Chapter VI


Theseus stared at the scanners, then glanced blankly around his burning bridge. Suicide rammers were having an impact; his ship was in trouble. The consoles took on the guises of buildings; the crew members at their posts and those fighting the fires suddenly faded to become screaming civilians and innocent, dying children.

Oh, Lords, the Colonies!

"Mandan, get this ship ready for full assault," he ordered.

"What?"

"We're going through them. We have to get there in time."

"Molecay?" the executive officer asked in disbelief.

"Too late for Molecay. We have to go home, to the Colonies."

Mandan was sure Theseus had gone over some edge. Then he recognized the slightly glazed look in his commander's eyes, and felt his own foreboding grow to near-panic. The look, the tone of voice.... The last time he'd seen that look, the commander had known of a Cylon attack before it happened!

He turned to the helmsman. "Plot a course, and stand by to use it. Missile launchers on stand-by. Pass the word to our pilots." He took another look at the cold determination on Theseus's face, a vision of something else in those bleak eyes. The coldness in the pit of his own stomach spread through his limbs. "And order immediate evacuation of all injured - and anyone else who doesn't want to risk this."

The bridge crew stared in astonishment at the last order, but Mandan set his jaw, then returned to watching the scanners, waiting for the fateful order that just might make sense after all.

"Sir!" a voice broke into his thoughts. "We're picking up a basestar - no, two basestars! Coordinates-"

"Feed them directly to the helm," Theseus ordered, coming out of his silent trance for a moment. "Helm, that's our goal. Get us to those basestars, then through them."

No one questioned the order. His powerful, strident voice was awful. He might be a messiah, leading them to safety - or a demon, taking them straight to Hades. Either way, they obeyed.

* * * * *

The battle was fast and furious, deadly to both human pilots and mechanical Cylons. Among the tylium asteroids, any missed shot could mean the explosions of several ships, friend and foe, or one's own destruction. The humans faced a severe test of courage, skill, and teamwork, against both the Cylons and the star system.

"Stay on course, Sheba! I got 'em!" Bojay yelled.

Sheba heard the tension in her wingman's voice, but forced herself to fly steadily to preserve his targets. A micron later, and the flash of an exploding Raider nearly blinded her. He'd just saved her from a dangerous attack formation. A second Raider angled away from Bojay, and straight into her line of fire. She touched her fire control, and the Cylon was pierced by a brilliant beam of laser fire. He tried to maneuver out of reach, and succeeded only in taking himself and a companion ship into an asteroid. She shielded her eyes from the flare.

"Thanks, Bojay."

The action had taken only microns. After a few patrols, she and Bojay were starting to function as a competent team, but this firefight was no place to be testing themselves. She remembered there were other new flight teams aboard the Pegasus, since the explosion, and wondered how they were doing.

She glanced quickly at her scanners, but the confused mass of targets and static told her little; she knew eyeballing could be more accurate in the circumstances. She glanced around through the Viper canopy. There were flashes of laser fire, pieces of the infernal tylium rocks that so badly mangled communications and scanning, and an occasional fighter. That distant blob might even be a battlestar, moving slowly against the starfield. The other ships were scattered throughout the asteroid belt, each surrounded by contingents of fighters, both Cylon and human.

Some scratchy, garbled noises filtered through her comm. She waited until the information, whatever it was, could be deciphered and passed along through some other pilot closer to its source.

"What in Hades does Theseus think he's doing?" a male voice suddenly demanded, aghast. "He's committing suicide!"

"What's he doing? What's going on?" Bojay demanded of the unidentified pilot.

"He's evacuated personnel, gonna try blasting a path.... He wants a Viper escort for the shuttles...."

"Where?" Sheba queried sharply. They should make for the rendezvous point, run escort if that's what Commander Theseus wanted. But ... blasting a path through what? The Cylons? The asteroids? And to where?

"Coordinates...." the other pilot began. Then, "Lords, they're not going to make it!"

