By Sharon Monroe
To read this story, download the epub file here.
This is the sequel to Alternate Conspiracy.
A third story in this series was planned but never materialized.
To read this story, download the epub file here.
This is the sequel to Alternate Conspiracy.
A third story in this series was planned but never materialized.
And yet, the night before the Starwind’s maiden voyage, Doctor Ravashol sat on the bridge of the small starcraft, going through computer banks, double-checking his own equations, looking over the blueprints, rescanning experimental data, all for the last time. If he had miscalculated, made an error anywhere along the line of research and development, he would pay the price as well as the hand-picked young crew, for the aging scientist was accompanying them. Akilles had protested, but it had been part of the agreement from the beginning; Ravashol would be part of the culmination of his life’s work.
A small hand placed a heavy mug at his elbow. “Father-Creator?”
He barely glanced at the petite blonde Theta - small-boned, short-haired, blue-eyed; another of his creations, cloned and perfected during his period on Arcta. A number on the tan overalls identified the series and culture of the female.
“What is it, Tenna-Fourteen?”
“Will you be here all night, Father-Creator?” She spoke softly, with the reverence all the Thetas expressed for the human who’d brought them into existence.
“Just a little while longer, Tenna. Go to your rest. I’ll be all right. Oh, but have the Ser-Fives check over the gamma-delta feedlines one more time, especially the twenty-alpha-four seals and circuits.”
“Yes, Father-Creator.” The small blonde padded silently to the lift and disappeared.
“You don’t trust the work of your own Planners, drawn from your own ideas and overseen by you every step of the way?”
Ravashol smiled at the young Warrior who addressed him so archly. A dark-haired, handsome youth, Major Akilles was the oldest son of Ila of the Council of Twelve, formerly its president, and Commander Adama of the Galactus, whose quick thought and actions had saved the Twelve Colonies at the False Peace almost two yahrens before.
Akilles had played his own role in saving the Colonies, through his part in the undiscovered conspiracy and in battle at Kobol. Some of the shadow-scars burning in the Warrior’s eyes were from that time; others were from what they were attempting now.
“Do you miss anything, Akilles? I begin to think it’s true what your pilots say, that you never sleep.”
The major smiled. “I just don’t get caught napping.”
Ravashol had to laugh. “But what brings you here the night before our first experimental flight? You should be sleeping before the voyage.”
He shrugged, glancing around the cramped quarters of the Starwind’s bridge. “One last look, same as you. We’ll be trusting our lives to this lady. She has to be right.”
“Will she take us where we want to go?”
“Across time and space, to follow the dream or vision or will-o’-the-wisp that’s obsessed you since your brother’s death at the memorial.”
Akilles’s smile faded. “Apollo... Is it possible to miss someone after two yahrens?”
Ravashol’s expression was equally pensive. “It is. Eos is still much in my thoughts...”
“The woman who contributed her cells to the cloning experiments. She is dead several yahrens... but she lives on, in the Tennas.”
The Warrior nodded. “As Apollo lives on in his daughter. There are times I think she means more to my parents than the rest of us together - Athena, Ares, Artemis, her mother, the boy...”
Ravashol stepped off the command dais and rested his hand on Akilles’s shoulder for a micron. “It only seems that way because Korona is still just a baby, and is adored as babies are. You matter to them, you always will.”
“I know. It’s hard being jealous of a baby - you feel like some kind of equinus’ astrum.”
Ravashol’s laughter was rich and contagious. “Indeed. Well, a grandchild to fawn over has kept your canny father and powerful mother from investigating what kind of research I have been doing, and your exact involvement in it.”
“Just like at the False Peace. They had too many other things on their minds, the safety of the Colonies to consider. Now they’re busy with its rebuilding. And I’m running away...”
Ravashol held his tongue on that subject. “I’m going to Engineering to check out a few things. You may want to stop in the bay, give the tubes and our escort Vipers a few last checks. You’ve only looked them over a dozen times today. Something might have changed in the last centon.”
“How’d you know where I came from?”
Ravashol laughed again; then the man left the bridge, and Akilles was alone to think and relive the events that had set him on his current course, taking the scientist and others with him.
They had all suffered keenly at Apollo’s murder. Ila had never really recovered from seeing her middle son shot down before her eyes; it was as though a portion of Adama’s soul had been slain as well. The younger siblings had drifted for a while, then recovered. Of them all, only Akilles and Ostara knew what had really happened - and Starbuck, of course.
Then later, Dr. Ravashol.
When Akilles cautiously approached him with his ideas, he had been suspicious, and demanded an explanation. With all the rebuilding in the Colonies after the False Peace, there had been few funds to spare for such experimentation, but Ravashol’s name alone was good for billions of cubits on every Colony, and it had taken nearly all of them to reach this far.
It had not been an easy explanation to make; Ravashol had been incredulous, as Akilles could understand. It still sounded insane.
Three men had come from a far universe, an alternate dimension. And they had saved the Colonies from extermination.
The consciousness of that other Apollo had occupied the body of Akilles’s brother at the moment that young Warrior should have died. He had remained to give warning that the Cylon peace offer was false and to begin the plot that had resulted in the Colonies surviving that treachery.
For some reason, Akilles had believed the stranger, and become part of the conspiracy, bringing in his own commander and calling in every favor he’d accumulated in yahrens in the Service. They’d infiltrated the Colonial defense computer network. They’d made sure some ships in the fleet were prepared for the Cylon attack. They’d intercepted messages and prevented sabotage in major cities and installations across the Colonies. The Cylon attack had been blunted; they had won enough time to rally their people and to drive off the enemy.
The other Apollo had married a woman of their universe, Ostara, one of the conspirators - not entirely willingly, as Akilles knew, but the union had settled to become something stronger, with potential. At any rate, it had lasted long enough for Ostara to become pregnant. Korona, the darling of her grandparents’ eyes, was the result. Apollo’s murder by Charon had ended all the potentials in the marriage and possibly sent the man home. Akilles wasn’t certain. He knew, however, what he’d felt at seeing his brother shot down and bleeding... dying.
