Light gleamed off the metallic sides of the device. The alien leaned closer, and he saw something incredibly bright and blue forming a thin line in an arc between two of its points. He couldn't move to escape. His body lay limp and unresponsive as he desperately watched the thing brought close to him.
The arc touched his throat. He felt it cut. The alien drew it across his chest, down over his stomach. In the reddening path behind it, his flesh pulled apart. Small drops of blood oozed and beaded along the edges of his broken skin. Another alien leaned over him, some other device in its hand-situated appendage. It touched him, peeling back the skin. He felt air on exposed muscles and nerves. One white rib was bared.
Vivisection. He was alive. He was conscious. He could feel what they were doing to him, in some strange, terrifying, not-quite-painless way.
There should be more blood. I should be dying.
The second alien probed the rib, touching him with its instrument; he felt numbness spread across his chest. Then it pushed back muscles, opening a cavity under his rib. An organ was revealed, something fist-shaped and thumping. The muscle moved faster, pulsing in time with his quickening heartbeat.
Heartbeat. It was his heart.
His heart, bared to the universe and to the alien who leaned over him....
He gathered breath and tried to scream....
...And woke with a gasp of terror.
At his jump, Muffet growled slightly, but Boxey didn't stir.
Apollo lay back in his bunk. He couldn't remember what he had been dreaming of, but he was certain it was the same nightmare that had awakened him several times in the past few sectars he couldn't remember those, either, but he knew they had happened. He rolled over, wrapping his arms around his pillow and pulling the blanket close around his neck. Despite the warmth in his quarters, he was shivering. With the chill pulsing in his veins, his palms and forehead were clammy with a cold sweat.
What am I afraid of? We haven't seen Cylons in sectars. The aliens are gone. Salik cleared me, I'm all right.
Maybe I'm just restless. That would explain the headaches, too. Stress and worry. A little boredom maybe. That could explain the dreams and the headaches, that could explain it all. I haven't been in a Viper in too long. Maybe I'm afraid I've forgotten how to fly. I've got to get back on the flight roster. I need something to do. I'll have to talk to Salik tomorrow. I've been out of action too long....
It had been over two sectars since the battlestar Galactica last encountered the advanced aliens. The missing pilots had been returned, apparently uninjured but with very little information about their captors. The Pegasus and her recuperating commander had long since departed in search of the aliens and the Delphian survivors who followed their young Empress's whim in abandoning the Colonial fleet. The fleet had resigned itself to the second loss of the reckless, heroic Cain, and was turning its attention inward once again. A round of athletic competition was just the thing to give them new heroes for the centon, and help them forget.
"Good game, Boomer, Barton...."
"Yeah, great style, guys! You really were in top form tonight...."
"Thinking about the championship? Gonna be some real competition...."
The small mob was boisterous in congratulating the winners, Lt. Boomer and his new partner, Sgt. Barton.
Two men in sweat-stained triad trunks and padding stood apart from the rest. Capt. Apollo, a muscular, dark-haired man with a serious nature, and Lt. Starbuck, a blue-eyed blond with an easy grin, were the losers of the match. Their performance had not been stellar, and they knew it. Their recent assortment of injuries and captivity told on them. Both had in fact only within the past few sectons been cleared for active duty again. Still breathless, they waited for the elated victors and their enthusiastic supporters to make a triumphal exit before heading to the showers. Several of the celebrating group gave them pats of encouragement and understanding nods as they passed.
"We'll save you a spot in the lounge," offered a passer-by.
"Might even buy you a drink!" his vivacious companion added.
The colonel was in dress blue; his civilian companion was in a becoming cinnamon-gold celebration gown that swirled to her ankles. Tigh and Maruwa pushed past the losing warriors and into the crowd. Rank didn't give them any easier passage than anyone else.
"We'll need a drink," Starbuck muttered wryly. "At least we're getting some sympathy. They haven't completely forgotten their heroes."
"Considering we spent a good deal of the last two sectars in life centers for assorted reasons...." Apollo grimaced at the recollections. While he was a "guest" on the alien vessel, his friend had been wounded in an attempted kidnaping. He was still apprehensive about his recurring shadowy nightmare, but Starbuck had dismissed any worries about the incident and concentrated on playing the hero.
He glanced over the rest of the crowd. Tigh and Maruwa weren't getting very far very fast. Lt. Jolly had a woman tucked neatly in his arm obviously the mysterious lady he'd been seeing, who he had refused thus far to introduce to anyone or refer to by name. The gangly Sgt. Greenbean and petite Cpl. Rigel made an interesting study in opposites. Lt. Giles and Sgt. Cree were obviously exchanging cubits with a man he didn't recognize; they had lost bets on the game.
