Many Happy Returns: Chapter Forty-Two
The punch that Rongo had hoped would put an end to Slash's participation in Tag's machinations was never delivered. Instead his right arm was wrenched savagely up and twisted backwards so far he could have sworn he heard the ligaments screeching in protest as they stretched to breaking point. Agony coursed through him in waves of fluctuating heat and cold that momentarily sapped all his energy, leaving him limp and helpless to resist the two pairs of arms hauling him up until he hung suspended with his feet dangling a few inches from the ground. Gasping for breath due to the strain on his ribcage, he struggled to force his mind to forget about his body and focus on this new dilemma.
Time slowed down, the seconds marked by the throbbing of overwrought muscles, by Slash's pained exhalations as he struggled clumsily to his feet to stand unsteadily while he screamed a torrent of invective that Rongo heard only as an unintelligible roar. He watched, almost as if he was seeing through someone else's eyes, Slash's boots stepping towards him, Slash's fingers clenching into a fist as his arm bent at the elbow and the elbow slid back to begin a slow motion arc forward.
It was the sound of his name that jerked him out of his stasis, the voice bellowing at him desperate but almost as familiar as his own. Galvanised and suddenly acutely aware of what was about to happen, Rongo heaved both legs up until his knees were almost level with his stomach, and then thrust with all his might hitting Slash at maximum velocity in his solar plexus. The swooper arced backward, the sound of his landing replicated in the thud of Doc's blaster butt on the head of one of Rongo's attackers.
As the man spun away dizzily with Doc in pursuit, Rongo found himself once more with his feet in contact with the ground, and with the unexpected advantage of one arm free. Reaching behind his back he clamped on to the other swooper's belt, yanked it up until he heard the man groan and then, holding on like grim death, he doubled up and half-pulled, half-jerked the man over his head. The effort was almost too much, and for a moment he thought, as he tried to brush away the black spots skittering across his field of vision, that he was going to follow his opponent down to the ground. He blinked in an effort to bring his surroundings back into focus and suddenly caught sight of Iliana, at the spot where Slash had thrown her not long before, clambering to her feet. Relief flooded through him, and although he knew full well the danger of his own situation, he couldn't stop himself from watching her for just a few seconds longer to check that she was indeed uninjured.
Sometimes a few seconds is all that Destiny requires. It took Slash slightly less than that to clamber to his knees and aim his blast rifle. It gave Doc time to shout at Rongo again, this time with a warning rather than encouragement. But two seconds was not enough time for Rongo to send the message to his legs to move him clear.
The space around him exploded with a jumble of motion and sounds: Doc's voice again, frantic; a scream he thought he recognised as Iliana's; a crimson stream suddenly masked by a flying body that dropped to the ground with a sickening thud; needles of molten pain in his thigh and hip.
Was that his voice or merely his spirit crying out in denial? He had tried to reach his blaster in time, but something had impacted from behind against his shoulder, and for some reason his arm simply wasn't responding to the messages he was sending it. He felt warmth coursing down his right side, but he couldn't make any sense of it. Nor could he make any sense of why the shape he knew to be Slash was growing hazy, or why the room was becoming so dark. Or why he suddenly felt so incredibly, overwhelmingly tired.
* * * * *
Jaytee was beginning to panic. Torn between trying to keep an eye on Tag, while still remaining out of sight, and watching the horrible inevitability of Rongo's situation unfold, he clung to the duracrete slab like a drowning man to a piece of flotsam. Part of him wanted to see Rongo punished, while the other part, somewhat incongruously, imagined itself leaping grandly to his aid. Most of all he wanted to be somewhere else. And more than anything he wanted to be someone else someone who lived a different life, someone who ... someone who didn't always feel they'd failed. He was sick of that feeling.
And yet here he was watching what, in a sense, he'd hoped would happen, but now it was about to happen ... he didn't feel any of the emotions he'd thought he'd feel. No triumph, no achievement, no satisfaction. Just fear and guilt and nausea.
