OLD FRIENDS

"Confirmation. It-is-a-distress-signal-in-one-of-our-codes," the metal creature at one of the consoles reported in a monotone after several centons of mechanical, by-the-book computations.

"This-unit's-conclusion-is-the-same. The-signal-is-weak-but-very-near-in-this-quadrant," a second Cylon droned.

The centurion serving as commander of the small freighter convoy seemed to study the two lesser machines operating the scan and comm boards. Computer relays noted the proper reactions in its programming. "We-will-respond-to-this-distress-signal-and-investigate," the silvery machine announced. "Relay-the-order-to-the-other-vessels-in-the-convoy."

"By-your-command."

* * * * *

"Commander! We're picking up signals – in a Cylon code!"

"What?" Cain moved instantly to stand to Tolan's shoulder. "From where? Can we identify the code?"

"Captain Daystar's patrol is picking it up and transmitting it to us, sir. Communications is working on it right now. The patrol is holding position.... We have the code! It's a distress signal. Low band, weak transmission – we're trying to pinpoint the location." Tolan frowned in concentration.

"Sir!" Lygia piped up from her station. "Captain Orestes reports he can fly back-up for Daystar. He's already in range and is also receiving the signal. We can launch a security shuttle in a centon–"

"No shuttles! Launch a strike wing, and order patrols to close in. Bring the Pegasus to full alert status, and instruct the other ships to drop back in convoy, with Pa to act as commander at his own discretion. We'll move in to investigate." Cain snapped his orders, his eyes still fastened narrowly on the screen at his command deck.

"There's no evidence of Cylons in this quadrant, sir. Do you think it's a trap?" Tolan asked, obviously concerned.

"I doubt it, but treachery is always a possibility when dealing with Cylons. We'll check it out from a position of strength."

* * * * *

Baltar's love for his planet of exile had rapidly worn thin after the first two sectars of its mercurial weather. There was another storm in the night; the wind, thunder, and hail bouncing off his small shelter kept him awake half the night.

When the run rose, he was far from rested, and his body felt bruised and sore, the result of a combination of sleeping on an uncomfortable cot and long days of hard physical labor to which he was highly unaccustomed. It took a great deal of work to sustain himself with the humble stack of supplies and equipment Adama had left him.

But at least he was free of the brig, he reminded himself as he crawled from his narrow bunk and dressed. This might be nothing more than a larger, lonelier prison, with required hard labor, but he was no longer forced to endure the sideways glances and unveiled hatred of his fellow Colonials in prison. He also didn't have to face warriors and security officers everywhere, reminding him of his status, and holding him personally responsible for their own woes.

And with the transmitter Adama had left him, he at least had hope.

And he could still dream. As he gobbled a breakfast of native fruits and hard nuts, washed down with spring water, he indulged himself in his favorite fantasy. He dreamed himself truly free, rescued by his Cylon allies – untrustworthy though they might be – and back in charge of a fleet of basestars. The Colonial fleet was his, only tattered remnants surviving his attacks, its captains begging him for mercy, offering everything they had, promising obedience to his every whim.... Then, a crowning joy – Adama himself coming under truce-sign to plead for his people, and being treated exactly as he had treated Baltar – a prison cage, and public display before his foes; and Apollo and Starbuck, captured alive, brought before him and thrown to their knees, imploring him for mercy while he mocked them and ordered their deaths – slowly, under torture, before Adama's horrified gaze....

Baltar scowled. Yes, he'd love to hear them plead and scream, but they'd never ask him for so much as the time of day, especially after the way he'd taunted Apollo at Starbuck's murder trial. And then he'd been forced to save them both in order to save himself from his own treacherous aide.... It wasn't fair!

Not only that, but after two sectars, even his brightest dreams of revenge paled before the prospect of another long, hard day.

"Spoiled a perfectly wasted twenty centons," he commented to himself with a growl. The sound of his own voice unnerved him in the quiet shelter. There were only the hum of the small generator and bird noises from outside, and he momentarily regretted breaking his own silence. Then, he forced himself to continue speaking, remembering the planet was truly his to do with as he could.

"I've been here two sectars. I should've been rescued by now," he scolded the single room. "I'm beginning to hate this planet even more than I hate Adama and Apollo!"

The solar-powered generator, for reasons of its own, chose that moment to die. Its comforting hum grew silent; the small light in the shelter flickered; and Baltar found himself sitting in dead silence amid the morning shadows. For a moment, fear clutched heavily at his chest. Then he chuckled sarcastically.

"Why not? I'm not too fond of you, either, generator. But since I need you to keep my transmitter sending, I'll take a look at you and hopefully find out what's wrong. Probably just not enough sun. There's been so much rain recently...."

Still grumbling, he crossed the floor, pulled open the door of the shelter, and stepped out, squinting in the glare of the brilliant early morning sun. He heard bird calls that suggested they were startled or disturbed by something. Fortunately, there were no large predators making this area their habitat. He wondered briefly what was bothering the birds, but they didn't concern him overly much, and he promptly forgot about them.

The solar panels of his generator glistened with dew or rain left from the night, but they were still tracking in the proper position. A closer check showed that one of the cables was loose, probably blown free in the wind. A moment with a portable welder, and the problem was repaired. Baltar heard the reassuring hum of the generator as it returned to life, and was satisfied.

Coming back around the side of his shelter, he froze, staring. There, against the verdant backdrop of "his" world, stood several people, most of them in the uniforms of Colonials warriors.

He hadn't been isolated so long as not to realize that two of them were female; one was fair, the other dark-haired. Two of the men were also blond; a third was dark-skinned, and the last seemed alien, shorter than the others, gold-skinned, with an unusual hairstyle and uniform. For a centon, they stared back at him with equal intensity.

The blond woman stepped forward, half-smiling as she studied him, then turned to one of the blond men. Baltar's eyes grew wider as he saw the winged-sword patch of the battlestar Pegasus.

"Inform Commander Cain that we have located the origin of the Cylon distress signal," she ordered with deceptive calmness.

