Chapter 1: Prologue
Dusk had come to Atollon. The planet’s sun was sinking swiftly beneath the horizon, with only a sliver of light still visible in the sky. A cool wind blew across the dry landscape, swirls of dust and sand visible across the flat plains that surrounded Chopper Base on all sides.
Standing on one of the dead coral outcroppings that housed Chopper Base, a young man stared out at the darkening sky, his mind filled concerns and fears. About average height for a human male, the boy’s most distinguishing feature was his dark blue hair, a rare color among his species. Once long and wavy, the blue locks had been cropped short in a neat military-style cut that stretched only a few inches from the young man’s skull. His bright eyes matched his hair and as they watched the last rays of the sun vanish beneath the skyline, they narrowed.
The young man let out a single breath and squared his shoulders, standing up straight. His name was Ezra Bridger, son of Ephraim and Mira Bridger, and he was a Rebel. But he was more than just a rank-and-file soldier. He was now a Lieutenant Commander in the Phoenix Squadron. Even more than that though, he was a Jedi. Or, at least, he amended, a Jedi Padawan.
His bare fingers grazed the hilt of the lightsaber that hung from his utility belt. Black-cased with silver highlights the weapon was a more standard design than his first one. He had forged the weapon in the first few weeks after Malachor. Fresh from the loss of Ahsoka and Kanan’s blinding, Ezra had found refuge in the construction of a new weapon. He had fortunate enough to have snatched up the Kyber crystal from the wreckage of his first lightsaber after his humiliatingly brief duel with Darth Vader.
Ezra shivered a bit at the memory of facing down the Dark Lord of the Sith and the sheer ease at which Vader had disarmed him. His right hand curled into a fist at the recollection of lying on the floor of the Sith Temple, facing down the imposing Dark Lord, completely powerless.
Your anger gives you strength.
The Sith Holocron he had retrieved from the Temple came to his mind. The only thing he and Kanan truly had to show for their failed mission to the Sith planet, Ezra had hidden the object from his absent Master, claiming that he had stashed the Dark Side artifact away. But that had been a bald-faced lie, one his traumatized Master had not seen through, too preoccupied with his own injuries and loss.
Thinking of Kanan’s perpetual absence reminded Ezra why he’d come up to the high reaches of the mesa to be alone with his thoughts. He’d been promoted earlier in the day and would be leaving in the morning on his first mission as Lieutenant Commander. He felt the weight of command settle heavily on his young shoulders and for a moment he wanted to run away from everything. Just dash off into the desert and leave the Rebellion, the Jedi and Sith, all of it behind. In a way, he was still just a kid, seventeen and afraid of assuming such responsibility.
The cold wind picked up, blowing dust past Ezra, the cool air biting at his bare skin. He clenched his jaw against the gale and balled his fists.
Embrace your anger. Feel it, hold it. Let it fill you. Concentrate on it and only it. Your anger gives you focus!
The words of the Sith Holocron flashed through his mind, the raspy voice of the Presence worming its way into his thoughts. Staring out at the shadow-engulfed desert, Ezra squeezed his fists even tighter and felt his anger growing. Anger towards the Empire for taking his parents, hate for Darth Vader and his humiliation of Ezra. Coming to a decision, the young man spun on his heel and strode away from the ledge, heading down towards the landing pad far below.
Chopper Base was eerily quiet at this late hour. Most of Phoenix Squadron were fast asleep in their various bunks either in the base’s limited living space or on the various spacecraft berthed outside. The few members that weren’t asleep were ensconced in the command center, monitoring sensors and communications. Ezra didn’t encounter a single being on his short walk from the upper reaches of the mesa to the wide, flat section of the mesa that served Chopper Base as a landing field.
Only a handful of vessels were berthed there at the moment, with a pair of large CR90 Blockade Runners sitting at opposite ends of the field. Berthed directly between them was the VCX-100 light freighter that Ezra had come to call home over the last two years. The Ghost’s landing ramp was down as it always was when Hera didn’t see Ezra in his bunk after nightfall. A faint smile graced the young man’s face at the small, but affectionate gesture. His new family did care about him when it came down to it.
The smile swiftly faded. The fact that they cared about him meant he had to do his very best to protect them. His visage darkened with these thoughts, he hadn’t been able to save his parents from the Empire. He wouldn’t fail to save his new family.
Boarding the ship, Ezra made his way to his cabin quietly. The room was empty as Zeb was hard at work in the command center, monitoring all the perimeter sensors. The Lasat took his duty as Chopper Base’s Chief Security Officer very seriously. Going up to his collection of Imperial helmets that lay on the right wall of the cabin, Ezra moved to take the center one, an Imperial Cadet bucket and paused.
As always, the Sith Holocron somehow sensed his approach and the artifact came to life, crimson light emanating through the lenses of the helmet that concealed it from prying eyes. Lifting up the helmet and setting it aide, Ezra stared at the object that had been his teacher for the last six months. A small, fist-sized pyramid, the Sith Holocron was made of a strange translucent substance. Capped at the edges by gold, triangles that were rotated to odd angles, the entire device glowed with an angry red light.
Lifting the object, Ezra held it in his open palm and called on the rage he’d felt at the dark memories. With a dull flash of light, the object came to life, vibrating slightly in his hand.
The Presence said nothing. But then it never spoke on its own, only responding to Ezra’s questions or statements.
“I need more guidance,” the young man said, an edge in his voice.
“What do you seek to accomplish?”
The Presence spoke in distinctly female tone, it’s voice shifting in tenor and pitch with each word, almost as if it were multiple voices speaking as one.
“I’ve been promoted,” Ezra replied, uneasiness creeping into his voice. It felt odd telling the Sith Holocron about what he felt was his best accomplishment.
“Leadership can present many challenges” the Presence said, “Subordinates cannot always be trusted to obey their leaders.”
Ezra frowned, “They’re not my subordinates, they’re my friends!”
The Holocron glowed brighter, “They may be. But you are their commander. Your duty is to lead. Theirs is to follow.”
“How do I do that,” Ezra asked, his doubts rising to the surface of his mind.
“They didn’t listen to me during the last mission. They don’t take me seriously.”
His voice grew louder with his anger, “They still think I’m just a kid! They don’t know what I’m really capable of!”
“They don’t believe in your strength. Your wisdom.” The Presence’s voice was low and understanding.
“How do I show them that I’m not just a kid anymore? How do I get them to believe in me?”
“Power must be demonstrated. Wisdom must be displayed. Lesser beings only believe in what they can see.”
The light of the Holocron began to dim, throwing the cabin into deeper shadow.
“The Force can be used to show them your power. You can use it to persuade them to follow you.”
The crimson light shone into Ezra’s wide blue eyes.
“Tell me,” he demanded eagerly, “Tell me how to convince them.”
“Listen carefully,” the Presence said sibilantly, it’s voice radiating power and wisdom.
The Phantom reverted from hyperspace with a violent shudder, the blue-white lines of hyperspace dissolving away into the black void of realspace. Standing behind Sabine who sat in the small shuttle’s pilot seat, Ezra stared out the void, looking for any enemy craft.
Behind him, in the shuttle’s cramped passenger compartment sat Rex, Zeb and Hondo Ohnaka. The leathery-faced Weequay had given them the intelligence that had prompted this mission to the Yarma System. Ezra didn’t like that they had to detour through Mining Guild territory to get to the Imperial Salvage Station in the heart of Yarma, but there was no other way to reach the remote planet.
“Okay Chopper, you’re up,” Sabine said in a strident tone, “Program those coordinates before…”
The comm crackled to life and a gruff voice sounded through the cockpit speakers.
“Attention shuttlecraft, you are trespassing on a mining guild claim zone. Identify yourself, state your business.”
Stationed up in the Phantom’s droid socket, C1-10P gave a worried warble. Glancing at the rear displays, Ezra saw a sleek transport ship approaching, flanked by a pair of TIE Fighter, all three ships painted in a familiar yellow that Ezra remembered from their encounter with the Purgill nearly a year ago.
“State your purpose,” the gruff voice repeated as the TIE Fighters slid to either side of the Phantom.
A cold jolt of apprehension ran through Ezra, and he quickly activated the comm.
“Please excuse the intrusion, Captain,” he said smoothly, “We’ll be on our way as soon as we calculate our hyperspace jump.”
“We’ll not authorize any such jump,” the Mining Guild Captain replied, “Until you’ve registered with the Empire and paid the hyperspace toll. Prepare to transfer credits.”
Ezra scowled at the comm, then turned to glance at the flanking TIE’s.
“If you do not slow your speed, we will open fire,” the Captain said in obvious threat.
An angry look on his face, Ezra turned to Sabine.
“Sabine, get us out of here!”
The Mandalorian girl responded by jerking controls sharply to starboard and Ezra gripped the back of the pilot’s seat tightly, struggling to keep his balance. The Phantom jerked from side to side as the TIE’s opened fire, spitting green lances of lethal energy.
Dodging another salvo, Sabine yanked back on the throttle and the shuttle shot forward in a burst of speed. Gunning their own engines, the two TIE Fighters raced after it, their weapons spewing a steady barrage of laserfire.
“An Imperial Prison is bad,” Hondo lamented, “But where the Mining Guild will send us is worse!”
Ezra rolled his eyes at Hondo’s remark, he had a strong hunch that the Mining Guild wasn’t trying to take them alive at all. But the young man had a soft spot for the old pirate. Hondo never expected much from Ezra and always had a warm laugh and an amusing joke for him.
