Many Happy Returns: Chapter Sixteen
Rongo had suggested to Anakin that they divide the reconnaissance team into pairs as he felt a large group travelling together would be more noticeable, and they wanted to remain as unobtrusive as possible. Anakin and Tahiri followed at a sensible distance from Rongo and Jaytee who were taking a more circuitous route than Zed and Tab, the couple who had been sitting at the table together that morning at the meeting. When Anakin and Tahiri reached the plaza, they left their bike by a tree and wandered over to join the other four swoopers. It was a warm day, and Rongo and Jaytee had taken off their jackets.
"You okay, kid?" Rongo asked the red-haired youth.
"You seem to have developed a twitch. I wondered if the sun was a bit much for you."
Jaytee tried to glare at his leader but found his gaze drawn inexorably towards the approaching Jedi, especially the smaller one.
"No, no," corrected the bearded man beside him. "You flex backwards -- like this." He let his jacket slip from his shoulders and rolled his shoulders back so the bared muscles on his upper arms tensed quite noticeably.
"You big poser." Tab laughed and pushed him playfully.
"Hey. The kid wants to pose -- I was just giving him some pointers."
Jaytee folded his arms and stared at the three older bikers sullenly. "Give me a break."
Rongo thumped him affectionately on the back. "You're okay, kid. That's why we brought you along. Just cut the posturing, huh. We're here to do some work."
Jaytee managed to hold Rongo's steely gaze for about thirty seconds, before being forced to nod grudgingly. "Okay."
Rongo nodded and turned to Anakin. "The warehouse is in that block behind you. I figure we divide up again. I'll take Jaytee and we'll try and get up on that building site at the back. Got a friend who works for that construction company." He waved towards the site in question -- a new multi-storey building which advertised its creator's name on large signs attached to the tops of its transparisteel framework. "Zed and Tab can cruise around here and keep an eye out for Rancors, and you and Tahiri take Iliana and Muss and check the place out for exits and entrances."
"Speaking of Iliana and Muss -- where are they?" asked Tab.
"Here." Iliana's voice made her turn. "Here we go, Anakin. This any good?" She held the latest model holocam out for him.
He nodded. "Definitely. Maybe you should take it, Rongo. If you can get up on that building you should be able to get some good shots of the upper levels of the warehouse. I'd like to try and figure out the most likely place that Tag would have our friends imprisoned. Plus, it'll give us an idea if there's any way we can access the warehouse from the roof."
Rongo's brown eyes flickered towards Iliana's and then back to Anakin. "Uh, I've never actually used the thing before."
"Oh. Well maybe Iliana should go with you."
Iliana shook her head. "I'm useless with stuff like that."
Anakin offered the camera to Muss, but he shook his head. The young Jedi's eyes narrowed behind his sun visors. "I'm kind of getting the impression this isn't your holocam."
Rongo shrugged. "Got to hand it to you, kid. That Force thing of yours is pretty damn good. However." He held up his hand to forestall Anakin's response. "I do recall a certain twosome stealing Muss's bike."
"Yeah." The theft victim thrust his face into Anakin's. "I was just about to remind you of that myself. Ain't you lucky I'm a forgiving guy."
Anakin exchanged a bemused look with Tahiri and then nodded slowly, one eyebrow appearing above the edge of his dark lenses. "Okay," he said resignedly. "I guess I asked for that."
Jaytee held out his hand. "I can work the thing," he growled. "Really." He returned Rongo's querying look with one that was only partly insolent.
"Well, that's sorted that out then. Good for you, kid." The swoop leader gazed around the plaza. "There's a convenient tapcafe for you, Zed. You can sit out front and keep an eye on things from there."
The big man threw an arm round Tab's shoulders and grinned broadly. "Sounds like a good way to spend the afternoon. I'll com you if I see anything."
Rongo winked at Tab. "Make sure he remains capable of seeing things -- real things, and nothing to do with the knotholes underneath the tabletop."
Zed guffawed and waved his hand in amused repudiation as he departed.
"Don't worry," said Rongo in response to Anakin's quizzical expression. "Zed used to have a major drinking problem -- almost killed him -- but he's okay now. He likes us to joke about it because he reckons being able to laugh about it shows just how far he's come. And don't ask me to explain that for you because I'm not sure I get it myself."
