This is a work of fan fiction. No monetary profit has been gained from its production and no copyright infringement is intended. The Star Wars characters and events used in this fan fiction are the property of George Lucas. Mike Stackpole and Aaron Allston invented or shaped most of the characters with whom I'm playing, so my special thanks go to them for writing such great novels and comics. If you would like to republish the fanfic, please ask me. Any comments are very welcome at email@example.com.
*Antilles will kill me.* Running through the hallways, Tycho glanced at his chrono. Already five minutes late. And he still had no clue how to get to the briefing room. *Sithspit!* He really didn't need another confrontation with his superior officer right now. Antilles had it in for him anyway.
Tycho stopped abruptly when he finally recognized a small tunnel to his right. Quickly he changed his direction. *Getting lost in my own base. Stupid.* But it was the fifth base in less than three months. Always on the run. Not that he minded. The constant changes kept him busy. He was glad that he had no time to reflect upon the events of the last year.
Tycho came to a sliding stop before the briefing room door. He hesitated briefly to catch his breath and push back his hair. Then he entered the room. Everyone turned around to glance at him, but all returned their attention to the front almost immediately. As noiselessly as possible, Tycho sat down on an empty chair in the last row.
In the front of the little room two people were standing behind a provisional podium. Captain Skywalker. Well, that was no surprise. Next to him, frowning at Tycho, stood Commander Narra. *Oh no.* He really was in trouble. Narra, the commanding officer of the squadron group Rogue Squadron belonged to, was known to be a strict disciplinarian.
Beside them, a third man whom Tycho didn't know was sitting near the wall scrutinizing the pilots. He looked inconspicuous, but something about him screamed 'Intel' to Tycho, and he just hoped that he was wrong.
Tycho forced himself to concentrate on Luke's speech. Their commander told them without any details that they would meet up with a capital ship in three days in order to provide backup for a covert operation. *So that guy really is Intel,* Tycho thought. Where this operation was to take place exactly, Luke didn't tell, but they would meet up near the Perlemian Trade Route and way too close to the Core for Tycho to feel comfortable.
When Luke had finished, he and Narra exchanged a quick glance with the unknown man, then the captain nodded toward his pilots. "That's all for now. Dismissed."
Catching another 'we'll discuss punctuality' look from Narra, Tycho leapt up and quickly escaped from the room.
But outside Antilles was already waiting for him, also wearing the 'offended officer' look Tycho had thought people only learned at the academy. But Rogue Squadron's second-in-command seemed to be a natural.
"Do you have an excuse, Celchu?"
"I got lost."
Everyone around laughed, and Antilles' expression changed from annoyed to angry.
"Really," Tycho added quickly. "I must have taken a wrong turn, and suddenly I was lost. We've been on this base only for a week, after all."
"Hopefully he will always find his X-wing," Paco mocked, and a few other pilots chuckled.
Antilles ignored them. "Well, I think it will then be beneficial for you to accompany me on my daily inspection tours, to become familiar with your surroundings."
Tycho waited until Antilles was out of sight before he exhaled in relief. *One down, two to go.* He looked around. Most of the other pilots had disappeared quickly; only Wes Janson leaned against the wall next to the now-closed briefing room door. Tycho slowly walked to a pile of crates near the opposite wall and sat down.
"What are you waiting for, Wes?"
"Hobbie." Wes gestured toward the door. "They asked him to stay for a few more minutes."
*What?* That was strange. Why would their commanders and that Intel guy want to talk to Hobbie in private? There was only one plausible answer Tycho could think of right away, and that one he didn't like at all. "Does that mean we are going to Ralltiir?"
Wes shrugged. "My thoughts exactly. Would fit well with the general area Luke indicated." He watched his fellow pilot intently. "Still, why should they talk with Hobbie in private about it? Do you have any idea?"
"No." Well, Tycho had an idea what that Intel guy might want from Hobbie, but there was no need to tell Wes. If Hobbie had never talked about his past with him, it hardly was Tycho's job to do it. Like himself, most Rebels had buried their past lives deep down. Tycho still remembered very well something the commander of his first Rebel squadron had told him: 'You don't hide your past, you hide +from+ it.' A bit worried, the two pilots continued to wait in silence.
After ten minutes a pale-looking Hobbie left the room and stopped surprised when he noticed his fellow pilots waiting for him. "Why...?" Obviously deciding that it wasn't important, he changed the subject. "They want to talk to us at 1600 hours."
"To us?" Wes asked, looking surprised.
Hobbie nodded. "Yes. You, Tycho, Wedge, and me. They may have a special mission for us."
"Mission? What kind of a mission? Are we going to Ralltiir?" Tycho's bad feelings intensified.
"And? Don't make us worm everything out of you, Hobbie," Wes demanded impatiently.
The Ralltiirian shrugged. "I don't know much. Intel is sending people to Ralltiir to get into contact with local Rebel groups. Rogue Squadron is supposed to cover the operation, and while we're in system anyway perhaps the four of us will go down on planet and have a look around Nitanlo. That's my hometown."
"Perhaps?" Wes asked with raised eyebrows.
"It's not decided yet. At least I think it isn't. The Intel guy wanted information from me, about Nitanlo and possible Rebel sympathizers there. And he asked if I still have contact to anyone on Ralltiir." He snorted. "Of course I haven't. No one has. Anyway, Intel will decide how to proceed, and I guess we'll learn this afternoon."
