Many Happy Returns: Chapter Three

Tendra and Tahiri had stopped at a table outside a tapcafe to rearrange the packages they were carrying. They had considered buying drinks, but then decided that the more time spent in the market, the less money they would leave with; and in any case, Tahiri wanted to get back to their rooms before Anakin so she could hide his present.

"Isn't it great?" the girl had asked as she showed Tendra her purchase. "Chewbacca made him one of these a long time ago, but Anakin gave it to his father as a sort of peace gift when they had that rift over Chewie's death. Apparently it ended up saving his father's life, so it was just as well he did give it away, but I know he often used it himself, and lately I've noticed him looking at them longingly in the HoloCatalogues I've been leaving up on his datascreen."

"Ah," smiled Tendra. "This sounds familiar. You leave him clues as to what you want, and all it helps you do is sort out what he wants."

Tahiri pondered that insight for a moment. "Yeah -- it is a bit ironic, isn't it? You'd think being Jedi that he'd be good at picking up on hidden intentions."

"I don't know, Tahiri. He is male, and I think the maleness overrides the Jediness, if you get my meaning. But it is a really useful looking multi-tool, and I'm sure he'll appreciate it. I ..." she stopped.

Tahiri was staring straight in front of her with a look of total confusion on her face, her eyes focused on something invisible to everybody but herself. Her forehead creased into a frown for a moment, and then she shook her head as if to negate a thought she'd had, and stared perplexed back at Tendra. She opened her mouth as if to speak, and then suddenly her face turned deathly pale.

"What's wrong?" Tendra reached out for the girl, afraid she was going to faint.

"I can't feel him," Tahiri gasped. "One minute he was there, and then ... he got fuzzy, and then ... he vanished. What can have happened?" She gazed wildly up at Tendra, and then threw her arms round her and began crying. "Something's happened to Anakin, Tendra, something awful!"

Tendra was temporarily too stunned to do anything more useful than pat Tahiri comfortingly on the back. Unlike Lando, she wasn't quite so accustomed to dealing with people whose senses transcended the five she was familiar with. That the girl had received an unpleasant shock was obvious, but what specifically had she felt? Tendra cleared her throat, and took Tahiri firmly by the shoulders.

"When you say you can't feel him, what do you mean? Describe exactly what you felt."

Tahiri wiped her eyes with trembling fingers. "I can always sense Anakin," she sniffed. "We have this connection you see -- we don't even have to work at it, it's just there. But now ... he's not," her eyes flooded with tears again, and she struggled to stifle the anguished sobs that threatened to overwhelm her words. She swallowed a few times and managed to continue. "I felt him grow fuzzy, and then he seemed to flicker and I got the feeling he was confused, and then he just seemed to blank out."


Tahiri nodded.

Tendra frowned as she tried to force herself to apply some sort of logical framework to what Tahiri had said. It's very difficult for practical down-to-earth people like me to visualise how Jedi perceive the universe, she thought. "You said you think he was confused?"

Tahiri nodded again, and gave vent to a series of convulsive sobs that rendered her unable to speak.

"Did he seem scared?"

This time Tahiri shook her head. She swallowed a few times and made a valiant effort to pull herself together. "No. I didn't sense fear, but Anakin doesn't really get scared. The only time ..." her chin wobbled again and the tears coursed down her cheeks, but she took a deep breath and managed to continue. "The only time he reckons he was scared was when he thought he'd lost me on Yavin 4." Her face crinkled up again, and Tendra pulled her into a firm embrace.

"Look Tahiri, I can't dispute what you felt, but I think we should try and stay postive, don't you? And I'm sure there's a logical explanation. Lando didn't seem at all worried about anything before he left. In fact he didn't even give me the spare com link, which suggests he wasn't expecting any trouble."

"Trouble often strikes when you least expect it -- and it seems to follow us around." Tahiri sniffed and pulled away from the older woman, and attempted once again to compose herself.

