Worm's Eye View

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There's an old saying that travel broadens the mind, expands the horizons and gives the traveller unrivalled opportunities to meet new and interesting people. It's a truism, a proverb, a maxim, an axiom, an adage, a saw, a tag… no, let us be honest, for if we aren't honest then doesn't every last foundation on which Man has built civilisation crumble and Society fall about our ears in lamentable, ruinous confusion? That would be End of Everything. So we will be honest.

It's a cliché. And, like all clichés, not necessarily true in what you might describe as a good way.

Especially when you have the scars to prove it.

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Shuttles, Boomer said, were sometimes too confined a space to be truly comfortable. True, the Galactica's shuttles were bigger than a Viper cockpit, but Boomer mused aloud on his own, quiet, peaceful little Viper as a haven of tranquillity; a place for quiet reflection; a place where, except perhaps in the midst of battle, he could find a calm and serene silence. Most of all, he said, it was a place that was, mercifully, a Starbuck-free zone. Shuttles were all too confined, he said, when he and Apollo were stuck in one with Starbuck when Starbuck was having what Apollo, darkly, described as one of his turns.

"Do I have turns?" asked Starbuck, rather pleased by the idea.

Apollo ignored him, but Boomer gave him a hard look, and Boomer's complaints changed to centre on his bemusement as to how a life that had been lived more or less blamelessly—he had no major sins on his conscience, he said, and certainly nothing that deserved this sort of punishment—had brought him to the point where only the threat of the mountain of paperwork it would entail stopped him from escaping Starbuck's chatter by throwing him out of the nearest airlock. Or throwing himself out, which at least had the merit of making sure that someone else had to do the paperwork afterwards.

"I'd hate to cause you more work," said Starbuck, insincere and not caring who knew it.

It wasn't like Apollo was being any help here, complained Boomer. No indeed. The Captain was lording it from the first row of seats, reading the mission orders and the recon reports and letting them do the driving.

"Anyone'd think we were his chauffeurs or something," agreed Starbuck. "I guess that leaves you to provide the in-flight entertainment, Boom-boom."

Boomer sighed, and to Starbuck's amusement, he grinned. And so to an accompaniment of broodingly silent disapproval from their beloved Captain and (more or less) patient listening from Boomer, Starbuck worked his way through girls, the latest Pyramid championship ("All it takes is a small investment, Boomer. Fifteen percent interest. Guaranteed."), girls, the current rumours about Colonel Tigh and Siress Belloby and the not-so-secret bondage parlour on Deck 4 of the Rising Star ("Of course I've never been there, Boomer. I never need to tie 'em up."), girls, Triad and Sergeant Giles's inability to control his two left feet ("It's not like me and Apollo need quite that level of help to beat the pogees outa the pair of you."), and girls.

None of this had been enough to get more than a quiet sigh out of Apollo, and Starbuck was hard put to it to work out which topic of conversation had elicited the most and heavier sighs. He rather thought it was girls, but Boomer sighed a lot then too and getting it in stereo, so to speak, was ruining his concentration and spoiling the count.

They moved on to comparative anthropology. Or maybe it was zoology or xenobiology? Starbuck wasn't sure. All that he was sure of was that he was in the mood to do lists of horizon-expanding encounters.

"There's the Cylons, to start with," he said, holding up a finger.

"Does that finger signify something?" asked Boomer.

"That he knows how many fingers make one, possibly," muttered Apollo.

Delighted at getting a reaction at last, Starbuck turned in his seat to offer the finger to Apollo in a time-honoured gesture of friendly dissent. Apollo ignored him. "One alien people that broadened our minds through travel."

"I don't think you can count them," said Boomer, dubiously. "I mean, it wasn't that they broadened our minds so much as they destroyed our civilisation. And it's not like we didn't know about them before we started on this little trek, given they're the cause of it. I'm not certain you can't count them as horizon-widening, new and interesting people that we've met because we're travelling through the galaxy." He frowned. "Are they even people?"

"Apollo says that each one of them has this node of organic cells inside that was alive once, and if he'd take his head outa that datapad—" Starbuck spun his chair until he faced Apollo and kicked gently at Apollo's boot, "—he'd be able to tell us if they count as something that might be people."

"Or might have been once," said Boomer. "But they weren't human."

"They were like lizards, the original Cylons," said Apollo, glancing up from the datapad. "Kick me again, Starbuck, and I'll space you."

"Paperwork," warned Boomer. "There's lots of paperwork. They make you fill out forms if you space him, Apollo. In triple triplicate, whatever that is."

"Nonicate, maybe?" The Captain shrugged. "I delegate the admin, Boomer; usually to you."

"I know," said Boomer, sadly.

"They were lizardy humanoids, then?" said Starbuck, taking no notice of the threat and rotating the pilot's seat back to face the front again. "Fine. Isn't that what we're counting? The humanoid ones that broaden our minds by their very existence and maybe the human-ish ones who are different from us, as opposed to the human-ish ones like, say, the Borellian Nomen who are just like us but bigger and with more hair?"

"And bigger eyebrows," said Boomer.

"Eyebrows," repeated Starbuck, raising his suggestively. "Bigger eyebrows? I don't want to know what sort of displacement has you thinking eyebrows, Boomer. Are you feeling inadequate?"

Boomer grinned and shrugged.

"They have more pronounced brow ridges," murmured Apollo. "They're still a human species."

