Many Happy Returns: Chapter Twelve
Iella

Dajira held the transceiver away from her ear thinking with bitter amusement that she would still have been able to hear her stepfather ranting if she'd been in the next room. She had never heard him so mad, nor had she noticed the unsettling note of madness in his tone before. It was yet another development in a series of destabilising events seemingly designed not just to stop her in her tracks, but to tip her out of them completely.

"Have you secured the building?" he bellowed finally.

"Yes, I -"

"What about the ysalamiri?"

"I ... " she began. Dajira had forgotten about the ysalamiri, but her uncertainty was due more to the disturbing realisation that Bomar was able to so quickly dismiss the deaths of his men. Although she had hated Mahko, she was still shocked at the reality of his death, and of that of the others.

"Well -- are they okay, or did those vaping Jedi kids kill them too?"

"I ... I honestly don't know," she stammered. "I've only just found all this." It was a lie, but she couldn't admit her part in it. She still didn't understand it herself.

"Of course." He seemed to calm down slightly, and she heard him take a breath. "I'm sorry, 'Jira, of course you have. And you did the right thing to let me know immediately. I just can't understand how this could happen. I had it all so well organised." His voice faded, and she heard him muttering to himself. "I want you to find the ysalamiri," he said suddenly. "And then stay put until I get back."

"Shouldn't we let the police know?" Dajira asked uncertainly. Somewhere at the back of her mind was the thought that death was a matter for the authorities who would at least need to contact the families of the dead. It also occurred to her that she didn't fancy the idea of being in a building full of bodies.

"No!" Tag bellowed, nearly making her drop the communicator. "No police!"

"But won't they -"

"I said no!" His voice had acquired the disturbing manic tone again. "I'll sort it all out when I get back. I don't want you to have to deal with that." His tone was soothing now, but the sudden change sounded unnatural. "Let your mother know that you're going to stay at the factory -- say I asked you to help Mahko out with some paperwork or something -- and stay put. Lock the place up, but put a sign on the main door saying we've had some equipment break down so we're going to be closed for the day. Add an assurance that everyone will get paid regardless. That way you won't have to deal with any disgruntled workers."

"O-okay."

"I'll be back as soon as I can," he said. "Don't worry, 'Jira. Just stay put. They won't get far."

"But surely they'll try and find the others?"

"Of course they will. And I'm going to contact Korlis at the warehouse now. One good thing about Jedi is that they're predictable. They won't leave without trying to save their friends, although it'll hopefully take them a while before they figure out where their friends are."

"Yes," replied Dajira faintly.

"So don't worry. We'll get them back."

"Yes," she repeated.

"Are you okay?" This time his concern sounded genuine.

"I, um ... I'm just feeling a little weak."

"Of course you are. You've had a terrible fright. You see now why Jedi are so dangerous -- why we have to stop them."

Dajira couldn't bring herself to agree. "I'll look for the ysalamiri," she said instead.

"That's my girl."

She flinched at the note of pride in his voice.

"Make sure you keep this link clear in case I need to contact you." The light flicked off indicating the connection was closed.

Dajira put down the transceiver and thought about the two ysalamiri, so harmless looking and yet in a way so powerful. And like most power, she thought, it can be used for good or bad. She thought about them for a while, imagining how they might feel being uplifted from the security of their home and being forced to become pawns in a complex and dangerous game that was way beyond their understanding. In her inner vision, their images segued into those of the Jedi children on Yavin 4 -- children being loaded on transports, children staring up in terror at the scarified faces of Yuuzhan Vong. Dajira had often known fear and helplessness when she was a child, and up until very recently she had associated Bomar Tag with the image of a saviour -- her saviour. How could the compassionate man who had rescued her from a life of degradation support an organisation that sanctioned sacrificing children?

She knew it was possible that he hadn't known about the plan to capture the children, and that the decision to carry out such a mission had come from one of the extreme sections of the Peace Brigade. After all, all such groups contained their militants and zealots - it was a fact of life. She pondered this idea. Should she continue to support her stepfather or not? Could she remain true to him, and yet still be true to herself?

