Chapter 1: The Princess
[Above the Oasis Mining Colony, Maelstrom Nebula]
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Brilliant green slices through the air, burdened with a high-pitched scream.
Aim, fire, dodge.
Cassian moves with his breathing, falling into a familiar rhythm. Like clockwork, he exchanges fire with the advancing pirates.
Shoot, shoot, shoot. Actions transcend thought - his blaster is an extension of his arm.
Shoot, shoot, shoot. Smoke, fire, sparks. The whine of his blaster, the rush of blood in his veins.
"... I repeat, we are under attack..."
Sudden bright light fills Cassian's vision.
Dull pain shoots up his arm when his shoulder slams against a wall. The thin electrical panels rattle with the impact as he ducks into the relative safety of the maintenance corridor. A volley of blasterfire brushes past him, leaving the smell of ozone in its wake. Tucked away from the firefight, Cassian takes a moment to orient himself.
The stench of burnt fibers assaults his senses.
Alarms scream of deployed escape pods and lost engines. Feet pound against the ceiling as stragglers abovedecks scramble to safety. The ceiling tiles rattle and some give way, shattering into clouds of debris. The resulting plume shields him from the pirates.
"... pirates stormed a starliner..."
Wetting his lips, Cassian raises the comm on his wrist to his mouth.
A fizz of static is his response. Frowning, Cassian readjusts his grip on his blaster, hoping interference explains the silence and not something he can't afford to think about. Carefully, he peers back into the main hallway, the arm of his singed jacket still smouldering.
Shoulderpads. Green skin. Glistening eyes, all pupil and no iris - the Rodian's pheromones don't have a chance to grow rancid with fear before Cassian pulls the trigger. The scowling face falls out of sight with a thud. Cassian doesn't slow, moving forward relentlessly.
Thunk, thunk, thunk. Knees, torso, heart - square in the middle on a Human, one on either side for a Zabrak. Stray bolts ping against blackened walls. His attackers fall before they know what hit them. Thunk, thunk, thunk.
An anti-fire sprinkler sputters to life, disrupting the monotony of battle. The water it spits out sizzles when it hits the smoke saturating his path. Slowly, a clear view parts before him.
For the first time Cassian can remember, the hallway is comparatively silent - until a voice cuts through the quiet.
He clamps his free hand over his ear.
"Melshi?" His heart threatens to squeeze his lungs. "Melshi!"
"Cap - we - on it! Jus-"
The connection crackles out, followed by a loud boom echoing from deep within the core of the luxury starliner. The world around him rattles, durasteel frame groaning with the added burden of multiple skirmishes throughout the ship. Cassian quashes down the dread clenching his gut, focus narrowing to his singular goal: the cockpit.
"...they've taken control of the ship.."
Straightforward enough, but Cassian fights off enemies on either side. Pirates on one hand, fleeing Imperials on the other. The Imps' frustration at their vacations ending abruptly is evident. His only solace is that the latter are more concerned with not soiling their clothing, and by the time he'd arrived the handful of stormtroopers on board had fallen victim to the pirates.
He bolts down the hallway, boots slamming on fractured tile. Gleaming stone shards crunch under his feet as more pirates materialize. He empties his blaster into the gut of a pink-skinned Zabrak and the breathing mask of the Kyuzo that follows. Cassian doesn't stop to dodge the resulting hiss of bitter gas, already moving to intercept the Weequay barreling towards him. Fist meets jaw, hand yanks neck - eyes are blinded by the spewing gas.
Cassian shoves their face to the ground, using the jagged edges of the broken floors to his advantage.
Bloody footprints trail him as he sprints.
"... they're using it like a detonator..."
It's times like these he wishes he had time to shuck off his jacket. His shirt sticks to his back, moving with his every breath. Exertion heats the back of his neck and the roar of his heart drowns the out the screech of klaxons and his opponent's intermittent grunts.
Grappling with the Weequay has left Cassian unprepared for the pirates rushing down the hallway.
He ducks under a volley of blaster fire -
- and carries the momentum into his feet, crushing a kneecap and then a skull. A hand snaps out - reddish purple - and he grabs it. Twists, and pulls, and a vibroblade clatters to the ground in time with a loud yowl. Cassian kicks it away, circling his leg around so heel meets flesh.
Fist meets palm; arm meets hand; a burst of red peppers Cassian's vision.
Blasterbolts shriek in pain.
Red, red, red. The Devaronian's skin; the red-hot blasterfire; spurts of blood -
Deathly blooms blossom on the Devaronian's back - they writhe in his firm grip. Cassian, who'd pulled the pirate over him as a living shield, ducks with the sagging body. The pirate behind the blaster freezes -
before they thaw, Cassian's nicked the vibroblade off the floor and given it a home in the leather of his assailant's neck.
Cassian reaches for his empty blaster to recharge it. He hesitates, fingers grasping at thin air. An eerie, muffled quiet settles over him -
in the distance, sirens and the sounds of battle.
"...it's on a direct path to our base. We cannot evacuate in time."
Static buzzes in his ears, and then:
"Melshi?" He's straining to hear, to speak. Cassian realizes he's frantically half-shouting.
He's warned by the shrill roar. Cassian's back hits the wall - the volley of blasterfire whizzes past him. A half-second later he leaps for the shooter. They crash to the ground in a tangle of limbs, and he's stuck in the muscular man's grip.
Cassian's heart hammers and the pirate grins wickedly, flicking open a switchblade. The knife plunges to his throat - but he's trapped the other man's arm. The knife swings wildly, scratching up the smooth stone floors around Cassian's head as they struggle.
Stone screeches under the blade. Cassian twists the pirate's arm.
The blade plunges into his spine.
Cassian would be glad to leave it at that but when his boots hit the ground the pirate roars again, lunging for his ankles. His feet meet the hard angles of the pirate's face, shattering cartilage and spilling bright green fluid. Anger fuels the man's rampage - he leaps up, ready to throttle Cassian; to crush his neck -
but with the fluidity of a Karuki dancer Cassian's slid behind the other man. Their muscles are as wide as he is, but with a lifetime of being the smaller fighter, Cassian knows how to leverage his build.
His fingers brush against the pirate's collar, then lace together around his pulse.
Cassian drops to his knees.
"You - there?"
The pirate flips, rolling over Cassian's back. An audible, hair-raising crack follows the smash of impact, and Cassian doesn't need to look at the carnage twice.
"Andor? Are you alright?"
He hastily raises the wrist comm to his mouth, still panting.
"Affirmative," Cassian replies between gasps. "What - what happened?"
"Small hiccup. We're all safe." Exhaustion strains Melshi's voice, but Cassian doesn't deny himself the small reprieve of a sigh of relief.
"Good. And the plan?"
"We're on it. Signing off."
"Understood. Signing off."
The call cuts off, leaving Cassian alone with bloodstained boots and a trail of destruction behind him. Ahead lies his goal. Just past this turn is the entrance to the cockpit, the layout of the M-class starliner still fresh in his mind.
He treads slowly, quietly, catching his breath.
Till now he'd felt detached from the fight, as usual, but with the recent close call, adrenaline suddenly surges through his veins. His blaster's at full charge now, so as he walks his plan coalesces in his mind.
Her voice, still fresh in his memory, ends the distress call:
"Fulcrum, you're our only ally. You're our only hope."
If he'd been told even a week ago that his next mission would be rescuing an Imperial luxury cruiser from pirates, Cassian might've balked.
Pirate assaults are frequent in the Maelstrom, enough that the Kuari Princess' capture wouldn't be high priority. The Outer Rim is out of both sight and mind, and rumor says the two most important dignitaries on this cruise had fallen out of the Emperor's favour. It wouldn't be a surprise if the Emperor himself had ordered the attack. Pilots careless - or foolish - enough to map a course through the sprawling green nebula wind up with scrambled nav computers and a few short seconds before chaos. The charged stardust provides a haven for pirates and Rebels alike - the descriptors finding overlap in this sector of space that Fulcrum watches over.
Well, a Fulcrum. To the universe, the disembodied voice is known to few, an enigma whispering of hope. To those that long for an answer, Fulcrum provides that and more. Supplies are exchanged for a key to freedom; those willing to lay their lives to save others will find a recruiter - Cassian - waiting at their doorstep. It is always he that approaches them first, and when a certain group of pirates had proven themselves to be more than a mere thorn in the Empire's side, Cassian had sought out their leader.
A transaction, a simple job masquerading as a test, blossomed into a precious bond. Now the Cloud Riders make up one of the largest factions of what Senator Mothma's taken to calling the Rebel Alliance. Fulcrum feeds them information and the Cloud Riders strike.
Unfortunately, not every rogue aligns themselves with their cause; and the pirates goading this ship to its untimely demise are one of many groups blessed by the Empire. The ship convulses under his feet as a dire reminder of his current situation. Though the Imperial shadow is vast, the galaxy is even larger - and thus star systems that slip through the Emperor's grasp are terrorized by crime lords such as the Hutts, corrupt monarchies, and gangs. Some, like the Night Fangs, are just a front for the Imperial terror machine.
Cassian quiets his breathing, hyperaware of the oxygen flowing through his lungs. The moments he scrapes for himself now are what will be his ally in the fight soon to follow. He pushes thoughts of the trapped Cloud Riders away, pushes back the images of the bodies strewn behind him, and exhales.
The blaster in his hands could be in rifle configuration, and the hallway he stands could lead up to a sniper's nest. The day is silent, no wind stirs up an echo, and the only thing on his mind is the final target.
With a thud, the door of the cockpit slides open, and the three eyes of a Gran peek out. Their eyestalks quiver but before it can warn the others Cassian's pulled it into a corner. If the pirate lived long enough, it may find that the butt of Cassian's blaster would leave a nasty bruise on its temple. Instead, the silencer muffles the solitary shot and Cassian hooks a foot under the falling body to keep it from slamming on the floor.
"Melshi?" he whispers into his comm. "Where's my distraction?"
"Waiting for orders."
Cassian briefly closes his eyes. The blaster in his hands could be a package of neatly tired wires threaded by tiny fingers; it could be crinkled flimsi dotted with code; ever since the age of six, though the objectives have differed the end result is always the same:
tres, dos, uno.
"Light it up," he breathes.
Cassian allows himself three seconds to gawk at the control panel. The Kuari is a luxury star cruiser, and naturally he'd never seen the inside of one, much less a cruiser as frivolously decadent as this. Clearly the designers had spent all their attention on the interior design, not mundane things such as a defense system or the ship's controls. Smooth sailing was ensured, but the only thing differentiating the so-called high end cruiser from the run down BR-23 he'd flown on one of his first missions under Cracken were the shiny controls and added baubles. His hands flit over the buttons and levers, rerouting fuel away from the damaged engines and re-pressurizing areas of the cruiser that had been exposed to the cold vacuum of space.
"Need a hand?"
Cassian keeps his eyes on the rapidly approaching moon in the viewport, and tosses the suggestion over his shoulder: "I need a copilot!"
Melshi immediately joins him at the console, plopping into his seat with an appreciative whistle. "All looks and no substance, I see. What's the plan, Cap'n?"
