Chapter II


"By-your-command."

Baltar turned from the unexciting view. There were no ships in the sky, no Vipers being brought in under a triumphal Cylon guard. "What is it, Centurion?" he asked, foreboding in his voice. Something had gone wrong, he knew it.

"We-have-lost-radio-contact-with-the-patrol-pursuing-the-Colonial-Vipers. We-have-also-lost-contact-with-a-patrol-in-Delta-Quadrant." The emotionless machine waited for orders.

Baltar stared. He wasn't surprised that they had lost the warriors; that seemed the way his luck ran, recently. But the other patrol....

"Was there any evidence of Colonial activity in that quadrant?"

"Negative-Commander-Baltar. There-was-no-evidence-of-alien-vessels-or-known-stellar-phenomena-to-account-for-the-disappearances."

"This isn't the first time this has happened?" the human demanded, furiously amazed that he hadn't been informed of any such difficulties on his arrival at the listening post.

"Two-patrols-have-vanished-in-that-quadrant-in-the-past-secton. Our-investigations-have-offered-no-explanation-or-probable-cause-for-their-disappearance." The Centurion might as well have been saying, "Our-lubricant-rations-are-low," for all the concern it expressed.

"Has the Imperious Leader been informed of this?" Baltar asked.

"No-special-report-has-been-filed. It-is-not-standard-procedure-to-inform-the-Imperious-Leader-of-the-loss-of-six-ships."

Baltar turned away, intent on the starry darkness beyond the protective dylinium shield of the viewport. Troubled, he wondered what they might have found – something natural that they weren't prepared for, but which could be avoided, or some other, unexpected enemy? Either way, he had been presented with a challenge. His heart quailed at facing it personally, but with the resources of a well-equipped, although not yet fully functional listening post at his disposal for the time being, he might resolve the matter to the satisfaction of the Imperious Leader. The Leader might not care if six ships vanished without explanation, but he would certainly reward well the man who delivered a warning of terrible danger, or a way to deal with the unexpected. The Cylons were notoriously ill-prepared to deal with what had previously been beyond their experience.

"Double patrols, and constant communication with our post," he ordered.

The first step was to find out what might be out there. Then he would know if he could reasonably expect to be victorious in a confrontation with it. If it was too powerful, or too strange, he could order a ship and abandon the post. He still had that much authority in the Empire....

* * * * *

"First Viper, comin' in hot!" The yell brought an added flurry of activity to Alpha bay of the Pegasus, as techs and emergency personnel prepared for the arrival of Lt. Starbuck's ship.

Maj. Electra waited impatiently. She knew Capt. Orestes and Sgt. Astarte were safely down in Beta, and Capt. Apollo's ship was so badly damaged he wasn't even attempting a landing – a rescue team shuttle had been dispatched. That left the bold, brash, Lt. Starbuck to worry about. The young warrior had probably underestimated the amount of damage his ship had taken, or overestimated his own flying skills, and was risking his life unnecessarily to prove something by landing his fighter without assistance.

Sighing, she admitted to herself she'd probably do the same before meekly accepting rescue by another base ship. What was it that gave warriors such a streak of stubborn pride where their ships and skills were concerned? Likely the same thing that made them warriors to begin with....

"Crash team, stand by!"

A Viper flashed through the invisible force screen at the end of the landing bay, a silver missile coming in much too fast.

Electra's fingers tightened on the girder as true panic welled in her. She knew what it felt like to come in that fast, to have death a single arc's degree off, one miscalculation away. And he was a warrior, one of his own kind, a kinsman in every way. For a micron she was aboard too, fighting the controls and her own cold fear – she would have been calmer if it had been her own ship.

"Careful, little brother...."

The Viper slid sideways, and suddenly skewed across the bay.

"No...!" She felt like she'd been kicked in the stomach.

It straightened, and she laughed, now recognizing the unorthodox braking method. A few moments later, the slowed Viper finally halted, not far from where the technician had insisted she wait.

The emergency fire control and damage teams swarmed over the Viper, dousing it with boroton and scanning its damage. Above them all, the canopy popped open, and a helmet flew out. Several of the techs laughed and cheered as a blond warrior followed the flying headgear.

Another survivor. Lucky again. This warrior would walk away.

"Welcome aboard, Starbuck!" Electra called cheerfully.

He waved back at the lithe blonde woman. "Hey, this place looks familiar," he commented brightly. "Have I been here before?"

