This is the second story in a sequence of three that starts with A Fond Farewell and ends with Masquerade.

 

Section One

"You know, Apollo," remarked Lieutenant Starbuck to his lover, "I can handle temptation. No sweat. Stop laughing! It's true. Put temptation in my way - anything you like. Big temptation, small temptation, thin, fat - I can deal with it. I give in every time. Look at me now. I swore I'd never come back up here and the first day I get more than a centon's free time, where do I head? Straight up here to talk to you."

Starbuck paused and looked around the silent Celestial Dome. He'd opened the huge metal canopy and there was nothing between him and millions of light years of stars but the thin, clear tylinium dome. He looked thoughtfully out at the unimaginable distance. Somewhere out there, parsecs behind them now, was what remained of Apollo.

"We're managing, Apollo, but it's been hard. We ran into them a couple of sectons after you did. Fast little buggers, aren't they? We were pretty impressed that you'd managed to hold them off long enough to get those two cadets out of there. You were one hell of a pilot, Apollo, but I guess even you couldn't stack up against these bastards. God knows, we've had plenty of trouble since we met them. Lost a whole heap of people in the last sectar. Not me, though." Starbuck flushed with guilt. "I'm not exactly trying to get myself killed, Apollo, I promise you that, but I've not been trying too hard to stay here either. I figure if it's a genuine hit in battle, you won't yell at me too long when I catch up with you."

Starbuck sighed. "See, I'm not used to you sneaking off like that, going places without me. Almost like you didn't want me along. And I miss you. I miss you like all hell. It hasn't got any better since you left me behind. It just hurts different, that's all. First few sectons, I thought I'd been sliced open, left to bleed to death, with all the edges raw and stinging. It's still like that a lot, but I ache all the time as well. All day, every day. And believe me, Apollo, I don't think about the nights. I don't get through the nights without a lot of ambrosa and popping a few of the pills Cassie gets for me. But as for getting those bastards to take me, too - no go. I've done everything but paint an arrow on my chest saying ‘Aim here', and still they miss. The famous Starbuck luck, I guess. Came close a couple of times, but Boomer saved me each time. He says it was bad enough losing you, he doesn't want to lose me too and he's threatened to kick me around the flightdeck if I don't shape up. Can't say I care. He's acting Captain, by the way. He's not you, but he's doing okay. He's trying to do things the way you would, and he's doing okay. Fine really. Hell of a start to the job, dealing with these guys.."

Starbuck stared out at the stars for a long silent moment. He was tired, weary to his bones. The Galactica pilots had been fighting running battles with the unknown enemy for over a sectar now, and were on almost permanent alert. For sectons they'd known nothing but snatched, hurried sleep punctuated by red alerts as another flight of the fast Black Ships had swung in to attack the fleet. They'd never come across anything as fast or as deadly. Too many of them were dying each day now, and they were filling the holes in the combat ranks with the cadets and retired veterans. The losses amongst these were even greater than with the seasoned pilots, but the Galactica had no choice now. This was a battle for survival. Only, of course, not everyone was going to survive. One of the two cadets Apollo had died to save was dead herself now, nothing but radioactive dust floating in space.

"I made it up with Boxey, Apollo. I'm sorry about that. The kid caught up with me just when it really hit me, when I realised that you weren't coming back. I lost it, and he caught some of the backwash. I'm sorry, but it's okay now. I explained to him how bad I was feeling and we cried together a bit. He's the only one I can do that with. I can't even cry with Cassie. He's a good kid. You'd be proud of him. He's incredibly proud of you. He's being really brave - but he hasn't forgotten you. He still misses you too. I don't see much of your Dad and Athena, except on duty, but I try and see Boxey when I can, between raids. I'll do my best to look after him for you."

Starbuck glanced at his chronometer. "I'll have to go in a centon. We've been called to a briefing. Word is that some aliens we've come across want to help us get the enemy, and are willing to share information on them. ‘Course, we don't have much information to share except that they murdered you and they've beaten the pogees out of us ever since. Not a lot to go on, really."

Starbuck stood up slowly and closed down the dome. The canopy swung silently into place, closing out the view of the stars. He looked around. The Dome was cold and empty, getting dusty and neglected, the way it had been when Apollo had first found it. Made sense, he supposed, and decided he'd do nothing to stop the Dome slipping back into obscurity and stillness. He bent to open the hatch, then paused and looked around again, as if wanting to catch a glimpse of the ghost it held for him. Nothing. Nothing but silence and dust. If Apollo was here, he too was silence and dust.

"I miss you," he said to his dead lover. "And I love you very much."







"At least they look at bit like us," said Greenbean, watching as the Council filed in with their alien guests.

"I hope not!" Starbuck looked with horror at the deeply unattractive, self-important weasels who made up his government. "I'd hate to look like that!" A perfectly timed pause, then: "The aliens aren't too bad, though."

Boomer grinned at him. A feeble joke, but the first they'd had out of Starbuck in sectons, the first hint that there was still something of the old Starbuck left in the quiet, withdrawn man he'd been since Apollo's death. Starbuck's answering grin was thin, and he turned his attention to the podium at the front of the briefing room. Every pilot who could be there had crowded in, and the briefing was being piped through to the ready room and the pilots on alert, sitting in their Vipers in the dark launch tubes.

The aliens, two of them, bore more than a passing resemblance to humans, but were infinitely more graceful. They seemed to flow, rather than walk, beside Commander Adama as he led the way to the front of the room. The pilots stared openly, took in every detail. From the differences in clothing they were probably one of each sex - assuming the aliens only had two sexes. They'd heard of races with more - at least, Starbuck always used to claim he had and the stories he used to tell were unbelievably obscene. Not that he'd told any recently.

Taller than most humans and thinner built, almost attenuated, with glowing coppery skin and large liquid brown eyes, the aliens were sufficiently human for the watching pilots to relax, to feel comfortable. It would be better if they'd had hair, but sheesh, there were plenty of bald humans who didn't look half as good.

Adama waited for a centon for Tigh to call the pilots together, then quietly introduced their guests. He'd looked older the last few sectons, grief for Apollo and the unremitting attacks taking their toll, his natural gravity deepening into a remote sternness.

"As I have no doubt most of you will know by now, the Council has been in negotiation for the last few days with a new people we've met, the K'h'n. They have been most generous in offering us supplies and a passage along the borders of their space, as well as some logistical advice on the nature of a enemy common to us both. This is Ambassador F'nch and his aide, N'thn, who will remain on board the Galactica as liaison between our peoples as long as we remain in or near K'h'n space. He has much to tell us of the enemy we have faced for so long. We've much to learn. Ambassador…" Adama bowed politely at the tall K'h'n at his side.

The K'h'n bowed back, elaborately, and turned to face the watching pilots. He, like his aide, was wearing some sort of headset with a mike, that he spoke into. It translated the soft, fluting, almost birdlike tones into Standard.

"I am pleased to be here. Enemies of my Enemy are my friends." The soft brown-eyed gaze swept over them. "I will tell you what I can, that it may aid you in your efforts to safeguard your people. We wish to help you, because helping you will help us confound the Enemy. In that ambition, I think, we have common cause."

The precisely structured sentences were strangely soothing, the formality reassuring.

"If you have questions about what I am going to tell you please do not hesitate to ask as I speak. I will not be offended." F'nch was used to speaking in public. His eyes swept once more across the assembled pilots, seeming to connect with each of them, as if he was speaking to each one individually. "I expect that you will have questions. We have many ourselves."

F'nch paused slightly. "We first came across the Enemy four generations ago, when they first began to expand into this region of space. We have no name for them. We do not know their name for themselves. They are the Enemy - no more, no less. We do not even know what they look like."

