Many Happy Returns: Chapter Nineteen
Iella

"Get this thing closed!" hissed Lando, as he gesticulated desperately to the others on the roof, hoping they'd get the message. Judging by the way Vehn suddenly started pulling the rope up, they had.

"I'm trying!" growled Qorl. He had clambered up the side of the inlet and was yanking the top down in case he could pull it closed manually. "Freeze it with one of your glares. That might work."

"You couldn't have picked a worse time to develop a sense of humour, you know," grunted Lando as he joined his efforts with Qorl's.

"I always was a late developer. Wait! I think it's starting to budge."

The durasteel panel made a clicking noise as it gave in to the pressure of their weight pulling on it, but after moving down a little it stopped. Lando gazed out at the pleasant vista of Dinarra bathed in warm afternoon sun and wished for a chill wind. He looked up as Vehn finished untying the rope from the aerial, and saw Tendra gazing down at him. He waved her away with a shake of his head, mouthing the word "Go!" as he did so. She stood for a moment, the distance between them making the expression on her face hard to read, and then she raised one hand to her lips and blew him a kiss. With a rueful grin he threw one back, and then waved her away again. Not that Tendra wouldn't have realised the need for urgency.

As the door to their cell opened, both men dropped to the floor and Lando immediately got down on his knees and started waving and shouting at imaginary escapees below him. Every second of time he could buy for the others was going to be necessary if any of them were going to get out of this place. That thought was still running around in his head when a man's voice started shouting and a pair of huge hands grabbed his shoulders and pulled him roughly to his feet.

*****

"I should have known things were going too smoothly," grumbled Vehn as he hustled a still shaking Neijal along with Kushka and Jassif over to the side of the roof that looked down over the alleyway. He turned to Tendra. "Any ideas about what to do next would be gratefully received. I don't think we're going to have enough time to follow plan A."

"We won't." Tendra shook her head emphatically. "Which is why you should go. You're the fittest and the fastest -- plus you've got friends here. Once you're down you can raise the alarm."

Vehn's face took on a pained expression. "I wish what you said didn't make sense. I don't want to -"

"We're not going to discuss this," said Tendra shortly, and she grabbed the rope and handed one end to Jassif. "We'll hold you while you climb down."

Vehn glanced from Tendra to the young Mantrusian woman, and then to Neijal, noting the determined expression on their faces. His gaze slipped to Kushka, and it tugged at his heartstrings to realise that never had anyone looked up at him with such trust before. He looked back up at Tendra and nodded. "Okay."

He wrapped the rope around his body in a grip that would allow him to control his descent, and then leaned back until he found a comfortable balance point. He threw Tendra one final look that he hoped conveyed the intense respect he felt for her and his firm resolution to get them out, then he let himself slip down trying hard not to jerk too hard on the rope. As his face disappeared, Tendra saw the confidence replaced by anguish. Why was it that the right decision was always so agonising? She gritted her teeth and held on grimly.

****

Being in the arms of a Weequay, Lando decided, was a singularly unpleasant experience, and it wasn't just because of the bestial strength that had rendered him immobile. He tried vainly to twist his head away from Korlis's hot breath to avoid its rank odour only to find Tag's face with its livid cheeks and popping eyes a few centimeters from his.

"We can't go on meeting like this," he quipped, knowing a split second before the blow came that such provocation was bound to be received badly. Fortunately that premonition allowed him to soften the effect by rolling with the punch somewhat. It also swung his head in Qorl's direction so he could watch appreciatively as Qorl grabbed his assailant's arm, tucked his wiry body neatly and flipped the man over his head. Lando followed the man's progress out the inlet and down on to the warehouse roof where the human's yelps of pain announced that his part in Tag's scheme was definitely finished.

Good work, Qorl, he thought, taking advantage of both Tag's and Korlis's distraction to stamp heavily on the Weequay's foot. As Korlis's head came down, Lando thrust his elbows up to break free, made a dagger point with the fingers of one hand and poked them into one of his captor's eyes. The action that would have blinded a human only served to make Korlis cry out and clutch one huge fist over the injury. But that was all Lando needed. He wrenched the creature's other arm behind his back and, placing a knee into the small of his back, sent him staggering towards the inlet.

Tag bellowed for support, and Lando had barely straightened before he found himself grappling with one of a group of armed men who had rushed in from the corridor. Korlis flailed wildly in an effort to grab at one of the braces holding the inlet open. To his left Qorl was struggling with one of the guards who almost had him in a half Nelson. With surprising alacrity the smaller man swung both his legs up and thrust at the wall in front of him, shoving his opponent backwards so he cannoned into the Weequay. Korlis's fingers slipped sideways, lost their grip and grasped vainly at the air as he fell, roaring his anger and frustration, to the lower section of roof where he landed straddling the security fence.

