"Where is my wingman?"
Boomer looked up from his card gamewhere Starbuck wasn'tand grinned, a flash of white teeth in his usually solemn dark face. "It's not my secton to watch him," he said.
"Very funny. We're supposed to launch in five centons, and he's nowhere to be found."
"Well, it's not like you're going into combat," said Jolly.
"No," Apollo answered with annoyance. "But we are the peace envoy. We really shouldn't be late. It'll be rude."
"And the gods forfend we should be rude to the Cylons," put in Barley, who was loitering in the ready room after his shift to sit in the card game. "Sorry, sir," he added quickly.
Apollo just shook his head. How could you disagree with that? But still, he had to find Starbuck. Before he could ask again, Flight Sergeant Giles spoke up. "I think he's in the locker room still."
"Oh, for crying..." Apollo made a frustrated gesture and headed for the lockers.
Starbuck was only half dressed, a green towel around his neck and one of his fumarellos in his hand. He was talking with Zac, fully uniformed though his squadron wasn't on duty at the moment. Apollo took a brief moment to look at his little brotherlittle! He was a head taller alreadyand the suppressed excitement and pleading he could see there told its own story. Carefully keeping his face stern, he demanded to know why Starbuck wasn't ready yet.
His blond wingmate appeared at a loss for words, but Zac jumped right in. "Starbuck's not feeling well."
"Oh, no. That's too bad." Apollo met Starbuck's guileless gaze, avoiding looking at Zac. "We still need to go..." He shook his head and asked, ignoring the fact that an entire squadron was sitting in the ready room, well, ready, "I wonder where I can find someone to take your place at such short notice?"
"Well, that's lucky, isn't it, Starbuck?" Apollo said, and then he couldn't keep a straight face any longer. Zac's whoop nearly shattered his eardrums.
"Look, Apollo," Starbuck said after Zac had dashed out, "Listen, maybe I oughta go along..."
"No," Apollo shook his head. "It's all right, Starbuck. It's not combat."
Apollo waved Starbuck's offer aside. "No, he's gonna be just fine. You know he is. I just don't know how he conned you into this."
Starbuck smiled. "Conned me? You've got it backwards, Pol. Who's going to be on a six-centare flight making nice with Cylons, and who's going to be here playing cards?"
Apollo laughed. "Taking advantage of my baby brother?"
His wingmate shook his head and pulled the towel off, tossing it into his locker. Apollo felt the same flutter in his stomach he always did at the sight of him. "He really wants to go. And I didn't think you'd mind."
Apollo reined in his emotions, promising himself a real celebration later. "I don't. I just don't know how you do it. He worships the ground your shadow passes over."
Starbuck grinned. "Makes it easy to say yes to him. You should try it."
Apollo just shook his head. "You're vain enough as it is."
"Look, Apollo," Starbuck sobered. "Take care out there. Both of you," he added.
Apollo smiled again. "Don't worry, Starbuck. I'm coming back." And then he had to leave.
And he did come back. But when the battle was over, Starbuck didn't.
And he wasn't the only one.
Space around Cimtar was crowded. Gods knew how many Raiders there were--a helluva lot more than Starbuck had ever seen in one place before. And it wasn't like he'd led a sheltered war, either; he'd been in some vicious actions. Not Molecay, not the Cosmora Archipelago, but Semtek and Sarabahandra and Galsa...
Cimtar was shaping up to be worse than anything he'd seen before. Already he'd seen the Atlantia go up (the President, the Council...) and the battlezone was filling rapidly with debris, the shattered pieces of capital ships, the corpses of smaller ones, and the scattered hazards of Vipers and Raiders... Here and there Starbuck even saw Pythons and Cobras, but not many. Not enough time to get them ready, the carriers hadn't been ready themselves. Of all the Viper squadrons available at Cimtar, less than a sixthHades, probably less than a twelfthhad launched. Only the ready squadrons, and not all of them had even launched. The Armistice. The Cylons are our friends now...
And only on the Galactica had all the squadrons been ready, sitting in launch tubes and bitching at Ops. 'What's the frackin' idea? The Armistice isn't a centare away. I hate the frackin' service.' Only the Galactica had gotten everyone launched. 'Starbuck, take Red; I've got the Wing...' Only her. It wasn't enough. It wasn't anything like enough.
Cimtar was a massacre.
Starbuck thought he was going to die today.
Death wasn't something he'd spent much time contemplating. He didn't court it, but he didn't run from it either. If he'd been honest with himself he'd have admitted he didn't expect to grow old, but on the other hand he really wanted to. Especially now... But everyone died, and Viper pilots did more often than others. At least this was a good death, taking Cylons with him.
Starbuck hated Cylons, fiercely, passionately, personally. He'd learned to hide it under an acceptable veneer of jocular contempt, but it blazed in him more strongly than any other emotioneven, he admitted in dark lonely nights, his love for Apollo. He'd always known, somewhere inside himself, since the day Umbra had been destroyed, that when he died it would be Cylons that killed him.
