Tracers and multi-coloured blaster rounds streaked across the streets. Shrapnel stung the air amidst explosions. Entire buildings had been flattened by artillery shelling. The female form of a Twi’lek emerged from a burning residential building and ran towards the Firemane soldier.
“Peace! Peace!” she cried out, sounding desperate and terrified. “Firemane good!”
“Stop!” Private Sano Tahoka shouted. Her assault rifle was in hand, but her grip was shaking slightly. The Twi’lek was no older than her. “Stay where you are!”

But the woman kept running through the darkness, as explosions thundered. Indeed, she shifted her course to run straight towards the Togruta soldier. “Firemane good!” she repeated.
Sano pulled the trigger in the same moment as the suicide bomber blew herself up, detonating the explosives she had hidden beneath her vest. She felt the ensuing shockwave, and was knocked off her feet.
As she hit the ground, the rifle fell out of her hands. Luckily, the suicide bomber had not gotten close enough to deal real damage, but the wave knocked the wind out of her. The Force barrier around her protected her from shrapnel, and the subsequent salvo from an insurgent. Her ears were ringing.
As she regained her bearings, she saw Diona drop an insurgent and hasten towards her. “Can you walk?” the former Jedi asked gruffly.
“Yeah. Frak. I thought it was a civvie.”
“She was. And she would’ve killed you. Don’t hesitate next time. Move.” They hastened towards some debris, weaving a path as blaster and slug rounds burst out of insurgent hideouts. Sano was about to draw her sabre when
Diona stayed her hand. “Too much attention.”
“I can deflect well,” Sano insisted.
“Not enough for several rifles.” Instead she pitched a smoke grenade. “On my mark, throw. There, that building is where we’re going. Shoot to kill.” Sano nodded, taking the small explosive ball in hand. “Watch out for traps.” Diona gave the signal and Sano hurled the grenade, using the Force to propel it further.
Upon detonation, a cloud of smoke billowed into the air. Sano burst through the cloud, followed by Diona. The Togruta pulled the Force into her muscles, amplifying her speed and her reflexes as she dodged crimson bolts. With a telekinetic tug, she ripped a gunner from his nest and slammed him into the ground.

Then she felt a sharp jolt inside her skull, disrupting her spirited charge. “Change course. Disrupted ground. IED.” Now that she heard Diona’s voice resonate inside her skull, she saw the barrel at the roadside. Nonetheless, she groaned internally as she sought cover behind a pillar. “I saw it!” she insisted.
“You didn’t,” Diona stated flatly as she appeared at her side. Briefly peeking out of cover, she snapped off a spray of disruptor rounds into the direction of a crouching rebel, spraying duracrete dust from the impact. Blaster bolts impacted upon her armour, causing the energy shield to flare as it absorbed most of the impact.
When the rebel rose to return fire, Diona pumped another round at the target, catching him in the helmet and turning him to ash. “Follow me.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Sano muttered in annoyance. Her blood was pumping and she was filled with adrenaline. She fired a trio of blaster bolts towards a wall a rebel had found cover behind. They were powerful enough to punch holes in the flimsy cover and keep foes suppressed. She dashed after Diona. The building loomed ahead of them.
They passed corpses of soldiers as well as vehicle wrecks. As they got closer to the door, she could sense life forms inside the building. Excitement surged through her. But then the sensation grew fainter and she felt a flash of precognition. “They’re moving away.” She dashed towards the door.

It was locked, but she kicked it open – and triggered the booby-trap. The detonation happened too quickly for her to summon a Force barrier and, in any event, it would not have made a difference. Her body was torn apart. Sano died...and awoke in a clean, sterile room. It was not a disappointing afterlife though. Fortunately for her, it had been a simulation. Diona loomed above her, having pulled an oversized helmet from her head. “You knew it was a booby-trap,” Sano declared accusingly, jabbing a finger at the older woman.
The former Jedi looked at her with that stoic expression of hers that made Sano feel like a child again. “Yes,” she said flatly. “You would not listen, so you needed to learn.”
“A heads-up would’ve been nice.”
“And then you’d have made the mistake next time – if not in a simulation, then in real combat. This isn’t a game.”
“I know it isn’t,” Sano retorted a bit indignantly, rubbing her head. Her body was, of course, intact, but the virtual ‘death’ still gave her a headache from hell.
“You have spirit. But it must be tempered with prudence.”
“Fine, what do I do then? The Force warns me sometimes, but I can’t exactly inspect the ground in the middle of a firefight.”
“No, but there are tells. And obvious places to booby-trap. Distorted ground, objects out of place, natural choke-points, the entrance to the only shelter. Something as simple as a closed cupboard or a flashlight could be rigged.”

