Chapter VII

"All squadrons engaging Cylons," Tolan reported crisply. "Raiders closing on us; laser turrets report acquisition of targets."

Cain watched alertly, his mouth drawn into a lopsided grimace. For once, his riding crop lay motionless on a console. All of his attention was bound up in the combat surrounding his battlestar. He appeared as calm and controlled as if this were just another training exercise, with the outcome never really in doubt. His eyes said otherwise.

Tolan took another look at his commander, and felt his own anxiety ease.

The Pegasus had safely navigated the worst of the asteroid field, and was now well within range of the battle. Cylon fighters had instantly peeled off to the attack the new foe. The squadrons Cain had reserved for his ship's defense hurtled into combat, fresh and eager. Silver Spar and Copper Keel were already in action; their presence had been most welcome to the other Colonials. Now, Brass Strake and Bronze Wing helped them turn the tables as the outflown Cylons were beaten back from the Pegasus, back into the dangerous tylium-laced asteroid field. The arrival of a third battlestar hadn't been in time to save the Olympus - scanners aboard the flagship barely registered her destruction, and Viper reports confirmed it - but perhaps they could still win the battle and save what was left of the battered and beleaguered Fifth Fleet.

Tolan monitored the action, coordinating the activities of the bridge crew and reporting everything to Cain, who noted and acknowledged it all, his hawk-like steel-gray eyes still concentrating on the screens that showed the positions of ships and asteroids, as if his own will could prevent disaster. Kleopatra was his back-up, checking and double-checking reports, keeping an extra eye on Memnon, the launch officer, as he monitored the Vipers coming in for refueling, rearming, and relaunching. There was little maneuvering to be done, save for drawing nearer to the besieged fleet, and that was Senmut's business, done well as always.

There was no trace of the Britannica, although Cain knew she must be somewhere amid the shifting turmoil of combat and natural hazards. Scanners continued to be of limited use, and communications were still badly garbled by Cylon jamming, but the Pegasus was incredulously aware that most of the fleet had already been destroyed. Over half of the small ships were confirmed as lost, and several others were unaccounted for.

Kleopatra glanced at Cain as a series of communiques verified yet another evacuation ship as a casualty. His mouth tightened for a moment, and she could sense a micron's rage before the emotion was banished, set aside to make way for more constructive action.

Reports also told of the battle's devastating cost to the Cylons. The Colonials were exacting a heavy toll. Whichever side won, this would be no victory to boast of. Even the Imperious Leader might wince; many such "victories" would drain even the mechanical Cylons beyond their available resources.

Three basestars were spotted at various times during the battle. When the Olympus tried to blast her path through the combat area, two of those basestars had tried to block her. She took one of them to perdition with her in the initial explosions, and the expanding ring of percussive explosions in the tylium field so severely damaged the other that it quickly fell prey to the surviving hordes of Olympus Vipers - many of those warriors also perished in their maddened quest for vengeance.

Still, that left at least one basestar, and numerous Raiders, engaged in combat with Colonial Vipers. Cain knew the best he could do for now was to continue cleaning out Cylons before they decided to turn and run; to pick up survivors; and to search for other scattered remnants of his Fifth Fleet.


"What is it, Tolan?"

"If our scanners can be trusted, there're two more phalanxes of Raiders coming in."

Cain grunted in grudging respect for the Cylon commander who had saved its fighters in order to throw them into the fray at a later, more crucial time. "Warn our pilots."

Yes, the Cylon leader was cunning, more so than most he'd encountered over his long career. The battle was far from over.

* * * * *

"You're set, Major - everything reads positive," said the voice in her ear.

Electra made a last check of her repaired instrumentation before responding. "Ready to go. Thanks, Edric. I'm off." Core control cleared her, and her Viper hurtled down the launch tube into open space.

She was just in time. A burst of laser fire struck the Britannica just to her left, and she saw her launch tube suddenly flare as its field was breached; flames ran the length of the tube, reaching for the heart of the bay. A moment more, and the blaze darkened as automatic sensors detected the fire and kicked into action to snuff it. Electra knew the shot had been aimed at her, in her Viper's most vulnerable moment, and she quickly looped away from a possible second shot.

"Too slow, metal mouth," she muttered. "If you'd been a micron quicker, you'd've bagged yourself a major. Too bad - for you." She coolly sighted on the retreating Raider, following it. A laser flare, and the enemy became dispersing metal shards. One less Cylon to take pot-shots at her people.

She glanced around quickly before deciding on her next course of action.

"Major Electra!" It was core command.

"Here, Marla."