"Right away, Major." The youth nodded and vanished into the fern-like greenery.

Baltar ran for the door of his shelter, knowing he had a weapon hanging next to his cot, cursing that he'd gone outside without it, to be caught unarmed by these people. He'd gone a half-dozen steps when one of the warriors tackled him into the grass, twisting his arms behind him before allowing him to rise again. Grass-stained and dew-spattered, the former man of influence in the Colonies stared dismally and with some dread at his captors – warriors from the ship of the man who was quite possibly his worst enemy.

* * * * *

Cain, apparently engrossed in the supply statistics Graham had sent hm, waited several centons before deigning to notice his prisoner. The technician who'd brought them – a Delphian woman – waited passively behind him, while the warriors who guarded the manacled prisoner were also quiet but alert. It wasn't long before Baltar began to fidget.

At that point, Cain finally set aside his comp-sheets and lounged back in his chair, studying his captive. "So, Baltar," he began, "we finally meet again. It's been a long time since we left for Molecay."

"Why, whatever are you talking about?" Baltar faltered, hearing the sharp, bitter pleasure in the other man's voice. He can't possibly be referring to.... No, he couldn't have known.... But then again, at Gamoray, he was willing to sacrifice everything to reach a certain basestar, my basestar. He broke into a cold sweat.

Cain's narrow, searching gaze caught his body's betrayal; satisfaction lay in the cold, steel-blue eyes. "Yes, Baltar," he grated through clenched teeth. "I know how you betrayed us at Molecay, with your bombs and your trap. I remember how many died there. And we learned, too, from Adama, how you even turned against the entire Twelve Tribes, and handed all humanity over to the Cylon butchers, for your own gain. But I'll bet even you didn't realize how thoroughly they planned to exterminate us."

Baltar's knees were knocking; he knew he was doomed, and grabbed at the most slender hope. "The Cylons betrayed me, too, Cain. I tried to preserve my world, when I saw what was happening. And it was Karibdis, not me, who was responsible for Molecay. Adama knew; he had him arrested when they learned he was still alive. Karibdis tried to kill me, to silence me, and Captain Apollo as well, because we knew, he and I, on the Galactica–"

"Shut up!" Cain's voice was a whiplash across his words.

Baltar saw his guards turn pale with a dawning knowledge that quickly turned to hate. They hadn't known everything Cain knew. It suddenly occurred to him that Cain had tricked him into admitting that he knew, at least, what happened at Molecay, and that he probably had a part in it. He should have kept playing the innocent; maybe they'd have believed he was a duped pawn, caught in the middle, and pitied him. Now, they hated....

"You were willing to betray us all for your own ambition. And you started with my people. If there was any punishment great enough for what you've done...."

One of the guards was edging closer. It was the black man who'd tackled him on the planet. Baltar tried to sidle away; one of the other guards restrained him – the blond, a grim look on his handsome features. Reminds me of Starbuck, his eyes....

"No, Rissian," Cain intervened before anything further could happen. "There's nothing we can do to make up for what he's done. There's no punishment that would ever be enough. At Gamoray, I thought just knowing he was dead would be vengeance enough.... But then, I never thought we'd have you in custody again, Baltar. You were on the Galactica, you say. How'd you get to the planet? Adama get tired of listening to your whining lies?"

Cain's voice was loud in the overly-quiet room. Baltar could feel the hatred directed at him, and was frightened by its intensity. "Adama and I came to an arrangement," he said, trying to brazen it out.

The commander abruptly turned away from him, and strode to his windowport. The view was lovely – a lush green world, one of its three satellites glowing brightly with reflected starlight. The star that was sun to the system lay in the opposite direction, a bright golden ball of fire; its brilliance outshone the background, and few other stars could be detected in the velvet blackness around it.

"You made an arrangement. And Adama gave you that world." Cain sounded almost calm, and very thoughtful. "Banishment, alone. Not a bad idea, that...."

Baltar felt a moment of pure relief. Perhaps he wouldn't be subjected to the confines of a prison cell again – or worse – after all. Perhaps he could be returned to his world....

Cain turned slowly, and there was a calculating, unpleasant smile on his rough features. "You probably didn't give him much choice about it; he must have wanted something from you very badly. Pity you have no such bargaining chip with me."

He's playing with me! As a bast might play with some small game! Well, I'm not going to take it any more!

"No, I don't," he began boldly, not hearing his voice shake. "But I'm sure I can remember something you want. After all, I do know a lot about the Cylons' activities in this quadrant, and was privy to much information you may find useful–"

There was disgust on the commander's face, and contempt in his words. "So you betray them as quickly as you betrayed us. No, Baltar, I won't be seduced by your words, so you might as well save them."

The dark-skinned Rissian still stood near them, and from the mad rage barely held in control, Baltar knew he would not live long if he remained on the Pegasus. There were too many here like Rissian, who hated him deeply enough to risk anything for a shot at him. And Cain himself would never take action against any of them if some "accident" were to take a traitor's life.

"You're Colonial warriors.... You've sworn to protect, all of you!" he stuttered in fear. "Whatever happened is past ... I can guide you back to the Galactica ... I have no reason to love the Cylons...."

"And we have none to love you," Cain reminded him, almost amiably. He was enjoying this; Baltar was reacting precisely as could have been predicted, trying to save his skin by whatever means. "We already know where the Galactica is, but we're here for a reason. And you are part of that reason. You are guilty of your crimes, so there remains only the sentencing...."

"Sentencing? What sentencing? I've received no trial! I protest! I have rights!"

The commander continued without pause. "You will be returned to your planet of exile. However, I see no reason to burden you with responsibilities of concerning yourself with a transmitter. We will retain it," he finished brutally. "Orestes, Rissian, take him away. Electra, prepare a proper honor guard for his escort back. We want him to live a long, long life ... alone."

Relief at being spared gave way to thoughts of the last two sectars multiplied a hundredfold.

