Chapter V


Hera, commander of the Britannica, stood calmly on her command deck, monitoring the incoming reports from her patrols. Electra and Orestes were still with the Pegasus, but were expected back shortly. All other patrols had checked in as scheduled, with the exception of Quillan, her flight commander. He was investigating the asteroid field ahead, and she hoped they'd hear from him soon - the Fifth Fleet would be entering the region of field interference shortly, and if there were any surprises waiting, she wanted to know about them.

The whole business with the incendiary devices in the fleet disturbed her, and would have to be dealt with before rumors got out of hand. The search teams had found nothing aboard the Britannica - yet. Reports from the Olympus stated that three strategically-located tylium explosives had been found and dealt with, although there were still large areas of the ship to be searched. Something more might turn up.

Nothing had been discovered on the smaller ships, for which Hera was grateful. It was enough to fear that the battlestars had been booby-trapped; if the auxiliary ships were also in danger, the risks and the possibility of panic increased geometrically. But the ships of the Fifth Fleet had good crews; they ought to be able to deal with anything they had to face.

If only the Pegasus would report in. Silence wasn't like Cain.

"Commander, report from Major Quillan," the communications officer interrupted her musings.

"Excellent." Hera stepped closer, giving total attention to the brief, static-ridden report.

"Quillan to Britannica. This is Patrol One. Repeat, the asteroid belt contains ice and rock with high concentrations of raw tylium, stable in vacuum at low temperatures. Do you read? No Cylon activity apparent, but tylium concentration interferes with scanners and communications. Returning to base. Quillan out."

Tylium! High concentrations of raw tylium!

Hera was surprised there wasn't a mining colony listed for this area. But with the volume of traffic through the quadrant, maybe even the Cylons didn't want to spend their time constantly defending a settled base. And there was no doubt in the commander's mind that if anybody began serious mining operations in the asteroid belt, Cylons and pirates would begin to prey upon it. It was too far from the Colonies or Molecay for either power to adequately defend it, and the Delphian Empire was father still.

Nevertheless, the discovery would be logged and noted; perhaps in a few yahrens, if the humans expanded in this direction, it would become feasible to settle and maintain a base in the tylium belt. If Quillan's scanner data, now coming in, was correct and could be trusted, the belt of loose rocks was a large one, circling an old star; the quantity of tylium might make the investment worthwhile.

The comm officer interrupted her again. "Commander! Major Quillan.... He reports.... It's breaking up, Commander, but I believe they've spotted a vessel." The man worked frantically at his board, switching to direct high gain as he tried to enhance the signal. "Yes! They have! It sounds like...." He tried to make the signal clearer still.

"Damn! They're being jammed, Commander! Electronic jamming...." The man stared up at her. "Automatic distress signals just kicked in from the patrol, but badly garbled. Definitely Cylon jamming, I'm familiar with the- No!"

He took a deep breath before continuing. "One of the signals just died, ma'am..... There goes the others." He shook his head and slammed his fist on the console. "We've lost Major Quillan."

Hera stared at the empty screen where the two distress beacons had shone only microns before, aware of all eyes upon her in the ominous silence that descended on the bridge.

Cylons.

"Inform the other vessels of the fleet. Try to get through to the Pegasus, but I'd be surprised if the Cylons aren't jamming us, too, so we can't transmit that far. Warn our pilots, and instruct the patrols to close in, if they can still hear us." She glanced at her flight officer. "Marla, take us to full alert status, all squadrons ready. We may have action soon. I expect the fleet to respond similarly. Let me know if you can reach Cain."

Klaxons screamed all over the ship as the Britannica went to alert, and the lights switched to red. Until the situation could be more adequately explained, until all danger was past, the Fifth Fleet would be ready for battle. The Vipers would be fueled, armed, and ready; the pilots would be standing by at their ships or in the ready room. Gunnery would check all armaments. Engineering, damage control, and fire control would be waiting.

