Many Happy Returns: Chapter Six
Iella

Tendra rested back against Lando, and smiled weakly up at one of the two women, who, along with two other men, shared the room that Lando had just informed her was serving as their prison. She still felt disoriented, and was trying desperately to remember more precisely the events that had resulted in her being brought here. The woman smiled back and reaching out, stroked Tendra's forehead gently. To Tendra's surprise the blinding headache she had woken up with immediately began to fade. She felt a strange prickling sensation, as if she was moving through a mild electric field, and then nothing -- the pain had gone. She blinked and shook her head in disbelief.

"Don't worry," the woman said quietly. "You'll feel weak for a while, but that's just your nervous system recovering. The drug will soon be completely filtered out."

"That's amazing," murmured Tendra. "Thank you." She glanced up at Lando and threw him a questioning look.

Lando's expression lightened a little, although his brown eyes were still registering concern, presumably, Tendra thought, for both her and their general situation.

"Are they Jedi?" she whispered.

Lando replied with a shake of his head. "They're healers - from a place called Mantrusia." He waved his hand towards both the woman who had been tending to Tendra and the other younger woman, who, Tendra noticed, was holding a small baby. The older one sat down, taking a young boy with dark curly hair on to her lap. "This is Neijal and Kushka, and," he turned to acknowledge the other woman, "Jassif and little Ruba."

Tendra smiled faintly and her eyes lingered on the baby.

"And these two are Remis Vehn and Qorl."

Tendra nodded at the two men, who nodded back.

"Turns out both Qorl and Vehn know Anakin. They helped him and Tahiri escape from Yavin 4."

Vehn snorted back a bitter laugh. "Which as it turns out seems to have been a case of delaying the inevitable." He seemed to reconsider his outburst, and threw her an apologetic look. "Pleased to meet you, ma'am. Well, the circumstances could be better, but you know what I mean."

Tendra waved a hand dismissively. "Call me Tendra, please. I may be down and out, but I'm not decrepit."

Lando gave her an affectionate squeeze, and a look that told Tendra how much he admired her spirit. "In fact Qorl and I have met before -- a few years ago when he helped us fight the Shadow Academy."

Qorl cleared his throat. "Your husband's being kind," he said, his voice still raspy. "I made the mistake of trusting the wrong people then, and almost helped destroy him and his friends."

"Well, the important thing is that you realised it and did something about it," said Lando.

"Yeah," interrupted Vehn, "which is more than you can say for me. I swore blind that I wouldn't trust anyone again -- and what happens?"

"You trusted people again," replied Qorl matter-of-factly.

"Hey don't worry," said Lando. "Look at me. I was so busy worrying about what Anakin and Tahiri were getting up to that I didn't notice the real problem."

"Well," Tendra sighed quietly and patted his arm. "I did tell you not to worry about them."

"And as usual you were right."

"If we had any chance of escaping," said Vehn sardonically, "I'd strongly advise you to write that admission down. Bet you don't hear that very often."

The two Mantrusian women smiled and nodded to each other, and in spite of their circumstances Tendra smiled again too.

"Feel free to use me as comic relief," Lando waved his free arm resignedly.

"Thanks," said Vehn. "May I remind you how you gave us some false hopes by suggesting that your wife and Solo's squeeze were going to break us out of here?"

Lando threw his wife an apologetic look. "Okay -- I admit to being wrong about that one too. The annoying thing is I think Anakin sensed something wrong, but I told him off for being paranoid."

Tendra reached up and patted his cheek. "I think it's a bit too late for recriminations, don't you?"

"True, but I still feel responsible." Lando paused, going back in his mind over the sketchy details Tendra had told him about their fight, just after she came to. "I wish we knew what happened to Tahiri."

Tendra was silent. She had become fond of the girl, of both of the young people in fact.

"However," continued Lando. "As Tag's modus operandi seems to involve drugging people, it stands to reason that that's what he's done to her."

"Yeah, well he wants us alive, because he wants to give us to the Vong," said Vehn. "And he'll want her alive because she's a Jedi."

"Do you think they might have taken her to where they have Anakin?" Tendra asked Lando.

"Presumably. I hope so anyway."

Vehn snorted again. "If it weren't for the ysalamiri, I'd say we were in with a chance. If anybody could get themselves out of a sticky spot, it's those two crazy idiots."

Tendra's eyes opened wide. "They have ysalamiri?"

Lando and Vehn nodded.

"Oh dear," she sighed. She began looking around at the room they were being held in, studying the walls and ceiling carefully.

Vehn studied her guardedly for a moment and then glanced across at Lando. "You know something, Calrissian -- your wife's something else. Look at her -- hardly conscious and she's already trying to find a way to escape."