"Even after four generations of war?" someone asked. "How long is that, sir?"

"Several hundred of your yahrens," F'nch replied. "No, so far as we know, we have never seen one of the Enemy. At first, we sent envoys, traders, ambassadors, seeking peaceful contact. None ever returned. The Enemy guard their borders jealously and permit no-one entry. They expand only very slowly. In the centuries since we first encountered them, they have advanced their borders only two parsecs into K'h'n space. This has not been a gradual expansion. We can go a hundred yahrens with a kind of wary peace, then suddenly they will be there, swallowing another star system. Then there will be stillness again. Their strategy, their reasoning is incomprehensible to us."

"Let me guess, sir," Boomer cut in. "They're currently expanding again?"

"Correct." On the screen behind him, a starfield was projected. F'nch turned to it and his long fingers traced a line. "This area of space, this corridor four star systems wide and hundreds of parsecs long, is under dispute. A war zone. You first entered it here, some eighteen gr'nc ago." He paused and turned to his aide. "N'thn, how long in human terms?"

"Seven sectons," said Starbuck before the aide could reply, his eyes on the starmap.

F'nch looked at the lieutenant. If he'd been human, the expression on his face would have been one of mild curiosity.

Adama looked down to meet Starbuck's eyes. "That's when we took our first casualty, Ambassador. Our Strike Captain."

F'nch nodded. "I see." he said.

Adama straightened his shoulders, his face and voice calm. "By our reckoning, it will be another six or seven sectons before we are through this disputed zone."

"And there's no way round, Commander?" someone asked in a regretful tone, the kind of tone that showed the questioner knew the answer.

"No. Our course lies in this direction. We've just left the zone here - " Adama pointed to the starmap " - for two sectons to pass through K'h'n space where it makes a kind of daggit-leg up into the disputed systems, but once across that we'll be back in the thick of it again."

There was a low muttering, but the pilots all had to be thinking that a two secton respite was better than nothing.

"You have acquitted yourselves well against the Enemy," F'nch said. "Your Vipers are almost the match of the Black Ships, almost as manoeuvrable. We have watched your progress with interest."

But not offered to help until now was written on the faces of a hundred pilots., although not one voiced it. More than one wondered just what the K'h'n thought they would get out of this.

"You might think that we've got fast ships, sir," said Boomer. "And we have. And I think we've done well to get by with the losses we've had. But we've found it hard going. How their pilots can pull off some of those manoeuvres and not black out pulling all those gees is a puzzle."

F'nch's mouth curved into something approximating a human smile. "The Enemy pilots do not feel the g-forces…" he paused, looked enquiringly at Boomer.

"Boomer. Acting Strike Captain." Adama supplied quietly.

F'nch nodded. "Ah, yes. The Enemy pilots do not feel the g-forces, Captain Boomer, because they are dead."

There was a short stunned silence.

"Dead?" Bojay choked out.

The K'h'n Ambassador nodded. "Yes." He paused, turned to his aide and made some gesture. The aide busied herself with some equipment, and the Ambassador continued, "When I said to you that we had never seen the Enemy, I should perhaps have said that, to the best of our knowledge, we have never seen the Enemy. But we have, of course, seen captured pilots. It is not easy to capture one of the Black Ships but we have done it occasionally. The first time, of course, we thought that we had a specimen from the Enemy species. This is what we found."

The aide pressed a button and the equipment projected an image onto the huge screen. It showed the top of one the thin Black Ships, like a streamlined black dart. The canopy, as black as the rest of the ship, was open. The inside of what would have been, in a Viper, the pilot's cockpit seemed to be full of some kind of translucent gel in which a body floated.

"The first Masked pilot that we found," F'nch said. "It was of a species unknown to us, and we were unable to determine its sex, even after an autopsy. I said that this one, the first Masked pilot, we took to be the Enemy. But the second one we captured was of a different species altogether, one with which we have had trading contact for centuries and which viewed the Enemy in the same way as we do. The third was another species again. The fourth …the fourth was one of our own. In all cases, the pilot was floating inside a protective gel that cushioned its body from the extreme g-forces pulled in the kinds of manoeuvres the Black Ships can achieve. It is possible that the gel has other properties too - preserving and nourishing the body it encloses."

"But sir, dead or alive, floating in that muck, how could the pilot operate the Ship?" asked Jolly. "I can't see any controls."

"There are none, not in the sense that you are used to." F'nch nodded at his aide, and the image changed.

The pilot had evidently been taken from its ship and the protective gel, and was lying on table that looked not unlike a mortuary slab. It was roughly humanoid in shape - size was impossible to judge without something to use as a comparator - with a recognisably human number of arms and legs, although these seemed inordinately long and had an uncomfortably large number of fingers and toes. A matt black shape, a kind of crawlon, was squatting on the pilot's head, long black claws or talons curving over the face and head. The topmost claw curved over the compound eyes, the second over what looked like a mouth, the third arcing down to touch the throat. The fourth arched over to disappear under the back of the head.

F'nch pointed to the "crawlon". "This is a Mask. I have seen them in various sizes, to fit their host, but they have all been of the same shape and, we assume, function. I say ‘assume' advisedly. Our scientists have not been able to analyse the technology sufficiently to be certain."

The aide offered F'nch a box, which the Ambassador opened and carefully lifted out the Mask inside. He held it up by the thick body, the size of a man's fist. It had only four claws, rather than the crawlon's eight legs, curving in different directions.

"It appears to be purely mechanical, a piece of machine technology," F'nch went on into the fascinated silence. "Unbelievably complex, it has defied detailed analysis by our finest minds and we have only been able to hypothesise about what it is and what it does. But what has become clear in almost twenty cases now, is that this is the control mechanism. In every case it was attached to the pilot's brain. This is the interface, the tool by which the Enemy pilots are linked to their ships, become one with their ships. This part here, on the underside links into an bio-technical implant on the skin. The function of the claws is uncertain. But here.." F'nch pointed to the upper part of the ‘body' "…here is the connexion to the ship's systems. Whenever we have recovered Masked pilots, we have found fibre optic cables fitting into this socket. The cables connect the pilot directly to a Black Ship's controls, to its sensors, its weapons and propulsion systems. Effectively, the Black Ship is an extension of the pilot's body, moved by thought. There is no necessity for controls to be used as you use them, and because the pilot does not have to translate thought into action, their reaction times are infinitely greater than yours. Or ours. That, of course, makes them a very formidable foe."

He handed the Mask back to his aide, who took it with an unmistakable expression of distaste and returned it to its box.

"It seems clear that the implant which takes the Mask is the key link." F'nch had every eye fixed on him, every ear listening intently. "From the scans we have of captured Masked pilots, the surface marking - a kind of socket - lies on top of an extensive network of micro-tendrils that have grown into the brain. These are a mix of engineered biological and technological elements. Nothing we have been able to analyse or reproduce, even after twenty opportunities."

No-one looked comfortable with the thought of some bio-technical mix. That cut too close to Cylon technology to be comfortable.

"How's it attached, sir?" asked Giles. "Is it literally like a plug into a socket?"

"Not exactly. N'thn - please show the enhanced shot of the implant after the Mask was removed. Thank you. You see, the external element of the implant looks like a skin marking, no ridges or depressions. The Mask appears to be held in place by an electrostatic charge."

"Sir, you said that the pilots are dead," Sheba cut in "How could they move anything by thought?"

"We think that they act as organic data processors. Perhaps they do not really think any more, at least while Masked. It is certain that they are not capable of independent action," said F'nch. "It is thought that they are directed through the fibre optics, instructed by Enemy command. And, yes, we believe that they are quite dead - although some, when removed from the protective gel, did resume respiration and some even regained a kind of consciousness."

