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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
The late summer morning was so sunny and warm that Hobbie couldn't help but think that the weather was mocking him. There couldn't be a sharper contrast to his mood. Nikita's story was still occupying his thoughts. He should have been prepared; ever since the first reports about the crushing of the democratic movement on Ralltiir had reached him during his first months with the Rebel Alliance, he had feared that Yegori and his family might have been killed. But he had always suppressed that thought. It had been too unthinkable. People in the Alliance died, that Hobbie had unfortunately become used to, that was part of the job. But Yegori had been no Rebel, and at least subconsciously Hobbie had always believed his friend was safe on Ralltiir.
Almost unintentionally, he had chosen a path that led him above the city, to the forest. To the forest, and to Yegori's grave. He glanced back. Tycho was following him unquestioningly, quietly whispering to Fenja, who patiently trotted beside him. Despite his dark mood, the sight caused Hobbie to smile slightly. Who had thought that the tough Alderaanian had such a soft spot?
Not that Hobbie couldn't understand. He had never had a pet as a child, and had never cared much about animals. But Fenja's large brown eyes were hard to resist. The way she looked at him, the way she nudged him gently with her nose, made him think that she understood more than he would have thought possible.
Last night, after long, sleepless hours, Hobbie had tiptoed out of their sleeping room. He had needed fresh air, and to see the stars, but eventually he had found himself in Fenja's provisional stable. And she had looked at him as if she had known exactly how he felt. Strangely, for the first time in years, he had been able to cry. He had buried his face deep in Fenja's soft fur and wept for a long time.
"Are we going to the graveyard?" Tycho's soft voice awakened Hobbie from his thoughts.
"Yes." He waited for an objection, but none came. Tycho just nodded wordlessly.
Hobbie returned his attention to the path before him again and strode toward the graveyard hidden underneath the old trees on top of the hill.
Without a word Tycho stopped at the boundary of the graveyard, allowing Hobbie to be alone with his emotions. He slowly walked through the rows of gravestones, trying to decipher the weathered letters. Most people were dead for dozens of years, but in the back he found several newer graves, all of them dating from the time of the suppression. He recognized most of the names, and his stomach turned to ice.
The last grave in the row, lying a short distance away to the side under an old tree, was Yegori's. With a trembling hand, Hobbie stroked the engraved writing. Yegori had barely been 21 when he'd died. It should never have happened, never. Tears were rising to his eyes as he knelt down and leaned his head against the cold stone.
Hobbie remembered the last time they had been together. He had been sure that they would never meet again, but that was because he'd known that life expectancy in the Rebellion was very short. Never had he imagined that Yegori would die before him. His friend had been so optimistic, so full of life. All his life he had peacefully resisted the Empire, had always believed that his dream of a free and democratic Ralltiir would become true one day. And it had come true. Hobbie remembered all too well the joy he'd felt when the news about forthcoming elections on his homeplanet had reached the academy. But after only a few months it had all ended in blood and pain and death. The few reports that had been smuggled off-planet had been gruesome, and now Nikita had confirmed his worst nightmares.
*Oh Yegori, how did you die? How much did you suffer? Had you still hope left in the end?* Not likely. Hobbie had met several people who had been tortured by the Empire, and the deep pain and hopelessness in their eyes had haunted him for months. And the meeting with Yegori's father had shaken him to his bones. He remembered a friendly, but resolute man. He had been the first adult Hobbie had ever met who had taken him seriously, had explained things to him and asked for his opinion. Like his son, he'd always been optimistic, had never doubted that the future would be brighter. Never had he given up, never given in to his pain, not even when his wife had died during her last prison stay. To see him so completely broken had scared Hobbie out of his mind. He'd never thought it possible that a man could be destroyed like this. What must they have done to him?
When Hobbie left the graveyard, he was surprised to find Tycho and Fenja surrounded by schoolchildren. Apparently not alarmed by the kids weaseling around her, the animal grazed contentedly while Tycho talked to the younger of two women, probably the teachers. The older woman was trying in vain to keep the children away from the animal. As Hobbie slowly approached them, he overheard some of the conversation.
