Many Happy Returns: Chapter Eleven
Iella

Tendra woke up to faint rustlings and strange little animal-like grunts, and thought for a moment that she had traveled back in time to childhood and camping trips when she had been woken by the dawn snuffling of forest creatures. Stark reality soon intervened. Rather than soft humus, there was hard floor, and in the place of the gentle warmth of a rising sun was the hostile unvarying glare of the room's one glow panel. She lay for a moment steeling herself against the stiffness that had worked its way into her bones as she slept, and reacquainting herself with their situation. What she had taken to be the sounds of the forest were in reality those made by a hungry Ruba waking her mother for a feed. Tendra watched the baby suckle, thinking how blithely unaware it was of the fate that would overtake them all if they didn't figure out how to escape. One thing was crystal clear, in Tendra's mind at least, and that was that a relatively quick death by blaster-fire was preferable to anything the Yuuzhan Vong would mete out. Such thoughts, however, would not help Jassif and Ruba, so she kept them to herself. Jassif caught her watching gaze and smiled apologetically.

"Sorry if we disturbed you," she whispered.

Tendra shook her head. "Don't apologise. It's actually quite nice to see something normal. Sort of encouraging."

Jassif looked down at her daughter and took the infant's tiny hand in her fingers.

"She has no idea," her voice faltered, and Tendra could see her desperately blinking back tears.

"We will get out of here you know, Jassif," she said quietly, pulling herself up into a sitting position

The Mantrusian woman's dark eyes flickered over her face admiringly. "You're very strong."

"No," said Tendra firmly. "Just stubborn. I'm not going to let some revolting evil little man with screwed up ethics ruin my holiday."

The young woman acknowledged Tendra's statement with a faint smile, but her expression remained serious.

"I've been trying to think of some way to make a fire," she said in a low voice, referring to what they'd been talking about the previous night, after Qorl had located the sensor. "But the only way I can think of is if we could somehow cut some bits of wood out of the floor, and then rub them together."

Tendra's eyes widened. "That's a good idea -- certainly better than anything we came up with last night."

"We used to do that when we were children," Jassif said wistfully. "We used to pretend we were lost in the forest."

Tendra smiled. "So did we. Obviously Mantrusian children and Sacorrian children have a lot in common."

"Probably all children do," said Jassif.

Tendra nodded, and her thoughts drifted back to Tahiri and Anakin. She sent out a silent plea to whatever gods the Balmorrans might have, asking that they protect them. Not that they're exactly children. But they are young, and they don't deserve to face this sort of danger.

"What's this about children?"

Tendra turned towards the familiar mellow voice that was still husky from sleep.

"Children making fire from sticks,' she explained. "Jassif's just had an idea."

Lando's dark eyebrows shot up as he considered Tendra's words. "Sticks," he murmured, hauling himself up to sit, like his wife, with his back supported against the wall.

"From the flooring," said Tendra breezily. "Now all we need is a means of cutting some pieces out."

"Make me a cup of coffeine, my love, and I'll work on it," said Lando, exchanging a wry smile with her.

Jassif threw Tendra an amused look as she nestled Ruba against her shoulder and began gently rubbing her back. The baby responded with a satisfied burp.

"Someone's enjoying a good strong brew by the sounds of it," quipped Lando.

Tendra eyed him warningly, but the younger woman laughed and shook her head in teasing reproof, making the droplet-shaped earring she wore swing to and fro. The movement caught Tendra's eye. She'd noticed the women's earrings earlier, but had been too busy thinking about the more pressing issue of escape to give them any further consideration. Suddenly, however, it occurred to her that the stones in the earrings had been carved in a way that gave them a sharp tip, and their matte appearance reminded her of something she had seen once in a museum.

"Jassif," she said. "That earring you wear -- what's it made of?"

Jassif studied her curiously. "My earring? Nothing very exciting I'm afraid -- it's just flint."

Tendra swung to face Lando, but he was already clambering to his feet.

Jassif stared at the hopeful gleam in Lando's eyes, and slowly comprehension dawned in hers. "Mercy," she gasped. "I didn't even think about it. How stupid of me!"

"Not stupid at all," Lando waved the statement away vehemently. "The question is, can you take it off?"

Jassif looked apologetic. "Not easily," she said. She slid Ruba away from her shoulder and nestled her in the crook of her arm. "We get our earrings attached on our Naming Day, and they're permanent. All that happens is the stones are replaced by progressively bigger ones as we get older." She glanced down at Ruba. "Ruba doesn't have hers yet. In our province we wait until the children are halfway through their first year before we attach their earring, and then it only has a tiny stone. Like Kushka's," she added, nodding towards the sleeping child.

"So you can disconnect the stone," prompted Lando.

"You can. But you need a special tool to undo the clasp that holds it in," interrupted Neijal. She cleared her throat to rid her voice of the cloying fuzziness of sleep, and sat up carefully to avoid disturbing Kushka.

Jassif caught her eye and the two exchanged serious glances. "But we could get them out without a tool," said Jassif slowly.

Tendra winced as she remembered having an earring torn out once in a game of boloball when she was younger, but she didn't negate Jassif's suggestion. If she was in their situation, she would do the same.

