I don’t know…old Jho?”

Ahsoka cradled her chin, searching for clarity in thoughts that wanted to jumble. “No, Sabine. I sense it has to be something deeply meaningful to the bearer. A key—if you will—to their inner world.”

The Bendu’s chuckle rippled once again. “Ahsoka Tano, you have known the name of your staff for years.”

At Ahsoka’s startled expression, the Bendu’s voice softened as he added, not unkindly, “I would tell you, my dear, but then it would become my name and no use to you at all.”

Ahsoka managed a resigned smile. “I understand.” For now, she’d attempt to get at least one more question in before the unpredictable Bendu retreated.

“Bendu, when you attacked the ship that carried Kanan Jarrus, why didn’t you completely destroy it as you did the others?”

Laughter boomed, startling Ahsoka and Sabine as it echoed off the rocks and giant coral formations. “Ha hah! The one who calls himself Jedi Knight?”

“Yes, the one and same.” Ahsoka waited tensely.

The chortles twisted into biting words. “Kanan Jarrus declared me a coward for reminding him I was the one in the middle. Is the pivot point of a pendulum or the hinge of a swinging door a coward when it alone must hold the center?” The Bendu’s voice rumbled into a sonorous crescendo. “I say not! For no coward could bear the unceasing agony as Light and Dark wrench eternally for domination, to avert all sides from being lost!”

Dust swirled in a low eddy in the wake of his heated declaration. Pebbles rattled back to the dirt as the Bendu spoke again more softly. “I was insulted by his impertinence and his demands for war.” His voice roughened. “But the moment I struck him, I recognized it was not the will of the Force to end his life.”

Sabine lifted her tucked head, and almost hissed, “Well, you still got your wish. Kanan sacrificed himself to save everyone he loved.” She wrapped her arms around herself tightly.

The silent pause that followed was broken by a convor’s faint screech from somewhere in the arid distance. Then, the Bendu’s rueful chuckle gently rippled through the air. “I would deem that another of the Force’s very effective disguises, my dear.”

Ahsoka’s heart thrummed as Force energy pulsed through her staff like it was absorbing something vital for later. She heard the Bendu’s whisper in her ear.

“And yet another thing you already know, my dear. Goodbye.”

Ahsoka sensed the Bendu slip away, perhaps to contend with Galaxy-wide chaos. Or more likely to savor a coveted moment of slumber. She turned and found Sabine’s eyes alight with hope and excitement.

“That sounded like Ezra made it to the Gate of Water—we need to get moving!”

The roar of a space freighter overhead caused them both to rush out from under the shelter of the coral plates. The ship swiftly soared in the direction of Chopper Base where the X-wings awaited Ahsoka’s and Sabine’s return.

Sabine had yanked on her helmet to use its rangefinder. “Who is that? Who else knows we’re here?”

Ahsoka smiled in the bright light. The dread still lurked within her like krykna in a lair, but now a sensor beacon of stronger hope held it at bay. “An old friend—with a new ride. From this point forward, our journey must be less conspicuous.”  

 

Kanan – Sintuuian Sector

Kanan stood wearily in the cockpit of the Lambda shuttle, catching his breath. He’d had exactly fifteen minutes to hit the fresher and wash down a bland meal biscuit with cold caf, not necessarily in that order. Then he’d spent the following two hours embroiled in a heart-numbing task that would normally haunt his dreams. Good thing I’ll sleep like a damn Geonosian rock once this shift is finally over.

For now, he gnawed on worry bones concerning Ezra. His not-padawan had clearly been traumatized by finding the slaughtered flock of purrgil. Kanan shook his head, recalling that long-ago time on the Ghost when he’d teased Hera over her distrust and dislike of the unpredictable beasts. Yet, one of those creatures had befriended and saved Ezra during their raid on the Mining Guild’s gas refinery—and look where that long, preposterous road had led.

When the Chimaera first joined their shuttle’s wobbling orbit around the gas giant, Thrawn looked the closest to throwing a snit fit that Kanan had ever seen. As Lieutenant Braruz had forewarned, the anger in the Chiss’ red eyes speared both Jedi like hot prongs during their initial holographic exchange. Kanan couldn’t quite blame Thrawn in this volatile situation. The Imperials barely survived their first encounter with the purrgil on Lothal—and now there was about zero probability the rescued mother and baby could transport the Chimaera for two meters, let alone out of Wild Space.

However, Thrawn’s glimpse of the silent, metallic monstrosity clutched within the mother’s tentacles sealed Ezra’s adamant deal to transport them to a safer haven. Somehow, she’d ensnared the surprisingly intact remains of one of the Nihilum. No one who’d seen the rogue clone trooper’s transmission could mistake that streamlined, humanoid profile, the bristle of its mysterious, merciless weaponry.

The instant the Chimaera took over their burden, Kanan and Ezra had almost hit the shuttle floor. Never thought I’d be so grateful for an Imperial tractor beam. Through ragged breaths, Ezra had told Thrawn the purrgil sacrificed their flock to provide this one spoil from the battlefield. It was a priceless and bloodstained gift that provided the Jedi and Thrawn’s forces a chance to learn their enemy from the inside out. More importantly, it ignited a glimmer of hope that the Nihilum’s ruthless trail of destruction might even be ended before spreading further Coreward.

Thrawn can hardly wait to get his engineering crews all over it like gulls on a juicy crab to pry out its secrets. For once, Kanan found himself reluctantly on the side of the grand admiral. But the extraction of the Nihilum from the mother’s grasp had to wait for the main hanger to be adequately cleared to house its massive size. Oh, and let’s not forget we all need to get the hell out of here pronto in case the Nihilum pay a return visit.

Ezra had left the shuttle with PZ-5 right after Thrawn conceded the hitchhiking purrgil were worthy of his mercy. While the droid analyzed the recordings of the mother’s frantic clicking noises, Ezra had stayed busy with Thrawn’s peevish engineering team to rapidly construct a jury-rigged docking scaffold near the main hanger. Once the tractor beam released the baby’s wounded mother, it would safely stabilize her against the Star Destroyer during hyperspace. The watchful baby himself clung gingerly to heavy cables cleated along the underside of the Chimaera like a bizarre festival ornament. It was all quite a sight.

One question kept drumming around inside Kanan’s head. Are things even worse than we thought? Why now would these Force-sensitive creatures hurl themselves against a vastly superior foe? Kanan massaged his aching neck and shoulders. Have the purrgil been waiting for me for some reason before making this aggressive move like the Loth-wolves did on Lothal?

If so, Kanan wasn’t all that keen on what it might portend. I kinda hope I wasn’t pulled out of the fire for the frying pan. But those gloomy thoughts had to wait their turn. His brain was too slushy right now to probe either Dume or the Force for more intel, plus his current mission wasn’t complete. Besides, no news is good news, right?

A half-mast smirk struggled to lift his lips as Kanan turned from the shuttle’s viewport to the pilot. “Okay, Lieutenant, just three more to go.”  

Braruz let out a weary breath. Her face was the palest of pinks and her purple eyes were dull and ringed by darkening circles. She looks as exhausted as I feel.

“Aye, sir.” The Devaronian deftly maneuvered the shuttle toward a father, mother and baby purrgil. The heartbreaking trio drifted over the hazy blue-green planet with their tentacles intertwined.

Kanan swallowed back the rising lump in his throat, envisioning Hera singing a soft lullaby for their sleepy youngling tucked into Kanan’s bunk aboard the Ghost. As always, the face of his child was an enigma wrapped in a bundle of boundless energy and curiosity. I will meet you one day soon, I promise.

Gathering his strength, Kanan silently called upon Dume yet again to fortify him within the Force. To Braruz, he said, “A little closer, please.” The shuttle nudged forward. Closing his eyes, Kanan reached out to the wraithlike purrgil floating before him…and pushed steadily with the Force.

At first, it was like shoving futilely against a fortress wall…but gradually Kanan felt the entwined family change course in their orbit. He spread his hands wider, slowly guiding the creatures ever faster and downward into the embrace of the gas giant’s gravity.

At the peripheral edges of his senses, Kanan tracked Braruz, who kept an even distance between the shuttle and the interlocked family. “Almost there, Lieutenant.” With a final, mighty Force-shove, Kanan opened his eyes and sucked in a deep breath. He braced his hand on the back of the co-pilot seat to steady himself against the tremors of fatigue.

Outside, the trio of behemoths dove toward the deceptively serene planet. They joined the long chain of purrgil already streaming downward in a meteoric plunge to burn brightly in the friction of the atmosphere. A funeral pyre. Kanan hoped it wasn’t the shape of more things to come.

The communication console pinged and Braruz opened the transmission. “This is Lambda One Alpha, go ahead.”

Thrawn himself appeared in the holo, his hands resting firmly behind his back. “Lieutenant, proceed to your hanger station immediately. An anomalous mass was observed transiting the red hypergiant star which most recently diminished in luminosity.”

Kanan and Braruz shared a deeply troubled glance. The Nihilum? Someone outside the holo’s range urgently handed Thrawn a datapad. His lips thinned as he scanned it.

“The monitoring team now reports this unidentified mass has abruptly vanished, presumably into hyperspace.”

Feeling queasy, Kanan slid into the co-pilot seat. “We’re on our way, Admiral.”

“Master Jedi, you will report to the bridge immediately once the shuttle docks.” Before Kanan opened his mouth to respond, Thrawn ended the transmission.

Kanan closed his eyes and leaned back in his seat. Great. This wonderful, never-ending day just got even better. Next to him, Kanan sensed fear starting to rip its way through Braruz’s fatigue-weakened nervous system. He sighed. Time for an absurd distraction.

“You know, I guess this is as good a time as any to offer you an apology.” Kanan looked over to see Braruz’s dark eyebrows pop up towards her horn nubs.

“Apology, sir? For what?”

Kanan rubbed at the chin scruff under his sheepish smile. “Ehh, for having to watch me stumble around half-naked in those security recordings as part of your job.”

The lieutenant’s gaze turned carefully impassive, but her cheeks pinked up. After a moment, she shrugged one shoulder. “I have had…worse assignments.”  The corner of her mouth tweaked upwards and she added, “Apology accepted, Master Jedi.”

“Call me Kanan.” He gave Braruz his most innocuous wink, then she gunned the engines to soar the shuttle into the Chimaera’s hanger bay.

 


Kanan – Chimaera

Kanan stood tensely with Ezra, Thrawn and PZ-5 at the main helm station on the Chimaera’s bridge. Outside the interlocking panes of the wide viewport, the gateway to safety beckoned. If he and Ezra could safely navigate the ship to and through the exceedingly glitchy Boomerang nebula. There’s also the not so small matter of our hefty hitchhikers.

Kanan ran his fingers through the stubble of his hair, willing his sloggy brain cells to perk up without a bucket of triple caf. “Let me get this straight,” he grumbled while leaning in toward PZ-5. “You’re saying all those clickity-squeaks from the mother are a navigational vector?”

“Yes, Master Kanan.” The droid bobbed her head pertly.  “I processed her signal’s mathematical properties in every conceivable configuration within my programming, and then interfaced with the Chimaera’s navicomputer to confirm my assessment.”

“It must be how they find their way along the migration routes.” Ezra gave Kanan an anxious, yet still enthusiastic smile. “If I’m understanding the mother and baby correctly, it’s a safe spot where they can wait for help from another flock.”

Thrawn gestured at the helm’s piloting controls. “The vector data has been uploaded to aid you and Commander Bridger. Presumably this gas giant is the vector’s origin point. The direction sets our course directly through the nebula. According to our star maps, the end point intersects with a large asteroid field just outside the Seoulian system.”

Kanan raised both hands in a stopping motion. “Whoa, whoa, whoa. You’re asking us to fly you through a stormy ocean filled with gravitational and magnetic icebergs to land in a sea of flying rocks?” Kanan raked Thrawn with a heated glare. “That’s a bit more fun than I bargained for.” If only Hera were here to accept your ridiculously dangerous challenge. She’d be in puffer pig heaven to show you up.

Thrawn replanted his hands calmly behind his back, but his voice was razor sharp. “If we didn’t have the threat of a formidable enemy sniffing so closely on our heels, I wouldn’t risk the safety of my ship and crew on your untested Jedi abilities.”

The Chiss now meticulously inspected the fingernails on one blue hand. “As you are no doubt aware, the purrgil’s vector is a but a guidewire through the fog.” His crimson eyes slid back to Kanan to assess him coolly. “It is up to you and Commander Bridger to avert any collisions with the high velocity stars along our course.”

Oh, is that all? Kanan wanted to retort as he pictured the Ghost’s dangerously beautiful journey through an imploded star cluster to reach the lost world of Lira San. If only we had Zeb’s bo-rifle to channel the Force to the Chimaera’s hyperdrive. Ezra’s hand squeezed Kanan’s shoulder, clearly in tune with his thoughts.

“We can do this, Kanan.” Ezra’s blue eyes were bloodshot with fatigue, but almost glowing with confidence.

The two Jedi shared a mental image of how they’d enhanced the flow of the Force through Zeb and his reconfigured bo-rifle. Ezra released Kanan’s shoulder to gesture toward the pilot seat.

“You take the controls, Kanan,” Ezra urged. Your Force-sight is much stronger. “I’ll be your wingman and stay open to the purrgil. PeeZee, be prepared to recalculate the vector.”

From the nearest console, PZ-5 nodded. “Yes, Master Ezra.”

Ezra’s mouth quirked. “I have a feeling the mother will offer instinctive pointers along the way.”

Kanan heard another of Ezra’s projected thoughts. Plus, you’ll have Dume to blaze our trail. With a nod to Ezra, Kanan closed his eyes and tuned into the ancient Force entity more fully—and was slammed by an intense energy pulse throughout his body.

DANGER. ON ALL SIDES.

Kanan almost staggered and Ezra caught his arm. “Kanan?” The younger Jedi’s face was rigid with concern.

“I’m…fine.” Kanan managed to keep alarm out of his voice. “But we need to get moving.” Now.

He swiftly slid into the pilot seat. One hand wiped clammy sweat from his forehead while the other danced intuitively along the console’s typically Imperial control panel. Okay, Dume, danger on all sides. Which way is the least dangerous ? Dume’s intense pulse rippled through Kanan’s chest, then surged down to his hands to push the yoke.

FORWARD.

Well, that’s new. Not too sure I like it much either. Maneuvering carefully to avoid dislodging the wounded purrgil latched to the keel, Kanan steered the bow of the Chimaera into alignment with the console’s grid display.

From his position behind the pilot’s chair, Ezra laid a firm hand on Kanan’s back. He was grateful for Ezra’s unwavering strength, along with the revitalizing flow of Force energy his not-padawan channeled his way.

The Star Destroyer plowed away from the hushed graveyard of the gas giant. Relief washed over Kanan as he sensed it falling behind. Relief that was very short-lived.

Captain Makeri called over to Thrawn urgently. “Admiral, sensors indicate a mass of unknown craft have entered this system on the far side of the gas giant. At their current rate of speed and trajectory, interception is calculated at thirty-three seconds.”  

Alarmed, incredulous whispers susurrated like hiss-wyrmgrubs throughout the bridge.

Silence —and keep to your stations.” Thrawn’s rigid command was a whiplash that evoked instant obedience. “Faster, Master Jedi,” Thrawn intoned closer to Kanan’s ear.

“I told you to call me Kanan,” he growled back, jabbing controls to push the starship to the dangerous brink of its capabilities. The Chimaera gathered momentum at what felt like a hibernating snail’s pace until the sublight engines finally reached sufficient speed.

“Sir!” Captain Makeri almost shouted. “The mass has cleared the planet.”  

Ezra’s fingers dug into his back. Kanan engaged the hyperspace controls. “Here. We. Go.”

In an instant, the stars stretched into lightwires which engulfed the ship and morphed into the blurred tunnel of hyperspace. Kanan could hear everyone on the bridge, including himself, actually breathe again. Let’s see how long our escape lasts—or if this ship holds together. Kanan tried to forget he was headlining the longest jump the Chimaera had made in over five years.

Ezra patted his back with an answering thought. Relax. She’s mostly repaired. Kanan turned his head to join Ezra in a falsely droll smile.

Thrawn’s calculating gaze swept them both. “I have no doubt the Nihilum scanned the Chimaera quite thoroughly before the jump. They will be on the hunt for us, and to reclaim their stolen craft.”

Ezra shifted uneasily. “Shouldn’t the nebula’s magnetic and gravitational activity mask our trail?”

Thrawn frowned sharply at the viewport’s hyperspace tunnel, tapping at his chin. “If their technology does not include highly advanced hyperspace tracking and filtering sensors.” His broad shoulders stiffened. “We shall know soon enough.”

Not exactly a ringing endorsement for our safety. Not to mention the Nihilum won’t matter a whit if a rogue star plows into us head on first.

With that in mind, Kanan shut his eyes against the blue-white whorl of hyperspace and looked upon the hurtling Galaxy with his enhanced Force-vision. He nodded silent thanks for the gift from those sightless years after Malachor, for it was only through the Force’s excruciating lesson of patience that he’d developed and fine-tuned the abilities so desperately needed now.

Time lost all meaning as Kanan became one with the shimmering connections between countless stars and their spinning clusters of planetary and other cosmic debris. Looming directly ahead, the Boomerang shone like a glimmering spider’s web stretched between two giant Kashyyyk trees. Its entire span undulated as if a gale force wind was intent on shaking each dew drop from the nebula’s wobbling threads.

Throughout the journey, Kanan heard the mother purrgil’s on and off keening in the back of his mind, but he trusted in PZ and Ezra to translate and relay her demands. The younger Jedi’s hand remained like a rudder at Kanan’s back, each subtle shift of his fingers a pointer for Kanan to nudge the helm toward a safer shortcut favored by their ponderous hitchhikers.

Threading through the Boomerang’s heart, Kanan felt as if he were an insignificant flying insect snared within the endlessly exploding fireworks of Empire Day. The threat of ship-shattering turbulence dragged at them from all sides. Dume’s presence was like an invisible safety net, and Kanan was not too proud to welcome the entity’s overriding pulses of energy to direct his fingertips on the controls. With a series of delicate, evasive maneuvers, the Chimaera finally emerged unscathed from the last spray of hungry stars.

Kanan and Ezra had only a few moments to shift and stretch their aching inner and outer selves before it was time to plunge into the grand finale. Ezra’s hand moved to Kanan’s shoulder while Kanan closed his eyes once more. He envisioned the Star Destroyer alighting gracefully upon the upcoming sea of asteroids like an Alderaanian swan.

“Entering real space,” Kanan rasped through a very dry throat, his trembling hands completing the control sequence. He cracked his eyes open to find Thrawn standing before the viewport, thoroughly assessing a very rugged, almost planetoid-sized asteroid that floated in the near distance in relative isolation. It was riddled with large cracks and pits filled with dense, blue-green gases.

“I’m guessing it’s the purrgil version of Old Jho’s Pit Stop,” Ezra said with a tinge of sadness.

Kanan gave Ezra’s hand a comforting pat. “Then I’m guessing it’s time to say goodbye.”

In one last maneuver, Kanan aligned the Chimaera into a geosynchronous orbit around the mini-giant asteroid, relieved to take advantage of the wide niche it had cleared between itself and an outlying ring of rocks that zoomed in the distance. I should up my opinion of the purrgils’ capacity for cleverness a few more notches.

PZ-5 tapped away at her console, her head tilted at a pleased angle. “Successful arrival at destination complete at four hours, twelve minutes, and twenty-one point two seconds.”

Kanan felt like a battery in desperate need of a recharge. Not to mention a refresher. He sat still, gathering the energy to stand up, dimly aware of the bridge humming with activity.

Thrawn paused at the helm to acknowledge Kanan and Ezra with a curt, but satisfied nod. “Well done…Kanan…and Commander Bridger. I must admit that you exceeded my expectations. Carry on.” Thrawn strode away to attend to his post-jump rounds. “Status, Captain?”

“Grand Admiral, the engineering team reports the main hanger stands ready for intake of the enemy craft.”

“Excellent. Prepare for the immediate and secure transfer of our cargo, then release the purrgil.”

“Aye, sir.” Makeri then added to herself softly, but fervently, “And good riddance to the lot of them.”

Ezra huffed in indignation, then squeezed Kanan’s shoulder. “Hera would be really proud of you,” he murmured hoarsely.

Kanan’s heart pumped with renewed vigor. We’re that much closer to her now. He forced himself out of the chair to grin back at his not-padawan. “Prouder of you, kid.” Ezra beamed and Kanan chuckled dryly. “But let’s never do that again.”

Kanan managed a weary nod for the regular Imperial pilot politely waiting to take back his spot, then focused on following Ezra toward the bridge walkway without stumbling. Good thing we survived, or I’d have missed my long overdue nap.

PZ-5 had disengaged from her console to join them. “Master Ezra, I’ll go with you to the main hanger to monitor the purrgil’s release.”

“Thanks, PeeZee. I’ll stay focused on keeping mom and baby calm.”

Kanan had to stop in mid-step when Ezra suddenly halted and leaned in conspiratorially. “I’m sorry, Kanan, but do you mind keeping an eye on things up here?  Once they have that Nihilum on board, I’m not sure how, uh, careful they’ll be.”

He’s right. Kanan rolled his stiff shoulders and offered a sideways smile. “I’ve got you.”

Ezra grinned his thanks and the Jedi parted ways. Kanan moved back toward the viewport and massaged the aching muscles in his neck as he waited. Something inside him still felt uneasy and his eyes kept darting to the more distant asteroids as if expecting to find something terrible lurking behind the rocky debris.

Finally, Captain Makeri announced to Thrawn. “Cargo secured aboard. Tractor beam engaged, sir.”

Kanan sighed with relief, then concentrated on using the Force to enhance the tractor beam as it slowly ferried the purrgil toward the asteroid below. Little by little, the tentacle-waving mother and baby descended. Kanan made sure the tractor beam gently deposited the pair into the largest crater, and the creatures slid under the surface of the undulating gases.

“Targets released, tractor beam disengaged.”

Mission accomplished. Kanan turned to Thrawn and stated flatly, “I’m going to my quarters to pass out now.”

Thrawn's eyes raked Kanan up and down, and the corner of his mouth quirked. “Shall I assign an escort to ensure you don’t collapse along the way?”

“Hah. Very funny. Sir.” Kanan bestowed Thrawn with a lazy, two fingered salute before heading away. He felt almost giddy, barely aware of the volatile mix of respectful nods and resentful glares from the various officers and technicians manning the station consoles along his way.

Just before Kanan reached the blast door, he felt an overpowering warning surge from Dume and the Force. He froze in his tracks and whipped his head toward Thrawn.

“Incoming!”

A proximity alert shrieked. Every head on the bridge snapped to attention.

“Sir—an unidentified craft dropping out of hyperspace!” Captain Makeri strode toward Thrawn, her face rigid.

“All shields, full power!” Thrawn's eyes flared a brighter crimson.

Kanan watched with numb senses as an absolutely enormous starship abruptly filled the space above the asteroid. It was a massive, black wedge full of weaponry and malice--and too horribly familiar in design to be anything other than an Imperial warship. Huh. A warship that makes the Chimaera look like a baby purrgil.

Danger on all sides indeed. A litany sputtered into Kanan’s mind that turned his blood to ice and obliterated his fatigue in an instant. The Emperor is dead, long live the Empire. What came out of his mouth: "Kriff!”

Around Kanan, the bridge crew was reacting to the massive ship’s unexpected presence with unabated elation and excitement.

Thrawn flung up a commanding hand. “Silence ! Remain vigilant!”

The crew hushed immediately, but all eyes still gleamed eagerly despite the grand admiral’s cold glare.

“Open a channel, Captain.” Thrawn turned to the viewport with his shoulders squared, and hands planted regally behind his back. “Unidentified Imperial ship, this is Grand Admiral Thrawn of the Chimaera—”

He was cut off by a holotransmission of a grotesque, reptilian humanoid with blueish, bulging eyes.

“You hail the almighty Super Star Destroyer, Liberty’s Misrule!” The speaker’s gray-scaled snout gaped into a smile, revealing irregular, very sharp teeth. “I am Vinthar, the Sarkan of Egg Brood Xazin'-nizar.”

Kanan’s skittering thoughts slammed to a stop inside his skull. A Sarkan…in charge of a...Super Star Destroyer ?  Everyone on the bridge—Thrawn included—stood thunderstruck.

“I envy you today for the blessing you are about to receive,” Vinthar proclaimed with a grand gesture that fluttered his flamboyant, embroidered robes. “You are poised ineluctably to meet her highness, his glory, zher wonder, zher luminous magnificence—the picaroon! The plunderer! Behold, the glorious ruler of Wild Space, Eleodie Maracavanya!"

What the hell in the nine hells? Stunned silence continued to reign over Kanan and the Chimaera’s bridge as Vinthar bowed to make way for a tall, slender human of indeterminate gender to take over the transmission.

Maracavanya wore an elaborately knotted head scarf and a vivid red, knee-length long coat that stood out even in the washed-out colors of the holo. The coat’s high collar framed an imposing face with piercing, golden eyes. Maracavanya raised a hand with gold-tipped fingers in benevolent greeting, then spoke melodiously through a vocoder.

“Grand Admiral Thrawn and mates of the Chimaera, gaze upon the Sovereign Latitudes of Maracavanya...” The ruler of Wild Space opened zher arms wide.

Outside the viewport, a mighty flotilla of dozens upon dozens of smaller ships dropped out of hyperspace. Pirate ships. They coalesced around the Super Star Destroyer like a cloud of sand flies enveloping a bantha.

“And now we’re gonna have to blow you to bits, for this is the way of things to make happy our friends of the New Republic.” Maracavanya’s smile was almost apologetic.

“It’s nothing personal.”

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 4 – So Close and Yet So Far

5 ABY

Thrawn - Chimaera

Thrawn stood rigidly on the bridge, acutely aware that every targeting system on the preposterously named Liberty’s Misrule was now locked on his ship. In stark contrast to the grand admiral’s frozen stance, his mind processed the torrent of ominous information at lightspeed to churn out an array of conclusions.

One: He had instantly identified the Executor -class Star Dreadnought Annihilator based on engineering plans revealed during top-level meetings back on Coruscant. What took longer to process were the incongruous symbols splashed so insolently across the vessel’s dark hull. Palpatine must have perished if mere pirates have captured an Imperial flagship of such advanced design.

Two: He would not allow the Chimaera to limp back to a fallen Empire. We did not survive these years in exile to be imprisoned or executed by this so-called New Republic. Reestablishing communications with Eli Vanto was vital to determine whether or not the Chiss Ascendancy remained capable of unraveling their precious cargo’s secrets and avert Galaxy-wide destruction by the Nihilum. Any crew member who objects to our new course to the Unknown Regions will be dealt with accordingly.

Three: The preceding conclusions were irrelevant if the dubiously self-proclaimed ruler of Wild Space successfully blasted the Chimaera into a cloud of debris.

Hearing the sound of Kanan Jarrus’ boots pounding up behind him, Thrawn shifted his stance regally to blockade his approach. The grand admiral had immediately surmised the Jedi’s risky plan to avert such annihilation, but he was not about to be outmaneuvered on his own bridge. Not while I still draw breath.

Locking eyes with the pirate ruler in the holo, Thrawn outthrust his hand forcefully. “Power down your weapons immediately, Captain Maracavanya,” Thrawn commanded, then narrowed his crimson eyes. “Unless, of course, you prefer to forfeit a king’s ransom.”

Maracavanya’s angrily knotted eyebrows slowly rose into piqued interest. “A king’s ransom, you say?” With a sharp tilt of zher head, the pirate signaled to someone outside of viewing range to pause the attack. “How so?”

Thrawn shot a glare at Jarrus and found teal eyes seething back at him. Yes, Jedi, I have stolen your thunder. “Allow me to introduce my military guest…”  Thrawn grandly presented Jarrus as if announcing him at an Imperial ball. “Master—”

“Kanan Jarrus,” the Jedi growled and gave the barely civil nod of a supremely recalcitrant accomplice. In a blur of fierce, elegant motion, Jarrus ignited and spun the humming, violet blade of the lightsaber full circle with a deceptively lazy flourish.

The pirate ruler gawked at Jarrus and the glowing lightsaber in astonishment. “A…Jedi?” Then zher face twisted into a puzzled frown. “The only Jedi alive that we are hearing of goes by the name of Luke Skywalker.”

Thrawn and Jarrus exchanged a covert, disconcerted glance. Another Skywalker? Thrawn’s mind gingerly set that news aside for later deliberation (presuming there was a later) while he leveled his gaze back on Maracavanya.

“Precisely my point, Captain,” Thrawn continued smoothly. “In the eyes of the New Republic, the offering of a single Imperial ship is an unremarkable feat…a mere token when you can bring forth instead one of the Galaxy’s rarest finds…” Thrawn now gestured at Jarrus as if he were a precious jewel. “A Jedi Knight.”

“Make that two Jedi.”  Commander Bridger strode up next to Jarrus, brandishing his pike blades with a dramatic, golden spin. The two Jedi shared an enigmatic glance before the padawan quickly nodded at the holo of the startled Maracavanya. “I’m Ezra Bridger, your, uh, majesty.”

Thrawn’s jaw clenched. It was his intention that Bridger remain hidden, a game piece to be put into play only if necessary. No doubt Jarrus has sensed his padawan’s hasty return this entire time. Thawn's hands fisted but he kept them placidly behind his back. For the moment, the fate of the Chimaera and his crew must hang upon the gossamer whims of two volatile Jedi and a vainglorious, irascible pirate.

Maracavanya rubbed zher chin and scrutinized Bridger dubiously. “You are calling yourself a Knight as well…?”

Bridger waggled his free hand. “Ehh…I’m still working on an official title.”

The Sarkan reemerged from behind the pirate ruler, his protruding eyeballs bright with curiosity and greed. “Excellency, two Jedi are worth twice the reward…”

Maracavanya’s brow now knitted with increasing suspicion. “Aye, Vinthar.” Zhe inspected Jarrus and Bridger and crossed zher scarlet clad arms. “But two Jedi walking freely on an Imperial warship makes me not so believing of their claims.”

Thrawn felt a tight, spiked knot within his chest expand. Regrettably, that garish headscarf was not wrapped around the head of a fool. So, perhaps a modicum of truth doled out in necessary measure. Thrawn crossed his own arms and threw back his shoulders.

“You, Captain, are also unaware of a significant hostile force approaching this sector. For this reason, the Jedi and I were forced into a temporary alliance under dire circumstances. Indeed, it is urgent that we come to terms with all haste—and depart with even greater speed.”

The pirate ruler’s golden eyes shifted from Thrawn to the Jedi, taking in their rather bewildered expressions.

Bridger’s mouth twitched. “Uh. Everything he just said…is actually true.”

Maracavanya’s head tilted to a skeptical slant. “A hostile force, is it now?”

Jarrus slashed his humming blade to underscore his terse words. "Very hostile.”

The unimpressed pirate ruler waved zher hand in a vague circle. “And from where in this wide Galaxy are these hostiles hailing?”

Bridger spun his pike again, this time with ill-concealed annoyance. “That’s exactly what we’ve been trying to figure out before you showed up.”

Maracavanya scowled back at Bridger, a fist planted on zher cocked hip. “Even if all is so, anyone can be waving around stolen lightsabers of the dead, are we agreed?”  The pirate ruler jabbed a gold-tipped finger at both Bridger and Jarrus. “How are you two proving you are what you say?”

Now master and padawan shared sly grins. A jolt of tension lanced through Thrawn’s spine but he kept his expression aloof as he gestured toward them to proceed.

“You might want to hold on to something,” Bridger said lightly as both Jedi extinguished their weapons to hook them on their belts.

“What are you meaning by that?” Maracavanya’s hands reflexively hovered over zher holstered blasters.

In answer, Bridger and Jarrus each stretched out a hand toward the mammoth Dreadnought looming beyond the viewport. As their eyes half-closed in concentration, the spiked knot in Thrawn’s chest now replicated itself twice over. Surely, they do not intend to—

In the holo, the bulging-eyed Sarkan abruptly floated upward until only the hem of his embroidered robes and his flailing boots were visible. “Excellency! Make them stop!”

Maracavanya gazed upon the levitating crewman, zher face splitting wide with an impish grin. “Ho! Who knew Vinthar could be dancing on air!”

The Sarkan’s boots thrashed now in anger while the sound of raucous chortles and cheers from the unseen pirate bridge crew swelled in volume.

Thrawn allowed a patronizing smile to cross his lips at the pirates’ unbridled glee over what was hardly more than a parlor trick in light of the day’s events. Thrawn glanced sideways at Bridger with a discreet nod of approval—then glared indignantly when the young Jedi had the audacity to proffer a covert thumb’s up.

The laughing pirate ruler turned away from the Sarkan to appraise Jarrus and Bridger with increasingly avid interest. “You bucks may not be blowing Death Stars to moondust like Skywalker…but it’s a fine enough showing for now, Jedi.”

Thrawn’s mind snared on Maracavanya’s backhanded compliment. Death Stars blown to moondust? His lower gut heaved like a cauldron boiling over with outrage. Those arrogant, ignorant fools! I warned Tarkin and the Emperor repeatedly that Krennic’s monstrosity was far too vulnerable!