"...felt pity for her. She would have been killed, so I decided to buy her on a whim. I don't regret it, not at all -- it was the right thing to do, but I can't keep her. I live too far away, and I'm rarely at home."
"My neighbor has a lot of animals, we're always teasing her about her zoo. She can't resist when an animal needs help. You'd best talk to her. I'm quite sure that she will take poor Fenja in, but I can't promise it, of course."
Hobbie moved around the chevruh that had hidden his approach so far, and suddenly stopped thunderstruck when he got his first good look at the younger woman. She had half turned around when she'd heard him approaching, and now stared at him in utter disbelief, too. Confused, Tycho looked from one to another. Before Hobbie had regained his composure enough to speak, the older woman called for the kids.
"Children, we need to go now. You've bothered the kind man and the poor animal far too long already. Ms. Bruin, please bring up the rear and shoo everyone back to the classroom."
The kids grumbled, but slowly began to file out and follow their teacher downhill. Still frozen stiff, the younger woman didn't take her eyes from Hobbie. Finally he had recovered enough to form a word. "Lahika!"
"Hobbie. Why...? How...?" She quickly glanced at the children who were already several meters away. "Meet me at the crooked tree high up on the cliffs at twelve o'clock." With that, she turned around and hurried after her class.
If Tycho hadn't nudged him, Hobbie would have stood there and stared after her for several more minutes. Slowly he directed his attention to the present situation again. "That... That was my sister. Lahika. The older of my two sisters."
"What will we do?"
"I have to talk with her. I'll meet her. But you'd better go back. It's too risky."
Tycho raised an eyebrow. "You don't trust her?"
"I do." Hobbie sighed. "But we shouldn't take any chances. It's been almost four years, many things have changed."
The Alderaanian absent-mindedly ran his fingers through Fenja's fur. "What is the place she wants to meet you at like? Suitable for an ambush?"
"Not really, no. Unless they have grown lots of additional trees, there is no cover at all for hundreds of meters."
"Then I'll go with you." He quickly raised his hand to stall Hobbie's reply. "If she reports us, there is no escape anyway. I've no intention to disturb your privacy, but I think I'd better stay close."
Hobbie smiled gratefully. "Thanks. I'll feel better with a friend around."
Hobbie leaned nervously against the small, wind-bent tree and intently stared at the narrow trail that led up to this place on top of the cliffs, high above the city. Tycho and Fenja stood a few meters away, carefully examining the surrounding area. The Alderaanian had tried to talk with him on their way up, but Hobbie just didn't feel like talking, and eventually his friend had respected his mood and allowed him his privacy.
Hobbie sighed inwardly. Ever since he'd gotten his orders to come to Ralltiir, he'd had very mixed emotions about the possibility of meeting members of his family again. On one hand he missed his siblings and longed for the opportunity to talk with them, to let them know that he was still alive, to explain to them the reasons for his defection; but on the other hand he felt very nervous and unsure about meeting them again. Would they understand? So much had changed during the last few years, would their relationship still be as good as it had been before he'd left home?
The sight of a young woman quickly approaching awakened Hobbie from his brooding. He shielded his eyes against the sun, and soon he was sure that it was Lahika. He briefly nodded toward Tycho, and the other slowly moved further away. To a casual observer he looked like he was completely occupied with his chevruh, but Hobbie knew that nothing would escape Tycho's attention.
Lahika finally reached the top of the cliff, and stopped to catch her breath. Not sure what to do, Hobbie approached her slowly. When she noticed him, she started to run and threw her arms around her surprised brother.
"Hobbie! Oh Hobbie, I was so scared that I might never see you again, that you were dead!"
"I'm fine." He held her tight, enjoying the moment of closeness.
After a while Lahika broke the embrace. "What has happened, Hobbie? Father told us that you defected. Are you really with the Rebels?" She cautiously glanced at Tycho, who stood just out of earshot, apparently paying no attention to the siblings.
"So he told you. I'm glad he did, I was afraid that you would be told that I was killed in action, to spare him the embarrassment. It is true, I'm with the Rebel Alliance now."
Lahika examined him for a few moments before she answered, and Hobbie tried to read her expression, but without much success.
