Second Coming

By Lee Gaul and Sharon Monroe

The Third Book of the Pegasus Chronicles

Copyright 1985, 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 third book of the Pegasus Chronicles. The previous is Cain's Command and the next is Joint Maneuvers.

Chapter I

Dr. Helena, CMO of the battlestar Pegasus, dismally studied the low metabolic functions shown on her monitor screens. Her patients were getting worse, and there didn't seem to be anything she or anyone on her staff could do. The man in the life pod before her moaned, tossing feverishly; one pale hand clawed at the thermoblanket as he stared past her, neither recognizing her nor seeming to be aware of his surroundings.

But what could she expect? Something like this had been possible for a long time. Many of the Pegasus medical staff – and a good deal of crucial supplies and equipment – had been transferred to the Galactica, long ago at the battle over Gamoray. Cain had chosen that time to "disappear" again. There were medics among the Delphians, true, and their ships carried medicine and surgical gear – but most of their ships had been in space for well over a yahren themselves, and had been geared for mere survival, not diagnosis and treatment of alien diseases.

Helena raised her wintery blue eyes to stare at the other life pods, which were under constant observation. One of the doctors saw her and shook his head – no change, except for the worse.

The man strode toward her, pulling down his quarantine mask. "They're sinking, Helena. What are we going to do?"

"The only thing we can do, Rafael," she replied with determination. "Our patients go into cryogenic suspension. There's nothing left to try. Maybe that way, they'll live long enough for us to figure out something new. Advise Colonel Kleopatra at once."

He nodded briefly, his olive-dark forehead and brown eyes a start contrast to the eerily antiseptic white of his clothing, all covered with rustling plastic. Then he quickly turned toward the decontamination chamber that separated the quarantined portion of life center from the rest of the medical facilities.

"Damn him!" Col. Kleopatra rested her forehead on the heels of her hands, then, after a moment, rose from her desk and stalked to the window port to glare out at the starfield. She couldn't keep the rage and fear from her numbed mind long enough to consider a course of action.

"Damn him!" she exploded again, turning to face Dr. Rafael and Col. Kenji. "Why in Hades does Cain still insist on taking these routine patrols? And why in blazes did he go planetside without a survey check? He still acts like some of these cocky young pilots..."

She strode back to her desk, pounding a fist hard into her other palm before slumping back into her so-recently vacated chair.

"Give it to me again," she demanded more calmly of Rafael. It was a bad sign, she knew, that Helena refused to leave her patients.

The doctor controlled his trepidation. "Commander Cain's condition has worsened. Whatever virus or bacterium he and the others picked up on that foul little mudball, we can't isolate it. We don't know how to treat it; nothing we've tried so far has had any effect. Due to our inability to come up with an effective treatment, and the seriousness and deterioration of our patients' conditions, Doctor Helena has placed Commander Cain, Captain Orestes, Sergeant Astarte, and Sergeant Falstaff into cryogenic suspension until we can come with some new ideas."

"And thanks to our having left most of our medical personnel and a large part of our supplies and equipment with the Galactica, there probably isn't much we'll ever be able to do."

"Which leaves you in command of the Pegasus," Kenji murmured.

"Which leaves me in command," Cain's exec echoed unhappily. "Hades of a circumstances to take command – Cain still alive, for the time being, but unable to do or say anything, sick, maybe dying. And we can't do a thing for him. Damn!"

She glanced at Kenji. Her unspoken thought hung in the air. What about the Delphians?

"At least this disease doesn't seem contagious. We've quarantined everyone who could possibly have had any contact with the sick pilots, and no one has contracted any kind of illness," Rafael added on a more optimistic note.

"Thank the Lords for that," Kleopatra muttered. "At least we don't have an epidemic on our hands on top of everything else."

"Might I inquire as to your probable course of action now that you are commander?" Kenji asked, almost too casually.

"I'm not the commander!" she retorted sharply. "Not until or unless Cain..." She clenched her teeth sharply. She wouldn't even voice such a thought.

"Very well, then, Colonel, I shall rephrase. Do you plan to continue Cain's chosen mission, or to lead us on another, while he is ... incapacitated?"

"Will your people follow me on any other?" she demanded abruptly, immediately ashamed at letting the worry and anger find voice. The Delphians were historically a patriarchal, militaristic people; they didn't believe women belonged in combat positions or in authority over potential combat situations. They had followed Cain willingly. For some reason, he and they thought much alike in battle. But would they follow her? Or would they leave the battlestar with as little fanfare as they had joined it?

The Delphian shifted almost soundlessly, no expression readable on his passive features. His almond-shaped, kohl-rimmed eyes widened a fraction, but he said nothing.

Kleopatra sighed, leaning back in her thickly-padded chair, staring at the ceiling as if waiting for heavenly letters to be imprinted for her. "What to do now?" she murmured thoughtfully. "We can continue to be the outer guard, Cain's strike force. We can rejoin the fleet, as Cain always said we'd do some day. We can strike out on our own, choose another path." She fell silent, meditating on her options.

"We've seen no evidence of current Cylon activity for some time," Rafael supplied eagerly. "And the Galactica still has full medical capabilities. She may be able to do something that we can't." It was easy to see which option this particular crewman was in favor of.

"But there are still the Delphians." The woman let her eyes rest on Kenji.

He shrugged marginally. "I have confidence in you, Colonel. But such a decision is not for me to make." With those words, he seemed to excuse himself. Rising from his seat, he straightened his short, red-hued tunic, and turned to leave.

Kleopatra let him go, returning her stare to Rafael. "Shouldn't you be in life center, doctor? I'm sure Helena could use your help with her patients."

The medic departed hastily, leaving her alone in her command quarters.

After a few moments, one slim, dark hand slid along the smooth surface of her desk to touch a holo-picture. A handsome black man smiled at her. "Well, Tigh, I guess I may be seeing you again after all."

Col. Kenji retreated to his quarters. He and his family were billeted with the rest of the Delphians living aboard the Pegasus, so it was no surprise to be greeted halfway down the metal-girdered corridor by a small mob of laughing children, who were enjoying a break from their studies. Normally, he would have given them a smile and stopped to join their play for a moment, one of the few concessions to a rare desire for a non-military, more normal lifestyle that the Cylon War had denied his people for nearly a millennium.

Today, his preoccupied thoughts caused him to step aside, letting the youngsters pass. Somewhere in his brain, he noted that the children were playing with makeshift spacecraft, and he heard references to both Sunriders and Vipers. He pulled up short a moment later as it also sank in that there were both boys and girls in that chattering mob, including his own daughter and two sons.

"Inari!" he called after them.

The petite ten-yahren-old, his eldest surviving child, broke away from the swarming mob and ran back to her father, waiting with quiet attention as she'd been taught to do in a warrior officer's presence. He saw that she hid her toy behind her back.

"What are you playing today, little sly one?" he demanded with mock gruffness. It saddened him that she was too old now for him to pick up and tease as he'd done when she was smaller.

She looked down. "We're playing fighters," she answered politely.

"May I see your toy?"

With some reluctance, she brought out the miniature plastic form, molded and painted to look something like a Colonial Viper. Kenji stared at the small thing.

"One of the Viper technicians makes them for us," she added hastily.

"'Us'? Your brothers, too? And the other children?"

"Some of us. And he made Sunriders, too, and other toys. Edric likes it when we come and visit him. Are you angry, Father?" she asked anxiously.

He tested the weight and balance of the toy, studied its lines. It was well-made and simple, not something the younger children could hurt themselves with. But his own daughter was playing fighter pilot, with miniature Vipers...

"Enjoy your game. Catch up with squadron before you are lost," he ordered.

Inari nodded, trying to hide a smile of relief, but her father sense the eased tension in her wiry young body. The girl had been afraid he would be angry at their playing with Colonial toys – or perhaps just annoyed that a girl-child was playing with them.

Then she was gone, running gaily down the corridor. As she moved, it occurred to Kenji that her clothes were fashioned more loosely than they'd once been, more loose than a girl her age would be wearing, back in the Empire. She moved with more freedom than he remembered her doing aboard the lost Dragonsbreath too.

"Do we change so much, living with these Colonials?" he asked himself, frowning. And were those good changes, or things destructive to Imperial ideas and society?

He moved on again, disturbed. He needed to speak with Mriko, his wife and solid anchor – and a scan officer on this ship, and probably the one who'd made or secured the clothing that Inari was wearing. With Cmdr. Cain so near death, and Col. Kleopatra in charge, things might change again for the Delphians. The commanders would have to meet soon, aboard the Royal Soul, the ship of the young Empress, the only survivor of the Royal Kindred. By then, he needed to know what he himself thought, what he would suggest to the officers of the half-dozen Delphian ships traveling with the Pegasus, what he himself would do if forced to choose.

The scene in the Galactica landing bay after the alert was one familiar to many in Blue Squadron – especially the more recent trainees and cadets. One of the pilots had done something which Capt. Apollo, the flight commander, considered foolishly risky, and that person was being called to account for it. The rest of the squadron dissolved before him as he stalked past the decontamination chambers to the errant pilot's ship. She had purposely been the last to land, but Apollo was only further enraged at having to wait for her.

"Lieutenant, I want to see you in my quarters immediately," he hissed icily.

Sheba stared back defiantly. "Certainly, Captain, if you insist."

Neither warrior said so much as a single word to the other until they reached the flight commander's chambers. Then the man's fury broke loose.

"All right, Sheba, just what in Hades were you trying to prove out there, getting ahead of the squadron like that? Do you realize that you could've been killed? It could've been an ambush, for the Lords' sakes! You've got more brains than that! Why didn't you use them?"

She remained at perfect military attention – if he was going to act like that, she knew how to respond, and knew, too, that it would only make him angrier. "I thought it was necessary, and militarily sanctioned by the situation."

"How?" he demanded. "Using your father's logic? You flew off without even waiting for your wingman – as if that kid would've known what to do if you'd found yourselves in trouble! We don't even know what it is we may be dealing with–"

"That is precisely the point, Apollo!" Upset at the reference to her father, she broke posture to slam her palms down on his desk. "Something is out there – something not Cylon, something faster than anything we've got, that's managed to evade scanners and play tag with our patrols for two sectons. It keeps showing up, as if it's playing with us. I had a chance–"

"To get yourself killed?" he broke in. "Like you said, we have no idea what it is that's trailing us – how powerful it might be, or what its intentions toward us are! And now, I've got to explain to the Commander just why one of our best pilots acted like a green cadet!"

She braced herself. "I thought I had a chance to get a clear look or scan of it. It seemed to delay, for just a micron–"

"To lure us closer? Part of its game? Why?"

"I don't know! But I seem to recall you did the same thing several days ago, and Starbuck with you!" She reminded him of a previous incident, in retaliation for his earlier comment about her father. His features froze. "I had a head start today. I was closer than any of us have ever gotten – and all I got was a glimpse of silver before it was gone again. Why is it all right for you to act stupidly, when I'm reprimanded for doing exactly the same thing?"

He hadn't moved, still stood next to the desk, one hand resting where he'd slapped that piece of furniture in frustration. His face had paled when she reminded him of his own actions only two days before. He'd had to explain that to Commander Adama as well, and it hadn't been pleasant. She was close enough to see the twitch of his lips; nerves were wearing thin on all of them.

"Well?" she demanded when he remained silent.

"I'm the flight commander–" he began.

"And that gives you the right to act like an idiot?" she pressed. "And take Starbuck with you? I'd expect that from him, maybe–"

"That's enough, Sheba!" he snapped.

"Why? Because I got an actual glimpse of it, which is more than you did? It's more than we've had so far!"

He growled in disgust and further annoyance. "That's not the point..."

"You're the only one who can take chances? I seem to recall we talked about this once before. You're not the only one who gets lonely, who has to do something to make it bearable–"

She saw desperation in the look he turned on her, but before she could say anything more, he'd pulled her into an embrace that she couldn't escape; his mouth locked on hers in a bruising kiss that was far from the gentle touch of lips-to-lips she'd given him that one time. She froze in shock; he'd never touched her like this before.

After a long moment, he let her breathe again, but his arms still held her tightly. "I remember something else you said then, that sometimes we snap at each other to hide what we really feel..."

"What's that?" she demanded breathlessly. He had to say it; she couldn't assume anything.

"I love you, Sheba. When you took off today, I was afraid you wouldn't come back. I don't want you risking your life like that. I don't want to lose you, too. Please, don't ever do anything like that again. Please."

"Apollo!" She elbowed out of his grasp, leaning against the desk as though for protection. She knew who he was thinking of. Was Serina always so much in his thoughts? But she remembered her father, too... Maybe they couldn't avoid the past, but they had to think for the future. She knew what she felt, but something had to be made clear. "Whatever we may feel for each other, Apollo, I'm still a warrior–"

"Whatever we feel?" His strong mouth trembled with a smile, and there was a light in his eyes.

She clenched her fists, feeling the nails dig into her palms. She could admit it, too. "I love you, Apollo," she whispered, unable to speak louder for something choking in her throat. "I love you, too." Even though you still think of her...

The words were said, words she'd wanted to say to him and to hear back, for a long time. The fear was suddenly gone, along with the tentative searching and skirting around each other that had been part of their relationship. The waiting hadn't been in vain.

He reached tentatively for her hand, as if mesmerized. With a glorious smile, she moved back into his embrace. The reprimand was forgotten. Adama would have to congratulate them instead.

Maj. Electra hovered miserably at the door. She'd been through the decontamination chamber, and now needed only a doctor's permission to visit the sick pilots. She watched Dr. Helena moving so professionally among the cryogenic tubes containing her patients, and waited impatiently to be noticed and acknowledged.

How can she look so cold, so emotionless? She studies each chart and monitor, then moves on to the next without a break in her china-doll face. Do you have to be that detached to be a doctor, to deal with illness and injury? Maybe I'd have a thick shell, too, if I had to face death this way. Pilots meet death on different terms. In space, we fight back, but one chance is all we get.

She caught the doctor's attention at last. The fair, pale woman approached her. Electra couldn't help shifting her feet, anxiety rising as she tensed involuntarily.

"There's been no change in their conditions."

"I understand. Can I see them now?"

"There's no danger of transmitting anything now that they're in suspension," Helena continued calmly. "Stay as long as you like, but remember to go through decontamination procedures when you leave, standard precaution." She moved away, her sterile garb rustling.

Electra took a deep breath before walking to the short row of cryo-tubes. She touched the clear shield protecting Orestes's inert form. He was pale, colorless, still as death. A thin sheen covered his forehead and exposed skin. Sweat? Condensation of some kind? I hate suspension! It's like being entombed before you're dead, and you wake with the chill of the grave.

And it would be so much worse for her brother, incoherent and sick as he was. He controlled his claustrophobia when he was conscious and well, but he must've been nearly out of his head with terror when he felt the drugs and cold take effect.

We were always so close, brother. How come I don't feel anything now? I should be shivering like you would, if you were conscious in there. Don't you dare die on me, Orestes. You're all the family I ever really had. Mother's gone, and we scarcely ever saw Father...

But I'm here, Orestes.

She placed both hands flat on the tube, leaning closer to whisper to her twin, ignoring the fact that he couldn't hear her. Maybe he would sense her just being there. "You're cheating, Orestes. You won't win the bet that way – it's not fair if you outwait me in there. You'll have to come out to win..."

The only person Electra found in the female pilots' general quarters was Sgt. Akimi – her usual wingmate, and precisely the person she'd been seeking. "Hi, Akimi. I was looking for you."

"Hello, Major," the Delphian answered as she stuffed the last few items into a bottom locker and rose to her feet. "I was moving some things here."

"I thought you still lived with the rest of the harem... Oh, sorry."

Akimi grinned, a rare and appealing expression on a woman not known for good cheer. "I know how some of you refer to our living quarters. It does not disturb me. I simply decided it was time to live with my squadron."

"That might not be a good idea just now," Electra said slowly. Some of the sergeant's people still ostracized her for having dared to join the Colonial warriors. "The commanders are meeting on the Soul, and depending on the outcome, there could be some serious changes."

"I know of the meeting. So do the women – they gossip of nothing else. Perhaps that is why I must be here now." She took a calm breath. "I have friends among the women, and a past position of honor for my husband, but had no reason to live. Here, I also have friends, and I make my own position, and I have a reason to live. So I have decided that here I will stay, whatever the commanders and the Empress decide. I remain with the Pegasus."

Her superior smiled slowly in response to the other's quiet determination. "Welcome aboard, warrior."

Akimi inclined her head and lowered her eyelids in acceptance of the comment, a traditional submission. "What is your reason for seeking me out?"

"Heimdal and I are ferrying Colonel Kleopatra to the Soul for the meeting. Sif's covering my patrol so you'll be flying with her today."

Akimi nodded again. Sif was a good pilot, and a woman with more understanding of the Delphian way of life than most Colonials.

"I'll see you later, then, Akimi."

The young widow watched as Electra hurried out of the pilots' quarters. You gave me a purpose again, you and Commander Cain. My allegiance is to you.

Kleopatra had seldom been aboard the Imperial Soul. Most of the young Empress's invitations had been for Cain. Only rarely had she attended Delphian councils, although the Delphian ruler was quite at home aboard the Pegasus, and visited whenever the fancy struck her.

The Council room was as she remembered it, lavish and almost overwhelming. The huge oval table was of some lovely, heavy-grained dark wood, its legs and edges carved into fanciful creatures and emblems – some of which, despite wide cultural studies in her youth, Kleopatra couldn't identify. The chairs spaced around the table were of the same solid hardwood, carved similarly, with a rising, multi-rayed sun topping the high backs. A trio of chairs on a raised dais at one end of the oval were even more elaborately carved, with thick upholstery on their backs. The floor itself was a work of art, the masterpiece of a true craftsman. It was a huge map, stone delicately inlaid to form a small copy of the Empire, seemingly three-dimensional despite its flatness. Each small territory was labeled in brilliant colors, along with its traditional governing kindred. The walls were similarly brilliant, hung over with tapestries in royal golds, greens, and purples. Ancient banners were interspersed with the hangings; Kleopatra recognized one of them as Colonial, from ancient Aries, and wondered if it had been seized in some military action during the days prior to the Colonial union, or freely given in some kind of alliance or treaty – Aries had been the Colony nearest the old Empire.

A chime echoed softly through the chamber, recalling her attention. The Delphian commanders and civilian advisors waited expectantly, their attention focused on one of the tapestries.

As the dying chime rose again into a regal fanfare, the tapestry was drawn back, and a small, child-like woman marched confidently into the room, followed by a sturdy, seasoned warrior in full battle-dress, and a stern, forbidding-looking elderly woman in long civilian robes.

The Delphians present dropped to one knee without a sound, a gesture that Kleopatra quickly emulated. Electra and Heimdal, the flight leaders who accompanied her, also imitated the obeisance.

Empress Sumiko acknowledged their salute with a brief nod, then swept to her raised throne, settling herself there without any concern for her two companions. Their quick moves to assist her were ignored, and they took their seats on either side of her without complaint.

The young Empress, only sixteen yahrens old, was dressed in brilliant green, with gold embroidery and sewn-on gems covering the simply styled gown. Her long black hair was woven into a golden tiara that was itself worth a prince's ransom. The high crown added nearly a foot to her stature, but the short girl's feet dangled inches from the floor as she sat.

Kleopatra repressed a smile. Those bright eyes, rimmed with some dark cosmetic, held rebellious determination. Still only a teenager, Sumiko had to play an adult role she was ill-suited for. If not for the deaths of her brothers in the escape from Gamoray, the child would still be living a quiet, discreet life, cloistered aboard the ship, preparing for a proper marital union in another yahren or two. Which, come to think of it, was not something a sixteen-yahren-old should be concerned with!

Instead, she was the nominal ruler of a scattered group of escaped ships, survivors of the destruction of their Empire by the Cylons. These few had gathered together and now traveled by mutual consent with a Colonial battlestar, looking for a world where they could rebuild their society.

The Empress gestured grandly across the table, and those assembled took their places.

Kleopatra also sat, taking several deep breaths to calm herself. She had a good idea what this council was about – whether these human offshoots would continue to travel with the Pegasus, or would strike out on their own. The decisions would undoubtedly be based very much on their opinion of her as a potential commander. Women did not usually occupy such positions in the Empire; Sumiko was Empress solely because she was the last survivor of the Royal Kindred. The Delphians respected Cain; but she told herself not to be too hurt if they left now – it was simply that she was a woman, and not any reflection on command abilities they wouldn't even consider testing.

Maybe if I'd made another choice... But she'd acquainted the Delphian Empress of her intentions prior to the meeting, in a private communiqué.

"Colonel Kleopatra." Empress Sumiko's voice was perfectly modulated; she'd learned to play her role very well. "We understand that, due to a medical emergency aboard your ship, you are in temporary command of the Pegasus. As your orders will undoubtedly have a bearing upon our own activities, we must ask you to state your course of action for the next few sectons, until such time as Commander Cain has recovered, or his failure to recover leaves you as permanent commander." The girl lifted her chin, her gaze fixed upon the Colonial officer. She knew the answer, but the others did not; they listened with close attention.

Direct, without being rude. The girl's well-trained. So get the formalities out of the way, and we can each go our own way... Kleopatra swallowed hard, then spoke boldly. "Our medical facilities are insufficient to deal with the disease threatening Commander Cain and the others. As we have seen no Cylons for some time now, I have decided to end the outer guard. The Pegasus will be rejoining the Galactica."

She allowed herself to glance at the various commanders present. She still couldn't read most of them. "Your people are, of course, welcome to accompany us. Delphians are human, after all, and both Colonials and Delphians fight the same enemy. We are stronger together than apart. It is my hope that you will decide to remain with us, but that is your choice to make."

She fell silent after her brief statement. The Delphians wouldn't appreciate a lengthy speech, and there was really nothing else she could say. They would stay, or they wouldn't.

"As we expected," the Empress murmured. "You make valid points, Colonel. Can you guarantee the autonomy of Imperial ships in your Colonial fleet?"

Kleopatra blinked. "I ... can't imagine Commander Adama or the Council of Twelve trying to impose fleet regulations on you beyond what is necessary for survival and cooperation. However, if you should ever feel hemmed in, I am sure you would always have the option of withdrawing."

The girl nodded sagely. "As also seems valid."

"If a commander may speak..." one of the warriors at the table interjected respectfully.

"Speak, Pa."

The old veteran rose, leaning against his chair so his weak leg wouldn't collapse under him; the sleeve of his amputated arm hung limply, and he wore the massive scarring on his face as though it were a medal of honor. As the most senior commander of the Delphians, he was highly respected, and his suggestions were often heeded.

"Empress, we, too, are now of sufficient strength to be a fleet. We wish, in time, to rebuild our society. Absorption into the Colonial fleet would be detrimental to our goal, perhaps teaching our children to depend on these outsiders and abandon our own culture. We have followed Commander Cain because he has not interfered in our ways, and because he thinks like a warrior. I, for one, have no desire to find ourselves part of a Colonial society, losing our ways. I advise that we henceforth choose our own path. Let the Pegasus go where it wills – and we will do the same."

He sat down, having stated his opinion. Kleopatra had to admit his arguments were as persuasive as hers, and perhaps made more sense to these proud people who had rejected Colonial advances for so long.

The Empress steepled her hands, leaning slightly forward. "Are there other arguments to be heard before we announce our decision?" Her eyes rested on Kenji, who served aboard the Pegasus, was today seated with the Delphian officers.

If they do leave, we'll have to find the Pegasus fast, Kleopatra thought. We've come to depend on their technicians and engineers, and their pilots, to supplement our depleted staff. How did we survive those sectons before we found the Dragonsbreath?

Kenji, who had commanded that crippled ship when it encountered the battlestar, shook his head fractionally. He had nothing to say. But something about the way his eyes traveled to her made her think he think he supported staying.

"Both arguments have merit," Sumiko stated thoughtfully.

Just say it!

"However, we see no reason to abandon the Pegasus at this point. As has been stated, we may leave the fleet at any time we desire. We may gain much from a time with them, not the least of which will be medical and technical knowledge, which the Pegasus admits the Galactica has, along with knowledge of the Colonials' goal. It may be compatible with ours. It may be in our best interests to settle near this Earth they seek.

"At any rate, departure is a step we may always take. Therefore, for the time being, we remain, and we support Colonel Kleopatra's decision to seek out the Galactica. Colonel, you have our confidence."

Without further comment, the girl dropped from her chair and marched back across the room to the door hidden by the tapestry. She held her head high, and there was a slight, defiant smirk on what should have been regally condescending features.

Kleopatra let out her breath in a whoosh. Electra and Heimdal looked relieved. Most of the Delphians simply seemed to accept the royal decision, and filed from the chamber with a minimum of disturbance. They had ships to return to.

Kenji waited, prepared to leave with the Colonials. Kleopatra studied him speculatively.

He shrugged. "As Mriko has pointed out to me, we have changed, in some ways, being with you. I do not know if our people can go back to what we were, those of us on your ship, who have been most affected by Colonial laws and a Colonial commander. But perhaps we can become a better nation by adhering to yours. We can learn from each other."

She was dumbfounded, and nodded slowly. "I hope you're right, Colonel. Let's get back. We've got work to do."

In the antechamber, Col. Sheng confronted his Empress. "Your choice is foolish!" he snapped, then stalked out.

Sumiko turned to her chaperone, the old woman who was with her every waking moment. The defiance was still there, but entreaty as well.

The dowager stroked back stray tendrils of blue-black hair with her wrinkled hands. "Commander Cain would sire strong sons, warriors who could rule an Empire, and take back what we have lost to the Cylons." Her mother's aunt spoke softly, lovingly.

Sweet Aunt Yakami, who never judged her, who was always there for her, whose advice meant more than that of a dozen of her other counselors!

Sumiko threw her arms around the old woman. "But to do so, he must live!" she declared. "And for that, we must rejoin the Galactica. Later, when I am of age, I can speak to him. He understands our ways – he will know what an honor we offer, to become the consort of an Empress!"

She convinced herself with her words. Yakami said nothing against them, only held her precious child closer. She would never let harm come to this child, or pain, if she could do anything to prevent it.

Chapter II

The watch was pleasant and uneventful, and Col. Tigh didn't mind the extra duty. After all, Adama took little enough time off, and this was a special occasion. Unless his guess was totally wrong, Apollo and Sheba had a joyous announcement to make to the commander's family.

For the same reason, Athena has asked for – and received, of course – a shortened duty period. Her replacement was a competent youth who was kind enough to add a few extra centars to his own shift.

Glancing around the bridge of the mighty warship, he felt a flush of pleasure. Everything seems to be going well, he thought. The commander's son and Cain's daughter seemed to be building a life together, which made Adama quite happy. They'd encountered neither Cylons nor other known hostile life forms in sectars, which made for a much more relaxed atmosphere in the fleet.

On a more cautious note, the mysterious lights or ships or whatever it was that had been tagging them, hadn't been detected by either scanner or patrol in over a secton; perhaps they'd been left behind or eluded at last.

And his own private life was proceeding quite satisfactorily – almost entirely due to one Maruwe, a civilian comm tech from the freighter Tukulor, a ship newly commissioned in the merchant fleet at the time of the Destruction, and therefore in better shape and technologically more up-to-date than most of their vessels.

He'd met her one night aboard the Rising Star, watching an exciting triad match. Tigh smiled at the memory. Sitting next to an attractive and vivacious woman, cheering for opposing teams, first arguing, then talking amiably about the merits of the players. The victory drink afterward – which he'd paid for. She'd paid for the consolation round. Cmdr. Adama and the victorious players, Apollo and Starbuck, had retired after that, but he and Maruwe had talked for centars.

She'd convinced him to go dancing the next time they met. He'd felt a little foolish at first, among the young warriors who watched their superior officer with barely veiled amusement. It had been yahrens since he'd had interest in or taken the time to learn the complicated steps. But Maruwe was light on her feet, and he quickly rediscovered his own ability.

By the time they'd left the gathering, he'd seen astonished respect in the eyes of the younger people, and he'd felt quite pleased with himself.

And afterward... He smiled at more memories. Life in the fleet these days was almost pleasant.

"Colonel..." Omega interrupted his thoughts.

He stirred from his reverie. "What is it?" He dismissed those portions of the last sectar that had nothing to do with duty.

"We're scanning a ship out there... Like a battlestar, but that can't be, unless..." The young officer stared at him.

Tigh knew exactly what he was thinking. Lords, could it be Cain again? He leaned over the younger man's shoulder, staring intently at the screen. It wasn't their own image reflected back to them. And it wasn't alone.

"Identify that ship – and the other ships with it!" he snapped.

"We're trying, sir," Omega informed him tensely.

"Comm line Alpha!" the comm tech suddenly yelled.

It had to be a battlestar. It had to be Cain. With some dread, the Galactica's executive officer ordered, "Put it on."

"This is the battlestar Pegasus, calling the Galactica." A woman's face appeared on the screen. Tigh reflexively drew back at the sight of that too-familiar image.

On the other end, Kleopatra also drew back, with an audible intake of breath. Her surprise was gone in a micron, controlled as she managed to control most outbursts of public emotion.

Tigh stared at her. Kleopatra. His ex-wife. The Pegasus.

And, undoubtedly, Commander Cain.

Sheba and Apollo were in a world of their own. Adama had already given up trying to draw them into the after-dinner conversation. He expected they would soon make the anticipated announcement of their engagement. Until then, let them be, and try to summon an appropriate look of surprise for the moment...

My pleasure is real. Sheba's so quickly become a daughter to me. Lords know Apollo deserves some happiness in his life. Boxey accepts her, too, although no one will ever take Serina's place in his young memories. I'm thrilled to welcome Sheba as Apollo's wife.

The sheen in their eyes brought a lump to his throat. He knew what it felt like to be young and in love. Ila...

When Apollo and Serina had been sealed, there had been so much desperation in their emotions, as if one moment had to do for ten; they reached for each other as if to shut out pain past enduring. Maybe that was the truth – their few moments had to do for a lifetime, the brief lifetime until the woman's death. He wondered how deeply the scars ran in his son and grandson.

But tonight, it was a pleasure to see the man smile, and the boy laugh. And Sheba's flushed face... All of them looked happier than they had in a long time. They would make a handsome family, and hopefully, the future would be kind to them.

Adama let his attention be drawn to Boxey, the young scamp, who was making a bright-eyed comment about something Starbuck had done recently. He laughed, along with Boomer, at the warrior's obvious discomfort that the boy knew about the incident. Also obvious was the blond lieutenant's care in what he said to Athena and Cassiopeia, seated on either side of him, each watching the love-birds and glancing significantly at Starbuck.

The woman he'd professed to love, before the Destruction, and might have married for inability to escape, Athena still had ambitions where the slippery warrior was concerned, although she had learned to be more circumspect and had settled in for a possibly long wait. The socialator he'd met in their flight was a poised, confident woman who'd left the past behind her, but Cassiopeia was not above using her skills in her own campaign for Starbuck's affections. He had to walk a thin line between them, sometimes leaning more toward one, sometimes more toward the other.

I wonder if he'll excuse himself from this party as rapidly as he did the first time Apollo announced his engagement. Then, he had a send-off to plan, and Athena's suggestive eyes to escape. Now, he has two women stalking him, with neither willing to step aside or give the other any advantage – or to let him slip away between them. Such pressure...

"Ahem."

Apollo had finally chosen to speak. Adama hid a smile at Starbuck's obvious relief that attention was being drawn from him; then he, too, turned his gaze to Apollo.

"Ah, yes, Apollo? You have something to contribute to this scintillating conversation?"

Apollo looked momentarily confused, but a touch from Sheba's hand reassured him. She stood at his side, and they smiled at one another before he spoke. "Father, Boxey, Sheba and I have decided, if it meets with your approval, that we would like to be sealed to each other."

Neither noticed the amused note in the congratulations that poured from the dinner party. Boxey cheered; Athena hugged her future sister-in-law; Starbuck shook his head as if dumbfounded that his friend could take such a step again; Cassie kissed Apollo's cheek; and Adama managed to look as proud as he felt.

"Commander Adama? If I may intrude?"

The older man was distracted by the comm tech's quiet summons. He stepped away from the table without fuss, letting the young people continue to babble.

"What is it, Ensign?"

"A message from Colonel Tigh. He requests that you return to the Galactica as soon as you can."

What emergency this time? "Any indication as to the problem?"

The others noticed the intrusion, and fell into tense silence.

The tech shook his head. "Not a problem, sir. Apparently, we've made contact with another battlestar–"

"Father? The Pegasus?" Sheba interrupted shrilly, wild hope flaring in her eyes.

"I don't know, Lieutenant."

Sheba ran from the room, brushing off Apollo's hand as if she didn't feel it, and shoving the comm tech out of her way as she moved. Adama, Apollo, and the others were only microns behind.

The shuttle from the Rising Star arrived only centons before the one from the Pegasus requested permission to land. Tense passengers took position in the landing bay, along with the appropriate honor guard Col. Tigh had sent. Adama and Apollo were still in dress blues; Starbuck and Boomer were in formal tan; Athena, Cassiopeia, and Sheba wore celebration gowns, a rainbow of shimmering color as they stood together, all rivalry forgotten as they held hands in hope and excitement.

Tigh joined them from the bridge as the shuttle coasted to a smooth landing. "I've informed Dr. Salik and medical to stand by to receive the ill," he muttered under his breath to Adama. "They're preparing a quarantine ward."

"The ill?" Sheba caught the words. "Quarantine? What's wrong?"

Adama also looked questioningly at his executive officer.

Tigh sighed and grimaced. "I didn't want to announce it to anybody over regular fleet channels, for fear the IFB people would pick it up and blow it out of proportion. The Pegasus is under the command of Colonel Kleopatra. They're in a state of medical emergency, as we were at Kobol. They're bringing the sick people here under strict quarantine. Commander Cain is one of them."

"No! He can't be!" Sheba cried. "How...?"

"Please, Sheba!" Adama interrupted. "Continue, Tigh."

"We didn't talk long, Commander. I don't have any other details at this time. You may have to talk to their chief medic. The other ships with them, however–"

"Other ships?" This time it was Apollo who interrupted.

"Yes. Scanners indicate almost a dozen assorted vehicles. Most are of Delphian design, presumably from the Empire."

"Survivors from Gamoray?" Athena murmured.

Tigh nodded at the young woman who so often served as his aide. "Along with a Colonial freighter and even a refurbished Cylon ship or two. Cain's been busy. Hopefully, we can get more information when we meet with his officers..."

"Pegasus shuttle has landed," boomed an audio-enhanced voice.

Sheba couldn't wait any longer. She ran to the ship, standing at the foot of the ramp. Her hands clenched the metal railing, grip tightening painfully until her fingernails drew blood. She didn't see Apollo, his worried eyes on her.

The hatchway opened, and a slim, jet-skinned woman stepped out. She blinked in surprise at seeing Sheba there.

"How's my father, Colonel?" The young pilot entreated.

Kleopatra was joined by two other Pegasus warriors. Both stared open-mouthed at Sheba, unable to conceal their shock.

Cain's daughter barely glanced at her former shipmates before turning her anguished gaze back to Kleopatra; she feared the worst. "What is it? What's wrong with my father?"

No one from the Galactica crew, surprised as they were by the other ship's unexpected arrival, seemed to follow protocol. Everyone waited mutely for an answer to Sheba's question.

An answer was not immediately forthcoming. The personnel from the other battlestar were too intent on Sheba. Finally, one of the them, the flight commander, stuttered a few words. "But ... Sheba..." Electra whispered. "You're ... dead!"

Kenji stood impassively at the helm of the Pegasus. With Cain ill and Kleopatra aboard the Galactica, he had the rather rare opportunity of being in complete command of the ship. His emotionless visage and calmly-given orders concealed his own unease, and soothed the excitement obvious in the bridge personnel.

They were so eager and happy about rejoining the fleet, their emotions barely tempered by lingering fear for and stiff-necked pride in their commander. The Delphian understood both the concern and the loyalty. His apprehensions were for the effect of this decision on his own people.

Through the unshielded ports, he caught flashing glimpses of the Colonial vessels that were so sharply delineated on their scanners. He watched as they flew past each of the hulks, moving to take up a position on the other battlestar's flank.

Two hundred and twenty some ships, all that's left of their society. But daunting numbers, when there are less than a dozen of us. But at least we are warriors. These ships are full of bleating civilians, as capable of defending themselves as yahren-old-children!

How does Adama do it, care for all these? How did Cain endure their foolishness, in the days of their glory? Why does either one burden himself with them now?

The thoughts were unworthy of a leader. He set his attention solely on the screens reporting scan turret and patrol information. It was Mriko's task to coordinate all that varied information man and machine could supply.

Kenji met her wise, dark eyes. She smiled faintly, and nodded slightly in response to his look. He knew his wife had read his expression and posture correctly, as she always did – only the Colonials seemed incapable of understanding Delphian body language. Her encouragement eased his tension as the warship threaded its way past the helpless foreign fleet.

How long will we remain in this presence? It is not for me to determine. We live from sun to sun, while the Empress is enamored of the Commander. I favored this reunion. I pray it was no error.

The four cryo-tubes were whisked quickly through decontamination, and into a quarantine as strict as the one on their home ship. There was time to talk during those two centars; no one was willing to leave, although some had to go, to take care of other responsibilities.

"Ever feel like the third man on a triad team?" Starbuck whispered. Boomer had headed back to the ready room. Athena had taken Boxey off to bed, and Cassie had joined the medical staff. Starbuck was left feeling a little alone and uncomfortable. While he knew and respected the commander of the Pegasus, he didn't feel like he belonged with Cain's fellow officers and family. He had really only stayed because ... well, because.

Apollo grimaced in response. He too felt out of place. He could have joined the command officers, but he was more worried about Sheba's reaction to everything. His bride-to-be had joined the flight commander of the Pegasus; Electra was an old friend, and the two women had quite effectively cut him out of their conversation. The things Electra had been saying made no sense to him.

"How long d'ya think it'll be before we hear anything?"

He shrugged at Starbuck. "Could be centars before they tell us anything. You heard what their doctor said. They haven't any idea what the problem even is, much less how to treat it. They're hoping we can do something."

"What if we can't?"

He didn't have an answer. The two men waited silently.

It wasn't long before the officers adjourned their conference. Kleopatra returned to the Pegasus, and Tigh was still officially on duty. Adama retired to his quarters, where he could examine the other battlestar's logs at more leisure – and would probably spend the night doing so.

Electra chose to return to her ship as well. With a brief hug for Sheba and a worried glance toward the quarantined section of life center – her brother, after all, was one of the patients – she too disappeared.

Sheba wore a tremulous, far-away smile as she rejoined Apollo and Starbuck.

"Are you all right?" Apollo asked apprehensively.

She gazed steadily at him. "I'm fine, Apollo. Electra was just ... explaining something, and it all makes sense."

"What makes sense?" Starbuck interrupted tactlessly when she didn't go on immediately.

"Well, don't you remember?" she laughed.

"Remember what, Sheba?" Apollo was puzzled at her sudden change of attitude, and worried that concern for her father was affecting her emotionally.

"The time I was so sick, and Salik couldn't figure out what it was," she replied impatiently. The men's expressions showed they remembered the incident, but couldn't connect it with Electra's shock at seeing her still alive.

"I was unconscious for over a day, in some kind of coma, and you all thought I might be dying. Then I recovered suddenly, as if nothing had been wrong with me. Salik never did find anything, and I never had any further symptoms or trouble. It was the same time that the Pegasus picked up a strange man in a damaged shuttle. The man identified himself as Sire Baal, but he was really Count Iblis."

Their involuntary shudders betrayed their memory of that creature.

"Electra said I was there," she said. "I warned Father when Iblis tried to take the Pegasus. I spoke through her, to tell them what Iblis was, what he was trying to do. Maybe it was a chance for me to make up for what happened before..."

Apollo felt an eerie shiver run down his spine. He didn't need to be reminded of the being who called himself Count Iblis. But what in Hades had happened, that Sheba could be connected again with him? What was she trying to tell them? If this was some sort of dealing with the supernatural, with something beyond human comprehension, it disturbed him.

"Don't you see, Apollo?" she demanded, laughing, her intense mood shifting as suddenly as it had come on. "I was there when my father needed me! I knew nothing could happen to him that I wouldn't feel in some way. Now, I know for sure. Somehow, I was able to go to my father. It's going to be all right..."

She threw her arms around him, giving him a resounding and very public kiss. "And it's going to make our sealing mean so much more, now that he's here to share our lives."

Starbuck shifted his feet uncomfortably, feeling more unnecessary all the time. He was beginning to wonder if it was worthwhile waiting for Cassie after all.

Apollo's reaction to Sheba's embrace was a flush of embarrassment. He was obviously relieved at her happiness, but was uncertain how to deal with her calm assurance that everything was all right.

