Many Happy Returns: Chapter Eight
Iella

Anakin and Tahiri had taken some time to investigate the top level of roof, eventually finding a row of squares of reinforced plastine that looked like the type of pop-up skylights sometimes found in refreshers. Even better, one of them was slightly ajar, and gave in easily to the levering action Anakin applied to it with his multi-tool. Golly, he thought, there's no way I'm going to be able to match this present. It was a tight fit, but he made it through, finding himself in one of the cubicles. Tahiri was already checking the large room on the other side of the main door.

"All clear," she whispered. "The only unknown factor is any alarms they might have."

"Keep to the walls, and keep checking for beams. This room looks like some sort of common-room anyway, so there's not much likelihood of them having alarms in here."

"True."

They reached the corridor, and Tahiri glanced up at him. "Which way now?"

Anakin started out to the left. "This way, I think. Tag's office is in that one-storey section at the front, and I'm assuming that's where we'll find our lightsabers."

"And possibly Tag as well," Tahiri reminded him. They had discussed the possibility of Tag remaining on site to help guard his precious prisoners.

"We'll worry about that if it happens," replied Anakin quietly. "For all we know he may have Lando and Tendra here too, although it does seem unlikely. But if he does, you never know, we might find them first, in which case there'll be four of us."

"You're ever the optimist, aren't you?" Again he could tell by her tone that she was smiling.

******

Dajira pushed herself back as far as she could into the dark corner, and pulled the cage containing the ysalamiri close. She wasn't sure whether the sound she had heard was voices or not, or if it was just her imagination. The place was creepy at night, the normal thrumming of machinery and workers' voices replaced by an eerie silence interrupted occasionally by the strange creaks that buildings sometimes emit in response to changes in temperature. Dinarra was in the temperate zone and so was blessed with a pleasant climate, but it was the cool season, and that meant the nights were noticeably chilly. She tried holding her breath in case that might help her hear more clearly. Yes, there it was again -- a faint sibilant sound, as of clothes rustling or people whispering. She let her breath out quietly, and tried to calm her racing heart, at the same time attempting to locate the direction of the sound. She wondered for a moment if it might have been sounds made by Mahko and the others carrying from another section of the factory. Maybe one of them had found the Jedi. Or maybe not. Maybe the two had already escaped.

Somehow she found that possibility unlikely, although it had been one Mahko and the other guards had considered when they realised the Jedi were no longer in their prison. Since Bomar's trouble with the anti-Peace Brigade group, he had improved the security fencing around the building, and Mahko had found no records of disruptions to the force-fields when he had checked on the computers. Everyone had agreed that the Jedi would most likely need to break back into the building and then try and escape through one of the doors or windows, or through the loading bay. Mahko had therefore directed some guards to patrol the main exit points, and others including Dajira to investigate the main corridors. Dajira was nervous at the thought of confronting the Jedi, but she was also determined to protect her step-father's property and to support his efforts to stop the war. It seemed to her that peace was a far better proposition to fighting, especially against such a relentless enemy. And it did seem that the Jedi were the ones who were provoking the Vong and therefore keeping the war going.

She transferred the blaster pistol Mahko had given her to her left hand and wiped the sweat from her other hand on her jumpsuit. Bomar had taught her how to use a blaster, and she knew she was a reasonable shot, but she had never had to use one under pressure. She stiffened as she heard the whispering sound again, closer this time. She felt the acrid sting of stomach acid in the back of her throat and forced herself to think calming thoughts to curb the sense of rising panic. The ysalamiri snuffled in its cage beside her, and she silently congratulated herself for having the forethought to find a repulsor sled and bring one of the creatures with her. Facing Jedi without their powers is no different to facing normal people, she told herself bravely.

*****

Anakin and Tahiri had managed to work their way down to the first floor without incident, although it was taking ages due to the fact they kept losing their bearings. The factory had few windows and no helpful signs giving directions. They were both hesitant to trust their directional senses due to the strange disorienting effect caused by the presence of the ysalamiri. The annoying thing was that they had noticed, while on the roof, that their connection with the Force had returned, although it still felt shadowy and inconsistent. But now they were back in the building, and certainly since they had moved down a floor, the sense of dislocation had returned.

