Nature. Similar to Caprica in many respects, but still very unique. Alien birds sang in the trees and called from the clear sky above them, their sweet sounds strange in many ways to warriors used to metal and engine cacophonies. Small animals rustled through the underbrush, adding squeaks, chirps, and coughs to the song, occasionally flashing tan, black, amber, or fawn through the shadows of green and brown. A brook that had at some past time changed course meandered over a paved courtyard in the ruins, giving the close-set mosaic an odd color and liveliness in its bright hues of green, blue, gold, and white. Sunshine reflected invitingly off the shallow water, and prismed through the spray at its broken entrance to leave a small rainbow arcing across that end. The warm breeze changed the fascinating natural chorus at unpredictable times with sudden gusts; it also carried the every-varying scents of lush flowering plants.
The place was deliriously full of life, but something was wrong. There was nothing either of them could point to as the exact cause of their uneasiness - no enemy watching; no sign of intelligent, possibly dangerous life forms; only a restful serenity that begged them to forget their situation and enjoy the beauty - but Captain Apollo and Lieutenant Starbuck both felt it. And each saw in the other's face and body the same slow-building tension.
"We let the Council see this place, they'll want to settle here,"Starbuck murmured.
Apollo tested the low marble rim of the courtyard with his boot. The stone held its position, but he heard it grate against the adjoining pieces. He scanned the ruins again, noted the cracked stones of the mosaic, the fallen pillars, the moss and grass claiming sturdy footholds in shadowed and sunny niches. The world was reclaiming its place over the shattered remains of an old civilization - as was probably happening on Caprica, in most places, except where the Cylons had their bases. The natural order of the universe would assert itself quickly after any but the most destructive attacks, and surely even the Cylons hadn't gone over their worlds cutting every weed and blade of grass, or killing every member of every species, or poisoning every pond and stream, or leveling every mountain. Even they couldn't function in radion-tainted surroundings.
"Wonder how long it's been abandoned," he asked rhetorically. "Has to have been one of ours - the architecture and design are familiar. One of the farther colonies, like the Proteus prison asteroid. We lost touch with a lot of people during the war...."
"Think the Cylons are responsible?"
"Have to be, Starbuck. You saw the signs I did."
The blond sighed and ran his fingers through his hair to brush it off his forehead. "Yeah. Been yahrens, though."
"More like centuries. I doubt if anyone's lived here in five or six hundred yahrens. Likely all killed by the Cylons or radiation sickness after the attack. Maybe a few escaped into space, but it doesn't look like the inhabitants had kept a very advanced technology." Apollo kicked another stone. This one broke off and rolled into the courtyard stream. New waves rippled around the broken piece.
The two warriors avoided the courtyard and followed the marble rim. They easily jumped the broken spot where the water spilled in from its unseen spring, to be swathed for a micron in its rainbow. Skirting the other side of the stone, they began to climb the gentle upward slope. One broad lane and a number of winding narrow paths paved in black and white stones led off in several directions through the trees. They were overgrown and cracked, but still quite evident.
"Take the north avenue; I'll check the paths." Apollo had the strangest sense of déjà vu, as if he'd been here before, or as if something were trying to sound an alarm somewhere in his mind. As the saying went, however, orders were orders, and they had orders to investigate this planet.
"You sure we ought to split up?"
"There's nothing here, and we can cover the place faster if we split up. But stay in communications range."
"Right." Starbuck disappeared around a small cluster of saplings.
Apollo chose to explore the nearest path. The spicy aroma was heavier under the trees, less diffused by the wind. He pushed through the moss-draped overhanging branches, listening carefully for the sound of anything out of the ordinary - though he had to concede he probably wouldn't recognize anything out of the ordinary if he heard it. The narrow trail curved; he glanced upward to get a directional bearing from the high sun. No point in getting lost.
Something rustled near him.. The captain pulled his laser and froze, eyes darting in search of the source.
Apollo continued along the path, and discovered it looped around again to come to its end near where it began, next to the courtyard where the stream rippled peacefully over the ancient stone. He stood in the shade, for a moment studying the scene before moving to the next path.
Something moved behind him. Before the warrior could react, someone plucked the laser from his hand and rough arms circled his neck and waist to drag him, half-strangled, back among the trees.
