The Race For Earth

By Sharon Monroe and Gordon Smuder

A Battlestar Galactica novel

Copyright 1990.

Used with permission.

This novel was originally published by a fanzine called Clean Slate Press. Stories from the zine era were much better because a lot more effort was put into the writing and editing. For more stories like this, please visit .com

Prologue

For a millennium, the Twelve Colonies of Kobol waged war with the inhuman race called Cylons. The robot Cylons launched a genocidal attack which shattered Colonial power and all but obliterated their worlds. A few desperate refugees banded together under the protection of the last battlestar, Galactica, and her commander, Adama. They had a goal: to find their brethren, the lost Thirteenth Tribe, on the legendary planet Earth.

Seven Yahrens Ago

They waited patiently, afraid, as the centons ticked away. If the door opened, it could mean the end. The longer the door remained close, the less likely the word would be good.

The inevitable came to pass.

The seal to Commander Adama's private ward opened. The sounds of a woman sobbing could be heard clearly. A paunchy, balding man stepped slowly into view, his face as pale as the medical tunic he wore. He slowly lifted his eyes to face the tense visitors to his life center. They read the verdict in that look. Choked, stifled cries tore from constricted throats.

"I'm sorry," he said bleakly. "Adama's heart finally gave out. After the wounds he sustained in that battle, the long recovery ... it left him weaker, more susceptible... He couldn't stand ... his body couldn't take it any more. He's gone..."

His glance avoided any of them in particular, as he tried to focus on the opposite wall. But he couldn't avoid the emotions radiating from them all. Colonel Tigh, looking stark. Siress and Councilor Tinia, eyes tightly closed, schooling her face as she had to do in Council meetings. Captain Apollo, seemingly unaware of anyone around him. Ten-yahren-old Boxey, fighting manfully against tears. Lieutenant Starbuck, unsure if he really belonged here. Lieutenant Athena, trying to find comfort in her husband's arms. Dr. Kaleb, trying to find something soothing to whisper to her.

"May we see him?" The husky voice was Apollo's.

Salik nodded and stepped aside. The warrior slipped past him, followed quietly by the boy, the bridge officer, and the technician, the dead man's family.

The doctor turned to Tigh. "Well, Commander, what now?"

The officer started in shock, glanced at Tinia.

She nodded once. "As your friend and Adama's, I can think of no one better qualified to step into his boots. As a member of the Council of Twelve, I can guarantee you will be confirmed as commander of the Galactica. What are your orders, Commander Tigh?"

He shut his eyes tightly to buy a moment's time, to think. Then he opened them again, and drew a heavy breath. There was no time to grieve, to hide away and let his feelings have their way. He now had other responsibilities, and those duties would give him no rest, no time, any more than they had given Adama. He had to be the commander now...

Green, green, it was all green. The solitary man stared vacantly into the light of the small generator, ignoring the passage of day into night through the lingering dusk. The generator was the only thing on the whole planet that wasn't a dreary, tiring green. After three yahrens, he had almost ceased to notice any of it.

The man showed the yahrens he had been there. His exposed skin was leathery with tan from all the days spent outdoors; his once-handsome face was lined with wrinkles from early old age and from squinting at the sky, waiting for rescue. Hard mouth and sunken eyes betrayed something dark and determined.

Of clothing, he wore little. His pants were faded and torn, with heavy green stains at the knees and ankles from the vegetation. He wore no shirt; the warm climate made it unnecessary. His boots had long ago given out; simple sandals covered his feet, woven of tough reeds with vine straps to hold them in place over the calloused soles. He often told himself, in his frequent daily litanies, that "some day" when he got off this green rock he would need something decent to wear – the last shred of the vanity that had been so much a part of his character.

The shelter behind him had once been a clean, dull white, formed of plastene. It had faded with time, and was almost indistinguishable from its surroundings. The jungle had found rootholds in its aging structure; vines now twined over most of its sides and roof.

The small collection of tools and crates secreted in the shelter were just as aged. Some, in fact, had broken long before, but the exile refused to throw them away. "Some day" he might fix them, or need them even in their shattered state.

The man hunched himself together against the falling night. Another day almost gone. Another day alone, in exile. Another day without hope. He silently cursed the one who'd left him here, not for the first time. That, too, was part of his daily litany – what he would "some day" inflict upon his enemy.

If he escaped. The generator continued to gleam steadily. That meant the short-range transmitter should still be working. As long as it worked, he had a chance. If it ever stopped...

He slowly began to rock back and forth, murmuring softly.

There were sounds in the dimness, clanking metallic sounds that didn't belong anywhere on this planet, sounds that startled and silenced the sounds that did belong. The man paid them no attention.

The sounds drew nearer. On the far side of his small camp, silvery ghosts took form, double moonlight shimmering coldly off their moving shapes. The slowly shifting red lights on what passed for their faces bore an eerie resemblance to something undead from an evil night tale. They halted there, obviously studying the single human.

One then advanced. "Human-you-are-our-prisoner. Surrender-or-be-terminated."

The monotone finally caught his attention. He slowly turned his face and let his eyes examine the shape. Life seemed to return to him slowly as he sat upright, then rose to his feet.

"You ... are Cylons?" he said in a voice vaguely cracked from disuse.

"Surrender-or-die-human."

He drew a deep breath. "I am not a human, Centurion. I am Count Baltar, a Cylon commander. I have been marooned here for too long. Take me to your ship. I have a mission to complete."

The Cylons paused, their red eyes still moving, as each accessed old data banks. Then the leader spoke. "Commander Baltar."

"Yes!" he shouted back.

"We-know-you. We-will-take-you-to-our-ship."

"Excellent." Baltar glanced around at what had been his home for three yahrens. "But first, destroy this place."

"By-your-command."

As Baltar had walked away from the Colonies at their Destruction, so he walked away now. The Cylon guard unleashed a fury of laser bolts at the primitive shelter before falling into step behind him.

Standing at the door, Commander Tigh glanced around his new quarters, at the still-empty shelves, the viewport to space, the image of the battlestar on the wall, the too-clean desk and drawers. The room had been cleaned out so quickly – all of Commander Adama's things were already gone, put in storage or given to Apollo and Athena or others who would treasure the little mementoes that were all that was left. Amazing. The man had lived most of his adult life on this ship, many yahrens of it in these very chambers, and there was so little to show for it...

The ceremony for Adama was over; his body had been consigned to the cradle of space, with the tears of the fleet. He had brought them so far, following the dream.

"And now it's my mission," Tigh said softly in the silence. "It's my duty to complete the journey, to lead our survivors to Earth."

He moved from the door to stand by the desk. He touched its cold, smooth surface. Nothing. No sensation.

"I'm not ready for this. I never wanted command, never wanted you to go. Adama, how can I do it? How can I take your place? I'm not ready..."

He noticed one thing remaining on the shelves, tucked to one side and apparently forgotten, something he hadn't seen before. It was a metallic shape of a bird apparently caught in flight. A symbol of the Galactica, he knew, something Adama had found somewhere and brought with him to represent their ship, long before the Destruction.

And someone had left it here for him.

He reached up, pulled it from the shelf. It was warm in his hands, and felt almost alive, as if it could take wing from his clutch at any micron, if it chose.

If it chose. But it wouldn't. He felt a calm certainty pervade him at that moment. The Galactica would not take flight from him. She was his now. And he would be a fitting and proper guardian for her, as Adama had been. The ship knew, even if the man did not, who could be her master.

It choked in his throat for a moment. Adama had known. And he was certain his friend had sent this signal to him, because he was certain it hadn't been there before. He wouldn't let them down, his old friend, his ship, his people – he would do whatever he had to do, become whatever he had to become.

He settled the bird statuette in the middle of the desk, then took his seat behind it – in the very chair where Adama had so often worked. A sudden ray of starlight from the port found the bird and reflected across the desk. More confidently, Tigh reached for the dictater of the commander's log, already beginning to feel at home. A quick check showed where Adama had left off. Staring at the image of the Galactica, he began to dictate.

"This is Commander Tigh of the battlestar Galactica, making my first entry after assuming command.

"The last secton has been busy and sad for us, with the death of Commander Adama and his memorial service. There has been much grieving, and he will be deeply missed by all who knew him and ... loved him.

"Now, however, we move on..."

Staring around the command core of the basestar, Commander Baltar felt a moment's disappointment. The Cylon vessel had been old and worn even before its last mission, and had in fact been dispatched to examine this quadrant because it was considered expendable, and was not expected to return. Over the yahrens of its mission, the ship had deteriorated even more.

But it was a basestar. And it had fighters. It would obey his commands.

"Welcome-aboard-Commander-Baltar. We-will-return-to-Cylon-for-additional-orders-before-continuing-pursuit," announced the command Centurion from its pedestal.

Baltar whirled from his study of the chamber. "No!"

The command machine droned, "We-have-been-out-of-contact-with-the-Imperious-Leader-for-yahrens."

So much the better, Baltar thought, his mental acumen gradually returning and reminding him of several things. His position had been precarious in his last days of command – failure to capture or destroy the Galactica had told against him in the Imperious Leader's oculars. And anything could have happened in his sectars of captivity in the fleet, before Adama released him on that planet. And then there were the yahrens of exile, alone, out of touch...

No, it would be better if he returned to Cylon victorious, with Adama's head and the shattered debris of the Galactica as trophies.

"What do your data banks tell you where I am concerned?" he asked cunningly.

The Cylon seemed to think for a centon. "Commander-Baltar-is-in-charge-of-the-task-force-seeking-the-humans," it then announced. "His-orders-are-to-be-accepted-in-that-capacity."

"Yes. But that task force proved inadequate, incapable of its task. I am taking command of this ship for that function. I am now your commander; you will obey me and follow my orders. We will begin pursuit of the humans at once, without any such delays."

Wonder of wonders, the Cylon accepted.

"By-your-command." The gold Centurion clunked down from the command pedestal to stand beside it, leaving command gloriously open to him. He ascended and lovingly settled himself in what was so reminiscent of a throne.

"Shall-we-inform-Imperious-Leader-of-your-rescue?"

"Negative!" he snapped. "We are out of range of Cylon, and we have no time to waste. Set course along epsilon vector twenty-two, circular reckoning, zero-zero-zero-point-nine."

"By-your-command."

It was that easy. He exulted in feeling command again – and this time there was no one from Cylon to tell him otherwise, or to inflict another IL "aide" upon him.

"There is justice after all," he crooned softly. "Justice, and vengeance. Are you waiting, Adama? Do you know I'm free? Do you know I'm coming for you again? And I remember where you were going, I heard, in that cell you confined me to..."

And he began to laugh, louder and louder, until the chamber rang with the echoes of madness.

The Present

Commander Tigh's log: It seems we will have no choice but to pass through the interstellar phenomenon ahead, this ion storm or whatever it is. Like the Void of Kobol, it seems to extend through the surrounding quadrants so far that our patrols cannot find a passage around it. And we cannot simply wait out its passage, for all projections indicate we are directly in its path, and must endure it one way or another.

This presents a serious danger to some of our older ships, for several reasons. We know communications and navigation will be nearly impossible during the passage, as it was during the Void. Maintenance of the less modern vessels is already difficult; many of our captains fear that if they become lost or damaged in this storm, they will not be able to contact the Galactica or be repaired if they are found.

Fortunately, Dr. Wilker and his staff have come up with a plan. They believe we can directly attach some of the older vessels to new, better-equipped ships with specially designed clamps, airlocks, and bridging. This will enable the joined ships to ride out the storm together, make communications and navigation easier, and save fuel as well. Should this plan, called Project Interlock, prove successful, it will undoubtedly make the rest of our journey easier and contribute to the emotional and physical well-being of the people of the fleet.

As unlikely and unworkable as it probably is, I cannot help but envision our arrival on Earth, at some distant time, with but two ships – this battlestar, and a massive, oddly-shaped space city consisting of our two hundred odd ships joined together into one unwieldy entity...

A constant heartbeat of noise and activity throbbed throughout the bridge of the battlestar Galactica. Commander Tigh glanced around, pleased at how well his people were working together under the time and material demands that Project Interlock was making on all of them. Omega, the youngest full colonel and battlestar second-in-command in the history of the Colonial forces, was coordinating all the myriad details of that project with the everyday necessities of running the fleet; nothing escaped his sharp eyes as he checked and double-checked the information from the massive computers and scanners. Lieutenant Athena, his right hand now for several yahrens, was assisting. Captain Apollo was standing by, alert and ready to do whatever was needed – if he should be needed.

Tigh frowned at the thought, earning a double-take from the young woman at the flight officer's station.

Truly "being needed" was almost a rare experience for the fighter pilots these days, if one could believe the mutters of some of the men. There had been no actual encounter with Cylons in yahrens ... since Adama's death, if truth be acknowledged. Tigh knew there was a false sense of security among many in the fleet because of that long time and the distance they'd come. There were still constant regular patrols to ensure the fleet's safety, of course, and teaching and training duties for the officers. There were occasional brushes with unknown forces in these unexplored sectors of space, but even some of the warriors were complacent – what were mere pirates to the genocidal menace of the Cylons? They seemed to have escaped that foe; therefore they could survive anything, and finding Earth or some other sanctuary was only a matter of patience.

But they hadn't reached Earth yet. For all their patience and hope, and the long ten yahrens, they still weren't sure they were on the right path. The scant evidence they had found said the Thirteenth Tribe had followed this same route, but they could so easily be trailing some other failed colony. And after ten yahrens, there would be no way to turn back if they found out they were wrong.

All these yahrens... Probably just as well things had gone so easily for them, even without finding their goal, in that time. Adjusting to command hadn't been easy for him, nor had it been easy for the fleet to accept him as the commander. But Tigh was amazed. He'd managed to do the job, despite all his fears and reservations. And every step of the way, he'd felt a shadow at his shoulder, nodding approval, pleased at every forward step the fleet took.

Ten yahrens since the Destruction. He felt so much older than that. Of course, he looked it, too. Tigh remembered how quickly Adama's hair had turned from dark brown to white when he took command of the Galactica. His own tight black curls were now liberally wound through with gray.

A blond-haired figure entered the bridge and strode over to the computer wall to join the trio already at work there. Tigh had to smile at the easy, almost subconscious way Kaleb's arm slipped around Athena's waist for a micron – a quick greeting before delivering his report.

"Commander?"

He glanced at the flight officer. "Yes, Rigel?"

"Lieutenant Sheba's patrol indicates the storm is approaching more rapidly than our earlier computations had indicated, and seems to be gathering strength. We're already experiencing some communication disruption between the patrols and the fleet; Sheba had to pull back from the phenomenon to contact us."

That was not good news, but was not completely unexpected. Tigh acknowledged the report and turned to the Interlock team. From their glances toward him, he knew Omega had also picked up the report and shared it with the others.

"Dr. Kaleb?"

"Yes, Commander, I heard," the scientific technician nodded. "I'll relay word to Wilker, and see if we can speed up Interlock. Any chance we can get additional personnel? We could use some more hands, especially with the large freighters Rasalas and Mintaka next on the list – they're both older ships, and need some complicated couplings..."

"You've already got all the scientific teams either monitoring the phenomenon or working on Interlock–"

"Commander?"

"Yes, Captain?"

"Many of our warriors have the kind of technical experience necessary, especially those who were Academy-trained," Apollo suggested. "We could work with the Interlock teams."

"Under appropriate supervision, of course," Kaleb inserted with a deadpan expression.

Athena glanced at him reproachfully but Apollo's lips merely twitched.

Tigh nodded briefly. "Good idea. Inform the squadrons, ask for volunteers first. They may be sufficient."

Apollo strode briskly from the bridge.

"Keep monitoring," Tigh ordered the others. "Let me know if there's any change in status."

"Yes, sir." Omega moved to another station.

"Kaleb," Athena murmured, "you can be a demon when you're baiting Apollo."

He grinned. "Can't help it. He baits me too, and I have to return the favor or he won't respect me. It's not easy having the senior pilot in the fleet for a brother-in-law!"

"Oh, all right! But this project is your home base, so you take care of my big brother out there."

"If you insist."

"And take care of yourself, too."

"I thought you'd forgotten!" he laughed.

"How could I forget you? Oh, I presume this means you'll be working through the next shift again?" she asked on a more practical note.

"'Fraid so," he replied apologetically.

"Then I guess the children will have to be content with me tonight," Athena sighed. "I wonder if they'll remember who we are by the time Interlock is complete."

It had become apparent in the first few sectons of their flight that childcare and instructional periods would be needed on the Galactica through all shifts. It was impractical to consider shuttling necessary warriors and vital personnel to other ships to see their families in their off-shift time, and there were also civilians billeted aboard the battlestar whose children needed much care. Athena and Kaleb were essential personnel, and currently they had such erratic schedules that their two small children spent much of the day under someone else's care. The parents tried to console themselves that it was only for a short time.

"We'll make it up to them when this is all done," Kaleb reassured her. "And I'll make it up to you, too ... privately."

A light but suggestive touch of hands, and they separated, smiling. The dark-haired woman stayed on the bridge, her steps lighter and her blue-green eyes brighter. The brown-eyed blond man glanced back for a micron, fondness in every line of his body. Then they were both back to work.

Captain Apollo stopped in his quarters to pick up some extra gear before catching the tech shuttle to the Rasalas. He found his son busily working on some project or other. As his father entered the chamber, the youth quickly shoved his papers and equipment into a pile at the side of his desk.

"Hi, Boxey. What are you up to?" Apollo asked cheerfully.

"Father..." The young man grimaced.

"Sorry, Troy." Apollo shook his head ruefully. His son had turned seventeen a few days before, and suddenly decided to use his given name rather than the "childish" nickname. Then he noticed something half-hidden in the pile. "What's that?"

"Nothing, Dad..."

Apollo was too quick. He already had the illegal computron and several sheets of paper in his hand. "Astronavigation as affected by stellar phenomena? Boxey, I thought you weren't allowed to use computrons in Jolly's advanced class – the idea is to know exactly where you are and where you're going even when your equipment breaks down."

Caught, Boxey had to admit it, but he argued, "Dad, I'm two sectons ahead of everybody else – and this is the last requisite from the primary classes before specialized Academy level training. I know the material, even Jolly says so. I want to get through the assignments, the new cadet class will be starting next secton."

"That's not the point–"

"Even Jolly said I was good enough, I have the 'strongest grasp of the essentials' of anybody in the class. He said he was going to tell you."

"Oh, he did, in detail!" Apollo reassured Boxey.

"And he said if I finished the assigned lessons on time, I could take the final examinations and be done in time for the training."

Apollo, whose mind was on the mission to the Rasalas, didn't quite catch the implications of Boxey's argument. He smiled. "All right, if you finish the classwork, you can take the finals early, and start your secondaries. But you'll finish it without this." He brandished the computron. "Can I trust you not to cheat on your lessons, if I leave this with you?"

The dark-haired teenager sat up a little straighter, a very eager grin on his face. "Warrior's honor, Dad!"

"And I suggest you forget that Jolly is one of my best friends and remember that he's also a lieutenant in the Colonial Service and your instructor."

"Yes, Captain!"

Apollo laughed, tossed the computron and papers back on the desk, and turned to his locker. He caught his own and his son's expressions in the mirror for just a micron as he reached for the EVA suit.

The little boy Serina had left him was turning into a fine young man. His hair and eyes were darker than Serina's, a legacy of the biological father Boxey had lost so long ago, but his face was shaped with many of the same lines as his mother's. His slim teenage body was beginning to fill out with muscle, and Apollo suspected it would not be long before he had to look up at the youth.

He himself was little changed from the yahrens – but then, what were the ten yahrens since the Destruction when compared to the two-century expected average lifespan of a Colonial human? There was no gray in his dark, nearly-black hair. His green eyes were still steady and keen. His reflexes were sharp as ever. He was in his physical prime. Still, it was an odd feeling to see his child so near adulthood when it was hard to think of himself as barely mature. Or had they all been old forever, after everything they'd been through?

Deep in thought, Apollo made his way out of his chambers with a perfunctory nod at Boxey.

The young man waited a full two microns after his father had left their chambers to dive for the telecom.

"Loma?" he all but shouted when a young woman's voice came back. "Dad gave me permission to start my secondaries! I'll be in training with you and Morgan!"

Cassiopeia slipped into her chair and grabbed the latest print-out. Keeping the fleet in good health was a full-time responsibility for the medical coordinator. She had to rotate competent medical staff through the life stations of the various ships, arrange secondaries and specialty seminars for individuals in medical training, set up and examine the results of studies and experiments, and see that thousands of physical histories and check-ups were properly filed and cross-filed from every ship in the fleet.

She scanned the sheets. Everything looked good. No suggestion of epidemics, not even of the so-called childhood diseases, on any ships. No serious injuries requiring intervention from the doctors of the Galactica's life center. No inexplicable illnesses that could herald some new plague or variation of radiation sickness.

However, there were over a score of genetic tests to correlate from the orphan ship to those already in the computers, and Dr. Randal from the Rising Star had a proposal for a new treatment for Gamma Syndrome, one of those pesky delayed-reaction diseases that had been appearing in the last yahren, believed to be the result of a Cylon virus seeded during the Destruction, only now causing sickness. It would be a long evening...

"Hi, beautiful."

Cassiopeia jumped, startled.

Lieutenant Starbuck grinned and planted his palms on her desk. "And how's my favorite medic on this fine evening – or what would be a fine evening if we were still on Caprica?"

She smiled and leaned back in her chair. "Busy. And how's my very favorite warrior? Still turning heads in the cadet simulations?"

The reference to his training classes broadened Starbuck's smile. "I have a reputation to maintain!" he said as he took a seat at the edge of her desk.

She laughed. The past ten yahrens had been kind to them both in looks, less so in their personal situation. Starbuck continued as a warrior, and now assisted with the secondaries and cadet training programs. Cassiopeia had advanced to become a full-fledged doctor, but often felt she spent more time in managing the sick than in healing them. Personally, both of them were still alone. Their days were so busy that there wasn't much time for relationships; since their schedules often conflicted, they hadn't spent much time together in a long time.

"Cassie," Starbuck began in a ridiculously solemn voice, "I have come to a momentous decision."

She raised her eyebrows. "Yes?"

"You haven't heard the question yet!"

"All right, what is your 'momentous decision'?"

"It just so happens that I have ducats to an astral concert on the Cygnus. And I would like to escort the finest doctor in the fleet to that concert."

She laughed. "And why is that?"

"In case the music and dance cause me to have heart failure, I want someone with me who can always start my heart with a smile," he said with a smile of his own as he leaned forward to kiss her.

"Oh, no!" Cassiopeia looked guilty, and Starbuck knew.

"Don't tell me," he said, holding up his hands in surrender. "You're working tonight. Again."

She held up the print-out. "An experimental treatment and genetic tests," she said apologetically.

Starbuck finally slouched into the opposite chair. "Salik is a slave driver," he mumbled. The very same thing had happened before, many times. It was no longer even worth arguing about.

The woman studied the print-out. "I'm sure you could find somebody else to go with you," she began cautiously, not looking at him.

"Yeah. I guess so."

They sat in silence.

Starbuck stared at the woman he occasionally managed to spend time with. She was blonde and beautiful and intelligent, with a glorious smile and a sparkle in her sapphire blue eyes that had caught his attention the first time he met her, so long ago on the freighter Gemini. He'd helped her get aboard the Galactica and stay there, never expecting the frail-looking, helpless socialator to show her true colors with an indomitable will and strength. That had always been his weak spot. He loved strong women, but somehow strong women tried to turn into dominating women, at least where he was concerned, and that meant it was time to move on.

That hadn't happened with Cassiopeia. But he'd never quite felt it was time to admit it; there was too much that could go wrong, with him, with her, with the lives they lived as refugees. Then, just when he was finally ready to try, ready to admit he needed her, wanted her, loved her, and could risk asking for more, she had gone into her advanced medical studies. Then there had been no time.