"The Oracle hath spoken," said Starbuck with a little flourish and bow. "So. We don't count the Borellian Nomen, because they're human and we didn't exactly have to leave the Colonies to find them—"

"There was a chapter house in Caprica City," remembered Boomer. "It wasn't far from where I grew up in the Eastside. I definitely didn't have to leave home to find them. The real trick was being really careful not to leave home and find them when they had a blood hunt going. Which was about once a secton." He thought about it. "Sometimes twice."

Starbuck waited out the interruption patiently before chiming back in: "—but I'm counting the Cylons, because they were once lizards. So, that's one." He held up a second finger. "The Ovions."

"Whoa, no argument there. They were definitely creepy crawly humanoids."

"With bad dress sense," said Starbuck. "Those greyish rag things they were wearing that looked like they'd been knitted out of old sacks and string? A bit of a giveaway, I'd say. We should have guessed straight away that the Ovions were not nice people."

"Judging by appearances? That's a bit shallow of you, Starbuck," said Boomer.

"I'm very good at doing shallow," said Starbuck, complacent.

"I hate bugs." Apollo tapped his stylus against the datapad but didn't raise his eyes from its little screen.

"I really hate big bugs," agreed Starbuck. "And I really, really hate big bugs that get their jollies sticking their eggs into people."

He leaned forward and adjusted the shuttle's course; they'd drifted off by some small fragment of a degree, despite the supposedly accurate auto-pilot. Shuttle Three was, he thought, in need of an overhaul. So much of the Galactica was in need of an overhaul, if only they could find the resources to do it.

Boomer mirrored him from the co-pilot's seat, checking the course correction. He nodded confirmation that they were back on the right course. "We've just agreed that the bugs were people, too."

"I mean, sticking their eggs in my kind of people. They want to stick eggs into their own kind of people, they can go right ahead. It's just that all the people we saw down there in those fancy incubators had a distinct lack of bugginess about 'em." Starbuck shuddered artistically. "I really hate bugs, you two."

"Tell Boomer," said Apollo. "I'm not listening. I'm working."

"I will," said Starbuck, cordial and unresentful. "Boomer likes me telling him stuff. We'll even talk to you again when you're ready to rejoin the human race."

"Talking of which, what about those singers in the Chancery on Carillon? Were they human? You remember, the ones who were there to keep the punters thinking they were having a luxurious and sophisticated—" Boomer made air quotes "—'entertainment and lifestyle experience', while all the time the Ovions were picking them off for larva fodder."

"They were damned good! I could have made my fortune with those girls if I coulda signed them onto the star circuit—"

"Which had gone up in flames with the rest of the Colonies," murmured Apollo, who still wasn't listening, obviously.

Starbuck wasn't listening, either. "Those girls could really sing. They looked a bit funny, mind you."

"Four eyes and two mouths." Boomer nodded. "But you're right. They really could sing. I suppose we'll have to count them as more human-like than humanoid, if we're going to get picky about the definitions. They weren't reptiles or bugs that looked a bit human. They had to have come from somewhere closer to home than that, genetically speaking."

"You speak for your own genome," said Starbuck. "My DNA doesn't run to multiples."

"Hey, d'you suppose that they had two sets of everything?"

Starbuck shook his head. "Naw. Not in those dresses. The one I talked to, I could see clear down to her underpinnings and there was only one set. No, it was just eyes and mouths." He clutched at Boomer's arm. "Two mouths. They had two mouths! My God, Boom-boom, can you imagine what they could do to a man, with two mouths?"

They stared at each other. Behind them, Apollo choked softly. When they turned around to look, Apollo had gone quite pink about the tips of his ears and was shifting uncomfortably in his seat. Apollo glared until they turned back to the pilot console. Starbuck (wisely) didn't think it safe to comment. He assumed Boomer was being equally as wise.

"Right," said Starbuck, without a quiver, but he winked at Boomer when Apollo couldn't see him. "Right."

Boomer said, rather sadly, "I was thinking about a threesome if, you know, they'd had two."

Starbuck took in a deep breath and felt the heat pool in his groin at the thought. Behind him, Apollo choked softly again. "Yes, thank you, Boomer," sniped Starbuck, "Your contribution to the high intellectual tone of our conversation has been duly noted. Point is, do we count them or not?"

"Surely they offered to expand your horizons, Starbuck," said Apollo, meanly. "I seem to remember you're always telling us how irresistible, adorable and sexy you are."

"So do I," said Boomer. "So many, many times you've told us. Over and over and over."

"Weren't they forming an orderly queue?"

"There wasn't time," sighed Starbuck. "But I'm sure they would have, given the chance. Everyone likes to think they'll be given the chance."

Apollo's eyebrow, while not nearly as big and hairy as a Borellian Nomen's, was expressive. It did scornful contempt to a nicety. "Really?"

"Oh yes," said Starbuck. "Really. Some of 'em don't like admitting it, is all." He gave Apollo back look for look.

"Then we count the singers," said Apollo, huffily, "as being on the new and interesting side of the ledger, even if they aren't in the non-human ancestor column."

"Doesn't mean I'd say yes," said Starbuck, quietly. He met Apollo's gaze until Apollo looked away.

Boomer sighed, softly, and Starbuck felt sorry for him. Poor old Boomer always ended up in the middle playing peacemaker, and half the time he didn't know what he was keeping the peace for. "We need a column for weird non-human ones and a column for weird humans. Right?"

