Many Happy Returns: Chapter Thirty-Two
Iella

"We're a bit banged up," Anakin replied to Blue's query, "but we're all okay except for Muss. Tahiri and Rongo are fixing him up now. He collected a shot in the ribs but they reckon it didn't burn too deep, thank goodness." He caught Tahiri's eye as she glanced up and he threw her a grateful smile. Healing was not his forte, whereas he'd noticed that she had quite a skill for it — another of the ways in which they balanced each other out. "What about Zed?"

Blue's voice sounded serious over the link. "I dunno. I was on my way to look for him but I got caught up with Taso and Grunt and some of the opposition. Stupid young idiots tried a loop move — but the Rancors caught on and dropped like stones leaving our two hotshots to repeat their performance from this morning."

"They crashed into each other!" said Anakin incredulously, recalling his fight with the gang early that morning. Had it really been less than a day since then? It certainly didn't feel like it.

"You got it. Typical. No problems avoiding the Rancors — just can't seem to avoid each other!" Blue's tone was dour. "Hami's taking Grunt up to the building site — he's just behind me. I left Taso trying to restart his bike. He reckons it's still working — which is amazing considering what's left of it. Kid's the eternal optimist. Oh, and guess who I had a little encounter with?"

"Red hair, chip on the shoulder, really brainless," said Anakin feeling as though he'd just bitten on a particularly sour piece of fruit.

"Really bikeless, too." Blue's chuckle was mirthless. "I don't think we'll have any more trouble from him — little ... never mind. Waste of breath even discussing the little snake. So where are we at? You say you reckon they won't be able to get in through the bay?"

"I'm pretty sure I knocked out the controls — and we had to let off a few grenades, so it's only us here at the moment." Anakin peered back through the hole in the wall at the scene in the loading bay and the still bodies lying in the grotesque poses of sudden and violent death. He sighed inwardly, sobered yet again by the greed and stubborn blindness that had precipitated it, and wondered if he'd made the right decision to use explosives instead of smoke grenades. No matter what he decided, the right answer was only ever clear in hindsight. "We've broken through into the main part of the building, but, um ..." He stopped. Should he tell them about the Vong or not? With or without them, it was going to be difficult. Another problem — another decision to be made.

A loud click issued over the com.

"Blue!" Anakin almost shouted into the sudden silence, just remembering in time to keep his voice as low as he could. Doc, who'd been moving amongst the group quietly checking their power packs, stopped and they all exchanged anxious glances.

"It's alright, kid." Blue's voice sounded a lot clearer. "I'm up on the roof — just disconnecting the comlink so I can hear you better."

Anakin breathed out his tension and looked up to see Tahiri approaching. He reached out a hand to take the one she was offering him, and the familiar reassuring warmth energised him. She plopped down beside him.

"Okay," he said quietly to Blue. "As we've obviously lost the element of surprise it's safe to assume this is not going to be as straightforward as I thought. So I think it's time to adjust the plan. Are you still happy with what we discussed?"

Blue gazed across at the warehouse and, more specifically, the tower with its large metal panel. "I reckon. You still sure that's where they are?"

"I'm as sure as I can be. I can't sense them the way I could another Jedi — but I can sense emotions. And both Tahiri and I get the same feelings broadcasting loud and clear from the direction of that tower." His blue eyes sought hers for confirmation and she nodded.

Blue rubbed his chin and then his eyes, grinning wryly to himself as he did so. Life for him had been a daily struggle with the mundane for so long that he'd lost faith years ago in anything possessing the faintest wiff of an existence beyond grim reality. Now he couldn't help but see the funny side of his sudden willingness to overthrow everything that this experience had drummed into him. And yet — it felt right. He could almost say that his spirits felt like they'd been released from cold storage.

"Tell Skell to knock out the security fence first. I don't want anyone getting fried on that," continued Anakin. "And keep us posted."

"You, too," said Blue gruffly, squinting down at the large group of swoopers now swarming around in the space outside the loading bay.

"Will do. Hopefully we'll meet at the top of the tower. Good luck." Anakin clicked the connection closed. "I wish I could be sure Vilco is okay," he murmured to Tahiri.

