Chapter VIII


Apollo's fingers played absently with his stylus as he stared unseeingly at the computer print-out in his other hand. He couldn't concentrate on his examination of patrol debriefings from the past few days; his attention kept wandering. Not even the possibility of discovering some clue to the mysterious aliens could keep his mind off Sheba's defection to the Pegasus. Sullen resentment kept surfacing, however much he tried to banish it with logic, love, and compassion.

She has a right to want to be with her father. But why can't she be with her father and still be with me?

Their relationship had been stormy at times. They'd argued with each other, ignored each other, helped each other through periods of loneliness, misery, depression, and pain. As he reviewed their relationship, he kept thinking of how her mind always turned back to her father, to Cain, how much that man meant to her, how she'd always clung to the hope that he would return.

Everything about Cain was a personal matter to her. She'd out-flown Apollo, nearly killed him when they met – living up to her father's skillful reputation. In the fuel crisis, she'd pulled a laser on him in what she saw as defense of her father's honor, angrily denouncing his father in what could so easily have become the bloody violence of mutiny. She'd joined the "suicide mission" to Gamoray, without Cain's knowledge, to somehow cleanse his name from the secret stain of the tanker incident. And there had been many similar missions since. Her concern was that her father be proud of her, and think of her as a warrior fit to follow in his footsteps and stand beside him.

Truthfully, was she behaving so differently from him?

But I want a wife, a companion to love! Is she too much the warrior to be anything else? I'm a warrior, too, but I'm still my own person, an individual, not a detached portion of my father! I don't need to be Adama's son to make my life have meaning!

The romance had gone so quickly, vanished with her father's arrival. Would it ever come back? Would it ever be the same?

He tried to turn his thoughts back to the patrol reports. The Pegasus and Galactica were sharing debriefings, and the flight commanders and other senior officers were examining them, hoping to find information another might have missed. With pooled data, they hoped to find something.

So Electra would be studying these reports too.

She has time, even with her brother and her commander sick, for other matters. And she doesn't seem the type to pull a weapon on a man doing his job! Maybe she's got more sense. She's quite a warrior, but she's still a woman. And she can laugh....

And maybe I should stop thinking about her.

He felt strangely vulnerable, and comparing the two women could only add fuel to the fire.

Sighing, he dropped the debriefing data to the desk. He was almost due for patrol. Maybe some time in space would clear his head, help him think.

He left his quarters, striding through the empty corridors on his route to the launch bay.

Halfway there, he felt an eerie shudder run down his spine. Turning quickly, he stared in narrow-eyed astonishment at the blank and silent metal walls. There was nothing there, nobody walking behind him, matching his step. The girders and sheet panels stared back at him expectantly, as though keeping a secret and waiting for him to proceed before whispering their message.

But he could have sworn he heard someone behind him. And the feeling that he was being watched persisted, however he tried to dismiss it. He had to force himself to walk calmly the rest of the way.

* * * * *

As Cain stepped down from his shuttle, the assembled Pegasus warriors broke into spontaneous cheers and applause. He felt pride in that welcome, seeing their honest joy. And sighting Sheba among them, his heart swelled still more. His baby was one of his own again.

He raised his swagger stick to acknowledge their cheers, and they fell silent. "It's good to be back among my warriors, and it's a pleasure to see you all. I hear you've been performing admirably in my absence. I hope you'll keep up the good work now that I've returned!"

The cheers began again, and didn't stop.

The med tech behind him stepped forward, raising her arm to stop the noise as she stood beside him. "Please! Let your Commander go, he needs his rest!"

The high-spirited pilots seemed inclined to ignore Cassiopeia's request, until Cain gestured them all to silence again. "For now, we all have duties to attend to, I'm sure," he ordered. "But as of twenty-one hundred this evening, the first round's on me. See you all in the officers' club."

They cheered again, and it took several centons for the warriors to contain their exuberance and disperse to their assigned duties. In the meantime, Sheba moved to her father's side as Cain led the way to the lift.

"You look a little pale, Cain," Cassie murmured under her breath. "Are you sure you have to inspect the bridge before you go back to your quarters and lie down?" She watched him a little anxiously.

