PLAYING THE ODDS

With the return to reasonably normal routine, gloom settled over the Pegasus. The flush of glory from the encounter with the Colonial refugee fleet and the destruction of Gamoray had died away. The excitement of encountering Delphian survivors and the anxiety of the following sectons while the small fleet was assembled had faded away. The Galactica was some unknown distance off their left flank, beyond patrol range. There was no military action to contemplate. Boredom and homesick longing for even the Colonial fleet and reunion with it had taken over, along with despondency over the harsh realization of the completeness of the Colonies' destruction, only fully sunk in and made real since they'd met the fleet.

There was a handful of pilots settled together in one corner of the very quiet pilots' lounge, all warriors from Silver Spar squadron. The generally rowdy and cheerful bunch was moody and spoke in muted tones. Mugs and an abandoned deck of cards sat before the men. The topic under discussion was an exploration vessel sent on a mission of deep-star exploration several yahrens before. The Pegasus had been sent to Molecay about the time she was due back. From the Galactica, they'd learned she never returned, presumably another casualty of the Cylons.

"She never came back," sighed one of the pilots, a fair-haired, somewhat chubby youth. "My sister was on that ship...."

The first pilot who'd spoken, Sgt. Ptah, shrugged. "Who knows? But I'm willing to make a guess."

"Maybe it's just as well. They didn't have to go through the Destruction," another pilot, Trent, said. His firm jaw was set against bad memories.

"Maybe if they'd been here, it would've made a difference...."

Trent shook his head at Ptah's tentative suggestion. "One more ship? Nah. They'd have gotten it like everybody else. Boom. Poof." Gestures pantomimed the explosion. "And another few thousand casualties."

"The Cylons might've had to pay a little higher price for us. But they'd've paid it," Rissian said glumly. Lt. Rissian and Sgt. Trent had both been with the doomed Olympus, destroyed at Molecay. They remembered vividly the burning ship disintegrating around them. Trent still carried a burn scar on his hand, and a shrapnel slash across his chest.

"What was your sister's name?" Capt. Daystar asked, leaning farther over the table, peering at Ptah; his drooping mustache nearly dipped into the mug.

"Neferteri. She was an engineer. Loved her job, and had a passion for going where we'd never been before," Ptah replied with a sigh. He knew the man likely had no real interest in his sister or what she did, but it was sometimes good to share a memory.

There was a centon of silence.

"Hey, Rissian, remember that girl from back on Gemon, the dealer in the Viper Pit?" Daystar asked next, a wicked leer on his narrow face.

"Yeah," the slim back man replied. "You told me she was old enough, but she was just a kid, and I wasn't much more."

The other pilots laughed half-heartedly.

"Your first proposition, and she sent you packing."

"I remember. And she played the wickedest games of pyramid and table triad I ever saw," Rissian responded, smiling in spite of himself.

"She became a warrior. Our bad influence, I guess. I heard she went with them," Daystar said softly.

The gloomy silence descended again.

"My wife went with them too," Trent volunteered.

"Your wife? I didn't know you were married!" Ptah said in astonishment. "That's gotta be the best-kept secret on board!"

Trent shrugged. He had a lot of secrets from the Olympus, and before. "My ex-wife, I should say. Persephone and I were sealed in the Academy. Maybe we were just too different from each other, or too young. She was always gung-ho military – if she'd ever outranked me, I'd'a had to salute to get in the same bed with her. We filed separation papers just before the exploration mission set out. She took it to get away from me, I think. Wish she hadn't. I'd been thinking of seeing her again...." His deep voice died away, and his dark green eyes dropped to stare into the depths of his mug, with a faraway intensity that said he saw a woman there.

"Wouldn't have made any difference," Capt. Orestes murmured, repeating Trent's comment of a moment before. "But the Galactica did."

"Yeah, they saved what's left of our people," Daystar said. "They're still guarding them, and we're out here, in the middle of nowhere, apart from everything."

"We have to be," the other captain said. "We have to go on. It's like Cain said – the Galactica's depending on us, even if they don't know it. They can't watch all directions at once, and they have to guard the fleet."

