Many Happy Returns: Chapter Twenty-Five
Iella

"You know, I almost wish we were stupid. Then we'd be trying to escape through the door instead of just sitting here wishing we could escape through the door. At least it would give us something to do." Vehn eyed the box-like locking device. It hadn't taken him and Qorl long, when they were first captured, to figure out that not only had it been added recently, but also that its size indicated it contained more than just the expected security mechanism.

"Well don't worry, old buddy. A few more thousand circuits of the room and you'll have worn a hole in the floor big enough for us to escape through. Want me to take over?"

"Nah." Vehn waved the offer away. "You save your energy for the next stage -- the one where you build us a skyhook out of the remainder of the flooring and float us out of here."

Lando's dark eyebrows rose appreciatively. "Now there's an idea."

"Yeah." Vehn chuckled darkly. "Not."

"We were stupid enough to get caught in the first place," observed Qorl.

"Hey, let's not get too carried away with the self criticism!"

Lando eased his back into a position that provided the least discomfort for his various bumps and bruises. "I'm almost at the point of wanting to investigate what Tag has installed in that door-lock. After all it's not like he's going to want to harm us permanently."

"True," Vehn conceded. "He won't want to ruin his chances with the Vong by handing over a set of dead bodies. What do you think he's put in there? A pressure bomb?"

"A gas canister more like it. Seems more his style to knock people out."

"I agree." Qorl nodded. "And there's always the chance that whoever he got to do it hasn't done it properly, so it might not work."

"My thoughts exactly."

The three men swapped glances.

"I dunno," mused Vehn. "How Corellian are you feeling today?"

Lando snorted. "Yeah. Therein lies the problem. You're not Corellian by chance are you Qorl?"

The ex-pilot shook his dark head. "The only reservation I'd have is that if it does work, and we're unconscious when they hand us over, we won't have the choice of fighting."

Lando nodded. It would also mean he wouldn't be much use to Tendra. Not that it looked like he'd be much use anyway, but at least he'd be conscious. And Qorl was right. He knew from countless close escapes in his own life that it was amazing what opportunities sometimes presented themselves, even when all did look lost. Maybe Tag would make a mistake that they could turn to their advantage. Maybe Anakin and Tahiri would come through for them -- perhaps they were even there already. If they were, he hoped they'd see Tendra and the others and get them to safety first. In fact, in some ways them being out on the roof didn't seem like such a bad situation after all.

Suddenly Lando felt the wave of negativity he'd felt submerging him begin to lose its momentum. "We'll give it another hour."

Vehn cleared his throat. "And what's an hour again?" He waved his chrono-less wrists in the air.

"Well, you've got a choice of measuring tool -- singing or circuits of the room."

"Oh joy. Which song?"

Lando took a deep breath. "Two hundred and fifty bottles of lum on the wall," he began.

"Okay, okay!" Vehn leapt up from where he had settled against the wall. "I'm walking -- see my legs moving?"

Qorl chuckled. "There was a time when I could sing you every song off Pekky Blue's first collection in exactly one hour. Used to use it to keep time on solo survival exercises when I was on Carida."

Vehn's jaw sagged. "The cruelty of the Empire never ceases to amaze me, Qorl. Pekky Blue! Give me good old-fashioned torture any day." He stopped. "Hey -- now there's something nobody's thought of using against the Vong. The Starboys."

"Knowing our luck they'd probably like them."

"Stang. You're probably right. I guess we'll have to stick with the normal weapons of destruction. Not that they seem to be doing much good."

"We'll eventually find a weakness." Lando was determined not to let the tendrils of doubt worm their way back into his thinking, so he stifled the little voice at the back of his mind that wanted to add or we'll at least die trying.

****

Dajira gazed up from the cup of stim tea she had bought and studied the group that was slowly gathering across the street from the kiosk where she was sitting. There was no doubt in her mind now that she recognised who they were, or at least who some of them were, although it had taken her a while to pinpoint where she remembered them from. It was the hearing about the accident -- the one in which the two swoopers had been killed. The Rodian had been one of those protesting outside the City Judiciary when the session judge had decided that no charges were to be laid against her stepfather's company. Some of the others had definitely been there, too. What she couldn't explain, though, was why they were slowly gathering here now.

She had taken refuge in the kiosk to give herself time to think. The building site at the back of the warehouse, where she had intended to find a convenient lookout spot, was already closed off when she arrived, and the workers had gone home for the day. She had just been wondering what to do about that when her father's company utility had driven past quite close, causing her to scurry into an alleyway in case the driver saw her. Since then she had kept clear of the warehouse for fear of being recognised, and, in the process of finding an alternative building from which to check up on the women on the roof, she had noticed the Rodian and his growing group of friends.

