Bardan counted them entering the large bubble-shaped room, helmets on as if the Gasarrians were done caring, and unshackled. When all of them, Rex and Skywalker included got in, Eyasakan stood in the opening with her multi-jointed fingers meshed against her chest. It was hard not to expect her to lunge for one of their heads.
"My lieutenants have informed me of your misgivings on the surface. You have deceived us one last time, outsiders. You shall remain here until we decide what to do with you."
Guards dragged something heavy into the cell. Bardan saw with revulsion that were going to be locked in with the bodies of the fallen troopers.
"You have paid for your crimes," continued the leader, "and we have no more business with your kind."
"Then why don't you let us complete our mission," Dec spat out. Even through his helmet the scorn in his voice was obvious. "We were lured into a trap. That's one detail your men forgot to report."
"This a bad mistake," Skywalker added. "You'll regret crossing with the Republic."
Ahsoka, still struggling to maintain her calm, stood up to take over. "Please, I beg of you. We never intended for those incidents to happen..."
"Incidents?" retorted Dec. "You don't incidentally get a couple of Battle Droids or ten to setup an ambush."
"Enough!" Eyasakan hissed. "These accusations do not act in your favor. I will discuss this with the elders."
As she left, the "door" of the cell seemed to morph back into place and leave no mark or trace of an opening into the translucent material. One of the commandos walked up to the wall and knocked on the durasteel-solid surface before closing his fist and extending the vibroblade from his gauntlet. It seemed programmed not to break under special circumstances.
Bardan turned around: there were no corners in the ten square meter wide cell. It was placed in a remote part of the city where very little Gasarrian citizens could see them if they ever walked by. He sat down on the dirt floor, letting a long, drawn-out sigh. The prospects of a nap were very tempting right then.
"I'd like to try my lightsaber into this," said Skywalker.
"No need," Bardan said, eyes shut to relax his mind. "Smart, alien technology."
"How do you know it wouldn't work? Besides, it's not like we can try now."
Actually he could, but Bardan got the intuition that breaking out wasn't the greatest option they had so far. They weren't dead yet, and Eyasakan seemed to have missed a few facts concerning some of her people. They had their helmets, that meant communications were allowed and Battle Droids were involved somehow. Bardan half-expected to see a Separatist leader popping out any minute.
"We're being used as bait."
"Bait for what?" asked Ahsoka, looking more depressed than ever.
"...our reinforcements," Skywalker answered, agreeing with the general idea. "They're allied with the Seps and are trying to get a ransom for our lives."
Captain Rex knelt down to inspect the corpses of the dead troopers, their skin gone pale already.
"I don't need more proof than this, General. I suggest we call for orbital strikes. Hit wear the shields are weak."
"And we should still try to get out of here. Good idea, Rex." Skywalker took his comlink and received nothing but fuzz and crackles. "How expected."
Bardan yawned and covered his mouth with his gloved hand. Still that didn't keep everyone from noticing the sign of weakness, or boredom. If he had kept his helmet on he would have been able to doze off without anyone being the wiser.
"Carry on," he muttered.
"Any suggestions?" snarled Skywalker, folding his arms across his breastplate. "I suppose the negotiations didn't pan out."
Bardan expired through his nostrils, leaning his head against the wall. The laser-proof glass was almost warm, he noted.
"We did the best we could, Master." Ahsoka looked down to her boots.
Skywalker laid a comforting hand on her shoulder. "I'm sure you did, Snips."
The young Togruta turned her large white-striped lekku's around, her blue eyes on Bardan for a brief moment, as if seeking his opinion. Wasn't one Jedi's blessing enough? He childishly shrugged at her, and Ahsoka bit her lips, containing a smile.
"So," Skywalker continued, frowning at the silent exchange, "are we gonna wait here for the executioners?"
Dec turned to his squad, then they sat down around the cell in a chorused motion. Their sergeant stayed up to face Skywalker as his brothers seemed to relax and take their own naps.
"Like what was suggested earlier, General," said Dec in a flat tone. "We'll wait for the reinforcements. Even if that means war."
Mirroring the clones, Ahsoka took a seat as well wrapping her cloak around herself, and at a respectful distance from Bardan and her master.