Now she was in charge of everything medical in the fleet, as far as he could tell. Or so it seemed from the little time she had free to spend with him.

Cassiopeia began tapping the desk with her stylus. She stole a glance at the preoccupied warrior. He wore a vaguely lost expression that made her want to embrace him. She wasn't sure when, exactly, she had realized she loved the devil-may-care blond, but she had always known he could be gone at any moment, for more than the obvious reason that his life was at risk in every mission. She had known men like him before, unwilling or unable to commit, however much they might want and need you. "Taking" him from Athena hadn't been difficult – he had already been drifting away from her. Cassiopeia had known better than to try holding him; their love was free-spirited, and so it had lasted.

At least until now. Everything seemed so fragile and stretched now. Maybe she had tried so hard to avoid tying him down that, when he was ready to commit, she was afraid. Was that it? Was she afraid it would be the end of their relationship if they admitted loving each other enough to make it permanent? What if he asked? How would she answer? Maybe she just wasn't meant for a lifelong relationship...

Cassiopeia sighed in frustration.

"I, uh, guess I'm keeping you from something."

"Hmmm?"

Starbuck stood up. "I better get back to quarters."

"What about the concert?"

But the lieutenant was already out the door.

Apollo found company on the shuttle trip to the Rasalas. Dr. Kaleb, his sister's husband, was aboard. The technician first introduced himself for the sake of any warriors who didn't know him, then went on to say he would explain the intricacies of Interlock to them as soon as they were underway. Receiving a few acknowledging nods, he okayed the launch and grabbed the seat next to the captain.

Already strapped in for launch, Apollo had to shake his head. "How did I ever get a technocrat for a brother-in-law?" he demanded of no one in particular.

Giles, sitting on his other side, sniggered.

"Blame Boomer," Kaleb responded easily. "After all, he's the one who introduced us."

Apollo had to laugh agreement. His friend Boomer had worked off and on with Wilker's section almost since the day the two men had met. He had indeed made sure that Athena and Kaleb met each other – based on only Boomer knew what reasons, and he had never explained it to Apollo.

That brought back a lot of other memories. The good times, the bad times, the long and empty survival times. Then, four yahrens ago, when everything seemed to be going so well and there had been no contact with anybody for a long time, Boomer had gone on detached status with the technical section.

Apollo sighed. It had been a long time since he'd seen his old friend. Now Boomer was proving his real genius – and the fleet appreciated it. For one thing, and most recent, Interlock was mostly his creation. The captain recalled a time when he had thought he was an expert at technical matters. Compared to what Boomer was doing now, with plenty of time and the proper equipment, assistance, and concentration, Apollo had long ago consigned himself to merely competent.

Kaleb was making his speech. Apollo listened with half an ear. None of it was really new to him – he'd been associated with Interlock from the beginning, even if the details were actually the work of Wilker, Boomer, and Kaleb.

Through the port, he could see the increasing bulk of the Leon freighter Rasalas – and seeming to hang in space beside it, the Tauran freighter Mintaka. Two aging metal hulks, both on their last starlegs a long time ago, now linking their fates as their bodies would be linked. He spotted a pair of space-suited figures moving over the surface of Rasalas as they maneuvered closer to the landing bay; then the exterior disappeared as they passed within the lights and walls of the bay.

The shuttle careened roughly, feeling almost beyond control. Laughter rocked through the cabin as none of the warriors tried to hide their amusement. Kaleb threw himself back into his seat, clinging to one armrest and the seatbelt for all he was worth. It was several microns before he regained his color.

"Damn pilots!" he muttered. Haals and Cree was deliberately making it a rough landing, and everyone on the shuttle knew it. It was the best way to shut up a technocrat.

"It's getting stronger," Omega noted. He turned back to his commander with his usual steadiness. "The disruption waves are increasing geometrically, rather than as we had expected. At our current course, we'll be in the heart of the storm in a few centars – but the fleet will never survive it."

"Can we ride along the edge?" Tigh asked.

The tall man nodded briskly. "For the moment."

Tigh turned to the flight officer. "Inform the fleet to be ready for increased disruption."

"Aye, sir." Rigel bent to her work.

Tigh returned to chewing his lip in frustration. There was nothing he could do for the moment but wait. And he had never been very good at waiting.

Three EVA-suited figures drifted above the metal surface of the Rasalas, sandwiched between that ship and the freighter Mintaka. They moved slowly, pulling themselves around by the grips soldered in place only centars before by other techs. Tether lines bound them to the ships, taking on a twisting life of their own in the vacuum of space.

Slowly taking shape between the two ships was a series of girders and crossing tubes. If Interlock worked as expected, the temporary work would be replaced with permanent soldering and sealing after the immediate emergency had passed. In the meantime, the techs and volunteer warriors worked as quickly as possible to secure the vessels to each other.

Within the ancient freighter, two individuals watched the observation screens, seeing how work proceeded and offering comments where warranted. Former warrior lieutenant Boomer, detached status with electronics, dark and sturdy with long yahrens in the service, had already spent centars in unprotected space that arbitrary day – more, actually, than was recommended. But the job had to be done, and they had little time to do it. The woman, Haldia, blond, taller than most men, and of Leon birth, was an electronics tech with a strong engineering background; she'd also spent more time outside than she should have.

An odd humming suffused the chamber, distinctly traceable to their computer and communications equipment. The image on the screen wavered at unpredictable intervals. The effects of the stellar storm were being felt throughout the fleet.

A lean, gray-haired man with a penetrating gaze entered the compartment. Boomer and Haldia glanced at Dr. Wilker.

"What's the verdict?" Boomer asked.

Wilker glanced at the screen automatically. "The Galactica reports what we already know – that the storm is worsening, and faster than expected. We've begun evacuating the outer chambers of all decks, to minimize radiation damage or loss of pressure and oxygen due to rupture. We're also stowing any equipment that could be damaged or lost in the waves of disruption."

"Then we should call in all teams," Haldia commented.

"The others are already called in," Wilker told them. "This is the last. But the telecom to this section seems to be out, so I had to bring the word myself."

Boomer nodded briskly. "I'll inform Kaleb and Apollo." He turned to the communications console and grabbed a local-setting telecom. "Dr. Kaleb! What's your progress?"

"Boomer. We're right on schedule for this section," came back the tech's filtered voice.

"Sorry, but you'll have to quit what you're doing, and bring in the equipment. Galactica says the storm is coming fast – and we're suffering some serious disruptions inside. We're evacuating to inner chambers already."

"Should only be five centons," came back in Thang's self-assured tones. The younger tech was quick-witted and nimble-fingered. And he inevitably knew what he was talking about.

The Rasalas seemed to ride a subtle wave, and shuddered in an inexplicable fashion. The three instinctively grabbed for handholds, and felt their stomachs lurching with the ship.

"I don't know if you've got that much time," Boomer warned.

"Kaleb, what do you think?" The third voice was Apollo's, formally asking the team leader's opinion.

A moment of silence, then Kaleb responded. "We can do it. Okay, Boomer, five centons and we'll be inside – space kits and all. Our support vapors won't last much longer than that anyway. Get everything stowed in the meantime, but keep an airlock open for us."

Boomer glanced at Wilker, uncertain. The doctor considered for a micron, then said, "Considering the situation and the caliber of the man, the risk is acceptable."

Boomer nodded; then, recalling that the men outside couldn't see the gesture or hear the other man's words, he told them, "You've got five centons. But be careful out there."

"We will," Kaleb responded.

"See you in five." Boomer glanced at the other two. "I'll stay and man the airlock. You go join the others." "Acceptable risk" wasn't good enough unless he was there to watch over his friends personally.

"I'll stay too," Wilker overrode. "Haldia, go ahead."

"Right." She strode out.

Cassiopeia reached the bridge, which was at more than full complement of crew – it seemed every off-duty crewman was standing by "just in case," along with a number of personnel from other departments. She assumed they were there for the same reason she was. The med tech passed them all to join the command team at the computer wall. No one challenged her; her position and friendship with the commander were known.

"Medical station reports ready for whatever the storm throws at us, Tigh, short of a complete shields breakdown," she called liltingly.

He smiled at the sight of her. "Problems with your telecoms too, that you're reporting personally? Seems to be an epidemic on this ship."

"And in the rest of the fleet," Athena commented, standing next to them with a headset on. "I'm not getting much more than static!"

"Are the navigation locks steady?" he asked.

"So far."

"Good." Tigh glanced back at Cassiopeia. "Thanks for your report, doctor. Hopefully we won't need to see too much of you these next centars." He tempered the comment with a smile.

"Thanks a lot, Commander!"

Cassiopeia turned away with a smile of her own. Obviously Tigh was busy, and she was quite frankly needed in life center. Hurrying off the bridge, she nearly ran into a warrior loitering in the entry corridor.

"Starbuck!"

"Uh..." He looked abashed. "Uh..." He looked abashed.

"Were you ... following me?" she asked, delighted.

"Well..."

"Since you're here, could you walk me back to life center? It can't compare to a night at the astral concert, I know..."

He shrugged. "Concert was postponed. This storm business upset everything."

She giggled, feeling quite happy to have the man fall into step beside her even for the short walk. However, as the centons passed and they neared life center, neither of them found anything to say.

Five centons was proving an incredibly long amount of time. Boomer waited impatiently, one eye glued to a chronometer, the other to the screen. Wilker alternated between hanging over his shoulder and double checking his portable computer.

The image on the outer screen was mostly a blur, the three faint figures irregularly breaking up into static. Voices carried as a scratchy hum. Boomer no longer knew which voice or shape was which. He only fretted at the slowness.

Another of the stellar waves caught the Mintaka.

The image from the outer camera dissolved into grayness.

"Frak!" Boomer muttered under his breath. His tension level rose dramatically. If they couldn't see what was going on outside, there could be trouble and they wouldn't notice.

"The tether! I can't–" That one scream carried through, then the comm went silent.

"That sounded like..." Frantic, Boomer tried everything he knew to pull back a signal. That voice, he was certain, was Apollo's. Dr. Wilker, beside him at the console, lent his skill and advice, but to no avail. There was no sound.

For a half-centon the screen showed an image before going completely dead. One brown-suited figure was drifting slowly from the side of the vessel, flailing madly, tether line severed and snaking like a living thing. A second figure, the one nearer the drifting man, threw himself from the metal, tether line intact, reaching for the first. The third figure still clung to the handholds, one arm outstretched as if to provide an anchor if the other two returned. Something else drifted into the picture. The dark lump was a stray repair kit, torn loose and tossed by the storm. The second figure had its back to the kit; the third waved frantically, but to no avail. The kit struck the human. He went limp, spinning away end-over-end. Beyond that figure, the first had nearly vanished from view, lost among the stars.

A blank screen.

"Lords of Kobol..." Boomer murmured tensely.

The comm gave them static. The screen gave them gray nothing. Neither Boomer nor Wilker could change what the equipment refused to tell them.

"Call the Galactica," Boomer demanded abruptly after an agonizing two centons.

"What?"

"They can send a Viper or shuttle to scan the area. We've got to look for them..."

"We can't contact the Galactica," Wilker told him flatly. "This equipment pulls in everything anywhere on this ship. If it's dead, everything's dead."

Boomer shuddered, and Wilker regretted his choice of words.

"Wilker!" Haldia stopped at the door just long enough to shout before disappearing again. "Airlock cycling! Two men..."

Wilker raced away as well, leaving Boomer manning the comm alone. He couldn't have moved if he'd wanted to. Cold fear rooted him to the spot. Two men in the airlock. That meant one was gone. Which of his three friends...?

The grayness on the screen turned to blackness, and for a moment he thought everything had gone out completely. Then he realized there were stars showing. The blackness was space; they were picking up images again. The static on the comm broke up slightly, and he could pick out voices again.

"...was gone, we couldn't get to him ... Kaleb jumped ... barely pulled him back ... the storm waves ... gone, we barely ... medical help, now ... open..."

Blood rushed through his veins in mingled thanksgiving and grief. That was Apollo's voice breathlessly telling the story. And from the sounds of it, Kaleb was the other man, probably injured. One of his friends was alive and apparently unhurt.

But Kaleb was injured, maybe seriously.

And that must mean Thang was dead. Young, enthusiastic, brilliant Thang, lost to that frakkin' storm.

"We can't ... airlock's jammed!" Wilker's voice, frustrated beyond belief.

Boomer took off at a dead run.

"We'll have to blow it!" Haldia was shouting as he reached them.

"We can't! It'll kill them! Damn this storm..." Wilker was equally enraged but helpless.

Boomer glanced through the viewport. Two figures stood within, unrecognizable in their brown suits and bubble helmets. The one supporting the other glanced up anxiously; he saw Apollo's face and eyes, and in spite of himself felt relief again. Then Kaleb tottered and fell heavily against his supporter. Alarmed, Boomer could only watch as Apollo leaned over his brother-in-law to check for signs of life.

Glancing at the technicians, he heard Wilker and Haldia arguing over how long it would take to get the necessary equipment to override the airlock – equipment that had already been stored deep inside the ship.

It would be too long. The men had been outside for too long. The centar to centar-and-a-half the technocrats were discussing would mean Apollo and Kaleb would run out of support vapors.

Cursing volubly, the former warrior took matters into his own hands. He hadn't forgotten how to hotwire equipment into doing what he wanted it to.

"Give me that." He grabbed Haldia's laseronic circuitizer, turned it to its narrowest beam, and attacked the operating panel. Haldia was still protesting when the panel gave with a small, sizzling pop. He studied the circuitry revealed underneath, and began pulling wires.

Wilker grabbed his hands. "At least put on some gloves so you don't kill yourself!"

Boomer took that advice before continuing.

Approximately two centons later, the airlock hatch grumbled and began shuddering sideways. Apollo and Kaleb fell through. Boomer stooped to help pull Kaleb to a safer spot and get the helmet and gear off. Apollo leaned heavily against the wall, obviously exhausted and light-headed.

Footsteps pounded from behind them as two others rushed in; one of the technicians had had the foresight to fetch the ship's med tech.

"Sorry ... for the delay ... telecoms out..." the med tech panted. "Didn't know ... you needed..."

"Shut up and do your job," Boomer growled. The others knew better than to say anything.

It only took a moment. "This man needs more medical help than we can give him on this tub," the med tech announced. "He has to go to the Galactica."

"I can take him..." Apollo tried to rise, but collapsed back to the floor.

"I think you need help, too," the medic diagnosed. "You're grounded 'til you've been examined."

"Haals and Cree had to run a team to the Borella, they won't be back for two centars..." Apollo protested weakly.

"I'll do it. Sometimes, buddy, you forget I used to be a pretty good flyer."

Apollo smiled ruefully as Boomer helped him to his feet and pulled his arm over his shoulder. "I should know better by now..."

"Hephestis, Ram, bring Kaleb," Boomer ordered briskly. Again, no one protested his assumption of authority.

"Commander!" Rigel turned to the superior officers clustered on the command deck. "Shuttle from the Rasalas, demanding immediate landing clearance for Alpha bay and requiring a medical team standing by."

"Rasalas? That's the Interlock ship where Kaleb's technical team was working today. What happened?" Tigh stepped down to her station, a frown on his face.

"It's hard to tell, sir, the static makes it difficult to hear, but it sounds like there was an accident during the hook-up. Somebody's dead, others injured. Boomer's flying the ship, not one of our usual pilots."

Athena turned pale. "Who's dead?" she demanded.

Rigel shook her head. "I don't know. It sounded like Boomer tried to tell me, but the static kept disrupting his signal."

"Clear them, of course, if they can hear us, Rigel," Tigh told her. "And warn both bays to clear this micron – if he can't hear us, I wouldn't put it past Boomer to land anyway, wherever he thinks he can, if someone's in serious condition. We don't need any additional messes in the landing bays, the way things are now."

"I'm not sure I can get through to the bays and life center."

"Then send somebody. There're plenty of people here who don't appear to be doing anything useful."

"Yes, sir." Rigel glanced around and quickly gestured three of the excess personnel to her side to carry messages.

Tigh caught Athena's eyes upon him; she swallowed hard and tried to look like she was working. He felt a pang that he had forgotten for those few moments how she might be affected.

"Go ahead and meet the shuttle, Athena," he said softly.

"Thank you, sir." She dropped her headset, tossed her computron at Omega, and disappeared.

Boomer brought the shuttle in with a minimum of difficulty, considering two Vipers had to be warned off from landing at the last micron or there would have been a monstrous collision in Alpha bay. Unsealing the hatch before they were even to a complete stop, he abandoned the pilot's seat to help the injured men disembark. Apollo was steadier now, and moving under his own control, but Kaleb was still dazed and barely conscious, and had to be carried.

A medical team came racing from the lift shaft a few microns later. Ganymede, a med tech from the Rasalas, filled in Dr. Cassiopeia and her people on the hurt men's medical status, then rushed away with them.

Boomer lingered in the bay. He had to go through the post-flight check to ensure the shuttle was safely powered down and secure. He also suspected he would have to answer to the commander for his precipitous arrival, and was in no hurry for the meeting, despite the necessity for it.

A panting woman appeared at the lift, then raced across the metal floor. "Boomer!" she called frantically.

"Athena!" He waved and smiled wanly at her.

"How are they? Who...?" she demanded, catching her breath.

"Apollo's all right," he told her. "A little shaken up, I think, that's all. Kaleb's hurt worse, but I'm sure he'll be all right. He's in good hands now, and you know Cassie. She never loses a man; she'd fight Diabolis himself to keep him."

Annoyance flashed like wildfire in her eyes, then dissolved into ruefulness. "You had to put it that way, didn't you?"

"Oh ... sorry. I'd forgotten, it's been yahrens."

"I'm the one who should forget it. It's all right. They're on the way to life center? You're sure they'll be all right?"

"Yeah. They'll be fine."

She nodded once and ran.

He sighed, thinking of the one who hadn't come back, Thang.

Lieutenant Sheba chewed her lip thoughtfully. Pulling back from the edge of the space storm had taken her patrol through a star system. Within the system's compatible life zone was a planet that showed perfect for human habitation – atmosphere, gravity, and native life forms all read within the colonial variances. Plus, the world had rich mineral deposits and other natural resources the fleet could make good use of. And there were apparently no native sapients to contest their presence.

They would be passing through this system immediately after enduring the brunt of the storm; if the fleet slowed speed by half, it would be in range of this world for well over two sectons. It might be a good idea to make use of the wold for rest and resupply.

Also, it was possible that keeping their old ships in the heliosphere while the worst of the storm passed might be easier on the old, jerry-built vessels – even with the Interlock project the scientists were so thrilled with. They might want to move into the system before the storm worsened.

Then again, putting their ships within a star's influence in addition to the effects of the peculiar storm might be the worst thing they could do.

She flicked on her com, but received nothing more than murmured comments from her patrol. There was too much interference between them and the fleet. Sighing, she recorded her data to present to Commander Tigh when she returned to the Galactica.

Commander Tigh's log: We have survived the worst of the storm, our fleet at a standstill in space, all vessels locking directly on the Galactica and their neighbors to form a navigation grid that fortunately prevented any of our ships from becoming lost or colliding with one another.

If not for the effect on our equipment, this would have been a beautiful and intriguing thing to see. The first waves of the storm were without color, eerie disruptions in space that carried us along. Later waves were iridescent with color, carrying dust that refracted every color of the spectrum, in shimmers and shades and rainbows brighter than anything I ever saw even in the Cancerian highlands. I have never seen such brilliance in space, not even in that far-away Nova of Madegon or the blue starfield of the Cyrannus system.

Only now is space resuming its normal hues. I had not realized how used to the blackness we have all become. It is somehow comforting to see ordinary stars and emptiness again, to know it is ordinary vacuum surrounding us.

Our scans and patrols gathered what information they could about this phenomenon, but we are still no closer to knowing what caused this anomaly, where it came from, or if this type of space disturbance is common in this sector or a one-time event.

The primary theory Wilker has been able to devise would have a supernova in some distant part of the galaxy, exploding near a black hole, and its energy being twisted and warped through the fringes of the event horizon, spreading outward and gradually dispersing until it encountered us. The very warping of space and energy results in our not being able to detect the source of the waves. If his theory is correct, this is a very rare event, and as its after-effects fade, we should be able to locate the nova, unless it's located directly opposite the black hole from us, or unless the energy distortions have somehow come through time itself, in which case we may never see its origins.

We are very lucky, if Wilker's theory is correct, that we were not nearer the point of origin of this storm. We might not have survived. It is frightening to consider what might have happened on any world located near the origin point, although atmosphere might have protected any planet but those within the system of the nova or the black hole.

More of Wilker's theories on this phenomenon are in the scientific computer banks. I do not pretend to be technocrat enough to understand it.

In any event, the worst of the storm is past. While Wilker refines his theories, the rest of our people may now relax and resume the lives we have built over the past ten yahrens.

Just prior to the worst of the storm, Lieutenant Sheba's patrol located a habitable planet rich in resources. I am dispatching several survey teams to examine its possibilities.

The men injured in the Interlock work on the Rasalas and Mintaka are recovering well, according to Doctors Salik and Cassiopeia. Captain Apollo has already been released, although he is on restricted duty. Dr. Kaleb is still in life center, where he will remain for several more days. I have given Lieutenant Athena a furlon to be with her husband, and I understand she and their two children are constantly in life center. It is good to see their family having some time together.

A new class of cadets is in military training. Lieutenants Jolly and Starbuck are in charge. It is interesting to note that Captain Apollo's son, Boxey, has reached an age to join the Colonial Service, and is now in training. I remember well how young he, and these other cadets, were at the Destruction. So much time is passing, here in space. As tired as it may sound, after this long, Lords grant we may soon find an end to this journey...

"All right, I know this is your first run in a simulator, but let's try not to kill each other, okay?" Starbuck asked the class, a grin on his face. It was hard to keep a straight face when Boxey ... Troy was sitting in the front, so eager and bright-eyed it hurt.

He had the same look that Serina had worn, when she was in training at Kobol, Starbuck recalled, inquisitive and ready for action, but ready to tease – or was it just something similar in the eyes? The pain had finally receded so far into the past that it was no more than a moment's sadness, at least for him. He'd seen the look on Apollo's face when the flight commander sat in on class one day, and realized for the first time that his son was already in pilot training. Hadn't Boxey told him? He knew Apollo had decided not to make an issue of it with the youngster – what, after all, was there to say, with the way they lived now? And hopefully, these kids wouldn't have to face the same bitter enemies he and Apollo had faced through most of their training and combat yahrens...

"Cadet Troy, you will be first," he instructed. "I will be the enemy target." Out of the side of his eye, he caught Jolly's smirk, and struggled not to return it.

While the youngster climbed into one of the Viper simulators, Starbuck hopped limberly into another. A few commands to the computer, and they were ready to go.

"Prepared for launch, Cadet?" Starbuck asked.

"Ready, you Cylon scum," came the exuberant response.

"Don't get cocky," he squelched quickly, for some reason irritated by Boxey's enthusiasm. Besides, he told himself logically, their long friendship shouldn't be allowed to get in the way of this training.

"Ready, sir."

"Launch."

The computers kicked in when both men touched their launch commands. The simulator viewports darkened to become star scenes with an image of battle around them. The computers fed them each information on the false combat, and they were expected to respond as though engaged in that battle. Starbuck checked his scanner quickly, looking for the blip that would be Boxey. He'd taught the boy most of what he knew about flying; he thought he could predict fairly accurately the youth's first instincts.

A Viper appeared on his scanner for a micron, then faded out again. Starbuck smothered a guffaw. The kid must be nervous, if he thought he could avoid the fight by running. Or maybe he'd overcompensated on his flight stick, and unintentionally sent his ship careening at the wrong angle.

He set off in what was intended to be a leisurely pursuit.