"Ugh! That's disgusting!" Sheba expressed everyone's reaction. "But, surely, they couldn't have been really dead?"

"They had no hearts," said F'nch, simply. "In every pilot we recovered, whatever their original species, whatever organ had once circulated their blood oxygenating their bodies, was gone. Instead, a bio-technological pump of, I have to say, extremely high efficiency, had been inserted in its place."

"Cyborg!" someone hissed, and the listening Viper pilots stirred uneasily.

F'nch looked at them thoughtfully. "Yes. Your Council has explained to me that you are the last remnants of your people, and that for a thousand yahrens you have battled creatures that, like a Masked pilot, are - or at least once were - a fusion of biology and machinery. I understand your repugnance. We share it. They were Cyborgs. In our terms, and yours, no longer living beings, no longer one of us. But I did not mean that they were dead only in this - " he sought the right word " - this philosophical sense. We believe them to be truly dead. It was clear that the bodies of the Masked pilots we recovered had been repaired after extensive battle damage, damage that had killed them, and then reanimated in some way."

Colonel Tigh cleared his throat. "Forgive me, Ambassador, but that's quite a claim. How can you be sure that they were once dead? For centuries. our own medical technology has been able to prolong the lives of individuals whose hearts have failed through damage or disease, by inserting artificial hearts to supplement the working of their own until a transplant donor can be found. Not something that we're comfortable with, true, but not unknown. Couldn't there be something similar at work here? That these artificial hearts were supplementing damaged organic ones?"

F'nch shook his head. "No. Not one Masked pilots retained his or her original organ. Every masked pilot we recovered showed the same replacement heart, but not all were injured in that region of the body, so the theory that the organic hearts were too damaged in battle to be used is not sustainable. It may be that the Enemy have their own reasons for preferring a more efficient circulatory system than an organic heart: we do not pretend to understand their technology. But it is possible that if the pilots were Masked after death, the organic hearts might be too full of congealed blood to be salvageable."

"But not the circulatory system?"

"Flushed clean, Colonel, with a replacement fluid. Each pilot had the same type of blood, irrespective of species - if it is indeed blood. At first we were as sceptical as you about this. Then we recovered a pilot, one of our own, whose ship had been destroyed in battle with the Enemy, a pilot whose had already been reported as dead by his squadmates. They were certain: the hull of his ship had been breached and he had been sucked out into the vacuum of space, an event that had been witnessed by several of his fellow pilots. We share more than a common Enemy. We, like you, die in a vacuum. Yet here was this dead pilot, breathing. Reanimated. And like all the others - with a mechanical heart and strange blood."

"Gruesome," muttered Starbuck. "That's a pretty grisly resurrection. Not what the Book of the Word promises."

"The living dead," someone said with a nervous laugh.

"You mean, we're fighting a bunch of Cyborg zombies?" demanded another pilot.

Colonel Tigh was very quick to stamp on the noise. "Zombies or not, they're beating the pogees out of us. Listen up, people, and learn."

"There is little more to tell," said F'nch. "We do not think that the Enemy fight personally, as themselves. We think that anyone who ventures into their space is killed and Masked, and set to fight on the Enemy's behalf. I should say, though, that this is the official view of the K'h'n Confederacy. Some of our scientists have more exotic theories. Some, for example, think it possible that the Enemy are capable of thought transference and inhabit the Masked pilots."

"You mean, like a parasite?" asked Starbuck.

"A good analogy. Yes, like a parasite. There is no proof, of course, but all of the Masked pilots whom we have examined had identical brain patterns that, in those species with which we are familiar, did not match those of unmasked members of their kind. Certainly the Masked K'h'n pilots had brain patterning that had nothing in common with ours. Interesting, but inconclusive."

Boomer frowned. "Sir, you said that some of the Masked pilots regained consciousness. Did they recover? I mean, were they normal afterwards?"

"No," F'nch said quietly. "At least, none of them lived long enough for us to be certain. Removing the Mask kills most. But some survived that. They did show some signs of the Enemy brain pattern diminishing, and signs of regaining their own memories and personalities, the further they were taken from Enemy lines. Perhaps the influence weakens over distance."

"Then why did they die?" persisted Boomer.

F'nch was suddenly cool and distant. "We could not trust them and interrogation revealed nothing of value to military intelligence. They were disposed of. They were returned to a clean death."

There was an appalled silence. These K'h'n might look human. They weren't human.

Adama stepped forward to fill the breach. "I don't think that for the moment, there's much more to tell you. Any more questions? No? Vids of the Black Ship pilot and models of a Mask are available in the barracks - please study them, to be sure you understand what we're up against. Captain Boomer, you'll be needed in a strategy meeting in one centar. Thank you."

As the pilots filed out, unusually silent, he caught Starbuck's eye. They looked at each other for a micron, each recognising in the other the same terrible fear he felt.







"What are they after, do you think?" asked Tigh as he and Adama reached the Bridge. Ambassador F'nch was being ceremoniously escorted to his quarters by the entire Council. Adama had excused himself on the score of having to return to duty, making his escape with Tigh.

"Oh, that's easy enough." Adama sighed, tired. "They'll let us punch a way through the Enemy forces and follow in behind us to try and get some of their territory back. F'nch was quite open about that. And we've no choice - they won't let us further into their territory without a fight. We're caught between the Enemy and the K'h'n. The deal is that we're to take the brunt of the attacks in return for fuel and supplies. The Council decided the price was worth it."

"Of course they did," said Tigh with a snort. "Not one of them will be out there doing the dying."

Adama smiled. "You sound just like Apollo."

Tigh snorted again. "There were times he made a lot of sense."







"It's coming right at us." Tigh signalled urgency without raising his voice.

"Vipers?" Adama was, as ever, calm and apparently undisturbed by the approaching danger.

"Still engaged, Commander. This one's slipped through somehow."

Adama watched the monitor, watching the Black Ship hurtle towards them. "This is the first time that they've tried a suicide run."

"Maybe we've got them scared." Tigh managed a tense grin. "We're almost clear of their territory - maybe they're getting desperate."

"I wish I could think so. Can any of the Vipers assist?"

"Captain Boomer's sent Blue squadron in pursuit of incoming hostile, sir," reported Omega.

"Good. All batteries to fire at will as soon as it's in range."

"Yes sir." Tigh signalled the order on to Omega, turned back to the monitor.

"It seems to be slowing," said Adama, puzzled.

The officer at the Scanner console confirmed that within microns. "Target slowing, Commander. Speed's dropped twenty percent. Still dropping."

"What the hell's it up to?" muttered Tigh. "If it's going to ram us, why slow down and reduce the impact?"

"Sir!" It was the Scanner officer again. "Course change. It's moving into - Commander! It's moving into standard approach vector for Beta flightdeck!"

Tigh's jaw dropped.

Adama frowned. "Their sensors must be able to determine our Viper corridor."

"Reset laser cannons!" Tigh roared out. "Warn our pilots to hold back."

"We don't have time to reset, Colonel." The Gunnery officer looked up from her console. "The hostile's almost on us. ETA twenty microns."

"Bring those bloody guns around!" Tigh snapped back but the Gunnery Officer just looked helpless. "Damn!" Tigh could see for himself that they were out of time. "Get security down there! Clear the deck!"

"Beta Deck monitors," said Adama more quietly.

"It's in!" shouted the Scanner officer, and keyed the big monitor screen at the front of the Bridge.

He was just in time to show the thin Black Ship sliding into the flightdeck and coming to a perfect, silent landing in the centre of the deck.







