Many Happy Returns: Chapter Thirty-Six
Iella

Blue peered along the shaft of yellow emanating from his swoop's nightlight as he and his group raced toward the top of the tower. A dark gash had opened in the wall where the panel had been, and he could just make out the silhouettes of two bikes standing like silent sentries just inside the entrance. Expecting to find the speeder there, too, he was surprised at the twinge of disappointment he felt when he saw it had returned to the building site. Beside it, waving, stood a slender figure holding a long tube, and he returned the gesture with what he hoped would be read as a nod of approval.

Good old Purr. Always reliable. Always there to back you up.

It was also extra comforting to know she'd be there to help Tab protect Zed and Skell and the women on the off-chance that any of the Rancors took it into their heads to take out their ill temper on them. Fortunately, or unfortunately as the case may be, they were obviously more than a little fixated with the chance to deal personally with Rongo. It was no secret that Slash and his cronies hated him and regarded his form of leadership as a joke — almost as a kind of betrayal of swooper ethics, such as they were — so Blue doubted they'd send up the chance to wreak their revenge. The thought of Rongo and Anakin brought him back to the moment and the urgency of the situation, and he eased his swoop over the ragged metal at the edge of the gaping entrance.

"Here, bro'." Shorty had entered just ahead of Blue and had already swung his tall frame to the floor. He reached out a sinewy arm to grab the handlebars of Blue's swoop. "Leave it going. I'll park it for you."

Blue threw the Duros a grateful nod and hurried over to the group he could see clustered by the door. The most imposing member was the first to turn at his greeting, and Blue found himself the subject of scrutiny by a pair of shrewd dark eyes.

"I'm guessing you're Blue?" It was the same mellow voice Blue recognised from the comlink.

He reached out his hand and grinned as the man returned his grip.

"I see you have the same fashion sense as your good lady," he quipped winking at Tendra.

Lando's lips twitched. "Well they say the current keyword is simplicity — so we decided to follow the trend."

"Gotta admire those fashion gurus," Blue shrugged. "Always got the right outfit for the right occasion. So how's it going?"

"We're just getting organised. This is Vehn by the way — and Qorl. They've been in here for a while along with the others you kindly rescued for us."

"Yeah — looking forward to thanking you guys properly," Vehn said warmly. "That's if my supplies of local brew are still intact."

"Now you're talking," Blue chuckled and cocked his head toward the door. "Any idea what's on the other side?"

"Corridor, refresher and stairs," replied Vehn attempting to wipe away the smoky grime that had settled on his eyelashes.

"Guards?" asked Blue.

"Initially, yeah. Not sure if they're still there now though."

"Doubt it," growled Qorl. "If they were, they'd have been in here by now. There's no way they could have missed the racket when your people pulled the vent off."

"Ah, so we pulled it off did we?" Blue nodded to himself as he began to make sense of the situation. "I wondered how it got where it did." He noticed Qorl and Vehn staring at each other and then back at him quizzically. "It landed out front just in time to squash one of Slash's idiots."

"Not Slash himself unfortunately," Iliana added in response to Grunt's hopeful look.

"Or our little turncoat," growled Chukka as he joined them.

Blue caught Lando's look of confusion, and waved his hand dismissively. "No time to explain and I don't waste words on trash anyway." He bent down to study the lock. "I gather you guys have been working on this."

"Yeah," replied Lando. "The door was our back-up plan if the fire idea failed. We're pretty sure there's a nasty surprise packed inside that locking panel though."

Blue squatted down and studied the device, frowning — his serpent tattoo squirming in response. "Explosives?" he asked curtly.

"More likely to be gas," said Lando folding his arms. "He wanted us alive remember?"

"Yeah, the bastard," muttered Blue. He glanced back in the direction of the building site and then at the gathering group of swoopers. "What do you reckon, guys?"

"I say we blast it," said Squirt without hesitation.

Blue grimaced. "I admire your enthusiasm, bro', but I'm assuming Lando here wants us kind of sneaking in subtle like."

"Yeah." Squirt nodded vigorously. "We can do subtle. Got just the thing." And he held up several long packages of what looked to Blue to be plastine bubbles. "I found them back at the site."

"Found them?"

"Well, sort of found them — in the builders' shed," corrected Squirt.