"So it is really true. I'm not surprised. Because Father told us about it, I was pretty sure that there was no doubt about it." She bit her lower lip. "But why? To me it came completely out of the blue. I know you were always critical of the Empire, but joining a terrorist organization? What has happened to you at the academy?"
"I'm no terrorist. +We+ are no terrorists. The whole purpose of terrorists is to spread fear at random, not caring if innocent civilians get hurt. They even want to hit innocents, so that everyone will live in fear. We try to avoid any civilian casualties, we fight against the Emperor and his military, not against the people of the Empire."
"But you bring war to the galaxy." His sister sounded more sad than accusing. "This can't be right, it can't. I have a child, Hobbie, and a second one on the way. I don't want them to grow up in a galaxy at war." She reflexively touched her belly, and for the first time Hobbie detected the slight bulge there. Despite the situation, he couldn't help but smile. Very gently, he touched her belly with his fingertips.
"There is no peaceful solution, Lahika. Please believe me, I wish it were otherwise, but I'm convinced that there is no other way."
"But why at all? The Empire isn't perfect, sure, but for the last twenty or so years we have lived in peace."
"Peace?" Hobbie snorted. "Throughout the Empire, people have been oppressed, tortured, and killed because of their convictions, or their race, or just because they were at the wrong place at the wrong time. That's no peace."
"And you, you'll make everything better?"
"Yes, we will."
"I don't believe it, Hobbie." She smiled at him sadly. "Don't get me wrong, I believe that your intentions are good. But it won't work. The galaxy needs a strong leader. This Rebellion will only lead to anarchy and chaos; if it will lead to anything at all. The Imperial military is too strong, they will hunt you down and kill you, all of you. I don't want you to die, Hobbie. Come back before it is too late." Her tone was pleading now.
Hobbie shook his head. "It already is too late. I've made my decision, and I'm sure that it is the right one. The things I've seen over the last years... You know only Ralltiir, Lahika, but this is not the whole galaxy. Many places are a lot worse off."
"I've seen enough." She shivered. "You weren't here when our new High Council brought the wrath of the Empire down on Ralltiir. It was horrible. Even Father was shocked about the brutality of Tion's forces." She hesitated. "Did you hear about Yegori and his father?"
Hobbie nodded, not daring to speak.
"I feel so sorry for him. It should have never happened, never. If only the Emperor had known what Tion was doing--"
"He did know. He ordered it, or at least he approved it. As he approves all the other atrocities that happen," Hobbie interjected grimly.
"No, he didn't. I'm sure he didn't. The Emperor would have never allowed it." Wearily she wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. "That was a terrible time, but things are getting better again. They're almost back to normal. But if you continue fighting, everything will start all over again."
"We didn't destroy Alderaan." Hobbie was almost shouting now. "We didn't erect torture centers on Ralltiir. We didn't bomb Toprawa back to the stone age."
"But you started this war," Lahika insisted.
"Because we had no other choice." Hobbie stared at his sister, frustrated. Why didn't she understand?
She watched him silently for a while, then sat down on the ground and gestured him to sit beside her. "I'm sorry. I'm scared, about my future, and especially about the future that awaits my children. But let's not talk about politics, it will lead to nothing."
Hobbie nodded. He desperately wished that he could convince her, but twenty years of Imperial indoctrination were hard to overcome. Lahika had to find her own way. "Okay. Tell me about yourself. You are married? Do I know your husband?"
"No. Rinam's family moved to Nitanlo about four years ago, shortly after you'd left for the academy. He and I were in the same class during our last year in school. We fell in love and married immediately after graduation. We have a small house in the very north of Nitanlo, near the harbor, you know, very rural, and great for the kids. Rinam works at a bank, and I work as an assistant teacher. Maybe one day I'll manage to go to university and become a real teacher, but right now I want to have many children, and care for them. I hope we'll be a large, happy family." She smiled happily. "Rinam is great with our little boy, he's a fantastic father. And a very nice and understanding husband."
"Unlike someone else we both know." Hobbie hadn't meant to say it; the words had come out automatically.
His sister put her arm around him. "Don't, Hobbie. Don't judge Father so harshly. He means well."
