Many Happy Returns: Chapter Thirty-Four
Iella

Jaytee was fuming by the time he reached the plaza, although his mood lifted a little when he saw the swoop bikes clustered at the front entrance of the warehouse. Zed's bike, which he'd stolen from Iliana, had given up the ghost several blocks away and he'd been forced to jog, with the result that he was now sweating like a Gamorrean. Not only that but his bones ached from the rattling they'd received in his fight with Blue, and his head was pounding. The only positive aspect about that was that he knew he wasn't the only one who was suffering. Iliana, when she came round, would doubtless fare a lot worse as far as splitting headaches went. Maybe she was already finding that out.

It was fortunate in some ways that Zed's swoop — well, in reality Tab's swoop as the two had swapped — had been a little the worse for wear. If Iliana hadn't been having such trouble restarting it, she probably would have heard him sneaking up on her with the piece of metal piping he'd managed to pull from the dilapidated wall of the grain store. And at least she'd managed to reconnect the clip holding the motivator wiring in place. All he'd had to do was prime it and set out to join Slash and the others at the loading bay.

At that point he'd felt a certain vicious pleasure at the prospect of being able to meet Slash's challenge to prove his worth. If the brawny biker thought he was some sort of turncoat, he was in for a surprise. He'd show them; he'd show them all.

When he'd reached the street at the back of the warehouse, however, he'd been a little unnerved to find it deserted. In fact, except for a throaty rumbling that might have been speeder engines somewhere above him, he could easily have imagined that he was the only living soul in the city — but he decided that was being too fanciful. It was more likely that he was temporarily half deaf thanks to the frenzied fight he'd been involved in not so long before. Uncertain as to what to do, he had set out initially towards the Rancors' compound, but then a sudden instinct had made him turn back to the plaza at the front of the warehouse.

It was at that point that the bike had spluttered and died, and his transport options had suddenly reduced to one. Cursing loudly about the ringing in his ears, the pounding in his skull and the fickle perversity of the universe as a whole, he had taken his frustration out on the deceased swoop. Then, still grumbling to himself, he had set out again, eventually entering the plaza from a side street.

He peered around, searching the shadows hopefully for signs of activity, but it was ominously still and silent, although as he skirted the perimeter he could make out the shapes of several crashed swoops and a few lumps that might have been bodies. Irritated at the feeling that the whole thing might be over before he had a chance to deal out some punishment, he raced up the steps to the door to the warehouse, but was halted by a sudden thought. Were the bodies outside Black Knights or Rancors? Was one of them Tab's? He remembered that Rongo had selected her to lead the group supporting the protestors.

He shook away the annoying desire to go and check, reminding himself that the Black Knights were past history — they were nothing more than a stupid mistake. He was a Rancor now. He even had a new name ...

But even so Tab had always been relatively nice to him ... almost motherly in a rough sort of way.

Aw, get a grip! He pressed his hands to his eyes, growling angrily. So what if she was hurt; she was still one of them. He pushed the door open and was about to take a step when another thought needled into his mind with the piercing intensity of a jolt to an exposed nerve.

What if she was dead?

He wasn't sure how long he stood frozen to the spot, but all of a sudden, from somewhere behind him, the silence was rent by the screaming ricochet of blaster fire. Thrusting away the annoying indecision, he gripped the blaster he'd stolen from Iliana and ran towards the source of the noise.

Once through into the central section of the building, he had to work his way past the collapsed lower portion of a stairway by taking a detour through the workers' common room, and re-entering the corridor at the base of a second stairwell. He could tell he was nearing the fight by the smell of ozone laced with the acrid taste of smoke and dust, but his anticipation to be involved didn't prepare him for the image that met him as he peeked surreptitiously into the loading bay. A pair of eyes staring sightlessly into a realm that appeared to be offering little solace judging by the rictus of horrified astonishment on the face. Jaytee quickly averted his gaze and hurried towards the ground truck straddling a ruined hatchway. Clambering over the rubble between the vehicle and the remains of the wall, he barely avoided cannoning into Bender who was using the front of the truck as a support for the repeater rifle he was wielding.

