Chapter X


"There's no response to our signal, sir. Patrol Five has vanished, the same as our other patrol," Tolan reported. "Captain Apollo and Lieutenant Boomer seem to have disappeared as well. Our pilots report that a beam of light, similar to that which struck Lieutenant Starbuck's ship, enveloped their Vipers. When it was gone, so were they."

Cain ground his teeth in frustration. "And Major Electra has no new information to add to our small store of data on these aliens, despite having just viewed the destruction of two more of our warriors and craft? They aren't invulnerable! We've got to have learned something about them!"

Tolan could only shake his head. "Apparently not, sir. And the aliens are gone."

"Just like that?"

"So it seems. Major Electra will make her report as soon as she's back aboard. She's directing a search grid at present, and has temporarily assumed responsibility for the Galactica squadrons as well as our own."

The commander turned his back on Tolan. "Is Commander Adama advised of the situation?"

"Yes, sir."

"Extend my condolences on the loss of his son," he stated roughly. For once, the swagger stick was still. Apollo was to have been his son-in-law, and was a highly valued and much respected warrior.

Tolan nodded silently, turning his attention back to his duties. He stared at the screens for a moment before his eyes widened with another shock. "Commander!"

Cain had been on his way off the bridge. He halted and glanced back.

"The Delphian ships, sir! They're detaching from the fleet, moving away!"

"What? Explain!"

"I think they're leaving!" he exclaimed incredulously.

"Now? Impossible! Get me the Soul!"

"They're not responding to our call!" Memnon told him several impatient moments later.

Cain wavered for a moment, tempted to pursue and get some answers, but the defense of the fleet had to come first. Until they either knew more about the aliens, or left them behind, he couldn't leave.

The woman at the scan console bowed her head, her expression pensive. Her husband had warned her this was coming, but it hadn't been real until now, when she saw the ships of her people abandoning them. Mriko and Kenji had chosen to stay, but it was wrenching to realize they were now traitors to their Empress.

* * * * *

Col. Kleopatra was stranded on the Galactica during the alert. She joined Adama and Tigh on the bridge, and watched appreciatively as that ship's personnel efficiently carried out their orders. Then word came back that Apollo and Boomer would not be returning, nor would the members of the other patrol. Memories of the young warrior's growing yahrens flooded through her mind, and she could see the same thoughts mirrored in her former husband's eyes. From the yahrens she'd known him, she could also detect the grief the commander tried so successfully to hide. To an outsider or a stranger, Apollo might have been only another faceless name on the missing -in-action roster. She and Tigh knew better. So did the officers on duty.

Apollo's sister isn't here. She'll take this hard. Athena's always clung tightly to her family. A little boy somewhere on this ship will have to be told his father will never return. Poor Boxey.... And Sheba – she was out there for the action, must have seen the whole thing. I wonder how she's taking it. Electra will miss her brother too. Heimdal, Sif, Orestes, Falstaff, Apollo, and Boomer. Lords, they hit us hard....

Adama raised his eyes to the two officers, the constant support and the estranged companion, standing so near, next to each other. For a moment, the almost tangible grief hovering over the bridge bound the three of them together as closely as love and friendship once had. Then the empathic triad dissolved and each was alone again.

She couldn't stay. "Commander, if the situation has stabilized here, I'd like to return to my ship, with your permission. Commander Cain isn't completely recuperated yet, and I'm sure I'll be needed," she said softly. "I'm so sorry...."

He nodded wordlessly. The two men simultaneously reached for her hands; she shared the clasp for a moment before turning to flee.

* * * * *

Electra caught Tokyo's sleeve before the Delphian officer and his shadowing wingman could leave the landing bay. "What is it?" she demanded. "Where are your people going? Half your squadron took off after them – what's going on?"

His face was more impassive than she'd ever seen it before. "The Empress summoned us back. She has chosen to leave the fleet. Those of our people who wished to, rejoined her. That portion of my squadron chose to join the Soul's contingent of fighters."

Her jaw dropped, grief and anger momentarily forgotten in shock. "She's taking off on her own? Now? With these aliens following us? Maybe tracking our every move?"

He shrugged slightly. "She is the Empress."

Another thought struck her; she glanced across the bay at Akimi and then back at Tokyo. "But.... Then why did you come back? Why are any of your people left on the Pegasus? I thought...."