He snorted. "Means well. Great. He never cared about us. We had to function, period. And if we didn't..." He left the rest unsaid. Both knew what the punishment for disobedience had been.
"He cares. Really. He just can't show it." Lahika gently pushed back a lock of Hobbie's dark-dyed hair. "I know you are bitter. I'm bitter, too, and as you noticed, I moved out as soon as possible. But over the last year, I've managed to talk with Father a few times, really talk with him, and I found out that he loves us, all of us. You, too."
"Great to know. His love for me wouldn't stop him from imprisoning and torturing me if he caught me, though."
"I'm not sure."
Wordlessly, both stared at the ground. After a while Hobbie broke the awkward silence. "How are Kessy and Kolya?"
"Two months ago Kessy moved to Grallia, to go to university there. Mother and Father didn't allow it, but she went anyway. Ever since she'd told them that she wants to go to uni and study geology, all hell had broken loose at home. But Kessy didn't give in, not a centimeter. In the end she just packed and left."
"Very brave." Lost in thought, Hobbie pulled up some of the grass in front of him. "I never dared to oppose them openly."
"Me neither. But Kessy has always been self-confident and stubborn. Unlike Kolya."
"How is he?"
"I don't know. Really. It's so hard to tell what the real Kolya is, and what is the facade he's built up to please Father. I'm not sure if he himself knows."
Lahika shrugged. "I would say so, yes. Sid's death had already shaken him to the bones, you know that, and your defection has left him completely, hmm, disoriented might be the right word. One brother dead, the other fighting for the very people who killed him. I don't think he ever understood." Sid was their oldest brother, who had joined the Imperial Navy several years earlier and been killed in action during his first year of duty as a TIE pilot. In a Rebel ambush, or so they had been told. When he'd just joined the Rebellion Hobbie had tried to find out what exactly had happened, but he had quickly given up. The Alliance didn't keep files of their battles. Besides, if Hobbie was honest with himself, he didn't really want to know which Rebel unit had been involved.
Lahika sighed sadly before she continued. "And even more than before Father tries to keep Kolya under control, to do everything to keep him from going astray, like you did. Kolya complies, he tries so very hard to please Father, but he just can't fulfill his expectations. He isn't the kind of person Father wants him to be."
With a deep sigh Hobbie shook his head. "And he still doesn't see it? I'll never understand how Father can be so blind. Kolya would do anything for him, anything. For just a nice word, an encouragement, or a pat on the back. But Father always wanted him to be like Sid, and what makes things worse, Kolya wanted to be like Sid, too, but he isn't. His strong points lie elsewhere. It's still like that?"
"Yes, unfortunately. And it frustrates both of them." His sister sighed, too. "You don't plan to talk with Kolya, do you?"
Surprised, Hobbie raised his eyebrows. "I don't know. I long to see him again, but on the other hand--"
"Don't. Please, don't."
"I don't know how he'll react. You know, he adored Sid, and he hates the Rebels for killing him. I don't think he'll understand your decision. Heck, I don't understand it, either, but I can accept it. But Kolya... I just don't know."
"You think he would report me?" Hobbie was shocked. As children, all five siblings had been very close, and he simply couldn't imagine that one of them would ever hate one of the others. He had been careful when he'd talked to Tycho about Lahika's motives for meeting him, but in reality he'd never believed that she would betray him to the authorities. Whatever she thought about the Rebellion, she was his sister, and she loved him.
"I honestly don't know. He has become even more of a loner than he'd been before, and he never talks about his feelings. Sometimes he visits me and plays with my son and our pets; in those moments he reminds me of the child he once was, and he looks almost happy. But any other time..." She leaned her head sadly against Hobbie's shoulder. "You know, I miss the old times. When the five of us were still together. Whatever happened, we still had each other. Now Sid is dead, you're somewhere in the galaxy fighting for the Rebellion, Kessy has moved away, I have my family, and poor Kolya is all alone, with no one to comfort him when Father loses his patience with him again."
"I miss all of you, too," Hobbie whispered.
They sat without speaking for a long time, holding each other tightly, lost in the past, until the bells of Nitanlo's bell tower interrupted the silence.
"Already one o'clock. I have to go now, Hobbie."