As she watched, some more arrived, two of who appeared to be holding placards. Several members were wearing cloaks like hers, and she began to get the feeling that, like her also, they were using them to conceal things -- noise-makers maybe, or more placards. At the moment they were obviously trying to avoid making it obvious they were all together, and so had clustered themselves in twos and threes, but Dajira had been observing them long enough to see that the Rodian was carefully acknowledging each new arrival. It was odd and a little unnerving. Obviously something was afoot, but whether this group's activities were connected with the prisoners was unclear, especially as she knew this group had caused trouble for her stepfather by publicly accusing him of being with the Peace Brigade. There was growing underground support for the Brigade in Dinarra and on Balmorra as a whole, but as yet people were unwilling to be seen openly collaborating. Dajira knew it wouldn't be long before they did, especially as Bomar's group of sycophants was growing steadily. A few days ago she would have applauded them. But a few days ago the galaxy -- her galaxy -- had been a different place.

She drained the last of her tea and considered her options, and suddenly something she'd seen earlier flashed back across her inner vision, broadcasting its significance in the yellow and black insignia of Tag Industrial. The company utility. In other words vehicles, transporters, speeders. Her father's speeder! If she had that she could fly it up on to the building site and see if the women were still there. She could have almost kicked herself for not thinking of it earlier.

Throwing the Rodian and his group one more curious glance, she gathered her cloak around her and set off towards the underground shelter where Bomar and a number of his workers parked their private vehicles. She was just skirting around the edge of the plaza in front of the warehouse when she heard the roar of engines, and to her consternation a large group of swoopers swarmed in looking like leather clad urusai about to descend on their prey. A small group of assorted humans and humanoids scattered as the bikers landed disdainfully amongst them, obviously assuming that they had been selected randomly as the targets in some gang bullying game. The bikers ignored them, however, opting instead to lounge around on the seats near the warehouse frontage. Well, all except for four of them. Dajira felt her mouth drop open as she watched these four swagger up the steps to the front door, push it open and disappear inside.

She hurried behind the trunk of an umbrella tree and tried to make sense of what she'd just seen, but no rational explanation came to mind. One thing was very clear, however. If her stepfather was associating with swoopers he was either mad, or at least on the path to madness. Hadn't he spent the last few months railing against them for the trouble they had caused him over the accident? Her breath caught in her throat as she suddenly wondered if the gang was out for revenge -- after all the company driver had killed two of their members. But then she remembered the patch on the jackets of the gang who had been in the crowd outside after the hearing.

It was different. She seemed to recall it being an armoured figure like the knights from the old Balmorran fairy tales. The patch on these bikers' jackets was something else altogether. It was some sort of animal. She screwed up her eyes to get a clearer view. Yes, some sort of animal all right. Something large. It looked like a rancor.

She shook her head, puzzled by the strange turn of events, but, being unable to come up with any explanation that linked them in any logical sequence, she decided that there were two sensible things she could do. One was get away from any place where she might be recognised; two was to check whether the women were still out on the roof, and, if they were, to decide what to do about it.

*****

Tag was in a quandary, and it was not a feeling he liked very much. He couldn't understand why Daijira had left her mother alone and gone wandering off somewhere. Nor could he understand what had happened to his ysalamiri. It had taken him weeks to procure them and set them up at the factory, and now they had apparently vanished into thin air. Had the Jedi destroyed them in the fight? It was definitely possible -- but surely Dajira would have contacted him had she been unable to find them when he'd requested that she look for them. Perhaps the two Jedi had returned later, after she had left, and killed them and then disposed of the bodies. Although it was an odd explanation, it seemed to be the only one that fitted the circumstances.

The third thing that was annoying him was Delone, or more precisely his inability to contact the man. It was making Tag suspicious. Delone was supposed to be supplying him with the details about where he was to meet the local Yuuzhan Vong commander to hand over his captives. Had the prospect of getting his hands on two Jedi -- and a Solo to boot -- caused the Peace Brigader to reneg on that arrangement? Tag caught sight of his reflection in the metallic shine on the door of the safe and noted it was glaring balefully back at him. If Delone thought he was going to take the credit for capturing them he had would have to think again. There was no way Tag was going to give up his prizes to anyone but the Vong, not after all this effort.

Even without the Jedi, his clutch of prisoners was impressive, and he was glad he'd thought of the idea of using the life support gurneys. He had ordered them when Calrissian had first contacted him to enquire about the reflector sealant. It had occurred to him then, in a flash of inspiration, that if Calrissian disappeared, it wouldn't be long before one or more of his Jedi friends turned up to investigate what had happened to him. Tag was under no illusions about how slippery Jedi could be, but he had been sure that if they could be rendered unconscious and maintained in that state then they wouldn't cause any trouble at all.

