Many Happy Returns: Chapter Thirty
Iella

Anakin's feet had barely touched the ground before he had begun processing the flood of information his quick-fire aerial surveillance had supplied. Four exits, two vehicle-sized and two that were merely pedestrian doorways; the two men he'd disarmed now under attack by Doc and Rongo, and now only two remaining from the trio of mean-looking individuals who had been leaping towards him with Stokhli spray sticks. The one at whom he'd Force-thrown the blaster was lying motionless on the ground, and he quickly dispatched the second with the other blaster he'd stolen during his flight, noting as he did that it was set on stun. He saw the third man's thumb twitching towards the trigger on his weapon so he flipped backwards, partly to escape the translucent stream intended to enmesh him, and partly to leap over the assailant he'd sensed creeping up behind. The jump placed his attacker in the target zone, and Anakin landed in time to enjoy the sight of the man flailing desperately at the spiraling tendril from the Stokhli device as it transmuted from liquid to solid around him.

The enraged owner of the spray stick went to re-aim at Anakin but the weapon was knocked from his hand by a grappling duo of bodies as they fought their way past him. Somewhere in the tangle of limbs, Anakin recognised the flash of Doc's feral grin and the glint of his trusty vibro-knuckler. The man scrambled towards the stick and had just reacquired it when the Twi'lek in Doc's grip collapsed limply and the big swooper turned the body into a weapon, hurling it down on the hapless man on the ground and kicking the Stokhli device away. He waved Anakin a quick victory salute and then leapt towards where Muss and Squid were battling with three more of Tag's men.

A space suddenly cleared in front of Anakin, and he noticed the tall leader struggling back to his feet in an effort to rejoin the fight, albeit one-handed. He sent the man back down with a quick shot.

Interesting, he thought. The blaster he'd appropriated was set on stun, and yet the initial fiery onslaught they'd endured had suggested otherwise. Had Tag's followers been told to wipe out the swoopers first? The Force shouted a warning to him and he leapt again, this time performing an aerial version of the splits that allowed him to knock the wind out of the two men closing in from each side. Over at the far side of the seething mass he caught a brief view of Tahiri dodging and slashing at two men before gravity cancelled his temporary height advantage.

"Not recommended in tight pants," he muttered to himself grimly as he landed more awkwardly than he would have liked and stumbled backwards towards the nearby doorway. One of the men he'd kicked was still down, but the other had hauled himself to his knees and was leveling his blaster at Anakin's chest.

Suddenly Anakin's danger sense tingled again, and he knew it was not the man with the blaster that it was warning him about. His purple blade moved instinctively in a defensive arc to deflect the stun bolt aimed at him, while at the same time he reached out with the Force to scan the area around him. Corran had caught him out occasionally for keeping his focus too narrow, and in this situation - a limited fighting zone with people coming at him from all directions - it was an easy trap to fall into.

Then he felt it -- a presence behind him masked by the rigid Force signature of the wood in the wall. There was somebody hiding in the doorway, and with the sudden clarity born of hindsight he realised his attackers had been herding him towards it. And they still were. In the time it had taken him to deflect several stun shots from the prone man's T-6, another two of Tag's people had managed to fight their way towards him. As they pressed the thumb triggers on their Stokhli sticks to pin him like a helpless insect to the ground, he drew on the Force and somersaulted up on to the narrow ledge above the doorway, balancing precariously with his back against the wall. The misty threads shot through the opening beneath him, and in their wake he lobbed the smoke grenade that he had grabbed from the pouch in his utility belt. A thick haze mushroomed out from the darkness and a figure carrying a strange-looking rifle lurched into view coughing and gagging, but by then Anakin had used the ledge as a springboard for a Force-enhanced leap that took him well clear of the door and to the right. The rifle-bearer collapsed, and his stubby weapon clattered to the floor. In a flash of insight Anakin realised what it was. The two men with the Stokhli sticks tried to retreat from the billowing smoke, but Anakin stopped them with two stun bolts and they hit the ground in a helpless tangle of limbs.

