An even longer time ago, in a galaxy just as far away...
Known in Galactic Basic by the single word 'space,' the vast, empty void that spanned between stars and planets was a dangerous and unforgiving place. Not only was it devoid of the gases that most organic beings required to survive, but the temperature alone was enough to kill those who went unprepared. Travel through space, using the alternate dimension known as hyperspace, was just as perilous; a simple miscalculation could drive a starship into the fatal gravitational pull of a sun or a black hole.
Thus, space made for a perfect form of containment, and that was exactly what the Erudite used it for. A Terminus-class destroyer that was used early in the Great War, the old ship now served a very different purpose for the Empire- as a mobile research laboratory holding hazardous or volatile experiments and specimens. Its frequent and unpredictable hyperspace jumps, with destinations known to only a few, functioned also as evasion from potential enemy attack or infiltration.
With one of the goals of her mission being to stay beneath notice, Videte had considered approaching the Erudite in disguise, but quickly rejected the idea. Monitored jointly by the Sphere of Ancient Knowledge and the Sphere of Biotic Science, the ship was bound to have a number of Sith, some of whom may be powerful enough to see through her illusions. Even then, using tricks of the Force was likely not enough to fool the surveillance devices and droids on the vessel, which were likely advanced enough to make the use of a holographic projector a gamble she was likely to lose. As a result, Videte sought to enter the laboratory using ordinary means, by requesting access using her identity as a member of the Sith Order.
The Erudite emerged from hyperspace exactly where she was told it would. Coming to a halt within visual range of her transport shuttle, Videte could see the weaponry of the destroyer turning towards her as a message demanding identification was sent. She quickly replied with the passcode she had received and after a brief moment of waiting, the shuttle was given the all-clear to approach. Setting the craft on autopilot, Videte allowed the computer to perform the mundane task of landing as she proceeded to the small cargo hold which contained two large blocks of carbonite with individuals frozen inside. Kneeling down beside the slab which bore the smaller inhabitant, she activated the repulsorlift and programmed it to follow her out the shuttle.
Another Sith greeted her in the docking bay, dressed in clothing as dark as Videte's shadowsilk robes, but providing a drastic contrast with a flowing cape and long ornamental shoulder pads. Unlike Videte, her face was left uncovered, proudly displaying the red skin, bony features and glowing yellow eyes that showed the blood of the ancient Sith flowed through her. This was a sign of not only elitism but also power, as the Sith species and most of their descendants were strongly attuned to the dark side of the Force.
"Lord Videte," she greeted the visitor, her expression cold and emotionless.
"I wasn't expecting a Sith welcoming party, Lord..."
"Æmeria," the cloaked woman introduced herself. "A Dark Lord deserves proper recognition."
"I'd actually much rather go unseen," Videte commented.
"Ah,” a look of realization crossed the Sith pureblood’s face, followed by a slight frown- the first hint of emotion she had shown this far. “You must come from Umbara."
"Very perceptive. I take it you studied at Korriban."
"Of course," Æmeria confirmed with a nod. "You already knew that, no doubt."
"My work focuses on threats and traitors to the Empire. Your name hasn't shown up."
"Are you saying I'm not seen as a threat by the Dark Councillors? You know, that can be taken as an insult by many Sith, but I didn't expect someone like you would grasp the meaning of that.”
Videte tilted her head, “Have we met before?”
“No, but I don't have to. You assassins are all the same. Darth Aruk’s Umbara Academy is an affront to the tenets of our order. The power of the dark side is meant for the strong, not for their ambition-less, simple-minded servants.”
“Not servants,” the human rebutted. “Weapons.”
“Then tell me, what is a weapon doing here on a research vessel?"
"I'm not the only agent of Imperial Intelligence on this ship," Videte responded flatly.
"So that's who you seek. Follow me."
