Chapter IX


"They're not engaging?" Cain demanded incredulously, narrowly eyeing the empty screen.

"No, sir," Tolan reported, equally bewildered. "Just like the reports of the other times – barely making contact, then fleeing before we can establish communications or engage in combat. As if they were testing us." He kept his relief about that to himself.

"Anything from our flight commander?"

"Negative.... Wait! The enemy did engage – briefly. Captain Apollo is leading Lieutenant Starbuck in to the Galactica. His ship took a hit. No other information yet."

"Let me know at once when we have anything. And I want to see Electra as soon as she comes aboard." He strode down the command deck stairs, trying to conceal the sudden deep fatigue that struck now that the emergency was past.

I need some rest, some time to think about this, to plan. Now is no time to show weakness. My people look to me for strength; I can't let them down. I'll have to talk to Adama, too.

But why didn't they engage us? Why fire one shot, then retreat? It doesn't make any sense. We had them outnumbered, but it looks like they've got us on speed and maneuverability. And we have no way to track them. What do they want?

And how do I fight them?

* * * * *

Adama could almost feel his knees weaken with the relief he couldn't show his people. Conflict had been avoided one more time – if the aliens' intentions were hostile. And how can they be otherwise, when they fired on one of our fighters? Starbuck, I pray you're all right.

"Landing bay reports squadrons returning safely," Omega informed him briefly. "Starbuck has landed; an emergency medical team is taking him to life center. His ship is being handled per regulations, with all precautions. Technicians have isolated it, and security and engineering are preparing to examine and analyze the craft."

Good. Whatever that beam did to the Viper – and the man – we'll know shortly. Lords grant the information is useful.

These aliens were responsible for the disappearance of two pilots and had fired on another, besides causing a great deal of frustration and anxiety. And he still had very little idea how to handle the situation. That was what bothered him the most.

How do we deal with them?

* * * * *

The man known as Captain Thjis watched dispassionately as medics carried off the unconscious Lt. Starbuck. Then he continued to study Capt. Apollo as he gave final orders to his squadron and strode out of the landing bay, worry written on his face.

More casually, Thjis followed, thoughtfully considering his next course of action.

* * * * *

Sumiko sat rigidly upright on the elaborately carved and upholstered throne. Her face was coldly formal, but one delicately manicured finger tapped with agitation upon a dragon's leathery wing, carved in the fine wood of her seat. Her attendants, a number of women of varying ages from several collateral noble families, chattered nervously among themselves, keeping their voices low so their words wouldn't draw the girl's attention and possibly her wrath.

A warrior from her honor guard, tall for her people, strode into the Imperial presence. He bowed low before his young Empress, then remained on one knee before the dais.

"Ah, Colonel Sheng," she greeted him. "We have waited for your report. Speak, quickly. What is happening with these aliens? What military word from Cain?"

His disapproval was obvious from his stiff posture. There was no obsequiousness or false flattery in the veteran guardsman. "The aliens have disengaged and withdrawn, as before. The Pegasus sends no word, only a warning to continue to be alert and prepared to send out Sunriders to defend ourselves and the Colonial fleet." His mouth snapped shut. Col. Sheng had no love for the Colonials, but he lived to serve the Royal Kindred, even though that family was reduced to one last girl-child. Although he might disapprove of Sumiko's decisions, he would die to obey her and carry them out.

Her smooth young features puckered slightly. "So we continue as we are?"

"So it seems, Majesty." He remained in his position, adopting a slight change in stance that told her he had more to say.

"What else, Colonel?" she asked.

"Several of our warriors aboard that battlestar have adopted Colonial uniforms, Majesty."

"We are aware of that. The females who have chosen to fight in their squadrons are welcome to dress as the Colonials do. It is more convenient for them, and they have our permission."

"It is more than just a few females. Some among our own officers have changed garments – including Colonel Kenji and his wife. I fear it may be a statement of shifting allegiance, Majesty."

She blinked at that, dark almond-turned eyes puzzled.

"Cain is pleased at this, our warriors say."

The Empress frowned. "There is no crime in pleasing Cain. He leads our fleet."

"But now, Adama leads him, and we live in a Colonial fleet. I merely wish to inform you of what transpires when our people remain too long–"

"We are informed," she interrupted. "Thank you, Colonel."