"Well, well!" the blonde swooper roared above the persistent stutter of his weapon. "If it ain't my old buddy, Sithspit. Looks like you arrived just in time for some more fun."

Jaytee stared around the spacious room wildly, but as far as he could see Bender was the only one there. Then he looked up and realised what was going on. The Rancors were obviously pursuing the Black Knights up the long spiralling conveyor belt, and, by the sounds of it, were now under fire. A shriek and some furious curses confirmed this analysis of the situation, and without really thinking about what he was doing, except that he wanted Slash to know he was there, he scrambled up on to the metal chute and began crawling up into the darkness. He'd almost caught up with the lattermost member of the gang when he heard a voice he thought he recognised as Tria's shout what sounded like: "Now!"

Assuming that this was the signal for one of the Knights to start lobbing some of Doc's treasured grenades he flung himself to the side to maximise the protection that the loop of conveyor above afforded him. But no such event occurred. Instead there was an angry roar followed by a cacophony of bellows, squeals and guttural explosions that might have either denoted invective or cries of pain, and the next minute Jaytee found himself sliding back towards the bottom of the chute with a large Weequay on top of him. Opening his mouth to express his surprised rage, all he could manage was a series of breathless grunts as three more swoopers crashed into him. Then he was forced to watch, stupefied, as two more half-danced, half-tumbled down the chute, looking as if they were performing an elaborate soft-shoe routine, and the crazy thought occurred to him that if he'd seen the scene in a holovid, he probably would have laughed. He had barely managed to extricate himself from under the growing pile of bodies, when a Devaronian descended on him and pinned him against the side of the chute. He lay there helpless, incapable of fending off the torrent of tiny white beads eddying around his head and threatening to fill his nostrils.

What the — he thought as he struggled to close his mouth. But then he stopped and retracted into the closest he could get to a ball as the last three Rancors hurtled down like children on a slide, emitting a rising crescendo of lurid sound effects.

For a moment silence reigned, and then a jubilant series of whoops rang out from above.

"Back to where you started!" shrieked Tria, her voice echoing down the length of the conveyor. "Looks like you bozos are having a bit of a downer!"

"Stick it sister!" roared Slash, hauling himself to his feet and brushing beads out of his hair. "Ding-Dong, scout around and see if there's another way up will ya?"

"There ain't," growled Bender. "I've already checked."

"Sithspit!"

For a brief second, Jaytee thought Slash was addressing him but then he realised it was a curse. He felt an angry flush warm his cheeks. Considering all the trouble he'd had rejoining the gang, he thought the least Slash could do was notice him, especially as it proved his intentions were ... honourable. Somehow the word didn't quite fit — although it used to ... when he was doing things with the Black Knights.

Damn it. Why did those thoughts keep coming into his head.

Suddenly the leader's yellow eyes settled on his face, and studied him in apparent amusement. "Sithspit! You made it." He chewed vigorously for a minute and then chuckled, as if at some joke only apparent to himself.

"I told you I would," said Jaytee triumphantly.

"Yeah." Slash nodded enigmatically. "So you did." He rubbed his chin, still gazing at the youth. "You really want to prove yourself, don't ya?"

Jaytee wanted to say that he thought he'd pretty much done that already, but, suddenly finding he was under the combined gaze of the group, decided against it and nodded instead.

"Well, believe it or not, it looks like your chance has arrived," continued the swooper smoothly, and he stepped over to one of the gang who was leaning up against the truck and trying to examine the blaster wound on his upper arm. "Looks like Bugs here ain't going to be able to handle much more than his blaster, so here's the plan." Slash yanked an old model StarAnvil from his comrade's bandolier and, ignoring the pained expression on the man's face, thrust it towards Jaytee. "You take Hatchet and Brains, and keep those poodoo-junkies up there busy while the rest of us find a way in up top."

