By L. Zaza
Long-range Patrol. It was one of those dichotomous situations. When you were stuck on your base ship, you prayed for the day that you could get out there and spend endless centars soaring through space, charting unknown territory, and furthering man's knowledge in the spirit of the very first space travelers well over a millennium ago.
At least that's what Apollo kept saying. The reality was vastly different however, especially on a day like this one.
The Lords of Kobol only knew how many planets they had scanned, how many sporadic signals they had investigated, and how many times Starbuck had actually wished for a Cylon to be lurking behind the next asteroid so he could get a little action. Hades, for all the risks he was taking, he might as well be flying a turbo lift. After ten centars of 'same old, same old' he was going a little spacehappy.
Really, it had been that way for almost two sectars. Patrols were beginning to be compared to lounging on comfortable furniture, rather than carrying the distinction of being a dangerous exercise of defending the fleet against the known or unknown. They hadn't contacted a Cylon, the Eastern Alliance, a transmutable bacterium, or even a hideous, misunderstood alien race for some time. Lords, it was downright dull.
After all, if you took the 'war' out of 'warrior', what was really left? Rior. What the frack was 'rior'? Maybe there was something wrong with him, but without some enemy induced anxiety, he felt a little bit lost. He needed the edge that the regular bursts of adrenaline surging through his body gave him. Lords, he craved it, like a junkie coming down off his high.
It was the competition he truly loved. Triad helped. So did a high stakes card game. It was all about a certain level of risk. Putting your skill and luck on the line simply to defeat your opponent. The payoff? That was easy. Blowing the enemy to Hades Hole, either figuratively, or in reality.
Well, the only opponent he was battling on this patrol was his boredom. Starbuck was well aware that he was probably getting on Apollo's nerves with his endless sighs, and his occasional announcement of, "Oh, look at that. Another barren hunk of rock." Still, at least it broke the silence.
It was the silence of a long-term patrol that really affected him. It was strange how silence could be so obtrusive. Possibly it had something to do with the fact that he had rarely spent a quiet moment on his own as a child, but the dead air unnerved him in a way he really couldn't explain, or even begin to understand. It also made him a little more introspective than he liked. After all, no one was immune to the solitude and weariness of a deep space probe and even the most experienced pilots would get a little reflective.
However, the strangest sound was distracting him from his contemplation of things 'rior' in the universe. A low piercing whistle. A full diagnostic later, he was no closer to discovering its origin. Then the sound changed. It seemed to take on a melody of sorts. It was vaguely familiar.
"Yo!" Apollo replied, the whistle abruptly ending.
"Are you whistling?"
Well, that was unusual to say the least. Admittedly, Starbuck had a reputation for having a little fun with his friends now and then, but the strike captain . . . he was the responsible one. Hades, when Starbuck and Apollo were on patrol and either one of them detected an unusual . . . anything, his friend would follow up on it. Not only that, he would track it down and analyze it to death until he could explain it rationally, at least to himself. Often Starbuck had stopped caring by then.
Of course, Apollo did most things by the book. He was a regulations man, from a long list of regulations men. Hades, his family probably had a hand in writing the handbook. Handwriting the handbook. Handily, he might add.
There it was again. That same piercing whistle, sounding suspiciously like a drinking song he remembered.
"Apollo, you're whistling." Starbuck accused him.
"Huh?" The reply was quick and pointed. "Nope, not me, Buddy."
"I heard you. You're whistling 99 Bottles of Ale on the Wall."
"Don't be ridiculous, Starbuck."
Starbuck looked over at the Captain's ship, but could barely make out the silhouette of the man in the dim lighting from his helmet. He seemed to be shaking his head at his wingman.
"Are you putting me on?" Starbuck asked patiently . . . at least for him.
"Why would I do that?"
"I don't know. Boredom. Revenge. Spacehappy."
"Spacehappy? Me?" Apollo asked with incredulity in his voice.
"What? You're immune? Something in the genes?" Starbuck asked sarcastically. Far be it for the son of Adama to go off the deep end. "Besides, I did notice you didn't dispel the boredom or revenge motives."
"I think you've been out here too long, Buddy." Apollo informed him after a moment.
Starbuck blew out a breath of frustration. They would be back in range of the fleet soon. There was an ambrosa with his name on it just waiting for him in the Officer's Club. Oh, and a blonde med tech just a short walk away from there.
Frack! Again! Starbuck tapped his helmet in consternation. Perhaps there was something wrong with his comm. That might explain the whistling . . . but it wouldn't explain the familiar tune that was most definitely 99 Bottles of Ale on the Wall.
"Apollo . . ." Starbuck growled.
"Are you trying to annoy the frack out of me?" Starbuck demanded.
"I'm not sure that's grammatically correct, Starbuck." The captain replied, an amused chuckle following his words.
Starbuck paused. "I think I have two viable options. Either I turn off my comm, or I blast you into space dust. I admit, the second option is beginning to look really good."
"Ha! You'll have to catch me first!" Apollo giggled like a schoolboy, before engaging his turbos and blasting ahead of his wingman.