Lando grinned. "We've spent the last hour or so doing exactly the same," he informed her.

"So I gather you've already tried wrenching that grid off the wall and forcing that durasteel panel open?" Tendra studied the grid and estimated it to be about the size of a large window -- certainly big enough for a person to climb through. Or at least it would be if not for the solid metal panel behind it.

"Vehn and Qorl managed to work the grid off several days ago. It's only hanging on at the moment, but they keep it there to stop the guards getting suspicious."

"Yeah," Vehn nodded. "The problem is that panel. We're assuming it leads to the outside, and it looks like it should open, but we haven't been able to figure out how. It's probably been welded shut." He got up and signalled to Qorl to take up a sentry position at the door, and then he and Lando carefully manipulated the grid on to the floor.

Lando ran his fingers around the edge of the panel for the umpteenth time, and suddenly his expression changed. "Run your hand round there, and tell me what you feel," he said to Vehn.

The younger man did as he was bid, and shook his head. "No gaps. Solid durasteel as far as I can tell."

Lando waved Tendra to come over. "You try," he said. "I don't want to suggest anything in case I make you imagine you feel the same thing."

Tendra threw him a quizzical look, and then began to move her fingers slowly down the outside frame. "Oh!" she stopped, and put her face up close against the frame just above her fingers.

Vehn frowned. "What?"

"I can feel a draught," she said.

Vehn pushed her aside and pressed his cheek on the same place. "Yeah," he drawled, "you're right." He stepped back and folded his arms. "Well I guess that proves it is an outside wall, but it doesn't really help us figure out how to get rid of it." He watched as Tendra ran her fingers around the lower edge of the panel.

"No," agreed Lando, "unless ..." He stared up at the top thoughtfully, and then turned to his wife. "Here, I'll give you a hoist up. See if you can feel anything up there."

Tendra placed one foot on his clasped hands, and then used the wall to keep her balance as he lifted her up. She ran her fingers along the top of the frame. "No. No breeze coming through here. Move me along to the edge." Lando complied, and she pressed her cheek against the corner and then again at a point further down. "I think this is sealed along the top, which means it might open up and out."

Lando lowered her down and she checked the bottom of the panel again. "Yes," she said triumphantly. "The further down you go, the more draughty it is."

"Interesting," murmured Lando. He stepped back and studied the panel, and his brown eyes narrowed. "It must be some sort of air inlet, I wonder how it works -- automatically or manually?"

The two Mantrusian women had come over to join them.

"It may be something like what we had in one of the storerooms in the warehouse I worked in back home," said Neijal. "It used to open when the room became too hot."

Vehn and Lando exchanged triumphant looks.

"In that case," said Lando, "I wonder if there's a heat sensor anywhere."

Suddenly Qorl waved his arms. "Someone's coming!" he hissed.

"Okay, guys, let's get this thing back," said Vehn.

"We'll talk more about this later," grunted Lando as he helped Vehn reposition the grid into its slots. He had just finished pushing the lower left edge back inside the ridge that held it, when he heard the loud click of a locking device and the door opened.

*****

Anakin woke up still feeling a little stiff and sore from his fall, but pleasantly warm down one side. He waggled his head and worked one shoulder in circles to relieve his cramped muscles, trying not to disturb Tahiri who was still asleep against his other shoulder. He sat for a while in the dark, studying the shelves and the vent and working out what he was going to do. When he had the steps carefully organised in his head, he rested his head back on Tahiri's soft hair and closed his eyes again. She stirred and muttered something unintelligible, and then cuddled into him again, and his arm tightened round her. He didn't fall asleep again, but just dozed, enjoying the comfort of knowing that, no matter what happened, at least he and Tahiri were together.

******

The door had opened to three men -- two with combat rifles and one with a tray of food and a bag of what looked like cloth. Tendra was astounded to discover that it was actually a square of linen for the baby. She was even more dumbounded after they had eaten, and the men returned. One of them -- a stocky Shistavanen with a flash of white fur over one eye -- waved his rifle at her to indicate she go out with them. She exchanged a worried look with Lando, but Jassif patted her arm reassuringly.

"Refresher stop," she explained.

Tendra threw Lando a wide-eyed stare and followed the men out. The Shistavanen led her to a refresher down the end of a ramp, and then returned to escort the Mantrusians and then Vehn and Qorl. Tendra expected them to take Lando too, but when they returned Qorl, they slammed the door shut.

"Looks like you get to hold it," commented Vehn. "They did that to Qorl and me the first day we were here. Suppose they thought we'd be that grateful for the luxury that we wouldn't cause any trouble."

