Many Happy Returns: Chapter Ten
Dajira watched as the intense darkness that cloaked the familiar shapes in her stepfather's office took on a paler hue. In some ways the dark had been more comfortable -- a refuge, such as Dajira thought she must have known once as an infant wrapped in the security and warmth of her mother's shawl. This early morning greyness reflected too accurately her new situation in which truths that she had once accepted with blind faith now seemed to be as indistinct and hazy as the dawn sky.
She leaned her slim frame back against the welcome solidity of her stepfather's chair, and studied the world outside the shutters. She had been sitting there since she had sent the two Jedi on their way. Physically she felt cold and sick from the blow to her head; emotionally she felt numb. It was as if someone had taken a huge pair of shears and snipped the cord that had connected her body with what had nurtured it. All that was left was a raw suppurating scar.
She pulled away the cloth she had filled with ice from the staff's refreshment stand. The cut on the back of her head had stopped bleeding some time ago, but she found the ice had soothed her headache and would no doubt reduce the swelling. Ideally she should contact Bomar and let him know what had happened, but every time she had tried to will her hands to reach for the communicator, something had held her back. Now, if she could just define what that something was.
The fact of the matter was that the something was a collaboration of things, all tied together in a confusing mess, some tugging her one way and some another. Loyalty dictated that she alert her stepfather immediately, but that would require her explaining her presence at the factory, which would in turn mean divulging her lack of faith in Mahko, which of course Bomar would take as criticism of him. Then she would have to explain Mahko's actions, which would enrage Bomar even more, because it was quite obvious that Mahko had forgotten that his primary aim was to recapture the Jedi. Obviously Mahko hadn't expected them to make recapture so difficult, and Dajira suspected that he had let his anger take over. He hadn't been working for her stepfather for long, and it was obvious to her he hadn't been hired for his intelligence. Bomar had taken him on when the anti-Peace Brigade group started making trouble.
Then there was the problem of the two young Jedi themselves. They seemed so earnest, so truthful. Up until now she had felt that beliefs were something that the adults in her life provided her with, just as they provided her with food and clothing. She had never really stopped to analyse these beliefs, and in fact it had never occurred to her that they needed to be analysed, or even that they mattered. They just belonged to her, like her name. But Tag was not her name -- not her true birth name anyway. What did Dajira whoever-she-was believe? Did she believe that the Peace Brigade were right to collaborate? And if so, what form should that collaboration take? Could she really justify them capturing children to hand over to the Yuuzhan Vong?
Or was it just that her infatuation with Anakin Solo was blinding her, and in fact Bomar was right?
She sighed. The mere act of thinking now was more than she had the energy to perform. All she did know was that some instinct was telling her to cover up any evidence of her involvement in the fracas. Bomar had not asked her to keep an eye on Mahko, and therefore he wouldn't be expecting her to turn up at the factory until morning. Also -- it would still be night where Bomar was, and he hated being woken. She considered this for a moment, then reached over and pulled the other chair towards her so she could rest her feet on it, tucked the spare jacket she kept in her office close around her, and waited for the welcome darkness of sleep claim her. When it did, she dreamed fitfully -- strange images swam before her of two figures walking hand in hand led by a glowing purple column of light.
Anakin and Tahiri had taken the route Anakin thought might lead to the bridge he and Lando had crossed less than a day before, but instead it had led them into a somewhat dilapidated section of Dinarra. Both were feeling refreshed, although Anakin's blaster wound was making him hold himself stiffly. Now they had their Jedi powers back, they were at least able to help shield each other from the pain of their injuries.
They turned a corner and found they were in another shadowy alleyway, overhung at intervals by wires of which some had items of washing suspended from them. Tahiri reached up to grab a coarsely woven piece of cloth that Anakin recognised as a poncho, much like the ones he had seen people wear on Tatooine.
"Tahiri," he reprimanded, "that's stealing."
In reply Tahiri threw him a withering look. "Do you have any idea what you look like? Here put this on."
"Anakin," she warned placing her hands on her hips firmly. "Soon it will be morning. People will be walking the streets. If you think they're not going to notice someone who looks like they've been attacked by a flame projector, I think you need to think again."
Anakin sighed. "Okay, expressed in those terms I suppose it makes sense. I just feel bad about it. By the looks of this place I'd say a good coat must be worth a few week's wages." He pulled it on and they moved from the alley out into a small plaza. Anakin stopped.
"What?" asked Tahiri, trying to follow the line of his gaze through the greyish gloom, and preparing herself to grab her lightsaber.
"Wow!" he said, and he padded over to something standing up against a low wall.