He faced her squarely. "Colonel Kenji has been my commander for yahrens, even before the Destruction of Gamoray. His family have been overlords to my kindred for centuries. He chose to stay. I chose to stay with him. Members of my squadron owe allegiance to me, and to my chosen loyalty. But my oath is to the man my Colonel has chosen to follow."

She was bewildered. "Then why did any of you leave?" Delphian loyalties were a conflicting pattern of honor, duty, oaths, and family ties she'd never puzzled through.

"The Colonel freed us of our oaths. Some of chose to reswear to him, and to you, and to Commander Cain. Some are bound to me by old ties. We stayed. Of the rest, most chose to follow the Empress. We have been with you for a long time, Major. I, for one, am content to remain so."

"Doesn't that make you ... traitors or something?"

He smiled thinly. "In this circumstance, there was no way to avoid it." He walked away.

She turned to Akimi, now shadowing her. "You, too?"

The sergeant nodded infinitesimally. "For me, this was the only choice," she stated simply and with conviction.

Electra was grateful. With Orestes gone.... This would have been too much. The grief hit hard, but there were too many things she had to do before she'd have time to mourn.

* * * * *

"Sir?"

Adama turned slowly, his face a hard mask. "What is it, Omega?"

The flight officer looked away. "Security has spoken with the leader of the surviving Raggane in the fleet. No potential identification of Thjis. They're still searching."

"Keep me informed." I really don't care.... His hands still clenched the command deck railing; his knuckles were white and bloodless. Apollo and Boomer dead, and Starbuck hurt. Four of Cain's best warriors gone as well. They hit us hard, as if they knew who to strike, which losses we could least afford. Apollo, my son....

Athena! Has anyone thought to tell you? And Boxey? Where are you? I need you here....

* * * * *

Starbuck was released from life center just before the alert sirens sent the ship into a flurry of activity. Athena was still with him. When the hatchways sealed to protect each individual section of the battlestar, they were locked together in one of the turbolifts, just the two of them, stuck between decks. They waited with impatient anxiety, unable to do more than wonder what was going on. The ship was apparently unscathed; she rode steadily and smoothly. Then the lights blinked back to normal, the lift whirred into motion, and the huge craft could be heard returning to life.

"The aliens again," Starbuck stated with conviction.

Athena shuddered delicately. Those aliens had almost destroyed the man who seemed to love her again, who'd held her protectively when the alert first sounded. They'd been safe in the depths of the ship. But what about Apollo? And the other pilots? She reached for his hand again, suddenly needing the security of his touch. His fingers closed tightly on hers, and she heard his deep sigh.

The lift touched down; they'd reached personnel quarters.

"Ah, there you are."

Both froze at the sight of the tall redheaded man who strode toward them from the female pilots' dormitory. He seemed totally at ease and unthreatening, ignoring Starbuck as his gaze lingered on the woman.

"What are you doing here?" Athena stuttered as he stepped next to her, hands settled easily on his hips as he looked down at her.

"I was looking for you; then the alert sounded, and somehow, I found myself stranded here."

Not true! Pilots' quarters are never sealed off from the launch bays! Uneasy, Starbuck planted himself before the other man. "All right, Captain Thjis or whoever you are, what's going on?"

Thjis's face conveyed the impression that the blond warrior was something under a microscope that he found interesting but vaguely distasteful. The lieutenant suddenly recalled that he was still unarmed, and the other man very obviously carried a laser pistol.

Athena saw this at the same time. She put a nervous hand on Starbuck's arm. "What did you want, Captain?" she asked. As a bridge officer, she too was unarmed. Don't antagonize him, Starbuck....

She saw the suspicious frown crease his forehead. "Your friend seems most protective," he commented. "Have you some reason to fear or dislike me?"

Her heart skipped a beat. "Why don't you tell us, Captain," she replied.

He studied her a moment more, turned his unnerving glance on Starbuck again, then spoke. "It seems your people have detected my nonconformity to your ways. I had hoped my behavior patterns would have convinced you to trust me, Athena, but it appears to be otherwise. Nevertheless, I must make my departure."

"Who are you, really?" Starbuck demanded. "Behavior patterns"? What in Hades....?

