Dec pulled the camouflage net off the armored vehicle, an old Warcrawler scavenged from a junk yard on Ord Mantell. They had parked it a few minutes of walk away from the canyon, its bulky chassis sticking out of the landscape like a fort. Six helped him fold the net while Splat manned the controls.
"Not exactly GAR-issued," mused Rex with a hint of admiration.
"Our old Sergeant pulled a few strings to let us keep it," said Cod, kicking one of the four large wheels with the tip of his boot.
"Impressive," Skywalker nodded. "How did you bring it here?"
Six, Cod and Dec looked each other. "External help," Dec answered as casually as he could.
Rex chuckled through his transmitter and climbed in through the small hatch hole. "Smells like aiwha jerky…"
Dec waited for Skywalker to get in and closed the door before manning the rear custom laser turret. The roof was open near the back of the tank so they could quickly swap positions in case of casualties.
"I still got some left for you," replied Splat, handing over a flimsi container with leftover dried meat.
They reached their destination, the hole in the ground where they had stopped digging under Gasarrian watch, where they escaped that morning.
"Do we have visual?" Dec called to his squad mates.
"Affirmative," yelled Six over the sound of the roaring engines. "No signs of booby traps, Sarge."
"It is still a hole," added Cod. "A hole in the freaking desert. Nothing grows here."
"Shut up, Cod."
"Any sign of the natives?" continued Dec.
"They're probably busy with Jusik and the orange kid," Cod said.
The Crawler ran past the crater and Dec directed his scoped turret towards it. His scanners picked up nothing in the infrared filter. Switching back to night vision the tones of green against black shapes told very little difference between gaps and the shadows projected by the rocks. It was too far away for his headlights to brighten it up.
"Okay, let's keep moving."
"Shouldn't we be going down there?" That was Skywalker.
"It could be booby-trapped, General."
"Or ambushed," added Six. "We're gonna get closer to the power plant."
The first line of defense was two hundred meters away with patrolling droids. Then came a barricade with automated turrets. And finally the bunker itself with Super Battle Droids and Droidekas ready to be deployed as soon as the first patrols signaled the alarm. It was standard procedure security for all Separatist structures whether the environment was hostile or not. They killed on sight and unprovoked.
"What's the plan?" asked the General.
"We try a stealth approach," Dec replied, speaking louder than he wished. "This is plan B if the discussions don't work, we'll have to get in there through the front door."
"And what about the other generators?" inquired Rex. "You went underground?"
There was a big bump that made everyone knock their heads against something hard. Except Dec since he was on the roof.
"Nah," said Splat, sounding amused by his own driving. "We just blasted those places."
"This is the main plant," explained Six. "We didn't get the correct schematics..."
Splat turned his blue T-visor towards them. "Strike two for GAR intelligence!"
"So you asked for Gasarrian support," thoughtfully said Skywalker. "And for how long were you captured?"
There was a silence. None of them wanted to think about that part.
"About a week," said Cod.
"Five days," corrected Six. "Our comms were disabled."
Splat stopped the vehicle. Dec switched to his binocular view and zoomed towards the horizon to see the plant with his stream of blue light shooting straight to the sky, creating the planet-wide energy field. No signaling lights marked their perimeter and he could only guess the movement of marching patrols. The Crawler was too loud to go any further and unnoticed.
"Why didn't you get a hovercraft," asked Rex, following Six and Cod to the ground. "Faster, more comfortable, more reliable, silent…"
Skywalker cracked his neck and jumped out. "I kind of miss my pod-- starfighter."
"Sentimental value," Splat said, tapping the steering wheel with his fingers. "I like fixing this piece of crap when I'm not blowing stuff up."
Six hissed with irritation. "It's a convenience, discarded metal."
"You have no soul."
He rested his precision specialized Deece across his shoulder. "Then I don't need to be afraid of dying."
"I'll still pray for you."
Dec slapped the hatch door to cut the conversation short. "Get the net out, we're setting camp."
"For the night?" asked Cod, sounding concerned. "Surely the negotiations won't last that long."