“Hang on,” Sabine declared and jinked the shuttle side to side, narrowly avoiding the TIE’s shots. As she did, Chopper maneuvered the tail gun deftly and unleashed a flurry of potshots at the pursuing starfighters. One of the TIE’s caught a trio of bolts straight in the cockpit and exploded into an expanding ball of particles.
The other TIE managed to evade the return fire and continued to fire on the Phantom.
Ezra saw Sabine grit her teeth in exertion, and then the entire ship shuddered as the throttle cut out and the craft decelerated rapidly. The yellow-painted TIE raced ahead of them and Sabine thumbed the trigger, sending a quick burst of twin laser bolts at the enemy ship from the Phantom’s forward dual cannons. The first shot missed the TIE narrowly, but the next two hit it dead on and turned it into another ball of exploding gases and metal.
“Chopper, we’re clear,” Sabine said with a note of satisfaction in her voice, “Charge the hyperdrive.”
“Wait!” Ezra said with authority, “We’re not leaving any witnesses that can contact the Empire. Turn us around, we’re taking out that transport.”
Sabine frowned and gave Ezra a hard stare.
“That’s not our mission, Ezra. Besides, they probably already have.”
Rex chimed in from the rear of the shuttle, “She’s right, Lieutenant. The important thing to do is proceed as planned.”
“No!” Ezra replied, his youthful face blotching with anger.
“I’m in charge of this mission, and I say we’re not leaving witnesses that can give us away to the enemy.”
He glared directly at Sabine, matching her stern gaze with a durasteel stare.
“Take out that transport, Sabine.”
When the Mandalorian girl didn’t reply, Ezra narrowed his eyes and called on the Force, summoning the invisible energy to him with his anger. Feeling the power flow through him, he spoke again, letting the Force enter his words as the Sith Holocron had taught him.
“That’s an order, Sabine. Take out that transport. Now!”
He all but shouted the last word, pushing the invisible power of the Force into his command at the same time, demanding that the great energy persuade his comrades to obey him.
For a moment, Sabine looked like she was going to argue with him, her almond-brown eyes hardening at Ezra’s sharp command.
Then she nodded her head microscopically, “Yes, sir,” she acquiesced, a hint of sarcasm in her voice.
Jerking the controls, she wheeled the starship around and pushed the throttle hard, rocketing straight towards the sleek mining transport.
As the sleek transport grew swiftly larger in the viewport, Ezra glanced down at Sabine, expecting her to open fire on the command ship as she had on the TIE’s. But Sabine’s hands remained on the yoke and her gaze was focused on the looming freighter.
“What are you waiting for?” Ezra asked impatiently, “Open fire! That’s an order!”
“Cool it, Lieutenant,” Sabine retorted, “Can’t you see that they’re unarmed?”
Ezra frowned and he looked down at the technical readout of the enemy ship. His eyes widened as he saw that Sabine was right. The Mining Guild freighter didn’t have so much as a single laser cannon on it’s hull.
“Karabast!” the young man shouted, anger suffusing the expletive.
“We still can’t let them transmit to the Empire,” he continued.
Sabine actually turned away from the controls to glare at Ezra, anger visible in her eyes as well.
“I am not firing on an unarmed ship, Ezra. I don’t care what your rank is.”
Ezra’s eyes widened in shock at the outright insubordination.
“Fine, if you won’t do it, I’ll do it myself.” He moved to grab Sabine by the arm and yank her out of the pilot’s seat when Rex called out.
“Just disable their communications!”
Ezra spun to face the aging clone Captain. Rex was staring at them both with a look of annoyance on his face.
“I flew one of those ships back in the Clone Wars,” Rex continued, “Their long-range transmitter is mounted on the rear section of the upper hull. Take it out and they can’t transmit to the Empire.”
Ezra pondered the Captain’s suggestion for a brief second and then nodded to him.
“Okay, Sabine, take out their communications.”
“Yes, Lieutenant,” the young woman bit out, her tone dripping with sarcasm. The Mandalorian girl’s fingers flew over the weapons controls and the targeting reticle appeared on the main console’s viewscreen. Her eyes darted over the vessel’s exterior and she let out an angry breath.
“There’s no antennae, Rex!”
Ezra didn’t bother looking at the display and instead stared out the viewport, running his gaze over the Mining Guild starship. A single long rectangle of a ship with a smaller rectangular thruster pod mounted on each side of the vessel, all painted the same acid yellow as the destroyed TIE’s. His blue eyes narrowed as he focused on the upper hull of the vessel and then they widened as he spotted what he was looking for.
Mounted at the very end of the ship, a small transmission antenna was mounted, the circular dish rotating slowly as it prepared to send a message.
“There!” Ezra shouted, his finger jabbing at the viewport.
“The communications transmitter’s mounted at the very end of the dorsal hull, Sabine. Take it out!”
The Mandalorian pilot frowned but complied with the order without comment, turning the Phantom sharply to starboard to bring the cannons to bear. With a quick squeeze of the trigger, she sent a series of high-powered crimson laser bolts flying towards the target. The first two salvos struck the ship and winked out of existence, absorbed by the vessel’s shields, but the third blast hit the weakened shields and blew the comm antenna clean off the freighter.
“Yes!” Ezra shouted, pumping his fist in exultation.
“Good job, Sabine!”
The violet-haired girl gave him a cold glare and turned back to her controls, bringing the Phantom back around towards the system’s exit point.
“Hyperspace, here we come.”
The stars blurred into starlines and the shuttle vanished into the blue-white vortex of hyperspace.
Chapter 3: Chapter Two
The Phantom reverted to realspace with a sudden jolt. Looming ahead was the yellow-grey gaseous body that was the planet Yarma.
“No Imperial traffic on the scopes,” Sabine said, her tone wary, “But no sign of the station either.”
“It is down there, my friends,” Hondo said from the rear of the ship, his rich voice filled with confidence, “And those ships are ripe for plunder.”
Ezra gave his friend a brief, reassuring grin. He believed Hondo, regardless of what his other friends said. The pirate had never let him down.
Sabine gave the old Weequay a mistrustful look.
“There’s no telling what we’re flying into,” she complained.
“Let’s find out,” Ezra replied, his voice stern with command, “Take us down.”
Sabine complied and the Phantom descended into the grey clouds that enveloped the entire planet. The shuttle coasted through the atmosphere slowly and Sabine kept a firm grip on the yoke through the thick, obscuring gasses.
After a few minutes of smooth flying, a large, spherical metal object appeared in the distance. Crudely designed, the lower half of the station was skeletal and a long, narrow platform extruded from it’s equator.
“There it is,” Sabine exclaimed, “Reklam Station!”
Ezra took in the sight as the station grew steadily larger in the viewport.
“Chopper,” he called up to the astromech, “Get a headcount on those bombers.”
The droid warbled a curt response and a moment later a hologram of the station came up from the main console. The image focused on the extended platform, which was carrying a number of starfighters, all resting on the platform’s conveyer belt which led to a large boxy construct that sat at the very end.
“Y-Wing light bombers,” Ezra said in recognition, having seen the fighters in historical vids when he was growing up on Lothal.
“Looks like they’re in decent shape too,” he added, a note of optimism coming to his voice.
Sabine glanced at the display with concern, “Yeah but according to Chopper’s scan there are only fifteen left.”
The conveyer in the blue hologram abruptly moved, sending the furthest Y-Wing into the boxy construct at the end of the conveyor belt.
Sabine’s eyes widened, “Correction, there are only fourteen left.” She zoomed in on the boxy construct which appeared to be an incinerator of sorts.
“Looks like they’re being destroyed!”
Fear ran through Ezra like ice water in his veins. This mission would be for nothing if he didn’t do something fast.
“We have to act now,” he declared, “There won’t be any ships left if we wait!”
“Hold on,” Zeb said in alarm, “Our orders are to recon the station, not go after ships!”
Rex stepped forward from the rear of the shuttle, a stern look on his face.
“We should advise Captain Syndulla,” he said in a cautious tone.
“What if the Empire detects our transmission?” Ezra replied, his fear bleeding into his voice.
“I was given command of this assignment, I know what the objective was.”
He took a deep breath, suddenly feeling an immense pressure on his being. Taking another breath, he remembered the Sith Holocron’s teachings.
Your fear is only useful if you control it. Do not let it control you.
“But I’m in command and I am changing it.”
He took a step forward and looked Rex right in the eye, deep blue orbs meeting pale yellow ones.
“We’re going in now. That’s an order!”
The aged captain narrowed his eyes but said nothing. In the back of the shuttle, both Hondo and Zeb shifted uneasily. Ezra felt a stirring of uneasiness himself, but shoved it aside. He was in command and he would succeed. Turning back to the viewport, he put a hand on the back of the pilot’s chair and leaned forward, a determined look emblazoned on his youthful features.
“Yes, sir,” Sabine said warily and pushed on the throttle, rocketing towards the station.
“Hurry!” Ezra demanded, “We’re losing ships!”
Sabine scowled at him, “Well Lieutenant, what’s you’re plan for getting them out of there?”
Ezra was about to respond, when he felt a surge of warning in the Force.
“Turn left, now!” he shouted.
To Sabine’s credit, she obeyed without question and jerked the Phantom hard to the left. A moment later, a large, orange domed object appeared in the immediate horizon. Floating motionless in the atmosphere, it narrowly missed hitting the Phantom as the ship zoomed by.
“What was that?” Zeb asked gruffly.