The interview was over. The warrior rose, one hand on the blade at his belt, the other moving across his crimson tunic in salute. He stalked out as rapidly as he'd entered.

One of the more elderly of the women rose creakily from her cushion among the noble ladies to stand behind Sumiko's throne. The girl purposely ignored her. "The gossip is," she breathed into the young ruler's ear, "that Cain did not come back to his ship alone."

The Empress dismissed the spiteful words with an impatient gesture. "We know that; Dr. Helena brought a med tech to guard his health. We were there; we saw her."

"They say she is a woman Cain knows well."

"So we have heard. Is there a point to your tale?"

The gray-haired woman's eyes danced with malicious glee as she watched the Empress closely. "It is also told, among the pilots, that this woman is the sweetest blooming flower from his past. They say she billets in Cain's very quarters. Some even suggest the Commander's woman may soon become his wife–"

A nail broke as the girl's hand closed about the dragon-wing, and there was rage in her expression. "Return to your place. We have no time for tales."

The old woman bowed and moved shakily away, emphasizing her age to hide her smile.

Sumiko smoldered in silence.

* * * * *

"Dr. Helena!"

The woman turned from her viewscreen. "What is it, Cassie?"

"Is it true? Starbuck was hurt? One of the aliens shot at him?" The med tech looked wretched, twisting her fingers in concern.

Helena nodded briefly, her expression unchanged. "He took a shot of something, and has a few burns from Viper damage. Salik assures me it's all minor; he appears to be fine, although he won't be flying for a few days."

Cassiopeia drew a deep sigh of relief. "I was so worried when I heard. Maybe I should go back to the Galactica. Lords know I'm doing a lousy job of making Cain get his rest...."

With a shake of her head, the doctor brushed off the self-deprecating statement. "I know better than anybody how hard it is to get Cain to stay away from work. You're doing better than I've ever been able to do. At least he hasn't hopped back into a Viper yet. And I'd really appreciate it if you'd stay a few more days. Medical transfers will be complete then, but in the meantime, we can use the help here – and a little continuity of care."

Cassiopeia was still disturbed – as if she were personally responsible for Starbuck's injuries because she was no longer on the Galactica. Helena's impersonal, near-complacent refusal to display her emotions in charged situations was something she wasn't used to, after working closely with the more volatile Salik and the occasionally amorous Paye. But if she was needed here....

Others can take care of Starbuck, I know. But I suspect it's not Cain's physical health that's really keeping me here. I feel it's my duty to stay – though I do want to stay with Cain, and talk things through with him. I think I want to be with Starbuck more. I wonder if he's missing me like I'm missing him?

* * * * *

"How do you feel?" a sweet voice asked anxiously.

Starbuck opened his eyes, puzzled, and stared up to see Athena standing beside the life pod. Her blue-green eyes held worry. He took a deep breath. "I feel fine. What happened?"

She laughed, the corners of her full mouth turning up in relief.

"Do you know where you are?" another voice demanded. It was one of the medics, Dr. Paye.

"Life center, right? I thought you were supposed to be on duty, Athena."

"The Commander let me off early. I wanted to be here when you woke up."

"Why? There something I'm not getting?" he asked, perplexed, as the woman's bright eyes raised delightedly to meet Paye's. Adama cared for his people, yes, but there'd have to be a special reason to justify her getting off to come here....

"When you were brought here a centar ago, you didn't even know who you were, or what had happened to you," the doctor told him.

Starbuck turned his attention back to the man, considering for a centon. "The aliens. Some kinda light beam hit my ship.... But what happened then?"

Tension seemed to ease all around him. "You landed safely, and were brought here. But we've got a few questions for you now, Lieutenant, if you feel up to it...."

* * * * *

Apollo's head hurt. With a tired groan, he lifted his hands to rub his palms over his forehead. It didn't do any good. Of course, if he'd turn on some decent lighting, his eyes wouldn't be so tired. But Boxey was sleeping at last, and he didn't want to disturb the child's slumber any more than he already had.

He stared back at the print-out on his desk, leaning on his elbows to support himself. All the data acquired from the surprise ... attack? The aliens had certainly fired on Starbuck's ship. It was definitely a hostile action. But then they'd retreated again, disappearing as fast as they'd originally shown up. What little any of the pilots had observed had been carefully noted in debriefings, and now lay before him.

As if he could somehow make some sense out of it.