Anakin turned to Tahiri again, who was obviously fighting the same impulse he was feeling -- that was to shake his head in disbelief.
"Are you a regular swooper?" she raised her visors and studied him curiously. "Or some sort of new mutation?"
A grin tugged at Rongo's lips, but he turned away quickly towards Jaytee. "Ready to roll, kid?"
"I reckon." The youth waited until Anakin had turned to say something to Iliana and Muss and then ventured what he hoped was a suitably inviting smile at Tahiri, before scurrying after Rongo. His feeling that he'd at least scored a minor victory wasn't ruined, therefore, by the sight of her rolling her eyes, or her mutterings about the bizarre nature of male behaviour, as she caught up with the other three.
* * * * *
"Hey, Qorl," called Vehn. "I think we might be nearing ignition. Feel this." He stopped rubbing and waited for the older man to walk over from the door.
"Good." Qorl reached over to the pile of wood shavings Kushka had just finished carrying over and dropped a few on to the spoon-shaped end of the makeshift torch. "Keep going. It's almost hot enough. Once it's smoking, stop and let me take over."
"You're the expert," grinned Vehn. "Bet you never thought all those years in the jungle would come in this useful."
"No experience is ever wasted," said Qorl sagely. "I just wish I could say I thought of the idea myself. It took one of our ladies to think outside the square."
"Outside the square! My, my, we are waxing mathematical aren't we!" Vehn winked at him.
"Just watch that I don't decide to practise subtraction on you," growled the dark-haired man threateningly.
Vehn winked back, and put his hand up to his mouth in conspiratorial fashion. "And, uh, would I be correct in thinking you have a little adding and multiplying in mind as well?"
Lando loomed in between them. "Come on you two -- can we quit the verbal jousting and stick to the task in hand."
"Actually." Tendra poked her head in between Lando and Qorl. "Mr Qorl's quite right to give Jassif credit -- and Kushka for thinking of the fire idea in the first place. Sometimes we miss the most obvious ideas because we think they sound too simple." She stepped back so she could continue stretching the string of clothes she and Neijal were testing for reliability. "And let's face it, men do have a tendency to complicate things."
Vehn went to reply, but Lando dropped a heavy hand on his shoulder. "Quit now. You won't win this one, I'm telling you."
Tendra laughed and leaned her weight back on their rope. "There. That's as strong as we can make it."
"Great work," beamed Lando. "I can't think of anything else we can do for the moment. Anyone think of anything we may have missed?"
Vehn raised a hand.
"Constructive ideas I mean." Lando threw him a warning look.
Vehn's arm began to drop down but then it stopped and he raised a finger. "Where are we going to hold the victory party?" he grinned triumphantly.
* * * * *
"Got good news and bad news." Rongo's voice was coming through quite loudly, so Anakin tweaked the volume down. He and his group of Tahiri, Muss and Iliana were approaching the back of the warehouse, moseying along aimlessly and talking, and in Muss's case drinking lomin-ale. In other words, they were behaving in a way that nobody watching them would find unusual. Anakin cast a quick glance up at the building site and recognised Rongo's distinctive figure leaning against a gantry near the edge.
"Bad news first please," he murmured, pretending to scratch his chin with the hand holding the comlink.
"There's no way we'll get on to the roof. He's got a security fence around it, and apart from that there are no buildings close enough."
"Yeah. We've already figured that. So what's the good news?"
"Got some good clear pictures of the place for you. Turns out the kid's a dab hand with a holocam. Might have found a career path for him."
Anakin grinned. "Oh well, it hasn't been a wasted exercise then. We searched the other side first, but it's just wall -- about two storeys high and blank. Nothing round this side so far except some high windows. Hang on." He followed Muss around to the right and found they were on a narrow street that would lead them past a delivery bay at the back of the building.
"Stay out of sight for a minute," said Rongo suddenly. "There's a ground truck coming."
Muss had already noticed the vehicle, and had pulled back into the alley, squatting down on his haunches and leaning against the wall. He glanced up at Anakin. "What's the boss saying?"