“Don’t know, don’t care,” Ezra replied sharply, “It’s not coming after us. Focus on getting us to that station, Sabine!”
“We still haven’t heard your plan to get them out,” Sabine bit back.
Ezra paused for a moment and considered the small hologram closely.
“Rex, Chopper,” he inquired in a more measured tone, “Can those ships be flown remotely?”
There was a momentary silence, and then Rex spoke up, “They can be slaved to a single control circuit, but at least one of them has to be flown by a real pilot.”
Chopper beeped an affirmative and Ezra thought for a moment.
“Once we shut down the conveyor, we’ll have to link all the Y-Wings together. Then, I’ll fly the lead fighter out of here and the others will follow us.”
Sabine gave him an impressed look, “Not bad, Lieutenant.”
“Don’t forget that those ships will be running on empty,” Zeb remarked, “We’ll have to fuel them up before we take them anywhere.”
Ezra growled in frustration, but said nothing, his mind focusing on the task at hand, reining in his anger.
Sabine brought the Phantom in close and magnetically locked onto the underside of the conveyor platform without incident. All five of the crew scrambled out of the shuttle onto the platform and were quickly joined by Chopper who flew out of his droid socket and landed beside Ezra, his booster rocket flaring.
As he landed, the conveyor moved forward again, reducing the number of intact Y-Wings to thirteen.
“Chopper, shut down that conveyor,” Ezra shouted.
The astromech beeped rudely and activated his rocket again, flying towards an input console mounted on a high podium atop the main platform. Extending his interface arm, the orange droid quickly sliced into the Imperial network. He warbled loudly in triumph and the conveyor abruptly came to a halt.
A brief grin crossed Ezra’s face and he turned to his crew.
“Everyone, grab a fuel pump and start filling up these bombers.”
Zeb, Sabine and Rex quickly sprang into action, but Hondo remained for a moment, regarding Ezra fondly.
“You are becoming such a forceful person Ezra!”
He clapped the young man on the shoulder warmly, “I like that. It is good for business.”
Laughing heartily, Hondo swept off to help the others with refueling.
Beaming at Hondo’s praise, Ezra turned to Chopper, who was still on the platform.
“Chopper, get down here. I need you to start slaving those Y-Wing’s control circuits together.”
Chapter 4: Chapter Three
“Well that’s the last of them” Sabine said, her voice slightly muffled through her helmet.
“Yep,” Zeb agreed, “We’re all fuelled up.”
“Ezra,” Rex asked, “Are the bombers ready to fly?”
Ezra looked up from where he was kneeling beside Chopper, the orange astromech droid plugged into the Y-Wing at the far end of the platform.
“All set,” he replied, his blue eyes shining with intense focus.
He glanced at his team, “Everyone, get back to the Phantom. I’ll pilot the lead Y-Wing and Chopper will remote pilot the others out with us. Once we get out of the planet’s atmosphere, we’ll make for Chopper Base.”
As the others began to move, a loud clanging sound echoed across the platform and metal clamps flipped up off the underside of the platform and snapped onto each of the Y-Wings, locking every one of the battered old starfighters into place.
Ezra gaped open-mouthed and then whirled on Chopper.
“Unlock those bombers!” he shouted irately. “Right now!”
Chopper rocketed over to the platform terminal and plugged into the terminal. After a few moments, the astromech blatted negatively.
“He says that all conveyor controls are locked down,” Sabine translated for the others.
Ezra groaned in exasperation, “So unlock them!”
Chopper blatted another remark and Sabine sighed as well.
“He says that all controls have been overridden from the control tower.”
She pointed at the monolithic sphere of a station, indicating a wide, curving bank of windows near the top.
Ezra’s face grew dark with anger.
“Fine,” he said heavily, “Sabine, you and Rex stay here with the Y-Wings. As soon as I get the mag-clamps unlocked, you get the bombers flying. Zeb, you stay with the Phantom in case we need a quick getaway.”
He turned to Hondo, “Hondo, you know the most about this station. You come with me and help me find the control center.”
The Weequay laughed merrily, “Yes, of course partner. Let’s go!”
Ezra’s dark expression lightened. He could always count on his friend.
The young man dashed off down the long platform towards the main station, Hondo keeping surprisingly well for such an old man.
Passing through a short tunnel, the Rebel and the Pirate reached a tall bulkhead leading up to the main station. The only way up from the platform was a small, metal ladder. As Hondo moved towards the ladder, Ezra put a hand on the Weequay’s shoulder.
“Hold on,” Ezra cautioned, “Let me go first.”
Standing a few meters before the ladder, he concentrated for a moment, summoning his rage.
Do not let your rage be your chain. Uncontrolled rage will transform you into a raving monster. You must reserve your anger for times when you can profit from it.
Reaching back into his mind, Ezra recalled his most angry memories.
Kanan’s weary figure, his face covered by an old tarnish mask, concealing the evidence of Maul’s treachery.
Ahsoka, her last act to Force push him out of the Temple, leaving her trapped in the Sith Temple with Vader.
His parents, cringing back in their cell from the Imperial stormtroopers.
Anger burned in his heart like a roiling furnace. Seizing that rage, Ezra tapped into the Force, calling to the great energy that suffused all life, pulling it into him. He felt more alive than he ever had, with sheer raw power running through his veins like electricity. He felt powerful, invincible. He could do anything.
Conveying the power into his legs, supercharging his muscles, Ezra leapt upwards with all his strength. The ground grew far away beneath his feet and he quickly realized that he’d underestimated the power he’d channeled. He shot six meters above the top of the bulkhead, and quickly twisted his body in a forward somersault as Kanan had taught him.
The motion carried him through the air, and as he plummeted back downwards, he came out of the somersault to land in a crouch, sending a pulse of Force power into the deck to cushion his landing. Coming to his feet in a single swift motion, Ezra dashed forward into the main hangar of the station. Rushing at him from the opposite direction came a squad of four white-armored stormtroopers, their black E-11 blaster rifles raised and aimed directly at him.
Quickening his pace, Ezra snatched his lightsaber off his belt and gripping the weapon in a firm two-handed grip, ignited the blade with a snap-hiss. A brilliant, solid beam of emerald energy sprouted from the weapon’s hilt, humming with controlled power.
Coming into range, the stormtroopers opened fire rapidly, sending a flurry of crimson blaster bolts at the young Jedi. Sweeping his blade up, Ezra wove the shining emerald sword in a blindingly fast set of parries, settling into the Soresu form of lightsaber combat that Kanan had taught him.
Form III emphasized defense above all else, and in his two years of Jedi training, Ezra had grown quite adept at blaster deflection. The crimson packets of lethal energy bounced off the glowing blade and ricocheted back towards the troopers. Most of the rebounds missed the troopers narrowly, caroming off the deck or sailing up into the rafters the hangar. Spinning his blade, Ezra continued to deflect the oncoming barrages and with a twist of his wrists, sent a pair of scarlet bolts flying right back at the trooper that had fired them. Both shots hit him right in the chest, leaving a black smoking hole in the gleaming white armor and dropping him to the deck with a loud clatter.
The three remaining stormtroopers hesitated for a single moment as their comrade fell, and in that moment Ezra moved. Deflecting another volley, the young Jedi charged ahead and leapt high, crossing the distance between himself and the troopers in a single swift bound. The armored soldiers shifted their aim hastily, but the Jedi moved too fast for them to react in time.
Landing directly in front of one of the troopers, Ezra brought his lightsaber down in an overhand strike that split the soldier in half from crown to thigh. The struck trooper fell to the deck in two pieces and a sickly-sweet smell of charred flesh filled the room. Feeling momentarily nauseated, Ezra threw himself into another leap at the two remaining troopers who were firing continuously.
Coming down beside the leftmost stormtrooper, Ezra swept his saber up in a lateral slash that tore through the man’s torso, dropping him to the floor. The last trooper locked his rifle on Ezra and opened fire unceasingly, sending a flurry of scarlet high-energy bolts at him. Twirling his blade one-handed, Ezra swatted the oncoming fire aside, blocking bolts that came at his torso and twisting easily out of the way of those that came close.
Gathering the Force, Ezra thrust out his left hand and made a swiping motion, seizing the trooper’s rifle in a mental grip and tearing it from his black-gloved hands with all his strength. The weapon flew out of the man’s grip as if grabbed by an invisible hand and flew across the wide hangar, clattering to the deck a dozen meters away.
The trooper took a step back, the Force reverberating with his shock as he raised his hands in a feeble defense. Narrowing his eyes in hatred, Ezra leapt forward and in a single fluid motion thrust his emerald lightsaber through the trooper’s chestplate, running him through. The soldier began to go slack and Ezra withdrew his weapon swiftly, letting the stormtrooper drop to the floor with a loud thud.
For a moment, the only sound in the deserted hangar was the thrum of Ezra’s lightsaber. Then, a loud clapping sound began to echo from behind the young man. Ezra spun with preternatural speed to face the sound and then relaxed.
Standing at the edge of the hangar was Hondo, the old pirate clapping his hands together, a look of amazement on his leathery features.
“Well done, Ezra my boy!” the Weequay exclaimed.
“I haven’t seen Jedi magic like that since the Clone Wars!”
Dousing his lightsaber, Ezra grinned at his friend, embarrassed by his praise.
“Thanks, Hondo,” he said warmly.
Then his expression grew serious again, “Come on, we’ve got to get to the control room.”
“Ah yes,” Hondo said, his face growing grave, “But I am an old man, Ezra. I cannot keep up with you all the way to the top.”
