Many Happy Returns: Chapter Twenty-Eight
"You okay, Blue?" Skell's voice sounded a little constricted, as if he was trying to cover a twinge of apprehension.
"Yep. We're in position. What's going on -- can you see anything?"
Skell's location on the building site, where Rongo and Jaytee had been earlier, gave him and his group a good view of the back of the warehouse and its environs. Their job was to act as lookouts, and also to set up the gang's one and only ion cannon to nullify the security fence and to disrupt any mechanical systems in the warehouse. Initially Skell had assumed he would be assigned to the group who were babysitting the protestors, as the knee injury he'd sustained back at the alley rendered him a poor bet in any fight. He was surprised, therefore, when Anakin and Rongo had taken him aside after the planning meeting and explained the surveillance idea. He knew in his heart of hearts he wasn't the greatest fighter -- in fact he wasn't even sure he really enjoyed it at all -- but somehow knowing that a Jedi trusted him with a kind of special task made him feel good. No, more than good -- more like worthy. It was a feeling he'd never experienced before.
"We can hear the protestors. The truck's just going in now."
"Good. Let me know if they close the door, then we can get closer."
"Sure. Do you ... hang on."
Blue glanced at Zed who'd been listening, and the two exchanged anxious looks. Skell's tone had sounded puzzled. Hopefully it was just a problem setting up the ion cannon on the building site. Skell and Iliana weren't renowned for their mechanical skills, but Hami and Purr should have been able to follow Doc's instructions all right, assuming they could remember them.
"Hey, Blue. Can you hear anything down there?"
Blue tuned out the muted conversations of his companions and listened. "Nope. What am I meant to be hearing?"
"Must be imagining it. Could have sworn ... wait a minute."
"Probably his teeth chattering," murmured Zed with a grin, eliciting a snort from Taso who had moved closer to listen.
"Blue." It was Iliana. "We think there's something happening out front. Skell's just trying to raise Tab."
Not everyone in the gang owned a bike with an inbuilt com, and Rongo had assigned their three personal communicators to Blue, Skell's group and Anakin. They had all assumed that Tab and the three youngest members of the gang would be the least likely to face any problems, as their job was simply to keep an eye on the protestors and give them a hand if Tag took exception to them being there. Zed and Tab had swapped bikes at Zed's insistence as his had a com-stalk, and he felt happier knowing she could contact him via Blue if necessary.
Blue clicked open the channel on his swoop com to be greeted by Tab's voice shrieking above the backround roar of engines.
"... vaping ... get away you smelly kriffer ... ha, got him ... Rancors are here!"
Zed pushed Blue aside and peered into the com as if some act of magic had upgraded it to a holo model. "Whaddya mean the Rancors? What the hell are you talking about?"
"Rancors, you stupid idiot ... look, you, I said get away. Woah! They're shooting ... oh no!"
The line went dead. Zed threw Blue an anguished look, turned and hurtled towards his bike, but Blue grabbed the back of his jacket. "Wait! Let's not panic here!"
"What the hell d'ya mean? I'm not going to sit around here while -"
"Blue!" Iliana's voice rang out from the com. "The Rancors are out front! Purr and I are going to give Tab a hand."
"No -- stay put. I'll send some of my group."
"But what if -"
"I said, stay put," hissed Blue. "I'm closing now, okay!" He quickly toggled the off switch and tried to order his thinking before it raced away on him. Why the Rancors had taken it into their heads to attack a peaceful protest was beyond him, but somewhere at the back of his mind an unpleasant explanation -- one he hoped against hope was groundless -- was worming its way in. He thrust it away and concentrated on the immediate problem.
"Okay. This is the drill. Zed, you and -"
A growing rumble behind him forced him to turn, and his insides turned to ice. A line of swoops was slowly and inexorably progressing towards them up the street, followed by a further two rows.
"What were you saying?" growled Zed, swinging on to his bike and hauling his blaster rifle from the back holster on his bandolier.
"Whatever it was, cancel it," snarled Blue.
"Someone's sold us out," murmured Grunt to Taso. "And I think I know who."