Lieutenant Starbuck knew, too, both of him. Another Starbuck had come from the other reality, a man who was Apollo’s friend, who’d stood by him...
It had been so different here. Starbuck had been an orphan, from a lower caste family, who’d succeeded as a Warrior by chance, as a client of Baltar, a nobleman of wealth and standing. The blond Warrior had been believed responsible for treason and for the death of another friend of Apollo’s - Boomer, a Warrior who died in an accident, an equipment malfunction. Never highly favored by anyone in Adama’s family, he’d transferred from the Galactus to the Pegasus, Kain’s command, to serve under Flight Commander Akilles, who’d not had time for the man either, until...
Until the other Starbuck came, taking his place in the consciousness of a comatose Warrior, Ostara, injured in combat. He/she had worked with Apollo to save the Colonies, until Starrie, as she was called, regained control of her mind and began plotting on her own. She had black-mailed Apollo, demanding marriage as the price for her silence and cooperation. And Apollo had no choice but to acquiesce.
Their Starbuck had been accused of treason, of selling out to the Cylons. In reality, it had been Count Baltar and his agents who were guilty of treason. Starbuck had been freed with Apollo’s help. His first meeting with Ostara had resulted in the consciousness of the other Starbuck transferring to his body in a bit of confusion that still mystified everyone but Ravashol, who seemed to have worked the matter out to his own satisfaction.
The other Starbuck had left, to return home or to perish, after the salvation of the Colonies and the murder of Apollo. Strangely, some of his memories still hid in Starrie’s and their Starbuck’s minds, surfacing at odd times.
Akilles wondered at times what had made him offer Starbuck the hand of friendship - the man was egotistical, stubborn, a gambler, a dozen things that the patrician Warrior loathed or didn’t understand. But somehow, after Apollo’s death, all that had become unimportant. What mattered was keeping Starbuck near him, as a friend, on the Pegasus.
He shook his head. He didn’t understand the intuition that had provoked the decision. But it had been the right one. Starbuck had saved his life on more than one occasion, and his loyalty was something the major now knew he could count on in any situation. Though Starbuck might seem irresponsible and flighty, the knowledge that someone willingly depended on him brought forth an astonishing degree of allegiance.
And there had been Boomer, dead in their universe, alive in the other. He had come in his own body, and left with it intact.
That was what convinced Akilles that physical travel between the two realities was possible. That was what sent him back to Ravashol to discuss old theories. That was what brought Ravashol into this second conspiracy.
And that was why he was standing on the empty bridge tonight.
Only a few hand-picked security personnel were on guard duty, along with a number of the doctor’s Theta-class Tennas, Ser-Fives, and Planners.
The crew had been equally hand-picked, carefully selected, though Dr. Ravashol’s importance and Akilles’s connections through mother, father, and commander. Ravashol and his associate Dr. Willis led the scientific side of the team, in the Starwind’s ostensible purposes of experimentation with a new drive and minor exploration. An additional military purpose was to check on renewed Cylon infiltration of the sector. Major Akilles was in charge of the Warrior escort, including Lieutenant Starbuck, Captain Artemis, Lieutenant Ares, Lieutenant Ostara and others. Captain Omega, a former classmate of Apollo’s and a member of the conspiracy, had been responsible for choosing an appropriate bridge crew. Most of the rest of the crew were Theta- class life forms, Ravashol’s clones.
The greatest difficulty had been choosing a commander for the mission. Under the circumstances, it had to be someone they could trust implicitly with their information and goals. Akilles had tried to wangle the proper commission himself, but his youth had told against him - the authorities, his parents included, didn’t see it as proper to place him in command of a valuable experimental craft - even if privately financed and built.
They had, however, seen it as fit and proper to promote Colonel Tigh to commander, and to offer him the ship. Akilles had urged him to accept it; after consideration, Tigh had done so. The ship and the mission were his.
Sometime soon, he would have to explain to his old friend and mentor what was really entailed in this expedition. He hoped Tigh would understand what they were doing and why. The man had been as much a guide to Apollo as he had to Akilles, but such a mission, and the rationale behind it... To have to mutiny against a man he so highly respected would hurt; it would also make a poor beginning to the mission. Not that there was any doubt about the success of a mutiny - the carefully chosen crew and Ravashol’s Thetas would make it easy to take control of the Starwind if it proved necessary.
There was no way any of them would harm Colonel... no, Commander Tigh. Assuming they returned, he could make any report he chose; Akilles and the rest of the conspirators had sworn to acknowledge responsibility and accept punishment if Tigh denounced them.
Akilles knew his parents and his people might never forgive him for mutiny. The standard punishment had always been incarceration, but termination had been assigned in several cases since the False Peace.
He would much prefer Tigh to be part of this.
Tomorrow we try to cross the barriers of time and reality. Lords of Kobol, I must be insane. Why do I have to find out if Apollo made it back? He wasn’t my brother, not really. Why do I have to know?
Shaking his head, he left the bridge.
* * * * *
Her lullaby faded into the night. The room was gently still. In the dim light, Ostara peered into the child’s bed. Korona was asleep, tousled dark hair lying in wisps over her pillow, eyes closed, breathing steadily. One hand clutched the stuffed toy daggit to her green sleepgown; the other was twined in the blanket.
She slept so easily, this little girl who was the image of her father.
Smiling with infinite fondness, Ostara kissed the baby’s head and touched her cheek. Korona stirred a little, but sighed and drifted into a deeper sleep.
Leaning over her daughter, she heard a soft purr, and realized Troy’s bast had crept into the room again. She found the furry creature nestled between the pillow and the wall, and scooped it up. It kneaded sharp claws into her palm and hissed once, but knew it didn’t belong in the baby’s room, and accepted removal.
She stepped back into the hall and closed the door.
“Scoot, Kohl.” She dropped the black bast and watched with a smile as it streaked away down the hall, long fluffy tail nearly straight out behind him. At least the daggit appeared to be minding its manners at the moment - Muffy wasn’t chasing Kohl through the halls at bedtime this evening! She’d have to mention to Troy that he keep a better eye on his pets.