Anakin waited for the truck to pass, and was about to reply when he noticed it slowing down.
"Hey, Anak-" Rongo began.
"On to it," Anakin replied, tucking the comlink in his upper pocket. "We need to get as close to that warehouse door as we can," he told Muss. He peered around the edge of the building and watched the truck maneuvering so it could back up to the door, which was already rolling up. "I want to see what's in there, and who's in there."
Muss hauled himself up and ventured a quick glance into the alley and shrugged. "Shouldn't be a problem. There's a workers' tapcafe back down the other end of the street, so uh ..." He pulled another bottle from one of the inside pockets of his jacket and threw it to Anakin. "Maybe we've just come from there, eh kid?" He winked and grabbed Iliana enthusiastically around the waist.
"Just don't think you're going to get too friendly," she warned him as he pulled her out on to the edge of the cracked duracrete. "Remember the boss is watching."
Muss took a swig from his bottle and handed it to her, grinning. "I'm sure he'll understand." He turned back to Anakin and Tahiri. "Hey, kid. Hand in hand is too cutesie pie. You're a swooper, remember."
Anakin felt a slight blush tingeing his cheeks, and for the first time since meeting the gang he wondered what he'd got Tahiri and himself into. Events had conspired to lead them to the swoopers, and from that point on he'd rather gone with the flow without really weighing up the pros and cons. One thing was certain, though, and that was that, whether they liked it or not, it looked as though these people were the only ones able or willing to help them save Lando and Tendra. Desperate circumstances sometimes called for unlikely bedfellows. Anakin reminded himself how often his parents and his uncle had proved that old cliché. In fact, his uncle had apparently taken it literally, and as a result now boasted not only a happy marriage but also a child.
Tahiri squeezed his hand and frowned admonishingly. "Anakin, don't you dare start beating yourself up, or I'll beat you up. And I'm not talking figuratively."
Anakin returned the squeeze and felt her determination stopping up the gap in his resolve. "Thanks." The moment of self-doubt passed and he nodded to Muss, and threw the arm holding the bottle around Tahiri's slim shoulders.
"If they're filming us with that holocam," she whispered, "we'd better make sure we get the film. Imagine what Kam and Tionne would say if they saw us like this?"
Anakin grimaced. "Or Corran! Probably earn us kitchen duty for the next year."
Tahiri didn't reply, but her instinct told her that Kam and his wife would be a lot more understanding than Corran, although their experiences with the ex-Rogue Squadron Jedi a couple of months earlier suggested that his bark was in reality worse than his bite. In fact she had the sneaking suspicion that Corran had developed a grudging admiration for Anakin.
"Don't worry," she teased. "I won't let any of the demon drink pass my lips."
Anakin threw her a wry look, and set off, attempting to mimic Muss's slightly inebriated swagger.
* * * * *
"What the-" Jaytee frowned at Rongo and then turned his attention back to the four figures weaving their way along the middle of the street. "Oh great. Good work, Muss. All that talk about forgiving them was just crap. He's got them back by getting them drunk." He watched as Tahiri threw her arms in the air and began whirling round, only to reel off unsteadily towards the low wall that ran up to the delivery bay. The young biker went to turn towards the hydraulic platform that had brought them up to the top level of the building, but a tanned hand grabbed his shoulder.
"Wait up. It's okay. I think I know what they're going to do."
"Yeah -- well those two Jedi are probably going to puke," grumbled the youth darkly. "And then they'll keel over, and some poor sucker'll have to carry them back to the-" His face lit up. "Hey, maybe that's not so bad after all."
Rongo transferred his gaze from Anakin and Tahiri's erratic but gradual progress towards the door of the warehouse and threw Jaytee a look that contained sufficient acid to wither whatever hopes had been taking root. "Reactivate your upper brain and keep watching, just in case they do need backup," he drawled. "It looks like this is going to be the only way we're going to get into this vaping place, so we need to see what's in there. In fact, see if you can get a shot of what's inside that door when it's open. Does that thing have a ... ?" He waved his hand as if to conjure the word he was seeking from the air.
"A zoom? Yeah, of course."