Then the nail-chewing would begin, as the crew, at maximum alert and keyed to the hilt, waited for the next move.

After several long centons, Flight Officer Marla reported, "We can't reach the Pegasus. Jamming's too heavy, on all frequencies."

Hera took a deep breath, watching her bridge crew work in the eerie red light of alert status. The Pegasus was on her own.

* * * * *

"So, Electra, what are you doing this evening?" Leif inquired. "I've got nothing planned myself, and if there's nothing on your calendar...."

"I'm meeting some friends," the Britannica pilot replied casually, trying to restrain her growing annoyance. She'd observed as Captain Leif played up to Cain's daughter aboard the Pegasus, with no apparent success. Now, he was attempting a quick flirtation with her, and she was determined he'd get no further than he had with Sheba. She found his behavior rather boorish and a bit rude. How had the man gotten his reputation as a warrior?

"A party? Sounds like fun," Leif persisted, hinting broadly for an invitation - or maybe inviting himself.

"Just some close personal friends, Captain. Perhaps another time." The man was certainly handsome enough, but he had a lousy sense of timing and no idea when to stop. There wasn't anybody special in Electra's life at the moment, but from what she'd heard and now seen of Leif, he wasn't her type. She hoped she could stall him before any drastic action was required on her part. The flight back to their base ships seemed to get longer and longer as the company became less and less appreciated.

Leif finally got the hint and subsided into sulky silence. He wasn't accustomed to failing in his attempts to charm women - especially twice in one day - and the novelty of rejection wasn't sitting well.

"Doesn't seem to be a very good day," Sgt. Trent ventured.

"Shut up, kid. We're on patrol," Leif snapped back.

Electra swallowed a retort about his own non-duty-related chatter in defense of the younger pilot. Trent had to live with the captain, as well as fly patrols with him. She wondered how and why he managed.

In his own small fighter, Orestes rolled his eyes in distaste. He didn't care for the type who boasted of their conquests and prowess, as Leif had done back on the Pegasus. Probably a competent pilot, since he'd risen to the rank of captain, but not really a very nice person. He wondered how Trent endured the superior attitude and put-downs Leif dished out so liberally.

Orestes stared at his scanners. Nothing showed, but the grid was breaking up ever so slightly, and a scratching hum sounded through his helmet comm, setting his teeth on edge. "Hey, Electra-"

"I feel it," she replied tensely. "Somebody's using jamming equipment around here. Battle formation. Leif, Trent, close on us. If we run into anything-"

"We're on our own," her brother finished for her. "I tried to raise the Pegasus, but there's no response."

"Major," Leif cut in impatiently, "couldn't it be natural interference from that asteroid field ahead of us? After all, we've been-"

"How in Hades did you ever survive to become a captain?" Electra demanded rudely. "I'm ranking pilot here; I'm taking command. Battle formation, Captain, and that is not a request. Don't you know a jamming field when you're in one?"

Leif's hand tightened on his ship's control stick, and his face went livid with rage, but he obeyed. "Bitch," he muttered viciously under his breath. With the low-level jamming, no one heard him.

"What're we going to do, Major?" Trent asked. His wingman's behavior occasionally embarrassed him, but they flew well together. Leif had difficulty enduring competition of any kind, and Trent was quite good at appearing innocuous.

"We're going to be very, very careful, and we're going to find the fleet as fast as we can - and we're going to pray we don't find whoever's jamming us first."

* * * * *

In the herb-scented privacy of the isolation chamber, med tech Galswintha bent over the life pod, studying the injured woman. The long, dark braid of the Hsarri's hair lay limply across the pillow; her slightly tilted eyes were closed and sunken; her pale face had a deathly pallor. She didn't look as if she would live.