"I think we should go back to the ship," said Tendra decisively. "Lando will be carrying his comlink, so we can check to see if he's left us any messages."

Tahiri nodded. "I'm sorry for freaking out, Tendra. It was just such a shock."

"That's okay," Tendra smiled, although she didn't feel as confident as she was pretending to be. "I think it's significant that you sensed confusion rather than fear or pain before you lost touch with Anakin. That suggests to me something odd has happened rather than something life-threatening."

Tahiri regarded her wanly, and Tendra wondered whether she had made a mistake mentioning possible violence. However, the girl forced a weak smile. "You're right."

"Come on then. The sooner we get back to the ship, the sooner we can sort this out." Tendra grabbed up her packages and raced to catch up with the younger girl as she hurried in the direction of the space port.

* * * * *

It had taken Anakin a while to decide that the wavering grey lines he could see were really the wall, and not some sort of flickering energy shield. Once he'd established that fact, it seemed logical to assume that the coldness against his cheek was the floor, and that he must be lying down somewhere. How he had got there, however, was a mystery, and the pulsating headache he seemed to have acquired was not making it easy to think or remember. If he could just make mental contact with his arms and legs he was sure he might be able to sit up, but at the moment his brain processes were on a go-slow. He tried one more time to make his limbs respond to his will, but the sheer effort overwhelmed him and he slipped back into unconsciousness. He awoke some time later, stiff and sore -- but he took this as a good sign. Pain at least meant his brain had resumed its connection to his body.

He managed to half crawl, half drag himself over to a corner and began to take stock of his surroundings. He was in a tiny room that looked as though it might have once been used for storage. Light filtered in weakly through a transparisteel vent in the roof, but it was impossible to tell if it was still morning or afternoon. Anakin was even unsure whether it was still the same day. He leaned against the wall, and massaged his right leg which was still half numb. His head still ached, but not with the same debilitating throbbing as before, and he tried again to remember the events that had brought him here.

He recalled Lando's conversation with Bomar Tag, and how the man's comments about the Jedi sounded ominously familiar. He also remembered the inexplicable weakness he had felt, and the strange feeling that somehow his connection to the Force was being thwarted. There was something else Tag had said that he'd thought odd. What was it? At the time he had been more concerned with sorting out what was causing the strange buzzing sensation in his head, but he knew that he had started to ... that was it, the man had mentioned Yavin 4, and he knew about Anakin. So he must be connected with the Peace Brigade. Anakin thought about that and a frown began to crease his forehead. He would have thought that the Vong would have slaughtered any of the Peace Brigade members who went to Yavin because of their bungling attack on the Jedi Academy, so how did Tag know it was him who had confronted them?

He puzzled this for a while, but no obvious answer presented itself, mainly because no matter how hard he tried to concentrate, the only person he could think about was Tahiri. He tried again to search for her in the Force, but it was like reaching into a void -- there was simply nothing there. Anakin hissed out a frustrated sigh. Losing his connection to the Force was as incapacitating as having limbs cut off. If he couldn't sense her, then probably she couldn't sense him, and that was very worrying. How would she react? He hoped she wouldn't do anything impulsive like rush into Tag's office with her lightsaber blazing. He would have to trust that Tendra would prevent her from doing anything crazy. Restrain her with stun cuffs if necessary, Tendra he thought. In spite of his circumstances he couldn't help a faint smile. Tahiri, although small, could be amazingly fierce when she was provoked. It was one of the things he had always admired about her, one of the things he had come to love -- one of the many things. He rested his head back and closed his eyes, trying once again to break through this annoying barrier that had him feeling cornered like an animal.

An animal?