His face grew pensive, “I will stay here in the hangar and slice into the Imperial schematics. Then, I can guide you right to the control tower!”
Ezra considered it and then nodded.
“Great, I’ll head up then.”
With that, the young Jedi dashed across the hangar, heading for the far set of blast doors.
“Alright partner,” came Hondo’s voice from Ezra’s wrist comlink, “You’re almost at the control center. It’s just down the hallway.”
“Thanks, Hondo,” Ezra replied, “I’ll call you back once I’ve shut down the mag-locks!”
He cut the call and was about to move down the hallway when his wrist comm chimed again, flashing with the three-tone alert that was reserved for Phoenix Command. Grimacing in annoyance, Ezra clicked the device on and immediately heard Hera’s voice crackling into the air.
“Spectre Six, you missed check-in,” the Twi’lek Captain said in the weary voice of a long-suffering mother.
Glancing ahead at the empty hallway ahead, Ezra spoke.
“The mission changed, Hera,” he said quickly, keeping his voice steady.
“The Y-Wings were being dismantled and I decided that we had to act fast before they were all gone.”
“Ezra, that wasn’t your-”
“I made a command decision,” Ezra yelled, cutting her off.
For a second nothing was audible but the faint connection static of the comm. Ezra had never spoken to Hera that way before and a part of him was mortified at having spoken so sharply to a woman who had been a second mother to him. The other part, though, the part that had been listening to the words of a Sith Holocron for six months won out.
“I saw an opportunity to recover a dozen-plus operational starfighters for our fleet and I took it. Sabine and the others are getting them ready for flight now. I’m on my way to deactivate the mag-locks and then we’ll all be gone.”
The dead silence reigned for a few more seconds, then Hera’s voice crackled out again.
“The rest of the fleet is scrambling right now. We’ll be there soon. Make sure the fighters are ready to go.”
The comlink beeped with an end-call chime and the device went silent.
Ezra stared at the comm for a moment and a faint trace of trepidation tingling along his spine at the post-mission debriefing that would inevitably come. Shaking his head to clear away the distracting thoughts, Ezra focused his gaze on the door at the far end of the hallway.
Doubt is a contagion. Hesitation a weakness. Choose and act!
Even in the middle of a mission, the words of the Sith Holocron kept coming back to him.
Stepping towards the heavy blast door that sealed the command center off from the rest of the station, Ezra glanced around, his blue eyes taking in all the details.
His keen gaze was able to pick out a single, well-concealed cam positioned above the entrance. Moving in a blur, the young Jedi snatched his heavy DL-44 blaster pistol off his belt, took aim at the cam and sent a trio of high-energy blaster bolts into the surveillance device.
As the cam sparked and fizzled, Ezra plunged his mind deep into the Force, commanding the great energy to do his bidding. Feeling the invisible power humming through him, he reached out and seized the two heavy blast doors in the Force and pulled them apart.
The solid durasteel groaned and creaked under the young man’s assault, but held steady, not moving. Frowning, Ezra paused for a moment, considering the doors and then his eyes lit up in understanding. Releasing his Force grip, he plucked his lightsaber off his belt, ignited the brilliant viridescent blade and slashed it through the center of the doors in a single smooth motion.
Keeping his blade ignited, Ezra lowered the weapon and grabbed the doors with the Force again and pushed at them with all his might. The sturdy metal screeched in protest and this time, with the central locking mechanism destroyed, the durasteel slabs slid back, leaving the entrance unblocked.
A pair of stormtroopers came into sudden view and opened fire immediately. Ezra reacted even greater swiftness, bringing his humming lightsaber back up in guard stance. The verdant blade spun and twisted, sending the crimson energy darts right back to their source, hitting both stormtroopers in the stomach and throat, knocking them to the floor with a loud clatter.
Leaping forward, Ezra charged into the command, center, blade raised. Glancing around once, he saw no additional troopers, just a handful of olive-uniformed officers, all unarmed. The officers all stared at the humming energy blade in the young man’s hands and began to back away from him in fear. Ignoring the unarmed men who were now running towards the exit, Ezra looked to the main console at the far end of the room and spotted a single black-uniformed man.
A blaster pistol appeared in the man’s hand and he opened fire. Twirling the lightsaber casually, Ezra deflected the first few shots harmlessly into the walls, and when the officer kept firing, he angled his blade and deflected the next shot into the man’s knee.
A pained howl filled the large chamber and the officer fell to his knees, grasping his injured leg, his blaster falling to the floor beside him. Deactivating his lightsaber, Ezra hooked the weapon on his belt and flicked his fingers, sending the discarded weapon rattling across the chamber with a Force pull.
Advancing on the wounded officer, Ezra got a glimpse of his face and a genuine grin of recognition blossomed on his face.
“You?” he asked incredulously, recognizing the man as the Admiral that had commanded the Interdictor cruiser that he’d destroyed over a year ago.
“Last time I saw you, you were in charge of a top-secret Star Destroyer. Now you run a junkyard?”
The blond-haired Admiral glared up at Ezra through his agony.
“Rebel scum,” he snarled, “Your plans are ruined. I have already locked down the main computer and alerted the Imperial Sector Fleet. They’ll be here any minute to crush you and your friends while you struggle uselessly to unlock those antique bombers.”
The humor faded from Ezra’s features and his face grew dark with anger.
“That was a mistake,” he snarled, and gripping the Admiral’s body with the Force, pulled him to his feet, pinning him against the console, which creaked and bent against the pressure.
Staring into the man’s blue eyes, Ezra summoned all the power he could and reached out to touch the officer’s mind.
“You will unlock the bombers,” he said, pressing down on the man’s mind, compelling him to obey.
“I will not,” the black-clad Admiral replied, “I am an officer of the Imperial Navy. I will never betray my oath!”
The rage that had been simmering beneath the surface of Ezra’s thoughts for the last year, began to boil hotter. Reaching with his anger, he drew more Force power into him, demanding that the great energy do his bidding.
Seizing the Admiral’s mind with renewed strength, he repeated his command.
“You will unlock the bombers!”
The Admiral’s smooth feature twisted in pain at the mental pressure and he howled.
Ezra grew even angrier and pressed on the Imperial’s mind with all his power, squeezing and pushing the man to do one thing.
“You will unlock the bombers,” Ezra repeated a third time, feeling the power of the Force flowing through him like he’d felt on Anaxes and Malachor.
He felt powerful.
He felt invincible.
He could do anything.
He would prevail.
“You will unlock the bombers,” Ezra said for the fourth time, “And you will do it now!”
The black-uniformed officer let out a single tortured scream that abruptly broke off as he went completely limp, collapsing against the console, his eyes completely glassy.
Ezra took an involuntary step back, shock suffusing his being.
“I will unlock the bombers,” the officer said in an utterly emotionless tone.
Moving slowly, almost robotically, he turned and tapped at the main console for a few moments. Green lights flashed on the console and a moment later, Ezra’s comlink crackled to life.
“Ezra, you did it,” Sabine cried jubilantly, “The Y-Wings are all unlocked.”
Unable to take his eyes off the now-motionless Imperial, Ezra managed to reply distractedly.
“G-g-good,” he said shakily, “Get them flying and head for space.”
“What about you?” Sabine asked.
“I’ll grab the Phantom and see you topside,” he replied and ended the call.
He couldn’t take his eyes off the stationary officer. Reaching out with one hand, he grasped the man by the shoulder, turning him around and saw the completely blank expression affixed on his face. Raising his hand, Ezra waved it before the man’s blank gaze. The Admiral didn’t even blink.
He simply stared out at Ezra with blank blue eyes that showed no sign of intelligence.
Swallowing hard, Ezra managed to choke out a few words.
“H-hey, are you okay?
The officer didn’t say anything, his face utterly emotionless, eyes staring unblinkingly, jaw slack. A small trail of drool was beginning to appear at the corner of his mouth.
Ezra took a few shaky breaths and waved his hand in front of the Admiral’s face again. No response. Feeling unsettled, Ezra took a few steps backwards, releasing his mental hold on the Admiral. The man still stood there, showing no signs of life other than the rise and fall of his chest.
A chilling sensation creeping up his spine. He had done that. He had destroyed a person’s mind.
A living, breathing being.
A man with hopes, dreams, friends, family
Ezra suddenly felt very sick, bile rising in his throat, his mouth feeling completely dry. A revolting sensation rose in his chest and he abruptly bent over and vomited, the contents of his stomach spilling onto the metal deck. The young man vomited again and again, until there was nothing but dry heaves coming from his throat.
Scrambling away from the mess on all fours, Ezra took deep, gasping breaths, his mouth tasting foul.
Finding his feet beneath him, Ezra got to his feet shakily. He kept his gaze on the featureless metal beneath him, unable to look back. Taking a few deeper breaths, the young man managed to take a few steps forward, stumbling out of the room.
Fear and disgust, terror and remorse all filled his head. Tears welled up in his eyes, he suddenly felt utterly sad and very dirty. Blinking away the tears, Ezra took a single deep, cleansing breath, drawing on the Force for calm.
It didn’t bring him calm, but he did feel stronger. His legs no longer shook and he stood up straighter. Taking another breath, Ezra ran from the control center, dashing as fast as he could. With every step, he took away from the scene, he felt his fear and remorse grow a bit smaller.
He had done the right thing, he told himself. He was a soldier, fighting in a war. He was fighting to stop the Empire that killed thousands of innocents every day.
He had done the right thing.
