Section Eight

 

"How long are you going to be away?" demanded Starbuck, put out and not averse to showing it.

Apollo stuffed spare clothes into a bag. It was the bag he'd taken with him to the Rising Star an entire lifetime ago, Starbuck realised. He wondered if there was still a half-used tube of lube in the little side pocket, where he'd stashed it as he and Apollo had made their belated preparations to leave, running for the shuttle home.

"About a secton, I think."

Starbuck threw his arms up in frustration, stamped around the room once more and dropped down on Apollo's bed. "It's crazy. The whole plan's crazy! I can't believe that you're going through with this."

"No choice." Apollo ran his hand through his hair, to rub the back of his neck, a nervous gesture Starbuck hadn't seen him make for sectars, not since the few sectons after Serina's death, when only duty and looking after Boxey had kept Apollo from flying apart with guilt and grief. "If we don't do it, someone else will."

"Crazy," repeated Starbuck, gloomily. He watched Apollo cram a few more belongings into the bag. "What did your Dad say?"

"What can he say? He's not too happy at being a target." Apollo flashed Starbuck a quick grin. "He thinks it's crazy, too."

"And yet he's still letting you go through with it!" Starbuck punched angrily at a pillow. "What about Boxey?"

"Staying with the commander. I've already explained to him that I'll be away for a few days. He's happy enough about it." Apollo dropped the bag onto the floor and sat on the edge of the bed, near Starbuck.

"Okay, but how are you going to explain your absence to everyone? A head cold? An unexpected holiday?"

"A planetary survey."

"That's novel." Starbuck hitched up the bed until he was sitting with his back to the headboard. Apollo twisted to look at him. "I mean, it's a bit of a lowly task for the great captain."

"I often do surveys."

"Don't be daft. You send lowly flight commanders on them, then drop in when all the work's been done to check on us, offering a scathing critique on our results and telling us how to do it better. That's not doing surveys. That's being the evil captain keeping us all up to the mark. No one will fall for that one."

"They will." Apollo swung his legs up onto the bed and settled down beside him. "You didn't see what happened when I got back from the Usermaatre. Core Command warned me that both decks were awash with IFB people, waiting for me to get back. Omega reckoned that every member of the IFB staff was there, every single one of them clutching cameras and recording equipment. I'd still be trying to fight my way off the deck, if I hadn't had the foresight to tell Omega to have Acer and a couple of his biggest pals meet me on Alpha. A sight to behold, Starbuck. They went through the reporters like a laser through mist. All I had to do was follow in Acer's wake."

"That poor man has the saddest case of misplaced adoration I've ever seen. I bet he even prays for you at night." Starbuck sniffed. "Mind you, someone needs to."

"Nonsense. It was wonderful. I felt all fragile and protected." Apollo gave him a pointed look, but Starbuck knew him too well to be fooled. He could see the tension and strain underneath. "You never make me feel all fragile and protected."

"Unlike Acer, I wasn't put together by the same shipyard that built our shuttles. I don't loom big enough to make anyone feel fragile." Starbuck shrugged casually out of his flight jacket. "A touching tale of grossly misplaced devotion, Apollo, but what has that to do with anything?"

"I'm about to tell the squadron leaders that I'm so fed up with all the fuss, that I'm going to do the survey and stay away until things calm down."

Starbuck considered it. "All right," he said reluctantly. "That one might fly. Except that people are going to be a tad suspicious when you come back without any data."

"I take the shuttle to the Usermaatre," said Apollo. "And I hand it over to a couple of my father's people, who will almost certainly do a better job of the survey than you or me or anyone else I could think of. When it's time, they'll be back with the shuttle and the data, and I drive it back to the Galactica. Simple."

"All right," said Starbuck again. "That's not too bad. You didn't think of it, obviously." He grinned at the little choke of laughter from Apollo. That was welcome. Apollo had been all too sombre over the last few sectons as he'd wrestled with the dilemma of who and what he was. It was nice to make him laugh out loud. "Why do you have to go there, Apollo?"

Apollo looked away. "It's an Aegyptan thing," he said. "I know some of it, but I'm not entirely sure of everything. Some sort of ceremony, I think."

"Mmn," said Starbuck, thinking that Apollo was just lousy at lying. Apollo knew, and it was worrying him. "When do you leave?"

"Oh, in about a centar, I guess. I've got to get everyone together and spin them my little tale of how unbearable the media persecution is, even with Acer to protect me."

"That'll take ten centons, tops." Starbuck picked up Apollo's left hand and raised the communicator to his mouth. In a better than fair impression of Apollo's voice, he gave his orders. "Core Command, this is Captain Apollo. Please contact all squadron leaders and ask them to join me in my office in forty-five centons."

"Done, sir," said the communications officer.

Starbuck let go of Apollo's hand and favoured him with a dazzling smile. Apollo's expression went from astonishment to suspicion in about two microns flat. But at least he'd stopped looking anxious.

"Do you do that often?" he asked, mouth a little tighter than Starbuck liked.

"Oh no!" Starbuck assured him. "Only when I really need to, and only over the comlink, and only when I can get at yours so the computer recognises the electronic signature. There's just enough distortion on the link for me to get away with it."

Apollo didn't seem reassured. "I'll try and remember that. I'll have to start locking up my link."

"And only when Thenie's not on the Comms desk. She's never fooled by it, for some reason. She knows you and me too well, and somehow she's never taken in by you giving Core Command an order to let me do things that are a little out of the ordinary."

"She's on the navigation console this sectar," observed Apollo.

"I know. That's why I did it."

"And what sort of orders do I give them, then?" The tone was positively dangerous. "Just how far out of the ordinary are they?"

"Nothing too bad. Trust me."

Apollo waited.

"Honest. Last time was a couple of sectars ago, around Yule. You ordered them to let me have a shuttle, so I could go to the orphan barge and take them the supplies and presents that the pilots donated." Starbuck tried the brilliant smile again, trying for winsome. Winsome had never worked for Sheba, but Apollo had seemed more conscious of - and receptive to - Starbuck's charms than he'd ever been of Sheba's.

Apollo stared, then grimaced. "I hate it when you set me up to shout at you, then cut my legs out from under me by being so Starbuckian for such a good cause."

Relieved at creating a diversion from whatever was worrying Apollo - but not wanting a diversion that ended up with him in the brig on charges, Starbuck made the smile dazzling. "I knew you'd have said yes. I just saved you the trouble."

"You're likely to be the death of me. What are you saving me from this time?"

"Yourself. Hand me up that bag for a micron." Starbuck rooted around in the side pocket and pulled out the stashed lube with a little crow of triumph. "I know you. Just because there's still a centon or two of duty time left, you'd go off for a secton without giving me the chance of a goodbye quickie. Now you've time."

"What is it with you and quickies? You've taken every chance you can over the last few sectons to ambush me in storerooms."

"It's your own fault. You excited me in the gym that day. In fact," Starbuck turned quickly, rolling onto Apollo and holding him down. "You over-excited me. I like being reminded of how over-excited, and I'm damned if I'm letting you go anyplace for a whole secton without another reminder."

Apollo's arms came up to hold him. "It's ten whole centars since the last time. I think you'll have to remind me. I think I might have forgotten."

"And they say I'm a martyr to my hormones!"

Apollo laughed. "No, they don't, Starbuck. They say that everyone else is a martyr to your hormones."

Starbuck grinned down at him, and proceeded to demonstrate why martyrdom was a death so devoutly sought. Kissing Apollo was, he decided muzzily, a kind of little death that took you straight to Paradise, it so completely wiped out any feeling other than a complete and consuming happiness.

Apollo tasted nice. Apollo made very satisfying little noises that made you think that he appreciated your efforts and your technique, and might even like being kissed. Dammit, Apollo did like being kissed! Apollo was pretty good at kissing you right back. Apollo, in fact, was pretty damned good at kissing you right back and sucking the air out of your lungs until your head swam and all the blood rushed straight to your nether regions where it could do the most good.

Starbuck's blood duly rushed.

All sorts of exciting things happened. He could barely breathe, his heart hammered so loudly in his chest that the entire ship should have been able to hear it, his brain decisively switched off any higher cognitive functions that could conceivably get in the way - and even some that wouldn't - and those aforementioned nether regions were taking on so much blood that he was hot and hard and urgent. If someone had come along and slammed him into a corner afterwards and demanded an explanation for how he and Apollo had managed to get naked so fast, Starbuck would just have blinked at them and looked around, bewildered, at the amount of clothing that was thrown around the room. He wouldn't be able to remember undoing so much as a button.

All his energies were focused on kissing and licking, nipping against Apollo's skin with a gentle mouth that soothed each little hurt with a kiss, smoothing soft lips over the place he'd just teased and sensitised. Every inch of skin was visited and touched, some parts just skimmed over so they didn't feel neglected, but others, those that he knew got him the most response, got repeated treatment: Apollo's left clavicle bone, both nipples, the side of his jaw, and, most of all, the hollow of his throat. Those were the places where the judicious use of Starbuck's mouth would have Apollo incoherent and writhing. And that was just what he could do north of the equator. Moving south, and Apollo went from incoherent to begging shamelessly. Sometimes Starbuck marvelled at the way that well-bred gentlemanly veneer slipped into animalistic need, but listening to Apollo just begging to be fucked, voice rough with need and passion, usually drove any thought of anthropological analysis from Starbuck's head. He didn't have enough blood to spare for it. His blood was up to no good and he had no intention of diverting it.

He managed to get open the lube with one hand, while his tongue trailed down Apollo's lower belly, licking a long sweep from navel to the root of the hard cock that was tapping him urgently in the throat as he knelt between Apollo's widespread legs. As he licked in another long sweep, from root to the seeping little slit at the top, he slid two fingers into Apollo.

After such a relatively short time as lovers, finally coming together after a friendship that had, at times seemed like a long and formal courtship dance, Starbuck was still astonished at how the desire could overwhelm them both. But even more, he was moved and touched by how much Apollo trusted him, at how easily Apollo opened up for him. Apollo wanted him: he didn't need much preparation. Keeping his fingers scissoring inside Apollo, just to pleasure him, Starbuck rolled his lover onto his right side, wanting to make this as slow and deep a lovemaking as he could manage in the limited time they had. He couldn't make Apollo feel fragile, maybe, but he could make him feel loved and protected.

Apollo didn't need instructions about what Starbuck wanted. He knew. He tucked one hand under his left knee, the upper knee, and pulled it up towards his chest, the other leg straight, opening himself up to Starbuck, spooned up behind him, making it easy for Starbuck's heavy cock to breach him. He had made himself vulnerable and open, trusting. He moaned very softly as Starbuck pushed in steadily, using his right hand to stroke himself.

Starbuck was in, ball-deep. He slid one hand down Apollo's upper leg, from knee to thigh, helping hold it in position and take some of the strain off Apollo. Apollo twisted his upper body, turning his head to meet Starbuck's mouth. Kissing at that angle had an added urgency. Apollo still tasted nice. And Apollo still made some very satisfying noises. Apollo had to really want to be kissed to risk wrenching his neck like that.

"Now," said Apollo, against his mouth, and Starbuck began to move.

Slowly at first, pulling back until he was almost out, then plunging back into that hot velvety tightness, stroking against Apollo's prostate on each thrust. Apollo couldn't move too fast and hard in this position, but he did manage a little backwards push to meet each stroke. It was long, and slow and languorous, almost restrained, and immensely powerful. The little part of Starbuck's mind that was still working, revelled in it.

Apollo shifted, twisting so that his chest and belly were almost flat on the bed, his leg still drawn up. Starbuck moving with him until he was on top, able now to change the angle at which he was powering into Apollo, making it more urgent and demanding. The hand that had been tucked under Apollo's thigh moved higher, closing over Apollo's own, helping him stroke himself. Apollo threw his head back, and sighed. He said something, still a little incoherent, but Starbuck, half-drunk and laughing with pleasure, licking and biting at Apollo's shoulder, his hand moving smoothly over Apollo's prick, got the general idea.

Now his cock was hitting against Apollo's prostate, hammering him on each stroke. Apollo tightened the muscles of his rectum to match Starbuck's rhythm, relaxing as Starbuck moved out, tightening to meet each thrust, sheathing Starbuck tighter, making those satisfying little noises again. Starbuck, biting his lip, quickened the pace, knowing that even if they'd had all the time in the world, that little trick of Apollo's was guaranteed to get him so hot that he'd never be able to last.