The stranger was calm. "Inconsequential, Lieutenant. However, as I must make an escape from your ship, and it seems quite unlikely you will permit me to leave without attempting to put obstacles in my way–"

"Frakkin' right we'll put obstacles in your way!"

"I must insist that one of you accompany me."

Starbuck's jaw dropped; Athena gasped. Thjis drew his laser, and pointed the weapon at them with a coolness they found frightening.

"You're a psychopath! Where do you think you can go?"

"I know exactly where I am going. The data I have collected is desired by ... my superiors. We must leave now." He motioned back in the direction of the lift.

Starbuck felt cold. With a small effort, he pushed Athena further behind him. "Where are we going?" he asked simply. Can't let him take Athena. Lords, he's probably sold out to the Cylons! Maybe I'll get a chance to jump him. Athena, call security when we leave. I don't matter, he mustn't escape to betray us....

"No, Lieutenant, not you." His eyes were on Athena. "I believe the female would be more useful. You will remain here, keeping your silence until we have left in my craft. Then you may say what you will."

"No," he responded flatly. "You're not taking her."

The thick red eyebrows lifted. "She will accompany me. I assure you, she will be quite safe–"

Starbuck lunged for the weapon.

Thjis appeared surprised when the warrior moved, but unconcerned. He simply reached for the man's wrist and wrenched his hand free.

Starbuck was shocked at his strength, and gasped in pain as the stranger's hand tightened. "Call security!" he yelled to Athena, trying to pull away and snare the laser at the same time.

Thjis continued to study him, twisting his arm up with that steely grip. The young warrior's left hand, bandaged and blistered, wasn't strong enough to hold the other's wrist; locked on the weapon though it was, he had no purchase. The laser pointed steadily at his midsection. If Thjis chose to fire, he was a dead man.

For a micron, their eyes locked. Then his opponent seemed to tire of the grappling. With a sudden decisive snap, he brought Starbuck's uplifted arm down with frightening speed. The warrior cried out as he heard bones cracking. He fell, at last jarring the weapon.

It fired.

Starbuck was hit.

Thjis stared in surprise at the man groveling at his feet, curled up in a moaning ball of agony.

"No!"

The redhead, nothing but an enemy now, was distracted a moment more; it was all Athena needed. She ran forward, bringing her foot up in an unexpected kick that finally sent the weapon flying out of his hand.

With lightning speed, his other hand, the one that had so casually broken Starbuck's arm, stretched out, fastening on her ankle. A twist, and she was lying on the deck – surprised and indignant, but uninjured except for an aching ankle and a sore backside.

Thjis stood over her. "I think you now see what I can do. You will accompany me, with no more of this uselessly theatrical defiance, or I may be forced to take further measures."

She had no doubt those measures would include further injuring or even killed the now still, apparently unconscious Starbuck. She nodded in numb defeat, wearily rising to her feet.

Thjis retrieved his weapon. "You may call life center to inform them of an injury," he graciously allowed her. "Then we will leave for the launch bay. You need not fear for your health, Athena. You will not be harmed."

She glared in bitter silence.

He walked behind her as she limped to the ship's intercom.

"Hold it! Freeze!"

Two of Blue Squadron's female pilots stood behind them, weapons aimed and ready, their expressions threatening. Diedre and Brie cautiously stepped closer; the slim blonde stooped to check Starbuck.

"Athena, call security," the taller black woman told her, keeping her pistol pointed at Thjis.

"No!" He held up a hand. "I am dreadfully sorry, warriors, but I cannot permit myself to be taken by you. My apologies, Athena, but could you step away? I was instructed not to cause undue harm to any of the subjects, and I did not intend to injure your friend, whatever you may think."

The women stared, bewildered. Several more female pilots appeared, watchfully alert but uncomprehending, their somber discussion of the battle silenced by what they saw.

There was a small puff of smoke and a minor explosion. When it was over, a few metal pieces and cloth shreds were scattered around a dark, singed circle on the steel deck.

Athena gasped. Diedre and Brie watched, stunned. None of them knew what to say when security and medical personnel reached the scene.

