Many Happy Returns: Chapter Thirty-Five
Iella

Tendra tightened the front fasteners on her borrowed jacket and luxuriated in its warmth as she watched Blue lead his group of six away from the roof of the building site. It amused her a little to realise that normally the odour of engine coolant mixed with the faint musky scent of rancor hide would have made her nose wrinkle. Now it smelt like a fine perfume. In spite of the fact that she knew they still had a lot of work to do, she smiled.

"I'm so glad you're okay."

Tendra turned to face the speaker, taking note of the worried expression in the Twi'lek girl's eyes. "Thanks to you," she replied. "I really can't tell you how grateful I am ... Daijira is it?"

The girl nodded a short affirmative. "I ... I'm so sorry that this happened to you." She looked as though she was going to add something else, but then appeared to change her mind.

"It's not your fault," Tendra assured her, assuming the girl was feeling the sort of guilt by association that she knew she would feel if she saw a visitor to her city being poorly treated. "And don't worry. The person who is responsible is soon going to feel very sorry for all the trouble he's caused."

Dajira nodded, but Tendra couldn't help noticing the ill-concealed anguish in her eyes. She wondered if she was connected with Vehn's anti-Peace Brigade group, or if she'd just been a bystander who had become caught up in the conflict out front. One thing was certain — whatever had motivated the girl to help them, it was something to be thankful for. Not only had she been instrumental in rescuing them from the roof, she also possessed a vehicle that they could use as a work platform in their effort to free Lando and his two fellow prisoners.

Anxious to get over to the tower, Tendra had just turned to see if Purr and Hami had finished replacing the used firing tube on the Equalizer when the sudden stutter of repeater fire from somewhere nearby froze her in her tracks.

"It's okay!" someone shouted. "It's just me."

Tendra exchanged relieved looks with Dajira and they both followed the voice to a small lock-up shelter near the lift cage. A series of crashes within heralded the appearance of one of the younger swoopers.

"Here, take these." The youth thrust a couple of crowbars at them and vanished into the darkness again, emerging shortly afterwards with a coil of rope and some packs of contact explosives. "Stroke of luck these guys leaving their tools on the site, eh?"

Tendra studied the smoking door and pictured the builders' faces when they found their shed vandalised and some of their equipment gone; then she regarded the biker's spoils. She exchanged quizzical glances with Dajira, and shrugged.

"Good thinking," she replied with a smile. "I was worried we were going to have use one of those grenades Blue gave us." She picked up the blister packs containing the tiny demolition devices. "These are perfect. We should be able to set these off around the edge of the vent."

"Yeah, I was a bit worried, too." He gathered his ill-gotten gains in his arms and set off toward the speeder. "The way you described that room they had you in made me realise there wouldn't be much room for error."

Tendra studied the boy's face with its wisps of adolescent stubble and metal lip studs, and then her gaze moved to his eyes. "What's your name?" she asked.

"Kina," he replied. "But everyone calls me Squirt." He heaved the rope and the tools over into the speeder, and then patted the top of his head. "A bit on the short side," he grinned again.

"The Jedi have a saying that size matters not," she said.

"Really?" He mulled the idea over for a moment as Dajira clambered up into the speeder. "I reckon they might be on to something there. Hey, uh ..." He lowered his voice in conspiratorial fashion. "You wouldn't happen to know if they have any more like Tahiri around, would you? Unattached ones I mean?"

"As far as I know — no," Tendra whispered back. "But if you like I'll keep my eyes open for you."

Squirt snorted back a chuckle, and then his expression lapsed into seriousness. "I wish I had some of those Jedi skills, then I would know if my two mates are okay. We were out front looking after the protestors, but we got done over by the Rancors."

"Don't worry," interrupted the Rodian who was already waiting inside the speeder. "My friends will have taken care of them. They'll make sure they get medical help if they need it."

Squirt nodded, but his expression was still a little somber.

"Got it!" Purr shouted. "Everyone ready?" She aimed the Equalizer's firing tube at the pole that held the generator controlling the security fence.

"You bet," Squirt called back, and then let out a whoop as the fence exploded in whirling, spitting columns of sparks.

