Many Happy Returns: Chapter Seventeen
Iella

"Still clear," said Tahiri turning back from peering through the back window of the cab to find that Anakin had activated a screen on the truck's control panel. "What's that?"

"It's the despatch list from the spaceport." He scanned down, stopping on an item about halfway down. "Four life support gurneys," he read.

"Four!"

The two young Jedi exchanged worried looks. Tahiri turned back to check the delivery area. "They're not in there. They must have taken them out into another part of the warehouse."

"Spit," muttered Anakin. "It's so frustrating -- knowing Lando and Tendra are in there somewhere."

"I know. I wish we could just slash our way in now."

The cool tone in Tahiri's voice startled him, even though he'd been thinking along similar lines himself. "There are more than just our aims to consider," he reminded her, conscious he was also reaffirming his own need to control his impulses.

Tahiri huffed in exasperation. "I guess. At least they don't have any ysalamiri here."

"Yeah. Although we'll have to be prepared for the fact they might bring in those ones from the factory," he pointed out.

"Then we'll have to be quick and not give them any chance to go and get them."

"That's what I like about you, Tahiri. You're never short on answers." Before she could think of a retort, he stabbed a finger at an entry on the screen. "Hey!"

"What?"

"This driver's due back here later. See."

Tahiri peered at the item Anakin was indicating. "Balance of order ex-Antar. Twenty reels plastowrap," she read.

"Looks like it's his final delivery. Hang on." He flipped back up to the top of the last section. "He's scheduled to pick up his last load at the spaceport at 1800 -- Loading Bay 42."

They exchanged knowing glances.

"He certainly works a long day. I'll bet he'd be glad to have someone else do the delivery for him," said Tahiri speculatively.

Anakin nodded slowly. "He probably would." He ran his eye down the driver's personal log at the bottom of the delivery schedule. "Looks like he's been full on for the last two days, whereas previous to that he hardly had any deliveries at all. I expect that's because of the Yuuzhan Vong holding up the cargo routes." "It must be feast or famine for some of these places." She suddenly became aware of movement out the truck window and looked up to see Muss and Iliana gesticulating furiously at them.

"Anakin, I think we'd better --" She glanced quickly out the back. "Uh oh."

Anakin had seen the two swoopers' signals just after Tahiri and was already deactivating the log. She gazed around desperately and suddenly, to his surprise, she pulled out the compartment underneath the control panel, tipped the loose coins, vouchers and other assorted items on to the seat and began sliding out of the truck door.

"Oi!" shouted an angry voice. "Whaddya think you're doing in my truck!"

Anakin slipped out of the passenger side, and saw Tahiri turn to the face the driver.

"I was only looking," she said sullenly.

Anakin crept around the front of the cab, hoping the man wouldn't decide to try any rough stuff.

"Yeah? Looking for what?"

There was a pause, and then he heard Tahiri's voice and had to clasp his hand over his mouth, hoping that the man couldn't hear him spluttering.

"Got any deathsticks?" Tahiri asked in a saccharine tone.

"Deathst-! Are you kidding? Do I look -? Emperor's Bones! What's wrong with you people?"

There was another pause, and Anakin could almost visualise Tahiri's green eyes rolling -- a picture of brattish self-gratification.

"Just asking."

"Look girlie!" the man began, and then stopped and continued in a kinder tone. "Look. You seem like a nice little thing. How's about you go home to your mum and have another think about what you're doing with your life. Hanging around with these ruffians -- it's only going to get you into trouble."

"So, you don't have any?" Tahiri's caustic tone suggested she was already beyond redemption.

Anakin heard the man mutter an exasperated curse, and then grunt as he swung up into the cab.

"Maybe one day you'll wish you listened," he shouted out the window as he released the hydraulics.

Anakin scuttled out of the truck's path and waited for it to pull away. "That was astral, Tahiri. Where'd you pull that one from?"

Tahiri shrugged. "I think it's all the time I've spent hanging around with scoundrels. The influence is wearing off on me."

"Scoundrels!"

Tahiri grinned and then burst into giggles.

"I'm not sure how to take that."