* * * * *

Adama left Tigh to supervise the battle reports when word came from life center that Athena and Starbuck had been admitted as patients after an encounter with the man security was seeking. In the medical section, he searched for and quickly found his daughter. Profound relief swept over him, and he visibly relaxed when he saw her sitting on a bed, one boot nestled next to her. Dr. Paye was hunched over her ankle. As he hurried closer, the commander saw the deep blue bruise that appeared to be her only injury.

Unconcealed joy showed in her face as well. They hugged in relief.

Then he saw Starbuck. The young warrior was lying in the bed beyond Athena's. Besides his already-bandaged hand, his arm and chest were newly swathed in a tight wrapping, and his right arm was extended under a glittering purple healing ray. Adama could tell from the drowsy expression on his face that he must've been given some kind of pain-killer.

"Starbuck?"

"He'll be all right, Commander." Dr. Salik appeared in his line of vision.

"What happened?" he asked, turning back to Athena.

"Thjis," she responded unhappily. "He ... tried to kidnap me, Father. Said he was leaving the ship and wanted company. Starbuck tried to stop him. If Brie and Diedre hadn't shown up...."

He saw the pilots for the first time, standing off to one side with two very intent security officers.

"Then Thjis is in custody and can be questioned?"

She shook her head. "He blew up, Father! He wasn't even human!"

He was shocked. "But at least you're still here, Athena. I still have you."

"Still have me?" Her glance darted around. Paye and the med tech averted their eyes, unwilling to face her. Starbuck had heard too, in his drugged haze, and was trying to sit up.

She turned a pleading expression to her father, afraid to ask.

"Apollo and Boomer didn't come back."

"No!" Tears welled in her eyes and spilled down her pale cheeks. "They can't...."

He nodded slowly as she threw herself into his arms, weeping freely. Starbuck, too, cried silently for the loss of his two best friends. If he could have, Adama would have pulled him into the embrace as well. Starbuck was almost as much a son to him as Apollo.

"Captain Orestes of the Pegasus spotted the aliens again. We launched to intercept, but it was just like before. Nothing out there, and pilots disappeared...." he began heavily. Life center was still, listening.

"Orestes, too?" Starbuck asked softly.

"Yes, I'm afraid so. We don't know what they saw. But we know what took Apollo and Boomer. It was a light, like with you, Starbuck. But this time, the ships were gone."

Starbuck fell back to his bed, chest heaving. The commander gathered his daughter closer, and hid his face in her hair.

* * * * *

"Colonel?"

"Yes, Omega?"

"We have a report on one of the transmissions we picked up during the alert, sir. It seems one of our Vipers was broadcasting an unusual signal on a very odd frequency...."

"Continue." He stared intently at the flight officer.

"The transmission appears to have been in the same code we detected from inside our ship. We still can't decipher its meaning, but it was coming from Captain Apollo's ship."

"What?" For a moment, he didn't comprehend what he was hearing. "But Captain Apollo wouldn't be contacting...."

"It may have been a simple recognition signal, sir."

"Or a location beacon!" Everything seemed crystal clear. They had a spy aboard – and Apollo had fallen victim to him. The aliens had chosen their prey very carefully.

* * * * *

"Electra? You wanted to see me?"

It was impossible to tell which of the two women looked the worse for their obvious grief. Electra blinked away her tears. She could see the streaks on Sheba's face that meant her friend had been crying as well.

"Uh, yes, Sheba. We need a flight leader for Silver Spar. You know the people; you've done this before. I think this time it'll come with a promotion to captain, too. Want the job?" She gulped a sob, turned it into a watery smile.

The other woman bowed her head. "I can do it."

"I know you can. How are you holding out?"

"Okay, I guess. Hear anything from the Galactica?" Who will take Apollo's place?

The major answered her silent question. "They're temporarily without a flight commander. Not many pilots up to Apollo's stature. I guess that leaves me in charge, for the time being, until Commander Adama appoints somebody else. Maybe one of our officers will transfer over. We've got a lot of good pilots, ranking officers who survived Molecay, you know – maybe Tamyris or Daystar."

Sheba started to shake with sobs; Electra could guess why.

"Your last words together probably aren't worth remembering, are they?" she asked gently, dabbing at her own eyes again.

"I told him I didn't want to marry him any more ... and worse, Electra! I all but accused him of having an affair ... with you.... I'm sorry, I was so mad, he wouldn't listen...."

"Sheba!"