Starbuck sat in stunned silence before re-engaging his brain, hitting his own turbos, and pursuing his captain, all the time wondering, what in Hades is going on?
At first it was like a high-level simulation he had striven to master at the Academy. Starbuck knew Apollo was one of the greatest pilots in existence, but when the Captain was trying to coordinate a battle, while keeping half an eye on the fleet, and the other half on his pilots, he didn't have much opportunity to show off. That was why he needed a pilot of Starbuck's caliber watching his back. Apollo did his job and did it well, blasting enemy fighters to Hades' Half Hectare with a record that few could surpass.
Sagan, they had flown together for so long, Starbuck could predict exactly what the Captain was going to do next. He knew each response to a given situation, and could synchronize his own ship's movements so they soared together, almost as if joined by invisible bonds. Those of friendship. It was that instinct and familiarity, along with each man's skill and talent, that filled Starbuck with a heightened sense of immortality each time he barreled out of a launch tube. Yeah, even more so than usual.
"68 bottles of ale on the wall, 68 bottles of ale, take one down, pass it around, 67 bottles of ale on the wall!" Apollo sang.
"You son-of-a-daggit, I knew you were whistling!" Starbuck exclaimed as he roared after the fleeing viper, a roguish grin spreading across his features.
He chuckled as he tried to target Apollo's ship. The Captain was pulling every evasive maneuver in the book—yeah, he could have written that one too—and it was a rush of pure adrenaline to chase Apollo down as he masterfully urged his ship just beyond a locked-on target with each sensitive touch of the control stick. If only it hadn't been for that annoying . . .
"56 bottles of ale on the wall, 56 bottles of ale, take one down, pass it around, 55 bottles of ale on the wall!"
"Would you stop singing?" Starbuck snarled, only half seriously. The image of the conscientious man singing filled him with an unexpected jubilation.
"You didn't say Sagan Says." Apollo mocked him, laughing gleefully before abruptly pulling a reverse thrust and hurtling back past his wingman. He then started yet another chorus of the tedious song.
Sagan Says? Starbuck's smile began to slip as he began to wonder if something was wrong with the Captain. "Apollo? Maybe you should check your life support systems, Buddy."
"It's not my life I'd be worried about right now, if I were you, Bucko. Better get a move on, lieutenant, or you'll be the one blasted to space dust." He chuckled gleefully as he launched into another chorus.
Starbuck switched to rear scan, finding Apollo hunting him down with every bit the tenacity and determination with which he had dogged the captain only centons before. He started evasive maneuvers, uncomfortably uncertain of his friend's frame of mind.
Lords, normally he would trust Apollo with his life. But this wasn't the usual Apollo. Nope, the usual Apollo didn't sing drinking songs and encourage childhood games, while they were supposed to be surveying everything around them and ensuring safe passage for the fleet.
The captain shadowed him, never letting up as they started to weave through the asteroid belt, which separated them from the fleet. Perhaps because of the prevailing uncertainty, the adrenaline rush was almost akin to that of combat. Starbuck was pumped. The technical difficulty of trying to shake Apollo while avoiding asteroids gave him a heady sense of euphoria. Usually, they only attempted this kind of flying in a sim, or in a life and death situation. Hades, he hadn't had the opportunity to fly like this since . . . frack, he couldn't remember when. And it was justified. Well, sort of.
only problem was that the spontaneous howl of joy was from Apollo.
The duty-bound, obliging, hardworking Apollo. The reality of the
situation again made Starbuck hesitate. If the Captain's life
systems were malfunctioning, it would be only too easy to make a
deadly mistake. He had to try again.
"Apollo! Bring up your support systems and verify your oxygen concentration." Starbuck instructed him as he banked sharply around an enormous hunk of rock. If it hadn't been for the obvious obstacles, he could have reached out and given it a fond pat as he passed by.
"You didn't say Sagan Says!" Apollo taunted him again before starting to make laser noises more reminiscent of Boxey playing with his friends, than anything that should be coming out of the strike captain's mouth. "Almost got you that time, Starbuck! You're getting sloppy!"
Starbuck blew out a deep breath. Lords, they weren't that far from the fleet. Truth be known, if they went around the asteroid belt, it would take a lot longer to get back to home base. It really depended on Apollo's oxygen. If, somehow, he was running out . . . they needed to get home as soon as possible. But, the far riskier route was exactly the one they were now taking. Then again, the captain's piloting skills didn't seem to be suffering.
"Sagan Says, check your life support systems." Starbuck ordered him, biting his lip and sucking in a breath, as he waited for the Captain's response.
"All present and accounted for!" Apollo laughed, before again beginning, "42 bottles of ale on the wall . . ."
Starbuck cut his thrust, abruptly powering down. He watched Apollo do the same on his rear scanner, again matching the lieutenant's pace and staying behind him and in striking range.
"Hey, what are you doing?" Apollo whined.
"I'm not going to . . . play anymore." Starbuck replied, a faint smile on his features. "Not until you check your oxygen concentration and tell me what it is."