The hold on his arms was far from gentle. He tried to catch at the doorframe with one manacled hand as they pulled him from Cain's presence. "No! You can't do this to me! Don't you respect Adama's word? He promised me.... Cain, you've got to leave me some hope! Every man deserves that..."

"You've stated yourself guilty. You are sentenced to exile. Get him out of here." Cain could hear the shrieked protests for several centons as the renegade was hauled away. He glanced at Electra, the remaining warrior in the room, and ranking pilot, except for himself, on the Pegasus. A predatory expression appeared on his face.

"Let the punishment fit the crime," he said softly. "Adama was too gentle with him, but then, Baltar must have known something Adama must have needed very much. I have no such need; I already know all I need to know about the Cylons."

Electra took a deep breath and settled into a chair. She'd been too tense to sit while the traitor was in the room. "But sending him back to that planet? Isn't that letting him off?"

"He wanted a world to rule, obviously one without humans. He shall have one, the same one Adama gave him. Why should he ever want to leave it? Prepare a shuttle to take him back to the surface, Major, and take an armed escort. There he stays, now and forever. I am not Adama; I see no reason to leave him hope. Let him live without hope, as so many of our people now live – those who weren't murdered in the moment of our greatest hope. Bring back his transmitter."

She nodded, a malicious twist to her smile.

Several moments later, Cain stood, staring out the viewport, wondering if he were doing the right thing in returning Baltar to the planet, and exile. After so long, his hatred still burned strong for what had happened at Molecay, and later, at the "Peace." Whatever they did to the traitor, it wouldn't bring the dead back to life, or undo the terrible Destruction. Those thoughts wearied him, depressed him. There was nothing that could change the past.

But Baltar alive and alone on a world would have to endure each moment of exile without help or hope for the rest of his life. No one else to blame. No one else to order about. Maybe those long moments of banishment would force him to feel the emptiness the survivors did. The almost infinite series of microns between now and the man's death would perhaps drive him to insanity – but hopefully, not too soon. A moment of loneliness and hopelessness for every drop of blood he was responsible for.... Maybe that would affect him, for the Lords knew his awesome betrayals had made no impression on his shallow, callous heart.

He'd never liked Baltar, and knew the other man had never liked him. But even revenge meant nothing now; it was empty, somehow. Baltar was punished, but was still unbeaten – Adama had sent him here; it was no military defeat. That, to Cain, made a world of difference.

Baltar had been on the Galactica. For a moment, he debated asking about Sheba and Cassiopeia, if the traitor had known them – but he knew he wouldn't ask. He wouldn't give Baltar the satisfaction, wouldn't let the man think he had a bargaining point for so much as a spoonful of water. Besides, if they were dead now, after the sectars apart, after unknown battles and crises, he didn't want to know. Better to think of them both as alive and well and happy and safe....

* * * * *

"Can such a lovely lady truly be so cruel as to leave a man alone and stranded with no hope at all?" Baltar cajoled the pilot of his shuttle. His arms were manacled behind him; two guards sat beside him; another warrior sat next to the major, the woman with whom he tried to speak.

Electra ignored him as she concentrated on flying the small craft. Capt. Tokyo and Capt. Orestes led patrol wings on either side of them; Baltar was getting a royal send-off for his last contact with the humanity he'd betrayed.

"Coming up on our original landing site, within a mile of the camp. Do we set down there?" murmured Trent from alongside her. The sergeant refused to so much as acknowledge Baltar's presence; he still carried several scars from the battle of Molecay, although the worst had been surgically repaired.

"Sounds good," she replied without hesitation. They could have dropped their prisoner off miles from his camp, to let him find his own way back, if he survived – but for some reason Cain wanted him to live, so they would give him every chance for a long life, however little he deserved it.

The shuttle skimmed treetops for several microns, then dropped lower to the grasses of a river plain. Vipers settled neatly on either side. They were down.

Electra swivelled in her seat as Rissian and Ptah yanked Baltar to his feet. "Well, Count, we'll escort you back to your camp, to make sure you get there, and then we'll pick up your transmitter and leave you in peace. Of course, we'll have to drain your weapon first. By the time you get it recharged on that old generator of yours, we'll be back in the skies. I trust you understand the reasoning behind that particular precaution."

Baltar almost snarled at her formal expression and elegant tones – As if this was small talk at a party! But at least they're leaving me a working weapon. Cain might've taken that from me, too. But if a day of reckoning ever comes, he'll pay for this. Yes, and you, too, my charming beauty, won't look so pleased then, either!

Outside the shuttle, his "honor guard" clustered around him, waiting for orders. The major gave them quickly. "Orestes, you and Astarte keep guard on our ships. Tokyo, you and Saigan take the lead. Rissian and Ptah will continue as your immediate escorts, Count Baltar, as they did so well on the shuttle, while Trent and I will bring up the rear. We'll remove your manacles at the campsite. Tokyo, lead out."

How she could smile so sweetly while insulting him, he didn't know, but he was glad he didn't have to endure much more of her so-called politeness.

The two Delphian warriors, who had no particular immediate hatred for their prisoner, bestowed curious glances on the Colonial betrayer – the detached curiosity of outsiders peering through a microscope – then turned to the deep forest, following the trail Maj. Electra's party had made the day before while first locating the traitor. Another desperate look at his captors, and Baltar knew he could expect no mercy from any of them, or much consideration – but he could expect to live.

For just a micron, he was face-to-face with the leader of his escort. "Pray you're never at my mercy, Major – for I will have none for you," he snarled under his breath.

She obviously heard him, but made no response.

* * * * *

"There-is-a-Colonial-vessel-in-orbit-above-the-planet," one of the Cylons reported to its superior. "We-are-remaining-opposite-its-projected-path-and-the-remainder-of-the-convoy-is-sheltering-behind-the-star. What-orders-shall-be-given-to-the-search-party?"