"I'm trying to reroute the ship away from the Mining Colony. Right now, we're effectively aboard a bomb." Cassian glares at a particularly offensive flashing yellow light that's begun to shine an angry red. The controls are slick in his grip but he can't afford distraction -
if this ship falls, all of his life's work will go down with it.
"Exciting," Melshi remarks. "So what do you want me to do?"
"Keep it afloat and away from the moon's atmosphere. We'll get dragged right in if we're not careful, and we don't have the power to get back on course if we do." He reaches over and engages the landing repulsors and fiddles with the deflector shields.
The escaping pirates have no qualms about shooting down the ship with some of their own still on board.
"We've got our work cut out for us." Melshi peers at the console readouts, frowning grimly. "Descent's slowed but this is gonna be a long ride. We aren't staying on board, are we?"
Cassian shakes his head. "We'll evacuate once we're back on route. My ship's in the docking bay and I'll head to the surface, you and the Pathfinders can return to Base One. We just need to put this ship back on course so it doesn't draw attention to the mining colony - or destroy it."
History is a convoluted creature. Its writhing tentacles dig into planets and uproot civilizations, the maw of its mouth swallows entire armies whole.
The Republic was born of a galactic desire for stability and equality. After millennia it crumbled from the inside due to the diseases known as corruption and ignorance. The sins the Republic committed - by facilitating the Outer Rim's wild growth into slavery and poverty, for one - had eventually snaked around its neck. The Separatists who rose to oppose them were fed by the same bloody money. When the Emperor dropped his mask of civility, all became clear. Whether the Separatists were a front for Palpatine's machinations, or the man just knew how to use a good opportunity, Cassian isn't certain. All he knows is that Fest was betrayed.
These thoughts linger as he's guided into a meeting with the leader of the Cloud Riders. Footsteps echo warmly on ancient stone and green hued light spills through arches thrice as tall as himself. The wind outside picks up in pace, swifly dancing through the arches and whipping the colourful fabrics and furs draped inside into a frenzy.
The Oasis mining facility carries the ghostly marks of generations of beings who found solace between its many stone walls. If Cassian had the time to let his Intelligence eyes wander over the structures built from weathered rock, he might even unearth the dark echoes of the ancient Sith Empire. The first to inhabit this tiny moon wrapped in the clutches of the Maelstrom. Instead, Cassian can only glimpse the washed-out vibrant sigils of previous gangs, now circumvented by Enfys Nest's hard work.
Pirates either have sensibility or style, but with a note of appreciation, Cassian finds the Cloud Riders have both. What for millennia may have been a dilapidated hideout for fugitives or a stronghold for a pirate empire, is now one of the Alliance's many beating hearts. Rooms that were once cells and torture chambers now store weapons and supplies - other cells are now quarters, kitchens, and even a medbay.
Cassian can't catch more than glimpses into these alternate lives but the clanging of kitchen utensils and the smack of washed fabric against smooth stone reaches his ears. The scents of jet fuel and homemade cooking tease his senses, thawing memories of years gone by.
It's rare for all of the Cloud Riders to be in one place at once. Many of the beings passing him and his guide in the hallways aren't even combatants - just refugees looking for a new home. Some will return to the galaxy at large, others will take up arms and join Enfys' leadership, but many will stay and tend to the needs of their resistance. All of them incline their heads as they pass by, and Cassian nods at the fur draped figures in return.
"In here, Captain."
Cloud Riders speak very little as a rule. Cassian has always appreciated this - there's no need for unnecessary pleasantries and double meanings with this crew. He's only unnerved by their use of armour. It's a source of physical safety and anonymity, of course, but a being's eyes are a window to their thoughts; a being's mouth betrays their intent before it even opens.
Armour is a hurdle for him, not an obstacle for an agent that can go toe to toe with the ISB.
Besides, it's not as though the Cloud Riders forsake individuality like stormtroopers, who are only identified by scratches, dents, and mannerisms - every Cloud Rider's armour is as unique as their pasts. Which is how, when Cassian steps into what appears to be the largest room on base, recognition lightens his features.
"Captain Andor of the Rebel Alliance is here."
A figure stands at a large, open viewport - a veranda, really, looking over the fortress towards the mining facility. It's clear that this room is the center of operations - the bridge of the ship, so to speak. Beings of all species pass through, but nobody dares to walk towards the secluded balcony at the front where their leader stands.
Thick fur lines their shoulders, woven red fabric hangs down their back. A hand clad in dull yellow beskar grips a staff. Distant star systems twinkle in a darkening sky, their glow blocked by the solitary silhouette. Debris from the earlier battle spreads in the upper reaches of the atmosphere, and it seems he isn't the only one looking up.
This is the Cloud Riders' crow's nest, and this is their leader.
"Thank you," Cassian says to his guide, and they bow their head before leaving, beaded braids jingling sweetly as they move. The others around them seem to obey an unspoken command and file out of the room, leaving Cassian alone to stand with his hands clasped behind his back.
Enfys turns, and Cassian realizes two things.
One: her signature six pronged helmet isn't on her head. It sits on the ledge in front of her.
Two: Enfys is a human woman around his age, with flaming red hair that spills over her collar in tight curls. An explosion of freckles dots her face like a starburst, which splits in two as she grins broadly.
Cassian can't help but smile in return as he steps forward.
"It's an honour to meet you," he says. She reaches out and clasps his outstretched hand with an iron grip. Belatedly, Cassian realizes she's shorter than him - a jarring thought for a woman so formidable.
"And you, Captain. Thank you for all you've done today - you've saved us, and we are indebted."
"I was just following orders," he replies with a thinner smile.
Enfys' smile adopts a mischievous slant. "You weren't the one who delivered them? By the time Fulcrum would've sent word to the Alliance, this entire base would've disintegrated - but I guess this just attests to his skill." Her smile quirks further at the silence that follows, and the emotions Cassian knows are churning in his eyes.
He understands, now, why she'd chosen to discard her helmet. She's rarely ever seen without it - even on base, Cassian knows only a select few are privy to Enfys' identity. Those that see her maskless don't realize that the young woman is the marauder that has proven to be a formidable foe to the Empire. The Cloud Riders have been in operation at least since Cassian joined the Alliance, which means she'd established her mythical reputation as a mere teen at the forefront of her cause.
There are benefits to facing the galaxy with a youthful face, benefits Cassian knows intimately. For someone like Enfys who purely deals in the world of crime and danger, not subterfuge, baring an innocent gaze such as hers will do her no good.
Now she's chosen to bare those vulnerabilities to him.
I took off my helmet, and now you can take off yours. She doesn't say it, doesn't even hint at a threat. Her bright smile remains warm and genuine, but Cassian feels her intent nonetheless.
"It would do no good to keep you in the dark much longer," Cassian says with a touch of bashfulness, gaze sweeping the stone floors.
Enfys presses her lips together. "Now, Captain, we all wear armour for a reason. There's no need to elaborate further - you've merely confirmed my suspicions," she replies and clasps a fist across her chest. "I promise you, I won't breathe word of this to anyone. We all have secrets, Captain, and in the age of the Empire, trust is as valuable as the coaxium we mine. I am glad you trust me, and I will honour that with my life."
Cassian's eyes flicker up to meet hers - dark brown meeting darker - and he has the nerve to grin. "That is all I ask - and I'm glad you trust me as well."
She grins back, softer this time, and steps back to the balcony, beckoning for Cassian to join her. The wind whips more violently up here, tossing her curls into the breeze, but Cassian understands why she enjoys standing here. The settlement sprawls before them, and above it, the Maelstrom pulses with vibrant energy. The air is salty yet sweet, and Cassian remembers spotting a large ocean to the west of their settlement as he flew in. His U-Wing sits on an open stretch of land, among some of the Cloud Riders' many ships.
"It's beautiful," he breathes.
She turns to regard him. "It is, isn't it? And to think what could've happened if the Night Fangs had their way. All of it cinders, only a scar where the coaxium factory is. All of our people, gone." Her gaze returns, this time staring pointedly at the factory that glimmers brightly even in the dusk that makes up the moon's day cycle.
Her voice quavers a little at the word people. Cassian sighs.
"We would've been sent two decades backwards. We would've lost a source of income, a source of supplies - and trusted allies," he adds warmly. He shifts his weight, leaning on his forearms against the railing.
"All because of a crime feud. The Night Fangs are just our competitors in the world of piracy-"
"Do you really think so?"
Enfys moves to look at him more intently this time.
"You suspect they're a front for the Empire."
"Or at least have their blessing," he says, and Enfys nods.
"I suspected that as well. But why attack an Imperial luxury cruiser filled with their people - the highest class, no less? With two Moffs on board?"
"The Moffs had been losing plenty to you and other gangs in the area, so for them it was two womprats with one stone. Besides, the more contrived it sounds, the more easy to shift blame. "
"On to us," Enfys nods slowly, lips curling into a thoughtful frown. "But you've taken care of it, I assume?"
"There's not much left on the ship except bodies - the Fangs had plundered it before taking control. Moff Vanko fled with his life. I rerouted the Princess back on its course, to Mantooine, and reconfigured the computer databank so it only has the pirates' boarding and not the diversion to Oasis."
"I should thank you for having the presence of mind to warn us. I had enough time to bring in a Pathfinders contingent to help with the rescue - they happened to be in my sector."
"And to them convey our thanks as well. You're in charge of the Relgim sector, correct? We're always swooping in and out of your jurisdiction, aren't we?"
"I watch over the Albarrio sector."
Enfys chuckles. "This is why we could never officially merge with the Alliance. All these military positions and bureaucracy. It's much easier to get on the ground," she says, tapping her staff, "and kick the Emperor in the seat of his wrinkly pants."
"I couldn't wait around for orders," she continues, "my mother used to say I was a rowdy child even then."
"Oh, my mama claimed I was the neediest, most affectionate child in the entire neighbourhood," Cassian deadpans. Enfys' amused expression and arched eyebrows elicits his self deprecating chuckle. "Everyone said I was easy to find because I'd either be clinging on to her skirts or crying because I couldn't see her."
Enfys laughs. "And look at us now," she says, before considering the implications of the statement. The world quiets around them.
They stand in silence for a while, watch the faint glow of daytime dip away into a pronounced darkness - as dark as was possible for a moon sitting in a nebula. Lights come to life, marking paths to the coaxium harvesting and processing facilities, outlining the factories that run day and night for the Rebellion. His gaze strays to Enfys' helmet resting on the wooden railing.
"It's my mother's," Enfys says. Cassian notes how quick she was to notice the focus of his attention. "In our culture, armour is a sign of pride and individuality."
"Like the Mando'a?"
"Very much so. The spires, here, that resemble horns - they signify our clan." Cassian nods appreciatively.
"It's an elegant work of art... Your mother must be proud of you."
"I dearly hope so." The brightness in Enfys' eyes has dimmed into a more sombre glow, echoing the light of the stars above. "Isn't that all we can do, anyways - hope?"
The breeze picks up, and the saltiness of the air settles on his tongue.