"Make what? What's happening?"

This time, the flash of fire from the exploding ship, although much farther away, did blind the two Pegasus pilots momentarily. They heard the other man cry out, "It's gone! The Olympus! Oh, Kara-"

Then the stranger gasped once; they both heard his scream, and the wild screech of burning wires. His ship had been hit. The comm went dead, and they saw a brief flare not far away. Then, nothing.

"That ... that was the Olympus?" Bojay repeated incredulously, horrified.

Sheba stared at the now-dark region of space where a battlestar had been. Such a huge explosion ... she'd never seen anything like it.... She was stunned. "It must have been. Oh, Lords...." she whispered, then shook her head to clear it as much as possible. "Those shuttles must still be out there," she managed to say. "We'd better see if we can get closer, find out if they need help, or relay word to Father...."

She realized she was crying, but couldn't even risk reaching up to wipe away the tears. She blinked several times, swallowing hard. It did the trick; she regained control. "Close in, Bojay. Let's see what we can do. Watch your tail in this mess."

"How 'bout if you watch my tail, and I watch yours?" he asked shakily, forcing the feeble humor.

Garnyd, much as I miss you, I'm glad you're not here.

* * * * *

A young cadet stared at the littered starfield, at the flashing specks of metal that were fighters, at the constant flaring of lasers that destroyed those fighters, both Cylon and Colonial.

Astarte's hands were cold, and she was breathing in quick gasps. The calm she'd felt at the beginning of the battle had been false, she realized, and had quickly vanished. The momentary elation she'd felt at her first Cylon kill had also disappeared - the first time she'd nearly taken a direct hit herself. Those few patrols, and Devon's suggestions - they were no help now, not in the middle of this inferno. No one had prepared her for this at the academy.

She was on the verge of hysteria, of giving up, of closing her eyes and waiting for the inevitable pursuer that would mean her death. She was shaking in her cockpit, unsure what to do next.

But she couldn't give up. That would mean surrender, defeat, letting the Cylons win. She had to at least try to fight.

Against these odds? After everything else she'd seen today?

Her wingman, a skilled, competent, experienced warrior with yahrens of combat under his belt, had died in the first few centons of the fight, trying to block a Raider making a ramming run on one of the smaller ships in the fleet. The Raider had rammed him instead, and they'd gone up together, too close to a tylium asteroid that exploded from their wild laser shots. The Olympus was gone, trying to plow a way through the mass of Raiders that had swarmed upon her like buzzers around a hive. Astarte would swear at least half of their Vipers had been destroyed, while the Cylon ships seemed endless, coming from nowhere and everywhere.

But she couldn't just give up and die. That would be a betrayal. She came from a warrior family, and there'd been many heroes among them. She had a tradition to uphold, a heritage to be proud of. She had to prove Cain's faith in her was justified.

She tried to take aim on a Raider; it eluded her. Then - thank the Lords! - it disintegrated in somebody else's fire.

The asteroids made it difficult. She couldn't tell where Raiders might be hiding, and the asteroids were like a mine field, laced as they were with raw tylium, just waiting to explode. With her wingman gone, she had to keep an eye on her rear scanners along with everything else; she simply couldn't see what was behind her, and there was nobody else to watch for her-

Cylons! There were Cylons behind her! And above her, and coming from ahead...! A pinwheel! She recognized the deadly formation now. What could she do? They were everywhere!

"No!" she shrieked aloud. "I can't get away from them! It's not fair! You can't! I haven't had time, I don't know-"

She tried to twist away. Her Viper responded so slowly.

Maybe I can scare one of the Raiders into giving way for me.... But no, I forgot, Cylons don't scare.... Is this it?

"Keep rolling!" a voice shouted in her ear. She obeyed without thought; that voice was accustomed to command.

Laser fire was everywhere, some of it very close to her ship. Astarte caught her breath again. The Raiders were dispersing, several of them drifting away in shrapnel clouds.