Tycho couldn't help but think that his friend looked very absent-minded, as if his thoughts were elsewhere, and he had the strong feeling that Hobbie would prefer to be left alone instead of answering questions. But they had to know. This mission concerned them as well. "And what exactly are we supposed to do there, if we go?"
"See if there are any Rebels left. After Tion crashed the democratic movement on Ralltiir shortly before the Battle of Yavin, there has been no contact between groups on Ralltiir and the Alliance," Hobbie explained.
*Tion.* Cold hate formed in Tycho's stomach. Lord Tion had been one of the people involved in the Death Star project, and his subjugation of Ralltiir had been so bloody that it had even been criticized by some of the more liberal officers in the Imperial Navy. Rumor had it that he had died on Alderaan when it had been destroyed by the Death Star, and Tycho hoped that it was true. The thought gave him a small sense of satisfaction.
Wes interrupted his brooding. "They want to send +us+ because you're from Nitanlo, Hobbie?" he asked. It was apparent from his voice that he didn't like the idea of an Intel mission at all.
Hobbie nodded slowly, without looking at either of his friends. He stared down the empty hallway as if his mind was already elsewhere. "I guess they hope that I'll be able to contact some people I know from past times." Suddenly, and without any further explanation, he turned around and strode down the corridor, leaving his two puzzled friends behind.
Wes and Tycho exchanged a surprised glance. "Strange. I don't like that at all, Tycho."
"Nor do I." Lost in thought, Tycho leaned back against the wall. "Nor do I."
*What the hell am I doing here?* Tycho wrinkled his nose as he looked over the large field at the outskirts of Nitanlo. All over the field were paddocks and small halls containing animals of numerous species, and a large number of humans was moving between them. It was the largest livestock market in this part of Ralltiir, and Intel thought it to be the ideal cover for the four Rebel pilots. So they were stuck with a herd of nerfs now. Tycho grimaced as he watched the stoic animals from his place high up on the fence. The creatures were more obstinate than anything Tycho had ever dealt with before, and they stank.
Five days ago they had landed their X-wings in a remote area of the continent, walked to a small village, and bought a landspeeder and a small herd of nerfs. The farmer hadn't been surprised. Apparently it wasn't unusual for young men to earn money by buying stock from the farmers, transporting it to market, and selling it there at a profit. It was a good deal for both sides, and the farmer had been grateful that he didn't have to take on the burden of traveling across the continent to the region's capital.
Tycho could fully understand him. These nerfs were a real hassle. He couldn't count the number of bruises he had gotten when one of these creatures had pushed him against a wall or simply run over him. Without Antilles and Janson they would have been lost.
Tycho glanced at his fellow pilots. Wes was arguing with two farmers, hopefully selling some more of the nerfs. The Tanaabian handled the animals well, but he was especially good at selling and buying. Bargaining seemed to be a joy to him. Like most Rebels, Wes never talked about his past, but Tanaab was a farm planet, so Tycho wasn't surprised that Wes adapted so well to their disguise.
Antilles moved between the animals, separating some of them from the herd. To Tycho's surprise, the Corellian had grown up, at least partly, on a farm. That had been the last thing he'd expected, Antilles didn't remind him of a farmboy at all. But he was handling their present situation very well, Tycho had to admit. Even though Antilles had become mad more than once during the last days because of Tycho's and Hobbie's inability to handle the nerfs properly.
Tycho smiled slightly. At least he wasn't the only one who had never even been on a farm, let alone dealt with livestock before. As far away from the nerfs as possible, Hobbie leaned against the fence, eyeing the creatures suspiciously. Since they had arrived on Ralltiir he had barely spoken a word. He never talked about his past, at least with Tycho, and even back at the academy he had rarely mentioned his family. But the few things Tycho had worked out for himself painted a grim picture. Small wonder that Hobbie wasn't too eager to return to his hometown.
It took Tycho a moment to realize that Antilles was calling him. He looked up. "Yes?"
"Start moving. Bring the buckskin bull to the selling paddock." When Tycho hesitated, he added sharply, "Now!"
"Yes, sir," Tycho muttered as he slowly approached three nerfs standing close to where he had been sitting. He decided that the biggest one had to be the bull Antilles meant. Carefully he grabbed the halter the animal was wearing. First it didn't move at all -- as usual -- then suddenly it leapt forward, pulling Tycho with it. Desperately he clung to the halter, sliding along with his heels planted in the ground as the animal trotted across the paddock. When it stopped, as suddenly as it had started, Tycho lost his balance and fell backward to the ground. "Stupid creature."
After he had struggled to his feet, he found himself face to face with Antilles, who glared at him furiously.
"What are you doing? How much lum have you already drunk today, you idiot?"
"What?" Tycho stumbled back, surprised, when Antilles hit him hard on the chest with both hands.
"What? How drunk does one have to be to not even recognize the color of a nerf? I shouldn't have listened to Mother, should have left you at home. I need a helping hand, not a good-for-nothing like you." With that he grabbed Tycho by the collar and hurled him against the fence. The impact hurt, and Tycho had to clench his teeth to avoid crying out loud. "Get lost! And take your lazy brother with you. Jevron and I can do the work better alone."
Fuming, Tycho turned around slowly. How did Antilles dare treat him like this? He stepped forward, but before he'd reached the Corellian Hobbie moved in his way, grabbed his arm, and pulled the struggling Tycho toward the gate.
