Many Happy Returns: Chapter Twenty-Nine
Iella

Dajira stared in mounting horror as the swoop bikes rampaged through the panicking crowd of protestors. It was the swoopers' cold-blooded nonchalance that astounded her the most, the way they were systematically picking out the slower individuals and cutting them down as they tried to escape. Suddenly deep inside her something snapped -- like a cord that had been tightened just one notch too far -- and in the place of fear came cold fury.

She pulled out her small holdout blaster, gripped the control stick firmly in her left hand and aimed the vehicle towards the nearest swoop. Once within range, she aimed at the side of the bike's steering column and fired a flurry of shots. For a few seconds nothing happened, and then her heart sank as the rider swung towards her and she realised he was close enough for her to see the expression on his face. The surge of courage she had felt a minute before had begun to fade when suddenly she saw his malicious glee morph into surprise. He was still yanking desperately at the handlebars as his vehicle began to slew sideways and spin, the gyroscopic motion increasing until it flung him out of control into a nearby wall.

Vaguely registering his dazed efforts to disentangle his limbs from his wrecked bike, she turned her attention back to his companions and set out in hot pursuit of a second machine that had targeted another of the protestors -- a Rodian, the same one she had noticed back at the kiosk. She reached the swoop as it began to rear up ready to mow the little creature down. Dajira didn't stop to think -- she simply took what appeared to be the most expedient action. She lowered the front of the speeder, edged it underneath the swoop and then hit the repulsors. Both speeder and bike shot upwards, but only the former's motion was controlled. The swoop, already aimed towards the sky, rocketed up as if fired from a catapault, inscribed a lazy loop in the air and then surrendered to the unsympathetic pull of gravity.

The Rodian collapsed on his knees, his sides heaving. Dajira pulled up beside him and leaned over to shake his shoulder. "Get in!" she shouted, and then in response to his look of trepidation she added, "I'm a friend."

Horns trembling and grunting painfully, the little non-human let her help him.

"I'll get you clear," she informed him, throwing the speeder into a turn intended to take it away from the carnage.

"No! We have to help the others. I led them into this ... I can't leave them!" His voice was swallowed up in a paroxysm of coughing.

"Are you okay?"

"Just unfit," he said ruefully, and then gesticulated at a middle-aged couple scrambling under one of the tables outside the tap cafe. "Please -- we must help them."

"On my way." Dajira gritted her teeth as the speeder gathered momentum, aware more than ever that she needed to keep the temperamental throttle under control. "Can you shoot?"

The Rodian's multi-faceted eyes widened as she handed him her blaster. "Um, not very well."

"Well, here's your chance to practise." She nodded towards an approaching swoop that had also noticed the couple. "Get him!" she snarled.

The Rodian swung round and squeezed the trigger, tentatively at first but then with growing determination as the swoop closed on his friends. One bolt grazed the bike's left stabiliser and although it didn't halt its motion, it made the swooper loop away reflexively, obviously intending to make another pass. Dajira reduced power and glided to a holt, and the Rodian beckoned wildly to the two people to clamber in.

"Thank the stars!" gasped the woman, while the man sank wide-eyed but grateful into the seat.

"What's going on, Vilco?" he demanded hoarsely.

The Rodian shook his head helplessly. "I'm sorry. But I'm as confused as you are."

"I thought you -"

"Get down!" screamed Dajira. She swung the speeder viciously to the left, at the same time accelerating as rapidly as she dared. The move threw her passengers in an ungainly heap on the floor where they cowered as the air above them was rent by crimson bolts. Dajira felt a sudden flash of searing heat across her shoulder but it didn't prevent her from adjusting their trajectory towards the far side of the plaza.

"Fire! You're on fire!" shrieked the woman, but Vilco was already trying to rip the burning cloak away. Dajira clung grimly to the controls as she tugged open the neck fastening holding the garment in place, and it flew off like a billowing sail caught in the wind. The angry swooper who was pursuing them had just made the connection that he had a Twi'lek in his sights when something grey and smouldering wrapped itself around his head. The stunted barrel of his EE-3, lovingly sawn off in imitation of one of his childhood bounty hunter heroes, clattered unfired to the ground below as he struggled, cursing and gagging, to regain his sight. He was only halfway through his expletive repertoire when his swoop exploded against the trunk of a shade tree, and his final condemnation of the gods died unfinished on his lips.

