Melika Benderson was trying not to curse when she heard the whispers. That she was able to hear the whispers at all was a tribute to the strength of her promise not to swear. She ignored them at first, concentration on the stubborn bold holding the defective repulsor to the speeder. Then she heard the name "Rebel Alliance", and stopped straining with the bolt so she could hear.

"I'm serious, E'en," said a voice that sounded like Galbraith Musten, her on and off boyfriend. "They're here, and they're looking."

"What about the Empire?" asked E'en, his voice sounding even younger than normal.

"There's ways..." said Galbraith. "Look, just think it over for a couple of days. This is serious."

Then came a shuffling of footsteps as the two men moved off in different directions. Melika came closer to cursing than she had with the bolt. This was not good. Galbraith was no wide-eyed idealist, he should know that the Rebels didn't have a chance of doing more than get killed, much less overthrowing the Empire.

And there was a big reward for reporting Rebel activity, almost big enough for a ticket to Courescant and a month's expenses there while you got on your feet. The farm could really use some expensive new improvements...

Then Melika did curse, not the bolt or Galbraith's stupidity, but her own thoughts. How dare she even think of turning him in, even if he was a stupid- she didn't finish the thought, but turned her anger towards getting the bolt off. Which took a while, and drenched her slim, callused brown hands and fresh "Moe's Repairs" jumpsuit/coverall.

I won't turn him in, but I'd better watch my back, Melika thought. If someone else heard him, or if E'en decided to turn him in instead of join him, she could be in danger as the only girl he had ever seriously dated. He'd even proposed to her a few months back, but she hadn't felt ready for marriage, and he had agreed to back off for a while. And he backed off to the Rebels, Melika thought bitterly. What possessed him to be so foolish!

She was still angry with him when they got off work together and he offered her a drink at her choice of the nearby cantinas.

"Not tonight," she said icily. "The farm needs work, and I need sleep."

"Are you alright, Melika?" he asked in surprise.

"I am," she said, "but I think you should consider carefully if you are. Now stay away from me." Then she turned and climbed into her personal speeder, and gunned it south, towards her family's farm. She regretted that she had to push him away, but no matter how handsome, the Empire would find him, and they would look to his social circle for other Rebels. She didn't want to be among those "pulled in for questioning." It was not unusual for such people to just disappear.

When she reached the hobby farm her grandmother had bought, she was surprised to see a large gravsled parked in front of the main barn. She parked her speeder behind a clump of trees and bushes and crept in, blaster unholstered. She could hear low voices, and the noise of some of the animals. But why wasn't POJ making a racket? She had specially modified him so that even turned off or in large pieces he would broadcast an alarm should strangers enter the farm.

"Don't move, Melika," said a voice behind her. "I would also suggest not screaming."

Melika froze, her mind running a thousand kilometers a minute. That voice, but it was impossible. Darvin was …

"You can turn around now, and I would suggest holstering your blaster," said the voice again. Melika turned slowly to face the tall figure behind her. Then she took a quick step forwards and slapped her brother's face.

"What are you doing, you insolent-" she began, but was muffled by a hand over her mouth.

"I need a place to stay for an evening," Darvin Benderson said calmly. "I hope you don't mind. I'll be gone in the morning."

Melika brought her heel up between the legs of the man covering her mouth. When he let go of her in favor of falling over, she marched up to her brother and started berating him again, this time in an angry whisper.

"We thought you were dead. The news all but killed Mother. Was that what you wanted? Father went mad. He took to wandering the woods in the moonlight. At least until he fell down a steep hill and broke his neck. That was what finished Mother off. So tell me, brother, where have you been the last ten years?"

Darvin looked shocked. "I had heard that Mother and Father died, but I didn't know how. I-I'm sorry."

"You're sorry," Melika said, pouring every ounce of contempt she could into it. "I think it's a little late for sorry. And now you just prance in here with your buddies and want to stay. I suppose I'm supposed to whip up a three-course meal for them?"

Darvin looked worried. "No! Just follow your normal routine, don't change anything. We'll stay in the small barn."

Don't change your routine, stay in the small barn... "Oh, you son of a gundark! You joined them, you idiot!"

"If I'm a son of a gundark, doesn't that make you the daughter of a gundark?" Darvin asked coolly. Melika replied by punching at a very sensitive area. Darvin blocked it easily; they had taken the same self-defense course just before he "died." Melika noticed that he seemed to be more easy with the technique than she; what had he been doing?

