The bridge of the Pegasus hummed along at its usual quiet efficiency. The battlestar's silver-haired commander strode among his people with an unusually restrained gait, pausing at the foot of his command deck to glance about him.
Cain noted Tolan, the flight officer and his aide, studying his console with only desultory interest. That told him quite clearly that nothing of grave import was occurring at the moment.
Col. Kenji had the watch; Cain now knew the Delphian well enough to recognize a wandering mind behind the passive features and dark eyes. The eyes were settled on Lt. Mriko, currently at the turret console, scanning space around them. Her gaze strayed often to her husband as well, and something warm flashed between them in half-smiles; Cain decided to ignore it.
Capt. Veleda of damage control and one of her people were running a systems check on one of the scanner hook-ups; it didn't seem to be affecting scan performance or personnel morale, but ghost blips were distracting even when the officer knew what was there, and in battle it could prove dangerous not that they were facing any sort of combat, except against boredom.
Dark Lt. Senmut, manning navigation, looked rather weary as he scribbled notes on something or other.
Corp. Lygia was staring into space, but her expression brightened when Corp. Memnon arrived to relieve her at communications. Cain saw an impudent smile as she released her board, and watched her depart the bridge with bouncy steps. Memnon settled in very quickly and efficiently the boy at Molecay had seasoned into a very fine warrior over the yahrens since.
Other warriors were scattered at their various consoles, doing their jobs with a notable lack of enthusiasm.
Cain leaned against the railing and slapped his swagger stick gently against his opposite palm. Lack of enthusiasm. Boredom. Disinterest. It all boiled down to a crew that hadn't seen action in too long, and had settled for too long into a stale routine. To a commander frustrated by a lack of action a commander, a man who still ached, in those long empty moments, for the loss of his daughter, across space. Whatever had happened to Sheba, and where, and why....
He needed something to do. So did his crew. But at the micron, nothing seemed forthcoming. So he would have to settle for something else and he knew what it was.
"Kenji," he announced, "you have the bridge."
The Delphian eyed him with a marginal lift of his thin dark brows. "We'll contact you if anything should require your attention, Commander."
"I'm sure Kleopatra can handle it if you can't. Contact her first."
Kenji actually blinked. "Yes, sir."
Cain left the bridge at a brisk pace. He needed to be in space again. How long had it been? His last flight had been returning to the Pegasus from the Galactica during the battle over Gamoray. His last battle had been the tanker incident, which had resulted in his temporary loss of command. His last patrol had been before the encounter with the Galactica; he'd flown with Electra, one of the few pilots on the ship unafraid to speak her mind to the commander, and tell him who was boss, when it involved his own safety in space, and her position as flight commander.
Cain stopped in his quarters for a moment to pick up his own helmet, then hopped onto the pilots' lift. The lift quickly trundled him to Alpha bay. As he stalked across the solid metal expanse of the launch area, technician Edric wraith-slipped from the shadows, pale and thin as always, smile half-hidden in his mustache.
"Commander?" echoed through the air.
Cain couldn't see the man's lips move, but his throat worked, the obvious Adam's apple slipping up and down to match the vocalizations.
"How's my Viper?" he asked.
Something proud touched Edric's already erect and bony stance. "Ready for flight, sir. We'll have her on a track in two microns."
"Sounds good. I'll wait."
Cain switched direction, heading for the launch cradle his ship would nestle into. The Viper technician vanished into the shadows again, his orders haunting the bay. Once, Cain had found the Britannica tech's presence unnerving, his appearance and behavior unsettling. But Edric claimed he could befriend anybody, and the commander's experience told him it might be true even the shy Delphian children flocked to his cubicle. At any rate, Cain now like the strange young man.
Electra's call interrupted his thoughts.
She strode over to join him, saw the Viper being shunted into position on the track, and knew his plans. "Taking a patrol again, sir? It's been a while."
"Thought I might, if it's all right with you, Major."
"Certainly, Commander. The spaceways seem clear today. Akimi and I are just back from our sweep, and we didn't spot anything. Silver Spar's on the watch right now. Orestes and Falstaff are still out there, in Gamma quadrant; Celene and Celeste have Alpha; and Daystar and Rissian are currently in Lambda. Two more patrols should be launching within the next half-centar. Who are you taking for wingman?" The blonde glanced about after her brief report and query. This was a matter they had discussed before; on patrol, Electra insisted that her pilots pair up, even the commander. Cain accepted the dictate, rather than undermine his flight commander's authority before the men in any way.