Among the happy spectators was Lt. Sheba. Catching the captain's eye on her, she quickly looked away and took the arm of her escort. Another woman in the group, the civilian med tech Cassiopeia, saw the movement and sent a sympathetic glance Apollo's way. Her tentative smile to Starbuck, however, was ignored. She sighed and followed her friends.
"Still not forgiven, huh?" Starbuck gestured after Sheba.
"No. She hasn't spoken to me privately since that last time, just after her father left us. She's barely civil at briefings. She still acts like I'm personally responsible for her being left behind, like I wished her father away on purpose, or asked him to go...." Trying to ignore the fact that his former fiancι had so quickly picked up a new "friend," Apollo shifted the conversation. "But what about you, Starbuck? You haven't spent any time with Cassie, either, and I think she'd like to change that."
"Well, I been sorta busy...."
And you haven't forgiven her for dashing to Cain when he was brought aboard, and for transferring to the Pegasus when he needed a med tech's care. Of course, you've been spending time with my sister....
"So how is Athena?" he teased.
"Oh, you look exhausted!" The attractive brunette looked enchanting in a pink celebration gown as she joined the weary, sweat-drenched warriors. Ens. Athena took Starbuck's arm. "Are you sure you should be exerting yourself so strenuously after your wounds?"
Apollo grinned at the brief smile his sister spared for him. He knew her feelings for his handsome friend they'd only deepened since he'd saved her from the kidnaping, and that Starbuck now seemed to reciprocate meant she was in orbit much of the time.
"If Salik wants to insist I'm fit for duty again, and my slave-driving captain wants to put me back on the patrol roster, I can sure manage a little triad...." The explanation was cut off with a kiss.
Apollo studiously looked away, smothering laughter, as Starbuck industriously returned the embrace. "I think I'll get presentable," he muttered, and slipped away to the turboshower.
"Hey, where's the winner? Can't tell me Boomer is missing his own coronation party!" Apollo demanded humourously as he took a place at the table. He glanced around the lounge. Tigh and Maruwa laughed, as did the small collection of officers and warriors from his squadron.
Barton, who'd stopped to collect congratulations and a victory drink from the colonel, shrugged it off. "He said something about a headache coming on, so he was going to stop in the life station for something first. He should be here in a few centons. But where's the loser? Starbuck owes me a couple of drinks!"
"I don't really know. He and Athena were right behind me...."
"Hah! Then we'll see him tomorrow!" With that cheery comment, Barton grabbed his ambrosa and headed off toward another table.
Apollo's attention left with him. Boomer was having headaches too? The man was never sick, hadn't been since the epidemic at Kobol. At least he wasn't the only one still having after-effects....
"Actually, I'm surprised we're seeing you here, Captain," Maruwa noted with a flashing smile. "From what I hear, you've been conspicuous by your absences recently." Her expression grew slyer. "Or has the celestial observation dome been claiming your time?"
He brought his attention back to the table. "Uh ... well, I guess I have been spending a lot of time up there...." He directed a look at Col. Tigh, who seemed undecided if he should look guilty or innocent for having told Maruwa where he knew the captain could be found. Was there anything the colonel didn't tell the woman?
"Since I've been on restricted duty these past sectons, it seemed a good way to spend my all-too-available time. We could always pick up something on one of those lower bands but you know more about that than I do, specializing in communications. Let's not discuss our work, okay? This is supposed to be a celebration, so how about if I buy the next round? I did have the misfortune to have lost tonight. Probably a good thing Boomer and Jolly aren't here buying for them, they'd clean out my pockets quicker than Starbuck and his systems!"
The others took him up on the offer with alacrity, and he signaled Slathis to bring another round.
Boomer leaned against the wall, seeing only red with each throb in his head. He wanted to crawl into a hole and smash his head into insensibility. The potion they'd given him at the starliner's life station had done nothing in fact, it might even have intensified the inexplicable pain.
"I don't get migraines," he groaned through gritted teeth. "What in hades is going on? Go away...."
Then, as suddenly as the dreadful headache had come on, it was gone. Gasping, the dark warrior opened his eyes and stared around the passage. No one had seen the moment of weakness.
"I'll check with Salik tomorrow, after the party."
"We're missing the party, Starbuck...." Athena whispered. She smoothed the nearly sheer valcron sheet, loving the feel and image of it across her naked hip and leg. The man with her obviously appreciated it too.
"It's worth it..." He kissed the nape of her neck again. One hand slid down her bared back, but the woman held his hand from following her hip curve.
