Phoenix

By A.S. Lawrence


"Commander." Omega glanced up from his console. "Sir the scanner...."

Adama crossed to stand behind his flight officer, knowing before he moved what the images on the screen would show to him. "A Cylon attack probe," he said tiredly. It was not a question; nevertheless, Omega nodded confirmation.

"And a big one," he added, tightening the focus on his scanner. The white shapes, enlarged, seemed as if they would jump from the screen into the reality of the bridge. Omega shrank the image again quickly as Adama turned toward Colonel Tigh.

"Sound general quarters," he ordered, the tiredness gone in the alert of battle. "And scramble Blue Squadron to intercept."

"Acknowledged," Tigh said. The klaxon had started to sound before he had halfway finished the word.

* * * * *

Down in the Officers' Club, Captain Apollo leaned back in his chair and watched, with a blend of detached amusement and fatherly pride, his son studying a technical manual as intently as though he were planning to rewrite it. Boxey, sixteen yahrens old now and immensely proud of his new-found status as a cadet Viper pilot, was so like what he himself had been at that age even, by some strange quirk of nature, in appearance, although he was not his own blood-son. He never had had a child of his own; he guessed now that he never would. It was perhaps the one thing about his life that he really regretted, that his line would die with him; but he had loved his dead wife to the depths of his heart, and had mourned her perhaps overlong. He had never been able to commit himself as fully ever again, not to any one person. It hurt so loving, losing. He had his son, his family, his few close friends, and it was enough.

(Or almost enough; only that vague, nagging sensation of something lacking, something out of place, as an amputee may still feel the pain of the missing limb....)

It was too easy to become morbid, brooding. Apollo pulled his thoughts away from the mother and returned them to the son, still lost in his bookreel as he was, and oblivious to the noise and activity going on all around him. It made his father smile a little, remembering again himself at sixteen and newly enrolled in the Military Academy on Caprica, so full of pride at continuing his family tradition, anxious to prove himself, determined to be the best. He had learned soon enough; it wasn't that easy. And Boxey ... Boxey was much the same now and, like himself, he would learn. Much rather sooner than later if he didn't ease up on himself.

"Boxey--" he began, and the boy jumped, startled; his thoughts had been far away. He looked up, glaring at his father, and Apollo quickly amended, "I mean Boz."

"Thank you," said the boy, with a touch of sarcasm. He had tried to put off the childish nickname he had unintentionally inflicted on himself in infancy, when he had first put on his cadet's uniform, but some people just didn't seem able to remember that. His father, he thought unkindly, was obviously getting old.

"How much of that manual have you read?" Apollo asked him. Boz held up the reel. The marker was almost three-quarters of the way across. "That much? Today?"

Boz nodded. "Uh-huh."

"Then it's time you took a break," Apollo said firmly. He reached out across the table and took the tape away, indexing the page number and shutting it off.

"I'm not tired!" Boz protested, reminding his father of the child he had been so short a time ago.

"You should be," Apollo said, without sympathy, then smiled. "Boxey Boz you've only been in training a couple of sectons. You don't have to know everything just yet. At least not quite everything...."

"But I want to!" the boy argued. "I want to learn just as fast as I can I can't wait forever to be a warrior!"

"Forever," Apollo said. "A few sectons!"

Boz scowled. "It feels like yahrens."

"It takes time, you know," the captain reasoned. "If we were back on Caprica"

"But we're not back on Caprica."

"No." Apollo gave a sigh. "We're not." Life had been easier then; there had been time, all the time in the worlds. Time to live; time to learn. Time to give their young warriors the proper training, at least, before sending them away to fight, to kill, to be killed. "I wish we were. We let you kids go out half-trained these days." And, he thought, we lose too damned many of you. So many he had seen in his days, more faces, more names than he could ever remember, all of them identical in their shared visions of death and glory; but too often the death was their own, while the glory ... he had never known the glory. He doubted now whether it had ever been more than a dream.

"So," Boz said, shattering Apollo's reflections, "all the more reason I should catch up on the manuals. Right?"

"You can practice relaxing once in a while," his father told him. "Or you'll burn out before you've started."

Boz stared straight at him, wide-eyed and innocent. "But my heritage is against me."

Apollo looked back at him. "Oh?" he asked suspiciously.

"Kids learn from the example of their elders," said Boz. "When did I ever see you relax? Or grandfather, for that." He sat back, smiling rather smugly, and reached for his neglected drink. "You can't blame me," he concluded.

"I think," Apollo said reflectively, "that you've been a cadet long enough to have learned all about insubordination ... frak!" he added, as the shrilling of the red alert klaxon interrupted him mid-threat. "I guess that's us."