"Let's just go," the Ralltiirian whispered.
At the gate Wes was standing with several local farmers, all of them grinning broadly. As Tycho and Hobbie passed by they heard Wes explain, "My two youngest brothers are more interested in Nitanlo's entertainment sector than in selling nerfs."
Twenty meters away from the paddock, Hobbie finally stopped and let go of Tycho's arm. "Who does he think he is?" Tycho hissed.
"Leave it, Tycho. What else could he have done? You picked the wrong nerf. Every farmer knows what a buckskin looks like, it's a light brown, not black. The local farmers watched you in disbelief until Wedge interfered." Hobbie put his hand calmingly on his friend's shoulder.
"How am I supposed to know that? I'm no farmer."
"But we are pretending to be ones. Calm down. C'mon, let's stroll across the market and find out what the general atmosphere is like."
They stayed together for a few more minutes, then separated. Alone it would be easier to lose themselves in the crowd, plus they would be able to cover a larger area of the market grounds. Hobbie was glad they did. While he wasn't ordinarily very talkative, usually he liked to be around his friends. Right now, though, he just wished to be alone.
So far Hobbie had barely talked about this mission with anyone. Ever since he'd learned about it, his mind seemed to be in permanent turmoil. Thoughts were whirling inside his head, hopes and questions, but rarely answers. Angry with himself, Hobbie shook his head. It was no use to start brooding again. He'd best concentrate on the task at hand and worry about the future when it arrived.
His hands deep in his pockets, Hobbie strode across the market, stopping from time to time to examine animals or machinery that were for sale, trying to look as casual and farmer-like as possible. The market was crowded; all sale paddocks were full and the halls in which small animals, feed, seed, and farm machinery were sold seemed to have attracted a lot of vendors, too. And as far as Hobbie could tell, business went well. Like it had in the past.
As far back as Hobbie could remember, the market had been the hub of livestock trade in this part of Ralltiir, and farmers from the most distant and rural areas of the continent had come to Nitanlo at least once a year to sell and to buy and to chat. But it had also been a great event for the children of Nitanlo, who had never missed the chance to stroll between the paddocks and watch with wide eyes the many animals they rarely came that close to.
And it was the children Hobbie was missing. The market looked quite normal, except for them. There were a few farm kids, apparently accompanying their parents, and last evening, when the Rogues had arrived, Hobbie had seen a few boys in troop uniforms hanging around near the market entrance, but that was all. Strange, really, and something that intensified the icy feeling in Hobbie's stomach.
To him and his friends and siblings, the livestock market had always been a place of delight. He remembered all too well the hours he'd spent there with Kolya and Kessy, watching and petting the numerous animals; the wide-eyed looks of his youngest siblings and the joy in their faces when a farmer had allowed them to carry one of the small pets for a while. It had always been hard to get them away from the animals early enough so that they wouldn't return home late. Hobbie leaned against a fence, closed his eyes, and allowed himself to become lost in his memories for a moment. The visits to the market were some of the few happy childhood memories he had, and he treasured them.
But his worries brought him back to reality soon. The easiest explanation for the absence of children was that they just weren't given the day off from school as they had been in the past. There could be plenty of reasons for this, and most of them were nothing to worry about. Still, the absence of laughing children caused Hobbie's heart to sink even more. Maybe it was just because of his joyful memories, but somehow this change struck him as awfully wrong.
With an inward sigh Hobbie forced himself to concentrate on the mission again. Knowing that there were no children at the market as there used to be wouldn't help their mission at all. They had to find the remnants of Nitanlo's resistance, if there was anyone left. To be precise, Hobbie had to find them, as he was the one who'd grown up here.
So far their mission had been pretty much straightforward. Land, buy the nerfs, go to Nitanlo disguised as farmers, use the market as an excuse to visit the city and have a look around. Wedge had handled it well, and Hobbie had been able to stay in the background. But not much longer. They wouldn't stumble across a Rebel cell just by walking through Nitanlo. They needed a contact, a person who had Rebel sympathies and whom they could trust. Trust with their lives.
Yegori. It was the only answer. Whenever Hobbie thought about how to proceed, his thoughts always came back to one person. His best friend. The only one he'd entrusted with his plans to defect long before he'd actually done it. The one who'd taught Hobbie to think by himself, to see beyond Imperial propaganda and boy troops romance. Where was he now? What had happened to him?
Thinking of Yegori caused a very strange feeling in Hobbie. On one hand, there was joy. He would see his friend again. They would be together. But on the other hand, there was worry, fear. The suppression of the democratic movement on Ralltiir had been quick, thorough, and cruel. That much was certain. But no one knew yet what had happened in Nitanlo. It was a provincial town, usually barely noticed by the people in the capital. But it had also always been the home of freethinkers, open-minded and rebellious people, troublemakers and rioters as his father had called them disgustedly. Thus the democratic movement had been especially strong here. What if Tion had known that?
What if Yegori was in prison? Or even dead? Hobbie pressed his lips together and forced the thought out of his mind. He wasn't dead. That was impossible. But it wasn't unlikely that he was imprisoned. What to do then? It wouldn't be just the loss of a possible source of information. Yegori was his friend. Could Hobbie leave him behind, turn his back on him and return to the Alliance without at least trying to help him?