Boxey had other ideas. Starbuck never did figure out how the kid found a blind spot and got close enough to get off a burst of laser fire. It took a centon to sink in that the computer had killed his controls in that same micron. The screen brightened and his canopy opened to the sound of cheers from the other cadets. Their yells muted quickly at their flight instructor's reappearance.

Jolly stepped alongside the simulator, clearing his throat. "You look silly with your mouth hanging open," he advised in a whisper.

Starbuck bit his tongue to keep from replying publicly. It took a few moments to recover enough to continue the class. Fortunately, none of the other cadets were as lucky, or the warrior would have seriously either questioned his own skills, or wondered if someone had been tampering with the simulators.

The rest of the class went pretty much as expected. None of the other cadets managed to make a kill, but the warriors got a pretty good idea of the ability of the young people. Boxey easily outshown them all, but they expected that from Apollo's son. A kid named Morgan tugged at Starbuck's heart; the kid had a lot of potential, but he was just as hot-headed and wild as the lieutenant knew he had been, at one time. Fortunately for him, there shouldn't be any Cylons showing up to end that potential early. A girl named Loma showed a lot of promise as a pilot, and had enough cool-headed steadiness that Starbuck thought she would make a good flight leader some day. Artemis showed leadership potential too, but she was abrasive, and would have to learn to take criticism and work with people rather than browbeat them. Orion was too timid and uncertain of his own skill, but had a good instinct, if he could learn to rely on it. Kerron was so quiet as to be practically invisible, but his raw talent was a surprise. Beyond that half-dozen, the rest of the cadets were still young, nameless faces with no outstanding traits.

After class, one of the cadets came up to Starbuck. It was Loma, who'd been aboard the Galactica since the Destruction, the daughter of a female civilian technician and a friend of Boxey's for yahrens. She'd grown into quite an attractive young woman, he noted, with long sandy blonde hair, blue eyes, a light dusting of freckles, and a very sweet, dimpled smile.

"May I help you, Cadet?" he asked with an encouraging smile. He noticed Jolly watching with raised eyebrows, and chose to ignore him.

"I just wanted to say how much I've always admired you, Lieutenant," she said.

"Well, thank you, Loma. I hope I never disappoint you." She was a bit young, but pretty...

"You could never disappoint me. I just don't want to disappoint you. You've been a role model to me for yahrens. I want to be as good a warrior as you and Apollo have been. After all, someone's got to defend the fleet when you can't fly anymore."

He felt like someone had kicked him where it counted.

"And I want you to know that Troy and me and Morgan and the others will keep up your tradition. We'll make you proud of us, proud that you trained us."

The smile frozen on his face, he forced a nod. She smiled again, very eagerly and sweetly, then turned and rushed off to where two of the other cadets were waiting at the door.

Jolly leaned over his shoulder, arms crossed, trying unsuccessfully to conceal his mirth. "I heard the girl before class, talking to Troy and Morgan, saying she wishes you could have been her father. I think she had you more in mind for her mother than for herself. I believe we're gettin' old, buddy."

Loma stood in the corridor, nervously shifting from foot to foot, her eyes darting from side to side. After a moment, the hatch opened and a head stuck out.

"Clear?" Morgan hissed.

"Clear," she affirmed. "Hurry up, you guys! What took you so long?"

"Had to make sure we could get the stuff without the mess chef noticing." Morgan and Troy slipped out of the officers' mess, both cadets concealing something under their tunics and flight jackets.

"Here!" Troy thrust one last bottle at the girl. "Under your jacket, just like we did."

"Troy!" she squealed in alarm.

"Hide it!"

At the sound of someone approaching, Loma shoved the bottle hastily into her shirt. Rearranging her jacket so the lump wasn't too obvious, she fell into step with the boys.

When they were past the two hangar techs, she hissed a question at her companions. "So where do we go with it? Or didn't you heroes think of that when you decided to celebrate our first flight on the simulators?"

Troy blinked a little; indeed, he hadn't thought that far.

Morgan laughed roguishly. "Why don't we drink it in your quarters, Troy? Your dad's never there – he's always on duty!"

Unable to object, he agreed.

"...From your survey reports, the planet is ideal for colonization! Natural resources are abundant, the climate is wonderfully temperate, the system itself is rich," Geller argued yet again. "There is no reason we should not consider settling on this world and ending this interminable trek through space. Our people are tired of living on recycled air and water, of the boundaries of their lives consisting of metal walls with vacuum on the other side, with no space above and around them in which to run, no vegetation or animals sharing their lives, no mountains or oceans or clouds in their distance. They want a better life for their children, for themselves. They want to die with dirt between their toes, the dirt in which their families make a living. They're tired of facing emptiness and seeing their lives and the bodies of the ones they love left behind between stars they will never see again."

Several of the Councilors seemed to agree with the impassioned plea. But their emotion seemed less intense than it had in the past; after so long, the thought of settling on a planet was becoming almost abstract. Space and the endless journey were their lives now, and for some of the children, being unenclosed in the type of world Geller proclaimed would be terrifying.

Siress Tinia called them all to order with a sharp rap of her chalice on the table. "Councilors, we must think farther ahead than our own lives. We must think of the future, not only for ourselves but for our brothers on Earth–"

"That pathetic dream?" another cut in brusquely. "The myth of a religious fervor thrust upon us by a man dead for yahrens? It's nothing more than words! The world is a delusion! An aberration! We have no tangible evidence the place even exists, no evidence of a human society more advanced or even as advanced as ourselves. I mean, why should any humans have settled so far from Kobol? And why no contact with them for so long?"

"But the very fact of Kobol's existence means Earth must be reality too. How can we turn our backs on it?" another ventured in response. Hogan was one of the few who consistently supported Tinia and Tigh. As the youngest member of the Council, he was also the one most often ignored or overlooked by the elders.

Geller snorted once in disdain. "It is only our duty to our offspring and our future to consider settlement, President Tinia! How can it be wrong to reestablish our society? To build a world in peace and security? We have not seen Cylons for many yahrens! We could build a world, grow strong again..."

Apollo had heard enough. He rose from his seat in the front row of the public gallery, where any Colonial citizen in the fleet could listen and participate in the discussions of the Quorum of the Twelve.

"Councilors, what about the evidence that we must continue this mission?" he demanded. "Have you forgotten the coordinates we received during the time when the light ships flew with us? We still follow their path; it must lead us somewhere. How can we turn our backs on what may be divinely ordained fate? And what about the signals we picked up in the celestial observation dome? The interplanetary journey described in those communiques? How can we abandon that?"

"Oh, yes," Geller growled, his frown deepening to true disdain. He'd found reason to actively dislike Captain Apollo over the journey. "The son must defend the father's mission. Strange how you are so intimately involved in both of those events – in fact, I believe we have only your word that they actually occurred at all, at least with the importance you ascribe to them! Everything that supposedly happened was unprovable then, and remains so to this day!"

Apollo flushed at the insult, and drew himself up to respond.

Tinia tried to conceal her despairing sigh. It would take a great deal of tact and diplomacy – again – to end this discussion before it degenerated into a brawl. Her efforts seemed to no avail as Apollo and Geller glared at one another, and several of the other Councilors joined in with their own arguments, each trying to outshout the other.

"Sires and Siresses!" she finally shouted, at last gaining their attention. "I believe this matter would be better discussed tomorrow, when we have had time to consider the ramifications of our options more rationally. This meeting is adjourned!"

The sound of giggles and a very obscene song stopped former Lieutenant Boomer in his tracks and drew his mind from happy thoughts about his friend's rapidly progressing recovery. A quick glance around the corridor and he'd located the source: Captain Apollo's quarters. The door was slightly open, a bit of fabric or something jamming the track. He was supposed to be meeting some old friends in the officers' club in a few centons, but they were certainly free to start without him; he decided to check it out. There was no response when he touched the door to push it open the rest of the way.

"...So how many security men does it take to change a light fixture?" an unfamiliar voice demanded merrily, overriding the song.

Boomer stepped into the room just as Boxey and a girl broke from their song and responded together, "How many are left?"

There were several empty ambrosa bottles on the floor, and the trio were sprawled about in attitudes of drunken ease. None of them seemed to notice the man studying them. Boomer recognized the girl as Loma, a friend of Boxey's. The boy, a redhead in cadet uniform, was unfamiliar.

"So this socialator walks into a chancery with a daggit under one arm and a ten-volton energizer under the other," the redhead began again. "She walks up to the bar and–"

"Cadets!" Boomer roared.

The laughter stopped as though switched off. They stared up at him in open-mouthed guilt, caught and knowing it. It took several microns before Boxey shoved his friends and pulled himself to a semblance of attention. The blonde Loma was next to get to her feet, her freckles brilliant in her suddenly pasty face, but Boomer would swear the third miscreant deliberately remained on the floor, peering up at him and nodding, wearing a silly grin.

"I would have thought," he continued wrathfully, "that you, as cadets in the Colonial Service, would know how to set a better example than the one I see before me now. As young people, I would have hoped you would be responsible enough to realize your own limitations, and not to exceed them in such fashion. Your officers and your families–"

"Who's got a family?" muttered the redhead.

"...Would certainly not be pleased to see you now." His withering gaze rested longest on Boxey, whose eyes dropped as though he wished he could fall through the deck.

"Cadets, identify yourselves!" he ordered, forgetting for the moment that if they chose to defy him, he no longer had the rank to enforce it.

"Cadet Troy," the young man mumbled.

"Cadet ... Loma..." she whispered.

The third youngster hesitated a moment, and it took a boot in the shin from Boxey before he reluctantly answered, "Cadet Morgan."

Boomer knew there was little sense in continuing the lecture. These unhappy kids had been caught in what he would swear was their first drunk; that might be enough to make them more careful in the future. At any rate, he was sure their hangovers would teach them something about responsible drinking too. He'd just drop by life center and let Cassiopeia know the circumstances, so she'd be prepared if they stopped by to visit her in the morning, or later that night.

"I suggest, Cadet Troy," he stated distinctly, "that you and your friends clean up this mess, clean up yourselves, and get some sleep. I won't put you on report – this time – because I have no desire to see promising careers ruined before they start, but rest assured that I will remember it – and you may want to consider that confession is good for the soul."

Several mumbled assents followed him out, but he did overhear the last exchange.

"Your father's pretty strict..."

"That isn't my father. He just thinks he should have been."

Boomer rolled his eyes. "Were we ever that young?"

His mind was still on Boxey and his friends when he reached the officers' club. He spotted Apollo and Starbuck at once and stopped at the bar to grab an ambrosa before joining them. The bartender gave him a cheerful nod of obvious recognition as he set the mug before him.

"Hey, Boomer, good to see you aboard."

"Thanks. Talk to you later, we'll catch up..."

He crossed the club and straddled the chair. Apollo and Starbuck scarcely noticed, slouched over their drinks and looking very moody.

"I think I just left this party," Boomer commented, "but that one was more cheerful!"

"Huh?" Apollo asked.

"Forget it. What's up? Or down, as the case may be? Isn't Kaleb still doing well?"

"He's doing fine. Athena's with him," Apollo said distantly.

"Saw her there. What's unusual about that?"

"Huh? Oh, hi, Boomer. I guess I'm just a little distracted. The Council was talking about settling that planet..."

Boomer held up his hand to stop him. "No need to say more. But why worry this time? They've talked about stopping and settling somewhere on every planet we've passed in the last ten yahrens. This one won't come to anything either."

Apollo seemed to brighten a bit at that reminder. That left Starbuck to cheer up.

"Okay, buddy, so what's your problem for good old doctor Boomer to solve with a word or a flip remark?" he demanded, trying not to smile too broadly.

Starbuck shrugged, but Apollo supplied an answer. "Jolly said one of the girls in the new cadet class came up to talk to him after a session in the simulators, and instead of staring at him with admiration and lust, she made some comments about living up to the reputation of us older warriors, taking up the torch now that we were ... past our prime."

"She said that?"

"Along with something about wishing Starbuck had been her father."

"Ooh, she's hitting below the belt!"

"Guess it goes to show we can't just rest on our laurels," Apollo commented thoughtfully after a moment.

"Yeah," Boomer added cheerfully, "the laurels are getting a little flabby."

Starbuck glared at him with a jaundiced eye. "You don't seem too worried about it." The tone was almost accusing.

"No one lives forever," Boomer stated, taking a drink from the mug. "I suppose we can take some comfort that at least our children will remember us well, even after everything that's happened. Maybe that's all any of us can expect for immortality."

The other man's expression darkened for a micron, then turned troubled.

"Getting philosophical in your old age, Boomer?" Apollo interrupted before Starbuck could say anything. "I think you've been hanging around Kaleb too long – he's even got Athena reading Berenice's Purpose of Immortality."

"Matter of fact..."

Starbuck winced; philosophy beyond the day had never been a strong point for him, and he didn't like the direction of the conversation. "Hey, could we change the subject? We're supposed to be relaxing here, remember?"

"I got a better idea," Boomer announced, staring into his now empty mug. "Let's go stop in life center, see how Kaleb is doing. Let's see if one of us can finally beat him at his own game when he's flat on his back!"

Boomer was barely out the door before Morgan grinned, dropping his unwillingly contrite appearance, and dove under the bunk to pull out another bottle.

"Let's drink to our parents and our system and the perfect way to set an example."

"Hey!" Troy yelped, startled. "But Boomer... We can't!"

"Why not? We're already in trouble, but he's not gonna report us – and so what if he does? We've already been caught, and everybody knows lightning never strikes twice in the same cabin." He took a swig and passed the bottle at Loma. After a brief hesitation, she took it and drank. With both his friends looking at him, and his judgment already impaired, Troy felt compelled to do the same.

Life center was relatively calm and relaxed. Several new cases of Gamma Syndrome had been admitted, but Dr. Randal's treatment seemed to be arresting the worst of the symptoms, so there was a bit of relief and optimism among the medical staff. The immunizing agent the doctors had created against Alpha Syndrome was successful, and the inoculations had been completed. Research was proceeding well on a cure for Beta Syndrome. There was evidence, too, that they were close to the common denominator for the illnesses, which should lead to the original Cylon virus and perhaps to a broad-spectrum antibody.

And since Kaleb was recovering so well, there was no longer anyone in the medical station who was in critical condition.

All the same, the three boisterous friends visiting him, along with Athena and their two small, energetic children, was a bit much for the medical staff to put up with.

"I'm afraid some of you are going to have to leave!" Cassiopeia announced, softening the blow with a smile.

Apollo and Starbuck agreed to be the ones, and followed her toward the exit.

"Oh, say, Cassie, I was able to exchange those ducats for a later performance," Starbuck began. "I know how you enjoy the astral concerts – do you think you could get off for a few centars tomorrow?"

"You don't let up, do you?" she laughed.

Another figure entered life center.

"Oh, Cassie, do you have a centon–" Sheba began, then stopped cold when she saw who stood behind her closest friend. She turned her back and retreated in silence.

Starbuck and Cassiopeia exchanged almost-guilty glances, but Apollo pushed past them to run after the other woman.

"Sheba, wait!"

She didn't. Apollo had to catch her arm and turn her around to get her attention. She studied him with a set face, then glanced at his hand on her arm.

"I have duties to attend. Please excuse me, Captain."

"You're running, aren't you?" he exclaimed in frustration. "Running from me, running from your personal problems and your feelings, just like you always did! When you couldn't be in control, you just weren't interested!"

"Stay out of my personal feelings!" she snapped, the cold enmity giving way to hot anger.

"What the frak do you want me to do?" he asked helplessly. "Draw a line down the middle of the fleet, and you stay on your side while I stay on mine?"

"You know, that might not be such a bad idea. It might be the best tactic you've come up with in yahrens!" She jerked away from him and stalked away without a backward glance.

There was no way he could face the others after that; his feelings would show too clearly, as they so often did when frustration or anger were the cause. Instead, he headed back to his quarters.

What he found staggered him. Troy and two of his young friends lay in the midst of a drunken spree that would have done Starbuck credit in his wildest days. The boy, Morgan, was apparently out cold. Loma and Troy were merely – if he could use such a term in this context – giggling and barely capable of standing erect. They at least had the sense of mind to look guilty and contrite, but the captain was beyond caring.

He exploded at them, unleashing his anger at the way he'd found his son, at Sheba's cruelty toward him, at Geller's dismissive treatment of his arguments at the Council meeting, at the Council's blindness and mockery of Adama's dream, and at his own current restricted duty. He poured it all on the three young people.

He ended his tirade with the worst threat he could think of. "If this is the way you're going to behave as cadets, I'm going to have to seriously reconsider letting you continue in pilot training at this time – you're obviously not disciplined enough for it! But you'll have plenty of time to think about it while you're on sanitation and clean-up detail for the next secton – in the officers' mess, to make up for stealing this stuff!"

Then, unable to endure the sight of his quarters littered with ambrosa bottles, and disgusted with himself for lashing out at his son in such a lethal personal area, he turned and left, hoping to find somewhere private to cool off.

Morgan had barely stirred during the captain's furious outburst; he now simply rolled over to his back and began to snore.

Loma slowly focused on Troy, the situation gradually dawning on her in the guise of a ruined future. All she could get out was the incoherent accusation that, "You said your dad was always on duty."

Troy gazed at her for a moment. "Morgan said that and he was wrong." He forced himself to his feet and began to collect the empty bottles.

"Apollo?" Starbuck approached cautiously. There was no telling what mood his captain would be in now. He knew better than to ask how the meeting with Sheba had gone; he knew what happened whenever they had to endure each other's company. "Are you all right?"

Apollo drew a deep breath, unwilling to stop, but knowing Starbuck wouldn't be put off. Besides, who else knew the situation as well? He halted and waited for the lieutenant. "I'll be fine, Starbuck. I just ... want to be alone for a while."

"Why do you keep trying? It's been over seven yahrens; every time you try to talk to her, she cuts you down and walks away."

"I guess I keep hoping things will change. Stupid, I know, to keep wishing we could at least be on speaking terms again. But ... well, you know how much she meant to me. I guess I just can't forget that and I want her to remember it, too."

"You think Cain's daughter will forget anything?" Starbuck asked skeptically.

"She was willing to reconsider about Cassiopeia," Apollo reminded him.

Starbuck bit his lip and looked down.

"I'm going to the observation dome, if something comes up and I'm needed. If not, I don't want to be disturbed. Just let me have some privacy."

Apollo didn't see his friend nod his head; he just picked up his stride and left Starbuck behind.

Commander Tigh's log: We continue our patrols of this quadrant while our survey teams comb the planet. The mining freighters have landed near easily-accessible mineral deposits and have begun restocking our fleet's resources. The vegetation of this planet is compatible with our biological systems, and our citizens celebrate having fresh fruits, grains, and vegetables on our meal tables in abundance for this short time. The shore leave rotations, of short duration as they necessarily must be, are boosting our people's morale and energy.

I do worry that this may incite further pleas that we settle on this world, but Tinia assures me she can control the Council, and a reminder of the storm that still bursts about us at occasional intervals should convince our civilians that this is not a safe place for us.

Of potentially greater importance, the most recent reports from our survey patrols indicate they have located something large, metallic, and obviously constructed. It bears every indication of being a spaceship of some kind. We are sending several specialists in engineering and history into the system to investigate. If this proves to be a space vessel of human manufacture, we may have more evidence that we follow the right path to Earth, which should encourage our people to continue the journey. If this is a craft of alien technology...

We will consider then what our actions must be.

Doctor Kaleb was barely released from life center, but there was no way anyone was going to keep him off of this mission, in spite of Wilker's expressed concern for his health and Athena's pleas for him to spent time with her or at least to be careful. A patrol had discovered what might be a ship on that otherwise empty planet. He was going down to take a look at it. Half-turned in his seat and staring through the viewport as the shuttle neared the planet, he became aware of someone whose attention was on him. He turned to meet Boomer's intense gaze.

"Wouldn't you rather be looking at the planet than at me? In case you hadn't figured it out by now, you're not my type," he commented wryly.

Across from him, Boomer leaned back in his seat. "I've seen lots of planets. They're not new to me anymore."

"You can't fool me. You're like a kid in a sweets shop when a chance for a landfall comes. Double with this kind of opportunity. Athena tell you to look out for her poor invalid husband?"

"She did say something like that," Boomer acknowledged, not even trying to hide the grin.

"If I promise to tell you the micron I feel faint, will you let yourself relax and enjoy this?"

"I'm too tense to enjoy it. I've been close to the family longer than you have – the fever for Earth is in my blood, too. If this is a ship, and human-built ... well..."

"They couldn't keep you away either."

"Nope."

The two men laughed at each other, then Boomer slipped out of his seat belt and moved to the seat next to Kaleb. Each lost in his own thoughts, they watched the planet turn from a disk in space to a green mass stretching as far as their eyes could see.

Athena stopped at the care center long enough to pick up her two children, then the three of them stopped at the mess for supper before going back to her family quarters. She was already tired, and so were the boys. A scant centar of telling her about their day and playing, and they were almost asleep. She got them ready for bed and tucked them in, amazed, as always, at how she could be the efficient, single-minded officer on the bridge, then feel the laser blast of maternal instinct kick in at light-speed when she was with her sons.

It hadn't always been that way.

They were both asleep. She gently touched the older boy's dark hair as she remembered the Destruction. Little Zac, named for his uncle. She had cried when her brother died, somewhere alone in space. And she hadn't known then if it was for Zac or Apollo that she grieved. But she'd lost control of herself for those few centons, to the extent that, when Starbuck tried to land with a damaged ship, she'd abandoned the bridge to reach him. She would never leave her post that way now.

Unless it were for Kaleb.

But there should be no reason for it now.

Her dear Kaleb was on planet survey, studying the ship they'd discovered on the planet. Maybe it would be important. What seemed more important to her now was the fact that her husband would be gone for at least three or four days.

She sighed. "It took me so long to feel safe again," she whispered softly into the dim room, her voice a sing-song to reassure her boys as well as herself.

"But now we have you, and we haven't seen Cylons for so long. They must be left behind. We must be safe again. And everything will be all right. It will be. For you. You're our future. And we'll keep it safe for you."

Zac murmured in his sleep, then settled back into the dreams of a five-yahren-old. The younger boy stirred too, his eyes opening wide. Athena hummed a quiet lullaby, and he soon closed his eyes again, the brown eyes that were just like his father's. Jude had been named for Kaleb's father, one of the countless lives lost in the holocaust. He was just three yahrens old, and followed his big brother everywhere.

Just like Zac had followed Apollo, she thought.

"You miss your daddy on nights like this. I miss him too," Athena continued, finding the silence too deep to let it go unchallenged. "He'll be gone for so long, three days at least. An eternity to little ones like you! But I'm here. And he'll be back. Lords, it feels so good to be able to say that and know I can mean it..."

She watched the boys sleep for a long time before going to sleep herself in her own empty bunk.

Baltar sat on his pedestal, motionless, staring at nothing. Beyond the obvious mechanics of breathing and pulse, only an occasional flicker of emotion across his face or a brief clenching of one fist showed that this was a living man, not a machine or waxen sculpture. Reports drifted continuously across his viewscreen; he didn't seem to notice. Guards paced through the chamber at regular intervals; he directed no remarks to them.

One of the Cylons eventually stopped before him. "Commander-Baltar. By-your-command."

It took a long centon before his eyes focused and he gazed at the silver Centurion. He didn't notice the inches-long spot of rust on the machine's chest.

"Speak, Centurion." His voice was distant and uncaring. It had been too many yahrens for him to care anymore.

"We-have-located-the-fleet. They-are-in-Zeta-Quadrant."

"You ... have found them?"

"Affirmative-Commander-Baltar."

Long-unused cunning slowly kindled in his dark eyes until they glittered with old fire and need. "Maintain a sufficient distance that they will not detect us. Are they sending out patrols in our quadrant?"

"Affirmative. We-have-located-patrols-over-a-planet-in-one-of-the-star-systems-of-that-quadrant-as-well-as-surrounding-the-fleet."