Weariness was compounded by frustration and concern for Starbuck, still in life center. But at least his friend was all right – physically unharmed, except for the small burns on his hand and wrist. Mentally, the verdict was still out, although Starbuck was insisting he was quite all right, and would be ready for duty after a few centars' rest. Dr. Salik, ever cautious, wanted to do a thorough examination before making a final pronouncement. His sister was remaining in life center with Starbuck, having run to his side as soon as she could wangle her way off the bridge. There had been no word from Cassiopeia on the Pegasus.

The page chimed gently; he'd set its volume level as low as possible, to avoid waking the sleeping boy in the next chamber. "Come in."

"You look tired, and as frustrated as I am."

"Hello, Electra." The woman held a sheaf of papers in her hand, obviously the same data he was studying. "Nothing?"

She grimaced, and settled on the edge of his desk, dropping the data sheets into the small dim circle of light emitted by his desk lamp. "Fast metallic objects, one of which appeared to project a bright steam of light or energy that struck one of our Vipers. The objects, perhaps a dozen in number, then sped away again. No scans. Nothing from the computers. Nothing from analysis of Starbuck's ship. Nothing but puzzlement and speculation from our warriors. Not much more information than you've had for sectars – which is to say, more of nothing. They can blind our scans, they're faster than we are, and they know what they're doing out there, while we ... don't."

The throbbing in his temples increased. "So we're still in the dark."

"Almost literally," she confirmed. "And you look like you're in pain as well."

"Headache. I'll take something for it later. Maybe I'll get lucky and there won't be any emergencies while I try to get some sleep." And maybe my feeling that something's wrong will go away. Or maybe the feeling is the result of too much anxiety and not enough sleep recently.

"Too much tension. I can do something about that."

"Huh?" For a moment, he misunderstood her frank gaze and almost blushed; then he realized she couldn't possibly be suggesting what first occurred to him – especially with his son asleep not fifteen feet away. "Like what?"

"A little massage technique I picked up." His eyebrows lifted. She laughed. "From a woman my brother used to know. She may have been a socialator; I never asked."

She must have assumed his consent – Who'd tell her no? – for she slid off the edge of the desk and went to stand behind him. In a moment, her fingertips were sliding expertly across his temples, down the sides of his face, and working deeply into taut neck and shoulder muscles.

It feels good, he noted in surprise. His body was responding already; the tension was unknotting with every skilled movement of her fingers. He closed his eyes and enjoyed it, relaxing enough to lean back against her.

"Apollo?"

"Hmm?"

"Do you suppose the aliens were just testing their light-beam or weapon or whatever, or did they choose a deliberate target?"

The moment of distraction was over.

* * * * *

The Empress had regally withdrawn from her audience chamber, but once in her own hall, alone except for Yakami, her expression broke, and she stamped her foot in rage.

"Your Majesty, remember–" the old woman began soothingly.

"Oh, be still!" the girl interrupted petulantly. "Did you call Colonel Sheng?"

The dowager nodded affirmatively.

"And he comes?"

"When you call, Precious, you know he obeys."

"Yes, of course," she answered impatiently.

"If you wish," the other woman observed calmly, "something can be done about this socialator who pretends to be a med tech."

Sumiko considered for a moment. True, the Royal Kindred had a history of punishing individuals who dared interfere with Imperial wishes. "What do you suggest?"

"She can be ... removed from that ship."

The girl had to smile, tempting though the idea was. "On our world, or only on our ships, I would consider that. But the Colonials think differently. I doubt Cain would appreciate it if this Cassiopeia disappeared or met with some sudden accident."

Yakami frowned. "She tasks you–"

"I do not with to discuss her any further," the girl interrupted. "My present concern is what is best for our people, not the actions of one foreign officer. Where is Sheng?"

Yakami smiled, and bowed more deeply. "I will admit him as soon as he arrives," she said simply, and moved away.

Sumiko flounced to a chair with a thick mat for a seat, and dropped herself onto it, ignoring the wrinkles it would make in her fragile gown. I am strong enough and old enough to take responsibility for my own actions!

Her pique with Cain would pass, she told her wounded pride. Let him have his socialator! Duty commands me – it obviously does not command him in the same way! She brooded. Our people are changing under him. I did not see how much. To preserve my people's ways, perhaps Sheng is correct, and we must separate from these Colonials and their foreign culture. It may be my obligation. I must put my obligation first. I owe that to my people, my heritage. She refused to consider it an act of spite. The Delphians needed to regain their independent.