Blue studied the boy with narrowed eyes for a moment and then turned to Iliana with a grin. "Ah — found them. Looks like your pupil's picking things up quickly, Ili, if you'll excuse the pun."

Lando caught Tendra's amused look. "Commandeered," she mouthed.

His eyebrows lifted and he nodded in comprehension, reaching out for one of the strips. "Good work. This should do the job perfectly."

"What is it?" Tendra asked him.

"Contact explosive. Burglars' friend."

"I won't ask how you know that," she said dryly.

Lando chuckled. "Good, then I won't have to concoct any lies, which is just as well. My "old smoothy" button short-circuited a while ago."

"Oh well — I can't say I object too much to the "old ruffian" that seems to have taken its place," she smiled mischievously, and reaching up patted his cheek.

"Well, it looks like the old ruffian and his cronies are going to need some weaponry so they can live up to their reputations," interjected Blue. "Shorty, you and Chukka come with me and we'll see what we can dig up." He turned back to Lando. "Any preferences?"

"A G-9 wouldn't go amiss," Lando replied hopefully.

"Ho, ho. Very funny," called Blue as he headed towards the remainder of his group who were already in the process of replacing power packs and checking blades.

"I was serious." Lando threw Tendra a wide-eyed look.

"I'm afraid you might have to content yourself with something a little more basic, my love." She patted his arm reassuringly. "Or maybe a vibro-axe and chain."

"As long as it's not an Ewok rock-thrower I suppose I can't complain," he said resignedly.

Tendra regarded the device in Lando's hand curiously. "How do these things work? They don't look like explosives."

"They were actually designed to be used in demolition — small-scale interior jobs. The strip's a sandwich — see the three layers?"

Tendra nodded.

"The middle layer's the barrier. Pull on these tabs and it slides out so the two halves of each dimple can make contact — and boom. On a small scale, of course. It's the cumulative effect that makes them effective." He double-checked the separator to ensure it hadn't seized up while in storage. "Good. Looks like it's working okay," he added approvingly.

Iliana had taken another of the strips from Squirt, and was watching Lando closely as he maneuvered the dimpled side of the plastine so it was flush with the edge of the door. "Is this what you used to open the vent?" she asked Squirt.

"We were going to. But when we got to it, it was already opening because they'd started a fire."

"I thought I could smell smoke."

"We're getting awfully good at lighting fires actually," Vehn informed her breezily. "We're what you might call real hot stuff."

"Maybe you could change the monkey lizards for red hot tongues of flame," suggested Tendra, eyeing his boxers.

"Ah, women with spirit! How I love them," he sighed. "How's it going there, old buddy?"

"Good." Lando was aware that his voice sounded a little strained with the effort of pressing the strip into place, but he didn't care. He had forgotten how unbelievably good it was to be doing something productive, and to feel that he was in control of his own fate again. It warmed him to see the vital gleam in Tendra's eyes and know that she felt exactly the same. There was just one slight little niggle disrupting the positivity.

"Er, Tendra," he murmured. "You wouldn't happen to know how Anakin and Tahiri managed to get involved with this swoop gang, would you?"

"No, but I'd say it would make an interesting story. Maybe Iliana can fill you in."

Iliana had been carefully removing another of the explosive strips from its wrapping, and she turned at the mention of her name.

"Sorry?"

"Anakin and Tahiri — how come you're helping them?"

For the first time since Tendra had met her, the young woman smiled. "I guess you could say it's a case of mutual need. They just happened to come along at the right time."

Lando grinned as he stepped back to let Vehn attach some explosive to the bottom of the door. "That's a Solo thing passed on from father to son." He wiped a trickle of sweat from his eye and gazed ruefully at the charcoal smear it left on his knuckles. "Well at least we know we still have the luck, even though we've completely blown our reputation for style and decorum." He threw Tendra a semi-resigned, semi-sardonic shrug before turning back to Iliana. "Does anyone know how many we're up against?"

"It's hard to say." She frowned, sombre again. "Tag must have had a group waiting to take on Anakin and Rongo, but it looks like they pretty much wiped them all out. However Blue thinks Tag's probably got some more men upstairs, and now he's got the Rancors as well — what's left of them that is. We got quite a few of them, and I think Tab, Squirt and Dajira took out some more out front."

"Dajira did most of it. She was incredible," Squirt enthused.

