By Sharon Monroe and Lee Gaul
Collection Copyright 1988. Used with permission.
This novel was published by a fanzine called Clean Slate Press. The stories of the fanzine era were usually much better because there was a lot more effort put into the writing and editing. For more stories like this, check out my profile for more info.
This is the second novel in a series called the Pegasus Chronicles. The first was The Battle of Molecay and the next is Second Coming.
Escape of the Pegasus
"All squadrons, return to your home battlestar."
Major Electra banked her Viper in an easy curve to swing near the Pegasus, waiting her turn as other ships dropped into swift landings in the battlestar's bays. She watched the departing turbos of the Galactica's squadrons with some unease. She wouldn't admit it to anyone, but the three Cylon basestars ahead had her worried. Thank the Lords it was Cain in command! His plans always worked, and he'd pulled them out of worse situations, from the Colonies to Molecay and Gamoray.
Her turn. She dropped landing skids and hit her breaking turbos as the deck floated to meet her. Electra's ship stopped, and was rapidly shuttled aside to a maintenance cradle.
"What's the story?" she called to Cicero, head of the Viper maintenance team.
"Refuel and rearm, fast as you can. Don't leave your ship. Might be launching again soon. We'll have you at your launch tube in two centons."
That was Cicero, as few words as possible. Electra sighed and ran a quick check of her instruments as several techs swarmed over her ship.
Another centon and they were finished. Her ship dropped neatly into its slot. Now, all she could do was wait. On either side of her, there were other pilots doing the same thing.
The launch bay seemed to shudder a bit.
"Wonder what's going on out there," somebody muttered.
"Don't know, Sergeant," was the answer, in a familiar voice.
She nodded to herself. Orestes was her brother. Maj. Electra and Capt. Orestes had been the most successful strike team on the battlestar Britannica, until the battle of Molecay. Then they'd taken refuge with the survivors aboard the Pegasus. Now, as the surviving ranking pilots, she was the flight commander, and Orestes was a wing leader in Silver Spar, under Sheba. They were still among the best pilots in the fleet.
Sheba. Her wounded friend was on her way to the Galactica in one of those shuttles. Electra hoped her injures weren't serious.
There was a rumble that announced missiles were launching. Electra looked cool, but one finger tapped nervously against her control stick as she ran one last check on her instruments.
What was going on out there? She waited, tempted to chew on her nails.
"Yes!" Cain exulted, slapping his swagger stick on the console. In space on either side of them, explosions rocked two Cylon basestars, and debris and eerie fire lit space everywhere they looked. "Two down, only Baltar to go!"
"Sir," Tolan said worriedly, "we've taken some damage."
"Doesn't appear to be serious, but it'll take a little time to repair. And I doubt Baltar will give us that time."
The flight officer blinked.
"Move away slowly, Tolan. Look worse off than we are. The more damaged Baltar thinks we are, the faster he'll come for us. His Raiders are still en route from Gamoray. Without them, our Vipers will take him out like nothing, as soon as we're out of range. Alert the squadrons."
Tolan released his pent breath. Commander Cain was one wily adaka! How could Baltar resist such a tempting piece of bait?
There was ugly anticipation in Baltar's smile as he ordered his basestar closer to the apparently helpless, almost drifting Pegasus. Her sluggish motions would never carry her to safety.
"Ah, Cain," he cooed. "In the end, you're the fool. Sending your fighters to protect the fleet, while you take me on three to one. We'll yet retrieve victory today. With you destroyed, we'll return to Gamoray and save the Imperious Leader. I may even end your precious Galactica, and that twice-damned Adama. Without your protection, I can pick off the fleet as I choose. I may even spare some of them, if I have such a whim. What do you think of that?" He gloated, not yet realizing the Pegasus was maintaining a respectable distance.
"By your leave, Baltar, but we will have to increase speed to catch the Pegasus. She appears to be speeding up."
Baltar glared at Lucifer for intruding on his moment of triumph. "Then increase speed! I want Cain's head! They can't make enough repairs to escape, with us attacking – and if they could fight, Cain wouldn't be running!"
"Very well. By your command."
Baltar continued to watch the private scanner in his command chamber. He was irritated at Lucifer, and eagerly anticipating a glorious victory. After a few moments, he felt annoyance at the rest of his Cylon crew as well. They weren't closing on the battlestar; it was maintaining its distance, though not leaving them behind.
"By your leave, Commander Baltar."
He whirled on Lucifer. "What now?"
"We have increased speed to follow the Pegasus. Reports from our returning Raiders indicate the passage of several squadrons of Vipers, and a number of shuttles. However, at our present rate of speed, our Raiders will not be able to catch up to us."
A horrible suspicion began to grow in Baltar's twisted mind. Several squadrons of Vipers? Not many squadrons? Could Cain still have ships and pilots? If so, and their own defensive squadrons couldn't catch up...
No! Cain was doing it again! "Retreat!" Baltar roared.
"But the Pegasus–"
"Damn the Pegasus! Damn Cain! Damn the Galactica and Adama and the entire human fleet!"
"Get us out of here before she turns on us! She still has fighters!"
"Get out of here, you twisted piece of scrap metal, and sound retreat!"
Lucifer bowed rapidly out of the command room.
Rage and fear played on Baltar's face, twisting it into an almost inhuman mask. He breathed heavily, pounding one fist on the command console, the other clenched tightly on the arm of his chair.
"Cain, you don't how I hate you..."
Commander Cain watched in silent fury as Baltar's base ship turned away from its pursuit.
"Sir?" Tolan asked, almost afraid to break his commander's concentration.
"He figured it out, Tolan, that goll-monging, tin-boot-licker. Increase speed, take us out of his scanner range so he can't track us when his fighters are back – he'll have surviving fighters from three base ships, and I don't think we're ready for that just now. Get all maintenance crews to work, and release Silver Spar and Copper Keel to the ready room for some rest. Squadron rotation in six centars, if there's no trouble."
"Briefing tomorrow, if there's no change in ship's status. Inform all department heads."
"Yes, Commander." When Cain gave no further orders, and appeared to dismiss him from his thoughts, Tolan scurried to his tasks.
Cain leaned against the command deck railing. He was almost surprised to have time to think of his next course of action.
Baltar figured it out. And he's running. But he's still alive, still with the Cylons, still around to hurt us. How can I go back to the fleet and leave him to work his mischief? But I don't have the capability, just now, to take him on...
But I can't leave them alone, almost besieged as they are, when Baltar could attack at any time, and send his fighters against unarmed civilians because there aren't enough warriors and ships to protect them all, every micron of every day. I won't be remembered as the man who ran out on our people when they needed me most.
Being apart from the fleet gave the Cylons two targets, kept them off guard. Staying with the fleet would give the Cylons one target...
A woman entered the bridge and joined him.
"Welcome back, Kleopatra. Where've you been?"
The colonel spoke quietly. "I was in the bay. I've got some first aid training, and half our medical staff is on the way to the Galactica. I thought I could do more good with Helena's people than standing around here in the background. We've got more injured, between those fool-hardy warriors of ours, and the technicians who put out the fires and patched the holes in this old iron lady."
"Do you think we made a mistake in taking on Baltar's force?"
She released a peal of laughter, and sounded relieved for it. "No. It was probably the only thing we could do. And only you could have played touch-and-run well enough to get the fleet and the Galactica and us safely out of his reach. Our people did their jobs magnificently, as they always do, for you."
He saw a shadow in her eyes when she mentioned the Galactica, but saw her dismiss it firmly, and was satisfied.
"Take command, Colonel. I'm going to take a little inspection tour of my old iron lady, see how badly off we really are, and do some thinking."
She raised her eyebrows, but made no comment as he stalked off the bridge.
It was a day and a half before the briefing could be convened. Cain studied the faces of the officers present.
Col. Kleopatra, his second-in-command since just before the Fifth Fleet was sent to Molecay – a slender black woman, the best executive officer a commander could ask for. Besides her wide experience from various Colonial military bases, she brought a variety of skills and knowledge from a background that varied from ethnological studies to first aid. She knew when to speak and when to be silent, when he needed to talk. He suspected she sometimes studied him as she would study the culture and ways of an alien race.
Maj. Cicero, the master mechanic – a man of few words, he could double as an engineer at a micron's notice, but his primary purpose in life was to keep Vipers flying. Sometimes it was better not to ask how he did it; he wouldn't always tell if he was asked, just stared until one felt uneasy for prying.
Maj. Sherlock, engineering chief. His most valuable quality was a mind that could absorb anything, and put it to use. He knew everything there was to know about the Pegasus, probably more than the men and women who'd designed her first proto-type, centuries before. His piercing black eyes glittered like coals when he was alert, which seemed to be constantly; those eyes could burn to the heart of a problem or through a man's lies in a micron.
Capt. Veleda, in charge of repair and damage containment. An aristocratic brunette who took damage to "her" ship as a personal insult. She completed the triad of personnel he trusted implicitly to keep his lady prepared for anything he or the Cylons might throw at her.
Capt. Graham, supply chief – a short, pudgy, cheerful Libran, almost unflappable, so even-tempered that Cain knew bets had been made and lost on several individuals' ability to provoke him.
Maj. Electra, flight commander since Devon's death at Molecay – tall, tawny-golden, stormy-eyed and drawing eyes. She was one of the best on a ship full of the best. He knew, too, that she was deeper than the easy, flirtatious smile she frequently flashed. If not for memories of Cassiopeia, he might have expressed a more personal interest in her himself; as it was, enough of the male warriors found her irresistible.
Lt. Tolan, his aide, general assistant, and flight officer. Someday, he'd make a fine commander, with Cain training him. He'd known the youth to take four or five duty shifts straight; when he was needed, nothing kept him from his commander and his post. His loyalty was absolute and unquestioning.
"Well," Cain said crisply, rising to his feet.
Talk subsided, and every eye turned to him.
"How are repairs coming along?"
"Good as done."
"Well, that's concise, I'll admit, Cicero. Anybody care to elaborate?"
Sherlock delivered the report. "Engineering completely functional again. Structural damage on Alpha, Gamma, and Epsilon decks, all sections repaired. One fuel tank ruptured; we lost fuel, but fortunately, it didn't explode. The hole has been patched. Damage to Beta Bay was more serious than expected, but air loss has been controlled, and teams are still at work on final clean-up. Vipers can safely take off and land, but we've closed down the worst sections as a precaution, until repairs are completely finished, which should be no more than three or four days. We're spaceworthy again." With a nod at Veleda, the tall, thin man sat down again.
"Repairs used a great deal of our extra supplies, metal, sealing materials, and such. If possible, I'd recommend we pick up more before any long voyage."
Cain nodded, a slight frown furrowing his brow, as he considered.
The door opened, and a silver-blonde woman slipped into her place at the table.
"Dr. Helena. Welcome. Sounds like our ship's in good shape. How's the crew?"
"With the reduced medical staff you left me, we've done a good job. Six dead, two still in serious condition. The rest will be fine. How long until I get my people back?"
"Maybe quite some time."
Puzzled glances fixed on him. Helena's question was one Cain had hoped to answer in his own time. It had taken some thought, and he'd planned to explain the decision when he made the announcement. Now would have to suffice.
"We're not returning to the fleet. At least, not yet."
Blank astonishment showed on several faces. Other officers broke into a babble of questions and complaints.
He raised his swagger stick. All ears and eyes locked on the commander.
"We have another job to do."
"But the fleet needs us! They need you!" exclaimed Tolan.
"And we need them!" broke in Dr. Helena.
"Yes, the fleet needs us. But not the way you're thinking. Commander Adama made it clear the Cylons have been tagging him all along. His fleet can't maintain light-speed. He hasn't had the chance to really give those goll-monging tinheads the slip – and Baltar isn't likely to give him the chance now.
"So we're going to give him that chance. If I know Baltar, he's going to try to get us first. The Cylons in this quadrant are out for human blood. They want a target. We're going to be that target.
"We're faster than they are; we're better pilots; and we're going to be fighting in ways they'll never understand, for a purpose they can't comprehend. We're going to be the bait, the lure that'll keep the Cylons off Adama's trail long enough for our people to escape. We'll decoy the Cylons, tease them along, then disappear ourselves."
Cain looked around at his group. Several still looked stunned. Sherlock wore a slight smile; trust him to understand, and even to relish the thought. Electra looked confident; she trusted his plans and her own skills. Tolan, his aide, stood very tall, looking inspired.
"You heard everything I heard, in the fleet. Adama's been able to keep his fleet together and move out of our space because the Cylons had to divide their efforts, going after us. That's a slim advantage for what's left of our people, and I'm not going to take it away from the fleet. We'll give Adama all the time we can, any way we can. With our lives, if that's what's needed. But I don't think it'll be necessary. We're too good. We'll leave the Cylons in a tangled mess, then slip away. We'll always be between the fleet and the enemy. Anybody here who can't deal with that?"
There was silence as his finest officers digested the idea.
"Anybody here think your departments can't deal with it?
Nobody raised a hand or opened a mouth.
"Good. If there are any questions, feel free to bring them to me. For now, inform your people of our assignment. Dismissed. Oh, Electra, I want to see your new squadron assignments."
In a centon, the room was empty of milling officers except for Cmdr. Cain and Maj. Electra.
"I've consolidated the squadrons, to make the best use of our remaining pilots and ships. Three squadrons. I'd expected we'd be pulling a fourth squadron together from the injured pilots we left on the Galactica, and her cadet-trainees. But I think it'll work anyway. Captain Elaine retains Copper Keel. Captain Heimdal has Bronze Wing. Captain Orestes is in charge of Silver Spar, in Sheba's absence. Will those be satisfactory, sir?"
"Fine, fine." Cain paced the room
"Is there perhaps another reason we aren't returning to the fleet after giving the Cylons the slip, Commander?"
Cain frowned, then had to laugh. "You're observant, I'll grant you. Adama and I have been friends for yahrens. We just have different ideas on how best to run the military aspects of the fleet. This way, we both do what we do best. I'll guard the fleet as I see it, from the outside, a fast military strike force. Adama will be the inner guard, our wisdom, leading our people on to safety. It's better that way. He has a goal, and he's always seen things beyond other men I've known..."
Cain sat down, trying not to remember the two women left behind with Adama's fleet, women who would be far safer where they were than with him.
Electra nodded. "I understand. What will our first action be?"
"You heard Sherlock. We're low on fuel, thanks to some sharp-shooting Cylon, and our supply section is running low on inventory. We'll have to hit Gamoray again, to stock up for a lot of dodging and a long trip.
Electra chuckled. "You keep this up, and we're going to teach the Cylons the meaning of paranoid, if they haven't already learned it.
"That we are, my girl, that we are. Strange, there was a warrior in Captain Apollo's squadron, reminded me a bit of you and your brother. Same attitude about life, or something... Hmm, let's see those assignments."
She smiled and handed him a computer roster sheet.
The attack on Gamoray went completely as planned. Still reeling from the Colonial attack a mere secton earlier, the Cylons were again taken completely unaware, still in the midst of their own repairs. Cain did what he did best – struck without warning, took what he wanted, then vanished among the stars.
Surveying the damage later, a very weary Imperious Leader wasn't sure whether to call for an all-out hunt for the maddeningly elusive Cain, or simply to bid him good riddance and hope he was gone for good.
Aboard the Pegasus, elated warriors toasted yet another victory.
The Way We Were
The word spread rapidly through the remaining crew of the Pegasus. They'd expected to hear that they'd be returning to the fleet – but they weren't. Cain was leading them ... elsewhere. They were taking down Gamoray one more time ... and then they would be on their own. Lt. Rissian wound up delivering the news to a group of more junior Silver Spar pilots.
"Really?" Falstaff asked. "We're on our own again? The way we were before? Cain took us away from the fleet? We're really not going back?"
"But..." Ptah began to object, then stopped, unsure what to say.
Trent just stared at Rissian, stunned.
Rissian nodded back at the younger warriors, jaw firmly set. "Warriors, we've handled it for two yahrens, we can handle it again. We'll do our job, the same way we always have," he told them firmly. He kept his feelings to himself – but inside, he knew he was a little bit pleased. The Cylons could never pay enough for the deaths they'd caused – and if the Galactica wasn't going to be fighting unless it had to, well, he'd rather be elsewhere, he admitted to himself. Somewhere like over Gamoray, as they would be again in the morning.
A moment of silence.
"I need a drink..." Falstaff finally said somberly.
"You got something hidden in your locker?" Ptah asked.
"No, I figured the O club, you know we're not allowed to keep–" The heavy-set sergeant stopped talking for a micron, then finished, subdued, "The O club will be closed, won't it..."
"Most likely," Rissian confirmed.
"Huh? Why?" Trent finally found words.
"Well, I mean ... Dionys was the bartender. That's not essential personnel – he'll have shuttled back to the fleet with the rest," Trent said, looking at Rissian.
"They wouldn't close the O club... We need it! I mean, not that we need to get drunk, but we need the club..."
"Even with the club, it wouldn't be the same without Dionys..."
"Has anybody been there since we left the fleet?"
"Are you kidding? We've all been too busy patchin' things up after takin' on those two basestars..."
The warriors glanced around at each other again, then moved as one, heading for the officers' club.
The door was unsealed. That wasn't unusual.
Rissian halted in the doorway; the others were forced to stop behind him.
Three groups of warriors looked up expectantly at him. He saw their expressions fall and shoulders droop at seeing who it was.
"No Dionys?" he asked.
Wordless headshakes were the only response.
"Bar's open though?" Falstaff asked hopefully, peering over his shoulder at some of the tables, seeing the mugs and cards.
"It's intact, if that's what you mean..."
"Only water or caff, and serve yourself," Daystar called to them, holding up his mug and shaking his head. "Believe me, it ain't the same."
The newcomers clustered around the conversation corner with Daystar and the others.
"Are we just waiting for Dionys?" Falstaff asked hopefully.
"Could be a long wait," the captain said, staring at the wall. "Cain shipped all the non-essential personnel back to the fleet."
"But ... but he's essential!"
"Oh, yeah? And what absolutely essential, can't-run-the-ship-without-it post does he fill?"
They all contemplated the thought, which only confirmed what they'd feared.
"So who's gonna run the bar?" Ptah asked plaintively.
"Don't know if anybody is."
After a few more centons of silence, Rissian raised his voice and asked the room in general, "Has anybody been here in the past few days, since we left the fleet? Does anybody know what the plan is for the bar?"
Nobody had been there in the last few hectic days. Nobody knew the plan.
"This isn't good," Trent muttered.
Martin sloshed his mug at them. "Fill 'em up and join us..."
"So what're we talking about?" Rissian asked. "Besides the absence of Dionys and the O club being about as much fun as the second day of an Otori send-off celebration."
That got a few half-hearted guffaws.
"Unfortunately," replied Daystar, "that was about the extent of the conversation so far."
"So let's change the subject. Gotta be something more cheerful to discuss."
There was a moment's silence.
"Well," one of the other pilots at the table said, with a bit of a grin, eager but almost unwilling and uncomfortable at the same time. "I found out I had family left in the fleet."
"Family? Really?" Trent asked. "That's great! Who?"
"Yeah. A couple of my cousins. Amerotke and Meren, and Meren's wife. They got a baby on the way. I'm going to be an uncle!"
"Here's to uncle-hood!" said Martin.
"Three cheers for Uncle Horus!" added Daystar, standing up and announcing it to the entire room.
They all raised their mugs and glasses in celebration with him, smiling. Nobody corrected the degree of kindred – of those in the Pegasus crew who'd actually had an opportunity to check the personnel records, very few had actually found any surviving kin or friends. The population of the Colonies had been in the tens of billions; less than a hundred thousand had survived the Destruction and reached a ship, then escaped the ambush at Carillon, and now lived in the overcrowded fleet. Any living relative or acquaintance was cause for celebration. There was pain and envy in some hearts, but these warriors had been together too long not to try to share the happiness of the lucky few. They clustered around, eager to hear of any links to their lost home. Hopeful voices spilled over each other.
"You had time to see the fleet roster? Did you happen to see anybody named Beka?"
"Maybe Teret and Sleera? From Aquara? That's my parents–"
"How about Karawin? Or maybe Herne? Or–"
"And Zander – did you see Zander?"
"Galadin, you'd know if you saw Galadin, he'da made it if anybody–"
"Whoah," Horus interrupted the sudden flow of names. "Sorry, guys, when I checked the records I only asked for Sagittarans, and I'm afraid I don't remember all the names – once I got past my family and saw my cousins, I kinda stopped looking, my turn was over..."
Half a dozen pilots seemed to deflate.
Daystar stepped in. "Hey, we know. We understand. Too bad there wasn't time for all of us to have a look at the roster, or enough time with the fleet for the people we know to call us and let us know..."
With a collection of sighs, the conversation died again.
After a moment, Trent asked, "So, did anybody here get a message?"
They all looked at each other.
"My brother Bronton's alive," Bori announced in his usual quiet tones. "He's a shuttle pilot now, civilian. He was able to call me from his shuttle, using one of our military channels, and he let me know about some other survivors to pass along. He knew about Lygia's parents being alive–"
"Probably why she let him through," Ptah mumbled in his generally cynical way.
"And med tech Twyla's two brothers."
"Hey, if they're anything like her, I wouldn't wanna be the Cylon that came up against 'em!" Rissian grinned.
It was a triple reason to celebrate.
"Here's to Bronton, a brother to be proud of!" Daystar announced, lifting his mug again. "Smart enough to get through to Bori and considerate enough to deliver good news for others of us!"
After that, things almost seemed to settle into their normal routine for the O club.
It was about a centar later when the lean, middle-aged man came into the lounge, his riotously curly red hair as unkempt looking as ever. He scanned the room for a centon, sensing the environment, and was pleased with it.
At that micron, Trent saw him. His mug to his mouth, he suddenly choked and spewed water across the table, coughing.
As the others quickly turned to see what was wrong with their friend, Rissian glimpsed the newcomer. One hand jerked out to fasten on Daystar's wrist, tightening in a grip of tylinium that would leave a bruise.
They all looked; they all saw him.
In the silence, Dionys strode to the bar and walked around it, then faced the room with a big grin.
"Okay, warriors – bar's open, come on up! Who's gonna be first?"
"Now, come on, you can't all be in the mood for water tonight!"
"But ... but ... we thought ... you were gone!" Ptah sputtered.
"Now why would you think a thing like that?"
"Well, the Galactica ... the fleet ... we left the non-essential personnel behind..."
Dionys scoffed, looking a little offended. "And who says I'm non-essential personnel? You think I'm leaving this bird without me behind the bar?"
The warriors started laughing, unable to stop for their relief. Dionys's presence maintained a little semblance of normalcy and tradition in their world, which had turned upside down and then right side up again, over the past two sectons, leaving none of them the same.
"Well, we thought..."
Dionys waved a finger. "Now you listen here. From my first assignment on a little old warbird called the Hyperion, there's one thing I learned – it's essential that humans have a chance to relax, to get away from work and congregate and talk to each other away from ranks and rules and regulations. And I'm in charge of one of those places. Right here.
"So, warriors, what'll it be? Come on up to the bar. I hear you've got a meeting tomorrow at Gamoray, but tonight you've got a meeting here. We've got some new ambrosa shipped in from the fleet, thanks to the foresight of yours truly, and a fresh supply of Edric's special baharii, and even a little Sagittaran glenwater..."
"Now that sounds like you! So tell me, did you happen to catch the girl's name?" he asked as he handed over the refilled tankard.
Martin grinned. "Sorrell. Sweet wild Sorrell." He lingered over her name like a caress. "A Caprican planter's daughter. She became a shuttle pilot after Carillon, joined the squadrons at Kobol. Used to be an archivist, of all things."
"Ah! You got her name and biography!"
"Yeah. She says her favorite color's bronze, and I think blue's gonna be my favorite color from now on..."
"Mmm, yeah, you got the important details. But will you remember her a secton from now! That could be the question." Dionys leaned closer, winking, inviting confidences.
"I'll remember her," he answered with conviction, his smile and his eyes a quadrant away on another ship.
Dionys punched him once in the upper arm, lightly, to bring him back to reality, then heard another call for baharii, and waved himself off, leaving Martin to contemplate his current favorite lady. But he knew Martin pretty well by now – "sweet wild Sorrell" would be raised to iconhood in absentia; but when or if the battlestars rejoined, Martin would be looking elsewhere within a sectar – and he'd probably manage to convince the woman it was her idea for them to see other people, and still see each other for a while!
He shook his head and pulled out another bottle of Edric's best.
"No, it goes like this – ta da, da-da-da, ta-da-da, boom, boom, then into a crescendo!" Rissian insisted, waving his index finger, then bringing his fist down for the imaginary climax.
"Oh, come on," Daystar argued, "that's missing an entire fourth note! It's gotta be presto! Da-da-da-da, then ta-da-da-da." He gestured with his tankard, sloshing about half of it onto the bar.
"Hey, that's the way Gav always sang it, and if anybody knew their Libran opera, it was Gavain!"
"If that's the way he sang it, he sang it wrong!"
"Hey, quit wasting perfectly good baharii!" Dionys interrupted, passing by.
"Dionys, you know music," Daystar grabbed his sleeve. "You tell him!"
"What I know about Libran opera wouldn't make up the difference between what you had in that mug a centon ago and what you've got there now," he replied amiably. "Why don't you check the music databanks? I'm betting we got five recordings of that piece, at least – it was the most played piece of Libran music for about six sectars, a couple years ago."
"That's it!" Rissian said, one finger poking Daystar's chest. "That'll prove it!"
"It'll prove you're wrong is what it'll prove!" Rissian poked back. "Let's go..."
He watched the two men head for the door, grinning. "The problem with that proving anything," he announced to anyone who was listening, "is that half of 'em played it wrong, and none of 'em played it the same!"
Falstaff nearly fell off his stool laughing.
"I feel so alone!" Tamyris complained. "Darius is on the Galactica – we've been wingmates for four yahrens! How am I supposed to fly without him? Do you know how hard it's going to be to get used to not having him here?"
"You mean getting used to it again, don't you?" Dionys sent the mug of Edric's best zooming down the bar into Gemma's waiting hand, earning a bright, grateful grin from the petite pilot.
"Well, he's not your first wingmate. Who did you fly with before Darius?"
"Uh ... well, Isis."
"And what happened to Isis?" Dionys had heard of Isis, he knew this wouldn't be opening too many old wounds.
"She ... got promoted. She became the exec for Ice Station Thule."
"Ooh, hated it, I'll bet."
"Loved it! How in hades a Sagittaran delta woman, who didn't even know what snow was until she went to the Academy, fell in love with that ice bucket, I'll never know!"
"But you survived when she left."
"Didn't even consider going with her, did you?"
"Frak, no! Are you kidding?" Tamyris shot back, disbelief in her musical voice. "I prefer to have ice in my drinks, not my boots, thank you very much!"
"And you weren't leaving your ship, were you?"
"No, I wasn't..."
"So you resigned yourself to putting up with Darius, young egotistical punk that he was. Did he really try to set you up with his brother?"
"Yeah." She had to grin a little. "I remember I had to whip him into line..."
"And you don't think you can whip a new wingmate into line?"
"Of course I can!"
"Keeping in mind, of course, that it'll probably be somebody you've known and even flown with occasionally for the last two yahrens."
"You just don't want to, because it won't be Darius?"
"I..." She closed her mouth. "Yeah... I'm gonna miss Darius."
He touched her hand for a moment. "I know. We'll miss a lot of people..."
They sighed as one. Then she found a little smile.
"I think I'll go join Gemma and Elaine. See if I can talk the captain into giving me somebody good to fly with..."
"I think I'll go pour another round. I know it'll be good."
"Sure you don't want something stronger than caff?" Dionys asked as he poured the steaming liquid into the cup.
"I'm certain," Sherlock replied calmly. "We're busy tonight with some recalibration checks before ... tomorrow. I just needed a few moments away to think and stretch my legs."
"And you came here? Why not the mess hall?"
The chief engineer glanced around at the gathered warriors, talking, laughing, sharing, bonding anew with their diminished numbers.
"Because this is what I needed to see," was his reply.
"Say," Dionys asked before he could leave, "I know the senior officers had first crack at looking at the fleet survivor roster. Did you take the opportunity? Find anybody you knew?"
"I didn't look."
"Oh." Dionys tilted his head. "Why'd you pass?"
Sherlock took a sip. "I resigned myself long ago to the inevitability that my family was gone. Finding the fleet did not alter that. The odds were ... not in their favor."
"From what I'm hearing in here tonight, doesn't sound like most of the pilots share that fatalism. They all found a little hope when we found the Galactica."
"So I gathered. That's why I gave one of my techs my turn. He found a nephew on their orphan ship."
"Whoah. Must be hard for him to be leaving again..."
"He was non-essential personnel. He stayed with the fleet." Sherlock took another sip, nodded a farewell, and headed out the door with his caff.
Dionys watched him go. "Hunh," was all he could say. "An engineer, non-essential. Right. And they claim that man's got no feelings but impatience..."
"How about one for the future addition to the family?" Dionys asked. He could see that Horus wasn't looking particularly jovial.
Horus sighed. "The baby isn't here yet." He looked down into his empty mug – which had been empty, in Dionys's estimation, for nearly a centar, as the pilot sat off by himself in the most shadowed corner of the lounge.
"Do they think something might go wrong?"
"No." He sighed again, more deeply.
"Is it, that you won't be around to see them for a while, and you're gonna worry about them while we're gone?"
"And that as great as it is to have some family left, you'd really love to have found your parents and your little sister there too?"
Horus looked up at him, surprised.
"And," he continued more quietly, "you feel guilty for wishing that, like you're asking for too much, when you can guess what your cousins must have gone through to survive, and when so many of these guys don't have anybody left at all, except each other. And maybe, after the rush of that first centon's joy, you even thought that you'd have traded the cousins and that little baby on the way, for just one of the people you grew up with – and you hate yourself for even thinking that?"
"How'd you know?" All of a sudden, there were tears in Horus's dark eyes.
"Because you're not the only one," he replied equally softly. "I'm not gonna tell you to feel lucky because you've got somebody – you've already told yourself that. And I'm not gonna tell you there's something wrong with you for being angry that the people you most loved didn't survive – it's not wrong, it's natural. Survivors go through that."
"I feel like a monster ... a selfish, cruel monster... Am I going to be able to be happy for them?"
"You're not a monster. You're human. You've got human emotions. You got a little grieving still to do for the family, but you'll get through it. And I guarantee you, when we hook back up with the fleet, and you see that little kid for the first time, and the look on your cousin's face when you walk in, you'll be fine."
It was a hard-won smile, through a few tears, but it came. "Thanks, Dionys," he said huskily.
"Any time. And now," he said more briskly, "I think you might have had enough. Think you can make it to your bunk yourself, or do you need a hand?"
"I'll be fine. You probably noticed, I haven't really been drinking..."
"I noticed. 'Night, Horus."
"It just won't be the same," the warrior grumbled.
"No, it won't," Dionys acknowledged practically, leaning on his elbows. "But look at it this way, it's a good thing we still got each other."
"At least as many of us as there are," Ptah mumbled back. "Seems like half the crew got sent back to the fleet as non-essential."
The bartender lowered his face almost to the bar to meet him eye-to-eye. "Eh, look at it this way, Ptah," he said. "You won't have to share a billet anymore, so you can put together a piscine tank any size you want. Raise Libran muddowners a metron long. Keep a half-dozen schools of rainbow stargleams. Breed some more of those delicate webtails you love."
One thing that could be counted on – mention of his fish could evoke a positive reaction from Ptah when nothing else could. One side of his lips twitched. His glum expression turned into a smile as he contemplated the possibilities.
Dionys moved down the bar.
Two bells. The traditional closing time. The absolute end of the evening, even if it ran into the following morning.
"All right, ladies and gentlemen," Dionys announced to the handful of stragglers who remained, "hate to throw you out, but you got a mission tomorrow, from what I understand. If you want to keep going, you'll have to do it over caff in the mess hall."
The last half dozen grumbled good-naturedly, then waved good nights to him and to each other, and headed out the door.
Alone for the first time that evening, Dionys moved out into the club and began cleaning up. He had chosen to stay, citing his personally determined essential status, but none of his assistants had. This place was his home and his mission to Dionys, and he wasn't leaving it; to the others who'd worked with him, it was mostly just a job. He gathered tankards and chalices of all types, lining them up at the bar to be run through the cleansing unit, then wiped down the tables and mopped up somebody's spilled, sticky baharii. He checked the inventory and made himself some notes on which to restock before opening the next day.
Finally drawing a drink for himself, he sank down into a seat, off his feet for the first time that night. He blew a heavy but satisfied sigh.
"I'm gonna have to get some help in here," he announced to the empty walls. "A couple days of this, I can handle, but not forever." He took a drink, enjoying the smooth burning down his throat. "Maybe some of the crew'll be willing to help me out, take turns. After all," he licked his lips, "some things are essential. A person just has to have his priorities."
And under the circumstances, he expected this place was going to be one.
Her staff ignored her gliding steps. Helena nodded minutely, approving. They were concentrating on their duties, on the nine men and women still in the Pegasus life center. The chief medical officer slipped into her personal cubicle without disturbing any of them, patient or medical staff.
Cain wasn't going back to the fleet. The Pegasus was on her own again.
"I have to assume he knows what he's doing," she muttered under her breath. "And maybe hope he doesn't do it too long. My staff's cut by two-thirds, and the personnel in some departments are reduced twenty-five to fifty percent."
They had sent away the injured, with medics to care for them on the trip, and all non-essential personnel who wished to accompany them. The vessel had been overcrowded before; she'd taken on many survivors at Molecay, and given them all duties. But now she was seriously understaffed, if Cain truly intended to remain apart, as he'd announced at the briefing.