Tendra moved the coil of rope so she could sit down beside the swooper who had been helping tend to the two wounded men on the floor below. She threw a companionable smile to the two protestors before glancing back at the building, and could just make out the shapes of the two Mantrusian women. One of them waved, and Tendra waved back. It was Neijal — she could tell because of the small figure beside her.

"Are your friends all right?" Tendra asked the young biker.

"Yeah," he replied with a note of admiration in his voice. "Those women are something else. Never seen healers at work before."

"They are amazing considering what they've been through," said Tendra. "Tag's had them incarcerated for about ten days."

"Why?" Vilco's horns waggled to and fro in what appeared to denote puzzlement. "Why imprison women and children?"

"Apparently he thought they were Jedi," Tendra explained, watching the tower grow closer. "And he wants Jedi so he can give them to the Vong in return for peace. He's collaborating with the Peace Brigade."

"I know," said Vilco grimly. "Vehn and Qorl knew all about him. That's why he captured them."

The young swooper cleared his throat. "And he killed Rongo's brother," he contributed.

Vilco nodded. "Yeah, he did. Not personally, but he is responsible for it." He turned back to Tendra. "Rongo's the leader of this gang. His younger brother and his girlfriend had joined our group because the Peace Brigade had killed her brother on Eriadu."

Tendra nodded slowly. The connections were beginning to fall into place. What rendered her to temporary silence was her amazement at the way destiny had brought them all together. On the surface they were the most ill matched group imaginable, and yet here they were collaborating as if they'd worked together all their lives. Had Anakin and Tahiri somehow sensed a common bond with the swoop gang, or was it just the celebrated Solo luck?

She looked up to find the grim face of the tower filling her vision; the sturdy metal vent looked as impenetrable as a blast shield.

"We meet again," she murmured to it, aware that everyone was too busy studying the extent of their problem to take much notice of her sudden inclination to talk to inanimate objects.

Squirt and Hami pulled up close to the speeder and Hami cupped his hands to his mouth. "Grunt — you gonna be able to reach the panel?"

The tousled biker nodded, and opened the end of one of the packets in readiness. The explosive devices looked like buttons on a strip of plastine, each button comprising two parts separated by a thin barrier of non-reactive material. While Dajira kept the speeder on an even keel, Grunt, aided by Vilco, set about fixing the strips to the sides of the metal panel.

"Give me a couple of those!" Squirt shouted to Tendra. "And get that rope ready."

Tendra didn't need to be asked twice, nor did she mind being ordered around by a kid young enough to be her son. Her hours spent on the roof being driven mad with frustration and fear made her only too grateful for the chance to be able to do something useful. She placed two of the explosive strips carefully in Squirt's outstretched hand and then set about tying a loop in one end of the rope, thinking wryly how much easier it was than when she'd had to tie their escape rope together earlier that afternoon.

Her eyes slipped up to the vent again. Were Lando and their two friends still in there? Or had Anakin and Tahiri already found them, and were they now in the process of fighting their way out? With no way of divining the answers, all they could do was follow the instructions Anakin had given Blue and hope that all was going to plan — or at least to some workable revision of it.

Her cogitation was brought to an abrupt end by a yelp. She looked up in time to see Grunt wobbling precariously and clutching wildly at Vilco and the younger of his friends.

"It moved!" he yelled. "It's opening."

"Whaddya mean?" Hami threw his comrade an incredulous look. "You haven't activated that stuff yet."

"He's right!" shrieked Dajira, pointing to the bottom of the vent where Tendra suddenly noticed grey tendrils of smoke emerging. "They're on fire."

"Get the damn thing open!" roared Squirt. "Where's the rope?"

But Tendra was already hauling it over to the side of the speeder.

"They must have started another fire," she panted to Vilco as he helped her hold up the rope for the two bikers to grab.

Vilco began to reply, but a sudden billow of smoke caught in his throat and made him cough. Tendra watched anxiously as Hami wrapped the rope around the bottom lip of the vent, slipped it up as far as it would go, and then passed the long end through the loop and handed it to Squirt.

"Go up slowly," he ordered Dajira as he tied the rope to one of the struts on the windshield. "Let it take up the slack and then just gradually increase the vertical thrust."