When they entered another section of corridor, Anakin noticed the fuzzy sensation elevate suddenly, and he knew that could only mean one thing. He turned to Tahiri, who was following like a shadow behind him.

"Wait here," he mouthed.

She peered into the darkness and then back at him, and a stubborn expression entered her eyes.

"I need you to back me up," he explained quickly before she could argue.

She studied his face for a moment and then nodded silently, falling back into the darkness like a wraith. Anakin moved slowly forward, searching the area ahead of him for human or humanoid shapes, and straining his ears to hear anything resembling breathing. He thought he caught a movement beside a box-like thing on a pedestal and blinked quickly to check it wasn't his imagination.

"Don't move!" came a curt voice. Anakin halted in his tracks and watched a shape coalesce from the shadows. He frowned as he recognised the Twi'lek who had greeted them in the office.

"I gather this is all part and parcel of the friendly service," he said, eyeing the blaster pointed at his midriff.

"Shut up and put your hands above your head!" she said. This time Anakin noticed a faint quaver in her tone, but he complied. Dealing with nervous assailants was a lot more dangerous in some ways to dealing with practised ones, as they were more likely to shoot out of panic. Now he had managed to focus his eyes on her face, he could see that she was indeed very frightened, but also determined. He could also see now that the thing beside her was a cage that held an ysalamiri.

"Where's your friend?" she demanded.

"I told her to wait," he replied. "I wanted to get our lightsabers." The truth from a certain perspective, he thought grimly. He watched the blaster waver slightly, and returned his gaze to the Twi'lek girl's face. He saw that she was staring back, but he couldn't decipher the meaning of the expression in her eyes, partly because of the darkness and partly because it didn't quite seem to match the mood of the current situation.

"I know who you are," she said suddenly. "You're Anakin Solo."

Anakin cocked his head on one side, and shuffled slightly to the left, as if to get a better view of her.

"Do I know you?" he asked curiously, and took another tentative step to the side.

She snorted in a way that was simultaneously derisive and self-deprecatory. "Of course not. We don't exactly move in the same circles."

Anakin kept his hands on his head, but shrugged, taking another sly step. "I wondered if we had and I'd offended you somehow. Otherwise why would you be threatening me with a blaster?"

"I can't let you escape," she said, a trace of desperation creeping into her voice. "Keep still!"

"Sorry. It's that ysalamiri. It makes me feel a little dizzy." He dared another slight shuffle.

The girl stepped out from the corner. "I told you to keep still! I don't want to shoot you, but I will if I have to!"

"Why don't you want to shoot?"

Dajira was beginning to feel confused, and she wished he would stop asking questions. At the same time, however, she wanted him to talk to her, as this was something she had dreamed about - albeit not quite in these circumstances.

She knew if it had been one of the other Jedi standing there, she would have had no compunction about depressing the trigger. But there was something mesmerising about Anakin Solo's blue eyes, something honourable about his earnest expression. She prayed he wouldn't move again, so she wouldn't be forced to decide between her sense of loyalty and the other emotions that were assailing her. It didn't help that his current stance, with his arms up and his hands locked behind his head, only served to accentuate the athletic lines of his body. Dajira shook her head in an effort to clear a path through the confusion so she could reply to his question.

"Because ... because you're a Jedi, and the Vong want Jedi," she managed to say.

"My friends Lando and Tendra aren't Jedi," he said. "Did your friends shoot them?"

She went to reply, but then stopped herself. Anakin took heart from the fact that she had just begun to shake her head. He had chosen to assume that Lando and Tendra would be prisoners, but he knew there was a chance Tag might have decided to kill them.

"And anyway," he said matter-of-factly, "you could just stun me. That way I can't fight you, and you get to put me back in prison again."

"It's a shame ysalamiri don't work on your voice box," she said acidly, readjusting her stance to remain facing him.