"You gonna sneak up on them, boss?" growled the swooper that Jaytee assumed was Hatchet, judging by the vicious-looking vibro-axe he was hefting.

"Nah. They ain't worth the few minutes it would take us to snuff 'em. I want Toomahai."

"But ... isn't he up there with them?" frowned Jaytee.

Slash snorted and exchanged a sly glance with the talkative member of the two-headed duo. "Nope, unless he's cowering at the back of the room somewhere. I could only count about three of them there. I reckon they've split up."

"I dunno, Slash. Maybe it's because three's as far as you can count."

The voice made the big biker swing round, but Jaytee already knew who it was — and not just because he'd seen the man step quietly into view in the ruined hatchway. He would have recognised the voice regardless. It was Blue; but he was not alone. To Jaytee's surprise a woman stepped into view as well, but her face looked strangely different from how he remembered her, although the change had nothing to do with the blow to the head she'd suffered. He stared back into the cold flint of Iliana's eyes and felt a chill prickle his scalp.

"Why you —" Slash had lifted his squat, short barrelled rifle, but his retaliation, both verbal and incendiary, was cut short by a spurt of crimson fire from Iliana. Her shot missed Slash, but hit the biker who'd been winged by Tria on the conveyor, and he collapsed to the ground amidst a flurry of returning fire and flying bodies as everyone leaped for cover.

Jaytee dived for the pile of rubble at the front of the truck and levelled his rifle in order to target any feet that strayed into the limited field of vision between its wheels, but Blue and his former gang mates weren't providing any easy targets. He hazarded a quick peep round the side of the cab in time to see the Devaronian cringe as a fiery blast grazed one of his horns. It occurred to Jaytee that the longer they stayed where they were, the more likely they would all be slowly picked off by either Blue's group or the group upstairs which, he realised with sudden paranoid suspicion, might be already on their way down. He considered that thought further and his heart missed a beat.

Maybe they're sending down some explosives. He was just gauging the distance between himself and the end of the conveyor chute, and calculating whether he would make it to the first bend before somebody took him out, when an idea occurred to him. He turned back to the truck and studied its height, trying to estimate whether, if he drove the thing under the conveyor, it would be tall enough to use as a platform for an attack on Tria and her companions. He had just decided it wasn't when something thumped into him, and he whipped around to find Slash's jaundiced eyes staring wildly into his.

"I thought I told you to deal to your little friends upstairs. Don't tell me you're turning yellow!"

"Of course not," Jaytee scoffed. "I was just figuring out whether I could —"

Wait a minute. A crazy idea flashed into his brain, and he stopped to allow it time to consolidate.

Slash, apparently taking his pensive expression as some kind of insult, grabbed him by the collar. "Maybe I didn't make myself clear a minute ago," he hissed. "I order you to get up that conveyor."

"I could, but that won't help you get out of here," replied Jaytee quickly.

"Whaddya mean?"

There was a scream nearby and then a thud followed by a long gurgling noise. Jaytee tried to ignore the human body that had toppled backwards so its blackened face was lying just beside Slash.

"I mean," he said, "that you were heading out so you could find a way to get back in upstairs and find Ro- ... I mean Toomahai. I know how you can do that."

"Yeah?"

"Yeah." Jaytee nodded up at the truck. "In that. I"ll get the thing going and drive it around the base of the conveyor. You guys leap in and I'll drive back out into the bay and up to that doorway we came in through. Easy as stink."

Slash blinked slowly a few times in the way that Jaytee had come to assume was the signal he was thinking; then the man's jaw resumed its habitual ruminating motion, and he slapped the youth on the shoulder.

"Not bad, Sithspit. Not bad at all."

The sudden surge of pride made it hard for Jaytee to avoid grinning, but no sooner had he responded to the impulse than he saw Slash's expression harden into a sneer.