Nor could he. A few strokes, fast and furious that pounded against Apollo, the feeling of Apollo clenching around him, spasming around him, and the heat in his balls flooded over him, overwhelming him, his hips jerking as he came, the hot jism pulsing out of him. Collapsing onto his love's back, he lay gasping for a centon, feeling Apollo still moving beneath him. Breathless, he tightened his grip on Apollo's hand. That was all it took. Apollo stiffened, gasped loudly, and he felt the heat as the thick white jism coated both their hands.

It was a few centons before he could move. He didn't want to, anyway. He was too comfortable draped over Apollo's body, listening to Apollo's gasping breathing. The wild beat of both their hearts slowly calmed and steadied. He kissed Apollo's hair, lazy, replete and quite ridiculously happy. He closed his eyes, letting the pleasant exhaustion wash over him.

Apollo was the one to stir. "We'd better get up," he said, regretfully.

Starbuck sighed, and snuggled in closer, determinedly keeping his eyes shut.

"I have to go, Starbuck. I can't stay."

Starbuck sighed again and, very unwillingly, let himself slide free of Apollo and rolled off onto his back. "The next stage in the Corrupting-the-Captain project is to start in on that over-inflated sense of duty," he said, and yawned.

Apollo grinned and kissed him. "The over-inflated sense of duty that just allowed you to get away with impersonating a senior officer and then frack the said senior officer half senseless?"

"That's the one."

Apollo kissed him again. "Seems to me you don't have much of a job on your hands with that project. Thanks, Starbuck."

"My pleasure. Believe me." Starbuck kissed him back, then let him go, watching as Apollo got up, padding naked and barefoot around the bed to get to the shower. A micron later he jumped up and followed, suddenly not wanting to let Apollo out of his sight. "I'll miss you," he said. "Be careful."

"I always am." Apollo pulled him into the shower and kissed him underwater. It added new dimensions to breathlessness.

Starbuck got both arms around him and grinned, letting the water cascade over them both. He tipped his head back to let it run over his face, then shook his head like a daggit. For a centon he let himself stare at Apollo, concentrating on the details, at the thick dark hair plastered down with water, the bright green eyes. Apollo looked good, wet.

"Are you all right?" asked Apollo. "You look odd."

Cross with himself for letting his apprehension cloud the moment, Starbuck went for indignant, wanting to lighten up their last few centons together before Apollo went through whatever it was he was trying to shield Starbuck from. "What's the matter with you? Haven't you ever seen wild-eyed passion before?"

"It looked more like a sudden stab of indigestion." Another choke of laughter, and Apollo leaned forward and kissed Starbuck, pulling him back under the stream of water.

"That was nice," said Starbuck, when he was allowed the use of his mouth again. He didn't mean the shower, nor even the kiss. He meant, and knew Apollo understood, that deep and satisfying lovemaking.

"Enough to keep amnesia at bay while I'm gone?"

"Enough to remind me that I'm going to do that to you the next time I see you. I can hardly wait."

Apollo's expression changed, the grin fading and some of the care and anxiety crept back. He shook his head. "The next time you see me, Starbuck, you're going to shoot me down."

 

 

 

For the second time that day, Seti was waiting on the flightdeck of the Usermaatre for his son's shuttle to land. Less apprehensive this time, he'd dismissed his escort, waiting alone and unmasked. He knew that the escort wouldn't be far away, even here on the Usermaatre, but they stayed off the deck, waiting patiently in the corridor beyond the decontamination chamber.

They waited more patiently than he did. But then, they hadn't been waiting for almost thirty yahrens. Settling himself on a bench at the back of the bay, Seti smiled at himself, remembering the excitement he'd felt at being asked to represent the Pharaonic Council at the Cimtar peace conference. Not at the thought of peace, not at the thought that a war a thousand yahrens old could end in days.

But because Sekhet would be near, on the Galactica.

Knowing that his son was close made bearable even his increasing debility as the then undiagnosed illness bit at him, and made bearable the strain of seeing Adama again and the effort needed to keep the hatred within bounds. He hadn't expected to see Sekhet for himself. Although his own people on the Galactica watched over the boy for him, Seti had kept his promises. An Aegyptan always honoured his word.

Then came the end of the preliminary Council session at the Cimtar peace conference, two days before the Destruction. Sitting quiet and unnoticed in a corner of the Atlantia's Council Chamber, alone but for his escort, Seti had been watching Adama closely but unobtrusively, wondering - not for the first time - why Nefert-ila had wanted this man. His attention on Adama, he hadn't noticed that other people had come into the room until a tall young man in Fleet battledress had come into view, appearing at Adama's elbow. Unmistakably Aegyptan. Unmistakably Sekhet.

The shock had been like physical pain, taking the breath away. Seti had been devoutly grateful for the mask that hid him from humans. He wouldn't have wanted one of them to have witnessed his emotion when he'd seen his son for the first time in twenty eight yahrens.

It had been a long lifetime to wait. Long yahrens of nothing, the last yahren since the Destruction a torment, and the last two sectars a time of almost feverish intensity. And now he almost had Sekhet back. Almost.

"Asleep?" asked Sekhet in careful Aegyptan.

Seti looked up, startled. Deep in thought, he hadn't even noticed the shuttle's arrival. He smiled. "I was thinking," he said, speaking slowly to allow Sekhet to translate. He got to his feet. "You're late."

"I had one or two things that needed doing." Sekhet reverted to Standard. Seti didn't quite understand the grin he got. "I came as quickly as I could."

Seti grinned back, uncertain.

"What were you thinking about?"

"You," said Seti, with a painful honesty. "And marvelling at myself. I'm quite astounded now that I managed to keep my promise to your mother."

"An Aegyptan always keeps his word, I'm told."

"We do. But this Aegyptan regrets it. Bitterly."

For the first time, Seti put his hands on his son's shoulders and pulled him into an embrace. The last time Seti had held his son, Sekhet wasn't even walking, just starting to pull himself up to stand on unsteady little feet for several exciting microns before falling down heavily, giggling. Exhausted by the game, the child had slept on his chest as they both lay in the shade in the garden of his house in the Thebiad, Nefert-ila sitting near by in a chair carved with falcons and deep with cushions for her comfort, watching them. She was glorious, and Seti had smiled as he lay watching her, holding their baby with gentle hands. He had been deeply content. She had been only centars away from leaving him.

Sekhet caught his breath, but relaxed and allowed the embrace, letting Seti hold him. Seti's hold tightened briefly, then he pulled back, raising one hand to caress his son's face, tracing the line of cheekbone and jaw that was the mirror of his own.

"Welcome home, Sekhti," said Seti, pressing his lips against Sekhet's forehead. "Welcome home."

 

 

 

The comscreen in his quarters was active when he came out of his bedroom to answer the door. A system note flashed over the pyramid symbols, warning him of a recorded message. Adama glanced at it as he passed, a little puzzled. He hadn't put on the privacy marker, but hadn't been disturbed when the message came in. He must be sleeping more soundly than he thought. In the last secton, he would have taken his oath that he hadn't slept much at all.

"I thought it would be nice if we got Boxey to school on time today," said Athena, ducking in past him. "You're spoiling him, letting him sleep late."

"Compensation," said Adama, absently, another glance at the screen. "Besides I don't let him sleep late. I just find it almost impossible to make him get up."

"You have to be ruthless. Boxey says, and I quote, that his Dad's awfully mean sometimes. Apollo often tips him out of bed and pours water over him."

"Sounds more like Starbuck to me."

"Corruption spreads. While you're being mean, I'll make breakfast." She headed for the tiny kitchen area. She cast a glance at the screen as she passed. "Want me to get that?"

"No. Thank you." Adama decided that Boxey could wait a little longer. He turned to the screen. "Play," he said, the voice recognition system activating the message. The message was timed three centars earlier. It was longer than he expected. He played it twice, to be sure that he understood Apollo's instructions. He downloaded the message onto a data crystal, carefully erasing it from his mailbox.

"Dad?" Athena stared at him, wide eyed.

"I'll explain to you later, Athena. Right now we'll get Boxey to school and talk afterwards."

"But Dad!"

"Later, Athena. I don't want Boxey frightened. Please go and wake him." He reached for the comlink on his desk, activated it. He only had a couple of people to contact.

He didn't need to speak to Tigh. Tigh would be on the bridge anyway within the next half-centar, and all Adama would need to do was take him into the bridge office and explain what had to be done. And luckily it was Boomer's turn to be at the morning command meeting, so that took care of the lieutenant. But he still had to get hold of the others.

He called Salik first. The doctor answered almost immediately, coffee cup in hand. His eyebrow almost disappeared under his hairline when he realised that it was the commander, and when Adama told him what he wanted, curiosity got the better of him. But he reacted properly when Adama reminded him that they were on an open channel. Surprised, yes, at Adama's caution, but at least he stopped wondering out loud and listened instead. There was a faint blush on his face when asked about Doctor Lyre's whereabouts, and he glanced off-screen for an instant, but he said that he could locate her in time and agreed to come. Despite his anxiety, Adama was smiling when he closed that link and opened another.

Starbuck was evidently like Boxey: something difficult to rouse in the mornings. He was tousled and yawning, but all trace of sleepiness vanished when Adama told him to join them at the command meeting in - he glanced at his chronometer - exactly fifty centons. Starbuck said very little, but his expression hardened. Despite the frivolous reputation, Adama knew he could rely on Starbuck, and that whatever else happened, he could depend on Starbuck to look after Apollo. He'd just have to live with whatever was going on there. He realised that anything that might be construed as a religious principle about same sex relationships had just gone out of the window: if he got his son back, he'd welcome Starbuck with him. He'd never risk another breach with Apollo. Never.

He closed down the link completely, putting the unit back onto standby. Boxey was being herded to the fresher by an Athena who had evidently taken out her anxiety in utter ruthlessness, and he called a greeting, smiling at the child's disgruntlement. For a few centons while Boxey was occupied in the fresher, he thought over Apollo's message, sorted out what needed to be done, letting Athena's anxious monologue wash over him without letting it disrupt his thoughts. With luck, this would all be over within a few days and things could get back to normal. To something approaching normal. If nothing went wrong.

Neither he nor Athena ate much breakfast. It was a quiet meal, or would have been but for Boxey's relentless conversation. He let that wash over him too, enjoying the boy's innocent chatter. He wished, futilely, he'd had this much time with his own children. Maybe then he'd have seen Ila's uncertainty and stopped it harming Apollo as much as it had. He couldn't entirely blame Apollo for his reaction to all of this. He and Ila, he and Nefert-ila-Nefertuamon, had really made the most shocking mess of it all. They had to bear some of the responsibility.

He and Athena took Boxey to school together, then went on to the bridge. She seemed unwilling to allow him out of her sight, tucking her hand under his arm as they walked, in an unusually public demonstration. Adama was touched, and slightly embarrassed. That was another problem that had got him where he was now: he was not a demonstrative man, and even his children, though he loved them dearly, were rarely told that. He put his hand over Athena's and patted it.

"It'll be all right," he said, as the turbolift doors closed on them. "Go to your station, and just act normally."

"That will be a little difficult," she retorted.

"Don't worry. Apollo will handle it." He gave her hand one more pat as the door opened.

Her hand slid free of his arm. Squaring her shoulders, she gave him a little nod and walked onto the bridge to the navigation console, pausing only to offer Colonel Tigh the morning salute.

Tigh nodded acknowledgement. "Commander on deck!"

Adama walked over to the dais. "Good morning, Colonel." He made his usual show of looking around the bridge at the day-shift crew, noting who had changed shifts, who was on which console. They were all stiff-backed and at attention. He noticed that Boomer was there already, on the dais with Tigh. "Carry on."

"Commander." Tigh leaned over the dais railing. "As you were, ladies and gentlemen. Carry on." He grinned at Adama as the commander joined him. "And I thought we had it bad with Captain Perfect."

Adama raised an eyebrow.

Tigh jerked his head towards Boomer. "This one's worse. This one comes early."

"They're over-trained," suggested the commander, amused despite himself. Boomer shuffled his feet, and looked self conscious and Adama felt a pang of conscience. "Don't worry about it, Lieutenant. The colonel and Captain Apollo have a little running joke, and I think you're caught in the backwash."

"You're too indulgent," murmured Tigh.

"Not at all," said Adama. "I appreciate the lieutenant's attempt to be timely, and I enjoy watching when you're balked of your prey."

"Another day ruined," sighed Tigh. "Should we start?"