"Join the convoy at Alpha Bay, Major. We're evacuating."

"What?" she demanded in disbelief. The ship couldn't be hurt that badly - could it?

"The bridge has been hit," another voice replied. "We're removing to the secondary computer center, and evacuating all the wounded and all unnecessary personnel. Get them safely away, Major. You're serving escort duty."

"Yes, Commander," she replied, swallowing hard. With the bridge damaged, obviously severely, the Britannica's chances of surviving this battle were considerably lessened.

Electra banked her small fighter to pass above the battlestar, heading for Alpha Bay where the convoy had already formed. She saw a miniature fleet of shuttles already in space, surrounded by a score of Vipers. They were holding off a wave of Cylon attackers, and were already on the move.

"Major?" It was a familiar voice, from one of the Vipers.

"Here, Amun. I'll take charge."

"So the Commander informed us."

"Heard from Orestes recently?"

"No. Should I have?" the lieutenant asked.

"I suppose not. I don't know where he headed after I got hit. Thought maybe he'd still be around." She dropped into something resembling formation alongside Amun's ship. She'd expected her brother to wait for her to rejoin him, but realized that in the midst of all the fighting, he'd be needed elsewhere, probably everywhere.

"I haven't heard anything about him in maybe a centar," Amun continued. "He's probably in the middle of everything, like always."

"Yes, probably. What're the evac coordinates?" If Orestes was in the fight, Electra felt she belonged there as well. A nagging worry that she was abandoning her brother as well as her battlestar and her commander was little comforted by the fact that she was under orders.

They were abandoning the Britannica. The Olympus was already gone. The small evacuation ships didn't have a chance. Heaven and the Lords help them all if the Pegasus didn't get there soon....

* * * * *

Commander Cain was doing his best to get the Pegasus there soon. But his ship was in the midst of an attack by the second major wave of Raiders. He had long ago kicked out his grudging respect for his enemy counterpart, preferring the curses he liberally mouthed to himself as he listened to reports coming in from all sections. His ship was taking a beating.

"Where in Hades is Bronze Wing?" he demanded angrily.

"Regrouping, sir. Several fighters are already engaging the enemy."

Cain had sent half his squadrons ahead to relieve the pressure on the Fifth Fleet, throwing the rest into combat as his battlestar drew near the asteroid field. As a result, his rear flank was unprotected. He wasn't caught completely unaware - he was never unprepared for battle, and he knew an ambush from the rear was logical in the current situation - but the attacking phalanx had a brief advantage, and had made the most of it. He'd recalled one squadron, but most of the Vipers hadn't yet pulled back from the other fight to defend their base.

Alert sirens, already sounding all over the ship, suddenly screamed an octave higher. Bridge personnel glanced nervously toward their commander as the entire ship seemed to shudder around them.

"Hit amidships! Considerable damage, casualties, some compartments breached. Fire and damage control moving in. Solenite stable, no reports of fire. Expected under control within the centar...."

"Keep me informed!" Cain barked. "And tell our warriors to keep those Cylons away from the weak spot! Heimdal, where in Hades are you?"

He hoped the answer wasn't ... Hades.

* * * * *

"Merciful Lords, the Britannica's on fire!" Orestes gasped in dismay.

"The whole fleet looks like it's on fire," the cadet flying beside him said shakily.

The Olympus was gone, trying to forge a passage through a corridor of Cylon ships. Most of the smaller warships and evacuation ships they could locate had sustained heavy damage. But to see his own home ship on fire, beyond salvage and perhaps only moments from destruction, was a great shock to the captain. The battlestar had been his home for yahrens; the crew was his family. Now, it was burning. He saw shuttles fleeing from the launch bays, escorted by Vipers somehow spared from the combat around them.

So it was as bad as that. Commander Hera had given up. She was trying to save whatever of her crew she could, using her ship as a flaming shield to hide her fleeing people. The shuttles would rendezvous at previously chosen coordinates, and those ships that remained would pick up survivors after the battle.

The battlestar was in bad shape, and couldn't hold out much longer. Orestes swallowed hard. Electra had returned to the Britannica for repair of the damages that last Cylon had inflicted on her ship. She might still be aboard; he had to check. His sister.... If he just stood by and let her die... His mind and guts refused to accept it.

"Stay here, Cadet. Defend the ship if you can. Run if you have to. I have to land...."

"Let's go," Astarte replied with as much calm as she could muster.

"No!" Orestes declared firmly. "Stay here. That ship's going to blow before long, and believe it or not, you're safer out here. 'Bye, Cadet. Take care, and I might even see you again."