The red-skinned Sith led her through the Erudite's hallways. The renovated interior of the destroyer showed no sign of age or wear, instead appearing to be as pristine as the laboratories on worlds in the heart of the Empire. As she suspected, biological and mechanical guards both patrolled the corridors, and Videte observed that the walls and ceiling were lined with surveillance and sensor equipment. The space was also used by Sith and scientists travelling between rooms, the dark robes of the alchemists setting them apart from the white lab coats of the non-Force sensitive researchers. None of them appeared remotely curious about the carbonite block that followed Videte; those who worked on the Erudite were likely accustomed to odd sights and had long since learned to mind their own business.
Lord Æmeria, however, inquired about their visitor's cargo as they stepped into a lift, "Who's frozen inside there?"
"Like everything with Imperial Intelligence, that's classified," Videte shot down her question.
"I need to be informed about him," the cloaked Sith pressed on. "We have to know which containment protocols to use if he breaks free."
"He's dead. That's all you need to know."
The lift arrived at its destination and the two stepped out, with Æmeria continuing to lead. The remainder of their walk was silent until they reached a short hall branching off and ending in a single closed door. The Sith pureblood turned to leave, though not before giving Videte a threatening warning about how she too would be purged if there was a lab breach. When she was gone, Videte pressed the panel on the wall and after a few seconds of waiting, the door ahead slid open with a soft hiss. She was immediately met with the smell of chemicals as stepped inside, the door closing behind her just as the carbonite block made it past the automatic sensors.
The area beyond was eerily similar to where she had witnessed the body of the first man impacted by this mysterious plague, the man that had killed her master. A single examination table sat in the centre, with various shelves and terminals laid out around the side. There were two doors to this room, one where Videte had entered, the other on the wall to her left with a sign saying 'DANGER AIRLOCK.' This was presumably one of the emergency purge measures of the laboratories- by venting their contents into cold, empty space.
Unlike the room where this all started, the corpse on the table was not human, but that of a brown, four limbed creature with sharp claws and teeth and spines atop its head. Videte recognized this as a rakghoul, one of the monstrous creatures that were the end result of humanoid beings infected with the rakghoul plague. The man inspecting the body was not a towering Sith Lord, instead, he was an old man with a white beard and balding hair. Dressed in a lab coat like the other researchers she had passed by, the man appeared to be a typical, albeit experienced scientist. Despite having read only a fraction of his files, though, it was already clear to Videte that he was much, much more.
"Doctor Eckard Lokin?"
The scientist turned around, gazing at Videte with an inquisitive look at first, then quickly breaking into a wide, friendly smile, "My lord! It's good to see you again! Just...give me one moment, I have to finish examining this sample before all the cells die off."
"Take your time, my business isn't pressing," the Sith smiled back. "So what're you doing out here anyways?"
Dr. Lokin typed on a computer as he responded casually, "My personal research, of course. There are very limited specimens of rakghouls in Imperial space, and this ship contains most of them."
"Mind if I take a look?" Videte stepped forward.
"Go ahead, but don't touch any of the samples. We don't want you turning into one of them."
Joining the doctor at the terminal beside him, she continued the chatter as she worked away, "Right. Anyone infected with the plague becomes a rakghoul."
"The transformation's fascinating. Very gruesome on the physical level, but if you observe the biological processes while it occurs..." he suddenly paused for a moment and turned to the hooded Sith. "All surveillance should be cut and jamming devices are online. We can speak freely now."
"Good work, Fixer."
"Now that's a title I haven't heard since I went on retirement," remarked Lokin. "You're with Intelligence, I presume?"
"You know of Lord Mulciber?" Videte asked him in return.
"Yes, I worked with him several times over the years. I believe I’ve seen you with him the last time we met."
"I was his apprentice, and the new Eye of Jadus following his death."
"Ah," the doctor nodded. "So what brings you to the Erudite, my lord?"
"My apologies for barging in. I needed your expertise in biology, and this was at least less conspicuous than calling you back from retirement."
"Indeed, it would draw quite some attention in the Intelligence community if I suddenly reappeared on Kaas."
“It seems I’ve made the right choice, then.”
“You have the skill and talent of your master,” Lokin smiled. “You’ll do well in his place.”
“Thank you,” Videte replied before motioning to the carbonite slab hovering behind her. “I need you to take a look at this, doctor.”
“I’ll clean up here.”
