Chapter III

"We can head in any time," Gavain said into his comm.

"Might as well, then, since the next patrol will be on our tails in a few centons otherwise," his wingman replied through the filtering of his helmet's comm system.

The two sectons since they'd left Caprica had been uneventful. The Fifth Fleet had encountered no Cylons, and they were now well beyond the fringes of Colonial space, where, logically, there ought to be an abundance of their metal foes. They still had a considerable distance to go before reaching Molecay; out here, they might find anything.

Both battlestars had full patrol rosters up at all times. Lts. Gavain and Rissian of the Olympus had pulled a flank patrol - which discovered nothing more interesting than a stray comet - and they were finally due to return to their base ship.

The Pegasus, flagship of the Fifth Fleet, was at last report only a few centars from rejoining them and taking her rightful place at the head of the Colonial force.

"Hey, Gavain," Rissian said, suddenly tense, "I'm picking up something on my scanners. Coordinates 9-0, 1-7, 5-2. See it?"

"Yeah, two targets. Let's find out what they are."

The "targets" discovered them at about the same time, and suddenly began evasive maneuvers as the warriors closed on them. Gavain and Rissian tried to follow, but were hopelessly outflown. Another moment, and the other ships were behind them; only microns after that, their pursuers identified themselves.

"This is Patrol Five, battlestar Britannica, Major Electra and Captain Orestes. Who're you?" a feminine voice teased.

"Patrol Two, Olympus. Lieutenants Gavain and Rissian," Gavain replied slowly. "How'd you know who we are? We thought we'd run into outlaw traffic or something."

"So we figured. Told you, brother. We almost had an inter-battlestar incident this morning, two patrols who didn't recognize each other, so we're exchanging idents with everything but confirmed strangers."

"And how, dear lady, do you confirm a stranger?" Rissian asked in his most charming voice. "I doubt they'd stop with a 'by-your-leave-but-I'm-here-to-destroy-you-hope-you-don't-mind.' Cylons, anyway. They shoot first, and to Hades with courtesy." He was miffed, both at not recognizing the Britannica Vipers, and at being outflown by them.

"That's why they give us warbooks, dear heart. And the intelligence to use them is supposedly one of the job requirements," Electra responded with equally sweet smugness.

There was very little he could say to that.

Gavain took up the conversation. "Going in, or heading out? We're just finished, ourselves, and I'd love to meet the possessor of such a sexy voice," he said, dropping his already deep voice another half-octave.

"Watch how you talk to my sister, kid," the other pilot spoke up for the first time, other than a muttered grunt at the woman's earlier comment.

"You mean we gotta go through you to meet her?" Gavain quipped. "I thought that custom went outta style yahrens ago."

"That explains it," Orestes replied, quick on the uptake. "It came back in style this morning - you know how fads are." His sister giggled. "But then, that's the Olympus for you, always a bit behind."

"Ha-ha! Watch how you talk about my home base tub."

Having exchanged the expected gibes, the two patrols called a truce and laughingly went their ways. Long patrols could be extremely boring ones when nothing was in sight, and the small insult barrage, entirely good-natured as it was, refreshed all concerned - including the bridge officers on both battlestars, since the patrols were close enough to be monitored.

The two Olympus pilots returned to their ship with no more sightings of unidentified objects, and coasted to their usual perfect landings - both men prided themselves on never "scuffing the paint." Both headed for a turboshower after decontamination and debriefing, and planned a quick game or two of pyramid before calling the day complete.

Gavain was a swarthy, muscular Sagittaran. His main personal diversion was singing opera - bass parts, preferably in the turboshower - and singing well, despite his friends' frequent taunts.

Rissian was more slender, of the same height, with dusky black skin; he was a native of Caprica. His hobbies included trying to find ways to stop his wingman from singing in the shower. Today, as usual, he failed, and Gavain completed the first aria of the hero of "Warrior's Oath," an old Sagittaran drama, before stepping out and toweling dry.

Rissian was waiting for him. "While you were making your presence known in the turboshower," he announced, disgruntled, "we got tagged for some extra duty."

His friend was unconcerned. "So? What kind of duty?"

"They discovered a small leak in one of the coolant systems in the solium storage center."

"Solium storage? That could be trouble. So what're we supposed to do about it? Isn't that for damage control to worry about? Or maintenance?"

"Yeah, but apparently there's also some regulation about somebody having to stand guard duty while the stuff's being moved, to prevent thieves from killing themselves or some stupid thing like that. We're now officially solium guards." Rissian snapped a fancy salute and bowed mockingly in the direction of the ship's banner on the far wall. The laurel-and-flame on the flag gave no response.