He sounded tired himself, Boz thought, worried and a little guilty he'd been so busy lately with his training, he hadn't been paying much attention to his father, taking him for granted. He'd have to watch himself there, try to do better. "You okay, father?" he asked anxiously.

Apollo smiled down at him. "Yeah, Boxey, I'm fine." He dropped a hand onto his son's shoulder. "I'll see you in a while, okay? And listen don't work too hard while I'm gone, all right?"

"I'll try not to," Boz promised, letting the slip of his name pass without comment. He reached up and gave his father's hand a reassuring squeeze. They shared a momentary affectionate smile and then Apollo was gone.

* * * * *

As he stepped out into the corridor he almost collided with someone heading rapidly in the other direction. He reached out to steady himself, and found himself face to face with his sister.

"Passing strangers," she observed, sounding breathless. "Why do the alerts always have to come in the middle of my downshifts?"

"Same reason they come in the middle of everyone else's downshifts," Apollo told her. "Someday the IFB ought to do a survey." He touched her hair lightly. "Take care up there, Athena, okay?" he said to her, and turned to walk on.

"I always do," he heard her say, half-laughing, then heard her steps, quick and light, behind him, and felt the touch of her hand on his arm. He stopped, turning back.

"What...?"

"I just wanted to tell you good luck," she said, and stood on tiptoe to kiss his cheek. He looked down at her in surprise.

"You haven't done that in yahrens," he said, puzzled.

She shrugged, seeming almost as surprised herself. "I know. I just felt ... I had to. I never should have stopped." She hugged him quickly. "Look after yourself, big brother. Come home safely." Then she was gone, almost running along the corridor toward the nearest turbolift.

"I plan to," Apollo told the empty air where she had been. "Believe me, I plan to."

* * * * *

"Blue Squadron launched," Rigel reported, and Adama nodded acknowledgment.

"Positive shield," he ordered. Omega punched a button and the protective doors slid across the huge viewscreen that made up the greatest part of one side of the Galactica's bridge. Deprived of its panoramic overview, the technicians turned to their individual scanners to monitor the battle that was about to erupt all around them, the battle that, like so many others, might mean the difference between life and death for all of them. After so very many others, it was almost routine.

* * * * *

Blue Squadron was in high spirits. This was what they lived for, the one time they really came alive: the adrenaline rush born of risking their lives, the satisfaction of outflying their enemies and at the same time blasting as many of them as possible back to the hades' hole where they belonged. This was their world.

"I'm onto three ... uh, make that two ... uh, I guess this sector's clear...."

"You never did learn to share your toys, did you?"

"Hey, you guys, you know this place could be dangerous?"

A whine of laser fire, and a surprised response of, "It could?"

"One heading for the launch bay...."

"Not any more!"

"Okay," Apollo's voice came over the commlink. "That's it, we got all of them. Blue Squadron let's go in."

The pilots turned their craft in a wide sweep, perfectly in formation, and headed back toward the battlestar. Then Apollo's voice came over the line again.

"Hang on, I'm picking up something on rear scan. Starbuck...?"

"With you," Starbuck replied promptly, and sent his Viper into a roll, following in Apollo's wake. "Anything on visual?"

"Not a thing," Apollo answered. "You getting it on your scanner?"

Starbuck flipped on his rear scan to check it out. "Negative," he said.

"That's strange," Apollo murmured. "It was here a micron ago ... maybe there's a flaw in my scanner...."

"Maybe you're just jumpy," Starbuck suggested unsympathetically. "Nerves shot."

"Maybe," Apollo agreed, refusing to rise to the bait. "Well, I guess we drew a blank. Let's head back in and check it with the bridge."

"Right behind you," said Starbuck.

Then, as if from nowhere, the sky was suddenly filled with Cylons.

"Frak!" Apollo said, with feeling. "Galactica, this is Blue Leader. Send reinforcements we're under attack."

"That," Starbuck observed, managing to sound casual without missing a shot, "must be the understatement of the yahren. Where in hades did these guys come from?"

"What am I, psychic? How would I know? They must've held back a second wave beyond scanner range, waiting 'til we'd turned back ... let's just hope this is the last of them...."

"You said it! Where's that help?" Come on, you guys, Starbuck thought, as though willing the rest of the squadron to return. All you had to do was turn around, for frak's sake! We're not going to be able to hold it here for long....