"Right," said Starbuck, morose and wondering if Apollo would ever let it go, or better yet, just concede he'd lost the game and allow them both to move on to the post-match celebrations.

"Right, then. What about… oh, I know. The Borays."

"Porcines," nodded Starbuck. "They were definitely fat little porkers who'd learned to stand on two legs. They even grunted like porcines."

"I've known more than a few Council members like that," commented Apollo.

"Sire Uri, for one." Starbuck nodded. "They're in the weird column all right."

"Borays or Councillors?" asked Boomer, grinning.

"The Councillors barely qualify as human," said Apollo. "They're closer to slime mould."

Boomer laughed. "So the Borays make it four, if we allow Starbuck the Cylons." He hesitated. "What about Iblis and the people on the Ship of Lights?"

Apollo abandoned all pretence at not listening. "Oh, great example, Boomer! They expanded my horizons, all right. They expanded me right into being dead."

"Sorry," said Boomer.

Something in Starbuck tightened and whimpered, like a child frightened of the dark. "Doesn't help that Iblis made sure you beat us at Triad, of course," he said quickly, to hide it. "He's madder about that, still, than anything else."

"I am not mad about that."

"Distressed, then," said Boomer. "You're a bad loser, Apollo. I won that game, fair and square."

"It's just that if I'm going to be cheated out of the Triad championship, I'd rather that diabolical powers weren't involved. It adds an extra layer of wrongness." Apollo added, sounding thoughtful, "I can't remember being dead. I think I was just knocked on the head, or something, and Starbuck panicked."

"You go right ahead and think that if it makes you feel better," said Starbuck. His mouth had tightened down into a line so hard that his jaw ached, and he had to clench his hands to stop them trembling. Whatever Apollo did or didn't remember (or didn't choose to remember), Starbuck's memories of the Ship of Lights still haunted him. He couldn't remember how many nights since he'd sat bolt upright out of sleep, sweating, his heart hammering in his chest and his gut twisting. His gut was twisting right then.

Boomer gave him a quick, sympathetic grin. He managed a wobbly smile in response. Apollo, though, just looked a little cross.

"Would you count them as human?" Boomer asked. "That one you met later—John—he seemed human, didn't he?"

"They might have been once," said Apollo. "I'm not sure what they are now."

"They're not like the buggy ones or the Cylons." Starbuck stopped clenching his hands and spread out his fingers, looking down at them intently. The tremor in them was so fine as to pass almost unnoticed. " They're on the list, though."

"The human-ish list," clarified Boomer.

"In the weird column," said Apollo. "Definitely in the weird column. Alongside Iblis, who I don't think was human at all. I don't know what he was."

He was sounding strained, and Starbuck regretted starting off Let's Classify the Crazy Aliens to pass the time on boringly long shuttle journeys.

"There's the kids' planet, the one with the unicorns," he said, quickly.

Boomer, bless him, helped the diversion along. "They were just kids, weren't they? Human. I mean. What was different about them that would put them on the list?"

Starbuck's mouth quirked "I was talking about the unicorns."

Boomer grinned back. "Are you claiming the unicorns were people?"

"Well…" Starbuck paused and frowned.

"Did they talk as well as sparkle?" asked Boomer.

"Sparkle?"

"Unicorns are magical creatures aren't they? They should be all pretty colours and rainbows. So were they people and did they talk?"

Starbuck shook his head. "Naw. They were just equines with horns. They ate a lot, neighed a lot and galloped about a lot." He laughed. "And boy, did they fart a lot! Must have been all that grass. Hell on the digestion."

"That's another myth blown, then," said Apollo. He grinned when they turned to face him, looking a little bit less stressed than he'd sounded a centon or two before. "You rode one of those unicorns, right?"

"Right," agreed Starbuck.

"Well, either all the stories about unicorns only approaching virgins is nonsense, or all that talk about you is just talk. Got something you want to share with the rest of the class, Starbuck? Is there anything me and Boomer can do to help you with this embarrassing social condition?"

Starbuck spluttered, outraged. Boomer grinned happily at Apollo, who was smirking like a big kid. All these yahrens since the Academy, and Starbuck could count on the fingers of one hand the number of times that they'd managed to pull one over on him, the bastards.

The autopilot chimed at him before he could retort that Apollo knew damn well what he could do. Instead, he glanced at the screen and the big green planet hanging there and remembered that he'd only win if no-one else knew other than Apollo that Game had been declared. Apollo wouldn't appreciate even old Boomer being in the know.

"Five centons to orbit," he said. "Landing trajectory locked in. We'll be on the ground in about fifteen, Apollo."

"Good," said Apollo, sobering. "There's a lot riding on this trading visit."

They knew that. They knew what few people in the fleet knew about how low their fresh food supplies were getting, thanks to a plant virus that led to harvest failure in the agriships. They knew how much they needed a good trade deal with the C'qaree.

"So," said Starbuck, getting them back to what had started him off on this whole classification thing. "We've had lizards and bugs and porkers, and now we've got the C'qaree. Bird people, huh?"

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Whatever technology the C'qaree had—and they did indeed have it—was subtle and beautiful, looking like something that had grown rather than had been constructed by human (or avian) hands . There was no sign of circuits and wiring and metallic components, or switches and power cables. Instead, Starbuck could run his hand over what looked like a free-standing sculpture carved from wood into the shape of a sinuous living tree branch and it had the warmth and texture of bark and leaves in the sun, but the mere act of touching it made it glow and brighten. Another touch and the light faded back and the shadows in the corners of the rooms darkened and strengthened. It was a lamp, he realised; just a lamp.