"I know." Her green eyes studied his. "We'll just have to get this over with extra quickly so we can go check on him."

Anakin stared back, fully aware of the determination inherent in the flippant humour. His fingers closed briefly over hers again and squeezed gently. "Yeah." He pushed himself up off the ground and moved over to where Rongo was helping Muss roll down the rancor-hide top he'd been wearing under his delivery driver's shirt. "Ready?"

Both men nodded.

"You're okay, boss, but I think I prefer the little nurse," said Muss as he hauled himself to his feet. Anakin noticed a slight catch in the swooper's voice suggesting he wasn't as comfortable as he was pretending to be, but he'd already decided that leaving Muss behind wasn't an option. For the moment they were all safer if they stuck together. Once he'd established where the Vong were, however, that opinion might change — which raised the dilemma he'd been considering earlier.

"I think we'd better tell them," whispered Tahiri.

Anakin couldn't help grinning inwardly — mainly at his own expense. He should have known she'd sense his concern.

"And don't even think about facing them by yourself."

"I wasn't," he assured her.

"Just checking," she replied smoothly and followed Anakin into the large room beyond. The opening through which they'd blasted was in reality a hatchway that marked the end of a long, spiralling conveyor designed to carry goods down from the upper storage level. Both young Jedi eyed it with a certain amount of jaundice, their experiences on the conveyor belt at the factory being still a little too fresh in their minds.

"Which way, Anakin?" Rongo adjusted his bandolier so the shiny butt of the E-15A he'd selected from Doc's supplies would be within easy reach.

"Not sure." Anakin had disappeared under the struts supporting the conveyor. The darkness appeared to be falling quite rapidly and Anakin's voice echoed eerily from the deepening shadows at the far side of the room. "This place is just storage — and it looks like the hatch is the only way in and out."

"That's good," murmured Doc.

"How come?" Rongo queried.

"The fewer exits and entrances there are — the fewer surprises we'll get." The big man squinted up following the route of the conveyor. "Shouldn't have any trouble getting up there."

Anakin appeared again with Tahiri close behind. "This is definitely the only way up. But before we set off there's something you need to know — something I didn't factor in." He felt seven pairs of eyes regarding him, in some cases curious and in others apprehensive.

"Tag's hired a droid army?" quipped Doc.

"Close," Anakin replied unfazed. "The Yuuzhan Vong are here. I'm not sure exactly where or how close or how many — but I can sense them." In a manner of speaking anyway he thought. There was no time now to go into specifics and explain about the lambent in his lightsaber that enabled him to divine their presence, because the swoopers were ignorant of anything about the Vong. Anything, that was, except to fear them. He gazed around at the stunned expressions. "Tahiri and I'll understand if anyone wants to pull out."

"No way." Rongo shook his head. "I'm not giving up the chance to get back at Tag."

"Me neither," said Doc, and his words were followed by a chorus of affirmations. "You ain't getting rid of us that easily."

Anakin sucked in a deep breath and breathed out again slowly. He glanced round the group studying faces, noting the steely determination firming everyone's features. "Okay. Just thought you needed to know." As he went to turn towards the conveyor again his eye caught a metal box mounted on the wall behind Rongo. "Astral!" he muttered. "Looks like the controls to this thing."

"What ... hey, Anakin, you're not going to switch it on are you?" Rongo's brown eyes stared at him in consternation.

"No way — quite the opposite actually." Anakin ran his hands over the metal cover focussing on the hidden workings beneath its surface — circuits, circuit breakers, wire connectors, all it took was a little disruption at the right point and ... "There," he grinned triumphantly. "Annoying how these things short-circuit sometimes for no apparent reason."

Doc threw Rongo a quizzical look which he answered with a shrug.

"Translation?" the big swooper asked Tahiri.

"He's fused the wires. They're probably molten slag now."

"Great. Remind me to shoot him if he comes anywhere near my bike."

"Don't worry," she reassured him. "He likes bikes — it's just conveyor belts he hates." She followed Anakin up on to the chute.

"We go up quietly," he said. "Doc — you bring up the rear."

"Mind if I have Tahiri in front of me?" he grinned.