He'd certainly proved the first part of his theory the previous day when he had successfully knocked out the Solo brat. The girl's ability to avoid the effects of the drug, although irritating at the time, had in hindsight proved useful. It was obvious that the key to it was making sure the drug was injected in the right place. Next time there would be no mistakes -- and he was becoming more and more certain that there would be a next time, and that it was going to be soon.

He knew Calrissian would be troublesome, too, and so far the ex-gambler hadn't done anything to change that view. Originally Tag had intended to drug Tendra as well as Calrissian and the Jedi, but now it looked as though Vehn would be the one most likely to cause problems. The more he thought about it, the more likely it seemed that the Vong would regard Vehn as a worthy sacrifice. They seemed to operate on a code that rated people's value in terms of their potential to wreak havoc. Thus far Vehn scored quite highly on that scale.

Fortune had unwittingly provided him with quite a mixed bag of prisoners. He had heard about the two Mantrusian women from one of his workers who had seen them helping out at a freak traffic accident. From the man's description of how they had been able to calm people and effect some instant relief for the injured, it had sounded to Tag as if they might be Jedi. Tracking them down hadn't proved a difficult task thanks to the helpful news reporter who had covered the incident -- nor had drugging them and taking them prisoner. What had been hard -- and frustrating -- had been realising the truth of their protestations that they weren't Jedi, as he had envisaged making two presentations to the Vong: first the Mantrusians and Calrissian and his wife, and later the Jedi who would be searching for Calrissian. But then luck had shined its smiling face on him again with the arrival of the ex-gambler and not one, but two Jedi. Tag had taken it as a sign, and, in the light of that, these minor little irritations were -- well, minor little irritations.

Obviously the healers lacked the celebrity status of Calrissian and his friends, but they did possess curiosity value. Maybe the Vong would find them useful as slaves, or perhaps the Shapers might find they could make something of them. Make something of them? Tag felt some of his tension dissipate as he he chuckled at the realisation that his last thought could be interpreted literally.

And anyway, healers, no matter where they came from, were no different from the Jedi, and, in fact, there were many people who believed that healers used the Force just as the Jedi did. His reflection stared back at him again, its lips twisting in hatred. Whatever the source of their power, they all saw themselves as an elite -- a group to which the normal rules of fair play didn't apply. A group that felt it had the right to over-ride the wishes of the average citizen in order to preserve itself.

He had just activated the desktop communicator intending to make one more attempt to raise Delone, when the accountant's assistant poked her head nervously around the door.

"Yes?" scowled Tag.

"Er. There are some people to see you, Mr Tag. I, um -- I'm not sure whether to let them in or not."

"For kriff's sake. What can be so difficult about a decision like that. Take their names, ask them to wait, and come and tell me who they are. I'm the one who decides whether I want to see them or not. I seem to recall it is my name on the company boardings."

"Yes, Mr Tag, of course. I wasn't suggesting ... um. It's just they're -- well, they're not really here to buy anything."

"Well, what are they here for? And make it snappy please -- I don't have time to stuff around."

The woman took a steadying breath. "They want to see you because they say they have some information."

"About what?"

"They wouldn't say. But the leader said to tell you it was to do with a party that's scheduled here for tonight. He, um, wondered if you'd like a few bouncers." The woman's face was screwed up into a frown that was both confused and worried.

There's something funny going on here, thought Tag, but he decided not to let his own uncertainty show. "Send them up," he replied curtly, and watched as she scuttled away like a frightened profogg. He was still trying to fathom out what the enigmatic message could mean when a bulky leather-clad shape appeared at the top of the stairs, followed by three more. No, four. No, three -- the second one threw him off balance for a moment, as it had two heads. He swallowed quickly and forced his stock trading expression on to his face -- indifferent, busy, only interested if it's a good deal -- and stepped up to the door.

"You have me curious, gentlemen, but words are easy. I hope this is going to be worth my while."

The man at the front chewed thoughtfully for a moment as he studied Tag, and then he wiped his mouth on his sleeve and turned to his two-headed compatriot. "Whadya think, Ding-Dong? D'ya reckon we got the goods?"

One of the heads let out a hysterical laugh that sounded like a thak chortling. The other nodded blankly. "Yeah."

Tag stood aside to let them in and then quickly grabbed two more chairs from the room next door. He made a quick mental note to try and avoid staring at the two heads and to keep a polite distance from the leader, so the rank odour from whatever he was chewing wouldn't affect his concentration. He remembered Kasen telling him that there'd been swoopers hanging around earlier, but why they should want to talk to him was a mystery -- unless, of course, they were hoping to bully him into some protection racket. Just for a moment he wished Korlis was still around. He had often proved a useful ally when dealing with difficult customers. Damn Vehn's companion for pushing him down on the security fence! He hoped the man realised that he was still alive only because his association with Vehn made him worth something to the Vong.