He hadn't thought he'd go down with the whole Fleet...
He shook the foreboding off and continued to fight. He hadn't heard Apollo's voice in his ear since the battle began. He thought the Captain was more than likely on the battlestar, reporting to the Commander. Adama might not let his only surviving son out of his sight if he could help it; the commander was scrupulously fair but he was human. He loved his children. He'd loved Zac and lost him just centares ago. He loved Apollo; he'd hold on to him.
Starbuck forced his mind away from his own bone-deep desire to hold on to Apollo. This wasn't the time.
We'll meet again on the other side of the River before the day is done.
He shook his head fiercely, clearing it of all thoughts of love. Apollo, his other self. Zac, beloved lost little brother. Athena, fierce and confused sister. Adama... father... He couldn't think of them. Any of them. There was no time. If he died, he died, but he couldn't die one micron earlier than need be.
There were too many Cylons here to die just yet.
"Holy frack," Giles's voice came over the tactical channel. "The Pacifica..."
Starbuck looked where the battlestar should have been if her trajectory had remained unchanged since the last time he'd seen her. Fire along her spine bore witness to hull breaches letting oxygen into space, and dark screens to lost power. She was dying, as the Atlantia had died. Two battlestars killed in as many centares, and only one ever before, lost Pegasus...
"She's too close to the Pardia," Giles said even as he spun his Viper between two oncoming Raiders, taking one out as he did. "Sweet Sagan, they'll both go"
And they did, in ponderous slow-motion that no one could stop or reverse. The dying Pacifica rammed her sister, splitting her open, and they both shuddered into the deadly blossom of flame that meant their crews were past praying for.
Someone else swore, a voice Starbuck didn't know. A pilot off one of the lost battlestars, no doubt, close enough to be heard. Another orphan. Like them all.
The dark shape of another battlestar crossed his peripheral vision. The Columbia, he thought, not able to read her name but knowing the Galactica like he knew his lover, unable to mistake her for another even in the dark. Even in death. He spared a moment to scan the battlezone, but he couldn't see his home ship. Gone...
Adama. Athena. Tigh. Jenny. Omega. Rigel.
He pushed it all away, locked it up, and threw away the key.
Fracking Cylons, you don't get us that easily.
His IFF beeped at him, insanely during a fight like this. He'd disabled warning on Raiders, turned off the 'friend' option altogether; his eyes were better in this mess and no one was trying to sneak up...
He stopped himself before he turned it off and looked. Frack! A base star, just in sensor range. Clearly only a tiny percentage of the Cylon force had come here on it, but undoubtedly this was why the attack was so well-coordinated.
"Gi," he snapped at his wingmate, "Boomer, anyone in range: base star. We have to take it out."
"Go up against a base star? Starbuck, you're crazy," Boomer protested. "You know how many guard ships it'll have out?"
"Has to be done," Starbuck said. "Come on, who's with me? You want to live forever?" And without another word he rolled his Viper and dove for the base star.
"We're all insane," said Boomer, but Blue's acting leader followed Red's, and at least forty other Vipers followed them both.
One base star was worse than two. With two, you could get in between them and manage to keep them from firing. With one, nothing stopped the guns until you got, as the terminology still called it, under them. But clearly, today, the tin cans hadn't expected anyone to leave the battlezone and come at the base star: there were only six Raiders on guard. And six Raiders might as well be none; it wasn't Cylon skill that had kept the war going for a millennium, it was numbers. Like today.
But that only made getting in range easy. It didn't make taking the base star down easy. They had to avoid the pulsar guns, which was easy enough: those were designed for fighting capital ships and planetary installations. But the blaster turrets were another story, and until they got close enough to slide through the shields, their weapons had little effect. A lot of them didn't; enough of them did. The herd effect, Starbuck remembered, in one of those moments of detachment that sometimes come in the midst of chaos, a teacher at the academy calling it. Too many targets, some of them have to survive.
Under the guns, inside the shield, each shot twice as dangerous but effective. That oddly vulnerable Cylon design. Beams of charged deuterium everywhere: theirs taking out chunks of base star, littering the fly space with solid obstacles as well as plasma; Cylons' taking out friends, leaving Vipers in pieces as well. No time for thought, only reaction.
And then Starbuck saw the signs of victory: the base star was hanging on the edge of total immolation. Too close, his mind yammered at him, too close, get away. Some part of him still wanted to live. Amazing.
"Let's get out of here!" he yelled at those who were left and peeled out through the tattered shields. When the base star went up, it wouldn't pay to be in the immediate vicinity, not in something smaller than a cruiser at any rate. Half those who'd gone in with him came out, running from the impending explosion. Two of them were still too close when it happened, spinning into each other as chunks of tinhead impacted them. But the rest survived to slow down as adrenaline ran out, coast and turn to look behind them.
At Hell. The sixth at least, if not the seventh... Violence and treason. Not a single battlestar remained intact. Cruisers, frigates, and destroyers drifted, shattered and broken. Hundreds of Vipers. Thousands of Raiders. Molecay writ large.