He nodded, and helped her to her feet. "It was great to see you again. Take care." His eye fell on Tycho and Fenja who were still patiently waiting several meters away. "Oh, I almost forgot. The animal. You think you know someone who would take care of her?"
Lahika smiled. "You really are some Rebels. Saving a poor chevruh from certain death. Is that a part of your mission?"
"No." Suddenly Hobbie realized that his sister hadn't asked him what he was doing on Ralltiir, and he was glad she hadn't. He would have hated to lie to her. "Just feeling pity for the poor animal. C'mon." He gestured her to come along to join Tycho.
The Alderaanian regarded them intently as they moved closer, and Hobbie felt his sister beside him hesitate. He leaned over and whispered, "Don't worry, he's nice. He only looks so grim. He's been through a lot."
As they reached his friend, he introduced him. "Lahika, this is Tycho. Tycho, this is my oldest sister, Lahika."
Surprised, Tycho glanced at him briefly, but didn't comment on Hobbie using his real name. There really wasn't any use in hiding their identities anyway. If Lahika betrayed them, Imperial security would find out their real names in no time.
"Nice to meet you." Tycho offered his hand to Lahika, and she shook it.
"Nice to meet you, too." She smiled. "You're still looking for a place for Fenja?"
When she heard her name, Fenja stopped grazing and curiously examined the woman. Lahika gently ran her fingers through the animal's thick fur.
"Yes, I am. And I guess you now know why I can't keep her."
"I can imagine. As I said, my neighbor cares for abused or abandoned animals, and she has three chevruhs already. I'm sure she'll take Fenja in, but I have to ask her first."
"You can't ask her," Hobbie interjected. "You can hardly tell her that you met two Rebels, one of them your brother, who have a chevruh that needs to be taken care of."
"I could say that I found her myself," Lahika suggested.
"Has something like that happened before?" Tycho asked, and Lahika shook her head. "Then it isn't very believable." He looked at the animal pensively. "We can just bring her to your neighbor's house at night and leave her there, with a datacard which explains the situation."
"But what if she doesn't want to keep her?" Hobbie didn't like the idea.
"We can't help it anyway." Tycho sighed, and Hobbie could tell how much Tycho hated the thought of leaving Fenja behind. It had only been a day, but the Alderaanian had already taken to her.
"I'll make sure that she'll be taken care of." Lahika carefully touched Tycho's forearm. "My neighbor is a great woman, I don't think she'll refuse to keep her. But if she does, I'll think of something."
Tycho gave her one of his more charming smiles. "Thank you."
"Do you have a datapad?"
Lahika took it and keyed in an address. "This is my neighbor's address. Hobbie will know where it is. When will you bring her?"
"Before we leave. Maybe tonight, maybe tomorrow night, maybe later, I honestly can't tell."
"I'll look for her. Take care." Lahika turned to her brother and hugged him. "Promise me to be careful, Hobbie. I want to meet you again, hopefully in peace."
"I'll do my best. Please remember me to Kessy when you talk with her."
"I will." Reluctantly, she let him go.
"Take care, Lahika."
"You too, Hobbie." With that, she abruptly turned away and ran toward the city without looking back.
Hobbie stared after her, trying in vain to gulp down the lump in his throat.
"What will we do now, boss?" Wes looked expectantly at Wedge.
The Corellian continued to stare out of the window for a while before he answered. "I really don't know. The girl says that there are no Rebels left in Nitanlo, and I'm inclined to believe her. At least I believe that there is no organized Rebel cell any more. Nothing we've seen in town today indicates otherwise. So probably we should just pack and leave Ralltiir. But I'm reluctant. Maybe there still is someone here who would like to contact the Alliance."
"So we'll just sit and wait?"
"Yes." Wedge looked from one to another, trying to gauge their reactions to his suggestion. Without much luck. Hobbie lay flat on his back, staring at the ceiling. He hadn't moved or talked since he and Tycho had returned from their trip to town about an hour ago, and he gave no indication that he'd even heard what Wedge had said. Tycho sat cross-legged on his bed, reading something on his datapad. He looked up briefly when Wedge's inquiring look fell on him, shrugged, and returned his attention to the pad again. When he didn't get any reaction from the other two, Wedge frowned in annoyance, then looked at Wes questioningly. "What do you think?"