"It's possible," the woman laughed. "If you're ready, Commander Cain would like to see you. Orestes and Astarte are already on the way to make their report, so the sooner you get through decontamination–"

"Uh, could I wait 'til Apollo's down?" the lieutenant asked quickly and more somberly. "His comm went out early, so I don't really know how he is, and he wouldn't admit it if he was hurt...."

She shook her head. "I think the report is important enough to justify your immediate presence. Besides, it could be a while until the rescue shuttle's back. You might as well see the Commander now. If Apollo's hurt, you can't help him. He wouldn't want you here, if you have valuable information that could save human lives...."

Starbuck stared at the empty end of the landing bay.

"Besides, I'll be here, if you think he needs somebody waiting for him."

He finally acquiesced.

* * * * *

Capt. Apollo waited patiently for the rescue shuttle. When they arrived, he cut all engines. Space-suited technicians attached the required tow ropes, after he signaled his continued good health – there was no reason for them to have to blow the ship in an emergency rescue, since he was uninjured, and if the fighter could be brought in relatively intact, there was a chance that it could be repaired.

Then, he waited some more. There was nothing he could do but watch as they maneuvered the Viper toward the landing bay. His comm was out, so he couldn't talk to anybody, or ask if Starbuck had landed safely.

The Pegasus grew before him, and the yawning cavity of the landing bay seemed to engulf him. Without landing skids, he got a rough jostling as his Viper screeched across the metal deck, but the tow ropes and an assortment of safety nets and force screens prevented too much damage. He clambered out without assistance, and surrendered himself to the care of the medical team.

He recognized the med tech working with the emergency team, an olive-skinned woman with a mass of dark ringlets tied back from her face. "Galswintha. Good to see you again."

The senior med tech acknowledged his greeting with a preoccupied nod as she began the quick diagnostic routine.

"I'm all right, just my ship got hurt in this one," he informed her.

Dark eyes sparkled at him. "I'll be the judge of that, Doctor Apollo," she replied archly. "Does this hurt?"

He yelped as she unexpectedly tapped a sore spot.

"Seems to be a slightly cracked rib. Likely incurred during your landing, and your brain simply has not yet received the message," she continued mildly, as if unaware of his offended glare. "And there are other bruises as well. I suspect your time in life center will not exceed a centar or two. You may take him. Decontamination first, of course, although I expect you have not been anywhere to gather any toxic bacteria or viruses. No, Major, you will have to wait to see him...." She managed in one motion to gesture closer a pair of burly med techs and to wave off Electra.

Having no option, Apollo submitted with good grace.

* * * * *

"So the Cylons have built themselves another listening post in this quadrant." The commander of the Pegasus leaned against the desk, tapping his swagger stick against his chin as he studied the three warriors before him. It wasn't unusual to have a debriefing in his quarters. Formal briefing rooms were constricting to the maverick commander, and this was his impatient way of striking against the feeling. Especially for a small group like this.

Capt. Orestes and Sgt. Astarte were used to it; Lt. Starbuck seemed more at ease than the first time he'd been in those quarters, but still not at home.

"And you and Captain Apollo nearly flew into it."

"They weren't exactly giving us much choice!" Starbuck protested the implied criticism.

"I'm sure they didn't. Ah, Major. Welcome. Do sit down."

The newly arrived Electra too her seat, sending a reassuring smile and nod at Starbuck to let him know that Apollo was all right.

Cain continued. "Orestes, your opinion on the condition of the base?"

The warrior pursed his lips and considered. "The scan tapes from our Vipers show it's not complete. But by my calculations, they must have nearly four squadrons of Raiders based there now – the full complement of a basestar. A sizeable force."

Electra offered her opinion, based on what she'd seen and heard, and her own past experience. "My guess is they'll augment their forces further. If the Cylons expect the fleet to come through here, or plan to use the base to protect this quadrant from an enemy beyond, they'll need a larger force. It's possible, with their web of intelligence gathering, that they are aware of some threat near here. I don't remember any Colonial exploration this far out in this direction; most of our deep star exploration, yahrens ago, was toward the Sigma Arm. A few expeditions were sent, but I don't remember much of interest.... We've pretty much reached our limits of even hypotheses."

Cain nodded his head thoughtfully. "From the transmissions we've been monitoring, it would seem they're consolidating their hold on this quadrant, and planning for expansion. Not a good sign, for our fleet," he commented, pointedly glancing at Starbuck. "Or for any humans living beyond here, to have the Cylon Alliance poised to expand in this direction."

"Our forces would be about even at this point," Electra suggested tentatively. "We could take out the listening post, knock it down long enough for the fleet to pass, upset the tinheads' plans."

