Two days later, the Pegasus was home. Friends and relatives were reunited as the battlestar's crew took in the awesome devastation that had occurred in their absence.
No one was more hurt by what she saw than President Ila. Her speech and her mere presence seemed to invigorate her people; they cheered her when she went out among them. She felt shame at every plaudit; she would never be free of guilt and self-recrimination. She felt her people should have shunned and reviled her; instead, they demanded she lead them into the future.
The worst trial of all came when she first faced her second son after the long, arduous days of meeting with the survivors. The strain told heavily on him - and he was the one who had warned her to be cautious. Her husband and other children had accepted her decisions as president; only Apollo had challenged her to her face, despite her surprise and anger. She had arrogantly humiliated and dismissed him, when his sole concern was for the good of the Colonies - the same duty she had accepted under an even more binding oath than his own.
She saw tears in his eyes as he returned her tight embrace. There were no recriminations there either. Silent apologies were offered and accepted; the breach was healed. She didn't know he wept for a dead woman, and the knowledge that he must soon leave her to grieve for him.
Akilles cleansed his soul of grueling memories and weariness in the fresh greenery of the solarium. Meditation among the scents and life of growing herbs, flowers, and shrubs had always eased his heartaches.
He heard the quiet footsteps that heralded his brother's approach. The house was full of guests, but he would have recognized Apollo's step in any crowd; he'd grown up with those footsteps behind him. Even this stranger who occupied his younger brother's body had the same carriage and way of moving.
"Welcome back, Akilles." The young man sat down beside him among the potted ferns and paving stones.
The major impulsively shook his hand. "It worked, Apollo. Our plans worked, all the way across the board."
"I'm glad," he whispered. "I couldn't have seen it happen again."
"If you hadn't come, or if you'd just tried to blend in, it would have happened as you remember, and our people would be nothing but a cosmic memory, or stellar refugees." He studied his brother's face gravely. "Your main concern now can be making a life here. You know you've got my support - and I'm sure Ostara will see reason soon enough."
"We've ... reached an accommodation, Akilles." His gaze shifted, and the older man sensed there were things Apollo wasn't telling him. "Whatever happens, she is my wife. Remember that. And there's a little boy...."
Akilles was amused, wondering what else Apollo hadn't told him, but glad the marriage seemed to be working. "You have been busy, haven't you, little brother? If that's the way you want it, I'll respect your wishes. But you sound like you're making plans to leave."
Apollo was quiet for a long moment. "It's very possible." He didn't elaborate.
Charon's expression was ruthless as he studied the newscrystals.
So Captain Apollo and his family survived, all of them. And Starbuck, who betrayed us. Well, I survived too. And I understand your hatred now, Baltar. They are dangerous men. But I am a dangerous enemy, too. And they will know that, very soon.
They will pay, in full, for what they've cost me.
* * * * *
A public ceremony was held to honor the heroes. A large crowd gathered to view it; they needed the pomp, the celebration. It made the horror of the five-day battle seem more remote, and proved their own survival capability.
The President and the other surviving members of the Quorum gathered at the monument to the ancient forefathers of Kobol, where a group of representative warriors and civilians were to be decorated for their efforts during the Cylon peace deceit, and its aftermath. Commander Adama, of course, represented the military. The rest of his family witnessed it as part of the crowd, by their own wishes not having any official role in the ceremonies. The younger members didn't want it to become common knowledge that a conspiracy of treason had saved their worlds; not even the President and the commander knew, or would ever know, if they had a choice.
Apollo and Ostara had a small boy with them. Troy's parents were as dead as their ephemeral dream of peace. His mother had died on Kobol, his father in the first raid on Caprica City. He had no other known surviving relatives. The two warriors had already requested adoption papers for the youngster. Unlike many others orphaned in the five days of battle, he already had a new home and new parents.
The centars of stuffy ritual passed quickly. Afterward, Troy ran off with several other children, losing himself in the milling crowd. He knew where to find his new family, and, being so young, was able to forget the battle for a time, although he would not quickly recover from his loss.