Wes shrugged. "I don't have any better idea. This way we'll at least get a first-hand impression of the situation on Ralltiir. Not many people are getting on and off nowadays."
"Yes, we--" A noise at the door interrupted Wedge.
Surprised, Wes looked at his commander, then stood up to let the unexpected visitor in while Wedge fetched his hidden blaster. Before Wes had reached the door, though, a datacard was pushed into the room through the slit underneath. He quickly activated the door's opening mechanism and stepped into the hallway, but no one was there. Slightly puzzled, he picked up the card and returned to the table.
"What is it?" Alarmed, Tycho had leapt up and was now standing beside the table, his hand on his blaster, too.
"Datacard." Wes turned it around suspiciously, then inserted it into his datapad. A short message appeared on the small screen.
COME TO THE BACK ENTRANCE OF THE OLD SAWMILL AT MIDNIGHT.
ALL FOUR OF YOU.
That was all. No signature, no further explanation.
The Rogues looked at each other, confused. Even Hobbie had woken up from his passivity and sat up. Finally Wes asked what all of them were thinking. "Is it a trap?"
"I don't like it. Not at all." Tycho stared at the message as if it would provide an answer.
"Let's proceed systematically," Wedge said. "All of us. Hobbie, get over here, too."
The Ralltiirian complied but still looked distracted. Wes regarded him with concern. Tycho had given the other two a short report about their meeting with Hobbie's sister, but Hobbie refused to talk about it, and Wes wondered what had happened.
Wedge sat down at one end of the table and waited until the others had taken a seat, too. "Okay. The message doesn't say anything about the Rebellion, but as weapons are mentioned, I assume that whoever sent it doesn't believe we are farmers. There are only two people that we know of who have uncovered our disguise, the girl, Nikita, and Hobbie's sister."
"Lahika doesn't know that there are four of us, and she doesn't know where we are staying," Hobbie remarked. Wedge gave him a 'so you can still speak' look, but didn't comment.
"That's not difficult to find out, though," Tycho noted.
"What's your sister's political standpoint?" The tone of Wedge's voice made clear that this time he wouldn't allow Hobbie to keep quiet.
"She thinks we bring war to the galaxy. She isn't an Imperial hardliner, but she definitely is no Rebel either. Rather apolitical. I don't think she would report us, either way."
"That leaves the girl. Or did you notice anyone else who might have become suspicious?"
Wes shook his head. "You never know, but at the moment the girl is our best bet."
"The only relevant question is who's sent it: friend or foe, " Tycho said grimly.
"Why should Imperial security send such a message?" Wes asked. "If they knew, or just vaguely suspected who we were, they would send stormtroopers, not datacards."
"Maybe, maybe not." Tycho still looked suspicious.
All four fell quiet, staring at the mysterious message as if it contained some hidden information. Finally Wedge came to a decision. "We will go. We really have no choice. We were sent here to contact a possible Rebel cell, this might be the attempt of that cell to contact us, so we can't back off now."
*I hope this was the right decision,* Wes thought as he followed a masked person through dark, slippery tunnels. The person they had met at the sawmill entrance hadn't spoken, just curtly gestured them to follow him. After a long walk, first on ground level, then downstairs through a maze of tunnels, they reached a small room where three other persons waited. Still without a word, they roughly pushed the four Rebels against a wall and searched them for weapons. They came up empty, and Wes was suddenly glad that he'd listened to Wedge and left his holdout blaster in their hotel room. Afterwards they were guided through another set of tunnels -- or maybe it was the same, Wes really couldn't tell -- to a larger room.
Now the four of them were standing alone in the middle of the room, in nearly complete darkness, listening carefully for any movement, any whisper. Wes was sure that there were other people in the room as well, but how many and where exactly he couldn't tell.
Suddenly the light was turned on. Momentarily blinded, Wes shielded his eyes with his hands. When his eyes had adjusted to the sudden brightness, he noticed that he and his friends were standing directly underneath a light. The rest of the room was still dark. *Great.* If someone chose to attack them, they would now be even more helpless then before. He glanced at his friends beside him. Wedge looked alarmed, but calm. Tycho stood behind him, fists clenched, ready to fight if someone dared to attack them. Hobbie just stood there, his face expressionless. Slowly Wes loosened his fingers, which he'd reflexively clenched to fists.