"Not yet," the commander said slowly. "I want to know why they're fortifying the area, what or who they expect to find, or are afraid of. If Starbuck's right about Adama's current heading, the Galactica and the fleet won't pass near enough for the Cylons here to detect them for several sectons, if at all. That could give us time to learn a great deal, by continuing to monitor them, about Cylon intentions, strength, and supply routes. If the Delphians are still in the area, we can't strand them in Cylon territory. And they may have encountered our mysterious alien friends as well – that could be the reason for the listening post suddenly built so far out."

"We could lose the element of surprise," Orestes pointed out. "Right now they don't know we're here."

"I think I can count on you not to let them know we're here. For now, warn your flight rosters to be extra careful, Electra. Dismissed, warriors, until nineteen hundred, when hopefully Captain Apollo may join us."

Electra, Orestes, and Astarte left, conferring. Starbuck hesitated a moment.

"Commander Cain...." he began.

"Yes, Starbuck?"

"Uh, is this concern for secrecy going to affect me and Apollo returning to the fleet?"

He wasn't sure what Cain's smile meant when the veteran replied, "I'll have to consider the matter. By the way, Lieutenant, how's Cassie? And Sheba?"

Starbuck felt like he'd just stepped on a sunspot. "Uh, they're ... fine, I guess. Sheba's not happy about being left behind again, and I really haven't seen much of Cassie since...."

The commander's gray-blue eyes were as sharp as his single, "Oh?"

He squirmed a moment, then burst out with, "I'm surprised you didn't take Cassiopeia with you, sir."

"She chose to stay with the Galactica."

Starbuck blinked.

"I told her that the man she chose had better be worthy of her, or I was coming back to deal with him personally. She's a damn fine woman, and she deserves a good man. I expected better of you, Lieutenant. You can go."

Cain understood too well what had happened. There was a gathering storm on his brow as his eyes remained fixed on Starbuck. The young warrior almost made it out the door before the older man called him back.

"What about Sheba? Is she starting to accept the situation? She knows I'll come back some day, doesn't she? She and Apollo, well...."

Honesty was the only possible response to that question, too. "She blames Apollo for your leaving, sir. I think you'll have to talk to the captain about that, but they aren't seeing each other any more...." Starbuck vanished as quickly as possible.

Cain watched him go, clamping his jaw shut both to avoid asking questions that might betray more concern and to avoid delivering a hot opinion he might regret later.

Starbuck, I never thought you were a fool. Brave and spirited, yes, and maybe a little reckless, but any man that would walk away from Cassie..... I had to leave her, but it wasn't willingly. And ah, Sheba, baby, I thought it was the right thing to do for you too. What in Sagan's name went wrong? I thought it was the right thing to do for both of you....

* * * * *

Orestes caught Astarte's arm as Electra hurried off. "You disobeyed orders out there," he whispered. "You should have stayed out of the fight, headed back to base like I told you. I could take care of it...."

Her expression was mutinous. "Backing up my wingman is my duty. I made the decision to place that duty above your temporary insanity."

"I oughtta put you on report!"

"Who do I report to?" she asked cheekily.

He grinned. "You have no respect for me as a superior officer."

"Whatever you say, sir. Am I on report?"

"To me. Twenty-two hundred bells."

"I'll meet you in the lounge."

He watched her saunter away, and shook his head. He let the girl get away with far too much. Just because they occasionally shared an evening, and those evenings were now exclusively spent with each other.... He shook his head again. That was why he'd made a policy of never getting involved with the women in his squadron. But with Astarte, he couldn't keep from breaking his own rules.

For just a micron, something throbbed behind his eyes. He tensed in expectation, but the ache faded. Relieved that he wasn't about to have another of those headaches, he headed down the corridor.

* * * * *

"He'll have to consider the matter?" Apollo demanded, nearly aghast. "What's that supposed to mean?" He was still in life center, and hadn't yet seen Commander Cain. However, Galswintha and one of the doctors, Beej, had already examined him and fused his cracked rib. The captain was dressed and ready to leave.

"I don't know!" Starbuck shot back.

"The Commander has his reasons, gentlemen, and if you think about them–" Electra returned, only to be interrupted again by the hot-headed young warrior.

"Reasons? Like what?"

"Do you know the location of the fleet right now? Could you find your way back to it? What about the Cylon listening post? Two Vipers alone, potentially against four squadrons, if they spot you? And if you're captured, as was obviously intended, how much would you tell them – under the proper 'persuasion'? Do you want Cain to risk leading the tinheads back to the fleet so you can ... go home again? And that's assuming we're far enough from the territory of those aliens to travel safely. Think about it, Starbuck. After all, if I remember correctly, you were thinking about transferring here anyway, just a few sectars ago."