Adama nodded. Tigh called Omega up and formally handed over command, before following Adama to the bridge office. Boomer was already there, hovering uncertainly; desperate, Adama thought, neither to show unwilling nor get in the way. Adama waved him into a chair and crossed to the other door of the office, the one that gave onto one of the corridors that ran behind the bridge itself. It was kept locked, unless he was using it to get to a Council meeting. He keyed in the security code to unlock it, pausing at the desk on his way back to insert the data crystal into the com unit, turning the screen so that it faced the meeting table and taking the remote control with him as he came back to his own usual seat at the table. He was aware of Tigh's speculative stare, but was morally certain that Tigh would say nothing with a junior there. He might have an awful lot of explaining to do later, though.

He sat down at the head of the meeting table, Tigh and Boomer taking seats to his right and left. The steward had already left his coffee, although there wouldn't be enough to go around everyone when the rest arrived. He poured himself a cup anyway, deciding that he had more to worry about than a minor breach of good manners. Boomer refused a cup. The lieutenant was probably terrified of making a fool of himself and spilling it, if Adama's memories of his own early career were any guide.

He waited until Tigh had poured coffee for himself. "We won't start yet, gentlemen. We're waiting for three other people to join us and then, Tigh, I'd like you to go and get Athena. Please make sure that anyone within hearing understands that she's to come and discuss with us some navigational data from the survey of the system we're about to enter."

"Apollo's back?" asked Boomer, surprised.

Adama nodded, offering no explanation for his son's absence from the meeting.

Tigh gave him an odd look. "Who are we waiting for?"

"Doctors Salik and Lyre. Starbuck's bringing them, but not through the bridge." Adama glanced towards the second door to the office. "He'll bring them in past the Council Chamber. It'll be pretty deserted on that corridor at this time of day."

Tigh frowned, but knew better than to ask any questions. He shook his head at Boomer, when the lieutenant opened his mouth to say something and Boomer subsided. For a centon or two they concentrated on their coffee, and Boomer stared at the ceiling, then came a soft knock at the outer office door.

"Enter," said Adama.

Salik came in first, with Lyre, Starbuck close on their heels.

"All serene," said Starbuck, restrained. "We didn't see anyone."

"Good. I'm grateful for everyone's discretion." Adama invited them to be seated with a wave of his hand. "If you please, Tigh."

"One centon," promised Tigh, and went to fetch Athena, leaving by the more usual bridge door.

Starbuck settled into the seat beside Boomer. The dark lieutenant gave him an uncertain look, but Starbuck kept his eyes on Adama, not giving anything away. No wonder the boy was so formidable a Pyramid player. Tigh and Athena were back within the promised centon. She slid into the chair opposite Starbuck, looking worried again.

Adama nodded at them. "Thank you all for coming. As you've realised, something out of the ordinary is going on. I need to ask you to keep everything you hear secret. If that bothers you, you're free to leave now." He paused, took a sip of his coffee.

No one moved.

"Thank you. I'm very grateful. What I'm going to tell you only Starbuck, I think, knows fully. Most of the rest of you know some of it, if not all, and if this wholly new to you, then I apologise. When you hear all of it, you'll understand why we've kept this secret for so many yahrens." Adama put down his cup and met Tigh's steady gaze. "The first thing that you should know is that Apollo returned to the Galactica about four centars ago, bringing with him the data from the survey of the system that we're about to move into. I have a message from him here that I'll play you in a centon. It explains in detail exactly what each of us is to do today. But the official logs, Colonel, will show that he was debriefed by you and I earlier and is now in his quarters, catching up on lost sleep. He won't be returning to duty until tomorrow. Please arrange it."

"Done," said Tigh.

"I assume from that, that he isn't really in his quarters?" said Salik.

"No. No, he's not. He's in the Aegyptan sector." Adama paused again, met Tigh's gaze. "As most of you know, my wife was Aegyptan, a member of the Re-Harakhte clan, the Falcons. Ila's real name was Nefert-ila-Nefertuamon."

Only Tigh didn't know any of this, and although he blinked, he didn't otherwise let his astonishment show. He glanced around the table, then back to Adama.

"Two of my children, Zac and Athena, are - were - half Aegyptan." Adama looked down at his hands.

"Zac and Athena?" said Boomer, pointedly.

Adama stopped himself from sighing, but he felt his mouth thinning as he fought to keep his face expressionless. "Apollo is a different case. He's wholly Aegyptan. His genetic father is Seti-sen-Ankhaten, the leader of the Aegyptans here."

"Apollo's not your son?" Not even Tigh could absorb that without astonishment, and not even Tigh could hold that astonishment back. Boomer's mouth dropped open too, in almost comical surprise.

Adama kept his voice steady. "Apollo is my son in the only way that is meaningful to me, Tigh. I may not be his genetic father, but it's almost thirty yahrens since that mattered. He wasn't ten sectars old when Ila came to me." Athena reached out a hand and put it on his. He smiled at her. "And he's been my son, ever since. Most of the time I even forget that he isn't as much mine as Athena here is."

"He is yours," said Athena. "He is ours."

Adama hesitated, glancing around at their faces. Only Boomer and Tigh hadn't known this much. Tigh looked a little thoughtful, but there was nothing to suggest that this would make a bent cubit's worth of difference to him. He could trust Tigh. Boomer, he saw, gave Starbuck a sour look, but Starbuck didn't seem to notice. He was keeping all his attention on Adama, as before.

"I hope that you aren't too busy at around two thirty this afternoon," said Adama, picking up the remote and pointing it at the com screen. "I have a little job for you all."

 

 

 

 

Getting into the Council Chamber meant running the gauntlet of Council Security. There were always three security personnel on duty – one in the outer room where refreshments were served in recess, and the two in the outermost lobby who manned the reception desk.

When the Council was in session, the outer room was usually deserted but for the security guards. But no matter what time the Council rose in recess, three centons before that and the outer room would suddenly fill to almost bursting point with assorted lackeys and functionaries.

With the exception of Adama and Anton and Councillor Solon, none of whom seemed to feel the need for retainers, most councillors couldn't function without two or three aides each to run their errands, take notes, do ‘research' and generally shore up their egos. These under-worked worthies (all of them waiting for the chance of future political greatness on their own account) were all ready in the outer room to bolster the current political greatness of their patrons when the Council filed out for its coffee. Normally, said Starbuck, he couldn't bear to be within a parsec of people he stigmatised as weasels-in-waiting. It made him wish that the assassination could be a little more encompassing in nature.

Not to mention taking place somewhere else. But as Adama had pointed out when Salik had voiced the same doubt - My dear Doctor, you don't really expect someone to be able to walk onto my bridge and shoot me down, do you ? - he wasn't really all that accessible. And for reasons to do with making sure that all the Council could be told at the same time and give Apollo and Seti their individual opportunities to make trouble and provoke a reaction, Adama was clear that it had to happen when he was publicly available, rather than waiting for the end of the day and the chance of catching him on a deserted corridor on his way back to his quarters. Which, as Starbuck commented, was when any self-respecting and halfway efficient assassin would strike. You could tell Apollo was an amateur.

Boomer merely grunted. He and Starbuck were waiting more or less patiently to one side of the big room – Boomer was more, Starbuck was definitely less – ostensibly so that if Adama could get a centon, he could speak to them about some special patrol he had lined up for them in relation to the just-completed planetary survey. That's what Adama had said he would tell Reese at the beginning of the Council session, ensuring the security chief would allow them into the Chamber. Not much of an excuse, but it should do. The councillors weren't conversant enough with military procedures to wonder why the commander was involving himself personally when he had a whole ship full of officers to do that kind of menial task for him. Reese wouldn't even think to question it, and certainly their names had been on the list held at the security desk in the entrance lobby behind them. They'd had no trouble getting in.

Another name had been on the list, too. In between watching Adama, who was talking to Sire Solon, closely flanked by Anton and Siress Tinia, they watched for this unexpected wild card. Boomer was relatively discreet in his waiting. Starbuck spent a lot of time staring around him and looking, said Boomer acidly, as if he should be wearing a black cloak and a false moustache, and carrying a sputtering black sphere with the word Bomb painted on it. Starbuck ignored him, pretty much as Boomer had ignored all Starbuck's previous attempts at conversation.

Starbuck did deign to speak when he saw Trent walk in. "He's here," he said.

"Trent?" Boomer looked round. "I wonder why."

"How the hell should I know? But he's armed. We've got to explain, and fast. We don't have that much time."

Boomer nodded. "Come on."

They pushed through the groups of chattering political nonentities - those both on and aspiring to the Council - to join the Infantry lieutenant.

"Trent!" said Starbuck urgently, and as the lieutenant turned to greet him he hustled him into a corner, Boomer on his heels. "What are you doing here?"

"Reese wants to talk to me about some help with security," said Trent, eyebrow raised. "He's had to divert a lot of his people to the Leander. The trouble's still brewing there and potentially worse, and he's a bit short handed." Then with a weary tolerance: "What are you two up to?"

"No time to explain," said Starbuck. He glanced over to check on what Adama was doing. "Put your sidearm onto stun."

"What?"

"Put your sidearm onto stun. Do it, Trent. But don't let anyone see you."

Trent frowned at him, but Starbuck was deadly serious and Boomer was anxious and frowning. He unobtrusively slid the lever on the laser on to stun. "What's all this out about?"

"Look, we don't have much time, so listen up and don't interrupt," said Boomer. "The Council goes back into session in a few centons. Just before they do, the commander's going to be assassinated."

"The commander!"

"Will you keep quiet!" Starbuck hissed. "Shut up and listen. We don't want the assassin killed, just stunned. Get me?"

"No! And if you're planning on killing the commander! Look, I just don't understand it!"

"Heaven help me!" said Starbuck. "Will you listen to us?"

"If and when you start making sense! What are you doing up here?"

"Commander's orders, to gun down his killer," said Boomer.

"Huh?" Trent's mouth fell open.

"It's going to be faked, Trent." Starbuck glanced around the room again, checking. "The commander knows all about it and we're acting under his orders. What we've got to do is shoot down his assassin - only we'll be using stun - and make it look as though we've killed him, but only after he's pretended to kill the commander. We've got to get him down before security shoot him for real. Got it?"

"No," said Trent, totally confused. He shook his head. "Why is it that when I'm talking to you, Starbuck, I can actually feel my IQ leaking out through my ears?"

"IQ? What IQ? God, it's simple enough!" Starbuck's eyes rolled heavenward. "Mudbrains!"

The insult seemed, for some strange reason, to reassure Trent. "The commander's setting this up?"

"Absolutely." Boomer nodded, then said, almost under his breath, "Reese!"

"Just act casual," Starbuck hissed.

"Oh sure," said Trent with awful sarcasm. "Casual. Like it's every day I get pulled into some crazy scam in front of the head of Council Security." He nodded at the approaching security chief. "Reese."

"I thought you two were supposed to be talking to the commander about some survey," said Reese, cold stare at Starbuck and Boomer doing duty for a fulsome greeting.

Boomer glanced over to where Adama stood talking to Anton. "He looks busy."

"You'll have to be quick. They'll be going back inside a few microns," said Reese. He turned to Trent. "Thanks for coming. Once you and me have worked something out, I need to talk to Apollo."

"Well, Captain Apollo will be back on duty tomorrow and available in his office, if you want to make an appointment." Starbuck emphasised Apollo's rank and smiled very sweetly.

Reese grunted something, not rising to Starbuck's bait. "Nice for some of us to have a day off." He looked up at the wall chronometer. "Time to herd them back in. Can you wait a few centons, Trent, and we can talk?"

Trent nodded. Reese stalked away again, going to the inner door to watch over the Council as they returned to the main Chamber.

The three warriors stepped back to their corner, keeping out of the way as the Council Secretariat sounded the bell to recall the Council to its deliberations. Well trained, the weasels-in-waiting took their last instructions and filed out, leaving the Council rooms altogether. Many of the councillors, chatting unconcernedly with each other, drifted slowly back into the main Council Chamber, passing Reese and the other security guard. A normal Council day, uneventful and unexciting - except of course, for the politics.

One of the two security guards who guarded the outer lobby trotted past them, heading to talk to Reese. She spoke rapidly and quietly in the chief's ear.

"Soon," said Starbuck, tense.

"Does Apollo know what's going on?" asked Trent.

"Of course," said Boomer.

"What's it all about, then? Where is he?"

"Later, Trent. We'll explain later."

"Damn right you will! And it had better be good."

Starbuck shook his head. "Just do it. Trent, you've got the idea, haven't you? We need an assassination and we need a dead assassin. So, we don't try to stop it and after the commander's been struck down, we shoot down his killer, okay? Then I'll run to see to Adama and you and Boomer get hold of the Aegyptan's body."