"Doing anything else would mean war on us," added another clone, "and I'm a pacifist."
Rex pulled his helmet off and rolled his eyes in helplessness. "That's the biggest pile of crap I've heard coming out of someone's transmitter. You eat too much of that stale jerky." Rex turned to Bardan. "You should do something about the contraband this squad is using, and also that Warcrawler--"
"I know about the Warcrawler," Bardan said, lifting his sleepy eyes from the floor. "Did you keep it in one piece?"
Dec shook his head, hands on his hips. "We didn't get the time to secure it... Sorry, General. Splat was becoming fond of it, too."
Bardan saw movement outside the bubble-cell, the uneven surface rendering deformed shapes of marching Gasarrians. The leader's orange plume was Eyasakan's, followed by others behind her. A male guard used some kind of remote device and the glass turned liquid, morphing fluidly into a large opening. Eyasakan entered followed by her colleagues and Bardan detected no sympathy in their large black eyes.
"We have decided to end your disruption now. If you must know, some of us thought about using you as prisoners of war. But we are not at war. Our world must not be affected by you, whether you think it to be good or bad."
She stepped aside and the guards got them all outside. There were too many for Bardan to count but all he regretted was not taking the few minutes of respite while he had the chance. His instincts told him to lay low and wait for the right moment. They all looked like they were thinking the same.
"Where are you taking us?" Ahsoka asked, almost imploring.
Eyasakan eyed her scornfully, like she was disappointed. "To the surface, the first rays of sunshine will soon appear. There is no escape for you this time."
The guards had them remove their helmets. Bardan's stomach knotted as one small male took his bucket from his hands. The squad looked very angry. Not now, he told himself, regulating his breath.
They climbed up a sinuous tunnel with stairs, the guards used curious phosphorescent lanterns that looked alive. Then they saw the sky which was going from navy blue to purple. There were no more insects in the air as it brushed his face. He could even tell the colors of the detail on Ahsoka's gloves.
Eyasakan and the other leaders climbed outside as well, and the guards had the clones line up one meter apart, execution-style.
"General..." Dec said between his clenched teeth.
Bardan counted the guards this time: there were five, one for each target as they aimed their snail-guns towards Vevut plus Rex. They didn't have anyone to signal them to fire so he had no idea when was their last heartbeat. He sensed their fear, and his Jedi comrades were shutting their minds from the pain they were going to feel soon.
Another guard stood between him and Eyasakan.
Emptying his mind, he closed his eyes. In other circumstances he would have dozed off like he had wanted to for the past hour. Instead he saw everything, more clearly than in his narrow two-hundred degree field of vision, more detailed than with an infrared scanner. The Gasarrians did not take a breath before shooting, he just knew when they'd press the triggers.
His hand went for the small of his back and threw the silver hilt which, in a fraction of a second blazed to life. The whirling blade created the necessary distraction for him to send a Force-push towards the sixth guard, disarming him. The executioners were down, heads or limbs severed from their bodies and the lightsaber hovered in the air flying back to him.
Bardan extended his right arm, pointing the green laser blade up to Eyasakan's neck. Ahsoka reacted quickly and picked up the nearby snail-gun.
"Have your people bring us our belongings," he told, slightly below his usual volume.
The leader didn't flinch. "I do not respond to threats. Not from a male."
Bardan rolled his eyes and addressed Ahsoka. "Tell her."
The Padawan looked dazzled as she uncertainly held the alien weapon. "Let us have our weapons back."
"And our helmets!" shouted a commando.
Eyasakan seemed to sigh and nodded at the remaining guard. "Granted. I should have seen the sham in your act, young Togruta. You are submissive and weak. You will never honor your people with great wisdom."
The words seemed to strike; Ahsoka blinked a few times but her trembling lower lip betrayed her feelings. Other Gasarrians came back carrying their blasters, lightsabers and helmets. Bardan had them piled up beside him and brought his attention back to Eyasakan.
"So," she said calmly, "you're the actual leader. I am unarmed and the sun will soon rise. Shall we come back inside and discuss in a proper manner?"