He screwed his eyes shut, rubbed them furiously with the heels of hands, and on opening them caught a glimpse of Tag fumbling with the fastener on the silvery bag he had deposited on the floor. He frowned, trying to figure out what the man was up to, and then he felt his heart miss a beat as the warehouse owner pulled out several torpedo-shaped cylinders that, even in the half-light, gleamed with a kind of ghostly metallic incandescence. Dry-mouthed he turned away, hoping that when he looked back he would find his eyes had been playing tricks on him but he never got the opportunity for a second look.
He heard his own voice raw and despairing but had no memory of forming and uttering the word. All he knew was he suddenly felt utterly desolate. He stared in horror, watching as Rongo stood swaying, spurting blood from the gaping wound left by his severed arm on to the body of Doc lying at his feet. For a moment his lean frame teetered, fighting the forces pushing him down, and then slowly, and in a strange way almost gracefully, his legs folded at the knees, and he slipped to the ground.
Jaytee stared across the now empty space at the man grinning and brandishing the blast rifle, and something inside him burst into sudden, vibrant life. For the first time in years possibly for the first time ever he knew exactly what he had to do. No equivocation, no sullen refusal to accept responsibility. He raced over to a fallen Rancor, ripped the blaster from his unconscious grip and took slow and deliberate aim. To his surprise his hand didn't shake, nor did his fingers hesitate when they came into contact with the trigger. He fired once, twice and watched Slash's savage triumph morph first into surprise, and then, after he noticed the smouldering hole just under the collar of his jacket, into shocked realisation. Clutching his upper chest, the swooper began staggering towards Jaytee, but his attempt to raise his weapon was forestalled when a third shot from the boy's blaster fused the rifle to his hand and burnt an exit path for itself through his stomach. For an instant, Slash's eyes registered genuine emotion wide-eyed fear before succumbing to the dumb blankness of imminent death.
Jaytee watched the leader of the Rancors collapse. He stood unmoving, peering at the man's face, trying to decipher what it was he had seen there that could have justified his willingness to transfer his allegiance. But all he could see was ugliness, poverty of spirit and stupidity both Slash's and his own. Overwhelmed with grief he lowered his weapon, exhaling as he did so, and his eyes sought again the man who had taken him in, and whom he had betrayed. There were no excuses for what he had done. And all he could do was stand there no longer caring what happened to him, weeping bitter tears.
Something rocketed through his field of vision but he paid it no heed. He had forgotten about Tag. He hadn't even noticed Blue fighting his way over to Rongo, after Doc had fallen, arriving too late to stop the blow from the vibro-axe that had hacked off Rongo's arm, but in time at least to prevent the wielder from striking again. So distraught was the boy that he failed to notice something miraculous that of all the emotions tearing at his heart, the one he no longer felt was self-pity.
* * * * *
After their encounter with Kasen, Dajira and Vilco had struck a major setback, for the corridor that led to where the sounds of battle were emanating from had been blocked by a section of what appeared to have been part of a wall. Dajira surmised it had come from the side of the tower, presumably as a result of the high-powered laser bolts they had seen shooting through the roof when they were with Vilco's friends in the plaza. Whatever the cause, it had proved impassable, and they had had to make the somewhat terrifying decision to clamber out through one of the smashed windows and edge their way precariously along the window ledges until they had reached the main first floor storeroom. Arriving cold and shaking, as neither liked heights, they had then been forced to use Vilco's Rodian weapon to smash one of the transparisteel panes so they could clamber through and collapse exhausted on to the wooden floor.
It had taken both of them a few minutes to regain their breath and their equilibrium, and all the while the cavernous room echoed eerily with the muted squeal of blasters punctuated by agonised cries and angry shouts. They had gazed, anguished, into the darkness, almost imagining that any minute crimson bolts would come streaking towards them, until eventually they turned to each other.
"I really can't believe this is happening," Dajira rasped. Her throat felt swollen and dry, and her voice, even to her ears, sounded fragile. "I'd ask you to pinch me, but I feel so numb I don't think I'd feel it!"
"I don't think I'd have the strength anyway," Vilco replied wanly. "If this is a nightmare, it's definitely the worse one I've ever had."