“Okay, I get it.”
“You don’t, but you will. How’s the head?”
“Fine. Let’s do it again. I’ll do it right this time.” At the flip of a switch, the pair found themselves back inside the war-torn town. Once again, the suicide bomber raced towards Sano. This time she did not hesitate. They dodged the mine on the street. Amidst explosions and blaster salvoes, they approached the building.
“I guess there’s no back-door?” Sano called out to make herself heard over the sounds of battle. In the distance, the cry of a soldier who had stepped on a mine was heard. Then a building caved in when a tank cannon fired upon it.
“Guarded, or rigged. We’ll make another one. Move.” Sano had just about enough time to step aside before Diona pulled the trigger, and unleashed a destructive wave of disruptor energy into the duracrete wall with a loud roar. The air was ignited and the molecular bonds sundered. She was grateful for her helmet, otherwise she would’ve inhaled the smoke and dust. Quickly, they pushed through the hole.
“Clear,” Sano reported. Rifle in hand, she moved in. Both proceeded to clear the next room, finding it vacated. It looked like it had been a living room, though it had seen better days. The walls were scorched and the sofas were ripped. There was some food on the table. The light flickered above them. What caught Sano’s eye was a discarded army rucksack.

“Hey, look at that,” she said. But she kept herself from inspecting it. Rather she focused on the Force, stretching out with her senses – and listened to the ripples. “Booby-trapped?” she asked rhetorically. Diona nodded curtly. They quickly left the room, giving the trap a wide berth. Part of the staircase seemed to have caved in. They were about to move up, but then Sano’s Force Senses prickled. She heard noise from downstairs.
Without missing a beat, the two dashed after the fleeing rebels. One hurled a grenade their way. Quickly, Sano caught it with a telekinetic hand and they sought cover as it exploded in-mid air. Dust rose into the air, a door was ripped apart and she felt something hot and hard sting her flesh. But adrenaline filled her. “Sabre,” Diona mouthed and Sano obediently drew her blade as they reached the basement. Desperate blaster salvoes came their way. Bolts bounced off her blade. Some ricocheted, others went for the shooters.
Sano lobbed in a flashbang and as the room was bathed in bright light, they rushed in. Diona’s disruptor roared and a rebel became ash. A second got a shot off before Sano’s blade clove him from shoulder to belly and a third she pushed into a wall while he was reeling from the blast. The fourth tossed his gun away, raising hands. “Don’t shoot! I surrender!”
“Turn around. Hands behind your back,” Diona commanded coldly, keeping her rifle levelled at him. “Drop the knife in your boot, too,” she added coldly, whereupon the rebel quickly did so. “Sano, cuff him, then frisk him.”
The Togruta put her lightsabre on her belt and produced a small scanning device. Crucially, it would detect hidden explosives. Obediently she cuffed the rebel’s hands and searched him. “Found this,” she informed Diona, passing over a comm. Diona pocketed it. “May have orders on it,” she muttered. Then suddenly both felt a jolt in their skull.

The landscape shifted and suddenly they were in the white room again. They pulled off their VR helmets and found that they were not alone in the room. Elpsis was standing before them. The Lieutenant was dressed in the standard olive green uniform, with an Order of Fire emblem pinned to her chest.
They were about to salute, though Elpsis waved them off. “Been looking for you. Going through some extra training?”
“Urban combat scenario 3, ma’am,” Diona responded.
“Diona’s been teaching me about booby-traps, ma’am. You know, staying alert and all that,” Sano. “She’s been a big help,” she added and meant it.
“I like the initiative. Training never stops. I thought I’d learned everything when I hit Masterhood, and boy, was I wrong,” Elpsis remarked.
“Does that also apply to the Grandmistress?” Sano could not help ask a bit cheekily.
“Especially to her,” Elpsis emphasised, and glanced towards Diona. “There’s something I wanted to announce to you in private, but I might as well do it now since I know it’s gonna be approved. I put in a recommendation for your promotion to Corporal.”
“Congrats, Diona!” Sano declared a bit awkwardly.
However, Diona’s expression remained stoic. “Why did you recommend me, ma’am?”

“I mean, you already boss us around anyway,” Sano interjected. Both glared at her and she recoiled. “Sorry. This is my cue to leave?” Elpsis’ look told her everything. “I’ll be outside.” Then she quickly scurried out.
With the Togruta gone, the two stared at each other. “I’m content where I am,” Diona stated stoically.
“Don’t worry, you’re still at the bottom, just a tad further away from the barrel,” Elpsis remarked, then suppressed a sigh. “You’ve proven you’re reliable and you know your shit. I can’t have you as a Private forever. You were an officer in the Dominion.”
“Those days are past. I’m not that person anymore. I was given a chance to atone for my crimes, as much as I can after all the blood I shed. That is enough for me. I want no rewards from Firemane – or you.”
“It’s no reward. And I didn’t recommend that Diona for a promotion. The torturer, the drone. I recommended who you are now.”
“Both are the same person.”