Lando studied the determined expressions on the face of the two Mantrusian women, and then he nodded.

"Have you finished feeding Ruba?" asked Tendra softly.

The younger woman shook her head. "No, not quite."

"We'll wait till you have," said Tendra. "And when we get out of here, we're going to throw a wild party and give you two medals."

"Medals?" yawned Vehn as he rolled on to his back and stretched. "Medals be damned. Just give me a nice soft bed again. Actually just give me any sort of bed."

Qorl mumbled something that sounded like agreement.

Vehn sat up stiffly and stared blearily at the other faces observing him. "Spit," he said. "We're all still here. Obviously nobody's been able to dream up an escape plan."

"Actually we have," said Lando smoothly, settling back down beside Tendra. "It's going to take a while though. Anyone got any idea of what time it is?"

"Standard or local?" queried Vehn laconically, and then grunted as Qorl's elbow prodded him vigorously in the ribs. "You're no fun in the morning," he complained, poking him back. "I thought a little levity might be helpful -- you know, sort of ease into yet another fun-filled day."

Neijal glanced across at Tendra and rolled her eyes. "I know I shouldn't be glad you two were captured," she said. "But I'm very glad you're here."

"In reply to your question," Vehn piped up again. "I would say very early local time, but without chronos it's hard to tell, and I don't know how long we slept. What's the plan?"

"Very simply -- we set something on fire and hold it up to the sensor."

"Well fill me with the Force and call me a Jedi," said Vehn. "I seem to remember suggesting that self-same idea last night, just before we all decided to sleep on it."

"Ah, but now we have the means to carry it out," Lando informed him.

"Someone's smuggled us in some fire-lighters and fuel?"

A slow grin spread over Lando's haggard, but still handsome, features. "The fire-lighters have been here all the time," he said enigmatically. "Make yourself comfortable old buddy, and I'll explain."

*******

The sound of swoop bikes arriving brought a group of bleary-eyed people out from the low rather dilapidated building that sprawled like something from an architect's nightmare within the walls of the bikers' compound. Most of the group remained by the entrance, studying Anakin and Tahiri with looks that ranged from mildly amused to openly hostile. Two of them, however, a male human and a female Tunroth, strolled toward them, stopping a few metres away from Rongo. The man gazed at each of the assembled vehicles in turn and then his cool grey eyes settled on his leader's face.

"So where's my bike, Rongo?" he drawled.

Rongo gestured towards the bike Tahiri was just in the process of dismounting. "We decided to get you a new one, Muss. Just don't go and lose this one, okay."

Muss folded his sinewy arms and regarded the bike speculatively, and then shifted his gaze to take in Anakin and Tahiri. He glanced at Rongo again and then back at Tahiri, and a sly expression crept over his sharp features.

"The bike's an older model, but I like the blonde attachment."

Tahiri glared at him, and Anakin noticed her hand jerk towards her lightsaber. He reached out and grasped her fingers, sending her a calm down message. Muss chuckled, misreading the gesture.

"It wasn't such a bright idea after all was it, kid, stealing a bike? Looks like your joyride has ended and mine is about to begin."

"That's it!" snarled Tahiri, raising her left hand.

"Calm it, Muss!" warned Rongo.

"No, Tahiri!" Anakin's voice rang out commandingly.

She stopped with her hand poised in mid-air, the palm aimed at the astonished biker.

"What's going on?" he hissed at Rongo, regarding Tahiri's transformation from hapless victim to fearsome predator with a certain amount of trepidation. "Who the hell are these people?"

Rongo cleared his throat. "They're Jedi," he explained, his gaze flickering from Anakin to Tahiri and then to Muss. "And I don't think it's a particularly good idea to rile them, Muss. They're what you might call pretty resourceful, not to mention lethal."

"Jedi!" The man's jaw dropped and he glanced over at the three bikers being supported by their friends. Every now and again each of them twitched uncontrollably, and one had a dirty piece of cloth wrapped round his head.

"Yeah. They took your bike to get to their ship. They had a run-in with Tag."

"Tag!" Muss had just managed to get his jaw back under control when it unhinged itself again.

"Well, not with Tag specifically -- but at his factory. Tag's holding some friends of theirs prisoner and they need to get them before he hands them over to the Vong."

Muss's second attempt to restore mastery of his oral articulators ended in failure before he could utter a word. Instead he stared at Rongo dumbly, his mouth shaping itself into the final word Rongo had uttered.

"The Vong are coming here!" gasped the Tunroth, while the group at the entrance to the building exchanged wide-eyed stares.

Muss studied Rongo and then turned his attention back to Anakin and Tahiri, taking in Anakin's calm blue-eyed gaze and the green ice of Tahiri's.

"You're sure they're not just playing Jedi tricks on you?" he asked the tanned Balmorran. "You know -- making you think the Vong were coming so you'd forget about making them pay for stealing my bike." His voice trailed off as Rongo raised a dark eyebrow and gave him a withering look.

"Oh yeah. I'm sure it was their plan all along. They probably sent Tag here in the first place just so they could turn up one day and steal your bike and then use him as an excuse."