"Don't play games with me, Darvin Benderson," Melika said, almost falling out of the whisper. "You've done about the stupidest thing I can imagine, and now you want me to clean up your mess."

"I haven't made a mess," Darvin retorted. "I'm fighting for what I believe. Can you say the same?"

"I'm living a sane, normal life," Melika said. "You're living a dream. A dream that a small group of malcontents can bring down the government. I agree that the Empire isn't perfect, but how is what the Rebels want any better?"

Darvin started to reply, when a whistle came from the darkness. Darvin stiffened, then pushed Melika in the direction of the house.

"Go up to the house and act like everything is normal," Darvin begged. "Please, Melika."

Melika looked at him, then turned around and strolled to the house. There she found POJ pottering around the kitchen, trying to make a meal. Which meant that the kitchen was a mess.

"Oh, Miss Melika!" he said, his photoreceptors gleaming thorough the flour he had somehow gotten onto his faceplate. "Did you meet Mr. Darvin on your way in? I must say, it is very nice to have him around again."

"Yes," Melika answered abstractly. What was it about the whistle that had so scared Darvin? Darvin had once been almost stupid in his fearlessness. "What are you doing?"

"I thought it would be quite evident, Miss Melika," POJ replied. "I am preparing a meal for Mr. Darvin and his friends."

"Did Darvin ask you to?" Melika asked. "He told me not to prepare extra food."

"No, I received no orders from Mr. Darvin," POJ responded. "I merely thought to offer him and his friends some nourishment."

"Nourishment?" Melika echoed. "Have you been downloading the dictionary while I was gone?"

"No," began POJ, but suddenly the house was surrounded by bright lights, and a mechanically filtered voice said, "Come out of the house with your hands up. This is an Imperial Search!"

Hurriedly Melika turned to POJ. "Don't mention Darvin or his friends to the Imperials," she hissed. "Not a hint, not a glance. You're making extra food because you thought I was having a party tonight. Do you understand?"

"Yes, Miss Melika," POJ replied. He started to continue talking, but Melika reached passed him to turn off the stove and headed for the front door.

Just as she got there, it exploded inwards as a stormtrooper kicked it in. "Everyone, on the ground, NOW!" he ordered, his white armor and filtered voice making him seem more like a war machine than a soldier. Melika fell to the floor of the front hall, her hands over her head.

Several more stormtroopers entered, and one of them with the orange shoulder patch of a captain stopped by her. "Name and identification papers," he rapped out. Acting more scared than she was, Melika pulled her papers out of their holder on her belt and handed them to him.

"Melika Benderson, hmm?" The captain said. "What do you know of Rebels?"

"N-nothing," Melika whimpered. If she could just act scared enough, they might not search too hard. Maybe she could stay out of prison. And if they don't find and kill Darvin and his friends, she thought, I will personally roast them alive, crime or not. From upstairs she heard thumping and crashing. It sounded like the stormtroopers were attempting to tear the house to boards and nails.

The captain slapped her cheek, his armored hand making it hurt worse. "You are lying!" he announced. "We tracked several Rebels to this farm. Where are you hiding them?"

"I-I know nothing of any Rebels," Melika insisted. "I haven't had time to care for the animals, so they could hide in the barn without me knowing, but-" The captain turned as POJ was dragged into the room by another stormtrooper.

"The house is clear, sir," the trooper said. "We only found this droid."

"Where are the ownership papers for this droid?" The captain asked.

"In the safe," Melika whimpered. She could hear stormtroopers breaking things outside, now that the house was a mess. I'm not just going to roast Darvin over a fire, she thought. I'm going to make him pay me back double for all this destruction, then skin him alive, then roast him.

The captain dragged her over to the living room and the large safe that doubled as a refreshment table in front of the vidscreen. "Open it!" he commanded. Out the window she could see flashes of light and hear the frightened screams of the animals as the stormtroopers gunned them down. Those Rebels had better not be in any of my buildings, she thought grimly.

Then the captain kicked her thigh, and she hurriedly brushed off the shards of glass and ceramics that had once been her mother's plateware collection, then opened the safe. He reached for the pile of documents, roughly knocking aside the heirloom jewelry that sat on top of them. A bottle of her mother's perfume shattered, filling the air with an overly sweet scent. He leasurly looked through the last five years' worth of tax documents before he got to the document for POJ.