"Have-them-continue-to-scout-the-discovered-camp," the senior Cylon ordered in its monotone. "Have-them-take-prisoner-all-they-discover-there-and-keep-them-alive-until-they-receive-further-orders. We-must-learn-more-about-the-Colonial-force-before-further-action-is-taken."

"By-your-command."

* * * * *

"It's been a long time since I was on a planet."

Orestes glanced down at the wistful quality in Astarte's voice. She was strolling near the edge of the clearing, away from the slow-moving river. Her arms were full of the red blossoms that thrived among the grasses at her feet. She seemed to be weaving something with them, braiding them together in some intricate fashion.

"Yeah," he replied thoughtfully. "The Pegasus gets most of her supplies and raw materials by raiding Cylons, so there's not much call for us to go planetside. Maybe, when we get a little farther away from the Cylon alliance, we'll be able to take the time. I wonder if we'll be with the Galactica by then...." He was sitting on the nose of his Viper, that being the best vantage point short of climbing a tree.

He watched as Astarte finished whatever she was doing. "There," she announced grandly, raising a twisted red and green wreath in her arms. "I hereby name myself queen of this world." With a small flourish, she crowned herself with the flowers.

Orestes laughed, but had to admit she looked very nice with the red flowers set in her dark hair. "Bravo, your majesty," he called, clapping lightly in an affected manner, with an almost simpering quality to his voice.

She made a face. "And to think," she scolded him, "I considered naming you my prince consort."

"Oh? And how should a prince consort behave?" the captain inquired gravely, a gleam in his eye.

"In the first place, you should come down off there and show some respect for your queen!" she replied, throwing an extra flower at him.

"How about if I be your chief guard, and stay up here? We're supposed to be keeping an eye on our ships."

"Where are they going?"

"That's not the point."

"All right, I understand. Even here, we have to be on guard." She threw up her hands in surrender, and sighed. "It's just that it's been so long...."

"If you want to take a walk, I'll stay here," he offered.

She shook her head, still unhappy. He slid off the ship's nose and waded through the grass to her side. She slumped against a tree trunk, all her previous playfulness forgotten.

"Are you all right?" he asked.

"I'm fine."

He reached out a hand and touched her flower coronet. "I never got the hang of these when I was little. They always fell apart, or lost their petals and looked hideous. Think you could make me one, your majesty?"

She looked up at him through dark eyelashes. A small smile tugged at her lips. "I could try, my prince." As she turned to go back to her flower-picking, he blocked her passage on both sides, planting his palms against the tree. She looked up inquiringly.

"It has been a long time," he whispered. He lowered his head and touched his lips to hers. She responded with a murmur, running her hands up his back and pulling him closer.

After a long moment, they both broke away. The sweet scent of flowers was heavy in his nostrils. He sighed. "I think some things need the life of a growing world to keep them growing," he said, a touch of wonder in his voice.

"Yes," she breathed. "And this is such a lovely world.... I'd better get some more flowers to weave...." She slipped free under his arms, but kept looking back at him.

He wondered if he'd done the right thing, kissing her. They'd had a brief relationship before he became her squadron leader. He made it his policy not to get involved with the women in his own squadron – there were plenty of others, after all – but it looked like there was still a flame there, just waiting for the right stimulus. And this world was, if nothing else, guaranteed to encourage just such thoughts....

He shook himself mentally. The timing was certainly bad – the middle of a mission was no time to contemplate a relationship! Then he heard her scream.

Orestes spun around, pulling his laser free in a lightning move, but it was already too late. He had a brief glimpse of Astarte in another embrace, a Cylon's, before the world went dark.

* * * * *

The trip through the woods was uneventful. Baltar finally subsided into cold silence – no doubt his version of a dignified exit, Electra thought as they reached the campsite. Baltar's shelter stood exactly as they had left it; the door was even still ajar.

"Well, Count Baltar, this seems to be where we leave you," she commented to the man as Lt. Rissian removed his manacles. Ptah claimed the weapon from the shelter, and industriously drained its charge into the ground.

The traitor fixed her with a haughty stare. His clothing was somewhat stained from several tumbles into the vegetation, and his face was scratched, but he'd gained no humility from it. She let herself grin as she rather insolently glanced at his clothes. "I suggest you start with a bath and some laundry."

A shade of red mottled his complexion, but he said nothing more.

Perhaps he feared a violent reaction from the man standing behind him. Rissian had watched him closely during the trip; more than once, Baltar was sure, a tumble he took had been the result of a push from the dark-skinned man. The lieutenant's hatred radiated directly at him.

Capt. Tokyo had been looking around. He seemed to listen for a moment, then suddenly grabbed Electra's wrist in a grip of steel. "Listen," he hissed.

The entirely party fell silent. "What is it?" the major asked after a strained moment. It had been so long since she'd been on a living planet that she wasn't sure what she should be listening for.

"The birds.... Something's wrong here...." The short Delphian glanced at the ground, moving slowly. Then he stiffened, and bent closer to the dirt.

"A Cylon footprint," he announced grimly.

There were audible intakes of breath from half a dozen throats, then five warriors drew lasers, suddenly very aware of the dark, silent woods around them.

They stood motionless and silent for a long centon. "Think they're still here?" Trent whispered to Electra.

She turned her gaze back to Tokyo, who was still studying the ground. He shrugged; there was no worry on his face, but that in itself meant nothing.

"Spread out," the woman ordered in a low voice. "Get under cover, and check out the area. If you find anything–"

Her command was interrupted. "Halt-humans. You-are-our-prisoners."

At that metallic sound, Electra needed to say no more. The warriors threw themselves to the dirt, weapons pointed in the direction of the Cylon voice. Baltar was, for the moment, unnoticed, forgotten. He used his opportunity, and ran.

Several Cylons appeared out of the lush foliage, weapons ready and aimed, firing over the humans' heads. The Pegasus warriors returned fire; unhampered by orders to take prisoners, not dead bodies, they destroyed the small enemy squad with no casualties to themselves.