"They saved us at Gamoray, though. If those two pilots hadn't taken out the missile launchers, the tinheads would've got us. Sherlock said we took enough damage as it was," Rissian said.

"Wonder who they were," mused Ptah.

"One had to be Starbuck," Rissian said. "He's the only guy I know crazy enough to sit between two basestars and dare 'em to shoot at him."

"And the other was Captain Apollo. I talked to Tolan, and he recognized their voices," said Trent. "They're two of the best."

"Did he know where they were when those basestars went up?" Ptah asked.

Trent looked down again, and shrugged. "Tolan didn't know. Maybe they were caught in the explosion. They were awfully close when we fired. Hope the tin bastards didn't take them along to Hades."

"Couldn't have. Those men're too good," Rissian insisted.

"So why didn't they come aboard with us?" Ptah countered.

"They must've run for it. After all, they didn't know if we'd make it." Rissian dipped his finger in the mug, then traced a wet pattern on the table.

"I wonder how good they really were...." Daystar mused. "Sheba and Bojay took 'em when they met, almost blew 'em both up before they realized they were facing warriors."

"But they didn't."

"Maybe they got lucky," Ptah sighed. "I'd've expected better from two pilots who were supposed to be some of the best to survive the Destruction...."

"We survived a massacre, too," Trent contributed. "Probably a case of putting the best against the best. We all thought alike, so our advantage was in being the ambushers. If you'd put Apollo and Starbuck against Sheba and Bojay, or any of the rest of us, in a reversed situation, it probably would've turned out different."

Orestes offered a half-hearted smirk. "And we'd've been the ones explaining how we almost got shot out of the stars by our own people."

"Yeah."

"Well, we don't know Starbuck and Apollo are dead."

"I don't think they are. They have brains and a lot of luck. I'd be willing to bet they got back," said Rissian. He swirled the dregs of ale in his mug before draining the cup in one long swallow.

"I'd take your bet, but I'm not sure I'd ever want to collect it," Ptah said gloomily, still unconvinced.

"Starbuck would take it. He'd take any bet." Orestes gazed at some point on the ceiling, leaning back in his chair.

"Even on his own life? Sounds like you. What's that bet you and Electra got...?"

Orestes shrugged, still wearing a half-smile, then reached over and picked up the scattered deck of cards. "Isn't that what we all do? Bet our lives we'll survive the odds, every day?" he asked.

For a moment, no one said anything. Then Rissian responded, "That's our job, to beat the odds."

"The odds'll get us all some day," Trent murmured, staring into his mug. "They get us all, even the best."

"The rest of our fleet. The Colonies. Apollo and Starbuck. Only the Galactica still pulling through. We never really thought anything could beat us. Or maybe we just pretended we were unbeatable," Orestes said softly. His blue eyes were far away as he neatly flipped the deck without losing a card. He began to deal a round of pyramid. No one picked up the cards. "So we keep pretending it's fun."

"Beats admitting how scared we are sometimes," Daystar said pragmatically, voicing a thought no warrior would often admit to. "We can't live as if we're afraid we won't see tomorrow. Anyway," he continued more flippantly, "think how boring life would be otherwise, if there was nothing to liven it up for us."

In the morbidly quiet room, the sound of the door sliding open grabbed their attention. Captain Elaine stood framed in the doorway, dark hair pulled back, looking like some ancient mythical warrior queen ready for battle.

"Orestes," she called in her rich alto voice, "Cain's calling a briefing. There're Cylons in our quadrant."

The fair-haired captain grunted and rose. "So much for boredom. Back to the odds."

* * * * *

Orestes knew he shouldn't let his concentration wander during the flight, but he couldn't help it. It seemed a bad omen, the way Sgt. Astarte's engine had blown, barely a quarter of the way to target. She thought she could make it back to the Pegasus without too much difficulty, and Orestes hoped she was right. There wasn't really any other choice. He couldn't take a pilot with that kind of damage into combat. If another engine blew, she wouldn't be able to maneuver, much less be any good against the Cylons. She was young – the youngest pilot in Silver Spar Squadron – but she wasn't green. He'd sent her back to base. There would be no word on whether she made it back or not; the Pegasus was maintaining comm silence.

He silently wished her luck.