Dajira's two passengers poked their heads up just in time to catch the explosion. They stared at each other aghast, and then up at Vilco. "I thought you said the swoopers were on our side," the man said accusingly.

"They are. At least the ones I spoke to are. This is a different group."

"You're not telling us we've ended up in the middle of a gang war?" asked the woman tremulously.

Vilco shook his head, his glassy eyes gazing at the plaza behind them. "I don't know," he said as Dajira pulled the speeder to a halt at the corner of an intersection. "I don't understand what's going on, but I do know we haven't got time to stand around here discussing it." He turned to Dajira. "You say you're a friend -- does this mean you're willing to stay and help?"

"You bet." She looked up from the control panel where she'd been checking the fuel level, her pale blue eyes defiant and strangely cold. Vilco couldn't help wondering who she was and what possible motive she had to want to get involved, but realised the explanation would have to wait.

"Okay. You two get out here. You should be safe now."

"You're not going back!" the man squeaked up at them in disbelief, waving his hand in the direction of the swirling mass of bikes, but his last words were lost in the roar of thrusters. He stared at his wife in consternation and she shook her head and then collapsed against him sobbing in a mixture of fear and relief.

"We need to get to that group at the front!" shouted Vilco, pointing towards a cluster of four protestors who were bravely fending off three circling swoops with their placards.

"Cowards!" hissed Dajira as a fourth swoop joined the fray.

"Hang on!" Vilco peered at the newcomer. "That's one of the Black Knights!"

"Who?"

"The gang we're working with." Then, in reply to her quizzical look, he added, "It's a long story."

"Well, it looks like your Black Knight is a little outnumbered there." Dajira threw them into a glide towards the knot of bikes and beleaguered protestors, while Vilco raised the blaster to take aim.

"I'm not going to be able to do this," he groaned. "There are too many of them. I'm scared I'm going to hit the wrong thing."

"Aim above their heads -- at least that'll let them know we're here."

"Okay." Vilco pointed the barrel of the blaster at an angle he was sure would be well clear of the bobbing heads and prepared to fire.

Fate, like a swinging voter, made a sudden outrageous decision and came down in favour of the underdog. A heartbeat before Vilco fired, one of the Rancors had a brainstorm and decided to rid the group of the interloper by trouncing down on him from above. He reached the apex of his short climb at the same instant as Vilco's bolt. Three heartbeats later, the odds didn't look quite so bad.

"Great shot!" whooped Dajira, while Vilco stared open-mouthed at the dead biker.

"I ... I've never ... killed anyone," he gasped.

"Hang on!" shrieked Dajira, swinging the speeder into a sideways glide that still managed to keep them facing the bikers. She grasped his shoulder and shook him roughly. "It's either you and your friends or them. Don't crack up on me now."

"I won't. It's just ... a shock."

"All we have to do is keep these guys busy for a few minutes while your friends get away."

"Yeah ... yeah, I know. It's just ... I never expected ..." Vilco pushed the enormity of what had just happened to the back of his mind. Already he could see his friends racing towards the edge of the plaza and the relative safety of the streets, but for the moment even that was incidental to what was happening in his immediate field of vision. The figure wearing the Black Knight patch, who Vilco could tell now was a woman, appeared to be shouting into her com while desperately trying to avoid being side-swiped by one of the remaining Rancors. The other dipped low and circled over the crash site of his companion, obviously checking for signs of life, and then pulled a bulky-looking blaster from his belt and aimed it at the speeder.

Instinctively Vilco ducked, and, reacting to the same reflex, Dajira threw them down and to the left so the shot went wide. Unfazed the swooper re-aimed at the figure from the opposing gang. She, too, swerved and the bolt traced a line just above her head but the back end of her bike slewed around and hit the side of a pillar with such force the chassis fractured into two pieces. The back section remained embedded in the pillar while the front end with the woman clinging to it continued in its trajectory, bouncing several times before coming to rest against a carved wooden seat.

Both bikers were now zooming towards Vilco and Dajira, one of them looping wide to come in from behind. Dajira slumped down in her seat as far as she could to protect herself from the incoming fire.

"We're caught in the middle!" yelped Vilco who was torn between keeping his head down and trying to hit the Rancor hurtling towards them from the front.