"I didn't have anybody in mind. But if you insist on my having a wingmate...."
"I do," she replied firmly.
"Then I guess I'll have to pull somebody from the roster...."
"I'm available, sir!"
Both turned to see a dark-haired young woman dashing toward them, pulling her flight jacket on with one hand and trying to hang onto her helmet with the other. Slightly out of breath, Astarte pulled up to attention, her eyes shining with eagerness. "Technician Edric reported you were planning a patrol, sir, and if you need a wingman, I'd like to volunteer."
Cain looked her over, then turned to Electra. "Will she do, Major?"
Electra nodded. "Certainly, sir. She's been good enough to fly with Captain Orestes, she's good enough to fly with you. Enjoy the flight, Commander. You, too, Astarte. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have some reports and debriefing to see to...." She hurried across the bay.
"Well, Sergeant, let's go," Cain said briskly.
Cain had to smile as he hopped into his cockpit. Astarte never lost that zest for flying. She was her father's daughter that way. He frowned at sudden memories, and hoped he would never see the girl crippled as her father had been, bitter and unable to fly....
"Your choice of quadrants, Sergeant?" he asked.
"We could double-check Gamma, sir."
Following Orestes. The girl was transparent, too.
"Core command releasing control. Launch when ready."
At Memnon's familiar voice in his ear, Cain hit his turbos. He was thrown back against his seat by the unrelenting g-forces for a micron's passage through the launch tube; then he was free and flying in the intimate emptiness between the stars.
"There's definitely something here!" Orestes shifted in his cockpit, frowning and tense. Gamma sector had been silent and empty until now. But what a discovery to break it up! He studied his scanner and space, trying to pick out anything recognizable in the mess they were flying toward. "It looks like ... rubble, debris ... from something big...." He couldn't carry the thought any further. It led to the unthinkable. Thoughts of Molecay flared up and brutally seared his mind. That had been enough; if this was what it seemed, it was the end of humanity.
"Like a battlestar?" he heard Falstaff's faltering whisper echo the same fear.
"I don't know."
"It's not." The new voice was familiar and steadying.
The haunting specter was banished by Cain's assurance.
"Patrol Two, Orestes and Falstaff," Orestes began almost questioningly, expecting the commander would follow procedure and identify himself in return, and his reason for being there.
"Patrol One. Astarte's my wing."
"A lot of debris here, sir, as if there was a major battle fought in this sector," the captain reported tensely. "We're still trying to find anything the warbook can put a lock on, but it's big enough to have been a base ship of some kind...."
"And you think it might have been the Galactica. No." Cain's voice was still decisive and reassuring. "This was a Cylon."
"How do you know? The scanners still haven't locked on...."
"I can feel it, Orestes. This was a Cylon. It's Adama's work."
"But the Galactica keeps a low profile, remember?" Falstaff cut in. "Their flight commander said so, they can't afford to fight"
"Because of their civilian ships," Cain finished. "I heard what Apollo said; Adama said it too. But it looks like he changed his tactics this once, anyway." He sounded pleased about it, despite the possibility that Adama may not have had any choice in fighting here. "Let's split the team, cover the entire area, see just how much debris there is, if it's from one ship or more."
A few moments later, Orestes had evidence to back up what he wanted to believe. "Commander," he reported, "my scanners just picked up fragments of a core energizer. Confirmed as Cylon. It was a Cylon basestar, and it looks like the whole thing just blew apart."
"As if she'd faced a battlestar, not just fighters."
"Yeah. That's the only thing that could have demolished it so ... thoroughly."
"Continue scanning." Cain sounded as though this was business-as-usual.
Orestes shook his helmeted head. This was no routine patrol of Colonial defense lines; this was a battlefield where the last of surviving Colonial humanity could have been destroyed. But to Cain, it was just the site of another engagement to be examined and learned from. The captain could never take it in so detached a manner. Maybe he needed to learn to....
A new voice joined the intermittent conversation. "Commander?"
Astarte continued. "I did a quick flyby of the planet, sir, as ordered. Scan indicates it's habitable. There are some low-level energy readings that could be trouble...."