She set off to where she had left one of the ysalamiri, realising as she climbed the ramp that the creatures posed a dilemma for her as well. Obviously Bomar was intending to transfer them to the warehouse so he could use them against Anakin Solo and his companion when they tried to rescue their friends. She slowed down to concentrate on this new problem.

It occurred to her that having the ysalamiri in the factory hadn't proved to be such an advantage after all. In fact, if anything they'd been a disadvantage -- lulling everyone into a false sense of security, and putting them off their guard. Perhaps she could help her stepfather most by getting rid of this potential for weakness and over-confidence.

Perhaps I'm becoming as delusional as he is.

The thought startled her so much she stopped. It was the first time she had consciously acknowledged the growing suspicion, lurking in the depths of her mind, that maybe Bomar Tag's desire to play his part in saving the galaxy had become twisted by the sinister impulses of an ego that even he didn't understand.

*****

"Come on, Kushka. Come over here and see what we're going to do." Lando bent down and took the little boy's hand.

"Mummy?" Kushka stared up at Neijal uncertainly, his eyes wide.

"That's a good idea," she replied smiling at her son encouragingly. "Look." She nodded towards Vehn, who was on his knees with Qorl over in the corner. "Mr Vehn and Mr Qorl are going to do something really clever. You go and watch."

"Yeah, come over here kiddo," called Vehn, beckoning to him. "Bet you've never been allowed to dig up floorboards before."

"Let's hope we're not teaching him to become a vandal," grunted Qorl as he forced the sharp end of Jassif's naming stone into a seam in the floor.

"He's not going to be a vandal -- are you Kushka?"

Kushka stared across at Vehn, at Tendra holding Jassif's baby and then up at his mother again. She had one hand on Jassif's forehead, while she pinched her ear with the fingers of the other to stem the flow of blood. The blood didn't bother him, nor had he been upset when his mother had pulled the earring from her friend's earlobe. He had often accompanied his mother when she was called out to help people who had been injured, and so blood and sickness had become a regular aspect of his life. What did bother him was their strange circumstances -- the men with blasters and the fact that there was nothing much to eat and no comfortable beds. He'd been on a camping holiday once, so he knew it was possible to go without the normal comforts and still have fun. But this wasn't fun at all, even though the adults kept trying to pretend it was.

He was about to pull his hand out from Lando's grasp when he remembered he'd been asked a question, and although he knew he had to be polite and answer it, he hadn't completely understood what it meant. He turned back to the man with the grey eyes.

"What's a vandal?"

"A vandal," said Vehn grinning and catching Neijal's look of gratitude, "is somebody who goes around wrecking other people's things. So of course, being a vandal's a bad thing."

"But you're wrecking the floor, and you're not bad." Kushka let Lando lead him over to look more closely at what Vehn and Qorl were doing.

Tendra had walked over too, and was holding Ruba so she could watch. "That's true, Kushka," she said. "But the people who are keeping us here are bad, and so what Mr Vehn's doing is good because it's going to help us get out."

"Yeah, look at this, kiddo." Vehn sat back on his haunches and pointed to the line of diagonal notches Qorl had cut. "See what your old buddy Mr Qorl's done. Now he's going to make another row of holes over here, make some cuts at each end, and then when your mo- ... then we should be able to jimmy this piece of wood out in one piece. After that we'll cut out another long bit and rub this bit into one end of it to make a little fire, just like you suggested."

"You were clever thinking up the fire idea, Kushka," said Lando smiling down at him. He glanced at Vehn, who had been watching the two Mantrusian women, and caught the pilot's slight nod. He coughed, put his hand over his mouth and coughed again several times making some dramatic spluttering noises.

"Sorry," he gasped after Tendra had patted him theatrically on the back several times. "Must have swallowed an insect or something."

"Probably that chip of wood Mr Qorl just sent flying in your direction," said Vehn dryly. He winked at Kushka and reached up to take the earring that Jassif was holding out to him. "You want a go?"

