Many Happy Returns: Chapter Thirty-Seven

This is the hardest bit, thought Anakin. Wondering if there's something vital that I've forgotten, and hoping I'm not leading people to disaster. I wonder if Dad and Mum used to feel like this. Leadership was not a role he had consciously chosen for himself, but more and more he was finding himself thrust into it. And he had already learned that even the best plan required only one tiny unexpected detail to disrupt it completely. In the end it always came down to faith and trust.

He turned to Tahiri and caught the glitter of anticipation in her emerald eyes as she focused her Force sense on what awaited them on the other side of the door. Hopefully, at the end of the corridor, Rongo and the others were in position, waiting for Anakin to open the door on to the landing where Tag and his cronies were waiting. His first impulse had been to divide into two groups with himself and Tahiri as leader of each, as their mental connection would make coordinating their confrontation with Tag a lot easier, but he had decided against it. Offering the Yuuzhan Vong a single target rather than a divided one, although obviously problematic for both himself and Tahiri, would give Doc those precious few seconds he would require to eradicate the threat of the laser cannon.

Tahiri's gaze shifted in response to his attention, and she gave him a slight nod. His eyes were drawn to her lips — slightly parted in one of her fierce pre-battle grins. Strange to realise how often he had seen the same expression on her face when they were kids, never predicting how it would come to affect him.

Before he'd had time to acknowledge the impulse he was kissing her.

"Now that I did not expect," she murmured as his lips left hers, the stubble on his chin rasping like sandpaper against velvet. "You sure know how to romance a girl, Captain."

"Well you know how it is — perfect setting and all that — I couldn't resist."

"So are we going through or not?" she queried cocking her chin toward the door, a faint twinkle temporarily muting the gleam in her eyes.

Anakin drew out his lightsaber. "Well, I guess we are the chief guests, so the party won't really get going until we turn up. You alright?"

She nodded, and then catching the gentle inquisitive brush of his mind she threw him a warning look. "It's okay, I'm not going to do anything stupid."

He threw her a grin that was more than a little cocky. "I know. Okay — on the count of three. One, two —"

No sooner was he halfway through the door than he realised the situation had changed somewhat from what he had observed only a few minutes previously — Tag's support had been augmented by the arrival of the Rancors. A faint sense of disquiet wriggled its way into Anakin's gut. If the Rancors were there, where were Blue and the others, or more precisely what had happened to them? He was pushing that worry away when he was suddenly assailed by a wave of revulsion that he identified as coming from Tahiri. Through their bond he caught the reflected image of Jaytee's face, distorted for an instant by a red mist of loathing and rage. Before he could transmit the balm of calming thoughts, however, Anakin felt her resolutely reign in her emotions, and as he ignited his lightsaber she stepped up beside him. The dual snap-hiss of their weapons echoed like the sinister battle cry of a serpent in the wide space.

In his peripheral vision Anakin had noted the three familiar shapes of Rongo, Doc and Chopper materialising from the corridor exit. His gaze, however, remained unswervingly on the bulky man standing in front of the group huddled at the entrance to the tower.

"This has gone far enough, Tag!" He projected the compelling power of the Force into his voice so it rose steady and commanding above the electric hum of the blades. "Stop now before any more of your men have to suffer."

"You just don't know when to give up do you, Solo," Tag growled.

"Not when I'm dealing with law-breakers, no."

Even in the gloom Tag's face was flushed, but it became noticeably purple as he let loose a strange, half-strangulated chuckle. "Law breakers! That's rich coming from you. Jedi wouldn't know laws if they fell over them. You and your ilk deserve everything coming to you."

"From the Vong, you mean?" Anakin saw the hefty man controlling the cannon throw Tag an expectant look, but the latter shook his head. He also noticed the lead Peace Brigader's lips curl into a feral snarl at his intentional corruption of the Yuuzhan Vong name.

"From whoever has the courage to punish you," scowled Tag oblivious to the movements of his uniformed companions as they readied themselves for battle. "Your Order has always been underhand, pretending to protect the galaxy when all you've ever wanted is to control it. You've always looked out for yourselves."