"Handmade droid," he scoffed. "That pile of junk in the hall certainly looks it." That's why we named him Pile Of Junk, Melika thought. She was becoming very angry at the stormtroopers now, not just the Rebels. How dare they destroy her home? She was a law-abiding Imperial citizen.

Just then he stiffened, likely listening to something on his helmet comlink. "Liar!" he snarled, dropping the papers and pointing his gun at Melika. "Traitoress! They were on your property!"

Melika swore and dropped behind the vidscreen just before the bolt that would have taken her life. As it was, she was covered in little bits of glass and electronics.

"For obstruction of Imperial Justice," the captain was saying. "I sentence Melika Benderson to death by firing squad. Her possessions now belong to the Emperor, who will use them to better goals than she."

He moved over to the door, then started to fire randomly around the room. Melika dodged behind various pieces of furniture, blessing her father's love of huge, heavy décor. However, most of those pieces of furniture were wood, and soon she was chocking and coughing on smoke from several small fires. The window was too small for her to crawl out of, and the stormtrooper captain was standing in front of the door. Melika was trapped.

"Is it becoming hard to breathe, Traitoress?" the captain called. "Maybe a little hot? You'll die slower than my squad did, and there's nothing your friends can do."

Blast Darvin, thought Melika. He had to have friends with good aim. She rolled up against the wall to avoid a falling display cabinet, and rolled away almost as fast. The walls were hot, doubtless burning inside.

Just then a burst of blaster fire rang in the hall. The captain turned and started to return fire. Melika crept from hiding, intending to jump the captain and at least receive a quick death, when a shot caught him in the chest plate. He fell over backwards, dead.

Several more bolts were traveling right behind the first one, and one of them hit Melika's calf. She cried out in pain, then coughed as she inhaled more smoke.

She thought she heard a voice calling something, then she was being lifted and a mask was fitted over her mouth and nose. She breathed in clean, oxygenated air, slightly stale from being compressed and stored for a while, but wonderful all the same.

While Melika focused on breathing, someone or something big, strong, and hairy was carrying her out of the burning building into the cool evening air.

She continued breathing while someone tended her calf, and Darvin hovered like a fussy 3PO unit. She considered pretending to be more seriously hurt than she was, but decided that no matter what tortures she planned for him when she felt better, to hurt him like that right now was beyond cruel.

Melika opened her eyes and started to speak, but the human woman tending her leg cut her off. "Don't talk for at least another hour," she ordered. "Give your throat some time to recover from all that caustic smoke."

The light from her burning home cast a bright glow over the group of beings, mostly human, that sat nearby. There was a Wookiee, doubtless the strong, hairy being that had carried her out of the fire. He noticed her looking at him and offered a Wookiee grin full of very sharp teeth. Melika tried not to stare, but it was hard. Even after all the holostills she had seen, Wookiees were still huge in real life.

"I'm sorry, Melika," Darvin moaned. "I didn't think we had been followed. I never would have suggested hiding here if I had known. I'll pay you back somehow. I volunteered for three years, and I still have a standard year left, but then I'll come back and work for you. I'll fix all the buildings, and buy new animals, and, and,"

Melika put her hand on his arm. He looked at her, and she punched him in the jaw. His eyes rolled back in his head and he slumped to the ground. The medic gave her an annoyed look, but Melika just smiled innocently. Darvin wouldn't be unconscious for long, but he would know she was angry.

The Wookiee urfed a laugh, and one of the men sitting around came over to her. He was middle-aged, with a head of shaggy black hair that fell around his face and didn't look quite natural. He didn't look straight at her, so she couldn't see his face.

"Thank you for hiding us," he said, his voice rich. With that voice, he should narrate holodocumentaries, Melika thought. "I am truly sorry about your home. I can promise you some restitution, but I'm not sure how much. My...friends aren't rich, and they have many expenses to deal with."

Melika nodded, using the motion to attempt to get a glimpse of the man's face. She caught a strong, clenched jaw, but no more. The strap of the oxygen mask was beginning to annoy her, so she tried to adjust it.

"Leave that alone," the medic said. "It only holds in a few positions." Melika realized that it was an old Clone Wars model. So was the smashed gravsled and the blasters the Rebels carried. That wasn't what the information booklets said. But then, they also said that the Rebels left anyone who wasn't a member of their team to die, but here she was, safe. Could the Empire be wrong?

