Two men faced each other over the rectangular board, tossing the sticks and moving their tokens by the numbers, obeying the instructions on each game slot. The fairer-haired lieutenant, a new member of Silver Spar, seemed confident as he lounged in his chair, pausing occasionally to take a drag from his fumarello. The slightly darker sergeant, from Bronze Wing, was more intense, leaning forward with a frown, frequently tugging at the long temple braids that marked him as a member of the Raggane sect of Sagittara.
Starbuck studied the board, then threw the sticks. Counting the tally, he grinned. "Five! I win again," he announced triumphantly, moving his final token out of the Underworld and into the Land of the Blessed.
Scyld groaned feelingly. "Three games of senet in a row. Let's go back to pyramid, so at least I don't lose alone!"
"I thought you were bored with pyramid," Starbuck objected with a grin, leaning back to take another puff of his fumarello, studying the audience in the ready room.
"Only with losing! I know when I'm beat," the other man retorted. "Anybody else care to take a shot at the game of life?"
The other warriors begged off. Luck favored Starbuck that day, and they all recognized it.
"Back to pyramid, then?" somebody else seconded.
A game started up, but Starbuck stayed out of it. Senet was almost entirely a game of chance, while pyramid demanded some concentration, if one wanted to win. Right now, he was really too keyed up to concentrate. He wanted to know what was going on at the command briefing of Cain and his flight leaders. Capt. Apollo was included in the meeting for two reasons he'd been flight commander of the Galactica until a few sectons ago, and he knew something of the aliens who now pursued them, having been their prisoner for nearly five sectons.
Starbuck was left to wait and wonder. With all the albeit limited resources of the fleet, the humans hadn't been able to counter the aliens' advanced technology. The aliens had refused contact, first with the Galactica, and then with the Pegasus. They'd had ample opportunity, in the first encounter, to study their six human captives; they then ignored Colonial attempts to communicate further, and still seemed to consider the humans unworthy of notice.
Three sectons. That's how long it's been since the Pegasus first spotted the aliens again. They let us see them, but they ignore us completely. They might be hanging around the Cylon listening post, for some reason, maybe trying to study the Cylons. Whatever, we'd like to know why. The fleet could be somewhere around here Apollo's as close-mouthed as everyone else about the fleet's route and destination.
Nobody tells me anything. Cain just glowers at me anytime I'm in view he hasn't forgiven me for dumping Cassie, and I guess I can't blame him; I didn't give her much of a chance. But that's all past, not much point in dwelling on it now....
What I don't understand is why he isn't furious at Apollo for Sheba, for not marrying her and for being with Electra so much now. Different situation, I guess. Sheba dumped him, wouldn't even talk to him anymore. Why shouldn't he take up with the best-looking woman on this ship? Sometimes I think it's too bad she's my sister!
Not that I get anything out of it. Electra spends her free time with Apollo. Every time I try to ask her anything she gets a pucker around her eyes probably worried I'll take my Viper and leave if I get any idea where to go. Hmmph. For all I know, Earth could be in the next star system.
I could always ask Apollo what's going on, but he's so touchy at times that I don't know how to talk to him anymore. Not quite as bad as after the Destruction, but something must be buggin' him. Maybe just being here instead of the Galactica.
We're supposed to be protecting them. But we're sitting here trying to talk to a race that obviously doesn't think we're worth the time of day. Is it any wonder half of us are ready to explode?
"Cubit for your thoughts?" Someone tapped his shoulder.
"Hmm?" He glanced up at his friend and wingman.
"And a free trip to life center if there's a reason you're abstaining from that lively game in the other corner. What's wrong, that you're not dealing the cards?"
Starbuck chuckled with him, pleased at Apollo's good mood. "Waiting for you, Captain. You know how I worry when you're out past your curfew. So, what results from the meeting?"
Apollo made a face. "Not much. And I don't know why I was there. I know Cain's strategies and tactics, but Electra knows them better, from personal experience. Cain keeps a close eye on his fighter squadrons, so it's not that he wants to know what I think. My experience with fighting the aliens is all from the losing end, and Captain Heimdal and Captain Orestes know as much as I do about being their specimens. Almost a waste of time...."
The other warrior kept silent. He knew Apollo would have been more upset at being left out of the meeting. Adjusting from being flight commander on the Galactica, with resulting responsibility and respect from the fleet, to being just another captain in Silver Spar on the Pegasus, was a little rough on Apollo. Cmdr. Cain might treat him and his suggestions with the same regard as he treated his other senior officers, but Starbuck knew his friend missed much more than just the people back in the fleet not that he would risk raising the subject, these days.