"That's a load of bantha fodder and you know it." Anakin had to work hard to keep his voice steady. The way people like Tag could keep spouting this rubbish never ceased to spark his anger — it flew in the face of logic. And Anakin was nothing if not logical. "If it wasn't for the Jedi — you'd all still be suffering under Palpatine."

"Suffering?" Tag swiped at the saliva spattered on his chin, his eyes popping. "How would you describe our current situation then? Oh wait — I forgot — this isn't suffering, this is called protecting the galaxy." The fist clenching his heavy blaster was visibly shaking with rage. "Give us a break, Solo. We've heard all your lies and we're sick of them. You Jedi are the ones keeping the war going because you're paranoid about losing control. In reality the Yuuzhan Vong are the best thing that could happen because they've finally shown you people in your true light."

"As the only true defenders of the weak and vulnerable you mean?" The voice, although charged with the angry frustration of one who had endured more than he wanted of the collaborationists' mantra, was as familiar to Anakin as that of his parents.

"Lando?" Incredulous, Anakin allowed his gaze to follow the direction that his ears indicated, his spirits shooting up like a balloon full of laughing gas only to be buoyed even more by the appearance of Blue and then Vehn, Qorl and Tendra. His relief was, however, immediately tinged with concern, for although it was true that their numbers suddenly looked a lot healthier, their option of blasting the laser cannon had suddenly become untenable — until Lando and his friends moved that was. Greater numbers were also going to make it more difficult to fight in such an enclosed space — but when had things ever been easy? As usual, the negatives were already tempering the positives, and an already complicated situation had become more so. The whole concept of easy victory existed only in the minds of fools.

Tag spun round at the sound of Lando's voice so quickly, he staggered into one of the sick looking survivors of the debacle in the loading bay who promptly fell over groaning. Angrily he hauled the man back to his feet only to end up staring dumbfounded as his former prisoner stepped out silently from the shadows at the entrance to the tower stairwell, followed by a steadily increasing line of grim-faced men and women.

Like thunderclouds, brewing, threatening ... No! No! Not a threat! Not a ... not going to ruin my plans. Not now. Waited so long for this ... waited to avenge her. With a huge effort of will, Tag steadied his racing pulse and shaking hands. Not thunderclouds ... just idiots and scumbags. Stupid nerfs to the slaughter. Keep coming, fools — it's all the more grist for the mill.

Slash let loose a derisive snort. "Well well! If it ain't the rest of the Black Nighties," he drawled. "Better wait a few minutes, Ding-Dong. Give 'em a chance to dry their nail varnish."

"Can it, Slash!" growled Rongo, while one of the duo of heads gurgled with manic appreciation at his boss's humour.

"Nah. I'm gonna enjoy this — been looking forward to it for ages. Now you're gonna see how kriffin' useless all those work schemes you've been babying your people with has been. When the chips are down, there's only one thing that counts." And he twirled the two old DeathHammers he'd been brandishing, grinning hungrily.

"Yeah," endorsed the articulate member of the twins, obviously enjoying Slash's act of showmanship.

"Watch you don't blast your feet off, crap for brains," rumbled Doc, and Anakin could see the big man's steely gaze logging the various positions of his antagonists, gauging distances, predicting, extrapolating. His primary target now rendered at least temporarily unobtainable, Doc simply shifted vectors. Anakin was suddenly filled with respect for the swooper, and it struck him again how loyalty and strength of will were virtues that bore no relation to birthright.

"This bickering is pointless," interrupted Tag glaring at the Rancor leader. "I didn't pay you to stand there stroking yourself."

"It must suck having to pay to get back up," said Anakin sneakily.

"Especially when you see what's on offer," added Lando in a silky voice. "Is this the top of the range, Tag, or did you go for the economy package?"

"Why you —" Slash began lunging towards Lando when he suddenly remembered that Tag and his men lay in his path. "I'm gonna enjoy rearranging your face, pretty boy," he snarled.

"Oh, oh, how intimidating — I'm sure he's shaking in his boots, Slash," said Blue with theatrical sarcasm.