"It's bigger than I'd expected, close up," Jolly remarked. "It's always difficult to tell how big they are from a scanner read out"

"Not to mention that you're too busy trying to avoid their lasers to get out the pocket ruler," said Starbuck wryly.

Jolly grinned. "True. Big bastard, though. Bigger than a Viper, anyway."

"Mmn," agreed Boomer. "Sleek, isn't it? Makes our Vipers look a bit clumsy." He craned his neck to look beyond the broad security guard who was blocking access to the Enemy fighter.

"Astonishing they can get that amount of speed and manoeuvrability with only one engine," someone said.

"Actually," said Sheba. "It's quite beautiful"

Starbuck scowled. "The hell it is. It's a killer."

Despite Security's efforts, most of the pilots were crowded onto the Beta flightdeck. Security had managed to keep them well back, but they were close enough to see what was going on. Actually nothing much was. The Council was in session, with Ambassador F'nch and his aide in attendance, debating about what to do with this unexpected acquisition. After the first flush of alarm that it had been set to explode had proved groundless - the Black Ship had just sat quietly on the deck, waiting - the pilots and technicians had been allowed in to take a look.

Doctor Wilker, head of the Galactica's electronics lab, was walking around the Black Ship with a beatific smile on his face. He'd spent centars waving scanners at the ship and peering delightedly at the results, and getting into animated discussions with his scientific acolytes, watched by the curious pilots and everyone else who had managed to get into the bay. Wilker was in some kind of technological heaven.

Maybe the Black Ship was revealing some of its secrets to Dr Wilker, but to the watching pilots it remained enigmatic, silent, ominous. The ship was a slender dart, its surface matt black, seeming to absorb rather than reflect the lights of the bay. There was no obvious canopy, like those on the Vipers. The Ship was a uniform black, as if cut out of solid darkness. Apart from an occasional flare of steam from a vent, it seemed completely inactive. Waiting.

"I'm bored," Starbuck announced eventually. "Why don't we do something with it?"

"Such as?" Boomer gave him a tolerant grin.

"Crack it open and see what's driving it." Starbuck was only half joking.

"You touch it and the commander will space you," Jolly warned. "Without any breathing apparatus."

Pause.

"That's okay," said Starbuck, and sighed.

Boomer gave him a sharp look, but had no time to speak. The doors of the turbolift swooshed open and the commander appeared with Tigh, Dr Salik and the two K'h'n.







Adama looked slightly taken aback to see the bay as crowded as it was, and gave Tigh a look that spoke volumes. He got a bland look in response.

"I wasn't expecting an audience," he said quietly to Tigh.

Tigh shrugged. "You can't expect them not to want to know, Adama. It's their lives on the line."

"Yes." Adama walked up to the temporary barrier, the security guards stepping respectfully to one side.

Wilker came to meet him. "No Council?"

"The Council is watching proceedings from the Council chamber," said Adama, handing Wilker a headset, and forbearing to say that the Council members were unwilling to get too close to a possible threat, watching on monitors at a safe difference. . "Please wear the headset to allow them to listen in." Adama glanced at the crowd of pilots and technicians. "Our uninvited audience will be able to hear, too. It would be a shame if they missed anything." He switched on his own headset. "Can you hear me, Councillor Anton?"

"Perfectly," responded the old Councillor. "The monitors are giving us an excellent view. Please continue."

Adama turned to the K'h'n, who had apparently been concentrating on the Black Ship to the exclusion of all else. "Ambassador," he invited.

F'nch glanced at his aide. "N'thn was chosen to accompany me because she is of tech caste," he said. "She has the expertise we need. N'thn."

"My lord." N'thn bowed gracefully and walked up to the Black Ship. Tall as she was, her head barely came half way up the fuselage. She put out a long fingered hand and touched it gently.

"Cold," she said , into the mike, starting a running commentary. She glanced at the scanner in her hand. "Temperature at minus ten degrees, within previously recorded range. Ship length seventeen metres, single-engined delta-winged model. All standard."

She did a complete circuit of the ship, describing its external features: engine vents, gunports, laser positions, the minor battle damage. She expressed some surprise at the how minor the battle damage was, commenting that the only twice had the K'h'n acquired a ship as undamaged as this. She spoke into a fascinated silence, everyone hanging on her every word. After a few centons, she beckoned forward two technicians who wheeled forward a mounting platform.

"I am going to open the Ship," she announced. Then to the technicians. "You have the container ready?"

They nodded, stepping cautiously back as she mounted the platform. She took some unrecognisable tool from a small case

"There are two release devices on a Black Ship, one on each side... here. Only one needs to be activated to remove the canopy." She pressed the tool into a small depression in the side of the Ship and twisted it deftly. For a micron, nothing happened. Then, without warning, the canopy lifted. It rose swiftly and silently, hinged backwards. A cold white vapour roiled out and drifted slowly down the Ship's nose and sides. There was a collective intake of breath and Wilker almost ran to the platform steps, eager to see more closely.

N'thn peered inside, then reached for the container a tech held up for her. "This is a recent Mask," she said. "The ship is almost full of the protective gel and it's quite clear. The gel from less recently Masked pilots tends to be murkier." She didn't say why, and no-one felt like asking.

She dipped the container into the ship. It came up dripping a clear slime that oozed down the sides of the container. N'thn handed it back to the technician, who took it with marked reluctance in his gloved hands, and handed it over to Dr Salik with manifest relief.







"Oh, lovely!" said Starbuck, watching intently. "She's not going to put her hands into that stuff….oh Lord, she is!"

"Oh that's disgusting!" Bree said with a shudder. "Too gross!"

"Shit, I can smell it from here," someone else said , and it was true that a vaguely unpleasant smell was drifting across from the container that Salik was bending over.

It smelled of rotten fruit, of something dead and over-ripe.







The odour didn't seem to affect N'thn. She put in a hand to grasp at something in the ship and pulling it towards her, staring intently into the ooze. When she straightened and let it go, she seemed oblivious to the ooze dripping from her fingers. She turned to look at F'nch, touching the mouthpiece on her head set and spoke to him in their own language. If ever birdsong could sound urgent and tense, her voice did.

F'nch said nothing in reply, looked thoughtfully at the roof of the landing bay.

"Ambassador?" Adama asked, uneasy.

"A moment, Commander," the Ambassador said , calm as ever. He looked at N'thn, spoke in Standard. "You are certain?"

She switched the translation unit back on. "Unmistakable, my lord."

F'nch hesitated, then said in the same calm voice: "It is one of your kind, Commander."

Adama thought later, when he was able to think about it, that everyone in the huge flightbay all stopped breathing at once. The strained silence was almost physical, something that could be seen or touched. Wilker stopped his agitated dance of impatience at the base of the platform steps to stare up at N'thn. Salik looked up quickly from his container of ooze, face sharp with curiosity.

He himself could only stare at the Black Ship. He saw with some disgust that the gel was oozing over the edge of the canopy, running slowly down the side of the Ship to drip onto the floor; saw N'thn's air of faint distaste, the marks on her clothing where she'd pressed up against the Ship's sides and rubbed against the slow-flowing ooze.

The noise each drop made as it hit the floor echoed. Maybe just inside his head, but it echoed. Another drop fell, forming a little viscous pool on the deck. Another drop, and he watched, fascinated, as it splashed into the pool and the pool widened, creeping its insidious contamination across the decking.

"Human?" He sounded hoarse as a crow.

N'thn nodded. "Yes," she said bluntly. Unemotionally.

"We've accounted for almost all our losses.." Tigh started, then shut up, looking uncomfortably at Adama.