"It's a compliment. I happen to like scoundrels."

"I see. I'll keep that in mind."

Muss waved towards the warehouse as they approached. "They've closed the door so we've lost our chance to hide one of us in there."

"Not to worry," said Anakin. "We found out that the truck's coming back again later, and even better, we know when and where it's picking up its load."

"So?" Muss frowned as he attempted to keep pace with Anakin's reasoning.

"So, we --"

Muss's grey eyes widened as the significance hit him. "We hijack the truck."

"We, uh, borrow it," Anakin corrected him, "after it's been loaded. Is there a set route into the spaceport?"

"For ground vehicles? There must be."

Blue's voice filtered unevenly through the comlink accompanied by a background growl of swoop engines. "Okay. That's us done for the day, Rongo."

"Gotcha. Meet you back at the compound. What was all that about down there, Muss?"

"Looks like these two have got the beginnings of a plan. I don't think we need to hang around any longer."

"We'll meet back by the bikes then." Rongo turned to Jaytee. "You right, kid?"

The youth nodded and began packing up the holocam.

"Hey, Zed, we're on our way round. You two can head away now."

"We'll wait for you. Found someone you might be interested in meeting."

"Really? Tall, blonde, millionaire's daughter? A hankering for shallow and totally meaningless relationships?"

"I heard that." Iliana grabbed the comlink from Muss's tattooed fingers.

Rongo chuckled.

"Sounds good to me," Jaytee said with a grin that showed more of his teeth than Rongo would have liked.

"I was kidding you know," he reminded him.

"Sure," the youth drawled.

Rongo felt his jaw tighten. Sometimes the temptation to shake some sense into the kid was overwhelming. As soon as the elevator platform met the ground with a gentle bump, he leapt off and set out, feeling suddenly irritable, after Muss and the others.

*****

"Ooh!" gasped Kushka, his eyes as round as Old Republic half-credits.

Neijal placed her hands on his shoulders and pulled him back gently from within huffing distance of the fragile tongue of orange flame. She could just see her son gasping with excitement and, as a result, extinguishing the fruits of Qorl's last hour of patient work. As she watched, almost herself afraid to breathe, the tiny column of fire flickered and dissolved back into smoke. Her own groan of dismay was echoed amongst the other watchers, and Kushka covered his eyes.

Neijal, squeezed his shoulders. "It's okay," she said, realising she was comforting herself as much as Kushka. "There are still embers, see. Mr Qorl will just have to try again."

"I'm not crying, mummy." The little boy's voice was muffled by his hands. "If I don't watch, then it'll work, like Machshi with the cauldron."

Jassif caught her eye and both women shared amused looks. "Ah, I see," said Neijal. "A watched cauldron never boils you mean. That's probably very wise, Kushka. Maybe if we all don't watch, the flame will come back."

"Is that from a story?" Tendra asked quietly. She found the two Mantrusian women rather fascinating, and wished they were in a situation where they could sit down and chat. Tendra had always enjoyed learning about different people and their ways of life.

Neijal shook her head. "It's one of my mother's sayings. No matter what the situation, she always has a proverb to cover it."

"I wonder what she'd say about this one." Tendra waved her arms to encompass the room and its occupants. "I think even Machshi would be hard pushed to find one to cover this." Neijal's tone, even with its Mantrusian accent, was distinctly sardonic.

"Hey, Kushka. It worked." Lando patted the boy's arm.

"Okay, everyone. No sudden movements," cautioned Vehn.

Qorl's face was a study in concentration as he added shavings one by one to keep the tiny fire going. Slowly its shy flickering became more confident, until finally it was flouting its colours quite brazenly.

"Fantastic," murmured Lando. "Qorl if I had a hat, I'd take it off to you."

"You know something, Calrissian," Vehn quipped in an effort to curb his growing nervousness. "I have to say, I find your general tendency to keep taking things off disturbing."

Land chuckled and picked up the fabric bundle he'd made earlier. "Okay, Qorl. When you've got a good bed of flame going, we'll strap this on to it."

"I hope this works," growled Vehn. "What if we burn up the torch before it generates enough heat to open the vent?"