Cain will see what kind of woman he's rejected!

* * * * *

I can't believe I did that! Electra hurried through the gray corridors, glad not to meet anybody at that late centar. I was flirting with him. Sheba's fiancé – and I was flirting. How could I do that to a friend? Thank the Lords I realized what I was doing before really making a fool of myself. If Apollo'd caught on and had to say something....

She hadn't intended to come on to the captain. But he's attractive, Electra, you have to admit it. And he finds you attractive, too. But he's not the type to "indulge." If he were free.... But Sheba's waiting for him. Pull yourself together, woman!

She shook herself mentally, promising to be more circumspect in the future.

* * * * *

Kleopatra was absorbed in thought when the door chime sounded. She looked up in surprise, considering the centar. "Come in!"

A female warrior, one of the Galactica contingent, entered. "Colonel, do you have a centon?"

She smiled. "Certainly, Sheba. It's been a long time since we've had you aboard. Sit down; you're still welcome here, you always are."

"And I'd like to stay welcome here. In fact, Colonel, I'd like to make my temporary transfer a permanent one. I'd like to be back in my father's command."

Kleopatra rocked back in her chair, staring at the determined features of the young pilot seated before her. "I ... see. Have you ... discussed this with Commander Cain?"

Sheba's mouth curved into a smile. "I can't see my father complaining about me being aboard. I'm a good pilot."

"Nobody'd deny that. I was thinking more of what he might say where Captain Apollo's concerned. Have you mentioned this to him?"

The younger woman shook her head. "Not yet. But I think he'll understand my reasoning; it's important that I do this." She continued before her worried superior could interrupt. "I have a right to be on the Pegasus – and an obligation, really. Technically, I was never officially transferred to the Galactica, though I've served there, and I could come right back to my old position – and I want to come back. When my ship landed here, when I was rotated over, it felt like I was coming home again.

"And I know my father, Colonel. If he leaves again, I'm going with him. But I think my being here might prevent that."

Kleopatra's puzzled skepticism showed.

"Married to Apollo, I tie my father to the fleet, to Apollo's family, to Commander Adama," Sheba continued. "He'd find that difficult to abandon, as he left me last time. I'm not injured; there are no Cylon basestars or planets to take. I won't let him leave me. And he won't take me away from them all."

"You want to tie your father here?"

Sheba looked abashed. "The fleet needs him! And I need him.... He's not planning on leaving again, is he?" she demanded in sudden panic.

"No, not that I'm aware of," the colonel replied seriously. "I can see you've thought this through, with respect to Commander Cain. But there could be consequences where Apollo is concerned. Separate assignments can be devastating to a marriage, Sheba. Are you sure you've considered the ramifications of that?"

"Are you saying I should base my actions on what my husband would like or dislike me doing?" she demanded rebelliously. "I have a right to make my own decisions and make my own career choices!"

Kleopatra nodded slowly. "Absolutely. And there's no reason I shouldn't give you that transfer – if that's what you want. I only want to say, speaking from my own experience, that this will be tough on your joint future with Apollo." It cost Tigh and me our marriage, and maybe a family. It won't be easy. But I certainly can't deny her the right to make her own career, as I did. Her own choice, and maybe her own mistakes....

"Thank you, Colonel. I knew you'd understand."

Only too well, Sheba.

* * * * *

So it has come.

Kenji stared past the captain of Golden Sun squadron to the row of slim Sunriders stretching across the launch bay to meet the line of Colonial Vipers. It had taken some time to modify the launch tubes and tracks for the Delphian ships.

When he spoke again, it was in the Imperial dialect favored by the military. The tongue, alien to any Colonials who might overhear them, gave the two officers a measure of privacy in the massive, echoing metal cavern. "The Empress wishes us aboard the Soul within a day. So she has decided to leave the Colonial fleet and Commander Cain."

Tokyo nodded his head with an efficient minimum of motion. "Colonel Sheng passed along the order."

And did not pass it through me. Did he think I would countermand it to my people here? My loyalty is much questioned. Perhaps with reason. The timing of my own decision.... He found himself staring at the Colonial braid on the sleeve of the blue uniform he wore, the official garb of a Pegasus officer. "And you saw fit to inform me."