"That was when I thought Apollo and Boomer were dead, and I didn't think I had any reason to stay...." He caught his friend's eye and shut up; Starbuck seldom expressed his feelings so openly. The captain nodded understandingly.

"Apollo's here, too," Electra stated logically.

"Oh....!" he exploded with an expletive, slamming his fist into the wall. "What right has Cain to make that decision for us? I don't care if he is the commander of the Pegasus, and the living legend, and–"

"He's the commander of this battlestar, which we now happen to be aboard, Starbuck," Apollo quietly interjected. He'd been studying Electra while considering their few options, and had reached a decision. "Which makes his orders binding on us. And those arguments the Major listed are good ones for us to stay here, at least for the time being."

Starbuck stared at his friend. "You ... agree with Cain?"

"Under the circumstances, which I may not necessarily like, I have no choice. He is the commander. We were worse than dead when Orestes saved us. And while I, at least, know the fleet's ultimate destination, we don't know where the Galactica is now. We could wander for sectons, run out of fuel and support vapors, and die drifting in space, if the Cylons – or worse – didn't find us first. The prospect doesn't thrill me."

The lieutenant looked like he knew he had to agree, but really wanted to argue some more, if only on principles.

A rueful smile tugged at the captain's mouth as he glanced at Electra. "I understand you have family here, Starbuck – a built-in belonging. Knowing you, you'll find somebody to help you get over Athena and Cassiopeia and Miriam and Noday and the others soon enough."

The flight commander hid a grin. Her younger brother's hobbies were similar to Orestes's – and sometimes her own.

Starbuck detected fatalism in Apollo's voice. "What about you?"

He looked down. "We'll still be fighting to defend the fleet; they just won't know it. Maybe some day we'll get back. I know ... Boxey's in ... good hands. Father.... Athena.... They'll get over it; they're warriors, they know the reasons, they always have...."

Electra shifted uncomfortably. "Oh, I'd forgotten ... Sheba...."

He sighed with weariness at the mention of her name. "I'm afraid that's over."

"What? Why?"

"When you left, she took it personally," he said without rancor. "And she has decided I was in some way responsible for her father being gone again, without her. She hasn't been willing to speak to me since."

"Probably why Cain decided to keep us here – doesn't have to send you back to his little girl," Starbuck muttered. "And he's not sending me back to Cassie either – one way to get even."

Electra could tell there were painful wounds showing, and shifted the conversation, ignoring the sudden excitement knocking at her heart. "I expect you'll both be wanting squadron assignments then? Unless you ... disagree with the Commander, and plan on bolting at the first opportunity. Which will probably mean he'll incarcerate you as menaces until he figures out some other way of handling you...."

The Galactica pilots responded with reluctant smiles.

"I expect we'll need a squadron assignment," Apollo admitted.

"Make it a good one," Starbuck cautioned flippantly. "We're used to the best – of course, whichever one we're in, it's be the best as soon as we join...."

She laughed. "I'll see what I can do. I'll check accommodations too."

When the flight commander left, their expressions turned more glum.

"So now we're part of the Pegasus," Apollo muttered softly.

"I guess it hurts you more than me," Starbuck conceded with an effort. "My family's here, at least most of it, and yours is still back in the fleet. You've always been close to them, and I'm still getting to know Orestes and Electra.... But we've got friends here. I guess it's a good thing we got to know some of the pilots when the Pegasus was with the fleet...."

Apollo forced another smile at Starbuck's tentative comments. "I expect we'll survive." But he had one more person to talk to.

* * * * *

"Colonel? Do you have a moment?"

Kleopatra looked up from her desk and smiled fondly. "For you, always, Apollo, you know that. Electra passed along your assignment. Welcome aboard."

"Thank you." He nodded acknowledgment.

"It sounds like you were lucky to run into Orestes and Astarte."

"We'd've been dead otherwise – or worse. The only time the Cylons take prisoners is when they want something out of them." Apollo couldn't entirely suppress the little shudder.

Kleopatra's dark eyes were keen and sympathetic. "True. But this time they failed. I'm glad to see you recovered completely from those aliens. The last time I saw you, you were in a life pod on the way to the Galactica. You're looking better than you did then."

The captain even laughed.

"But what is it you wanted to talk about?"

He met her gaze. "I think you know."

She nodded. "From knowing you, I'd guess you want to go back to the Galactica, and you want us to go back with you, but Cain has ordered otherwise."