He nodded decisively. "They expect to see me, and I'm not letting them down. You go get things ready in my quarters, Cassie. Things haven't changed much; you know where they are. Sheba will escort me, and I'm sure her hands are as capable of yours where any threat to my health is concerned." He put his arm around his daughter's shoulders.

Cassie exchanged looks with the other woman. She could see Cain would be well watched. She sighed. "All right, but you heard Dr. Salik's orders before you left. I'll check in with Helena first, but if you're not back in your quarters in one centar, we'll report you to security and have you hauled to life center and forcibly restrained."

"Yes, yes, I know," he answered impatiently. Then he smiled. "I feel better just being on the Pegasus. I'll see you in a centar."

Cassie knew it would be not one micron sooner. She shook her head. "Cain...."

"I'll make sure, Cassie," Sheba spoke up.

"I know. That's the only reason I'm letting him get away with this kind of behavior so soon. Take care of him." She took her small bag of gear and made her way down the passage, giving father and daughter a chance to talk.

Cain pulled Sheba closer, hugging her. "It's good to be back with you, baby. But I'm surprised you're here. Weren't you in Blue Squadron?"

"Temporary rotation, like the rest of the squadron. I take my turn the same as they do."

"I'm sure you do. I'm just surprised Apollo let you go."

She smiled proudly at him, her brown eyes glowing. "He understands, Father. And I've come to understand a lot of things, too, this past yahren – about people, and duty, and responsibility. There are so many things I can't wait to share with you."

He smiled back. "I heard about some of those things. I'm proud of you. And I hope you and Apollo will be very happy together. But tell me, baby, what would you think of your old father taking a big step at this time of his life?"

Her eyes widened. "You asked Cassie to seal with you?" she demanded.

"I know you didn't think much of her for a long time, and didn't approve of my seeing her. You seem to get along better now–"

"Oh, Father!" she laughed merrily. "She's my best friend! Nothing could make me happier.... But when did you ask her? How? What did she say?"

"Hold on, hold on. I haven't asked her yet. Not officially. I wanted your good will before I took that step, and I wasn't sure what you two thought of each other. When we left, you'd barely admitted she might be a decent and worthwhile human being–"

"Oh, Father!" She hugged him tighter. Sudden anxiety clouded her ecstacy. "What have you said to her? Have you...?" What about Starbuck? He and Cassie have been involved for some time now, and if Father doesn't know.... She didn't want to see either man hurt.

But Starbuck can be so exasperating. He's had over a yahren to make a commitment to Cassie, if he's ever going to. He likes his relationships with no strings and no questions. Cassie proved her feelings – and she certainly gave him enough time to make a decision. I wouldn't be surprised if she was just another one of his amusements – deeply passionate for a day, then looking around for his next conquest. Look at Athena – look at Aurora – look at all the other women who've flitted in and out of his life – he was ready to make me one of them, when we met, with his "personal" bet! If Cassie's got a chance for happiness with my father....

"Yes, we spoke," he was saying. "There's still something special about us, Sheba, something very precious that I never want to give up. We'll take some time, I think, but I believe she feels something for me that's never died. I think that's why she volunteered to come with me."

Sheba's fear vanished in a rush of joy. "Nothing would make me happier than to have Cassie part of the family! But I don't think I'll ever be able to call her 'Mother'!"

* * * * *

Omega's anxieties wouldn't settle. Besides the external threat, there was now the matter of internal security to consider, and their computer access, and possible danger to personnel. As flight officer, he was in charge of coordinating the information and preparing the data the senior officers needed to make correct decisions. It also meant he was as aware as they were of the situation and the potential for disaster.

He frowned at the endless series of navigational computations flashing across his board, the constant fuel and status reports coming from the other ships in the fleet, the Viper patrol status beacons. Nothing on the aliens. Nothing on the identity of the intruder in the computer room.

"Omega...."

He glanced down at the tentative voice. Athena had shown up for duty looking very chastened, and had been relatively quiet at her terminal, performing her duties as efficiently as always, but in a subdued manner. "What is it, Athena?" he asked.

"A coded signal – from inside the Galactica."

"Route it here."

The series of glyphs was foreign to him, making no sense in any of the numerous codes he was required, as flight officer, to be familiar with. From inside this ship....

"Computer enhancement," he ordered tersely.