Starbuck pushed through the moss, laser in hand, ready to fire. There had been nothing to the north, no signs of inhabitants or Cylons. But something was very wrong - he'd tried to contact Apollo to find out what he'd learned; there had been no response. The device was working properly, but for whatever reason, the captain wasn't answering.
The lieutenant listened to the wind in the vegetation, but it told him nothing. Nothing he could pick out as not belonging. No distant call from his friend.
The path curved again, back toward the central plaza with its diverted stream. He froze with a gasp, staring across the stones. It seemed there was life on this planet after all....
On the far side of the water, he saw a woman. She was dressed in a gown of variegated greens that shimmered like sunlight on water. Her hair was like sunlight itself, tied back from her face but falling free around her shoulders. She looked to be about his age, and a beauty.
But her eyes were cold and hard.
She stepped aside.
Starbuck saw Apollo then, at the edge of the grove. The captain stood between two trees, his outstretched arms bound to those trees so he couldn't move more than a step sideways, nor could he kneel, sit, or jump. His laser and other gear were gone. He was gagged. Desperate warning showed in his expression as he shook his head, staring past his friend.
Too late. Two shadows moved from the trees along the path and Starbuck found himself in the custody of two large men who relieved him of his own weapon, computron, and languatron. When the woman pulled a knife and gestured at Apollo, the lieutenant didn't even try to fight.
Worried and disgusted with himself, Starbuck let the men jerk his arms up behind his back and propel him forward through the water. The woman stopped their progress with a gesture, and the warrior and his captors remaining standing in the stream. Cold water quickly found its way into his boots; his blood was running just as cold.
"What do you want?" Starbuck asked carefully.
Neither of the men said anything, but the woman began to speak in a very demanding voice. He couldn't understand a word of it. Watching the stranger, though, he knew that wouldn't be a good enough excuse.
Starbuck half-shrugged his shoulders and shook his head. "I don't understand," he said. "And I'll bet you don't understand us either. If you did, you'd be talking to Apollo instead of having him tied there like some snared animal ready to be skinned."
Apollo actually started and turned pale, and Starbuck regretted the comment. Trying to be flippant with these people probably wasn't the way to go anyway, he decided after more glances at the men still holding his arms.
"I don't understand your words," he repeated more slowly, trying to keep calm despite his racing heart and the cold in the pit of his stomach.
The woman's gaze narrowed, and her expression turned more impatient. She moved a step closer to Apollo, close enough to touch, and raised the blade threateningly to his captain's throat. The man stiffened.
"No!" Starbuck yelled. "Don't! We can't talk to you then! If you want to learn anything from us, you've got to keep us alive!" The men restrained him from jumping to Apollo's aid.
Perhaps she understood some of it. She slowly turned to stare at the dark-haired captain as if reconsidering, then reached up and pulled the gag from between his teeth. The knife hung at her side as if forgotten.
Apollo moistened his dry lips with his tongue, meeting her eyes levelly and trying not to show fear. "Thank you...."
A moment of profound relief.
Which shattered in confusion. Starbuck blinked as the woman glanced at him with a smile, then pulled Apollo's head down with one hand. She tilted her face; their lips met.
Her blade arm twisted into motion.
Starbuck heard a choked scream. The woman stepped away from Apollo at once, daintily avoiding the spurt of blood from his slashed throat. Starbuck would carry that image with him always, Apollo bleeding, his uniform and the ground before him staining rapidly in the red spray. The captain's knees buckled, and he fell as far as the ropes would allow.
In his own despairing scream, Starbuck didn't see the bloody wave at his captors. He didn't realize anything until he felt twin fires in his belly. For a micron he froze, stunned into silence, then he looked down to see the hilts of the knives the two had thrust into his body.
There was a sound from somewhere - he barely recognized his friend's voice, somehow pleading but gurgling in a horrific way.
The huskier man jerked at his blade. Starbuck saw it pull free, tearing muscles and organs and releasing fresh blood - his blood. His legs gave way, and he half-fell against his attackers. The second man yanked his knife free, almost doubling the length of that wound. Both then stepped away and let him fall.
He didn't feel the cold of the water any more, only noted with final interest the sight of something red eddying through the clear waters, caught in the current and swirling away from him in long ribbons. A blink, and he focused on a strangely-clear glimpse of a man - dark-haired, with two crimson mouths, one so much larger than the other and spilling blood like the tears in those wide green eyes....