Ezra Bridger raced down the metal hallways and didn’t look back once.
Twilight was falling on Atollon once again. The orange sun was sliding towards the distant horizon, painting the entire landscape in a dusky light. Beneath the fading light, on the primary landing field of Chopper Base, a pair of figures quarrelled.
“You disobeyed orders!” Hera shouted, her green head-tail lekku twitching as she spoke.
“The mission was for recon, not retrieval.”
Ezra stood his ground, squaring his shoulders. His cheeks were still pale from his dismay aboard Reklam Station, but his eyes were hard with resolve.
“I had command of the mission,” he replied in an angry tone, “And I used my judgment to change the objective.”
Hera blew out a breath in exasperation.
“Ezra, you acted directly against orders. This is serious.”
Ezra clenched his fist and glared at Hera.
“If I had completed recon and returned to base, all the Y-Wings would have been demolished. There would have been nothing left for us to recover.”
Hera opened her mouth to respond but Ezra cut her off, continuing his tirade.
“This mission was a success!” he shouted.
“We didn’t lose any people or ships, and we recovered thirteen functioning Y-Wings.”
“Ezra,” Hera began.
“I agree,” another voice called out.
Both Ezra and Hera turned around to see another figure standing near the edge of the landing platform. The man strode towards them, his greying black hair barely visible in the dimming sunlight.
“Commander Sato,” Hera said, saluting the commander of Phoenix Squadron. Ezra saluted as well, straightening up to his full height.
“Captain Syndulla,” Sato greeted, “Lieutenant Commander Bridger.”
He gestured for them to be at ease and Hera took that as permission to speak her mind again.
“Commander, I have to express my concerns about Lieutenant Commander Bridger’s performance on this mission. He disobeyed orders and undertook unauthorized actions.”
Sato gave Ezra a measuring look, his brown eyes sweeping over the young man.
“I share your frustration with Commander Bridger’s unorthodox methods,” he began. But as Hera started to reply, he raised a flat hand, forestalling her next comment.
“But, I cannot deny their effectiveness.”
Turning towards the landing field, Sato gestured to the thirteen Y-Wings that were scattered across the wide expanse.
“We have these ships solely because Commander Bridger showed initiative and determination.”
Sato fixed Ezra with a stern look, with a hint of warmth in his auburn eyes.
“Well done, Commander Bridger. Keep up the good work.”
Ezra grinned broadly and saluted again.
“Thank you, sir! I will.”
Sato spun on his heel and strode off the landing pad, leaving the Ghost crew alone in the fading twilight.
Hera gave Ezra an inscrutable look, then turned and left without another word, shaking her head in disappointment.
Ezra watched after her leaving, a cold sliver of remorse stabbing through his heart.
“Well done, young Jedi,” Zeb remarked from behind him. The Lasat clapped Ezra on the shoulder as he walked past him, towards the Chopper Base facilities.
Sabine and Rex followed him, the latter giving Ezra an approving nod, with the former ignoring him entirely.
As his friends walked away from him, Ezra Bridge turned his gaze to the horizon and watched the Atollon sun sink beneath the horizon, plunging the desert into darkness.
The swirling blue-white of hyperspace fell away into the pitch-black of realspace and with a heavy jolt, the CR90 corvette Peacemaker dropped into reality. On the command deck of the corvette, Ezra Bridger stared out at the scene that lay before them with a mixed look of shock and rage on his youthful features.
Drifting in space a few dozen meters ahead of them was an orange-and-white Hammerhead-class corvette. One of the three that had been surreptitiously donated to Phoenix Squadron by Senator Bail Organa, the ship had a solid cylindrical body with a powerful array of engines mounted at the rear and a second vertical cylinder mounted at the fore, which served as the vessel’s command center. Very durable and fast, the Hammerheads were the workhorses of Phoenix Squadron and could soak up massive amounts of damage.
As was the case with the Beldon.
The warship was drifting in space, over a dozen black scorch marks scattered across it’s hull from where enemy ships had blasted through it’s armor. Its weapons emplacements had been blasted clean off and none of the corvette’s engines were functioning. Pale wisps of smoke curled up from numerous spots, burning up the vessel’s precious supply of oxygen.
Ezra’s blue eyes narrowed at the sight, imagining how many brave men and women had perished in the attack. He clenched a green-gloved fist and slammed it against his command console.
“Someone is going to pay for this,” he muttered in a low tone.
“Sir,” one of the bridge crew spoke up, “We’re detecting one life-sign aboard. It’s very faint, but it’s still there.”
“Bring us alongside,” Ezra ordered hastily, “And extend the portside docking tube!”
Leaping up from his command chair, the young man turned to the officer that was manning the corvette’s main sensor suite.
“Alcan, you’ve got basic medic training, don’t you?”
The blonde-haired officer nodded in affirmation.
“Yes, sir,” he replied.
“Grab a kit from the medstation and meet me at the port airlock!”
Alcan rose from his station and dashed off the command deck.
Turning to the rest of his crew, Ezra issued a command to keep watch for any lingering enemy ships, and then hurried off to the airlock.
A few moments later he heard the click of the connecting docking tube and his comlink crackled.
“Docking tube secure, sir,” one of the bridge officers said over the comm, “Sensor confirm air pressure is steady on the Beldon.”
“Good work,” Ezra replied, “Keep monitoring sensors until I get back. If the enemy is still around, I don’t want them to catch us off guard the way they did the Beldon.”
Signing off, Ezra turned toward Alcan, who held a white medkit in one hand and his standard-issue DH-17 blaster pistol in the other.
“Stay behind me,” Ezra ordered the medic, “We don’t know what kind of condition the ship is in.”
Snapping his lightsaber off his belt, Ezra held it loosely in his right hand and with his left he activated the airlock door. The metal door whooshed open and the young commander strode down the narrow docking tube, coming to the other side. The door was sealed, but Ezra had the access codes for the vessel and inputted them. The door slid open and the scent of acrid smoke and burnt flesh filled Ezra’s nostrils immediately.
Stepping over the threshold, he reached out with the Force, sweeping his awareness over the entire ship. To his dismay, he sensed only a very faint trace of life, with an undertone of anguish and death permeating the Force like a cold fog sweeping over a bright morning sky. Wrinkling his nose at the foul smells, Ezra picked his way through the metallic wreckage that obstructed the main corridor, Alcan staying well behind him as ordered.
Spotting a pair of bodies ahead dressed in the leather jerkin of Phoenix Troopers, Ezra charged forward and bent over the motionless figures, pressing a pair of fingers to the nearest man’s neck. There was no pulse. Reaching over to the other man, Ezra was feeling for signs of life when he heard a low groan coming from one of the side cabins. Detecting no life in the second trooper, the young man got to his feet and hurried into the adjoining chamber.
This room was particularly dark, a sign of the rapidly fading power cells on the Beldon, and Ezra had to squint to see the source of the noise. Lying on the deck near the back of the room was another Phoenix Trooper, clad in a similar leather uniform. A blaster pistol lay discarded next to him and his bloody hands were clutching a blackened wound on his lower abdomen.
Dashing over to him, Ezra crouched next to the trooper, recognizing him as one of the newest recruits to the squadron. A shorter-than-average man of light complexion and muscular build, his name was Vairn. A native of Agamar, Vairn’s entire family had been sold into Imperial slavery when his father couldn’t pay the increased import taxes for his business. The young man had been liberated from his owners during one of Ezra’s first solo missions after Malachor.
Ezra gave Vairn a quick once-over. The older man’s fair face was twisted in a pained grimace, his skin was deathly pale and his dark brown hair was plastered against his forehead by cold sweat.
“Vairn,” Ezra exclaimed, pressing his hand to the injured man’s wound to keep the pressure on and the blood in.
“Hey buddy, stay with us. Help’s here!”
Vairn groaned in obvious pain, “Commander?” he managed to rasp in surprise.
“Don’t try to talk,” Ezra said genially. Turning his head behind him, he shouted into the hallway.
“Alcan, get over here, I found a survivor!”
The blonde medic sprinted over to them and dropped to a knee, pulling open his medkit. Withdrawing a disinfectant spray, Alcan positioned it over Vairn’s belly wound, pulling his leather tunic up to expose the blackened hole.
“This is going to hurt,” the medic warned.
Grabbing his comrade’s hand, Ezra squeezed comfortingly. Vairn howled in pain as Alcan doused the entire wound with the harsh spray. Grabbing a medium-sized bacta patch from the medkit, Alcan peeled off the protective backing and, positioning it carefully, pressed the medicinal seal against Vairn’s wound, holding it against the scorched puncture. The injured trooper let out a moan of alleviation as the healing properties of the bacta patch began to numb and treat the gaping burn.
“He’s going to live,” Alcan said, sighing in relief.
“Good work,” Ezra remarked, clapping the medic on the shoulder.
Leaning over Vairn, the young Jedi gazed into his comrade’s relaxing eyes.
“Vairn, who did this? Do you know who attacked you?”
Vairn took a deep, pained breath.
“It…it happened so fast,” he said, his voice going distant as he recalled the brutal attack.
“It was a starfighter type that I’ve never seen before,” he continued, “It was just too fast for us. They blew our weapons apart and disabled our engines. Then he boarded.”
Ezra’s brow furrowed in thought, “Who was it, Vairn? Pirates?”
Vairn shook his head, “It was just one being, that I saw, anyways. The power was out, so we could barely see him. But we did see his weapon.”
One of his hands rose shakily and pointed to the black cylinder that hung from Ezra’s belt.