"I can't see what's making it work," he said, turning to face the others.

Apollo was prowling around the sitting room of the ground floor apartment the C'qaree had given them, a small scanner in his hand. "This isn't giving me any clues, either," he said, pushing the scanner into his jacket pocket. "I'm just getting a jumble of readings that don't mean anything. You got anything, Boomer?"

"I've never seen anything like this," said Boomer, shaking his head. Like Starbuck, he passed his hand over the lamp's surface and watched it brighten. He dropped into a queerly-shaped chair and his expression changed. "This is really comfortable," he said. He wriggled around to examine the chair more closely. "I suppose it was made to fit their wings."

Apollo took the seat opposite. Starbuck opted to perch on the arm of Apollo's chair—trying not to grin at the aptness of the verb—since it kept him close without being too obvious. Although given the mildly irritated look Apollo shot at him, he was maybe more obvious than he wanted to be.

"Okay," said Apollo. "Let's review. You start, Boomer."

"The atmosphere checks out at near Colonial norm," said Boomer. "Oxygen and hydrogen in the same sort of levels we're used to, but a little more… " he hesitated. "Sulphur, do you think? There's a definite smell of something like that in the air."

Apollo nodded. "It's within tolerance levels, according to the scanner."

"Gravity's about three-quarter's normal," put in Starbuck. "I felt that straight away, didn't you? It feels like you're about to float off."

"Must help them fly," said Apollo. "They don't seem any less substantial than we are, but they'll weigh less, I suppose.

Boomer agreed "Or feel as though they do, anyway."

Starbuck ran a finger around the inside of his collar, loosening it. "It's warm," he noted. "A few degrees more than we're used to." He grinned at Apollo. "If it's sunny tomorrow as well, will I get the chance to work on my tan?"

"No. Boomer?"

"There's not a lot of heavy industry. I checked and double-checked on the way in, and nothing came up. There are obvious population centres, where the power levels are more concentrated, but no sign of industrialised centres with, say, metals production." Boomer touched the lamp. "They have to have something somewhere, though. I just don't know what."

"Whatever they do have, there's nothing to show how they generate their power, or where, as there aren't any power clusters anywhere that might be generator plants or distribution centres," said Starbuck. "All I picked up was a generalised energy pattern that the computers didn't recognise. And there are no measurable pollutants in the atmosphere. Whatever they have, it's squeaky clean and very environmentally friendly."

"And if all the cities are like this one, then we aren't going to see many buildings made from artificial materials." Apollo looked thoughtfully at the walls. "This all looks as organic as that lamp."

"I thought the buildings were big trees, to begin with," said Starbuck. "You know, maybe that isn't far off the mark. Maybe these are grown, rather than built. Maybe everything is grown."

"That still doesn't explain what makes the lamp glow," said Apollo.

"I've not seen any sign of mechanised transport," added Boomer. "They don't have real roads here, just paths through the forest, so if they do have anything, it doesn't need roads or rails."

"They probably fly everywhere," said Starbuck. "We did see them flying." And they'd all been hard put to it not to stare impolitely; it had been the stuff of fairy tales, seeing winged people.

Boomer frowned. "Not long distances though. They're too big for that."

"Birds on Caprica used to migrate for thousands of miles," Apollo put in.

"Yeah, but they were smaller and had a very light mass with hollow bones. The C'qaree aren't birds, Apollo. They're people who might have evolved from an ancestor that's common to birds as well, something that was a bit birdlike. They've got wings, but they aren't birds." Boomer paused, and shrugged. "Or angels. They look more like angels."

Starbuck grinned and put his hands on his chest. "They've got a lot in common with birds though. Birds have huge chest muscles to power their wings. You can't deny that the C'qaree are pretty well-developed in the breast department."

Boomer laughed. "Can't miss 'em," he said admiringly.

"You gotta wonder how they can stand upright," said Starbuck. "All that weight out front should have them so unbalanced that they fall flat on their faces."

"Except that their faces would still be a foot off the ground," said Apollo, dryly, but he was pink about the ears again.

"Those chests are something else," agreed Starbuck. "I think they break all the laws of physics. And there's one other thing. Did you notice that they're all female?"

Apollo looked sour "And why am I not surprised that you noticed that?"

"So," said Boomer, hastily, "those chests are really something else. So, a matriarchal society, you think, with the men hidden away somewhere in purdah?"

Apollo looked away after a micron, breaking eye contact with Starbuck. "It's a possibility. They're maybe smaller, more vulnerable than the females, and need to be protected. Who knows? It's just as likely that they're too important to meet with passing traders and strangers." He sighed. "Well, all we can do it keep our eyes open and see what we shall see. We'll just have to play nice until we scope this place out and maybe make the trade we need. Although to be honest, I don't know right now what we can offer them."

Starbuck sighed too, a gustier blown out breath of frustration. "It isn't going to be simple, is it?"

Apollo's smile was twisted. "When is it ever?"

