Many Happy Returns: Chapter Thirty-Three
Iella

Jassif peeked quickly over the edge of the roof and felt her hammering pulse miss a beat. "Tendra," she whispered hoarsely, "those people on the building are coming over."

"So they are." The dark-haired woman sat up and, casting a cautious glance in the direction of the speeders, studied the approaching swoops curiously. It was difficult to be sure who was on whose side in all the confusion, but her instinct told her that the big speeder was friendly, and that the bikers had been trying to use their Equalizer to hit the little speeder which probably belonged to Tag. She decided to go with that and hauled herself to her feet — the chill of early night catching in her throat and sending shivers over her skin. She felt a little guilty because she was the only one still wearing a skirt, the women having relinquished theirs to make the escape rope. Goodness knows how cold they would be feeling. "Stay down — I'll talk to them. I think they're okay."

"Well, as far as I can see, they're not firing weapons at us," said Neijal acidly, although Tendra could tell it was a mask for both fear and anger. "So in my book that makes them definitely okay." The woman eased herself into a sitting position and, like Tendra, studied the front rider who was now only a few a bike-lengths away from the edge of the roof. Kushka nestled against her, and she placed her arm firmly around him.

Tendra wondered what effect this terrible ordeal would have on the little boy — assuming they survived. She also wondered if the Mantrusian women were going through the same inner torment as her — one minute so full of hatred for Tag that they would willingly shoot him without compulsion, and the next guilt-stricken for thinking that way. But it was the feeling of powerlessness that affected her the most. Not only was Tag against them, but it felt like the universe as a whole had forgotten them. Balmorra had seemed like such a pleasant place when they first arrived with its quiet lifestyle and conservative use of technology. But now that lackadaisical charm had turned around to bite them, and the locals' tendency to favour ground vehicles rather than air transport had left them undisturbed and unnoticed on their high tower.

Tendra gazed as calmly as she could at the man on the bike, noting his shaven head and what looked like either a huge birthmark or a tattoo — it was hard to tell which in the dying light. He stared back and for a moment appeared to be lost for words as his mouth opened and closed like a stunned mudfish. Suddenly aware of what they must look like, Tendra folded her arms over the front of her blouse to prevent it gaping where the buttons had torn when she was using it to carry Ruba.

"Er, hi!" he stammered at last. "Um, we're the Black Knights and we're here to rescue you."

"You're who?" It was hard to hear above the grumble of idling engines. "The Black Knights," he repeated a little louder. "We're here with Anakin and Tahiri."

"Anakin and Tahiri! Where are they?" Tendra rushed towards him as the man and his three friends guided their bikes on to the roof.

"They're down in the building — looking for you. It's a long story and I don't think we have time to explain right now." He waved an arm towards the two speeders dodging in and out behind the roofs — both were now noticeably closer than they had been a minute ago. "We need to get you to safety." He turned to the woman behind him. "Bo — you take the one with the baby, and Chukka — you take the little kid."

"Great," muttered the Bothan sourly. "I just love little kids."

"Ignore him," grinned the swooper sheepishly. "He's just a big Ewok at heart. Come on guys, hurry it along."

"It's all right, Kushka," said Neijal patting the little boy on the shoulders. "And look — you get a ride on a swoop."

"But, Mummy." Kushka's little face was screwed up with concern. "You don't like being up high."

"I'll be okay. I'll keep my eyes closed. I promise."

He studied her for an instant and it suddenly occurred to Tendra that he was worried his mother might refuse to leave the roof.

"Will you take Neijal?" she asked the tattooed biker.

"Sure. Here." He slipped forward in his seat and took the red-haired woman by the arm. For a moment Tendra saw her resist, but then she appeared to steady herself and climbed up behind him, visibly trembling. "Don't worry," he said jauntily, "I'm by far the best driver. You got lucky."

"Just keep looking at the bike ahead, Neijal," urged Tendra as she helped Kushka up so he was sitting in front of the Bothan. She looked up at the biker's furred face. "Please — hold on to him. He's been through a lot."