She nodded and began to coax the vehicle upward.

Vilco hung over the side watching the rope. "Keep going," he encouraged her quietly. "You're doing fine."

Tendra watched, too, covering her nose to avoid the occasional acrid puff of wood smoke. The rope tightened and she felt their vertical motion falter as the vehicle began to take the strain.

Please don't break, she willed it silently.

Hami raised an arm and stabbed his hand frantically towards the alley side of the tower.

"Keep up the pressure but ease her forward," said Vilco. "I think they're trying to tell us that the rope's slipping off."

The speeder shuddered and the roar of the repulsors phased into a scream. Tendra could see the young Twi'lek's fingers clenched as she fought to maintain a diagonal vector up and towards the street. She was on the point of screaming at the vent for its stubborn refusal to yield to their patient effort, when all of a sudden something resounded underneath them like the crack of a monstrous twig breaking, and they shot skywards as if fired from a giant catapault. The cold wind buffeted the vehicle plastering back their hair and making them catch their breath. Tendra looked down to see the durasteel panel swinging on the rope like a deformed pendulum.

"You did it!" crowed Grunt, and pulling out his vibro-blade he leaned over to rid them of the unwanted appendage.

"Thank goodness," gulped Dajira, her lekku folding back with relief. "For a moment I thought the thrust control had stuck again."

"There — nice bit of scrap metal for someone to find tomorrow." The young swooper flicked his blade closed with a flourish.

"That was brilliant," nodded Vilco, grabbing on to the back of the seat as she guided the vehicle into a wide swerve to take them back to the tower.

Tendra could feel her heart racing as she waited for their first look into the room beyond the gaping hole in the wall, but the darkness was like a screen obscuring her vision. For one awful moment she thought they had arrived too late because the only shapes she could make out were those of the two swoopers. Suddenly aware that she had clambered forward and was anxiously clutching the display console, she turned to find Dajira gazing at her, her eyes pale blue pools swirling with a host of emotions Tendra could barely begin to identify.

"Don't worry," the girl said softly. "I'm sure they're okay."

To her surprise, and chagrin, Tendra discovered her vocal chords had seized and all she could manage was a grateful nod. It didn't matter, however, because Dajira was busy maneuvering the craft so she could sidle it up beside the hole in the wall. Then one of the swoopers stepped aside and she saw him — a tall figure looming between the two younger men. She waved frenetically and he waved back, and even in the gloom she saw his trademark smile, his teeth seeming even more white than usual against the grime on his handsome face.

He stepped forward as the speeder bumped against the side of the building, but all Tendra could do for the moment was stare. She was only too aware that there had been a number of times in the last few hours when she'd secretly thought she'd never see him again, and right now all she wanted to do was savour the visible evidence that proved her wrong. Older now than when she met him, he still took her breath away, even in his current condition — streaked with dirt and sweat and looking more like a survivor from an all-night Corellian beach party than a suave business man with an impressive record of service to the New Republic.

She wanted to put her thoughts into words, but knew better than to try. Words could never capture how she felt, and she also knew instinctively that Lando wouldn't want her to. For a man whose gift for sweet talk made the great Alakathan love poets sound like school boys, he was often strangely uncomfortable when she returned the compliment.

So she smiled. "Well, well. What have we here?"

In response he raised both arms and shrugged, his grin growing even wider. "One very lucky man."

And then he was in the speeder, holding her as though he would never let her go.

******

Anakin studied the group of men huddled in the alcove that he assumed must be at the base of the stairwell leading to the tower. It made sense that Tag would set up a guard post there — extra insurance in case his first line of defence failed. Which, of course, is exactly what had happened. He turned back and waved a reassurance to Tahiri who was waiting with Rongo and the others at the corner, and then continued his evaluation of their opponents. Tag was there along with three other men, and just after he'd begun his surveillance two more arrived. Judging by their bedraggled appearance Anakin decided that they must have been amongst those he had encountered in the loading bay. Obviously some of them had survived — although the way they were shuffling painfully suggested that their fighting ability might be limited. Still — it meant more hands to wield blasters and to operate the portable laser cannon that he could see waiting just inside the doorway.

