The planet was in ruins, obviously devastated by a war that had come upon it from the heavens as well as the ground. Equally obviously, that conflict had occurred millennia before. When the Colonials cautiously stepped out of their ships after an orbital survey, planetary radiation levels had receded to where humans could walk on the surface in safety, and life had begun to return. A profusion of exotic and perhaps mutated plants thrived in every ecological niche; small animals lived in the overgrown remnants of cities, marine life occupied the waters, and larger land animals ventured out of the distant mountains and remote forests where their species had managed to survive.
The evidence said the planet wasn't Earth. It hadn't been inhabited by any remotely human race. The Colonials were glad for that as they began to explore. They wouldn't be there long, but the scientists and sentiologists in the Fleet were thrilled at the opportunity to examine an alien technology and culture, and wandered in awe over the fantastic, violence-forged landscape.
Captain Apollo and Lieutenant Starbuck strolled the old streets, studying the tall, spired buildings, strangely preserved from the ruins so common everywhere else on the planet. The architects had possessed a marvelous sense of proportion and design, and although the structures were on a smaller than human scale, the Colonials were fascinated by them.
"Amazing," Starbuck muttered as they stooped under an arch.
Apollo nodded agreement. Somehow the builders had drawn or poured rock over metal braces to form these structures. The method dumbfounded the best scientists and architects in the Fleet.
"Where's Doctor Wilker prowling today?" the blond lieutenant continued.
The captain frowned. There had been a sore spot between them since an incident involving refugees from Luna Seven, a Terran base. Wilker's overeager experimentation had unnecessarily risked the lives of six people, in Apollo's mind. Fortunately, no one had died in the scientist's tampering with their ship's systems. But Apollo was still concerned about what the man might do, turned loose on the surviving equipment they discovered scattered throughout this alien city.
"They found a cache of equipment yesterday in one of the underground chambers - to protect it from the war, I guess, when the end came." He paused, considering. "This is one of the only cities still relatively intact. Maybe whatever's here was considered too important to risk destroying with conventional weapons."
Starbuck grunted noncommitally. "Explains why we're concentrating our valuable time here."
"Yeah. We'd better get to that bunker before Wilker blows the place up. No one's managed to read any of the text yet, in spite of that library they found. But that's not stopping our gung-ho technocrat."
The other man snickered. "Picked that up from Michael and Sarah, didn't you? Aw, come on, Apollo. You don't really think he's going to forget procedure and mess up, do you? Even if he does, who's going to get hurt? There's been no one alive on this planet for millennia!"
"All right, all right! Point made. I've wronged our honored expert on alien technology. Shall we volunteer to be experimental animals for his next test?"
"I may be a fool, but I'm not crazy!"
Laughing, they made their way to the structure the Galactica scientists had commandeered as their temporary base. Ducking under the low, broad doors, the two warriors strode past piles of gathered machinery, furniture, and other artifacts until they reached Wilker's lair.
"Hello! Officers, please, come here and take a look at this!" There was a near-fanatical look in his eyes that they'd seldom seen.
"What did you find?" Apollo stood just within the door arch, hands on his hips, studying the graceful equipment with its small operating controls.
Starbuck finally nudged him from behind. "Remember the scale?" he complained. "Let me in!"
Wilker waved a hand exuberantly. "It's marvelous! From what we've been able to decipher of the native script, this seems to be a transportation device of some kind!"
"But ... how can it go anywhere?" Starbuck demanded, perplexed, after a moment spent staring at the totally unfamiliar machinery.
"That's just it! It doesn't! Do you know what this could mean? Transporting supplies and equipment, perhaps even personnel, over distances instantly, without the necessity of wasted time or the possibility of passing through enemy territory. Just think how we could use that secret, if we can more thoroughly understand its workings!"
They caught his excitement, exchanging astounded looks.
"Have you worked out distance regulation yet? How does it work? What kind of tests have you performed on it?" Apollo's eager questions spilled out as his friend merely reached a reverent hand to touch the nearest projection of some apparently ceramic substance.