He heard the young woman begin a protest, but he cut her off.

"That's an order."

With no more words, he took his Viper in for a landing in the already-damaged bay. He could see the launch area was completely gutted; he'd have to take off the same way he'd come in. The deck was an inferno of flames, metal debris, and vague screams - whether human or otherwise, he didn't know, and doubted he had time to learn. Either would hurt too much.

He set his fighter down as near the end of the bay as he dared. There was a turbolift close by, leading to the main ship control chambers. If Electra wasn't in the bay, she'd be on the bridge. He prayed she hadn't landed in time to have her ship sent to the launch tubes. If she'd been there, she was dead.

Maybe the cadet would even do some good out there. Her best chance was to hook up with one of the shuttle defense cadres and follow them out. If she did, she'd at least be out of the battle. She was a good fighter, and he regretted never having the chance to meet her in better circumstances. As it was, he might not survive himself.

Where was Electra?

He heard nearby thunder, then the shriek of metal, and glanced back to see another Viper set down alongside his. A moment later, a lithe, dark-haired woman jumped from the cockpit and ran after him.

"Who...?" Orestes saw she wore the winged-sword patch of the Pegasus. It was his cadet.

"I'm Astarte," she announced, coughing a little from the smoke. "I'm not staying out there by myself - I could get killed."

"You could get killed in here!" he snapped. "Get out while you can, girl!" What in Hades did the foolish kid think she was doing?

She stared levelly at hm. "I'm a woman, not a girl. And I'm a warrior. You can stand here all day telling me to leave, or we can go do whatever you came here to do. Take your choice, but I'm with you for the duration!" There was no quaver in her voice now; the fear she'd displayed in the battle was completely gone.

This hades-hole was less frightening to her than the firefight, where wits and skill could save her life? Orestes shook his head, wondering if she trusted him that much. He grabbed her hand. "All right, but we've got to stay together, and it won't be easy. The air circulation units are still functioning, but they can't handle all the smoke - must be damaged somewhere. But I know the ship, so stay with me, whatever happens. Don't get lost, understand? And do whatever I tell you to do, without question."

She nodded in silent response.

The turbolift didn't work; the two warriors had to climb up the shaft, pushing their way through the dense smoke. They stopped for a micron to grab life masks from an emergency cubicle before going on.

"Where d'ya think yer goin'?" a husky voice demanded as a burly arm grabbed Orestes. "There's fire on the next deck, an' the Ol' Lady's ordered ev'rybody out! Y'don't even belong on this ship!" he finished, catching sight of the patch on Astarte's sleeve. He tried to push them back.

"Everything's cut off?" the captain demanded, aghast.

"Dam' near!" the man replied hoarsely. "I'm gettin' off m'self, if there's still a shuttle."

"But ... Electra came back. Do you know if she's still aboard? And the Commander ... where is she?" Astarte still clutched his hand. He couldn't tell if his eyes were watering from the smoke or from his own fear.

"Look, I bin fightin' fires f'r the last few centars. I got no idea who's aboard any more. Bridge took it awhile back, an' Commd'r Hera's bin at the comp cent'r, tryin' t'run things, but it's cut off, like ev'rythin' else. Get yer tails off this baby, if y'can! It's too late t'do anythin' else."

"Can we help evacuate?" the cadet asked.

The big man brushed off her question, and her, and began climbing down the lift away from them. "I told ya, it's cut off. Stay here if ya wanna die...." He disappeared below into the rapidly thickening smoke.

"Should we go?" she asked Orestes, who stared uncertainly ahead into the passage, feeling the thick air close in around him.

"Doesn't look like we have much choice," he replied, low-voiced and hoarse. "Electra, you'd better be out of here...." The walls seemed to edge closer, and he had to force away a claustrophobic fit of terror. This was no time to panic, and there was no time for his usual ways of handling it.

From the ship-wide speakers set in the corridor walls, Commander Hera's voice broke in on them. They could barely make out the screen nearby, and waded through swirling smoke and debris to get closer.

Eerie light illuminated the few figures in the computer systems core chamber. The commander of the Britannica was outlined against a faint glow, looking like some strangely unreal, demonic creature - a witch controlling sorcerous flame. A few people tried vainly to smother the fires with small emergency canisters.

"....Repeat, this is the final order to evacuate. Take whatever shuttles and Vipers remain, and abandon ship. Most sections are cut off. Evacuate immediately."

Just as she finished speaking, another console exploded, sending sparks and shrapnel flying across the chamber. Orestes and Astarte saw glowing debris strike the deceptively frail-looking woman, and her hair and uniform ignited as she staggered back.