"Yep -- I always said smoking's real bad for the health," growled Doc's voice from somewhere just behind him, and Anakin turned to find the older man grinning and wiping a trickle of blood from his ear.

"I know what they're trying to do," he said suddenly remembering with a jolt where he'd last seen Tahiri.

"Yeah, me too. They're trying to kill us." The statement ended in a grunt as a Rodian leapt on Doc's back. Barely missing a beat he punched at the side of the creature's head with his knuckler and then turned, at the same time doubling over to throw the stunned creature back where he had come from. "Have you only just figured it out?" he asked curiously.

But, instead of replying, Anakin deactivated his lightsaber and tucked both it and his blaster in his belt. Coolly he held his hand out towards the tranquilizer rifle lying on the ground, rotating it in mid-air so that it landed neatly with its harmless trigger end in his hands.

"It's a souped up E-11/S," Doc noted, watching in growing astonishment as the young Jedi yanked the syringe full of yellow liquid from the modified slug-throwing mechanism mounted underneath the barrel and replaced it with a smoke grenade.

"Cover me, Doc," he said, and calmly proceeded to aim the rifle at the doorway through which Tag had departed, just beyond where he could see Tahiri's blonde head bobbing from side to side. He needn't have asked. Doc was already swinging a kick at the midriff of another hopeful who had been leveling his blaster at Anakin.

Through the rifle sight Anakin saw Tahiri's blue blade disappear suddenly and then flick back up again, and he received an image of one of her opponents leaping away clutching his arm. His view of her was partially obscured by the jumble of bodies between them, but he did catch an arm thrusting a bladed weapon at her, pushing her backwards towards the door. Sabrashi fear sticks?thought Anakin in surprise. Pity Dad's not here -- he'd be getting really nostalgic about now.

Get away from the door Tahiri! He pumped the warning full of urgency along with an image of his intention.

Easy for you to say, she threw back, but he noticed she managed to sidestep sufficiently to give him a clear shot at a point just inside the far side of the door jamb. He aimed high, afraid that some accidental target might obstruct the precious canister's flight, and squeezed the trigger.

"Got it!" crowed Doc, raising his fists in a gesture of victory.

"Come on!" yelled Anakin hurdling the bodies of the Rodian and the other man Doc had downed, and racing towards the confusion caused by the explosion. He saw Tahiri leaping away from the smoke. He couldn't see any sign of the second gunman, but the opaque cloud obscuring the doorway suggested his shot had achieved its purpose.

Doc let out a bloodcurdling roar and disappeared into the tangle, reappearing a few seconds later with his hands around the throat of a man whose complexion was rapidly taking on the same hue as that of a Chiss. Over the far side Anakin could see Tahiri's blade swirling again and he began to work his way through, at the same time piecing together the information he'd gleaned about their situation. Obviously it had been Tag's intention to isolate Tahiri and him from the swoopers and shoot them full of the same knockout drug they'd used on him earlier. Now that the gunmen had been eliminated from the equation, however, what would Tag's men do? Did they have a back-up plan, or were they going to have to come up with something of their own? That might be difficult seeing that their leader was unconscious on the floor.

Part of his brain mulled this over as he flicked the tip of his lightsaber down in an arc to slice the barrel of a blaster from its grip. The wielder yelped as the overheated metal burned his palm, and then grunted in pain as Anakin swept his legs from under him causing him to fall heavily on the still white-hot weapon. As long as they kept Tag's men busy, the chance of any of them trying to com him would be small, and it was more than probable that the leader had the com device anyway.

The beginnings of a plan began to take shape in Anakin's mind.

Fighting at such close quarters had made him adopt a tight defensive posture, keeping his blade close to his body with the pommel low and pointing to the floor. Another man struck towards him from the side with a fear stick, assuming erroneously that Anakin wouldn't have time to rebalance and turn. But in one liquid move the young Jedi danced from one foot to the other and continued the movement of his blade so that it looped into a circle and cut the stick in half. The man stared at his damaged weapon and then at Anakin, his expression transforming from anger to puzzlement -- and then he sank slowly to the ground.

