Many Happy Returns: Chapter Thirteen
It hadn't taken Rongo long to gather the occupants of the compound together in the large room that served as the gang's common room. Anakin studied the barred windows and the burn marks on the walls, and decided that the room probably had a colourful history. The furniture was square and basic, and it was also scarce, meaning that most of the motley collection of humans and humanoids were either lolling against the walls or squatting on the floor. He didn't need to reach far into the Force to feel the gamut of conflicting feelings they were broadcasting. They covered almost the entire emotional spectrum -- from the guarded curiosity of those at the front through to the irritation and, in some cases, hostility of those who had chosen to stand against the wall at the back.
Rongo watched the two teenagers with fascination as they gazed around the group studying faces, their eyes semi-focused as if they were seeing through the person's skin into their souls. Rongo didn't adhere to any organised religious beliefs, but like a lot of his companions, he followed his own idiosyncratic code based on loyalty and honour. Friends and family, and in Rongo's case this meant the extended family of swoopers, were to be defended at all costs, and any action that furthered that end was therefore good. Written into that simple system of ethics was an unstated belief that anyone who died defending kin would rest easy, and that their future in the afterlife somehow rested on their actions in the here and now. It wasn't difficult therefore for Rongo to imagine people having souls, or for Jedi to be able to see them and judge who was honourable and who wasn't. He wondered if that made it easier or harder for them. After all, what would it be like fighting alongside someone who you were pretty sure could stab you in the back at the first opportunity. He pondered that for a moment, and decided that sometimes being limited to the relative ignorance of mere instinct might not be such a burden after all.
A voice broke in on his thoughts.
"So you got us some new initiates, Rongo?" called a lean man with a shaven tattooed head who was sitting against the wall to Anakin's left. "Couple of hundred on the kid if you pit him against Skell here," and he dug the little biker, whom Anakin had tricked and stunned, in the ribs. Skell winced and adjusted the position of the makeshift icepack on the knee he had twisted when he fell.
"Well actually, Blue," replied Rongo evenly. "I'd put a couple of hundred on either of them to take on any of us -- just ask Muss there. And Skell, Teebone and Doc."
"Okay, okay, I get the picture." Blue held up his hands in mock defeat.
"How is Teebone by the way?" Rongo asked.
"A bit concussed," replied Blue. "But he should be back on his feet tomorrow, although he won't be good for much."
"So what's new?" Rongo pulled himself upright from where he'd been leaning against the pitted wood of the counter that obviously served as the gang's bar. "However, I didn't get us together to discuss Teebone and his health problems. I want us to talk about Bomar Tag."
He waited until the chorus of hopeful murmurs and annoyed groans died down, his dark eyes flickering from face to face. "Exactly the reaction I expected. This Tag business has been hanging over us for a while. You know where I stand, but you also know I'm not willing to divide us over it. We've got too good a thing going here to screw it up." He stopped, and again the hiatus was filled with conflicting sounds of assent and dissent.
"So, what have these kids got to do with Tag?" asked an attractive woman with piercing blue eyes and a geometric chin tattoo. Anakin recognised her as being a native from Miriala. "I thought they were the ones who stole Muss's bike."
Rongo nodded. "They did. And Muss is going to explain why, aren't you Muss." The steely edge to Rongo's voice made it impossible for the unhappy biker to ignore the indirect command.
"They reckon they stole it so they could rescue their friends," he explained in a long-suffering tone, "because they reckon Tag's gonna turn them over to the Vong."
"Why?" Blue frowned.
Rongo turned to Anakin. "You want to take over now, kid?"
Anakin chopped his head in a curt nod and stood up.
"Wahoo! Give the Jedi some space!" called a scathing voice from the back.
"Don't fry our minds, Jedi!" squeaked someone else in mock apprehension.
"Hey, give the kid a chance!" shouted Blue, and then he directed a loud theatrical whisper at Anakin from behind his hand. "Get your little blonde friend up, kid. They'll sure as hell listen to her." It was obviously intended as a joke, but in one liquid movement Tahiri had leapt to her feet and was advancing on the astonished biker, her green eyes glittering like those of a serpent ready to spit venom. "Now just you-"
"Tahiri!" Anakin reached out and grabbed her shoulder to pull her back. The sudden motion jerked the long side of his poncho up, revealing his blackened shirt and the burnt and puckered flesh of his blaster wound.