"And were you?" Lando wiped some drops of the fatty gruel they'd been given for dinner off the collar of his purple tunic top.

Vehn shrugged, and grinned humourlessly. "Well, I had to give it a go. But unfortunately two guys with blasters against one without is not particularly good odds."

"True." Lando watched as Jassif laid Ruba down on the floor and began unfastening her nappy. "Tag's obviously not your average hoodlum. I can't remember having this sort of humanitarian treatment the other times I've been imprisoned."

"Do you make a habit of getting captured?" asked Vehn curiously.

Lando snorted back a dry laugh. "I do try to avoid it, but it doesn't always want to avoid me."

Vehn cocked his head on one side and studied the tall man for a moment. "You're right about Tag being odd. I think he's one of those guys who thinks that they're acting in everybody's best interests. He really believes that Peace Brigade crap."

"I can't see how anyone with any sense can," said Lando. He noticed Tendra had gone over to talk to Neijal, and the two were eventually joined by Jassif. Both of the Mantrusian women were rather beautiful in an exotic way; they were fair-skinned and quite petite, and both wore earrings in one ear. He wondered if the rings had some cultural significance.

"I admit to sort of half believing it -- once. Although I suppose it was more just a case of going along with it. I'd never sat down and really analysed what they said." Vehn paused and scratched at the unruly beard that his days of imprisonment had produced. "But Tag sees it a bit like a religion, I think. He's quite well respected here in the business community, and in local politics. He's seen as a family man and a stalwart humanitarian, and in a strange way I think he is. I mean look at our situation -- anyone else would have thrown us in a room and let us lie in our own filth, and yet we get fed once a day, toileted and the baby gets a clean nappy. Crazy!"

Lando nodded, and rubbed his own chin thoughtfully, imagining what he would look like in a few days without shaving. "Maybe he thinks the Vong would prefer healthy, well-cared for sacrifices," he offered.

"Maybe," Vehn uttered a sound that was half sigh, and half laugh. "Whatever -- he's weird." He lowered his voice. "I feel sorry for those women."

"They're very stoic," said Lando quietly.

"They have to be because of the little kid. Jassif got pretty upset at first, but Neijal convinced her that she had to stay calm in order to keep feeding the baby. At least I think that's what she told her -- I was having to interpret from their actions because I don't speak their language."

Lando nodded. "Makes sense," he said. "Which brings us to the question of escaping."

Qorl had been listening silently, but he suddenly cleared his throat, an act Lando had come to recognise as a signal for the old pilot to begin talking. "I've been thinking about that -- and I think I might have figured out where the sensor is."

"Good for you," said Vehn, as Qorl clambered creakily to his feet and led them over to the metal grid.

Tendra saw them get up, and joined them. "Can you make any sense of this Tag fellow?" she asked Lando quietly.

"Not really, except to say that the first time I did business with him, he struck me as a nice guy, and the second time I did business with him, he struck me."

Tendra laughed, but it was more an acknowledgment of the pun, than a response to any humour. "Not that I'm complaining about the hygiene arrangements, but there's something rather unsettling about someone who cares enough about people to provide them with basic needs and then feels he can calmly hand them over to be sacrificed. It smacks of weird cult behaviour."

"Yeah," Lando mused. "It does." He turned to Qorl. "Okay old buddy, what've you got for us?"

Qorl had been tapping quietly on the wall beside the metal grid and was now fingering what looked like a seam in the panelling. He appeared to nod to himself, and his normally impassive expression lightened. "Yes, I thought so," he muttered to himself, and then glanced up at Lando. "I thought this was a joint, but look -- it only runs down to the bottom of the panel. It's actually a wire. And that might be the sensor at the end of it."

Lando squinted up to where the line stopped at the ceiling. There was something at the top of it that looked like a loosely fitted connector. "You may well be right, Qorl," he said, his brown eyes suddenly energised. "Vehn, if I bend over, can you get up on my back and check it out?"

"Don't want to use you as a doormat or anything," quipped Vehn as Qorl helped him clamber up. He was still about half a metre away from it, but he could see that the end of the object was bulbous and contained some perforations. "Yep, I reckon this is what we were looking for. Now the question is, how to set the thing off?" He jumped down off Lando's back, and Lando straightened, wincing a little.

"He was heavier than I thought," he said in reply to Tendra's questioning look.

She smiled. "Maybe you're just older than you think."

"Hey, there's plenty of life left in me yet, and what's more I intend to live it. Right, ideas anyone. How can we make things hot in here?"

To everyone's surprise, Kushka spoke up for the first time.

"Light a fire," he said simply.



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