Although from the number of sleep periods Apollo seemed to be missing from the pilots' billet, he was making up for some of those people.
"Actually, all we can do is wait, and keep an eye on that Cylon listening post. I really doubt we'll be able to do anything about those aliens, unless they decide otherwise," Apollo commented moodily.
"Group consensus, or your opinion?" Starbuck asked.
"You mean, what does Commander Cain think? He realizes we can't do anything if the aliens don't contact us. It frustrates the Hades out of him, but he accepts it, for now. I think Kleopatra would get in a Viper herself and surrender to them if they'd tell her about their technology and culture. I have no idea what Colonel Kenji is thinking who can read that face? Tokyo and Elaine don't have much to say, but I doubt if they've taken much time to worry about it. Heimdal's just waiting for an order. Orestes is concerned about the Cylons. Your sister, meanwhile, is holding a grudge, and hopes the Cylons pick a fight so the aliens decide to remove a menace to the civilized galaxy," Apollo mimicked to finish. The smile said he almost agreed with her. He leaned over the back of Starbuck's chair, resting on his crossed arms.
"You're starting to think like Cain. Like Electra, at times."
"Is it really any surprise? It's Cain's ship. And you know how I always felt about him."
"Yeah, I guess. Uh, you've been spending a lot of time with Electra," Starbuck hazarded casually. Now might be the best time to broach a few subjects.
Apollo's eyes twinkled. "Oh?"
"Well, it's none of my business," his friend added hastily.
"You still miss me?" Apollo's smirk was mischievous. "I thought you were busy getting acquainted with the crew like Sapphire, and Celeste, and Pele...."
"You left out Lygia and Tamyris!" Starbuck shot back.
"You have been busy! I suppose what you really mean is, I've been spending a lot of time with Electra, and am I thinking about Sheba any more? Yes, I think about her, once in a while. But she made it quite clear where I don't stand in her life, and I know her well enough to realize she's not going to change her mind if we get the opportunity to meet, ever again unless something drastic happens.
"Electra and I.... We get along, we've got interests in common, and ... I enjoy her company, and she seems to enjoy mine. Anything else, or is the interrogation over?"
Starbuck stared up at him for a moment, then finally laughed ruefully. "I ... guess I'm just wondering how you really felt when I was seeing Athena, considering Aurora and all, and especially after I met Cassie, and everything that's happened since." Maybe that would lead to other confidences.
Apollo grimaced, then shrugged. "I.... Never mind. I never got around to killing you then, don't see any reason to do it now. Athena was old enough to make up her mind about her relationships, and so were you. So are Electra and I."
"Oh." Starbuck accepted the implied rebuke. After a moment, he continued, "So who's on the patrol roster the rest of the day?"
"Orestes and Astarte, and Rissian and Trent from Silver Spar, and a couple of pilots from Copper Keel. Bronze Wing is up for later. We're off 'til tomorrow, if that's your concern."
"Might as well join the pyramid game, then. How 'bout you?"
"Why not? I haven't had this much free time since ... before the Destruction."
"No Electra?" Starbuck teased, eager to take his friend's mind off a hurtful subject.
"Since it's too late for advance notice to get out, the Colonel's pulling a surprise inspection of quarters right now, and Electra's tagging along to add her cubit's worth."
"Frak! I think my dress boots need polishing...."
"And you had advance notice!" Starbuck accused.
"Who, me? Well, knowing the flight commander does have its advantages."
"And being her brother obviously doesn't."
The captain shrugged, trying unsuccessfully to contain his laughter.
"Awh, maybe if I hit the bunkroom right away I can throw the boots in someone else's locker! See you in a few...." Starbuck muttered to himself as he left the ready room. He didn't really feel like pyramid anyway.
Apollo didn't feel like playing cards, either. With his friend so hastily gone, he headed for his locker first. Beside the winged-horse helmet of the Pegasus, he still kept the stylized, wide-winged bird emblem from his Galactica helmet. He suspected he always would.
He pulled a small pouch from within the helmet and spilled the collar pins from the ship he still considered "home." Two from the jacket, two from the tunic. The Galactica's star, blade, and flower, while he now wore the Pegasus wreathed trident appropriate, considering her commander. The black and gold interlocking triangle patch of his former base ship had been replaced with the red and white double-winged sword of the new. He closed his fist on them.