"Starbuck! We should get to the party.... You're missing those consolation drinks the Colonel promised."
The warrior laughed. "I like your consolation better. If I had known how good things could be between us, I would've saved your life a long time ago. Mmm, that perfume is fantastic...." He nibbled on her earlobe.
"Worn with you in mind ... oh, that tickles!"
"So return the favor...."
Afterward, curled in his strong arms, Athena lay awake while her lover slept. She told herself she should be content. She had loved Starbuck for a long time, and now it seemed she had him back again. But vague uneasiness nibbled at her mind, and her thoughts strayed to a redheaded, man-shaped machine of alien manufacture.
Thjis. He was just a machine, sent to kidnap me. Why can't I get him out of my mind?
I'm happy with you, Starbuck....
Or am I just kidding myself? Was I so willing to fall into your bed because I love you or because I'm afraid? Am I afraid of losing you, that you might go back to Cassie or Noday or one of the others? Or am I afraid of my own feelings, afraid that I don't love you any more, or not enough? Am I trying to forget Thjis and those little fantasies that I'd found somebody else? What am I trying to prove, and to whom? Maybe it was so easy to believe I felt something for ... the man I thought Thjis was, because there really isn't anything left between us....
I always thought we could have something special. Now I'm afraid it's gone. I'm here too late. It's not fair to either of us to try to revive something that's dead and gone....
His first patrol in over two sectars. Apollo felt better for being in his Viper and out among the stars again. He'd spent nearly a sectar being probed and tested physically and psychologically, after six sectons as a specimen to the aliens, and getting much of the same treatment. He'd been worried that his skill might've deteriorated in that time, but the small fighter was already "home" again, an extension of himself, instantly responding to his every command.
The stars and a steady course were soothing to nerves frazzled by too many questions and intent stares from too many people interested in what had happened to him and to Boomer, who'd snapped back from the experience more easily, for some reason. He didn't know how Cain's people had fared; they'd been returned to their own base ship, which had shortly departed.
Correcting his course almost automatically, he found himself thinking of the brief time between the Pegasus's arrival and his captivity. Even with the alien pursuers and kidnaped warriors, and the medical quarantine for Cain and several of his pilots, there had been pleasant centars. There had been a lot of work, true, in trying to coordinate the squadrons of two battlestars, but having two warships had more than doubled fleet security and morale. He'd felt able to relax a little for the first time in ... since the Destruction, being able to share the responsibility and duty as flight commander with Maj. Electra. The burden hadn't all rested on his shoulders. There had been no tense moments between them, not really, and no personality clashes or ego problems.
True, he'd seen little of Sheba during those days; she'd been with Cain, and their newly-made engagement to marry had shattered under the pressure. Sheba now wanted nothing to do with him, and he was beginning to think any hope for a further personal relationship with her was futile, especially since she seemed to be encouraging someone else.
"Something wrong, Captain?"
"Just thinking, Lieutenant. Good to be in a Viper again." He didn't elaborate. There was no reason to permit personal reflections to show up in the official logs recorded of every patrol. Starbuck likely understood the underlying sentiment, if not the exact thoughts.
He studied his long-range scanner carefully. Better not to let his mind wander too far, not on long patrol, when it was potentially more dangerous to the patrol and to the fleet to miss something.
Miss. He missed Electra and he suspected it was more the woman than the warrior he wanted to see again. She was beautiful, competent, professional on duty, and pleasant to be with off duty. She had no hang-ups about being anybody's daughter, and she didn't look twice at his being the son of the commander. He wondered if she had thought of him, maybe regretfully, when he disappeared, or if she thought of him now. Maybe the Pegasus would return, some day, and he would be able to ask her, if he had the opportunity, and it looked like there might be a chance....
Blips appeared at the edge of his screen.
"Heads up, Starbuck," he warned. "Something on our tail...."
"I see 'em!" the other warrior hollered back. "Cylons! Frak! They found us again. Looks like a dozen of 'em."
"Those are bad odds. Let's try to outrun them. You know the evasion course. Can't let them plot the Galactica's course from our flight path...." The reminder was unnecessary, but the other pilot took no offense.
The Colonial warriors had been on patrol for centars; the Cylon Raiders were coming fresh from somewhere. It was only a matter of moments before the humans realized they could never outrun their enemies. They would run out of fuel long before the Cylons gave up the pursuit.
"Our only chance is to fight," Starbuck yelled desperately when a laser shot nearly took off his upper fin.