"You'd better going then, hadn't ya?"

"Er ... yeah." The warm feeling snuffed out like a candle in a cold draught, and he watched the biker peer around the side of the truck, let loose with his rifle and then scuttle over to where his two-headed friend was hunkered down beside the chute. No doubt they would pass the message around to the others to get ready. Which meant he had to put his plan into action.

Just for a moment his nerve faltered, and he wished he'd never got up that morning; or better still that he'd never survived those days fending for himself years ago when he'd been abandoned, or lost, or whatever it was that had befallen him. Maybe in some better, kinder universe, he was still living with his family: warm, happy, well-fed.

The sibilant pattern of shot and counter shot continuing unabated around him brought him back to reality, and he shrugged away the pleasant images, focussing his thinking on his current predicament. After a minute or so he began to notice that most of the fire from Blue's group was being directed down the driver's side of the truck, while the passenger's side was wedged more closely against the wall. There was still room, however, to open the door; and he figured that if he clambered over the front guard and up on to the roof of the cab, he would be able to slide down through the door from there. The bulky back portion of the vehicle would mask him from Blue's group.

He gazed over at Slash, hoping to catch his eye, but the man was busy pumping the air full of coherent dashes of light. Taking a deep breath, Jaytee gripped the top of the front cowling with his free hand, and began to pull himself up on to the cab.

*****

"This is beginning to get to me," Vehn muttered hoarsely. "How come it was so easy the —" His voice was subsumed by a fit of coughing.

"I think all we're doing is blowing moisture in," grunted Lando. "Leave it for a few moments and take a rest. Maybe they'll ignite by themselves."

He studied the blackened curls of wood at the bottom of the miniature bonfire they'd created and willed them to start glowing, wishing, not for the first time, that some of his Jedi friends' powers would transfer magically on to him. His and Vehn's efforts with their makeshift fire-starter had produced enough friction to heat the shavings to smoking point, but the stubborn things were refusing to take the next step and burst into flame. And, unfortunately, the longer they filled the room with the pungent odour of smouldering sap wood, the less free oxygen there would be to act as the catalyst.

The less oxygen there'll be to breathe, too, thought Lando grimly. Vehn's sardonic comment earlier about dying of smoke inhalation was running uncomfortably close to being the most likely outcome. The only good thing he could say about their predicament was that less clean air also meant fewer of Vehn's quips to contend with, not because the pilot was losing hope but because he was spending more and more time trying to catch his breath.

Qorl had made progress with the door lock after he took over from Lando, but had stopped at the first waft of smoke in order to hack some twig-like strips of flooring that they could set on fire and use to trigger the sensor. Now he lowered his long body down in his habitually slow, slightly stiff manner and began to blow steadily into the heart of the pile. Lando found himself wondering how many times the ex-Imperial had found himself in similar circumstances — struggling to coax a fire into life in the jungle on Yavin 4. Fortuitous was not a word that lent itself particularly well to their current situation, but it was definitely the word that Lando felt best described Qorl's presence.

The annoying, cloying smoke continued to billow and the air became more of an irritant than a source of sustenance. Qorl wiped his eyes and eased himself up.

"Too much here," he grunted, and painstakingly removed all but the lower layer of shavings.

Lando felt a twinge of irritation at himself for not thinking to do that himself. Of course it made perfect sense — the more space around the curls of wood, the more air to encourage a flame. But thinking logically was becoming increasingly difficult. He closed his eyes to protect them temporarily from the acrid smoke and tried to envisage the three of them climbing up to the top of the tower and being greeted by Tendra and the women. Surely between the six of them, seven if you counted Kushka who had proved he was just as capable as the rest of them at coming up with ideas, they would be able to figure out an escape route. Escape — now there was a pleasant image. He let it linger in his mind for a little longer.

"He's got it!" Vehn croaked suddenly, and Lando came back to the present with a jolt to see the man pointing to the faint glow of pinkish-red on one of the curls of wood.