"Nothing," Athena reported after a moment. "The code is completely unknown to us. It's not Cylon, seems to have a totally different base than theirs, but that's all the computer can tell us so far."

"Location?"

"Too short a transmission to pinpoint. We can monitor the frequency, should there be another signal, but for now, all we know is that it originated from within this battlestar, and was beamed out, away from the fleet." Athena continued trying to make sense of the strange communication.

From inside the battlestar. Away from the fleet. He put in a call to Cmdr. Adama.

* * * * *

"Welcome back, sir." Col. Kleopatra saluted him formally.

Cain returned the gesture, his eyes already traveling over his bridge, noting with approval how sharp everything looked, how crisp and alert his personnel were as they stood at his entrance. "To your posts," he barked, and they returned to their duties.

He nodded with pleasure as he climbed the steps to his command deck. Tolan was already at the console; Kleopatra joined them a micron later. Sheba remained on the main deck, watching him, like an unofficial honor guard with espionage duties.

"Everything looks good, Colonel," he commented.

"Thank you, sir," she murmured. They hadn't spoken privately since his recovery. "I took such actions as I perceived needful for ship morale and survival."

He understood. "So you brought the Pegasus to the fleet, and the Delphians with her."

"Yes, sir, I did. And I'd do it again."

"I'm not finding fault. I'm surprised you found a way to convince the Delphians to stay with us."

She unwound with a smile. "It wasn't easy. But I convinced the Empress. I'm sure you'll be seeing her shortly."

"Whatever. It was the right thing. Especially with the aliens that have been menacing the fleet." His brow furrowed, and he leaned forward on the railing, ignoring Sheba's look of concern and the colonel's more questioning gaze. "No, I'm fine. But if something out there is hunting humans, other than Cylons, that is, the Delphians are safer with us than alone."

"They might not have encountered the aliens at all if I hadn't brought them here – or the Pegasus." Kleopatra's voice was low.

The commander shook his head. "Sooner or later, Colonel. We've been following similar routes, after all. It was only a matter of time. I wonder, in fact, if there aren't other ships out there that may already have found the aliens, or been found by them, that we'll never know about....

"But speaking of Delphians, where's Kenji? I need to call a general officers' meeting in my quarters as soon as it can be arranged, and I think we'll need his input. Titus can take the watch...."

"Colonel Kenji's due on shift in a few centons, sir. He should be here any micron."

The Delphian officer arrived at that moment. Everyone present stared in disbelief as Kenji and his wife, the scan officer, strode quietly and without fanfare to their posts. The murmur of conversation died, then rose in a buzz of whispers as the two assumed their duties, their tranquil expressions denying that anything was amiss or in any way unusual.

Knowing from his crew's reactions that this had not become the norm while he was ill, Cain studied Kenji for a moment. "What happened to your clothes?" he finally inquired when the colonel made no effort to explain.

The officer raised dark eyebrows marginally. "You refer to the fact that we are attired in Colonial uniforms?" he inquired politely.

"Damn right, that's what I refer to."

Kenji smiled slightly at the commander's language. "We have observed that several of our pilots in the squadrons, particularly the females, have chosen to dress themselves in uniforms of your military. After a discussion, my wife and I have concluded that this is proper. We do, after all, serve on a Colonial vessel, and we are likely to remain here. It is fitting we change ... certain of our customs."

"Such as your uniforms."

"Yes."

"I'll be damned."

"I hope not, Commander. We may all be damned with you." He spoke in a quite serious tone, but Kleopatra and Tolan had to smother explosions of laughter at the crinkle in the corners of his amused eyes.

Cain began to grin. What Kenji and Mriko had just done, the statement they'd made.... He had a feeling the young Empress and her senior advisors might have something to say about this, but just now, he was too pleased to worry about it. He thrust out a hand. "Welcome aboard, Colonel."

* * * * *

Starbuck hadn't been able to get more than two centars' undisturbed sleep since his night with Chameleon. First, Apollo had roused him to fly the shuttle to the Pegasus. He'd been offered a temporary billet there, and since he didn't have anything else planned for the day, and several of his buddies were on rotation, he'd jumped at the chance. With increased alert status, it gave him an excuse to see some of his friends – which meant he'd spent his time on the ship with them, playing cards, catching up, and generally wasting time, hoping to forget Cassie's betrayal in following Cain again.