Inhaling deeply, Hobbie pushed back the thoughts. It wouldn't help to worry about that now. First he had to determine what had become of Yegori, then he could decide what to do about it. There was still plenty of hope that his friend was fine, living peacefully somewhere in the city. Somewhere. He just had to find out where.
Last night, on their way to the hotel, Hobbie had suggested they take a detour. Pretending to be lost and stopping to check a map, the three other Rogues had stood in the middle of a street crossing, making a show of their argument about which road to take, while Hobbie had snuck to Yegori's house. Well, the house where Yegori and his family used to live. There was no trace of them. He had seen the family who was living there now, but he hadn't dared to ask them about the whereabouts of the Kurillnevs.
Fighting down the fear that threatened to overwhelm him again, Hobbie tried to stay calm. That they didn't live there anymore could have a harmless reason. He'd been away for almost four years, after all. And Mr. Kurillnev had lost his job a few weeks before Hobbie had left for the academy. There had been no place for a troublemaker like him in a proud Imperial company. Hobbie remembered well the disgust in Yegori's face as his friend had told him about it. So maybe they just hadn't been able to afford the rent anymore and had moved to a cheaper flat. All Hobbie needed to do was to buy a register and find out.
With another sigh, Hobbie braced himself and looked around. He would buy a register on their way back to the hotel, and until then there wasn't anything he could do about Yegori. So he had better focus on the market again.
Shading his face with a hand against the sun, Hobbie squeezed his eyes half-shut. Yes, there, barely thirty meters away from him, was Tycho. The Alderaanian leaned against the fence of a small paddock, watching the people moving by. Suddenly glad to see one of his friends again, Hobbie quickly strode toward Tycho.
"So, what's your impression?" Tycho leaned lazily against a small fence. After an hour with no one ordering him around or criticizing him he felt almost relaxed.
Hobbie leaned his forehead against the fence, close enough to his friend that they could talk without anyone being able to overhear their conversation. "I don't know. The atmosphere is very tense, but maybe I'm imagining things because I feel so nervous myself."
Tycho gently touched Hobbie's forearm. "Easy. No one will recognize you in this disguise. With that scruffy black hair and the suntanned skin you look very different, and these baggy farmer's clothes add to the image. Besides, nobody expects you to be here."
"I know. But still..." Hobbie sighed. Then he braced himself with some effort. "Well, the most unusual thing is the travel restriction. I can't recall anything like this ever happening while I lived here, not even for a short period of time. People used to travel all the time, many families who lived in the city spent their free days in the backcountry. And there were tourists from other planets as well. Now almost no one is on the roads. And how often did security stop us and check if we really had permission to travel to the market? Five times, or six? I'm glad Intel did a thorough job."
"Me too. Although I would have preferred a different disguise."
Hobbie grinned at that remark. "Take it easy."
During their conversation a large, furred, four-legged animal had curiously approached the two pilots. It now craned its neck across the fence and gently nudged Tycho with its long snout.
He looked at it, confused. "What's that?"
"A chevruh. It's used for riding."
"Riding?" Tycho eyed the creature suspiciously. It was a large animal -- Tycho had to stand on tiptoe to look over its back -- covered with shaggy dark-brown fur and patches of longer black and white hair on head, legs, and tail. It was painfully thin, its ribs, shoulder, and hip bones clearly visible. "It doesn't look strong enough to carry anyone."
"Yeah, this one looks pretty miserable. I don't know much about chevruhs, but the ones I saw before were much better muscled, and their fur shone. I suppose this one isn't taken care of properly." Hobbie carefully extended his hand and petted the animal on the nose. The chevruh half-closed its large eyes, apparently enjoying the contact.
Still a bit reluctant, Tycho stroked the neck of the creature. He was rewarded with another nudge.
Hobbie grinned as he watched the animal trying to shove its head under Tycho's left arm. "It likes you."
Both pilots continued to pet the chevruh, very much to the creature's delight. But suddenly the animal shrank back a meter, its long ears flat against its head, eyeing something behind the two pilots in alarm. Tycho turned around. Two men were approaching.
"These are hard times. With no tourists my main income source is gone. Some of my animals I could sell, but who wants a chevruh nowadays? So I sold the rest to my local slaughterhouse. But that one," the man had reached the fence now and pointed at the animal Tycho and Hobbie had caressed before, "even they didn't want."
"Small wonder." The other man frowned at the creature. "It's all bones."
His companion shrugged. "Can't help it. How much?"
"300. There isn't much on it that's of use, not even for animal food."
"300? It's as least worth 500."
Tycho and Hobbie looked at each other in horror. "You want to kill it?" Tycho blurted.
Surprised, the two men turned to him. "Yes. It's old and useless. What's your problem?"
"You can't just kill it," Tycho said vehemently. The men stared at him in utter disbelief.
Hobbie carefully grabbed his friend's forearm. "It's just that it reminds us of our little sister's favorite chevruh. It died recently, and she misses it a lot."
*Good thinking, Hobbie.*
A smirk crept onto the animal owner's face. "Well, you can buy it if you like. For just 1000."
"1000?" Tycho glared at him angrily and pointed to the other man. "He wants to give you 300."
"Well, I think you love your sister."
"Not that much." Tycho pretended to ponder, carefully avoiding looking at the poor animal. "I'll give you 500."
"No, no, no. I want at least 800."
The farmer held out his hand, and Tycho shook it. Out of the corner of his eye he noticed Hobbie's half relieved, half horrified expression.