The little boy shook his head, but he watched in fascination as Qorl worked both pieces of flint down into two of the opposing slots and began pushing the makeshift tools towards one another. He was so engrossed that he didn't stop to wonder about where the second tool had come from, nor did he see Vehn's victory gesture to his mother.

"Better keep an ear open for our friends," said Lando to his wife, and nodded towards the door.

"Good point." She turned Ruba around and snuggled the baby against her shoulder. Having no nieces or nephews to practise on, Tendra's experience of babies was limited, and it surprised her how much she was enjoying being able to tend to Ruba, especially in view of the circumstances.

"Remember to grab a big wad of 'fresher tissue when they take you, Kushka," Vehn reminded him. "We're going to need as much as we can to make the fire."

Kushka nodded in reply, his little face serious. Lando had explained how they would pile up small strips of tissue on one end of the longer piece of wood so that they would catch on fire when rubbing had made the wood hot enough. Lando had said that what they were making was a sort of torch - an old fashioned sort of torch. When they held it up to the sensor, the heat from the fire should make it open the vent.

"Speaking of which," Vehn continued. "I hope our 'fresher attendants come soon. I'm beginning to feel the pressure building up."

"They're late this morning," grunted Qorl as he levered the flint wedges into two more of the holes. Kushka sat down so he could watch more closely.

"Yeah -- I thought the same." Vehn frowned thoughtfully and then glanced up at Lando. "What'll we do if they don't turn up?"

Lando made a wry face. "Hmm. That could create problems." He watched Qorl for a while, thinking. "If they haven't come by the time we're ready to start the rubbing, I think we'll have to look at using strips from our clothes. That's going to make it a bit harder though -- cloth isn't going to light as quickly as tissue."

Vehn snorted. "I dunno about that. If some of us don't get to the 'fresher, there may be some gas enhanced material available."

"Thank you for that," said Lando dryly.

"Hey, no point in being shy about things. Not with us all being barracked up like this." He glanced over at Neijal and Jassif, and then down at Kushka who was engrossed in what Qorl was doing.

Lando spared the women a quick glance, too, and was surprised to see that Neijal's torn ear had already stopped bleeding. He wondered how their healing process worked, and made a note to ask them about it later -- when they had all escaped.

"D'you think Solo's okay?" Vehn asked him quietly.

"I hope so." Lando's brown eyes focused on Vehn's. "As long as Tag thinks he can hand him and Tahiri over to the Vong, he'll probably do whatever he can to keep them alive."

"She's pretty."

The comment took Lando by surprise, although it wasn't surprise at the statement itself so much as the fact that Vehn had obviously noticed Tahiri's appearance. Not quite fifteen she may be, but she was obviously turning heads already. Anakin might have to be prepared for some competition.

Vehn grinned. "I get the impression Solo's a chip off the old block."

"In some ways he is. Fortunately his mother's had a slight influence on the way he's turned out."

"Well I don't think it'll be his diplomatic abilities that'll get him out of this one." Vehn turned back to Qorl and Kushka. "So -- how're we going here?"

"Mr Qorl's nearly got it out," announced the little boy as proudly as if he was doing the work himself, and he turned to his mother to find her already standing behind him. "Look, mummy."

"Goodness," she smiled. "That's good work."

Kushka nodded. "Mr Qorl looks like daddy," he stated, turning his attention back to what the old pilot was doing.

"Woohoo, Qorl -- and here you've been trying to tell us you never left Yavin 4."

Qorl threw his young comrade a dark look.

"Ah -- still waters run deep." Vehn said teasingly and patted Qorl's shoulder.

"Well I think Mr Qorl would make a very nice husband," Neijal said in a tone that was mildly admonishing. "And Kushka's right. My husband did look a little like him."

Tendra had been listening at the door so she could tell when the guards deactivated the locks, but she turned when she heard the woman's words. "I'm sorry, Neijal. Did you lose your husband?"

The dark-eyed woman nodded. "He was killed at Fondor."

"I didn't realise Mantrusia had people involved," said Tendra, rocking Ruba slightly to keep her happy.