She saw the men exchange glances, and giggled. "All right, Captain, I understand. Would you walk me to my quarters? I'm going to wait here for news, but I think I should change first. Father will want to see his daughter as a warrior first, or he'll think I've become a socialator! He might blame somebody for being a bad influence on me," she finished provocatively.

Apollo managed a chuckle as she drew him to the door, still clinging to his arm. For some reason, Starbuck thought it might be a while before they returned – not that he expected either of them to be interested in ... personal pursuits at the moment, but he was sure Apollo wanted to talk a little more, in private, about Electra and Sheba's conclusions.

A moment later, as he lounged quietly in the corner, staying out of everyone's way, he heard Salik and Cassiopeia talking as they strode from the quarantine chamber. The doctor's concern was obvious from the way he rubbed at his forehead. The slim, fair woman looked very out of place, the quarantine tunic covering but not obscuring her brilliantly-colored party dress. Her piled curls were crushed under a clear cap, and her delicate high-heeled sandals, laced to the knee, gave her unusual height.

"...Assist Helena in every way possible, and pull the roster. I want somebody monitoring each patient individually at all times," the doctor ordered. His thinning hair seemed to recede even as he spoke, and his frown etched the lines more deeply around his mouth and eyes. "We may have to assign some double shifts, pull staff from other life stations in the fleet."

Her response was quiet, determined, and professional. "I'll stay with Cain myself," she volunteered. "And I believe several of the Pegasus staff are already arranging lodging for the duration of the emergency..."

Starbuck blinked in shock. Before he could step forward or say anything to alert them to his presence, both were gone, one returning to the quarantine ward, the other hurrying to review rosters and check their own medical status.

Cassie didn't even notice me! But she sure noticed Cain... A hurt, unhappy feeling, colored by unexpected jealousy, rose in his throat. Feeling abandoned and out of place, Starbuck quietly fled.

News of the arrival of the Pegasus spread quickly through the fleet. Citizens of all ages clamored for information; upon learning that the legendary Cain was ill, they demanded to know with what, and what was being done to treat him.

Intra-Fleet Broadcasting immediately began requesting interviews, and Kleopatra placed the Pegasus off-limits until Cain's condition could be diagnosed, referring all demands and requests to Adama as Council President and fleet military commander.

The Delphians simply ignored all requests for information, even from the Council of Twelve, and kept their small group of vessels noticeably aloof from the rest of the fleet. Since there were no scheduled shuttle routes, and since inquiries as to how soon such routes could be established were quietly tabled, there was no way for anyone else to get aboard. The curiosity of the fleet and the Quorum went unsatisfied.

But speculation and rumors couldn't be met with silence for long. Those with relatives or acquaintances aboard the Pegasus were soon pleading for at least an acknowledgment that family or friends were still alive, with hope for confirmation that this time, the battlestar was here to stay. Within two days, personnel records from the Pegasus and the two Colonial vessels accompanying her were fed into the Galactica's computer banks, and made available to an eagerly-waiting fleet.

Chameleon knew his way around the Galactica; he'd been there often enough since the incident with the Borellian Nomen, which had resulted in the discovery, for him, that Lt. Starbuck of Blue Squadron was the son he'd lost so many yahrens before. It had been his own decision to keep that knowledge from the young man, with Cassiopeia's help, in the hopes that they could develop a friendship, rather than forcing kinship ties they might both regret as they got to know each other.

There had been no regrets; they had become friends. The older man occasionally had second thoughts about not telling the entire truth about the results of the genetic scan, but he consoled himself with the notion that the knowledge would one day make a worthy sealing gift for his son.

Today, however, he wasn't there to visit Starbuck. A glance at the Pegasus personnel roster had told him of the survival of two other warriors he was very concerned with. He wanted to see them.

The only shuttles to the Pegasus left from the Galactica, and only official business was permitted – no personal visits until the situation was much more settled and the quarantine lifted. That didn't concern him overly much; the old con man knew a number of shuttle pilots, and several of them owed him markers. Besides, there were always ways to get where one wanted to go, if one was willing to be audacious and take a few risks.

Chameleon was willing to take risks. In fact, he was good at taking them.

But Pegasus pilots were flying shuttles too, and several patrols had been exchanged. That meant one of the warriors he wanted to see might be aboard the Galactica already, or be scheduled to come aboard very soon.

So what he really needed was access to the flight rosters, to determine the whereabouts of Maj. Electra. He knew Capt. Orestes was one of the sick men, and no one was getting past the medical staff to see them.

As he considered how best to learn Electra's location, he heard the tromp of boots passing near, and voices. He wasn't sure he was in a restricted area, but he ducked back out of sight, just to be sure. Better that than having to answer questions he wasn't sure he wanted to answer.

"A pity we weren't able to work together before, Captain!" Electra laughed. Concern for her brother had momentarily taken a back seat to the situation.

"I seem to recall that Gamoray was pretty much one emergency after another," Apollo replied. "You were on a foraging mission to top off your fuel supplies when Starbuck and I first came aboard; you didn't participate in the raid on those tylium tankers; you were guarding our ... back when we took the city's fuel depot; and in the battle, you led the Pegasus spearhead while I directed our warriors, until I broke away to lead Sheba back..."

"At which point, I took over, under Cain's orders. Later, you led your flight wings back here while we went to Baltar's surprise party."

"Too bad we missed it."

"You didn't miss a thing. Every now and then, Baltar actually does something clever. He must have figured out we were just waiting for him to get beyond his own fighter range. So, he stopped pursuing us. And now, of course, we have reason to believe he may be back in the Cylon Alliance, working more of his deceptions."

The tour of the Galactica was giving the two flight commanders an opportunity to talk and get to know each other better. Electra stole a sideways glance at her opposite number for the Galactica. Adama's son was certainly handsome, as well as outstandingly competent – dark hair framing a perfect face, with high cheekbones setting off jade eyes. His tall, slim body and athletic build gave her un-warrior like ideas, while his reputation and record earned her warrior's admiration.

And he was pleasant to be with, had a well-refined sense of humor. He could be very serious and even a bit ... stodgy at times, she thought, but that was no doubt due to his militarily correct and proper upbringing and important family connections – and his own somewhat old-fashioned ideas of honor and pride. He certainly wasn't the type to go out of his way for trouble.

But then, she – whose aristocratic mother had raised her to wealth, but to very little in the line of discipline – could do enough of that for two!

Of course, the problem with contemplating that line of thought any further was Sheba, a very close friend, who happened to have claimed this man as a future husband.

Ah, well. Better luck with the next one, Electra!

Apollo heard the soft sigh and glanced quizzically at his companion, but she seemed preoccupied. He caught a glimpse of a regal profile framed in gold as she lifted her chin to study something across the bay.

She's beautiful. But I'm not Starbuck, and I'm engaged to be sealed – and to a friend of hers. Not that he disliked her company. Her gay laugh and coy comments lifted him from the brief depression he'd been in since the return of the Pegasus. He understood that Sheba wanted to be near her father at a time like this, but he would've liked a little of her attention as well – at least enough to feel like he was consoling her and supporting her. But she didn't even seek him out for that. He was spending more time with Electra than with his wife-to-be or other friends.

It was undoubtedly the feeling of being neglected and not needed by the woman he loved that let him find Electra so very attractive. Of course that's all it is!

But then, if they'd be working together any amount in the future, it was in his best interests, and those of his squadrons, and ultimately the fleet's, to be on good terms with her, and able to cooperate. After all, look what had happened at the tanker incident – Cain had laid all the blame on the fact that the two squads had never worked together before. He wasn't going to let even the possibility of that insinuation stand again – there would be no question of them working together.

A new thought suddenly unsettled him. Since she did outrank him, if Cain were to remain with the fleet, and the two battlestars' flight contingents were to be working together, he could well end up in a subordinate position.

He stole another glance at her. She was still wrapped in thought. Those disturbingly violet eyes were far away. He considered her flaxen gold-bright hair, the small nose above a wide mouth that often smiled and teased. Add her trim, lithe figure... He'd seen her combat records. Her siren's appearance and voice concealed a strong, stubborn will and surprising proficiency at what she did. She was a first-class warrior, as well as a stunning woman with an alluring personality, a woman he would want to know better under almost any circumstances.

But he wasn't used to answering to another officer for his decisions as flight commander, other than Adama and Tigh, since assuming that position. He wondered, with no little trepidation, if he could be gracious about it, should the situation arise. His father was fleet commander and president of the Quorum – for the time being – but that couldn't justify choosing his own son above a warrior similarly if not better qualified. The commander would have to make a practical, logical choice, considering all factors.

"Cubit for your thoughts, Captain?" she teased lightly. "You look like someone just poured raw ambrosia down your throat!"

He grimaced, shaking his head. "Only to me, Major. And not really a concern for now."

She followed his trail of thought – Damn, she's perceptive! – and arched an eyebrow at him. "I assure you, Apollo, I'm not looking for your job. I've got enough troubles trying to keep my present squadrons in line, what with the Delphians and all. I know Commander Adama wants to integrate our strike forces as soon as possible, so we don't have a recurrence of the near-mutiny you had to deal with during the fuel crisis." Can she read minds too? "But I doubt very much he'll try to place the squadrons from both battlestars – not to mention the Empire's forces! – under one command. I'm not sure it could be done."

Apollo felt relieved, and uncomfortable with himself for feeling that way.

"Besides," she added thoughtfully, "he'd probably pick one of those boring old men over both of us – you know, some crusty veteran codger who hasn't flown a Viper in yahrens, who'd make life miserable for every pilot who couldn't spout rule-and-reg at the drop of an Academy training manual!"

He laughed at her pout. She was probably right, too. He had to admit, thinking of it, that mutual respect and a sense of humor and perspective would make Electra easy to work with, whatever the circumstances.

"But for now, Captain, I hope you'll excuse me?"

"Tired of my company already?" he mourned with feigned grief. "I'll have to take charm lessons from Starbuck. Can't seem to keep any woman around!" he finished wryly.

She laughed outright. "Give Sheba a little time. Her attention's divided, you know that – it's her father! It's Cain! But for me, it's been a long day, and I'd like to spend a few centons in life center before turning in. Maybe there's some word..."

His voice was low and contrite. "I'd forgotten your brother was one of the patients. I hope things turn out well for him, and for the others as well. If you see Sheba, tell her I miss her. Right now, I've got some interminable paperwork to tend to."

"I know the feeling. I'll see you later, Apollo."

"Sleep well, Electra."

She watched him stride away, feeling suddenly restless and alone in the huge, almost empty bay. Well, visit Orestes, then get a good night's rest. Things'll look more cheerful in the morning. They were still officially under quarantine procedures, so there could be no mixing with civilians. Otherwise, Electra would have been tempted to visit the Rising Star. Several of the Galactica pilots had good things to say about that ship's entertainment lounges...

Preoccupied, she turned toward one of the corridors leading to the turbolift banks that serviced the interior sections of the ship. The corridor was dimly-lit, under night simulation. If an emergency should arise, the rest of the ship's lights would dim to red anyway, so the pilots' eyes could adjust to the darkness of space as they ran for their fighters.

A man in civilian clothing stepped from behind one of the girders; she paid him scant attention.

"Electra!" he called in a whisper.

She gasped. "Chameleon! What are you...?"

They studied each other for a moment.

"I'm not sure you're allowed here, not at this time of day, anyway," she told him.

"There were some people I wanted to see," he replied placatingly. "And you're one of them. How are you? I didn't know if I would find you here or not."

She smiled warmly. A glance around showed they were alone, except for the distant retreating figure of Apollo. "I'm fine. Just finished touring the ship, and... Oh, I don't want to babble at you. I'm fine, Father. I've survived this long; I can survive anything."

"And your brother?" She could see tension and strain on his wrinkled face, mixed with pleasure at seeing her again, alive, after so long.

She shrugged and looked down for a moment. "Who know? Dr. Helena couldn't do anything for them; we're hoping Dr. Salik can. I'm optimistic. I have to be, I guess. But haven't you been to see him?"

"They're not letting civilians near life center until you've already got one foot in the interment tube. Besides, they know my reputation on this ship. They won't let me near until I've got both feet in! But I thought if I could see you, it would be a comfort, and you could tell me..."

"Chameleon, they'll let you in! Relatives are allowed! Just explain..." She took his arm, starting to steer him toward the elevator banks.

"I don't know... There's a complication..."

"Tell the doctor you're our uncle, if you want! Dr. Helena will accept that, whatever you may have done that these people know about. And I'll bet it was something crazy, and probably illegal!" She wore her usual dazzling smile, and her gleaming eyes invited a confidence, as they had done on the rare occasions he'd seen this young woman while she was growing up.

"Electra, one of the med techs here, she knows who I am."

"So?"

"We discovered, at one time, that Starbuck is my other son. You know him, from Blue Squadron. You always knew I had another child; he's the son I lost so long ago, when my wife died. And Cassie loves Starbuck. How do I go and tell a woman who knows I'm Starbuck's father that I'm also the father of you two? One secret, she keeps. The other, I couldn't ask her..." He raised a hand pleadingly, refusing to go on. "Starbuck doesn't know – and I wouldn't know how to tell him."

She faced the entreaty in his aged blue eyes. He had loved them both – Electra and Orestes – although circumstances and emotions had made it impossible for them to live together as a family, and they had seen him so seldom while growing up. Now, he had discovered Starbuck – and perhaps the angry secret that their mother had kept from him for so many yahrens.

And Electra suddenly wondered if either man would forgive them for what their mother had done, so very long ago...

"Hey, Jolly, haven't we been out here long enough?" his wingman complained. Greenbean's patience could be very limited when he had a waiting engagement back on the Galactica, and long patrols wore on everyone.

"I suppose we could head in any time, buddy," Jolly replied easily. He knew his young teammate was an affable, easy-going guy – when he wasn't teasing the other man about his weight.

A quip was forthcoming. "If we hurry, we should be able to catch mess before they close up. I understand they're serving one of your favorites tonight, too – with mushies for dessert, to celebrate the return of the Pegasus."

"Good for them!" Jolly replied belligerently. "For your information, they don't need to hold mess for me. You're not the only one who's got plans for tonight. And ... I'm getting a real, free, home-cooked meal out of it!"

"Ah, the ultimate test! She may be beautiful; she may be bright; she may have more brass and cubits than any woman's entitled to. But the big question is, can she cook?" Greenbean declaimed dramatically.

"Believe me, Greenbean," Jolly confided with a leer in his voice, "when this woman cooks, look out! And I don't mean beans!"

"Ooh, boy! Sure you can handle her?"

"I'll wear myself out trying!"

"Hey, Jolly, you getting anything on your screen?" the other man asked in sudden concern.

"Like what?"

"Like anything that might be a ship – or something sane and identifiable?"

"Not again..." Jolly studied the empty scanner for a long moment, then turned his attention back to the distant flash of light that just paced the patrol's flight, matching maneuvers and speed with amazing accuracy.

"They're back..."

They were being followed. They thought they'd lost the odd ships or lights or whatever they were – but now, they were back.

The troubling news went back to Cmdr. Adama, on the bridge of the Galactica. He listened in silence, his brow furrowed in what looked like anger, but was really worried frustration. What is it now? We thought we'd eluded them, left them behind us over a secton ago. Why have they returned? What are they after?

"Call Colonel Kleopatra on the Pegasus," he ordered. "Conference as soon as he can get here. Wake Tigh as well."

"Right away, sir!" Omega answered promptly.

She had to know, so her pilots could be informed what to watch for, what presence to be alert for and wary of. The flight patrols would have to be rescheduled, perhaps increased, with shorter patrol radii so they'd be in constant contact with one of the battlestars. Perhaps the Pegasus would have to take up a position further back in the fleet – it would make several of the civilian captains happier, at least.

And just maybe there was a chance Kleopatra knew something about their odd pursuers, had dealt with them previously. The alien vessels, if that's what they were, might even have followed the other battlestar to the fleet...

But they still didn't know why they were being watched, and that was the most agonizing, most frustrating thing, to him as commander. He simply couldn't prepare any plan of action until he had some further notion of what these strangers wanted.

At any rate, with the Galactica and the Pegasus together – plus the smaller forces of the Delphians – perhaps the humans were now capable of dealing with their mysterious trackers on a more equal footing. At least he had a formidable enough defense cadre to protect the unarmed ships in the fleet.

Or so he hoped.

Chapter III

Several pilots from Golden Sun Squadron watched quietly as personnel from the Galactica disembarked in the Pegasus landing bay, carrying small duffels of gear. Their dark, somber eyes and passive expressions seemed to unnerve the newcomers. A few of the warriors offered smiles, waves, or greetings to the Delphians, but when they received no response, friendly or otherwise, they left in a group, following their guide and muttering among themselves.

A few moments later, the Delphian leader left his teammates to speak with Kenji, who was also watching the new arrivals, filling in as executive officer while Cain was ill and Kleopatra was aboard the other battlestar.

"What are they doing here, Colonel?" Tokyo asked quietly. There was no belligerence in his tone or stance, simply the request for information an officer might make of his superior.

"Orders, Captain. You know that."

"We have no need to exchange pilots." The younger warrior shifted minutely, the smallest sign of nervousness. None of his squadron had been included in the temporary transfers, but there might be a next time. "We work well with the present roster. We have trained together; we know each other. Now, we are expected to deal with these strangers who have no idea how we live, what we think or believe."

"It seems, Captain, that there were ... difficulties in their last encounter, between members of the squadrons from both ships. Therefore, Commander Adama suggests, and Colonel Kleopatra concurs, that it would be wise for us to learn to work together as fighting teams, to better our efficiency in combat, and to prevent a recurrence of difficulties. To begin, a handful of strike teams from Silver Spar and Bronze Wings Squadrons have been moved to the Galactica, while pilots from their Red and Blue Squadrons have joined us temporarily. The flight commanders will continue to plan short rotations until personnel are familiar with each other and are comfortable working together." Kenji kept his voice as formal as possible, explaining in the Delphian dialect most used in their military, to strengthen the impact of his words and remind his officer of his duty to accept orders.

He sensed that Tokyo was not entirely happy with the command, but would accept it.

"So long as Golden Sun is not moved. We are Delphians, not Colonials. Our allegiance is not to Commander Adama or their curious Council of Twelve," the captain added.

Kenji agreed. He, too, had difficulties understanding or accepting that particular governing body and its undue influence on what the military could or could not do. "The day their Council attempts to order us beyond our duties," he promised, "we transfer to the Soul and return to the Empress's direct control."

Tokyo was satisfied, and returned to his squadron.

Kenji was pleased that he'd managed to keep his unease to himself. The Colonial Council of Twelve seemed to feel it automatically had jurisdiction over their ships, with their constant demands for information and insulting notifications of new "orders." For the present, the Empress simply ignored their instructions, and continued to govern her people as she wished, as was proper. She refused their requests for a tour of the small group of vessels, and didn't deign to answer the not-very-flattering, somewhat condescending suggestions of alliance certain of the bureauticians had offered. They also ignored the more fawning, personal offers several had passed along privately.

The colonel was pleased their young ruler was avoiding the political games of the Colonials. Let them maneuver around each other; it was no concern of the Delphians. Of those he had met, only Commander Adama and a handful of the warriors seemed worth dealing with – honest, honorable, capable warriors with a proper sense of duty and responsibility.

One thing continued to trouble him. If the Imperial Kindred was too greatly offended by the blundering politicians and condescending officials, would Sumiko feel constrained to remain for long with the fleet? And would she command her people from the Pegasus to rejoin her? They were used to serving on that ship, now. After so long, the choice would be difficult, for some, to leave or to remain.

That he doubted his own possible decision disturbed him even more.

His responsibilities were affecting him. Perhaps he would have to speak to Mriko. Her clear-sightedness had helped him in many difficult times, and he respected her wisdom.

It had been a long time since Kleopatra had flown a Viper, but it was the fastest transportation to the Galactica, and Cmdr. Adama's request had sounded urgent. She'd kept up with the technological improvements over the yahrens, and was pleased to find how quickly she adapted to the small, maneuverable craft.

For landing, she dropped into formation with a Pegasus patrol. In the bay, she found one of Tigh's aides waiting to conduct her to the conference.

She recognized the slim, dark-haired young ensign as the commander's daughter, and was able to greet her by name. "Good morning, Athena. You're up early."

The woman nodded a proper greeting. "Making up a missed shift. Commander Adama will meet you in his quarters, Colonel."

Obviously poised, and at ease among brass. To be expected from a girl with her background and experience.

Athena's eyes wandered curiously to the two patrol pilots, who were on their way to make their reports. Kleopatra saw her attention linger on the male warrior.

"Captain Heimdal, Bronze Wing," she supplied. "Married to the lady next to him. She's the jealous type. Not that he'd ever look."

"Oh!" The ensign's face flushed for just a moment. "Not that at all, Colonel, I was just wondering where he was from." She gestured at the hair curled around her own temples. "I don't know of any Colonial groups that wear side braids with regulation haircuts. Top knots, dyes of all colors, partial shaving, totally uncut, all kinds of society trends, yes – but not anything like that."

Kleopatra fell into step with her as she led the way to her father's chambers. "Heimdal and Sif are both from a small ethno-religious group in the Raggane Highlands of Sagittara. Very clannish, somewhat isolated. The braids are their mark of belonging to the group, and signify defiance. Apparently, the Sagittarans tried to legislate against the sect over a millennia ago. Now, of course, since we don't interfere with religious freedom in the military, the braids are also worn as a proud reminder of their heritage."

"Raggane Highlands." Athena's brow wrinkled slightly. "Ah, yes. Mining, metallurgy, and herding. Not the best part of the planet for agriculture or settlement, but productive due to the hard work of the people who live there. I seem to recall reading something about their way of life..."

Kleopatra warmed to her subject. Cultural ethnology had been her second course of study at the Picon Academy, and she was pleased to talk with someone with a similar interest. "The sect keeps to a rigorous, somewhat out-of-date lifestyle, by most standards. Primogeniture – all inheritance goes to the eldest son; women generally keep to the home and raise children, often in a group family environment. Larger families than the majority of Colonial groups; younger sons often work for the family or join one of several celibate religious orders – one reason they haven't over-populated their region despite the family size..."

Her recitation was cut short by the sudden appearance of a fellow officer from around a corner. He eyed them with momentary surprise, then fell into step with them.

"I take it we are all destined for the Commander's quarters?" Tigh queried briefly.

"Yes, sir," Athena replied crisply.

After a centon of strained silence, they arrived at the door to Adama's quarters. "The Commander will be here momentarily, I'm sure," Athena reported when they found the room empty. "He must still be on the bridge. The situation has us all concerned."

The young woman ducked out as soon as she was able, feeling the tension between the two officers. She had no desire to be caught in the cross-beams if fireworks erupted, and hoped her abandonment wouldn't be taken for cowardice.

Tigh took a stance next to the window port while Kleopatra settled herself elegantly onto the couch beneath it. After studying her hands for a moment, she ventured to say, "I'm surprised you weren't already here and waiting."

"I was on sleep period," he stated briefly.

"We must be getting old; you're slowing down," she teased.

"I wasn't alone," he interjected dryly.

"Oh." After a few centons, "Have you remarried, then, or is she just a friend?"

"A friend." Tigh was at his stiffest and most silent. He seemed to refuse to unwind the slightest amount in response to her attempts at conversation.

"Anybody I'd like?"

"I doubt it."

"So tell me about her. Tell me about your life since we last talked." The last time they'd really said anything of consequence to each other had been before the fateful battle of Molecay, when Kleopatra had taken the assignment to the Pegasus. They'd already been apart, but that had been the final estrangement.

At the battle over Gamoray, they'd exchanged no more than a dozen words. She'd been responsible for the Pegasus while Cain was Adama's guest. Then, while Tigh was aboard and in command, she'd been so furious at what she saw as Adama's high-handed and unnecessary actions that she'd refused to stay on the bridge with her ex-husband. Only later did she understand about Cain's unauthorized destruction of the two Cylon fuel tankers. By then, the Colonials were in combat, and there was no opportunity to speak privately about anything. There was only time to deal with the damage, and to help the injured, and to prepare for the anticipated battle with Baltar's third and final base ship.

That battle had not materialized. Nor had Cain returned to the fleet. So it had now been three yahrens since she and Tigh had a chance to sit and talk honestly. However, the man seemed unwilling or unable to communicate with her in any way other than in connection to their duties.

"Civilian or military?" she prompted after a few moments.

"Who?"

"Your friend."

"Civilian," he replied rudely. "And I don't know why you're bothering to feign an interest."

She stared glacially. There was no reason to keep her temper here; they were alone. But she found no rage to lash out at him with. She knew him too well. He was trying to hide uneasiness in her presence, and embarrassment at the other relationship she'd discovered. It was never easy for him to say what he felt, and explaining a new lover to his ex-wife...

And perhaps, now, too, seeing her in command of a battlestar – a position he had once coveted – made it difficult for him to know how to react.

I'll make it easy for him. "I had hoped, Tigh," she stated evenly, "that although we are no longer husband and wife, we might at least function together as officers, and perhaps speak as friends. Please consider it as an option before unleashing another such display of rude and dishonorable behavior."

The next move was up to him. She let the thick silence lay between them for the long moments it took Commander Adama to return to his quarters.

His face felt permanently creased into an uneasy scowl and his shoulders seemed bowed into rounded humps; his burdens continued to weigh on Cmdr. Adama as he headed for life center to check the status of the sick warriors.

Col. Kleopatra and her staff had been completely unaware of any such beings or ships as had been following them. They'd had no reports of unidentified pursuers or mysterious scanner blips. The Pegasus hadn't seen anything. Now that they were with the Galactica, had they placed themselves in the same danger as the other humans – assuming they were in danger?

The colonel didn't take it that way. She'd blinked at the revelation, but accepted it calmly, asking only for whatever knowledge they might have to pass on to her pilots and scan crews, commenting that whatever they faced, they would deal with it together.

She'd seemed quite sure of herself and her ship; that was to be expected of Cain's crew. She was a fine officer, as fine as his own second-in-command, and he was glad to have her to rely on as well.

If only the obviously strained relationship between Kleopatra and Tigh didn't interfere with their performance of their duties. But he knew the circumstances, and wasn't about to say anything yet. He owed them both that, for the past friendship as well as the current situation.

For himself, whatever their differences in the past, he would dearly love to have Cain available in the situation as well, with his tactical wizardry and intuitive military genius. But the Pegasus commander remained confined to a cryo-tube in life center. The medical staff had as yet been unable to isolate the cause of the disease, if such it was, or to find a cure.

And besides an unknown illness that could still flare into an epidemic, and the unknown somethings around them, there was still the Council to deal with and appease. They were outraged by the aloof silence of the Delphians, and demanded Adama take some of kind of action – as if he could! The Delphian Empire was a sovereign, independent nation, with them, for the present, of their own free will. They were not a Colonial settlement or poor relation of some kind to lord it over.

And the daily problems within the fleet – distribution of food, water, fuel, and other resources; complaints of criminal behavior, unethical actions, or simple negligence; requests for exemptions from rules and regulations, and complaints of others' presumed exemptions; political restlessness – all continued as well, usually finding their way to his desk in some fashion or other.

Lords of Kobol, was he expected to bear every problem these people faced? Find a solution to every little need? Had none of them any understanding of the difficulties he faced every day, making the decisions necessary for their survival?

No, for that wasn't human nature. It seemed the best of the Colonies had not survived, in most cases, but the vices and the problems had.

He arrived at his destination. Life center was quiet; the pilots had refrained from brawling the night before. With the new people from the Pegasus aboard, he'd expected a mostly-friendly welcoming scuffle or two – but they were all as concerned for their commander as he was.

"Good morning, Commander. May I help you?"

It was Cassiopeia, on duty at the receiving station. Her crisp uniform was a far cry from the last clothing he'd seen her in, but hardly an improvement. The garment suggested she had just come on duty – but the fine smudges under her eyes, although lightly powdered, said she'd probably been up most of the night.

"Good morning, Cassie. Is Dr. Salik about somewhere?"

"He and Dr. Helena are in conference on our quarantine patients. I'm sure you can go right in." She gestured toward a far door, with a wide smile she had difficulty controlling.

"Good news?" he demanded, studying her look.

"Maybe," she hedged. "It was a long night, but we may have found something. I'm sure the doctors will want to give you the details themselves..."

He needed no further urging, but was already hurrying down the empty row of beds for the distant chamber – one of the labs, he recalled. Cassiopeia followed his stride with a tired but delighted smile before rubbing her bloodshot eyes and turning her gaze back to the empty forms before her. Even on quiet days, there were things that piled up.

Adama's knock on the lab door was more in the line of a demanding thud from his fist.

"Hades!" came an irritated yell from beyond, then the sound of footsteps. "Cassie, didn't I tell you–?"

Salik opened the door with an annoyed expression on his flush-suffused face; his broad nostrils flared forbiddingly. The anger faded at once when he saw who waited. "Commander! We were just about to call you. Come in, come in... You remember Dr. Helena, and this is Dr. Rafael, also from the Pegasus. You know our own staff."

Adama acknowledged the introduction with a brief nod. "You may have found something?" he demanded eagerly.

"Yes!" The broad smile that took its place on the doctor's round face was a more eloquent response. The rest of the staff also seemed pleased with their long night's work. The chief physician gestured him to one of the few chairs not covered with equipment or supplies or already filled with a human body.

"And?" Adama didn't need suspense. He needed good news for a change. He took his seat at the cluttered table, keeping his attention on his CMO.

"Remember the difficulty we had at Kobol?"

Adama glanced around. "Yes," he replied cautiously. "Our pilots picked up a virus from that Cylon asteroid base. It spread through many of our personnel, leaving us basically defenseless for over a secton while Apollo and Starbuck trained a group of shuttle pilots in the basics of Viper flight. Several of them are still in the squadrons."

"Yes," Salik prompted.

"You took a team back to the asteroid, isolated the virus, and found a treatment. Just in time, as the Cylons chose to attack Kobol, though our new pilots handled themselves quite respectably."

Salik smiled. "Trust a warrior to remember the military details. But, yes, we isolated the virus that was causing the highly-contagious disease to spread among our pilots. We're luckier here. The viral form isn't spread by human contact, and since we already have samples from our sick men and from our previous encounter, we don't have to go back to the planet to collect the stuff."

The commander leaned forward, frowning.

"We can't reconstruct an entire evolutionary history of the virus, but it appears to be closely related to the organism we had trouble with at Kobol, perhaps the parent stock from which the Cylons bred the mutated form that was so contagious.

"We'll be testing modified medications similar to what we used there. If all goes well, and our theory is correct, we should have positive results in a day or two." Salik sat back grandly, looking quite pleased with himself.

Adama didn't blame him. He was ready to cheer himself. He glanced around at the tired but happy staff. They'd done a good job. And now, there's one less problem to haunt my sleep...

The ash-blonde woman in the pilot's uniform knew exactly where she was going. She made a beeline for the admissions med tech.

"Any word today, Cassie?" Sheba pleaded. Several long patrols and sleepless nights spent worrying about her father were taking their toll on her. There were dark smudges under her eyes, and her hair was carelessly pulled back into a simple knot. She was thinner, since the only times she remembered to eat were when Cassie or some other friend brought a snack to life center. She spent most of her spare centars there, in a vigil for Commander Cain.

Cassiopeia felt a pang of sympathy. She, too, was worried about Cain, but knew her feelings couldn't compare to those of his daughter. Fortunately, she had good news. Stifling a yawn, she reached for her friend's hand.

"We think we made a breakthrough. In another day or so, we should know for sure. Your father might even be out of suspension by then."

The other woman's eyes lit up wildly. Then she unexpectedly began to cry.

"Would you like to see him for a few moments? Then you should probably get some rest yourself," Cassie told her gently.

Sheba nodded wordlessly, then followed the med tech to the quarantine chamber.

Cassiopeia returned to her station just in time for the arrival of another visitor. Apollo had come looking for the woman he had pledged to marry. He, too, had a worried, preoccupied expression on his face.

"Uh, have you seen Sheba?" he asked after glancing around the large, empty chamber.

"Yes, she's visiting her father."

He looked twice. "I didn't think anyone was allowed directly into the quarantine sector, just in here and to talk to the doctors."

"There've been a few changes in procedure. Don't spread it yet, Apollo, but we may have found the answer."

His relief was obvious. "Then I'll just–" He gestured toward the quarantine ward.

"No! Uh, I think she'd like a little time alone just now. Could you wait? See her later, after she's had some time to rest? These few days have been rough on her."

"They haven't been that easy on me either!" he snapped back. "I haven't seen her for more than two centons–"

"I can understand you feel neglected, Apollo, but Cain is her father – and you know how devoted she's always been to him! If it were your father, you'd be here, too. And don't deny it, because you have been here when he's been ill or injured. Just give her a little time; she hasn't forgotten you," the woman alternately scolded and reassured.

Apollo grimaced. "All right, Cassie, I understand. I suppose you know more about human nature than most of us. But let Sheba know I was here, that I'm thinking of her, and I'd like to see her when she's got a little time."

"I'll tell her," the woman promised with a thankful smile.

Apollo left life center, deeply lost in thought. Sheba was still bound so closely to her father. Were her emotional ties to him as deep? He hadn't counted on having to share his wife's love and life this way with anyone else – but then, no one else had such a claim to her as Cain did. He had no fears of the commander finding him unacceptable as a husband for his daughter, but he was beginning to wonder if perhaps Sheba would make comparisons of some kind, and he would be found lacking in some way.

Sheba had always been very much her father's daughter. Would he now lose her to her father?

Or, if Cain had been there all along, would she ever have been his?

Capt. Bojay and Lt. Boomer were two of the pilots from Blue Squadron on loan to the Pegasus for the transition period. Bojay had spent several yahrens aboard that battlestar before the battle over Gamoray; he knew the layout, and still had plenty of friends aboard. Boomer felt less at home, but discovered it didn't really take long for a group of warriors to feel at ease together.

Even the Delphians, they found, weren't as aloof as they feared, but merely wary of the newcomers from the fleet. The Imperial warriors were quick to accept and appreciate the abilities of the male pilots – although the woman, it seemed, had a little more to prove, as had continued to be the case with them. But they, too, soon were at home with the Colonial squadrons on the Pegasus.

Whatever hard feelings might have remained from the near-mutiny of their previous encounter – Boomer and Bojay had been at opposite ends of each other's lasers – either had been forgotten with the passage of time between the meetings, or were submerged in fear for Cain's condition and the knowledge that they were still under Adama's command. All were concerned with the good of the fleet and the survival of humanity.

That concern was evident in the discussions the two Galactica pilots overheard after the briefing on the strange ships they might encounter on patrols. Speculation as to whether the strangers might be Cylon or some other foe had also occurred on the Galactica when the craft/lights were first detected; that was to be expected.

What came as a surprise, especially to Boomer, was the calm consideration of engaging the unknowns in battle – and the hope that Cain would be fully recovered in time for that battle. Even the Delphians seemed prepared for combat, so long as Cain was guiding them.

"Doesn't the Pegasus ever consider any other way of dealing with a situation than fighting?" Boomer asked Bojay in disbelief as they headed back to their ready room. "Everybody's comparing strategy and predicting what Cain will do – and he's still in suspension, and we don't even know if we can take these guys on!"

"Hey," Bojay replied, "I was part of this crew for two yahrens – and serving under Cain, you learn pretty fast that you will be answering just about every challenge with a fight! I guess I'd just forgotten how much we took it for granted, both the fights and the leadership..."

"Cain never had the fleet to consider in his plans," Boomer reminded him strongly.

"I'm not making comparisons, Boomer," the other man replied with a gesture. "Lords know how much the Old Man's got on his shoulders, and he's a damned good commander, too! It's just... Well, like I said, you get to taking things for granted."

The black man's grimace bore a strong resemblance to a frown.

"I think I've changed," his wingman commented after a moment's consideration. "I'm looking for other ways..."

"You know, Bojay, Commander Adama's right. We need to integrate our squadrons. Should've done more of it the first time we met, if there'd been time. We have to learn to appreciate the best both our commanders bring to the job."

"Yeah. The Colonel's good, too – both of 'em," he added quickly before Boomer could interrupt. "Hopefully these guys aren't our enemies, and we won't have to fight. But if it comes to it, we've got officers we can depend on."

"Just so they can depend on us to do what we have to do. We don't know what we might be up against."

"We can do it. We have to, remember? But we've got a patrol in a few centars. Want some shut-eye, or should we look for a little entertainment?"

Starbuck was bugged about something. Apollo could tell it from the quiet way his friend remained slouched over the bench after their work-out, waiting for everyone else to finish showering and leave the locker room. It hadn't been that strenuous a work-out, so the man couldn't be as exhausted as he was pretending to be – unless he belonged in life center.

"Hey, buddy, what's bothering you today?" he asked cheerfully, joining Starbuck in the corner. A little physical exertion had put him in a good mood, despite his earlier gloominess in life center.

The blond lieutenant looked a little startled, but shrugged off the question. "What makes you think anything's bothering me?" he asked as airily as possible. "Can't a guy want a little privacy in the shower without gettin' bugged?"

Apollo stared. "Hey, I'm your friend, remember? Every now and then we talk about things. It's what friends do!" he laughed.

The other man looked happier. "Yeah, I guess. So when something bothers me, I'll tell you about it."

"If you're trying to get me to worry about you, you'll probably succeed. But right about now, I don't need more to worry about, so I would really appreciate it if you'd tell me straight out what's wrong."

Starbuck's shrug was half-hearted as he grabbed a towel. "I guess I'm just ... missing people."

"Oh." The captain was enlightened. "With Boomer, Bojay, and others on the Pegasus – and the present regulations from the medical emergency – you're feeling lonely! That's not what I expected of you."

"Not lonely, just..." He shrugged again. "And with you working so much with Electra..."

"Planning the next rotation," Apollo supplied. "Care to spend some time on the Pegasus?"

Starbuck looked interested for a micron, then frowned.

Now, his superior caught the real reason for his friend's "loneliness." "I suppose, with Cassie so busy in life center, watching over Cain, that you see about as much of her as I do of Sheba," he teased rather wickedly. "We're both abandoned!"

"No! That's not it at all!" Starbuck protested too vigorously. "Hey, I barely noticed Cassie's been missing. She's just doing her job; that's why she's a med tech."

"Ah, of course. Good to know she's so devoted."

"She can do what she pleases. What's it to me, after all? We each have our own lives..." Starbuck's last words trailed away as he vanished into the shower cubicle, obviously uncomfortable with the conversation, and therefore taking the most direct way out of it.

Apollo swallowed his chuckle. It wasn't really fair to tease Starbuck like this, but he did understand the situation, and was suffering, too, from the absence of a woman he cared for. But the lieutenant still wouldn't admit it, even after as long as he'd been seeing Cassie – nor did Athena admit or accept it, even to herself, he suspected.

Or course, Cassie had run to Cain the first time they encountered the Pegasus. Now, she was watching over him personally. But if Starbuck wanted to keep her, pretending she didn't matter to him was the wrong tactic.

The captain was already dressed. A look at his wrist chronometer showed he'd be late for his next appointment with Maj. Electra if he didn't hurry. As he'd told Starbuck, they had the next flight rotation to arrange, and the current one to review, and a few other details as well.

A few centons later, Starbuck found himself sharing the dressing room with one of the pilots from the Pegasus.

"Where'd the captain hurry off to so quick?" the younger man asked him.

He recognized the chubby blond as Sgt. Ptah, although he knew nothing else about him, and shrugged his response. "Appointment with Major Electra."

Ptah's thin, fair eyebrows shot up. "I should be so lucky!" he exclaimed. "Didn't take him long to hook up with her!"

Starbuck was offended. "They're working together! They're our flight commanders!"

"Right. Great cover."

"Besides, Apollo's engaged!"

"Does the Major know that?" The young man's tone suggested it made no difference, that any sane man would choose Electra over any other woman, if she beckoned.

"He's marrying Cain's daughter!"

"Oh." That, at least, met with a little respect.

A nibble of concern tugged at the Galactica pilot's mind. Apollo loved Sheba, and she loved him. He didn't think Electra would interfere in a friend's life. But he suddenly wondered if Apollo ought so obviously to enjoy working with her...

"It's such a pleasure to work with a well-equipped lab and a completely stocked pharmacy again!" Helena sighed with satisfaction. "Rafael?"

The olive-skinned young medic nodded toward his fair-haired superior, and lifted the tray containing four vials of some clear liquid. The substance was a modified chemical/biological medication, whose effect would hopefully be the curing of the viral disease that infected four human beings.

Salik and Helena studied the tray as a med tech brought out four injectors.

"Well, Helena, they're your patients. Who's our experimental subject?" Salik asked gravely. He hid his optimism well. All experimental data, and the previous experience with the similar malady at Kobol, indicated the treatment should be the right one.