"Exactly." He sighed deeply, glad he didn't have to explain. "I was hoping you'd be able to talk to him...."

It was the colonel's turn to laugh. "Apollo, I've served with the man for yahrens now, and I can't recall one time I've been able to talk him into anything he hasn't wanted to do. He has his mission, and he will see it through."

"Whatever the wishes or needs of his crew?" Apollo shot back. When the woman didn't answer, he continued. "Does everyone always go along with what Cain wants? Kleopatra, what about you? Do you always agree? Is it a precondition of fighting on the Pegasus to accept Cain's orders without question or thought?"

"It is a condition of serving on any ship to obey the orders of its commander, or to find oneself facing tribunal, Captain," she came back firmly.

He fell silent for a moment.

"I seem to recall having gone through a very similar ... discussion with Tigh, on more than one occasion," Kleopatra finally observed.

"I'm sorry," Apollo replied quietly. "I didn't mean to impugn Cain's ability, or yours. It's just...."

"You came here hoping I could help you get home. I know a little of what's going on, Apollo; I do hear things. I know about your friend Starbuck being brother to our Electra and Orestes, and what was going on with you and Sheba. I think you'll just have to resign yourself to the Pegasus, for now. According to Cain, it's only for a while, and the Pegasus isn't such a bad ship – we're actually a fairly decent crew."

Apollo didn't know what to say again, so he kept silent, staring at the deck. He heard her moving, and, a moment later, felt a light hand on his shoulder.

"Pol," she began, with the informality of someone who'd known him through scraped knees, a lost pet, junior triad games, his first teenage infatuation, entry into the Caprican Military Academy, and many assorted talks of varying depths before the dissolution of her sealing to Tigh and the resulting separation from his family. "After everything we've been through, is it really the end of the universe to be on this ship for a few sectars?"

"No," he admitted.

"I'm sorry you're separated from your family and your friends."

"I don't like to think how they must be feeling now, my father, my sister, my son...." Apollo wondered how their families and friends were taking their disappearance and presumed deaths, and hated to think of their grief. He was suddenly just another pilot, and he felt a little lost. He was used to being flight commander, back on the Galactica. Maybe Sheba hadn't been wrong about everything after all....

* * * * *

The bridge hummed with its usual intensity, but somber silence hung over the personnel. Commander Adama stood on the command deck, his expression stoic but haunted as he deliberately kept his eyes averted from Omega's board. Colonel Tigh, less willing to accept the worst, publicly, glanced down at Athena before sighing and turning to Adama.

"Still nothing, sir. No word or scan of Apollo or Starbuck."

"Old friend," Adama replied very quietly, "I did not expect there would be. They have been gone too long, their fuel and support vapors would be exhausted long before now. Without a miracle, they will not be returning."

"A miracle like Cain?" For once, Tigh found that a thread of hope. After speaking to Kleopatra again, and settling the bounds of a tentative friendship after their shattered marriage, his dislike for Cain had lessened considerably. And between Cain, the Cylons, the possible reappearance of the aliens, or some other, perhaps worse danger in space, the first was the least deadly or threatening of their possible fates.

Adama shook his head slowly. "I do not ask for a miracle twice, Tigh. Thrice, if we consider their return from the aliens."

"Cain said he makes his own miracles."

Adama's darkly haunted eyes searched his face. "It would be more pleasant to think of them being with Cain. But I will not set my hopes on what is likely not to be."

He slowed moved down the steps. "Athena," he ordered the woman at the terminal, "call up the personnel listings for Captain Apollo and Lieutenant Starbuck. Change their status to missing, presumed dead."

There were weary smudges under his daughter's eyes, and her face was drawn, but she had held back her sobs while there was hope. This order ended that hope. Apollo, her much-loved brother, and Starbuck, who inspired such turmoil in her heart and mind, were to be considered among the dead. She followed her father and commander's order, her shoulders shaking with silent grief.

* * * * *

Jolly had given up trying to entertain Boxey. The boy was too lost in his sadness, and seemed to want only to sit and cling to his mechanical daggit. It was as if he knew that this time there was no reprieve, that Apollo was really gone for good – and not alone; his favorite "uncle" Starbuck was gone too. So they waited silently for what was left of Boxey's family, Adama and Athena, to get off duty and come collect the boy.

A slow and somber footstep sounded in the hall. The warrior and the child looked up as one to see Adama slowly framed in the doorway.

"Boxey."

He knew. He buried his face in Muffey's fake fur long enough to hide the tears and steady his trembling chin, then he stood up and moved to take his grandfather's hand, and listened.


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Enter Sheba's Galaxy