"I don't have anything of my mother's, just the hope she gave me: if we do something, anything, perhaps we'll help bring down the Empire. And if not - if not in our lifetime - at least we'll have the peace knowing we did all that we could."
His gaze has flitted over to a group of older children flocking around the U-Wing. The wind carries bursts of laughter, and lost in the moment, he doesn't notice Enfys reaching for his arm until she says:
"I'm sure she's proud of you as well, Captain."
He turns to look at her, holding her gaze. His smile is long gone, but its left a softness in its place. The sound of approaching footsteps registers, and he knows he must leave. Cassian straightens, stepping back from the railing.
"There's something I need to tell you," Enfys starts, moving with him. "There's, I don't know if you've heard about this, but there's been an increase in shipments of materials and slaves into your sector. If you see any Wookies on your way out, we actually just recently rescued them from one of the ships. I tried finding out what they were being sent for, but none of them had any idea."
"I've been hearing rumors of the Empire building something," Cassian starts, and Enfys nods.
"One of them started wailing and exclaiming that the end is near, but they wouldn't explain why. They were all too scared."
Cassian frowns, the expression mirrored on Enfys' face.
"I'll look into it, see if there's anything I need you to keep an eye out for." Enfys' expression softens into a more cordial smile, and Cassian recognizes the cold, determined mask that slides over her eyes.
"And I will let you know if I find anything more. It was a pleasure to meet you, finally, and we thank you for your help. May the Force guide you."
"As it guides us all," Cassian finishes the customary farewell before walking off with the guide waiting at the door.
When he turns to look over his shoulder, the helmet is back on Enfys' head, the horns framing a constellation hanging in the night sky - the Bull, bringer of the harvest and defender of farmers.
May the Force guide us all.
The Cloud Riders are canon, obviously, but I loosely based this plot off the Legends-verse Riders of the Maelstrom. Loosely.
Chapter 2: The Senator
[Continuum Void Cafe, Xakrea, Darkknell]
for @thefulcrumcaptain Cassian Week "collateral damage"
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Milk ripples through the rich brown surface, spreading in endless fractals.
Cassian studies the patterns briefly before dipping his spoon into the mug and mixing sweet goff-milk into the bitter caf. The milk swirls away, disappearing into the caf's embrace. The result is a creamy tan concoction, with a hopefully more palatable flavour.
He gently taps the spoon against the rim before setting it down on the saucer, careful not to leave any splotches on the table's recently wiped surface. For a moment he revels in the warmth emanating from the mug as it works its way through his chilled hands.
Darkknell's permanently deep red skies cast hazy shadows on the mug's soft white surface. Cassian lifts it to his lips, dispelling the vibrant red patterns. The burning caf chases away the last of his lethargy. The taste, however, leaves him with the need to force his face into an expression of polite delight.
"It's lovely, thank you."
The server bows her head before taking the tray away and hurrying back into the cafe.
He lets his gaze fall away from the Duros' retreating form to the sugar shaker left on his table. Cassian runs his tongue along the roof of his mouth, hoping for some relief from the caf's strong taste. Despite his best efforts, the goff-milk did little to help and he doubts the sugar will do any better. It's not the server's fault. The mere scent of caf bothers him - but all of Intelligence swears by the bitter concoction. If it wasn't for caf's ability to get him through weeks with little sleep, Cassian would never drink it.
If only this was spiced hot chocolate!
A delicacy to the galaxy but a treat on Fest. Closing his eyes, he can recall the shelf lined with dented canisters filled with cooking spices; the sweet scent of milk bubbling in a pan; mama's knowing smile when he asked for more. The slight tingles of heat still linger in his mouth, washed away by the warm sweetness of chocolate; an unforgettable memory -
Cassian sighs. He's only wasting energy and focus by wanting.
Darkknell's long daycycle inches to a close, its three setting stars painting the skies an even deeper red.
His contact dabbles in the business of information, one of many willing to sell secrets to the highest bidder. The least trusted and most plentiful of his sources - perhaps more trustworthy than Imperials he's conned, but not by much.
At least Cassian can predict what an Imp's motivations are.
Whatever information they've acquired is important enough the Senators unanimously agreed he shell out however many credits the informant demands. Cassian knows better than to challenge authority, but he'd been privy to some of the bargaining and the amount is enough to feed a squadron for a week.
The caf chases the sour thoughts down his throat. His gaze flickers over to the chrono on his wrist, and with time before the informant is due to arrive, he clicks on his datapad.
The instant it connects to the local HoloNet his screen overflows with notifications. Breaking news headlines flash in bright red: a rebel attack on Anchoron, supposedly, with many civilian casualties including a Senator and his family. Cassian scrolls through pictures of the victims, gleaning that the dead Coreillian was vehemently pro Imperial. Preliminary reports state rogue forces staged the attack to protest the Senator's address at a convention center, who was about to praise one of the Emperor's most recent policies.
Cassian flits through and finds the political commentators remarking on the safety of the Empire in the face of rebel threats. Some encourage a crackdown on potential dissidents. He turns the screen off. The last words burn in his vision:
we mourn the loss of the ideal Imperial family and a staunch support for the Emperor.
The outright lie would be humorous if not for its sinister nature.
Senator Iblis supported the Rebellion. It wasn't a rebel who placed the detonator.
Cassian knows because he saw it explode.
Anchoron's claims to fame are its mild, pleasant weather and mild, pleasant people.
Nonetheless, an early morning breeze renders the weather chilly enough for Cassian to pull his jacket closer in search of scant warmth. Autumn is rapidly approaching, and with it, a barrage of Senators ready to address the general populace.
Buffeted by the crisp air, thoughts of Senator Organa fill his brisk walk. A smile plays at his lips at the memory of the Senator stopping to receive a call from his daughter, sending Cassian to deliver a message in his place.
The Alderaanian Senator is a recurring feature in Cassian's life, ever since he'd found himself with the Core Worlders' Resistance, or so they'd called it on Fest. He'd immediately latched onto the man who spoke a tongue similar to his own, and the older man had seemingly recognized something in the intensity of bright brown eyes. For two years Aach tailed Organa as part of his entourage, a junior politician eager to please and far more eager to learn.
The world of galactic politics left Cassian restless - the glittering finery and poisoned tongues proved too much for a boy used to rocks giving direct results. Organa couldn't bear to watch a flame so bright dwindle so quickly. Cassian returned to infiltration and assassination carrying the mannerisms Organa gifted him as tools.
Cassian's supervisors found his aptitude in deception and fervent loyalty to the cause the perfect storm for Intelligence work - and soon realized Organa trusted no other Intelligence agent as much as the boy from Fest. Aach found new life as one of Organa's aides. Whenever Cracken could spare him, the Alderaanian contingent found themselves with an extra member.
Queen Breha is the only other living being privy to Aach's true nature. Even she demands to have no knowledge of his activities to ensure her people's - and family's - safety.
Now Cassian finds himself nodding to the pair of troopers stationed at the complex's entrance. The troopers turn away, the bobbing of their helmets a glimpse into unheard conversation.
nothing to see here.
He flashes a smile at the Twi'lek chewing on the back of a stylus in the lobby before making himself comfortable in a dull green chair with caf stains marring the arms. Every movement of the troopers catches in the fringes of his vision. The weight of Aach's scandocs in his pocket and the status of being Organa's aide are the logical remedy to his nerves. Still, his senses remain on high alert.
As they should be.
He keeps his tumoil buried deep inside: outwardly, he picks up the nearest holomag and begins to peruse it with gloved fingers. Oversaturated images of the HoloNet's darlings barely make an impression. He gleans enough gossip to last him through his next idle conversation while waiting for a transport or a contact. An advertisement for a cruise to Aldera catches his gaze, the familiar mountain range evoking the few happy memories of his present life.
As part of Alderaan's Senatorial contingent, Cassian doesn't have to alter his natural speaking voice. He secretly treasures those rare moments when Senator Organa chooses to chat in High Alderaanian. It's not Festian but is parsecs closer to his tongue than Basic. Sometimes the Senator covertly mutters an instruction, other times it's a mere observation not suitable for the blunt roughness of Basic. Occasionally it's a curse slips through his lips, leaving Cassian to smother a chuckle to Organa's amusement, eyes crinkling the way they do whenever the little Princess is in the vicinity.
Now that he considers it, Aach has more in common with the little Festian boy than the man that boy grew up to be. Perhaps his cover is who Cassian would've become, had the Republic not forgotten about Fest's existence until the Separatists built their phrik factories. If the Republic had chosen to give Fest a voice in the Senate.
A loud chirp pulls Cassian out of his ruminations. Shame swells: a reminder that a spy's most lethal enemy is distraction. He hadn't even noticed the decorative chrono on the wall to his left.
The ticking of the analog chrono buzzes in his periphery as Cassian observes the seating area. The itchy fabric of his seat is riddled with torn seams left by buttons. He's tempted to fiddle with one of the loose strings but instead retains the decorum befitting a highly bored Core World aide: looking askance at passerby while the conversations around him slowly come into focus. A Togurta casually chats (no, flirts, because her lekkus sway exaggeratedly and her hands can't stay still) with the Human sitting directly across from Cassian (who tosses thick black braids off her shoulder every time she giggles). A bored blue-haired aide sits a few rows in front of him using a work datapad for leisure. A glance at the screen renders the tips of Cassian's ears almost as red as the Togurta's skin.
Soft footsteps approach, and Cassian is relieved from the momentary horror.
"Senator Iblis?" he rises to his feet. "I'm Aach, Senator Organa's aide."
Garm Bel Iblis, like many Corellians, stands just over Cassian. Sporting a brusque frown partially hidden by a greying moustache, he fits right in with the stoic faces of the Empire - were it not for the hard glint in his eyes betraying the sense of Imperial indifference.
"Let's take this outside," the Senator says, roughly pressing a hand to Cassian's back. "I don't have much time, so be quick."
"There's intel," Cassian says as soon as they're out of the troopers' earshot. They're making the impression of walking towards a bench on the end of a walkway leaving to the complex, but they're short on time. The Senator is due to speak in a couple minutes, but Senator Organa's message is urgent. "Regarding Operation Interlude. You're required on Dar-"
The roar swallows the rest of his sentence.
They soar in a sea of heat. One hand drags the Senator, pulls him, drags him, to duck under the bench. It shudders, croaks, as debris careens around them like molten rainfall. Light scorches the back of his eyelids.
Sparks and smoke tangle with snowflakes: the timer's dwindled to zero, and Cassian was too slow.
He returns with soot smudged all over his clothes, his deed marked clearly on his face.
His senses filter to one: the painful ringing of his ears. Somehow, he keeps a grip on the Senator's coat. A lifeline. His knuckles scream in chorus with his ringing ears and burning eyes.
Acrid air fills his lungs.
The buzzing fades.
The emptiness carved out by the explosion swells with the intermingling of wailing sirens and moans of pain.
Slowly, Cassian opens his eyes.
Flames curl out from the entrance where they'd been standing earlier. Charred plastoid lies some meters from the entrance.
He tries not to piece together the fragments.