"Laugh all you like," shouted Tag. "I was going to offer you swoopers the chance for an honourable withdrawal — seeing how you appear to have been sucked in by these two Jedi and their friends pretending to be the saviours of the galaxy. But you've just blown that possibility sky high. Obviously it's true what they say about there being no honour among thieves and low-life scum."

"Yeah," agreed Anakin with mock earnestness. "And of course the Vong would never do anything dishonourable like wiping out planets or sacrificing millions of defenceless people to their gods. Or like pretending to be something they're not. I mean, I'm sure the fact that these Peace Brigade guys look and act surprisingly like Vong in disguise is just a by-product of my Jedi paranoia." His ice blue eyes caught Tahiri's — a non-verbal signal that she acknowledged with an imperceptible nod.

Tag's lips had begun to contort into an ugly sneer when suddenly the sight of Delone's face apparently dissolving caused them to fall slack. For one insane moment he thought one of the swoopers had squirted the Brigader with acid, but then the reality hit him like a blast of Hoth air, except the ice was spreading from within.

"What in the name of the Sith ..." gasped a voice beside him. "Oh kriff!"

Anakin watched the expressions of growing horror on the faces of Tag's men, and the uncomprehending looks on the faces of the Rancors. He quickly checked the reactions of Rongo and his two companions, and threw Blue a reassuring nod. He had warned his own group what would happen when he and Tahiri tweaked the trigger spots on the Yuuzhan Vong's ooglith masquers, but even so their disgust hit him like a blast of rancid air. He could almost feel some of them retching as the creatures slurped and undulated like gelatinous sea creatures to reveal the grotesque scarified faces, the gleaming chitinous armour of six warriors.

"I still say Slash wins the ugly prize," quipped Doc, albeit a little breathlessly, as he watched the Yuuzhan Vong leader advance greedily, and yet with what almost seemed like a curious respect, toward Anakin and Tahiri.

"It will be my pleasure to introduce you to the true gods, Jeedai!" hissed the ersatz Delone, his needle sharp teeth gleaming with the satisfaction of a well-fed carnivore.

"But — Oi, what ... who the —" Slash stomped over to Tag, gesticulating wildly with his two well-notched blasters.

But Tag was staring at the glistening warriors, his mouth moving in what might have been prayer or some sort of incantation, his eyes glazed as if focused on some private dilemma.

Not Delone? Not the Peace Brigade? He stumbled again as if he had just stepped down from a carousel, regaining his balance by grasping at his injured companion and using him as a prop. So Delone didn't betray me after all ... or there again maybe he did. The limpid skin on his brow furrowed as he struggled to impose a plausible sequence of events that could explain the current situation. Now that he thought about it, his Peace Brigade contact had sounded a little shifty, a little vague about the arrangements for the rendezvous with the local Yuuzhan Vong forces. Maybe he had attempted to come to some private arrangement with them, but they had seen through him and sent him packing. They were after all renowned for their hatred of cowards. He considered that idea for a moment, and then nodded sourly. It would certainly explain why Delone had failed to reply to his messages — he would have been busy trying to convince the Vong the plan was his idea. But they were too clever to be foxed by a slime-ball like Delone. They would have decided to meet the man who was truly putting his life on the line and give him the respect he deserved.

And of course the only way for them to do that was to disguise themselves.

Yes. It all made perfect sense.

Tag fixed the dishevelled leader of the Rancors with a baleful glare. "Keep your hair on. You're about to be part of something great — something momentous. This is the day that the Jedi finally begin to pay for their arrogance."

"I don't care about all your smart words, Tag. I just wanna make sure those gooks ain't gonna turn on us."

The imposing figure of the lead Yuuzhan Vong turned slowly to regard both Tag and the swooper. In spite of himself, Tag found his breath catch slightly in his throat as the alien's black eyes focused on his — their expression fathomless and unreadable — but he steeled himself and returned the gaze.

"The Yuuzhan Vong want peace like every sensible person in this galaxy. They want an end to this Jedi perpetrated madness. Of course they won't turn on you — far from it, they will reward you. Isn't this so ... Commander?"

In the pause between Tag's question and the reply, Anakin heard Tahiri's low whisper. "He's crazy, isn't he?"