Helena slid into her chair and sat up very straight, hands flat on the desk. After a moment, she reached up to brush a wave of platinum blonde hair higher on her forehead, then hit the computer file. She had to double-check the roster, see who was left, remember who'd been sent to the fleet with the injured when Cain led them on their suicide run against three base ships.
"Not exactly a suicide run. But we didn't know what he planned when we stayed aboard. He couldn't have known we'd survive; he must have had some suspicion what he was taking us into..." She felt a tic in her left cheek, and carefully relaxed the muscles, calling back her usual calm expression. It was a careful lack of visible emotion that had earned her the epithets of remote, frosty, heartless, and worse, from some of the crew. She couldn't let herself care about some of the words, the thoughts. She had a job to do.
Beej. The sandy-haired, mustached doctor from the Britannica. A good man, and a fine young doctor. Friendly, but quiet. He'd refused the fleet run. Just now, she could see him through the screen, bustling around beyond her chamber. He was checking Sif; the woman's husband sat at her side, as he'd been for the past two days. Sif had been badly injured; for two days, they had been afraid she would die. Beej had operated on her, then devoted almost constant attention to the slow turning toward recovery.
Rafael. Olive-skinned, dark curly hair, lean, sinewy build. He smiled too much for her liking, but he had a way with patients. He also had a way with the female med techs, especially Galswintha. At the other end of the main life center chamber, she could glimpse the two of them going over the equipment inventory; they would have to be very careful with supplies as well as personnel – human medical supplies were something they couldn't steal from the Cylons.
The med techs. Galswintha, the dark and lively Scorpian, whose very touch seemed to help some patients. Cadmus, a Caprican, so selfless and dedicated it hurt. Flora, a thin and fey-seeming Gemon, convinced that every patient healed faster with something growing at his bedside, who filled life center with the scent of herbs. Liber, another Gemon, who seemed to have more energy than any other two men. Twyla, as openly sharp-tonged and dark-featured as her superior was reserved and fair-complexioned, the daughter of spacers, who'd never spent more than a few sectons at a time on any world. Hypatia, the shy Libran who seemed to live to be of service.
A good team, and more than competent to care for the present situation, but if they faced another battle like the one they'd just come through, with days of hit and run fighting, or Sagan forbid, like the one at Molecay, they would lose patients. And it was only a third of the team they were used to working with; there would be gaps in experience and reaction that they would each expect someone else to fill. But that someone else wouldn't be there anymore.
Their loss was the fleet's gain, in experienced personnel; their people desperately needed those medical specialists. But what would the Pegasus do now?
"She'll be all right, Heimdal. The worst is over." Beej wasn't sure the captain even heard what he said, so he rephrased it. "Lieutenant Sif shows every indication of making a full recovery from her injuries, Captain. If you'd like to take a few centars, catch a little snooze..."
"I'll stay with my wife." He was silent for a moment, holding the woman's hand. He touched the long blonde braid that lay over her bare shoulder and the thermoblanket. She turned her head slightly to follow his touch, in spite of being heavily medicated and deeply asleep. "She should never have taken her ship out again. It was damaged; there wasn't time to repair it properly. She insisted on joining the spearhead, and staying with us. I should have ordered her back with the others, with the injured. She'd be safe with the Galactica now."
"Would she have gone without you, even under orders?"
Heimdal's blue-gray eyes flicked to him. "No."
"Would you be happy with her gone? Would she be happy without you?"
"Then I don't see the point."
His expression was dry. "You are obviously not a married man."
Beej winced; pain flashed in his eyes for a moment. He kept his voice steady as he replied, "Not anymore."
"We owe you much, doctor."
"I'd have done it for anybody."
"I'm sure you would have. But you did it for her. And I would not wish to live without her. Count on our friendship if you ever need it. And thank you."
The expression in his eyes deepened; the doctor turned away quickly.
Heimdal scarcely noticed his departure. His attention was on Sif, mesmerized by her hair, her peaceful, sleeping face, the translucent-pale skin of her forehead, neck, and shoulders. He worked loose the braid, and began to unwind her hair, spreading its wavy tendrils across the pillows and her body.
Her eyelids fluttered for a moment, and she half-smiled, a rosy blush on her cheeks. A light sigh, and she was asleep again.
Heimdal loved her more all the time.
"Status?" Dr. Helena asked briskly.
"Everything's good," Dr. Beej replied. "All our patients are showing strong signs of recovery. Even Sif will be ready to be released soon. She was the only one I really didn't think we could save. Many more miracles like that, and I'll start believing our own publicity!" He fingered the computer readout, playing with the tabs at the edge of the sheets.
"Then I think we can give ourselves a well-deserved rest," she commented. "We might as well recuperate a bit ourselves before the fatigue and stress set in."
The man's lips thinned as he nodded. "Bound to happen. We're apart from everything we knew and everyone most of us cared about. Won't be long before the oddball factor cuts in, unexpected emotional outbursts, depression, symptoms of neuroses..."
"I already wish Metus was here. But we didn't need a psychological specialist for the battle. So... Actually, I'm surprised you decided to stick with us. You had leave to visit the fleet, one of the few of us who got the chance to leave this old ship. Why did you stay?"
The medic grimaced. "No reason to leave."
"She didn't survive?" The question was voiced almost softly, and Beej was startled for a moment, wondering if Helena was actually expressing sympathy.
"Yeah. So am I."
She shuffled at something on her desk, then broke protocol, as Beej had been first in the short-lived furlon program. "You may as well take first leave. Things will get hectic here soon enough; I suspect we'll all soon be carrying double duty."
He laughed shortly. "As long as it doesn't get to us, and we go off the deep end with the lunatic pilots."
"We can handle it." Her brisk tone dismissed him; he'd heard it often enough in the past to know when Helena had other things on her mind. With a half-bow, he left her office.
Lt. Sif and Capt. Martin were the only patients in life center still requiring any kind of special care; the rest had been released, and the remaining two would soon be back on their feet as well. Beej saw med techs Flora and Twyla hovering over the handsome Martin, and Sif was sitting up talking to her husband and Dr. Rafael.
"What the frak, I've earned it," he muttered to himself. He negligently tossed his printout aside and marched from life center. There was bound to be someone in the officers' club he knew.
Boring, boring, boring. Being drunk was boring. And none of the booze was making memories go away. Beej wondered why he bothered. He'd spent two yahrens aboard the Pegasus since Molecay, wondering often if she'd made it, if she was still waiting for him. She hadn't been. She was dead. He thought he'd resigned himself to the fact, to both of them being gone. But then...
And it hurt the more, so much more, for knowing how it had been, and who...
"Well, why did I expect her to wait?" he asked with exaggerated precision. His three companions had long since succumbed, two returning to their own chambers, the third snoring on the table. The sleeping drunk didn't respond.
"I wasn't home much before Molecay, and she had her own career, things to do, people to meet. How could I expect her to wait for me, when everybody thought the whole Fifth Fleet was gone? And she was beautiful, had everything going for her. She shouldn't have had to wait for any man. Lords know half the men in the Colonies were willing to wait for her if she so much as glanced their way. Bartender, another!" He raised a fist at the man by the counter.
The man set something in front of him. The doctor didn't even care what it was. The Pegasus was already reduced to what its personnel could make on their own. The taste didn't matter, most of the time, as long as it did the job.
Somebody slid into the seat next to him. He stared blearily at a pilot far too neatly dressed and pressed. He couldn't believe it – not only did most warriors never look that way, but he knew this particular pilot didn't frequent the officers' club. He propped his chin on his hand and initiated conversation.
"Heimdal. You're having one, I hope. Good. I hate to drink alone," he said carefully. "So what brings you here? How's your lady?"
"Sif's fine." The bartender brought another drink for his new companion. "You did a good job."
"Just doin' my job." His pronunciation started slipping.
The redhead took a drink, studied him a moment more. "So what happened to your wife? Killed with the rest of the Colonies?" he asked abruptly.
Beej almost laughed, but thought it would turn into tears, so he held it back. "No, she survived to reach the fleet. That's where she ran into trouble. Her and the kid, my kid..." He took a long draw from the mug.
Heimdal seemed in a reminiscing mood. "We had a child, a little girl."
"Oh? Gone with the rest?"
The captain nodded. "She was with my family. They were raising her, like our clans always did. None of them made it. The whole clan..."
"So why bring up bad memories?" Beej demanded. "Have another drink and forget it."
"You saved my wife. We don't forget that kind of thing. I will never forget it." Heimdal finished his drink. For a man who didn't drink, Beej thought he'd finished it awfully quickly.
"Wonderful," he muttered.
He didn't realize Heimdal had ordered another until the bartender set drinks in front of each of them.
"What happened to her?" his companion prompted.
"Why do you need to know?"
Heimdal almost smiled at him. "I'm curious. I want to know. And I think you need to tell."
"Oh. She decided to become a warrior. And so she did. And she was killed by the Cylons. End of story. Old story. Everybody's heard it before. Everybody knows a warrior who was killed by the Cylons." Beej sighed heavily, drink and emotion stirring up in him. He tried to stand up, and fell back, astonished at his own instability.
"I think you need sleep," the pilot observed.
"I think you're right. But I'm not sure I'd make it back to my chambers."
"Let me help you."
With an arm over the husky warrior's shoulder, Beej made a credible attempt at walking. Back in his own chambers, Heimdal let him spill onto the bunk.
Staring up at the ceiling, the doctor suddenly announced, "I'm not ever going back to the Galactica. Not even if we join the fleet again."
"Why not?" Heimdal inquired patiently, working at his boots.
"I might see him."
"Which him? There are a lot of men aboard that ship." One boot flew.
Tears were flowing too, rolling down his cheeks, dampening his mustache, dripping onto his pillow. "The man she married."
Heimdal stiffened. "The man she ... married? I think I understand..."
"Not all of it." The other man was shaking. "She thought I was dead. I can understand that. I don't blame her for marrying somebody else. And I was never there, I guess I shouldn't talk... But you know the worst? The absolute worst?"
The pilot simply knelt and listened to the rhetorical question. In his drunken state, Beej just needed to talk, and Heimdal was prepared to listen.
"The worst is, I was aboard for a while. Y'see, I never thought she might be alive. But then I found out she had been, and I had to go see what had happened, how she had died. When I found out she was dead, and how she died, I learned our son was alive, with the man she married. I saw him, at school, wanted to talk to him, tell him I was alive, and we'd be together, that he wasn't alone. You know what? He didn't even recognize me! Was I gone so much?
"Then he showed up, and my kid... My own kid's calling another man father!" He half-rolled and began pounding the bunk. "He's calling another man father! He didn't even know me! If I ever see that Apollo again, I'm gonna kill him! He's got Boxey. He's got my son..."
Beej buried his sobs in the pillow, working the blanket into a twisted mass.
"And he won't even know why! He looked at me, then looked right past me. He didn't know me either. Didn't Serina ever tell him? Didn't she even keep a picture of me that he might have seen and asked about? Didn't he know she was married before, that I was with the Fifth Fleet? It wasn't even in the personnel records! Her records...
"Dammit, I loved her! I loved Boxey! And he didn't even know me..."
Heimdal waited until the drunken sobs faded into occasional hiccups, then silence. Very quietly, he draped another blanket over the sleeping man and moved to the door to turn out the light.
"I understand you, Beej." The words were softly-spoken, but heartfelt and pained. "Our little Bryna didn't remember us either, the one time we saw her before Molecay. They speak of children being damaged by so much separation from their parents because of this war, but they forget how we hurt, being apart when duty has give other orders...
"I will not wish you forgetfulness, because you cannot forget a child, and I could not bear the thought of losing Sif, of having to face life without her. I wish for you that the sadness will fade, but not the memory. My friend, I hope you find another reason to live."
Colonel Kenji commanded the Delphian warcruiser Dragonsbreath, and had done so since the commander was killed mere sectars in their flight from Gamoray. Gamoray had been the capital of their empire. Now, the Cylons held it. There was nothing for the surviving misplaced Delphians to do but run, and hope for refuge elsewhere.
They went to the Twelve Colonies first, hoping to find aid in reclaiming their home world from fellow humans, so long ago sundered. They met only Cylons, who smashed their small fleet of escape ships. The survivors scattered, hoping enough of them would escape to form a society elsewhere.
The Dragonsbreath had not encountered any other Delphians since that day, nor any Colonials. But she saw far too many Cylons. They were lucky; they had survived those encounters.
Kenji was afraid their luck was running out. He had lost so many warriors, so many Sunrider fightercraft. He knew how to contact other Delphians, using a code hidden in his own subconscious, but the commanders of the surviving ships had agreed not to use the code unless they found a safe haven. None of them wished to summon others of their people to a deathwatch. Kenji felt the same. His ship would die alone.
That death might be soon. There was a large Cylon patrol on their trail. Kenji was unable to shake them, and he didn't dare risk sending his golden-winged fighters out, leaving the ship almost defenseless. They had little enough fuel left as it was. He couldn't afford to waste it. The Cylons gave them no rest. Soon, they would attack. The warriors would spend themselves as dearly as they could. And then the Dragonsbreath would die.
He kept that knowledge from the women and children, the most precious of the cargoes they carried. It was better for them if they didn't have to expect death. Let them be content while there was time. Children of a rising sun, a golden sun – and, he reflected, it was also a setting sun.
"Commander," said Mriko. An honorary rank.
"Yes?" Mriko was one of the few women in the Delphian military. She was also his wife.
"The Cylons are closing. Shall I alert our fighters?"
He nodded. It was as he expected. They had been forced to burn up fuel trying to escape, and now there was little left for any kind of prolonged battle. At least they would die gloriously.
"Mriko, Hito will take your place. Go to the children. They may be afraid."
It never occurred to her to protest. He was her superior and her husband. She quietly left the bridge, and Hito took her place as scan officer.
"Squadrons ready for launch."
Kenji studied the launch tube scanners. So few ships left! From three full squadrons and part of a fourth, he had barely enough ships for one squadron. Their chances looked slim.
"Launch fighters," he ordered quietly.
A terrible shock shook the entire ship.
"What was that?"
Hito ran a frantic check on every system. "Alpha landing bay, sir. A ship came through the lost corridor."
The lost corridor. He should have known. A scanner had been blasted in their last battle, and could only be checked by a double scan from another turret. Mriko would have seen it... But he couldn't blame Hito. So many systems needed major repairs after a yahren alone.
"Launch the ships on Beta side. Can we land the other ships on Beta after the battle?" He was being optimistic.
The battle was relatively brief. Surprisingly, the Dragonsbreath was victorious, with a minimum of casualties. They were, after all, the best the Empire had, to have survived this long alone.
The Dragonsbreath itself did not fare so well. Alpha landing bay was completely demolished. Beta could only be approached from an oblique angle. One engine had exploded into space, and they lost nearly all their precious remaining fuel. Several supply compartments depressurized. They had air leaks it would days to repair.
They also had injuries. Their medical staff was good, but they lacked many supplies, and many of the injured were children, bruised and battered from the tumbling when the artificial gravity was temporarily lost. Several crewmen had severe burns and suffered near-asphyxiation trying to save their sole remaining engine. Fortunately, they had succeeded.
It was nearly a day before repair crews were able to run thorough checks on many systems. They found their navigation computer burnt out. Several more scanners were gone. More cabins were depressurizing. They were still losing air.
Studying damage reports, Kenji was near despair. For all practical purposes, his ship was now a drifting hulk, easy prey for the next Cylon who came along. If not Cylons, lack of supplies and the loss of air would begin claiming lives within a secton. The Dragonsbreath was doomed.
At that moment, Hito reported one of the few operating scanners was picking up a ship, a big ship – a Colonial battlestar.
A battlestar? They might have hope yet.
Kleopatra was instantly at his side. "What is it, Tolan?"
"There's a ship on our long-range scan. It's not Cylon, and it's definitely not Colonial."
Kleopatra continued to study the strange configuration appearing on the screen. There was something familiar about it. On a hunch, she reached over and punched a classified code into the keyboard. The computer bank released the information she sought. She was right.
"What is it, Kleopatra?" Cain entered the bridge with his usual brisk stride.
"Ship on long-range scan. It's Delphian."
She was a bit taken aback by the fiercely elated grin on her commander's face.
"Sir! A signal! A Colonial recognition signal!"
"Acknowledge it, Memnon. At last, we're going to find out what happened to the Delphian Empire. I knew there had to be survivors in this quadrant."
"So that's why we stayed so close to Gamoray this long."
In a few microns, a dark-haired, golden-skinned Delphian was on the comm line.
"This is Commander Cain, of the Colonial battlestar Pegasus."
"I am Colonel Kenji, in command of the Delphian warcruiser Dragonsbreath. My ship is damaged. Can you assist us?"
The Delphians were human, obviously offshoots of old Kobol or the Colonies in their early days, but as a general rule they had steered clear of Colonial territory, and once rejected an offer to join the Colonial alliance. Cain knew they must be in serious trouble to request the assistance of a battlestar. But then, with Cylons occupying Gamoray, what could be more serious?
"Certainly. What's the problem?"
"Cylon attack. They destroyed our navigational equipment, and most of our supply areas are contaminated." The man looked uneasy. "We have women and children aboard, Commander Cain."
The colonel didn't mention it, but Cain guessed most of their weaponry was gone as well.
"You're welcome here, Colonel. We have room. Can you transfer your people, or shall I send shuttles?"
"We have shuttles enough for our survivors. We will begin transfer at once."
Cain nodded sympathetically. "We'll be ready to receive you."
"Thank you, Commander. Kenji out."
The Pegasus was quite near the Dragonsbreath by this time. The Delphian ship was in bad shape. If anything, Kenji had understated its condition.
"It's hard to believe anything's alive on that wreck," Kleopatra commented. "Just look at the read-outs. Her launch bays are intact, but her landing bays are nearly gone. One of her engines is still leaking fuel, and looks like it's on fire inside. She's probably got air leaks, too."
"Memnon," Cain said, "Get our med teams to the landing bay. They probably have wounded."
"Delphian shuttles approaching, sir," Tolan announced shortly.
Cain headed for Alpha landing bay.
Shuttles carried the women and children, while the Delphian warriors flew their golden-winged fighters. There were large numbers of injured among them, but Dr. Helena's teams were quick to help, and they heard no complaints of pain. The Delphians seemed quiet, a stoic people.
Kenji made sure his people were being cared for before he sought out Cain.
The two men studied each other momentarily. Then Cain stretched out his hand. "Welcome aboard, Colonel."
"Thank you, Commander. We couldn't have lasted much longer without help." The words seemed difficult to say, as though the other man was torn between gratitude and sadness.
"We're glad to help." The two men shook hands. "Come, we'll have more privacy in my quarters. We can discuss the situation."
"Commander Cain," Kenji asked, as if he couldn't remain silent any longer, "what happened to your Colonies? How did the Cylons take them?"
Cain looked away for a moment. "They sued for peace. Our fleet flew into a trap, expected to be greeted as peace envoys. Meanwhile, they attacked our worlds. There wasn't much left when they finished with us."
"Yet you are here."
"We weren't at the rendezvous. The Pegasus was with the Fifth Fleet, sent out when we heard that Molecay had been attacked. The Cylons trapped us there, too, but we got out of it. The only place for us to run was deep space. We tried Gamoray, but the Cylons were there before us. How did they take the Empire?"
Now, the pain was in Kenji's eyes.
"We also heard when Molecay fell. The Cylons attacked shortly after. We fought the Cylons every step of the way, from Molecay to the steps of the Imperial Palace on Gamoray. When Gamoray fell, and our rallying point was gone, we gathered what survivors we could. Other ships did the same, in whatever pockets of resistance were left. Then we struck at the Cylons, breaking through their lines. Our ships fled in all directions, hoping some would make it to rebuild elsewhere. Several of us ran to the Colonies, hoping to find aid. But all we found were ambush and death. We separated and ran once more. The Dragonsbreath has been alone since then, over a yahren."
"And just now?"
"The Cylons found us again. You see the results. We fought them off, but now we can't even run anymore."
"But there are other ships out there? Still free and fighting?"
"Yes. If they live."
"All Delphian ships are warships."
There was silence for several centons. Then, "You have supplies, personal effects you would like to bring with you?"
Kenji looked directly at Cain. "We brought many things with us, thinking we would need them on a new world."
"Then maybe you'd better supervise the transfer of those things to the Pegasus. We may be able to use some of them, and there's still a new world ahead, somewhere."
"Where will my people go?"
"With the Pegasus, for now. I'm sure we can arrange something."
"What do you know of our customs, Commander?" Kenji persisted cautiously. What was the price to save his people's lives?
"Not a lot – yet. That will change, I'm sure. We'll have to learn about each other, if we're all going to be stuck together on one ship."
"And that ship is yours."
"That's right, Colonel."
"There will be problems."
"I'm sure the Cylons will be sufficient cause to force us together at first. Later, we'll have learned enough to endure our differences."
"I hope so."
"I'm sure of it. What choice do you have?"
That was a bitter reality. Kenji nodded acknowledgment.
The transfer of items deemed necessary or useful began at once. In one day, those items in the livable areas of the Dragonsbreath were aboard the Pegasus. It took several days to send space-suited teams into the airless compartments. When everything had been transferred, the bodies of the dead were returned to the Delphian warcruiser, and the Dragonsbreath went to her glory in a single burst of Colonial fire.
From pain or practicality, the Delphians didn't look back.
The Pegasus sailed on.
A Woman's Place
The Delphian refugees from the Dragonsbreath did their best to settle into the Pegasus routine. Many of their male crew learned quickly how to operate Colonial equipment and stations. With an absolute minimum of modifications, their fighters took over a section of Alpha Bay, so they could now launch and land without blowing up either themselves or the battlestar. With the Delphian sun as their symbol, they were quickly named Golden Sun Squadron, which fit well with Silver Spar, Copper Keel, and Bronze Wing, and was very acceptable to the Delphians. Captain Tokyo was squadron commander. The Delphian warriors mixed well with male Pegasus personnel, but seemed uneasy in the presence of female warriors.
The injured, for the most part, recovered and were added to the crew roster and given assignments. However, some of the others, those who'd escaped without injury, or who had been only scratched or bruised, never checked in, receiving medical checks from their own doctors. Col. Kleopatra had the thankless job of trying to bring the Pegasus roster up to date.
"Umm," she said, double-checking her computron roster. "That takes care of the warrior contingent, but what about the women and children?"
Col. Kenji looked slightly uneasy, and very stubborn. "They're noncombatants, not warriors. Why do you need their names?"
"Well, any skills they have would be much appreciated."
He shrugged. "Some are planters. They create and manage homes. They bear children and teach them as they grow. Some having nursing skills. What more do women need?"
Kleopatra looked up sharply. The Delphian was no taller than she was. "You mean you keep your women cloistered? I knew you wanted to live apart, but–"
"Among our own people, there is no need to keep women and children hidden."
"And we're not your people? Is that why you put up such a fuss when our repair crew tried to enter your quarters to make those repairs?"
"They were invading without permission! Our women were understandably upset!"
"They were not invading on our own ship!"
Kenji's only answer was a deepening of the stubborn expression he often wore when dealing with Kleopatra.
"What's the problem?" Cain had heard the last exchange, and quickly stepped in.
"He won't let me near the rest–"
"She insists on interfering in–"
"One at a time, please."
Kenji's mouth set. After a moment, Kleopatra spoke.
"The basic problem, sir, is that we have no idea how many women are in the Delphian 'harem,' or what their names and skill levels are. Also, we need to know about the children, and what kind of teaching program to set up for them, like the Galactica did."
"We teach our own children!"
"To run a Colonial battlestar?" Kleopatra shot back.
"We will learn, and we will teach them!"
Their attention turned back to Cain.
"Kenji, we have a bit of a problem. We need all our people trained as thoroughly as possible, including the women. You know how understaffed we are. We want your women trained as well. What happens if they can't handle themselves in an emergency? Why can't they help with the ordinary tasks of running a ship? I know your wife is a damned fine scan officer. I could use her on my bridge."
"My wife has decided to stay with our children."
"And what if the loss of a skilled officer costs lives at some future time?"
Kenji remembered how he had missed Mriko in the last battle of the Dragonsbreath. He didn't like it, but he could see Cain's point.
"Why don't you take Kleopatra through your quarters? That way, your women won't be surprised, and you can help her more accurately assess the skills and training they have. Also, Dr. Helena would like to take a further look at the children."
Kenji nodded, still unhappy. He was a good officer; he understood what had to be done, and why. If only it didn't conflict so with their usual customs! Well, as Cain had said before, problems could be expected, but the Cylons were enemy enough. They would have to work together.
At that moment, another problem manifested itself.
Capt. Tokyo strode up to Kenji, planted himself directly in front of him, and began to complain in a loud voice. "I will not be held answerable to that yellow-haired hussy! She does not command my squadron! My warriors will never listen to her!"
Kenji was obviously taken aback. Cain intervened again.
"Yellow-haired hussy? You mean Major Electra, my flight commander? Mister, she's one of the best warriors on this ship, maybe even in the whole fleet. She knows what's going on. And just because she looks you square in the face when she's talking to you does not make her a hussy."
Kenji recovered quickly. "Tokyo, she is your flight leader. You owe her obedience. We had women in high positions in the Empire."
"It is one thing for women to have positions in parts of the government, or in schools, or on the bridge. But they do not belong in fighters! They do not belong in the front line of wars!"
"Might I, uh, ask what brought this on?" Cain inquired.
"She insists on inspecting my people and their fighters."
So it was as much a matter of pride as anything else. Electra could be very forthright, and had probably offended the quiet Tokyo without realizing it. The Delphian warriors took great pride in maintaining constant battle readiness. Cain considered that some of his own warriors could learn from them.
"That's her job."
Tokyo was fuming. "We are quite capable of maintaining our own ships. We do not need her breathing down our necks."
"I'll talk to her, and we'll try to work something out."
"Captain," said Kenji, "remember that she is your superior officer, at least for the present. Do not provoke anything or forget your honor."
Delphians had great respect for authority. The gentle reminder might be sufficient.
Tokyo finally nodded and returned to his abandoned duty.
As Kenji and Kleopatra left, Cain wondered what he was really doing, trying to make Delphians and Colonials work as one on a battlestar. Their cultures were so very different – or had been, until the Cylons wiped out both their peoples. But them, there were many disparate groups within the Colonies, and they'd managed to work together. It would just take time.
Cain sighed, shaking his head. He was beginning to understand what Adama had to endure. He decided to return to the bridge. At least there, he could deal with anything.
With Kenji's assistance, it didn't take long to make a census of the Delphians. As he said, all the women were familiar with basic nursing, teaching, and agriculture, for what that was worth on a battlestar. But Kleopatra was secretly pleased with Kenji's surprise at the wide range of other skills and knowledge that showed up. Most of the women had excellent educations – being members of what had formerly been a sort of aristocratic warrior caste in their world, they had been taught to move, if not function, in their men's worlds, and to completely maintain their estates and homes in their men's absences. With little or nothing to do for the better part of the past yahren beyond caring for their children and basic housekeeping, they'd had lots of free time. They'd spent that time studying everything in the Dragonsbreath tape library. Many women admitted "some" knowledge of engineering, electronics, physics – wide ranges of just about everything. What they'd learned as a hobby or out of boredom, was information that was necessary to run a ship. It wouldn't be difficult at all to find compatible duties for them.
For those uninterested in ship duty, there were still the traditional Delphian female activities, most of which centered around the children and the home. There was a large number of children, ranging in age from infancy to eleven yahrens old, to be cared for and taught. Delphian children learned at home until the age of ten, when they were sent to school – different schools for boys and girls, of course. These children had been at home when the final attacks came. They, too, had been reading a wide range of topics. Delphian curiosity seemed to extend to just about everything short of actual contact with the Colonials.
It would be easier than expected to assimilate the Delphian women and children into the society of the battlestar – if the men allowed it.
Colonel Kenji tried to relax, considering how best to solve the slight problem Kleopatra had brought up. Mriko rubbed his shoulders, trying to work out the tension. He took a sip from the glass of Delphian brandy before him.
"Mriko," he said unexpectedly.
"Do you wish to join the crew of this battlestar, as I have?"
She was silent for a moment. "Do you wish me to?" she asked at last, with a question of her own.
"It is your choice, completely free. Would you choose to be a scan officer on this ship?"
She was silent again, still kneading his shoulders. "Cain seems a good commander. I think I could work with him. Yes, I could serve better that way, I think," she finally responded.
"You wish to join the crew, then?"
"If it my choice, yes."
Kenji was silent, still thinking. It was essential, for survival, that their crews work together. He knew his people and the Colonials distrusted each other in some ways. Some of it stemmed from the difference in gender roles in their cultures. The Empire had never had the population that the Colonies had; they had to be more protective of their women. The women were needed in the home, raising children – and still able to defend those homes, when necessary.
Well, maybe for now, the women were needed elsewhere. The battlestar was short of personnel; Kenji had seen that during the inspection with Kleopatra. Yet it was well-run. Many served on maintenance crews and as fighter pilots, among other capacities. While he wasn't ready to see Mriko in a Sunrider, there were a good many other tasks to do on this ship. She could function well on the bridge.
As their leader, he had to set an example. Running against yahrens of tradition and training, he would let Mriko join the crew. Not tell her to join, but allow her to join if it was her wish.
"You'll have to see Kleopatra." Might as well start on a name-basis with his Colonial counterpart.
Mriko's perfectly sculpted eyebrows lifted.
"By your choice," he went on. "Let it be known that whatever decision you make is indeed your decision, not mine, and that I support you in it. Our people may have to change our ways somewhat to survive. We must be an example."
She smiled gently. "Yes, indeed, my husband."
Akimi was alone in the shrine, kneeling before the small brazier, sitting back on her heels to contemplate the intricate mandala that adorned the wall. She came often to the memorial chamber, both the formal shrine on the Dragonsbreath when it still existed, and now to the makeshift room aboard the Pegasus. She remembered, and contemplated an empty life.
There was a swish of ceremonial robes next to her. Another woman dropped beside her, offering her own small puff of incense to the fire.
For a moment they were silent, letting the aromatic smoke flare up and dissipate in the room, an offering to ancestors of long ago, and to the world they had lost. Then Mriko spoke.
"Akimi, my husband has spoken to me of a thing that may affect you."
"Since my husband's death, nothing affects me."
"It may be a chance for vengeance."
A round face lifted, and dark eyes burned.
Mriko chose to join the crew. She also chose the most dramatic moment possible to see Kleopatra – the middle of Cain's next briefing.
Captain Tokyo was making a complaint – again – about Electra's insistence on inspecting Golden Sun's launch area when Mriko and Akimi entered the briefing room. Silence greeted them, all eyes watching inquiringly.
Kenji had almost expected such an action, and had mentioned the possibility to Cain. His wife had a flair for the dramatic, and never did things by halves. But what was the other woman doing here? She was a widow, had no children, no other surviving family. She'd also never been part of the military. Did she want to join the crew as well?
"Colonel," Mriko said quietly into the silence, standing in front of Kleopatra. "I wish to be admitted to your crew to serve on your bridge. How shall I go about it?"
Kleopatra looked pleased. It was a breakthrough, even though it no doubt had Kenji's prior approval, or at least his grudging acceptance. She could live with that; it wasn't her intention to utterly disrupt Delphian society, no matter how illogically chauvinistic she saw it. "See me after the briefing, and we'll discuss it," she said with a friendly smile.
Even Cain couldn't complain about his meeting being broken up. Before the day was over, every Delphian on board would know that Mriko was formally joining the crew.
Then Akimi stepped forward, staring defiantly at Cain. Her usual deferring expression was gone, her attitude strained. She swallowed once before speaking. "Commander, to whom shall I speak about joining your crew?"
"Colonel Kleopatra," he said, gesturing toward his executive officer.
"Even if I wish to join your flight squadrons?"
The question brought total silence. Finally, Maj. Electra rose.
"I'm Flight Commander. You'd speak to me about joining, and on-ship training–"
"No!" Tokyo leaped to his feat. "Women do not belong in fighters!"
"I wish to join a fighter squadron," Akimi insisted, defiantly facing Tokyo for nearly a centon before turning back to Electra. There was supplication on her face.
"Have you had any training?" Electra asked a little lamely, distinctly uncomfortable.
"No, but I have read a great deal, and my reflexes have always tested well. I am prepared to study all I need, and begin as a cadet, for as long as it takes."
"You will never fly with Golden Sun! Women do not belong in Sunriders!" Tokyo thundered, in a voice so totally unlike his norm that even Kenji stared.
"I know that. I did not say I wished to fly a Sunrider."
Tokyo's voice stopped, his mouth still moving soundlessly. What else could she possibly want to fly? She was a Delphian–
"I want to fly a Viper."
Electra swallowed, glancing from Cain to Kenji to Tokyo, then to the rest of the officers present. Was she about to precipitate a war aboard the Pegasus?
"Uh..." she began when no one else had anything to say. "Is there any particular reason for your wanting to fly a Viper?"
"It is true, I would never be accepted in a Sunrider. Therefore, I must fly a Viper."
"It will never be allowed!" Tokyo appealed to Kenji, who was still staring at his secretively smiling wife. "You are her liege..."
"He was my husband's liege. My lord is long dead," the woman shot back. "So who will stop me?" Her voice turned gentler. "My husband has been dead for nearly a yahren. I have no children or other family. Do you expect me to sit quietly alone for the rest of my life? I would rather fight for the children of my friends, fight the ones who drove us from our homes. I saw the havoc and destruction. I ran through it and lived. But now I am alone. What would you have me do?"
"You've felt this way since Narone died?" Kenji finally recovered enough to ask.
"Yes," she nodded, her head low. "But what choice did I have before this?"
Kenji was taken aback. He wondered how many of the other women – some widowed, some bereft of children, all without homes, now existing on an alien ship – entertained thoughts of revenge? How many would be willing to fight as warriors, given the opportunity? They might have live missiles in the women's quarters, and he'd given permission to launch them.