Ostara stayed close to her husband's side, hoping to have time to talk honestly with the warrior she'd coerced into marriage. They had so few opportunities, with the needs of the day, and she had a premonition that time was running out. He might find her growing feelings for him embarrassing, but she felt it was her right and duty to share them with him. She'd forced him into marrying her, for her own reasons, and now wished their union would have opportunity to grow. She'd done more than mimic Starbuck's deep friendship for Apollo; it had taken root and become something more. If the time they'd spent together in the past few sectars was any indication, love was not far off, at least for her.
"Starrie, let's join my father. I recognize some of those warriors." He gestured toward a group of men and women bearing down on Adama and Akilles. Several of them wore Pegasus insignia - friends of the major's and Saba's. Adama and Akilles waved friendly invitations. With the ritual over, and a centar before the memorial meal which was to accompany it, they might have a few centons to share.
"Apollo." She caught his arm. "I just wanted to ask, how long do you think it'll be before Boomer and the others call you back?" How long before you die?
He looked apologetic. "I wish I knew, Starrie - well, maybe I don't - but I told you before, we have to wait and see. It could be any time. It depends on how long it takes Wilker and his people to set up the equipment, how time passes between here and there. I understand you want me to stay, you think you feel something for me-"
"I do more than think it," she insisted quietly. "Why can't we talk about my feelings? Why do you always change the subject or find something else to do when I bring it up? And don't give me that line that I don't really know you," she mimicked. "I know more about you than you'd like, from him, and I thought, these past days, that-"
"Starrie!" He sounded aggravated. "This isn't the time...."
"It's never the time. But I've got to talk to you, and soon it'll be too late. There're some things you ought to know, that we have to discuss...."
"Hello, Captain Apollo. So good to meet you, finally."
Both warriors turned at the sound of the familiar voice. Charon smiled malevolently. Too late, they saw the weapon in his hand. Apollo couldn't draw, barely had time to step protectively between his wife and the civilian before Charon fired, at point-blank range.
Pain seared into his chest, and he collapsed with a cry of agony. Still conscious, he saw everything around him seem to shift into slow motion as attention focused on him. People screamed as they realized what had happened. He could hear their voices as distorted sounds echoing in his head.
He didn't recognize the man who pulled his mother down behind the podium, out of any possible line of fire. Others dove for cover behind whatever protection was available. He saw Commander Adama run toward him, and Akilles draw his weapon, but there were too many people between them; neither could get a clean shot at the man who'd just-
"Killed me...." he breathed in surprise. Charon had just murdered him. He wasn't surprised; Karibdis had tried to do the same.
There was no chance for Ostara to escape. She was unarmed, dressed for a festival; she couldn't even grab Apollo's weapon, it was under him where he'd fallen. Charon sighted on her next. It seemed to take ages, but Apollo knew it was only a micron, a fragment of time that Charon gained from the crowd's confusion and shock.
Ares appeared from nowhere, and his brother and wife hit the ground together as the shot went off. Apollo saw the beam touch the young man, and almost felt the pain himself.
Not like this! He didn't survive that battle to die here!
Charon shifted his aim, ever so slowly lowering the laser to sight on Ares and Ostara again.
Get out of his way! Please, don't let him shoot them....
Starbuck stepped out of the crowd, his weapon raised. He fired slowly, the beam taking an incredibly long time to reach Charon. The murderer dropped without a word, his own laser falling beside him.
Time's normal flow resumed. Starbuck threw himself to his knees beside his fallen comrade.
"Zac...?" Apollo whispered. Agony lanced through him; the laser bolt had burned through his lung, and maybe singed his heart. He could feel the blood running inside, and knew he didn't have long.
"Just grazed," Starbuck told him, raising his head so he could see. Ares rose, clutching his arm, white-faced with pain.