The last two swoopers shambled in and flopped down into the low-slung seats Tag indicated. He had long learned to ensure his customers were comfortably placed at a lower level than he was, and, even though his main office was situated at the factory, he still kept this room geared up for customer interviews such as this. He settled into his more dominating position, folded his arms and gazed across the expanse of polished desk at the group's spokesman.

"So. What's this about parties and bouncers? And I'd prefer it in twenty words or less if you don't mind. I'm a busy man."

The leader lounged back in his seat and mimicked Tag's posture, although Tag wasn't sure if he was being provocative or not. "Well," he drawled between chews, "I guess how much we tell you depends on how keen you are to keep the news about those people you're holding here under wraps. If you get my meaning."

Somewhere at the back of Tag's brain, his few creative synapses registered a similarity between the man's stained teeth and those of a womprat who'd lost a few too many in the pelts of his victims. The majority of his thought processes, however, were reeling with activity, although he managed to temper the instinct to leap to his feet and demand an explanation.

"I see." He forced his response to sound smooth, and a little disinterested. "Are you sure you have the right person? This is a warehouse, you realise. And when I last studied our stock levels -- people were, as far as I remember, not amongst the items listed."

The swooper turned to the longhaired member of his compatriot's duet of heads, who responded with the crazed laugh that Tag was beginning to assume was habitual. "Not amongst the items listed," the leader repeated with mock seriousness while the head chortled again. Then he turned back to Tag. "Sounds like you need a new stocktaker to me. Just like you need some new guards who won't let a couple of smartass Jedi kids get the better of them."

Tag studied him with narrowed eyes. "Jedi? I don't have dealings with Jedi."

The leader thrust a finger towards the window. "Hey look, fellers. Flying Gamorreans with little pink ribbons around them, hundreds of the kriffers." The thak-like head led the amused chorus, while Tag fought to maintain his aura of calm.

The leader's yellowy eyes suddenly grew hard and he leaned over and rested his folded arms on the desk, disrupting its meticulous tidiness by scattering a pile of catalogues. "What would you say if I introduced you to somebody who only a couple of hours ago was talking to one of your little Jedi?" he growled.

Tag tried to mask his sudden gulp, but the biker's triumphant gleam, like that of a satiated predator after a successful hunt, told him he'd failed. He cleared his throat, and channeled his racing thoughts. If this was a ploy to extract blackmail money it sounded as if he should play along with it, as it was possible it might provide him with some useful information. He was not averse to working with members of the underbelly of Dinarran society if he had to, like when he had needed information on Vehn's activities. And he had also bribed several groups of homeless people to infiltrate the crowd at the recent elections and heckle the candidates about their views on how to protect Dinarra, and Balmorra as a whole, from the Vong.

He returned the biker's cold stare. "I'd be fascinated."

The leader held his arm out theatrically towards the youngest member of the group. "You're on, kid. And start at the beginning. Mr Tag's gonna want to hear it all, ain't you, Mr Tag?"

It occurred to Tag that swoopers and Mantrusian women had a similar ability to turn his title into a pejorative. He studied the boy as he jiggled in his seat, noting the blue eyes darting, like those of a nervous animal, around the assembled faces.

The swooper beside him suddenly ducked down and aped picking something up from the floor in each hand. "Well lookee here, boss. Found a couple of little balls."

The longhaired one let loose with another manic chortle and slapped the thigh he shared with his vacant-looking twin. The boy, however, blushed bright red -- although whether from fury or embarrassment, Tag was uncertain.

"Your two Jedi are with the Black Knights," he said with a scowl. "And they're planning on rescuing their friends. In fact they're gonna be here soon."

"Yeah." The leader nodded and spat enthusiastically towards the wall. Tag shuddered inwardly as he watched a lump of brown mucous slide slowly down the paintwork like an errant amoeba.

"And who are the Black Knights?" he asked, and was surprised to see the boy stand up and turn around.

The leader pointed to the patch on the youth's jacket. "Behold a former member!" he announced in an exaggerated tone that coming from a less unlikely source could have suggested hidden thespian aspirations. "Oh hark -- I do believe he has insider information. Is this not true, Jaytee?"

"I know what they're planning to do," the boy clarified for him.

The leader guffawed. "Ain't he precious?"

"Yeah," intoned the blank-faced twin, while his mate gurgled his appreciation.

"Got your interest have we, Mr Tag?"

Tag eyed the leader coldly, and nodded slowly. "Carry on," he hissed. "I'm all ears."



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