Anakin's lips twitched. "Good try — but no."

"Damn!" Doc waved the others in front of him, giving Muss an encouraging pat on the shoulder as he clambered up. "You okay, bro'?"

"Bit stiff, but I'll survive."

"You'd better," growled his comrade. "Where would I be without my fall guy."

Muss went to chuckle but thought better of it. Rongo and Tahiri had strapped his wound up as best they could under the circumstances, but the burned flesh was beginning to throb again. He focussed instead on clinging to the sides of the conveyor as he climbed round the first bend.

Silence fell over the group — the only sound being the faint swish of rancor leather and the occasional grunted breath from Muss. By the time Doc had reached the first bend, Anakin and Tahiri were lost from sight in the gathering gloom.

*****

Blue finished his conversation with Anakin just as Taso arrived on his ailing swoop in the company of Bo, a girl about his own age, and a tall Duros whom Doc rather perversely had nicknamed Shorty. Purr and Skell, who'd been waiting to inform Blue about the mysterious person they thought they'd seen on the tower, rushed over to help steady Taso's machine as his two team mates lowered it to the roof. No sooner had Taso dismounted, however, they had to restrain Grunt who was still fuming about the state of his swoop, especially as he'd worked furiously all afternoon to patch it up after his collision with Taso that morning. He was forced to satisfy himself with throwing insults, but Taso was too busy rushing over to Blue to notice. Concerned that something had happened to one of the others, Grunt pulled himself free from his comrades' grip and hurried over in time to hear Taso telling Blue that Tab and Squirt had arrived and were now on their way to find Iliana and Zed.

"What's happened to the protest group?" demanded Blue.

"Apparently the Rancors gave them a good mauling — but Tab reckons they didn't do as much damage as they could have. I couldn't get much more out of her though — she was too worried about Zed."

"Fair enough," nodded Blue. "At least we know she and Squirt are okay." He was having to raise his voice to speak over the approaching engines of the two remaining members of his group. One of them — Pania — was holding a wad of dirty cloth to the side of her head. Judging by the amount of blood on her cheek and neck, Blue guessed the wound had been inflicted by a blade rather than a blaster.

He ran his eye over the assembled group. "We did well guys — but it ain't over yet. And there's been a slight adjustment to the plan, so you'd better listen." He beckoned to the latest arrivals. "Pania — that ear of yours going to be okay?"

"Yeah — just throw me one of your bacta patches. It looks worse than it is."

"Here," said Bo, grabbing the first aid pouch that was strapped behind the seat of Blue's bike. "I'll see to her."

"Thanks." Blue nodded gratefully.

"So what is it, bro'? What do we have to do?" prompted Taso.

Blue had just opened his mouth to reply when Grunt leaped forward pointing at something behind them. The tattooed biker turned, not without a little trepidation, but then felt his worry level descend a few notches.

"Yay!" crowed Pania, almost knocking Bo over as she punched the air triumphantly. "Good old Tab — she's got Zed."

"Can't keep a good woman down," grinned Bo as she regained her balance.

"Okay, okay, we get the message, ladies," said Blue testily. "Although it does look like Squirt might have made a small contribution to the rescue effort. Here, make some room for them." The group moved back from the edge of the roof where they had clustered so that first Tab and then Squirt could land. Zed had collapsed against his girlfriend's back and could only manage a weak smile as Blue and Shorty lifted him down.

"Take him over to that elevator cage," suggested Tab, nodding towards the lift the builders had installed on the street side of the building.

"Good idea," Blue approved, grunting with the effort of carrying the big man. "You can take him down to the next floor."

"No need for all this fuss," Zed mumbled.

"Quit your grizzling, bro'. Look, you've got all you could ask for — nice peaceful evening, room with a view, and Tab's undivided attention. How often do you get a chance like that?"

A rumble that sounded like the beginning of a guffaw faded into a wheeze. Zed gazed up at Blue as they lay him down carefully on the floor of the lift platform. "Damn it," he muttered. "Left the wine at home."

"Take it easy." Blue gave his friend an affectionate pat on the cheek. "Tab'll keep you posted."

