Chapter 02

Northern hemisphere canyon, Gasarro

The vessel landed in the middle of the canyon. It was nightfall: the sun's deadly radiating rays gave the sky varying levels of green and purple while going darker. Jusik climbed down from his observation point on top of a cliff and something cracked under his boot: fragments of a hard black shell and yellow slime stuck to his sole as he sensed its Force essence melt away. He scraped the remains of the bug off against a rock and resumed walking down into the canyon.

"It's safe to uncover now," he heard a clone say in the comms, probably Six. "But look out for eye-eating flies."

"Copy that," Jusik replied.

"And don't forget the ones that use the ear canal as a nest," added another, he wasn't familiar with all their names and voices yet. "And the nostrils…"

A white-clad clone trooper stepped out of the unmarked light freighter, his armor plates painted with blue stripes. Then a tall human walked down the ramp, followed by an orange-skinned female Togruta and two more clone troopers.

"Dec, with me," Jusik said. "The rest of you watch your sectors."

"You think we might get ambushed, sir?" that was Splat, he used an innocent and naïve tone sometimes.

"It's not impossible."

"So you do think we'll get trouble out here?"

He looked up to the cliffs, where Splat, Six and at the end of the valley Cod were keeping an eye out for Separatist activities. The sky was nearly black and stars sparkled brightly. He caught movement in the corner of his eye and realized it was another bug.

"I don't know, Splat."

"Oh, apologies, sir. I thought you had picked up something on your Force scanner."

The two Jedi stood patiently next to their ship. Jusik waited for Dec as he jogged up to him, white and gold armor clanking, and proceeded to meet their reinforcements.

The Human - Skywalker - was wearing custom chest armor on top of his robes while Tano, the Togruta, was poorly dressed for the field. He didn't know what to make of that. They stood speechless as they gazed each other in mild confusion for a moment.

"I hope you brought sunscreen," he said to break the ice. "Or a good hat…"

"Strange costume," Skywalker said, folding his arms. "I was told that you were some kind of special, General Jusik."

Ahsoka Tano squinted her almond-shaped eyes as if trying to look through his visor. Obviously they could detect his Force-sensitivity but somehow, that sense did not get them passed his appearance. He retained a sigh and unclipped his helmet to reveal his face and forced a smile.

"I like dressing up."

The clone with the ARC type of gear - shoulder pauldron, DC-17 firearms and kama - and with blue markings stepped forward, sizing him with his black visor with slight contempt. He wasn't really from the Advanced Reckon bunch though, his designation didn't show in the list.

"With all due respect, General, how did you get this kit?"

"And how did you get yours?" Dec snapped, all edge and defenses out, possibly one of Bralor's traits.

Jusik waved away an insect that flew a little too close to his nose but it would come back right after. He put his buy'ce back on and selected the squad's channel.

"Regroup."

"Having trouble there, sir?"

"No, but it's getting dark and we're done out here." Jusik switched to his speaker. "How many can fit in your ship?"

The command deck felt cramped for the largest room in the vessel. Six and Cod sat at the commands, their bulky armor taking up a little less space between him and Dec and the three other troopers. Jusik waited for everyone to get inside, the hatch closed and he removed his helmet again. The blue-marked clone did as well, revealing bleach blond crew-cut hair and a severe expression.

"We seem to have a diplomatic problem," he started.

"Like hell we do," the clone replied dryly. "I'm still waiting to know why you are wearing the uniform of an enemy. Is it meant as some sick joke?"

The two Jedi stood by, watching the confrontation. Vevut said nothing and waited.

Jusik wavered between rationalizing and actually telling a joke - either one would be a lie: he couldn't say in front of the Jedi that he'd gone native with Mandalorians, not yet.

"We'll get to that when I'm done briefing you, trooper."

"Captain."

He frowned at him and turned to the others. "This planet is inhabited with a civilization that lives underground and our mission to take the shields down is compromising their security."

"But no life signs were detected on our way in," said the Padawan.

Skywalker smirked. "That's because of the solar radiation, Snips. Use your awareness of the living."

"So on whose side are they?" asked the clone.

"Their own. Attempts to negotiate have failed and--" He stopped before mentioning the details of Vevut's mishaps. "The leaders won't speak to a male, let alone a simple soldier."

They all turned to the young Togruta. She braced her shoulders in apprehension.

"Looks like I'm up for it then."

Jusik continued. "They have firepower with unlimited resources. If they aren't convinced that we'll spare them once the shields are down, the Seps will look a lot scarier all of the sudden."

"So let me get this straight," said Skywalker. "We take the shields down, they go to the Separatists. We don't take them down, the Separatists come to them. And continue gathering more resources. Great."