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The leader or spokeswoman or whatever she was, was Tas'ree, a two metre tall Amazon with tawny hair. The sun had just been setting when they'd touched down, hanging over the horizon in the way that the suns on Caprica had hung, as if hesitating before taking the plunge down over the edge into night. Tas'ree's hair had had glowed a deep-red-gold in the light of the setting sun, wreathed around her face like a halo. Her wings, springing from the backs of her strong shoulders, came to a point somewhere just above her head – the elbow, Starbuck thought it must be, if you assumed that her wings, like those of birds, had come from modified limbs – before sweeping down to her ankles, the feathers shading from the same red-gold as her hair at the elbow to a pale cream at the tips. They were beautiful things, her wings.

She had arms as well, as strongly muscled as the rest of her statuesque body; having wings and arms coming from the same shoulders made for queer musculature and odd-looking joint structures with bony bits sticking out where Starbuck wasn't used to seeing bony bits sticking out without someone had suffered a bad injury. It had rather worried him. He'd got to wondering uneasily if the C'qaree had evolved from something closer to the same ancestor as insects with six limbs, than birds. He still didn't like bugs, even if they'd evolved into something prettier than the Ovions.

And Tas'ree was infinitely prettier than the Ovions, although he wouldn't call her beautiful, exactly. Her eyes, like those of a bird, were set in the sides of her head, far more so than any human's, and while she and Apollo talked, she turned her head to stare at them first from one eye and then the other. That was disconcerting to say the least. Her features were too strong for beauty, the jaw and nose heavy and prominent and reminding Starbuck of a bird's beak; a short, conical beak like the ones seed-eating birds at home used to break the hard shells of seeds and nuts. It wasn't quite a beak, but it did make Starbuck wonder if the C'qaree had the social habit (and a very nice habit it was too) of kissing and if they did, how they managed it. The speculation had occupied him throughout the short welcome ceremony in which Apollo had been unexpectedly adept and even, it had to be said, suave. Apollo in diplomatic mode was possibly the only thing that could divert Starbuck from wondering what it would be like to kiss Tas'ree.

Mainly, that is, because Starbuck would so much rather kiss Apollo.

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Tas'ree had left them in their quarters to, she said, 'compose themselves' before meeting the rest of the C'qaree government and beginning negotiations. Starbuck didn't know about the other two, but by the time she came back for them a couple of centars later he was so discomposed by the long wait that his nerves were as jingly as taut viola strings and he was famished. He could have eaten… well, a nice roast fowl would have gone down very well, he thought; he just didn't hold out much hope for one, considering.

It was full dark when she came for them and led them outside and deeper into the city. There were few lights at ground level and the darkness under the great trees – or were they buildings? – was deep and almost impenetrable. Starbuck stumbled along in Apollo's wake, feeling for every step, wishing he'd brought a torch and praying that the ground remained even, uncomfortable with this warm darkness. Beside him, Boomer cursed softly.

Although it was dark on the ground, the buildings and trees were hung with a myriad lights at the higher levels where the C'qaree evidently lived, the lamps gleaming pale gold and green and blue. Starbuck could hear voices and laughter far above his head. There was the frequent loud beat of wings in the darkness accompanied by the rush of displaced air against his face, but he rarely saw the flyers, sensing only the weight of something moving in the dark over his head. The entire town (city? settlement?) reminded Starbuck of a Yule tree festooned with festive lights, but one where the fairies refused to sit tamely on the topmost branch but fluttered restlessly instead around every light and ornament.

Tas'ree escorted them to another ground floor building where, she said, the rest of the C'qaree leaders—"I suppose that you can call it the Ruling Council, Captain Apollo. We decide things for all the C'qaree."—waited to eat with them and talk to them. Her wings made little fluttering movements as she walked that seemed to help keep her balanced; at least, the fluttering was constant and her pace was deliberate and rather heavy, as if she weren't used very much to walking.

"We do not have many accommodations on this level," she said. "We have no ground crawlers among our own people, except the very old who find flying too tiring."

"Ground crawlers?" muttered Starbuck.

Her hearing was sharper than he expected; she heard him. She was little more in the darkness than a darker shape, but he sensed the quick turn of her head towards him. "You have no wings," she said, and there was a note of something that may have been pity in her voice.

"It's not a term we use ourselves, that's all," said Apollo, and even through the darkness Starbuck felt the glare he sent Starbuck's way.

"Ah. We are visited by gro… other people, people like you and like the Erasi. They use these lower levels."

"We visited the Erasi a little while ago," said Apollo, politely. "They told us of you."

"Yes. They told us you were coming this way. We have been expecting you."

Starbuck let his mouth twist into a little moue of unease, safely unseen in the darkness. He let his right hand drop until it was brushing the butt of his laser, and let the polished wood rub smoothly against his palm until he felt better.

"Here we are," said Tas'ree. "Welcome!"

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The C'qaree liked them.

They liked them enough to feed them lavishly. They feasted at every meal, although roast fowl never seemed to make it to the menu. Instead they were fed lots of what Apollo, gloomily and in the privacy of their apartment, described as macrobiotic whole food that didn't even have the saving grace of one chemical additive to give it some taste and Lords didn't the seeds stick in the teeth? Starbuck figured the stuff was nutritious if not exactly going to win any awards, but the fermented fruit juice was to die for. The stuff kicked like a mule and left him hangover free. What more could a drinking man ask for?