"I'm taking the first aid stuff, Blue," said Tab briskly.

"Sure." He pushed the lift controls to send them down to the relative safety of the floor below. That level had been partially closed in and was only open on two sides, so hopefully it would not only provide protection from the Rancors, but also from the chill of encroaching night. Blue was trying not to let the sight of Zed's bloodless countenance rattle him, but it was hard, especially as it was normally his job to provide the medical care. As the lift clicked and shuddered to life he clenched his fists and steeled himself before turning back to the rest of his group.

"Right — smoko over. Back to work for us I'm afraid. Anakin wants us up at that tower. He's certain his friends are there, and he wants that vent thing opened."

"I gather things didn't go too well with Tag," the Duros commented dryly.

"Well," said Blue laconically, "they actually went with a bang, but now the Rancors are involved we have to change the plan slightly."

"Um, Blue." Skell's voice sounded hesitant. "Purr and I think we saw somebody on top of that tower. We tried to tell --"

"Hey!" shouted Grunt. "There is somebody — and they've got a speeder!"

"Hell!" spat Blue. "Skell — quick!" he rushed over to help the little biker with the shoulder launcher. "Wait a minute. What's it doing?" The speeder appeared to be heading toward the tower.

"I don't think that speeder came from the tower," said Purr slowly. "It came from out front somewhere."

Blue squinted across the space between their vantage point and the unidentified vehicle, and counted four heads inside it. His calculations were interrupted by two voices, one telling him the Rancors had just left the loading bay and another screeching from the floor below.

"Blue! Don't fire on that speeder — she's a friend!"

A friend? Puzzled but willing to trust Tab, he told Skell to aim at the Rancors who he assumed would be heading their way. But when he turned round to face them, there was nothing but empty sky.

"What the hell's going on?"

"They headed off round the front," Grunt informed him.

Blue felt his heart miss a beat. "Not good," he groaned, and did a quick inventory of their resources, at the same time watching the speeder as it moved alongside the tower. Could he carry out Anakin's orders as well as commit some of his group to follow the Rancors? They had ten swoops still operational — eleven when Iliana arrived ... which reminded him, where was Iliana? She'd let Tab use her bike — well, actually Skell's bike — to bring Zed back, which left her with Zed's bike which, of course, wasn't really his bike but Tab's. Blue shook his head to try and clear his racing thoughts. If this was leadership, he'd willingly leave it up to people like Rongo and Anakin or basically anyone who could follow more than one line of thought at a time.

He was hovering on the brink of contacting Anakin to at least warn him about the Rancors, as it seemed likely they might have been called in by Tag, when to his surprise a set of figures suddenly popped up like puppets on the roof of the tower. Then a second event made his mouth drop open — another speeder shot up from the plaza side of the warehouse and began filling the gap between it and the larger black and yellow one with coherent streaks of light. The latter immediately banked away from the tower, and the figures on the roof disappeared — presumably they had hit the deck to avoid being shot.

"Okay, Skell!" shouted Blue, suddenly certain about their course of action. "Get that small speeder — the silver one!"

"You got it, bro'," replied the smaller biker between clenched teeth. "Damnit. Keep me steady, Purr." He held his breath and willed his arms to stop trembling as he aimed. Purr's breath warmed his ear, and he was aware that she was supporting the cannon end of the launcher.

"Don't hurry it," she crooned quietly. "Wait your chance."

Skell could feel the perspiration prickling over his scalp. The large speeder was now firing back with the result that his target was looping and diving, and it was almost impossible for him to get a bead on it. He was also scared stiff of accidentally hitting the one Tab claimed was friendly. Why did this stuff always look so simple in the holovids?

Suddenly the small vehicle sailed upwards clear of its opponent, and just for an instant it was poised perfectly in his sights. He squeezed the launch control and the cannon vomitted its energy beam — but missed, eliciting a series of hissed curses from the watching swoopers. Disappointment hit Skell like a cold wave, but Purr's measured tone stopped him succumbing to it.

"You've got another shot, Skell. Don't worry."

"Yeah — but he's moved out of range."