"No more stalling," Bardan said, feeling the air warming up. "I know you won't and can't help us against the Separatists. Whatever happens from now, the civilian casualties, collateral damage, whatever you want to call it... will be the consequence of your leadership."
"I feel that both you and I will have to pay for our mistakes," she said, tilting her head to one side. "It's the price we choose for great responsibility."
Bardan lowered his lightsaber and looked at the other females, then back at the main girl. "Some of us don't have that choice."
He picked up his helmet and equipped it, activating the climate regulation in his outfit. He took a deep, relieving breath through the filters and grabbed his blasters. His friends came over to do as well. The scanners picked up the Warcrawler's shape merely a hundred meter from where they were.
"Skywalker..." The Jedi turned around, and Bardan could almost see the sun in the horizon line. "Take your Padawan to the vehicle. Now."
They both broke into a jog with Rex covering their tracks. Bardan started to feel his eyelids growing heavy. With his lightsaber still ignited he motioned towards the rising sun.
"Eyasakan... In other conditions it would've been a pleasure knowing you and this world."
"I wouldn't say likewise."
"We have a mission to complete, and my men were trained to do that... at all costs."
She shielded her eyes with her hands. "I understand. Good luck, General."
The first sun rays swept across the barren lands of desert like the blast of an explosion, blinding and burning. His visor instantly darkened to preserve his retina but he still looked away. The corpses on the grounded began to fume and smoke rose from them. The tunnel from which they had crawled out of was now closed so it was just him and Vevut left on the surface. They started walking towards the crawler, showing up as a mound of rocks across the horizon.
Running was pointless: if the lethal rays had reached Skywalker and Ahsoka before they could get to shelter they were already dead and there was nothing they could do from where they were.
Thankfully there were no Jedi corpses on the ground when they reached the Warcrawler, and they found Rex standing outside with his blaster ready. The first thing Bardan had in mind was slumber. Just twenty minutes were all he asked for. He climbed through the hatch and a small hand caught his elbow. Being half-aware of his surroundings he imagined another mando greeting him with the typical hand-clasp until he saw the pointy horns on Ahsoka's head. She sat opposite from him and even in the dim light of the small cabin the concern was visible on her face.
"Is it true what she said," Ahsoka asked as the squad entered one by one. "What would you have replied?"
He needed a moment to remember what made her restless. Ah, yes.
"I wouldn't take wisdom tips from a species so inflexible they had to seclude themselves underground," he spoke flatly.
She appeared to take a moment to process his words and he took the opportunity to throw his head back against the bulkhead in an obvious intention to snooze.
"Eyasakan didn't know you," added Skywalker. "Don't let people tell you what you should do or not, you're still a Padawan and you have to make your own lessons."
"I don't know, Master." The crawler's engines came to life with a roar. "What is wisdom if your actions inevitably get other people killed?"
Bardan parted his eyelids, unable to ignore the girl's voice despite the loud hum of the vehicle as they rode back to the canyon.. Skywalker leaned forward, resting on his knees.
"This is war, Ahsoka. Those who fall have chosen their fate, and so have we. It's our responsibility to deal with the guilt and keep fighting for the greater good." He risked a look in Bardan's direction and lowered his voice. "We'll be out of here soon, Master Yoda needs us for a report at the Temple tomorrow."
"What if General Jusik still needs our help?"
"It's not our priority, Snips..." His eyes unfocused as his mind trailed off. "I have... other business waiting on Coruscant."
The ride back to camp took approximately ten minutes. The canyon offered sufficient shade for the unarmored people to keep safe until they could proceed to their ship later on. Bardan hopped off the crawler and felt the weight of a hand on his shoulder. He met a blue-lit visor and guessed it was Dec.
"Thanks for saving our shebs earlier, General."
He nodded his helmet. "Anyone else would have done the same."
"With all due respect," he sighed. "I think not."
Bardan followed his glare to find Skywalker and Ahsoka sharing a ration bar in the cave.
"General," added Dec, "we can hold our own from here. The two Jedi can head back to their ship and we finish this mission the old-fashioned way."