He sat bolt upright, and then wished he hadn't, because the sudden movement threatened to reawake the pulsating headache he'd had earlier. That's it, he thought triumphantly, and I'm a fool for not realising it earlier. He remembered his Uncle Luke telling him about ysalamiri and how the Force bubble that the creatures produced to protect themselves in their natural environment could be used as a weapon against Jedi. Of course! This Tag had somehow managed to get hold of some, which suggested either that he was expecting Lando to bring a Jedi with him, or that the Peace Brigade was issuing its members with ysalamiri to further its mission to turn the Jedi over to the Vong. Yuuzhan Vong, he could almost hear Tahiri correcting him. The thought of her induced a sense of longing to be near her again, and made his inability to connect mentally with her even more devastating. It also made the idea of escaping an urgent priority. The question was how, for being unable to use the Force was going to reduce his options somewhat. Another question that needed answering was where was Lando?

* * * * *

Lando had recovered consciousness to discover that he was not only lying on a hard patch of wooden floor, but also that he was the object of interest for five curious sets of eyes. One set looked suddenly startled when he began to try and sit up, and hid themselves in the skirt to which their owner was clinging. The wearer of the skirt placed her hand protectively on the startled one's dark curls, and Lando heard her utter a few calming words in a language he had never heard before. Meanwhile another set of eyes had moved closer, and their owner squatted down and offered him a helping hand to pull himself into an upright position. Lando tried to voice his thanks, but his throat was so parched all that came out was a hoarse rasping sound. He coughed and waved his hand apologetically.

"Don't worry," offered his helper. "Give yourself time." He reached over to a shelf and grabbed a plastene flask which he pressed into Lando's hand. "Here, have a few sips of water."

Lando nodded his thanks and tried to let the liquid slide slowly down his throat rather than gulp it. He had no idea as to how long he'd been out to it, but judging by his thirst levels, it must have been a while.

"I gather you're another objector, or did Tag just take a dislike to you?"

Lando swallowed a last mouthful of water, and scrutinised the younger man. "Objector?"

"Yeah," the man's grey eyes flickered over to another man, who Lando could see had moved over to a spot in the corner of the dingy room. The two exchanged confidential glances. They both looked dirty and unshaven, but Lando didn't think they posed a threat. No doubt he didn't exactly look like Prince Charming either.

"I'm not sure what you mean?" He pushed himself tentatively to his feet and teetered for a moment before stabilising himself by placing a hand against the wall. "I'll be okay," he waved off the man's proferred arm. "Just adapting to the gravity of the situation."

The man grinned sardonically. "Yeah," he nodded. "I get the idea then that Tag just simply don't like you. What'd you do to upset him?"

Lando returned the grin. "Let's just say we don't share the same tastes. Where in the name of the Sith are we?"

"In his storage facility near the spaceport, waiting to be presented to the Vong," his voice had dropped to a low whisper on the last part of his statement, and he nodded significantly towards one of the two women.

Lando glanced over quickly, and noticed that she was holding a small baby. He studied the man's serious expression. "The Vong?" he mouthed.

"Yeah -- Tag's with the Peace Brigade -- did you know?"

"Yeah I did figure that out -- although admittedly a trifle too late. What did you mean when you asked if I was an objector?"

"Qorl and I," the man indicated the older man in the corner, "started an anti-Peace Brigade group. In hindsight obviously a really stupid idea."

"Yeah -- it certainly pays not to show too much integrity these days," said Lando, studying the men with interest. "Do you two have a connection with the Jedi, or do you just have some bone to pick with the Peace Brigade?"

The young man snorted back a brittle laugh. "Let's just say that I operate on the don't get mad, get even principle, except this time my plan to get even came a bit unstuck."

"I see," said Lando. It was a lie, but a more urgent thought had occurred to him. "When they brought me here, do you know if they brought anyone else?"

The man's grey eyes looked puzzled. "Well, if they did, they certainly didn't bring them here."

Lando huffed in exasperation. "Spit." He had seen them inject Anakin with some drug, presumably the same drug they had given him. But he had blacked out just as they were carrying the boy out of the room, so he had no idea as to where they had taken him. He was also worried about Tendra and Tahiri.