He didn't dare reply in case the process of speaking extinguished the tiny flicker. Even as he watched, its tenuous hold on life faded, once, twice, but somehow Qorl cajoled it gently into resurrecting itself once more. And this time it endured, morphing through the infra-red spectrum to vermillion, expanding, and then with an almost casual puff — as if to suggest that this is really what it had intended to do all along — it flared. Lando's first impulse was to let out a wild cheer but he no longer possessed the resources or the spare oxygen. All he could do was grin triumphantly and ignore the pain as the skin on his lips split into desiccated segments. He glanced across at Vehn and caught a mirror image of his own relief.

Carefully, Qorl slid one of the splices of timber into the shavings and held it just above the flame. Meanwhile, Vehn used the flint earring to pierce a hole in the fabric of his tunic top and began to rip out some thin strips. Lando didn't need to ask what he was doing, instead he set to work gathering a ball of shavings for Vehn to tie on to the end of one of the other twigs. Telepathy born of desperation, he thought wryly. He noticed all three of them were instinctively keeping low in order to maximise the advantage of the smoke-free air. Vehn handed Qorl the first makeshift torch, and he and Lando immediately set about creating two more.

Qorl kept the pile of shavings burning steadily, eking out their precious supply in case the first of their torches failed to trigger the heat sensor. As it turned out, this was a wise decision, but Lando noticed that they were all equally determined in their refusal to let one failure defeat them. He and Vehn waited until Qorl had their second ball of wood scraps aflame, and then they repeated the process, Vehn sitting on Lando's shoulders and holding the burning torch against the tiny bulb.

Even after seven days without much food, Vehn was still a compact specimen, and Lando was forced to use the wall to support his trembling legs. He leaned against it, condemning the effect age had on agility, and once again his thoughts drifted outside their smoke-filled cell, trying to divine whether the others were safe.

He peered up in time to catch Vehn's sigh of resignation. Another failure.

"Don't worry." His voice sounded strange even to his own ears — as if he'd been in the desert for weeks. "Still got another one."

Vehn patted him on the arm. "Yeah," he rasped. "Third time lucky."

They watched as Qorl held their last torch above the fading fire.

"I'm sure I heard that vent go click," Vehn whispered. "I'm positive it wasn't imagination."

Lando nodded. "This time th—"

Vehn waited until he'd recovered from his coughing fit, and the two men exchanged grim nods.

"Ready?"

"You bet," grunted Vehn. "Or so help me I'll blast the thing with the hottest vaping curses I know."

Lando snorted. He wanted to come out with the humorous rejoinder poised on the end of his tongue, but his tongue felt like a thick slab of leather and his throat like parchment. "Might work," he croaked and threw Vehn the closest he could get to a grin.

But Vehn didn't notice. He was too busy holding their last hope against the sensor.

****

Rongo had only been partly right in his prediction that the corridor would lead them around the outer perimeter of the upper level of the warehouse. Not far around the first bend, it debouched instead into an alcove that allowed access to the refreshers and to a series of small storerooms. Anakin had hoped to find a way through the rooms to the tower, but the darkness made it extra difficult to navigate through the maze of shelves and storage bins to find the exits. The rooms were designed not for ease of transit, but for the sole purpose of holding stock to fill orders which, it appeared, were dispatched using an overhead pulley system. Unfortunately the entry and exit points for this didn't coincide with the location of the doors, so the group were forced to physically search for them, which was slowing them down considerably.

"It's not like the Academy," Tahiri muttered in his ear, and he responded with a despondent sigh of agreement. With its cavernous rooms and drafty hallways, the old temple on Yavin 4 that had served as his home from home for years seemed like a haven by comparison. At least there the rooms were inter-linked with a maze of passages and alcoves, and, just for a moment, he indulged a few memories of riotous games of hide-and-seek played down in the lower levels during long dark evenings. Sometimes it was hard to imagine ever being able to have such fun again.