Peering out from under the bench, he sees the debris has slowed to a trickle of sparks. The heat still assaults him from all sides, and he ducks back under with stinging eyes.
A groan reminds Cassian of his companion.
Iblis strains against Cassian's firm grip, one hand clutching the stone slab making up the bench. Belatedly, Cassian notices the dedication commemorates the end of the Clone Wars.
He almost wants to laugh.
The familiar crackle of stormtroopers' voices amplified by loudspeakers echoes through the air.
Over the monotone instructions to stay calm, Cassian whispers:
"Senator, we have-"
"My - my wife."
Amidst the searing heat, a cold weight settles in Cassian's stomach.
"Ari - she's with my - my children. They - they were - they're -"
Iblis lurches forward, twisting Cassian's arm.
"They're in there!"
Cassian's heart sinks with his heel into the shredded lawn.
Disbelief pushes the other man towards the burning building. It takes every ounce of strength in Cassian's body to keep him from imminent death.
"Let me go, soldier!" Iblis roars.
"I serve the cause before all else, sir," Cassian chokes out, voice warped by smoke. Fingers dig into his shoulder, grip his arm. "I can't let you go in. Senator, please."
His plaintive gaze is met with blue ice. He's keenly aware of the Senator's hand twitching, sees his gaze flicker to his robes outlining Cassian's hidden holster.
"We can't lose you," he whispers, hoarse. "The Rebellion needs you."
Guilt coils in his gut. Cassian should be consoling him.
Technically, he is. Cassian murmurs of avenging the Senator's family by waiting for the right opportunity, that a single moment of passionate grief shouldn't eclipse their sacrifice.
"We need to honour them, sir," Cassian says. "This is not the way. Now is not the time." Convincing even in the worst of situations, his sweet Intelligence tongue has its way with a freshly bereaved man. Nausea threatens to overtake his senses. He can blame it on the smoke inhalation, but Cassian knows better.
He should be consoling Iblis, not twisting his Senator's grief into the Rebellion's weapon. The world is in flames around them, and all Cassian can think about is Operation Interlude.
"We have to go. You have to get out of here."
Iblis relaxes a little in Cassian's grip. He can spare a glance out of the corner of his eyes: the convention center's grounds are swarming with stormtroopers. They're already unfurling checkpoints, patting down and interrogating bystanders.
remain calm, they instruct. remain calm, citizens of the empire. your safety is our priority.
Cassian stops listening.
He can slip through the barricades without problem, but Iblis -
Iblis was the first Senator set to speak today. Even Cassian was privy to the contents of his speech. A declaration of defiance against the Empire, approved by the council heading the Rebel Alliance.
Evidently, someone had decided letting Iblis speak would push the galaxy into war.
The Corellian Senator is supposed to be dead.
And Cassian realizes it might be better for the Rebellion if he stays that way.
His gaze returns to the Senator. The ice in his eyes has melted in the heat still rolling across them in waves, the ice melts. Where there was shock, fury, desperation - now sits numb grief.
Cassian knows these all too well.
He's heard whispers about this man, how he values his pride above all else, and perhaps they're right. It's pride that straightens his back, smoothens his clothes, and if it wasn't for the waver in his voice, Cassian would almost be convinced. Iblis is one of the three founding Senators of the Rebellion - if they were a real army, he'd be Cassian's superior's superior's superior.
Death is the great equalizer, after all.
"You go. Follow that lead."
Cassian opens his mouth to protest but the gleam in the other man's eyes locks him in place.
"That blast was meant for me and we both know it. I won't let myself get caught. I won't let -" Cassian offers the steadfast man some dignity and averts his eyes. "I won't let their loss go to waste. You go, I'll get in touch with your boss myself."
Cassian sees no lies in Iblis' eyes. Where there had once been grief and agony he finds cold fury. Grief has sunk, to only be unearthed in the darkness and the quiet - but the fleeting moment of despair is gone, and with it, any hindrance to the Rebellion's objectives.
"And don't you worry," the Senator adds in a voice that Cassian hesitates to describe as gentle, "my supposed death will only make things easier for me. Now go."
The growing crowd of white fills Cassian's vision, and without looking over his shoulder, he slips away to Senator Organa's ship.
Iblis had kept his word and contacted Organa after escaping Anchoron, while Cassian kept his word.
He sets his datapad down on his table and leans back in his seat. The buzz of his chrono tells him the informant is running late. Ten standard minutes is nothing overly unusual, but a nagging sense of dread prickles at him anyways. He's tempted to reach for his blaster, but even a mere twitch is too much of a risk with troopers patrolling the streets, so he remains focused on draining his mug of caf.
The last drops barely pass his lips when his dread bears fruit.
The soft clink of his mug meeting the saucer seems to be amplified a thousand fold; his slight unease grows into a roar. A cacophony of screams and the shriek of blasters interrupts the idle hum of speeders whizzing down the city's traffic lanes. Cassian rises with the other patrons on the patio clamouring to identify the source of the commotion.
An ashamedly familiar sight greets him: stormtroopers firing haphazardly at pedestrians running amok.
A few people push through to the front of the crowd, running with intent and not fear. One collapses as a bloody flower blossoms on his back. Panicked window-shoppers trample over it in search of safety, obscuring it from sight.
"Remain calm!" The trooper shouts into his loudspeaker as his brethren stir up more chaos. "Stay where you are. Pull up your scandocs. Remain-"
The crowd spreads, like blood on cold durasteel, rushing into speeders and alleyways. Bystanders huddle along the sides of the walkways. Some find their way to the patio, others inside shops. Cassian fights down the need to help, to calm the frightened.
To play his part he must stand and watch.
At least his expression isn't faked.
The stromtroopers pick through the carnage. A handful of bodies lie sprawled on the streets: some still living, harassed for scandocs, shipped off to the nearest medcenter if they pass and shackled if not.
"We are apprehending dangerous rebel sympathizers, remain calm, we will-"
Two bodies remain, lying on the opposite side of the street. He snatches a glimpse of a Noghri, loose clothing smattered with blood, and what appears to be a human woman, her maroon scarf still fluttering in the wind.
Neither match the description of his informant.
"Please report any suspicious activity. Be aware of your surroundings. Have your scandocs on hand. We are sending stormtroopers around to check them. Again, please remain calm-"
Cassian turns his face away from the troopers searching their bodies, emulating the actions of the other patrons around him. He keeps an eye on their movements as a pair of troopers approach the patio.
Someone beside him, an older woman with a child's face tucked in to her shoulder, mutters in Bocce: filthy buckets of outsider slime, not all of us have scandocs, you rotten, half-witted creatures. She's careful to be quiet but Cassian quells the need to shush her - troopers are notorious for only knowing Basic, but one could never be sure who is listening.
The trooper approaches Cassian, repeating the same, one word command. Cassian hands them an id chip with Aach's papers. Nothing out of the ordinary, a Senatorial aide enjoying a patio -
"What brings you here?"
The troopers investigating the bodies stand, empty handed. Cassian strains to hear their voices, but they must be using an internal frequency. Their white helmets bob, gesturing to the dead rebels and then the street.
They're looking for something.
"Business meeting," he drawls with all the haughtiness of a Core Worlder. "My, ah, boss wanted something nice for his daughter's birthday. She's turning fifteen standard, y'know, a big one, and of course I'm the one on a literal wild mynock chase, apparently their feathers are in vogue this season, who knew?"
The trooper clicks the chip out of the reader and presses it back into Cassian's gloved palm.
"Good luck with that. Teens are tough."
"Thanks," Cassian replies. He waits for the trooper to move to the next patron before leaving a handful of credits on his table and slipping out of the cafe.
Most likely, the Imps had caught wind of the missing datachips.
Cassian presses the back of his hand to his mouth, huffing out a sigh. If Kay was here he'd tell him that the chances of his informant remaining unscathed and uncompromised is highly unlikely.
Still, Cassian can't get the image of the maroon scarf out of his head. The troopers left the bodies behind, having moved on in search of the lost datachips. He realizes they're playing the same game.
The data in question is almost priceless to the Rebellion. Organa had called it a glimmer of hope. Leverage against the Empire.
It was no surprise the Empire would risk looking bad just to recover it.
The Rebel Alliance had never overtly attacked Imperial forces. Other rebel factions had, like Saw Gerrera's Partisans, the Atrivis Resistance Group, and, of course, the Cloud Riders. But there's a difference between guerrilla attacks on Imperial storage facilities and shipping routes scattered throughout the galaxy, and an organized strike on a single military installment.
The details of one such location are on that datachip.
He has to find it.
Senator Mothma was insistent. Forever the pacifist, not willing to follow the bloody war path the likes of the Partisans had followed. Too much innocent blood, she'd said. Which was undeniably the truth, but an awful lot for someone shrouded in white, unsoiled robes. Someone leading a revolution.
Cassian has the scars and callouses to prove he's no saint.
One life means so much - can change everything. He spots a bounce of curls in the thinning crowd. (His mother saved so many by teaching them to fight back.)
But sometimes, sometimes, he shoves his conscience into the packages Draven's made for him and reminds himself that one murder can save millions.
(Without compassion he cannot sneak his way under the walls hiding people's souls. But if he lets his compassion overrule logic, then everything will crumble away in his grasp.)
They need to do something big, and soon. Even Mothma agrees, but they can't do anything without reliable information. It's a consensus: the rebels can't afford a risk gone wrong. But they can't afford inaction much longer.
It's that intent that guides him to the bodies.
He branches off from the crowd, ducking into an alleyway behind a store selling shock-ball merchandise. A rickety, winding staircase takes him to the roof. He hops across the narrow gaps between roofs, careful not to smash through the shingles.
Cassian winds up overlooking an alley leading to the site of the shootout. Blood smears the ground. Already curious pickpockets have begun to prod at the Noghri's body and peer longingly through smashed windows.
The woman with the scarf, however, is nowhere in sight. For a moment Cassian mourns the waste of time.
Then something maroon catches his eye.
She's slouched against the wall of the alley, the scarf once looped around her head now tied around her abdomen. It rises and falls with her breathing.
Her name is Des, Cassian learns, and like many of the impoverished on Darknell, she's a pickpocket.
"I prefer the term con artist," she says. Her fingers snake around her side, pressing against her patched up blaster wound. Cassian is no medic but he's been dealing with blaster burns and shrapnel before he even passed his mother's shoulder. He fiddles with his medkit, thankful he had the sense to keep it in his bag.
The nighttime winds of Darknell have begun their tyranny, filling the air with the screech of creaking signs and flapping awnings. They sit in the relative safety of an abandonded storefront, protected from curious eyes by a rusted shutter. Outside, chaos has petered out into the silence of fearful nights. Cassian works by the light of his datapad, the windows of the storefront boarded up long ago.
"It's a darn shame I didn't know how important that datapack is." Des purses her lips, as if preparing to whistle appreciatively, but the inhale must've caused pain to flare up. Her eyebrows draw together, thick and dark. She merely sighs.
Cassian waves a hand before taking off his bloodstained gloves. "You do know where you hid it?"