And what about the children? Exposed to war as no child of their culture had been for over a thousand yahrens, how had they been affected? What might they be feeling, as refugees who had seen their world die? He'd seen fit to open the gates for their women to join this society, when Cain showed him the necessity of it. The children would be raised with that knowledge, seeing a different way to live and fight. The Empire would never be the same again–
But then, the Empire no longer existed.
"The choice is yours, Akimi," he said.
"Thank you, Colonel," she replied, then turned back to Electra. "Will I be acceptable?"
"You'll have to take the pilot qualifiers, but if you've been studying, and your reflexes are as good as you say, I don't foresee any difficulties."
There were several long centons of silence.
"Well," Cain said at last, "now that we've gotten that settled, maybe we can get back to the briefing. Mriko, Akimi, welcome to the crew. Kleopatra will handle the roster..."
The Delphian women, greatly relieved and quietly triumphant, settled to one side.
Cmdr. Cain pulled out the files Graham had prepared for him – already obsolete, and needing updating. "Now, to get back to business..."
Another secton's briefing was over. Commander Cain watched his chief officers mingling, conversing, and comparing notes as they left the chamber. For the first time, he felt truly confident this Delphian-Colonial arrangement was going to work. The officers were beginning to understand and respect each other's talents and backgrounds. The Delphian women were easing into their new duties, relieving some of the tremendous pressure on the Pegasus crew. Captain Tokyo even managed to speak civilly to Major Electra. Cain felt they were making progress.
"Kleopatra, we're going to make it," he stated with satisfaction. Not, of course, that he'd ever really doubted his ability to hold it all together.
His executive officer nodded, with a sigh. Many of the problems of the past few sectons had fallen on her shoulders, and the Delphians were not easy for a Colonial woman to deal with. Kenji had helped in every way possible, as had Mriko, his wife. The two crews seemed to be meshing well, and the Delphian warriors were coming to respect Kleopatra enough to talk directly to her when they had questions, rather than going through Kenji or directly to Cain.
Cain, for his part, was quite pleased to have two such competent, high-ranking officers working so well together. Both were quite capable of taking command of the Pegasus, should it be necessary, although Kleopatra of course had more seniority on the ship, and Colonial experience.
Kenji lingered at the foot of the table after all but Kleopatra had left, standing uncertainly with a peculiar expression on his face. Cain hoped a new problem wasn't manifesting just when things seemed under control. He hadn't seen Kenji uncertain about anything since the first few days on the battlestar. The man kept his counsel until he'd made a decision, then stood by it.
"Commander, may I speak with you?" Kenji asked quietly.
"What is it, Kenji?"
The dark-haired man glanced once at the other colonel, then settled his slight frame into a chair at the opposite end of the table.
"Shall I leave?" the black woman asked, noting his reticence.
Kenji shook his head. "No, this will concern you as well. Commander, do you recall when I spoke of our hopes for a future world and restored Empire, and of our Delphian codes?"
"Yes, but I don't recall any connection between the two."
"When our Empire ... died, and we were evacuating what we could, our surviving commanders met to plan the escape. One thing they arranged was the creation of a special code, one the Cylons would have no opportunity to be familiar with. It was to be used in only two instances – when a ship was dying, so the others would know, or if a world was found, and safety of some kind, to summon the others to a meeting place."
Cain's curiosity was aroused. "Continue," he said, leaning forward.
"I wish to send the summoning signal."
Kleopatra's eyebrows shot up in surprise, and her dark eyes widened.
Cain reached for the eagle-headed staff on the table before him. He tapped it idly, staring at Kenji, frowning in thought. "Might I ask your reasoning?"
"I have been studying the information on your Colonial fleet. Such seems a good idea. It would have been wiser, I think, for our people to gather as well. Now that we have escaped the Cylons, we need to be in contact with each other. We need to fight together, and in time to settle a world together."
"Together?" Kleopatra asked softly, skeptically, under her breath.
Cain was thoughtful. "Together. Your surviving ships and my battlestar?"
"What happens to the Pegasus in a Delphian fleet, presuming enough of your people gather to form a fleet?" he asked quietly.
"We will need a fleet commander, of course, but I do not see any of my people being fools enough to want to fight you or leave a battlestar behind."
"Who would command a Delphian majority fleet?" asked Kleopatra. "From what I know of Delphian culture, the loss of the Kindred – your royal family – left you basically leaderless, without any one individual your people would all accept as a ruler. What will you do now?" Her cautious question was not lost on Cain or Kenji. The Delphian shrugged, avoiding a direct response. She wondered if he even knew what they'd do, or if the Dragonsbreath survivors believed or hoped some of their leaders still lived.
"Kenji," Cain began, slowly and carefully, "one of the reasons I left the Galactica and her fleet, I'll admit, is that I don't take orders very well. I'm a Colonial warrior, one of the best, but I'm still an independent adaka who doesn't like being told what to do."
"We get along well here."
"That may be, but it's a bit different accepting orders from the man who saved your people's lives, and still following that man when he disobeys an order from one of your own people, on your own ships. I don't want mutiny on my ship – and this remains a Colonial battlestar. If you want to leave, you have the right to transfer, if we encounter others of your kind, but I won't have divided loyalties on my ship."
"Cain, you are a good commander. You think like a Delphian in battle, and you fight like a demon. I would not want to transfer from this ship. But there may be greater safety in more ships – and I believe my people need that."
"It's your right to summon them," Cain said stiffly.
"I want your approval. I might point out that a battlestar is larger than any of the Delphian warships that survived the death of the Empire. It's very unlikely any commander would dispute your claim to leadership of a fleet." Kenji was silent on what would happen if in fact some member of the royal family had survived to assert authority.
Kleopatra marveled at how quickly Kenji had come to put as much trust in Cain's command as the Colonial warriors who served him did. His magnetism was incredible – but then, so were his abilities.
Cain observed the slight, almost eager smile on Kenji's face. He rose, passing behind his exec to stand nearer the man, the gold eagle staff behind his back. "Is that a bribe, or a promise?" he asked.
"Besides which," Kenji continued, "I will again remind you that your ship has a destination, a goal beyond mere survival. I cannot help but think the Galactica would be as pleased to see Sunriders as your Vipers on the day your people are reunited."
"True..." Cain considered the advantages.
"With your skills as a commander, and with just the Pegasus, you have survived the Cylons. What could you do with a fleet of Delphian warriors? Could the Cylons stand against us?"
"Don't try flattering me, Kenji. I'll do what I think is best for this ship, and for Adama's fleet. Though I have to admit, you have a good list of arguments."
"If a suitable arrangement cannot be worked out, you could leave us as you left the Galactica, without a word. You owe us no answer. Our codes respect a warrior, and being Colonial, not even our Emperor, if he survived, would demand an accounting from you."
"Commander," Kleopatra offered thoughtfully when Cain made no reply. "I'm inclined to try it. From what I know of Delphian culture..."
"And I," Cain stated decisively, "am inclined to agree with you both. Kenji, let's summon some of those warriors you're so proud of. If there're other survivors in this quadrant, let's get them together."
The colonels fell into step behind Cain as he strode from the briefing room. As they headed for the bridge, they could almost see his military mind at work. The Cylons wouldn't like it, not at all. But that would only please him more.
The entry of the three highest-ranking officers on the battlestar brought only a micron's halt to the activity of the busy bridge crew. A gesture from their commander, and they resumed their tasks. Major Titus, officer of the watch, instantly appeared with a report of the preceding few centars. Cain glanced at it, then passed it to Kleopatra and continued to the main command deck.
"Memnon, turn over your console to the Colonel. He has an important message to send, and you don't have the codes."
The young black man was startled, but obeyed. Kenji slid into the vacated chair, face impassive in thought, his fingers already moving over the keys. Memnon watched intently.
"Corporal, assist me!"
Memnon jumped at Lt. Mriko's unusually sharp command. She knew what Kenji was doing, and she wasn't about to allow their most important codes to fall into strange hands. The corporal was summoned to assist in an extremely trivial task – which occupied the two centons it took for Kenji to transmit his message.
The Delphian rose. "It is sent. Now we can only wait for the response, if there is one, and then for answering ships to converge with us."
"How will we know if there is an answer, if we don't know the code?" Memnon was miffed; codes were his business, and if these Delphians were truly allies, why hadn't the message been placed in his competent hands to transmit?
"I will leave a copy of the answering hail. When I am on the bridge, I will examine the responses to determine who, if anyone, approaches. Don't be angered, Memnon," Kenji continued, voice pitched so low that only the corporal could hear it, "only I and my commander knew this code – no one else in my crew knows it either."
"If there are survivors within range, we should hear from them before a secton passes," said Cain. "Barring problems, may I presume, Colonel, that we may move again if we haven't heard anything by then?"
"I would not presume on your authority, Commander. The time bracket seems correct. And if there is no answer, there were none alive to hear."
Cain nodded. "Very well. We wait. Senmut, bring the Pegasus to full stop. All necessary camouflage and evasion tactics as required..."
The first two days passed uneventfully. Kenji hadn't really expected an answering signal so soon. About the middle of the third day, he began to haunt the bridge. His wife, too, seemed to spend a great deal of anxious time at Memnon's board, occasionally remaining through extra duty shifts. The fourth day passed; Kenji's usually impassive expression gave way to a look that would kill at twenty paces.
Toward the end of the fifth day, at the end of a long and impossibly tense duty shift, a message came through. Memnon had just thankfully handed the comm panel to Lygia when an alien series of glyphs flowed across the board.
"What the frak...?" The woman stared. Memnon halted, checking the code himself. Both officers studied the single message for several centons.
"Colonel, it's yours!" Memnon's call broke Kenji's frozen stance. Kenji and Mriko quickly joined them at the console. The Delphian woman watched anxiously as Kenji's face took on a look of great satisfaction.
Tolan had already summoned Cain. He arrived on the bridge and climbed the steps to the command deck two at a time.
"I presume it's yours?" he asked.
"Yes!" Kenji's exultation belied his calm visage. "This signal is from the Starhawk. They are already on the way, and expect to rendezvous in four days."
With a gesture, the excess personnel scattered, leaving Cain, Kenji, and Lygia on the command deck.
"What kind of ship is the Starhawk?" Cain asked, eagle staff slapping gently against his thigh.
"Same class as my Dragonsbreath. It was part of the convoy that ran for the Colonies. A very well-run ship, if the officers I remember are still in charge."
"What will her commander's reaction be to seeing a Colonial battlestar when he's expecting sanctuary of some kind?"
"We ran for the Colonies, Cain. They'll be as pleased as we were to see a battlestar."
"If I remember correctly," Cain reminded him, "your pleasure at seeing us was because your own ship was a drifting derelict."
"The Starhawk will be pleased to see you. They are aware we are with a battlestar. Its officers will understand the necessity."
Lygia broke in. "Commander, another signal. From Sigma Quadrant."
Kenji bent to study the second message. "The Stormbreaker," he reported a centon later.
"Approximately seven days. They are having trouble with an engine. We may have to delay for repairs when they join us."
Cain nodded. "Keep me informed."
He stepped slowly down from the command deck, where he knew Kenji would keep a long vigil. The interesting part, he thought, would be in four days when they had their first encounter with a healthy Delphian warship. Kenji said the commander was aware he would be dealing with Colonials – but what would he really expect?
Cmdr. Cain studied Cmdr. Pa as thoroughly as Pa studied him. The commander of the Starhawk was not a handsome man. He was as tall as Kenji, and broader-shouldered. His black hair was streaked with white, giving him a striking appearance. A massive shrapnel scar etched a circle on the left side of his face. His left arm had been amputated. He walked with a stiff-legged limp. A battle sectars before had nearly claimed his life, and only the knowledge that his ship needed him had carried the old veteran through the difficult operation and long recovery period.
"Kenji tells me you are a good commander," the man said brusquely. He watched Cain with gleaming black eyes that betrayed a mind unimpaired by his injuries. "I am not in the habit of handing my ship to strangers."
"I wouldn't expect you to, Pa. I'd think less of you if you did. You must also be a good commander, to have brought the Starhawk so far, alone."
Pa seemed to unwind slightly, enough to show his respect for Kenji's opinion and for Cain's compliment. But Cain could see he held something back, something of importance.
"Cain," Pa said wearily, "command has not been easy since that battle. I lost many of my best officers, and I was not well, but there was no one to whom I could entrust my ship. I will never surrender the Starhawk while I live, but if it comes to a commanders' vote, are you a man I can acknowledge as my equal, my superior? Can I hear you without doubts? Will my people see you as one they can look up to, and die for, if necessary?"
"My people do, and they're still alive."
Pa threw his head back and laughed. "Yes, Cain, a man has to respect you. I will give you my support." Then he stepped aside to speak privately to Kenji. Watching them, Cain felt uneasy.
The Stormbreaker had lost its commander early in the flight. Its main bridge had been all but destroyed in an explosion, and all functions transferred elsewhere while repairs continued. The highest-ranking surviving officer was a young pilot-captain, who needed little persuasion to accept Pa's judgment in deferring to the Pegasus as flagship of the makeshift fleet. Repairs on the Stormbreaker occupied the next secton. During that time, several other ships joined the hidden group clustered in the lonely star system.
Three small craft joined in a group. The Winds of Space and the Sunrise were small, fast strike craft, designed and outfitted to carry men and fighters rapidly into combat areas. With them came a Colonial mining freighter from an asteroid base. The Colonials had latched onto the Delphians in sheer desperation, unaware of the Galactica's survival, or her fleet.
The Cylon Prize was nearly blown up before it managed to identify itself. The Prize was a Cylon freighter, commandeered in a battle that had cost the Delphians their own base ship. With no other choice, the survivors had taken the nearest handy ship and converted it to human use, renaming it in the process. The entire Cylon crew was disassembled or melted down for parts and raw materials, and now Sunriders and shuttles nested next to the few remaining Raiders.
As Cain studied the flight lists and crew rosters Electra and Kleopatra were continually updating and supplying him, he had to smile. His new makeshift fleet had Colonial Vipers, a few old-style Colonial Starhounds, Delphian Sunriders, and even some Cylon Raiders – and the crews to fly and maintain them! His flight commander threw up her hands in near-despair trying to forge a fighting group from the motley lot, but she seemed to be succeeding. They waited for the arrival of yet one more ship before the Pegasus and her fleet could get underway. The Imperial Soul had yet to arrive...
"So why in Hades do I get the feeling you're not telling me everything?" Cain exploded.
The assembled officers studiously looked elsewhere, shifting uneasily. Though their commander's anger wasn't directed at them, the Pegasus crewmen were unwilling to face his wrath. The Delphians traded glances, but were silent.
"Well?" Cain continued furiously. "I expect answers. What the blazes are you hiding from me about this Soul ship?" His fingers drummed an ominous counterpoint rhythm.
The bridge comm suddenly came to life, breaking the stillness. Cain jabbed at a switch. "Here, Tolan. What is it?"
His aide's filtered voice responded. "Commander, the Imperial Soul is within shuttle distance, and is requesting – no, make that expecting landing clearance for a shuttle, sir."
"Have them hold, Tolan."
"What? Commander, you can't–" Dismay and shock.
"Can't what?" Cain asked in a deadly voice. "Can't why? I can hold that shuttle out there for as long as I have to, for any reason I wish – and I will keep it off my ship, as long as I have any reason to question it." He glared.
"Very well, Commander," a deep voice answered. Pa rose slowly from his seat, assisted by Lee, the captain from the Stormbreaker. "It is time you knew."
All attention focused on Pa – the Colonials intent, concerned; the Delphians uneasy, worried.
"We know the Emperor died at Gamoray, with most of the Kindred. However, several younger members – children - were unaccounted for in the final tally. It's possible they were smuggled offworld earlier in the battle. If so, the Soul is the craft they would be aboard. She was better armed than other ships, and was more appropriately outfitted for the desires and expectations of a prince over a long voyage."
Eyes swiveled to Cain, to view the Colonial commander's reaction.
His face was perfectly composed. The comm broke the silence.
Cain touched the switch. "Yes, Tolan?"
"The Soul again, sir. They're demanding an explanation for forcing their shuttle to delay coming aboard the Pegasus. They say if we don't afford a proper welcome immediately, and I quote, 'our widows will be wearing white within the centar.' What shall I tell them?"
Cain glanced back at Pa, who replied, "The color of mourning, Cain."
"Grant permission to come aboard, Tolan. Inform them we'll have an appropriate honor guard waiting. Then order the formal guard to Alpha landing bay."
"Wearing white within the centar, Pa?"
He shrugged. "An ancient custom, and an ancient threat. White is the color of extreme youth, and of death and mourning. We are born in white, and we return to it in death. The threat should be obvious."
"Explains their reactions to my med techs," the medical chief muttered under her breath. A small ripple of humor ran through the group, but not so loud as to attract the commander's attention.
"Very well," Cain finished concisely, rising abruptly from his seat at the head of the table. "I said there'd be a proper honor guard for this shuttle, and there will be. All officers, Alpha landing bay."
The collection of gathered humanity filed rapidly out of the room.
Major Electra, flight commander of the Pegasus and flight coordinator for the fleet, grabbed the arm of one of her flight captains, Tokyo of Golden Sun squadron, himself a Delphian. "What will this mean to the fleet?" she hissed at him.
He licked his lips before responding. "We are Delphians," he said carefully.
"What kind of answer is that? What in Hades does it mean?" she demanded.
"Perhaps nothing to you, but everything to me."
"Your people are no longer the majority," he replied simply. "And we now have sufficient ships to evacuate our people. What a simple commanders' vote has declared, can be easily undone by one word of Imperial decree. Our fate may have passed into other hands."
"On the basis of what one person says, you'd just up and leave the best commander you could ask for, and abandon your current plans?" she continued hotly.
Tokyo carefully pulled his arm free of her grasp. "This may be my ruler. And is not obedience what you give Commander Cain? Excuse me, Major. I believe I will be required in the bay."
He strode away as she stared in disbelief. Then, after a moment, she began to understand. "Tokyo," she whispered to empty air, "we may not be the best of friends, but I sincerely hope duty doesn't force us to battle as enemies." Then she hastened off to join the gathered personnel waiting to welcome what might be an emperor.
Next to the Colonial honor guard, the Delphians from the shuttle appeared almost gaudy. Their emerald and gold uniforms, with trim and emblem of rank and squadron, far outshone the much plainer Colonial uniforms. Even the Delphians of Cain's fleet had a simpler, more practical garb than these royal guardsmen.
With a fanfare of taped music, a very regal-looking young girl stepped down from the shuttle, head held high. Although she was less than five feet tall, an elaborately upswept coiffure with fanciful gold metalwork woven through it gave her an extra foot of height. The black-haired, almond-eyed child was dressed in a simple, becoming gown in dominant purple shades, swirled through with gold in the same pattern as held her hairstyle.
As she stepped carefully to the deck, her delicate hands lifted the gown just clear of the floor, and small steps carried her gracefully forward. She stopped before reaching Cain.
"Commander Pa! We recognize you from Father's court! But you've been injured!" A gentle, carefully pitched voice barely carried beyond the man she addressed.
A smile creased his scarred face as the commander dropped slowly to one knee. "But I still have my eyes, little one. You're becoming a beauty, as your honored mother was."
The noble head inclined slightly. "We thank you, Commander. You are known for your graciousness. Do you command this fleet, then?"
"No, Lady Sumiko. The fleet commander is Cain, of the battlestar Pegasus, from the Twelve Colonies." Pa gestured at Cain, now approaching with a slight swagger to his stride and a handful of officers trailing behind him.
Delicately lined eyebrows puckered. "You follow a Colonial?" she asked incredulously.
"He seems a most competent commander, Lady," Pa replied. "It would be wise, I think, for a young Emperor to be guided by his counsel."
There was a sudden, awkward silence among the honor guard from the Soul. Sumiko stiffened slightly, as though reminded of something unpleasant, but relaxed before she spoke. "Has no one told you, Pa? Our brothers did not survive the journey. We are the last of the Kindred. We are your Empress."
The silence spread. Cain, Kleopatra, and Electra came to a halt before the Empress. As though at a signal, every Delphian in the landing bay dropped to one knee.
In the silence, Pa spoke. "Empress Sumiko, this is Fleet Commander Cain, of the Colonies. Cain, this is Sumiko, youngest daughter of the Imperial Kindred, Empress of the Delphian Empire, Heir to the Millennia, child of–"
"The other titles and honors mean nothing, Pa, not now." The exquisite young beauty stared up at Cain momentarily, then favored him with a stately nod. "Greetings, Commander Cain."
"Greetings, Empress Sumiko. Sorry if I don't understand your protocol, but I'm not used to kneeling before dignitaries."
The girl-empress continued to study Cain's craggy features, and he continued to return her stare with quiet dignity.
"We understand your customs are not ours," she said finally, continuing to using the Imperial "we." "Time, perhaps, will be our best teacher."
"Indeed, Empress." Seeing the Delphians slowly beginning to rise, Cain turned to his officers. "If I may make introductions?"
"Please do so, Commander." Her guard watched with aloof alertness as she bore the long series of ranks and names with all the honor of her heritage and the glory of a family reputed to have ruled the Empire for twenty-five hundred yahrens, filing each in her mind, never to forget a single one.
Cmdr. Cain, Maj. Electra, and Lt. Tolan answered the invitation to board the Imperial Soul and attend a meeting of the Imperial Council. The richness of the council chamber would have put to shame even the opulence of the ancient Scorpian dynasties. Embroidered tapestries in the royal golds, greens, and purples hung all around the perimeter of the room. The rising sun emblem was repeated in tapestries and in the carved solid-wood furniture. The floor was covered with a massive inlaid stone map of the Delphian Empire, labeled with each territory and its traditional governor. One Colonial flag hung on the walls amid the historical banners of millennia – the Aries triads, united on a rising sun, evidence that a legendary marital alliance of the Aries and Delphians of over a thousand yahrens earlier had some basis in fact.
Three vacant chairs still waited. Delphian ship commanders and civilian advisors stood behind the rest, awaiting the Imperial Presence. Cain and his officers took positions behind the remaining seats. Tolan waited silently, trying to will his face to the same impassiveness the Delphians showed. Electra drummed her fingernails along the sun-rayed carvings on the back of her chair. Cain assumed an attitude of deliberate coolness, as though he could wait all day. He suspected the Delphians could stand immobile for centars, and he was determined to show as much self-control as they, however much it went against his nature.
After several centons, a chime rang through the room, fading slowly, then suddenly flaring into a fanfare. From a concealed door behind the flowing wall hanging, three people emerged – a Delphian warrior in full regalia, an elderly woman in civilian robes, and the Empress, now in brilliant green patterned with silver. The metallic headdress supporting her woven hair was also of silver. Slow steps took the three newcomers to the throne, where Sumiko settled herself regally into the chair, though her small feet were left dangling inches off the floor. The warrior and the lady took positions on either side, the man on the right, the woman on the left.
Sumiko leaned back in her chair, hands resting on chair arms carved to resemble mythical reptilian creatures. She studied the silent, expectant figures around her table for a centon, then raised a delicate, five-fingered hand in a gracious invitation to be seated.
The assembled group sat. Cain nearly betrayed his disgust with the royal hoopla with a snort. Electra smothered a grin. The Empress might maintain a grave facade, but her dark eyes couldn't hide a teenager's curiosity and amusement.
The Empress spoke first. "Commander Cain of the Pegasus, of the Colonies of Kobol."
"Yes, uh, Empress?"
"You may address us as Majesty."
"As you say ... Majesty."
"We have considered your presence within a Delphian fleet, and the possible repercussions of various courses of action, and we have reached a conclusion."
All eyes watched expectantly, and several figures leaned forward.
"Though our civilian advisors argued most strongly against this choice, it is our first consideration that our peoples are at war, with an enemy having no respect for life in any form," the girl continued. "Therefore, the advice of our military commanders has been more highly regarded in this decision. Cain, all have favorable opinions of you. At their urging, therefore, we have elected to remain together as a fleet. Considering your ship and your former position in the Colonies, you hold the highest rank in a consolidated fleet, after ourselves, or course. We therefore offer you the position of Fleet Commander and Advisor. Do you accept?"
The civilians seemed shocked; the old woman beside her glared.
Even Cain was startled, but he quickly regained his composure. "I'd be honored, Majesty, but I must first inquire how much control this gives me, and what other ... responsibilities this entails." He stood up, the tough-minded commander prepared to take charge.
The girl coughed delicately, breaking the shocked silence of others, who appeared outraged that anyone dared speak so bluntly to their Empress. Sumiko smiled at Cain.
"A valid question," she murmured softly. "I would not presume to try to command a fleet. I am untrained in such areas, though my brothers were. You have total military control – your reputation is known, and your tactical ability will no doubt prove invaluable in other areas as well." No one seemed to notice her lapse from Imperial plural to common singular. Her eager smile seemed very anxious for his approval. The old dowager at her side touched her shoulder briefly, and Sumiko quickly pulled her face back into its schooled calm.
"Then, as I said before, I accept," Cain replied. He resumed his seat, wondering what else was to be considered at this unusual gathering. He observed the faces of the other advisors. The military men betrayed few emotions, though Kenji permitted himself a slight nod of approval. The civilians, on the other hand, carried an aura of distrust.
The young girl rose to her full, if short height. "Excellent. Since that is decided, this council is adjourned. Commander, I ... we have already considered the future. Regular meetings will of course be necessary, although we are confident of your ability to maintain a smoothly running fleet. We will address you later, and as needed." Then, with a regal half-nod of her head, Sumiko turned, her green gown swirling as she retreated through the hangings. Her two escorts followed her without a backward glance.
The civilians were quick to disperse, leaving only military personnel. Cain glanced at Kenji and Pa, seated next to each other near him.
"Interesting girl," he commented.
"The last survivor of the Royal Kindred, and our Imperial Empress," Pa reproved. "At least she has the sense to leave military matters in military hands."
"How old is she, anyway?" Tolan asked curiously.
"She has just passed her fifteenth natal day, as you can see by her adult hairstyles and attire," Pa stated.
Electra considered the difficulties in fixing and maintaining such hairstyles over any period of time. Then she remembered the Empress probably had a squadron of hairdressers, cosmeticians, and wardrobers to help maintain the royal image.
"Well," Cain said with finality a moment later, "it's time we got back to work. Electra, Tolan, let's get back to the Pegasus. I get itchy away from that particular lady."
He strode briskly out of the long chamber, his officers quickly rising to follow him.
"Major," the lieutenant noted, "I get the impression the Empress has taken a liking to our Commander."
"Actually, Lieutenant," she replied, holding back a giggle, "a fifteen-yahren-old girl with a crush on a much older man can be a dangerous thing, especially when she happens to be an Empress, with control over a fleet. Our Commander will have to be very careful."
The young man smiled, shrugging. "I wouldn't know about those things. You may have to advise the commander about more than flight rosters before long."
She cast her gaze upward. "Lords, I hope not!"
"Are you coming?" they heard a strong voice call.
They quickened their pace at his implied order. In the newly-gathered fleet, they both would have more strenuous duties, and those duties called.
Playing The Odds
With the return to reasonably normal routine, gloom settled over the Pegasus. The flush of glory from the encounter with the Colonial refugee fleet and the destruction of Gamoray had died away. The excitement of encountering Delphian survivors and the anxiety of the following sectons while the small fleet was assembled had faded away. The Galactica was some unknown distance off their left flank, beyond patrol range. There was no military action to contemplate. Boredom and homesick longing for even the Colonial fleet and reunion with it had taken over, along with despondency over the harsh realization of the completeness of the Colonies' destruction, only fully sunk in and made real since they'd met the fleet.
There was a handful of pilots settled together in one corner of the very quiet pilots' lounge, all warriors from Silver Spar squadron. The generally rowdy and cheerful bunch was moody and spoke in muted tones. Mugs and an abandoned deck of cards sat before the men. The topic under discussion was an exploration vessel sent on a mission of deep-star exploration several yahrens before. The Pegasus had been sent to Molecay about the time she was due back. From the Galactica, they'd learned she never returned, presumably another casualty of the Cylons.
"She never came back," sighed one of the pilots, a fair-haired, somewhat chubby youth. "My sister was on that ship..."
The first pilot who'd spoken, Sgt. Ptah, shrugged. "Who knows? But I'm willing to make a guess."
"Maybe it's just as well. They didn't have to go through the Destruction," another pilot, Trent, said. His firm jaw was set against bad memories.
"Maybe if they'd been here, it would've made a difference..."
Trent shook his head at Ptah's tentative suggestion. "One more ship? Nah. They'd have gotten it like everybody else. Boom. Poof." Gestures pantomimed the explosion. "And another few thousand casualties."
"The Cylons might've had to pay a little higher price for us. But they'd've paid it," Rissian said glumly. Lt. Rissian and Sgt. Trent had both been with the doomed Olympus, destroyed at Molecay. They remembered vividly the burning ship disintegrating around them. Trent still carried a burn scar on his hand, and a shrapnel slash across his chest.
"What was your sister's name?" Capt. Daystar asked, leaning farther over the table, peering at Ptah; his drooping mustache nearly dipped into the mug.
"Neferteri. She was an engineer. Loved her job, and had a passion for going where we'd never been before," Ptah replied with a sigh. He knew the man likely had no real interest in his sister or what she did, but it was sometimes good to share a memory.
There was a centon of silence.
"Hey, Rissian, remember that girl from back on Gemon, the dealer in the Viper Pit?" Daystar asked next, a wicked leer on his narrow face.
"Yeah," the slim back man replied. "You told me she was old enough, but she was just a kid, and I wasn't much more."
The other pilots laughed half-heartedly.
"Your first proposition, and she sent you packing."
"I remember. And she played the wickedest games of pyramid and table triad I ever saw," Rissian responded, smiling in spite of himself.
"She became a warrior. Our bad influence, I guess. I heard she went with them," Daystar said softly.
The gloomy silence descended again.
"My wife went with them too," Trent volunteered.
"Your wife? I didn't know you were married!" Ptah said in astonishment. "That's gotta be the best-kept secret on board!"
Trent shrugged. He had a lot of secrets from the Olympus, and before. "My ex-wife, I should say. Persephone and I were sealed in the Academy. Maybe we were just too different from each other, or too young. She was always gung-ho military – if she'd ever outranked me, I'd'a had to salute to get in the same bed with her. We filed separation papers just before the exploration mission set out. She took it to get away from me, I think. Wish she hadn't. I'd been thinking of seeing her again..." His deep voice died away, and his dark green eyes dropped to stare into the depths of his mug, with a faraway intensity that said he saw a woman there.
"Wouldn't have made any difference," Capt. Orestes murmured, repeating Trent's comment of a moment before. "But the Galactica did."
"Yeah, they saved what's left of our people," Daystar said. "They're still guarding them, and we're out here, in the middle of nowhere, apart from everything."
"We have to be," the other captain said. "We have to go on. It's like Cain said – the Galactica's depending on us, even if they don't know it. They can't watch all directions at once, and they have to guard the fleet."
"They saved us at Gamoray, though. If those two pilots hadn't taken out the missile launchers, the tinheads would've got us. Sherlock said we took enough damage as it was," Rissian said.
"Wonder who they were," mused Ptah.
"One had to be Starbuck," Rissian said. "He's the only guy I know crazy enough to sit between two basestars and dare 'em to shoot at him."
"And the other was Captain Apollo. I talked to Tolan, and he recognized their voices," said Trent. "They're two of the best."
"Did he know where they were when those basestars went up?" Ptah asked.
Trent looked down again, and shrugged. "Tolan didn't know. Maybe they were caught in the explosion. They were awfully close when we fired. Hope the tin bastards didn't take them along to Hades."
"Couldn't have. Those men're too good," Rissian insisted.
"So why didn't they come aboard with us?" Ptah countered.
"They must've run for it. After all, they didn't know if we'd make it." Rissian dipped his finger in the mug, then traced a wet pattern on the table.
"I wonder how good they really were..." Daystar mused. "Sheba and Bojay took 'em when they met, almost blew 'em both up before they realized they were facing warriors."
"But they didn't."
"Maybe they got lucky," Ptah sighed. "I'd've expected better from two pilots who were supposed to be some of the best to survive the Destruction..."
"We survived a massacre, too," Trent contributed. "Probably a case of putting the best against the best. We all thought alike, so our advantage was in being the ambushers. If you'd put Apollo and Starbuck against Sheba and Bojay, or any of the rest of us, in a reversed situation, it probably would've turned out different."
Orestes offered a half-hearted smirk. "And we'd've been the ones explaining how we almost got shot out of the stars by our own people."
"Well, we don't know Starbuck and Apollo are dead."
"I don't think they are. They have brains and a lot of luck. I'd be willing to bet they got back," said Rissian. He swirled the dregs of ale in his mug before draining the cup in one long swallow.
"I'd take your bet, but I'm not sure I'd ever want to collect it," Ptah said gloomily, still unconvinced.
"Starbuck would take it. He'd take any bet." Orestes gazed at some point on the ceiling, leaning back in his chair.
"Even on his own life? Sounds like you. What's that bet you and Electra got...?"
Orestes shrugged, still wearing a half-smile, then reached over and picked up the scattered deck of cards. "Isn't that what we all do? Bet our lives we'll survive the odds, every day?" he asked.
For a moment, no one said anything. Then Rissian responded, "That's our job, to beat the odds."
"The odds'll get us all someday," Trent murmured, staring into his mug. "They get us all, even the best."
"The rest of our fleet. The Colonies. Apollo and Starbuck. Only the Galactica still pulling through. We never really thought anything could beat us. Or maybe we just pretended we were unbeatable," Orestes said softly. His blue eyes were far away as he neatly flipped the deck without losing a card. He began to deal a round of pyramid. No one picked up the cards. "So we keep pretending it's fun."