That took some of the pleasure from her smile. She would be gone in the morning, and he was already prepared for bed. She wouldn’t see him again before the voyage. Who knew how long she would be away from her children? Or even if she would return from this experimental cruise?
At least she knew Troy and Korona would be in the best of hands. Adama and Ila loved their grandchildren, by adoption and by blood, with a fierceness only strengthened by the death of the children’s father.
Their father. Her husband. A man she’d never had time to know. Starrie forced away the memory of him lying in the grass, blood running from that dreadful wound in his chest, no comfort in the assassin’s body sprawled at his feet. The surge of hatred and grief was replaced by the hollowness, the ache...
She hadn’t intended to fall in love with Apollo. He had been a tool, the way to a better life. But he had become so much more to her. And had left her with so much less.
It was his coming that had brought the Other, too, with his memories of another world, another life. The Other had used her mind and body, for a time, until she woke and regained control. She wondered if that Starbuck had survived, if he had made it back to his own place, when Apollo was cold and gone...
No! He had a chance. Starbuck says they made it, that he felt the Other slipping away, that it happened before Apollo died. He had a chance.
Determined not even to consider any other possibility, she strode along the dim hall, a fair-haired shadow. She had to say good bye to her husband’s parents, too, and then report to the Starwind for the last night planetside.
Starrie heard voices chattering, and realized the commander was telling Troy a bedtime story. She slowed and almost stepped in to join them, but prevented herself. She’d already told the boy good night, and how much she loved him, and that he should behave while she was gone, and obey his grandparents. It was what she told him every time. She was gone so often with her military assignments that Troy and Korona almost were closer to Adama and Ila than to their own mother. She didn’t interfere between grandfather and grandson.
Instead, she descended to the lower level and joined her mother-in-law in the solarium. Councilor Ila looked up from her work at Ostara’s entrance.
“Korie’s asleep, but I think Troy is taking advantage of the Commander again,” she reported as if to a superior officer. “Their bedtime stories always seem to spin on for a centar or longer.”
Ila’s smile lit up her face. “Adama loves spending time with the boy. And with reconstruction likely to continue for the rest of our lives, why deprive him of such a simple pleasure?”
“Why indeed?” she agreed. “It’s good to have Troy and Korie feel so comfortable here. They need a sturdy foundation. Warriors aren’t the most stable parents...”
“You can’t always be here, and sometimes you die.” Ila spoke matter-of-factly. “You don’t have to mince words around me, child. I’ve spent too many yahrens as Adama’s wife and had too many friends in the Military, not to be aware of the reality.”
She stacked the reports and set them aside on her bench. “Are you worried about them because you’re leaving tomorrow?”
Starrie shrugged a little. “I suppose that’s it.” She didn’t accept the unspoken invitation to join Ila on the marble seat. After two yahrens, she still didn’t feel entirely comfortable in this woman’s presence. For too many yahrens, Ila had been a councilor and then the president of the Quorum of Twelve; now she was a councilor again, and still a major political force in the Colonies. Her natural aura of power and superiority made it difficult for Ostara to approach her, much less to confide in her.
When Ostara showed no sign of sitting down, Ila rose to join her at the massive window overlooking Caprica City. They stared down at the vision of city lights curling around the moonlit bay. Only a few last curtains of sunset hung far to the west; everything else was darkening around the city. It was as serene as if nothing had ever been destroyed there, as if the deadly attack two yahrens before was only a bad dream.
Then Ila looked up, scanning the starry heavens. She focused on a spot of brightness, something that moved too fast to be a star, that steadfastly orbited their world.
“The Galactus,” she murmured. “No more long patrols now. The battlestars circle our worlds and hold our system in a tight web. We won’t be that vulnerable and open ever again.”
“Won’t we?” Ostara asked softly. “In another two hundred yahrens, when we’re tired of war again? When our children have only dim memories of the attack, and their children remember only frightening night tales? When the Cylons are strong again, and our arrogance convinces us we can live with them, we can believe them, this time they mean it? Humans forget...”
“Never again.” Ila’s voice was ice-tempered steel. “Never again.”
They were silent moments more.
“Adama’s furlon lasts a secton more, then he’ll have to report back to that light...” Ila’s voice was far away. The commander of that battlestar had been free, technically, to spend his time on Caprica or wherever he chose, without accounting to anybody or being available. Instead, as had surprised no one, he had spent his time with his family, in their home, visiting his ship every other day. At least he had been home nights. There were so many times she had said good bye to him, and the days had turned into eternal sectars before she saw him again. He would never be gone for such an extended time again. She wasn’t sure if that was a blessing or not.
“All those yahrens... He sees her as his lady. I’ve so often thought of her as the rival in our yahrens together. I’ve looked forward to the day he would come home to me from her, leave her for good. But if he had, would we have survived? And now, he’ll never retire. But he’ll never really leave again either. He knows, they all do, where their homes are. They know they have to be here to protect us. Have I won, or not, at the end...?” she mused further.
“You have him here. Even if you have to share him, you’ve won. You’ve got something of him, his presence and his time and his love.” Ostara couldn’t help the bitterness in her voice.
Ila touched her hand. “Child, you are ours as well. Don’t let old grief overwhelm you. Come home safely.”
“And bring good news?” She tried to be light.
“I’m tired of war, Starrie, but afraid of the alternative. Now, I will be satisfied if my children come home.” She heard the gentle yearning and sorrow, and turned to see tears on the older woman’s cheeks.
Her throat choked. Her own parents hadn’t survived. “Mother,” she whispered to this woman for the first and only time, clutching her spontaneously.
“Starrie...” Ila embraced her in return.
“I’ll bring good news,” she vowed quietly. If they could find Apollo in that other universe, that other reality, it would be the best news. “And I have to go now. Tell the Commander... Father... I’ll be back. I love you... take care of the children, take care of yourselves... I’ll see you soon...”