“It was a laser-sword. Like yours. But this one was red.”
Ezra’s blood ran cold at this revelation.
“It’s another Inquisitor!” he exclaimed in astonishment.
“He killed all the others,” Vairn grunted, his hands going back to his sealed wound.
“Don’t touch it,” Alcan cautioned, gently pushing Vairn’s hands away from the freshly treated gash.
Turning to Ezra, the medic added, “Commander, he needs real medical treatment. We need to get him back to the Peacemaker.”
Ezra nodded, “Okay, Alcan. I can move him, if he’s stable.”
“The red blade,” Vairn ground out, “He did something to me.”
Ezra’s blue eyes darted back to his comrade.
“Got into my mind. Made me tell him where the Ghost was.”
Ezra’s eyes widened and he scrambled to his feet.
“I’ve got to warn Hera!” he exclaimed. Turning to Alcan, he added, “I’ll send some more men to help you carry him back. The medic nodded his assent and Ezra dashed out of the cabin, racing along the corridor into the docking tube, charging towards the Peacemaker’s bridge.
Bursting through the bridge hatchway, Ezra darted to the comm station.
“Get me the Ghost,” he ordered, “Now!”
The comm officer hastily complied, and a few moments later the main holo-pod hummed to life.
“I have the Ghost for you, sir,” the comm officer said.
A blue-tinted, half-sized hologram of Hera shimmered into existence. She was dressed in her customer orange overalls and there was a sad look emblazoned on her green Twi’lek features.
“Hera!” Ezra blurted out, “Am I glad to see you!”
The Twi’lek pilot didn’t say anything in response, but Ezra continued, “I’ve got urgent news. There’s another Inquisitor after me, and he knows where the Ghost is!”
Hera shook her head morosely, “Ezra, it’s not an Inquisitor.”
An arm slid into view and shoved her aside as another figure stepped into the holocam’s view. A very familiar figure. With a red-and-black tattooed face, acid yellow eyes and a bare skull crowned with short, sharp horns, the man resembled a demonic figure from ancient mythology.
“No,” Ezra breathed in horror.
“Just an old friend,” Maul drawled, “Hello apprentice.”
Fury coursed through Ezra’s veins, a hot burning rage that filled him with a tense power.
“You!” he shouted angrily.
Maul chuckled in amusement, “So pleasant to see you again, my apprentice.”
“You betrayed me!” Ezra snarled, his gloved hands curling into fists.
“No,” Maul said, a smirk dancing over his demonic features, “I betrayed your friends. I would have remained loyal to you.”
Ezra gave the former Sith Lord a hateful glare, his blue eyes burning with a fiery anger.
“What do you want from my friends?” he demanded.
“Oh nothing,” Maul replied lightly, “Nothing at all. But I do want something from you, my apprentice.”
Ezra’s shoulders tensed at the unwelcome title.
“The Sith Holocron that we took from the Temple on Malachor. Bring it to me.”
Ezra paused, considering. He had the Holocron with him, in his private cabin aboard the Peacemaker. His original mission had been expected to last for over a week and he’d wanted to continue his training in his downtime. But he didn’t want to surrender the Holocron to Maul. The artifact had taught him so much already, and the Presence kept holding back knowledge, implying there were many more powers that Ezra could learn.
“I don’t have it,” he lied, “I lost it in the Temple explosion.”
Maul gave Ezra a cruel smile, baring his yellowed teeth in a mocking expression.
“How unfortunate,” he reached out with one hand and yanked Hera back into view and with the other, he brought his double-bladed lightsaber up, pointing the curved end directly at Hera’s head.
“Because, if that is true,” his gloved finger rested on the lightsaber’s activation stud, “Then your friends have no future.”
Ezra froze, his jaw going slack.
Maul smirked and his finger began to press down on the stud.
“Wait, wait!” Ezra blurted out, “I’ve got the Holocron with me!”
Maul grinned in triumph, his fierce eyes gleaming.
“I’ll give it to you if you promise not to hurt my friends.”
“I give you my word,” Maul said, pressing his hand against his chest, affecting a tone of sincerity.
Ezra felt a fresh wave of anger at the obvious mockery, but didn’t reply.
“I will meet you at these coordinates,” Maul said, and rattled off a navigational string.
Ezra quickly committed the location to memory and Maul gave him one last mocking grin.
“Don’t keep me waiting, Apprentice.”
The hologram vanished in a flash of blue light.
Ezra let out a growl of frustration and slammed his fist into the nearest console, hitting it so hard that he left a large dent in the metal.
“Get my fighter ready,” he ordered the bridge crew.
“Once I’m away, tow the Beldon back to Chopper Base for repairs. Tell Commander Sato that the Ghost was captured by the enemy Force-wielder that Kanan and I encountered on Malachor.”
“Sir, we should come with you,” one of the officers replied.
“No,” Ezra said decisively, his finger jabbing sideways at the damaged corvette that was docked with their ship
“You saw what Maul did to one of our cruisers and it’s crew. None of you would stand a chance against him.”
His fingers brushed against the black hilt of his lightsaber, hanging from his utility belt.
“It has to be me.”
The same officer looked at Ezra and saluted.
“May the Force with you, sir.”
Ezra returned the salute, then spun on his heel and left the bridge. Stopping at his cabin, he retrieved the Sith Holocron and then made his way to the cargo hold. Inside, rested a single A-Wing starfighter, it’s hull painted orange and yellow in tribute to Ezra’s customary outfit.
“She’s all ready for you, Commander Bridger,” the Peacemaker’s mechanic said.
“Thanks,” Ezra replied and quickly climbed into the cockpit. Settling at the controls, he strapped in and sealed the transparisteel canopy. By then the mechanic had retreated from the hold and a moment later Ezra heard his voice crackle over the ship’s comm.
“Commander Bridger, you’re cleared for departure. Opening the cargo hold now.”
Retracting the fighter’s landing gear, Ezra activated the A-Wing’s repulsors and it hovered in mid-air. Beneath it, the cargo hold deck retracted in the middle and slid apart in four different sections. Grabbing the throttle, Ezra shoved it down and the starfighter shot downwards, leaving the Peacemaker’s hold and diving into deep space.
The blackness of space filled Ezra’s view and he brought the ship around towards the heading Maul had provided. Entering the coordinates into the navicomputer, he pulled back on the lightspeed lever. The A-Wing lurched forward and the blue-white tunnel of hyperspace materialized around Ezra.
The A-wing dropped out of hyperspace with a rattle and the blue-white tunnel disappeared. Glancing out of his cockpit, Ezra saw an extensive field of asteroids ahead. Gunning the throttle, he brought the fighter closer to the field, scanning his sensors for a navigation beacon of any kind.
Finding none, he let go of the sensor panel and closed his eyes, letting himself fall into the Force. Calming his mind the way Kanan had taught him, Ezra let the Great Energy surround him and guide him. Eyes still closed, he grasped the pilot’s yoke and turned it starboard. Feeling the starfighter change course, Ezra continued to remain in his trance and felt a sudden compunction to accelerate. Trusting his Force instinct, he pushed down on the throttle and the A-Wing surged forward. Letting the ship fly, Ezra stayed immersed in the Force, feeling calm, calmer than he had felt in months.
It occurred to him that he hadn’t used his anger to summon the Force to him for this task. The technique for locating something hidden through Force guidance was a Jedi one that Kanan had shown him and was one of the few Jedi abilities that the Sith Holocron hadn’t spoken about. As he pondered that, the A-Wing’s proximity alarms began to blare and Ezra snapped his eyes open to see a large asteroid hanging before him in the distance and growing larger with each second.
Unlike the other metallic rocks that drifted in this system, this asteroid, long, narrow and curving had clear signs of sentient occupancy. A trio of large hangar bays had been carved out of the asteroid’s external surface, at the central dip of the U-shaped terrene. Maneuvering the A-Wing towards the center hangar, Ezra spotted a large starfighter of unfamiliar design docked at one of the airlock ports beneath the hangar’s magcon field.
As he tried to mentally place the vessel’s class he noticed the red-and-black paint job on the fighter and it clicked that this was the ship Maul had used to attack the Beldon. The A-Wing slid through the faint blue haze of the hangar’s containment field and as Ezra looked around for a place to land the fighter, he spotted a very familiar VCX-100 light freighter parked on the far side of the hangar.
Ezra’s eyes darted over the Ghost’s exterior as he completed his landing sequence and was pleased to see that there were no obvious signs of damage on the freighter as there had been with the Hammerhead. The Ghost wasn’t just a ship to Ezra. It was his home, the only home he’d known in the years since he’d abandoned his tower refuge on Lothal.
Popping the canopy on his fighter, Ezra climbed out onto the surface of the starfighter, the Sith Holocron secure in his hip-pouch. Staring out across the wide hangar, he spotted a tall, dark-attired figure standing near the Ghost. A figure with a red-and-black tattooed face.
His whole body tensing with anger, Ezra quickly leapt off the fighter and landed on the deck. Squaring his shoulder, he stalked over to Maul, his hand hovering near the hilt of his lightsaber. As he approached the former Sith Lord, Ezra took in Maul’s appearance. The Zabrak had replaced the dark rags he’d worn on Malachor with a simple black tunic. His matte-black mechanical legs seemed much more robust and gleamed in the bright overhead hangar lights. His lightsaber hung from a hook on his belt and his yellow eyes gazed at Ezra with cunning malice.