Orestes hoped the mission would be as simple as it sounded in the briefing room. A tanker convoy, with Raider escort, had been spotted by a long patrol. They could use the fuel; the Pegasus was full-loaded, but the Delphian ships had few reserves. Telemetry had plotted the convoy's probable path. Teams from Silver Spar and Copper Keel were assigned to intercept and capture, if possible. The Pegasus and her companion ships would continue to monitor all channels for Cylon transmissions, to gain what knowledge they could of this quadrant. Bronze Wing and Golden Sun Squadrons, along with the defensive complements of the other ships, would be on stand-by. There was always a chance this was a trap, though Cain said he doubted that possibility – and the "living legend" always seemed to be right.

According to his scanner, Silver Spar was still set in formation. Elaine's Copper Keel showed as a perfect set of blips just ahead of his squadron. Electra was flying in the forefront of the formation, alongside the Delphian female cadet who'd chosen the Colonial military for her training. The grim, joyless woman had picked up on things a lot faster than expected.

He regretted no longer flying wingmate for his sister. They'd always been close, he and Electra, depending on each other, but she was now flight commander, had been since Molecay. With Sheba gone, Silver Spar was his responsibility. There wasn't much time for sibling interaction.

And there'd never been a time or place for the other–

"Formation! Silver Spar, go!" Electra sounded keyed up, as if she, too, felt something wrong.

"On me, team," Orestes ordered quietly, then pulled his joystick to the left. Silver Spar would hit opposite from Copper Keel, confusing anybody who might be trying to plot their point of origin, as well as hemming in the Cylon tankers and their escort.

There! The first blip of a Cylon ship showed on his scanners. Tension rose in him, and Orestes took a deep breath. The adrenaline rush of battle was difficult to deal with in the confines of a Viper cockpit. Especially for one like him who didn't like closed-in places to start with.

Another Cylon blip. Now the Raiders were becoming separate entities.

The Cylons must be aware of us by now! Soon, soon.... Come on, Electra. Give the word!

Then there was laser fire somewhere ahead. Colonial ships were mixing with the Cylon targets on the scanners.

"Now! Let's go, Silver Spar!" Capt. Orestes led the way with a brief caress of his joystick, and a flare of fire behind him. His squadron was with him as he charged into battle.

The battle was brief. As Cain often said, his warriors were good, and the regular Cylons weren't. There was no way the few Raiders could cope with a two-pronged attack by combat-hardened warriors in fast, maneuverable ships. The yahrens of exile had forced these Colonials to be the best; they'd proven it time and again. Cain had reason to be proud of them. Slipping between pinwheels, rolling away from laser fire, it was almost as if they could predict Cylon actions.

As quickly as it began, it was over. Orestes checked his scanners, searching for another target. Nothing but Colonial blips showed, and two tankers. The third tanker seemed to have vanished.

Well, that happens. Fuel tankers are unarmed, and their volatile loads mean the slightest hit can set off the tylium they carry. That's how Cain.... No time for that. We have to guide in the two survivors.

Daystar and Martin were already aboard the ships, with small teams of warriors trained to fly Cylon vessels. The two captains, familiarized through necessity and experience with the layout of Cylon tankers, would make sure the prizes were secure during the short journey back to the Pegasus.

It had been easy. Too easy? Or was he just disappointed, for some perverse reason, that it hadn't been more difficult? Orestes shrugged in the close confines of his Viper, baffled, wondering what was really bothering him. They'd mentioned boredom, that vague discussion before the mission. Lords, was he so bored with the ease of the mission that he wanted something more difficult, more challenging? Weren't fighting the Cylons and staying alive day by day enough of a challenge for him?

No, that couldn't be it. Ennui had to be the last thing he felt during a mission. He had to reserve boredom for his off-duty centars.

Bored pilots soon become dead pilots, he reminded himself. Trying to be less morbid, he thought for a micron. Besides, "dead" has to be the most boring state a human pilot can be in. So what's bugging me?

Orestes glanced around him through his Viper canopy panels. Raider shrapnel flashed occasionally in distant starlight. Otherwise, their small section of space seemed empty.