Over the following couple of days, they spent a lot of time in the sort polite bargaining that usually established what each party wanted, without, of course, either side being rag-mannered enough to say exactly what that was. Apollo wasn't half bad at it, considering his normal social maladroitness, and Boomer was brilliant at back up and his careful, practical mind missed nothing. Starbuck did what he did best, and put considerable effort into bringing his equally considerable charm into play to keep their hosts looking on them favourably. All in all, a fair division of labour that seemed to be working. The C'qaree were willing to share a bountiful harvest with them.

None of them, though, had missed the fact that the C'qaree just weren't saying what it was they wanted in return for the health food mountain that Apollo was negotiating for. They wanted something. It was just that they hadn't said what.

In between negotiations and discussions they were shown a little of the city, but only the levels that they could reach. Some of the larger buildings—and Apollo was right in that they looked more like they'd been grown than built—had external staircases to maybe the third or fourth levels, but beyond that the city was unreachable without wings. That put the vast majority of the city beyond their reach.

Still they saw some of it. There were no paths winding between the trees and the buildings to made exploration easy, but still it was possible for them and their hosts to make their way at ground level to some of the bigger open spaces, great park-like glades where even the C'qaree walked amongst the flowering shrubs. Starbuck thought it was one of the most wonderful things he'd ever seen: a huge clearing in the forest, ringed with the great trees and buildings that soared up into the a sun-bright sky filled with fluttering, flying fairies, gracefully swooping and gliding on their glorious wings and then dipping down to walk for a while in the soft grasses and pale, pastel-shaded blooms. They were fairies all right, straight out of the pages of the children's stories he'd known back on Caprica. Starbuck was beginning to think that his first assessment of Tas'ree was wrong and that the C'qaree were beautiful after all. All you had to do was apply a different standard of beauty.

Some of the buildings were public and one was an art gallery. Starbuck, who was a fan of representational art if he had to face up to culture at all, found it a dead bore. His escort—Tas'ree had been joined by two others, one for each of them—had tried to explain the importance of a huge… huge thing that was made from wood and glowing lights and…

"This element here, Lieutenant, has an essentially transitional quality that explores religious mythology and contemporary social issues. The piece as a whole delineates the metaphorical resonance of the spatial relationships that visually and conceptually activate the substructure of critical thinking. The distinctive formal juxtapositions of the biomorphic forms and the reductive quality brought by the purity of line verges on codifying the figurative narrative space." Cla'ree paused for breath and did the C'qaree equivalent of smiling, her mouth curving upwards. She was smaller and lighter than Tas'ree, younger perhaps, and her hair and wings were a deeper gold; astonishingly, both were shot through with pale lavender. "Don't you agree?"

Starbuck's idea of culture was a game of Pyramid washed down with lots of ambrosa and preferably followed by hot sex. This stuff was utter crap and if Cla'ree's response to art was apparently to start Speaking in Tongues, his own was to have to fight a desire to stick his tongue out at it all. There was no damned way he'd be impressed. Unlike Apollo, who was staring at Tas'ree a few feet away in unmitigated horror as Tas'ree spouted some similar explanation, Starbuck was made of sterner and less intimidated social stuff. He stared Cla'ree in the face for a micron or two and shook his head gently, before turning to face the work and frowning.

"That's a very interesting analysis, Cla'ree," he said at last, as patronising as he knew how, and pursed his lips to stop the grin at her audible intake of breath. "Very interesting. But I won't deny that the work has a certain crude presence. Shall we?" He gestured to where the others waited, and took his (hopefully disconcerted and certainly silenced) escort to where Boomer and Nar'ree were standing at the other end of the gallery, scooping up Apollo and Tas'ree on the way. Apollo gave him a grateful look, and they all laughed about it when they were alone.

"Sometimes, Starbuck, I start to believe what you tell the world about how wonderful you are," said Apollo, offering Starbuck a glass of the fruit wine and a smile that could ignite rain. "That was brilliant, getting us out of there and you were so charming about it they loved you for it."

For once Starbuck forbore to boast, and just grinned back until Apollo's ears went pink again and he looked away. Apollo was quiet and thoughtful for the rest of the day, shooting little glances at Starbuck when he thought Starbuck wasn't looking. But Starbuck grinned and grinned, because he was winning the game, he knew it. To get that smile, to know that Apollo was weighing every gesture and word—it would even be worth going back to the art gallery with Cla'ree and listening to another few thousand words on how the disjunctive perturbation of the negative space endangered the devious simplicity of the inherent over-specificity of the artist's vision.

He knew that he was perturbing Apollo and that was all that mattered.

He was perturbed himself that night, their third there. He learned that C'qaree art was preferable to their singing. Starbuck looked around the clearing at the hundreds of C'qaree sitting amongst the grass and flowers, rapt, in a silence that was almost reverential while half-a-dozen others in diaphanous white robes flew about the night sky and sang. Starbuck liked singing, but this… this was alien in a way that not even the flying people were alien. The tonalities and harmonies were eerily, eldritchly lovely, and so coldly and pitilessly inhuman that Starbuck was sick with a nameless fear and distress that bubbled in his chest and blood and bones, until he had to draw up his knees and rest his forehead on them, hiding his face and tucking trembling hands out of sight.

No, he wasn't wild about the art, but he frakking hated the singing.

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Sometime later that night, Starbuck thought he dreamt. His dreams were vague and formless to begin with, a series of images and vague sounds: a gold feather tipped with lavender, the glitter of a round bird-like eye, the bird-like tilt of a head crowned in dark-gold hair, a voice singing and trilling until he was cold and shivering.