She paused momentarily. "Let's start with Captain Orestes. He's probably in the best physical condition, and he was the last to succumb. If, for some reason, this has no effect, we'll have time to examine him thoroughly and return him to the tube before losing the man. If its effects are bad, he has the best chance of surviving our mistreatment. If it works, observation of him will let us know where the risk factors still lie, so we can monitor closely as we bring the other patients out of it. We have the most leeway with the Captain."

Salik agreed with her logic.

Rafael silently fitted one of the vials into an injector.

Their patrol was uneventful, and therefore, the two pilots were silent for most of the long centars. Capt. Heimdal and Lt. Sif were both quiet people, somewhat aloof and restrained where any witnesses might be, and after their yahrens of marriage, they worked together on an almost intuitive level, needing little chatter to stay in formation and pass along reports. They saved meaningful conversation for private times.

Heimdal toyed momentarily with one of the deep red braids that dangled out from under his helmet – the stylized bird of the Galactica, not the winged steed of the Pegasus, he reminded himself. He wasn't disturbed about being temporarily reassigned. Sif was more miffed at the loss of his squadron – he was flight leader for Bronze Wing, but here, served under Red Squadron's group leader.

Blue eyes flicked quietly to his scanner, then thoughtfully back to the empty space around him, noting the location of his wife's ship before again gazing ahead of his own Viper.

No, his concern for the moment was the peculiar somethings that trailed the Galactica and her fleet. Several pilots had detected them as distant lights, the gleam of some possibly metallic objects, but that was all. An unidentifiable blip on a scanner for just a micron, or a teasingly brief spotting of something from the corner of one's eyes – that was all they had. While this frightened some of the warriors, raised tension levels in most others, and was still being kept from the general public, he found it more curious than anything else. Heimdal was intrigued by many things, and his agile brain found this an especially fascinating puzzle.

If the somethings were enemies, he reasoned, they would have attacked, would have taken some overtly hostile action or delivered some ultimatum or challenge. They were perhaps merely interested observers of these human strangers passing through space. Maybe they didn't even notice the Colonials, just happened to be passing by at the time. Or it could also be that the humans were traveling in or near what the unknown beings considered their home space, and they were keeping guard, or watching borders to determine the Colonials' intentions.

That possibility occupied his mind for a long time. A new people, new beings of interstellar capability and great power... If they could contact these beings somehow, they might find allies, or at least warn them of the Cylons behind them.

"Captain, I believe we're making contact," Sif interrupted in her delicate accent. She refused to drop the speech patterns of their Highland home, despite yahrens away from Sagittara and the near-extinction of their people

Heimdal stared at his scanner as if he could force an image to appear there. "Contact with whom?" he asked. "I can't see anything on the scanner, or out there. Computer's not reading anything."

"The observers," she replied calmly. "Quadrant Delta, left 53 degrees, up 16 degrees. Three targets, closing on us, it appears."

That was Sif, saving her anxiety for something vital, not a minor matter like a possible attack by three unknowns, he thought wryly. He had a good wife, he thought for probably the thousandth time; their fathers had arranged well.

"I've informed the Galactica. Any further orders?"

"Stand by for evasive maneuvers. Try to get close to them without getting into their firing sights, if that's possible," he replied briskly.

Their ships flipped into a series of computer-assisted moves.

A moment later, Sif reported again. "Pegasus patrol in our quadrant, Captain, closing on us. They suggest we hang in there until they arrive."

Their maneuvers were no help. They were unable to close on the unknowns, who seemed to have reached their chosen distance, and were now simply matching the Colonial pilots' actions. After several centons of futile flying, Heimdal elected to try a new strategy.

"Sif, stand by. I'm going to try and contact the unknowns. Keep your scanners on full and your computers working overtime. We may get something from them."

Heimdal hoped he was opening a channel to the three strangers. "Attention, unknowns. This is Captain Heimdal of the battlestars Pegasus and Galactica, requesting identification. Repeat, this is a request for identification and communication. Please open a channel to us..."

Bojay and Boomer were on patrol when word came that Heimdal and Sif were encountering the mysterious aliens that had been following the fleet. They were instantly dispatched to assist. Sif acknowledged Bojay's call, so they knew the other pilots were aware of their imminent arrival.

"Why aren't we picking up anything?" Boomer muttered to himself several centons later as their Vipers, flying through starry night, encountered neither aliens nor the other pilots.

"They knew we were coming," Bojay called to him. "But there's nothing out here. Where could they have gone? We'd've detected turbo thrust if they tried to go anywhere..."

Unless they couldn't.

But there still should be something out there, preferably two Colonial Vipers, and maybe three other ships. At the very least, traces of debris, pieces of metal if the ships had been attacked and destroyed.

They flew for a long time, nearly a centar. Both the Pegasus and the Galactica sent other patrols to assist in the widening search.

There was nothing there. Heimdal and Sif had vanished.

Chapter IV

The patient had been brought partially out of suspension, and the injection had been made. Now, Captain Orestes was sequestered away from both the other pilots and the rest of life center. Dr. Helena and one of her finest med techs directly monitored the man; their self-imposed quarantine would end with his recovery – or they would make a trip through decontamination if he had to return to cryogenic suspension.

In the meantime, several concerned people kept vigil in the corridors surrounding the medical station. In life center itself, only a handful of family and close friends were allowed.

Several anxious centars passed without disturbance.

A shuttle arrived in the Galactica's Alpha landing bay – a Delphian shuttle. From the shuttle emerged a very young, very petite woman dressed in such an elaborate gown and costly gems that several pilots and techs in the bay stopped to gape at the exquisite dark-haired apparition. Her delicate golden skin and dark, slanted eyes were not unknown racial traits in the Colonies, but the way she carried herself, and the obvious alienness of her costuming, proclaimed distant royalty, a marvelous and fascinating strangeness that would have drawn eyes in even the wealthiest parts of the finest Colonial cities.

Accompanying the regal visitor were more Delphians – several men of military bearing in knee-length, slit-sided red tunics with black trousers and boots. All were highly decorated with what appeared to be military honors and medals. Besides the usual laser side-arms, each also carried two long, curved blades of some kind, worn in solid sheaths tucked neatly away on their back and at their belt.

Seeing the weaponry, one tech whispered to a slack-jawed friend, "I think we're being invaded!"

His friend had no response.

Two women followed behind the Empress – both civilian, both elderly, both practically unnoticed in their simple clothing and deferential postures.

The young woman's gaze swept almost contemptuously over most of the personnel in the bay, ignoring the technicians entirely, studying the pilots briefly, and finally selecting one she could identify as sufficiently high-ranking for her need. She addressed herself to this man, moving to face him with small, evenly-paced steps.

The tall, brown-haired, comparatively pale-skinned flight officer in what seemed a very plain and functional blue uniform, stared down at her.

"We are Sumiko, Empress of the Delphian Empire, Daughter of the Royal Kindred of the Rising Sun, and more titles than we choose to relate here. We are on Imperial business, a mission of mercy and kindness," she announced to Omega. "You will now guide us to your life center."

Eyes popping, he glanced at her entourage. They looked serious. This was no joke.

"Of course ... um, your Majesty, I think..."

"It will suffice, considering your people's ignorance of us. Now, proceed to lead us to your medical station.

He obeyed.

There was a commotion outside life center. Electra and Sheba, the armed warriors present, drew their weapons at once and ordered everyone else to get out of sight of the door, and to stay out of the possible line of fire. People dodged behind cover.

Salik immediately intervened. "No! There will be no shooting in this medical facility. Too many people outside and in here–"

His voice died away, his eyes popping, as a Delphian warrior in the full formal regalia of the Imperial Honor Guard stepped into the chamber, boldly casting his eyes around the room and studying each person present, one hand resting on the hilt of the blade at his belt, the other lying easily on his laser butt. Determining to his satisfaction that the place was safe for his Empress, he strode back to the door and gestured through it.

The procession which had so bemused Alpha bay now invaded life center.

"What in blazes..." the doctor breathed.

The Pegasus crewmen present were more familiar with the somewhat barbaric-appearing display, and relaxed. Dr. Rafael and a pair of med techs even chuckled. Electra's concern turned from the newcomers back to the medic treating her brother.

A small, slender child in brilliant clothing, with her black hair twisted and braided into a high tiara, stepped boldly up to Salik. "You are the chief physician here?" she demanded.

"Yes. What do you think...?"

"We are Sumiko of the Delphian Empire. We have come to inquire as to the progress of your treatment of Commander Cain, and to express our concern for his recovery."

The elder man was taken aback. "We're testing medication right now..."

"Excellent. We shall observe." The girl's gaze traveled quickly to the double-sealed doors of the quarantine ward. She gestured regally at one of her guards, and, lifting the hem of her gown slightly, made for that door.

"Hold it!" Salik bellowed, catching her arm.

The tension level in the room jumped by a factor of ten as she turned a cold stare on him, and several of her honor guard half-drew weapons of antique and modern technology.

"Oh-oh," Rafael muttered.

Sheba and Electra would have drawn their weapons again, but found themselves already under the lasers of alert guardsmen.

One of the Galactica officers present, a lieutenant colonel, looked ready to speak, but thought better of it.

Flight officer Omega, who'd led the entourage, turned an odd shade of green, and looked like he wanted to disappear.

Rafael intervened before any more trouble or further misunderstanding led to anything bloody. He handed the comp-sheets he'd been studying to one of the med techs and swiftly started forward.

"There is no offense intended here!" he called to the silent, too-tense room. "Majesty, if I may explain?"

"We will hear you," Sumiko replied icily, pulling free of Salik's grasp and waving sharply at her guards. Suspiciously, they began to replace their weapons.

"Your Majesty cannot enter the ward," he began. "The man on whom we are testing the medication is still under quarantine, as are the other patients, until we have definite results. Until then, surely your Majesty and your people will understand that you, as the last daughter of the Royal Kindred and ruler of the Empire, cannot risk your life with an unknown disease we don't yet know if we can cure." He directed the last remark more at the guards and elderly chaperones. While the Empress was only sixteen and might perhaps ignore medical orders out of a sense of youthful invulnerability, they wouldn't let her risk herself in such a situation.

He was right. The most senior of the guardsmen stepped forward to touch the young ruler slightly, a frown on his face. The girl glanced at him, then at one of the old women, before turning a more controlled, level gaze on Salik.

"We understand your actions and your ignorance of our ways, Doctor, and we will forgive your enthusiasm to protect both your patients and ourselves, on this occasion. However, in future, be less free with your assaults. We will return to the Soul. Please relay all medical reports at once."

Chin held defiantly high, she turned back to the door and led her people from the medical chamber without another word or glance for anyone.

"Do you think they need a guide back to the bay?" Omega ventured with unusual trepidation.

"I doubt it." Electra stepped forward, free to act again now that she didn't have a laser pointed at her. "The Empress has been aboard the Pegasus enough that she knows her way around. I think she just wanted to get attention by having an officer leading her party. This must have been quite a sight for the crew here! We're used to it by now, but your people..." She shook her head. "I can't believe she did it!"

"Asking for Cain," Rafael mused. He couldn't help the smile. Her believed infatuation for their commander was a secret rumor they'd all heard.

"Well, if he doesn't recover, the Delphians will probably leave the fleet," she reminded them all. "And, Dr. Salik? They take their Empress very seriously. We learned that early."

Salik sputtered his indignation. "You let that child and her people wander around armed like that, threatening people?" he demanded. "How in Sagan's name–"

"She doesn't do it often," Rafael interjected firmly, pushing curly dark hair out of his eyes. He discovered he was sweating. "They have a different culture..."

"And they want to join us?" the lieutenant colonel asked contemptuously.

"Not at all, sir," Electra replied smoothly. "It took a lot of convincing to get them to come with us at all. They're ... very independent."

The Pegasus crewmen laughed at that, as the last of the shaky Galactica personnel came out from hiding.

Good spirits gradually returning, and attention once again on Helena's frequent reports from the ward, the incident became something everyone would share with friends and family when their shifts were over – although any time spent under a desk or behind a life pod would be glossed over quickly, if mentioned at all.

"Uh, Omega, is it? If you've got a centon..."

The flight officer found Maj. Electra's slim hand resting on his arm as she spoke. He stared into violet eyes, and fell in love. "Any time, Major. What can I do for you?"

"First, you can call me Electra." She smiled, and he was in heaven. "I'd like to know where the Empress went, who she encountered, if you can remember. If there are any other misunderstandings or difficulties to be dealt with, I'd like to hear about them now, before our Colonel gets deluged with complaints from this ship."

"I just got off shift. I've got plenty of time."

"Good. Let's go over the–"

Voices were raised in the corridor outside, and several husky men in black uniforms ran into the room, lasers ready.

"Somebody here call for security?" one of them demanded pompously.

They all looked injured and uncomprehending when some people laughed at them, a few looked pained, and others simply scowled in response.

Kleopatra couldn't bear the dejected stares of her bridge crew as returning warriors reported no success in their search. The Galactica, too, was sending negative results, and the search patrols were being called back; no more time or fuel could be wasted in the fruitless search. Capt. Heimdal and Lt. Sif would be listed as "missing" and the search abandoned.

She turned from those sorrowful gazes to study the command screen before her.

After a moment, she spoke. "Tolan, as of this moment," she ordered softly, "this warship is on constant alert status. Inform the Delphians. I understand a shuttle from the Soul landed aboard the Galactica some time ago. Suggest to Commander Pa that if the Empress was aboard, they should send an appropriate escort of Sunriders to ensure her safe return to her ship."

"Right away, Colonel."

"I expect to be hearing from Commander Adama soon. Please have all pertinent data available for him. You know what's necessary."

"Yes, Ma'am."

She endured the silent bewilderment radiating from her people. She couldn't sink into personal gloom and confusion. If she ever encountered the aliens, she might ask them why they attacked complete strangers without warning or cause. Until such a time, she had to act to safeguard the people of the fleet, and her crew.

Kleopatra crossed her arms and prepared to wait.

Apollo didn't realize he'd forgotten to return his helmet until he was almost to life center. He shrugged. No matter. He wondered if he looked as haggard and bewildered as he felt.

His eyes flicked quickly over the scattered personnel in the corridor. The small, ever-changing group of people paid him little attention, caught up in their own conversations and private worries, concerned with their own responsibilities or ill companions.

Major Electra wasn't one of them. He moved on.

In the life station proper, things were more animated. He was surprised to find security personnel there, but not sufficiently concerned to ask what occasioned their presence. There was still no word on how the treatment was working, but something had obviously caught their attention.

Cassiopeia and Sheba were talking together; both waved at him. He nodded distractedly and continued searching for Electra. The surprised shock on his fiancé's face as he passed her by went completely unnoticed.

He exchanged greetings with other friends, but stopped to talk to none of them, until he saw the woman he sought. There you are. And I have to be the bearer of bad news. But I owe you that; those people were here from your squadrons. They were your friends.

"Electra," he asked quietly, "do you have a centon?"

She excused herself from Omega and followed him. They found a quiet spot next to a table that held a small tray of sweet-smelling herbs. The scent permeated the quiet corner.

"What is it, Apollo?" she asked.

"Heimdal and Sif..."

She tensed. "Yes?"

He took a deep breath and plunged in. "I don't know if you knew. They were on patrol. They reported contact with three targets, the aliens who've been tagging us. After one acknowledgment of their position, we lost communications with them. By the time Bojay and Boomer reached their coordinates, there was nothing there. No ships of ours, and no unknowns. We combed the sector for over a centar, and found nothing.

"Commander Adama and Colonel Kleopatra already know. They're being listed as missing. I thought you'd want to know. I'm sorry, Electra. We tried to find them." The helmet was becoming increasingly heavy, dangling forlornly from his hand.

She had gone slightly pale, whether from anger or grief he couldn't tell. He could see one of her hands clench and unclench. The major glanced toward the ward door. "I should have been with the search team, handling my responsibilities, instead of hanging around here," she muttered. "The doctors'll take care of them, whether I'm here or not..."

"They simply weren't out there," Apollo stated more strongly. "It didn't make a difference that I was there, and it wouldn't have mattered if you were there, either. There was nothing to find."

She took a deep breath and finally nodded, crossing her arms and letting her head drop. "I need to take a walk..."

"I'll walk with you," he volunteered.

She didn't refuse, so he went with her.

"I didn't really know them. They were only with us for a few days. What were they like?" he asked after a few moments. Use the old Academy therapy for dealing with grief – it had never helped him much, but it might help her.

She grimaced in comprehension. "Psychology, Apollo? If you insist...

"They were quiet, never made much fuss about anything, but they were two of the finest warriors we have ... had. I think, as long as they were together, there wasn't anything they were afraid to deal with. And somehow, they always managed to look like warriors, you know, the kind we used to see on recruiting posters, the ones our old instructors wanted us to be like at surprise inspections..."

Apollo understood. During the Academy yahrens, a cadet learned to become properly presentable in about two microns, without warning. Most warriors got sloppy when they left the training inspections behind and received their first assignments. It just wasn't always practical or possible to be constantly neat and uncreased.

Thinking about it, he'd never seen either of the missing pilots with so much as a hair out of place, although, admittedly, he'd only known them a short while.

Electra moistened her lips with the tip of her tongue, considering.

"What else?" Apollo prompted, feeling both a guilty sense of obligation to know more about the absent warriors, and pleasure in listening to her voice.

"They were Sagittaran, belonged to an odd religious minority – that's all on file, in their records. Heimdal joined the Service because he was a younger son, couldn't inherit. Sif joined to follow him, and liked it. They both found a place they were happy with."

"I thought only the Gemonese had problems with their cults and unusual philosophies."

"I think every Colony had its share over the centuries. On Gemon, they had so many groups getting involved in so much of society, they wound up with a theocratic council that spent most of its time arguing dogma, doctrine, and discipline until the First Renaissance brought the Reunion of the Colonies. Then they learned some sense. That's when the Sagittarans stopped trying to outlaw the Raggane sect.

"Their members marry young – Heimdal and Sif were only teenagers – and their sealings are arranged by their parents, with approval of sect elders. They got lucky and liked each other. Sif had a child before she went to the Academy – a girl – but I believe both their families were wiped out in the Destruction, along with maybe the whole rest of the sect. Not that it mattered much. I don't think the clan was pleased when they accepted assignment to a battlestar instead of to the ground base in the Raggane Highlands, so they were alienated from most of their people anyway.

"And those are the fact, on and off file, about their background. I really don't feel like saying anything more personal just now, Apollo. They were good friends, dependable warriors. But ... thanks for listening.. I know what you mean by it, and I appreciate it." She fell silent, walking with bent head and weary posture.

Damn! I know how she feels. And now that the aliens have begun to strike, we may lose many more. I wish we knew more about them, but they seem more powerful and threatening all the time. Do they understand how they're affecting us emotionally? Is this part of the plan? We need a way to fight back...

And the first things they would need to defeat were the wretched feelings of uncertainty and helplessness.

Her teenage Imperial Majesty the Empress Sumiko took a roundabout path through the Galactica in her return to Alpha bay, causing a sensation everywhere she went with her retinue, and surprising most of the crew so much that no one thought to call Commander Adama or security; nor did they have presence of mind enough to consider ordering her out of their sections until long after she'd already looked things over and left.

But eventually, she did return to her shuttle.

"Wait! Wait! I'd like to talk to you!" she heard as she entered the royally-outfitted craft.

Sumiko ignored the voice completely, trusting that Col. Sheng and his guard would deal with whoever was trying to detain her. She was correct; the newswoman and her video crew trying so desperately to reach her for an interview or just a few questions got not a word from the stoic, dangerous-looking group of warriors. One of the cameramen attempted to set up his machine to record their boarding and take-off; his equipment was confiscated, over protests which quickly ended when half a dozen well-armed men stared threateningly and let their hands rest meaningfully on weapon hilts and butts.

No interview. No footage for IFB.

The young Empress quenched her thirst after the walk with a light non-alcoholic beverage suitable for a girl of her age and exalted position, waiting pensively until her honor guard had taken their seats and she and her chaperones were closed off from them in her own traveling compartment.

"The Galactica is very like the Pegasus after all," she commented to one of the old women. "But I think I find Dr. Helena much preferable to this Dr. Salik."

Yakami nodded agreement. She was still outraged that the strange man had dared to thrust his arm in her royal grand-niece's path and prevent her passage, even if it was for her own good.

"And I do not think there is much courage in that medical staff. Most of them were trying to hide," she continued.

"We must hope they are at least competent in their medical duty," the old woman agreed solemnly.

"If Cain does not recover, we will not stay long," the girl announced firmly after a moment's meditation. "Unless we find another suitable to be our Prince Consort, which I think to be a matter of doubt."

The dowagers both nodded heartfelt agreement.

Helena watched her patient's vital signs closely. It had been several centars since the injection, and the medication should show some effect on the infection, if it was going to work at all. Orestes was almost completely out of suspension, and she needed some indication soon if she'd done it right. After days of fighting the illness, and the long time in the tube, his body's own immunity system couldn't hold up long against a fresh onslaught.

Brain wave patterns – returning to normal plateaus. Heartbeat and pulse – becoming more regular. Blood pressure – approaching normal rate for an unconscious male of his weight, height, and build. Endocrine and lymphatic systems...

The figure in the tube before her suddenly seemed to struggle against his confinement, gasping a deep breath of air.

After that gulp of life-sustaining gases, the man went limp again, resting quietly. Helena could detect the slight rise and fall of his chest that said he was now breathing normally, if shallowly – they could remove some of the tubing and needles.

"Galswintha?" she demanded in anticipation.

"Responses all appear to be positive, Doctor. I think we have a successful cure," the delighted med tech replied. "Wait! Slight flutter... No, it appears to be a natural disorientation, easing now. Patient is in a condition close to heavy sleep, perhaps complete with dreaming."

For once, Helena's reserve cracked, and she shared her nurse's joy with a wide smile. The unusual expression was quickly brought back under control.

"We'll continue to observe the patient for a while longer, to be sure, before we announce a recovery to the others. But I believed you're correct, Galswintha. A few more days, and they should all be well again..."

"Here's the information Colonel Kleopatra requested, along with the signed requisition forms. You can deliver them," Tigh ordered his aide.

"I'm surprised you're not delivering them personally," Athena suggested playfully. Unlike most others, she knew, from a close working relationship with the colonel and the man's friendship with her family, of his previous ties with the temporary commander of the Pegasus. Also unlike many others, she was not above a gentle baiting of her superior when they were technically off-duty and in a less public area than the bridge. She had a good idea when Tigh could be teased – and she remembered and liked Kleopatra.

"Just deliver them!" he snapped. He was on a short fuse.

She glanced at the requisition list. "Mostly medical, I see," she commented more seriously. "After this long, I should think other departments would also be facing shortages."

"Apparently, along with using Delphian equipment, Commander Cain has not been above a little ... petty larceny from the Cylons. I doubt anyone would take him to task for it."

Tigh forced his attention back to the work on his desk, keeping his self-control to restrain himself from saying too much in the presence of this bright-eyed, sharp-witted young woman. At times, she was too observant, too quick to offer a comment or suggestion. If she could curb that tendency just a bit, learn a little more tact and control of her quick temper and emotions, she would make an excellent commanding officer some day.

But wasn't that what he'd always expected from Adama's second child? Wasn't that the reason he'd assigned her as his aide in the first place? He'd always liked and appreciated Apollo and his abilities; and Zac, too, had been a promising warrior. But of them all, Tigh expected the most from Athena.

"So the medical department has the greatest need. Natural, I guess, when you think about it," she continued thoughtfully. "Cylons materials can answer most equipment needs, and fuel and ammunition as well, but they just don't have the sort of stock we can modify for human medications. And since so much Pegasus equipment and personnel transferred here before Gamoray, they must really be short-stocked." She grinned. "All we have to do is give them back what they loaned us!"

"That's about the size of it. And now, Ensign, I must remind you that according to our limited shuttle service to the Pegasus, you can catch a ride in twenty-five centons, or you can commandeer a Viper, or you'll have to wait until tomorrow. I'm sure the Colonel would like to see those today, so we can begin resupplying in the morning. So, will it be the shuttle, or will you waste fuel by using a Viper for a messenger run?"

That was sufficient. Athena nodded, and scurried out of the colonel's quarters.

Tigh rubbed his eyes wearily. The last few days had been tense, wearing on him. And he hadn't had many opportunities to talk to Maruwa, or spend much time with her.

A relaxing evening might be just what I need...

The man seemed a little lost. Athena watched his back and red head as he hesitated in the corridor, arms akimbo, apparently trying to decide whether to go right or left. He wore a pilot's uniform – maybe he was one of the new cadets?

"Can I help you with something?" she called to him.

As he started in surprise and turned to face her, she saw the Pegasus insignia on his arm and at his throat. He was a full warrior, no cadet. She also noticed the two bright red braids that dangled from the side of his face to his chest. A Raggane, from the Pegasus!

"Umm..."

She smiled graciously. "You must be one of those we rotated over. Don't feel bad about being a little disoriented – every battlestar has its interior quirks, and the Galactica is next generation from the Pegasus. There were a few design changes, and they aren't all apparent enough, when you think you know your way around. I'm Ensign Athena." The man was handsome. She was impressed, and wondered if he'd be staying aboard long. How could she ask him without being misinterpreted?

"I'm Captain Thjis," he finally replied.

Maybe she was being too forward, considering what she'd learned of his sect?

"Can I help you find something?" she asked again. "I have to catch a shuttle in a few centons, but I can certainly direct you..."

"Not necessary. Just a momentary lapse of attention."

He was studying her keenly, and she suddenly felt uncomfortable. There was something analytical in his gaze, more as if she were a specimen than a woman. Was that the way a Raggane looked at outside women, or had she offended him?

He abruptly flashed her a brief smile. "I'm sorry, I don't mean to seem brusque or offensive, Ensign. I know where I'm going; perhaps I simply feel humiliated at being caught in my lapse of awareness. Please carry on with your duties, and I will go to mine."

"Yes, sir."

The smile was genuine, and she sensed no annoyance behind it, but there was something ... strange about the man. Was it his different background? As she walked away, she knew he was watching her, studying her moves, and she flushed, hurrying her pace to get out of his sight. There was nothing lewd or overtly offensive about it, but she felt disturbed, nonetheless.

"Perhaps I shall see you around the ship ... later?" he suddenly called out after her.

"Perhaps," she answered stiffly. But she wouldn't go out of her way to look for him.

Capt. Orestes had been transferred from the cryo-tube to an ordinary life pod. Helena was in closed conference with Salik, Paye, and Rafael, who'd done the most toward finding the cure, but Galswintha still directly monitored the patient, and Cassiopeia hovered nearby. She could assist if a problem should arise, or alert the physicians, but her main duty was to observe the stages of patient recovery so she could aid in resuscitating the other three warriors.

Experiments had definitely shown that the disease was non-transmissible by simple contact between humans, but was carried in the spores of an unusual fern that grew only in swamps or similar hot, wet environments. It incubated in human lungs, spreading through other physical systems, but could not advance to its next stage of development, or spread, away from its native environment and the specific trace elements therein.

There was therefore no chance of contaminating visitors. To be on the safe side, the temperature in the quarantine ward was lowered by several degrees, and personnel still took the precaution of using a decontamination chamber when entering and leaving, but Orestes was now allowed visitors. Cain, Falstaff, and Astarte were still in suspension until all tests and data could be verified. Then they, too, would be revived for treatment.

Electra kept vigil next to her brother's bed.

She'd left for the centars it took to complete her assigned duties, and to finish the paperwork on Capt. Heimdal and Lt. Sif – which Apollo had been gracious enough to assist with. She expected to be able to return the favor sometime soon. Working with the man was no problem.

Then she'd returned to Orestes's side, where she fully intended to wait until he was conscious again. Helena had assured her he was showing every sign of complete recovery, and from the med techs' relaxed behavior, she believed it.

She was tired. The place was so very quiet, the ward almost empty except for Orestes and the three cryogenic tubes, and the two nurses; she'd put in a long day. She felt herself nodding off...

"Chameleon!"

She started awake at the sound of voices, and a new arrival in the chamber. Blinking, she glanced over to see her father standing awkwardly at the entrance to the decontamination chamber. Galswintha merely studied the old man briefly before returning her attention to her monitors, but Cassiopeia was on her way over to talk to him.

Electra rose to join them.

"But what are you doing here?" Cassiopeia asked. She was obviously delighted at his presence, but confused as to why he should be there at all. Electra remembered that the last time she had tried to convince Chameleon to visit his son, the old man had refused, pleading that it was in their best interests if he did not. He'd clearly changed his mind.

The civilian waved a hand generally in the direction of the life pod. "I wanted to see how the Captain was doing," he replied in what seemed a confused manner.

Cassiopeia was firm. "Don't pull that on me, Chameleon. I know you too well. You've got a reason for being here. I don't know how Siress Blassie puts up with you!" The last was delivered teasingly. He had the well-do-do siress wrapped around his finger. "But I think you know we're still allowing only a limited number of visitors – mainly family, by doctor's orders."

He looked unhappy, and ready to leave, Electra could see. The almost accusing, I-told-you-so glance he sent her said plainly that he'd known this woman would be an obstacle.

"Wait!" she called on impulse. "Cassie, what's the problem here?"

"Umm, we have an unauthorized visitor – an old friend. He'll be no trouble, I'm sure."

"But he's allowed." She kept her gaze on her father.

His eyes were suddenly wide and panic-stricken; he shook his head minutely in silent plea. Don't tell her!

Cassiopeia glanced from one to the other. "How? He's not a relative, and I don't see how he could know you..."

"But he does, Cassie." She dropped her voice so it wouldn't carry to the dark-haired woman intent on her life-sign indicators, although she had no qualms about that woman's discretion. "Chameleon tells me he trusts you. That you keep one secret for him. Can you keep another?"

"Electra, no..."

"What do you mean?" Her voice was puzzled.

The major took a breath, and held Chameleon's arm. "Chameleon is our father. If he's not allowed here, no one is."

The old man held his breath, his eyes entreatingly fixed on the suddenly pale med tech.

Cassiopeia looked shocked. "But Starbuck..." She stared from one to the other. "If you're ... but then, that makes you..." Her smile became delighted. "Why, that means..." Puzzlement set in again. "But why haven't you told...?"

"Cassie..." The elderly man's voice was agonized.

Electra continued to explain, her own voice firm to cover some fear for her father. "The last time we were here, no one knew about Starbuck. Then, you must have thought we were lost. Why tell a man about dead family after the fact, when he can't do anything but feel the loss and grieve?"

"But why not now, since you're back?" Cassie demanded. "He'll be delighted, I know it!"

"When the time is right, we'll tell him. But for now, it's better this way."

"How? Oh, the illness and all. But doesn't he have a right to know? I don't understand!"

"Cassie," Chameleon interjected heavily. "Starbuck is my son. Orestes and Electra are also my children. But there is something that will be more difficult to explain to him. They do not have the same mother."

She was taken aback. "I ... see," she replied slowly.

"I will tell him, Cassie, when I find the way, the words to explain. You know what kind of man I've been; so does he; this is only more proof. But it is still not easy. Give me time to do this right. Give him time. You say he will be delighted. He may also be shocked and angry. I don't want him to hate me – or you, for knowing and not telling him. Give us all time."

Cassiopeia thought for a moment, staring at the floor. Finally she looked up again. "I hope you're right, Chameleon. And I hope the time is soon. Starbuck won't hate you. How could he?"

The old man squeezed her hand, and looked thankful.

Electra felt less sure. That, Cassie, depends very much on how he is told, and how much. She sighed. Their mother's secret weighed on her very much just then, seeing the expressions of the other two people, both of whom loved Starbuck, and who both might hate her if they knew the whole truth.

"Major!"

"Yes!" She whirled at the call from Galswintha. The Scorpian woman's accent was more pronounced, something was happening.

"I believe Captain Orestes is waking!"

He was disoriented, weak and cold. He thought he might be floating, he felt so disembodied. It was cool; the heat that had tormented him for so long was gone. He wanted another blanket. He was shivering, and his teeth chattered. It wasn't dark, either. He could sense light from under his eyelids, but wasn't sure he wanted to look out at the world.

There were voices. He'd heard voices before, strange meaningless syllables and strings of sounds – but these were beginning to make sense. And he recognized some of them.

What had happened? He remembered the sweat, the heat, the filthy creature-infested mud and rank, stinking water – but there had been no Cylons left at that outpost, only rusty, silent hulks... Then the heat got worse, and the world stopped making sense, and he hadn't been sure where he was. He had only wanted it all to go away...

And it finally had. But that had been worse... A tomb? The chill and darkness of the grave? He shivered worse, quaking with fear as well as cold.

That voice! And a light touch, a warm touch, on his brow. He had to see, to know... Orestes opened his eyes, tried to focus. He was sluggish; his body wouldn't react as he wanted it to.

"Hi, there, brother," said that gentle, worried voice.

He saw a pale face surrounded by a golden halo, peering at him. The female – he was sure it was – had violet eyes, lined with weariness. He surprised himself with his own observations. He could see those things, figure them out! He was pleased.

She was waiting for something.

Who is she? His mind was beginning to function again. My sister! Her name is...

"Hi, Electra..." Was that thin sound his own voice? It sounded as far away as he felt.

"Is he all right?" someone else asked anxiously.

"He'll be fine," that stranger was assured. "Final symptoms, a little disorientation and lingering weakness. He'll recover."

The closed-in feeling... He was locked in something. The others were staring down at him, but he could barely move. He felt so exhausted. Help me get out of here. Make the feeling go away. I can't stay in this tomb...

"Maybe we'd better let him rest..."

"Sleep now, Orestes. I'll be here, and Father too."

Father... Sister... "Hey," he called as loudly as he could. They were drifting away from him, and he wanted to make sure they heard him. "Don't leave me... Get me outta this thing..."

"First, sleep. Then, when you're better..."

Whatever it took.. "Get me out..."

Things faded, becoming more peaceful again.

The mood in the officers' club was glum. Several of the pilots had been involved in the fruitless search for the missing warriors, and their spirits were low, their attitudes perplexed.

The man who'd identified himself to Athena as Captain Thjis studied the scene thoughtfully. He tentatively stroked one of the red braids he wore. Most of these people wore standard military haircuts. He was out of place, and knew it.

"People don' jus' dishappear in shpace!" somebody bellowed. "There'sh gotta be a reeshun f'r it! A loj ... cal excuse!" The man was yelling at a companion, and swayed drunkenly as he rose to make his point.

His friends pulled him back to his seat. They seemed as drunk as he, but more inclined to grief and despondency than to futile rage. They'd been overworked and emotionally drained.

Then Thjis noticed something else. Two of the warriors at that table were from the Pegasus. They hadn't noticed him, and were in fact paying little attention to anything beyond their mugs and their angry friend.

He turned quietly and left, without speaking to anyone.

Chapter V

The bridge personnel were tense, quiet, performing their duties in an undertone that carried to the watching commander only as a whisper. The sound echoed in the vast control center, distorting the hushed voices even more.

The muddle of speech at flight core command was more discernible. The Galactica was now in constant communications with the Pegasus, both ships more closely monitored their patrols, recording all chatter, and feeding all computer and scanner reports directly into one data bank. If further contact with now presumably adversarial aliens was made, the battlestars would know at once, and with one coordinating computer, perhaps something could be learned from whatever bits of information the pilots picked up.

The patrols had also been pulled in closer, confining most of their sweeps to the direct region of the fleet. The Pegasus had taken up a position flanking the scattered ships, guarding one side and maintaining direct scans of their rear.

The Delphian ships had even been convinced to pull in closer to the Colonial vessels. As most of their surviving craft were warships of one kind or another, they formed a small web of protection opposite the battlestars. The Imperial Soul, ship of the Empress, flew within the web. The Delphians still refused contact with the civilian ships of the fleet, other than required position checks.

Adama watched his crew as they carried out their responsibilities, but his mind was racing elsewhere. The Council of Twelve, so belligerent and secure only a few days before, had abdicated their civil control with panic-stricken haste now that two pilots had disappeared. The commander sighed. It seemed their rule must be absolute – when they felt no threats to themselves. At the first sign of danger, however, they became incapable of any decision. So they hurriedly handed control to him, returning the fleet to the military command they claimed to detest, with pleas to protect them, as was his warrior's duty.

Adama knew his duty, and wearily accepted the Council's change of heart. He'd planned the military protection of the fleet. The Delphians had agreed to assist after Kleopatra intervened with the Empress. Whether they had the resources to deal with the threat was questionable, something they would not share with the Colonials, but their aid would be welcome.

Will it be enough? Or are the aliens out there even now, planning the all-out attack that might annihilate us completely? What should our next step be? He rubbed his chin slowly.

They could proceed at their current snail's pace, only as fast as their slowest ships, watching and hoping no attack materialized; and just perhaps, the missing pilots would return. Their crawling pace might leave them more vulnerable to the aliens, but it kept the fleet intact. Were their numbers sufficient to ensure safety?

If he ordered all ships to full speed, hoping to outrun whatever lingered in this part of space, they might become hopelessly lost, spread out across a quadrant. And there was no guarantee any of them would survive, anyway. No, they had to stay together.

Was a complete halt in order, to seriously try and contact the aliens, convince them of their peaceful intentions? Beg permission to travel safely through their space? Perhaps even bargain for the return of the missing warriors, if they were still alive?

But we've tried that with the Cylons. There are some peoples, some forces, who have no respect for treaties or truces, for whom peace means nothing but a cunning stratagem to prepare a new offensive. I can't subject our people to that again, not while we have no idea who or what we're trying to deal with.

Behind them, the Cylons. Ahead or around them, the strangers who destroyed or plucked warriors from space without a trace. Are we caught in an inescapable trap? Lords forbid, are the two forces already allies, preparing to crush us between them?

I will not give in to despair. We will think of something. We must.

Tight wasn't able to sleep well. He finally gave up on dozing, a centar or so before his usual rising time. Leaving Maruwa asleep in his bunk, he showered and began to dress.

Somewhere between the uniform trousers and tunic, Kleopatra's quietly accusing words of a few days before came back to disturb him. What had happened to him? Why had he reacted so bitterly to her presence? Was he convinced she had become another Cain over the past few yahrens?

As silently as possible, so as not to wake his companion, he searched through one of the cabinets for a small, locked box far in the back, behind everything else. Seating himself on the bare floor in front of his desk, he set the box before him. But once he'd unlocked it, he found no courage to open it.

He'd put these things away after word came back about Molecay, when he'd believed Kleopatra was gone with the rest of the Fifth Fleet – and Cain. Their sealing had ended painfully, in bitterness and hurt pride, but he'd somehow always convinced himself it might have been different if not for Cain.

Commander Cain of the Pegasus. When the post of commander opened on the battlestar Solaria, not long before the Destruction, Tigh had been the one most often mentioned for it. But then Cain recommended his own executive officer for the position. With that bit of pressure, and the dazzling success record of the Pegasus commander, Tigh had been passed over, with apologies and assurances that the next ship was his.

That rankled enough. Under the present circumstances, he had no desire for a command of his own – he was close enough to observe Adama's difficulties with the fleet, and certainly had no wish to replace him! But at the time...

And then, the "living legend" had needed a new exec of his own. He'd offered the post to Kleopatra, then second-in-command at a ground missile base. She'd jumped at the chance, and had gone away to Molecay.

Where he thought she'd died. In the emptiness afterward, he'd locked all this away, as he thought he'd buried all his feelings for his ex-wife and Commander Cain.

But Cain had come swaggering back to the fleet after the Destruction, staying just long enough to be acclaimed a hero again. Then he'd vanished once more, like a myth, a legend, almost a deity. Tigh realized he hadn't forgiven Cain anything, and he wasn't ready to deal with Kleopatra again either.

So now, the Pegasus was back yet again, perhaps to stay. It was time he learned to accept it. As Kleopatra said, his pettiness was unbecoming an officer.

So he would start here. He pulled down the desk lamp, shining its small, bright circle of light directly onto the lid of the box, so he would be able to see without disturbing Maruwa's sleep. As he did so, he glanced at his desk chronometer and realized he's spent half a centar staring at the container already, simply reliving what he thought he'd put behind him.

Maybe I'm still not ready...

The woman sleeping in his bed knew about his past. Didn't he owe it to her, at least, to finally purge that past from his present?

With determination, he reached for the box, lifted the cover, and plunged in his fist to grab whatever came to hand.

A holo-picture. Their sealing day. Two rising young officers, married in civilian clothing at the home of a friend – Adama, only a major then, with three growing, exuberant children under foot. They'd both laughed, and hoped their choice of ceremonies would be a good omen for their future together.

It hadn't been. The Military had separated them so frequently, and somehow, between career conflicts and promotions, there had never been time for children, or a home away from ground base or starship.

Another holo, from the day she was commissioned a colonel. Such a proud day, after so much effort. They must already have drifted far apart by then, although he hadn't really felt the distance until after. How well did we know each other by then? Surely, thinking about it in retrospect, their careers had come first, not each other...

