HERMITAGE THREE

By Gene Hermsen


The Galactica search team located the site on their last flyby of the planet. Five warriors, under the command of Captain Tilden, had landed to examine the site and wait. The commander himself was following them down. Kee, Starleaf, Indra, and Williams waited for their leader before moving away from their landing spot.

The five stared about the boulder-strewn plain. It was dry and cool, even at full daylight, with a chilly breeze blowing the dust around. There was some spindly vegetation in sheltered spots among the rocks, adding a tired green, but 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.

They continued their search, and 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.

For some reason, no one wanted to make the fateful decision to step inside the metal hut. Instead, the five stood mutely outside, as if afraid they might be overheard by anyone within. A human had lived in this shelter, surviving by cannibalizing Cylon remains and likely his own ship, surrounded by cold isolation. The sparse and scattered vegetation, now wild but still clinging sturdily to life, could just barely be classified as food; there was little indication of animal life, companionship, or anything to make life easier; the human's existence must have been very bitter and difficult.

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. We haven't been inside to check for signs of recent occupation."

Troy slowly stepped past him, eyes focused on the forlorn plates of the shelter. "Have you scanned the entire area?"

Tilden gestured his warriors to continue their search. They scattered around the shelter and among the rocks. The commander moved toward the shelter, his eyes fastened on the tilted, rough-hung door.

"Sir, are you sure you should...?" Tilden caught his arm.

Troy barely glanced at him. "Yes."

"Then let me go first."

The commander nodded briefly, and waited while the dark captain moved forward into the shelter.

From what they could see, it was a small chamber, half formed of a shallow natural cave, half of metal plates rudely lasered together. The cold darkness smelled of desolation and loneliness, and dust drifted through rays of sunlight from cracks between the metal sheets. The only real light crept pallidly through the open door.

Their eyes slowly adapted to the dimness. There were few furnishings: a generator, numerous scattered pieces of Cylons, a dust-covered pile of fabric, and, incredibly, what looked like a makeshift infant's cradle.

"What happened here?" Tilden asked, bewildered. His laser drawn, he stared at the Cylon bits. They had been disassembled, not blasted.

Troy reached out to touch the swinging cradle. It creaked, and he felt a searing certainty that another riddle of the long journey was solved. "Zee...."

"There's a helmet over there," the captain intoned.

Commander Troy glanced at it, knowing what he would see, recognizing the name on the battered equipment, scrolled in the Colonial script he knew Tilden couldn't read.

Starbuck.

He shook his head slowly.

Tilden started, staring at the pile of fabric, and slowly lowered his weapon. "Commander, I think it's...."

Troy had already seen. He moved to the pile, actually a worn sleepsack from a Colonial military-issue survival pack, and knelt beside it. Very gently, he pulled back the front flap, realizing his hands were shaking but unable to control them.

He heard his warrior mutter some prayer, but the words made no impression as tears gathered in his eyes. He had known there would be no real hope of finding the man alive, but secretly he'd expected that warrior's legendary luck to have persevered even here....

The gray face was topped by a wild shock of blond hair, dull with grit. A scraggly beard covered the chin. The eyes were closed. No breath stirred the body.

The body.

Starbuck was dead. Had been for a long time, for the climate to have ... mummified him.

"Sir? Who is ... was it?"

"His name ... was Starbuck.... He was a great warrior, a hero, and ... my very good friend, my father's very good friend...."

"I'm sorry...."

Troy found a bleak smile. "You did not cause this. And it has been so very long ... I thought it wouldn't hurt any more."

"Yes, sir. What now?"

"Leave us a few moments, Tilden."

He nodded and stepped outside, joining the escort, who were very unnerved by the area and what their commander had found.

Troy waited until the door closed and he was in darkness again. He touched the cold, dry face. So this was what "old leather" felt like. Any warrior could tell you that the cheap booktapes were cavalier in their description of death.

Long centons passed as memories flashed through his mind, recalled from a time so long ago and far away that the young Earth-born warriors outside would scarcely believe it. Starbuck playing pyramid in the old ready room, preoccupied to the extent of eating his candy ante, wondering how a kid was beating him. Starbuck running through the corridor, answering an alert, thoughts caught in the coming battle. Starbuck on report, but hardly penitent, for fighting with one of the security men - he'd never gotten along with Reese. Starbuck nervously trying to avoid the crossfire between Cassiopeia and Athena, while spending time with Miriam, Noday, Aurora, a full dozen others. Starbuck's quiet sadness for a long time after the old man, Chameleon, died on the Senior Ship. Starbuck's shocked face the day Apollo didn't come back, the way he'd stumbled woodenly out of the briefing room and disappeared for three days, to be dragged back too drunk to walk. Starbuck with laughing eyes and a carefully held face, explaining the facts of life to a young boy, filling his father's place as best he could. Starbuck the hero, risking everything, and one day not coming back himself....

"And this is where it ended, bound to a dead world, alone. It's not fair, not fair.... You deserved so much better. You deserved to see Earth too, or at least to die among the stars you loved so, flying fast and free, still fighting and laughing at whatever fate handed you. You deserved not to die alone."

"Sir?" Captain Tilden shadowed the door. "Word from the Galactica, Commander, and Earth Command. We really have to go."

"Yes. We'll ... we'll only be a moment...."

Tilden nodded solemnly and vanished again.

Troy gathered up the now-light body in his arms, a light shower of dust falling to the dirt floor, unseen in the gray dimness of the shelter. With tears in his eyes, and his voice choked, he whispered, "We'll take you home, Starbuck. Home to the stars. Where you can be with us, and we can say proper farewells.

"You are so long overdue and missed in heaven...."


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