"Beats admitting how scared we are sometimes," Daystar said pragmatically, voicing a thought no warrior would often admit to. "We can't live as if we're afraid we won't see tomorrow. Anyway," he continued more flippantly, "think how boring life would be otherwise, if there was nothing to liven it up for us."
In the morbidly quiet room, the sound of the door sliding open grabbed their attention. Captain Elaine stood framed in the doorway, dark hair pulled back, looking like some ancient mythical warrior queen ready for battle.
"Orestes," she called in her rich alto voice, "Cain's calling a briefing. There're Cylons in our quadrant."
The fair-haired captain grunted and rose. "So much for boredom. Back to the odds."
Orestes knew he shouldn't let his concentration wander during the flight, but he couldn't help it. It seemed a bad omen, the way Sgt. Astarte's engine had blown, barely a quarter of the way to target. She thought she could make it back to the Pegasus without too much difficulty, and Orestes hoped she was right. There wasn't really any other choice. He couldn't take a pilot with that kind of damage into combat. If another engine blew, she wouldn't be able to maneuver, much less be any good against the Cylons. She was young – the youngest pilot in Silver Spar Squadron – but she wasn't green. He'd sent her back to base. There would be no word on whether she made it back or not; the Pegasus was maintaining comm silence.
He silently wished her luck.
Orestes hoped the mission would be as simple as it sounded in the briefing room. A tanker convoy, with Raider escort, had been spotted by a long patrol. They could use the fuel; the Pegasus was full-loaded, but the Delphian ships had few reserves. Telemetry had plotted the convoy's probable path. Teams from Silver Spar and Copper Keel were assigned to intercept and capture, if possible. The Pegasus and her companion ships would continue to monitor all channels for Cylon transmissions, to gain what knowledge they could of this quadrant. Bronze Wing and Golden Sun Squadrons, along with the defensive complements of the other ships, would be on stand-by. There was always a chance this was a trap, though Cain said he doubted that possibility – and the "living legend" always seemed to be right.
According to his scanner, Silver Spar was still set in formation. Elaine's Copper Keel showed as a perfect set of blips just ahead of his squadron. Electra was flying in the forefront of the formation, alongside the Delphian female cadet who'd chosen the Colonial military for her training. The grim, joyless woman had picked up on things a lot faster than expected.
He regretted no longer flying wingmate for his sister. They'd always been close, he and Electra, depending on each other, but she was now flight commander, had been since Molecay. With Sheba gone, Silver Spar was his responsibility. There wasn't much time for sibling interaction.
And there'd never been a time or place for the other–
"Formation! Silver Spar, go!" Electra sounded keyed up, as if she, too, felt something wrong.
"On me, team," Orestes ordered quietly, then pulled his joystick to the left. Silver Spar would hit opposite from Copper Keel, confusing anybody who might be trying to plot their point of origin, as well as hemming in the Cylon tankers and their escort.
There! The first blip of a Cylon ship showed on his scanners. Tension rose in him, and Orestes took a deep breath. The adrenaline rush of battle was difficult to deal with in the confines of a Viper cockpit. Especially for one like him who didn't like closed-in places to start with.
Another Cylon blip. Now the Raiders were becoming separate entities.
The Cylons must be aware of us by now! Soon, soon... Come on, Electra. Give the word!
Then there was laser fire somewhere ahead. Colonial ships were mixing with the Cylon targets on the scanners.
"Now! Let's go, Silver Spar!" Capt. Orestes led the way with a brief caress of his joystick, and a flare of fire behind him. His squadron was with him as he charged into battle.
The battle was brief. As Cain often said, his warriors were good, and the regular Cylons weren't. There was no way the few Raiders could cope with a two-pronged attack by combat-hardened warriors in fast, maneuverable ships. The yahrens of exile had forced these Colonials to be the best; they'd proven it time and again. Cain had reason to be proud of them. Slipping between pinwheels, rolling away from laser fire, it was almost as if they could predict Cylon actions.
As quickly as it began, it was over. Orestes checked his scanners, searching for another target. Nothing but Colonial blips showed, and two tankers. The third tanker seemed to have vanished.
Well, that happens. Fuel tankers are unarmed, and their volatile loads mean the slightest hit can set off the tylium they carry. That's how Cain... No time for that. We have to guide in the two survivors.
Daystar and Martin were already aboard the ships, with small teams of warriors trained to fly Cylon vessels. The two captains, familiarized through necessity and experience with the layout of Cylon tankers, would make sure the prizes were secure during the short journey back to the Pegasus.
It had been easy. Too easy? Or was he just disappointed, for some perverse reason, that it hadn't been more difficult? Orestes shrugged in the close confines of his Viper, baffled, wondering what was really bothering him. They'd mentioned boredom, that vague discussion before the mission. Lords, was he so bored with the ease of the mission that he wanted something more difficult, more challenging? Weren't fighting the Cylons and staying alive day by day enough of a challenge for him?
No, that couldn't be it. Ennui had to be the last thing he felt during a mission. He had to reserve boredom for his off-duty centars.
Bored pilots soon become dead pilots, he reminded himself. Trying to be less morbid, he thought for a micron. Besides, "dead" has to be the most boring state a human pilot can be in. So what's bugging me?
Orestes glanced around him through his Viper canopy panels. Raider shrapnel flashed occasionally in distant starlight. Otherwise, their small section of space seemed empty.
Wait a centon, he caught himself thinking. That had been an unusually large flash– "Elaine!" he called on his comm. "Something in your sector–"
Her urgent voice cut him off. "Melody, look out! That's not–"
Before either warrior could finish the statement, the flash of metal turned again, revealing itself as a Cylon Raider – obviously powerless, since it didn't show on their scanners – but still intact. Floating freely, it had drifted into position to fire on the passing humans. No one had noticed, 'til now, 'til too late.
"No..." A pilot's voice ended in a barely-begun shriek, and a woman died in a micron of fire and cold.
Before anyone else could take action, Elaine fired her lasers, and the Cylon who'd played dead was dead for real. The stunned silence of the others was gone in a fraction of a micron, and two more Vipers blasted the disintegrating fragments of their enemy.
There was no response to Capt. Elaine's husky call. Lt. Melody of Copper Keel had joined the list of the dead – another for whom the Colonials would exact vengeance from the Cylons, but could never replace. She would not return. The strike team returned to the Pegasus in silence, having ascertained there was no more Cylon treachery here.
Melody had come from the Britannica with Electra and Orestes. He remembered her – tall, thin-faced, hair the shade of afternoon shadows, not especially pretty, but with an infectious laugh and an easy-going nature. He'd never taken the time to get to know her more than superficially. Now, she was gone.
His instincts hadn't failed him, Orestes thought bitterly. He knew they'd gotten by too cheaply, and the Cylons had promptly raised the cost. His lips were tightly closed; his features were bleak for the rest of that short trip back. He found himself wondering if Astarte had gotten back safely, or if she, too, would remain here as part of their price for another day of survival.
A life for a life? A human sacrificed so the ship can go on? Maybe. Orestes sighed. That was the price. It went with the job, their job. His job. Someday, he'd pay that price. But not today. Thank the Lords, not today.
"Welcome back," sounded a somber voice in his ear – Memnon, from the bridge.
"What's the report on Astarte?" Electra spoke before Orestes could ask the same question.
"She landed in one piece, and she's all right. The techs are working on her ship right now," the comm officer responded.
Orestes sighed in quiet relief. It was never easy to lose a friend, or to realize how close death could be. At least it had been only one, and the rest would live to face the odds another day.
You always fight the odds. It's only a game when you're young and foolish, or when you're off duty, or when you're old enough to have forgotten. When you're on-duty, out there, you don't think of the odds, or pretend it's fun. You don't dare.
Astarte was waiting to greet her teammates when Silver Spar landed, eager to hear how the mission had gone. The other squadrons would remain on full alert until Cain felt they were beyond any danger from this last attack. Electra disappeared to make her report to the commander. Elaine also vanished, probably to her quarters. Melody had been her wingman. If anything could pierce that cold woman's armor, this would be it.
Orestes wasn't sure what to do. His usual diversions somehow didn't seem worth the time. He headed for the pilots' lounge. Maybe he'd feel better once he got there, and got into a game. Maybe there wouldn't be anybody there, with most of the pilots on alert, and he could brood in silence. Funny – brooding wasn't like him, and he knew it.
Rissian fell into step beside him, dark eyes catching every nuance of the captain's grim expression. "I don't think boredom is the problem anymore. So, what's bothering you?" the lieutenant asked. "Can't be the mission – it was a success. Is it Melody? She mean something to you that the rest of us don't know about, more than the usual?"
"No. We've lost people before," Orestes replied, not looking at him, still striding down the hall. "Maybe she was special for being human, but nothing personal, nothing unusual."
"And you don't like to admit it hits you inside? But I know you better than that, Captain. This isn't that kind of a funk. What's bothering you, really?"
"I don't know. Sometimes I get tired of fighting the odds, and I wonder why I keep playing the game."
"It's called survival."
"Yeah." Suddenly, Orestes found a rueful laugh. "I guess so. I suppose even boredom beats this, though."
"Maybe. Feel like some pyramid, or something?"
"More odds? I guess so."
"You'll get over it, Orestes. You're not happy if you're not figuring the odds on something – cards, or Cylons, or that cute little cadet in training." Rissian glanced at his captain, seeing the slow grin. Yeah, he'd get over it, whatever it was. Until next time.
Nobody special, just human. Melody, I'll miss you.
Ajax smiled at his captain. "Small ship, Colonial freighter. Doesn't seem to have an escort, either."
"Wipe that smirk off, kid. This isn't a pirate anymore." Capt. Miller sighed. He was still trying to convince some of the more larcenous members of the crew that he had no intention of following in his predecessor's footsteps. The Nyx had ceased to be a privateer the day she'd been commandeered on Scorpio. She was an old ship, and battle-worn, although with a good many modifications from over the yahrens; there were times they had to make do for repairs with odd patch jobs and a lot of prayers, but she'd carried them safely from their devastated world, and done whatever they asked of her. Most of the pirates had died, making it more difficult to run the unfamiliar, out-of-date craft, but some had surrendered to become part of the new crew. They still tended to fall back into easier-going, less honest ways, unless regularly prompted otherwise.
Ajax tried to look penitent, but failed.
"If that ship's friendly, we may be teaming up. If we want to survive, we're going to have to join up with somebody. Our ship alone will never make it anywhere, not to make living worthwhile, anyway." Miller settled back, still watching his scanners. Ajax was a competent scan officer, but he had rather exaggerated ideas about their own strength and ability to survive in Cylon-infested space.
"Shall I scramble our squadron, Captain?" asked a crisp voice.
"Alert status should be good enough," he replied without looking at the woman. Lt. Castalia was one of only a handful of warriors among the survivors aboard the Nyx, and she was the only one with a communications background. She seemed to feel it was necessary to compensate for the non-military crewmen by being overly formal on duty – and frequently off duty as well.
After a few centons, he turned to her again. "Any response?"
"Negative, sir. The freighter's not answering our salute."
"Maybe she can't. Let's go in closer..."
The Nyx approached the apparently drifting ship. Scanners showed there was still human life aboard her. The freighter's silence may have been deliberate, considering the area.
"Holy frak!" Ajax suddenly yelped. "She's hiding fighters!"
Miller's head jerked back to the scan console. Small blips appeared around the vessel, identified by the warbook as fighters, at least two squadrons' worth. There wasn't time to react, much less launch their own fighters or accelerate to escape.
"This is Major Electra, flight commander of the battlestar Pegasus, to commander of unidentified pirate craft. We have you surrounded. This is your only chance to surrender. Any hostile action will result in your immediate destruction. Is that clear?" The cool voice left little doubt that she would indeed order them destroyed if they disobeyed.
Miller's heart skipped a beat. Pegasus? "Major Electra, this is Captain Miller of the Nyx. We are not pirates. Repeat, we are not pirates. May we talk to you, please?"
"Do you surrender?"
He glared at the comm for a moment, then shrugged in resignation. "We surrender."
"What?" Ajax nearly screamed. Castalia, too, looked indignant, while the rest of the small bridge crew sat in shock. "Surrender? Are you out of your mind?"
"Might I remind you that we can't outfight or outrun a battlestar, we are not pirates, and the lady outranks us all. Is that sufficient?"
Ajax retired to his scanners, muttering.
"I may as well get to the landing bay. The lady'll probably want to see me. Maybe I can straighten her out." And maybe she could answer a question of his.
When Miller reached the landing bay, Colonial Vipers were already landing, and his astonished flight crew was confusedly standing back and permitting it. They had little choice, as armed warriors were already herding them into groups, weapons at the ready. Seeing a blond man directing things, the captain moved to join him. The stranger instantly shifted his laser to cover him.
"I'm Captain Miller, temporary commander of this ship, and I've already surrendered and I stand by my word," he repeated wearily, lifting his arms behind his head in a universal signal of surrender.
Blue eyes regarded him coolly. "Nice. Join your crew." He gestured at a group of men and women seated on the deck, their arms in the same position.
"Uh, yeah, in a micron. Mind if I ask who you are?"
"Captain Orestes, Silver Spar Squadron, battlestar Pegasus. Major, this man says he's in charge."
A tall golden woman strode across the deck, perfectly attired in a warrior's uniform and an aura of authority. "Well, well, so you're the one who's been tagging our freighter. How do you like Cain's welcoming committee?"
"Cain's still the commander? I shouldn't be surprised. He was the best commander the Colonies ever produced."
"He still is." She looked him over; he wondered if she liked what she saw – tall, brown hair, warm brown eyes, square jaw and wide smile; attractive, most women told him. Something said, though, that all this woman saw was a pirate. He decided to try to straighten her out.
"He might remember me. I'm Captain Miller. The Pegasus was my first assignment, about fifteen yahrens ago; he was my first commander."
She did a double take with questioning eyes. Miller suddenly noted how deep and violet blue those eyes were.
"You were a Colonial warrior? How'd you hook up with pirates?"
"If you'll give me a moment, I'll explain."
She exchanged glances with the blond captain. He nodded and lowered his weapon.
He lowered his arms; they didn't protest. "I was ground-based on Scorpio when the trouble started – that's my home world, I wanted to be with my family for the Armistice. You know about the Cylon attack?"
"We know," she replied flatly.
"Afterward, we tried to get together and find a ship to get off-world. It was suicide to stay in the Colonies. There wasn't much left, and we thought we were doomed until one day a pirate ship – this one – floated through the sky. Apparently her commander had heard what happened, and figured there were quick and easy pickings on our dying worlds, if they could slip in and out before the Cylons. While the majority of her people were out looting, we attacked. We won. We gathered everybody else we could fit, and launched again. We've been looking for anybody we could find, any warships or other survivors, but we've been alone. I'm afraid we've had to resort to a little piracy of our own to stay alive, but we figured it didn't matter if the Cylons thought we were privateers..."
Her lips twitched in a quick smile. "We do it all the time."
"That's our story, basically, not much to it but surviving. Mind explaining why you set a trap for us?"
"We noticed you trailing our freighter, acting a little suspicious. Figured you hadn't seen our base ship, so the rest of us pulled back. Cain had us settled aboard and ready to launch as soon as you came close. So you and your crew aren't really pirates?"
"Oh?" Her voice was sharper.
"There are a few of the original crew with us. We gave them a choice of joining us or staying behind on Scorpio. Most joined, and they've given us no trouble. In fact, they've been necessary to keep this crate flying. We've got a few Vipers, what we could salvage and what they had, but most of our fighters are modified old Kraits. I don't know about you, but I was absent the day they taught us how to fly those obsolete buckets of bolts at the Academy. Even the old Starhounds beat them all to Hades – former commander must not have faced warriors very often, or he'd have been blown out of the stars a long time ago, but we didn't have any choice. So..."
Electra looked totally disgusted. "Great," she muttered. "Not only do I have to worry about Vipers, Starhounds, Raiders, and Sunriders, now I have to add real antiques to the list. Kraits, you say? Well, we can probably scavenge them, maybe convert and update a few, if Cicero's up to the job..."
"Do you think you could let my people get up and go back to their posts? Some of us are warriors, and this isn't exactly the way we'd hoped to hook up with friends..."
Electra seemed to read his mind. She nodded at Orestes. "Call off the guards, but stay alert. Contact Commander Cain, ask about a Captain Miller – or whatever rank you were then."
"Sergeant Miller," she repeated.
The officer grinned and slipped away, calling orders.
"Major, I have a question you may be able to answer..."
She studied him questioningly.
"The rest of the Fifth Fleet? We thought it was gone at Molecay..."
"Most of it was," she replied softly. "Just Cain survived, with all the survivors he could gather. My brother and I were from the Britannica. I'll tell you the story some other time... Now, of course, we're pulling guard duty for the Galactica's fleet."
"There were some real survivors? A fleet?"
"A group of civilian vessels, around two hundred of the oddest collection of ships you could imagine," she amended. "Mining ships, sanitation ships, old skybuses, movers, converted starliners, freighters... No warships, though, except the Galactica, and precious few fighters and warriors. Not much of a fleet, but it's all that survived, except, probably, for a few scattered vessels like yours, that we'll never hear from again."
"Major, you survived at Molecay. My ... brother was with the Olympus, a pilot, his name was Falstaff, I don't suppose–"
"Silver Spar Squadron. Some missions, he's Orestes' wingman."
Miller whooped with joy, then grabbed the woman before she could react, spinning her in a wide circle.
"Captain!" she stuttered breathlessly.
"Sorry, Major, but my other brother's with me here, and we were all the family that survived, but knowing Falstaff's alive too... Well, you don't know what it means to me, what it'll mean to both of us..."
"I think I do, Miller, I think I do. But if you don't mind, there'll be a shuttle here very shortly. If you've been telling the truth, you'll have no problem facing Commander Cain."
Cain demanded a full report, complete personnel records, and an extended briefing, before releasing Miller and his crew. Amnesty would be offered to all members of the crew who had previously been pirates; Miller had no doubt they would accept the conditions of that offer. The destiny of the Nyx remained uncertain. Cain might offer him her command, with appropriate honorary or temporary promotion. From the raised eyebrows about her history as a privateer, Miller doubted anyone would contest him for it.
After the grilling, he wanted nothing more than to get out and get drunk – he'd learned a few things during the meeting. Little of it was shattering to a man who'd lived through the Destruction and escaped it, but there was a deep, unsettled mingling of emotions in his soul – of devastation at having to relive it all verbally for the commander; of regret at handing his responsibilities over to the other man; of relief at knowing they weren't the last, they weren't alone; of gratitude that another of his family had survived; and an eerie feeling of déjà vu at walking the corridors of his first assignment. Everything said home and tried to convince him the intervening yahrens hadn't occurred.
He knew better. But after a few ambrosas, he'd forget he'd ever been gone. In the morning, a hangover would remind him forcibly, and he'd be able to think again. He wasn't sure where either of his brothers were at the moment, and he wasn't about to search for them – he just wanted to forget for a few centars.
Miller had no problem finding his way to the officers' club. The barkeep scarcely glanced at him, just sent a mug of something flying down the bar his way. He took it and retired to a less well-lit corner. The first swallow hit hard; it had the right kick, but it definitely wasn't ambrosa. He glanced around, feeling furtive. Others seemed to be drinking the same stuff, and none of them seemed too upset with the odd color or wickedly powerful flavor. He kept drinking and watching the others. The faces of the handful of occupants were strange to him, but as the mug emptied and was refilled, he was able to see them merge into unidentifiable blurs that might have been any of dozens of pilots from his memories.
Dozens of pilots. Dozens of dead pilots.
Not much really left from those days. The Colonies were gone. The men and women who'd peopled the Colonies and her ships were mostly gone. Those ships were mostly gone.
"They'll probably take the crew on board the Pegasus, then blow it. She's just an antiquated piece of pirate junk."
The words seared into his brain. Blow up the pirate junk? Blow up the Nyx?
He tried to stand up and protest to whomever had been talking, but his feet gave out under him. He'd been too successful in his search for a good drunk.
"Wha' in Hades are ya doin' ta my ship?"
Cain and Kleopatra stared at the outraged, staggering pilot. Miller hadn't even bothered to announce his arrival, simply stalked in and planted himself in the middle of the chamber.
"Captain Miller, you're drunk," the colonel observed.
"Damn righ'! Wha'erya doin' to the Nyx?" he demanded aggressively.
"Contact Sergeant Falstaff," Cain muttered to Kleopatra. "Miller, the Nyx is old and ready to fall apart. Everything from her comm system to her scanners to those wrecks you call fighters were antique at the turn of the last century. We'll scavenge what's useful out of her, and abandon the rest. What's your concern for that pirate barge?"
"Buh, sir..." Miller felt tears well in his eyes, astounding himself and Cain. "Sir ... the Nyx ... shese my firs' comman'! My firs' real comman... She saved us all... How can ya leave her behin'? The Cylons migh' fin' her..."
The commander and his exec glanced at each other.
"What if they do?" Cain asked, puzzled.
"They can't ha' my ship!" he bellowed.
"Would you prefer we blew her up? Destroyed her so no one can find her?" the older veteran asked with a patient sigh.
"No! I can' let ya destroy her. Shese a goo' ship..."
"With a bloody history," Kleopatra added sotto voce.
"So wha'?" He was getting belligerent.
The annunciator chimed, letting them know Falstaff had arrived. The warrior barreled in, almost breathless. "Sir...?" His eyes located Miller. He'd already learned his brothers were aboard, but they hadn't yet had an opportunity to meet.
"Sergeant, escort your brother to pilots' quarters and see that he sleeps off whatever he happens to have been drinking too much of."
Miller woke with decidedly fuzzy memories. He stared up for several long moments, afraid to move for fear of losing control of the roiling mass that was his stomach. His brain was barely able to make the connection between last night's binge and his current condition. Dreadful noises pounded at his ears, making it harder to think. He stared at the bunk above him and felt awful. The sounds of a pilots' ready room began gradually to make the proper connections.
He smiled at feeling at home, then rolled to make a suggestion that the men keep it down a bit. He kept rolling. He hit something solid, knocking the breath out of him, and discovered himself, very astonished, sprawled flat on the floor.
He heard amusement in reaction – not mockery, but gentle, understanding laughter, as if from men who'd been there themselves. Somebody took his arm.
"C'mon, Mill, sit up. Need something for an Edric-class hangover?"
He blinked and shook his head as Falstaff helped him up, then changed his mind at the waves of pain the movement caused. "I think I do. Thanks, little brother..."
"Anytime." The mixture of emotions in his brother's eyes mirrored his own except for one.
"Where's Galen?" he asked, not seeing their sibling anywhere among the group of warriors.
"He and Castalia are checking in with the Colonel and getting their physicals in life center. The rest of your people are lining up, being scheduled for check-ups, billets, duty assignments, the rest of the necessary paperwork. The doctor said you should stop by later, when you were feeling better or feeling worse, whichever hit you first."
Falstaff went for some headache tablets, leaving Miller sitting on the edge of the bunk, thinking about the Nyx. Depression set in heavily as he considered her fate. His precious first command, soon to be so much space debris, or an empty hulk for Cylon laser practice.
No. Maybe it didn't have to be that way.
When Falstaff returned, he downed the tablets, grimacing and coughing at their dryness against his cottony thick throat. Then he invented an errand and left the ready room as fast as he could shake his tag-along younger brother.
"Are you with me?" Miller glared at the dark young pirate he could almost call friend. Ajax was the one he trusted most among the Nyx's crew to be in on this – the man had almost grown up on the ship. Castalia, the one he would most liked to have at his side if there were trouble, was too military, too likely to give him away. She had never considered the Nyx as anything but a necessary, temporary berth. And of the other assorted civilians, warriors, and pirates who had the necessary background to be helpful in the escape attempt, he either didn't know them well enough to ask, or knew them well enough to know their answer if he did.
Besides, it would only take two men for what he planned.
Ajax seemed skeptical. "Steal the Nyx before they finish stripping it, and if Commander Cain won't promise to keep her whole, find a landing spot on some planet where she can rust in peace, and fly back and spend the rest of our lives in security cells? You've cracked worse than that ship's outer turbodine!"
"You're the one who surrendered, now you want to mutiny?"
"I'm not mutinying, I'm saving my ship. That's a commander's duty."
"Delusions of grandeur..."
"Are you with me, Ajax?"
"What if they won't take us back?"
"Are we any worse off than we were before?"
"Yes! We'll be stuck with each other for the rest of our lives!"
"They'll take us back – if only for the pleasure of putting us in a cell." "We'll still be stuck with each other!"
"We owe the Nyx that much."
"Sure she wouldn't rather meet her glory in space?"
"If she had a chance to fight, yes, but not gutted and blown to pieces by her own people."
"Hey," Ajax laughed, "she used to raid 'her own people,' remember? Probably just poetic justice to go out the same way she took out others."
"Are you with me?" Miller demanded impatiently.
Ajax grimaced, chewing on his full lower lip. "Hades, why not? She is a good lady, 'spite of all her flaws."
"Team prepared as ordered, sir," Major Sherlock reported to his commander. "Captain Rurik is in charge of the survey team. I expect we'll be receiving his recommendations within a centar or so, and be able to commence stripping components and supplies by next duty shift."
"Rurik's a good man for these details," Cain commented distractedly.
"He has an eye for what can be saved," Sherlock agreed levelly. "Also, the Nyx's fighter craft and shuttle are in Beta bay. Cicero has already begun work on them."
Cain nodded briefly.
"It is obvious something disturbs you, Cain. If I may ask?"
"Just thinking, Sherlock. Remembering a few things about the leader of our new arrivals."
"I recall a few things myself. Miller was a good pilot, but if he fixed on a cause or belief, he tended to ... overdo it. Tenaciously."
"That's a very good way to put it."
"Is there something specific which has brought this to mind?"
"He was here last evening, had a few too many of whatever that tech's creating these days. Spouted off about 'his' ship, and how the Nyx ought not to be destroyed."
The chief engineer nodded slowly. "I'm not sure we could trust the other brother, but perhaps we ought to speak with Falstaff about his behavior and plans. He's a good man, dedicated, he might tell us. Or at least keep an eye on Miller."
"Somehow, I don't think Miller would talk to Falstaff about anything he had in mind, for just that reason. But you're right about having somebody watch him. I think I'll talk to Daniel. He'd understand what the boy's got in mind..."
Miller glanced over at the leader of the ship survey team. The engineer's full head of deep gray hair was bent over the bridge's main computer terminal, bobbing occasionally as something caught his eyes. Another man made notes at Rurik's nods and gestures. There had been no questions when he and Ajax had hopped aboard the shuttle at the last centon; the other captain had in fact seemed pleased to have members of the Nyx's crew with the party. It would increase their speed and efficiency, make things easier to locate and operate in the close confines and cluttered holds of the old privateer.
Miller caught Ajax's questioning expression, and nodded easily.
The two men made their way out of the bridge, and into one of the narrow corridors of the ship.
"Now what, boss man?" Ajax inquired. "There's a few more people on this lady than I'd counted on."
Miller shrugged slightly. "Easiest thing to do is to hit engineering, play around with some of the consoles. When the Pegasus asks what's going on, we tell her something went wrong, we'll fix it as fast as we can, but the landing bay's open to space so they can't send anybody else."
"You think they won't follow us?"
Miller shrugged again. "We'll deal with that if we have to. According to the navicomp, there's a dense star system in Sigma quadrant, only a centar's cruising away. That's where we'll head..."
"Okay, assume your plan works that far. We make it to that system without being followed and without this bunch regaining control. We land. We leave her there and bring back the shuttle – since they've offloaded all our fighters, we don't have much choice in that. What then? We'll have all these other people who'll know where she is. Who's to say Cain won't send somebody down after her anyway?"
"When we're back in lock-on range for the Pegasus, we dump our navicomp. They can't go back to her if they don't know where she is. And Cain won't waste days scanning fifteen planets for a ship that he might not find anyway."
"Why not just dump her in the nearest star? Be easier."
"I can't see her destroyed, Ajax, that's all there is to it."
"So close your eyes and don't look."
Miller gave him a dirty look.
"You're a lunatic, Captain."
"Might I ask why you're following a lunatic? You keep coming up with objections to everything I say. But you keep going along with it." There was an edge to Miller's voice.
"I've been a rebel, Miller, you know that by now. Maybe I'm crazy too. Maybe I can't see my old home base blown up. And maybe I'm just performing one last criminal act to prove to myself that you haven't completely corrupted me into an upright, law-abiding, order-obeying warrior type. Like you used to be."
"Let's get to engineering..."
"Second thoughts, eh?"
"Move." Miller was having a few second thoughts, but he wasn't about to be stopped by them. The Nyx deserved better, and he was going to give it to her. It would undoubtedly mean his career, but what did that matter? There were no Colonies left to defend, so what was the point of being a warrior anymore? There were brothers, Galen and Falstaff, both warriors, who were not likely to understand why he was doing this – at least, not for a number of yahrens. If they had a number of yahrens.
That's what it came down to, he figured. There wasn't much left of his people, and he really didn't expect they would last long. So he had to hang on to what little was left. And part of that, for him, was the Nyx. For a while, anyway.
Engineering was quiet and empty; Rurik had already cataloged everything potentially useful from the compartment. In a few centars, her fuel tanks would be emptied, computer hook-ups and telecomps would be removed from the walls, scan and laser parts taken from every station of the ship, the nearby storage chambers rifled. Then the bridge would suffer the same treatment, followed by other ship's operating sections, one by one, until finally only the personal billets would remain for their occupants to sort. Then–
Miller avoided that thought by checking the fuel levels and armament loads. "We'll have no trouble getting out of here, even if we have to fire a few warning shots," he concluded.
"Unless the Pegasus blasts us out of the stars."
He gritted his teeth. "Ajax, you keep this up, and I'll blast you out of the stars."
The dark man just grinned. "Right. Out the airlock without a suit. Take a long walk off a short landing bay. Fifty laps around the outside of the pods. How many times have you threatened to do that to me before?"
"This time it's a promise."
"Right." The mouth settled into grave propriety, but the sparkle in his eyes remained. "So what are your orders, boss man?"
"Check the laser sequencer. We may be able to blame this all on that cracked turbodine..."
"Captain," intruded a quiet voice.
Both men whirled. Miller automatically reached for a laser, forgetting he wasn't wearing it for the survey check, and they hadn't stopped at the armament chamber first. Ajax quickly scanned the room, then shrugged and raised his hands; surrendering had become all too easy recently.
Capt. Rurik stood in the open hatchway, looking vaguely disappointed. There were two security officers with him, their hands resting on weapons, ready to draw.
"Uh, what is it, Captain?" Miller asked after a silent centon.
Rurik spoke quietly, almost regretfully. "Commander Cain was concerned about you, so he put security on you. We heard your plans. I'm afraid we'll have to arrest both of you for mutiny. Foster..."
Miller felt the fight drain out of him; the despair caught up again, and it suddenly seemed useless to put up any resistance or struggle for any cause. He meekly obeyed Foster's instructions on the way back to the shuttle. If a Cylon had attacked at that moment, he would merely have shrugged and died.
Cain waited somberly as one of Daniel's security officers ushered the two mutineers into his office. Miller took formal attention position, while Ajax shaped his body into a sloppy imitation thereof. Cain shook his head, controlling a burst of anger, and gestured with his swagger stick; the two took seats. Sgt. Foster respectfully stepped back, taking a stand at the door. The commander exchanged glances with Col. Kleopatra, then leaned against his deck and studied the men from the Nyx.
Miller seemed to be in a trance. He head drooped as though his neck didn't care to support the weight. Brown eyes stared into some distance through the decking; his mind was obviously far away. There was something haggard and beaten about the captain, in the stony set of his square jaw, in the tiny lines around his eyes, in the slope of his shoulders, in the bloodless fingers lying listlessly in his lap. Cain recognized the look. He didn't like it. It was a man too close to some kind of abyss.
The rankless pirate Ajax seemed indifferent to his fate, but not in the way Miller was. Ajax seemed to be taking this as a simple setback in his life, to be livened up with gallows humor if necessary and the resulting destiny to be endured until it could be changed. The live-wire sparks in his kohl-dark eyes told Cain he'd have plenty to say about his own destiny. Ajax slouched a little, as if challenging the commander. Cain noted, however, the way the young man's fingers combed through his tight black curls; he read men too well not to know nervousness when he detected it.
He glanced at Foster, still holding the door. "They gave you no trouble, Sergeant?"
"None, sir. They were quite cooperative."
"Then I doubt they'll start causing trouble now. You can wait outside."
The door opened and swished shut, leaving the senior officers and the prisoners alone. Cain moved around his desk and sat down, playing with his swagger stick, that small anachronistic mark of command, while he considered what to say.
"Gentlemen," he began – he'd considered addressing them as warriors, but balked when he saw Ajax obviously staring at the ceiling in another deliberate challenge. "You have been captured in an act of disobedience and mutiny. Not a good way to impress your new commander. Do you have anything to say about your actions?"
Miller stirred long enough to stare at Cain. "I'll offer no defense at the tribunal, sir," he stated flatly. "I know what I did; I accept punishment for it, whatever you require."
Cain frowned, shifting his gaze to Ajax.
The young man shrugged. "Sounds good to me."
"You play a deadly game, pirate."
"It may be your ship, Commander Cain, and I know how to take orders from a superior officer, but I don't bow and scrape and lick boots to avoid responsibility for my own actions. I did it. I got caught. I'll pay the price." And then, amazingly, the youth smiled.
Cain almost laughed. The boy had read him far too clearly. But how to let Ajax know that he knew, and appreciated his ability, without permitting the pirate to escape punishment, or presume unwarranted familiarity?
A glance at Miller wiped the mirth away. The captain was staring into oblivion again.