Jaytee moved along the edge of the duracrete floor strut until he had a clear view of inside the door, and he began focusing the holocam. The driver had disappeared into the back of the loading bay, and, except for some workers who had just emerged from another warehouse down the street there were no people other than the Jedi and the swoopers around.
Rongo watched as Muss and Iliana settled down on the low barrier, noting that Anakin had positioned himself so that he could keep one eye on the roof and the other on the warehouse door.
"Okay." His voice came through softly but clearly over the comlink he was concealing in the hand that held the bottle. "Plan A is to see if we stand any chance of getting somebody in through that door unnoticed. If we can, and they can find a place to hide, then they can sneak out and open it up later to let us in."
"Yeah -- that makes sense," replied Rongo. "At the moment it doesn't look too encouraging though."
"What can you see? I've got a view down this side of the truck. Looks like some people moving things around -- vats or something."
"Hang on. I've got Jaytee filming with the ... thing that makes things look close."
"Yeah." He edged along to Jaytee. "How many people are in there kid? Can you see?"
"Yup, quite a few. It's pretty big. Whole lot of bundles of something strapped up with plastine ties along one side. Nothing on the other, but it looks like there's another door."
"Another room do you think?"
"Yeah, probably. There's a guy with one of those repulsor-lift loaders taking something out of the back of the truck, and a big group of guys working over at the side where the bundles are."
Rongo made a wry face. "Doesn't look as though we're going to be able to sneak anyone in there then?"
"Not at the moment," said Anakin.
A splutter of interference on both comlinks was followed by Blue's voice asking if Rongo was listening.
"Thought you'd better know -- we've got quite a fan club here."
"Signed any autographs yet?" The biker's tanned face broke into a wry grin.
"Not yet. So far they're happy just to admire us from afar."
"Where are you exactly?"
"By the bridge, just outside the Loaded Gornt."
"Good spot," said Rongo approvingly.
"Yeah, well I figured it's about as far away from you and as close to their turf as we can get. We're looking like we're waiting for some more of us to arrive, so I think they're thinking we're going to try something."
"Good. The longer they think that, the less likely they are to come cruising around here. Can you tell if the boss is there with them."
"Yep. Looking as ugly as ever. Moving as though he's been hugged by a Wookiee you'll be pleased to hear."
Rongo looked rueful. "I dunno. That won't have improved his general outlook. Although at least it means someone loves him enough to have gone back and picked him up from the alley." He paused for a moment, thinking. "Okay. I'll leave how long you stay up to your judgment, but don't stay any longer than you need to. We've got some shots of inside the place plus a good idea of how it's laid out."
"Got you. I'll let you know when we move."
"Yeah, do that."
Another hiss indicated Blue had clicked off his end of the connection. Rongo was about to speak again when Jaytee lowered the holocam, frowning.
"That's weird. Take a look at that." He handed the device to Rongo, and helped him position it so he could see through it properly.
"Wow! This thing's good. What am I looking at?"
"That thing the repulsor truck's carrying. Ask Wonder Boy what he thinks it is."
Rongo threw the youth a warning look, but raised the comlink again. "Anakin. Take a look inside the door again and see what's on the lifter."
"It looks like a coffin," murmured Jaytee.
Anakin stood up and stretched, and gazed around nonchalantly. He sat down again suddenly.
"What's up?" Tahiri demanded, catching his worried look.
"They've just unloaded a life-support gurney, and I think the lifter's coming back for another. Check will you?"
Tahiri glanced over at the workers down the street who were drifting back into the other warehouse, and then back into the open doorway. "Yes. It is," she said after a pause.
"They're something medics use," Anakin explained quietly to Rongo. "They use them to carry sick people in so they can keep them wired up to their life support systems."
"So why would Tag want one?"
"He's got more than one." Anakin felt icy fingers grip his insides. "At a guess I'd say he's going to put Lando and Tendra in them."
Rongo was silent while he handed the holocam back to Jaytee. "Look. I know this sounds stupid -- but isn't the fact they've got those life support things a good sign in a way? I mean -- it does tend to suggest your friends are still alive."