The woman he'd taken the wound to protect struggled out from under him, her skirt torn in the fall. She crawled to her husband's side. "Was this your plan?" she demanded huskily. "To die a hero, shot down at the height of your glory?"
"Dead, Apollo." Starbuck was grim. "I owed him, from before. I owe him for you, too, I guess.... Lords, to come so far...." He tried to staunch the bleeding. There was too much blood; he couldn't stop it. The crimson spread across his hands and uniform. With bloodied fingers, he took his friend's hand.
"Sorry ... I won't be ... going back ... with you...."
Adama and Akilles finally pushed their way through the crowd to his side; he could hear his mother screaming somewhere beyond them. He thought he recognized Athena, too, holding Ostara's hand. Then Artemis came, supporting the shaken President.
Starbuck suddenly rocked back, his face momentarily blank. Then he turned disbelieving eyes to his friend. "I think Boomer's in time...." No one else heard the whisper.
His family was around him. He saw Starbuck smile unexpectedly, sadly, and felt the squeeze of his hand. "Safe journeys, Captain, wherever you may go. I'll remember you...."
He felt a familiar whirling in his head, and a loosening of the connection with his body. The pain faded behind. It was a very different feeling from the moment, sectars ago, when he'd been torn from his own body. With dying awareness, he knew what Starbuck meant, and a moment's relief, until he saw his wife's shattered expression. There was nothing else he could give her, no consolation.
"Starrie ... kiss me good bye ... if you love me...."
He resisted the pull until he felt her mouth on his. He gave her his last breath, then dove without hesitation for the safety of that featureless darkness. In a moment, he lost all touch with any physical world, and reality ceased to have meaning.
Behind him, his family and friends stared at his body for a long time before they could accept that he was dead. Only Starbuck and Ostara understood the expression on his face. Akilles and Artemis, the primary movers in the conspiracy, hadn't known their ally would leave when it was over. There would be no miracle this time. Another loss, more proof that Cylon treachery sometimes clothed itself with human greed and vengeance.
"I'll sorry, Commander," Starbuck told the dead man's father. "He's ... gone."
Ila burst into tears, the shock in her eyes giving way to bitter grief. This public emotion was unique for her. There had been too many losses in too short a time. The lieutenant wondered if she would blame him for Apollo's death, for not being there in time, as she'd held him responsible for a death once before.
Somebody spat on Charon's body.
Ostara knelt beside Apollo, head bowed, hands clasped on his.
Starbuck touched her shoulder. "It's all right," he whispered. "He's all right. They made it. You'll be all right, too. You got what you wanted; you're his wife, and his family...."
"It's not all I wanted; but it's too late now. I'll miss him, Starbuck." For a moment, their eyes met, and memories from another universe, shared through a stranger's mind, filled them both. Then, Ostara smiled sadly and turned to cry on her wounded brother-in-law's good shoulder.
Starbuck felt a hand on his own shoulder, and looked up to see acceptance and a curious, unexpected question in Akilles's eyes. What he was for Apollo in that other world, he could now be for the major in this one. Glancing back at Adama, he knew the old enmity between him and this family had been washed away by everything that had occurred. He nodded agreement to what Akilles offered; the other man appeared satisfied, and a brief handclasp sealed a new friendship.
The crowd moved away as the site was cleared. Media cameras kept rolling as the bereaved family gathered and departed. Adama supported Ila, who looked faint. Athena trailed her mother, concerned. Artemis and Ostara assisted Ares to his feet. Troy tagged along behind his new mother, his eyes wide and helpless at yet another loss. Akilles and Starbuck carried Apollo's body. He would be buried with honor; his family and friends would grieve.
His memorial tribute would read, "A Warrior of the Colonies." They all knew he would be pleased with those words. Only a few of them knew how much that simple epithet would really mean.
Apollo's first gasp of air brought surprise. He expected the sharp stabbing pain that he recalled from his last centon. But breathing was painless. He opened eyes, wondering where he was.
