Joint Maneuvers

By Lee Gaul and Sharon Monroe

The Fourth Book of the Pegasus Chronicles

Copyright 1990. 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 fourth book of the Pegasus Chronicles. The previous is Second Coming. A fifth book, Home The Heroes, was planned but never materialized.

Chapter I

Light gleamed off the metallic sides of the device. The alien leaned closer, and he saw something incredibly bright and blue forming a thin line in an arc between two of its points. He couldn't move to escape. His body lay limp and unresponsive as he desperately watched the thing brought close to him.

The arc touched his throat. He felt it cut. The alien drew it across his chest, down over his stomach. In the reddening path behind it, his flesh pulled apart. Small drops of blood oozed and beaded along the edges of his broken skin. Another alien leaned over him, some other device in its hand-situated appendage. It touched him, peeling back the skin. He felt air on exposed muscles and nerves. One white rib was bared.

Vivisection. He was alive. He was conscious. He could feel what they were doing to him, in some strange, terrifying, not-quite-painless way.

There should be more blood. I should be dying.

The second alien probed the rib, touching him with its instrument; he felt numbness spread across his chest. Then it pushed back muscles, opening a cavity under his rib. An organ was revealed, something fist-shaped and thumping. The muscle moved faster, pulsing in time with his quickening heartbeat.

Heartbeat. It was his heart.

His heart, bared to the universe and to the alien who leaned over him...

He gathered breath and tried to scream...

...And woke with a gasp of terror.

At his jump, Muffet growled slightly, but Boxey didn't stir.

Apollo lay back in his bunk. He couldn't remember what he had been dreaming of, but he was certain it was the same nightmare that had awakened him several times in the past few sectars – he couldn't remember those, either, but he knew they had happened. He rolled over, wrapping his arms around his pillow and pulling the blanket close around his neck. Despite the warmth in his quarters, he was shivering. With the chill pulsing in his veins, his palms and forehead were clammy with a cold sweat.

What am I afraid of? We haven't seen Cylons in sectars. The aliens are gone. Salik cleared me, I'm all right.

Maybe I'm just restless. That would explain the headaches, too. Stress and worry. A little boredom maybe. That could explain the dreams and the headaches, that could explain it all. I haven't been in a Viper in too long. Maybe I'm afraid I've forgotten how to fly. I've got to get back on the flight roster. I need something to do. I'll have to talk to Salik tomorrow. I've been out of action too long...

It had been over two sectars since the battlestar Galactica last encountered the advanced aliens. The missing pilots had been returned, apparently uninjured but with very little information about their captors. The Pegasus and her recuperating commander had long since departed in search of the aliens and the Delphian survivors who followed their young Empress's whim in abandoning the Colonial fleet. The fleet had resigned itself to the second loss of the reckless, heroic Cain, and was turning its attention inward once again. A round of athletic competition was just the thing to give them new heroes for the centon, and help them forget.

"Good game, Boomer, Barton..."

"Yeah, great style, guys! You really were in top form tonight..."

"Thinking about the championship? Gonna be some real competition..."

The small mob was boisterous in congratulating the winners, Lt. Boomer and his new partner, Sgt. Barton.

Two men in sweat-stained triad trunks and padding stood apart from the rest. Capt. Apollo, a muscular, dark-haired man with a serious nature, and Lt. Starbuck, a blue-eyed blond with an easy grin, were the losers of the match. Their performance had not been stellar, and they knew it. Their recent assortment of injuries and captivity told on them. Both had in fact only within the past few sectons been cleared for active duty again. Still breathless, they waited for the elated victors and their enthusiastic supporters to make a triumphal exit before heading to the showers. Several of the celebrating group gave them pats of encouragement and understanding nods as they passed.

"We'll save you a spot in the lounge," offered a passer-by.

"Might even buy you a drink!" his vivacious companion added.

The colonel was in dress blue; his civilian companion was in a becoming cinnamon-gold celebration gown that swirled to her ankles. Tigh and Maruwa pushed past the losing warriors and into the crowd. Rank didn't give them any easier passage than anyone else.

"We'll need a drink," Starbuck muttered wryly. "At least we're getting some sympathy. They haven't completely forgotten their heroes."

"Considering we spent a good deal of the last two sectars in life centers for assorted reasons..." Apollo grimaced at the recollections. While he was a "guest" on the alien vessel, his friend had been wounded in an attempted kidnapping. He was still apprehensive about his recurring shadowy nightmare, but Starbuck had dismissed any worries about the incident and concentrated on playing the hero.

He glanced over the rest of the crowd. Tigh and Maruwa weren't getting very far very fast. Lt. Jolly had a woman tucked neatly in his arm – obviously the mysterious lady he'd been seeing, who he had refused thus far to introduce to anyone or refer to by name. The gangly Sgt. Greenbean and petite Cpl. Rigel made an interesting study in opposites. Lt. Giles and Sgt. Cree were obviously exchanging cubits with a man he didn't recognize; they had lost bets on the game.

Among the happy spectators was Lt. Sheba. Catching the captain's eye on her, she quickly looked away and took the arm of her escort. Another woman in the group, the civilian med tech Cassiopeia, saw the movement and sent a sympathetic glance Apollo's way. Her tentative smile to Starbuck, however, was ignored. She sighed and followed her friends.

"Still not forgiven, huh?" Starbuck gestured after Sheba.

"No. She hasn't spoken to me privately since that last time, just after her father left us. She's barely civil at briefings. She still acts like I'm personally responsible for her being left behind, like I wished her father away on purpose, or asked him to go..." Trying to ignore the fact that his former fiancé had so quickly picked up a new "friend," Apollo shifted the conversation. "But what about you, Starbuck? You haven't spent any time with Cassie, either, and I think she'd like to change that."

"Well, I been sorta busy..."

And you haven't forgiven her for dashing to Cain when he was brought aboard, and for transferring to the Pegasus when he needed a med tech's care. Of course, you've been spending time with my sister...

"So how is Athena?" he teased.

"Hey..."

"Oh, you look exhausted!" The attractive brunette looked enchanting in a pink celebration gown as she joined the weary, sweat-drenched warriors. Ens. Athena took Starbuck's arm. "Are you sure you should be exerting yourself so strenuously after your wounds?"

Apollo grinned at the brief smile his sister spared for him. He knew her feelings for his handsome friend – they'd only deepened since he'd saved her from the kidnapping, and that Starbuck now seemed to reciprocate meant she was in orbit much of the time.

"If Salik wants to insist I'm fit for duty again, and my slave-driving captain wants to put me back on the patrol roster, I can sure manage a little triad..." The explanation was cut off with a kiss.

Apollo studiously looked away, smothering laughter, as Starbuck industriously returned the embrace. "I think I'll get presentable," he muttered, and slipped away to the turboshower.

"Hey, where's the winner? Can't tell me Boomer is missing his own coronation party!" Apollo demanded humorously as he took a place at the table. He glanced around the lounge. Tigh and Maruwa laughed, as did the small collection of officers and warriors from his squadron.

Barton, who'd stopped to collect congratulations and a victory drink from the colonel, shrugged it off. "He said something about a headache coming on, so he was going to stop in the life station for something first. He should be here in a few centons. But where's the loser? Starbuck owes me a couple of drinks!"

"I don't really know. He and Athena were right behind me..."

"Hah! Then we'll see him tomorrow!" With that cheery comment, Barton grabbed his ambrosa and headed off toward another table.

Apollo's attention left with him. Boomer was having headaches too? The man was never sick, hadn't been since the epidemic at Kobol. At least he wasn't the only one still having after-effects...

"Actually, I'm surprised we're seeing you here, Captain," Maruwa noted with a flashing smile. "From what I hear, you've been conspicuous by your absences recently." Her expression grew slyer. "Or has the celestial observation dome been claiming your time?"

He brought his attention back to the table. "Uh ... well, I guess I have been spending a lot of time up there..." He directed a look at Col. Tigh, who seemed undecided if he should look guilty or innocent for having told Maruwa where he knew the captain could be found. Was there anything the colonel didn't tell the woman?

"Since I've been on restricted duty these past sectons, it seemed a good way to spend my all-too-available time. We could always pick up something on one of those lower bands – but you know more about that than I do, specializing in communications. Let's not discuss our work, okay? This is supposed to be a celebration, so how about if I buy the next round? I did have the misfortune to have lost tonight. Probably a good thing Boomer and Jolly aren't here – buying for them, they'd clean out my pockets quicker than Starbuck and his systems!"

The others took him up on the offer with alacrity, and he signaled Slathis to bring another round.

Boomer leaned against the wall, seeing only red with each throb in his head. He wanted to crawl into a hole and smash his head into insensibility. The potion they'd given him at the starliner's life station had done nothing – in fact, it might even have intensified the inexplicable pain.

"I don't get migraines," he groaned through gritted teeth. "What in hades is going on? Go away..."

Then, as suddenly as the dreadful headache had come on, it was gone. Gasping, the dark warrior opened his eyes and stared around the passage. No one had seen the moment of weakness.

"I'll check with Salik tomorrow, after the party."

"We're missing the party, Starbuck..." Athena whispered. She smoothed the nearly sheer valcron sheet, loving the feel and image of it across her naked hip and leg. The man with her obviously appreciated it too.

"It's worth it..." He kissed the nape of her neck again. One hand slid down her bared back, but the woman held his hand from following her hip curve.

"Starbuck! We should get to the party... You're missing those consolation drinks the Colonel promised."

The warrior laughed. "I like your consolation better. If I had known how good things could be between us, I would've saved your life a long time ago. Mmm, that perfume is fantastic..." He nibbled on her earlobe.

"Worn with you in mind ... oh, that tickles!"

"So return the favor..."

Afterward, curled in his strong arms, Athena lay awake while her lover slept. She told herself she should be content. She had loved Starbuck for a long time, and now it seemed she had him back again. But vague uneasiness nibbled at her mind, and her thoughts strayed to a redheaded, man-shaped machine of alien manufacture.

Thjis. He was just a machine, sent to kidnap me. Why can't I get him out of my mind?

I'm happy with you, Starbuck...

Or am I just kidding myself? Was I so willing to fall into your bed because I love you or because I'm afraid? Am I afraid of losing you, that you might go back to Cassie or Noday or one of the others? Or am I afraid of my own feelings, afraid that I don't love you anymore, or not enough? Am I trying to forget Thjis and those little fantasies that I'd found somebody else? What am I trying to prove, and to whom? Maybe it was so easy to believe I felt something for ... the man I thought Thjis was, because there really isn't anything left between us...

I always thought we could have something special. Now I'm afraid it's gone. I'm here too late. It's not fair to either of us to try to revive something that's dead and gone...

His first patrol in over two sectars. Apollo felt better for being in his Viper and out among the stars again. He'd spent nearly a sectar being probed and tested physically and psychologically, after six sectons as a specimen to the aliens, and getting much of the same treatment. He'd been worried that his skill might've deteriorated in that time, but the small fighter was already "home" again, an extension of himself, instantly responding to his every command.

The stars and a steady course were soothing to nerves frazzled by too many questions and intent stares from too many people interested in what had happened to him – and to Boomer, who'd snapped back from the experience more easily, for some reason. He didn't know how Cain's people had fared; they'd been returned to their own base ship, which had shortly departed.

Correcting his course almost automatically, he found himself thinking of the brief time between the Pegasus's arrival and his captivity. Even with the alien pursuers and kidnaped warriors, and the medical quarantine for Cain and several of his pilots, there had been pleasant centars. There had been a lot of work, true, in trying to coordinate the squadrons of two battlestars, but having two warships had more than doubled fleet security and morale. He'd felt able to relax a little for the first time in ... since the Destruction, being able to share the responsibility and duty as flight commander with Maj. Electra. The burden hadn't all rested on his shoulders. There had been no tense moments between them, not really, and no personality clashes or ego problems.

True, he'd seen little of Sheba during those days; she'd been with Cain, and their newly-made engagement to marry had shattered under the pressure. Sheba now wanted nothing to do with him, and he was beginning to think any hope for a further personal relationship with her was futile, especially since she seemed to be encouraging someone else.

Apollo sighed.

"Something wrong, Captain?"

"Just thinking, Lieutenant. Good to be in a Viper again." He didn't elaborate. There was no reason to permit personal reflections to show up in the official logs recorded of every patrol. Starbuck likely understood the underlying sentiment, if not the exact thoughts.

He studied his long-range scanner carefully. Better not to let his mind wander too far, not on long patrol, when it was potentially more dangerous to the patrol and to the fleet to miss something.

Miss. He missed Electra – and he suspected it was more the woman than the warrior he wanted to see again. She was beautiful, competent, professional on duty, and pleasant to be with off duty. She had no hang-ups about being anybody's daughter, and she didn't look twice at his being the son of the commander. He wondered if she had thought of him, maybe regretfully, when he disappeared, or if she thought of him now. Maybe the Pegasus would return, someday, and he would be able to ask her, if he had the opportunity, and it looked like there might be a chance...

Blips appeared at the edge of his screen.

"Heads up, Starbuck," he warned. "Something on our tail..."

"I see 'em!" the other warrior hollered back. "Cylons! Frak! They found us again. Looks like a dozen of 'em."

"Those are bad odds. Let's try to outrun them. You know the evasion course. Can't let them plot the Galactica's course from our flight path..." The reminder was unnecessary, but the other pilot took no offense.

"Right, buddy."

The Colonial warriors had been on patrol for centars; the Cylon Raiders were coming fresh from somewhere. It was only a matter of moments before the humans realized they could never outrun their enemies. They would run out of fuel long before the Cylons gave up the pursuit.

"Our only chance is to fight," Starbuck yelled desperately when a laser shot nearly took off his upper fin.

"I know," Apollo replied grimly, studying his gauges. Full laser charge, low fuel reserves, and a dozen ships of death strung along behind them. Braking flaps would leave them in the middle of that string; they'd get a few quick shots before the enemy could respond, but they'd be sitting targets for the ones behind them. Odds were not good. They'd have to get out again fast...

"One quick series, then we run again. Maybe they won't be ready for us. Ready for braking flaps?"

"Affirmative," his wingmate replied.

The odds abruptly became nine to two, and the chase was on again. The maneuver would work only once, however. They'd have to come up with something else. At least the Cylons had dropped back a little, and separated to avoid more of the warriors' deadly shots...

Baltar studied the skies above him. They were dark and forbidding, wild with spying eyes of light, and they raised a shudder in him. He turned from them and entered the command bunker of the new Cylon listening post. Still under construction, it would give the Imperious Leader intelligence about the farthest reaches of the quadrant. He was here to check its progress, and to wait for a Cylon basestar to retrieve him.

After his escape from the planet to which Adama had exiled him, he'd spent sectars on freighters, transferring from small outpost to small outpost, until he came here. It seemed that, while the Imperious Leader wanted him back, the Cylons were in no hurry to expedite his return. Only excuses met his requests for speedier transportation, and the delays were lengthy.

"At least I've got clean clothes again, and some human comforts," he muttered to himself. "And the blisters are gone." Baltar studied his hands as he walked. Adama had given him sufficient supplies to survive, true, but he'd worked – hard – to set up a shelter and to maintain an adequate food supply on the beautiful planet of exile. Then Cain and his people had appeared from out of nowhere, still adding to his misery as they had before, first at the battle of Molecay, then at the battle over Gamoray. He'd almost had vengeance against some of Cain's people when Cylon rescuers arrived at the same time. He didn't really know what finally happened to Orestes and Astarte. He didn't really care. At least he was free again.

The traitor paced the small, blank-walled chamber that would serve as command post for the future command Centurion. He hated it. The small planetoid and its contingent of Cylons bored him. The place made him restless, and he wanted to leave it as soon as possible. But he had at least another sectar here before escaping to his own base ship and resuming his proper position. The only pleasant thought in his mind–

"By-your-command."

"What is it?" he wearily asked the silver Centurion.

"Several-of-our-patrols-report-they-have-joined-forces-to-pursue-two-Colonial-Vipers."

He was immediately interested. "Have they identified the pilots? The base ship of the Vipers?"

"The-patrol-reports-the-warriors-are-from-the-Galactica," intoned the Cylon.

Baltar rubbed his smooth hands in malicious anticipation. "Capture the ships. I want those pilots alive for interrogation."

"They-have-attempted-to-contact-the-Galactica. We-are-attempting-to-plot-the-location-and-course-of-the-fleet-from-the-warriors'-transmissions."

"Primary orders are to capture those ships!" Baltar barked back.

"By-your-command." The armed metal creature lumbered out.

"'Plot their course.'" Baltar snorted derisively. "If I know Adama, any of his people we locate will take off in another direction. The only way we'll learn anything is if they're captured and questioned!"

And could he be lucky enough that one of the pilots was Adama's son, Captain Apollo? Or maybe Cain's daughter, Lieutenant Sheba? Or perhaps Lieutenant Starbuck? Or better yet, best of all, most unlikely, all three? To have his enemies' children at his mercy...

The walls were too close. The human traitor decided he'd rather watch the cold stars.

"A Cylon base," breathed Captain Orestes. "The Commander'll want to know about this..."

His wingmate replied quietly, "Sizeable forces, too, from the looks of it. When they finish it, this could be the listening post for the entire quadrant!"

"Yeah. The Cylon arm is getting long – or they're trying awfully hard to track us down. If the fleet comes through here..." Orestes chewed his lip. The destination somehow gleaned by Cmdr. Adama was a carefully kept secret. Only a handful of officers on the Pegasus were aware of Earth's suspected location, including Cmdr. Cain, Col. Kleopatra, a few department heads, and the flight commander, Maj. Electra, his sister. Would the Galactica pass near here? It seemed likely, since the Pegasus maintained a vigil through the quadrant. That could mean Earth was near, as well...

"Stay with the comet, Astarte," he ordered. "We'll watch a little longer, ride the comet's orbit, then use the tail to conceal our course when we loop back to the Pegasus. We'll have more to pass along to the Commander than their location..."

Apollo had to fight his controls. Of the twelve enemy ships that spotted his patrol, only five still trailed his wounded ship. Starbuck kept pace beside him. If his comm still worked, he'd have ordered his friend away a long time ago. The Cylons would have followed him, or at least split up to pursue them both. Starbuck would've have a chance to escape.

They'd managed to lead the Raiders far from the fleet, and they'd made the Cylons work for their imminent victory. Apollo's ship had taken severe damage in the third stage of the fight; he could no longer maneuver with any speed, his fuel was almost gone, and his lasers were exhausted. Starbuck's protection had kept him alive then, driving the enemy off with a wild and unexpected counter-attack, but one ship alone couldn't prevail against five, especially when the pilot was trying to shield someone else.

"Well," he said grimly, knowing his buddy couldn't hear him, "we gave it our best shot, Starbuck. Sorry you had to be along on this one. You should've run when you had the chance. You could've survived, instead of following a dead man. If I could talk to you now... At least those tinheads will never figure the fleet's location from the vectors we've been showing them..."

Even they couldn't find the Galactica from here. Apollo's navicomp, pathetically overworked as it had been before the Cylon near-direct hit, had completely erased. He doubted very much if Starbuck's equipment was in any better shape.

Staring at his rear scan, which miraculously still worked, he saw one of the Raiders begin a quick curved move that he recognized. He drew a quick breath of alarm. Starbuck wasn't always careful of his rear, and if he didn't spot the maneuver in time...

Starbuck saw. Apollo let the breath out in a relieved sigh. A course swerve and a burst of laser fire from his wingmate sent the Raider scurrying back to its friends. But the lieutenant's charge was running low as well; the energy level was dropping, and Apollo knew the Cylons would read that as easily as he did.

He couldn't get over the feeling that the Cylons were no longer trying to destroy them outright, that they were being herded in this direction, as they had been toward Ravashol's pulsar on the ice planet. With a heavy heart, he gave his engines another push. He had no intention of being captured. After the time he'd spent among the alien scientists, the thought of being a prisoner again turned his blood cold with dread. If it came to a final choice, he still had his laser.

He wondered what choice Starbuck would make.

The two Pegasus pilots had left the listening post system, using the vagrant comet as their cover for escape. Now beyond any scanner range of the planetoid, they hit their thrusters for a fast but careful trip home.

"There, Captain! Do you see it?" His wingmate's excited voice broke into Orestes's thoughts. "Two Vipers, five Raiders. They're coming this way."

"I see 'em, Astarte," he replied with a frown. "The way they're reading out, those Vipers've taken some damage. Weapons must be down, too, or they'd be fighting. Must've put up a good one as it is, the way they look..."

"Do we take them?"

"I'll go in. You drop back, warn the Pegasus first. Let Commander Cain know about the Cylon base they're setting up. I'll lead the pilots in."

"Orestes..." she began rebelliously.

"Orders, kid. The Cylons won't expect me coming up from behind. I get the feeling they want those guys alive. Go." The Cylons must be from the listening post, and they obviously wanted to take the pilots prisoner. He had something to say about those plans.

"Yes, sir." He could almost hear the sulk as Astarte veered off. Her emotions showed in the way she handled a Viper – never clumsy or sloppy in timing or formation, but somehow very obvious. And Astarte resented being left out of anything.

Orestes checked his laser charge and chose the angle for his attack. With a deadly grin, the captain closed on the rearmost of the Raiders. They were in for a surprise.

Captain Apollo couldn't believe his eyes or his scanners when a Colonial Viper swept out of the interstellar dust cloud behind their murderous pursuers. For a moment he stared, shocked, it not even occurring to him to be grateful that the Lords had apparently heard his plea for assistance. Then the trailing enemy formation shattered under the Viper's laser fire, and suddenly the odds were even, three to three.

The first Viper was followed a moment later by another, which took its own shots at the confused Raiders. The two survivors tried to break away; Starbuck had enough firepower left for one of them. The first Viper looped around and took out the remaining Raider a moment later. The attack had been so sudden, they hadn't gotten off a warning to whatever place the humans were being directed toward.

Starbuck flew into close formation with him, almost wingtip to wingtip, then turned on his cockpit lights and gestured at him. With a grin, Apollo hit his own lights. There was a system of communicating by hand signals, but it was rarely used. He congratulated himself on insisting Blue Squadron be familiar with the manual code, over the complaints of Starbuck and others.

'Injured? Ship condition?'

Starbuck's signals were a little awkward. It was difficult and a bit dangerous to stay next to him while signaling, and the other pilot's skill with the code was questionable.

'Unhurt. Maneuverable. Your condition? Rescuers?'

'Undamaged. Pegasus near. Follow?'

'Yes.'

What choice did they have? Studying his gauges, Apollo began to worry if he had enough fuel to reach the battlestar, or the maneuverability to land safely if he did.

To land on the Pegasus. Cain and his people are still out here, doing what they seem to do best. I wonder if they've learned anything about the aliens, or the Delphians.

His thoughts unexpectedly centered on Electra.

Will she be happy to see me...?

Chapter II

"By-your-command."

Baltar turned from the unexciting view. There were no ships in the sky, no Vipers being brought in under a triumphal Cylon guard. "What is it, Centurion?" he asked, foreboding in his voice. Something had gone wrong, he knew it.

"We-have-lost-radio-contact-with-the-patrol-pursuing-the-Colonial-Vipers. We-have-also-lost-contact-with-a-patrol-in-Delta-Quadrant." The emotionless machine waited for orders.

Baltar stared. He wasn't surprised that they had lost the warriors; that seemed the way his luck ran, recently. But the other patrol...

"Was there any evidence of Colonial activity in that quadrant?"

"Negative-Commander-Baltar. There-was-no-evidence-of-alien-vessels-or-known-stellar-phenomena-to-account-for-the-disappearances."

"This isn't the first time this has happened?" the human demanded, furiously amazed that he hadn't been informed of any such difficulties on his arrival at the listening post.

"Two-patrols-have-vanished-in-that-quadrant-in-the-past-secton. Our-investigations-have-offered-no-explanation-or-probable-cause-for-their-disappearance." The Centurion might as well have been saying, "Our-lubricant-rations-are-low," for all the concern it expressed.

"Has the Imperious Leader been informed of this?" Baltar asked.

"No-special-report-has-been-filed. It-is-not-standard-procedure-to-inform-the-Imperious-Leader-of-the-loss-of-six-ships."

Baltar turned away, intent on the starry darkness beyond the protective tylinium shield of the viewport. Troubled, he wondered what they might have found – something natural that they weren't prepared for, but which could be avoided, or some other, unexpected enemy? Either way, he had been presented with a challenge. His heart quailed at facing it personally, but with the resources of a well-equipped, although not yet fully functional listening post at his disposal for the time being, he might resolve the matter to the satisfaction of the Imperious Leader. The Leader might not care if six ships vanished without explanation, but he would certainly reward well the man who delivered a warning of terrible danger, or a way to deal with the unexpected. The Cylons were notoriously ill-prepared to deal with what had previously been beyond their experience.

"Double patrols, and constant communication with our post," he ordered.

The first step was to find out what might be out there. Then he would know if he could reasonably expect to be victorious in a confrontation with it. If it was too powerful, or too strange, he could order a ship and abandon the post. He still had that much authority in the Empire...

"First Viper, comin' in hot!" The yell brought an added flurry of activity to Alpha bay of the Pegasus, as techs and emergency personnel prepared for the arrival of Lt. Starbuck's ship.

Maj. Electra waited impatiently. She knew Capt. Orestes and Sgt. Astarte were safely down in Beta, and Capt. Apollo's ship was so badly damaged he wasn't even attempting a landing – a rescue team shuttle had been dispatched. That left the bold, brash, Lt. Starbuck to worry about. The young warrior had probably underestimated the amount of damage his ship had taken, or overestimated his own flying skills, and was risking his life unnecessarily to prove something by landing his fighter without assistance.

Sighing, she admitted to herself she'd probably do the same before meekly accepting rescue by another base ship. What was it that gave warriors such a streak of stubborn pride where their ships and skills were concerned? Likely the same thing that made them warriors to begin with...

"Crash team, stand by!"

A Viper flashed through the invisible force screen at the end of the landing bay, a silver missile coming in much too fast.

Electra's fingers tightened on the girder as true panic welled in her. She knew what it felt like to come in that fast, to have death a single arc's degree off, one miscalculation away. And he was a warrior, one of his own kind, a kinsman in every way. For a micron she was aboard too, fighting the controls and her own cold fear – she would have been calmer if it had been her own ship.

"Careful, little brother..."

The Viper slid sideways, and suddenly skewed across the bay.

"No...!" She felt like she'd been kicked in the stomach.

It straightened, and she laughed, now recognizing the unorthodox braking method. A few moments later, the slowed Viper finally halted, not far from where the technician had insisted she wait.

The emergency fire control and damage teams swarmed over the Viper, dousing it with boraton and scanning its damage. Above them all, the canopy popped open, and a helmet flew out. Several of the techs laughed and cheered as a blond warrior followed the flying headgear.

Another survivor. Lucky again. This warrior would walk away.

"Welcome aboard, Starbuck!" Electra called cheerfully.

He waved back at the lithe blonde woman. "Hey, this place looks familiar," he commented brightly. "Have I been here before?"

"It's possible," the woman laughed. "If you're ready, Commander Cain would like to see you. Orestes and Astarte are already on the way to make their report, so the sooner you get through decontamination–"

"Uh, could I wait 'til Apollo's down?" the lieutenant asked quickly and more somberly. "His comm went out early, so I don't really know how he is, and he wouldn't admit it if he was hurt..."

She shook her head. "I think the report is important enough to justify your immediate presence. Besides, it could be a while until the rescue shuttle's back. You might as well see the Commander now. If Apollo's hurt, you can't help him. He wouldn't want you here, if you have valuable information that could save human lives..."

Starbuck stared at the empty end of the landing bay.

"Besides, I'll be here, if you think he needs somebody waiting for him."

He finally acquiesced.

Capt. Apollo waited patiently for the rescue shuttle. When they arrived, he cut all engines. Space-suited technicians attached the required tow ropes, after he signaled his continued good health – there was no reason for them to have to blow the ship in an emergency rescue, since he was uninjured, and if the fighter could be brought in relatively intact, there was a chance that it could be repaired.

Then, he waited some more. There was nothing he could do but watch as they maneuvered the Viper toward the landing bay. His comm was out, so he couldn't talk to anybody, or ask if Starbuck had landed safely.

The Pegasus grew before him, and the yawning cavity of the landing bay seemed to engulf him. Without landing skids, he got a rough jostling as his Viper screeched across the metal deck, but the tow ropes and an assortment of safety nets and force screens prevented too much damage. He clambered out without assistance, and surrendered himself to the care of the medical team.

He recognized the med tech working with the emergency team, an olive-skinned woman with a mass of dark ringlets tied back from her face. "Galswintha. Good to see you again."

The senior med tech acknowledged his greeting with a preoccupied nod as she began the quick diagnostic routine.

"I'm all right, just my ship got hurt in this one," he informed her.

Dark eyes sparkled at him. "I'll be the judge of that, Doctor Apollo," she replied archly. "Does this hurt?"

He yelped as she unexpectedly tapped a sore spot.

"Seems to be a slightly cracked rib. Likely incurred during your landing, and your brain simply has not yet received the message," she continued mildly, as if unaware of his offended glare. "And there are other bruises as well. I suspect your time in life center will not exceed a centar or two. You may take him. Decontamination first, of course, although I expect you have not been anywhere to gather any toxic bacteria or viruses. No, Major, you will have to wait to see him..." She managed in one motion to gesture closer a pair of burly med techs and to wave off Electra.

Having no option, Apollo submitted with good grace.

"So the Cylons have built themselves another listening post in this quadrant." The commander of the Pegasus leaned against the desk, tapping his swagger stick against his chin as he studied the three warriors before him. It wasn't unusual to have a debriefing in his quarters. Formal briefing rooms were constricting to the maverick commander, and this was his impatient way of striking against the feeling. Especially for a small group like this.

Capt. Orestes and Sgt. Astarte were used to it; Lt. Starbuck seemed more at ease than the first time he'd been in those quarters, but still not at home.

"And you and Captain Apollo nearly flew into it."

"They weren't exactly giving us much choice!" Starbuck protested the implied criticism.

"I'm sure they didn't. Ah, Major. Welcome. Do sit down."

The newly arrived Electra too her seat, sending a reassuring smile and nod at Starbuck to let him know that Apollo was all right.

Cain continued. "Orestes, your opinion on the condition of the base?"

The warrior pursed his lips and considered. "The scan tapes from our Vipers show it's not complete. But by my calculations, they must have nearly four squadrons of Raiders based there now – the full complement of a basestar. A sizeable force."

Electra offered her opinion, based on what she'd seen and heard, and her own past experience. "My guess is they'll augment their forces further. If the Cylons expect the fleet to come through here, or plan to use the base to protect this quadrant from an enemy beyond, they'll need a larger force. It's possible, with their web of intelligence gathering, that they are aware of some threat near here. I don't remember any Colonial exploration this far out in this direction; most of our deep star exploration, yahrens ago, was toward the Sigma Arm. A few expeditions were sent, but I don't remember much of interest... We've pretty much reached our limits of even hypotheses."

Cain nodded his head thoughtfully. "From the transmissions we've been monitoring, it would seem they're consolidating their hold on this quadrant, and planning for expansion. Not a good sign, for our fleet," he commented, pointedly glancing at Starbuck. "Or for any humans living beyond here, to have the Cylon Alliance poised to expand in this direction."

"Our forces would be about even at this point," Electra suggested tentatively. "We could take out the listening post, knock it down long enough for the fleet to pass, upset the tinheads' plans."

"Not yet," the commander said slowly. "I want to know why they're fortifying the area, what or who they expect to find, or are afraid of. If Starbuck's right about Adama's current heading, the Galactica and the fleet won't pass near enough for the Cylons here to detect them for several sectons, if at all. That could give us time to learn a great deal, by continuing to monitor them, about Cylon intentions, strength, and supply routes. If the Delphians are still in the area, we can't strand them in Cylon territory. And they may have encountered our mysterious alien friends as well – that could be the reason for the listening post suddenly built so far out."

"We could lose the element of surprise," Orestes pointed out. "Right now they don't know we're here."