The other man shook his head. "By the Emperor, this happens when people get emotional about animals."
"Our sister is just a child," Hobbie hurried to explain.
"Well, I hope she is grateful for having two such caring brothers."
In the meantime, Tycho had fished some credchips out of his pocket and paid the farmer. The man opened the gate and approached the chevruh, which retreated immediately, its ears still flat on its head, teeth bared. "You better get it yourself. Have fun." With a mocking grin on his face he held out a rope to the Alderaanian.
Tycho took it and carefully approached the large animal, gently whispering to it. To his surprise, it let him fasten the rope at its halter willingly. Not quite sure how to proceed, he gingerly pulled at the rope. Very much to his relief the chevruh followed him without hesitation when he led it out of the paddock. "Does it have a name?"
"The girls who cared for the chevruhs in my riding stable called her Fenja, I think," the animal's former owner answered disdainfully. His voice clearly indicated that he thought such sentimentality foolish.
"Thanks. Let's go." He gestured to Hobbie and started to move down the corridor toward the exit of the market. Hobbie followed him closely. Fenja trotted along, obviously content with her fate.
"Tycho, what did we do? Wedge will kill us."
"I don't care." Tycho stopped and caressed Fenja's snout. "I couldn't let him kill her."
"I agree." Hobbie looked around suspiciously. "But we're on a mission. What will we do with the poor animal?"
"I'll think of something."
As they approached the now-empty paddock where Antilles and Wes had sold their nerfs, the Tanaabian noticed them first. He stared open-mouthed at the animal following them, then nudged Antilles to bring their approach to the Corellian's notice. Tycho couldn't suppress the grin slowly spreading across his face as he watched his superior officer's expression.
"What's that?" Antilles barely managed to keep his voice low.
"That I see. What are you doing with it?"
"We-- I bought her." Tycho tried to look nonchalant.
"You did what?"
"Wedge, let me explain--"
But Antilles stopped Hobbie with a move of his hand, not taking his eyes from Tycho.
Obviously unimpressed by the angry man before her, Fenja craned her neck over Tycho's shoulder and observed Antilles with interest. The Corellian stared at her for a few seconds, and when he started to talk again he had regained enough of his composure to refrain from shouting.
"Sithspit, what were you thinking? Did you think at all? We are on a mission. What the hell can we do with this animal? Do you want to put it into your cockpit?"
"I'll think of something. They were going to kill her. I'll find someone who'll take care of her."
"You'll find someone? Damnit, Celchu, we don't have time for this."
In the meantime, Wes had circled around the chevruh and carefully examined its legs. Fenja had eyed him suspiciously, but had let it happen.
"How much did you pay for her?" Wes asked.
Tycho grimaced. "700."
"What?" Antilles managed to put surprise and contempt into a single word.
"I know it's too much. But that's none of your business."
"None of my business? How do I explain this to the Alliance? 'Oh, by the way, we spent 700 credits on a chevruh because we couldn't resist its big sad eyes'?"
"Calm down. I used my own money."
Wes turned to Hobbie. "I think we're doing something wrong. Obviously his employment negotiations were much more successful than ours. When was the last time you were paid, Hobbie?"
"Very funny." Tycho rolled his eyes. "It's my family's money."
"You didn't hand it over to the Alliance?" Antilles' accusing tone annoyed Tycho to no end.
"No, I didn't. The money belongs to my family. I want to decide myself what to do with it."
"Your family would be delighted to hear that you used it to buy a chevruh." Antilles' voice oozed with sarcasm.
"They would definitely prefer that over buying weapons," Tycho replied matter-of-factly and enjoyed the confusion on the Corellian's face.
With a last annoyed glance at poor Fenja, Antilles stepped back a little. "Okay, I can't help it right now, and we really have no time for an argument. I'll return to the hotel with the speeder and see if I can arrange a place where we can keep her for the time being, while you take her there by foot."
"By foot? We have a trailer."
"Sold it," Wes interjected with a broad grin.
"Wes, you'll accompany them. I don't need any more surprises."
Wes' grin faded quickly. "Well, okay. Let's go."
After a long, strenuous walk through the outer quarters of Nitanlo, Tycho reached the hotel where they were staying, Fenja still patiently following him. Antilles was already waiting for them in front of the building.
"Where are Wes and Hobbie?"
"Went to investigate a bookshop which used to sell Old Republic literature. And Hobbie wants to buy a register or something like that," Tycho replied. "They'll be here soon."
Antilles nodded and curtly gestured Tycho to come along. "I talked to the manager. We can use a garage his son parks his landspeeder in when he's visiting. I bought straw and some food for... what's her name?"
While talking they had reached a small room at the back of the hotel, and Antilles led Tycho and Fenja in. The room was lighter than Tycho had expected, and the floor was already covered with straw. Fenja immediately discovered the bucket with feed. She hesitated briefly, but when Tycho did nothing to stop her, she stooped her mouth into the bucket and eagerly began to eat.
"Looks like she's hungry." Tycho shifted uneasily. "Thank you."
"You're welcome." With a sigh Antilles sat down on a bundle of straw. "I just wish you had discovered your love of animals at a more convenient time."
"I've always liked animals," Tycho protested. "We had a lot of pets at home. All the time my sisters found animals that needed to be taken care of." With his back to his wingman he waited for the pain to overwhelm him. But to his surprise, this time it didn't come. There still was the lump deep down in his throat, but no stabbing pain as usual when he remembered his home.