He recalled the situation at hand with the hundreds of Battle Droids and the enemy artillery waiting for them on the other side of the main Separatist base. At his top shape Bardan could take a few droids on his way in while the squad could sabotage the defense turrets. The advantage of taking two more Jedi with them outweighed the price of having to talk to them.
Skywalker was stretching the joints in his right hand, the one he kept in a black combat glove. Bardan realized it was a bionic limb. Accidents of that sort happened and he considered himself lucky so far. Ahsoka for her part was sitting pensively in a dark corner. He removed his helmet and took a deep breath.
"I heard you speaking about business on Coruscant. So... we're grateful that you came here to help and we'll understand if you wish to go."
He waited, apparently they hadn't made their minds up yet.
"Are you sure?" asked Skywalker.
Rex joined in. "General Skywalker, if we leave now we can be just in time for the rendez-vous with the fleet."
The tall Jedi nodded grimly and stood. "Very well then." He extended his arm to clasp hands. "Thank you for understanding, General Jusik."
His hand was a prosthetic. Bardan felt the rigid and knotty articulations through the glove.
"Master, wait." It was Ahsoka, she got to her feet and gave them a disagreeing look. "Shouldn't we stay either way? Isn't this mission vital for the Republic?"
Skywalker scowled at her with enough impatience in his eyes to seem like an unloving parent. "The decision's been made. We're going home, Snips."
He reached for her shoulder but she pulled away a tad too sharply. She was more like a savage animal now than a simple Padawan. Bardan had to revise his opinion.
"Ahsoka," said Skywalker in a threatening tone. "Time to learn your place. They don't need us any longer."
She turned to Rex. "Captain, you told me that experience was the greatest teacher. Why can't I choose to learn from this one?"
"Well," replied the clone, "we don't always get to do everything we like."
The Jedi with a scar on his face showed signs of irritation; something was up. Bardan couldn't put a finger on it but he was ready to bet it was about that business Skywalker was eager to get to.
"You're a piece of work, sometimes. You know that?"
Ahsoka seemed to calm down and took a seat on the edge of a rock, cupping her hands around her face. Bardan thoughtfully drummed his fingers on his helmet and turned to Skywalker and Rex.
"I'll watch over her."
"No," Skywalker replied, shaking his head in disapproval. "I'd get in serious trouble if my masters see me without her."
She was going to burst into a plead again, Bardan raised a hand to get her to stay down.
"It's either this or you skip your other meeting."
Skywalker looked back at him with intimidating eyes. He was taller, stronger, and more stubborn than him. Luckily Bardan was confident in his acting skills. Eventually, Skywalker flinched an eyelid and nodded in surrender.
"Fine. But I want regular reports and... no risky plans."
Someone chuckled in their transmitter. "Risky is our word for suicidal, sir."
Skywalker ignored it and knelt down to look Ahsoka in the eyes. "Can I count on you to come back safe and sound?"
"We'll see," she shrugged with a little smile.
He left to head back to the vehicle with Rex. Two commandos joined them to drive them to their ship. Bardan let a breath out and ran a hand through his hair. Ahsoka stood in front of him with a shy smirk.
"I don't know what to say..."
He pinched his lips and watched the crawler trail off in the burning bright daylight.
"Don't thank me. You're stuck on a ball of fire with no armor and a band of deranged clones for only company."
The rest of the squad cheered with a weak oya! as they were sitting around their makeshift camp. Ahsoka responded by laughing and Bardan swore he heard a child's voice. He thought about going to sleep at last, but this new complication to the mission shattered the false sense of security he had built around himself.
"Does this mean I have to call you Master?" Ahsoka said, no longer the scary little predator from earlier.
Why did he have to burden himself with someone to look after? Perhaps the alternative would have plagued him in a more permanent way. Either of them, Skywalker and Ahsoka, were happy now and the thought of actually tutoring someone had its appeal.
He smiled to her and headed to the back of the cave where it was darker. "Just call me Bardan."
Before he closed his eyes he saw her joining the squad in their improvised game on the floor. They gave her a water canteen and ration cubes. She looked so tiny in the middle of three men in bulky Katarn armor. At least her distress and worries had somehow melted away and Bardan finally allowed himself to drift off.