"Aegyptan?"

Starbuck went on inexorably. "Make bloody sure no one gets near enough to the body for them to see the Aegyptan's only stunned. Then we'll get Adama to the Life Centre where Doctor Salik will unfortunately not be able to save him, and you get the Aegyptan to the morgue. Got it now?"

"I wish I knew what in hell was going on," sighed Trent.

"This is really, really important. Just do as we say," Boomer begged him.

Trent gave them a long look, and then loosened the laser in its holster. "God help me. All right. You two had better be on the level. And where the hell did you get an Aegyptan?"

"The Aegyptan?" Starbuck grinned at Boomer. "He's been mine for quite a while now."

Boomer only sighed. "Off you go."

Adama and Anton, still in deep discussion with Siress Tinia, were the last to move; the rest of the Council were filing into the main Chamber or had already returned to their seats at the Council table. Reese, the guard a few steps behind him, came up to the group just as Starbuck came up to the commander and saluted smartly.

Adama broke off the conversation. "Are we late, Reese?"

"You've a centon or two, sir, but something's come up. There's an Aegyptan outside, with a message for you."

"An Aegyptan?" Adama looked mildly surprised. "Not Mene-ti-Auapet, I take it?"

The security guard behind Reese shook her head. "We'd let her in, sir. We know her. This one has a different shaped mask."

"It's not one of her days here, anyway," said Anton. "How intriguing!"

Adama shrugged. "She'd never be late, either. And you're right, it is intriguing."

"There's this." Reese handed over a data crystal.

Adama pulled a hand held computer from his pocket and fitted the crystal into it. The information on it was very brief. "A messenger from Lord Seti, apparently, with some information for me that Seti thinks I'll find interesting."

Anton shook his head. "I find such cryptic messages tiresome. It can't be all that urgent. Let it wait until the Council's over."

"We could be centars yet. I may as well get it over with. Please ask him – or her? – to come in, Reese."

"Male, sir," said the security guard.

"I don't like this," warned Reese. "They don't do this sort of thing, usually. I don't like departures from routine."

Adama glanced around. "There's three of you and three warriors. You should be able to handle any trouble. Not that I think there will be any. Why should there be?"

"If he's really from Seti," said Tinia.

"This data crystal carries the same security coding as the one introducing Mene when she was appointed." Adama put the little computer back into his pocket. "It's genuine, at least. I really don't anticipate any problem, Reese. Please let him in."

Still frowning, Reese nodded at the security guard, who left to deliver the invitation.

"Hopefully, I shouldn't be too long, Anton, but perhaps you could convey my apologies to the Council and chair the session until I get there?"

"Gladly."

Starbuck interrupted then. "Sir? This doesn't look like a good time, sir, but did you still want to talk to me and Lieutenant Boomer?"

Adama glanced over to Boomer, and beyond him, to where the tall, black dressed Aegyptan was coming into the room. "I don't know that I've the time now, Starbuck. I'm sorry. You'll have to speak to Colonel Tigh about it. He knows what I want you to look for."

"Yes sir," said Starbuck, and stepped back as the Aegyptan approached them. He didn't go far.

"Commander Adama?" The Aegyptan spoke quietly.

On the other side of the room, Boomer slid his gun out of its holster, holding it against his leg, tense and ready. Trent had tensed, beside him, his hand on the grips of his pistol.

The Aegyptan turned his head towards Adama and the others, the Hawkhead tilted to one side slightly, the cruelly curved beak glinting in the overhead lights. To the detached observer, the scene must have resembled a group of small mammals staring helplessly up at a bird of prey whilst it looked them over, considering whether they were plump and juicy enough to take for supper. The irrational fear humans had about the Aegyptans was suddenly understandable.

The Aegyptan glided a little closer, coming to a halt a metre away. He raised both arms and crossed them at the wrist. The loose sleeves of his robes fell back, so that the elongated hawks incised into the inside of his forearms were clearly visible, and he bowed slightly.

"I believe that you have a message for me from Lord Seti?" asked Adama, politely.

"Yes." There was a throaty quality to the voice, unrecognisable beneath a distorter. "I'd like to talk to you." The bird head tilted over to one side slightly, indicating a group of chairs set against the far wall. "In private, please."

"I'd be honoured," said Adama formally, and half turned to Anton and Tinia. "Please excuse me," he said. "I shouldn't be too long."

"Of course." Anton smiled, tucked Tinia's hand under his arm and patted it. "I'll happily escort the Siress back."

Adama led the way over to the chairs, followed by the Aegyptan. Starbuck watched as they sat down. He couldn't hear what was being said; only the very low murmur of voices. His hands were damp, and he dried them carefully against his pants legs, looking around the room. Trent and Boomer lounged near the outer door, ready. Of the Council only Anton and Tinia remained, watching Adama and the Aegyptan curiously. Reese waited by the inner door, watching the commander and muttering something to the guard on duty.

After a couple of centons, Anton stirred. "I don't suppose, my dear, that we should indulge our curiosity much farther."

"I can't tell what's going on anyway," said Tinia.

"Then shall we go in?" Anton looked at Starbuck, blocking his path. "Lieutenant," he said, very gently.

"Huh? Oh, I'm sorry." Starbuck moved.

The Aegyptan was leaning forward now, his body blocking their view of the commander. There was a slight sound that drew the attention, but the Aegyptan was murmuring something to Adama that seemed to have the commander's full attention. The commander's head, with its thickly silvered hair, was close up to the Hawkhead. Starbuck watched for a micron, then half-turned as Anton spoke to him, curiosity evidently still unslaked. He'd taken Tinia no more than a couple of yards before pausing and turning to Starbuck.

"I'd have thought that you were used to seeing them around." Anton raised an immaculate eyebrow.

"On the flightdecks, and the maintenance and technical areas, yes, sir," agreed Starbuck. "I guess I'm not used to seeing them up here. I'm sorry to have held you up sir, madam."

"Scary looking objects, all of them. I wonder what it wants?" said Tinia.

The Aegyptan got up and walked unhurriedly towards the door. The commander was slightly slumped in the chair, leaning forward and looking down at the deck, as if thinking about the message he'd been given.

"It?" Anton questioned, taking her on towards the inner door.

"Well, they aren't human, are they?" said Tinia, reasonably.

"They're close enough," said Anton. He paused by the door, nodding to the guard to open it for them. He turned his head to see where Adama was.

"Commander?" Starbuck's voice sharpened. He started across the room just as Adama slid heavily and bonelessly to the floor, rolling onto his side. "Commander!"

The Aegyptan glanced over his – its – shoulder and quickened the pace. Starbuck ran for the commander. Reese looked over from where he was talking to the door guard, looking puzzled. He put his hand on his laser, frowning.

"What is it?" demanded Tinia, fearfully. "What is it?"

"Oh dear," said Anton, and dropped her arm to hurry over to joint Starbuck. "Adama?"

"Commander?" said Starbuck, reaching down to pull Adama over onto his back.

Anton landed on his knees beside the commander. "Is he ill?"

Starbuck raised a hand, red and wet. Adama's hands were pressed to his lower chest. He was still breathing, but it was hard and laboured.

"Shit," said Starbuck. He straightened up and screamed at Boomer and Trent. "The Gyp! Get him!"

The Aegyptan's calm walk to the door exploded into a fast run. A curiously dull black knife, blade crimson, appeared in his left hand. Starbuck clawed his laser out of its holster, and fired, screaming curses, as the Aegyptan lunged at Trent and Boomer. An instant later, Trent fired too. Boomer twisted away to one side, avoiding the knife, and firing as he fell; like Starbuck, yelling to add to the noise and confusion.

All three of them hit, the force throwing the Aegyptan off his feet and slamming him up against a sidewall several metres away. The knife fell from his hand to clatter against the metal deck. For a few microns the lasers held him upright against the wall and lightening crackled over his convulsing body, then he slid down into a tumbled heap of black clothes. In the shocked silence, Tinia screamed suddenly.

The guards on the inner door were belatedly pulling at their weapons, their reactions anything but warrior-fast. Reese, pulling his laser free, slammed shut the inner Council door with one hand and raced forward. "What the hell!"

"Commander!" Starbuck said again.

Anton covered Adama's hands with his own, pressing down hard. The red blood staining them gleamed as it seeped through his fingers. It smelled hot and harsh and metallic, like someone boiling vinegar.

Starbuck dropped his laser and fell down onto his knees beside them, yelling into his comlink, thumbing the emergency channel that would override everything. "Medical team to the Council Chamber! Stat!"

Adama was very still now, the labouring breathing slowing, uneven. By contrast, Tinia was screaming steadily, her hand on her mouth, looking from the assassin to Adama, her eyes wide with shock.

"Keep them in there!" Reese yelled at the stunned guard on the inner door. "Don't let them out."

The two guards from the outer lobby raced in, guns in their hands. The woman who'd come in with the news that the Aegyptan was there, went white when she took in the group around the commander, and the Aegyptan's body by the other wall.

"Commander Adama?" said Starbuck again, this time despairing. Adama's breathing stopped for a micron. Starbuck stared at Anton. "Is he dead?"

A little gasp, another painful indrawn breath.

"I don't think so, but this looks bad," said Anton, very grim.

"Councillor?" Reese loomed over them. "The commander?"

"Let me," said Starbuck to Anton. "You're getting tired."

"I'm old," said Anton and looked it. He raised his hands, and Adama's hands, no longer held in place by Anton, fell limply to his sides.

Starbuck took over, pressing his both hands over the blood and leaning into it with all his weight. "Oh felger," he said. "Where the hell are those medics?"

"We've got to get you to safety, Sire Anton," said Reese, laser shaking a little in his hand, his eyes flickering all around the room.

Anton shook his head. His hands were trembling, and he gripped them together in his lap. "These warriors will be enough. Get Tinia out of here and protect the Council. Keep them in the Council Chamber and keep it secured."

"Yes sir," Reese spoke quickly into his comlink, calling up reinforcements.

"Tell Solon what's happened and get him to take charge. I'm staying with Adama." Anton leaned down. "Adama? Can you hear me, Adama? Everything will be all right."

Reese hesitated, and then looked over at Trent and Boomer. "Is that bastard dead?"

"Yes," said Boomer quickly. He and Trent were bent over the Aegyptan. "Yes. The commander?"

Starbuck shook his head. He kept his hands pressing on Adama's chest, but his eyes were on Boomer and Trent, and the Aegyptan. "Looks bad."

"Shit!" Boomer bent his head for an instant. "Trent, can you get some troopers down to Life Centre? Someone you can trust. Acer, maybe? Don't let anyone too close." He went to lean over Starbuck's shoulder.

Trent barked rapid orders into his comlink. The two security guards from the lobby were very close to him, and the gun in the woman's hand was shaking.

"What should we do with this thing?" the other guard asked, kicking at the body. There was a soggy thud as his boot connected, like a man kicking a sack of wet corn.

Trent edged them away. "Call up a body bag," he said. "It's all he's fit for."

The woman picked up the knife. "Carbon fibre," she said, her tone as dull as the knife itself. "It wouldn't show up on our scanners."

Trent only grunted, non-committal. Boomer came back just then, shaking his head. Together, they manoeuvred the guards out of the way.

Starbuck turned to look at them, hands all bloodied, pressing hard against the wound in Adama's chest. For a moment he stared, then let one eye flicker shut in a conspiratorial wink.

 

 

 

The morgue was hidden discreetly away down the port corridor in the Life Centre, well away from the treatment areas and near the laboratories and storerooms. Two troopers from the squad Trent had called up, dragged a body bag behind them. They dumped it, none too gently, on the floor.

"Where do you want this, sir?" one of them asked

"Just leave it there," said Trent. "Wait in the corridor outside Life Centre, for now. Sergeant Acer's on his way up with his section, and I want nothing and nobody to come in or out without my say-so. Got it?"

"Sir!" The trooper saluted smartly.

As soon as they'd gone, Trent relaxed, sighing, and looked at Boomer. "What next?"

Boomer was already tugging open the zip on the body bag into which he and Trent had personally stuffed the Aegyptan a few centons before, keeping security well away while they did it. By the time the body bag had arrived, Starbuck and Anton were just leaving, running alongside the fast moving medical team Doctor Salik had brought with him when he answered the call Starbuck had made. Luckily Reese had had his hands too full dealing with a still-hysterical Tinia and a Council that was veering wildly between terror and outrage, to protest at the way the warriors were taking charge and had let Trent handle getting the dead Gyp to the morgue.