Gavain grumbled momentarily, but was dressed in a centon. "How'd we get stuck with this job? We just finished a long patrol, and sentry duty's security's job."

"Might have something to do with a bridge officer hearing you refer to the Olympus as a 'tub'."

"Oh. Nosy bastard."

"Nice guys," Orestes commented, shifting his position in the Viper cockpit. He was only slightly above average height, but he always felt cramped inside the fighter; at times, he could be just a little bit claustrophobic. He and his sister had just ended their encounter with the two pilots from the Olympus, and they still had long centars in space ahead of them, with no further contacts to relieve the boredom.

"If you like bold men," was Electra's demure reply. She was used to passes from the men she met; she was a beautiful woman. With her lively disposition and passion for life, she didn't always rebuff them, either.

Electra and Orestes were the best strike team aboard the Britannica, and had flown together since their academy days; they were an almost unbeatable team, knowing one another's moves and ways of thinking. Electra was Kell Squadron's flight leader, and second ranking pilot behind Major Quillan, the battlestar's flight commander, but the difference in rank made no difference in the relationship between the twins.

"I've always known you to like bold men, Electra," he commented. "Although it's hard to find one to match you. Boldness got you that promotion at the battle of Five Moons - almost got you killed there, too."

"And your boldness got you a wrecked Viper," she reminded him, laughing. "We're both too lively for our own good at times, I think."

"If I hadn't gotten hurt at Five Moons, we'd've both gotten our captain's stars...."

"And we wouldn't be flying together now, if we had."

"Are you glad I nearly lost my head?" Orestes demanded.

"That's not what I meant and you know it," she replied calmly. "Though I suppose some day they're bound to split us up, if we both make flight commander...."

Wingmates couldn't afford to be angry with other for long, and the two had depended on each other for far too long and in far too many ways ever to become enemies. Their father, from Taura, had died before they were born, or so their mother always maintained. She'd come from a well-to-do Caprican family, part of the traditional old aristocracy. Her family had never quite reconciled itself to a daughter who did as she pleased. As a consequence, the twins rarely saw much of their mother's family, and never even knew their father's kindred. They made no claim to either side.

A warrior's career had seemed ideal, so both entered the academy on Taura, the home planet of record of their father and their own planet of birth. They were good at their chosen profession, thriving on adventure, and even having fun with the routine. Their home was the stars; the Britannica pilots and crew their chosen family.

Electra checked her scanners. They'd encountered no space traffic for several days - no Cylons, no Colonials, no pirates, no nothing. Good flying practice for cadets, but unsettling for seasoned warriors who knew the spacelanes well.

"Something at the fringe, Major." Orestes was suddenly the competent wingman. "Could be another of the Olympus patrols, I suppose; it's in the right quadrant. But they shouldn't be big enough to show on our scanners at this range...."

"So let's check it out. Be ready for anything. Sending word back to base...." The touch of a single switch then assured the two pilots of a private frequency as they left their planned course and went to investigate.

Whatever it was, the thing was fairly small for a space vessel, even if too large for a patrol ship. The scanners fed data directly to the warbook, but that particular computer file couldn't give them an answer. They knew it wasn't Colonial. It also didn't appear to be Cylon. And it definitely wasn't a natural phenomenon.

"I see it!" Orestes suddenly shouted. "It's a ship, but, oh Lords, what is it?"

Lords indeed, Electra thought a moment later when the ship came into her sight. Where in Hades had that thing come from?

* * * * *

Cain had found the last sectons to be totally boring, unfruitful, and very nearly frustrating. His Pegasus had trailed the Fifth Fleet for two sectons, and had spotted nothing in most of that time. He was a man of action, and this forced slow sailing was not his style. Couldn't they at least encounter a few pirates to sharpen his people up? At least, he managed to console himself, the slow cruise had given the damage control teams time to complete all the necessary repairs and even touch up the paint, as the saying went.

And Sheba was now back on the flight roster, breaking in her new wingmate - Bojay, the Galactica volunteer. Her arm and wrist were completely healed, but her shoulder was still a little stiff and occasionally caused her pain. It was nice to have a little time to spend peacefully with her, after the last argument over Cassiopeia. The injury seemed to have mellowed his daughter's anger, or maybe she'd forgotten the other woman entirely, intentionally or otherwise.