She blundered away, fleeing the freshness of the solarium, running down the quiet halls, finding the door through tears. Her duffels of necessary gear had been unloaded a day before. She had only to reach the ship. Across the lawn, through the gate. The night was clear, the air still and full of spring.
At the road, she stopped long enough to catch her breath. For now, the mad dash was exhilarating. It felt as though she’d managed to lose her grief and fear in the house, looming behind her on the hill. If she stayed here, or slowed down, or waited for a carrier, they might catch up to her. Maybe if she raced to exhaustion, she would be able to sleep tonight.
She ran all the way to the spacedrome.
* * * * *
Starbuck stared out the port of the spacedrome billets. Across the field was the Starwind, waiting for her morning’s launch. A rendezvous with the Galactus in orbit, and then out of the system. Once in free space, an ultimatum to Commander Tigh - accept a new mission, or face a mutiny. And then the crucial test. If Ravashol’s theories worked, they would be able to cross dimensions somehow. And they would search those dimensions for one man in particular, the one called Apollo.
It was madness. It was obsession. But Akilles and Ostara were both determined. And Ravashol and Willis were so fanatically certain their theories were correct that the others couldn’t be held back.
And he was the key they counted on. Somehow, that other Starbuck had left an alien imprint on his mind from the time they had been one. There were times he... sensed things, feelings and thoughts that weren’t his, sometimes about events that hadn’t happened, or people he hadn’t met, had never known. He knew there were memories in his mind from that stranger, from a life he’d never lived.
But there were other thoughts as well... Akilles was certain he was somehow still linked to that other Starbuck, that the Other was safely alive in his universe, and could be traced through the inexplicable bond to him.
And through Starbuck, to Apollo.
Somehow he knew the other Apollo was alive. But that wasn’t enough for the man’s wife and brother. They had to see him, had to see his world, and know for themselves.
“I didn’t ask for this,” he muttered.
He hadn’t asked for any of it. He hadn’t asked the strangers to come to his reality. He hadn’t asked to be accused of treason by High Command and cleared by the strangers. He hadn’t asked to share consciousness with that other self. He hadn’t asked for the link between them to remain when the Other left. He hadn’t asked Akilles for friendship in honor of the roles they’d played in conspiracy and the relationships of a stranger. He hadn’t asked to see Apollo die, or to be the instrument of avenging that murder.
Blood. And you left, and I was alone in the middle of nothing. Starbuck closed his eyes and leaned against the wall, feeling exhausted and very unhappy.
He wasn’t at all certain of the rightness of what they were doing – not that Akilles had given him any chance to voice his objections. Usually, he wanted the lingering sense of another man to go away and leave him alone to live his own life. He didn’t understand the occasional fascination that kept drawing him back to this madness. Was he as obsessed as the others, as needful of knowing? Did the stranger beckon from across whatever distances they would have to travel? Or was it a simpler fear of losing a friendship he now depended on, if he tried to express his feelings?
Akilles’s friendship wasn’t easy to possess. The man was egotistical, vain and arrogant, too self-assured, born into and at ease with a world in which Starbuck could never hope to be accepted. When he was angry or wanted something, he could probe for a man’s weak spot and attack the jugular like a ferocious predator, showing no mercy, leaving no shreds of dignity or self-respect. He expected obedience and absolute loyalty and frequently took them for granted. It was what he’d grown up with, what he expected from life – to be a leader in a society that expected him to lead.
And because society expected so much of him, he demanded much in return, but had a very cynical attitude toward that society. People and position were coldly measured against his own abilities and desires; what they wanted was balanced against what he could give and take.
Starbuck knew he wasn’t the easiest man to call friend either. From the vantage point of the Other, he could step outside himself and see who and what he was. He was stubborn and defensive, and tried to cover insecurity with bravado. He appreciated the material pleasures of life, probably because he hadn’t experienced many of them while growing up. He enjoyed gambling, partying, and the physical pleasures of love - they gave him a sense of worth, of control, of importance, however fleeting. It narrowed the outside world and its culture to small, manageable pieces. There was always a delight in winning that could make the past unimportant, for a few centons.
Each of the Warriors knew the other’s weaknesses and strengths by now.
Akilles was obsessed with his brother’s memory, and the cosmic significance of the Other’s very presence in their world; he was also touchy about suggestions that his position came from his parents’ power – he knew there was truth to the statement, but he was also very aware of his own abilities, and how his situation made it possible to fulfill his potential.
Starbuck’s background was a wounding-point, and all his bravado and easy approach to life could be swept away with one reference to it, or to an old friend, dead for yahrens, who might have died because of his failure.
Seeing the Boomer of that other existence had torn the old wounds open anew, then stitched them shut in new patterns. That Apollo had been a different man than his friend and his friend’s brother, fashioned in a barely gentler crucible.
Starbuck drew a deep breath, trying not to compare the men, trying to think only of his own world.
Akilles was a solid rock, an anchor, secure in his life, his goals, everything he did. He was more like a restless wind or sea wave, always moving, without any place to really call home except for life itself. Together, they seemed to balance and amplify each other’s strong points, and cover the weak. They were beginning to understand each other’s pasts, and how those pasts had made them. Their relationship was forging, finally, into a real friendship. They were no longer just shipmates, pilots and wingman, triad partners, or former conspirators who could still face judgment.
But what would happen in the new dimension? What kind of world would it be? What kind of people? What kind of enemy? Would they be able to function there, and fit in while they searched? What would happen to him if they encountered the other Starbuck again?
He couldn’t voice his fears. Akilles wouldn’t understand; how could he? He didn’t know what it felt like to have a shadowy stranger constantly in your mind, even after he should have been gone.
Starbuck knew that fear of weakness, and fear of showing weakness, had always been his most crippling flaws. Others might exploit a weakness, use it against him. Akilles was certainly capable of it.
I don’t want to lose myself. I have no choice but to play the role my friend has set for me. I can’t even tell him how I feel, not really. I’m not sure I know what I feel.
But it’s been getting worse, this feeling.
Something... Something is happening...