It took great effort to drag his focus to Jarrus and Bridger lowering Vinthar. The floundering, avaricious Sarkan thudded ungracefully back to the deck in the holo and Jarrus flashed a more than faintly smug smile.

“So glad we meet with your approval, your majesty,” he drawled sarcastically.

“Hah! It’s a boarding crew you’ll be meeting,” retorted the pirate ruler. Zhe clapped zher hands sharply at the simmering Sarkan. “Vinthar, make ready my shuttle—”

“There will be no boarding party on my ship,” Thrawn cut through decisively. Maracavanya and Vinthar stiffened in surprise. “If you desire the Jedi to reach your ship alive, you will abide by my exact conditions.”

During the second of stunned silence, Thrawn inclined his head minutely toward Jarrus and Bridger. Follow my lead. The Jedi gazed back warily, then hitched their shoulders slightly with non-committal shrugs.

“How dare you!” Vinthar surged forward in the holo to peer down his snout at Thrawn. “You continue to exist at the mercy of zher victorious majesty, Eleodie Maracavanya—the glorious destroyer of three Imperial Class Two Star Destroyers in a single battle!”

Bridger’s eyes went wide, while Jarrus’s low whistle was drowned out by cries of angry shock from the Chimaera’s bridge crew. Thrawn swept his icy eyes across each pallid face to command silence before he locked on the belligerent Sarkan.

“Your claims of victory mean nothing if your flotilla is obliterated by the hostile forces that pursue in our wake,” Thrawn purred dismissively.

Maracavanya bristled further, zher angular jaw jutting forward. “All I am seeing to obliterate is your ever-flapping blue mouth.”

“We do not have the luxury of time for further insult or parley, Captain Maracavanya,” Thrawn retorted. “If you desire the Jedi to reach your ship alive, heed my words and abide.”

Vinthar hissed through his snout. “All weapons systems standing by, Excellency.”

After a nerve-wracking pause, Maracavanya clapped the Sarkan on his shoulder to stand down before zhe raked Thrawn with an inscrutable glare. “How lucky I am feeling so very generous this day, Admiral Thrawn. To your spouting, I listen one moment more—then bloodshed will be your answer if nothing pleases.”

Overriding his stiffening neck, Thrawn nodded coolly. “Understood, Captain. My conditions are simple: First, all ships move clear of this asteroid field. Second, Kanan Jarrus and Ezra Bridger will be released to you via an escape pod. And third, your ship’s tracking beam will lock on the Jedi’s escape pod while the Chimaera is allowed to enter hyperspace without any interference whatsoever from you or your fleet. Are we agreed?”

Maracavanya stroked zher chin ruminatively. “Hm, it seems fair enough…” The pirate’s golden eyes narrowed to slits. “But make a nasty move—and there’s no more belly crawling with your Impy roach-rats in the Unknowns.” Maracavanya clutched zher fist. “We’ll be taking your Jedi and blowing you to bits for our goodbyes.”

With an imperious wave, the pirate ruler ended the transmission. Thrawn’s expression remained impassive while his mind rippled with the pirate ruler’s flippant revelation. What is left of the Empire has retreated to the Unknown Regions.

“Soooo, I guess this means we start packing…?”

Bridger’s forced jest cut through Thrawn’s speculative flurry. The grand admiral swiveled to address the commander and found Bridger’s blue eyes ablaze with incredulous elation.

“What you and Master Jarrus will do, Commander, is wait in the security foyer for further instructions.” Without pausing for acknowledgement, Thrawn strode toward Captain Makeri. “Captain, take the Chimaera beyond the closest edge of the asteroid debris field.”

“Yes, Admiral.” Makeri now snapped at the navigation crew busy at their consoles. “Status!”

“Estimating thirty-point-two minutes at maximum sublight speed to clear space, sir,” the lead navigator rapidly supplied.

“Lock in course and proceed immediately,” Captain Makeri ordered.

Thrawn leaned in to murmur in Makeri’s ear. “Captain, have the navicomputer programmed to our last jump point within the nebula, then execute on my signal. The pirates won’t risk losing their stolen flagship to the Boomerang.”

Makeri’s face paled. “Yes, sir.” She hustled toward the navigation consoles to confer further with the crew.

Thrawn planted himself regally in the center of the command walkway. “Lieutenant Korwin, open a ship-wide channel.” The commo nodded back briskly.

As the all alert chime sounded, Thrawn envisioned the thousands of officers, enlisted, and stormtroopers under his command. He had no doubt that most were engaged in ogling the hulking Dreadnought and its menacing flotilla of pirate ships via every viewport dotted along the Chimaera. It was crucial to suppress any feverous panic from raging through his crew’s ranks. With news of a fallen Empire, discipline will hang by a thread.

“Attention. Attention. This is Grand Admiral Thrawn. No doubt all aboard are aware of the surrounding enemy vessels. Remain calm. I have negotiated the peaceful release of our military guests, Kanan Jarrus and Ezra Bridger, in exchange for the Chimaera’s safe passage. Nevertheless, it is imperative that all remain vigilant, and stand ready at battle stations until the exchange has been completed outside of the asteroid field and the Chimaera is safely away.”

Thrawn paused, then embellished his next words with his most gracious, confident tones. “As you await my signal for the all clear, stand by proudly knowing you remain valuable officers, crew and soldiers of the Empire. No matter what knowledge we may acquire of all that has transpired during our long absence, each and every one of you has played—and continues to play—a pivotal role in the Chimaera’s survival against almost impossible odds. Our successful journey forward to the Greater Galaxy relies upon your continued dedication, bravery and loyalty. Never forget your significance or the power and might of the Imperial Star Destroyer beneath your feet. Grand Admiral Thrawn out.”

Thrawn strode toward the security foyer where Jarrus and Bridger waited with sullen obedience near the blast door. With every step of Thrawn’s boots, the officers and technicians stood up at their stations to salute him as he passed. At the end of the command walkway, Thrawn turned about to face Captain Makeri and the statue-like crewmembers arrayed on the bridge. Thrawn’s crimson eyes appraised each one, then he snapped a salute to release the others from their military stances.

“Captain Makeri, you have the bridge.” Thrawn whirled about and gestured for Jarrus and Bridger to follow him through the blast door. “Come then, Jedi. Let us not keep your new hosts waiting.”

The two men flanked him, remaining silent until the thick durasteel slab slid shut behind them. Almost instantly, Thrawn’s equally silent, Imperial sentry droids moved away from their waiting posts. The two formidable bodyguards fell into step behind Thrawn and the Jedi as the group headed in the direction of the grand admiral’s office.

In the relative privacy of the corridor, Bridger addressed Thrawn with a challenge in his eyes. “I’ll be taking PeeZee with me.”

“PeeZee Five remains the property of the Empire, Commander.” Thrawn retorted crisply. By the unperturbed expression on Bridger’s face, Thrawn deduced the former Lothalian thief was already concocting a plan to extract the droid regardless. Oh, we shall see about that.

“Speaking of property…” Jarrus shifted his narrowed eyes to Thrawn. “You never mentioned the captured Nihilum to the pirates. You do realize you must release the wreckage to us for the New Republic to examine.”

Thrawn halted abruptly, forcing the Jedi and the following droids to a standstill. “I will do no such thing,” he replied acidly. “Under this fledgling New Republic, it appears criminals now brazenly attack Galactic travelers using stolen military warships with technology capable of annihilating entire planetary civilizations. You know full well those profit-obsessed pirates cannot—and will not—lay a finger on my cargo.”

Jarrus clenched his jaw. “But you’ll take the Nihilum to wherever the Imperial dregs are hiding out with their tail between their legs. What good can they do?”

Thrawn’s gaze seared into Jarrus, who glowered back just as hotly. Oh, I have not forgotten how you sabotaged my TIE Defender program, Master Jedi. It galled Thrawn deeply that Jarrus’s victory—courtesy of Governor Pryce’s hapless ineptitude on Lothal—must have inflamed Hera Syndulla and her fellow rebel scourges as a critical stepping stone toward the Emperor’s ultimate defeat.

Bridger’s face stiffened with realization. “No. He’s heading for the Chiss.” His wide eyes turned from Jarrus to Thrawn. “Aren’t you?”

Thrawn merely frowned, walking onward in contemplative silence. The precious nuggets of information relayed unwittingly by Maracavanya had his mind sifting meticulously through multitudes of potential plans. Do I still set course for Csilla? That tactic seemed most logical on the surface. However, if the Grysks had divided the Chiss with civil war, the Nihilum in his cargo hold could be captured by enemy hands rather than providing a means to their destruction. Then again, it was possible a Grysk-fueled civil war had forced the fragments of the Empire and the shattered Ascendancy to unify for mutual survival. I know the necessity of ill begotten alliances all too well. Until Thrawn could ascertain if and where the most effective leadership remained in place, his ultimate destination remained unresolved. And certainly undisclosed.

“What I do is no longer your concern, gentlemen.” Thrawn halted the group at a junction, looking down his nose at the Jedi. “But take comfort in knowing that what I do for my own people’s survival will benefit your own.”

Jarrus chuckled mirthlessly. “Yeah, well, better luck picking the winning side this time.”

Thrawn smiled serenely as the plan weaving in the forefront of his mind finally unfurled, complete. The pirates—and most certainly the Jedi—will be sorely disappointed. “And perhaps time itself will determine the true victor,” Thrawn replied in a silken tone. He politely gestured Jarrus and Bridger toward a corridor where two stormtroopers waited stiffly. “For now, pack swiftly. Another escort will take you from your quarters to the transfer location.”

Ignoring the obvious dismissal, Jarrus probed Thrawn with steely eyes. “You also realize those pirates are slicing through the Super Star Destroyer’s records,” he muttered softly. “Once they shake out you’re the long-lost big shot of the Seventh Fleet, you’re gonna get a whole lot more interesting.”

Bridger’s eyes darted from Jarrus to Thrawn, his dark eyebrows rising. “You still expect the pirates to board?”

Thrawn shifted his hands behind his back calmly. Like the Jedi, he kept his voice low. “Maracavanya won’t risk an assault until the successful extraction of your escape pod.” His jaw tightened. “The ‘ruler of Wild Space’ will find I’ve made arrangements for a preemptive farewell.”

With a curt nod, Thrawn turned on his heel to stride rapidly away, the lumbering sentry droids in his wake.

 

Hera - Takodana

Accompanied by the jauntily strutting Hondo and a wide-eyed Jacen, Hera followed the sleek form of ME-8D9 down another seemingly endless passageway. As the intimidating protocol droid led the group into the hidden bowels of Maz’s castle, their footfalls echoed off the ancient stone.

Hera felt a shiver spread from her spine to her lekku. The oppressive weight of the massive structure was a tangible pressure, while all of its walls seemed to hold secrets and ghosts eager to penetrate her bones. Hera reached for Jacen’s hand, but both of his were still cradled around Teeubo. Their furry gift for the pirate queen napped in oblivious abandon, and Hera quite envied the Loth-cat at the moment.

“How much farther to Maz’s chamber…Emmie?” Hera wasn’t comfortable calling the bronzium droid by her innocuous nickname. With those electrified fingertips, that droid must have been an assassin at some point. The goddess only knew who in what century had possessed the audacity to roll this spike-edged creation off an assembly line. My guess is their descendants designed Chopper.

“We are almost there, General Syndulla. Maz agreed it was best to keep your son far from the main hall.”

Hera nodded her thanks, stifling her annoyance that Hondo was using this opportunity to call attention to himself constantly by pointing out artifacts of interest along their path. As the group rounded a bend, the self-appointed tour guide quickly pulled Jacen aside to gaze upon a huge tapestry showcased within an alcove.

“Look upon this, my youngling, for it reveals a part of your astounding heritage.”

With a sigh, Hera joined Jacen as he drew closer to the relic in excitement. Captured in the tapestry’s faded, but exceedingly detailed threadwork, was the evocative image of an intense battle along the shores of Nymeve Lake.

Hera’s eyes followed Jacen’s grubby finger as it hovered over a multitude of figures clad in a mix of armor and sweeping robes, each brandishing a weapon Hera instantly recognized. Lightsabers. Beautiful, metallic threads emulated glowing blades of mostly blue or green, with a rare scattering of bright gold, yellow-green, and purple hues.

“Those are Jedi fighting,” Jacen breathed out in awe.

Hondo patted Jacen’s shoulder proudly. “Yes, my boy.” The pirate gestured gallantly to where the Jedi clashed against a dark flood of enemies whose lightsabers smoldered red as hot blood. “Legends say a most terrible battle took place between the Jedi and the Sith on the very ground beneath our feet.”

Jacen looked down at the pitted stone floor, eyes now like saucers. Hondo turned toward Hera and Emmie to intone dramatically. “It happened thousands of very long years ago—perhaps Emmie here knows when this castle was built upon the warriors’ bones?”

“Bones? Really?” Jacen’s excited eyes looked over to Emmie. The droid tilted her head toward Hondo, her almost featureless face managing to look affronted.

“I may be old, Hondo Ohnaka, but certainly not that old.”

Hondo patted the droid’s upper arm in appeasement. “Of course not, Emmie, my dear. You look not even one day over two centuries.”

Emmie’s fingertips sparked slightly as she stood nose-to-nose with the squirming pirate. “Last time you swore it was only one century.”

Uh oh. Hera extracted Jacen from ogling the tapestry and cleared her throat loudly. “Excuse me…we really shouldn’t keep the queen waiting.”

Emmie stared at Hera a beat, her pale optical sensors like lamplights in the gloom, then strode forward with a nod. “This way, General.”

As they all followed, an undaunted Hondo grinned wickedly at Jacen. “Dear boy, before we leave the castle, I must show you a magnificent artwork that hangs in a place of great honor.” He poked Jacen with his elbow. “It is a glorious painting of yours truly, Hondo.”

Thankfully, Hera had no time to ponder who had been conned into commissioning that subject before Emmie led them into an ample-sized chamber. The room was aglow with warm lighting, its walls filled with shelves and cabinets almost overflowing with one-of-a-kind pieces from around the Galaxy.

“Mama, look at all the pirate treasure…” Jacen breathed out, thrilled.

Hera watched Jacen totter around in circles, absorbing everything with open-mouthed wonder. The entire chamber was a cornucopia of platters, goblets, and jewelry cast from precious metals shining amidst finely crafted sculptures, vases, busts, and richly detailed carvings, intricately woven cloths, and priceless paintings. Enticing treasure chests abounded, their tempting contents locked away from prying eyes.

Hera’s lekku twitched uneasily at the sight of her son enraptured by the riches. “Jacen, love, don’t forget all of this was stolen from others. It’s not really something to admire.”

Hondo swaggered up, waggling a bony finger. “Nahaha, my dear General. What if you knew this array of treasures is no looted hoard of valuables to fill her majesty’s castle?” He waved his hands around grandly, his coat and sleeves fluttering. “Everything you see in this chamber are priceless, historical artifacts.”

Hera eyed him back, arms folded. “Hm.”

The pirate captain turned conspiratorially to Jacen. “It is true, my boy. Most of these valuables are like Maz herself, centuries old. All that remains of worlds and cultures destroyed in long ago clashes.”

“Really, Uncle Hondo?” Jacen goggled at the display anew, his expression now more thoughtful than greedy.

Hondo nodded enthusiastically. “Yes, yes. You see, my youngling, the treasures Maz finds and keeps are a memorial to people, places and planets that were special to her…but did not survive as she did.” He eyed Hera reproachfully and placed his hat mournfully over his heart. “My dear queen fought and killed to try and save them.”

Hera planted one hand on her hip, but held her tongue as the unspoken message in Maz’s choice of meeting places sunk in. She’s trusting me with her treasure to show me I can trust her with my treasured son. The stiff curves of Hera’s lekku relaxed slightly. “She was very…efficient.”

Hondo popped his hat back on with a dramatic sigh. “Oh, you have no idea.” His beaming grin returned. “Now her majesty’s castle has become a museum for anything she could prevent from being plundered by the Empire.”

Hera raised an eyebrow and gestured at Hondo’s hand as it deftly tipped a shining bauble into his pocket. “Only the Empire?”

Hondo grinned slyly at Emmie as she immediately extracted and replaced the bauble. “This way, please,” the droid stated firmly before carefully redirecting Jacen’s furtive hand from an array of delicate, gilded figurines on an elaborate game board table.

“Ah, you have excellent taste, my young pirate-in-the-making,” winked Hondo.

Seeing Hera’s disapproving frown, Jacen ducked his head with a touch of shame. She sighed with more than a little relief. Good to know ‘Uncle Hondo’ hasn’t completely rubbed off on him just yet.

Following Emmie around a corner and into an alcove, Hera discovered the most interesting sight yet: Maz Kanata herself.

Hera and Jacen both shuffled to a stop as their eyes took in the unique and diminutive pirate queen, who was illuminated by an exquisitely filigreed candelabra. The tiny humanoid sat cross-legged on one of the tables, casually cleaning a small strip of leather with deft hands. Maz wore only simple clothing in muted colors, yet her magnetic presence easily eclipsed her glittering, treasure-infested surroundings.

She’s so much more than what I expected. As if in agreement, Teeubo mewled to wakefulness loudly and stared at Maz with almost as much curiosity.

Maz looked up at the group through enormous goggle glasses and her wizened face lit up with a smile. “Ah, and there you are…Welcome, welcome!”

As Maz’s warm gaze met her own, Hera suddenly understood why Maz’s castle was a refuge for the downtrodden riff raff of life and a neutral watering hole for some of the most heinous criminals the Galaxy had ever spawned. In Maz’s shrewd, gleaming eyes was simple acceptance for whoever, whatever you were.

Hera found herself believing that no matter what dark or terrible things she’d done in her life, Maz saw past all that sludge to the inner, pure flame that existed somewhere down deep in Hera’s core. She sees me. Hera’s heart twisted tightly, recalling similar words she’d spoken to Kanan far too long ago. Hera startled as Hondo sashayed forward, sweeping his hat off with a flourish.

“Maz Kanata, my queen, you are as beautiful and agelessly royal as ever.” He took her small hand and brushed her orange knuckles with his weathered lips.

Maz chuckled and patted Hondo’s cheek with her free hand with both affection and admonishment. “Hondo Ohnaka, you audacious rascal. You know full well you almost caused a riot the last time you graced my castle with your presence.” She pulled her hand from his grasp and waggled a petite finger in his face. “Didn’t I banish you for at least another five years, my sweet?”

Hondo spread his hands, smiling wickedly. “Ah, speaking of all things sweet—my dear mother always said, ‘an almost riot is not an actual riot’, so it would seem your rules and I, Hondo, remain in very good standing.” With a jaunty sidestep, Hondo planted his hat atop his head and gestured at Hera and Jacen.

“But enough about my accomplishments!  As promised, I present to you the illustrious General Hera Syndulla of the New Republic, and her Jedi youngling, Jacen.”

Maz eagerly swung her legs over the edge of the table and beckoned for Hera and Jacen to approach. “Come forward, my dears.”

With a sudden spring, Teeubo launched himself out of the safety of Jacen’s arms to land agilely on the table next to Maz. She grinned down at the mewling fluffball. “Hello, little fuzzy one.” She looked deeply into Teeubo’s eyes. “Have we met before?”

The Loth-cat nestled himself into Maz’s lap. It was if the small creature had been tailor made for the tiny pirate queen.

Jacen hurried forward eagerly. “His name is Teeubo. He says he likes being our gift to you.”

Maz caressed Teeubo’s black fur with obvious delight. “Ah, he is indeed a very special treasure. Thank you.” She patted the table, inviting Jacen to jump up. “Take a seat, kiddo.”

Hera felt her tense lekku relax further as Jacen happily obliged. Bless the goddess, they all actually like each other. She’d been harboring fears both Jacen and the tooka would wreak havoc in a mad dash to escape. Her tilted her head at Maz. “You know Ryl?”

Maz turned her soft smile on Hera. “Oh, ho, I wouldn’t say that, but any pirate worth her ship knows the word treasure in more than a few languages.”

Hondo broke in enthusiastically. “Exactly the skills my sweet mother taught me as well, your majesty!”

Maz motioned to Emmie, who waited silently. “Emmie, will you do me the honor of escorting our dear Hondo to the main hall?  And do make sure he stays far away from Frunkle.”

“That will be a most pleasurable duty,” agreed the droid. A small spark zapped along one fingertip as Emmie herded an indignant Hondo toward the chamber exit.

“Bah! Is it my fault I threw my drink in your Besalisk bartender’s ugly face?” Hondo’s tongue stuck out as if brushing off a most unpleasant taste from his lips. “He mixes up the worst Hot Tauntaun in the Galaxy!”

Emmie’s taciturn reply was mercifully lost as she herded Hondo around the bend. Hera breathed a sigh of relief at the irrepressible pirate’s departure, but mostly at the sight of Jacen and Maz huddled together to pet Teeubo as if they were lifelong friends. Hm. Maybe Ahsoka knew what she was doing after all.

As if sensing Hera’s thoughts, Maz’s expression shifted and she looked up from the tooka. “Oh! Where are my manners, my dears? We all could use some refreshment.” She pointed out an elegantly engraved chest topped with a tray with three large steins. “It’s iced jogan cider.”

Hera brought steins for Maz and Jacen, then nabbed the last for herself. Maz clanked her stein against Jacen’s, then did the same with Hera’s.

“Thank you, dear.” Maz turned to Jacen. “Your mama’s feet are tired, kiddo. Will you help me get her a place to sit while we chat?”

“Sure!” Jacen started to jump down, but Maz placed her tiny hand on his forearm. “Can you help me from here?” Her goggled eyes peered from Jacen to an overstuffed chair covered in rich brocade.

“Oh, with the Force,” Jacen grinned knowingly. He copied Maz by reaching his hand toward the chair, then half-closed his eyes in concentration.

Maz’s hand called to the chair, but she kept her eyes focused on Jacen as the heavy piece of furniture scraped across the stone floor by itself. “Very impressive, youngling.”

While Jacen beamed over his stein at Maz, Hera sat tentatively. As much as she’d seen Kanan and Ezra use the Force, it felt odd to see objects move at the command of a non-Jedi. After all, even Ahsoka had been a Jedi for many years.

“Thank you for your hospitality…your majesty.”

Maz waved that title away with a huff. “Please, I am Maz and you are Hera—unless you prefer us to be General and Queen?”

“I like the first option.” Hera smiled and sipped her cider. It was thoroughly delicious.

“Could you reach back for that, kiddo?” Maz indicated the small leather strap she’d set aside earlier.

Jacen picked it up and Hera realized it was a small collar outfitted with a shining silver buckle and heart-shaped pendant. Maz took it from Jacen and buckled it around the Loth-cat’s neck.

Jacen watched, eyes bright with curiosity and spoke the question brewing in Hera’s mind. “Did the Force tell you about Teeubo?”

Maz’s smile held a hint of sadness. “This collar once belonged to a little white tooka I had very, very long ago.” Now she nuzzled Teeubo affectionately. “But I had a feeling earlier today it might come in handy again.” She turned to Jacen. “Do you get feelings like that, too, youngling?”

Jacen nodded. “Sometimes I know if a speeder bike is coming too fast around a corner and I hold Mama back. Or that Uncle Zeb will want space waffles for dinner instead of nerf stew.” His face darkened. “But mostly I know when the bullies are waiting for me outside the school yard.”

Hera flinched. He’s never told me that. She forced herself to remain silent as Maz looked calmly into Jacen’s eyes.

“And what do you do, youngling, when the bullies wait for you? Do you avoid them, or do you fight them?

Jacen swung his feet a bit, thinking. “I mostly avoid them, but sometimes they corner me, just like the big Loth-cats hunted down Teeubo.” Now his eyes glittered. “But if they try to hurt anyone else, I always fight them.”

A pang struck Hera’s heart. My son, so like his father and Ezra . But with no one to guide him...and no safe castle anywhere in the Galaxy for her little Jedi in need of sanctuary.

“Tell me something, young Jacen Syndulla,” Maz said softly. “When you think of the Jedi, what do you see in your mind?”

“It’s like those Jedi in your tapestry, Queen Maz. I see my father and my Uncle Ezra standing against the Empire,” Jacen said proudly. “They are wise warriors who fight evil and help everyone in need.”

Hera’s pang deepened. Are. What she would give for that present tense verb to be true.

With a sigh, Maz adjusted her goggles and gazed a long beat into Jacen’s eyes. “Warriors, yes. That is what the Jedi were forced to become in these latter years. But throughout most of my younger times, the Jedi were the peacekeepers who held war at bay.”

Jacen set his stein aside on the table, his brow wrinkled. “I don’t understand, Queen Maz. What is the difference between a warrior and a...peacekeeper?”

Maz gently stroked Teeubo, who nodded off to sleep again. “Let us say you have two friends who are fighting over a toy. Now, a good warrior will go in to stop the fight, then present the toy to the friend who he feels is in the right.”

Jacen nodded while Maz took a sip from her stein before continuing. “An evil warrior, now he will simply take the toy for himself and stomp out anyone who stands in his way.” She made an adjustment to her goggles and turned her gaze on Jacen. “Can you guess what a peacekeeper would do?”

Hera watched Jacen swing his feet back and forth, his teal eyes narrowed in concentration. She felt an almost overpowering surge of love for him and had to steady the trembling stein in her hands.

“I think…I think a peacekeeper would find a way for his friends to agree on sharing the toy so everyone could play with it.”

“You are very right, young Jacen,” beamed Maz. “That is the gift of the Force, to sense and feel what others need, to help them realize that the solutions to their problems are within their own power…rather than using the Force to overpower others.”

Jacen smiled at her. “I understand better now.”

Maz gave him a playful poke in the chest. “Just remember, Jacen Syndulla, you may feel like a little lost Loth-cat sometimes, but you have a mighty ally in the Force. You see how tiny I am? There are guests in my hall who could crush me in one fist, but that thought will never even enter their minds. In my presence, they have learned to seek sanctuary and my friendship, and I offer it as long as they do no harm to others in my castle.”

Jacen looked down at his feet, biting his lip. “But I don’t know how to make the other kids like me.”

Hera somehow restrained herself from jumping up to hug her son. His green bangs hung over his forlorn face and she longed to brush them back. As if sensing Hera’s thoughts yet again, Maz’s petite hand smoothed Jacen’s silken hair aside.

“Dear child, you have the blessings of your father’s handsome outsides and your mother’s kind heart. As you grow, you will build your own reputation and presence within the Force…and one day soon, do not be surprised to find one or more of those bullies seeking out your friendship and trust. The only question will be, can you forgive them?”  

Jacen’s face brightened. “I hope I get to find out.”

Maz grinned back at him. “Well, kiddo, it’s been a treat to meet you and this little furball.” She caressed the sleeping Loth-cat gently and chuckled. “I hope we can all share more time together, but it seems Teeubo’s had enough chat for one day, don’t you think?”

Hera smiled, not entirely in jest. “And I’d better make sure Zeb hasn’t gambled the Ghost away.” She rose and collected the empty steins to return to the tray while Jacen giggled and hopped down to the floor.

Maz followed suit with a litheness surprising for her age, landing lightly with Teeubo still cradled in her arms. The feisty pirate queen and Jacen now stood almost eye to eye.

“Thank you, dear one, for my newest treasure.” Maz grinned impishly as she led Hera and Jacen out of her chamber. “Although, I don’t think the castle mice will be quite as appreciative.”

 

Kanan – Chimaera

Kanan hunched over his utilitarian sink, the splash of cold water on his face like an infusion of mundane reality. Granted, he’d lived through more than his bountiful share of surrealistic adventures, but none of them had served up a medley of nightmarish crystalline visions, purrgil slinging, and a death-defying pirouette through shooting stars in one cycle. Don’t forget the pirates running amuck on a Super Star Destroyer to top it off.

He scrubbed his face, wishing he could squeeze in an actual shower. Pack swiftly. Kanan let out a hollow laugh. As if Thrawn is gonna pass us off to an unruly pack of bandits that easily. Well, whatever convoluted plans and countermeasures the conniving Chiss was busy stewing up, he’d get no more cooperation from Kanan. He rinsed his mouth a few times to wash out the bad taste he’d accumulated from playing the grand admiral’s Jedi puppet back on the bridge.

Kanan scanned his cubicle of a room, unable to locate a single item he wanted to take off Thrawn’s tub…except for Master Windu’s lightsaber, of course. Hell, he’d jettison from the Chimaera in only his underwear just to be rid of his Empire-gray attire if he could. Too bad there was no guarantee Maracavanya’s greed-fueled hospitality extended to a change of clothes and essentials like a personal grooming kit.

With a sigh, Kanan gave his mirrored reflection a critical onceover—one of the many little things he’d never take for granted in his resuscitated life again. On the plus side, other than looking desperately in need of three uninterrupted cycles of sleep, Kanan appeared presentable enough. On the minus side, his hair still resembled extra heavy-duty razor stubble, while his goatee needed at least another week to fully fledge. Kanan shrugged his shoulders. I’ve looked a hell of a lot worse. Among the chaotic criminals aboard the Liberty’s Misrule, he’d fit right in.

Kanan grabbed up a small carry bag, frowning. Don’t forget extra socks like you usually do, Jedi Master. He also reluctantly packed one of his spare, form-fitting boilersuits that the supply sergeant had patronizingly allocated after his release from the medbay. It was ironic the Imperial garments actually flattered his physique in the same way stormtrooper armor enhanced his shoulder to hip ratio. This had irritated Hera to no end whenever Kanan had to don the hated disguise. He recalled being cornered by Hera after a particularly harrowing mission, her emerald eyes glittering at him. “Nobody should look good as a buckethead, Kanan, so just stop it right now.” What Kanan had done instead was kiss her, which not only silenced Hera’s objections, but resulted in an entirely new (and far more pleasurable) method of stripping off his armor.

A sly smile crept up on Kanan’s lips, only to quickly vanish. Hera. He scratched his rough chin hairs pensively, wary of the tangled chain of questions twisting tightly throughout his mind. Where is she right now? Is she safe? Knowing Hera’s relentless devotion to duty, Kanan winced with worry over how much she was neglecting herself to raise the child they’d created out of love during a time of war.

With that thought, Kanan’s stomach shrank into a cold, razor-edged ball. Did Hera even have our baby? All his imaginings of the youngling whose face remained a sweet mystery might be nothing more than his own wishful thinking. Kanan gritted his teeth, eyes closing. If Hera did have the baby, did they both survive the Rebellion?

Kanan slowly paced the limited confines of his quarters. He re-centered himself with deep breaths, knowing this strangulating chain of questions led to a dragging, fear-laden anchor that he’d been actively ignoring. Easy enough to do while getting reacquainted with a few minor things like being not-dead and not-blind on a lost Imperial warship. But now this totally unexpected shortcut to return to Hera’s arms had literally dropped out of the heavens, and Kanan had to deal with the anchor’s soul-crushing bulk or be sunk by it.

Casting his carry bag to the side, Kanan sat on the edge of the bed and connected deeply with the Force for strength and support. He gingerly allowed himself to accept that his personal feelings and desires clouded any attempt to envision with any clarity what choices and sacrifices a desperately needed general of the Rebellion may have been forced to make.

After all, in Hera’s world, Kanan was very much not alive—and over five long years had passed since he went gruesomely fireball in front of her eyes. In the wake of that shattering experience, Hera had been left with the decision to raise a fragile, new life without Kanan’s support of any kind. Can she ever forgive me for leaving her to shoulder so many burdens on her own?

The painful truth was Hera had no inkling of Kanan’s agonizingly fruitless efforts to comfort her when she grieved his death on Lothal. The woman he loved had no idea that a fully-grown Ezra had conjured Kanan’s miraculous rescue from the raging inferno. She had no clue that Kanan now struggled alongside Ezra through each day-by-Thrawn-filled-day to carve out an escape route home.

In stark comparison, only a handful of weeks had passed for Kanan. His love for Hera—for all his Ghost family—still permeated his heart undiluted by the time jump. Whenever Ezra stood beside him as a young man instead of a wiry teenager, it jarringly reminded Kanan that years had marched on without him…yet he somehow found it impossible to picture a radically changed Hera. The image always shifted to her looking up at him with vulnerable eyes, speaking the words he’d so longed to hear on the very night Kanan had to leave her behind.

I know what to say now…I love you.

Kanan bit his lips as he accepted fully that neither the Force nor Dume had kept him alive for Hera and his personal life. But that didn’t stop every cell in his heart from wanting this precious, second chance to reunite with her. It just felt… right …to envision a joyful return to be Hera’s husband and the father of their child. If the war was truly over, Kanan and Hera could finally enjoy the luxuries of peace and time to raise a family—to grow old together among all their loved ones. But is this still what Hera wants?

Kanan bowed his head, revisiting his own over-familiarity with the stages of grief. His chest ached for Hera, feeling the emotional wounds that she must have suffered, and which might not have fully healed despite her tremendous inner strength. Imagining his feet firmly planted inside Hera’s boots, Kanan felt the heavy chain of questions corkscrew around his heart.