"Explain. Is there a colony or base of some sort on the planet?"
"There could have been, sir. But whatever was on the surface, readings indicate it is no longer occupied."
The four pilots were still for several moments.
"Maybe the Galactica was trying to set up a base, and the Cylons wiped it out," Falstaff ventured grimly.
As bad as Ptah, Orestes thought, looking for the worst-case scenario.
"One way to find out," was Cain's response. "Let's go in. I'm sending word to the Pegasus now."
His people fell into loose formation around him.
The Galactica. Commander Adama. Capt. Orestes felt very solemn as they entered atmosphere. Their mission was to protect the fleet from the outside, while the Galactica traveled with those civilian ships, guarding and leading them from the inside.
Discovering the battle site brought home very clearly how fragile their protection was. The Pegasus couldn't be everywhere; the Cylons could get through or be waiting in any system. And the Galactica couldn't face everything the Cylons could throw at them. What if they failed? What if the fleet was attacked and destroyed at some point, from some other direction? What if the Galactica was gone? It hit him with piercing intensity just how much they expected and depended on their sister ship to keep the fleet safe.
Otherwise, what was the point of their existence?
They might as well go back to Gamoray and spend the rest of their lives knocking down that base, again and again and again.... Or take the Pegasus on a suicide run, strike for the heart of the Cylon Empire to destroy what they could, maybe take out the massive computers and programming factories that must exist there, the places where the Cylon race was truly conceived and given its purpose.
Without the Galactica and her fleet, why should they continue to exist? What was there to fight for?
"We belong with the fleet," he whispered. Especially if the Galactica was now occasionally going on the offensive. That had been the reason for leaving in the first place, Cain's unwillingness to live always on the defensive.
"What was that, Captain?" he heard a rough voice ask.
"Nothing, sir, nothing."
"Comments, anybody?" the commander asked as they examined their surroundings. It had been difficult finding a relatively clear area near the supposed former colony or base. Their four Vipers sat in the middle of a semi-clearing; their later launch would probably char several acres, although the exceedingly high moisture content of the surrounding soil and plant life would mean no extensive fires.
"Nice place," Astarte commented with a grimace. The local plants were mostly the color of her eyes, and the shadows matched her dark, almost black hair. She looked like she belonged on the world, or had perhaps even created it from an inner image as a personal setting.
However, the feel of the place was very different from the woman's eager, cheerful disposition. It was hot and humid; in their warm and protective uniforms, the warriors were already feeling sweaty and lethargic. Insects buzzed around their heads in small swarms. Beneath their slow, careful footsteps, the ground was soft and giving. Even a few feet away from the clearing, thick wet fronds dripped on them from above and brushed them in the face when they tried to push through. Direct light and heat from the planet's sun could scarcely penetrate the thick cover above, away from the clearing; the warriors were at least protected from that. That protection was bought only with surrendering the drying that sunlight would have affected upon the thick air and bepuddled soil, and the overhanging canopy held in every erg of heat to make the humidity more oppressive. The warmth and moisture supported lush plant life, which in turn blocked any breezes below treetop level.
"No animal life," was Orestes's observation. "It's so quiet. The last planet I was on was Baltar's world, and that place was humming, chirping, howling, buzzing, screeching there were so many natural noises in the background that it made the Pegasus feel like a mortuary for a couple of days after we were rescued. This place ... it's a little eerie. Even with us having just landed, we should be hearing something more than the breeze above and a few bugs around us." He swatted at an annoying something that was trying to explore his nose, then scratched the itch its touch left behind.
Falstaff studied an assortment of serrated leaves from several of the nearer plants, dripping with moisture, whether from dew or a recent drizzle, he didn't know. He did know, however, that the plants appeared very primitive. "Ferns," he announced.
"I think we can tell that," Astarte muttered.
"Significance?" Cain demanded more crisply.
"Well, from the star type, this is an older system, like a lot of the others we've been checking out recently. This whole quadrant is full of habitable and life-filled planets. But from the ferns and insect types we can see here, this world is evolving rather late on the scale. There probably aren't a lot of land animals here yet, and they're probably pretty small. Should be a multitude of marine and some amphibious types, though."
"Not a world that would be grabbed for colonization?" the commander asked, looking thoughtful as beads of sweat rolled down his forehead.