Then there were the six tall men prowling around restlessly in the space in front of the alcove. Anakin didn't need to draw his lightsaber to identify who they were. Their fighting stance told him, not to mention their curious absence in the Force. He felt Tahiri's mind brush his in gentle query and he sent her an answering image. The fact that the men were disguised as Peace Brigade interested him and he wondered if they'd revealed themselves to Tag or if they were playing their own game. If so, it looked like things were soon going to become very complicated.

He edged back from his lookout place at the point where the corridor debouched on to the landing.

"Tag's there," he whispered when he rejoined the others. "And eleven others. Although two look pretty shaky."

"Great," murmured Rongo grimly. "Two against one."

"Could be worse, bro"," grunted Doc.

"It is," said Anakin. "Six of them are Yuuzhan Vong."

"Perfect." Rongo made a wry face. "Any more good news you'd like to tell us?"

"They've got a G-40," replied Anakin matter-of-factly. "But we should be able to take that out with a grenade."

"Now that IS good news," Doc grinned stroking his bandolier.

"And I think we should split up — make them fight on two fronts. The more confusing we can make it for them, the better our chances, because I get the impression that Tag's men aren't used to this sort of thing.

"So what are you suggesting, kid?" asked Doc.

"That room back there," Anakin replied indicating the shadowy doorway a few paces back up the corridor, "opens out on to the landing, too. I could see the door from where I was standing at the end of the passage. If Doc takes out the cannon and we attack from both places at once, we can trap them in between our two groups."

Treetrunk held his arms up in a carefree shrug. "There, you see. Easy as a walk in the park."

"But I also want to try and talk to Tag again first."

"Why?" Rongo shook his head, perplexed. "You've already given him a chance to change his mind."

"I still want to have one more shot." Anakin's tone was soft but determined. " I don't think he realises that the Vong are here, because they're disguised as Peace Brigaders. When he does, it might change his attitude."

Rongo studied Anakin's earnest expression for a moment and then turned to Tahiri only to see the same look in her green eyes. He gave a slightly exasperated, slightly philosophical sigh. "Fair enough. Nobody could say you haven't given him every opportunity."

Anakin nodded and pulled the comlink off his collar. "We'd better find out how Blue's going." He dialed the volume back as low as he could and held the device up to his lips.

Rongo and Doc stared up at the roof as if wishing hard enough would let them see through it. The sound of the Equalizer earlier had been an encouraging sign that Blue and his companions were carrying out their part of the rescue.

"What if he's already got your friends out?" Rongo asked softly.

"All the more reason to try and talk to Tag first then." He smiled and switched the comlink on.

******

"This is ridiculous," Iliana hissed, as a volley of shots forced her to draw back quickly behind the pile of plastine crates that both she and Blue were using as a shield. "At this rate we could be stuck here all night, which isn't going to help Rongo and Anakin.

"I know." Blue waited for the turbulent light display from one of the Rancors' repeater rifles to cease, and then peeked out cautiously to check if anything had changed in the last few minutes. "But don't worry — I've been working on it, and I think I've got the answer." He turned and was startled to find her face only a few centimetres from his own.

"What?" she demanded.

"That truck," Blue explained, and waved a hand towards the figure tucked in between a manual cargo loader and the door. "Cover me so I can get over to Chukka. Then keep an eye open for the signal to cover us both. I reckon we could get in through the back, get the damn thing going and create a bit of havoc."

To his surprise Iliana didn't offer any arguments against the idea, but merely nodded curtly. "Okay. Give me your spare blaster."

Blue drew an old IR-5 out from his belt in order to hand it to her, but hesitated. "You sure you're all right, Ili?"

The woman's dark eyes flicked up to his — obsidian shards piercing grey granite.

"I'm fine. Just tell me what to do and I'll do it, Blue. I don't care as long as it's going to help Rongo."

A reassurance raced instinctively to teeter on the tip of his tongue, but he trapped it before it could escape. Iliana was too good a friend to try and fool with platitudes. Instead he reached over and touched her cheek.

"Just keep 'em —"

The light on his comlink flickered and it emitted a faint hiss. Blue pulled it off the clip on his collar and hurriedly clicked open the active channel.