Stepping forward, Videte raised a hand slowly upwards. The rakghoul corpse followed her movements and it began to hover above the table, like a puppet hanging from invisible strings. As she swiped her hand to the side the body followed, now away from the table it was levitating far above the ground. Dr. Lokin made his way around the rakghoul to a rectangular crate on the other side of the room from Videte. Entering a security code into the locking mechanism, the container opened up and a layer of cool mist rose from it along with an even stronger scent of preservation chemicals than before. The Sith telekinetically lowered the corpse into the refrigerated crate and the doctor sealed it, though the smell continued to linger in the air.
Next, Videte knelt beside the block of carbonite, redirecting the repulsors to push it upwards onto the now-cleared table. Lokin set to work on the thawing mechanism, and after a few seconds of adjusting the dials, the centre of the carbonite began to glow bright red. Heat emanated from it like a furnace, burning away the cold that surrounded the room a moment earlier. The light became unbearable for a second before it faded away, revealing the decapitated body of a woman wearing Mandalorian armour.
"What exactly am I looking for?" the doctor asked.
"Diseases, infections, viruses, something like the rakghoul plague you're working on," Videte instructed.
"Depending on how quickly the body was preserved, some of them might already be dead."
"It was frozen within the hour of death."
Taking a hypo-syringe from a neatly arranged box of supplies, Lokin first took a sample of blood from the exposed neck of the corpse, sliding the body of the syringe into a slot on one of the analysis machines. Lights began blinking as the device did its meticulous work, and the doctor left it alone, moving to pry the heavy beskar armour off the Mandalorian. Once that was done, he set about conducting the autopsy as Videte stood and watched quietly from a corner of the room.
Five minutes passed with only the sound of computer terminals and the occasional noise of a loud medical instrument. The dark robes of the Sith blended in with the grey walls behind her, though it was far from perfect camouflage. Dr. Lokin paid her no heed as he cut open the body, however; a testament to both Videte's ability to stay unnoticed in plain sight and the doctor's dedication to his work. The catalyst for breaking this silence came from the machine scanning the blood sample as it emitted a series of bleeps. Lokin turned to it, a curious expression on his face.
"A Force-sensitive Mandalorian? Where did you come across one of those?"
"She was only Force-sensitive for about a minute before she died," Videte explained. "Is there anything else irregular about the body?"
Lokin shook his head, "She was in perfect health, as you'd expect from a Mandalorian. I'll take a closer look at these midi-chlorians..."
Videte simply nodded and resumed the silence, though this time it was shorter. Manually examining the blood sample, Lokin worked on the various controls of the scanner machine, occasionally peering into a microscope eyepiece that extended from the top of the device, remarking as he went.
"Looks like most of the white blood cells are still alive...that's good. Even some of the others, it seems the midi-chlorians are helping keep them alive, which isn't unheard of. It's not a common medical treatment, but there have been studies that transferring blood with a high midi-chlorian count can help sustain a dying patient for longer than normal."
"But these don't usually make the recipient Force-sensitive, do they?"
"No, they don't. There's something...odd about these midi-chlorians."
Lokin backed away from the blood analyzer, turning to face the Sith, "Midi-chlorians are supposed to have a symbiotic relationship with the cells of a living creature, but these ones appear almost...parasitic. It's almost like they're hijacking the cells, not reprogramming the DNA like the rakghoul virus, but...you Sith and Jedi use the Force, correct? Call upon it to do what you want it to?"
"Well, in this woman's blood, it's the other way around. The Force is using her cells."
Videte stepped forward, the confused expression readable on her face despite the mask that obscured her eyes, "How is that possible?"
"I don't know," the scientist shrugged. "This really isn't my specialty, you might want to ask one of the other Sith around here."
"You're right, but...no," she objected. "The strength that people infected with this gain- a Sith will seek a way to use it and wreak havoc on the Empire. The power plays are dangerous enough as they are."
"I'll look further into this, see what I can find, but I'm afraid there's nothing more I can help you with."
Looking from Lokin to the thawed corpse on the table, an idea suddenly dawned upon Videte, "I know exactly who can."