"And now he's gone, and I was so awful, so cruel, and I didn't mean any of it, not about you or him or Serina's ghost, or anything I said. You're my friend, I know better, but I said it anyway," she sobbed.

Electra impulsively reached for her friend. "I understand," she whispered, choking back her own tears. "He was a good man, Sheba, one of the best. I'm sure he knows, wherever he is, that you didn't mean it. He understands too. It's all right...." Guilt only made everything worse – Sheba's regret over the last words that she and Apollo had shared, remorse that she couldn't take them back, that she'd blamed an old friend for their argument; and Electra's own interest in the man, her suppression of it for her friend's sake, the moment it had shown through.

"We'll survive...."

* * * * *

Tigh offered to take an extra shift, but Adama sent him on his way. He realized the commander needed to be on duty, needed to be there if security discovered anything, especially after the intercepted location signal. He accepted the order. Back in his own quarters, he slumped wearily into a chair, wishing for a moment that he'd gone to the officers' club instead.

He sighed. These aliens.... Apollo.... And Kleopatra and I just patched things up, after all these yahrens. I'm still wary of Cain, but I think I've finally accepted her decisions....

He felt very lonely.

There was a soft sound behind him, a swish of fabric and bare feet on the rug, moving into the room from the attached bedchamber.

"I heard," Maruwa said. She set a tall glass on the desk before moving behind him. He saw that she held a glass herself, half-filled with more of the same liquid that filled the one before him.

When she leaned closer, her arms twining around his neck, he could smell her delicate perfume and a whiff of alcohol on her breath. The silk of her gown brushed against his skin. She didn't need to say or do anything else, just stood there, being there.

Gratitude almost broke his reserve. He picked up the glass, taking a long swallow as his free hand reached up to rest on her slim, tapered fingers. It would be good to forget.

* * * * *

"Helena, I have to go back."

The CMO's gaze was oddly sympathetic. "Go ahead, Cassie. I'll take care of the paperwork."

She packed her few things in an efficient few centons, then hurried to catch a shuttle back to the Galactica. What she felt for Cain was the warm glow of a past love for a special man, but it wasn't an emotion that could make them a life together. She wanted to be with Starbuck; she knew that. She hoped her being gone that secton hadn't destroyed any chance of it.

I hope they're all right, Starbuck and Athena. He's come out of this worse than any of us. Apollo and Boomer were his best friends, and Orestes was his brother. But he has his father now, at least.

And Sheba has her father, too.

She reached the launch bay, and found Cain waiting for her.

"I'm surprised you're not on the bridge."

"Kleopatra's back. She can handle things." He stepped closer, studying her face. "You're going back. That Starbuck must be quite a man."

"I'm not comparing you, Cain. But he is special. And it's been so long, for us." He needs me, I hope. You don't. "It's ... past, I think. I can treasure the past, but I can't live in it."

"Love doesn't always last forever," he commented sadly. "But I do love you, Cassie. I wish you happiness, whatever happens. I'll miss you."

"I'll miss you too, you old war-daggit. But we'll see each other. In the meantime, and always, take care of yourself. And tell Sheba– Never mind, I'm sure I'll see her, I'll tell her myself." She smiled bravely, though her heart ached for what her friend must feel at Apollo's death. For all her training, there was little she could offer for consolation.

He touched her cheek. "You grow more lovely all the time."

She dropped her case and flung her arms around him. "Thank you for understanding."

"A commander's first concern has to be for his ship, his crew. It take a special woman to live with that. You're that kind of woman, Cassie, under normal circumstances, but you deserve better, the way we are now. I wish times had been different. I wouldn't have given you up for anything. You'd have stood beside me.... Tell your Starbuck that he'd better be worthy of you, or he answers to me!"

She found a shaky laugh. "I'll tell him!"

"You'd better go. The shuttle's standing by, waiting for you."

She nodded, not trusting her voice any longer, then ran away from him. This time, it's me who's leaving. Things never worked out for the commander and the socialator. Maybe we'll do better next time....

He watched her go, enjoying the luxury of his emotions for a few precious centons. Then it was time for him to go back to work.

* * * * *

"What do your studies indicate, Wilker?"

The premier scientist in the fleet looked up as the commander entered his workshop. He waved a hand at the small piles of material, neatly organized and analyzed until there nothing else he could do with or to them. "I don't know, sir."