Lieutenant Starbuck opened his eyes to stare blindly at the ceiling above the bunk. Unreal; it was unreal.... No, it was the dream that was unreal. He was here, on the Galactica, in a familiar bed, enjoying - ? - sleep period. He wasn't dying on some beautiful world on the orders of some deadly woman.
Why hadn't he charmed her? A woman like that, lovely, powerful, with lips that should have asked for his kiss.... The thought nagged him as his heartbeat slowly returned to normal.
He had tried. Not this time, but some time before. This wasn't the first time for the dream. But the outcome was the same, whatever he did. Death. His own and Apollo's.
Cassiopeia stirred beside him, and snuggled closer to rest her head on his shoulder. He felt inordinately glad of her presence.
But what in Sagan's name could he do next time?
Apollo was amazed. No pain, just the unexpected sting of the blade cutting his throat, severing arteries, veins, and windpipe - she'd cut deeply, he knew, from the sudden shower of blood.
He was going to die. There was no time for a medic to do anything, not even if Cassie had been standing there with a med kit to seal every bleeding tube and suction clear the rapidly-clogging throat and lungs.
A kiss for good bye? How macabre....
She stepped aside, the unknown stranger who could so casually kiss and kill in the same micron.
Her gesture made no impact on his conscious thought until Apollo saw the men stab his friend, sawing through his gut like they were carving meat.
Starbuck scarcely seemed to notice. He stood for a moment, in shock, then collapsed into the water. Apollo met his final expression, saw the fascination on Starbuck's face smooth into emptiness.
Dead. Starbuck was dead.
And his own life was ebbing like a Caprican triple tide.
The woman was cruel. She knew how to hurt. A swift, terminal wound for him, the brutal carving for his friend. He had seen Starbuck die, and knew Starbuck had gone realizing Apollo was dying as well.
The world was darkening; did the sun set so fast here...?
Darkness. Something growled at some near distance. Captain Apollo tired to sit up, found himself trapped in something that wouldn't give way. Was this silence the eternal torment reserved for the damned? It certainly wasn't like any image of heaven he'd ever heard of.
"Quiet, Muffey," came a sleepy voice.
The trap was his own sheets, somehow wound around him in his sleep. He shivered with relief to know he was in his own bunk, in his own quarters, Boxey and Muffit in the lower bed. So he was alive....
But the dream. It had come back. The details were fading fast, but he knew he'd dreamed that death before, several times. And each time, he'd tried to deal with it differently, tried to change the outcome, but to no avail.
What in hades did it mean?
They'd been gone too long. Anxiety chewed every other thought to shreds. The lieutenant pushed through the hanging moss and bushes, hating the growing certainty that he was already too late. The ancient path, shadowed with green, seemed to lead to greater darkness. The heavy spice odor permeated everything.
"Boomer?" Jolly's voice echoed eerily from off to his left.
The bright sunshine of a clearing beckoned; Boomer turned toward it.
He brought up short. "Sagan...." he groaned. It took a moment to find breath to say anything more. "Jolly!" he screamed. "I found them.... But Lords, I wish I hadn't...."
Sergeant Jolly joined him a moment later, staring first in horror, then in growing rage. Neither emotion would change what had happened.
The two warriors crossed the water to reach their friends.
Starbuck lay on his side in the cold stream, eyes still open and staring. He was half-curled around himself, his fingers still clutching at the long, bloodless cuts in his belly. There was a little blood left on some of the near stones, but most had washed away, leaving the corpse pallid. He was stiff. Jolly pulled the body from the water and laid it on warm stones in the sunlight, hoping the heat would make Starbuck feel less ... dead.
Apollo dangled between two trees, his wrists swollen around the ropes. The brush and ground at his feet were mottled shades of green, brown, and dull red. His uniform was dark and stiff, blood-soaked from the horrible gash in his throat. Insects buzzed around his face and throat, and settled on the spatters of blood. Boomer pulled a small knife to cut the ropes; the body toppled to one side and fell. His arms remained extended, and wouldn't drop or cross his chest. The man had obviously been dead for centars.
Boomer knelt beside his fallen captain. There had been no signs of intelligent life on this planet, nothing but the ruins of something old and long gone. They didn't know who could have done this. There was no way to avenge these deaths, no way to make hidden killers pay.
The wind was a mournful sigh, and that rich scent filled everything, death that should have been life....