The third room they entered proved to be a dead end and so they were forced to retrace their steps. Re-entering the alcove, Anakin heard again the sounds of battle from the direction of the conveyor belt.

"It sounds like they're still holding them off," said Tahiri, a note of admiration in her voice.

"We owe these guys a lot," he murmured. "I just wish I could have made Tag see sense so they didn't have to risk their lives like this."

Tahiri's intended admonishment for his lapse into negativity died on her lips as something like a sonic boom resounded above them, followed by a series of loud crackles and minor explosions.

"What the —" Rongo gazed up at the roof.

"Equalizer," grunted Doc. "Sounds like Blue's doing his job."

"Good," said Anakin, nodding as the sizzling noises ceased. He studied the second doorway in the alcove and gave it a tentative push. "We'll try again through here. There must be a way through to the other side of the building because that's where the stairways are. Otherwise, how would the workers get up here?"

"That's more like it, Captain Solo," said Tahiri approvingly.

"I thought I was a big dumb gundark," he replied, leaning in close to her as she stepped past him into the gloom.

"Sometimes you are, sometimes you're not," she clarified.

"Ah." He sensed as much as saw her grin. "Makes sense — kind of."

He wanted to activate his lightsaber in order to establish if the Yuuzhan Vong's presence was any clearer, but so far the darkness, although an impediment to speed, was acting as the perfect shield, and he didn't want to ruin it. He pushed ahead of the group, keeping in close to the wall as he crept forward and opened himself up to the Force, feeling Tahiri doing the same.

A jolt ran through him, augmented by the bolt of recognition he felt resonating in Tahiri. There were a number of people somewhere nearby, their Force signatures muted slightly by that of the timber in the walls situated between them, but that wasn't what stopped him temporarily in his tracks.

Tahiri let out a little gasp. "I can feel them. The bits where there's nothing — that's them."

Anakin nodded grimly. For a race of nothings they've sure created havoc, he thought.

But we'll win, Tahiri threw back.

Despite the circumstances, Anakin felt his spirits lift. Even if he'd tried to mask his thoughts she'd have still sensed them, but it didn't worry him. Having her there in his mind was now as normal to him as breathing; in fact it was hard to imagine how he'd managed for that year and a bit without her. The truth, he realised now, was that he hadn't coped very well at all. But he also knew he could put that lonely experience behind him. He stopped and reached his hand out to her only to find her fingers already searching for his.

"We can feel the Vong," he said quietly as the last of the group caught up with them.

"Good," said Doc. "Anything's better than all this sneaking around. Give me a straight fight any day."

"The Yuuzhan Vong enjoy fighting, too," Tahiri informed him, "and they're very good at it. They see battles as a chance to prove themselves to their gods."

"Ah, well. We'll have to give them a good send-off then won't we," the big man growled.

"It won't be easy," said Anakin. "They wear body armour and they'll probably have a selection of weapons, so don't try any close-up stuff to start with. Usually they'll try and impale you with their amphistaves — kind of snake things that they can use as spears or whips. They also carry coufees which are their equivalent of blades, and if you see them throw something at you make sure you duck, because it'll probably be thud bugs."

"They sound like my kind of people," grunted the Trandoshan.

"Hey, Treetrunk, maybe they are," snorted Chopper. "Maybe they're your long-lost relatives."

Rongo intervened calmly above the sniggers. "Appreciate the info, Anakin. This armour — does it have a weak spot?"

"Under the arms," he replied. "So if you end up grappling with them, aim your blaster or your blades in there. Everybody ready?"

He was answered by a chorus of affirmatives, that in turn was followed a loud reverberation underneath them. But Anakin didn't waste time trying to identify the sound. Instead he set out again following the wall, hoping that, whatever the sound was, it meant that Muss and his two helpers were all right.