"As soon as it's clear, Starbuck'll be here," said Boomer. "They've got to clear everyone out of Life Centre first. Someone talked, and we don't know who we can trust there. Give me a hand."

Between them they dragged the Aegyptan out of the bag and onto a trolley. He was a dead weight, very still. Boomer checked over him, as well as he could.

"The helmet?" said Trent, hand hovering over the silver Hawkhead.

"There's some sort of suspensor field holding it. We'd better leave it. Lyre knows how to deal with it."

Starbuck crashed noisily through the door. "All clear! Is he all right?"

"He'll be better when Salik and Lyre have seen him," said Boomer.

Starbuck nodded, and grabbed at the trolley, starting it rolling. They took it through into the main Life Centre at a run, racing straight through the main treatment room, and on into the corridor of private rooms. Adama was in the furthest of the rooms, right at the end of the corridor, Anton beside him. The old man was wiping his hands fastidiously on a towel, his expression one of faint disgust.

"I wish you'd warned me," he said, as they burst in with the trolley.

"I'm sorry, Anton. Forgive me, but there just wasn't time." Adama turned quickly. "Is he all right?" he demanded, obviously unhurt despite the dark wet stain on his tunic.

"He'll be fine," Salik said. "Stop worrying."

Starbuck and Boomer got the Aegyptan onto the treatment couch and let the medics in. Lyre ripped away the heavy silver mask and laid her hand on the pulse in Apollo's throat. Trent just shrugged.

"Ah," said Anton. "I see."

"Did all three of you hit him?" Salik asked.

"We weren't expecting Trent to turn up," said Boomer. "But every bit of fire power helps."

"It's a wonder the shock didn't stop his heart," complained Lyre.

"It'll have fried his synapses," Salik agreed.

"He got slammed up against a wall, pretty hard," said Boomer, and Salik nodded.

"Will someone please tell me what's going on?" Trent sounded a touch plaintive

"In a centon, Lieutenant," Adama promised him.

"What about Council Security?" asked Boomer, uneasy.

"Busy guarding the Council," said Starbuck. "All taken care of, for the centon anyway. Reese may come here later, though."

"He's certain to." Boomer bit nervously at a fingernail. "I mean it's his job. He'll have to investigate. This is a bit hard to explain away."

"Acer will be out there by now," said Trent. "He won't let anyone through without I tell him, not even the head of Council Security. We can keep Reese at bay until we're ready for him."

"Good," said Adama. He glanced at Anton. "I'm sorry, old friend, to have kept you in the dark. But as you'll have guessed, there's been some overt moves to involve the Aegyptans, to have them assassinate me."

"As indeed they now seem to have done," said Anton, amused. "I take it they worked with you to set this up?"

Adama nodded, but he was concentrating on Salik and Lyre.

"And very convincing it was, too." Anton dropped the stained towel. "I'm impressed. It not only looked and smelled like blood, it was even hot enough for blood. Actually, I'm very impressed, and that takes some doing."

"Thank you," said Salik, modestly. "A little chemical mixture of my own."

"Whoever is behind this is being very cautious and careful, working through cut-outs and intermediaries." Adama watched his son anxiously. "We know Uri's involved somehow but, given the way they've operated and the fact that no human court is likely to take an Aegyptan's word even over Uri's, I don't think we'd be able to prove that he's invoked the Accord. Not unless we can force their hands, anyway."

"By being dead?" Anton nodded understanding.

"We thought it might provoke a reaction of some sort, and give Apollo the pretext to go after Uri. Oh, I don't doubt that we could have arrested Uri and prevented today's charade from even happening, but, as I say, there's little enough evidence of a conspiracy. Uri could deny everything, and what could we prove? This way, we can bring a lot of pressure on him and force him to talk. And as far as his associates go, it'll be interesting to see who comes out of the woodwork."

"It will indeed," agreed the old councillor. He looked very thoughtful. "I assume that the Aegyptans were so grateful for Apollo's help, that they agreed to this? Most unusual behaviour on their part, if you don't mind me saying so."

Adama shrugged and avoided answering. "Salik?" he asked, anxious about the length of time the doctors were taking.

"He's fine," the doctor said, a little irritated at being hurried. He pressed a hypo against Apollo's neck and stepped back. "Stims. That'll bring him round."

Apollo stirred at last, his breathing shallow and laboured. He groaned, raising one hand to his head and the wide green eyes were unfocused.

"Take it easy," said Salik. "You'll be all right in a micron. Just lie still."

"That stim will make him as sick as hell on top of the stun wave," predicted Lyre with some relish.

As if on cue, Apollo groaned again, and started retching violently, the long body convulsing.

"Oh no!" Lyre snatched up a bowl and deftly rolled Apollo onto his side. "If you're going to insist on being sick, Apollo, be sick in here."

Starbuck shuddered and looked away, as Apollo followed medical advice and was indeed extremely, if briefly, ill. "Too many memories of the turboflush," he said to Trent, who merely shrugged again, reverting to unflappable.

"Oh God." Apollo fell back onto the treatment couch, wiping his mouth. "I feel like death."

"Look at me," instructed Salik. He looked carefully into Apollo's eyes with an ophthalmoscope, did various arcane tests, including the unscientific one of holding up fingers for the captain to count and nodded. "No evidence of concussion. You'll do," he said, satisfied. He nodded assurance at Adama. "He's fine."

Apollo sat up carefully, Starbuck leaping in to help.

"How do you feel?" demanded Starbuck.

"Dreadful," said Apollo. He rubbed at his ribs on his left side. He glanced at Adama, and then looked quickly away again. "All right?"

Adama nodded at him, but didn't attempt to move close to him. "It went like clockwork." Then, much more warmly: "Well done, Apollo."

"Here." Lyre gave Apollo something in a glass. "This will settle your stomach and help the headache."

Apollo took the glass, then hesitated, handing it back. "Better not."

"You look terrible, though," protested Lyre.

"I'm supposed to look terrible. The worse I look, the more realistic it'll be." Apollo winced slightly. "Can I have an anti-nausea shot, though? I'd rather not throw up any more."

"Amen to that," murmured Starbuck.

Lyre glanced at Salik, who nodded. She gave Apollo the shot, her mouth drawn into disapproving lines.

Apollo thanked her, and then looked at his three warriors. "Did you all shoot me?" he asked. "Don't you think that was a bit excessive?"

"Well, Trent sort of turned up unexpectedly so we roped him in," Boomer explained.

"Nothing personal, Boss. Honest. I got drafted."

"We had to make sure you went down and stayed down." Starbuck grinned at him. "We thought you'd prefer that to one of Reese's security getting you with a laser"

"Oh I do, I do!" said Apollo hastily. "I'm not complaining, just seeking clarification. That's one I owe you." He rubbed again at his ribs and caught his breath. "That hurts! Did I hit something when I went down?"

"One of the security guards kicked you," said Trent.

"And you didn't stop him?"

Trent grinned. "I thought it added to the artistic verisimilitude," he said. The grin broadened at the look Apollo gave him. "He was a little fast for me. Don't worry he only did it the once."

"The once was all he needed."

"Get that tunic off and let me take a look," said Lyre.

"In a micron. I don't think anything's broken," Apollo explored the sore spot with careful fingers.

"What now?" asked Starbuck, sitting down beside him. He put an arm around Apollo's shoulders and hugged him briefly.

"Now we need to announce my death," said Adama.

Apollo looked at Adama for only the second time since he'd come round from the stun, his head bowed and the glance fast and troubled from under the thick black lashes. He said, abruptly, "Where's Thenie?"

Boomer glanced at his chronometer. "She should be here in a centon or two. I hope she's up to this."

"Athena was queen of her school drama club," said Adama. "Don't worry about her. I'm more concerned about how long I might have to stay dead."

"Look on it as a vacation, sir," suggested Starbuck.

"I'll try. Lieutenant Trent."

"Sir?"

"As you'll have realised, there's a covert operation going on here. I'm not entirely sure how you've been pulled into it, but I expect to be able to rely on your discretion."

"Although I wouldn't mind some information, I'm fine about it, sir."

"We're setting traps, Trent, to catch a traitor."

Trent nodded, and held up a hand. "Excuse me a centon, sir. I'll just give Sergeant Acer his orders." He left quickly.

"Think he'll be okay about this?" Boomer asked, anxious.

"I think so," said Apollo. "I trust him, and he's got the hots for Thenie. He'll want to stay in her good books."

"Has he, indeed?" said Adama.

"I've had words with him." Apollo glanced at Starbuck. "With a result, this time, I think."

"Have you, indeed?" murmured Adama, and he smiled.

Starbuck sniffed. "Hey, I was the victim of mistaken identity. Could have happened to anyone."

"Yes," said Apollo. "I've been there, myself." His head came up and he and Adama exchanged one short look, and then Apollo looked away again, face expressionless. His hands were shaking, and he crossed his arms over his chest, tucking his hands out of sight to hide them.

Trent was back in a couple of centons. "I thought Acer had better know that Lieutenant Athena is on her way down here, sir." He glanced at Apollo. "I told him that you'd be with her, Boss, even if you aren't exactly visible. Acer understands."

"Is that wise?" Lyre asked.

"Beats trying to explain to the world how Apollo got in here otherwise, Doc. You can trust Acer. He thinks the world of the captain for some reason. He'll go along with anything we ask of him." Trent turned back to Adama. "You were saying, about this being a covert operation, sir?"

"It seems, Lieutenant, that someone wants a change of Presidency and isn't prepared to wait for an election to do it." Adama paused as the door to the room opened.

Athena raced in, looking distracted and wild eyed. As soon as the door closed behind her, she took a deep breath and said in a normal voice: "Everything seems to have gone to plan, except I wasn't expecting the Infantry. Hello, Trent."

Trent looked faintly pink and muttered something indistinct and bashful, for once unable to keep up the façade of unflappable calm. Starbuck looked from him to Athena to Apollo, and grinned.

"Everything's fine," said Adama, submitting to his daughter's embrace. I was just explaining to the lieutenant that we're on a traitor hunt here. It will be interesting to see who succeeds me."

"Won't it just," Anton agreed. "How in heaven's name did you persuade the Aegyptans to help?"

"Apollo," said Adama warningly.

"The family's deep dark secrets are going to have to come out in the open." Apollo was on his feet, a little unsteady, stripping off the Aegyptan tunic with help from Starbuck. There was a purpling mark over his ribs where the guard had caught him. "Seti had his price."

Lyre moved in and made him raise his arm, examining the injury. Salik pulled a bag from a corner and tossed it to Boomer. Boomer took Apollo's normal uniform out of it.

"Oh God," said Adama. "What?"

"I'm his heir. He thought it was long past time that I got my markings."

Lyre stepped back, satisfied. "A nasty bruise, but that's all. Nothing's broken."

"What markings?" demanded Adama.

Apollo contemplated the metallic silver hawks on the inside of his forearms. Unlike Seti's falcons, these hawks didn't have the elongated double crown on their heads, but a sun disc. "These are real."

Adama choked. "What? Are you mad?"

"No. Just Aegyptan."

"Aegyptan?" Trent gasped, for once shaken out of his habitual calm. Then after a micron for consideration: "All right," he said, rather admiringly. He looked at Athena. "You too?"

"Half," she said, defiant.

"All right," said Trent again, and Athena smiled.

"I see," said Anton. "I see. Well, that does explain a lot."

Adama stared, speechless, his mouth set and hard.

"I didn't think it was unreasonable to do as he asked," said Apollo. "It seemed a small price to pay."

"But tattoos!" said Athena.

"They aren't exactly tattoos."

Salik reached out and took one of Apollo's hands, turning it in his to look closely at the forearm. "A brand of some kind?" He beckoned Lyre over.

Apollo patiently bore their examination. "No, not a brand," he said. "More of a kind of infill."

"I saw Seti's, of course." Lyre prodded at Apollo's arm. "But he would never let me examine them closely."

Salik waved a scanner at Apollo's arm and frowned, running a finger along the outline. "It's warm, and flexible, but definitely some sort of metal. How did they do this?"

"I'll spare you the gruesome details, but they have some sort of device that cuts out the hawk shape and embeds the metal strip."

They stared at him in astonishment.

"What?" said Adama, jerked out of his resentful silence.

"You're joking!" said Starbuck.

"Believe me it was no joke." Apollo spoke with absolute sincerity. "Well, I'm not entirely sure that Seti didn't indulge in a heartless chuckle or two, but I wasn't laughing."

"That must have hurt," was all Boomer could find to say.

"A bit," agreed Apollo. " "It wasn't as bad as I was expecting, but that was Seti's sense of humour, I guess."