Death as far as the eye could see, or the sensor could scan.
Except right beside him, where seventeen Vipers gathered, instinctively taking fours formation on Starbuck. Out of the fight, suddenly not being shot at, and with the evidence so clear before them of loss and defeatwords not strong enoughnone of them were moving. It was The Last Battle.
And somehow they'd been spared.
Starbuck didn't recognise the voice. And he couldn't answer the question. There was really only one thing to do, given the near exhaustion of fuel cells and ordnance, and that was find Cylons and die. But there were no Cylons moving across the death zone, only along the far edge as they gathered near their tankers, moving purposefully away from Cimtar. And why not? he thought wearily. They'd achieved their purpose. In all the Colonies there weren't a half dozen warships left.
In all the Colonies. Sweet Sagan, was that where the base stars were?
"What now?" Giles's voice interrupted his thoughts. "I'm on fumes, and got two shots left."
"You're better off than me," another stranger said.
The silence was expectant. Starbuck had nothing to offer. After a moment, he said, "Boomer?"
The Leonid's calm voice wasn't, really, but closer than Starbuck's had been. "Don't ask me, Bucko... My gods."
Frack the gods, was Starbuck's immediate thought.
And then another voice interrupted, on the main channel. "Colonial Warriors?"
"Identify yourself," Starbuck answered, training overriding emotion.
"This is... well, Cimlak Mistberries agrostation," the voice said. "They passed us by. I can feed you, refuel some of you..." He trailed off.
"Refuel? You have a refueling station?" Starbuck asked, a plan beginning to take shape.
"A station, yes. Fuel pods for warships? No. But I could jack 'em out of your Vipers, give a few of you full charges."
"We can scavenge," Starbuck said. "Fuel and ordnance. Sagan knows there's enough of it floating around out there. Give us a beam, Cimlak."
Boomer cut in on two. "What if it's a trap?"
Starbuck snorted. "We aren't dangerous enough for a trap, Boomer. They'd just come in and do us. And if I'm wrong, what's the alternative?"
No one had an answer for that. So Starbuck locked on the directional beam and led them to Cimlak, a covered agrostation on one of Cimtar's small companions. The Old Moon itself bulked large in the sky, spoiled by black scars, but Cimlak had indeed escaped being fired on.
"Too small to bother about, I reckon," said the man who walked across the field to meet them. "Just me and my grandson, anyway. And he's gone... off to school last sectare. Name's Trent." He held out a hand, a tall gray-haired man with keen blue eyes filled, at least now, with desolation. It was a familiar expression: Starbuck could see it in the other pilots'. It was probably in his.
"Starbuck," he said. "Thanks for your hospitality."
The old man shook his head. "Don't mention it... What the hell happened here?" he added suddenly.
"We were betrayed," Boomer said. "Simple as that. My name's Boomer, off the Galactica, like Starbuck here."
The rest of the pilots crowded round, introducing themselves, hungry for the sight of a civilian if Starbuck's own emotions were any guide. He filed away the names and ships, the Pardia, Columbia, Atlantia, carriers of the Falca, Accipitrida and Aquila classeseven one from Apollo's old ship, the Acky-D, though he looked too young to remember back five yahrens. One woman, a tech-sergeant by her uniform, who identified herself as "Eliseadh, a viper mech off the Pardiawe had more fighters ready to go than pilots, so a couple of us took one." She'd fought well enough to be standing there, and Starbuck wouldn't have cared if she'd been a cook before. Neither would anyone else, it seemed.
No captains, he noticed. Lieutenants, flight officers, an ensign, a couple of sergeants. Boomer probably ranked everyone. For whatever that means now.
"Come on," Trent was saying. "Let me give you something to eat and drink. We can work out how we're going to refuel and rearm you later."
"We need to get it done," said Starbuck. "We need to get to the Colonies as soon as we can."
Eighteen pairs of eyes fastened on him. "Sweet Lords," said one of them, Atlantia's Flight Officer Felix. "You think they hit there, too?"
"Where were the base stars?"
"Gods," Ensign Hastur, a teenager still, from the Falca Antagonista, said. "All their fleet..."
"We don't know," said Boomer, calmingly. "Could be."
"Commercial broadcast is out," Trent said.
And another strained young voice: "Oh, gods. My folks..."
"We'll go," Starbuck said, turning to look at them. "We'll go just as soon as we can. Won't do anybody any good if we die adrift halfway there. And we'll take payment once we're there. Make no mistake."
"But if the Colonies are conquered"
"Then we start a rebellion. Tinheads can't beat humans, not in a fight. But we have to do it right."
"Starbuck's right," said Giles. "One step at a time, and don't go imagining things." His tone was a sergeant steadying the young officers, and it seemed to work.
"Let's eat," Starbuck said. "We can rest in shifts after we get a couple of Vipers set to retrieve what we need."
"I've got an old tanker," Trent said. "Maybe we could pull in fighters with that?"
"We'll take a look. Okay, Boomer?"
"Don't ask me," he said. "Looks like you're in charge."