Slowly he realised that in his dream he was outside, walking underneath the trees, looking up at the coloured lanterns, half-seeing the dark winged figures and the great beat of wings, listening to the distant chatter and laughter and that high, cold singing. In his dream he was no longer cold.

Cla'ree was in his dream, her hair unbound and floating like a wispy halo around her face. They were in a high place; higher, he thought, than any part of the C'qaree's city that he'd seen so far. He didn't know how he'd got there since there weren't any stairs. The room was round and made of thin, supple lengths of wood woven together like basketry. He sat on a soft divan and looked around it, wondering, as he nibbled on the seeds and nuts that she offered him. They were there alone. He was naked and untroubled by it. She was naked too, and he spent some time, quiet and vague and pensive, not speaking, just looking at her.

He drank the cool fruit wine she gave him. In his dream, the wine tasted of sharp tangy red fruit, something tarter than the one he'd shared with Apollo and Boomer earlier that day. When Cla'ree kissed him, he could taste it on her thin lips.

The dream ended as Starbuck lost the thread in that kiss, and everything swirled and dissolved and whirled about him, and he went down and down and down and down.

And, sadly, down.

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"Ow," said Starbuck. "Ow."

Someone was making a lot of noise, groaning and moaning like a pachyderm in the midst of birth pangs, moaning and groaning and an occasional grunting snort that echoed around Starbuck's aching head. God it hurt. Everything, everywhere hurt.

"Lie still," said Apollo, and he sounded furious.

"Ow," said Starbuck. And then he stopped, because it hurt too much even to say Ow. Everything hurt, from his head to the soles of his feet. Everything ached and when he moved his head slightly, turning towards Apollo for something, for the peace and stability Apollo always gave him, it felt like someone had stuck a long thin knife blade through one temple and out the other. He gasped.

"Lie still," said Apollo, again, and this time the fury had ratcheted down to worry.

Starbuck felt a hand touch the side of his face, warm and dry and comforting. Apollo.

"Nothing broken, that I can see," said Boomer. "He's got one helluva bump on the back of his head. He's bloody lucky, as always."

"Concussion?"

"Salik says we'll have to watch for it and wake him every couple of centars and make him talk." Boomer sounded as angry as Apollo, for a reason that Starbuck couldn't fathom. "If he's disoriented then we make him talk until he's lucid."

Apollo snorted. "That could take a while." But his hand rested still on the side of Starbuck's face, his thumb smoothing gentle little lines along Starbuck's cheekbone. His hand was trembling. "Oh, Starbuck," he said.

"Ow," said Starbuck and squeezed his eyes shut against the pain and the dim lights that stabbed down into his head. Something hot and wet trickled out from under his eyelids, no matter how hard he squeezed them together.

"Tas'ree's out there," said Boomer.

Apollo sighed and after pressing his hand once more against Starbuck's cheek, he got up. It was enough to rouse Starbuck, losing that soft pressure.

"Lie still, Bucko," said Boomer, gently.

" 'Pollo?"

"He's just talking to the C'qaree. He'll be back in a centon."

In the distance, through a high-pitched whistling in his ears and something that sounded like the sea crashing down on shingle, Starbuck could hear Apollo shouting. He sounded furious again.

"I don't give a flying frak for you or what you need! He could have been frakking killed!"

It worried Starbuck, wondering what was bothering Apollo so badly that it made him swear. He tried to get his eyes open to see.

"Everything's okay, Starbuck. Go back to sleep. He'll sort it out." Boomer put a hand on Starbuck's chest and pressed down. "Just relax."

Apollo's voice dropped to a murmur, and faded away until all Starbuck could hear was the sea on the shingle noise in his ears and his own heart beating its tattoo in his temples.

" 'kay," mumbled Starbuck, and let himself fall again, down and down and down.

But this time Apollo and Boomer would be there to catch him.

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"They drugged us," said Apollo, righteous indignation fairly radiating out of every pore.

When Starbuck had finally woken up all the way, the sun had been high in the sky and pouring in through the windows. Apollo had been sitting beside him, leaning as far forward as it was possible to lean, his arms folded on the bed, one hand loosely curved over Starbuck's wrist, his cheek pillowed on his arms. He had been sleeping, but he had jerked awake as soon as Starbuck stirred.

"Drugged us?" Starbuck's head felt thick and stupid. It took him a centon or two to absorb the information.

"They've admitted it. So far as we've been able to work it out, the effects aren't long lasting and there are no side effects.

"In the wine," said Starbuck, but decided not to nod. His head still hurt and he felt like every inch of him was black and blue. He held up a hand that still shook a little, and examined it carefully, noting the cuts and bruises. "It had to be in the wine. What was it all about? Are we in danger?"

"No, there's no danger. They're pretty embarrassed about it all and they'll give us all the food we want. Boomer's over at the shuttle arranging transport with the Galactica and we'll get out of here as soon as you can walk."

"I can walk. I'm sure I can walk. Slowly." Starbuck sat up slowly. The thin sheet he'd been lying under fell down to pool in his lap. He was naked underneath it. His chest was purple with bruising. He touched it gingerly. "Is there any bit of me that isn't purple?"

"Not much," conceded Apollo. "And the bits that aren't, are yellow and a sort of burgundy colour."

"Not colours that're good on me." Starbuck accepted the glass of water that Apollo offered and sipped at it. Even his mouth hurt. "What happened to me?"