"Yeah," she replies. She falls silent and Cassian glances up at her. She's studying him closely, tracking his movements curtained by thick eyelashes. She's observant, naturally so from her line of 'work', and he figures if she had enough training she would be a perfect fit with Intelligence. (She's given herself away, by staring at him like this. She'd have to learn to be more subtle, stop fidgeting with the edge of her scarf...)
He's getting too far ahead of himself, though. This is no recruitment stint. Des, for all her rebellious tendencies, is still a criminal. (In the Empire's eyes, most are. Including himself - except to their databanks, Cassian Andor died a decade ago when Fest went up in flames.)
And a thief is hardly trustworthy.
"Where?" he presses. He's unlikely to get the answer that he wants, but still -
"Why should I tell you?"
As expected, Des puts up some resistance. Cassian had hoped not to let the young woman know the value of the datapack he's looking for, but otherwise she wouldn't have admitted to nicking it from the bag of an Imperial walking towards the cafe.
Cassian shrugs. "Maybe it was meant for me."
"You don't look like an Imp - oh." Des smirks. (Again, betrayal of her emotions.) "And here I thought you were just a bleeding heart willing to fix up a pretty face."
He ducks his head at that comment, and zips up the medkit. Des looked to be around his age, her mid-tone brown skin gaining colour as blood returns to her face. It's a harmless comment, something expected for a pickpocket whose first weapon is charm. Cassian feels nothing but the raw sense of duty clawing at his empty heart.
"Pfft, don't look away like that, I don't have eyes for men."
When he looks back up, her blood encrusted lips are pressed into a more thoughtful expression.
"So, are you?"
"Am I what?" He is all innocence, intentionally going overboard with his sweet tone: laying his feigned ignorance out like a trap.
She prods at the bait. "I'm tired of this game. If you're an undercover spook, surely you have enough information to toss me in Wobani for the rest of my life. And I think shooting one of your own and using her as a snare is too elaborate of a ruse just to catch," she eyes him, "a potential dissident."
"It's nothing the Imps haven't done before." Cassian glances at the table she's sitting on, looking for any blood stains that might give them away. It's clean, but their movement has disturbed the layers of dust settled on every surface. He frowns. "You can't be too safe."
"Which is why I think I shouldn't tell you where the datapack is. Besides, now that I know both the Imps and... whoever you're representing... want it... why should I just give it to you?"
Des glances at him with wide, black eyes.
"Why should I trust you?" she adds softly. For a fleeting moment, she seems to let her guard of bravado down - exhuastion, maybe, or a snippet of honesty. It's enough for Cassian to gain insight, to see the girl for who she is.
Someone looking for a home.
His gaze flits over to the maroon scarf in her hands, the hand stitched edges of thin, net-like fabric wound around her fingers. Her nails are chewed down (another habit Intelligence would have to break) but they rest with all the poise of someone who knows how to pick a lock.
"You're a con artist. You tell me. What do I look like to you?"
Des laughs at that, a short, lilting bark.
"You've got that look 'bout you," she says. "Rough around the edges, all that HoloNet brooding hero nonsense, but genuine. You look like you don't care, you look like any other Core World Imp, with that hair and those clothes. But you saved my life. You don't gawk at blood, you can clean up a blaster wound, and you know your way around the backwaters of a city."
He stares at her, weighing his words carefully.
"They'll break you if you get caught," is what he manages to say. Pushed to the brink of starvation, overworked to the cusp of death, kept awake till her eyes turn red. Become more bruise than skin and more transparisteel than bones. And that was just for the thieves - not the rebels. "They'll take everything but your sanity, and soon you'll want to give that up too. I wouldn't trust me if I were you."
He wouldn't. He is, like Des suspects, a spook. Just not an Imperial one.
"I don't trust you. But you don't sound like an Imp. You speak like one, but you don't sound like it."
The Alderaanian accent is what he thinks she means, but then Des adds:
"I've been with you for the better part of an hour, and... we value honesty on Jedha," she says, and the weight of her tongue finally makes sense. Jedhan. "-and we know how to spot a liar. You aren't. You've lost something, not just the datapack. We... all of us that've lost things, we can recognize each other. The look in your eyes... on my world we'd say your eyes are windows to your soul, and I think for once those old folks are right. I think. I mean, if I'm wrong I'm gonna wind up dead, but hey, at least it doesn't rain in a holding cell, right?" "
Des is right. He hadn't lied to her. The easiest path to trust is the truth: maybe not the whole of it, but enough. Enough to lay a trap, enough for an easy conscience. Telling someone he'd save them, then shooting them point blank, isn't a lie: he'd saved them from Imperial torture. The truth is hard to swallow, but Cassian deals in information, not lies.
Who has needs for falsehood when the truth alone is unsavoury?
"You believe me," he drawls. "The datapack was meant for me."
"You're not lying - you're not an Imp. Don't you think," she stiffens, "I can't put two and two together and know who you really are. If you want Imperial datacards and aren't an Imp or a filthy trader, then," she falters, and says in a Jedhan dialect, "you're a rogue."
Cassian's spent enough time studying the Partisans to know that rogue is half insult, half compliment. He also knows an Imperial wouldn't know that dialect, not even the best agent the ISB could produce. They don't care enough.
"Will you help a rogue, then?"
"Maybe," Des sighs, and ventures forward, pressing her feet to the ground. They wobble, and Cassian moves to steady her but she waves his hand away. She meets his eyes instead, and poses the question he's heard a thousand times:
"what's in it for me?"
"I'll pay you."
"Some things," she remarks, dusting her hands off as she leans against the table, "cannot be bought."
Like trust, Cassian thinks. It must be earned, and I've failed.
"But," she adds, and hope soars in his chest, "information is not one of them. Promise me safe passage, and enough credits to get me off this planet. I'll help you get around those bucketheads."
For once, he hopes: that they'll find the datapack, that this isn't a trap, and that Des will join the Alliance. He reigns in his thoughts, reminds him that running too far leaves the world to be yanked from underneath him, and says: "Done."
Cassian holds her gaze, until she ducks her head, unfolding her blood-soaked scarf.
Aach in Legends canon was one of Bail's personal spies which is why he shows up in every other Cassian centric fic of mine hehe
Chapter 3: The Spy
[Imperial Deepdocks, Ord Mantell]
incidentally matches @thefulcrumcaptain promptathon prompt: "Cassian gets to see his intelligence work make an immediate small-scale change in someone’s life for the better"
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
He finds the gloves are tighter than he remembers. Wading through the throes of personnel, the black synthleather grows stickier against his palms. Reminding himself to keep his hands at his sides takes genuine effort - it's as if he's out of practise. The slight discomfort of worn synthleather rubbing against his trigger finger shouldn't bother a hardened field agent.
Cassian doesn't know whether the change is worrisome or a relief.
But Tay Willix isn't Cassian.
As one of the Empire's finest, the mere concept of discomfort as he weaves between crowds of officers, troopers, and machine-workers wouldn't even cross his mind. His uniform holds him close, whispering of belonging and utility, singing praise of the glorious Empire. Imperial pride swallows Cassian whole and spits out Willix.
With durasteel for a spine, Willix is everything fledgling rebels believe an Imperial to be. Cassian's knocked slouches and softened vocabularies into agents just as often as he's straightened caps and trimmed hair. Imperials, for all Cassian despises them, are just as human as his agents. More so, with the Empire's anti nonhuman sentiments. For all their adherence to protocol, for all their rigidity in beliefs - of an us vs. a them, of order and chaos - most Imps have a certain dismissiveness about them. Imperfections blemish their mannerisms. Imperfections make them real.
"-but I'm sure you're more interested in seeing the actual docks. We have some exciting new ships being built out there. Far more interesting than these old things. State-of-the-art technology, the best this side of Kuat."
Willix merely nods in response. Cassian is quick to form connections between Marek's practiced ramblings and the happenings around them. Workers in brown tracksuits move to and fro on the catwalks, rushing about as ships come in for maintenance. Below them, workers scramble over wings and duck below frames, scrubbing off scoring from laserfire and fixing loose landing gear.
A loud bang interrupts the steady shrieks and bangs of machinery. Following the stream of curses, Willix sniffs, the crackle of wires burning permeating the air. An officer shouts down orders to keep working, and the crowd that's begun to form around the injured worker dissolves.
"What's the average lifetime for one of the ships down here?" he asks.
Marek pauses, jolted by passerby. Catching zhis footing, zhe replies: "oh, about three, four standard years? We don't keep our ships very long, there's always something new and better coming. But lately we've been trying to bolster their upkeep - all the new ships are going elsewhere, so the usual production has slowed."
Three years! The newest ship in the Alliance fleet is older.
Willix remains unimpressed.
Marek struggles to keep with his pace as zhe leads them to the turbolifts. Leaning over to activate the call button, Marek's head swims. Zhe'd scarfed down too-sweet caf in favour of zhis usual scrambled nuna eggs this morning, scorching zhis throat and clearly not satisfying zhis appetite. Having to shout at Willix over the din of machinery isn't helping zhis case.
The lift doors slide open, letting in a pair of chattering techs and a worker pushing a hoversled.
"The best view is outside," zhe tells Willix, hoping the fog from this morning had cleared.
Once again, Willix only nods. Marek swallows back a sigh. The man seemed to only nod or ask questions. Better for myself, zhe thinks, I don't have to ask him to repeat himself over the noise.
They finally step out of the lift into the smell of cleanser. Wrinkling zhier nose, zhe tries to push past the maintenance crews filing into the lift. Usually zhe wouldn't even notice the workers just coming off the late-night shift. Today, their short barks of laughter only intensify a pounding headache.
Marek had suggested they utilize formal channels for the tour. Willix insisted on maintaining the usual flow of operations, wanting to observe them as they usually are. So be it. Marek just hoped this would be fruitful. Absentmindedly, zhe touches the colours pinned to zhis chest.
"The view of the deepdocks from out there is quite magnificent," Marek says, waving to a pair of troopers. The bay doors open with a rush of humid air, clearing some of zhis headache.
Heavy drops splash onto the grate beneath zhis boots, pinging off durasteel like blasterbolts. It's started to rain. The fog is even thicker, now, zhis favourite view of the distant mountain chains now a purple-grey abomination. All the new carriers Marek had hoped to show Willix are just tail fins sticking out from wisps of fog. The tops of grav-cranes towering around them seem to be a durasteel recreation of a HoloNet documentary on ancient forests. Thankfully, one of their assigned troopers had the forethought to bring an umbrella, sparing Marek the mortification of drenching an officer of Willix's calibre.
"Magnificent," Willix echoes, with a sudden inclination for ironic humor.
"I do my best," Marek replies blithely, then proceeds to do so. Zhe guides them along the walkways, gesturing over the railing at all the new ships being worked on below. Showers of sparks cascade down like waterfalls, lighting up workers on platforms. They weld some of the Empire's finest creations: supply carriers, TIE transports, even some dual warships. Standing next to the grav-cranes lifting containers and large durasteel beams into place, the workers look like flies. So insignificant. Towards the horizon, some of the completed ships move into the fog on duracrete ramps darkened by rain and smeared with the glittering hues of spilled jet fuel. Ready for flight. This high up, splashes of rain muffle the racket.