* * * * *
Apollo was exhausted. The escape from the shattered Colonies had been a nightmare, and the fleet survey was a disaster. Trying to make sense of it, and find one person hidden somewhere among those two-hundred-twenty vessels, quite likely present under an assumed identity – possibly more than one identity, perhaps even among their own crew – was impossible. Nonetheless, the captain followed the commander’s orders, and continued the search.
“Anything, Boomer?” he called across the chamber.
“Nothing, Apollo. If the information is correct, the crassidie should be aboard the Rising Star – probably another of Ortega’s ‘friends’ that we didn’t root out the first time. But is there any chance this’ll work? If this spy is there, we’ve got no way to identify him or her...”
“We’ve got to.” Apollo’s expression was grim. “The Cylons have a spy in the fleet. It’s the only explanation for the way they keep finding us. If we’d monitored that communication frequency, we’ve have found the spy a long time ago. As it is...”
He closed his eyes and sighed. To think of how long there’d been another traitor in the fleet was to remember all the brave warriors who’d fought and died every time the Cylons located the refugees. So many of his friends, so many from his squadron – and worse, his own family...
And only his own work with the equipment in the celestial observation dome had accidentally picked up a transmission when he’d been listening for signals from Earth.
“We’ve got to find him, Boomer, and soon. Might be our only chance...”
* * * * *
It distressed the crew of the Galactica that they had to keep half their scanners turned inward to monitor their own people. It had been a shock the first time they accidentally picked up a location beacon. Now they suspected everybody, every signal. Jamming their own vessels was distasteful, but not one of them refused. Their very survival was at stake. On the bridge, weary officers took double shifts, their eyes glued to screens and scanners covering the entire range of frequencies and fleet communications. In space, long patrols flew extra wide patterns, searching for any little clue that might mean the Cylons were closing again, that they would once more have to fight their way out of a trap, that some other danger threatened.
“Commander, autodistress just kicked in from Patrol Four, Bojay and Jolly.” Omega delivered the ominous report in a voice cracked with stress and exhaustion.
“Scramble the squadrons, standard defensive positions,” was the fatigued response. Tigh stared blearily at the fore port, scarcely seeing it. He didn’t have the energy to be furious. “Any transmissions?”
The flight officer glanced at the communication panel, then shook his head. “Nothing on any channel.”
They found us again – and with no transmissions. By Kobol, how? We’re running out of space to hide. What will it cost to survive this time? Adama, my friend, what I wouldn’t give to have you here now.
Baltar, that goll-monging daggit waste, why did he have to take you with him? Why did you have to die then? I would so gladly have taken your place, I should have insisted, I should never have let you try that mad plan. But you thought you could save the others...
Almost better if I hadn’t seen what has become of us. If you were alive, maybe you could have found the miracle to keep our people alive...
“Patrol Four just went silent,” Omega reported dully. His eyes were fixed on the empty scan screen.
The commander sighed softly. Bojay and Jolly, to be added to the litany of the dead, if any of their friends survived to memorialize them. “Let me know when the Cylons appear on our scanners, then launch intercept.”
No one questioned that it might be other than Cylons. It had been nothing but Cylons for sectons, since Baltar’s attempted escape, and the deliberate explosion that had set Alpha Bay irreparably aflame and cost Adama’s life. Nothing but Cylons and death.
* * * * *
The red alert klaxons drew the warriors from one grim duty to another. Captain Apollo and Lieutenant Boomer joined the general rush to Beta Bay and another launch, leaving a comp tech to close the files and prepare the chamber for attack. Intercept was already in space when Apollo and what was left of Blue Squadron reached their ships. They settled in to await further orders.
Someone was crying in a nearby Viper.
“What is it, Sheba?” Apollo asked softly, opening a private frequency.
“We... lost another patrol...” the woman whispered back hoarsely. “It... was Bojay... Bojay’s gone...”
Bojay. And if Bojay, then Jolly too. They’d been up together for today. Apollo felt grief settle like lead in his stomach. Jolly had been a friend for more yahrens than the captain cared to remember at the moment. Bojay had been with them since the loss of the Pegasus at Gamoray.
“Cylon attack phalanx, at least four squadrons’ worth. Decimating Intercept. Launch all remaining Vipers to defend the fleet,” came a somber order in his ear.
Apollo caught his breath as his Viper was thrown out into hostile space. Had they run out of time? It was doubtful if his battered, depleted squadrons could survive an attack of that magnitude. He hoped Commander Tigh was giving the scatter command to their civilian fleet. He tried to ignore the certainty that this time, they would lose. He had to try and think positively, convince himself it was worth fighting one more battle, or he would die too easily, mentally paralyzed and useless.
Bright flashes lit the stars around the fleet as he banked up and around the battlestar to meet the attackers. The flare of laser fire contacting targets, the explosions of those targets dying. Targets. Cylon Raiders and Colonial Vipers. Far too many of the latter, when there were far too few of them to start with. Humans dying with their ships. The traitor in the fleet had done his job too well, he concluded bitterly.
“Heads up, Captain, we’re in it now!”
Instinct pulled the ship out of the line of fire; Boomer took out the attacker; then they were fighting in earnest. Bracketed by enemy fire, forced to concentrate on every move and make every shot count, surrounded by growing amounts of drifting debris that made the battle ever more dangerous, it took several centons for the cries of his companions to sink into Apollo’s consciousness.
“The Rising Star! Lords of Kobol, they got the-”
The voice ended abruptly, but the captain glanced out his cockpit and saw what was meant. The starliner had become an eerily glowing fireball that disintegrated into nothingness as he watched.
He abruptly became aware that there were other such explosions among the ships of the fleet. His stomach tightened, and he nearly threw up. There were Raiders among the fleet, and ships were dying. Too many Cylon ships, from the wrong directions. A second Cylon attack wave? Why hadn’t the bridge warned them?
“Galactica, what’s happening?” he called. “Where are they coming from?”
There was no response.
“Do you hear me, Galactica?”
“Where’s our base ship?” he asked desperately.
“Apollo, I can’t see them; what do we do?” a panicked voice called.