Elpsis’ expression was hard and cold. “Yes. But if you were the same you were then, I’d have killed you and we wouldn’t be having this chat. You want to make amends, then take the responsibility and use it more wisely. You’re no trainee; you were leading soldiers into battle when I was an aimless drifter taking jobs from slum bosses. And I’m not letting you stay in your comfort zone and act like one when you could help provide guidance to them.”
Diona was quiet for a good while. “It is not a reward, it’s a responsibility,” she concluded. She looked Elpsis right in the eye with an intent gaze and said: “Then do I have your trust to accompany you to Tephrike when the day comes? I swore an oath to return. My oath supersedes Firemane’s agendas.”
Elpsis knitted her brow together, thinking. Her milky-white eyes looked into the blue ones that belonged to her...jailer, torturer, confidant...comrade? Then after a moment she spoke: “Yes. It won’t be Firemane’s cause. It will be mine.”
“And Rhea’s and Mara’s and all the Unchained’s. What do you know about the leaders of the Dominion and the Vaderites?” Firemane got intelligence from the Republican Guard, but it was hardly a priority for them. Diona had served the Dominion’s secret police – and committed atrocities in its name.

“It is Mahtara and Eisen, yes?” Diona asked for confirmation, whereupon Elpsis nodded.
“Mahtara is...old. I’m not sure how old. Some say she was already a Jedi when the Dominion was born. Others say she’s even older.”
Elpsis snorted. “Then she should’ve known what the Dominion’s doing isn’t the Jedi way, even by the Jedi’s low standards.”
“I can’t say what drove her to help build it. But I know she’s dangerous. When the Netherworld swallowed millions and the Force didn’t heed our call, she led the Dominion’s defence against the Vaderites and the Guard. The Grand Inquisitor resented her. Do not underestimate her.”
“The Dominion got hit real hard. You think she can hold it together?”
“In the Grand Army we had a saying ‘where Mahtara is, there is victory’. You may not understand, but for every citizen who sees the tyrant, there are many who say ‘if only Mahtara knew’ whenever an injustice happens. Unlike many Jedi Masters, she has not hoarded and stolen.”
“You sound almost like you respect her. After everything.”

“She helped build the system that enslaves my sisters. The system in whose name I spilt innocent blood. She is the enemy. But I’m not blind to the qualities that will make of many siblings fight for her. To an outsider, the Dominion’s people look oppressed – and they are. But it is what they know. They won’t all suddenly rise up in rebellion because the space people promise them 'freedom'.”
“No. If we’re dumb, we’ll dig our own grave. But there’s still people who need saving there - starting with those in the camps. We can’t free them in one go, but we can be the spark. What about Eisen? From what I heard, he’s some kind of ridiculous fop. Stupid medals, palaces and all that...but if he was a total idiot, he wouldn’t have gotten so high, would he?”

The former Jedi considered this question for a moment. “I know him mostly by reputation. He’s the most corrupt and decadent of his whole degenerate order. While total war raged between our nations, freight trains with stolen art made their way to his mansion. But....he’s more than he appears to be. I do not know specifics, but he’s said to be a master of sorcery and lies. He directed their bombing campaign against us and is popular with the Vaderites’ human subjects. Do your Vong...allies have any intel on other Sith Masters who survived Maysaf’s destruction?”

Elpsis thought for a bit. “All the stuff I know is third or second hand. They mostly request aid against the Dominion. Lemme think...I think they mentioned a Darth Lachesis once. Something about wanting a hit on her. Name ring a bell?”
“There was once an island called Chios. People from various species dwelt on it. When the Vaderites took control, they were at first content to oppress the non-humans and pit them against each other. Then Lachesis was made governor-general. Today, only humans live there.”
“Where are the aliens?”
“You mean deported and enslaved?”
“No, gone. Every man, woman and child was slaughtered. She built resorts on their ashes. 'Model' workers go there.”
Elpsis’ expression darkened. “They’ll be avenged,” she spoke coldly. "The guilty must burn."

“’And though this world, with devils filled,

Should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for the Light hath willed

its truth to triumph through us.’”

“Windian song?”
“One of the few I still like.”
“I like the sentiment behind it,” Elpsis stated, despite herself. “I’ll see you tomorrow at the drills.”