Anakin watched Rongo retrieve his vibro-blade from the wound he'd inflicted in the man's back. "We've got to get out of here before they have a chance to regroup!" he shouted to the biker. "And I think I see the way out."

"How about the way we came --"

"Stay down!" yelled Anakin, raising his lightsaber and swirling it over Rongo's head. The biker swung round to see his attacker collapsing to the ground.

"--in," he finished staring in astonishment at the man's hands, still clutching the hachete he'd been wielding, lying on the floor beside him. "Uh, thanks."

"Idle hands," Anakin remonstrated darkly, shaking his head. "Always getting into mischief. I'm going for Tahiri. Tell everybody to start working their way over to the truck. And tell Doc we need those cluster grenades."

"The truck. Sure. Will do." He was tempted to add piece of cake, but the young Jedi was already gone, sailing over the heads of the swarming bodies.

It struck Rongo again that he hadn't considered contradicting Anakin's orders, nor did he wish to question them. He stared at Muss who'd suddenly materialised beside him. "How does he do that stuff?" he asked him incredulously.

The sinewy biker was rubbing his jaw, but he stopped and rolled his eyes. "Believe me, bro', you don't want to know. It doesn't sound like much fun. Any idea what's going on outside?"

"No," replied Rongo grimly. "But --"

"Spit!" hissed Muss shoving his comrade to one side and quickly throwing himself in the opposite direction. Rongo had caught the warning in Muss's gaze a fraction of a second before he opened his mouth and had started spinning to face the approaching threat before he hit the ground. He caught one of Tag's men in the chest and felt a wave of relief as the blast aimed back at him went wide. Before he could aim again at the other, however, he heard a grunt of pain and the realisation as to who had caught the shot intended for him made his heart miss a beat. He fired anyway rolling away at the same time, knowing he'd missed but wanting to keep the man's attention on him. It was working -- his target was tracking him and Rongo wondered idly, as he squeezed the trigger a third time, whose aim would prove better. He saw his own bolt flash harmlessly just to the side of the man's shoulder, but the curse he was about to utter faded into a gasp of surprise. Another bolt stitched upwards hitting the man neatly in the abdomen and throwing him back.

Rongo struggled up and over to where Muss was painfully pulling himself to his feet.

"You vaping idiot," hissed Rongo, more worried than angry. "What's with the heroics?"

"Aw, you know how it is, bro'. Can't let these Jedi have all the glory." Muss grinned, but it was a weak effort.

"Can you move?" Rongo demanded.

"Yeah." Muss let the taller man help him, and Rongo noticed he had one arm pressed to his side.

"Get over to the truck," he growled. "And stay out of sight." He shoved him towards their vehicle and then turned back to cover his progress across the gap. Treetrunk came racing towards him and lunged past, grabbing Muss en route and dragging him to safety. Obviously Anakin was spreading the message to return to the truck, and he was aware he could now hear the hiss of a lightsaber as well as make out its ghostly reflection through the dissipating smoke haze. Rongo dropped another of Tag's men who had lurched out of the tangle in pursuit of the Trandoshan, and then, seeing Squid struggling in the grip of a huge man twice her size, he leaped back into the fray.

****

As long as the leader stays down thought Anakin, then with any luck nobody will contact Tag. And then he was with Tahiri at the edge of the swarming crowd. His lightsaber was still murmuring the distinctive background buzz that he identified as belonging to the Yuuzhan Vong, but for the moment he was able only to accept it as a forewarning. It was clear that the people they were facing at the moment were all citizens of the same galaxy as him, regardless of their violent ideological differences. And right now that was all that mattered.

"Having a good time?" Tahiri inquired between gritted teeth.

"I've known better. You wouldn't need a hand or anything would you?"