Will my return bring Hera new joy, or only reignite old pain? Kanan sucked in a breath to hold back tears. Will Hera still feel anything for me at all? He gripped his head but could not suppress the dark horde of words rattling out of the recesses of his mind. What if Hera doesn’t want or need me around after everything she’s overcome since the explosion? What if someone else is standing in my place by her side?

Now his entire being throbbed like an open wound. Kanan’s mind wanted to veer sharply from the possibility that Hera had completely moved on to a fulfilling life with another partner. This would mean that—once again—Kanan would have to let go the kind and beautiful person who had found him in his darkest hour, the one who recognized the goodness still within him…the one who pushed him lovingly to reconnect with the Force and his own inner soul after he’d stamped both of them out of himself for so long to survive. Only this time, Kanan’s separation from Hera would not be to help save the Rebellion, or to protect a Jedi Temple, or to free a planet. This time, I’d have to let Hera go because she would be happier without me.

Kanan gripped the tops of his thighs to steady his trembling hands. The thought of reuniting with his beloved and meeting his child…only to discover he must accept a far more limited role (or no role at all ) in their lives threatened to swallow his heart whole.

For one dark, unsettling moment, Kanan felt the insidious anchor try to drag the foundation of his fire-cleansed psyche into the bottomless depths. Look at you, puny Caleb Dume, nothing but a pathetic and lost fragment of a dynasty shattered by its own self-absorbed incompetence. You wasted your master’s bloody sacrifice by hiding under rocks and inside bottles…Your only accomplishment of any magnitude in life has been pretending to die.

Kanan’s knees sank to the hard floor as the cruel voice inside him hissed and chuckled. As for your future, do you truly believe you are worthy of fatherhood, that your beautiful Hera wants a mutant who shares his body with a planetary Force guardian? She is a desirable, brilliant woman surrounded by worthy suitors. You are nothing but a monstrous mongrel—you belong nowhere and with no one!

Rigid on the floor, Kanan rasped in air until his lungs burned. His mind distantly registered Dume rippling around the outer edges of his senses as an attentive, yet unobtrusive presence. As usual, looks like how I handle this mundane part of my existence is up to me.

Breath by breath, Kanan strengthened his connection with the Force to help cleanse the layers of emotional sludge from his inner being. He raised his head to focus on one clear word that floated inexorably from his heart to his brain: No.

He would not allow these withered, tainted thought seeds to replant themselves. They were sown by Post-Order 66 Kanan, the hopeless refugee who’d drowned pain and self-pity with alcohol and lascivious acts to guarantee he’d loathe himself even more in the morning. No matter what he might have to face upon his return to Hera, this self-defeating cycle of fears and doubts had no place in New Kanan’s repertoire.

Kanan felt the tight strings of his muscles relax strand by strand. I’m just so drained. He’d already pushed through several layers of exhaustion back on Lothal even before pulling himself hand over hand up the never-ending side of the Dome with Hera latched to his back. Considering all that had followed that tragic night, was it any surprise his darkest thoughts were taking advantage of his still weakened state? It was just like that hideous, simian assassin snatching away Kanan’s lightsaber as if it was candy from a baby.

With a determined roll of his shoulders, Kanan cast aside the treacherous, fear-laden anchor and stood up. If he didn’t refocus on getting off the Chimaera with Ezra, there’d be no reunion of any kind. Maybe Hera had moved on from him permanently—Kanan would just have to face and accept this and do his best to be a worthy father to the child he so hoped existed.

Kanan shouldered the carry bag, clenching his jaw. Should he learn that his loved ones had not survived the war, Kanan knew a part of his heart would never fully function again. But a Jedi could not let himself be consumed by fear of the loss of all he most cherished. Kanan shuddered, recalling the chilling visions from Mace's lightsaber crystal.

I saw too clearly what fear did to Anakin…and then to us all.

For now, it was time for him to focus on making sure Ezra made it safely home.

 

Ahsoka – Atollon

Rex strode down the ramp of a battered G9 Rigger freighter, his beefy form clad in camouflage armor and his white beard floating like a halo around his chin. He spread his arms wide for a hug. “Ladies Tano and Wren, it’s good to see you both.”

Ahsoka hurried forward first to embrace her longtime friend, refusing to calculate how many active years the clone had left in him. After the encounter with the ephemeral Bendu, Rex’s solid bulk was a welcome relief.

“Rex, I’m so glad you could make it.” Ahsoka raised her eyes to the clunky ship behind him and heard a faint echo of Anakin’s command from times long gone. Get aboard and prime the engines. Presuming it has engines!

Overriding the twinge in her heart, Ahsoka released Rex to smile at him. “Although I have to admit your freighter is bringing back memories of the Twilight. I hope this one’s better at not crashing?” she teased.

“Hah!” Rex now enfolded Sabine with an affectionate pat on her back, then stepped back with a reassuring laugh. “You two can rest assured the Gregor here is a completely different Gee-Nine.”

Ahsoka shifted to view the name Gregor painted brightly across the hull on the freighter’s wingless side. Her own smile softened. “Gregor would appreciate how his name lives on.”

“Would he now?” Sabine scrutinized the freighter playfully. “Are you sure this old fossil can get us out to Wild Space?”

Wolffe stomped down the ramp, feigning indignance with a glare from his non-cybernetic eye. “Are you talking about me or the ship, Mandalorian?”

Sabine and Ahsoka both stifled a chuckle while Wolffe jerked his thumb at the ramp. “Rex and I’ve been fiddling with this baby for months to crank her up—better engines, cannons, shields, ‘fresher, you name it.”

The two X-wing pilots joined the group, their faces radiating doubt. “Umbra Leader, are you sure this is a safe idea?” Hyrran Tong folded his arms across his reedy body.

“Yeah, Mon Mothma will have our heads on a platter if you ditch us for—no offense, guys—this junk pile,” Nuada Taluka groused.

Rex raised his bushy eyebrows, gesturing at Ahsoka’s stately cloak and staff. “That’s the point, mates—no one out there will look at the Gregor twice imagining anyone important is aboard.”

The pilots frowned warily. They feel rejected. Ahsoka stepped in before any more ruffled feathers could fly. “With all the skirmishes still taking place in the outer regions, Sabine and I are safer incognito.”

“Yeah,” Sabine agreed as she tilted her head toward the bright red T-6. “That shuttle practically screams, ‘Hello, I’m a New Republic ambassador—shoot me.’”

Not to mention, no leg room. Ahsoka smiled encouragingly at Taluka’s skeptically furrowed brow. “I assure you that Mon Mothma’s in agreement. Reluctant as she may be.”

Taluka sighed. “By your command, Umbra Leader.” She managed a salute and faint smile while Tong followed suit. “We’ll see you back at base.”

“May the Force be with you both,” Ahsoka said with a return salute.

Taluka stomped over to the T-6, calling over to her astromech, who was warily scanning the bleak surroundings from the safety of his socket on Taluka’s X-wing. “You’re flying solo, Arseven!”

With an overly enthusiastic beep, the droid fired up the engines.

Taluka signaled R7 to take it down a notch. “Hey, wait for the rest of us!”

Tong was chasing after his tubby astromech rolling in the distance. “DeeNine, get back here—I said no krykna hunting!”

The droid reluctantly turned around with a distinctly disappointed whistle. Arseven blatted for him to hurry it up already before they all turned into lunch. Ahsoka grinned to herself, thinking of another feisty R2 unit she missed more than she cared to admit.

“C’mon, Mando, time to roll.” Wolffe gruffed at Sabine. “Gonna put you to work.”

Sabine followed him up the ramp with an eager smile. “Yeah, yeah. No free rides. I get it, old man.”

Rex leaned in toward Ahsoka, his voice turning solemn. “I have a coded message for you from Luke Skywalker.” He handed off an encased data disc. “Let me show you where your bunk is so you can read it in private.”

“Thanks, Rex.” Holding the disc, Ahsoka trailed slightly behind as he led her into the G9, her staff thudding softly with her steps.

“Welcome aboard the Gregor, ‘Soka.” Rex waved her into the far more impressive innards of his ship, beaming back at her reaction.

Ahsoka gave Rex a knowing glance. “This is your new home, isn’t it?”

His golden-brown eyes softened a moment, then sparkled. “It was time to trade up. Why stay on Seelos as a landlubber when the entire Galaxy’s in reach?” The old clone gave Ahsoka a playful wink, gesturing her forward. “Besides, I was damn sick of joopa.”

Ahsoka followed Rex toward the crew quarters, her smile fading step by step. The freighter’s utilitarian layout felt both hauntingly familiar and jarringly different from Anakin’sTwilight. It reminded her of her first-time meeting with Luke after all those years of knowing his infamous father. Ahsoka clutched the data disc more tightly. It appears a Skywalker travels with me after all.

 

Ezra – Chimaera

After giving the descending purrgil his reluctant goodbyes (and twice as many warnings to stay hidden), Ezra’s departure from the hanger bay had jolted into a breakneck race to the bridge the instant Kanan’s intense alarm jolted his senses. The last thing he’d expected was a surreal encounter with the flashily fearsome Captain Maracavanya—and the chance to return home in a way he’d never even dreamed possible. No wonder I keep expecting PZ to poke me awake to wipe sleep from my eyes.

Instead, the droid was extending a caf container to a grateful Kanan. Ezra’s not-master slouched in the single chair in Ezra’s quarters with an almost empty looking carry bag at his booted feet.

That sight prodded Ezra back to his task of shoving some extra clothes and basic toiletries into his own simple bag. “Look, I know it’s against all odds we wound up in an asteroid field swarming with crazy pirates,” he admitted. “But there’s just no way the mother purposely led us to danger.”

PZ stepped to Ezra to present him with her second caf container. “Master Ezra, the information I collected during the purrgils’ release indicates this entire asteroid field is rich with valuable ores and gases.” Her visor tilted at Ezra as he nodded thanks for the cup. “It is highly possible the pirates have been exploring this region for some time to claim its resources for their own.”

Kanan sat straighter and shifted to the edge of his seat. “Maybe. But I feel there’s a lot more to it than that.” He frowned. “So does Dume.”

A tremor of unease rippled through Ezra while Kanan took a sip of caf. “Like what?”

Kanan sighed in exasperation. “I wish I knew. What I do know is Thrawn wants to keep us here as shields for his game of hide and seek with the New Republic.”

“Why can’t he use the Nihilum wreckage to barter if he gets caught?” Ezra puzzled.

Kanan shook his head slowly. “I’m betting Thrawn wants that alien tech as a juicy bargaining chip to rejoin any Imperial bigwigs who aren’t thrilled to see him again.” Kanan’s teal eyes shifted to Ezra. “Or to impress the Chiss, like you said.” He rubbed his forehead and blew out a puff of air. “Whatever Thrawn’s plans are, he’s got everything locked so deep inside that mind maze of his, trying to pull anything out just gives me a headache.”

Ezra was way too familiar with brain bruising attempts to read the grand admiral. For now, one thought hammered through his own boggled mind. If Thrawn has something up his blindingly white sleeve, we need a trump card of our own. Ezra paced, his caf almost forgotten. “Okay, let’s assume Thrawn will try to block our transfer to the pirates somehow. At least one of us has to get off this ship and make it back to report what’s going on out here.”

Kanan rubbed his goatee, his eyes half-lidded. “I can make sure you get out in the escape pod.” An enigmatic smile twisted his lips. “I’m not Thrawn’s favorite Jedi, but he’ll make do with me in a pinch.”

Ezra grimaced at a sudden vision of Kanan and Thrawn clawing at each other’s throats like angry fyrnocks without him around as a buffer. PZ-5 tilted her visor at Ezra, now with concern. “Perhaps I can provide a suitable distraction for you both, Master Ezra?”

Ezra abruptly halted, staring at the droid. A plan emerged from his mind like a chick cracking through its shell. He swiveled and rummaged through the depths of a storage drawer. “No, PeeZee. With all the intel you’ve got recorded—especially on that Nihilum—you’re the one who has to escape no matter what happens to either of us.”

“Me, sir?” PZ-5’s blank face somehow looked agog.

Now Kanan frowned darkly. “You’re both going. End of discussion.” Just like his old days as Spectre One on the Ghost, Kanan waved his hand sharply to seal the deal.

Ezra shot his not-master a defiant look. “But, what about the pirates, Kanan? They’re expecting two of us. They’ll scan that pod and if there’s only one life sign—”

A loud rap on the door caused them all to startle. “Open up!” ordered the filtered voice of a stormtrooper.

Is that Bek? 

Kanan rose to his feet, thrusting his carry bag strap over his shoulder. Ezra rapidly shoved the last items from his drawer into his own bag. Thank you, Sabine—and your crafty ways of keeping track of me.

Ezra padded tensely to the door controls and the metal barrier slid aside to reveal two stiffly planted stormtroopers armed with E-11 blasters. The trooper closest to the doorway wore the orange pauldron of a unit leader with the Chimaera’s insignia emblazoned on its center.

“By the direct orders of Grand Admiral Thrawn, we are to escort you to the prisoner transfer location immediately.” The unit leader gestured imperiously for Ezra and Kanan to exit.

Ezra felt a sarcastic smile spread across his face at the trooper's grating Force signature.There is definitely an obnoxious red head under that bucket.  “What happened to our designation as military guests, Bek?”

The muzzle of Bek’s E-11 hovered near Ezra. “If it was up to me, you’d have been executed on Day One, prisoner.”

Ezra blinked. Huh. He’d spit in my face if he wasn’t wearing a helmet. “Hey, you don’t have to—”

Bek jabbed an armored finger of condemnation into Ezra’s chest. “Shut up, Bridger! You caused thousands of deaths on this ship. Too many fools aboard have short memories, but I don’t.” Bek’s other hand tightened on his weapon while he hissed, “For all I know, my brother on Coruscant is dead thanks to you and your rebel scum.”

Well, that last part explains a lot. Ezra shared a disconcerted glance with Kanan, then turned back to Bek at a loss on how to respond. He’d never be sorry that the Rebellion had actually won—that a New Republic now stood victorious after all the horrors the Empire inflicted on the Galaxy. And yet…

Ezra sighed and said softly, “Look, my own parents—”

“Zip your mouth and move.” This command came from the other trooper, who regarded both Ezra and Kanan with an angry tilt of his helmet. “Be warned we have the authority to shoot if you attempt any suspicious activity.”

Kanan eyed the troopers as if they had grown grub worms for brains. “And why would we do that, exactly? We want to leave this tub, remember?”

“Then start walking, prisoner,” the trooper growled, his finger tight on the rifle trigger.

That’s Syphex. Ezra realized Thrawn had sent two of the troopers who despised him the most. What a sweet send off. Only McConnel from the illustrious leaders of the “We Hate Bridger Club” was missing.

Ezra folded his arms instead. “You don’t sound happy enough about kicking me off the ship, Syphex. Disappointed your girlfriend’s missing out on the goodbye party?”

Just as Syphex’s E-11 lined up with Bek’s leveled weapon, the sound of rapidly approaching bootsteps and heavier machinery disrupted the tender moment.

Lieutenant Braruz rounded the corner with a glowering expression. She was armed with a stinger pistol holstered to her belt—and flanked by three of Thrawn’s towering Imperial sentry droids. Each sentry’s gun arm raised into a warning position while its gripping hand thrust forward an unpleasantly familiar, metallic club. Electrostaffs.

Ezra looked askance at Kanan, who murmured into his ear. “This is where the fun begins.”

The Devaronian halted a few steps away and held up a hand. She looks exhausted—and waaay too edgy.

At her signal, the sentry droids locked their menacing red eyes on the stormtroopers. They reluctantly slid their E-11 muzzles away from Ezra.

Braruz’s purple eyes raked across the group. “Everyone will proceed to the turbolifts. The Chimaera has almost reached the rendezvous point.”

Bek and Syphex shifted in frustrated confusion before the hulking droids.

“We were assigned this mission by the grand admiral himself, Lieutenant Braruz,” Bek challenged.

Braruz regarded Bek sharply. “And now the grand admiral has assigned these three units as an extra precaution in the event the pirates attempt an attack.” She stepped closer to the stormtroopers. “If you value your lives as much as Grand Admiral Thrawn values our military guests, then follow orders, trooper, and lead the way.”

Bek saluted sullenly. “Understood, sir.” The blank eyes of his helmet bored into Ezra and Kanan one last time before he and Syphex marched woodenly in the direction of the turbolifts.

As Ezra and Kanan followed, PZ-5 emerged dutifully from Ezra’s quarters to keep up. Oops, I almost forgot she was there. Eyes narrowing, Braruz held up a restraining hand.

“The Imperial droid stays put.”

Everyone, including the stormtroopers, halted in the corridor. Ezra shot a glance at Kanan while PZ-5 bowed submissively before Braruz in a posture Ezra had never seen her take.

“I merely wish to ensure that Master Ezra departs the Chimaera safely, Lieutenant Braruz. He saved me from the disintegrator, after all.”

Ezra turned his most beseeching gaze upon the Devaronian. “Please?”

Her jaw clenched at the sight of Ezra’s wide, pleading eyes, then she rolled her own with a heavy sigh. “Fine. But you will make yourself useful by walking between the Jedi, PeeZee Five,” Braruz ordered. “Now everyone move—quickly.”

The droid obeyed immediately, forcing Ezra and Kanan apart before the Jedi restarted their walk. Kanan graced Braruz with his deepest glower, then tipped a covert wink at Ezra and PZ as they moved forward. Nice save.

Despite the victory, Ezra felt prickles run up and down his spine while the footfalls of Braruz and the sentries thudded into place behind him. He and Kanan moved down the eerily empty corridors, sandwiched between two stormtroopers longing to detonate their escape pod with glee, and a trio of soulless droids programmed to snap them in half at a moment’s notice. Thrawn’s farewell arrangements are looking more and more ‘preemptive’ by the minute.

At the turbolifts, the tense group was forced to split in two: Ezra, Syphex and two sentries entered one lift, while Kanan, Braruz, Bek and the third security droid stuffed themselves inside another. The drop in Ezra’s stomach was brief: they stopped on the nearest officers’ level of available escape pods. The two groups exited their lifts to start down an equally deserted corridor.

“Why aren’t we using the escape pod rooms near the main hanger?” Ezra asked Braruz. “Launching here puts us on the far side of the Chimaera.”

The lieutenant looked at Ezra as if he had the wits of a nerf mite. “Exactly, Commander. The longer it takes the pirates to lock onto your pod with their tractor beam, the more time it provides the Chimaera to jump away.”

Ezra nodded. It made sense—but it did nothing to stop the alarm bells ringing in his gut. The group walked along the row of escape pod hatches and Ezra noted the control pads on every single unit were dark. Locked and deactivated.

He and Kanan shared yet another glance over PZ’s bobbing head, and Ezra clearly sensed his not-master’s troubled thoughts. Something is very wrong—and not just here. Ezra found his hand hovering over his pike hilt.

Reaching the last escape pod hatch in the row, Bek swiveled about. “Halt.” As the group shuffled to a stop, his armored hand gestured at the hatch’s brightly lit control pad. “Grand Admiral Thrawn commands the pris—military guests—to launch with this unit.”

Lieutenant Braruz moved closer to the pod. The trio of sentry droids planted themselves strategically to create a formidable barrier against any retreat up or down the corridor.

The Devaronian held out a hand that trembled ever so slightly. “You will turn over the grand admiral’s weapons before departure, Commander Bridger and Master Jarrus.”

Ezra feigned surprise although he’d expected nothing less. “What?” In his peripheral vision, PZ-5 moved back just enough for Kanan to slide into a defensive stance at Ezra’s side.

Now tiny beads of perspiration dotted Braruz’s nubbed forehead under the pert officer’s cap. “Your lightsabers are the personal property of the grand admiral. They cannot be allowed to be confiscated by pirates and resold on the black market.”

Ezra’s gaze flitted to Kanan, whose brow furrowed deeply with his projected thought. She wants us to resist. It’s part of Thrawn’s plan. Ezra’s brain scrambled madly, trying to decipher what possible purpose this could serve Thrawn and came up empty. What I do know is my pike’s not going anywhere without me attached to it.

“Thrawn sure has a lousy way of saying goodbye.” Ezra eyed Braruz and her outstretched hand with a forced grin. “Frankly, you could do a little better yourself.”

Tension lines etched across Braruz’s face. “Hand me the lightsabers, Jedi, or you will be stunned and relieved of the weapons before your placement in the pod. You have five seconds to comply.”

Purple energy sizzled as the sentry droids powered on their electrostaffs in unison. Six pairs of watchful red eyes glowered while Braruz’s other hand signaled sharply to Bek and Syphex. “Stormtroopers, on my mark.”

“Yes, sir.” They both nodded, eagerly raising the muzzles of their E-11’s.

Braruz flicked her gaze between Ezra and Kanan, who stood like statues. “Five…”

Time suddenly stretched into surrealistic slow motion in Ezra’s mind. He sensed PZ-5 edge sideways behind him in the direction of the closest deactivated escape hatch.

“Four…”

The sentry droids’ massive gun arms lifted into firing position—and Ezra noticed a crucial detail that the smugly distracted Bek and Syphex did not. They’re the sentries’ targets, not us!

“Three…”

Ezra’s mind flashed with a vision: The stunned forms of Bek and Syphex ejected in the pod by Braruz—while the sentries engulfed the betrayed Jedi within a maelstrom of stunning bolts and spinning electrostaffs to hold them at bay.

“Two…”

Something terrible is here! Ezra’s heart abruptly clogged up his throat as his eyes locked with Kanan’s in mutual alarm.

“One—"

“Abort!” Thrawn’s strident command emitted from Braruz’s wrist comlink, startling everyone. “Abort the transfer—”

INCOMING! ” Ezra and Kanan cried out in unison. Kanan launched himself into the goggling stormtroopers to crack their helmets together forcefully just as Ezra dove forward and tucked Braruz protectively into his roll.

An eyeblink later, the Chimaera bucked sideways and tossed PZ-5 and the heavy sentry droids like ragdolls.

 

Thrawn – Chimaera

Thrawn lay prone on the command walkway, dangerously close to the edge where he’d been hurled by the impact of enemy fire. Thrawn lifted his bruised head, suppressing an instinctive urge to cover his ears against the merciless wail of klaxons. Instead, Thrawn struggled up on his hands and knees, forcing his mind to feverishly backtrack and convert the past few seconds of utter chaos into a logical plan of action.

It all began with an ominous horde of sleek, android forms dropping abruptly out of hyperspace at attack speed without even triggering a warning from the proximity alarms. The Nihilum.

The vast multitude of bioluminescent, metallic vessels had instantly swarmed the Liberty’s Misrule and her flotilla of pirate ships in savage, tight circles. Almost immediately, the overwhelmed Dreadnought had unleashed a preemptive barrage from an arsenal of weapons already primed to decimate the Chimaera. Over five thousand cannons spewed a hellish storm of concussion missiles, turbolaser and ionic blasts.

The streamlined Nihilum merely spun through the onslaught with effortless grace and emerged unscathed, keeping their weaponized appendages retracted as if assessing whether or not the enemy was worthy of their firepower.

Meanwhile, the pirates’ fusillade of missiles had careened wildly in futile pursuit of their evasive targets—only to strike with explosive fury against the Chimaera ’s defensive shields.

As his ship finally stabilized, Thrawn grasped his dropped comlink and regained an upright position on the walkway. Around the grand admiral, the battered captain, officers and crew struggled back to their posts. The safety of his entire ship demanded Thrawn’s priority, but that most certainly included not losing the Jedi.

“Confirm transfer averted, Lieutenant Braruz,“ Thrawn hissed intently into the comlink. Silence greeted him. Thrawn’s jaw clenched. “Lieutenant, immediate status report.”

Instead, he heard Lieutenant Korwin call urgently across from the comm station. “We’re being hailed by the Liberty’s Misrule, sir!”

Thrawn flicked his gaze out the viewport to assess the Dreadnought. It hung in space like an enormous, metallic hive clouded by the angry, luminescent wasps of the Nihilum.

“Silence the alarms and proceed,” Thrawn ordered. The klaxons' wailing abruptly ceased.

The holo transmission tinged the bridge with it bluish glow, and a livid Maracavanya loomed toward Thrawn’s face with zher teeth bared, shaking one fist furiously. It did nothing to distract Thrawn from the genuine fear lurking in the captain’s narrowed eyes.

“You Impy scum, a liar like all the bellycrawlers!” Maracavanya growled. “You won’t be taking my ship back—you’ll be finding your demon Sith trap snapping around your kriffin’ blue neck!” Behind the pirate ruler, Vinthar hovered like a gloating shadow.

Thrawn crossed his arms over his chest, bestowing his most patronizing glare upon Maracavanya and her Sarkan minion. “You fools—you could not be more wrong. This is the hostile force I repeatedly warned you—”

“I am seeing no hostility to your own damn ship, Admiral,” Maracavanya hissed. “Oh, but we’ll be harming you a plenty.” The pirate ruler’s lips spread into a malicious smile. “The next strike you’re feeling is gonna be no accident.” Zhe swiped at the air with gold-tipped fingers and the holo transmission cut out.

Thrawn pressed his mouth into a thin line. He saw no point in wasting further time on these severely misguided pirates, all of whom would be dead the moment the Nihilum decided to make it so.

“All stations, report your status.” Thrawn swiveled to receive rapid-fire responses from the bridge crew—and found every face stiffened into a mask of borderline panic and paralysis. Thrawn followed their gaze to the sight outside the Chimaera’s viewport. Just beyond the transparisteel, the Nihilum now whipped past like deadly razor eels barely contained by the fragile glass of a fish tank.

Thrawn’s own heart wanted to petrify between beats as he beheld pair after pair of glowing eyes staring back with relentless menace. The clone deserter’s holovid did not do our extragalactic enemy justice. Thrawn didn’t realize he was biting his lip until he tasted blood.

Enough. “Report!” Thrawn barked, snapping stiff spines and sense back into both himself and his cowering crew. Everyone scrambled to scan sensor and console readouts for damage assessment.

“Deflector shields at twenty-two percent and holding, Admiral.” Captain Makeri wiped away a thread of blood from her wide forehead and resettled her cap more firmly. “Multiple decks reporting minor injuries to personnel as a result of missile impacts along port-side shields, but no external damage or breaches evident, sir. Detailed assessment is in progress while all primary systems remain online.”

Thrawn nodded crisply, his crimson eyes narrowed. “What is the status of the Jedi’s escape pod?”

She tapped away at her datapad, hands shaking slightly. “The designated pod has not ejected, sir.”

With a curt nod, Thrawn planted his hands behind his back. “Route all non-essential power to shields and engines for immediate departure.”

Makeri huffed a relieved breath. “Repositioning for the jump to the nebula per your prior command. Counting down one minute and fifty-eight seconds to fully clear the asteroid field, sir.”

Every second within the Nihilum’s presence is one too many. Thrawn opened his mouth to demand expedited action, but a flurry of movement outside the viewport caught his eye.

A vibrant flood of incongruously painted TIE’s and mongrel fighter ships now spewed from the Dreadnought’s hanger. This massive attack squadron was joined by ragtag freighters and a sordid conglomeration of battle-modified fighters from the flotilla. The huge wave of pirate marauders surged directly toward the Chimaera.

Makeri’s face paled. Thrawn suspected his normally blue skin looked similarly colorless.

“I…don’t like the look of that at all, sir. Shall we scramble fighters to engage the adversaries?”

Outside the viewport, the Nihilum abruptly banked away in a unified swarm to boldly meet the incoming pirates head on in battle.

Thrawn felt himself breathe again. “No, Captain. With our defenses severely weakened, we must focus on escape while the pirates and the Nihilum keep themselves occupied.”

“Aye, Admiral.”

Cold, black space lit up as the Liberty’s Misrule added its own deadly array of laser fire to the ceaseless spray blasting from the colorful TIE’s and motley array of pirate fighters.

This time, the ruthless assault sparked a different reaction from the Nihilum. The android vessels kept their weapons retracted, but now the decorative bioluminescence embedded within the Nihilum’s metallic plating increased in intensity. The glowing light rapidly encased each sleek form within an energetic, protective cocoon that deflected the catastrophic barrage as the opposing sides converged.

Now the Nihilum spun and collided constantly with the spirals of pirate fighters to turn each ship into a miniature, exploding star. Throughout the onslaught, the Nihilum’s energy shielding continued to somehow deflect or absorb the tenacious attack by the squadrons of TIE’s and dogged fighters. Without firing a single shot, the Nihilum effortlessly sabotaged all attempts by the pirates to come within striking distance of the Chimaera.

Makeri’s eyebrows rose in disconcerted awe. “I-I don’t understand, sir. Why are the invaders protecting us?”

Thrawn already knew the answer to her quandary. The Nihilum in our hanger bay. “It is not for our sake, Captain. They’ve been analyzing the full capabilities of the Dreadnought while assessing the risk of damage to our special cargo if they engage our ship in a full assault.”

Makeri’s dark eyes widened with fearful understanding as the Nihilum circled back ever closer to the Chimaera. “There must be a tracking beacon on the wreckage we salvaged. They want their…vessel back.”

“Very much so, Captain.” Thrawn felt a stab of covetous yearning of his own as he witnessed the Nihilum’s otherworldly glimmer, and unstoppable, fluid grace. With such highly advanced technology at my disposal, I could develop a fleet capable of far more than bringing the Grysks or this New Republic to their knees.

Makeri disrupted Thrawn’s reverie with a tense report. “Sir, Pod Four-Three-One just activated via override and ejected.” With another glance at her datapad, her tight jaw relaxed slightly. “Scans are indicating no life forms aboard.”

Thrawn gritted his teeth, very much suspecting a certain protocol droid lurked inside the errant pod. I will deal with that provided we survive the present circumstances. “Maximize speed to the jump coordinates, Captain.”

Outside the viewport, the remaining TIE’s and ragtag pirate fighters limped back to the comforting hulk of the Liberty’s Misrule. As every remaining gun port and cannon turret along the Dreadnought’s hull joined those already locked on the Chimaera, the swooping horde of Nihilum abruptly spread their appendages wide.

With mind-boggling speed, the hand-like grips on the end of each extremity linked up, creating row after row of interconnected Nihilum to form a massive, semi-circular array. It faced the Dreadnought, an ominous barrier between the pirate flotilla and the Chimaera. A microsecond too late, the Liberty’s Misrule let loose a heart-stopping assault of missiles, ionic blasts and turbolaser fire. The hailstorm of relentless, destructive energy pelted directly at the Chimaera—only to be quenched within the vast, glowing shield of Nihilum.

Astounding. Thrawn’s crimson eyes felt riveted to the vast semi-circle of Nihilum that resembled…the parabolic dish of an antenna. Even as the thought formed in his mind, the cocoon shields surrounding each Nihilum ejected an intense ray of energy toward the Dreadnought.

Thrawn's voice cracked like a whip to jolt his gawping bridge crew. “Expedite hyperspace jump immediately!”

The crew snapped back to their consoles urgently. Makeri nodded crisply. “Executing jump in ten seconds, sir.”

Outside, the rippling multitude of energy beams converged into a single, dazzling point with a sun-like radiance that was impossible to look upon without pain. A millisecond later, the vibrant point discharged an equally blinding blast directly into the Dreadnought.

“S-seven seconds.” Captain Makeri stuttered while a flurry of soft gasps susurrated around the bridge.

Like an electrical storm of purple-red lightning, the blast completely enveloped and penetrated the Liberty’s Misrule. The mighty Dreadnought immediately floundered. For one brief moment, the ship glowed with a beautiful, terrible incandescence, then its engines and lights turned deathly dark and cold. Thrawn felt chilled to the marrow of his bones. This is how the Nihilum obliterated all of the planetary civilizations.

“Five…” Makeri rasped.

The Dreadnought continued its helpless list sideways even as the vivid TIE’s and the remaining flotilla scrambled madly to turn tail.

Along the linked Nihilum, a portion of weaponized appendages unclasped their grips to fire countless bolts of purple-red energy beams at the fleeing craft. Speared by the Nihilum’s flawlessly accurate attack, every single TIE, fighter, and ship in the flotilla—except for one small freighter—lit up like flares before fading darkly.

“Three…”

The lone freighter at the farthest edge of the battle vanished into hyperspace just as deadly fire raked through its location. It left behind a silent graveyard of pirate vessels spinning darkly alongside the colossal husk of the Dreadnought.

“Two…” the captain whispered.

Outside the viewport, the Nihilum spun to face the Chimaera in perfect unison. For a split second, Thrawn’s insides congealed as he looked out at the endless sea of malevolent, luminous eyes. Then he thrust his shoulders back, raising his chin to its most defiant level.

“Engage!” Thrawn commanded.

The Chimaera surged away from the oncoming horde. Beyond the transparisteel, the stars stretched around the ship in a merciful embrace, cradling Thrawn and all aboard within the temporary haven of hyperspace.

 

Ahsoka – Gelidiu / Anoat Sector

“I’m trying to decide if this place is colder or uglier than Hoth,” groused Rex as he piloted the Gregor cautiously through steep, icy mountains dusted with windblown snow.

“I say it’s more than a little of both,” decided Wolffe from his post at the engineering station. “Too bad we have to land on it.”

Ahsoka stifled a smile, swinging toward Rex from her co-pilot seat. “Relax, boys, we won’t be on Gelidiu for long. It’s just a scouting mission, remember?”