"Well, we haven't gotten it functioning," Wilker admitted, frowning. "But it's only a matter of time, now that we've begun to understand their writings."
"Have you informed Commander Adama yet?"
"No. I wanted to have more to tell him."
"The Cylons don't have anything like that!" Starbuck stated in awe. "The war.... We could counterattack...."
"Yes," Wilker agreed. "The military applications alone are tremendous. But think what else it could mean! No need for surface, air, or underground transportation! No more waste exhausts! And the aesthetic value! As long as we have the energy sources...."
"What kind of energy sources? How much energy must a thing like that use?"
"We haven't figured that out yet, Apollo," the scientist was forced to admit again. "You have to realize, we've only just understood the nature of this machine! It's going to take a lot of concentrated research...."
"I understand," Apollo assured him hastily. "But we don't have much time to spend on this planet."
"I know, I know." Wilker perked up again. "That's why we're shipping all of this back to the Galactica, along with all the archives we've discovered. Techs have labeled and copied every junction and crevice on this machine, and we're trying to divide the pieces evenly."
The warriors sent disturbed glances each other's way.
"We've nearly cleaned out the next chamber. I was hoping, if you have a few centons to spare, that you could assist in the transfer of equipment...?"
"What do you want us to do?" Apollo was resigned.
"Carry those last few parts of that other machine to the shuttle."
"So now we're porters!" Starbuck grumbled under his breath. "Well, I suppose it beats experimental animals...." They stooped under yet another of the interminable low, ornate arches.
Wilker gently rubbed a speck of dust from one of the controls. He didn't realize something moved.
Apollo and Starbuck abruptly froze, then screamed in shocked agony and terror before collapsing to the gleaming metallic floor.
The scientist stared uncomprehendingly, then shouted for his assistants. He jarred the small control once more as he turned, forgetting how minute an adjustment was needed to cause it to operate. It slipped back into its original position.
The emergency medical team worked with its usual quick thoroughness, but there was nothing they could do for the men, except keep them alive. Apollo and Starbuck were hurriedly whisked back to the Galactica and through decontamination, in hopes that the better-equipped life station could diagnose and treat them.
"How are they?" Commander Adama demanded of his chief medical officer almost before the two warriors had been carted into life center. He stared in shock at their slack, empty faces. Cassiopeia and Dr. Paye hovered over their still forms as Salik halted for just a micron at the controlled pain in his old friend's voice.
"I don't know yet, Commander. But I promise you I'll do everything possible for them." The harried doctor rushed after his two patients.
Athena arrived a centon later. "Father? What happened?" Details from the planet were scarce, even for the bridge crew.
"They ... don't know yet. Apollo and Starbuck seem to be in a coma...." Her father's voice faded away distantly; his eyes fastened with fierce intensity on the closed hatchway. She took his arm. They waited - not alone, for solemn warriors, friends of the stricken men, gathered behind them.
It seemed a long time before Cassiopeia came out again, her grave and worried face suggesting the worst.
"They're not...?" Athena burst out before the med tech could say anything.
"They're alive, somehow."
"Commander...." She swallowed a sob. "They're alive. Nothing appears to be physically wrong with them. But their brains...."
"What?" He braced for horrible news. Were his son and Starbuck brain-damaged?
"Some of the brainwave patterns are ... almost level, as if their ... personalities had been erased ... or stolen. Only minimal levels being maintained. Their bodies continue to function, but we've ... put them in life pods ... just to be sure. Their minds ... are gone!" She shook with grief, covering her face for a moment to regain control. "Some disease ... or that alien machinery ... stole their minds! And we don't know what we can do!"
Athena's grip on her father's arm tightened in fright. When Cassiopeia broke down, he roughly pulled her closer too, holding both sobbing women, and wishing it were allowed for him to cry. Perhaps later, when he was alone, but not now, when they needed him, when a dozen grief-stricken faces watched their commander and needed his strength. He did not cry.