"Excellent..." Now what could they be looking for on that planet? His thoughts felt as dull as he noted the Cylon to be. What could Adama be looking for? Simple restocking of food, water, and fuel? That was possible, but something in his instincts said otherwise.

"Send out patrols of our own. Capture one of their patrols if you can. Concentrate on the planetary patrols; they're more likely to know the reason they're there..."

"By-your-command." The Centurion turned and plodded out.

"Adama... Finally. It has taken me seven yahrens, but I've found you. And this time, you're not going to escape. I'll get you. I'll get you..." Baltar giggled, then began to rock back and forth in his chair, drawing his feet up until he was almost in a fetal position, still rocking, rocking ... and giggling.

It was two days before Sheba was able to get back to life center to see Cassiopeia. She found the woman at the admissions section, apparently doing nothing more important than examining a stylus very closely.

"How was the concert with Starbuck?" she asked with a smile. "I assume you let him talk you into it?"

Cassiopeia smiled back, for once having a few spare centons to spend with a friend. "Yes, I did, and it was beautiful."

Sheba leaned against the desk. "I remember the first concert they had in the fleet. You had ducats, but Starbuck was busy chasing some old girlfriend all over the fleet. I don't know how you've put up with him all these yahrens," she teased.

"I guess because somehow, in spite of his wandering, we love each other. After all, he keeps coming back to me."

"Even when you're too busy for him."

"So you do still talk to him after those briefings – or at least, you talk about him," Cassiopeia commented with a sideways glance. She stood up to put her reports away for the evening. "I guess my medical training did interfere with our time. Most of the time I've been too busy to think about a future – or even a relationship. Other times he's off somewhere, busy or flirting with somebody else. Sometimes I wonder if we're meant to be together, or if we're just wasting time because we don't know what else to do!"

"This long a courtship deserves some reward!" Sheba exclaimed, watching her.

"Or every chance we can give it," Cassiopeia said more seriously, turning back to her friend. "And speaking of chances, when are you going to give Apollo another chance? Or at least a–"

"Cassie, that's not–"

"Sheba, how long are you going to keep blaming him for Bojay's death?" she pressed.

"Cassie, you know better than to bring this up again. It was Apollo's fault–"

"Was it?"

"He wasn't there–"

"We all knew what kind of man Bojay was – impetuous and fool-hardy sometimes, too eager to rush into trouble. Remember Gamoray? Remember Rarnes and Melatippe? You can't blame Apollo because Bojay didn't wait for his wingmate before running into something he couldn't handle."

"Apollo should have been there!" Sheba repeated angrily. A dark light glowed in her eyes like a nuclear fire.

"That's what you keep telling yourself. That's what you've been telling yourself for yahrens. Sheba, a wound never heals if you keep ripping it open! And it doesn't make things pleasant for your friends, knowing we can't even have the two of you in the same room – we can't even talk about one of you without hurting the other!"

Sheba shook her head stubbornly as if to shake off the pain. "Bojay was more than a friend to me, Cassie. You know that. He was a brother, more than a brother, and certainly more than a lover. He was the only link I had left to my past and my father and–"

"So you lost your father and your brother and your past and then you threw away your lover too. Why? You know how much you hurt Apollo when you left him like that. But I don't think you realize how much you hurt yourself!"

Cassiopeia was probably the only person with whom Sheba would talk about what had happened anymore – how Bojay had rushed ahead of his wingmate, the ambush, how he'd almost fought his way free before exploding, how Apollo'd been a micron too late, how Starbuck and Jolly had been close enough to see, and how she'd felt when they came back and told her, how everything had fallen apart in the following days. In front of everyone else, she was cold about the topic of Bojay's death and what she saw as Apollo's negligence. With Cassiopeia, she would at least admit the pain.

"Cassie," she admitted with difficulty, "it was always there, Bojay's ghost. It turned everything we had to ashes. How could I be with Apollo when Bojay waited in my dreams, always whispering that it was too late? And the visions of fire – I know what it's like to... How could I just forgive and forget what happened? I couldn't then; I still can't. And I don't need to be reminded!"

She was becoming more agitated, Cassiopeia could see. In her personal opinion, Sheba needed some time in a catharsis chamber, but medically she couldn't order such treatment because of a friend's death – they'd have every pilot in the fleet in treatment – or because of a broken love affair, even if the bitterness had lasted this long.

"All right, Sheba, we'll leave it for now. Let's go grab a bite to eat."

Sheba collected herself. "No, no, I really can't. I've got a patrol, have to get ready..." She exited life center at a rapid gait.

Cassiopeia watched her go with a frown. That had always been Sheba's way when she didn't want to deal with things: find something else to do anywhere that would take her away from the situation.

It had taken nearly two days to pinpoint and uncover the ancient ship, in its present condition and overgrown as it was. Internal scan had showed hull integrity was, amazingly, still intact. Samples of the interior gases showed the elements were the same as the outside air, but old and stale. For several more impatient centars, the team had been forced to wait while the ship was penetrated and its air recycled. Then the techs could begin their study.

Boomer and Kaleb were the first to reach what was quite obviously the bridge. They stared around the old consoles and equipment. All was silent and nonfunctional, covered with a thin coat of the dust that had settled over the millennia.

Kaleb slowly walked around, letting his eyes linger on every piece of equipment, trying to gauge its use and stage of technological advancement.

As if by instinct, Boomer moved to what had been the pilot's console. He ran his fingers reverently over the silent controls and let his hand curl around what must have been the main steering rod. His fist tightened expectantly, and for a micron he wanted nothing more than to hit turbos and send this ancient beauty back into space.

"Old habits die hard?" Kaleb asked with lifted eyebrows.

"What?" Boomer hadn't realized he'd spoken aloud.

"Quite honestly, your hands are quivering like you just caressed a lover."

"Oh. Poetic way of putting it," Boomer commented, releasing the controls. The feel was almost painful. "Guess a pilot always tests a ship's feel."

"And once a pilot, always a pilot." Kaleb grinned.

Boomer met it with a wry grimace. He was quite happy as a technician, but there were times he missed being a pilot. And his dreams were sometimes painfully intense. But the fleet had greater need for his other expertise.

A call from one of the other techs took both men off the bridge and left it in yearning loneliness.

The launch bay was busy. Sheba, who really did have a patrol in a centar, had to thread her course through a number of technicians working over a small row of Vipers. She saw Starbuck and Jolly watching idly, and decided to check in with her fellow flight leaders.

"Is there something wrong with our ships, or are the techs just taking disassembly practice?" she asked, putting the conversation of twenty centons before out of her mind.

"Hi, Sheba. Worse. We got a team of first-orbit cadets to take out. Hey, you wanna take 'em?" Starbuck called back. Jolly smiled and nodded a greeting.

She hesitated a micron. It would definitely keep her busy, having to monitor a team of cadets on their first solo flights, and she wasn't averse to having something else to think about on a long patrol. "Maybe," she told the two men. "Somebody's got to teach those kids the right way to fly after you two get done with them. Who've you got in your class this time?"

"A bold and daring trio named Morgan, Loma, and Troy."

"Troy...?" She had to force herself not to flinch. Any other time, she could have done it. But just now, she could be no more objective about Apollo's son than she could be about him. "You should know the answer to that," she answered curtly. "I have to meet Greenbean for our briefing."

"Blew it, Bucko," Jolly muttered under his breath as she disappeared in the crowd.

"Blew it?" Starbuck repeated with irritation. "I blew it? She can't stand the sight of Apollo and she's taking it out on Boxey. What did he ever do to deserve that? And what if he's ever in her squadron? Besides, how would you deal with a wing leader–" He gestured in the direction of the vanished woman. "–Any wingleader, who so obviously ... disliked a member of her squadron? What did the kid ever do to deserve to be cut out like that? What effect is her attitude going to have on the other cadets? How does her squadron feel about Apollo now? How can they respect him when she–"

"Later," Jolly cut him off when Starbuck showed every indication of continuing the increasingly loud tirade. They were both friends of Sheba and Apollo. Neither of them liked what was going on. But nobody seemed able to do anything about it. "Here comes our virgin patrol."

Starbuck raised his eyebrows at that.

Three young people in cadet uniforms joined them and moved instantly to attention in a straight row. The warriors exchanged glances.

"Looking much brighter today than the last time we saw them, wouldn't you say, Starbuck?"

"Considering the last time we saw them, they were a sad and pained group of hung-over mess techs," Starbuck agreed.

All of the cadets flushed to varying degrees.

"The first patrol is always a bit of a prize," the portly Jolly continued. "I understand they almost didn't make it – something about their behavior."

Morgan had to bite his lip to keep from interrupting.

"Well, they did make it," Starbuck hastened, seeing the teenaged students had been pushed as far as they cared to be pushed today. "All right, cadets. We'll be launching in a few centons, as soon as the techs certify your Vipers as ready. Keep in mind, this isn't a simulator run. These are real ships, you'll be in real space, and if you screw up, you'll be real dead. So no tricky moves. I catch anybody pulling any fancy flying, I'll personally see to it that you're all busted three grades below cadet. You'll be saluting the caretakers on the orphan ship."

"What Starbuck is trying to say, in his encouraging way," Jolly cut in easily, "is just get the routine down before you start imitating him, all right?"

They nodded as though in parade formation.

"You get 'em in their ships, Jolly," Starbuck ordered. "I'll contact Boomer and the ground survey team. Maybe they'll let us practice a planetary landing down near the ship they found."

Three pairs of eyes widened and breaths were indrawn at the completely unexpected possibility that they might see firsthand what everybody else in the fleet was talking about.

"You heard the Lieutenant," Jolly cut into their thoughts. "Cadets, to your ships."

Dr. Wilker was so engrossed in what he was doing that he didn't notice anyone was talking to him until Dr. Kaleb touched his arm to get his attention.

"Any luck?"

He blinked, his mind following old circuitry through questionable paths in his attempt to understand it.

"Soon," he said, collecting himself. "It does appear based on the same general principles as our own computer engineering. We should have it analyzed in a matter of days."

Boomer piped up from below, and Wilker realized his colleague was still working on the same equipment, but on the lower level. "I think we've got enough, from what we've traced so far, to take copies of some of their computer banks. We won't be able to read it yet, I suspect, but we can make copies and work from them."

"Yes," Wilker agreed enthusiastically, as Boomer climbed the ladder to join them. "That way we won't be risking the original data banks, which in any event are rather fragile with age. When we can read the data, we'll double-check the originals for accuracy. That will give us leeway for experimentation."

"And for possible error," Boomer commented wryly, remembering past occasions when there had indeed been some mistakes.

"Let's do it, then," Kaleb agreed.

"Gentlemen!" Technician Haldia appeared, framed in the round hatchway to the next compartment. "We've got company coming in – Lieutenant Starbuck has a cadet patrol, and they want to test a planetary landing. Anyone interested in seeing if our latest batch of cadets can fly?" The last was definitely directed at the former warrior.

"Go ahead, Boomer," Kaleb said quickly. "We'll finish this up. It's too crowded here for more than two anyway."

Boomer left them to the job and joined Haldia. Kaleb watched him go with a smile, but Wilker was already laying out the proper diagnostic equipment.

"This is great!" Morgan exulted.

Starbuck listened indulgently as the cadet loosed a wild howl. He knew what it was like to be young and free and soaring for the sheer joy of flight. He still felt it himself, frequently; however, he preferred to hide the feeling behind an everyday "I'm-just-doing-my-job-because-somebody's-gotta-do-it" mask. Athena and Cassiopeia had had him pegged all along. He was a pilot and a warrior because he loved it.

The cadet rolled his Viper in a tight curl. The ship next to him veered off in a quick motion that screamed fear and confusion to the lieutenant, who was now quite experienced in reading students' emotions by the way they flew.

"All right, Morgan, back to formation!" Starbuck snapped. "This is no time for acrobatics. You can get away with that kind of stuff when you're alone in space, but look what you just did to Loma's flight path! And we're entering the outer atmosphere of the planet – remember what atmospheric friction and gravitational pull will do to your ship in those kind of maneuvers!"

"Yes, sir," Morgan replied without contrition.

The next moment would be agonizingly etched in Starbuck's mind for the rest of his life.

"Starbuck! Jolly!" Boxey's voice, alarmed.

"What's that?" Loma asked.

Starbuck stared at his scanners, his fist slowly tightening on his control stick. An old image, an old enemy, seared into warrior consciousness for a thousand yahrens. Cylons. Here. Now. After so long...

His mind refused to accept what his eyes told him.

Glancing through his canopy, he could see the enemy closing on his patrol. His cadet patrol. The kids they'd thought would be safe today.

"Battle formation!" he cried, hoping they remembered, hoping they were prepared enough to fight. An inner fear screamed that these children weren't ready to face Cylons, that he should never have risked them in flight.

One of the Vipers pulled in close behind him – too close.

"Viper, back off!" he shouted. "We're in atmosphere, you'll be eating my ion trail, it'll wreck–"

Too late. The Viper suddenly jerked off its path, tumbling, out of control.

"Hades..." Jolly's voice was strained as he followed the spiraling ship, trying to protect the cadet.

"Call the Galactica!" If there were Cylons here, they already knew about the fleet... And the planet below them, the survey teams there, the unknown spaceship that might be Earth's... Too much, he thought. There was too much at stake.

"Morgan!" he heard Jolly's howl. "Get back...!"

The laser bolt came in slow motion. The explosion lasted forever. Somebody was dead.

Time slipped away; instinct returned. Now it had been only microns since they last fought Cylons, not yahrens, and everything he'd ever known about combat flooded back.

"Back to the Galactica!" he heard Jolly yell.

"The surface teams..." he started to say, firing. A Raider exploded. Another slipped by him. They were in the middle of an entire enemy flight phalanx.

"The Cylons don't know that," Jolly returned.

Half the enemy broke away, their course directly for the planet taking up half the view.

"They know," Starbuck said hollowly. "We stay."

"At least get out of the atmosphere..."

No time to maneuver. Just fight. Stay alive.

Three ships remained, and fought. Himself, Jolly, one of the cadets. Which...? No time. Fire. Again.

There was something in the sky, and it wasn't a Viper formation coming down for a landing. It looked more like...

"Lords..." Boomer whispered, eyes widening in recognition and shock. Cylons. They'd been found.

A blast of light seared the jungle near them. Fire answered, licking up the trunks of trees, tenaciously seeking purchase in a spot too wet to sustain it.

Boomer was already moving. "Haldia!" he yelled, seeing the blonde Leon standing near the ship's hatch, open-mouthed and frozen. "Get 'em out of the ship! We've got to get out of here!"

She jerked into motion as another Cylon bolt hit home. Where she'd stood a moment before was black smoke and charred vegetation. Haldia lay on the ground, mere feet from death, hair and clothing singed, her body shaking as she began to scream.

Boomer threw himself on her, beating out the smoldering sparks on her tunic and trousers.

The team inside the ship had been warned, or had realized something was wrong on their own. Kaleb, Wilker, and the two techs staggered out of the ship, their arms full of equipment.

The enemy swept by for another pass. Boomer realized, as he pulled Haldia back to her feet and turned to run, that the Cylons had stopped firing on the half-buried ship. They were now concentrating their fire beyond the ships, well away from their position.

"The survey shuttles," he groaned. The men and women of the other survey teams – had there been any warning for them? Where were the warriors? Why hadn't–?

"What in hades is happening? Everything started shaking – how did they find us? Wasn't there a patrol coming in?" one of the technicians demanded frantically.

"Starbuck ... and his cadets," he replied hollowly.

Explosions sounded from their landing site. The Cylons were hitting it thoroughly. Would they soon land to clean up the survivors hand to hand? And to take control of the massive prize the Colonials had found?

Troy couldn't regain control. The Viper was wild, lost in an atmospheric roll that dragged away his equilibrium every time he thought he'd regained it.

His ship suddenly seemed to hit a solid wall and slowed its fall. His head spun as he stared blearily through his canopy. The planet hung below him. One clear view of the ships surrounding him, and he felt like throwing up.

Cylons.

The Viper was under their control. They were dragging him away from the combat, away from the planet, away from everything he knew and felt safe with.

His stunned mind could form only one thought. "Father ... help me..." he prayed in a whisper.

"Move in and attack at will!" Sheba ordered in a steel voice. At the first cries of danger, she and Greenbean had turned toward the planet and summoned assistance from the Galactica, telling them what little she knew.

Tigh had agreed they had to counterattack. Two other patrols had responded at once, and she knew her own Red Squadron wasn't far behind; they'd been on alert today. The other squadrons would be scrambling for their ships.

The six Vipers threw themselves against the attack phalanx, sowing their own brand of destruction against the enemy they'd hoped not to find again.

Her scanners registered ships, many ships. Blips and colors that meant friends and enemies. But which was which? Her mind went blank; everything they'd ever taught her was gone.

"Starbuck..." No sound in the cockpit; no air had moved in her tight lungs to make a noise.

Her ship moved. Who was steering? Staring out through her canopy, she recognized Cylon ships. The enemy.

Panic.

Her finger moved. A laser blast fired. From her ship? How? She didn't know what she was doing.

One of them exploded.

Her lungs expanded , then compressed, and a sound halfway between a sob and a cheer came out. She had fired. She had struck at the enemy. She had made her first kill.

Breathing now, she began to make sense of her scanners, of what was happening around her. She moved the joystick; to her amazement, the ship responded. It obeyed. It was part of her, the steadier part – not the way her fingers trembled, but the part of her that could fight, here in the dark skies above a planet.

A seventeen-yahren-old girl became a warrior.

Starbuck's mind subconsciously registered relief. There were more friendly ships around them now, and the Cylons seemed to be falling back. They had a chance.

But how many of his patrol were left? He had seen three – himself and Jolly, but who was the surviving cadet? And which of the other two had died in that explosion? Had the third cadet died, too, or did he or she still live out in that hades?

The Cylons had attacked the planet too. He remembered that much. Boomer was on the planet, with others. They'd been strafed. Lords, how many dead from this unexpected assault?

Practicality took over. They'd have to change their teaching methods, to better prepare their cadets to face Cylons... Starbuck discovered he was laughing, and realized the sound was half-mad. He fought it down.

More Vipers. The enemy was definitely retreating.

"Thanks for the assist." Starbuck tried to keep his voice steady. His hands were cold, he noticed now, and drops of sweat had rolled down his face. His eyes stung and small salt beads irritated his nose and chin. Lords, how long had it been since he'd reacted this way to a battle?

"This is Sheba," came the response. "Where's your patrol?"

"Cadet Morgan didn't make it," he forced out. "Jolly?"

"Here."

"I'm here too. But where's Troy?" Loma asked tremulously.

There was no response for long centons.

"My God, no, not Boxey..." For some reason, Sheba was the first to find words.

The silence continued. It was a full two centons before Jolly broke it huskily.

"Any contact with the ground teams?"

"Two of the teams have reported in, Herrod's and Gala's," Sheba replied with difficulty. "Most of the shuttles were damaged in the attack, but there wasn't great loss of human life. We have orders from Commander Tigh to evacuate the planet as soon as possible. Red Squadron, stay in orbit while we call in more shuttles. Starbuck, take your patrol back to the Galactica. I'm going down to check Boomer's location..."

From the communications as he landed, the bridge and both landing bays were in similar states of barely-controlled chaos. No one seemed to know what had really happened over the planet. Starbuck didn't take time to enlighten them; several shouted questions echoed in his ears unnoticed. His only thought was for Apollo. How in Sagan's name was he going to explain to his friend? What could he say that would ease the pain, that would explain why it happened? How could he tell Apollo that his son was among the lost?

Somehow he landed, and slowly clambered out of his ship, searching with his eyes for the one person he had to find. Things appeared strange in the red light; it had been some time since they'd been on full alert status. He almost didn't recognize his own home.

"Where's Captain Apollo?" he asked someone who stood in front of him.

"He'd be on the bridge. He's not cleared for flying yet," the woman replied. "Starbuck, how bad was it? How many did we lose?"

"We lost Boxey. I don't know how many others."

Cassiopeia gasped in shock. He walked past her. Somebody was crying. He didn't know who.

Reluctant steps took Starbuck to the bridge.

Apollo was there. So was Tigh, of course. The commander beckoned him forward at once; both he and Apollo were tense, their faces anxious and taut. "Lieutenant, what happened? Sheba's report was sketchy. I understand it was Cylons?"

"Yes." Starbuck couldn't hold the gaze of either man; he stared at the deck. Everyone on the bridge was watching him, openly or covertly.

"And?" Tigh prompted at his silence. When he didn't respond, the commander glanced beyond him. "Jolly? Your report?"

He realized he wasn't alone; Jolly and Loma were behind him. The girl wasn't even fighting her tears, but she somehow kept her head high.

"Cadet Morgan is dead. Cadet Troy is missing," the heavy man replied softly. "The Cylons strafed the planet as well. We don't know our losses there. Sheba will have a report on that."

Starbuck risked a glance at Apollo. The captain had gone deathly white with shock, his expression void.

"Apollo, I'm sorry..." he forced out.

"Apollo..." Tigh's hand rested on his shoulder for a micron, but dropped as the captain moved away from him, every motion forced from numb muscles.

"I..." Starbuck reached for his friend, but the other man avoided his hand.

No one else tried to stop him as he left the bridge.

The flight commander's billet was dim and quiet. Apollo didn't change the lighting; his eyes were blind to illumination. He made his way to his desk through the darkness. Searching fingers found the holo with ease. Clutching it close, he sank to the floor where he stood, leaning against his desk for support that no human could give at that moment. He knew exactly what the image was, didn't need light to see it in his mind's eye.

Boxey and himself.

The holo was over two yahrens old. Athena had insisted on family portraits being made after Jude was born. Envisioning the image, he realized how Boxey had grown since that time. Why hadn't he thought to have more pictures taken over the yahrens? How could he have let all that time slip away without creating mementos of it? So little to remember a young life by...

Hot tears spilled down his cheeks. He brushed them away.

A soft mechanical whir from one corner told him where Muffit was settled. The daggit droid creaked more than usual as it crossed the chamber to join him, somehow sensing his pain.

Wrong, he thought. It was only a machine, a machine like the enemy, a machine that couldn't sense or share pain, a machine that had been his son's favorite and constant companion for a large part of his life. Time when he hadn't been there... Memories stabbed his heart.

It was old. The thick curly fur had become thin and flat from many hugs and tears, from the shared life of a young boy. Good maintenance hadn't kept all the internals in perfect working order; there were squeaks and other odd sounds when the droid moved. It had almost been dismantled several times over the yahrens, either from need for parts or from obsolescence.

But it had been Boxey's.

Apollo sighed brokenly and rested his face in the old, thin fur. Muffey snuggled closer. Apollo put his arms around it and let the tears fall as his body shook.

Seven of the survey team were dead; twelve more were injured. Three of the expedition craft were smoking shells; all of the other ships were damaged to some extent. The evacuation shuttles picked up the survivors while a repair team hastily cobbled the damaged ships into flyable shape. A full squadron of Vipers flew overhead as they pulled out. Another full squadron circled the fleet, scanners at their farthest range, searching for answers about where the Cylons had come from, and if they would attack again.

"How can we destroy that potential treasure trove?" Kaleb protested when Boomer made his announcement. "There's so much we could learn..."

"We've got the files, you know that, we took 'em from the ship," Boomer reminded him. "We've sent back anything of obvious value – but we can't risk leaving it here for the Cylons to learn from. And we certainly can't stay to protect an ancient derelict."

He turned from his friend. There was no choice. There was too much at stake to be gentle. He was in too much pain to care. A gesture to Sheba, and she nodded.

"We'll plant some solenite charges and detonate when we're in orbit," she responded. "This whole area will be destroyed."

Intellectually, Kaleb understood, although emotionally and professionally he wanted to continue the fight. He subsided, and stayed out of the ensuing argument with Wilker. At length even the head of the fleet's technical crews was forced to accept the inevitable need to destroy the ship before the Cylons could use it.