"I know!" she shrieked, surprised yet again that she was more angry than scared. "Just keep that front one busy!" Her last word came out as a squeak thanks to the spurt of crimson light from behind that had almost stopped her heart. Her foot slipped off the thrust control and in a panic she flailed around accidentally knocking the repulsors on to full power. The vehicle rocketed up leaving nothing but empty space between the two swoopers -- nothing to absorb the lethal energy spurting from the nozzles of their weapons. Except each other.

"You got them!" whooped Vilco, thinking the move had been planned.

In spite of her astonishment, Dajira couldn't help a small triumphant smile. "We got them, you mean." She looped back to where the woman had crashed, and both she and Vilco quickly leaped out. Together they pulled the remains of the swoop back and glanced at each other uncertainly. "Poor thing," said Dajira softly, and reached down to check the woman's pulse. At her touch the swooper's eyes fluttered open.

"Oh, thank goodness," murmured Vilco. "I think her name's Tab if I remember correctly."

"Tab!" Dajira shook her gently. Although the woman's face was as pale as death, her limbs appeared to be intact. "Do you think you can get up."

Tab groaned. "Not sure." She tried to sit up, but fell back.

"She might have internal injuries," mouthed Vilco.

Dajira ran a quick glance around the plaza. "Tab -- we need to help the others. Can you try and get up? Please?"

"Sorry ... trying. Feel a bit out of it," she tried to laugh but it ended in a grunt. "If you get me up I think I can walk."

"Good for you," said Vilco, slipping an arm around her and helping her hobble to the speeder. "Here -- take her arms," he said to Dajira.

"It's okay," Tab panted. "I think I can do it -- just give me a push up will you. Spit! Look out!" She pushed Dajira aside and grabbed at the old Intimidator Zed had lent her.

At her warning Vilco had leapt back towards the crashed bike, and was already firing at the swoop bearing down on them. Dajira scrambled desperately towards the seat hoping to shelter behind it, at the same time aware that Tab, too, was stitching the space between them and the swoop full of red lines. A stray bolt from the swooper scored the tip of one of her lekku and she squealed with pain and grabbed at it, fully expecting to find it sliced in two. To her relief all she found was a small patch of puckered skin, about the size of a credit, that had been singed. It was painful but bearable, and she pushed it to the back of her mind.

Although none of Tab's shots had hit home, her weapon appeared to be capable of more bolts per minute than Dajira had thought possible, and the barrage was certainly keeping the swooper busy. However, she could see the woman was struggling to remain upright, and she knew eventually she would either keel over or succumb to one of the swooper's shots. She wormed her way around the seat and over to Vilco, and held her hand out for the blaster.

"Let me have a go."

"My eyesight's not too good at a distance," he said apologetically.

Dajira took a deep breath to steady herself and carefully lined the swooper up in her sights the way her stepfather had taught her. She paused for a few seconds, adjusting to the rhythm of his movements, and when she felt she could predict the pattern, she raised the nozzle a tiny fraction and fired. For a few seconds the whole scene seemed frozen, except for the harpoon of radiant energy slowly bridging the gap between the tip of her weapon and the swooper's head. Tab's legs finally gave out and she collapsed to the ground, her last few shots swinging well off target. But it didn't matter because there was nobody to fire back.

Dajira and Vilco rushed forward, scooping Tab out of the way of the oncoming riderless bike, and half dragged, half carried her to the speeder, reaching it at the same moment the flying swoop exploded spectacularly into the remains of Tab's machine.

"Thanks," the woman panted gratefully. "Thought I was a goner."

"Do you know what's happening?" said Vilco.

Tab shook her head, and leaned against the side of the speeder for support. "Dunno. Haven't had time to think. One minute we were sitting at the corner of the street watching you guys, and the next thing the Rancors were there."

"Yes, well, they still are here," Dajira reminded them. "Although it looks like some of them are leaving."

Tab followed her gaze to where a group of four swoops were just disappearing down the alley at the left of the warehouse. "Spit!" She sat up suddenly. "Zed and Blue! If they're attacking us they'll be after them, too. We've got to help them!"

"We haven't finished here yet," said Dajira, setting off towards the far side of the plaza where two swoops had almost caught up with a small group of protestors who were trying to carry some of the wounded to safety. Closer to the warehouse, another two swoops were locked in battle with a third -- obviously one of the Black Knights. It worried her that there were several bodies lying nearby, and a few more were scattered over the plaza. She hoped they weren't dead.