He turned around to face Antilles again. "I just can't say that I'm especially fond of nerfs," he remarked with a wry grin.
"Well, me neither," the Corellian admitted. He leaned his head against the wall and closed his eyes. "As a kid I really hated them. At school, mucking out the nerf stable and keeping watch over the herd were the most hated tasks, and often used as punishment." He chuckled quietly. "During these last few days I really liked working with them, though. It was a nice change, and a reminder of a more peaceful past."
"Why did you attend a farming school? Your parents weren't farmers, were they?"
"No, they weren't. They owned a fueling station on Gus Treta, a space station. There was no school at the station, so I had to attend a boarding school on planet. And my parents thought that hard physical work and spending a lot of time outside in the fresh air would do me good." Absently he stared at his hands. "I guess they were right. But I would have rather spent all year on Gus Treta, tinkering with ships."
"Why did you leave home?" *Wrong question.* Immediately Antilles' defenses went up again.
"My parents died in a fire." He stood up and went to the door. "I'd better check if Wes and Hobbie are back." He nodded at Fenja. "When she has finished eating, brush her and clean her hoofs. If you find small bruises, use the spray I bought. If you aren't sure about them, you'd better show them to me. The poor animal looks miserable."
"I will. Thank you."
With a curt nod, Antilles left.
*Ahhh. This feels good.* Tycho craned his head toward the thin trickle of water the hotel manager had pretentiously called a shower. But it was water, and he was finally able to get rid of the nerf smell that had crawled into every pore.
He slung a towel around his waist before he returned to the sleeping-room where the three others were still discussing plans for the evening. He made a face as he held up the pants that lay on his bed. "How elegant. Ralltiir really is the fashion center of the galaxy."
Wes chuckled, but Antilles frowned at him. *What else.* "We're supposed to be farmers, so we better look like ones. Even though you don't manage to behave like a farmer."
"Yeah, thanks a lot," Tycho muttered under his breath while he dressed.
Still barefooted, he walked over to a small, cracked mirror hanging near the door. He looked at himself critically. His dark brown-dyed hair still looked strange to him. Thoughtfully he pushed it back from his eyes. *Mum would throw up her hands in horror if she could see my hair this long.* Again, no stabbing pain, just a genuine smile as he imagined the reproachful look on his mother's face. *But Ny would like it.*
"Look at him. And you tell +me+ I'm vain, Wedge?"
It took Tycho a moment to realize that Wes was teasing him. A bit embarrassed, he turned away from the mirror. "Shut up."
The other leaned back with a broad grin. "Do you have any special plans for tonight you didn't tell us about yet, Tycho?"
"Oh, c'mon. You were almost crawling into that mirror."
With a deep sigh Tycho sat down and fished for his shoes. "No plans. Besides, what could you do in these clothes?" He barely managed to suppress a grin when he caught Antilles' annoyed look.
"You maybe," Wes mocked good-naturedly. "My extraordinary good looks would outshine the deficiencies of the clothes, of course."
Hobbie rolled his eyes in pretended horror. "I can't listen to this any longer."
"Me neither." Antilles' frown was genuine. "Fenja already brought me to the end of my patience. Any new surprises tonight, and you're in serious trouble. Got that?"
Tycho and Wes exchanged annoyed looks before they answered in unison. "Yes, sir."
"Good. Let's go."
With an inward sigh, Wes emptied his glass of lum in one swig. So far the evening had been completely unsuccessful. Well, they had visited several bars; that in and on itself wasn't too bad, and a nice change, but the general atmosphere in the city spoiled any fun Wes might have had. On first sight everything seemed to be normal, but the longer the four Rebels had strolled through the city, the more they'd noticed stormtrooper patrols, security officers in uniform and plain clothes, and holocams almost everywhere. Small wonder that most people looked subdued and went about their own business, either ignoring or frowning at strangers.
"Would you like another glass of lum?" The young waitress looked at Wes expectantly.
"Oh, yes, please."
Wedge ordered another glass, too, then the waitress quickly moved to the next table. She was young, in Wes' opinion much too young to work in such an establishment.
"Hobbie, what's wrong?" Tycho whispered.
Wedge frowned at him for using a real name, but didn't say anything. The music was too loud to carry their conversation to any possible listening devices. Or so Wes hoped.
Hobbie continued to stare into his glass, which was still full. Since they'd landed on planet, or rather since they'd learned about their mission, Hobbie had been even more taciturn than usual. And the evening had done nothing to lighten up his mood. But Tycho was right, now Hobbie looked even more pale and tense than before.
"I know her." Hobbie's voice was tight.
"Who?" Suddenly Wedge was completely alert.
"The girl. The waitress. She's the sister of a very good friend. I think."
"You think, or you know?"
"I'm not completely sure, she was only eleven or twelve when I left."
Tycho leaned in closer. "Do you think she can be helpful?"
"Maybe. Her family fought for reforms for years. Both of her parents spent years in prison, and her mother died as a result of it about six years ago. They were the first people I wanted to visit, and it was them I was looking for yesterday evening. But I couldn't find any trace of them. Their house belongs to someone else now, and they aren't listed in the register I bought today."
"The girl will know where they are."
"Probably. But something is very wrong, Wedge. Their disappearance, and then Nikita working in a bar. Her father and brother would have never allowed it, never."