"Well," muttered Muss, "some people reckon they're the ones stirring it up with the Vong."

Rongo's brown eyes grew as black as thunderclouds, and his potentially handsome features twisted themselves into a feral mask. He reached out and grabbed Muss roughly by the chin and squeezed, contorting the man's features into an ugly parody of their normal appearance.

"You wouldn't be one of those people would you, Muss?" he demanded in a voice that was unnerving due to its lack of emotion.

Anakin glanced quickly around at the gathered bikers, noting the tense expressions and sensing the atmosphere of anticipation. He stepped up to the two men and, grabbing each by the shoulder, shoved them apart.

"Maybe you two have issues," he said. "But Tahiri and I don't have time to waste. We agreed to come back and discuss some mutual arrangement. If you can't agree amongst yourselves, you're probably not going to be much use to us. So we'll just leave you to it." He gave them a tiny Force-aided push, and they both staggered backwards. "And you can keep the bike. Never let it be said that Jedi don't pay their dues." He beckoned to Tahiri. "Come on. We'll go back to plan A -- on foot."

She took his hand, and they began walking towards the gate. The Tunroth female threw a bewildered look at Rongo as they marched past her, and raised her sturdy arms as if asking whether she should try and stop them.

"Arrangement?" Muss frowned. "What the hell's he on about? Hey, they can't just walk out of here like that. Somebody st-"

The tall barb-topped gate to the compound suddenly swung open.

"You were saying, Muss?" asked Rongo sarcastically. He put his fingers up to his mouth and let loose a piercing whistle. "Wait!" he shouted, and ran towards them.

"Look," he said in a conciliatory tone when he caught up with them. "We don't all agree here about the Vong, but Tag's another issue, and that is one we're together on. A couple of the brothers joined this anti-Peace Brigade group. They had their reasons -- one of them had a brother, a real brother, killed by the Peace Brigade for trying to help a Jedi on Eriadu."

"Kelbis Nu," whispered Tahiri solemnly.

Rongo threw her a quizzical look and then continued. "Look. The point I'm making is that the two of them joined the group, but Tag took them both out with one of his ground transports as they were leaving his factory one night -- after they'd been doing a bit of graffiti work on it. The thing is Tag got away with it. He got a minor fine for careless use of a vehicle, but he pleaded it was an accident. If he'd taken out some solid citizens, the authorities would have probably thrown the book at him. But all he did was kill a couple of swoopers, so nobody cared." He stopped suddenly and shrugged, but Anakin sensed grief and saw the glint of unshed tears in the biker's eyes.

"I'm sorry," he said.

Rongo shrugged again and shook his head as if the movement could somehow force his anguish back down into the container he'd constructed for it. He swallowed and took a deep breath.

"It was my younger brother and his girlfriend," he explained in a voice that was a little unsteady. "That makes it personal for me. But they were part of our group, so the others'll want to avenge them. They'll be willing to listen to any plan that lets them get at Tag."

"So what you're saying," said Anakin, "is that the Vong are a separate issue."

"Yeah, basically that is what I'm saying."

"So by helping us to rescue our friends, you get a chance to get at Tag."

Rongo nodded.

Anakin considered the raft of emotions he was receiving -- hope, trepidation, determination, and a sense of honour not too different from his own, based on loyalty to family and friends.

"Why haven't you gone against Tag yourselves?"

Rongo breathed out a sigh of frustration. "We've discussed it, but the brothers don't all agree on whether it's Tag personally we should go for, or his business. Some of them just want to take him out -- while others of us want to make him suffer by ruining his business, and making him admit he's with the Peace Brigade. That way it'd make it like Jonno and Pet died for a cause, which of course they did. The problem is that although none of us like the idea of being taken over by the Vong, there are a few who don't see collaborating as a bad idea."

"I see," nodded Anakin. "So what you need is some way of uniting everyone."

Rongo studied him shrewdly for a moment and then nodded slowly, and a faint smile touched his lips. "I was hoping we could get the brothers together, and then maybe you two could give them the benefit of your experience -- which I'm beginning to think might be quite illuminating."

"We can present the facts," said Anakin firmly. "We're not going to coerce people for you."

Rongo waved his hands in vigorous denial. "Hey kid. I wouldn't dare suggest it. I wasn't suggesting it. I just get this impression that they'll listen to you because I'm guessing you've had dealings with the Vong."

"With the Yuuzhan Vong and the Peace Brigade," Tahiri corrected him.

"So, do we still have a deal?"

Anakin and Tahiri exchanged glances. "We'll give it an hour," said Anakin finally. "But we're not going to be part of some assassination plot. Jedi aren't mercenaries."

"I understand that," nodded Rongo. "But you do support justice."

"Yeah," Anakin nodded back. "We support that."

Rongo spat on his hand again and held it out and Anakin followed suit, grasping the biker's hand firmly.

"That's not very hygienic, you know," Tahiri muttered reprovingly.

Rongo chuckled. "We might even make a biker of you."

"Nah," said Anakin. "I've got relations who'd never live it down."

"Actually," said Rongo laconically. "So have I."



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