When Tahiri reached him, she saw that he was fingering the controls on one of a group of four swoop bikes.
"You know, Tahiri, we could wander round for hours on foot," he said, speculatively.
Tahiri folded her arms, and her emerald eyes narrowed. "Anakin Solo, are you planning to steal this bike. You, who only minutes ago were telling me off for stealing a coat."
Anakin avoided her scrutiny for a minute, and then raised his blue eyes, throwing her an appealing look. "I know it's a bit inconsistent, but it could save us a lot of time." A slight hint of lop-sided smile touched his lips. "And I don't think any guards Tag might have placed at the spaceport would be expecting swoopers."
Tahiri eyed him shrewdly. "If you think you can win me over with that smile of yours, you're wrong."
Anakin's dark eyebrows shot up. "Me, try and win you over? It was you started the whole stealing idea -- I'm just responding to your influence."
Tahiri huffed. "Oh you poor weak-minded soul. What a pity I can't make my influence work on you for good things."
"What do you mean?"
Tahiri studied him for a moment, and seemed about to say something but changed her mind. "Never mind. Okay, so how ... oh, I see, you've figured it out," she muttered as the bike roared to life. "Now why does that not surprise me?"
"Come on," Anakin beckoned to her. She clambered on and gripped him round the waist, taking care to use her left arm more to keep her balance than to hold on. "It needs the timing readjusted," he informed her after a few seconds' assessment.
"Well, you have a spare thirty seconds and a multi-tool -- what's stopping you?" she shouted back, making him chuckle. He engaged the repulsors, goosed the throttle and they left the plaza in a whirling cloud of dust and litter. Tahiri felt Anakin's surge of exhilaration, and smiled to herself, half-expecting him to let out a whoop.
"So, do you know which way we're meant to go?"
"I will soon," he called back. "What we need to do is get up a bit of altitude, then we can see the lay of the land better."
Tahiri was about to reply when she caught a movement in her peripheral vision. She glanced around and then turned back, forgetting about Anakin's wound and gripping him so tightly that he winced.
"Swoopers!" she shouted.
Anakin looked around wildly, and saw them -- a cluster of three swoop bikes accelerating up towards them. "Spit!" he snarled and panned the area quickly for protection from this new threat.
"So much for having a bit of a holiday!" shouted Tahiri fatalistically. "Next time anyone offers us one, remind me to say no."
Anakin heard but was too busy to reply. These swoopers, no doubt the three whose bikes had been parked with the one they had stolen, would know their territory well, and would probably try and corner him somewhere. He studied the area below, but his concentration was interrupted by a blaster shot. He waited for Tahiri to fire back, but suddenly remembered that they had both lost their blasters in the confusion back at the factory and had not thought to find them before they left. Without waiting for the swoopers to line them up for a second shot, he hit the thrusters and they rocketed steeply upwards. The other bikers followed, and Anakin noticed that two more had joined the hunt and were approaching from the front. He waited until they were all nearly level with him, and then he cut the thrust and let the bike plummet. His stomach objected violently to the sudden change in motion, and he was glad they had had no food since the ices they had bought the day before. He sent an apology to Tahiri, and received her acknowledgment -- a mixture of nausea and relief.
The swoopers who had been approaching from the front were momentarily confused when their quarry dropped from sight, and in that split-second of confusion their upwards diagonal motion carried them into a collision course with the group approaching from the side. Two bikes collided, the front of one becoming jammed between the other rider's legs and his handlebars, and they spiraled down together, the riders shouting frenzied curses at one another as they tried to disentangle themselves. Just before they hit the ground, both suddenly remembered their repulsors, and they jolted to a stop about one metre above the ground, still firmly meshed together. The riders grabbed at each other in fury. One pulled the other off on to the ground where they writhed together in a vicious struggle, with their bikes hovering on idle above them like two alien insects joined together in an ungainly act of copulation.
The undamaged bikes swarmed down to follow Anakin and Tahiri who were searching desperately for a place in which to take refuge, or at least one that offered some means of escape. Anakin reached the level of the buildings and skimmed along the rooftops, hoping that the swoopers wouldn't try to shoot in case they hit any innocent bystanders. The thought almost made him fly back up and away from the buildings, but that idea was quickly negated when he noticed a new group of bikes racing to join the fray. Without even stopping to think, he angled down and began weaving his way through the maze of streets and alleys.
Thank goodness it's still early, he thought, and then had to shoot up suddenly as a street van crossed his path. He jerked the bike up so quickly that it almost flipped, and while he was fighting to gain control of it, a sudden instinct told him to duck. He felt Tahiri mimic him, and a split-second later a blaster shot whined past. Anakin looked back up and his eyes widened as he found a large advertising board filling the field of his vision. "Don't crash and burn!" it announced in bold capitals. "Invest in The People's Trust Bank new High-Flyer Bonds."