His surly expression didn't alter but he wrapped one arm around the little boy, and when he spoke his voice had lost its sarcasm. "Don't worry, lady. He'll be all right." He turned to the leader as his bike lifted off away from the roof. "See you there, Blue."

"Come on, lady. They're on their way back. Get your ass up here!" shouted the fourth biker — a Duros, Tendra noted. She hurriedly clambered on to the seat and had barely managed to grip her arms around the swooper's waist when he hit the repulsors. The one called Blue had held back, waiting until she was safely on board, and he fell in behind them as they rocketed over to the building site.

Tendra hazarded a quick glance behind her and saw the speeders locked in their deadly game of chase. She went to look away but just then the big one tipped awkwardly to the side and dropped away, spinning slowly as it fell. The groan of dismay froze on her lips, however. The night sky was suddenly rent by a stream of phosphorescence that snaked its way straight to the smaller speeder and bathed its surface with a scintillating light display. If it hadn't meant death to those on board it would have been beautiful.

The Duros grounded his swoop beside the one carrying Jassif and joined the cheering, waving his long arms jubilantly above his head.

"Way to go, Purr," some of them were shouting, and one of the younger men had grabbed her in an embrace and was leaping round with her in a frenzied circle.

Tendra moved up beside Blue who she could see was peering into the greyness listening intently. "Damn," he muttered. "Whoever was in that big speeder — I think we've lost them."

"There was a woman — a Twi'lek," said Tendra. "And a Rodian and a couple —"

"A Rodian?" Blue swung round to stare at her, and his face fell. "Oh no. That was probably Vilco."

"I'm sorry," murmured Tendra helplessly. Even though the name meant nothing to her she knew what it was like to lose friends.

"What's up, bro'?" Bo had noticed Blue's stricken expression and patted him on the shoulder.

"It's Vilco — I think ..." He stopped, frowning.

"You —"

"Shhhh!" Blue held his hand up for silence.

Gradually Tendra heard it, too — the distant growl of repulsors.

"Must have been a ruse," gasped Blue with admiration. He turned to Tendra grinning from ear to ear. "They faked it — they didn't get hit at all. They just faked it to give us a clear shot." He waved both fists in the air and let out a whoop, which was echoed by others as the black and yellow speeder crested the building opposite and drifted in to land at the edge of the platform.

The swoopers rushed to meet it, shouting congratulations to the passengers and thumping each other enthusiastically on the back.

"Are you alright?" Tendra asked Neijal who was kneeling near the swoops in a tight embrace with Jassif and Kushka.

The woman looked up, her pale face strangely peaceful. "We're just giving thanks, Tendra," she explained quietly. "For you and these bike people."

"Oh," said Tendra, a little taken aback. She wanted to warn them that they weren't out of the woods yet, but it occurred to her that that would have been churlish. In a strange way, too, the women's earnest beliefs touched her. She nodded and hurried over to the young Twi'lek woman who was clambering out of the big speeder, intending to thank her profusely for what she and her friends had done. To her surprise she saw that the two humans were supporting another swooper, a rather beautiful one, too, despite the blood matting her hair and staining her forehead.

"Iliana!" she heard the leader saying.

"Dajira saw her in the yard down by the big silo," explained Vilco.

"What the hell happened?" Blue jumped in and took her in his arms, and she collapsed against him sobbing.

"I don't know," the woman gasped. "I was trying to get Zed's bike to start when something hit me from behind, and when I came to, the bike was gone."

Tendra caught a momentary change in Blue's expression — a hardening of his features as if his face had suddenly been turned into stone. And when he spoke his voice sounded tight.

"Never mind. The main thing is you're okay — sort of. Can you get out of this thing?"

The woman nodded and let Blue and the younger of the two men in the speeder help her climb down.

Blue turned to the Twi'lek. "I gotta say — that was one sneaky move. You can play on my team any time you like."

"To be perfectly honest," the young woman replied shaking her lekku seriously. "That was pure desperation. If I'd known what I was doing I probably wouldn't have done it."

"I'd like to add my thanks, too," said Tendra warmly. "And to you people." She smiled round at the assorted faces and moved over to make room for Neijal and Jassif to join them.