"Gentlemen," he began again, "I can't have mutineers running loose on my ship, disputing the legitimate orders and actions of my crew. I'm therefore ordering you both confined to security cells until the affair of the Nyx has been settled to my satisfaction. We will consider your release at that point. I don't believe a tribunal will be called for. You, Ajax, may attain warrior status–"
"You're gonna make me a warrior?" the youth yelled in astonishment. "But what if I don't want to?"
"Technically, you're a civilian, and currently beyond my authority," Cain replied drily. "I'd rather have you a warrior, where I can whip you into shape as necessary, and not worry about you complaining to the Council at some future point."
Ajax grumbled, but his eyes were brighter as he subsided into his seat.
"You, Captain Miller..."
The man barely glanced at him.
"You will be stripped of rank for the duration of your time in security. Later reinstatement will be to the rank of lieutenant and will occur at your release from detention."
Miller cocked his head. At least Cain had his attention now.
"You were always a good warrior, Miller. I expect you will be again."
"Aren't you taking a chance, freeing mutineers?"
"I weigh the circumstances. I make the decisions. I take the chances."
"Because I'm the Commander."
"No. I mean, why free us?"
"You sound like you don't want to be freed when this is over."
Miller sat back, blinking, mouth slightly agape, considering.
Cain chose to speak with the warrior. First he paged Foster, who promptly re-entered the chamber. "Take Ajax to detention. Then return. I'll be speaking with Miller for a few centons first."
"Yes, sir." The other two departed quickly, leaving Cain and Miller. Kleopatra remained, unobtrusive. Cain stared at Miller; Miller stared at the floor.
"You wanted to save your ship," the commander finally stated.
"I can understand that. I did the same thing at Gamoray, risked my career for my ship and people. The circumstances were a little different, but all things considered..."
Miller glanced up at his reminiscing tones.
"I understand why Adama had to relieve me of command. Nothing else he could do, really. Did you know, Miller, our presence here is practically an act of mutiny? I had to threaten mutiny to get Adama's blessings for this mission. He didn't want me leaving the fleet."
The warrior was shocked. "He didn't? Then why did you leave?"
"I chose this mission for us, this outer guard. I thought it was the way I could best serve our people, what few of them are left. This is where I belong, able to move fast, strike where I'm not expected. I lead my people the way I've always led them best. And Adama does the same, with the fleet. He keeps them safe from within; I keep them safe from without."
The no-longer captain studied him.
"Shall I tell you what I think happened here, Miller?"
"As you wish, sir..."
"I think it's been hard on you, being in command of a pirate ship, responsible for civilians and warriors and criminals aboard her, in the middle of a Cylon war zone. The Colonies were all but destroyed. You thought you were alone, all that was left. But you persevered, even when you couldn't find any other reason, because your people needed you. And the Nyx became the symbol of that, of everything you were becoming to your people and yourself."
Miller licked his lips, looking suddenly very close to tears.
"And then you found us, and you learned that something still exists of our people – not much, true, but more than you knew. And you no longer had to worry about command, or preserving that little handful of humanity aboard her. But all those things you hadn't let yourself feel before came crashing in. You couldn't let them come through before, because if you'd fallen apart, if you'd failed that ship, those people, they would have died. Now your subconscious is telling you it's all right to fall apart. And your conscious is fighting it, trying to stay in control of the rest of you."
Miller jerkily shook his head in denial.
"To do that, it needs to hold the Nyx. So you tried to protect her from destruction, as you've been protecting your crew up to now. And you're tenacious enough to risk even mutiny to do your job, what your conscious and subconscious are fighting over."
"One commander to another, Miller. You've done your job. Let go. For the duration of the salvage mission, you'll be in detention, for your own sake as well as the rest of the crew's. You'll be able to rest and do some thinking, see your brothers, realize we haven't failed completely, and we've still got jobs to do, as warriors – when you're ready. Dr. Helena will see you whenever you need or wish it. She may not be a specialist, but she'll pull you back together again. And you'll be the warrior you were."
Miller was suddenly still. "I've gone crazy?"
"Just a little, I think. And that can be good. In time. In the right amounts. Now isn't the right time, and we don't want you going too far. I think we caught it; you'll get your good sense back."
The young man took a deep, shuddery breath. "Nyx was my first command."
"She'll always be that. And you served her well. Remember at the Academy, they teach that the time comes when we'll lose a wingman, when we have to grieve and go on living. That happens to ships, too."
"I'll call Helena." Kleopatra rose and stepped quietly out of the room.
Cain watched the young man. He saw a few bits of himself in the too-tightly-coiled emotions of the other warrior. In his youth, Cain would have been cocky enough to take on such a mission, and good enough to have carried it out. But these were different circumstances; there was no back-up of any kind, nobody to turn to or ask for help or protection if it was too much, and precious few left to appreciate what the warrior had accomplished.
Miller wasn't the only warrior to have been pushed too close to the edge by the Destruction. But he'd been lucky enough to find something to hang on to, in the Nyx and her survivors. Cain wasn't about to let all that effort and talent go to waste now.
He moved to rest a hand on the man's shoulder. "You didn't fail, Miller. You succeeded. And you don't need that ship to prove it. You've got your people. You've got yourself. Well done."
"Thank you, sir," he whispered huskily.
Cain nodded, then quietly left his own chambers, giving the warrior some privacy to begin his grieving.
His exec was waiting.
"That Ajax is exasperating. Not long for the universe, I'm afraid. He'll be in and out of detention for as long as he's on this ship," she remarked.
Cain had to chuckle at her wry estimation. "And Miller?"
"I think he just needs some rest, to be without responsibility for a little while, but we'll let Helena judge that."
The commander nodded, then stood there, thinking.
"You said some good things in there. How much of it did you mean?"
"Would you see the Pegasus die, if it came down to saving her people?"
Cain felt ice lance his heart. "Call Sherlock, tell him to hurry with dismantling the Nyx. And see if Graham needs metal sheets and girders, if they can be melted down or something. Isn't often we have an intact ship to salvage. We'd better take all we can."
She understood that she had touched a taboo subject. "Yes, sir," she responded, and turned away.
See the Pegasus die? Without him? Without trying to save her? He might be relieved of command. He might be replaced at her helm. He might be too old and weak and senile to command her. But leave his ship to her fate alone? Maybe some warriors, but not him. Never.
He had lied.
They were in a region of space with a myriad of habitable planets, all near each other in the telescoped distances the massive vessel could travel so swiftly. The Galactica and her refugee fleet was believed to have left that region of space, but the commander and crew of the other battlestar weren't worried; as Cain would remind them, they had their sister ship's course, and could follow that path as well, whenever they felt the need or inclination. Duty shifts had become routine and, while the officers would never admit it aloud, almost boring – again.
At least, that was Kleopatra's assessment as she paced aimlessly through another centar of bridge duty.
"We're picking up some signals, Colonel," Tolan reported from the command deck. Computron in hand, the tall man stepped down to join her at the computer core console.
The slender black woman waited patiently for his usual thorough report, faint interest in her bright black eyes. "Yes? Galactica patrol signals? Cylons? Something bouncing off an ion field?"
"None of those, Colonel. We seem to have intercepted signals between two vessels, located in Eta quadrant, according to our scan telemetry. Their code is unrelated to anything Colonial or Cylon, but communications broke it in a matter of microns..."
"Continue," she replied quickly.
"They identify themselves as 'destroyer-class vessels,' under the command of ... commandants, I believe the rank is, Leiter and Kohlar. Our telemetry indicates these destroyers are small warships, no more than fifteen to twenty crewmen, probably operational by a quarter of that number in an emergency. The first vessel ordered the second to a rendezvous at some destination called Luna Four. They expect to meet there in ... five days. Their planet of origin seems to be some place called Terra–"
"Terra!" Kleopatra's eyes narrowed as she glanced over the coded message in the report. She remembered something from the old history and linguistics texts she read out of fascination. "Terra" was a Gemonese word. It had several translations. As for the strangers' destination... "Luna Four... Hmm. Disturb the Commander's sleep period, please, Memnon. Senmut, prepare to change course. I expect we will be following and investigating."
The crew responded briskly, eager for some excitement. Tolan hurried back to his post, leaving the computron with his superior.
The comm officer on duty studied Kleopatra. "Something about 'Terra' sounds familiar – and if I'm not imagining things, it means something to you too, Colonel," Corp. Lygia observed with the easy informality of those who had served together for yahrens.
Kleopatra smiled slightly and leaned closer to the younger woman. "It may be important," she admitted. "After all, in the old Gemonese, 'Terra' ... means 'Earth'."
There was a fanatic, ascetic look to Kommandant Leiter. His body was lean but firm, his features dark, long, and aquiline with a brooding air of cold fury. He paced the concrete path of Luna Four's spacedrome with long steps. His destroyer had only been on the ground for a few hours, and Kohlar's ship, Destroyer Two, was that much behind him, and had in fact just settled to a landing in one of the circles of the abandoned installation. Already, however, Leiter was grumbling impatiently at the necessity of waiting. He peered out over the slightly-overgrown field, seeing the tall buildings in the far distance. There had been a thriving Nationalist population here, with farms and factories to supply the multitudes of Terra. Now, it was empty, silent.
As it should be, he thought. He was a military man, bred and trained for the art of winning battles, on Terra, her colony worlds, or in space. Until certain events on a world called Paradeen, he had done just that, invariably victorious. But there, he had met humans known as Colonial warriors, young men and a woman, who had captured him and his crew, prevented him from carrying out his mission, and mocked him with their monstrous vessel. They had imprisoned him like some criminal, questioned him in a multitude of ways, finally tried to entice him with offers of negotiation and alliance.
But he had withstood all their questions, and finally found escape through the machinations of one Baltar – a traitor and a coward, but of great potential use – and several Nomen, the malformed spawn of some hell-world. He had led his crew to safety, even though Baltar apparently had not made good his own escape. The Nomen had been dealt with, although not without some losses of his own. One had to admit, they were fighters...
His opposite number joined him, as Leiter had requested/ordered.
"I am here."
The dark man stared at the husky blond officer. He and Kohlar had been classmates at the universitat, and had even played together on several sports teams, but they had never really been friends.
"You seem to have done a thorough job with this colony. I seem to recall a more significant population than space rats," was Leiter's comment.
Kohlar glanced around. "When we took this place, we had to resort to the 'invisible death' the Nationalists fear so greatly. Then it was ship-to-ship in the sky, and hand-to-hand, door-to-door here to clean out the rest. They fought back to the last. We lost a lot of good men."
"But you wiped out the Nationalists."
"Yes." Kohlar sounded bitter. "There are no survivors. But I doubt you called me here to commend our costly victory."
"No. I want to know about this 'peace treaty' we've supposedly signed with our enemies. And then I have a bit of news myself."
Kohlar's face flushed dark red. "I've talked to a few of the outer kommandants. None of them know what it means. There are rumors..."
"Tell me the rumors."
Kohlar spoke slowly, deliberately. "Rumor is, the Supreme Kommandant planned a surprise attack, that we were to attack and destroy the Nationalists on Terra itself in one quick stroke, as they discussed a peace ruse. But something went wrong. Our missiles were launched, but they did not impact. The Nationalists did not counter-attack. Somehow, they had developed a shield, and our best agents and scientists knew nothing of it, couldn't predict it, didn't know how it could work, and had no idea how to counteract it. So a real peace treaty was quickly signed. Now we are ordered to withdraw from the Luna colonies, leave them to the Nationalists, and pull away from their territory. We are to return to Terra, and make no more war. We are at peace." His voice curled uncertainly around that last phrase.
"Peace!" Leiter exploded. "And no real reason? A missile shield, but no information on it?"
Kohlar growled on. "Word is, that a huge ship was detected orbiting our home world at that time, but could not be– "
"A huge ship?" Leiter interrupted sharply.
The other officer shrugged. "I wasn't there; I don't know. No one has been able to supply any verifiable information about the supposed ship. But a strange young man appeared from out of nowhere, dark, but in some kind of white uniform, and he is reputed to have spoken to the Nationalist leaders, after he and a friend freed a number of ... political prisoners. The youth and his friend vanished immediately afterward, as did the ship. None of them have been seen since. But the Supreme Kommandant is unwilling to risk anything on an attack at this point – our entire missile force was destroyed in the failed attack. We are all but defenseless, on Terra."
Leiter stared past Kohlar. "A young man, dark... What did he look like? Where did he go?"
"No one knows where he went. As I said, he vanished. But one of our spies was able to make an image of him when he spoke to their leaders. We have a fax of it, if you wish so badly to see him–"
"I do." Leiter turned abruptly. "So we are at 'peace' now. I wonder how long it will last."
Kohlar looked up from his wrist short-range communicator. "What do you mean?"
"The ship is gone," he repeated with a peculiar smile. "I'll have to see the fax to know for sure, but I think the enemy who stood between us and certain victory has moved on, and is no longer a threat to us. And the Supreme Kommandant will find certain information ... very useful. Kohlar, I shall need to ... borrow some of your crew."
The other man started. "What? Why?"
Leiter waved disparagingly. "We had several additional 'passengers' when we made our escape. It cost me four men to dispose of them. I outrank you in seniority, Kohlar. Don't make me pull rank on you..."
He capitulated with a scowl. "Yours, then. But what do you plan to do? We are ordered to return to Terra, for the peace..."
"Oh, and we shall," Leiter responded. "But first, there is a side trip we must make, to a world called Paradeen. The Galactica and her warriors may be gone, but there are people on that world who will pay for everything. And no one will know how or by whom it was done..."
One of Kohlar's men raced up, waving a fax image. Leiter took the picture and glanced at it. His suspicions were confirmed. The man in the image was Captain Apollo, wearing some very light colored variant of the hateful uniform he remembered so well. Then the "huge ship" had to have been the Galactica. How it had reached Terra so quickly, without knowing where to go, was beyond him. None of his people had betrayed anything. But it had gone now. And there were no "Cylons" around their part of the galaxy. There was no one to interfere with the plans of the Eastern Alliance this time...
For five days the Pegasus had trailed the small, relatively primitive vessel. Her pilots had been under orders to stay well out of their probable scanner range, and they seemed to have succeeded; the stranger had expressed no alarm nor changed course during that time. They had picked up the second vessel on the third day, and watched closely as the two closed on a small world, one of several in the bio-zone of a single-star system. Then they had waited, just at the edge of the system, hidden behind the farthest planet, Vipers patrolling to ensure the destroyers didn't slip away, and no one else slipped in.
The crew of Cain's battlestar was used to greater speed, more intense events, sudden action, and heroic contests. The slow journey had at first seemed full of purpose; they were following vessels, watching and listening intently to learn their secrets. But the purpose faded to frustration at the slow unfolding of events. Even their commander's eyes gleamed with impatience, but he held his own feelings and his crew as with a tight leash, controlled by the swagger stick he carried constantly.
Finally, on the sixth day since they'd first intercepted the signals, the strangers lifted off from the planet.
Tolan passed the word. "Sir, the two vessels have launched. Their apparent coordinates are fifty-seven, thirteen, forty-two, relative to our present position. We're trying to calculate potential destinations, based on our limited knowledge of this quadrant."
"Good, good. Anything else?"
Tolan frowned as he glanced over the assorted scan turret reports. "The surface of the planet appears ... deserted, sir. Conflicting data on population centers, energy production, agricultural patterns... Almost as if ... the planet had been inhabited by a relatively primitive space-faring race, but had been abandoned ... or worse, deliberately destroyed!"
A grim silence drifted over the bridge.
"Destroyed?" Cain demanded sharply. "As though by Cylons?"
Tolan shook his head. "No, sir. Their distinctive radiation residue is absent. But there are other radiation levels and chemical spectrums, suggesting a more primitive holocaust..."
"Equivalent technology on both sides?"
The flight officer nodded.
"Is the surface safe for us to walk unprotected?"
He checked something else. "As best we can determine, yes – but that atmosphere is considerably less dense than we're used to, with different levels of support vapors."
"Send a properly equipped team to the surface, full warrior security escort. And Vipers to hold the skies. Our fleet can stay here. Now, Tolan. We can track those ships for some distance, at their apparent top speed, and that buys us some time. But I'd like to stay close enough to know what they're doing..."
Rurik stalked the landscape, his face devoid of expression. The engineer was also an expert on aftermaths; he had seen enough of them in his yahrens in the service, and tried to pull worlds back together after some. But on this world, there was nothing left to pull together, nothing to begin rebuilding from. The structures remained, but there were no inhabitants. Homes were empty, doors open to the world. Factory complexes stood silent, poised as if for arrivals of overdue workers on some extended holiday. Agricultural complexes were overgrown and desolate, livestock running free on some, others with no indication of life whatsoever. There was, however, plenty of indication of death, the edges smoothed only by the passing of time.
The spacedrome still existed, but most of the circular pads were cracking from disuse, lack of maintenance, and the determination of vegetation to grow through it; only two concrete pads had been recently burned clean by landing or lift-off. Whoever had wanted this world, hadn't wanted its people, and had made it brutally clear through chemical and physical means. Rurik's team reported it was the same everywhere they went.
He contacted the Pegasus. "Commander, this was a colony to be proud of, once, but there's nobody left here now."
"Fortunes of war?" inquired a filtered voice from his comm.
"War?" Rurik glanced around again. "No. This was a massacre. Military against civilians. As bad as anything I ever saw the Cylons do to us. But this is worse. It was human against human. Somebody ought to pay..."
The Pegasus followed her prey with unshakable determination.
Corp. Lygia hunched over her station, frowning. She'd intercepted another message, as easily decoded as the rest. This one, however, was decidedly sinister. She looked up. "Commander?"
Cain's glance was the command.
"Another signal from the Terran destroyers. The first expressed an ETA at someplace called Paradeen in three days. The second nearly sizzled the commline with orders to maintain silence, and if they must open communications, not to mention their destination under any circumstances."
Cain nodded slowly. "So they want no one to know where they are going. That does not bode well for the occupants of this 'Paradeen'. Good job, Corporal. Continue to monitor those channels for any future signals."
The young woman nodded briefly and turned away. Tolan moved quickly to stand by her and check a few things on his own.
Kleopatra crossed her arms, studying her commander. "Somebody destroyed that world, Luna Four. We don't know if the ships we're following are of their people, or the enemy that massacred them. I suppose the next question is, what do we do when we all get to Paradeen?"
"That will depend on whether our 'friends' are the good guys or the enemy."
"And how will we know?"
"We'll find out when we get there."
The senior officers turned as one. "Yes, Tolan?"
"Between the strangers' own communications and our navigation and telemetry, we've plotted the location of Paradeen."
Cain smiled his approval before turning to the helm. "Senmut, might I suggest we alter course to ensure a wide sweep around these vessels. Increase speed. Make sure they don't spot us. Destination, Paradeen."
The morning was bright and already warm, without a cloud in the eternal Paradeen sky. Dew touched the trees and bushes of the living woods with small prisms of moist light, but lay more gently on the silent shells of the empty city. Creatures stirred through the encroaching underbrush, squeaking their greetings as first light flooded their low domain.
A branch cracked.
Birds flew and animals scattered, alarm spreading in ripples with their startled calls.
Two women stepped out of the brush into view. They were panting as though from heavy exertion. It wasn't that the trip through the woods had been that difficult; it was the less dense atmosphere that made breathing a greater chore for them. After a few centars, they were feeling the effects. The two Pegasus warriors – Maj. Electra, tall, golden-blonde, and fair; her Delphian wingmate, Sgt. Akimi, petite, dark-haired, and with a round, amber face – rested for a moment. Each was fully armed and carried additional communications and breathing gear. Their land ram waited patiently in the wide concrete block before them.
"Horus?" Electra called aloud. She ran her fingers through her hair; then, grimacing, she brushed off some sort of local crawlon's web.
There was a rustling among distant shrubs, then solid footfalls on concrete as two more warriors joined them from across the square. Lt. Horus wore the dark heritage of the Sagittaran tropical delta region; his wingman, Sgt. Scyld, was ruddy-complexioned with the temple braids of the Raggane highlands of that same world. They had been investigating the only city their scanners had detected on the surface.
"Anything?" the senior officer asked breathlessly.
The men shook their heads.
"The city's empty, has been for a while, from the looks of it," the lieutenant reported. "But someone was here not too long ago – there are spots where the dust has been disturbed, and there are several vehicle tracks to the south."
"Captain Heimdal was investigating the south," Electra murmured. "We haven't heard back from his team yet. Have to call them, see what they've found–"
Akimi blinked and swayed slightly, but caught herself.
"I will be all right," she insisted at her companions' worried glances.
"Better go to your life mask," Electra ordered. "And maybe you ought to get back to the Pegasus; it's been a long couple of centars."
The other woman didn't argue. The atmosphere of the Delphian home world was slightly different from that of any of the Colony worlds; the air density and composition were telling on Akimi more than on the other warriors.
"I'm mountain-born," he reminded Electra. "I'll probably outlast all of you."
Electra and Horus laughed.
"I'll accompany her then, Major, if that's all right with you. I'm not mountain-born. You can endure this daggit pup's cheek," Horus said. "It's not far to the shuttle and our Vipers. We'll reach it on foot – you take the ram. And by the way, I like your new hair ornament."
She shuddered involuntarily and hastily swept away the last of the web. "And you say Scyld's got cheek? All right, then, Sergeant, you're with me. Let's hook up with Heimdal."
Electra and Scyld boarded the ram and set off to the south.
"It must be a deathstone," Heimdal muttered, studying the tall piece of stone sculpture in the small enclosure. The entire plot was grown with well-clipped grass and small flowers, but there was a definite mound in the middle, the approximate size and shape of a full-grown human. "The inscription looks Caprican. 'John Russell Fowler.' Wonder what it means..."
"If it is a deathstone, probably a name," Sif suggested somberly. For all that she, as a warrior, had danced so often in the halls of choosing, and had seen the deaths of so many friends and enemies, it was still an eerie thing to stand before one man's grave and contemplate her own mortality.
"But three names?" the man continued.
"Perhaps tribal or clan names. Some parts of the Colonies have them."
"Must be." Heimdal glanced away from the fenced-in piece of grass to the structure. It was apparently constructed of some kind of metal alloy, and of some size. A smaller building of the same material stood a number of meters away. Several fences ran around the structures in what must be an ordered fashion. There were noises of animals all around them, and the rich scents of summer in full bloom. A wide area beyond the buildings in fact appeared to be cultivated to some kinds of legumes and grains.
"Looks like an agricultural station," he stated.
"Someone's coming!" Sif touched his arm and ducked out of sight behind the deathstone. Heimdal joined his wingmate wife. They watched in silence as two husky, joking men and a rather colorless woman, all very human looking, appeared from some path through the trees. The three made their way up to the house but had barely reached the steps when the door swished open and several small storms swept out. They were children, three fair-haired and laughing, the largest dark-haired and trying very hard to appear mature.
"Uncle Josh! Aunt Aggie!" The smallest of the four threw himself bodily at the newcomers.
"Walker!" the older girl cried.
A pretty blonde woman dressed in silver appeared in the doorway. "Children, you're supposed to be tending your pony, not jumping all over the Morelands..."
"Oh, Sarah, don't stop them," the older woman called, hugging the boy tightly to her with an expression of pleasure mixed with yearning. "It's so good to feel a child's arms again."
"All right," Sarah relented. "But they must tend their chores before they play!"
The children swarmed off toward the smaller structure, from which could now be heard the eager neighs of animals. The older, lighter-haired of the man stepped up to the porch.
"How's Michael today? Feeling any better?"
"Much. He's even out of bed."
A dark-haired, pale man appeared in the doorway behind Sarah. He had to lean on the frame, but he was definitely walking under his own power.
"Josh, Aggie, Doyle, good to see you again."
"You saw us just yesterday," Josh reminded him with a broad grin.
"From a non-reclining position, then. Come on in, sit for a few minutes, you've had a long walk."
"For some of Sarah's coffee?" the other man, Doyle, husky and dark, asked mischievously. "I'd walk to the city for that!"
The group disappeared inside, with Sarah delaying for a moment to glance at the other structure, where the busy sounds of children having a minor argument now filtered into the air.
"Melanie, don't let the boys fight! And give Charity her turn!"
After they were alone, Heimdal waited a moment more before risking speech. "At least five adults and four children. Maybe others around. But apparently all agricultural workers and their families," he mused. "Sif, we'd better call– Sif?"
His wife's eyes were focused on the animal structure. It hit home with a pang and his voice choked into silence, recalling their own daughter, dead on Sagittara with the rest of their families in the Destruction.
"Our Bryna would have been about the age of the younger girl..." she breathed.
There was noise behind them, and two more warriors appeared. Electra and Scyld joined them in the shadow of the deathstone.
"Well?" the major demanded with a deep breath.
"They don't look or sound like planet killers."
"That's the way it looked to us, too, but we walked in on the end of their conversation, and thought you might have learned something more."
He shook his head, feeling almost as distant as the still-silent Sif.
"Then I guess we go in. You bring the children back to the–"
The other woman jerked to stare at her. "You suggest using children as hostages?" she flared.
Electra gaped. "Of course not! Let them know we're here, bring them to their parents so they won't be frightened or try to run away. And their parents will see they're unharmed, that we mean them no injury..."
She took another deep breath, then boldly stood up and began walking deliberately toward the house. She heard Scyld moving behind her, then Heimdal and Sif's slower footsteps toward the animal shelter. She marched up the steps and in the front door as boldly as she could manage. Her fingers, however, rested comfortingly on the butt of her laser pistol.
Michael was resting in a chair, with Josh leaning against the fireplace near him. Doyle was indulging in a cup of some beverage. Sarah had just stepped back into the room from some other chamber, and Aggie was with her. Five pairs of eyes moved to fasten on the Colonials in shock, followed almost instantly by a sort of recognition.
The recuperating man in the chair was the first to react. He smiled uncertainly and pulled himself up. "Colonial warriors!" he stated. "Welcome! What brings you to Paradeen now?"
It took a little while to hear the story of how Michael and Sarah and their children had come to be on Paradeen after a detour to the Galactica; and how Capt. Apollo, Lt. Starbuck, med tech Cassiopeia, and others had assisted in their reaching the planet safely; and what had happened subsequently, resulting in Leiter and his people being captured and taken away by the other Colonials. Heimdal and Sif arrived with the children, as taken aback as the other warriors to be recognized and greeted as friends. Then the Pegasus warriors told an abbreviated version of their own story, and of their following the apparently same Leiter back to the planet.
"Leiter's back?" The sudden fear in their eyes was no fraud.
Michael's fists clenched; Doyle and Josh moved reflexively into almost fighting positions. Aggie glanced around helplessly, as if not knowing where to run this time. Sarah reached protectively for the children; only a micron later, so did Aggie. The children's wide eyes seemed to ask reassurance of their elders. Electra felt some instinct within herself rise to stand between these youngsters and danger, and she saw a similar resolve in the others, especially Sif.
"Leiter's coming back?" Michael repeated faintly. "With two destroyers?" His eyes were hopeful. "Can you protect us?"
"Now that we know what's going on, of course we will."
"I wish Hector and Vector were here," the small blond boy piped up. "They'd protect us."
"You have other men here?" Electra asked.
"Well, yes, but not here. I mean, not them. Hector and Vector aren't men," Michael shook his head. "They're androids."
The Colonials were shocked. Most of the Colony worlds had outlawed human-shaped machines in the earlier days of the Cylon war, for obvious reasons, to them.
"Vector is in the workshop, seems to have shorted out somewhere. I don't know how to repair him, and Sarah's father didn't leave any instruction manuals, so we sent Hector into the city to check the old archives."
"How come we didn't see it when we searched?" Scyld asked.
"Hector's probably underground – the old archives were buried. From there, you couldn't tell if the whole city was blasted on top of you. And since Vector is sort of Hector's father, he won't come back until he finds something."
"Android father?" Electra was dubious. "We won't count on them, then. But we will take care of you – and this Leiter..."
Tolan double-checked the scan turret report before passing it along to Cain. "Sir, the Alliance destroyers have entered the system. We'll have to pull back if we want to avoid detection. And some of our pilots are asking if we'll be attacking, and when."
Cain spun sharply. "Attack other humans? From Electra's report, they may well deserve it, but we'll try another option first. Keep the planet between us and them."
This Leiter had been a Colonial prisoner. Even if he hadn't been human, he might have recent information that Cain would find useful. The preferable course of action would be to recapture him and his men. It shouldn't be too difficult, if the man was blinded by hunger for revenge, and didn't expect the Pegasus. Cain smiled wolfishly. He liked being the unexpected variable. And after two days in the system, waiting for the enforcers' arrival, and knowing what that group had done, his people were eager for a change in the equation.
"Continue to monitor them. If there's any indication of attack from above, we'll move immediately to intercept. But from what I've heard, Leiter will want it personal. He'll go down there himself. And we'll be there too..."
They had landed some distance from the farmstead where Michael, Sarah, and their brats had settled. Time had passed, and the vegetation showed it, having passed from spring well into full summer. Leiter carelessly ground a small flower into the dirt beneath his heel. It did little for his emotions. The man was not usually a sadist – violence for no cause did nothing for him – but there were times when only violent confrontation would settle his soul. He had to see his ad his nation's enemies beaten, and have them know and admit they were beaten. If he managed in most cases to define his own enemies as enemies of his people, it was still in the same cause. Always in the service of his nation.
And this was for revenge as well. Ultimately, following these people had resulted in his captivity by the Colonials. And that had resulted in the traitor Baltar's escape plan, which had gifted him with freedom but cursed him with Nomen cargo. Disposing of those Nomen had cost four lives – Lanceman and Krebbs among them. They were good men; they deserved vengeance.
Kohlar and two of his people came into view. "I still don't understand why you didn't just strafe them from the air," the other kommandant muttered. "It would have been quicker and easier."
"I want them destroyed, but not until after they've been questioned," Leiter replied arrogantly. "The Colonials were with them for some period of time, and they may have been aboard the Galactica as well. They may have valuable information."
Kohlar shrugged. Leiter had ordered their destroyers far off their ordered patrol route, and in violation of specific orders from Terra and the Supreme Kommandant; he outranked Kohlar, so the man had no choice but to obey. "Where are the people you wish captured?" he asked in resignation.
"A small farmstead not far from here, just over that ridge. By landing here, they won't have been able to see or hear us. We should be able to surprise them. Later you can practice your strafing aim – there are several other farmsteads in the area, and, I understand, survivors from our previous attack."
Kohlar's eyes were cold, but he kept his opinion to himself.
Sarah was too nervous to do anything but pace. The last two days had been too long.
True, the children were safely hidden, under the guard of several of the warriors, including one of the men with the braids – she couldn't remember their names, and wasn't sure she could have pronounced them properly if she did. There were too many Colonials around, with too many strange names, and she was fighting her fear of Leiter. The still-recuperating Michael was with the children, over his protests; he hadn't wanted to leave her "alone to face the monster," as he'd put it, but the major had said the last thing they needed was a sick man trying to play the hero. Other warriors had scattered to warn the occupants of the other local farms. There was a specially-equipped shuttle concealed in the woods next to the house, monitoring the skies; it had reported when the destroyers landed, noting that neither of the ships had batteries powered up to fire. There was an armed vehicle of some kind on the hill, hidden as the shuttle was, but ready to open fire if the destroyers attacked.
The latest report was that men from the destroyers were moving toward the farm.
And all she could do was wait for them, the bait in the trap.
Walker was right. She wished Hector and Vector were there too. If nothing else, they would have been amusing companions, taking her mind off the situation.
Sarah hoped Hector wouldn't return in the middle of things. Leiter would destroy him as quickly as them. She almost smiled, recalling the Colonial reaction to the androids. Apollo and Starbuck hadn't been that outraged. They had quickly accepted the androids as part of the household, as they really were, now. It was almost lonesome without them.
She stared out the window for a few seconds, then remembered Electra's admonition to make herself visible, but never long enough to be sighted upon. She moved quickly away. Leiter must know someone was there or he would be suspicious. Even if the children hadn't been children, or Michael hadn't been sick, she would have been the likeliest choice to find at home during the day.
Sarah turned to cross the room again and froze, gasping. There stood Leiter, three other men behind him, all in the dark uniforms of the Eastern Alliance, all with drawn weapons.
"How ... how did you get in here?" she screamed.
The cold-blooded man half-smiled as he grabbed her arm. "Back window. Obviously, one of your children left it open. Speaking of whom, where are the little angels?"
She stared, too angry and fearful to answer.
"Visiting one of the neighbors, perhaps? And your man as well? Or are they in the fields somewhere? No matter. They must return by evening. I can wait."
Her defiance began to return; something of it must have been communicated to the enforcer. He studied her more closely.
"You don't seem surprised to see me back," he remarked. "Your dismay was that I had gotten in, not that I was here..."
"What's going on here, woman? Speak, quickly, or your children will pay the price when they return – and they can't hide forever–"
"Sarah? Sarah!" A cheerful voice came from the front door. A shadow danced on the floor, and a woman unexpectedly walked in. She froze at seeing the enforcers.
One of Leiter's men jumped forward to grab the new arrival, a tall, attractive blonde woman in a roughspun jumpsuit.
"What? Sarah, what's going on? Where did these men come from?"
Sarah stared at Electra, uncertain how to respond.
Leiter squeezed her arm roughly. "Well, hello, stranger," he purred at the newcomer. "Sarah, why don't you introduce me to your neighbor? I presume that's who she is."
The other woman blinked, then slowly responded, "My name is Anne ... Anne Russell. My people live–"
She shut up.
"Ladies, why don't we sit down and have a chat..." He holstered his weapon and pointed toward the chairs circling the fireplace.
Something tumbled over in the next chamber.
The enforcers jumped.
"Willem, check it out!" the kommandant snapped, then glanced at his prisoners. "One of your children, perhaps?"
"Who are these men?" "Anne" complained loudly. "Sarah..."