"Me?" She tilted her blade to deflect an approaching stun bolt and followed through with an outwards flick that caused her opponent to leap backwards. Anakin felt a surge of pride as he realised her strategy. The man's move brought him up against the body of one of his comrades and that effectively halted his retreat, making him fell heavily. Anakin pumped a stun bolt into his prone body.

"Obviously not," he beamed. "Good move."

"Good teacher," she grinned back. "So what's the plan? Look out!"

But Anakin had already swung his lightsaber behind him to deflect the bolt heading his way. He pointed to a wide hatchway in the left corner of the bay. "We're taking the truck through there. Come on." He grabbed her arm and, pulling her clear of the group, set off at a run towards where the vehicle was parked near the main doors. Suddenly out of the corner of his eye he saw the young swooper that Rongo had introduced as Chopper struggling furiously to keep his blade-wielding opponent at bay.

"Hang on." He hit the man with a pulse from his blaster and was about to pull Chopper to his feet when a Weequay lunged at him swinging the butt of his blaster rifle. Expecting Anakin to dodge, the humanoid's eyes popped as Anakin snap-kicked him in the chest, and he tumbled backwards releasing the rifle as he fell. Rongo, who had just accounted for another of Tag's men with his vibro-blade, grabbed the rifle and swung it down on the Weequay's head -- the impact making a sickening crunch. A man grabbed him from behind, but a vibro-axe suddenly appeared above the attacker's head and the latter sank to the floor revealing Tria smiling crookedly behind him.

Anakin turned to Tahiri who had just finished helping Chopper extricate himself from underneath his fallen opponent. "Take him and tell everyone to get on the far side of the truck. And Rongo -- we need someone in the cab to drive the thing."

"You got it, kid," replied the tall swooper beckoning to Tria to follow Tahiri. "Who's left here?"

"Just Doc I think."

"Thought my ears were burning!" the big man shouted as he raced towards them, turning back to fire at the man pursuing him. Rongo was already almost at the truck door, spraying crimson bolts as he ran backwards, and then he ducked around the front of the vehicle and clambered into the cab making sure to keep his head down. He didn't see Anakin leap up on to the top of the truck, but he did hear the thud of his booted feet as they landed followed by the whine of blaster fire.

"I suggest you stop firing for a minute and listen!" Anakin shouted. "Those of you that are left that is."

Rongo peeked up in order to watch, at the same time pulling down on the ignition lever. It was true they'd accounted for a good half of the group, and many of those still standing looked the worst for wear. It didn't stop them firing up at the young Jedi though, or at the truck. Judging by the angle of some of the returning fire it looked as though the swoopers were retaliating, although a number of shots were obviously deflections from Anakin's lightsaber.

Anakin's voice rose again above the barrage. "I could stand here all day if you wanted, although eventually you're either going to run out of clips --" A man screamed and fell backwards, a victim of a low shot. "-- or luck. However I don't intend to do that. We've taken it easy on you up to now, but that isn't going to continue. You have to make a choice. Either you let us through into the building so we can rescue our friends, or I'm afraid we'll have to get nasty. How are those cluster grenades looking, Doc?"

"More beautiful every minute, kid!" roared Doc. "Where d'ya want them?"

"That depends on what these gentlemen decide. There's a hatchway over to their right that looks like it leads to a loading conveyor. They can either open that for us, or they can make us open it ourselves."

"Gotcha, kid." Doc sounded as if Anakin had just told him he'd won the lottery.

"So what's it to be, gentlemen?" demanded Anakin.

"Go to hell!" roared a thickset man with a mop of black hair. "Stinking Jedi!"

"Is that your final word?" Anakin asked unfazed.

He was answered by a flurry of stun shots, while several others in the group began moving towards the truck, firing as they came.

"I guess you've made your choice then," Anakin said sadly. "Doc -- two grenades, please. The hatchway first."