Blue appeared behind him. "Speaking of Dajira — what's she doing? Is she coming back?"

Squirt shook his head. "She said there was something she had to do. She sounded a bit ... funny."

"Funny?"

Lando noticed a shadow of disappointment pass briefly over Blue's face.

"Kind of distracted," Squirt explained with a shrug.

"I wonder what made her help us in the first place?" mused Iliana. "I've never met her before — have you?" She glanced at Blue, and then Squirt and Grunt, but they shook their heads.

"She's mysterious," Squirt contributed with a grin, and handed Lando the last piece of plastine strip. "Beautiful, too. Like Anakin's woman."

Lando had just opened his mouth to direct the conversation back to the subject of Tag's resources, but Squirt's comment almost made him bite his tongue off. "Anakin's wo—. Woah! Uh-oh!" The flash of pain caught him so much by surprise that he felt the strip drop from his grasp, and before he could stop himself he'd clutched at the tabs along the central layer. Instinctively he batted at the device to push it away, but Tendra, thinking it was falling, leaped forward and grabbed it.

"Lando what the —"

"Throw it away! I think I've activated the damn thing!" he shouted, wildly pantomiming his request to emphasise his words.

"Oh!" Tendra squealed and took a step so she could launch the strip towards the entrance, but immediately thumped into Shorty who had just arrived with an armful of blasters.

"Spit!" he yelped as several weapons clattered to the floor hitting Tendra's foot en route.

"Ouch!" Tendra stumbled forward, trying to get rid of the demon piece of plastine and grab her injured toes at the same time.

"Got it!" crowed the Duros triumphantly, assuming she was worried about losing her grip on the explosive. He waved it in the air and then stopped in consternation as the group facing him all started gesticulating and shouting at him.

"What's that?" he frowned, straining to interpret the confused messages. "Big idiot? Who's a big idiot?"

"No! No! Get rid of it!" bellowed Blue.

"Get rid of what?" he snarled in exasperation.

"The explosive! It's active!"

The Duros glared at Blue dubiously, and then he grinned revealing an unnerving expanse of sharp teeth. "Haw, haw. You nearly got me there, bro'." He studied the length of dimpled plastine appreciatively and handed it back to Blue. "You have to be up early to get one over on me, you know. Now who's for what?" He held out the motley collection of weapons.

Blue stared first at Shorty and then the strip, his mouth wide open. "Aw for Sith's sake," he hissed, and thrust it at Lando. "Okay, the juggling display's over, folks. Back to the scheduled programme." He waved everybody back to their tasks and leaned over to Lando. "Maybe it's just as well we didn't have a G-9. Nothing personal, but you seem a little jumpy, friend. You sure you can handle one of these?" He patted the EE-3 that was resting on top of Shorty's small arsenal.

"Sorry." Lando's chagrin was overruled by his unease. He cocked his head towards Squirt and added, "But I thought he said something about Anakin and a woman."

"Yeah, that's right. Anakin's woman — Tahiri," Blue explained in a matter-of-fact tone, quickly removing the length of explosive wavering in Lando's hand before he could drop it again, and passing it to Vehn who promptly headed over to the door.

"Tahiri's not a —" Lando began, and then stopped at the collective look of puzzlement from the swoopers.

Tendra leaned up to whisper in his ear. "I think this is one of those from a certain point of view moments, Lando. Think — swooper."

"— not your average woman, that's for sure," Lando finished with a grin after he'd managed to re-activate his brain-to-jaw synapse.

Blue thumped Lando's arm companionably. "Neither's Tendra — you're lucky men, both of you. Now." He cocked his chin toward Vehn who had clambered on to Chukka's back to fix the last section of explosive. "Looks like we almost have ignition on the door. I gather we're going to have to work it so we get the whole shebang going off at the same time?"

Lando nodded, and took the rifle Blue had indicated a moment ago from the clutch in Shorty's arms. "If Vehn stays where he is to set off the top one, I'll take the left and two more of you see to the others. There's about a five second lapse to give you time to step clear." He looked up from checking his power pack. "Call everyone over and we'll go over the basic plan."

"Not much to discuss is there?" said Blue scratching his chin. "We won't know what we're facing until we're down there."

"True," Lando agreed. "But I've got a few suggestions anyway." He tested the weight of the rifle butt and glanced up to Blue studying him.