"Who's your leader?" a female voice asked out of the darkness.
"I am," Wedge answered calmly.
"Tell me who you are."
Wedge hesitated briefly, but apparently decided to comply. This wasn't the right time to have any second thoughts. "I'm Lieutenant Wedge Antilles, from Corellia. My companions are Flight Officers Tycho Celchu, from Alderaan; Wes Janson, from Tanaab; and Derek Klivian, from Ralltiir."
The mention of Alderaan caused some surprised gasps and some whispering among the other people in the room. Wes saw Tycho's jaw set, but otherwise the Alderaanian didn't move.
"What are you doing on Ralltiir?" The disembodied voice gave no indication of any emotion.
"We are here on behalf of the Rebel Alliance to get into contact with local Rebel cells if there are any left."
"And why does the Rebel Alliance suddenly take such an interest in us that it sends one of the heroes of Yavin to Nitanlo?" Another voice, male, full of sarcasm.
Wes could see the muscles in Wedge's back tense. *C'mon, this isn't the right time for survivor's guilt.* But he didn't need to worry. Wedge's voice was as calm as before when he answered. "For the last year the Alliance has tried to reestablish contact with its groups on Ralltiir, but without success. Until two months ago the system was almost completely cut off from the rest of the galaxy. The few incoming and outgoing ships were thoroughly examined by the Imperial Navy. This blockade has been loosened over the past few months, and additionally at the moment there is a special constellation of the planets in system that makes it impossible for the Imps to monitor all routes to Ralltiir. So for the first time since the suppression we were able to slip a few ships in." He slowly moved his head, looking from one end of the room to the other as if he were able to see the faces in the dark. "As to the question why +we+ were sent; well, knowledge of the place, that's all."
"I see." The female voice again. "Well, most people here think that the Alliance left Ralltiir in the lurch when Tion's forces came down onto the planet. But I don't want to discuss that with you. What's done is done, and it wasn't your decision anyway."
To Wes' surprise a woman stepped into the light. She was middle-aged, perhaps in her fifties, and her gray hair was combed back to a braid. Her brown eyes scrutinized the four pilots. Slowly she moved from one to another, searching their features. Wes had to try hard not to flinch under her intense stare.
She finally stopped before Hobbie and cupped his chin in her left hand. "Hobbie Klivian. What a strange twist of fate. I wonder if your father would appreciate the irony of the situation."
"I'm not responsible for my father," Hobbie said between clenched teeth.
The woman smiled at him. "No one holds you responsible. I just find it remarkable." She slowly circled around the four men. "So young, so idealistic." She stopped before Tycho. "So full of hate." She looked at Wedge. "And sadness."
She stepped back. "But you didn't come to listen to my ramblings. You want to know if there are Rebels left on Ralltiir. Well, I can't talk about my whole planet, only about my city. A few of us are still left, but to be honest, we're down on our knees, just fighting for survival. Ralltiir's resistance has always been mainly local, directed toward establishing a wholly democratic government on our planet. There have been ties to the Alliance, as you probably know, but even back then most people thought that we should change Ralltiir first, before we try to change the galaxy." She sighed. "Now, there isn't even much hope left for our planet. The few of us that are left mainly try to find out what has happened to the many people who have been arrested and deported. Some of them we could at least bury, like your friend Yegori," she sadly smiled at Hobbie, "but of most we don't have any trace. The people in this room, we all have lost children, or siblings, or parents. To search for them is all we do at the moment. There is no strength left in us to do more, to fight for a better galaxy."
From the pocket of her jacket she took a datacard. "There is nothing we can do for the Alliance, and not much they can do for us. But one thing I would like to ask of you." She held out the datacard to Wedge. "This is a list of all missing people we know of. Some might have been deported to prisons or work camps on other planets. Please give it to your leaders. We are grateful for any information, as bad as it might be."