Detailing the names, sizes, and purposes of each type of ship, Marek feels the headache slipping away into Ord Mantell's fog. This is why zhe's here. This is the glory of the Empire.
Zhe turns to Willix, who looks similarly pensive.
Force fields shimmer into existence over the docks as the lighter drizzle quickens to a downpour. The trooper with the earlier forethought - who truly deserves a promotion, after this - returns on a hoversled. Striding on, the sleds shorten their hour-long journey between all the docks and the mammoth carriers within them to mere minutes.
Zhe'll have to get the trooper's identification.
With the runoff pouring off the umbrella zhe was holding for WIllix onto zhis shoulders, zhe was more than happy to rat some of zhis higher ups out. Sure, Willix was completely unremarkable and nicer than most, but Marek knew of Moff Vanko's infamy. ISB agents are only rumours this far from the Core, this hidden from the galaxy. But zhe wasn't stupid.
As they circle back to the main entrance, Willix interrupts zhis train of thought.
"The tour was informative, but I do require further information."
"Ask away, sir." Marek says, eyeing the pair of troopers frantically mopping up one of the corridors as they step off the sled. There's a leak in the roof, letting a steady stream of rain splash on the floor. Zhe bites his tongue. "I mean, what did you find lacking, sir?"
Zhe's washed in a small sense of relief when Willix doesn't react.
Cassian does, actually, pressing his lips together in a quirk of a smile at zhis slip up. Enough humanity to keep Marek's subconscious relaxed, but tight enough to maintain his unimpressed demeanor.
"Are the ships produced here large enough to satisfy the Emperor's growing requirements?"
"Oh." Marek stammers. "Un-unfortunately they brought you here a day or two late. We just completed a shipment of carriers. With the new orbital battle station being built, we're increasing pace while also upping security and durability. I can show you our statistics for the past year, they're really quite impressive."
Cassian's heartbeat shifts upwards, lodging itself in the upper reaches between his collarbone and throat. The data retrieved on Darkknell only hinted at a new military installation with no hints to its size or purpose. The only reliable clue in its depths was the production increase at Ord Mantell's deepdocks.
But a whole new battle station? A mobile one?
Somewhere in the back of Willix's mind, Cassian hears the whine of falling shells and explosions tearing through snowbanks.
"Impressive," Willix repeats, but his face betrays no such sentiment.
He keeps walking.
Marek dons the thinnest of smiles. "I'm aware of what you're thinking. Projects come and go. Some meet their demise on the drafting table, others rot away after absorbing much of the Empire's budget. This one is different."
Sensing Marek had more to say, Willix remains silent.
"Moff Vanko has... a reputation... when it comes to handling credits, which I'm sure is what you're here to investigate - you don't have to tell me - but after his mishap with those pirates, he's been on his best behaviour, I can assure you. The Emperor finds it prudent to keep his eye on him, and what better way to justify his constant surveillance than to have him in charge of producing the transport to build his greatest creation?"
"A majority of the ships that dock here are headed to the construction site. Nobody here knows where that is, of course, because safety is of the utmost importance. You can never really know who is one of those rogue dissidents. Well, er, I assume the likes of your standing would. But for us common officers, we don't. And if you haven't noticed, a lot of us have loose lips. Pardon my saying this, but, they value their own ego over discretion."
Marek regards Willix out the corner of his eye to gauge his reaction. Willix would commend at zhis attempt at subtlety, but zhis efforts prove fruitless because his face betrays nothing.
Tay Willix is some of the toughest crowd the Empire can offer.
"Which is, unfortunately, how I came to know about this construction." Marek sighs, pressing his hand over the lock to the meeting room. "I hate to say this but, some people are truly incompetent. Good thing I was the only person who overheard that drunken spiel, and good thing you're the only person who I've told about it."
Willix raises an eyebrow. "What did you hear?"
Marek pauses in the doorway, and takes in a breath that puffs up zhis chest.
"They say the weapons it carries will make entire planets uninhabitable in minutes. Once it's built," zhe lowers zhis voice, "nobody will ever question the Empire ever again."
If it wasn't for years and years of not burying himself in the cover, but being the cover, Cassian might've broken through. But even Cassian wouldn't have the luxury of expressing his terror.
With a gasp, the 'fresher door glides open. Squinting at the harsh lighting, Cassian gaze stays on the grimy tiles, avoiding the line of mirrors. The stench of bleach and burning wires trails him even here, but the two layers of doors assuage the noise, though every so often he feels a muffled thud. Slipping into a cubicle, he locks the door against his back and fishes out his datapad. Deep in Imperial space, Cassian can't run the risk of sending a message to Intelligence. He can, however, send Kay a scrambled code only they understand. Two blips of static: he's gathered information, and will be leaving shortly.
A faucet hisses open.
Cassian pauses, the scrambler still running. Odd. Kay had assured him at this time of night, this 'fresher would hardly be used. He must've wound up in the 11% chance of finding company. Frowning, Cassian fiddles with the transmission. He stops at a sudden noise.
Sobbing. Muffled by splashes of water, but unmistakable.
"I can't do this anymore." Thick with tears, the voice catches, breaks. A sharp inhale of breath snaps in two - the gasp of someone trying desperately to rein it all in and failing.
Cassian purses his lips, just as the message sends.
He can sense the abrupt change in mood as soon as he flushes the toilet. Stepping out of the cubicle, Willix smooths out his uniform and heads directly to the sinks. He doesn't give the hunched figure a second glance, only reaches to turn on the tap beside his.
With shaking shoulders, the other man rises to look at the mirror. Scrubbing at his noticeably red eyes, he tries to discreetly look over at Willix. Noticing the older man seems as interested in his breakdown as the suds between his fingers, he sighs. The bright lights do nothing to help the ghosts in his reflection.
I can't do this anymore.
"I won't tell," Willix murmurs.
The man turns. A flick of dark eyelashes and Willix meets his alarmed gaze. Sees the hundreds of paths and the few destinations this will take him. Cassian as Willix, Willix as Cassian. Someone hunting for weak links in the Empire's armour. To eliminate them, or recruit them. But Cassian can't reveal himself, not yet, not here. Holocams aren't allowed in 'freshers, but to assume the Empire wasn't listening would be insanity.
Willix shuts off the tap.
"I'm sorry, sir," the man says. A boy, really - he's an ensign, can't be more than twenty and freshly recruited out of the Academy.
Standing eye to eye, Willix can only see weakness. Cassian sees an opportunity.
"We all have our days." Willix strides past the boy as if speaking to himself, reaching for a hand dryer. Heat rushes over his skin, and he flexes his fingers. Glancing up at the boy, who stares open-mouthed, he adopts a warmer, softer tone: "Did you just join the Imperial forces? It's quite difficult at first. The expectations, the separation from friends and family..."
"I, uh, I've been working here for a couple years now. But I started straight out of the Academy."
"You still find it difficult? Loathsome, perhaps? Ord Mantell isn't... the most glorious of Imperial installations, for sure." He holds the boy's gaze for a moment, then fishes his gloves out of his pocket. "It's normal to feel weary, feel alone... feel as though they think differently," Willix says slowly. "Some others might not understand, but I do. I've seen it in many."
Teetering on the edge, Willix feigns casual indifference and unfolds his gloves. He has no reason to worry. Someone of Willix's status might not bother with a lowly ensign, but strengthening the Empire's weak points was in the ISB's rhetorical job description. Cassian's job is to sow the seeds of doubt. Of hope, of belief in an alternative. It's a delicate task, but when he returned to the Rebellion from the Academy he'd brought three others with him. He just needs to ensure the boy won't choose to reaffirm his loyalties to the Empire by turning in a suspected rebel.
"No offense, sir, but... what do you think I'm going through? A bad breakup? Homesickness?"
Willix sighs and slips on his gloves. He still doesn't know if the boy's distress was due to stress from work or stress from working for the Empire. When he looks up, he's met with a healthy amount of curiosity masked as suspicion. Bright eyes framed by furrowed eyebrows and an exaggerated scowl.
Willix lays out the bait. "I've seen all that and more. Doubt. Self doubt, wondering if this is the right fit for you..."
At his side, the boy's hand twitches.
"Are you telling me I should quit?" Quiet words, spoken with deserved fear.
Willix steps closer, feels a rush at the slight widening of the boy's amber eyes. "You should reevaluate your priorities. Why are you feeling this way? Are you lonely? Unsatisfied? Reach out to your supervisors. We all want what's best for the Empire," he says, with a touch of a smile, "dedicated citizens, dedicated officers. If anything gets in your way of that, find it."
"Unsatisfied in my work... in general?"
Willix shakes his head, frowning slightly. He steps back towards the door. "If not here, maybe another branch will suit you. Perhaps you'll serve us best as a citizen, as part of the public the Emperor loves so dearly." He senses he's lost the boy's interest.
Willix turns to leave, but stops with his hand on the door. "Whatever you feel is wrong," Cassian says, pushing the door open, "do whatever it is in your power to right it. There is always a way out."
When he glances over his shoulder, Cassian sees clarity where there was once doubt.
Ord Mantell's northern hemisphere boasts the same pink-hued skies as the south. Here, where the underworld just grazes the edge of acceptable society, the desperate seek those hanging to the Empire's good graces. Here, the planet's famed mountain chains are no more than images dotting trinkets dangling from shopkeeper's hands as they wave down tourists.
Weaving through crowds of beings willing to please and even hungrier for credits, Cassian is thankful he's dressed like a local. So far he has deterred every curious gaze from lingering too long. He knows if he looked harder he'd find Black Sun's mules peddling wares he'd hesitate to even touch. Thankfully, Cassian's spared the necessity of dealing with the crime syndicate today.
He's only using the underworld as a cloak, much like the worn black fabric he pulls around himself. Ironically, wherever crime thrives, so does the Rebellion.
Both Ord Mantell and Black Sun are sympathetic to the Empire, but when the Emperor averts his eyes to his favoured criminals, he's blind to those who despise him most.
It's a dangerous place to be, and safe because of it. Cassian walks softly, walks carefully. It's been a couple weeks since Willix left the planet, long enough for Cassian's scruff to return. He still walks with incredible caution.
Ducking into the alleyway, he squeezes through the narrow opening. Only one person can fit through at a time, securing him from attack on the sides. Abovehead, clothes hang from lines crossing between buildings, swaying lazily and obscuring the line of sight of any snipers perched on rooftops. Loose stones riddle his path, and though Cassian walks without disturbing them, untrained feet will stumble and alert him to unwanted followers.
The rendezvous appears to be half-rotten boards nailed to a door. The real entrance lies behind a false layer of bricks.
Echoes of nervous whispers greet him.
"Glad to see you're all here."
The chatter stops immediately. Cassian inches towards the only source of light, a handheld lamp stationed on the middle of a table. Around it sit who Cassian knows to be a pair of bounty hunters, a pick pocket, and -
His hand reaches for his blaster just as the light sputters out. A pair of hands fumble for the lamp, turning it over and giving it a swift whack.
The boy hasn't recognized him yet. The darkness, as usual, is Cassian's saviour.