"You know something, bro', I think you enjoy this stuff don't you?"

"Enjoy it? No. But as long as there are morons like Tag around, it looks like none of us have a choice."

Blue finished his perusal of Lando, and then spat on his palm and held it out. "Then let's make it one less moron," he said quietly.

Lando stared at Blue's hand, and then at Tendra, noting her faint nod. Purposefully he replicated Blue's gesture. "You got it," he grinned, and then added, "Bro'." Despite the anxiety simmering in the swooper's eyes, Lando noticed a warming twinkle of acknowledgment and acceptance. "I guess we're ready then?"

"Ready as rockets," said Tendra as she accepted an old DL-44 from Shorty.

"You bet," replied Blue grimly. "You kriffin' well bet."

*****

"He's going to be okay," Tab was saying as she smoothed a lock of dark hair from Zed's forehead. She nodded toward where the two Mantrusian women were tending to Skell, talking to him quietly and massaging his temple to channel their healing energy into his mind. Tab had watched them working on both men. Once a skeptic regarding anything that smacked of the paranormal, Tab had, like Blue, had her views radically uprooted. "Jassif reckons he'll be fighting fit after a few days. We've just got to keep him from trying to move his shoulder around too much."

"Yeah, damn it," grunted the big man glancing up at Dajira and attempting to coordinate his still sluggish reflexes sufficiently to wink. "Might have to ask for a refund on those ballet lessons I had planned."

"Unfortunately," added his girlfriend with a roll of her eyes, "the bolt missed his brain. So he's still insane."

"Aw, but she loves me anyway." Zed's chuckle was laboured, but Dajira could hear his relief. "Hey — um." He shifted awkwardly so he could include Vilco in his gaze. "Wanna thank you two for helping Tab and the others out."

"It's really Dajira you should be thanking," said Vilco, his glassy eyes filling with earnest admiration. "She rescued me, too."

"We didn't expect you'd get sucked into a fight," Tab said ruefully. "You guys were just there to be the distraction. It all ended up the opposite to what it should have been — you helping us instead of vice versa."

Vilco shrugged. "Common enemy."

"Yeah — but thanks anyway." Tab's eyes narrowed as she focused back on the shadowy shape of the warehouse. "There's only a couple of guys at the entrance to that room now. You reckon that's a good sign?"

Dajira nodded. Relieved to see that Blue and his group had all arrived at the tower safely, she had glanced over a few times to check how they were getting on, and had noticed the sudden dearth of movement.

Which was why she knew she had to get going in order to do what she had to do. But first she had to off-load Vilco and his two friends.

"We'd better leave," she said tugging at the Rodian's sleeve, to which he responded with a nod.

"Well good luck," said Tab in concert with a grunt of endorsement from Zed. "And pass on our thanks to your friends. I'm just sorry about the way it turned out for them."

Vilco shrugged again and shook his head. "It's not your fault."

"It's the way of evil," Neijal interjected softly. She had left Skell in Jassif's care and reached out to take Dajira's hand. "You are troubled," she murmured.

Dajira started at the woman's unexpected words, and for a moment she wondered if the Mantrusians' healing ability applied not just to physical wounds.

"I'm worried about Vilco's group." She felt a flash of guilt at the half-truth, but the alternative was too painful.

Neijal's dark eyes flickered over her face, sympathy and wisdom radiating from their limpid depths. For a moment, Dajira felt compelled to surrender to the acceptance she saw there, but she steeled herself. This was her burden — her responsibility. And time was running out.

"You're a good person, Dajira," Neijal said. Her voice was quiet, but something about her tone resonated with a conviction that brought a large lump to the girl's throat. All she could do in response was nod and squeeze the woman's slender fingers.

"Thanks," she managed to rasp before turning to follow Vilco.

"I meant what I said back there," he said as she banked the speeder away from the site and headed toward the plaza. "If you hadn't come along — we'd have been stuffed."

"Too right," agreed Rance, while his older friend nodded.

Dajira focused her attention on guiding the speeder, trying to come up with a suitable response while at the same time clarifying her course of action. Vilco's concern for his friends had provided her with the excuse she needed to leave the swoopers, but now she was approaching the plaza again she felt doubt assail her. Was she crazy attempting to do what she intended? Or would she be better off staying with Vilco and helping him locate his friends, or maybe dropping him off as planned and returning to help Blue, Tendra and the others?