"I wish it was a nightmare." Her voice faltered.
Vilco reached over and patted her arm gently. "Whatever it is, at least we're in it together."
Dajira stared at him for a moment, noting the apprehension he was trying hard to mask, and then placed her hand over his and gripped it tightly. He was just as scared as her, and yet equally determined not to let her down. Such unconditional loyalty and friendship not only touched her heart, it reminded her of why they had come this far and why they had to continue. "You're right," she said and took a quick breath in and out. "Together."
Vilco nodded, his large eyes lingered kindly on hers for a second longer and then turned glassy as he peered around the dark interior. "Which way do you think we should go?" he asked.
Frowning, Dajira clambered to her feet and took a few tentative steps toward the other end of the room, then stopped and moved back, turning toward the left. "We need to get through there somehow," she said indicating toward the wall. She headed off again, disappearing for a while into the shadows, to return a minute or so later looking worried.
"I remember now. This room is accessed from a cargo belt downstairs and from a corridor that leads around to the other storerooms on the far side of the building. If my father is where I think he is, it's going to take us ages to get there."
Vilco looked glum, and wandered over to where she was standing with her ear pressed to the wall. He knocked in several places and then stopped, catching his breath.
Dajira heard the faint gasp. "What is it?" she asked tremulously.
Vilco tapped again, and then stood back and smiled. "Well, what do you know?" His eyes reflected the dark gleam of the wooden panelling as he pointed out a rectangular outline to Dajira, within which, on close inspection, she could see what he meant: the wood inside the rectangle was lighter.
"A door?" she breathed.
"It was a door but they must have taken it off and replaced it with this." He took a step back to give himself space, and chopped his razor stick into the panelling. The blade cut through it as if it was a wafer. Vilco blinked. "They don't make 'em like they used to," he quipped as much from surprise as bravado.
But Dajira was already peering through the jagged hole. "Of course," she muttered. "The old locker rooms. How silly of me!"
"Can we get to them through here?"
"I think so yes, we should be able to."
She stepped back while Vilco attacked the flimsy section of new wall again, and within minutes they were both standing in the locker room staring through the open door toward the corridor from whence came sounds like no others they had heard before.
Dajira felt her breathing go ragged and she had to force herself to inhale and exhale slowly, clasping her hand to her chest as she did so to double check she still had the holopic she had taken from her father's office.
"I guess this is it," said Vilco, his voice sounding strangely constricted.
Dajira managed to reply, but the sound she made was more like a croak than a verbal acknowledgment, so she reinforced it with a nod and stepped gingerly toward the corridor. The noise grew louder increasing in intensity the further they travelled along, until it became almost impossible to hear even their own terrified thoughts. At the doorway into the kitchen, Dajira faltered, gazing in horror at the haze of dust, her eyes beginning already to smart due to the acrid smoke filtering through a splinter-fringed hole in the wall.
But there was no chance now of retreat. Each step they had taken had led them, purely by sheer stint of will, to this moment.
Their eyes met and exchanged one final, desperate wish of good luck, and then, contorting their limbs so they could clamber through the wall, they slipped into a living nightmare.
* * * * *
The Jedi Code claimed that there was no fear, but Anakin knew differently. He remembered only too well the needling barbs that had skewered their agonising route through his innards the day he had been forced to leave Tahiri in the clutches of the Yuuzhan Vong on Yavin 4, those same weapons of torture that he was feeling again now. He had managed to locate her just in time to see her hit on the head by some kind of metallic projectile that had proceeded to erupt in a cloud of soup-like greyness that even from a distance made his lungs burn. He had no time to try and figure out its source, locked as he was in the grimmest of battles with the warrior from Domain Lian. All he could do was channel a small portion of his energy into reaching out to Tahiri and creating a kind of meniscus of air pressure near her face to keep the corrosive smoke from the Nacht-5 at bay. He knew it was going to drain him to maintain it, but he was also fully aware he had no choice, because in her unconscious state Tahiri had no means to escape the smoke grenade's effects. Maybe she would come to before his ability to keep her safe ran out maybe not. But in the meantime Anakin knew he would do whatever he could for her.