Then, he'd shuttled back to the Galactica on a regular run, having managed to avoid sleep entirely. A little time with Athena had turned into several centars of interrogation by both commanders and half the security forces in the fleet. If he ever encountered that "Captain Thjis" again....

And then, of course, a patrol this morning, with a curiously quiet and preoccupied Apollo. Returning from the patrol, they'd landed on the other battlestar again, Apollo wishing to confer with Maj. Electra on some business or other – private, of course, between the flight commanders. After Ptah's chance remarks a secton before, Starbuck had become acutely aware of how much time they were spending in each other's company.

But Apollo's too damned straight for me to have to worry about what they're doing. It has to be official business.

At any rate, he'd been shooed away and left to fend for himself. Fortunately, the offer of a spare bunk from the day before was still open, and he'd gratefully decided to catch a nap.

Which had promptly been interrupted by the party welcoming back the three sick pilots from Silver Spar. They'd greeted Cain in the landing bay, but the celebration for the others was in the ready room. He'd pulled a blanket over his head and tried to ignore it for a few centons, but a good party was a lure he couldn't resist for long.

The party was finally beginning to break up. Starbuck could've gone back to his borrowed bed, but his keen ears picked up a voice he recognized, followed by a merry laugh.

He left the now-quiet ready room to trail the two men. Whatever Chameleon was doing on this ship – however he'd managed to get aboard! – the lieutenant was curious. That the elderly man was also with Capt. Orestes, one of the recovering pilots, and a man he'd professed to know, piqued his interest. He was able to stay close enough to overhear a few snatches of conversation, but when they disappeared into the flight commander's quarters, he was stymied.

Standing alone in the passage, chewing on his fumarello, Starbuck was uncertain what to do next. He wasn't sure, but he could have sworn he'd heard Orestes call the older man "father." And from what Chameleon had told him about his life, that didn't seem possible. It suddenly appeared that the old scoundrel had a great many more secrets than he'd so far been willing to share, and the lieutenant wondered whether he ought to forget the incident, ask for an explanation outright, or resort to subterfuge to–

"Looking for somebody?"

He jumped. It was Electra, the beautiful blonde flight commander of the Pegasus, and the rightful occupant of these quarters – and Orestes's sister. Hmm. If Chameleon was the man's father, he was also this woman's....

"Uh...." he stuttered, his mind still trying to pull itself in order and stop making wild leaps. He rolled the still-smoldering fumarello nervously between his fingers.

"Captain Apollo left over a centar ago, if you're looking for him. He didn't say something about disturbing you. Maybe he assumed you were already gone, or that you would return to the Galactica when you were ready."

"No, I.... Thanks, Major, I didn't know he'd gone...." Before he could brush past her and disappear, the door swooshed open. He must have leaned against the chime accidentally, and the mechanism responded to the pressure of his body.

From where they stood, both Electra and Starbuck could see Orestes and Chameleon comfortably settled on the couch in the woman's quarters. The major frowned as she glanced from the other two back to him, an expression that held quick comprehension.

"Have you been following people on this ship?" she demanded sternly.

Frak! Caught out!

Orestes joined them in the doorway. His expression was more uneasy, while the civilian looked like he was trying to melt into the furniture.

With another glance at Chameleon, Electra caught Starbuck's arm, and he felt himself pulled out of the corridor. The door closed on the four of them.

Expecting a reprimand, Starbuck waited with an outward expression of meekness. The other three continued to look at each other, studiously glancing away from him, for several long centons. The awkward silence thickened and became almost unendurable.

"Well?" Electra finally prompted the old man.

"Well, what?" he hedged in agitation, his eyes woefully seeking an escape of some kind. Orestes was silent, but seemed disturbed and a bit puzzled as he watched his sister.

"He followed you here."

Both men studied Starbuck with traces of alarm on their faces.

What in Hades have I stumbled into? Knowing something of Chameleon's less-than-ethical dealings in the past, he wondered if he'd walked in on a scam of some kind – but surely Siress Blassie had kept a close eye–

"May have been listening as well."

The thick uneasiness intensified, with a sudden aura of shame coloring the atmosphere. Electra didn't say anything more, simply settled herself on top of her desk and crossed her shapely legs. Any other time, Starbuck's attention would have been riveted by that simple action.