An album of flat photographs. Many from their courtship, some from the early days of marriage, pictures of friends and relatives. These were precious memories of loving times. There was no hurt in them, nothing to relive with regrets, except maybe that they were past and gone. He scanned each briefly, his jaw set against emotions, then set the album aside.

A handful of brochures and programs from places they'd gone, things they'd done. They were tied together with a length of ribbon, braid laughingly stolen from an old uniform. Memories of times and places shifted by the micron as he studied them. They'd met by chance, fallen in love so quickly, sealed before time could cool the first blush, one of the few times in his life he'd acted on such rash impulse.

But he'd never regretted it. Not even when they realized it was over, and she left him for her post. He'd sat in shock for centars, then gone out and walked until dawn. Maybe what he had most trouble forgiving was that they'd planned to visit Adama and Ila that day, a casual outing for two officers on leave who were also close friends. He'd gone alone, trying to behave normally – but instead of an amusing afternoon, he'd spent the time alternately railing against Kleopatra, the military, and Cain, and crying for his broken life. Thank the Lords, Adama and Ila had understood and cared enough to listen.

But he didn't regret the yahrens spent with her...

Finally, the last thing in the box. Their sealing ribbon, and the certificate of union. He lingered over it, remembering, wincing as his thumb caressed the melted seal. The wax was heated and smudged at their dissolution, when the silvery ribbon was cut. A union for all the eternities, ended long before the first had gone. He rubbed his fingers slowly over the frayed end of the band.

He heard a muttering from the direction of the bed. Glancing that way, he saw another woman stirring, stretching long ebony arms as she woke.

He began to replace the items he'd replaced, his expression thoughtful. In spite of it all, I've never regretted Kleopatra...

Maruwa's face came into view over the edge of the bunk. "Tigh?"

"Good morning. I hope I didn't wake you."

"No..." Wrapped in a sheet, she padded lithely across the room on bare feet, to flick on some lighting. "Have you been up long?"

"A time. I didn't sleep well." He closed the lid.

"Oh." She stood behind him, flexing her nimble fingers on his tense bare shoulders. "You have the look and feel of a man who has just spent time in the past," she commented, beginning to knead the muscles of his neck.

"I did."

"Not a nice trip?"

"I'm not sure yet. Got time for breakfast before you have to return to the Tukulor?" Catching her hands, he rose to his feet and turned to face her.

"Certainly." She giggled slyly. "May I dress first? And I think you should put a shirt and some boots on, or we'll look a totally disreputable pair."

He had to laugh at the coy glance she shot him, and released her hands to reach for the tunic he'd dropped on the desk almost a centar before.

He enjoyed watching her dress. She had a marvelous figure, for a woman of any age, and nature had left her face as unwrinkled and her hair as dark and free of gray as a young girl's. If he didn't already know her age, he would have taken her to be young enough to be his daughter – if he'd ever had one.

"You know," she commented as she caught her tightly-curled hair into its gold clasp, "my brother thinks this relationship is worthless."

"What?" He stared, perplexed.

"He's a cameraman in Zara's crew. Apparently, she spent all yesterday afternoon ranting because she missed an interview opportunity with the Empress. They even lost some film, and felt humiliated because 'her royal Majesty' snubbed them. Or so his boss feels."

"What's that got to do with our relationship?"

"Dear brother proceeded to complain to me that, as I know you and have some access to this ship, I ought to have known and informed him about the lady's visit in advance, whereupon he could have scored points with the temperamental Zara. As I did not do so, you are obviously not trusting me enough to tell me things. Ergo, there is no substance to our relationship. Faultless logic – for a little brother."

Tigh snickered. Maruwa held her expression to a grin.

"And you told him?"

"I said I didn't have time to talk; we had plans. Which promptly lit his pointed little face with journalistic greed."

"What does he want you to find out?"

"Anything I can. Preferably, something about the Empress, so Zara will feel better and have her exclusive."

"Hmm." Tigh stared over her shoulder into the mirror as she applied a light coating of lip salve. "Good thing I can trust your discretion. And, believe me, we would have liked to have known about the Empress's visit in advance!"

Orestes woke to a headache and a cross feeling. He stared around at what was obviously life center – but was equally obviously not the Pegasus or her personnel. He was in a life pod, but he could deal with that. He tried to sit up, felt dizzy, but clenched his teeth and fists until the feeling was gone. This time he managed, supporting himself on his hands.

"Are you sure you should be up, Captain?" inquired a voice in his ear.

He moved too fast, but kept the faintness away. The disorientation was still there; he didn't recognize the woman.

"Who're you?" he demanded ungraciously, his voice unsteady.

"Hestia. I'm a med tech, and you're aboard the Galactica, to anticipate your next question." She had a nice smile.

"Oh. Why am I on the Galactica?"

"Colonel Kleopatra brought you here."

He felt like an idiot. The Colonel... Then the Commander's sick! And the others! It was no delusion of his own illness.

"How are they?" he demanded. "The Commander, the others, how are they?"

"They're undergoing treatment right now." She had an injector in her hand; he didn't trust it.

"Where's Electra?"

"She's on patrol." He was right! She gave him a shot. "Even she has to work sometimes, and catch a little sleep now and then."

"Is that what I'm going to do?" he asked plaintively, rubbing at the painful pinprick on his arm, although the motion nearly caused him to lose his balance and fall back into the pod.

The woman laughed. "Very likely. It's the best way to keep rude patients like you resting where they belong!"

It was too late to grumble. But there must've been something in the shot for pain, too, because the fuzzy ache began to fade as soon as his head hit the pillow. Now, if they'd just put me in a real bed...

"Again? You know, Jolly, I'm starting to worry about you!" Greenbean poked a finger at his wingman's chest. "It must be some kinda bug goin' around, this urge to tie oneself down to one woman..."

The sergeant looked aggrieved. "I see a girl more than one night..." he began to complain.

"Ah, but it's when those 'more-than-one-nights' start coming night after night, and we hear of nobody else, that we know there's something serious going on!" the blond warrior leered.

"Never fear, oh faithful companion. The Captain may have chosen to seal to his lady love, but I'm not ready for that fateful step!" Jolly declaimed, stroking his mustache.

Greenbean grimaced. "Right. I'll remember that two days from now, when you come floating in here again – just in time to shower and dress before being late for patrol."

"Who's late for patrol?" inquired a third voice.

The two warriors welcomed the new arrivals with waves. Jolly and Greenbean were checking out gear for their scheduled patrol; Apollo and Starbuck had just returned from one, and were dropping off their helmets in the ready room.

"No one's late, Starbuck," the hefty man insisted with a significant glance at the captain. "That's just the kid, getting dramatic again."

"Kid!"

"Shut up, Greenbean. Spot anything out there, Skipper?"

Apollo shook his head. "Not a thing, Jolly," he replied wearily. "If they're out there, we can't find them. And if they're gone, we've no idea where they went." He slapped the big man's shoulder as they walked by. "Be careful out there. Constant communications, you know that from the briefing. Don't take any chances."

He walked away without another word. Starbuck delivered a shrug and meaningfully forlorn look as he followed.

The two pilots exchanged glances

"As if we could forget that briefing?" Greenbean muttered. "But the Captain and the Major laying into us all like we were first-orbit cadets..."

"Can it, Greenbean. We got a patrol. Let's go."

Both men's expressions were grim as they grabbed their helmets and headed for their waiting Vipers. Somber technicians gave their ships one last pat for luck before they were given the okay for launch. Then they were away.

"Identify yourselves, please!" the major demanded tensely. One finger rested lightly on the firing control while her thumb hovered over turbo thrust. It was an awkward position for her hand, but she intended to keep every option open every micron. If the aliens came again, she wouldn't be caught unprepared.

"Patrol Six, Pegasus, Boomer and Bojay," came the response.

She breathed again. "Sorry, Bojay," she apologized. "We're a little tense out here. This is Patrol Two, Electra and Akimi."

"Understood, Major. Spot anything?" Bojay asked.

"Nothing," she sighed. "And I don't know if that's good or bad. But it's been some long centars, and I'm glad to be going in."

"We're heading out. Maintaining communications net as ordered, exchanging idents with everything we see, whether it's a ship or a star," he parroted.

She was able to laugh. "Was I really that bad at the briefing? I must've been a real martinet!"

"We got the point," he replied dryly.

Electra could hear Boomer and Akimi trying to hide their chuckles over the exchange – and was that Memnon as well, on the bridge, listening to their chatter? Well, the laughter would relieve a little of the pressure.

"Okay, Bojay, the stars are yours. We're going in."

"See you later, Major."

Or at least, they could hope so.

Athena scurried. She was already a few centons late for duty, and the way things were on the ship that morning, the commanding officer would have her hide for it, her father or not.

"Oops!" She rebounded off someone's chest, automatically putting up her arms to prevent a fall. "I'm sorry!" A glance upward, and her words died. "Captain Thjis, I didn't see you..."

"So it appears," he responded drily.

She was surprised. She hadn't really expected to see the peculiar red-haired officer again. But there he was, just when she had no time for him. And he'd cut his hair.

"But..." Her fingers automatically reached for where a braid should have been.

"Are you surprised? Displeased?" He seemed anxious.

"I... You cut your hair! I didn't think your people..."

"And how many of my people still exist in the fleet?" he inquired. "It seemed ... more appropriate this way."

"I see." The Raggane were almost completely wiped out in the Destruction. There aren't more than a handful, maybe a few dozen survivors. But that doesn't explain... "I thought it was a religious marking as well as ethnic, a ... a..."

His eyebrows lifted. "Are you babbling? I didn't expect such a simple thing to have such an effect upon a young woman."

I'm blushing like a little girl! Why? It's his own business!

"I had hoped I might see you again," he continued. "I am free of duty for a time. What is your schedule?"

"My... Oh, not now! I'm late for shift right now!" She was horrified, considering the centons lost, and how to leave Thjis quickly without appearing rude.

"I do not mean to detain you," he insisted swiftly. "Nor is my purpose to cause you distress. Please, attend your duties. I will look you up later, if that is more convenient." He took her arm, and began leading her in the direction of the bridge, gesturing her onward. Athena was surprised at the strength in that touch.

"Yes, later would be more convenient..." she told him breathlessly.

"Excellent," he replied complacently. "Until then." He released her arm and touched her hand, then nodded and walked leisurely away, leaving her gaping.

Who is this man? Should I see him again? He's handsome, but so ... different. I've never met anyone like him before, not among the military or the civilians. Not even in the motley groups of people anywhere in the fleet. And he cut his hair. He's good-looking – bears a bit of a resemblance to that missing captain from the Pegasus, actually – with their genetic pool, a lot of them probably looked like that! And without the odd braids, he looks so ... normal...

She had a guilty start as she realized she was comparing the man to another warrior – Starbuck, who might or might not claim her attention, depending on his mood at any given centon. A charming warrior who couldn't be pinned down, her brother's friend, who had swept her off her feet, but seemed disinclined to do more than hold her while his eyes wandered over the competition. He'd been her standard of comparison for nearly two yahrens now. But...

What kind of man was this Captain Thjis – and did she have any right to want to know?

Her scurry turned into a dash as she ran for the bridge, hoping to leave her thoughts behind.

Sheba was willing to wait until Judgment Day, once she knew that a cure had been found. Whatever it took, she would not leave him. Her face would be the first her father saw as he roused from his sleep.

The doctors had brought their three remaining patients out of cyrogenic suspension that morning, giving each the hopefully proper dosage of the discovered medication, using drip tubes instead of a one-time injection, to lessen the stress they'd observed as Orestes came out of it.

Since then, with Salik's permission, she had stood watch over Cain, holding his cold hand, longingly watching for any movements or twitches that might betray returning sensation. The monitors continued their silent reports to the med techs on duty, but she waited for a more important indicator – open eyes, and the recognition of a father for his daughter. She would be there.

The centars are so long. Why isn't Father waking up? Cassie's watching his life signs. She's a good friend; maybe she can tell me if something's wrong... Sheba left Cain's life pod to speak to Cassiopeia.

"Isn't it taking an awfully long time?" she asked anxiously. "Is it working?"

Cassie tried to smile. "It took a long time for Orestes to come out of it, too," she assured her. "And now, look at him, giving all the pretty med techs a hard time in the open ward! Give him time. We're still adjusting, still trying to make sure we've got just the right treatment for each patient, and the medication is being administered differently–"

"You're still experimenting?" Sheba broke in, horrified. Were they risking her father's life?

"No, no, not at all, not the way you mean. We know it works. It just takes time. Astarte and Falstaff are still out too. Each patient has a different metabolism and is in different physical condition. We're watching each closely, but we expect minor variations in their rates of recovery, small physical fluctuations as they come out of it. That virus almost killed them; you don't recover from something like that in a few centons!"

"I know. It's so hard to wait, when it's already been so long..."

Cassiopeia touched her hand. "I know, Sheba, believe me."

She looked up. Yes, she knows! In spite of Starbuck, does she still love my father? Does he love her? She squeezed the hand in return. Cassie had kept watch over Cain for so many days and nights. How could she doubt there was still a deep emotional commitment there?

"The best thing for you might be to get some sleep," the med tech continued. "You look awfully unsteady. How will Cain take it if he wakes up just as we're putting you into bed for complete collapse?"

Sheba shook her head determinedly. "No, I'll stay here. You said yourself it's just a matter of time, maybe centons or centars, before they show some reaction. I'll be here, for my father."

"At least eat something. One of us can bring it for you."

"If you say so. Anything is fine, just bring it here." Her attention was already back on the life pod.

Cassiopeia sighed. Whatever food they brought, Sheba would eat it without knowing or caring if it was the finest catered cuisine or a slab of protein on dry bread. A tray might sit ignored for centars before it occurred to her to eat, or might even be a total waste of precious supplies.

And her friend hadn't slept properly in the secton since the Pegasus arrived. She was too caught up in her father's illness. Perhaps that was normal, since she hadn't seen the man in so long, and they had always been so close...

But at least she could insist that Sheba eat. Shaking her head, she called another tech to fetch a tray.

"You think Sheba will be in life center?" Starbuck asked as they walked.

"When has she been anywhere else this past secton?" Apollo countered quietly. He was still disturbed, had a lot on his mind.

"True." But why am I bothering to go with you? Sheba wasn't the only one who spent all her time in life center these days. Cassie would be there as well, fussing over Cain.

She'll be there. Apollo and Sheba will likely stay all night, like they've been doing. Boomer and Bojay are still assigned to the Pegasus. Greenbean and Jolly just left on patrol. Giles is on furlon. Can't even get a good pyramid game going at this rate. All my friends are ... occupied one way or another. Maybe I'll see what's happening in the officers' club. He briefly considered partners for such an evening.

Maybe I'll just get a good night's sleep for a change – alone!

That thought left him feeling as depressed as Apollo looked.

Life center was a pleasant, busy place. The gloom of anxiety and apprehension over the unfamiliar illness and the condition of its victims had lifted. Despite lingering fatigue, the medical staff seemed more lively, refreshed, and even cheerful.

The warriors stepped aside as two cryo-tubes were wheeled past them back to storage. Their occupants had been transferred to the regular ward. The men pushing the equipment were laughing.

"Things must be lookin' better," Starbuck muttered.

Apollo gave some distracted response, but his keen eyes were already sweeping the large, open chamber.

Three recovering patients were clustered together at one end; one of them in particular, Capt. Orestes, seemed to be enjoying the attention of a number of visitors. The other two, a young man and an even younger woman – Falstaff and Astarte, he knew – appeared less interested in company and more interested in a little sleep. It looked like one of the physicians was ready to oblige them, shooing the small contingent of personnel – mostly warriors from the Pegasus – toward the door.

Apollo scanned in vain for Sheba or her father. He caught the arm of a passing med tech.

"What about Commander Cain?" he asked.

The vibrant brunette – Galswintha, Pegasus, he placed her – gave him a quick study before her eyes flicked back to the quarantine ward. "Commander Cain is still under direct observation. His daughter is with him. I believe the doctors will permit you to join them."

He thanked her and moved in that direction.

Her appraisal of Starbuck was different. Although he offered her his most persuasively charming smile, she shook her head decisively. "Only family, at this point, Lieutenant. You'll have to leave with the rest."

She left him standing before he could raise any opposition, moving directly toward one of the doctors just off-duty. Starbuck knew the look she gave the medic. It would be a waste of time to argue; the two of them obviously had better things planned.

Now feeling truly deserted, since Apollo had hurried away without a glance, Starbuck turned to leave, forlornly anticipating a lonely night.

The movement of one of the civilian visitors caught his eye. He recognized the almost furtive gesture as the elderly man tried to hurry out of sight. His spirits jumped precipitously.

"Chameleon!" he called in pleased surprise.

The old man looked about as though confused before allowing his attention to settle on the warrior. Merry old eyes widened. "Why ... Starbuck, whatever are you doing here?"

"I was about to ask you the same thing!" Eager steps quickly closed the distance between them. "Haven't seen you in sectons. How are you doing?"

He liked the old man. They were friends. While the circumstances of their meeting had been bewilderingly fast-moving and ultimately a painful disappointment, he'd gotten over it, and had found many similar interests and pleasant times. Chameleon was a man he enjoyed knowing, and he'd even learned a few things from the scoundrel's long life and freely-shared experiences.

"Oh, uh, I'm just fine. And yourself, Starbuck?" Behind the genuinely pleased smile, he detected something nervous.

He shrugged with a half-smile, recalling that the news of the alien ships and the two missing pilots were still military matters, not something to frighten civilians with, except the Council. "Getting by," he hedged. "Things are still stirred up with the Pegasus coming, and all."

The official line, delivered from the military through the Council, and passed along via the inquisitive, prying media people, was that the arrival of the other battlestar meant the fleet could finally be properly protected. It also meant most of the civilians were celebrating noisily, when they weren't equally noisily demanding more information. The warriors kept their fears to themselves, and their officers tried to form battle plans and analyze the aliens' possible strategy. The Council, more aware of the danger than the general populace, buried themselves in the rejoicing, as if forgetting them would make the aliens go away.

"Yes, yes, I'm sure of that," Chameleon nodded sagely.

They were silent for several moments, each watching the other intently.

"Getting a physical check-up?" Starbuck ventured. "I'm surprised you managed to get an appointment, with all the attention the sick people have been getting."

Chameleon waved off the sidelong question. "Orestes is a gambler, much like you and me. I met him a long time ago. When the opportunity arose to come here, I took it ... and fortunately, Cassie didn't see it as her duty to throw me out!"

Starbuck chuckled. "I see! Well, she's been preoccupied these days, probably forgot what you're capable of! So ... what are your plans now?"

"Well..." he considered in a too-innocent voice. "I suppose I could try to find a shuttle back to the Senior Ship. Siress Blassie should be around somewhere..."

"Might be tough, this time of day," the warrior observed in an equally innocent tone. "You may have to spend a few centars here on the Galactica..."

Chameleon rubbed his chin. "I suppose..."

"If you're not doing anything, maybe you'd like to spend a little time in one of the lounges?"

The civilian laughed. "All right, Starbuck, so much for the required amenities of the game. If it won't compromise your military secrecy – yes, I know you're hiding something – I'd love to spend some time with you."

Only one cryogenic tube remained in the near-empty ward, and the woman Apollo sought was hunched over it, heedless of anything but the man resting within. Dr. Salik had joined Cassie at the monitors, his frown accenting already deeply-etched lines on his forehead and around his mouth. The delicate situation of the last few days seemed likely to make the wrinkles permanent. Helena stood next to Sheba, her attitude one of detachment and competent reassurance.

Apollo wondered if he should intrude, or simply leave quietly.

Sheba straightened suddenly. "But why?" she demanded both of the medics and of the empty room. "Orestes and the others are recovering! Why isn't my father? Why is he still lying here like this?" Her voice was shrill, almost hysterical, and she was very close to tears.

"Sheba," Helena tried to explain calmly, "the other warriors are young, like yourself, in prime physical condition. Your father, much as one hates to consider it, is no longer a young man. It is only to be expected that it will take longer for the medication to take affect and for him to fight off the illness. His constitution is weaker–"

"His constitution is fine!" his daughter erupted angrily.

The attack left Salik looking concerned, this time for the lieutenant's health and state of mind, while Helena simply settled further back on her dignity and continued.

"Having treated your father from the time he contracted this illness, I can state with certainty that he has been more greatly affected because of lesser immunity to its debilitating effects; he is more susceptible, for some reason, and his symptoms have been worse. It's only been a few centars. We fully expect a positive response at any time. We're allowing for the Commander's individual reaction to both virus and treatment."

"But how much longer?" the young woman cried in unconcealed anguish.

"Have faith in your father. He'll pull through," Helena told her reassuringly. Seeing Apollo standing there, she nodded at him and moved away to confer with Salik.

She didn't even look at Apollo. Her hands were clenched at her sides, and she was fighting back tears.

"Sheba?" It twisted his own emotions to see her hurting this badly.

She whirled, and a moment later was in his arms, shaking as she hid her face against his shoulder. He held her for a few centons, then slowly lifted her chin to see her face. She was still dry-eyed, had somehow contained the tears – in fact, looked almost defiant, as if she refused to cry. She was still determined to show no weakness. The mask cracked only where this one man was concerned.

"He'll be all right." What else could he say? Her arms tightened around him, grateful for his presence and words, and she leaned wearily upon him. Understanding her feelings as he did, and sympathetic, he was still pleased that she turned to him like this. She still needed him a little.

"Try to get her to sleep, Captain," he heard Salik murmur. He saw Cassie's concern as well, divided between her best friend and her erstwhile lover.

"I'm not leaving!" Sheba insisted through his uniform shirt.

"We can call you the micron–"

"No!"

Apollo sighed. It would be another long night.

Chapter VI

"But these Delphians don't seem to accept us as even marginally competent pilots, Boomer!" the shorter woman complained.

"I know, Brie," the dark-skinned warrior sighed. "They're a very reserved people, and it takes time–"

"Reserved? That's one way to put it!" the second woman griped. "And Boomer, do you know, there're parts of this ship we're not allowed into? And the crew just shrugs it off!"

"We get the same treatment. I understand that's family quarters, women and children, and they're very private about their families."

"But completely off limits? To other women? And I'm beginning to think Delphian children are a figment of somebody's imagination!"

The pilots continued their indignant tirade as the three warriors moved away from their ships. Their words and actions were overseen and carefully noted by an alert pair of dark eyes watching from a small hiding place. As the Colonials disappeared, a girl scampered into sight, carefully checking first to be sure she was alone in the long, narrow launch bay. Certain that she was unobserved, she turned her attention to the ready Vipers, climbing onto a launch track to run a delicate hand over the gleaming finish of the craft's nose. Her admiration was evident in her delighted smile.

"Some day," she whispered to the silent machine, "I'm going to fly you, just like they do."

"Do you think so, sly one?" a quiet voice asked in the same near-reverent tones.

"Mother!"

"Inari, I expected you to be with your brothers, not running loose through the ship," Lt. Mriko admonished the child. "And what if your father, or one of the pilots, found you here? You belong with the rest of the children."

Inari pouted, flouncing down to settle herself on the launch track. "But why can't we come here anymore? I like it here. Why does Father want us to stay away from the pilots of the other ship?"

Her mother sat beside her, smoothing her loose trousers in a natural gesture. "It's only for a little while, until we are more sure of the future. You can obey orders for a little while, can't you?"

"But I thought we were staying with the fleet!" the girl objected. "And we can't see our friends, either," she continued mournfully. "I miss them. Edric is nice to us. He makes toys."

"You are almost too old for toys, and you should learn better to obey, or you will never earn a ship like this." She reached out to stroke the craft shadowing them. "On Commander Cain's ship, you have to follow orders."

"I can follow orders, when they're not stupid!" Inari insisted. Then she looked down. "But I don't think Father wants me to fly a Viper and be a warrior. I can do it, just like Akimi. Father doesn't stop her..."

"She is not his daughter. You are."

"Does that mean I can never fly?

Mriko smiled and gave her daughter a hug. They were alone, after all. "In time, sly one, I think you will be one of the best pilots on this ship. And I think your father will be very proud of you. But for now, you must join the rest of the children."

Inari grinned delightedly as she slid off the track and dropped to the deck. She looked at the fighter for a moment, as if sharing a secret and giving a promise, then ran for the shadows, disappearing as completely and as quickly as she'd appeared a few centons before.

The Delphian woman watched fondly, then leaned back to think. My daughter wants to fly a Viper. She wants to be a warrior, like Akimi. Husband, how will you take this? She doesn't even consider our force, but only a future on this ship, with these people...

Our leaders may frown, but the thought ... pleases me.

Kenji, we must decide something soon.

Apollo was exhausted. The centars in life center, waiting for some reaction from Cain, were telling on him. Sheba was under the most strain, he knew, but his own attempts to lend her emotional strength were draining him. And she didn't seem to notice or care, or even benefit from it. She was becoming more and more short-tempered from her own lack of rest, and was snapping at others – including him.

Finally, he needed a break, to relax his own tension. Getting some sleep might be the better idea, but he was determined not to abandon Sheba. He decided to settle for a quick trip to the mess.

It was late. They were no longer serving meals, but an off-duty warrior could still get something to drink and a snack or sandwich. One steward was on duty to tend the machines.

"Something hot and stimulating," he told the woman, not bothering to look at the menu.

She glanced speculatively at him, but held her tongue and passed him a steaming mug.

He took the pungent-tasting drink and sat in the farthest corner, being in no mood for company, even if there'd been anybody else in the empty dining room. All he wanted to do was down his drink, have a few peaceful moments, and get back to life center.

Voices drifted to him after a number of centons. Lifting his morose gaze from the steaming beverage, he noted his sister, obviously recently off duty, chatting with some redheaded warrior as they, too, picked up something to drink. He grinned tiredly, watching as they sauntered to another corner together. Just a friend, or did Starbuck have competition?

Well, the last thing I need just now is to get involved in somebody else's love life. I've been caught in the middle enough times between Athena and Starbuck. I don't think I'll say anything...

Feeling more invigorated already, Apollo managed a smile as he finished his drink and slipped out the door.

The cold receded in pulsing waves, replaced by a different kind of throbbing weakness throughout his awareness. The feeling was familiar; it had happened to him before...

Ah-hah! Suspension! Cain was coming out of suspension, sensing the retreat of the cold with every heartbeat, with the returning warmth of each surge of blood. His pulse quickened as he came back to life from the chill and silence of the cryogenic tombs that medical was so quick to inflict upon the already ill.

On some level of consciousness, he could even detect that he was breathing. But it would be some time before he could truly awaken. Sometimes, this instinct for existence was difficult for his impatient nature, but it had kept him alive innumerable times in the past. He would endure it now.

What happened to me? He tried to focus his disconnected thoughts on the past. Cylons... A base planet, some kind of hades-hole... It always had something to do with the treacherous metal enemies who'd done their best to commit genocide against the humans of the Twelve Colonies. The Cylons must have hated that world. It was wet and muggy, with tropical growth and constant mist. They couldn't have been there long – just long enough to build a handful of structures, burn out a few acres of swamp, and rust away. Overgrowth of all kinds had penetrated the metal shelters and laboratories. The machine beings must have been gone for some time, for the world to have so thoroughly reclaimed its own. And the life forms! They, too, had made free with the rusted hulks of metal that once were functioning Cylon units.

He respected that world; it was capable of defending itself against its foes. Apparently, it counted humans among its enemies as well. He vaguely remembered a landing of some kind, then nothing but chill, and faces floating haphazardly into focus, never quite defining themselves...

But he was aware of reality again. There were voices, lights, and a face – the sounds and sensations of familiar places and people.

Dr. Helena. That was to be expected, in life center. She was speaking, looking away. Slowly, the words began to make sense to him; she was calling to somebody, beckoning that other person near.

Sheba. That's the name. I know Sheba...

A face, bending over him. A young woman, her dark-blonde hair tied back in a proper military knot so it couldn't fall over her face and get in the way. He saw a wide, trembling smile on lips that spoke syllables he still couldn't decipher immediately. Her eyes were brown, not like his, but the image of another woman's; they brimmed with tears, small drops that suddenly splashed onto his face, hot and stinging.

Sheba...

A hand grasped his tightly. It felt cold. A second hand stroked his face, smearing the tears she'd shed as she tried to wipe them away. She spoke again; he could hear her, knew it was a question. It was difficult, but he moved his lips into the proper shape for a response, ordered air from his lungs to make a sound.

"Sheba..."

"Father!"

"Baby..." This was his daughter, born of his flesh and that of the woman he had loved. But... Aren't you dead?

"We'd better let him rest..." Another voice – the doctor again.

"He's coming out of it! He knows me!"

"'Course I know you, baby..." he said with an effort.

"Sleep now, Father. I love you!" More tears, a tighter grip on his hand, almost painfully intense. Her voice was choked with joy.

"I love you, Sheba ... and I want ... to see you again..."

"I'll always be here..."

The pinprick of a needle, and a growing distance. Sleep.

"Commander?"

Adama started at the voice from his personal comm board. He'd asked that he be called if any emergency arose, even in his sleep period, but the voice didn't sound worried. He leapt from his bed and hurried to his desk to answer the call.

"Yes?"

"This is life center. Commander Cain has regained consciousness, and he seems to know who and where he is. He's sleeping now, but Dr. Salik suggests you should be able to see him in the morning."

He could have cheered. "Thank you. Pass the word to Colonel Kleopatra, doctor. However ... keep this quiet from the general crew, for now."

"Yes, sir," the voice replied crisply.

Adama knew he wouldn't be able to sleep anymore. He decided to check on bridge status, perhaps even to pull a surprise inspection of the pilots' quarters to see how they were faring under the stressful situation – although that was more in keeping with Tigh's style.

Then breakfast – and a visit with Cain.

Starbuck had finally sent Chameleon off, feeling a little guilty about the all-night binge in the lounge. But it was nothing a few centars' sleep wouldn't cure. And since he had no patrol scheduled – unless Apollo called him suddenly, or they went on alert – he should be able to get that undisturbed rest.

He whistled cheerfully as he made his way back to his quarters. His head felt remarkably clear, despite all the alcohol he'd consumed during the previous centars. From the smoke in the lounge when they left, he was sure he'd gone through a secton's supply of fumarellos too. The diversionary card game hadn't cost him too many cubits, and Chameleon had actually come out ahead in it, so he couldn't really complain about that, either. All in all, an entertaining and well-spent night.

Of course, the old man had retained a certain reticence about his reason for being on the battlestar. The sick captain could be an old friend, Starbuck supposed. But then, he and the other pilots in the game had had to guard their tongues on the subject of the alien pursuers and the disappearance of two of their number, so perhaps it was just a reactionary "you-won't-tell-me-I-won't-tell-you" kind of thing. At any rate, he was willing to let the matter slide.

Just ahead of him, he saw one of the Pegasus warriors, a tall redheaded man, slip into the computer terminal room. He didn't recognize the pilot, but figured he must be newly transferred aboard, and tending to some kind of business. He promptly forgot about him.

There was only one person in the computer terminal room, a pudgy, brown-haired corporal. Before approaching him, Thjis pulled free the needle concealed in the hem of his jacket.

"Yes? Can I help you ... Captain?" the corporal asked as he came near, seeing the insignia at his throat, and recognizing the rank if not the person.

"I believe so." A touch, and the young man's eyes glazed over. He fell forward limply. Thjis caught the unconscious body and settled it into a chair. Lifting the chin, he stared into the dulled brown eyes.

"You will not remember my presence," he ordered dispassionately.

A second needle was produced, and the youth's eyes closed in true sleep as he slumped over and was laid to rest against the nearest console.

Thjis strode to the operator's terminal, and punched in an opening code.

"Please identify yourself," the computer requested in its programmed feminine voice.

The man passed his hand over the screen. "Captain Thjis," he told it.

"I have no record of you in ship's personnel, nor are you logged for use at this time," the computer returned indignantly after a moment of searching.

"Immaterial. I am on-line."

"That is not allowed."

Thjis hit another code, a master override.

"You are interfering with my memory circuits. That is not allowed."

He added a subcode, and the voice fell silent. He would have to extract the required information manually, but the computer would not betray his tampering.

Cain roused himself from his deep sleep at the slight stimulus of distant voices. He glanced around as he tried to rise from his bed. The effort cost him; his body dropped back exhaustedly, despite his desire to control it.

But he recognized where he was – life center. However, there was something subtly wrong with the ward he was in. It looked like his ship, but the equipment, the beds, everything looked newer, somehow in better condition than he remembered – and there was more of it.

A man laughed, in deep amused tones. "Just like the others."

Cain turned his head, studying the face for a moment. "You're Dr. Salik, from the Galactica."

"Yes. And you're reacting just like the other patients – trying to get out of bed before you're ready. Don't you think your body is telling you something when it won't move?"

"Where's Helena? What am I doing here? What happened to my ship?"

"All in good time, Commander. For now, just lie still and get some rest. Commander Adama will be here soon, and you'll have lots to talk about. In the meantime, you are probably suffering a massive headache as well as everything else, if your recovery is going like the others. Would you like something for it?"

Cain considered. The simple act of trying to sit up had made him feel like a basestar was exploding in his skull; and it was still throbbing. "As long as it doesn't put me out again. That's what it did last time, when I started waking up, wasn't it?"

The doctor nodded as he gestured toward an unseen person behind him. "Analgesic."

Cain remembered waking up before. "Sheba!" But that couldn't be, his daughter was dead, she had come to tell him so...

Salik smiled broadly. "Your daughter has hardly left your side the entire secton you've been here. I think it's only knowing you were going to be all right, but need to sleep for a while, that permitted her to be convinced to get some rest herself. Cassiopeia put her to bed; but I'm sure she'll be back before too long."

"Cassiopeia." He savored the taste of her name as he spoke it. She's here, too. All my nightmares, and my prayers...

"Yes. She's been here most of the time, too. She'll be back on duty in a few centars." The doctor uncrossed his arms as a med tech came into view, an injector in hand. Salik administered the medication.

"I'll see either of them at any time, doctor."

"I thought you would."

"But how did I get here? What about my ship, my people? The other patients – I assume they were the others in my patrol? The ones who went down on the planet with me? How are they?" he pressed, feeling the healing potion ease the agony in his head.

"They're recovering better than you. Young, sturdy pilots, you know, and your ship is fine, too. Anything else, you have to clear with Commander Adama."

The veteran warrior grimaced as the doctor strode away to avoid any further questions or comments. Instinct told him something serious was going on, and he felt better instantly. An emergency was brewing, and he'd soon be involved in it, whatever it was. With both the Pegasus and the Galactica, and with his tactical knowledge and audacity to add to Adama's sturdy caution, the enemy had best beware. We're not fools, or children to be dismissed...

And Sheba is alive. My baby is alive... His breathing was ragged and husky for several long centons as he stared fixedly at the ceiling.

Life center here is as boring as aboard the Pegasus. Orestes looked around the ward. His fellow patients were still asleep, needing more time to recover completely from their illness. I've had enough rest to last me a sectar. Being confined to bed meant no exercise, no excitement, no nothing. Visitors were still limited, too.

"Ready for your morning bath, Captain?" a cheerful woman asked as she approached.

He glowered at Galswintha and her small cart. Another sponge bath. Lie still while she scrubs me raw with damp cloths, then dries me. All very professional. Not very thrilling.

"I've got a better idea," he suggested with a leer. "Why don't you help me take a turboshower today instead?"

"Now, Captain, until the doctors say you can get out of bed..."

He swung his legs over the edge of the bed, pulling the blanket around himself like a toga. "I'm perfectly capable of getting out of bed. And I want a shower today – no more sponge baths. So do your duty, nurse – knock me out, or join me in getting wet."

She laughed outright, then called to one of the other med techs. "Cadmus, it seems Captain Orestes is in the mood for a turboshower, Would you assist, please, in seeing that he gets adequately damp?"

A smile grew on the husky medic's face as he reached for the recuperating pilot's arm. "Certainly."

"Spoil-sport!" Orestes permitted himself to be dragged off to the showers, grumbling good-humoredly about the company.

"He seems ready to be released," commented a doctor who'd arrived during the last centon of the performance.

"Hello, Rafe," the nurse smiled breathily. "Yes, he does seem to be back to his old spirits. Perhaps we could release him, if there's some way to make him get sufficient rest – alone – for a few days."

"What might be more productive is to transfer these three back to the Pegasus for the remainder of their recovery. I'll speak to Salik and Helena. They may want to keep Commander Cain here for a few more days, and I'm sure we'll have to keep the patients under close observation to prevent a relapse, but I can't see any problem with a transfer."

"It would be good to be back on our own ship, in our own quarters," the med tech commented.

He glanced at her slyly, grinning and winking. "We do have more privacy there, don't we?"

She returned his look. When he gave her a chart for one of the sick pilots, she held his hand longer than necessary, in a promise for the evening, if they were back on their own ship.

Something caught his eye. Omega frowned as he returned to the daily reports; it was part of his duty to scan them at the beginning of every shift. There was something wrong with the computer log time, a discrepancy between users and official use. It was a minor thing, but he'd better check it before starting anything else. He called the computer terminal chamber.

"Corporal Komma."

"Here," replied the young technician a moment later. "What is it?"

"There's a discrepancy in your time report this shift. Check your logbook, please."

After a moment, the man's voice came back, puzzled. "I don't see any problem."

"Your computer shows more use time than can be accounted for," Omega explained. "Also, bridge computer indicates your terminal was off-line for a period of almost twenty centons. Can you explain why? Was there a technical problem?" He didn't add his alternative idea, that one of the senior officers had "borrowed" the apparatus for personal business. There was a special code the commander used, and the corporal could have neglected to mark the time, but the bridge should still be aware of it...

"Negative, Omega. My logbook shows no discrepancies of any kind," Komma insisted.

Omega considered, then decided to follow standard procedure for the situation. "I'm sending a technician to double-check the computer relays," he advised. "Please answer any questions she may have."

"Of course."

If the problem couldn't be located and corrected in a very few centons, the next step was to inform Col. Tigh, as senior officer on duty. Then the matter would be out of his hands, although he might still be held responsible, should it prove serious.

"That's the way I saw the situation, Adama. Now, you know my reasoning – and I think you have to agree that it was a valid course of action. You had the fleet to consider, and I understand that. But I was constrained here, thought I could do a better job fighting, like I've always done."

Cain continued to meet Adama's stoic gaze. The two men had been in private conference for over a centar, alone in what was left of the quarantine ward of life center. Adama had seen the Pegasus logs, so he knew what the other man and his ship had been doing, and he'd had several opportunities to talk to Col. Kleopatra, but some things he needed to know from Cain himself, like the man's motivations and objectives – although he could figure most of that out for himself.

Cain, for his part, understood why Kleopatra had done what she had, although he was surprised the Delphians had accompanied her in rejoining the Colonial feet. He accepted that he was back in the fleet, and that he now would have to account for his previous actions both in taking on three Cylon base ships at Gamoray, and in not returning to the fleet after the attack.

"So you've been on your own nearly this past yahren. Was it worth it?"

"You've seen my logbooks. We've caused the Cylons enough trouble for ten battlestars – and diverted them around you several times, I don't doubt. Our prowling has gained us a great deal of information about their activities in several sectors. Also, we found the Delphians and brought a few of them together – which gives them a better chance of surviving too. And we've brought back word that Baltar is free and probably back in the Empire, which you have to find useful. It hasn't always been easy, but it's a job we felt we had to do..."

"For the glory of the Pegasus? For the legend of Cain?"

"For the survival of humanity! Like I told Sheba and Bojay, when they suggested mutiny at Gamoray – I may be the stubbornest warrior in the Colonies, but I'm also the best, and I won't run out and leave what's left of our people at the mercy of those tinheads. I did what I had to do. And I think you know that as well as I do."

"I question your methods, not your results – you've always gotten results. But I continue to believe your presence within the fleet could have been as beneficial to us as your chosen mission – if it didn't chafe you too much, accepting the constraints of fleet life."

Cain shook his silvered head. "I was never much good at accepting restraints, Adama, you know that. I like setting my own parameters too much, arranging the odds to suit myself."

"I know that," Adama finally smiled. "And I'm prepared to let the past lie. We have need of you here, now, more than ever – and I think even you will agree that we may never have faced a more dangerous situation than what confronts us at this moment. But then, that seems to be part of the legend – that you appear when we have most need of you."

"Your people are heroes, too. But that's twice now you've suggested an emergency. How about elaborating?"

Cain's pale, illness-marked face grew grim as Adama explained the unknown pursuers, and added his own speculations, and the measures he was taking to try and forestall disaster. Until the veteran warrior completely recovered from his obvious weakness, nothing could really be expected of him, but perhaps his input would give the Galactica's commander another handle, a new perspective. He hoped it would not draw his impatient, impulsive friend out of bed too soon – but Dr. Salik could be counted on to deal with that. In the meantime, the enemy that had already cost them two pilots might not wait.