For a micron the homesickness was incredible. Then he dumped the pins and patches back in the pouch and stuffed them quickly away. It wasn't until he joined the game and someone complained about marked cards that he realized he'd stuck himself in the palm, and was bleeding.
The Galactica Blue Squadron ready room had a dark atmosphere to it, as if tainted with some soul malaise. Most of the pilots present were separated by more than distance; their thoughts ranged farther afield than their bodies could manage in the small space.
Sgt. Greenbean all but skipped into the ready room, chortling aloud. He stalked in front of Lt. Jolly, his wingmate, who was slouched in a chair ignoring the world, and planted himself firmly.
Jolly stared up at him without much interest.
"I," Greenbean announced to the universe, "know who she is."
"I found out who your lady friend is."
For the first time, some of the others showed an interest in his arrival and the conversation. Jolly's expression darkened; the glower fixed firmly on the young Greenbean.
"The dear sweet lady you've been spending all your free time with, but refusing to introduce to any of us or discuss when we ask. Your friendly little dancer and fantastic cook and enigmatic stranger with a myriad of abilities."
The others gathered around.
"Greenbean...." Jolly sounded decidedly threatening.
"Her name," Greenbean declaimed, "is Merry!"
"Greenbean!" Jolly sputtered through clenched teeth.
There was silence for a moment, then a small ripple of laughter.
"I can see it now," Greenbean continued. "You'll seal together, and be so happy, and we'll all sing toasts at your sealing to Jolly and Merry...."
The snickers turned to roars. Jolly leapt to his feet with amazing speed for one of his girth. "Greenbean...." The tone said "quit while you're still alive."
"And you'll have lovely children named Gaiety and Frivolity or maybe Festival and Jubilee...."
Jolly swung, and Greenbean went flying across the room, upending a pyramid game, its table, and two chairs and their occupants in the process. Greenbean stared up from the floor for a moment, then jumped up, danger in his mild blue eyes. Jolly planted himself for the blows to follow.
The men of Blue Squadron jumped into action. Half of them grabbed the two combatants before the fight could go any further. Disturbingly, the other half yelled encouragement to continue the fight. The two men who'd been knocked down pulled themselves back to their feet, ready to join the fray. Before anything more could happen, their captain intervened.
"What in Sagan's name is going on here?" Boomer barked.
The combatants glared at each other; no one risked reporting what was happening. Boomer continued to demand an explanation with eyes full of fire and a very grim set to his mouth. Finally, one of the pilots spoke.
"Captain, I want a new wingmate!" Jolly demanded belligerently.
"Fine by me!" Greenbean broke in, nursing what was sure to be a nasty shiner in a few centars.
Boomer glared from one to the other. "Guys...."
"What seems to be the problem here?"
The men present turned as one to see Capt. Nestor, their recently appointed flight commander. The reaction was almost universal hostile dislike in their faces and a vague slouch to their postures that gave their opinion more than eloquently. A few pilots looked abashed at the man's presence, but they too were silent.
Observing the silence, Nestor knew exactly what he'd get out of the men if he pressed anything just now nothing. Nothing except more anger and less trust and harmony. He knew he had the respect, at least, of a few of these young men, those he'd previously taught or helped, but they weren't about to break squadron loyalty ... yet.
Angrily, he waved at Boomer to follow and fumed out of the ready room. Capt. Boomer was right behind him. There were a few snickers behind them, mostly held until they were out of the chamber. Nestor halted abruptly and turned on his old friend. "Boomer, what are your people trying to prove? Why are you trying to get yourselves killed?"
"Oh? What do you call running long patrols and coasting back into the bay on tylium fumes? What about those fancy 'maneuvers' your squadron keeps pulling? Your late response to the drill alert yesterday? And your behavior here in the fleet.... That illicit party the Colonel very kindly chose to ignore? The fights in the squadron and with the other squadrons and security? Blue Squadron has had more demerits and disciplinary actions these past three sectons than you had in the past two yahrens some of them yours! Can't you keep your people in line any better than that? Where's your own discipline?"
"Give us time to get over...."
"Over Apollo and Starbuck?" Nestor slumped, his anger gone. "I been keeping that in mind, buddy. I stashed a couple of those demerits in the circular file. I've kept my mouth shut. But no more, Boomer. This is getting too big Sagan, man, do you realize Council Security is starting to snicker that you guys have lost the edge?"
Boomer straightened dangerously. "Council Security, huh?"
Blue Squadron's captain considered for a moment. "I'll talk to the men. We'll get it back together."