He nodded, at the same time noting Lando and Tendra exchanging jaundiced looks. Madness was everywhere at present, it seemed. The threat posed by the Yuuzhan Vong was slowly and insidiously poisoning the whole galaxy and turning its people against one another. What had happened to the dreams of unity his parents and their friends had fought for?

"Those prepared to do battle will be honoured, yes." The warrior's words whistled eerily through the slits on his lips.

"See?" said Tag triumphantly.

"Should we tell them what he means by honoured?" Tahiri murmured sardonically.

"Would they believe us?" he countered.

"I gather that's a no."

Suddenly Tag chuckled — a low reverberation that slowly rose in pitch to a sinister wheeze. "If only you knew how long I've waited for this. I hope you get as much out of it as I do."

"Oh we will, don't worry," gritted Vehn. "This is a dream come true."

"You're making one very big mistake, Tag," said Anakin softly.

But Tag's response was lost to him in the shimmer and hum of Tahiri's blue blade as it sliced with unearthly precision at the amphistaff curving through the air towards them. Without missing a beat Anakin let loose a blast that caught the wielder at the side of the chest, throwing him backwards into the Yuuzhan Vong behind him so that both toppled over. At the same time his lightsaber seared the tip of a second amphistaff as it attempted to strike. The air around him exploded as if a storm had suddenly broken out — but the only rain he felt was in sporadic droplets tinged sometimes with black but more often with crimson.


"They sure made a mess," murmured Vilco, dodging a dangling strip of metal that had once been a window frame as Dajira manoeuvred the speeder through the gaping hole that the Rancors had created. Trails of broken transparisteel linked the abandoned swoop bikes as if they had been captured in some huge arachnid's web, and the evening wind was busy rifling through a bundle of sheets of flimsi and scattering them carelessly on to the floor.

Dajira powered down the repulsors and shivered. The sounds of battle echoed in the open space outside the set of offices, making it difficult to trace the exact location of their origin. Shouts and shrill screams rose like a chorus above a discordant percussion of thuds and booms that she felt as much in the soles of her feet as in her ears. She turned in response to a pat on her shoulder and found herself the focus of Vilco's anxious gaze.

"Where?" He appeared to be mouthing but Dajira knew that was only an impression caused by the fact he was competing with the roar of some weapon that sounded like a rocket launcher.

"Not sure!" she screeched in reply, and then cringed as the sudden lull made the room reverberate with her voice alone. She waved towards the corridor. "But I'm guessing they'll be somewhere up towards the tower."

A loud explosion muffled Vilco's reply, but he turned back to Rance and Esra and beckoned them to follow. They were halfway towards the door at the end when Dajira suddenly halted.

"What's wrong?" asked Vilco breathlessly.

"You go on through there and then wait. I won't be a minute." She slipped past them and raced back in the direction they'd come. She knew what she was looking for, even though she wasn't sure whether her idea would work or not. But at this point anything was worth a try — anything that might jerk her stepfather back to reality, or at least remind him of what he had to lose.

She threw the door to his office open and stumbled over to the shelf where he kept his holopics. The one she wanted sat beside that of his mother; it was ...

She barely had time to gasp as a hand grabbed at her lekku and jerked her roughly backwards.

"Don't move!" The voice would have sounded threatening if not for the panicked tremble.

"Kasen?" she managed to squeak. His fingernails were biting into the flesh of her lekku, which were still smarting from her own anguished attack on them. The pain brought out beads of sweat on her forehead, but she forced her voice to sound reassuring. "It's okay, it's me — Dajira."

"Not okay!" he shouted. "You're with them. I saw you."

"I'm with them because they're right, Kasen. They're right and we're not. You must listen to me. Bomar has it all wrong. He's become deranged. You have to let me go so I can help him." She wished she could come up with a reasoned argument, but it was difficult enough to talk let alone think. In the distance something exploded, making the floor vibrate.

"You betrayed him ... your own father."

Dajira caught a glimpse in her periphery vision of something long and needle sharp being held at the side of her neck. Her mind raced as she attempted to come up with a solution, but all that came to mind was an intense sadness at what Bomar had become and how this had poisoned them all. What hope was there if one man's delusion could affect so many? Some of Bomar's men, she knew, had been only to willing to follow his path, but what about people like Kasen who was a loyal family man at heart? Was this what the galaxy had come to? Were the Yuuzhan Vong a punishment indeed? Not just for the Jedi, but for everyone.