"Yes, Colonel. I thought you already knew, but if you didn't, it was my duty."

"Well done. Have you spoken to the other pilots yet?"

He shook his head. "No. But the Colonel may have passed the word through others as well."

"True. Inform our warriors of the Empress's command."

Tokyo's normally passive face actually cracked into mild surprise. "Since you have taken a Colonial uniform, Colonel, I did not expect that from you."

Kenji was unconcerned about the disrespectful beach of hierarchy implied in the captain's rush of words. "My command, to add to Sheng's, is this. Let each warrior decided for himself or herself whether to transfer to the Soul. Some may choose to remain here. I am sure Cain will make them welcome. Those who choose to go are given a free conscience."

Tokyo was shocked speechless.

"We have been with Cain for a long time, Captain, and have served well on this ship. Certainly, we have been in closer contact with these Colonials than with the rest of our people. For some, it may no longer be possible to return to our old ways. This decision is for our lives. The Empress will not remain with the fleet for long."

"What of you, Colonel. Will you go?"

"I think, Tokyo," he said thoughtfully, "that this is a decision I cannot make alone." Mriko, it is for you and the children as well.... "What about you?" he returned. "And Golden Sun?"

The captain averted his dark eyes briefly. "Like you, I must consider many things."

"Do so. I will confer with our officers in other departments on this ship. Dismissed." It would not be an easy day.

* * * * *

"Here are the transfer rosters," Kleopatra said as she dropped a computer sheet on Tigh's desk.

"Delivering them yourself? I'm surprised, Colonel," he replied somewhat formally, reaching for the print-out.

She discreetly crossed her fingers as he began scanning the list. Normally, he would inspect and okay all transfers without much comment. This time, however.... "I thought I'd save your aide the trip," she told him. "Besides, Cain's back on duty; he insists he's ready for action. I haven't had any time off since he fell ill, and now seemed a good time to get away, maybe talk to a few old friends–"

Tigh's face froze in a mask of shock, and he jumped to his feet. "What?" he demanded. "What in Kobol's name is Sheba doing on this list?"

"Also," Kleopatra continued deliberately, "I thought it would save Athena the difficulty of enduring your outrage when you saw whose name was included. I know how angry you can get."

"Sheba's transferring to the Pegasus? Permanently?"

"It was her request."

"And you okayed it?" he barked even louder.

"I saw no reason not to." She continued to face him, although she wanted to flinch from his angry glare.

"No reason...? Does Apollo know?"

"I don't believe so, yet."

He dropped back into his chair. "I can't believe this. Do you know how he'll react when he finds out? Kleopatra, I can't believe you didn't consider–"

"I did consider! Tigh, I watched the boy grow up too, remember? I know it'll hurt him, but if he loves her, they'll try to work it out. Even if we finally couldn't."

"You had to bring that up!" he snapped bitterly.

"Yes! How could I tell her to be someone's wife instead of her own woman, when I made the choice to be true to myself yahrens ago? She has a right to her own choices...." Her voice rose; somehow, she felt she had to justify herself as well as Sheba.

Tigh stared at her. When he finally spoke, his voice was softer. "So you'll let them go through the Hades we did?"

"Better now than after they're married."

The man sighed, leaning on his desk as if very tired. "I guess that's what makes it so hard to take. Sorry I lost my temper, Colonel. This is a personal matter; you know how I feel."

"Don't be so formal, Tigh. I'm not calling you Colonel when it's just us two," she told him deliberately. "Let the past go, and be reasonable. Consider this. If Apollo and Sheba are doomed to go their separate ways, is this the example you want to set? To both of them? I remember how much he always looked up to you, almost as much as to his father. I know Sheba; I know how she'll react. Do you want them at each other's throats, cold and bitter, when a few words, a little advice, a conciliatory example, can at least salvage their friendship, even if their love suffers from this?" I'm defending Sheba, but I hope this helps us, too.

Tigh shrank away from her harsh words at first, then slumped as if in defeat. He looked up at her. "Battle-ready for somebody else, as always, Klea? And you spoke for yourself and us, too." He sighed. "At least our ships are one fleet, now, not scattered across the Colonies. Maybe they can work it out." He sighed again. "Maybe I have been a little stiff-necked...."