The room fell silent.
"Vaping meteors, kid," said Rongo. "You in the habit of wandering round with big ventilation holes in you? Why didn't you say something?"
Anakin shrugged. "It didn't seem relevant."
Rongo took Tahiri's arm and held it up so he could investigate the injury he had seen earlier but hadn't taken much notice of. "How about we fix you two up first."
"We don't have time for this," Anakin hissed in exasperation. "The more time we waste, the more time Tag has to get organised."
Blue had stood up and was weaving his way through the group of bikers sitting on the floor. He reached Anakin and went to lift up the side of his poncho, but found his hand caught in a vice-like grip.
"Just doing my job, kid," he explained kindly.
"It's okay," Rongo assured Anakin. "Blue's our medic."
"I meant what I said about not wasting time," Anakin warned him, but he released Blue's hand so he could carry out his investigation of the wound more closely.
"Who did this to you, kid?" he asked as he straightened. Anakin studied the shrewd eyes gazing into his, and recognised genuine concern lurking beneath the steely facade.
"One of Tag's men," Tahiri answered for him, "while we were trying to escape. After they captured us, they held us in a room at the factory because they had ysalamiri there, but we managed to-"
"Whoa, whoa -- you're going to fast for this stupid swooper. Explain ysalamiri to me," said Blue.
"They're creatures from Myrkr," said Anakin. "They create a Force bubble that effectively makes a Jedi Force-blind. In other words, it means we can't use the Force anywhere near them. The fact Tag had them means he was prepared for catching Jedi -- and the reason he wants Jedi is so he can give them to the Yuuzhan Vong. He's with the Peace Brigade."
The assembled bikers had been following the activities at the front with fascination, although not a little confusion. The mention of the Peace Brigade, however, provoked a massed interchange of glances, some triumphant, some contrite.
"Looks like Jonno was right," murmured Blue, transferring his gaze to Rongo.
"Of course he was right." The tanned biker's jaw had visibly tightened.
"Tag is holding our friends at his warehouse," said Anakin. "Our friends aren't Jedi, but Tag was probably going to hand us all over as a package deal. Now that we're free I don't know what he'll do. That's why we've got to get them out as soon as possible."
The Tunroth who had been standing beside Muss stepped away from the wall. "This ain't our argument, Rongo."
"Tag killed Jonno and Pet and got away with it," he reminded her. "You do agree we should make him pay for that?"
"We all agree on that," she shrugged. "But that's between us and Tag."
"We all agree, but we've done vape all about it," interjected a red-haired youth about the same age as Anakin, who'd been gazing at Tahiri in open admiration. "The Rancors would have had his nuts hanging on their gate by now."
Rongo threw the boy a harsh look. "Yeah, well we're not Rancors are we, Jaytee. If we were, your nuts'd probably be up there with Tag's, and I won't comment on whose'd be smaller."
There were muffled chuckles amongst the group and Jaytee's cheeks flamed the same colour as his hair, but he returned Rongo's reprimand with an insolent stare.
"I'd like to think that one of the reasons we all get on so well here -- most of the time anyway -- is because we run on democratic lines," Rongo continued. "Whatever we do, we do because we all agree to it, because we can all see some sort of mutual advantage to it. You want me to run this joint like the Rancors, Jaytee, just say the word, but I'll lay down a thousand credits you'd be the first casualty. Anyway," he grinned, softening the hard lines his face had frozen into, "that's a Rancor bike that Muss'll be riding for a while."
"You had a run-in with them?" Blue's eyebrows shot up in poorly concealed amusement.
Rongo nodded, and rolled his eyes. "I was so busy chasing these guys I lost track of whose turf we were on. These two helped us fight them." He grinned. "We didn't damage them too badly -- just enough to rattle them."
"So we owe the Jedi kids -- and you want us to pay by helping them?" the Tunroth clarified.
"Seems fair enough to me," said the Mirialan woman.
"Yeah, but they still nicked my bike and presumably wrecked it," growled Muss.
"And they put Skell, Doc and Teebone out of commission for a while," scowled a furred Trianii, her prehensile tail curling lightly around the back of her chair.