"You're probably right but let's assume you're not. Come on, shift it."
Rex went over to help the squad with the net, seemingly okay with the passed issues. It was nice to see everybody getting along... The squad wanted to believe that it was the magic operating around the Crawler.
"General, can you sense any natives around here? I want to know if I'll need to check my targets."
The Jedi shut his eyes for a few seconds and slowly shook his head. "We seemed to have passed their territory a few minutes ago to the south. Are you sure they're the real natives to this planet and not a colony?"
"The thought crossed my mind. What does that change?"
"They may have contact with their mother world or outside allies in case we screw this up for them."
"Ah. Insightful." Dec cleared his throat as he realized he was talking to a Jedi. Those people were meant to be smart. Suddenly Jusik didn't seem all that special any longer. "Let's hope Bardan can shed some light on the subject."
"I hope they're doing alright…"
Dec looked over to his squad and Rex who had taken position around the vehicle, talking in muffled voices about mechanics and other geeky things he didn't pay attention to. Splat came out of the hatch with his stash of jerky, Deece hanging loosely from its makeshift sling.
"Looks like we got more of these in the trunk," he said.
"Outstanding," Six flatly commented. "Please finish it up once and for all."
"Not only do you lack a soul," replied Splat, "but also an appetite. Six, what makes you any different from a droid?"
"My boot up y--"
"Hey, is this normal?" Cod pointed his rifle at a blinking light towards the south-east.
Dec raised his own scope to only see a beacon in his view screen. It was a regular single-blinking signal.
"Subject is half a click away," he measured. "General?"
"Hm," he folded his arms across his chest. "Seems like a local."
Six had his Deece up. "Shall we engage, sir?"
Skywalker motioned for him to lower his weapon. "I'll deal with him, you folks stay back here."
"With all due respect, sir," Dec objected, "we'd rather not move. Could be a trap."
"What if they're afraid to come closer but need our help?"
"That's a valid speculation but until that's confirmed I'll advise you to stay put."
"It's your call, Sergeant. But if my Padawan is in danger I won't be taking heed of that…"
He was probably jesting. Dec let his shoulders drop and gestured to Cod and Six to regroup on the camp.
"Alright, General. You may attempt to communicate via waving and Jedi-mind-tricking. But we're about done being trapped and captured." He activated his comms to contact Jusik. "Vevut to Jusik, come in General."
There was a silence. Dec waited a minute. Then two.
"Something's not right."
The city was invisible on the surface, it spread underground, miles deep and across, but it had to have an exit point somewhere on top. Jusik's data-gatherer continued mapping the area as they went, wishing he had a speeder bike but he walked as briskly as he could despite being somewhat sleep-deprived. Instinctively they went in the direction of where he had found Vevut that day.
"What if they locked themselves in?" asked one of the troopers. "We could be wasting our time."
"We're getting closer," the Padawan replied. "I can sense it."
The Force was handy for this sort of thing. He took her word for it and refrained from scanning the area himself. They reached a small hill, more like a mound and once at the top Jusik felt the ground to be hollow under his footsteps.
"What is that, a door?" he asked.
The little girl's voice was loud and startling in the silence of the night. "Hello!?"
"I predict an ambush," said the other trooper. "Typical scenario…"
"So, what," said his friend, "you're a Jedi now?"
There was a lightsaber shriek and a green blaze of light around them. Jusik checked for his own, in the back of his belt. The Padawan had the same color, then. He carelessly thought about the possibility that someone might have snatched it from him.
"This should do the work," she said, holding the luminous blade over her cloaked head. And then she repeated, even louder: "Helloooooo!!!?"
"If they had surveillance on the surface I think we would have seen it," he remarked.
The ground started to shake under their feet. Jusik and everyone stepped back as a gap formed and sand fell in. Something came out, it looked like a big rock with a life of its own. A big rock with a huge canon mounted on it.