Taso went to reply but his words were lost as the approaching swoopers suddenly hit their thrusters and rocketed towards them, a rampaging squadron of grim smiles and gleaming durasteel bristling with weaponry. Somewhere above the roar and rumble Blue was sure he heard a manic laugh. His last lucid thought before his world dissolved into a frenzy of circling bikes and bolts of crimson fire was that he disagreed with the owner of the laugh -- as far as he was concerned the situation wasn't funny at all.
It never ceased to amaze Anakin how fickle time could be. Already the minute since the truck had been admitted to the loading bay felt like an hour, and the echo of the doors rolling down had continued to ring in his ears like thunder from a distant storm. The minute Muss had edged the truck over the threshold a smothering blanket of silence had fallen over them -- partly because of necessity, but also due to instinct. Reaching out in the Force, Anakin could feel everyone's thoughts turning inwards. For a second he caught traces of a stringent odour that he recognised as nervous anticipation, but then realised with a jerk that he was sensing Tahiri's take on the situation. Somewhere at the back of his mind a voice told him that this perception related to something important, but again the situation was too fraught to waste any time thinking about it. Instead he focused on the present.
He heard Muss open the door of the cab.
"You're late." The voice was gruff.
"Yeah, sorry," replied Muss, managing to sound a little surly. "Big hold-up at the port. You're lucky to get the stuff tonight."
Footsteps rang out beside the truck, the sound no doubt augmented in everyone's ears by their growing tension. Anakin was aware of Doc on one side of him shunting his adrenalin response into preparedness, while on the other Rongo's thoughts were clicking through the sequences they'd discussed when they were planning. An image of a dark-haired youth flickered briefly. For a moment Anakin thought it was himself he was seeing, but then he saw the brown eyes. Must be Jonno, he thought.
"You reckon? What happened to Buzz by the way? I thought he'd be bringing it."
The voice was already at the back, and they heard the scrape of finger nails against the metal door release. Silently Rongo spat on his hand and stretched it out towards the others.
"Brothers," he mouthed. One by one the bikers returned the gesture, each gripping on to the others' hands. Rongo turned to Anakin and Tahiri and jerked his head towards the knot of fists, and then nodded his approval as they reached out to join. The handle clicked round. Anakin felt the level of anxiety peak, needling muscles into readiness. The pressure on his hand increased and then everyone let go and clambered to their feet, their hands automatically moving to hover near their weapons. Whether they used them or not depended on how many of Tag's workers were in the bay, and whether Anakin could convince them to resolve the situation peacefully.
"He kinda buzzed off."
The bright lights of the bay suddenly burst into the truck's interior, and Anakin stepped purposefully to the door.
"By the way -- brought some friends." Muss grinned, tugging his tunic up to reveal his loaded utility belt.
The man took a hurried step backwards, and then another as Anakin jumped down.
"We don't want to hurt anyone," he said calmly. "We want to talk to Bomar Tag. I suggest you send for him now." He nodded his head towards the com-stalk suspended over the control console in the corner.
"Do you really think you're in a situation to give orders?" The voice rang out from the open doorway at the far side of the bay.
Anakin peered into the shadow beyond the door, although he knew who it was without needing to see. He felt the familiar rush of clarity he always experienced when faced with adversity, and his mind rapidly adjusted to the realisation that somehow their plan had been compromised. "Get back in the truck, Muss," he said quietly out of the corner of his mouth, at the same time pulling out his lightsaber and running the changed data through a reassessment programme. Aware that Muss was hesitating, he added more urgently, "Now!"
But before Muss had a chance to comply, Tahiri's booted feet thudded behind them and in the same instant Tag stepped into view, pudgy lips pulled back in a grin that showed more of his teeth than Anakin would liked to have seen. For a second, Anakin thought the man was alone, but no sooner was he two paces into the bay then it became apparent he had brought reinforcements -- a large number of reinforcements, all armed and ready. More sounds of footfalls told him the swoopers were following Tahiri's lead. Without wasting time on a curse, he revised the plan again. He had hoped to use the truck as a battering ram to break out through the door and then return quickly with the back-up group, as obviously the element of surprise was no longer in their favour. That option was closed, but the truck could still prove useful. His mind kept steadily ticking over as Tag's men fanned out in a semi-circle behind their triumphant looking leader.