His universe had, in a micron, been reduced to the cockpit of his Viper; nothing existed for him anymore but to keep the ship wheeling and rolling to avoid the waves of Cylon fighters that were threatening to pour over him and swamp him, and to keep firing, and firing, and firing.... He was distantly aware of voices coming over the commlink, of other Vipers around him, that the reinforcements had finally arrived and that slowly they were fighting back the overwhelming tide of invasion, that the balance was shifting oh-so-gradually in their favor ... but in his mind he was back in the simulators at the Academy, his instructor's voice ringing in his ears: Wheel, turn, fire. Wheel, turn, fire. Wingmen, stick tight to your leaders, keep them covered. Wheel, turn...

Without warning, the ship to his right turned into a fireball.

Someone bought it, he thought, almost casually, still lost in the hypnotic unreality of the battle. Someone ... not me ... never me, it couldn't happen to me, not the star of this vidshow ... who...?

And then he realized who had been flying the ship to his right.

"Apollo!" he screamed. "Apollo!"

But there was no answer over the commlink, only static.

* * * * *

The warrior opened his eyes cautiously, then quickly shut them again, tight, to lessen the glare of the burning white light that surrounded him. After a moment he tried again.

"Where...?" he began, but was stopped by a fit of coughing. His throat was sore, he realized, burning like the light. Moreover, he had one mother of a headache. In fact, now that he thought about it, he found he ached just about everywhere it was even remotely possible to ache. Maybe a little more.

What in hades happened to me? he wondered. Where am I? And how did I get here?

From somewhere close behind him a voice said, "Do not be alarmed."

He started, and tried to look around; the light half-blinded him, and he winced away. Eyes closed, he made another attempt at speech.

"Where am I?"

"Do you not remember?" the voice answered him.

Remember?

He sat up slowly, painfully, and cautiously took stock of his surroundings: an immensity of whiteness; walls (walls?) that shone with an eerie luminescence, a light that seemed to emanate from nowhere. Remember? He couldn't even remember his own name!

He shook his head, and then wished that he hadn't. The figure drew what might have been a sigh.

"No matter," it said. "We are those to whom your people have come to refer to as 'angels'."

"'Angels'?" the warrior repeated stupidly. 'Angels'?! his mind shouted in disbelief. But to see was to believe, and what he saw now ... could not be denied. "What...?" he started, froze, began again. "What happened? What am I doing here?"

"Your ship was destroyed," the 'angel' said.

Ship? "Am I dead?" he asked. It seemed a ludicrous question; but this situation was beyond all the boundaries of his experience limited as that was.

Something that might have been a smile flitted across the apparition's face. "In a way," it said.

"In a way?!" This was more than he could bear. Gathering all of his strength together, he stood and faced the 'angel.' They were almost of a height; he could look into its eyes. Eyes? They were like doors that led into a void, the black void of space; empty, yet infinite, a promise limited only by the bounds of belief.

"Either," he said, clinging to calm, "I am dead, or I am not. In either case, I feel I have the right to know."

"I will explain," the 'angel' said. "Only be patient."

"Patient!"

"Come with me," the 'angel' told him, and it laid a hand on his arm; it was barely tangible, seeming without substance, but at the touch he felt strength flowing back into his body, the last lingering vestiges of pain and weariness dropping away from him like a discarded cloak. He followed the shimmering figure as it led him down a long arched corridor, illumined by the same pellucid glow as had been the chamber in which he had awoken, into a high, vaulted room beyond. At first glance, he thought it was empty; then looked again, and saw at the far end a raised dais, a catafalque set upon it and upon the bier ... something.

Compelled by some force stronger than instinct, stronger than his own will, he moved slowly across the floor until he reached the platform. He climbed the steps and stood, for a moment, as motionless as the draped figure that lay there; then, his hand trembling, he reached out and drew back a corner of the shroud. He gazed down into the face of the dead man.

"Do you not know him?" The 'angel's' voice came softly from behind him.

He shook his head. "Should I?" The face was strange to him, and yet ... and yet ... yes, there was something, somehow, familiar.... "Who was he? Did I know him?"

"He was a warrior," the 'angel' replied. "Of the House of Kobol. His name was Apollo."

The warrior turned his head to meet its ... eyes. Its dark, burning stare seemed to penetrate even beyond the barrier of his soul.

"For more than forty yahrens," it continued, "you and he were as one."

The warrior looked back at the dead man, seeking remembrance; a voice, a face, the touch of a hand. Nothing; all faded, lost, vanished in the evanescence of humanity.

"And now?" he asked, to free himself.

"And now he has fulfilled his task. His time is past. But yours yours is only beginning."

The warrior breathed out a long sigh. "I don't understand," he said, childlike in his unknowing.

"You will. In time." The 'angel' came forward and reached out a hand, covering the dead man's face once more. As it touched him, a hazy, pearl-like radiance began to glow around the body, spreading, growing denser and then, as the warrior stepped hurriedly back, beginning to fade. The warrior's body was gone.