"Come on, your date of rank is '44. Mine's '45."
"Mine's '42," said one of the other lieutenants, Aquila Furiosa's Philemon. "But I don't want it. You're the one led us here; you're the captain far's I'm concerned."
Starbuck started to protest but Trent cut in. "Settle that sort of thing later, why don't you?" he suggested. "When you're not so tired and cranky."
"Cranky?" Giles said and laughed. "Great word choice."
"I don't know about you, but I'm cranky as hell, myself," Eliseadh said. "Eating's probably a good idea."
Trent jerked his head toward the station house. "Come on, then, young'uns," he said.
Starbuck reached out and grabbed Boomer's sleeve, holding him back. "Hold it, Boomer."
"Like the man said," Boomer started.
"I don't want to have this out with a bunch of strangers. I'm not taking command."
Boomer sighed. "Forget all your usual felgar about responsibility, Starbuck. This isn't normal. You heard what's his name, two years senior to me: he followed you. They all didwe all did."
"You said I was crazy."
"I did. You were. I still followed. Give it up. If you fight this too hard, it won't work at all."
Starbuck paused. He could see that. But he didn't want it, and he said so.
"You took it," Boomer said. "You can't give it back. This isn't a game."
"You're senior to me," Starbuck made one last try. "I'll follow you."
"Even if that was true, I can't do this."
"What makes you think I can?"
"Starbuck, I could be a captain, a colonel even. But that's not what we need. We need passion, not procedure. You know as well as I, if the commercial broadcasts are off, if Trent can't get anythingThe Cylons don't want to conquer us. They want to exterminate us."
"And what better chance than the one we just handed them?" Starbuck nodded. "We're all dead already, there's just nothing else to do. Except roll over for them. Which I won't."
"Exactly," Boomer nodded. "We're all going to die out here, but you can fire us up to make dying mean something. You did it already, man, don't you see that? They wouldn't have followed me into that hellfireif I would have thought of going. They followed you."
"I'm not a leader"
"The hell," Boomer said almost savagely. "You're not a commanding officer, maybe, not captain material. But we don't need a fracking administrator, a captain. We need a warrior. You're a lousy soldier, Bucko, but you're a great warrior. A brilliant one."
"But you're senior."
"Nobody gives a good frack about that," Boomer said. "Look at us, Starbuck. We are the Fleet, don't you see? There's nobody else left. Nowhere. Just us. Just you."
Starbuck stared at him, feeling a great emptiness opening up inside, an emptiness that had only his hate to fill it, and then nodded. "All right. I'll do it. I'll get us back to the Colonies. But, Boomer," he reached out and took the other man's arm. "You better never get three metrons away from me."
Boomer actually laughed.
Apollo led the way onto the freighter Gemini, followed by a couple of unenthusiastic Warriors. He couldn't blame them: solium poisoning wasn't something anybody wanted to risk. But that was the point, after all: most of these ships were so old solium leaks were a virtual guarantee. The only reason anybody was trusting the majority of them at all was because there simply was no choice. You got onto the Gemini or one of its fellows or you got left behind.
Too many had been left behind as it was. Apollo was only just beginning to take an interest in life again, instead of just going through the motions, and he was fervently glad that he hadn't had to be the one who'd had to make those decisions. It had aged his father ten yahrens, if not more.
That and losing his wife and younger son. Apollo's mother and little brother.
Siress Ila wasn't Apollo's fault, though she was a huge part of his grief, but Zac was. And Zac was more guilt than he could bear, sometimes. He shouldn't have let Zac go. Whatever mistake the kid had made, Starbuck wouldn't have made it. Starbuck would have gotten back... And that was worse than the guilt he felt over killing his little brother, the guilt he felt over wishing Starbuck had been with him so that he'd have survived Cimtar.
Because losing Starbuck was the hardest thing.
He'd felt so guilty over that he'd actually told the counselor he'd seen. She'd listened to him as he worried over how bad he was to miss one person as much, if not more, than all the others: the friends like Boomer who hadn't returned from the battle and all those who'd died at home, mother, brother, cousins, friends, acquaintances, the whole of the Colonies. She'd asked him two questions: how could he miss people he'd never even seen, and would he really be completely happy if his lover were with him? When he couldn't answer her, she'd scheduled him for follow-on appointments. Now, two sectons later, he was beginning to be able to admit that having Starbuck would only make him happier than he was now, not totally happy, not able to disregard all the rest of his losses. Just happier...
But, gods, he missed him.
Now he reined in his temper, which had gotten worse as even he had to admit, and kept his tone even when he said, "Come on. The sooner we get this done the sooner we can leave. But we're doing it."
"Why can't maintenance techs take care of this?" Jolly looked around himself apprehensively.
"Because there aren't enough of them," Apollo snapped. "Let's get on with it."
As he turned, he caught the look Jolly sent Greenbean. He didn't blame them. Not only was the detail uncongenial, to put it mildly, but he was, too. He didn't seem to be able to help it.
