Chapter 1: The Hunt

Unnamed colony world, on the border of Wild Space

Six months after Epilogue scenes...

Sabine Wren approached the local tavern shortly before local noon. There was no name to be seen. Fitting, really, as it's the only tavern in this colony. Sabine looked around her, taking in the colony. A few clusters of prefab plasteel buildings around a ferrocrete slab passed for the spaceport, and the few buildings that made up the town were set to the west of the spaceport. And to think, a decade ago I thought Lothal was the ass end of nowhere. I can only imagine what I would have thought of a place like this. Turning back to the tavern, Sabine took a deep breath and walked to the doors.

There was a turning of heads as she pushed through the swinging doors and promptly took a seat at the bar. The few patrons present took one look at the young Mandalorian and her armor and decided to leave her alone. The barkeep, however, stopped polishing the bartop and walked over to her. "What can I getcha?"

Sabine pulled a few coins from a belt pouch and tossed them on the bar. "I'll take two shots of Corellian whiskey. Top shelf stuff." The barkeep looked at the coins on the bar for a long moment. Sabine sighed and tossed one more onto the bar, and the barkeep ducked into the back room.

Sabine took the moment to pull a battered holodisk from her bag and tossed it onto the bar next to her. It immediately powered up and displayed a holo of her and Ezra. The holo was close to six years past at this point, but she still remembered the moment like it was yesterday. She and Ezra, still giddy over their stunning success of their raid on Gar Saxon's Star Destroyer as it hovered near Sundari, had convinced Chopper to take a holo to celebrate. The holo showed the two, arms slung over each other's shoulders, helmets tucked under their free arms, laughing at a joke of Ezra's told just moments before. Truth be told, it was still one of Sabine's happiest memories of her entire life. After Ezra's abrupt liberation of Lothal and his disappearance with the 7th Fleet, Sabine had started carrying the holo with her everywhere, to remind her of the better times when things were rough. The battered and worn casing of the disk was evidence that the last few years had been hard on Sabine.

The barkeep returned with a bottle of Whyren's Reserve and held it up. Sabine nodded once and tossed yet another coin on the bartop as a token of appreciation. He nodded once to her, and once to the holo. "Someone you knew well, I take it?"

Sabine sighed again. "Yeah, good friend. Today's his birthday. He's turning... 24? Yeah, 24."

The barkeep raised an eyebrow. "So, he's still alive? Usually, this kinda thing is for the dead."

Sabine shrugged and accepted the shot glass he offered her, then put the second one next to the holo. "He's out there somewhere. I'm sure of that. Ezra's hard to kill. Trust me."

"So, he's missing."

"Yep." Sabine took a sip of the whiskey and nodded. "Okay, I can see why that's so highly prized. Good stuff."

Lacking any better entertainment, the barkeep leaned on the bar and eyed Sabine. "How long has he been missing?"

"About 5 and a half years at this point. Same day the 7th Fleet vanished."

"Heard about that, actually. Hell of a thing. Whoda thunk that a buncha purrgils would just turn up and abduct an entire fleet?"

"You had to be there." Sabine chuckled over the glass. "But yeah, that was a hell of a thing." She knocked back half of the contents of the glass.

"So, was your friend there taken by the Imps just before the purrgils came?"

"Something like that." Sabine moved to finish her drink.

"Huh. Funny you should bring up the 7th Fleet..."

Sabine paused, set her drink down, and looked the barkeep straight in the eye. "How so."

The barkeep noted the sudden, icy change in her tone and realized that he'd hit a nerve. "Uhm... Bout two-ish years back. The local freighter captain comes in here, looking like he'd seen a ghost."

Sabine dropped a few coins on the bartop. "Go on."

The barkeep took a deep breath before continuing. "He said that right after he emerged from hyper, a battered Arquitens-class frigate pops outta hyper almost right on top of him. I mean, we're way out in the middle of nowhere, and we're not the type to pick sides in someone else's wars, ya dig?"

Sabine nodded.

"Anyhow, the captain of the frigate comms the freighter and asks for, of all things, the latest galactic news. Freighter captain obliges and sends him every datachip he has onboard with news that could be of interest. Then, the frigate just turns around and punches outta here, same way he came in. No thanks, no money, nuthin. Just poof, gone. Damnedest thing."

Sabine rolled her eyes. "So, how exactly does this tie into the 7th Fleet?"

"Because the frigate was squawking transponder and IFF codes that were 'bout three years outta date... and they were from the 7th Fleet."

Sabine willed herself to stay calm and collected. "Did your noble freighter captain happen to catch a departure vector trace?"

"Matter of fact, he did. We didn't believe him, so we checked the flight recorders. He didn't lie about any of it. I kept a copy of those flight recorder logs. I'll sell 'em to you... for the right price."

Sabine threw a few high-denomination coins on the bartop. "I'll give you that now, you give me the data. If it leads to the 7th, I'll come back and give you twice what I've just given you. If it doesn't..." Sabine let her left hand slide to her pistol holster.

The barkeep gulped and nodded. "Lemme go get that datachip for ya." He disappeared back into the rear room, clearly shaken.

Sabine turned back to the holo on the bar, picked up her shot, and polished it off. "You do that."

A few moments later, the barkeep returned and handed Sabine the datachip. "Here. Hope this has what you need."

Sabine slotted the chip into her datapad and quickly skimmed through it. As she watched the footage of the frigate, she noted the extensive repairs that had been performed on the bow and engine nacelles. That sure looks like a purrgil or three decided to play "toss the ship" with that frigate.

The barkeep noted her furrowed brows. "See, told ya it was weird."