Rongo looked across at the first man Anakin had stunned back at the alley, and noticed his pensive expression. "What do you think, Doc?"
The big man stared back at his leader for a moment and then leaned forward stiffly in his seat, gripping his thighs firmly to stop them inadvertently twitching. "Well, you know me. I respect anyone who can give as good as they get, so I'm willing to give these two a hearing. I also want to get Tag because of what he did to Jonno and Pet, and I suppose like most of us here I've been assuming the chance'll crop up eventually. The thing is now though -- after listening to the kid -- I'm thinking what if the Vong get here before we get around to doing anything? What then?" He stared round at the assembled faces. "I mean Jonno and Pet joined that anti-Peace Brigade group because they believed Tag was in league with them, and Pet wanted to do something to avenge her brother, right?" He paused again, but when nobody responded he hauled himself threateningly to his feet. "Well?" he demanded.
There was a rapid chorus of assenting nods and grunts. "Okay," he sat back down again. "So some of us thought they were right and some of us thought they were wrong, but all of us accepted their right to make some sort of stand for their beliefs. Now they're dead because of those beliefs -- and standing here before us we have proof that in fact they were right about Tag. Not only that, but Tag's actively trying to capture people, and the thing that worries me is -- if he's planning on giving them to the Vong like the kid says, is he going to invite the Vong here. If he is then it puts this whole debate about revenge in a different light. If we leave off paying him back, we might find ourselves kissing Vong ass before we can say Thrawn."
The group was silent, but Anakin could see people nodding, and several bikers at the back who had been glaring at him were now looking thoughtful.
"What happens to people that get given to the Vong, kid?" asked Rongo quietly.
"It depends," said Anakin. "They may decide to use them as slaves or expendable troops, in which case they plant a coral growth in them so they can control them." He felt a stab of phantom pain in his neck -- a reflexive reaction to his memory of the fake growth Vua Rapuung implanted in him on Yavin 4. "The other thing they might use them for is as sacrifices to their gods. The one thing they don't want them for is fellow citizens, and anyone who thinks they can buy favours with the Yuuzhan Vong are badly mistaken. They don't want cooperation or peace -- they want total domination."
"You think Tag might have already contacted the Vong?" asked Skell nervously.
Anakin frowned. "It's possible, although it's more likely he's dealing with a contact within the Peace Brigade itself. He's not a known collaborator. If he was we wouldn't have tried to do business with him."
"You know what makes me nervous," Skell piped up again.
"Everything makes you nervous," Muss chuckled cruelly.
Skell threw the sharp-faced biker a dirty look.
"Go on, Skell," Rongo prompted.
"Well. If Tag is thinking of trying to do deals with the Vong and trade slaves for favours, who's he most likely to pick on? Not your average Mr Solid Citizen, that's for sure -- it'll be people like us. And it looks like he already has friends amongst the police -- maybe even in higher places -- because he got away with killing Jonno and Pet."
"Emperor's bones -- he's right," growled the female Tunroth.
Muss's expression looked as though he'd just realised he'd mistaken nauga droppings for Agamarian sugar berries. "Yeah," he gulped. "He is."
"You been face to face with the Vong, kid?" asked Blue.
Rongo turned towards his shaved compatriot and saw him studying the youth guardedly. He wondered if Blue was thinking like him -- that it should have felt odd to be giving such respect to the words of a teenager. After all, both he and Blue were accustomed to a hierarchy in which it was age and experience of gang life that gave a person status and credibility. Even in their gang -- the Black Knights -- which operated on democratic lines, the younger members deferred to the older ones. At least they did if they knew what was good for them. But there was something about this kid, something about his earnest but authoritative demeanour that almost compelled Rongo to listen to him, and made him feel that he'd be willing to follow him. Blue's uncharacteristic seriousness suggested that he might feel the same way.
"We both have," replied Anakin. "Those scars on Tahiri's forehead were made by a Yuuzhan Vong shaper who tried to turn her into one of them.
"A shaper?" repeated Rongo, frowning.
"The shapers mould living things," explained Tahiri, "and because the Yuuzhan Vong base their technology on living things, the shapers are very skillful and important. People are just lumps of tissue for them to experiment with and redesign."