"Hey, Sheba, you been awfully quiet since we blew that ship," commented one of the members of Red Squadron after their return to the Galactica. Sheba scarcely glanced at the girl – Narcissa always talked too much.

The petite lieutenant didn't take silence as a hint this time either. "We've survived the Cylons before, we'll do it again," she persisted, trying to keep up with her flight leader's longer steps.

Out of the corner of her eye, Sheba saw Greenbean grab the young warrior's shoulder and hold her back.

"Show some consideration, will you? You've got no idea when you're provoking a fight you can't win," she heard him mutter forbiddingly. Then she turned the corridor and left them behind.

Blessed, lonely silence.

A few microns later, she ran into somebody else she didn't want to see. Starbuck. They stared at each other for a long centon.

"Thanks for saving our tails out there," he finally said.

"Not all your tails," Sheba blurted, straightening her shoulders as if to take a reprimand. "Why don't you say it?"

He met her eyes steadily. "Say what?" he asked quietly.

"What Apollo's going to say. What everyone's going to say," she said bitterly. "That I was too late for your cadets. That I should have been there sooner. That I should have been tailing your pilots on their first patrol. That I shouldn't have walked away from you in the launch bay. That Morgan and Boxey would be alive if I hadn't let my anger get in the way."

The hurt in Starbuck's eyes finally penetrated her own layers of pain. "We were each doing our job. Your job was patrol. My job was teaching those kids how to fly and fight and stay alive. I'm the one who failed."

"No–"

But Starbuck was already walking by her, and he didn't look back.

Having finally expressed what had been eating at her during the flight back to the fleet, Sheba could feel tears of self-reproach and guilt rolling down her cheeks.

The yahrens of hating Apollo for being "too late," being unable to forgive for Bojay... Had Boxey paid the price? Would Apollo think she had deliberately sacrificed his son to avenge her lost friend? Oh, Lords, had that somehow played a part? Had she made a mistake, had she callously let those cadets die...?

"No ... no..." She covered her ears and ran, trying to escape.

Commander Tigh's log: We have met the Cylons. Two young men are missing, believed dead. Cadet Morgan and Cadet Troy are hereby awarded the rank of Sergeant in the Colonial forces. They shall be missed. We grieve for their loss, with their families and friends. Morgan has no blood kin in the fleet, but Troy is Captain Apollo's son, and Lieutenant Athena's nephew. I have been close to that family for most of my life; it is almost as though I have lost a kinsman as well.

We had forgotten the pain... It has been a long time since we lost any of our warriors in battle. We had forgotten what it feels like to mourn such loss. How like the Cylons to teach us again, when we thought we were safe.

Now our task becomes infinitely more difficult. Or perhaps it returns to a degree of danger we are no longer prepared for. We must still protect our people, as before. We still seek Earth, despite the words of various of our Councilors.

At least they are silent about stopping on any planet, for the moment. They are afraid. All our people are afraid. Now they clamor for us to move on, to hurry, to find sanctuary.

I fear... I pray we have not mischosen our direction, and somehow turned back toward the Cylons. How could they have found us here? Have they been pursuing us all this time? If we find Earth, will they follow us there too?

It has been a long time since I wished Adama still alive and in command. Now is one time I deeply miss him, and wish he were here, even if retired, to ask his advice. There is no one I can turn to. I must be the strong and sure one. I must find the way. There is no one else.

Baltar waited expectantly in his command chamber. A centar before, the Cylon attack phalanx had reported a captive. A few centons before, the bridge had reported the remaining attack force to have returned, with one Colonial human male as a prisoner.

One male prisoner. Lolling back in his high seat, Baltar allowed himself to consider the possible identity of that prisoner. Was there any chance it could be Apollo? Or Starbuck? Sighing heavily in satisfaction, he rested his head on the side of the chair and closed his eyes. Ah, the pleasure he would take in revenge, if only... Lords, let it be one of them, either of them.

He didn't hear the entry panels slide open, or the multiple metallic clangs of Cylons entering.

"By-your-command."

He opened his eyes and focused slowly on four of his troops and their one captive.

It wasn't either of them. For a moment Baltar tasted ashes as he stared at the youth tightly held by two Centurions. The pilot was really a boy, not much more than a child. Dark-haired, brown-eyed, still gangly with adolescence, but promising future height and musculature. A boy with pretensions of being a warrior. Where was justice...?

The captive was studying him as well, open-mouthed with shock and recognition.

"You're Baltar!" the boy finally blurted. "You're the traitor! But you were stranded...!" His voice broke into a squeak, then died away as the youngster's face reddened.

Bitter disappointment coursing through his veins, Baltar laughed shortly. "I was rescued. By my soldiers, my troops. The same ones who brought you here."

The boy glanced covertly at his captors, and Baltar felt acutely aware, suddenly, of their worn, lackluster appearance and the age and disrepair of the basestar.

Nettled, he continued with, "So Adama now has children defending the fleet..."

"I'm not a child! Besides, what choice did you give us?" the boy shot back defiantly. "Grandfather said–"

Enlightenment and a fresh, fiendish glow sparkled in his eyes. "Grandfather? You are Adama's ... grandson?" He sat up straight again, gauging the youngster's age, remembering his adversary's family. "So Apollo's whelp follows the family tradition. Or should I say, Serina's son throws his life away. You really aren't Apollo's son, after all," he finished cruelly.

"In the ways that matter, I am!"

"So you confirm it." He let himself relax, then gestured at the command Centurion. "Take him away, but see he is ... healthy and undamaged, for now. I have things to consider."

"You won't win, Baltar!" was all the youth said.

The pilot that Baltar now knew to be Boxey had paled, but lost none of his defiance as the Cylons jerked his arms and half-dragged him out of the room.

Apollo couldn't stand to be alone in that dark room any more. He drifted through the ship, unsure where to go, finally finding his way to his sister's quarters. The thought sank in that his feet knew where to take him, even if his brain didn't. Where else to go for comfort but to the only family he had left?

Kaleb let him in. The tech looked as haggard as the captain felt. Apollo knew Kaleb had been in the middle of the attack on the planet. The two men nodded silent acknowledgments, then moved into the living chamber.

Athena was sitting with her sons cradled in her lap. Zac and Jude looked solemn, too young to understand what was going on, but old enough to feel their parents' grief and shock.

"C'mon, boys." Kaleb picked up the two youngsters and went into their bedroom, giving brother and sister privacy.

Apollo drew a deep breath, wishing his voice didn't shake so – he was a warrior, he should be stronger than this... "Athena, I just wanted... I guess I didn't want... I..."

She swallowed hard, and he saw tears in her eyes. He sat down beside her, lost in his own misery, but realizing that for once she had nothing to give him. Maybe just being together would help.

"Why do we bother?" Athena asked after a moment of silence.

He looked at her. "Why do we bother with what?"

"Boxey's dead," she said, staring across the room. "Kaleb could have died. If you'd been cleared to fly, you could have died too. They could have attacked the fleet and we could all be dead. They've found us again. They'll attack again. We could be killed tonight, or tomorrow, or the next day..."

"No." He shook his head, forcing the thought away.

The tears were falling faster. "Why do we bother? Why did Mother bother? Why have children and raise families when we could all be killed at any moment? Why raise children to be warriors who'll go out and die?"

"We have to..."

"But what's the point? We're doomed. They'll never let us go, don't you see?" Athena turned to Apollo; her eyes burned with fear and pain. "We should see that by now. They won't stop until we've been destroyed. Not just the warriors, but the civilians, the children, everyone. Why don't we admit it? We can fight until we die, but we've got no right to have children who have to die too... My children, my sons... They'll die, tonight or tomorrow or yahrens from now when the Cylons attack for the millionth or ten millionth time. There's no escape for us, none. No escape for a warrior, maybe none for the rest of our people. Don't you see?"

Kaleb had come back into the room without either of them noticing. Apollo just sat as the other man put his arms around his sobbing wife, rocking her, trying to comfort her.

Athena clutched Kaleb tightly, crying into his shoulder. "You came back today," were the words muffled by flesh and fabric. "But what about tomorrow?"

Staring at the deck, Apollo rose to leave. It was clear there was nothing for him here just now; his sister needed help herself. Maybe he'd try the celestial chamber, he could be alone, he could think...

"Apollo?" he heard behind him. He glanced back to see Athena staring at him, eyes wide and tears rolling down her cheeks. "I'm sorry, Apollo..."

"Thanks, Athena, I..."

"No, I'm sorry. I'm sorry..." She swallowed, leaned into Kaleb, sounding ancient and defeated. "There's no future for a warrior. None. I don't know if there's any for a civilian, but I'm tired, so tired, of being the ones who have to make the sacrifices..."

"I understand," he said, trying to convince himself.

"Apollo, I heard about the attack, and I heard about Boxey. But all I could feel was glad that Kaleb was coming back, to me, to the boys."

He shuddered involuntarily.

"I'm sorry. Forgive me, Apollo." She turned back to Kaleb, who shook his head at Apollo.

He had to get out.

The cadets were too quiet, maybe shocked. The deaths of two classmates had brought home very hard just what their chosen profession could cost. Now, they looked to their teachers for some kind of consolation, some reassurance that they wouldn't die too, or that if they did, at least it would be heroic and worthwhile and they wouldn't be dead alone.

Their teacher took his place before them, and they turned fearful eyes to him.

Starbuck knew what they were feeling. He'd felt it himself, a long time ago. But these kids hadn't grown up with daily attacks and daily lists of the dead. They'd thought themselves safe, somehow, gone beyond the Destruction, protected and immortal, especially Morgan, so cocky and sure he'd found a place to belong, a place with honor and without too great a cost...

He'd liked Morgan, felt a certain kinship to the orphan youth. Starbuck had been a lot like that, at his age, needing so desperately to have a place to call home yet afraid to risk reaching out for it. He'd found it among the warriors, in the brotherhood and sisterhood of pilots who risked their lives every day, who tried to live as fast as possible to make up for the yahrens they knew most of them wouldn't have, who called a ship home and its crew family and never worried that there was no family or home on any World with a claim to them...

Most of the cadets stared at him.

Not Loma. Her seat was empty.

For a moment he couldn't take his eyes from that empty seat. If he did, he would have to face all the other cadets, or the other empty seats where Boxey and Morgan had been the day before.

Jolly cleared his throat softly.

Starbuck glanced at his friend, then at the cadets. Their eyes begged answers, and he had none to give them. Feeling closer to being a failure than he ever had in his life, he tried to find words to explain the things he'd learned so long ago, about the facts and reasons for warriors dying, and the price of protecting their people. The instructors at the Academy had made even death sound somehow ... right, and part of their life, so easy to comprehend and accept. Why were the words so hollow now, when he had to say them? Had his old instructors felt like this?

What good were words when children were dead? Boxey and Morgan were gone. Two cadets, two children. A boy without family and the son of his closest friend.

The silence grew.

"Starbuck?" Jolly finally asked.

"Uh, you take over..." He walked out.

Commander Tigh sat at his desk, staring at the metal bird in flight that remained the tangible symbol of Adama's legacy to him. The man sighed, wondering what his former commander would have done now, trying to forget the pain they would both have felt for the young cadets killed in their first, unexpected battle.

The sound at the door was a welcome intrusion.

"Enter!" he called, rising and cupping his hands around the statuette to replace it on the shelf.

Captain Apollo stood in the hatchway, hesitant, almost visibly wreathed in his pain.

"Come in, Apollo," Tigh said promptly. "Sit down."

The other man nodded and moved into the room. His gaze fixed on the silver bird, and one hand reached out to touch it reverently. Seeing the longing in Apollo's eyes, Tigh let the object remain on his desk.

"Was there something you wanted, Apollo?" he asked after several more long centons of silence.

The captain finally looked at him. "How did he do it, Tigh?"

His brow furrowed. "How did he do what?" No need to ask who "he" was; they both knew they were speaking of Adama.

Apollo drew a deep, pained breath. "How did Father let us go? How could he send us out to fight, me and Zac, and Athena, when it hurts this much to lose your child? How can you let someone you love, someone you've raised, go out to die – and still keep living yourself?"

Tigh touched his shoulder in sympathy, wishing he had easy answers that would take the pain away. "How could he have prevented any of you? How could you have prevented Boxey? How could any parent protect a child his or her entire life? Sooner or later, they have to grow up, we have to let them go, if we love them, even if it means they choose risks that pain us. Your father knew that. It's early for you to have to learn that, but it's still true. We can't keep our loved ones safe from all danger. We're warriors, that's part of our risk, our very lives."

Apollo lowered his gaze to the desk, and Tigh told his mouth to shut. What good was a reminder of the truth when it hurt too much to face?

"I know that, I accept it," the younger man said. "What I need to know is, how did he live with it when Zac died? I know what it's like to lose friends, my brother, my mother, my wife. But I don't know how to lose my child... How did he do it, and still go on?"

"He had no choice. Any more than any of us do. We keep going because we have to. We live with it – because the alternative is dying with it, physically or emotionally." Anxiety flooded Tigh's heart – what was Apollo thinking?

"I ... know."

"It's hard when there's no choice. But that's why we're warriors, that's why we fight, even when we could die, maybe leaving our children without parents, our parents without children. Our children make the same choice, what to do, who to be, what to risk. That's why we have to risk our children leaving us bereft, it's their choice–"

The annunciator chimed insistently.

Tigh interrupted himself automatically. "Enter."

Boomer came in with an almost aggressive stride. The commander had to study him a moment before he consciously identified the difference – the man was no longer in his usual tech uniform, but in the flight suit he hadn't worn in yahrens.

"Commander," he said in his deep voice.

"Boomer, what...?"

Boomer glanced at Apollo and replied, "I can come back later, if this is inconvenient, sir. Although this does concern the captain, since he is our flight commander."

Tigh looked at Apollo, who shook his heat mutely.

"Stay. What is it?"

Boomer drew a deep breath. "I'd like my commission to be reinstated, Commander. I want to return to the squadrons."

Apollo blinked in astonishment, although Tigh nodded his head as if this wasn't completely unexpected.

"Boomer," he said nonetheless, "your technical experience and natural instinct have been invaluable to this fleet in your electronics work. Wilker's said time and again that he doesn't know how they managed before you joined them."

The black man gestured the excuse aside. "Wilker and Kaleb got by without me before, they'll do it again. What's more vital at this moment is our fighter squadrons, with the Cylons back. We may need all the experienced warriors we've got – we can't leave our defense to half-trained kids. I'm experienced. My instincts are still good, I can still fly, and I'm in the age range. You need me. The fleet needs me."

"Of course we do."

"In a Viper," Boomer said flatly, stepping forward. "The cadets aren't ready to face the Cylons. Most of the pilots we've trained over the past five yahrens aren't ready. There's no choice."

Choice. The word echoed back eerily from his own words scarcely a centon before. There was no choice. No choice.

He capitulated. "If it's acceptable to Captain Apollo." There was no danger of it being otherwise. He remembered how rapidly and with what determination Boomer had come back after a plague at Kobol, so long ago. He still secretly thought Boomer's resolve was all that had carried half of those sick warriors out of their beds and back to their ships. They really did need that kind of example..."

"You'll have to qualify in every field, Lieutenant," he insisted severely. "We don't want to set a bad example and lower morale by losing a good pilot whose skills are just a little rusty after four yahrens away from his ship."

Boomer nodded shortly. "Yes, sir."

A chime sounded from his desk, signaling a communication from the bridge. At the same micron, the ship went to red alert. Tigh hit the toggle.

"Tigh here. What is it?"

"Commander, come to the bridge at once!" It was Colonel Omega, speaking a lot faster and at a slightly higher pitch than his usual wont. The man on the screen appeared very agitated. "We're receiving a message over a long range channel, aimed directly at our coordinates."

"What kind of message?"

"From Baltar, sir!"

"Baltar!" Tigh stared at his warriors. They stared back.

"Yes, sir. He demanded to speak to Commander Adama..." Tigh shivered once, hard and uncontrollably. "...And he states that he has the Commander's grandson hostage. We are to give up the Galactica or Cadet Troy ... dies. He insists Commander Adama speak to him ... now."

Apollo looked like he'd aged a half-century with those words. Boomer's mouth tightened grimly.

"But Adama's... Is Baltar insane? He knows we'll never surrender the Galactica! Does he know Adama is dead?"

Omega looked a little guilty. "We kept comm silence first, as per standing orders, but he read our own coordinates to us, so I ... told him you were in command now, and he would have to talk to you."

"And?"

"He said we are not to try such stalling techniques, but to put him in contact with Commander Adama at once, or accept the consequences," Omega replied somberly.

"Have you pinpointed an origin for his signal?"

"Yes, sir. In the system where we found the ancient vessel." He hesitated. "The Cylons may be setting up a base of operations on the planet."

"I'll be right there." Tigh cut the channel and glanced at his men. "Well, warriors, let's go."

"Shall we report to the launch bay?" No need to say they might be fighting a battle soon; no need to suggest that this could be a trap.

"Negative," Tigh shot back. "You're not reinstated yet and Apollo's still not medically cleared for combat. Come with me to the bridge."

Boomer instantly fell into step behind him. It took several microns for Apollo to give his body the command to move.

"Boxey's alive," he murmured.

But for how long? They couldn't give up the Galactica. Not for one boy – not for any number of hostages, of any age, sex, rank, or family. Baltar had to know that. Boxey was alive, but doomed. And he could only wait here to fight the Cylons if they attacked the fleet. If he had been free to be alone, Apollo would have cried.

Dutiful steps carried him along behind his commander.

A cage. A cold metal cell in the middle of a Cylon basestar. With a single silver guard standing before the cell, laser rifle at the ready. Troy slumped down against the far wall of the empty little room, staring out through the clear dylinium door.

What was Baltar planning on doing to him? More than the usual simple torture and execution, he was sure of that. The look on their enemy's face told him as much. Baltar's order to keep him alive and undamaged, for now, suggested even worse.

How could I let him know who I was? I should have kept my stupid mouth shut. Loma said I could never keep my mouth shut. Didn't I learn anything in those classes? Lords, what'll they think of me?

Father's gonna feel so bad, that I messed up like this on my first solo flight and combat, that I'm gonna die this way... I'm leavin' him all alone.

And Starbuck and Jolly, how could I let them down like that? They taught me better than this... What would they do now, if they were caught like this?

I'm scared. I can't be scared. Lords, what do I do?

Starbuck felt a sort of exhaustion or numbness creep over him. Sitting alone in the darkness of the celestial observation dome, he could watch the stars and find a sort of comfort in them. They were almost eternal. The individual stars might change as they moved through space, and the ships in the fleet might alter position relative to one another, but there were still stars and ships, as there had been every duty shift and mission for the last ten yahrens.

There had been deaths before, but it had been a long time since this kind of combat death. That had to be why those two affected him so profoundly. They brought back memories of Zac at Cimtar, of Gemi and Lorelie at Kobol, of Shields and Bow at Arcta, all the cadets he'd trained or been friends with and lost too soon. But it had been yahrens...

He understood why Boxey's death hurt so badly, so personally. Apollo's son, his own friend, under his command, on his first patrol. He'd seen the boy grow up; it was hard to know he was gone. Something about being in Apollo's sanctuary seemed to help – maybe security, a sense that, however guilty he felt, being here meant forgiveness.

Morgan's loss was less close, but somehow, traitorous as it was, it hurt more. Who did Morgan have to care about him? He had no family left. Boxey had been his closest friend.

"Like me," he muttered half-heartedly. "I've got no family either. No parents, no brothers or sisters, no kids. My closest friends are warriors too, they wouldn't hurt too much, they don't dare hurt too much, if something happened to me. Who'd really care if I were gone?"

The thought shook him to his soul.

"Alone. Like Morgan," he breathed. The thought of a future, alone, suddenly stretched before him, desolate and empty, with no chance of love or happiness or belonging. It terrified him.

Starbuck almost went through the dome at the clang of the hatch opening behind him. Jerked rudely from his reverie, but almost grateful, he stared at Sheba.

The woman threw down her earguards. Her face was flushed and she was breathing hard. From somewhere below, through the open hatch, an eerie wailing drifted up. "Starbuck! He's alive!"

"What?"

"Boxey's alive!"

"Alive?" he repeated stupidly.

She brushed hair out of her eyes. "Yes! He's alive! But Baltar's got him. They're calling ship-wide alert..."

He shivered as though lost in Arcta's ice.

When they reached the bridge, in its dim red light, Tigh almost wished they hadn't. Four councilors from the Quorum had appeared and were imperiously demanding access to Commander Tigh at once. They didn't wait for their commander to take his place before pouncing on him.

"All right, Tigh, what are you going to do about this?" Sire and Councilor Geller demanded, ignoring Apollo and Boomer as if they didn't exist.

"Every ship in the fleet picked up Baltar's broadcast," piped in Councilor Andred, "and we are entitled to know how you intend to respond!"

"What?" Tigh glanced at Omega, who shrugged apologetically.

"Baltar broadcast on unicom, all the ship captains picked it up," he replied. "IFB's already got it, the whole fleet..."

Apollo turned paler.

"Tigh, what are you going to do?" Geller interrupted, frowning in self-important annoyance.

"Councilor Geller," interjected another voice, "I shall handle this. I was, after all, the council's liaison to the military for several yahrens, and as the current President, I do feel it is my responsibility to deal with the situation." Siress Tinia swept past the other civilians and took Tigh's arm, pulling him toward his command dais. She waved off her fellow councilors as they made to follow. "Councilors, if you will return to chambers, we will discuss these events. And you must admit, our priority at this point is reassuring our civilian population that we are not to be handed over to the enemy or wiped out of existence. You must be where they can reach you."

"Tinia," he said, all but gritting his teeth, "I'd accomplish a lot more if people would stop interrupting me to tell me to do something!"

"I'm sorry, Tigh," she returned in a whisper. "I was on my shuttle and couldn't contact them to tell them I would handle this."

"Would that have stopped them?" came a mutter they were probably not meant to overhear.

Tigh didn't waste a warning glance on Boomer; he didn't care if the councilors overheard as well.

"Commander?" called Omega. "We're getting another communique, on a more restricted channel. Baltar again."

"I assume he wants to talk to Adama?"

"Yes, sir."

"He'll have to make do with me. Omega, launch extra patrols, order battle precautions. I assume the squadrons are on full alert?" The colonel nodded affirmation as Tigh took position before the screen. "This is Commander Tigh of the battlestar Galactica. What is it you wish to discuss?"

"Where is Commander Adama?" snarled Baltar.

Tigh studied the face revealed on the screen. The man looked pale, with the skin of someone who'd spent yahrens in space without planetfalls or even solar lamps. The traitor's face was thinner than Tigh remembered, and his eyes were bloodshot. His clothing was threadbare and had obviously been repaired or restitched several times. The glittering silver cloak over his shoulders, however, was new, and appeared to have been made of Cylon fabric.

His gaze strayed back to Baltar's eyes, and he couldn't help staring. Something deep in those bloodshot pits disturbed him, but he wasn't sure what.

"Where's Adama?" Baltar repeated more loudly.

"Adama is no longer in command of this vessel. I am," Tigh stated precisely. "You will speak with me, or with no one."

Baltar's face twisted, and Tigh realized the man was not entirely sane.

"Liar!" he finally shouted. "Where is Adama?"

"He's dead. If you want to speak to him, it cannot be in this life. If you want to talk to the commander of the Galactica, I'm here."

Baltar mouthed words of hate, and a drop of spittle appeared on his lips. "If Commander Adama does not call me within one centar, the boy dies!" he shrieked. The frequency went dead.

Everyone stared at their commander, waiting for his response. Tigh gritted his teeth and tried to find something to say.

"Too bad we couldn't tell him to slit his wrists if he wants to talk to Adama," came one tightly-controlled voice behind him.