She drew a deep, quiet breath, relaxing slowly. "That's one reason I fell in love with you, so long ago. Even our arguments were interesting – and I think we both enjoyed the fire."

He smiled in spite of himself. "And we always enjoyed making up. Well, I guess I can set a good example. Perhaps you'd care to sample our hospitality? Would you join me in a drink in the officers' club? We may find our young counterparts there as well."

Unexpectedly, she felt a lump in her throat. Time had mellowed the man she'd loved, but she discovered he could still evoke the same emotions in her as before. "I thought you'd never ask."

"I'll bet you did," he responded wryly. "But an old daggit can occasionally learn new tricks!"

* * * * *

The only sign of Akimi's preoccupation was in her darkly mysterious eyes, fixed on her superior officer as Electra checked out her ship before going off duty. "Major, if I may ask," she began abruptly, "what is your opinion of the people of the fleet?"

Electra paused, nonplused. "Uh...." She glanced at her Delphian wingmate. "Well, to be honest, I've never encountered a more mixed bag of humanity anywhere. An odd collection, the luck of the lottery as to who made it to the ships and got aboard. Some of the dregs of society, in some ways, I guess, whatever was mean enough or lucky enough to survive the Cylons. Not to be repeated to the Council, of course. Why do you ask?"

Akimi contemplated the metal track of the launch tubes. "Our people acted differently. We saved families, people with skills useful for rebuilding a new society, people worth salvaging. Some of what lives in your fleet, we would never have allowed aboard. Why do you warriors risk your lives to save that lot when they criticize you for the way they must live as refugees, knowing they are, as you say, some of the lowest of your society?"

"They're all we've got," the tall blonde replied firmly. "It's our duty as warriors to defend them."

"They are not worth your blood."

"Irrelevant," Electra snapped. "When we were with the fleet before, Commander Cain refused a mutiny in his support; he wasn't running out even on this bunch of civilians, wretched as some of them may be. I, at least, find his example sufficient.

"We're survivors, too, Akimi, the survivors of Molecay and Gamoray, and a hundred other actions. We've had lots of practice at staying alive. We exist to safeguard our people – all of them, not just our own families or the upper class or the 'worthy' ones."

"But why stay if there is nothing worth defending?" the other woman asked, a pucker lining her forehead.

"Duty! Our oaths and honor! I'm sure a Delphian understands that."

Akimi nodded as Electra made an uncomfortably hasty retreat from the area. It all came back to duty – but to whom? To the present commander, Cain, who guarded ungrateful peasants, and the fellow crewmen and warriors on the two battlestars? Or to the Empress who beckoned imperiously from past glory, with uncertain promises of a hard future? Tokyo had made it clear that the choice lay with each individual pilot. Akimi's personal loyalty was to Electra – but could she abandon what her husband and so many of her people had died to preserve? Yet, aboard the Soul, would she again be thrust into an empty life to spend her life in mourning, with no purpose?

Did it matter, if that was her Empress's command?

Either way, she failed someone, lost some bit of honor, and there would be no second chance.

* * * * *

It was almost time for night simulation aboard the Galactica. There was very little activity in the nearly deserted launch bay.

Thjis eased the female mechanic to the floor in a niche where she wouldn't be noticed. When Noday awoke, she would remember finishing her work on Captain Apollo's ship, then going about her business. She wouldn't recall having encountered anyone else.

Now in a technician's coveralls, his hair colored brown, the tall man strode over to the captain's ship, humming an odd snatch of song he'd heard the woman singing earlier.

In a few centons, his work was done. Still unobserved by anyone, he made his way out of the wide-open launch bay, to a more secluded spot. He slipped a small device out of his clothes, and pushed one of its many small, concave buttons. The static dissolved in a micron as he fine-tuned the signal and began to transmit.

* * * * *

"Commander!"

"What is it, Omega?"

"The alien signals again, from within our ship!"

"Locate its source and dispatch security at once to investigate," Adama replied.

"Being done, sir."

Once again, however, the signal was too brief; before security or communications could get a fix on it, the transmission was cut off. The stars around them accepted the communique, but there was no response for the Galactica's worried personnel to trace.

* * * * *

Electra sat with a small and somber group in the Pegasus officers' club. Several of her squadron leaders were present, as were Bojay and Boomer from their sister battlestar, and Sheba. They drank quietly, with little conversation; only Tokyo, usually taciturn to the point of rudeness when he bothered to join the other flight leaders at all, seemed nervously inclined to talk.