It was life center. He realized with elation that he was on the Galactica. He was home.
He tried to sit up, and nearly fainted.
"Captain!" Someone rushed to his side, and quickly summoned other help.
He stared in disbelief at the image of Demetra, and almost panicked, afraid for a moment that the whole nightmare was beginning again. Then Cassiopeia joined the other med tech, and touched his hand.
"I'll stay with him, Demeter. Just lie down, Apollo. You've been in a coma for almost ten days. Your body's a little weak. Give it time to recuperate before you jump out of bed."
He groaned. "More physical therapy. But this time, I don't have to worry about the nurse."
The women's confusion was obvious. He made no attempt to enlighten them.
Apollo still felt weak, but able to walk again. The doctors wouldn't let him or Starbuck out of life center yet, and he was being vividly reminded how much he hated the place. They had him moving around as much as possible, and he had an occasional visitor, but being barred from flying or much of anything else made him restless, especially after the nearly two sectars in that other universe, when he'd been almost continuously on the move. He privately thought that if he could survive that, he ought to be allowed a simple thing like a patrol.
He was also jittery about Demeter's presence, until he discovered the med tech was engaged to marry a warrior from Red Squadron. Cassie hadn't understood why he laughed when she told him that.
Boomer breezed in and made himself at home. The lieutenant had been transported physically into that other universe, and showed signs of those strenuous days. He was a bit thinner, and still looked a little haggard around the eyes, even after several days of rest and light duty.
"Well, we evacuated the planet."
"Oh?" The captain sat up, trying to control the weak trembling that the movement started in his arms and shoulders. "I suppose that means Dr. Wilker's doing his experiments on the Galactica now. I've got to talk to him about his last tests. I don't exactly like the results."
Boomer shook his head. "Don't bother. The Commander's already done so." A slight smile touched his features. "Our Commander decided, with a little input from on-scene personnel, that the alien machinery was too dangerous for us - or anyone else - to have access to."
"We couldn't risk bringing it on board, not knowing for certain how it was powered or most of its operational procedures. We also couldn't risk someone else finding it and misusing it. We destroyed it."
"I can't see Dr. Wilker calmly standing by for that."
"His objections were noted."
"But had no impact on the decision?"
"No. Are you trying to suggest you agree with him?" Boomer demanded.
"Apollo, we were there, both of us, in that other world. That alien technology could skip from place to place in other dimensions! We got lucky enough to be in one we were compatible with. Our technicians didn't know what they were doing. We were fortunate to get home. Next time, who knows? Was it that very equipment that destroyed that race? We haven't figured out much about their society, or how it functioned-"
Apollo held up a hand. "No, Boomer, I don't agree with Wilker. I think it was a wise thing to remove temptation. That's what it was, you know, not just a piece of alien machinery. It was temptation - to try and change a world we didn't belong to. And that's what we did. I hope it was the right thing, but I don't know.
"And the possibility that their technology could skip time, as well as place.... Boomer, think of the possibilities. I'm not sure we're capable of making the decisions that would take, or resisting the urge to ... meddle, to try and maybe change the past. Do we have the wisdom? Do we have the right?
"We might change our own past. I've read a little, theories about what that might do. I know I'm not ready to deal with the time paradox. You did the right thing."
The two men were silent for a few moments, considering the serious dilemma Apollo had brought up. Did they have the right to change the course of history in that other universe?
They had done so, rightly or not. Apollo couldn't stand aside while the Cylons destroyed the Colonies again. However similar their alternate worlds might have been to that point, their paths diverged irreconcilably because of his presence, and Starbuck's, and Boomer's.
Would the separated universes converge again? Apollo and Boomer had both read some history in those Colonies. It had happened before; their timestreams had separated, then come together again with similar incidents, similar actions by important figures. The humans in that world now had an opportunity to rebuild their planets; maybe their chance would pull his own world together again. If the Colonies survived in one universe, maybe they would get another opportunity here. Maybe the timestream tried to keep their paths flowing together. If that was so, by saving the other Colonies, they might have given their own a second chance.