"I think I can count on you not to let them know we're here. For now, warn your flight rosters to be extra careful, Electra. Dismissed, warriors, until nineteen hundred, when hopefully Captain Apollo may join us."

Electra, Orestes, and Astarte left, conferring. Starbuck hesitated a moment.

"Commander Cain..." he began.

"Yes, Starbuck?"

"Uh, is this concern for secrecy going to affect me and Apollo returning to the fleet?"

He wasn't sure what Cain's smile meant when the veteran replied, "I'll have to consider the matter. By the way, Lieutenant, how's Cassie? And Sheba?"

Starbuck felt like he'd just stepped on a sunspot. "Uh, they're ... fine, I guess. Sheba's not happy about being left behind again, and I really haven't seen much of Cassie since..."

The commander's gray-blue eyes were as sharp as his single, "Oh?"

He squirmed a moment, then burst out with, "I'm surprised you didn't take Cassiopeia with you, sir."

"She chose to stay with the Galactica."

Starbuck blinked.

"I told her that the man she chose had better be worthy of her, or I was coming back to deal with him personally. She's a damn fine woman, and she deserves a good man. I expected better of you, Lieutenant. You can go."

Cain understood too well what had happened. There was a gathering storm on his brow as his eyes remained fixed on Starbuck. The young warrior almost made it out the door before the older man called him back.

"What about Sheba? Is she starting to accept the situation? She knows I'll come back some day, doesn't she? She and Apollo, well..."

Honesty was the only possible response to that question, too. "She blames Apollo for your leaving, sir. I think you'll have to talk to the captain about that, but they aren't seeing each other any more..." Starbuck vanished as quickly as possible.

Cain watched him go, clamping his jaw shut both to avoid asking questions that might betray more concern and to avoid delivering a hot opinion he might regret later.

Starbuck, I never thought you were a fool. Brave and spirited, yes, and maybe a little reckless, but any man that would walk away from Cassie... I had to leave her, but it wasn't willingly. And ah, Sheba, baby, I thought it was the right thing to do for you too. What in Sagan's name went wrong? I thought it was the right thing to do for both of you...

Orestes caught Astarte's arm as Electra hurried off. "You disobeyed orders out there," he whispered. "You should have stayed out of the fight, headed back to base like I told you. I could take care of it..."

Her expression was mutinous. "Backing up my wingman is my duty. I made the decision to place that duty above your temporary insanity."

"I oughtta put you on report!"

"Who do I report to?" she asked cheekily.

He grinned. "You have no respect for me as a superior officer."

"Whatever you say, sir. Am I on report?"

"To me. Twenty-two hundred bells."

"I'll meet you in the lounge."

He watched her saunter away, and shook his head. He let the girl get away with far too much. Just because they occasionally shared an evening, and those evenings were now exclusively spent with each other... He shook his head again. That was why he'd made a policy of never getting involved with the women in his squadron. But with Astarte, he couldn't keep from breaking his own rules.

For just a micron, something throbbed behind his eyes. He tensed in expectation, but the ache faded. Relieved that he wasn't about to have another of those headaches, he headed down the corridor.

"He'll have to consider the matter?" Apollo demanded, nearly aghast. "What's that supposed to mean?" He was still in life center, and hadn't yet seen Commander Cain. However, Galswintha and one of the doctors, Beej, had already examined him and fused his cracked rib. The captain was dressed and ready to leave.

"I don't know!" Starbuck shot back.

"The Commander has his reasons, gentlemen, and if you think about them–" Electra returned, only to be interrupted again by the hot-headed young warrior.

"Reasons? Like what?"

"Do you know the location of the fleet right now? Could you find your way back to it? What about the Cylon listening post? Two Vipers alone, potentially against four squadrons, if they spot you? And if you're captured, as was obviously intended, how much would you tell them – under the proper 'persuasion'? Do you want Cain to risk leading the tinheads back to the fleet so you can ... go home again? And that's assuming we're far enough from the territory of those aliens to travel safely. Think about it, Starbuck. After all, if I remember correctly, you were thinking about transferring here anyway, just a few sectars ago."

"That was when I thought Apollo and Boomer were dead, and I didn't think I had any reason to stay..." He caught his friend's eye and shut up; Starbuck seldom expressed his feelings so openly. The captain nodded understandingly.

"Apollo's here, too," Electra stated logically.

"Oh...!" he exploded with an expletive, slamming his fist into the wall. "What right has Cain to make that decision for us? I don't care if he is the commander of the Pegasus, and the living legend, and–"

"He's the commander of this battlestar, which we now happen to be aboard, Starbuck," Apollo quietly interjected. He'd been studying Electra while considering their few options, and had reached a decision. "Which makes his orders binding on us. And those arguments the Major listed are good ones for us to stay here, at least for the time being."

Starbuck stared at his friend. "You ... agree with Cain?"

"Under the circumstances, which I may not necessarily like, I have no choice. He is the commander. We were worse than dead when Orestes saved us. And while I, at least, know the fleet's ultimate destination, we don't know where the Galactica is now. We could wander for sectons, run out of fuel and support vapors, and die drifting in space, if the Cylons – or worse – didn't find us first. The prospect doesn't thrill me."

The lieutenant looked like he knew he had to agree, but really wanted to argue some more, if only on principles.

A rueful smile tugged at the captain's mouth as he glanced at Electra. "I understand you have family here, Starbuck – a built-in belonging. Knowing you, you'll find somebody to help you get over Athena and Cassiopeia and Miriam and Noday and the others soon enough."

The flight commander hid a grin. Her younger brother's hobbies were similar to Orestes's – and sometimes her own.

Starbuck detected fatalism in Apollo's voice. "What about you?"

He looked down. "We'll still be fighting to defend the fleet; they just won't know it. Maybe someday we'll get back. I know ... Boxey's in ... good hands. Father... Athena... They'll get over it; they're warriors, they know the reasons, they always have..."

Electra shifted uncomfortably. "Oh, I'd forgotten ... Sheba..."

He sighed with weariness at the mention of her name. "I'm afraid that's over."

"What? Why?"

"When you left, she took it personally," he said without rancor. "And she has decided I was in some way responsible for her father being gone again, without her. She hasn't been willing to speak to me since."

"Probably why Cain decided to keep us here – doesn't have to send you back to his little girl," Starbuck muttered. "And he's not sending me back to Cassie either – one way to get even."

Electra could tell there were painful wounds showing, and shifted the conversation, ignoring the sudden excitement knocking at her heart. "I expect you'll both be wanting squadron assignments then? Unless you ... disagree with the Commander, and plan on bolting at the first opportunity. Which will probably mean he'll incarcerate you as menaces until he figures out some other way of handling you..."

The Galactica pilots responded with reluctant smiles.

"I expect we'll need a squadron assignment," Apollo admitted.

"Make it a good one," Starbuck cautioned flippantly. "We're used to the best – of course, whichever one we're in, it'll be the best as soon as we join..."

She laughed. "I'll see what I can do. I'll check accommodations too."

When the flight commander left, their expressions turned more glum.

"So now we're part of the Pegasus," Apollo muttered softly.

"I guess it hurts you more than me," Starbuck conceded with an effort. "My family's here, at least most of it, and yours is still back in the fleet. You've always been close to them, and I'm still getting to know Orestes and Electra... But we've got friends here. I guess it's a good thing we got to know some of the pilots when the Pegasus was with the fleet..."

Apollo forced another smile at Starbuck's tentative comments. "I expect we'll survive." But he had one more person to talk to.

"Colonel? Do you have a moment?"

Kleopatra looked up from her desk and smiled fondly. "For you, always, Apollo, you know that. Electra passed along your assignment. Welcome aboard."

"Thank you." He nodded acknowledgment.

"It sounds like you were lucky to run into Orestes and Astarte."

"We'd've been dead otherwise – or worse. The only time the Cylons take prisoners is when they want something out of them." Apollo couldn't entirely suppress the little shudder.

Kleopatra's dark eyes were keen and sympathetic. "True. But this time they failed. I'm glad to see you recovered completely from those aliens. The last time I saw you, you were in a life pod on the way to the Galactica. You're looking better than you did then."

The captain even laughed.

"But what is it you wanted to talk about?"

He met her gaze. "I think you know."

She nodded. "From knowing you, I'd guess you want to go back to the Galactica, and you want us to go back with you, but Cain has ordered otherwise."

"Exactly." He sighed deeply, glad he didn't have to explain. "I was hoping you'd be able to talk to him..."

It was the colonel's turn to laugh. "Apollo, I've served with the man for yahrens now, and I can't recall one time I've been able to talk him into anything he hasn't wanted to do. He has his mission, and he will see it through."

"Whatever the wishes or needs of his crew?" Apollo shot back. When the woman didn't answer, he continued. "Does everyone always go along with what Cain wants? Kleopatra, what about you? Do you always agree? Is it a precondition of fighting on the Pegasus to accept Cain's orders without question or thought?"

"It is a condition of serving on any ship to obey the orders of its commander, or to find oneself facing tribunal, Captain," she came back firmly.

He fell silent for a moment.

"I seem to recall having gone through a very similar ... discussion with Tigh, on more than one occasion," Kleopatra finally observed.

"I'm sorry," Apollo replied quietly. "I didn't mean to impugn Cain's ability, or yours. It's just..."

"You came here hoping I could help you get home. I know a little of what's going on, Apollo; I do hear things. I know about your friend Starbuck being brother to our Electra and Orestes, and what was going on with you and Sheba. I think you'll just have to resign yourself to the Pegasus, for now. According to Cain, it's only for a while, and the Pegasus isn't such a bad ship – we're actually a fairly decent crew."

Apollo didn't know what to say again, so he kept silent, staring at the deck. He heard her moving, and, a moment later, felt a light hand on his shoulder.

"Pol," she began, with the informality of someone who'd known him through scraped knees, a lost pet, junior triad games, his first teenage infatuation, entry into the Caprican Military Academy, and many assorted talks of varying depths before the dissolution of her sealing to Tigh and the resulting separation from his family. "After everything we've been through, is it really the end of the universe to be on this ship for a few sectars?"

"No," he admitted.

"I'm sorry you're separated from your family and your friends."

"I don't like to think how they must be feeling now, my father, my sister, my son..." Apollo wondered how their families and friends were taking their disappearance and presumed deaths, and hated to think of their grief. He was suddenly just another pilot, and he felt a little lost. He was used to being flight commander, back on the Galactica. Maybe Sheba hadn't been wrong about everything after all...

The bridge hummed with its usual intensity, but somber silence hung over the personnel. Commander Adama stood on the command deck, his expression stoic but haunted as he deliberately kept his eyes averted from Omega's board. Colonel Tigh, less willing to accept the worst, publicly, glanced down at Athena before sighing and turning to Adama.

"Still nothing, sir. No word or scan of Apollo or Starbuck."

"Old friend," Adama replied very quietly, "I did not expect there would be. They have been gone too long, their fuel and support vapors would be exhausted long before now. Without a miracle, they will not be returning."

"A miracle like Cain?" For once, Tigh found that a thread of hope. After speaking to Kleopatra again, and settling the bounds of a tentative friendship after their shattered marriage, his dislike for Cain had lessened considerably. And between Cain, the Cylons, the possible reappearance of the aliens, or some other, perhaps worse danger in space, the first was the least deadly or threatening of their possible fates.

Adama shook his head slowly. "I do not ask for a miracle twice, Tigh. Thrice, if we consider their return from the aliens."

"Cain said he makes his own miracles."

Adama's darkly haunted eyes searched his face. "It would be more pleasant to think of them being with Cain. But I will not set my hopes on what is likely not to be."

He slowed moved down the steps. "Athena," he ordered the woman at the terminal, "call up the personnel listings for Captain Apollo and Lieutenant Starbuck. Change their status to missing, presumed dead."

There were weary smudges under his daughter's eyes, and her face was drawn, but she had held back her sobs while there was hope. This order ended that hope. Apollo, her much-loved brother, and Starbuck, who inspired such turmoil in her heart and mind, were to be considered among the dead. She followed her father and commander's order, her shoulders shaking with silent grief.

Jolly had given up trying to entertain Boxey. The boy was too lost in his sadness, and seemed to want only to sit and cling to his mechanical daggit. It was as if he knew that this time there was no reprieve, that Apollo was really gone for good – and not alone; his favorite "uncle" Starbuck was gone too. So they waited silently for what was left of Boxey's family, Adama and Athena, to get off duty and come collect the boy.

A slow and somber footstep sounded in the hall. The warrior and the child looked up as one to see Adama slowly framed in the doorway.

"Boxey."

He knew. He buried his face in Muffey's fake fur long enough to hide the tears and steady his trembling chin, then he stood up and moved to take his grandfather's hand, and listened.

Chapter III

The homey quarters were dark and still. The man in bed snored lightly. The woman lying beside him was silent but awake, staring up in the darkness. She couldn't sleep; the painkiller had done nothing. Her head throbbed a rhythm of agony. Tears trickled down her cheeks as she tried to stifle a moan.

The man heard, and woke instantly. "Sif?" He touched her bare shoulder. "No better?"

"No," she whispered. "If anything, worse. Donner, but I feel like pounding my head against the wall just to shut it out..." A single sob shook her.

Heimdal knew it was serious. He sat up and pulled her into his arms, rocking her gently.

"Thank you, thank you..." She leaned into his shoulder, hiding her face.

The touch helped; the pain seemed to recede a little with each wave. After a few centons it was bearable, and Sif was able to relax. It finally reduced to a heavy pounding in her head, as if she'd had just a little too much ambrosa.

"This was worse than the last one?"

She nodded. "I never had headaches like this before ... before the aliens. And the nightmares..." Her voice shook a little. "Was it that bad, Heimdal? Am I becoming insane because of something they did to me?"

His grip tightened protectively. "Beej said there was nothing wrong with us physically. I haven't had any problems. The nightmares and the headaches must be psychological – they'll go away. Or do you want ... help?"

They lay back on the bunk. Sif rested her head on her husband's chest. "As long as I have you, I will be all right."

They held each other, waiting for sleep to return. After a few moments, Sif took one of her blonde braids and began toying with it, brushing Heimdal's chin and throat, tickling his lips, twining it with his own red temple braids. When she followed the brushing with a light kiss, he laughed deep in his throat.

"I don't think you're interested in sleep just now."

"Well, actually..."

He rolled on his side, pinning her against the bed, and kissed her deeply. It was quite some time and exertion later before either of the sweaty, sheet-tangled warriors were interested in talking seriously again.

"Something is very wrong here," Heimdal mused. "As I understand it, women use a headache as an excuse to avoid love. Yet recently, you get headaches as a precursor to taking advantage of me."

"Taking advantage?" She laughed lightly. "But you make it so easy! And you look so good when you're disreputable..." She ran her fingers through the loose red hair, a lecherous smile on her face.

"At least you have made an honest man of me..."

"Do we have a patrol in the morning?" she interrupted. "Or any other pressing duties?"

"Not that I remember."

"Good. I think this could be a long night."

Tigh sent a gentle sigh of frustration into the dimness. He was on sleep period, but he wasn't getting much rest. Unfortunately, the lack of rest wasn't due to his companion. The woman next to him laughed ruefully as she moved.

Strike that. She's not next to me, she's on top of me.

"Your heart's not in it tonight, Tigh." Her stroking was definitely obscene.

"I doubt it's my heart you're interested in just now," he remarked.

"Of course I'm interested. Exercise and cardio-vascular activity, and all that, very healthy, good for a man and a woman. But you've got something besides me on your mind. Care to talk about it?" She switched position to cuddle close to his side, her head on his shoulder, one long ebony leg still thrown over his. Long coils of tightly curled black hair tickled his chest.

He sighed again. "Adama went over the flight roster today, looking for a new flight commander. I think he wanted to avoid it as long as possible, but the squadrons need a leader..."

Maruwa murmured something sympathetic.

Tigh continued introspectively. "Starbuck would have been the most logical next choice, but he's gone, too... Maybe Boomer..."

"There are other captains in the squadrons. Doesn't one of them have the experience and seniority for the post...? I mean, not to take anything away from the warrior, but Boomer is just a lieutenant. So was Starbuck."

"There's more than rank to consider – there's seniority aboard this ship, demonstrated leadership potential, ability to function well with our current personnel under the present situation... I'm sorry, I'm spouting an old manual at you."

"So you think it will be Boomer?"

He thought for a moment. "Probably not," he finally admitted. "Captain Nestor of Red Squadron meets all the requirements. Good record, high survival rate, due for promotion. I suppose he'd be chosen over Starbuck, too – he could be ... a little reckless, and they don't come any steadier than Nestor."

Maruwa was silent for several centons after his voice trailed off.

"That's not all that's on your mind, Tigh. I've never know you to ... to be so unable to set aside work difficulties. You and Adama have been friends for yahrens. I know you were close to the children, too, since you and Kleopatra didn't have any of your own."

He wondered that she brought up his ex-wife, considering the situation.

"You're hurting for your friend's pain. You miss Apollo and Starbuck yourself. They were more than warriors to you. They were almost sons. And you're feeling for Boomer and Sheba and Cassie and Athena and your other 'children' as well."

He held her tighter. "Are you psychic?" Something was breaking through in his voice.

She giggled a little. "Only with people I know well."

"Maybe I've been trying not to think about it that way." He couldn't hold back the heavy sigh. "Adama seemed so tired today. I offered to take his shift, but he said he'd rather be on the bridge, he wasn't leaving his post. Athena was listless, too. Today was the first she's been back on duty since they were declared missing – losing her brother and the man she loves... She was pale, dark-eyed, like she hadn't slept... I wish there was something I could do for them."

"I'm sure they know that, and appreciate it."

"I'm sure you're right, but still..."

"I thought I could take your mind off it for an evening. I should have known better."

"From the night I met you, you've always been there when I needed you, Maruwa," he said fervently. "I need you. Just be here now, like you were before." He wondered fiercely if it were possible to hold a woman any closer.

Apollo's eyes snapped open. He stared around in some confusion, wondering for a moment where he was. Then the memories came back – the Pegasus, not the Galactica; that's why he was sleeping in general barracks, not his own quarters, the flight commander's quarters. He was just a pilot, not the...

Flight commander. That's what woke him. That's what he'd been dreaming. But why should he dream...? It hadn't been a nightmare; there was no reason for his sudden waking and alertness. The dream refused to come to clarity, just hung in his mind as an impression of something he'd been doing or should have been doing.

Apollo glanced around in the silent dimness. No one was stirring, so he couldn't have been responding to someone else's movements. He leaned over the edge of his upper bunk. No, it hadn't been Starbuck, either; his friend wasn't in bed – at least, not here, he amended. Starbuck made "friends" faster than anybody he knew.

His head unexpectedly throbbed, and he lay back with a grimace. Maybe an incipient headache had disturbed him. He lay still for a few moments, but the pain didn't go away as it always had before. Of course, before he'd always had the security of the celestial observation dome to escape to, and his own small projects to concentrate on. Laying as immobile as possible, he soon realized this headache wasn't going to follow the pattern of the others.

Maybe it was still related to his injuries from the combat and rescue three days before, his first day aboard the Pegasus. He decided on a quick trip to life center.

Med tech Galswintha was on duty. Apollo caught himself blinking in surprise at seeing her dark features instead of Cassiopeia's fair coloring. It amazed him anew at how similar two ships could be, and yet so disorienting with different crews.

When he told her what was bothering him, she frowned. "Another headache," she mused as she pressed the injector against his shoulder.

"Another?" he repeated.

"Lieutenant Sif was here earlier tonight, a sudden headache, throbbing behind the eyes like a migraine, sounded the same as yours. You're certain you have no history of chronic headaches? You didn't do anything yesterday that could have caused a delayed stress reaction?"

"I've had a few headaches the last sectons, but I've never had one like this, and I don't recall doing anything that could have brought it on. Shouldn't that stuff be working already? The headache seems to be getting worse," he told her.

"I'll give you a quick check-up. If it's something related to or caused by your landing the other day, that we missed then..."

Apollo endured Galswintha's examination, his head hurting more with every passing centon. By the time she was finished, he was gritting his teeth to keep from moaning.

She watched with a frown. "I'll call one of the doctors. Beej is on call for this shift..."

"For a frakkin' headache? And does it have to be Beej? I swear the man hates me," he groaned.

"Beej doesn't hate anybody... Captain? Apollo?"

Apollo heard her concerned call, but was too breathless to respond. Something in his brain gave one last effort, and for a moment the captain wanted to curl into a fetal position and die. Then the pain ebbed off into a memory faster than it had come on, leaving only a dull sensation with each heartbeat.

He found a smile for Galswintha. "Your potion finally seems to be working."

Her forehead puckered in surprise at the abruptness of the man's recovery. "Are you certain, Captain?"

"I should know when I'm no longer in pain, shouldn't I?"

"Yes..."

"May I go now?" he asked with intentionally childish tones.

"If you feel all right. But I'll pass this along to the doctors – don't be surprised if they contact you for another thorough check-up tomorrow."

Apollo left life center as fast as he could, convinced that if he delayed even a micron, the med tech would call him back and not permit him to leave. He still didn't feel sleepy, however, so he wandered the mostly-empty corridors, figuring it was a good time to acquaint himself with the ship. Maybe, he thought wryly, he would even discover where Starbuck was spending all his time recently. The last dregs of his headache lingered on; concentrating on the small bit of pain, his strolling was aimless until he found himself in front of the door to the flight commander's quarters.

"Electra," he mused, as suddenly aware as if someone had poked him and pointed it out.

Major Electra. She's the fight commander here, not me. Why does that keep nibbling at my mind? Is my pride taking that much of a beating?

A throb reminded him of the pain behind his eyes. He remembered the way she had eased a headache for him before, with a relaxing neck and shoulder massage that had eased a lot of mental tension as well.

"Enter!"

Startled, Apollo realized it was Electra's voice, and that his hand had brushed her annunciator without conscious command. The door slid open. Embarrassed and hesitant, he walked in. She was seated at her desk with a stack of compsheets in front of her. She was out of uniform in some loose-sleeved, colorful shift, but at least he hadn't wakened her from sleep period.

"Uh, sorry about that..."

"Sorry about what?" Her welcoming smile became puzzled.

"I think I hit your door by accident. I wasn't intending to stop by or disturb you..."

"Oh. Who were you planning to disturb?"

"Uh ... I had a headache, so I visited life center, and I've been wandering about – I should be getting some sleep, actually. I'm still adjusting to your day/night schedule; it's a few centars off the Galactica's... Uh, you look kind of busy..." He gestured at the pile of paper.

She made a face. "Fortunately, I just finished my secton's paperwork. Whoever said bureautucians live in paper infrastructures was right. Just wish I knew why they insist on warriors living there too!"

Apollo had to laugh. "I remember. There were enough sleepless nights aboard the Galactica."

Electra began feeding the sheets into her computer console and quickly changed the subject. "Have a seat, Apollo. There's no reason to stand there like you're in a cadet review. I'm not that much of an ogress, whatever you may think after the last few days. How's your headache?"

He shrugged. "Fading, but I can still feel it. It's not responding to medication very fast." He sat down on the low upholstered bench and leaned against the wall.

"There are other ways of taking care of headaches, especially if they're tension-related."

"I remember. I don't suppose you'd have a few centons...?" It sounded very presumptuous when spoken aloud.

She studied him for a moment, blinking, with a slow smile.

"You were probably planning on going to bed right away..." he tried to recover hastily, then shut up, realizing that sounded even worse.

"No, actually, I do have a few centons – I often get so aggravated at this bureaucratic garbage that I can't sleep for a centar anyway." She moved swiftly from her desk to stand in front of him.

Close up, the short, belted shift was even more interesting. He tried not to stare, but he couldn't avoid the teasing hint of some lingering scent. He wondered if she'd planned on a turboshower before turning in; it made an inspiring mental image that he hastily suppressed.

"Sometimes I just pour an ambrosa and grumble to myself for a while. Maybe a drink would help your head, too? Along with the massage?" she suggested.

"Sounds like a wonderful idea." He smiled, watching with some pleasure as she pulled out two chalices and a bottle of something. "Personal stock?" he asked as she poured. Another vivid image surfaced to leave him with a dry throat.

Electra laughed. "I guess you could say that. Actually, this isn't really ambrosa. It's something Pegasus-brewed; I'm not sure what Edric calls it. He changes the name with almost every batch, and I suspect the recipe changes with almost every batch, too. But it's always good, has the right effect, and hasn't killed anybody yet." She handed him the cup.

He drank. "Umm," he murmured appreciatively. "Not ambrosa, but good. Edric. He's not familiar..."

"One of our Viper techs. You probably haven't met him yet. Strange fellow, but he's got quite a reputation. Claims if it's animal he can befriend it; if it's mineral he can make it fly; and if it's vegetable he can make booze out of it. I can speak for the booze and what he can do with a damaged ship. As for the animals, you should see how fast the Delphian children adopted him. He also makes wonderful toys."

Apollo laughed outright. "I'll have to meet him."

"Refill?" She held out the bottle.

He met her eyes, and was reminded of a stormy Caprican sunset, all in shades of blue and violet. A pulse like a too-near thunderclash ran through his body. "Actually..." He rubbed his temple.

"Ah, yes, your headache." She thought his eyes were the clear green of the Caprican Sea, and knew the booze was taking effect, because she felt as though she were drowning in them. What happened next was welcome and not really a surprise.

She set down her chalice. He caught her hand and raised it to his lips to kiss her fingertips, then her palm. His free arm circled her waist; she slid toward him without resistance, meeting his kiss. When he breathed a line of fire down her throat and into her garment, she gasped, then tangled her fingers in his thick dark hair and pulled him closer.

The ball bounced out of the court wall, into the Red player's waiting arms. He threw himself to one side to avoid the White player's attempted grab. Tossing the ball across the court, he slipped past the other man to catch his own rebound. White responded more quickly than Red had anticipated; a legal block, and White had control of the ball. Red lunged, hoping for a joint possession call, but there was no officiator to make such a determination. The two players slammed to the floor together, and the ball slipped free. They scuffled for a moment, but White was on his back, and Red regained his feet more quickly. He snatched the ball and was across the court before White could recover. A leap into a mid-air twist, and the ball soared into the blackness of the goal cavity. The board sounded Red's mark, and the score was tied again.

"Good moves!" his opponent panted approvingly. White still stood where the two had fallen, bracing himself with his arms on his knees, leaning over to catch his breath. "Take a breather ... call it a game?"

The two men left the confined triad court, pulling off their triad helmets as they went and pushing sweat-plastered blond hair off their foreheads. Both grabbed small cups of electrolyte-laced water and dropped to seats in the turboshower room.

"You're good, little brother," the man in white triad gear announced after a moment.

"I should be," responded the man in red as he peeled off the protective padding at his elbows and arms. "Apollo and I are the fleet champions."

"You mean I'm finally going to have some competition?" Orestes responded wickedly. He leaned forward to undo and remove his boots.

"I thought Trent and Rissian were the best on this ship!"

"Team, yes. But I'm best at triad solo. Not everyone who's good as part of a team can play it alone. I'm guessing you and Apollo must play against each other at times – we lefties learn a few tricks that a lot of right-dominant people don't pick up on immediately. And you react to those moves too quickly, like you know what I'm doing before I've finished thinking of it."

"That's true," Starbuck acknowledged with a laugh. "Speaking of Apollo, he's probably wondering where I am, being my conscience and all..."

"You mean he's known you this long and can't figure out you're ... playing, when you're not in your bunk at curfew?" Orestes side-armed a boot at him, then slithered out of the rest of his triad uniform.

"He figures out plenty! Probably thinks I'm with a woman right now. We've been friends a long time..."

"Which brings up the question, met anybody yet? Of the female persuasion? The personal type?"

"A few," Starbuck replied slyly. "You've got some nice ladies on this ship..." And he would be meeting one of them after this game.

"You're telling me?" Orestes grinned. "Just one warning, however. Keep your eyes and hands off Astarte."

"A challenge?"

"No, she's taken. She doesn't let me stray any more, and quite frankly, I'm not much interested in wandering at the moment. But the game works both ways – she doesn't stray either. However, I'd rather not throw temptation in her way..."

"You calling me temptation?"

"Little brother, we are much alike," Orestes stated sly, then grabbed a towel and disappeared into the turboshower.

Starbuck suddenly felt a mixture of emotions surface, now that the adrenalin of the game was subsiding into physical weariness. He enjoyed being with his half-brother; he couldn't deny that. There hadn't been any time to get to know him when he first learned of their relationship, but making up for lost time was almost fun. They were indeed much alike, and Orestes was an easy man to get to know, in most respects – as Electra has been, in those first sectons. But grief had overshadowed everything then. They had believed both Apollo and Orestes dead, along with Boomer and several others. There had been no time to cement relationships that had no proving of time to sustain them.

Starbuck couldn't help remembering something their father, Chameleon, had said when he first encountered that old scoundrel – that one couldn't make up for lost yahrens. Well, one could certainly make the most of the ones at present and to come! Starbuck had spent some time with his father; Chameleon had visited frequently, and the time had been good. Now, there were good times with another member of his family. Considering the game they'd just played, he and his brother might even make a good team, in more ways than one.

Starbuck had to smile. Family. The word felt good, rolling around in his thoughts.

But it brought an uneasy intruder to his mind. It was a feeling of disloyalty. He'd been rather busy the last few days, almost tagging along behind Orestes, not spending much time with Apollo. He hoped his friend understood.

"He must," Starbuck murmured. "After all, there was Zac..."

That only made it worse. He didn't like feeling as though he'd abandoned his best friend, and the memories... But they were still wingmates; they flew together; they played triad as a team; they often relaxed together; there had been times when they were younger that they'd gotten into various mischiefs together. How much time could one reasonably expect of one's friend? They had to make their own lives. And he and Apollo had been through too much together in their lives to ever really let their friendship wither. Memories came back from their long friendship – the Academy, their earliest missions, all they'd endured and survived...

"Wonder what's happening on the Galactica now?"

But that line of thought was too melancholy. Determinedly, Starbuck sloughed the rest of his gear, then grabbed a towel and headed into the steamy heat of the turboshower.

And afterward, there were the smoldering embers of a passionate redhead to keep any thoughts from chilling him.

Chapter IV

Commander Adama rested his forehead on his palms, sighing heavily. He couldn't put the duty off, much as he wanted to. It had been easily avoided the other time, when the Pegasus had been with the fleet. Somehow, everything had devolved on Cain's flight commander, and he'd avoided any quick decision. But he couldn't do it this time, not if he wished to maintain the integrity of the fighter squadrons. They couldn't sit and wait while morale and cohesion disintegrated. There had been miracles before, but he expected none this time.

Why Apollo? Lords, why? My son, my strength, my pride, my own right hand, taken from me without warning or time to say good bye. And Starbuck with him...

For warriors there was seldom time for goodbyes, but they'd expected no trouble. It wouldn't have made the loss any more tolerable, but he would've given almost anything to keep those young men, those valuable pilots, his son and his son's friend, who was almost a son as well, at his side even a few more days.

"Sir?"

He didn't hear the voice at first.

"Adama?"

The commander looked up to see his executive officer watching him in concern. He took a deep breath and sat up straighter. "Yes, Tigh?"

"Are you all right?"

Adama smiled sadly. "Not really, but that's to be expected, and must have no bearing on my duties. Are the men assembled?"

"All the flight captains are here, and their wingmen. And Boomer – he's led Blue Squadron, kept them together these past few days."

The commander nodded. "Good. Let's get this over with."

"Will it be Nestor?" Tigh ventured to ask.

Another heavy sigh. "I really wanted Boomer for flight commander. He's got as much seniority as any of the others, and probably more inherent ability, but I can't promote a lieutenant over my own captains, when several of them are fully qualified in every way."

"I expected you would feel that way."

"Nestor has been managing Red Squadron with no problems these last few sectars. He spent yahrens at the Academy, doesn't have as much flight experience as some of the others, but strictly on seniority, he outranks any other captain on this ship. And he wouldn't have been appointed an Academy instructor and flight trainer if he weren't capable. He's due for a promotion. So are many others."