"The Peace Brigade think the Yuuzhan Vong are willing to cooperate, and that by collaborating with them they'll be able to strike some accord," continued Anakin. "A group on Duro tried that approach. On the planet there were about half a million refugees who the Peace Brigade figured the Yuuzhan Vong would happily take as sacrifices in return for letting the Duros keep their orbital cities. They forgot that the Vong see technology as an abomination against their gods. So when the Vong arrived they brought a creature like a huge space slug that could chew up the cities -- people, technology and everything."
"Then when Tsavong Lah promised to stop taking planets if the New Republic turned over its Jedi, a group in the Peace Brigade decided to capture all the Jedi children training on Yavin 4 and hand them over. They also thought they could negotiate. But all that happened was the Vong took the planet, planted one of their shaper compounds there, and then turned the Peace Brigaders into slaves -- those they didn't murder that is."
"The Yuuzhan Vong see collaborators as weak," said Tahiri. "And they don't like weakness -- it offends them and it goes against their beliefs. They believe in gods that see pain and death as something to embrace, which is why they scar themselves or cut off limbs and graft on implants. They also think that all life is theirs to shape into whatever they want. That's what they tried to do to me -- they tried to shape me into aYuuzhan Vong with Jedi abilities so I could become another of their weapons. They would have succeeded too if Anakin hadn't rescued me. He's fought them hand-to-hand on Yavin and on Dantooine, Ithor and Yag'Dhul. He's flown against them too at Duro, Dubrillion and more places than I can name. That's why you have to listen to him, because he knows what he's talking about. One thing I can tell you from my experience is this -- they wouldn't be interested in Tag and his friends because they're just cowards. But they might be able to do something interesting with people like you. And if you sit by and do nothing to stop Tag, then sooner or later you'll find out exactly what that is."
Tahiri stopped and gazed around the room, suddenly aware that all movement had frozen like a scene in a HoloDrama switched on to pause. She threw Anakin a quizzical look -- but he answered her non-verbal query with a shrug.
Rongo was the first to find his voice. "Did you say Anakin?"
Tahiri turned back to him and stared at his incredulous expression curiously. "Yeah," she replied a little confused. "Of course."
"The Anakin Solo?" Blue queried her. "Son of Han Solo?"
Tahiri studied him, uncertain for a moment whether he was being serious or just building up to some sort of joke.
"Yeah," she said a little tentatively.
Rongo and Blue exchanged wide-eyed stares, and then Blue snorted back a chuckle. "Makes sense when you think about it, I suppose. A smuggler's son's naturally going to find something in common with swoopers."
"Han Solo's okay," Doc piped up. "My old man fought with him at Nar Shadda with the other smugglers."
"Mine too," came several voices from the middle of the room.
"You can count me in on any plan to get back at Tag," growled Doc. "I want to square things up for Jonno and Pet, and I think the old man'd be chuffed to know I was fighting with Solo's son."
"You can count me in too," called a bearded man sitting with his arm around a woman at the large table. "My old man'd be proud too. And I ain't going to let no Vong give me four arms and legs."
"Hell, no -- you're bad enough with just two," the woman quipped, but both Anakin and Tahiri could see her bravado was just a fašade. "Count me in Rongo. I'd prefer to go out fighting than sitting waiting for those vaping freaks to get me."
"And me," growled a Trandoshan, shoving his bulk away from the back wall and swaggering towards the table. "I think Doc's right. If we leave getting our revenge on Tag we might miss out altogether. Now he's got his ugly mug into politics, how do we know he hasn't got some sort of deal going with the Vong to turn the whole planet over?"
"Good point, Treetrunk," Blue nodded.
Rongo stepped forward and, placing his hands on his narrow hips, he nodded round at the gang members. "Okay, I'm going to put it to the vote. But I want to make sure everyone understands what we're voting on. I'm going to ask you if you agree to us planning an attack on Tag's warehouse, but it's an attack that's got to achieve three things. First, it'll square things up between us and Tag so Jonno and Pet rest easy. Second, it'll allow Anakin and Tahiri here to rescue their friends, and third, it'll repay our debt to them. We're not out to kill Tag -- we're going to humiliate him. Ruin him. I know some of you want his blood -- so do I. But to help these two kids, we have to be content with ruining his business and exposing him for what he is -- a piece of bantha crap."