He considered explaining more about his situation to the man, but decided not to. For all he knew the man might have been planted there by Tag, and he was hopeful that Tag might not think to investigate whether he and Anakin had brought any others with them when they came to Balmorra. Instead he nodded over towards the two women who were talking quietly in their strange tongue, while at the same time throwing him the occasional curious glance. "What's the story with those two?"

"Tag captured them a few days before he got us. Apparently he thought they were Jedi, but they're actually healers -- from some place called Mantrusia."

Lando narrowed his eyes thoughtfully. "Tzensentya?" he asked.

The man's eyebrows shot up in surprise. "Yeah -- yeah that's what they call themselves. How'd you know that?"

"I'm a man of the galaxy my friend," he replied smoothly. "Never been there mind you, but a friend did once, and he told me about them. Mantrusia's in the Tarsus Sector in what the Empire used to call the Circle, way out beyond the Maw in that distant arm of the galaxy. The tzensentya are recognised as having pretty amazing healing powers, so I guess it would be easy to mistake them for Jedi."

"Yeah, that's what they said. Makes you wonder how many other people with Jedi-like abilities have been handed over to the Vong," said the man bitterly.

Lando frowned. "You said Tag thought they were Jedi. Obviously he's recognised his mistake, yet you reckon he's still going to hand them over?"

The young man's face contorted into a grimace. "Yep. Along with us they'll be surplus sacrifice fodder. He had them somewhere else originally -- had them caged up beside some of those ysalamiri things. But when he realised the ysalamiri weren't dampening their powers, he knew he'd made a mistake, so he brought them here. Couldn't let them go because naturally they would have gone to the authorities about him, or raised a diplomatic stink when they got back to their own world."

"So he's out to capture Jedi for the Vong?" Lando felt his stomach muscles tighten. It was obvious that Anakin was in serious danger, especially if Tag had ysalamiri on hand.

"Got it in one. On the surface he's a hard-working man running a reputable manufacturing business, but on the side, he operates as a contact for the Peace Brigade. I still can't quite get why he's decided to nab you. You obviously ain't no Jedi."

The last statement was obviously intended as an indirect question, and Lando could sense a slight hint of suspicion. He hesitated for a moment, still uncertain whether to trust the man or not. "Why are you so anti the Peace Brigade?" he asked finally.

The man shrugged, and leaned back against the wall. "What the hell. I guess confession ain't going to make me feel much worse than I'm already feeling. They hired me a while ago to transport some Jedi they intended to capture, but things didn't go according to plan. One, it turned out the Jedi they wanted to catch were kids, and two, my ship got shot up real bad and Qorl and I barely got out of it alive. I figured they owed me for lying about the job, and they also owed me for damages, so after I got my ship fixed up, I found Tag and suggested he might like to foot the repair bill."

"I gather he wasn't too keen on that idea," said Lando drily. His gaze drifted over to the older man sitting hunched against the wall. The name Qorl rang a distant bell in Lando's memory, but for the moment he couldn't quite place it. He still felt fuzzy from the intravenous dose of sleep drug, and although the man's explanation reminded him of something else, he couldn't quite connect it all up.

"Understatement of the year. So, like I said, I decided to make things a bit difficult for him. Balmorra prides itself on being a pleasant enough little world -- solid member of the New Republic, no serious wars or internal strife, not a bad place to come for a bit of R and R in fact, well, at least for those who aren't trying to find a hole to crawl into to hide from the Vong. Therefore I figured the local authorities wouldn't be too happy if they thought the Peace Brigade had a hold here. So Qorl and I started a few rumours, in some of the favourite haunts of what you might call the, uh, lower echelons of society, suggesting that a certain stalwart of the business community was in league with the Alliance of Twelve."

Lando cleared his throat. "I gather your presence here means that your rumour was successful."