Tigh understood. "I know. Attrition has been worst among the lower ranks, among the cadets we trained ourselves. The upper echelons have been fairly stable, from the Academy warriors, the experienced men and women. It's going to be very different with Apollo and Starbuck gone."

"Very different," Adama agreed evenly. "Summon the men, Colonel."

The assorted group of warriors entered the briefing room, quietly taking their places before the commander's podium. They knew the reason for the gathering, and how difficult it was for their leader. Tense, eager, still grieving their missing friends, they sat. With a minimum of shuffling, floor-scraping, and murmurs, they fell silent, eyes on Adama.

"I'm sure you all know why you've been assembled," he began quietly, without preamble. "The loss of Captain Apollo leaves vacant the position of flight commander. The flight commander is essential, pivotal in maintaining the cohesiveness of all squadrons as a fighting unit. He is of necessity the ultimate authority in combat situations.

"After careful thought and consideration of your fine records as warriors and pilots, I have selected Captain Nestor, Red Squadron's flight leader, to assume this post. Nestor has the greatest seniority of any of you, although he hasn't been aboard the Galactica as long. You know he has an excellent background. I sincerely hope you will all be able to work with him in the same harmony as with Captain Apollo. Please convey this information to your squadrons."

There was shuffling, a few glances.

"Nestor, I will expect any recommendations from you in a few days, along with word of your successor in Red Squadron. If anyone has any questions or points to discuss, please bring them to me now, or to Captain Nestor hereafter. Nestor, Boomer, I would like to speak with you both after the briefing. If there are no questions, the rest of you are dismissed."

Adama sat down again, waiting. The warriors were silent a moment, as though expecting a longer speech. Finally they began to move, rising slowly from their chairs, offering congratulations to Nestor, then turning to their own squadronmates as they trickled out the door.

The two remaining warriors approached Adama's seat.

"You wished to see me, sir?"

"Yes, Boomer." He studied the competent, restrained features of the dark-haired man standing before him. He saw the tight lines around his eyes and mouth, sure signals of controlled emotion and pain. "It's long past time you were due for a promotion, Boomer. With the flight commander's approval, I'd like you to take over Blue Squadron, as its captain, if you wish it."

He hesitated, then nodded acquiescence.

Adama turned to Nestor, observing him as if for the first time – curly dark hair, cloudy gray eyes, strongly-cleft chin in a square jaw. "Is that acceptable to you, Captain?"

"I'm familiar with Boomer's record, sir. I would have no qualms with such an assignment, and the promotion is well deserved."

"Then it is done."

"Sir," Boomer spoke again, "isn't this a bit ... rushed? It's only been three days..."

"We can't wait, Boomer. The squadrons need order."

The warriors accepted their new duties and left. Adama and Tigh waited silently a few moments more.

"Old friend, I am so tired. I have seen so many of them, so young, so brave, go out and not return. So many... Tigh, there are times I want to quit and leave this burden behind..."

Tigh felt a sense of foreboding.

In the corridor outside, Nestor stopped with a deep breath, sucking in the ever-so-slightly-metallic-scented air. Next to him, Boomer halted.

"Something wrong, Captain?"

"Boomer," the other man replied wryly, "you call me that again, and I may put you on report."

"Okay, old friend. Something bothering you? I know you, Nestor. Next to some of the guys in the squadron, you're the best friend I ever had..."

"With that much competition, I could be a complete stranger!"

"You father saved me from delinquency status, and you taught me triad. Without the both of you, I'd've never made it into the Academy, much less through it. What's on your mind?" Boomer leaned against the metal girder next to him, arms crossed and a near-grin on his face.

"I never really had a chance to know Apollo..." Nestor's ship had been the very last of a small handful of ships that had found the fleet after the flight from the Colonies, even after Kobol.

The grin faded. "Yeah?"

"I haven't been here long. Your people gonna hate me for taking his place?" Gray eyes bored for an answer.

Boomer had to shrug and look away. "I don't think they'd love anybody taking Apollo's position – I don't think anybody's crazy enough to try to take his place."

"There are feuds between Red and Blue squadrons. And it's sometimes a point of pride for a squadron, that the flight commander comes from their ranks. That's changed now, on this ship. Will it make a difference?"

It only took a few microns to decide to be honest. "Probably. But you can handle it. You handled the roughest cadets at the Academy, made 'em respect you and like you, turned 'em into warriors. You can do this. Just might take a few sectons."

"Yeah."

He hoped so, anyway. But as Nestor walked away, Boomer felt an all-too-familiar throbbing somewhere in his skull. Another headache. It was going to be a long couple of centars.

Sheba sat alone in the darkness, staring up at the stars visible through the clear dylinium panels of the celestial observation dome. She almost felt like an intruder. This had been the place where he came when he wanted to be alone, to think or to grieve. It had been a very special day when he first showed it to her and Starbuck and Cassie, a day when he had opened up about a lot of things. That had been the day she first knew she was in love with Capt. Apollo.

So much had happened since that day. They had become closer, and she had waited, sometimes impatiently, for the day he would realize and admit that he loved her too. They had decided to seal. Then everything had fallen apart when the aliens appeared, and her father returned. And their love hadn't been as strong as she thought. And the words between them couldn't be recalled or unsaid.

She'd turned away from him, and discovered she could live without Apollo after all. She'd had to make new friends; some of her old ones were too close to him, with so many yahrens together that they couldn't understand the separation. There was even a new man in her life.

Her father would approve of Lieutenant Sol, she was sure. Originally from the Pacifica, he was a flight leader in Red Squadron – but not so duty-shackled that he didn't have time for a personal life. Sol was courageous, handsome, intelligent, had a nice sense of humor, and a strong warrior family background. A perfect man in every way. Not tied to this ship and commander by any figurative umbilical cord.

She found a bitter smile. She had thought she could be more objective about Apollo now that he was gone. She'd even come here to his favorite place to grieve and say farewell, to feel the emotions the others wouldn't understand, because she did still love him, in some ways. But the words, the words ... and the reality that made the words true and inescapable. Apollo was the son of Commander Adama of the Galactica. She was the daughter of Commander Cain of the Pegasus. And in some ways that defined them. Two men, two brilliant men, who could be the staunchest friends and supporters of each other, but couldn't manage to reach the same conclusion in the most important issue of their lives. And their two children, who could be lovers but who couldn't seem to live together without tearing each other's hearts out.

She felt his presence around her, accusing. She grabbed the ear protectors and fled the ghost in her soul.

The pilots' voices were a soft murmur in stereo. Lt. Celene and Lt. Celeste were so much alike even their voices sounded the same, over the unicoms of their Vipers. The effect was deliberate. As children, the twins had intentionally fooled many people with their cultivated tones. Differences showed only when they were afraid or under heavy stress; Celene's voice would quake slightly, and Celeste's would rise in pitch by several notes.

"It's good to have Starbuck back on the Pegasus," Celeste commented. Their conversation would undoubtedly be recorded back on the bridge, but that didn't disturb her – she didn't care who knew she was interested in the man.

Her sister's laughter rippled back. "You never forget a beau, do you? And how long has it been since you had your eye on him?"

"It's been nearly three yahrens since Molecay, when I transferred from the Galactica..."

"And I wonder how many other women he has had his eyes on in those three yahrens," Celene commented lightly.

"Ah, but none of them are here now."

"They don't have to be – you've got plenty of competition on our ship!" Celene teased. "Or haven't you noticed Pele and Sapphire both hard at work?"

"No faith in your sister?"

"What is that?" There was a quaver in her voice. "Oh, no, not them..."

Celeste knew; she didn't want to believe. Her own pitched raised. "What is it?" she called urgently. "What do you see? There's nothing on my scanner."

"They're back!"

She was almost sinfully gorgeous, he noted with appreciative fascination. He watched her hips sway easily as she crossed the room and disappeared through the door.

But what was he doing in her bed?

Feeling very satisfied, he told himself.

Apollo smiled, then rolled over to his stomach. Puffing up the pillow under his crossed arms, he rested his chin on it and dozed 'til Electra was finished with her turboshower and rejoined him, clad only in a towel and long damp tendrils of blonde hair.

"Good morning," lilted through his doze as fingers ruffled through his hair, stroking it into some kind of order.

"Mmm... It is, isn't it?" he responded easily, stretching a little as he slowly came back to alertness. "And after a very good night."

Electra lay down beside him again, watching him lazily with those violet eyes. "Apollo, don't take this wrong," she began, "but you didn't come here last night with intent to seduce me, did you?"

"No, it just ... felt right." He smiled warmly; his sleep-relaxed features lightened endearingly. "You didn't seem to be objecting too strenuously."

"No..."

"Don't tell me – it was great ... but. Does somebody else belong here? Has my life lost its value because somebody's going to be out for my blood?"

"No, nothing like that!" she laughed. "No one else can say he 'belongs' here, at least at the moment."

"Who was the last one?" he inquired rather cheekily. "I mean, a woman like you... There have to be plenty of men who'd jump for a chance at last night." He suddenly frowned. "Don't tell me... It wasn't Starbuck, was it? No, it couldn't have been, he's your brother. I must be getting paranoid or something. Never mind, I shouldn't ask, you don't have to tell me."

Electra wiped away the glare of outrage, settling for tickling him instead. Apollo defended himself ably, in the best way he knew. In a moment he'd pinned the woman to the bunk, her arms above her head. She squirmed away from him, losing her towel in the process but escaping his grip. He just lay there and laughed.

"You find something amusing?"

"No... Not really. Just a question, derived from personal observation – do you always move so well in a man's arms?"

"I can do better! You should dance with me sometime."

"I will." He rose as if intent on testing her boast then and there.

"But it can't be now. I'm due on the bridge very soon. And you ... you are on the flight roster for today."

"My first patrol for Silver Spar," he mused. That thought didn't concern him much as he stood with his arms around the beautiful woman, especially when she responded with a kiss. Nor did any memories of his own ship and family. From the centar of his headache the night before, and the way she'd banished it, he hadn't been able to stop thinking about her. Later he would wonder at his minimal reaction to the separation from those he loved most, but for the moment he couldn't reach any conclusion beyond the golden goddess now his.

"I'd better take a turboshower," he murmured a moment later. "And it'll have to be a cold one."

The red alert klaxon worked even better.

"Patrol Seven is retreating as ordered, sir!" Tolan called across the bridge to his just-arrived commander. "Celene reports the aliens are all around them, but taking no apparent action. They confirm that these appear to be the same beings we encountered while with the Galactica. Elaine and Gemma have changed their course to rendezvous with them, and we've scrambled Copper Keel and Silver Spar."

"As if that'll make much difference, if these are the same aliens," Col. Kleopatra muttered, staring at the screen from over the flight officer's shoulder. The red alert lights spilling over the bridge threw odd colors and heightened the tension.

Cain heard but ignored it as he raced up the steps to his command deck. "Any additional information?" he barked.

"Not available. Scanners still say there's nothing there."

"Just like before."

"Shall we call up Bronze Wing and Golden Sun?"

"Do it."

The red alert klaxon changed its pitch, became a ship-wide command to prepare for battle.

Two more figures rushed from the lift entrance.

"What's the drill, sir? Why have we scrambled?" Electra called.

"The aliens." Cain glanced at her, then blinked and stared at her again – and at the man right behind her. His eyes narrowed, and he filed away a certain impression for later consideration. "Lieutenant Celene's patrol has made contact. They've made no hostile action – yet – but we know how fast that could change."

She halted halfway up the steps. "What's our response, Commander?"

He heard the uncertainty. But what could they do? "Nothing at the moment. Memnon, anything?"

"No, sir!" the corporal called back, tension thinning his voice to a sharp wire. "No response. For all I know, they might not even receive transmissions on our channels!"

"Keep trying."

Apollo stood at the base of the command dais, watching. Every move was familiar, by the book. They were doing everything they could, which was precious little. He didn't feel part of it. He was a stranger on this ship, detached from the hubbub on the bridge. This time, he wasn't even serving as an extension of his base ship by relaying information from his Viper.

Confusion swept over him, and vertigo nearly toppled him.

Take her!

He gasped a quick breath and shook his head to focus his eyes. The command echoed through his mind again.

Take her!

Dazed, he stared up at the small cluster on the deck. Cain, Kleopatra, Electra, Tolan. None of them seemed to notice him. Something willed him to take a single step.

"Excuse me, Captain..." Argus pushed past, checking whatever obscure thing he did with his astronavigation charts.

The spell was broken.

Apollo blinked and turned to stare through the huge ports. Cold washed over him. Somewhere out there aliens were buzzing their patrol; somewhere beyond was the base ship that sent out the small light ships. Also out there was the Cylon listening post that had almost captured him and Starbuck.

He felt very glad to be on the bridge and not in space.

Heimdal and Sif stared blankly at each other, feeling caught in each other's eyes as if by charmed serpents. The trap fell away into an abyss and echoed in their minds forever.

The klaxon changed its call, summoning them to join their comrades.

Something else called.

Take her!

"What...?"

Take her!

"The klaxon ... that's for us..."

Confused and breathing raggedly, they moved toward the door of their quarters, trying to reorient themselves.

Take her!

Sgt. Falstaff stumbled on the steps of his Viper lift as the command seared into his brain. He had no idea where it had come from, no idea what it meant. But it suddenly seemed the greatest priority in his life.

Take her!

The young warrior glanced around; which "her" had been intended? There were several females in his immediate sight – Sgt. Astarte clambering into her own Viper; Technician Hekabe rushing somewhere with a replacement board in her hand; Capt. Tamyris running full out to reach her Viper; a woman from security whose name he didn't remember. One of them? Or another? How was he to know...?

"Get in! We could be launching in microns!"

The tech's words galvanized him; Falstaff leapt into his fighter and the lift steps were rolled away. He would consider it later. The strange command faded from conscious memory as he hit his warm-up boosters.

They waited. The commander hadn't given the order to launch, so the squadrons waited. Tension grew. The centons passed. They waited. The klaxon changed its tune; they were on full ship-wide alert. More tension. More waiting.

Starbuck stared at the empty Viper next to his. "Where in Hades is Apollo?" he muttered, his fingers tapping an uneven rhythm on the underside of his joystick. His ship and body were primed. He was ready to launch

But his wingmate was missing.

"Fly with us, Starbuck..."

"You all right, Orestes? You sound ... strange."

"I'm fine." The element of distraction remained.

He figured it was the tension.

In his own Viper, Capt. Orestes stared through his sealed canopy and down the darkness of his launch tube. His lips slightly open, he mouthed words he wouldn't have understood. Thoughts pounded into his skull. His left hand clenched his control stick too tightly, leaving the fingers and knuckles corpse-white.

Take her!

Something banged the canopy, and he nearly jumped out of his seat.

"Don't tell me – you've taken up reciting poetry as part of your launch checklist." Edric leered at him with a grin. "Or are you already delivering a eulogy for the Cylons you intend to send to the salvage yards?"

Orestes realized he'd been holding his breath, and found a small laugh. "I'm fine, just fine. Getting tense, I guess, not enough action. Want a good shot at those aliens or the Cylons or anybody... Starbuck, did you say Apollo wasn't here?"

"That's what I said," he affirmed.

"Stick with us. We'll triple up..." His hand hurt.

"Right..." Starbuck's brow furrowed. Something was definitely on his brother's mind.

"They're leaving."

Which of them had spoken their relief as the aliens turned away? Perhaps all of them. The four Vipers in their close formation continued homeward. Whatever the aliens had come for, whatever they wanted, they had chosen not to take it today.

The bridge of the Pegasus was quiet. Someone had begun a cheer when the aliens broke off the engagement, but no one joined in. It hadn't been a battle followed by victory; it hadn't even been survival. It was the aliens, appearing and disappearing as they'd done before, leaving them just as tense and confused as before.

Cain stared at the front ports, almost wishing he could force the aliens back through his will alone. They had come, and gone. And he had done nothing. Nothing. They mocked him with their existence.

"All scanners clear. No further visual sightings," Tolan reported timidly.

"Our scanners were clear before they came and while they were in the quadrant. Give me something I can use," Cain shot back grimly.

"Yes, sir..." The flight officer hunched into his chair and tried to be inconspicuous.

"Commander, it's not his fault," Col. Kleopatra whispered. "Don't take it out on the man."

Cain's eyes flared with wrath, but he made no response. She was right, as usual.

We can't find the Delphians. But the aliens have found us. Let them stay around. Sooner or later, they'll slip up. Or one of my people will remember something I can use. Lords, give me the chance. Let me have a fair shot at them. Let me show them what Colonial warriors can be...

Electra wanted to debrief the contact patrols at once, and arrived in the landing bay in record time. Several of the warriors clustered with her as she waved over the women of the two patrols. She impatiently sent the others away, permitting only the squadron leaders to stay and listen.

Capt. Apollo found himself ordered away with the others. Still unsettled after his weird reactions on the bridge, he wanted to find a quiet place to sit and sort through it, and bring his still-uneven heartbeat back to normal. Unfortunately, he didn't really have a private place on the Pegasus – he lived in the main quarters, at the moment, and he had no idea if any of the old domes were still operational or available for private use. The Pegasus wasn't home.

He considered returning to Electra's quarters, but knew that would be extremely presumptuous – who knew if last night would ever recur, or if it really meant anything to either to them? It had happened too fast. He knew he, at least, didn't fall into relationships that quickly.

"I missed you."

Apollo jerked at the falsetto voice in his ear, and saw Starbuck grinning over his shoulder.

"You what?"

"I missed you."

Apollo glared.

"Oh, come on, Apollo. Don't give me that look. You weren't in your bunk last night – not that I was either, but you still weren't there this morning, and you didn't make the alert. That is definitely not like you. Where were you? Who were you with? You just appeared down here with Electra when the excitement was over–"

He must have flushed. Starbuck froze in mid-jibe, mouth open.

"Electra?" A beat. "My sister? And you didn't even ask me?"

"I don't recall you asking me when you started seeing Athena!" he snapped in return. For some reason, he'd broken into a cold sweat, and he was sure it showed. "Now if you'll excuse me?" He tried to make a dignified exit, figuring anything was better than waiting for Starbuck to come up with another lame comment or some kind of joke – especially when he wasn't sure how to respond.

Chapter V

Two men faced each other over the rectangular board, tossing the sticks and moving their tokens by the numbers, obeying the instructions on each game slot. The fairer-haired lieutenant, a new member of Silver Spar, seemed confident as he lounged in his chair, pausing occasionally to take a drag from his fumarello. The slightly darker sergeant, from Bronze Wing, was more intense, leaning forward with a frown, frequently tugging at the long temple braids that marked him as a member of the Raggane sect of Sagittara.

Starbuck studied the board, then threw the sticks. Counting the tally, he grinned. "Five! I win again," he announced triumphantly, moving his final token out of the Underworld and into the Land of the Blessed.

Scyld groaned feelingly. "Three games of senet in a row. Let's go back to pyramid, so at least I don't lose alone!"

"I thought you were bored with pyramid," Starbuck objected with a grin, leaning back to take another puff of his fumarello, studying the audience in the ready room.

"Only with losing! I know when I'm beat," the other man retorted. "Anybody else care to take a shot at the game of life?"

The other warriors begged off. Luck favored Starbuck that day, and they all recognized it.

"Back to pyramid, then?" somebody else seconded.

A game started up, but Starbuck stayed out of it. Senet was almost entirely a game of chance, while pyramid demanded some concentration, if one wanted to win. Right now, he was really too keyed up to concentrate. He wanted to know what was going on at the command briefing of Cain and his flight leaders. Capt. Apollo was included in the meeting for two reasons – he'd been flight commander of the Galactica until a few sectons ago, and he knew something of the aliens who now pursued them, having been their prisoner for nearly five sectons.

Starbuck was left to wait and wonder. With all the albeit limited resources of the fleet, the humans hadn't been able to counter the aliens' advanced technology. The aliens had refused contact, first with the Galactica, and then with the Pegasus. They'd had ample opportunity, in the first encounter, to study their six human captives; they then ignored Colonial attempts to communicate further, and still seemed to consider the humans unworthy of notice.

Three sectons. That's how long it's been since the Pegasus first spotted the aliens again. They let us see them, but they ignore us completely. They might be hanging around the Cylon listening post, for some reason, maybe trying to study the Cylons. Whatever, we'd like to know why. The fleet could be somewhere around here – Apollo's as close-mouthed as everyone else about the fleet's route and destination.

Nobody tells me anything. Cain just glowers at me anytime I'm in view – he hasn't forgiven me for dumping Cassie, and I guess I can't blame him; I didn't give her much of a chance. But that's all past, not much point in dwelling on it now...

What I don't understand is why he isn't furious at Apollo for Sheba, for not marrying her and for being with Electra so much now. Different situation, I guess. Sheba dumped him, wouldn't even talk to him anymore. Why shouldn't he take up with the best-looking woman on this ship? Sometimes I think it's too bad she's my sister!

Not that I get anything out of it. Electra spends her free time with Apollo. Every time I try to ask her anything she gets a pucker around her eyes – probably worried I'll take my Viper and leave if I get any idea where to go. Hmmph. For all I know, Earth could be in the next star system.

I could always ask Apollo what's going on, but he's so touchy at times that I don't know how to talk to him anymore. Not quite as bad as after the Destruction, but something must be buggin' him. Maybe just being here instead of the Galactica.

We're supposed to be protecting them. But we're sitting here trying to talk to a race that obviously doesn't think we're worth the time of day. Is it any wonder half of us are ready to explode?

"Cubit for your thoughts?" Someone tapped his shoulder.

"Hmm?" He glanced up at his friend and wingman.

"And a free trip to life center if there's a reason you're abstaining from that lively game in the other corner. What's wrong, that you're not dealing the cards?"

Starbuck chuckled with him, pleased at Apollo's good mood. "Waiting for you, Captain. You know how I worry when you're out past your curfew. So, what results from the meeting?"

Apollo made a face. "Not much. And I don't know why I was there. I know Cain's strategies and tactics, but Electra knows them better, from personal experience. Cain keeps a close eye on his fighter squadrons, so it's not that he wants to know what I think. My experience with fighting the aliens is all from the losing end, and Captain Heimdal and Captain Orestes know as much as I do about being their specimens. Almost a waste of time..."

The other warrior kept silent. He knew Apollo would have been more upset at being left out of the meeting. Adjusting from being flight commander on the Galactica, with resulting responsibility and respect from the fleet, to being just another captain in Silver Spar on the Pegasus, was a little rough on Apollo. Cmdr. Cain might treat him and his suggestions with the same regard as he treated his other senior officers, but Starbuck knew his friend missed much more than just the people back in the fleet – not that he would risk raising the subject these days.

Although from the number of sleep periods Apollo seemed to be missing from the pilots' billet, he was making up for some of those people.

"Actually, all we can do is wait, and keep an eye on that Cylon listening post. I really doubt we'll be able to do anything about those aliens, unless they decide otherwise," Apollo commented moodily.

"Group consensus, or your opinion?" Starbuck asked.

"You mean, what does Commander Cain think? He realizes we can't do anything if the aliens don't contact us. It frustrates the Hades out of him, but he accepts it, for now. I think Kleopatra would get in a Viper herself and surrender to them if they'd tell her about their technology and culture. I have no idea what Colonel Kenji is thinking – who can read that face? Tokyo and Elaine don't have much to say, but I doubt if they've taken much time to worry about it. Heimdal's just waiting for an order. Orestes is concerned about the Cylons. Your sister, meanwhile, is holding a grudge, and hopes the Cylons pick a fight so the aliens decide to remove a menace to the civilized galaxy," Apollo mimicked to finish. The smile said he almost agreed with her. He leaned over the back of Starbuck's chair, resting on his crossed arms.

"You're starting to think like Cain. Like Electra, at times."

"Is it really any surprise? It's Cain's ship. And you know how I always felt about him."

"Yeah, I guess. Uh, you've been spending a lot of time with Electra," Starbuck hazarded casually. Now might be the best time to broach a few subjects.

Apollo's eyes twinkled. "Oh?"

"Well, it's none of my business," his friend added hastily.

"You still miss me?" Apollo's smirk was mischievous. "I thought you were busy getting acquainted with the crew – like Sapphire, and Celeste, and Pele..."

"You left out Lygia and Tamyris!" Starbuck shot back.

"You have been busy! I suppose what you really mean is, I've been spending a lot of time with Electra, and am I thinking about Sheba any more? Yes, I think about her, once in a while. But she made it quite clear where I don't stand in her life, and I know her well enough to realize she's not going to change her mind – if we get the opportunity to meet, ever again – unless something drastic happens.

"Electra and I... We get along, we've got interests in common, and ... I enjoy her company, and she seems to enjoy mine. Anything else, or is the interrogation over?"

Starbuck stared up at him for a moment, then finally laughed ruefully. "I ... guess I'm just wondering how you really felt when I was seeing Athena, considering Aurora and all, and especially after I met Cassie, and everything that's happened since." Maybe that would lead to other confidences.

Apollo grimaced, then shrugged. "I... Never mind. I never got around to killing you then, don't see any reason to do it now. Athena was old enough to make up her mind about her relationships, and so were you. So are Electra and I."

"Oh." Starbuck accepted the implied rebuke. After a moment, he continued, "So who's on the patrol roster the rest of the day?"

"Orestes and Astarte, and Rissian and Trent from Silver Spar, and a couple of pilots from Copper Keel. Bronze Wing is up for later. We're off 'til tomorrow, if that's your concern."

"Might as well join the pyramid game, then. How 'bout you?"

"Why not? I haven't had this much free time since ... before the Destruction."

"No Electra?" Starbuck teased, eager to take his friend's mind off a hurtful subject.

"Since it's too late for advance notice to get out, the Colonel's pulling a surprise inspection of quarters right now, and Electra's tagging along to add her cubit's worth."

"Frak! I think my dress boots need polishing..."

Apollo smirked.

"And you had advance notice!" Starbuck accused.

"Who, me? Well, knowing the flight commander does have its advantages."

"And being her brother obviously doesn't."

The captain shrugged, trying unsuccessfully to contain his laughter.

"Awh, maybe if I hit the bunkroom right away I can throw the boots in someone else's locker! See you in a few..." Starbuck muttered to himself as he left the ready room. He didn't really feel like pyramid anyway.

Apollo didn't feel like playing cards, either. With his friend so hastily gone, he headed for his locker first. Beside the winged-horse helmet of the Pegasus, he still kept the stylized, wide-winged bird emblem from his Galactica helmet. He suspected he always would.

He pulled a small pouch from within the helmet and spilled the collar pins from the ship he still considered "home." Two from the jacket, two from the tunic. The Galactica's star, blade, and flower, while he now wore the Pegasus wreathed trident – appropriate, considering her commander. The black and gold interlocking triangle patch of his former base ship had been replaced with the red and white double-winged sword of the new. He closed his fist on them.

For a micron the homesickness was incredible. Then he dumped the pins and patches back in the pouch and stuffed them quickly away. It wasn't until he joined the game and someone complained about marked cards that he realized he'd stuck himself in the palm, and was bleeding.

The Galactica Blue Squadron ready room had a dark atmosphere to it, as if tainted with some soul malaise. Most of the pilots present were separated by more than distance; their thoughts ranged farther afield than their bodies could manage in the small space.

Sgt. Greenbean all but skipped into the ready room, chortling aloud. He stalked in front of Lt. Jolly, his wingmate, who was slouched in a chair ignoring the world, and planted himself firmly.

Jolly stared up at him without much interest.

"I," Greenbean announced to the universe, "know who she is."

"Huh?"

"I found out who your lady friend is."

For the first time, some of the others showed an interest in his arrival and the conversation. Jolly's expression darkened; the glower fixed firmly on the young Greenbean.

"The dear sweet lady you've been spending all your free time with, but refusing to introduce to any of us or discuss when we ask. Your friendly little dancer and fantastic cook and enigmatic stranger with a myriad of abilities."

The others gathered around.

"Greenbean..." Jolly sounded decidedly threatening.

"Her name," Greenbean declaimed, "is Merry!"

"Greenbean!" Jolly sputtered through clenched teeth.

There was silence for a moment, then a small ripple of laughter.

"I can see it now," Greenbean continued. "You'll seal together, and be so happy, and we'll all sing toasts at your sealing to Jolly and Merry..."

The snickers turned to roars. Jolly leapt to his feet with amazing speed for one of his girth. "Greenbean..." The tone said "quit while you're still alive."

"And you'll have lovely children named Gaiety and Frivolity – or maybe Festival and Jubilee..."

Jolly swung, and Greenbean went flying across the room, upending a pyramid game, its table, and two chairs and their occupants in the process. Greenbean stared up from the floor for a moment, then jumped up, danger in his mild blue eyes. Jolly planted himself for the blows to follow.

The men of Blue Squadron jumped into action. Half of them grabbed the two combatants before the fight could go any further. Disturbingly, the other half yelled encouragement to continue the fight. The two men who'd been knocked down pulled themselves back to their feet, ready to join the fray. Before anything more could happen, their captain intervened.

"What in Sagan's name is going on here?" Boomer barked.

The combatants glared at each other; no one risked reporting what was happening. Boomer continued to demand an explanation with eyes full of fire and a very grim set to his mouth. Finally, one of the pilots spoke.

"Captain, I want a new wingmate!" Jolly demanded belligerently.

"Fine by me!" Greenbean broke in, nursing what was sure to be a nasty shiner in a few centars.

Boomer glared from one to the other. "Guys..."

"What seems to be the problem here?"

The men present turned as one to see Capt. Nestor, their recently appointed flight commander. The reaction was almost universal – hostile dislike in their faces and a vague slouch to their postures that gave their opinion more than eloquently. A few pilots looked abashed at the man's presence, but they too were silent.

Observing the silence, Nestor knew exactly what he'd get out of the men if he pressed anything just now – nothing. Nothing except more anger and less trust and harmony. He knew he had the respect, at least, of a few of these young men, those he'd previously taught or helped, but they weren't about to break squadron loyalty ... yet.

Angrily, he waved at Boomer to follow and fumed out of the ready room. Capt. Boomer was right behind him. There were a few snickers behind them, mostly held until they were out of the chamber. Nestor halted abruptly and turned on his old friend. "Boomer, what are your people trying to prove? Why are you trying to get yourselves killed?"

"We're not–"

"Oh? What do you call running long patrols and coasting back into the bay on tylium fumes? What about those fancy 'maneuvers' your squadron keeps pulling? Your late response to the drill alert yesterday? And your behavior here in the fleet... That illicit party the Colonel very kindly chose to ignore? The fights – in the squadron and with the other squadrons and security? Blue Squadron has had more demerits and disciplinary actions these past three sectons than you had in the past two yahrens – some of them yours! Can't you keep your people in line any better than that? Where's your own discipline?"

"Give us time to get over..."

"Over Apollo and Starbuck?" Nestor slumped, his anger gone. "I been keeping that in mind, buddy. I stashed a couple of those demerits in the circular file. I've kept my mouth shut. But no more, Boomer. This is getting too big – Sagan, man, do you realize Council Security is starting to snicker that you guys have lost the edge?"

Boomer straightened dangerously. "Council Security, huh?"

"Yeah."

Blue Squadron's captain considered for a moment. "I'll talk to the men. We'll get it back together."

"What about Jolly and Greenbean?" Nestor called after him. "They should be on report for fighting – and that bruise isn't going to be easy to hide."

Boomer waved it away. "They'll be fine in a few centars. And we can always say Greenbean slipped on a bar of cleanser – it's worked before. Give me a little time to find out what happened, and set it straight..."

"Another one for the circular file?" the dark-haired man inquired acidly.

"If it won't violate your principles too much." Boomer stared back at him for a moment, then disappeared.

Nestor sighed, regretting having to speak to his friend so, but if it did the trick, it was worth it. Seeing the squadron alternating between listlessness and recklessness, he knew he had to do something. Maybe they'd shape up and the mess would be over. Boomer was sometimes the worst of them all, but then, he'd lost the most, so maybe the occasional blank stares and fits of temper could be forgiven.