And then they walked into a near-riot. The Gemonese on the freighter were running out of food, of water, and had never had enough room. In Apollo's opinion, too many people were on the ship, but how could you have turned anyone away? Once again, he was grateful that he hadn't his father's responsibilities. While Jolly and Greenbean conducted the monitoring, he tried to reassure the people that they hadn't been forgotten, that their needs would be attended to.
But the cause of the riot wasn't food or water or crowding. It was a young, ethereally beautiful blonde. Apollo noticed the beauty in a detached, impersonal way; the only blond he'd ever been interested in hadn't been the slightest bit ethereal. Even before the hissed denunciation of "dirty socialator" he wasn't interested, though the religious bigotry of the Otori annoyed him and he found himself wishing he could hear Starbuck's light tones making some crack. Shaking that off he told Greenbean to make sure the woman got to the Galactica to have her broken arm taken care of, but then he forgot about her in the press of the inspections.
And two ships later, in the Rising Star, Apollo met Serina again. He'd barely paid any attention to her on Caprica after the attack, except to be annoyed at the tenor of her questions, but he remembered her little boy. And when she asked him to talk to the child he couldn't say no to her. And then he couldn't forget the boy.
For the first time since the Battle of Cimtar Apollo found himself caring what someone else was feeling.
So they refitted Trent's tankerEliseadh was useful there and scavenged the battlezone. It had occurred to several of them early on that there might be survivors, suffocating to death in crippled fighters, and Starbuck had set someone to listening and calling, and the first Viper refueled had searched. Only one had been found, a flight corporal named Kestrel from the Pardia, not in Lieutenant Carter's squadron but known to him. Kestrel was the only one of them injured, but Trent thought he'd pull through; the group took turns sitting with him, and worried, investing his survival with a superstitious quality of need.
Some of the pilots were careful to pull in Vipers so damaged as to make it unlikely that a body would be inside. Others went for the more intact, hoping for more usable fuel cells and ordnance, though that often meant finding dead Warriors as well. They put the bodies they got, with reverence, in one of the agrostation's out-buildings, uncertain of their final disposition. None of them, even Lieutenant Seth from the Agony whose haircut marked him as a pretty orthodox fundamentalist (his squadronmate Hastur confirmed it to Starbuck), were inclined to pray over them, but neither could anyone just dump them outside the dome and forget them. And everyone dreaded the moment that came for Lieutenant Winder off the Falca Mysteria: finding their best friend.
Starbuck dreaded finding Apollo. Rationally, he knew Apollo was dead. That all of them were. But as long as he didn't see the body he could pretend, even if he knew that was what he was doing. When he went up he avoided Vipers that wore battlestar paint jobs. And when he finally grabbed a few centares sleep, he dreamed of Apollo.
He came awake under a hand shaking his shoulder. Boomer's concerned face was looking down at him. "Oh," Starbuck said, sitting up. "Oh. Thanks."
"I thought you might," Boomer said. Just that.
Starbuck ran his hand over his face; he was surprised to find that he was sweating. After a moment he trusted his voice enough to ask, "How are you?"
Boomer shrugged. "Not good. Who is? But better than a lot."
Starbuck laughed shortly. "Maybe. I'd almost rather be dead."
Boomer drew a deep breath and let it out in a gust. "I know what you mean, buddy. We almost are, though."
"Almost only counts in hand grenades and ring-toss."
"And tactical dirty nukes."
Starbuck laughed once. "We aren't. They are."
"Yeah." Boomer was quiet, thinking. "He'd rather it was this way round, though."
Now Starbuck was quiet for a while. Apollo just might have, at that. And Boomer had actually known Apollo for several yahrens longer than Starbuck. "Risha would," he offered finally. Boomer's girlfriend was sappy about himhad beenand had been known to say, on several occasions, that she didn't know why she'd been dumb enough to fall for a pilot, she didn't know how she could bear to live without him.
Boomer managed a half-hearted grin. "Be careful what you wish for?"
"Never fracking wished for this, any way, shape, or form."
"No. Makes you doubt."
"Makes you," Starbuck said. "Convinces me."
"I'll bet. Never did get you into Temple, did" he broke off. It was too dark to be sure, but Starbuck thought Boomer might have been blushing.
He made an effort and shrugged. "No," he said. "He never did. Nor did his father."
Boomer nodded. "I remember..."
They sat quietly for a few centons.
"You gonna sleep?" Boomer asked. "You need to."
"You told me to..." Boomer's grin died. "You do need to. I'll stick around."
If Starbuck hadn't been so tired, and if he hadn't been so afraid of seeing Apollo again in his dreams, he might have said no. As it was, he nodded. "Thanks, Boom-boom," he said softly and lay down again.
Apollo sat on the couch in Serina's quarters and stroked Boxey's hair. The boy had tried valiantly to stay up long enough to see his mother's first centare-long special, but he'd fallen asleep before the opening credits. Now he was sprawled out on the couch, his head on Apollo's thigh, sleeping soundly.