The clones shouted for them to take cover. But cover behind what? Jusik jumped away from the big sand-colored muzzle that started to melodiously shoot green bolts at them, creating numerous craters in the dry earth. Ahsoka leapt away with her beam of emerald light and her portable armory. Somehow the turret had taken one of the clones in its target locking system and decided to destroy him first, with a tempo a little faster than a shot per second. Jusik rolled over just soon enough to avoid one lost bolt and found himself right behind the big shooting machine. His lightsaber was in hand without a moment of thought then a green blade slashed through the rocky mass reduced into molten goo.
"Good job, Commander," said the trooper that had tried to shoot the turret down.
Jusik looked at his unlit weapon just as Ahsoka appeared in front of him.
"This doesn't look like Separatist guns to me," she said, staring at the hilt in his hand. "Why didn't you destroy it?"
Was he too slow? Did he try to think of another way? What was he waiting for?
"Honor to the ladies," he replied, smirking under his helmet.
The troopers inspected the gap and unrolled a rappel line. Ahsoka jumped down, landing like a swift feline and without a sound. Jusik followed consciously calling to the Force to slow his fall on the last meter. They were met with musical instruments up their faces, held by small mantis-like creatures with gray and brown feathery manes.
"Take your helmets off and drop your weapons," they ordered, in clear Basic. They had very humanoid mouths between their mandibles.
Jusik complied and looked around at the troopers that reluctantly obeyed, dropping their guns to the floor as well.
Ahsoka brought her hood down and stood as upright as she could. "I am Ahsoka Tano, representing the Galactic Republic on behalf of the four clone commandos you captured."
The four Gasarrians were joined by another flock of guards, all male, and talked to each other in their native tongue. It sounded like a low rumble.
"You may stay," said the same guard while another came over to take Ahsoka's weapons and her lightsaber. Jusik handed his rifle and blaster over but they wearily eyed his gauntlets. He had to part from them as well. Making no fuss, he kept silent about his other weapon.
They entered a cavernous space that could have been an ancient underground lake arranged in a very modern-looking primal city with roads, bubble-shaped buildings and dim lights reflecting themselves on the many smooth and pearly surfaces of the housings. Jusik guessed organic materials and fungi-derivates that also produced fluorescence. The roof of the cave was surprisingly high.
Many males patrolled the sand-paved roads, bouncing on their shin legs, diligently following a taller, more colorful Gasarrian leaders that could only be female. They arrived at one big transparent pile of bubbles in which many Gasarrians could be seen, sleeping, making food, cleaning or simply walking around. A tall female greeted them outside. Her mane was of bright red and orange feathers and her large black almond-shaped eyes squinted at them.
"I am Eyasakan. Leader of this colony for hundreds of cycles. Your soldiers have brought unrest to my people, killing two of our soon-reproducing males. The crimes will be balanced."
But it was too late for Ahsoka to object; Jusik barely had the time to look around that their two troopers dropped limp to the ground. A dark Gasarrian extracted small blood-stained blades from their necks and ran off. The young Padawan fell to her knees to cup one of the clones' face between her hands as the Force progressively absorbed their life signs.
"They died a painless death," continued the leader. "I suppose you're here to talk. You may come in."
She disappeared inside her glass home. Ahsoka was still in shock over the loss of their soldiers, and even if he felt the same Jusik grabbed her arm to get her on her feet. He realized how skinny she was, and if he squeezed any harder she'd bruise or break a bone.
"Save it for later, you need to do your job."
"This isn't starting well."
He hoped the cycle of revenge would stop there. If "balance" meant a life for a life then the logic was simple, the Padawan could work with that.
They followed Eyasakan into a larger sphere of the house where she was sitting with her legs folded under her, as if she was kneeling. Two guards joined them inside.
"We've come to request your blessing in the destruction of the Separatist energy field around your world," Ahsoka flatly said, like she had rehearsed it. "We do not seek to occupy it, just to keep our enemies from growing stronger."
The Gasarrian leader flailed her fire-like mane and blinked a few times.
"My people won't align to a side in your conflicts. We took shelter on this planet to escape from our own destructive cousins, we are peaceful and wish to remain that way."
"Your defenses are quite impressive for peaceful people," the Padawan replied.
