Chapter XII


A few centars of sleep and a shot of stimulants took the edge off their weariness, but those were no substitute for the complete collapse their rest-starved bodies craved. They were allowed a brief respite while their fellows pulled patrols and helped damage control and engineering. Now, they gathered in the ready room, expecting orders to scramble at any micron.

Electra took another look at her volunteers. Amun was playing a solitary card game. Rissian had discovered an old friendship and a common interest with Daystar, and the two men were animatedly discussing baroque musical forms; she was glad Rissian had put aside his rage, if only briefly. Astarte, Celene, and Celeste were gossiping breezily. The major listened for a while, but found herself lost in a welter of names she didn't know, and tuned their conversation out. Heimdal and Sif were alone in a corner, their heads close with shared, meaningful smiles, their fingers laced together. They were entitled to some measure of solitude; the husband-and-wife team knew the odds were against both of them returning from this mission.

Electra self-consciously forced her gaze away from them. She was still piqued that neither of them showed any sign of strain from the battle - their uniforms, their faces, their hair - all were as pristine and perfect as if they'd just stepped off a recruiting poster, while she still smelled of smoke, and her hair was dull with soot. Neither of them looked tired, either.

The winged-sword banner of the Pegasus caught her eye for a moment, then she determinedly picked up a datacrystal someone had abandoned in that first wild rush, two days before. Wandering to the nearest reader, she dropped it in. "Logistics of Scorpian Pre-Imperium Tactical Maneuvers." Merciful Lords, a military history buff! Ancient military history, at that.... But there was nothing else around, and it was something she knew she could easily drop at a micron's notice.

Her mind wandered over the mission ahead as words, maps, and diagrams flowed unheeded across the screen of the small data reader.

It was actually quite simple. When the Cylons were spotted next, they would be lured to the Venture. That ship, loaded with explosives, strategically not-quite-concealed amid a cluster of equally deadly tylium asteroids, would certainly draw the enemy near. Cain gambled that the basestar itself was now hunting them; the Vipers were to put up just enough of a defense to lure it into action. How could a Cylon commander resist such tempting bait? It would be logical to expect the Pegasus to intervene when the Venture was attacked.

The Pegasus, however, would be recalling her warriors and preparing for flight or battle, whichever was necessary.

It was a dangerous mission. Electra's wing would be the last to retreat; they had orders to explode the Venture when the enemy base ship came within range. They would be the last warriors to face the might of an entire basestar, and they themselves might be caught in the spectacular explosion. At the very least, if the plan worked, they would have to face any surviving Raiders - who would be hunting vengeance just as the survivors of the Olympus had done.

And if the plan failed, Electra wouldn't be around to learn if Cain succeeded in taking on the Cylons in a final death struggle....

She wished Orestes would be flying with her, but she knew Amun was good; she'd flown with him before. And Astarte seemed competent enough. But they couldn't have the same almost instinctive maneuver-for-maneuver precision she and her brother shared.

Of course, leave it to Orestes to survive the destruction of an entire fleet, then almost get himself killed the moment he took up supply duty. He certainly knows the best times to be wounded-

Her heart jumped into her throat as a klaxon sounded its alarm and battle lights flooded the room. She abandoned the data crystal, grabbed her helmet, took a deep breath, and ran for the lift to her Viper. The moment of truth....

* * * * *

The bridge swarmed with activity. The commander's eyes were fastened unblinkingly on the scanners as he concentrated on trying to second-guess his Cylon opponent. Kleopatra paced the bridge with agitated, rapid steps, glancing occasionally at Cain, but usually studying the consoles and crew, reassuring herself that everything on the ship was as ready as they could make it, as prepared for battle as possible.

Reports flowed in from several daring pilots cleverly hidden in the asteroid field. Other fighters relayed their information back to the Pegasus.

"Worse than the damned frakkin' Void," Cain grumbled under his breath, citing a legendary empty quadrant of space - at least in empty space there was nothing to run into that would explode around you! But the reports told the commander what he wanted to hear. The Cylons were moving in cautiously, with only a few Raiders scouting ahead of the basestar. Perhaps they expected real trouble, or perhaps the Fifth Fleet had inflicted a truly devastating blow on the opposing force as they themselves were shattered. More likely, the other Raiders were still aboard their huge warship, refueling and rearming for yet another vicious attack.

The lights, damage sirens, and klaxons no longer made any conscious impression, save for unnecessarily grating on ears and nerves.

"Sir!" Cpl. Memnon shouted above the noise. "Strike teams are away. Lieutenant Sheba's rear guard is in position, and Major Electra's wing has launched for the Venture."

The commander acknowledged the report with a curt nod, then returned to the scanners, staring as though they mesmerized him. "They're making this too damned easy," he muttered uncomfortably.