“Welcome, my young apprentice,” Maul said as Ezra drew closer, his gaze focused on the small brown pouch at Ezra’s hip.
“I trust you found the Sith Holocron illuminating?”
Ezra glared at the Dark-Sider, “Where are my friends?”
An amused smile crossed Maul’s tattooed visage.
“All in good time, my young apprentice. All in good time.”
Ezra shook with rage at the condescending dismissal and he began to reach out to the Force with his burning anger, calling to the Great Energy, demanding that it suffuse him. He felt the familiar electric surge of invisible power flow into him, sharpening his senses and strengthening his body.
“No!” he shouted.
Maul raised a single eyebrow at the enraged outburst.
Ezra entire body trembled with his restrained anger and he gave the former Sith Lord a furious glower.
“You said you’d let my friends go if I brought you the Sith Holocron. So, take me to them. Now!”
Maul let out an amused laugh, the sound reverberating about the cavernous hangar.
“Your anger has made you bold, apprentice.”
His low, sibilant voice sounded somewhat impressed.
“But, you have forgotten that you are the Apprentice…and not the Master.”
Ezra paused for a single moment, wanting nothing more than to ignite his lightsaber and leap at Maul.
Reserve your anger for moments when you can profit from it.
Assuming a look of contrition that he had mastered over two years of Jedi apprenticeship, Ezra bowed his head.
“Forgive me, Master,” he said in what he knew was a very convincing tone of humility. Reaching down, he pulled the Sith Holocron out of his pocket and held it in front of him with both hands, as if presenting an offering to a king.
Maul smiled and took the Holocron from Ezra’s hands. The young man raised his head back up and saw the former Sith staring at the pyramid-shaped artifact, it’s translucent sides and golden edging gleaming in the hangar lights. Maul’s citrine eyes widened in awe and he ran his fingers along the ancient artifact.
Telling himself that Maul was distracted as he would ever be, Ezra reached out with all his anger, summoning every bit of energy he could muster and thrust both hands outwards, hurling all of his power in a single, concentrated telekinetic blast aimed straight at Maul.
The Zabrak was caught completely off-guard and was thrown backwards, as if struck by an invisible runaway speeder. Seizing the opportunity, the only opportunity he knew he’d get, Ezra snatched his lightsaber off his belt, ignited the brilliant emerald blade with a snap-hiss and leapt with all his might. Soaring through the air, Ezra aimed his leap to come down where Maul had come to a halt and brought his blade down in a double-handed strike at the downed Dark-Sider.
And missed completely. Maul moved from his prone position faster than Ezra thought possible, rolling well out of the lightsaber’s range. Swinging his lightsaber back up to guard, Ezra saw Maul spring to his feet in a single fluid motion and unhook his own lightsaber, the scarlet blade crackling to life with a chilling snap-hiss.
“Most impressive, apprentice,” Maul said, “Most impressive indeed.”
Ezra snarled in anger at the Zabrak’s seemingly unflappable demeanour and charged, his blade lifted high in the Djem So stance he’d learned from Kanan’s Jedi Holocron. Coming into range in seconds, Ezra slashed down hard with a two-handed strike that was the hallmark of Form V.
And missed again.
Maul ducked smoothly out of the way of Ezra’s furious attack, sidestepping the attack completely.
“You have power,” Maul allowed, his own weapon still hanging low at his side.
Ezra snarled and slashed again, this time laterally, hoping to cut Maul in half. The Zabrak simply took a single, long step backwards and the viridescent blade swung through empty air, hitting nothing. Summoning more power through his rage, Ezra rushed forward, weaving his blade in a three-move Shii-Cho attack pattern, striking low, then at Maul’s left shoulder and then thrusting straight ahead to impale the Dark-Sider.
Maul simply leapt over the first strike, sidestepped the second and then, with sudden speed, deflected the third, knocking Ezra’s lightsaber back with a single, brutal parry.
“But you have no technique,” Maul said with a more serious note in his voice now, “Do not worry, my apprentice. I will remedy that deficiency in time.”
And then he moved, advancing on Ezra with his scarlet blade raised in an attack stance that Ezra had never seen before. Taking a step backwards, Ezra raised his lightsaber in the Form III Soresu style that Kanan had shown him, and then shifted his blade hastily as Maul attacked.
The former Sith moved with such speed and agility that Ezra could barely react in time. Maul slashed at Ezra’s legs and the young Jedi swung his blade down to deflect the strike and stumbled as Maul withdrew his blade in a blur and slashed at Ezra’s right shoulder. The Padawan spun away, barely evading the super-heated energy blade’s bite.
A smirk crossed Maul’s face and he continued to advance.
“This game has been amusing,” the Zabrak allowed, “But we have places to go, apprentice, and things to do.”
With a flick of his wrist, Maul activated his lightsaber’s second blade and held the double-bladed weapon before him in both hands.
Ezra took another step back and tried not to panic. He’d faced this kind of weapon before and had managed to hold his own. As if he could sense Ezra’s fear, Maul let out a single, cruel laugh. Then he charged.
Moving with an agile fluidity that Ezra couldn’t hope to match, Maul twirled his blade a few times and attacked, striking low again. Ezra swung his blade to block and Maul spun his weapon striking up at Ezra’s chest. The young man moved his blade to block as fast as he could, and Maul spun his body and slashed at Ezra’s face. The Padawan swung his blade up to parry and hit nothing as Maul withdrew with incredible speed and slashed a long, shallow gash along Ezra’s right thigh.
“Aghhhh!” the boy screamed, nearly dropping his saber in pain. Maul twirled his blade and before Ezra could master his pain to react, he swept the scarlet blade along Ezra’s right arm, slashing deeper this time and drawing the blade right up to Ezra’s wrist.
“Aghhhh!” Ezra howled again, this time dropping his saber completely and clutching at his injured arm in pain.
Drawing back, Maul lashed out with a single mechanical leg in an amazingly high kick, catching Ezra right in the jaw and sending his entire body flying up in the air. The young man’s teeth slammed together with extreme force and he felt something crack in his mouth. As he flew into the air, he felt an invisible force grab him and instead of falling back to the ground, he lay suspended in the air for a moment. Then he was hurled to the ground back-first with bone-cracking force.
Another yell of pain tore from his mouth and before he could cry out again, he was jerked up into the air by the invisible hand again, turned over and slammed down into the cold hard metal of the hangar deck. He felt something break in his mouth and then he was thrown into the air and hurled down one more time, with even more force than before. He heard something snap in his body and a fresh wave of agony tore through his frame.
He didn’t move again after that and the invisible hand seemed to have let him go. After a few moments, he felt a hard object slide under his chest and flip him over so he was staring up at the harsh bright lights in the hangar ceiling.
He tried to move, just a little bit, and felt fresh agony blossom all over his body. He could barely even move his limbs. He tasted something tangy and metallic in his mouth, which he recognized to be blood.
Maul’s tattooed face came into view above him, the cruel smirk gone from the Zabrak’s features, replaced with a sober expression.
“I trust, apprentice, that you have learned a valuable lesson about our partnership?”
Chapter 9: Chapter 9
Maul’s voice felt like it was coming from far, far away. When Ezra didn’t respond, Maul’s face grew angry again.
“I require an answer, apprentice!”
The old anger came rushing back through Ezra’s veins and he gathered a mouthful of blood and spat directly at Maul’s face. The Zabrak turned his face away for a moment and Ezra found the Force again, drawing power into his battered body. Somehow, he found the strength to stand, on legs that were probably fractured in more places than he wanted to know.
“This is my answer,” Ezra snarled, his finger fumbling at his belt for his lightsaber, but finding nothing.
Maul turned his head back to face Ezra, a mixture of blood and saliva running down his face.
“Looking for something, apprentice?” he asked mockingly. He raised his left hand, in which he held Ezra’s lightsaber in a tight grip.
Spitting at the former Sith Lord’s feet, Ezra reached to the holster on his left side and went to draw his blaster pistol. Then paused. He had fought enough blaster-wielding enemies to know that such weapons were all but useless against lightsaber-wielding foes.
“I will ask once more, apprentice. Do you understand the dynamics of our relationship?”
Maul fingered the activation stud of Ezra’s lightsaber.
“Or do you require further clarification?”
Clenching his teeth, of which he could feel several were very loose, Ezra just gave Maul a single curt nod.
“Yes,” he bit out, “Master.”
“Good,” Maul hissed slowly. He lowered the lightsaber and hooked it onto his belt, beside his own double-bladed weapon. His yellow eyes ran up and down Ezra’s battered form and he shook his head slightly.
“You disappoint me, Ezra Bridger,” he remarked coldly.
“I offered you an honest trade. The lives of your friends in exchange for the Sith Holocron.”
Ezra blinked at the words, shocked that Maul was still willing to trade.
“But I see now that you had no intention of honouring your word….” His voice trailed off.
“Such a shame.”
Panic rushed through Ezra like a fast-acting drug, his aches and pains fading away in the face of the renewed awareness of the danger awaiting his friends.
“Wait, wait,” he exclaimed, “We can still make the trade.” His fingers scrabbled at the pouch on his utility belt and found nothing. He had forgotten that he had already given Maul the Holocron! His eyes darted to the former Sith and saw the small red-and-gold pyramid gripped in his other hand.
“Unfortunately,” Maul replied smugly, “It seems you have nothing left to bargain with.”
His black-gloved fingers stroked the gold lattice of the Holocron slowly.
“And since that is the case,” his finger pressed the activation stud of Ezra’s lightsaber, the emerald blade humming to life.