"What about Jolly and Greenbean?" Nestor called after him. "They should be on report for fighting and that bruise isn't going to be easy to hide."
Boomer waved it away. "They'll be fine in a few centars. And we can always say Greenbean slipped on a bar of cleanser it's worked before. Give me a little time to find out what happened, and set it straight...."
"Another one for the circular file?" the dark-haired man inquired acidly.
"If it won't violate your principles too much." Boomer stared back at him for a moment, then disappeared.
Nestor sighed, regretting having to speak to his friend so, but if it did the trick, it was worth it. Seeing the squadron alternating between listlessness and recklessness, he knew he had to do something. Maybe they'd shape up and the mess would be over. Boomer was sometimes the worst of them all, but then, he'd lost the most, so maybe the occasional blank stares and fits of temper could be forgiven.
It didn't help that he was Red Squadron, and they were Blue. Some of the chips on their shoulders could be used to batter in the side of a basestar. And they resented him, some maybe even irrationally blaming him for their loss. Certain aspects of his personal life didn't help, either. But that was none of their business, and he wasn't going to let it become part of the problem. Nestor wasn't going to let them down, or let them go. They were all his responsibility now, however helpless he might feel in the face of their wildly swinging moods and erratic behavior. He would bring them back into line, earn their respect and loyalty as he had that of so many young cadets. One way or another....
He felt a hand on his arm. "I saw," stated a soft voice. "Nestor...."
He sighed deeply before smiling wanly at the female pilot, his wingmate. Also his wife, and the mother of his child. And the daughter of Commander Hera, the "iron lady" of the Britannica, who had died at Molecay and been probably the third best-known warrior in the Colonial military service of the previous generation. For once, Io was very out of uniform. He searched his mind for an occasion, but found none. "Io, they're your friends too, and you know the circumstances. Do you think I'm letting them get away with too much?"
"Maybe," she replied honestly. Her mother's daughter, she knew the meaning of discipline, and was not comfortable with Blue Squadron's recent behavior. "But I'm not sure what you could do, besides put the entire squadron on report, or order catharsis treatments for everybody, or replace Boomer as their flight leader."
"Any of which could be worse for morale than letting them work through their own grief and anger."
She nodded reluctantly.
He sighed again. "I wish there was something more I could do...."
"Not until they're ready for help. Right now, they don't want it."
"Tell me about it! Some of them act as if I'm responsible for Apollo and Starbuck being gone."
"I know. They need to be angry at someone, and you qualify because you aren't 'one of them.' We're still outsiders. So they blame you. But if you don't start spending some time with your wife, she's going to start blaming you too!"
He managed a smile. "I meant to ask...."
"I found some ducats to the spheroid concert on the Rising Star, and talked Kore into taking care of little Hera for a few centars. We've just got time to get you changed before we have to meet Sol and Sheba at the shuttle docking lounge...." She led him away before he could protest.
Baltar stared at the unblinking stars, brooding, as he so often did these days. Even surrounded by Cylons, this post was beginning to feel lonelier than his planet of exile.
Adama, you're out there. I know you are. Your people escaped me. You may be responsible for the missing patrols. Five patrols how could you be so lucky, to destroy our patrols and not even be detected in our quadrant? But your luck can't hold out forever. I'll find you. One of your patrols will get careless. Perhaps even your son. You can't hide forever.
Cain. You're still out there too. You're the worse threat to me. Adama's too concerned about his civilian ovines. You, you're a lupus. And you want me. You're out there, waiting or hunting. I had some of your people. I wish I still did. I wish I had your daughter to use against you....
Or would any human captive have been sufficient, just to provide a non-mechanical voice, some evidence that actions over the yahrens had been successful?
He groaned inwardly. "What is it, Centurion?"
"The same as the other five?"
"Triple patrol strength. Concentrate on that quadrant. I want to know what's out there," Baltar snarled.
The gold-plated mechanical lurched out of the mostly-complete command post
The stars above and around him were cold and cheerless through the transparent, reinforced ceiling. The curve of the planetoid was shadowed and forbidding as it dimmed into the horizon. It was an eerily empty vision of lonely beauty.
Baltar spat an obscenity. He hated it.
In a bright, cream-colored chamber, a number of Cylon pilots lay scattered across the tables. They'd been totally disassembled. Over one of the slabs, several alien creatures worked over the pieces of one Cylon, replacing wiring.