Orestes sighed, and threw himself back onto the couch. "It's not really up to me to make the decision," he announced with resignation. "Chameleon, the choice is yours, I guess. Uh, Starbuck, what did you hear?"

He watched in bewilderment, then reached a decision. Planting himself firmly, he squared his jaw and took a deep breath. "All I heard were bits and pieces," he stated. "But whatever it is you're talking about, I want to know what it means." And I hope it doesn't get me in hot water! "If you're plotting something, Chameleon...."

"Plotting...?" The stares dissolved into laughter, and the tension was instantly gone. Starbuck was perplexed.

"No, no...." Chameleon rose, the anxiety fading into wrinkles of merriment. "We're not plotting anything, Starbuck. It's just ... there is something I've wanted to tell you for a long time, but the time was never right, or I was never brave enough, but it looks like now is the time, no matter what...."

"Want a drink?" Electra offered.

"What?" He was thoroughly bewildered.

"I think you'd better get it ready, Electra. He'll need it. We might need some, too. Better sit down, little brother, and put out that weed...."

* * * * *

Akimi sat alone in Silver Spar's female pilots' quarters. The party welcoming Orestes, Astarte, and Falstaff back not been to her liking; she couldn't stop brooding.

Only a few days ago, Heimdal and Sif disappeared. I understand we should be happy that the others are back, but it seems a betrayal to forget them so quickly. How would their spirits feel, seeing how we react? We owe them more than a day's sadness.

The fierce devotion of a Delphian warrior to a senior officer couldn't overcome the grief of a woman for a lost friend. Although there had been other losses since her people joined the Colonials and she joined the warriors, this one hurt the most. The Delphians had their own rites of mourning the dead, and she had been part of those often enough. The Colonials had less ceremony, but those who died in battle were avenged in centons, which could heal the heart in its own way.

But for Capt. Heimdal and Lt. Sif, there had as yet been no vengeance taken. They didn't even know who the killers were. Ritual had been less than usual; the fleet must not become alarmed, and the friends and colleagues of the missing couple were more preoccupied, at present, with the affairs of the Colonial fleet.

And yet, this seems to be the way of the warriors. Forget the fears and sorrows and losses of the past as soon as possible. Celebrate the joys of the present. Tomorrow, we may encounter our own final fate. Play lightly even with love, and be wary of too close a friendship. Everything may be lost in a micron. What we have not known, we will never know. What we have experienced in our lives means nothing once we are drawn beyond.

Where is the value in such a life?

She lowered her face to her hands with a whispery sigh. She had no wish to waste her life in a futile search among the stars for the unknown aliens. But there was something else she could do.

From her small locker, she drew out a small, elaborately carved wooden casket set with dark jade and inlaid with a thin veneer of gold. A gift from her husband at their joining, she had kept it after his death as a ritual box. Its contents were things of remembrance and ceremony. She pulled out a long, thin strip of white ribbon; it had been her only mourning garb for her mate, a man she had first worshiped, then come to love. On the Dragonsbreath, fleeing from the Cylons and concerned with survival, there hadn't been resources for the full white robes mourning required.

Standing before a mirror, she tied back her straight black hair, surprised to see how long it had grown in her yahren as a warrior. I shall wear the white for you, she promised. It was a small gesture, but she and her people would understand.

* * * * *

Chameleon was already on his way back to the fleet, stowed carefully on a shuttle flown by a friend who owed him a favor. Lt. Starbuck was still in shock as he and Capt. Orestes – my brother! – saw the old man off.

So now what? It's one thing to call Chameleon "Father." I've known him for a long time, and he's acted like a father to me – with good reason, I see now. But I don't know how to treat Orestes and Electra. What do they expect? It must be a surprise for them, too.... Lords, what a mess. Mother, I just wish....

I don't even know what to wish! I'm not even sure what to think yet! What a way to get a family!

His parents had been married. He was legitimate and had a claim on Chameleon. Starbuck knew his own nature well enough not to be surprised to learn that his father had strayed during the marriage.