"We have seen our share of war," Eyasakan softly said. "That is why we strive to keep outsiders away, so the shields work in our advantage. Your presence alone is disruptive."
So that explained the lack of refreshments and comfortable seats. Ahsoka looked at Jusik in a silent hesitating moment. Eyasakan suddenly hissed loudly.
"What is he?"
"What..?" Ahsoka seemed to lose her composure. "He is… our military commander."
"Why lend such high responsibilities to a male?"
"Well, because…" She dropped her shoulders in defeat. "Because my people doesn't know any better. That's why we come to you for your aid."
Jusik smiled trying to look dumb.
"I will gather the council of elders to discuss a solution."
"Thank you," Ahsoka said and bowed her head.
"Meanwhile, I will ask you not to leave the premises."
Eyasakan bounced out of the room and two guards closed behind her, making sure they wouldn't follow her outside. The two troopers were still laying on the dirt path, slowly filling a puddle of dark red blood around their heads.
"We should at least dispose of the bodies," Ahsoka said half-voiced.
No response from the guards, maybe they didn't understand Basic. Bardan checked his chrono: two hours had passed since they separated from Vevut. There was a bleep. The young Togruta slowly turned her eyes to him in a silent question. Jusik peered into his helmet to see a little blinking flash from his comms.
"It's the squad," he murmured, yet guessing the guards could hear what he said anyway. "Something came up."
"I sense it too," she said.
"Leave the conspicuous noise machine here," said Skywalker, "I'll deal with this."
He hopped off the Crawler and headed towards the small local that had stopped waving his little flare around. Splat brutally smashed the brakes and Rex followed his friend. Dec cursed between his teeth and grabbed the Captain's kama before he could get out the hatch.
He pulled hard and Rex got thrown back in his seat thanks to Six and Cod. Dec jumped out to the ground and raised his rifle, cautiously pacing closer.
"Hey," he called out. "Hey! Stop! ...General Skywalker, I'm warning you."
The man finally turned around, he was about twenty meters away from the Gasarrian. That creepy little thing stood motionless with his arms to his side, Dec recognized the ruse since his own men had fallen for it once.
"Warning me, Sergeant?"
"Vevut," Dec called on his comms, "watch your sectors but do not engage."
"Let me do my job, soldier."
Dec adjusted his aim and felt a pinch in his chest. It really wasn't something he'd want to write in a report.
"We need to let Jusik finish the diplomacy," he tried to explain. "Please get back in the vehicle, General."
"I just want to talk," Skywalker insisted, then raised his open palm to him. "Stay there or you will be in deep trouble."
"This is my mission, General. I won't let anything or anyone screw it up by getting us all killed."
He did not intend to shoot the Jedi, but he was dealing with his brothers' lives and if he couldn't make a ranking officer come to his senses then he had to use some better persuasion. They'd been captured once, this time they'd die. It didn't take rocket science to come up with those odds.
"How do you know that? He's all alone."
The low rumbling sound of underground mechanisms could be heard around them.
"Don't tell me you couldn't sense this..."
Four turrets deployed around the lone Gasarrian who was later joined by more of his kind, all sporting body armor and snail-guns. Then Skywalker did a stupid thing.
His lightsaber blazed up in a blinding blue shaft which provoked a massive response from the locals. Dec leapt across the few paces separating him from Skywalker and threw his weight forward, shoving the General out of four deadly green bolts, knocking the Jedi's weapon out of his hands and the unarmed Gasarrian picked it up.
"We have your friends," he said with a smug tone. "Their attempts for peace are vain and you'll be happy to live long enough to witness their execution."
Dec lifted himself from a very irritated Skywalker to see that Battle Droids had joined the show.
"I knew we'd meet again, droid lover."
"Sarge," Splat called in the comm. "Should we use our gun to graze them?"
"Stand down, squad," Dec sighed. "Don't give them a reason to shoot the Crawler."
He heard them stepping out and walking with their hands up in surrender.
"Rav is so going to kick your ass," Cod remarked.
Dec cleared his throat as he reluctantly dropped his Deece. "Shut up, Cod."