Cain found himself devoting less time than he should to making a decision about Cassie, despite the long journey; he justified it with work, even if some of it was make-work. His ship came first, he reminded himself, and his mission. Soon they'd rejoin the Fifth Fleet. Viper patrols from the other battlestars kept cropping up on their scanners, and the Pegasus had increased speed to close on them.

Captain Veleda had done a good job. There was no major structural damage to the bay, and Cicero, the taciturn head of maintenance, reported no problems since the completion of repairs. Veleda was, technically speaking, under Cicero in the line of command, since damage control was actually a specially-trained branch of maintenance.

The speaker on his desk beeped into the silence of the room. The commander turned from his contemplation of the stars and strode to his desk, touching a switch and noting that the call was from the bridge. "Cain here. What is it, Kleopatra?"

The face of his executive officer appeared on the screen. "One of our patrols picked up something strange on their scanners, sir. They suggest we investigate. There is also a Britannica patrol on the scene, who'd like our intervention. Shall we alter course?"

"I'll be there in a centon." He grabbed his jacket and headed for the bridge.

He could almost feel the tension as he entered the massive "brain" of the battlestar. All eyes were on the command deck. The helmsman and navigator were waiting for orders; he could sense their anticipation, and knew they had the coordinates of the strange "something." Tolan was at the scanners, and Kleopatra hovered at his shoulder, one eye on the small screen, the other on the huge starscreen above the main floor consoles.

"Let's see what it is," Cain ordered as he ran up the command deck steps. Tolan entered a code; the woman at the computer bank console responded; and a small figure was outlined on the grid of the command console screen. Tolan vacated the scan console and returned to his own position, permitting a young officer to resume the scan.

The commander studied the odd-looking ship displayed by the computer screen. "Warbook?" he demanded tersely. It must be something new, since it hadn't already been identified, but a check might show what it resembled, who might have built it. The thing was now within Pegasus scanning range, and the battlestar's massive computers carried far more information than the small Vipers could ever hope to handle.

Tolan's response was brisk and formal. "Sir, the warbook has no record of any such ship in use today. It's not Colonial, nor is it Cylon. It isn't Delphian, and cannot be traced to any of the known extra-legal organizations known to operate in this quadrant."

"The life form readings the scanner points out are from our own Viper patrol, and that of the Britannica; they've identified themselves. The fleet couldn't halt to check out one small bogey, but as we're still in the area, we could divert with only a small delay...."

"Commander," Kleopatra cut in, narrowly eyeing the vessel read-outs, "that ship looks old, even allowing for all the damage it's apparently taken. Switch to history banks, I think. They may show something."

The woman at computer systems responded immediately to the colonel's suggestion, and fresh data began to flow across Tolan's screen. He studied it closely for a centon before reporting.

"The possibility exists that the ship is Hsarri, Commander!" he declared, sounding somewhat astonished. "It's not exactly like any known Hasarri ship, but the trace elements and certain design principles are similar to some of the old ones. But the Hsarri were wiped out generations ago ... weren't they?"

Cain glanced at his executive officer; Kleopatra was proving a wealth of interesting and unusual facts about ancient societies. "Well?"

She pursed her lips and thought for several microns before responding slowly. "Most of the Hsarri clans were wiped out in the war, when we first fought the Cylons. The Cylons decimated the population, and made the planet uninhabitable when they saw they might lose the struggle. The survivors, and those who'd fled their home world when the Cylons first attacked, took to the stars. I believe there were a few Hsarri staying in the vicinity of Molecay, at least until a century or so ago, but most of them were reported to have run to deep space, hoping to escape the Cylons permanently. I didn't think any remained at Molecay, but I suppose there could still be a few, or one of the old ships might have tried to return to home space after a millennium of exile...."

"That ship might be from Molecay?"

"It's possible, though unlikely," Kleopatra replied, staring Cain in the eye.

He frowned, rubbing his chin as he considered. "Well, scanners show no life on that ship, but if there's even a chance it's from Molecay, we have to investigate. Senmut, alter course."

"Immediately, sir."

In only microns, the helmsman had the Pegasus veering from her original course, heading off to investigate the mysterious stranger.

* * * * *

Lt. Rissian watched as maintenance technicians carried their solium canisters; no trace of boredom showed on his face. He stamped his feet on the floor; solium might be relatively stable in its present form at this low temperature, but the chill crept into his human body despite the heavy parka he wore. All the solium was being transferred to another storage center elsewhere on the battlestar, until the leak in the coolant system could be located and repaired. None of the techs remained in the chamber long enough to get frost-bitten, but Rissian was sure his fingers and toes would never thaw again.