"Oh yes. We've been in the New Republic for a while now, and we contribute a small task force to the Tarsus Sector fleet. When the war with the Yuuzhan Vong escalated, the fleet was consigned to join one of the New Republic defence groups."

"I'm sorry to hear that, Neijal," said Lando. "And I mean that sincerely. This is not a particularly pleasant war to be involved in."

"Jassif's husband was injured, but he's all right now. That's why we're here. His squadron had some leave owing to them, and this seemed like a convenient place to spend it. The journey home and back would have taken more time than they were allowed."

"I didn't want to travel alone," explained the younger woman softly, "so Neijal came with me. And my husband is her brother, so it was good for him to be able to see his sister."

"It's a long way to come," said Tendra.

Jassif raised her serious dark eyes to Tendra's. "I wanted Fenn to see Ruba."

"It makes you realise the price we all pay when there's a war." Tendra looked down at the baby and smiled. "She's asleep."

"She likes you." Jassif smiled.

"She's a lovely baby. I bet Fenn was proud of her."

Jassif and Neijal both chuckled. "You'd think he was the first man in the galaxy to produce such a thing," said Neijal.

Tendra laughed too but found she couldn't help staring at the women's ears. "I'd love to know more about how you heal. Is it an inherited thing?"

Neijal nodded. "We are born with the ability, but we still have to learn the different techniques for different types of problem."

"Do your ears still hurt?"

"No, we usually try and dull pain first. It helps the body's natural healing ability if there's no pain.

"It's amazing." Tendra peered at the tear on Jassif's earlobe as the Mantrusian woman held out her arms to take Ruba. "You'd never believe it was a new wound."

"We stimulate the healing response. Oh poor little thing -- she's soaking wet." Jassif cooed quietly to lull Ruba back to sleep.

"I don't think they're coming for us," said Vehn. "Either they've forgotten, or something's happened to make them forget. Let's hope it's the latter."

"That would be a good thought. However, I think we're best to assume they've just forgotten. I think-"

"Yeeha! Stage one completed!" Vehn brandished the thin length of wood triumphantly.

"The next will take a bit longer," said Qorl, but his normally inscrutable expression had given way to a small smile of satisfaction.

"Want me to have a go?" asked Vehn.

Qorl stood up slowly and rubbed his knees. "Yes. More work and less talk would be good."

"You're a hard man, Qorl. I gather I carry on down this seam."

The old pilot nodded, and wiggled his shoulders as if to ease the stiffness. "Cut a line of notches down for about two feet -- same space apart as before. Then I'll take over again."

"As ordered, sir." Vehn winked at Kushka and handed him the stick. "There we go, kiddo. You can be our official stick holder."

Kushka smiled and turned the piece of wood around, studying it, while Vehn went to work. Lando caught Tendra's eye and they moved away.

"Our friend Vehn's doing his bit to keep up morale," Lando murmured.

Tendra smiled. "I think everyone's bearing up pretty well." Her expression lapsed back into seriousness. "I'm just a bit worried about the next stage of the plan."

"The fire idea should work all right."

Tendra nodded. "Yes. But once the vent 's open, what are we going to find? Nobody knows exactly where in the building we are. We might have to be prepared to do some climbing, and if so, how are Kushka and Jassif going to manage?"

Lando placed his hand on her shoulder. "I must admit I've been thinking about that, too. I had hoped to try and trick some information out of the guards while I was in the 'fresher. But since they haven't come, I can't."

"I really hope that's a sign that Anakin and Tahiri have caused some trouble."

"So do I. That's the sort of trouble I don't mind them getting into." He threw her a wry grin. "However, it's best to assume for the moment that we have to get ourselves out of here, so we'll stick with the plan we have. I think it might be a good idea if we used the time to make a carrying device for Ruba -- perhaps some sort of tie-on sling."

"It's a pity you aren't wearing your cloak." Tendra glanced down at her own clothes, and her face lit up. "Wait a minute." She undid the tie neck of her blouse and began to unfasten the front. "We could make a kind of carry pack out of this. See." She held the garment against her to demonstrate. "If I tied the collar ties around my neck and the sleeves around my back, I could carry Ruba against me."