*****

Tag had been both relieved and annoyed to find Delone and his men with the small group of workers guarding the entrance to the stairway that led up to the tower. The relief arose from the fact they hadn't tried to involve themselves in the battle he could hear going on below, because the last thing he wanted was to have to feel beholden to Delone for helping him capture the Jedi. The irritation was allied with his suspicion that they might have done something with the prisoners, and the slightly panicked thought that they might have already drugged them made him hurry up the stairs to check. But the room was still sealed shut, and as far as he could see everything was as he had left it, so he retraced his steps.

"I'd like two of your men downstairs to give Talley a hand with the women," he told the Peace Brigade leader. He didn't like to admit to the faint concern he was feeling about that situation. Talley had been gone for longer than he had expected, and there had been no sign of him when Tag had looked out the window a few minutes earlier on his search for Delone. One thing that had pleased him, however, was the sight of a second group of Rancors heading into the building. He was confident it wouldn't be long before Slash and his band of hoodlums had the Solo brat and his little blonde friend crying for mercy.

"I don't think so, Tag." Delone's words hit Tag like a slap.

"Pardon?"

"My men aren't here to baby sit mewling women," sneered the tall Brigader, pulling himself up to his full, rather intimidating height.

"Hoity-toity," growled the man at the controls of the G-40. "Although I appreciate the sentiments," he added quickly as two of the Peace Brigade members turned to glare at him.

"Listen Delone," began Tag.

"We're staying here," said the man stubbornly. "So when your back-up group fails we can feast on their spoils."

"Feast on their —" Tag was too flabbergasted to finish the repetition. "What do you mean fail? What the kriff are you on about?"

"Your men will fail," Delone replied in a tone strangely reminiscent of somebody anticipating a favourite treat. "And we will pick up the pieces."

"Somebody's having delusions of grandeur," snorted Tag derisively. "Now stop this nonsense and listen. I need some of your men downstairs now."

His statement was punctuated by a muted explosion and a strange crackling sound, and the lights that his men had switched on in the alcove around the stairwell blinked out.

"What's happening?" gasped another of his workers.

"They're coming," Delone hissed in a voice that made Tag feel inexplicably uneasy.

"Rubbish," said Tag hotly as his mind raced to find an explanation. One thing he was sure about, much to his relief, was that the noise hadn't come from the tower. At least he could be sure that Calrissian and his cronies were still there. But did it have anything to do with Talley? Surely he hadn't crashed?

He blinked furiously to force his eyes to adjust to the gloom, and then frowned. The Peace Brigade had moved out into the space in front of the group defending the tower, but it wasn't so much the fact that they appeared to be taking up battle positions that unnerved him, it was the way they did it. Or more precisely, it was the way they were moving — prowling, like animals.

Like hungry animals, he thought as he caught the glint of anticipation in Delone's eyes as he turned. Just my luck to end up with the wacko branch of the Peace Brigade.

"I very much doubt they'll make it up this far, but if they do we'll soon mow them down," he said, tilting his chin towards the portable cannon, and then turning back to glare at Delone. But instead of replying, the man exchanged glances with his comrades and then returned Tag's stare.

"We'll see." His grin revealed a set of needle sharp teeth. "I think you might be in for some surprises, Tag."

So might you, thought Tag vindictively. Especially if you accidentally get in the way of the cannon. He chuckled inwardly. The mills of the gods don't like deceivers.

He decided not to credit Delone's comment with a reply. The man may be the local contact for the Peace Brigade, but he was still only a minor player. He, Tag, would make sure the Vong realised it had been his initiative to capture the Jedi and Calrissian and the others, and they would reward him accordingly. Ultimately Delone wouldn't matter, because he would have to go along with whatever the Vong dictated. And anyway, Delone had no interest in Balmorra, so his position was secure.

It was going to be good to capitalise on his hard work and planning, and show the Balmorrans the path to peace. And to have them show him their appreciation. The thought made him feel good.



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