"I strongly advise you to give up now, and hand over our friends. What you're doing is wrong -- and not only is it wrong, it's misguided. The Yuuzhan Vong won't keep to any deal you think you might have brokered with them. I'm telling you -- if you think you can bargain with them, you're living under one very big delusion. Make it easy for yourself and your workers -- let us take our friends back now."
Tag had been studying Anakin with a malicious gleam in his eyes and a growing sneer. He shook his head slowly, snorting back a series of chuckles.
"Obviously you don't get it, Solo. You've just walked yourself and your ... friends ... into a trap. We know all about your little plan. If you don't believe me, switch on that comlink I see clipped to your jacket and listen to what's happening to your little group out back. Or maybe you might like to hear how your protestors are faring." He smirked at the troubled glances he saw passing amongst the bikers.
Anakin's blue eyes narrowed, and without moving his gaze from Tag's florid face he reached his hand up to his collar and flicked open the communicator channel, and then switched it off again very quickly to extinguish the screeching of engines and enraged voices.
"You won't win, Tag." The blue eyes became shards of ice.
Tag pursed his lips in mock rumination. Then he smiled. "We'll just have to see about that, won't we?" The smile widened, and with a nod to the tall man standing beside him, he stepped backwards to the doorway. "I'll leave you to take care of this. Oh, and make sure you clean up when you've finished. You know how I hate messes." He spun on his heel and two steps later had disappeared.
By the time the leader of the group had turned his gaze back to the swoopers, Anakin had activated his lightsaber. Just for a second the man hesitated, apparently fixated by the glowing shaft of purple light. It was a second for which Anakin was eternally grateful. Somewhere beyond the mixture of curious and apprehensive glances from Tag's men, who had probably never faced a lightsaber in their lives, somewhere beyond the familiar hiss of Tahiri's blue blade springing to life beside him, he heard a distant but distinct murmur. His heart missed a beat. The lambent in his weapon was whispering a warning that he knew could mean only one thing.
In the same instant that Tag's men recovered from their distraction, Anakin regained his focus on the immediate threat. Wherever the Yuuzhan Vong were, they were not amongst those in the bay. And it was patently clear that if he failed to deal with what was in front of him, all else was going to become quite irrelevant.
"Get behind us!" he yelled, grabbing Rongo roughly by the sleeve and yanking him backwards a heartbeat before the space that Rongo had been occupying was flooded with coherent light. The air quickly filled with the acrid scent of ozone and scorched wood and metal as Anakin and Tahiri deflected a screaming barrage of bolts. Two of Tag's men went down within the first twenty seconds, one a victim of his own reflected shot, but neither of the two young Jedi gave in to the tempting reflex of grim satisfaction. Their world was the sphere around them: the swoopers, punching shots at Tag's men through the unearthly accuracy of the blue and purple shield, and the rhythm of the incoming fire.
"I don't remember this part of the plan." Tahiri's blade made a minuscule adjustment and one of the men grunted in pain and clutched his upper arm.
"I thought you'd enjoy the surprise."
"Not this sort. You'll have to come up with something else."
"I'm trying." Anakin's lightsaber inscribed an arc, neatly catching three bolts and refocusing them in a blast that turned the bay's control console into a shower of sparks and shattered transparisteel that forced the two men in front of it to leap aside. Seeing the gap in the enemy defences, Anakin didn't hesitate.
"Tahiri! Keep up the screen!" A split second later the purple blade was gone and Anakin was in the air, somersaulting over the heads of Tag's men towards the ruined equipment. The leader was the first to recover from his amazement at the ease of Anakin's leap, and he raised his blaster pistol to track him. For the first time in his life he regretted being tall, because Anakin had barely to stretch half an inch for the tip of his blade to reach the man's weapon. With surgical precision he disconnected the blaster and the fingers gripping it from the rest of the man's hand.