The two clones shared a knowing glance. “That’s what they always say,” Rex teased, turning his sideways grin on Ahsoka.

She stuck a mock-chiding finger in his face. “Pay attention, Captain. We’re almost at the coordinates.”

“Yeah, so where’s this so-called Observatory?” Rex peered into the haze of snowflakes pelting the transparisteel viewport. “All I see are cliffs I don’t want to smash into.”

Sabine stood behind Ahsoka and Rex, peering through the targeting scope for the dual blaster cannon on the top hull. “Wait a minute, I think there’s a staircase cut into the side of that mountain.” She gestured excitedly at something only she could see.

Wolffe stepped over and Sabine moved aside. He stared into the targeting scope for a moment, then muttered, “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

Ahsoka reached out with the Force and felt the confirmation just before her eyes picked out the unnatural cuts in the rock. It is a staircase. “That’s it, Rex, take us in closer.” She leaned forward, extending her senses in search of any indications of danger or otherwise. She frowned, feeling as if the energies surrounding the area were trapped inside a frozen river.

“Where the hell did the Emperor land his shuttle? There’s no pad or hanger doors,” Rex vented in frustration.

“Just land as safely as you can somewhere near the steps, Rex. I’m sure the main entrance is camouflaged to discourage unauthorized access.”

Wolffe snorted. “In other words, us.”

Sabine moved close behind Ahsoka’s seat, pointing. “There’s a flat enough spot for your bird over there, Rex, about fifty meters from the steps.”

“You call that flat?” But Rex adjusted the Gregor’s descent and speed gingerly. “Hang on, it’s going to be a little rough.”

The elder clone swung the ungainly G9 around and banked sideways to match the angle of the mountainside. Wolffe stepped up behind Rex, scanning the precarious landing spot with his cybernetic eye.

“If we could clear out that bank of snow, we’d have a lot more space to settle in.” Wolffe’s finger pointed out a thick drift that formed an L shape at the farther side of the clearing.

Sabine dashed back to the periscope with her almond eyes alight. “I’ll do the honors.”

Rex laughed over at Ahsoka. “That’s her favorite part of the ship, in case you haven’t noticed.”

Ahsoka dipped her montrals and sighed in surrender. “Just don’t blow up the staircase, Sabine.”

Sabine was already aligning the targeting scope with meticulous precision. “Excuse me? I’m a professional.”

The G9 vibrated slightly as the blaster cannon on top cranked into position. The tip of Sabine’s tongue poked from the corner of her mouth, then her fingers gently pressed the trigger.

Laser fire seared through the frosty air, slicing away at the snow bank. Huge chunks broke loose to slide over the mountainside like a frozen tidal wave to spray against the jutting rocks below. The treacherous staircase remained unscathed.

“Looking good, Sabine. That’ll do it.” Rex eased the Gregor into the widened landing area. Rising steam from the decimated snow bank transformed into whirls of snowflakes while the freighter tucked its repulsion reflector plates and ventral cannon sideways to land at a disconcerting angle.

Wolffe slapped Sabine on the back approvingly. “Not bad, Mando. Wish we’d had you along on some of our skirmishes in the Clone Wars.”

Sabine’s cheeks blushed at the praise. “You’d have been changing my diapers, old man,” she smirked back fondly.

Ahsoka moved to the front ramp, wrapping her hood and cloak around herself as tightly as possible. Freezing air still whipped through her layers as the ramp opened with a hiss. I won’t subject the clones to unnecessary physical distress. She called toward the cockpit, “Rex! I want you and Wolffe to keep the engines warm and ready to jump us out of here.”

“What are you gronking on about?” Rex immediately objected as he walked toward Ahsoka. “There’s probably all kinds of Impy booby traps in there. You need us.”

Sabine hurried forward, wearing thick gloves and wrapped in a thick, borrowed cloak that hung heavily on her shoulders. “We’ll get the main doors open first so you can fly right in.”

Rex and Wolffe exchanged a very dissatisfied look. “You’re not fooling us a bit,” grumbled Wolffe.

“You know I’m right,” countered Ahsoka, raising an eyebrow. “Don’t make me pull rank on you.”

Rex crossed his thick arms, eyes narrowed. “If we don’t hear an update every five minutes, we’re coming in after you, rank or no rank, Umbra Leader.”

Ahsoka laid a hand on his armored wrist. “Understood, my friend.” With a nod at Sabine, she hurried down the snow-riddled ramp using her staff as a stabilizer.

With a final wave at the clones, Ahsoka and Sabine set out toward the carved staircase, avoiding the iciest patches and deeper snow mounds. Ahsoka was grateful the exertion warmed her blood. Cold is certainly not my element.

When they reached the steps, both women looked up the curving array of stone cut into the mountain’s side. Ahsoka checked the coordinates on her wrist comm. “Looks like we have about five stories to climb.”

Sabine peered down the sheer face of the cliff. Only a ragged edge of rock lay between the steps and a very unpleasant fall. “Let’s move it before it gets dark. This wind only seems to be getting worse.”

Indeed, the wind seemed to be exceedingly unhappy about their intrusion on its terrain and did its best to push and pull against their progress. Icy rock along the cliff face provided the only handholds. Ahsoka channeled the Force to keep her fingers from going numb. She reported their progress to the clones as, little by little, she and Sabine spiraled up toward the Observatory. Thinking of what might lay ahead, Ahsoka’s mind sifted through Luke’s encrypted message yet again.

Greetings, Ahsoka,

It is my hope this message finds you well on your journey to the Outer Reaches. Please know I would not trouble you with this additional quest if it were not important. As you are well aware, my investigations into the activities of the late Emperor have led me to a number of secret facilities he deemed Observatories. I look forward to your return so we can discuss the most recent artifacts and information I’ve uncovered concerning his Dark agenda.

For now, I must ask you to detour to the planet Gelidiu in the Anoat Sector. It has come to my attention Palpatine established an especially crucial Observatory in this location, and your current journey brings you within reach far more quickly than I can venture there myself. The attached files provide the Observatory coordinates and what little data exists.

I stress to you that this is a scouting mission only to confirm the Gelidiu Observatory’s existence. If you uncover any pertinent information contained within the structure, please relay it as expediently as possible—but do not endanger your quest for Ezra Bridger. The lost Jedi’s safe return is of utmost concern to us all.

May the Force be with you, dear friend.

Luke

“Ahsoka, I think we’re almost at the top!” Sabine’s voice cut through the howling wind that tore at their cloaks. Ahsoka looked up and found Sabine a few steps ahead pointing at a crevice that penetrated deeply into the mountainside. It was reinforced with Imperial durasteel lattice girders. “There’s a set of stairs leading down this way, too!”

Ahsoka stopped a couple of steps below Sabine and leaned on her staff. She sensed outward with the Force only to encounter that same feeling of hushed, trapped energies again. They pulsed most strongly somewhere beyond the entrance to the deep crevice. Ahsoka tipped her staff toward the shadowed stairway. “This way.”

Sabine let out a huff of exasperation. “Of course. It’s always the least inviting path, isn’t it?”

Feeling her cold lips curve into a smile, Ahsoka nodded. “I prefer to consider it the most interesting one.”

“You would.” Sabine’s thin eyebrows furrowed as Ahsoka took the lead. “It looks like it gets dark fast down there.” She flicked on her wrist torch. “Better watch your step.”

Ahsoka pulled her primary lightsaber hilt off her belt and ignited its bright white blade. “I intend to.”

A series of recessed lights lined their passage, but all remained dark and cold. With each turn of the descending stairwell, Ahsoka could sense through her montrals’ subtle echolocation that no major obstructions lay immediately ahead. Sabine followed a few steps behind Ahsoka, frequently turning to sweep her torchlight behind her and ensure the way back remained clear as well.

It was a relief to be out of the angry wind, but the upwelling sensation of being buried alive was a rather unwelcome replacement. A few steps further and Ahsoka felt a faint vibration of the Force from her staff, almost as if it was a tuning fork. Odd. She stopped and raised her wrist comm to her lips. “Rex, can you read me? Over.”

After a moment of silence, a static-laced reply came through. “I read you, Umbra Leader, but getting a lot of interference on the transmission. Where are you? Over.”

“We’ve found a potential entrance to the Observatory that tunnels through the mountain. You’re likely to lose our signal the further in we go. Over.”

“Copy that. We’ll give you fifteen minutes to report again. You don’t, we’re coming for you. That is all.” Even through the static, Rex’s voice rang with finality.

Ahsoka smiled to herself. He’ll never stop seeing me as little ‘Soka . “Understood—but you’ll find the door wide open for you by then.”

“My knees are counting on that.” Rex’s gruff laugh stuttered through static before Ahsoka cut the signal off.

Just when her own knees were getting a bit cranky, the steps finally ended. Ahsoka and Sabine warily entered an alcove large enough to house a circular blast door with an unusual locking mechanism at its center.

Sabine inspected the strange door, running her gloved hands along the spiral of arcane symbols interwoven along its surface and the lock. “There’s no keypad or keycard reader.”

The faint vibration within Ahsoka’s staff had continued to intensify during their descent. Curious, she tipped the circle on its tip toward the blast door—and felt the vibration strengthen.

“I believe only a Force user can open it.” Ahsoka stretched out her hand, concentrating on the ornate, central lock. It reeks of the Dark. Exploring the twists and turns of its complex innards with the Force, Ahsoka slowly rotated the heavy pin tumblers one by one. Metal rasped and scraped as thick bolts retracted, releasing the circular door to roll aside into a thick groove within the surrounding stone wall.

Stale air wafted from the ominous darkness beyond. “This just gets better and better,” Sabine muttered, stepping over the threshold with her torchlight held forward. Her other hand hovered near her blaster.

Ahsoka followed and now the staff practically quivered within her grasp. And…was that a high-pitched ringing—or singing—she heard? It must be in my mind. While Sabine moved several steps ahead, clearly oblivious to the sound, Ahsoka paused to consider the staff intently. For a moment, she saw herself within the Library alcove on the ancient space station orbiting the black hole, standing before an elegant trio of incredibly tall, thin figures carved into a giant, blue crystal.

Through the Force, Ahsoka felt a sudden certainty about something she’d only suspected until now: Embedded within the entire core of her staff was a long shard of crystal cut from that same frieze. And now it’s singing to me.

“Ahsoka, I think I found a power breaker,” Sabine called out from several yards away, somewhere behind a thick column. “I’m going to reset and see what happens.”

Ahsoka tugged her thoughts back to the mission, tucking away her own discovery for later contemplation. She carefully navigated her way across scattered debris and fallen crates. “Need some help?”

She heard the click of flipped switches, then Sabine grunted with effort as something metallic grated and locked into position. “I got it.” A dull hum resonated around them...and a bank of lights gradually powered on to emit an unstable glow. “Looks like it’s defaulted to a backup battery.” Sabine turned from the console and shrugged at Ahsoka. “Not sure how long we’ve got juice.”

Ahsoka could now see they were inside an Imperial maintenance area. It would have been utterly typical, except everywhere she looked her eyes found partially broken and shattered control panels and equipment. It seemed whoever had manned this facility had been forced to evacuate before they could sabotage it against their enemies properly.

But oddest of all was the juxtaposition of this utilitarian installation nestled inside a chamber apparently carved from the rock countless millennia ago. Alien symbols and glyphs swirled in graceful spirals throughout the stone walls and floor in patterns similar to the circular blast door they’d used to enter.

Curious, Sabine knelt to examine an arcane spiral at her feet. “These glyphs look ancient. But familiar somehow…”

Ahsoka deactivated her lightsaber, hanging it on her belt. “Luke will be very interested in all of this. Clearly, the Emperor simply confiscated this facility and repurposed it for his own use.”

Sabine’s mouth twisted. “Yeah. Kind of like he did with everything.” She took out her small holoscanner to record a number of the designs on the floor and nearest wall.

Walking further inward, Ahsoka noted the main Observatory must lie beyond the next circular blast door along the far wall. “See if you can locate any controls or entrance to a shuttle hanger, Sabine. I’ll concentrate of getting us through to the main operations.”

“Will do.” Sabine froze as something small skittered in one of the gloomy corners. “Ehhh, we better be careful—who knows what kind of critters have decided to make this their cozy home.”

Winding through a maze of toppled supply crates, Ahsoka reached the second blast door. Here again were the series of cryptic symbols spiraling outward from its central lock. Like Sabine had said, something about the interweaving images felt vaguely familiar, almost like words from a language that had become rusty with disuse.

This time, Ahsoka lay her hand on the lock, feeling the Force vibrate through the symbols while the pin tumblers rotated. The blast door rasped open to roll heavily into its deep wall groove, revealing an enormous, faintly lit chamber beyond. Chill air briefly fanned Ahsoka’s face and cloak. In her hand, the staff almost tingled and its song in her mind fluted higher. What is it resonating with?

With wary steps, Ahsoka made her way into a huge, circular room with a domed ceiling stretching several stories high overhead. The fitful lighting along the chamber walls limited her ability to see much detail, but the dome appeared to be constructed from a multitude of rock slabs ingeniously stabilized within a series of tracks. You can actually open up the top of this mountain. The mobile slabs seemed to be carved with an interweaving pattern, but Ahsoka couldn’t make out the design. Beneath the dome lay a central platform with some sort of oddly shaped, glittering apparatus in the middle. Is it a telescope?  Whatever it was, it was the prime beacon to Ahsoka’s vibrating staff.

She moved forward to investigate, noticing the entire stone floor ahead of her was deeply engraved with those same spiraling symbols and glyphs that decorated the blast doors. Ahsoka followed the pattern beneath her, trying to make sense of its purpose—and her feet abruptly slid to a prudent halt. One more step was a drop into a disturbingly dark, wide gap that encircled the central platform entirely. No need to find out what’s holding this thing up the hard way.

Peering down into the (bottomless? ) gloom, Ahsoka reached out with the Force to supplement what little she could discern with her eyes. The platform appeared to be supported by a very thick pedestal of rock extending down into the heart of the mountain itself. Whoever built this Observatory, it was long, long before Palpatine found his way to this icy world.

Again, that feeling of frozen, hushed energy encased Ahsoka…and this time she traced its most rigid, focal point to the platform’s strange, glittering apparatus. She carefully walked the perimeter of the gap. Surely there must be an extendable walkway of some kind. Not that she couldn’t use the Force to jump the distance herself, but Sabine wasn’t wearing her jetpack. The Mandalorian might not appreciate being flung like a sports javelin.

And then Ahsoka saw it: There was indeed a simple, slender footbridge which the platform’s apparatus had blocked from her viewpoint until now. Unfortunately, it dangled precariously into the circular pit like the broken arm of a statue. At least half of its rock-hewn length was missing. It’s probably the first thing the Emperor or his crew destroyed. Ahsoka slid her gaze around the chamber but it was bare of anything other than the central platform. Whatever controls or other mechanisms existed must be near the apparatus itself.

“Ahsoka, I believe I’ve found a hatchway to a shuttle bay.” Sabine’s voice abruptly cut through on her wristcomm. “This door’s lock is Imp standard—it’ll take me a minute to override it.”

“Acknowledged, Sabine. I’m checking out the main station. You and the others can meet me here.”

“Copy that. Just don’t have too much fun without me.”   

Ahsoka chuckled lightly. “I wouldn’t dream of it.”

With a determined breath, Ahsoka took a couple of steps back, then Force-hurled her body upward and over the chasm below. Her booted feet landed solidly a few meters from the apparatus. Ahsoka’s staff thrummed actively in her hand as she edged closer across the ornately etched floor. Now she could clearly see the platform held nothing more than the central apparatus. It was shaped almost like a throne—a crescent carved from a massive, very dark, polished crystal.

The middle section of the glittering crescent was not dissimilar to an Imperial interrogation chair, but it bore no sign of the usual torture devices. In fact, like the vast chamber itself, there seemed to be nothing technological or mechanical whatsoever about the central apparatus. Instead, the chair’s surface was polished smooth, contoured in such a way that a being as tall as three meters could recline comfortably upon it. Crystalline orbs were embedded at various levels where occupants of different heights could easily grip their surfaces with whatever appendages served as hands. At the bottom, another series of larger, interlinked orbs created a footrest.

Ahsoka studied the disturbing chair, feeling encased within its frozen flow of energy. Her face lifted toward the dome high overhead. This Observatory is no telescope. It’s an enhanced way to see with the Force. The crystal in her staff thrummed and sang with excitement—or was it a warning? What Ahsoka understood only too well was that she was being called to sit in that sleekly gleaming…Dark…chair. It’s the only way to truly understand what Palpatine used it for.

She took several deep breaths, centering herself, then eased back onto the smooth crystal, balancing her boots on the footrest orbs. She started to lay her staff beside her, then realized that felt…wrong. Intuitively, she turned her thrumming staff to a horizontal position. It now balanced across her hipbones so that both sides rested along the tops of the orb grips located at that level. Ahsoka hesitated for a bit, reaching out to the Force—and found her hands guided to grip the staff, not the nearest set of orbs. She heard the barest whisper of the Daughter’s voice. The Sith Lord’s desecrations still foul this device, my dear.

Trusting in the Daughter, in the Force, Ahsoka closed her eyes and relaxed into the Dark crystalline chair, feeling its chill penetrate her clothing, her skin, her every cell and neuron. Breath by breath, the frozen flow of energy sucked her fully into its embrace. Ahsoka slowly became one with the infinite cold and vast, numbing emptiness of space. Like the spirals of symbols and glyphs throughout the chamber, Ahsoka’s inner vision floated away from glacial heart of Gelidiu to flow outward into its star system, then beyond the Anoat sector and deep into the Galaxy.

Ahsoka faintly trembled and her hands gripped the staff for dear life as she began to See.

 

Hera -Takodana

Hera stretched her slender legs out on the festive blanket, tilting her face toward the bright sun overhead to soak in its warmth. Her stomachs were happily digesting a more than generous sampling of the sandwiches, fruits and pastries from the large basket Maz had brought along on the skimmer boat. If only Kanan could see me sharing a picnic with an ancient pirate queen on the shores of Nymeve Lake. She could almost hear Kanan’s bright, open laughter—a rare, guileless sound that Hera always savored the most when she was the one to elicit it.

A peal of real laughter caught her attention. Hera swiveled to find Jacen capering along the nearby rocky jetty which extended about fifty meters into the lapping waves of the quiet cove.

“You almost fell in, Uncle Zeb!” Jacen’s grin stretched ear to pointy ear. “You’re gonna scare all the fish away.”

Zeb gingerly shifted his bulk closer to the center of the water skimmer that still swayed alarmingly from side to side. He flashed a fanged smile at Jacen. “You’re the one doing that with all your yammering, kit.”

Kallus clutched the railing closest to his seat, flailing with his other hand to reach a wide-brimmed hat where it bobbed in the water. “Isn’t it enough you almost capsized us on the way out from the castle?” Drenched hair flopped into his eyes—Kallus gave up on the hat to swipe his bangs aside.

Zeb merely shrugged his massive shoulders and took hold of a sturdy fishing pole. “Bah! You should’ve stayed back with the droids if you don’t like getting wet. It’s not my fault this blasted boat’s stabilizers can’t handle a Lasat.”

Hera heard Maz chuckle. The pirate queen was enjoying the spectacle from her corner of the blanket where she sat with her small legs crisscrossed. “That Zeb reminds me of one of my old boyfriends. Only a little shorter.” A fond smile crossed her face. “And not quite as hairy.”

Hera blinked, trying to dispel a mental image of the diminutive Maz with a paramour larger and fuzzier than Zeb. Good thing Teeubo worked out or she might have collared Zeb instead. Hera suppressed a giggle.

“I’ll get your hat for you, Uncle Alexsandr, just be ready!” Jacen scuttled to the farthest end of the jetty, reaching a hand out in the direction of the forlornly floating object.

Hera beckoned him back, “Jacen, love—don’t get so close to the edge!”

“I know how to swim, Mama!” Jacen called back. He refocused his attention on the hat.

“That’s not the point, Jacen!” Hera scolded. She turned to Maz. “This is what I’m talking about, Maz. More and more, Jacen evades my—and everyone’s—instructions.”

Maz swallowed a bite of a bright orange fruit, her brown eyes twinkling behind the goggles. “I can see he has a lot of his mother inside him.”

Hera’s cheeks warmed from more than the sun as far too many instances of disobeying her father flickered through her mind. Maz gave her a knowing smile and waggled a finger.

“Oh, yes, I see that spitfire in you, dear one. I was a wild one myself, the maverick of my family before life and the Force knocked a little more sense into this hard head of mine.” She glanced over at Jacen. “You needn’t worry, Hera. Your youngling will learn appropriate choices with time—and your example. After all, look what a wise general and mother that feisty child still inside you turned out to be.”

At the unexpected praise, Hera ducked her head, covertly studying the wizened pirate queen. Maz was such an incongruous, even chaotic, comparison to Kanan, Ezra, and Ahsoka when it came to the Force. Not for the first time since arriving on Takodana, Hera pondered: Why did the Force even choose Maz? How does it choose anyone?

Maz gestured fondly at Jacen, who was using the Force to lift Kallus’s soaking hat from the waves. “Your youngling is blessed by how much of his father lives inside him as well.”

Hera watched in a mixture of pride and apprehension as Jacen manipulated the Force to float the saggy, dripping bundle toward the skimmer.

“Way to go, kit—just a bit more, eh?” Zeb urged with an encouraging grin.

Kallus had his hands up, ready to catch the hat—when it splatted directly into his face with a heavy thwap. Zeb’s eyes widened, then he howled with laughter.

On the jetty, Jacen clapped both hands over his mouth in dismay before exclaiming, “Sorry, Uncle Alexsandr!”

Kallus peeled the sopping wet fabric off, arching a water-soaked eyebrow at Jacen. “Thank you, Jacen…although it would appear we still need to work on your aim.”

Jacen’s grin reemerged and his teal eyes lit up. “I’ll make it up to you in a minute.” Hunching down, he plucked at the sand along the jetty, working his way closer to Hera and Maz while picking up small, flat rocks. A gentle breeze fluffed his bright green locks.

Hera shifted her legs to hug her knees, recalling the first time Kanan revealed his Jedi past to save her from being crushed by a falling catwalk. If Jacen has even an inkling of Kanan’s power, he must have a proper teacher. The alternative was too potentially dangerous to even consider.

“This is why I worry, Maz. We’re all doing our best, but with Kanan and Ezra gone, I’m not sure how Jacen is to safely develop his gift.”

Maz thoughtfully chewed and swallowed another bite of fruit, then patted Hera’s knee reassuringly. “Fear not, my dear. I sense the appropriate teacher is close on the horizon.”

Does she mean Ezra will be found?  Hera’s head lifted sharply. “Do you…see a vision, like the future?”

Maz’s smile was tinged with sadness. “Ah, if only it was that clear and simple. The Force is timeless…I always find my efforts to pin visions down in the way we experience time to be clouded at best.”

Hera’s shoulders slumped. “Kanan and Ezra had the same problem.”

Maz’s eyes warmed with encouragement. “I promise to share anything I may see, dear one. For now—if you do trust an old pirate with your precious youngling, I‘ll share with him a simple focusing technique to enhance his Force connection as an ally against danger.”

Hera’s lekku stiffened and she fiercely pushed back the image of Kanan consumed by the fireball. “I’m sorry, Maz. I’m still having trouble trusting the Force when it comes to helping someone stay alive.” Her voice trailed to almost a whisper. “It seems to purposely lead so many to their deaths.”

Maz sighed and closed her eyes a beat. “I understand your pain, Hera. It hurts us all too dearly when we lose the ones we love.” Her tiny, gentle hand squeezed Hera’s forearm. “In our flesh, we all forget, we can’t see the grand plan, the infinite pattern the Force weaves with all life.”

The pirate queen waved to encompass the undulating, emerald green hillsides and distant castle. “Think of all the destruction necessary to create this single planet, how stars must die to create the matter that forms us. Here we sit, billions of years in the making to share this tiny moment together within the eternity of the Force.”

Maz tapped her own wrinkled cheek with a wry smile. “Despite my centuries of existence—or perhaps because of them—the ways of the Force remain far beyond my comprehension. The older I grow, the more I realize how much I’ll never know before my time has come.”  Behind the thick goggles, Maz’s gaze turned inward. “Like you, I’ve witnessed so many things that create doubts, test my faith. That is why I come to the lake to clear my heart and mind.”

Far out in the lake, something breached and splashed in the water heavily. Jacen paused in his rock gathering to watch excitedly, but the creature vanished too quickly to make out its size or shape.

Hera resettled herself on the blanket to refill a small plate of nutmeats. “I must admit it’s beautiful here.”

“Not quite the hive of villainy you anticipated, hm?” Maz smiled enigmatically and her magnified eyes seemed to probe Hera. “Nymeve Lake is beautiful, Hera, but for me it is like the Force. There is its surface alight with the sun, nourishing all who drink its waters.” She turned and adjusted her goggles as if to penetrate the deep heart of the lake. “Then, beneath the shining waves, the sun gives way to the Dark, to all of its alluring mystery… power to drown those who lose their way between the surface and the depths.”

Maz picked out a nut and munched it ruminatively. Hera took a sip of fresh nectar from her thermos, mulling her own thoughts. “I’m…not quite sure I understand how coming to the lake calms you.”

“My dear child, what I’m saying is the surface and the depths are inseparable. To me, the Force, like nature, is neither good nor evil. It just is. This is what I can teach of the Force to your son if you’ll permit it.”

Before Hera could reply, Jacen’s shout startled them both. “Hold tight to your fishing pole, Uncle Zeb!“

Hera and Maz turned to see the boisterous youngling skipping flat stones from his large rock pile with carefree abandon. The stones bounced and splashed a few meters from where Zeb’s fishing line disappeared into the sparkling water. ”I’ll help you catch us a big fish for dinner!”

Zeb grinned and called back. “Whatever you say, kit—I’m just glad to be on this end of the pole for a change!”

His prehensile feet were propped up on the skimmer’s railing and he appeared to be perfectly content to catch nothing at all. Kallus had his head tilted back on his bench seat with the now shapeless hat draped over his face in an attempt to nap.

Hera’s heart surged at the peaceful sight. This is what I fought for all those years. What Kanan and too many others died for. For a moment, the sun’s warmth failed to beat back the chill that threatened to creep up from the inside. What if we don’t find Ezra? The thought of never again seeing the bold, compassionate padawan who was like a son to her—it was a constant shadow lurking at the edges of her happiness. More than anything, she wanted Ezra and Jacen to know each other as brothers, to share their gift of the Force and memories of Kanan’s teachings together.

Hera thought of Ahsoka, who had steered Jacen away from Luke Skywalker, the Galaxy’s new hope and hero who destroyed the first Death Star. She cast a questioning glance at the pirate queen. “Maz, why didn’t you become a Jedi?”

Maz plucked a long stem of grass next to the blanket and studied its simple, supple structure. “What you’re really wondering is why a Force sensitive like me lives as a pirate.” Maz propped an elbow on her knee and cupped her chin in her hand. “It’s a path I’ve walked because of the freedom it offers, Hera. My soul craves independence and I don’t march well to others’ orders, especially those I can’t agree with. I could never be a true Jedi or a Sith, for I’ve never seen the Force in only Dark and Light.”

Her magnified eyes sought out Jacen, her expression softening. “Your youngling is so bright, burning with curiosity. His will is very strong—and if he wasn’t as equally strong in the Force, I’d advise him to stick to a simple path. Become an ace pilot with skills no one can match, or the luckiest of winners at the fathier races.” Maz’s mouth quirked into a teasing smile.

Hera half-laughed, half groaned. “If Hondo had his way, Jacen would join you as a pirate.”

Maz’s expression turned sly and she playfully bopped Hera’s nose with the blade of grass. “Are we so bad, General Syndulla?”

Hera’s own lips curved upward along with an eyebrow. “Do I really have to answer that?”

The pirate queen’s impish face turned more somber. “Ah, it’s true, I’m no angel of the Light. But I do know how your youngling feels. To not know where he fits in or if he ever will. It took me a very, very long time to understand and carve out my niche in this Galaxy—and I’m not so proud of everything I’ve done along the way. That is why I’ve maintained this castle, to provide a place for misfits and miscreants to catch their breath now and then.”

Maz peered into the distance where a small ship zoomed away from the castle with its engines aglow. “Perhaps even steer them in a better direction if that’s what they choose to see…”

Hera curiously eyed the outgoing craft’s unfamiliar silhouette, a stealthy design likely piloted by a smuggler, bounty hunter, or similar ilk. Misfits and miscreants indeed. Then again, she’d certainly done enough smuggling and stealing of her own in the name of the Rebellion.

“Karabast! I’ve got a live one!”

Hera startled at the loud shout, whipping her gaze back to the lake. So much for the idyllic peace.

Out on the skimmer, Zeb clutched his fishing pole almost desperately with both hands while his long toes gripped the railing for dear life. Something enormous under the surface kept yanking at the line, bending the pole almost in half. The boat swayed sharply to one side and Zeb shifted against his seatback in the opposite direction to keep possession of his pole.

Kallus tumbled unceremoniously off his bench seat, scrambling to the skimmer’s up-tilted side as a counterweight. “What in the blazes is down there?”

“It’s dinner, I told you!” Jacen hopped around on the jetty, his fist pumping victoriously. “Reel it in, Uncle Zeb!”

Whatever was lurking in the water had very different ideas. It surged away at a breakneck pace, tugging the line, fishing pole, Zeb—and the entire skimmer almost sideways along with it.

Maz’s eyes widened behind the goggles, her short legs hustling swiftly to keep pace with Hera’s longer strides toward the jetty. “I thought that old kerbak was a goner—haven’t seen it surface for months.”

Kallus wrapped his hands around the railing to stop himself from going overboard. “Let the damn beast go, Zeb!”

“I’m still hungry!” roared back the Lasat, planting his purple bulk solidly against his seatback while his feet clung to the railing even more tightly.

“After that skyscraper of sandwiches?” Kallus’s eyes bulged in disbelief.

From out of the depths rose a disturbingly thick tail with serrated, battle-scarred flukes. It hovered over the skimmer menacingly. Hera’s brain rattled out an unsurprising message: That looks bad, very bad. She barked an order in the tone no one under her command was ever foolish enough to disobey. “Drop the pole, Zeb! Now !”

He released the alarmingly bent rod right before the tail arced downward. Hera’s heart pulsed futilely…and then something yanked the skimmer a few yards out of range. The vengeful tail slapped the lake instead, sending a huge spray of water to wash over the skimmer. Zeb and Kallus were left drenched and blinking while the kerbak and its dangerous flukes vanished into the depths.

Hera and Maz reached Jacen at the end of the jetty where he stood in a half crouch, both hands extended toward the bobbing skimmer.

“Nice save, kiddo!” Maz puffed a little breathlessly.

Hera’s jaw dropped more than just a little and her wide eyes flicked to Maz. “I thought that was you.”

Maz just shook her head slowly while Jacen straightened up, his teal eyes alight with a mixture of disbelief and accomplishment. “I didn’t think, Mama…I just did it.”

So like his father. Almost too much for Hera to bear at times. She pulled Jacen into a hug, feeling his heart beating fiercely against her chest. “I’m glad you could help your uncles, Jacen.” Taking a resolute breath, Hera shared a meaningful glance with Maz over his head. “In fact, Maz and I were just talking about what she will teach you to better understand the Force.”  

Jacen pulled away to look back and forth between Hera and Maz eagerly. “I’ll be a good student, I promise.”  

Maz chuckled while Jacen waved excitedly at Zeb and Kallus, who were gingerly piloting the water-soaked skimmer toward the jetty dock. “Something tells me you will certainly be a memorable one.”

Hera ruffled Jacen’s soft, green hair with affection and exasperation. “For now, no more rock throwing for a while, okay, little love?” He nodded back obediently enough, but Hera didn’t miss the way his mouth twitched to hold in a devious grin.

Maz suddenly frowned, adjusting her goggles. Following her gaze skyward, Hera noticed a light freighter headed for the castle with a trail of smoke in its wake. Her brow furrowed. “It’s coming in hot. I wonder what happened?”

The pirate queen spoke softly, her magnified eyes looking darker, even foreboding. “Nothing good.”

 

Kanan - Chimaera

Klaxons wailed and Kanan repressed a snort of derisive laughter. This whole day is a bad joke and I’m pretty damn sure I’m the punchline. The latest comedy of errors began with the ship jolting everyone sideways—and now he was facing a trio of tireless droids firing a round of stun rings from their gun arms even before the sentries fully uprighted themselves.

In wordless unison, Kanan and Ezra countered the initial assault with blazing lightsabers, only to have a torque wrench thrown into their defense when a dazed Braruz staggered to her feet in front of the Jedi. Much to Kanan’s disappointment, the lieutenant’s sudden appearance did less than zero to deter the droids’ single-minded attack.

To draw the sentries’ unflagging fire, Kanan flipped forward and barely escaped the spiraling blue circles of energy. While Ezra attempted to yank Braruz behind him protectively, Kanan lunged hard to the right to cover them both by sweeping his purple blade back and forth through the relentless barrage of stun rings to shred them into bright splashes of dissipated energy.