Her chances of survival hadn't been good to start with. Her small ship had been blasted, raked with laser fire from an unknown foe. Then, she and her companions left for dead, the derelict ship had been abandoned by that foe. Only this one woman, from the half-dozen females aboard the craft, had survived the fire of battle and the cold of space to be found by their patrols, after an unknown period of drifting.

Aboard the Pegasus, she'd been barely conscious when the medics rushed her to life center; she'd forced words through numb, frost-touched lips before fainting from injuries and pain. They'd done everything they could for her, but even if she lived, the Hsarri would never return to anything near full health. Frozen fingers and toes had been amputated. Burnt skin had been peeled away and the bare wounds covered with a skin substitute preparatory to graft. Life for this woman would be unpleasant and painful for a long time.

The med tech checked her patient's vital signs again. They were so low and faint it took Galswintha a centon to assure herself the Hsarri was still alive. Then the alien woman muttered something, thrashing with a bandaged, stumpy hand, waking despite the massive doses of sedatives and painkillers.

Galswintha caught her breath as the injured woman's eyes opened to stare up at her in horror. Those golden, pain-filled depths were almost more than she could bear to look into. There was such agony there, and such a great fear....

Rest," the med tech whispered softly to her, reaching out to touch her cheek like a feather's brush. "There's nothing to hurt you here...."

The woman flinched away, looking as if she would scream.

The touch that should have eased pain and brought healing only caused the Hsarri greater fear and hurt. Galswintha ran for another injection of analgesics, but the Hsarri was unconscious when she returned. She stared at her patient for a long moment, hands clenched, hating her helplessness. Then she turned and stumbled away, trying to hide her tears.

Dr. Rafael watched her go. Galswintha was a vital woman, alive with vibrant passions and emotions. She seemed to impart that life to her patients, refusing to let them feel pain or sorrow. That was part of what made her so valuable to the medical staff, part of what made him love her. The young Scorpian woman brought a unique flair to everything she did. It was hard for her to watch another's pain without trying to help. But here was someone she couldn't reach - alien, just that slightest bit beyond a healing touch. Galswintha, for all her skill and talent, couldn't help the Hsarri.

Rafael checked the woman's vital signs himself, shaking his head gravely as he realized they were slipping.

Galswintha knew her duty, and wouldn't leave her patient alone for more than a moment. She returned, her tears under control. Her head was held high, though her lips trembled slightly, and her eyes were wet. She saw Rafael standing at the bedside and slowly came closer.

"It hurts that bad, Winna?" the doctor asked gently.

"There was a look in her eyes, Raf," she replied in her soft, thick accent. "I've never seen such pain, such despair, such fear, as if she'd been betrayed somehow, and by her closest friend. She never expected to wake again, after giving her message. Life is her enemy now, and death an eagerly sought friend. I couldn't watch her eyes. The pain was too much for her. I couldn't reach her. She was unconscious before I could give her something.... She's not going to make it."

"No," he agreed reluctantly. "I'm afraid not."

The Hsarri was already faltering. A few more centars at most. The best and the kindest thing they could do for her was to let her sleep those centars without waking.

Galswintha bent her head and put her arms around Rafael. Her own pain was almost tangible. Her gentle hands could do so much, but this time, they couldn't even ease the passage into death. Rafael responded by putting her arms around her, kissing the dark curls that fell on her forehead.

* * * * *

"Commander!" Cpl. Memnon called urgently. "We're being jammed! Somebody's throwing a field through this whole sector!"

In an instant, Cain was standing at his shoulder. "Switch to high band," he ordered. "See what you can pull in." He turned away, then stopped for another directive. "And Memnon, see if you can locate those pilots - they may know what's going on, or be caught in the middle of it. Standard procedure for our warriors."

Memnon nodded as his hands flew over the communications console. The flight officer and the helmsman were already working on the scanners. The commander stood back, out of their way, but nothing escaped his piercing, probing eyes.

Soon, he thought. It would begin soon. But he was ready....

* * * * *

"Sir, we're picking up something!"