As the man folded in half cradling his dismembered hand against his stomach, his two immediate neighbours turned to target the descending Jedi only to have their blasters ripped from their grasp by an invisible force. Anakin caught one and directed the other towards the skull of a Rodian who was coming at him with a Stokhli spray stick. His feet touched the ground just as Doc and Rongo charged from behind Tahiri's defensive screen towards the two workers that Anakin had rendered momentarily weaponless. What had once been two distinct groups suddenly disintegrated into a mass of hurtling bodies, anguished groans and searing bolts -- and the ever-present hum of two blades inscribing their fearsome geometry on the air.
"Are they still there, Tendra?" called Neijal from the far side of the roof.
Tendra turned away from the group on the building site and squirmed round on her stomach so she could face the two Mantrusian women. She saw Kushka's little face peering across at her from where he lay in the shelter of his mother's arms.
"Yes, but I can't figure out what they're doing." She pulled her body as close to the edge as she dared. Oh help, she thought. They're setting up some sort of gun. Her mind whirled as she watched, wondering whether to give the others this piece of information or not. She decided for the moment that, for them at least, ignorance would be bliss.
"Are you sure they're swoopers?"
"They look like it." She squinted in an effort to see across the distance between them.
"Are they the same ones we saw from the vent?"
"I don't know." Tendra frowned. The tower was higher than the construction site, which was good as it gave them a degree of invisibility as long as they remained flat to the ground. The first sign of the swoopers' presence had actually been the sound of their bikes, and, because they'd flown up from the street below, Tendra was reasonably sure they hadn't noticed her little group on the roof. But why were they setting up a gun? It was a mystery.
She watched as one of the group -- a Trianii by the look of the furry tail -- fiddled with the launching tube of what Tendra was beginning to recognise was an Equalizer. But it was the others that were the main focus of her attention. They all appeared to be pre-occupied with something happening below them -- which again was good news as far as she was concerned. The fact that they still weren't showing the slightest interest in the tower was suggesting more and more that their reason for being on the building had nothing to do with Tendra or her friends.
The breeze blew her hair into her eyes, and as she pushed it away she noticed a strange sound -- a low rumbling, a little like thunder but more constant. She turned back towards Jassif and Neijal.
"What's that?" Jassif frowned, cuddling Ruba closer as the breeze blew round them more strongly.
"Your guess is as good as mine," Tendra replied.
"I'm cold, Mummy," Kushka whimpered.
"We'll cuddle together," soothed Jassif, sliding over with Ruba and lying so the two little ones were sandwiched in between her body and Neijal's.
"I think something's happening below them because two of them have just left at great speed and gone ... wait a minute! That's blaster fire!" Tendra focused all her concentration on listening. "Blaster fire and bike engines. That's what that noise is."
All three women exchanged puzzled looks.
"It must be quite close to the warehouse," said Neijal tentatively after a few minutes.
The commotion had shown no sign of abating, and Tendra could see the occasional streak of stray blaster fire. Must be some sort of gang rumble, she thought, but somehow the idea didn't feel like a satisfactory explanation. A tiny light sprang to life again somewhere at the back of her mind, a light that hadn't been so much extinguished as shrouded. She recognised that glimmering beacon immediately -- it was hope. Was it coincidence that a gang of swoopers had chosen the warehouse as their venue for a fight? Or was this ... and it seemed impossible to consider, but Tendra had long learned that that word had no credibility in the lives of those whom she considered friends ... somehow connected with a certain pair of young Jedi?
The wind rustled around her again, but the growing chill she had been noticing in its breath failed this time to make her shiver. She crawled over to the others and added the warmth of her body to the huddle.
"Have you ever heard the story of the lost bantha, Kushka?" she asked, trying to make it sound as though lying on a cold roof at sunset and telling children's stories was part of her regular routine.
The apprehension on the little boy's face took on a tinge of curiosity, and he seemed to consider her question for a moment, then a tiny frown creased his brow. "What's a bantha?" he asked.
"I have to hand it to you, Calrissian, you never give up." Vehn stopped in his task of peeling curls of wood from the floor beam and sat back on his heels. "Although I almost wish you hadn't remembered we'd got these stones. This is hard work."