In the melee, Thrawn’s demanding voice emanated from Braruz’s wristcomm. “Confirm transfer averted, Lieutenant Braruz—“

“Let me go!” The Devaronian wrenched away from Ezra to respond—and stumbled right into the droids’ indiscriminate stream of vibrant circles. Braruz instantly collapsed, face down and totally oblivious to Thrawn's next urgent command.

“Lieutenant, immediate status report!”

In direct contrast to the inert science officer, the trio of sentries outthrust their electrostaffs and surged forward as if completely unleashed. With a glance of mutual alarm, Kanan and Ezra Force-shoved Braruz and the still insensible stormtroopers several meters down the corridor before their prone bodies could be carelessly trampled by the charging droids.

The constant bray of the Chimaera’s klaxons finally stopped assailing his ears, but Kanan now heard a part of his frazzled mind arguing in favor of simply allowing the oncoming torrent of stun rings to strike home. At least then he could join Braruz and the bucketheads in a peaceful state of unconsciousness if only for a few blissful moments.

Even at this early stage of the onslaught, Kanan could feel sweat dripping down his face and back and he longed desperately for one simple thing: A droid deactivator remote. Two Jedi against three Imperial sentries was a doable enough match on a regular day, but he and Ezra had passed “regular” hours ago. And there was nothing “regular” about sentry droids clearly enhanced with special modifications courtesy of a certain Chiss mastermind.

Despite the energetic supplementation from Dume and the Force, Kanan was now running on the exhaust fumes of his reserves’ reserves. And he certainly didn’t need his senses to tell him Ezra was equally spent. Thank the Force Thrawn still wants us alive.

Right now, his not-padawan half-crouched in a fighting stance near Kanan’s side to alternately slash at the incoming blast rings and parry the sizzling electrostaffs with his whirling pike blades in a clash of purple sparks and blazing gold. Sweat trickled down Ezra’s forehead and he swiped it away looking equally weary and annoyed. “So guess why Thrawn never bothered to say goodbye.”

Kanan beat back the closest sentry, his blade a blur of purple plasma while his gaze followed the flick of Ezra’s eyes to the crumpled stormtroopers. “A switch out,” Kanan growled. “Too bad the Nihilum crashed Thrawn’s not-so-going-away party.”

Just thinking of Thrawn’s patronizing smile at their last encounter, Kanan dug up the strength to Force-hurl the oncoming sentry directly into a second droid lurching behind it. He savored the extremely satisfying clang-crash of metal and flying electrostaffs as both droids slammed against the bulkhead at high velocity. Their menacing red eyes flickered out and they buckled to the floor with a screeching whine, leaving an impact crater behind in the bulkhead.

Locked in his own duel with the remaining, relentless sentry, Ezra somehow managed to shoot Kanan a sideways grin. “Impressive.”  

Kanan groaned at the terrible pun, rushing forward to finish off the two toppled sentries with his upraised saber. Unfortunately, Ezra’s opponent had no intentions of losing. Feinting with the staff, the sentry knocked Ezra backward with a heavy kick to his chest, then stormed forward to block Kanan’s path.

Faced with with stun rings streaming from the droid’s gun arm and the sparking electrostaff spinning brutally in its other hand, Kanan scowled back with a vengeance. That’s it. No more Mr. Nice Jedi.

“Take him, Kanan!” Ezra yelled with a leap back into the fray.

Under the cover of Ezra’s whizzing pike blades, Kanan yanked his blaster from its holster and fired at the metallic behemoth with ruthless, crimson blaster bolts. Eat plasma, you red-eyed monster. Despite its shielding and thick armor, the outmatched sentry was finally driven back step-by-sizzling step.

The battle was looking very much over…until one of the collapsed droids twitched back to life to begin spewing a torrent of blue stun circles despite being unable to regain its footing. As Kanan shifted his stance to withstand the additional assault, his lips pressed into a thin line. Why can’t you just stay dead?

“Hurry it up, PeeZee!” Ezra panted from behind a spray of shredded stun rings.

Kanan risked snippets of glances in between his own frantic medley of droid blasting and blade slashing. At a marginally safer distance down the corridor, PZ-5 tapped at a blacked-out control panel, her fingers a blur of speed to hack the lock.

“Master Ezra, even if I can activate this escape pod, it’s too dangerous for you to eject if the Nihilum have found us.”  

Ezra’s face twisted with concern and resignation. “We know, PeeZee! You’ve got to go without us!”

Over at the hatchway, the panel finally flashed to green and illuminated PZ-5’s featureless face. “Understood, Master Ezra. The pod is likely to be ignored with no life signs aboard.” She stepped into the pod hatch bravely. “I promise to obtain help—a rescue party.”

“No! Wait!” Ezra barely dodged the increasing volley of stun rings, turning his distressed eyes on Kanan. “I’ve got to put my special tracker on her.”

Kanan parried the nearest sentry’s grueling attack, shoving it backward along the floor with another Force-push. “I’ll deal with our ugly friends—you get PeeZee launched.”

Not waiting for an answer, Kanan sprang forward as high as the corridor ceiling allowed. Caught off guard, the only standing sentry’s incessant salvo faltered just a beat. With that brief opening, Kanan decapitated its cranial unit with a slash of his lightsaber even as he flipped over the droid to land behind it. The heavy head fell to the floor with a resounding thunk, then the sentry tottered sideways and crashed into the nearest wall.

Kanan barely flipped to the right in time to avoid the other droid’s renewed barrage. It was braced on one knee, firing round after round from its gun arm. Closing his eyes, Kanan envisioned everything within the Force. With a deep breath, he rolled to the ground directly toward the sentry. Just before the droid could redirect its aim, Kanan sprang off the floor and spun himself and his purple blade in a full circle. The vibrant plasma sheared through the sentry’s thick chassis, bisecting it from hip to shoulder in an instant. The droid fell apart, finally and mercifully still.

Trembling with fatigue, Kanan looked toward Ezra and PZ—and his heart turned to cold stone. The third sentry, which had remained silent and still since Kanan almost implanted it in the bulkhead, now ground itself upward with its bristling gun arm targeted on Ezra’s back.

Kanan launched himself forward, shouting Ezra’s name like a battle cry. The sentry swiveled its gun arm Kanan’s way and he swung his lightsaber forward, ready to shred the incoming stun blasts with the dregs of his Force-fueled reflexes. Instead, the muzzle erupted with the searing crimson of blaster bolts, fired in a deadly volley Kanan barely managed to deflect. Whoops—must’ve short-circuited Thrawn’s safety settings on this one.

After that unpleasant conclusion, Kanan was too busy trying to stay alive to think much at all.

 

Hera - Takodana

Hurrying behind Maz toward one of the castle’s packed dirt landing pads, Hera started to regret having ordered the bedraggled Zeb and Kallus back to the Ghost with Jacen to rejoin the droids. For once, neither had argued, clearly too eager to change into dry clothes. Zeb had since commed Hera to relay Chopper and AP-5 miraculously hadn’t destroyed each other or the ship during everyone’s absence. Hearing the droids’ frenzy of complaints spewing in the background, Hera signed off, grateful that Maz’s invitation to investigate the damaged freighter had provided a guilt-free escape.

But now that Hera found herself weaving through an alarmingly boisterous crowd of spacers, pirates, smugglers, and shady entrepreneurs, she almost longed for Chopper and AP’s (mostly) benign squabbling. Here, the air buzzed with expletive-laced gossip, insults in dozens of languages, and a plethora of clandestine transactions between armed-to-the-teeth roughnecks that Hera decided it was best to remain blissfully ignorant about.

Instead, Hera focused on getting a glimpse of the YT-2400 in the center of the hubbub. Whoever owned it kept it in far better condition than Matt Martin’s ill-fated ship. Well, except for the oddly scorched, twin laser cannon on top of the hull. The turret was currently swarmed by small droids armed with probing sensors, extinguishers, and repair tools.

Sirens wailed and the crowd was forced to make way for a small hovercraft approaching the ship. The vehicle held two medical droids up front and a stretcher on the rear flatbed. Pushing through with Maz, Hera now saw two irate figures pushing and shoving each other near the freighter’s open ramp. Hera gritted her teeth, feeling the crowd’s charged atmosphere around her like a proton torpedo about to go off.

Fortunately, the daunting form of Emmie thrust herself sternly between the combatants before fists could fly. With her sparking hands blocking either from advancing on the other, Emmie turned glowing eyes on the beefy Klatooinian. “You know the rules, Captain Abya—fight on Takodana and you’ll never be welcome here again.”

The opponent, a vividly frilled, rail thin species that Hera hadn’t encountered before, shook his bony fists defiantly, yelling in heavily accented Basic. “Yah, backen off, Cap! All we bettin’ on whaz blast you gun!”

Several of the crowd chimed in, many of them raising their own fists or mugs of slopping ale they’d failed to relinquish back at the castle hall into the air. Within the rising uproar’s array of accents and guttural grunts, Hera heard proclamations of “It’s tradition!” and chants of “You come in hot, we bet the lot!” Hera saw a flash of a familiar pirate’s coat and made her own private bet that Hondo was the bookie behind today’s impromptu gambling.

The greenish-skinned Klatooinian furiously waved the medical team up the ramp, then spit near the opposing spacer’s feet. “Kriff tradition!” His deep voice boomed louder as he addressed the engulfing crowd with upraised fists. “Now back off like I told you, you sons of banthas—my gunner’s been fried and I’ll hammer anyone’s skull who dares more disrespect!”

The rowdy crowd hushed briefly and a burly Trandoshan bellowed out, “Tell usss who done it and we’ll cut their throatssss!” This time, many within the cheering throng brandished a disturbing potpourri of gleaming weapons.

“You’re a bunch of kung-headed fools!” The Katoonian’s heavy lips peeled back in a sneer, but Hera could see he was struggling to keep his fists up without trembling. Whatever hit them really shook him up. Before things turned truly ugly, a cluster of Weequays finally noticed the pirate queen shoving her way through the last of the unruly mob. A shouted chorus of “Maz!” and cheers rippled skyward.

Maz graciously acknowledged the multitude of greetings, somehow managing to avoid being splashed by the sea of deferentially raised mugs before reaching Emmie and the belligerent spacers. Hera warily stopped alongside the pirate queen, who now beckoned the combatants—and the surrounding horde—to lower fists and weapons with her soothing, calming gestures. She addressed the Klatooinian first, warmly.

“Welcome back to my castle, Xen. I saw your ship flying in.” Her magnified eyes took in the way his stricken expression shifted into relief with her presence. “My deepest condolences for your fallen comrade.”

“My co-pilot’s been tending to the body awaiting your med team, my queen.” He pulled off his small cap, wringing it in his gnarled hands.

Maz’s hand touched his thick forearm compassionately. “We’ll feast in his honor tonight, a proper send off.” Maz turned from the grateful Klatooinian to Emmie.

Emmie was already nodding, “I will prepare the arrangements.”

“Now then.” Maz addressed the rail thin opponent sternly, whose scarlet and gold frills drooped downward with respect and apprehension. “Sleelie, no more nonsense—off now with you and your crew.”

Sleelie’s crestfallen frills stiffened in mid-droop. “Whazzat wagers, Maz Queen?” His stick-like finger pointed out Hondo near the far edge of the crowd, who was tapping the bets being placed by several unsavory individuals into a datapad with a conspiratorial grin.

Maz planted her tiny fists on her equally tiny hips. “That’s it! All bets are off!” Her surprisingly loud shout cut across the hubbub and stopped everyone, including Hondo, in their tracks.

All bets, my beautiful queen?” Hondo’s voice cajoled from across the frozen throng.

“Yes—and all of you, back to the hall!” Maz’s hand waved a dismissive command.

Groans inevitably ensued until Maz added, “Somebody—except Hondo—tell Frunkle the next round is on the house!” The groans u-turned into soaring cheers.

“Thaz kindest, Maz Queen.” Sleelie flailed his long appendages and gnashed his narrow chops with enthusiastic appreciation before joining the mob’s greedy dash toward the castle.

Hera did not envy Emmie, who strode stolidly behind the mass exodus, shaking her bronze head and flexing her crackling fingers with anticipation. In the now relative peace and quiet, Maz turned back to Captain Abya, her voice soft again.

“Why were you on fire, my old friend?”

Captain Abya fumbled with the crushed hat in his hands, his strained voice almost a harsh whisper. “Maz, there’s something terrible I’ve got to—” he stopped abruptly, noticing Hera still standing by the pirate queen.

Now Maz patted Captain Abya’s forearm assuringly. “No worries, Xen. This is a trusted friend as well…Hera Syndulla. She flies a Corellian freighter by the name of the Ghost.” Maz eyed Hera confidingly. “Xen Abya used to crew one of my trader skiffs, one of my most reliable mates until he saved up for his own ship to join the Sovereign Latitudes of Maracavanya.”

Hera’s lekku twitched in a mix of dismay and bemusement. First Hondo, then Maz…now she was mingling with a member of Eleodie Maracavanya’s crazy pirate flotilla in Wild Space. Mon Mothma and her colleagues in the New Republic would hardly be thrilled with the dubious company Hera had been keeping during her leave of absence.

Repressing a sigh, Hera nodded at the Klatooinian with sincere sympathy. “I’m truly sorry for your loss, Captain Abya.” She knew far too well how it felt to lose crew. She also felt genuine curiosity as to what had befallen his ship. What damage Hera could see of the YT-2400 looked entirely unfamiliar to her; she wouldn’t be doing her duty if she overlooked a potential threat to the New Republic.

Abya managed a courteous bow of his head despite his rigid stance. “Thank you.” His gaze slid back to Maz. “Remer and I are lucky to still have our lives…and something left to repair.” He shuddered.

Maz folded an arm to tuck her small chin into the palm of her hand. “Tell me of this terrible thing, Xen. I’ve never seen you so pale.”

Abya’s jaw worked while his lower canines brushed his overhanging lip. “Maz…zher majesty Eleodie Maracavanya is no more. The Liberty’s Misrule, zher entire fleet—ten thousand and more of our people…all dead.”

Hera and Maz eyed Abya in stunned, horrified silence while Abya’s shaking hand rubbed at his wide forehead. He flinched at their expressions. “You don’t believe me, but I saw it all.”

Hera released a breath sharply. I must report this news to Mothma. “But…how? Not just anyone can outgun an Imperial Dreadnought.”

The Klatooinian’s deep set eyes scanned Hera briefly before locking on Maz. “I’ve never seen or heard of a hostile force like it before, my queen. The horde dropped out of nowhere, swarmed us like a thousand giant vulture droids…only a thousand times worse.” He swiped at his face. “Our weapons were nothing to them—they danced through our fighters like we were standing still. Only one other ship remained undestroyed when we jumped.”

“Who survived besides you, my friend?” Maz squeezed his forearm comfortingly. “I offer my help to them as well.”

Abya shook his head with a wry grimace. “Huh. I'll eat my own hat if you invite a Star Destroyer to your castle.”

Hera’s earcones pricked up instantly. “A Destroyer? Which one? Almost all of the Imperial Navy has been captured or destroyed.”

He scowled back, frustrated. “Maracavanya didn’t share much details with rank and file, Captain Syndulla—only ordered us to hold our attack until some cargo from the Destroyer was aboard the Liberty’s Misrule.” The Klatooinian’s hand looped around in sinuous motions. “Before the horde jumped us all, I did notice a creature painted across the Impy’s keel. Too busy later to get a good look at her name…something like Chim, maybe Chime.”

Hera’s body had frozen into a statue with the wild bird of her heart fluttering around its hollow insides. The Chimaera!  She forced her tongue and mouth to work again. “C-captain Abya, the Chimaera was the flagship of the Seventh Fleet, lost in a battle over Lothal several years ago. Are you sure you saw that Destroyer?”

Abya shrugged his heavyset shoulders. “Maybe…but even if I did, she’s got to be dead in space by now.” He shuddered again.

No! Not when I’m this close to finding Ezra. Hera took a shaky breath, fisting her gloved hands to keep them from trembling out of control. “Captain, I have a family member on that Destroyer—he was a prisoner and I’ve been trying to find him ever since Lothal. Please just tell me where you last saw her.”

The Klatooinian’s deep eyes showed compassion, but he shifted uncomfortably to Maz. “I…I can’t reveal that, Maz. Maracavanya discovered a hyperlane shortcut to the coordinates only a few weeks ago…” His eyes shifted around as if to see if anyone had snuck up on them.

“And any riches found in that sector now belong to you as the sole survivor,” sighed Maz. “Understood, Xen.”

“Wait, what!?” Hera found herself raging, jabbing her finger at the Klatooinian’s face. “You listen to me, Abya—I don’t give a damn about whatever you’re trying to hoard for yourself! I just want a way there to get Ezra back!”

Abya shouted right back, his voice a barrage of grief and fury. “You are out of your mind, Syndulla! Go inside my ship—take a look at my gunner’s body, I dare you!  I won’t fly you out and be roasted like him and all the rest!”

Maz planted herself between Hera and Abya, forcing them apart. Despite her small stature, the pirate queen overpowered them easily with just a forceful glare from her dark eyes. “Quiet, both of you,” Maz hissed. “If a foe deadly enough to end dear Maracavanya’s reign is out there, we must find out as much as we can, as quickly as we can. Agreed?”

At Hera and Abya’s chagrined nods, Maz folded her arms decisively. “Good. Now I will make both of your ends meet.” She closed her eyes for a beat, inhaling a deep breath. As soon as her eyes reopened, she snapped her fingers at Abya.

“You, my old pirate friend, will give me the coordinates.” Her expression gentled. “You know you can trust me with all that is precious to you.”

“Yes, my queen.” Abya sighed, relenting.

Maz locked eyes with Hera. “You, dear one, will go alone with my trusted associate to the Chimaera’s last known location for a quick looksee only. You jump back instantly if you encounter this…horde. Do you swear upon your honor as a general of the New Republic to keep Xen Abya’s secret hyperlane in confidence?”

Captain Abya’s jaw had stuttered open. “General Syndulla…?”

Maz merely raised a silencing finger and the Klatooinian subsided reluctantly. Maz flicked her gaze back to Hera. “You only have once chance at this. Do you swear, Hera?”

Hera swallowed and nodded. “I swear, Queen Maz.” Anything was worth this opportunity to find Ezra. She squared her shoulders, mentally preparing for the outraged resistance she’d have to override from Zeb and Kallus.

“Very good,” breathed the pirate queen. She turned her goggled face toward the shrubbery nearest the freighter and snapped her fingers again. “You can come out, Hondo,” Maz called with fond exasperation.

Hera and Captain Abya exchanged a mutually horrified glance as Hondo strutted forward, nonchalantly brushing a few leaves from his coat before spreading his arms wide with an even more expansive smile.

“My lovely queen, did I hear something about you needing a trusted associate?”

 

Ahsoka – Gelidiu / Anoat Sector

A core part of Ahsoka’s mind knew her body was anchored to the Dark chair on a non-descript, icy planet, but timeless eons could have passed since she’d inhabited it. In the now, her essence floated effortlessly through the vastness of space, a pinprick of consciousness in a sea of eternal night where each star created an oasis of light and heat for the intricate chain of lifeforms they nurtured.

Ahsoka was very much aware that her connection to the staff in her distant hands was all that truly shielded her from the Emperor’s ichorous, energetic stain permeating the crystalline structure beneath her. Even so, Ahsoka sensed the Sith Lord’s vile residue fluctuating around her with its lingering desire to defile. She was reminded of the grasping, ravenous hunger of the black hole…but this felt far more personal and treacherous. What did you do with this Observatory, Darth Sidious? What desecrations did you perform with all that you stole from the Architects?

As if it wanted to answer, the Galaxy whorled around Ahsoka like the spinning hands of an ancient clock. She now drifted before the artificially bright world of Coruscant, the image of the planet further enlarging with Force-fueled magnification until she floated above the Jedi Temple. The entire complex, and all the Jedi serenely treading its encompassing grounds, lay completely engulfed within a noxious, Dark cloud. Ahsoka’s essence recoiled from the skin-crawling chill the Dark radiated, penetrating its way ever downward to intertwine with a rotten core that lay somewhere deep beneath the Temple.

As Ahsoka herself became enveloped within the ominous cloud, her Force senses turned sluggish and torpid. All that should feel intrinsically right inverted to wrong, and Ahsoka found her thoughts and intentions twisting in upon themselves in razor-edged circles of destructive doubt and confusion. She heard her voice cry out thousands of light years away—and then Light rippled through her essence with the cleansing touch of the Daughter. With this gentle caress, Ahsoka broke free of the Dark cloud, but her soul bled with the knowledge that Order 66 had been decades in the making. All along, the Emperor used Force-enhancing Observatories like this to shroud the Jedi’s Light and turn what should have been victorious balance into self-defeat and genocide.

Far away on the cold slab, Ahsoka’s body inhaled a shaky breath, gripping the staff as if for dear life. It felt as if she faltered, she might fall into this Darkness and never find a way out again. By focusing on the singing crystal within the staff’s core, calm reigned once again within Ahsoka’s heart. She bid the Force to show her what she needed to know most. Again, the Galaxy responded almost eagerly, stars and systems sliding past in acrobatic arcs while her vantage point shifted to the Outer Rim on the dim, western side.

With the Force-fueled magnification of the Observatory, Ahsoka’s vision swept along the Rim’s energetically connected string of planets and beheld the vast, protective shell these worlds generated as a shining barrier against extra-galactic intruders. Deep in the planetary cores, a multitude of Guardians at least as ancient and powerful as Dume radiated with and through the Force. All along the Rim, the Guardians’ brilliant energy signatures interwove into an awe-inspiring tapestry which Ahsoka had no words to truly describe.

But now a Dark, probing shadow cast its impenetrable murk across a swath of Guardian worlds. Like a furtive parasite or poison that inexorably saps away the life of its oblivious host, the Dark shadow weakened and lulled the mighty Guardians decade by decade into a clouded, torpid slumber. Little by little, their interwoven energetic bonds slipped apart, even snapped, to create gaping holes in the Galaxy’s protective shell that served as undefended doorways to whatever Darth Sidious had been calling forth to enter. Ahsoka tried to penetrate the murk to identify who or what was invited to encroach, only to be almost instantly rebuffed. All she scrounged in her efforts was a glimpse of a hideously disfigured face sinking beneath a pitch-black sludge while it oozed upward in a perverse mockery of a Starbird taking flight.

Seeing this noble symbol of rebirth and renewal so desecrated, Ahsoka felt sickened and her blood turned to ice. Should he and his Empire fall, Darth Sidious had plotted his return in some form or fashion. Her mind recoiled from what underhanded, heinous promises this must have entailed. The celestial scene spun crazily around Ahsoka, hurling her back through the lightyears like a comet. She was cold, so…so…cold. Ahsoka gasped like a newborn as she practically slammed back into her shivering body. Dazed and dizzy, Ahsoka forced her eyes to flutter open to find everything shaking around her with a dull roar.

And that’s when Ahsoka heard Sabine screaming her name.

 

Hera – The Last Chance

Hera sat behind Hondo in the cockpit of the Last Chance, barely resisting the urge to shove him out of the pilot’s seat and take charge. She considered usurping Melch as the co-pilot, but that spot was more than a little…fragrant.

“How much longer to the coordinates?” she asked for about the thirtieth time.

Hondo tisked his tongue at Hera. “Now, now, General Syndulla, we will arrive very shortly—I assure you no asteroid will be left unturned to find my most rescue-worthy pirate protégé, Ezra. For now, you should be relaxing and taking advantage of these last quiet moments.”

Melch squealed in agreement, immediately closing his porcine eyes, and Hondo smacked him roughly on the shoulder. “Not you, Melch—pay attention! This hyperlane of Abya’s could be very unstable.”

The Ugnaught grunted indignantly while Hondo swiveled his goggled eyes back toward Hera to wag a mock stern finger. “I must also point out you may have to cover your lovely earcones or eyes at any given time, dear General. I will be sure to alert you.”

Hera seethed, knowing Hondo was vastly enjoying his pledge to Maz to keep the navigational details of their journey hush hush. “Thank you,” she bit out, taking a sip of her caf to stop the words “for nothing” from spilling out.

Hera sharply reminded herself that Hondo truly did care about Ezra. Even she had to admit the old rogue had proven his mettle back on Lothal, so it had been inevitable for Maz to choose Hondo out of all the loyal subjects (for lack of a better term ) the pirate queen had at her disposal. That said, Hera held no misconceptions the “trusted associate” was flying her out to the remains of this space battle purely out of the kindness of his heart. As the first to arrive, Hondo would have first claim on any valuable salvage, providing there was more than space dust at the end of their jump.

To improve her mood, Hera relived her last moments with Jacen before she’d boarded Hondo’s outrageously painted shuttle. They’d embraced warmly and she’d kissed his cheek. Hera could almost feel the softness of Jacen’s skin against her lips now. “Alright, little love, keep a sharp eye out for your uncles. Pay attention during Maz’s Force lessons—and don’t neglect your school work with Apee.” Jacen’s excited face had slumped into a pout at the latter. She’d booped his snub nose, smiling fondly. “I love you, a’kei. Have fun now—I should be back in less than a cycle.” She’d refrained from mentioning anything about Ezra to Jacen, not wanting to disappoint her son if the trail proved heartbreakingly cold.

Hera had confided the truth to Zeb and Kallus; as predicted, they’d argued vehemently that either of them should go with Hondo instead…until Hera had asked which one would last an hour before throttling the cagey pirate with their bare hands. At that point, Zeb’s ears had drooped in defeat and he muttered, “I just can’t believe you’re leaving us with Apee Five and Chopper.”

Hera had patted both Kallus and Zeb on the shoulder. “You’ll be fine. Now be sure to get a message to Sabine and Ahsoka as soon as possible. And don’t you dare forget to keep Jacen in sight at all times. I may trust Maz—but this is a pirate’s den after all.” She’d poked Zeb in his chest. “That means no sabaac, Garazeb Orrellios. You lose either of my droids and you’ll find yourself hiding out in those trees permanently.”

Her memory of Zeb’s plaintive groan morphed into a strident beep. Hera’s focus instantly shifted to Hondo’s console. It was alight with a pinging alarm and she leaned forward immediately to scan the readout. 

“Nahahah, General Syndulla,” Hondo chided as he blocked her view. “Melch, prepare for realspace but have all systems ready to jump back to safety if we encounter these nasties Captain Abya went on and on about.”

The Ugnaught snorted and Hondo dropped the shuttle out of hyperspace. Almost immediately, Hera and the pirates gaped in abject horror. What could possibly have wiped out an armada of over ten thousand pirates without leaving a trace of their own?

Outside the Last Chance’s transparasteel viewport, the enormous, streamlined wedge of the Liberty’s Misrule drifted like an enormous gravestone centerpiece for the silent ballet of equally dead ships and charred wreckage that floated around it. Hera flinched each time the Super Star Destroyer’s scorched hull sparked with intermittent explosions whenever one of the smaller pirate freighters or starfighters collided with its bulk.

While her insides twisted into knots, Hera hunted desperately for any sign of the Chimaera with both her eyes and sensor readouts. She prayed to the goddess to find nothing at all.

“Oh, my…this is a most terrible, terrible tragedy…” Hondo’s voice sounded sincerely grieved, far more than Hera had imagined possible from the old rogue. “What can even be salvaged from these husks…” he sniffed abjectly, “to honor the dead?”

Hera was fairly sure Hondo added that last part prodded by his own conscience, especially when he turned to her with his trembling hand gripping the bony spurs of his chin. “I didn’t believe Captain Abya…but I should have remembered Klatooinian’s have no imagination to dream such horrors up.”   

Melch had both of his gloved hands shoved over his snout and mouth, grunting in distress and looking very ill. Hera’s own stomachs lurched as she continued to scan for a Star Destroyer in the heart-numbing wreckage. Please, please, please, don’t let it be here. “Does anyone see the Chimer—"

An incessant pinging erupted from one of the consoles, startling Hera and both pirates. Everyone jumped, their nerves like tightly strung wires.

“It’s a homing beacon,” declared Hondo, relaxing back in his seat with some relief.

Hera knew everyone’s fear was a proximity alarm announcing a return of the hostiles. “Where’s it coming from?”

With a squeal, Melch pointed toward a scattering of wrecked craft farthest from the Liberty’s Misrule. Hondo zoomed the shuttle forward on an intercept path. After several tense moments, Hera could see the source on visual.

“It’s an escape pod,” she exclaimed eagerly. “Hurry!”

Melch ran his stubby fingers across a bank of controls, then grunted dejectedly. Hondo frowned over at Hera, his eyes behind the goggles filled with regret.

“There are no life signs, my dear General,” he sighed.

Hera’s heart sank to her boots. “Pick it up anyway, Hondo. Maybe there’s at least something onboard that can help us figure out what did this…this…” She couldn’t even think of a word terrible enough to describe the devastation. Many of the ships were still intact, but they looked cooked. Hera’s mind recoiled from what horrors those inside must have experienced in their last moments.

“Aye, then.” Hondo steered the yoke accordingly. “Melch, keep scanning for the nasties, my friend.”

It was supremely difficult for Hera to be a third wheel while Hondo and Melch captured the escape pod, then magnetized it to the cargo bay airlock. She almost stepped on Hondo during their rush to the cargo bay while Melch remained in the cockpit. The Ugnaught’s very important job was to jump the Last Chance away immediately if the hostiles returned to their spoils of war.

Hera’s heart hammered madly at the sight of the hatch—she wanted to yank open the airlock. She knew it was totally irrational, but her soul ached for anything, some tiny crumb of information to confirm Ezra was still out there and alive. Please don’t be empty, please.

The hatch finally opened—and Hera’s heart surged to see a protocol droid emerge. The new arrival was very similar in stature to AP-5 but clearly repaired with a few misfit parts. With reignited hope and excitement blazing through her veins, Hera thrust herself forward with a mouth full of crucial questions. “Hello—"

Her greeting went haywire as she stumbled smack into Hondo’s outswept arm. He was bowing gallantly with a doff of his cap. “Welcome aboard the Last Chance, my mysterious droid friend. No doubt you have heard of me, the infamous pirate, Captain Hondo Ohnaka, and this is—”

“Oh, you are pirates?” the droid interrupted in a droning voice, her visor scanning Hondo and Hera up and down. “How fortuitous. I seek to be ransomed to the leadership of the former Rebellion immediately.”

The totally unexpected request jolted Hera even as it made her blood bubble with excitement. Nobody calls it the Rebellion anymore!  Words tumbled out of her mouth. “No, no, we’re not—"

“Ransom, eh?” Hondo cut in enthusiastically. “I can assure you, droid friend, that I will have no difficulty assisting with this most auspicious situation very immediately.” A grin stretched across his bony face with rapidly restored delight.

Hera blocked Hondo with her arm. “No one is ransoming anything to anyone.”  She turned to the disconcerted droid. “Let’s try this again. I’m General Hera Syndulla of the former Alliance to Restore the Republic, now known as the New Republic.”

The rescued droid abruptly froze, hands uplifted to her blank face. After a beat, Hera leaned in with urgency in her voice. “Are you okay? We need to know your name and anything you can tell us about what happened here.”

The droid finally tilted her head respectfully. “General Hera Syndulla,” she intoned. “I am protocol droid PeeZee Five from the Imperial Star Destroyer Chimaera, under the command of Grand Admiral Thrawn—”

Hera could not hold back a gasp and Hondo triumphantly slapped PZ-5’s metallic shoulder to exclaim, “Hah ha! You see? It’s true! Ezra Bridger is alive!”

While Hera struggled to form words in a state of hopeful shock, the old pirate abruptly side-hugged the startled droid and leaned in. “My wily pirate Jedi is still alive, is he not?”

At that, Hera unglued herself and yanked PZ-5 away, not only to assist the stumbling droid, but to steady her own self as well. “This droid needs space to process, Hondo, clearly she’s been through a lot.”

Hera forced herself to step back and address PZ-5 calmly even though every nerve felt caught on the end of an overcharged joopa hook.

Is Ezra still alive, PeeZee?” Hera asked softly.

In response, PZ-5 activated her holoprojector. “I...can only report that Master Ezra was very much alive before I ejected in the escape pod, General Syndulla.”

Hera’s hand went to her chest as Ezra’s image lit up before her, her wide eyes absorbing everything vital in a heartbeat. He’s grown into a man—still completely Ezra, yet so much more. It shook Hera more than she’d anticipated. Apparently, Ezra had remained a teenager in her thoughts of his rescue and return.

“This is Commander Ezra Bridger of the Imperial Star Destroyer Chimaera,” Ezra declared urgently as he yanked something out of a carry bag. The gut-wrenching sound of blaster fire raged from a battle somewhere out of view. Ezra tossed aside the bag and rapidly clamped a narrow vambrace on PZ-5’s forearm visible in the foreground. “I’ve outfitted this droid, PeeZee Five, with a tracker-comm.” He quickly slapped a matching, miniature version on his own wrist, then flinched as a whooshing hum and jarring crash resounded in the unseen background. “She contains vital information for Mon Mothma, or whoever now leads the Rebel—I mean, New Republic.”