"No!" Orestes screamed. Astarte caught her breath in horror.

Hera cried out once, and raised one hand to beat at the fiery halo of her hair. A man Orestes didn't recognize threw himself at her with a shout, using his jacket to try to smother the rising flames. Then another explosion rocked the ship. A sudden gale through the computer center indicated the ship's hull had ruptured at that point; the room was opening to space.

The screen went dark as Orestes clutched futilely at the unyielding wall. "No," he whispered, staring at the empty screen, pounding at it as if demanding it return to life and rescind its previous horrible message.

Astarte gripped his arm more tightly. "Captain? We'd better go...." she said nervously, her fears returning at this unwelcome reminder of their fragile human mortality.

He turned to face her, and she saw tears streaking his ashen face. "Yeah, you're right." He pushed back the hair that had fallen into his eyes, then pointed down the corridor. "Let's go, and hope the deck hasn't collapsed anywhere, and the grav units don't go out on us..."

They dashed through the billowing soot and fumes, reaching the lift shaft before the murk became too thick to see through, grateful for the life masks they'd grabbed earlier.

"Careful going down," Orestes advised. "Try not to fall. It's a long way to the deck, and I'm beneath you."

At the bottom of the shaft, Astarte stumbled. The captain caught her arm and tried to pull her along. "No!" she insisted, refusing to leave. "There's somebody here!" Her probing hands discovered what she'd tripped over, and Orestes knelt beside her to check for himself.

"I can take her in my Viper...."

"Forget it," he said dully, rising to his feet again. "She's dead. Let's go."

As if burnt, Astarte pulled her hands away from the corpse. The two warriors sprinted across the deck to where they'd left their ships, their urgency increasing with every creak or crackle around them. The battlestar wouldn't last much longer. It was getting harder to see; the smoke wasn't as thick, but the chemical and metallic fumes in it were deadly. The overhead lights also had gone out, leaving only emergency flares and landing beacons to light the eeriness. Still, Orestes knew where they'd left their fighters; he'd chosen an easily located landing beacon as a marker.

But something was wrong. Their ships weren't there.

"What could've happened?" Astarte demanded shrilly, her panic rising.

"Obviously, somebody needed a way off ship," he replied bitterly. "So they took ours. Unfortunately, that leaves us stranded."

She screamed, her courage suddenly gone. Orestes slapped her - hard - before she could become completely hysterical. His own fear made the slap vicious; she staggered, but somehow kept her feet.

"Hey!" they heard somebody yell, as a figure became dimly visible in the deadly half-light. "Who's there? Who screamed?"

"Who's there?" Orestes shouted in return. "Our ships.... Somebody stole our Vipers!"

"Those were yours? Doc ordered 'em out - we had a couple pilots who could still fly, and the shuttle needs protection. Come on, before I choke to death out here! We're the last, and we've got to get out before it's too late...."

The man didn't need to say more. Orestes and Astarte headed toward his voice even as he began to speak. Somehow in the ominously swirling gloom, they located the shuttle, not far from where they'd left their own ships.

"We got 'em! Go!" the man shouted to the pilot as they stumbled aboard. The hatch cycled shut behind them, and the shuttle was moving before they could leave the entry. They staggered into the passenger compartment, where Orestes and Astarte grabbed handholds; all the seats were occupied, and people were sitting in the aisles. The man who'd called to them continued through to the pilots' section.

"We're safe?" Astarte asked moments later, as the shuttle cleared the landing bay. There was a reddening welt on her cheek.

Orestes stared out a port. "We've got to clear the explosion area," he replied wearily. "We don't want to get hit by anything when she explodes.... But explosive decompression is a lot quicker than smoke inhalation, and less painful than fire...." He couldn't look at her; his eyes were filled with horrible visions of his sister, his commander, and all the others who might die or who had already died on this terrible day.

"Where do we go now?" the cadet asked timidly.

"Rendezvous point. If anything survives this, they'll go looking for us. And we can't even fly, or defend ourselves.... At least it looks like the Cylons have pulled back. They must know it'd be a waste of ships and firepower to keep attacking the Britannica now-"

The blackness around them burst into the brilliant fury of a miniature star. Fiery fragments of metal flew outward in all directions as the battlestar died. The intense light blinded the observers aboard the shuttle - and fortuitously hid the helpless craft from the Cylons. The battlestar Britannica was gone.

The shuttle continued its flight, dodging dangerous tylium asteroids, completely hidden from enemy scanners as it ran for any possibility of safety.

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