"You brought an Imp?" he hisses.
There's an audible stiffening between his guests, the rustle of jackets and clearing of throats.
"You mean, we caught one." Cassian doesn't need to see the face to know who's speaking. Blast, the bounty hunter. "Fresh blood, this, as soon as we nabbed him he'd shrieked about not wanting anything to do with old Palpy. Thought we'd bring 'im to see yous."
Cassian presses his lips together. Blast, birth name Sammie Blesta, for all his fake tattoos and thirst for credits, was an honest being.
"You know how risky that is-"
"We've had him for a day, he's as harmless as a porg." Cassian mentally ticks the name off his list. Orrin Verdont, the only non-human at the table. There was a gap in the Rebellion's ranks sized just for the anxious slicer. Cassian had lucked out, finding the trio. Never sympathetic to the Empire, they hadn't considered rebellion until Palpatine's policies started pinching their revenue stream.
He'd warned them the Alliance had no credits to offer, but they'd all agreed fighting back for free was a better life than rotting in prison.
The voice is unmistakable. Cassian never forgets a face. His fingers curl around his blaster's handle, not wanting to shatter the uneasy relations between himself and the others. If the boy revealed he knew Cassian to be an Imperial... there was only one way bounty hunters dealt with percieved betrayal.
"I told him not to listen." Raal Yorta, Blast's partner in crime and current keeper of the lamp. He wacks it once more.
Cassian steels himself for the inevitable flickering on of the light -
He meets amber eyes. Recognition dawns on the boy's face.
"I'm not what you think I am," Cassian interrupts, stepping further into the light. Hand raised, as if to calm a beast, he doesn't break eye contact with the boy from the deepdocks.
"You've met already?"
"Yeah!" The boy rises to his feet, the crate he's using as a chair sliding across the dusty floor. "He's an Imperial!"
Orrin laughs, light and reedy.
"And you aren't, boy?" Blast asks, leaning onto the table with his elbows.
"I-I-I was, until..."
Cassian eyes the boy, slowly lowering his raised hand but keeping his other hand hidden away on his holster.
"...until he told me. That, that, there's always a way out."
They stand, facing each other, the lamp drawing long and eerie shadows on the insides of the abandoned apartment. Cassian moves his hand away from his blaster, and motions for them both to take a seat on the upturned crates.
He'd only intended to recruit three people. Raleigh makes four. The boy vibrates with intensity and a need to do the right thing, and nineteen isn't too young for the Alliance. After all, they had a dearth of mechanics.
Today is something Cassian can be proud of.
"And, and my friend," Raleigh pipes up. "Her name's Kestrel, Kestrel Dawn, and she's the best slicer anyone's ever heard of." Orrin grunts, but Raleigh barrels onward.
"She's got a bounty on her head, though, so she's in hiding. I haven't seen her in a while but these two," he juts his chin at the bounty hunters, "told me she hasn't been caught. She's insanely talented, I know you're thinking of fakes but she does so much more than that, she's given Black Sun a run for their credits. I saw her knock three men unconscious with her bare hands. She's incredible and hates the karking Empire. She'll be perfect for the," he coughs awkwardly, "well, you people."
"I'll leave our friend Skivvers a message for her." Cassian replies warmly. He notes Kestrel's name to investigate later. Another slicer would be useful. One who didn't need to learn self defense... would probably be too hotheaded for High Command's taste, but what was a Rebellion without, well, rebels?
"So we're leaving now?"
Cassian nods, his gaze flitting around the table. "We'll leave on different ships, meet on Bothawui, and then I'll take you-"
His blood runs cold.
Rocks skip across loose pavement.
"Raleigh," he starts, pulling his blaster out. The others mirror his movements, reaching for weapons. Orin drags a ratty carpet from under the table, revealing a hidden door. "Does anyone know you've deserted?"
The troopers start firing into the boarded door before Raleigh can form a reply. Cassian grabs him by the collar and drags him under the table. Bolts shriek above their heads but Cassian focuses on unlocking the door, shoving the boy in, and jumping in himself.
They land on their feet with loud splashes.
Blessedly, Raleigh doesn't ask any question but moves ahead. Cassian lingers long enough to hear a muffled whoop. A large explosion rattles the entire tunnel's structure, sending rocks tumbling down the sides.
Cassian points his blaster at the entrance as it swings open. He relaxes his grip when the other three leap through, and lowers it once Raal bolts the hatch shut behind them.
"Detonator," Raal explains, grinning as he leaps down. Raleigh turns around to face Cassian.
"That was awesome!"
Cassian had plenty to argue with that statement, and knows in a few months Raleigh will as well. Today he chooses to merely pat the boy's back. Let the horrors of war leave him alone for now.
First of all, a big big big thank you to @skitzofreak for betaing the deepdock scenes for me, if they feel even remotely like an actual place it was all thanks to her input!
Cassian went to Ord Mantell as part of the kyber tracking mission, which is how I found out about Legends-verse Rebel Intelligence agent Tay Vanis. Tay was a recruiter, like Cassian, and recruited a bunch of people on Ord Mantell. One of the people he recruits on Ord Mantell is named Raleigh Dawn. This Raleigh was a young female human slicer who'd been on the run most of her life. She also went by the name Kestrel to avoid a bounty on her head ie. Kestrel Dawn ie. one of Jyn Erso's canon aliases.
So, the Kestrel Dawn my Raleigh mentions IS Jyn Erso (like how EUverse Aach is Cassian in the first chapter! Notably Tay trusts Raleigh with his life which is. Frankly Amazing.)
The theme of this fic is a) me writing scenes I need practice with and b) the lead-up to Operation Fracture/Rogue One, but now that CASSIAN IS GETTING HIS OWN TV SHOW!!! this is now doubling as "potential plot for the show".
Commenting is always encouraged and appreciated!
Chapter 4: The Traitor
[Imperial base, Miser]
also fits @thefulcrumcaptain prompt: "There is no freedom without bravery."
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Cassian's reflection belongs to someone else.
He's spent more time than he cares to remember looking at similar mirrors across the galaxy, in dimly lit hotel rooms, grimy bar bathrooms, and pristine Imperial quarters such as the one he's in now, beating his hair into submission. He'd perfected tempering his expressions and donning appropriate smiles in his handler's hand-held mirror, catching glimpses of rusted ceilings in flashes over his shoulder.
Cassian's most developed aliases have their own quirks. Nothing noticeable, because being noticed equals death - or worse fates - but crumbs of identity that differentiate Willix, Aach, and others from Cassian. A blade to his trimmed stubble. Long, Alderaani-styled hair. But all share the same face.
Droids scans only register false appendages, not the dyed hair and carefully applied markings Cassian uses to meld into planetary customs. Untrained, organic eyes have a surprising capacity to notice when another being looks too perfect, and besides, masks hamper Cassian's capacity to truly integrate with his identity.
Even without true physical alteration, Cassian's used to seeing a stranger in his mirror. That man drinks too much, smiles too easily, cares so little. The stranger swears loyalty to the Empire, to booze, to credits. The stranger is a reflection of someone Cassian might have become.
Most of the time it's someone he can't imagine being. Some of the others... Cassian had seen a lot of the galaxy, and understood what made a thief, a bounty hunter, a spicer. He had to, to survive as a recruiter and intelligence agent.
The real question was: who is Cassian?
Cassian Andor is merely another stranger. A hollow image, filled out by his comrades' imaginations based on glimpses of reality. A kind word, a helping hand, sound advice. He is Organa's trusted agent, just another face in his sea of attendants. He lives nameless in the margins of Mothma's notes and as a footnote in Cracken's files. He's someone Draven considers capable, with a face of stone and an unparalleled aim. He is all of these and none at all. To the Rebellion, he is a name without a face and a face without a name.
They don't know the truth of his nights and the ghosts buried in them. Nor do they know the meaning of his silence and the tears held within them. Long after he sheds his disguises, Cassian continues to act.
The lines are so blurred he has no idea where they begin. The sweet little boy from Fest died long ago. In more ways than one.
Nanotech injections are expensive and rare. Especially for the rebels. So he's been Joreth Sward for months now, chasing Imperial shipments around the galaxy. Mines, refineries, shipyards, research stations. Coruscant. Corulag. Now, he's on the mining planet of Miser, working undercover on a base under construction.
At this point, Cassian's skin has gotten used to being stretched over foreign features. When the blade caresses his skin, it no longer aches. The initial pain of the facial transformation was soothing in a way. The distinct memory is a definite barrier between Cassian and Joreth's identites, neatly kept in place by the unfamiliar face in the mirror. There are no blurred lines here, at least. Mostly. Collecting intel means he's turned a blind eye to Admiral Grendeef's atrocities. Following the rule, not the exception. Imperials who worked to feed their families didn't want to risk their livelihoods. Imperials who signed up because they believed in the Emperor's values truly believed those who Grendeef terrorized deserved it. The cutthroat rose, the desperate survived. Everyone else was unfit to live. Buried in Joreth's menial duties as an assistant, Cassian can only hope for every life he watches crumble away, a million more will live free.
But a new day has begun, and so Cassian tucks these hopes away with Joreth's razor, the drawer falling shut with a resounding clang. By the time he's stepped into the corridors any fragments left of Cassian is swept away by curtains of Imperial grey-green.
Admiral Grendeef strides to the hangar. Flanked by officers on either side, personnel and construction workers move out of their way. Out of fear - disgust, even - rather than respect.
Joreth hurries behind him. He follows closely, within Grendeef's reach, but hangs back enough to not risk implying equal authority. He's pulled out his datapad - nobody had told him what was going on, exactly, but that was never a problem for Joreth. Grendeef walks with a spring in his step, a sense of purpose, and that only comes around when he's found an opportunity to gain favour in the eyes of the Emperor. Someone to step on, someone to betray.
They come to a halt in the hangar. Before them sits a shuttle, surrounded by a gaggle of stormtroopers. Their heads bob as they speak to each other on inaudible frequencies. The familiar thunk-thunk-thunk of boots echoes in the hangar as troopers go up and down the shuttles ramp as part of routine inspections. Joreth's gaze lingers there for a moment before turning to a helmeted ISB agent he doesn't recognize.
The ISB agent steps forward to greet Grendeef. Behind them stand four visibly shaken prisoners, shackled without regard to their injuries. They're roughly shoved forward by another set of troopers as the ISB agent leans forward to say something in Grendeef's ear. When the agent steps away, Grendeef clears his throat.
Grendeef doesn't look at Joreth. He doesn't have to.
Without glancing at his datapad, Joreth quickly rattles off the admiral's favourite accusations, the lighting in the hangar flickering ominously as he speaks. He has no context for their detainment, but on Miser, it isn't needed. He glances at the shuttle and streaks of carbon scoring across the hull. "Destruction of Imperial property. Smuggling." He skims over the captives' features as he speaks. Three humanoids, one seemingly Mirialian, and a Twi'lek. He doesn't immediately recognize them as part of the Massassi group or as known criminals - stars forbid they were from the Atrivis Resistance. But with their neutral expressions Cassian knows they must be allied rebels. Rogues wouldn't comply so easily, and the general populace wouldn't be so calm while stuck in mag-cuffs. "Sedition. Treason." A flash of white as the troopers around him turn towards the shuttle. A body is dragged down the ramp. Joreth glimpses the familiar blue of an Imperial flightsuit. "Murder."