Adama's first actions were to close down the survey team's activities and return all personnel to the Galactica. With all members of the landing parties in strict quarantine until the nature of the warriors' condition was known, it was almost five days before Dr. Wilker was able to defend his theory personally to the fleet commander.
"What? You want to do what?"
Wilker almost quailed at the hoarse anger in Adama's ragged voice. He steeled himself to present his theory to the four men present in the commander's quarters. "I believe what happened to the officers was a result of some mischance or malfunction of the alien equipment. What I want is permission to return to the surface for further study of that transport device. We've got decontamination equipment, and I accept the risk of disease and the necessity for quarantine afterward-"
"You accept the risk? What about the risk to the fleet if some unknown contaminant comes aboard? What about others who may be injured - or perhaps even killed - by your studies? Can you guarantee successful results?" The angry, worried father slipped past the commander's guard to glare at Wilker.
"You can't possibly ask for a guarantee!"
Adama merely glared, close-lipped.
"All right. I can't give you a guarantee, but, Salik, have you come up with anything? Have Apollo and Starbuck got a chance from anything your tests have shown?" He shunted the question to his colleague.
The other doctor shook his head.
"You see, Commander? That equipment may be the only chance they have!" The scientist planted his hands eagerly on the older man's desk. "We have to go back to the surface! We can't leave this system!"
Adama considered. Col. Tigh and Dr. Salik seemed to have nothing to contribute to the discussion, but Lt. Boomer did.
"Sir, a few volunteers, warriors with proper training, could accompany them."
"Such as yourself? How many must I risk?"
"I've got a stake in this," the black man told him starkly. "Those are my friends in there. I've got some scientific background, and an aptitude for mechanical devices. I want to do something to help."
"Like they did for you at Kobol?" Adama spoke grimly. Very well. Boomer's sturdy, quiet presence will prevent Wilker from doing something foolish, like following research that leads nowhere; we can't spare the time for it. The comatose men, and some solution to their condition, will be his primary concern.
"Six men, no more, Wilker, and one must be a medical technician, in case of another such 'accident.' Boomer will also accompany you. You haven't much time; we can't remain in this quadrant long. Five more days, that's all you have." And if it isn't enough, what will happen to Apollo? And Starbuck? Their bodies wasting away, mindless, as the sectons pass....
The horror of the vision was too great; he pushed it aside. "Go."
Apollo felt as if he'd been drifting a long time before finally coming home again. Something rushed at him, and an incredible surge of gratitude suffused him for a bare micron before fading from his mind. Reality approached; the fragmented cosmos whirled through his senses and took form. Clarity of thought returned. Familiar voices hammered at his ears, trying to claim his attention. He shook his head, trying to clear his vision, then sat up to look around. He felt weak; he could barely hold his head erect, but supportive arms cradled him immediately. When he opened his eyes, those excited faces were fixed anxiously on him. He gazed around in puzzlement.
"Oh, Apollo!" Siress Ila, for all her dignity, threw herself at her son, sobbing wildly. "You're back with us, finally!"
His shock and confusion crystallized as an answer presented itself. "I'm ... dead, then?"
"No, son, you're alive, very alive." It was his father's voice, uneven with usually hidden feelings. Tears gleamed in his eyes.
Apollo blinked, studying each of the emotional faces around his bed. His father. His mother - how, by all the Lords, was she here? Athena. Zac - a cruel joke? A mockery of some malevolent god? Ortega - his blood chilled; another of the dead. Two he didn't know - a dark-haired man and woman, both annoyingly familiar for all their strangeness. The three people clustered at the door, medical staff from their uniforms, discreetly eased their way from the room, leaving only a female med tech studying the monitor panel several feet away.
"Heartbeat unsteady, but he's obviously confused," the med tech authoritatively cut in. "You can all see he's alive. Let us do our tests, and you can see him again later."
"Five centons ago, you said he was dead!" Ila cried. "How can you make us leave now?"
"You and the Commander may stay, Madam President. Your other children and his friend should leave. We really have to do these tests." Her voice was immediately more subdued and meek.