The man laughed, albeit sardonically. "For a couple of months you might say we were enjoying stirring up the poodoo. We even managed to get folks worked up enough to organise a big anti-Peace Brigade rally, from which came our little band of objectors. Unfortunately we didn't realise the extent of Tag's influence in the underworld and we ended up trusting a few too many people."

"You got sold out in other words?"

"Yeah. But I figure we did enough damage to rattle him. He was going to run for office in the local council so hopefully the allegations'll cast a few doubts on his credibility -- and since the rally, the media have become quite interested in his activities. Plus it must have cost him a packet painting over all the graffiti on the walls of his manufacturing plant, at least I hope it did."

"How long have you been prisoners?"

"About seven days -- standard time. He must have nabbed the women about four or five days before us. I don't know if it's good or bad that they're not Jedi. If they were it'd mean he'd try and get us off planet to the Vong as quick as possible. But as they're not, he'll either keep us here till he catches a Jedi, or he'll give us to the Vong as slaves, or ..." he ran a finger across his throat. "I mean what value do a few slaves have?"

But Lando wasn't listening. Suddenly the missing pieces in the logic puzzle had fallen into place. "Sithspawn!"

"Exactly," sighed the younger man. "Jedi aren't exactly queueing up to come to Balmorra."

"I've, er, got some good news and some bad news for you," said Lando, swinging himself down on to the bench, mainly because his legs felt a little weak.

"Bad news first, please. Not that things can get much worse."

"Well, the bad news is they do have a Jedi now, so it looks like we'll soon be in for a trip."

"Great. I hate long waits. What's the good news?"

"Well, strange though it may sound, I think the Jedi concerned might be someone you know."

The man gazed at Lando, his grey eyes searching the smooth, good-looking features for a clue. "I don't know no ..." he stopped short, and his mouth dropped open. "Solo, Anakin vaping Solo!"

"Got it in one," Lando grinned cheerlessly.

The young man's mouth opened and closed a few more times. Then he sank down and joined Lando on the bench, exchanging wide-eyed glances with his companion. "Well," he said finally, "it's true what they say about it being a small galaxy."

"Yep," Lando nodded.

The man was silent for a moment longer, then he eyed Lando side-on and held out a hand. "S'pose I'd better introduce myself now that you know all about me. Name's Vehn, Remis Vehn." He nodded over towards the older man. "And this is Qorl."

Qorl nodded at Lando, the expression on his wrinkled face inscrutible. Lando nodded back. He remembered back about four years to when Jaina and Jacen had told him about the old Imperial, and how he had survived over twenty standard years on Yavin 4 after being shot down during the battle with the first Death Star. He also remembered Qorl saving the twins in the battle he, Luke, Han and the young Jedi had had with the Shadow Academy. Obviously the old ex-pilot had somehow got himself involved with Anakin's mission to rescue the young Jedi children, and now here he was, looking a little younger and healthier. He had shaved off his black beard, and had begun to show the benefits of regular food, and, at least up until recently, a less hazardous lifestyle.

He took Vehn's hand and gave it a perfunctory shake. "I'm Lando Calrissian. Pleased to meet you."

Vehn stifled a snort. "Yeah -- pity our acquaintance looks like it might be a bit on the short side."

"I wouldn't give up yet," Lando murmured.

"I dunno. Although the kid's a tough customer, I doubt he'll be able to do much good with those vaping ysalamiri things around."

"Possibly. However, he and I didn't come here alone."

Vehn's grey eyes flickered over Lando's face, a spark of curiosity brightening them slightly.

"Do I sense friends with blasters?"

Lando replied with a grin that showed a lot of white teeth. "And a tendency for unpredictable and sometimes ferocious mood swings," he added.

"Woohoo. They sound like my kind of psychos. Who are they?"

In spite of the situation, Lando chuckled. "One loyal wife and one very determined girlfriend."

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