"What I don't understand," said Anakin, "is how you can still think giving us to the Vong is going to help you. You realise they'll just kill you anyway and take your planet."

"That's not true. Those are just lies you make up to protect yourselves."

"Okay. Name me one planet the Vong have spared?" He watched as her mouth opened and closed a few times like a beached krakana struggling for air. "The Vong don't know the meaning of peace," he continued. "They only understand conquest and death. And they're not willing to share the galaxy -- they want the lot. Anyone who thinks differently is either stupid or on spice." He bit his lip, wondering if he'd pushed the girl too far.

Her eyes grew wide and her chin trembled, and for a moment he thought she was going to burst into tears. "My step-father is not stupid, and he certainly doesn't take spice. He's a good man, and he wants the best for everyone."

Anakin was surprised to realise that this girl was related to Tag, but he didn't let it show. In fact it gave him more ammunition. "Did you know the organisation he's with tried to capture a whole lot of little kids to give to the Vong?"

Dajira stared at him in horror. "He would never do that!"

"Maybe he wouldn't personally -- but the Peace Brigade did. I know. because I was there. And I also know that the Vong slaughtered the Brigade leaders and took the rest as slaves." He paused and his eyes seemed to gaze into the distance for a moment as if he was remembering. Then he appeared to nod to himself, and he raised his eyebrows. "Is that what you want to happen to you and your step-father?"

Dajira gasped. She wanted to denounce Anakin's words as lies, but there was something in his serious expression that told her he was being truthful. She had heard rumours about the Peace Brigade's activities on Yavin, rumours her step-father claimed had been started by the anti-Brigade movement that had sprung up in Dinarra recently. She had just started to frame a reply when something leapt on to her from behind, and she thought for one crazy moment that the ysalamiri had escaped and had turned feral. She felt the blaster ripped from her grasp, and then something exploded against her head with a terrible crack and the world turned black.

"Good work!" said Anakin. "Have you been taking secret lessons from Mara?"

"I'm getting really sick of this Peace Brigade mumbo-jumbo," Tahiri replied. "Really, really sick of it." She checked the blaster and handed it to Anakin. "It's set on stun."

"I know," replied Anakin grabbing her hand. "Come on. We've got to ..." his words were drowned out by a whining sound and a scarlet bolt scorched the wall beside them. He slammed his hand on to the door control beside him and pulled Tahiri through the opening, blasting the lock on the other side as soon as the door had rolled down.

"That was no stun beam!" she gasped. "I don't think you're going to be able to sweet-talk your way out this time."

"I think you're right. Either they've given up on the stun idea completely, or they're going to try and wing us."

They gazed around the room desperately, aware of the sounds of muffled but frenzied voices outside.

"This must be part of the manufacturing section," whispered Anakin, leading Tahiri over to a rail. Below them in the darkness they saw a long conveyor belt containing deep rectangular trays, and above it, clamped to a long piston suspended from a gantry, was a large metal press. To their left, another belt emerged from a tunnel that sloped down to stop about one metre above the first. Behind them, the door moved up a fraction, and another blaster shot seared past Anakin's legs singeing the material of his snug-fitting Corellian breeches. He let loose a return shot, and heard a curse.

"Stupid vaping Dajira!" came a surly voice. "Had to interfere on daddy's behalf, and now what happens? She ends up letting them get their hands on a blaster."

Tahiri studied the area immediately around them. Opposite was an alcove that held a huge console, obviously the controls for some of the machinery. On their left was another expanse of darkness in which loomed a lumpy set of structures, one of which looked ominously like a gallows. Even so, Tahiri decided it looked like a better place to be than where they were. Anakin obviously agreed because he had already begun pulling her around the rail. They had just reached the shelter of what turned out to be the unloading platform for the conveyor belt that connected with the one below when the door screeched protestingly up several more notches, and four figures almost fell over each other trying to rush through. Another followed, guiding the ysalamiri cage.

"I definitely think the time for sweet-talking has run out," said Anakin.



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