"What?"

"Commander, we've studied every fragment of metal and cloth from the exploding man. A very highly sophisticated android, that's my guess. The technology is yahrens beyond us, and there's too little left of it for me to do anything more than theorize about how it was made, or even of what metallic alloys, or how it was powered. The Viper that security reported exploding at the same micron? Same problem. It may have looked like one of our ships, but it wasn't. Alien manufacture, alien technology, alien alloys."

Adama wasn't surprised. "It looked enough like one of our ships to permit the alien machine to slip among us, probably landing during an alert, without our noticing it. The android had a mission to carry out – which it apparently did, based on its comments to Athena and Starbuck. We don't know what that mission was, although I suspect my son's death was part of it, despite its claim of not intending to harm anyone. Nor do we know where it was going from here."

"I can tell you this much. It wasn't Cylon, unless they've made a two-millennia jump in technology since the Destruction of the Colonies."

"Wilker, that's not very comforting. It leaves too many questions, and no way to find answers."

"The aliens haven't destroyed us yet; and their machine was leaving. Maybe we're lucky for a change, and maybe we've finally found somebody who isn't out to exterminate us." The thin scientist faced him squarely, but didn't sound totally convinced himself.

Adama sighed. "Keep trying, Wilker. You're all we've got, now, and these are the only clues left, the only concrete data we have to work with."

He nodded, absently turning back to his spectroanalyzer. His fascination for his subject was outweighed only by his frustration.

* * * * *

Starbuck woke from a drug-induced sleep, still seeing the world through a hazy fog. Funny, this has happened before, waking up to see a beautiful woman staring at me.... But this one was blonde, with sky-blue eyes, not a brunette with the changing blue-green eyes of the sea. "Cassie?"

"I'm here, Starbuck. How do you feel?"

She came back! But ... for how long this time? "Don' feel mucha anythin' just now. How's Athena?"

"She's fine, resting." She turned away from him for a moment. "I don't think he's up to talking with security yet, doctor."

"Then let him sleep," a voice called back.

Her hand lingered on his for a moment; then she was gone. Starbuck watched her walk away, then sighed and lay back, letting the haze slip through his memory again. I guess Cain's willing to wait....

Apollo, Boomer, my friends.... How can you be gone when I wasn't there? Why couldn't I be there? Orestes ... I never got a chance to know you. Athena, if you feel anything like this.... I didn't ever want to hurt like this, for anybody. But I can't help it. So many gone. It's not fair.... Maybe we can help each other through it...?

* * * * *

Commander Cain studied the family scene for a moment, hands on his hips, waiting. Kenji gestured, and Mriko sent the two boys into the next room under the supervision of their older sister.

"Colonel, Lieutenant, where have your people gone?"

The woman's eyes shifted to her husband. Kenji shrugged marginally before saying, "I do not know."

"That's not sufficient. With these aliens all around us.... How do your people expect to survive? Where can they go?"

"The Empress chose to lead our people elsewhere. She obviously decided it was not in Delphian interests to remain with the fleet any longer. It was her choice to make. Where they might be going, I do not know. I was not told. I doubt if she knows."

Cain studied the pair thoughtfully. "But you stayed – along with a good number of your crew from the Dragonsbreath."

They nodded. "That was our choice," the man said.

"Can I depend on you?"

"As always, Commander," Kenji replied, mild curiosity in his voice.

"Good." His face was hard. "I need dependable officers." He left without another word, leaving the couple to consider his motives and puzzle through his actions for themselves.

* * * * *

It was warm, almost hot. Apollo opened his eyes and stared blankly at the high ceiling above him, cream-colored and set with glassy round orbs that might be observation devices. He could smell something pungent and unusual, reminding him vaguely of both antiseptic and the livestock ship. When he tried to move, to sit up, he found he couldn't. His muscles wouldn't obey his mind. They weren't paralyzed, just so relaxed that he couldn't tense them.

What...? Where am I? What happened? The lights, the ships.... He would have shuddered, remembering his last moment of terror, but found he was unable to move even that much. How long have I been here? It feels like time.... Someone took me from my ship, brought me here, but how long ago...? Try to think, remember.... Where....