They stayed low in the dirt and grass of the clearing for several centons, waiting for another attack, surprised that the Cylons hadn't simply massacred them before they could react. Finally, Electra hauled herself to her feet, not even bothering to dust the dirt from her uniform before turning to her people.

"Split up into pairs," she commanded urgently. "Get back to the ships! Watch out for Baltar, damn him! He ran! Be careful...."

Three pairs of warriors, Colonial and Delphian, ran into the woods, trying to move quietly and quickly, to get back to their fellows and their ships before Baltar could link up with the enemy and give away their position – and inform the Cylons they were from the Pegasus, and betray her location....

* * * * *

Baltar rushed wildly through thick stands of trees and tall grasses, not caring how much noise he made. He was away from the Pegasus warriors, and he had to reach his Cylon allies, and hope they didn't shoot him down before identifying him. If he could reach them....

"Halt-human. We-do-not-wish-to-destroy-you."

The man froze in his tracks, but smiled as a pair of Cylons appeared before him from somewhere in the dense greenery. "Greetings, my friends," he began effusively.

"Humans-and-Cylons-are-not-friends. You-are-our-prisoner."

"I am no one's prisoner. I am Commander Baltar."

"We-are-aware-of-Baltar."

"Take me to your superior. I am assuming command of your operations."

"By-your-command."

* * * * *

Three Colonials and two Delphians crouched in the tropical jungle undergrowth bordering a small natural clearing along the river. They anxiously watched that clearing, where five vessels – one shuttle and four fighters – stood deserted. The wait seemed interminable. After long moments, a rustling in the weeds betrayed the return of another Colonial warrior, a broad-shouldered, dark-haired young man. He crept very close before rising to his knees to give his report.

"They're not here." Trent's somber statement only confirmed what they all dreaded. Capt. Orestes and Sgt. Astarte were no longer at the landing site. The ships appeared undamaged, from their viewing distance, but the human guards had disappeared. Sgt. Trent had volunteered to sneak closer to the vessels and check them out; the resulting knowledge was not exactly welcome.

"Any evidence as to what happened to them?" Electra whispered. The Cylons had no reputation for kindness to humans, and if they were responsible for the pair's disappearance...

The young warrior took a deep breath. "There're some marks of a struggle on the far side of the clearing, near the river. Also – and you're not going to like this, Major – the Cylons were definitely here. I didn't look into our ships, didn't want to put my flesh where it might draw attention, but they look okay."

The major glanced at the other members of her small force. "Comments?"

Capt. Tokyo spoke up first. "Likely meant to be a trap, Major. The Cylons probably took the others prisoner, since there is no blood or evidence of laser fire, and they are now watching the clearing. If they merely did not want us going anywhere, there would have sabotaged our ships. They did not want us to realize immediately that they had been here."

Electra had to agree with his astute analysis; it concurred with her own ideas, and she knew Tokyo was an excellent strategist. "They wanted us alive at Baltar's camp, and they probably want us alive here, too. I wonder why.... Unless they were sent to rescue Baltar, but need us alive for some reason...."

"For questioning?" Trent ventured. "Maybe they think we're from the Galactica, and want to track the fleet."

"If they've got any of our people, they already know better than that," she replied grimly. "And if Baltar's with them...."

"Our people won't live long," Rissian finished darkly. "Baltar's got no reason to like any of us, and the only thing the Cylons'll do is suggest new and different ways of killing them – and us, if we're caught. Probably publicly. Then they'll go for the Pegasus – and the Delphians, if Baltar knows or figures out we've got survivor ships from the Empire traveling with us. None of us talked, but who knows what he saw or figured out while we were moving him."

Electra had a bad taste in her mouth.

"What do we do next, Major?" Tokyo asked.

Delphian male warriors didn't appeal to females for military advice. Tokyo still hadn't changed in that respect. She was being tested again – Damn him, with lives at stake! – but that seemed to be the man's nature, to push her at every opportunity. She'd have to think of something, and fast. More than just her brother and his wingmate's lives depended on it.

"Everybody feel up to following a Cylon trail?" she asked.

"Cylons don't leave trails. They leave highways with 'we went this way' written all over them!" Rissian spat. "We can follow them."

"Then let's see where they went, and what we can learn by following and listening," she said with determination. "They're sure to have guards posted, so be careful."

"Any Cylons we spot will soon be dead Cylons!" Tokyo declared. Saigan, his wingmate, concurred with a simple nod.

Satisfied, Electra led her small party in a roundabout path to circle the clearing.

* * * * *

Baltar stared about in dismay. This was his grand rescue force? This was what the Cylon commander had sent to find him?

Some dozen Cylons stood in guard positions around their shuttle – and only a dozen more had been part of the search team. Four of those lay in pieces in the jungle around his own camp, destroyed in the attempt to capture Electra's "honor guard." I'd've given different orders where she's concerned. "Capture," indeed.

He'd hoped for a force great enough to take on and finally eliminate the Pegasus, a coup that would have restored his reputation in the Cylon Empire, and silenced any questions about his loyalty to the Imperious Leader – for the time being. It would also have been a pleasant revenge against the man who'd cost him the Galactica and victory at Gamoray.

Instead, all he had were a few freighters and a handful of Raiders – and he still had to get safely into space, which would be difficult with Cain in orbit above. No, things still looked bleak....

"By-your-command."

"What is it?" he growled at the hapless centurion.

The man's tone meant nothing to the machine. "Do-you-wish-to-inspect-the-prisoners?"

"Prisoners?" He whirled to face the silvery machine. "You have prisoners?"

"Our-primary-function-was-to-investigate-the-distress-signal-and-capture-all-we-found," it replied in a droning monotone. "Two-warriors-were-captured-near-their-ships."

Baltar smiled in anticipation. "Show me these prisoners."

The centurion led him past the shuttle to a small grove of sturdy, slender trees. Two more Cylons stood on guard there, their attention on two humans secured to separate trees.