"Hades!" Cain snarled when Adama fell silent. "I've got to get out of this frakking life center."

Life center was invaded again.

Helena and Cassiopeia were supervising preparations for the patient transfer when the leader of the Imperial Delphian Honor Guard made his unexpected arrival.

Cassie drew a breath of surprise, and her eyes widened, as the warrior, a full colonel, glared about the chamber. "So that's the commotion!" she whispered.

Helena was familiar with Delphian habits. Gesturing back the milling medical staff, she approached the man. "Good day, Colonel Sheng. I assume you have a reason for intruding into a medical station – fully armed for battle?" she asked pointedly, studying his hands, which rested on a traditional sword and a modern laser.

His gaze swept disdainfully over both her and Cassiopeia. "The Empress graces you with her presence," he growled, then stepped back.

Empress Sumiko danced elegantly into the ward, making her small skipping steps look graceful. She was followed by the rest of her guard and her ever-present female chaperones. Her eyes were bright, and she seemed to have taken extraordinary pains with her appearance, which was even more ostentatious than usual. She seemed relieved to see Helena in charge.

"Good morning, doctor. We have heard, from Colonel Kleopatra, that Commander Cain shows signs of recovery, and may soon be receiving visitors. We wish to meet with him, give expressions of good will for his recovery, and inquire into his next course of action."

"I'm afraid Commander Cain is presently in conference with Commander Adama," the physician replied smoothly. "He is not to be disturbed for the time being. He is still under observation."

The girl's expression became something of a pout.

Col. Sheng stepped forward again. "Surely the request of the Empress is sufficient..."

Sumiko swiftly raised a hand to gesture him back. "When will we be permitted to confer with Cain ourselves? We are sure you understand that delicate matters of state must be dealt with as soon as possible, and for security, only at the highest levels of authority." She was miffed, but trying to be controlled and proper, standing on her dignity. That she obviously saw no point in discussing such pressing matters with Cmdr. Adama or the Council of Twelve did not pass unnoted.

Helena sensed the regal young Delphian was trying to give her protection from her narrow-eyed, over-protective guards and murmuring dowagers – an excuse, if she was willing to accept it. "Commander Cain will need to rest for the remainder of the day, until we can gauge more accurately his rate of recovery. The other pilots, however, are being transferred back to the Pegasus in a matter of centars. I will accompany them, of course. We expect to be moving the Commander by perhaps tomorrow."

The girl's face lit up. "Excellent!"

The relief in her and her people was obvious. They didn't like having to board the Galactica – it was still a foreign vessel to them, not the ship of an ally. And Cain on the Pegasus would be infinitely more accessible than the man under Salik's thumb here. The Delphians still hadn't forgiven the doctor's behavior at their previous visit.

"Your people will then be in complete charge of the patients, as you have now dealt with the illness?" Sumiko pressed eagerly. Perhaps too eagerly; one of the old women rested an aged, wrinkled hand lightly on her shoulder for a moment. She seemed not to notice.

"Actually, med tech Cassiopeia will be accompanying Commander Cain. She has been his nurse for the entirety of his time here, and she's had prior experience with a similar disease," Helena explained. "She will probably spend several days with us."

Sumiko lifted suddenly veiled dark almond eyes to Cassie's wide, frank blue ones. A frown barely creased her golden face. "If it is necessary for his recovery..."

"I think it is in his best interests."

"Very well." Sumiko dismissed the other woman as though without a thought. "Thank you for your information, Dr. Helena. You have always been most helpful to us, and we are grateful. We shall speak with you later, then, when you have completed your patient transfer." She turned and made a dignified exit.

"She acts like she owns the place! And I don't think she approves of me," Cassiopeia murmured. "I hope I don't have to see much of her."

Helena smiled, a delicate expression on her porcelain face, only a small lifting of her lips. "I'm afraid she'll be around a lot – and she thinks she does own the place. Upbringing, native rank, etc. But she's only sixteen. Keep that in mind if you have to deal with her."

Cassie's expression was thoughtful.

"I do not like her!" Sumiko breathed to Yakami. "Dr. Helena does not require extra med techs. We have sufficient to tend Cain. I do not like that woman."

The dowager chaperone at her side whispered back, "Remember who you are, child. You are Empress. As for this Cassiopeia, dismiss her from your mind. She is unimportant."

"I have heard," ventured the other woman, "that Cain once cared greatly for that woman – and she for him."

"You listen to gossip!" Yakami snapped as the Empress's pretty face hardened angrily. "It is beneath your position – or you are raised above your proper place!"

The other woman fell silent, cowed by the threat.

"Besides," Yakami whispered to her grand-niece a moment later, "she is only a socialator, a bit of fluff for the amusement of others. And Cain is Commander."

"She is not a socialator now," Sumiko replied.

"She can never be anything but a socialator. He may not even remember her, after so long. And you, precious one, are the Empress."

Cassiopeia had a few moments free between her long duty shifts and the time she snatched to pack a small bag. Recalling that she hadn't seen Starbuck in several days, she went looking for the warrior who'd recently played such a prominent role in her life.

"Yeah, I know he's supposed to be off-duty," the pilot in the lounge told her, "but I think he got nabbed for shuttle duty or somethin', so he left a few centons ago."

"Oh." She pursed her lips. "Any idea when he'll be back?"

"No. Care to stick around and wait?" the young man invited. "Maybe you could have a drink..."

Her socialator's training recognized his intentions immediately – get to know her, maybe cut out Starbuck. The warrior, a pilot from the Pegasus, undoubtedly on rotation, probably didn't know her past, and in her med tech uniform, must merely find her an attractive woman, but she wasn't interested.

"Uh, doesn't Starbuck have a patrol later? He'll probably be gone for quite a while. Maybe I'd better just leave a message," she told the sergeant who watched her so appreciatively.

The man shrugged. "I think he had the day free; that's why the flight commander nabbed him for the Pegasus trip. Sure I can't help you?"

"Uh, well, if Starbuck does come back, tell him I was looking for him. Nothing important, I just wanted to see him."

"Okay." The kid looked a bit crestfallen, but accepted that she wasn't in the mood for company.

I wonder if it's just for this flight, or if he's rotating over like the rest of our pilots? She hurried back to life center. He hasn't been around the last few days. I know I've been busy, but is he avoiding me? He knows I was involved with Cain, but we talked that out. Does it bother him anyway?

Maybe it bothers me... I need to talk to him – to both of them! I never thought he'd come back again... I wonder how he feels now, if he wants me in his life again...

A frown puckered her smooth forehead into lines of worry. Cmdr. Cain and Lt. Starbuck. She'd tried not to think about the one since Gamoray. Every time she tried to think about the other, he seemed to slip away.

Galswintha raised her thin eyebrows. "So you are the pilot who is taking us home."

Starbuck nodded with a half-smile. "Conscripted from a good game to fly a shuttle to the Pegasus. I think you like making my life difficult."

"Perhaps it is fated."

"Wanna make it up to me?"

"I think not. The patients are loaded, as are the staff accompanying them. Try to get us back to our ship in one piece. I am sure competent personnel will be assigned for the Commander's trip tomorrow." She turned away to strap herself in for take-off, hearing Starbuck's laughter behind her as he checked pre-flight and waited for core command clearance.

"Quite a woman!" the lieutenant commented to his co-pilot, a dark-skinned Pegasus pilot named Rissian. Her Scorpian accent was enchanting; her dark eyes, thick curly hair, and olive complexion were beautiful; and something about her was intriguing – and despite the fact that she'd once barred him access to life center, he could easily want to get to know her better – if she'd give him half a chance.

"Quite! And currently involved with one of the doctors – thoroughly involved."

"Oh. So who's flying tomorrow, since we're stuck with the inconsequential personnel?" he inquired with a smile as they warmed up the engines.

Rissian chuckled. "Electra, who else? With Commander Cain and his private nurse."

"Private nurse? You've got to be kidding!"

"Nope. One of the med techs here will be monitoring him for the duration of his recovery, so she's transferring to the Pegasus with him. Makes sense, I guess – switch pilots around, you might as well switch other crew, too!"

"Shuttle Lambda, you are cleared for launch."

Starbuck hit the comm switch. "Uh, thanks, Rigel. We're away."

They launched silently. Fortunately, there were no malfunctions or difficulties. Starbuck was thinking too fast to be more than instinctively concerned with the craft's operation. A private nurse, transferring to the Pegasus. Who could that be but Cassie? She's really going. I didn't think she'd do it...

The thought stunned him. Cassiopeia was going with Cain.

And leaving him.

Chapter VII

"Boxey, you're too good for me!" Athena protested laughingly. "Why should I keep playing with somebody who always beats me?"

The boy giggled with delight. Spending time in the rejuvenation center with his aunt and several other women from the bridge crew made him feel important. The adults could also be counted on to let him be the center of attention.

"He's too good for all of us," Rigel added. "Maybe he should turn professional and hustle the wagerers on the Rising Star!"

The youngster's eyes got wider, and he stared hopefully at Athena.

"No," she said firmly. "I'm not taking you to the Rising Star, and neither will any of the rest of us. A little table triad here is one thing–"

Another voice joined the general laughter, and Athena half-turned to find a blond pilot standing behind her, grinning. He leaned over her, draping an arm around her neck, and addressed his remarks to Boxey. "Kid, they'd think you had a system, and they'd kick you off the ship and never let you back. How much is this crew in to you for?"

"A dozen mushies from me," Athena admitted.

"Me, too," added Rigel. "I won't be able to have desert for two sectons!"

"I owe him three games here and a bedtime story tonight," cheerfully contributed Kore.

Starbuck shook his head sadly. "And all along, I been wastin' my time on triad and pyramid, when I coulda been getting bedtime tales and mushies from the loveliest women on the ship! Boxey, you've got to share your secret!" He reached over to tousle the boy's light brown hair; the child glowed.

"Starbuck, you're teaching him bad habits!" Athena scolded.

"But you'll forgive me, won't you?" he whispered in her ear. "I can make it up to you..."

She colored slightly. "I'm due on the bridge before very long," she told the others. "Since Boxey's going to be well-entertained for a few centons, at least, collecting his games and his mushies, I think I'll go run an errand or two, if you don't mind."

"I'll walk you there," Starbuck volunteered unexpectedly, still speaking into one of her ears.

Rigel giggled, while Kore politely looked away, trying to stifle her laughter. Boxey immediately began to set up another game, chattering to the women.

In the corridor, Athena felt surprisingly shy. "Haven't seen you in a few days, Starbuck. Been busy?"

"You know the situation – probably better than I do, since you're on the bridge, and the Commander... Well, he's your father, I know you talk to him. But I shouldn't have neglected you for it. That's an omission I intend to correct."

She stared at him with puzzled pleasure. He looked a little awkward, too. "Cassie's busy with the sick pilots, I guess, and the medical emergency," she commented.

"Haven't talked to her in a couple of days, so I don't really know what she's doing," he answered too quickly, looking uncomfortable. "But what's that got to do with me spending time with you?"

Ah-hah! That's it. But if she's busy, maybe now... "I guess we've all been pushing ourselves pretty hard, with all the possible danger out there," she replied introspectively. "The pressure starts to tell on people – you pilots especially, since you're the ones who have to go out and face it. And two of the Pegasus people disappearing like that..." Pegasus! Thjis...!

He shrugged easily. "We're used to it now. At least we don't have to just sit around and wait. But sometimes, you just need somebody around who understands, that you can talk to when things get rough. I think that's something I've always liked about you, Athena. I could always talk to you."

The puzzlement returned. Starbuck seemed by nature to be flirtatious, and he avoided serious discussions – especially of his own feelings – whenever he could. It had been a long time since they'd talked about feelings for each other on any kind of intimate level. Yet now, after his light remarks in the rejuvenation center, he gave the impression of maneuvering toward just such a discussion. Her innate sense of caution told her to be careful, while another instinct told her to take advantage of it while she could. If he was in truth seriously returning to her, it might imply his feelings and actions where Cassiopeia was concerned were only frivolous, not deep or long-lasting. On the other hand, if this was just a ploy to test her loyalty, she had no intention of being used to rouse the other woman's jealousy.

"You were always easy to talk to. My big brother's best friend, being nice to a little sister," she teased.

"It didn't take long to stop seeing you as just Apollo's little sister," he insisted frankly. "You grew up fast! And you grew up special..."

What does he want? "I thought you were special, too. But after the Destruction, things were so different..." she trailed off sadly. They'd even talked about a commitment, in a roundabout way, before that horror. But the aftershock had been too much for her, at first. Then, before she realized it, there was another woman in his life, serious competition, not just a pretty face he noticed for a few days and then was gone.

"Maybe we got lost. There was a while I thought I was cut off from everything. It was safer that way, hurt less..."

"For both of us? It wasn't easy seeing you slip away." She'd been the one who wasn't ready for a permanent relationship then – too much fear. Maybe she'd driven him away. And maybe now, he's coming back to reclaim something he's waited for? Her heart leapt. Has this all been a waiting game, a testing? No, it can't be – I know him too well. But why bring all that up again?

"I know it wasn't kind of me. I didn't mean to hurt you, but I didn't want to be hurt myself, I was in shock..."

Their slow steps halted. They stood alone in the empty passage, speaking in low tones so their words wouldn't echo off the cold metal. Athena felt that something momentous was about to happen, that he was about to say something–

"Hello, Athena!"

They both jumped at the sound of that booming voice. A tall, redheaded man strode toward them – Thjis, the captain from the Pegasus. She suddenly felt both frustrated and relieved. Still no commitment from Starbuck, still safe – although perilously close to something she might regret if they'd stayed there alone much longer.

"Hello, Thjis," she replied. She could see Starbuck's glare at the interruption replaced by uncertainty at her easy greeting. "Oh, Captain, do you know Lieutenant Starbuck, Blue Squadron? I'm not sure if you've worked together or not..."

"No, we haven't," the man answered casually. "But I'm sure that's not too uncommon a circumstance. Pleased to meet you, Lieutenant." His grip was strong, almost too tight.

Starbuck flexed his fingers after that handshake, wondering sourly if he'd have bruises from it, and thinking with equal annoyance that the captain made an unnecessary point of his rank.

"Starbuck, this is Captain Thjis – of the Pegasus, as I assume you can see."

"Of course. Sorry we haven't had the opportunity to work together, Captain, but I expect we will, sooner or later."

"Possibly. Athena, I know you're due on shift again soon, but I was hoping to claim a few centars of your time, later, if I may? I understand a trip to the gaming ship is not to be missed, nor a meal in their dining hall. As the quarantine restriction has been lifted, I was wondering if..."

"Um, well, I..." She honestly didn't know what to say. She wouldn't really mind spending the time with him, but to accept the offer in front of Starbuck, especially if he had been about to make a personal statement, or ask her something important...

She was saved from a spur of the micron decision she might have later regretted by Starbuck's proprietary arm around her waist and his strong, "I'm afraid the lady already has plans for her evening. We're having dinner."

The captain's thick red eyebrows lifted marginally. "I see. I hope, Athena, that I've not been out of line in taking up your time recently."

The implication was false, but Athena let it stand, unexpectedly delighted by the rigid tension in Starbuck's body as he took a deep breath. He's jealous! She crowed inside. Aloud, she said, "Not at all, it was nothing..."

"Well, then, I will leave you to your duty. Perhaps another time. Pleasure to meet you, Lieutenant." He nodded affably, then left them again, walking with long strides, seemingly not at all embarrassed at perhaps having intruded on a private moment or at being turned down for dinner.

Starbuck dropped his arm from her waist. "Maybe I've been outta line to talk to you this way. Should I have kept my mouth shut and stayed out of it?"

"All I did was give him a few directions around the ship!" she protested. "And we had a late night snack once – in the mess hall! Are those crimes? He's new on the ship, that's all."

"Oh?"

"He probably misread things, Starbuck. He's Raggane by birth, and just decided to leave the sect because there isn't any sect left to belong to, after the Destruction."

"Raggane?" He still sounded suspicious.

"Almost as bad as the Otori. Simply talking to him unaccompanied probably constitutes reason for marriage among his people."

Starbuck relented, smiling a little. "I see. Well, he doesn't take offense easily, does he? Probably just as well – if I ever do wind up working with him, I wouldn't want him thinking I'd stolen his woman!"

"He understands customs vary, and he admits he's having a tough time adjusting."

"After all that time on the Pegasus?"

"There are other Raggane there, and they stuck pretty close togther. The two missing pilots are of the sect, and maybe others too, I don't know. Why are you concerned that I talk to a lonely guy who's trying to adjust to a different life?"

He shrugged. "I guess I'm out of line. But you said you had an errand or two? If we don't hurry, you won't have time before you're due on duty."

The moment was gone. Just as well; Athena felt emotionally let down, and determined not to make a fool of herself over Starbuck again. But he was ready to say something...

Starbuck suddenly remembered having seen the captain before. Early that day, he'd noticed the man near the computer terminal room. Probably checking family or religious records, to see if there were survivors of his people. Wonder if he found any...

Life Center was quiet, and Cain was alone in the ward. The media people were still forbidden access, and Salik had suggested politely but sternly that Cain ought to be allowed to get some rest. So the only person still attending him was the medical technician who monitored his life signs.

"Cassie, do you have to sit way over there?" he asked tenderly. "I'd think you could tell my condition better from nearer to me."

"You're awake!"

"Yes. And I've been watching you."

She left the complicated machinery that hummed over the life pod to stand next to his bed. He looked up at her smile and gentle blue eyes that still blessed his sweeter dreams.

"You're as lovely as ever, Cassie. None of those warriors had sense enough to sweep you off your feet?"

She laughed a little. "No. They must be ... slow."

"Not even Starbuck?"

She was silent for a moment. "Not even Starbuck."

He reached for her hand. "Would I be out of line if I said I still think about you?"

"You didn't come back for me. You didn't take me along at Gamoray. I didn't know what you thought about me, anymore."

"I didn't know if we'd make it," he said earnestly. "I left you and Sheba both here, because you are the two people I care most about in this entire universe. I wanted you both where you would survive."

"Without thinking what we would have wanted? Cain..." It's your ship you care more about, she's your legend and legacy. We'll always take second place, in your soul, to that "lady"...

"Don't scold a sick man, Cassie. I've never stopped thinking about you, wondering how you were doing, if you were happy."

"I've ... gotten by," she replied carefully. "And you were right – Sheba's one of the finest warriors in the fleet. I think she's happy, too. She and Apollo are to be sealed."

Cain nodded. "So Adama intimated. I'm happy for her. He's a good man, and a fine warrior."

"He's the kind of hero she can love."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"Would you be as pleased if Apollo were a maintenance technician, or a civilian merchant?" she countered.

"Whoever makes her happy. I'm just glad she's still alive."

"I think you mean that..."

"How can you doubt it, Cassie? But I asked you something before. Maybe I should be more plain. Did you think about me while I was gone?"

"I've thought about you a lot, Cain. You'd be a difficult man to forget, even if I wanted to."

"And you haven't wanted to?"

She shook her head. "Not really. But we had no clue that you might have survived, no way of knowing if you'd ever come back. I tried to make a life assuming you were ... gone." Just like before.

"And even so..." Cain found the strength to sit up in bed, putting his face almost level with hers, staring searchingly at her.

She stared back, meeting his blue-gray eyes with her quiet strength, studying the lines that only added to his character, although they would have made most men look old. And she remembered...

"Cassie, I know it's been a long time, and you may have felt abandoned..."

"Don't ask for what I can't give, Cain," she said tremulously, shaking her head. The memories were strong; if she stayed near him, her knees would weaken and she would sink into his spell again as she always had before. "It's been a yahren since I saw you, and it was two yahrens before that! I don't know..."

"I won't push for anything until you're ready. I just wanted you to know what I felt."

"Give me time..."

He leaned over and kissed her carefully. After a moment, she bent closer of her own will.

"I'll give you time, Cassie. When you're ready, we'll talk. But I don't think the magic's gone, not entirely."

She felt perilously close to tears, thinking of what she'd once felt for this man, what she might still feel, what she'd professed to feel for Starbuck, hating to think of having to choose between them, if she even could.

"Apollo? Do you have a centon free in your busy life?"

He looked up from his desk, smiling with delight at seeing Sheba standing there, then rose hastily, extending a hand to her. "Of course! Let's sit over here..." He pulled her toward the couch.

"It's business," she apologized immediately. "And I can't stay long. I've got a patrol."

"Oh." His face fell. "Well, be careful out there. And I'm glad if we've got even a few centons, the way things have been going. I'm still hoping things will settle down enough for life to stabilize again."

She smiled back, then let him pull her to the cushions.

"So, how's your father?" he asked.

"Oh, he's fine," she answered with spirit. "I knew he would be. I just let my fears get the better of me for a while. But he's recovering wonderfully. In fact, he's transferring back to the Pegasus tomorrow, with Cassiopeia to keep an eye on him." She paused just a micron. "That's what I needed to talk to you about. Apollo, you haven't included me in any of the pilot transfers."

He saw it coming, and felt uncomfortable. "I didn't think you'd want to leave the ship while your father was here – and I was hoping you wouldn't want to leave me."

"Apollo, you know better than that! I wouldn't leave you! But now that Father is going back to his ship... It's been so long since I've seen him, so long since we've had time to talk and be together. Apollo, transfer me – just for a little while. I don't have to be there long. But I want to spend some time with my father, and get reacquainted with my friends on my own home base ship."

He'd drawn back; she could see the frown. "Your own ship? But what about us?"

"A few days? A secton? Apollo, don't be so selfish!"

He winced. "All right, Sheba. I should've expected this." He tried to smile for her, looking for words to ease what sounded stinging even to him. "But I'll miss you, you know."

She leaned on his shoulder, smiling at him. "You beast. But think how pleasant it'll be when we're together. It's not like we'll be light-yahrens apart. And Father will be grateful, I know. Besides, you'll be stuck with me for the rest of your life. What's a day or two less?"

"A day or two less in a brief life that I could've spent with you," he murmured into her hair, blowing a few wisps about. "And the way things are now..." He let his free hand slip across her thigh.

"Apollo!" She giggled. "I can't stay; I told you that." She pulled away from him. "But I'll make it up to you." She blew him a kiss as she almost danced out the door.

His own grin faded. He leaned forward to rest his chin on his palms. She's going after him. I shouldn't worry – but I do. Sheba, I love you.

"All patrols, checking in as ordered, Colonel," Omega reported. "No indication of any alien presence. Pegasus claims all patrols and scans are negative as well."

"Good for that, at least." Tigh braced himself against the command deck railing, staring moodily over the bridge. "If only they didn't seem capable of coming out of nowhere, we could take some comfort from that."

"What's the problem, Colonel?" a clear voice asked softly.

He glanced down at Athena, taking her seat at her scan console. She wasn't alone; Lt. Starbuck stood behind her with his arms crossed, interestedly watching the unusual flurry of activity across the huge control center.

His gaze fixed on the pilot. "Are you cleared to be here, Lieutenant?"

"Uh..." He looked taken aback.

Tigh relented. "Never mind." He strode down the steps, to stand beside the woman's post. "Besides our unknown traveling companions, which you were aware of, we found a gap in computer use time a few centars ago. A check indicated somebody's been tampering with our computer memory core."

Athena paled. "But that could affect every computer system on this ship!"

"Exactly."

She stared in horror at her own console.

"We've managed to ascertain that the illegal use was confined to certain knowledge banks – technical, personnel, and history being the more important of them."

"That's a broad area," Starbuck interjected slowly. "And whoever tapped it could find out just about anything they wanted to know about this ship!"

Tigh's murderous expression would have silenced any lesser man. "We know, Starbuck. What makes it worse is that the corporal on duty has no recollection of anybody being there – and the accessing has definitely been traced to that terminal some time this morning."

"Colonel!"

The executive officer looked up at Omega. "Yes?"

Omega quickly stepped down to his side. His voice was low. "Sir, Corporal Komma agreed to submit to security interrogation and medical exam. They have a preliminary report. He's telling the truth, as far as he knows it, that no one was in the terminal room. But there's a gap in his memory, just as there is on the computer log, and medical scan found minute traces of some chemical substance in his body that they're still trying to identify."

"He may have been using a narcotic?" Tigh barked.

"The doctor says it doesn't correspond to anything he knows. And security checked; the Corporal has never used such substances. They suspect he may have been drugged, perhaps programmed somehow."

Tigh looked grim.

"Uh, wait a centon," Starbuck interrupted. "Did they say no one was in the terminal room?"

"That's correct," Omega confirmed.

The pilot shook his head. "That's not true. I saw Captain Thjis enter the terminal chamber this morning."

"Who's Captain Thjis?" the colonel demanded.

"Uh, one of the Pegasus transfer pilots, I think," Starbuck told hm. "I didn't know him then, but Athena introduced us about a centar ago. Tall, husky, redheaded guy. You said he was Raggane?"

Athena nodded mutely.

"Check it," Tigh ordered Omega. "What was this Captain Thjis doing there?" he prodded.

Starbuck shrugged. "I've got no idea. Like I said, I only just met him. Athena knew him."

The colonel's expression demanded answers.

Athena racked her brains. "He said he's only been aboard a few days, sir. I've run into him two or three times, I don't really know much... He's Raggane, but he cut his braids, said his people were gone, he wanted to live normally. He's quiet, curious, I got the impression he wasn't sure how to fit into life on this ship. He had lots of questions, always sort of ... formal. I don't know what he'd want with the computers, unless he was checking on family or–"

"Sir!"

"Yes, Omega?"

"No Captain Thjis on the current rotation roster. Pegasus reports no Captain Thjis on their personnel roster at all. And our fleet survey records say there's no such person anywhere in the fleet!"

They were silent for a centon.

"Then who is he?" Athena asked in a small, stunned voice.

"That's what we all want to know. Athena, Starbuck, you will give statements to security at once, and a thorough description of the man. Also a list of anyone else who might know him. We don't have enough to arrest him on this matter, but we certainly want to question him, and find out just who he is."

Mriko wore a traditional long, colorful wrap-gown as she served the hot, clear alcoholic drink. The children were in bed; both officers had completed their duties for the day; they could now relax together for a few centars.

Kenji took the cup from her, savoring the delicately-scented steam rising to his nostrils. It had been a pleasure and an unexpected surprise to find the trappings of the simple ceremony arranged on the floor of their cabin – mats and cushions on the floor, the brazier, the ceramics, the flask, the soft background lighting and music, the smoldering incense... His wife took a place on the mat beside him, leaving a small porcelain container still warming over the tiny, ancient-looking burner.

They slowly sipped the first cupful, making their silent toasts as custom demanded. It was a ritual they had not indulged in since the disease had struck the four pilots, and both enjoyed the relic of home, the bond with their lost world and culture.

Mriko poured the second serving, again offering him the cup before serving herself. "So Cain returns to our ship tomorrow," she commented softly.

"Yes. I wonder how he reacts to our being with the fleet, seeing our squadrons integrated."

"I am sure he will let you know. Hasn't he already called a conference of senior officers, or is that bit of gossip untrue? I am surprised the doctors allowed him to return to active duty so soon."

Kenji chuckled. "He cannot return to duty – but even Dr. Helena is unable to deny him his right to be 'informed' of ship's status. So tomorrow, we meet."

"Will he choose to stay with the fleet, now that the Colonials are reunited? I think it will be difficult for him to leave again, with Commander Adama taking charge, and no emergency 'battle' to go astray, and even his own crew pleased to be here. For now, and here, he is a hero, the legend."

The dimmed light and the alcohol were already soothing his mind. The sight of his wife, so feminine and beautiful in her robe, and the sound of her voice, lyrical and low, was arousing another desire in the warrior. He touched her soft, black hair, stroking it smooth.

"I do not know what Cain's need will demand," he said distractedly, "but I do not think we need fear division of our people. I believe the Empress will remain with the Pegasus, now that Cain is recovering. The young one ... is fond of him, perhaps even dependent upon his skills and tactics."

"So it seems." A third cup was put into his hand. "And what of our own young one?"

"Hmm?" he asked through a mouthful of warm liquid.

"Inari. I do not think she will be content with the life of her foremothers. There is no inward-place for her, no sheltering walls to surround any life she chooses to make. She may not even be satisfied with a life like mine – a useful duty, with respect for tradition, and a family."

"Why not?"

Mriko was silent for a moment, considering if she should share her daughter's secret. "I found her in the launching bay, absorbed in one of their Viper craft. We are a minority on this ship, and the models she sees are different from what we were raised with. I think Inari may plan to be a warrior, like some of our women already have."

"She is only ten yahrens old!" the man exclaimed incredulously. "How can she plan her future already?"

"If she plans that way now, how will it be in another six yahrens, when she is old enough to begin choosing?" the woman returned logically. "I think, husband, that it is something we must consider now – and decide once and for all. We have two sons as well, and we must think of their lives, too."

He drew a deep breath, leaning back on his cushion. The light aroma of incense in the chamber lingered in his lungs. If Mriko had arranged the scene for seduction, she couldn't have done better; his interest in the topic of conversation was already waning, replaced by more ardent wishes.

"Must it be decided tonight?" he demanded, taking her hand.

She smiled and bent her head, a most enticing expression in her dark-rimmed eyes and soft mouth. "If my husband wishes otherwise..."

He turned off the fuel of the brazier; the fire sputtered and swiftly died away.

"I will prepare the bedchamber," his wife told him softly, rising elegantly to move away from him with a pronounced swish of her silky robe.

He gulped the last dregs of the cup, then stood to turn off the lights and join her in the other room. His uniform jacket lay over a low table, and he hesitated for a moment before picking it up. The small insignia at the throat, a four-toed dragon's claw of green enamel on a gold starburst, was still the emblem of the Dragonsbreath. His people still wore their own uniform and markings, after so long on this ship.

Fingering the small bit of metal, he walked slowly out of the room, leaving it in darkness.

Sheba could barely restrain her excitement. To the other pilots shuttling over to the Pegasus, it was a transfer of limited duration to a new and unfamiliar ship. For her, it was going home. The battlestar looming larger in the window port had been her base ship for yahrens. She had an instinctive feeling that was finally returning to her proper place. Tears of joy gleamed in her eyes.

I'm finally going home!

She'd been back aboard the warship twice in the past secton – short, impatient, dutiful visits. With her father still in life center aboard the Galactica, and with the knowledge that she had only centons aboard, she'd felt lost. Now, reassigned there, at least temporarily, and with her father due to return in a few centars, she felt at ease, at peace with the Pegasus again. It had become the center of her existence after her mother's death, and it seemed to welcome her back with open, loving arms.

Home. Oh, Father, I've wanted this for so long, to be back with you, on your ship. I wonder if you'll be busy tonight. We could have dinner, just us, like we used to.

Cassiopeia! She'll be there! Once, the thought would've ruined her day, filled her with hurt and anger. Now that she knew the woman, and they were close friends, it made her smile. She'd seen the former socialator's value, and respected her as well as liked her.

Cassie's taking care of Father. Maybe we can have dinner, the three of us. I wonder how much they still mean to each other. I was so blind before, about her. Why did it take me so long to understand? Love is so special.

I wonder how Starbuck's taking all this. But he's had so many women friends. Does Cassie really mean more than any of them? He's a friend of mine, and one of Apollo's best friends. He claims to feel something for her, but how much does it really mean to him? After all, he's never really broken it off with Athena. And then what happened with Aurora... I wonder if he really knows what it means to be committed to somebody, truly committed...

Like Apollo and me– She felt a flurry of guilt. This past secton, she hadn't seen much of the man she intended to marry. She'd been with her father every spare moment. And now, she was on her way to Cain's ship, to be away from Apollo even more.

But then, he's been busy too, with duty, coordinating with Electra. She suppressed the guilt, reminding herself of Apollo's deep attachment to his own father. He understands, if anyone does, how close a family can be. Apollo's a sensitive man, though he tries so hard to live up to a strong command image. He knows what I need now.

She was comforted, and the exhilaration of landing banished all uncertainty. Apollo understood.

"I tell you, Adama, there is no Thjis in my command. The only one coming near that description is ... was Captain Heimdal, who you tell me is missing in a confrontation with your aliens." Cain continued to face the other man, who sat rigidly at his desk. The only others in the room were Col. Tigh, Ens. Athena, Lt. Starbuck, and Dr. Salik. An open channel on Adama's desk connected Col. Kleopatra with the proceedings. Cain's departure from the ship had been delayed so he could participate in the conference, although it looked as though there would be little he could contribute.

"So we have an imposter at the very least, who may be a saboteur as well," Adama said heavily.

"Evidence is, whoever used the computers simply wanted information. We haven't located any suggestion of tampering with anything other memory of use," Tigh supplied. "What would be helpful is some idea of motive."

Adama's gaze swept sideways over the two younger warriors, sitting uncomfortably in the middle of the room. "For some reason, this individual seemed to see fit to seek out and make Athena's acquaintance. Besides being my daughter, she is also your aide, Tigh, and has easy access to most of this ship. The perfect individual, if properly approached, to question on many details of ship's policy and operation."

"I didn't–"

"No one's accusing you of anything, Athena," her father interrupted. "Certainly no complicity in a conspiracy. But we must face the possibility that this man was using you."

She winced at the harsh statement, but drew herself together quickly and sat up straighter, nodding briefly. Starbuck touched her hand in sympathy the micron the commander's attention left them.

"But to what purpose? Dr. Salik, anything further on the drug traces in the Corporal's tissues?"

"We're still working on it. The chemical composition is completely unknown to us," the doctor replied. "But the boy didn't have anything to do with this either, in my estimation."

"So we keep looking for this Thjis, or whatever his real name is, and trying to figure out his motives," Tigh said.

"Is there anything a Raggane would have to gain from passing as one of us and gaining access to our computers?" Salik asked.

Kleopatra answered from the other end of the comm line. "That's a possibility. We know some of the religious sects have what seem to us to be unusual or vicious customs. The Otori are noted for their ethical strictness, and it wasn't very long ago that they still punished moral crimes, as they viewed them, with mutilation or physical scarring. The Deborin were reported to do the same, but their wealth has kept them many secrets. The Borellians have segregated themselves so long they're practically alien to us, and they still practice their blood-hunt – which may be worse, as they aren't afraid to terrorize or even murder non-members of the group they feel have insulted them. There are numerous others.

"But I don't believe the Raggane are by nature inclined to such violence. Of course, they are secretive about certain rituals and bits of their history, but I can't think why they'd want information from our computer banks. General data is available to anyone..."

"What if it was something about Heimdal and Sif?" Athena suddenly asked. "The Pegasus logbooks could have been accessed from our computers..."

"A co-religionist, looking for information?" mused Adama.

"Why not simply ask?" Tigh demanded.

"Unless he didn't think we'd supply the data," Athena ventured.

"That's possible. We haven't exactly been open about much more than personnel rosters during the quarantine," Salik agreed.

"Until we apprehend and question the man, this is all mere speculation," Cain cut in. "And we're all assuming the man Starbuck saw, and identified as this Thjis, is the man who did the tampering. We don't know that for a fact, just yet."

"His presence seems to fit the time frame, and his ... non-appearance in fleet personnel records is suspicious in itself. We don't know who we're dealing with," Tigh reminded them. "And there is another possibility we've not considered. The man may not be Raggane at all. He may simply have used the religious identity to make it easy to get around the ship, just as he seems to have used a Pegasus uniform."

"Everyone would assume they didn't know him, but that he belonged here," Cain ruminated.

"But he wore the braids!" Athena objected.

"Easily manufactured. The thing we can be sure of, is that he isn't one of our warriors."

"Can we?" Salik asked skeptically.

Tigh sighed. "So we still don't have any idea of motive, and finding the man..."

"We have a description. That's something. And two people, at least, who can identify him. I suggest, Colonel, that we get to work on it."

Tigh gritted his teeth – again – at Cain's casual "suggestion." Were they always going to be in conflict?

"Yes," Adama agreed. "We won't know what's going on until we have more information. Salik, I believe you're needed back in life center. Warriors, you are dismissed, for now – but continue to make yourselves available to security in this investigation. And thank you for your time and input, Kleopatra."

A few moments later, only Cain remained. He would be leaving for the Pegasus soon. Until then, the breach in internal security on this ship interested him. Since Helena was likely to keep him mostly confined to quarters for the next few days, and Cassie was sure to enforce the order, he threw himself into the investigation wholeheartedly. It might be the only excitement allowed him, and he was already becoming restless and bored with his confinement.

"Cain," Adama asked thoughtfully, "what was Heimdal like?"

"He was a damned good warrior," he replied without hesitation. "One of the best on the Pegasus. If not for Major Electra, I'd've given him the post of flight commander at Molecay."

Adama managed a smile. "I didn't think anybody was 'given' any position on your ship."

"Believe me, he'd've been worthy of it. If you have any suspicion concerning him, I'd like to hear it, although I don't see any way he could be involved in this, since he's gone."

The commander shrugged. "Athena said they look enough alike to be kinsmen. Maybe something from the past..."

"Like what?"

"I don't know. But I have a feeling this is related somehow to the disappearance of your people. A deep suspicion that Athena may be right – Heimdal and Sif are involved in this, somehow."

"From the grave?"

"Perhaps."

"I respect your intuition, Adama," the other man said slowly. "But my experience says to look elsewhere. There's an explanation, a rational one. We're dealing with a man here – devious, maybe, but still a human being. When we find him, we'll find the answer."

"I'm sure you're right."

Starbuck and Athena walked quietly for a few moments.

"Athena, have you got a centon?"

"Not really. I'm supposed to be on duty. What is it?"

The blond warrior looked away. "If you see this Thjis again, be careful, will ya? I mean, he could be dangerous."

"What makes you think I'll see him again?" she countered.

"If he doesn't know he's under suspicion, he may try to ... talk to you again; and if he does know, he may come looking for you anyway, blaming you, or something."

"I can take care of myself."

"I know that! I'm not implying... Look, take care of yourself, because I care about you, and I worry about this guy." He's strong, and I think he's smart, too.

"Anything else?" She didn't mean to sound so stiffly formal, but she was still upset at the thought that Thjis might have been using her.

"Yeah. Sorry about dinner."

She stared for a moment at his awkwardly apologetic face, then began to smile. "I'm sure you'll make it up to me."

Chapter VIII

Apollo's fingers played absently with his stylus as he stared unseeingly at the computer print-out in his other hand. He couldn't concentrate on his examination of patrol debriefings from the past few days; his attention kept wandering. Not even the possibility of discovering some clue to the mysterious aliens could keep his mind off Sheba's defection to the Pegasus. Sullen resentment kept surfacing, however much he tried to banish it with logic, love, and compassion.

She has a right to want to be with her father. But why can't she be with her father and still be with me?

Their relationship had been stormy at times. They'd argued with each other, ignored each other, helped each other through periods of loneliness, misery, depression, and pain. As he reviewed their relationship, he kept thinking of how her mind always turned back to her father, to Cain, how much that man meant to her, how she'd always clung to the hope that he would return.

Everything about Cain was a personal matter to her. She'd out-flown Apollo, nearly killed him when they met – living up to her father's skillful reputation. In the fuel crisis, she'd pulled a laser on him in what she saw as defense of her father's honor, angrily denouncing his father in what could so easily have become the bloody violence of mutiny. She'd joined the "suicide mission" to Gamoray, without Cain's knowledge, to somehow cleanse his name from the secret stain of the tanker incident. And there had been many similar missions since. Her concern was that her father be proud of her, and think of her as a warrior fit to follow in his footsteps and stand beside him.

Truthfully, was she behaving so differently from him?

But I want a wife, a companion to love! Is she too much the warrior to be anything else? I'm a warrior, too, but I'm still my own person, an individual, not a detached portion of my father! I don't need to be Adama's son to make my life have meaning!

The romance had gone so quickly, vanished with her father's arrival. Would it ever come back? Would it ever be the same?

He tried to turn his thoughts back to the patrol reports. The Pegasus and Galactica were sharing debriefings, and the flight commanders and other senior officers were examining them, hoping to find information another might have missed. With pooled data, they hoped to find something.

So Electra would be studying these reports too.

She has time, even with her brother and her commander sick, for other matters. And she doesn't seem the type to pull a weapon on a man doing his job! Maybe she's got more sense. She's quite a warrior, but she's still a woman. And she can laugh...

And maybe I should stop thinking about her.

He felt strangely vulnerable, and comparing the two women could only add fuel to the fire.

Sighing, he dropped the debriefing data to the desk. He was almost due for patrol. Maybe some time in space would clear his head, help him think.

He left his quarters, striding through the empty corridors on his route to the launch bay.

Halfway there, he felt an eerie shudder run down his spine. Turning quickly, he stared in narrow-eyed astonishment at the blank and silent metal walls. There was nothing there, nobody walking behind him, matching his step. The girders and sheet panels stared back at him expectantly, as though keeping a secret and waiting for him to proceed before whispering their message.