A new barrage of blaster fire erupted outside of visual range. Ezra flicked an alarmed glance to the side and the image wobbled wildly. “You can see we’re under attack—”

Hera reached out instinctively with a shout made hoarse by unshed tears. “Ezra!”

“We’re near the Boomerang Nebula in the Seoulian system." Ezra hastily continued, unaware that a malevolent, battle-damaged sentry droid was slowly emerging in the far side of the background.

Hera shuddered and instinctively shouted, “Ezra! Behind you!”

Ezra winced as another heavy metallic crash rang out offside. “Thrawn’s headed for the Unknown Regions—at least that’s what—”

“Ezra!!” a deep voice rang out.

Hera’s heart stuttered as if hit by a stun blast and she stopped breathing the better to hear. Kanan…?

Ezra whirled and saw the droid swing its gun arm to blast a stream of crimson bolts at a target out of view. Ezra instantly leaped toward the sentry in a snaphiss of whirling golden blades. “PeeZee will fill you in on the rest!” He saluted the hololens with two fingers and a final rally cry. “Go, PeeZee, go!”

Just before the shaky recording died out, Kanan staggered into view, slashing a brilliant purple lightsaber to deflect the sentry droid’s volley of searing, deadly blasts.

Kanan?!  Hera’s lips struggled to shape Kanan’s name, but the voice he’d always loved failed her. KANAN?! She tried to reach out, to command PeeZee to replay the holo, but she couldn’t move. Couldn’t breathe. Hera felt herself falling into a darkness spiraling inward from the edges of her vision.

“General Syndulla? Are you alright?” a voice from somewhere droned in alarm.

Metallic, unyielding arms were the last thing Hera felt before she fainted.

Chapter Text

Chapter 5 – Prelude to A Kiss

  5 ABY

  

Hera – The Last Chance / Seoulian System

Hera gently parted her way through the swaying, hip high grasses to reach the glimmering bulk of the Ghost under Lothal’s radiant sun. Warm laughter rang out from the other side of the ship, followed by Jacen’s familiar, eager shout.

"Throw it higher, Dad!”

Hera rounded the Ghos t just as a tall man dressed in simple clothing and sturdy boots flung a helmet painted like a snarling Loth-wolf’s head into the blue bowl of the sky. Hera couldn’t see the man’s face, but every cell in her body recognized his supple form instantly.

Kanan.

The reddish-brown tail of Kanan’s tied-back hair rustled in the breeze and his deep voice resonated through Hera’s earcones all the way to her heart. “High enough for you, kid?”

"Any higher and he’ll need the Ghost to catch it,” Hera called out teasingly.

"Mama!” Jacen grinned and waved wildly, his green hair fluttering. Kanan also turned, his eyes finding Hera’s own while an alluring smile spread across his face.

"Watch this!” Jacen dashed around his father, reaching upward with both hands. His small fingers stretched and shifted, keeping the fearsome helmet floating several meters above the ground with the Force.

"Hold it steady,” Kanan instructed, shooting Hera a playful wink as she walked up to the duo. “Let’s show your mother what you learned about focus today.”

Jacen squealed with glee when Kanan hoisted him upward to sit piggy-back on his father’s wide shoulders. All the while, Jacen kept his Force-hold on the helmet hovering far overhead. “See, Mama?”

Hera joined Kanan, who gripped the gangly legs of their beaming son in his strong hands to hold Jacen steady. She grinned up at Jacen and clapped her own hands with lighthearted applause. “Impressive, little love.” Hera leaned in to murmur into Kanan’s ear. “Most impressive, dear.”

Kanan turned his face toward Hera’s lips, and she closed her eyes in anticipation of the sweet kiss his expression promised was forthcoming.

Everything instantly turned cold and silent. Hera frantically opened her eyes to find herself standing on Lothal’s frigid tundra. She was utterly alone under twin, pale moons that slid across an aloof night sky.

“Kanan!? Jacen!?” The louder Hera screamed out their names, the faster her voice dissipated into the uncaring darkness.

No. No. NO! Hera suddenly realized she was floundering in the depths of a recurring nightmare, one that had plagued her since Kanan’s loss and Ezra’s disappearance. The cruel dream preyed upon her with the tantalizing, irresistible lure of Kanan holding Jacen—from infant to toddler to boy as he grew. Each time, Hera closed her eyes to kiss the man who gazed upon her and their son so lovingly, only to be torn away to bleak isolation, her lips aching for Kanan’s while ice encrusted her heart and froze it helplessly in place.

“Ack!”

A sickeningly pungent stench assaulted Hera’s nostrils--she gagged and her eyes fluttered open to find Hondo, Melch and PZ-5 kneeling by her prone body on the floor of the shuttle’s cockpit.

“General Hera? Can you hear Hondo?” Hondo waved a dubious looking flask under Hera’s nose, and she shoved it away frantically.

“Get that revolting thing away from me!”

“Hah!” Hondo chuckled unapologetically while Hera twisted away into a sitting position. “It is good to see Melch’s grog worked its usual wonders and you are now back to your delightfully demanding, General self.”

Melch grabbed the flask back and sniffed it with great relish before taking a big swig. Hera stifled another gag while the Ugnaught gave her a thumb’s up with his free hand.

“Thank you…I think.” Hera looked over at PZ-5 and rubbed her temples as everything locked back into place in her frazzled mind. Kanan! Ezra! “Stars! How long was I out?”

“Only three minutes and fifty-two-point-five seconds,” the droid intoned. “I was about to assist Captain Ohnaka with transporting you to the medbay to confirm your vital signs remained within normal ranges.”

“Yes, yes,” Hondo nodded briskly, his goggled eyes peering closer. “Perhaps you should rest there on our journey back to Takodana, dear General. You are not quite as wonderfully green as you should be.”

Melch generously offered Hera his toxic flask and she swiftly stood up to avoid retching out a refusal. “Look, I appreciate everyone’s concern, but I’m totally fine.” The others shifted back like startled Naboo ducklings as Hera impatiently waved them aside to plop in her seat. “It was just a lot of…information to take in.”

That was the understatement of the year. All Hera wanted to do was have PZ-5 replay Ezra’s holo about a hundred times while she extracted every shred of data in the droid’s archives on him and Kanan.

Still hovering near Hera, PZ-5 bobbed her head gently. “Having heard so many of Master Ezra’s stories of your brave leadership and how sorely he misses you, I can only process you have missed him and Master Kanan at least equally in return.”

You have no idea. Hera could only nod mutely, fighting the tears stinging in her eyes along with an inflamed desire to plunder PZ’s memory banks. Instead, she forced herself to address the immediate priority--the droid’s vambrace. Hera gripped PZ-5’s forearm to examine the device more closely and felt a knowing smile tug at her lips. The vambrace’s design was a technological homage to Sabine’s similar handiwork for the Spectres.

“PeeZee, Ezra said this is a tracker-comm, right? It can help us locate the Chimaera?”

Phffft! Noxious liquor spewed from Melch’s snout while Hondo turned from taking his own seat to sputter in surprised dismay.

“L-locate? But Queen Maz ordered us to merely--and most hastily, I might add--scout this area before returning to the castle.”

“You saw Ezra and Kanan under attack,” Hera hissed back. “It’ll be hours just to backtrack to a comm relay to yell for help. We’ve got to reach out now before it’s too late.”

Before Hondo could protest further, PZ-5 interrupted with a diffidently raised finger. “The attack situation is actually a rather complicated matter, General Syndulla, but I’m ninety-nine-point-ninety-nine percent certain that Grand Admiral Thrawn had no intentions to terminate the Jedi, only prevent them from entering the escape pod.”

Hondo and Melch gawked in confusion while the words of Captain Abya rattled in Hera’s mind. “Maracavanya didn’t share much details with rank and file, Captain Syndulla—only ordered us to hold our attack until some cargo from the Destroyer was aboard the Liberty’s Misrule.”

Of course! The “cargo transfer” was supposed to be Kanan and Ezra. Typical Thrawn, plotting to keep them hostage as shields against any of our Galactic Republic forces. Hera realized PZ-5 was still talking and refocused on the droid’s words.

“…the Jedi are likely restrained and being treated for any damage they may have incurred to their organic systems.” The droid tipped her head solemnly. “Provided the Nihilum have not tracked down and destroyed the Chimaera, of course.”

“The Nihilum?” Hera blinked in dismay, watching PZ-5 settle into her spot behind Melch’s co-pilot station. “Is that who destroyed this pirate armada?” Nausea revisited her stomachs.

PZ-5 nodded glumly. “It is the designation Grand Admiral Thrawn applied to these extragalactic invaders. Based on my knowledge of Thrawn’s tactics and my observation of the Chimaera’s jump trajectory, I calculate the ship returned to the Boomerang Nebula to hide from the Nihilum within its radioactive interference.”

Hera’s innards quivered, her thoughts oscillating erratically between relief and distress. “So, they should be safe enough…but we can’t connect with Ezra while the ship’s in the nebula.”

“The second portion of your statement is certainly correct, General Syndulla.” PZ-5 tilted her head toward her vambrace dejectedly.

Hera’s heart sank into a pit of ashes. Every moment that passes while we sit here helplessly could be Kanan and Ezra’s last. But she’d already gotten this close, and she absolutely refused to give up hope now. She gritted her teeth as she saw Hondo and Melch exchange a glance that, from their perspective, was understandably more relieved than disappointed.

“There, there, my dear General,” tutted Hondo, spreading his hands with his goggled eyes downcast, “You can see we face ruthless extragalactic nasties with no way to locate our dear Jedi. We must return to Queen—”

“That said,” interrupted the droid, looking up abruptly, “The Chimaera’s shields were clearly compromised during the Nihilum’s attack on the—”

“Which would force Thrawn to exit the nebula before radiation penetrates the hull,” Hera hastily interjected. A volatile cocktail of eager, yet wary, excitement bubbled through her veins. We could flank the Boomerang, heading northwest to intercept. The Chimaera couldn’t go far or fast through the nebula’s fluctuating, gravitational morass.

PZ-5 now jolted erect to rap a metallic thumb against her chest plate. “General, I calculate Big Blue is most likely to return here first to recapture me as swiftly as safety allows.” The droid’s head ducked in an attempt to appear modest. “As Master Ezra said in the holorecording, I carry highly sensitive data vital to the New Republic.”  

Hera’s pulse quickened with affection and elation. Big Blue? That had Ezra’s signature all over it. “Even better, PeeZee.” She circled her hand to include herself, Hondo and the flask-nipping Melch. “When Thrawn jumps back, we’ll be waiting.”

In the stunned silence that followed, PZ-5’s visor swiveled uncertainly from the slack-jawed pirates to Hera. “I did promise Master Ezra to bring back a rescue party, General Syndulla…but this shuttle is no match for a heavily armed Imperial Star Destroyer.”

Hondo found his voice and pounded the back of his seat with his fist to underscore every word. “Yes, yes, we must listen to this exceedingly wise and most logical droid!”

Melch grunted and stomped his bootheels on the metal flooring in solidarity. Hera gripped her forehead to stifle the headache that wanted to take permanent root inside her skull.

If only I had a battalion at my back to launch a rescue mission right now! What she had was Jacen to think about. I can’t risk our son losing Kanan and I both. But how could she face Jacen without doing everything in her power to connect with Kanan and Ezra while the chance existed?  Hera rattled out a breath that did nothing to calm her nerves or keep the snap out of her reply.

“That’s enough!” Hera’s glare instantly doused the raucous pirates. “Look, even though I’ve faced Thrawn more than a few times—successfully, I might add—what I’m talking about is using PeeZee’s trackercomm to contact Ezra and Kanan as soon as the Chimaera shows up. We’ll confirm they’re okay and alert them that a rescue team is being assembled to give them hope and strategize a way to keep the Chimaera findable.” She snapped her gloved fingers. “We’ll jump away before Thrawn even knows we’re here.”

“Ohhhh…a secret message.” Hondo flicked a patronizing glance at Melch. “See? You are always far too anxious, my fretful friend.”

The Ugnaught responded with a contemptuous flap of his hand before polishing off his putrid flask with an explosive belch. Hera was forced to wait until the miasma of fumes dissipated in the cockpit before she could think straight again. 

PZ-5 raised a finger almost apologetically in the clearing air. “General, I must submit the highly probable hypothesis that if the Jedi were placed in restraints after my escape, Master Ezra’s own trackercomm would have been discovered and confiscated by security. Our attempts to reach him would fail.”

Hera felt her lekku sag heavily in despair…and then she recalled the way Kanan could always unerringly find her, especially after he was blinded by that horrid Maul. “If only you could see the beauty of your Force signature, Hera.”  Warmth tingled in her chest and she spoke with conviction.

“Kanan will know I’m here through the Force. At the very least, he and Ezra will understand we’re looking for them. That we know they’re still alive and we sure as hell plan to get them back.

Hondo touched his own chest with a reverent hand. “As my dear mother would say, what a sweet sentiment, gallant General. But how long for your Jedi to sense your charming presence, eh?” He scratched his chin spurs. “How will we even know he has?”

“I’m…I’m not sure,” Hera had to admit. And, oh, how she hated it.

“So…if Hondo’s ears are working as perfectly as ever, you want us to float here like a helpless baby neebray, intercept this unknowable Jedi signal, then poof away before a Star Destroyer with a swarm of vicious nasties on her tail can blast us to pieces?” He steepled his hands in a mock prayer. “Please tell me I heard incorrectly. I would so adore to be wrong this once in my life.”

“Oh, you’re definitely wrong Hondo,” Hera retorted. “First of all, the only thing floating helplessly out here”—she jabbed a stern finger at the gargantuan Liberty’s Misrule listing eerily outside the viewport—"is clear evidence of a major threat to the Galaxy. We’ll be documenting everything we can for Mon Mothma while we wait.”

“But pirates don’t—“

Another finger joined Hera’s first and silenced Hondo. “Second of all, we’ve got to bring back proof of the Chimaera’s survival to make sure Thrawn gets captured before he vanishes into the Unknown Regions.”

“Which is not—“

“And three…” Hera spread her trio of fingers like a winning sabacc hand. “Kanan will know I’m here. He’s never, ever failed me.” And I won’t fail him now.

The irascible pirate countered by stabbing his own bony finger toward Hera’s determined face. “Bah! Hondo sees three rolls of loaded dice. We have better odds on surviving a summa-verminoth.”

Hera slid from her chair to grab Hondo’s finger. Moving closer, she pressed the startled pirate’s gnarled hand against his chest where she presumed the cagey Weequay had a heart.

“Look in my eyes, Captain Ohnaka,” Hera growled. “Tell me you can live with yourself if we don’t at least try to contact Ezra…and then he disappears. Forever.” Hera’s last word came out as a raspy whisper.

The eyes of her morally slippery target glinted back; Hera could see selfless concern at war with self-preservation behind the goggles. On the sidelines, Melch squealed softly in distress while PZ-5 sat mutely, apparently lost in an abyss of endless calculations.

Hera pressed harder on Hondo’s chest. “I can’t hear you.”  When the old rogue only released a guttering sigh that wanted to be a surrender, Hera suddenly understood. What he really fears is losing his notoriously ruthless reputation.

Smiling on the inside, Hera released Hondo and planted her hands on her hips. “Attention, all aboard the Last Chance ,” she ordered, raking the jolted trio with her most imposing glare. “I am General Hera Syndulla of the Galactic Republic, and I will ensure that you, Captain Hondo Ohnaka, and your co-pilot…”

Hera paused, struggling to remember if Melch had a surname, then plowed onward. “Ah, Melch, are amply rewarded by the Chancellor for aiding the Jedi Knight, Kanan Jarrus, and his apprentice, Ezra Bridger, at a time of urgent need.” She bit her lower lip, fairly certain Mon Mothma would forgive her. In a few years.

A cunning smile slid its way across the Weequay’s grizzled face. “Well, why didn’t you just say so in the first place, my dear General? Your orders are my command.” He rubbed his hands briskly together. “And in return, Hondo requests a small moon. Nothing fancy, mind you, just something gloriously tropical--a perfect setting to lure all the galactic wealthies to my future retirement casino. Hondo must think ahead as I’ll not stay this young and dashing forever, you know.”

Melch snorted derisively. Hera found herself concurring wholeheartedly with his porcine opinion and pondered the possibility of a demotion in her own future. “Hondo…

Ignoring Hera, Hondo waved his hand nonchalantly at Melch. “Ho, ho! It will be magnificent, my skeptical, yet faithful friend. On Hondo’s moon, you shall have an island with sandy beaches to wallow and bask in all to yourself.” This earned Hondo a marginally mollified grunt.

Hera slouched back in her seat with a dismissive flip of her lekku. “I did not promise you—or anyone—a moon.” She resisted the urge to strangle the ceaselessly exasperating pirate by hastily redirecting her line of sight to PZ-5. “You, PeeZee, are my official witness.”

The droid’s blank face nodded dutifully. “Per Master Ezra’s wishes, I am at your service, General Syndulla.”

“Thank you,” Hera murmured. Once again, Hera’s wild yearning for the precious information stored within the droid fluttered her heart madly with impatience, then she pressed her lips together. Soon…but first things first.

Hera felt a cunning smile of her own cross her face. “Let’s start by blowing up your escape pod.”

 

Ezra – Chimaera / Boomerang Nebula

Ezra floated in claustrophobic darkness, rising and falling as if buoyed by a restless, invisible sea. He couldn’t see his body as his hands pressed his flesh to make sure he was all still there. Distorted voices and vague noises from some dimension he could not fully perceive drifted faintly in and out of his hearing range.

Where am I? What is all this? Ezra floundered around, feeling boneless. His foggy mind last remembered deflecting the searing heat of blaster fire alongside Kanan. Did we lose? Am I dead?

Two glowing red pinpoints ignited in the dark, hovering ominously in the undefinable distance. A familiar, sibilant voice almost slithered through Ezra’s psyche to answer: Not yet.

Ezra flinched. The Son. He forced himself to keep an unblinking focus on those gleaming, ravenous looking orbs. Ezra’s nerves prickled with wariness, as if he glanced away for even a second, the Son would materialize in front of his face to swallow him whole.

What do you want? Ezra’s best guess was that the Son had come to collect some form of payment for helping him save Kanan in the Ja’Gharian Temple.

Mirthless laughter eddied around Ezra, far too close for comfort—but the glowing eyes stayed in aloof retreat. This is about what you want, Ezra Bridger…only you will never achieve it unless you let the Dark flow from me to you freely.

Shuddering, Ezra twisted himself around this way and that. Or tried to. I don’t know what you mean. I don’t even know where this is. Ezra’s eyes widened futilely, desperate for something to lock onto other than the treacherous, crimson dots.

You are everywhere and nowhere. A place where I can always reach you.

Ezra drifted in cold confusion. Had he somehow wound up back inside the World Between Worlds? He could see no pathways, no doorways.

Are you sure I’m not dead? It felt important to set this not so minor detail straight.

The Son’s voice wrapped around Ezra, interweaving its chill throughout his most vulnerable recesses. You will live until you stand where there is no Middle without the Dark. That is when you must let me flow, Ezra Bridger. And perhaps, just perhaps, you and those you love will not perish.

Bewilderment clogged Ezra’s thought channels, but there was one thing that rang clearly in the depths of his soul: the Son did nothing unselfishly. Tell me why you want to help me!

The Son’s eyes flared to bright scarlet and vanished just as Ezra felt a distant sting somewhere on his unseen body. He groped blindly for a handhold, only to sink deeper and deeper into blackness and the murmur of undecipherable voices.

  

Ahsoka – Gelidiu / Anoat Sector

“Ahsoka?! Can you hear me?!”

Sabine’s voice screamed into Ahsoka’s ears in a surreal, stereo mix through her wristcom and from a point somewhere across the chamber. Ahsoka struggled to rise from the shuddering, crystal chair but could barely move. Her energy felt drained as a dead battery, her limbs rubbery weak and every blood vessel clogged with ice. Scanning the vast chamber with bleary eyes, Ahsoka sensed rather than saw hairline fractures crackling through the ancient glyphs in the stone.

“Sabine?” Ahsoka’s shout was instantly answered by the Mandalorian’s wildly waving torchlight. Ahsoka now saw Sabine to her left, staggering on the shaky ground and far too close to the dark trench between them.

Determined to reach her endangered friend, Ahsoka willed herself upward. “Stay away from the edge, Sabine—I’m coming!” Instead, Ahsoka practically fell off the apparatus and was forced to clutch her staff to pull herself erect.

“There’s no way out back there!” yelled Sabine. “Boobytraps destroyed the hanger right before Rex tried to fly in!”

Ignoring a subterranean boom! that rattled her teeth, Ahsoka reached out in the Force…and exhaled in relief on finding both clones’ faint but familiar energy signatures well beyond the thick stone ceiling. “I sense the ship searching over us now!” she shouted back and gestured upward. “I’ll get us out!”

A gut-wrenching rumble worked its way up from wherever the platform’s pedestal met the deep heart of the mountain. Ahsoka was forced to grip the edge of the Dark chair to stop herself from sliding sideways. The cold crystal numbed her hand to the bones. Overhead, the grid of retractable stone slabs rattled ominously. Ribbons of fine dust floated in the dim and flickering light.

“Better make it fast!” Sabine cried out, flailing to keep her balance.

Still clutching the crystal chair, Ahsoka’s other hand raised her staff toward the largest ceiling slab directly above her. Fighting against infuriating weariness, Ahsoka willed the heavy stone to slide along its shaking tracks, praying to the Force the whole section wouldn’t tumble down to flatten her and Sabine instead.

Rock groaned and more dust swirled as the stubborn slab finally grated open centimeter by centimeter to reveal a swath of frigid night sky. Freezing air blasted Ahsoka, then her heart thudded with joy when the Gregor’s searchlights blazed forward. Bright beams of illumination flooded the chamber to pinpoint on Ahsoka. She turned her face to protect her almost blinded, watering eyes.

“’Soka!” Rex’s voice cut through her wristcomm. “We’re lowering the ramp!” Overhead, the Gregor shifted her position, engines and stabilizers straining against volatile winds.

Sabine first. For one heartbeat, Ahsoka gathered strength and focus to Force-pull Sabine across to the platform—but then the surface beneath her careened sharply. Losing her grip on the chair, Ahsoka slid rapidly down the platform’s collapsing surface. Without conscious thought, she Force-jumped toward the hovering ship just before she almost dropped over the precipice along with the falling apparatus.

Ahsoka now dangled precariously in gusts of icy wind, her cloak whipping wildly about her as she gripped the end of the Gregor’s ramp with her achingly numb hand. Her other hand cradled her precious staff close to her heaving chest. Her body wanted to black out with exhaustion, but Ahsoka forced herself to stare down through the gap of the retracted slab.

She winced as the falling platform below crumbled and shattered its way into the gaping maw of the pit. Around the mountaintop’s open gap, an alarming array of fissures splintered the Observatory’s camouflage of rock and snow.

Ahsoka’s searching eyes found Sabine’s tiny form on the chamber’s shuddering floor, encircled by ever widening cracks. How could I have abandoned her like that? Gritting her teeth, Ahsoka reached out with the Force to pull Sabine up to the ship’s ramp—and almost lost her handhold. That damn, Dark-infested chair ! It was taking what little strength she still had left after that encounter to cling to the ramp.

“Sabine!” Ahsoka cried out, her voice wracked with dismay. She was barely aware of Wolffe’s bootsteps clomping toward her along the ramp.

“S-still here!” Sabine’s voice hissed through Ahsoka’s wristcomm. Far below her swaying feet, Ahsoka saw Sabine drag herself dangerously close to the yawning pit and peer up through the unstable opening in the snow encrusted mountaintop. Managing a half crouch, Sabine tore off her borrowed cloak and beckoned urgently.

Wolffe’s strong hands were already pulling Ahsoka onto the ramp. He directed a powerful yell toward the ship’s hold. “I’ve got her, Rex!”

Sabine’s demand of “Jetpack—now!” abruptly crackled through both of their wristcomms.

Wolffe yanked a colorfully painted object from his shoulder. “Way ahead of you, Mando!” he rasped into his own wristcomm.

“About time, old man!” Sabine’s retort was full of static and grateful sass.

Ahsoka caught Wolffe’s eye. “You throw, I’ll guide.” I can do at least that much. Can’t I? Her stomach fluttered with nausea as the ship bucked in the relentless wind.

“Aye, aye, Umbra Leader.” Wolffe gave Ahsoka something between a grin as a grimace while she braced herself on the nearest ramp strut. Targeting with his cybernetic eye, the clone planted himself near the ramp’s side and flung Sabine’s jetpack toward her distant, outstretched hands. “Incoming!”

Ahsoka outstretched her fingertips, managing a feather light Force-touch on the falling pack. Below, an ice-encrusted ceiling slab capsized from its track to cascade inward toward the crumbling pit. Mercifully for all, Sabine’s position lay outside the range of the disaster—but turbulent, spinning debris knocked the jetpack’s trajectory off course. It careened hopelessly away toward the pit’s gaping maw.

Ahsoka’s teeth sank into her lip. Daughter, help me!  She aimed her staff downward and clutched her other hand into a fist, feeling Light ripple through her to capture the jetpack. Swerving her staff toward Sabine, Ahsoka released her fist and Force-propelled the jetpack directly into the Mandalorian’s eager grip. Ahsoka sagged against the ramp strut, forcing her eyes to remain locked on Sabine.

A deep BOOM more felt than heard resonated through the ramp and Ahsoka’s body. Under the Gregor, the entire mountaintop heaved and groaned like a dying Krayt dragon. Row upon row of the retractable ceiling slabs teetered inward while their supporting grids twisted into mangled ruin.

"Sabine!” Ahsoka’s mouth moved but it was Wolffe who screamed the name aloud.

And then—a bright flare zigzagged through the chaos below. Like an iridescent humming peeper, Sabine soared into view, dodging her way through chunks of crumbling mountaintop while her colorful armor flashed in the Gregor’s floodlights. Ahsoka found she could breathe again. Thank the Daughter.

Cutting her jetpack’s engine, Sabine thudded onto the ramp, grabbing the other strut to stand as erectly as possible on the bobbing surface. A bloody scrape stood out starkly across one of her unnaturally pale cheeks. “Time to get off this kriffing iceball!”

Ahsoka pushed at Wolffe as he hauled her toward the warm safety of the ship. “No! Get Sabine in first. She got the worst of it.”

Instead, Sabine grasped Ahsoka snugly around the waist to assist the selectively deaf Wolffe. “I’ll cry and throw up later. You look full of Chuba poison.”

Ahsoka sighed, her leaden feet relenting against her will. “I’m so sorry for—”

“For what?” Sabine countered instantly, her voice fierce. “I’m the one who almost missed the bomb delay. If I hadn’t seen that swarm of little fuzzies racing off, we’d all be buried down there.”

She’s not going to let me stew in my guilt. “But you did see, Sabine…and here we are,” Ahsoka half-smiled while Sabine replied with a half-shrug.

The trio hobbled into the blessedly wind-free interior of the ship and Wolffe shut the ramp with a slap of the controls. They all shifted as the Gregor rose skyward.

Rex’s relief-filled voice boomed from the intercom. “Welcome back aboard. Where to next, Umbra Leader?”

Ahsoka finally extracted herself from her would-be nursemaids and rubbed her aching forehead. “Takodana,” she almost whispered.

Wolffe’s concerned face eased into a relieved grin as he called out loudly, “Maz’s Castle, mate!”

Sabine stopped in the middle of unstrapping her jetpack. “To Hera?”

Ahsoka nodded wanly, straightening her hood and cloak. “To Hera.” Inside her mind, she was already composing the urgent, coded message she’d need their dear friend to deliver to Luke.

 

Kanan – Chimaera  / Boomerang Nebula

Kanan cracked open his eyes to find the bland durasteel ceiling of the Chimaera’s medbay overhead. Beneath his back was the familiar, stiffly sterile bed he’d previously occupied after healing from his fuel pod burns in the bacta tank. Diagnostic equipment droned softly in the background while the usual array of tubes and sensors tracked Kanan’s vital signs. The good news was that he was still breathing. The bad news was that he'd been stripped of his blaster and lightsaber.

Kanan’s boilersuit had been substituted with a flimsy patient gown. As if I didn’t feel naked enough without my weapons. Kanan skated his fingers across his upper limbs and body, glad to find nothing worse than tender bruises and sore muscles.

He turned his head tentatively, wincing at the dull throb of a headache that always came courtesy of a stun blast. Glancing to the next med station, Kanan heaved a sigh of relief at the sight of Ezra wrapped in his own drab gown, deeply asleep while the XT-92 medical droid grumped to itself over his diagnostics. At least we both finally got some shut-eye.

Scanning his way toward the medbay’s exit, Kanan was not at all surprised to see two stormtroopers blockading the passage. Deathtrooper wannabees. That’s what Ezra had jokingly whispered during a mealtime that felt like eons ago to Kanan’s reproachful stomach. Apparently, ever since Thrawn had lost his personal deathtroopers during the purrgil attack, a handful of the run-of-the-mill bucketheads still dreamed of being worthy of a black suit of armor.

They might as well dream of Thrawn dishing them up a big slice of meiloorun pie in the sky. Kanan had zero intentions of being the winning ticket to any buckethead’s promotion. He also had no doubt Thrawn had merely stationed these two lackeys as a warning to keep troublemakers (such as the ever charming Bek) out. After all, Thrawn would’ve tossed Kanan and Ezra in ray shielded detention cells if he’d really wanted to keep the Jedi in.

“It’s good to see you awake, Kanan.”

Kanan swiveled his head back to see Lieutenant Braruz stepping out of a console alcove to approach his bedside. His still-defuzzing brain juggled a rapid spate of unpleasant memories. “Don’t you ever sleep, Lieutenant?”

An annoyingly Thrawn-like smile curved Braruz’s lips. “I had sufficient time to rest while you and Commander Bridger have been recuperating. You were both severely depleted.” Amethyst eyes inspected him from head to toe with meticulous scrutiny. “How are you feeling?”

Kanan pushed himself up into a less vulnerable position, humiliating gown be damned. “Right now, I’d like to strangle a certain Chiss.”

Braruz’s arching eyebrows almost touched her officer’s cap. “That seems a rather ungrateful sentiment considering Grand Admiral Thrawn saved your lives.” Her admonishing hand swept from Kanan to Ezra’s quiet form.

Kanan heard his throbbing pulse beep faster on one of the monitors. She’s got to be kidding me. “Funny thing. All I remember is Thrawn double-crossing us,” he stated flatly.

Now the Devaronian studied Kanan as if he’d grown sixteen pairs of rainbow-hued eyes. “Had your transfer to the pirates actually been completed, you and Commander Bridger would be floating dead in space with their flotilla. Instead, you’re safe from the Nihilum courtesy of the Chimaera’s strategic retreat.”

In the ensuing silence, Braruz’s unflinching gaze measured Kanan’s deepening frown. “Am I wrong?”

To Kanan’s annoyance, Dume picked this moment of all moments to reassert his interlinked presence.

SHE SPEAKS TRULY.

Kanan grimaced at the resonant voice in his mind, fuming that the ancient Force entity had the audacity to take his enemy’s side. “That’s not the point.”

The lieutenant started tapping the keys of her ever present datapad with more force than necessary. “What is the point?”

“The point,” Kanan bit out to enlighten both offending parties, “Is that your oh, so tenderhearted boss refused to let me and Ezra go—and you’ve been extracting kriff knows what samples out of us while pretending to care about our beauty sleep.”

Dume didn’t bother to respond, apparently already deeming the matter closed. Braruz held her datapad against her chest like a protective shield before leaning down to hiss into Kanan’s ear.

“Everything I do helps you and Commander Bridger remain indispensable to Grand Admiral Thrawn and this ship.” She stepped back, eyeing Kanan through her lashes reproachfully. “In other words, alive.”

“Your concern is very touching, considering you’re the one who shot me in the back,” Kanan retorted.

Braruz’s pink cheeks flushed almost magenta, but she tossed her head. “If you were shot in the back, how could you know it was me?” A note of scientific curiosity crept into her defensive tone. “Is the Force telling you that now?”

Kanan’s mouth opened for a snappy reply, then shut itself. The Force. Was there something it was trying to tell him? Kanan realized he’d been so busy using the Force to survive lately, he hadn’t had a quiet moment until now to actually connect.

Reaching out, Kanan found his mind reliving the sheer triumph of cutting that last, deadly sentry droid into mangled parts before he and Ezra left Braruz and the stormtroopers to snooze their way back to consciousness. Next had been a bone-weary, mad dash toward the hanger bay with the absurdly optimistic plan to steal a shuttle, snag PZ-5’s escape pod, and jump away in all the chaos…Only, we never even made it to the hanger.

What Kanan and Ezra had reached was a transparisteel window along an outer corridor just in time to witness the Nihilum’s weapons array target the Liberty’s Misrule. As if watching the Super Star Destroyer seared into a sarcophagus wasn’t enough, the shockwave of thousands of lives ending in excruciating pain had pummeled through both Jedi’s raw, overtaxed senses and crumpled Kanan and Ezra to their knees.

It had been too much like Order 66 all over again. Kanan shuddered and gripped the sides of his bed to stop the shaking in his hands.