"We, too, wish to thank you," they murmured.

"Well," said Blue. "I hate to put an end to this adulation — well-earned and welcome though it is — but I get the impression we've still got a bit to do." He folded his arms and studied Tendra. "I'm guessing you're ... Tendra? Am I right?"

Tendra nodded. "I'd love to know how you got involved with this but I have a feeling it could turn into a complicated explanation."

"Understatement of the year," he snorted in conjunction with some stifled chuckles from the other swoopers. "Suffice to say — we were under orders from Anakin to try and break into the tower to rescue you and someone called Lando." He stopped, suddenly uncertain, as if an unpleasant thought had struck him. "Um, he's not ... er ... I mean, he is ..."

"It's okay," said Tendra realising what he was thinking. "He and the others are still in that tower room. We tried to escape — but as you see, it wasn't completely successful. Hence the lack of clothes, in case you were wondering."

"Tag took some of your clothes as a punishment?" gasped Bo.

"The creep," muttered Purr. "Here." She peeled off her jacket and wrapped it round Jassif's shoulders and, to Neijal's surprise the Bothan followed suit and offered his to her.

"Pitiful flesh," he muttered disdainfully. "Grow fur like Purr and me and you wouldn't have these problems."

The two women stared at each other and at Tendra uncertainly.

Blue rolled his eyes. "As I said — heart of an Ewok" He handed his jacket to Tendra.

"Well actually," she corrected. "We used the clothes to make a rope. But Tag purposely left us up on the roof as a punishment for trying to escape so I guess it's all the same." She paused as the little Rodian stepped towards her, his face hopeful.

"Were there any other prisoners?" he asked tremulously.

"Yes. Two men called Vehn and Qorl," she replied.

The creature's horns sagged — although whether with relief or sadness Tendra wasn't sure. "So he has got them."

"They're with Lando," she confirmed with more assuredness than she felt. In reality she didn't know if Tag had returned Vehn to the tower or not, although it seemed likely that he had.

"Well that settles it," said Blue. "We're definitely going for the tower, but not all of us." He gazed across at Iliana. "We think Tag's called the Rancors inside."

"I'm going in too then," she said stubbornly.

Blue nodded ruefully. "I thought you'd say that. But before anyone does anything we're going to take a few minutes and sort this out properly. Purr — take Iliana down to Tab and get her fixed up. I also want you people," he waved a hand to indicate Tendra and the two Mantrusian women, "down there too. It'll be warmer and safer."

"We'll see to Iliana," said Neijal. "We're healers."

Blue's eyes opened wide. "Healers? You're kidding?" He searched Tendra's face for confirmation, and she nodded.

"We've got two badly injured men down on the next level. Please — see what you can do. Purr?"

"I'm hurrying, I'm hurrying," grumbled the Trianii as she led Iliana and the women away. Tendra didn't move.

"You're not related to Tahiri are you?" asked Blue wryly.

In spite of the circumstances, Tendra smiled and shook her head. "I'm not injured and I want to help. That's my husband in the tower remember."

Blue nodded and sighed. And that's my friend down in that warehouse somewhere,he thought. The one who's never given up on me even though I've given up on myself a few times.

He had fathomed out long ago that Rongo wasn't one of those flamboyant leaders who threw their weight around and made a lot of noise. He was more the sort that made people want to follow him because it just seemed the right thing to do. He and the kid have a lot in common. They kind of inspire people — make them start thinking beyond themselves. Maybe that's why Rongo likes him so much. Of one thing Blue was suddenly very certain — he would do whatever it took to repay Rongo for what he'd done for him and, most of all, for his unrelenting, unconditional friendship.

He turned and caught Tendra's brown eyes gazing at him shrewdly. "Friends are priceless," he said cryptically, and seemed about to add something else but then stopped.

"You're worried about something aren't you?"

Blue hesitated and stared grimly across at the warehouse. "I've been trying to raise Anakin and Rongo to warn them about the Rancors, but they're not replying. I got two clicks the first time — but I've tried twice since then and ... nothing."

Tendra shook her head. "I can see you've never had any dealings with the Solos before."