Wait a centon, he caught himself thinking. That had been an unusually large flash– "Elaine!" he called on his comm. "Something in your sector–"

Her urgent voice cut him off. "Melody, look out! That's not–"

Before either warrior could finish the statement, the flash of metal turned again, revealing itself as a Cylon Raider – obviously powerless, since it didn't show on their scanners – but still intact. Floating freely, it had drifted into position to fire on the passing humans. No one had noticed, 'til now, 'til too late.

"No...." A pilot's voice ended in a barely-begun shriek, and a woman died in a micron of fire and cold.

Before anyone else could take action, Elaine fired her lasers, and the Cylon who'd played dead was dead for real. The stunned silence of the others was gone in a fraction of a micron, and two more Vipers blasted the disintegrating fragments of their enemy.

"Melody?"

There was no response to Capt. Elaine's husky call. Lt. Melody of Copper Keel had joined the list of the dead – another for whom the Colonials would exact vengeance from the Cylons, but could never replace. She would not return. The strike team returned to the Pegasus in silence, having ascertained there was no more Cylon treachery here.

Melody had come from the Britannica with Electra and Orestes. He remembered her – tall, thin-faced, hair the shade of afternoon shadows, not especially pretty, but with an infectious laugh and an easy-going nature. He'd never taken the time to get to know her more than superficially. Now, she was gone.

His instincts hadn't failed him, Orestes thought bitterly. He knew they'd gotten by too cheaply, and the Cylons had promptly raised the cost. His lips were tightly closed; his features were bleak for the rest of that short trip back. He found himself wondering if Astarte had gotten back safely, or if she, too, would remain here as part of their price for another day of survival.

A life for a life? A human sacrificed so the ship can go on? Maybe. Orestes sighed. That was the price. It went with the job, their job. His job. Some day, he'd pay that price. But not today. Thank the Lords, not today.

"Welcome back," sounded a somber voice in his ear – Memnon, from the bridge.

"What's the report on Astarte?" Electra spoke before Orestes could ask the same question.

"She landed in one piece, and she's all right. The techs are working on her ship right now," the comm officer responded.

Orestes sighed in quiet relief. It was never easy to lose a friend, or to realize how close death could be. At least it had been only one, and the rest would live to face the odds another day.

You always fight the odds. It's only a game when you're young and foolish, or when you're off duty, or when you're old enough to have forgotten. When you're on-duty, out there, you don't think of the odds, or pretend it's fun. You don't dare.

Astarte was waiting to greet her teammates when Silver Spar landed, eager to hear how the mission had gone. The other squadrons would remain on full alert until Cain felt they were beyond any danger from this last attack. Electra disappeared to make her report to the commander. Elaine also vanished, probably to her quarters. Melody had been her wingman. If anything could pierce that cold woman's armor, this would be it.

Orestes wasn't sure what to do. His usual diversions somehow didn't seem worth the time. He headed for the pilots' lounge. Maybe he'd feel better once he got there, and got into a game. Maybe there wouldn't be anybody there, with most of the pilots on alert, and he could brood in silence. Funny – brooding wasn't like him, and he knew it.

Rissian fell into step beside him, dark eyes catching every nuance of the captain's grim expression. "I don't think boredom is the problem anymore. So, what's bothering you?" the lieutenant asked. "Can't be the mission – it was a success. Is it Melody? She mean something to you that the rest of us don't know about, more than the usual?"

"No. We've lost people before," Orestes replied, not looking at him, still striding down the hall. "Maybe she was special for being human, but nothing personal, nothing unusual."

"And you don't like to admit it hits you inside? But I know you better than that, Captain. This isn't that kind of a funk. What's bothering you, really?"

"I don't know. Sometimes I get tired of fighting the odds, and I wonder why I keep playing the game."

"It's called survival."

"Yeah." Suddenly, Orestes found a rueful laugh. "I guess so. I suppose even boredom beats this, though."

"Maybe. Feel like some pyramid, or something?"

"More odds? I guess so."

"You'll get over it, Orestes. You're not happy if you're not figuring the odds on something – cards, or Cylons, or that cute little cadet in training." Rissian glanced at his captain, seeing the slow grin. Yeah, he'd get over it, whatever it was. Until next time.

Nobody special, just human. Melody, I'll miss you.


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