“Kanan? Are you alright?” Braruz tentatively reached out but stopped short of touching him.

The clenching in Kanan’s gut subsided and left one very clear realization in its wake. After the Nihilum’s merciless obliteration of the pirates, the stun rings Lieutenant Braruz blasted into Kanan’s back had brought him nothing but sheer, blessed oblivion. The hot coals of anger he’d been banking slowly dissipated into cold, windblown ash.

“I’m fine,” Kanan managed, rubbing his temples. Well, I could be happier about the Force’s reminder that Ezra and I still have a few ugly things to stick out with your insufferable boss. Kanan sighed in dutiful resignation while a furtive part of his mind gleefully imagined making the Nihilum and the grand admiral disappear with a snap of his fingers.

Kanan let a corner of his mouth quirk up before he met Braruz’s concerned eyes. “But you might want to keep in mind that I don’t need to see you to know you’re there.”  

“Hm.” Braruz stared at Kanan inscrutably, then her fingers tapped more gently on her datapad. “I’m not sure if I should feel honored…or guilty as charged.”

“What I’m not sure of is how you woke up so fast,” Kanan countered, his brow furrowed with suspicion.

The lieutenant averted her gaze to Kanan’s various medical monitors, tapping more notes. “We Devaronians are very…resilient.”

An image of the broken-horned Cikatro Vizago sprang into Kanan’s mind. “Huh. I think the word you're looking for is sneaky. So, what happened to Thrawn’s ‘dispensables?’” His fingers quirked the air quotes.

Braruz’s eyes snapped back to Kanan, wary. “The stormtroopers were treated for the concussions you so generously gave them, then released to their duties.” She clutched the datapad tightly. “For now, their immediate futures depend on continued, blissful ignorance.”

‘Well, that shouldn’t be too hard,” Kanan scoffed. “It’s not like those two moof-milkers would believe me or Ezra if we tried to rat on your boss.”

“Yeah, about that…” Ezra’s voice cut in.

Kanan and Braruz swiveled to find Ezra pushing himself up in his bed. Kanan peered into his not-padawan’s groggy, shadowed eyes and felt exasperation and concern play tug of war inside his heart. Ezra may be a man now, but that scrawny boy with his magnet for trouble will always be in there somewhere.

“How long have you been awake?” Kanan asked, his eyebrow climbing.

Ezra shot him a sly, but distracted smile. “Long enough to wonder what Thrawn’s planning to do with us Rebel scum now.” He waved off the fussing medical droid and hugged his thinly clad legs to his chest.

“That, Commander Bridger,” Braruz answered pensively while eyeing Ezra and Kanan, “Will depend very much on you Jedi.”

  

Ahsoka – Gregor  / En route to Takodana

“Chalactan tea,” Rex muttered, thrusting a mug into Ahsoka’s hand. “If you’re not going to sleep, this should help you focus on whatever all that is.” His fingers wiggled at the archaic symbols streaming across Ahsoka’s datapad.

She swiveled her console chair to look at Rex directly and nod thanks with a weary smile. Like everyone else in the Gregor’s cockpit, the clone looked tired to his core. Ahsoka glanced swiftly over at Wolffe, who slumped in the pilot’s seat, framed by the wavering blues of hyperspace. Sabine sat crisscross on a cushion farther back in the cabin with her chin propped on one hand, almost obscured by numerous holographic projections. Sabine’s face was pinched with perplexed frustration, but she kept her fatigued eyes fixed on the bubble of images, glyphs and symbols culled from Eedit and Gelidiu.

We should all be sleeping…but no one wants to be alone right now.

“It’s the Old Tongue,” Ahsoka explained, tapping the datapad. “I’m looking up something from long ago that the Bendu mentioned about my staff.”

Vade’mecum. Based on her encounters with the enigmatic, capricious Force entity, Ahsoka was certain his choice to reveal this particular name had been anything but random. By the twinge in her stomach, Ahsoka also knew she was using this data search as a guilt-free excuse to avoid the meditative plunge required to mine the staff a new name from the depths of her own psyche. I won’t be ready for such scrutiny until the last traces of that Dark chair fade from my system. Ahsoka took a bracing sip of the hot tea, determined not to risk contaminating the Architect’s precious gift, no matter how faintly.

Rex’s golden-brown eyes crinkled at her with wry humor, but worry lines stayed grooved into his forehead. “Well, if that gobbledegook doesn’t hit your snooze button, I don’t know what will.”

He stepped through Sabine’s holo gallery and planted another mug into her grateful grip.

“This better not be laced with Wolffe’s ‘afterburner,’” Sabine grinned slyly before sipping. “On second thought, maybe mind-altering liquor would help make some sense of this.”

Over at the helm, Wolffe yawned hugely. “Better grab me something a lot stronger than that flipping tea, mate.” He waggled his empty container.

“I’ll go scrape the crust out of the caf machine,” retorted Rex.

“How come you two don’t have an astromech to at least babysit some during hyperspace?” asked Sabine, half-heartedly shifting various holo images around.

The clones shared an amused glance that was tinged with annoyance. “Oh, we have an astromech,” declared Wolffe. “An Ar-Four unit we picked up from an Imp scavenger friend of ours.”

“Only, he has…issues,” finished Rex.

“Issues?” Sabine stood up to shake feeling back into her legs. “Like Chopper homicidal maniac issues?”

Rex shook his head. “Turns out the droid’s paranoid as hell. Two memory wipes haven’t fixed the glitch.”

Sabine rubbed her hands together briskly. “Well, let me at him, boys.” Her fingers flexed eagerly. “I’ll see what I can do.”

“Can’t hurt.” Rex shrugged and led Sabine out of the cabin area.

Wolffe snorted loudly at their backs. “Keep that restraining bolt on, Mando, unless you’re in the mood for a game of hide and seek.”

“I think I can handle a whacked-out droid,” Sabine tossed back over her shoulder with an impish glint in her eye.  

Ahsoka smiled internally. I’m not the only one eager to avoid heavier duties. Sipping the flavorful tea, she refocused her fatigue-blurred eyes on her datapad and the ancient squiggles awaiting her.

Vade’mecum. Atollon’s heat saturated air had stirred thickly around Ahsoka when the Bendu uttered the name, the Old Tongue enriched by his sonorous voice. "It is a key that must be unlocked to reveal its purpose and power layer by layer to the bearer."  Was the Bendu implying the staff was similar to a holocron, implanted with clues that could help lead to its new name and purpose?  

After scanning the litany of meanings and references within her records, Ahsoka’s lips felt torn between a wry smile and a perplexed frown. All the interpretations revolved around objects that either contained information, provided guidance, or were a means of support. Her finger slowly scrolled the list again, tapping lightly on the most likely suspects. Book, scroll, lexicon, beacon, signal, landmark, lodestar, rod, cane…staff. Had her predecessor simply named the staff…’staff ’? The tips of Ahsoka’s lekku swung slightly as she shook her head. She doubted a lack of imagination was at play.  

Her mouth moved silently, trying on more potential meanings to see what rang with truth. Tome, encyclopedia, compendium…map. Ahsoka’s skin turned to gooseflesh; the Observatory’s arcane symbols and the disturbing images she’d seen from its Dark chair rippled through her thoughts. The Daughter had guided Ahsoka to connect and See with the apparatus through the staff, not her hands. Perhaps it was not only to shield her from the poisonous dregs of Palpatine, but because the staff still held residual powers infused by its previous owners.  

Ahsoka was ripped from her tangled thoughts by pounding boots and frantic, binary beeps.  

Rex’s shout echoed off the bulkheads. “Turn him off before he breaks something!”  

An R4 droid painted in the stark, Imperial colors of red, white and black scurried frantically into the cabin’s cockpit area with Rex and Sabine in his wake. Wolffe scowled as if they were all capering monkey lizards.  

“You took off the bolt?”  

“She insisted the droid knows her,” sputtered Rex while they cornered the wobbling, bleeping droid by the engineering station.  

“Because he does know me!” Sabine snapped, then stretched an open palm toward the R4 unit. “It’s okay, Two-Six-Four,” she crooned gently. “You remember the Spectres. You know I’m Sabine.” She touched the firebird symbol on her right shoulder’s pauldron. “Back then, I had a five painted here.”  

The droid merely spun in jerky half-circles, emitting a wild squeal.  

Wolffe crossed his beefy arms, shooting Sabine a skeptical glance. “Are you sure you’ve met this droid before?” he huffed.  

“Yes! It’s kind of a long story, but the short version is we switched out Chopper for Two-Six-Four on an intel mission,” Sabine explained hurriedly. “This droid helped us put out a fire on the Ghost along the way.” 

The droid shuddered, burbling in distress. Ahsoka walked over slowly, her brow furrowing.

“Did he just say Chopper shoved him out of the cargo hold over Lothal?”  

Sabine swallowed and nodded reluctantly. “Yeah…but Chopper almost did the same thing to Ezra a few times--so don’t take it personally, Two-Six-Four.” She gave the droid a strained smile before turning her bright eyes back to Ahsoka. “Anyway, later on Two-Six-Four helped save me from an Imperial base.”  

While the clones exchanged baffled looks with Ahsoka, Sabine eased closer to 264. “You opened my prison cell and deactivated the Imperial’s tractor beam so the Ghost could escape, remember?”  

The R4 rotated his dome back and forth, processing everything with pathetic sounding beeps.  

Ahsoka planted her hands on her hips and frowned. “That sounds like you all left him behind.”  

Sabine cringed. “We had no choice at the time.” She knelt in front of 264, who froze stiffly in place with his reproachful photoreceptor cell locked on Sabine. She sighed, brushing back her tousled bangs. “I’m so sorry.”  

The droid burbled morosely, and Sabine’s face stiffened into a grimace. “I had no idea the bucketheads dumped you on a trash pile to freeze.” The Mandalorian’s voice was clipped with repressed fury.  

Both clones’ bushy eyebrows raised in unison. “Well, that explains a lot,” muttered Wolffe hoarsely.  

Rex scratched at his beard. “Some memories burrow too deep to wipe away.”  

Sabine patted the top of 264’s dome and proclaimed firmly, “Well, I say it’s time to make some new memories—good ones. Right, Two-Six-Four?”  

After a split second of deliberation, 264 tilted perkily, booping and chiming happily. Sabine stood up, smiling at Ahsoka and the bemused clones over the cheerful R4’s swiveling dome.  

“First off is a new name, the one you’ve got is a bleeding mouthful,” groused Wolffe to the droid.  

Rex snapped his fingers. “That’s easy, brother. ‘Evens’ about covers all those numbers.”

Two-Six-Four chirruped in pleased agreement as both clones laughed, their eyes clearly sharing some old war story only they knew.  

Ahsoka crossed her arms, arching her eyebrow teasingly. “Evens it is. Looks like the Gregor has a new babysitter for her hyperdrive.” 

Sabine waved the others away. “Which means go get some rest. I can babysit our babysitter a while to make sure he remains stable.”  

I better not find you asleep in the middle of those holo projections again. “You’ve got two hours, then get one of us,” Ahsoka ordered, her eyebrow turning serious. 

 

Thrawn – Chimaera / Boomerang Nebula 

Thrawn strode past the stormtroopers guarding a partitioned area of the main hangar bay, closely shadowed by his two remaining sentry droids. The grand admiral’s mouth pressed into a thin line at the thought of the three units decimated by the Jedi. A necessary sacrifice.

The repair bay droids were attempting to reassemble at least one sentry and electrostaff, but Thrawn already possessed what he valued most from out of the wreckage—the holorecordings of the Jedi’s battle maneuvers. Should a future confrontation between the Jedi and Thrawn’s soon-to-be reprogrammed sentries be required, Jarrus and Bridger would find victory a far more elusive goal.

Letting slip the barest hint of a smile, Thrawn turned his full attention to the feverish efforts of a team of elite mechanical, weapons, propulsion and other key engineers examining the massive Nihilum that loomed in front of him. Crammed sideways into the secured area and surrounded by various arrays of diagnostic equipment, the Nihilum lay prostrate like a zealous, armor-clad giant worshipping at the unseen feet of a merciless deity.

Thrawn’s faint smile faded as he approached the android-shaped vessel. Extracting all 150 meters of its sculpted torso and multi-positional, weaponized limbs from the purrgil’s tentacles to these restricted confines had—and still—required excruciating care. Although the Nihilum appeared to have been rendered completely inoperable by the purrgil’s attack, it bore no sign of external damage. The disconcerting fact that it was still transmitting a tracking signal to its cohorts implied that other (likely deadly) components remained active. Such as a self-destruct program awaiting initiation, accidental or otherwise.

The lead engineer, Thud Swor, was a taciturn Rodian with an intuitive gift for almost anything mechanical. A rare alien among the Chimaera’s crew, Swor had caught Thrawn’s notice after the purrgil attack decimated his human superiors. Swor now snapped to attention at Thrawn’s approach, his multifaceted eyes glittering. “Admiral, how may I be of service during your inspection?”

“At ease, Officer Swor. You and this crew serve best by remaining diligently at your stations.” Thrawn tapped a key on his datapad to bring up Swor’s detailed notes on the Nihilum for perusal. And the less said aloud, the fewer ears will pick up on any information they need not hear. “I will alert you of any questions that arise concerning your reports to date.”

“Aye, sir.” Clearly dismissed, the lanky Rodian headed back to the knotted clusters of engineers and support technicians with gruff, shooing gestures. “You heard Admiral Thrawn, back to work.”

Thrawn’s sharp eyes noted the surreptitious glowers a handful of the humans directed at Swor and flagged their faces for later inspection. For now, Thrawn stroked his chin pensively while he rapidly skimmed Swor’s status report of the operation. Of greatest import, the crew still remained far from achieving the primary objective: deactivating the tracking signal. Apparently, its oddly elusive source circulated within a radioactive stream throughout the Nihilum’s deepest core like the diseased blood of a dying patient.

A supremely uncooperative patient in the hands of a technologically inferior doctor. Thrawn suppressed a wave of anxious frustration that wanted to crest through his nervous system. If only he had access to a full-fledged Imperial base. Better yet, the refined laboratories and greater ingenuity of Chiss engineers.

For now, probe droids crawled at various points along the Nihilum’s structure in search of sliceable access points or panels to its control systems. Unless and until Thrawn ordered otherwise, Sworr’s crew was to avoid unnecessary damage via more forcible efforts, keeping the Nihilum intact as much as possible while pinpointing design flaws to use against the horde if (when) the Chimaera was attacked again.

What the grand admiral had kept to himself was a long-term vision to retro-engineer and integrate the Nihilum’s tantalizing technology for his own strategic purposes. Thrawn sighed, already resigned to settling dutifully for the lesser resources of the Imperial remnants in the Unknown Regions, especially if the Chiss Ascendency proved severely hamstrung by political circumstances involving the Grysks. Until he could communicate with Grand Admiral Ara’lani and Lieutenant Commander Vanto, the ultimate way forward remained clouded.

Unfortunately, even Thrawn’s less lofty goals were already thwarted at this nascent stage. Simply extracting samples of the Nihilum’s outer layer for analysis was hampered by its resistance to any significant penetration. Complete laboratory results from the microscrapings the probe droids had actually managed to collect were pending, but Officer Swor’s notes currently aligned with Thrawn’s own prognosis: “The manner in which the encasing material readjusts its consistency in immediate reaction to various levels of applied force or pressure is indicative of highly evolved nanotechnology infused into the yet-to-be identified metallic alloy to reconfigure the Nihilum’s surface on a subatomic level.

Thrawn felt a chill touch his spine. Could this advanced nanotech also be repairing the Nihilum’s currently unreachable core to reverse any internal damage the purrgil had somehow inflicted to shut it down? Tapping firmly on the datapad, Thrawn rapidly composed and submitted orders for Swor to prioritize the investigation of this possibility post haste.

Time is not our ally while this poisonous nebula attempts to cheat the Nihilum of our death. The grand admiral clenched a fist as if gripping an energy whip to crack over the entire proceedings…but it would be only fair to include his own back in the flogging. The Chimaera’s perilous misadventures since acquiring the Nihilum had severely delayed and continued to disrupt Swor’s team. Thrawn himself remained guilty of scant time to inspect their captive enemy personally until now, but he intended to make full use of every second available to upturn clues no matter how insignificant they might be.

Overriding his baser instincts to recoil to a far distance, Thrawn walked meter by meter along the Nihilum’s perimeter. Assessing its formidable, yet flowing design on his way from the aft appendages to the prow, Thrawn filed away pertinent details for clinical analysis later. All along his methodical journey, Thrawn found his artistically trained eyes riveted to the Nihilum’s incongruously decorative elements—features that inexplicably softened the android-shaped vessel’s intimidating design rather than enhanced its overall menace.

Thrawn studied the decorative details intently. Some of the features were subtle, such as narrow grooves which outlined each major segment of the Nihilum’s metallic plating. Other structures were far more elaborate—like the intricate whorls and fluid arcs that spun into repeating patterns across the Nihilum’s upper torso in the manner of military rank or insignia. Or perhaps a family crest or surname?

Thrawn tapped notes into his datapad, resolving to further review the holorecordings of the extragalactic horde’s attacks in minute detail to isolate differences and similarities between the designs adorning each Nihilum. For now, Thrawn’s memory called forth images of how these decorative elements shaped the bioluminescent glow which radiated from each’s Nihilum’s plating to generate an ethereal, protective cocoon during battle. It was puzzling that time and resources had been spent to beautify this defensive shielding—or any part of these utilitarian killing machines. Especially considering the Nihilum had not only decimated the organic sentients they’d encountered in Wild Space but made sure to destroy their cultural and religious artwork as well.

Thrawn frowned, hearing the clone trooper’s recorded warning in his troubled mind. “These butchering clankers are only clearing the way for more of their kind.” What, precisely, was their kind? Were the Nihilum fully sentient and independent inorganics who had outlived their creators and original purpose centuries ago? Or were they weaponized scouts still controlled by a race of technologically ingenious organics?  Either way, if the Nihilum presumably originated from one of the nearby dwarf galaxies, what calamity (or insatiable greed ) had driven them across the deadly hyperspace anomalies of the Intergalactic Void?  

A high-pitched beep from Thrawn’s communicator cut through his uneasy contemplation.

“Admiral, this is Captain Makeri. All shields are reported back online—and secondary repairs to the last of the ship’s affected systems are estimated to be complete within two hours.”

“Very good, Captain,” Thrawn replied crisply, shifting his attention to the detailed updates being funneled to his datapad regarding the Chimaera’s status. “Make preparations for the jump back to our originating coordinates but adjust our vector as much as ship safety allows to mask our arrival. I advise a return point where the asteroid field and battlefield debris obscure us from potential enemy sensors for as long as possible while we scan for the droid’s escape pod.”

“Aye, sir,” acknowledged Makeri’s voice. “We’ll remain on standby for a return jump to our current location in the Boomerang if our arrival meets with hostile forces.”

In other words, the Nihilum horde . Thrawn’s jaw clenched at the all too fresh memory of surreal devastation the invaders had so effortlessly left in their wake. Nevertheless, power of this or any kind is not limitless and requires a source of replenishment. “Captain Makeri, a reminder to ensure the astronavigation team also remains on standby to scan the nearest hypergiant stars for anomalies immediately upon our arrival.”

“By your command, sir,” Makeri firmly replied.

“That is all, Captain…for now.” Thrawn ended the communication. It was almost certain that PZ-5 was still awaiting rescue from the extremely remote battlefield. The moment scanners locked onto the droid’s signal, Thrawn looked forward to ordering the Chimaera to jump straight to the escape pod’s hatch.

Thinking of Commander Bridger’s reunion with the wayward droid, Thrawn felt his mouth ease into an anticipatory smile. It was destined to be a bittersweet affair…and certainly one to elicit both Jedi’s continued compliance aboard the grand admiral’s ship.

With that satisfying thought in mind, Thrawn stopped before what could only be described as the Nihilum’s cranial unit. Its obovoid shape was half-hidden behind the sharply scalloped shoulders that capped the folded upper appendages. Other than opaque, wide-spaced lenses to collect visual data, the highly polished facial area was devoid of any other anthropomorphic features.

Thrawn’s skin crawled briefly as he moved into a position almost face-to-massive face with the Nihilum. At the sight of his own dim reflection in the mysterious, gleaming alloy, a primitive part of Thrawn’s psyche cowered, half expecting the eye lenses to flare into a pair of glowing orbs and hypnotize him into place.

The grand admiral abruptly squared his shoulders to peer down his nose at the Nihilum. Your secrets are mine to find and exploit. As if in agreement, illumination gleamed brightly along the fallen giant’s torso when an engineer activated another set of flood lamps. Thrawn’s gaze lifted and discovered the stark light was silhouetting the scalloped edges of an obscured structure. Whatever the mostly hidden object was, it originated somewhere beyond the Nihilum’s disturbingly blank face.

Feeling the push-pull of curiosity and apprehension propel his feet, Thrawn stepped back a few meters to expand his field of view—then froze in place at the startling revelation. Sweeping upward from the far sides and back of the Nihilum’s bowed head was a curving lattice of ornamental spikes that created a majestic crest over three meters high. Although aerodynamic in shape and form, this elegant adornment clearly served no utilitarian purpose.

Thrawn's staring eyes finally blinked. This Nihilum wears a…crown ?

A jolt surged through Thrawn’s synapses and his stiff fingers tightly clutched the datapad. It was now more imperative than ever to meticulously review all available images of the Nihilum horde for comparison—and to confirm a certainty that now permeated not only his gut, but the most intricate processes of his mind.

“Is something wrong, Admiral?” Swor had padded forward in quiet concern.

Thrawn flicked his gaze to the Rodian, whose compound eyes assessed him with multifaceted apprehension. In the background, a trio of crew members huddled by the laser barrels of the Nihilum’s nearest weapons-laden appendage. Each pretended to keep busy while casting nervous glances Thrawn’s way. His anger subsided as he relaxed his iron grip on the datapad. They are all efficient, prosaic engineers…not sophisticated curators to decipher an alien culture’s symbolic artwork.

“Not at all, Officer Swor,” Thrawn intoned softly. “Carry on.”

Dismissing his lead engineer with a nod, Thrawn spun on his heel to stride rapidly away. The sentry droids lumbered in his wake, barely an afterthought in Thrawn’s stream of consciousness. Another faint smile returned to his lips, this one filled with intrigue and destined for a longer stay.

The mother purrgil hadn’t ensnared just any Nihilum within her tentacles. The creature had captured the horde’s ruler.

 

Ahsoka – Takodana

Sabine shook her finger at Zeb as she stomped down the Gregor’s ramp, followed more sedately by Ahsoka, Rex, and Wolffe.

“I still can’t believe you just let Hera go off on some crazy dangerous recon mission—and with Hondo Ohnaka of all people!”

Somehow, the cornered Lasat looked smaller than the oncoming Mandalorian. “Didn’t you listen to the rest of my transmission?” Zeb’s ears twitched dejectedly, and he darted a look at Kallus for support.

Kallus’ frown lines deepened. “Rest assured, we tried to talk sense into Hera to send one of us in her place, but she was determined to investigate the Chimaera’s possible existence no matter what the circumstances.”

Chopper emitted a derisive wah bwah wap, dismissing Zeb and Kallus with a wave of his manipulator arm.

Sabine cocked her head at the droid. “Exactly right, Chop.”

Zeb folded his massive arms. “Whatever that little metal maniac thinks, I’d have liked to see any one of you stop General Syndulla.” His reproachful green glare slid from Sabine to Ahsoka and the two clones. “None of you were here to see her face.”

The heat in Sabine’s amber-flecked eyes cooled slightly before her fist lightly smacked Zeb’s armored chest. “Well, if I had been here, I’d have stowed away on Hondo’s ship.” Now Sabine’s fist cocked itself on her hip. “Speaking of, your transmission said the Last Chance would be back by now.”

“Because it was supposed to be,” growled Zeb. His hands clenched as if strangling an infuriating bureaucrat. “If that uptight, Klatooinian pirate would just cough up the coordinates, I’d be out searching already.”

Ahsoka only heard the remainder of their bickering with one ear, more and more distracted by an expanding ripple in the Force. It wasn’t Maz Kanata’s energy signature, although Ahsoka could sense the pirate queen’s determined presence within the castle. Maz is not avoiding me—in fact, I can feel her setting wheels in motion already.

Taking advantage of a half-second interlude in the gripe fest, Ahsoka calmly lowered her staff between Zeb and Sabine like a gate arm. “Where is Jacen?”

Zeb blinked at the unexpected interruption, then answered gruffly, “He’s with Apee Five doing lessons.”

Kallus added, “We’ve kept Jacen distracted over by the lake ever since he finished his training with Maz Kanata today.”

Ahsoka glanced at the sparkling water beyond the Gregor’s landing pad and felt the Force’s subtle pull intensify. Nymeve Lake. It is something there that calls to me. Refocusing on Zeb and Kallus, she bestowed an approving nod. “Excellent strategy, gentlemen.”  

In response to the praise, Chopper whomped indignantly and pointed at his own dome with a vehement manipulator claw.

“What? It wasn’t your flipping idea, you narcissistic trash can,” Zeb retorted before turning back to the others. “If only he’d stowed away on the bloody ship.” This opinion earned Zeb’s knee a solid whack from Chopper’s claw.

Kallus rolled his eyes at the two of them. “And if only we hadn’t run out of productive ways to distract ourselves from worry.”

Ahsoka’s lips quirked with a restrained smile. At last, something easily remedied. She tilted her staff toward the castle with quiet authority. “Since you’re both available, please find Maz and let her know I wish to speak about Hera’s situation. We must devise a search plan as soon as possible.”

Both men’s faces galvanized with purpose; Zeb nodded sharply, and Kallus tipped Ahsoka an informal salute.

“Of course, Lady Tano,” he replied.

They strode away and Ahsoka turned to Rex and Wolffe. “I’m sure you two can dig up some useful supplies and information from the great hall for our continued journey.” She let slip a sideways smile. Enjoy a planet-side drink while you can, my friends.

“Aye, Umbra Leader.” Rex saluted with a grateful, knowing glint in his eye. The clones’ steps ate up the ground eagerly as they departed.

“I guess that leaves us to go get Jacen.” Sabine waved up at the top of the Gregor’s ramp. “Hey, Evens! No one boards the ship while we’re gone, got it?”

The R4 unit rolled cautiously forward to reveal only a portion of its chassis and dome. It bleeped at Sabine obediently, then stiffened. Chopper suddenly squawked loudly with outrage, his optical lenses glaring balefully at the other droid. Evens emitted a shriek-like whistle and vanished into the Gregor’s hold.

Sabine cornered Chopper and rapped his dome sharply before he could zoom up the ramp. “Don’t even think about it, you murder bot.” She snapped her fingers and pointed at the lake. “Get moving.”

Ahsoka and Sabine walked toward the lapping waters along the left shoreline, the grumpy droid rattling along behind emitting a litany of irate whumps. 

Ahsoka ignored the binary mutterings, distracted now by a bright dot of green fluff glinting in the late afternoon sunshine. A bubble of curiosity expanded in her mind. “I’m looking forward to more time with Kanan and Hera’s youngling. Our first meeting was so brief.”

Sabine’s arched a playfully devious eyebrow. “I think you’ll find our words haven’t done him justice.”

“Auntie ‘Bine!” As if on cue, Jacen’s distant voice reached them. “Chop!” The boy thrashed his slender arms around while jumping up and down in front of AP-5.

The droid was slumped against a large, bench-like boulder as if his power cells or his patience had reached critically low levels. Recalling little Caleb Dume and his enthusiastic barrage of questions in the Coruscant Temple, Ahsoka stifled a smile. Most likely both.

“We’re coming, Jacen!” Sabine called back with a joyful wave. “Hold on!”

“Hurry! I want to show you my sandcastle!”

Jacen pointed eagerly at what seemed to be a miniature replica of Maz’s castle, but it was hard for Ahsoka to be sure from this distance. Instead of allowing her to see the youngling’s handiwork up close, the increasingly insistent tug of the Force pulled Ahsoka elsewhere.

“You and Chopper go on ahead, Sabine,” encouraged Ahsoka. “I’ll join your reunion in a moment.”

Darting Ahsoka a smile, Sabine dashed off, lithely traversing the rockier areas of the shore. Chopper struggled to keep up, then blithely ignited his rocket booster.

“No fair, you cheater!” Sabine shook a fist at the astromech as he roared past with gloating chortles.

That will keep them busy enough for a bit. Turning away with a chuckle of her own, Ahsoka found her feet drawn closer and closer to the water’s edge where another huge, flat boulder jutted more than three meters over a quiet pool of lake water below.

Led by the Force, Ahsoka stepped carefully along the boulder until her boots almost hit the edge. A breeze danced all the way across the outer lake waters to flirt with the hem of Ahsoka’s cloak. She let her eyes drink in the peaceful view of surrounding verdant hills and birds skimming by.

Ahsoka glanced over at the faraway figures of Sabine and Jacen to find them sharing an affectionate embrace while AP-5 shook his finger vehemently at Chopper about something. Bright purple hair nestled against green fluff before Jacen tipped his head back with laughter as Sabine tickled him mercilessly.

With a sigh, Ahsoka turned away reluctantly to look down at the placid water below. She saw herself reflected there, face shrouded within her hood while the circle on top of her staff caught the sun’s lengthening rays and glittered with almost magical light. Ahsoka’s fingers tightened on the staff and the same question arose yet again in her heart and mind: Why me to hold this? So many other Jedi should have survived the Purge instead of herself…Masters like Luminara Unduli, Shaak Ti and Depa Billaba. Any one of them could have wielded this ancient relic from the Architects with greater wisdom.

And yet, Master Yoda had sent a padawan—one who had abandoned the Order—on this quest rather than go himself. Had Yoda finally become aware of what horrors Palpatine had done with the Observatories, corrupting all within the Jedi Council and the Coruscant Temple with his machinations of the Dark side? If so, had Master Yoda blamed himself and felt unworthy of accepting the Architects' gift? Ahsoka’s lekku shifted as she bowed her head, a small, selfish part of herself wishing she’d been spared a truth that pained her to the very marrow of her bones.

Am I truly worthy or just the only one Yoda and the Force had left to call upon? Ahsoka had yet to probe deeply enough into her soul to bestow a fitting name to the staff. Without that activation, its full power would remain unlocked and impotent in her hands. Would what she found archived inside herself be sufficient for what lay ahead?

A chill slithered down Ahsoka’s spine as she thought of her own time in the Observatory. The Emperor had gone to great lengths to invite a penetrating darkness into the Galaxy. Was it a vindictive punishment to all for his demise, or a treacherous accomplice the Sith Lord had intended to ensorcel for his vile resurrection? Or both? Ahsoka’s chill magnified into a shudder.

What Ahsoka did know was the last thing that Luke Skywalker, the New Republic, and all newly freed populations of the Galaxy needed now was yet another brutal war with yet another merciless enemy. We’re drained after countless battles in a seemingly endless quest to stamp out tyranny once and for all. Whatever nefarious plans Palpatine had set in motion, Ahsoka wanted nothing more than to bring them to a swift and bloodless end. But what does the Force want?

Ahsoka rested her forehead against the cool metal of her staff, silently asking the Force and the Daughter for guidance. At first, only the cry of wheeling birds rang across the lake. Then the Bendu’s voice resonated in Ahsoka’s mind as if it echoed up from a bottomless well.

“I will share the staff was known most recently as Vade’mecum.”

Ahsoka’s pulse quickened. The staff must contain some form of guide or source of information. She pictured how the archaic script of the Old Tongue had scrolled across her datapad, the maze of meanings which the staff’s prior name could represent. But which meaning would most effectively draw upon the staff’s resources? Ahsoka’s clear inner voice responded with a most unhelpful answer: None of them.

Frown lines creased Ahsoka’s brow and mouth. What did that leave her? She had glimpsed something else before the clones’ runaway, paranoid droid disrupted her research. Ahsoka filled her lungs with the fresh lake air. When she exhaled slowly, her mind dredged forth what her bleary eyes had almost overlooked on her datapad. Sometimes the most obvious escapes us.   

Ahsoka whispered the literal translation of Vade’mecum from the Old Tongue. “Go with me.“ 

A moment later, Ahsoka heard those words echoed in her mind by a male voice unknown to her. Hearing those soft, yet commanding tones, she felt compelled to point the staff’s circle tip down toward the water. 

Her stomach fluttering, Ahsoka peered intently at her reflection in the pool below. Slowly, the water eerily rippled away her own image, then resettled into the reflection of a mysterious, heavyset figure with broad shoulders. He gripped the same staff in his thickly gloved hand and Ahsoka immediately understood. This is my predecessor, he who bestowed the name Vade’mecum. The man’s face was shadowed beneath the hood of what was clearly a Jedi robe. Ahsoka almost flinched as the Jedi abruptly raised Vade’mecum with a battle cry and the staff’s circle tip began to glow. 

Alarm and exhilaration jangled Ahsoka’s nerves as the reflection in the water expanded and revealed a riot of colorful, brutal violence in the background. The lightsaber blues, greens, yellows and rare violets of more than a hundred Jedi warriors clashed against the crimson blades of a far greater horde of ruthless Sith. Most of the black-clad enemy were intent on storming the Jedi’s lakeside castle, but a smaller retinue of Jedi encircled the wielder of Vade’mecum to stave off a merciless cluster of Sith charging forth to capture the glimmering staff. 