Blue's expression, still worried, took on a tinge of curiosity. "You reckon they're okay?"

"Okay in your terms? Probably not. In Anakin and Tahiri's terms — they're probably just about warmed up."

"So what you're saying is — I need to get my ass down there in case I miss the good bit?"

"I think we're beginning to understand one another."

Blue nodded. "I gather you're going to be helping out at the tower?" He caught Shorty's eye and pantomimed to him to call everyone over.

"Definitely," replied Tendra. "I can ride and shoot — and I'm not afraid of big bangs."

Blue chuckled, mainly at the image of Doc's reaction to such a statement. He studied the expectant faces and finalised the last few details of the plan he'd been cobbling together in his head as he spoke to Tendra. Then he took a deep breath. "Okay guys," he said quietly. "Here's what we're going to do."

*****

Tag finished ordering the Rancors round to the loading bay, and was about to return to his office when he heard groans and clawing sounds coming from the stairwell. He peered down into the smoke and gloom, and almost jumped out of his skin as the tremulous voice of his accountant suddenly warbled behind him querying what he was doing. Before he could turn and explain, however, he saw a shape crawl into view, followed slowly and painfully by three more. Kasen gasped and followed Tag as he plunged down to help the men up the final few stairs.

"What happened?" demanded Tag, fixing the least injured looking one with an accusing glare.

"Smoke grenades," he managed to choke out. "Knocked us out before we could get them with the tranquil—" His voice dissolved into hacking coughs for a moment before he regained control. "Then they let off some kind of bomb. I was out of range, and I thought they'd got everyone — but then I found these guys had managed to crawl out to the stairs."

One of the others took a rasping breath. "I'd been knocked out in the fight. When I came to I thought everyone else was dead."

"Same here," groaned another weakly.

"We didn't stand a chance, boss," mumbled the first man, nervously noting the purplish tinge expanding over Tag's features. "They were too organised."

"So were you, damnit!" shouted Tag. "You pack of useless —" He stopped and clenched his fists. "Well — we'll just have to reorganise you won't we." He turned to Kasen. "Take them to your office and fix them up. I want that tower double defended because it's obvious that's where the Jedi are headed."

"But, Bomar," stammered the smaller man. "You don't have enough men left."

"Don't I?" Tag's pudgy lips peeled back in a mockery of a grin. "I think you're forgetting something." He waved his comlink at them and clicked it on. "Now we'll see who's worth the money I'm paying them. Slash? Are you there?"

"They ain't out here," came the reply. "Doors are still shut, although there's a bit of smoke coming out from under 'em."

"I know. I'm sending a man down to open them. Wait there." He gazed across at the injured men. "Did you see which way they went?"

The first arrival lapsed into another coughing fit, and Tag tapped his foot impatiently while he waited for him to recover. "They must be going up the conveyor," the man managed to rasp eventually. "They can't get up the other stairwell."

"Why not?" demanded Tag.

"The grenade collapsed the bottom of it."

Tag went to talk into his comlink again but the man waved his hands frantically to indicate he wanted to talk again, although they had to wait for him to catch his breath.

"Won't be able to open doors," he croaked. "Controls got blasted."

Tag's already livid complexion darkened, but he gritted his teeth. "Change of plan, Slash. Take your people round to the front and come in through there, and then go through the corridor to the bay. You'll find the Jedi and their friends on the loading conveyor."

"This is going to cost extra, Tag," growled the swooper.

"We'll see. I seem to recall you being a little upset earlier at not being allowed inside. Isn't this what you wanted?" He heard some background grumbling as of voices in hasty conversation and then a high-pitched laugh.

"Okay, Tag. But we still expect a bonus."

"Remember I want those Jedi in one piece," he shouted before the sound of engines drowned him out. You have to prove yourselves trustworthy first, he muttered, and turned to catch Kasen staring at him uncertainly. "I thought I told you to take them to your office."

"I will," he said hastily, and pointed to two of the men who were now lying on the floor, "but I'm going to need a hand."