"Are you suggesting a third option, General?"

Jusik looked at the Padawan. "How good are your acting skills?"

"Pretty good with a lightsaber," she smiled sadly. "But I'll try my best."

"Good attitude. Now," he looked over at clone in blue armor. "We haven't been properly introduced."

"CC-7567, Rex, sir. Torrent Company."

"Captain." He took a breath and set his attention on him, aware of his curious Jedi colleagues. "I respect your disregard towards Mandalorian culture, it is founded and completely legit. However, my men don't share the same view and this armor was a gift from a good friend. I wear it to honor their beliefs but we fight under the same flag."

Rex nodded sharply.

"Understood, sir. Of course."

He knew about the rumors of Mandalorians joining CIS forces in the Bornalex sector but did not expect the big outrage it would create among the ranks. All clones flash-learned the Dha Werda Verda, including those that were not specifically trained by a Cuy'val Dar; their allegiance to the Republic outweighed their sense for mando heritage. Jusik could only imagine their indignity.

Dec came up to them with a holo-projector in his palm. The three-dimensional diagram of a burrow-like maze came to life in front of them.

"I took care to record as much as I could of Gasarrian territory," he said, then pointed a black gloved finger to a sinuous set of tunnels. "These are the access points to the Sep bunkers. They're not finished yet but--"

"Why go underground?" interrupted Skywalker, looking skeptically at Dec. As if he had never worked with commandos before.

"The surface is heavily guarded, General. Turrets, SBD's, Droideka's, the whole shebang."

He shrugged. "Sounds like my type of engagement."

The holo suddenly faded out as Dec clipped the device to his belt and sighed audibly. "Covert operations. We're not supposed to be here, and especially not you."

Skywalker's scarred eye twitched slightly in annoyance.

"We can't attack in broad daylight," Jusik said, putting off the tension. "Because you aren't equipped to withstand the solar ray bombardment, for starters."

"And don't even think of engaging the locals," added Six, sitting casually in the pilot's seat. "We sort of disrupted their peace when walking out of their cages."

"Yeah, about that…" Dec let his shoulders drop. "We popped two of their guards. Terekalu and Pasikalu. You might want to… apologize for us when you get there."

Within their helmets they could freely crack any witty comments they wished, Jusik kept a straight face on their behalf.

"Do they ever come out?" asked the Padawan.

"No," Dec said shaking his head. "There's nothing out there for them to do anyway."

"They also hate strangers," pointed out Splat. "They kept us alive because we're like droids to them."

"They wanted to cut us in pieces…" added Cod.

"…see how identical we actually are," finished Six.

Mumbling old rants was their way to say they were grumpy. Jusik had seen other squads behave in similar ways when their plans were falling apart and the win was taken from them by a Jedi. They were trained to be self-sufficient which came out as arrogance in the eyes of outsiders, in other words the people other than commandos and their training sergeants.

"General Jusik," earnestly called Tano. "Why won't the Gasarrians speak with a male figure?"

"You should ask Vevut, they were the ones stuck here for two weeks. I only arrived today responding to Sergeant Bralor's request."

"But--" she looked confusedly at the squad. "I'm asking your opinion as a Jedi."

He looked back at the Togruta: she was small but motivated and eager to learn, just as he was at her age. Somehow he wasn't expecting to be given any credit by a Padawan.

"Today is probably not the right day to play the Jedi card."

Skywalker let his arms drop to his sides and gave him a weird look. He ignored it and turned to Dec.

"Take General Skywalker and the captain to the extraction point, make him work his magic. Quietly."

"General," Tano hesitated, "I'm really not confident about doing this by myself…"

"Don't worry, ad'ika. I have a plan."

*

Dec nodded and lead their guests out of the transport to walk down the canyon with Six, Cod and Splat in a defensive formation. Gasarro had very flat plateaus on top of which everything could be seen from miles away with weak binoculars. They used no flashlights to direct themselves, relying solely on night vision mode. Too bad for Skywalker who had to walk in the dark but he was a Jedi, he'd get over it.

"I can't believe we're doing this again," Six complained in the private channel.

"And I can't believe you're still forgetting that your wishes are coming true," Dec replied. "A Jedi is going to blow up the bunker with a nod, you di'kut."

"This should be our job. Get someone like Skywalker in the picture and he gets the honors when this whole osik blows over."

"Oh," Cod joined in. "Because you think Jusik would let us take the win?"

"The kid understands us," Six replied. "He's wearing beskar'gam for shab's sake."

"I think you should lay off the swearing," sighed Splat.

"He's going through a phase," Cod said. "In a year's time he'll be happily flapping his robes in the wind just like Obi-Whatever-Bi."