"Blue?" came Anakin's voice, faint but clear.

"I'm here, kid. Good to hear from you. You okay?"

"We're up near the stairs to the tower. Tag's got a group guarding it. How about you?"

"Down below. Had to change the plan a bit — long story, can't explain all the details. But we did rescue Tendra and the two women and their kids."

"Women?" There was a pause. "I won't ask," said Anakin dryly. "But good going anyway. What about Lando?"

"Tendra and some of the others are dealing with that. Had a Rancor infestation we had to see to."

"Yes, we heard them coming in. Muss, Tria and Squid stayed behind at the conveyor belt."

"Ah." Blue was beginning to get a clearer picture of where everyone was located.

"By the way, I thought you'd better know — the Yuuzhan Vong are here."

The map in Blue's head was scrambled by a shock wave of momentary panic.

"Blue?"

"Yeah, kid, sorry. Not the news I was wanting to hear."

"Don't worry," said Anakin. "You sort the Rancors out and get Lando. Leave the Vong to us. See you soon."

In spite of his misgivings, Blue snorted back a chuckle, and was about to wish Anakin good luck when he heard the channel click closed. He had just began turning back to see what was happening when a throaty rumble made the hairs on his neck prickle, and he stared aghast as the truck lurched away from the gap in the wall and began accelerating into the darkness.

"Oh no!" Iliana gasped.

"Spit! Aim for the wheel guards!"

They peered into the darkness beyond the opening in the wall, but although they could hear the engine and the scream of the tyres, they had no visible target to fire on. Blue glanced around wildly in an effort to locate where the members of his group were sheltering. Bo's head popped up in the middle of a line of rolls of plastine wrap, followed quickly by Shorty's.

"Watch out!" yelled Blue. "They're gonna bring that truck back in here." He turned to Iliana. "Damn it. I wish I hadn't given the others all our grenades."

"Well, we'll just have to do the job with these then, won't we?" She positioned herself at the end crate nearest the wall and raised her weapon.

Before Blue could reply, the truck burst into view and the bay lit up eerily with the crimson glow of laser fire. He tracked the vehicle as it veered crazily past their hiding place and screeched to a halt by the door through which they'd entered only a short time before. The back doors were open and flapping wildly, scored already by the steady stream of bolts issuing from within. Keeping his body masked as best he could by the crates, he pumped volley after volley into the dark interior of the truck, cursing inwardly as the swinging doors deflected half his shots.

Suddenly the vehicle lurched forward to the right and then with a shriek of protesting gears it reversed up to the doorway until it collided with the surrounding wall. For a micro second a face flashed into view and then disappeared, but even in the gloom Blue recognised the pallid complexion and the familiar messy stand-up tufts of Jaytee's hair. Angry and frustrated at having his idea pre-empted he peppered the windscreen, which soon began melting under the prolonged assault by the other six members of his group. But nobody was firing back. As the screen disintegrated Blue caught a flash of movement at the back of the cab, and then ... nothing. He lowered his blaster and squinted into the gloom, listening and watching. The truck stood shuddering slightly as it idled, but other than that nothing was moving. Nor was anybody shooting back. Slowly one head after another popped up above rolls of insulation or from behind crates.

Shorty caught Blue's eye and thrust his chin toward the truck. "Cover me, bro'!" He slid out from his shelter and took a tentative step toward the truck, keeping his gaze firmly on the cab.

"Watch it, Shorty," murmured Iliana. But still there was no response from the vehicle.

"Stay there," Blue commanded her, and joined Shorty as he stepped cautiously up to the driver's door. A line of slug holes decorated the door and continued along the side to the back — the distinctive signature of an E-11S.

"Chukka sure had a good time by the looks of it," grinned the Duros.

Blue snorted and clambered up to peer into the cab. "Blood," he said pointing to the seat.

"Good," his companion replied savagely.

"Guess whose?"

Shorty studied Blue's expression and then nodded slowly, his face contorting in disgust.

"Even better," he growled.

Blue nodded, but rather than reply he let his eyes follow the line of drops up the back of the seat and through the window into the back of the truck. He hoisted himself up so he could see through.

"Anything interesting?" asked Shorty.