Lando's eyes bulged.

"Lando, you've seen me like this often enough. Please don't go all mushy on me now."

Lando waved a hand, and swallowed awkwardly. "I'd forgotten how good you look in that chemise."

Tendra sighed. "Well, it's not as skimpy as some of those things the Thyferrans wear. And it is good quality septsilk, so it should withstand whatever rigours await us."

Lando's warm brown eyes found his wife's face, and he smiled fondly and pulled her against him. ""I'm a very, very lucky man."

"I know." Tendra tilted her face up and gave him a mischievous look.

He chuckled, and then his expression softened. "I think it's time to indulge a mushy moment," he murmured and tilted her chin up so he could kiss her.

"Vaping meteors, Calrissian. Any more hot stuff like that and we won't need to light a fire," said Vehn, pretending to fan himself.

Tendra reached up and stroked Lando's cheek. "You've still got it, old timer," she said softly.

"I intend to hang on to it, too," he replied, affecting a smooth tone and making her smile. He kissed her again before releasing her, and turned back towards the others. "Just in case we do have some climbing to do, I suggest we start making a rope. Everybody, start deciding which bits of clothing you're willing to tear up so we can knot them together."

Vehn stopped working and rested back on his haunches. "You know with giving up clothes to make baby carriers, ropes and fuel for the fire, we're soon going to be roaming round in our birthday suits. I'm not sure I'm going to want to escape in that state."

"Think of it as a necessary sacrifice, old buddy. You never know -- if it gets on the HoloNews, you'll be famous."

"Yeah. Brings a whole new meaning to the term media exposure."

"Well, reporters do like to think they're presenting the bare facts," Lando reminded him.

"The only problem we have is how we're going to explain all this activity to the guards if they do decide to come." Tendra finished tying her blouse back on loosely.

"Just say we were bored so we decided to visualise playing sabacc and bet with our clothes," suggested Vehn.

Lando exchanged amused glances with Tendra. "It's so crazy it just might work."

"And I'll fit the pieces of floor back and the boy and I can sit on them," said Qorl.

"Ah Qorl. We can always rely on you for the logical approach."

"Just to avoid too many complications, I think we'll hold off making the rope until Vehn and Qorl have the pieces of wood out," said Lando. "It'll take a while to create a spark, so we'll worry about it then." He glanced across at the women, who were busy with Ruba, and then back at Tendra, and reaching out to her again, he pulled her into an embrace.

"We seem to be better than I would like at getting into awkward situations," he murmured.

"That's the problem with having a reputation. And being friends with other people with reputations. It seems to attract people who want a piece of you." Tendra smiled up at his face. "But if you're honest with yourself, I think you'd have to admit you wouldn't have it any other way."

Lando narrowed his eyes and looked thoughtful, and a teasing grin made his eyes twinkle slightly. "I can think of a number of possible situations I'd much prefer to be in -- none of them in any way life-threatening. Well -- not in an unpleasant way anyway." The grin became positively mischievous.

Tendra laughed, just for the moment forgetting their dire circumstances. "You old smoothie, you."

"I figure as long as I'm hearing at least someone accuse me of that, I'm okay."

"Don't worry, my love. You'll be hearing it for a long time yet."

They hugged each other close and exchanged one more affectionate kiss.

"Hey, old smoothie. Want to channel some of your boundless energy into this?" Vehn threw Lando one of the pieces of flint.

"Back to work," Lando sighed.

"You show 'em. Teach these young whipper snappers respect."

"You're beginning to sound like Booster."

"Eeek! The day I start looking like Booster, please shoot me."

Lando unsuccessfully snorted back a chuckle. "The chances of that, my beautiful wife, are about one in a million million."

"Never quote me the odds," said Tendra.

"Anyway," Lando continued. "I wouldn't shoot you, I'd shoot Booster. But don't tell him I said that. I can cope with Tag and even the Yuuzhan Vong. But Booster in a bad mood -- now that's something I really want to avoid."



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