That encounter with the aliens really shook us, Electra thought. We're all acting funny. The talkative ones won't talk, and the quiet ones are anxious to be friendly. I wonder if it's the same thing that was disturbing Akimi?

When Apollo entered the quiet lounge, he had no difficulty spotting his quarry. "Lieutenant Sheba, do you have a few centons?" he demanded without preamble.

She met his eyes challengingly. "Of course, Captain. If you'll excuse me...." She nodded toward her flight commander and rose to leave with the obviously furious Galactica officer.

The others looked variously uncomfortable and curious as the two left. Only Electra knew what was going on. So Apollo found out about her transfer. I expected sparks. Good luck to both of you. She picked up her mug to finish her drink. "Oh, Boomer?"

"Yes, Major?"

"Since Starbuck's out of action for a few days, you're back to the Galactica; you'll be flying with Apollo. Bojay, Sheba will be with you again. I know a cadet who's getting a review course in formation flying."

Neither looked particularly thrilled, with what they'd just seen, but Electra suspected both Apollo and Sheba would need a good friend around to talk to over the next few days.

* * * * *

Capt. Orestes and Sgt. Falstaff were on patrol, their first since recovering and returning to the Pegasus. They knew what to watch for – a distant flash of metal, something moving too fast against the star field. These had become the hallmarks of the alien ships. Their hope that they wouldn't encounter the aliens was not to be realized.

"Hey, Captain?"

"Yeah?"

"They're here again...."

"Spotted! Inform our base ships."

"I'm losing power! My comm's fading out!"

"Falstaff! Hit emergency distress beacon! Can you hear me?"

* * * * *

"We're picking up a distress signal, Commander. Patrol Five."

"Sound red alert, Tolan. Contact the Galactica."

* * * * *

"All right, Sheba, what in the name of every Lord of Kobol do you think you're doing?" Apollo stormed as soon as they were out of hearing range of the officers' club."

"My job, of course," she returned after drawing a fortifying breath. "This is my ship, remember? My first assignment. What are you so upset about?"

"Your assignment.... What about our marriage? What about me? How are we supposed to be together, raise a family, with you over here and me on the Galactica? Have you thought about that?"

"Family?" She stared at him in disbelief. "We're warriors! There won't be time for that for yahrens! Besides, you want a family? You've got your father, your sister, and a son you obviously expect me to take care of. You want more? I come with a father, too! We're a package deal; you can't have me without him, any more than I could have you without Commander Adama!"

"What's that supposed to mean?"

Her expression closed. "You could always join me. Transfer to the Pegasus. We'll be together–"

"You planned this all along, didn't you, Sheba?" he accused. "You meant to leave the Galactica from the start!"

"You can join me here," she repeated.

"I'm not leaving my post–"

"But you expect me to leave mine?"

"How can I be flight commander of the Galactica from here?"

"Oh, that's right – you'd have to serve under Electra just like the rest of us. How can I expect you to give up your rank and position to be just another pilot?" she complained bitterly.

"What in Hades are you implying?" he challenged.

"Or maybe you like being her equal? Maybe it's more than rank you're concerned with? Hey, I've heard the rumors! If it's her you want, go ahead! She's beautiful; I admit that. I can see how someone like you could fall for her."

The swift change of topics derailed his list of arguments for Sheba staying on the Galactica. The accusation also hit uncomfortably close to home. "What? I haven't–"

"Oh, haven't you? I wonder...."

"We have to work together!" he sputtered back.

"And you enjoy it, don't you? Are you worried about me being here? Can't be faithful if you have so convenient an excuse to be on this ship as often as you like? Maybe you don't want us both on the same ship – too difficult to arrange a tryst if you have to dodge your wife at the same time? Or are you really going to try to deny that you find her attractive, that you like the time you've spent with her, maybe more than you like being with me?"

He was stung, and taken aback. "I wouldn't do that to you, Sheba, and you know it. All right, so I find her attractive and I enjoy working with her. It's nice to get a little feminine attention. It's flattering – especially after the distance and chill you've put between us – you forgot I even existed when the Pegasus showed up. But if you think I'd–"

"Of course not!" Her laughter held disgust. "You'd never stoop to that – too dishonorable! It's your position that matters to you, not me!"