"Jump!" he roared, but Tahiri was already tumbling gracefully through the air. The bike continued forwards, crashing spectacularly into the sign and halting in mid-flight when its handlebars caught on a strut at the back. It hung there -- a graphic larger-than-life warning to all those who dared investing elsewhere.
Anakin landed and immediately grabbed her arm, and they raced past a group of startled people busy setting up market stalls. The square was at the intersection of three streets, and the two young Jedi hesitated only briefly before choosing the narrowest of the three, hoping that that at least would make it difficult for the swoopers to follow them -- on their bikes anyway.
"I agree with what you said about ignoring it next time somebody offers us a holiday," panted Anakin, keeping as close to the walls of the buildings as he could. "This is the worst holiday I've had in years."
"Well, I've never really had one," Tahiri puffed. "But if this is what Lando calls a holiday, I think I'll stick with war."
Anakin spared a quick look behind them. Two swoop bikes were still hovering above the point where the street left the square, and he could hear the muted roar of the others, but was unable to judge their location. He was also aware that both he and Tahiri were soon going to have to stop running. Although their shared healing trance had rejuvenated them, they were beginning to suffer the effects of having had no food, and their use of the Force to help them keep running was impeding their ability to ignore the pain of their injuries. As Anakin raced past a gap in the buildings, he saw an expanse of green beckoning to him, and assuming it was a plaza, or even better a park, he ducked into it. It was not until he and Tahiri reached the turf that he realised his mistake, for it was simply a sort of yard. He turned back to the street, but was halted in his tracks by the sight of two swoopers blocking the exit. He swung back to the yard, but saw that it was completely surrounded by high buildings. They had run themselves into a trap.
"Perfect," he muttered, and put his hand on Tahiri's shoulder. "I'm afraid the bad holiday has just got worse."
"Yeah. I noticed," she said, still breathing heavily, and watched with Anakin as the swoop riders approached, blaster pistols drawn and ready. Behind them they heard other swoop bikes -- two, Anakin noted when he turned to look.
"And worse," added Tahiri.
Anakin followed the direction of her nod. Behind the two bikers approaching from the street with blasters, two more had appeared, strolling slowly towards them.
"Well," said Anakin softly, "I'm pretty sure this is everyone. Unless they picked up some more I didn't notice."
"Oh that's good news," said Tahiri with mock relief. "Only six. What's the plan?"
"Not sure yet. I'm making this up as I go."
"Well, be sure to make up a happy ending," Tahiri reminded him grimly, and she positioned herself so they were back to back, and pulled out her lightsaber. The man and the woman who had just climbed down off the two swoop bikes that had landed behind them stopped, obviously startled.
"Jedi!" one of the men near the entrance shouted.
"Yeah, yeah. I see," called the one at the front, a tall and athletic looking human. He waved his blaster. "Hey, Jedi! Can you think of any good reason we shouldn't punish you for taking one of the brothers' bikes?"
"And making Taso and Grunt crash!" added the shorter, leaner man beside him.
"I can think of quite a few actually," Anakin called back. He studied the leading two men carefully, taking in the nervousness of the small one. "Perhaps if you'd like to put away your weapons, we can explain."
This suggestion was met with hoots of raucous laughter.
"The kid's got guts!" shouted the woman.
"Wouldn't mind seeing them," her companion said jokingly, causing more guffaws.
Anakin focused his gaze on the short man. "I think we should listen to them!" he said commandingly with a slight wave of his hand.
The man turned to the one who appeared to be the leader. "I think we should listen to them, Rongo," he said.
Rongo turned and threw his companion the sort of disgusted sneer found on the face of a Quarren who had just discovered a Mon Cal at his party.
"Are you kidding?" he demanded thumping the smaller man on the back of the head with the flat of his hand. "They're tricking you, you vaping moron!"
"We must get to the spaceport!" Anakin commanded.
"But ... they have to get to the spaceport," the man continued apologetically.
"Emperor's bones!" growled Rongo, turning his blaster threateningly on his hapless companion.
"Aw -- let's just rough them up a bit. Teach them a lesson for stealing!" called one of the men at the back.
Rongo re-aimed his blaster at Anakin. "Good idea," he snarled, letting loose with a barrage of stun shots, all of which Anakin skillfully deflected. Tahiri countered the blasts from the man and woman facing her, falling quickly into the Force and parrying and twisting instinctively with the foresight it gave her.