"Dear God." Adama looked at Salik. "Doctor - "

Salik got up from where he'd kneeling beside the container, nodded, and headed for the platform. N'thn moved to make room for him.

"The gel is chemically and biologically inert," she said to him as he joined her. "It cannot harm you."

"No," he agreed, and leaned over to look into the ship. Slowly, reluctantly, he put a hand into the ice-cold gel and pulled at the body inside.

"Salik?" Adama's voice had sharpened.

"Definitely human," Salik said. "The gel's not that easy to see through – like something's inside an iceblock." He leaned over the edge of the cockpit, grimacing as he pushed a hand into it. "Male. No pulse, no heartbeat. He's ice cold…….shit!"

He snatched his hand away and jumped back a step, dropping his scanner.

"What is it?" Adama demanded.

"His hand moved!"

"Doctor." One word, but it was quelling. Adama did not appreciate his senior officers acting like this in public. The pilots were spooked enough.

Salik tried to get a hold of himself. "Commander - there's no pulse. He's cold and dead. But his hand moved -"

"Vibration through the gel?" Wilker suggested from the bottom of the steps.

"I've never seen vibration that could do this." Salik held up a hand, curled his fingers slowly into a fist then unfurled them again.

"They are dead, and not dead." N'thn was her usual enigmatic self, and took another look herself. "Interesting. The fibre-optic into the Mask may be damaged. Most unusual." She took a step backwards and looked again at the surface of the ship, checking the battle damage again. "This must have happened in the battle. Perhaps a glancing laser bolt was enough to short circuit the cable. It may have been defective from the beginning. That may explain it."

"Explain what?" demanded Wilker.

"Why the Ship broke out of formation and landed here. If this is one of your own, Masked, and the optic was damaged enough to break the connexion with the Enemy, he may have had enough sentience to recognise the Galactica and just enough connexion to the Ship's systems to bring it in."

"It would be most unusual for one the Masked to show that amount of awareness," remarked F'nch.

"True, my lord," she said. "But we have not encountered one of this species Masked before. All species may react differently."

Salik got control of himself again. "Sorry, Commander," he apologised. "I'm ready to resume the examination."

Adama nodded. "Please continue," he said.

Salik stepped back up to the side of the canopy, gave N'thn a rueful grin and bent back over it again. "Can you help me turn him?" he asked. "He's floating freely."

She nodded, and they reached in together. A moment of effort, then she stepped back, leaving Salik staring into the gel. He reached in again.

"Do not touch the Mask," said N'thn.

"There's a breathing tube – plugs into the nostrils," said Salik. He stared for a moment, then gently raised his hands and stepped back. The gel dripped from his fingers. His very stillness and quiet shrieked at Adama.

"Salik?" Adama asked, suddenly sick.

Before the Destruction, Ila had often sent him consignments of the latest novels to relieve the tedium of a long tour of duty. Quite suddenly he remembered one, remembered a character who'd claimed, on being told bad news, that his heart felt like lead in his chest. Adama had laughed at what he'd thought of as purple-prosed extravagance. But now his own heart felt heavy as lead. It was hard to breathe.

"I'd like you to see this, Commander," said Salik.

Adama moved forward, certain now. He wasn't the only one. As he climbed slowly up to the platform, feeling like an old man, bruised and beaten, there was a cry, someone in the crowd expressing the broken-hearted lament that was frozen in his own throat.

"No!" said Starbuck. He'd pushed past a bemused Security Guard before Boomer could stop him and ran towards the Ship. "Oh Gods, no!"

Salik waited until Adama was beside him, then gently raised the face of the... the thing inside the Ship, floating in the gel. Black hair curled slowly around Salik's fingers, around the pallid, set face. A Mask sat on the right temple, one claw curving over the open, emerald-green eyes; eyes so like Ila's, that Adama's own blurred with tears.

"It's not Apollo!" Starbuck was at the base of the steps, pleading, anguished. "Please tell me it's not Apollo -"

Adama turned and looked down at him, unable to speak, not needing to speak even to deny Starbuck the reassurance he was begging for. And it was as if there were only the three of them there. No watching, breathless crowd of pilots and technicians, just realising what had happened, who this was; no K'h'n; no Salik; no Wilker.

Just Adama and Starbuck, and Apollo floating dead in the Black Ship, with his eyes staring blindly at his father and the Mask squatting malevolently over his face like an evil black insect.







Starbuck felt like he'd been carved out of ice. He stood quietly beside Adama near the Black Ship's nose cone, waiting for the flightdeck to be cleared.

He felt numb, as if he'd been plunged unexpectedly into an icy bath, the way he'd felt the moment he'd first heard of Apollo's death; disorientated, detached, disconnected. Somewhere, a long way away, normal life went on, normal things happened. Normal people were born, lived, loved and died.

Here, they only died. And death was cold and merciless, preserved in clear, slimy gel.

Somewhere else there was someone who was hurting very badly. For more than three long sectars now, ever since Apollo had left him behind, Starbuck had been keeping that someone iced up, frozen, boxed away. Now he could hear the screaming, and he had to concentrate very hard on shutting it out, on putting another layer of ice over that curled up, whimpering thing inside him; on staying numb and frozen. Once, just after Apollo's Farewell, the whimpering thing had got out and it had taken everything Starbuck had to get it back inside again. If the ice melted and the whimpering thing got free again, he'd never get it back under control.







Adama had already ordered the monitor link to the Council Room to be closed down, despite the howls of outrage that provoked from the Councillors. He stood beside Starbuck, waiting for the deck to be cleared.

He watched the activity around the Black Ship avidly, blanking out everything else but one persistent memory. The day a seventeen yahren old Apollo had opted to join the military, and follow in his father's footsteps, Adama had made his apprehensive wife an airy promise. Don't worry , he'd said, so proud of his first-born that his throat had ached with the effort of not showing his emotions. I'll look after him .

He begged Ila, silently, for her forgiveness for his failure.

The deck emptied slowly, the pilots herded out by Colonel Tigh, leaving only Adama and Starbuck, the K'h'n, Salik and Wilker, and two of Salik's medtechs with a life support pod. When the deck was quiet, N'thn leaned into the Black Ship to uncouple the damaged fibre-optic. Wilker was beside her, watching closely.

"Done" she said , and stepped back.

Adama stirred. "Ambassador."

The tall K'h'n turned to him and waited.

"What will happen when he's taken out of the gel?"

"I cannot be certain." said F'nch. "He will not be totally inert. We believe that the Enemy reanimate the Masked pilots to ensure enough bio-chemical activity to keep the brain operating at the level needed to power the Mask and utilise the Black Ship's systems. That requires oxygen and he will be respiring, although very slowly. He should be connected to an air line."

"Yes," confirmed Salik. "And the sensors show the kind of low-level metabolism you're talking about, sir. It's beyond me – " He shook his head, resumed, "There are other indications of metabolic activity: hair growth, for example. And there's an intravenous line into one arm."

"That will be delivering nutrients," explained F'nch. "He will have needed a little, even though his body is effectively in stasis in the cold gel. If the air line is disconnected when he is taken out, and if you allow his temperature to rise slowly, as you would with anyone in hypothermia, respiration and metabolism will increase and he may be able to breathe unaided. After that, once - if - he is stable, we can remove the Mask and if he survives that, we will see what potential there is for him to be recovered."

"If any," said Adama heavily, wondering whether he wanted any potential for Apollo to be 'recovered'. Would it be Apollo? Or, as the Ambassador had hinted at the briefing all those sectons ago, would it be just Apollo's body with a semblance of life, used as a host by the Enemy? Just a shell. He looked at Starbuck, wondering what to do with him, too. "Starbuck.." he began.

Starbuck shook his head. "No," he said. "No, I'm staying."