The aliens were tall and broad, quite equal to Cylon stature. They were bipedal, but with a leaning posture that looked like they might topple forward at any centon. Broad nostrils quivered and flared on the wide faces, while tails flicked intently over brown backs lightly covered with short, coarse hairs. Triple-digited hands worked over the mechanical being. Orders were lowed in a husky, carrying voice from the one in charge.
When the work was done, the aliens stepped back from their Cylon sample.
After a moment, the Centurion stirred and swung itself back to its feet, moving with an easier grace than it had previously possessed, thanks to alien technology. It saluted the aliens briefly, then said, "By-your-command," in a slightly less mechanical voice than was normal for a Cylon.
The strangely bovine-like, alien scientists thrust their heads about in pleased excitement. They had succeeded.
It was time for the next step.
"Report?" Electra demanded crisply.
The pilots from the returned patrols responded quickly.
"Nothing," Starbuck grumped.
"Our quadrant's empty, like the Cylons aren't even trying to keep an eye on this sector," Apollo elaborated. "We had the stars to ourselves."
"Same for Epsilon sector," reported Horus. "Not a thing."
"Just that comet," Scyld added. "Same one Elaine reported yesterday."
The flight commander looked as puzzled as her patrols. She glanced at the other two pilots. "Rissian? How about Delta?"
"Just the opposite," the dark-skinned lieutenant told her. "They're all over the quadrant, triple strength in most cases and guarding each other's tails, too. We couldn't get close to anything, and they nearly took us once."
Sgt. Trent confirmed with a nod.
"So whatever's happening, it's in Delta Quadrant. Hmm. Better pass it on to the commander. And double patrols in that area. If it's good enough for the Cylons...."
Electra headed out of the briefing, shaking her head. The patrol reports of the last few days were confusing. The Cylons were agitated about something to the extent of leaving some approaches to their listening post unguarded, while concentrating on one quadrant. It didn't make sense, unless it was meant to be a trap of some sort.... But that would imply they knew someone was out here, and she was almost certain none of the Pegasus patrols had betrayed their existence and location.
The fleet? But then the Cylons would be preparing for an all-out attack, massing fighters and contacting every basestar in the area. That they weren't, suggested they didn't know where the Galactica was, so such an attack was unlikely.
The Delphians? Less likely, for the same reasons.
So there was something else. The aliens? She suspected the Colonials would have to be extra cautious in the days ahead.
"You didn't offer much of an opinion, Major."
She smiled involuntarily as Apollo joined her. "I haven't decided yet what my opinion's to be!"
The captain nodded thoughtfully. "If the Cylons are encountering our aliens...."
She had to laugh at how closely his thought mirrored hers. "Yes. They wouldn't be pleased about some new space-faring species with a higher technology infiltrating the area. And we know the aliens are around; we've seen them several times, even if they haven't done us the courtesy of returning our calls...."
"If Cylon ships have been disappearing like ours did.... It would be interesting to see how the aliens react to the Cylons." His expression was distant. "The fleet could be leaving this quadrant just in time, if the Cylons are going to provoke something."
"I don't think they will, until they learn something about the aliens. And I suspect the aliens seldom take the time to communicate with their 'specimens.' It could be to our benefit, actually, if the Cylons are foolish enough to take on the aliens they've got the technology to defeat the Cylons."
"As I've thought myself. But that's assuming they're encountering the aliens, which we don't know. And assuming the Cylons do something rash. And assuming the aliens retaliate with force. And assuming we don't get caught between them," Apollo commented.
She sighed. "A lot of assumptions. And all of them based on the Cylons having seen our aloof alien friends."
"We've seen them. How could the Cylons miss them?"
"Maybe we ought to take out that listening post right now, after all."
"Apollo, do you realize you've gotten positively bloodthirsty since you came aboard the Pegasus? I'm starting to worry about you!"
"Bloodthirstiness is a positive trait? Something must be rubbing off on me."
"Apollo, about those aliens...." she began more seriously. "Maybe I've got no right to ask, but could you face them again? Do you know how you'd react if you had to face them, if you were ... a prisoner again?"
"You're the flight commander. You've got the right to ask, even the duty." An involuntary shudder shook his shoulders.
"Do you want a few days off the flight roster?"
He met her eyes. She saw that he was troubled, but he shook his head. "No."
Put to Heimdal, Sif, Orestes, and Falstaff, the answer was the same. Though they all seemed frightened of the prospect, none of them were willing to cower from another confrontation. Electra wasn't sure if that was a good sign or not, but she took them all at their word.
And crossed her fingers.
Enter Sheba's Galaxy