Baltar stared down at them. Both had their arms manacled behind them, with the chains securely wrapped around the tree trunks, and with vines lashing their ankles together. He knew them both from his brief captivity with the Pegasus – Capt. Orestes and Sgt. Astarte. They'd been part of the team that had captured him the day before. How delicious to have both of them in my power! And perhaps the rest of the "escort" will soon be captured as well, or convinced to surrender for the sake of these two. And how Cain will squirm!

The two Colonial warriors stared warily up at him as Baltar began to laugh. He knew how he was going to get off-planet.

* * * * *

"Commander!" Corp. Memnon cried from his duty post. "Message from the planet, sir!" The boy sounded startled.

"Major Electra's on her way back?" Cain asked.

"No, sir! It's Baltar! He says he wants to talk to you!"

The commander stared at the young officer, outrage and bewilderment fighting for control. "What?" he finally demanded. "How in Hades did he get at a transmitter? What does he want?"

"Baltar insists that you talk to him, sir. If you don't, he says ... he'll kill our warriors, slowly, before we can get there to help them...." Memnon was still shocked by the message he was relaying.

Cain strode to the console, disbelief replaced by a cold, calculating expression that said his mind was working overtime. "Cain here," he grated into the comm.

"Greetings, Cain," a voice cooed back to him, the image of a man forming on the screen. "This is Baltar. It seems I now have something you may want after all, and I think we can make a deal."

"What in Hades are you talking about?" The transmission was too strong for the weak device Baltar had; he'd somehow gotten access to a stronger transmitter. But how, unless he'd had help?

A camera panned a wooded scene, zeroing in on Sgt. Astarte, bound to a tree, looking both frightened and angry at the same time, and a little embarrassed at being in that position at all. Behind her, he could just glimpse another warrior, similarly restrained.

"As you can see, Cain, I have your warriors as my prisoners. What I do to them next is on your head. I want to take my shuttle and leave this planet – with your warriors as my escorts, which is what you assigned them to be, if you recall. You will let my ship pass, and I will leave you in peace. Hopefully, we will never have to meet again. Your people will live out their lives as my ... guests. If you refuse to give me your word on this minor truce, I will order your people killed – and you know how quick Cylons are to kill humans."

Baltar's image filled the screen again. "Those are your options." He had a wide, gloating smirk on his detestable face. "What's it to be, Cain?"

The commander was silent for a few microns. "I refuse your truce, and you murder them instantly. I agree to let you escape, and you take them back to Cylon for public execution. I don't like either option, Baltar. But I'll tell you what I'll do. You release them, and show me proof that they're free, and I'll let you have amnesty to leave the planet."

"So you can blow me out of the skies as soon as I hit space? I'm not that stupid, Cain. I've given you your options. I'll give you a few centons to consider what you condemn your people to by refusing to accommodate my simple request."

The image faded. "Transmission cut at source, Commander," Memnon reported meekly.

Cain swore. Baltar certainly had something he wanted, but to let the traitor escape was to condemn his people as surely as if he'd signed their execution warrants himself. And who knew what harm the villain could concoct if he were free again?

I can't let him escape. But if he has eight of my finest warriors as hostage....

He cursed again, ignoring the stares of his bridge crew. They expected him to come up with something – and he would, but first, he had to vent his rage.

* * * * *

Baltar was still chuckling as he turned from the screen. He strolled over to his two prisoners, enjoying the spectacle of Colonial warriors at his mercy.

"You told him you had all of us!" Astarte accused, breaking silence for the first time since she'd turned in the clearing to find herself a Cylon captive.

"I said no such thing. He can merely assume whatever he wants from what I said. And the order is no longer to take captives if there is any danger to the Cylons. You two may be the only living warriors on this planet soon. And even if it's otherwise, I suggest you be careful, young lady, or I may kill you last, after you've watched all the others die."

The young woman fumed, glaring at him, but refused to be goaded into saying something more she might regret later.

"Are you killing us here, or taking us with you to die later?" Orestes inquired politely. He'd spent most of the past few centars unconscious, having been lugged through the jungle by his captors. It hadn't been pleasant to wake up tied to a tree, staring at metallic Cylon feet – but that could, at any time, become the last sight he ever saw, and he wasn't eager to hasten the apparently inevitable moment. Especially since there appeared to be a thread of hope; it appeared Electra and the others were still free.

"Soon enough, Captain, soon enough." After another moment of gloating, Baltar turned to give orders to the nearest centurion. "Load the shuttles. Be prepared to launch at a centon's notice. Commander Cain won't expect me to act so soon. And...." He smirked at his prisoners. "Since he expects us to have all the warriors as captives, he won't come back here, especially if he fears a strong Cylon force approaching soon.

"These two will come with us, but if Electra and the others manage to escape us, we will leave them as she was to leave me – marooned here, with no hope of rescue. We'll destroy their ships and shuttle. This pair will be guests of the Cylon Empire. Later, I may return for the others, when they've had sufficient time to consider their actions against me."

The man laughed uproariously. After a moment spent savoring the looks on his captives' faces, he strutted away to his shuttle. This time, he held the capstone. He would soon be free.

* * * * *

I can't do it. I can't let Baltar escape. If he really has my mission team as hostages, they're as good as dead anyway. Cylons don't release human prisoners; they kill them. And they take special delight in the public torture and execution of warriors....

His people were doomed if he left them in Baltar's hands to be taken aboard a Cylon basestar. If he sent Vipers after them, they'd still die – but probably more quickly. And, considering all factors, he couldn't balance the harm Baltar could do among the Cylons against eight human lives. They were, after all, warriors – and this risk was just one more part of their job.

Baltar had to be dealt with – even though it meant his flight commander, two squadron leaders, and five others would die. They would just have to understand, and accept that their sacrifice was for a purpose.

How could Baltar delude himself that there could be any other outcome?

Cain brushed over the momentary fear that his own hunger for revenge might overshadow the value of those lives.

With grim determination, he slammed his riding crop onto the railing of his command deck. Tolan's gaze jerked in his direction as he cringed from the explosive sound.