Willem reappeared from the other chamber, pale with his teeth clamped tightly together. "Kommandant..." he began.
The warrior stepped into action. A well-placed kick at the knee, an elbow in the ribs, followed by a palm heel in the face, all in less than a micron, and her guard was down.
She didn't act alone. Two men jumped into the room behind Willem, weapons drawn. Two more appeared in the outer doorway, similarly ready to fire.
For a micron Electra was vulnerable, within reach or aim of Kohlar's weapon and unarmed herself. He had his weapon out; she stared him down. A glance at the other warriors, all deadly eager, and he reconsidered, dropped his gun, and raised his hands in the universal signal of surrender.
Leiter had no such plans; he grabbed Sarah tighter and pointed his laser at her head. "Stop! Or even if you get me, she'll die as well!"
The warriors studied him, testing his resolve. It wasn't difficult to see he meant it.
One of the warriors at the door stepped forward, a very cold and deadly expression on her face. "So the murderer of children hides behind a woman again?" she said scornfully. "Such a coward. The universe will be better off without you – though I regret you die so quickly." She aimed.
"Sif, no!" Electra called, startled.
"I'm a very good shot, Leiter," Sif announced chillingly. "And you are considerably larger than Sarah."
"I'll kill her!"
"And I'll kill you. And then I will go to Terra and kill your leash-holder who orders the murder of children." No one present doubted she would do so.
Leiter didn't realize his grip was loosening.
Sarah threw herself aside, stumbling over a chair.
Several guards stood at various positions around the two destroyers, but it was plain they expected no trouble. With both Leiter and Kohlar among the team sent to capture the resettled Terrans, their discipline had lapsed as well; they seemed merely to be going through the motions of sentry duty.
Lt. Horus peered across the meadow from his leafy concealment. He had returned from the Pegasus to be part of the ambush party, being marginally more familiar with the area than most of the warriors. Besides, he could move through the terrain; trees had been his second home as a boy. He adjusted the fit of his life mask, which had been brushed askew by a spiny branch as he climbed into the tree. Now was no time to lose equilibrium and fall. He studied the ships and the deployment of the men.
"I think the Major was right," he mused, then plucked the short range telecomp from his leg clip. "Stun 'em and rush the ships."
His men were from Daniel's warrior security. They knew their jobs. In a matter of centons, twenty-four Eastern Alliance enforcers were strewn before the destroyers in various positions of surrender or unconsciousness.
Electra studied the agro grounds one last time, then returned to the porch. Sarah was perched in a chair, her bruised ankle well-bandaged. Michael sat quietly beside her, still pale but much relieved to know she was all right. The children were playing quietly on the porch, unwilling to go any further from their parents than that. There were sounds of somebody moving in the house; Aggie Moreland had insisted on staying to "help straighten things up" while Sarah and Michael both finished their recoveries.
"The enforcers are secured and on their way to the Pegasus," she announced wearily. The thin air was beginning to affect her again. "They won't be bothering you again."
"I seem to recall another warrior promising us that," Sarah offered ruefully.
"Speaking of whom," Michael began, "how many of you are there?"
"What do you mean?"
"Battlestars, warriors. Apollo said they were the only survivors. Yet here you are. Are there others?"
With a heavy heart, Electra could only answer truthfully. "None that we know of. Just the Galactica and the Pegasus – and they may not know we're still here."
"Electra?" Sarah spoke again. "Where did you get the name Anne Russell? And how did you know to come in?"
"I'm used to thinking fast – comes with the quadrant. One of my men reported something wrong in back, so someone had to check things out inside. I was the only one in local costume, so it was me. I took Russell from your father's deathstone..."
"I guessed that."
"And Anne is a short form of my mother's name – Antigone. I remember you mentioning the name Anne, someone you know."
"Antigone's pretty. It's just ... Anne was my mother's name."
Electra's smile was strained for a moment, then she managed a laugh. "I'm sure your mother wore it well. And thanks for the compliment on my mother's name. I've always sworn I would never name a daughter after my mother, but maybe I'll have to reconsider."
"How about Leiter and his people? What happens to them?"
"After Leiter woke up from his stun blast, he cursed a lot. What happens to him ultimately? That's up to the Commander. But how about you? Will you be all right here? You're both on life station relief, after all."
"Aggie won't leave until Sarah's back on her feet, and Josh said he'd stay for a few days, help us out with the farm work. They love being around the children," Michael smiled. "And Doyle went to find Hector. Rurik says he'll have Vector running around again in a few centons, and he'll create some kind of repair manual for us – by the way, Apollo never did tell me, what's a centon?"
Electra just laughed and stepped off the porch, waving farewell. She needed decent air again. And she had to think of something to say to Sif about her prize performance. She had convinced everybody, even Leiter, that she was shooting to kill. Instead, she had only stunned him. Sif's daughter had been killed in the Destruction; Electra suspected she would welcome a chance to go after Leiter again, if he made any more remarks about the necessity of war resulting in the deaths of children. Next time, the laser might not be set on stun.
Commander Cain had to do a great deal of thinking. Studying the sullen captives in their cells, he wondered what he should do with them. He had no interest in keeping them aboard his ship. Yet they couldn't just be released to wreak havoc on Paradeen – or worse, on Terra – when the Pegasus was gone. After a moment, something occurred to him, and he hurried to life center to check its feasibility.
"Dr. Helena, I have a question."
The medic glanced up from her desk coolly. "Could you make it quick, Commander? I still have several check-ups to complete on the personnel who spent extended time on Paradeen."
"That one process of yours, psych-electron recall ... does it work in reverse?"
She stared back at him for a beat. "What do you mean?"
"Can you make people forget certain things?"
Her usual faint pink flush faded from her cheeks completely. "It can be done," she replied starkly. "But that kind of ... mindwipe is even more painful than the recall techniques, and is generally forbidden in our medical departments. Its use was deemed too close to unnecessary torture for average use. As I recollect, its only use back in the Colonies, and that not widespread, was in certain criminal cases and a few very special military applications..."
"Can you do it?"
Another beat. "I could. Beej might be more acquainted with the techniques, but..."
"I won't ask him to do what I won't do. Medical ethics..."
"If these men remember what they know, they will take it back to their world and shatter a fragile peace, possibly resulting in the deaths of millions of people. If they are made to forget, their peace will stand. If they take back knowledge of us, it may destroy their culture; without that knowledge, their world continues to develop on its own path, without awareness of the Cylons or fear or jealousy of the culture and technology they can't possess. Is that enough to satisfy your conscience, doctor?"
Her mouth twisted in distaste.
The stylus bent between her fingers. "I guess it will have to be," she finally responded flatly.
"Good." He nodded. "Get ready for them. Twenty-eight men, in a regular rotation. The first will be here in a centar or so. I'm ordering extra security for you for the duration."
Equally flatly, "Understood."
Cain left before either of them said something they would regret later.
The meeting with the leader of the Alliance enforcers was quick and fierce. Leiter was brought in by warrior security, fully manacled and silently furious. The kommandant took one long, hard look at the Colonial commander in his field uniform. He ignored Kleopatra's restive movements and the close attention of the security officers, and stalked forward, glaring, to face Cain almost nose to nose.
"It was said on the Galactica that they were the last of your people's warships, and they had a mission and destination elsewhere," he said tightly.
Leiter rocked back, more wary now that he had taken Cain's measure – and found it far too close to what he saw as his own. "I see they lied, no doubt to deceive us..."
"And you intend to carry that information back to Terra?" Cain asked with deceptive mildness. No reason to drag out the conversation with formalities or politeness; they'd already emptied the destroyer's computer banks, and there were only a few things Cain wanted or needed to know from this man.
"It is my duty."
"You will go back and tell your superiors that the Galactica was the last, and she is gone. You will then tell them the Pegasus aborted your mission of destroying what was left of the Paradeen survivors – in violation of your own treaty. What do you think they will ask you then?"
"What do you mean?" Leiter stared as Cain sat back in his seat.
"You don't believe they will want to know if or where we have gone? What information or technology we may have supplied your opponents? You can tell them what little you learned of the Galactica, but what can you tell them of the Pegasus – or others?" He deliberately planted a seed of suspicion.
"How many of you are there?" Leiter demanded in angry frustration. Twice these brown-uniformed strangers in their massive starships had interfered with his mission and treated him with the contempt of an adult for a foolish child. He had been physically overmatched, shot, imprisoned, dragged halfway across the quadrant...
Cain leaned forward again, the half-smile on his lips matching the arrogant gleam in his eyes. "Enough, Kommandant, enough," was all he would admit. He could keep his secrets as well as this man. "But I think it is obvious that we cannot allow you and your destroyers to return to Terra with your knowledge. There would be too many ... complications for your people and ours."
"Execute you? No, I think not. And while some time under Daniel's watchful eye might be good for you, I'm certainly not interested in inflicting your presence upon my security personnel any longer than necessary. We could release you on Paradeen without your ships and weapons, but I suspect you would only make life miserable for the likes of Michael and Sarah and their family and neighbors. Which suggests the best way to deal with you may be medical. Kleopatra, inform Dr. Helena that her guests are on the way."
Kleopatra gestured Daniel's men forward.
Leiter stepped back in alarm.
Warrior security took the Alliance enforcers away.
It took several days to complete the mind-stripping of the Alliance enforcers. Cain made himself be present for most of it. Dr. Helena spent those days in grim silence, and most of her people with her. She avoided Cain's gaze as much as possible.
When the job was finally done, the men were put back aboard their destroyers and the vessels set adrift on different headings. When the men regained consciousness, they could take control of their ships and return to Terra – obedience to that order had been planted foremost in their minds. Neither would remember what they had done on Paradeen; Kommandant Kohlar had also forgotten any meeting with Leiter, while Kommandant Leiter's memories were so muddled that no one could find any consistency in them. He would have to be careful to avoid a tribunal when he arrived home. Even if Terran technology could unravel what they had done to the enforcers' minds, there would be precious little to trust in Leiter's story - and his deliberate violation of orders would tell heavily against him.
Cain watched the destroyers as the small specks vanished into the starfield.
He had to admit, the men had kept their pride and arrogance. He had gained precious little during their interrogations. Under other circumstances, he might have been glad to have such men in his command. But their brutality was against their own people, fellow humans. And they acted on their own initiative, for revenge's sake, not for their people's. How could they be trusted?
"Adama, why did you let them go? Couldn't you figure out what they might do when they were free?" he mused aloud. "You must have had something in mind – but I don't know what. Part of our job, I guess, taking care of the little mistakes you've left behind. All in all, they weren't much of a challenge. It's been a rather boring secton..."
With those last, perhaps too-arrogant thoughts, Cain dismissed the Terrans from his mind.
"Confirmation. It-is-a-distress-signal-in-one-of-our-codes," the metal creature at one of the consoles reported in a monotone after several centons of mechanical, by-the-book computations.
"This-unit's-conclusion-is-the-same. The-signal-is-weak-but-very-near-in-this-quadrant," a second Cylon droned.
The centurion serving as commander of the small freighter convoy seemed to study the two lesser machines operating the scan and comm boards. Computer relays noted the proper reactions in its programming. "We-will-respond-to-this-distress-signal-and-investigate," the silvery machine announced. "Relay-the-order-to-the-other-vessels-in-the-convoy."
"Commander! We're picking up signals – in a Cylon code!"
"What?" Cain moved instantly to stand to Tolan's shoulder. "From where? Can we identify the code?"
"Captain Daystar's patrol is picking it up and transmitting it to us, sir. Communications is working on it right now. The patrol is holding position... We have the code! It's a distress signal. Low band, weak transmission – we're trying to pinpoint the location." Tolan frowned in concentration.
"Sir!" Lygia piped up from her station. "Captain Orestes reports he can fly back-up for Daystar. He's already in range and is also receiving the signal. We can launch a security shuttle in a centon–"
"No shuttles! Launch a strike wing, and order patrols to close in. Bring the Pegasus to full alert status, and instruct the other ships to drop back in convoy, with Pa to act as commander at his own discretion. We'll move in to investigate." Cain snapped his orders, his eyes still fastened narrowly on the screen at his command deck.
"There's no evidence of Cylons in this quadrant, sir. Do you think it's a trap?" Tolan asked, obviously concerned.
"I doubt it, but treachery is always a possibility when dealing with Cylons. We'll check it out from a position of strength."
Baltar's love for his planet of exile had rapidly worn thin after the first two sectars of its mercurial weather. There was another storm in the night; the wind, thunder, and hail bouncing off his small shelter kept him awake half the night.
When the run rose, he was far from rested, and his body felt bruised and sore, the result of a combination of sleeping on an uncomfortable cot and long days of hard physical labor to which he was highly unaccustomed. It took a great deal of work to sustain himself with the humble stack of supplies and equipment Adama had left him.
But at least he was free of the brig, he reminded himself as he crawled from his narrow bunk and dressed. This might be nothing more than a larger, lonelier prison, with required hard labor, but he was no longer forced to endure the sideways glances and unveiled hatred of his fellow Colonials in prison. He also didn't have to face warriors and security officers everywhere, reminding him of his status, and holding him personally responsible for their own woes.
And with the transmitter Adama had left him, he at least had hope.
And he could still dream. As he gobbled a breakfast of native fruits and hard nuts, washed down with spring water, he indulged himself in his favorite fantasy. He dreamed himself truly free, rescued by his Cylon allies – untrustworthy though they might be – and back in charge of a fleet of basestars. The Colonial fleet was his, only tattered remnants surviving his attacks, its captains begging him for mercy, offering everything they had, promising obedience to his every whim... Then, a crowning joy – Adama himself coming under truce-sign to plead for his people, and being treated exactly as he had treated Baltar – a prison cage, and public display before his foes; and Apollo and Starbuck, captured alive, brought before him and thrown to their knees, imploring him for mercy while he mocked them and ordered their deaths – slowly, under torture, before Adama's horrified gaze...
Baltar scowled. Yes, he'd love to hear them plead and scream, but they'd never ask him for so much as the time of day, especially after the way he'd taunted Apollo at Starbuck's murder trial. And then he'd been forced to save them both in order to save himself from his own treacherous aide... It wasn't fair!
Not only that, but after two sectars, even his brightest dreams of revenge paled before the prospect of another long, hard day.
"Spoiled a perfectly wasted twenty centons," he commented to himself with a growl. The sound of his own voice unnerved him in the quiet shelter. There were only the hum of the small generator and bird noises from outside, and he momentarily regretted breaking his own silence. Then, he forced himself to continue speaking, remembering the planet was truly his to do with as he could.
"I've been here two sectars. I should've been rescued by now," he scolded the single room. "I'm beginning to hate this planet even more than I hate Adama and Apollo!"
The solar-powered generator, for reasons of its own, chose that moment to die. Its comforting hum grew silent; the small light in the shelter flickered; and Baltar found himself sitting in dead silence amid the morning shadows. For a moment, fear clutched heavily at his chest. Then he chuckled sarcastically.
"Why not? I'm not too fond of you, either, generator. But since I need you to keep my transmitter sending, I'll take a look at you and hopefully find out what's wrong. Probably just not enough sun. There's been so much rain recently..."
Still grumbling, he crossed the floor, pulled open the door of the shelter, and stepped out, squinting in the glare of the brilliant early morning sun. He heard bird calls that suggested they were startled or disturbed by something. Fortunately, there were no large predators making this area their habitat. He wondered briefly what was bothering the birds, but they didn't concern him overly much, and he promptly forgot about them.
The solar panels of his generator glistened with dew or rain left from the night, but they were still tracking in the proper position. A closer check showed that one of the cables was loose, probably blown free in the wind. A moment with a portable welder, and the problem was repaired. Baltar heard the reassuring hum of the generator as it returned to life, and was satisfied.
Coming back around the side of his shelter, he froze, staring. There, against the verdant backdrop of "his" world, stood several people, most of them in the uniforms of Colonials warriors.
He hadn't been isolated so long as not to realize that two of them were female; one was fair, the other dark-haired. Two of the men were also blond; a third was dark-skinned, and the last seemed alien, shorter than the others, gold-skinned, with an unusual hairstyle and uniform. For a centon, they stared back at him with equal intensity.
The blond woman stepped forward, half-smiling as she studied him, then turned to one of the blond men. Baltar's eyes grew wider as he saw the winged-sword patch of the battlestar Pegasus.
"Inform Commander Cain that we have located the origin of the Cylon distress signal," she ordered with deceptive calmness.
"Right away, Major." The youth nodded and vanished into the fern-like greenery.
Baltar ran for the door of his shelter, knowing he had a weapon hanging next to his cot, cursing that he'd gone outside without it, to be caught unarmed by these people. He'd gone a half-dozen steps when one of the warriors tackled him into the grass, twisting his arms behind him before allowing him to rise again. Grass-stained and dew-spattered, the former man of influence in the Colonies stared dismally and with some dread at his captors – warriors from the ship of the man who was quite possibly his worst enemy.
Cain, apparently engrossed in the supply statistics Graham had sent him, waited several centons before deigning to notice his prisoner. The technician who'd brought them – a Delphian woman – waited passively behind him, while the warriors who guarded the manacled prisoner were also quiet but alert. It wasn't long before Baltar began to fidget.
At that point, Cain finally set aside his comp-sheets and lounged back in his chair, studying his captive. "So, Baltar," he began, "we finally meet again. It's been a long time since we left for Molecay."
"Why, whatever are you talking about?" Baltar faltered, hearing the sharp, bitter pleasure in the other man's voice. He can't possibly be referring to... No, he couldn't have known... But then again, at Gamoray, he was willing to sacrifice everything to reach a certain basestar, my basestar. He broke into a cold sweat.
Cain's narrow, searching gaze caught his body's betrayal; satisfaction lay in the cold, steel-blue eyes. "Yes, Baltar," he grated through clenched teeth. "I know how you betrayed us at Molecay, with your bombs and your trap. I remember how many died there. And we learned, too, from Adama, how you even turned against the entire Twelve Tribes, and handed all humanity over to the Cylon butchers, for your own gain. But I'll bet even you didn't realize how thoroughly they planned to exterminate us."
Baltar's knees were knocking; he knew he was doomed, and grabbed at the most slender hope. "The Cylons betrayed me, too, Cain. I tried to preserve my world, when I saw what was happening. And it was Karibdis, not me, who was responsible for Molecay. Adama knew; he had him arrested when they learned he was still alive. Karibdis tried to kill me, to silence me, and Captain Apollo as well, because we knew, he and I, on the Galactica–"
"Shut up!" Cain's voice was a whiplash across his words.
Baltar saw his guards turn pale with a dawning knowledge that quickly turned to hate. They hadn't known everything Cain knew. It suddenly occurred to him that Cain had tricked him into admitting that he knew, at least, what happened at Molecay, and that he probably had a part in it. He should have kept playing the innocent; maybe they'd have believed he was a duped pawn, caught in the middle, and pitied him. Now, they hated...
"You were willing to betray us all for your own ambition. And you started with my people. If there was any punishment great enough for what you've done..."
One of the guards was edging closer. It was the black man who'd tackled him on the planet. Baltar tried to sidle away; one of the other guards restrained him – the blond, a grim look on his handsome features. Reminds me of Starbuck, his eyes...
"No, Rissian," Cain intervened before anything further could happen. "There's nothing we can do to make up for what he's done. There's no punishment that would ever be enough. At Gamoray, I thought just knowing he was dead would be vengeance enough... But then, I never thought we'd have you in custody again, Baltar. You were on the Galactica, you say. How'd you get to the planet? Adama get tired of listening to your whining lies?"
Cain's voice was loud in the overly-quiet room. Baltar could feel the hatred directed at him, and was frightened by its intensity. "Adama and I came to an arrangement," he said, trying to brazen it out.
The commander abruptly turned away from him, and strode to his windowport. The view was lovely – a lush green world, one of its three satellites glowing brightly with reflected starlight. The star that was sun to the system lay in the opposite direction, a bright golden ball of fire; its brilliance outshone the background, and few other stars could be detected in the velvet blackness around it.
"You made an arrangement. And Adama gave you that world." Cain sounded almost calm, and very thoughtful. "Banishment, alone. Not a bad idea, that..."
Baltar felt a moment of pure relief. Perhaps he wouldn't be subjected to the confines of a prison cell again – or worse – after all. Perhaps he could be returned to his world...
Cain turned slowly, and there was a calculating, unpleasant smile on his rough features. "You probably didn't give him much choice about it; he must have wanted something from you very badly. Pity you have no such bargaining chip with me."
He's playing with me! As a bast might play with some small game! Well, I'm not going to take it anymore!
"No, I don't," he began boldly, not hearing his voice shake. "But I'm sure I can remember something you want. After all, I do know a lot about the Cylons' activities in this quadrant, and was privy to much information you may find useful–"
There was disgust on the commander's face, and contempt in his words. "So you betray them as quickly as you betrayed us. No, Baltar, I won't be seduced by your words, so you might as well save them."
The dark-skinned Rissian still stood near them, and from the mad rage barely held in control, Baltar knew he would not live long if he remained on the Pegasus. There were too many here like Rissian, who hated him deeply enough to risk anything for a shot at him. And Cain himself would never take action against any of them if some "accident" were to take a traitor's life.
"You're Colonial warriors... You've sworn to protect, all of you!" he stuttered in fear. "Whatever happened is past ... I can guide you back to the Galactica ... I have no reason to love the Cylons..."
"And we have none to love you," Cain reminded him, almost amiably. He was enjoying this; Baltar was reacting precisely as could have been predicted, trying to save his skin by whatever means. "We already know where the Galactica is, but we're here for a reason. And you are part of that reason. You are guilty of your crimes, so there remains only the sentencing..."
"Sentencing? What sentencing? I've received no trial! I protest! I have rights!"
The commander continued without pause. "You will be returned to your planet of exile. However, I see no reason to burden you with responsibilities of concerning yourself with a transmitter. We will retain it," he finished brutally. "Orestes, Rissian, take him away. Electra, prepare a proper honor guard for his escort back. We want him to live a long, long life ... alone."
Relief at being spared gave way to thoughts of the last two sectars multiplied a hundredfold.
The hold on his arms was far from gentle. He tried to catch at the doorframe with one manacled hand as they pulled him from Cain's presence. "No! You can't do this to me! Don't you respect Adama's word? He promised me... Cain, you've got to leave me some hope! Every man deserves that..."
"You've stated yourself guilty. You are sentenced to exile. Get him out of here." Cain could hear the shrieked protests for several centons as the renegade was hauled away. He glanced at Electra, the remaining warrior in the room, and ranking pilot, except for himself, on the Pegasus. A predatory expression appeared on his face.
"Let the punishment fit the crime," he said softly. "Adama was too gentle with him, but then, Baltar must have known something Adama must have needed very much. I have no such need; I already know all I need to know about the Cylons."
Electra took a deep breath and settled into a chair. She'd been too tense to sit while the traitor was in the room. "But sending him back to that planet? Isn't that letting him off?"
"He wanted a world to rule, obviously one without humans. He shall have one, the same one Adama gave him. Why should he ever want to leave it? Prepare a shuttle to take him back to the surface, Major, and take an armed escort. There he stays, now and forever. I am not Adama; I see no reason to leave him hope. Let him live without hope, as so many of our people now live – those who weren't murdered in the moment of our greatest hope. Bring back his transmitter."
She nodded, a malicious twist to her smile.
Several moments later, Cain stood, staring out the viewport, wondering if he were doing the right thing in returning Baltar to the planet, and exile. After so long, his hatred still burned strong for what had happened at Molecay, and later, at the "Peace." Whatever they did to the traitor, it wouldn't bring the dead back to life, or undo the terrible Destruction. Those thoughts wearied him, depressed him. There was nothing that could change the past.
But Baltar alive and alone on a world would have to endure each moment of exile without help or hope for the rest of his life. No one else to blame. No one else to order about. Maybe those long moments of banishment would force him to feel the emptiness the survivors did. The almost infinite series of microns between now and the man's death would perhaps drive him to insanity – but hopefully, not too soon. A moment of loneliness and hopelessness for every drop of blood he was responsible for... Maybe that would affect him, for the Lords knew his awesome betrayals had made no impression on his shallow, callous heart.
He'd never liked Baltar, and knew the other man had never liked him. But even revenge meant nothing now; it was empty, somehow. Baltar was punished, but was still unbeaten – Adama had sent him here; it was no military defeat. That, to Cain, made a world of difference.
Baltar had been on the Galactica. For a moment, he debated asking about Sheba and Cassiopeia, if the traitor had known them – but he knew he wouldn't ask. He wouldn't give Baltar the satisfaction, wouldn't let the man think he had a bargaining point for so much as a spoonful of water. Besides, if they were dead now, after the sectars apart, after unknown battles and crises, he didn't want to know. Better to think of them both as alive and well and happy and safe...
"Can such a lovely lady truly be so cruel as to leave a man alone and stranded with no hope at all?" Baltar cajoled the pilot of his shuttle. His arms were manacled behind him; two guards sat beside him; another warrior sat next to the major, the woman with whom he tried to speak.
Electra ignored him as she concentrated on flying the small craft. Capt. Tokyo and Capt. Orestes led patrol wings on either side of them; Baltar was getting a royal send-off for his last contact with the humanity he'd betrayed.
"Coming up on our original landing site, within a mile of the camp. Do we set down there?" murmured Trent from alongside her. The sergeant refused to so much as acknowledge Baltar's presence; he still carried several scars from the battle of Molecay, although the worst had been surgically repaired.
"Sounds good," she replied without hesitation. They could have dropped their prisoner off miles from his camp, to let him find his own way back, if he survived – but for some reason Cain wanted him to live, so they would give him every chance for a long life, however little he deserved it.
The shuttle skimmed treetops for several microns, then dropped lower to the grasses of a river plain. Vipers settled neatly on either side. They were down.
Electra swiveled in her seat as Rissian and Ptah yanked Baltar to his feet. "Well, Count, we'll escort you back to your camp, to make sure you get there, and then we'll pick up your transmitter and leave you in peace. Of course, we'll have to drain your weapon first. By the time you get it recharged on that old generator of yours, we'll be back in the skies. I trust you understand the reasoning behind that particular precaution."
Baltar almost snarled at her formal expression and elegant tones – As if this was small talk at a party! But at least they're leaving me a working weapon. Cain might've taken that from me, too. But if a day of reckoning ever comes, he'll pay for this. Yes, and you, too, my charming beauty, won't look so pleased then, either!
Outside the shuttle, his "honor guard" clustered around him, waiting for orders. The major gave them quickly. "Orestes, you and Astarte keep guard on our ships. Tokyo, you and Saigan take the lead. Rissian and Ptah will continue as your immediate escorts, Count Baltar, as they did so well on the shuttle, while Trent and I will bring up the rear. We'll remove your manacles at the campsite. Tokyo, lead out."
How she could smile so sweetly while insulting him, he didn't know, but he was glad he didn't have to endure much more of her so-called politeness.
The two Delphian warriors, who had no particular immediate hatred for their prisoner, bestowed curious glances on the Colonial betrayer – the detached curiosity of outsiders peering through a microscope – then turned to the deep forest, following the trail Maj. Electra's party had made the day before while first locating the traitor. Another desperate look at his captors, and Baltar knew he could expect no mercy from any of them, or much consideration – but he could expect to live.
For just a micron, he was face-to-face with the leader of his escort. "Pray you're never at my mercy, Major – for I will have none for you," he snarled under his breath.
She obviously heard him, but made no response.
"There-is-a-Colonial-vessel-in-orbit-above-the-planet," one of the Cylons reported to its superior. "We-are-remaining-opposite-its-projected-path-and-the-remainder-of-the-convoy-is-sheltering-behind-the-star. What-orders-shall-be-given-to-the-search-party?"
"Have-them-continue-to-scout-the-discovered-camp," the senior Cylon ordered in its monotone. "Have-them-take-prisoner-all-they-discover-there-and-keep-them-alive-until-they-receive-further-orders. We-must-learn-more-about-the-Colonial-force-before-further-action-is-taken."
"It's been a long time since I was on a planet."
Orestes glanced down at the wistful quality in Astarte's voice. She was strolling near the edge of the clearing, away from the slow-moving river. Her arms were full of the red blossoms that thrived among the grasses at her feet. She seemed to be weaving something with them, braiding them together in some intricate fashion.
"Yeah," he replied thoughtfully. "The Pegasus gets most of her supplies and raw materials by raiding Cylons, so there's not much call for us to go planetside. Maybe, when we get a little farther away from the Cylon alliance, we'll be able to take the time. I wonder if we'll be with the Galactica by then..." He was sitting on the nose of his Viper, that being the best vantage point short of climbing a tree.
He watched as Astarte finished whatever she was doing. "There," she announced grandly, raising a twisted red and green wreath in her arms. "I hereby name myself queen of this world." With a small flourish, she crowned herself with the flowers.
Orestes laughed, but had to admit she looked very nice with the red flowers set in her dark hair. "Bravo, your majesty," he called, clapping lightly in an affected manner, with an almost simpering quality to his voice.
She made a face. "And to think," she scolded him, "I considered naming you my prince consort."
"Oh? And how should a prince consort behave?" the captain inquired gravely, a gleam in his eye.
"In the first place, you should come down off there and show some respect for your queen!" she replied, throwing an extra flower at him.
"How about if I be your chief guard, and stay up here? We're supposed to be keeping an eye on our ships."
"Where are they going?"
"That's not the point."
"All right, I understand. Even here, we have to be on guard." She threw up her hands in surrender, and sighed. "It's just that it's been so long..."
"If you want to take a walk, I'll stay here," he offered.
She shook her head, still unhappy. He slid off the ship's nose and waded through the grass to her side. She slumped against a tree trunk, all her previous playfulness forgotten.
"Are you all right?" he asked.
He reached out a hand and touched her flower coronet. "I never got the hang of these when I was little. They always fell apart, or lost their petals and looked hideous. Think you could make me one, your majesty?"
She looked up at him through dark eyelashes. A small smile tugged at her lips. "I could try, my prince." As she turned to go back to her flower-picking, he blocked her passage on both sides, planting his palms against the tree. She looked up inquiringly.
"It has been a long time," he whispered. He lowered his head and touched his lips to hers. She responded with a murmur, running her hands up his back and pulling him closer.
After a long moment, they both broke away. The sweet scent of flowers was heavy in his nostrils. He sighed. "I think some things need the life of a growing world to keep them growing," he said, a touch of wonder in his voice.
"Yes," she breathed. "And this is such a lovely world... I'd better get some more flowers to weave..." She slipped free under his arms, but kept looking back at him.
He wondered if he'd done the right thing, kissing her. They'd had a brief relationship before he became her squadron leader. He made it his policy not to get involved with the women in his own squadron – there were plenty of others, after all – but it looked like there was still a flame there, just waiting for the right stimulus. And this world was, if nothing else, guaranteed to encourage just such thoughts...
He shook himself mentally. The timing was certainly bad – the middle of a mission was no time to contemplate a relationship! Then he heard her scream.
Orestes spun around, pulling his laser free in a lightning move, but it was already too late. He had a brief glimpse of Astarte in another embrace, a Cylon's, before the world went dark.
The trip through the woods was uneventful. Baltar finally subsided into cold silence – no doubt his version of a dignified exit, Electra thought as they reached the campsite. Baltar's shelter stood exactly as they had left it; the door was even still ajar.
"Well, Count Baltar, this seems to be where we leave you," she commented to the man as Lt. Rissian removed his manacles. Ptah claimed the weapon from the shelter, and industriously drained its charge into the ground.
The traitor fixed her with a haughty stare. His clothing was somewhat stained from several tumbles into the vegetation, and his face was scratched, but he'd gained no humility from it. She let herself grin as she rather insolently glanced at his clothes. "I suggest you start with a bath and some laundry."
A shade of red mottled his complexion, but he said nothing more.
Perhaps he feared a violent reaction from the man standing behind him. Rissian had watched him closely during the trip; more than once, Baltar was sure, a tumble he took had been the result of a push from the dark-skinned man. The lieutenant's hatred radiated directly at him.
Capt. Tokyo had been looking around. He seemed to listen for a moment, then suddenly grabbed Electra's wrist in a grip of steel. "Listen," he hissed.
The entirely party fell silent. "What is it?" the major asked after a strained moment. It had been so long since she'd been on a living planet that she wasn't sure what she should be listening for.
"The birds... Something's wrong here..." The short Delphian glanced at the ground, moving slowly. Then he stiffened, and bent closer to the dirt.
"A Cylon footprint," he announced grimly.
There were audible intakes of breath from half a dozen throats, then five warriors drew lasers, suddenly very aware of the dark, silent woods around them.
They stood motionless and silent for a long centon. "Think they're still here?" Trent whispered to Electra.
She turned her gaze back to Tokyo, who was still studying the ground. He shrugged; there was no worry on his face, but that in itself meant nothing.
"Spread out," the woman ordered in a low voice. "Get under cover, and check out the area. If you find anything–"
Her command was interrupted. "Halt-humans. You-are-our-prisoners."
At that metallic sound, Electra needed to say no more. The warriors threw themselves to the dirt, weapons pointed in the direction of the Cylon voice. Baltar was, for the moment, unnoticed, forgotten. He used his opportunity, and ran.
Several Cylons appeared out of the lush foliage, weapons ready and aimed, firing over the humans' heads. The Pegasus warriors returned fire; unhampered by orders to take prisoners, not dead bodies, they destroyed the small enemy squad with no casualties to themselves.
They stayed low in the dirt and grass of the clearing for several centons, waiting for another attack, surprised that the Cylons hadn't simply massacred them before they could react. Finally, Electra hauled herself to her feet, not even bothering to dust the dirt from her uniform before turning to her people.
"Split up into pairs," she commanded urgently. "Get back to the ships! Watch out for Baltar, damn him! He ran! Be careful..."