"Then we make another. Simple. Let's keep a positive outlook on this."

"Sorry." Vehn had noted the warning tone, but it was hard to ignore the sudden tension in the atmosphere. While they'd all been busy, they'd been able to avoid thinking about failure. But now, so much depended on this delicate creation of wood and cloth. I wonder if this is how the guy felt who first placed a round boulder at the top of a hill to see what would happen?

The pilot gazed round at the expectant looks on the faces of the three women, at Ruba gloriously unaware of their predicament in her mother's arms, and then at Kushka who was following Qorl's fingers as if his eyes were attached to them with strings. Yes, a lot rested on the makeshift torch, but what were they going to face once the vent was open? If it opened.

He gave himself a mental slap and pushed the doubt away to the edges of his mind. Lando was right -- they had to keep positive. And one positive thing that did register with him was that no matter what happened to them here, at least they were against their own kind -- even though their own kind weren't exactly behaving in a very neighbourly fashion at the moment. If they failed, well, Vehn didn't even want to visualise what would happen to them then. If it had just been him and Qorl, he wouldn't have had any qualms about going out in a blaze of glory. Probably Lando and Tendra would feel the same. But what about Neijal and Jassif? What did they think? Hopefully, he thought, we won't get in a position where I have to ask.

*****

Zed and Tab were waiting by their bikes with a Rodian -- a slightly nervous one, too, Anakin thought as he studied the creature's body language. He reached out in the Force, but found no evidence of deceit, just a sense of unease that increased when the Rodian noticed Rongo's group marching towards him. It was the sort of reaction that Anakin would have expected. The only people who actively sought encounters with swoopers were either law enforcement officers or other swoopers -- or Jedi, he added dryly after a moment of reflection. Whatever had motivated the Rodian to approach them, it was obviously fairly serious.

"Hey 'bro," said Rongo, stopping in front of his bearded compatriot. "This the guy that wants to see me?"

Zed nodded. "Name's Vilco. Says he knew Jonno and Pet."

Rongo's brown eyes narrowed and he studied Vilco guardedly. "Jonno's my brother. You got something you want to tell me?"

The Rodian hesitated and his sensory horns twitched nervously; then he bobbed his head. "I do." His voice squeaked, but he met Rongo's searching gaze. "I'm terribly sorry about what happened to them. And what happened afterwards. We -- I mean the rest of the STPB group -- were very unhappy that Bomar Tag escaped prosecution for what he did."

"Unhappy!" the swooper's expression began to darken, and Anakin could feel him forcing his anger back down.

"I'm sorry," stammered the Rodian, turning a sickly yellowish shade of green. "It's always difficult to find the right words when something like that happens. Speaking for myself, I was both angry and sad. Angry that the authorities could be so stupid, and sad because I liked your brother and his friend. They were ... well, they weren't like --" He stopped and his glossy eyes flickered guardedly round at the faces watching him. "I mean ..."

Rongo unfolded his arms and leaned forward to pat Vilco's shoulder. "Hey. It's okay. I appreciate what you're saying."

Vilco visibly relaxed and although his snout still quivered from time to time, his voice assumed its normal Rodian drone. "We were all a bit surprised when they joined the group. But at one of the meetings the leaders were encouraging people to tell what had made them join up -- and Pet told us about her and her brother, and how when they were little they'd been saved by a Jedi from the group of pirates that had killed their parents. She said that after that, they'd always really looked up to the Jedi, and so when her brother had seen one being chased by the Peace Brigade, he'd tried to help him, but had been killed. When I heard that that Jedi was a member of my own race I decided to go up and talk to her, and well, we became friends."

Rongo's gaze softened. "Yeah. Pet was good at making friends."

"She was." He paused. "It was a pretty good group -- well is a good group, although we haven't been able to do much lately, which is, er, why when I recognised your patch." He waved his long green fingers at Zed and Tab. "I decided to come up and talk to you."

Rongo frowned. "I'm not quite following you, Vilco."

"Well, about two weeks ago the two men leading the STPB disappeared. Nobody's seen or heard from them, and, what's even stranger, their ship's no longer in its berth at the port. We can't think of any reason why they'd just up and leave, and well, as Tag seems to have friends in high places, some of us are thinking maybe he's done something with them."