"We think you fell. No-one's sure what happened. At least no-one's owning up to knowing what happened."

Starbuck frowned. Something tugged at his memory, a sharp red taste and a long thin body with queerly-articulated shoulders and wings enfolding them both. "Fell," he repeated, slowly.

"As far as we can tell, yes. You were lucky. No bones broken, just cuts and bruises."

"Why did they drug us?"

"Remember we said we didn't see any males?" Apollo's mouth twisted. "They don't have any."

Starbuck stared.

"They wanted… they wanted you to fertilise some eggs." And this time there was no mistaking the smirk. "What was it we said on the way down here about you being irresistible?"

"Eggs?" repeated Starbuck, feeling slightly faint. He struggled with it for a micron or two. "I had a dream," he said at last. "There was a room, and more wine and Cla-ree."

"Well, she hasn't been around, so that could be a guilty conscience," said Apollo, and there was a dark look in his eyes that made Starbuck feel a little better, because he knew it meant Apollo was in his corner, willing to fight for him. Throughout everything—the Academy, the Galactica, the Destruction—he'd always known that, he'd always known that the game would be his one day.

"Or she's off clucking over my chicks," said Starbuck.

"Only you," said Apollo, and there was the faintest of grins. "Felger, Starbuck, but you scared me… us this time."

"Well I didn't know they were going to do something this monumentally stupid. Lords, I know I wanted my horizons widened but this is just crazy. You did say fertilise eggs?"

"It's what they trade for, apparently. Tas'ree claims that she thought the Erasi would have told us and we'd be all right with it, which doesn't quite mesh with drugging us stupid."

"Huh," said Starbuck. He gave Apollo back the now empty glass, and leaned back against his pillow, scratching at his jaw. "I don't remember anything."

"Tas'ree came to get me and Boomer. You were out there—" accompanied by a jerk of the head towards the outside world "—and you were well out of it. They brought you back in here and we talked with Salik by remote comms. He told us what to do. He seems to think you'll live, by the way."

"What does he know from half a system away?" Starbuck frowned. "Whatever they gave us, well, I could have sworn I was just dreaming. It didn't seem real, at any rate."

"Mmn," said Apollo, non-committal.

Starbuck looked at him, hard. "Did you dream, or Boomer?"

Apollo stared at the ceiling. "Dream?" He didn't meet Starbuck's gaze. "No. I don't remember dreaming."

"Uh-huh."

Apollo still wouldn't look at him.

"Well, I didn't know I was taking one for the fleet."

Apollo's lip curled. "I'm sure you enjoyed it."

"I'm not," said Starbuck. "Because it wasn't the one I wanted to fertilise eggs with, thank you very much, and they had to drug me to do it."

The hard line of Apollo's mouth softened. "I don't have eggs, Starbuck,"

"I don't want you to have eggs. I just want you."

Apollo looked at him for a centon or two, his expression unreadable. "Can you get dressed?" he asked abruptly. "The sooner we get you back to Salik the better."

Starbuck, chilled, nodded, but when he tried to move he groaned with pain. "I might need some help. And that's just a sad reversal of the how it should be. You should be getting me outa my clothes, not into them."

"Starbuck—"

"I know, I know. But all I promised you was that I'd wait until you thought about it, not back off and forget it. And I certainly didn't promise not to think about it. And I do think about it. All day, every day."

"That's flattering."

"It's a bloody sad comment on the state I'm in, that's what it is."

"It's still flattering. I'm just not sure, Starbuck."

"And I'll wait until you are. I think you nearly are, though."

Apollo's mouth twitched. "I suppose so."

"Good. Because we aren't getting any younger." Starbuck pushed aside the light coverings and swung his legs out over the edge of the bed. Pain shot through every possible bone, muscle and joint and he gasped with the suddenness of it. "Lords, Apollo! I can barely move!"

Apollo steadied him. His eyes were solemn. "My mother had a good cure for bruises," he said.

"I never had a mother, you know that," grumbled Starbuck, breathing through the pain until it was a little more bearable. "Lords," he said, and sighed, pressing against his ribs with one hand.

"She used to kiss the bruises better," said Apollo.

Starbuck froze. After a very quiet few microns in which he doubted either of them drew breath, he asked, softly, "Did it work?"

"Well, I'm no doctor, but I think it helped."

Starbuck struggled to keep the smile from his face. He glanced down at his battered and bruised body. When he looked up at Apollo and the softened expression on Apollo's face, he allowed the smile to come through. There was something very light and bright and shining inside him, like a sun wanting to burst out of him. He had him. He had Apollo, and the game was his.

He quirked an eyebrow and let the smile broaden when he saw its twin on Apollo's face.

"Where would you like to start?"

Apollo leaned forward and Starbuck's breath hitched in his throat. Apollo's lips were warm and a little dry, but they pressed against his in a most satisfactory way. It was just a little kiss, as light as a feather floating in a breeze.

Starbuck smiled, a huge open smile that felt from the inside like he was making the sun rise with it. "Nice," he said, and licked his lips. He nodded towards a interested anatomical part. "I was hoping for something further south, mind you."

Apollo glanced down and back again. Starbuck did a little more eyebrow quirking and tried to look as innocent and charming as an injured man with bruises could look.

"Well," said Apollo. "I suppose the early bird really does get the worm."

And he smiled.

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8577 words28 February 2009