"Wait!" Apollo called as they were shepherded to the door. "Who...? What's going on? Where am I? How-?"
"We'll answer all your questions, Apollo. Just do what the doctors order, so you can come home again, healthy." His father laid him gently back on the bed, but continued to hold his hand. Ila clung tightly to the fingers of his other hand, using magnificent control to hold her expression to a pleased and proud smile.
"Captain," Adama continued, "do you remember the battle?"
The weak young warrior only stared, bewildered.
"The Battle of Equus. You were injured when your Viper was hit; you lapsed into a coma. It's been five sectons. The doctors despaired of your ever coming out of it."
"But we had hopes," his mother interrupted. "Your spirit is strong. We knew you wouldn't leave us without a fight."
He couldn't reconcile what he remembered as true with the images before him. "Tell me where I am, what happened...."
"You're in the Military Hospital in Caprica City. We shuttled you here right after the battle, to the best facilities. When the Galactus earned her leave, I came here too. We've been with you the whole time, either your mother or me, or one of your siblings. Athena's been on duty, but Ares delayed his commission for a sectar, and Akilles is on leave from the Pegasus. And of course Artemis...."
He gaped inanely. It made no sense.
"Don't worry," Adama suggested gently, although with worry evident in his eyes. "The doctors said that if you came out of it, there'd be some disorientation, some memory lapses. It's to be expected. It'll all come back to you, in time. For now, just rest. We're here, all of us. Ortega even took his leave time here, though he's had to go...."
"Ortega?" Apollo interrupted. "But he's dead! How could he be here just a moment ago? He and Starbuck-"
"Starbuck! No, son." The venom in his mother's voice surprised him; he drew back at her hard expression. "Don't you remember? It's Boomer that Starbuck killed, not Ortega. Your best friend's still here." She smiled again. "And he can't wait 'til you're well enough to play triad again! He's been trying to break in a new partner, but says you're the one he wants to win the championship with! And you will, I know it."
"Starbuck?" His disbelief showed. "Starbuck killed Boomer? That's not possible! Starbuck wouldn't commit murder!" His disorientation increased. "What happened to Boomer?"
"Not murder. Just an accident, an equipment malfunction, or so we thought at the time. Starbuck wasn't where he should have been," Adama quickly assured him, although he sounded unconvinced of Starbuck's innocence. "But he's transferred to the Pegasus since then, and now that the treason charges-"
"Adama! Let him rest," Ila admonished. "He's not your concern, Apollo. Your duty now is to get well. And you've always been a warrior who did his duty!"
A doctor beckoned from the door. "We have some tests we'd like to start, if you will permit," he told the older couple respectfully. "According to our instruments, he was brain-dead; then, suddenly, his mind was fully functional. We have to examine him at once."
"Of course, of course," the commander muttered in annoyance. "We shall see you again soon, son. Madam President?"
Ila patted his hand, then took her husband's arm to follow the doctor out.
"Wow," the med tech commented. "Must be something, Captain, having the whole of the Colonies as the family trade."
"What? What do you mean?" He turned his lost expression to the pretty young woman at the screens. She blushed, and bit her lower lip.
"I'm sorry," she breathed lamely. "I mean, your father commands the flagship of the battlestar fleet, and your mother is President of the Council of Twelve. All the important military and political power in the Colonies, concentrated in one family. I suppose they mean for you and your brothers and sister to take up the mantle after them. It must be quite a responsibility. I didn't mean to imply anything by what I said. I've just never been this close to so much power before!"
She batted her eyelashes at him, and he suddenly wondered what kind of response to make. This was no type of flirting he'd ever experienced before; she was quite obviously fawning over him. But power was a lure some could never resist, and those who had it could name their price from those who wanted it.
Her smile was inane, and hopeful expectation glowed in her eyes.
"I'm ... kind of tired. Uh, what's you name...?"
"Demetra," she quickly supplied.
"Demetra, could you get me some recent newscrystals? I'd ... like to read a bit, catch up on things, if that's permitted, and I have the time. I'm sure a lot's happened while I've been here...."