Lieutenant Boomer heard sobs. He woke, staring into the darkness, slowly becoming aware that he was the one crying, and that tears were running down his cheeks and dampening his pillow. It was a dream, just a dread, that his friends had been murdered on some lush planet. Starbuck was off with Cassie tonight; Apollo was in his personal quarters. They were alive.
But why did that dream keep haunting him? He knew that three times he had walked into that plaza in his sleep; three times he had recovered them; three times he had cried and wondered what he could have done to prevent it. What did it mean?
Twin interment tubes lay on the tracks. She'd come early to see them one last time, the dear friends. There was no one else there, no reason to try and hide the tears. Sheba could barely see as she rested her hand on the clear top of one of them.
"I should have been there with you," she whispered.
Apollo couldn't respond. He merely lay there, pale, eyes closed. The collar of the dress uniform had been drawn up too high on his neck, to cover the wound, but that only seemed to make it worse. She knew it was there.
"You should never have gone there alone, the two of you." She glanced at the companion tube, Starbuck's. "If I had been there with you.... If you'd let some of us go on that mission, too, this might not have happened. You'd be alive. We wouldn't be here...."
Fresh tears ran. All the things that would never be, the love she would never be able to share with him.... It would almost have been better to have died with him.
Muffled sobs broke through her thoughts. She turned to see Athena and Cassiopeia, each holding one of Boxey's hands. Shattered, shattered.... It was time for the memorial service, the last farewell.
Lieutenant Sheba woke with a weary, heart-sick moan. Her hands hurt. Her head ached. Her nose was stuffy. Her pillow was dotted with wet spots. Her blanket was twisted. She was tense and stiff all over. It took a moment to remember why. The dream, that awful dream again. Why couldn't she stop dreaming of Apollo's death? And Starbuck's?
There had been many memorial services before, but none had been necessary recently. Why should she be dreaming of one now? And why for those two men - other than the obvious reason that, as she'd challenged Apollo, he took every high-risk mission on the board, and Starbuck went with him.
But why now? And why so often? Over and over again?
Sheba sat up. She knew she wouldn't be sleeping any more that night. Instead she got up, dressed, and left female pilots' quarters. She would check out her ship. Anything was better than lying awake, afraid to sleep again.
Commander Adama had a headache. He'd had one off and on for most of the last six days, and all Salik's medications seemed to do nothing but put it off for a while. He knew the doctor was ready to drag him in for a complete physical, but he had work to do first.
He glanced at the report Colonel Tigh had sent down from the bridge. They had entered the new star system; early patrols had reported nine planets, one of them extremely habitable. The battlestar's scanners now confirmed and elaborated on those reports. There was evidence of civilization on the one habitable planet, the third from the star.
The third planet of nine. Could it be the one they sought? He prayed it was not; there was no indication that the civilization was still alive. What good would it have been to have come so far only to find their goal on a dead world?
But he would have to send people to the surface, a survey team, to check the ruins and see if anything remained, to search for survivors, to find proof that this planet was or wasn't Earth.
His head throbbed again; he tried to ignore it.
He half-turned to study his warriors. It was no surprise that Apollo was leading the survey team; nor was it a surprise to find Starbuck backing him up. What did seem odd was the tense, preoccupied expressions on their faces and the formal set to their shoulders. He knew Starbuck wasn't sleeping well; Cassie had let slip, once when she brought a dose of some painkiller, that the warrior tossed and turned a lot recently. And there was word that some other warriors were ... unsettled as well. Perhaps his son was one of them? Perhaps Blue Squadron was overworked- Hades, they were all overworked most of the time.
"Here's the data on the planet," he said, holding out the printed sheets. "You know the routine; you've done it before. Be very careful, and good luck, both of you, and your team."
"We'll be back before you know it, Commander!"
He fondly watched the two young warriors stride out, one dark, one fair. They were good men, and he cared about them both, his son and his son's friend who was almost family too. Why did he feel a sudden chill?
"You having problems with Cassie? Or maybe Athena?"
Apollo smiled in the safety of his cockpit. "Well, you've been awfully quiet, Starbuck. I thought maybe something was bothering you."
"Bothering me?" Apollo could almost hear him shrug. "Come on, Apollo. You know me better than that."
Yes, he did, but anything to forget the odd feeling....
"And you've seemed moody these past days," he added.
"Yeah? Well, you've been a real party yourself!" Starbuck retorted.
A woman groaned.