He glanced across the nearly-empty compartment and caught his wingmate's eye. Gavain strolled over to join him in his corner near the thickly-insulated door.

"I thought when I signed up that I was guaranteed no ice planet duty," Gavain grumbled. A small cloud of ice crystals formed as he spoke.

"I had duty on Ice Station Thule. I think this is colder," Rissian complained, slapping his hands together to try and restore some feeling to them.

"Almost like a Cylon cold cell in here. Wonder if the Commander's gonna examine our cortexes after we're done?"

"If we had cortexes, we wouldn't be stuck in here. But that's lousy humor, buddy. Nothing funny about the Cylons."

"Depends on how you look-"

"Call security!"

The two warriors stared at the technician who knelt beside a stack of canisters. The man stared in near-panic at something they couldn't identify.

"What've you got?" Rissian called to him.

The tech glanced nervously at them. "I'm not sure, but it shouldn't be here, and I don't like it, and I hope I'm wrong. Call security, now!"

Gavain ducked out the door as the tech carefully moved the nearest explosive canister away from the small device. Rissian took a step closer, then stopped as the man held up a hand in warning. "If you know what's good for you, Lieutenant, you'll get out of here while the getting's good. Nobody else comes in here until security gets a good look at this thing. Move!"

The man seemed to know what he was talking about. Rissian followed Gavain out the door.

The two warriors stayed out of the way as security personnel appeared to deal with the situation. Finally, one of them emerged, her face ashen and her hands shaking slightly. "It's defused," she said. "Call Commander Theseus."

* * * * *

Cain waited impatiently as the towing shuttle carefully maneuvered the unfamiliar ship into the landing bay. The warriors from the different patrols had already landed, and their Vipers were moved aside to launch cradles. The six men and women from those patrols, along with a handful of security people and an emergency damage control team, waited with the commander.

"Power levels almost nil," one of the pilots commented as the small, oval-shaped craft was dragged into a semblance of a landing. "Hard to believe anything could have survived what that ship's been through, and then the cold of space...."

"What?" Cain demanded of the startled woman. "There's something alive in there? Our scanners didn't pick anything up."

"Well, ours showed some life form, when we were close enough to it. Not very strong, and probably shielded, I'd say, but it was still there when we came in-"

"Is a med team standing by?" the commander snapped at the nearest tech.

"Standard procedure," the man replied quickly. "I'll let them know there's a chance of a survivor." He hurried to the nearest comm speaker.

"Sheba?" Cain turned to his daughter, one of the pilots who'd brought in the Hsarri craft. He didn't intend it, but his expression was almost accusing.

"I didn't know, Commander," she stammered, shaking her head. "Bojay and I didn't notice anything, but of course the Major was there first...."

Cain glanced back at the blonde woman who'd spoken earlier - she was obviously the "major" Sheba referred to. "Well?"

"Major Electra, Kell Squadron flight leader, from the Britannica," she replied. "The Olympus patrol spotted it first, but we arrived almost simultaneously. As I was ranking pilot, I took responsibility. I decided to call the Pegasus when your pilots showed up. By then, we'd lost the life reading, and didn't regain it until we rendezvoused with your ship, sir."

Cain nodded, then turned his attention back to the small Hsarri ship. Low power levels, and a life form aboard. From the damage, it had obviously come through a firefight; the very sides of the craft seemed lifeless, as though the laser fire that had blackened them, followed by the frost of escaping air in the cold of space, had sucked away all spirit and power. Emergency personnel were hosing the craft down to prevent fires after the shaky landing, and a medical team was standing by, ready to take over if necessary. Several suited figures ran to the ship as the emergency team pulled back.

"They'll be opening it now, sir. Do you want to stand by, or shall we bring you a report?" He knew the voice - Veleda, otherwise unrecognizable in one of the heavy, protective suits the damage control teams wore in such situations.

Cain shook his head. "I'll wait, Captain. Go ahead." As she returned to her duty, he took a centon to study the pilots who still waited and watched nearby. He knew Sheba and Bojay, of course, and Electra had identified herself, but the other three were strangers to him.

"Care to introduce yourselves while we wait?" he asked. "I like to know the pilots in my command." There was imperious impatience in his voice, unintentionally.

"Captain Leif, sir," replied the tall, red-haired man from the Olympus. "My wingman is Sergeant Trent. We were on deep flank patrol when we spotted that on our scanners." There was a distinct arrogance in the man's stance. Cain disliked him at once.