"It might be better not." Adama's tone was gentle.

"I can't leave him." Starbuck's very simplicity was disarming. "You don't understand.."

"Oh, but I do." Adama sighed. He moved closer, dropped his voice slightly, not to be overheard. "You were his lover, Starbuck. I agree that gives you the right to stay, but whether it's a good idea is another matter."

"Did he tell you?" Starbuck was briefly surprised out of his absorption with the Enemy fighter and took his gaze off the Black Ship for the first time since they'd realised what it held.

"Did he ever talk much to anyone, other than you, about his private life? No. Apollo never told me. I'm not blind, though." Adama recognised his own anguish in Starbuck's strained blue eyes. "I don't think it can really be him, you know. Just his body. An empty shell. Our Apollo's still dead, Starbuck."

Starbuck looked at him steadily. "I'll stay," he said , and his gaze returned to the Black Ship.

Adama sighed and nodded, and put his hand on Starbuck's shoulder. Alone amongst the people on the flightdeck, the lieutenant understood how he felt. They didn't have much in common, the patrician commander and the nameless orphan. But they had both loved Apollo. That, they had in common.

"Doctor Salik," said Adama more loudly, voice calm and surprisingly strong.

"Commander."

"Please get my son's body out of that Ship."

"Yes, Commander." Salik signalled to the two medtechs to join him on the platform. "All right, I'm taking out the intravenous line.. now. We'll leave the air pipe until we've got him into the pod, if it will stretch that far. Ready?"

A few centons later and Adama saw his dead son for the first time; the emaciated, scarred, naked body, shining and dripping with the slimy ooze as it was pulled from the Ship, the Mask still hugging Apollo's head.

"Careful!" Salik said sharply, then in a lower tone. "For God's sake, don't drop him. That stuff's slippery."

Adama had to close his eyes for a micron. He had one hand on Starbuck's shoulder, gripping hard. He could feel Starbuck shaking, as if he'd shake to bits and it gave him something to focus on in the sick darkness. When he could open his eyes again, the medtechs were half way down the steps with Apollo between them, limp and inert.

"Stop," Salik said.

The thin airline was stretched to its fullest extent. Salik edged past the topmost medic to stand beside Apollo. He glanced at the life support pod, in place at the foot of the steps.

"I'm going to disconnect the airline," he said to the medtechs quietly. "Then I'll get back out of the way. Get him into the pod as fast as you can do it. Ready?"

The medtechs looked at each other, then both nodded.

"Whenever you like, Doctor," the upper one said.

Salik had to get his hand in between two of the Mask's claws, the topmost claw that curved over Apollo's blindly staring eyes and the second that arched down to touch his mouth. Adama could see the hesitation.

"Doctor," he said.

Salik nodded, briefly. With a swift movement his fingers hooked into the line just below Apollo's nose and tugged sharply. The two nose plugs came free at once and Salik pressed himself up against the rail, letting the medtechs go past him. With practised speed, the medtechs had put Apollo into the life-support pod, and hooked him into the pod's systems.

"We can't fit an oxygen mask on him, sir," one said. "Not with that thing on his face."

"Seal the pod and flood it with oxygen," Salik suggested. He'd come down the steps pretty sharply behind the medtechs and their burden, and was already checking the readouts from the pod. After a couple of centons he looked at Adama and nodded. "We're ready to move him, sir."

Adama came forward a few steps, bringing Starbuck with him, his hand still on the younger man's shoulder. Starbuck moved stiffly, putting up no resistance, movements jerky and unco-ordinated. Adama looked into the pod at his son's face, half hidden beneath the Mask. God only knew what he should do now. He supposed that the time to make decisions was yet to come, and he could only pray wordlessly that when he had to, he'd make the right ones.

"Thank you," he said now. "Starbuck and I will follow."








Athena sat in the waiting room beside her father, her face hidden in her hands. Like Adama and Starbuck, she was almost unnaturally still and silent. She felt like a small animal, hiding from predators: if she kept herself curled up very small, if she stayed still and quiet enough, they might just go away, not see her, not tear her to pieces, not swallow her up. Fear, grief, horror, revulsion…these were the predators looking for her. They were what she was trying to hide from.

They had said very little when she joined them in the Life Centre from the bridge, where like everyone else, she'd been watching the show on the monitors, speculating about what was inside the Black Ship.

Starbuck, completely lost in some blank horror, had barely noticed her presence. The vivid blue eyes, pupils still dilated with shock, had looked blindly at her. Once she'd thought he'd loved her, but he turned away again almost immediately to stare at the door of the treatment room where Apollo was. Where the man he truly loved was. She knew that. She'd always known that. It had come between her and her brother like a cloud. It had taken her a long time to forgive Apollo and only his death had wiped out the offence.

Her father had held her very close when she had arrived at Life Centre, his only words not of Apollo, but of his grandson. On being assured that Boxey couldn't possibly have heard anything yet and that Boomer, although shocked and grieving himself, would meet him from school and keep him safe and out of the way, Adama had nodded. He'd been quiet ever since. He was a big man, her father, as tall as Apollo and bigger made, but he looked shrunken, curling in on himself to contain the emotions that threatened to overwhelm him. She wondered if he was hiding from the same predators as she was.

She wondered who'd keep the predators from Boxey, from poor little defenceless, fatherless Boxey.

"Commander," said Salik.

Adama looked up, waited. Starbuck brought his gaze into focus. Athena's hands dropped to lie in her lap.

"We've finished the preliminary examination and scans," the doctor said , keeping his voice even. "I thought you'd want to know what we've found."

"Yes," said Adama. "Can we see him?"

Salik nodded. "It might be easier to explain if I can show you. Of course."

Doctor Wilker was there, hunched over a sensor console in the corner of the room. Athena didn't know him very well, only that he was a little eccentric. Focused, Apollo had said once, trying to explain why he'd given the world that darned mechanical daggit Boxey had loved so much; loves electronics and microchips more than people. Probably thinks electronics and microchips are people . He didn't look up from the console, too intent on the readings. Focused.

Several medtechs were busily at work, Cassie among them. Once Athena had thought that Cassie was her rival for Starbuck, before she'd realised that both of them had been played for fools, the Commander's daughter and the ex-socialator. Cassie came to meet them as they came in and gave Starbuck a consoling hug, her expression grieved. She hugged Athena, too. Surprised, Athena let her.

The life support pod sat in the centre of the room, under the bright lights. They must have cleaned him up, washed away the ooze and gel that had encased him for the last three sectars - although Athena thought she could smell something that may have been the gel, like ripe melons - and enclosed him back into the pod. They'd drawn a covering up over his chest, both thin arms lying along his sides with several intravenous lines running into them. Unmistakably Apollo, the thick black hair spread on the pillow, his face almost as white as the linen he lay on. The Mask, his hair, eyebrows and, astonishingly, a harsh-looking stubble were black smudges in the overall whiteness. She didn't know what to think about that. Apollo was always clean-shaven, meticulously so. He'd hate the beard.

She made herself look at the Mask. It left most of his face free, only the curving arms obscuring him, the fat body of the mask fixed onto his temple somehow. Underneath the arching arm, his eyes stared up at them, fixed and unblinking. She didn't think he could see them.

She wondered what he did see.

Her father looked into the pod. "Well?" he asked in the tone that meant that he wanted to know everything and no-one had better hold back or they'd know about it.

"Well," said Salik. "First, he's breathing on his own, Commander. We're slowly increasing his body temperature and he's already showing signs of increasing metabolic rate. He's still very cold to the touch, and it'll take some time... this time tomorrow before, probably, before his body temperature's normal. Once it is, I think we'll be able to attempt removing the Mask."