Lando sighed, and clambered awkwardly to his feet in order to rub some feeling back into his knees. He'd lost track of how long he'd been working on the locking device, but judging by Vehn's and Qorl's progress it must have been a while. In the time it had taken him to use one of the pieces of Mantrusian flint to loosen one corner of it, they had chopped out another stick of wood from the floor and were now in the process of creating a flame and a pile of shavings to feed it.
"I still can't believe I'd forgotten about the earrings myself, or that Tag didn't think to ask how we'd managed to make the previous fire. Obviously neither of us are thinking straight."
"Well, at least you have an excuse. I don't think any of us are exactly functioning on full power at the moment thanks to lack of food and sleep. He can only claim sloppiness."
"And insanity," Qorl growled darkly.
"Well, I was trying to avoid that issue. I'm not completely sure we can't rule it out in Calrissian's case, too."
Lando rested his hands on his hips but before he could retaliate Qorl spoke up again. "Well, if madness is refusal to curl up and die, then count me in as well." He touched the floor beam he was grinding into with the stick and his face took on a grim expression. "It's not heating up as fast as last time. How's the lock?"
"Still there," sighed Lando. He turned and studied it for a moment and then shrugged. "Damn it. I'll take over for a while, old buddy. Somehow I think we'll have more luck with the fire than the lock."
"Of course, you realise we run a high chance of dying from smoke inhalation before we get the vent open," Vehn reminded him sardonically.
"True," Lando admitted as he took the piece of wood from Qorl. "But if we do get it to open, someone is sure to notice the smoke pouring out and send someone to investigate."
Vehn studied him curiously. "You really believe that those kids are going to do something, don't you?"
Lando caught the pilot's gaze briefly before focussing his own back on the point where Qorl had been rubbing. He didn't see the hole in the wood, though, or the sawdust at the bottom -- instead he was looking through the long telescope that connected him to the past. He was in the Millennium Falcon speeding through hyperspace, trusting that Han, Luke and Leia had disabled the Death Star's defensive shield. Then he was battling for his life against the forces of the Empire, knowing somehow that if he held on long enough his friends would come through. And they had. And again and again on countless other occasions, they had, no matter what the odds. To lose faith now would be to betray them.
"We're dealing with Solos here remember." The laconic grin made his parched lips crack, but he was beyond caring about such minor discomforts.
"There is that," Vehn admitted. "What do they say -- like father, like son." He snorted and turned his attention back to the task in hand.
Lando wiped the trickle of blood from his mouth and slotted the sliver of wood back into the hole in the floor beam. The truth was that there was another possible reason for Tag's apparent lack of concern at investigating their previous escape effort -- one that unfortunately made more sense than Lando would have liked. Perhaps Tag's Peace Brigade friends were already here -- or worse still maybe the Vong were here themselves. After all, how could any of them tell what was going on outside their cloistered cell?
His thoughts returned for the thousandth time to Tendra and the women with their children. He found that he was now hoping they were still on the roof where, although cold, at least they would still be free from the immediate clutches of either the Vong or the Brigade. If they were, maybe somebody would notice them there and come to investigate why. It was a vain hope, he knew, but somehow that plus his memories buoyed him and gave him the boost he needed. He remembered Luke telling him about his final confrontation with Palpatine on the second Death Star, and how the man had decried faith in one's friends as a weakness. Palpatine had lived just long enough to experience fully the bitter after-taste of that verbal feast. Had he at the end realised that the awful power of the Dark Side was no match for the simple truths of faith, hope and love?
Maybe -- maybe not. One thing was certain -- it was not a message Lando would ever need to be taught.
"Like father, like mother, like uncle," Lando amended. "There's some Skywalker tenacity in there, too, not to mention some hardy Tatooine spirit."
"Ever considered becoming one of those sports motivators?" said Vehn slyly.
"When I can be doing things like this? No way."
Vehn chuckled and Qorl nodded his head in amusement. Lando accepted their responses for what he saw they really meant -- gratitude to a friend.
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