The 'angel' turned again to the warrior.

"In every world," it said, "in every civilization, every new generation, there is one battle which is constantly fought, never-ending, never completely won nor completely lost by either side. It is the battle between the light and the dark, day and night; between the powers of good and those of evil. It is a necessary battle, for in all beings there is a little of both; it is the equilibrium between the two which prevents the universe from falling back into the chaos from which it was first created, and being consumed. And, as in every battle, each side must have its warriors."

"You?"

The 'angel' might have smiled. "We are a part of that battle, yes, but we do not ourselves play an active role. Our place in the scheme of things is to watch and to guard over those who are less advanced than ourselves, who are less able to defend themselves against corruption. We are, if you like, the commanders of the forces of the light."

"And the warriors?" asked the other.

"Our warriors." It glanced aside, to where the dead man had lain. "Our warriors are those beings whose spirits are strong enough to resist seduction by the dark; who are pure in heart, having justice and compassion and mercy for others; who have the courage to transcend the limitations of the flesh; who dare to fight for that which they know to be right. Our warriors are those who love, truly love. The man, Apollo, was one such in his time. There are others, many of them."

"And now he's dead," the warrior said. "What of his people? The people he protected?"

"They draw near to their goal," said the 'angel.' "A new generation of warriors emerges from among them, a new generation for a new time; they will fill the void left by his passing. Their battle is not over, by no means is it over but this stage of it is completed. His place is now otherwhere."

"And what of me?" the warrior asked.

"You?" Again, the 'angel' seemed to smile. "You are that part of this warrior which is immortal; his people would say, the spirit. And it is for you now to take on another body and to take up the fight once more. For you are one of the greatest of our warriors; our hope, the hope of all creation, rises and falls in your path. The candle that burns in darkness; the promise of morning after a night that seemed to reach toward infinity these things you are to us, and more. Do you doubt me?"

The warrior could only look at it, not speaking. Finally, very quietly, he said, "How can I? We have been here ... before; long before. I remember ... I thought it was a dream...."

"No dream," the 'angel' said. "No dream; only memory. So it has always been, so shall it ever be until all things end." And then it touched his arm, turning him more directly to face it, taking both his hands within its own.

"It is time," it said, as though it were a command; and then, more softly, one word, like a promise or a prayer for the future.

"Love."

* * * * *

"I loved him," Boz said, numb with the pain of loss. "I never realized how much ... I never told him...."

"No one ever does," Athena said softly. "Regret is the greatest part of grief. We mourn for what we've lost, forgetting what we still have...." She tightened her hold around the boy's waist, drawing him nearer to her. "We have his memory; we'll have that always...."

"...forever...." the boy breathed.

"Forever," Athena echoed, as the boy had echoed a faraway memory. "Boz, look up. Look up at the stars."

Obediently the boy tipped his head back, staring up and out through the tylinium dome above him.

"He used to come here," he heard his aunt say. "When it hurt too much, when he couldn't bear it alone anymore, he used to come here."

"To look at the stars?" Boz asked.

"To look at the stars. Look at them...."

Millions of stars, a million million; huge, brilliant and jewel-like some of them, others a distant radiance fading into a scatter of stardust unimaginably far away, unimaginably infinite; all of them, even the least, more beautiful than human eyes could see or human words could tell.

"Imagine," Athena murmured. "Each of them, a sun; and for each sun, a world. He's out there, Boz somewhere. He'll always be there, where he's needed."

"I needed him," Boz muttered, for a micron a rebellious child; then he sighed, and relaxed against the woman. "I guess I have to learn ... to grow. To be like him." He pulled himself straight and stood, reached down a hand to help Athena to her feet. "I should be getting back," he said. "Grandfather needs me ... and I have duty...."

Athena smiled at him. "You'll be fine, Boz. You'll make him proud of you, I know."

He nodded seriously. "I want to," he said; then, as she moved toward the hatchway to leave, he turned back to the center of the chamber, the back to the dome.

"Father...?" he said softly, into the stillness of the chamber, the silence of the starlight. "Father?"

There was no reply; he had not expected one. But from nowhere there came to him an unexpected memory: a smile, a comforting word, familiar laughter chasing away a child's fears, and he, too, smiled. He was not alone.

* * * * *

Light-yahrens away, in another part of the galaxy, a new-born baby gave his first wail, and his mother and father smiled at one another, touching feather-tipped hands, so filled with joy in the creation of a new life that the unfamiliar star that burned like an omen in the night sky above passed them by, unnoticed.

Only the child saw, and remembered.


Enter Sheba's Galaxy