Kleopatra joined him on the command deck. A glance at Tolan's board, and she turned back to Memnon. "General patrol status?"

"All patrols have reported in and are returning to base as ordered, except for those directly under Captain Tamyris, who are still shadowing the Cylons."

She could scarcely hear him above the din. "Any reports of other survivors?"

"Negative, Colonel. There may be a few at the rendezvous point, however, since during the battle we weren't able to pass the word to everybody to link up with us-"

She waved him to silence as Cain's eyes settled on her. "We've got a chance, Colonel," he said, an edge of tension in his voice.

The edge of a blade, sharp and bright and singing for blood.

"I'm sure Electra can do the job," she replied, studying her commander, trying to see what was going on in his mind. "And the others know their duties." But would their efforts be sufficient? They had to be.

A solidly-built man with graying brown hair and the beginnings of a paunch joined them. Commander Ismenos of the Venture stared at the screen Cain watched while the colonel resumed her restless prowling. His scowl was one of pure hatred.

"You can't fight necessity," Cain remarked, seeing the man's expression.

"No," the other man said flatly. "Sometimes, you can't fight anything in this endless war."

* * * * *

Electra almost jumped out of her skin when two fighters suddenly swept out from hiding and her comm screeched into life at the same instant.

"The Cylons are closing, Major," a weary soprano announced. That would be Captain Tamyris. "Approximately twenty ships in the vanguard. No others appear to be launching at this time."

Twenty ships. They could handle that many, but if more Cylons launched....

The patrol leader had the same idea. "Do you want us to stick with you for back-up?"

"How're your fuel reserves?"

There was a moment's silence before Tamyris replied, "Low, but if you need help-"

"Go home, Captain. If this doesn't work, the Pegasus will need you more than we will. I'm sure Sheba's team can give us all the help we need. You've had a long day - go home."

The woman sighed, with more relief than reluctance. "Very well, Major. We're on our way."

Electra checked her scanners again. "Anybody got a position check on Sheba?"

"They're ready," Daystar reported from her right flank. "In position, and tracking Cylons." She waited impatiently as a burst of static assaulted her ears, interrupting him; then Daystar spoke again. "They'll take the first wave, Major, and draw the Cylons closer while we get set."

"We're about as set as we'll ever be," she muttered to herself. "Amun? Astarte?"

"Here. Give the word." It was Amun, steady and reassuring.

"All ready! Let's take them!" That was the cadet's - no, the sergeant's - naive confidence.

"Just don't blow anything before it's time," she reminded them. "We'll be in the middle of it."

"Look out, woman!" a male voice bellowed from somewhere.

Electra hastily checked her scanners again before peering into the darkness around her.

"I don't see anything...."

"What is it...?"

The major's voice cut across those of her confused wingmates. "There's nothing here. Who yelled? What do you see?" Who had given that warning? Was it really meant for them-

Then a Cylon Raider appeared, dodging from behind an asteroid, seemingly almost close enough to touch. There was a second ship immediately behind it.

Another ambush!

* * * * *

"Strike wings report they are engaging Cylons," Tolan said, his voice much calmer than he actually felt. His hands were cold, and his heart seemed ready to burst in his chest. "Lieutenant Sheba's wing is making a strategic retreat, as planned, and the Cylons are following, as expected. One casualty so far...."

Cain peered over the younger man's shoulder, as he'd done throughout the eternity of the past two days. His eyes narrowed as he studied the confusing formations the scan turrets provided; additional information was relayed through the Venture's still-functioning instruments. He made out several Vipers and Raiders in the dangerous melee, but each of the friendlies was identified as part of Sheba's defensive squadron; none were from Electra's wing, whose responsibility it was to protect the Venture until the right moment, then explode it - even if it cost them their lives to do so.

"Where in Hades is the Major?" he growled at the mute screen.

Tolan cringed at the ire in his voice. "They don't appear to be in position yet," he faltered.

"They damned well better get there!" he shot back. "Sheba's retreating, leaving an open path to Venture. Where's Electra? She's my trigger."

I need your edge, Major....

"Sir!"

"What is it, Kleopatra?" He listened half-consciously, the rest of his mind bent to willing more blips to appear on the screen, the tiny symbols of his flight commander's progress.

Col. Kleopatra stood beside Memnon, the comm tech on duty - still? "They were attacked, sir. Apparently the Cylons had a trick or two of their own waiting for us. Two damaged Vipers, personnel uninjured. Those two are returning to base, hoping to hook up with Sheba. The others are moving into position...."

He nodded. "I see them," he said succinctly, watching as seven small moving lights answered his mental summons and traced a slow path across the screen.

"They're almost in range, Electra," he whispered fiercely.