It didn't help that he was Red Squadron, and they were Blue. Some of the chips on their shoulders could be used to batter in the side of a basestar. And they resented him, some maybe even irrationally blaming him for their loss. Certain aspects of his personal life didn't help, either. But that was none of their business, and he wasn't going to let it become part of the problem. Nestor wasn't going to let them down, or let them go. They were all his responsibility now, however helpless he might feel in the face of their wildly swinging moods and erratic behavior. He would bring them back into line, earn their respect and loyalty as he had that of so many young cadets. One way or another...

He felt a hand on his arm. "I saw," stated a soft voice. "Nestor..."

He sighed deeply before smiling wanly at the female pilot, his wingmate. Also his wife, and the mother of his child. And the daughter of Commander Hera, the "iron lady" of the Britannica, who had died at Molecay and been probably the third best-known warrior in the Colonial military service of the previous generation. For once, Io was very out of uniform. He searched his mind for an occasion, but found none. "Io, they're your friends too, and you know the circumstances. Do you think I'm letting them get away with too much?"

"Maybe," she replied honestly. Her mother's daughter, she knew the meaning of discipline, and was not comfortable with Blue Squadron's recent behavior. "But I'm not sure what you could do, besides put the entire squadron on report, or order catharsis treatments for everybody, or replace Boomer as their flight leader."

"Any of which could be worse for morale than letting them work through their own grief and anger."

She nodded reluctantly.

He sighed again. "I wish there was something more I could do..."

"Not until they're ready for help. Right now, they don't want it."

"Tell me about it! Some of them act as if I'm responsible for Apollo and Starbuck being gone."

"I know. They need to be angry at someone, and you qualify because you aren't 'one of them.' We're still outsiders. So they blame you. But if you don't start spending some time with your wife, she's going to start blaming you, too!"

He managed a smile. "I meant to ask..."

"I found some ducats to the spheroid concert on the Rising Star, and talked Kore into taking care of little Hera for a few centars. We've just got time to get you changed before we have to meet Sol and Sheba at the shuttle docking lounge..." She led him away before he could protest.

Baltar stared at the unblinking stars, brooding, as he so often did these days. Even surrounded by Cylons, this post was beginning to feel lonelier than his planet of exile.

Adama, you're out there. I know you are. Your people escaped me. You may be responsible for the missing patrols. Five patrols – how could you be so lucky, to destroy our patrols and not even be detected in our quadrant? But your luck can't hold out forever. I'll find you. One of your patrols will get careless. Perhaps even your son. You can't hide forever.

Cain. You're still out there, too. You're the worse threat to me. Adama's too concerned about his civilian ovines. You, you're a lupus. And you want me. You're out there, waiting or hunting. I had some of your people. I wish I still did. I wish I had your daughter to use against you...

Or would any human captive have been sufficient, just to provide a non-mechanical voice, some evidence that actions over the yahrens had been successful?

"By-your-command."

He groaned inwardly. "What is it, Centurion?"

"A-sixth-patrol-has-failed-to-return-from-its-assigned-quadrant."

"The same as the other five?"

"Affirmative-Commander-Baltar."

"Triple patrol strength. Concentrate on that quadrant. I want to know what's out there," Baltar snarled.

"By-your-command."

The gold-plated mechanical lurched out of the mostly-complete command post

The stars above and around him were cold and cheerless through the transparent, reinforced ceiling. The curve of the planetoid was shadowed and forbidding as it dimmed into the horizon. It was an eerily empty vision of lonely beauty.

Baltar spat an obscenity. He hated it.

In a bright, cream-colored chamber, a number of Cylon pilots lay scattered across the tables. They'd been totally disassembled. Over one of the slabs, several alien creatures worked over the pieces of one Cylon, replacing wiring.

The aliens were tall and broad, quite equal to Cylon stature. They were bipedal, but with a leaning posture that looked like they might topple forward at any centon. Broad nostrils quivered and flared on the wide faces, while tails flicked intently over brown backs lightly covered with short, coarse hairs. Triple-digited hands worked over the mechanical being. Orders were lowed in a husky, carrying voice from the one in charge.

When the work was done, the aliens stepped back from their Cylon sample.

After a moment, the Centurion stirred and swung itself back to its feet, moving with an easier grace than it had previously possessed, thanks to alien technology. It saluted the aliens briefly, then said, "By-your-command," in a slightly less mechanical voice than was normal for a Cylon.

The strangely bovine-like, alien scientists thrust their heads about in pleased excitement. They had succeeded.

It was time for the next step.

"Report?" Electra demanded crisply.

The pilots from the returned patrols responded quickly.

"Nothing," Starbuck grumped.

"Our quadrant's empty, like the Cylons aren't even trying to keep an eye on this sector," Apollo elaborated. "We had the stars to ourselves."

"Same for Epsilon sector," reported Horus. "Not a thing."

"Just that comet," Scyld added. "Same one Elaine reported yesterday."

The flight commander looked as puzzled as her patrols. She glanced at the other two pilots. "Rissian? How about Delta?"

"Just the opposite," the dark-skinned lieutenant told her. "They're all over the quadrant, triple strength in most cases – and guarding each other's tails, too. We couldn't get close to anything, and they nearly took us once."

Sgt. Trent confirmed with a nod.

"So whatever's happening, it's in Delta Quadrant. Hmm. Better pass it on to the commander. And double patrols in that area. If it's good enough for the Cylons..."

Electra headed out of the briefing, shaking her head. The patrol reports of the last few days were confusing. The Cylons were agitated about something to the extent of leaving some approaches to their listening post unguarded, while concentrating on one quadrant. It didn't make sense, unless it was meant to be a trap of some sort... But that would imply they knew someone was out here, and she was almost certain none of the Pegasus patrols had betrayed their existence and location.

The fleet? But then the Cylons would be preparing for an all-out attack, massing fighters and contacting every basestar in the area. That they weren't, suggested they didn't know where the Galactica was, so such an attack was unlikely.

The Delphians? Less likely, for the same reasons.

So there was something else. The aliens? She suspected the Colonials would have to be extra cautious in the days ahead.

"You didn't offer much of an opinion, Major."

She smiled involuntarily as Apollo joined her. "I haven't decided yet what my opinion's to be!"

The captain nodded thoughtfully. "If the Cylons are encountering our aliens..."

She had to laugh at how closely his thought mirrored hers. "Yes. They wouldn't be pleased about some new space-faring species with a higher technology infiltrating the area. And we know the aliens are around; we've seen them several times, even if they haven't done us the courtesy of returning our calls..."

"If Cylon ships have been disappearing like ours did... It would be interesting to see how the aliens react to the Cylons." His expression was distant. "The fleet could be leaving this quadrant just in time, if the Cylons are going to provoke something."

"I don't think they will, until they learn something about the aliens. And I suspect the aliens seldom take the time to communicate with their 'specimens.' It could be to our benefit, actually, if the Cylons are foolish enough to take on the aliens – they've got the technology to defeat the Cylons."

"As I've thought myself. But that's assuming they're encountering the aliens, which we don't know. And assuming the Cylons do something rash. And assuming the aliens retaliate with force. And assuming we don't get caught between them," Apollo commented.

She sighed. "A lot of assumptions. And all of them based on the Cylons having seen our aloof alien friends."

"We've seen them. How could the Cylons miss them?"

She laughed.

"Maybe we ought to take out that listening post right now, after all."

"Apollo, do you realize you've gotten positively bloodthirsty since you came aboard the Pegasus? I'm starting to worry about you!"

"Bloodthirstiness is a positive trait? Something must be rubbing off on me."

"Apollo, about those aliens..." she began more seriously. "Maybe I've got no right to ask, but could you face them again? Do you know how you'd react if you had to face them, if you were ... a prisoner again?"

"You're the flight commander. You've got the right to ask, even the duty." An involuntary shudder shook his shoulders.

"Do you want a few days off the flight roster?"

He met her eyes. She saw that he was troubled, but he shook his head. "No."

Put to Heimdal, Sif, Orestes, and Falstaff, the answer was the same. Though they all seemed frightened of the prospect, none of them were willing to cower from another confrontation. Electra wasn't sure if that was a good sign or not, but she took them all at their word.

And crossed her fingers.

Chapter VI

Adama stared into the blackness. He had been doing a lot of thinking these past few sectons since Apollo and Starbuck's deaths. Alone in the darkness of his quarters, those thoughts always turned equally dark and despairing. They ate away at his spirt, leaving him the black emptiness of an eclipsed moon, with only the faintest nimbus of light around the outside to show its existence.

"I'm tired," he whispered into the dimness. "I'm so tired..."

Athena was still a listless shadow. The young woman was quieter than she had ever been, and spent most of her time alone. Adama couldn't find the words, anymore, to ease her grief and loss, or to explain why. All he could do was watch her silence, instinctively knowing her emotions were beyond sorrow, and wonder how deeply the wound had cut.

Boxey was bouncing back, for which he was grateful. The child couldn't help but feel the loss, as he'd felt the loss of his mother, but life was still an adventure for him. The youngster could still laugh and play. Adama could find hope and happiness in his grandson's presence.

Blue Squadron seemed lost without Apollo's leadership. The others had accepted Nestor's command, and were settled back into their routines and usual efficiency. Somehow, however, Blue Squadron couldn't resign itself to the loss. Adama loved those young men and women with as much of his heart as he could spare; seeing their spirits die and being unable to help them was an anguish to him. They were tearing him apart.

"I can't do it anymore."

Maybe it would be better if he left the service, resigned the military. He could promote Tigh to commander of the Galactica, then step down from the Council of Twelve. With the pension from his yahrens of service, and the numerous awards and various baits the Council had dangled before him over the yahrens, he could live quite comfortably. Maybe he should just resign, take Boxey to another ship, raise the boy himself, let someone else shoulder the burdens here.

It might be easier for the men. Without me, they won't be reminded of Apollo. Without them, maybe I won't be so reminded of him either, and how he was lost. And we could have a good life, Boxey and me. On a ship with other children, he could have friends his own age. Lords, I might find hope again, in the eyes and laughter of children. I might find peace...

Longing brought tears to his eyes.

It's past time Tigh had a command of his own. I should have said something more the other time; the Solaria might still be here is he had been her commander. And he's had time to adjust to our life in the fleet, the same as the rest of us. He can handle it...

The fleet is in good hands; I needn't fear on their account. Tinia learned a great deal during Baltar's escape attempt, enough to consider the military angle, and to ask questions when she needs to know something. The people respect her, and she's still on the Council. They listen to her words, most of the time.

They don't really need me, not here, not now.

And I so desperately need to get away from the memories.

My wife, my children, my people... What do I have left?

Coming as it did with the headaches and the creeping fears in her nightmares, Sif accepted it fatalistically when the other symptoms began. Her short temper could be from the stress of the situation, but the nausea and frequent exhaustion could only mean she was truly ill. Her body was betraying her; perhaps she was dying?

She went to Dr. Beej. He'd been there for her and Heimdal before. She trusted his discretion and friendship.

Frowning at the description of her symptoms, he called in Helena. The medical staff prepared to run the full battery of tests. However, Helena aborted the examinations midway through the series, and called in Sif's husband. Startled by the unexpected request, Heimdal reported for an examination, too.

Beej insisted they both stay in life center, so the woman sat in her examination cubicle and waited, suddenly very afraid. She was a warrior, ready to face her choosing in any alert, but what if she was dying and it was contagious? Would Heimdal die, too? Is that why the doctors had to see him?

Capt. Heimdal joined her shortly, confused but looking very healthy.

It was only a few centons later that Beej entered. He pulled the chair free from behind the medical console and sat down. Tapping his small computron, the doctor delivered the news.

"Sif, you're pregnant."

The two warriors stared at him. A slight grin played under his mustache for just a micron but then vanished. He crossed his arms and continued to wait for their reaction.

"And...?" Sif prompted.

"And what?"

"Well, surely there is more than that, since you demanded Heimdal come. What is wrong?"

"Oh, there's nothing wrong, in that sense of the word, but there is something rather peculiar and unexpected–"

"Tell us!" she burst out, anger flashing in her eyes.

Heimdal rested a hand on her shoulder, and she shut up to let him speak.

"She should not be, I know that," the man began quietly. "We're both on the schedule, and even if one of us missed an implant or something went wrong, she should not be pregnant. But you said there is something else. Tell us."

"Like you said, she shouldn't be pregnant. I double checked your contraception schedule, and everything's been done as it should. However, the difference is in the two of you..."

Both shifted restively, and the doctor hurried to finish.

"Your implants are gone, both of them. Somebody removed your contraceptive implants – and very skillfully. There are no marks on either of you. Sif, your body went back to its own schedule, and the two of you got together at the right time – or the wrong time, depending on how you look at it."

They looked at each other.

"The aliens," Heimdal stated flatly.

"That's our assumption as well. Whatever medical technology was used, it's more advanced than ours."

Sif found Heimdal holding her hand, staring at her thoughtfully.

"Everything looks fine for the pregnancy – absolutely normal, that is, no evidence of ... tampering with your physiologies, either chemical or mechanical, that we can detect, beyond the removal of the implants. If that makes a difference to you. The question is, what do you want to do about it? I know this isn't planned. The timing may not be the best. We don't want to push you into any decisions, but..."

"Give us a few days to think about it," Heimdal told him.

Beej nodded and left them to their privacy. They didn't say anything. They didn't have to. It had been in the back of both their minds for a long time. Their lost daughter Bryna was never far from their memories. Sif began to smile, slowly and tentatively. Heimdal met it with a widening grin.

They were going to have a baby.

The three Cylon Centurions left their Raider nestled in the landing bay. A fourth Cylon, gold-plated to show its superior rank, waited at the main entrance to the rest of the listening post. The command Cylon from the patrol team stepped forward to speak to their superior.

"Patrol-Eight-reporting-our-return-to-base."

"You-are-late-returning-to-base-Centurion," the gold Cylon informed it.

"We-experienced-mechanical-difficulties-during-our-flight."

"Were-your-difficulties-similar-to-those-of-Patrol-Four-two-days-ago?"

"Affirmative."

"Was-there-any-sign-of-the-humans?"

"Negative."

"Report-to-Commander-Baltar-at-once. Your-ship-will-be-sent-to-the-repair-bay."

"By-your-command."

The Cylon Centurion, pilots in tow, turned and moved off through the asteroid landing bay. With unusually quick and graceful motions, the trio boarded the lift that would take them to Baltar's command bunker.

"He can't do that, he simply cannot do that!" Siress Tinia's agitation was obvious. She hurried uncharacteristically along the corridor, fingers lacing together in a constant weaving motion. Halting abruptly, she turned on her companion. "You've got to stop him, Tigh! You've got to tell him he can't do that!"

"Siress, I've been trying for the past secton! He won't even admit that's what he's planning!" the colonel shot back in frustration. He'd been following her so closely he nearly tangled his legs in the swirl of her purple gown.

"Maybe you're wrong..."

"I doubt it. I'd bet my life on it. Commander Adama is planning on stepping down as president of the Council and as commander of the Galactica! And I have no idea how to talk him out of it. I was hoping you could. You seem to have spent a ... an amount of time together, recently."

She glared at him, dark eyes far too bright. "You know your commander better than that. What could I ... what could any civilian talk him out of? What could we tell him when he's made what he believes to be a militarily mandated decision?" She paced away from him again.

"Siress, this is hardly a military–"

"Isn't it, Tigh? He's convinced himself of it. Telling himself the Cylons are behind us, and he can afford to be a man again, to grieve and feel as the rest of us do. Lords of Kobol protect us!" The dignified Tinia was as close to distraught as Tigh had ever seen her, but the offhand comment raised his hackles; for all her intelligence and courage, how could she say such a thing?

"You're doing it! The very thing he's been afraid of, putting him on some kind of pedestal, naming him as almost some kind of deity, the only one who can lead us to Earth, who can save us," Tigh fumed. "He's been hit hard..."

"We've all been hit hard!" The Councilor stopped long enough to send another glare his way. "Don't you think we know how valuable a warrior Captain Apollo was? And Lieutenant Starbuck? Don't you think we know what they meant to Adama? What they ultimately meant to all of us? We may not all have liked those two, or appreciated everything they did, but... Do you know what it'll mean if Adama steps down and leaves us? Do you know what'll likely happen?" She shook her head in disgust as she marched away from the colonel.

"The military will still be intact; we'll still stand..."

"Oh, Tigh, I have no complaints about your ability to carry on, but without Adama at least on the Council... Is the military, or is it not, bound to obey Council mandate?"

Tigh could only look away. Civilian commands of the Council of Twelve were binding on the military, and would be even more so if the Council chose to end the state of military emergency again, as they had several times in the past for short periods. That was one reason Adama's presence on the Council was so vital. Without him, or someone like him, to represent military interests and keep the civilians informed about the difficulties they faced, without alarming the fleet, there was no telling what some of the hedonistic, power-seeking mongrels would do. Some of them were good, wise individuals, true, but others... They acted as if they were still in the Colonies, able to play their political games with no real personal risk...

"Well?" Tinia challenged.

"We're bound by our oaths!" he snapped back.

"He has to stay on..."

"I know that!" Exasperation closed in. He was the one who'd told her. And it had not been easy, applying to her to do something when he couldn't.

"We've got to think of something..."

Adama faced the Council of Twelve with an absolute lack of visible agitation. His apparent calm was unnerving. He glanced around at the men and women he had worked with, argued with, almost fought with at times, for the protection and survival of the pitifully few survivors of their holocaust. Tinia, far too tense. Geller, the same as ever, almost supercilious in those raised eyebrows. Domra, so self-satisfied. Neptune, Akbar, Amaterasu, and the others, plus the honor guard of his own warrior security and the black-garbed collection of Council security. At times he agreed with Tigh that they couldn't prevent an escape from the orphan ship. At other times, seeing men like the dedicated if intrusive Reese, he knew they underestimated the job those men and women did in the civilian ships of the fleet.

And Colonel Tigh was here as well. He knew his old friend had guessed his purpose. Adama suspected that Tigh hoped his being at the meeting would prevent the commander from carrying it out.

He scanned the Councilors again. They were discussing among themselves or watching him, wondering what had brought about this meeting. He had no reputation for summoning Council meetings at odd centars – more for expressing annoyance at their calling such meetings without prior mention to him; they were naturally curious. But now that he had made his decision, better to announce it and be done with it.

At least he didn't have to fear leaving the fleet in the hands of the likes of Sire Uri. He felt a pang at memories of his old friend. In the Caprican Renaissance, Uri had been such a great man, a hero, someone the entire Colonies could look to for leadership and empathy... Then, somewhere over the yahrens, he'd changed, become a pleasure-minded power-seeker, believing his world owed him something, generally unconcerned for the people. But his plan to settle on Carillon had come true, for him. He'd been killed somewhere in that final rush, whether by Cylon laser or simply failing to reach an escape vessel before the planet exploded and died.

He set the memory aside. It might make him question his decision. And he was certainly entitled, if any man was, to fade away at this period of life, and find an existence in peace. Let it be quick.

"Sires, Siresses," he began quietly. "I have called this meeting for two purposes. The first is to resign from your number."

Several of the men and women sat bolt upright, staring in varying degrees of shock.

"The second is to allow you to elect from amongst you a successor as president of this body. It is my hope that you will do so at once, to leave no vacuum in the governing of this fleet.

"I thank you for your time and attention."

With that he rose and walked out of the Council chamber, scarcely hearing the raised voices behind him as various members of the Council entreated him to come back or called to each other. Others had jumped to their feet and were milling about the room. Someone managed to call them to order, but he paid it no attention.

Tigh was with him like a laser bolt. "Adama, please! Don't..."

"It is done, Tigh." He found a smile. "Finally, it is done."

"So now?" Tigh asked bleakly.

"You deserve a ship of your own, Tigh, and a proper promotion. In a few days, when they're settled in..." A head nod indicated the room they'd left. "...you'll be officially promoted to commander, and I'll hand over the Galactica to you."

"The Council might not..."

"This is a strictly military matter. They have no say in it." His voice was steel. He would leave the fleet to someone he trusted, not a Council lackey. "The Galactica will be yours."

Tigh's mouth set grimly. He had one card left. "I'll refuse it."

Adama stared.

"I mean it, Adama. I'll refuse."

"Tigh..."

"If this were for the right reasons, I would accept, but you're running because of Apollo's death, and that's wrong! We need you here. We ... need ... you!"

"Then the Council will have to name someone else," Adama countered. "There are other commanders in the fleet. One of them–"

"To take your place? To take the Galactica?" Tigh cried. "Never!"

The commander almost smiled. "Then it seems you must, Tigh."

His hands clenched in fury. It hadn't worked. Adama knew he would never give the warriors and complete command of the military to anyone who wasn't ready for it, or who might be only a political appointee. What could he do? He would have to accept the promotion and the command...

"Perhaps it would be best if we informed the Council of this at once," Adama mused. "After all, the new president will undoubtedly have to deal with the new commander. It may make a difference in their selection."

He reversed his steps and returned somewhat leisurely to the Council chamber. Tigh followed, still searching for a way to prevent the now-inevitable.

The Councilors were silent and had returned to their seats – all but one. Siress Tinia was slowly walking around the huge table. Adama and Tigh watched as she reached the head chair, the president's chair.

And sank into it.

The other Councilors somberly applauded the new Council president.

She glanced at the two of them – and Adama realized it would not be so easy to step down after all.

Chapter VII

Apollo played with a vengeance, as if his concentration had narrowed to one single thought, that of defeating Starbuck in their triad solo match – not merely of taking the victory, which the captain was quite capable of doing, but of defeating his opponent. To the other man's astonishment, he occasionally crossed the boundaries of friendly competition. Apollo himself couldn't recall when he'd ever played such a wild, almost vicious game, but he didn't try to stop. The ache in his skull seemed like a warning of worse to come, but he tried to ignore it or wish it away. Grimly, he only pushed the game farther and faster and more furious. It drained some fierce energy from deep within, some disturbing emotion and sense he was unwilling to acknowledge any other way.

Those watching the match knew Apollo well enough to recognize a change from his usual style, but not well enough to realize the wild, unpredictable play might indicate something wrong; they enthusiastically applauded each quick move and countermove, while Starbuck tried vainly to match the pace. After watching for a while, however, and seeing how nearly brutal the captain was at times, there were a few murmurs of concern.

"Enough!" the lieutenant finally gasped after a rib block that left him on the floor for several microns. "I concede!"

Apollo danced away.

Starbuck glared balefully at his friend's satisfied expression.

"Good thing this wasn't a competition match!" Astarte commented to Orestes. "Apollo would've killed him."

"If this had been a real competition match, the officiator wouldn't have let Apollo get away with half of that stuff!" Orestes muttered back. It was supposed to have been a friendly game, just between two pilots testing each other's skills, with a handful of friends cheering them on for the fun of it. Apollo certainly hadn't played it that way, and Orestes was just a bit concerned about his half-brother's current condition. When had Starbuck ever conceded defeat and walked away from anything?

Apollo strolled out of the triad court to be greeted by Electra and several of the others – all out of uniform and enjoying what passed for furlon on the Pegasus. He'd earned his victory drink.

Starbuck was left sitting in the middle of the floor, still trying to catch his breath. As Orestes and Astarte entered the court he suddenly pulled off his helmet and threw it against the far wall.

"What in Hades was he trying to do?" Starbuck demanded of thin air, running his fingers angrily through his dripping hair. "He played meaner than Ortega ever did, worse than Boomer during that game Iblis goaded us into."

"What?"

Starbuck threw off their helping hands and got to his feet. Ignoring their attempts to talk to him, he stomped off to the turboshower.

"So much for friendly competition!" Cain hit the switch and cut off the transmission from the triad court. Their watching the game hadn't been intentional; the commander had accidentally engaged the screen with a swipe of his swagger stick, making a point. The match had been so keenly intense that he, the colonel, and the doctor had been caught up in watching Apollo and Starbuck play.

"That's all you've got to say about it?"

Cain half-smiled at his exec's question. "Well, I could note that we now know which is the better man."

Kleopatra frowned uneasily; her commander's comment had a snide edge to it, but she wasn't going to pry in that direction. There was more at stake here than anybody's petty personal feelings. "Apollo doesn't play that way, he never has. I think the stress is getting to a lot of the men. This could just be another symptom."

"Why does it sound like you've been talking to Helena?"

The dark woman glanced at the pale blonde medic. "Because I have. She came to me with this in the hope that we could persuade you together..."

"We survived two yahrens in deep space after Molecay; why are our warriors suddenly having so many problems now?" He leaned back in his seat.

Helena joined the conversation, continuing the argument she'd begun before the game distracted them. "Because after Molecay, we first thought the Colonies were safe, that the treaty was true and we would soon be at peace, and we were excited about that. And we still had Metus and the rest of our medical staff to keep their eyes on the emotional state of our people. There was no urgency to getting home. After the Destruction, we didn't know anything had survived until we heard about the 'rebel fleet' and discovered Apollo and Starbuck the first time.

"I admit I'm no psychologist; I can only go with what little I know about the human psyche. But it's obvious to me that the worst of this began after that meeting, when we knew something of our people survived, but we were apart from them. The pilots knew our people were in jeopardy, fighting just to stay alive. They wanted to be with the fleet, but they accepted your orders, your decision to fight from the outside. But it began then, the depression, the stress – not suddenly now, as you suggest. Finding the Delphians and facing the Cylons gave us a reason to be here, but it didn't make it any easier.

"After our second meeting with the Galactica and the fleet, we'd met the aliens. And we didn't see Cylons for a long time, until this listening post you're so obsessed with..."

He started at that, but kept his mouth shut while she continued.

"We know there are aliens out there. We know there are Cylons out there. The Delphians are gone. The growing feeling is that we're not carrying through on a mission – we're abandoning what's left of our people."

"Cain," Kleopatra interjected, "I have to agree with Helena. We ought to go back to the fleet – and stay with them! Not just for their sake, but for ours."

Cain was on his feet and at the port in one quick motion, staring outward.

"Our people need it – all of our people." Kleopatra watched him closely. The swagger stick, held behind his back, was still. The commander almost seemed to be standing at attention before the stars.

He finally spoke slowly. "Kleopatra, Helena, I care about our people – all of them, here and aboard the Galactica and in the fleet. But..."

"Why can't we go back?" Helena demanded.

He faced her, but Kleopatra spoke before discussion could become argument.

"What does a warrior do when he's lost the war?" the colonel asked softly. "History tells us he can fight on and die. Or he can save what's left and plan to fight another day. That's what you did at Molecay, Commander; that's why we're still here now. Cain, the fleet is what's left..."

"And you no longer feel that our being here will help them survive to find sanctuary and to fight another day," he stated flatly.

"Don't put words in my mouth. Yes, I personally would be happier if we were with the fleet. But I obey you, as I always have. You're ... well, you know what you are, as a man and an officer and a warrior. But it's gone beyond that simple obedience. If we lost our crew to insanity, what good are we doing them or anybody else? We're running out of options."

His mouth tightened.

She pointed at the screen. "Take a good look at life center's recent medical files, what symptoms our people are reporting. And remember the game we just saw. Think about Apollo – he's been with the fleet 'til now, he's had family and friends to stabilize him. It's hitting him. It's hitting all of us."

Cain had to stare at the empty screen for a moment; it was better than facing either woman or more arguments he couldn't counter. "I'll think about what you've said," he finally conceded.

"That's all we ask."

Apollo and Starbuck ran into each other in the turboshower dressing room. Apollo, fully dressed, stepped around the lockers; Starbuck, half-dressed and moving slowly from a number of sore spots on his anatomy, was sitting on a bench struggling with his boots. For a moment they just stared. The captain nodded slightly, then slipped past the lieutenant to disappear outside.

Starbuck rose in shock, mouth half-open with what he'd intended to say hanging in silence. He took a step after his erstwhile buddy but another man interposed himself.

"Starbuck?" Orestes queried.

"Forget it!" he shot back.

"What's wrong? Starbuck, little brother, tell me..."

It was the "little brother" that got him. He slumped to the bench. "I don't know, Orestes. He's acting so..." He threw his arms out in confusion and shook his head. "I hardly see him anymore, except when we're on patrol together. And if he's gonna be treating me like he did today, I don't wanna see him very often!"

Orestes observed a pair of matching bruises on his left ribs. Taking that, several skinned knuckles, and the wince when he moved his arms, he knew Starbuck was indeed in some pain. "Maybe you better hit life center, get checked out."

Starbuck shook the suggestion off.

"Hey, triad gets physical sometimes – not like today, I know, but sometimes players get hurt. It's not like you'd be stirring up any trouble. Just say you took a bad fall..."

The younger man looked skeptical, then smiled ruefully. "Okay. I could use a little attention, I think..."

"Celeste, Tamyris, Pele, Lygia, Sapphire, Twyla – she can patch up your bruises, anyway..." Orestes deadpanned.

"Enough!" Starbuck struggled into his second boot. "You wouldn't happen to be looking for a new triad partner, would you?"

"Yeah, right. We'll take on the whole ship. What about Apollo? Weren't you two going to pair up against Trent and Rissian? Besides, teamed with me, you'd wind up playing against Apollo again. Think you'd survive?" The offer disturbed him, but Orestes tried to treat it like a joke.

"I get enough abuse from my enemies, don't need it from my friends and teammates, too!" he finished emphatically, snapping the final clasp of his boot.

"You're serious."

"Yes."

The silence lengthened.

"Are you all right, Apollo?" Electra asked curiously.

The man next to her on the couch sipped moodily at his chalice of Edric's latest concoction. Preoccupied, he didn't even seem to notice she'd asked him a question. His free hand circled in a tense pattern on the slim crossed ankles resting over his knee.

"Apollo?" she repeated, frowning.

He finally focused on her. "Hmm?" His demeanor and attitude changed in a micron. The shadow seemed to lift and vanish as the slight frown disappeared from his brows.

"Are you all right?"

"Yeah, why?" He seemed as puzzled as she.

"Well, the way you played triad today – if I didn't know you both, I'd've thought you were up against a mortal enemy, not one of your best friends. And you've been so quiet and brooding – I thought maybe you had one of those headaches again."

Apollo shrugged and made a face. "Well, maybe a little one. But it's gone. Or maybe I shouldn't have told you that," he added with a sideways glance and a smile. "I like your 'treatment' better than the potions they pour down my throat in life center."

His hand moved up her leg suggestively. Electra knew she ought to pursue the issue, but there was something charmingly irresistible about the handsome captain when he played coy. When he leaned forward to kiss her, she decided to let the matter go for the moment.

Sheba moved furtively through the ship, glancing around to be sure she wasn't followed. With the heavy ear protectors, she couldn't have heard footsteps if someone was behind her. She didn't meet anybody on the upper decks above the main engines; most of the area was reserved for storage and equipment needing little maintenance or direct monitoring. Few people could have stood the direct noise and vibration for long.

She reached the ladder to the celestial observation dome and hesitated, staring up at the closed hatch. Was this the right thing to do? Was she imagining things? Maybe it was desecration, maybe she didn't belong here, maybe she ought to leave...

A small hand touched her shoulder tentatively; she nearly jumped through the hatch. Whirling, she met Cassiopeia's shocked expression with a warrior's fighting crouch. That provoked a backward leap from the med tech.

The two women stared at each other for a few centons, then Sheba pointed up and began climbing the ladder. When they were both in the safety of the dome, she dropped the hatch, sealed it, and took off her ear protectors.

Cassie took hers off too, shaking her head to loosen her hair.

The small chamber was as Sheba had left it when she fled – even the dylinium panels still blossomed open like flower petals. Cassie's blue eyes tracked Sheba's stare as she nervously studied everything.

"Sheba," she finally asked, "what exactly are you looking for?"

"I'm ... not sure..."

After a few more moments of silence, Cassiopeia asked again, "Why did you tell me to meet you here? What is it you wanted to talk about?" Something eerie was pricking at her skull, a funny little buzzing that she couldn't identify, pinpoint, or explain. Instead, she shuddered, still watching Sheba with a worried expression.

"You do feel it! I'm not imagining things!" Sheba sounded relieved. Her shoulders relaxed as if some weight were gone, but almost instantly tensed up again.

"Feel what?" she brazened, trying to deny it.

"He's here."

"What? Who's here?" Cassiopeia couldn't help glancing around quickly, almost expecting somebody to jump out from behind the control station.

