Lieutenant Kee of Red Squadron picked it up on his scanner first: traces of a crash site, and evidence that someone had survived. "Do we go down, Captain?"
Captain Tilden eyed his own scanners. "No Cylon activity. Go on down; Red Team #2, go with him. I'll contact the Galactica and be right with you."
In a few moments, he joined his pilots on the ground. Kee, Starleaf, Indra, and Williams were already studying the terrain. It was dry and cool, even at full daylight, with a chilly breeze scurrying the dust about. There was some spindly vegetation in sheltered spots among the rocks. The planet was mostly brown and gray; even the sky was dull blue, as if it had decided such a dismal place wasn't worth the effort of sparkling. Tilden considered that their military uniforms looked too appropriate against the blandness.
"Vacation spot of the universe, it ain't," Kee muttered to his superior.
"We're not here on vacation," Tilden rejoined. "Which way to the stuff you found?"
The stocky Oriental pointed toward the cliffside. "If my scanner reads right, just around that butte."
"Let's hope so. The Commander's coming down to check it out personally," the captain stated casually.
The members of the search team started.
"The Commander?" Sergeant Starleaf squeaked in a higher voice than usual.
"Yes." Tilden didn't pass along the knowledge that the commander himself had sent them on this search mission, his eyes burning with a secret he couldn't share with his people until his suspicions were confirmed or refuted.
They found the small shelter, composed of metal plates scavenged from ships damaged beyond repair, with furnishings made of the same scavengings. Behind the shelter, in the lee of a pile of rocks, the humans found a collection of ship parts, more metal plates, and the blasted remains of four or five Cylons.
The five warriors stared mutely. A human had lived in this shelter, surviving by cannibalizing Cylon remains and likely his own ship, surrounded by cold isolation.
Starleaf shivered and hugged herself. "Hell of a place to live," she muttered, pretending it was just the wind that chilled her, and not the thought of existing alone on such a barren world.
"You'd be like a hermit, alone in the desert trying to find your kismet. A very cold crucible," Indra added softly. "But not by your own choice. I wonder if the one who lived here escaped with his sanity...."
They heard footsteps behind them, and whirled as one, lasers drawn.
It was Commander Troy and the armed escort an officer of his rank was required to have when in a potentially dangerous situation. "Tilden?"
The captain stepped forward and made his report. "The shelter and the pile of junk are composed of parts of an old-style Viper and a Raider, also pieces of a number of blasted Cylons, sir. No sign of any occupant at present or even recently."
"No sign." Troy slowly stepped past him, eyes focused on the forlorn plates of the shelter. "Have you scanned the entire area?"
"Yes, sir. No grave, no human remains, no other traces of Cylons, no nothing. Just this shelter and pile of junk - and some scattered vegetation that looks out of place. Food-type plants, if you were hungry. Maybe what would pass for a garden in a desert like this."
Tilden was sure it was his imagination; the commander couldn't have winced.
"Except for the burnt areas to the north, in two places," Williams cut in with his deep tones. "As if more than one small ship had taken off."
Troy studied the rescue team for a moment, then turned to the shelter and went in, ignoring the wind and cold and dust. Tilden gestured the two men and two women of his search team to withdraw to their ships. The escort remained at guard outside the shelter as the captain followed his commander inside.
They were out of the wind, but it howled against the metal walls like a frustrated night specter, denied entrance to a building and flinging sand against it as if out of vengeance or to abrade a way in. Out of the wan sunshine, the place felt even colder.
"You knew something was here. Who was it? How did you know?"
The older man sat down heavily, and seemed disinclined to answer.
"Commander Troy," Tilden persisted, "there are a number of pilots who already think you're gifted with some kind of second sight, after the battle of Barnard's Star, when we drove the Cylons out of our quadrant. Is that it? You just knew something was here?"
Troy stared at his young officer, wondering if he had ever been such a youth, before gray streaked his hair, and command wore lines in his face and soul. The dark warrior, born on Earth, as had been so many in the new fleet, had an almost fearful wariness in his eyes, and Troy knew he owed this man, at least, an explanation.
"When I was still a child, long before we reached your world, there was a warrior. We had to leave him behind, but Boomer - remember Commander Boomer? - had been with him. He had the coordinates of the planet where that warrior was hoped to have landed safely. This is that planet. I had to look...."
Tilden nodded understandingly. "It looks like he was here. But that was so long ago."
"Over eighty of your Earth years. I know there was very little chance." Troy shook himself back to reality, leaving boyhood memories behind. "Go back to your ship, Captain. I'll be with you shortly."
"Yes, sir." He watched his commander thoughtfully for a moment. There were some things the Colonials and the native-born Terrans - and now their own colonists as they spread outward like an explosion's shockwave with the benefits of Colonial technology and knowledge - thought differently about. But grief, love, and friendship were human constants. The warrior that his commander searched for ... he must have been a special man, a good friend.
Alone in the shelter, feeling desolation and loneliness as he imagined his old friend must have, Troy looked around once more. He saw the helmet stuck up on a shelf, out of anyone's line of sight, and reached for it.
His hands trembled as he read the name, emblazoned in the old script of the Colonies, not the common tongue of the Earth humans, which they now used almost exclusively.
"My old friend," he breathed. "So you did survive, and you were here, for a time. But there's no remains anywhere. Did the Cylons find you, and take you away? No, they would have killed you. You must have left by yourself, or with human help. Or so I choose to believe. Your luck was a legend in the fleet.... But where did you go? Are you still alive, somewhere? How did you live? Where did you die?"
He replaced the helmet carefully. Whatever Starbuck had gone through on this world, he would leave it intact. It was a poor memorial, but all he could do.
He had wondered so often what happened to Starbuck. Ever since the discovery of Earth, and the creative explosion resulting from the mingling of their cultures, he had hoped for a chance to come back and search. The Second Cylon War had interfered, as the Cylons always interfered - but even Commander Adama, his grandfather, hadn't counted on what would happen when a planet of nearly eight billion people was told they faced annihilation from the stars. The Terrans had been struggling through the birth of a truly united and interdependent world system; none of the Colonials had expected such a galvanization of effort - almost as if Earth's leaders welcomed an outside foe, a chance to unite and fight someone besides themselves. They'd been so quick to swarm into space, and almost eager to take on the Cylons. They'd fought, in fact, with a near-savagery that discomfited many Colonial leaders. The private muttering, when he was a young man, was that if the war ever ended, they've have the impossible task of civilizing their Earth brothers.
The surprising thing was that the Earthmen had pushed the Cylons back. And then pushed them out of the quadrant. And now they seriously discussed retracing the Galactica's route, drawing the other Terra into alliance, resettling Kobol, retaking the Twelve Worlds. They contemplated awesome things, to the older Colonials who still remembered defeat and the long, exhausting yahrens of exile and wandering.
Troy had volunteered to take the Galactica on patrol of the outer edges of human space, space the Earthlings were deliriously determined to hold. It had given him a chance to look for Starbuck, and others lost on the long exodus.
Here, at least, one search dead-ended.
The Aryan pilot had called this place a crucible of fate. She was likely right. He wondered what Starbuck's fate had been.
For better or worse, it had not been here.
Enter Sheba's Galaxy