"So have you, Sheba," Apollo heard. Apparently Boomer and Sheba were listening in from the survey shuttle; they exchanged a few comments of their own.
Unfortunately, as far as the captain was concerned, the argument died a few moments later. Everyone seemed preoccupied and unable to concentrate even on speaking to each other. They flew in near silence until they achieved orbit over the third planet.
Shuttle and Viper scanners picked up no more signs of a current civilization than the battlestar's had shown. The landing site was in the midst of a city of ruins. With a minimum of discussion, the warriors dispersed. There was no reason not to.
Apollo hesitated for a moment, studying the direction he and Starbuck were to take. He recognized it, even though he had never been on this planet before.
"Nice place. Can I take sick leave now?" Starbuck jested, an edge in his voice, as he stared at the aged and damaged structures and overgrown paths.
Apollo didn't mean to be harsh, but his words came out sharp. "If you like, go ahead. I'll scout the place alone."
"No!" Chastised, the other man fell into place behind him.
He suddenly wondered if maybe it might be a good idea after all, to leave his friend behind. There was no reason they had to go together, no reason at all that he couldn't do this with someone else, or even alone.
But would that change anything?
The nightmare had come to life before him. The elegant ruins. The shattered courtyard. The diverted stream running over a mosaic in its center. The rainbow spray of water at one end. A bright yellow sun above, warming the air and giving the planet life. The paths through the glade on the far side. The sights, the sounds, the spicy aroma in the soft wind - it was exactly the same. And for some reason it drew him forward like a magnet.
At the edge of the water they both stopped as one, continuing to stare in fascination at one certain spot that the captain remembered far too well. He set his boot on the rim of the courtyard, shoved at the stone. It grated, but did not move.
Starbuck moved closer to his side. "It looks like someplace I saw in a dream," he said, sounding a little nervous.
"A bad dream...."
Apollo glanced at him sharply. "It couldn't have been...."
"The same dream I had."
Starbuck flinched. "That we died here, in this courtyard?"
"Yes," Apollo said slowly, his eyes boring into Starbuck's. "We met a woman we couldn't communicate with, and she killed us, and we never knew why."
The lieutenant's shiver grew more pronounced, and he looked far too pallid for a man in good health. The warm sunlight couldn't ease the inner cold raising chillbumps on his skin.
"How could we have known?" Apollo breathed in shock.
"It's not possible. I don't believe in that sort of thing."
"Then explain it some other way."
"But why would ... whatever powers that be ... warn us we were going to die if we couldn't do anything about it?" Starbuck persisted. "There's gotta be a reason, and I don't believe in that 'destiny' frak. We've got to be able to do something!"
"We could, uh, not go over there. We could just turn around and leave."
"We're already this far. I doubt it would make any difference."
"Maybe we violate some old superstition if we cross the water, but not if we're on this side?" Starbuck suggested hopefully.
"That's not it," he replied with certainty. From all the ways he'd tried to change the outcome of the dream, that hadn't worked either. "Let's go." He stepped into the water, crossing almost directly through the center of the wide plaza.
"We should have let someone else scout this mission," the other man muttered.
"And have them die in our place?" Apollo didn't even look at him. "If someone is supposed to die here, and the choice is between me and someone in my command, you know the answer. I won't send someone else to take my place. Not if death is inevitable. I couldn't live with it. And I don't think you could either."
"If you want to go back, you have my permission. Go."
"Well, maybe we could call the others. With a dozen warriors together, maybe the people here wouldn't attack, whatever they may be holding against us," Starbuck offered, making no move to abandon him.
"We tried that, Starbuck. Don't you remember?" Apollo said softly.
An image formed in his thoughts - a battle, with more of the enemy than expected, enough to drive them off planet; a memorial service, for five dead, including them; the knowledge that others were injured, some of whom would never recover fully.... He shivered again.
"Is there anything we didn't try yet?"
"I don't know. But I don't think we can avoid it now. Let's go."
"Do we have to?"
Apollo didn't answer; he just drew his laser and cautiously continued crossing the flooded courtyard. Unwilling to let his friend face destiny - or whatever - alone, Starbuck followed.
After a moment, the other man finally asked, "Which of us is going to do the talking this time?"
Apollo almost laughed. All the things Starbuck could have said - and undoubtedly meant to say, when he first opened his mouth. "Wait and see. We may both get a chance." All the things he could have said, and wanted to say, now that there was no time....
Enter Sheba's Galaxy