Another grenade exploded beside him, forcing both him and the warrior to reel away hacking. Eyes streaming, Anakin swung himself back into an upright position, and cantering his lightsaber to thirty degrees from the horizontal he aimed at the Yuuzhan Vong's unprotected throat. What saved the alien was another grenade, which landed directly in front of him pumping his lungs so full of billowing smoke that he fell to his knees retching. But that was no advantage to Anakin who had been forced to somersault so far clear he had completely lost sight of his opponent in the poisonous fog.
Drawing great drafts of relatively clean air from near the door through which he had entered the room what felt like eons ago, he took a few precious seconds to take stock of the new situation. It was time well spent because as he reached out through the Force he felt the faint upward stirrings of the grenade-heated molecules as they began to respond to the tug of convection. Two factors meshed into a neat equation in his mind: the law of thermodynamics and the damage to the roof, and without hesitating further he focused his inner sight on the zone immediately beneath the hole and he began to push until he felt the upwards motion of the atoms gain momentum. Hoping he had done enough, he spared a second to check on Tahiri, and despite the sight of the warrior advancing towards him again, was gratified to find her presence in the Force no weaker than before.
He withstood another frenzied attack in which his opponent tried a lasso swirl followed immediately by a rigid-arm thrust intended to trade in on the fact that Anakin's initial diagonal deflection had left his middle temporarily unprotected. In spite of his mistake, he couldn't help admiring his opponent's battle instinct, and he quickly tightened his defensive sphere to avoid tempting fate again. One thing Anakin had learned was that mistakes were great teachers as long as one survived to learn from them, of course. He ducked a stream of venom aimed at where his face had been, only to have to skip rapidly over a low sweep from the staff intended to knock his feet from under him. His lungs were objecting violently to the smoke. Despite the fact he could feel the distinct movement of a convection current, he couldn't help worrying at the natural tendency of the smoke to cluster low as if hugging the floor not unlike swamp gas. It was especially worrying in the light of Tahiri's situation, and he was feeling the strain of maintaining the protective air bubble for her. Most of all he missed the positivity and strength she shared with him through their Force bond, and he was again reminded of Ikrit's words: Together, you are stronger than the sum of your parts.
Then all of a sudden it hit him that togetherness didn't necessarily require active complicity. Sure Tahiri wasn't actually physically fighting with him, but she was still with him in his mind, still a presence in his thinking. And what was more, she was there and even though she was unconscious, he could still tap into that Force essence that was distinctively and uniquely hers. It was an empowering moment, and Anakin felt the power of the Force swell within him, as if he had drawn breath from the sweetest, purest air imaginable.
The warrior circled him slowly, ever watchful of the young Jedi's ice blue gaze tracking him, seemingly unruffled amidst the chaos and the polluted air, like the calm centre in a storm. The boy was a source of fascination to him an infidel, yet one who, according to what was fast becoming a legend, had forged an alliance with a shamed Yuuzhan Vong warrior, an act that had precipitated, or perhaps had simply consolidated, doubts about Lord Shimrra's interpretation of the wishes of the gods. He'd heard about the girl, too the Jedi-who-was-shaped. He'd heard there were some who were suggesting that her existence proved that, in fact, Yuuzhan Vong and Jedi could co-exist as one. Was it heresy, or was there some truth to the many rumours? Probably nobody not even those domains that Shimrra smiled on could say for sure, and those that had fallen from grace were in no position to make their situation worse by openly expressing doubt.
But he was no philosopher, he was a warrior had been a great warrior with the promise of elevation and honours, until the dreadful day on Ithor when things turned sour for those of his domain. Fighting was his life and his purpose, and when fate had brought him into contact with a Peace Brigader named Delone who claimed to have access to some Jedi captives, he had seized the chance to pit himself and the remains of his cadre against them. Delone and his pathetic followers had proved embarrassingly easy to kill, but it was a necessary step in the plan, as were their Peace Brigade disguises. It was essential that Delone's client remained ignorant of what had happened, otherwise he might have hidden the Jedi away, or sent them off planet before the warrior and his companions could fight them.