Anakin returned Tahiri's serious gaze. They were both already sure that Lando and Tendra were alive as they'd reached out in the Force while they were exploring the alleys beside the warehouse. Anakin had been able to sense a number of presences in the building, all for the most part creating only minor ripples in the Force. There was a distinct group, however, in whom he'd felt strong emotions: anxiety, fear, but also feelings of anticipation. Tahiri had felt them too, and they'd decided that two of these presences were definitely Lando and Tendra. What had surprised them was that they'd felt more than just two individuals in this group, and at least two of the others felt vaguely familiar. As yet they had no answer to that mystery, and Anakin had decided that was something they'd have to mull over later.
"I can still feel them, I'm sure," Tahiri whispered.
Anakin nodded, and then raised the bottle of lomin-ale again. "Yes, Rongo. They're definitely alive. And it looks like Tag wants to keep them alive. I just don't like the thought of them being shoved in those gurneys - being knocked out, drugged and wired up so they can't fight. If you knew our friends, you'd know they'd feel being presented to the Yuuzhan Vong in those circumstances was a far worse thing than dying."
There was a long pause. "Then it looks like we've timed this just about right."
"Hey, kid," hissed Muss as Anakin went to reply. "Not trying to knock your acting skills -- but how's about you take the lid off that bottle. It looks a bit suspicious you drinking from a full bottle all the time."
Anakin exchanged a slightly chagrined glance with Tahiri, and was just about to reach for his multi-tool when he noticed that the lid was one of the old flip-up sort. "Good point. Rongo, can-" The rest of his question was lost in a paroxysm of coughs and splutters.
"Hey don't waste it, kid." Muss brushed some flecks of sickly amber foam from his jacket.
"Sorry," rasped Anakin. "Not a good year." He joked when he'd recovered, pointing at the brew in his bottle.
"The trick is to not taste it," Muss advised him sagely. "Look on it as fluid replacement with a hit."
"I'll work on it." Anakin cleared his throat.
Muss chuckled and gulped down the rest of his ale in one long draught. "Nice to know that you Jedi aren't too hoity toity to learn new skills," he grinned broadly and burped, causing Iliana to roll her eyes and mime fanning away the fumes. "So what were you going to say before the ale interrupted you?"
"That truck," said Anakin. "I wouldn't mind checking it out. There might be an ID code it uses when it's delivering and if we copy it, we might be able to get someone to open the door for us."
"Especially if we sto-, er borrowed another delivery truck." Muss nodded, and he and Iliana shared amused looks. "Good plan."
"The word is commandeered," said Tahiri, a mischievous smile tugging at her lips.
"Er, yeah," said Anakin. "I'd also like to find out exactly what it's delivering now. It's probably got a delivery log. And we might be able to see through from the back of the cab into the warehouse. The more we know about it, the better prepared we can be."
"Makes sense," said Muss. "So you want us to keep an eye out for you."
"Yes thanks." Anakin was already standing up. "Actually, you take this," he said handing his ale and the comlink to Muss. "Explain what we're doing to Rongo, and give me a signal if you see anyone coming."
Muss nodded and watched as Anakin and Tahiri strolled casually, wobbling a little, towards the truck. He glanced back up the now empty street, and studied the blank wall of the warehouse. "Hey, Rongo. The kids are going to check out the truck. Let me know if you see anything from up there will ya?"
"Sure thing." Rongo turned to Jaytee.
"I know, I know. I'm not stupid."
"No-one said you were, kid."
The youth detached his eye from the lens and scowled. "Yes you do. All the time."
Rongo sighed to himself, but remained silent. Whatever he said, the kid was sure to misinterpret it. He'd hoped to start giving Jaytee a bit of responsibility so he would start shrugging off that giant chip he carried round on his shoulder, but it wasn't proving easy. The boy was touchy about anything that had the slightest hint of criticism. He was going to have a tough life if he didn't learn to take the knockbacks, because as far as Rongo could see knockbacks were one of life's main ingredients.
He watched as Tahiri followed Anakin into the cab, and let his eye wander over the contours of the building. The outside walls rose high on all sides except one where a flat-topped tower poked up above them about halfway along. It was windowless, although there was a metal panel near the top that might be some sort of shutter. One thing was certain. The only way in would be either through the front door or the back, and there was no question in Rongo's mind about which option he preferred.
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