"Vaping meteors — do I have to do everything ..." Tag threw his hands up in frustration and headed back up the corridor towards the main landing. "Okay — I'll ask Delone to put some of his useless idiots to work." I suppose I can trust them to do a simple job like that, although I'd prefer to have them where I can keep an eye on them.

It still rankled that the Peace Brigade had changed the terms of their agreement, and he mulled it over as he hurried back to his office. He decided that the best plan for dealing with Delone and his cronies was to send a few of them down to help Talley with the women, and use the others, after they'd given Kasen a hand, to bolster the group guarding the way up to the tower. As the Rancors appeared to have some sort of primitive vendetta against the other swoopers, they'd probably have accounted for a good part of the group by then anyway.

By the time he reached the door of his office he had it all worked out. The women would be too cold and weak to put up much resistance, so it would only need two of the Brigaders to take them away in the ground utility to their ship. He still had two life-support gurneys upstairs which he'd intended for Calrissian and Vehn, having placed the two for the Jedi ready by the doors to the loading bay on the assumption that the tranquilizer guns would do their job. It sounded likely that those gurneys might have been damaged in the explosion, so they'd just have to knock Lando and Vehn out and transport them straight away to Delone's ship. That would mean they could use the gurneys for the two Jedi.

He began to smile — in a few hours they could have their cargo ready to go. But then something he hadn't considered made him thump his forehead in frustration. What was he going to do about Gassanta? Who would look after her for him while he was away?

His hand faltered as he reached for the door to his office. Damn that stupid girl! How could she do this. After all I've done for her. Then amidst the clouds of hurt he saw a ray of light, and he gave the door a shove. Kasen. He'll look after Gassanta for me. Now to give these Brigaders their orders.

The door swung open on an empty room.

Tag stepped back out and glanced into Kasen's office and then checked up and down the corridor. "Where in Sith's name have they gone?"

He rushed over to the window in the hope that Talley and his man might have arrived out front with a few of the women, and that maybe the Brigaders had gone down to help on their own volition; but all he could see was Slash and his friends dismounting and racing over towards the entrance. The sounds of boots echoed up the front stairs, and then an eerie silence fell. Uncertain for a moment as to what to do, Tag began to turn back towards the door — but halfway there he stopped. He stared back at the pair of soft grey eyes regarding him from the holopic, and then at the gentle face framed by its halo of curly brown tresses.

A travesty. A waste of a life. The pain and resentment forever simmering below the surface threatened to break through. How many years had he waited to redress the balance?

His eyes slipped away from the face to the background, to the garden lush and green with its canopy of trees burgeoning with fresh berry fruit. Although the holo showed only a small portion of the scene, he could still remember every detail as if had just returned from a visit. But that would be impossible. The garden and the woman disappeared years ago, destroyed ... decimated ... and all because of the Jedi. The stinking, self-serving Jedi and their snivelling hangers-on.

"Healers!" Tag was vaguely aware he had begun voicing his hatred, but he didn't care. They were all tarred with the same brush — healers, Jedi, all those groups that huddled together mewling behind their pathetic mystical labels. They were all charlatans and cowards. All their vaunted empathy and concern for life was a load of bantha fodder. It was nothing but a ruse designed to screen their real agenda, which was to look after themselves. Well he wasn't fooled, not like his poor mother had been. She who had never harmed anyone in her life, who had trusted implicitly in the words of those liars.

In his mind's eye he could see beyond the garden down the road to the house belonging to the healers. He couldn't remember where they were from, only that they'd come to the village not long after Palpatine took control of the Republic. Images flashed past — fragmented nightmare images cued like scenes from a horror vid ... the Headhunter crashing in the woods at the edge of the village; the men clearing the fallen trees and hiding the vessel, and him listening wide-eyed as they told him about what the Empire was doing to the Jedi Order. The rumours about the two outcasts staying in the village and not moving on as many thought they should — and his mother's face as she explained how good and brave the healers were for allowing the Jedi to stay with them ... the stormtroopers arriving ... the village in ruins ... the smoking bodies in the street ... his mother ...

"Good and brave!" He spat. "Good and brave to let stormtroopers ravage the village until they found their prey. Good and brave to let people who had never harmed anyone in their life die so ..." the words faded as he choked. So horribly. So painfully. So unnecessarily.