And when he had recognised who the Jedi were his warrior's heart had sung, and he realised all the subterfuge had been vindicated. He took it as a sign that the gods were giving him one more chance.
And, as he studied his opponent's stance and watched for the telltale preparations that would predict his next move, he vowed he wouldn't waste it.
Even in the few minutes since Dajira had entered the arena of battle she had noticed a change in the nature of the sounds assailing her ears. The scream of lasers and retorts of flesh on flesh were already morphing into a growing tide of anguished groans and choking coughs. Cupping one hand over her mouth while clinging desperately to Vilco's arm with the other, she followed him until they both stumbled into two figures that loomed suddenly out of a thick column of smoke.
"Dajira?" a voice asked incredulously.
It took the Twi'lek girl a few seconds of blinking to clear her sight sufficiently to recognise the speaker, and a few more to identify the tall man she was supporting.
"Quick!" Tendra urged, grabbing at Dajira's sleeve and pulling her unceremoniously into another cloud of grey fog. "Follow me!"
Too disoriented to disobey, the two allowed themselves to be dragged along until miraculously the air cleared and they found they were in a corridor along with some of the swoopers whom they remembered from their rescue efforts earlier. Was it really just an hour or so ago? It felt like a lifetime. An older man one of the group who had been incarcerated in the tower his face grey with pain, was resting uncomfortably against the wall, holding a wad of torn fabric against a nasty wound to his shoulder. But nevertheless when he saw them he nodded, almost formally. It seemed so surreal, Dajira thought for one awful moment that she was going to succumb to a fit of hysterical laughter but then her sense of reality reinstated itself.
"Where's my ... where's Bomar?" She was grimly aware that the question as to whether he was actually there or not was patently unnecessary.
Tendra looked up from helping Lando sit down to rest beside the older man. "I'm not sure."
"Saw him " Lando's voice was hijacked by a paroxysm of coughing, but just as he went to continue, his expression turned into wide-eyed amazement.
Instinctively Tendra spun in the direction of his gaze, her blaster already seeking a target.
Dajira felt her stomach lurch.
But the blast never came. And when she dared to look, she saw Neijal already on her knees beside the wounded man, and Jassif moving towards one of the swoopers. Standing transfixed, and looking as if they had just entered a chamber of horrors, were Tab and the Trianii, whose name Dajira's overworked brain had completely forgotten.
"Um," Tab contributed helpfully.
"What in the name of the Sith ... where the kr?" the feline-faced swooper began, and then shook her head apologetically. "Spit, don't know I'm saying. Sorry." Her clawed fingers rose and flailed helplessly in the air as if begging for alms. "What can we do?" she asked in a voice teetering on breaking.
"We need to get as many people out of that smoke as we can," replied Tendra. "Especially the ones who are unconscious."
"Okay," Tab nodded. "Okay," she repeated as if spurring herself on.
"You ready?" the Trianii asked, and then spun at a commotion that had broken out behind her. "Oh no, oh no!" she gasped racing towards Blue who was staggering towards them, ashen-faced, holding Rongo in his arms.
"Get out of my way," Blue gasped, his tone savage and yet at the same time filled with anguish.
"Blue!" shouted Tendra, and she grabbed him by the shoulder to slow him down. "The healers are here the healers, Blue. Let them take him."
Blue gazed at her uncomprehendingly, obviously determined to carry Rongo to safety even though uncertain of where exactly that place might be. "Healers," he mumbled. "No, I got to get him back to the compound ... get a medic."
Tendra stared down at Rongo, his face so drained of blood that it had rendered his complexion almost transparent. She saw the stump where his arm had been severed, but noted also that the crimson flow that had soaked his rancor-hide top had ceased, and his remaining limbs hung lifeless. Forcing her expression to remain calm as she looked back into Blue's eyes, she made her instruction brief, so as not to tempt fate and give way to the emotion building inside.
"Healers are better than medics, Blue," she said, "and they're right here see." She turned him to Jassif who was already running towards them. "Please let them care for him."