He felt the urge to blink, and found that his eyes and eyelids could move. There was nothing to see, however, in the small inverted cone that was his area of vision. Listening intently, he could detect breathing, and wondered who it was.

He tried swallowing; his throat worked. When he opened his mouth to talk, only a faint whisper came out. He couldn't control the sounds he made. Whatever was affecting him, then, apparently concentrated on voluntary muscles, and not all of them. He tried wiggling his fingers and toes, and sensed a slight motion.

It occurred to him that he must have been stripped; he could feel warm air on his skin, and some sort of smooth fabric under his back.

So I'm somebody's prisoner, maybe somebody that doesn't know a lot about humans. Wonder what happens now.... He fought down panic.

There was a sound similar to a sigh somewhere to his right. Boomer, I've heard you snore often enough to recognize that noise. So you're here, too, maybe trying to talk to me. Sorry, buddy, I can't give you any kind of answer. Wonder what shape you're in....

A moment later, something came into view, peering intently down at him.

Lords of Kobol! His pulse quickened.

He couldn't tell its height – he didn't know how high off the floor he might be – but from the width of that ... face? ... the creature must be large, taller and broader than humans, with a huskier build. Even the thing's head looked like it could dent a steel bulkhead! Its skin was reddish-brown, covered with thin, short hair. The extremely long, narrow face, reminiscent of something bovine, was heavily muscled. The large, dilated round eyes studied him, and the being blew a noisy breath from the broad, flat, muzzle-like nostrils that took up a large part of its face. Sounds emanated from the wide, flat-lipped mouth low on its ... chin? A micron later, the human saw what could have been ears flick to direct their broad sides at him.

Those eyes left his face, moving over his body, studying him with quite apparent interest. Suddenly increased heat told him he was blushing, which the being obviously noted; its glance shifted, and he heard a scratching sound that might have been some sort of writing implement making notations. Embarrassment gave way to a deeper feeling of humiliation as the being continued its clinical observation.

Finally, the creature half-turned, and he detected a raised-appendage gesture at the fringes of his sight. It moved away from him, to be replaced a moment later by another being he assumed was a different member of the same species. The concave nasal hollow between its eyes seemed broader, and there may have been a small rounded scar among the hairs of his forehead. It leaned over him, and he tensed inside, drawing a quick breath in preparation to act.

His body didn't respond. When the alien lifted him, he was still utterly limp. It laid him on another table, and arranged him neatly. He hated the helpless feeling of being unable to move or defend himself.

He had caught glimpses of the chamber as he was carried. Boomer was indeed there, on another table next to his. Past that one were four more such tables, simple upholstered metal slabs, with naked human figures on each. Apparently, the four other missing pilots were all prisoners here, as he was. He saw the sentient creature which had observed him now standing next to Boomer. Its prominent spinal column was toward him as it hunched over his comrade, seemingly fascinated by the warrior's dusky skin. The backbone ended in a tail, more thickly-bristled and darker than the rest of the body, which flicked occasionally in an absent-minded fashion.

Body covering was something the entities must not have been concerned with. The other was unclothed, and he'd felt the stiff hairs of his bearer's ... chest? ... tickle in a delicately thorny way against his own bare skin. Fortunately, the temperature of the chamber made clothing unnecessary, although Apollo would've felt much less uneasy if he'd been dressed.

He heard a low voice giving what seemed to be a disinterested command in a totally unintelligible language, and his new resting place began to move, sliding away through the door into another chamber. Something tingled as he passed through the unadorned blank arch; he surmised it was some sort of sterilization mechanism or force field, either to protect the beings from contamination or to prevent the escape of scientific curiosities like himself. He glimpsed banks of equipment in the room, some of it apparently medical in nature. There were markings on it, but he had no opportunity to decipher them before he was transferred without fuss to yet a third table, and several lights were positioned above him. Equipment began to hum somewhere; he heard one particular pulse that matched his too-fast heartbeat. The being watching him made more marks on its board, then tossed its head and moved away.

The next alien he saw held a small device of some kind, something metallic that gleamed in the bright illumination.

His heart skipped. Was it a blade?

Autopsy? Lords of Kobol, no, I'm still alive! It can't be– He had the horrible feeling the examination would culminate in his vivisection.


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Enter Sheba's Galaxy