So what does that mean? Their mother loved him as much as my mother did, enough to have them, even knowing he was already sealed. She still loved him when she found out about me – that couldn't have been easy. And then the Cylons attacked, and Mother was killed, and Chameleon – Father! – really did have amnesia, and couldn't look for me.... But their mother did, for his sake. I guess I owe her for that, even though she failed, and she's dead now.

My foster parents were good to me; I can't complain about them, or the way I was raised. Yeah, it meant I was an only child, and it wasn't the best part of town, and I know I was a real terror at times – but they did their best, and they loved me....

So now I've got a brother and a sister, and I've found my father.

I wish I remembered my mother.

I've got a family....

Orestes cast a surreptitious glance at the preoccupied lieutenant. Starbuck was his half-brother. He and Electra had known of his existence for yahrens, since the Tauran Academy, when their mother had seen fit to give them the true facts of their birth, not the pretty fable concocted for the public records. Their mother's cubits had smoothed over a great many potential troubles, and her social standing had put her above others.

And the Academy Kommandant was infatuated enough with a wealth society "widow," and vain enough to think she might be enamored of him, to let a few things fall through the cracks, like the medical fact that we don't have any Tauran blood! By the time he learned otherwise, he couldn't do anything without implicating himself in record-fixing.

But we never saw that vicious streak....

It had been that, and her hatred of her rival, that caused her to spirit away a small boy after a Cylon raid. Chameleon couldn't have found Starbuck after that even if he'd tried, if he'd been in his right mind instead of ill for a yahren. The "real" explanation, which the child's foster parents and a certain Caprican Children's Assistance official had accepted and been well paid to keep quiet, was that Starbuck was the son of her husband's lover, specially placed and cared for as a kindness to her dear love's memory, an outward show of charity and selfless love for an innocent orphan.

Mother could be very cruel when she didn't get her way.

And, of course, when Chameleon was well again, and mourning his dead wife and the son he would never find, she had been so consoling, always making him welcome in her home, pointing out that he still had two lovely children, and her extensive resources were available to him. But he never married her, never went into her debt, and after a time stopped seeing her completely, although he would occasionally sneak around to visit them.

Maybe he never believed everything she said. Maybe he was just wary of owing her too much. He didn't feel anything for her any more, he just came around for us.

I think, at the end, she would even have brought back Starbuck, if it would've held him, maybe announcing graciously how she'd never given up on finding his son, and here he was, and now we could all be one happy family. Starbuck's life, and ours, would have been very different then.

Actually, considering our mother's temper, he was probably safer where he was!

I think Chameleon's the only man who ever really thwarted Mother. And she could never stand not getting her way....

They hadn't known all that when they were children. They kept their father's visits secret, because he asked them to. They'd only learned about Starbuck and his whereabouts in their third yahren at the Tauran Academy. At home on leave, their mother had announced that their brother was starting at the Caprican Academy. She'd followed that with sarcastic remarks about the son of a wagerer aspiring to be a warrior, then a bitter diatribe against Chameleon and the yahrens she'd wasted waiting for him. A spoiled, willful girl from an aristocratic family had finally found something she couldn't have, and had thrown the only screaming, foot-stamping, door-slamming tantrum either of her children ever remembered.

After that, she'd never said another word about either man. They had known better than to ask, but, ever-curious, they found ways to tap their mother's correspondence, and discovered who and where Starbuck was.

She must still have intended to use him somehow, since she kept up those payments.

But there really wasn't anything we could do about the past, even when we found out. Mother's vindictiveness wasn't our fault, and we shouldn't have to answer for it. Father and Starbuck found each other on their own. It's better that way.

Just so Starbuck never asks the wrong questions. He wondered if there was anything he could say or do if the other man found out the whole truth. He might never forgive us.

* * * * *

"Any change, Ensign?" Adama asked the woman at the computer terminal. His daughter's frown and hunched shoulders told of her concentration.

"Negative, sir," she reported. "Still nothing on breaking the code, and no further transmissions. No known Colonial or Cylon code. We've even tried civilian merchant signals, but can't begin to make a guess about the meaning." She sounded unhappy.

Tigh had keyed his own head-set during her report, as other information was relayed to the command deck. He stepped closer. "Nothing on our Captain Thjis either, Commander. Security has no idea who the man might be, or his location. They're still searching." His somewhat disgusted air suggested he had his doubts that security would ever find him. "It has, however, occurred to the officer in charge, since we reported the unusual internal signals, that the incidents of computer tampering and unauthorized communications may be related. Security is proceeding on that assumption, and will keep us informed."