"You think they are in prison?"
Hobbie nodded slightly, his face expressionless. "I'm afraid so, yes. In prison, or... worse."
Wedge bit his lower lip for a while before he came to a decision. "Still, it is our best lead so far. Hobbie, you and Wes follow her when she goes home. Try to talk to her, but be careful. We don't want to endanger ourselves, and especially not her. Celchu and I will return to our hotel, checking the police and security headquarters on the way. Questions?"
The three others shook their heads.
"Good." Wedge leaned back in his chair, and immediately he was in disguise again, looking like a half-drunken farmer on his first trip to a big city.
"Where are we heading to?" Wes whispered.
"Don't know." Hobbie shrugged. "I've never been in this part of the city. The poor and the few non-humans who worked in Nitanlo lived here. And it looks like it hasn't changed much."
Wes glanced around, trying to look inconspicuous. The streets were dark, as were most windows. Occasionally a passerby hurried along, not paying attention to either the girl or the two men following her secretly. There still were surveillance holocams, although many seemed to be broken, but no stormtrooper patrols as in the rest of the city. Once an armor-plated stormtroops speeder had passed them, but that was all. Wes almost missed them; their absence didn't make this quarter look more inviting, not even to a Rebel.
But the girl in front of them didn't seem to care. Resolutely and without glancing around, she strode toward her destination. Finally she stopped in front of one of the many dark blocks, groped for something in her pocket, and then entered the house. The two pilots hurried to the door she had disappeared through. There were no nameplates on it, just an old-fashioned lock Wes sliced in no time. "Let's go," he whispered as he slowly pushed open the door.
The girl was standing near the end of the long and dark hallway the door led to, about to open another door. When she noticed the two men approaching her casually, she hesitated briefly, then shrugged and disappeared through the door, apparently into a flat.
Again no nameplate, and this time a lock so old that it didn't even try to scare off uninvited visitors. After checking carefully for holocams, Hobbie knocked lightly. When there was no reaction, he repeated the knock, this time more strongly. Still no one opened.
The two pilots exchanged a short glance, then Wes opened the lock in less than two seconds. The door slid open without a noise, and Hobbie carefully entered the dark room behind.
Something dark attacked him, and Wes immediately sprang to his friend's aid. Their attacker was small and light and only wielded a short stick. Without much effort Wes held her in a tight grip.
"Let me go." The girl fought tenaciously, kicking at Wes' legs.
"Be quiet. We won't hurt you." Wes glanced at Hobbie who leaned on the wall next to him, still holding his head and groin. The door closed automatically, cutting off the little light that had come from the hallway.
"How nice of you." For someone her age and in her situation, she remained surprisingly calm.
Suddenly the light flashed on and an old man entered the room from the opposite side, looking in confusion at the scene before him.
"Mr. Kurillnev." Hobbie braced himself and slowly approached the man who still stared at him in utter confusion. Uncertain how to proceed, he stopped before him. "Mr. Kurillnev, don't you recognize me?"
As if a veil had been lifted from his face, suddenly the old man's eyes became vivid. He scrutinized the young man standing before him for several seconds. "Hobbie, is that you?"
"Yes, it's me."
Slowly the man raised a trembling hand and touched Hobbie's cheek. "It is you. And you are well." He smiled. Then, as sudden as if a mysterious power source had been turned off, his hand fell down and his expression became confused again.
The girl had stopped struggling as the man had entered, but now she tried again to unwind from Wes' grip. This time he let her go. With a furious look at him, she hurried to the old man.
"Dad, you have to return to bed. Please."
"Where am I? And who are these men?"
"They are friends of mine. Please, you'll catch a cold if you don't go back to bed." She gently led him out of the room to a small bedroom. The man lay down on the bed without protest. "Sleep now. It is late." With a last smile at her father she slowly retreated, squeezed past the two Rebels standing at the doorframe, and sat down on a worn-down couch in the larger room, obviously living-room and kitchen in one.
"Shut the door, he needs his rest. And dim the light. I don't suppose you would like anyone to see you."
While Hobbie did as ordered, Wes glanced at the two small windows he presumed were behind the thick curtains. Unlikely that anyone had noticed them, he decided.
Hobbie sat down on a wobbly chair opposite the girl, but Wes preferred to remain standing near the entrance, observant.
"Are you really Hobbie?" The girl stared at him intently.
"Yes, Nikita, I am."
She shook her head in disbelief. "I can't believe he recognized you."
"What is wrong with him? Is he ill?"
She laughed briefly, but there was no mirth in her laughter. "Ill? Well, you could say so. He is just a shell. The man who is my father is buried deep down in him, and every once in a while a bit of him flickers through the mist, but it always disappears again as quickly as it came. Most of the time he doesn't know who he is, or where. It's probably for the best."
"What? Why?" Hobbie's confusion clearly showed in his voice, even though he remained calm on the outside. "What has happened?"
"None of your business." Her mood had changed rapidly, her defenses obviously up again.
"Nikita, please, I--"
"You come here uninvited after how many years? four, five? and break into my flat, and now you expect me to tell you everything you want to know just for the sake of old times? Forget it. Go back to your Rebellion or wherever you came from, and leave me alone."
"Yes. I... we are with the Rebellion." Hobbie turned his palms up, trying to soothe her. "We were sent here to reestablish contact with the local Rebel groups."