Apollo watched Serina on the screen, feeling a vague pride in her appearance, her incisive questioning, the whole package. It was a little disquieting that every Caprican in the Fleet, and lots of the other tribes as well, recognized herno, that wasn't it. Not really. It was that they felt that recognizing her was the same as knowing her, and they felt like seeing her on their vidscreens gave them the right to approach her, talk to her, take up her time and attention. And, he admitted, that she let them. Enjoyed it when they did. It wasn't what he expected from his wife.
His wife... He tasted those words in his mind and wasn't entirely sure how they made him feel. Serina was so unlike anyone he'd ever known.
His mother, for instance. No one could have called Siress Ila reclusive, or stand-offish, or withdrawing. In fact, her sense of responsibility had led her to spend large amounts of time, even when her children were young, in good works out in the community. But she'd never been a, a public personage. And she'd certainly never held a job, had career aspirations.
On the other hand, all that life was gone now. There wasn't anyplace in his life for a Siress; he had no dinner parties for her to preside over, there were no charitable endeavors for her to run, no symphonies or museums or theaters to be on the governing boards of. Nothing he'd been raised to expect of his wife would apply now. So why shouldn't she have a career?
After all, Starbuck had.
Though that had been different in every way possible.
He threaded his fingers through Boxey's dark hair and tried not to think about Starbuck. He was fond of Serina, and she of him. If a large part of his attraction for her was his family and the protection he, they, could give Boxey, well, that was fair. A large part of her attraction for him was her son. It had been for Boxey's sake that he'd started calling on her after they'd met in the lower levels of the Rising Star. It was for Boxey that he'd gotten Dr. Wilker to make the drone dagget which he suspected he was going to get very tired of very quickly. And it was for Boxey, really, that he was going to ask her to Seal with him.
If it was for Boxey, mainly, that she said 'yes', well... plenty of people had good marriages based on less than that. Besides, they got along quite well. Somehow, Serina never made him feel like he was being unfaithful to Starbuck's memory. Probably because he'd have dropped her like a hot coal if Starbuck were to show up
But Starbuck wasn't going to. He was dead. Apollo looked at the screen, at Serina's long dark hair, big dark eyes, delicate feminine beauty, and found the image blurring before him. He blinked his eyes rapidly, angry at himself. It was long past time for him to stop crying over Starbuck. Everyone in the Fleet had lost someone. He needed to get on with his life.
He looked down at the boy sleeping beside him. He would get on with it.
Kestrel had woken up. He wasn't in shape to fly a Viper, if they'd had one for himEliseadh would have need more than a secton to get his flight-worthy again. But Starbuck had already decided that Trent was coming with them, and that meant Kestrel could travel in the tanker, which had been modified, again, this time as a general carrier. It was stocked with every sort of supplies that they could think of needing, food in particular, and spare parts, as well as more liquid mercury. Much as he'd like to think otherwise, Starbuck was convinced they'd get to the Colonies to find the Cylons firmly in charge. They'd need supplies until they could get something going.
Boomer had kidded him about making decisions, and Starbuck had been a bit surprised at how easily he took to it. Partly, he supposed, it was because they really were his decisions: in the military a squadron leader, for instance, always had a wing leader or someone looking over his shoulder. No one was looking over his. And the group wasn't very military, for that matter, even though they were all Warriors. They'd already dropped ranks, taking their cue from Starbuck, treating their three sergeants like anybody else, and nobody was worried about uniforms or protocol. Boomer had tried to call him "Cap" but it hadn't caught on, much to Starbuck's relief. Mostly they called him "Starbuck", or "Bucko", but they did what he asked. It was enough.
The Misty's Winder had made a pass at Eliseadhafter startling Starbuck by asking if he was going to; it's good to be the king had floated through his mind while he was saying, quite firmly, "No. Never." Winder had apologized and disappeared, and afterwards he'd seen the lanky blond talking to Boomer, and that evening he'd said, awkwardly, "Sorry. I heard... Sorry." Eliseadh had turned him down, firmly, and Carter had told them that she was not only flit, but in mourning for her partner, lost with the Pardia... Starbuck hoped they'd leave her alone and resolved to keep an eye out, just in case. So far, it hadn't been needed, but it was early days yet.
So they all took a four-centare nap and then had a last meal fit for the Quorum of Twelve, all the delicacies the agrostation had. One last drink, nectar older than any three of them put together (not counting Trent who was nearly a hundred) and climbed into their Vipers. Starbuck took a quick look in on old Trent and Kestrel, checking that they were okay. Trent was a sound man, no doubt about it, but Starbuck was easier in his mind that he'd have a combat pilot along with him, even if Kestrel's right arm was still strapped down and useless.
It was one jump from here to the Colonies for a Viper, but two for the tanker. Starbuck had decided to take them all by the long route, though it would use more than half their onboard fuel. He'd rather they stayed together, when it came down to it. He also decided to send a pair of Vipers through from the way point, to scout the situation before the rest came in. Boomer thought he should go, with Giles, but Starbuck vetoed that. "If you two get shot up, who's gonna make this work for me? Giles, okay, but with me."