A hand squeezed his free shoulder and he turned to find Blue there. "Stay with him, bro'. I'm going to take Shorty and a couple of the others to find out who's on that tower. For all we know it could be the kid's friends — maybe they've managed to get out somehow. With any luck we'll be able to draw that speeder a bit closer for you, too." "Okay, but don't get too close to him yourselves. I'm not —"

"Look out!" wailed Purr and leaped at Skell and Blue to push them away. Blue stumbled backwards into Shorty so that the two of them thumped down in a heap, but Skell tripped over the spare firing tube and lurched forward — straight into a bolt of coherent light. He heard a strange sizzling sound and felt something that felt like a huge branding iron on his thigh, and then he collapsed, vaguely aware of several voices screaming his name.

Blue's worried face swam into his vision. "You still with us, bro'?" The pain was intense, but he forced his lips to shape the words of his reply, "Kind of." He could hear the sound of blasters nearby above the fading roar of repulsors and assumed his comrades were firing at the speeder.

"Hang in there. We're going to send you down to Tab. Okay?"

Skell tried to nod but he could feel he was losing touch with his body — which he decided wryly might not be such a bad idea.

"Equalizer," he gasped.

"It's okay. Purr's unstrapping it now."

Funny, thought the little biker. I can't feel her doing it.

"He's out," murmured Blue as Skell went limp in his arms.

"He's not going to ... um, die ... is he?" Shorty asked quietly.

"No," said Blue as convincingly as he could. "The shot missed his artery, and, from what I can see, the heat's cauterised part of the wound." He glanced around to locate the speeder and saw Bo helping to position the ion cannon on Purr's shoulders. "Quick, give me a hand and we'll get him on to the lift."

They shuffled over carefully with Skell's unconscious form. Grunt had already pushed the button to retrieve the lift and he glanced up at Blue, his young face contorted with anxiety. Blue considered his options for a moment. Grunt was still looking a little the worse for his collision, plus he no longer had a bike.

"Grunt — I need you to do something for me. Take Skell down to Tab and tell her he needs his wound checked for bleeding and then packed. He's going to need some painkillers as well when he comes to, so I want you to stay down there and keep an eye open. Okay? In case that speeder or the Rancors come back. Tab isn't going to be able to watch out for them and work on Zed and Skell as well."

The youth's face fell, but he nodded and settled beside Skell on the lift platform. Blue breathed a sigh of relief as they disappeared into the shadows of the floor beneath, and he turned to Shorty who was busy checking the power pack on his rifle.

"Take Skell's bike — it's got a CVI mounted to it. Between you, me and Chukka that's three of the little beasties — and it's easier than having to handle a rifle."

Shorty nodded curtly and strode over to where Tab had landed Skell's bike. Chukka — a Bothan — and Bo were mounted and ready, waiting with ill-concealed impatience as the Duros fired up his repulsors.

"Keep an eye on that speeder!" bellowed Blue to the three of them as they roared off ahead of him. He drifted his swoop over to Purr and Hami who were tracking their target as it chased the larger speeder around the silo. "We're supposed to knock out that security fence — but I don't want to waste shots on it until we sort out that speeder. So I guess what I'm saying is make that next shot count ... if you can." "Don't worry," gritted Purr, her eyes mere slits as she focussed on her prey. "The next one's for Skell."

"Yeah," Hami agreed. "Take care bro'."

Blue threw them a semi-salute and then hit the thrusters, wondering what awaited them on top of the tower.

*****

"Looks like you were right about there being women up here!" gasped Vilco as Dajira banked the speeder up to the level of the tall tower that rose halfway along the side of the warehouse. "Although if I hadn't seen it with my own eyes, I wouldn't have believed it."

Dajira stared straight in front of her, wanting to be able to explain the rationale behind her step-father's behaviour but knowing that was no longer possible. Up until a day ago, it had all made perfect sense. That was before she met the Jedi. Before she realised that her life up until that point had been a lie.

She concentrated instead on her approach to the tower, making sure she stayed well clear of the security fence.

"Actually," continued Vilco, his voice still registering surprise — although more the perplexed variety, "I don't know that I do believe it. Those poor women — they must be freezing. And that little boy."