"Music to my ears, kid!" Doc positioned himself between the truck and the main doors and balanced the metal bulb carefully on his palm. He liked the look of cluster grenades -- harmless pieces of silver fruit with dimpled skins you could polish. And yet, just as in nature, appearances were deceptive. He sent it sailing neatly towards the hatch, and watched as its skin split to scatter its seeds ... of destruction.

"Shot!" grinned Tria appreciatively.

A heartbeat later the floor bucked and the hatch disappeared in a blinding flash and a hail of splinters and shards of ceramosteel. Most of Tag's men threw themselves to the floor, although some were scrambling back towards the far doorway. Anakin landed beside Doc.

"Go Rongo!" he bellowed. "Everyone -- use the truck as your shield. We're going through that hole." The truck revved and began moving slowly at first and then gathered momentum. As the cloud of debris cleared, Rongo could see the end of the conveyor belt, and he aimed the vehicle to the side where the wall had been mostly blown away.

"Am I guessing right about where you want this one?" growled Doc, eyeing the young Jedi.

"I just wish it didn't have to be this way." He gazed back at the older man, and just for a moment Doc could have sworn their ages were reversed.

"They had their chance," he shrugged, then drew his hand back and let the grenade fly.

They caught up with the others just as Rongo drove the truck through the wall. The blaster fire had ceased. The air was filled momentarily with the fallout from the second explosion and the debris caused by the truck's impact -- and then suddenly there was silence.

Tahiri reached out for Anakin's hand. "You tried," she whispered.

He nodded glumly. "Got some bad news, too."

"About the Yuuzhan Vong being here, you mean?"

Anakin blinked. "You sense them?"

"No, dummy." Tahiri gave the hand she was holding an irritated shake. "This is me, remember -- the one who can read you like a book. You've been virtually shouting Yuuzhan Vong since you first drew your lightsaber."

"I definitely need curtains -- and a security screen."

"Wouldn't work," said Tahiri breezily. "The sprinkler system would short it out."

"So what's the plan, Anakin?" interrupted Rongo. "Where do we go?"

"Up," he replied, nodding at the wide conveyor that sloped up into a housing that led to the upper floor. He bent his mouth to the comlink clipped to his collar. "Blue!" He waited for the biker to reply. The seconds ticked by and he caught Rongo's look of concern. "Blue?" He tried again, more loudly, but the only answer that came back was a deathly silence.

"Try Skell," suggested Rongo, forcing his voice to sound unruffled.

Anakin nodded and clicked the channel open a second time, his blue eyes remaining on Rongo's face. "Skell," he said, willing the little biker to reply -- but this time the compulsion trick didn't work. Realising he'd been holding his breath, Anakin let it out quickly and calmed the sinking feeling in his stomach. Then he gripped the comlink firmly and tried again.

*****

Tag had managed to brush away the disturbing memories that he could feel waving for his attention from the edges of his mind, and, regaining control of his tensed muscles, he reached out purposefully to open the door to his office. It came as a jolt, therefore, when he stepped in to find that the Peace Brigade contingent had curiously doubled in his absence. Now there were six of them -- five, staring with strangely blank expressions towards the window, and Delone standing beside Kasen and gazing fixedly at the ruckus in progress outside. He wondered where the other three had been earlier -- waiting in the ground utility perhaps? He presumed they'd come inside when the protest began to get nasty.

Kasen turned at the sound of the door opening, and Tag felt another flutter of anxiety as he noticed the little man's perplexed expression. He responded with a non-verbal query, raising his eyebrows -- or what would have been eyebrows on a more hirsute visage. Kasen's gaze vacillated briefly, and Tag realised that he was being surreptitiously beckoned to join them at the window. The upwards motion of his forehead furrows rapidly reversed into a frown as he glanced down at the plaza. Expecting to see the ground littered with the cowering bodies of protestors, he saw instead a small group racing unchallenged up one of the streets that led off the far side of the square, while other small clusters were using placards to beat off the attacking swoops. He was just beginning to wonder what had caused this unexpected retaliation when he caught the flicker of familiar company colours out of the corner of his eye. He turned, at the same time praying that the dusk light was playing tricks. His fingers gripped the window sill -- other than that all else felt numb, as if the jolt of recognition had scrambled the synapses in his sensory nodes.