"Kenobi," Six corrected. "And no, Cod. You don't go full-blown mando because your lightsaber ran out of shabla batteries. Did you see his face when the Padawan asked for his Jedi opinion?"

"Good point."

"I don't mind the swearing," Dec mused. "But this conversation is borderline blasphemous--"

"So did you really spend two weeks here?" Skywalker asked, oblivious of their private chatter.

"--even though you respect your commander, you should show the same respect to other ranking officers--"

"Or was Jusik exaggerating?"

"--whether they work in your command group or not. What bothers me the most--"

"I think they did spend two weeks here," replied Rex.

"--Six, is that you assume a lot about General Skywalker. He's certainly smart enough to know this is not his mission--"

"…They spent them shining their Deece and reciting Mandalorian tales."

Dec abruptly stopped in his trail and Splat bumped into his back. He turned to Rex, hand slightly away from his side-arm.

"Say that again to my face," he hissed. "Brother."

The squad instinctively circled around Rex and Skywalker. What looked conspicuous in that picture was the lack of aimed weapons.

"Don't brother me, Mando boy."

Skywalker interposed himself between them. "Hey, easy on the name-calling - whatever you're talking about. We have a mission here!"

Six chuckled in the comlink. "I told you so."

*

"Why do I feel like this isn't gonna work?"

Jusik finished adjusting one of his own leg holsters to Tano's belt, lifted the hood of her cloak over her horned head and stepped back to inspect his work. She looked menacing. A small, cute-looking, heavily armed and menacing young Togruta.

"Well I certainly wouldn't pick you up in a fight," commented a clone trooper.

"How could I fight carrying all this stuff?" She shifted the ammo bandolier from her shoulder. The oversized DC-15 rifle slung across her back nearly made her lose balance.

"You won't have to," Jusik replied. "Remember: you're a Republic emissary with a small army at your command. Gasarrian leaders will listen to what you have to say."

She gave him an insecure look. "Let's hope they buy it."

They proceeded outside and Jusik retreated within the privacy of his helmet for a moment. He heard Vevut's chatter in low volume with Dec's visor cam feed in a corner of his HUD, all shades of green from night vision mode. The Sep compound was still a good length away from them. He climbed up the last hill that reached the plateau, closely followed by Tano and the two troopers.

"For what reason did you send my master away with Rex?"

He looked at her briefly and resumed walking. "I had no idea he was a Jedi Master."

"Technically he isn't." She paused thoughtfully. "But I was assigned to become his apprentice, so I call him master."

"That's the reason why he's not here."

"Oh. Well sometimes I call him SkyGuy…"

"What?…" He saw her embarrassed face under the hood, but of course she didn't know he could see that. "Sounds like I made the right call."

"What is that supposed to mean?" she asked defensively.

The thought nagged at him and he didn't know whether it would affect her judgment of him or not if he told her. Why did he care anyway? Odds were that they'd never meet again when this was all over.

"You have feelings for him, Padawan."

She scoffed in protest. "And what did you call me earlier? Wasn't that a mark of attachment as well?"

He smiled at her, a pointless gesture since she couldn't see his face.

"Don't be silly," he laughed. "We barely know each other."

He thought he heard the clones chuckle in his back, or was it their footsteps. Jusik cleared his throat and decided to change the topic.

"How's the kit? Not too heavy?"

"I may be short but I can hold my own, General."

He caught himself wincing slightly at the rank. "Very well, ma'am."

She rolled her eyes in exasperation. "You really are some kind of special for a Jedi."

"Am I famous at the Temple yet?"

"Hm, I wouldn't know… But the troops sure talk a lot. My mas--… Anakin actually thinks it's a courageous move. Unlike Rex though. I don't really understand the Mandalorian aspect in the clones."

"Long story short, the special operation companies were trained by former Mandalorian warriors. Sergeant Rav Bralor is one of them, she gave Vevut part of her rough personality."

"She? A female Mandalorian?"

"I know," he nodded. "I was trying to get her to help us but I found you instead. How is your confidence now?"

"Never lower. Does the armor really help?"

He turned the question over a few times, cautious not to reveal too much of his feelings.

"It depends on the purpose you use it for."

"Again, I was asking for your Jedi insights." She smiled to him.

He intentionally marked a pause. "What kind of answer do you want to hear?"

She shrugged. "You don't talk much about the Force or your powers and abilities. I'm a Padawan, remember? I'm trying to learn."

"Ah." He suddenly felt for his remaining DC-17 in his left leg holster to make sure it was there. "Well I'm no Master. I guess you're smart enough to pick up lessons without being lectured."

"So… no Force class?"

He took a breath and stared at the dark horizon.

"Nope."

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