Melika leaned back against the tree the Wookiee had set her by. The stars overhead, dimmed by the angry glow of her home, twinkled in their usual spots in the sky. How many of them had small groups of Rebels on their planets? How many actually wanted the Empire?

She heard a rustling alongside her, and Darvin returned, his jaw already starting to bruise. "Melika," he started again, "Melika, I'm sorry. I didn't think. I just wanted to get G- er, my friends to safety, and the farm made a good resting place."

Melika looked over at him, and saw that he was crying. That's his past burning up as much as mine, she realized. Suddenly, she couldn't be angry at him. Not when his actions had hurt himself as much as her.

"They even got POJ," he moaned, oblivious to her softening. Melika pulled him into a hug, like she had when they were children and something had made him cry. With the mask on, she couldn't tell him it would be alright, but she could rub his back as he sobbed on her shoulder, careful not to disturb the oxygen mask.

Just then a human woman stepped out of the brush without making a sound. Melika looked up in surprise. The light from the fire starting to die down shone on a blond braid wrapped around her head, and Melika felt a stab of envy. Even the Rebels had the chance to grow their hair long.

"We need to move out," she said, her voice deep. "Dawn will be here in about six hours, and we should be far from here."

Preparations started instantly. Darvin jumped up, his face still wet, and began doing something Melika couldn't see clearly. "I need to remove the mask now," the medic said apologetically. "We need it. You should go to a hospital as soon as we leave, and have them finish the treatment. Maybe circulate some bacta through your lungs as well."

Melika slipped the mask off, and turned to the man who had spoken to her of restitution. He was talking to someone else, and in the light of the fire, Melika saw his face clearly. She had never thought of herself as Corellian, but that face was one that her Corellian father had drilled into her memory. The former Corellian Senetor, Garm Bel Iblis himself. But that was impossible, he was dead, killed by a Rebel bomb- or was that just a cover story, like Darvin's, to allow him to move freely?

Father had always spoken highly of Senator Iblis, and Darvin was a good judge of character. Could it be that the Rebels were not the monsters the media said they were? It would certainly be to the Emperor's benefit for everyone to believe that the Rebels were horrible people.

Melika looked at the ruin of her farm, the burning house, destroyed outbuildings and slaughtered animals. Stormtroopers had done this, without even getting a warrant. That was not what she deserved. And it was well-known that non-humans couldn't get anywhere high in the Empire, and that they could in the Rebellion.

"Did you find my blaster, Darvin?" she asked, her voice harsh and painful.

The medic turned to her. "I told you not to talk," she scolded. "Don't say another word until you get to a medcenter."

Darvin jogged up holding her blaster. "I've got it," he said. Melika smiled at him as she stuck it in her holster. It fell out the bottom. In all the danger, she had somehow ripped it. Melika picked it up and held it, then turned to see how she could help.

"What are you doing?" Darvin asked. Melika sighed and mimed typing on a datapad. Someone provided one, and she typed out, I'm coming with you, what does it look like?

"But, I thought-" Darvin began.

The stormtroopers changed my mind, Melika typed. They treated me like I was a criminal for no reason. The captain wanted to burn me alive. The Rebels can't be too much worse. And Father always spoke highly of your...friend.

Darvin began to stutter, but Senator Iblis, who had been reading over her shoulder, clapped her on the shoulder. "Welcome to the Alliance for the Restoration of the Republic, Melika," he said warmly. "Now we have someone else to help us carry all this."

A couple of the other men laughed, and someone gave her a light pack. Within fifteen minutes they were off, headed west through the woods. They tramped for about an hour, and just when Melika thought her legs would fall off and her lungs would burst into fire in her chest, they came into a clearing where an old freighter sat.

There was a quick exchange of countersigns, and the Rebels and Melika entered the freighter. The cargo hold had several acceleration couches, and sitting on one of them was a very familiar face...

"Melika!" Galbraith exclaimed. He was already strapped in, or he would have risen in shock. "What are you doing here?"

"Don't answer that," the medic snapped as Melika began to open her mouth. "Strap in, and I'll put the oxygen mask on you again."

Melika sat next to Galbraith as Darvin explained the events of the last few hours. Listening idly, Melika could hardly believe it had actually happened. As the freighter took off, it really sunk in. Melika had joined the Rebels.