He was aware that Kasen was studying him wide-eyed, but he was incapable of dragging his gaze away from the speeder and the tiny figure steering it. Although she was partially disguised by the large cloak, he knew it was her even without the helpful clue of the pale lekku streaming behind her. For one desperate minute he tried to convince himself that she had joined with the Rancors to attack the protestors, driving through their ranks to force them down on to the gravel or the sparse patches of dry turf. But that interpretation couldn't account for the Rodian standing by her -- the same one he'd noticed earlier scurrying amongst the members of the group. It also failed to explain why there were packages of radiant energy hyphenating the space between the speeder and a nearby swoop.

Ice spread slowly through his veins -- ice tinged with acid -- freezing him and yet leaving a burning trail as it began to eat its way through the fragile tendrils that bound him to his stepdaughter. They were not the same as the ties engendered by shared blood, but he had thought they were at least as strong. He had nurtured their growth, had sacrificed to feed them. She was Gassanta's daughter, and he loved Gassanta too much not to cut her one and only child adrift. And now -- what was this? Was this real, or some insane vision sent him by the Jedi? He closed his eyes tightly and then opened them again in time to see the speeder bearing down on a swoop that was buzzing two of the protest group. Surely, surely -- somebody was playing tricks on him.

But she has been sneaking around behind your back.

He started and swung around. The voice seemed to be coming from behind him.

She was seeing that boy without your permission. You knew she was unreliable.

Tag tried to shrug the phantom away, but the echoes prevailed taunting him.

Too trusting. Just like your mother.

"No!" Before he realised what he was doing, he'd clamped his hands to his ears, and his shout caused Kasen to jump and Delone to eye him suspiciously.

"I gather this is a necessary part of the plan to recapture the Jedi?" the Peace Brigader asked caustically.

"Yes," floundered Tag. "Necessary. Definitely. This will mislead them into thinking we don't have enough support and make them over- confident -- and therefore sloppy."

"Ah." Delone nodded. "Brilliant."

Tag didn't like the man's tone at all.

"The swoop gang is expendable," he said stiffly. "And while they keep the Jedi's back-up busy outside, my men are dealing to the Jedi. Shortly they'll be in our hands. Now." Business-like again and managing to show no signs of agitation, he turned to Kasen. "Got a job for you. Come with me."

As soon as they were out the door into the room that served as both Kasen's and the secretary's he grabbed the smaller man by the shoulders. "Call Talley and tell him to get those women off the roof," he hissed. "I'm not going to run the risk of any of those swoopers catching sight of them and rescuing them."

The little accountant's rheumy eyes stared uncertainly into Tag's. "Bomar -- that was Dajira wasn't it?"

Tag felt a sudden desire to punch him to the floor and grind him into the mat, but he overcame the impulse by thumping his fist into his palm instead. The anger he felt was nothing to do with Kasen, he knew. He just wanted to lash out at somebody -- anybody. Save it for now, he counselled himself. Stay on track. Those who betray you will get their just desserts. But at the same time, a voice in his head was crying, How could she do this to me. How?

"Don't mention that name again."

Kasen went to speak again but the wild look in Tag's eyes made him hesitate. It was probably just as well he did. Tag was having trouble forcing his mind to adjust to the sudden change in circumstances, and it was only an effort of extreme will that was allowing him to push his sense of betrayal aside and focus on the immediate problem of the women.

He had just realised that the only appropriate vehicle he had available was the small speeder he kept on site for running messages. His own was obviously now unavailable, although as he preferred to park it off-site -- to give himself a little exercise walking to and from the warehouse every day -- it wouldn't have been much use to him anyway. Talley would have to make two trips to bring the women in, but that was okay. The question was where would be the best place to take them.