Rongo glanced at Anakin and the others, and then back to the Rodian. "It's highly likely he has. And I'm getting the feeling you're wanting to ask us if we can do anything about it."

Vilco hesitated again. "The group's a bit divided on that," he said finally. "There are a few who think maybe your people might blame us for what happened to Jonno and Pet, seeing's how it happened while they were out on their own without the rest of the group helping."

"No," said Rongo vehemently. "We don't."

"No, well I'm not one of the ones who think that. But the ones who do are worried that maybe it was you rather than Tag who's done something to Vehn and Qorl. Threatened them or something." He cringed as he saw two of the younger bikers suddenly lunge towards him.

"Did you just say Vehn and Qorl?" Anakin had pulled off his visors and was studying Vilco with a keen, blue-eyed gaze.

"Er, yes that's right."

"Remis Vehn?"

The Rodian nodded.

"You know them?" inquired Rongo.

"Yeah. But I thought they were on Roon. That's where we dropped them." Anakin studied Vilco again, and then turned to Tahiri. "That's why those presences felt familiar."

Rongo threw Iliana a quizzical look, but she shrugged and pantomimed what Rongo assumed was a sign for spooky Jedi behaviour. He rolled his eyes in wry amusement and glanced up at the large window above the warehouse front entrance, taking note of two figures standing watching.

"Looks like someone's showing an interest. I think it's time to move." He turned back to Vilco. "How about we discuss this at the compound."

The Rodian hesitated, glancing across at Anakin and Tahiri, and then back to Rongo. He was still looking uncertain when a group of six swoopers with Rancor patches roared into the far side of the plaza.

"Definitely time to move," said Rongo. "Jaytee -- make room for Vilco here on your bike, will you."

Jaytee folded his arms and sneered. "So we're going to just run like girls," he said, fixing Rongo with a stare that was both provocative and insolent.

Rongo glanced quickly at Tahiri and Iliana. "You might want to consider rephrasing that," he warned the youth. "And actually I was thinking more in terms of a dignified retreat."

"Yeah, kid," interrupted Muss as he tweaked his bike's warm-up switch. "This isn't about you being the big man, it's about all of us getting some payback."

"You're all going soft!" the red haired boy exploded. "There's eight of us and only six of them. We'd flatten them."

"Jaytee." Whatever humour there had been in Rongo's voice had given way to an uncompromising sternness. "Stop acting like a vaping idiot and get on your bike, or I'll --" He bit back the response he'd been intending, and turned to the Iliana. "You take Vilco instead -- okay Vilco?"

The Rodian nodded, his large eyes almost popping out on stalks with a combination of trepidation and excitement at being asked to ride on a swoop.

"Or you'll what?" Jaytee stood his ground stubbornly.

Rongo appeared to mutter something to himself, and then he stepped up to the young swooper. "Look. I agree that under normal circumstances this'd be the ideal opportunity to teach the Rancors an interesting and informative lesson. But at the moment we've got something more important to do -- something that's going to bring honour to the dead, and to the brothers as a group. If you can't grasp that -- then maybe you're in the wrong gang."

Jaytee's pale blue eyes widened, and the angry flush in his cheeks deepened. For a moment it looked as though he was going to speak, but then he turned on his heel and stalked furiously to his bike, falling in between Rongo and Muss as they swept out of the plaza and left the Rancors staring after them in disbelief.

****

"I don't know, Bomar," the thin man with grey hair walked up to the window overlooking the plaza and watched the disappearing line of swoopers. "Some of the guys reckon they were wandering around out the back, drinking, and then they were talking to some Rodian out the front."

"But they're gone now." The tone of Tag's voice over the comlink suggested it was seeking clarification.

"Yeah -- they took off just after some other swoopers arrived."

"Same gang?"

"No -- different."

"And you reckon this first lot are the same group those two stupid graffiti artists belonged to?"

"Definitely. I remember the patch. Do you think they might be planning some sort of revenge?"