"No." The young warrior wiped his brow again with his sleeve. "Probably no native cereals or other food plants mostly these ferns, some flowering trees, a few grasses. Likely no useful native animals. And the soil probably isn't very good. So a colonist a human-type colonist would have to bring in every type of plant he wanted, and every type of animal. And the land wouldn't support them well. I think you could count the climate against it too."
"Some mineral or ore worth the effort?" Orestes offered. The logistics of colonization weren't his area of expertise, but he was beginning to understand what Falstaff was saying.
He shrugged, then frowned. "Could be. Or maybe something medical. This kind of plant life, it's lush, if nothing else, could have lots of odd chemical compounds, maybe some real useful stuff. Hmm, maybe we shouldn't have been so quick to come down here...."
"Something we might have to worry about?" Cain sounded sharper.
"As long as we don't ingest anything, or encounter something with a contact poison, or get bitten by something too nasty, we should be all right." He sounded reasonably certain. "And we'll be decontaminated as soon as we get back to the Pegasus, so there shouldn't be any problem with picking up anything here...."
They all felt a little uncomfortable, more so than the unhealthy climate could account for.
"Well, as along as we're already here, let's check out that base or whatever it is," Cain decided. He led the way into the thick jungle.
"Where'd you pick up so much information?" Astarte whispered to Falstaff.
"My mother was on the Deep Star Exploration and Colonization Advisory Board, the representative from Scorpio. We grew up with it, my brothers and me, playing like we were opening new worlds. Just a little hobby. I've never had any formal training in planning a colony or anything. The Board had contingency plans for every type of planet you could think of, all designed and ready to be implemented, if the war ever ended."
"Well, it certainly did that...."
They trudged after their superior officers, enduring the heat and humidity. Even breathing was becoming a chore. They skirted a scummy-looking pond, first noticeable by the taint it lent the air; if not for the smell, they might have wandered into the brown and green muck, as it was almost indistinguishable from the ground. Past the pond, they dodged more wet, heavy, spikey leaves. Something splashed in the pond behind them, leaving only ripples in its wake by the time the humans turned to look. Something else squished through mud somewhere, but they found no tracks to indicate where it had been or how large it was, and whatever-it-was had made no vocalizations to help them trace it. Obviously, there was some kind of animal life.
"This place is getting into my bones," Astarte muttered breathlessly. "I'm never going to be cool again."
"Space is cold, but stars are flame, and our ships fly between," Falstaff began an old pilots' song.
"Shh!" Orestes hissed.
"The temperature is the least of it," Falstaff whispered more quietly to avoid his captain's nervousness. "This place is spooky. No other way to say it. But if you keep hanging on to your laser like that, you're going to have permanent imprints in your fingers."
She glanced down at her hand, clenched tightly around the butt of her weapon, and flushed. The color faded slowly in the heat.
The others clustered around Cain as he pointed. In the middle of a thickly overgrown former clearing were several structures, their once brightly-painted metallic sides dulled by exposure to sunlight, and rusted and pitted from the action of rain and native life forms. The four pilots slowly scanned the area, seeing nothing moving but ferns in the breeze from overhead.
Astarte suddenly gasped and drew the weapon she'd been clinging to. The others had a momentary glimpse of her target before the light beam struck the Cylon; it shattered in a small explosion of metal shards, torn plants, and disturbed insects.
They held their breaths in anticipation, but nothing happened. No squad of Cylon soldiers rushed out of the structures, laser rifles blasting. No one ran out of the jungle to point them out as attackers. The disturbed insects settled back on the ruins, leaving everything much the same as it had been.
"Well, we know it was Cylons here," Cain said grimly.
"There's another," Orestes breathed.
They stared at the silent hulk for a long moment. No light flashed from its ocular tracking slot. No monotonous drone announced it had seen them. It simply stood, rigid, weapon cradled in its dull metal arms.
Orestes slowly stepped out into the clearing and pushed through the brush to the Cylon's side. He studied the machine for a moment, then pushed its arm. There was a small creak, but otherwise no response. He knew a few things about Cylon construction; there were small gauges on its back hump that charted Cylon functioning. He circled the machine and checked the power levels.
"It's dead," he announced. "Completely powered down, half rusted through, and just now caught in its tracks from the vines grown up around its legs. Frak!" he finished, jumping back a step and nearly tumbling into the vines. "I think it's also home to something green with yellow eyes!"