"Thank ... thank you," she stuttered into her comm. "I'm still alive...."

"This is Captain Orestes, Britannica. Who're you? Don't you know enough to watch out for that formation?" The voice was irate, and with reason. It was an elementary trap; she should have seen it; she simply hadn't been paying attention.

"Cadet Astarte, Pegasus," she replied meekly. She was still too shaken to put any pride or belligerence in her voice, or to defend her actions.

"Cadet...? Oh, her. Yeah, okay, that explains it. I guess this is hardly the place to be learning Cylon methods, but you don't have much choice, do you?"

"My wingman ... went early.... I've been alone. Can I fly with you?" she asked. She hoped they wouldn't mind a third wingmate, even if she was from another battlestar, and only a cadet. She was frightened. She never considered that the captain's wingmate might be dead as well.

"I could use someone. Electra took some damage, headed in a while ago. Take position, and let's get back to the fight." The businesslike tone of his voice, the faith in his own skills, and his acceptance of her as a partner, all helped restore some confidence to Astarte. She was flying with a captain who knew what he was doing. Her hands stopped shaking.

She took a deep breath and even managed a smile as she answered him. "I'm with you. Let's go." She dropped her Viper into second-ship position, and they flew back through the asteroids, back into battle.

* * * * *

Captain Leif managed to pull his wounded ship away from the Olympus when Commander Theseus sent out the evacuation order. His expression was one of cold fury as he fought the unresponsive controls, trying to locate and reach another ship while he was still in one piece. His Viper needed repairs; he was almost out of fuel; and his laser generators were exhausted. He was a sitting target for anyone who cared to take a shot at him.

Damn those Cylons for their treacherous ways! And damn Theseus, too, for taking the battlestar on a suicide run against those two basestars and an asteroid belt full of tylium! Where in Hades has Trent gone? Probably gotten himself killed, just like everybody else seems to be doing....

"Frak!" He stared at his scanner. The forward scan was out, and he had to watch where he was going, but rear scan still functioned, marginally. It now showed approaching Cylons.

"Anybody out there? Pilot in trouble, requesting assistance," he said into his comm, wondering if that particular piece of equipment still worked, if anybody could hear his call, if they could free themselves from battle long enough to come and help him. Not likely. The odds were long against him.

A moment later, laser fire speared through his ship, and still more systems threw sparks at him as they screamed into overload. Everything went dead on the unfortunate warrior, and his ship shuddered off the course he'd won with such difficulty. His head slammed against the side of the canopy, and he'd have sworn both his helmet and his head had split wide open.

The wooziness passed in a micron, and became nothing more than excruciating pain. His temper flare-up of a moment before had vanished as well. Precise fingers raced over controls and circuits, but nothing responded to manual efforts or inventive invective. The ship was dead in space, drifting without destination.

A shadow crossed his vision; he stared through the canopy. He was drifting toward one of the explosive rocks that littered this sector.

Damn! Where in Hades is that Cylon now that I want one? No warrior wants to watch death approach like this, when he's helpless....

Leif took a deep breath, staring in fascination at the looming object that grew larger by the micron as it pulled him closer, its minute gravity easily luring the tiny, crippled Viper like some terrible siren's song.

Electra, you were one beautiful witch. Too damned bad-

Yet another explosion lit the darkness.

* * * * *

Lt. Rissian didn't have time to look back at the expanding cloud that had once been his base ship. The shuttle he piloted rode the edge of the explosion; avoiding shrapnel, rock, and enemy fighters took all his concentration. The small craft had been damaged, and a shuttle full of injured crew members and pilots was a precious cargo, especially when so many of them were friends of his. He had to get the craft safely out of the combat area and to the prearranged rendezvous point....