Trent, however, struck him more favorably. The sergeant was a dark-haired, powerfully-built individual, who was probably more at home on a triad court than in a Viper. Cain liked the open smile and wide-eyed, not-quite-innocence of the youth.

"And you?" he inquired of the of the last pilot.

"Captain Orestes, sir. Kell Squadron, Britannica." He was obviously much more interested in the Hsarri ship.

"You two, uh, by any chance related?" the commander asked the woman, seeing he'd get nothing more from Orestes. They shared a similarity of features, and Cain knew of siblings who chose to serve on the same vessel, when given a choice.

She smiled in return, and he saw strange, amused lights in her nearly violet eyes. "He's my brother. We've flown together for yahrens." There was pride in her voice, evident in her words and in the subtle lift of her chin; she and her brother were obviously a good team. And from her openness with him, Cain assumed this woman was either unimpressed with the fact that she faced the "living legend," or was more self-assured and confident than most of the women he met.

Whichever, his business at the moment was finding out about this alien vessel, not concerning himself with human motivations. He glanced at the ship. A life pod waited alongside the craft, and Dr. Helena had a pair of med techs with her. They were all garbed in antiseptic, disposable clothing; anything coming out of the ship would go through decontamination before being taken anywhere else. The vessel's seals were broken, the hatch opened. Cain resisted an urge to sidle closer and peer into that invitingly open door. Even if the force screens allowed it, security wouldn't.

A figure appeared in the hatchway; he couldn't tell who it was. It beckoned to Helena, then went back inside. The medics hoisted the life pod to the entrance and disappeared within. Apparently, they'd found something - something alive.

Cain tapped his riding crop against the nearest girder. During a military engagement he could wait and stalk and prowl to whatever extent was necessary, but before and after the battle, he wanted things to move. At least he had the satisfaction of knowing his people were the best available, and he would have their reports as soon as any information was uncovered. Recalling that, it was disturbing that Daniel still wasn't able to account for the Viper explosion.

The med techs reappeared; the life pod was carefully lowered to the deck, and Helena hurried off with it. The entire tube was draped in a thermoblanket, and Cain thought for a moment that they were too late, that they had recovered only a dead body. Then Veleda appeared in the entrance again, holding a small recording instrument. She sent a tech scurrying after the medical crew, then headed for decon. A few moments later she joined the commander.

"The woman's alive, but in bad shape. Here's the ship's log...." She held up the recorder. "If we can figure out how to play it back. We also recorded the few words she said, if we can translate them. She seemed to be trying to tell us something. I've never heard the language before," she admitted frankly. "However, she seemed to know who we are. Something must be of extreme importance, the way she looked when she was speaking."

"Can you identify the woman's origin? Is she Hsarri?"

"I know nothing about the Hsarri except for a few historical facts, Commander. I can't tell what she is. She looks human, but you'll have to ask the doctors." She glanced away as someone called her. "It looks like I'm needed, sir. If you'll excuse me?" She vanished into the small crowd, running awkwardly in the bulky suit.

"If it's Hsarri, the language should be in the historical linguistics bank," Sheba volunteered, watching her father.

"Only the dry, diplomatic tongue," he replied critically. "And nearly a millennium out of date. I already checked. But it should give the languatrons enough to work with." He studied the pilots from the other battlestars. "You're all free to return to your home ships, if you wish. You're also welcome to stay if you care to wait and find out more about your discovery."

The warriors exchanged glances.

"I think we'd like to stay, if you don't mind, sir," Electra said. Her brother nodded his agreement. Leif and Trent also seemed willing to remain.

"Sheba, why don't you and Bojay take them to the pilots' lounge for a little hospitality. We'll meet again in my quarters in two centars; we should know something by then." Cain nodded his farewell and stepped into the nearest turbolift.

Sheba wished she could accompany her father, but accepted her task as host. Bojay had already taken responsibility for the lovely Electra - he'd taken her arm and was gesturing toward the lift, a charmed and charming smile on his face. The woman didn't seem to mind at all.

Cain's daughter felt a surge of jealousy, but dismissed it. What did it matter if Bojay found the major intriguing? Sheba knew she was attractive enough in her honey-blonde way, although she wasn't the devastatingly golden woman this Electra was. She wasn't sure she wanted to be, either. She had enough problems just being Cain's daughter.

At any rate, Bojay's departure left her with three handsome young warriors, all of whom seemed quite pleased to escort her. She smiled at them, and led the way.

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Enter Sheba's Galaxy