Carefully, Wedge took the card. Wes saw that he opened his mouth to say something, but the woman covered his lips with her fingers.
"I know what you want to say, young Wedge Antilles, and you're probably right. But I... we don't have the strength. Not anymore. We'll never give up, and one day our movement will be strong again, that I'm sure of, but right now..."
She stepped back. "Go now. The tunnel behind you will lead you to an intersection. Take the right tunnel, it leads to a staircase which will bring you back to groundlevel again. From there, you'll find the way by yourself. Good luck to you, and take care. Too many people have died already."
Wedge inclined his head. "We will do our best to find your people. I know many of you have hard feelings about the Alliance, but please know that we will always support you." He hesitated, obviously struggling with what to say. Finally, he just said, "We wish you the best of luck, too. May we meet again in happier times, and may the Force be with you."
The woman smiled. "And with you."
All of a sudden the light was switched off again. The Rogues hesitated for a moment, then turned around and left. There was nothing else they could do. They returned to their hotel in depressing silence.
When the others climbed up to their room, Tycho excused himself, murmuring something about looking after Fenja. Wedge frowned at him, but let him go without saying anything.
Wes, as the last one to enter their room, quietly closed the door behind him and heavily leaned against it. Now that the tension had gone, he felt exhausted. In a way he was relieved, this night could have easily ended with them being arrested, but on the other hand the meeting with the local Rebels had been depressing. What did these people think? Why didn't they fight? Sure, they had been through a lot, but hell, who hadn't? Every time the Imps thought that they'd crushed the Rebellion, they had stood up again, stronger and even more resolved than before. Wes smiled grimly. And they would do so time and again, until the Empire would be defeated.
Hobbie's voice awakened Wes from his thoughts. "Can I have the datacard, Wedge?"
The Ralltiirian's voice sounded pained, and a bit unreal. Wes regarded his friend closely. This mission seemed to be straining Hobbie emotionally much more than Wes had imagined, and he began to wonder if Hobbie would break down if they didn't leave Ralltiir soon.
"What will we do now, Wedge? Leave immediately?" Wes asked. *That would certainly be best.*
The Corellian watched Hobbie, who had sat down and silently started to read the list on the datacard, for a while before he answered. "Yes, I think so. As soon as possible. I'll go to the travel office tomorrow and ask for a permit to travel back to the Northeastern province. If we're lucky, we'll have permission by the day after tomorrow." With a sigh, Wedge sat down on his bed and wearily buried his face in his hands. "I don't know what else to do. We could wait for some other Rebels to contact us, Rebels who are still willing to fight, but who knows if there are even any of them left? And, actually, what can we do for them? We can smuggle them off-planet, maybe, but to be honest, we can't help Ralltiir. It's too well guarded, too important for the Empire, for the Alliance's High Command to even think about starting anything big here. So maybe the woman is right. The Ralltiirians have to find their own strength again, and they have to do it alone."
He braced himself. "Hobbie, do you know who this woman is? Have you ever met her before? Do you know anything about her political views?"
"Yes, I know her." Hobbie stared at Wedge, but Wes doubted that he actually saw his commanding officer. His eyes seemed to be focused far away, in the past, or maybe in the future, and Wes' worries deepened. "Not very well, though. She used to have a small bookshop in town. Her husband died early, a few months after her youngest child was born, and I suppose she had a hard time raising her three children alone. But you never noticed, she was always positive, always had time for us kids. Yegori and I often went to her store, and though she knew of course that we hardly ever bought anything, she was always nice to us. She was certainly liberal, though I wouldn't have thought that she was active in the resistance movement, and maybe she wasn't at that time."
Hobbie rubbed his eyes with his left hand, and stared at it afterwards for a while as if he'd never seen his hand before. Finally, he continued. "I also knew her children, two girls and a boy. The younger girl was in my class in school, but we never had much contact. I think she went to university in the capital after graduation, at least she had planned to." He hesitated. "The names of all three are on the list she gave you, Wedge. Among several other people I knew. I had never realized the full extent... had never known how many...."
He leapt up so suddenly that Wes flinched involuntarily. "I'll go down and see if Tycho needs any help with Fenja." Not waiting for a reaction from the others, he hurried out of the room.