One of Anakin's deflections hit one of the men at the back, who collapsed, his limbs flailing like a helpless insect. One of Tahiri's hit home too, but her male adversary jerked back against the wall as he fell, hitting his head hard. He sank in slow motion to the ground, leaving a faint trail of blood. His companion sensibly kept her attention focused on the small blonde girl, waiting for the moment when her defences faltered, as eventually she was sure they must. The little man whom Anakin had tricked, however, glanced across at the fallen swooper. When he looked back, he was startled to see his blaster sailing through the space between himself and the young Jedi. He looked even more startled when Anakin stunned him, and he crumpled, landing with his leg twisted at an awkward angle.
Unfortunately for Anakin, these seconds of distraction had allowed one of Rongo's shots through his guard, and the sudden contortion required to avoid it sent needles of pain through the wound on his side. His muscles convulsed as his body was momentarily reminded of its injury, and he lost his grip on the handle of his lightsaber. Tahiri sensed as much as heard the lightsaber fall, and she and Anakin pivoted neatly one hundred and eighty degrees, swapping places like two figures in an old Alderaanian weather house when the weather changes. Tahiri now faced the two men with blasters, while Anakin faced the woman. He fired a shot that made her leap sideways in surprise, and called his lightsaber to his left hand. By the time she had recovered herself, Anakin had his lightsaber up to defend himself again.
"Uh-oh!" Tahiri's voice was almost drowned out by a new sound. Anakin watched the female swooper's eyes shy away to focus on something behind him.
"What's the problem?" he asked Tahiri.
"More bikers," she informed him. "Five to be precise."
Anakin felt one of his father's more vivid curses rising to his lips when he suddenly became aware that the woman had lost interest in him, and was staring in the direction of the new arrivals with the alertness of a nerf being circled by a predatory wulf. He kept his eyes on her, but leaned back to Tahiri.
"What's going on?"
"Not sure," she replied quietly. "But I sense tension. The .... oh, hang on!"
A man's voice rang out, echoing around the yard. "Well, well, well! Great party. Don't seem to recall issuing no invitations though!" The statement was followed by guttural bursts of laughter, and Anakin noticed that the voice sounded as if it was moving closer.
"This is a private matter," drawled the swooper called Rongo. Anakin reached out in the Force and realised that the man's apparent calm was a facade. Underneath, he was rattled, and was weighing up several possible courses of action.
The woman biker forgot about Anakin and Tahiri, and moved up to stand with her companions.
"I think this is these new guys' territory," he whispered to Tahiri, "and they don't seem too happy about having interlopers."
"Oh, great. So now we get caught in the middle of a gang war. This should be interesting."
"Well, you did say earlier that one thing we'll never die of is boredom," Anakin reminded her.
"True, and may I say that that was a really stupid thing to say. Boredom would actually be quite a welcome novelty. In fact it would be so novel, it wouldn't be boring."
"Sshh!" Anakin indicated briefly at the line of five swoopers who were now eyeballing Rongo and his two undamaged gang members. "This may work to our advantage."
Tahiri glanced up at him, and a look of understanding passed between them.
" ... on your own patch," the spokesman for the new group was saying. "You bring it over here then it ain't private any more, as I told you last week."
"This isn't a gang problem," Rongo explained.
His opposite number chuckled, showing a feral grin with a set of uneven teeth. "It is now. I told you -- no more warnings. You don't listen to words, maybe you'll listen to something a bit more convincing." The man drew his blaster from out of his belt holster, and his friends followed suit.
"Wait!" Rongo held up his hands. "I broke the agreement -- so it's me who deals with it." He began pulling off his jacket, revealing muscular arms decorated with a sequence of red and black tattoos. He pulled out a vibro-blade and beckoned to the other swoop leader. "You and me. Leave the others out of it."
The red-haired man studied him speculatively and then began a slow handclap, which was soon picked up by his friends. "Oh, very noble," he chuckled. "Sorry I can't -- " he stopped in disbelief at the roaring sound behind him.
"Look out!" one of his friends shouted and leapt to avoid being hit by one of the two riderless bikes bearing down on them. Bodies tumbled in all directions, and in the ensuing melee, Rongo leapt at the distracted gang leader, downing him with a swift strike of his blade, and the two opposition swoopers still standing took one look at the approaching members of Rongo's group and took to their heels. They leapt on to their idling bikes, and hit the thrusters, leaving vapour trails as they shot up into the air.
Rongo and his two companions watched them for a moment, and then turned slowly to Anakin and Tahiri, who were now sitting astride one of the bikes. Two blasters left their owners' hands and flew through the air to be caught by the two young Jedi.