"Apollo." Sheba's voice was hushed.

"What?"

"Well, his spirit, anyway. This was where he always came, remember? When he wanted to be alone or to think? I came here a few sectons ago, thought I could use it too. But his presence here... He was here, somehow."

"Apollo's dead..."

"I know that. But not all of him. Some part of him is here..."

Cassie stared at her for a long moment. "Are you trying to tell me you think Apollo is ... haunting this chamber?" she demanded in disbelief.

"You said you felt it too..."

She found herself shivering again.

Sheba walked around the control panel. There was little to see within the chamber, much more interesting sights beyond the clear dylinium, but her attention focused completely on the small room.

"I've never thought about ghosts..." Cassie began, but her voice died. The tingles grew stronger – almost as though they were a personal message to her.

Her friend's voice was awed and almost reverent. "Warriors think of them. Almost every ship I've ever been on or heard of has had some story of a crewman or pilot or someone close to the ship staying aboard after their ... death. The Galactica has the devil's pit, where they say you can meet the engineers and pilots who refused to leave when they died. The Pegasus is older than the Galactica; she has her places too, the billets that are storerooms because things happen there and no one will live in them; the one launch tube... We know about them, we just don't think about them. Is this where Apollo's going to be? It's fitting, somehow. I wonder if he minds us being here?"

"This chamber was abandoned long ago." Cassie's voice was none too steady at the direction Sheba's thoughts were taking. "If someone was going to haunt it, it would be one of the astronavigators who used it. Apollo wouldn't... He just wouldn't."

"Why not?" Sheba's preoccupation deepened. "I wonder where Starbuck's chosen haunts are..."

Cassie couldn't help thinking that little laugh was almost demented.

The throbbing was less intense than it had been in the past, but it was somehow more pervasive, spilling through every cell in his skull. This was no migraine. It was everywhere, and it left him feeling as though he were viewing the world and his own actions from a detached perspective, from the dark and far side of an echoing cavern. His body almost moved of its own accord.

Something planted itself in front of him. His head tilted and his eyes raised to see Lt. Jolly standing there.

"Captain, I'd like a change of assignment."

"Oh?" he asked distantly. "I thought I already did that. You're no longer flying with Greenbean."

"You did," the big man confirmed. "But I'm not interested in flying with Bojay or Giles either."

Boomer tried to think of a response from the far end of the tunnel he was in. "Why?"

"I'd prefer to keep that personal, sir," Jolly snapped back.

"You know, for a man who used to get along with everybody, you don't get along with anybody these days," Boomer noted.

"Never mind, Captain. Don't trouble yourself. I'll talk to Captain Nestor." Boomer saw a look of complete disgust on the other man's face for a micron before Jolly whirled and stomped away.

He shrugged, never noticing the grave looks from the handful of warriors who had seen the "discussion." They moved away uneasily, glancing back at their captain with great concern. Boomer was left alone in the corner of the officers' club.

It hit him like the flood from a broken damn. Everything in his skull exploded at once and he almost screamed, would have, but for something that hit his throat first and strangled every sound stillborn. When the rush of pain had gone, he knew exactly what he had to do. With the assured stride of a man on a mission, Capt. Boomer abandoned the OC.

Adama needed to get away. Unfortunately, there didn't seem to be anywhere he could go. And no one was willing to let him go if he could find a place. Tigh continued to resist promotion. When he tried to carry out his threat to resign and give someone else the Galactica, the Council had categorically refused his resignation. That is, Siress Tinia, new president of the Council, had turned him down. It had been a shock; he had never anticipated that the men and women who seemed to spend half their time finding ways to usurp his authority would ignore a chance to retire him without a fight – it was as though the thought of being without him gave them all a sudden case of cold feet. Disregarding his pride, he had gone to Tinia afterward, privately, to demand reasons and ask her to reconsider. She had turned his plea against him.

"Adama, the fleet is in a state of uneasiness right now. The possibility of Cylons being near, perhaps those aliens as well, concern for the Pegasus and the Delphians, our recently missing pilots, changes on the Council. We couldn't accept your resignation, Adama. We need you for stability."

His protests that most of those concerns were now sectons and even sectars old and likely forgotten by most of the populace was shunted aside. Tinia turned steady brown eyes on him and repeated her words.

"We need you, Adama. Stay, please. At least for now..."

Determined woman that she was, when she chose to be, Adama knew he wouldn't budge her from that stance. Leaving Tigh in charge on the bridge – he was doing that more often these days – he fled to what seemed his only sanctuary and his prison. Back in his quarters – the commander's quarters – he found Athena helping Boxey with his instructional period reinforcement lessons.

"Ah, how good to see my family..." He extended his arms for a hug from the small boy, but received only a strained smile from his daughter. "Athena? Is something troubling you?"

Other than the obvious?

"I was hoping to talk to you, Father." She glanced significantly at her nephew.

"Boxey," Adama said, ruffling the boy's brown hair and stopping to pat the head of the mechanical daggit he was never without, "go finish your instructional assignments. You aunt and I have something to discuss."

"Something about warriors?" he questioned brightly.

A quick glance at Athena. She nodded, once.

"Yes."

"But I'm a warrior! Father said so, before..." Sudden confusion and pain crossed the child's face and he reached for his daggit. "Okay, Grandfather."

"It'll only be a few centons, Boxey. Then we'll go as I promised..."

A dubious nod.

The warriors moved away to stand next to the situation update computers at the entrance to the commander's quarters.

"What is it, Athena?"

She took a moment to organize her words, and Adama almost expected her to change her mind. Then she drew a long breath and began in a low voice. "Father, I remember what Colonel Tigh said when Apollo and Starbuck disappeared. That maybe they could be with Cain again, because we don't know where Cain is or what he's doing. Do you think there's any chance of that? That they could all be alive somewhere?"

He had to shut his eyes to control his emotions. The old pain was suddenly an open wound again. "No, Athena. I don't believe there's any chance of that," he replied heavily. "I can't believe it. I can't live expecting that kind of miracle."

"Could they be prisoners of the aliens, like Apollo and the others were before?"

A shudder ran through him, chilling his heart. "I doubt there's really any chance of that. The aliens had them for sectons then. It's been longer than that again since our people ... disappeared. What would be the point?"

She persisted. "But could it be possible? We still don't know what they wanted from us."

"I pray it is not so."

"You would rather Apollo and Starbuck were dead?"

"I believe it is what they would prefer," he admitted starkly.

She winced.

"Why ask this now, Athena?" he inquired more gently when she seemed unable to speak again. He touched her face; she felt cold.

"I just saw Sheba and Cassie, Father, on their way to the Rising Star..."

"Yes?" He knew what the situation had been between those five – Apollo, Sheba, Cassie, Starbuck, and Athena – usually friends, but not always easily, sometimes tense with arguments and jealousies; they were a rich texture of brothers and sisters by blood or bonds of duty, friendship, love, rivalry... What did it matter now?

"They came from the celestial observation dome. They were shaking and scared. Father, they said they felt Apollo's presence there. They think he's there, somehow, in some way."

Adama's face went ashen.

"And they've gone to the Rising Star to look for Starbuck."

He couldn't stop the shudder.

"Father," Athena whispered, "do you believe in apparitions? Ghosts? Could Apollo's spirit be there? And Starbuck's? That's where Apollo used to go, he took them there once, told them about it. That's where he used to hide when he needed to be alone. They think that's why he's there now. Could it be...?"

"I ... don't know..." He had never considered it. He knew the stories of haunted ships, haunted quarters. He was sensitive enough and had been trained well enough to know there was something to it, that life beyond death was real and could sometimes be sensed. But he had never thought to seek his son – either of them, or his wife or anyone else he loved – that way, to find a place where he could feel their spirits... He went cold to his heart, understood Athena's pallor and chill. He might never be warm again.

"If you don't think there's any chance of them being alive, it must be ghosts. What else could explain it?" She sounded desperate, as though she wanted any certain answer. The commander knew then that she had continued to nurse some hope for Apollo and Starbuck's return, but this could be the death knell of that hope, to accept their spirits only as being present.

"Athena..." He tried to smile.

"I've tried to believe they could come back!" Her breath caught in her throat; she began to sob.

"Is my father coming back?" a small voice demanded out of nowhere.

Adama and Athena glanced down and realized Boxey had edged close enough to hear them. The boy stared up at them with a mutinous expression in his young eyes.

"Boxey..." Adama had to kneel next to him.

Athena leaned against the wall with a sigh. She crossed her arms and closed her eyes, shuddering.

"No!" Boxey pulled away. "Is my father coming back?"

"I... Boxey, that's beyond our knowledge..."

"Is he a ghost?" His lip quivered.

Adama reached for him again; again Boxey pulled away.

"It's not fair! Mother went away, and she stayed away. I was sad, but I didn't cry, I tried not to. But when Father goes away, and I'm sad and I cry, he comes back. But he never stays! He goes away and comes back and goes away again."

"Boxey..."

"And I hate it!" he suddenly yelled. Tears welled up in his eyes, ran down his smooth cheeks. The mechanical daggit growled in sympathy. "I hate it when he goes away! I don't like being sad! And then he comes back and goes away and makes me sad again! I don't like it! If he's just going to go away again I don't want him to come back! I don't like being sad and I don't want to be sad again! I don't want to cry again!"

A very shocked Adama finally captured his sobbing grandson, pulling him close. He heard Athena begin to cry too.

"I don't want him to come back again! He'll just make me sad..."

Adama groaned in emotional agony.

Sagan, give me wisdom...

Chapter VIII

Why did the very air of the bridge seem full of anticipation? Colonel Tigh couldn't help feeling it. The crew were watching him, speculating about how soon Adama would resign, how soon he would be their commander in name as well as in most daily actions. They were concerned for their old commander, wondered what changes might occur with the new one, discussed among themselves who could possibly be named the new executive officer. They also questioned what would happen to the military with a new president of the Council, of whom Tigh was known to be less than enamored. The Council could be disagreeable, sometimes actively antagonistic toward the military. The warriors would do their duty as they had always done, but what would their duty consist of? And would they have any support?

Tigh paced restlessly, glancing at the various duty stations as he passed them to rejoin Omega at the command dais.

"All scan turrets show clear," the flight officer reported unnecessarily. "Patrols report nothing unusual."

"Thank you, Omega."

Tigh had to sigh, standing alone, a little apart from them all. He and Council President Tinia still hoped to persuade Adama to change his mind. He wished he knew himself what would happen next.

His eyes caught Capt. Boomer, hesitating at the outer corridor. The flight leader of Blue Squadron looked ... different. Puzzled, Tigh tried to figure out what it was. The man looked more confident and certain, perhaps – determined, as though he'd decided on something and was carrying through before he could change his mind.

Before he could change his mind.

Now why did that seem strange? What was in the warrior's eyes...?

Two strides carried Boomer to the deck. "Colonel, if you have a few moments, I must speak with you."

Tigh hesitated, then touched Omega's shoulder to let him know he'd be gone for a moment.

"What is it, Boomer?" the colonel asked when they were out of hearing.

The captain drew his weapon. "Come with me."

Tigh stiffened. "What...?" He stared at the warrior. Boomer met the stare with abyss-empty eyes and an expressionless face.

"We want no one hurt. Come with me," he repeated flatly.

"Boomer..." The signs had been there; they should have known, should have figured it out. Blue Squadron had been out of control. Her new captain seemed helpless to put them in order. Nestor had reported the man was acting strangely. The captain must have gone over the edge with the deaths of his two dearest friends and the sudden responsibility.

"Come now or pay the price."

Tigh took an unwilling step toward the outer corridor. What could he do here, in the crowded bridge, where any stray shot could destroy vital equipment and kill key personnel, perhaps damage the battlestar beyond repair? He glanced back at the command dais, desperately willing someone to see, but not to take any foolhardy actions. He caught Omega's slightly alarmed gaze. The flight officer had seen Boomer draw the weapon, and continued to watch from the corner of his eye, sitting straighter and taller than usual to keep them in his sight. Tigh risked one low gesture. The flight officer sent back the briefest of nods in understanding.

The two warriors stepped out into the corridor.

"What are you doing, Boomer?" Tigh forced out calmly.

Only the empty, watchful eyes.

"What is it you want? Where are we going?"

The silence was unnerving. And it grew more so when Boomer directed him to the lift, and they descended into the launch bay.

Flight officer Omega waited until Capt. Boomer and Col. Tigh were out of any possible hearing range. Then he pounced on his board.

"Commander Adama, please report to the bridge at once! Security chief, send a warriorscore to secure the bridge. Colonel Tigh has just been kidnaped by Captain Boomer. Boomer is armed, possibly unstable and dangerous. Destination unknown, but they left here by the outer corridor, possibly headed for section Gamma. Security, do you understand? Repeat, Commander Adama to the bridge, immediately! We have a condition red crisis!"

He didn't dare hit the general alert klaxon, for fear of provoking the possible deranged Boomer into harming his prisoner.

"Sir!"

Omega barely glanced at the corporal. "What is it, Rigel?"

"Patrol Three, Diedre and Brie, reporting visuals on a group of fast-moving silver ships!" The girl's voice squeaked. "Nothing on their scanners – or ours! It must be the aliens! What shall we do?"

He swallowed hard. "Go to red alert. Scramble all squadrons. Order our patrols to home on us. Have the fleet close in. Ship to battle status," he announced, following his own orders and hitting a dozen switches to arm missiles, activate laser turrets, and turn a dozen ship's alerts into screaming klaxons.

"Omega, you don't have the authority–!" the comm officer protested.

"I'm taking it, Kore. Somebody has to."

"This is Commander Adama," bellowed a voice from the speaker. The veteran warrior's visage appeared on a screen. "What's going on?"

"Commander!" Omega shouted above the klaxons. "Captain Boomer has just kidnaped Colonel Tigh, and one of patrols has spotted the aliens. Please report to the bridge. Your presence is needed."

"On my way. Have you scrambled our squadrons and pulled in patrols?"

"Yes, sir!" he managed a brisk response.

"Excellent. Hold our position and bunch the fleet." The transmission ended abruptly.

"Sir!"

"Yes, Rigel?"

"The launch bay! Someone is launching without clearance... Technician Noday reports Captain Boomer has taken his Viper – and Colonel Tigh is with him!"

"Who's out there to intercept?"

"In that quadrant..." She glanced at her screen, double-checking. "Patrol Six – Barton and Cree."

"Apprise them of the situation – tell them to intercept if they can, pursue if they must. To the best of our knowledge, not a terminal situation, and remind them that Colonel Tigh is aboard that fighter. Status of our squadrons?"

"Nestor reports Red and Green Squadrons ready... Add Yellow Squadron to the list... Blue Squadron is disorganized, they have no flight leader..."

"Launch Red and Green. Hold Yellow and Blue."

"Yes, sir."

A beat, then the teeth-tingling sensation from somewhere that said they were launching in force.

"Red and Green away. Blue still not ready..."

Omega stared into thin air, feeling sick. Blue was the best they had ... at any other time. Without them... "Sheba... Is Sheba there?"

"She hasn't reported in, on furlon ... last location, a shuttle to the Rising Star. She can't get back..."

"Bojay, take Blue Squadron!" he barked, nearly losing it, fighting back from the edge.

For a long moment, the tension was unreal.

"Blue Squadron finally reports ready..."

"Get Blue and Yellow in–"

"No!"

"Rigel, explain!" Omega demanded, trying to keep his voice steady. He couldn't bound down to analyze her boards for himself, couldn't even switch his own screens – he had too much to keep track of now.

"Boomer has altered course! He's flying straight for the aliens!"

A figure in blue rushed into the bridge, a slighter form in similar color directly behind him. Commander Adama hurried up the command deck steps; Athena grabbed a spare headset at Kore's station to find out what was going on.

"Status, Omega?" Adama demanded breathlessly.

"Rigel, report!"

"Patrols Six and Three ... report that Boomer's ship ... met the aliens ... was engulfed by white light ... and vanished..." the girl forced out, frozen in shock. "They are dropping back ... to join Red and Green Squadrons..."

"Corporal!" Adama bellowed.

"The aliens ... have also chosen to vanish, sir..." she finished faintly.

Less than five centons had passed since the aliens had been spotted, less than eight since Boomer had kidnapped Tigh.

Adama turned a grim expression on Omega. "What happened?"

The explanation was not easy, and left the commander as shocked and confounded as the others were. He stared at the fore port screens, scanning empty space and knowing he would see nothing at this range. Why had the aliens returned? What had happened to Boomer? Why had he gone to the aliens? And why had he taken Tigh with him?

The situation was suddenly an emergency once again. And he had lost the man he trusted most to stand at his back. There would be no leaving the Galactica now.

Captain Nestor was scarcely aware of the ordered chaos around him. Klaxons still chimed alert status for the kidnapping and the return of the silver ships of the aliens; warrior security swarmed through the bay, weapons ready for trouble, staring around as if expecting the girders to wake into menacing life; returning pilots gathered in small, agitated groups, staying near their fighters, and watching everything too closely; technicians rushed with their usual careful efficiency to refuel and check Vipers in case another emergency launch should be called; other flight crew stood by the recalled shuttle to help a quick unloading. None of it, however, made any impression beyond causing him to step aside blankly when someone scurried past him. He didn't even hear his wingmate calling as she ran after him.

He had failed, and that knowledge ate at his gut like scavenging Picon tomb rats.

I thought I knew ... I thought it was under control. I thought Boomer was going to be all right, it was just grief, he would snap back...

But it wasn't all right, and his friend hadn't recovered. Instead, Boomer had gone over the edge and thrown himself to perdition, taking the colonel with him. And it was his fault. He should have seen and done something more before it came to this. Boomer had been his friend, he should have done something. Instead, he'd let it go and hoped. And it had gone so terribly wrong...

Nestor stared down the rank of Vipers, the comments of some of the warriors slowly beginning to penetrate.

"...the aliens, back again..."

"...in Hades happened to Boomer..."

"...left us here like babies who couldn't be trusted to..."

"...wouldn't even let us launch to go after him..."

"...couldn't do anything, no leader..."

"...could we have done anything anyway..."

"...lost another good man, another flight leader..."

"...why always us who have to pay..."

He'd left his own people behind; this was Blue Squadron, but a very different Blue Squadron from the men and women who had been the pride of the fleet only sectons before. There was a confusion and helpless anger that he had obviously failed to deal with.

"...it makes no sense, what do they want..."

"...Boomer was acting funny..."

"...where was Sheba..."

"...Apollo wouldn't have..."

"...and Starbuck..."

His attention snapped back. Boomer. Sheba. Apollo. Starbuck. Words of poison to this squadron. It was spreading.

"Why didn't he do something?" Greenbean's voice, frustrated beyond measure. "They give us a frakkin' Academy instructor, call him a flight commander, expect him to lead us? What kind of leader is that?"

Somebody else took up the chorus. "Yeah. What does he know about combat? About really being in space? Lords-be-damned teacher, for Sagan's sake. He wasn't ready for this. What could he do?"

Nestor stared. A handful of the pilots were watching him, various expressions of pain and baffled rage on their faces. Greenbean, Jolly, Cree, Giles, Dietra. Others moved closer, slowly forming a vague semi-circle as if to cluster for a kill. All looking at him as if he should have done something, but had failed. He couldn't help feeling the same.

"You want something, Captain?" one of them finally asked.

"You have a problem with what just happened out there?" he inquired coolly.

They merely stared back at him, cold and angry and almost mutinous.

"Only a question. What did just happen out there?" The man was almost taunting, challenging Nestor to respond.

"Since you seem to have the answers, perhaps you could share with me just what we could have done? From the safety of the bay, of course, since you weren't ready to launch until the emergency was pretty much over. I like to encourage input from my squadrons," he finished with heavy irony, and a heavier emphasis on "my."

Several expressions hardened; others looked uneasy.

Steps flanked him. Io stood on his right; another pilot from Red Squadron, Blackjack, stood to his left; with Sol beside Blackjack. No one could avoid noticing their hands resting too close to their weapons.

Blue Squadron's surviving finest moved away sullenly.

"Thank you," he mouthed to the three warriors now clustering around him. He didn't think he would have needed them, but it might be a good thing to remind Blue Squadron they weren't the only warriors on the battlestar – especially now.

Io shook her head gravely. "This shouldn't be happening."

"Shouldn't it? Maybe they're right – maybe I'm not meant to be a flight commander. I don't know these people, haven't been with them long enough..."

Sol touched his captain's shoulder. "They'll learn. I'll talk to Sheba, though, see what she hears or knows. She's still Blue Squadron, and she supports you."

He snorted unhappily. "I need all the support I can get – but what if they're right, and I'm not fit for combat command...?"

"Stow it, Captain," the third pilot cut in. "You're okay."

"That's something, coming from a man who doesn't like officers."

The lieutenant shrugged it off. "Detested Starbuck, didn't care for Apollo, Boomer's all right, except for some of the company he keeps. You're okay, so I figure we got to keep you around or they'll stick us with another of those stuffed-tunic ego cases." Blackjack strode away.

Nestor almost laughed, but he was hurting too much.

A blonde woman literally ran off the barely-halted shuttle, and pelted off down the landing bay, obviously heading for the briefing chamber.

"Speaking of Sheba..." Sol ran after her, calling her name.

Io touched Nestor's arm. "I'll check the landing reports."

"Thank you."

"Will you be all right?"

He drew a thick sigh. "Some day."

"Make it soon. The Commander will want to see us all in debriefing in a few centons."

She moved on, leaving him standing alone in the emptying bay.

There had been a burst of light, followed by screams, probably his, then a retreat to nothing. The nothingness had passed slowly; he had been vaguely aware that things were happening around him, but the sounds were somehow beyond his conscious hearing, the lights gleamed dimly as through a dark screen, the touches whispered across his skin too ephemeral to identify. There was even emotion, the strangest of all, feelings that should have been vivid, but made only shallow impressions on him as he let them wash over his muted thoughts. There was nothing he could do, so he waited, wishing he could dream to pass the time.

Maybe it was a dream, he considered idly. Was this how sleep passed? Would he remember this in the morning, when he was awake, and color and sound and touch had meaning again?

Only gradually did he become aware that someone stood over him. He stared up at whoever or whatever it was. He wasn't surprised that the being had no relation to anything humanoid. In fact, if looked very like one of the creatures Apollo and Boomer had seen and described; he prided himself on making that connection in his current befogged condition.

"You are a colonel. One who does not yet command."

It spoke Colonial Standard. That should have surprised him, too.

"Yes," he responded distantly.

"Good. Then you will now command. They will be yours."

He would now command...

"No."

The being froze in its posture, and Tigh sensed consternation on its part.

"The herd must have a leader, a commander..."

"No," he repeated. "I won't take command. Adama, you can't step down. I won't take your ship. We need you."

It was only a dream, after all, wasn't it?

Adama wanted to cry out "Why?" He stared at the stars in anguish. His friend was gone, his second, the man he trusted at his back. Who would stand by him now? Was the universe determined to leave him totally alone, chained forever to the bridge of a slowly emptying ship, protecting a dying fleet? Who would be the next to disappear?

And why, why?

He turned to find Tinia's steady gaze still locked on him, as he had known it was the entire past centar. She had appeared and, as president of the Council, demanded to be included in the debriefing. He had let her stay.

Now his warriors were gone ... no, they had left the room, they weren't gone. Tigh was gone. With Apollo, and Starbuck, and Boomer. With Zac, and Serina, and the hundreds, maybe thousands of warriors he had known in his lifetime. With Ila, and Uri, and Adar. With the billions of humans who had died in the Colonies.

The awesome toll almost overwhelmed him. Was there anything worth fighting for? Who was he to think he could save something when the entire universe and the Lords themselves seemed bent on their utter annihilation? No wonder the fleet was haunted...

"Adama, will you be all right?"

"Have I a choice?" he demanded bitterly, meeting her gaze with glittering eyes. Anger and frustration took form, then firmed into resolve in his heart. Even if he were fighting fate itself, he couldn't do anything less. Duty and honor demanded it. Even if living for just a little while longer was all they succeeded in doing. Maybe life was the only revenge he could throw in the face of death.

"We need you, Adama..."

"Tinia, I am tired of being needed. But I will not leave. Not until I am sure our people are safe, and there is someone to lead them after me..."

She thought his voice sounded as hollow as his eyes, and despite his words, the fear rose in her again.

Chapter IX

The computer core chambers were seldom guarded. True, a sentry stalked by the outer doors at regular intervals, but only rarely did a Cylon actually walk in and check things over, unless the asteroid base was under direct planetary attack or there was a question of sabotage. Neither was the case now. Besides, any Cylon wishing access to the small complex had only to provide the proper security code, its own designation number, and the purpose for the usage. Without such a combination of codes, no entrance would be permitted.

None of that would have made any difference.

The silver-toned Centurion strode down the corridor in a normal fashion, apparently on its way to carry out some order. Before the hatch to the computer chambers, it halted and glanced about, the heavy head moving soundlessly.

Then it touched the entry plate. A reddish aura formed over the hand, and a spark flared to engulf the plate. There was a sound of something within sizzling, then silence.

The hatch opened without requesting any codes.

The Cylon entered and moved directly to the innermost chamber, where the great memory banks could be accessed. History banks had first priority, to be followed by military and scientific situation, then information on peoples conquered or destroyed, and current foes. The machine took position before the first panel, and gave the code for a complete presentation of data.

Within the Cylon's altered body, information began recording into a system far more intricate and advanced than anything Cylon or Colonial had yet devised.

The flight commander stood stiffly before him, flanked by several of the remaining captains and ranking warriors of the Galactica. Io, naturally, was right beside her husband. Sheba, Jolly, and Bojay, from Blue Squadron, stood at ease in a group. Red Squadron's Blackjack, as usual, sat as far from the senior officers as he could, slouching in the couch under the window port without having asked permission. Haals from Yellow Squadron and Sirius from Green stood together, murmuring uneasily. They all knew why they'd been gathered.

Commander Adama glanced over the lot of them, then took another look at Capt. Nestor's list of recommendations. Off balance from what had happened, the man was uncertain of his wisdom to select a new flight commander for Blue Squadron, and had asked Adama to make that fateful choice. There was one candidate from each of the other squadrons on the list, and three from Blue.

Resigned, he studied them again.

Haals, quietly experienced, probably the most deserving of the group, who had left Blue Squadron at the Destruction, and didn't seem particularly eager to return under the circumstances – and probably would be happier continuing to work with specialty missions. Sirius, small and wiry, young for a captain; he really didn't have much command experience. Blackjack, tall and muscular with that devil-may-care exterior; he'd turned down promotion at least once before, and he slunk deeper into the cushion at Adama's eyes upon him. Sheba, competent daughter of the "living legend," about whom he would normally have no qualms, except she now claimed to be sensing ghosts. Jolly, formerly of easy-going temperament and absolute loyalty to his friends, who now seemed to be picking fights on a regular basis. Thank the Lords that Bojay was still steady – and since the man had served under Adama previously, as well as over most of the past yahren, he knew something of his abilities.

That made the choice easy – he could give Blue Squadron one of their own as a new leader, which would hopefully make yet another transition a little easier.

"Thank you for your recommendations, Nestor," he said quietly. "I believe Bojay will fill the post quite well."

The others filed out, with varying degrees of relief, except for Sheba, who was still preoccupied, leaving Adama with Blue Squadron's new flight leader.

"Thank you, Commander," Bojay told him.

He glanced up at the young man. "These aren't the easiest conditions, Captain Bojay," he said. "Good luck. I fear you'll need it to pull these people back in order."

"I can do it, sir. I won't let you down."

Adama almost found a smile as the man saluted smartly and left. Cain's influence told well on Bojay. He'd always been proud of his own capabilities, but something told him Bojay was now fully as capable as he'd always believed himself to be. And Lords knew they needed that now.

Apollo stared at the wall, feeling restless. He was off for the day, and lacking anywhere to go, had come to Electra's chambers. He knew her private entry code, and used it without announcing himself, only to find her gone. So he sat and waited, feeling the prickling sensation grow in his skull. He wished he knew what was really bugging him.

It wasn't Starbuck, not really – although he hadn't seen much of the man since that dreadful triad game, which he regretted more every time he thought of it. He couldn't explain his aggressiveness in the game, nor the instinct that warned him off every time he considered talking to the lieutenant. Either Starbuck would deck him or feel obliged to accept his comments, and he knew, somehow, that his friend wasn't ready to let this drop. And until he knew what he wanted to say, what point would there be to bringing it up?

He couldn't sit. Rising, he began to pace the room, stopping for no more than a moment or two every few centons to study something on the wall, the shelves, or Electra's desk. There were several personal diary crystals stacked next to the reader on her desk; Apollo picked them up. The last such crystals he'd seen were the ones Serina had recorded before her death. His expression became more distant and thoughtful. He had thought of his dear wife without the old surge of grief. Maybe he was finally beginning to get over her death.

The door swished open, and the tall blonde beauty entered, every movement as easy as ever, as unconsciously alluring as always. He smiled in welcome; he could worship at the shrine of her beauty, he thought.

She pulled up short at seeing him standing there. "Apollo!" Her voice was glad, until she noted what lay in his hands, then her smile faded to something guarded.

He very carefully set the crystals back in place. "Hello, Electra. I just stopped by because..." She kept staring at the crystals; Apollo thought she looked wary. "I was bored, I guess, wanted to see you." Still she was silent. "I found them sitting on your desk. I didn't listen to them, if it bothers you, Electra. I wouldn't intrude on your privacy like that without your permission."

She shook herself. "Of course not. What did you say you wanted?" The woman moved closer, a faint smile returning the curve to her lips, coupled with something in her gem-dark eyes.

It suddenly became crystal clear, and Apollo knew exactly what he wanted. He seized her hand, still meeting her eyes.

"Electra, come with me."

She was taken aback at the intensity in his voice. "What? Where?"

"Everywhere. Forever. Come with me. Be with me."

Her jaw slackened; she blinked. "Are you serious?"

"Yes."

"That ... sounds like a sealing proposal!"

Apollo stared past her for a moment. Yes, that was exactly what it sounded like. And he realized that was exactly what he meant. He laughed, feeling quite content. "It is a sealing proposal. Marry me, Electra."

She was speechless.

"I know, this is sudden," he agreed after a moment. He kissed her fingers lightly. "And maybe the place and time aren't what you'd expect, but it's right. I know that much. And I want you with me, always, as my wife. Seal with me."

"I..." Her glazed expression fixed on the fingers caught in his hand, somehow panicked.

He touched her lips before she could say any more. The wave passed through him. He understood what she had to be feeling, and knew she might need some time to think about it. That was a good idea; there was no need to rush what would be so perfect when it came.

"I just want every moment we have left..."

For Serina, that had been true. Those moments had been too few, before she had been taken from him. With this woman, there would be many moments. They would be together for the rest of their lives. He wasn't afraid to wait.

"Just think about it," he whispered. "I want us to be forever. I'll ask you again, if you want, in the right kind of romantic setting, if we can find one here, on this ship. But I mean what I say, and the offer will always be open. Whenever you're ready, I'll be here. And I'll want you."

He released her hand, and drew a deep breath. "And now it looks like you want some time to consider, so I'll leave. Good bye, Electra."

Apollo walked out with a smile, leaving the woman still stunned and unable to think. As he strolled the corridor away from her quarters, it didn't occur to him that the word "love" hadn't been in his thoughts or his words even once in the proposal.

Starbuck hesitated outside his squadron leader's door. He wasn't really sure what he wanted to do about it, but he knew he had to talk to somebody. And Orestes was the best choice. Well, second-best, but he couldn't nail Apollo down long enough to discuss anything these days, and besides, he still wasn't always comfortable sharing some feelings with the captain. Especially since Apollo and his recent behavior were the topics he wanted to talk about. And since he was beginning to have a few ideas about what was causing it.

He hit the annunciator.

A micron later, a distracted voice from the speaker inset called, "Enter."

Starbuck walked in to find Orestes sitting at his desk console, staring at the far wall with a vaguely puzzled expression in his deep blue eyes.

"Yes, Starbuck, what is it?" he asked, blinking as he brought his thoughts home.