Three pairs of warriors, Colonial and Delphian, ran into the woods, trying to move quietly and quickly, to get back to their fellows and their ships before Baltar could link up with the enemy and give away their position – and inform the Cylons they were from the Pegasus, and betray her location...
Baltar rushed wildly through thick stands of trees and tall grasses, not caring how much noise he made. He was away from the Pegasus warriors, and he had to reach his Cylon allies, and hope they didn't shoot him down before identifying him. If he could reach them...
The man froze in his tracks, but smiled as a pair of Cylons appeared before him from somewhere in the dense greenery. "Greetings, my friends," he began effusively.
"I am no one's prisoner. I am Commander Baltar."
"Take me to your superior. I am assuming command of your operations."
Three Colonials and two Delphians crouched in the tropical jungle undergrowth bordering a small natural clearing along the river. They anxiously watched that clearing, where five vessels – one shuttle and four fighters – stood deserted. The wait seemed interminable. After long moments, a rustling in the weeds betrayed the return of another Colonial warrior, a broad-shouldered, dark-haired young man. He crept very close before rising to his knees to give his report.
"They're not here." Trent's somber statement only confirmed what they all dreaded. Capt. Orestes and Sgt. Astarte were no longer at the landing site. The ships appeared undamaged, from their viewing distance, but the human guards had disappeared. Sgt. Trent had volunteered to sneak closer to the vessels and check them out; the resulting knowledge was not exactly welcome.
"Any evidence as to what happened to them?" Electra whispered. The Cylons had no reputation for kindness to humans, and if they were responsible for the pair's disappearance...
The young warrior took a deep breath. "There're some marks of a struggle on the far side of the clearing, near the river. Also – and you're not going to like this, Major – the Cylons were definitely here. I didn't look into our ships, didn't want to put my flesh where it might draw attention, but they look okay."
The major glanced at the other members of her small force. "Comments?"
Capt. Tokyo spoke up first. "Likely meant to be a trap, Major. The Cylons probably took the others prisoner, since there is no blood or evidence of laser fire, and they are now watching the clearing. If they merely did not want us going anywhere, there would have sabotaged our ships. They did not want us to realize immediately that they had been here."
Electra had to agree with his astute analysis; it concurred with her own ideas, and she knew Tokyo was an excellent strategist. "They wanted us alive at Baltar's camp, and they probably want us alive here, too. I wonder why... Unless they were sent to rescue Baltar, but need us alive for some reason..."
"For questioning?" Trent ventured. "Maybe they think we're from the Galactica, and want to track the fleet."
"If they've got any of our people, they already know better than that," she replied grimly. "And if Baltar's with them..."
"Our people won't live long," Rissian finished darkly. "Baltar's got no reason to like any of us, and the only thing the Cylons'll do is suggest new and different ways of killing them – and us, if we're caught. Probably publicly. Then they'll go for the Pegasus – and the Delphians, if Baltar knows or figures out we've got survivor ships from the Empire traveling with us. None of us talked, but who knows what he saw or figured out while we were moving him."
Electra had a bad taste in her mouth.
"What do we do next, Major?" Tokyo asked.
Delphian male warriors didn't appeal to females for military advice. Tokyo still hadn't changed in that respect. She was being tested again – Damn him, with lives at stake! – but that seemed to be the man's nature, to push her at every opportunity. She'd have to think of something, and fast. More than just her brother and his wingmate's lives depended on it.
"Everybody feel up to following a Cylon trail?" she asked.
"Cylons don't leave trails. They leave highways with 'we went this way' written all over them!" Rissian spat. "We can follow them."
"Then let's see where they went, and what we can learn by following and listening," she said with determination. "They're sure to have guards posted, so be careful."
"Any Cylons we spot will soon be dead Cylons!" Tokyo declared. Saigan, his wingmate, concurred with a simple nod.
Satisfied, Electra led her small party in a roundabout path to circle the clearing.
Baltar stared about in dismay. This was his grand rescue force? This was what the Cylon commander had sent to find him?
Some dozen Cylons stood in guard positions around their shuttle – and only a dozen more had been part of the search team. Four of those lay in pieces in the jungle around his own camp, destroyed in the attempt to capture Electra's "honor guard." I'd've given different orders where she's concerned. "Capture," indeed.
He'd hoped for a force great enough to take on and finally eliminate the Pegasus, a coup that would have restored his reputation in the Cylon Empire, and silenced any questions about his loyalty to the Imperious Leader – for the time being. It would also have been a pleasant revenge against the man who'd cost him the Galactica and victory at Gamoray.
Instead, all he had were a few freighters and a handful of Raiders – and he still had to get safely into space, which would be difficult with Cain in orbit above. No, things still looked bleak...
"What is it?" he growled at the hapless centurion.
The man's tone meant nothing to the machine. "Do-you-wish-to-inspect-the-prisoners?"
"Prisoners?" He whirled to face the silvery machine. "You have prisoners?"
"Our-primary-function-was-to-investigate-the-distress-signal-and-capture-all-we-found," it replied in a droning monotone. "Two-warriors-were-captured-near-their-ships."
Baltar smiled in anticipation. "Show me these prisoners."
The centurion led him past the shuttle to a small grove of sturdy, slender trees. Two more Cylons stood on guard there, their attention on two humans secured to separate trees.
Baltar stared down at them. Both had their arms manacled behind them, with the chains securely wrapped around the tree trunks, and with vines lashing their ankles together. He knew them both from his brief captivity with the Pegasus – Capt. Orestes and Sgt. Astarte. They'd been part of the team that had captured him the day before. How delicious to have both of them in my power! And perhaps the rest of the "escort" will soon be captured as well, or convinced to surrender for the sake of these two. And how Cain will squirm!
The two Colonial warriors stared warily up at him as Baltar began to laugh. He knew how he was going to get off-planet.
"Commander!" Corp. Memnon cried from his duty post. "Message from the planet, sir!" The boy sounded startled.
"Major Electra's on her way back?" Cain asked.
"No, sir! It's Baltar! He says he wants to talk to you!"
The commander stared at the young officer, outrage and bewilderment fighting for control. "What?" he finally demanded. "How in Hades did he get at a transmitter? What does he want?"
"Baltar insists that you talk to him, sir. If you don't, he says ... he'll kill our warriors, slowly, before we can get there to help them..." Memnon was still shocked by the message he was relaying.
Cain strode to the console, disbelief replaced by a cold, calculating expression that said his mind was working overtime. "Cain here," he grated into the comm.
"Greetings, Cain," a voice cooed back to him, the image of a man forming on the screen. "This is Baltar. It seems I now have something you may want after all, and I think we can make a deal."
"What in Hades are you talking about?" The transmission was too strong for the weak device Baltar had; he'd somehow gotten access to a stronger transmitter. But how, unless he'd had help?
A camera panned a wooded scene, zeroing in on Sgt. Astarte, bound to a tree, looking both frightened and angry at the same time, and a little embarrassed at being in that position at all. Behind her, he could just glimpse another warrior, similarly restrained.
"As you can see, Cain, I have your warriors as my prisoners. What I do to them next is on your head. I want to take my shuttle and leave this planet – with your warriors as my escorts, which is what you assigned them to be, if you recall. You will let my ship pass, and I will leave you in peace. Hopefully, we will never have to meet again. Your people will live out their lives as my ... guests. If you refuse to give me your word on this minor truce, I will order your people killed – and you know how quick Cylons are to kill humans."
Baltar's image filled the screen again. "Those are your options." He had a wide, gloating smirk on his detestable face. "What's it to be, Cain?"
The commander was silent for a few microns. "I refuse your truce, and you murder them instantly. I agree to let you escape, and you take them back to Cylon for public execution. I don't like either option, Baltar. But I'll tell you what I'll do. You release them, and show me proof that they're free, and I'll let you have amnesty to leave the planet."
"So you can blow me out of the skies as soon as I hit space? I'm not that stupid, Cain. I've given you your options. I'll give you a few centons to consider what you condemn your people to by refusing to accommodate my simple request."
The image faded. "Transmission cut at source, Commander," Memnon reported meekly.
Cain swore. Baltar certainly had something he wanted, but to let the traitor escape was to condemn his people as surely as if he'd signed their execution warrants himself. And who knew what harm the villain could concoct if he were free again?
I can't let him escape. But if he has eight of my finest warriors as hostage...
He cursed again, ignoring the stares of his bridge crew. They expected him to come up with something – and he would, but first, he had to vent his rage.
Baltar was still chuckling as he turned from the screen. He strolled over to his two prisoners, enjoying the spectacle of Colonial warriors at his mercy.
"You told him you had all of us!" Astarte accused, breaking silence for the first time since she'd turned in the clearing to find herself a Cylon captive.
"I said no such thing. He can merely assume whatever he wants from what I said. And the order is no longer to take captives if there is any danger to the Cylons. You two may be the only living warriors on this planet soon. And even if it's otherwise, I suggest you be careful, young lady, or I may kill you last, after you've watched all the others die."
The young woman fumed, glaring at him, but refused to be goaded into saying something more she might regret later.
"Are you killing us here, or taking us with you to die later?" Orestes inquired politely. He'd spent most of the past few centars unconscious, having been lugged through the jungle by his captors. It hadn't been pleasant to wake up tied to a tree, staring at metallic Cylon feet – but that could, at any time, become the last sight he ever saw, and he wasn't eager to hasten the apparently inevitable moment. Especially since there appeared to be a thread of hope; it appeared Electra and the others were still free.
"Soon enough, Captain, soon enough." After another moment of gloating, Baltar turned to give orders to the nearest centurion. "Load the shuttles. Be prepared to launch at a centon's notice. Commander Cain won't expect me to act so soon. And..." He smirked at his prisoners. "Since he expects us to have all the warriors as captives, he won't come back here, especially if he fears a strong Cylon force approaching soon.
"These two will come with us, but if Electra and the others manage to escape us, we will leave them as she was to leave me – marooned here, with no hope of rescue. We'll destroy their ships and shuttle. This pair will be guests of the Cylon Empire. Later, I may return for the others, when they've had sufficient time to consider their actions against me."
The man laughed uproariously. After a moment spent savoring the looks on his captives' faces, he strutted away to his shuttle. This time, he held the capstone. He would soon be free.
I can't do it. I can't let Baltar escape. If he really has my mission team as hostages, they're as good as dead anyway. Cylons don't release human prisoners; they kill them. And they take special delight in the public torture and execution of warriors...
His people were doomed if he left them in Baltar's hands to be taken aboard a Cylon basestar. If he sent Vipers after them, they'd still die – but probably more quickly. And, considering all factors, he couldn't balance the harm Baltar could do among the Cylons against eight human lives. They were, after all, warriors – and this risk was just one more part of their job.
Baltar had to be dealt with – even though it meant his flight commander, two squadron leaders, and five others would die. They would just have to understand, and accept that their sacrifice was for a purpose.
How could Baltar delude himself that there could be any other outcome?
Cain brushed over the momentary fear that his own hunger for revenge might overshadow the value of those lives.
With grim determination, he slammed his riding crop onto the railing of his command deck. Tolan's gaze jerked in his direction as he cringed from the explosive sound.
"Tolan, call all warriors to their ships – Vipers and Sunriders both – and order combat alert. Be ready for battle. Scan turrets, I want to know absolutely everything that moves out there. No surprises this time."
The flight officer nodded, efficiently carrying out his duty.
"Sir!" Memnon's voice sang out. "We're picking up something. A small concentration of blips, near the system's star. They're hiding behind the sun."
With the flip of a toggle, Tolan brought the image to Cain's commscreen.
He studied it for a moment, waiting for warbook confirmation, then began to laugh almost dementedly. "I was looking for a basestar!" he snorted. "But it's only a freighter convoy!"
Tolan gazed at him totally without comprehension.
The commander elaborated. "Freighters, no basestar. They didn't come here looking for Baltar – or us. It was an accident, a freak mischance that they picked up his transmission, the same as it was for us. Pure chance! And we can handle freighters. Turrets, keep full range operation, but tell our fighters we're going after easy marks..." He remembered the captives. "And tell them they may have friends to avenge. Heimdal to serve as temporary flight commander. Squadron seconds to lead." Baltar, "old friend," I'll have your head...!
The Cylons prepared for take-off in their usual hasty, clumsy, mechanical way. Baltar alternated between striding importantly about the camp, yelling orders, and gloating over his prisoners. The watching humans were able to get quite near; the guards had been called in close.
"We can't take them all at once," Ptah whispered. "There're too many of them. And the others are tied up, can't get out of the way if we open fire."
"But the Cylons're getting ready to leave," Rissian argued. "They won't be expecting any trouble. And Orestes and Astarte are low enough, out of the way enough, that we shouldn't even have to shoot anywhere near them."
"Unless the Cylons kill them right away when we first attack," Ptah interjected.
Electra was thinking furiously, her eyes fixed on the scene, taking in every detail.
"There's another group of 'em moving in," Rissian added urgently. "Then they'll really outnumber us. We've got to move now!"
"And be surprised by the others?"
"What others?" Electra suddenly demanded, her violet eyes shifting intently to Rissian, who had scouted the shuttle clearing, daring to go almost within spitting distance of Baltar to listen to his commands.
"A group was summoned back from our ships. As Tokyo thought, they were waiting to ambush us there."
"So we've got a little grace period, anyway," she murmured. "And we might slow them down, make them wonder, if that party never gets here. Then, if we strike before they have time to know what's happening..." Her whisper died away, and the preoccupied expression left her face.
She gave her orders. The deceptively passive-looking Delphians exchanged glances and nodded approvingly, ready to do whatever she instructed. Trent tried to imitate their calm posture; he came close. Ptah's nervousness showed in the way he kept touching his laser. Rissian's only expression was grim determination; he was ready to die killing Cylons, especially if it gave him a chance at Baltar.
"The convoy's within striking distance, Commander," Tolan reported. "We've kept the star as a shield, as ordered, and we're keeping rear scan on the planet. They shouldn't expect a thing."
"Good. Launch fighters." Cain's face had a wolfish ferocity. He would destroy the Cylon freighters, then return to speak to Baltar. The traitor would sing a different tune, with no way off the planet, and with Colonial Vipers ready to obliterate him.
"What's keeping the ambushers?" Baltar growled at his Cylon second-in-command. "They should be here by now." His pacing had become progressively more agitated as the centons passed.
"I-do-not-know-what-detains-them. Perhaps-we-must-contact-them-again," the Cylon replied.
Sometimes, Baltar truly detested those built-in Cylon traits that meant they showed no nervousness, no anger, no concern for their fellows, no fear, no understandable reaction to any situation other than, "if it moves, shoot it; if it complains, skewer it." He always had this sneaking suspicion, however, that they were very capable of sneering at him behind his back.
Baltar ground his fist into his palm, staring at the jungle growth around them. The birds had fled the area of Cylon occupation, so there was little sound. Familiar as he had become with the place, that disturbed him. He knew, now, that birds made an excellent early warning system. And something cold tingled in his spine, making him wonder if they had truly nullified all negative possibilities in his escape.
There was definitely something wrong, but he wasn't sure what it was. As he thought about it, it occurred to him that he was much more important to the Empire than a handful of mass-produced Cylon soldiers – and, therefore, he had a right to safeguard himself above those few machines. There was no profit in waiting for the tardy squad – let them stay to hunt down Electra's team.
"Centurion!" he yelled. "Get the shuttle pilots on board! All Cylons, prepare to board! And..." He paused to leer sadistically at his captives. "Bring the prisoners."
He stalked to the small craft, and waiting impatiently as three centurions boarded. A moment later, he could hear the drone of pre-flight orders and checks.
The trees moved gently in the warm, sweetly-scented evening breeze. He shivered, then took a step into the shuttle, his palms sweating. He watched from the hatchway as one of the guards cut through the woman's vine-bonds, then pulled her to her feet. Her arms were still chained behind her.
Appropriate. With her aboard, the Captain will give us no difficulty. Each a hostage against the other, as well as against Cain.
The urgency in his mind abruptly took a dive into his stomach, twisting it into merciless knots. "Hurry up, you fools!" he yelled through the open hatch.
"Now!" Electra commanded.
The humans opened fire. They'd mapped out their lines of fire, their plan of attack, their order of targets. Their aim was almost flawless. They could afford to be nothing less.
Cylons began to fall.
Baltar stared open-mouthed from the protection of his shuttle. Someone was firing on his Cylons – and the Cylons were losing. Not one of them had yet gotten off a shot in return. Then, a Cylon fired, and another, but the shots went wild, didn't seem to be hitting anything. They weren't winning.
He caught a glimpse of someone moving across the clearing – a Colonial uniform, a feminine form, a twist of golden hair glinting in a ray of sunlight before she ducked away. A tongue of fire speared from where she'd been, right through his hatchway, missing him by millimeters, scorching his worn garment and leaving a blasted, smoking, melted scar on the metal wall behind him.
He was too valuable to die now! Not when he was so close to escape – and he wouldn't surrender to Cain again!
"Kill the prisoners!" he screamed at the Cylons still standing. Astarte struggled; he saw her fall. Another Cylon raised a sword over the helpless Orestes.
Baltar slammed the doorplate. They could be wasted; he could not. "Launch!" he roared forward to the Cylon crew.
"Launch! That's an order!"
"They're running, sir!"
"Any sign of other Cylon activity?" Cain demanded tersely.
"Negative," Tolan replied.
"Pursue and destroy. Not one gets away."
Sunlight glinted off the raised metal weapon. Electra saw its cold gleam and fired on instinct. She saw the intended victim as the Cylon shuddered, spat sparks, and fell. She gasped as her brother's eyes locked with hers for a brief micron. She blinked tears from her eyes, then forced herself to seek a new target. They had to get all the Cylons – and the turbos of the shuttle were whining as the craft approached lift-off power...
Astarte fell to the grass, screaming as a Cylon lifted its sword over her. She couldn't be heard above the laser fire. Someone ran toward her, and a hurtling human form impacted feet-first with the Cylon. The living projectile sent the machine reeling back; it fell in a point-blank burst of fire.
The Delphian was still moving; Astarte felt a grip on her arm that yanked her to her feet, nearly wrenching her shoulder from its socket with its unexpected strength. Then they were both running, the woman stumbling as she tried to keep up; he kept her from falling.
Suddenly, it was cooler and darker around her, and the man let her drop to the ground behind a tree as he turned back to the fight. Still chained, she caught her breath, finally recognizing the warrior as Lt. Saigan.
She'd never seen anyone move so fast...
The shuttle lifted off. Rissian continued to fire at it, shrieking curses.
It disappeared into the sky. Baltar was gone.
The Cylons were dead, scattered across the clearing in groups, in small piles of circuitry and flashy metal pieces. Several trees and grass patches smoldered from laser hits, but were too damp to burst into flame; there would be no fire to threaten anyone. Only the humans still stood and moved around, checking to be sure things were as they seemed.
Maj. Electra took a deep breath, then shakily moved to free her brother.
His smile was equally shaky. "'Bout time you got here..."
"Baltar got away," Rissian repeated flatly.
"And we don't even have a way off this rock," Ptah added gloomily, "since the Cylons wrecked our ships when they decided their trap wasn't going to work."
"Yeah." Trent grimaced. "We can't even repair our communications equipment – and they torched our survival gear."
"So what do we do?" Astarte asked anxiously, watching Capt. Orestes. His gaze slid to meet his sister's; she smiled in return.
"What're you so happy about?" Ptah demanded grumpily. "The Commander thinks Baltar took us with him. We're stuck here."
"Not necessarily," Electra replied. "Remember why we were here in the first place."
A sly smile appeared on Orestes's face; illumination showed in Tokyo's raised eyebrows.
"Huh?" Astarte persisted, still not comprehending.
"We were here to deliver Baltar and pick up something..."
Trent began to chuckle. Ptah glared at him.
"We'll use Baltar's transmitter," the major explained, relenting.
"But its range..."
"We don't have to reach far. The Pegasus is still up there; I'd bet my life on it," Orestes interrupted. "And I'll bet she's within range. Cain'll know we're here."
"If he hasn't gone chasing Baltar halfway across the galaxy," Rissian muttered. But he looked more optimistic.
"Well, if he doesn't show up, we'll have to set up housekeeping ourselves," Trent commented impudently, as if unconcerned about what they did. "Baltar was kind enough to leave us his things, after all..."
The others glared at him. Astarte threw a wilted flower, left from a trampled, abandoned wreath. Then everybody laughed.
"What is it?" Baltar demanded. His nerves were shot; he was anxious to be gone from the entire quadrant. Cain wasn't in orbit; where was he?
Baltar stared incredulously, then began to laugh. He'd sacrificed most of his Cylon rescue squad. He was quite willing to sacrifice the rest of the small convoy. Its cargo was of no vital concern to the Empire, nowhere near as important as his return.
"Let Cain have them. Let them be the diversion that allows us to escape. Set course for the nearest Cylon base. Keep the planet between us and that battlestar. Keep us hidden."
"Welcome back, Major. We were beginning to think we'd lost you forever this time."
Electra nodded at Cain's courteous but preoccupied greeting. Fortunately, the battlestar had been close enough to pick up their feeble signal. Rissian had ceremoniously destroyed "that damned frakkin' machine" when the Pegasus rescue team arrived.
Cain stood at the viewport, staring at the beauty of the universe they traversed in their self-imposed guardian mission.
"Is something wrong, Commander?" the woman asked. Technically, she had failed in her mission; Baltar had escaped. And she knew Cain's feelings where Baltar was concerned.
"No, no, Major." His mind was still elsewhere.
"Is it Baltar?" she asked boldly. She'd never run from a confrontation, and Cain had always respected her forthright nature. She wouldn't flinch now.
He turned to face her, his eyes glittering with a dark intensity that he kept from his words. "He's alive."
"I beg your pardon?"
"Baltar. He's alive."
"You let him...? But–"
"No. I didn't. But somehow, he's alive. He got away in spite of me, in spite of the Pegasus. That's twice now, Major. He won't be so lucky a third time."
Electra felt a cold chill at his words, along with a certainty that there would indeed be a third meeting with the traitor. She knew how Cain felt about Baltar. He was looking forward to that final meeting – was even eager for it, eager to join revenge and justice in a death-clash...
Thinking of Baltar's betrayals, so was she.
The fair-haired, pale-skinned woman was deathly still in the life pod. Dr. Salik bent over her again, then rose, shaking his head at the ones who waited for news.
"It doesn't look good, Commander. We don't even know what's wrong with her, and I can't think of anyone else I can do."
Commander Adama nodded wordlessly, glancing at Captain Apollo, his son. The young man was a close ... friend of Sheba's, and he looked almost as ill as she was. This was a loss he would not easily bear.
Starbuck touched his shoulder. "Hey, buddy, she's not dead yet. Keep hoping. After all, the way this came on, maybe it'll go the same way..."
The captain's eyes were dark and shadowed as he glanced at his friend. "Maybe. I think I'll stay with her a while..."
The others understood. The doctor shooed out the rest to give Apollo some privacy with the dying woman who might be more than just a friend.
A Colonial distress signal. Pegasus crewmen sprang into action. Only centons after it was first received, Major Electra was leading a squadron in a search pattern, with Akimi as her wingman. Orestes and Falstaff flew back-up.
The distress signal originated from a small shuttle drifting aimlessly through a star system. The lone occupant was safety retrieved and brought back to the battlestar to be delivered to life center.
"I assure you, Helena, I am in excellent health. Your pilots found me before I sustained any injuries. Or am I out of line to call you Helena?"
"Certainly not," the doctor said, smiling, with just a hint of a blush on her smooth cheeks. "You do look fine, it's just there are a few peculiar readings here..."
"A minor malfunction, I'm sure. With your skill, you'll have it corrected in no time." He continued to smile at her.
She was definitely blushing, the deep pink complementing her silver-blonde hair and blue eyes. Her smile dimpled wider.
"Sire, if you feel up to it, Commander Cain would like to see you." Major Electra, too, felt the charm this individual exuded so effortlessly.
With a last magnetic glance at Dr. Helena, the man who called himself Baal followed Electra to the briefing room. The walk was over far too soon for her liking. Something about the self-assured, distinguished-looking man set her pulse tingling in a way few men had.
"Commander, you don't know how glad I was to see your pilots," Baal said, taking the initiative immediately, extending his hand to Cain. Having little choice, Cain shook his hand, then gestured to a chair.
"Please sit down. Tell us what happened to you, where you come from." The commander gave him half a nod and a smile, picked up his favorite riding crop, and almost pointedly sat down himself at the head of the table.
The man noted the action, but continued smiling as he sat down.
"My name is Baal. I was aboard a small freighter, on Council business. We somehow became separated from the Galactica. We were trying to get back to her fleet when Cylons attacked. We couldn't defend ourselves; and were soon in flames. With over half our people dead, the Cylons must have decided we were dead. They moved on. We were in the middle of evacuation of our few survivors when the fuel tanks exploded. I was aboard a shuttle, preparing to launch, so I survived, but my bay was destroyed. I barely got out in time. I swung around to the other side, hoping to discover other survivors, but the ship disintegrated before I could reach anyone. I sent out a distress signal, not really expecting anyone to hear. Only a day later, this enchanting siress flew to my rescue. I am eternally in your debt."
The last comment was aimed directly at Electra. Her smile was glorious, and her stormy violet eyes gleamed as she basked in his attention. "Just doing my job," she said breathlessly.
Cain felt there was something wrong with the story, but he didn't know what. "You were looking for the Galactica?"
"Yes, we were lost. Fortunately, we had the coordinates of her current route and destination."
"You have the coordinates of Earth?" Cain demanded sharply, as everyone in the room gasped and stared.
"Why, yes. You've been lost so long, and we've gone so far. It's been nearly a yahren since we've seen you."
"I'd be glad to provide you with the location, and any other assistance I can. After all, I owe you so much. You saved my life. I ought to save yours. There's no telling where you might end up if you continue traveling like this, with no goal, and no idea where you're going."
Cain's hackles immediately rose. In a backhanded way, this man was suggesting Cain was an ineffective commander who didn't know what he was doing. He asserted his authority. "As Commander, I'm pleased to welcome you aboard, Sire Baal. Orestes, show the man to his new quarters."
"Is there a chance the charming Electra could lead the way? I would dearly love to thank her again. And I may have news she'd be interested in hearing."
Cain's manner darkened.
"It'd be no trouble, Commander," Electra interposed hastily.
With no logical reason to refuse, Cain nodded his assent.
In a few centons, the room was empty. Cain sat at his chair, face shaped into an uncertain frown, temper on the verge of flaring. He slapped the crop against the table in a sharp rhythm. "What is it about this Sire Baal that doesn't ring true? Am I afraid to reach Earth and rejoin Adama? Am I so petty that I can't accept taking orders from anyone else, even when it's for my own people's good?"
Thus he examined his thoughts and motives for centars, uncertain for the first time in yahrens, not realizing how wrong the thoughts felt to his own mind.
"Your quarters, Baal," Electra said, gesturing about the small suite. "Our billets may not be large, but I'm sure we've got more space than the Galactica does – and certainly more than that freighter could have. I remember hearing how crowded things were in the fleet. So, will these be satisfactory?" Her smile expected an affirmative.
"Yes, yes. Tell me about yourself, Electra."
"What do you want to know?"
"Tell me about your past. Where do you come from?"
"Well, that's easy enough," she answered with a laugh. "My brother Orestes and I were born on Taura. Mother belonged to one of the old ruling families of Caprica, from back before the Council of Twelve was formed. Father was from Taura, but he died before we were born and we never knew him. Mother took us back to Caprica and raised us there. When we were of age, we entered the Tauran Academy. Later we were assigned to the Fifth Fleet, the battlestar Britannica. When she was destroyed, we both escaped to the Pegasus. We've been here ever since. How's that for the abridged version?"
"You and your brother are very close?"
"How long have you been flight commander?"
"Interesting story, if not entirely true."
She looked quizzical.
"Your father wasn't from Taura. He was a cheap wagerer from Caprica. Your mother left so no one would know she carried a child. The story about him dying is a lie. You've known about your father most of your life."
Electra was pale, lightning flashing in her eyes, wildly suspicious. "How do you–? What are you talking about?"
"Don't be uneasy. There are things I know."
"It's none of your business to know! Orestes and I earned our ranks and rights ourselves, not because of Mother's position, and in spite of our unknown father!"
"You know your father. You talked to him when you were aboard the Galactica. Your mother never stopped loved him, did she, in her own perverse way?"
She couldn't take any more, and turned to leave. "I have rosters to prepare. I don't care to discuss your theories or accusations or whatever they are, any more."
"I'm not a stranger, Electra." He caught her arm, spun her around, and stared deeply, hypnotically, into eyes that had enthralled a hundred men in her life.
"I knew your mother, Electra, enough to know the entire truth..." The expression his eyes was something completely different from charm or any pleasant emotion. What Electra saw, as best she could describe it later, was greed – basely inhuman greed – and a hunger that wouldn't be satisfied with anything less than her very soul. "I could be more than an uncle to you, now that you're a full-blooded woman..."
For a moment, she was falling into the endless depths of his eyes. The she pulled loose and ran.
The pleasantly endearing smile dropped to a very cold, predatory expression, matching perfectly the beast in his eyes.
Electra wasn't sleeping well. Nothing seemed to help tonight. Her thoughts kept zeroing in on Baal. What was he? Who was he, to know so much about her and her family? Something in her screamed "stay away," while another part was drawn irresistibly to him. What charm was he exerting?
Finally she fell into sleep of a sort...
She was walking with three people, two men and a woman. They were all familiar, very familiar. The woman was an old friend; one of the men was a mere acquaintance, the other man was something less and more than a friend. But they all felt very dear to her. The four of them stood near the ruins of a ship, a huge ship that had crashed in flames.
She realized the others were talking, and she could hear their words, but they stared past her as if she didn't exist. They could neither see nor hear her. She seemed present only in the sad song of the wind.
Then, at the top of the hill, Baal appeared, angry, commanding, mocking.
The dark-haired man defied him. Baal grew angrier, threatened him, then called to the woman. She took a step, then refused to answer. Baal's anger became a mocking rage at what they presumed to dare.
She could see the intent written like fire on his face. Baal was going to kill. In slow motion, she saw the power flaring from him, aimed at the woman, the dear friend. The dark-haired man stepped in front of her. The bolt of fire and death struck him. Still in slow motion, the man fell.
The others knelt at his side, shattered. Dead. He was dead.
Baal laughed at their grief. He laughed, and threatened worse, threatened their very souls.
For the blond man, it was raging grief that his closest friend lay dead, and he could do nothing. His laser bolts only bared the true form of the killer...
For the woman, the bitterest pill was that death, and worse than death, had come for her, but another had taken that death for himself, offering his own life in exchange, his innocent life...
Baal's face changed, all its evil written unmercifully in howling mockery of a form that said "human." The demon wasn't finished with them; death would strike again...
Electra woke screaming. "Apollo!" Shaking with fear and other emotions she didn't recognize, she ran from her bunk and threw up in the turboflush.
"Kobol," she muttered, "what brought that on?" She was still shivering from the nightmare. Baal! She had recognized Baal! But they hadn't called him that. What was the name...?
A more important memory took hold. Sheba! The woman was Sheba! Electra stood stock-still, forcing herself to relive the dream. Left behind with the Galactica, had it been a portent of something happening to Sheba? The women had been close friends, as close as Sheba had on the Pegasus. Was it possible...?
She remembered Apollo, and the other man. Apollo was the flight commander, a good warrior, Commander Adama's son. The other was Starbuck, both more and less than a friend.
Had she seen Apollo's death? Had Starbuck and Sheba died there too?
Where did Baal fit in? Why had he killed? It seemed so impossible, so unlike such a man to be killer. And the form that Starbuck's laser blast had revealed... Yet, that last expression she'd seen in his eyes, when he promised and threatened her with...
"Just a nightmare," she said determinedly, and returned to her bed. Knowing intellectually that it was just a dream didn't stop the quivering in her stomach or the edge of terror haunting her mind. Finally, somehow, she slept again.
And Sheba returned, to walk and talk with her, and ask a favor.
The day's briefing was in one of the larger chambers, with comm hook-ups directly to all the ships in Cain's makeshift fleet. It was by Baal's request; as he pointed out, everyone had a right to know what he would say. Cain found himself agreeing; if Baal was revealing the path to Earth, they were all interested.
Cain was already ensconced in his chair, unusually silent. His bridge officers had taken their usual positions, while Electra and her flight leaders took up the remainder of the space.
The only person missing was Baal. He took his time arriving at the briefing, insuring a grand entrance where all eyes would be on him. When the door finally swished open, he was wearing the robes and medallion of a member of the Council of Twelve.
Cain frowned. The robes were an open declaration of his right to command in a civilian position. Warriors were oath-bound to obey the civilian government.
But did he have any right to object?
"Greetings, Commander, officers, warriors." Baal's smile was wide, regal, touched with condescension.
Cain forced a half-hearted smile in return. "Greetings, Sire Baal. I trust you slept well."
"As well as could be expected, considering the gravity of the situation."
"You mentioned yesterday that you have information which may be important to us. Would you care to address this gathering?" he found himself offering.
"I would dearly love to, Cain." He turned to face the assemblage. Whispered conversations were quickly shushed, until they waited in absolute silence.
"Children of the Colonies and the Delphian Empire, greetings. As you know, I am from the Galactica. I know her destination, her goal, her route. You took me in when I was lost. I now offer to lead you back to your destiny, to your lost comrades, to Earth. I am a member of the Council of Twelve; I ask of you only the respect and obedience due my position. I ask to show you what I can do – what we can accomplish together – with me as your leader."
Cain felt a sour taste in his mouth. As leader? How long until Baal commanded openly, and he became unnecessary, an anachronism? Or ... was that such a bad idea? What had he really accomplished...? His stubborn streak rose, protesting. He tried to push it aside. He had to put the good of his people first.