Salik said, in disbelief, "It really is a metal strip embedded in your arm."

Apollo shrugged. "That's what I said"

"Will it come out?" Salik prodded at the edge of the strip, trying to see how it was bonded to the flesh of Apollo's arm.

"I bloody well hope not! I wouldn't want to go through that again."

"It's a miracle you didn't end up with some major infection," scolded Lyre.

"I think you must be mad," said Adama, visibly distressed. "Why in hell's name did you agree to this?"

Apollo didn't look at him, staring down at his hawks instead. With one finger he traced the outline on his left arm. "I'm not ashamed of being Aegyptan."

"Nor am I, Apollo. I never have been," said Adama. "It's never been at issue."

Apollo shrugged. "I thought it might be a factor."

"In what? Bringing you up as my own all these yahrens?" Adama was suddenly furious, the trademark calm deserting him utterly. "I've had just about enough of all this and I'll damned if I'm going to let you get away with it for much longer! If you make one more nasty little crack about it, then I swear I'll - " He broke off, conscious that everyone was staring at him. Even Apollo was looking at him now, frowning. "Never mind! But you and I are going to have words when all this is over, do you understand? I'm bloody tired of being patient and forbearing, and we're going to have this out once and for all."

Apollo's frown deepened at the uncharacteristic profanity, and he looked away hurriedly when Adama's angry eyes met his. "Yes."

Adama paused, frowning at Apollo's manner. He took a deep breath, visibly forcing the return to calm. "You are really determined on making sure that everyone realises you're Aegyptan, aren't you?"

"I won't make an issue of it. I won't ram it down people's throats. I'm just not going to hide it any more."

"Getting those metal hawks isn't making an issue of it, then?" wondered Starbuck. "Just what exactly do you think of as ‘ramming'? I don't want to be demanding and difficult, Apollo, but I think I need a working definition so I know what to expect for the rest of my life."

Trent nodded at that. "I knew I was right about those two," he said. He met Athena's amused glance, and smiled. He didn't take his eyes off her for some time, to Starbuck's obvious glee and gratification.

Anton shook his head. "Good lord, how confusing this all is! You kept that dark, Adama."

"It was necessary to protect my children - " Adama glared at Apollo and said with a violent emphasis: " - to protect all my children from mindless prejudice. Wouldn't you do the same?"

Anton shook his head again. "Not having legal issue to concern myself about, I really don't know what I'd do. Well, Ila was a very lovely lady, and I was very fond of her, Adama. And in the end it doesn't matter, really, does it? All that matters is getting through this and winning."

"That's the trick," agreed Starbuck.

Apollo said nothing. He gathered up the pressure suit, tunic and pants that Boomer handed him and retired to the tiny fresher.

Starbuck gave him an anxious look, but didn't follow. Instead, while Boomer bundled the Aegyptan clothes and Apollo's silver helmet into the bag that had held the Galactican uniform, he took a scalpel from one of the treatment trolleys, ignoring Salik's protests, and carefully slit Apollo's flight jacket, fraying the edges of the slashes artistically so that no one could miss them. "There's probably a regulation against doing this. Deliberate damage to military property, or something."

"That's a first," said Trent. "I've never seen you worry about breaking regs before now."

Starbuck gave him a pitying look. "And who's that?" he asked, pointing to Adama with the business end of the scalpel.

"Oh. Right."

"Right. I only don't worry about breaking regs when the commander isn't standing two feet away from me."

"Don't worry. It's allowed, for the Kobolian mourning rituals," said Boomer. Unlike Starbuck, who professed to no particular religion at all, he was of the same faith as Apollo and Adama. As it happens, he was a little more of the faith than Apollo usually managed, but it hadn't got in the way of him visiting the Chapel that morning and purloining a little pot of mourning ashes while the chaplain's back was turned. When Apollo reappeared a centon later, back in uniform, Boomer dabbed a dot of thick, dark grey ash onto the middle of his forehead, then drew a finger across Apollo's face, just below the high cheekbones, the grey streaks he left behind throwing them into even greater relief. The ash smelled of incense, faint but persistent.

"As a good Kobolian, Apollo, you're supposed to maintain silence until the interment, as well," Anton commented. "That could make whatever you're planning next a little difficult."

"I'm not that good a Kobolian. Besides, the circumstances are unusual." Apollo dipped his fingers into the greasy ashes that Boomer was holding out and dragged them through his hair. "Will that do?"

Boomer nodded. "It looks fine," he said, and then grimaced. "I can't believe I said that."

Athena took the scalpel from Starbuck. "I suppose I ought to do this as well," she said, with distaste.

"Wait until after you've got Boxey here or you'll scare him half to death," Apollo suggested, tugging on his boots. "He's going to be frightened enough by all this."

"Don't worry about him," said Adama. "I'll explain."

"I wish someone would explain to me," sighed Anton. "What's my role to be?"

"I'd really appreciate it if you'd care to go with Apollo and announce my sad and untimely death and see how everyone reacts," Adama told him.

Apollo was the one to react. He couldn't get much paler, but once again he crossed his arms over his chest to hide the way his hands were shaking.

Adama looked at him thoughtfully, but was still speaking to Anton. "You know them all well enough to be able to draw your own conclusions. Then, if you wouldn't mind being overcome with grief and returning here, we can discuss the next steps."

"I think that is a task within my thespian abilities, yes." The old man nodded, serene. He looked down at his red-stained robes, and carefully got himself out of them. Athena came to help. "Thank you, my dear. I don't want to give our enemies too much satisfaction by appearing in such gory detail."

"Here," said Starbuck to Apollo, holding out the mutilated flight jacket.

"Any thoughts, Adama, about who this might be? Uri, you said?" Anton looked from Apollo to Adama, and back again.

"Yes. Most definitely." Apollo shrugged into the jacket with Starbuck's help. Boomer smeared ash over the fabric, taking care to make the streaks thick and visible and smudging a dulling greyness over the insignia.

"You're that sure?" asked Adama. "You weren't before and you didn't put anything into the message you sent me."

"I was saving it. I'm sure. Seti's had two more meetings in the last secton, setting up today. I wasn't at the first." Apollo looked down at his arms, and there was no mistaking why he hadn't been there. "But I did make it to the second, held late yesterday. So did Uri. He was introduced as one of Maxim's principals, and they'd learned from their meetings with Seti. They copied the way an Aegyptan Lord behaves: he sat quiet and let Maxim do all the talking."

"Good lord," said Adama. "I didn't think Uri would expose himself that far."

"Seti can be very insistent about what's due to his consequence. He doesn't treat with underlings." Apollo's grin was fleeting and rueful. "It was only yesterday that he formally agreed to their proposal. I've made arrangements to have Maxim picked up by Seti's guard, but I'll take Uri myself, tomorrow."

"Uri doesn't have enough of a power base in the Council to be the main player," objected Anton.

"Not after Carillon," agreed Adama. "But he could be acting on behalf of one or more councillors. He is, after all, a free agent with a lot of connexions and a lot of greed."

Anton pursed his lips as he thought. "Well, in that case, what do you say to Solon?"

"A possibility," agreed Adama. "Although he's so rigidly independent."

"Haleth's possible too, although I don't think that Tomas is hard enough for it. His only virtue has been a capacity for survival. What about Piers? Maybe Sire Jethric, too, although he's really in with the small fry.

"Sire Jethric is the small fry," said Apollo, scathingly. "I don't think much of any of the councillors, but he's so insignificant he's almost invisible."

"A minor satellite, perhaps." Anton nodded. "I'm not seriously suggesting anything other than that he is easy to manipulate and use."

"Well, they may do the running," said Adama. "But I can't see Piers as strong enough to be the main candidate. Do you? Seriously?"

Anton shrugged and shook his head.

"I'm going to be fascinated to learn who they're acting for," said Lyre, who'd been listening avidly.

"Joel, maybe," suggested Adama. "They're pretty thick with each other."

"I don't know," said Anton, hesitantly. He frowned very slightly. "Well, I suppose it's a possibility. My reservation is that Joel was a minor political flunkey back on Aquaria at one of the most insignificant ministries. That doesn't suggest to me that he's that brilliant a political operator. He's power hungry, of course, but then they all are. But if you're thinking about the younger ones on the Council, there's no denying that Joel's the alpha male there."

"What would Uri get out of it?" asked Boomer. "I mean, he's not even on the Council now. He's not likely to get a swing at being top daggit."

"His political rehabilitation, I expect," said Anton. "And possibly a place on the Council for himself. At which point whoever is using him – Solon or Haleth or who-ever it is - had better start watching their backs."

"I just love politics," said Starbuck.

"It's God's own game, young man," agreed Anton.

"I don't know about Solon or Haleth," said Apollo. "What would they get out of it? I mean, they're both getting on."

"They're younger than me," murmured Anton.

"Sorry," said Apollo. "But, isn't it more likely to be Joel, or Piers? Or at least them being involved?"

"They're pretty young," said Salik, doubtfully.

Adama frowned, trying to catch Apollo's gaze but despite the conversation his son was pointedly avoiding looking at him. "They don't have a great deal of gravitas, true."

"But they have more than enough ambition," Anton pointed out.

Noticeably ill at ease, Apollo said, "They're politicians."

Anton smiled. "Only the young could be so cynical."

"It's just that I've sat in on too many Council meetings with them." Apollo frowned. "Although I'm not sure that I rate any of them as being clever enough to pull off something as potentially complicated as this. They must know how much they need the Aegyptans, but they're trying both to use us to get at you and are turning the general population against us. I can't see any of them - even Uri, and he's a snake if ever there was one - being smart enough to come up with this. They could be the front men, though, for someone in the background, who's smarter."

Anton laughed. "Do you know, my boy, that their opinion of you is just as unflattering? Let's hope you're both inaccurate. We can handle them, but I really don't want to be looking for shadows. Of course, it could be someone else entirely."

"We'd better discuss this later," suggested Adama. "I think the Council ought to be told the unhappy news. Come straight back here, both of you, afterwards. And Apollo, take a couple of those troopers with you, as escort."

"If you think I'll need them."

"You may." Adama hesitated, then said with evident anxiety, "Be careful, son."

That earned him a glance from wide green eyes, too fleeting for the expression in them to be read. Apollo hesitated, then shrugged. "All right. I'll take Acer, if Trent can spare him."

"I live in hope that he may one day let his adoration for you be translated into even a modicum of respect for the other officers on the ship," said Trent. "But until the stars stop in the heavens, I guess I have to admit defeat on that one."

"Does that mean yes?" asked Athena. She gave her brother a brief hug.

"It means that if he decides Apollo needs to be protected, I couldn't stop Acer from going along if I shot him in both legs. He takes his duties as nursemaid very seriously. You can have him, Boss. I'll call Gina down to take over."

"Thanks."

Apollo and Anton turned away. As they got to the door, Anton's shoulders drooped pathetically and his step became slow and sad.

"He's enjoying this," Starbuck said, going with them as far as the door.

"I wish I was." Apollo looked terrible, white faced and shaking again.

"Be careful, Apollo. Please." Starbuck's hand fleeting touched Apollo's face, then he grinned. It was a brave attempt, but it didn't reach the anxious blue eyes. "Hey. Provided we do get through all this and we do win, can I be an alpha male when I grow up?"

 

 

 

"They'll make the announcement soon," said Sire Solon, quietly.

"And what will they say?" Tigh turned, his back ramrod straight and stiff. He had been staring out of the view port in the Council Chamber for what seemed like centars.

"There's a formula for dealing with these issues." Anton's voice was quiet, urbane. He glanced from Tigh to Solon, and then to Apollo, sitting silent a couple of feet away. "We'll keep it very simple."

"A cover-up," said Tigh bitterly. He looked at Apollo. "Are you standing for that?"

It was a centon or two before Apollo seemed to realise that he'd been spoken to. He looked from Solon to Anton. The old man glanced sideways at his fellow councillor, warningly, then at Tigh.

"For what?" Apollo asked.

The colonel's face remained a stiff, unnatural mask. He stared towards the huddle of councillors at the other end of the room. "For them covering up your father's murder like this! What the hell else?"

Apollo looked away again, frowning. "I don't know what happened," he said, fretful. "I don't know what's going on."

Anton made a sort of distressed clucking noise in response, and reached out to stroke Apollo's hair. Another man might have administered a pat on the head and said something like There, there , but Anton had never overdone anything in his life. The gesture was restrained, the epitome of the man. Apollo was suddenly reminded of telling Adama of the proposal Seti had received, and the awkward aborted gesture Adama had made, as if he wanted to touch Apollo and had been too afraid to. His sight blurred momentarily and he ducked his head to hide the evidence of his discomfiture.