"You look busy."

"No, just been thinking – I think. Didn't realize how time was passing, I've been a million light-yahrens away, I guess." He took a deep breath. "So, what can I do for you? Or are you just looking for a drinking buddy and an excuse to hit the officers' club?" he finished flippantly, leaning back.

"No..."

The blond captain studied him for a moment, then offered a guess. "It's Apollo, isn't it – and that triad match?"

"Uh, yeah." Starbuck felt distinctly uncomfortable. This was not one of those times when it made things easier to face someone who was so like you he could almost read your mind. He was betraying Apollo, in some way, and having his brother know it didn't help.

"Want me to talk to him?" Orestes offered after a few awkward moments. "Won't salvage the match, but..."

Starbuck swallowed hard. He'd let his guard down this far, just coming here... "If you want to, and you think it would do any good..."

"Hey, I'm his squadron leader. He has to listen to me." Orestes grinned. "Don't worry about it, Starbuck. What's a brother for, if you can't talk to him when your wingmate's being a pain in the astrum? And if he won't listen to me, we can still launch the big one."

"The big one?"

"Yeah. Electra. Believe me, our sister is more than capable of taking on him or anybody else, when her squadrons are at stake."

"Even though they're–"

"Lovers?" Orestes's grin broadened into something of a leer. "Half the ship knows it, so don't worry about betraying that. And so much the better. What man in his right mind would risk losing her?"

Starbuck had to laugh with him at that, then continued. "But Orestes, what if..."

"What if what?" he prompted.

"I've been seeing Twyla once in a while, you know her, the med tech..."

"Yeah, the little one who set a speed record for outrunning a fireball at Gamoray – and for shredding male egos faster than any other woman I've ever met." Orestes smiled fondly. Good medic, but what a tongue! He didn't think she and Starbuck would be close for long.

"She's mentioned a few things about some ... emotional problems some of the crew have been having."

"I've seen some of the records. That talk on morale last secton, they made us flight leaders sit down in medical first, so we'd know why."

"Yeah. Well, what if Apollo... I mean, what if he..."

Orestes stared at the deck, disturbed. He hadn't actually considered the possibility that Captain Apollo might be having emotional difficulties of some kind, maybe just in adjusting to the new ship. He'd seemed fine at first, and Electra would surely have noticed and mentioned if...

"Could Apollo be walking a little on the wrong side of the line?" Starbuck didn't know if he wanted that to be the case or not.

Orestes looked up. "I'll talk to him." He rose.

"Now?" Starbuck was startled.

"What better time?" He knew inside that it was absolutely essential he speak to Apollo immediately. There was too much at stake, for the survival of them all. And maybe he would stop at life center afterward and get something for the headache he felt coming on.

Commander Cain knew it was trouble. Dr. Helena never came to the bridge. Never. He could not recall her having been on the bridge once in the entire time she'd served aboard his ship, which was over eight yahrens now, since long before the battle at Molecay. She sent her best med techs and Dr. Rafael if there were battle injuries or sudden illness. If she had something to discuss with him, she came to his quarters or called him to life center. Her philosophy, she claimed. If there was something wrong, she belonged in life center, not cavorting all over the ship. If there was nothing wrong, why bother hanging around the bridge? Surprise showed in several crewmen's faces; some of them had probably never met the chief medical officer, but they did know she was a stranger to the bridge.

Helena moved up the steps with a determined look on her coolly set face.

Col. Kenji, currently on the watch, saw that look and glanced at Cain. The commander nodded, and the Delphian officer moved out of hearing.

"Is there a problem, doctor?" Cain asked.

"Commander, I'd like to call a meeting of the senior staff to discuss the direction of our future," she said very quietly.

Cain stared, his jaw tightening. His steely eyes narrowed slightly. "On what grounds?"

"Medical."

"Another morale discussion?"

She didn't back down, although she kept her voice low. "I'm not calling for a mutiny – I know better than to think I'd get away with calling you unfit for command." Cain grunted affirmation. "But that doesn't mean I'm going to let the crew of this ship go to Hades without putting up a fight. I'd like to present our current situation and my future projections to our department heads. Maybe you'll take their opinions more seriously than you seem to be taking your chief medical officer's and your executive officer's."

"I do take your opinion seriously, Helena. I'm considering the situation and our options," he admitted unwillingly.

"Considering...? What's it going to take to convince you we've got a problem?" she demanded. Her voice rose fractionally, which spoke volumes about her frustration.

"I'm aware of the problem!" he shot back. He caught Kenji's eyes on him, and noticed Tolan was trying desperately not to hear. Helena continued to stare at him.

Cain took a moment to calm himself. "All right, Helena. We'll meet in the briefing room at fifteen hundred. Tolan, inform Colonel Kleopatra and Major Electra. Other department heads to be present as able. Satisfied, doctor?" he asked without waiting to hear the flight officer's murmured obedience.

She drew a deep breath and released it, nodding. "Thank you, Cain. If you'll excuse me, I have work to do."

The doctor moved away with as little fanfare as she'd arrived, but looking noticeably more relaxed through the shoulders.

Cain leaned on the railing, watching her go. Then he spent the next few centons staring at the forward ports, thinking, one finger tapping on his swagger stick.

Capt. Orestes caught up with Capt. Apollo in a corridor in Beta section, deck Gamma. Apollo couldn't have told what had prompted him to wander through the senior command officers' billets. Nor could Orestes have explained how he had known to find Apollo there.

"Apollo?"

The man turned at the call, then smiled genially. "Yes?"

Orestes studied him. The other captain appeared to be in perfect health, physically and emotionally. But there was that triad match to be explained, and a little nagging something in his own mind wanted an answer to a few other things...

"I, uh, wanted to talk to you."

"Oh? Anything special?" The smile widened expectantly.

"About that triad game, and the way you've been acting recently. My brother–"

"Hey, I might be your brother too," Apollo interrupted with a silly grin.

"What?" Orestes asked, nonplused. Chameleon hadn't been that busy...

"I asked Electra to seal with me."

He stared for a moment. "What did she say?" he finally asked.

"She's thinking about it."

"Why should she accept you when she's turned down every other man who's asked her?"

Apollo frowned. He hadn't considered that she might refuse him; it made no sense for her to say no. "Because none of them were me."

Orestes had to laugh; it seemed to help that oncoming headache. The slight throb in his skull lessened for a moment.

"And because I need her." Apollo closed his eyes and frowned in sudden pain, hunching his shoulders as if against a physical blow to his skull.

Orestes didn't notice. The ache in his own head doubled and doubled again in the space of as many heartbeats, searing through his synapses. He nearly collapsed.

In only a micron, it had passed. The two men stared at each other with clear, empty eyes, then nodded in agreement. Very purposefully, they strode down the corridor together.

So Bojay was to be the flight leader, Sheba mused. Sitting in the celestial chamber, she could think in peace. Maybe it was for the best. Her father would never have accepted it, maybe would even have protested to his commander at being "passed over."

Sheba sighed heavily. She still hadn't forgiven her father for leaving her the way he had. Maybe that resentment was why she could so calmly accept something that would have driven the great Cain into a fury. Getting back at daddy...

Sheba turned off every piece of illumination she could. Only a few console lights blinked steadily, but she ignored them. All was darkness around her; spotted with a multitude of distant stars. The shadowed woman stared into that darkness, choosing not to see the dim metallic gray of the battlestar against the darkness. She could almost feel at one with space; it was as vast and empty as her heart had felt since ... since his death.

Even Sol couldn't fill that emptiness. However much she tried to pretend Apollo no longer mattered, his death made it all too clear just how much he still meant to her. Nothing would come of her and Sol, she realized that quite clearly; Apollo's memory would always stand in the way.

She hoped her former lover didn't mind her being in the celestial observation dome. She could still feel that eerie sense of presence, and shivered. Closing her eyes, she tried to ignore it. The feeling was almost tangible today ... painfully tangible...

Her eyes opened. They were blank. Her motions were strangely zombie-like as she left the celestial observation dome.

A staff meeting with Cain and Helena. Kleopatra felt a sudden upswing of mood. The doctor must finally have gotten through to the commander. She must have convinced him they should go back to the fleet. The colonel never thought she would feel so good about talking Cain out of any chosen course of action.

Strike that. It was convincing Cain to return to the fleet that was the important thing. For the crew's sake, and for the fleet's sake as well.

Smiling and humming under her breath, Kleopatra headed out the door. Her first destination was life center, to learn from Helena just what had happened. Then she had to find Electra, and cover the current squadron status. On to Cain, for a few private words before the briefing–

Kleopatra almost ran into the two men blocking her door. Apollo and Orestes. She glanced up at them. "Is there something I can do for you, Captains?"

Their expressions were empty, far too vacant for men whose faces were usually alive with emotions and intelligence. The laser pistols in their hands gave her pause; her heart abruptly sank. Something was very wrong.

"Officers?"

"Come with us, Colonel, and no one will be hurt." Apollo's voice was subdued and flat.

"Would you please explain yourselves, officers?"

"There is no time or need for explanations. Come with us, and no one will be hurt," Apollo repeated, with scarcely a change in his inflection.

Orestes reached for her arm.

"Pol!" she cried, desperately hoping to reach through whatever-this-was to past sanity in at least one of them.

Something flickered behind the blank stare, but then it was gone. Neither warrior said anything more, but Orestes held her arm in a tight grip as he pulled her down the corridor.

There was no one else in sight. Kleopatra considered resisting. But these were trained warriors, younger and larger than she was, and there were two of them. There was also no guarantee that they would encounter any other crewmen, or that anyone they met would be able to help her. These two might even mean their implied threat to injure their fellow warriors if she failed to acquiesce to their demand. She went along peaceably.

Hurry, hurry, must hurry. Time to leave, time to gather the herd. Find the mate and go...

The overwhelming need for haste pulled Sheba farther from the dome. She was almost running by the time she reached the landing bay, the command still echoing in her skull.

Hurry, hurry...

"Hey, Sheba! What's the rush?" Blackjack caught her arm; he wasn't used to being pushed aside by people as if he didn't exist. And Sheba moved like there were demons on her tail. Maybe a few in her head, too, he thought, when he caught a look at her face. "Hey, you don't want me to think the Legend's daughter went over the edge like everybody else in your squadron, do you?"

She stared through him, her reality far away, then slowly drew her laser. He wasn't here; this one would do as well, for the need of the moment.

"Sheba!" he yelped.

"You're coming with me," she murmured.

"Huh?"

Another figure pelted around the corner of the corridor and collided with Sheba and Blackjack, sending all three of them crashing to the deck. Somehow Nestor wound up at the bottom of the heap. The woman's weapon flew out of her hand, bounced off the wall, and spun merrily down the corridor about a dozen yards. Sheba crawled after it, but the husky Blackjack tackled her and held her tight, ignoring her kicks and attempts to claw him.

"Sorry, lady... Nestor, what in Hades happened to her?"

The flight commander pulled himself free, panting. "One of the techs saw her, called me... Said she looked like Boomer when he grabbed the Colonel and left... What was she saying?"

"That I was going with her. I've had eager women before, but none of 'em ever had to pull a laser to get me to go with 'em."

"Stow your ego and hang on to her. I'm calling life center." He grabbed the nearest telecom to contact security and medical.

Sheba suddenly sighed deeply and sagged in the pilot's arms.

"What...?"

Nestor knelt beside them, checking her pulse and eyes. Blackjack didn't dare loosen his grip.

"Seems unconscious," Nestor said briefly. "What in blazes is going on aboard this ship?"

Chapter X

Baltar twisted in his sleep, growling unintelligible curses at some unknown enemy. A drop of sweat slowly formed on his forehead and molded itself along the curve of his head, dampening several strands of thinning hair before spreading into oblivion on the pillow. He rolled again, flailing against the nightmare, then gasped and half-woke to stare at the ceiling above him.

The bed dais in the sleep chamber was brightly lit with a pair of spotlights; Baltar had a well-developed fear of the dark. Light would keep the shadow-stalking demons away from him. On the base ship, when he still had some favor from the Imperious Leader and had the mission of capturing or destroying the Galactica, he had kept extra illumination gleaming on his command pedestal. The exile on Adama's planet had reinforced and magnified his fear of darkness. During his waking centars on this asteroid base, he lived in a pool of light in his command bunker; occasionally he would stare at the stars in the night sky, but never for long, and the view almost always raised a shudder in him these days. Even at night when he was asleep and couldn't rationally know the difference, he refused to be left in the dark.

After a few moments, the human sighed deeply and lay still, subconsciously reassured. His eyes closed again and Baltar faded into another sleep cycle.

In the brightness, a gleaming Cylon climbed the steps to the bed in absolute, well-oiled silence. The machine observed its supposed master for several more centons, then extended its arm; the hand opened with the tiniest of clicks, and a read-out screen and silvery injector jutted into view. With its free hand, the Cylon pulled on the clear tube. Piping unrolled as the machine lay the clear tube on Baltar's forehead, his only currently exposed skin. After a moment, information began flashing across the accompanying screen. Satisfied, the Cylon set the injector on the human's skin; as if alive, it slowly and painlessly penetrated, instantly numbing whatever nerves it touched. Baltar frowned and muttered, but didn't wake as alien machinery probed his body from within.

Its data and samples collected, the Cylon withdrew the injector and lifted the medical examination reader. With the miniature equipment rehidden in its wrist, the Centurion turned and left as quietly and secretly as it had arrived.

Baltar slept on.

It's out of my hands now. I'm here for the good of our people, our few survivors, to make Adama's job easier – and yes, to make mine more bearable, more exciting. But if I lose my crew, the battle ends. And the glory is gone, my way of fighting is gone.

Cain pondered as he strolled the bridge. True, he hated the idea of going back to the fleet and living the way the Colonists now did. But maybe it would just be for a little while, like the last two times. Stay with the fleet long enough to reassure their people, to ease Adama's burden, to let his people rest and recover from their strain, maybe exchange supplies and crew, and enjoy the few amenities of the fleet and the adulation of the people who knew his value – unlike the Council, which had seemed determined to leash him. But he would never be their pet hero. Let them find someone else to be the military pawn in their political games.

Stay a while with the fleet. Then be off again.

Maybe even find the aliens, later, when his people were rested and ready. Start searching anew for the missing Delphian ships, of whom they had so far found no trace. Surely Adama knew the value of their current mission now that Cain had demonstrated how well it could work; it was just a matter of timing their departures and planning returns...

"Commander!" Tolan stared down at Cain in confusion. "Report from the launch bay! Viper Tech Edric just saw Captain Orestes and Captain Apollo get into one of our Delphian-adapted Raiders! And Colonel Kleopatra was with them!"

"What?" Cain strode across the bridge and up the steps. His swagger stick slammed to the console as he leaned over to peer past his flight officer's shoulder. He had talked to Kleopatra only centons before...

Col. Kenji was still on duty, but stepped aside at once as Cain took personal command.

"Commander!" came from Corp. Memnon, at communications. "One of our Delphian Raiders just launched without clearance! The same one Edric reported the warriors in–"

"Get me that ship!" barked Cain.

"They are not responding!" Memnon yelled back.

Cain took the comm control. "Orestes, Apollo, just what do you think you're doing? Return to this ship at once."

There was no response of any kind.

"Gentlemen," he said ominously, "you are disobeying a direct order. That puts you in mutiny."

Still nothing.

"Commander," Tolan informed him, "the Raider is making best speed away from us, direction Sigma sector, course five-six-three."

"Call an alert, get our warriors into space," the commander ordered, leaving the line open so the mutinous warriors would know exactly what they were getting into. "Any patrol in the area, follow that ship, be prepared to defend yourselves. Corporal, keep the comm open in case they come to their senses."

Dr. Helena's words freshened in his memory.

"Psychological distress resulting from the long separation from their families and friends and lack of contact with what's left of our society. Unpredictable reactions from those affected..."

Orestes and Apollo? He couldn't believe it of either of them.

"Where's Electra?" he demanded abruptly. If anyone could talk to the missing men, it would be her.

"She and Akimi are on patrol, not expected back for centars – and in the opposite direction as the Raider is fleeing."

"Who's in Sigma sector?"

"Starbuck and Astarte – Orestes changed the patrol roster, they just went out–"

"Damn!" He knew enough about his people to realize those two would never fire on a ship containing Orestes and Apollo. And there was Kleopatra to consider. "Inform them the Raider is coming their way."

The alarm klaxons wailed their warning. But in one billet, it might as well have been a winter morning, buried in snow, for the quiet. The three Raggane pilots of Bronze Wing stared at nothing, slack-jawed, and ignored all outside stimuli. The feeling had come back too fast, before they could even try to escape the pain and fight off the sudden commands in their brains. After that first overpowering touch, they simply waited. Capt. Heimdal, tall and red-haired, his temple braids hanging nearly to his waist, his eyes as sharp but emotionless as a stabbing blade. His wife, Lt. Sif, her blonde hair uncharacteristically loose and still damp from the turbo-shower she'd been taking. Sgt. Scyld, his brassy red head slightly tilted as if to hear better, habitually rubbing the end of one of his braids.

Heimdal took Sif's hand. "We must go now," he said flatly. "Scyld," he continued without looking at the other man, "go ahead. We will stay a moment longer, then depart. You must gather a mate and follow."

Scyld nodded unseeingly and left his superiors' quarters.

Heimdal and Sif went straight to the launch bay. In the general alert, no one paid any real attention. When they launched without clearance, however, Cain's cold fury nearly sent several of his bridge officers diving for cover under their duty stations. Even Kenji raised an eyebrow and decided silence was the better part of discretion for the moment.

Sgt. Falstaff heard the alarm, and rose from the ready room bunk. But a voice in his head overrode the instinct. He settled back on the mattress, ignoring the rush from the chamber. In a moment, he was alone, listening to the whisper of other orders that took priority over everything his brain tried to argue. There would be a proper centon to act, but now he had to wait.

"Falstaff! What's with you? C'mon, that's a general alert!"

"Right behind you." The words came out of a mouth under someone else's control.

Trent was gone, the last of the Silver Spar pilots to answer the alert.

The sergeant waited for the right moment.

Neither of them paid any attention to her once they'd launched. A single murmured comment, which sounded like a navigation course, and they were on their way in silence. Kleopatra watched both men warily. They hadn't shackled her, and now seemed to ignore her completely. So she waited for an opportunity; she knew how to fly the adapted Raiders, after all – she made a point of being up to date on ship models, even if she didn't often have the chance to fly them.

Orestes and Apollo hadn't hurt anybody in their progress to the bay and launching, although she'd been worried that Edric would try to interfere when the tech saw them pass. She'd gestured him off warningly; he'd understood and backed off, obviously to contact Cain and security.

They heard Cain's attempts to speak to them. The captains acted as though they didn't hear.

They soon left the Pegasus behind, apparently without pursuit. She knew that couldn't be true; there had to be people behind them, and likely a waiting committee ahead from current patrols. She wished she could predict how the captains would react to that. They didn't act like they would even consider surrender; she was afraid they would fire on their own friends, and then Cain would have no choice but to order an attack on them...

A silver streak appeared in the stars just ahead of them, then another. Before she knew it, a half-dozen silver ships had taken position around them. It was the aliens, back again, and she suddenly realized they must have some other purpose for the humans. Light flared from the alien vessels, and Kleopatra lost consciousness with a gasp of pain.

"Commander-Baltar. We-are-detecting-Colonial-vessels-in-Sigma-quadrant. Shall-we-launch-an-intercept?" The Centurion waited dispassionately for the official order.

"Yes..." Just awake enough, Baltar threw himself out of bed and grabbed clothing; he was ready in a centon. "Double the standard intercept team. Tell them to bring those pilots back alive, or don't come back at all!"

"By-your-command."

Another sighting! Maybe this time the witless Cylons would bring back the prisoners he so desperately wanted and needed. His enthusiasm ignited in spite of his pessimism, Baltar waited impatiently. This could be his ducat back to power and wealth in the Cylon Alliance.

Starbuck stared frantically at the darkness around his Viper, hoping against hope that something would appear. There had been nothing on his scanners, forward or rear, and he was seriously beginning to doubt that Apollo and Orestes had come this way. And yet, the Pegasus continued to insist the runaway warriors and their prisoner had been on course through this quadrant before they vanished from the battlestar's scanners.

"There's nothing here!" he heard the frustrated cry of his wingman. He knew Sgt. Astarte had a personal stake in this too; Orestes had made it quite clear that they had a relationship of some depth, even if he wasn't ready to commit yet.

What had happened? He and Astarte had left on patrol right after he spoke to Orestes; his half-brother had seemed fine, if a bit preoccupied, and had immediately gone off to talk to Apollo. Now both of them had gone off the deep end. What had provoked it? Why had they kidnapped the colonel too? And there was the guilty fascination with the idea that it might have been him. His problems with Apollo, followed by involving Orestes. Had that somehow set it off? And Lords of Kobol, if they couldn't be located and stopped or made to see reason...

"Lieutenant Starbuck."

He jerked in his seat. He hadn't noticed the approach of two more Vipers. The new pair slipped into position in front of him.

"Captain Heimdal! What..."

"I am assuming command of this team. Continue to follow us."

The voice was oddly inflected, but Starbuck reminded himself the man was Sagittaran, and Raggane to boot. And he hadn't really had time to get to know how all of the pilots would react in every situation.

"Uh, yes, sir. But I believe Memnon reported you had launched without clearance..."

"That's been taken care of. Let's go. We have to locate our people."

"Yes, sir!" Somehow, Starbuck felt better.

The mood faded a centon later when a score of Cylon Raiders took shape against the starfield, surrounding them.

"Cylons!" Astarte's warning cry, a micron too late.

"We'll sweep left..." he began to offer, his ship already arcing away.

"Negative." Heimdal's voice was flat. "We will surrender."

"What!" Starbuck yelped in shock.

Astarte gasped in dismay, but there was no comment from the captain's wingmate.

"That is an order, Lieutenant," came a stern response. "We will be in no danger if we surrender now."

He's insane, they're insane, that's why...

But that moment's exchange had been a moment too long. The Colonials were surrounded; there was no place for them to go, even if they had wanted to fight. Starbuck fought his heart back down his throat, trying to decide which way to go to take as many of the enemy with him as possible. He would die a warrior, even if these lunatics–

"Surrender-humans," came over the headset on unicom. The Cylon sounded as strange as Heimdal; maybe the entire universe had gone surreal.

"We surrender." He felt contempt at Heimdal's words.

"Follow-us-to-base. Commander-Baltar-will-speak-with-you."

Baltar? Baltar! He's here? For a shot at him...

For a shot at Baltar, he had to live long enough to get at the man. Starbuck bit down his pride and the wild instinct to fight. If he was going to die anyway, maybe there was a way to take that most hated traitor with him. At the least, he would take a few laser shots at the Cylon base before they blew him out of the stars; it would help the fleet, if they were still in this quadrant. Feigning defeat, he fell into position and obeyed the Cylon command.

"We've lost contact with the patrol," Tolan reported somberly. "The last cockpit communication shows Heimdal and Sif had hooked up with Starbuck and Astarte, and they were surrounded by Cylons."

The bridge hushed.

"Destroyed?" Cain demanded harshly.

The flight officer almost didn't dare answer. He looked down for a moment before saying, "Captain Heimdal ordered the others to surrender, sir. It sounded like ... they obeyed."

Grief boiled into disbelief on numerous faces.

"Surrendered!" The commander was as stunned and outraged as the rest. Colonial warriors didn't surrender. Pegasus warriors didn't surrender. Cain's people didn't surrender. They fought hopeless odds and they sometimes died, but they didn't surrender.

Tolan realized his hands were cold and trembling. "There was some mention of ... Baltar, Commander, of them having to speak ... to Baltar."

"Baltar?" Cain was nonplused.

"Yes, sir."

Baltar... Alive? Free? Here?

Maybe there's a reason... That's got to be it, that's the only reason. They have to be after him, that's the only explanation...

But they can't have him, he's mine...

Cain stared at the fore viewport, uncharacteristically speechless. After a moment he roused from the unnerving silence. "Stand by; continue to monitor all channels. All pilots to remain at ready status. We may have company soon."

He dropped into silence again, hooded gaze fixed on the screen, mind a million metrons away. The crew tiptoed and whispered their way through the rest of the duty shift; when Cain was silent, who knew what might happen next?

The alert had been short, but all pilots were to remain on the alert in their ready rooms. That was an inconvenience. Most personnel were at station; there were no rushing crowds of pilots and technicians to hide among or choose from. Scyld felt disoriented as he roamed the empty corridors, looking for someone who fit the image in his mind.

"Sergeant, aren't you supposed to be on alert?"

Time, time was against him. Scyld turned to study the woman. Could she be the one? Memory supplied her name – Castalia. A lieutenant in communications. Young enough, sturdy, well-formed, attractive, intelligent. Her tribe was Scorpian, with no Sagittan or Caprican mixture, thus different enough in bloodline from the others. She fit the list of required qualities, yet another mental voice, his own, protested. Too distant, cold in personality.

He shook his head.

"Not suitable. I wish another."

Scyld strode away, leaving Castalia perplexed and somewhat affronted.

A familiar form leaned over the computer mainframe. Sgt. Falstaff stared yearningly at the figure thus displayed, and sighed. He had always thought Sapphire to be the most beautiful woman on the Pegasus. Even in this odd light with warning klaxons sounding at regular intervals. Not too tall, long black waves of hair, longer legs, eyes as blue as the gems of her name. She had never noticed him. Not that he'd ever had the courage to speak to the computer technician.

But now he had his orders. And she was the most perfect woman available to fill the role.

"Sapphire." He wished he didn't have to use his laser to win her company.

She glanced at him. "What is it, Sergeant?" Her eyes widened as she noted the weapon.

"Please come with me." Her voice was as soft as her name and face. She was perfect.

Fire struck his side, and consciousness fled the warrior.

The computer technician dashed to the side of the fallen warrior and stooped to check for a pulse. In the open hatchway behind Falstaff, Maj. Daniel and Sgt. Foster of security stood braced as though to defend against an invasion, weapons at the ready.

"Sir? What's going on?" the woman asked, staring up at the superior officer.

"That's not Scyld!" Foster exclaimed.

"I can see that!" Daniel snapped. "Foster, stay here. Call life center for him – and tell Barin I'm going after the crazy Raggane."

Then the major was gone and the sergeant was left standing guard over the comp tech and the unconscious warrior. Sapphire glanced at the security officer with questions in her eyes.

"We got word that a couple of pilots had disappeared from their ready room," he explained, glancing out the hatch every few microns. "One of the bridge crew said Scyld was acting strange and we better find him before anything else happened. The whole ship's going crazy! And you better get life center and security holding central, let them know what happened here."

"He said I was to go with him."

"We heard. Fits with what Scyld was doing."

The wall telecom suddenly beeped a code. Foster answered.

Daniel's voice came through clearly. "Sergeant Scyld is in custody, and is being taken to life center. Meet Lieutenant Barin there as soon as you've delivered Sergeant Falstaff; he's setting up the security guard over the prisoners."

Foster couldn't help wincing, and he saw the same concern on the comp tech's face. Warriors were prisoners. They were acting wildly, needing to be confined to life center and guarded. What was happening on their ship?

Dr. Salik did his work as efficiently as always. Cmdr. Adama hovered near Sheba's life pod as if she were his flesh-and-blood daughter. Cassiopeia stayed near, sometimes taking the unconscious woman's hand as if the touch would help. Nestor and Blackjack stood solemnly in the background. In the private cubicle of the Galactica's life center, only a muted hum of activity penetrated from outside. On the other side of the hatch, two black-shirted security officers kept discrete guard on the warrior who had pulled a weapon and threatened another pilot.

"What happened, Nestor?" Adama finally asked, turning to his flight commander.

Nestor drew a deep breath and squared his shoulders. "I don't know, sir. I got a call from Komma, saying she'd passed by the computer core at a fast walk, but her hands were ... jerking, he said, and she kept looking from side to side as if she were looking for something, but didn't know what. She didn't answer when he called. I tracked her down as she was apparently about to kidnap Lieutenant Blackjack."

Adama's gaze strayed to the other pilot, who shrugged and managed not to look too embarrassed, and kept any comments to himself.

"We overpowered her and brought her here."

The commander nodded and turned back to the life pod, sending a questioning look at his CMO.

Salik didn't have much to tell him as he left the cubicle to order more tests and observation. "She doesn't seem injured in any way, Adama. Just ... unconscious, apparently in deep sleep."

"Where was she before her strange behavior?" the commander asked the air, not expecting any answer, after the heavy-set doctor left.

"She may have been in the celestial observation chamber," Cassiopeia said softly.

"What?"

"I spoke to her a few moments after the flight replacement briefing. She said she was going to the chamber to think a little. She goes there a lot these days." The med tech didn't add the rest, that Sheba was fixated on Apollo, and convinced that she could somehow communicate with his spirit or find inspiration and peace in the place that had been his favorite getaway.

Adama frowned. It had been hard enough rousing from the alternating empty fury and equally empty apathy to respond to the current situation. He was also now required to think of a solution, to find the words that would take the lurking fear and uncertainly from these people's minds.

The celestial observation chamber. That's where all this started. Sheba first insisted that she sensed spirits there, before she and Cassie went to the Rising Star ghost-hunting.

It's likely nothing. But it'll give them something to think about, something to do. And maybe there is something to it, maybe she found something there, chemical taint, old support vapors, pressurization leak, an answer...

Adama didn't want to think past that. He went to the door. "Reese!" he called. "Send a security team to the upper celestial observation chamber, with a repair and electronics specialty team. Take the dome apart if you have to. If there's anything there, find it. Report back to me."

"Right away, sir." The officer strode away on his assignment.

Nestor had reports to prepare, and Blackjack was due for a patrol. In a few centons, they also left. Adama and Cassiopeia waited with the shallowly-breathing woman.

Shortly thereafter, another person entered the ward.

"President Tinia," Adama acknowledged wearily.

"Commander Adama." She inclined her head slightly, studying the lines of pain on his face. "May I have a moment to speak with you?"

He glanced at Sheba and the med tech, then nodded and stepped out with Tinia. "What new problem troubles the Council?" he asked as soon as they were out of hearing.

She shook her head. "No problem this time, Adama. I merely wished ... to offer my support and presence at this difficult time."

He could almost mock the words. "Is that by Council mandate, that I have one of you always at my side to oversee my actions, in these 'difficult times'?"

The regal president of the Council hid the hurt his words caused. "No, that is my personal offer. But ... I think you need someone. You can confide in me without worry, and certainly there is good reason for our military and civilian leaders to work together when things are so ... disorienting to us all."

A tear smarted in his eye. He hadn't let himself realize what Tigh's loss could mean, nor had he truly grieved for Apollo and Starbuck's deaths.

"I thank you, Madam President ... Tinia. Your support ... and advice ... would be most welcome." They clasped wrists; the woman tried not to flinch at the strength of the man's grip.

Chapter XI

The Cylons confiscated Starbuck's laser pistol almost before his Viper had grated to a halt in the Cylon landing bay. Two of the enemy held his arms for the body search; they took the computron, hand-held communicator, and the knife he had taken to carrying concealed in his boot. Baltar was obviously taking no chances with them.

As they shackled his wrists behind his back, he caught glimpses of his fellow pilots being similarly searched and restrained. The lunatic Sagittaran couple were standing docilely enough, looking very patient and unconcerned. Astarte was white-faced and apparently near hyper-ventilation from fear or shock. He expected he was nearly as pale. Funny, he thought bitterly, Heimdal and Sif didn't seem to realize what their probable fate now was.

A force screen maintained the atmospheric integrity of the bay. Beyond the massive shielded door through which they'd flown to enter, Starbuck could see the barren landscape of an airless world, and the cold, unblinking stars in the dark sky above.

So no escape out there. We'd need atmosphere suits, and a Cylon base like this might not have anything we humans could use. And no air, water, or food to live on if we did get outside. Even if we had suits, we'd need to get a ship in a few centars – all the Cylons would have to do is hold us off that long, and we'd suffocate out there...

If we escape, we'll have to go through the base, and past however many guards are between this bay and the holding cells. That's assuming we aren't executed in the next few centons.