Adama wearily agreed with Tigh's assessment of the abilities of that particular officer; however, he couldn't let his doubts show. This was too grave a situation for back-biting between military and security – both were likely to suffer if there was sabotage or espionage in the works, as would everyone else in the fleet.

And we can't deduce the first thing about the situation, not even with the computers and personnel from the Pegasus. At least we seem to be free of the aliens' surveillance, for the time being....

"Sir," Omega interrupted his thoughts. "Recon Patrol Three reports they have spotted something. It appears to be the aliens again."

Of course. Why not? Throw everything at us at once. "Are the aliens taking any potentially hostile actions against them?"

"Negative," the flight officer replied, shaking his head. "But there seems to be a number of them, more than we've encountered before, perhaps a dozen, sir. Jolly is requesting orders."

"Tell them to fall back. Alert all patrols to close in." He peered tensely over the young officer's shoulder at the small screen, its small blips telling him every action taken by his ships, yet showing nothing of the unknown craft.

"The aliens are closing on our patrol, sir."

"Sound general alert. Inform the Pegasus. Get a fighting force out there. They may not be intimidated by our fighters, but in sufficient numbers, they'll have to pay attention to us." And if it comes to a fight, we may have a chance....

* * * * *

"Don't you trust Noday to take care of your ship?" the small boy asked wistfully. He and his mechanical daggit had quietly watched Apollo fuss over the Viper for several centons.

"Of course I trust Noday. But a warrior should know his ship, Boxey, you know that. Some day, I might be stuck somewhere and have to fix her myself. But shouldn't you be on sleep period?" he demanded. "A warrior needs his rest!"

"You promised to tuck me in when you got back."

Apollo looked chagrined at his son's woeful expression and sad eyes. "I guess I did. Maybe I'll have to let Noday finish the job, after all."

He stepped down from the Viper launch steps and scooped up the small boy, who already looked more cheerful. The dark-haired young woman who normally handled Viper maintenance for him smiled as she finished refueling the shiny craft and took over the systems check.

Then alarm klaxons rang, and the lights reddened in their mechanical demand for attention. The small boy's arms tightened automatically around his neck, and the metal-and-fur daggit at his feet yipped a furious noise at the disturbance.

Red alert. Something's out there....

Boxey's eyes were fixed anxiously on his face, but there wasn't time for more than an encouraging hug before pilots began appearing in the turbolifts and racing for their ships. He had to do the same.

Noday slammed a panel shut, sealing it with a touch of a spanner. "Ship's ready, Captain!"

He put the boy down, and looked at his gathering squadron. "Where's Starbuck?" His son clung to his hand, unwilling to let go. He had to pull his fingers free of the child's grip.

"Still on the Pegasus!" somebody yelled back. "Probably beat us out there if we don't hurry!"

"Right." As he clambered lithely up the side of his ship and dropped into the seat, he felt a chill run up his spine, settling in the base of his skull like an electrical charge, scattering his thoughts. It was the same feeling he'd had earlier, that someone was watching him closely, with unknown intent.

Apollo stared around the turbulent launch bay – but with all the hurrying pilots and techs, the odd light and wailing sirens, how could he know if anyone was there? Just because he couldn't pick anybody out of the crowd....

But there was Boxey, still watching him. His son, to be left alone again.

No! There's danger!

"Noday!" he called urgently.

"Here, Captain, what is it?"

"Take Boxey back to my quarters, will you? See that he gets safely tucked in?"

The woman nodded and waved, lifting the boy and managing to pat the ship for luck in the same motion. The mechanical pet followed as she backed away.

At least Boxey's safe, for the time being ... but from what?

* * * * *

A Hades of a time for a red alert! Starbuck felt the tension in his body that was usual in combat, that told him he was keyed to his limit of ability and reaction speed. But that instinctive adrenalin rush wouldn't be enough if his mind was elsewhere – and just now, he had a lot of "elsewhere" on his mind.

The Pegasus maintenance technicians had prepared his ship for any emergency, so the Viper was ready. He launched with the rest of Silver Spar Squadron, seeing Boomer and Bojay almost alongside him. Somewhere down the line, he know his brother launched, too.