"No way, Bucko. You don't get to go up in a blaze of glory this early either."
Starbuck had glared at him, but capitulated, and so in the end it was Koris and Felix who went, wingmates for the last two yahrens on the Atlantia and used to flying together. And Felix who came back to tell them it was safe to come through. "But..." he paused. "It's bad, Bucko," he said, his young voice trembling. "It's worse than..."
"All right," Starbuck cut in. "Form up on me and jump on my signal. Are we gonna have to move fast on the other end, Felix?"
"No," he said. "It's safe enough." Something lay under that, but Starbuck didn't waste time trying to find out. They'd know soon enough.
"Let's go," he said and punched for jump.
It was Canceria's in-point he'd aimed for, as being the least likely to have tinheads hanging around, unlike Sagitta or Caprica especially. So they leapt into the peaceful Cancerian sky and landed in Hell.
No. Worse than Hell, Starbuck thought as he slid in next to Koris, hearing the youngster's muffled sobs on the open tactical channel. One or two of the rest of them swore, another began crying openly... Starbuck himself was struck dumb. He knew why Felix hadn't been able to finish his sentence. Worse than... indeed. Worse than everything.
Cimtar had been the sixth and seventh Hells. This ... this was the seventh circle of the seventh Hell. This was so far beyond Cimtar it was nearly death to look on it.
Six Colonial worlds were near enough to see in excruciating clarity. The other six near enough to be plain. Nothing moved except ugly tinhead ships: nine base stars, innumerable smaller ones, swarming over the Colonies like buteons over a slaughteryardno. Like carrion bugs, or maggots; he wouldn't grant them an avian's warm-blooded dignity. Nightsides of planets showed no lights at all, except raging fires of immense proportions... a quarter of Pisco's southern continent looked aflame. Only Cylon codes and communications crackled through the air; no matter how carefully Starbuck cycled through the comms bands, not a single human signal showed up. They've done it, he thought numbly. They've won.
"What do we do now?" Practical Eliseadh, though he only knew her voice because she was the only woman.
"What can we do?"
He didn't recognize that one, but the question sparked something inside him. Numbness was replaced by hatred, no longer burning but cold and implacable. "What do we do?" he said, and didn't recognize his own voice. "Take payment. In purple."
"How we can."
Trent spoke up, his old voice steady. "There's a place I know, a backup station on Bos. Just a yahren ago it was still in full working order, but not being used. I'll bet the tinheads" he'd picked up the Warrior's term "didn't get there yet."
Bos. One of Taura's little moons. Taura, a predominantly rural world, hickish and backward. No, the tinheads probably hadn't done much there yet. And if the station wasn't being used, they might not even know it was there, no EM signature to give it away... "Good," Starbuck said. "Let's go there, for the moment."
It was something to do, and they followed him. The station was still there, dark and empty. Trent had suits in the tanker and he got inside, where Marcus, a cross-trained tech sergeant off the Atlantia, talked him through getting the bays open and the primary shields up so they could land the Vipers. Those two and Eliseadh soon had all the systems online, EM shielding up and running, and there were even a shuttle-load of rations in storage. Grateful for something to do, Monty began cooking and the smell of food, even rations, helped steady nerves pushed beyond the breaking point. Even so, several of them broke down in tears. Almost academically Starbuck noted Ilya off the Accipitrida Rufa holding his squadron-mate Ruslan as the youngster wept, and Hastur's wracking sobs drawing the comforting attention of the Acky-D's Lynx. Hastur's squadron-mate, Seth, was clearly suffering a crisis of faith; Starbuck had no words of comfort for him.
He had no comfort to offer any of them. Only a purpose.
"Why didn't we die, too?" It was Seth who finally put it into words. "Why are we still alive? Why were we"
"Spared?" demanded Eliseadh, her green eyes flashing. "We weren't spared. This isn't spared. This is singled out."
"You're right," Starbuck said.
They all turned to look at him, even Monty looking away from his ovens and Marcus sliding out from the back of the control panel he'd been working on, to what purpose he couldn't have said, hadn't been able to say when Boomer asked him. It was almost unnerving, that mass attention, but Starbuck's nerves were gone, replaced by ice.
"We are dead. Like everyone else. The Fleet. The Colonies. Probably the Inner System as well, and if not now, then soon. We're just breathing still."
"But why?" said Seth, unable to fathom his, their, abandonment by the gods he'd always believed in so fervently.
"There is no 'why'," said Starbuck. "There is no plan. Only what we decide to do ourselves. And the way I see it, we have two choices. We can accept being dead, and blow our brains out here and now. Or we can take payment from the Cylons first."
There was a growl of agreement from several of them.
"They think they've won," Starbuck continued. "Maybe so. But not as easily as they think. We can hurt them. Hurt them bad. Especially since we are dead. What more can they do to us?"
Onyx nodded. The Columbia's lone survivor had dark eyes, and they were now as black and hard as his name. "I like it. Those gallmonging tinheads think they've killed off humanity. Well, here's a bunch of ghosts can teach them a thing or two about dying."