But he could have sworn he heard someone behind him. And the feeling that he was being watched persisted, however he tried to dismiss it. He had to force himself to walk calmly the rest of the way.

As Cain stepped down from his shuttle, the assembled Pegasus warriors broke into spontaneous cheers and applause. He felt pride in that welcome, seeing their honest joy. And sighting Sheba among them, his heart swelled still more. His baby was one of his own again.

He raised his swagger stick to acknowledge their cheers, and they fell silent. "It's good to be back among my warriors, and it's a pleasure to see you all. I hear you've been performing admirably in my absence. I hope you'll keep up the good work now that I've returned!"

The cheers began again, and didn't stop.

The med tech behind him stepped forward, raising her arm to stop the noise as she stood beside him. "Please! Let your Commander go, he needs his rest!"

The high-spirited pilots seemed inclined to ignore Cassiopeia's request, until Cain gestured them all to silence again. "For now, we all have duties to attend to, I'm sure," he ordered. "But as of twenty-one hundred this evening, the first round's on me. See you all in the officers' club."

They cheered again, and it took several centons for the warriors to contain their exuberance and disperse to their assigned duties. In the meantime, Sheba moved to her father's side as Cain led the way to the lift.

"You look a little pale, Cain," Cassie murmured under her breath. "Are you sure you have to inspect the bridge before you go back to your quarters and lie down?" She watched him a little anxiously.

He nodded decisively. "They expect to see me, and I'm not letting them down. You go get things ready in my quarters, Cassie. Things haven't changed much; you know where they are. Sheba will escort me, and I'm sure her hands are as capable of yours where any threat to my health is concerned." He put his arm around his daughter's shoulders.

Cassie exchanged looks with the other woman. She could see Cain would be well watched. She sighed. "All right, but you heard Dr. Salik's orders before you left. I'll check in with Helena first, but if you're not back in your quarters in one centar, we'll report you to security and have you hauled to life center and forcibly restrained."

"Yes, yes, I know," he answered impatiently. Then he smiled. "I feel better just being on the Pegasus. I'll see you in a centar."

Cassie knew it would be not one micron sooner. She shook her head. "Cain..."

"I'll make sure, Cassie," Sheba spoke up.

"I know. That's the only reason I'm letting him get away with this kind of behavior so soon. Take care of him." She took her small bag of gear and made her way down the passage, giving father and daughter a chance to talk.

Cain pulled Sheba closer, hugging her. "It's good to be back with you, baby. But I'm surprised you're here. Weren't you in Blue Squadron?"

"Temporary rotation, like the rest of the squadron. I take my turn the same as they do."

"I'm sure you do. I'm just surprised Apollo let you go."

She smiled proudly at him, her brown eyes glowing. "He understands, Father. And I've come to understand a lot of things, too, this past yahren – about people, and duty, and responsibility. There are so many things I can't wait to share with you."

He smiled back. "I heard about some of those things. I'm proud of you. And I hope you and Apollo will be very happy together. But tell me, baby, what would you think of your old father taking a big step at this time of his life?"

Her eyes widened. "You asked Cassie to seal with you?" she demanded.

"I know you didn't think much of her for a long time, and didn't approve of my seeing her. You seem to get along better now–"

"Oh, Father!" she laughed merrily. "She's my best friend! Nothing could make me happier... But when did you ask her? How? What did she say?"

"Hold on, hold on. I haven't asked her yet. Not officially. I wanted your good will before I took that step, and I wasn't sure what you two thought of each other. When we left, you'd barely admitted she might be a decent and worthwhile human being–"

"Oh, Father!" She hugged him tighter. Sudden anxiety clouded her ecstacy. "What have you said to her? Have you...?" What about Starbuck? He and Cassie have been involved for some time now, and if Father doesn't know... She didn't want to see either man hurt.

But Starbuck can be so exasperating. He's had over a yahren to make a commitment to Cassie, if he's ever going to. He likes his relationships with no strings and no questions. Cassie proved her feelings – and she certainly gave him enough time to make a decision. I wouldn't be surprised if she was just another one of his amusements – deeply passionate for a day, then looking around for his next conquest. Look at Athena – look at Aurora – look at all the other women who've flitted in and out of his life – he was ready to make me one of them, when we met, with his "personal" bet! If Cassie's got a chance for happiness with my father...

"Yes, we spoke," he was saying. "There's still something special about us, Sheba, something very precious that I never want to give up. We'll take some time, I think, but I believe she feels something for me that's never died. I think that's why she volunteered to come with me."

Sheba's fear vanished in a rush of joy. "Nothing would make me happier than to have Cassie part of the family! But I don't think I'll ever be able to call her 'Mother'!"

Omega's anxieties wouldn't settle. Besides the external threat, there was now the matter of internal security to consider, and their computer access, and possible danger to personnel. As flight officer, he was in charge of coordinating the information and preparing the data the senior officers needed to make correct decisions. It also meant he was as aware as they were of the situation and the potential for disaster.

He frowned at the endless series of navigational computations flashing across his board, the constant fuel and status reports coming from the other ships in the fleet, the Viper patrol status beacons. Nothing on the aliens. Nothing on the identity of the intruder in the computer room.

"Omega..."

He glanced down at the tentative voice. Athena had shown up for duty looking very chastened, and had been relatively quiet at her terminal, performing her duties as efficiently as always, but in a subdued manner. "What is it, Athena?" he asked.

"A coded signal – from inside the Galactica."

"Route it here."

The series of glyphs was foreign to him, making no sense in any of the numerous codes he was required, as flight officer, to be familiar with. From inside this ship...

"Computer enhancement," he ordered tersely.

"Nothing," Athena reported after a moment. "The code is completely unknown to us. It's not Cylon, seems to have a totally different base than theirs, but that's all the computer can tell us so far."

"Location?"

"Too short a transmission to pinpoint. We can monitor the frequency, should there be another signal, but for now, all we know is that it originated from within this battlestar, and was beamed out, away from the fleet." Athena continued trying to make sense of the strange communication.

From inside the battlestar. Away from the fleet. He put in a call to Cmdr. Adama.

"Welcome back, sir." Col. Kleopatra saluted him formally.

Cain returned the gesture, his eyes already traveling over his bridge, noting with approval how sharp everything looked, how crisp and alert his personnel were as they stood at his entrance. "To your posts," he barked, and they returned to their duties.

He nodded with pleasure as he climbed the steps to his command deck. Tolan was already at the console; Kleopatra joined them a micron later. Sheba remained on the main deck, watching him, like an unofficial honor guard with espionage duties.

"Everything looks good, Colonel," he commented.

"Thank you, sir," she murmured. They hadn't spoken privately since his recovery. "I took such actions as I perceived needful for ship morale and survival."

He understood. "So you brought the Pegasus to the fleet, and the Delphians with her."

"Yes, sir, I did. And I'd do it again."

"I'm not finding fault. I'm surprised you found a way to convince the Delphians to stay with us."

She unwound with a smile. "It wasn't easy. But I convinced the Empress. I'm sure you'll be seeing her shortly."

"Whatever. It was the right thing. Especially with the aliens that have been menacing the fleet." His brow furrowed, and he leaned forward on the railing, ignoring Sheba's look of concern and the colonel's more questioning gaze. "No, I'm fine. But if something out there is hunting humans, other than Cylons, that is, the Delphians are safer with us than alone."

"They might not have encountered the aliens at all if I hadn't brought them here – or the Pegasus." Kleopatra's voice was low.

The commander shook his head. "Sooner or later, Colonel. We've been following similar routes, after all. It was only a matter of time. I wonder, in fact, if there aren't other ships out there that may already have found the aliens, or been found by them, that we'll never know about...

"But speaking of Delphians, where's Kenji? I need to call a general officers' meeting in my quarters as soon as it can be arranged, and I think we'll need his input. Titus can take the watch..."

"Colonel Kenji's due on shift in a few centons, sir. He should be here any micron."

The Delphian officer arrived at that moment. Everyone present stared in disbelief as Kenji and his wife, the scan officer, strode quietly and without fanfare to their posts. The murmur of conversation died, then rose in a buzz of whispers as the two assumed their duties, their tranquil expressions denying that anything was amiss or in any way unusual.

Knowing from his crew's reactions that this had not become the norm while he was ill, Cain studied Kenji for a moment. "What happened to your clothes?" he finally inquired when the colonel made no effort to explain.

The officer raised dark eyebrows marginally. "You refer to the fact that we are attired in Colonial uniforms?" he inquired politely.

"Damn right, that's what I refer to."

Kenji smiled slightly at the commander's language. "We have observed that several of our pilots in the squadrons, particularly the females, have chosen to dress themselves in uniforms of your military. After a discussion, my wife and I have concluded that this is proper. We do, after all, serve on a Colonial vessel, and we are likely to remain here. It is fitting we change ... certain of our customs."

"Such as your uniforms."

"Yes."

"I'll be damned."

"I hope not, Commander. We may all be damned with you." He spoke in a quite serious tone, but Kleopatra and Tolan had to smother explosions of laughter at the crinkle in the corners of his amused eyes.

Cain began to grin. What Kenji and Mriko had just done, the statement they'd made... He had a feeling the young Empress and her senior advisors might have something to say about this, but just now, he was too pleased to worry about it. He thrust out a hand. "Welcome aboard, Colonel."

Starbuck hadn't been able to get more than two centars' undisturbed sleep since his night with Chameleon. First, Apollo had roused him to fly the shuttle to the Pegasus. He'd been offered a temporary billet there, and since he didn't have anything else planned for the day, and several of his buddies were on rotation, he'd jumped at the chance. With increased alert status, it gave him an excuse to see some of his friends – which meant he'd spent his time on the ship with them, playing cards, catching up, and generally wasting time, hoping to forget Cassie's betrayal in following Cain again.

Then, he'd shuttled back to the Galactica on a regular run, having managed to avoid sleep entirely. A little time with Athena had turned into several centars of interrogation by both commanders and half the security forces in the fleet. If he ever encountered that "Captain Thjis" again...

And then, of course, a patrol this morning, with a curiously quiet and preoccupied Apollo. Returning from the patrol, they'd landed on the other battlestar again, Apollo wishing to confer with Maj. Electra on some business or other – private, of course, between the flight commanders. After Ptah's chance remarks a secton before, Starbuck had become acutely aware of how much time they were spending in each other's company.

But Apollo's too damned straight for me to have to worry about what they're doing. It has to be official business.

At any rate, he'd been shooed away and left to fend for himself. Fortunately, the offer of a spare bunk from the day before was still open, and he'd gratefully decided to catch a nap.

Which had promptly been interrupted by the party welcoming back the three sick pilots from Silver Spar. They'd greeted Cain in the landing bay, but the celebration for the others was in the ready room. He'd pulled a blanket over his head and tried to ignore it for a few centons, but a good party was a lure he couldn't resist for long.

The party was finally beginning to break up. Starbuck could've gone back to his borrowed bed, but his keen ears picked up a voice he recognized, followed by a merry laugh.

He left the now-quiet ready room to trail the two men. Whatever Chameleon was doing on this ship – however he'd managed to get aboard! – the lieutenant was curious. That the elderly man was also with Capt. Orestes, one of the recovering pilots, and a man he'd professed to know, piqued his interest. He was able to stay close enough to overhear a few snatches of conversation, but when they disappeared into the flight commander's quarters, he was stymied.

Standing alone in the passage, chewing on his fumarello, Starbuck was uncertain what to do next. He wasn't sure, but he could have sworn he'd heard Orestes call the older man "father." And from what Chameleon had told him about his life, that didn't seem possible. It suddenly appeared that the old scoundrel had a great many more secrets than he'd so far been willing to share, and the lieutenant wondered whether he ought to forget the incident, ask for an explanation outright, or resort to subterfuge to–

"Looking for somebody?"

He jumped. It was Electra, the beautiful blonde flight commander of the Pegasus, and the rightful occupant of these quarters – and Orestes's sister. Hmm. If Chameleon was the man's father, he was also this woman's...

"Uh..." he stuttered, his mind still trying to pull itself in order and stop making wild leaps. He rolled the still-smoldering fumarello nervously between his fingers.

"Captain Apollo left over a centar ago, if you're looking for him. He didn't say something about disturbing you. Maybe he assumed you were already gone, or that you would return to the Galactica when you were ready."

"No, I... Thanks, Major, I didn't know he'd gone..." Before he could brush past her and disappear, the door swooshed open. He must have leaned against the chime accidentally, and the mechanism responded to the pressure of his body.

From where they stood, both Electra and Starbuck could see Orestes and Chameleon comfortably settled on the couch in the woman's quarters. The major frowned as she glanced from the other two back to him, an expression that held quick comprehension.

"Have you been following people on this ship?" she demanded sternly.

Frak! Caught out!

Orestes joined them in the doorway. His expression was more uneasy, while the civilian looked like he was trying to melt into the furniture.

With another glance at Chameleon, Electra caught Starbuck's arm, and he felt himself pulled out of the corridor. The door closed on the four of them.

Expecting a reprimand, Starbuck waited with an outward expression of meekness. The other three continued to look at each other, studiously glancing away from him, for several long centons. The awkward silence thickened and became almost unendurable.

"Well?" Electra finally prompted the old man.

"Well, what?" he hedged in agitation, his eyes woefully seeking an escape of some kind. Orestes was silent, but seemed disturbed and a bit puzzled as he watched his sister.

"He followed you here."

Both men studied Starbuck with traces of alarm on their faces.

What in Hades have I stumbled into? Knowing something of Chameleon's less-than-ethical dealings in the past, he wondered if he'd walked in on a scam of some kind – but surely Siress Blassie had kept a close eye–

"May have been listening as well."

The thick uneasiness intensified, with a sudden aura of shame coloring the atmosphere. Electra didn't say anything more, simply settled herself on top of her desk and crossed her shapely legs. Any other time, Starbuck's attention would have been riveted by that simple action.

Orestes sighed, and threw himself back onto the couch. "It's not really up to me to make the decision," he announced with resignation. "Chameleon, the choice is yours, I guess. Uh, Starbuck, what did you hear?"

He watched in bewilderment, then reached a decision. Planting himself firmly, he squared his jaw and took a deep breath. "All I heard were bits and pieces," he stated. "But whatever it is you're talking about, I want to know what it means." And I hope it doesn't get me in hot water! "If you're plotting something, Chameleon..."

"Plotting...?" The stares dissolved into laughter, and the tension was instantly gone. Starbuck was perplexed.

"No, no..." Chameleon rose, the anxiety fading into wrinkles of merriment. "We're not plotting anything, Starbuck. It's just ... there is something I've wanted to tell you for a long time, but the time was never right, or I was never brave enough, but it looks like now is the time, no matter what..."

"Want a drink?" Electra offered.

"What?" He was thoroughly bewildered.

"I think you'd better get it ready, Electra. He'll need it. We might need some, too. Better sit down, little brother, and put out that weed..."

Akimi sat alone in Silver Spar's female pilots' quarters. The party welcoming Orestes, Astarte, and Falstaff back had not been to her liking; she couldn't stop brooding.

Only a few days ago, Heimdal and Sif disappeared. I understand we should be happy that the others are back, but it seems a betrayal to forget them so quickly. How would their spirits feel, seeing how we react? We owe them more than a day's sadness.

The fierce devotion of a Delphian warrior to a senior officer couldn't overcome the grief of a woman for a lost friend. Although there had been other losses since her people joined the Colonials and she joined the warriors, this one hurt the most. The Delphians had their own rites of mourning the dead, and she had been part of those often enough. The Colonials had less ceremony, but those who died in battle were avenged in centons, which could heal the heart in its own way.

But for Capt. Heimdal and Lt. Sif, there had as yet been no vengeance taken. They didn't even know who the killers were. Ritual had been less than usual; the fleet must not become alarmed, and the friends and colleagues of the missing couple were more preoccupied, at present, with the affairs of the Colonial fleet.

And yet, this seems to be the way of the warriors. Forget the fears and sorrows and losses of the past as soon as possible. Celebrate the joys of the present. Tomorrow, we may encounter our own final fate. Play lightly even with love, and be wary of too close a friendship. Everything may be lost in a micron. What we have not known, we will never know. What we have experienced in our lives means nothing once we are drawn beyond.

Where is the value in such a life?

She lowered her face to her hands with a whispery sigh. She had no wish to waste her life in a futile search among the stars for the unknown aliens. But there was something else she could do.

From her small locker, she drew out a small, elaborately carved wooden casket set with dark jade and inlaid with a thin veneer of gold. A gift from her husband at their joining, she had kept it after his death as a ritual box. Its contents were things of remembrance and ceremony. She pulled out a long, thin strip of white ribbon; it had been her only mourning garb for her mate, a man she had first worshiped, then come to love. On the Dragonsbreath, fleeing from the Cylons and concerned with survival, there hadn't been resources for the full white robes mourning required.

Standing before a mirror, she tied back her straight black hair, surprised to see how long it had grown in her yahren as a warrior. I shall wear the white for you, she promised. It was a small gesture, but she and her people would understand.

Chameleon was already on his way back to the fleet, stowed carefully on a shuttle flown by a friend who owed him a favor. Lt. Starbuck was still in shock as he and Capt. Orestes – my brother! – saw the old man off.

So now what? It's one thing to call Chameleon "Father." I've known him for a long time, and he's acted like a father to me – with good reason, I see now. But I don't know how to treat Orestes and Electra. What do they expect? It must be a surprise for them, too... Lords, what a mess. Mother, I just wish...

I don't even know what to wish! I'm not even sure what to think yet! What a way to get a family!

His parents had been married. He was legitimate and had a claim on Chameleon. Starbuck knew his own nature well enough not to be surprised to learn that his father had strayed during the marriage.

So what does that mean? Their mother loved him as much as my mother did, enough to have them, even knowing he was already sealed. She still loved him when she found out about me – that couldn't have been easy. And then the Cylons attacked, and Mother was killed, and Chameleon – Father! – really did have amnesia, and couldn't look for me... But their mother did, for his sake. I guess I owe her for that, even though she failed, and she's dead now.

My foster parents were good to me; I can't complain about them, or the way I was raised. Yeah, it meant I was an only child, and it wasn't the best part of town, and I know I was a real terror at times – but they did their best, and they loved me...

So now I've got a brother and a sister, and I've found my father.

I wish I remembered my mother.

I've got a family...

Orestes cast a surreptitious glance at the preoccupied lieutenant. Starbuck was his half-brother. He and Electra had known of his existence for yahrens, since the Tauran Academy, when their mother had seen fit to give them the true facts of their birth, not the pretty fable concocted for the public records. Their mother's cubits had smoothed over a great many potential troubles, and her social standing had put her above others.

And the Academy Kommandant was infatuated enough with a wealth society "widow," and vain enough to think she might be enamored of him, to let a few things fall through the cracks, like the medical fact that we don't have any Tauran blood! By the time he learned otherwise, he couldn't do anything without implicating himself in record-fixing.

But we never saw that vicious streak...

It had been that, and her hatred of her rival, that caused her to spirit away a small boy after a Cylon raid. Chameleon couldn't have found Starbuck after that even if he'd tried, if he'd been in his right mind instead of ill for a yahren. The "real" explanation, which the child's foster parents and a certain Caprican Children's Assistance official had accepted and been well paid to keep quiet, was that Starbuck was the son of her husband's lover, specially placed and cared for as a kindness to her dear love's memory, an outward show of charity and selfless love for an innocent orphan.

Mother could be very cruel when she didn't get her way.

And, of course, when Chameleon was well again, and mourning his dead wife and the son he would never find, she had been so consoling, always making him welcome in her home, pointing out that he still had two lovely children, and her extensive resources were available to him. But he never married her, never went into her debt, and after a time stopped seeing her completely, although he would occasionally sneak around to visit them.

Maybe he never believed everything she said. Maybe he was just wary of owing her too much. He didn't feel anything for her anymore, he just came around for us.

I think, at the end, she would even have brought back Starbuck, if it would've held him, maybe announcing graciously how she'd never given up on finding his son, and here he was, and now we could all be one happy family. Starbuck's life, and ours, would have been very different then.

Actually, considering our mother's temper, he was probably safer where he was!

I think Chameleon's the only man who ever really thwarted Mother. And she could never stand not getting her way...

They hadn't known all that when they were children. They kept their father's visits secret, because he asked them to. They'd only learned about Starbuck and his whereabouts in their third yahren at the Tauran Academy. At home on leave, their mother had announced that their brother was starting at the Caprican Academy. She'd followed that with sarcastic remarks about the son of a wagerer aspiring to be a warrior, then a bitter diatribe against Chameleon and the yahrens she'd wasted waiting for him. A spoiled, willful girl from an aristocratic family had finally found something she couldn't have, and had thrown the only screaming, foot-stamping, door-slamming tantrum either of her children ever remembered.

After that, she'd never said another word about either man. They had known better than to ask, but, ever-curious, they found ways to tap their mother's correspondence, and discovered who and where Starbuck was.

She must still have intended to use him somehow, since she kept up those payments.

But there really wasn't anything we could do about the past, even when we found out. Mother's vindictiveness wasn't our fault, and we shouldn't have to answer for it. Father and Starbuck found each other on their own. It's better that way.

Just so Starbuck never asks the wrong questions. He wondered if there was anything he could say or do if the other man found out the whole truth. He might never forgive us.

"Any change, Ensign?" Adama asked the woman at the computer terminal. His daughter's frown and hunched shoulders told of her concentration.

"Negative, sir," she reported. "Still nothing on breaking the code, and no further transmissions. No known Colonial or Cylon code. We've even tried civilian merchant signals, but can't begin to make a guess about the meaning." She sounded unhappy.

Tigh had keyed his own head-set during her report, as other information was relayed to the command deck. He stepped closer. "Nothing on our Captain Thjis either, Commander. Security has no idea who the man might be, or his location. They're still searching." His somewhat disgusted air suggested he had his doubts that security would ever find him. "It has, however, occurred to the officer in charge, since we reported the unusual internal signals, that the incidents of computer tampering and unauthorized communications may be related. Security is proceeding on that assumption, and will keep us informed."

Adama wearily agreed with Tigh's assessment of the abilities of that particular officer; however, he couldn't let his doubts show. This was too grave a situation for back-biting between military and security – both were likely to suffer if there was sabotage or espionage in the works, as would everyone else in the fleet.

And we can't deduce the first thing about the situation, not even with the computers and personnel from the Pegasus. At least we seem to be free of the aliens' surveillance, for the time being...

"Sir," Omega interrupted his thoughts. "Recon Patrol Three reports they have spotted something. It appears to be the aliens again."

Of course. Why not? Throw everything at us at once. "Are the aliens taking any potentially hostile actions against them?"

"Negative," the flight officer replied, shaking his head. "But there seems to be a number of them, more than we've encountered before, perhaps a dozen, sir. Jolly is requesting orders."

"Tell them to fall back. Alert all patrols to close in." He peered tensely over the young officer's shoulder at the small screen, its small blips telling him every action taken by his ships, yet showing nothing of the unknown craft.

"The aliens are closing on our patrol, sir."

"Sound general alert. Inform the Pegasus. Get a fighting force out there. They may not be intimidated by our fighters, but in sufficient numbers, they'll have to pay attention to us." And if it comes to a fight, we may have a chance...

"Don't you trust Noday to take care of your ship?" the small boy asked wistfully. He and his mechanical daggit had quietly watched Apollo fuss over the Viper for several centons.

"Of course I trust Noday. But a warrior should know his ship, Boxey, you know that. Some day, I might be stuck somewhere and have to fix her myself. But shouldn't you be on sleep period?" he demanded. "A warrior needs his rest!"

"You promised to tuck me in when you got back."

Apollo looked chagrined at his son's woeful expression and sad eyes. "I guess I did. Maybe I'll have to let Noday finish the job, after all."

He stepped down from the Viper launch steps and scooped up the small boy, who already looked more cheerful. The dark-haired young woman who normally handled Viper maintenance for him smiled as she finished refueling the shiny craft and took over the systems check.

Then alarm klaxons rang, and the lights reddened in their mechanical demand for attention. The small boy's arms tightened automatically around his neck, and the metal-and-fur daggit at his feet yipped a furious noise at the disturbance.

Red alert. Something's out there...

Boxey's eyes were fixed anxiously on his face, but there wasn't time for more than an encouraging hug before pilots began appearing in the turbolifts and racing for their ships. He had to do the same.

Noday slammed a panel shut, sealing it with a touch of a spanner. "Ship's ready, Captain!"

He put the boy down, and looked at his gathering squadron. "Where's Starbuck?" His son clung to his hand, unwilling to let go. He had to pull his fingers free of the child's grip.

"Still on the Pegasus!" somebody yelled back. "Probably beat us out there if we don't hurry!"

"Right." As he clambered lithely up the side of his ship and dropped into the seat, he felt a chill run up his spine, settling in the base of his skull like an electrical charge, scattering his thoughts. It was the same feeling he'd had earlier, that someone was watching him closely, with unknown intent.

Apollo stared around the turbulent launch bay – but with all the hurrying pilots and techs, the odd light and wailing sirens, how could he know if anyone was there? Just because he couldn't pick anybody out of the crowd...

But there was Boxey, still watching him. His son, to be left alone again.

No! There's danger!

"Noday!" he called urgently.

"Here, Captain, what is it?"

"Take Boxey back to my quarters, will you? See that he gets safely tucked in?"

The woman nodded and waved, lifting the boy and managing to pat the ship for luck in the same motion. The mechanical pet followed as she backed away.

At least Boxey's safe, for the time being ... but from what?

A Hades of a time for a red alert! Starbuck felt the tension in his body that was usual in combat, that told him he was keyed to his limit of ability and reaction speed. But that instinctive adrenalin rush wouldn't be enough if his mind was elsewhere – and just now, he had a lot of "elsewhere" on his mind.

The Pegasus maintenance technicians had prepared his ship for any emergency, so the Viper was ready. He launched with the rest of Silver Spar Squadron, seeing Boomer and Bojay almost alongside him. Somewhere down the line, he know his brother launched, too.

His brother.

Orestes had been released from life center, and insisted he was fit for combat. Starbuck hoped he was right. It somehow wouldn't be fair if he'd recovered from his illness just to die before there was time for anything else.

Electra was out there too, giving orders to her squadrons in a firm, untroubled voice, as if nothing mattered at the moment but the right formation. Her Delphian wingmate didn't seem to have much of anything to say.

They looped around the fleet to join the Galactica squadrons, forming a series of protective wedges between the civilian fleet and the mysterious alien craft. Apollo was easy to locate in the forefront of one of those wedges.

"About time you got here," he heard Apollo say. There was a hard, uncertain edge to his voice that bothered Starbuck, after the uneasy patrol a few centars earlier.

"Sorry," he muttered, thinking Apollo was annoyed he hadn't flown back with him. He'd explain later – maybe, if he could find the words. "A little party – didn't mean to get hung up so long–"

"All right, Blue Squadron," Apollo cut across his attempt at apology. "Let's find out what's going on out here. Patrol Three, Jolly, Greenbean, you saw them, give me directions..."

The spearheads of ships that were Blue Squadron moved into formation. Starbuck found his second-ship position next to Apollo; Jolly and Greenbean were on the other side. Two more ships moved up on his right, probably Giles and Cree. Behind their wing was a second party of ships.

Whatever's out there, we're meeting it in force! It looked like both battlestars had launched nearly their full contingents of Vipers – and those ships, odd-looking only to Colonial eyes, were Delphian Sunriders, staying closer to the fleet, protecting their Empress's ships first and foremost.

"We should be encountering the aliens at any time, Skipper," he heard Jolly report. "There must've been a dozen of 'em, circling 'round us faster than we can fly straight, and still managing to look lazy!"

Apollo took a deep breath. "Get ready, Blue Squadron, I think I see something..."

He saw them, too. Starlight flashed off something moving incredibly fast, something that still didn't show on his scanners, as unbelievable as that seemed. He tried to count the aliens, but they moved too rapidly, darting away so swiftly that his eyes hurt and his head swam.

"Lords, we can't match that–"

"What were they–"

"Where'd they go–"

Then his ship rocked as a strobe of brilliant light flashed before him from one of the alien vessels. Firebursts exploded in his head, and he thought he'd gone blind as the fire threatened to consume his mind. He gritted his teeth, forcing his attention away from the still-intense glare.

"Starbuck!" he heard someone yell. The call thudded mercilessly into his brain. He couldn't answer.

Then the lights were gone, and he could see again, blinking a little against the sudden darkness. His hand was clenched too tightly on the joystick, and it looked like one of his circuit panels was fritzing out on him. H reached for it, then yelped in pain as sparks ran across his fingers and up his hand. For a micron, he smelled burnt fabric as his sleeve smoldered.

"I ... think I'm hit..."

"Can you maneuver?" a distant voice demanded urgently.

He moved the control stick; it obeyed him, but would his ship obey it?

The Viper's response was sluggish at first, and his brain was equally sluggish at interpreting the signals flying between his teammates and their base ships.

"Ships disappeared..."

"We're alone again..."

"Only Starbuck..."

"Stay with me, Lieutenant, I'll guide you in..."

He blinked as he realized his fighter was dropping rapidly to some wide expanse of metal studded with landing lights. The Galactica? It must be. The voices...

His ship set down safely, as if of its own volition. He stared stupidly and fixedly at a distant girder, not even unlatching his cockpit canopy. The sounds and scurrying of rescue teams and technicians made no conscious impact on him. Gradually, his attention wavered to his burnt hand and singed uniform.

The canopy opened, and an anxious face peered at him. He knew that face...

"Are you all right? Can you get out of your ship?" Apollo demanded. "The techs want to examine your Viper. We have to know what's wrong, what the enemy may have done to it. Starbuck?"

With the other man's help, he half-clambered, was half-pulled free of his Viper, and stumbled off to one side, swaying, as protectively garbed men and women hurried away with his ship. Apollo still held him, and the worried faces of some of his squadronmates gathered around.

"Starbuck?"

"I think I'm hit..." He took a deep breath, and blacked out.

Chapter IX

"They're not engaging?" Cain demanded incredulously, narrowly eyeing the empty screen.

"No, sir," Tolan reported, equally bewildered. "Just like the reports of the other times – barely making contact, then fleeing before we can establish communications or engage in combat. As if they were testing us." He kept his relief about that to himself.

"Anything from our flight commander?"

"Negative... Wait! The enemy did engage – briefly. Captain Apollo is leading Lieutenant Starbuck in to the Galactica. His ship took a hit. No other information yet."

"Let me know at once when we have anything. And I want to see Electra as soon as she comes aboard." He strode down the command deck stairs, trying to conceal the sudden deep fatigue that struck now that the emergency was past.

I need some rest, some time to think about this, to plan. Now is no time to show weakness. My people look to me for strength; I can't let them down. I'll have to talk to Adama, too.

But why didn't they engage us? Why fire one shot, then retreat? It doesn't make any sense. We had them outnumbered, but it looks like they've got us on speed and maneuverability. And we have no way to track them. What do they want?

And how do I fight them?

Adama could almost feel his knees weaken with the relief he couldn't show his people. Conflict had been avoided one more time – if the aliens' intentions were hostile. And how can they be otherwise, when they fired on one of our fighters? Starbuck, I pray you're all right.

"Landing bay reports squadrons returning safely," Omega informed him briefly. "Starbuck has landed; an emergency medical team is taking him to life center. His ship is being handled per regulations, with all precautions. Technicians have isolated it, and security and engineering are preparing to examine and analyze the craft."

Good. Whatever that beam did to the Viper – and the man – we'll know shortly. Lords grant the information is useful.

These aliens were responsible for the disappearance of two pilots and had fired on another, besides causing a great deal of frustration and anxiety. And he still had very little idea how to handle the situation. That was what bothered him the most.

How do we deal with them?

The man known as Captain Thjis watched dispassionately as medics carried off the unconscious Lt. Starbuck. Then he continued to study Capt. Apollo as he gave final orders to his squadron and strode out of the landing bay, worry written on his face.

More casually, Thjis followed, thoughtfully considering his next course of action.

Sumiko sat rigidly upright on the elaborately carved and upholstered throne. Her face was coldly formal, but one delicately manicured finger tapped with agitation upon a dragon's leathery wing, carved in the fine wood of her seat. Her attendants, a number of women of varying ages from several collateral noble families, chattered nervously among themselves, keeping their voices low so their words wouldn't draw the girl's attention and possibly her wrath.

A warrior from her honor guard, tall for her people, strode into the Imperial presence. He bowed low before his young Empress, then remained on one knee before the dais.

"Ah, Colonel Sheng," she greeted him. "We have waited for your report. Speak, quickly. What is happening with these aliens? What military word from Cain?"

His disapproval was obvious from his stiff posture. There was no obsequiousness or false flattery in the veteran guardsman. "The aliens have disengaged and withdrawn, as before. The Pegasus sends no word, only a warning to continue to be alert and prepared to send out Sunriders to defend ourselves and the Colonial fleet." His mouth snapped shut. Col. Sheng had no love for the Colonials, but he lived to serve the Royal Kindred, even though that family was reduced to one last girl-child. Although he might disapprove of Sumiko's decisions, he would die to obey her and carry them out.

Her smooth young features puckered slightly. "So we continue as we are?"

"So it seems, Majesty." He remained in his position, adopting a slight change in stance that told her he had more to say.

"What else, Colonel?" she asked.

"Several of our warriors aboard that battlestar have adopted Colonial uniforms, Majesty."

"We are aware of that. The females who have chosen to fight in their squadrons are welcome to dress as the Colonials do. It is more convenient for them, and they have our permission."

"It is more than just a few females. Some among our own officers have changed garments – including Colonel Kenji and his wife. I fear it may be a statement of shifting allegiance, Majesty."

She blinked at that, dark almond-turned eyes puzzled.

"Cain is pleased at this, our warriors say."

The Empress frowned. "There is no crime in pleasing Cain. He leads our fleet."

"But now, Adama leads him, and we live in a Colonial fleet. I merely wish to inform you of what transpires when our people remain too long–"

"We are informed," she interrupted. "Thank you, Colonel."

The interview was over. The warrior rose, one hand on the blade at his belt, the other moving across his crimson tunic in salute. He stalked out as rapidly as he'd entered.

One of the more elderly of the women rose creakily from her cushion among the noble ladies to stand behind Sumiko's throne. The girl purposely ignored her. "The gossip is," she breathed into the young ruler's ear, "that Cain did not come back to his ship alone."

The Empress dismissed the spiteful words with an impatient gesture. "We know that; Dr. Helena brought a med tech to guard his health. We were there; we saw her."

"They say she is a woman Cain knows well."

"So we have heard. Is there a point to your tale?"

The gray-haired woman's eyes danced with malicious glee as she watched the Empress closely. "It is also told, among the pilots, that this woman is the sweetest blooming flower from his past. They say she billets in Cain's very quarters. Some even suggest the Commander's woman may soon become his wife–"

A nail broke as the girl's hand closed about the dragon-wing, and there was rage in her expression. "Return to your place. We have no time for tales."

The old woman bowed and moved shakily away, emphasizing her age to hide her smile.

Sumiko smoldered in silence.

"Dr. Helena!"

The woman turned from her viewscreen. "What is it, Cassie?"

"Is it true? Starbuck was hurt? One of the aliens shot at him?" The med tech looked wretched, twisting her fingers in concern.

Helena nodded briefly, her expression unchanged. "He took a shot of something, and has a few burns from Viper damage. Salik assures me it's all minor; he appears to be fine, although he won't be flying for a few days."

Cassiopeia drew a deep sigh of relief. "I was so worried when I heard. Maybe I should go back to the Galactica. Lords know I'm doing a lousy job of making Cain get his rest..."

With a shake of her head, the doctor brushed off the self-deprecating statement. "I know better than anybody how hard it is to get Cain to stay away from work. You're doing better than I've ever been able to do. At least he hasn't hopped back into a Viper yet. And I'd really appreciate it if you'd stay a few more days. Medical transfers will be complete then, but in the meantime, we can use the help here – and a little continuity of care."

Cassiopeia was still disturbed – as if she were personally responsible for Starbuck's injuries because she was no longer on the Galactica. Helena's impersonal, near-complacent refusal to display her emotions in charged situations was something she wasn't used to, after working closely with the more volatile Salik and the occasionally amorous Paye. But if she was needed here...

Others can take care of Starbuck, I know. But I suspect it's not Cain's physical health that's really keeping me here. I feel it's my duty to stay – though I do want to stay with Cain, and talk things through with him. I think I want to be with Starbuck more. I wonder if he's missing me like I'm missing him?

"How do you feel?" a sweet voice asked anxiously.

Starbuck opened his eyes, puzzled, and stared up to see Athena standing beside the life pod. Her blue-green eyes held worry. He took a deep breath. "I feel fine. What happened?"

She laughed, the corners of her full mouth turning up in relief.

"Do you know where you are?" another voice demanded. It was one of the medics, Dr. Paye.

"Life center, right? I thought you were supposed to be on duty, Athena."

"The Commander let me off early. I wanted to be here when you woke up."

"Why? There something I'm not getting?" he asked, perplexed, as the woman's bright eyes raised delightedly to meet Paye's. Adama cared for his people, yes, but there'd have to be a special reason to justify her getting off to come here...

"When you were brought here a centar ago, you didn't even know who you were, or what had happened to you," the doctor told him.

Starbuck turned his attention back to the man, considering for a centon. "The aliens. Some kinda light beam hit my ship... But what happened then?"

Tension seemed to ease all around him. "You landed safely, and were brought here. But we've got a few questions for you now, Lieutenant, if you feel up to it..."

Apollo's head hurt. With a tired groan, he lifted his hands to rub his palms over his forehead. It didn't do any good. Of course, if he'd turn on some decent lighting, his eyes wouldn't be so tired. But Boxey was sleeping at last, and he didn't want to disturb the child's slumber any more than he already had.

He stared back at the print-out on his desk, leaning on his elbows to support himself. All the data acquired from the surprise ... attack? The aliens had certainly fired on Starbuck's ship. It was definitely a hostile action. But then they'd retreated again, disappearing as fast as they'd originally shown up. What little any of the pilots had observed had been carefully noted in debriefings, and now lay before him.

As if he could somehow make some sense out of it.

Weariness was compounded by frustration and concern for Starbuck, still in life center. But at least his friend was all right – physically unharmed, except for the small burns on his hand and wrist. Mentally, the verdict was still out, although Starbuck was insisting he was quite all right, and would be ready for duty after a few centars' rest. Dr. Salik, ever cautious, wanted to do a thorough examination before making a final pronouncement. His sister was remaining in life center with Starbuck, having run to his side as soon as she could wangle her way off the bridge. There had been no word from Cassiopeia on the Pegasus.

The page chimed gently; he'd set its volume level as low as possible, to avoid waking the sleeping boy in the next chamber. "Come in."

"You look tired, and as frustrated as I am."

"Hello, Electra." The woman held a sheaf of papers in her hand, obviously the same data he was studying. "Nothing?"

She grimaced, and settled on the edge of his desk, dropping the data sheets into the small dim circle of light emitted by his desk lamp. "Fast metallic objects, one of which appeared to project a bright steam of light or energy that struck one of our Vipers. The objects, perhaps a dozen in number, then sped away again. No scans. Nothing from the computers. Nothing from analysis of Starbuck's ship. Nothing but puzzlement and speculation from our warriors. Not much more information than you've had for sectars – which is to say, more of nothing. They can blind our scans, they're faster than we are, and they know what they're doing out there, while we ... don't."

The throbbing in his temples increased. "So we're still in the dark."

"Almost literally," she confirmed. "And you look like you're in pain as well."

"Headache. I'll take something for it later. Maybe I'll get lucky and there won't be any emergencies while I try to get some sleep." And maybe my feeling that something's wrong will go away. Or maybe the feeling is the result of too much anxiety and not enough sleep recently.

"Too much tension. I can do something about that."

"Huh?" For a moment, he misunderstood her frank gaze and almost blushed; then he realized she couldn't possibly be suggesting what first occurred to him – especially with his son asleep not fifteen feet away. "Like what?"

"A little massage technique I picked up." His eyebrows lifted. She laughed. "From a woman my brother used to know. She may have been a socialator; I never asked."

She must have assumed his consent – Who'd tell her no? – for she slid off the edge of the desk and went to stand behind him. In a moment, her fingertips were sliding expertly across his temples, down the sides of his face, and working deeply into taut neck and shoulder muscles.

It feels good, he noted in surprise. His body was responding already; the tension was unknotting with every skilled movement of her fingers. He closed his eyes and enjoyed it, relaxing enough to lean back against her.

"Apollo?"

"Hmm?"

"Do you suppose the aliens were just testing their light-beam or weapon or whatever, or did they choose a deliberate target?"

The moment of distraction was over.

The Empress had regally withdrawn from her audience chamber, but once in her own hall, alone except for Yakami, her expression broke, and she stamped her foot in rage.