Amidst the wail of sirens and Weequay wails of electrified agony, Lando lunged left and right, dodging the punches intended to knock him into a more docile frame of mind. He knew that all he and Qorl could do was delay the inevitable, but that was fine. The longer it took Tag to initiate a search for Tendra and Vehn and the others, the more chance they had -- all of them. A resounding blow from behind suddenly stopped Lando in his tracks, and he felt the room swaying and dissolving into a hazy sequence of red and black flashes. As he teetered back against who had hit him, he saw two men wrestling Qorl to the ground. One was about to deliver a swift kick to the pilot's kidneys, but was restrained by a swipe from Tag.

"I'll decide if and when that's necessary," he growled, panting slightly.

"Sorry, boss," the man grunted sullenly, and contented himself by fastening stun-cuffs roughly around Qorl's wrists.

Tag beckoned to one of the other guards, who handed him a set of cuffs for Lando. "Don't worry, Calrissian. Soon we'll both be meeting some people you've been dying to meet for some time -- if you'll excuse the pun."

"Great," muttered Lando between clenched teeth. He felt sick, but he was determined not to give Tag the satisfaction of noticing. "I can't wait."

"Good. I'm glad you share my enthusiasm. I'm sure you want a resolution to this situation with the Vong as much as me. After all, you're enough of a business man to know that war ruins good trading."

"I don't know about that. You sure seem to be trading in the right things. I'd say that the war must be bringing you in quite a bit in the way of new business."

"Supply and demand." Tag shrugged, and appeared to be composing himself -- straightening his cuffs and squaring his bulky shoulders. "That's fine as long as there's enough of the New Republic left to generate the demand, which is what I intend to make sure of. It's people like you and your Jedi friends that are ruining it."

"I can't accept you really believe that bantha fodder coming out of your mouth," spat Lando.

Tag's expression vacillated between sneer and pompous disdain. "Then that's your funeral isn't it." He turned to another group of armed workers now standing at the door. "Close that inlet. I want this room secured again." As they leapt into action, he stepped towards the open panel, pulling a comlink from his pocket as he did so, obviously intending to alert somebody to the whereabouts of the rest of Calrissian's group. When he reached the open inlet, he stopped and gazed down to where Lando had led him to believe they would be. Lando saw him gaze around and then turn slowly back, his eyes narrowed into shards of ice.

"Very clever," he hissed. "They won't get away, you know." The muscles around his mouth were so tight with tension that they bulged.

"They already have," lied Lando, taking vicarious pleasure in the sudden infusion of red into Tag's already flushed cheeks. He noticed a vein pulsing on the man's forehead.

Tag's eyes widened to the point that Lando had the unsettling feeling he was looking into the face of true madness. But slowly the apoplectic look faded, and Tag appeared to take a long, slow breath. By the time he opened his mouth to speak into the comlink, he looked almost normal.

"Lock both exits, and do a thorough search of the surrounding area!" He was peering around obviously trying to work out which way the escapees had gone. Then he looked down again. "Oh, and somebody switch off the security circuit will you. Weequay don't smell too good when they're roasted."

He gazed around again, his mouth working as though he was muttering, but Lando couldn't make out the words.

****

Vehn was already tying their makeshift rope to the top of a refresher vent pipe when he heard a meaty thud from around the corner of the tower he had just descended, and then the sirens went off. The unearthly wailing made his heart double its pace, but he forced his hands to stay calm. More haste, less speed, he cautioned himself sternly.

He tested the knots and glanced up at the four faces watching him anxiously, trying not to let the enormity of their situation make too much of an impact. Responsibility had always been something he thought of in terms of self -- had been that was until he'd got mixed up with Anakin Solo and Tahiri Veila. If anyone had told him a year ago that he would be taking on the mantle of leader of a protest group, or of saviour to a group of desperate prisoners, he would have laughed in their face. Now here he was poised about thirty feet above a climb that could lead either to victory or disaster for the seven people whose destinies had become entwined with his, seven people he had come to care about in a way he thought others must feel about their families. He shook away the possibility of failure, and raised a hand in a wave that was also a salute, giving what he hoped looked like a cocky grin. Then once again, he launched himself downwards. Perhaps I should take up mountaineering when all this is over. It'd probably be a breeze compared to dealing with maniacs like Tag.

As soon as his feet hit the ground, he started running. From the roof he had checked out Lando's observations about their position relative to the main streets, and so now he headed away from the front of the building, intending to lose himself in the back alleys of the industrial zone. He raced along, hugging the side of the warehouse in case Tag had lookouts monitoring the side alleys from the few windows in the upper storey. The security alarm made it impossible to hear anything, although he stopped occasionally and strained his ears just in case he could hear voices.