She was saved from her prevarication by a cry from one of the men, and with a sense of foreboding she turned quickly in the direction he was pointing.

"I think it's Tamar and Retta!" Vilco's horns trembled with both hope and uncertainty.

Dajira squinted over toward the far side of the square in time to see another shape materialising from the shadows. "Are you sure?" She took her foot off the thrusters and let the big speeder drift slowly toward the figures, preparing to beat a hasty retreat if necessary.

"Yes!" said Vilco with sudden conviction. "Thank the Force! I'm not sure they know it's us though."

Rance waved an enthusiastic greeting to the two people who remained motionless for a moment as if peering at them, and then they waved back and advanced toward them.

"Vilco!" cheered the man. "Thank the stars you guys are okay."

"What about the others? Where are they?" Vilco had clambered out and was rushing over to greet them, followed by Rance and the older man.

"Dorrie had the key to his shop down by the bridge, so we took everyone there. Well — all except for Garin and Donella and those two swoopers. We had to get them to the Emergency Center."

"Are they going to be alright?" asked Vilco anxiously.

The woman nodded. "Some of those onlookers stayed and helped us with them. Proves there are a few decent folks out there I suppose."

"To be fair — they probably thought it was some gang brawl. Most people don't want to get involved with swoopers."

"True," agreed Tamar. "And I guess we were kind of lucky there were people still around. This area's pretty dead after sundown. Everyone goes home."

"Who were they?" asked Rance.

"Shift workers on their way to the foundry," Retta explained. "One of them took the injured to the medics — Cassie went with them, too. And two of the other guys helped ferry everyone else to Dorrie's, but we decided to come back and see if we could find you guys."

Vilco patted her arm warmly. "That was good of you. We were worried about you, too."

She nodded towards the dark shapes scattered around the plaza and her face took on a jaundiced expression. "We were also wondering — against our better judgment — if we ought to get help for those horrible swoopers that attacked us. But just after we got here we saw you guys drop a big panel thing on one of them. What's going on?"

Vilco's mouth opened and closed a few times and he whirled round to see what his fellow protestor was talking about. "Oh my!" He traded astounded looks with Dajira and then sighed and shook his head. "There's too much to explain in any detail except that what we planned has gone out the window."

"Yes, well speaking about windows," Tamar contributed. "Those swoopers have rather ruined Tag's. After you took one out with the panel, the others flew up to the top floor and crashed in. Are they connected with Tag or do they have a grudge against him, too?"

"Apparently he's hired them — but don't ask me the details." Vilco held his hands up to forestall further questions. "The good news is we've found Vehn and Qorl."

"Fantastic!" Retta raised her hands in victory, while Tamar grabbed Vilco joyfully by the shoulders and then stopped, suddenly anxious.

"They're not injured are they?"

"They're fine — amazing really considering how long they've been incarcerated there."

"But?" prompted Retta sensing Vilco's slight hesitation.

"They wanted to stay and confront Tag, so they're busy gearing themselves up to go back in with Jonno and Pet's gang."

"That's madness!" she gasped.

Tamar frowned but nodded pensively. "But that is Vehn and Qorl I guess. They don't take things sitting down." He studied Vilco and then Dajira for a moment. "It could get pretty nasty in there, couldn't it?"

Vilco looked serious. "Jonno's brother's in there with the two Jedi and some of the Knights. And according to one of the others, there are some Vong in there, too."

"Vong — but how?"

"I don't know — I'm just repeating what I heard. We didn't hang around to listen to the details because we wanted to find you guys."

Tamar turned and observed the warehouse, and then shook his head decisively. "Vilco — I really think this has got too big for us. I think we ought to call the authorities."

"I do, too," added Retta.

Vilco's horns wavered, and he followed Tamar's gaze. "I don't have much faith in them," he murmured, "not after that farce they called a trial. I'm sure Tag has friends in the Security Force."

"I know. But they're still obliged to answer any call out. And I doubt they'd be too happy to hear he's entertaining Vong."

"He's scum," growled the older of the two men who had accompanied Dajira and Vilco. "Thinks he can get away with murder."

"He did," Rance reminded him. "Twice."