Boomer. Tigh felt a moment's relief, until he saw Apollo's bleak expression. They couldn't trade the ship for the cadet, they all knew that, but that didn't ease the frustration of Baltar's refusal even to speak with anyone but their long-dead former commander. Not even hope, then...

Apollo bowed his head. When he lifted it again, his face seemed harder, settled into grim lines. "Commander? If you've no objections, I'd like to go to the ready room. I'm still the flight commander, even if I'm not currently flying. I should encourage our people ... to be ready for whatever they may face. They have to know who's out there."

"Go ahead."

The captain drew a heavy breath and nodded briefly. "Sir, you'll let me know if .. there are any changes in our situation?"

"Of course. I'm ... sorry, Apollo."

"We all have to do our duty." Apollo marched out, trying to be as collected and stoic as he believed his father would have been in such a situation. Leave his emotions for later, or for never.

"Sir?"

Tigh glanced at Boomer and shook his head. "We may need you here. And you're not cleared."

Boomer bit back a retort and tried to be patient.

Commander Tigh remained, trying to ignore a very concerned-looking Tinia. He could only wait, uncertain if he wanted to hear from Baltar again or not.

How had Baltar managed to escape? What was he doing in charge of a Cylon attack force? How had he come so close to the fleet? And what else did he know? Had he found the remains of the derelict ship, despite the Colonials' attempt to destroy it? His possible presence on the planet argued that he had. If he'd found the ship, what else did he know? And what was he going to do to Boxey?

Troy stared blankly. He had to think of something, and fast. Baltar wasn't going to give him much time. He knew, too, that his friends in the fleet couldn't do anything to help him. If he was going to survive this, he would have to do it on his own. There were no furnishings in the cell, nothing he could use...

Starbuck. Too bad Starbuck wasn't here – he apologized mentally to a visualization of his friend and teacher. No, Starbuck, I don't mean I want you to be a prisoner too. But you and Dad are the only people I know besides Baltar who've ever been on a Cylon base ship and lived to tell about it. You were even on one twice! What would you do? You'd think of something...

Every so often the Cylon guard paced into his line of vision, then out of it again. It was an old Cylon, he noted, old and dull and just a bit out-of-date. Probably didn't even have circuit surge feeders. That was something Wilker had discovered when the fleet scientists disassembled a pair of Cylon Centurions almost ten yahrens before. Study of the enemy's circuitry had been required since then. Troy suspected it was with the hope that, should any of the fleet's young people prove to have especially gifted technical minds, they could be steered into that essential field, perhaps to make a breakthrough that could result in a new weapon or tactic to give their warriors an edge.

No circuit surge feeders. That opened some avenues. Troy focused on the Cylon and let his eyes follow it in its sentry path. He had to be sure the Cylon was old enough and in bad enough condition... It was a gamble. Well, Starbuck lived half his life by luck, maybe some had rubbed off on him. He had to try.

"Hey?" he called.

The Cylon continued its pacing.

How could he get its attention?

"Hey! Didn't Baltar say I was supposed to be kept alive and unharmed for now?"

A metal head swivelled, finally, to face him.

"Well? Isn't that what Baltar said?"

"That-was-his-command."

"Well, I need some water. I'm human; I need water to live. I'll die of thirst here if somebody doesn't bring me some water." Troy tried to look pathetic, as if he were half dead already – as if this old tinhead could tell the difference between any kind of human in any kind of condition.

The Centurion about-faced and marched out without a word.

Not the reaction he'd hoped for, but at least he had some privacy. Troy threw himself against the door, but it held securely. He pounded on it in frustration for a centon.

The Cylon reappeared. It now carried a large metal container, from which could be heard the sound of sloshing liquid. To a mixture of relief and disappointment in Troy, it no longer carried a laser rifle, although a sword was still in the sheath at its midsection.

"Here-is-the-fluid-you-require."

Troy remained at the door when the Cylon reached it and inserted the keycard into the reader. He took a single step forward, not enough to look like he was trying to sidestep the guard, but enough to appear eager. The cadet accepted the water when extended to him, and raised the container to his lips. The Cylon remained emotionlessly between the human and his potential freedom beyond the door.

Gazed past the Cylon, he suddenly started and gasped. "Starbuck! What are you doing here?"

The Cylon turned, as he'd expected.

"Where-is-"

Facing the Cylon's back, Troy splashed the entire container of water through the open gridwork of its power panel.

Without the protective surge feeders, the water flowed into every controlling circuit of the machine's motor units. There was nothing to contain or reroute the energy fluxes and new connections.

The Cylon jerked and stiffened as a strange screeching came from deep inside its main body; smoke or steam or a mixture of both hissed out of the metal gridwork; sparks suddenly shot across it. The Cylon made no protest or defense as it fell forward and hit the floor. It didn't get up again.

"Wow. Didn't expect that great a reaction."

Troy had been fully prepared to have to fight or dodge some kind of attack. His path unguarded, he raced to the door.

There was nothing in the corridor. Thinking hard to recall the route he'd followed to get here, the very young warrior raced down the hall.

"What do you think you're doing?"

Starbuck jumped guiltily, glanced at the newcomer, then resumed pulling gear out of his locker.

Apollo grabbed his arm. "What do you think you're doing?" he repeated. "You don't need any of that for a star fight."

The lieutenant couldn't quite meet his friend's eyes.

He knew. "You're going after Boxey."

That caught Starbuck. The two men locked gazes.

"Apollo, I can't leave him to Baltar. Not without trying. Somebody's got to try to help him."

He could have cried in gratitude. "You can't. There's nothing any of us can do. You know that. Starbuck... I forbid it. Fight the Cylons if they come ... but don't throw your life away like this."

"I have to."

"No."

Starbuck closed his eyes and let himself fall against the locker. Thank the Lords they were alone for this; he could never have admitted anything in front of the squadron. "Apollo, I have to. He's your son. You're my friend. And even if it were otherwise ... I can't stand by and do nothing. I failed him once. I won't do it again."

Apollo stared at him steadily.

"I can't go back in a classroom and face those cadets without doing something. They have to trust me. They have to know I'll be there for them."

"Even if it kills you? My friend, don't throw your life away like this. I ... need you alive."

The simple words, delivered simply, cut deep.

"Ready, Starbuck?"

Sheba stopped abruptly, staring at Apollo, her expression near panic, quickly closed over.

"You, too, Sheba?"

Her chin lifted in defiance, a look he remembered so well.

"Why? I understand Starbuck's wanting to go. Somehow I knew he would – for all his talk about the cadets. But why you?"

"I have to," she said. Her voice was softer than he remembered it being in a long time. Her firm chin, set and stern as her father's, quivered.

He studied her for a long centon, then made his decision.

"I'm going too." It would be good to be fighting alongside her again, after so long. Even in a lost cause. Even on a one-way mission.

Which way from here? Troy glanced frantically down each of the trisecting corridors. He'd come down one of them, but which? And why hadn't anyone sounded an alarm yet? He'd been out of the incarceration area for at least ten centons – was their security really that lax?

He made a choice and ran.

A familiar hatchway. Glancing around, and still seeing no Cylons, he decided to try it.

The door slid open, and he stepped cautiously through...

...And stared, appalled.

A high pedestal slowly spun around before him, revealing none other than Baltar. The traitor's eyes grew almost as big as a basestar half-hull.

The warrior's eyes were equally large as he realized he'd blundered into the ship's command center.

"Frak!" If he'd had a weapon to hand, Troy would have used it. His only option under the circumstances was to bolt.

Baltar stared, open-mouthed, as the young man in Colonial military garb appeared in his command core, shouted on obscenity, then turned and ran. He couldn't believe his eyes. What was Apollo's brat doing here? Who'd given Adama's grandwhelp the run of the ship?

"Stop him!"

The Cylons in the command center stared stupidly at him. He wondered if they'd even noticed the human's presence. Baltar leapt to his feet and dashed down the command steps.

"My prisoner is loose! Capture him!" he screamed at the top of his lungs, as he grabbed the arm of the nearest trooper.

Centurions lumbered to obey his command.

"He can't get away, he can't..." Baltar blubbered. He strode among the Cylons in a frenzy. "Find that boy, he's my key to Adama – get him back! I must get Adama!"

Kaleb's hands trembled. Wilker'd called him, insisting he was needed, otherwise he would still have been with his wife. Athena had let him go with minimal argument, which was enough to make him wish not to leave her, and he'd almost told Wilker to do it himself. But he was glad he was in the technical laboratory rather than almost anywhere else in the fleet at this micron.

He picked up the datacrystal he'd recovered, almost afraid he might drop it and lose the precious information. Between what he, Boomer, and the rest of the technical team had started on the planet, and what he and Wilker had continued here on the Galactica, they had done it. They had decoded some of the information in the navigational computer banks of the ancient ship. They knew where it came from, and its purpose.

It had been part of the original migration from Kobol, so long ago.

And slightly more recently, it was from Earth.

And Earth was close, so very close. They could reach that world in a short time. With the Cylons right behind them.

Kaleb's hands shook even more at that thought. Just to be on the safe side, and considering their current situation, he made another copy of the data.

The basestar was huge – huge and full of convoluted corridors that went only Cylons-knew-where. Troy raced along those halls, hoping he was still going the correct way – take the left branch, up this ladder, through that hatchway. And wailing from every direction echoed the Cylon alert klaxons.

Had the frakkin' guards taken him through every hall in the ship? Or was his memory bad and he was taking wrong turns? It hadn't taken this long to reach Baltar's chamber – or was time slowing down while the enemy hunted him?

Thinking about it, where in hades were all the Centurions who should have been prowling these corridors? He should have been caught or shot centons ago.

Come to think of it, he hadn't seen many Cylons before, and those he had seen had looked a little ... old.

Apollo, Starbuck, or any of the older, experienced warriors would have noted at once the condition of the resident Cylons: the odd noises whether they were moving or standing still; the discoloration that spoke of age and poor upkeep; the sheer dearth of Centurions in the corridors; and the outdated weapons they carried – Cylons near Colonial space had carried newer models for thirty yahrens. The condition of the ship would have told them much as well, with obviously jerry-rigged equipment, dust piling in little-used areas, and even live insect invaders in dark corners. The warriors would have recognized a vessel on its last tottering legs.

But the cadet didn't. He just thanked his lucky stars he was avoiding the enemy, and wondered when that luck would run out.

"Ready to launch?"

"Ready."

"Ready."

Apollo kept his mouth shut. He wasn't supposed to be in a Viper yet. Let Starbuck or Sheba do the talking. Nobody would suspect him of being in collusion with her, not the way things were between them. But if there was any way to give Boxey a chance...

What would Adama have said about his actions?

To hades with the way his father would have done it. He wasn't Adama. He wasn't in command of a fleet. And Boxey was really all he had.

"This is core command. All Vipers show green to launch. Stand by for orders," came the familiar voice in his ear. It was Rigel; she would know his voice, and she knew he wasn't supposed to be flying. Not a whisper or a sneeze, then. Knowing he was flying when he shouldn't might tip off the commander that something was afoot among his pilots.

He glanced through the canopy, then looked twice. Several young people in pilots' clothes were clustered around the lift. He recognized some of them from Starbuck's and Jolly's latest cadet class. They simply stood there. He knew they had to be thinking of Boxey. They couldn't fly with the squadrons yet, not in battle, obviously, but they could stand and wait.

As he had to wait, for the order to launch, for the opportunity to go after his son and lose his life.

The landing bay! Finally! Troy glanced around frantically. The sirens were as loud here as everywhere else. There were Centurions clustered at the far end of the bay, but they didn't seem to be looking his way. The cadet dashed across several metrons of open deck and ducked into the shadows of a Raider.

He stared longingly up at the open hatch. If only he knew how to fly it! He knew his father and Starbuck had flown Raiders before, more than once. But while he felt secure enough about his ability to fly a Colonial ship, he wasn't ready to take on Cylon controls – especially alone.

Dismissing that possibility, Troy skulked under the ship to get a better view of the rest of the bay.

His heart leaped when he spotted his ship. The cockpit was open and it was unguarded, which should make it easy to reach and get into. But it was settled off to one side, not nestled in a launch track. Despairing, Troy thought there was no way he could ever get that ship out of the bay.

Sounds made an impression on his thoughts, finally hitting him over the alarms. Glancing back toward the corridor, he realized it was the sound of marching metal feet closing on the bay. They'd tracked him! And if he didn't get out of here in the next few microns, they'd have him.

No one was looking his way. He scooted across the open deck and reached his ship. Expecting a laser blast in the back at any moment, he slipped under the nose and grabbed the handholds, swinging himself up into the cockpit with all the speed he was capable of.

Sliding halfway to the floor, twisted in his seat to hide from view, Troy froze for a centon, his heart pounding, listening. He could barely hear anything else over the klaxons, but it didn't sound like anybody had seen him.

Risking a glance over the edge of the cockpit, he could see a small squad of Cylons crossing the deck in perfect drill lockstep. They joined the ones already at the other end of the bay. The eight or so Centurions conferred briefly, then two of them turned back his way.

They're putting a guard on my ship! It was inevitable; he was amazed there hadn't been a guard on the Viper already, but it sent a shiver of panic through him nonetheless.

They'd see him in a centon. Now or never.

Cadet Troy hit the ship's energizer and the canopy closure at the same time. A whine filled his ears as the top closed over him; console lights brightened, and the gauges showed the Viper's power levels rising. The ship's noises were louder, without a helmet.

What now? His ship faced the broad expanse of the bay; the entry to the bay was behind him; there was a solid wall between him and space. Only one thought came to his mind. It's crazy! I'll be killed!

What did he have to lose? He let his fingers act before the thought was complete.

Laser blasts shattered the bay, burning through ships and girder supports, then the outer wall itself. Fires sprang up from ignited equipment. Cylon Centurions double-timed toward him. A sudden wind began to sweep everything toward the far wall. Troy hit the launch switch.

Without the protection of his helmet, he felt every gee of acceleration and shock as his ship threw itself forward. For a micron he was rushing toward fire and falling debris. Then he was blind.

The cadet screamed.

"Where is he?" Baltar shrieked at the silver Centurion. "Why haven't you found him? How hard can it be to find one human boy on a Cylon ship?"

The machine stared silently.

Baltar watched its ocular for a long centon, then threw his chalice at it. "Get out!" he roared.

He stalked around his chambers after the Centurion marched out, working himself up into an even greater frenzy. They would pay for this humiliation. Adama would pay. Apollo would pay. Starbuck would pay. Boxey would pay. They all would pay...

One of the guards lumbered back in.

"By-your-command."

"What?"

"The-human-has-escaped."

"What?"

"He-reached-his-Viper-and-launched."

"Launched!" Spittle dropped from his mouth, and his eyes were wild.

"He-blew-a-hole-in-the-side-of-the-ship-and-escaped. There-are-fires-in-the-bay-and-we-are-repairing-decompression."

Baltar fell back into a chair any king would have been glad to use as a throne. His face was slack in shock. The boy – Apollo's son – had escaped. And damaged his ship in the process.

He began to laugh, a broken, sporadic, demented laugh. Something inside whispered that it was only fitting and proper.

The Centurion stared at him.

He stared back. "It would be Apollo's son. Adama's grandson. It would be him to do this to me. I should have ordered him killed the moment you brought him aboard..." He hiccuped several times, then ordered, "Well, get our ships out after him!"

"By-your-command." The Cylon left.

Baltar threw his head back and laughed.

Blind! He was blind! He couldn't see a thing, there was nothing. He groped for his face, letting go of the control stick. His stomach lurched as though his ship had thrown itself into some unknown maneuver of its own.

He blinked. Something was forming before him, lights in the darkness. Stars ... they're stars! But they're... Of course! Without my helmet, I've got no interior lights, there's just the console lights, that's why things are so different. And my eyes didn't have time to adjust...

He wasn't blind, he could see. But additional ramifications of no helmet were occurring to him. He would have no vocal communications; he could signal, but not talk to, another person. And nobody could talk to him either. He groped for the control stick again, clutching it tightly, regaining control by gauging the spin of the stars around him and carefully countering it. He hadn't had time to bring up every screen in that hasty launch; now he worked by memory and feel to bring more systems online and figure out exactly what his ship was doing. The most encouraging sign was his power levels – he still had enough fuel for a long voyage or even a bit of a fight if it came to it.

"But what do I do?" he asked aloud. In the closeness of his ship, with nothing over his ears, his voice sounded strange.

Every fiber of his physical and emotional being screamed "Home!" Every rational fiber said "No," that going to the Galactica would betray his people, that he shouldn't.

He finally triggered the lights of his scanner. Behind the little white blink that was his Viper were a number of other blinks in colors and shapes that said "Cylons."

Youthful fear won out. He turned his ship for home and hit his turbos.

"Commander-Baltar. By-your-command."

The Cylon had to repeat itself twice before Baltar drew himself far enough out of his own mind to respond, "What is it?"

"The-human-is-flying-toward-the-Colonial-fleet."

"Launch more fighters. Get him. Get them all."

"The-fire-in-the-bay-continues. If-we-launch-ships-now-we-may-not-be-able-to-land-them."

"That is irrelevant. Launch. Get him. Destroy the fleet. Do whatever it takes. Throw everything we have at them."

"By-your-command."

The Cylon departed, leaving the madman to fall back into his own pit of insanity, crooning to himself as he dropped deeper and deeper into whatever it was he saw. He embraced the loss of self and reality. If it would give him Adama, he would embrace Diabolis himself.

"Commander! Long-range scan reports Cylons closing on our position. Several squadrons worth. Shall we order our Vipers into space?"

"Affirmative, Omega."

The command was given; all squadrons launched.

"Commander?" interrupted the blond tech. He was holding a datacrystal as carefully as if all their lives depended on it. "Commander, there's something–"

"Later, Kaleb. Please, later." And please let there be time later for it.

"Commander!" Omega's eyes were wide, but his voice was steady. "Scanners are picking up one Colonial Viper slightly ahead of the Cylon phalanx! It's not from our squadrons, it's from their direction!"

Tigh whirled. "Cadet Troy?"

"Transponder signal suggests affirmative," Omega replied with a wide, hopeful grin.

"Inform our pilots." The commander's voice had picked up a trace of huskiness. He stared at the screen, trying hard not to let his tears show.

"Colonial-ships-are-launching. We-are-preparing-to-meet-their-attack," the Cylon intoned.

Baltar merely giggled.

"Unless-you-have-other-orders-Commander-Baltar."

He stopped suddenly and stared around. "Where's Lucifer? Where is that mechanical mistake?"

The Cylon waited, red eye wending its way across its face.

"Lucifer? Lucifer?"

The Cylon had no concept of insanity; even if it had, there was no way it could countermand its programmed orders. The latest data the antiquated basestar had received from any of its capital communications centers, yahrens ago, was to obey the human Baltar. It waited for his commands.

Troy's ship had taken damage in his escape. His ship had power, but his front stabilizers were definitely giving him trouble. Beyond his simple transponder signal, he seemed to have no comm frequencies. He knew he had no more weapons, either – he'd accidentally hit his lasers instead of turbos at one point, to no response whatsoever. The lack of lighting threw odd shadows in his cockpit; nothing felt familiar.

A laser hit some dust mote nearby or was detonated by proximity to his ship. The Viper rocked off course. Another laser hit below. Troy thought with a sinking feeling that he was bracketed. Any micron now, they'd have him.

"Cadet, identify yourself! Boxey, is it you? Please respond, Cadet!" Starbuck held his breath, but there was no answer on any frequency.

The Cylons were shooting. He could make out individual ships against the starfield now, not just little blips on his scanner screen. Whoever was in that Viper was in trouble...

The enemy flight ahead of him broke formation. The Cylons were splitting up to meet the Colonial fighters. Starbuck kept his eye on the lonely fleeing Viper, following it, flying past and ignoring two Cylon ships that would have engaged him.

"Hang on, kid," he muttered grimly. "I'm coming. They're not gonna get you..."

Apollo saw Boxey's ship and the Raider behind it. And now, all around that pair, were laser volleys and clusters of debris as Colonials and Cylons joined in combat. The pursuer ignored the rest, intent on its target, which was certainly in range...

He was too far away! There was no way he could reach Boxey in time!

The Raider suddenly jerked off its course in a swirl that trailed ribbons of debris for a micron until it exploded spectacularly. Another Viper appeared through the wreckage and took position beside the first.

"It's all right, Boxey, we'll get you back to the Galactica. Just stay with me, we're going home..."

Starbuck's voice, steady and never more welcome. Apollo let the two ships pass, then fell in behind them to guard their rear as his friend and his son flew home. It took him a centon to remember to breathe.

Starbuck had been the ranking pilot, he should have named a senior pilot to take command when he left the battle. "Sheba, take over," Apollo ordered, forgetting that he wasn't supposed to be in space.

She acknowledged. A moment later, a call from the battlestar's bridge ordered the captain back to his base to answer for disobeying his grounding order.

Or was it just to make sure he was there when a cadet landed?

"Why isn't he answering our hail?" Omega worried under his breath.

"What's that, Colonel?" Tigh asked.

"Uh ... Starbuck reports the Viper is preparing for a landing run, but may have problems because of obvious stabilizer damage. Still no communications..."

"And?" the commander prompted.

"Commander, are we absolutely certain this is our cadet? What if it's a Cylon trick? What if that ship's packed with solenite?" he asked somberly.

Tigh released a long, slow breath. "Starbuck and Apollo are accompanying it. Do you think they haven't considered the possibility? Do you think they'd let that happen?"

Omega shook his head. "No. It must be Troy." He turned decisively back to his console.

"Omega?"

"Yes, Tigh?"

"Has Captain Apollo landed yet?"

"In final approach right now."

"Wait until the other ship is safely aboard before you remind him to report to me."

His throat was too dry to speak. Captain Apollo could only watch mutely, his friends beside him, as the other Viper made its approach. Its third approach. Twice the ship had come close, then veered off at the last micron. Twice something had gone wrong, but they didn't know what, and couldn't ask.

"He'll make it this time," Starbuck muttered. "Third time's always different. If you've been lucky twice, don't tempt fate. If it's gone wrong twice, the third time works."

Maybe Starbuck's superstition was right, but this time the Viper took a chance. The silver streak came in for a wobbly excuse of a landing, tipping sideways and dipping nose-down when stabilizers failed and landing struts crumpled with the braking force. The front of the ship twisted off and screeched away across the deck in a spray of sparks, scarring the floor and nearly shattering the eardrums of those who waited anxiously.

It took the captain several centons to realize the rest of the Viper was no longer moving. Hangar techs swarmed over it, dousing the smoking wreck with boroton. Several members of the explosives squad mingled among them, monitoring every panel of the ship in their search for anything that shouldn't be there.

Apollo took a tentative step forward, only to have Boomer and Starbuck catch his arms.

"Wait, Apollo. Let them make sure..."

He could have clubbed Boomer for what that implied.

A noise from the ship signaled the lifting of the canopy, grinding in protest. It froze partway up, refusing to move any further, but the youth within squirmed though the cleft, sliding forward and dropping off the torn nose.

Boxey.

Before the captain could move, another figured pushed past him and raced across the deck. Now backing away from his ship and not looking back, the cadet ran into the blonde girl. They bounced off each other.

"Loma," Apollo announced quietly, recognizing one of Boxey's friends. He had taken two steps before his son whirled around, recognized the girl too, and held out his arms with a smile of such relief that Apollo thought the boy's prayers had all been answered.

The warriors could hear Loma crying as she threw herself into Boxey's arms.

The captain's jaw dropped, and he could only stare at what suddenly looked suspiciously like young lovers. Beside him, he heard a slow chuckle, quickly smothered when Boomer planted an elbow in Starbuck's ribs.

"He's grown up," Apollo breathed. Some instinct held him back for a centon before he moved forward to welcome Boxey home.