He approached the end of the building cautiously and checked behind him again to make sure that nobody had sighted him from the plaza at the front. Nobody had, but he hesitated for a moment deciding which way to go. He wasn't familiar with this part of town, and being imprisoned for so long had rather ruined his sense of direction. A ship -- an old corvette by the look of it -- caught his attention as it tracked across the gap of sky above the alley, decelerating for its landing. Vehn grinned. Ah -- so that's the way to the spaceport. Now I know vaguely where I am.

He leaned against the solidity of the wall and thought quickly. What's the bet they'll expect us to try and get to the port? It makes sense, after all, as Calrissian's ship will be there, and so hopefully will mine. Unless they've done something with it -- the bastards. Refusing to allow himself to be distracted by that unpleasant possibility, Vehn reached a decision and, sliding his face up to the corner, he peeped around it.

"Well, well, well," drawled a guttural voice. "Look what I've caught."

Vehn's heart felt as though a wampa had wrenched it out and let it sink slowly into the frozen surface of Hoth. The ice froze his windpipe so the curse he wanted to utter lodged there unvoiced, although inside his head he heard it echoing, half-strangulated by despair. He reacted instinctively, knocking the blaster directed at his temple up and out of its holder's grasp, although his limbs felt as though they were moving through treacle. He kicked out at his opponent, but the man jinked left and grabbed his leg, causing Vehn to tumble to the ground. A booted foot landed on his hand and he stared up into two sneering faces that were shortly joined by another. The newcomer pulled Vehn roughly to his feet and another snapped stun cuffs on him.

"A lot of effort to go full circle," chuckled the other, waving with his blaster to indicate that Vehn should stand up. The pilot stared back insolently.

"Get moving!" the man commanded, his expression darkening. "Now!" He shoved Vehn viciously in the small of the back.

"I don't take orders from scum," growled Vehn.

"Suits us."

Vehn just had time to register the encouraging fact that the man who hit him was not the one holding the BlasTech military rifle before his view of proceedings turned extremely black.

****

It was dark and, although he could tell by the feel of wood beneath him that he was inside somewhere, he was shivering. He tried opening his eyes wider to see if that would improve his view, but the movement provoked the little man hammering inside his head to put more weight behind his blows. Vehn gulped back his nausea, hauled himself up and tried to make sense of his situation. Logic told him that he must be in some sort of room, but it couldn't explain adequately why the walls kept moving in and out.

A shape loomed in front of him and slowly Vehn deciphered the lines and ovals on it as belonging to a face. He was just in the process of assigning it a name when one of the horizontal lines separated down the middle and he heard a voice.

"Welcome back." The tone was distinctly laconic with traces of a suave accent that he definitely remembered.

"Oh well, you know how it is. Why leave when we were all having such a good time?"

A set of white teeth appeared briefly and flashed a humourless smile. "Why indeed."

"And anyway." Vehn moved his arms slowly to display his somewhat scanty clothing. "I decided against appearing in public in the shorts. Don't want to cause riots after all."

"That's very public-spirited of you."

Vehn narrowed his eyes tentatively, still aware that sudden movements made his stomach lurch, and peered into the darkness behind Lando. "You okay, Qorl?"

"I've known better," the old Imperial grumbled. "But it's good to see you're still in one piece."

"Yeah, well obviously they really want us all to stay relatively undamaged," said Lando. "They've had plenty of provocation to blast us into smithereens, and the fact they haven't means they're really serious about giving us to the Vong."

Everyone was silent for a while.

"Well, that's put a damper on the conversation," said Vehn. "Any other positive thoughts you wish to add?"

Lando pretended to think for a minute, and was about to speak when Vehn suddenly sat bolt upright, and then grimaced and grabbed his head obviously regretting the action.

"Tendra and the others! Where are they?"

Lando's expression turned grim. "They're still on the roof."

"What?" Vehn gaped.

"Tag took the time to kindly explain to us when they brought you in," explained Qorl. "They found your rope and figured out where you'd come from. They're going to leave them up there."

"But they can't do that! The little kid and the baby ... I mean, night's coming and it'll get cold up there."

Lando patted him on the shoulder. "Don't worry. They're pretty resourceful."

Vehn studied the tall man's tanned face set in an expression obviously intended to appear imperturbable. And then he looked into the dark eyes. The pain he saw there startled him.

"Yeah," he grinned, and then briefly clasped Lando's hand before he drew it away. "You're right."

Lando nodded, but he didn't voice a reply.

"I think we can assume," said Qorl quietly, "that as they want us all in relatively good shape, they won't leave them up there any longer than is necessary."

"True," Vehn agreed, but the thought occurred to him that Tag might not consider a child and a baby worthy material to hand to the Vong. The man's ethics were screwy. His public face was that of a solid citizen, and he seemed to fancy he was acting in the public interest, but his methods left a lot to be desired. Something about the apparent dichotomy was very, very disturbing.



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