"One of them's got a baby," added the younger of the two protestors who had chosen to come with them. "What the hell's happened to their clothes? What kind of monster would make them sit up there when they're only half-dressed?"

Again Dajira felt the words like a blow, but she blinked quickly to force the tears of shame back behind her lashes. She could tell by the way the women were forming a tight group around the children that they thought she and her friends were hostile. She waved vigorously, and was almost within hailing distance when the roar of an engine behind her almost brought her heart to a standstill.

Stifling a curse she swung the vehicle away from the tower. Instinct told her the interloper would be unfriendly and also that it would probably fire on her, in which case she needed to get away from the women to prevent them falling victim to stray shots. At least this time she had three armed passengers to fight back. Thank goodness they had taken the time to stop and grab some of the weapons dropped by the casualties in the plaza.

A shot grazed across the front windshield of her speeder and melted a channel through the transparisteel, distorting her forward vision. Angrily she smashed at the metal struts holding the shield in place with the butt of her blaster in an effort to get rid of it, but another streak of light caught the weapon, instantaneously heating it. Dajira dropped it quickly, crying out with pain from the burn it inflicted.

"I'm okay!" she shouted back to Vilco's desperate query. "But I can't see properly!" She slipped the speeder up on its port-side repulsors to keep track of her surroundings while Vilco and the others maintained a steady barrage of fire. Several of their shots splashed against the silvery metal scorching it black, and the driver took evasive action, shooting skywards. Something tunnelled through the air, missing the speeder by a mere whisper, and encased an old dust extractor unit on the roof of the building behind it with blue lightning. Nevertheless the driver took the vehicle away in a wide loop, allowing Dajira and Vilco the time to wrestle the damaged windscreen off its connectors.

"Blooming heck! What was that?" the older protestor gasped.

"Dunno," said Vilco. "But whatever it is don't worry. Those swoopers are friendly."

"You sure?" The man peered through the gloom between them and the building site.

"Yeah — he's right," affirmed the other. "They're the guys who ... oh lordy!"

They watched helplessly as the silver speeder levelled out of its curve and bore down on the swoopers, filling the rapidly closing gap between it and them with crimson dashes.

"Okay — you are right," his friend agreed grimly. "Give me that long rifle, Rance."

"A few of them are down," groaned Vilco. "Dajira, not that I'm trying to tell you what to do or anything, but I think we're going to have to draw that blasted thing away."

"Don't worry," she said trying to force the words out above the lump constricting her throat. She vectored towards the speeder along a tangent that she hoped would bring them briefly within firing distance, confident that this would induce their antagonist to follow them. She could see a few of the swoopers fiddling with what she assumed was the long-range weapon they had used a minute ago, which hopefully meant it was still operational. If she could just keep the speeder within range of the roof but clear of the women, they all might stand a chance.

"You're doing well." A long-fingered hand touched her shoulder.

"I wish I did know what I was doing," she muttered assuming he wouldn't hear above the whine of blaster fire.

"You're doing what's right," the little Rodian retorted quietly. "That's why it's hard."

Dajira blinked again, this time to fight the stinging caused by their speed through the cold air. She aimed them towards what looked like a large silo in the hope of using the thing as a temporary shield, and began side-slipping up on the repulsors to present a difficult target. As they swung to port she had a temporary glimpse of a body in dark swooper gear sprawled on the ground below. She also registered that there was no vehicle nearby, but any further observation of such details was halted by a shout from Rance.

"Some of those swoopers are heading over to the tower!"

"Good for them," yelled Vilco between shots. "Keep these guys busy and out of the way."

Dajira grappled with the problem of piloting the speeder in grim silence. For the moment she wanted to keep the other vehicle pointing away from the warehouse,to give the swoopers time to rescue the women. She headed off over the rooftops trying to keep close enough to their pursuer to maintain his interest, and yet far enough away to limit the accuracy of his shots — at the same time reminding herself about the temperamental thrusters. The act of concentration furrowed her brow, and time ceased to exist as she scrawled a pattern of swerves and wobbles on the darkening parchment of the sky — a message of both desperation and steely courage, punctuated by fiery hyphens of blaster fire.



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