Commander Tigh's log: Our first encounter with the Cylons in over seven yahrens has ended in victory. Our squadrons, under Lieutenant Sheba, routed the Cylon attack force sent by the traitor Baltar. The remnants of that force broke off their attack and retreated. We do not know if they returned to their base or dispersed into space. Reports of their battle activity suggest extremely erratic and uncoordinated computer activity.

Additionally, our Cadet Troy has returned safe and sound from captivity on a Cylon basestar. His actions while a prisoner, and the information he has brought back, have earned him a Silver Star of Honor. It is well-deserved, and for once the Council has been unstinting in its praise and recognition of what our young warrior has been through.

Cadet Troy reports the Cylon ship is in an extraordinary condition of decay, with its soldiers and all systems showing signs of age and ill repair. He also confirms my suspicions, after speaking with Baltar, that the man is insane, and somehow remains convinced that Commander Adama is still alive.

We have positioned our fleet in near proximity to the storm, which continues to cross space at a rapid rate. It is our hope that this storm, which affects scanners and other electronic equipment, will have greater detrimental effect on our enemy. It is also possible that, with the condition of these Cylons, they may not be able to sustain pursuit much longer before their ship and crew are beyond repair.

One way or another, we must lose the Cylons soon. The evidence that Kaleb, Wilker, Haldia, and their team have extracted from the derelict ship shows that Earth is scant sectons from here. Sectons. After so long, it seems unreal to be so near. What will Earth be like? What kind of people live there now? Will she be able to protect us, and herself, if the Cylons are really so close? Or can we elude Baltar and hide ourselves long enough to warn the Earth people and prepare for war, if need be?

These are not easy questions. And there is only one way to learn the answers. We must go to Earth.

Sectons...

Baltar drummed his fingers on the arm of his chair, his frustration growing. After a few moments, he all but threw himself from his seat and began to stalk the chamber in meandering, aimless circles around the pedestal's base.

His attack force was destroyed. The few ships that had survived to return had not been able to land because of the fire and damage in the bay. Rather than delay while repairs were effected, those ships had been left behind so the basestar could pursue the Colonials; it was irrelevant to their commander that he was now without a fighter force. The Galactica and her fleet had vanished into the storm before him, and his ancient, broken-down scanners couldn't track them. Even if they could have followed, it was possible the storm's irregularities would interfere with his Cylons' operations. All Baltar could do now was send a team to the planet and hope for clues in the few centars he was allowing the team; Adama's people had obviously found something there, maybe he would too. Of course, the crew and shuttle-probe he'd sent would never be able to land again, so it was already written off, whether it learned anything or not.

The only thought of any importance, the only thought that really made an impact on him, was the certainty that Adama had escaped him once more. But it would not happen again. Next time his enemy would die. Even if Baltar had to die too and drag Adama with him into hades...

It took several centons for the Cylon Centurion's presence to penetrate his thoughts.

"We-believe-we-have-located-the-system-the-Colonials-seek," the machine droned when he glared at it. "It-lies-along-the-course-we-have-been-following."

"Nine planets, one sun?"

"Our-information-is-not-precise-but-we-believe-so."

"To that system, then. How long until we reach it?"

"At-our-maximum-speed-we-can-reach-it-in-two-sectons."

"Good. Proceed."

"By-your-command."

Two sectons, he mused when the soldier had left. Not so long, when there were already ten yahrens behind him. But an eternity to stretch ahead. Earth. Could Adama really have found that legendary planet? Could there really be humans there? He could certainly make better speed than that lumbering fleet of Adama's; he would be there first. Maybe he could prepare a surprise...

Lying in his bunk in life center, newly-made Sergeant Troy stared at the bit of silvery metal with its starfire jewel. The Silver Star of Honor, a twelve-pointed starburst with iridescent wings on either side and an oval-cut gem in the middle that refracted light in small bursts of brilliance. An award exceeded in honor and esteem only by the Gold Cluster and the Star of Kobol. And he had won it; Commander Tigh and President Tinia had given it to him only a centar before, promising him an official ceremony when Salik and Cassiopeia okayed it.

He stroked the wings again, thinking how good it would look at his throat, pinned between his Colonial insignia and flying above the dress brass. No cadet – or sergeant! – had ever received the award at so young an age. But then, how many warriors his age had ever faced active duty and combat? And survived Cylon captivity? And come back with information the fleet so vitally needed?

He put down that puff of arrogant pride even as he set down the Star. Yes, he might be exceeding everything his father had done at his age, even Apollo had admitted as much. But Morgan had died in that battle.

Troy sighed, feeling an ache that he suspected would take a long time to fade. He wished he didn't have to stay here for the interminable battery of medical examinations. He wanted to be with the rest of his friends, especially–

"Ho, Troy." A young woman in warrior tan slipped into his room. "Feel like company?"

All troubles were less important with Loma there. He smiled and held out a hand. She took it and sat down beside him.

"We all heard about your medal," she told him. "Most of the cadets are thrilled, and we're gonna have a party for you, and in memory of Morgan. Can I see your Star?"

He handed her the award with his free hand, still holding her hand. She didn't try to pull away.

In the doorway, the young man's father watched for just a micron, then decided he could visit his son later. He slipped out again without being seen.

"You're cleared, Boomer! You passed everything!" sang out the tester's voice. "Above minimum requirements in all areas, top of the scale in several. Hah! Let's see those young cadets call that 'past our prime'!"

Boomer grinned at Starbuck's comments as he threw open the canopy of the simulator. "I get the feeling you're taking this personally, buddy."

Starbuck set aside the computron. "You know, Boomer," he said with sudden seriousness, "I didn't realize how much I missed you in the squadron. All these kids... And fewer of us ... trained and experienced warriors from the Academies. Do you realize how many of us have retired in the past few yahrens?"

"Yeah, I know. We thought we'd fought our battles. But how many are coming back?"

The blond grinned. "Just about everybody. We'll show these kids how it's done." Serious again, he said, "Though we're all wishing it were under other circumstances. Are you sure you want this, Boomer? I mean, with what you've been doing these past few yahrens..."

"I like what I'm doing. But I know where I'm needed. And being a warrior just gets into your blood." Boomer jumped out of the simulator and joined Starbuck. "I ... missed it. I missed you guys. It feels like I'm coming home."

"Welcome back, buddy." They clasped wrists in a timeless gesture of friendship and unity.

Life center was a busy place. Captain Apollo walked through it without noticing what was going on around him. His bemused thoughts were on Boxey and Loma, and he suddenly laughed out loud at the thought that he was too young to be a grandfather. But the young people were only seventeen, and there were likely to be more yahrens and relationships and loves before they were ready to settle down to marriage and family.

Marriage and family... He sucked in a heavy breath. So long since Serina had died. So long since he'd entertained notions of settling down again with Sheba.

Since then, there had been no woman with whom he'd considered a permanent relationship or a family. A few brief relationships and several very good friendships, of course, but nobody he'd considered sealing with.

"I noticed Boxey wasn't alone," interrupted a voice. "I wasn't sure how you'd take it."

He looked up. "Hi, Cass. I can't stop my son from growing up, can I? Any more than my father could stop me or Athena or Zac," he added thoughtfully. "It's not easy being a parent."

"Wise man," she smiled. She touched his arm. "Excuse me, Randal's here to see me..."

He let her go and headed out of the life station.

A moment later there was another touch on his arm.

"Captain?"

Apollo turned to discover Sheba beside him. He was too stunned to say anything.

She shifted her feet, nervousness written all over her. "I'm glad Boxey's all right," she said abruptly, and stepped away.

He restrained her by catching her hand. "Thank you, Sheba," he finally managed to say. "Uh..." The captain didn't know what to say next. What was there to say to someone who'd actively avoided him for yahrens?

They stared at each other awkwardly for a moment.

"Do you want to talk?" he finally asked.

"I'm ... not sure," Sheba responded. "It's... Yes, I do want to talk, but ... I don't know how anymore..."

They stood in silence a few centons more.

"Well," Apollo said tentatively, "how about starting with why you want to talk?"

"I..." She closed her eyes and drew a deep breath as if steeling herself. Cain's daughter would never back away; she found her strength in that. "I ... well, when we thought Boxey was dead, I felt... I wondered if ... the way you were feeling, and the way I was feeling..."

"If I blamed you? Or thought you should have been there?"

"Yes."

"Like you thought I should have been there for Bojay?"

"Yes." She tensed.

He tried to find words to explain, but first he had to think, long and hard, about whether he had felt any anger at her, or held her responsible in any way. He finally concluded that if there had been any anger, Boxey's safe return had washed it away.

"No. I wasn't angry, I don't think. Not at you. And I don't blame you. We're warriors. We take our chances..."

"How can you not blame me?" she demanded in astonishment.

His eyebrows raised. "Why do I have to blame anybody, except the Cylons?"

Her eyes narrowed. "You're impossible! You're just trying to make me feel guilty!"

Exasperation overwhelmed everything else. "Sheba... Never mind. It's not worth it."

He marched away, only to hear a sob behind him. Sighing, he turned back.

"Sheba, why do you insist on seeing everything as a personal matter to you?" he asked wearily. "You treat everything I do or say as though it's just to irritate you. I've tried to talk to you, and you walk away. You obviously don't trust me or want me around. So why are you here? What do you want?"

"I don't know! But you could at least have the courtesy to feel something about me!"

"You haven't wanted me to feel anything about you in yahrens!" he exclaimed. "Why now?"

"Because I haven't been fair!"

He nearly fell over.

"All this time I've been thinking about how I feel, and not considering how you feel. And now I know how you must have felt, because I felt it too, when Boxey was gone and we thought he was dead. And I can't stand the thought of you feeling the way about me that I felt about you, when I know how you felt! It wasn't fair, and I won't let you do it! I won't let you feel that way and make me feel that way!"

"Huh?" Now totally mystified, Apollo could only stare. He fully expected her to turn on her heel and stalk off.

"Well?"

"I don't even want to try and make sense of that. Sheba, why don't we stop talking about the past, and tell me what you want now, or for the future."

"I want you to forgive me," she said softly. "For the way I abused you, all these yahrens, and for anything I might have done or didn't do that would have kept Boxey safe."

"If it will make any difference," he said with difficulty, "I'll forgive you. So now what?"

There were tears in her eyes. "I don't know. I guess we'll have to wait and see, Captain."

"Okay, Lieutenant."

She turned away quickly. Apollo wasn't sure if anything had been settled, or they'd only muddied the waters more. Sometimes Sheba could be completely unpredictable... But he had plenty of other things to think about, so this would have to wait for a better time.

"Am I ever going to see my husband again?" demanded a voice heavy with mock indignation.

Kaleb smiled, but pretended not to hear and kept his eyes fastened on the spectroscan lines on his screen. A moment later, two slim, perfect hands rested on either shoulder. They were warm and felt very good.

"Kaleb."

"Hi, Athena." He finally touched a save code and leaned back against her. "I've been ignoring you again, haven't I?"

"Yes, you have," she agreed amiably. She slipped under his arm to stand close beside him, her own arms remaining around his waist as she rested her head against his shoulder. "I've been willing to make a few allowances, considering how close we are to Earth. But I must point out, tomorrow is Zac's birth celebration, and he won't forgive his father if he's not there."

"So invite him."

She swatted his backside. "You keep talking like this and I will!"

He caught her hand, laughing. "I'll be there, I promise. Speaking of Earth, how are the masses taking the news?"

"The fleet's in a frenzy," she admitted thoughtfully. "I've been monitoring broadcasts since Tigh made the announcement. Even with all his cautions about not knowing what we'll find there, nearly everybody's celebrating, one way or another. There are a few dire predictions, of course, but... Oh, it feels so good to have a destination, a real destination, and an arrival time, not just a misty someplace somewhere in the future. I wish my father could have lived for this..."

"Me, too," Kaleb said. He'd always had a great deal of respect for Commander Adama, and some awe. It had taken a long time for him to believe the man's daughter was really attracted to him. After their sealing, of course, he and Adama had become quite good friends, which had meant much better relations and communication between the military and technical contingents of the crew.

"I wish he'd lived to see the boys, too. Glad we have them?" he asked, staring at her face.

"Of course! Why wouldn't I?"

"It wasn't that long ago you regretted it, and wished you'd never had children, because we didn't have a chance and what was the point."

She twisted and put her arms around his neck. "You should know better than to listen to me when I'm upset. I say things I don't mean – or I mean them at the moment, but they don't make sense. I'd never give you or the boys up. Never. And if we can't find a way to live, the Cylons might as well win."

"They're still behind us, aren't they?" he asked somberly. The technocrat earnestly wished his warrior wife could tell him otherwise.

"We aren't sure. Tigh seems confident we lost them in the storm, for now. They may find us again..." Kaleb couldn't stop a bit of a shiver. She tightened her embrace. "But maybe not."

"There's so much more at stake now..." he said reflectively.

She nodded, some dark fear still lurking in her eyes. They'd both lived with the danger and the hope for so long, there wasn't anything she needed to say.

Starbuck stood in the passageway, indecisive. Should he go see Cassiopeia? Or take it on faith that she'd be busy? It would be good to see her, but there was something so crushing when she was too busy. He didn't feel like walking away.

Funny thing, that. There had been so many times in the past when just walking away had been the easiest way to deal with relationships. Now he was afraid of having to walk away.

I guess I don't want to be alone. I gotta stop thinkin' about Morgan, that's what makes me feel this way. Thinkin' about that kid, not havin' any family, being alone.

So why am I sittin' here thinkin' about Cassie? There are other women, other people I could be with – I could hit the OC, there's bound to be friends there...

Starbuck kept telling himself that he could go elsewhere and find plenty of company of both sexes, but for some reason he didn't want it. He stood in the empty corridor for several long centons before walking away.

"Did you talk to him?"

"I did," Sheba replied flatly.

"And?" Cassiopeia prompted.

The other woman sighed. "I don't know if it did any good. I ... couldn't get the words out right."

"Apollo's a sensitive and understanding man," the doctor assured her. "I'm sure he understood – and if he doesn't yet, he'll keep listening until he does. Give him time."

Sheba's melancholy expression held little hope. "Time may be the problem. I've given him no time for so long, how can he know what I'm trying to say? And why should he even want to hear it, much less understand?" After a few moments she said, trying to change the subject, "But what about you? Have you had any time to talk to Starbuck recently?"

"No."

"Have you thought about him?"

"Always."

"Always?" Sheba repeated skeptically. "Is that why you're always so wrapped up in your medical training and arranging fleet medical support?"

"Always," Cassiopeia replied with a half-smile. "Between reports and schedules, while I'm shuttling between ships, in the night when I'm alone. Whenever I have a moment, and I can let myself think of him."

"So how much time are you going to give him?"

"As much as it takes," Cassiopeia vowed.

She thought about Starbuck, and all the time they'd shared over the long yahrens, some of the things Starbuck's father had said before he died – not that the lieutenant had ever known what Chameleon was to him. Starbuck had told Chameleon that he might seal, when they got to Earth. Now the fleet was almost there. How would things change? Could things change?

Sheba thought about Apollo, and all the things they'd shared as friends and warriors, the arguments they'd had, how close they'd finally become, the way it had all ended at Bojay's death. Once, Apollo had seemed the ideal warrior and companion, a man she might spend her life with, the perfect antidote to loneliness in a crowded fleet. Maybe she'd approached him for the wrong reasons even then. Maybe that was why it had been so easy to shut him out later.

The women sighed in unison.

A Cylon basestar, too far away for Colonial scanners and staying safely beyond the storm's reach, moved with definite purpose through the starfield. Something scuttled across a console. No one paid any attention to the vermin.

A few centons later, when there was a short sound of frying and a little puff of black smoke, no one paid any attention either.

The Centurion on duty did notice when one of its monitors ran almost to the red line for a micron, but such problems with the gauges were common now. Computer back-ups and self-checks showed nothing wrong with any equipment. The short flare-up was reported, as per procedure, but the information was lost somewhere between input and saved data banks.

Commander Tigh's log: A second debriefing with Sergeant Troy has revealed nothing more. As a newly-made warrior, he perhaps did not make the observations a more experienced pilot would have, but from what he recalls, I am confident that Commander Baltar has not communicated our location to his superiors in the Cylon Empire. With the cosmic storm between us and any outpost of Cylon, there is no way he could make contact at this time. It is Troy's belief that Baltar's personal vendetta against our former commander has blinded him to rational thought and behavior, and this is why he has not contacted Cylon.

We therefore face an enemy we cannot predict. It is risky to face an insane and unpredictable foe, but there is also relief in trusting that we will not soon be facing the entire power of the Cylons. And madness may well blind Baltar to his current weaknesses.

From observations of the recent battles between our warriors and Baltar, coupled with our youngest pilot's information, we believe Baltar's force to be on the verge of collapse from age and ill-repair. It may be only a matter of time, of a few sectons more of survival, before he is no longer able to mount an attack, and we can destroy our enemy utterly.

With that hope in mind, I have decided to divide the fleet. We will proceed into the Earth system, make contact with their planet, if there is a central authority with whom we can speak. The Galactica will then leave the system, which can begin settlement and unification with our Earth brothers, while we return to space to seek out Baltar. I have presented this plan to Siress Tinia and Sire Hogan, and they find it acceptable.

On a more personally aggravating note, the Council has reestablished the position of civilian liaison to the military. Various of the Council have raised the matter before, but never succeeded in pushing the matter. Siress Tinia is too involved in her duties as President of the Council to resume her former role as liaison. Therefore, Sire Hogan has been appointed to ensure that we approach Earth, and whatever government she may have, in an appropriately "diplomatic" manner.

I am grateful that at least we have a councilor who respects the military and with whom we can deal on equal terms. Hogan is young, but competent, and he is at least on speaking terms with some of our senior warriors, including myself and the flight commander.

I believe Sire Geller was least thrilled with the choice, but was unwilling to accept the position himself. For that, I believe we can thank Captain Apollo, who, I'm afraid, was present through the entire selection discussion. I have been called upon to speak to the captain about his behavior and comments at that meeting. I will do so, although perhaps not as the Sire would wish. There will, however, be no disciplinary action taken, despite Geller's demands.

Soon

Commander Tigh's log: The last sectons have been extremely tense and nerve-wracking for our warriors and civilians both. We have lived in a sort of vacuum, preparing, but now Earth is only days away. None of our patrols report any sign of Cylon activity. We appear to have lost our enemy again. But I remember too well the times we have thought that in the past, only to find them waiting for us in some new ambush. I will not be misled or deceived, not now.

We have transferred civilian ship's members and certain of our military personnel to the fleet, at President Tinia's suggestion, both to assist in the physical and diplomatic approach to Earth, and for the more personal reason that they have families. If we are to be separated from the fleet for some long period, we will not be separating families. The Cylons have done enough of that to last through the end of time.

Additionally, we have split our squadrons, leaving Green and Yellow with the fleet to ensure their safety over these next few sectons. Baltar has few, if any, fighters left, and they should be sufficient for anything but a full basestar assault – and I have confidence in the fleet's ability to scatter before any such attack while our warriors do what they must.

Our warriors seem more alive than they have for yahrens. I understand why. For so long, it had seemed we were all but forgotten by our people. We did our duty, as always, but there was a sense that those duties were little more than a nuisance to the fleet, not a necessary part of survival. I am glad to see our warriors determined and full of purpose again, but it is disturbing to wonder if we need war to justify our existence.

I hope this war is at last over, for us, and I look forward to the day when we can all have families and useful, purposeful lives without fear or restrictions.

Lieutenant Athena is among the transferred personnel. She and her husband and children are remaining with the fleet. I miss them both already, and those young scamps of theirs. Zac is almost the same age as Boxey, at the Destruction. I saw Boxey grow up, wishing there was no need for children to live on a warship. Now I see Zac and Jude, among so many others, and realize how naturally I take their presence.

Perhaps it is a sign that we have come full circle...

"You're sure you're doing the right thing?" Kaleb asked, leaning near to whisper into his wife's ear. From the observation deck of the Rising Star, they could see the Galactica moving ahead of the fleet. "We could still go back, send the boys with the fleet, Haldia says she'll take them. They know her and like her, they'd be fine for a while..."

"No. We stay with the fleet and wait for the Galactica to come back to us," she said resolutely.

"How do you know they'll come back?"

"Faith," she replied.

"Faith?" he repeated stupidly. Like many warriors, Athena had never shown much inclination toward organized religion – they saw too much destruction, were often exposed to many beliefs and ideologies among their varied human cultures, and had to be tolerant of them all if they wanted, in good conscience, to defend their fellow Colonials. But then, Adama had always had a leaning toward the mystical, even a bond with it, and it wouldn't surprise Kaleb if that streak were now showing through in his daughter.

"Faith," she echoed softly. "My father can't be wrong. We'll find a new life on Earth, all of us."

He didn't want to ask what would happen otherwise. "And that faith is enough for you?" he asked. More carefully, he continued with, "You were ready to resign from the service only a few days ago."

"Yes, I know." She smiled faintly.

"I thought when you said we were going with the fleet that you had gone ahead and done it. I was surprised to see you still in uniform."

"Kaleb," she held his hand more tightly. "I thought about resigning because it seemed like the only time anyone cared about us was when we had to die. That seemed the only thing a warrior could do, and it served no purpose because we were all going to die anyway. It didn't seem to matter if I ran away." She sighed pensively. "I've been listening to some of my father's journals. I've found myself again. I've found faith. I have faith in what we're doing, and in my own ability." She turned to him, smiling again. "And I have faith in your ability to carry on if I'm not here – although I have every intention of continuing to be here."

"So you're still a warrior. That brings me back to my other question. Why aren't you staying with the Galactica?"

With a flash of playful fire, she came back with, "Are you trying to get rid of me?"

Kaleb laughed, overjoyed to know he had back the Athena he had loved and been sealed with for eight contented yahrens.

"Coordinate all reports, please," Colonel Omega ordered calmly.

Microns later, information flowed across his screen, then disintegrated and reformed to allow him to compare data.

The colonel cross-checked the reports from ship's scanners, patrols, and technical teams. Everything still showed clear, with the obvious exception of lingering storm interference causing a few areas of near blindness; disturbing, but considering how unlikely the Cylons were to risk the storm, still correctable. Project Interlock was, for all intents and purposes, over, but technicians continued to complete minor details and offer suggestions for future modification.

Satisfied with both, Omega made a notation that the reports had been reviewed, suggested that additional patrols be dispatched to cover their blind area, and sent them on to the commander before turning to other duties.

He briefly noted Sire Hogan standing awkwardly in the background and assigned the knowledge to some remote corner of his mind. The Council had insisted their liaison accompany the battlestar on its mission, however unnecessary he was likely to be. What the young councilor thought of his mission, Omega didn't know. He did, however, suspect that certain members of the Council would be quite happy to see the military and one of its closest supporters far distant from Earth during the first momentous days.

Then again, maybe he was being cynical for no reason. They might have lost Baltar; the warriors might be able to settle into peace with the rest of their people.

"Welcome back, son." Captain Apollo knew his voice softened, and quickly tried to firm it up again. It was good to have Boxey out of life center and cleared for duty again, but there was no need to single out the youth for special treatment. "Blue Squadron needs all the good warriors it can put in a Viper. We're glad to have you back, Sergeant."

The young man grinned irrepressibly. Loma, at his side, smiled as proudly and self-importantly as if she'd created the hero herself. Classmates buzzed around the pair, animatedly sharing gossip and asking questions.

Apollo watched them walk to their seats; despite what was believed a posthumous award of rank, Boxey – Troy – still had things to learn about flying, fighting, and other topics, and would stay in his secondaries until he graduated with the other cadets.

He and his son had talked over that, along with a great many things, in the past few days. Sergeant Troy was part of Blue Squadron, but detached until he completed these last few courses.

Apollo watched the young people for a few moments. It felt good, seeing them, hearing them. They were the warriors of the next generation, the ones who would – as Starbuck had glumly commented – take over from them and Boomer and Jolly and the others, and defend their people. And he felt proud of them. Let them have a few moments to share this first glory. Time enough for fighting and dying. Like Morgan had...