"I'm sorry we had to steal the bike. And I'm sorry we had to hurt your friends," said Anakin. "But we must get to the spaceport."
The three swoopers stared at one another wide-eyed. Rongo went to speak, stopped, and then threw his arms in the air.
"Well as you can see, kid, we're really going to be able to stop you. Just tell me one thing -- call it curiosity I suppose -- why?"
"Some friends of ours have been taken prisoner, and if we don't rescue them they'll die," Anakin explained simply.
Rongo raised his well-etched eyebrows and exchanged quizzical glances with the two other swoopers who shrugged and shook their heads. "Prisoner?" he frowned. "Who the hell in Dinarra takes people prisoner? Other than us of course," he added laconically.
Anakin hesitated, reaching out again to the gang leader's thoughts. Surprisingly, he sensed no duplicity -- just bewilderment. "A guy called Bomar Tag captured Tahiri and me and our friends. He put us in his factory, but we escaped. He's got our friends at his storage facility." He stopped because Rongo's face had suddenly transformed itself into a mask of hatred.
"Tag! Bomar Tag." He nodded to himself for a moment and then focused his dark eyes on Anakin's, and studied him curiously. "And you're planning to spring your friends ... how?"
Anakin shrugged. "Don't know yet. That's why I need to get back to our ship."
"What if Tag has your ship under guard?"
Anakin returned the swooper's questioning look with one of his own. "I guess that's a problem we'll solve if it happens," he said finally.
Rongo's lips twitched slightly. "Can't fault you there, kid. However I, uh, think there might be a way you and me might be able to sort out a sort of mutual restitution agreement."
Anakin raised his eyebrows. "Agreement?"
"Well, it seems to me you owe us for the bike and other assorted damages," he waved a hand to encompass the three injured swoopers. "And we owe you for getting us out of a sticky situation."
"True," agreed Anakin. "But in a sense our helping you balances out our debt. So we could actually call it quits already."
Rongo chuckled, more to himself than anyone else. "Are you a regular Jedi, or some sort of new mutation?"
Again Anakin shrugged. "A desperate one I suppose. If we don't get to our friends soon, they're going to end up as Vo- . . . Yuuzhan Vong fodder."
"Tag's in the Peace Brigade," explained Anakin.
Rongo folded his arms, and rubbed his stubble thoughtfully. The small swooper groaned and, still jerking spastically, tried to straighten his tangled legs. The woman went over to the man by the wall as he was starting to show signs of coming to, while her uninjured companion helped the other man sit up.
"You know I heard rumours about that," the gang leader said. He looked as though he was about to say more, but then stopped.
"Well, it's true," said Anakin heatedly. "And all this talking is wasting time we could be saving our friends."
"Keep it cool, kid, I'm thinking here," said Rongo. "I've got my own issues with Tag -- nothing to do with the Peace Brigade, but serious enough to want to make me cut a deal with you. Interested?"
Anakin studied the swooper shrewdly. "Depends," he said finally. He and Rongo stared at one another for a long moment -- then the swooper nodded.
"Come back to the compound and we'll talk -- no obligation, no retribution." He spat on his palm and held out his hand in Anakin's direction.
"Eeewww!" murmured Tahiri.
Anakin turned to her and smiled slightly, and then dismounted. "Don't worry, Tahiri. Compared to some of the things my mother has had to do as a diplomat, spitting doesn't seem too bad." He approached the tanned swooper, holding the man's dark-eyed gaze, and then spat on his own hand and placed it palm down on the swooper's.
A grin spread over Rongo's face, making him look almost boyish. "So, uh, you know how to handle one of these babies?" he asked pointing to the swoop bike.
Anakin grinned. "Want some help with those guys?" he asked pointing to the three injured bikers.
"If you and Blondie tow a bike I reckon we'll be right."
"Done," said Anakin.
"So now we're joining a swoop gang, right?" said Tahiri, as they finished tying the small biker's vehicle to theirs with a clip chain. "I wonder what Master Skywalker would say if he could see us."
"Well," said Anakin as he slid into the seat. "It'd probably remind him of the good old days when he worked with pirates and smugglers."
Tahiri thought for a moment. "I guess," she said, and then smiled. "Or maybe we could just avoid telling him."
"Tahiri! Are you suggesting that we tell lies?"
"Not really," she said slowly. "Just sort of miss bits out, like we used to at the Academy."
Anakin chuckled, and then, noticing that the swoopers were already accelerating away from them, he opened the throttle wide. By the time they had caught up, he was grinning from ear to ear, and behind him so was Tahiri.
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