"Amen," said Boomer.
"Tell us what to do, Starbuck," said Hastur, the first thing he'd said since they'd come through the jump point.
"First things first," Starbuck said, ruffling his spiky black hair. "Eat and sleep, and recon. Then," he looked at them. "Then we carry it to them."
"With Boxey's permission," Apollo said, earning himself a grin from the boy, "we're going to be Sealed."
The announcement met with general approval and what now passed for celebration in his family. Adama offered a toast and Athena pulled herself out of her ever-present melancholy to embrace them both. But afterwards, when Serina had taken Boxey home and Athena had gone to bed, Adama offered Apollo a glass of ambrosa in the dimly lit front room of his quarters and asked, "Are you happy, Apollo?"
"Of course I am. Aren't you? I'd have thought this would please you, Father."
Adama sighed and leaned back in his chair. Under his heavy brows his brown eyes were worried. "Yes. I'm pleased that you're marrying, that you're going to have a family. And of course I'm fond of Serina, and Boxey. But making major life decisions based on what pleases me instead of what you want is a sure recipe for unhappiness, son. I hope you know that. And I hope you know that what would please me the most is knowing that you are happy."
"I'll be happy," Apollo insisted, and then capitulated under the weight of love and faint reproach in his father's eyes. "I'm very fond of Serina. I love Boxey, a lot. It's enough."
"It has to be," Apollo said. "I'll never love anyone the way I did Starbuck. But he's gone. And we all have to learn to get on with our lives. Otherwise, what was the point of leaving the Colonies? I'll miss him forever. But," he sighed, "I'll make a new life with Serina and Boxey, and we'll be happy. Happy enough."
Adama looked long and hard at him, and then sighed heavily. "I miss him, too."
Those simple words almost broke Apollo's composure. He knew they were true. Adama was fond of Serina, but he had loved Starbuck like another son. So had Ila. So had Athena, and Zaceveryone had loved Starbuck. And whatever disappointment Adama might have felt over his heir's choosing a man, over losing the chance of grandchildren, over anything, he'd never shown it. He'd welcomed Starbuck into the family as soon as Apollo had told him they were in love, a yahren after his transfer to the Galactica and their meeting. And even before then Starbuck had been a welcome guest... His loss wasn't just his, Apollo knew. It was his whole family's.
He took a deep breath, getting himself back under control. "I know you do, Father. Thank you. But I can't go on just missing him forever. I can't be like" He broke off, unwilling to discuss Athena's emotions when his own were so precariously restrained. "It's time to move on."
They finished the ambrosa in silence, and when Apollo took his leave, Adama embraced him and they stood together for several centons.
But the wedding had to wait. The next day the rag-tag fleet encountered a void, black and empty and to all appearance endless. Apollo and Jolly, flying in front of the Fleet, weren't able to find any signals as deep as they dared to go. Tigh recommended trying to skirt it, but Adama had other ideas.
"But, Father," Apollo said, "there must be some reason why you want to take the fleet into the void. I'd even hesitate to take a squadron of Vipers in there, let alone this group of..." Words failed him.
Adama leaned back in his chair. "I do have a reason," he said. "I hesitate to tell you, though; I don't want to raise false hopes, nor get into an argument"
Tigh smiled wryly. "You're going mystical on us again, aren't you?" His tone reflected the century's friendship between the two, though only because they were in private, with Adama's son, who'd been raised thinking of Tigh as family.
"It wouldn't hurt you to read the Book of the Word a bit more often, old friend," Adama confirmed, smiling.
"Give it up, Apollo," the colonel counselled. "He won't say."
"Don't I know it?" Apollo answered him. "It's not going to be easy, Father. I imagine a lot of people are going to be scared."
"I'm sure they will," Adama said. "But I have faith in your ability to lead us through the darkness."
Apollo sighed and nodded. He'd already admitted that they could string the Vipers out in front of the Fleet, each one going to the end of comms range as they looked for whatever it was Adama thought they'd find. "Yes, sir," he said. "I wish we didn't have those Cylons quite so close behind us. But maybe they'll have more sense and less faith."
But it was Adama who was right. A single star glowed dully in the void, and circling the star was Kobol. Kobol, the home of the Lords of Kobol and the cradle of humanity. Apollo couldn't believe it. Had they fled from the end of everything to find the beginning, to start all over again? His father's faith had always been deeper than his, and it was hard for him to remember that it had had ninety yahrens to grow that way, to strengthen into unshakeability (or nearly so: Apollo had seen his father on Caprica, in the ruins of their house, had seen him questionbut he'd never seen him rail against the gods, as he himself had, more than once). Apollo followed his father into the tomb of the Ninth Lord feeling his own faith growing again, warming him from his heart out.
And if he listened to Serina, broadcasting to the Fleet the wonders around them, and wished briefly for Starbuck's irreverent chatter instead, he was nonetheless grateful for this sign that the end was only passing, that hope lay ahead.
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