Even Solon, usually a distant and cold man, his emotions stunted by a lifetime in presidential politics, put a hand on Apollo's shoulder for a micron. "I'm so sorry, Apollo," he said awkwardly.

Tigh snorted and brusquely elbowed his way past Solon. He had the air of reminding the councillors - none too subtly - that they were strangers, that he was the one who had been Adama's friend for more than forty yahrens, and that it was his place to comfort Adama's family. He sat down beside Apollo and put an arm around the younger man's shoulders. Anton nodded approval, Solon stepping back with a wry smile as the colonel bulled in past him. Apollo rubbed at his temples with one hand, the other was against his ribs.

"We'd better get back to the others," said Solon quietly.

Anton bent down and hugged Apollo gently. "We won't be long, my boy."

Apollo said nothing, only nodded.

Tigh watched Anton and Solon return to the Council table across the room. "You're chalk white," he said. "You look terrible."

"I'm supposed to look terrible."

Apollo looked in the direction of the Council. The discussions, quiet and intense, resumed the instant Anton and Solon returned to their seats. Anton was chairing the Council, but with the sensitivity he'd already shown, he carefully hadn't taken Adama's empty chair. Apollo turned his back on the government he despised.

Tigh's grin was ferocious. "Very authentic, then."

"And you'd look terrible if you got smacked by three stun waves. I wish I hadn't been so adamant about refusing the analgesics."

"Bad?"

"It all helps. Unlike Thenie, whenever I was in the school dramas they never actually trusted me with acting. I was always something like the Third Spear Carrier, or a Confused Noise Within."

Tigh sighed. "The story of my life, a Confused Noise Within. You're not doing too badly, though. You have a nice line in stunned bewilderment. But you'll have to react a bit more pretty soon, Apollo. They'll expect you to be shocked, but then they'll be looking for the anger."

"They'll get it," promised Apollo. "You know what I've got to do?"

Tigh nodded. "Provoke them. I don't know what opportunity they'll give you, though, to prove you're a threat that needs to be taken care of. Whoever did this will be restrained because this is a public meeting and - "

"And because they believe that he isn't a centar dead yet," Apollo finished for him. "And they'll have to show him - and me - the proper respect. Don't worry. I'm pretty sure that despite the occasion calling for restraint and respect, my revered government will give me the chance I need."

"Cynic." Tigh pulled at his collar. "I'll be glad when this is all over. I'll be even gladder when you and Adama sort yourselves out over this Seti character and stop giving me grief. I've had more aggravation over the last couple of sectars than for the last yahren."

"He told you, then."

Tigh nodded. "This morning, when he set this all up."

"He never bothered telling me. He let me find it out for myself. I guess it just wasn't important." Apollo rubbed fretfully at his temples again, closing his eyes against the headache for a brief micron, closing out the too-bright light.

"No," said Tigh, thoughtfully. "In the very best sense, Apollo, I don't think it was. I don't think it ever made any difference to him. When I asked him why he'd never told me before now - and I've known him since the Academy, don't forget - he was quite forceful about that. So far as he's concerned, you're as much his son as Zac was, you know."

"No. I don't know. I thought so once, but now – now I don't know. He never says."

The glance he got from the colonel was thoughtful. "First time I ever saw you, you'd be about three. I hadn't seen Adama for about eight or nine yahrens, not since we were serving together on the Columbia. I'd heard he'd got Sealed, of course, but I was half way across the star system when it happened. We met by chance on the shuttle back to Caprica, and he insisted on me coming back with him for a few days. He knew I had no family of my own, and he was desperate to show me his. He knew that Ila was bringing you to the space port to meet him, and all I got on that twenty centar flight was how amazing it was, how unbelievably lucky he was. He ran off that shuttle to get to you so he could show you off to me."

"Oh," said Apollo.

"As you got older, though, I think he found it harder to be that demonstrative. He's easier being like that with children, haven't you noticed? I mean, think of him with Boxey. Maybe it's something to do with his own upbringing, that he knows that small children need that and forgets that they still do when they grow up. I don't think that his parents, from what I remember of them, were that affectionate. I don't think he finds it easy to tell you how much you mean to him. I can see it, though."

"Can you?"

"I always could." Tigh spoke with the almost naïve honesty that had been as much an impediment to his career advancement as his temper had been. "Why do you think I resented your arrival so much? I don't mind admitting that it took me a few sectars to see how scrupulously fair he was being to me."

Apollo said nothing.

"Although I know that he didn't sometimes seem as fair on you," Tigh said, evidently turning into a mind reader.

Despite himself, Apollo grinned slightly. Watching Tigh trying to be delicate was like seeing Acer trying to dance on glass: a brave attempt, but doomed to failure.

"I've told him he got that all wrong," said Tigh. "He overcompensated all the time."

Apollo only made some non-committal sound.

Tigh shook his head. "I can't recall seeing him more cut up about anything than I have over the last couple of sectars, not even the Destruction. This breach with you has been eating him up." The colonel scowled. "It hasn't done me a lot of good, either. You've both been impossible to live with."

"It's a bit of a mess," was all Apollo said.

Tigh snorted again. He appreciated understatement to the same extent that he appreciated politicians.

They sat in silence for several centons, waiting, until Sire Jethric, the Cancerian member of Council and the object of Anton's gentle scorn, materialised at Apollo's elbow. He nodded a greeting of sorts to Tigh, and offered perfunctory condolences.

"The Council has made some decisions about the announcement, Captain." Jethric waved invitingly at the Council table. "Please join us." His cold eyes showed a brief amusement as Tigh got up too. "And you too, of course, Colonel."

Tigh stayed close, ignoring Jethric. He and Apollo had a lot in common in their opinion of their political masters, and Tigh didn't usually even except Anton from his generic contempt of any and every councillor.

There was a chair set facing the empty President's seat, but Apollo decided to stand. Tigh stood at his right, shoulder to shoulder. The colonel's gruff presence was comforting.

Anton spoke gently. "Apollo, you know how very sorry we all are about this dreadful thing."

"I know that you are," said Apollo, with very distinct emphasis that pointedly excluded every other member of the Council. He glanced around at the other councillors, and hoped he looked as grim as he felt.

They looked dignified and impressive, all, save Anton, in their heavy white robes of office. Anton looked smaller and unimposing in the thin silk shirt that he wore underneath his discarded robes, but Apollo had more faith in the wicked old man than in the rest of them put together. They looked back at him with expressions of a sympathy he could only see as bogus. Tinia was red eyed and still trembling a little, and perhaps there was some genuine emotion there, but Anton was the only one he trusted.

There was a red mark, drying brown around the edges now, on the sleeve of Anton's shirt, a stain that Apollo could see every time that the old man moved. It could so easily have been for real. He swallowed hard against the sudden bitterness, like bile in the back of his throat.

He stared at Joel and Piers, until Piers shifted in his seat and glared at him, the spurious sympathy dissolving into the usual dislike. Piers leaned over Joel's shoulder and said something in his ear. Joel nodded, never glancing up to meet Apollo's eyes. His was one of the faces where the sympathy had been extremely fleeting. Apollo looked away.

Anton sighed. "We understand how upset and bewildered you must feel at the moment. I'm so very sorry to add to that, Apollo, so very sorry. But we must talk about what we can say to the people of the Fleet. We have to decide how much we can tell them."

"Tell ‘em the truth," said Tigh.

Apollo straightened his shoulders. "These are politicians, Colonel. They don't know what that means."

No one but Anton would meet his eyes. "You both know that we can't risk public disorder. We just can't. There are ships in this Fleet where we are only just hanging on to control, flashpoints where it's taking Reese all his time to keep some sort of law and order. In some ships we're a micrometre away from riot and rebellion, on ships like the Aquilegia, the Leander, the Borellian freighter. Your own troopers, Apollo, were on standby to help quell unrest on the Aquilegia."

"I know that."

Anton nodded, patience monolithic. "And although suspicion of the Aegyptans has lessened recently, this could inflame matters to the point of open warfare. We can't let that happen. The fleet will fall apart. The news of your father's death is going to be devastating. This could be the end of us. We've no chance of retaining order if the truth's known."

Apollo's mouth twisted. "And we need the Aegyptans."

"You know, better than I do, how true that is," said Anton, quietly. "Apollo - my dear boy, I know that this is hard."

"It's very hard."

"We need your help, Apollo, and your agreement," said Solon. "You must see that."

Apollo's gaze swept around the councillors again. "Are you telling me that the colonel was right, that you intend to cover this up?"

"For the public good," said Joel, raising his head to watch Apollo, eyes meeting Apollo's for the first time. There was enmity there, and impatience. "It has to be done, Captain."

Apollo shook his head. "None of you would recognise the public good if it was wrapped around your necks," he said savagely. "This has nothing to do with maintaining order. This is to hide which ever one of you on this Council set this up, which ever one of you conspired to murder my father."

On most faces, outrage battled with pretence at understanding. Heads were shaken in pained incredulity that anyone could believe such nonsense, and one or two councillors took on patient expressions and looked at Apollo with an air of saintly forbearance. Another couple looked like they were viewing the most outrageous social solecism. Tinia cried silently into a large white handkerchief, her shoulders shaking. Once again, Piers leaned over Joel's shoulder to whisper something, his contemptuous expression deepening. Joel frowned. But Anton's upraised hand quelled any protests, any attempt at justification.

"My dear boy," said Anton again. "I do understand and I quite agree that the circumstances point to something very - " he paused, then said with the understatement that normally amused Apollo, " - something very unsavoury going on. But please stay calm. You have to consider the implications of this."

"I'm very calm." Apollo clenched hands that were trembling visibly. He stared down at them, some part of his mind reflecting that the physical effects of the stun waves were fortuitous for someone who had limited acting ability. He noticed that when he'd applied the grey ash to his hair, some had caught under his fingernails. "And what implications are we talking about, Anton? The implication that one of you arranged this, perhaps? Who else stands to gain from my Da - " He choked, unable to go on for a micron, then his head came up proudly to stare at them, accusing. "- from the commander's death, but one of you?"

"I'm sure that things are very difficult for you, Captain," said Joel. His frown had deepened. "But this is very unhelpful."

Apollo looked at the ash under his nails. For an instant he had caught a trace of the incense the ash had once been, the perfume filling his nostrils. It had taken him back to the little local temple that had been the family's place of worship, the old priest who'd been a family friend and who'd led the private service of thanksgiving every time Adama had come home safe from the war on a few sectons leave. They'd been the best times, when they were a full and proper family for those short sectons, before Adama had had to go back. The priest had used this same incense. He'd forgotten that. He'd forgotten a lot of things.

"Unhelpful?" he repeated, looking up and staring at Joel, then added in genuine bewilderment, "What in Hades makes you think I want to be helpful?"

"You have to accept the reality of this situation, Apollo." Solon was one of those with a more genuine understanding expression, but there was a flicker of irritation there too. "Whatever happened to your father - and I assure you that Reese will investigate it fully - we can't announce that Adama was assassinated by an Aegyptan. Not unless you want to see riots and bloodshed all over the Fleet! I think better of you than that. Your father would have hated that his death was the pretext for the destruction of what's left of our people. He sacrificed too much to save them, to lose them now."

There was a murmur of agreement from the councillors; only Anton, looking grieved, was silent, watching Apollo from eyes that had lost their usual sparkle.

"And you hope that will shut me up, that I'll go away and keep quiet?"

"It would be wise," said Haleth, softly.

Solon's hand came up in an impatient gesture, aimed at quelling his fellow councillor. "This is an emotional and difficult moment and we do understand your confusion. But I can't see you relishing the destruction of the fleet, Captain. You can't be your father's son and wish for that."

Apollo stared the man straight in the eye. Solon was an old hand politically, one of President Adar's inner cabal, he would have known about the Accord and how to involve the Aegyptans. And he had a natural power and authority that many of the other councillors lacked. The counter argument was that Solon was an individualist, never known to be in permanent alliance with any one faction within the Council, but that didn't mean that he didn't have plans of his own. He was sharp enough, subtle where people like Piers were crude.

"I am his son, Sire Solon. Believe me, I am." Apollo didn't define, even to himself, which father he meant, although the irony had him fighting down the half-hysterical impulse to laugh.

"Adama would want you to think about the greater good," said Solon. "He would want you to consider the bigger picture."

"I'm sure he would. He was always aware of it himself. The difference between him and the Council is that he never sacrificed honour and justice and truth to it. He was a lousy politician. He didn't have the moral flexibility needed for the job."