Ahsoka’s stomach shriveled into a cold pit. All across the battlefield, the Jedi cut down foe after foe with grace and form, but the noble warriors were too heavily outnumbered. With increasing speed and ease, the Sith hacked and trampled bloody swathes through the Jedi to surge relentlessly closer to the castle and Vade’mecum. Defeat for the Jedi is inevitable

The hooded Jedi bowed his head in calm resignation. In the manner of a Temple Guard brandishing a twin-bladed lightsaber pike, he grasped the upraised staff at its center with both gloved hands and spun the staff in circles over his head with intensifying speed. Vade’mecum transformed into a blurred halo of brilliant white light that illuminated the sinister helmets and armor of the encroaching Sith until they gleamed almost beautifully bright. 

Ahsoka’s cells thrummed, penetrated by a sonorous, almost musical vibration that oscillated higher and higher. She sensed the staff’s crystal core resonating ever more strongly with the Light side of the Force. The staff can’t contain its power! Just as Ahsoka braced for the crystalline core to explode in a burst of deadly shards and rip apart the staff, the hooded Jedi raised his head and roared a single word as an undeniable command. 

“Vade’mecum!”  

The staff’s spinning circle tip ignited like a newborn star. Ahsoka was forced to slit her eyes against the swirl of burning light. A heartbeat later, an enormous shock wave of pure Light Force energy erupted from the blazing halo and surged inexorably outward. Ahsoka gasped, her insides quivering on the verge of rupture. 

Vade’mecum’s shock wave of Light Force energy collided with the oncoming army of Dark Sith in an apocalyptic blast. The entire battlefield and beyond lit up with the monumental impact, then Nymeve Lake churned and boiled in the wake of the unspeakably horrific explosion. In the grim aftermath, the scant remains of the hooded Jedi, his fellow warriors, and their Sith adversaries drifted across the lake’s ravaged waters as nothing more than ashes. 

Ahsoka’s heart thudded dully in her chest while she watched the pool below ripple away the disturbing images. When the water resettled upon her own pale reflection again, Ahsoka tilted the staff (the weapon!) back to an upright position and clutched it with overly tight fists. How had Vade’mecum survived this catastrophe and made its way to the Architects' Library to be placed into her hands by the Daughter? Or…did it survive? Did the Architects carve a new crystal out of the frieze each time and reincarnate the staff? It was all an overwhelming puzzle piece which Ahsoka promptly pushed into a far corner of her mind. 

Right now, her flesh was too busy crawling. Today’s vision with its Jedi and Sith apparitions was unpleasantly similar to that unforgettable tomb on Malachor. That odious place where she, Kanan and Ezra walked a grim path between the petrified remains of Jedi and Sith who’d clashed over an equally terrible weapon. On both worlds, the ancient battle between Light and Dark had ended with Death as the only victor. If I am forced to use the staff against our enemies, is this the only outcome? Ahsoka deeply inhaled the lake air again to repel the encroaching tightness in her chest. She took comfort in realizing the Force was granting her multipronged lessons…but properly deciphering them would take time and meditation. 

Happy laughter rang out and Ahsoka gratefully embraced the opportunity for lighter thoughts. She turned from her somber reflection to face the rapidly approaching group and smiled gently at the sight of Jacen. His hand clasped Sabine’s while he chattered enthusiastically, something about a Loth-cat who was a treasure. Sabine giggled and ruffled his green hair fondly. 

Behind them, AP-5 argued heatedly with Chopper and petulantly shoved his finger in the shorter droid’s metallic face. “No, no, no, I refuse to become part of your diabolically nefarious scheme,” he droned flatly. “You just want to pin the deed on me.” Chopper blatted and slammed against AP-5’s leg in protest. 

Sabine waved Jacen onward to Ahsoka before stopping dead in her tracks to confront the startled droids. “Hold it right there, you two,” she hissed loudly. “One more plot about tossing Evens in the lake and you’ll find yourself swimming at the bottom of it, Chopper.” 

Chopper emitted a whup-wah? and pressed his claw against his chassis with exaggerated innocence. 

“Don’t you whup-wha me.” Sabine scolded in a perfect imitation of Hera. “I’ve got a restraining bolt on the Gregor with your name on it.” 

Whump whump blat!  

Ahsoka’s attention was mercifully drawn to Jacen’s cherubic face and skipping steps and her heart lifted upward at his approach. I joined the Rebellion all those years ago to help Force-sensitive younglings like him. Now that the latest war was finally sputtering out, Ahsoka wanted nothing more than for Jacen and all the Galaxy’s children be part of an auspicious future after the unpeaceful past they’d inherited and endured. 

With a swing of her staff, Ahsoka hopped lightly off the boulder and smiled warmly. “Hello again, Jacen. Remember me? I’m Ahsoka Tano.” 

As if the lake breeze wanted Ahsoka to make a majestic impression, it eddied and lifted her white cloak into elegant swirls. Jacen’s teal eyes lit up in the afternoon sun with curiosity and a glimmer of awe. 

A bittersweet pang of nostalgia struck deep in Ahsoka’s chest. Dearest little Caleb Dume…and yet not. Feeling Jacen reach out to her inquisitively with the Force, Ahsoka sensed his energy was strong like Kanan’s—but edged with a chaotic wildness that would have been tamed in his father in the Jedi creche. Hera’s growing concerns were certainly understandable, but Ahsoka sensed no underlying malice within Jacen, nor any overt warnings from the Force about the youngling’s future. Time will tell if the Jedi path is truly his.  

“I’m happy to see you again, Lady Tano,” Jacen spilled out with a polite bob of his tousled head. “Queen Maz is teaching me about the Force because my father’s a Jedi Knight. My mama told me you were a Jedi and know him and Ezra.” 

Ahsoka absorbed Jacen’s use of the present tense and nodded, intrigued. “We were comrades in the Rebellion.” 

Jacen’s grin spread infectiously from one pointy ear to another. “Your staff is so wizard! May I hold it? Pleeeease?” 

Sabine and the chastened droids had joined them and now the Mandalorian shot Ahsoka an “I told you so” wink. For a half-second, Ahsoka hesitated, then she nodded at Jacen. Why not? She felt no vibrations of objection from the staff. 

“For a moment, Jacen,” Ahsoka said, placing what had destroyed an entire battlefield of Jedi and Sith into his grubby hands. Will he sense anything of their demise?

“Wow, it’s light...but heavy at the same time,” Jacen breathed and a trace of a troubled frown crossed his face. He shook his head and hefted the staff into an upright position while his grin re-emerged. 

Ahsoka studied Jacen’s wide eyes and open-mouthed wonder while he used the staff to steady his overly exaggerated, ceremonial steps. Chopper trailed behind, waving his manipulator arms greedily. 

“Oh, no,” droned AP-5 while Jacen and Chopper paraded about. “Now he’s going to demand one of his own.” 

Ahsoka shared a smile with Sabine, both fully aware AP-5 referred to the grasping astromech. As for Jacen, the youngling’s joyful energy buoyed Ahsoka’s soul like a stream of effervescent bubbles. Force willing, I will unlock the staff’s powers to repel the Emperor’s malicious invaders and restore our Galaxy’s boundaries…without darkening the stars with our ashes.   

The powerful throb of a low slung landspeeder’s engine caught everyone’s attention. Jacen raised Ahsoka’s staff with glee. 

“Queen Maz!” 

Maz slid her speeder into a flashy sideways stop in front of the group, her eyes sparkling behind the thick goggles. “Hey, kiddo! Nice staff you got there.” The pirate queen’s gaze slid to Ahsoka and her grin turned saucy. “Well, well, Ahsoka Tano. If I didn’t know better, I’d say you look like an emissary of the Galactic Republic in your fancy white cloak.” 

Ahsoka’s responded just as cheekily, “And if I didn’t know better, Maz Kanata, I’d say you’ve been pouring ale into Rex and Wolffe to loosen their lips.” 

“Only the good stuff!” Maz laughed and patted the seat beside her. “Hop in and we’ll join my old mate, Captain Abya.” Her wizened face crinkled into a crafty expression. “I’ve got a special drink mixed up just for you. I call it…The Negotiator.” 

Ahsoka’s chuckle held a tinge of sorrow. If only you were here, Obi-Wan. “You honor me, Maz.” 

Sabine grabbed Jacen’s hand. “I need Jacen and the droids to help me stretch my legs some more. We’ll walk back to the Gregor and see you later.” 

“Awww, I never, ever get to go to the great hall,” whined Jacen, his teal eyes wide and pleading. 

“Don’t you want to meet our new crew member?” Sabine countered in a singsong voice. “He was an Imperial spy.” 

“Really?” Jacen’s green eyebrows knitted together. “I guess it’s okay then, Auntie ‘Bine.” He begrudgingly half-dragged Sabine a couple of steps before Ahsoka loudly cleared her throat. 

“Ahem. Jacen?” 

The youngling whirled around expectantly, clearly hoping to be invited back. “Yes, Lady Tano?” 

With a firm smile, Ahsoka held out her hand, palm up. “My staff, please.” 

With a sheepish grin, Jacen passed it back into her possession. ”Thanks for letting me try it out.” 

A thought lit up like a firefly and Ahsoka nodded back at his upturned face. Perhaps one day Jacen Syndulla will indeed wield this gift from the Architects to protect us all when my time to bear it has passed.  

“Come, come, my dear Togruta warrior,” urged Maz with her tiny, beckoning fingers. “And be warned Abya’s going to drive a very hard bargain for those coordinates.” 

Ahsoka slid into the thickly cushioned passenger seat, enjoying the exhilaration of speed when Maz gunned the vehicle away from the others. Jacen whooped a goodbye and she waved back until he grew small in the distance. 

Turning to face the ancient castle ahead, Ahsoka pursed her lips together firmly. And be warned I’m not above a mind trick or two if this pirate captain proves too greedy.  

 

Hera – The Last Chance / Seoulian Sector 

Hera stared absently out the Last Chance’s viewport, mired under an increasingly heavy pile of thoughts. Outside, everything was almost preternaturally serene considering they were hiding out in a slowly spiraling graveyard.

On Hera’s orders, Hondo had tucked his ship among a cluster of the dead pirate freighters and shut down all active sensors to minimize their presence even further. They’d been floating among the wreckage with most systems on standby for the last two hours. Down in front, Hondo and Melch passed the time with a ridiculously heated game of sabaac, which Hera’s oversaturated mind found all too easy to ignore.

With little time to safely spare, Hera had only been able to glean the most essential information from PZ-5 concerning the Nihilum and Thrawn’s “military guests.” The droid politely refused to share anything about how Kanan had arrived on the Star Destroyer, insisting Ezra ordered her to reveal this only to Ahsoka and Sabine. It has to be something about those damn Gates.

Hera had managed to get PZ-5 to replay the holorecording enough times to engrave the images of Ezra and Kanan into her own memory. That flash of Kanan brandishing a blazing purple lightsaber had embedded itself most deeply, seeding a bountiful crop of shimmering hopes—and shadowy fears—within Hera’s heart while they all waited tensely for the Chimaera to make an appearance.

Ever since Jacen’s perplexing discovery of Kanan’s lightsaber, Hera felt she’d been sucked into an increasingly ruthless centrifuge that kept dislodging her deepest sediments of emotions and memories to spin them up to the surface. She now felt ready to burst, barely able to contain the idea she was about to reconnect with Kanan after believing him gruesomely dead all these years. Alternating ripples of feverish anticipation and chills of dread coursed through Hera from her lekku to her toes. But what if the very worst has happened since Ezra’s recording?

At the very thought, Hera’s heart slid to the cold, durasteel floor under her boots. She knew her life was blessed with meaningful responsibilities as a general, and even more so by the overflowing, bottomless well of love she had for Jacen and all her family and friends…but if she were to lose Kanan and Ezra again (this time for certain) it would rip apart her heart’s most tender, fragile scars. Hera’s lekku trembled at her thought of reopened wounds which might fester over time rather than heal once more. I’d far rather relive the battles of Scarif and Endor.

A light flashed on the pilot’s console. “Hah ha,” Hondo swiveled from the card game to investigate. “Passive sensors have picked up something suspicious, my dear General. It’s sneaking its way under the asteroid field, headed for the Chimaera’s exploded pod.” He grinned rakishly at Hera. “I think we know who the sneakie is.”

Thrawn’s here! And trying to use the debris field as cover from any Nihilum.

“Slowly bring engines up to full and get ready to punch it, Hondo.” Hera ordered tersely.

Tuning out the emotion-choked ramblings that still churned silently in her head, Hera started transmitting Rebel coded signals using the vambrace clamped on PZ-5’s detached forearm. The rest of the understandably reluctant droid had boarded the Last Chance’s customized escape pod earlier, which had then been ejected near the stern of the Super Star Destroyer. The pod still clung surreptitiously within the behemoth husk’s nooks and crannies while the (mostly) patient PZ-5 waited for pick up as soon their mission to connect with the Jedi was complete and Grand Admiral Thrawn long gone. Hiding the droid was Hera’s extra safety measure to ensure PZ-5 didn’t wind up back in Thrawn’s hands should their mission fail in the worst way.

Ezra, please get this message. Kanan, can you sense me? Hera imagined her mind blasting these thoughts out of her earcones, and her fingers stumbled over yet another round of the coded message.

Hondo slapped his console, his head at a baffled tilt. “That’s not right. Where did she go?”

Hera’s attention snapped to the pirate captain. “What do you mean, where?”

Hondo leaned to check Melch’s screens—and slapped the Ugnaught’s hands when he found his co-pilot sneaking a peek at his neglected sabaac cards.

“Get your snout away from there!”

“Get us out of here!” yelled Hera in unison. She flinched as proximity lights flashed wildly. Too late!

The Chimaera pounced silently out of hyperspace on a direct course for their drifting shuttle, already so close that the Star Destroyer’s looming bulk blocked out the entire starfield beyond the Last Chance’s viewport. Almost instantly, a tractor beam locked onto the shuttle and froze it in place with a stomach curdling lurch.

Hondo groaned dramatically while his bony hands danced their way across his ship’s controls to coax the engines to greater power. “Your terrible plan is going about as well as I predicted.”

Squealing obscenities, Melch punched his own buttons in a frenzy to warm up the guns.

Meanwhile, Hera sat frozen in the rapidly shaking cockpit for what felt like an endless moment but was only a slow blink of her startled eyes. A distant part of her mind inanely rattled off a more than obvious statement: Fascinating how one tiny second can make such a difference.

Her cold fingers clamped down on PZ-5’s detached forearm like a vise. All my plans to contact Kanan and Ezra have backfired. PZ’s theories had proven true: The (still alive, goddess please) Jedi must have been searched and confined, and the Chimaera primed to lock on the droid’s vambrace signal to micro-jump on top of the sender.

Of course, this potential had reared its ugly head early on in Hera’s plotting mind, but she’d flattened it under a twin-headed hammer of Imperial incompetence and her own desperation. Hera grudgingly conceded she’d tricked herself into downplaying Thrawn’s atypical influence on a lost crew forced to survive on their toes in unknown space. She gritted her teeth and her stiffening lekku tips pointed almost savagely. Damn Thrawn’s Chiss hide anyway! Why had he left his people to join the Empire in the first place?

As if the grand admiral could hear Hera’s blistering mental tirade, the Last Chance’s comm lit up. The instant Thrawn’s chiseled features flickered into holographic life in front of Hondo and Melch, Hera shrank back immediately to keep out of visual range of the transmission.

Thrawn stood with a stern frown engraved on his face and his arms tucked regally behind his back. “This is Grand Admiral Thrawn of the Imperial Star Destroyer Chimaera,” he proclaimed in icy tones.

Before Thrawn could utter another syllable, Hondo flung his arms wide with exaggerated exuberance. “Greetings, Admiral Thrawn and to your Imperial castaways! I am Captain Hondo Ohnaka of the Last Chance —and this is my first mate, Melch. We are here to offer safe passage by escorting you personally to the leadership of the New Republic—”

“That won’t be necessary,” the Chiss interrupted dryly. “We have no need of your…generous services.”

Hondo scratched the bone spurs on his chin. “Now then, Hondo doesn’t think you have come to grips with the gravity of your situation, sir Admiral. Your ship is very much alone out here—a juicy, juicy bone for those who are not as neutral…dare I say as forgiving as I to the losing side.” Hondo touched his chest and bowed his head humbly.

Thrawn’s glowing eyes peered down his aristocratic nose. “What I am aware of, Captain Ohnaka, is that you are in possession of a Sentinel-class Imperial shuttle, which rightfully belongs in the main hanger of my starship.”

“What? You are mistaken, sir Admiral.” Now Hondo slapped his chest proudly. “The Last Chance is a former Imperial shuttle that Hondo won bravely in battle—" Melch squealed irately and Hondo brushed the Ugnaught aside. “Ignore Melch, his memory is regrettably poor these days.”

Hiding in the shadows, Hera clutched her forehead while she watched Thrawn’s brow furrow with skeptical disdain. Oh, he’s ignoring alright. Completely oblivious, Hondo beamed out a vainglorious smile.

“As I was saying, Hondo Ohnaka is known far and wide as an honorable friend to the victors.” His voice heartily underscored the last word. “With my good name and my illustrious vessel to lead you, I have no doubt the New Republic shall grant you and all aboard a fair trial”—he wiggle-waggled his hand—“and the most merciful of punishments, of course.”

Hondo! Hera winced for about the tenth time. Thrawn’s mouth hardened beneath the flaring red of his baleful eyes, then Thrawn brought his right arm from behind his back to thrust his fist up in front of his chest. An all too familiar looking vambrace encircled his forearm. Hera’s stomachs turned stone cold. Of course, that conniving sleemo is wearing it!

“Our scanners also indicate you are in possession of a stolen Imperial protocol droid, which will be immediately restored to the Empire along with this shuttle.”

Hondo blinked at Thrawn’s visage guilelessly. “Droid? Are you, sir Admiral, referring to this?”

Hondo wheeled around to yank PZ-5’s detached forearm away from Hera. She watched in silent shock while the pirate thrust it under Thrawn’s holographic nostrils. The grand admiral’s already suspicious scowl deepened.

The pirate captain wagged a scolding finger.” Our scanners picked up a signal within the debris field. We, of course, immediately raced in to rescue survivors, but all it led us to was this”—Hondo waved PZ-5’s arm in hello—"by an exploded escape pod.” He tutted and gestured sadly at the graveyard of ships outside his viewport. “It is all most unfortunate, most unfortunate.”

Thrawn’s eyes narrowed to crimson slits. “It is unfortunate indeed, Captain Ohnaka. For you and your crew are nothing more than pirates—and you are hereby charged with the intent to loot and pillage the remains of Imperial property.” He gestured sharply to indicate the Super Star Destroyer adrift on the battlefield, then turned slightly toward someone out of visual range. “Captain Makeri, you may proceed.”

The shuttle immediately surged forward. Outside the viewport, the maw of the Chimaera’s main hanger bay loomed closer. Melch grabbed and wildly tossed the sabaac cards into the air in protest, grunting and snorting at Hera and Hondo profanely.

It’s time for this ludicrous party to end. Hera sprang out of hiding and marched into range of the holocommunicator. She cocked one hand on her hip and shook the other as a fist at the grand admiral’s projection.

“You do this, Thrawn, and it will be considered a violation of the Galactic Concordance signed by Mas Amedda after the fall of Emperor Palpatine!”

For one ephemeral moment, Thrawn processed Hera’s defiant appearance while an incredulous expression carved itself into his stiff face. Then Thrawn’s lips slid into a calculating smile, the one Hera always wanted to wipe off his face permanently.

“General Hera Syndulla,” he purred in welcome. “Your unexpected presence is a most gratifying surprise.” Thrawn nodded serenely over at the unseen Captain Makeri. “Engage secondary tractor beams and continue.”

“What?” Hera’s lekku practically bounced with righteous indignation. “The Empire surrendered, Thrawn. You are willingly—knowingly—defying the laws of the New Republic!”

Thrawn calmly studied his nails for a moment, considering her vehement words. Then his glowing red eyes burned back into Hera’s own. “How ironic, General, that you now stand for the Galactic government…while I have become the Rebel.” The Chiss’s smile curled upward with genuine bemusement.

Thrawn…a Rebel? Every nerve ending in Hera’s body quivered with utter outrage; her jaw clenched so tightly it locked her mouth shut. Unable to form coherent words, Hera could only glower at Thrawn venomously while the Chimaera reeled the shuttle in like a stunned joopa.

Caught between the searing glares between Hera and Thrawn, Hondo threw his arms up in surrender and declared, “Well, my General, you wanted a reunion with Ezra Bridger and your dearest Jedi Knight.” His weathered face split open with an undaunted cackle.

“And now you shall most certainly have it!”

 

Kanan - Chimaera / Seoulian Sector

Walking alongside Ezra, Kanan followed a very brisk Lieutenant Braruz down yet another utilitarian corridor. Behind them marched the same stormtroopers who had guarded the medbay doors, their E-11’s cradled but ready.

It was a relief to escape the persnickety medical droid and its probing tubes and wires, but Kanan would’ve felt a lot more thrilled if his lightsaber hung from his belt. And if the laundry droids hadn’t cleaned and pressed my boilersuit stiff as a board. Kanan could almost hear himself crackle with each step.

Or maybe it was just his nerves. Even though he and Ezra knew the odds of success had been low, it was still a heavy blow to have lost any chance of communicating with PZ-5. And Kanan wasn’t looking forward to the conniving hoops Thrawn had to be concocting for him and Ezra to jump through now that they remained snugly ensnared. Dealing with the manipulative Chiss was like an endless game of dejarik where the monsters bit your fingers while you figured out which ones to put into play.

Braruz led them into another turn and Kanan shared a flicker of puzzlement with Ezra. This isn’t the way to the bridge tower. They both slowed their pace, forcing the stormtroopers to ease back.

“Hey, Braruz,” Ezra called out, raising his thick brows when the Devaronian glanced back. “I thought we were on our way to Thrawn’s office to cut a new deal.”

Braruz turned away, resuming her fast stride. “The grand admiral is otherwise engaged. For your own safety, he’s commanded that you wait in a secured location until such time he is available.”

Kanan saw the same suspicion light up in Ezra’s narrowed eyes: Detention cell. They both stopped dead in their tracks and the stormtroopers almost slammed into them.

“Hey! Keep moving,” ordered the one who’d fumbled her rifle.

Ezra stayed focused on Lieutenant Braruz, who had spun around to face him. “I’m guessing it’s got something to do with that last jump we felt in medbay, huh, Braruz? Where are we now?”

A muscle twitched along her slender jaw. “It is none of your concern at the moment, Bridger. We need to get moving.”

Kanan only heard them with half an ear. The Force rippled through and around him, its increasing insistence impossible to dampen. What? What is it? Kanan reached out and his mind filled with an image of the Chimaera hauling in an unusually colorful Imperial shuttle that struggled like a snared dopplefly against its capture. Kanan froze. That’s Hondo’s ship!

And now Kanan’s heart almost pounded out of his chest, every nerve of his body on fire. He’d sensed an impossibly familiar Force signature aboard the Last Chance.

Hera.

No. It was preposterous. Kanan took a deep, calming breath, then probed again.

Hera!

Kanan almost reeled as her unmistakable energy lit up his senses. He managed one intense look at Ezra, grabbing his shoulder. Hera. She’s here! Ezra blinked back with stunned eyes before Kanan shot away from the group, hellbent on reaching the main hanger.

If Braruz shouted his name or stun blasts erupted from a rifle, Kanan neither heard nor cared, fully confident in his not-padawan to stop any pursuit. Ezra has my back. Instead, Kanan let his thoughts swim with a hundred how? how? how? questions while his body sped like a heat seeking missile through the Chimaera’s corridors.

Little by little, Kanan’s eyes closed until he was guided solely by Hera’s unwavering light. Anyone foolhardy enough to try and stop Kanan’s quest found themselves Force-slammed into the nearest bulkhead and left breathless and dizzy in his turbulent wake.

When Kanan finally raced into the main hanger, his eyes popped open and his feet almost skidded during his sharp turn in the direction of the Last Chance. The shuttle’s ramp was open, clouds of hissing vapor dissipating around it. Kanan swiped a shaking hand across his face as his vision swam. Who knew the sight of that outrageous ship would ever bring me to tears?

There was Hondo now—same as ever—swaggering down the ramp with Melch trailing behind the spry Weequay like an afterthought. A surly escort of two stormtroopers hounded the manacled duo’s every move.

“Now, now, my gracious Imperial friends,” Hondo chided with evasive steps. “There is no need to aim your rifles so precisely at old, defenseless Hondo.”

Old? Yep. Defenseless? As a wasp-worm. Kanan’s yammering brain suddenly disconnected and his pounding feet stuttered to a stop. A slender figure had emerged gracefully from the shuttle, her bright orange jumpsuit like a jolt of color against an industrial gray sea. Sleek, tattooed lekku swung from a maroon striped pilot cap that framed the most beautiful face in the Galaxy.

Hera.

Kanan must have shouted her name—Hera‘s head snapped up and her emerald eyes went wide as her feet froze on the ramp. For one heart-stopping beat they stared at each other across the hanger of the very same Star Destroyer that had bombarded Lothal’s Capital City and almost obliterated the Rebellion’s Phoenix cell to ashes on Atollon.   

Hera’s soft lips shaped his name. “Kanan…?” Then her boots propelled her down the ramp to race frantically in his direction. “KANAN!”  Hera’s own escort of stormtroopers thundered behind with rifles raised, shouting futile commands at her to stop.

One of Kanan’s hands flung the troopers aside with a Force-push hard enough to crash them against Hondo’s ship. His other hand directed a Force-infused jolt to snap open Hera’s manacles and hurl them away.

Kanan had no clear idea of how he crossed the last bit of distance to Hera. His mind registered nothing of Imperial squads closing in. His single thought was Hera as he swept her warm body into his arms and spun them both around ecstatically. With his beloved Twi’lek almost crushed against his chest, Kanan felt pure joy in how perfectly Hera’s heart now beat alongside his own.

We were parted, but never truly apart.

Kanan realized he had no clue if he was laughing or sobbing. He cupped Hera’s face in his palms, enraptured by her silken, green skin and the unbridled love welling up in her eyes.

“Hera…” was all Kanan managed to utter before she abruptly pulled him down to join their mouths in a deep and resounding kiss. Time stood still and Kanan was profoundly grateful for its mercy. He exulted in the way their tears mingled on each other’s cheeks, how Hera’s draping lekku trembled against his arms now locked so fervently around her back. Kanan’s icy remnants of guilt, pain and grief from that dark night of Hera’s rescue melted away inside him even as they melted into each other.

Hera suddenly broke their kiss to stare fervently into Kanan’s eyes. “It’s not a dream…” she whispered breathlessly. Her trembling fingers traced Kanan’s face in search of reassurance that his body was truly pressed against hers. “It’s really you.”

Kanan’s vision blurred again with tears. His lips grazed Hera’s forehead tenderly and he whispered hoarsely, “I always come back.” He tilted Hera’s face up to savor her tremulous smile—and recaptured her mouth in a second, even more emphatic kiss.

Somewhere beyond, Hondo sniffed loudly and declared, “Ah, Melch, now that is a lovers’ reunion!”

A cacophony of enthusiastic Ugnaught squeals almost drowned out the crashing thud of more oncoming stormtrooper boots.

“Attention, prisoners! Move away from each other immediately!” ordered Bek’s filtered and unpleasantly familiar voice.

 In the first heartbeat, Kanan almost obeyed the idiot just to dish out another concussion. In the second heartbeat, Kanan entertained the now farfetched notion to lead a weaponless, rag-tag escape aboard the Last Chance and somehow blast away from the Chimaera’s clutches. In the third heartbeat, Kanan simply enfolded Hera even tighter. Every second he had left to hold her close was a precious gift he’d let no one steal away.

“I said, MOVE!”

The unmistakable sizzle of stun rings erupted from rifle muzzles, cutting through Kanan’s bubble of euphoria instantly. His body automatically rearranged itself to shield Hera from the incoming blasts…but nothing struck his back. In the unexpected reprieve, Hera’s glistening eyes locked on something behind Kanan while her lips formed an astonished O.

“Stay back!” Ezra’s voice rang out.

Ezra! Kanan immediately twisted to help…and felt his mouth turn into an O of its own.

Ezra stood as a fearless, unyielding blockade against Bek and three squads of startled stormtroopers. The area around Ezra thrummed with an invisible, almost alarming intensity while his outstretched arms and splayed fingers held shimmering arrays of stun rings suspended in mid-air with the Force. Kanan’s skin crawled with cold as he sensed the gossamer flickerings of Dark lick along the edges of Light.

“Rifles down!” Ezra commanded harshly. “I won’t let you hurt them!”  

Beyond Ezra’s vibrantly blue display, the wary stormtroopers shuffled a meter or two back. Their blank helmet eyes shifted uneasily between Ezra’s Force-made barrier of sizzling energy rings and the intimidating, young Jedi who had conjured it.

“Ezra…?” Hera intoned softly near Kanan’s ear, her voice infused with love, awe and deep concern.

Like musical notes, those same feelings danced somberly in Kanan’s heart. He now understood those flickers of Dark. He’s reliving the pain of our awful night on top of that damn fuel pod. Kanan’s eyes met Hera’s in a terse, sideways glance and knew she understood only too well in the way she gripped his fingers.

“Ezra Bridger!” Hondo’s raucous shout abruptly shattered the hanger’s almost spellbound ambiance. “You are alive!”

Ezra shot Hondo a distracted look and the wiry pirate hooted laughter, shaking his manacled hands above his head like a victory salute.

“You never cease to impress Hondo, my b—!“ Hondo’s voice cut out as he was slammed down by the butt of a stormtrooper’s rifle.

“Shut it, pirate!” Syphex’s filtered voice squawked. “Or I’ll hit you again!”

Kanan blinked as several things happened in breakneck succession: The shimmering arrays of stun rings ripped ominously apart, Syphex flew backwards from Ezra’s vehement Force-shove, a bristling sea of E-11 muzzles took aim at Ezra—and Kanan found himself pressed defensively back-to-back against Hera in an achingly familiar stance. Just like old times.

Bek approached Ezra, his rifle ready to fire. “All prisoners stand down and line up immediately!”  

Ezra ignored Bek by helping Hondo back to his feet. Feeling Hera’s anxious squeeze of his fingers, Kanan shifted forward, intent on reeling in his not-padawan with the Force if he had to. Today is not our day to win this, Ezra.

Almost immediately, Ezra flicked his gaze to Kanan, then backed up slowly with clenched fists to shield Hondo and Melch, who both shuffled toward Hera. Throughout the three squads, most stormtroopers finally lowered their rifles.

Not Bek. “Move faster!” His finger tightened on the trigger. “Jedi traitor!”

Uh-oh. Kanan’s thought was about how long it took Ezra to catapult forward, spin into a landing, then Force-pull Bek’s rifle into one hand even as his other hand Force-shoved the squad leader several meters backward. Bek smacked against a crate like a felled gundark.

Once again, Ezra stood in the crosshairs of the squads’ E-11 rifle scopes, but he merely hoisted his stolen weapon high overhead in surrender. Sharing a relieved glance, Kanan and Hera wordlessly shifted to stand side-by-side. Her hand entwined with Kanan’s again as if he’d vanish into thin air if she let go for too long. Kanan rubbed his thumb along hers as reassuringly he could through their gloves. I’m not going anywhere that you’re not.

Meanwhile, Ezra addressed the second squad’s leader, who was standing to his left. “I’ll take orders from anyone but him!” He pointed sullenly at Bek, who struggled to his feet with his pauldron askew.

“Then stand down, Commander Bridger,” Thrawn’s voice commanded, cutting through the hanger’s tense atmosphere like a vibroblade.

Hera’s fingers clamped around Kanan’s hand painfully tight and he gently pressed his hip against hers in solidarity.

The grand admiral emerged into view with his eyes ablaze, flanked on either side by a vigilant duo of sentry droids, and two more squads of stormtroopers marching in lockstep. Lieutenant Braruz trailed several steps behind Thrawn with her officer’s cap askew and purple locks of disheveled hair framing her disconcerted face.

Ezra didn’t Force-throw her to cover my escape…did he?

More armor clattered while the existing stormtroopers snapped belatedly to attention and Thrawn strode through their stiffening ranks. His penetrating gaze raked across Ezra, skated over the softly muttering pirates, then settled full force on Kanan and Hera.

Hera’s grip on Kanan intensified with repressed rage under Thrawn’s imperious scrutiny and Kanan sensed yet another excruciating memory had been unleashed today. We’re under attack on Atollon all over again.

The grand admiral’s glowing eyes lingered on the defiant knot of Kanan and Hera’s interlaced fingers if he were assessing an alien sculpture of dubious artistic merit...then hardened into chips of crimson ice.

“Your dramatics,” stated Thrawn in a deceptively soft, frigid tone, “Will cease immediately.”

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.