"Dunno, but it sounds suspicious." Vaping meteors -- it never rains but it pours! As if I don't have enough on my plate with those damn Jedi roaming around Sith knows where.

"Is Dajira all right?" The accountant's voice sounded genuinely concerned. He was a family man, one of the upright citizens Tag had gathered around him in his bid to woo Dinarra's conservative majority.

"She's shaken, but she's bearing up. I've sent her home."

"She's one brave little girl," said the little man admiringly. "What a thing to discover!"

Tag grunted. "The Jedi wouldn't know morals if they fell over them. That's what we're up against, my friend. These are the people provoking the Vong. Get rid of them, and we can all go back to making money again."

"You said it, Bomar. I didn't realise they were so ruthless, although I suppose if I was going to be given to my enemy, I would probably fight, too."

Tag snorted to himself. The picture of the weedy little accountant fighting anything more ferocious than a stuffed ewok required a major effort in creative visualisation.

"Keep an eye open just in case they come back. But I doubt it means much. They're probably just snooping to see if they can steal something. After all, you'd think if they were going to wreak any vengeance on us for their two friends they'd have done it by now. It happened nearly two months ago."

"True."

"I've just got to lock this place up and then I'll be there. Korlis did get my message to leave Calrissian and his friends alone, didn't he?"

"Yes. And he put extra guards on just in case."

"I doubt they'll get out of there. That door's rigged to fill the room with knockout gas if they try and force it from the inside. But as it's Calrissian and there are Jedi involved, I'm not taking any risks."

"I'll tell Korlis you're on your way then."

"Do that. And keep that comlink close. I'm expecting Delone to call with the rendezvous co-ordinates. See you soon." Tag clicked the channel closed and scowled into the now empty ysalamiri enclosure. Their destruction had been an unexpected blow, and he regretted not being able to get more of them. The Peace Brigade hadn't been as helpful as they could have been with that request, and he wondered if they had had trouble acquiring the animals. Thanks to the Jedi stirring up the Vong, the whole system of galactic trade had been affected, and the old cargo routes were, quite literally, mine fields. Or maybe the Vong had found out about the useful little creatures and were taking them for themselves.

He stood thinking for a while. If two Jedi could do this much damage with ysalamiri affecting them, it was obvious that he was going to need extra reinforcements at the warehouse to repel any attack they might carry out. It looked like a number of his factory workers -- many of them Peace Brigade sympathisers he'd brought with him from Pantan -- might be going to get some extra work today after all.

***

Seven pairs of eyes were fixed on the little sensor bulb at the top of the wall, watching with bated breath to see if it reacted to the heat from the rustic torch. The flames had already consumed most of the fabric bag, and were beginning to lick into the wooden handle itself. Soon the ferocity of the fire would give way to a more sedate smouldering as the density of wood slowed the combustion rate. As long as they kept the fire going, they could probably make another bag full of shavings and try again. But that would take more time, and Lando had the distinct feeling that their time was running out.

He felt a warm hand grasp his and realised that he'd been clenching his fingers into fists.

"Keep hoping," Tendra murmured. "We're not Jedi, but we can still make things happen."

Lando gazed down at his wife, amazed yet again by her quiet courage and determination. Having spent a large part of his life with people who favoured a more flamboyant approach, he knew it would be easy to mistake Tendra's behaviour as hesitant -- maybe even vulnerable. Nobody, however, would ever have to forgive him for thinking that. On more occasions than he could name, Lando had found Tendra to be one of the bravest and most reliable people he knew.

He smiled, and was surprised to find he'd had his teeth gritted together as well. "Thanks," he whispered, squeezing her hand gratefully. "I wouldn't mind some Jedi senses though to see what's waiting for us outside. It's not going to be easy with Ruba and Kushka."

"I know. I've tr-oh!"

Lando's eyes beat Tendra's up to the vent by the very fraction of a second it took her to gasp. He didn't need to look around to know that everyone else was focused on the same point. The initial metallic clunk was followed by a few grating protestations from the durasteel runners that had probably been lazing in their housings for too long. Then gradually, so gradually that Lando could have sworn he was watching the whole scene in slow motion, the vent began to move.



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