Nah. If Baltar's really here, he'll have other plans for us. And a lot of questions...

I shoulda blasted my way in here. Just cut loose with the lasers and blown the insides out. Let 'em know that telling me where to go is bad strategy. Course, I wouldn't be here any more. Either I'd'a gone out in a fireball with the rest of the base, or they'd have picked me off with their anti-assault guns. That might not have been so bad. I wouldn't have to face Baltar again.

His thoughts of escape or attack didn't include Heimdal and Sif, he realized, but didn't much care. If they wanted to rot in Cylon custody, they were welcome to.

Unless they're turning traitor...? Lords, no! What if they plan to sell out? Can't let that happen, gotta see what they do and say now, maybe there's a reason, gotta stop 'em if there isn't... Maybe I shoulda blown the place. I was the last to land, we'd've all gone out together, their plans wouldn't be a problem anymore.

His brooding was interrupted by a Cylon laser rifle between his shoulder blades. He fell into step with the others as ordered. The four prisoners were taken to a turbolift, under guard. The lift dropped unknown levels into the asteroid.

Baltar studied each of the prisoners thoroughly, letting his eyes linger insultingly on them for long centons. He had the time; he was entitled, after this long, to revel in his shackled captives. At least the Cylons had finally accomplished that much.

All four wore the insignia of the battlestar Pegasus. He didn't know the one team. Both wore the braids of one of those odd Sagittaran sects; he couldn't recall which one, nor did he care. The man was a stoic-expressioned redhead, the woman an attractive blonde but blank-eyed as if mindless.

He took more time to savor the other prisoners. He recognized them both from the past. Ah, the times he'd dreamed of properly "rewarding" Starbuck for their past encounters, on the basestar, on the Galactica, at the tribunal... And Astarte, pale with fear but holding up well – he would make sure she remembered their prior meeting! Seeing them at his mercy almost made up for a multitude of the ills inflicted upon him by their commanders.

And he must ensure their commanders knew every detail of their interrogation and demise! Or would it be of greater enjoyment and benefit to keep the prisoners alive for a time, after their questioning? How would Adama and Cain react if they knew he had broken and tamed two of their finest? Baltar decided he would ask those two estimable opponents, before destroying them.

"Do we need to ask what you want from us?" Starbuck finally demanded.

Baltar only smiled, enjoying the stress the man's words revealed.

"So eager, Starbuck?" he leered. "But what brings you to be my guests? Not satisfied with Cain's hospitality? I'm not surprised, I wasn't either."

"Actually, we heard you were having a party and we couldn't resist crashing the gate," the lieutenant retorted sarcastically.

"Starbuck." Heimdal's one word, flatly delivered, silenced him. Alone, he might have exchanged barbs with Baltar all day, but the captain had reminded him of the duty of silence in captivity.

Baltar sniggered, knowing quite well what was going on in Starbuck's mind. "Indeed! Well, I'm so happy you found time in your social life to attend my 'party.' It's in your honor, after all! But I see you've changed your company, Starbuck. You must be developing better taste, in your final days, to have abandoned your captain."

Starbuck flushed at that, reminded of too many things, and bit his lower lip to avoid the bitter retorts that still showed in his eyes. That was a pity; Baltar had hoped for another revealing outburst, perhaps explaining how he had come to be among Cain's people.

"No threats? No quick witticisms for your old friend Baltar? Or is it that Captain Apollo has finally met his proper reward as well? And taken your wits with him?" Baltar jabbed, not certain if he would be elated or disappointed if Apollo were dead.

Pain replaced anger in the prisoner's eyes, followed as quickly by thoughtfulness. However, he held his tongue.

Baltar caught a restless sidestep by Astarte, but the other two seemed content merely to wait him out. A flash of annoyance ran through him; almost like Cylons, the way they stood so impassively... Or did they hold some other secret, that they were unafraid of him?

"I'll have to tender my sympathies to Commander Adama, the next time we meet," he drawled with affected gravity. He smiled again, content to gloat; anticipation was to be savored. "Assuming he survives to acknowledge me the victor when he is finally beaten. After we have finished our business together, Starbuck. And I have not forgotten you, Astarte. Red so becomes you, I must see you more property attired and crowned. I'm looking forward to more than one battle. At the moment, however, I have other things to tend to. Centurions, take them to the holding cells. For now."

The four Cylons herded them out. He caught Astarte glancing his way, then swallowing hard and turning away when she saw him watching her. He could tell Starbuck was deliberately refusing to look back, but wanted to. The other two – whose names he realized he still didn't know – simply walked out like automatons.

Just to further unnerve Starbuck, Baltar started laughing. The warrior's back stiffened as he froze for a micron, but he didn't turn around.

On the bridge of the Pegasus, tension hung in the air. The centars stretched on like eternal Hades. The passing centons were ages to be faced, leaving nothing in memory to recall as each dwindled into the immediate past. The crew prayed silently and in their own fashions, for the safety of their absent comrades, for inspiration to touch their commander, for a call to battle, for anything that would shatter the spiraling strain on their minds and psyches. The crew all knew that something dark and deadly was going on in their commander's thoughts. Cain's swagger stick, the symbol he was never without, lay abandoned on the flight officer's console. Such a rare occurrence had to be noted, and had to have serious meaning.

Cain waited, ensconced on the command deck like a hidden predator, refusing to leave his lair. The four who had encountered Baltar's Cylons and apparently surrendered were gone, with no further communications. There was no word from the fugitive warriors, nothing to indicate their fate, whether they had escaped or also fallen victim to the Cylons.

Cain waited through the change of duty shifts. Kenji and Tolan stayed with him, needing to know what would happen next, ready for battle or to assist their commander, afraid to draw attention to themselves by walking away. Below, however, the crew changed, blue and brown uniforms moving in a carefully choreographed ritual of position exchange. Lygia replaced Memnon at core communications; Argus took Senmut's place at navigation; Castalia returned, unshaken by the near-kidnaping; Mriko shook her head when Agni appeared for his shift at scanners, preferring to remain on duty, until Kenji nodded at his wife to go. All of them, and the rest, came and left with muted voices and steps; there was none of the usual banter and vocal reports as crewmen double-checked their position and status before settling in.

Cain waited, ignoring them all. Waves of hatred and fury washed through his soul. He fed from every one of them, letting each crest and ebb as he considered his options. The flames chilled, frosted over, and turned to ice as the tactician endured the surges of emotion. When it became obvious they were not to be attacked, he could turn his attention to longer-range plans than surviving the day. Then the passion had to be stilled and caged so that cold, rational thought could bring forth a plan.

The crew had no way of following the path of Cain's thoughts, nor did they want to, after a look at his face, at the empty hands gripping the railing, centon after centon. The swagger stick lay forlorn; Tolan couldn't take his eyes off it. It was better than meeting the demon in Cain's eyes.

At his own discretion, Daniel dispatched a full warriorscore to stand guard on the bridge as well as in life center; the commander scarcely seemed to notice that, either, as the armed and armored men and women took siege positions.

"Nothing on scan," Agni reported automatically, his loud voice breaking the whispering silence for the first time in three centars. At the sudden attention on him, the sergeant hunched his slender shoulders and slouched down in his chair.

"Thank you, Sergeant," the commander replied, rousing himself to speak for the first time in those centars.

The tension snapped in universal relief.

Cain turned his attention to his current second. "Well, Kenji, it appears we won't be hearing from our missing warriors, nor will we be the object of an immediate Cylon attack."

Kenji nodded. "So it seems, Commander."

"Then I believe it is time we prepared an attack of our own."

Kenji studied Cain with slightly raised eyebrows, and let a smile touch his lips as a spark ignited in his dark eyes. "Indeed, sir."

Cain glanced at the viewport. "We've been studying this base for far too long. Now we're going to take it, and save our people, if we can. As soon as Major Electra returns, I want to see her. For now, take command."

There were so many things to think about, but the one foremost in his mind was Baltar. It was Baltar's base they were about to attack. This time, the traitor would not escape. A time for revenge had finally come.

"And where shall I say you wish to see her?" Kenji asked.

"Unless you hear otherwise, I'll be in life center. I have a few things to discuss with Doctor Helena."

Cain reached automatically for his swagger stick. One sharp rap across his palm, and he strode down the steps. Kenji squared his shoulders with anticipation. Tolan sighed in relief. Lygia barely stifled a nervous giggle. The legend had reclaimed his pride; things would be all right. The air of relief was more of a battle already won than a fight soon to come.

Helena stared at her hands, not even trying to control their trembling. The long, pale fingers shook visibly. She rubbed her hands together; it brought no return of warmth. The doctor was glad she had no surgery waiting. When she remembered the circumstances that made surgery impossible, a shudder racked shoulders as beyond control as the hands. She forced it down, schooled her face back to calm with an effort.

It had been a fluke that they'd found anything at all. One of the med techs had noticed the bare micron's fluctuation in Sgt. Falstaff's brainwave pattern – Galswintha, of course, who could be counted on to notice things no one else could detect. Beej was the one who had found the source, the lightest shadow of webbing on the brain scan. There was something in Falstaff's head, maybe woven into his very synapses, something they would never have found but for one med tech's insistence that something had to be wrong, and one doctor's willingness to spend a full centar studying an apparently normal brain scan.

There was nothing similar in Sgt. Scyld's head, thank the Lords.

Her medical team had been the best in the fleet. She'd stake her life or anyone else's on that fact. The thing in Falstaff's head was beyond any of their experience or skill. They didn't know what it was or what it did, and they had no way to remove it.

Beej had taken Falstaff into surgery for an exploratory; maybe he could learn something.

Scyld was now under sedation and restraint. If that wasn't enough, security was standing by to take whatever action was needed.

Someone stepped into her office. Helena glanced at him. The cool facade was real this time, if her icy fingers were any indication. It was Beej; he must have completed the procedure.

"Yes, Beej? Anything more?"

He nodded somberly. "I think so. Still nothing on the composition of the stuff, but it's not a growth, nothing natural. Has to have been put there. Very sophisticated. From the position of the webbing, I'd say it's affecting several brain centers, particularly the area of will. It may also be feeding new motor commands. The way it's woven into the brain, I have no idea how it was implanted. We certainly can't remove it."

Helena sighed lightly. "Anything else."

"Yes." He grimaced, rubbing his stubbled chin and taking a deep breath. "I had Galswintha pull the files on our fugitives for some comparisons. Knowing what to look for, we finally found a connection among all of them."

"What?" She finally focused her attention entirely on Beej.

"The same shadow existed on the brain scans of Captain Apollo, Captain Orestes, Captain Heimdal, Lieutenant Sif, Sergeant Falstaff, and Lieutenant Boomer of the Galactica. Thanks to Winna's sharp eyes... Nothing before their captivity among the aliens, but present in all of them afterward – and only in them, we cross-checked with others of our people on the off chance that it might be some new symptom of emotional disorder. Nothing in anybody else, healthy or otherwise. Can't speak for Boomer, but I have the distinct feeling that certain of the recent odd behaviors of our people could be directly traceable to this."

"The aliens," Helena murmured. "They sent our people back to us, but changed ... controlled." She leaned back, eyebrows lightly furrowed.

"It would fit with the removal of the contraceptives from Heimdal and Sif – the same medical technology could be capable of both. We did the usual check-up, but didn't find anything, so we accepted our own verdict and congratulated ourselves on getting off lucky. There were no scars of surgery, so we didn't even look further. We didn't realize what a superior technology could have done to our people that we couldn't detect." He sounded bitter. They'd let their people down, failed men and women who trusted them; who knew what the final cost of that would be?

"But it doesn't explain Scyld; he must be suffering some other psychological stress..."

"That's entirely possible," the other doctor replied steadily.

"Helena? Beej?" The dark woman hesitated at the door, pushing her hair back from her face.

"Yes, Galswintha."

"Sergeant Scyld is awake. He has no memory of his actions the past few centars beyond an urge to find somebody and then go looking for somebody else. The last thing he definitely recalls is stopping by Heimdal and Sif's quarters to discuss the new roster now that ... since Sif was going to take maternity reassignment."

"Heimdal and Sif's quarters..." That was a new twist, maybe a bad one. Foreboding reached up Helena's spine, warning, warning... She knew she'd better not ignore it. She glanced out the panel into the main life center chamber. Two security men stood at attention near Scyld's life pod, while Cadmus, the biggest person on the medical staff, almost twice Scyld's size and all of it muscle, leaned him over him for some test or other.

Security. Maybe she'd better call Daniel and have his people check it out.

"At least we know something more than we did," Beej said, staring off into space.

"Do we really? And what good is it to know there's nothing we can do but stand in awe of some technologically superior beings' handiwork?"

"The Commander is here," Galswintha interrupted, glancing out the door. "Do you want to speak with him?"

"Yes."

She'd barely risen from her desk when Cain strode in. "Helena, how are the men? Have you figured out what's wrong and how to treat them?"

"We aren't even sure we can."

Cain fixed her with a bemused look. "Such an admission from you, Helena? I expected better of you."

"So do I," she returned coolly, pulling herself together. "But I think when you've heard everything, you'll understand."

"I'll understand later," he interrupted. "For now, you'd better get your medical teams to fully ready status. We'll be seeing some action soon." Before the woman could express the outrage and shock building in her expression, Cain continued with, "And then we'll be following our chief medical officer's advice and rejoining the fleet."

The unexpected announcement, delivered so casually, left the medical team standing agape as Cain strode away again as quickly as he'd arrived.

Maj. Daniel glanced around the neat, orderly room. The Raggane head of Bronze Wing and his wife had a reputation for neatness above and beyond the call of duty. It appeared to be true. There was not a speck of dusty or piece of paper out of order anywhere in the room. That should make the place easier to search; anything that didn't belong should stand out like an Otori at an old Gemonese harvest orgy.

He turned to Lt. Barin and Sgt. Pele, the officers assigned the search duty, each now in protective shielded suits, as he was. "We'll take the place apart if we have to. Report anything out of the ordinary, but don't touch it if you have any suspicions about it being dangerous."

With quiet acknowledgments, they scattered. Daniel began searching too, checking the shelves of the office, examining every item resting in its place. Nothing. He moved to the desk, quickly scanning the neat pile of print-outs waiting for the flight leader's attention. Then into the drawers.

"Major!" Barin's husky voice. "I found something."

Daniel moved swiftly into the bedchamber, Pele joining them a moment later.

Nestled in one of the underbed storage chests was a small silver object, ovate, with no visible seams or clasps of any kind. There were no markings, no color variations that they could detect in the room's lighting.

Pele risked setting her gloved fingers on the metallic egg, then carefully picked it up. "It's warm!" she said, startled, quickly setting it down on the floor.

"Warm, Hades! It's starting to smoke!" Barin hissed.

The three officers jumped back, ready to bolt, if there was time.

Daniel hit the telecom. "Damage control–"

Several thin wisps of smoke or steam curled upward. The egg-shape suddenly darkened as if burning, then crumbled away into dust. Only a round dark smudge of soot remained, marring the immaculate nape of the carpet.

"Commander!" A strangely pale Reese pelted down the corridor to join Adama. "The search of the celestial chamber... We found something, sir."

Adama had halted at Reese's call. He took a step forward. "What did you find?" he demanded tensely.

"A small oval device, apparently made of some silvery metal..."

"Yes?" Adama didn't try to hide the tension. "Has Wilker been able to analyze it?"

Reese shook his head. "He'd barely arrived in the celestial chamber when the device turned to a pile of ash."

"What?" the commander fired back.

"It became warm, then steamed or smoked for a micron, then just collapsed into ash."

"Like Thjis..."

Reese nodded his head. "That's what Dr. Wilker thought."

Adama stared past the security officer, eyes focusing on the wall as memories ran through his mind. Thjis. The human-shaped construct the aliens had sent among the Colonials to observe and kidnap. The machine that had self-destructed when faced with capture and examination. The android that inexplicably had cared that no humans be injured in its immolation.

Apollo had been a prisoner during that time, as had Boomer. They had come back, apparently uninjured, with memories of lengthy interrogations and little else. The celestial observation chamber had been his son's private sanctuary. Apollo's escape, which had concealed an alien device possibly of the same sentient beings' creation.

But Apollo was gone. And so was Boomer, with Colonel Tigh. Treason? Or mind control? And did it matter now? Sheba had been in the celestial chamber. Was she involved? How? Was there any way, now, for them to find the answers?

Dr. Beej paused in the middle of his inventory check. The supply review was unnecessary, as their computers kept track of inventory down to the last tube of suture-seal and the complete number of sterile injector needles on hand; even if the computers failed – and the ship still somehow survived – Helena ordered checks on an average of every few days as a precaution. This was only make-work, something to keep the medical staff occupied while they waited for the inevitable casualties that would result from the coming attack. No one would be affected if he failed to finish the check.

His mind hung poised beyond the battle, on the now tangible moment when the Pegasus and the Galactica would be reunited. A moment when he could meet Boxey again.

Without Apollo there to interfere.

Before the first fateful meeting at Gamoray, it had been two yahrens since he'd last talked to Serina, longer since they'd had time together. The war and their jobs had kept them apart. The family vacation they'd expected after the Cyrannus patrol had been canceled when the mission to Molecay came up, along with every other crewman's furlon. The Britannica had gone with the Fifth Fleet, and been destroyed, and it had been pure chance he'd survived to reach the Pegasus with the shuttle of injured, and stranger luck that Cain had somehow bought them all survival through everything that had happened since.

It had been so long even before Molecay... Seven sectons, he remembered, since he'd had time with Serina and Boxey. The boy had been a mere three yahrens old. It was no surprise Boxey hadn't recognized him at Gamoray, after three yahrens. For half his life, the boy hadn't seen his father, probably didn't even remember what he sounded or looked like.

What had been a surprise was hearing his son call Apollo "Father" the first time he'd gone aboard the Galactica. That had wounded him so badly he'd gone back to the Pegasus and not tried to see Boxey again, over those first few days. The pain had festered inside ever since.

Maybe it had been wrong and cruel to place any blame on Apollo; how could he have known? The Fifth Fleet had been presumed lost, why shouldn't Serina have remarried, as beautiful, alive, and passionate a woman as she was? Especially after the horrors of the Destruction? How could he be angry at her for finding some small happiness in the last days of her life?

But he did feel angry at her. It felt as though she'd betrayed him. With Apollo. And then died so he couldn't see her again or be with her or tell her he still loved her.

Leaving their son with another man.

The second time, when the aliens had taken Apollo and the others, he'd made a point of seeing Boxey, very carefully, very tentatively. The boy hadn't recognized him. But he had been glad for an adult who was willing to spend time with him. He was sure he'd won his son's trust and friendship. There hadn't been time to tell Boxey the truth before Cain had taken them away again. And maybe, with Apollo back again, Beej admitted to himself, he'd been afraid to tell either of the commanders, or press for his rightful custody. So he'd gone away, trying to forget, again.

It was amazing no one had realized. He had been relatively new aboard the Britannica, but there were several who made the connection between his wife Serina and the rising journalist of Caprica, especially when they saw her holo enshrined in his quarters. However, few of them had survived. Aboard the Pegasus, even fewer had known or cared. And by the time they reached the Galactica, she had been dead so long... Maybe it was part of the defense mechanism. Forget the dead as fast as you can and go on. Or maybe those who did know decided it was better left unsaid. Certainly Apollo had shown no awareness of his identity.

Beej sighed shakily. Guilt ate at his stomach. It was wrong to be glad the captain was gone, wrong to crave so desperately the chance to win his son's love back. He shoved it away. He hadn't caused Apollo to lose his mind; he had stood aside for long enough while Apollo kept Boxey; he had nothing to feel guilty about.

A genetic test would prove he was Boxey's father. Beyond that, the only tangible thing he had to remember Serina and their life by was a single holo. He'd grabbed it during the evacuation, carried it over his heart for the shuttle flight and most of those first rough days. The image of Serina and himself, with a very young toddler – Boxey at two.

He would have Boxey back. The right way. Carefully, lovingly. Renew the friendship first. Then, when the boy was ready, tell Adama the truth, bring Boxey to live with him. And when he was old enough to understand, or maybe when he started remembering, tell the truth to him, too. It would be all right. Somehow, it would work out.

Patrol had been a quick and convenient escape from the Pegasus – and any chance of encountering Apollo again – until Electra could sort out her emotions. In potential enemy territory, the old rules of maintaining general silence held, so there had been no communiques to interrupt her thoughts. But as she and Sgt. Akimi continued their long, silent patrol, nothing became settled in her mind.

Apollo wanted to seal with her. How that thought thrilled and terrified her. He was a wonderful man – handsome and intelligent, with a warm smile and a sensitive nature in the body of a warrior. A little stuffy at times, but that was to be expected from someone with his background and position. He could be persuaded to unwind when they were together. They might even be able to make a life together. She was attracted to him on many levels, had been since the day they met. She had almost risked Sheba's friendship to pursue that interest.

But Lords, she wasn't sure sealing was in the deck for her!

After all, look at the life her mother had led. Antigone had spent an entire life wanting only one man, the one man who had eluded her; she had never sealed to anyone, and had in the end been very bitter about men and marriage. She'd often told her children that the old sealing rituals were unnecessary, useless relics of a darker age, merely a way of forcing people to stay together even after they no longer wanted to, that the only people who bothered to marry were those who were too weak to stand alone or too snared in romantic fantasy to realize with what kind of chains they were binding themselves.

So she justified herself, when all she'd wanted was Chameleon to be hers forever.

Electra knew her mother's life had impacted on her feelings about marriage. She'd certainly been asked before! Three of the proposals had even been serious. And each had sent her racing in the opposite direction in cold fear, the only things she could recall that had ever sent her running in terror. She hadn't been interested in staying with any of those three – or any of the other men she had known – on any long-term basis, much less the lifetime and the eternities the sealing ceremony spoke of.

And if they ever returned to the fleet, as Cain had said, how would Sheba react to finding them sealed? Sheba and Apollo had been close; she remembered Sheba's accusations, this might seem to confirm them.

But thinking about the past wouldn't help find an answer today. And Sheba wasn't the issue. Did she want to marry Apollo? For today and tomorrow and all the eternities? She was sure Apollo was speaking of that kind of sealing, the old Caprican, ancient-and-forever rituals that supposedly went back to their motherworld, to the Lords of Kobol, not one of the less permanent bondings recognized on some Worlds. Sealing forever. She wasn't sure...

The centars had vanished without her realizing it. The Pegasus appeared on her scanners, then took visual shape before her.

Lygia seemed unusually somber as she gave landing confirmation. In the landing bay, she found Commander Cain waiting for her, a grim expression deepening the carved-stone lines of his face. His eyes pierced her, searching for clues of her feelings, for some reaction to his presence.

"Major."

"What is it, Commander?" It had to be a problem.

"Electra, we've had a serious situation develop while you were gone."

She met his eyes, a slight, worried frown puckering her forehead.

Cain paused, apparently considering his words with care. Then, "Come with me to the decontamination area. I can debrief you after the drill. This ... is personal."

She took it well, Cain thought, studying his flight officer. Pale, but unbeaten; a little wobbly perhaps, but hiding it behind a set face.

It hadn't been easy, questioning her about what she might know about Orestes's actions – and Apollo's, considering their current... relationship. Then finally responding to her barely-concealed anxiety, and telling her they were gone, and Kleopatra with them; and Starbuck and Astarte following, with Heimdal and Sif's equally inexplicable actions, and Scyld and Falstaff's. Then the device found in the flight leader's quarters...

Too much. It was too much to explain or to understand in one stunned moment. He wondered if it had penetrated her thoughts that they would be attacking Baltar's base in less than a day.

"Lords of Kobol... So many... Orestes and Starbuck... The others... Lords, Apollo..."

She turned away for a moment.

"Electra?" Cain asked. Certainly the loss of her brothers this way had been dreadful. He also knew Apollo's loss must hurt. Add the fact that the other missing pilots had also been friends, and it was quite possible the woman was on the verge of an emotional breakdown – assuming Helena's assessment of the crew's current situation was correct. "What about Apollo?"

"This morning he asked me to seal with him," she replied steadily.

Cain froze in a momentary chill of anger. Apollo and Electra...? But Sheba...? He ended that line of thought as brutally as he could; he knew he had no right to think of that just now. Sheba had turned Apollo away, he was entitled to seek comfort elsewhere, even from the flight commander. And now Electra would have to grieve for a lost love.

But he would soon see his baby again, when they rejoined the Galactica. He found himself craving that homecoming, poor as it was against the Destruction of their Worlds. The fleet. Old friends. Home. His little Sheba.

After the battle.

"We'll be attacking at seven hundred. Will you be ready to lead the squadrons? Or do I need another flight leader for tomorrow?" That gave him pause. Today he'd lost Heimdal, Orestes, and Apollo. Half the experienced flight leaders of his crew were gone.

"I'll be ready, sir." Her chin was firmly in the air. He knew she would be up to the job.

Nodding briskly, he left the major to her grieving, eager to be back on his bridge again, eager to see his world put back in order by his own commands.

Alone, Electra numbly made her way back to quarters to catch a nap before the planned attack, and to try and prepare herself mentally. She found her thoughts on Apollo, not Orestes or Starbuck or preparing for battle. He was gone. There would be no sealing, no questions to work out about an uncertain future. Now that he was gone, she didn't have to think about him anymore.

But now she wanted him more than ever. Wasn't that the way it always was? They were most missed when they were gone forever. Until that point, one never knew what pain they could inflict by their mere absence. At that moment, she would gladly have given her life to have Apollo back, to seal with him for all the eternities, and never have looked back.

"Apollo," she breathed his name, alone in her achingly empty bed. All of too-late discovered love, echoed in his name.

Chapter XII

The Galactica bridge functioned as capably as ever. Despite that, Commander Adama felt keenly that something was amiss. He knew what it was, of course. It was Tigh, gone. And it was the shock of knowing that the aliens had once again penetrated their sanctuary, in the form of the device in the celestial observation dome. The device that Apollo had obviously brought back or perhaps even crafted, based on Lords-only-knew what alien technology. The device that had affected Sheba so strangely, that seemed capable of overriding human will at a short distance. The device that had self-destructed before it could be studied.

Wilker had plenty of theories, but no evidence, and no object to study. Would they ever know what it was? Or why the aliens were still interested in them? Or why Tigh and Boomer had been their victims? What would happen next?

Adama looked around again. Unlike only a day before, when the crew had seemed to avoid meeting his eyes, they now seemed to take comfort from frequent glances at him. He hid the sigh and turned to Tinia, who'd stood the entire watch on the bridge with him.

"Not as interesting as your last visit to our bridge, I'm sure," he offered with an attempt at a smile.

"To the better," the elegant woman replied easily. "My last visit here ended with all of us as Baltar's hostages. If any such thing had happened today, I would have resigned my position on the Council and never set foot on the Galactica again!"

One small chuckle escaped; the smile lost its strain.

"Commander, we seem to be picking up some signals."

Just when things seemed to be going smoothly... "What kind of signals, Athena?" he asked.

"I'm not sure... They seem to be..." She glanced up at her father. "It's either a reflection, or ... we've found another battlestar! Could it be Cain?"

"Feed it up here."

Adama and Tinia both joined Omega as the officer tuned the signals, then switched to high band.

"It's no echo," Omega reported confidently. "There's another battlestar out there."

The Pegasus. Cain. It had to be. By all the Lords... Adama felt a rush of hope that had no foundation. He recalled the alien device in the celestial chamber, remembered that several members of Cain's crew had been prisoners of the aliens a well. What might have happened on Cain's ship?

"Scrambler code, high band. Inquire as to their identity," he ordered automatically.

A moment later, Cain's image formed on the screen, looking a little surprised, but not much. "Well, Adama, greetings! Good to see you again. You've saved me a bit of work."

"Cain. And good to see you also."

"We didn't expect you to clear the sector so quickly."

"Our ships have been making good time. We've had some very good reasons for wanting to be out of this sector as soon as possible,"Adama told him briefly.

"Understood. Request permission to come aboard, Commander," the other man asked more formally. "There are some matters we need to discuss privately."

"Agreed. We'll be ready."

"The Pegasus will take up flank position based on your coordinates, if that's acceptable. I'll launch then; should be aboard with you in twenty-nine centons."

"We're already clearing Alpha bay. Welcome back."

The short communication ended. Adama glanced at Tinia as the crew broke into quiet laughter and smiles. Suddenly the universe held a few rays of sunshine.

"I'm sure your attendance will be welcome, Madam President."

Her lips twitched. "From what I recall of Cain, and from our previous meetings, I suspect otherwise. But with all that's happened, I refuse to be excluded. Shall we retire to the landing bay to welcome back the legend?"

Sol was with her when a very excited Cassiopeia brought word. "We've found Cain! He's coming aboard, we'll see him soon! The Pegasus is rejoining the fleet!"

"What?" Sheba sat up too quickly. She had to grab the silvery sheet to cover herself, and grab Sol's hand to keep from falling. "My father's back?"

"That's the word from the bridge. He should be aboard in a few centons."

"Any other word?" Sol asked as Sheba stared speechlessly at the blonde medic. He held Sheba's hand tightly.

Cassiopeia shook her head. "Not yet. I'll let you know if I find out anything more." She smiled. "I know it won't be easy, but try to get some rest. I'm sure he'll be coming to see you as soon as he can."

"Yes..." Sheba lay back and stared at the ceiling.

"Shall I tuck you in?" Sol teased to get her attention.

"What? Oh, yes, all right..."

He blinked at the distracted answer. "I'll let you rest..." He tucked a corner of the thermoblanket under her chin and rose to leave the chamber. He glanced back at her from the door, studying her preoccupied expression for a moment before nodding and disappearing.

Sheba still didn't notice.

My father's back. Cain's back. He finally decided to come back. And look where he'll find me, flat on my back in life center after trying to kidnap a warrior, maybe controlled by aliens. And I don't remember it! What will he think of me? Lords, have I let him down again?

Why should I care? He's left me twice!

I don't care! I don't care if he ever comes to see me...

He can't see me like this...

I've got to find out what happened to me, why I ... did it.

She glanced around hastily for something to wear. Cain couldn't find her lying in life center like ... like some bored old siress with nothing better to do then find new illnesses to catch! Her uniform hung in the closet. Sheba eased herself out of bed, leaving the blanket laying on the floor as she dressed.

The unfortunate security guards didn't realize she was back on her feet. In only a micron, they were off theirs. Sheba left life center with Cassiopeia trailing behind her, protesting that she was doing the wrong thing.

Thirteen paces along the north axis, that being the direction Starbuck had arbitrarily labeled from the steel hatch door to the wall opposite. Several paces east, stepping over Heimdal and Sif where they sat on the floor, apparently waiting for something. Another thirteen paces south, circling to the left of Astarte, who was pacing in a counter-circle to his. Several more paces to the west. Stop at the hatch for another quick examination. Turn north again. The complete circumference of their absolutely empty cell. Cold metal walls, ceiling, floor, and door. No furniture. A ventilation grill high on the wall, out of reach and too small to crawl through anyway.

"Probably a storage chamber, most of the time," Astarte offered. She stood beside him again, having circled the room while he studied the door. Small frost clouds formed as she breathed and spoke. She rubbed her hands together to generate some heat in them.

"Yeah," Starbuck had to agree moodily. "That would explain the temperature and the lack of furnishings. Certainly wasn't built for a holding cell." He glanced at the other two warriors, settled obliviously next to each other on the floor. His frustrated sigh sent another little cloud of ice into the chilly air. "The Imperious Leader must be trying to save a few cubits by not building cold cells in these outposts. They aren't needed. We could freeze to death in here in a few centars if they don't turn on some heat!"

He almost shouted the last. There was no outward indication that the room was being monitored, nor was it designed for hidden internal monitoring, but he knew the Cylons had to be listening to them somehow, hoping for information. Or maybe Baltar was just trying to break their spirits before the interrogations began. It would fit his character.

"We won't be here long," Heimdal commented, his voice sounding as far away as his thoughts must be.

"Tell us something we don't know," Starbuck grumbled back. How long until the hatch opened again? And which of them would be the first taken?