Then the commander of the Pegasus took a deep breath, leaned back, and stretched. He picked up his riding crop, which had lain on the console unnoticed for nearly a centar, and slapped it against his palm, watching the screen with concentrated intensity, a half-smile on his lips. Electra was in position. They had them now....

* * * * *

"Are they ignoring us completely?" Rissian demanded in outrage. How could he avenge Gavain's death if the enemy didn't come in range? "Why aren't they pursuing us? Cylons don't act like this!"

"They're just being cautious," Electra replied evenly. The Cylons were closing on the Venture, true, but more slowly than hoped for - carefully, keeping well clear of several vitally-located asteroids as they approached their prey. Raiders were moving into flanking positions around her squadron; her scanners, amplified by the cruiser's more powerful turrets, showed them clearly. They were being forced back against their own bomb, into their own trap.

Well, if that was the price....

"Major, we're getting awfully close," Astarte began nervously.

Would the Cylons follow them if they suddenly appeared to lose their nerve? Did they suspect a trap? The warriors had to lure them closer. Getting killed this far from the Venture would serve little purpose.

"Strike team, get ready. At my signal, skim through the immediate explosion zone, past the Venture."

"What?" she heard from several sputtering voices at once. She understood their outraged reactions. Being involved in this aspect of the trap's success was bad enough - but were they required to commit suicide for it?

"Past the Venture," she repeated. "Hopefully, when they see us turn tail, they'll swarm after us. And hopefully, we'll be through and away before the real fireworks start. If not, as least we'll be doing some good."

"They'll really think that's a trap," somebody muttered.

"But they should decide to grab the Venture if they can, even if they let us go. Now, on my mark...."

One Raider chanced a shot. It missed an asteroid by meters, a ship by perhaps twice that much.

Electra could feel herself sweat.

"Go - now!"

Seven Colonial Vipers hit maximum thrust, retreating from their enemies, closing on what the Cylons would hopefully assume was their base ship - perhaps to hide under its guns. Not a good choice, the Cylons should assume - the cruiser was only minimally armed, and would stand no chance against any kind of determined attack, even on her best day....

A squadron of Raiders raced right behind them.

Was that a basestar on her scanners?

"Donner! My engine's sputtering, Heimdal - I don't think-"

"I'll stay with you, Sif. We'll make it. It can't be time for our Choosing yet."

Sif's wounded fighter dropped slowly behind, and Heimdal slowed his own ship to stay protectively close to his wife. She'd refused to leave earlier, when her Viper was first damaged, insisting she was all right and would remain with the squadron, that her engines were fine, although Celeste and Amun had returned to the Pegasus. Her choice may have been a bad one.

The Venture slipped past, a blur of metal.

Electra's throat was dry. She couldn't risk everything for two pilots. "Daystar, get ready. On my signal, hit braking thrusters. Wheel, then fire, and move again. Goose that throttle like it's never been goosed before. We'll make it that way....

"Now, brake!"

The two ships seemed to stall into doomed immobility, still within the maze of asteroids and hidden bombs.

When it happened, they'd have to move fast.

She waited, delaying her next order for a long micron, watching intently, her breath frozen within her. Her heart beat once.... Twice.... Another....

"Thank you, Major," she heard Heimdal say as two Vipers swept past her. They were almost safe now....

Heimdal's voice was slow. Everything was slow.

"Fire!"

The two warriors fired as one, their small ships leaping instantly forward into the very fireballs they'd created. Somewhere behind them, the Cylons fired, too; a lance of laser fire hit near Electra, and she realized the explosions were spreading, leaping from the Venture in a chain reaction through the field. Her Viper was shaking....

Something happened. The universe itself became a veritable Hades, exploding all around her, impossible to escape - a living being composed of wildfire, reaching for her-

Then the world was black again, her eyes blinded, unable to accept such brilliance, the very touch of starfire itself....

Was this all there was to death?

"Wow!" she heard a breathless, awe-struck voice exclaim from somewhere seemingly very far away. "Even the Britannica didn't make that big an explosion...." Astarte again, staying behind when she should have been moving.

"Sergeant," Electra began sternly, then could only laugh helplessly as she realized she was still alive, free of the explosion zone, back in clear space, with her strike team still around her. Whole. Alive. Breathing.

A wild whoop of excitement and relief from one of the others echoed her own feelings. The day wasn't over; clean-up and repair had far to go. But they were still alive, and only a few of their Cylon pursuers could have survived that inferno, that apocalypse.

Cain's inferno. Cain's apocalypse. Cain's hades-fire, cleansing the stars.... His tribute to and vengeance for all who had died, victory torn from the very grasp of the murderous, treacherous foe.

It was almost poetic, almost prophetic, something of the stuff of legends and mythology. A revelation of death, perhaps.... Maybe it was a page from the Book of the Word of the Lords. It had that feel. Some day, she would have to reread the Book.