"I went to the Security guys when Vehn and Qorl disappeared," Vilco explained to Dajira. "I told them that they'd upset Tag and they should question him — but I could tell they weren't taking me seriously. That's why we didn't mind helping Rongo and his friends out."

Dajira felt their words like a series of blows. So this was what these people thought of Bomar! All this time she'd been living under the delusion that he was a respected member of society, yet his beliefs had caused so much grief. Had he bribed somebody to pervert the course of justice? How could she have failed to notice what he'd become — this kind man who had saved both her and her mother from a life of poverty.

The meandering river of her life had, over the last day, developed unexpected currents that had forced her to constantly fortify the dam she'd built of her emotions, but these new revelations coursed down on it like a flash flood. And the fragile structure could withstand the onslaught no longer. Before she could stem the impulse, she felt her eyes brim over with tears and she covered her face in despair. "I'm so ashamed!" she sobbed. "I'm as guilty as him."

Vilco stared at her in consternation and then at the others — but they stared back in confusion.

"What do you mean?" Retta asked, approaching the trembling Twi'lek girl. "You've just saved a whole lot of people from getting injured or killed. How can you be guilty?"

Dajira's lekku flattened instinctively against her head and shoulders as if to bolster her slight frame against the turmoil inside, the self-realisation coupled with regret. If only she hadn't been so blind ... but what could she have done? She was in Bomar's debt — as was her mother. And would she have had the courage to speak out against him anyway?

She shook her head and wiped her eyes in an effort to clear her vision. "I ..." she began, but her voice cracked.

"Hey," said Vilco soothingly. "It's okay. You didn't ask to get involved with all this. It's all been a shock."

"You don't ... you don't understand," she explained tremulously. "Bomar Tag is my ... he's my step-father." Afraid to look at their faces and see the disgust she was sure would be displayed there, she turned away and stumbled toward the speeder. But just as she reached the door a long-fingered hand grabbed her shoulder. The touch was surprisingly gentle.

"Don't go, Dajira. We didn't realise that ..." Vilco's voice faltered. "We wouldn't have said all that ... you know ... if we'd known."

Dajira swung around both in shock and anger. "You're apologising to me? Are you crazy? It's me who should be apologising to you. Your friends ..." She waved wildly toward the plaza and then the perplexed group nearby. "The two young swoopers, Tab and Squirt, those poor women and the little children!" She was vaguely aware she was screaming at the little Rodian, but she couldn't, nor wanted to, control herself. "They're my fault. Don't you see that? My fault. I should have seen all this but I'm stupid, so stupid."

She raked her fingers down her lekku and then, grasping the tips, yanked at them hard. The pain was agonising and yet real, and somehow deeply comforting. "He should have just left us," she moaned tearing again at the poor victims of her self-loathing. "We'd have been better off dead!"

"No! Stop it!" Vilco grabbed her hands and tried to lever her fingers away from her reddening flesh. "It's not your burden!" he shouted emphasising each word. "Let go now. Stop this!"

Retta had run over and between the two of them they hauled Dajira to her feet and held her steady. Beyond the red mist that blurred her vision, Dajira could make out their shapes, one on each side; between them rose the boxy outline of her stepfather's warehouse.

Her effort at breathing was nothing more than strangulated sobs, but she struggled to control the paroxysms so she could speak. So much to explain.

Vilco spoke again, but this time his tone was different — more measured.

"This may sound trite, Dajira, but I know how you feel. My father was a contract killer — bounty hunter as he liked to call it." He inflected his voice as if to mimic that of his parent. "It took me years to realise what all his long absences meant, all those gifts from exotic places. All those cryptic conversations with visitors."

The calmness of his voice was comforting and, despite her anguish, Dajira felt compelled to listen. Yet somewhere behind the words, she could hear echoes of her own pain.

"When I found out, like you I blamed myself for not catching on earlier. I wondered if I really had known, but had just chosen to fool myself so I could enjoy all the advantages. My father was good at his job — and his clients paid him well. We led a pretty good lifestyle."

Without realising she was doing it, Dajira nodded.

"I found a service job on an old ore freighter so I could leave. Travelling around meant I had no real home — but that suited me fine. No home, no connection with my roots. Maybe I thought the years of cleaning 'freshers and wiping up other people's messes would help me wipe my own slate clean. Who knows? Anyway one day I woke up and realised that my father's debt wasn't mine to pay."