A fitful shudder shook his wingmate's entire body. "Just cold," she muttered shamefacedly. "I never liked cold weather. Born and raised for sunshine and beaches and greenery all yahren long."

He forced a sickly smile. "Same here. Boomer used to tease me that..."

"Yes?" she pressed when he stopped, remembering.

"That ... that I fainted if there were ice cubes in my drink."

She laughed, glad of any humor.

Lords, she's only Zac's age, maybe a little older, when he died, and Cree's when we were at Arcta. She's been a prisoner before and so have I, but that doesn't make it any easier to take. I suppose it's my job to keep up morale for her, if I can. Those two certainly aren't very concerned about what happens to us.

"Wonder how they're doing..." Starbuck began, then cut himself off before he could say anything from which Baltar could learn about the current state of the fleet.

Astarte sighed. Then she reached up and pulled her dark hair out of the flight knot to let it spill over her shoulders. She fluffed it a little with her fingers, then smoothed it over her ears and down her neck. "Warmer," she explained to Starbuck, who couldn't help watching.

"Not warm enough."

"No," she agreed.

"But it helped my body temperature too, so I'm not complaining."

She blinked for a micron, then giggled. "I keep forgetting you and Orestes are brothers."

"How could anybody forget that?" he shot back with a smile.

Silence fell again as they both remembered, for the hundredth time, what they'd been doing when they were captured. As the chill ate its way back into their muscles, they began shifting from foot to foot, then to walk again, side by side.

Sound at the other end of the room betrayed Heimdal and Sif finally rising from the floor. Starbuck ignored it, and would have walked past the pair as before, when the captain grabbed his arm.

"We'll be leaving here in a few centons." Heimdal didn't elaborate.

"Huh?"

"We have allies here in the base."

Starbuck stared at him. "What are you talking about? And would you let go of my arm? I'm not real pleased at your order to surrender, and I suspect it won't make any difference at this point if I let you know it–"

Something clanged at the hatchway; microns later, it opened outward. Two silver Cylons entered; a third remained at the door as if on guard.

"Is it time?" the red-haired warrior asked.

"It-is-time-for-the-gathering. Come-with-us-now."

Heimdal nodded briskly.

"What?" Starbuck yelped, glaring at him. "Look, Captain, I don't understand what's going on here, but I do know that you don't make it easier for your captors when you're a prisoner! Or have you forgotten everything you ever learned about being a warrior? They're gonna have to carry me!" The other man's behavior was raising his obstinacy level to unusual heights, and his usually strong sense of self-preservation was rapidly being thrown to the winds.

"Lieutenant-Starbuck-you-will-accompany-us-with-your-companions."

"Go to Hades!"

The Cylons glanced at each other as if conferring silently.

"Starbuck, you'll go along with the rest of us," Heimdal ordered.

"Why? What is it with you today? Collaborating with the enemy? I got news for you, we're prisoners! This is no afternoon social at the Academy! What next? An invitation for mushies and ambrosa in the officers' club?"

"Starbuck," Sif broke in placatingly, "these Cylons are going to help us escape this prison. We will then join Apollo and Orestes and the others. Please cease your resistance and accompany us. It is necessary, for our people's sake."

Both Starbuck and Astarte gaped.

"Since when do Cylons help humans?" the young woman demanded.

"Humans-are-organic-life-forms. Their-value-is-greater-than-inorganic-programmed-machines," intoned one of the Cylons. It sunk in to Starbuck's mind that there was something strange about the Cylon's tone of voice. Before he could react, the machine continued. "However-you-must-accompany-us-as-instructed." The Cylon extended its hand; before any of the humans could realize the hand held a slim dark something that could only be a weapon, it had fired.

Starbuck felt a flash of pain as stars went nova in his brain.

Astarte shrieked as the man fell, unconscious. The other two simply observed as the Cylon concealed the weapon somewhere, then stepped forward to hoist the warrior over its shoulder. Heimdal took the sergeant's arm and pulled her along as they followed the Cylon at the hatch. The one carrying Starbuck fell in behind them, and the last Cylon brought up the rear.

In the corridor, another team of three Cylons was waiting for them. With the honor guard of six, the humans made their way to the bay unchallenged.

It was with an eerie sense of déjà vu that Cmdr. Cain climbed out of his Viper in the Galactica's landing bay, his flight commander's ship next to his own. The shuttle of medical and technical personnel was behind them by at least fifteen centons.

The men and women standing as an honor guard wore the same look as his own pilots wore these days, as if they had been battered by a storm, and all but driven to the ground by its fury. Dr. Helena had said returning to the fleet would ease that hurt in his warriors. But if these people were in the same condition, what good was he doing his own? The warriors cheered as he stepped down, almost exactly as they had done on their prior occasions when he had come to this ship. This time, though, there was something haggard behind the yells and claps, something desperate, almost as though a starving man had just spotted a loaf of bread.

Two women appeared behind the others. Cain's heart leapt, and happiness drove the other thoughts away at the sight of Sheba and Cassiopeia joining the throng. His eyes met Sheba's but before he could make his way to her, Commander Adama, one of his warriors, and a woman from the Council had stepped forward, and he and Electra were whisked away for their strategy session. Neither of the women made an attempt to follow them.

Father, you didn't even stop to say hello to me. You've been gone so long, and you didn't even stop to say hello. I ran here to greet you, and you barely nodded at me. Reese and his security will have another reason to hate warriors and I may go to the brig for leaving life center the way I did, just to get a nod.

But you're back. Maybe nothing else matters. My father's really back.

And I love you and I've missed you so much. You're back.

Athena caught Sheba's shoulder as the commander disappeared from sight. She'd pushed her way through the crowd as soon as she noticed the other woman's presence. Having just come off duty, she knew more of what was currently going on in the fleet than most.

"Shouldn't you still be in life center?" she asked, sending a quick glance at Cassiopeia.

"I wasn't going to meet my father for the first time in a life pod, not like that," she replied with a stubborn headshake. Cassiopeia took her other arm and the trio began moving off, hopping aboard a turbolift before two very purposeful-looking security officers could catch up to them.

"You won't have to. We've been downloading medical and technical information to the departments, and log entries. The Pegasus had the same thing happen to several of their warriors. You're not the only one."

Sheba's relief almost sank her to the floor. "But I'm Cain's daughter; I should have been stronger than that..."

"And Apollo was Adama's son. That didn't stop the aliens from affecting him." She blinked away a tear. "So what does it matter? What does any of it matter? They got him from the Pegasus."

"What?" Sheba and Cassiopeia asked in stunned unison.

Athena had to draw a thick breath before she could speak for the tightness in her throat. "He was aboard the Pegasus until yesterday. The aliens took him again, they think ... and he took Colonel Kleopatra with him."

"Like Boomer took Tigh..." Sheba said slowly.

"Apollo... He was with Cain? Then Starbuck...?"

"He was, too..." She had to stop again. "Until yesterday. But it wasn't the aliens for him. He tried to follow Apollo and Captain Orestes when they took the Colonel. They think the Cylons got him, and some others..."

The three women found themselves clutching each other for support. With sight blinded by tears and throats too choked for speech, it was the only way to know they weren't alone. But why did it hurt so bad again, when it was the same grief as so short a time before?

The swagger stick lay casually across Adama's desk, deposited when Cain first began talking. He'd delivered the information they had about the Cylon post and what little they knew of the aliens and their activity – and oh, how obviously it had hurt Adama to hear about Apollo and Starbuck! Strange, that Sheba should have been so convinced the men were dead. He'd understood what happened with Boomer and Tigh, and Sheba's reaction to that, too. He'd have to talk to his baby... A very subdued Electra had passed along the most recent quadrant status, then retreated more deeply into uncharacteristic silence.

Now to pitch his plans. Cain stepped closer, planting his palms on Adama's desk on either side of the swagger stick. "We know the location of their asteroid base; we know Baltar's there; we know the aliens are in the area. So I propose we go in and take the place apart. With any luck, the Cylons will blame the aliens – but in any event, we can be in, out, and gone in a few centars."

"And what happens to their prisoners if we 'take the place apart'?" Adama demanded, his mind on Starbuck and the others possibly alive in enemy hands. Better not to think of Apollo, or Boomer and Tigh, or the rest. Their case could be worse, if the aliens still held them alive. The aliens. That was surely what Sheba had felt in the celestial dome, the effect of their technical device, not the presence of the dead.

Siress Tinia shifted gracefully in her seat, observing closely. Capt. Nestor appeared the more edgy.

"We hit 'em hard and fast, jam their scanners and knock out their guns like on Gamoray. Then send in a special team to search for our people." One fist hit the desk as though in matching attack.

"Risk more lives for four possible prisoners?"

"Do we dare risk leaving them for interrogation? We're safely out of this quadrant now, but if they talk, the Cylons know we were here, they know which way we went. Can we risk not destroying the Cylons?" He delivered the arguments urgently; besides logic, he needed the freedom to act, the go-ahead to take on Baltar's forces. If Adama couldn't be brought to agree, he could attack on his own, but he knew this time would be pushing it beyond anything his old friend could allow without disciplinary action of some kind – maybe costing him his command.

Adama stared at the wall, his face carefully void. "The wisest course would be to destroy the base without giving them a chance to spot us and counterattack, or send word to their capital."

"Without going after our people?" Cain had had to make that choice before, but somehow he hadn't expected such a decision of Adama at this point.

"No. We'll go after them. You're right; we must prevent them from betraying us. We must rescue them, or destroy that base. Better to do both and, as you say, hope they believe the aliens are responsible."

"Good," was Cain's satisfied reply.

Adama glanced at Electra and Nestor. "Major, I'm sure you'll want to coordinate with our flight leaders. If you haven't met, this is Captain Nestor, our new flight commander. I'm sure you'll be able to fill him in on the plans and incorporate our pilots into it."

"Certainly," she added somberly.

"Madam President," he swivelled to face Tinia, "I believe you'll want to acquaint the Council with our choice of actions – privately, of course, so as not to alarm the populace. We'll be sending the fleet on a bit ahead, with one battlestar scouting ahead and the other taking position between the fleet and the Cylon base."

She opened her mouth as if considering arguing, then shut it and nodded once in agreement.

"And now, Cain," Adama said, rising, "I believe we should meet with Doctor Wilker, to see if our technical staff has come up with anything more."

The small group dispersed to their various duties.

No one could see what was going on in Adama's heart and mind from the enigmatic look on his face. No one could sense the desperate need to bring Starbuck, at least, home again, if there was any chance. No one could feel the wild streak singing through his veins, a feeling he hadn't unleashed since they'd encountered and destroyed the lone basestar after the gamma signals. He savored the vengeful fire, letting it consume any thoughts of caution. Logically and tactically, he could justify the decision to attack. Emotionally, he knew what prompted it. He told himself his warriors needed a battle, a victory. After the events of the last few sectars, they needed to fight and defeat something – and so did he. In a dark universe, maybe that need was all he had left.

What do they want from us? Why did they come back? They took Tigh and Kleopatra, and Apollo and Boomer, and the others from Cain's ship. And Starbuck may be gone following them. They've hurt some of our people, not physically, maybe, but psychologically. Sheba was convinced they were dead; then she almost followed Boomer wherever he ran. Some of Cain's people did the same thing. Will they be all right, after this? Can we trust them again, or could they still be controlled by those beings?

We're committed to an attack now, an attack on Baltar. I knew he'd escaped his planet, but I didn't realize he was still so near, still within striking distance. So tantalizingly near that I'm letting my better judgment go to Hades for a chance at him. Even though we're out of his quadrant. We're probably beyond Cylon space, truly beyond them, maybe for the first time since we left the Colonies. And I'm sending my people back within his reach. Some of them may die. For what? Because we must save a few prisoners? Because they could betray us all? Because we could bring Starbuck back?

No. All that's true, but I know myself better. I can give every logical reason in the universe, and they'll all be true. We have to stop them from betraying us, and maybe we have a chance to save them, but I'm letting Cain convince me because it's what I want, too. I need that fight as much as he does, maybe more, and this time it's for many of the same reasons. I need a chance to lash out at something, and this is it...

Revenge for Apollo, revenge for Boomer, revenge for Tigh. And for Kleopatra too, despite the yahrens. What do they want with all of you? Will we ever see any of you again? The uncertainty is the worst...

Why?

Dr. Wilker's lab was more crowded than Adama remembered seeing it before. Besides Wilker and his usual assistants, there were at least two of Cain's engineers and several techs present, hovering over a spectroanalyzer. With the equipment from the electronics ship and the other facilities and personnel in the fleet, Adama's people were in a better position to study the alien artifacts than anybody on the Pegasus.

Also present were a number of the medical staff, coordinating their specialty data; Salik and Paye were closely monitoring a print-out, while a woman he recalled to be Helena pointed out something on the images. An olive-complexioned med tech occasionally contributed a few words.

Another technician threaded her way through the crowd to join Wilker. Adama recognized the dark, mature woman as Tigh's frequent companion, before...

"Maruwa," he greeted her. She appeared quite composed.

"Commander," the woman returned neutrally.

"How are you?"

The smile was tight. "I'm fine, sir." Maruwa hastily moved away again. Several steps distant, she hesitated as if considering reapproaching them, but didn't.

By then Wilker had noticed the commanders' presence, and joined them.

"Well, Wilker?"

"Sorry, sir, but we haven't learned much more than we knew before. What's revealed on the brain scans and the tapes of the surgery on one of their warriors is interesting, but hasn't yet revealed anything we can use. I'm hoping, however, that when Salik and Helena open the man's skull again–"

"Wait a centon," Salik cut in, having closed on them as soon as he saw Wilker talking to Adama. "Their medical records are very thorough on what they saw during the surgery on Falstaff; they took imaging scans of the cells and the alien 'webwork,' for want of a better name. From what I've seen, they were more than thorough, and we have their staff to question. There's no reason to open the man's head again unnecessarily."

"But you looked at it from a medical standpoint. My people may be able to add some additional insight–"

"And it is also possible that if you do come near some insight the aliens will do with their webwork exactly what they've been doing to all their other devices when we've discovered them – destroying them! A small fire in a man's brain, no matter how controlled or localized, is going to do extensive damage, probably kill! We don't go in again unless we have a better idea of what to do–"

"I don't believe this device will self-destruct in the same manner – the sergeant would have died the first time! This opportunity–"

Cain looked ready to bolt at the developing argument.

It was nothing new to Adama, who'd heard similar discussions several times in the past.

"Gentlemen!" He held up his hand. "Learn what you can from the available data before you do anything more. And take every precaution, in whatever you do. We will risk no one's life unnecessarily. Cain, I believe we still have an attack to discuss..."

"Yes..." Cain's long stride was close to a sprint.

Maruwa intercepted them before they could get past the door.

"Find the aliens, Commander," she said. "Redeem our sons and daughters. You must bring them home, whatever it takes."

"You sound quite sure they're still alive," Cain observed, studying her.

"I am. I can feel it. I think I would know if Tigh were dead. We've been ... quite close."

"Close enough to speak of sons and daughters?" he persisted.

She glanced at him dispassionately, chin lifting slightly. "You had to know Tigh to understand. I'm sure the Commander does. You'll find them, Adama."

"I wish it were that easy," he returned quietly, but inside his heart was as steady in that resolve as it could be. From what Tigh had mentioned about her ... well, if she was sure, he might as well go on it. What else was there? And at this point, what did he have to lose?

Beside, him, Cain's face hardened. He had his own need to find the aliens, but more important at the moment was taking Baltar's base.

We're going to attack the Cylon base. Why am I so cold? Sagan, I'm an experienced warrior, I've led the squadrons before, I know what I'm doing. But what Boomer did really shook me. Even knowing it wasn't really him doing it, just knowing, having seen it... And the reaction from the pilots. Blue Squadron doesn't trust me to lead them. They don't trust anybody. And the other squadrons don't trust them for back-up. This won't be easy...

Electra knows what she's doing. She's so casual and professional about it, just another day. But there's an edge to her, too. I don't know what it is. Something not quite right.

We're all running short a chip. Maybe I should've stayed at the Academy. I was a good teacher, and I loved working with young people. I could give them more courage than I've got left for myself... What am I talking about? There's no Academy left! If this attack goes bad on us, there may not be much of anything left.

And the first thing I want to do is talk to Io. As if my wife could change reality, or change me so it doesn't bother me anymore. Every man needs a woman like that beside him.

Especially when he's gonna take on a Cylon base in the morning!

Several of the Pegasus crew began clamoring for furlons as soon as the battlestar had taken its place in the fleet. Because coordinating the attack would now take extra time, a few personnel were granted overnight leaves, including one of the doctors. Beej was waiting when Boxey finished his learning period for the day. As the boy came out of his classroom, the tall man stepped up behind him, leaned over, and said, "Boo!"

Boxey jumped. "Uncle Beej! You came back!"

"Of course I came back!" he laughed. All the same, he felt concerned; Boxey looked a little different, sad in the eyes. "Had to come and see you as soon as I could. Where's that daggit of yours?"

The child flashed a smile. "They don't let me bring Muffey to learning period since he yapped through a lecture on some of the alien races the Colonies used to trade with. He didn't like them. Now Aunt Athena won't let him come because he disrupts the class."

"Your own aunt won't let you bring your pet with you?"

He shook his head woefully. "Can't play favorites or it wouldn't be fair."

"Ah! I understand that. But it just so happens that I have a furlon today, and I thought I might spend it with my favorite young man and his favorite daggit."

Boxey beamed again. "Yay! Let's get Muffey!"

Beej felt reassured about his son's emotional condition until they reached Adama's quarters, where Boxey was now staying. The daggit yapped a greeting to the man, recognizing him as a friend. Boxey immediately gave the droid a big hug. The doctor felt another pang; the kid should have more human friends, other children to play with. There weren't many children on the Galactica, and Boxey apparently didn't spend a lot of time with those who were aboard.

"What are you thinking about, Boxey?" he asked quietly a moment later, hearing the small sigh the boy tried to hide in his pet's furry neck.

Boxey looked up at him, appearing far too mature for only seven. "Is it true my father was with you for a while on the Pegasus? And then he went away like Boomer did?"

Beej was prepared for the question. "Yes, Boxey," he replied gently. "I'm afraid it's true. Apollo was with us for a while, and Starbuck too. But ... your father went away ... like Boomer did. And Starbuck tried to find him, but..."

"The Cylons got him, I heard Athena say. She wasn't crying or anything, she sounded kind of strange."

"The Cylons got Starbuck," he had to affirm. "But he might be alive. That's why we have to be careful with our attack."

"So Starbuck might come back?"

"I don't know. It's possible." But not likely, he added silently. If the Cylons hadn't already killed their prisoners, they probably would the moment the warriors attacked.

"I hope Starbuck comes back," Boxey said, pulling the man's mind back to the moment.

"Oh? What about ... your father?"

The boy stared at him; Beej could read the pain and uncertainty in his eyes. "No. I don't want him to come back. He just comes back and hurts me when he goes away again."

Beej stiffened and couldn't speak for a centon. Boxey was hurting deeper than he knew. Then he asked, "Do I hurt you, too, when I go away?"

"No. You're not my father. You don't have to stay. But fathers are supposed to stay, they're not supposed to hurt you."

"Even when they're warriors?"

"I'm tired of hurting," Boxey said honestly. A tear ran down his cheek. "I don't want a father who's going to go away all the time. I want a father who'll stay with me."

Tears ran down Beej's face too, into his mustache and then down his chin. What those words revealed about a child's life! He impulsively hugged the child. It wouldn't be easy to tell Boxey the truth...

"You deserve that, a father who'll stay," he said fervently. "And you'll get it. Life starts over for us today, Boxey. For all of us. And it's going to be better. I promise, I promise. It's going to get better from here on out..."

Chapter XIII

Electra ran her fingers lightly over her instruments, a final check, maybe a touch for luck. They would launch their attack in microns, and she was more than ready. Let it be quick, let it be over.

She mentally ran over the three-pronged attack plan one more time.

Golden Sun's got the first aerial pass. I'd rather be the one, but this makes more sense, I know. Tokyo's as familiar with the base as any of our surviving flight leaders. And the Cylons might not make the connection with the Delphian ships and us right away; if they do get a message out they'll misidentify their attackers.

Tokyo takes out their scanners and communications. He'll do it, or die in the attempt.

Then Haals and Martin move in with ground teams to find our people and snatch Baltar. Copper Keel flies cover to make sure the Cylons are occupied. Wish I could go with one of the teams...

But I can't be everywhere. I know Martin's good, he's the best on our infiltration specialty team. Haals has worked with the specialty teams a couple of times, too. It's simple. They infiltrate the base, find their targets, then move out again. Just so they get in and out before the second wave reaches the base. There won't be anything left when we're done; if they don't get out by the time we attack...

They'll get out. I know Martin. Captain Nestor says Haals is good, and his record proves it. I remember Apollo mentioned him once, some mission they'd shared.

Apollo... No, I won't think of him.

We can get Baltar. If Starbuck and the others are alive, we'll bring them back. If they're dead, Baltar won't live to get back to his cell, I swear it.

But we can't get the aliens. There's nothing we can do for Orestes and Apollo. Sagan...

No, think of the attack, be ready. Memnon, give us the signal. Let us out there and get it over with. In and out, we'll be done, we'll be out of here and out of Cylon reach. Away from this whole mess.

She flicked off her comm long enough to draw a deep breath and fight back her emotions. No time for tears. It was time to fight.

Stubborn determination was all that had carried Sheba through the argument, like her father's grim refusal to be beaten down. Maybe that was why she'd won, too. She'd seen it in Adama's eyes when he agreed. Cain's daughter might disobey orders if they tried to make her stay behind in this attack – it wouldn't be the first time. Since Salik was willing to release her, and Helena concurred that she was clear of alien influence, the commander had let her go.

The silence lengthened.

She wished she were with the first wave. The Delphian squadron had already launched.

Electra had offered her a quick transfer back to the Pegasus. To her own surprise, she'd opened her mouth and refused. Though in this battle her squadron would be attacking with the Pegasus, afterward Sheba would go back to the Galactica. She'd earned her place in Blue Squadron. Even if the men and women were on the verge of madness.

Sheba laughed quietly. If they were on the edge of madness, so was she – a woman who'd been convinced she was sensing ghosts, who even went looking for them on other ships, only to find herself the victim of the aliens as much as Apollo or Boomer or any of the others. She'd earned her place here, and she was going to stay. Even if it meant separation from her father, away from her former shipmates.

That was a revelation. Frowning at her launch tube, Sheba considered. Maybe "Cain's little girl" would be better off away from her father.

Commander Adama felt preternaturally calm as he waited. The bridge throbbed with the heartbeats of every crewman on duty. They were all tense and exhilarated, walking the cutting edge of battle-readiness. Quick movements, nervous conversations, preoccupied silences. He wondered if it was the same on the Pegasus, or if they'd had so much combat these past yahrens that they could be blasé about another battle. All that insuppressible excitement building in his people, even though the Galactica merely continued to lead the fleet away while Cain went back to attack.

"Cain reports he's in position and launching," Omega called. He seemed the only one unaffected by everything around them, but the commander knew better; Omega tried to bottle his tension for private expression after the battle.

He nodded a silent response.

The lightest whiff of perfume caught his extended senses. Tinia had moved close. It was good to have her here, good to have someone beside him he could trust.

But a civilian councilor couldn't be his executive officer. He'd have to select somebody to take Tigh's post when this was over. Might even have to be one of those "Council lackeys" Tigh had so derided. But somebody competent. With Cain back, hopefully to stay, things would be easier for them all...

After the battle. For now he could only wait like everyone else.

Baltar had not ceased raging, inwardly and outwardly, since his discovery that the prisoners were gone. It had been a shock to prepare to question his enemies, only to find them missing when he summoned them for interrogation. Starbuck, Astarte, Heimdal, and Sif had disappeared without a trace, completely unnoticed by any of their Cylon guards or the launch bay mechanicals. None of the surveillance devices showed them leaving. The sentries insisted, in their monotones, that no one had left the holding area, that they had been on duty as assigned. Baltar knew they couldn't be lying. Despite the fact that it solved nothing, his response had been to slag those Centurions personally.

A complete search of the asteroid base revealed nothing amiss – no hidden escaped humans, no missing ships or gear, no damaged Cylons who might have been overcome in an escape. No other humans had been spotted anywhere, on the base or in space, who might have rescued them. There hadn't even been any vanished patrols in the past day, as routine as that had become, so there was no chance of a connection with a human break-out.

"How did they escape? Where did they go?" he demanded loudly for the hundredth time.

The five heavily-armed silver Centurions gave no response. Even they had realized none was possible.

Their presence was both irritant and comfort to Baltar. Irrational as it was, they eased his fear that Lt. Starbuck still lurked in the base somewhere, waiting to spring out from the shadows and capture or kill him. Baltar didn't dare enter a chamber or so much as walk down a hall without his guards preceding him.

Baltar rubbed his forehead. His current throbbing headache seemed to originate in one little spot, and nothing eased the pain. Sleep was certainly what he needed, but he hadn't been able to close his eyes since the captured warriors were brought in, first from exultation, then from fury.

A barely perceptible tremor shook the room, followed by a stronger one.

"What was that?" Baltar bellowed.

The Centurions glanced about for several microns without venturing an opinion.

"Commander-Baltar."

He jumped at the unexpected call from the entrance. "What is it this time?"

"We-are-under-attack-by-Delphian-fighters."

"Delphians! For a moment, Baltar couldn't remember who the Delphians were. Then, "But didn't you destroy them yahrens ago?"

"Scattered-survivors-continue-to-attack-in-some-quadrants."

Like Cain, Baltar thought. Still surviving and appearing when least expected. His palms broke into a cold sweat. "Well, launch fighters then! Counterattack!"

"We-cannot. Their-first-attack-sealed-our-launch-bay."

"Didn't our anti-assault batteries take them out? Why didn't our scanners give us advance notice?"

"There-was-a-defect-in-our-scanners. They-are-still-under-repair. Anti-assault-batteries-were-damaged-in-the-attack."

His entire body broke into a cold sweat. "You mean we're defenseless?" he forced out through numb lips.

The Centurion offered no comment, its red ocular humming along its horizontal path.

"Are there any basestars within communications range?" the human asked frantically.

"Communications-have-been-damaged. We-cannot-contact–"

"Is there any part of this base that hasn't been damaged or was broken to start with?" he thundered back, anger getting the better of fear for a centon.

"The-inner-bunker-is-complete-and-fully-functional."

"Inner...? Of course!" The inner bunker would be kilometrons from the base, deeply buried and reachable only from concealed entrances. Those type of bunkers were designed to be repositories for data, equipment, and personnel which had to be protected in an all-out attack. The bunker here would be Baltar's sanctuary.

A sudden thought gnawed at him. Could it also have been Starbuck's sanctuary?

"Was the bunker searched for the missing warriors?"

"Affirmative. The-bunker-was-empty. A-team-of-Cylons-now-stands-guard-and-reports-the-bunker-is-intact-and-beyond-the-attack-zone."

"Does it have full support vapors circulation equipment and food and water supplies?" he demanded eagerly.

"Affirmative. It-was-supplied-at-your-arrival."

"Take me there, now! Concentrate the guard to protect all corridors in that section! And seal off the entrances to prevent infiltration by enemy forces."

"By-your-command."

The human attack was ruthlessly precise. Golden Sun swept toward the asteroid from the other side of the only true planet in the system. They unleashed a storm of laser fire that demolished the base's defensive capability in microns; sealing off the enemy launch bay ended their offensive capability as well. The few Raiders out on patrol were picked off as they tried to return.

"This is too easy," commented one of the attackers. "It is almost as though they did not see us coming."

Tokyo hadn't known Starbuck well, but from what he knew of the others, he responded, "Perhaps they did not. Our friends may have done something in their own cause."

Under cover of the attack, the EVA-suited infiltration team landed on a far side of the base. They entered undetected through the damaged bay and split into their assigned teams. Martin had the greater experience in direct dealings with Cylons; he began the potentially more dangerous search for the captives. Haals, the gunnery master turned Viper pilot, led his team after Baltar. It was less important that the traitor be recovered alive.

The Cylon computer core had been severely damaged. The Colonials were able to extract information without the usually required codes. The computer freely told the humans where the four prisoners would be, and where Baltar had made his nest. There was no guarantee the data was accurate and up-to-date, but it gave the teams a starting point.

When Martin arrived at what was designated a holding cell, after an uncontested race through the base, he found it empty and unguarded. Heimdal, Sif, Astarte, and Starbuck were no longer there. He accessed the computers again for more information, but nothing was forthcoming. Either the prisoners had been moved or they had been killed, but the invaders had no way of knowing which.

Baltar's sumptuous bedroom and associated chambers were equally empty when Haals reached them. As the inner bunker remained a Cylon secret, he had no idea where to search next. The only locations Haals could think of were the main command center and the arms control station. Those sections of the base had been hit in the first volleys, exploding from the single micron's flame into the eternal cold vacuum of space.

Both teams fanned out in pairs for the quick searches their limited time allowed. Both were bitterly disappointed. The signal came too soon from Electra and the waiting Silver Spar and Blue Squadrons. Martin and Haals were forced to withdraw, and the waiting squadrons utterly annihilated what yet remained of the Cylon base.

"We searched as thoroughly as we could," Capt. Martin reported to their commanders later. "But the base was on fire, parts of it were already a vacuum, and the major was coming in for mop-up. There was no evidence our people were still alive."

Cmdr. Adama glanced at Haals, who shook his head.

"Signs of a hasty evacuation from Baltar's chambers, but no trace of him either," he said.

The sadness in Adama's heart was less bitter than it might have been. He had hoped for, but not really expected, Starbuck's return. It was over now, and a deep exhaustion crept over him, coupled with an unexpected little twinge of relief that there was no longer any need for futile hope.

"I believe we may ... safely assume, then, that our missing personnel are dead," he announced steadily. "We must take comfort from being beyond Cylon territory, for the present, and for having dealt a blow to enemy aspirations and expansion in this quadrant. Thank you for a job well done, warriors. Dismissed."

The handful of warriors filed out. Adama turned to Cain, who had kept his own counsel while the warriors reported the results of their mission.

"Well, at least we accomplished something," Cain suggested.

Adama gave no response.

"How about a drink, Adama?" the other man asked, studying him frankly.

"At a time like this?"

"Drink to the passing of good warriors. From what I know of Starbuck, he'd appreciate it."

"True." Adama gestured toward one of his cabinets. "There's ambrosa and chalices in there."

Cain helped himself, pouring for both of them. Adama accepted his chalice, then moved from his desk to stare out the window port at the starfield.

"What's on your mind, Adama? And don't try to fool me, I know you better than that. What are you planning?"

He forced a shrug. "Until Tigh ... disappeared, I had been thinking of stepping down as commander of this ship, as I have stepped down as president of the Council."

"That explains that woman's omnipresence, but you can't be serious about giving up command!" Cain was amazed to discover that Adama had willingly stepped down from the Council.

"Tinia is a good woman, and I'm sure you will learn that. And I have had to reconsider retirement." His eyes left the starfield and focused on the golden liquid in his chalice. "I see no way to leave the Galactica at this time. But my friend, I am glad you are with us now. It will make this time of adjustment and grief less difficult."

Cain extended his arm; Adama grasped his wrist wordlessly.

Only at that micron did Cain realize how good it was to have an old friend like Adama around, a peer who had seen and experienced life as he had, someone with whom he could discuss anything, share any thought, argument and position. Even though they had disagreed at times, even though they had reached different conclusions about what was best for their people, even though each had acted on his convictions to the frustration of the other, they were still good friends. They understood each other. They respected each other. There was no one else left in all humanity who had lived as they had lived and borne the responsibilities they had borne. Now they needed to stand together – the men, their ships, their people.

Cain realized that he was as tired as Adama.

"From here on out," he stated, forcing optimism, "our enemies had better beware, because they'll have to face us together. Whether the Cylons or aliens or our own Council, we stand together. And we'll make it through. To this Earth of yours or wherever else our destiny may be.

"Lords grant it so."

As one, they raised their chalices in toast to each other, then the stars, and drained their cups together.