But for today, she was alive, alive. She could still breathe.

She celebrated by sucking in deep gasps of air, and laughed again, feeling the tears on her cheeks. She was alive.

* * * * *

On the bridge of the Pegasus, Cain watched in satisfaction as his tylium-and-solenite, asteroid-and-starship trap exploded with tremendous fury, claiming a Cylon basestar and an unknown number of Raiders. The Cylons had taken the bait, believing what he'd intended them to believe, that the Venture was a betrayed, solitary, lost ship; they had followed Electra to their destruction. They had, in fact, destroyed themselves.

And now, the Pegasus, with all the survivors of the Fifth Fleet that she could find, moved away, picking up her scattered children as she went. Even if the enemy detected their trail, even if the Cylons knew their path, by the time they could rally any surviving forces, call for reinforcements, and prepare to re-engage, the battlestar would be utterly beyond their tracking range.

"I hope my ship died for a good cause," the man standing beside Cain growled. "She was a good one." Commander Ismenos was still unhappy about the sacrifice demanded of him, the destruction of his ship.

"She was too badly damaged to keep up with us in flight, or to avoid the Cylons on her own," Cain reminded him. "You saved your crew's lives, what few of them were left, by transferring aboard the Pegasus and letting us use her as a lure."

"One solenite-stuffed decoy," the man replied sourly. "What a way to end a career. Good bye, star lady...."

Cain strode down from the command deck. Sheba stood there, waiting for him; she had returned from her guard flight in time for those last tense centons, as he waited, as he saw his attack plan carried through.

"Well, Lieutenant, what now?" he asked her jovially, his normal good spirits returned.

"Back to the Colonies?" she offered. She was proud, very proud, at that moment, despite her weariness, despite the day. Her father had saved what was left of the Fifth Fleet, and had tricked the Cylons, as he always did. They were alive, and he was The Commander, and she was his daughter and loyal warrior. She gloried in being with him at that moment of triumph. The Cylon trap hadn't claimed all its intended victims - and she and her father would return to make them pay for what they'd taken.

Cain's face betrayed his concentration; his eyes narrowed as he stared at his daughter, the riding crop slapping rhythmically against one palm as he swung it with the other hand.

"No," he said slowly. "I think not. If they do figure out that we survived, which I expect them to do - they're not complete imbeciles, after all - they'll be waiting for us. There'll be Cylons lined up from here to the Colonies, all waiting for us, all waiting to take free shots at the Pegasus.

"No, we're going to surprise them again."

He turned to face his second-in-command. "Colonel, the Hsarri, Brimartis - she said there were Cylons in the Empire's space. I wonder where the Delphians went? The Cylons trapped us, and they've already taken Molecay, but what about the Empire? Where are the Delphian starships, their warriors?

"I know those people; they don't go down easily. We know how they've always wanted Molecay - why weren't they there? I want to know what happened in the Delphian Empire." Every eye on the bridge was on him as he turned back to Sheba. "We're not going back to the Colonies, not yet. I think we're going to take a roundabout way. We're going to visit Gamoray, the Delphian capital, and find out just what in Hades is going on in this part of space. We're going to find out where our so-called intelligence went wrong, why no one predicted this.

"And while we're at it, we're going to see how much of a thorn we can be in the Imperious Leader's side. The Fifth Fleet may be gone, but the Cylons still have to deal with us. And we're going to keep reminding them what a Colonial warrior is, and what he does, and how he fights."

He glanced at the bridge crew. "Are you with me?"

A rousing cheer rose from the throats of the assembled personnel, and they raised their fists as if to strike the Cylons then and there.

"We may have lost a battle, but we haven't lost the war. As long as we live, we haven't lost the war!"

The cheer was repeated, echoing madly in its mighty, giddy roar. Cain turned back to his daughter once again. "We'll get home eventually, but first, we'll find out what happened at Molecay, and why. And we'll start at Gamoray."

Sheba was exultant. The Fifth Fleet might be gone, but she was with her father, and they would be together for a long time, through all the battles to come, and the journey to Gamoray.

And when they returned to the Colonies in glory - her heart gave an involuntary leap of joy - perhaps even Cassiopeia would be gone from her father's thoughts forever. She smiled brightly, nodding fervently in response to her father's searching gaze.

"Good!" he said brusquely. Then he again addressed the watching bridge crew. "Continue your duties. Senmut, head for the rendezvous point to look for more survivors. Colonel, I want to know immediately if anything turns up. And order a general meeting of all department heads as soon as it can be arranged. In the meantime, I'm going to visit the fighter bays and life center. There are new personnel to be welcomed aboard."

He strode briskly toward the turbolift, his daughter following self-importantly at his heels.

The Cylons and the Colonies had not heard the last of the "living legend."

Cain would return!


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