"Spoilsport." Apollo accused him, far outdoing his six-yahren-old son on the petulance scale.
"Apollo, if you don't do as I say, I'll tell your father about what you were doing with Sheba in the Celestial Dome." He threatened.
"You wouldn't dare!" Apollo cried.
"Are you daring me, Apollo?" Starbuck asked, menacingly.
An angry puff was the immediate answer. "Tattletale."
"What's your oxygen level, buddy?" Starbuck encouraged him.
"Oh, I get it. You probably don't know how to bring it up on your computer." Starbuck taunted him.
"Eight-three percent." Apollo snarled.
"And, just how does that compare to the normal?" Starbuck asked quietly.
"It's . . . kind of low."
"Do you remember what they taught us at the Academy about a low oxygen saturation?" Starbuck quizzed the 'A' student.
"It can compromise your rationale thought." Apollo quoted, as though the textbook was still attached to the end of his nose. "But . . ."
"But what?" Starbuck asked, somewhat relieved he was finally reaching his friend.
"But . . . how do you remember that?" Apollo laughed, as he roared ahead of the lieutenant, his base ship now in sight.
"38 bottles of ale on the wall, 38 bottles of ale, take one down, pass it around, 37 bottles of ale on the wall."
"You missed a couple bottles." Starbuck interrupted him, as he hit his turbos, again pursuing.
"Recon patrol to Galactica. Come in." Starbuck switched channels.
"We read you, Recon patrol. Go ahead." Rigel's reassuring voice responded.
"We have a problem. Captain Apollo's life systems are malfunctioning. His oxygen level is low and he's . . . behaving erratically."
Colonel Tigh's voice immediately came on line. "Erratically how, Lieutenant?"
Well, sometimes it was just better to let a lunatic explain himself. Starbuck adjusted the comm, bringing the Captain into the conversation.
"33 bottles of ale on the wall, 33 bottles of ale, take one down, pass it around, 32 bottles of ale on the wall."
"I see." Tigh answered staidly. "Recommendations?"
"I think he can land her, Colonel. Strangely, I've rarely seen him fly better. Better clear the way and have a med tech standing by in the landing bay though." Starbuck suggested.
"Proceed to Landing Bay Alpha." The colonel directed them.
"Aye, Sir." Starbuck replied, switching channels again. "Last one to Alpha Bay is a rotten ovum!" He couldn't help but grin as the captain again whooped with joy. He joined Apollo in racing towards the Galactica, careful to keep an eye out for transports as they surpassed the usual inter-Fleet regulated velocity limit.
Apollo cut his speed abruptly, and seemed to shoot back beneath Starbuck's viper. The lieutenant caught himself shoulder checking instead of using his scanners as he wondered what his friend was up to now. A dry chuckle in his comm preceded a sighting off to his left, as Apollo's ship rolled up and then over his own. The captain seemed to be doing loop-the-loops around him. Starbuck laughed at the absurdity of it all.
Apollo began to slow his approach, instinct again guiding him as he prepared to land his ship. Starbuck could sense, after yahrens of experience, that his friend was on target. The landing was classic textbook. Artistry in motion. He followed him in.
The lieutenant could see the flight crew and med tech descend on the captain's ship, as his own viper slowly came to a stop. The whine of his cockpit rising was excruciating, as he waited impatiently to see how Apollo was doing. Within microns, he jumped down from his ship and raced to his friend's.
The captain was already climbing down from the viper, looking none the worse for wear, considering he had had a low oxygen level for some time. He looked at Starbuck curiously as he brushed the life mask from his face for the third time.
"Are you okay, Buddy?" The lieutenant asked him.
"Uh . . . yeah. I'm fine. Why?" Apollo asked as the med tech ran her biomonitor over him yet again.
"All life signs are normal." She reported.
"Why wouldn't they be?" Apollo asked, perplexed.
"Don't you remember?"
Apollo shook his head. "Remember what?"
"Singing songs, acting like a kid, flying like a hotshot, I'd swear you'd gone spacehappy on me." Starbuck told him.
"I'd like to take him to the Life Center for a complete examination." The med tech interrupted.
"Good idea." Starbuck agreed, steering his friend towards the turbo lift.
"Starbuck, don't be ridiculous." Apollo told him vehemently, but he let himself be guided without protest as his brow wrinkled in consternation. He stopped short, as he waited for the lift to descend, stroking his chin thoughtfully.
"I'm going to check with the flight crew, and see what was up with your life support system. Will you be okay?" Starbuck squeezed his shoulder.
"Uh . . . sure." He stepped onto the lift with the tech, turning to face his friend.
"I'll see you in a few centons." Starbuck called as the lift began to rise.
"Right. Oh, and Starbuck . . ." Apollo called down, a mischievous smile on his lips and a twinkle in his eyes. "Nice flying."
"Son-of-a-daggit . . ." Starbuck murmured as the grinning Apollo disappeared from sight. He stood and laughed as he considered the options: low oxygenation, spacehappy, or a premeditated prank. Regardless, it was the best patrol he'd had in sectons.