"Tolan, call all warriors to their ships – Vipers and Sunriders both – and order combat alert. Be ready for battle. Scan turrets, I want to know absolutely everything that moves out there. No surprises this time."

The flight officer nodded, efficiently carrying out his duty.

"Sir!" Memnon's voice sang out. "We're picking up something. A small concentration of blips, near the system's star. They're hiding behind the sun."

With the flip of a toggle, Tolan brought the image to Cain's commscreen.

He studied it for a moment, waiting for warbook confirmation, then began to laugh almost dementedly. "I was looking for a basestar!" he snorted. "But it's only a freighter convoy!"

Tolan gazed at him totally without comprehension.

The commander elaborated. "Freighters, no basestar. They didn't come here looking for Baltar – or us. It was an accident, a freak mischance that they picked up his transmission, the same as it was for us. Pure chance! And we can handle freighters. Turrets, keep full range operation, but tell our fighters we're going after easy marks...." He remembered the captives. "And tell them they may have friends to avenge. Heimdal to serve as temporary flight commander. Squadron seconds to lead." Baltar, "old friend," I'll have your head...!

* * * * *

The Cylons prepared for take-off in their usual hasty, clumsy, mechanical way. Baltar alternated between striding importantly about the camp, yelling orders, and gloating over his prisoners. The watching humans were able to get quite near; the guards had been called in close.

"We can't take them all at once," Ptah whispered. "There're too many of them. And the others are tied up, can't get out of the way if we open fire."

"But the Cylons're getting ready to leave," Rissian argued. "They won't be expecting any trouble. And Orestes and Astarte are low enough, out of the way enough, that we shouldn't even have to shoot anywhere near them."

"Unless the Cylons kill them right away when we first attack," Ptah interjected.

Electra was thinking furiously, her eyes fixed on the scene, taking in every detail.

"There's another group of 'em moving in," Rissian added urgently. "Then they'll really outnumber us. We've got to move now!"

"And be surprised by the others?"

"What others?" Electra suddenly demanded, her violet eyes shifting intently to Rissian, who had scouted the shuttle clearing, daring to go almost within spitting distance of Baltar to listen to his commands.

"A group was summoned back from our ships. As Tokyo thought, they were waiting to ambush us there."

"So we've got a little grace period, anyway," she murmured. "And we might slow them down, make them wonder, if that party never gets here. Then, if we strike before they have time to know what's happening...." Her whisper died away, and the preoccupied expression left her face.

She gave her orders. The deceptively passive-looking Delphians exchanged glances and nodded approvingly, ready to do whatever she instructed. Trent tried to imitate their calm posture; he came close. Ptah's nervousness showed in the way he kept touching his laser. Rissian's only expression was grim determination; he was ready to die killing Cylons, especially if it gave him a chance at Baltar.

* * * * *

"The convoy's within striking distance, Commander," Tolan reported. "We've kept the star as a shield, as ordered, and we're keeping rear scan on the planet. They shouldn't expect a thing."

"Good. Launch fighters." Cain's face had a wolfish ferocity. He would destroy the Cylon freighters, then return to speak to Baltar. The traitor would sing a different tune, with no way off the planet, and with Colonial Vipers ready to obliterate him.

* * * * *

"What's keeping the ambushers?" Baltar growled at his Cylon second-in-command. "They should be here by now." His pacing had become progressively more agitated as the centons passed.

"I-do-not-know-what-detains-them. Perhaps-we-must-contact-them-again," the Cylon replied.

Sometimes, Baltar truly detested those built-in Cylon traits that meant they showed no nervousness, no anger, no concern for their fellows, no fear, no understandable reaction to any situation other than, "if it moves, shoot it; if it complains, skewer it." He always had this sneaking suspicion, however, that they were very capable of sneering at him behind his back.

Baltar ground his fist into his palm, staring at the jungle growth around them. The birds had fled the area of Cylon occupation, so there was little sound. Familiar as he had become with the place, that disturbed him. He knew, now, that birds made an excellent early warning system. And something cold tingled in his spine, making him wonder if they had truly nullified all negative possibilities in his escape.

There was definitely something wrong, but he wasn't sure what it was. As he thought about it, it occurred to him that he was much more important to the Empire than a handful of mass-produced Cylon soldiers – and, therefore, he had a right to safeguard himself above those few machines. There was no profit in waiting for the tardy squad – let them stay to hunt down Electra's team.

"Centurion!" he yelled. "Get the shuttle pilots on board! All Cylons, prepare to board! And...." He paused to leer sadistically at his captives. "Bring the prisoners."

He stalked to the small craft, and waiting impatiently as three centurions boarded. A moment later, he could hear the drone of pre-flight orders and checks.

The trees moved gently in the warm, sweetly-scented evening breeze. He shivered, then took a step into the shuttle, his palms sweating. He watched from the hatchway as one of the guards cut through the woman's vine-bonds, then pulled her to her feet. Her arms were still chained behind her.

Appropriate. With her aboard, the Captain will give us no difficulty. Each a hostage against the other, as well as against Cain.

The urgency in his mind abruptly took a dive into his stomach, twisting it into merciless knots. "Hurry up, you fools!" he yelled through the open hatch.

* * * * *

"Now!" Electra commanded.

The humans opened fire. They'd mapped out their lines of fire, their plan of attack, their order of targets. Their aim was almost flawless. They could afford to be nothing less.

Cylons began to fall.

* * * * *

Baltar stared open-mouthed from the protection of his shuttle. Someone was firing on his Cylons – and the Cylons were losing. Not one of them had yet gotten off a shot in return. Then, a Cylon fired, and another, but the shots went wild, didn't seem to be hitting anything. They weren't winning.

He caught a glimpse of someone moving across the clearing – a Colonial uniform, a feminine form, a twist of golden hair glinting in a ray of sunlight before she ducked away. A tongue of fire speared from where she'd been, right through his hatchway, missing him by millimeters, scorching his worn garment and leaving a blasted, smoking, melted scar on the metal wall behind him.