“Defend the fleet!” he ordered. “Drive those Raiders off.” He followed his command by veering toward the fleet, now quite obviously under attack from at least two sides.
Where in hades was the Galactica?
* * * * *
Multi-colored smoke drifted in lazy patterns through the large, closed space, making breathing difficult, stingingly painful; the air circulation units no longer functioned. Flames danced across the left side of the bridge; several techs worked futilely with small boroton mist containers, trying to control the fires before they reached anything more vital. On various consoles, sparks were the only illumination left. The surviving crew stayed fatalistically at their posts, having nowhere else to go that was in any way safe. Two basestars had been confirmed somewhere around them; Raiders were devastating the fleet. The Cylons were also making ramming runs on the battlestar, and each was doubling the damage of previous strikes.
On the command deck, two officers struggled to throw aside the fallen girder and free themselves. After a moment, the woman fell into a choking spasm, then convulsed once and lay still.
“Athena?” the other breathed.
“Omega?” the commander called hopelessly, giving up for the moment. “Any report?”
“Most of our communications and scanners are out,” the flight officer reported through his coughing. “Other parts of the ship are on fire. Still can’t get through to Life Center or the bay. Last report from our Vipers is another basestar moving in...” He halted for a moment to clear smoke from his lungs, then continued hollowly. “Several ships in the fleet reporting heavy attack, begging for assistance...”
Doomed, he thought. “Can we launch missiles?”
“No response from missile bays gamma through zeta; alpha and beta are exhausted, out of firepower; iota on fire. With our main energizer out, we can’t power up most of the lasers...”
The ship shuddered under another ramming run.
Something gave somewhere, and took its dying revenge on the command deck. Omega’s board flared and exploded. The flight officer screamed. Small lightnings ran over his suddenly rigid body. Then he fell, smelling of charred skin, hair, and fabric.
His body was in reach. Tigh discovered he could just reach out and touch the dead man’s face. He felt tears; for all that he hadn’t been able to cry for the fleet’s death around them, for his own imminent death when the girder fell and pinned him, he now mourned the death of the young officer he’d worked with for these past few yahrens.
Then another Cylon impacted against their fore port. Explosions reached the second energizer and the solium storage compartments at the same time.
The Galactica tore herself apart.
* * * * *
“Oh... my... God...” Boomer had been following the Raider, trying to get a clear shot or drive it off from its target. He had failed. As close to his base ship as he was, he couldn’t veer away in time. As the battlestar died, her fireball reached out to capture a dozen of her finest warriors, and took them as honor guard into hades.
* * * * *
“No! No, no, no...” The Galactica was gone. Her friends were dying fast, the fleet even faster. Sheba cried, and didn’t care. She couldn’t see what was going on around her. She never noticed the Raider closing on her. The collision made a small explosion, barely discernible and insignificant in the star-fury battle.
* * * * *
Apollo heard the cries of his pilots. Through their shocked voices, he made out his base ship’s fate. The Galactica was dead. All those people, friends and fellow warriors, all gone. And the fleet would soon be gone as well; the ships were breaking formation and trying to run, but the Cylons were now concentrating on the civilian vessels. They knew the few surviving pilots were no longer a threat. The Cylon goal now was the destruction of what was left of humanity. The Colonies’ lingering death would soon be over.
Including the death of what was left of his family.
His sister, Athena, undoubtedly on the bridge and fighting to the end, probably with no more than a micron to realize they had lost. Had there been time for her to scream? Had she wanted to? Had she felt anger at their... at his failure to protect her?
His son, Boxey, somewhere in that firestorm. Had the boy felt fear and pain as the end came for him? Had he cried out for his father, or merely hugged his daggit closer and accepted it? The boy had been through so much, maybe he’d just been glad it was over.
“Sagan...” the captain groaned in emotional agony.
Fire. They were gone in fire, like so many others. He didn’t want to die in fire...
Apollo would never know what hit him at that point, what rocked his ship and knocked out a dozen systems, what threw him to one side, unprepared, and stole his consciousness.
* * * * *
The universe merely winked out, then reappeared around them in a single micron. If anything had changed, the difference was too minuscule to tell from their current location. The bridge crew of the Starwind glanced around at each other, some disappointed, some anticipatory. As if a command had been given, each then turned from the fore screen to his or her own console.
Commander Tigh drew a deep breath and glanced at the man to his right. “Well, Dr. Ravashol?”
The elderly man glowed beatifically, leaning forward on his cane to catch a better view of the stars on the screen, stroking his beard with his free hand. He focused on one star, then another. “Yes, yes...”
“Yes, what?” the black officer demanded more crisply, unable to keep the rage and scorn from his voice. “Is your experiment a success? Have we crossed dimensions on this insane odyssey you and your mutineers have concocted?”
He directed an acid glance at Major Akilles, standing beside Omega at the main console. Their uniforms might carry the same star-and-spiral insignia, but Tigh felt a great distance between his blue and their tan. Their mutiny left a bitter taste in his mouth and a lurking fear and anger in his mind.
“We have at the very least crossed a tremendous distance. I would estimate more than thirty lightyahrens.”
“More like forty-seven,” Omega commented, glancing up from the helm reports. “And if Starbuck’s ‘hunches’ can be believed we’re going in the right direction.”
Tigh stared at the captain for a moment, then forced his gaze back to Ravashol. “So you’ve invented a way to cross tremendous distances almost instantaneously,” he forced out, still unwilling to concede the battle – or his own growing fascination with it. “How do you know if we’ve crossed... dimensions, as you put it, if that’s even possible? Which, I will repeat, I have my doubts about.”
“Commander, you are too much the skeptic!” Ravashol returned gleefully. “I, on the other hand, have faith-”
“In your own vanity!”
“Now, now, Tigh. Captain, are any other reports available? Spacial distortion? Ship integrity?”
“All systems showing green,” reported one of the husky Ser- Five Thetas.
“Excellent, excellent. But now, my friends, I have a great many things to check out, systems to test, you understand. Tigh, Akilles, the next steps are for you to decide so I will get on with my work.”
He limped his way off the bridge, muttering briskly, trailing several of his worshipful clones.