"Your Majesty, remember–" the old woman began soothingly.

"Oh, be still!" the girl interrupted petulantly. "Did you call Colonel Sheng?"

The dowager nodded affirmatively.

"And he comes?"

"When you call, Precious, you know he obeys."

"Yes, of course," she answered impatiently.

"If you wish," the other woman observed calmly, "something can be done about this socialator who pretends to be a med tech."

Sumiko considered for a moment. True, the Royal Kindred had a history of punishing individuals who dared interfere with Imperial wishes. "What do you suggest?"

"She can be ... removed from that ship."

The girl had to smile, tempting though the idea was. "On our world, or only on our ships, I would consider that. But the Colonials think differently. I doubt Cain would appreciate it if this Cassiopeia disappeared or met with some sudden accident."

Yakami frowned. "She tasks you–"

"I do not wish to discuss her any further," the girl interrupted. "My present concern is what is best for our people, not the actions of one foreign officer. Where is Sheng?"

Yakami smiled, and bowed more deeply. "I will admit him as soon as he arrives," she said simply, and moved away.

Sumiko flounced to a chair with a thick mat for a seat, and dropped herself onto it, ignoring the wrinkles it would make in her fragile gown. I am strong enough and old enough to take responsibility for my own actions!

Her pique with Cain would pass, she told her wounded pride. Let him have his socialator! Duty commands me – it obviously does not command him in the same way! She brooded. Our people are changing under him. I did not see how much. To preserve my people's ways, perhaps Sheng is correct, and we must separate from these Colonials and their foreign culture. It may be my obligation. I must put my obligation first. I owe that to my people, my heritage. She refused to consider it an act of spite. The Delphians needed to regain their independence.

Cain will see what kind of woman he's rejected!

I can't believe I did that! Electra hurried through the gray corridors, glad not to meet anybody at that late centar. I was flirting with him. Sheba's fiancé – and I was flirting. How could I do that to a friend? Thank the Lords I realized what I was doing before really making a fool of myself. If Apollo'd caught on and had to say something...

She hadn't intended to come on to the captain. But he's attractive, Electra, you have to admit it. And he finds you attractive, too. But he's not the type to "indulge." If he were free... But Sheba's waiting for him. Pull yourself together, woman!

She shook herself mentally, promising to be more circumspect in the future.

Kleopatra was absorbed in thought when the door chime sounded. She looked up in surprise, considering the centar. "Come in!"

A female warrior, one of the Galactica contingent, entered. "Colonel, do you have a centon?"

She smiled. "Certainly, Sheba. It's been a long time since we've had you aboard. Sit down; you're still welcome here, you always are."

"And I'd like to stay welcome here. In fact, Colonel, I'd like to make my temporary transfer a permanent one. I'd like to be back in my father's command."

Kleopatra rocked back in her chair, staring at the determined features of the young pilot seated before her. "I ... see. Have you ... discussed this with Commander Cain?"

Sheba's mouth curved into a smile. "I can't see my father complaining about me being aboard. I'm a good pilot."

"Nobody'd deny that. I was thinking more of what he might say where Captain Apollo's concerned. Have you mentioned this to him?"

The younger woman shook her head. "Not yet. But I think he'll understand my reasoning; it's important that I do this." She continued before her worried superior could interrupt. "I have a right to be on the Pegasus – and an obligation, really. Technically, I was never officially transferred to the Galactica, though I've served there, and I could come right back to my old position – and I want to come back. When my ship landed here, when I was rotated over, it felt like I was coming home again.

"And I know my father, Colonel. If he leaves again, I'm going with him. But I think my being here might prevent that."

Kleopatra's puzzled skepticism showed.

"Married to Apollo, I tie my father to the fleet, to Apollo's family, to Commander Adama," Sheba continued. "He'd find that difficult to abandon, as he left me last time. I'm not injured; there are no Cylon basestars or planets to take. I won't let him leave me. And he won't take me away from them all."

"You want to tie your father here?"

Sheba looked abashed. "The fleet needs him! And I need him... He's not planning on leaving again, is he?" she demanded in sudden panic.

"No, not that I'm aware of," the colonel replied seriously. "I can see you've thought this through, with respect to Commander Cain. But there could be consequences where Apollo is concerned. Separate assignments can be devastating to a marriage, Sheba. Are you sure you've considered the ramifications of that?"

"Are you saying I should base my actions on what my husband would like or dislike me doing?" she demanded rebelliously. "I have a right to make my own decisions and make my own career choices!"

Kleopatra nodded slowly. "Absolutely. And there's no reason I shouldn't give you that transfer – if that's what you want. I only want to say, speaking from my own experience, that this will be tough on your joint future with Apollo." It cost Tigh and me our marriage, and maybe a family. It won't be easy. But I certainly can't deny her the right to make her own career, as I did. Her own choice, and maybe her own mistakes...

"Thank you, Colonel. I knew you'd understand."

Only too well, Sheba.

So it has come.

Kenji stared past the captain of Golden Sun squadron to the row of slim Sunriders stretching across the launch bay to meet the line of Colonial Vipers. It had taken some time to modify the launch tubes and tracks for the Delphian ships.

When he spoke again, it was in the Imperial dialect favored by the military. The tongue, alien to any Colonials who might overhear them, gave the two officers a measure of privacy in the massive, echoing metal cavern. "The Empress wishes us aboard the Soul within a day. So she has decided to leave the Colonial fleet and Commander Cain."

Tokyo nodded his head with an efficient minimum of motion. "Colonel Sheng passed along the order."

And did not pass it through me. Did he think I would countermand it to my people here? My loyalty is much questioned. Perhaps with reason. The timing of my own decision... He found himself staring at the Colonial braid on the sleeve of the blue uniform he wore, the official garb of a Pegasus officer. "And you saw fit to inform me."

"Yes, Colonel. I thought you already knew, but if you didn't, it was my duty."

"Well done. Have you spoken to the other pilots yet?"

He shook his head. "No. But the Colonel may have passed the word through others as well."

"True. Inform our warriors of the Empress's command."

Tokyo's normally passive face actually cracked into mild surprise. "Since you have taken a Colonial uniform, Colonel, I did not expect that from you."

Kenji was unconcerned about the disrespectful breach of hierarchy implied in the captain's rush of words. "My command, to add to Sheng's, is this. Let each warrior decided for himself or herself whether to transfer to the Soul. Some may choose to remain here. I am sure Cain will make them welcome. Those who choose to go are given a free conscience."

Tokyo was shocked speechless.

"We have been with Cain for a long time, Captain, and have served well on this ship. Certainly, we have been in closer contact with these Colonials than with the rest of our people. For some, it may no longer be possible to return to our old ways. This decision is for our lives. The Empress will not remain with the fleet for long."

"What of you, Colonel. Will you go?"

"I think, Tokyo," he said thoughtfully, "that this is a decision I cannot make alone." Mriko, it is for you and the children as well... "What about you?" he returned. "And Golden Sun?"

The captain averted his dark eyes briefly. "Like you, I must consider many things."

"Do so. I will confer with our officers in other departments on this ship. Dismissed." It would not be an easy day.

"Here are the transfer rosters," Kleopatra said as she dropped a computer sheet on Tigh's desk.

"Delivering them yourself? I'm surprised, Colonel," he replied somewhat formally, reaching for the print-out.

She discreetly crossed her fingers as he began scanning the list. Normally, he would inspect and okay all transfers without much comment. This time, however... "I thought I'd save your aide the trip," she told him. "Besides, Cain's back on duty; he insists he's ready for action. I haven't had any time off since he fell ill, and now seemed a good time to get away, maybe talk to a few old friends–"

Tigh's face froze in a mask of shock, and he jumped to his feet. "What?" he demanded. "What in Kobol's name is Sheba doing on this list?"

"Also," Kleopatra continued deliberately, "I thought it would save Athena the difficulty of enduring your outrage when you saw whose name was included. I know how angry you can get."

"Sheba's transferring to the Pegasus? Permanently?"

"It was her request."

"And you okayed it?" he barked even louder.

"I saw no reason not to." She continued to face him, although she wanted to flinch from his angry glare.

"No reason...? Does Apollo know?"

"I don't believe so, yet."

He dropped back into his chair. "I can't believe this. Do you know how he'll react when he finds out? Kleopatra, I can't believe you didn't consider–"

"I did consider! Tigh, I watched the boy grow up too, remember? I know it'll hurt him, but if he loves her, they'll try to work it out. Even if we finally couldn't."

"You had to bring that up!" he snapped bitterly.

"Yes! How could I tell her to be someone's wife instead of her own woman, when I made the choice to be true to myself yahrens ago? She has a right to her own choices..." Her voice rose; somehow, she felt she had to justify herself as well as Sheba.

Tigh stared at her. When he finally spoke, his voice was softer. "So you'll let them go through the Hades we did?"

"Better now than after they're married."

The man sighed, leaning on his desk as if very tired. "I guess that's what makes it so hard to take. Sorry I lost my temper, Colonel. This is a personal matter; you know how I feel."

"Don't be so formal, Tigh. I'm not calling you Colonel when it's just us two," she told him deliberately. "Let the past go, and be reasonable. Consider this. If Apollo and Sheba are doomed to go their separate ways, is this the example you want to set? To both of them? I remember how much he always looked up to you, almost as much as to his father. I know Sheba; I know how she'll react. Do you want them at each other's throats, cold and bitter, when a few words, a little advice, a conciliatory example, can at least salvage their friendship, even if their love suffers from this?" I'm defending Sheba, but I hope this helps us, too.

Tigh shrank away from her harsh words at first, then slumped as if in defeat. He looked up at her. "Battle-ready for somebody else, as always, Klea? And you spoke for yourself and us, too." He sighed. "At least our ships are one fleet, now, not scattered across the Colonies. Maybe they can work it out." He sighed again. "Maybe I have been a little stiff-necked..."

She drew a deep, quiet breath, relaxing slowly. "That's one reason I fell in love with you, so long ago. Even our arguments were interesting – and I think we both enjoyed the fire."

He smiled in spite of himself. "And we always enjoyed making up. Well, I guess I can set a good example. Perhaps you'd care to sample our hospitality? Would you join me in a drink in the officers' club? We may find our young counterparts there as well."

Unexpectedly, she felt a lump in her throat. Time had mellowed the man she'd loved, but she discovered he could still evoke the same emotions in her as before. "I thought you'd never ask."

"I'll bet you did," he responded wryly. "But an old daggit can occasionally learn new tricks!"

The only sign of Akimi's preoccupation was in her darkly mysterious eyes, fixed on her superior officer as Electra checked out her ship before going off duty. "Major, if I may ask," she began abruptly, "what is your opinion of the people of the fleet?"

Electra paused, nonplused. "Uh..." She glanced at her Delphian wingmate. "Well, to be honest, I've never encountered a more mixed bag of humanity anywhere. An odd collection, the luck of the lottery as to who made it to the ships and got aboard. Some of the dregs of society, in some ways, I guess, whatever was mean enough or lucky enough to survive the Cylons. Not to be repeated to the Council, of course. Why do you ask?"

Akimi contemplated the metal track of the launch tubes. "Our people acted differently. We saved families, people with skills useful for rebuilding a new society, people worth salvaging. Some of what lives in your fleet, we would never have allowed aboard. Why do you warriors risk your lives to save that lot when they criticize you for the way they must live as refugees, knowing they are, as you say, some of the lowest of your society?"

"They're all we've got," the tall blonde replied firmly. "It's our duty as warriors to defend them."

"They are not worth your blood."

"Irrelevant," Electra snapped. "When we were with the fleet before, Commander Cain refused a mutiny in his support; he wasn't running out even on this bunch of civilians, wretched as some of them may be. I, at least, find his example sufficient.

"We're survivors, too, Akimi, the survivors of Molecay and Gamoray, and a hundred other actions. We've had lots of practice at staying alive. We exist to safeguard our people – all of them, not just our own families or the upper class or the 'worthy' ones."

"But why stay if there is nothing worth defending?" the other woman asked, a pucker lining her forehead.

"Duty! Our oaths and honor! I'm sure a Delphian understands that."

Akimi nodded as Electra made an uncomfortably hasty retreat from the area. It all came back to duty – but to whom? To the present commander, Cain, who guarded ungrateful peasants, and the fellow crewmen and warriors on the two battlestars? Or to the Empress who beckoned imperiously from past glory, with uncertain promises of a hard future? Tokyo had made it clear that the choice lay with each individual pilot. Akimi's personal loyalty was to Electra – but could she abandon what her husband and so many of her people had died to preserve? Yet, aboard the Soul, would she again be thrust into an empty life to spend her life in mourning, with no purpose?

Did it matter, if that was her Empress's command?

Either way, she failed someone, lost some bit of honor, and there would be no second chance.

It was almost time for night simulation aboard the Galactica. There was very little activity in the nearly deserted launch bay.

Thjis eased the female mechanic to the floor in a niche where she wouldn't be noticed. When Noday awoke, she would remember finishing her work on Captain Apollo's ship, then going about her business. She wouldn't recall having encountered anyone else.

Now in a technician's coveralls, his hair colored brown, the tall man strode over to the captain's ship, humming an odd snatch of song he'd heard the woman singing earlier.

In a few centons, his work was done. Still unobserved by anyone, he made his way out of the wide-open launch bay, to a more secluded spot. He slipped a small device out of his clothes, and pushed one of its many small, concave buttons. The static dissolved in a micron as he fine-tuned the signal and began to transmit.

"Commander!"

"What is it, Omega?"

"The alien signals again, from within our ship!"

"Locate its source and dispatch security at once to investigate," Adama replied.

"Being done, sir."

Once again, however, the signal was too brief; before security or communications could get a fix on it, the transmission was cut off. The stars around them accepted the communique, but there was no response for the Galactica's worried personnel to trace.

Electra sat with a small and somber group in the Pegasus officers' club. Several of her squadron leaders were present, as were Bojay and Boomer from their sister battlestar, and Sheba. They drank quietly, with little conversation; only Tokyo, usually taciturn to the point of rudeness when he bothered to join the other flight leaders at all, seemed nervously inclined to talk.

That encounter with the aliens really shook us, Electra thought. We're all acting funny. The talkative ones won't talk, and the quiet ones are anxious to be friendly. I wonder if it's the same thing that was disturbing Akimi?

When Apollo entered the quiet lounge, he had no difficulty spotting his quarry. "Lieutenant Sheba, do you have a few centons?" he demanded without preamble.

She met his eyes challengingly. "Of course, Captain. If you'll excuse me..." She nodded toward her flight commander and rose to leave with the obviously furious Galactica officer.

The others looked variously uncomfortable and curious as the two left. Only Electra knew what was going on. So Apollo found out about her transfer. I expected sparks. Good luck to both of you. She picked up her mug to finish her drink. "Oh, Boomer?"

"Yes, Major?"

"Since Starbuck's out of action for a few days, you're back to the Galactica; you'll be flying with Apollo. Bojay, Sheba will be with you again. I know a cadet who's getting a review course in formation flying."

Neither looked particularly thrilled, with what they'd just seen, but Electra suspected both Apollo and Sheba would need a good friend around to talk to over the next few days.

Capt. Orestes and Sgt. Falstaff were on patrol, their first since recovering and returning to the Pegasus. They knew what to watch for – a distant flash of metal, something moving too fast against the star field. These had become the hallmarks of the alien ships. Their hope that they wouldn't encounter the aliens was not to be realized.

"Hey, Captain?"

"Yeah?"

"They're here again..."

"Spotted! Inform our base ships."

"I'm losing power! My comm's fading out!"

"Falstaff! Hit emergency distress beacon! Can you hear me?"

"We're picking up a distress signal, Commander. Patrol Five."

"Sound red alert, Tolan. Contact the Galactica."

"All right, Sheba, what in the name of every Lord of Kobol do you think you're doing?" Apollo stormed as soon as they were out of hearing range of the officers' club."

"My job, of course," she returned after drawing a fortifying breath. "This is my ship, remember? My first assignment. What are you so upset about?"

"Your assignment... What about our marriage? What about me? How are we supposed to be together, raise a family, with you over here and me on the Galactica? Have you thought about that?"

"Family?" She stared at him in disbelief. "We're warriors! There won't be time for that for yahrens! Besides, you want a family? You've got your father, your sister, and a son you obviously expect me to take care of. You want more? I come with a father, too! We're a package deal; you can't have me without him, any more than I could have you without Commander Adama!"

"What's that supposed to mean?"

Her expression closed. "You could always join me. Transfer to the Pegasus. We'll be together–"

"You planned this all along, didn't you, Sheba?" he accused. "You meant to leave the Galactica from the start!"

"You can join me here," she repeated.

"I'm not leaving my post–"

"But you expect me to leave mine?"

"How can I be flight commander of the Galactica from here?"

"Oh, that's right – you'd have to serve under Electra just like the rest of us. How can I expect you to give up your rank and position to be just another pilot?" she complained bitterly.

"What in Hades are you implying?" he challenged.

"Or maybe you like being her equal? Maybe it's more than rank you're concerned with? Hey, I've heard the rumors! If it's her you want, go ahead! She's beautiful; I admit that. I can see how someone like you could fall for her."

The swift change of topics derailed his list of arguments for Sheba staying on the Galactica. The accusation also hit uncomfortably close to home. "What? I haven't–"

"Oh, haven't you? I wonder..."

"We have to work together!" he sputtered back.

"And you enjoy it, don't you? Are you worried about me being here? Can't be faithful if you have so convenient an excuse to be on this ship as often as you like? Maybe you don't want us both on the same ship – too difficult to arrange a tryst if you have to dodge your wife at the same time? Or are you really going to try to deny that you find her attractive, that you like the time you've spent with her, maybe more than you like being with me?"

He was stung, and taken aback. "I wouldn't do that to you, Sheba, and you know it. All right, so I find her attractive and I enjoy working with her. It's nice to get a little feminine attention. It's flattering – especially after the distance and chill you've put between us – you forgot I even existed when the Pegasus showed up. But if you think I'd–"

"Of course not!" Her laughter held disgust. "You'd never stoop to that – too dishonorable! It's your position that matters to you, not me!"

"And what about your position? You have to be with Cain? His little girl again, Cain's precious warrior daughter–"

"And you're Adama's son! You want to serve on your father's ship under Adama, as his brave flight commander son. But you won't let me serve on my father's ship! You act as if I'm committing a crime in wanting to be on the Pegasus! I've got news for you, Apollo, you're a hypocrite!"

He bit his lip in rage as she glared triumphantly at him.

"Well, you can't deny it, can you?"

Apollo had been utterly unprepared for her unexpected attack. He couldn't find any countering logic. "I can't leave the Galactica now, Sheba," he began lamely, squirming away from her ferocity. "I'm needed there. We're in a dangerous situation. We're refugees, fighting for our lives..."

"And we can't fight for them on the Pegasus? Or maybe my father's ship just doesn't measure up to your father's Galactica? Or don't you respect my father's command? You had the same problem at Gamoray, as I recall!"

"Your father abandoned us at Gamoray!"

"My father came back! He turned us down when we offered to kick your teeth in for him! He's not leaving! And neither am I! So don't expect me to abandon my post, my ship, and my father so that you can keep yours! You're needed on the Galactica? Well, I'm going to be here where I'm needed!"

"What about our marriage?" he protested. "I love you, I thought you loved me–"

She gave him a bitter smile. "I guess we don't love each other as much as we thought. I couldn't possibly be sealed to a man who has so little regard for my family and my career. It's been a pleasure, Captain, with emphasis on the been. History. You can go back to Serina's ghost now. That's where your loyalty really lies. She won't keep you very warm, but then warmth doesn't seem to be what you're interested in."

She turned away, too angry to care about his feelings at the moment. As she stalked off in what she hoped was a victorious and dignified exit, she felt something hollow growing in her heart.

A siren sounded, wailing rhythmically through the ship. Instinct alone caused the two reeling warriors to react as combat lights glowed redly throughout the battlestar.

"Where are they?" Apollo heard Electra's tense voice demand from somewhere among the stars. "Patrol Five, report!" There was no response.

He continued to study his own instruments, his mind on Sheba, not on the probability that they were heading into combat.

"Orestes? Are you out here?"

"I don't see them anywhere, Major," a somber voice told her. "They're gone, just like–"

"Like Heimdal and Sif. I know, Rissian." Her voice held barely controlled pain. "Silver Spar, form Search Grid Delta. Other squadrons, fall back to defense perimeter. Captain Apollo, can you spare a team for the search? I assume you'll be falling back to the fleet..."

"Uh..." He came out of his melancholy distraction, mentally chastising himself for his inattentiveness. "Right. Red Squadron, join the search. Take no chances if you see anything–"

Brilliant white light erupted all around him, blinding him with its intensity. He heard screams of dismay and shock from his scattered comrades. Somewhere in front of him, he now detected several silvery shapes – the aliens, pressing an attack?

What was happening? He couldn't see his scanner screen, and he couldn't make out any words in the confused garble of communications.

"Retreat!" he ordered, unsure whether anyone could hear him through a sudden burst of mind-numbing static.

Then, as he reached for his control stick, something exploded in his onboard computer. Sparks streaked through most of the Viper's systems. Dark, acrid smoke filled the cockpit, obscuring his view even further; his helmet automatically sealed against it.

"Apollo?" It was Boomer; at least his wingman was still with him, but when he tried to call back, there was no response.

His ship continued to plow forward – toward the mysterious aliens. With the lights ahead refracting through the murk of the cockpit, he couldn't even see to fix the malfunction. When he tried to open a panel, working blindly but remembering Academy training, hot tingles ran up his fingers, and he hastily pulled his hands away.

The chilling sensation he'd felt before welled up in him again. It can't be a malfunction! Not this total, in every circuit! Sabotage! But who, why...?

"Boomer!" he cried in inexplicable panic.

He had no way of knowing if his wingman heard him. The light suddenly flared more intensely, blotting out stars and ships and all connections with reality. The static in his helmet worsened, became as unendurably shrill as fingernails scraping on slate. He shuddered, grimaced, wished he could clap his blistering hands over his ears to blot out the noise. A groan escaped him, and he gladly surrendered to blessedly painless, peaceful unconsciousness.

Chapter X

"There's no response to our signal, sir. Patrol Five has vanished, the same as our other patrol," Tolan reported. "Captain Apollo and Lieutenant Boomer seem to have disappeared as well. Our pilots report that a beam of light, similar to that which struck Lieutenant Starbuck's ship, enveloped their Vipers. When it was gone, so were they."

Cain ground his teeth in frustration. "And Major Electra has no new information to add to our small store of data on these aliens, despite having just viewed the destruction of two more of our warriors and craft? They aren't invulnerable! We've got to have learned something about them!"

Tolan could only shake his head. "Apparently not, sir. And the aliens are gone."

"Just like that?"

"So it seems. Major Electra will make her report as soon as she's back aboard. She's directing a search grid at present, and has temporarily assumed responsibility for the Galactica squadrons as well as our own."

The commander turned his back on Tolan. "Is Commander Adama advised of the situation?"

"Yes, sir."

"Extend my condolences on the loss of his son," he stated roughly. For once, the swagger stick was still. Apollo was to have been his son-in-law, and was a highly valued and much respected warrior.

Tolan nodded silently, turning his attention back to his duties. He stared at the screens for a moment before his eyes widened with another shock. "Commander!"

Cain had been on his way off the bridge. He halted and glanced back.

"The Delphian ships, sir! They're detaching from the fleet, moving away!"

"What? Explain!"

"I think they're leaving!" he exclaimed incredulously.

"Now? Impossible! Get me the Soul!"

"They're not responding to our call!" Memnon told him several impatient moments later.

Cain wavered for a moment, tempted to pursue and get some answers, but the defense of the fleet had to come first. Until they either knew more about the aliens, or left them behind, he couldn't leave.

The woman at the scan console bowed her head, her expression pensive. Her husband had warned her this was coming, but it hadn't been real until now, when she saw the ships of her people abandoning them. Mriko and Kenji had chosen to stay, but it was wrenching to realize they were now traitors to their Empress.

Col. Kleopatra was stranded on the Galactica during the alert. She joined Adama and Tigh on the bridge, and watched appreciatively as that ship's personnel efficiently carried out their orders. Then word came back that Apollo and Boomer would not be returning, nor would the members of the other patrol. Memories of the young warrior's growing yahrens flooded through her mind, and she could see the same thoughts mirrored in her former husband's eyes. From the yahrens she'd known him, she could also detect the grief the commander tried so successfully to hide. To an outsider or a stranger, Apollo might have been only another faceless name on the missing-in-action roster. She and Tigh knew better. So did the officers on duty.

Apollo's sister isn't here. She'll take this hard. Athena's always clung tightly to her family. A little boy somewhere on this ship will have to be told his father will never return. Poor Boxey... And Sheba – she was out there for the action, must have seen the whole thing. I wonder how she's taking it. Electra will miss her brother too. Heimdal, Sif, Orestes, Falstaff, Apollo, and Boomer. Lords, they hit us hard...

Adama raised his eyes to the two officers, the constant support and the estranged companion, standing so near, next to each other. For a moment, the almost tangible grief hovering over the bridge bound the three of them together as closely as love and friendship once had. Then the empathic triad dissolved and each was alone again.

She couldn't stay. "Commander, if the situation has stabilized here, I'd like to return to my ship, with your permission. Commander Cain isn't completely recuperated yet, and I'm sure I'll be needed," she said softly. "I'm so sorry..."

He nodded wordlessly. The two men simultaneously reached for her hands; she shared the clasp for a moment before turning to flee.

Electra caught Tokyo's sleeve before the Delphian officer and his shadowing wingman could leave the landing bay. "What is it?" she demanded. "Where are your people going? Half your squadron took off after them – what's going on?"

His face was more impassive than she'd ever seen it before. "The Empress summoned us back. She has chosen to leave the fleet. Those of our people who wished to, rejoined her. That portion of my squadron chose to join the Soul's contingent of fighters."

Her jaw dropped, grief and anger momentarily forgotten in shock. "She's taking off on her own? Now? With these aliens following us? Maybe tracking our every move?"

He shrugged slightly. "She is the Empress."

Another thought struck her; she glanced across the bay at Akimi and then back at Tokyo. "But... Then why did you come back? Why are any of your people left on the Pegasus? I thought..."

He faced her squarely. "Colonel Kenji has been my commander for yahrens, even before the Destruction of Gamoray. His family have been overlords to my kindred for centuries. He chose to stay. I chose to stay with him. Members of my squadron owe allegiance to me, and to my chosen loyalty. But my oath is to the man my Colonel has chosen to follow."

She was bewildered. "Then why did any of you leave?" Delphian loyalties were a conflicting pattern of honor, duty, oaths, and family ties she'd never puzzled through.

"The Colonel freed us of our oaths. Some of chose to reswear to him, and to you, and to Commander Cain. Some are bound to me by old ties. We stayed. Of the rest, most chose to follow the Empress. We have been with you for a long time, Major. I, for one, am content to remain so."

"Doesn't that make you ... traitors or something?"

He smiled thinly. "In this circumstance, there was no way to avoid it." He walked away.

She turned to Akimi, now shadowing her. "You, too?"

The sergeant nodded infinitesimally. "For me, this was the only choice," she stated simply and with conviction.

Electra was grateful. With Orestes gone... This would have been too much. The grief hit hard, but there were too many things she had to do before she'd have time to mourn.

"Sir?"

Adama turned slowly, his face a hard mask. "What is it, Omega?"

The flight officer looked away. "Security has spoken with the leader of the surviving Raggane in the fleet. No potential identification of Thjis. They're still searching."

"Keep me informed." I really don't care... His hands still clenched the command deck railing; his knuckles were white and bloodless. Apollo and Boomer dead, and Starbuck hurt. Four of Cain's best warriors gone as well. They hit us hard, as if they knew who to strike, which losses we could least afford. Apollo, my son...

Athena! Has anyone thought to tell you? And Boxey? Where are you? I need you here...

Starbuck was released from life center just before the alert sirens sent the ship into a flurry of activity. Athena was still with him. When the hatchways sealed to protect each individual section of the battlestar, they were locked together in one of the turbolifts, just the two of them, stuck between decks. They waited with impatient anxiety, unable to do more than wonder what was going on. The ship was apparently unscathed; she rode steadily and smoothly. Then the lights blinked back to normal, the lift whirred into motion, and the huge craft could be heard returning to life.

"The aliens again," Starbuck stated with conviction.

Athena shuddered delicately. Those aliens had almost destroyed the man who seemed to love her again, who'd held her protectively when the alert first sounded. They'd been safe in the depths of the ship. But what about Apollo? And the other pilots? She reached for his hand again, suddenly needing the security of his touch. His fingers closed tightly on hers, and she heard his deep sigh.

The lift touched down; they'd reached personnel quarters.

"Ah, there you are."

Both froze at the sight of the tall redheaded man who strode toward them from the female pilots' dormitory. He seemed totally at ease and unthreatening, ignoring Starbuck as his gaze lingered on the woman.

"What are you doing here?" Athena stuttered as he stepped next to her, hands settled easily on his hips as he looked down at her.

"I was looking for you; then the alert sounded, and somehow, I found myself stranded here."

Not true! Pilots' quarters are never sealed off from the launch bays! Uneasy, Starbuck planted himself before the other man. "All right, Captain Thjis or whoever you are, what's going on?"

Thjis's face conveyed the impression that the blond warrior was something under a microscope that he found interesting but vaguely distasteful. The lieutenant suddenly recalled that he was still unarmed, and the other man very obviously carried a laser pistol.

Athena saw this at the same time. She put a nervous hand on Starbuck's arm. "What did you want, Captain?" she asked. As a bridge officer, she too was unarmed. Don't antagonize him, Starbuck...

She saw the suspicious frown crease his forehead. "Your friend seems most protective," he commented. "Have you some reason to fear or dislike me?"

Her heart skipped a beat. "Why don't you tell us, Captain," she replied.

He studied her a moment more, turned his unnerving glance on Starbuck again, then spoke. "It seems your people have detected my nonconformity to your ways. I had hoped my behavior patterns would have convinced you to trust me, Athena, but it appears to be otherwise. Nevertheless, I must make my departure."

"Who are you, really?" Starbuck demanded. "Behavior patterns"? What in Hades...?

The stranger was calm. "Inconsequential, Lieutenant. However, as I must make an escape from your ship, and it seems quite unlikely you will permit me to leave without attempting to put obstacles in my way–"

"Frakkin' right we'll put obstacles in your way!"

"I must insist that one of you accompany me."

Starbuck's jaw dropped; Athena gasped. Thjis drew his laser, and pointed the weapon at them with a coolness they found frightening.

"You're a psychopath! Where do you think you can go?"

"I know exactly where I am going. The data I have collected is desired by ... my superiors. We must leave now." He motioned back in the direction of the lift.

Starbuck felt cold. With a small effort, he pushed Athena further behind him. "Where are we going?" he asked simply. Can't let him take Athena. Lords, he's probably sold out to the Cylons! Maybe I'll get a chance to jump him. Athena, call security when we leave. I don't matter, he mustn't escape to betray us...

"No, Lieutenant, not you." His eyes were on Athena. "I believe the female would be more useful. You will remain here, keeping your silence until we have left in my craft. Then you may say what you will."

"No," he responded flatly. "You're not taking her."

The thick red eyebrows lifted. "She will accompany me. I assure you, she will be quite safe–"

Starbuck lunged for the weapon.

Thjis appeared surprised when the warrior moved, but unconcerned. He simply reached for the man's wrist and wrenched his hand free.

Starbuck was shocked at his strength, and gasped in pain as the stranger's hand tightened. "Call security!" he yelled to Athena, trying to pull away and snare the laser at the same time.

Thjis continued to study him, twisting his arm up with that steely grip. The young warrior's left hand, bandaged and blistered, wasn't strong enough to hold the other's wrist; locked on the weapon though it was, he had no purchase. The laser pointed steadily at his midsection. If Thjis chose to fire, he was a dead man.

For a micron, their eyes locked. Then his opponent seemed to tire of the grappling. With a sudden decisive snap, he brought Starbuck's uplifted arm down with frightening speed. The warrior cried out as he heard bones cracking. He fell, at last jarring the weapon.

It fired.

Starbuck was hit.

Thjis stared in surprise at the man groveling at his feet, curled up in a moaning ball of agony.

"No!"

The redhead, nothing but an enemy now, was distracted a moment more; it was all Athena needed. She ran forward, bringing her foot up in an unexpected kick that finally sent the weapon flying out of his hand.

With lightning speed, his other hand, the one that had so casually broken Starbuck's arm, stretched out, fastening on her ankle. A twist, and she was lying on the deck – surprised and indignant, but uninjured except for an aching ankle and a sore backside.

Thjis stood over her. "I think you now see what I can do. You will accompany me, with no more of this uselessly theatrical defiance, or I may be forced to take further measures."

She had no doubt those measures would include further injuring or even killing the now still, apparently unconscious Starbuck. She nodded in numb defeat, wearily rising to her feet.

Thjis retrieved his weapon. "You may call life center to inform them of an injury," he graciously allowed her. "Then we will leave for the launch bay. You need not fear for your health, Athena. You will not be harmed."

She glared in bitter silence.

He walked behind her as she limped to the ship's intercom.

"Hold it! Freeze!"

Two of Blue Squadron's female pilots stood behind them, weapons aimed and ready, their expressions threatening. Diedre and Brie cautiously stepped closer; the slim blonde stooped to check Starbuck.

"Athena, call security," the taller black woman told her, keeping her pistol pointed at Thjis.

"No!" He held up a hand. "I am dreadfully sorry, warriors, but I cannot permit myself to be taken by you. My apologies, Athena, but could you step away? I was instructed not to cause undue harm to any of the subjects, and I did not intend to injure your friend, whatever you may think."

The women stared, bewildered. Several more female pilots appeared, watchfully alert but uncomprehending, their somber discussion of the battle silenced by what they saw.

There was a small puff of smoke and a minor explosion. When it was over, a few metal pieces and cloth shreds were scattered around a dark, singed circle on the steel deck.

Athena gasped. Diedre and Brie watched, stunned. None of them knew what to say when security and medical personnel reached the scene.

Adama left Tigh to supervise the battle reports when word came from life center that Athena and Starbuck had been admitted as patients after an encounter with the man security was seeking. In the medical section, he searched for and quickly found his daughter. Profound relief swept over him, and he visibly relaxed when he saw her sitting on a bed, one boot nestled next to her. Dr. Paye was hunched over her ankle. As he hurried closer, the commander saw the deep blue bruise that appeared to be her only injury.

Unconcealed joy showed in her face as well. They hugged in relief.

Then he saw Starbuck. The young warrior was lying in the bed beyond Athena's. Besides his already-bandaged hand, his arm and chest were newly swathed in a tight wrapping, and his right arm was extended under a glittering purple healing ray. Adama could tell from the drowsy expression on his face that he must've been given some kind of pain-killer.

"Starbuck?"

"He'll be all right, Commander." Dr. Salik appeared in his line of vision.

"What happened?" he asked, turning back to Athena.

"Thjis," she responded unhappily. "He ... tried to kidnap me, Father. Said he was leaving the ship and wanted company. Starbuck tried to stop him. If Brie and Diedre hadn't shown up..."

He saw the pilots for the first time, standing off to one side with two very intent security officers.

"Then Thjis is in custody and can be questioned?"

She shook her head. "He blew up, Father! He wasn't even human!"

He was shocked. "But at least you're still here, Athena. I still have you."

"Still have me?" Her glance darted around. Paye and the med tech averted their eyes, unwilling to face her. Starbuck had heard too, in his drugged haze, and was trying to sit up.

She turned a pleading expression to her father, afraid to ask.

"Apollo and Boomer didn't come back."

"No!" Tears welled in her eyes and spilled down her pale cheeks. "They can't..."

He nodded slowly as she threw herself into his arms, weeping freely. Starbuck, too, cried silently for the loss of his two best friends. If he could have, Adama would have pulled him into the embrace as well. Starbuck was almost as much a son to him as Apollo.

"Captain Orestes of the Pegasus spotted the aliens again. We launched to intercept, but it was just like before. Nothing out there, and pilots disappeared..." he began heavily. Life center was still, listening.

"Orestes, too?" Starbuck asked softly.

"Yes, I'm afraid so. We don't know what they saw. But we know what took Apollo and Boomer. It was a light, like with you, Starbuck. But this time, the ships were gone."

Starbuck fell back to his bed, chest heaving. The commander gathered his daughter closer, and hid his face in her hair.

"Colonel?"

"Yes, Omega?"

"We have a report on one of the transmissions we picked up during the alert, sir. It seems one of our Vipers was broadcasting an unusual signal on a very odd frequency..."

"Continue." He stared intently at the flight officer.

"The transmission appears to have been in the same code we detected from inside our ship. We still can't decipher its meaning, but it was coming from Captain Apollo's ship."

"What?" For a moment, he didn't comprehend what he was hearing. "But Captain Apollo wouldn't be contacting..."

"It may have been a simple recognition signal, sir."

"Or a location beacon!" Everything seemed crystal clear. They had a spy aboard – and Apollo had fallen victim to him. The aliens had chosen their prey very carefully.

"Electra? You wanted to see me?"

It was impossible to tell which of the two women looked the worse for their obvious grief. Electra blinked away her tears. She could see the streaks on Sheba's face that meant her friend had been crying as well.

"Uh, yes, Sheba. We need a flight leader for Silver Spar. You know the people; you've done this before. I think this time it'll come with a promotion to captain, too. Want the job?" She gulped a sob, turned it into a watery smile.

The other woman bowed her head. "I can do it."

"I know you can. How are you holding out?"

"Okay, I guess. Hear anything from the Galactica?" Who will take Apollo's place?

The major answered her silent question. "They're temporarily without a flight commander. Not many pilots up to Apollo's stature. I guess that leaves me in charge, for the time being, until Commander Adama appoints somebody else. Maybe one of our officers will transfer over. We've got a lot of good pilots, ranking officers who survived Molecay, you know – maybe Tamyris or Daystar."

Sheba started to shake with sobs; Electra could guess why.

"Your last words together probably aren't worth remembering, are they?" she asked gently, dabbing at her own eyes again.

"I told him I didn't want to marry him any more ... and worse, Electra! I all but accused him of having an affair ... with you... I'm sorry, I was so mad, he wouldn't listen..."

"Sheba!"

"And now he's gone, and I was so awful, so cruel, and I didn't mean any of it, not about you or him or Serina's ghost, or anything I said. You're my friend, I know better, but I said it anyway," she sobbed.

Electra impulsively reached for her friend. "I understand," she whispered, choking back her own tears. "He was a good man, Sheba, one of the best. I'm sure he knows, wherever he is, that you didn't mean it. He understands too. It's all right..." Guilt only made everything worse – Sheba's regret over the last words that she and Apollo had shared, remorse that she couldn't take them back, that she'd blamed an old friend for their argument; and Electra's own interest in the man, her suppression of it for her friend's sake, the moment it had shown through.

"We'll survive..."

Tigh offered to take an extra shift, but Adama sent him on his way. He realized the commander needed to be on duty, needed to be there if security discovered anything, especially after the intercepted location signal. He accepted the order. Back in his own quarters, he slumped wearily into a chair, wishing for a moment that he'd gone to the officers' club instead.

He sighed. These aliens... Apollo... And Kleopatra and I just patched things up, after all these yahrens. I'm still wary of Cain, but I think I've finally accepted her decisions...

He felt very lonely.

There was a soft sound behind him, a swish of fabric and bare feet on the rug, moving into the room from the attached bedchamber.

"I heard," Maruwa said. She set a tall glass on the desk before moving behind him. He saw that she held a glass herself, half-filled with more of the same liquid that filled the one before him.

When she leaned closer, her arms twining around his neck, he could smell her delicate perfume and a whiff of alcohol on her breath. The silk of her gown brushed against his skin. She didn't need to say or do anything else, just stood there, being there.

Gratitude almost broke his reserve. He picked up the glass, taking a long swallow as his free hand reached up to rest on her slim, tapered fingers. It would be good to forget.

"Helena, I have to go back."

The CMO's gaze was oddly sympathetic. "Go ahead, Cassie. I'll take care of the paperwork."

She packed her few things in an efficient few centons, then hurried to catch a shuttle back to the Galactica. What she felt for Cain was the warm glow of a past love for a special man, but it wasn't an emotion that could make them a life together. She wanted to be with Starbuck; she knew that. She hoped her being gone that secton hadn't destroyed any chance of it.

I hope they're all right, Starbuck and Athena. He's come out of this worse than any of us. Apollo and Boomer were his best friends, and Orestes was his brother. But he has his father now, at least.

And Sheba has her father, too.

She reached the launch bay, and found Cain waiting for her.

"I'm surprised you're not on the bridge."

"Kleopatra's back. She can handle things." He stepped closer, studying her face. "You're going back. That Starbuck must be quite a man."