His brother.

Orestes had been released from life center, and insisted he was fit for combat. Starbuck hoped he was right. It somehow wouldn't be fair if he'd recovered from his illness just to die before there was time for anything else.

Electra was out there too, giving orders to her squadrons in a firm, untroubled voice, as if nothing mattered at the moment but the right formation. Her Delphian wingmate didn't seem to have much of anything to say.

They looped around the fleet to join the Galactica squadrons, forming a series of protective wedges between the civilian fleet and the mysterious alien craft. Apollo was easy to locate in the forefront of one of those wedges.

"About time you got here," he heard Apollo say. There was a hard, uncertain edge to his voice that bothered Starbuck, after the uneasy patrol a few centars earlier.

"Sorry," he muttered, thinking Apollo was annoyed he hadn't flown back with him. He'd explain later – maybe, if he could find the words. "A little party – didn't mean to get hung up so long–"

"All right, Blue Squadron," Apollo cut across his attempt at apology. "Let's find out what's going on out here. Patrol Three, Jolly, Greenbean, you saw them, give me directions...."

The spearheads of ships that were Blue Squadron moved into formation. Starbuck found his second-ship position next to Apollo; Jolly and Greenbean were on the other side. Two more ships moved up on his right, probably Giles and Cree. Behind their wing was a second party of ships.

Whatever's out there, we're meeting it in force! It looked like both battlestars had launched nearly their full contingents of Vipers – and those ships, odd-looking only to Colonial eyes, were Delphian Sunriders, staying closer to the fleet, protecting their Empress's ships first and foremost.

"We should be encountering the aliens at any time, Skipper," he heard Jolly report. "There must've been a dozen of 'em, circling 'round us faster than we can fly straight, and still managing to look lazy!"

Apollo took a deep breath. "Get ready, Blue Squadron, I think I see something...."

He saw them, too. Starlight flashed off something moving incredibly fast, something that still didn't show on his scanners, as unbelievable as that seemed. He tried to count the aliens, but they moved too rapidly, darting away so swiftly that his eyes hurt and his head swam.

"Lords, we can't match that–"

"What were they–"

"Where'd they go–"

Then his ship rocked as a strobe of brilliant light flashed before him from one of the alien vessels. Firebursts exploded in his head, and he thought he'd gone blind as the fire threatened to consume his mind. He gritted his teeth, forcing his attention away from the still-intense glare.

"Starbuck!" he heard someone yell. The call thudded mercilessly into his brain. He couldn't answer.

Then the lights were gone, and he could see again, blinking a little against the sudden darkness. His hand was clenched too tightly on the joystick, and it looked like one of his circuit panels was fritzing out on him. H reached for it, then yelped in pain as sparks ran across his fingers and up his hand. For a micron, he smelled burnt fabric as his sleeve smoldered.

"I ... think I'm hit...."

"Can you maneuver?" a distant voice demanded urgently.

He moved the control stick; it obeyed him, but would his ship obey it?

The Viper's response was sluggish at first, and his brain was equally sluggish at interpreting the signals flying between his teammates and their base ships.

"Ships disappeared...."

"We're alone again...."

"Only Starbuck...."

"Stay with me, Lieutenant, I'll guide you in...."

He blinked as he realized his fighter was dropping rapidly to some wide expanse of metal studded with landing lights. The Galactica? It must be. The voices....

His ship set down safely, as if of its own volition. He stared stupidly and fixedly at a distant girder, not even unlatching his cockpit canopy. The sounds and scurrying of rescue teams and technicians made no conscious impact on him. Gradually, his attention wavered to his burnt hand and singed uniform.

The canopy opened, and an anxious face peered at him. He knew that face....

"Are you all right? Can you get out of your ship?" Apollo demanded. "The techs want to examine your Viper. We have to know what's wrong, what the enemy may have done to it. Starbuck?"

With the other man's help, he half-clambered, was half-pulled free of his Viper, and stumbled off to one side, swaying, as protectively garbed men and women hurried away with his ship. Apollo still held him, and the worried faces of some of his squadronmates gathered around.

"Starbuck?"

"I think I'm hit...." He took a deep breath, and blacked out.


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