"There's two more just over here, same condition, but in a horizontal position," Falstaff spoke up from where he stood. He'd nearly stumbled over the two Cylons as he moved into the clearing.
"I think it's safe to spread out and look around," Cain decided. "Keep within shouting range and don't leave the clearing. Check the buildings and immediate area. Let's see if we can find out what the Cylons were doing here."
Sgt. Falstaff moved into the nearer of the structures. It was typical of its type cheaply designed, factory ship moduled, hastily constructed, and easily abandoned when its occupants' task was completed. Precisely what the Cylons had done on other worlds, although they usually took their guard force with them. The structures seemed to be a barracks for the common Cylon soldiers. The lights were no longer working, their energizer having long ago surrendered to creeping moss or some other contaminant, but there were a few torches still operational. Falstaff took one and began to explore.
There was actually something depressing about finding the dead, powered-down Cylons scattered here. It was an abandoned base, a dead "colony," if one could call a Cylon place by that word. His brothers had told him what Scorpio was like after the Destruction, how silent and haunted it had been; he couldn't help wondering how a Cylon would view this place.
He shook the thoughts away brutally. What did a Cylon know about family and friends? Or care? They couldn't experience emotions; they didn't know the joy of loving and living, or the grief of loss when those one cared about were dead. This wasn't a barracks, it was a storage facility for machines that weren't being used at the moment.
Mouth set grimly, he moved through the structure, finding nothing.
Capt. Orestes watched his fellows scatter. He considered checking out one of the other structures, but decided against it. Something about this place was triggering his occasional claustrophobia, and the last thing he needed was to be trapped in a Cylon maze with the walls closing in. Instead, he chose to circle the perimeter of the clearing.
More Cylons were scattered about the small base. It seemed several dozen Cylons had been left here to exist or perish as best they could when the main staff was pulled out. Or so he deduced from the size of the base and its appearance of having been occupied for some length of time.
The local growth appeared to have been cut back several times, and each time encroached more deeply into the camp before being driven back. Finally the Cylons had given up on keeping the ferns and mosses and local things out, or simply had so much equipment and personnel powered down that they couldn't hold their space any longer. It was a sobering thought.
He wiped the sweat from his brow, then raised his face to the slight breeze coming down from above the trees, grateful for that after the closeness of the thick, primitive jungle.
Something made him feel he was being watched. He glanced up at the tree-forms. Just huge ferns, he knew, not really of the same order of evolution or type as trees back home, but at least green, alive, and growing. The breeze from their crests swooped into the clearing, cooling him and swirling the air into less oppressive currents that still smelled just as thick. There was nothing there, nothing intelligent with malevolent intent toward him.
"Now I'm getting paranoid," he muttered. "Fear of closed-in places, fear of wide-open spaces, a little conviction that something is out to get me. Just what I need."
I think we could have survived on Baltar's planet. But this place ... never. I'll be glad to get out of here....
Sgt. Astarte scanned the contents of the shielded room. It was the only place, as far as she could tell, where the native environment hadn't penetrated and sabotaged the enemy. It still had lights, and hummed as equipment somewhere filtered the air and circulated it. The devices and storage compartments were unfamiliar to her, and the Cylons had obviously taken everything of value or usefulness with them, but she knew what the scattered remainders looked like: something medical.
Her mother had been a doctor, and occasionally had taken a wide-eyed daughter to see places like this, where men and women in sterile clothing and masks worked in solemn dedication. And her father had spent a lot of his life in and out of places like this, trying any new procedure or medication that might help him. He'd never given up hope that somehow, in time, he would find a way to fly again. Anusin and Hathor had argued at times, she remembered, over treatments and costs; it had been frustrating for both of them to know what medical technology couldn't do.
But what had the Cylons been doing? She studied the room more closely, trying to imagine Cylon scientists creating medical miracles.
"Stupid idea," she mouthed in self-contempt. "Why should the Cylons care about anything medical? Why have a medical station out here at the end of the galaxy? Unless it was to find new ways to kill or torture us, as if they needed 'em...."
A dreadful picture came to mind of human prisoners brought here to die in agonies while their merciless captors registered their pain and sought to increase it. She shuddered in revulsion and turned away.