Sabine skipped ahead and watched the frigate disappear into hyperspace, then nodded once. "Yeah. But this is exactly the break I needed." She copied the data on the chip to the pad's internal memory, then handed back the datachip. "Thanks for that... and the drinks."

"Sure thing."

Sabine stowed her datapad and looked at the holo once more. Hang on, Ezra. I'm coming for you. She picked up the holodisk, tucked it back into its pouch on her belt, knocked back the second shot glass, and walked out the door. She slipped her helmet on and activated the integrated comlink. "Hey, Ahsoka, I'm headed back to the ship. I've got something to show you when you get back."

Her travel companion replied almost immediately. "You get a lead?"

"Better. I've got a hyperspace track... and it intersects the track from Lothal."

"Copy that. I'll be back at the ship in a few minutes."

-.-.-

Sabine looked up as Ahsoka walked through the hatch of the T-6 shuttle she and Sabine were using to hunt for Ezra. "Hey, got a minute?"

Ahsoka closed the hatch behind her. "Let me stow the fresh produce first, Sabine."

Sabine left her seat and walked over to Ahsoka. "Oh, nice. What's this?" She picked a fruit out of the basket the Jedi carried.

"Don't know, but the local human children seemed to enjoy them, so you'll probably like it." The Togruta winked at Sabine.

"Hey!"

"What? It's true."

"I'm not a kid."

"Sure act like it sometimes."

Sabine sighed and pulled a knife from her boot top. "Whatever." She began to slice the fruit, putting the slices into a bowl that she put atop the table she'd been sitting at. "So, I ran the data I got past the records from Lothal's defense network. We've got a solid match on an Arquitens-class frigate... the Reliant. Assigned to the 7th Fleet, and was abducted by two purrgil during the liberation. Damage sustained during the liberation matches the repairs to the hull noted in the flight data recorder logs... and it's still running the old, pre-Scarif transponder encoding." She sat down and snagged a piece of fruit. "I think we've got us a winner." Sabine grinned and began to munch on the fruit.

Ahsoka sat down and looked at the datapad Sabine had been working on. "I remember the Reliant. She was in a task force I led during the closing months of the Clone Wars." She flipped through the data. "Drive signatures match, allowing for reasonable margins for repairs... Hull markings and superficial scarring line up... Yeah, that's the same ship. So, where'd it come from... and where'd it go?"

Sabine powered up the holoprojector in the ceiling, and a local starmap filled the space above the table. "So, we've got the green trace based on the probability for the track from Lothal." As she spoke, the path in question appeared, snaking its way through the edge of known space, through the scouted areas just beyond the Outer Rim, before fading out in the reaches of Wild Space. "Now, cross reference that against both the star maps we got from that hyperspace scout a few weeks back, and the new probability track from our ghost ship, and..."

Several dozen new stars appeared in the map, and a blue path snaked from the current system out into Wild Space, barely overlapping the green one.

Ahsoka leaned in and looked at the overlap. "There's only three systems."

Sabine grinned. "Nope, only one. One of the three stars is a blue supergiant, ready to go nova, and the other is a neutron star-red giant binary. Neither system is conducive to purrgil. Ergo, the only possible point of interest is this system." Sabine called up the records from the hyperspace scout. "Six terrestrial bodies, three gas giants, two ice giants. Assorted dwarf planets... and one robust asteroid belt chock full of clouzon-36 gas."

"So? What's so important about the clouzon-36 gas?"

"Purrgils need the stuff to live and jump to hyperspace. And think about just how hard they had to have been working to yank an ISD or three with them. That'd be like, I dunno, me carrying you over my shoulder while running a foot race. I'd be exhausted afterwards."

Ahsoka studied the data. "One habitable planet near the asteroid belt... Think that's where our cosmozoan friends dumped the fleet?"

"I'd put money on it."

"Okay. You've got me convinced. Let's get going." Ahsoka started to get up.

"Wait." Sabine held out her hand, stopping her companion.

"What's wrong, Sabine?"

Sabine chewed on her lower lip for a moment. "I'm... I wonder if we're flying into a trap."

"What, like the 7th Fleet is waiting for us?"

"I wouldn't put it past Thrawn."

"I doubt it. They would have to know what's going on in the galaxy at large by now. If even a remote backwater world like this has heard that the Emperor is dead, surely Thrawn will have heard." Ahsoka sat back down. "What's really wrong, Sabine?"

Sabine curled up into a ball on her seat, knees beneath her chin. "I guess... I'm afraid of what we'll find when we arrive. What if he's a prisoner of Thrawn, and he was taken with them and they left no clues as to where they've gone? Or he left to find his way home, and I missed him? Maybe I've been wrong this whole time, and he's been dead all these years?" Sabine shivered. "Or what if he... no, forget it."

"Go on, Sabine, get it out of your system." Ahsoka smiled gently. "I won't judge you for your fears."

Sabine sat quiet for a minute before finally replying, voice shaking. "I... I just... worry... that he... he won't be the same person I knew when he left." Sabine buried her face in her knees. "Stars, I'm acting like an idiot. I'm sorry, Ahsoka."

"Don't be sorry, Sabine. You're just nervous."

Sabine sighed. "Yeah. Yeah I am. Let's just go and see what we find."

"Okay." Ahsoka stood up and headed to the cockpit.

Sabine remained curled up on the seat, alone with the thoughts she had hesitated to share with Ahsoka... What if, over this time, we've become so different that the friendship, the bond between us forged in battles and late-night discussions atop the Ghost and pranks on Zeb and the chaos of missions gone horribly wrong and the quiet conversations we would have as we traveled in hyperspace...

What if that's gone?

Sabine shuddered and headed to the refresher to splash some cold water on her face. Nothing to be done about that now, Sabine. Focus on the mission.

-.-.-