“You and your friends’ usefulness has come to an end.”
The Nightbrother advanced on Ezra, raising the verdant blade to hover a centimeter from the young man’s throat.
Swallowing hard, Ezra kept his gaze fixed on Maul, trying not to look at the energy beam that hung terminally close.
“H-hold on,” he stammered, “There has to be something else I can give you.”
“Perhaps,” Maul allowed, “There is one thing you can give me in exchange for your friends’ lives.”
“What?” Ezra asked hastily, “Whatever it is, I’ll give it you. I promise!”
Maul’s visage hardened, his rage-filled eyes transfixed unblinkingly on Ezra.
Ezra blinked, “What? Me?”
“Yes,” Maul replied smoothly, his eyes dancing with amusement. He jabbed the humming lightsaber even closer to Ezra’s throat, so close that the young man could feel the heat of the weapon’s contained energy warm his skin.
“You will serve me as my loyal apprentice and I shall spare your friends’ lives.”
Ezra stared at Maul, at the humming energy blade that was a hairbreadth from slicing through his throat, at the former Sith’s hate-maddened eyes.
All of his being was screaming at him to refuse. There was no way he’d ever serve Maul after what the Nightbrother had done to Kanan. What he’d done to Ezra. How he’d tricked them all.
“That is the bargain I offer you, apprentice. Join me and stand by my side. And your friends will live.”
Ezra was silent for a long moment, his young mind weighing the two options before him. Then something broke inside him, and he nodded his head as fractionally as he could without touching the lightsaber’s terminal edge.
“I’ll join you,” he said in a shaky voice, “I’ll be your apprentice. Just let my friends go.”
His voice almost cracked at the last.
Maul’s fearsome visage seemed to soften for a split-second before returning to it’s hard countenance.
“Excellent,” the erstwhile Sith Lord said, and the verdant lightsaber blade retracted, vanishing into it’s black hilt.
“Ezra Bridger, do you swear to serve me loyally and faithfully?” Maul asked, clipping Ezra’s weapon to his belt again.
Ezra took a single, deep breath.
“Yes,” he answered.
“Then kneel and swear it,” Maul declared.
Gritting his teeth, Ezra sank to his knees and bowed his head.
“I swear to serve as your apprentice. Loyally and faithfully.”
“Good,” Maul purred, “Good. You are strong in the Force, my apprentice. Together, we shall destroy the Sith and their Empire.”
Ezra stared at the cold grey metal of the hangar deck, his electric blue eyes melancholy.
“Rise, my apprentice,” Maul commanded, “I’m certain your friends are most eager to be released.”
Ezra rose and as he did, Maul gestured towards the lowered boarding ramp of the Ghost.
“After you, apprentice.”
Ezra’s eyes darted to his lightsaber, still securely fastened to Maul’s belt. He knew better than to ask for it back.
Turning, his abused body screaming in protest, the young Rebel commander began to stride towards the ship that was his home.
Ascending the boarding ramp, Ezra came into the main hold of the ship and almost snarled in anger. Kneeling on the floor, hands cuffed behind their backs were Sabine, Zeb and Hera. Positioned behind them, were a trio of squat boxy-headed droids, an old-model blaster rifle gripped in each of their spindly arms.
“Good evening, Captain,” Maul said from behind Ezra, his voice rich and mocking.
“I trust you and your crew are well?”
There was no answer from Hera, except a small resigned sigh, barely audible.
“Leave us,” Maul said, to the three stubby droids. Warbling an incomprehensible reply, the droids spun on their low treads and slowly rolled out of the hold.
“I have brought you a visitor, Captain,” Maul continued.
“Hera?” Ezra asked tentatively, “Are you alright?”
The Twi’lek’s head rose in surprise and she turned back to look at him.
“Ezra?” she gasped.
Sabine and Zeb made similar noises of surprise and relief and Ezra took a step towards them. Only for a single red-and-black arm to dart out and grab him by the shoulder, keeping him firmly in place.
Shrugging off Maul’s restraining hand, Ezra spun to glare at his Master.
“You said you’d let them go!”
Maul gazed back at him, ochre eyes burning with a low anger. Then he turned back to the three kneeling prisoners and made a passive gesture with his hand. A series of clicks echoed in the hold and the three sets of restraints sprang open, falling to the metal deck with a clatter.
All three of Ezra’s friends slowly got to their feet, rubbing their wrists to get the circulation going again. Turning to face Maul and Ezra, they gave the two apprehensive and grateful looks. While Sabine and Zeb mostly looked relieved to be free and out of immediate danger, Hera had a concerned look on her green-skinned features.
“Ezra, what’s going on?” she asked warily.
Steeling himself, Ezra took one step forward, Maul maintaining his grip on the young man’s shoulder
“You’re all free,” he said slowly, “You can take the Ghost and go back to the Rebellion.”
Sabine gave him a confused look.
“You’re not coming with us?”
Ezra tried to speak but a hard lump formed in his throat and he just shook his head.
“Your young friend has made a noble sacrifice,” Maul interjected smoothly.
Hera’s eyes widened in surprise.
“Ezra, what is he talking about?” she asked uneasily, “What sacrifice?”
Ezra could barely meet her stare, her deep green eyes filled with love and concern for him. The way no one had looked at him since his mother had been taken by the Empire.
“I agreed to go with him,” he replied, in the bravest tone he could put on.
Hera’s mouth gaped open and Ezra could see something in her face that he had seen only once before.
“Ezra, no!” she cried out, “He’ll hurt you.”
“He’ll kill you!” Sabine shouted, her light brown eyes filled with outrage.
“Or worse,” Zeb added, shooting a deadly glare at Maul.
Ezra sighed and shook his head.
“You can’t change this,” he said sadly.
“You can’t!” he repeated, cutting Hera and Sabine off from whatever they were going to say.
“Look,” he said more calmly, “It was either this, or we would all die.”
Zeb glared at him now, the brawny Lasat’s shoulder squared.
“We could take him together,” he said, muscles tensing beneath violet fur.
Maul abruptly released Ezra’s arm and moved in a blur, so fast that Ezra could barely follow as he stepped behind him. He felt cold metal press against the back of his skull and he went completely still.
“You could try,” Maul said softly, pressing what had to be a lightsaber emitter-first against Ezra’s head.
“But your young friend would pay most dearly for your failure to accept his sacrifice.”
Hera and Sabine stared at the two of them in horror and Zeb’s posture slackened in defeat.
“Allow me to make this easy for you,” Maul continued, “You can respect my apprentice’s sacrifice and leave this place with your lives. Or you can continue to resist me and perish for your lack of vision.”
Ezra stood up straighter, ignoring the weight of the lightsaber at his head.
“Hera. Sabine. Zeb. Please, listen to him and go. Don’t worry about me. Just get out of here.”
Sabine and Zeb took a few, reluctant steps back but Hera stayed where she was.
“Ezra, we will find a way to save you. I promise.”
Ezra couldn’t say anything to that and just gave her weak smile.
The Twi’lek looked like she wanted to give him a hug, but, aware of the former Sith Lord standing directly behind Ezra, refrained. Instead she simply raised her hand in a traditional Twi’lek gesture for farewell.
Ezra returned the gesture and then felt the weight of the lightsaber behind him disappear. Then Maul seized him by the arm and spun him to face the exit.
“Come, my apprentice. It is time to take our leave.”
The two of them disembarked from the freighter and stood a short distance away. A few moments later the vessel began to hum with power as it’s engines powered up. Repulsorlifts hissed to life and the Ghost lifted off the hangar deck and hovered in place.
In the tail gun’s transparisteel turret Ezra saw a familiar figure appear. Sitting in the gunner’s seat, Sabine gazed at Ezra with sorrow. Raising her hand, she pressed it against the transparent material, her auburn eyes not leaving Ezra.
Ezra raised his hand as well, mirroring her posture in a final farewell.
“Goodbye” Sabine mouthed.
Reaching out with the Force, Ezra touched his friend’s familiar mind.
“Goodbye Sabine,” he projected without speaking.
The Mandalorian girl’s eyes widened at the telepathic message. Ezra had never spoken to her this way before; having been very wary of the power he’d first discovered inadvertently on an abandoned military base years ago. The Ghost’s engines roared fully to life and the vessel shot out of the hangar and into the blackness of space. Ezra continued to watch it, his eyes affixed on the ship that he had called home as it grew smaller and smaller, turning away only when the ship was no longer visible.
The hangar suddenly seemed eerily silent and Ezra was painfully aware of Maul’s hand still tightly clamped on his shoulder. It occurred to him that he was completely alone in a base with a man who could easily kill him, if he was so inclined.
Maul patted his shoulder in a mockery of comfort and released him.
“Let this loss fuel your anger, apprentice,” Maul said, his voice filled with something that sounded almost like sympathy.
“In time, you will learn that loss can strengthen you, if you let it.”
His tone grew distant, as if recalling something that happened long ago. Then he returned to himself, and reached down to remove Ezra’s lightsaber from his waist. Flipping the weapon over, he handed it to Ezra, hilt-first.
“Take your weapon, apprentice.”
After a moment’s hesitation, Ezra took it, clipping the black hilt to his utility belt.
“We have much to do, my apprentice,” Maul continued, turning towards the main blast doors that led deeper into the dimly-lit asteroid outpost.
The blast doors hissed open and Maul stepped through the shadowy entryway. For a long moment Ezra glanced around the desolate hangar. Then he strode towards the opening and followed Maul into the darkness.