"I know," Apollo replied grimly, studying his gauges. Full laser charge, low fuel reserves, and a dozen ships of death strung along behind them. Braking flaps would leave them in the middle of that string; they'd get a few quick shots before the enemy could respond, but they'd be sitting targets for the ones behind them. Odds were not good. They'd have to get out again fast....
"One quick series, then we run again. Maybe they won't be ready for us. Ready for braking flaps?"
"Affirmative," his wingmate replied.
The odds abruptly became nine to two, and the chase was on again. The maneuver would work only once, however. They'd have to come up with something else. At least the Cylons had dropped back a little, and separated to avoid more of the warriors' deadly shots....
Baltar studied the skies above him. They were dark and forbidding, wild with spying eyes of light, and they raised a shudder in him. He turned from them and entered the command bunker of the new Cylon listening post. Still under construction, it would give the Imperious Leader intelligence about the farthest reaches of the quadrant. He was here to check its progress, and to wait for a Cylon basestar to retrieve him.
After his escape from the planet to which Adama had exiled him, he'd spent sectars on freighters, transferring from small outpost to small outpost, until he came here. It seemed that, while the Imperious Leader wanted him back, the Cylons were in no hurry to expedite his return. Only excuses met his requests for speedier transportation, and the delays were lengthy.
"At least I've got clean clothes again, and some human comforts," he muttered to himself. "And the blisters are gone." Baltar studied his hands as he walked. Adama had given him sufficient supplies to survive, true, but he'd worked hard to set up a shelter and to maintain an adequate food supply on the beautiful planet of exile. Then Cain and his people had appeared from out of nowhere, still adding to his misery as they had before, first at the battle of Molecay, then at the battle over Gamoray. He'd almost had vengeance against some of Cain's people when Cylon rescuers arrived at the same time. He didn't really know what finally happened to Orestes and Astarte. He didn't really care. At least he was free again.
The traitor paced the small, blank-walled chamber that would serve as command post for the future command Centurion. He hated it. The small planetoid and its contingent of Cylons bored him. The place made him restless, and he wanted to quit it as soon as possible. But he had at least another sectar here before escaping to his own base ship and resuming his proper position. The only pleasant thought in his mind
"What is it?" he wearily asked the silver Centurion.
He was immediately interested. "Have they identified the pilots? The base ship of the Vipers?"
"The-patrol-reports-the-warriors-are-from-the-Galactica," intoned the Cylon.
Baltar rubbed his smooth hands in malicious anticipation. "Capture the ships. I want those pilots alive for interrogation."
"Primary orders are to capture those ships!" Baltar barked back.
"By-your-command." The armed metal creature lumbered out.
"'Plot their course.'" Baltar snorted derisively. "If I know Adama, any of his people we locate will take off in another direction. The only way we'll learn anything is if they're captured and questioned!"
And could he be lucky enough that one of the pilots was Adama's son, Captain Apollo? Or maybe Cain's daughter, Lieutenant Sheba? Or perhaps Lieutenant Starbuck? Or better yet, best of all, most unlikely, all three? To have his enemies' children at his mercy....
The walls were too close. The human traitor decided he'd rather watch the cold stars.
"A Cylon base," breathed Captain Orestes. "The Commander'll want to know about this...."
His wingmate replied quietly, "Sizeable forces, too, from the looks of it. When they finish it, this could be the listening post for the entire quadrant!"
"Yeah. The Cylon arm is getting long or they're trying awfully hard to track us down. If the fleet comes through here...." Orestes chewed his lip. The destination somehow gleaned by Cmdr. Adama was a carefully kept secret. Only a handful of officers on the Pegasus were aware of Earth's suspected location, including Cmdr. Cain, Col. Kleopatra, a few department heads, and the flight commander, Maj. Electra, his sister. Would the Galactica pass near here? It seemed likely, since the Pegasus maintained a vigil through the quadrant. That could mean Earth was near, as well....
"Stay with the comet, Astarte," he ordered. "We'll watch a little longer, ride the comet's orbit, then use the tail to conceal our course when we loop back to the Pegasus. We'll have more to pass along to the Commander than their location...."
Apollo had to fight his controls. Of the twelve enemy ships that spotted his patrol, only five still trailed his wounded ship. Starbuck kept pace beside him. If his comm still worked, he'd have ordered his friend away a long time ago. The Cylons would have followed him, or at least split up to pursue them both. Starbuck would've have a chance to escape.
They'd managed to lead the Raiders far from the fleet, and they'd made the Cylons work for their imminent victory. Apollo's ship had taken severe damage in the third stage of the fight; he could no longer maneuver with any speed, his fuel was almost gone, and his lasers were exhausted. Starbuck's protection had kept him alive then, driving the enemy off with a wild and unexpected counter-attack, but one ship alone couldn't prevail against five, especially when the pilot was trying to shield someone else.