"What is it, Kara?" Theseus demanded tersely.

The scan officer studied her screen before reporting. "Several waves of small ships approaching, no life readings. Waiting for confirmation check ... warbook confirms - Cylon, standard three-passenger fighter craft. Still scanning for base ships...."

Theseus stared balefully at the screen. Cylon attack phalanx! Of course - the worst possible time for it, so now they must attack. But where were their base ships? There were no known Cylon bases in the quadrant - no known bases of any culture, Cylon, human, or otherwise.

"Let me know the micron you find anything more, Lieutenant," he said unnecessarily. The woman nodded an acknowledgment, her face drawn into a frown.

The eerie lights of battle alert were joined by the warning klaxons of imminent attack. He heard the flight controller checking launch status and sending out the squadrons, as competent and conscientious as always.

But there were so many ships in that approaching attack force.... Theseus felt a smothering wave of horror, an old haunting feeling that he hadn't experienced in yahrens. Why should it torment him now?

"The Britannica's launching her squadrons," the comm officer reported. "Commander Hera's ordered the other ships to fall back, let us take the brunt of the attack."

"Or course." The commander of the Olympus laughed humorlessly. "We're warships, and warriors. We're supposed to protect the rest of humanity from things like this...." He had a sudden, terrifying vision - whether real, or premonition, or specter born of fear, he would never know - of such an attack falling on the unprepared Colonies, while the fleet was out here in the middle of nowhere, unable to defend their homes, fighting a losing battle with treason and treachery-

Where did it come from, that ghastly thought?

He couldn't control the fear for a moment; when he regained some semblance of calm, he thought his heart would burst from the force of its pumping, and his veins explode from the pressure of the blood surging through them.

Lords, not now! We have to defend the Colonies - no, the Fifth Fleet, here and now. The fleet....

"Missile posts, stand by for launch. We may have a chance to get close to those basestars, if we can locate them," he ordered harshly. "Ready all laser turrets; we'll be needing them." He had to keep thoughts of the fleet foremost in his mind, but they kept fading into another image ... the Colonies.... He pushed the fear aside for the moment. There were less-well-armed ships in the convoy. They had to be protected.

"Contact made!" Kara warned. "It's begun!"

* * * * *

Cain stood on the Pegasus bridge. He didn't hear the swish of the turbo doors behind him.

"All squadrons on stand-by alert," his flight officer advised.

"Good work, Tolan. We don't know what we're heading into."

"Commander, I have my report." Cain turned to Maj. Daniel. "Five bombs located and disposed of. They were found in solium storage chambers, a solium pod in Engineering, and in the landing bay force screen controls. We're still searching, but I believe we have them all. The pattern the Olympus reported held for us, too, and seems quite logical for sabotage. We won't stop, of course, until we've completed the search."

"Good, good, keep at it," Cain replied absently.

Daniel nodded, then vanished into the growing crowd of personnel. The commander wondered why it took so many people to keep the bridge running at a time like this, when one man could fly the Viper that kept them all safe. Of course, a good wingmate was invaluable.... He smiled ruefully. He was still very much the pilot, not really at home in this crowd.

"Sir!" It was Tolan again.

Cain snapped back to alertness. "Yes?"

"Garbled message coming in, sounds like it's from Major Electra and the other visiting patrol. It looks like the party's already started. They're passing the word, and unless you've got other orders, they're going into battle, and try to punch a way back to the fleet."

Kleopatra leaned over the scanner console, watching closely. "Sir, if they go in now, they'll never make it - they'll be dead in a few centons. If these readings are accurate, the Cylons are too thick between them and the fleet."

"Tell them to hold, Tolan. We'll have relief squadrons there on the double - Silver Spar and Copper Keel. We'll keep the rest for our own defense. Now, get this damned ship to full alert!"

Klaxons screamed even as he yelled, and the lights turned demonically red. He leaned over the command deck railing to watch his people prepare to meet their enemy. "Senmut, get us to light speed, and get us there fast."