Rather than calling the cadets to order for the class that was already behind schedule, he bent his head over his comp-sheets, not seeing, just listening to hear when they would be ready to start.

It was something of a shock to Starbuck to walk into the OC, when he had a free shift, and see a group of his latest cadets sitting around a table. Sure, he'd seen his students become warriors before, but he'd never seen Boxey as an adult, not like this. He stood open-mouthed for a moment, feeling like his world had been taken apart and put back together when he wasn't looking.

"Starbuck!"

Boxey had seen him, and was waving him over. The other cadets immediately raised a welcoming chorus as well.

Starbuck recovered enough to move over to the table where Loma had already slid closer to Boxey, enough to make room for the lieutenant on the cushions beside them. One of the others set off for another round of beverages from the bar.

"Troy said you were the one who saved his tail out there, Lieutenant!" the slim blonde piped up as the greetings died down.

"All in a day's work for a warrior," was all he could think to say as five pairs of young eyes stayed on him. They were shy, but missing some of the hero-worship he remembered from their classes. "Just like blasting holes in Cylon basestars and leaving Baltar looking like a fool," he added, throwing the conversation back at Boxey.

The kids hooted with laughter. Boxey leaned forward eagerly. "All I could think of was what you'd have done. Say, Starbuck, do you think..."

Talk turned to flying, battles, and other facets of military life. Lieutenant Jolly and a reinstated Lieutenant Boomer joined them a centar or so later. By the time they had all downed a healthy quantity of ambrosas – Boxey and Loma only had two each, the older warriors noted – much of the age difference between the pilots was gone. From now on, Starbuck knew, they would be fellow warriors, not teachers and pupils.

"Debriefing reports from Red Squadron patrols of the last duty shift," came a voice professional almost to the point of being stilted.

Apollo glanced up to study Sheba. She looked tense; he knew why. She didn't know what kind of reception she would receive. Thinking back, Apollo couldn't remember Sheba bringing the patrol reports to him since ... ever. She hadn't become Red Squadron's flight leader until after Bojay's death. She hadn't been to his quarters since then.

"Thank you, Sheba," he said, managing to sound casual. "Think you could stay around long enough to cross-check the reports from Red and Blue Squadrons and the fleet?"

"I'm off duty; I think I could spare the time."

"Have a seat. I'll pour a little vignon, since we're both off for a shift or so."

"Thank you."

Talk stayed on their debriefings, as Apollo had said, but by the time they parted, both felt much more at ease and relieved to have survived a very difficult step.

Commander Tigh's log: The fleet is gathered in the outermost limits of the Earth System. Yellow and Green Squadrons, along with portions of our other forces, are now billeted with a number of the Interlock ships.

The rest of Red and Blue Squadrons remain with the Galactica as we survey the system. Most of our pilots are on long patrols. If Baltar still has fighters, we would be very vulnerable. We seem, however, to have left the Cylons behind. Let us hope our luck continues while we set up our base and prepare...

Either somebody hadn't done their job properly or his equipment was finally showing its age. Neither would have been surprising, under the circumstances. It was unmistakably luck that the problem didn't prove fatal.

Due for another long patrol, Lieutenant Starbuck climbed briskly into his Viper and began prelaunch.

Something gave.

Sparks flew from one panel. He snatched back his fingers just in time. Power arced through the toggle he'd been touching, across to others. More sparks.

Starbuck realized almost at once that this wasn't a simple malfunction. Hastily punching open his canopy, he scrambled out, trying not to touch anything inside. The techs didn't realize anything was wrong until he threw himself from the side of his ship, rolling across the deck. As they came running, his seat ignited and the inside of the Viper exploded in orange heat.

Somebody had the intelligence to grab some boroton mist containers and use them before the fire breached his fuel tanks, or the ship might have exploded and killed them all.

As the medic examined his hand in life center, he thought about how lucky he'd been. It certainly could have been worse. He could have been killed or seriously burned, instead of having a few burns on his hand – which the doctor was tenderly salving and bandaging. Cassiopeia herself was tending to him, which was always a pleasant experience. He would be off the patrol roster for a few days, a more mixed blessing, as it would give him plenty of free time on the ship, but likely nothing to do with that time at a point when everyone was already edgy and expectant. He wondered how busy Cassie would be...

Tigh studied the reports. The fleet was moving through the system at an incredibly ponderous speed, accompanied by most of the pilots. No point in taking chances now...

"We seem to be clear," commented the man next to him.

"We do indeed, Omega."

"Commander?"

"What is it, Lieutenant?" he asked, glancing down at Rigel.

"We're still having trouble with some of our scans, sir. Remnants of the storm are still ionizing portions of quadrant psi, sector 14. Vipers moving into the area report heavy interference."

"Thank you." Idly, Tigh let his gaze slide back to the main viewport. The distant sun of Earth's system was still barely more than a bright star from where they were, in the farthest distant ring of space debris that orbited the system. Its bright yellow star somehow struck him as the most magnificent cosmic object he'd ever seen. Earth, the one world that really mattered to the humans, was the most precious of the star's nine gems. The system's myriad moons and asteroids would doubtless also be pleasant mysteries to explore and develop.

An eerie something touched his spine, as though someone stood behind him and was staring at him. Tigh knew that feeling from yahrens before, from when Adama was first made commander and he the executive officer. It was the same as he'd experienced at certain times when Adama had come undetected to the bridge, in a stealthy way he had. He'd just been there, suddenly, unnervingly. Adama'd just been there...

Tigh started and turned, half-expecting to see a ghost.

No one was there except his own exec, meeting his expression with raised eyebrows of concern.

He stared back for a moment. Then, he demanded, "What kind of interference?"

Rigel hastily checked her data – then rechecked it. A moment later, she went to direct communications with the pilots.

"I'm sorry, sir," she reported after a centon. "We don't know. We're no longer receiving anything but static from Cree and Narcissa. The storm must be–"

His fingers spasmed into fists. "Not the storm. Baltar. Warn the warriors, get our screens up, put the ship on alert, notify the fleet."

Red lights. Alarms. Surprised crewmen hastening their pace.

And then, revelation.

In the viewport before them, sliding from the shelter of the same space debris in which they traveled, appeared a ship. The double saucer of a Cylon basestar. From psi quadrant, sector 14. The Cylons had found them. Which meant they had found Earth.

Baltar's eyes were strangely luminous. On the screen before him, he could see a shape of a battlestar outlined against the asteroids and dust. Beyond it, the fleet. Beyond that, the tiny little star of Earth. His smile grew, twisted as a tick jerked across his face, then straightened again.

"Oh, Adama..." He leaned forward. "Launch fighters."

"We-have-no-remaining-fighters-aboard," echoed somewhere.

"Then fire all missile batteries..."

"By-your-command."

Tigh caught his breath and grabbed the railing as a barrage of missiles and laser fire clawed toward them. Most of the attack detonated in the matter around them, but the Galactica shuddered under several hits. Crewmen grabbed for handholds as gravity and stabilizers blinked out and back in. Lights dimmed but came back as auxiliary energizers kicked in.

"Damage report!" he called out at once. The crew, in shock from the unexpected attack, reacted promptly, pulling themselves together and getting back to their stations.

"No data on casualties yet, but we've lost scanner number three. Damage to several missile stations on deck five and seven. Several compartments of section lambda showing red for hull breach. Alpha bay is damaged, we can't launch until the shield is re-energized. Fire on deck six, section gamma..." The list grew, but finally concluded with, "Nothing more from Lieutenant Cree..."

"Probably Cylon jamming," he cut in sharply, almost feeling a nod of affirmation from some other presence. "They're either destroyed or still unable to contact us. We can't do anything about that now. What about our other warriors?"

"Red and Blue Squadrons are organizing and returning; Captain Apollo estimates arrival in less than fifteen centons, and tells us to hold on..."

Fifteen centons. A long time for a damaged ship to hold out against a madman ... but there were more important things to worry about. "Throw up an electronic jamming screen of our own. If Baltar hasn't contacted any other Cylons yet, maybe we can stop him long enough for our warriors to get back–"

"Commander Adama." A voice rang over the bridge as an image superimposed over the stars on Tigh's screen. Tigh cut off the jamming with a gesture. Maybe they could buy time for more of their fighters to return if they got Baltar talking.

"What do you want this time, Baltar?" Tigh asked.

"I want to speak to Commander Adama!"

"That's not possible–"

"Get him now or I'll destroy you."

"I told you before, Adama is dead. I'm in command now. Anything you want to say, you'll say to me!"

The screen went blank again, and Tigh almost groaned.

"Prepare for another attack."

Insulation smoldered off wires and chips. Programming altered or failed entirely as circuits rerouted or metal turned fluid. Throughout the ship, the progression toward breakdown accelerated toward a point of destruction.

Baltar stared into nothingness, his expression fixed vacantly into a smile. "Destroy them," he said through that smile.

Time vanished in emptiness as he waited. Sounds came to his ears without leaving impressions in his thoughts. After what seemed an eternity a voice spoke in the void.

"Our-missile-consoles-have-overloaded. They-are-no-longer-functional. Laser-batteries-are-energizing."

He focused on the Cylon. "What?"

"We-are-unable-to-resume-our-missile-attack."

"Why?"

"There-are-unexplained-power-drains-throughout-the-ship."

Frustration gnawed at his euphoria and broke through the strange veil of madness. "Then ram them. The Galactica won't escape me this time."

"That-will-destroy-our-ship-as-well."

"Ram them. Destroy the Galactica."

"By-your-command."

Time stretched forever. Elsewhere on the ship, Commander Tigh knew damage control was working frantically, putting out fires, making repairs, rescuing endangered personnel, and preparing to fight back. Shields finally closed, leaving the crew with only their instrumentation to tell them where Baltar was and when the next attack would come.

"Why hasn't he fired again?" Omega wondered aloud after several centons. "The longer he waits, the more chance we have, and the less time before our squadrons reach here."

Tigh banished the question if that was what Baltar wanted, to wait until the pilots were in visual range before finishing them off.

"Are missiles armed?"

"Yes, sir, all but batteries beta and kappa."

"Laser banks?"

"Only on the port side, sir," Rigel replied. "Energizer number two is still surging, and we can't risk charging the starboard banks until we've stabilized."

"Weren't all banks already charged?" Tigh demanded. Go into battle with only half their weapons, and no fighters?

"Yes, but the energizer backlashed and the banks were neutralized. Damage control is checking all circuits and weaponry for anything additional..."

The commander sighed. "How about our shielding?"

"Portside intact; starboard damaged," Omega cut in. "We can keep our strong side to the attack."

"We'd better make sure we do."

"Sir!" Rigel again. "The basestar is moving closer – and accelerating!"

"Accelerating!" Tigh repeated in confusion.

"Yes, sir..."

He felt the invisible psychic tap on his shoulder again, and leaned forward on the railing to stare down at the lieutenant's screen.

"He didn't attack because he couldn't!" he exclaimed. "He hurt himself as bad as us in that volley – and now he's moving in for a close-range fight – or to ram! Rigel, distance and speed?"

"Twenty microns and a quarter of the way to lightspeed!"

"Evade!"

"The-humans-have-altered-course."

"Compensate." Baltar stared at the bridge screen, waiting. "Do we have missile capacity yet?"

"One-of-our-missile-bays-is-operational."

"Turn that side to the Galactica. Back into her if we have to, firing all the way. We've got you, Adama..."

"They're closing too fast!" Omega shouted. "We can't evade!"

"How far away are our fighters?"

A familiar hated voice rang through the bridge; someone had left the incoming comm open. "Adama! Where are you? I want you to see who's destroying you! I want you to see and know that you're lost!"

"Commander Adama's been dead for seven yahrens, Baltar!" Tigh hit the command and shouted back. "Dead! You're trying to destroy a ghost!" The same ghost that stood at his shoulder now...

"No, that's impossible!" shrieked the voice. Several officers cringed. "You won't trick me, Adama! I've got you this time! I've got you and I'm going to keep you. You're not dead yet, but you're going to be, you're not going to cheat me..."

An odd silence hung over the bridge for a centon. The screen showed the basestar closing fast. With the damage she'd sustained in the first attack, the Galactica couldn't outrun the enemy.

"Can we maneuver, Omega?"

"Yes."

"The Cimtar maneuver."

"We lost at Cimtar!"

"Not the first time. Use Cain's maneuver, his Cimtar maneuver." Tigh stood grimly at his post.

The colonel remembered the tactic; his expression was appalled. "But that's never been done with a ship this size! We could be destroyed if the stabilizers can't compensate."

"If we don't do it, we're dead – and humanity may die with us if Baltar survives to get away and tell Cylon about Earth. Do it, Omega – now!"

He obeyed. "All remaining missile and laser batteries, prepare to fire. Helm, prepare for a hard starboard turn and barrel shift. Pilots, any of you who hear this, withdraw from immediate range..."

The basestar was all but on top of them, still picking up speed. Tigh stared at the starscreen, fascinated. The battlestar shook. Was it the first contact of ramming, or had there been time...?

As the universe darkened, Tigh thought he saw a silver bird gliding through the emptiness. Light spun away behind it, forming stars and brightness. It was the Galactica, lighting the way to somewhere beyond where any human had lived and walked. Fatalistically, he let go.

Red and Blue Squadrons closed on the battle site. The flight leaders from Yellow and Green Squadrons had requested permission to join as well, but Captain Apollo had ordered otherwise. If this was some ruse, the fleet needed whatever protection they could give it.

The warriors were near enough to see the two massive warships close, not near enough to know what happened in the tight quarters of that last attack. The last command from the Galactica forced them to keep that distance. There were flashes of light that seemed to be laser blasts, maybe bits of fiery debris spinning away, maybe something worse.

"They rammed! She's hit!" Apollo cried.

"Lords of Kobol..."

"Warriors, stand by!" Omega's voice. Apollo choked. Where was the commander?

Commander Tigh had no idea how long he'd been unconscious. Long enough for a medical team to reach the bridge, or Cassiopeia wouldn't be hovering over him, looking so anxious.

"I'm all right," he muttered, pushing her away.

"Like hades you are!"

The universe spun again, but he forced it into place by brute force of will. Back on his feet, Tigh grabbed the railing. He didn't feel Starbuck and Omega supporting him on either side, their faces ashen.

"Are we alive?" he demanded.

"Yes!" responded the colonel. "We managed to get off several volleys before he rammed, and the sudden turn meant most of his force glanced off. We're hurt, but we'll live. He's hurt worse."

"Good... Any word from our pilots?"

"They're standing by, ready to finish him off as soon as you give the word."

Tigh nodded once. "Open a channel to Baltar."

Omega nodded and moved away, leaving Tigh leaning half against the railing, grateful for Starbuck's strong arm, bandaged though it was.

It seemed a long time before Baltar reappeared on their screen, disbelief written all over his face. Sparks flew around him, and there were snakes of smoke winding by to obscure his features for intervals. Darkened panels behind him showed how badly hurt his basestar was.

"Baltar," Tigh began heavily, "military honor demands that we ask for your surrender. Do you comply?"

"Where is Adama?"

"I told you, he's dead. He's been dead for yahrens."

For a ludicrous micron, it seemed Baltar still refused to believe it. Then sanity crept into his eyes, and a certain sorrow. "That's the truth, isn't it?"

"Yes."

"Adama's dead... All this time, I tried to find him and kill him, and he's already dead..." A tear trickled down his smoke-grimed face. His chin dropped to his chest. "Even now, you're ahead of me, Adama. Even in death you are first. I wonder, will we meet even there..."

He looked up again. "In a universe without Adama, what is there to live for? What is there left to prove?"

Those were his last words. As the stunned Colonials watched, the channel went dead and the Cylon basestar exploded. The Galactica rocked, but stabilized quickly with no apparent further damage.

"Commander, you've got to report to life center. If you won't go for me, I'm sure Dr. Salik will make it a medical order." Cassiopeia was shaken by the vivid nearness of the explosions.

"No need for that, doctor," Tigh sighed. "I think I could use a little rest. Omega..."

"I'm fine, sir. We'll handle things here. If there are any problems, we'll know where to find you."

"Thank you."

Between them, Starbuck and Cassiopeia guided their commander off the bridge toward much-needed medical treatment.

Commander Tigh's log: Baltar's ship is destroyed. His pursuit is over.

The Galactica is badly damaged as well, but we survive. Repair continues on all decks, and life center continues to treat the injured. We are lucky, considering the magnitude of the attack against us, to have lost only twenty of our people dead, and to have another forty injured and still undergoing medical treatment. I am informed, by Dr. Salik, that I am fortunate not to be among them. As it is, I am not seriously injured, and have returned to duty.

The Galactica shall be in orbit of the next outer planet of the system within centars, there to wait until the fleet can rendezvous with us and a decision be made about planetfall on Earth, in light of recent events.

What shall we find there? We have already sent out patrols for reconnaissance, and hope to have their preliminary reports soon. First indications are, however, that the human race continues to exist here, and at a level of technology with which we can deal.

There seems no point in speculating on the future now. We shall have to wait and see.

I cannot help but remember Baltar's final words, and his sorrow that Adama was dead. Why, when he had tried for so long to see us all destroyed, did that affect him so? Adama spoke once of how he and Baltar had been at the Academy together for a time, then Baltar had left, for unknown reasons. They were friends, once, it seemed, but did not part well. Perhaps in the end Baltar remembered that, and regretted how things were.

But who knows the mind of a madman? Perhaps it was only some perverted rage that it was not he who would kill our former commander.

We are relieved that he is gone. In whatever afterlife exists for humanity, Baltar must answer for his own deeds, crimes, motives, and emotions. He is in other hands; we no longer care.

Activity seemed to have come to a standstill on the bridge of the Galactica. The crew's gazes kept straying to the front viewport. From their current position, they could see only the rim of the fourth planet, but soon their orbit would carry them around that world and into view of the third planet, Earth.

The fleet clustered behind them in the shadow of the planet; their view of Baltar's attack on their protecting battlestar had shaken up much of the population.

Commander Tigh sat at the flight officer's station, resting wobbly legs even as he insisted he needed no special treatment. His exec and the flight officer were with him, each contemplating his own thoughts in equal silence. Dr. Cassiopeia was also on the bridge, ostensibly on some other errand, but rather obviously keeping an eye on the commander.

Tigh ignored the careful attention, instead watching the forward screen as his crew did, lost in thought. In front of him on the console was a silvery statue of a bird in flight, the lesser part of the previous commander's legacy to him. Every now and then he reached out to stroke the bird's wings. Each time, it felt as though vibration hummed through the metal, as though the bird were about to take wing. Each time, there was a sense of someone standing behind him, quietly approving, no longer need to give advice or encouragement.

The commander didn't look behind him. He knew, rationally, that Adama wasn't there. But it was comforting to indulge the fantasy that his old friend had made the trip with him, had guided him, and could now enjoy a much-deserved rest with all of them.

Tigh smiled.

The Galactica passed the rim of the planet and changed course for Earth.

Captain Apollo divided his time between watching the screen and covertly glancing at his commander. In truth, he wasn't needed here and would much rather have been out on patrol too, but with Jolly and Sheba leading the teams, his presence with the squadrons wasn't necessary.

The free duty shift had given him an opportunity to share morningmeal with Boxey and one of the other cadets. Apollo had always seen a lot of Loma, but it was different now, with his son and the girl looking at each other with new eyes. Another sign of maturity he would have to get used to, along with meeting Boxey in the ready room and greeting him as a fellow warrior.

His life was certainly changing. A new planet and a new life were in store for all of them.

Funny, he didn't feel old, for all that had happened, for all that his son was becoming a man. He hadn't looked old when he stared into his mirror that morning. He still had many yahrens to go before he even hit the century mark, for Sagan's sake!

But it would be different, with Boxey – Troy, all grown up...

Between fighting a war and raising a son, he hadn't put himself first in yahrens. Maybe it was time he considered his own future. Maybe it was time to add somebody else to his life.

Sheba? Maybe, maybe not. If they could ever... It occurred to him that he had used her as an excuse for a number of things over the yahrens. Hmm, maybe it was time to stop blaming her for his state of aloneness. Time to start fresh in that, too.

He stared at the screen, musing.

Athena entered the quiet bridge. As an officer and qualified pilot, she'd simply usurped a seat on the first shuttle from the regrouped fleet back to the Galactica, then put herself back on the duty roster.

And the timing was perfect. There was a spot in the viewscreen that could only be a planet. Her attention focused on that spot, she slid into her seat.

There might finally be peace for her people. She thanked the Lords that Zac and Jude would have a chance to grow up in peace.

Kaleb would certainly be happier if his wife didn't have to face war every day. He never complained or tried to ask her to leave the service, but she had always known he kept a little fear for her locked away in his heart.

His relief had crept out the night before, when Boomer joined the family for eveningmeal, and they'd had a few ambrosas after the boys were put to bed. They'd talked of the military and scientific things, as always, and about the future.

Boomer planned to stay with the military for a while, at least until their people felt secure; then he would resign his commission again, and put his talents back to their best use. Kaleb was already looking forward to the day Boomer rejoined them in technical; Wilker and the scientific team were working on a number of things that had come up during the Interlock project and the cosmic storm. Boomer's help would be as invaluable with that as with everything else.

Then Kaleb had teased her about her future plans, in a way he'd never done before.

Athena smiled. She would, as always, remain with the military. Let people like Kaleb and Boomer solve their problems; she would be one of those who made sure their people and their children survived to enjoy the solutions.

Lacking anything else to do, and knowing where everyone's attention was at the moment, Starbuck could think of no better place to be than on the bridge. With his burned hand, he would be off the duty roster for at least a secton, and with everyone else so busy, again or still, finding something to do might be a challenge.

No one seemed to notice his arrival. He wasn't surprised. The image on the viewscreen had them all mesmerized. A distant, distinct orb, a dark spot against a bright star. It could only be Earth. He caught his breath as it really hit him for the first time that they had finally found Earth – and with their only known pursuer destroyed, they might actually be able to settle there in peace.

Unexpectedly, a strange sort of emptiness stretched before him. What was he to do in a peaceful world? He'd never known peace in his life! External or internal. He'd always been blown by gusts of restlessness or gales of war – even though that war was the only anchor or purpose he had. Without that war, what was there for him?

Starbuck finally spotted Cassiopeia, whose attention was so focused on Commander Tigh that she hadn't noticed him. She had a beautiful profile, he thought. It went along perfectly with her sexy smile and great body and quick intellect and wonderful overall personality. He'd certainly had time to get to know every facet of her over the past ten yahrens...

And he'd never gotten tired of her, or felt chained by her. She'd always been there for him. Even when he'd wandered to anyone else, she'd always been like a safe harbor for him to come home to and rest with – and it had been a while since he'd tested farther seas of someone else. Even recently, when it seemed she had so little time for him, longing for the safe harbor of her love had been so strong it had hurt.

He felt very still within, and answered by freezing in mid-step toward her.

She was what he needed in his life. Now. Always. He remembered how he'd told the old rascal, Chameleon, that she was the only woman he'd really seriously considered sealing with, someday. He'd meant it. And would there be a better "someday" than now, with Earth in sight, and a new life ahead?

"Cassie?" he said, walking to her and sliding his uninjured hand around her waist.

"Hmmm? Yes, Starbuck?"

They'd caught several eyes. But right there in front of the commander, and Apollo, and Athena, and the entire bridge crew, Starbuck asked, "Will you marry me?"

And right there in front of everybody, she answered, "Yes."

And they kissed, while everybody else thoughtfully turned their attention back to the viewscreen.

They had finally come close enough to see their goal. In space before them, Earth had finally become a real planet. With the world now between them and its sun, they could see Earth as green and white and blue and perfect, where their brothers waited, and where the Twelve Tribes would build a new life.