"Well," he said grimly, knowing his buddy couldn't hear him, "we gave it our best shot, Starbuck. Sorry you had to be along on this one. You should've run when you had the chance. You could've survived, instead of following a dead man. If I could talk to you now.... At least those tinheads will never figure the fleet's location from the vectors we've been showing them...."
Even they couldn't find the Galactica from here. Apollo's navicomp, pathetically overworked as it had been before the Cylon near-direct hit, had completely erased. He doubted very much if Starbuck's equipment was in any better shape.
Staring at his rear scan, which miraculously still worked, he saw one of the Raiders begin a quick curved move that he recognized. He drew a quick breath of alarm. Starbuck wasn't always careful of his rear, and if he didn't spot the maneuver in time....
Starbuck saw. Apollo let the breath out in a relieved sigh. A course swerve and a burst of laser fire from his wingmate sent the Raider scurrying back to its friends. But the lieutenant's charge was running low as well; the energy level was dropping, and Apollo knew the Cylons would read that as easily as he did.
He couldn't get over the feeling that the Cylons were no longer trying to destroy them outright, that they were being herded in this direction, as they had been toward Ravashol's pulsar on the ice planet. With a heavy heart, he gave his engines another push. He had no intention of being captured. After the time he'd spent among the alien scientists, the thought of being a prisoner again turned his blood cold with dread. If it came to a final choice, he still had his laser.
He wondered what choice Starbuck would make.
The two Pegasus pilots had left the listening post system, using the vagrant comet as their cover for escape. Now beyond any scanner range of the planetoid, they hit their thrusters for a fast but careful trip home.
"There, Captain! Do you see it?" His wingmate's excited voice broke into Orestes's thoughts. "Two Vipers, five Raiders. They're coming this way."
"I see 'em, Astarte," he replied with a frown. "The way they're reading out, those Vipers've taken some damage. Weapons must be down, too, or they'd be fighting. Must've put up a good one as it is, the way they look...."
"Do we take them?"
"I'll go in. You drop back, warn the Pegasus first. Let Commander Cain know about the Cylon base they're setting up. I'll lead the pilots in."
"Orestes...." she began rebelliously.
"Orders, kid. The Cylons won't expect me coming up from behind. I get the feeling they want those guys alive. Go." The Cylons must be from the listening post, and they obviously wanted to take the pilots prisoner. He had something to say about those plans.
"Yes, sir." He could almost hear the sulk as Astarte veered off. Her emotions showed in the way she handled a Viper never clumsy or sloppy in timing or formation, but somehow very obvious. And Astarte resented being left out of anything.
Orestes checked his laser charge and chose the angle for his attack. With a deadly grin, the captain closed on the rearmost of the Raiders. They were in for a surprise.
Captain Apollo couldn't believe his eyes or his scanners when a Colonial Viper swept out of the interstellar dust cloud behind their murderous pursuers. For a moment he stared, shocked, it not even occurring to him to be grateful that the Lords had apparently heard his plea for assistance. Then the trailing enemy formation shattered under the Viper's laser fire, and suddenly the odds were even, three to three.
The first Viper was followed a moment later by another, which took its own shots at the confused Raiders. The two survivors tried to break away; Starbuck had enough firepower left for one of them. The first Viper looped around and took out the remaining Raider a moment later. The attack had been so sudden, they hadn't gotten off a warning to whatever place the humans were being directed toward.
Starbuck flew into close formation with him, almost wingtip to wingtip, then turned on his cockpit lights and gestured at him. With a grin, Apollo hit his own lights. There was a system of communicating by hand signals, but it was rarely used. He congratulated himself on insisting Blue Squadron be familiar with the manual code, over the complaints of Starbuck and others.
'Injured? Ship condition?'
Starbuck's signals were a little awkward. It was difficult and a bit dangerous to stay next to him while signaling, and the other pilot's skill with the code was questionable.
'Unhurt. Maneuverable. Your condition? Rescuers?'
'Undamaged. Pegasus near. Follow?'
What choice did they have? Studying his gauges, Apollo began to worry if he had enough fuel to reach the battlestar, or the maneuverability to land safely if he did.
To land on the Pegasus. Cain and his people are still out here, doing what they seem to do best. I wonder if they've learned anything about the aliens, or the Delphians.
His thoughts unexpectedly centered on Electra.
Will she be happy to see me...?
Enter Sheba's Galaxy