There was a long silence as Rongo let his words sink in. He gazed around again, establishing eye contact with some of the more outspoken members of the group.
"Everyone crystal clear about that?"
The gang members replied with grunts and nods.
"What if he accidentally gets in our line of fire?" grumbled the Trandoshan laconically.
"Work on firing curve shots, Treetrunk," Rongo grinned. "Okay. So if you want us to go ahead and plan an attack, put up your hand."
Anakin turned to Tahiri and took her hand, giving it an encouraging squeeze. "That was quite a speech," he murmured. "Fancy going into politics?"
She gazed up at him and her green eyes crinkled. "No way. That was from the heart. Politicians seldom talk from there."
Anakin chuckled. "I'll tell Mum you said that," he said in a sing song accusatory voice.
"Oops, sorry. I forgot."
"Nah, what you say's true for most of them." He thought about Borsk Fey'lya and turned back to watch as Rongo counted hands. "Looks like they're going to do it."
Rongo turned to them and grinned triumphantly. "Way to go, guys. Now I suppose you'll want to help us plan it."
"Definitely," said Anakin seriously. "Although first I think we need to do some reconnaissance. You may be familiar with the place, but we're not."
Blue had joined them and he and Rongo exchanged glances. "We're not actually all that familiar with the warehouse," said Rongo.
Anakin heard a faint note of hesitancy in the biker's voice. "Is there a problem?"
"No." Rongo's dark eyes connected with Anakin's. "Tag's warehouse borders on Rancor turf -- and as you can probably understand, they might be a trifle touchy at the moment. But you are right. It's no good planning until we see what Tag's got there. And Tag'll be being pretty chary now that he's lost you two."
"We need to be able to get in quietly and try and get to Lando and Tendra before they know we're there. We have more chance of getting them out unharmed that way."
Blue made a rueful face. "No blasting our way in and just wiping everything out then."
Rongo guffawed and banged his friend companionably on the shoulder. "That's what I like about you, Blue. You always take the direct approach."
"You saying I'm not subtle, 'bro?" Blue put up his fists and lobbed a fake punch at Rongo's chin.
Rongo held up his hands. "Subtle? What's subtle?"
Blue grinned at Anakin and Tahiri. "That's why we elected him leader -- he's the only one dumb enough to do it. I -- on the other hand -- being the intelligent one, get to deal with all the sickos, and before we do anything else, we're going to fix you two up. Especially you." He pointed to Anakin.
Anakin went to open his mouth, but Blue held up his hand. "No! Don't want to hear it. We fix you up, and then you rest while we get a reconnaissance group organised. Plus we need to do a bit of an inventory of weapons. Right, boss?"
"Yep. We'll plan on heading out after lunch. It gets fairly busy about that time in the warehouse district -- stuff getting transported to and from the spaceport -- so we'll be less likely stand out."
"He's not just a pretty face after all," Blue quipped. "Now are you going to come with me, kid, or am I going to have to lay you out."
Anakin raised an eyebrow. "You reckon you could?"
Blue chuckled and patted Anakin's shoulder, propelling him towards the door. "Not a Hutt's chance in a beauty contest, kid." He turned back to Rongo. "They can have my room. I'll shift some of my stuff into Teebone's -- gotta keep an eye on him anyway."
Rongo shook his head. "Give them Jonno and Pet's."
Blue's eyebrows shot up, making the tattooed serpent on his shaved skull undulate as if it was alive, but Rongo answered the non-verbal query with a confirming nod. In his eyes, Blue noticed the same expression he had often seen when Jonno was alive, and it occurred to him that maybe Rongo saw a little of his brother and Pet in the two young Jedi.
"I know this is a stupid question," said Tahiri, as Blue led them down a long musty-smelling corridor. "But how come Doc is called Doc if he's not the medic?"
"Good question." Blue chuckled. Strangely that was just the sort of thing Pet would have said. "We call him that because he's good at surgery."
"Oh." Tahiri frowned, and then her brow cleared. "Oh!" Her eyes widened.
"But he doesn't hold grudges," Blue winked at her.
Tahiri gazed back at him and Blue noticed again the faint tinge of ice in her eyes. "Neither do I."
Blue chuckled, but it occurred to him that he was glad to be fighting with Anakin Solo and Tahiri rather than against them.
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