"Got one of them," said Blue flatly studying the body collapsed untidily against the wall.

"Traitor boy?" Shorty said hopefully.

"Nope."

"Aw, well. One down, one winged," grunted the Duros. "Not bad but not good."

"That was --" He was cut short by a second signal from the comlink. He clambered down quickly and unease gripped him for a split second, but then he realised the call wasn't coming on Anakin's channel.

Of course! He suddenly remembered who else they'd assigned comlinks to.

"Blue!" came Vilco's voice. "We've got Lando and the other two."

"Yeah!" Blue raised his fist in the air triumphantly. "They got 'em!" he shouted to the others, and waved them over to listen to what the Rodian was saying.

"Are they okay?" asked Iliana.

"They're fine — well, um, a little undressed, but nothing too horrifying." A series of chuckles and snorts sounded in the background.

"Speak for yourself," somebody called out.

"What's happening in there?" asked Vilco cautiously.

"At the moment, nothing much. So we thought we'd stop for tea," said Blue grinning mirthlessly.

"And cakes," added Chukka.

"Oh," Vilco stammered, a little uncertain as to whether they were serious or not. "Um, it's just that Lando would like to talk to you. Er, I'll put him on."

Blue rolled his eyes and Bo and Pania stifled giggles.

"Blue," came a strong voice. "Just like to thank you guys for breaking us out and for rescuing Tendra and the others."

"Our pleasure — although it's Anakin and Tahiri you ought to be thanking."

"Yeah. And I intend to, soon. What's the situation in there?"

"Not quite the one I wanted," admitted Blue ruefully. "The Rancors got away on us. Have you seen or heard anything up there?"

"Nope."

"Damn. They've either found a way up inside or broken in through those front windows. We're going to have to find them."

"Anakin's inside, right? With some of your gang?" Lando sounded amazingly lucid for someone who'd been drugged and imprisoned.

"I gather Squirt or one of the others has filled you in on the basics," nodded Blue, "so I won't waste time repeating the original plan. But yeah, the problem is they're in there without backup, and now they're going to be facing the Rancors as well as Tag's goons and apparently the Vong are there, too. So the sooner we get in there the better."

"I see."

The ensuing pause felt like an age. Blue's mind was whirling as he tried to weigh up the pros and cons of their various possibilities — go up the conveyor belt or the front stairwell? Follow the Rancors or try and second-guess them?

Lando's voice halted his racing thoughts. "I've always been a great believer in surprises, and I have to say that Tag strikes me as the sort who doesn't take well to them."

"I ain't too keen on them either," growled Blue. "Had a few too many tonight already. What are you suggesting?"

"We go in from here."

Blue felt his jaw sag. "We break you out, and now you want us to break back in!"

"I did say it was a surprise."

Blue had never seen the man, but for some strange reason he could imagine the sardonic expression he was probably wearing. He gazed quizzically at Chukka and Shorty who shrugged back in return.

"Tag's probably got all his men tied up coping with Anakin and Rongo, so it's quite likely he won't have anyone up there," mused Chukka. "I reckon this guy's on to something."

Blue nodded pensively. "Yeah, I was just coming round to that thought myself." He raised the comlink again. "Okay, Lando. We're coming up — that's if we don't meet the Rancors outside, of course."

"Good. We'll get busy on this door." The connection clicked closed.

"Okay." Blue climbed back up into the cab and released the brake so the vehicle rolled forward. "We're out of here."

The others needed no second prompting, and Blue had to race to catch up with them. But no sooner was he breathing down Bo's back than she came to a jolting stop and he cannoned into her with a thump. Peering past heads and shoulders to see what had caused them all to stop, he was regaled with the strange sight of a large metal panel lying on the ground near the doorway — a panel that appeared to have grown legs.

"Woow! That's what I call being flat out," said Pania with grim amusement.

"Flavour of the month — Rancor squash," added Chukka.

Temporarily puzzled, Blue glanced up to make sure there were no more flying sheets of durasteel on the way down before following the others to their swoops. Then the realisation as to where the panel might have come from dawned on him.

"That's one less they'll have to face then," he murmured to himself as he banked his swoop up toward the tower. "Let's hope we can make it a few more. And soon."



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