"He's right, Dajira," said Retta softly. "We carry our own burdens — but that's all. Your father's ... stepfather's ... belongs to him and nobody else."

Dajira let out a long juddering sigh. She opened her mouth but only a tortured squeak emerged.

Vilco let go her fingers and patted her gently on the arms. "Come with us to Dottie's. I think you've been through more than one person should have to cope with."

But Dajira shook her head vigorously. She struggled for a moment to make her mouth obey the command to form words, but eventually won the battle. To her surprise her voice, although sounding raw, was firm. "I have to find him — find Bomar. I have to try and make him see that what he's doing is wrong."

Retta's face fell, and the other three men, who had come over while Vilco was talking, exchanged worried looks.

"She can't go in there, Vilco," said Rance.

"Not by herself she can't, no," agreed the Rodian.

"Vilco!" warned Tamar.

"I know, I know," said Vilco. "I don't fancy meeting Vong either. But this is something I always wanted to do with my father — face up to him. And if I can help somebody else do it, well ... it'll make me feel better."

"Well if you go, we go," said the older man stubbornly. "And anyway we make a damn good team."

"I'm with Esra," added Rance.

Vilco gave a curt nod and began to clamber into the speeder. "Tamar, you and Retta give the —" He stopped as a blue and white speeder sped into the plaza and pulled up with a swirl of dust beside them.

"Well, speak of the demons! One of those foundry workers must have called them," said Tamar.

"Amazing," growled Esra. "It actually took them less than a day to respond. I'm impressed."

Vilco held up a warning hand. "They probably think it's gang business," he pointed out in a conciliatory tone before turning to the two security officers.

"We had a call that there's been trouble," announced the female member of the duo, while the other perused the scene in the plaza, his eyes settling briefly on the shattered sign, and then on the overturned seats and smashed bikes.

"You people see anything?" he demanded.

"Yes, we did," said Dajira, "and your superiors are wasting their time sending just the two of you. You need to go back to them and tell them that the Yuuzhan Vong are here — in that warehouse — and if they don't do something soon a lot of good people are going to be killed or taken as sacrifices."

"But isn't that Bomar Tag's place?" frowned the woman as she followed Dajira's pointing finger.

"Yes. And I ..." Her throat threatened to close again and stifle the words, but she swallowed and took a deep breath. "I'm Dajira Tag, his daughter. And you must listen to me. He organised with the Peace Brigade to turn two Jedi and some others over to the Yuuzhan Vong. And now they're here. This cannot happen — do you understand that? Once we let them in we are all lost."

"But ... but —" stammered the woman.

"But Tag doesn't have any connections with the Peace Brigade," scoffed the man. "That's just rumours." He stopped suddenly as Dajira gripped his collar. "Oi!" He tried unsuccessfully to push her fingers away.

"You are a fool!" she shouted. "I know because I was one, too. You're also horribly wrong, and if you don't listen to me, then the blood of this city, maybe this world, will be on your head!"

"Um, I ... I think maybe we'd better do as she says," said the woman hoarsely. She had, like the others, caught the distant echo of blasters, which was suddenly punctuated by the tinkle of shattering transparisteel.

"I have to go!" Dajira hissed, lunging over to her speeder. Vilco was already at the controls, and Rance and Esra were climbing in.

"We'll get the others!" shouted Tamar and he raced after Retta as she ran toward the nearest street.

The big black and yellow speeder surged away leaving the two security officers to gaze at each other in growing nervousness.

"Damn it! Why does this stuff always happen on our watch?" grumbled the man.

"I dunno. We must be cursed or something," said the woman as she fumbled to open the com channel on the speeder's com-stalk. She went to speak, and then stopped and glanced anxiously up at her companion. "What do I say? I mean — would you believe it if I called in to say the Vong were here?"

The male officer chewed his lip and turned to watch with growing apprehension as the speeder rose up toward the gaping holes on the warehouse frontage that had once been windows. The clamour was quite distinct now, and the occasional flash of laser light flashed upward from some point at the rear of the building.

He grabbed the com-stalk and poised his finger on the button frowning thoughtfully at the woman. "Nope, but I'd sure believe you if you reported a warehouse break-in — with possible assault and battery."

Another series of flashes speared the dark sky, and the woman returned his gaze with a nod.

"And I think you'd better stress that it's urgent," she said grimly.



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