"Certainly!" Her smiled dimpled. She was really quite pretty. "Most of the tests will be simple monitoring, anyway, and can be conducted while you sleep, or blood and tissue tests, but those'll only take a few centons. I'll orders the crystals right away!" She scurried into the hall.
My God, where am I? What's happened to the world I knew? It's all turned upside down! We were on a planet; that alien equipment.... A more important thought took hold. That's just not possible! Caprica was destroyed, with the rest of the Colonies.... My mother, the President? What's happening to me? I must be hallucinating.... I've got to find out what's going on. I'll have to play along, for now, until I know....
Ortega's my best friend? That's hard to believe! And we're triad partners? Well, he always did play to win, and I'm pretty good at winning myself, but I don't see how in Hades he and I could be....
I saw Zac here, too, before they chased him out, and he's as dead as Ortega. And Artemis, I remember her now. But she'd been dead for yahrens.... We were close when we were young, but I haven't thought of her in a long time.
And who in Hades are Ares and Akilles?
Starbuck drifted through time and space. He found a place that seemed like home, compatible to his mind, but when he tried to settle within it, he was rudely cast out again. Bitter anger and fear washed through him, nearly overwhelming him. There was something subtly wrong with the memories stored in the realm he tried to walk. It was as if he were still, had never-
After a time, he found a new place, not much like home, but empty and welcoming, and vaguely comfortable....
He woke in a sudden sweat, breathing hard, with alien thoughts tormenting his mind. The memories were wrong, and there was desperation to them, as though he'd been violently ripped from all that was home, and abandoned somewhere strange and threatening.
Starbuck stared shakily around Silver Spar's pilots' billet. There was nothing there to have wakened him; he hadn't had anything to eat or to drink before turning in; he'd done nothing the day before that had ever affected him so in the past; the scuttlebutt about an armistice certainly shouldn't be giving him nightmares. As he slowly pulled himself to wakeful alertness, he wondered what in his dreams had so frightened him.
Something lingered at the edges of his mind, never quite stepping into focus.
And when he slept again, there was a stranger in his dreams, taunting him with memories that were/weren't his, and with places and feelings he couldn't quite grasp hold of....
For too many days, she had been quietly curled in a fetal position. It hurt to move when consciousness finally returned. Groaning, the woman opened her eyes and pulled herself up from the bed, staring blearily at the unfamiliar chamber.
Medical. I visited someone in a place like this once, a long time ago, and more than time away. But why am I here? Did something happen on that planet? That planet, and Wilker's grand discovery.... We were....
Hades, where exactly am I?
With a little effort, she pushed aside the monitors at the side of her bed and lowered her feet to the floor. Something was wrong, but she wasn't quite sure what.
She blinked. No, it wasn't the room. It was her.
What's wrong with me?
She staggered toward the closet, wondering what had happened to her center of balance. If she remembered correctly, there was a mirror hanging there, and she felt an urgent need to know herself, to see her own face reflected reassuringly back at her.
Alarms sounded when she left the bed, but she paid them no heed. She had to see, and she could not see from a prone position on a hospital bunk.
She pulled open the closet door. She took a deep breath, suddenly afraid, but forced herself to look at the bright surface.
The woman gasped in dismay. It's not right! That's not me! The image was lovely - a slim, fair-haired woman with dancing green eyes and a perfectly proportioned figure under the medical tunic. After a long time in bed, her shoulder-length hair was tangled and needed shampooing, and she felt a desperate need to shower and rinse her mouth. But she was still very attractive.
And she was all wrong.
"This isn't me!"
Hands running over the curves of her own body told her otherwise. She was most definitely and shockingly a woman.
And she (????) had not been so before.
Her first impulse was a groan of disbelief, but that seemed inappropriate for the situation. For once, she - he? - had nothing whatsoever to say. It was beyond anything he/she had ever expected to have to deal with.
As medics charged into the chamber, Ostara/Starbuck gave a shrill, hysterical giggle, and fainted.
Enter Sheba's Galaxy