No. Not for the Jedi, and not for those still willing to see the truth. If evil could sway people, then so could good. She had to believe that, or else everything was lost. Vilco certainly believed it, and so did Rance and Esra. Even Blue and his friends believed it, or why would they put their lives on the line? Swoopers were not wont to commit themselves to lofty ideals — but there again were goodness and truth lofty?

In her mind's eye she saw again the image of the two young Jedi doggedly following the amethyst blade — its light a beacon illuminating the dark.

"Kasen," she began, mustering her mental resources. "You have to help me make Bomar see reason. You know in your heart that what he's doing is wrong. He has no right to imprison people and turn them over to the Vong, least of all women with children ... young children, babies. We were wrong to listen to him — wrong to go along with him. But there's still time to stop him ... just put down the blade and I'll explain what we're going to do."

In the pause that followed she felt the man's fingers alternately tightening and loosening on her lekku, an outward enactment of his inner vacillation. Suddenly their grip bit into her flesh, and her spirits sank.

"No. You can't be right. I —"

"Let her go!"

Dajira cried out as the startled accountant dragged her head back in his shock at the unexpected interruption.

"He's got a blade," she warned Vilco, her voice rasping because of the awkward angle at which she was being forced to hold her body in order to breathe.

There was a slight pause, and then to her utter astonishment she heard the little Rodian let out a disdainful chuckle. It surprised Kasen, too, and his grasp on her lekku slipped.

"That's not a blade," sneered Vilco, and, as Dajira managed to twist her body sufficiently to see him, he reached into his tunic and pulled out a vicious-looking weapon with twin blades. "This is a blade," he announced triumphantly, and then watched open-mouthed as the man's eyes rolled up and he groaned and slumped to the ground.

Temporarily speechless, Dajira stared at Vilco, and then they both gazed down at the figure at her feet.

"Mother of meteors!" Vilco gasped. "He's not dead is he? I only meant to frighten him so he'd let you go."

Dajira went to bend down to check and then stopped, slamming her palm over her mouth. For a moment Vilco thought she might be feeling ill, but then he heard her splutter.

"What?" he asked in confusion.

But Dajira could only snort and shake her head. "Irony!" she managed to wheeze eventually waving her arms to indicate the enormity of their situation. "Here we are worrying about one silly little man while somewhere nearby there's a mass slaughter going on."

Vilco shrugged, catching her meaning but incapable of explaining his reactions any more than she could. "Life is life I guess. Um, he is okay I presume?" he added tentatively as Dajira hurriedly felt the man's neck for a pulse.

"Yeah — he's just out to it. Come on, we can't afford to waste time here. Oh!" She stopped again and rushed over to the far wall and reached up for something in the darkness. "Mustn't forget what I came for in the first place. Thanks for coming back for me by the way."

"I was worried," Vilco explained simply, unwittingly waving his gruesome weapon for emphasis, and then gazing in confusion as she snorted again.

"I'm sorry, Vilco, it's just ..." She threw her arms in the air, defeated by her inability to articulate the visual oxymoron he represented. "What is that thing and where in the name of the Sith did you get it?"

Vilco's gaze flicked back and forth between her and the weapon for a minute as if to ascertain that that was indeed the subject of her query. "It's a Rodian razor-stick. It was lying beside one of those swoopers you downed in the plaza. My father used to have one." He turned it over slowly to display its two lethal blades, and his horns flattened briefly. "I don't know why I took it really. Guess that's why I had it secreted away." He grinned apologetically.

"Well," said Dajira reaching over to squeeze his arm before following him back into the corridor. "Whatever made you do it — I'm awfully glad you did."

She wanted to say more, but once they were outside the relative quiet of the office, conversation became a struggle as the sounds of battle drowned it out once again. So she clutched the holopic to her chest and prayed inwardly that there was still a chance to talk to Bomar — and hoped against hope that she could stop the madness.

Before it claimed them all.

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