"Just let me get a bead on those spawn," snarled Tab, lurching over to take up a position beside Dajira. She rested the Intimidator on the top of the windshield. "They're gonna get their taste of hell early."

"Don't waste time lining them up!" said Dajira curtly. "Just get them away from those protestors."

"Yes ma'am." Tab grinned mirthlessly and squeezed the trigger. The old blaster sprang to life again vomiting out a constant stream of fire that targeted first one swooper and then his companion. The first reacted sensibly and immediately peeled away out of range, but the second, obviously a rookie, fell victim to his curiosity and his inexperience.

"Rule one for being a successful swooper," said Tab with malicious pleasure as the rider hurtled out the other side of a message board, leaving his machine stuck between the metal struts. "Never look behind you when you're riding in a built-up area."

"The other one's leaving," said Vilco and pointed to the bike now heading towards the same alley the others had entered.

"I don't like this," Tab muttered. "I don't like this at all. I know some of that gang, and I can tell you one thing -- the guys that were here were only beginners."

"You think the others are after your friends?" Dajira swung the speeder around to set off towards where the other Black Knight was still holding off the two Rancors.

Tab nodded and then her eyes widened. "What the -?"

"They're leaving as well." Dajira killed the thrusters and glanced at Tab, noting the fear and concern furrowing her brow. She joined the others in waving the exhausted young swooper over, and then turned back to Tab. "Look. I know you're worried about your friends, and I want to help, but there are some other people in danger and I must get to them. Plus we need to help the injured ones here."

"No need for you to apologise," the woman said earnestly, pushing her tangled brown hair back from her face. "I can get a ride with Squirt here." She clambered out, still obviously a little shaky, and limped over to her fellow gang member.

"You okay, bro'?" she asked anxiously grabbing the youth by the shoulders. "You did good there -- real good."

Squirt tried to look staunch but Dajira could see his chin trembling. "They got Punter and Chaz," he sobbed hoarsely. "We gotta go find them."

"Vilco!" One of the protestors had left the rest of the group to run over to them. "Thank heavens, you're okay."

"Don't worry about me," grunted Vilco as he clambered out of the speeder. "How many have we got still standing?"

"Quite a few -- mainly thanks to you and this lady here." He waved his hand up at Dajira, a look of such gratitude on his face that she was temporarily lost for words.

"I think it was more her," corrected Vilco. "But right now we need to sort out what's the best thing to do. The, er ... um." He turned to Dajira. "Um, sorry -- don't even know your name."

"Dajira."

Vilco nodded a quick smile. "Dajira is needed somewhere else, and Tab here and her friend want to go and help their companions. Are there enough of you to organise help for the injured?"

The man gazed back just as two others arrived.

"What's going on?" asked one.

"Just sorting it out," said Vilco. "It seems to me that Tag has enlisted another swoop gang to help him -- because it's obvious that we were the target of this attack rather than you." He nodded at Tab.

She nodded back pensively.

"Yes," agreed Dajira. "I saw it all. They were definitely after you protestors."

"Okay. In that case, here's what I think we should do." Vilco waved his long fingers towards the corner of the street where a curious crowd was gathering. "It looks like we've got a few rubber necks who might be willing to help. Tab, my group will take care of your friends as well as our own people, so you can go and do what you need to do."

"Thanks." Tab patted the little creature on the shoulder and went to climb up behind Squirt, but then stopped and turned to Dajira. "Hey, um, good luck." She hesitated for a minute and then spat on her hand and held it out. Dajira blinked and stared uncertainly from the open palm to the woman's face, noting the warmth in her brown eyes.

"You, too," she smiled, and replicated the gesture, and then watched the swoop zoom off across the square with its unpleasant reminders of recent battle. She turned back to find Vilco and two other young men standing in front of her. The third was already running back to the rest of the protest group.

"We're coming with you," the Rodian stated firmly. "The others are going to see to the injured."

Dajira struggled to control her sagging jaw. "But I ... look, I don't really know what to expect and I don't want to be responsible for anybody else."

"Our decision -- our responsibility," said one of the others. "And anyway -- you helped us, so now we're helping you."

Dajira could tell by the man's tone and the looks on the faces of all three that argument was going to be pointless. "I don't know what to say, except thanks, of course."