Well he had learned a valuable lesson that day: trust nobody, and look after your own. Nobody would ever harm anyone he loved again. Never.

And they won't. He was going to ensure the galaxy stayed safe for Gassanta, for his friends and for their families. He was doing this for her, too — the one whose name he could no longer bring himself to speak. Although there again it appeared as if she, too, was a victim of the Jedi and their mind tricks. It was the only explanation he could think of that would explain her behaviour.

Well — that was alright. Soon she would see the light and realise he'd been right all along. Or she could die with her deceivers and rot with them. Her choice, her problem. Right now, he had a job to do.

He uncurled his palms and regarded the indentations left by his fingernails. It occurred to him that the pattern looked like the drive belt on the old village mill wheel as it ground day and night slowly, inexorably — turning the coarse, raw grain into fine powder. Like the mills of the gods. Hear their call, o ye who have ears.

Too trusting!

Tag started and blinked himself back to the present and his surroundings — the empty room.

"What's Delone up to? Trying to steal my glory no doubt." He lurched back out into the corridor just as Kasen staggered into view supporting one of his injured workers.

"I'm going to go and find Delone," said Tag testily. "Then I want you to prepare those life support gurneys. Okay?"

The little man nodded, the effort of dragging the much larger man rendering him breathless. Tag had just opened the door through into his large upper level storeroom when the unearthly silence exploded into frenzied shouts and whistling echoes of blaster fire. He turned back to Kasen and his malevolent mask was split by a toothy grin.

"The mills of the gods," he beamed, and then the door swung closed, muffling the shrieks of both human and humanoid.

*****

"Which way now?" whispered Rongo as he slid off the conveyor and ducked down with Anakin and Tahiri beneath the supports.

"Just trying to get our bearings," replied Anakin quietly. Their progress up the loading belt had been slow, due partly to the slippery nature of the metal surface and partly because they had to stop for a while to let Doc readjust the strapping on Muss's wound. "I think the tower is over that way." He nodded towards his right. "But the only exit — as far as I can see anyway — is to the left, over there."

Rongo peered through the gloom and scanned the walls of the large room with its tiers of storage shelves. It was hard to tell if the shadowy spaces between them harboured exits or not. "I'll check," he murmured, tapping Chopper on the shoulder and beckoning to him to follow.

"Can you still sense the Yuuzhan Vong?" mouthed Tahiri, making room for Tria and Treetrunk.

Anakin nodded. "Can't get a fix on them though because they seem to be moving around."

Tahiri closed her eyes and he could see her frown of concentration. "There are people nearby, but not many."

"I get the impression we wiped most of Tag's resources out downstairs."

The light on his comlink flickered and he clicked twice — the signal they'd agreed on beforehand for acknowledging they were safe but needed to observe silence. It would have been nice to think that it was Blue contacting him to say that they'd broken into the tower and that Lando and Tendra were safe, but he knew better than to count on such uncomplicated good fortune. He also resisted the temptation to reach out with the Force and see if he could locate his friends. Experience had taught him to hold himself close in situations such as this to avoid distractions and thereby stay focussed on the task in hand. For the moment he would just have to trust that Blue and his group would do everything they could to carry out their part in the rescue. Between their efforts and those of his own group, he was confident that they would succeed. He just hoped that that they could do it without loss. Which brought his thoughts back to the injured member of their group.

He glanced up in time to see Squid's legs dangling down from the top of the conveyor chute, but instead of joining them the Tunroth waited, gazing back down into the darkness.

Anakin threw Tahiri a quizzical look.

"She's waiting for Muss," explained Tahiri, and her face softened. "I think they're kind of close — you know."

"Oh?"

She studied his confused expression, and sighed. "I mean they like each other."

"Oh." He gazed around in order to locate Rongo. "I hadn't noticed."

She was still rolling her eyes when he turned back to her.

"What?"

"You are a big dumb gundark. But it's okay — I like gundarks."

"I —" He stopped as if snap frozen.