"If I decide to go ahead with that," said Adama.

Athena wondered if even her father could prevent what was going to happen, could control it, or if everyone saw that small defiance for the futile gesture it was.

"Of course." Salik nodded. "The information the K'h'n gave us seems to be substantially correct."

"His heart is missing." Adama's voice was flat, emotionless.

"Yes." Salik said. He gestured to Cassie, who brought up a large scanner. "You can see it quite clearly here. The heart's gone, to be replaced by a simple, but effective two chamber pump. Slightly smaller than a human heart."

"You said he had no pulse." Starbuck jerked his gaze away from the scanner screen, from the alien piece of machinery clearly visible in Apollo's chest. His eyes were so wide with shock that Athena could hardly see any blue in them. They were nothing but black holes in his face.

"No. Our hearts are muscular pumps, pulsing blood through the body in a series of jerks as the muscles contract and relax. The artificial heart works on a different principle. Wilker's not entirely sure, but - "

"I am now." Wilker cut in from his console. He sounded eager and excited. "It's made up of two parallel tesla pumps, tubes of closely stacked spinning discs. It's getting his blood round in a continuous flow, although Sagan alone knows how it's powered. It's incredibly efficient. Far more efficient than what we have, anyway."

He subsided again, and Salik, who had waited patiently, picked up again. "Because it's a continuous flow, there's no heartbeat - no muscles to contract and relax - and no pulse. And that's why only one chamber on each side is needed. Other than that, it follows broadly the same principle. One side of the heart gets de-oxygenated blood to the lungs, the other pumps oxygenated blood around the system."

Adama nodded. "I've got that. At the briefing, F'nch said that the blood had been changed." There was a questioning note to his tone.

"Hmm," Salik said. "That's pretty interesting. Our blood's opaque because the haemoglobin's held in blood cells. His haemoglobin's in free solution - no blood cells at all. Cassie - "

Cassie held up a small vial. "The blood sample I took earlier, Commander," she said. The vial was full of a clear dark red liquid, like red wine.

"More efficient?" Athena asked dully, anticipating Salik's next remark.

The doctor shrugged. "Yes. Although I don't have the first idea of how his immune system's been adapted to compensate for the lack of white cells. We'll have to do a lot of research to understand what they've done."

Athena looked at him wonderingly. She didn't have the scientific detachment that saw her brother as a fascinating problem to unravel. She saw only the horror of his mutilation.

"And the Mask?" Adama put an arm around Athena's shoulders, comforting. His other hand closed on Starbuck's shoulder.

"As the K'h'n told us. Having the Mask in place obscures the implant, but we've managed to get one or two scans done. This one's from the left side, where there's no Mask to block the image. You can just see the tendrils growing into the brain."

Athena glanced at it and away again, hurriedly. She caught Cassie's horrified glance and was briefly angry with Salik. It wasn't some damned scientific paper he was giving at a conference, somewhere. This was her brother... had been... never would be again. She choked, and her father's arm tightened.

"We won't know more until we can get the Mask off, but the brainwave patterns are very interesting," cut in Wilker, abandoning his corner to come and stare avidly down into the life support pod.

"But not human," surmised Adama wearily, and at Wilker's confirmatory nod: "It doesn't seem as though much of him is human any more."

"He's moving!" said Starbuck, sharply.

Apollo's left hand closed slowly into a fist, and just as slowly, the long, delicate-looking fingers uncurled one by one.

"Yes." Salik was calm, but Athena had seen him jumping like a scalded feline when this had happened on the flightdeck. "As his metabolism picks up, there'll be more involuntary muscular activity. We're monitoring him."

"Anything else?" asked her father. She wondered how he kept his voice to calm when the arm around her shoulders trembled so much.

Salik shrugged again. "There's an awful lot of his biology that seems to have been altered. We've lots of tests to do before I could give you a comprehensive answer to that, Commander."

Adama nodded, looked down at Apollo. "Is he dead?" he asked abruptly.

Starbuck shot a look at the Commander. "He's living and breathing!" he said , almost reproachfully.

"He's breathing." Adama made some acknowledgement.

"We may have to redefine death," Salik said , prevaricating.

"Yes or no, Doctor?"

"I don't know. I can see the lieutenant's point. He's breathing and he shows other signs of life. But he should be dead, Commander."

Salik carefully folded down the cover, exposing Apollo's chest. It was covered in scar tissue, indicative of major trauma. Just over the artificial heart was a strange mark, like a silver tattoo.

"What's this?" asked Athena.

"I'd guess that this is the damage done when his Viper was hit. He certainly didn't have this before, as you know. These - " Salik pointed to some of the neater scars, "- these are surgical, done when the artificial heart was implanted. The rest is battle damage. It looks like the Viper's hull was breached because a lot of this is scarring is from shrapnel, along with some deep laser burns. His chest was blown open, Commander. If death wasn't instantaneous, it would have been very quick. I'd be very surprised if he survived long enough for them to have been able to get his Viper with a grapple and get him back to wherever their HQ is and operate."

"So he was dead when they replaced his heart?" Adama persisted.

"I can't be certain, but yes, I think so."

There was a long silence as they absorbed this. Athena cried quietly. Starbuck reached around Adama and took her hand. His was trembling, worse than her father's arm.

Cassie pressed a tissue into Athena's free hand. Athena clenched her fingers on it, and after a centon, Cassie pried her fingers open gently and took the tissue back. She dabbed at Athena's eyes with it, still gentle, her own eyes filling with tears. Athena wondered about that. She hadn't realised that Cassie liked Apollo that much.

"And the mark on his chest?" Adama asked after a moment. "That's not normal scarring."

"An implant of some kind over the heart." Wilker was still focused. Athena glanced at him, surprised by the enthusiasm She supposed that he looked on Apollo as a scientific gold mine. "N'thn thought that when the heart is first implanted, it will need constant adjustment until it's at optimum efficiency. She suggested they used the implant to do that. Seems reasonable."

"I see. Thank you." Her father scrupulously polite, as ever. She felt him straighten up, square his shoulders. "There is every danger that the Enemy can track him through the Mask, control him through it, even with his link to the Ship broken. I want it removed at the earliest opportunity, Dr Salik, and I want to be present. If he survives that…well, we're almost out of Enemy space now. We will be in a few days. Can you sedate him?"

"I think so," said Salik. "Yes, I'm sure I can find some way of keeping him unconscious."

"Good. Then do that until we're well clear of Enemy space, at least a secton or so, before we let him wake up and then …well, then we'll make our decisions about what to do as and when we need to, and as and when we know what we have to deal with."

Wilker and Salik both looked disappointed, like children who'd had a treat deferred.

"Move him to a private room, please. I'll see Reese about a round-the-clock guard." Adama looked down into the pod. "And, for God's sake, can't you close his eyes?"

"We've tried," Salik said. "They won't stay closed."








"It is very difficult, I know," said F'nch, "when one knows the Masked pilot personally."

"He was my son," said Adama.

"I know." The K'h'n ambassador's voice was even. Watching, Starbuck found himself wondering if the man - alien - ever felt any emotions. He - it - never seemed to show any. "I meant only that there may be some very difficult decisions to make."

"I'll be able to make them," said Adama, and his voice was as cool and unemotional as the ambassador's. "I've made difficult decisions all my life, Ambassador, and not a few of them have put my son in danger before now."

F'nch nodded. "Then make the first, Commander. Am I to attempt to remove the Mask? As I told you, many Masked pilots do not survive that. It causes massive trauma."