"And what about your position? You have to be with Cain? His little girl again, Cain's precious warrior daughter–"

"And you're Adama's son! You want to serve on your father's ship under Adama, as his brave flight commander son. But you won't let me serve on my father's ship! You act as if I'm committing a crime in wanting to be on the Pegasus! I've got news for you, Apollo, you're a hypocrite!"

He bit his lip in rage as she glared triumphantly at him.

"Well, you can't deny it, can you?"

Apollo had been utterly unprepared for her unexpected attack. He couldn't find any countering logic. "I can't leave the Galactica now, Sheba," he began lamely, squirming away from her ferocity. "I'm needed there. We're in a dangerous situation. We're refugees, fighting for our lives...."

"And we can't fight for them on the Pegasus? Or maybe my father's ship just doesn't measure up to your father's Galactica? Or don't you respect my father's command? You had the same problem at Gamoray, as I recall!"

"Your father abandoned us at Gamoray!"

"My father came back! He turned us down when we offered to kick your teeth in for him! He's not leaving! And neither am I! So don't expect me to abandon my post, my ship, and my father so that you can keep yours! You're needed on the Galactica? Well, I'm going to be here where I'm needed!"

"What about our marriage?" he protested. "I love you, I thought you loved me–"

She gave him a bitter smile. "I guess we don't love each other as much as we thought. I couldn't possibly be sealed to a man who has so little regard for my family and my career. It's been a pleasure, Captain, with emphasis on the been. History. You can go back to Serina's ghost now. That's where your loyalty really lies. She won't keep you very warm, but then warmth doesn't seem to be what you're interested in."

She turned away, too angry to care about his feelings at the moment. As she stalked off in what she hoped was a victorious and dignified exit, she felt something hollow growing in her heart.

A siren sounded, wailing rhythmically through the ship. Instinct alone caused the two reeling warriors to react as combat lights glowed redly throughout the battlestar.

* * * * *

"Where are they?" Apollo heard Electra's tense voice demand from somewhere among the stars. "Patrol Five, report!" There was no response.

He continued to study his own instruments, his mind on Sheba, not on the probability that they were heading into combat.

"Orestes? Are you out here?"

"I don't see them anywhere, Major," a somber voice told her. "They're gone, just like–"

"Like Heimdal and Sif. I know, Rissian." Her voice held barely controlled pain. "Silver Spar, form Search Grid Delta. Other squadrons, fall back to defense perimeter. Captain Apollo, can you spare a team for the search? I assume you'll be falling back to the fleet...."

"Uh...." He came out of his melancholy distraction, mentally chastising himself for his inattentiveness. "Right. Red Squadron, join the search. Take no chances if you see anything–"

Brilliant white light erupted all around him, blinding him with its intensity. He heard screams of dismay and shock from his scattered comrades. Somewhere in front of him, he now detected several silvery shapes – the aliens, pressing an attack?

What was happening? He couldn't see his scanner screen, and he couldn't make out any words in the confused garble of communications.

"Retreat!" he ordered, unsure whether anyone could hear him through a sudden burst of mind-numbing static.

Then, as he reached for his control stick, something exploded in his onboard computer. Sparks streaked through most of the Viper's systems. Dark, acrid smoke filled the cockpit, obscuring his view even further; his helmet automatically sealed against it.

"Apollo?" It was Boomer; at least his wingman was still with him, but when he tried to call back, there was no response.

His ship continued to plow forward – toward the mysterious aliens. With the lights ahead refracting through the murk of the cockpit, he couldn't even see to fix the malfunction. When he tried to open a panel, working blindly but remembering Academy training, hot tingles ran up his fingers, and he hastily pulled his hands away.

The chilling sensation he'd felt before welled up in him again. It can't be a malfunction! Not this total, in every circuit! Sabotage! But who, why...?

"Boomer!" he cried in inexplicable panic.

He had no way of knowing if his wingman heard him. The light suddenly flared more intensely, blotting out stars and ships and all connections with reality. The static in his helmet worsened, became as unendurably shrill as fingernails scraping on slate. He shuddered, grimaced, wished he could clap his blistering hands over his ears to blot out the noise. A groan escaped him, and he gladly surrendered to blessedly painless, peaceful unconsciousness.


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Main Index

Enter Sheba's Galaxy