Major Akilles leaned over Captain Omega’s shoulder, conferring quietly. Tigh snorted once at them, then stalked forward to stand beside Athena at the scan station. The others remained at their various posts, studiously avoiding the difficult situation of being in mutiny against their commander. It was not a pleasant feeling.
One warrior stood apart from the rest, at the rear of the bridge where no one could see him without turning. Starbuck stared blankly forward, feeling something wrong, but unsure what it could be.
He chewed his lip nervously, and shook his head.
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t know.”
Akilles frowned. “Explain, Lieutenant. What’s wrong?” he demanded more crisply. “The evidence says we’ve crossed dimensions exactly as we planned. If you think something’s wrong, tell me what it is.”
“If I knew I’d tell you... but it feels like... fear? Death? Something is wrong, but... I don’t know what...”
The major stared at him searchingly for a long centon, but Starbuck could only shake his head.
“We’re picking up something.”
Everyone turned at Athena’s call.
“What is it?” Akilles crossed the deck eagerly.
The expression on her face slowly turned wary, then bleakly horrified. “Debris. A lot of it, as though... as though a number of ships... Radiation from ship explosions, heat-stressed rubble. As though a fleet...”
Cold fear swept over them all; even Tigh was ashen.
“Any identification?” the major asked after a few numb centons. “Who built the ships, can you tell? Who or what destroyed them? Is the enemy still in the vicinity?”
“The ships appear to have been primarily Colonial, with a few recognizably Cylon vessels as well. If I didn’t know better...” She had to stop to take a deep breath and control her quavering voice. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say the Galactus was among them... There’s nothing else, it looks like we’re the only live ship in the quadrant...”
“Keep scanning, tell me if anything shows up...”
“No...” Only Akilles heard Starbuck’s whisper.
“Is this what was wrong? Did we arrive just in time for his death?” he demanded accusingly, as if the warrior could somehow be blamed for all this.
Starbuck’s eyes were closed, but tears ran down his cheeks, and he seemed to be fighting for breath.
“Is this what was wrong?”
“No... I don’t know what’s wrong, but this... this feels empty, not right...”
“It’s empty because he’s dead, you’re dead, they’re both dead, we’re too late. Apollo’s gone and so are his people.”
Starbuck refused to open his eyes. Somewhere inside, he knew that was wrong, but he had no idea how he knew, or what was right. He kept looking for the thread to lead him forward, but he couldn’t find it.
* * * * *
I don’t want to die in fire! The words were a scream echoing in his brain as Apollo slowly regained consciousness. He had no memory of where the thought had come from, only felt the agony of it in his mind. Death by fire...
He blinked back to true alertness, trying to ignore the throbbing in his head, the burning in his hands, the stabbing in his chest with every breath, the cold that seemed to be creeping into his fingers and toes.
There was nothing around him. He stared through the shattered windows of his breached canopy and wondered for a moment why he was still alive; belatedly he recalled the small force screen of his helmet and flightsuit, and the built-in life support vapors and pressurization that could keep a pilot alive for several centars in an emergency.
But where was the rescue team that should have picked him up by now? He glanced at his control panels. Nothing glowed; all was lifeless and dark – scanners, com, everything. That explained it; his automatic distress beacon must be out, along with everything else.
Space around him began to make an impact. It looked... wrong.
Memory slowly filtered back, and he knew.
“No...” he whispered.
The fleet was gone, gone, battlestar and all. He had seen his friends dying, seen his base ship explode, seen the fires consume other ships before... before his own world went dark and he thought he was dead.
But he was alive, trapped in a drifting, dead ship in the middle of the rubble of a dead fleet, with no hope of rescue or future. Already dead, they just hadn’t killed his body yet; that would take a little time, until his support vapors ran out and he asphyxiated, or the heating in his suit died and he froze, or he hit some of that debris and exploded or ruptured his tenuous bond with life, or he found a way to speed the inevitable.
“No... no... no...”
Already dead. Inevitable.
He hadn’t wanted to die in fire. Some unholy creature had mockingly answered that plea. He would die in cold.
* * * * *
“I think we’re picking up a life form.” Athena was steady now, as was the rest of the crew. “One Viper, badly damaged and powered down, but her pilot’s still alive.”
“Launch rescue,” Tigh commanded briskly.
The bridge crew responded promptly. Even as he hopped into the lift that would take him to the launch bay, Starbuck beside him, Akilles realized how easily Tigh had stepped in, and how easy it had been to obey. They might have to be careful, he thought, frowning. Wound as tightly as a spring, the thought haunted the edge of his mind as they launched a tow shuttle and escort.
* * * * *
They brought it in, more wreck than ship. Their medic, a doctor named Cassandra, was standing by as Ser-Five techs tore off the fractured canopy and unwedged the pilot. They couldn’t tell, through the frost on his clothes, gear, hair and face, who the man was - and there was no guarantee they would know him anyway. The Thetas gently settled the pilot on a gurney and stood aside for the doctor to do her work.
“Frostbite, shock, some internal injuries, concussion,” Cassandra announced in her soft, professional voice. “Get him to the life bay.”
Akilles pushed his way past the Thetas and grabbed the woman’s arm. “Just a micron, please. Can he talk? Can we ask him questions?” he demanded urgently.
“No, Major, I think it would be better if you wait until later...”
Akilles stared, no longer hearing. It was a face he knew so very, very well, had seen behind him most of his life, but only in dreams and holos for the past two yahrens.
Cheeks too pale, but with color slowly returning; dark hair matted with melting rime and clotted blood; mouth champed from frustration or grief and skin chapped from cold. The face looked older than it should have, older than Akilles did, but he recognized it. The uniform was different from theirs, of a similar tan but with red or dark brown on the sleeves, no flight jacket, and a large insignia at the left shoulder.
That was inconsequential.
“Apollo,” he whispered, dropping to his knees beside the gurney. He grabbed one cold hand. “Apollo?”
Green eyes opened listlessly, staring at nothing.
“Apollo? Is it you?”