The admiral raised a gloved hand. Joreth stops speaking. Four sets of eyes turn to Grendeef.
"Among others," the admiral says. The Twi'lek frowns, teal features twisting, and one of the humanoids scowls. Grendeef doesn't seem to notice. "The point is made. I will meet each of you as part of my investigation. We will have... individual discussions... about your crimes. Compliance is recommended and will be... encouraged." He smiles, baring his teeth in a loathsome expression. Judging by the arrival of an ISB officer on base, Joreth knows what lies ahead for the rebels. He can only hope they're not carrying classified information.
The captives are given no chance to respond before they're whisked off into the detention center - one of the first portions of the base that completed construction. Grendeef lingers, overseeing the inspection of the shuttle. Joreth uses the time to start filling out a form on his datapad.
His thoughts linger, however, on the newly arrived ISB agent. Grendeef favoured one method of investigation more than any other. Interrogation. And he was the type to prod first, ask later. Cassian can only hope that these rebels weren't part of something greater, didn't have information that, if disclosed, would hurt the larger Alliance.
On his earliest uncover missions, it took everything Cassian had to keep himself from dropping everything to chase after someone in need. He'd had his fair share of scoldings from Draven, but the lesson hadn't entirely sunk in until diverging from the plan cost more lives - and the entire mission - than the few he'd managed to save. These days, he mirrors every other Imperial who knows what's happening is wrong but doesn't do anything about it. He keeps his head down.
He reassures himself every night: at least he's doing something.
Joreth doesn't think about any of this. Why would he? His life is simple. Follow the admiral around, take notes, and get caf. In fact, all Joreth is thinking about is the cup of caf he could really use right about now. He tells the other officers just as much.
His head snaps up when he hears a loud clang. A few moments later, a tech comes down the shuttle ramp, lugging a medium sized box that's clearly far too heavy for them to carry on their own. A pair of troopers take the box from them and bring it to Grendeef to examine. The admiral's eyes narrow as the tech approaches.
Joreth recognizes the box. It's the flight data recorder.
Grendeef's eyes are no less cold when he begins to smile.
Blaz leans his head against the wall of the cell. His lekku twitch out of exhaustion. He moves to pull them over his shoulder, but the chains attaching his mag-cuffs to the floor between his feet are too short, and they pull his arms at an awkward angle. Based on what he's seen of the base, it was still under construction, which probably explained why they were using chains instead of a force field to keep them in place.
It'd all started simple enough. Rebels on Polmanar needed medical supplies. Blaz's crew stole the supplies and flew them to their base on Gutretee so they could be sorted and sent to the rebels in need. Upon dropping out of hyperspace, however, they'd careened right into an Imperial surveying vessel. The resulting skirmish was mostly a blur, starting in atmo and ending on the planetary surface. Blaz can't remember when he'd acquired the cuts on his arms and legs. Somehow, they'd ended up on the Imperials' ship - with the supplies - but not before its autopilot had sent them right on the path of a Star Destroyer.
And here they are, stuck in a cell.
Blaz shuts his eyes, but as soon as he does so, the cell door slides open. Two bucketheads walk in, followed by the admiral from earlier, the helmeted agent, and another officer.
Blaz doesn't move. Uli does. She stands and the look on her face must be frightening enough that one of the troopers takes a step back.
"That one," the admiral says, unsettling grey eyes piercing through them. Blaz's breath catches in his throat.
"I'd rather die before tell you anything," Uli snarls. "Do your best." Her clipped words are close to being spat out, and Blaz wouldn't put it past her if she did spit on the Imps.
"Not her. The other one." The admiral points, wearing an expression Blaz can only vaguely describe as a smile. It was far more loathsome than any other smile the Twi'lek had ever seen in his life. It looked like the Imp felt genuine glee to be harassing people like this. Some sort of sadist. But Blaz can't be surprised. Only sadists made it this far up Imperial ranks. The rest had credits, or Imperial families. Or some combination of the three.
Despicable was the common descriptor.
Uli whips her head around. Blaz's heart sinks as he realizes the admiral is pointing to Vose, who was sitting beside Tanaa. Vose was the youngest member of Blaz's four person crew, hailing from some backwater planet the Empire left to rot away in the Hutts' grip. While Vose had sworn the same oath the rest of them had - to never betray their cause, even at the cost of their own lives - he wouldn't last in an interrogation chamber as long as Uli would.
"No," Blaz whispers, horrified. Almost symbolically, the lights in the corridor outside flicker and dim.
Uli lunges for Vose. The chain holding her back pulls taut, but she's positioned herself between Uli and the Imps, shielding him with his body. Blaze can see behind her from his spot in the corner of the cell, and with a pang he notices the wetness on Vose's cheeks.
Another pair of troopers step in, presumably from where they'd been guarding the cell outside. They reach for Uli, grabbing her roughly. She responds by stomping on their feet. A warning rises in Blaz's throat - being from Ryloth, he knew when resistance is needed.
"Not now," he murmurs. Uli goes still.
The other pair of troopers move, grabbing Vose. One of the officers unlocks his cuffs, then lets them fall in a heap of chains on the floor. Uli curses the troopers to no end, but none of the words register as Blaz watches Vose be taken away. To questioning, or in other words, a death sentence. If not for him - which is unlikely - then for the entire rebel movement in their sector. Perhaps the galaxy.
Gutretee was a secret base. All rebel bases were secret, but the planet itself was unknown to modern society. It was a perfect place to hide. Even other rebel groups had no idea there was a base on the planet, and for good reason. The only outsider who knew of Gutretee's existence, and it's location, was the Senator from Alderaan.
Blaz hadn't even spoken to him, but he and the rest of his crew owed their lives to that man. Blaz's family was involved with the resistance on Ryloth. As the sole member of his family living off world, he'd become a political target for the Empire. Doing supply runs to Ryloth didn't help. Somehow, word reached the Senator, and Blaze was whisked away to Gutretee where he joined a variety of other political refugees, as they put it. Most of them lived on the planet full time. As a pilot, there was no point in keeping Blaz grounded. Same for the rest of his crew, which is why they'd been tapped to steal supplies in the first place.
If Vose cracked and told the Empire about Gutretee, an entire safeworld would be lost.
Blaze watches in dismay as Vose is shoved out the door, heart torn for the boy and for the rebels waiting for them on Polmanar. The next moment, their captors are gone. Blaz catches a glimpse of the helmetless officer chatting to one of the troopers, something about cell numbers, and then the door slides shut.
"How could they?" Tanaa breaks zer silence. Zhe hadn't spoken a word since they'd been thrown into the cell, even while the others tried to come up with an escape plan. "He's clearly the youngest."
"That's exactly why," Blaz replies quietly, just as Uli spits a curse in Huttese.
"We have to get out of here."
Uli sighs. "If they let me out of these cuffs, I'd show 'em. Cowards are afraid of a Human with some fists." Tanaa makes a noise that sounds remarkably like a sniffle in response.
"C'mere," Blaz says, lowering his head to make up the distance between them. Tanaa sniffles and rests zer head on his shoulder, tucking his lekku behind her. Zhe was fond of the younger boy. They all were.
He lowers his head and tries to think. Breaking out of the cell was the most difficult part. He'd noticed, on their way to the detention center, that the base was lacking amenities. Holorecorders, for example. Some parts of the base were only frequented by construction workers, and those sections led to the natural caverns of Miser's surface.
So if they were to break out, he and Uli would be able to take down the stormtroopers guarding their cell, don their armour, and escape to their shuttle using the partially constructed corridors.
But they need a way out of the cuffs, first. It's only then that something catches his eye.
Sitting in the pile of Vose's chains is a mag-key. Blaz blinks, wondering if the exhaustion is getting to him.
"You see that?"
"What?" Uli asks, and Tanaa stirs. Blaz points at the mag-key with his chin. Uli stares blankly at it, sitting down for the first time in a while.
"D'you reckon if fell off one of their belts? When they..."
"I don't know."
Tanaa sits up and nudges the chains with zer foot, disturbing the pile of chains and letting the mag-key fall to the floor, within zer reach. "It doesn't matter,"zhe replies, voice thick, "this is our only hope."
"Did you hear? The rebel scum escaped!"
"How?" Joreth asks, into his cup of caf. Pure black and piping hot, just how he needs it. "Weren't they chained up?"
"No idea. They got out of the cell, too. Isn't it secured by a lock?"
Joreth shrugs and sets his mug down. "Must've fritzed. We've been having power outages with all the construction, anyways." Or they'd realize that the passcode to each cell was the cell number. But Joreth doesn't say that out loud - the more holes in protocol, the better for him. He sighs and picks up his datapad.
The other officer nods. "Maybe. Anyways, they stole their shuttle back, but the Desolator got 'em. They jumped already."
"Yes, the admiral said something about looking for a rebel base." Joreth sighs. "I was on board while they were loading the coordinates from the data recorder. Would've loved to see Grendeef be competent in person, but hey, duty calls." He motions with his mug at his datapad and the blinking list of messages. "So I'm stuck on planet with the rest of you. All because Grendeef had to go and kill a captive. Again."
The officer chuckles, takes his mug of caf, and walks away.
The last of the caf tastes bitter in Cassian's mouth. The magnitude of what just happened threatens to settle over him like thick smoke. Cassian does his best to shrug it off with Joreth's indifference. He wouldn't normally take the risk to free prisoners. Hells, one of them was shipped out of the interrogation room, dead for no reason. Grendeef had gotten nothing from him. But there was nothing he had needed in the first place. The data recorder was already his, along with the coordinates of a secret rebel safeworld that even Cassian didn't know the location of.
The admiral was interrogating the prisoners just for the fun of it.
At least that distraction - Cassian's mind clamps down around the word - had enabled Joreth to find out what the rebels were here for. Knowing that the fate of rebels on two systems was held in their shuttle, Cassian had no excuse but to act against his training. At least the remaining three had escaped off Miser, though their capture by the Desolator was disappointing. There was nothing Cassian nor Joreth could do, other than hope.
Joreth Sward finds out about the destruction of the Desolator three hours later. He sighs, closing the documents he'd been working on and starts on a new pile of datawork. Another transfer was imminent, so he must work quickly.
On the other side of base, a KX series droid stops to receive a transmission.
When Cassian walks out of his debrief with Draven, he's handed two files.
One is a list of action items based on his report on the mining activities of Miser. The other is a summary of all rebel activities in the months he's been gone. Cassian opens the second, in hopes that there will be fragments of light amidst all the darkness.
And there is. In the file about the rebel uprising on Polmanar, he sees a grainy holo of a familiar shuttle.
This chapter's Legends star is Ulthar Blaze, a rebel agent who worked as a corporal for Admiral Grendeef while undercover, and also helped free a bunch of rebels that were captive on Miser. Cassian's Joreth alias also worked for the same admiral!