He grabbed Kasen's arm unaware that he was making the little man squirm. "Listen. I sent Talley to set up that G-40 cannon to stop anyone trying to get up to the tower. He's round at the entrance to the stairwell, and he's got enough backup there to be able to take one of them with him. It shouldn't take him long anyway. The speeder's out front. Tell him to take it and collect those women, and bring them down to the front door."

"But where are you going to --?"

"Just do it. Let me worry about the details." He saw Kasen hesitate and shoved him in the direction of the corridor that led to the first floor storage rooms, watching as he scurried off. Not that I think for a moment any of Solo's group are going to live long enough to get anywhere near the tower, but I'm not taking any chances. A pity Mahko wasn't more diligent. If he'd thought to have the cannon set up and ready for use, maybe the stinking Jedi wouldn't have been able to escape from the factory in the first place. Although there again -- how could he have guessed they'd get out through the roof?

Well -- one thing was for sure. They weren't going to pull any more surprises on him. What a good thing Talley had had the forethought to bring the portable laser cannon back with him when he returned from his unsuccessful trip to get the ysalamiri. He was rough as guts, Talley was, but he was a good man -- a loyal one. Loyal ... not like ... he shook the name away as if it had developed poisonous barbs.

He swung around to return to his office. He didn't want to have to use Delone and his men because to ask for help would be tantamount to admitting there was a problem. But by the same token, he didn't want to redeploy any more of his own men. He was just grasping the door handle when a thunderclap rent the air and an invisible wave surged up through the floor, reverberating in the balls of his feet and rattling the transparisteel in the windows. The vibrations had barely ceased when a sound like that of a torpedo impacting somewhere beneath them shook the walls. Dust puffed out from between the beams in the ceiling, filling the air so it suddenly felt thick and heavy and the room took on a grey haze.

"What the --!" The door was thrown open and he fell rather than stepped through it.

Delone glared at him balefully. "Another part of the plan, Tag?"

"Concussion bombs," he stammered stupidly. "I won't be a moment." And he turned and stumbled in the direction he'd sent Kasen. There was another explosion -- nearer this time. The ice had returned, as had the acid, only this time they were insinuating their way through his gut. Did concussion bombs sound like that? He had no idea what they sounded or felt like -- he'd simply come out with the first vaguely rational idea that had popped into his head. In fact, he had no concussion bombs, and somehow he doubted the Jedi had any.

He paused at the top of the stairwell leading down to the loading bay, uncomfortably aware that there was blue smoke rising from it, and the roar of voices and blasters was noticeably missing. A horrible thought sprang into his head. Had the Jedi somehow managed to crash their truck back out through the bay doors? Unfortunately it did seem like a far more logical explanation than concussion bombs. Without hesitating any further he wrestled his personal comlink off its belt clip thankful that he'd thought to programme into it the channel he was using to reach the Rancors.

His ear was suddenly assailed by the roar of repulsors counter-pointed by staccato pulses of blaster fire. "Slash!" he bellowed. "Get round to the back entrance. I think they've crashed the vaping truck back out." A repeating rifle pumped a screaming response that was punctuated by a curse. Tag's insides writhed, but he tried again. "Slash!"

A spitting sound made the connection whistle and then a voice growled back. "Whaddya say? They're out?"

"Yeah. And I don't care how you deal with the others, but I want those two Jedi alive. You got that!"

The connection dissolved into a mixture of static and revving engines. "... kre- ... lucky we're here to save your ass, Tag! And why didn't you tell us about --"

"Hardly," Tag interrupted angrily. "My men will be there as well. Now get on to it." He clicked the connection closed. It occurred to him that he should have asked how Slash's group was getting on. He had to admit that he'd assumed the Rancors would have cleaned up the other swoopers by now -- after all there were only eight of them, according to the kid. He suddenly remembered that the biker had started to ask him something just before he'd cut him off, but he shrugged the thought away. It was probably something stupid anyway, and right now he had the distinct feeling that the need to deal with Calrissian and his friends and get them out of the building was more urgent than ever.



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