The helmsman glanced up, giving a quick thumbs-up affirmation that the order was heard and being executed.

"Squadrons ready? Then launch!"

* * * * *

The alert klaxons sent an already bustling life center to the peak of frenzy. Dr. Helena and her personnel prepared for casualties, with emergency surgery units readying themselves and assembling large quantities of bandages, burn medications, painkillers, infection-fighters of all kinds, and laser implements to deal with the expected emergencies. One med tech took an extra micron to gather her small herb pots and store them out of the way of the more immediately necessary supplies. Those who would be handling preliminary triage in the bays were clustered around Helena in the middle of life center.

"....And Rafael, you take Beta Bay," the chief medical officer finished her hurried instructions. "And remember, there'll be a lot of burns among the combat casualties, and crash victims in damaged ships who can't make decent landings. Be prepared for anything, and help the most serious cases on a priority basis - first aid, mostly, I suspect - and get them on their way here.

"Well, you've all been through this before. You know what to do, so I'll skip the rest of the speech. The Lords of Kobol be with us all, in whatever we have to do."

The group scattered into what appeared to be an unorganized mass of people running in many directions, but was really a highly efficient, well-trained group of medical personnel, among the best in the Colonial fleet. Cain expected the best from everyone on his ship, and Helena's standards were, if possible, even more stringent than his where anything medical was concerned. In moments, life center was half empty as emergency teams ran for their posts.

A woman with dark, curly hair that hung in thick ringlets slowly entered the room from an isolation chamber. She radiated misery. She was as much the opposite of the cool, serene, platinum-blonde Helena as one could be.

"What is it, Galwintha?"

"The Hsarri woman is dead."

* * * * *

"We'll rendezvous in two centons, Major. Stand by. We'll go get those creeps together." Major Devon radiated a confidence he didn't feel inside. On Cain's orders, Electra and her small patrol waited for him just beyond the fringes of the battle. The Pegasus was moving into position at top speed; meanwhile, Silver Spar and Copper Keel Squadrons had been sent to help relieve the presumed Cylon pressure on the other battlestars and the Fifth Fleet as a whole. Shortly, the flagship would rejoin her fleet - if that fleet still existed.

"We're waiting, Major, but hurry," Electra responded. Was that a trace of fear Devon heard in her voice? "A few ships spotted us, tried to pick us off, but they were no problem. If we can believe our scanners, it must be a real mess out there."

"We're almost there," he repeated.

"Yeah! We'll show them!" The new voice was eager.

Devon groaned, recognizing the cadet's voice. "Look, kid, this isn't a simulation. You be careful."

"I'm not a cadet any more!" she replied rebelliously, resenting that "kid."

He could almost see her trying to stare him down. "You're a frakkin' cadet and you'll be that until somebody with authority says otherwise!" he snapped back. "The Commander pulled you from the Academy as a favor to your father, but being on a battlestar doesn't make you a real warrior until you've earned it. Now, you be careful! That's an order!"

Devon knew he'd been harsh, but felt he had to be. This was no time or place for cocksure kids - save that attitude for off-duty fun! Hades of a favor to the girl's father if she were killed on her first combat mission. He still wondered what Cain could possibly owe the girl's parents, to pull her from the academy three sectons early, over High Command's objections, and take her on a secret mission. But then, Cain was probably the only man who could get away with such a stunt.

But it left him with a kid for a wingmate - a good kid, he had to admit, but still a green pilot with no combat experience. He prayed he wouldn't have to cover for her on this one. Instinct told him this was no afternoon mushie party were heading into.

"Merging into your flight pattern," he heard a businesslike voice say. It startled him. Had two centons passed that fast?

"Good," he managed to respond. "Be ready.... There they are.... Okay, let's go...." His relief squadrons swept out of the asteroid field and into the thick of the fray, as Cain would have wanted.


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