Apollo decided to take a walk, although he was already tired from that day's physical therapy. Boomer went with him.
The captain considered stopping in the computer room to check personnel records and present Fleet status, but decided he wasn't quite up to finding out whether there really had been an Ostara in the military before the Destruction, or if such a woman still existed somewhere in the Fleet. Maybe later, if he could figure out what to say to a woman who'd been his wife.
They found the third member of the alternate universe party taking it easy in his own cubicle.
The lieutenant hastily made himself presentable. "Hi Captain, Boomer. The doctors get to you yet?"
"What do you mean?" Boomer pulled up seats for both of them.
Starbuck shifted uncomfortably. "Seems somebody's real interested in finding out what happened, what we remember about the time we were ... gone. Details. Lots of details. Representatives of the Council, and our scientific staff. They'd like full reports, as soon as we're up to it, filling in all the blanks. We're celebrities now." He didn't look like he enjoyed his new status.
Boomer whistled. "That's gonna be an interesting discussion."
Apollo's eyes focused on the ceiling. "Well, let's see. I committed treason, was blackmailed into marriage, hid out in a brothel, and paid for my crimes by being murdered by a traitor. Meanwhile, Boomer played ghost and blackmailed the aide of an esteemed Councilor, in the same conspiracy. All in all, Starbuck, you came out of this better than we did. You didn't become a criminal - oh, unless you count breaking into the planetary defense computer offices. Of course, you did have this little identity problem, but once you got it straight who you were...."
Starbuck's eyes clouded at the reminder of Ostara, and the advantage the woman had taken of his memories and knowledge. Being cast as a woman, and Apollo's wife, was definitely not the high point of his life. He remembered how mortified and disgusted he'd felt, the first few days, adjusting to a new body, and suddenly finding himself the object of male attention. The shock when the woman awakened and resumed control, deliberately blocking his awareness while she plotted, was also a frightening memory.
He had no interest in reliving the experience, especially for the Council. It was too personal to share; it was bad enough that Boomer and Apollo knew what had happened.
And there had been moments when he himself hadn't been entirely certain of any dichotomy between mind and body. Had it been her subconscious acting on his perceptions of himself?
His relationships with Cassiopeia, Athena, and several other women had become entirely new adventures. He would tread much more cautiously with them in the future.
"I'd rather not have to talk to the Council or our scientists," Starbuck growled, grimacing. "It's none of their business."
"Actually," Boomer drawled, "my memories are kind of cloudy. Getting fainter, too."
His friends stared at him for a moment, until the meaning behind his words began to filter through.
As Apollo had said, their people might not be ready for the news of other, similar universes, with versions of themselves living and dying there - especially since Boomer had personally seen to the destruction of the machinery capable of taking them to those places. They might even be viewed as madmen, sharing a delusion. It was a difficult thing to accept, and there was nothing to be gained by offering the knowledge to the Fleet. And the memories of that place, while not all necessary cruel, were personally uncomfortable for all of them.
"I see what you mean," Apollo commented in a faraway voice. "It's all kind of hazy. Maybe Dr. Wilker didn't really have the stuff figured out as well as he thought he did...."
Starbuck looked grateful that what he considered a humiliating experience would not become public knowledge. "Too bad we can't give the technocrats the information they want. I just can't remember much, and what there is doesn't make sense...."
"Technocrats? Got that from Michael and Sarah, didn't you?" Apollo grinned at him. It was good to hear his friends laugh so easily again, and pleasant to meet their eyes without feeling embarrassed.
"Hey, Apollo?" Starbuck suggested a moment later. "Next time you volunteer to become an experimental animal for Wilker, remind me not to be anywhere in the vicinity!"
Wasn't that a phenomenal story??? So email Sharon Monroe at firstname.lastname@example.org and let her know!
Enter Sheba's Galaxy