Baal's eyes traveled the group. Hopeful eagerness flashed in nearly every face. For the Colonials, it was a chance to rejoin their people, to find sanctuary. For the Delphians, it was a chance to begin again on a new world. He was satisfied. They looked to him for guidance. They would accept what he offered. They would be his.
Cain rose. "You're heard Sire Baal. Any questions, comments, or opinions?"
[Let me speak, now.]
[If not now, it may be too late. You cannot give yourselves over to his dominion.]
Electra stepped forward. "I must take issue with some of the Sire's statements."
Even Baal looked surprised. "What disturbs you, Electra?" The tone was a caress, a promise that nothing was too great a disturbance to matter, that he could answer her every concern.
"Commander Adama and the Galactica would have nothing to do with you. You were banished from them for violating the order of existence. Now you seek other victims, to extend your dominion over other slaves. You try to claim the Pegasus." She shook her head. "No. If I can prevent you, I will."
Murmurs of surprise floated through the audience. Even Cain raised his eyebrows.
"What are you talking about?" Baal asked with narrowed eyes, studying her with such intensity that he might have been staring into her very soul.
"You have called yourself Iblis."
Rage nearly burst its bonds. "My name is Baal."
"For today, perhaps. But you are also Iblis. You killed on the Galactica, and they rejected you. Adama knows you. Apollo knows you. I know you. You tried to extend dominion over me. You tried to kill me."
The rage was apparent now, a towering fury the others drew back from, pale and terrified. Electra faced Baal nearly alone. Only Orestes still stood next to her, panicked and confused, but determined to stay with his sister.
"You're dead! You must be, to have come here. How can you...?"
"By the grace of God and love of woman, to save my father's soul and these others."
"I'll destroy you," he hissed.
She shook her head. "You can't. I am beyond your touch, and this woman is not yours. Kill, and you are damned again, and you lose this ship, as well as owing the penalty – again – to the others."
"No, Iblis. You lost me."
Cain watched in fascinated horror, a strange realization sinking into his stunned brain. This had to be...
"Cain!" Baal turned to him. "Pledge your obedience, that you will follow me!"
"No!" Electra declared. "Father..."
Cain stared at her. He felt his determination returning, his doubts subsiding. "No, Baal. I may question myself, but I cannot follow you or give my people to you."
The sire whirled back to the woman. "Maybe I can't touch you, Sheba, and you have taken this ship and your father beyond my reach, but I can still destroy Apollo! I swear one day he will bow down to me, or he'll beg for a death I'll never grant him! I will claim from him what you and he denied me!" Baal/Iblis raged at her, threatening the man he knew she loved.
"For you, he will do neither." Electra/Sheba was calm, though the woman's blood ran cold in quick fear of his power.
"We shall see, child, we shall see. I won't have to kill. My touch can do other things to the woman you're using. She will surrender."
Electra felt fear, icy fear.
Baal/Iblis flung a bolt of sheer terror at her. She opened her mouth to scream at the hell he opened to her eyes. Then the fear was gone–
And Orestes screamed. He'd stepped between his sister and Baal. Now, shaking, screaming, eyes wide and staring at some distant madness, he dropped to his knees.
Electra/Sheba saw Orestes/Apollo fall, victim of Baal/Iblis's evil, taking the punishment meant for her. A rending pain ran through every nerve. Her brother was dead. Safe, for he had never surrendered, but dead... Her mind plunged gratefully into oblivion.
Pale faces stared in horror. Electra dropped to the floor as if dead. Orestes was on his knees, lost in madness. Cain gripped the table, knuckles white with the need for support.
Then, between Baal/Iblis and the fallen warriors, white flame sprang up. It took the form of a woman, clothed in white, hair and face and form glowing like the gods themselves. "No, Iblis, you will harm no one here any further. I can prevent you now. You have gone beyond threats. You've overstepped the bounds set for you."
Iblis stepped back. He bared his teeth as though to spit a curse at her. Then, for whatever reason, he vanished, and was gone.
"Sheba...?" Cain's voice was a whisper. He didn't dare release his grip on the table.
"Father." The woman's voice was sweet, gentle, and loving. "I love you, Father."
"I love you, baby. But ... how ... what...? Is it true?"
She seemed lost for a moment, then nodded. "I think so, Father. As you knew me, I think I'm dead... I was granted a short time to come to you, but now I have to go. I wish I could stay longer, but my purpose here is done. Remember that I love you, Father."
Then she, too, vanished.
"Sheba? Sheba!" Cain called into the stunned silence. There was no response. His eyes were wide, staring, with a trace of the tears he would never shed in public. His shoulders swayed slightly, the only weakness he might acknowledge. Cain knew his daughter was dead, and he mourned.
Dr. Helena rushed to the fallen warriors.
On the bridge, Senmut stared at the scanners. "What the...?"
Balls of white light, almost faster than their eyes could follow, swept from out of nowhere, into and through the fleet, then past it, and were gone.
"What was that...?"
Nothing remained on the scanners; whatever it had been, there was nothing like it in any of their records, they had no evidence of where it had come from or where it had gone, they had no way to track it, and they had no idea what it was.
They expected Cain to change course, to get away from the lights and everything that had happened in the last two days.
He didn't. He ordered them to stay on course, to follow, as well as they could, the direction the white lights had gone.
"Now? No! I don't know if–"
"Come, Sheba." Bathed in white light, the entity summoned her; she could not resist, and left her father and her friends. They walked through milky-colored halls, distance and time so indistinct that she had no recollection of where or how long.
"Please, did I help them? Did they reject Iblis? Will he leave them alone?"
"For now, yes."
"My friends – Electra. Will she live? And Orestes? Will they be all right, safe from him?" She couldn't read the darkness in her companion's eyes, and sighed, knowing this was something it would not tell her. "All right, then. Am I dead? Do I belong here now?"
"You have always belonged here, Sheba. Remember what you had forgotten. Remember when Apollo was struck down. Remember what you saw and felt, then. You offered your life, freely, in exchange for his."
"But you didn't take it."
"But we remembered. And so we were able to ask your help now, to aid your people."
"Yes, now I remember... You came to me, asked if I would do the same for my father, if I would die to save him, too. You knew what I would say, but... How could you do that? Wasn't my presence a violation of their free will? Interference of some kind?"
"You spoke to Electra. With her free will, she was willing to host your existence, even at the risk of her own, for her commander and shipmates. You have grown much, little sister, and there is much your race will become. But now it is time for you to forget again..."
Even oblivion was no protection. Finally Electra dragged her mind from the hidden depths it had fled to. She opened her eyes in life center. Dull pain throbbed through her head. Her eyes filled with tears at the memory.
"Did it have to be you, Orestes," she whispered.
Someone heard her soft cry. In a micron, Helena and Cain stood over her. She stared back at them, heartsick.
Cain smiled and took her hand. "Welcome back. How soon do I get my best flight commander back in action?" His voice was surprisingly gentle. "You've been unconscious for three days."
She wasn't even amazed. Prepared for the worst, she asked, "Orestes?"
Helena gestured across the ward. "He'd going to be all right. It'll be a while before he's back in a Viper, though. Baal really tried to scramble his mind, but he'll be fine."
"Is she awake?" demanded a tremulous voice. She recognized her brother's tones.
"Orestes?" She didn't even try to stop the flow of tears as she sat up. "I thought you were dead!"
"I wondered for a while if I wouldn't have been better off." The pale young man shuddered. "I didn't realize there could be so much evil in anything. What he showed me wasn't nice... I held on, but..."
"But you're all right?"
"As soon as I get rid of this tremor." He held out a hand, fingers shaking unsteadily.
She had to laugh, equally unsteady.
"Major, you'd better lie down again. I don't want you getting too excited," Helena admonished her. "You too, Captain."
Cain spoke again. "What happened, Electra?"
She clung to his hand, uncertain. "I ... saw Sheba, I think, and some others... It must have been in a dream. I saw what Baal did when they met. He's evil, completely evil. He would have destroyed us if he'd gotten a chance ... if we'd given him the chance. Sheba asked if I would let her speak through me, to show everyone what he was, what he could do. Is it true? Sheba's gone?"
Cain's smile was pained. "She may be dead, but she's not gone. She'll never be gone." He couldn't help himself; he grabbed Electra in the tightest embrace he was capable of. "I'll talk to you again later. For now, just get some rest."
Electra nodded and settled back on the pillow.
Cain turned away. The knowledge hurt. But, thank the Lords, his daughter was happy, and safe, finally, from all the dangers she'd been so willing to face. She was safe.
And maybe she would come back again, some day. Or he would go to her...
The woman in the life pod felt life returning with a rush of elation. She drew a breath and opened her eyes to see where she was. It was life center. A handsome, weary-eyed man dozed over her. She recognized him. She was home.
"Thank you," she whispered to the fading memories in her mind, to the fading feeling in her heart. "Thank you. For knowing, for everything."
The man woke, reaching hopelessly for her hand.
She gave his fingers a squeeze, and smiled sleepily. "Hi, Apollo..."
The bridge of the Pegasus hummed along at its usual quiet efficiency. The battlestar's silver-haired commander strode among his people with an unusually restrained gait, pausing at the foot of his command deck to glance about him.
Cain noted Tolan, the flight officer and his aide, studying his console with only desultory interest. That told him quite clearly that nothing of grave import was occurring at the moment.
Col. Kenji had the watch; Cain now knew the Delphian well enough to recognize a wandering mind behind the passive features and dark eyes. The eyes were settled on Lt. Mriko, currently at the turret console, scanning space around them. Her gaze strayed often to her husband as well, and something warm flashed between them in half-smiles; Cain decided to ignore it.
Capt. Veleda of damage control and one of her people were running a systems check on one of the scanner hook-ups; it didn't seem to be affecting scan performance or personnel morale, but ghost blips were distracting even when the officer knew what was there, and in battle it could prove dangerous – not that they were facing any sort of combat, except against boredom.
Dark Lt. Senmut, manning navigation, looked rather weary as he scribbled notes on something or other.
Corp. Lygia was staring into space, but her expression brightened when Corp. Memnon arrived to relieve her at communications. Cain saw an impudent smile as she released her board, and watched her depart the bridge with bouncy steps. Memnon settled in very quickly and efficiently – the boy at Molecay had seasoned into a very fine warrior over the yahrens since.
Other warriors were scattered at their various consoles, doing their jobs with a notable lack of enthusiasm.
Cain leaned against the railing and slapped his swagger stick gently against his opposite palm. Lack of enthusiasm. Boredom. Disinterest. It all boiled down to a crew that hadn't seen action in too long, and had settled for too long into a stale routine. To a commander frustrated by a lack of action – a commander, a man who still ached, in those long empty moments, for the loss of his daughter, across space. Whatever had happened to Sheba, and where, and why...
He needed something to do. So did his crew. But at the micron, nothing seemed forthcoming. So he would have to settle for something else – and he knew what it was.
"Kenji," he announced, "you have the bridge."
The Delphian eyed him with a marginal lift of his thin dark brows. "We'll contact you if anything should require your attention, Commander."
"I'm sure Kleopatra can handle it if you can't. Contact her first."
Kenji actually blinked. "Yes, sir."
Cain left the bridge at a brisk pace. He needed to be in space again. How long had it been? His last flight had been returning to the Pegasus from the Galactica during the battle over Gamoray. His last battle had been the tanker incident, which had resulted in his temporary loss of command. His last patrol had been before the encounter with the Galactica; he'd flown with Electra, one of the few pilots on the ship unafraid to speak her mind to the commander, and tell him who was boss, when it involved his own safety in space, and her position as flight commander.
Cain stopped in his quarters for a moment to pick up his own helmet, then hopped onto the pilots' lift. The lift quickly trundled him to Alpha bay. As he stalked across the solid metal expanse of the launch area, technician Edric wraith-slipped from the shadows, pale and thin as always, smile half-hidden in his mustache.
"Commander?" echoed through the air.
Cain couldn't see the man's lips move, but his throat worked, the obvious Adam's apple slipping up and down to match the vocalizations.
"How's my Viper?" he asked.
Something proud touched Edric's already erect and bony stance. "Ready for flight, sir. We'll have her on a track in two microns."
"Sounds good. I'll wait."
Cain switched direction, heading for the launch cradle his ship would nestle into. The Viper technician vanished into the shadows again, his orders haunting the bay. Once, Cain had found the Britannica tech's presence unnerving, his appearance and behavior unsettling. But Edric claimed he could befriend anybody, and the commander's experience told him it might be true – even the shy Delphian children flocked to his cubicle. At any rate, Cain now like the strange young man.
Electra's call interrupted his thoughts.
She strode over to join him, saw the Viper being shunted into position on the track, and knew his plans. "Taking a patrol again, sir? It's been a while."
"Thought I might, if it's all right with you, Major."
"Certainly, Commander. The spaceways seem clear today. Akimi and I are just back from our sweep, and we didn't spot anything. Silver Spar's on the watch right now. Orestes and Falstaff are still out there, in Gamma quadrant; Celene and Celeste have Alpha; and Daystar and Rissian are currently in Lambda. Two more patrols should be launching within the next half-centar. Who are you taking for wingman?" The blonde glanced about after her brief report and query. This was a matter they had discussed before; on patrol, Electra insisted that her pilots pair up, even the commander. Cain accepted the dictate, rather than undermine his flight commander's authority before the men in any way.
"I didn't have anybody in mind. But if you insist on my having a wingmate..."
"I do," she replied firmly.
"Then I guess I'll have to pull somebody from the roster..."
"I'm available, sir!"
Both turned to see a dark-haired young woman dashing toward them, pulling her flight jacket on with one hand and trying to hang onto her helmet with the other. Slightly out of breath, Astarte pulled up to attention, her eyes shining with eagerness. "Technician Edric reported you were planning a patrol, sir, and if you need a wingman, I'd like to volunteer."
Cain looked her over, then turned to Electra. "Will she do, Major?"
Electra nodded. "Certainly, sir. She's been good enough to fly with Captain Orestes, she's good enough to fly with you. Enjoy the flight, Commander. You, too, Astarte. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have some reports and debriefing to see to..." She hurried across the bay.
"Well, Sergeant, let's go," Cain said briskly.
Cain had to smile as he hopped into his cockpit. Astarte never lost that zest for flying. She was her father's daughter that way. He frowned at sudden memories, and hoped he would never see the girl crippled as her father had been, bitter and unable to fly...
"Your choice of quadrants, Sergeant?" he asked.
"We could double-check Gamma, sir."
Following Orestes. The girl was transparent, too.
"Core command releasing control. Launch when ready."
At Memnon's familiar voice in his ear, Cain hit his turbos. He was thrown back against his seat by the unrelenting g-forces for a micron's passage through the launch tube; then he was free and flying in the intimate emptiness between the stars.
"There's definitely something here!" Orestes shifted in his cockpit, frowning and tense. Gamma sector had been silent and empty until now. But what a discovery to break it up! He studied his scanner and space, trying to pick out anything recognizable in the mess they were flying toward. "It looks like ... rubble, debris ... from something big..." He couldn't carry the thought any further. It led to the unthinkable. Thoughts of Molecay flared up and brutally seared his mind. That had been enough; if this was what it seemed, it was the end of humanity.
"Like a battlestar?" he heard Falstaff's faltering whisper echo the same fear.
"I don't know."
"It's not." The new voice was familiar and steadying.
The haunting specter was banished by Cain's assurance.
"Patrol Two, Orestes and Falstaff," Orestes began almost questioningly, expecting the commander would follow procedure and identify himself in return, and his reason for being there.
"Patrol One. Astarte's my wing."
"A lot of debris here, sir, as if there was a major battle fought in this sector," the captain reported tensely. "We're still trying to find anything the warbook can put a lock on, but it's big enough to have been a base ship of some kind..."
"And you think it might have been the Galactica. No." Cain's voice was still decisive and reassuring. "This was a Cylon."
"How do you know? The scanners still haven't locked on..."
"I can feel it, Orestes. This was a Cylon. It's Adama's work."
"But the Galactica keeps a low profile, remember?" Falstaff cut in. "Their flight commander said so, they can't afford to fight–"
"Because of their civilian ships," Cain finished. "I heard what Apollo said; Adama said it too. But it looks like he changed his tactics this once, anyway." He sounded pleased about it, despite the possibility that Adama may not have had any choice in fighting here. "Let's split the team, cover the entire area, see just how much debris there is, if it's from one ship or more."
A few moments later, Orestes had evidence to back up what he wanted to believe. "Commander," he reported, "my scanners just picked up fragments of a core energizer. Confirmed as Cylon. It was a Cylon basestar, and it looks like the whole thing just blew apart."
"As if she'd faced a battlestar, not just fighters."
"Yeah. That's the only thing that could have demolished it so ... thoroughly."
"Continue scanning." Cain sounded as though this was business-as-usual.
Orestes shook his helmeted head. This was no routine patrol of Colonial defense lines; this was a battlefield where the last of surviving Colonial humanity could have been destroyed. But to Cain, it was just the site of another engagement to be examined and learned from. The captain could never take it in so detached a manner. Maybe he needed to learn to...
A new voice joined the intermittent conversation. "Commander?"
Astarte continued. "I did a quick flyby of the planet, sir, as ordered. Scan indicates it's habitable. There are some low-level energy readings that could be trouble..."
"Explain. Is there a colony or base of some sort on the planet?"
"There could have been, sir. But whatever was on the surface, readings indicate it is no longer occupied."
The four pilots were still for several moments.
"Maybe the Galactica was trying to set up a base, and the Cylons wiped it out," Falstaff ventured grimly.
As bad as Ptah, Orestes thought, looking for the worst-case scenario.
"One way to find out," was Cain's response. "Let's go in. I'm sending word to the Pegasus now."
His people fell into loose formation around him.
The Galactica. Commander Adama. Capt. Orestes felt very solemn as they entered atmosphere. Their mission was to protect the fleet from the outside, while the Galactica traveled with those civilian ships, guarding and leading them from the inside.
Discovering the battle site brought home very clearly how fragile their protection was. The Pegasus couldn't be everywhere; the Cylons could get through or be waiting in any system. And the Galactica couldn't face everything the Cylons could throw at them. What if they failed? What if the fleet was attacked and destroyed at some point, from some other direction? What if the Galactica was gone? It hit him with piercing intensity just how much they expected and depended on their sister ship to keep the fleet safe.
Otherwise, what was the point of their existence?
They might as well go back to Gamoray and spend the rest of their lives knocking down that base, again and again and again... Or take the Pegasus on a suicide run, strike for the heart of the Cylon Empire to destroy what they could, maybe take out the massive computers and programming factories that must exist there, the places where the Cylon race was truly conceived and given its purpose.
Without the Galactica and her fleet, why should they continue to exist? What was there to fight for?
"We belong with the fleet," he whispered. Especially if the Galactica was now occasionally going on the offensive. That had been the reason for leaving in the first place, Cain's unwillingness to live always on the defensive.
"What was that, Captain?" he heard a rough voice ask.
"Nothing, sir, nothing."
"Comments, anybody?" the commander asked as they examined their surroundings. It had been difficult finding a relatively clear area near the supposed former colony or base. Their four Vipers sat in the middle of a semi-clearing; their later launch would probably char several acres, although the exceedingly high moisture content of the surrounding soil and plant life would mean no extensive fires.
"Nice place," Astarte commented with a grimace. The local plants were mostly the color of her eyes, and the shadows matched her dark, almost black hair. She looked like she belonged on the world, or had perhaps even created it from an inner image as a personal setting.
However, the feel of the place was very different from the woman's eager, cheerful disposition. It was hot and humid; in their warm and protective uniforms, the warriors were already feeling sweaty and lethargic. Insects buzzed around their heads in small swarms. Beneath their slow, careful footsteps, the ground was soft and giving. Even a few feet away from the clearing, thick wet fronds dripped on them from above and brushed them in the face when they tried to push through. Direct light and heat from the planet's sun could scarcely penetrate the thick cover above, away from the clearing; the warriors were at least protected from that. That protection was bought only with surrendering the drying that sunlight would have affected upon the thick air and bepuddled soil, and the overhanging canopy held in every erg of heat to make the humidity more oppressive. The warmth and moisture supported lush plant life, which in turn blocked any breezes below treetop level.
"No animal life," was Orestes's observation. "It's so quiet. The last planet I was on was Baltar's world, and that place was humming, chirping, howling, buzzing, screeching – there were so many natural noises in the background that it made the Pegasus feel like a mortuary for a couple of days after we were rescued. This place ... it's a little eerie. Even with us having just landed, we should be hearing something more than the breeze above and a few bugs around us." He swatted at an annoying something that was trying to explore his nose, then scratched the itch its touch left behind.
Falstaff studied an assortment of serrated leaves from several of the nearer plants, dripping with moisture, whether from dew or a recent drizzle, he didn't know. He did know, however, that the plants appeared very primitive. "Ferns," he announced.
"I think we can tell that," Astarte muttered.
"Significance?" Cain demanded more crisply.
"Well, from the star type, this is an older system, like a lot of the others we've been checking out recently. This whole quadrant is full of habitable and life-filled planets. But from the ferns and insect types we can see here, this world is evolving rather late on the scale. There probably aren't a lot of land animals here yet, and they're probably pretty small. Should be a multitude of marine and some amphibious types, though."
"Not a world that would be grabbed for colonization?" the commander asked, looking thoughtful as beads of sweat rolled down his forehead.
"No." The young warrior wiped his brow – again – with his sleeve. "Probably no native cereals or other food plants – mostly these ferns, some flowering trees, a few grasses. Likely no useful native animals. And the soil probably isn't very good. So a colonist – a human-type colonist – would have to bring in every type of plant he wanted, and every type of animal. And the land wouldn't support them well. I think you could count the climate against it too."
"Some mineral or ore worth the effort?" Orestes offered. The logistics of colonization weren't his area of expertise, but he was beginning to understand what Falstaff was saying.
He shrugged, then frowned. "Could be. Or maybe something medical. This kind of plant life, it's lush, if nothing else, could have lots of odd chemical compounds, maybe some real useful stuff. Hmm, maybe we shouldn't have been so quick to come down here..."
"Something we might have to worry about?" Cain sounded sharper.
"As long as we don't ingest anything, or encounter something with a contact poison, or get bitten by something too nasty, we should be all right." He sounded reasonably certain. "And we'll be decontaminated as soon as we get back to the Pegasus, so there shouldn't be any problem with picking up anything here..."
They all felt a little uncomfortable, more so than the unhealthy climate could account for.
"Well, as long as we're already here, let's check out that base or whatever it is," Cain decided. He led the way into the thick jungle.
"Where'd you pick up so much information?" Astarte whispered to Falstaff.
"My mother was on the Deep Star Exploration and Colonization Advisory Board, the representative from Scorpio. We grew up with it, my brothers and me, playing like we were opening new worlds. Just a little hobby. I've never had any formal training in planning a colony or anything. The Board had contingency plans for every type of planet you could think of, all designed and ready to be implemented, if the war ever ended."
"Well, it certainly did that..."
They trudged after their superior officers, enduring the heat and humidity. Even breathing was becoming a chore. They skirted a scummy-looking pond, first noticeable by the taint it lent the air; if not for the smell, they might have wandered into the brown and green muck, as it was almost indistinguishable from the ground. Past the pond, they dodged more wet, heavy, spiky leaves. Something splashed in the pond behind them, leaving only ripples in its wake by the time the humans turned to look. Something else squished through mud somewhere, but they found no tracks to indicate where it had been or how large it was, and whatever-it-was had made no vocalizations to help them trace it. Obviously, there was some kind of animal life.
"This place is getting into my bones," Astarte muttered breathlessly. "I'm never going to be cool again."
"Space is cold, but stars are flame, and our ships fly between," Falstaff began an old pilots' song.
"Shh!" Orestes hissed.
"The temperature is the least of it," Falstaff whispered more quietly to avoid his captain's nervousness. "This place is spooky. No other way to say it. But if you keep hanging on to your laser like that, you're going to have permanent imprints in your fingers."
She glanced down at her hand, clenched tightly around the butt of her weapon, and flushed. The color faded slowly in the heat.
The others clustered around Cain as he pointed. In the middle of a thickly overgrown former clearing were several structures, their once brightly-painted metallic sides dulled by exposure to sunlight, and rusted and pitted from the action of rain and native life forms. The four pilots slowly scanned the area, seeing nothing moving but ferns in the breeze from overhead.
Astarte suddenly gasped and drew the weapon she'd been clinging to. The others had a momentary glimpse of her target before the light beam struck the Cylon; it shattered in a small explosion of metal shards, torn plants, and disturbed insects.
They held their breaths in anticipation, but nothing happened. No squad of Cylon soldiers rushed out of the structures, laser rifles blasting. No one ran out of the jungle to point them out as attackers. The disturbed insects settled back on the ruins, leaving everything much the same as it had been.
"Well, we know it was Cylons here," Cain said grimly.
"There's another," Orestes breathed.
They stared at the silent hulk for a long moment. No light flashed from its ocular tracking slot. No monotonous drone announced it had seen them. It simply stood, rigid, weapon cradled in its dull metal arms.
Orestes slowly stepped out into the clearing and pushed through the brush to the Cylon's side. He studied the machine for a moment, then pushed its arm. There was a small creak, but otherwise no response. He knew a few things about Cylon construction; there were small gauges on its back hump that charted Cylon functioning. He circled the machine and checked the power levels.
"It's dead," he announced. "Completely powered down, half rusted through, and just now caught in its tracks from the vines grown up around its legs. Frak!" he finished, jumping back a step and nearly tumbling into the vines. "I think it's also home to something green with yellow eyes!"
"There's two more just over here, same condition, but in a horizontal position," Falstaff spoke up from where he stood. He'd nearly stumbled over the two Cylons as he moved into the clearing.
"I think it's safe to spread out and look around," Cain decided. "Keep within shouting range and don't leave the clearing. Check the buildings and immediate area. Let's see if we can find out what the Cylons were doing here."
Sgt. Falstaff moved into the nearer of the structures. It was typical of its type – cheaply designed, factory ship moduled, hastily constructed, and easily abandoned when its occupants' task was completed. Precisely what the Cylons had done on other worlds, although they usually took their guard force with them. The structures seemed to be a barracks for the common Cylon soldiers. The lights were no longer working, their energizer having long ago surrendered to creeping moss or some other contaminant, but there were a few torches still operational. Falstaff took one and began to explore.
There was actually something depressing about finding the dead, powered-down Cylons scattered here. It was an abandoned base, a dead "colony," if one could call a Cylon place by that word. His brothers had told him what Scorpio was like after the Destruction, how silent and haunted it had been; he couldn't help wondering how a Cylon would view this place.
He shook the thoughts away brutally. What did a Cylon know about family and friends? Or care? They couldn't experience emotions; they didn't know the joy of loving and living, or the grief of loss when those one cared about were dead. This wasn't a barracks, it was a storage facility for machines that weren't being used at the moment.
Mouth set grimly, he moved through the structure, finding nothing.
Capt. Orestes watched his fellows scatter. He considered checking out one of the other structures, but decided against it. Something about this place was triggering his occasional claustrophobia, and the last thing he needed was to be trapped in a Cylon maze with the walls closing in. Instead, he chose to circle the perimeter of the clearing.
More Cylons were scattered about the small base. It seemed several dozen Cylons had been left here to exist or perish as best they could when the main staff was pulled out. Or so he deduced from the size of the base and its appearance of having been occupied for some length of time.
The local growth appeared to have been cut back several times, and each time encroached more deeply into the camp before being driven back. Finally the Cylons had given up on keeping the ferns and mosses and local things out, or simply had so much equipment and personnel powered down that they couldn't hold their space any longer. It was a sobering thought.
He wiped the sweat from his brow, then raised his face to the slight breeze coming down from above the trees, grateful for that after the closeness of the thick, primitive jungle.
Something made him feel he was being watched. He glanced up at the tree-forms. Just huge ferns, he knew, not really of the same order of evolution or type as trees back home, but at least green, alive, and growing. The breeze from their crests swooped into the clearing, cooling him and swirling the air into less oppressive currents – that still smelled just as thick. There was nothing there, nothing intelligent with malevolent intent toward him.
"Now I'm getting paranoid," he muttered. "Fear of closed-in places, fear of wide-open spaces, a little conviction that something is out to get me. Just what I need."
I think we could have survived on Baltar's planet. But this place ... never. I'll be glad to get out of here...
Sgt. Astarte scanned the contents of the shielded room. It was the only place, as far as she could tell, where the native environment hadn't penetrated and sabotaged the enemy. It still had lights, and hummed as equipment somewhere filtered the air and circulated it. The devices and storage compartments were unfamiliar to her, and the Cylons had obviously taken everything of value or usefulness with them, but she knew what the scattered remainders looked like: something medical.
Her mother had been a doctor, and occasionally had taken a wide-eyed daughter to see places like this, where men and women in sterile clothing and masks worked in solemn dedication. And her father had spent a lot of his life in and out of places like this, trying any new procedure or medication that might help him. He'd never given up hope that somehow, in time, he would find a way to fly again. Anusin and Hathor had argued at times, she remembered, over treatments and costs; it had been frustrating for both of them to know what medical technology couldn't do.
But what had the Cylons been doing? She studied the room more closely, trying to imagine Cylon scientists creating medical miracles.
"Stupid idea," she mouthed in self-contempt. "Why should the Cylons care about anything medical? Why have a medical station out here at the end of the galaxy? Unless it was to find new ways to kill or torture us, as if they needed 'em..."
A dreadful picture came to mind of human prisoners brought here to die in agonies while their merciless captors registered their pain and sought to increase it. She shuddered in revulsion and turned away.
Cmdr. Cain raised his gaze skyward, noting the sun beginning its descent. Afternoon, then, in this hothouse. But his mind was on space, on the battle scene they had flown through.
Adama's people had fought there, he intuited. They couldn't tell with absolute certainty how long ago the battle had been, although breakdown in the Cylon energy cores would give them a general idea. He tried to gauge the time elapsed, and compare it with the time since Baal or Iblis or whatever had tried to take his ship. Had his baby fought in that battle? Had she died there? Was that why she could come to them and warn them against the demonic stranger?
His heart ached. She had saved them. Maybe she had saved the fleet in that battle above as well. It made little difference to think of her having died that way. She was still gone. His little Sheba was still gone.
Would it have made a difference if he had stayed with the fleet? Would Adama's people and his own have been safer? Would they have faced Baal with the rest of the survivors? Would one of his people have been there to protect Sheba from the killing shot?
Were they really accomplishing the mission he had chosen for his ship? He'd destroyed a number of Cylons, certainly, but that didn't mean those Cylons would have found the fleet otherwise – or that he and Adama together wouldn't have destroyed them if they had. He'd saved that handful of people on Paradeen – but if he'd been with the fleet, maybe Leiter and his people would never have escaped to endanger them. He hadn't stopped Baltar from escaping. Sure, he'd found the Delphians and a handful of other humans, but maybe they'd have encountered the fleet anyway...
He'd told Sheba and Bojay that he might be the most egocentric warrior in the history of the Colonies, but that he was also the best. Maybe, just maybe, the ego had loomed over sense and strategy in his decision to leave. Maybe the main thing he'd accomplished was to discover the depths of his own impatience and arrogance. Maybe it was time to go back.
The search revealed nothing more than could be seen at first glance. The Cylons were dead, every one. Most of the equipment had been removed, only a few scattered pieces remaining, and those in as bad a shape as the Cylons. If there was information in the remaining computer banks, it was degraded past their ability to recover it. There was nothing here, and little they were likely to learn. The Pegasus warriors gathered, silent and introspective. They couldn't feel sad to have discovered an abandoned Cylon base; those soulless beings were their enemy, and a world that seemed to have repulsed them of its own was a blessing, not a curse. But the world did not welcome them, either. There was nothing here for humans.
"Do you think the basestar was sent after they lost contact here, to find out what happened, and gather what was left?" Astarte wondered.
"No. " Cain shook his head with certainty. "This base has been dead too long. That ship up there was waiting for Adama and the fleet."
Orestes almost laughed, a choked-off, strange sound. "Funny thing about that – ever notice how we always come back to the Galactica? Whether we're in the middle of a mission or just talking in the O Club. We're always thinking about her, about the rest of our people. Even when we're not with the Galactica, we're with her."
"That's our mission. That's why we're here," Cain cut in sternly, trying not to recall his own doubts of a centar before.
Orestes glanced around the dead and still base once more, then upward to the equally dead and completely silent space battle site. His retort was delivered almost recklessly. "If you're right, the Galactica is past here. She's past Cylon reach, and maybe into new space where nobody knows what's waiting. Maybe it's time to go back to her, to rejoin the fleet. Maybe they need us with them now. Maybe we need–"
"We have our own fleet to protect. The Delphians–"
"Take pride in telling us they can take care of themselves. Nothing's stopping them from going with us – or from leaving us. And why do they need us more than our own people?"
Falstaff and Astarte felt paralyzed, half-expecting their commander to react with outrage.
Cain studied the younger man thoughtfully. "Maybe you're right," he murmured after several long centons. "But for now, let's get back to our ship. She needs us too."
They headed back to their Vipers.
Orestes, at least, was glad to be leaving, and he believed the others were, too. The place was too hot, too oppressive, too full of Cylon thoughts. It was getting to him – he was warm; his skin crawled as if infested with insects or some small plant or animal form; and he felt waves of dizziness from heat and dehydration. As he climbed into his Viper and settled his helmet, preparing for launch, he took a long look at the jungle, and found himself shuddering. It would be good to be back in space, better to be within the metal walls of their base ship. It would be good to be home.
And maybe, he thought longingly, they would soon be back with the fleet. That was all that was left of their worlds, all that was left of home. Reunited with the fleet, they would really, finally, be home.