He was too valuable to die now! Not when he was so close to escape – and he wouldn't surrender to Cain again!

"Kill the prisoners!" he screamed at the Cylons still standing. Astarte struggled; he saw her fall. Another Cylon raised a sword over the helpless Orestes.

Baltar slammed the doorplate. They could be wasted; he could not. "Launch!" he roared forward to the Cylon crew.

"But-our-centurions-have-not-all-returned-to-the-shuttle."

"Launch! That's an order!"

"By-your-command."

* * * * *

"They're running, sir!"

"Any sign of other Cylon activity?" Cain demanded tersely.

"Negative," Tolan replied.

"Pursue and destroy. Not one gets away."

* * * * *

Sunlight glinted off the raised metal weapon. Electra saw its cold gleam and fired on instinct. She saw the intended victim as the Cylon shuddered, spat sparks, and fell. She gasped as her brother's eyes locked with hers for a brief micron. She blinked tears from her eyes, then forced herself to seek a new target. They had to get all the Cylons – and the turbos of the shuttle were whining as the craft approached lift-off power....

* * * * *

Astarte fell to the grass, screaming as a Cylon lifted its sword over her. She couldn't be heard above the laser fire. Someone ran toward her, and a hurtling human form impacted feet-first with the Cylon. The living projectile sent the machine reeling back; it fell in a point-blank burst of fire.

The Delphian was still moving; Astarte felt a grip on her arm that yanked her to her feet, nearly wrenching her shoulder from its socket with its unexpected strength. Then they were both running, the woman stumbling as she tried to keep up; he kept her from falling.

Suddenly, it was cooler and darker around her, and the man let her drop to the ground behind a tree as he turned back to the fight. Still chained, she caught her breath, finally recognizing the warrior as Lt. Saigan.

She'd never seen anyone move so fast....

* * * * *

The shuttle lifted off. Rissian continued to fire at it, shrieking curses.

It disappeared into the sky. Baltar was gone.

The Cylons were dead, scattered across the clearing in groups, in small piles of circuitry and flashy metal pieces. Several trees and grass patches smoldered from laser hits, but were too damp to burst into flame; there would be no fire to threaten anyone. Only the humans still stood and moved around, checking to be sure things were as they seemed.

Maj. Electra took a deep breath, then shakily moved to free her brother.

His smile was equally shaky. "'Bout time you got here...."

* * * * *

"Baltar got away," Rissian repeated flatly.

"And we don't even have a way off this rock," Ptah added gloomily, "since the Cylons wrecked our ships when they decided their trap wasn't going to work."

"Yeah." Trent grimaced. "We can't even repair our communications equipment – and they torched our survival gear."

"So what do we do?" Astarte asked anxiously, watching Capt. Orestes. His gaze slid to meet his sister's; she smiled in return.

"What're you so happy about?" Ptah demanded grumpily. "The Commander thinks Baltar took us with him. We're stuck here."

"Not necessarily," Electra replied. "Remember why we were here in the first place."

A sly smile appeared on Orestes's face; illumination showed in Tokyo's raised eyebrows.

"Huh?" Astarte persisted, still not comprehending.

"We were here to deliver Baltar and pick up something...."

Trent began to chuckle. Ptah glared at him.

"We'll use Baltar's transmitter," the major explained, relenting.

"But its range...."

"We don't have to reach far. The Pegasus is still up there; I'd bet my life on it," Orestes interrupted. "And I'll bet she's within range. Cain'll know we're here."

"If he hasn't gone chasing Baltar halfway across the galaxy," Rissian muttered. But he looked more optimistic.

"Well, if he doesn't show up, we'll have to set up housekeeping ourselves," Trent commented impudently, as if unconcerned about what they did. "Baltar was kind enough to leave us his things, after all...."

The others glared at him. Astarte threw a wilted flower, left from a trampled, abandoned wreath. Then everybody laughed.

* * * * *

"By-your-command."

"What is it?" Baltar demanded. His nerves were shot; he was anxious to be gone from the entire quadrant. Cain wasn't in orbit; where was he?

"Our-convoy-is-under-attack-by-a-Colonial-battlestar. What-are-your-orders?"

Baltar stared incredulously, then began to laugh. He'd sacrificed most of his Cylon rescue squad. He was quite willing to sacrifice the rest of the small convoy. Its cargo was of no vital concern to the Empire, nowhere near as important as his return.

"Let Cain have them. Let them be the diversion that allows us to escape. Set course for the nearest Cylon base. Keep the planet between us and that battlestar. Keep us hidden."

"By-your-command."

* * * * *

"Welcome back, Major. We were beginning to think we'd lost you forever this time."

Electra nodded at Cain's courteous but preoccupied greeting. Fortunately, the battlestar had been close enough to pick up their feeble signal. Rissian had ceremoniously destroyed "that damned frakkin' machine" when the Pegasus rescue team arrived.

Cain stood at the viewport, staring at the beauty of the universe they traversed in their self-imposed guardian mission.

"Is something wrong, Commander?" the woman asked. Technically, she had failed in her mission; Baltar had escaped. And she knew Cain's feelings where Baltar was concerned.

"No, no, Major." His mind was still elsewhere.

"Is it Baltar?" she asked boldly. She'd never run from a confrontation, and Cain had always respected her forthright nature. She wouldn't flinch now.

He turned to face her, his eyes glittering with a dark intensity that he kept from his words. "He's alive."

"I beg your pardon?"

"Baltar. He's alive."

"You let him...? But–"

"No. I didn't. But somehow, he's alive. He got away in spite of me, in spite of the Pegasus. That's twice now, Major. He won't be so lucky a third time."

Electra felt a cold chill at his words, along with a certainty that there would indeed be a third meeting with the traitor. She knew how Cain felt about Baltar. He was looking forward to that final meeting – was even eager for it, eager to join revenge and justice in a death-clash....

Thinking of Baltar's betrayals, so was she.


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