"I'm not comparing you, Cain. But he is special. And it's been so long, for us." He needs me, I hope. You don't. "It's ... past, I think. I can treasure the past, but I can't live in it."

"Love doesn't always last forever," he commented sadly. "But I do love you, Cassie. I wish you happiness, whatever happens. I'll miss you."

"I'll miss you too, you old war-daggit. But we'll see each other. In the meantime, and always, take care of yourself. And tell Sheba– Never mind, I'm sure I'll see her, I'll tell her myself." She smiled bravely, though her heart ached for what her friend must feel at Apollo's death. For all her training, there was little she could offer for consolation.

He touched her cheek. "You grow more lovely all the time."

She dropped her case and flung her arms around him. "Thank you for understanding."

"A commander's first concern has to be for his ship, his crew. It takes a special woman to live with that. You're that kind of woman, Cassie, under normal circumstances, but you deserve better, the way we are now. I wish times had been different. I wouldn't have given you up for anything. You'd have stood beside me... Tell your Starbuck that he'd better be worthy of you, or he answers to me!"

She found a shaky laugh. "I'll tell him!"

"You'd better go. The shuttle's standing by, waiting for you."

She nodded, not trusting her voice any longer, then ran away from him. This time, it's me who's leaving. Things never worked out for the commander and the socialator. Maybe we'll do better next time...

He watched her go, enjoying the luxury of his emotions for a few precious centons. Then it was time for him to go back to work.

"What do your studies indicate, Wilker?"

The premier scientist in the fleet looked up as the commander entered his workshop. He waved a hand at the small piles of material, neatly organized and analyzed until there nothing else he could do with or to them. "I don't know, sir."

"What?"

"Commander, we've studied every fragment of metal and cloth from the exploding man. A very highly sophisticated android, that's my guess. The technology is yahrens beyond us, and there's too little left of it for me to do anything more than theorize about how it was made, or even of what metallic alloys, or how it was powered. The Viper that security reported exploding at the same micron? Same problem. It may have looked like one of our ships, but it wasn't. Alien manufacture, alien technology, alien alloys."

Adama wasn't surprised. "It looked enough like one of our ships to permit the alien machine to slip among us, probably landing during an alert, without our noticing it. The android had a mission to carry out – which it apparently did, based on its comments to Athena and Starbuck. We don't know what that mission was, although I suspect my son's death was part of it, despite its claim of not intending to harm anyone. Nor do we know where it was going from here."

"I can tell you this much. It wasn't Cylon, unless they've made a two-millennia jump in technology since the Destruction of the Colonies."

"Wilker, that's not very comforting. It leaves too many questions, and no way to find answers."

"The aliens haven't destroyed us yet; and their machine was leaving. Maybe we're lucky for a change, and maybe we've finally found somebody who isn't out to exterminate us." The thin scientist faced him squarely, but didn't sound totally convinced himself.

Adama sighed. "Keep trying, Wilker. You're all we've got, now, and these are the only clues left, the only concrete data we have to work with."

He nodded, absently turning back to his spectroanalyzer. His fascination for his subject was outweighed only by his frustration.

Starbuck woke from a drug-induced sleep, still seeing the world through a hazy fog. Funny, this has happened before, waking up to see a beautiful woman staring at me... But this one was blonde, with sky-blue eyes, not a brunette with the changing blue-green eyes of the sea. "Cassie?"

"I'm here, Starbuck. How do you feel?"

She came back! But ... for how long this time? "Don' feel mucha anythin' just now. How's Athena?"

"She's fine, resting." She turned away from him for a moment. "I don't think he's up to talking with security yet, doctor."

"Then let him sleep," a voice called back.

Her hand lingered on his for a moment; then she was gone. Starbuck watched her walk away, then sighed and lay back, letting the haze slip through his memory again. I guess Cain's willing to wait...

Apollo, Boomer, my friends... How can you be gone when I wasn't there? Why couldn't I be there? Orestes ... I never got a chance to know you. Athena, if you feel anything like this... I didn't ever want to hurt like this, for anybody. But I can't help it. So many gone. It's not fair... Maybe we can help each other through it...?

Commander Cain studied the family scene for a moment, hands on his hips, waiting. Kenji gestured, and Mriko sent the two boys into the next room under the supervision of their older sister.

"Colonel, Lieutenant, where have your people gone?"

The woman's eyes shifted to her husband. Kenji shrugged marginally before saying, "I do not know."

"That's not sufficient. With these aliens all around us... How do your people expect to survive? Where can they go?"

"The Empress chose to lead our people elsewhere. She obviously decided it was not in Delphian interests to remain with the fleet any longer. It was her choice to make. Where they might be going, I do not know. I was not told. I doubt if she knows."

Cain studied the pair thoughtfully. "But you stayed – along with a good number of your crew from the Dragonsbreath."

They nodded. "That was our choice," the man said.

"Can I depend on you?"

"As always, Commander," Kenji replied, mild curiosity in his voice.

"Good." His face was hard. "I need dependable officers." He left without another word, leaving the couple to consider his motives and puzzle through his actions for themselves.

It was warm, almost hot. Apollo opened his eyes and stared blankly at the high ceiling above him, cream-colored and set with glassy round orbs that might be observation devices. He could smell something pungent and unusual, reminding him vaguely of both antiseptic and the livestock ship. When he tried to move, to sit up, he found he couldn't. His muscles wouldn't obey his mind. They weren't paralyzed, just so relaxed that he couldn't tense them.

What...? Where am I? What happened? The lights, the ships... He would have shuddered, remembering his last moment of terror, but found he was unable to move even that much. How long have I been here? It feels like time... Someone took me from my ship, brought me here, but how long ago...? Try to think, remember... Where...

He felt the urge to blink, and found that his eyes and eyelids could move. There was nothing to see, however, in the small inverted cone that was his area of vision. Listening intently, he could detect breathing, and wondered who it was.

He tried swallowing; his throat worked. When he opened his mouth to talk, only a faint whisper came out. He couldn't control the sounds he made. Whatever was affecting him, then, apparently concentrated on voluntary muscles, and not all of them. He tried wiggling his fingers and toes, and sensed a slight motion.

It occurred to him that he must have been stripped; he could feel warm air on his skin, and some sort of smooth fabric under his back.

So I'm somebody's prisoner, maybe somebody that doesn't know a lot about humans. Wonder what happens now... He fought down panic.

There was a sound similar to a sigh somewhere to his right. Boomer, I've heard you snore often enough to recognize that noise. So you're here, too, maybe trying to talk to me. Sorry, buddy, I can't give you any kind of answer. Wonder what shape you're in...

A moment later, something came into view, peering intently down at him.

Lords of Kobol! His pulse quickened.

He couldn't tell its height – he didn't know how high off the floor he might be – but from the width of that ... face? ... the creature must be large, taller and broader than humans, with a huskier build. Even the thing's head looked like it could dent a steel bulkhead! Its skin was reddish-brown, covered with thin, short hair. The extremely long, narrow face, reminiscent of something bovine, was heavily muscled. The large, dilated round eyes studied him, and the being blew a noisy breath from the broad, flat, muzzle-like nostrils that took up a large part of its face. Sounds emanated from the wide, flat-lipped mouth low on its ... chin? A micron later, the human saw what could have been ears flick to direct their broad sides at him.

Those eyes left his face, moving over his body, studying him with quite apparent interest. Suddenly increased heat told him he was blushing, which the being obviously noted; its glance shifted, and he heard a scratching sound that might have been some sort of writing implement making notations. Embarrassment gave way to a deeper feeling of humiliation as the being continued its clinical observation.

Finally, the creature half-turned, and he detected a raised-appendage gesture at the fringes of his sight. It moved away from him, to be replaced a moment later by another being he assumed was a different member of the same species. The concave nasal hollow between its eyes seemed broader, and there may have been a small rounded scar among the hairs of his forehead. It leaned over him, and he tensed inside, drawing a quick breath in preparation to act.

His body didn't respond. When the alien lifted him, he was still utterly limp. It laid him on another table, and arranged him neatly. He hated the helpless feeling of being unable to move or defend himself.

He had caught glimpses of the chamber as he was carried. Boomer was indeed there, on another table next to his. Past that one were four more such tables, simple upholstered metal slabs, with naked human figures on each. Apparently, the four other missing pilots were all prisoners here, as he was. He saw the sentient creature which had observed him now standing next to Boomer. Its prominent spinal column was toward him as it hunched over his comrade, seemingly fascinated by the warrior's dusky skin. The backbone ended in a tail, more thickly-bristled and darker than the rest of the body, which flicked occasionally in an absent-minded fashion.

Body covering was something the entities must not have been concerned with. The other was unclothed, and he'd felt the stiff hairs of his bearer's ... chest? ... tickle in a delicately thorny way against his own bare skin. Fortunately, the temperature of the chamber made clothing unnecessary, although Apollo would've felt much less uneasy if he'd been dressed.

He heard a low voice giving what seemed to be a disinterested command in a totally unintelligible language, and his new resting place began to move, sliding away through the door into another chamber. Something tingled as he passed through the unadorned blank arch; he surmised it was some sort of sterilization mechanism or force field, either to protect the beings from contamination or to prevent the escape of scientific curiosities like himself. He glimpsed banks of equipment in the room, some of it apparently medical in nature. There were markings on it, but he had no opportunity to decipher them before he was transferred without fuss to yet a third table, and several lights were positioned above him. Equipment began to hum somewhere; he heard one particular pulse that matched his too-fast heartbeat. The being watching him made more marks on its board, then tossed its head and moved away.

The next alien he saw held a small device of some kind, something metallic that gleamed in the bright illumination.

His heart skipped. Was it a blade?

Autopsy? Lords of Kobol, no, I'm still alive! It can't be– He had the horrible feeling the examination would culminate in his vivisection.

Chapter XI

The long overdue and complete overhaul of the Pegasus took nearly four sectons – four sectons during which the reeling Colonial forces put aside their grief and reforged their determination as well as effecting repairs; four sectons during which there were no encounters of any kind with the alien foe; four sectons which brought renewed enthusiasm and life to the fleet, which really knew the missing warriors only as heroic images on the video screen; four sectons which saw the completion of the first pilot rotation schedule; four sectons that allowed time for relationships to shift and firm up again; four sectons of rare, peaceful relaxation.

Cain's impatience and distaste for quiet duty shifts increased during every one of those days. He accepted the accolades of the population with his usual bravado, and graciously granted an interview to Zara and IFB. But the glory grew stale even as he tasted it. He was a hero, much acclaimed by civilians ecstatic at two battlestars defending them, and elated that the two commanders were Adama, a great diplomat and quiet rock of strength, and Cain, the legend who flaunted himself at the Cylons. Adama and Cain shared their military councils and presented a united front to the Council of Twelve, from whom Cain made no pretense of concealing his impatience – and who responded alternately with self-righteous indignation and cajoling attempts to flatter his vanity, all of which he dismissed for the ploys they were.

But he was restless. His ship was nearly like new again, thanks to the resources and technical knowledge of the fleet. Replacement equipment had been fabricated on the electronics ship, and minor personnel changes had been made as well. He was ready and eager for action again – but there was no action forthcoming. The aliens seemed to have vanished. Adama's desire was that the fleet pass undetected through this decidedly dangerous space, so none of the raiding that had previously kept his crew sharp was permitted, and worst of all, his usually precise officers began to show the first signs of what he deemed sloppiness.

Commander Cain needed something to bring zest back to his life, a mission greater than playing nursemaid to a handful of miscellaneous civilian craft. He was restless, and that was dangerous.

He also had a notion gnawing at his mind, which was more dangerous still. He could tell, too, that Adama sensed something was wrong. But he wasn't yet sure what he was going to do about it.

"Communications system repairs are complete; replacement boards are in place," Maruwa reported briefly. Another shift's worth of repairs was finished.

Col. Kleopatra had overseen this part of the repair personally; the damage control officer didn't mind. Several techs from the communications ship had been lent to assist in the lengthy and methodical process, with Maruwa in charge. She'd been very careful to keep the colonel and Major Veleda informed of their progress.

"Thank you, Maruwa. It's been a pleasure working with you." The captain accepted the receipt and initialed it, then handed the computron back to the civilian and turned away. One part of the job was done, but Veleda had more to do before her day was over.

"Certainly, Captain," the tech murmured in response. Then she turned back to Kleopatra. "Well, Colonel, it looks like I'm through here. I'll be shuttling back to the Tukulor as soon as I can."

Kleopatra smiled at her ex-husband's new lover. They'd had a few opportunities to talk over the past sectons, and Tigh was wrong – she liked the woman, and the woman seemed to like and respect her. "Since I know Tigh's still on duty, and you couldn't get a shuttle at this time anyway, how about a drink to relax, first?"

Maruwa grinned, her full lips freely showing strong white teeth as she laughed. "More tales of the old days? Tigh hasn't forgiven you yet for telling me his part in that incident at the Academy – he knows my source! If some of the warriors only knew their staid and sober Colonel could have pulled off something like that...!"

Kleopatra snickered too. "They'll never know. Some of them were cadets when it happened. He'd never live it down."

"Or up? I can think of a few who'd respect him more for knowing he could plan and pull off a stunt like that!"

"Ah, but we must preserve decorum..." The new friends cheerfully made their way out of the comm center.

"...Are you trying to tell me we'll be dancing at your sealing soon? I knew it! One night after night became one night too many!" Greanbean teased his wingmate. Patrols were much more interesting when there was something to be wormed out of the other man – and a cheerful topic of conversation was welcome again.

"I didn't say that!" Jolly objected. "Now, you listen, kid, I just said we were going to the Rising Star..."

"...For a little R-and-R? Right! A two-day furlon. If your fantastic cook and marvelous dancer and friendly lady can't get you up to scratch in two days–"

"Greenbean! To your left! It's not on our scanners!" Jolly interrupted with unexpected harshness – and was that fear?

"What...? Oh my God..." he breathed, staring. It wasn't the aliens again. "Those are Vipers!" he continued in a hushed voice. "Colonial Vipers! Six of them..."

There were, indeed, six of the small Colonial fighter craft, drifting in perfect formation.

"You win again, Starbuck. How in Hades do you do it?" Rissian grumped, throwing in his pyramid hand.

Electra hid a grin. Her younger half-brother, visiting from the Galactica, had found an entirely new set of gullibles on this ship. The pilots knew his reputation from their counterparts in Blue Squadron, but there were always those who believed that reputation was overblown, and were willing to bet cubits on it. Runs in the family!

Her smile lost some of its glow; one of the family was no longer with them. She missed Orestes, she always would. She knew Chameleon mourned as well, but Starbuck seemed uncertain how to feel – a certain grief might have been more the idea that he should be desolated by his brother's death, coupled with an almost obsessive compulsion to get to know his sister and father before some further tragedy befell them.

She'd seen him in Cassie's company once since the last encounter with the aliens; he'd been cool. The med tech was spending a lot of time with Sheba; the gossip that Cain and the former socialator intended to marry looked unfounded. Electra wondered what had happened with that odd triangle, but didn't feel it was her position to ask.

She had the feeling Starbuck would soon transfer to the Pegasus. His two best friends were gone, lessening his ties to the Galactica – perhaps even peopling it with too many memories. Too, he seemed to feel some obligation to take his brother's place on the Pegasus. The family relationship was still private, but she reflected it would likely become common knowledge soon. Such a thing could not be kept secret for long, and there was really no reason to hide it.

As flight commander of the Pegasus, she'd been able to wangle a special dinner on the Rising Star a few days before, pulling rank to go ahead on the waiting list. Starbuck had brought Athena, his dead friend's sister and current constant companion. She herself had invited Omega, one of the Galactica bridge officers, and their father Chameleon had come with his keeper, Siress Blassie. It had been a pleasant, affable evening, with congenial company. If not for the shadow of loss hanging over them all...

As it is, we're all too busy to think about it, most of the time. The hurt recedes. In moments like this...

An alert siren wailed several repetitive notes. "Ready status, not battle," she thought aloud, as eyes quickly turned to her. "Copper Keel is up on watch; Bronze Wing, take to your ships as back-up." Standard procedure. Even now, the other pilots from Silver Spar and the reduced Golden Sun would be heading for the ready room, to wait impatiently should they be needed to defend the fleet.

She headed for the launch bay, Starbuck and Akimi at her heels.

"Bring 'em in gently!" a voice bellowed. "Wha'd'ya think we're handlin' here, anyway!"

Electra's throat was dry as she stared at the white, red-trimmed, undamaged Viper being tractored into position.

"All right, look 'er over, but for the Lords' sakes be careful, we don't know what we got!" Lochus continued. Several protectively-garbed crewmen hurried to the silent ship nestled so securely on a track. The other recovered vessels were getting the same treatment in other places along the landing bay.

Starbuck, standing next to her, swallowed audibly, taking a mesmerized step closer to the orange-suited techs crawling over the ship. She thrust out a hand to catch his arm.

"Not yet," she murmured.

"But they're back!" he forced through a cotton-dry mouth. "That's Apollo's ship..."

"We don't know–"

Then a med tech was called for, and the techs began extracting a quiescent human form from the ship.

"This is human, not a construct!" one of the medics declared wonderingly. "Not like that Thjis, this is a real person! After this long..."

Involuntarily, the three warriors closed on the med team working over the life pod. Electra stared as she recognized that pale face and form. It was Captain Apollo.

Beside her, Starbuck choked back what sounded like a sob.

If he's really back...

"It's Orestes!" she heard someone yell from farther down the line. "And Heimdal! And the rest!"

That was all she needed to hear. She felt Starbuck's arm around her shoulder, but couldn't see him for the mist in her eyes.

Sheba stepped out of the turboshower. When the alert downscaled, she'd taken the opportunity for a long, private time under hot water. Electra strode into the locker room as she toweled off.

The tall blonde flight commander studied her. "Sheba, you're all wet!"

"Tell me something I don't know," she growled in return.

"Apollo's back."

"What?" Sheba stared in disbelief at what sounded like a bad joke.

"One of the patrols intercepted a small formation of ships. We brought them aboard. Six Colonial Vipers. With six unconscious but alive and apparently uninjured Colonial warriors in them. Our people are back, in life center." Her shining eyes confirmed her tale.

Sheba's wan face lit up. "Really? Apollo's back? He's all right?"

"It's up to the doctors to confirm it, but he looked okay."

"But ... what happened? Where has he been?"

"I don't know."

"He's alive..." Sheba'd never dressed so fast in her life. Uniform clinging to her still-damp body, wet hair dripping down her back, she all but flew to life center.

"Electra, Sheba."

"Yes, Commander?"

"Dr. Helena's shipping Apollo and Boomer back to the Galactica. I'm going over as well. Starbuck and Bojay are running escort, and I want you both to fly the shuttle."

They exchanged puzzled glances. Cain was going – but in a shuttle, and not as pilot?

"Well, ladies, we don't have all day. We don't want those men out of reach of medical help any longer than they have to be."

"Why move them at all?" Sheba demanded, mystified.

"Dr. Salik's more familiar with their records, and Helena feels he has a better chance of bringing them around." In the day since they'd been discovered, the six pilots had remained in their comas; the medics weren't sure what had caused it, or how to treat it.

Cain strode away before they could ask any more questions.

He didn't tell them that the warriors were already showing signs of waking.

The two men were soon safely housed in the Galactica's life center, under Salik's expert care. Starbuck, Sheba, and Bojay kept watch over their friends as Cain unobtrusively walked away. He saw Cassiopeia, caught up in her duties, and for a brief moment his gaze lingered longingly. Then he hurried his steps.

Cassie caught his arm before he'd gone far down the passage. They stared at each other for a centon.

"I know that look," she accused. "You're going again."

"Cassie... Be happy, Cassie. I won't be gone long." His voice was infinitely patient.

"How can I believe you?" she demanded.

"I thought your attentions were elsewhere," he mused with a smile.

"Does it matter? I still care about you. The fleet needs you. And what about Sheba? Does she know? Is she going with you?"

"She'll be all right. I have a job to do. 'Til then, I think she belongs here, with Apollo."

"She'll never forgive you," the woman warned. "She loves you, worships you. Nothing's made her happier than having you back again – not even Apollo. How can you do this to her?"

"Keep her here. I've got a conference with Adama." When she would have spoken again, he touched her lips with his finger, tracing their curves. "Keep your silence, Cassie. She'll be happier here, and so will you."

She watched him sadly, realizing there was nothing she could say or do that would change the old veteran's mind, not even if she offered herself back to him – he hadn't offered her the choice of going with him, that was significant as it stood. And involving Sheba would only make it worse. "Will you ever be back?" she finally whispered.

He smiled jauntily. "Of course. I always come back, you should know that by now!" With a wave of his hand and no backward glance, he walked away.

"Hello, Adama."

"Colonel Tigh informed me you were aboard. I've been expecting you. I hope this won't take long; I'd like to visit my son." The aging commander of the Galactica glowed with new fire at the knowledge that Apollo was still alive. With the alert in effect, he hadn't been able to leave his battlestar, but he certainly couldn't be blamed for spending a few centars in life center at the young man's side. Perhaps Dr. Salik would soon be able to report his son restored to consciousness and health.

"Not long at all." Cain turned to the window port, leaving Adama his silhouette. "Adama, we've not seen the aliens for four sectons now, and the Delphians have been gone that long. I'd like your permission to take an exploratory side trip, patrol our quadrant, see if–"

Adama rose slowly from his desk. "You're going after them," he stated flatly, forcing down his rising anger.

He turned back. "I think it's my duty. They're human. We can't just let them be lost to us. Surely they'll be as welcome or unwelcome on Earth as we are – and we can use the extra firepower they give the fleet."

"We have no idea where they've–" Adama paused. "It's not just them. They're your excuse. Your primary interest is the aliens."

The other man shrugged. "Now, Adama..."

"You like the military advantage of not having to worry about a flotilla of unarmed civilian vessels, and the Delphians would give you added strength – a force that answers to you, not to me or the civilian Council. And they would stand with you against the aliens. Cain, I can't permit that. We can't take on these aliens, we haven't a chance against them! And I can't let you take half our defensive strength on a pursuit." Adama shook his head.

"Could you stop me if I said I was going anyway?"

The two strong-willed warriors stared each other down; neither would give in. Adama could threaten to have Cain confined to quarters and relieved of command, as he'd done once before, but the effect would probably be the same – mutiny on the Pegasus, and outrage in the fleet. Cain would do as he pleased, but he was truly concerned about the Delphians, and he was full of brooding outrage at the unknown aliens who'd so easily captured their people, then cavalierly returned them in comas. Adama felt the same fury for what his son and the others might have endured as prisoners, but he realized there was nothing he could accomplish militarily to avenge them, not at this point, not without much more information. If Cain returned to the Pegasus, it could depart at any time, to pursue an enemy better left alone...

"I could relieve you of command."

"You did that last time. I know how it feels. You can always do that if you wish, and I'll accept it if it's your decision, but I'd rather you gave me leave to go and do what I have to do."

"You're taking your crew with you."

He nodded. "They'll know. I've already made arrangements. Any who don't want to go are free to transfer here."

"What about Sheba? Is she included in those arrangements?"

For the first time, a shadow passed over Cain's craggy features. "I want her here. She belongs with you, with Apollo."

"You want her out of the danger you may be heading into."

"Maybe. But you'll accept it. For Apollo's sake, if no other."

Adama bowed his head in defeat. Cain was right; he wouldn't warn Sheba in advance. Apollo loved her, and Adama had come to think of her as a daughter already, and wanted her there. He played his final card, knowing he couldn't change Cain's intentions. "How will you find us again? Or do you intend ever to rejoin us?"

Cain stepped closer. "I think leaving my daughter here is sufficient proof that I intend to return. I know your destination, the coordinates of what might be Earth. I know your planned route. You may have to deviate along the way, but sooner or later, traveling the same flight path, we'll find each other again. And we can always do what the Delphians did – have a summoning signal, so if you really need us, you can call us. The Pegasus is hard to kill; we'll be back."

"So your daughter is hostage and promise, and you leave with or without my blessing. A most peculiar mutiny, forewarning the man who could stop you with a word."

"You know I have to go. You can't, but you want vengeance and knowledge of these aliens, and the return of the Delphians, as much as I do."

"That's not at issue." Adama sank back into his chair, chin on his chest in sorrowful contemplation. "We shall miss the added security your presence gave us, especially if the aliens return. Have you considered that?"

"I have. We'll still be the outer guard. And as you've said yourself, Adama, we're no match for the aliens in combat. We're no use if they attack again. Maybe by going after them, we can learn something. And there are other ways to contact strangers."

"You, Cain? Suggesting diplomacy?"

"Without unarmed civilians at our back, we may be able to suggest a lot of things," Cain replied. "And they may listen. At any rate, we can send the Delphians back this way, when we find out what annoyed them in the first place. Maybe we'll contact other ships as well. We'll be all right, Adama."

After a long moment of silence, the commander spoke heavily. "My blessings, then, Cain, but I'll not give this any semblance of being an order, or by my suggestion. The Lords of Kobol go with you, and those who serve you. I wish you success, and pray we may meet again soon."

Cain nodded, and they somberly shook hands, holding the wrist-clasp for a long time. Then they parted without another word.

Cain, have we finally found the thing you can't fight?

And is it the aliens, or yourself?

"Prepare for launch," Cain ordered Electra as he strapped himself into the co-pilot's seat.

She was mildly surprised. "Isn't Sheba coming back with us?"

He shook his head. "She's staying with Apollo on the Galactica. Starbuck, too."

"I guess that doesn't really surprise me," she reflected. "I'd almost expected him to request a transfer, though – until Apollo's return, of course."

He glanced at her sharply. "You've spent a lot of time together recently. Is he ... special to you?" He liked the lad, but he couldn't afford to leave his flight commander behind as well. Maybe the lieutenant would join them – for whatever that would imply about his relationship with Cassie. He'd offered to, once before...

She giggled provocatively. "In a way, but not the way you're thinking, I'm sure. He'll stay with the Galactica now. Athena and Cassie are both there, and now that Apollo and Boomer are back..." And he's got Chameleon, too! "Well, he's got what he needs to be happy, or as content as he'll ever be."

"Good, good... We've got a new mission, Electra," he informed her abruptly. "We'll be taking a little tour of the area before following the fleet. Looking for the Delphians, watching for the aliens, and such. I didn't tell you until now because I needed to talk to Adama about it first."

She stared at him, breathing deeply, then slowly nodded. "I see."

"Any complaints? Would you rather stay with the fleet?"

After a moment, the woman shook her head decisively. "No. Things get a little slow around here. It was a nice furlon, but I'm afraid I'm too used to a bit more action." And action's what we'll get, with Cain around! "I may miss some people, but I'll stay with you, sir."

"Good. Let's get moving."

"Core command, Shuttle Gamma requesting launch clearance."

"You are cleared, Shuttle Gamma." Then they were in space, returning to their newly refitted ship, and the new adventure awaiting them.

Apollo took a deep breath, listening intently to the voices that finally penetrated the black haze that had filled his mind and blocked his senses for so long. There was delight in those noises. Then he felt something heavy on his chest, and he opened his eyes in shock as the breath whooshed out of his lungs.

A little boy grinned ear to ear, his small arms laced tightly around his neck. Above him, tears glistened in the eyes of those standing watchful guard over him. He recognized his father, and his sister Athena. Starbuck was there, barely containing a broad grin. His son was chattering in his ear as he reached up to hug the child. Then he saw Sheba and Cassie move into his line of vision. There was something questioning and anxious in all their gazes, and he knew what they were waiting for.

With a deep breath, and a growing, ecstatic feeling, he simply announced what they needed to hear, and he reveled to say. "I'm home."

"Where's my father?" Sheba gaily asked a passing tech. She was in too high of spirits to notice the Pegasus shuttle was gone. She merely wondered where Cain had gone, and why he hadn't returned to life center with Commander Adama.

"Uh..." the orange-clad technician gulped. "He left some time ago."

So I've been left to stay with Apollo.... She smiled at her father's consideration in giving her that time; she and Apollo certainly had things to talk over. But she was ready to return to her home ship, and she had patrol in a short while.

"Incoming shuttle," a voice announced. "Prepare to receive incoming Pegasus shuttle."

She stared in astonishment at the unscheduled arrival as the small craft set down. A handful of personnel disembarked without fanfare, hustling away, bags of gear in hand.

"More transfers?"

"Yes, Sheba, for the time being." It was Commander Adama, appearing beside her. The tech wisely fled.

"What aren't you telling me?" she asked slowly, dread and sudden understanding flaring in her eyes. "No!" She turned to run to a Viper.

Adama caught her arm. "They've already gone. At light speed, I'm sure. You'd never catch them."

"No! He wouldn't leave me! Not again! Not like this!" Her voice rose in wild hysteria.

Adama could only nod unhappily. "The Pegasus is gone. Your father thought you and Apollo–"

"To Hades with Apollo!" she shrieked at him, her voice echoing madly through the landing bay. "Father! How could you!"

"Sheba..."

She subsided into broken sobs, offering no resistance when he gathered her into his arms and led her away.

Apollo was still in life center, and heartily sick of it. His encounter with the aliens had been bad enough; was the medical staff here trying to do the same thing to him? He and Boomer were alone in the ward, semi-quarantined until Salik determined that there was no danger in their mingling with the general populace without restrictions. That the interview with Commander Adama and the other military commanders and security officers had been going on for over four centars didn't help his disposition. Boomer had been able to plead weariness, but he was the flight commander, and was expected to answer their questions with detailed information.

"I tell you, Colonel, I don't know!" he finally exploded at one of the more importuning officers present. He'd been pestered enough. "The only parts of the ship I saw were the holding area and the examination room! Most of the time, I think I was unconscious – which was a blessing! When I was awake, I was allowed to stare at the ceiling. The rest of the time, I was being poked, prodded, analyzed, examined, sampled, studied, tested, and stuck full of more needles – or their alien equivalent – than Dr. Salik uses! I'm surprised there was any of me left to come back!"

The senior warrior drew back, surly at the young man's outburst. "Commander, is this any kind of behavior...?" he appealed to Adama.

Salik intervened at the crucial moment. "I think our patients need some rest. They've been under a tremendous strain, and we're still not certain of the extent of the possible impact. If you officers could return tomorrow..." He shooed the reluctant men and women out, permitting only the commander to remain.

"That's truly all you remembered?" Adama asked quietly, anxious eyes on Apollo.

"Yes," he answered wearily. "They kept us confined, but we were together the whole time except when we were being examined. The aliens seemed to study us quite thoroughly. I was surprised they could speak Caprican – rather haltingly and slurred, as if their mouths and vocal cords weren't shaped for it, but definitely our tongue. Boomer says they learned Gemonese, too, and Heimdal insisted they could speak their Sagittaran dialect with relative ease. Also pidgin-Tauran and Aquarian. Must've mind-scanned us or something, we certainly weren't talking in all those languages. They kept questioning us. I tried to talk to them, to explain...

"It seems they're scientists, on an exploration mission for their people. We were specimens to study, a new culture to analyze. We tried to tell them about the Cylons, to warn them..." He sighed.

"What was their reaction to word of the Cylons?"

"They didn't seem to care! Their technology is far above us, more advanced than anything we or the Cylons possess. They listened politely, but said they weren't interested in expanding in this sector of the galaxy – I think – and until they do, or the Cylons disturb them, they don't care what the Cylons do. And they didn't care what we did when they let us go, either. We were just damned specimens for them," he concluded bitterly. "They seemed to agree that we were intelligent, and therefore should be freed, but we weren't worthy of alliance or sharing of knowledge. They didn't tell us anything else about themselves."

"Are they finished with their study of us?"

"How should I know?"

"You were told about Thjis? His activities and his ... final act?"

Apollo nodded. "Salik told me. Makes sense with something I saw. One of the aliens mentioned something about a construct, a 'gatherer,' obtaining another sample for them, one not like us, from what I could understand. The being apologized for any 'disturbance' or 'inconvenience' this ... gatherer might cause us – so generous of them, being concerned about a lesser species.

"I guess, after capturing Heimdal and Sif, they used them as models for creating their android, making him ... it ... look and speak like a Raggane. They implied they wanted a wider variety of humans to study. The one who said that was watching Sif at the time. I didn't realize then that they particularly wanted another woman to compare her to. Maybe they were thinking about making genetic comparisons between family members, too, I don't know. I'm just glad Athena didn't have to go through that..."

"We surmise he landed during one of our post-alerts, mixed in with the rest of the pilots. Opinion?"

He shrugged. "Sounds plausible. Please, Father, could some of this wait? I'm kind of tired. It's been a tough couple of sectons. I know the aliens talked to me more than the others, when they figured out I was the ranking officer, but haven't any of the others corroborated our story, or aren't they conscious yet? The alien scientist assured me that we'd be unharmed, that we'll all wake up safe at home... They must've planted our ships where they'd be sure you'd find them soon."

"All the more reason to suspect they may still be monitoring us," Adama told him flatly. "But the Pegasus pilots can't confirm their experiences. Cain's gone again."

"What?" Apollo sat up sharply. "Gone? But Sheba... Why? Why'd he leave? I saw Sheba here; they couldn't have left long ago..." But that might explain why she hasn't been here since that first time I woke up. She left me, went with him...

"Cain left three days ago. Sheba is still here, by his choice. She's been refusing to see anybody since."

His jaw hung slackly. "Why?"

"He seems determined that it's up to him to 'prove' humanity to the aliens–"

"He should have waited to talk to us," Apollo muttered.

"And he wants to find and bring back the Delphians. They left in a rather hasty and uncommunicative manner. He told me before the Pegasus went, but there didn't really seem to be anything I could do to change his mind."

"The fleet must've loved that."

"They think he's gone after the aliens, to fight them, and I believe most people think he'll return. However illogical, some are predicting another glorious victory. They can't see anything else where Cain is concerned. You realize, your disappearance and the whole matter of these aliens was ... somewhat hushed. The fleet doesn't have many details. I don't know what'll happen when time passes, if he doesn't come back, and their high expectations plummet. Apollo, do you have any idea how these aliens would react to a direct challenge, a confrontation with Cain? Will they fight? Will they destroy him?"

"I'm sorry, Father. I don't have any idea," the young man admitted.

Adama grimaced, accepting that their lack of information completely hampered any predictions. "I understand. I'll have to ask you not to repeat anything to civilians – especially anyone with media connections. Not even the Council realizes what we could have been up against, and I'd rather not inform them now."

"They'd just think it was a power play, Father, the kind of thing most of them would do, to make the fleet scared of an enemy whose power we can't prove. They might even try to use it against you, claim you mismanaged the whole thing."

"They're not all ambitious fools, Apollo. They're good people, concerned with what's going on. They simply don't have access to all our information, or to the military experience to judge the circumstances. They weren't trained for this kind of situation, and I'm sure most of them never expected it."

"And for them, we risk our lives every day – and sometimes our sanity." Apollo shook his head, fighting off bitterness. "I guess that's our duty. But sometimes, it's so frustrating. You try to make them understand, and they only see things in petty motives of personal gain. You risk your life, and they call you a glory-grabber. Then you run into something like this...

"Father, if they wanted to, I think the aliens could sweep the Cylons from the stars! But they don't care what happens in this part of space, to a people they don't know. I think they look at us as a minor, dying civilization, and they refuse to be bothered by us. They've got the power, the technology..."

"No, Apollo," the older man interrupted. "It's not for us to judge them. Nor would we, nor anyone else, I think, appreciate it or benefit if they made themselves galactic watch-daggits. Would you want them standing over us like some paternally indulgent whipmasters, never letting us choose our own course of action?"

"I guess not," he finally admitted. "But it's so frustrating... I mean, the Cylons..."

"I know. Perhaps they'll learn, in time, when they have to deal with them."

"Just so it's not too late when they do! I hope Cain doesn't antagonize them completely..."

Cain felt immense satisfaction as he studied his bridge crew, humming along at peak efficiency. The Pegasus had needed repairs and an overhaul; now, she was ready to face whatever the future held.

He leaned over the railing. This was his element; this was where he belonged, at the helm of his ship, leading his people through the stars. He was loyal to the Colonies, and he would not forget his promise to Adama that he would follow the fleet. When they needed him and his Pegasus, he would be there – but there was no reason to endure the monotonous routine of daily life in the meantime.

From what Orestes, Heimdal, and the others had told him, the aliens were simply explorers, sampling what variety the galaxy had to offer. They probably originated far from here, but he would cruise the area for a time. Perhaps the aliens could be located, contacted, and made to see reason about the Cylons. Then he would have truly done his people a service, giving them valuable allies. The advances in technology alone would be invaluable – and he had no fear that such advances would ever make a man like himself obsolete. They might even be able to return to their home worlds, instead of continuing to flee in search of the probably mythical "Earth."

At any rate, there were challenges to face, and his gallant crew had chosen to face them with him. They would fight what must be fought, deal appropriately with any other ships they encountered, seek the Delphians and any other human survivors...

There were people and things he would miss; he was realistic enough to admit that. His daughter had made herself a different life, found a worthy lover – and begun, perhaps, to think about life differently than he did, whether she knew it yet or not. Cassiopeia, too, was changed. He loved the woman she'd become, and respected her new career, but sensed that in a less stable life, her fear of loss could turn love into flight from a man who lived with his challenges, who could be lost any day – and Starbuck was a new variable in her life. He wished them both well.

Another thing of value he would miss was Adama's friendship. In differing ways, they were two of a kind – warriors who could turn even dismal defeat into survival, and survival into victory. But it wore the other man that he had to face the burden of two hundred and twenty ships and their problems every day of their already uncertain life.

Cain had no intention of being similarly worn away. He chose, instead, to live free of it, responsible only for his own vessel and people. Their loyalty and devotion were much more satisfying things to possess.

Fierce elation sang sharply in him. He was content.

Sheba pounded the walls in rage and frustration when Adama sent her to life center, giving her a temporary furlon to get over her grief. She railed at him, at Apollo, at her father, and at Cassie when she was finally given a sedative. All she wanted to do was get into a Viper and find her father, although cold logic told her the odds against it were in the millions.

Her haunted sleep wasn't restful. A day spent bitterly pacing the floors also did no good. More days followed in similar fashion, but she finally began to reconcile herself to the fact that her father had left her again, abandoning her because she was to become somebody's wife, leaving her where she was supposed to be safe. If I could only hate him... But he's my father. I love him.

Her heart ached to be with Cain.

Restlessly, she paced the observation deck, alone, mimicking her father's stance and attitude when he didn't want to be disturbed.

But someone disturbed her anyway.

"Sheba? Can I talk to you?" It was Apollo, looking meek and vulnerable in a simple life center gown and short robe.

"No," she replied shortly, and turned away. She wasn't ready to face him. She still hated him, after their last words and what her father had done. She felt they'd conspired to force her away from her father. She didn't want any emotional displays to wear down her defenses against him.

"Please..."

The last time they talked, before his captivity, she'd told him what she thought and left him standing. She'd regretted the things she said, but some of them were still true, she realized, and knew things couldn't be quite the same. It would take time – if ever.

"You have your father, and your ship, and your post," she enunciated. "I have none of them. Right now, I certainly don't want you either. Just leave me alone, Captain. I don't want you." Her voice broke unexpectedly at the last words, and she ran from him without concern for dignity. She didn't want to live with him, but she wasn't sure yet how she would live without him. She only knew he was the reason she was alone, and he wasn't enough to fill the inner void.

Apollo's expression was one of grief tempered by hurt. He retreated from the port to a cushioned niche, fists clenched tightly and face bleak, as if he could fight the emotions within himself and set them to rest.

"She's not ready yet, Apollo."

He looked up to see his father standing beside him. He sighed wearily. "Will she ever be ready?"

Adama sat down. "Hopefully. Someday, she'll stop feeling you're the cause of all this, and she'll know she was unfair to you. Then you'll have to start over, and maybe you can rebuild your love." His own heart ached to see his son's emotions so rawly displayed.

Apollo closed his eyes and leaned against him, subconsciously pleading for support as he hadn't in yahrens. The father pulled his son closer, freely offering that emotional strength.

From their strategically located alcove, they could see the stars through one of the ports. They slowly shifted by, occasionally blotted out by one of the lumbering fleet ships or a more quickly moving shuttle.

"You'd better get back to life center," Adama finally reminded Apollo. "I believe you've got some more examinations to undergo before Salik declares you fit for duty."

Apollo snorted. "Any more examinations, and all that's going to be left of me is a massive medical report on a no longer existing man. Bits and pieces of me, scattered through records and computers everywhere in the galaxy, for humans and others to see."

His sense of humor may be dark, but at least it isn't totally gone.

"Father," Apollo asked hesitantly as they headed for the door. "Will Cain return again?"

Adama stared at the stars. "That, my son, is in the laps of the gods." No one else would even dare try to second-guess the commander of the Pegasus, Cain, the living legend.