Tahiri had heard it, too. He could tell by the way her green eyes narrowed. Well, maybe not so much heard it as smelt it — a faint echo followed by a waft of smoke-laden air up the conveyor. Somewhere down below them someone had opened a door.

A gasp punctuated by a slithering sound announced Muss's arrival, closely followed by Doc. The big man was just placing his feet on the ground when Rongo and Chopper reappeared.

"Nope, you're right," Rongo affirmed in a low voice. "That's the only door and it leads to a corridor that looks as if it runs round the perimeter of this level."

"Okay," said Anakin as quietly as he could. "Here's the situation. Somebody's down below — my guess is it's the Rancors, which probably means Tag has had to call them in because he doesn't have too many helpers left up here. I can't tell where the Vong are — although I am getting the impression there aren't too many of them. Even so — it means we're running the risk of getting sandwiched in between two groups, and that's not going to make it any easier."

"You're suggesting we split up?" prompted Rongo.

"Makes sense," agreed Doc pragmatically.

"Unfortunately it does — although I was trying to avoid it." Anakin chewed his lip as his mind raced ahead, comparing scenarios, discarding, selecting. The longer they stayed where they were, the more chance they had of being forced to fight on two fronts. So if they did separate, who stood the most chance against the Yuuzhan Vong if they did have to face them?

"I'll stay here," said Muss as if he had divined Anakin's thoughts. "Just give me some of those cluster grenades."

"Me too." Squid stepped over to stand beside him and was just holding her hands out to take the requested supplies from Doc when the distant clink of metal on metal rang up the chute.

"They're coming," mouthed Tahiri.

"Count me in, too," growled Tria grabbing a shiny E-15A from her bandolier. "You guys get going. We'll see to this."

"Wait a minute — I have an idea." Anakin had been gazing at the contents of the nearby shelves, and he suddenly darted over to a pile of small cartons and pulled one out. "Yeah!" His voice filtered back to them, faint but triumphant. "Astral!"

"Don't tell me — you found an E-Web," quipped Doc.

"Better than that." He hoisted the box and carried it over, placing it at Muss's feet. "What we need is a bit of deception. The more noise Tag hears, the more likely it is he'll think we're all here rather than heading to the tower."

Rongo bent down to read the label. "Beads?" He threw Anakin a perplexed look.

"I get it," nodded Treetrunk. "He's going to use the old dress to kill maneuver."

"Insulation beads," corrected Anakin. "Remember those classroom physics experiments where you had to use plasticil beads to negate friction?"

"Ah, school!" murmured Doc fondly. "I wish I'd gone."

Muss snorted as much at the jaundiced look Anakin was throwing Doc as at the joke. "It's okay, kid. I'm with you. You want us to keep them down there, sliding around and hollering for as long as we can."

"Yeah. But don't try and hold out indefinitely. Cut and run if you have to." Anakin had pulled out his blaster, and was already on his way to join Tahiri, Chopper and Doc at the door.

"I noticed quite a few doors off the corridor," added Rongo. "There must be several store rooms up here. Plenty of space to hide if you have to."

"Didn't come here to hide," growled Muss.

"Don't worry, bro'." Squid had clambered back up on to the conveyor chute, and she nodded down at Rongo. "We'll make sure he does as he's told."

"Bossy women," Muss grumbled, and bent stiffly to heft the box on to the conveyor.

"Just take it easy," said Rongo stopping to pat him on the shoulder. "No heroics. Remember we all want to be able to celebrate together when this is over."

Muss grinned. "Well you know me, bro' — the original party boy. Now let's get these dumbasses dancing." He began to pull open the seal on the carton while Tria crawled carefully back along the belt to the point where it began to descend to the lower level.

By the time Rongo reached the exit, Anakin was already approaching the first shadowy doorway further up the corridor. He appeared to listen for a moment and then glanced back and beckoned to the others to keep following. Rongo closed the door quietly and joined the end of the line, blinking a few times to make his eyes adjust to the deepening gloom.

It was hard to tell exactly how long in time the silence lasted — but distance-wise it lasted until they rounded the first bend. At that point the air suddenly filled with angry roars and bellows and the unmistakable hiss of blasters.



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