His co-pilot was having trouble reading the scanners and keeping the engines running smoothly and evenly. His head was bandaged, and his vision was filled with strange sparks and motes. Lt. Gavain had suffered a head injury in the crash-landing of his Viper, and he really shouldn't have been flying; but as the doctor had said, Gavain was one of the few conscious people aboard the shuttle who was physically capable and trained to fly such a ship. He and Rissian were also a team - a definite advantage in the situation.

He wasn't sure, however, just how long he could remain conscious.

"Hold on, Gav. I need you here," Rissian murmured, seeing his wingman's head sag for a moment.

"Sorry," Gavain mumbled, stealing a quick glance back at the doctor. "Damn it, Ris, my head's goin' crazy." His deep voice was unsteady, barely audible even to his friend.

"Gotta hold on, Gav, just a little longer. Somebody's gotta keep an eye on that starboard engine, and the scanners are goin' out. I can't do everything."

"I know. I'll try, buddy."

The Olympus was gone, and it looked like most of the fleet was, too. In the last few centons, with the young doctor running around bawling orders no one was listening to, while Rissian revved up the shuttle, Gavain had bumped his already-injured head as he and another pilot - who'd been bleeding himself - dragged several crew members to the escape craft. It seemed the fires of the burning ship still danced mockingly, teasingly before him, and shaking his head didn't clear it. As it was, Rissian was carrying the brunt of their burden - flying the shuttle, steering away from the drifting debris and enemy ships outside, worrying about him and the rest of their human cargo. If he could just clear his head a little, make the fog go away....

"Gavain!" Rissian yelled as his wingman slumped over and dropped to the deck. "Doc! Anybody! I need help up here!"

The starboard engine began to whine, a warning that called for immediate attention, and Rissian didn't have time to heed anything but his instruments for several centons. The next thing he noticed was another man sliding into the seat Gavain had been dragged away from.

He spared a micron to glance at his new co-pilot. "Hey, Trent, try not to bleed all over everything, okay? You look like you shouldn't be moving, let alone flying," he commented shakily, trying to get his mind off his wounded friend.

Trent looked nearly as bad as Gavain. The young sergeant had helped lug people aboard, then promptly collapsed into a seat on take-off. His hand was well-bandaged, but blood was still seeping through both his shirt and the wrappings of a chest wound of some kind. The doctor hadn't had time to examine the man thoroughly, with all the other injuries aboard.

The dark-haired kid grimaced. "Right. I'll keep an eye on those engines."

A comm frequency buzzed quietly but insistently in the plug in Rissian's ear. He tuned it in. "We read you. Identify and state your business." He was brusquer than he meant to be, but he was too tired, too concerned with craft and cargo, to care if he hurt someone's feelings."

"Lieutenants Sheba and Bojay, of the Pegasus. We'll block for you back to our base. That way you won't have to detour to the rendezvous point, which, for all we know, the Cylons may already be aware of anyway."

The two men aboard the damaged shuttle exchanged glances. Rissian was wary; Trent forced a weak, exhausted smile.

"We didn't call for an escort," Rissian said suspiciously. He didn't trust anything in this battle.

"Your commander did, before he went for glory."

The Olympus was really gone, then. Commander Theseus, the squadrons, most of the Fifth Fleet.... He had no idea about the Britannica. At least the Pegasus was still there, for now - if the lady knew what she was talking about. Looking around, Rissian thought the firefight was easing up a bit in their vicinity. Was there actually a chance they'd get out of this mess alive? He hesitated.

"I know the lady, Rissian. It's on the level.... Be glad she's here. They're both good pilots...." Trent said quietly, faintly. His head was nodding, just like Gavain before he passed out.

Rissian made up his mind. If Trent knew her, that satisfied him. This wasn't some kind of new Cylon trap. Besides, the Cylons didn't have a reputation for taking prisoners. And the people in this shuttle needed medical help, sooner rather than later. Add the fact that their scanners suddenly frizzled into static, and the lady's arrival was timely indeed. The shuttle would have to navigate by her instructions.

"We're with you, Lieutenant. Lead us in."


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