Adama walked to the life support pod and stood looking into it. Starbuck sat beside it, where he'd sat since they'd moved Apollo into this quiet, private room the day before. He was holding one of Apollo's hands. When he'd first taken the limp fingers into his, Apollo's hand had been uncomfortably cold. Starbuck had surreptitiously felt for a pulse in Apollo's wrist. Nothing. And looking at the blank stare, Starbuck could begin to believe and accept that he was dead. Only the soft, even breathing gave the lie to that, and as the night wore on, the breathing had grown stronger and Apollo's hand had gradually grown warmer. Now it felt normal, warm and dry in Starbuck's clasp, much as he remembered the feel of Apollo's hands. Apollo was still very pale, but he looked less like a corpse. Once again Starbuck was thrown into confusion about what he thought and what he wanted, whether he wanted Apollo back, wondering if it would really be Apollo.

Adama and Starbuck looked at each other, then Starbuck nodded wordlessly. One thing he did know, he wanted that damned thing off Apollo's face.

"Yes," said Adama. He turned to the tall K'h'n. "Please, Ambassador, remove the Mask."

F'nch turned to Salik. "Doctor. As we discussed, perhaps you will take him out of the life support pod?"

"Why?" demanded Starbuck.

"We might need to put restraints on him if he convulses badly," Salik explained patiently. "I can't do that in the pod."

"Let them in, Starbuck," Adama ordered. He pulled on Starbuck's arm until Starbuck got up out of the way, letting go of Apollo's hand reluctantly. He kept an arm around Starbuck's shoulder and they watched as Apollo was lifted out of the pod and put into an ordinary hospital bed.

"He's so thin," said Starbuck mournfully, remembering the slender but muscular body that had once writhed passionately under his, or had powered into him when they'd made love.

"He's been in that Ship for a long time."

Starbuck looked at the Commander. "I love him very much, you know. And I've been sitting here all night wishing that he'd been blown to atoms," he said. "At least, then those bastards wouldn't have got to him like this."

"Me too," said Adama, understandingly. "Everyone who loved him feels the same, Starbuck."

For a moment they watched the preparations going on, watching Salik and his medtechs set up the monitors, attach electrodes to Apollo's left temple.

"Boxey?" Starbuck remembered to ask.

Adama sighed. "Athena's with him. He cried all night. How do you explain this to an eight yahren old boy?"

A long moment's silence.

"I'm thirty and I need someone to explain it to me," said Starbuck. "Why did it happen? If there are any Gods, what did Apollo do to deserve this?"

"What did any of us do to deserve it?" Adama asked. "Starbuck, you know what I may have to do?"

Starbuck nodded. Yes. He knew, and he didn't have very much hope. All that would happen was that this time, he'd see his lover die.

"I don't want to," said Adama. Then, seeing Salik and F'nch look at them expectantly: "They're ready."

Wilker was there, too, hovering at F'nch's elbow, eager as a child to see what was going on, and just as unable to hide his excitement. Medtechs, the same two who'd taken Apollo out of the Black Ship, stood one at each side of the bed, ready. Adama and Starbuck came to stand closer.

"As you can see from the monitor, the brainwaves show non-human characteristics," lectured Salik, pointing to the screen. "None of this is recognisably human. The Ambassador has explained that when the Mask is removed, we should see a change if the link to the Enemy is successfully broken."

"Commander?" F'nch asked softly.

"Please proceed, Ambassador," said Adama.

Wilker crowded in closer, watching with strained attention.

"As I explained, the Mask is held in place by an electrostatic charge," F'nch said. Like Salik, he might have been giving a lecture to a class of students. "Removing it is simple: the charge has to be broken. There are two areas on the Mask that are slightly different in texture to the rest.. here, and here.."

"I see," breathed Wilker, nodding.

"Only a slight pressure is needed. Press them both simultaneously and sensors inside break the contact…as so." The alien's long fingers pressed the spots he'd indicated, and lifted the Mask away.

The response was shockingly, awfully immediate. Apollo screamed in agony, his thin body stiffening. He sat bolt upright, screaming again, face contorting.

"Apollo.." Starbuck faltered, making an involuntary movement towards him. Adama pulled him back.

"Get him down!" Salik snapped.

The two medtechs caught hold of Apollo and pulled him back. It took both of them to do it, to get the heaving, screaming, thrashing body down onto the bed.

"Salik!" Adama's tone was protesting, outraged that the doctor wasn't doing something to stop this.

"Restraints!" Salik ordered.

"No need. Hold him. It will be over in a moment." F'nch's calm was monolithic, the Mask held carefully in both hands.

The medtechs fought Apollo down, one lying across the mutilated chest, the other across his legs, trying to keep him still with their weight. He was making a dreadful noise now, the screams subsiding into the sort of noise a grossly injured animal might make, a wordless moaning whimper. He struggled against the grip of the medtechs to get both hands to his head, pressing the palms against his temple where the Mask had been. He frowned, eyes staring, his breathing ever more difficult, beginning to fight for every breath he drew, convulsing less violently. At a signal from Salik, the two medtechs stepped back, breathing hard.

Starbuck couldn't help the choked sob that broke from him. Adama's grip on him tightened so much it hurt. He couldn't speak.

"Salik?" demanded Adama.

"I don't know, Commander," the doctor said tensely, gaze fixed on the monitors. They were fluctuating wildly, even the artificial heart struggling. "I think we're losing him."

Oh, Apollo. Apollo.

"No!" The protest came from Wilker, seeing a prize research opportunity slipping away.

"Commander?" asked Salik.

Adama shook his head. "Let him go."

Starbuck gave Adama a look of horror and disbelief, then pulled free, was beside Apollo in an instant. He got both arms around him. He didn't give it any conscious thought, but if Apollo had to die, really die, then Starbuck was going to give him the place to do it.

Adama took a few steps forward, touched Apollo's face. "Let it go," he said, as the whimpering died slowly away, speaking directly to whatever remained of his son. "They'll be waiting for you: Serina, your mother and Zac. They'll be there to meet you. Let it go."

As if he'd heard, Apollo drew one noisy breath and exhaled, then nothing. He collapsed abruptly, his body going limp in Starbuck's grip, eyes closing at last.

Starbuck gasped in one frightened breath. "Apollo? Apollo!"

Nothing.

"He's flat-lined," confirmed Salik, eyes still on the machines. His tone held no urgency. "No brain activity. The heart is slowing down. What do you want me to do, Commander?"

"Nothing," said Adama.

Starbuck took another sharp, gasping breath, as if it was he, and not Apollo, who couldn't breathe. "Commander!"

Adama shook his head. "It's better he's properly dead," he said.

Better for who? Starbuck stared from Adama to Apollo. Better for who?

"I'm sorry we couldn't - " Salik began then broke off as the monitors spiked.

Apollo's chest heaved convulsively in one enormous intake of breath, and he started breathing again, still noisy and ragged and difficult, but not as bad as before. He was very still now in Starbuck's arms, no longer convulsing. Starbuck choked and broke down completely.

"How the hell - ?" swore Salik.

"What's going on?" demanded Adama, shocked out of his normal dignity. He drew a hand across his mouth. "I thought… I thought…"

"Brain activity resuming... it's different. Almost human," said Salik. "I don't understand."

Wilker smiled and sighed in relief. He turned to Ambassador F'nch and held out his hands for the Mask. The Ambassador gave him a slight, knowing smile and handed over the Mask with a bow.

"What's happening?" demanded Adama.

F'nch leaned over to look at Apollo, and for the first time there was some trace of emotion in his calm voice. He gently eased away Apollo's hands from his temple, displaying the bright metallic implant, and said, in a pitying tone, "I am sorry, Commander. It seems that your son has had the misfortune to survive."

Fond Farewell

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