"She's right, Blue," came Lando's voice, strained with the effort of pulling himself to his feet, but nonetheless firm. "The sooner he gets some triage the quicker he'll heal."
Tendra gazed up at him gratefully, even though his eyes reflected her fears.
A strangled sob escaped Blue's throat, but he laid his friend gently on the ground, warning Jassif needlessly about the missing arm and the gaping burns where Slash's shots had hit home.
Tendra looked across at Dajira who was standing frozen to the spot with both hands clasped to her face. The expression in the young girl's eyes melted her heart, and she took a step towards her, intending to offer some comfort. But suddenly she saw Dajira shake her head violently, and turn away almost running back into the caustic smoke, and before she had taken another step, both Dajira and Vilco had disappeared.
Sensing movement beside her, she reached out and grabbed at the waistline of Lando's pants. "And where do you think you're going, old timer?"
"I've got to find Vehn," he muttered. "We got jumped by a couple of those Rancors just before Tag let loose with the Nacht-5s."
Blue pushed past them, muttering something about Doc, with a worried-looking Tab and her companion in tow, and Lando began to follow, pulling away from Tendra.
"You wait here," he told her.
"Ah, ha ha, no way." She lunged after him, checking her blaster's power levels as she ran. "If you go, I'm coming with you."
"Never argue with a lady with a blaster," he quipped throwing her a cheesy grin, and even though she had never felt less like smiling in her life, she returned it in kind.
* * * * *
Jaytee was so distraught about Rongo that it wasn't until he actually started choking that he realised he could neither breathe nor see properly, so it was with some panic that he began fumbling his way around in an effort to escape the pall of smoke. He had already fallen over several bodies, and was beginning to think that his lungs were on fire, when the greyness miraculously thinned and he found he had stepped into a pocket of relatively clear air. It was as he was taking a welcome deep breath, that he saw a small body lying with its back to him a body he recognised only too well, with blonde locks that were now streaked with crimson.
He stood swaying, terrified to move close enough to check her in case she was dead, and equally terrified in case she wasn't. But when he noticed the distinctive rise and fall of her shoulders, he approached her gingerly and peered over into her face.
He tried calling her name, but had to cough several times before his voice would work, and even then it sounded as though his throat was full of rust. After several attempts, all in vain, he tried again louder, this time shaking her shoulder as vigorously as he dared. When this failed, and he began to feel the panic creep back turning his insides to liquid, he threw caution to the wind and bellowed in her ear, at the same time rocking her from side to side.
Her eyes flew open, wide with a combination of concussed disorientation and fear, and throwing herself on to her back she punched him squarely in the jaw.
"Thank kriff!" he mumbled, struggling up from where she had knocked him and massaging his lower face. "I thought I was going to have to carry you, and I wouldn't have had a vaping clue which way to go."
Tahiri blinked in an effort to clear her muddled brain as much as to force her eyes to focus properly. "I'd rather die than be carried by you you rotten piece of bantha poodoo."
"I know, I know. But we haven't got time for any of this sweet talk. Tag's gone crazy with gas bombs or something. Gotta find a way out of here."
"You do maybe," she replied caustically, waving away the arm he offered to help her up. "I'm going to find Anakin."
"Look," he said as she took a step and promptly collapsed to the ground again. "You're in no shape to go looking for anyone you can't even walk."
"Yes, I can," she growled, hauling herself back to her feet, and very purposefully raised one foot and lowered it a step distance away. When she raised the other foot to repeat the action, however, she began to topple, until Jaytee clasped his arm around her waist.
"Let me go," she hissed, attempting to shove him away with her elbow.
"Look," he countered wearily. "I know you hate me, but can you just let me help you this once. Please?"
Tahiri squinted up at the boy's face, and even though it was swimming in and out of focus, she could see it bore the unmistakable tracks of tears. He stared back dolefully.
"Alright," she said slowly, and holding out her hand she recovered her lightsaber from where it had fallen when she was knocked unconscious. "But any funny business and you will be dead."
"At least it would be quick," he muttered, but Tahiri wasn't listening. She was too busy reaching out in the Force for Anakin.
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