Wes tensed. He didn't like the idea of telling this girl about their identity and their mission, not at all. But Hobbie was probably right, she was their best lead so far.
"Oh, you want to reestablish contact. How nice. Where were you one year ago, when we needed your help?"
"Busy fighting a Death Star," Wes offered.
"Oh yeah, the famous Battle of Yavin. How could I forget about that." Her voice was thick with sarcasm.
"Nikita, what happened one year ago?"
"Don't tell me you don't know."
"I know the general picture. Tion and Vader overthrew the council that had been elected democratically several months before, because to the Empire's dislike it had initiated investigations on how much Ralltiir's financial institutions had been infiltrated by Imperial hardliners, who for example had erased the accounts of non-humans and dissidents. Imperial special forces pursued every Rebel on Ralltiir and every person they thought to be one. But I don't know what happened here, in Nitanlo. It's far away from the capital, after all."
"Not far enough." Nikita covered her eyes with her left hand while she apparently recalled the events of that time. "They arrested everyone. Everyone who had ever become noted as a troublemaker, and everyone who dared to criticize what was happening. Dad, Yegori, and I were among the first who were brought to a newly erected interrogation center. I don't need to tell you what they do to you in an interrogation center, do I?"
Hobbie wordlessly shook his head.
"After two weeks they let me go. Believe it or not, it was actually your father who persuaded them to set me free." She managed a sad smile as Hobbie's head came up, surprised. "I couldn't believe it either. But apparently even he was shocked at what was going on, and he claimed that the Empire wouldn't sink so deep as to torture children. He took me to a foster home. Not nice, but better than the interrogation center. Yegori and Dad were taken to another center shortly thereafter, or so I think. When Dad came back, about two months later, he was broken, not talking, not reacting to anything. He spent three more months in prison here, then your father, who had resumed control of the local security forces after Tion's people had left, let him go. There hardly was any use in keeping him locked up any more. And I guess this way he is more of a deterrent. Ms. Cinosanap -- the elementary school teacher, do you remember? -- took us in. We had to leave her house again when her boss threatened to fire her because she was caring for us, but she still looks after Dad as often as possible, and tries to support us as well as she can. She's a great woman."
"What happened to Yegori?" Hobbie's voice was only a whisper.
"They sent his body about a month after they sent Dad back, with no further comment. But his body told me everything I needed to know, and never wanted to. He looked... you can't imagine, Hobbie, you can't." She buried her face in her hands, and her shoulders trembled. Hobbie reached out to touch her arm, but she shrank away from him. Inhaling deeply, Nikita eventually braced herself again. Her voice still quivered when she continued. "We buried him at the old graveyard in the forest. I'm glad that we at least got his body. Most people disappeared without a trace, and their families still don't know what happened to them."
There was a long depressing silence.
"How is the situation now?" Wes asked finally.
Nikita shrugged. "Back to normal. Or as normal as it gets nowadays. Ask Hobbie for the differences. If you want to know if there are any Rebels left, no, there aren't. Not that I know of. They are either dead or broken or fighting just to survive. It's over. Forget about it. If you're an optimist, come back in twenty years. Maybe by then the resistance will have struggled back to its feet."
"Nikita, is there anything we can do to help you?" Hobbie sounded pained. Wes didn't know how close he had been to this Yegori, but obviously a lot closer than he had thought initially.
"Yes. You can leave now. I also have a daytime job, and I need my sleep. And I have enough trouble already, being seen with two Rebels definitely isn't anything I need."
"Just leave." Abruptly she stood up and walked to the door. "Go back to your Rebellion. You know everything you wanted to know, now leave me alone."
Wes threw a questioning look at his friend, but Hobbie just shook his head. "We will go, Niki. Thank you for telling me about Yegori. I'm sorry, I really am. If you need to reach me, we'll be staying in the Valley Hotel for a few more days."
She just nodded curtly. "Your Rebel Alliance should have been here when we needed support, not now. Good-bye."
"Good-bye. Take care."
Wes smiled slightly at the girl as he left the flat after his friend. "Good-bye. And thank you."
Back on the street, they wordlessly hurried back to their hotel. Hobbie stared at the ground a meter in front of his feet, not even looking up at intersections. Wes glanced at him worriedly from time to time, but decided not to press the subject and give his friend some time to think, and to mourn.
When they had reached the quarter in which their hotel was located and Hobbie was still keeping quiet, Wes eventually broke the silence. They had to tell Wedge, after all, and he preferred to talk with Hobbie in private first. "Do you believe her?"
The other didn't even look up. "I don't know."
"You don't know or you don't care?" Wes' voice was sharper than he had intended. But at least it caused Hobbie to finally look at him. There was so much pain visible in his eyes that Wes involuntarily stopped dead in his tracks. "I... I'm sorry. I didn't mean to. You and this Ye--," suddenly Wes realized that there might be surveillance holocams close by, "and her brother were very close, weren't you?"
"Yes." Hobbie's nod was barely visible, and his voice was strangely emotionless. "He was my best friend, and I often visited his family." He fell silent again. As Wes was starting to think that this was all Hobbie would tell him, the Ralltiirian continued. "It wasn't unexpected. I mean, I should have known, after all that has happened. But expecting it and knowing it are obviously two very different things."
Wes gently put his arm around Hobbie's shoulders. The other didn't look at him, but leaned in closer to the comforting nearness of his friend.