A heavy sigh that ended in a pained sound.
“You’re safe, little brother. You’re safe, we’re here. What happened? Can you tell me?”
“Major, please!” the doctor interjected in aggravation. “Let him rest, it may hurt him now to have to remember what happened-”
“Cassie?” The injured man started at the voice. His mouth twitched into what might have been meant for a smile.
Akilles grabbed her arm and pulled her down beside him. “You recognize Dr. Cassandra?”
Confusion replaced the blankness on his face. “Cassie? Castalia? Where’s...”
“The name difference, almost the same people, but different names, other little things,” Akilles said rapidly. He glanced around.
The others were already there. His brother Ares, cousin Artemis, friend Starbuck, and sister-in-law Ostara knelt to join the small cluster around the gurney.
“Apollo, do you recognize us?”
There was wonder in Apollo’s face now as he focused on them all.
“Alive...? Artemis? Ares? How...? Akilles, how...? The Cylons... the fleet... our people...” His voice caught in pain; gasped sobs racked his injured body; tears appeared in his eyes.
Akilles rose and stepped back numbly. “We’re too late,” he said woodenly.
“The Cylons got to the fleet. There’s nothing left.”
“Apollo’s left.” Ostara stared uncertainly down at the man on the gurney, torn between hope and fear.
“But does he know you?” Akilles demanded. “What does he remember about you? If anything?”
“Major!” the doctor entreated.
As Ostara took the injured man’s hand, Akilles had to admit that Apollo was left. That was why they’d come - but what a bitter thing to find, that in this universe their people had not only lost the war but met the final destruction the Cylons had planned...
He saw Apollo grope for the woman with his half-frozen fingers. The twitching half-smile again. Ostara took his hand between hers, rubbing it gently, smiling tremulously. Akilles saw tears in her eyes as well. It was the first time he remembered seeing her cry since the memorial...
Apollo didn’t even look at Starbuck.
“Apollo, what happened to Starbuck?” Akilles asked, pointing at the lieutenant. When Apollo didn’t respond, he deliberately turned the man’s face toward Starbuck, despite Cassandra’s repeated protests. “What about Starbuck?”
No recognition showed in his eyes. Starbuck felt empty as Apollo stared through him. “Who...?”
The pieces fell into place, and he understood.
“He doesn’t know me,” Starbuck announced with certainty in the eerily silent bay. “He doesn’t know me. I never existed here – not long enough to have grown up, at least, or become a pilot, or met him. We crossed dimensions, but we’re in the wrong one. We haven’t found the man we’re looking for. This Apollo doesn’t know me, he never did. There’s more than one reality out here, and we aren’t in the one we’re looking for.” He took a deep breath. “And we may never be.”
The thought was a relief to him. He hadn’t realized how tense he was, with so much at stake, and so much of it hanging on him. The shock of knowing their people had lost and died in this universe made the thought of going back very tempting. No more burden on him, no more fear of what they might find.
“We could look forever and not find the right world. The man we want may not be alive any more. We’re wasting our time and spending ourselves for nothing. We might as well go home.”
* * * * *
Athena made the report to her ostensible commander and the flight commander. “We analyzed the data in his computer banks and in the material we recovered from the battle scene. The history of these Colonials is similar to ours, but they were definitely losing the war. The Cylons devastated everything in their version of the False Peace.”
“And this?” Commander Tigh asked, seeing Akilles still staring out the viewport, barely listening.
“They just lost the final battle. The fleet of survivors is destroyed...”
Athena seemed to be having difficulty keeping a steady voice. “From some of the Cylon computers, they set a trap here, based on information from a spy in the fleet. They were waiting; they’ve been waiting all along.”
“A trap?” Akilles spoke for the first time. He didn’t turn; he watched his reflection in the viewport.
His sister nodded.
He sighed. “The wrong place. And too late.”
“Yes.” Athena glanced at the third man in their meeting and added, “We were able to extract their personnel information almost intact. No evidence of anybody named Starbuck in the Service within the last twenty yahrens. If Starbuck even existed here, he died before he could join the service, and he and Apollo never met.”
Starbuck continued to stare at the table, contributing nothing to the discussion.
Tigh took a deep breath. “Might I suggest we visit our guest again, Major?”
“What good will it do?”
Akilles followed him, gesturing to Starbuck to join them as well. With some reluctance, he did so.
* * * * *
Tigh stared down at his old friend’s middle son – or the image of him, in the youth from another dimension. In pain, tortured worst by his own memories, perhaps over the edge of sanity... Go home, and do nothing more? Go home, and grieve for the rest of his life for what could have been, should have been, might have been? Not knowing that it could have happened again? When the means to prevent it was here, at his command?
“No, we’re not going home,” he muttered harshly.
Akilles stared grimly at him, still half in shock. He’d never thought beyond finding Apollo and his refugee people. He hadn’t considered they might wind up in the wrong place, or maybe in the right place, but too late.
“Our mission stands, Major,” the commander grated out. “We will find your Apollo and your Starbuck. We will find them and warn them. That is our mission as warriors, to protect our people. We will find them; we will warn them and protect them as best we can, if we have to spend the rest of our lives hopping between universes. We can’t do nothing and let this happen to our people again, in any world.”
Tigh glanced at Dr. Ravashol. “Get back to your formulas, Ravashol. Starbuck, help him. Set new coordinates, find a way to take us to the right dimension.”
“I have duties to tend to also,” Akilles said, admiration and determination creeping through his tone.
The three left the medical chamber, leaving Tigh and the doctor watching over the wounded soul.
After a few centons, Tigh announced, “I’m going to the bridge, Cassandra. Call me if I’m needed, if Apollo has anything to say.”
“Yes, Commander,” the doctor replied respectfully.
Tigh returned to the bridge, for the first time feeling truly in command of the Starwind. The reaction of the crew when he arrived confirmed it; Akilles had already been there, and Tigh realized this was now his ship.
“Prepare for another dimension hop,” he announced, moving to his command dais. “We’ll be leaving this graveyard soon. And Lords willing, we won’t see it happen again.”