"Hear hear," said Tigh, softly.

Apollo took a deep breath. His voice was steady, but flat with hostility. "I don't either. I can't stomach this hypocrisy much longer. At dawn tomorrow I'll bury my father, and I don't want any of you there, is that understood? I can't stand there tomorrow and watch all you pious hypocrites gloat over the fact that he's dead and wonder which one of you had him butchered. I don't want you there. You aren't welcome."

"Impossible!" said Joel, outraged. "Can you even begin to imagine what people with think?"

"I can't even begin to care," Apollo snapped back. "It's your problem, Councillor."

"Apollo, this will cause a lot of trouble," said Solon. "Please think about what you're doing."

"Oh, but I am. I am thinking about it. I'm not a very good Kobolian, not the way he is -" Apollo stuttered slightly and corrected himself. " - was. But I've enough respect for him and his religion to do this properly. I'll stand vigil with him tonight and tomorrow I'll send him on his way, and I'll observe the custom of silence and reserve and seclusion. But when that's over, when he's gone, then there is no way that I'm going to stay quiet about this. Whichever one of you did this will regret it."

Solon sighed and shook his head. He looked at Anton, raising one hand in defeat and not returning to the attack.

"Leave him to me," said Anton, very quietly. "I'll talk to him later. He's in shock right now."

Apollo had no opportunity to protest. There was a disturbance at the door of the Council Chamber and an instant later Reese walked swiftly past Apollo and Tigh to lean over the table, whispering something to Anton.

Anton's expression became incredulous. "Oh, but this is too much," he protested. "No. Not now!"

"What is it?" Siress Tinia asked, impatiently.

"The Aegyptan woman is here," Anton looked from Apollo to the door, then back to Reese. "Not now. Send her away."

Reese, glancing at Apollo and being uncharacteristically considerate, mumbled something else.

Anton actually scowled. "I thought you'd doubled security out there!"

"I did," said Reese, less quietly. "More than. I'm holding them back, Councillor, but at best it's a standoff. It could come to a fight."

"Dear Lords," Anton said. He looked around the Council. "It appears that the Aegyptans have come in some strength."

"This is dreadful!" said Siress Tinia, actually wringing her hands. "What can we do?"

"Let them in," said Apollo harshly, cutting across the dismayed and indecisive muttering. "What difference does it make? They've done the job that you wanted them to do. Let them in."

"Not in here," Tigh said warningly, putting a restraining hand on him. "You can't, Apollo. Not in here."

"Indeed, not," Anton said. "This is not the time nor place for it, Apollo. If nothing else, remember what's required of you until Morning Light."

Apollo stared at him for an instant, then looked around at the Council. When he spoke, his voice was calm and quiet, but still hostile. "It's all right. You don't understand. It's odd, but I'm not as mad with them as I am with whichever one of the Council contracted with them to do this."

"An interesting position to take," said Sire Tomas, with an acidic irony. "They're your father's murderers."

"No. One of you murdered him. They were the tool you used. I've worked closely with them for yahrens. I know them better than anyone. They don't care who's in charge here. They never did. It doesn't matter to them. Power doesn't matter to them. It matters to people like you." One more sweeping glance at the mostly angry and impatient faces - not many of them could keep up the sympathy, now, no matter how spurious. Apollo looked at Anton. "Let them in. I want to hear what they've got to say. They may be murderers, but it'll be interesting to see which one of these cold-blooded, conniving traitors they talk to."

"As you've already pointed out, Captain," said Piers, smooth as a snake. "You know them rather better than any of us."

"Wha -?" Apollo stared for a micron as he took that in, then took one step forward, his hands curling into fists.

Tigh was faster than Apollo would ever have given him credit for. He threw an arm around the younger man, pulling Apollo back against his chest. "Oh no you don't!" he hissed in Apollo's ear.

"After all, no one else has ever been as close to them, that I know of, at least." Piers' mouth twisted into a sneer. "Almost blood brothers, I understand. Or doesn't bone marrow count?"

"That's enough!" Anton snapped out the order. It was as if someone had tripped a switch, or thrown open the door to some secret room. The urbane gentleman was gone and something of the real Anton appeared, the man who'd survived a lifetime in a political system as cold and as ruthless as anything mankind could invent. His expression and voice carried real power and a sense of command that Adama himself might have envied, the tone of a man so supremely confident of himself and his position that he would not contemplate that anyone would even consider disobedience.

It was like someone doused the Council with cold water. Taken by surprise, Piers gasped audibly and started, turning sharply to stare at the old man in consternation. He wasn't alone. Most of the councillors stared, astonished to see the unexpected steel underneath that polished, gently mocking exterior. Only Solon smiled, unmoved, perhaps because he'd known Anton too long to be surprised, perhaps because he, too, hid himself as completely. Shocked, Apollo let Tigh hold him, forgetting to struggle.

"Councillor!" Piers started, outraged.

"I said, that's enough! Be silent." Anton glared the councillor down, and when Piers subsided, something of the old man's usual manner returned. "I find your lack of subtlety quite distressing, Sire Piers."

Piers reddened, but Anton wouldn't allow him or any of them to speak. He turned to Tigh. "We can't afford an open breach with the Aegyptans," he said, baldly. "Don't let him go, Colonel."

"I know how much we need them!" Apollo glared at Piers, pulling against Tigh's hold. "Let go of me!"

"Be still. And do as you're told, or I'll have you taken out of here." Anton's expression softened into something closer to its usual gentleness when Apollo looked at him. "I'm sorry, my boy. I know you're upset by this, but Sire Solon is right. This is bigger than your loss, today. This is big enough to drown all of us." He looked at Reese, standing quiet and watchful beside the Council table. "Let them in. All of them."

"It could be dangerous," warned Reese.

"I'm sure it will be. I suspect very much that someone here has used an agreement that was better left dead at Cimtar, and that we are all in very great danger. Let them in."

"You're taking too much onto yourself," said Joel, coldly, to a chorus of nods and muttered agreement.

"Some of us are better fitted for it than others." Anton was colder. He watched Reese head for the door. "And I am, I'd remind you, Adama's deputy."

"Until we elect someone else," said Haleth.

"Yes, I realise that," agreed Anton.

"Until tomorrow," said Piers, recovering his courage and consequence. "Until after everything's done."

"Of course," said Anton, the old gentle shell in place. He glanced at Tigh and nodded towards the empty chair.

"Sit down, Apollo. Let Sire Anton handle this." Tigh's tone was subdued. He pushed Apollo into the chair, and stood over him. He gave the old man an odd look and an unexpected accolade. "I think he can."

Apollo didn't protest. He was feeling slightly light headed, a little blurred around the edges, and his legs felt shaky. The dull sickness in the pit of his stomach was increasing as the anti-nausea shots wore off, and he was filled with a queer bewildered emptiness that couldn't have been worse if Adama really had been dead. He didn't know if it was the effect of the stun waves or the intense, murderous anger he felt for Piers, or something else maybe. Piers jibe had been too close to home, feeding the guilt that stabbed at him. An emotional assassination , Starbuck had said once, about the ruthless way he'd cut Adama out of his life. And now he'd acted it out, almost for real.

His hands were shaking again and he held on to the arms of his chair, forcing himself to tighten the hold until the muscles tensed into pain, cramp threatening his fingers. The pain was welcome, a stimulus he needed. He shook his head to clear it. He'd thought that he'd known what he was getting in to, that he'd known what he was doing, but things were going so fast he was beginning to wonder if he could catch up with them. Angry, at Adama and Seti and his dead mother, and angriest with himself, Apollo sat glowering at the Council. Mostly he glowered at Piers. Piers glowered right back.

Mene-ti-Auapet, escorted by half a dozen Aegyptans, swept past security at the door. Her escort spread themselves in a wide semi-circle at the back of the room. Apollo twisted in his chair to watch her approach. Tigh's hand dropped onto his shoulder, heavy and restraining. Reese, carefully expressionless, followed the Aegyptans into the Council Chamber and came back to stand at the Council table behind Anton's chair, one hand ostentatiously on his laser. Two other security men stood at the door.

Mene came to a halt a few feet away from Apollo's chair. He was conscious of one sidelong glance from the behind the jackal mask, but nothing more. Her attention seemed focused on the Council.

"Anubis Mene-ti-Auapet," said Anton, cold.

"Sire Anton." The jackal head inclined slightly, but the lack of a formal greeting ritual was pointed. "I am here on behalf of the Horus Seti-sen-Ankhaten." She paused, then said with an acidic emphasis, " He is displeased."

Apollo choked.

The jackal head mask swung towards him only for a micron, then back to the watching councillors. They looked apprehensive, eyes flickering nervously between Anton and the Aegyptan. Anton frowned, but said nothing.

"The terms of the Accord are quite clear," said Mene. "We have abided by them. You have not. Our operative is dead."

"Yes," said Apollo, leaning forward in his chair. Tigh's hand on his shoulder tightened its grip. His other hand dropped heavily onto Apollo's free shoulder, holding him down.

Mene kept her attention on Anton. "The operative was killed by warriors."

"Yes. We know." Anton shook his head at Apollo.

"Warriors are not often present in the Council Chambers in such convenient numbers. We consider that to be an interesting departure from routine at a time when we were contracted to be there. A most disturbing departure."

"You were not commissioned or contracted by this Council," said Anton, not to be tricked into offering explanations.

She didn't react either, as supreme a political operator as Anton. "We Aegyptans look after our own and we permit no disrespect to our Lords. You humans have allowed an Aegyptan to be killed in circumstances that we find deeply suspicious and you have dishonoured Lord Seti. We are no man's pawns. As I said, Lord Seti is most displeased and he is considering his response. It will be commensurate with the insult."

"I say again, Mene-ti-Auapet, you were not commissioned by this Council to remove Commander Adama."

"Officially? Perhaps not, but one or more of you invoked the Accord. You know of the Accord, Sire Anton?"

"I know," said Anton, heavily.

"Lord Seti asked me to remind you of the principle of collective responsibility."

There was a stunned silence at the clear threat. Even Anton was silent, doing no more than shake his head in denial. He looked very old.

Sire Solon was the first to find his voice. "Are you saying you hold the entire Council responsible?"

"You are accountable. If you wish to avoid the consequences, you'll do well to deal with the defaulters yourselves." Mene paused. "If you can, and before we do. We would take that in earnest of the good intentions of the rest of you. But all I require of you now is that you return the body to us."

"Take it," said Anton at once. He waved into silence Reese's attempt to protest about not having had the opportunity to examine the assassin's body. "It doesn't matter," he said sharply. Reese subsided, grumbling under his breath.

Tigh grinned. "Well, well, well. It looks to me, Councillors, as if you're got a war on your hands."

"This breach is most unfortunate and most unwelcome." Anton's suavity had an edge to it. "And most unnecessary. I can assure you that the Council as a whole did not invoke the Accord, we did not arrange matters so that the Aegyptan was so conveniently disposed of. As a body, we were not involved in this." Anton glanced around the Council. "I can't speak for individuals. I give you my word that we will do our best to discover who did this, and take action against them. But we don't want, and we can't afford, a rift with your people."

"We will consider that, after we have dealt with those who misled us," Mene said, serene and untouched.

Anton took a deep breath. "My dear Mene, open discord between us is hardly going to help matters out there! Things are difficult enough between our peoples, and we do not need open warfare. You must see that!"

Mene inclined her head. "I see and understand the implications, as does the Horus Seti-sen-Ankhaten. But this is a very grave breach of the Accord and an attack on all Aegypta. He will not tolerate it. At this centon, I'm not empowered to discuss anything further except to remind you that that the announcement will not make any mention of our intervention."

"We have already decided to be vague about the cause of death." Anton spoke with obvious distaste and with an apologetic glance at Apollo.

"Heart failure, perhaps," suggested Joel.

"Your heart would fail too, with an eight inch knife in it," snapped Apollo. Tigh's hands pressed down to restrain him, suddenly so heavy on his shoulders that they had to have been transmuted to lead.

Mene turned to Apollo. "Lord Seti's regrets, Captain, and his assurance that you are not and never will be a target. He is conscious of his debt to you."

"Tell him I mean to collect."

"Ah," she said, regretfully. "It wasn't anything personal, Captain."

"It was to my Dad. It was personal for him."

"I'm sorry, Captain."

"You will be. Because I'm making it personal. You tell Seti that I'm making it bloody personal." Apollo managed a smile that had to look quite the spectacle, against the ripped clothes and the ashes. "Let's see how much that displeases him."

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