"What's the plan?" asked the younger one.

"I was heading for the back of the warehouse. Earlier I saw some women on the roof and I want to see if they're still there."

"Women? On the roof? How many people has Tag got in there?"

Dajira shook her head sadly. "There's no time to explain." She studied the men for a moment. "You obviously know he's holding prisoners that he wants to give to the Yuuzhan Vong."

They nodded silently.

"I'm afraid things might get a little grim."

The two men exchanged glances with Vilco and their expressions became more determined. "Well, if the Vong get a foothold here things'll only become grimmer," said one. "We're definitely coming with you."

"We're going to need weapons," muttered the other, gazing around the plaza. "Stop beside some of those swoopers you downed and we'll take theirs."

Dajira hesitated for a tiny instant and then nodded. Although still afraid she was leading them to disaster, she couldn't help but be grateful for their support. "Okay." She waited until all three were on board and then set off in search of fire power and whatever waited for them on the other side of the warehouse.

*****

Tag was finding it hard not to curb his jubilation as he climbed the narrow staircase to the first floor of the warehouse. If he'd been able to subtract ten years from his age he'd have been bouncing up two stairs at a time and skittering along the corridor. The most he could manage now was a dignified lumber, but that didn't detract from his enjoyment, even though it did make him puff. Now he could focus his attention on the task of preparing Calrissian and his companions for the meeting with the Vong, and once they were under control he could organise bringing the women back into the building. It must be killing Calrissian knowing his wife was up there helpless and without his protection.

It'll be worse than torture to him, he thought gleefully.

Even though Delone's bit of deceit still rankled, the situation overall was looking good. The Rancors were obviously carrying out their task, which was to knock out the protestors along with the group that the redheaded kid had told them would be out the back of the warehouse -- the support group, he had called it. Support group, Tag chuckled. It certainly wouldn't be capable of supporting much at the moment -- not if that Rancor leader and his maniac two-headed friend had anything to do with it anyway. And then downstairs his own men were dealing to the so-called assault group, which by the sounds of the blaster fire echoing up the stairwell would not exactly be fitting into the happy camper category at the moment either.

He had drilled it into their heads that the two Jedi must be taken alive and with this in mind he'd selected a special group, skilled in the use of alternate weapons such as spray and fear sticks, to be responsible for separating them from the swoopers. Once the Jedi were clear of the melee they'd be easy targets for the tranquillizer gun, and from then on it would be easy sailing. He already accepted the fact he'd lose some men to achieve his goal -- but such were the risks in any worthy enterprise. The sacrifices would be more than justified by the sacrifices they could then offer to the Vong.

He had to admit that it had been a stroke of luck that the pimply kid had decided to swap allegiances, because there was no way he could have predicted the two young Jedi would be so organised. It would never have occurred to him in a million years that they would even consider enlisting a swoop gang to help them -- but there again, they were devious. Maybe they'd mind-tricked the swoopers. In fact, the more he thought about it, the more likely it seemed that this was the case. It was just the sort of amoral behaviour he'd expect of them -- a further example of their typical Jedi disregard for the rights of ordinary people. They'd always looked to themselves first. Always. And all their so-called altruistic Jedi philosophy was nothing more than a load of bantha crap -- and well fermented crap at that. The sooner the Balmorrans realised this, and began listening to what he had to tell them, the better -- and fortunately the way things were going, it looked as if that day would arrive more quickly than he had hoped.

But there again -- was it just luck? Luck was such a slippery thing. He preferred to think it was more the hand of fate working on the side of the righteous for once. The Jedi had had things their own way for too long -- far too long. Far too many centuries of injustices carried out in the name of the so-called common good. Too many deaths of innocent people -- families torn apart because of the self-justifying acts of the Jedi Order and its sycophants and half-baked imitators.

He looked down in surprise to find that he was standing motionless, fingers curled into fists, glaring ahead at spaces that, in contradictory fashion, worm-holed backwards through time. He forced himself to take a deep, slow breath. No, he was not going to let his rage about the past ruin his moment of triumph. He'd been working steadily towards this day for years -- gathering information, waiting for the turn of events to give him his chance to balance the books. He was going to remain cool, calm and steadfast -- confident in the knowledge that the gods had at last judged him worthy to hold the dice in his hands.



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