Cmdr. Cain raised his gaze skyward, noting the sun beginning its descent. Afternoon, then, in this hothouse. But his mind was on space, on the battle scene they had flown through.
Adama's people had fought there, he intuited. They couldn't tell with absolute certainty how long ago the battle had been, although breakdown in the Cylon energy cores would give them a general idea. He tried to gauge the time elapsed, and compare it with the time since Baal or Iblis or whatever had tried to take his ship. Had his baby fought in that battle? Had she died there? Was that why she could come to them and warn them against the demonic stranger?
His heart ached. She had saved them. Maybe she had saved the fleet in that battle above as well. It made little difference to think of her having died that way. She was still gone. His little Sheba was still gone.
Would it have made a difference if he had stayed with the fleet? Would Adama's people and his own have been safer? Would they have faced Baal with the rest of the survivors? Would one of his people have been there to protect Sheba from the killing shot?
Were they really accomplishing the mission he had chosen for his ship? He'd destroyed a number of Cylons, certainly, but that didn't mean those Cylons would have found the fleet otherwise or that he and Adama together wouldn't have destroyed them if they had. He'd saved that handful of people on Paradeen but if he'd been with the fleet, maybe Leiter and his people would never have escaped to endanger them. He hadn't stopped Baltar from escaping. Sure, he'd found the Delphians and a handful of other humans, but maybe they'd have encountered the fleet anyway....
He'd told Sheba and Bojay that he might be the most egocentric warrior in the history of the Colonies, but that he was also the best. Maybe, just maybe, the ego had loomed over sense and strategy in his decision to leave. Maybe the main thing he'd accomplished was to discover the depths of his own impatience and arrogance. Maybe it was time to go back.
The search revealed nothing more than could be seen at first glance. The Cylons were dead, every one. Most of the equipment had been removed, only a few scattered pieces remaining, and those in as bad a shape as the Cylons. If there was information in the remaining computer banks, it was degraded past their ability to recover it. There was nothing here, and little they were likely to learn. The Pegasus warriors gathered, silent and introspective. They couldn't feel sad to have discovered an abandoned Cylon base; those soulless beings were their enemy, and a world that seemed to have repulsed them of its own was a blessing, not a curse. But the world did not welcome them, either. There was nothing here for humans.
"Do you think the basestar was sent after they lost contact here, to find out what happened, and gather what was left?" Astarte wondered.
"No. " Cain shook his head with certainty. "This base has been dead too long. That ship up there was waiting for Adama and the fleet."
Orestes almost laughed, a choked-off, strange sound. "Funny thing about that ever notice how we always come back to the Galactica? Whether we're in the middle of a mission or just talking in the O Club. We're always thinking about her, about the rest of our people. Even when we're not with the Galactica, we're with her."
"That's our mission. That's why we're here," Cain cut in sternly, trying not to recall his own doubts of a centar before.
Orestes glanced around the dead and still base once more, then upward to the equally dead and completely silent space battle site. His retort was delivered almost recklessly. "If you're right, the Galactica is past here. She's past Cylon reach, and maybe into new space where nobody knows what's waiting. Maybe it's time to go back to her, to rejoin the fleet. Maybe they need us with them now. Maybe we need"
"We have our own fleet to protect. The Delphians"
"Take pride in telling us they can take care of themselves. Nothing's stopping them from going with us or from leaving us. And why do they need us more than our own people?"
Falstaff and Astarte felt paralyzed, half-expecting their commander to react with outrage.
Cain studied the younger man thoughtfully. "Maybe you're right," he murmured after several long centons. "But for now, let's get back to our ship. She needs us too."
They headed back to their Vipers.
Orestes, at least, was glad to be leaving, and he believed the others were, too. The place was too hot, too oppressive, too full of Cylon thoughts. It was getting to him he was warm; his skin crawled as if infested with insects or some small plant or animal form; and he felt waves of dizziness from heat and dehydration. As he climbed into his Viper and settled his helmet, preparing for launch, he took a long look at the jungle, and found himself shuddering. It would be good to be back in space, better to be within the metal walls of their base ship. It would be good to be home.
And maybe, he thought longingly, they would soon be back with the fleet. That was all that was left of their worlds, all that was left of home. Reunited with the fleet, they would really, finally, be home.
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Enter Sheba's Galaxy